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.

18 January 2013

Outsourcing my accommodation: my attitude to renting

I live in a rented house, and the lease ends next month.

A couple of months before this happens, the real-estate agent ask me to sign a form saying whether or not I want to renew, and for how long. The form includes a warning that there may be a rent increase, but it doesn't say how much. If I say I want to renew, they send back the lease papers for me to sign.

I send the form back saying yes, I want to renew for six months, and I add the words, subject to the rent remaining affordable.

Last time, to my surprise, the rent did not go up.

This time, what happened was interesting. The agent emailed me saying they wanted to increase the rent by $20 per week -- twice what I'd budgeted for -- and asking me whether that would be affordable. She also said that it was still cheap compared to other rentals.

I did some research online to see whether this was true, and concluded that the suggested price was in the same ballpark as similar rentals nearby, but certainly not 'cheap', especially considering the house is kind of like an apartment stuck on a large piece of land: it's very small, and unlike much of the competition has no patio, shed or carport, all of which I could use.

I replied pointing that out and politely reminding the agent of some of the other deficiencies of the house. And I told the truth, saying I had budgeted for a $10 per week increase. And I asked, politely, whether she thought the proprietor would be prepared to come down a little? (From being a proprietor myself in the past I know perfectly well that it is the agents who suggest the rent increases to the proprietors, not the other way round!)

It took me at least an hour to compose that short email, last Friday. I've lost count of the number of times one of my emails has unintentionally offended someone who has misinterpreted my tone. However, eventually, heart in mouth, I pressed Send. The agent replied saying she would pass on my request to the proprietor. I sent a quick thankyou and tried to forget about it for the weekend. I expected the reply would either be 'no' or 'let's split the difference and make it $15'.

The government and banks are putting out a lot of propaganda trying to get renters to borrow money and buy houses. 'Escape the rental trap.' 'Live the dream.' People here say things like, 'I'm just renting', 'I'm only renting'. It's as if you're not really an adult unless you 'own' a four-bedroom detached suburban house (an apartment being no good for the 'Australian lifestyle', which apparently involves a lot of barbequing and lazing about on outdoor furniture). And for most people owning a house means that for their best years they are tied by a gigantic debt to the ultimate feudal lord -- a national or global banking corporation.

When I was married I was the joint owner of a house, and for a while we had a second house that we rented out. Now I'm divorced and renting. It's not ideal, and I may not want to do it forever, and I might write something later about alternative ways to access shelter and land. However, if I'm honest with myself, despite the propaganda, I'm happier renting than owning.

What I dislike about renting:
  • I can't get a cat.
  • When the toilet blocks up I have to talk to a property manager instead of calling a plumber.
  • I can't paint or alter the house.
  • Once every three months the agent comes in to check things are clean and tidy, and writes an inspection report.
  • I might have to move in six months or a year, if the proprietors decide to move in or put the rent up more than I can afford.
  • Sometimes I get scared that I could end up homeless because of economic rationalism, which doesn't value wisdom and stories, which believes that the old, sick or disabled have nothing to offer in exchange for accommodation and support.
What I like about renting:
  • I don't have to look after a cat.
  • When the toilet blocks up I can just call the property manager and leave it to her to find a plumber and send the proprietor the bill.
  • I don't get tempted to paint or alter the house. I don't waste my precious creative energy worrying about renovations -- I can leave all that to folks who actually care about it.
  • Once every three months I have to make the place spic 'n' span, so it never has a chance to become squalid. (And when things don't belong to me I tend to take better care of them. When I was married with little kids, the oven, which I owned, didn't get cleaned for nine years.)
  • I might get to move in six months or a year. Once everything's organised, moving is fun. I enjoy setting up house in a new place and exploring a new neighbourhood. And I tend not to accumulate junk because there's a good chance I'll eventually move.
  • And... well... the less I own, the lighter and freer I feel. Having no debts feels good, too.
So anyway, what happened about my rent?

