10 January 2015

I'm no longer publishing here. Come read my writing at my main site, proximitypoetry.com

15 February 2013

A sold-out poetry show? In Perth? Yes, you heard me right.

Last night I performed in the Japanese Gardens, Perth Zoo's sweet little outdoor amphitheatre, as part of Poetry d'Amour, WA Poets Inc's second annual Valentine's Day poetry extravaganza, which this year was part of Fringe World.

When you organise a show, publicity is the hardest thing to get right, and it seems WA Poets Inc and Fringe World got it right for this event, because it was sold out. About 150 denizens of the planet's most isolated city, often derided as a philistine mining outpost, paid to see a poetry show. And not just an apologetic $5 cover charge. They paid the kind of money you would expect to pay for an arty theatre show: standard tickets were $35.

What this says to me is that Perth has plenty of people who like poetry enough to pay to watch it. Perth could have poetry shows throughout the year, if its poets muster the energy, confidence and persistence to find venues, book people who can present poems in a way that engages the audience, and promote the shows effectively.

WA Poets Inc are currently blessed with a volunteer, Tineke Van der Eecken, who is not only a full-time jewellery artist and writer, but has a marketing degree.

Poets, rather than looking at someone like Tineke and thinking, 'if only I could be like that', or, 'if only I had the money to hire someone like that', or, worst of all, 'Tineke can do that, so I don't need to bother', I suggest we think like this: 'I'm a smart person, so what can I learn from the way Tineke has handled this?'

Here's something I've learned. We need to figure out who our potential audience are, and put ourselves in their shoes. Where do they go, what do they read? Where can we put our message so they'll see it? What kind of image would appeal to them? How can we make our show look like something they'll enjoy? As a writer I feel slightly ill having to think this way, but a short catchy name and a strong visual image are probably worth more than any amount of descriptive text.

We could all go get marketing degrees, I guess...nah. I can't imagine doing that! But I can imagine reading some books on marketing (from the public library, of course!). Maybe I can ignore the cold-blooded money-making win-at-all-costs aspect of it and focus on the skills and how they might apply to my own work.

'But I'm an ahrtist', you say. 'I shouldn't have to dirty my hands with marketing.' Well, okay, if you're content being read only by poets and professors of literature. And I totally agree that your writing and editing should be your priorities. But do you want the public to read and hear your poems, or not? Do you want poetry to have an audience? Tugging at the overlocked hem of the mainstream isn't going to do it. If we want to make something alternative happen, we have to ignore the establishment gatekeepers and put in some energy of our own. Especially in this town.

Poetry d'Amour was a major effort for the volunteers, five months of work -- getting sponsors, organising two support events, and even publishing a book -- but putting on poetry shows wouldn't have to be that much effort every time. It's worth considering what works for other alternative artforms. For example, the thriving local acoustic music scene may have a huge annual festival at Fairbridge, but they also have house concerts, sellout shows in cafe courtyards... and mailing lists of fans, hint hint. Anyone who buys a ticket can be asked if they want to be kept informed of future events. There are software platforms that make this unbelievably easy.

So how was Poetry d'Amour? Did we give the punters what they paid for?

I'm not about to review my own performance, although it felt like I pretty much nailed it. Performing outdoors to non-poets is my favourite thing. But remember what I said about putting ourselves in the audience's shoes? Let me think. Yes. Definitely. The lighting was inadequate and the seats were hard, but judging by the clapping and cheering, and all the people who came up to say thankyou to myself, Annamaria Weldon, headliner Candy Royalle (poeming again at Perth Poetry Club tomorrow afternoon), and the many other poets who contributed... I'd say it totally went off. 

Well done and thank you to all the poets, artists and musicians, to the stage and venue personnel, to Fringe World, and most of all to Tineke, Gary De Piazzi, Chris Arnold, Neil J Pattinson, Helen Janis, and all the other volunteers, including Jamie Macqueen who livestreamed the show.

Now then. I wonder whether there'll be any reviews? And whether they'll be published where our audience will read them?

31 January 2013

Deft, left and definitely def: Ben Mellor's 'Anthropoetry' at FringeWorld

Ben Mellor
Last night I took the number 22 bus up Beaufort Street to FringeWorld venue Noodle Palace for the opening night of Anthropoetry, written and performed by UK poet Ben Mellor and his musical sideman Dan Steele.

