Sam van Zweden




Welcome To Gaysia! In Conversation with Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is featuring on both sides of a slew of Melbourne Writers Festival events, both as a panelist and interviewer. His first book, The Family Law, is a hilarious memoir about his very forthright family. His latest book, Gaysia, explores questions Benjamin had about whether life would have been different if he’d grown up gay in Asia. The answer: almost definitely. Reaching this answer is a funny, sometimes shocking, always gripping journey around a handful of Asian countries, looking at how anything that isn’t mainstream heterosexuality is treated.

Benjamin Law. Picture from MWF website.

I enjoy Benjamin’s writing because it’s not just funny. I mean, it certainly is funny. Knee-slappingly so. But behind what he pokes fun at is always an almost childish curiosity, and he has the perspective to pull back from the particular humour to see the wider picture. He’s clever, and this makes reading his work a lot of fun.

In between his crazy MWF schedule, Benjamin was kind enough to answer some questions,  and tell us about how other people’s families are strange, how his and David Sedaris’ sex lives are similar, and a possible time frame on his next project.

SvZ- Hi Ben! Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions. Firstly, congratulations on the release of your new book Gaysia, it’s a hilarious, fun and compelling read. Your first book, The Family Law, was immensely popular. That book was quite different to Gaysia. How has the experience of writing your latest book compared? And what made you decide to move away from writing about your family and into more immersive journalistic territory?
BL– It’s funny: in my day-to-day work life, I tend to write in two different modes. Sometimes I’ll write columns about personal experiences for magazines like frankie or Qweekend, and other times I’ll be writing longform non-fiction for magazines like The Monthly or Good WeekendThe Family Law was this demented, black comedy memoir about my family, so that was an extension of all that comedic column writing. Whereas Gaysia is gonzo-ish adventure journalism, looking at seven different LGBT/queer issues in seven different countries: Indonesia, Thailand, China, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar and India.

SvZ- Your new book, Gaysia, looks at sexuality in Asia. Do you think Australians have misconceptions about sexuality in Asia? How much of our understanding is shaped by mainstream travel?
BL- I think everyone has preconceptions about countries they’ve never travelled to. When we think of Thailand for instance, we always make jokes about ladyboys. We might even travel to Thailand and spot a few. But will we talk to them and have a proper conversation about what their lives are like? Probably not.

SvZ- Your writing is highly personal – a lot of its humour comes from the fact that the things you share would be closely guarded secrets for most people. Bodily functions, sex, awkward things that come out of your mouth. In the Melbourne Writers Festival panel Friendly Fire, you mentioned that this intimate style often means that readers feel like they know you. How much of that is something you willingly signed up for in writing memoir, and how much is kind of creepy?
BL- Meh, my family’s always been pretty comfortable talking about bodily functions, and I’ve always been amused by how easily people are shocked when I bring that stuff up. It’s like, “Dude, if you’re healthy, you’ve done a poo roughly once a day for every day of your life. Surely it doesn’t shock you any more.” So of course, people think you’re revealing these huge secrets about your life, but the story you’re reading represents such a tiny fraction of my life. But if you feel like you know me really well, that’s fantastic, because that’s what all personal essayists or memoirists try to do: create a sense of intimacy. It’s cute: when people come up and tell me they’ve read The Family Law, we often talk heaps about how it reminds them of their own family. That’s what I’ve really dug, how the book makes people realise their own families aren’t that strange either.

SvZ- There seems to be almost nowhere you won’t go for a laugh in your writing. Is there anything you won’t write about?
BL- Oh sure, I won’t describe what I do in bed with my boyfriend. It’s one of David Sedaris’s rules too. I’m not sure anyone wants to be subjected to that.

SvZ- Congratulations, also, on having Gaysia included on the Get Reading “50 Books You Can’t Put Down” list. This list is in bookstores nation-wide, and caters for pretty much every reader on the planet. How does it feel to have your writing placed among that of very mainstream writers like Kathy Lette and Michael Robotham?
BL – I’m not going to lie. My publishers and I have somehow managed to convince people that a non-fiction book about LGBT issues in Asia is super-readable and not at all niche. Pretty stoked about that.

SvZ- Where to from here for Benjamin Law?
BL- Every time I finish a book, I promise myself not to dive into a new one for at least a year or so. And yet, here I am again, drafting out the foundations of another one … Give it a year or two, and you’ll hear all about it.

Coming up this weekend, you can see Benjamin Law at the Melbourne Writers Festival events ‘In Conversation: Germaine Greer’, The Stella Prize Trivia Night, and ‘Inside Asia‘. 

Run! Don’t Walk!

