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Sam van Zweden

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centre for poetics and justice

Overload: Telling It Like It Is

We have a small slam scene, and a young one, but last night it felt so strong.

Last night was the Tell It Like It Is slam at the Footscray Community Arts Centre. Crowd and performances aside, this is an amazing space. An ex-tannery on the industrial side of down, right by the river, there’s a vibe to it. I can say nothing more concrete and positive than that it’s aesthetically pleasing and has a good vibe, but who needs more than that?

Tell It Like It Is is a regular slam run by Luka Lesson and Alia Gabres, and these guys have teamed up with the Centre for Poetics and Justice, who have teamed up with Overload Poetry Festival to present last night’s pants-wettingly good show.

The evening began with local poets, with the usual suspects wow-ing. Luka performed a piece backed by Meena Shamaly, which talked about the strength of his roots leading him to write powerful words, as if it were an inevitability. Joel McKerrow told the stories of some of his students, talking about bullies who are only bullies because they don’t have pens. Mel Hughes gave us a moving and personal piece about her little boy – I applaud her bravery in sharing, but I also applaud her gift with words and her ability to perform.

The fuss about the evening though was the international guests. With such a small and young slam community, we’re incredibly lucky to have gotten these amazing performers to join us for Overload: Ken Arkind, Jive Poetic, and Shane Koyczan.

All three of these guys know how to do the personal and the political in perfect balance, and how to weight the serious and the humorous so an audience feels the light and dark from their insides.

Ken Arkind (self-proclaimed “sexiest garden gnome at the yard sale!”) bounced around, all beard and wonder. He performed the pieces I love him for – Maggie, and For Wes. Then he pulled out some I’d never seen or heard before (the video’s of Slam Nuba, he’s in there, and it’s as electric as it was last nigth), and now I love him even more. This man is small, but he’s explosive.

Jive Poetic knows how politics are done – without sentiment, without black and white. He also knows how the laughs are done, and I don’t think I’ve laughed as much at a slam as I did while Jive Poetic performed. Something about the way he performs is personable, and as Luka said, he connects with his crowd, whether that’s three people or a stadium full.

A note on last night’s numbers: at a rough guess, this place sat about 150 people. By the end of the first round, the seats were all full, plus beanbags had been pulled out for people to sit down in front, and extra chairs around the side of the stage. And many were faces I’ve never seen before – this is exciting. A small slam scene means the same faces all the time, and crowds rarely getting very big. This crowd was the biggest I’ve ever seen at a slam, and all were engaged and excited to be there.

Shane Koyczan finished the night up and mannnnn….everything I expected and more. Like Ken Arkind, he did some pieces I knew and loved, and others I’d never heard. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when he read a newer piece about the death of his best friend. Shane’s performance style is really understated, but sure and strong. He’s quite static, and the power is all in his voice. And such a voice.

Shane is performing again tonight at the closing night event for Overload, alongside Sean M Whelan, Eleanor Jackson, Emilie Zoey Baker and other Melbourne Awesome. Discounted tickets are available now, so you have no excuse not to be there.

Centre for Poetics and Justice are also doing an up-close-and-personal panel event with Ken Arkind, Jive Poetic and Shane Koyczan on Monday night. There’s only 40 seats for this thing, and it’s a “secret” event – sign up to the CPJ mailing list, and Joel will send you out the details, but not the full details until Monday. Go! Now! You don’t want to miss this.

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!

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