Class of ’99 gig on Wednesday night was, without a doubt one of the best evenings of poetry I’ve been privileged to encounter anywhere. No ego, no pretention, no stumbles, no heckling. Class of ’99 was an honest, sincere, heartbreaking, spontaneously narrated many-tongued trip back through Melbourne spoken word memory. Oh, and with some absolutely unbelievable poetry from Melbourne’s finest wordsmiths thrown into the mix.Overload Poetry Festival’s
Every poet in Class of ’99 spoke of Sandon McCleod – the mother of Overload, a poet I never knew, but by the end of the evening, felt almost as if I had. The most poignant moment of the achingly nostalgic evening was when the last poet of the night, Steve Smart, spoke of Sandon in hospital with lung cancer after being given a month to live. Still wickedly witty and sharp-tongued but slipping away a little more each day, Sandon told the endless parade of Melbourne poets keeping her company at the end that they must look after each other. Whatever they did, they must really make sure they took care of each other.
Poet and MC Maurice McNamara opens Class of ‘99 with true class, explaining that he’s worked hard to secure the upstairs gig room in the Palookaville Hotel for the Class of ’99 Overload gig so please, no Shelton Lea moments or vomits in the corner. But in all seriousness, despite such grubby asides, and the occasional was-that-a-deliberately-offensive-joke-or-a-genuine-miscommunication moments, McNamara is a warm, engaging and egoless tour guide through the last decade of Melbourne poetry history.
First up for the evening is Melbourne poet and poetry scene photographer Michael Reynolds. McNamara explains that before Reynolds came on the scene, poet photographs on the backs of published collections all look like pictures your little sister took when she was five and had a bad flu. Reynolds begins by explaining how stumbling across a poetry reading at the Dan O’Connell Hotel in ’99 brought him to the Melbourne poetry scene. The title poem from his chapbook On Finding A Chair In the Forest, seems to mirror this happenstance – a walker discovers a lone chair in the forest, nobody else in sight. The chair is yours, the narrator offers, but only if you feel comfortable. And Reynolds is indeed comfortable cloaked in words: eloquent, witty and intriguing at his best. The poem Denise, one of Sandon’s favourites, he recalls, tugged at the heartstrings. In it, the poet’s young boy self astutely observes the melancholy and loneliness of his aunt Denise across the family Christmas dinner table. Longing to leave the table and dodge the swipe of his father’s hand, the child resists, only to find the regret of the moment echoing back at him as an adult. It’s a poem about family, love, and inclusiveness which fits well with the nostalgia of the evening.
After strongly recommending that any standing audience member go downstairs to the restaurant and take a chair off a steak eater, McNamara introduces Angela Costi, lamenting that a lot of the Melbourne poetry old guard have gone off and had bloody children, so he’s been obliged to put them on early in case the little tikes end up in emergency or something. Indeed, as many of the Class of ’99 spontaneously narrate their stories in between poems, explaining how, when, why and if they left the poetry scene, the common theme is family responsibility. As a poet in the present Melbourne spoken word scene with two young children waiting for me at home, I sympathise whole-heartedly. Both the beauty and the bother of the spoken word scene in Melbourne is that it’s a little all-or-nothing. It’s so involving, there’s so much going on, there’s so many extraordinary people asking you to read, or collaborate, or publish, or contribute, that if you can’t be on it one hundred percent, it often feels like it would be far saner to take a break altogether.
Sandon told me to be brave, poet Angela Costi remembers, and I haven’t always been, but tonight, I am going to be brave. And with that, she performs a pulsing, rocking, sweaty, flashing eight minute poem which she performed at the first Overload Poetry festival a decade ago. The poem’s narrator is in a bar. The music is thumping. The place is packed with vivid, curious characters. The woman with the Gertrude Stein face, a clubber with hair petrified in wax. Throughout the piece, a refrain: A song for everyone comes on...my mouth wants to know the words as the narrator struggles to play the part she feels she should. I wish I could recall more of Costi’s electric imagery, but suffice it to say I was so mesmerised I barely took down a note.
