Sunday, September 11, 2011

What I Thought Poetry Was - Koraly Dimitriadis on Overload Opening Night

If I was your average Joe Blow who knew nothing of poetry other than what it is perceived to be in society – abstract concepts about birds and trees, a man standing in a library reading verse from a dusty old book to a bunch of grandmothers – and I walked into the Fitzroy town hall on Friday night at 7pm I would have nodded my head and said ‘yep, thought that’s what I thought poetry was’ and walked straight back out. As a poet being represented by Overload Poetry Festival, as a poet part of a community, I was heart broken. The four-hour long opening festival, staged in a brightly lit town hall, with many ducking in and out for a ciggie and drink a bit too often, had me wishing I was at home in bed. After a certain amount of poetry, after a certain amount of words, you stop absorbing. My brain was overloaded with poetry. The average Joe Blow would have glanced at the photocopied program of 30 events, and based on what was being staged, would not have been enticed to go to any of the events.

Scanning the list of fourteen (fourteen!) performers selected with the intention of giving the audience a taste of what was to come in the festival, a taste of the best, I was perplexed. The selection lacked diversity and I didn’t feel it represented the spoken word scene in Melbourne or the amazing talent taking part in the festival. For a start there were too many newbies, and I was utterly bemused at the decision to put some of the best acts, which I feel represent the range of poetry and spoken word being performed in Melbourne, acts like Sean M Whelan and Emilie Zoe Baker, performing at the closing ceremony rather than opening ceremony.
If I was your average Joe Blow and I saw Sean M Whelan and the Interim Lovers as the opening act I would have been thinking ‘RAD! I didn’t know this was poetry!’ I wanted to stand up, midway through the night and shout ‘This isn’t our best! Don’t walk out! This isn’t out best!’ And where were the older poets like Ania Walwitz, Santo Cazzati or even TT.O? What about Maxine Clarke*, she’s one of our best and she isn’t even on the program! Which begs the question what is the purpose of this festival and who is it for? For poets or for the public? There are eighty poets performing at this festival. Eighty! Are we trying to break down the barrier between poetry and the general public by showcasing our best, our diversity, or are we just jamming as many poets as we can into a festival so we can all pat ourselves on the back and say ‘yeah, we’re poets, and we’re cool’.

Enough ranting. On a more positive note, there were stand outs on the opening night, but these were scarce, and the best performance, a poem for poem performance by Luka Haralampou and Omar Musa, was so late in the game that if I was the average Joe Blow I wouldn’t have survived that long. I would have been out of there. One poem in particular by Luka named ‘Athena’, which I have seen him perform in the past and thought it was an average poem, took on a completely different life. Why? He performed with such emotion and gusto and conviction, similar to his performances when he first came to Melbourne. The performance was so brilliant I felt as if Athena was right there in front of me, and in his poem ‘Scar’ I felt as if scars were being cut into my very own flesh, and ‘Confluence’, which I had never heard before, had my eyes teary. This highlighted for me, how important emotion is to a performance, how important it is to embody the language, which is exactly what Omar Musa did also. It was as if they were wearing the language like a suit, his body language mimicking the language and emotion in his voice.

Alia Gabres was also another stand out, her spoken word about war and ethnicity delivered with elegance and large, dark brown eyes of gentle sorrow. But again I felt myself disengaging after a while – although Alia does spoken word very well, and her stories are heart-felt, her pieces follow the same predictable rhythm, and her pieces tend to be a little wordy at times lacking poetic substance. Yet from the long list of poets appearing at the festival, she is definitely one of my top 20. She has only come to spoken word in the last year and I can see she is only just beginning.

The UK poets were interesting. Hannah Jane Walker had a great delivery, making you laugh when she’s dead serious, and then you’re dead serious, and it’s really, really serious, but once again, not enough poetry, too much spoken word. Luke Wright was funny, funny, funny, but it lacked any kind of rhyme or rhythm and I wasn’t sure if I was listening to spoken word or comedy. Still, his piece about caring for his son three days a week had me peeing my pants. Eddy Burger was hilarious as always and as always I have no idea what the hell he’s doing or saying and he’s making the strangest noises that I can’t help but laugh at. Steve Smart’s Cold Chisel cover ‘Flame Trees’ was one of the best poems of the night: He is definitely in my top ten of favourite poets in Melbourne. He combined the Cold Chisel cover with poets Meg Dunn and Jen Jewel Brown. Their performance was like a melancholy jazz song but I wondered still about its appropriateness for the opening ceremony. I think I would have appreciated it more if it was done as a standalone feature at, say The Dan O’Connell, because I felt it got a bit lost amongst all the other performances and probably wasn’t appreciated as well as it could have been.

I am sure with more funding some of the glitches I mentioned above could have been ironed out, and it is a credit to Luis Gonzales Serrano that the festival is still living and breathing after 10 years considering the shoe-string budget it has. Of course my opinions are subjective, and I am critiquing the night and poets with the best of intentions. We can only improve and learn if we are provided with honest opinions, instead of the pat-on-back approach poets tend to have with each other. Please, if you disagree, I encourage you to voice your opinion below.

reviewed by Koraly Dimitriadis

*Editor's note: Since this is Maxine's blog, she feels compelled to confess that she feels rather sheepish about this glowing praise and also, she didn't submit an expression of interest in time for performing in the 2011 Festival.