I went into town last week. I went to the small hole in the wall smelling of thick rich coffee and of thicker and richer spices cafe -- Frankie's Empire. I ordered three well appreciated hot chocolates for the children, and a flat white for myself. Besides the well received drinks I was interested in see a new -- for Hobart anyway -- cafe poetry or to be more precise spoken word night. New to Hobart, but not a new idea. There are monthly readings (first Sunday of the month) at the Republic Hotel. I do not want to get into a debate over the merits of this event as against that event, nor do I want to get entangled with the even more ludicrous argument comparing the relative merits of the spoken word as against the written word. I do, however, want to offer a frail apologia for the will and representation of the spoken word, the open mic event.
So it seems that was the end of things, but then I thought over my past, about the many people who have been not supportive of open mics. The ones who have pronounced such nights to be awful, or even atrocious. And some seem to create a distinction the written and the spoken, and privilege the written. I have never thought that this was the right attitude. No sense getting into an argument here, but I will quote Swinburne and say that the first rule of the singer is to sing. Take this as you will.
Atrocious & awful, sure. But this is very nature of the open mic - poetry slam scene. But let us be generous in our criticism. Maybe not always possible, but in this case I think the thought of critical generosity should be kept in mind. My visit was only the third time this event (silverwords) was held. It is very much an amateur or DIY sort-of-event, in the sense of having no government or university grant money to support the organiser, but more importantly in the sense of being a labour of love.
Describing this sort of spoken word evening as awful shows the wrong attitude to have to open mic. Even if most of the poems were crap, the questions must be: did you have a bit of fun? did you get out of the house? did you hear even one line that was of interest? I have been wandering in and out of these sorts of poetry readings and slams and etc for a great many years, ever since I stumbled into the DC Space bar on a cold wintry night two generations ago. One of the things that I love about this open mic formula is the fact that all are welcome. How hard is it for the average person to jump up on stage and read a poem that they wrote?
Omar Musa, Brett Dionysius, Miranda Lello, Jared Louche, Rebbecca Edwards, are among the poets, musicians, artists that I have known, off the top of my head, who have toyed with the open reading format at various times in their careers. Together they have put out albums, books, blogs, journals and much more. While it would be foolish to say that spoken word was a main determinate in their work, it would be as equally foolish to deny the education of the open reading environment. Like Julia Gillard in her resignation speech, “it does not explain everything, nor does it explain nothing.” For open mic is primarily a way for people to quickly get feedback and encouragement for their work.
And here we have stumbled across the key word. Encouragement. Open readings offer the young, whether young in age or in spirit, player a chance to try out material, stances, vocal styling etc. as Adonis Storr, the event organiser said at the beginning of the evening we are here to encourage each other and love one another (or as Ted "Theodore" Logan would say, be excellent to one another)
Open mic nights show a type of democracy, a type of democracy that is messy, rowdy, uneven, but mostly participatory. In the second book of the Iliad after Zeus had sent a riddling dream to Agamemnon there is an spoken word, open discussion of what Acheans are to do. Even the lowliest can speak. Thersites -- whose name means the bold, the audacious -- was the only brawling belly-aching foot soldier, the only private mentioned by name in the poem, that spoke. Although he was howled down and beaten by Odysseus his speech is a turning point of the war; for after his speech the Acheans agreed to stay at Troy and not return home. But did he not speak the truth? Did he repeat what Achilles said, did he capture the soldiers demoralisation after having lost Achilles to the greed of Agamemnon? Did he not say what all were thinking, but were too fearful to utter? Did not this wretched, cold, wet, brutalised, foot soldier at once mirror Achilles' attack on Agamemnon and the established heroic order, and at the same time mock Achilles, being as wretched as the hero is glorious?
In this way we can see that the open mic, spoken word format is a type of democracy assembly; in the sense that all are equal, not in ability or experience, but in the ability to speak and take part. Indeed in the democracy of classic Athens one was expected to take part, and to speak well. To show a concrete example of this democratic spirit at least two people who had never read a poem in public before spoke on this night.
With no, or at best elastic, themes for these evenings the poets were free to investigate a wide range of spoken words; from dubstep rapping to Banjo Paterson.
And the hurrying people daunt me,and their pallid faces haunt me
As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,
With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.
A young man sang to Jesus for setting him on the on the straight and narrow. Love songs hate songs tumbled some spoke political other declaimed apolitical still others in turn spoke fierce, calm, earnest, whimsical. If one wanted to quote Lenin one could use the idea of the joy of the festival of the oppressed
For who will make the poetical revolutions? The academics? The narrow professional literary journals? Any revolution, whether in art or politics, will be built by the broken, by the outsider (consider the 1961 Dylan unwashed phenomenon, or the filthy 1977 Sex Pistols or a world or two before the poverty stricken, rotten toothed 1921 James Joyce forced by need to accepting gifts of shoes by Ezra Pound.)
Looking back over years of poetry readings, it is these acts of self organisation that will advance poetry. Even if nothing comes maybe one or two people will develop a life long habit of writing poetry.
Some of the problems with the open mic include the problem of, at best, a patchy selection of poems. It is just the nature of the beast, as it is true for poetry journals and canonised collections. The idea is to allow new and unpublished poets the opportunity to gather and to share and read aloud. The benefit is to hear new voices, new ideas, ideas which are often not spoken, voices which often do not get heard. For example when I did a quick, non-scientific, survey of a noted on-line poetry magazine, I was impressed by the fact that the majority of artists in the journal were in the (mostly tertiary) education industry or entangled with the arts bureaucracy in one way or another. There were some poets, but not many, from outside these circles.
Spoken word nights may be insular, may be hit or miss affairs, may even be atrocious and awful, but they are also a cheap and fun night out, they offer that chance to hear some new poems, and they offer the chance to have some interesting conversations. But most importantly is the confidence that poetry slams can give to new players. For poetry in general, and performance poetry in particular is a ladder to be climbed. Spoken word offers much to be learned, as it is a skill and an art like others.
Do not take my word for it watch this video about the Canberra Poetry scene, built over over many years with a dedicated crew of young and enthusiastic poets. Or even better come along to Frankie's Empire on Thursday 4 July for a spoken word night, and then on Friday 19 of July come along as Frankie's Empire and Silver Words host the Hobart heats of the Australian Poetry Slam Contest.
Also the Republic Hotel in North Hobart was readings on the first Sunday of every month.
and the latin title means - speaks that i may see you.