Sam van Zweden




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.

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.

Brain-work on a Monday?!

Usually I manage to structure my Mondays so they involve as little brain-work as is humanly possible. I just put chutney on some toast – usually that’s about as tough as my Mondays get. That, and turning pages of trashy novels.

Not this Monday! This Monday I’m doing all sorts of brain-work, and I’m not sure I’m OK with it quite yet.

There are decisions to be made today. I’m going to a slam tomorrow night to perform at their open mic in preparation for the State Library’s Australian Poetry Slam on Wednesday at the Balwyn heat. Both these events are quite big and scary for me – I haven’t done any poetry performance outside uni events, so while I’m not nervous just yet, I have a feeling I very much will be later. I have two pieces that I feel are quite strong, and I need to choose which is stronger. One has some humour. The other is a bit pretty.

I need to practice these pieces more so they’re totally drummed into my brain (brain-work…).

When that decision’s been made, I need to decide on an extract from Hold On, the story which is appearing in Page Seventeen, being launched on Saturday. I’ll be reading an extract at the launch, up to 3 minutes… I haven’t decided which three minutes yet. I think most logical is from the start of the story, because the chronological story is intercepted by flash-backs. But is that the strongest part of the story?

The following piece of brain-work involves writing up a pitch for a workshop I’ll be running before the end of the year in Northcote, through Express Media.

By the end of the day, I think I’ll be happy to head off to work and only think about filling fridges. By far too much brain-work for a Monday!

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

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.

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