The lovely Phuong-Nghi from Run! Don’t Walk! interviewed me for their new column, “Fresh Meat”, where they talk to Melbourne’s “maddening young talent”. There’s a sample of my writing as an eight year-old, a Douglas Adams/Philip K. Dick face-off, and a discussion of whether writers need to engage in all the digital stuff.

Run! Don’t Walk! is a brand-new website run by young creative people from Melbourne. They write, draw, view, and absorb all that the world has to offer, and I admire their work for its considered approach to things – it’s young people showing that they have brains and know how to work ’em.

My interview here. Thanks to Phuong-Nghi for having me.

A Voice: A Basic Human Right

“Young World, your work has the power to provoke movement from silence to empowerment, based in libratory pedagogy, and youth development. It democratizes a civic population of youth by giving them a platform to speak. Your elders in rhyme challenge you to find your own voice, to work hard to apply it, and to do so responsibly. If you’re not afraid of your own potential, we promise you that we won’t be. Hey, Young World, the word is yours…” (Marc Bamuthi Joseph, “(Yet Another) Letter to a Young Poet”)

Melbourne has no shortage of words – a UNESCO City of Literature since 2008, Melbourne is a dictionary, a thesaurus, a veritable fountain pen of words. A writing and reading hub, Melbourne’s poetry scene is particularly strong – while parts are firmly grounded in traditional forms, others are reflexive, vibrant, and fast. The recent explosion of dialogue between hip-hop and spoken word communities stands as proof of this.

The Wheeler Centre resides in the glorious prime real estate at the corner of Little Lonsdale and Swanston, and the city catches festival fever over some literary event or other right throughout the calendar, but words in our city tend generally to cater for the privileged – those who can afford books, workshops, tickets. Those with the cash can buy themselves a voice.

Words and their application are the crux of a slew of social problems and barriers. Policies, laws, rule books – they’re written with words. They dictate what you can and cannot do. They record and perpetuate people’s social standing and potential for upward mobility. They lay out the guidelines for how you’re treated. If you can’t access the words, you can’t access the rules, let alone change them. But, all things being true in their consequences, even if you can’t access the words, you’ll certainly know about what the words dictate for you. Things at a policy-level trickle down until everyday things like ordering a cup of coffee can be met by judgement.

With access to words comes a voice. A voice that is heard. With that voice comes agency, and the possibility for social change.

The recent launch of Melbourne not-for-profit organization the Centre for Poetics and Justice is a move to pull words down from their pedestals, making them accessible and useful for the people who need them the most. The driving forces behind the organization, Joel McKerrow (responsible for most of the ground work), Luka Haralampou and Bronwyn Lovell, are all admirable poets in their own right, known in Melbourne for their ability to move their listeners. The CPJ knocks down the walls between those who have the cash and connections to access words and all they have to offer, and those who don’t.

By running tailored workshops for minority and underprivileged communities, the CPJ hopes to arm its workshop participants with a voice, and a stage.

Having been disappointed by the “gaps in the community development industry”, founding member Luka Haralampou hopes that CPJ “bring[s] voices forward and support[s] the stories of all of the participants”. Moving away from the top-down teaching model that often proves largely unengaging, Luka says that CPJ aims for a two-way learning experience, with workshop facilitators’ attitude, “’teach us and we will help you make something beautiful from what is shared’”.

By running “cultural learning workshops” for facilitators before they enter each workshop, CPJ aims to run workshops which educate both facilitators and participants.  Participants work together with facilitators, “understanding and articulating their own lives and their social existence as well as developing their literary and artistic skills.”

The “gaps” that Luka has observed in previous efforts, he attributes to “poor administration and lack of cultural awareness many organisations were working with … and the damage poor processes can cause when development is attempted without quality consultations”. This, given that many organisations want to cater to everyone by ticking the ‘right’ boxes on grant applications, results in events that are often unorganised and unsure of their own genre or purpose.

Where other organisations (though certainly not all – Express Media, and SLV’s New Australia Media both genuinely cater for often ignored sectors) can be motivated by a need to doff their cap to being “inclusive”, the Centre for Poetics and Justice is undoubtedly moved by a genuine desire to empower, and acknowledgement of existing blind spots.

Melbourne’s general attitude toward new literary efforts is wondrously supportive – the opening event for the Wheeler Centre packed out the Melbourne Town Hall. Smaller regular poetry readings, such as Dogs Tails in St Kilda, or Passionate Tongues in Brunswick, seem to attract something of a sporadic crowd, but a supportive one – one which is often willing to give new voices space to be heard. Hopefully the respect that the founding members of CPJ have cultivated through their own careers (being performance poets, many-time slam finalists, representatives for Australia overseas, educators and interns) and the amount of support Melbourne has to give means that the poets who find their voices through CPJ workshops will be given the air time they deserve.

