Sam van Zweden



Marc Bamuthi Joseph

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!

Slamming into Wordsmith-ry

I’ve been loving slam poetry lately.

Emilie Zoey Baker guest-lectured at uni, and her performances made me laugh, giggles wrapped up in pretty images, musical words, gestures and rhythm.

I discovered Marc Bamuthi Joseph in an essay he wrote about the need to lay claim to words. His performances are physical poetry, “poetry in motion”, as he puts it.

Then a few days ago I found Shane Koyczan. Ohhh I sit there and close my eyes and shake my head. He delivers it all so beautifully, and just when it gets so lovely and heavy it feels like it’ll break, he chucks in some hilariously true thing that has to be laughed at.

Tomorrow, along fellow RMIT-ians, we’re gathering to bury ourselves in some slam. And while watching a lot of the work of the above people I’ve wondered a little what it is that I want my work to offer.

I’ve got rhythm. I don’t rhyme though… but neither does a lot of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s work. And why am I trying to copy someone else’s work anyway?

I’ve got pretty images and a story… There’s just so many decisions to be made, and the thought of delivering it to an audience of my peers is absolutely terrifying.

But imagine if it goes well. Imagine if I work and work and end up with the ability to perform as beautifully as Marc Bamuthi Joseph or Shane Koyczan?

Yeah. Imagine that.

Hey Young World, the WORD is yours…


I’ve been reading Jeff Chang’s Total Chaos: The art and aesthetics of hip-hop… Being a collection of essays, some things are great and others are total shit. That’s the way collections are.

Three essays in, I’m introduced to Marc Bamuthi Joseph… my heart sings, my creativity is tickled, and my head explodes just a little.

 Marc Bamuthi Joseph   is an NYC “arts activist”, whose work is pretty varied but mainly now focusses around hip-hop spoken word and dance. He mentors young kids through a program called Youth Speaks – I can’t even begin to express how happy this makes me. I’m right behind anyone who supports literacy and fosters kids’ creativity. Hell, fosters anyone’s creativity! (I am part of Golden Key International, whose Swinburne chapter supports Ian Thorpe’s Fountain for Youth , they do amazing work also around Indigenous Literacy… but I digress).

In his contribution to Total Chaos, MBJ’s piece (Yet Another) Letter To a Young Poet is a call out to the young writing world now.

“…I’m spending the day reading Rilke. He’s this early-twentieth-century European philosopher-king who writes of creating poetry from the depths of the soul out of an irrepressible, intrinsic need. … I can’t believe that I’m in Africa but my eyes are in the book of yet another dead white guy. And yeah, Young World, you should probably read this shit at some point, you know just ‘cuz, but ultimately it exists in his dead-white-guy vacuum that was never meant to include you.”

Bamuthi makes a clear and honest statement to the “young world” –

“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…”

Bless his heart, watching this man move  is a song that makes me want to write.

Marc Bamuthi Joseph inspires me to write, to take control of what I’m writing, to take the word and make it mine. Reading, watching, and listening to him makes me happy.

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