Since its inception in America in the 1980s, slam poetry has incited an accessible creative outlet for community connection and personal expression amongst many.
Sydney’s spoken word scene has been through many incarnations and taken many forms since it really kicked off in the 1990s. In spite of this current era of screen addiction (and often, with its assistance) this heavily involving creative outlet is instigating community connections on the city’s peripheries.
Miles Merrill can be credited as the founding father of the spoken word scene in Australia. Heralding from Chicago, the home city of slam poetry, Merrill moved to Sydney in 1996 to find there was “nothing much happening” with spoken word. It wasn’t long before he started the city’s first poetry slam, and by 2007 he was hosting Australia’s first national slam.
MULTICULTURALISM, IDENTITY AND THE SPOKEN WORD
Miles is presently the Creative Director and Founder of Word Travels, a not-for-profit arts association promoting literacy and creative expression through words. The group not only organises the annual Australian Poetry Slam, but also the momentous Multilingual Slam event.
Last year’s winner of the Multilingual Slam, Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Dakash, is a Sydney law student who fell in love with the spoken word and was interested to explore the art form through other languages. With parents from two different backgrounds, her mother from Bulgaria and her father from Palestine, Liz speaks three different languages. The Multilingual Slam gave her a creative outlet to explore her identity as a whole.
“Living in a multicultural city, speaking in other languages provides an avenue to connect with people on a deeper level – exploring that through poetry brings that to a whole other level,” said Liz.
With his own diverse background – African, Irish, British and Italian – Miles Merrill understands first hand how writing and performing can help someone carve their own identity. He explained: “There are a lot of stereotypes related to being black, I’ve often felt that that in order to break those stereotypes I have to be outspoken and make people aware of my creativity, my imagination and my intellectual ability.”
He added: “There’s something quite powerful about sharing out thoughts, emotions and imaginations… it takes us beyond a conversation to understand something deeper about humanity and each other.”
SYDNEY’S SLAM INSTITUTION IN 2016
This year the slam poetry and open mic scene is stronger than ever, with a program ahead of special events and regular evenings to encourage the seasoned spoken wordsmiths and the amateurs among us to witness the form and even step up to the microphone.
After a fairly quiet January on the scene, February sees a rush of activity, with many people who’ve been quietly and rigorously writing over the time lapse of the holiday season raring to share their new work.
On the first Tuesday of the month, Petersham will see the inaugural evening of an innovative new space for writers and performers. Organisers of Poets at the Petersham Bowl Mark Marusic and Barry Sargent have been involved with the spoken word scene since the early 90s and late 80s respectively, and have found the ideal home for a regular open mic night in the community run Petersham Bowling Club.
The club actively supports the arts, and in their purpose-built new performance space Mark and Barry are expecting a blend of new faces and familiar names from the Sydney poetry circuit. “A big part of it is to give an opportunity to people who might not have had an opportunity before,” said Mark.
They also encourage musicians and other performers to get involved. “It will be a venue where the locals can express themselves,” said Barry. “If you only have poets reading to poets you’re essentially losing your purpose of being, which is to express your works to others…”
Mark explained that it is his own love of poetry that has seen him continually get involved in the scene and produce his own books: “It’s a way of condensing an idea about something, or an image, sometimes just a very small detail about something in a very concise form…”
As this new performance night gets underway, over in Glebe a long running spoken word event will make its new year return at the Friend in Hand Hotel. Jack Peck organises WordinHand on the first Tuesday of the month, but it is only the latest incarnation of spoken word at the venue.
“Poetry has been a feature of The Friend in Hand Hotel for many years, long before I came to organise it in 2007,” Peck explained. “Poetry has been going at that venue for around 20 years.”
Peck has seen the scene expand greatly since he started WordinHand out of a desire for an open mic night to share a poem he’d written. WordinHand always involves two feature poets and an open mic section – Peck has already managed to book the year out for feature acts.
On the first Tuesday of February Jack will be hosting emerging spoken word poets Rachel Calleja and Lorin Elizabeth, who bring their Finding Crossroads tour down under. These Australian poets have just returned to the country after combining forces to drive across the USA late last year, and this is will be their first feature gig since landing on home soil.
Calleja and Elizabeth will be keeping busy, also appearing as feature acts at another localised spoken word institution, Caravan Slam.
Typically taking place on the fourth Thursday of the month, Caravan Slam began in March of 2011 and has traversed from venue to venue before finding its permanent oasis at Django Bar in Marrickville last year. “They’re young and they’re fun and they’ve always got something good to say,” said slam organiser Lou Steer.
Steer describes the slam as a loose competition where they’ve “created a safe space for people to express themselves”. She explained further: “Poetry can be cathartic, particularly for people who are expressing things they haven’t told anyone else… but it’s also entertainment… you never know what you’re going to get… a funny poet and then a searing poet, someone talking about love and then someone talking about international politics… the beauty of the slam format is that it keeps people on their toes.”
Attracting an enthusiastic audience, like many of its kind the Caravan Slam is entirely volunteer run without any government assistance – making live poetry one of the few art forms to not have been deeply affected by cuts to arts funding. This March will mark Caravan’s fifth anniversary, a particular milestone for an independently run arts activity.
“It is a community – when people open up their hearts to each other there is no more honest form of communication than that,” said Steer.
While the encouragement of amateur poets amongst many of Sydney’s open mic nights and slams has cultivated a wonderfully diverse scene, some self-professed “hard core poets” have found the general scene “too nice”.
Jess Santosa founded 3 Poets Speak along with Phillip Wilcox in late 2014, out of a frustration with the current scene and a desire to push poetry to the next level in terms of subject matter, form and rhythm.
3 Poets Speak enjoyed a year of pushing the form and bringing together three guaranteed leading poets to speak at each event. This year they seek to return on a three monthly basis after a brief hiatus as they look to grow their organising committee and growing organising committee and “cross bridges between poetry and areas of society that hadn’t really explored it before”.
Miles Merrill best sums up the impact of the spoken word: “There’s something to be said for artistic excellence… but the community development, the spontaneity and the bond that happens over an open mic or a slam – particularly amongst people who feel marginalised – there’s something about it that is really overwhelming… it doesn’t always have to be about the best poem performed in the best way.”
Word Travels continues to spread the word of the spoken word. In February they’ll be hosting spoken-wordshops in the lead up to the Multilingual Slam in March, where Liz Dakash will be returning to perform after her win last year. (AM)
SPOKEN WORD EVENTS
POETRY SLAMS & OPEN MIC NIGHTS
Inaugural Poets at the Petersham Bowl
Feb 2, 6pm. Free. Petersham Bowling Club, 77 Brighton Street, Petersham.
From Feb 2, first Tuesday of every month, 7:30pm (open mic registration from 6:30pm). $5-$10. Friend in Hand Hotel, 58 Cowper Street, Glebe. See ‘WordinHand’ group on Facebook for info.
From Feb 25, fourth Thursday of every month, 8pm (open mic registration from 7pm). $5 (performers free). Django Bar, 19 Marrickville Road, Marrickville (opp Sydenham Station). See ‘Caravan Slam’ group on Facebook for info.
3 Poets Speak
New Year program TBC. If you’re interested in joining the organising committee contact Jess at firstname.lastname@example.org
Word Travels Spoken-Wordshop
Feb 18, 6-8pm. International Performing Writers Centre, Level 2, 79-1/2 George St, The Rocks.
Multilingual Slam Wordshop
March 3. Marrackville, venue TBC.
Multilingual Poetry Slam
March 19, 8:30pm. Sydney Dance Lounge, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay.
More details on Word Travels events to be announced at www.wordtravels.info on January 28th.