“Words are empowering,” says Luka, “because they articulate concepts. And concepts are powerful because they help us see from each other’s eyes. For underprivileged people to have the opportunity to articulate their thoughts in front of their peers and the wider community is one of the most empowering acts that can be performed. Especially when these thoughts are often ignored or considered unimportant by the majority. Without words and concepts we cannot begin to become each other’s keepers. We cannot share the gamut of experience that is this world and march forward towards mutual understanding and ultimately, peace.”

We are an active writing and publishing city, we are a vibrant sharing and learning city. And now, we are a stronger, more diverse, listening city which aims to correct its own imbalances through efforts like the Centre for Poetics and Justice.

Thanks heaps to Luka for taking the time to talk to me, and best of luck to the CPJ boys and girls with their project – it’s exciting stuff!

A Very Energetic, Well Expressed, Quotable Guy Gets Interviewed. Here.

The guy is Randall Stephens.

Randall Stephens is a Melbourne performance poet. You may know him from the many, many events he performs at. Melbourne has a solid group of people who keep the poetry going and exciting – Randall is one of those people. He has a stupid amount of energy, and he’s artful. He understands what it is to perform a poem, he knows inside out the things that are available to his performance. Space, volume, silence. He’s an absolute joy to watch.

Randall is a very driven guy – he’s recorded loads of audio of his poetry, he has CD’s, he travels all over Australia to tour, and every time I think I’ll go out for an evening of poetry, there’s Randall. He’s reliable, and always surprising. He blogs very regularly (very, very regularly. And all of it’s GOOD!) at his blog, Tales Told By An Idiot. Next year Randall is touring New Zealand.

He was kind enough to interview for LGWABP. I have to say, I’ve never had this much fun reading interview answers – I feel like I’ve learned something by reading it. And Randall is very quote-worthy!
My favourite quote-worthy thing from the interview? “9 seconds … seriously, that is how long a poet’s grace period is.”
Read the whole thing below the picture of this screaming man, Randall Stephens.

– You’re a performance poet. What does that mean for you – what does it involve, and what’s the writing process like?

It means centrelink, it means getting up at 3pm for an early start to the day, shopping for new scarves, coffee in grimy cafes, complaining about the government and getting hysterical over spilt milk (well, I do actually do that occasionally –drives my housemates crazy).

But truthfully it’s weird. A lot of days I wake up nervously, expecting one of my old bosses will show to grab me by the collar and drag me back to the old work-a-day world, like the past few years doing this have all been a dream.  I still have a day job – technically a night job, casual, and very undemanding (I’m doing this interview from work, as it is), so my days are usually free to allocate as I see fit.

It’s not hard like packing boxes or waiting tables.  But seriously, it does involve lots of work though.  Developing your work to a professional standard ~ the rehearsing and editing, the  planning and co-ordinating of events with people, the tours, making the CDs, and of course promoting, this all takes lots of time.

There’s no career path to follow, no road map or responsibilities to anyone, but the flip side of that is, If I’m not booked for gigs or pushing my work forward somehow, then I’ve only got myself to blame.  I think Steve Smart said this once, that the performance poet really has to do and be everything themself, unlike other types of theatre, or performing arts.  You’re your own agent, publicist, writer, actor and director.  No one’s paying you, patting you on the back, it’s all up to you.

Writing is still the primary thing though, and the process is write constantly, but leave things a while once written, take another look and be objective by asking basic questions: is this poem interesting or relevant to anyone (else)? Is it clear? Will it grab people’s attention with the first line/s?  Does it ask or deal with questions? Does it then move along a dramatic arc? With few exceptions, that’s the process I put my work through before anyone else reads it.

Then you get feedback, for me that means the blog, and the truth is more people still see my work this way, than ever come along to my gigs.  Responses to the blog help me decide what’s worth developing, what needs more work, and what’s better left un-spoken. Simply put, if there are lots of responses, I know I’m onto something.

– You write poetry which often uses comedy to make statements about society. Is this intentional, or are you just a very funny man?

I am not a funny man. Not even a little. Not really. Really a man. A little man.  Or only really a man a little. Really. Man. Okay maybe I am a little. A bit. Of a man.  Who’s funny.

I find things in life funny, there’s a lot that’s worth laughing about.  Absurd things, observations about myself and other people.  We’re a crack up, what can I say?

– How much of the performative aspect do you write into your poetry when you first put pen to page, and how much just appears during later readings?

While I’d like to think all my stuff is at least readable, primarily my poems are designed to be heard.  Sometimes I might get a message from someone saying “can’t wait to hear you perform this” etc.

