Friday, November 20, 2009


The Argument

The new head of Opera Australia said "I think we've become conservative and predictable to the audiences that we're playing to..." A few days before this comment was spewed forth by the Daily Liar, I went to the ACT Heats of the National Poetry Slam, a few days after I went to the ACT Writers Centre Poetry Awards. How well do these words fit in the ACT poetry scene?


So first I stepped into the 2009 ACT Heats of the National Poetry Slam. This was held in the foyer of the National Library of Australia.A very showy and in many ways an appropriate venue for the ACT heats of the SLAM contest. There was a jolly fair crowd in attendance, with beer and wine being served. Speaking only from my constrained vantage most people seemed to have had a good evening.

I am tiring of the idea of the slam, and do not intend to perform at any more slams. This evening did nothing to dissuade of my growing antipathy towards the very idea of a slam. It was nothing to do with the poets nor the poetry, although as in all open venues, there are pieces that one likes more than others.

Three people (all male) tied for first place - so this gave us a 'slam off.' And each of the winners had to read a second poem, and so be judged. After this a winner was declared. Now the winner gets to go to Sydney to battle it out in a contest to see who is the best slammer in Australia.

While not disagreeing with rap being the 'dominant' form of poetry these days, whatcan one say when the hip hop lifestyle is for sale at any suburban shopping centre, when all sorts of Disney advertising and misogynist Hollywood content is pumped out daily to a hip hop beat? Is this a dominate form or a form of domination. Malcolm McLaren once repeated the comment that the forces of production extend until discontent itself becomes a commodity. Mild mannered suburban children act out in safety the life and death struggles of the urban poor old skool rappers straight out of South Bronx or Compton.

Two rappers tied for first place,last years winner was a rapper, is this not also conservative and predictable? Is this giving the 'young people' what they want? Do slams encourage the idea of poetry as entertainment? There is no need for me to answer these sorts of questions as I have found myself on the wrong side of many of the arguments that have raged around me.

Twenty poets and twenty three poems, a wide mix of poems showing a rich spread of styles and voices, weighted towards the rap poets. There is very little to compare to a rich flowing litany of words. The bounding repetition of our age, the boundless songs of survival.


Bright blue Morning
Yellow tipped
Garish red
Bottle brush

The long crack song
Of the damp gully.
Uncontrolled screams
Of the Currawong.

An aeroplane flies over head.

Rhythmic back and forth two
Stroke lopping the poppies.

A bridge above
A tunnel below
A drying creek

A barking dog.

A family. Four children wait the bus.
Two boys chase and pretend to wrestle.
The elder sister sits
And swings her legs
The younger sister orbits the tree
Gathering bark.

The little boy crouches the
Upturned trolley and laughs.

Reading the paper
Fiddling with phones
Starving out windows.
Tumbling hills of green

Drinking coffee in cafes
Hanging colourful flowers
Cheques cashed
Payday advances.

Congregates. She puts on her glasses.
Makes a fist - It was him or me.
Staff step outside for a cigarette.
Ever make love in the back seat
Of a car?

A leaf falls from the tree, in front of me.
Three junkies scream a rolling fight
The doorways and alleys of the flats.

Two golden coins into the roughened hand
Of the pensioned off ex garbage man.


Nine days later I was at the ACT Writers Centre Poetry Awards, now called the Michael Thwaites Poetry Prize. An Officer of the Order of Australia, academic, Intelligence Officer for ASIO, Member of Moral Rearmament, Poet and author.

Conservative and predictable?

The judge was a local poet, well published, has worked as a teacher in NSW and ACT. This method of only one judge, which was used in the previous year at least, is to my mind not a good method. Poetry as we all know is very subjective, and so from the point of view of poet the system appears as a random number generator, which takes as an input a poem and gives as an output a judgement.

The self selecting of judges in the slam format also has some problems, but it has the advantage of a well worked system. Five judges, the highest and lowest scores are set aside. The final score being the total of the middle three numbers. This stops the single person liking or disliking a particular poem, and so biasing the judgment.

The entries were judged for:

  • Emotional force.

  • Vivid and sharp images, language etc.

  • Original language.

  • The judge also talked about making the familiar new, and the unfamiliar familiar. Visions of Ezra Pound splashing in his bath tub, painting on the wall with the soap bubbles, 'make it new' (in clear and common language) danced through my head. To be honest I thought all of the poems failed on the use of original language, but as to being vivid and clear in image making, all poems were of a very high order. Leading us back to the wildly subjective 'Did this poem move me' as criteria for winning or losing. In which case there is no need to worry about how well formed the metaphors; as I can
    think of many instances where a poorly crafted poem may have an emotional impact worthy of a positive judgment.

    Which of course is a wandering Yorick way of saying the entires should have to be looked at by a panel of judges, at least three. This will keep a single judges mood (good or ill) from unduly awarding a prize.

    For the first time! (what can a singer do but sing?) the winners of the prizes were asked to read their works. In complete opposition to the NLA Slam night (where only three out of twenty contestants were female) all three winners were women. Two were able to read their poems, the first prize winner was not able to make it to the event. Even more interesting was the fact that of the two winners, both of them were older women, at that age when many women speak of becoming invisible, so it was good to hear some words from different poetic voices, and it was good to see the ACT Writers Centre reward these poets.

    All of the winning poems could not be faulted. Each was a well crafted, coherent, forward moving song full of images of everyday life, of the called to mind dead ones. Sharp crystals prised out from under the floor boards. The three poems were all worthy winners, but I could not suppress the feeling that they lacked the urgency that our present age demands.

    Friends, art, tranquilty.

    Lucretius used to speak of the life of tranquility (tranquilitas,) being grounded in friendship (suavis amicitia) and intellectual curiosity. Both events allowed me to hear new voices and think new thoughts, but not to the extent I felt I was being pushed, nor did I feel in any way confronted. I was able to talk to some friends and met some new people.

    Epicureans were well known for abhorring any sort of strife or violence, so in this way we can always thank conservative and predictable art groups for allowing us to avoid undue confrontation.

    1 comment:

    jools said...

    If you're talking about this year's ACT heat - it was Hadley who tied with Will and eventually won! Also third place went to CJ who is very much not a hip-hop poet.