Next, McNamara introduces himself. Unsurprisingly, he says he’s pretty incredible. A random audience member offers to do the honours, but McNamara quickly hits that nail on the head. McNamara’s poetry observes people and relationships so sharply you wonder if all those he loves live constantly on guard. His first two poems are about ended relationships, but not in that sad, longing, regretful way of some such poems. In the first poem, an ex calls for help to write a poem. In the second he breaks bread, or at least coffee, with another ex and they exchange loaded banter. Her boyfriend’s computer, he thinks, it’s a stupid computer, not an Apple like my girlfriend’s computer. McNamara’s relationship poems are an odd, but utterly contagious, mixture of aged wisdom and juvenile quip. He extends this approach to his hilarious observation of Fitzroy yuppies, observing their habits in list-form: the bootleg jeans, clever haircuts, boutique beer, ability to eat chilli without breaking a sweat. But in the morning... he finishes, they still...shit like you and I do.
Next up, Melissa Petrakis. McNamara introduces her by talking about an idea the old guard had a decade ago of a Poets Club, where a nominated poet would read only one poem then talk about themselves for the evening, The idea, he remembers, fizzled out after Petrakis took the mic at the first Poet’s club. You forget, we did so much. There was so much going on back then, but who cares? He asks, Where’s the money?
Petrakis too, reads work from back in the day. She’s only written one poem this year, she says, but back then she was writing four poems a week. The first poems are two of the first she ever had published - in now defunct poetry publications. Petrakis’ work is not my kind of poetry: formal, traditional, wordy. But I’m interested because I’ve never heard her read before, and though she professes herself not to be a performance poet, she reads her work as well as any of the class of ’99. Her words have weight, depth, great consideration. My favourite of the evening was a poem about seeking solace in the flesh of another – burrowing to find comfort. Reading from her second poetry book, Petrakis remembers a conversation with Sandy in which she confessed she didn’t feel her second publication was as good as her first. Sandy told her she would grow to love it. And as with all the anecdotes about McCleod this evening, it seems she was right.
McNamara returns to spruik the second half. There’s lots more great stuff coming up. That sounds like I’m talking about the lollies at the bottom of the jar. The purple ones that no-one wants to eat.
First poet in the second half is Matt Hetherington. His poem Middle Aged Poet to Middle Aged poet is both devastating and hilarious. Start when the kids are asleep / and the wife isn’t interested, he suggests, try to write something without nature in it and if you think your stuff is getting good, think of Frank Sinatra’s wig. Then there is that love poem, read only from memory. As a general rule, I'm not a fan of love poems, but this one leaves me speechless. Speechless. That laboured, yet somehow so sincere refrain which starts every line...when I am not with her, there, where she is... The whole room falls silent – you can practically hear collective eyelashes beating.
Next, Luis Gonzalez Serrano, current artistic director of Overload, takes to the stage. He speaks of Melbourne back in the day and of Saltlick, the now defunct poetry magazine he and Clint Greagan, who’s reading later in the evening, started. Luis’ Prayer For My Sister ably articulates the way in which his family’s migration to Australia from El Slavador plays tug of war with the home heartstrings. Once again though, the poem which impacts me most deals with the craft of writing...A poet is an idea we forgot to say...a poem is a single light on inside a house....the reason that keeps a prisoner living...a note you find in a coat pocket at the beginning of winter...
Next, Meg Dunn storms the stage. The most performative of the Class of ’99, and with a theatre background, she reads in a shimmering metallic skirt, arms gesticulating. She too, spoke of the state of the spoken word scene in ’99 – the fact that if one wanted to, they could read every single night. Dunn’s best poem was a rhythmic beat journey down the Pacific Highway through truck-stops, past motorcyclists, changing lanes toward a crash-collision finish.
Next up is Clint Greagan who promptly puts a stake through the nostalgic remembrance of he and Luis as co-editors of Saltlick by confessing that, actually, he took off after a few years and Gonzalez Serrano did most of the work: It’s just that I was a bit of a nut-bar, which made the whole thing more newsworthy. Greagan speaks candidly about how Sandon’s death affected him at a time when he was fortunate enough that no-one close to him had died before their time. Getting teary, he squares his shoulders, asks: Can I shake that off? Back to being a psycho! He proceeds to fill his set with poems about the ducks in his backyard. It takes me a few minutes to get with Greagan’s program. Halfway through his set, I realise that his observations of his ducks are not, actually, about his ducks. I mean they are, but they are also about, well, humanity. Quack is pre defeat / and means it’s late, the race is over, reads the poem about harbouring in his duck-filled yard from the rat race of the city. In another amusingly disturbing poem, he ponders the defencelessness of the ducks: I could tear your heads off / it would be easy...
