Sam van Zweden




Enter Sol on Verity La

Crack open a beer for me, my work has gone up today on the brilliant lit journal Verity La!

My poem, “Enter Sol” appears with an image by Danny Thomas. A big, huge thanks to editor Alec Patric for his help and support.

Verity La has featured some of my favourite writers and mentors, including Josephine Rowe, Nathan Curnow, Tiggy Johnson and Francesca Rendle-Short. I’m absolutely humbled to be joining those ranks.

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!

Turn Around, Look Back

Messiah’s Blood

I want to cover you in
All the dirt that I can find
Wrap you in tiny places
Disguised in blood of your own kind.

Breathe deep,
and deep,
and deeper…

Your literary hair is dripping wet
Birthing tears from every strand
Criticise the stains –
Messiah’s blood on cripple’s hands.

Breathe deep,
and deep,
and deeper…

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!

Little Girl On A Big Stage

Photo by Megan Burke

Experimedia at the State Library is cavernous. It’s almost as tall as it is long. An amplified voice floats up to the rafters and swells to fill the room. Sometimes it swells too fast, and the words get swallowed up. Other times it swells and settles softly on the crowd.

This is where I was performing last night, in the 2010 Australian Poetry Slam Victorian finals. I’ve never performed in such a big venue before – I think there were about 200 people there, every seat was filled, plus some standing. It was nerve-wracking, but I think I’ve finally found a performative medium where I belong. I’ve tried acting, singing, bands – none of those nerves were good. Those nerves all came from the place inside me that knew I was no good, and had nothing to offer in that medium. But this – this is good nerves, this is feeling like it’s where I’m meant to be.

I’m rambling. Back to the event –

14 poets performed at the event, hosted by EZB and deflowered by Geoff Lemon. Geoff Lemon’s name is one I’ve known for quite a while, but I’ve never had anything to do with him. I have to say, he’s wonderful in person. Seeing him perform just knocks you off your feet, he’s so witty and animated.

The fourteen competing poets were comprised of the winners and runners-up from the regional heats around Victoria. Some of these poets I knew quite well, others I’d never seen before. Some I’d seen in other non-slam contexts, while others gained new respect from me for outdoing their previous slam performances.

With a two-minute time limit for each piece, the night was incredibly snappy. I read fourth, following Luka/Lesson (winner of the Overload slam), Meena Shamaly and IQ. How to follow those guys? Good question. I don’t think I answered it adequately.

I scored quite low in comparison with the rest of the performers, but that’s not what I was there for. I learned a lot from this event, such as the need to have options up my sleeve for different pieces depending what I’m following. Also, I need to become more performative in my movement – I need to be bigger, MORE DYNAMIC! I need to have my words in my pocket, written down, because if I know they’re there, I don’t panic and forget them.

Stand-out poet of the evening for me, hands down, was Joel McKerrow. This man has innate rhythm such as I have never seen before. And he obviously knows about it, and how to make the most of it, because for last night’s piece, Joel turned himself into the beating heart of the world. There was chest-slapping and bouncing and oh, what a piece!

I feel so so very lucky to have gotten to the state finals, and performed next to people I admire so much. Melbourne has a really vibrant slam community, and it’s such a supportive place to be. People I’d never met before came and shook my hand and told me I’d done well. People I did know came and told me they’d “boo”ed the judges for my score. As with all good slams, there was a lot of yelling, there was a lot of laughing. General merriment and hilarity. It’s so… healthy.

Runner up Tariro Mavondo and winner Nour Abouzeid are off to Sydney – and I wish them the world of luck, they both obviously work incredibly hard at what they do and are stellar performers. There’s nobody better to show Sydney that the best slam poets are chillin’ in Vic!

Photo by Megan Burke

Megan Burke over at Lit Life beat me to this post – for a great wrap-up of the event, complete with lots of photos (…of me) head over there.

