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Sam van Zweden

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luka haralampou

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!

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.

Overload Day 9 – Poetry Slam Grand Final

This was the 2010 Overload Poetry Slam Grand Final – three rounds, eighteen performers, a hell of a lot of shouting, clapping, drum-rolling, laughing, nodding, mind-blowing. There was debate about scores, there was begging for the tech guy to stick around so the event could wrap up. And WHAT a wrap up!

Eighteen performers competed in the first round, six in the second, and four in the third. The third round (originally of three performers) grew to four due to a mis-read of scores, with a 0.1 difference resulting in an extra competitor. 0.1! That’s how close the night was.

The final round of four performers featured Joel McKerrow, Luka Haralampou, Steve Smart and Graham Colin. These men are THE best Melbourne has to offer, and this means we have a hell of a lot to be proud of. 

Steve Smart balances on the line between sardonic wit and a raging inferno of intensity. He understands, in a way that is just so spot-on when it’s appropriate for the wit, and when for the intensity. He jams these things up against each other like tetris blocks, there’s just no gap at all. His self-deprecating humour doesn’t make the audience squirm, and he plays the cynic perfectly. Steve Smart is a brand unto himself, and he knows how to play it. Somehow, he manages to always keep it fresh, and last night was no exception. He placed fourth with a score of 81.29.

If you’ve ever read anything Beat, you’ll recognize Graham Colin instantly. He’s the dapper fellow, one of any of those dapper-writing-fellows from the Beat Generation, and he performs that way too. The way Graham moves, the way Graham performs, it’s all jazz. In the second round, Graham performed a piece that began and was punctuated by scatting, and he scatted incredibly well. He spoke about making love to artists, and I believed every bouncing, scatting, jazzy word. Graham placed third with a score of 81.46.

Joel McKerrow towers over the audience but never appears too big. Never appears forceful, but always urgent. He bounces on the balls of his feet, his arms flying out in all directions to help deliver the words from his mouth, across space, to your eager ears. His words work through him, and his poems have life. Joel placed second, with a total score of 82.11.

First place winner – Luka Haralampou… Knocked.My.Fucking.Socks.Off. You know a piece is good when the audience starts whooping and clapping midway through the piece in agreement. You know it’s good when people jump to their feet at the end and clap with their hands above their heads. Luka is a slam poet and hip-hop artist. He works the two together, his slam runs along with a true hip-hop bounce, and he stands his ground in his words. Luka’s subject matter is concerned with understanding, with growing. I think that’s something that speaks to us all, so apart from 10/10 execution, Luka’s words are just plain beautiful.

Slam master IQ said to the audience early in the evening; “It’s your job to influence the judges… yell at them” – and yell we did. After a while all the whooping started to feel like “Hallelujah!”, and with IQ getting all ministerial up the front, proclaiming things loud and proud, the whole thing got the profound feeling of a revival.

This is the kind of revival I can get behind.

And for a revival of last night’s finalists, come down to the Grace Darling in Collingwood tonight from 7.30pm for the closing event for Overload, where they’ll have a feature spot, wrapping up the massive 10-day event.

All images © Danny Presser 2010

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