The evening better be nearing an end, because McNamara’s MCing is on a downhill slide: there were jokes about the lack of women on the program between the last two sets, and now he asks someone in the audience to stand up. The man obligingly stands, and Maurice points, guffaws and says He is from Belgium! Look how tall he is everyone! At all the good parties there’s either a dwarf or a giant!
Oh dear. Put the drink down Maurice. Put it down.
Lucky Andy Jackson’s up next. Jackson starts in’ 99, and reads one poem for every two years since. It’s a brilliant idea, and we can certainly chart the artistic development of this formidable wordsmith. In Jackson’s first poem, his younger writer self tries to make sense of his craft. There are some brilliant associations and metaphors coming at us: the poet as a tailor of second hand words, poetry as a name written on a toilet wall and no-one ever calls your number... In another of his poems, Jackson explores the Melbourne night city-scape so familiar to all of us spoken word night owls. My eyes are closed. My head is back. I’m stepping into the cold streets of Melbourne, making the city mine. I’ve stopped note-taking again: a slip-up I’ll regret when I pore through my notebook the next morning frantically trying to recall the wonder I know was Jackson’s set. Jackson is softly spoken, eloquent, not at all a performance poet. And yet somehow he is. And he’s the most mesmerising of the evening. The audience, despite the late hour, are settled and attentive, and he draws practically a standing ovation when he leaves the mic.
McNamara re-renters, lauds Jackson’s idea of reading a poem for each couple years since Overload began, reprimands the other poets for not thinking of this, calls them a bunch of stupids. It’s getting late, and a Steve Smart set is what we’re all waiting for.
Suddenly there Smart is at the mic, his usual wild mane of black hair shaven to the scalp, dressed in black, teary-eyed and speaking of Sandon. At the end, Smart says, there was a queue of people going in to see Sandon and get their little bit of wisdom. And, he smiles, some of them really needed it. Smart talks about discovering the Melbourne poetry scene, and the relief to find a bunch of people so supportive of this strange creature I needed to be somehow.
Smart reads a poem from way back when: Are You Chasin? and talks about how he never used to edit back in the day, but has worked on this poem and is reading that re-worked version tonight. The witty, clever wordplay is followed by a political poem from, he confesses, prime ministers ago. I’ll tell you how we can make him say sorry, Smart starts, detailing various torture techniques which might be used on Prime Minister Howard. Like McNamara’s poem about the Melbourne 'pretty people', Costi’s Melbourne club scene and Jackson’s Melbourne streetscape, Smart’s last poem is about our city...a winter soul...a plot you have to follow closely or you might miss something...
And then it’s Sandon McCleod’s Poet’s Holiday to finish. Sandon, the mother of Overload. Sandon, this extraordinary character who I never had the privilege to know, but now know through these extraordinary poets. Sandon who held, still holds, these wordsmiths together. Sandon, the match that lit the fire.
It’s the great escape from poetry
just one day off
we’re not going out to any readings
and we’ll get: where were you?
but that’s probably better than late again
and we’re not visiting any poets
and we’re not going to talk about poetry,
or places where poetry is read
or festivals we might organise,
or readings we might run.
We’re having a day off from poetry
and poets bitching about other poets
and poets getting pissed with other poets
and giving each other bad advice
and boasting and bullshitting
as poets do.
We’re having a day off from poetry.
We’re catching a train as far as one will go –
to Cairns or maybe Perth
or anywhere you don’t need so many clothes
and the rain, if there is any, is warm
and like a next morning shower
rather than that cold rain that sits in your shoes
and fucks your cigarette papers.
We’re having a day off from poetry
and we’re not going to sit by the sea
and write wave poems about sex
or skin poems about love.
We’re not going to write poems about poetry.
We’re not going to write poems at all –
not poems or prose or even words.
We’re not taking pens or books or any paper
and we’re going to rip our train tickets
so we can’t write on the back of those.
We’re having a day off from poetry
and we’re going to lie by a river
with crocodiles in it
and you’re going to lie on one bank
and I’ll lie on the other
‘cos you’re a fucking poet!
- Sandon McCleod