Anthropoetry is billed as 'a humorous, musical, spoken word journey around the human anatomy, attempting to get the measure of modern life.' Let me be honest here: after reading that I was expecting to cringe. I was expecting lots of groan-worthy anatomical puns. I was expecting words spoken too fast to take in, competing unsuccessfully with too-loud music. I was expecting an overdramatised performance of forgettable poetry whose impact depended on the performer's charisma more than the words. I was also expecting a boringly long show in an uncomfortable venue with terrible sound.

It wasn't like that at all.

The sound was excellent. Local artist management company JumpClimb have done a great job of setting up an intimate theatre in a back room of an old house. The stage is a tiny black-draped box with just enough room for Mellor to stand to one side of the card-table holding Steele's keyboard and electronica. The producers have gone to some effort to get the room to sound good, with exotic umbrellas softening the ceiling.

Mellor performed for an hour. He recited ten poems, all set to music of the hip-hop or jazzy/funky variety, with a touch of metal guitar thrown in, some inventive beatboxing, and...well... rather than risking a spoiler, let's just say these guys have thought up some truly weird juxtapositions of a microphone and a body.

The music was enjoyable in itself. Steele is an excellent musician, and his sounds and beats always complemented and supported the poetry rather than competing with it. And Mellor's a pretty good beatboxer and wrangler of the loop-pedal.

In one or two of the poems I thought the music was a little too loud, but most of the time the words were clear. This is really important with poetry: poetry is art made of words, so if you can't make out the words it's kind of like looking at a painting through a smokescreen. As well as a smooth, well-practised flow, Mellor has good diction and a relaxed, focussed stage presence. He doesn't feel the need to shout and emote -- he lets the words and pauses and his excellent sense of theatrical timing do the work. His material is good enough to let him do that.

People always want to know what poems are about, for some reason. I reckon that's like asking what the Mona Lisa is about. Huh? It's art. You figure it out. But to give you a hint, Mellor's poems aren't about the body, at least not in the straightforward way I expected. The body motif is used as a framing device to segue between the poems, which are quirky, original sociopolitical comment. The poems are funny alright -- plenty of cheap and not-so-cheap laughs -- but underneath the humour are deep layers of emotion and intellect. It's deft, left and definitely def.

One of the surprises for me was the way Mellor introduced each poem with an explanatory preamble: part lecture, part self-deprecating anecdote, part humour. The first one was very long and full of the expected body-part puns -- others in the audience were laughing, but I was thinking 'This isn't a poem, and it's not even that funny. When's he going to give us a poem?' -- but the rest of the intros were shorter and more in accord with my surrealist-intellectual sense of humour. The guy's a lot of fun to listen to. He'd make a great teacher.

And his poems are really good. That's the thing that surprised and impressed me most about Mellor -- how good his poems are. And that he is unapologetically a poet. He doesn't feel the need to bill himself as a musician or a comedian or a cabaret act. He's a poet. He even references other poets, such as Seamus Heaney, in his preambles. It's inspiring! And after the show you can buy his poems on a CD and in a book, a real book, nicely produced, with a spine and everything. The preamble speeches are there too. (Weird.)

My favourite poems of the show were the deep, clever, deliriously-rhymed 'Head State' ('when a guy's life's so desperate he'd die in flames escaping / Makes me wonder what state are the heads of our heads of state in?') and 'Peak Love', a darkly funny dystopian vision of a future (or present?) in which love is a commodity in short supply.

The only poem that fell flat was 'Naming of Parts', written after the Henry Reed poem. (Look it up!) The applause for this one was lukewarm. The audience were hesitant. If you know the original, this poem works well on the page, sending up the language of violent masculinity... but maybe you just can't reach people's intellectual sensibilities with a rapid-fire performance of peculiar English penis-words.

All the other poems went down well, and at the end of the show the audience applauded long and loud. If Mellor and Steele hadn't already been packing up their gear, I think people would have been yelled for more. You don't often get that at poetry shows.

Before everyone wandered off, I asked a few people what they thought.

'Masculine,' said Andrea. I'm not sure whether she meant that as a plus or a minus, but I thought the show was intelligently masculine: masculine without being sexist.

'Lovely... charismatic, enjoyable,' said Leon.

'I want to marry him!' said Majda.

I can see her point.

Catch Anthropoetry from 7:45pm on 1-3 and 6-10 February 2013 at JumpClimb and Tomás Ford's venue Noodle Palace, at 451 (not 555!) Beaufort Street, Highgate. Standard tickets are $20.