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.


  1. Yeah maybe, but I can't blame anyone else for my tardiness with respect to deadlines :) Would be interesting to chat with the festival team about the selection process at some stage...

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  3. hullo. You say that my pieces had no rhythm or rhyme. In fact the first piece - The Paunch! - is written entirely in strict iambic pentameter, rhymed ABAB. The second - Weekday Dad - is written in anapaestic tetrameter, it's mostly ABAB, but goes into stanzas of AAAA when I'm delivery bits of direct speech, such as:

    No sweetie, not that please, it’s Daddy’s degree
    no, not in the potty dear, that’s where you wee
    It’s not that I need it, it’s just that I, gee
    that’s pretty symbolic – you’ve satirized me.

    My aim is for the pieces to sound naturalistic but I always write in tight metre and I generally use rhyme. I'm flattered you found it funny, but there is more going on than just gags.

  4. Hi Luke, thanks for commenting. what I probaly should have used the words 'lacked rhythm and rhyme', thanks for the correction. Yes there were short parts that rhymed but overall I didn't feel as if it had enough poetic quality. I don't believe in 'rules' so to speak for poetry, or words like 'iambic pentameter' i don't really care what they mean. there are no rules when it comes to poetry for me. to me it's about the way I appreciate and enjoy the performance as an audience member. A person that comes to your show that knows nothing of poetry isn't going to sit there are think 'hmmm, it's good because it follows the iambic pentameter' they will either find it accessible, interesting, entertaining or not. of course my opinion is subjective and i'm happy for anyone who was there to please comment and give their own opinions. i did enjoy your performance, don't get me wrong, it just felt it lacked a certain something to elevate it to a brilliant spoken word performance.

  5. Sure, of course you are and it wasn't that I was objecting to. It wasn't just short bits that rhymed and were in metre, all of it was. All of it. That's why I objected to your comment, it simply wasn't true.

    I agree that audience members aren't listening out for certain metres or rhyme schemes, but by using those I give the poetry a certain sound, a certain flow. I don't use them, to show off about them, I use them because they are effective.

    Iambic pentameter is not a 'rule', it's a form, and whether you think it's important or not as a reviewer of poetry you should at least be able to recognise something so fundamental.

    I don't know what you mean by "poetic quality". You describe my performance as "funny, funny, funny" that's what it was supposed to be. Job done. I felt the audience were in the mood for comic poetry that night so that's what I did. Poetry can just be funny if it wishes to be. It doesn't have to be just images and broken hearts.

  6. wow, it all followed the meter? no wonder. i rarely like academic poetry, i like experimental stuff that blows me out of the water, excites and connects with me. i dont feel the need to know all the rules or forms and i would prefer not to know them because i feel it would influence my art and what literature THINKS poetry should be. I have studied writing and art and i am a published poet and perform heaps, and i believe that puts me in a position to review poetry. ART = no rules and i know i am difficult to please but it is one thing to make me laugh, it's another to make me speechless and have your performance and words echoing in my mind weeks later.

  7. I've been trying to hold back so as not to sound like I've got sour grapes over your review but your attitude towards really well crafted poetry (Luke had to break it down to you in such detail for you to get it) actually makes you sound like you really don't know what you're talking about - an 'I don't know art but I know what I like' kind of critique. 'Where were the older poets?' you ask, and then you misspell Ania's surname (nevermind the fact that she was on opening night last year), that PiO had like four gigs last year and the year before that, and that Santo is in fact someone who's not been around the scene for more than three years. At this writing course that you did you didn't like doing your homework, did you?

  8. Wish I was at Opening Night so I could better moderate. Some of Koraly's observations about the length of the evening etc were mirrored in Lian's review. On the other hand I think the 'art equals no rules therefore no knowledge is necessary' can be a little dangerous. The word "experimental" itself is relative so I guess you can't claim to like "experimental stuff" if you can't actually pick if from something which might employ more defined poetic technique (which doesn't necessarily mean it's 'academic').

  9. Wow, Luis, sorry if I have offended. No, I don't like homework much. Look, I gave my honest opinion, and that's that. I am tired of reviews that are all 'it was great, pat on the back to everyone'. Like I have said before, I don't like learning about the rules because then I feel that they influence your art, and that I learnt from Ania Walwicz in her poetry class. She didn't teach us any rules. Sorry about the spelling mistake also, I am sure there are other spelling mistakes on this blog, not just mine. And when I say experimental, I mean unpredictable, ie not academic. Hope that makes sense. But I do admire you Luis for your hard work in the festival, I know it is a tough job and I apprecaite it. I hope you know this is just a discussion and I hope it is okay for us to have these kinds of discussions. If I was too hard on Luke, Luke, I apologise.

  10. I'm very conscious about the timing criticisms and it's something I'm raising at the Overload debrief (somewhat hopefully again, as every year we seem to say we're going to keep things running on time and then we have these epic three hour gigs - it's a cultural issue we've been battling with, believe me). I'm not really looking for an apology, I just want to point out how little research went into the critique of poets and how that was extended to the curation of the festival itself, almost as if the intention of walking through the door from the beginning was to tear the night to shreds. Lian's review seems so much more balanced and again points out our event management problems - kinks that need more than funding to iron out. Although again the question of "where was..." pops up like news of the discovery of sliced bread...
    And Maxine, agreed on technique in the experimental. Luke's poetry for example, came across as funny on the surface but had so much underlying work. I would call that experimental - what he's doing with ballads is something that most people would shy away from in this country (maybe because of the ghost of the bush ballad). Or on another night - Mills and Boon Swoon, Eleanor was doing some stuff that seemed like straight up spoken word - what people didn't pick up is that a huge chunk of her stuff were actual villanelles, pantouns and there was even a limerick in there. The poetry didn't suffer for it at all. I don't mind the discussions, it's just that we need to come in with an open mind and put a little bit more thought into what we say.