Talking of slamming, and awesome slam poets, Luka Haralampou is one of Melbourne’s best. He’s trying to fund his way to the World Slam Finals. Help him get there – we need to let the world know that Australia’s poetry slam scene is strong.

Running-up and Not Quite Believing It.

Tonight was the Balwyn heat of the Australian Poetry Slam. I arrived almost spot-on 7pm – I missed the clearly-in list for registration, but I did get on a secondary wild-card list. Luckily, my name was drawn as one of three wild-card performers.

There were twenty performers – a mixed bag. A really mixed bag. There were the people I’ve seen before and was incredibly glad to see again – Steve Smart’s performance of something much more serious than I’ve seen him do before really stood out. There were people who’d clearly been reading poetry in public for a while, they were confident without their notes and looked everyone in the eye. There were those who were first time readers, and I really must tip my hat to these guys – bless their shaking, stumbling, unsure hearts; they were brave for sharing their words, and I hope to see a lot of them in future when they gain the confidence their words deserve.

…Then there was me and my mis-placed confidence in my memory. Having performed this piece last night at The Spinning Room and getting a good response and not looking at my notes, I decided that tonight was the night – no more security blanket. I left my notebook on my chair and got up to perform.

I was planning on titling this post “The Fatal Pause,” and blogging about what a cock-up my first slam-without-notes and getting real scores was and how much I learned from failure… This is what was running through my mind after I felt like I’d made a fool of myself and I was trying to figure out how I could get something out of the situation. But that’s not what happened.

I did cock up. I did pause, and I’m sure I did that bug-eyed panic-face, where everyone in the room knows that all the words have flown straight out of your head and into some unending abyss… But I recovered reasonably well.

Apparently the judges thought so anyway, as I came runner-up for the evening. I’ll be going on to the state finals at the State Library of Victoria on Friday the 19th (7pm-9.30pm) – please oh please please come and whoop and holler for me, and the slew of other amazing poets that will be performing that night. Through from Balwyn also is Nour, who performed a really touching piece about Lego. It’ll make sense later, if you get to hear it, I promise.


I used to do plays when I was younger. The roles I had usually only required me to remember choreography, maybe a line or two. The one play that had a larger speaking part wasn’t too bad, because it all seemed to have an internal logic which forced me to easily remember what to do, where to be, what to say.

Memorizing poetry, however, is something new to me. I was thrilled by the discovery that I perform better without a page in my hand. My hands move freely and they keep rhythm, they provide markers for the words to sit on, making it all easier to remember. I’m glad of this, as a hazard of reading poetry seems to be shoving a page in front of your face, disconnecting yourself and the audience.

How to remember in the first place though? I wrote out the piece on my computer, and read it over and over. I eventually stopped looking. Then I said it aloud to myself as I went about everyday things. In the shower. On the way to the tram. For the most part, this worked.

I put a call-out on Twitter for any tips anyone might have for memorizing. Veronica Cybluski was very helpful, providing the following ideas:
1) Find a beat or rhythm.
2) Stick a copy of the words around the house so you see it everywhere. Laminate it and put it in the shower.
3) Record yourself reading the piece, and listen back to it, possibly just before bed.

The laminating idea appeals to me. I heard once about people who record themselves reading their pieces at double-time, and learn them at that speed. That way when they’re on stage and have a brain-freeze, what feels like a big pause to regain their train of thought is actually only a slight pause.

My simple “repetition, repetition” theory worked well enough, but I’ll be trying everything mentioned above eventually to see how I can best remember my poetry for performance. Pieces really are stronger when you get rid of that page.

What’s your trick for remembering your work?

Lentil As Poetry! (Overload, Day 6)

Lentils to mouth. Eyes have some trouble deciding between Charlie Chaplin film and milling crowd. I recognize a lot of these people, but I also don’t recognize a lot of them. This is nice. This is people coming out of the woodwork because of a festival. This was Lentil As Anything in Abbotsford last night, which turned down its music and gave its space over to poetry by candle-light, the Last Chance Slam for Overload Poetry Festival. And such words!