On Monday the reply came back. The rent's going up by my budgeted amount, $10 a week. This is a surprisingly good result, considering the state of the rental market around here, and the way people talk about proprietors and agents as if all of them are predators from the depths of Hell, when in fact they may well be human beings with mothers, fathers and cultural baggage, just like any of the seven billion. (Seven billion? WTF? No wonder rents are so high.)

My particular agent and proprietor are pretty good about unblocking the toilet, too. So, am I just lucky? Or, apart from being assertive, have I done anything unusual?

Well... I hesitate to make such a claim, but maybe I have.

During my two years in this house I've deliberately set out to establish and maintain a good relationship with the agent and proprietor. Where 'good' means friendly and businesslike. To put it another way, I've consciously done my best to make them like and respect me.

You'll notice I'm not using the word 'landlord'. The agent uses the word 'owner', but I prefer 'proprietor'. 'Landlord', and to some extent 'owner', have connotations of status left over from the feudal system and the industrial-revolution class system where the 'common' (ie, working) people were told that the 'noble' (ie, monied) people were their 'betters' -- were somehow more deserving in the eyes of the big Daddy in the sky.

But I don't believe in status. To my mind, the proprietor and myself are equals, and the lease is a business agreement. The lease and the local tenancy laws contain a fair bit of detail, but, basically, I've agreed to pay the rent regularly and keep the place clean and tidy, and they've agreed to maintain it in a habitable condition and respect my privacy.

I think of renting not as some second-best way to live, but as outsourcing my accommodation. Like all outsourcing, it's pretty expensive, and a little precarious, but it saves me a lot of bother and and allows me to focus on my real work.

Don't get me wrong -- if I had enough money to buy a house outright, I would. Actually I wouldn't -- I'd buy the smallest flat I could fit into, and do something useful with the leftover cash.

But I don't have that much money. What I do have are a few suggestions you might find useful if you're renting in the private market. (Disclaimer: I live in Australia, and the legal situation of private tenants is probably better here than in many parts of the world.)
  • Remember that renting can feel insecure for the proprietor, too. If you're a good tenant (who pays the rent reliably and looks after the place well) you are by no means powerless. It's no fun to lose a good tenant and have to worry about finding another one. There are a lot of bad tenants around. A good tenant is worth hanging onto. Put yourself in the proprietor's shoes and look after their place like you'd want someone to do if it were yours.
  • The proprietor and agent are not bosses, parents, or authority figures. Both you and the proprietor are the agent's clients. It's a business arrangement. If the agent or proprietor are condescending, remember it's just that they don't know any better (yet!), and don't let them intimidate you. Remember, you have something they want, too. Remain friendly and businesslike.
  • Know your legal rights and insist on them. Read the websites that explain the tenancy laws.
  • Never sign anything without reading and understanding it. If you don't understand something, ask for clarification.
  • At the beginning of your tenancy, go over the place in detail and make sure the property condition report accurately describes the condition of the property.
  • If something breaks, say so. (And if it's your fault, admit it, even if that means you have to pay for it.) Presume that the proprietor wants to maintain their investment.
  • Be patient if necessary, and don't whinge and whine, but if something isn't being done, speak up.
  • Once the toilet has been unblocked, email the agent to say thank-you. If they have been prompt and friendly, say thank you for that.
  • Don't do stuff that isn't your job. If the proprietor has agreed to mow the lawn, don't do it!
  • Wear a smile when you're on the phone so that you sound friendly. Say 'how are you' and 'thank you' and 'have a nice day'.
  • Be friendly in emails, too -- wish the agent a nice weekend, for example.
  • Keep the place fairly tidy and clean all the time so that the rental inspection cleanups aren't such a burden. This is easier said than done, but it's much easier if you don't have much stuff!
  • Pay the rent on time. (Set up an automatic direct deposit.) This can be easier said than done, too -- but if you don't pay the rent, nothing else you do is likely to count. The downside of it being a business arrangement is that the proprietor is unlikely to listen to your pleas for leniency. Anyway, pleading for leniency gives them power over you.
 And, last but not least, luxuriate in the good aspects of renting. Such as relaxing in your kerb-shopped deckchair while you watch the neighbours sweat over their renovations.