Monday, November 16, 2009

The 2009 Australian National Poetry Slam

Last Thursday night an odd array of listeners packed a back room at the State Library to watch the Victorian State Final of the 2009 Australian Poetry Slam. Proud parents, siblings and friends chatted a little too excitedly. Ousted heat poets sucked long-necks in commiseration and anticipation. Eager contestants paced the room edges scrubbed up in suits and ties, casual in singlets and ripped jeans, dolled up in off-the-shoulder dresses.

Suitably charming and loquacious host, performance poet Emily Zoey Baker warned that a mobile phone ring would earn the owning audience member a performance space on stage, and it was all I could do not to turn the ring-tone on my bashed brick of a pre-paid up and text a mate to prank me in ten.

Many of the usual suspects were on the bill: Ezra Bix in his glowing emerald shirt, flambouyantly ruffled from neck to belly, contrasted against his bright yellow cummerbund. Benjamin Theolonius Sanders in his superfly purple and grey toned suit and tie ensemble, gold-rimmed slam-glasses shielding him from pre-slam scrutiny.
EZB plugged the poets, the sponsors and the bar and lamented the lack of margaritas as I marvelled at the relative ease of becoming spectator, rather than performer and quietly patted myself on the back for being too apathetic to enter the slam this year. The slam rules were worked through: a two minute time limit with one point lost for every thirty seconds over, no props (including, EZB stressed, facial hair drawn on with texta). Five judges were selected from the audience at random to give scores out of ten, with the top and bottom scores dropped in case of stacking by a friend, or slashing by an enemy (EZB clarified: ‘Poets do have enemies you know...they’re called poems. No, I shouldn’t really make jokes should I? Stick to the script. Stick to the script’).

Memerising soulster Josh Owen had the voice of a husky brown angel, but I wasn’t sure of the logic in a pre-slam music performance...not when all the slam poets have is their voice, an empty stage and two minutes flat. Not when you want to send a message that poetry can stand, can thrive, is a beautiful thing, alone and unaccompanied.

Judges were selected during a Freddo-hurling ritual and instructed to ‘Be brave, be true to your heart, and DON’T SNIFF THE TEXTAS!’ The sacrificial poet, 2008 National Poetry Slam winner Omar Musa left the stage wet with blood and the audience wild. The Slam Master’s first piece offered sentimentality but no surprises (Tomorrow is not your friend / never let the final light go low / cause you never know when today might end...), but Musa’s second offering had me hankering for a full pre-slam set (I’m like: Gentlemen I don’t want no drama, I’m less Osama, more Obama...).

I was ecstatic at the diversity this slam brought to the spoken word scene in Melbourne. Heats were held across Victoria, including in Fern Tree Gully, Swan Hill and Ballarat, and though it was evident that a number of inner city slammers had travelled way out of their zones in order to qualify, this heat-spread also brought some new and exciting voices to the Melbourne stage.
One of the highlights for me was seeing what I believe to be (2007 National Champion) Marc Testart’s best every performance yet. Whilst I took copious notes were taken during many of the other performance, Marc had me with him from first inhale. His subject matter, of belonging in this country, has been overdone and again in poetry slams. And yet, Marc approached the topic without predictability, with an enchanting mixture of pathos, poise and passion. At the end of the poem, he roared at the thirsty crowd like he knew damn well he’d nailed it. Sadly, this didn’t seem to translate in the scoring.

Ezra Bix’s (winner of Poetry Idol, 2008) winning poem didn’t clock my radar to be placed in the top four. The subject matter: a comical take on a nation which continues to breed itself into environmental disaster, had me from the get-go, and the poem was performed with gusto, but I didn’t feel the poem left me with as much as I hoped it would. I didn’t almost wet my pants, like I did when Steve Smart spoke about fear of friends ‘e-fucking you against the wall’ while you’re offline, or make my heart leap when Smart ended with the poignant ‘meet me in first life, where I can smell you’. It didn’t cause me to lean forward in my chair, the way did when Tariro Mavondo sung her way into a convenience store and found oppression and displacement in the sealed aluminium cans, pressurised plastic bottle and the probing neon glow. It didn’t make me nod and think ‘Ooooh yeah, bring it on, this what slamming’s all about (Marc Testart), or sigh at the eloquence of it all (Bec Alice Graham).

The 2009 Vic State Final was one of the most competitive I’ve seen in that, for me, there seemed to be six of the fourteen performers who in my opinion were quite evenly matched. For me, the camera finish was between Marc Testart, Bec Alice Graham, Steve Smart, Tariro Mavondo, Anthea Eadan and Benjamin Theolonious Sanders. Call me a cynic, but there were also the usuals which seems to crop up in any slam final: the ‘What can you do in two minutes anyway?’ poem, the ‘Please, I’m asking you to vote for me’ poem, and the ‘This world is fucked in a general way, it’s too complicated to be specific but basically Westerners are fucked and the environment and political stuff and yeah, I hate George Bush’ poem.