The evening began with a “sacrificial lentil” for judges to practice on. A tall man named Joel gave us some words about what it is to be human. That we’re all essentially human on the inside, as our essence. He knew how to string words together to feel good without rhyme, and he knew how to deliver them with varying speed to great effect. I didn’t catch his surname**, but Joel will be performing at the Slam Final for Overload on Saturday night.

The night was hosted by the very encouraging and enthusiastic IQ, who got the crowd riled up about scores, sang us some little ditties while waiting for poets or music, and encouraged us all to eat about five times our fill of lentils.

Some of the evening’s highlights could be seen coming a mile off. Some of Melbourne’s most entertaining poets were there, the ones who you see at an event and feel warm and comfortable and cosy with the fact that you’ll be hearing some awesome poetry. Last night the always satisfying Steve Smart and Randall Stevens performed, as well as the lovely Deb**.

Steve performed a piece expressing his wish not “to be intense like I can be / I want to be the guy who is more fun” – painting a light, spinning, carefree wish, peppered with true Steve Smart wit. In round two Steve’s work only got better, bringing in audience participation, offering himself up to lovers as “a knight in shining ugly clothing”.

Randall, the jungle-hatted bard, similarly talked about wanting to impress women (let’s face it, we all do), trying to be “a little bit geeky in that cool kinda way”, and in round two Randall talked about falling in love, “with all the grace of a fridge”. I’m always a bit delighted by Randall’s understanding of sound – he co-co-coughs, he “hisssssssssssssssssssssssss”es. He gets right inside his words, not just reading them but really becoming his work. Randall placed 3rd for the evening, and will be performing at the final on Saturday.

Deb**, who I’ve also seen perform before, didn’t disappoint. She writes about the way things feel, how they really feel, and when you hear it, you somehow end up nodding your head. I love listening to Deb because she doesn’t write about feelings in a “Woe, Vulnerable Woman!” way, but in a way that is empowered because she’s in touch with it all.

The thing I love about Overload is that it’s so inclusive. While I was excited to see poets that I’d seen before and knew were good, it was even more exciting to be seeing new people. There were bush poets, established poets, I met a woman from Elsternwick who hadn’t performed in over a year, there were hip-hop poets, there was an entirely endearing guy who worked at Lentil as Anything who just wanted to share his two-line poems with us.

There were thirteen poets competing, so it’s a bit impossible to cover everyone. Highlights from people I didn’t know, though:

Lauren** performed a piece about how hip-hop was, before we even knew about it. In round two she performed a piece about changing yourself, starting with your attitude and what’s going on in your head. Lauren placed 2nd for the evening, and will be performing at Saturday’s Slam Final.

First place-getter was Meryl**. Meryl. Was. Amazing. I’d never seen Meryl perform before, but gosh I’ll be looking out for her in future! Meryl wasn’t afraid to look her audience in the eye. Meryl had an incredible grasp on the use of volume, and what it could do for a performance piece. Meryl had lovely pause moments, she had wonderful funny moments, Meryl is an incredible performer. Taking home a $50 prize and a pass to the finals, I’m going to predict at least a placing for Meryl in Saturday’s final. She was undoubtedly the highlight of last night at Lentils.

And this has just been one night! Tonight I’ll be heading down to Loop Bar in the city for the Melbourne Poetry Map: Audio Graffiti launch. Check out the event page, because this is a night that promises to GO OFF.

**This “Not Catching Surname” thing was actually quite a prominent theme of the evening, me being incredibly alert and not even thinking about the fact that the event would be written about. So I’m missing a lot of surnames. I apologize, especially to those I’m writing about whose surnames I’ve missed!


Have you heard about Ricochet Mag?

It’s a new literary journal, which publishes emerging writers. Their first issue went live today, and it contains my poem, “The Tick-Tock Polka”. Go check it out, there’s some great work in there. And keep an eye on their blog, they post all sorts of helpful things about getting published and deadline reminders and whatnot.

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