Starting last year, I’ve attempted to reverse this in a way, almost making the poem perform on the page, the length of a line can imply a mood, a character, the vocabulary can imply force or contentment or happiness, sarcasm, cynicism, confusion, the long breaks I leave between sections are dramatic pauses.  Almost always there will be a character, a person, who is supposed to have written or dictated the words.  I always want my poems to sound like they came from somewhere, they’re being said, by someone.  Words just don’t somehow exist in ether, so in that sense they’re all designed for performance, if not literally by a spoken voice on a stage.

But yeah, once I do start reading it aloud things always change, what might scan well on the page is gonna put people to sleep in 9 seconds when you’re up there (seriously, that is how long a poet’s grace period is).  What reads as vitriolic anger might need a more calm or muted vocal to be effective.  You have to find a way to arc your performance, you can’t (or very rarely) get away with a poem that goes sad-sad-sadder, or goes from love is great to love is really great.  Boring! Incidentally it’s one of the reasons why I have will continue to avoid political poetry like the plague, I just don’t see the same potential there for dramatic arcs, questions, journeys, personal discovery.  For me that’s what it’s all about.

– “Being a poet in Melbourne is a pretty glorious thing.” Discuss.

Well ok, but yes and no.  What Melbourne has when it comes to poetry is volume.  More poets more readings, more often.  I think by sheer mass, statistically we’ve produced some good poets.  But around the country, and in other countries where I’ve seen poetry performed (England, India, USA and Spain) people everywhere else are doing a lot more with a lot less.  Melbourne has a lot of potential opportunity here, because of those volumes.  But we’re complacent, and also have a lot of shit. Shit poetry, just tired, depressing, uninvolving crap that idiots clog up the open mike with, with no real understanding –that they are subjecting people to it.  I saw a convener of a new reading in Melbourne get up and stay that he kinda knew his poetry was boring, but shrugged and said he was going to read it anyway.  Then he complained to me later about how know one supports him or gives him gigs.

For me, that is quintessential Melbourne poetry arrogance.  As I write this, December 2010 poetry in this city is in serious decline. 5 regular readings that I knew have all shut down this year (Drunken poet, Spinning Room, Claypots, Sospesso and Ninja Slam), and frankly I think a lot of that has to do with not understanding or  appreciating the gift of an audience, especially with the respecting to the venue you’re in.

Sydney, Perth and also Brisbane have great things happening, some really great and lively readings coming up, and it’s easy to observe the difference in enthusiasm and energy in those cities’ where the poetry scene is a lot more DIY, and not a line up of crusty old venues run by vain and ineffectual organisers and presenters. Oh and yeah, BAM!

– You’re going on tour in New Zealand! That’s huge! You’ve toured before; do you feel like you know what to expect from this? What on earth happens on a poetry tour?

What happens on tour? …not as much as I’d like, hehe. Steve Smart (with whom I’ve taken 7 trips with to tour this year) and I like to create a certain hedonistic mystique around our touring, and while it can potentially be pretty debauched, it’s more often really tame, If you have a lot of days between gigs, and can’t find people to hang out with (not looking at anyone, Brisbane) it can get downright boring, lonely and isolating, as any travel can be if you’re just there killing time.

Poetry touring is basically just going to another city to perform, which you can arrange through networking easily enough.  Now there are lot of high profile poets in Australia who through winning slams or being invited by festivals etc, are given the opportunity to do this.   Steve Smart and I on the other hand, do it all on our own, by sending emails, cornering individuals at festivals or when an interstater is in town, travelling at our own expense, finding our own accommodation.

I might look back on this one day and laugh for not knowing any better, and how hard I made it for myself. Only recently have I begin to appreciate the significance of this, when I started asking around with some of the big kids about how they poetry-toured New Zealand,  how they did it/who they contacted, and the answers invariably came back “shrug, I dunno, someone arranged  it all for us”.  Until I discover the secret handshake, I just assumed that’s how it’s done.  It was the same as when I made my CD, for better or worse, I just… went and did it.

So New Zealand… yeah big time stuff for me.  I’m expecting a lot from myself on this trip, I think there’ll be many highs and lows, because this is not necessarily going to be the easiest country to find gigs in.  I’ve had a whole spectrum of responses to my enquiries from loving welcome open arms to downright xenophobic rejections.  My aim is win over all different types of audiences, young or old, north or south island, rural or urban.  I believe that I can.

I’ve arranged gigs in the 3 major cities and a couple of towns, and made a lot of contacts through facebook etc.  For the rest I will just turn up, talk to people, find out who’s who and see what I can dig up, and hope for the best.

Some Randall-Related Links:

Thanks so much to Randall for interviewing for LGWABP. He’s one of the most supportive people I’ve met in Melbourne’s poetry scene, and I appreciate how open and accepting he (and others like him) make it. Cheers!

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