It was clear that the manner of performance was a crucial factor in the way the slam was judged. For some reason, I lost a fair amount of Benjamin Sanders and Tim Train ’s poems. Having heard them both perform around Melbourne several times, my ear was tuned to their frequency, so it may well be that a first-listening audience and judging panel caught less of their slams than I did. One contestant, Phil Oakley sung his whole piece when he probably shouldn’t have: a hybrid Cohen meet Dylan meets Williams odd Aussie rumble. Another poet, first cab off the rank John Bradshaw, fired so quickly I only had a general idea of what he was saying.

An amazingly talented actor and performer, winner Ezra Bix leapt on, off, and around the stage, gesturing wildly and completely at ease. His poem was thematically interesting and well performed. He made eye contact with the audience and climbed down to address them directly. Still, for me, the win was a surprise, and I got the feeling of performance over poetry, where ideally, the two should have met across flowery fields, embraced and snuggled down to get hot and heavy amongst the daffodils. Second place winner Anthea Eadon’s How to Fuck a Poet was down the lower end of my top six. Well-delivered and light, the poem left me a little...well, wanting, no pun intended. Steve Smart made a worthy third, and Bec Alice Graham was well-placed in fourth.

All in all, the Victorian State Final was a fantastic slam to attend. Of course, there’s that looming question I’ve hinted at in the past when I’ve written about poetry slams: whether the American slam model of picking judges from the audience at random, even works here with such a small audience of spectators with mostly a vested interest in the outcome. I’ll leave that question for another day.

For the record, my top four picks? First place for Marc Testart, second place for Steve Smart, third place for Tariro Mavondo and fourth to Bec Alice Graham.

Maxine Clarke will be talking more about the Victorian State Final on Aural Text this coming Wednesday on RRR, and judging the Northern Notes Writers Festival Poetry Slam with Sean M Whelan: November 21, Northcote Town Hall @ 8pm. Enter it!


  1. "Still, for me, the win was a surprise, and I got the feeling of performance over poetry, where ideally, the two should have met across flowery fields, embraced and snuggled down to get hot and heavy amongst the daffodils"

    Done, slam the door.

    Hi Maxine, isn't that the way of the world? "Right" is not always right, it frequently depends on who's judging.

    That piece was well written. I loved how you voiced you objections with an even tone.

    Dr. King said, "many people fear nothing more terrible than to take a position that stands out sharply and clearly from the prevailing opinion"

    Maxine, you don't seem to possess such fear, and tha's a good thang.

  2. Thanks Carey. It is kinda hard reviewing when you know the people slamming so well, and know you'll encounter them around and about. I guess I just hope people appreciate the honesty and time I take to review things, and are brave enough to speak up when their opinions are different from mine to initiate discussion.

  3. Your last comment could be the basis to initiate a discussion.

    "and are brave enough to speak up when their opinions are different from mine to initiate discussion"

    I mean, what's at the root of this fear? Of course I have an opinion :-).

    Well, like you said, some fear the back-lash from family and friends, that have a differing view. Then, they may be those that are so entrenched in their opinion that they do not desire to hear an opposing view.

    So, what's in the heart of the fearless? Of course I have an opinion :-)

    I think those brave souls that peek their heads through the clouds have a deep conviction that they are standing on solid ground, and therefore don't mind a little push and shove. Open discourse is not for the weak of heart, imo.

  4. Great review. I love your comment about the 'usual' slam poems. I particularly hate the 'vote for me please' poem. Seriously, if you have to beg, you probably don't deserve to win anyway. Unless it's hilarious begging...but it has to be side-splitting and funny rather than just sad and desperate.

  5. It's soooo subjective, ain't it?

  6. Sounds like an amazing night! I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the different performers and their work.

  7. Thanks again for your wisdom Carey. I reckon with poetry slams there's also that fear that, well, if that's who the judges chose then maybe I'm wrong and they're right...maybe I have no idea what good poetry and performance looks like...better keep this little ole mouth of mine closed just in case, god forbid, I end up looking like some kinda fool. Me? I don't worry about that because I am always right :)

    Timoteo: Certainly is. My picks are just as open to criticism as the next person's.

    Tracey: Yeah, it was an amazing night. I'm really glad I had the opportunity to attend. Actually had another gig scheduled for this night, but for various reasons it was cancelled.

  8. hi maxine, thanks for the review. i made my way up for the nsw final, narrowly missed placing in the top two, & i think a lot of what you said probably holds for both events.

    my only two problems with the event format are - yes, the judging is problematic. one of our judges was a 12yr old kid. his scores were, well, unpredictable. i can't imagine that appointing a judging panel would be too fraught with dangers.

    secondly i find it hard to differentiate between some of the better performers / writers in 2mins. i'd love to be able to see everyone do at least 2 pieces, then you could see whether they have just one idea (like 'vote for me') or some more depth.

    but aside from those things i have never performed for such a big audience before. that's a buzz. i think there's an exciting future for performance poetry, maybe even outside the official slams.