Sam van Zweden



state library of victoria

The Night That Was White

This is a re-cap of my White Night, spent primarily at the Wheeler Centre as part of an event run by the Emerging Writers Festival.

Bivouacking at the Wheeler Centre – it feels like a school camp somehow. On the bus on the way in, I feel like a kid again. I carry a pillow and cupcakes, and a backpack full of laptop, pens and notebook. There’s a novel in there for the wee hours. 

The night begins without any great fanfare. A small crowd gathers for Eric Yoshiyaki Dando’s performance at 8pm. Eric is a bit short, a bit hairy; he wears no shoes and rolled-up fisherman’s pants. He reads from his iPhone (“from the Sleepers’ app, which is very handy!”) about his time spent as a shopping centre Santa. I presume it is non-fiction, but on later reflection I will wonder. Either way, he’s utterly charming. The AUSLAN lady’s hands dance, and Eric makes her say “snail” again because he loves the sign for it.

After Eric’s performance people splinter. There’s an awful lot of talking. More than one person here seems to be participating in White Night in order to write about it – I’m not the only person whose impulse is to document. There are people with cameras, and a few people approach to ask what we’re working on, or why we’re here. 

I leave for dinner. Sitting outside the State Library, I watch patterns drive themselves up the exterior walls. There are people with strollers. It’s as busy as New Years Eve, but people are happier and more friendly. This doesn’t last though – after dinner, at about 10.30, people seem a bit more volatile. There’s hostility in their demand for something to be happening always, everywhere. I walk more carefully back to the Wheeler Centre.

Photo credit: Reuben Acciano for the Emerging Writers Festival

The Wheeler Centre packs out for later performances at midnight and 1am. The midnight performance has everyone laughing, Laura Jean McKay and Lawrence Leung lunging about the stage, jazz hands flying around one another in a battle to decide who reads first. The pieces they perform are similarly impressive. 

Performances from 3am onwards start to calm down. Luke Ayres Ryan does the 3am reading, which is of a story he wrote when he was 14. He antagonises his young self as he reads, incredulous that he ever thought that this writing was something to be proud of. I hope that he sees the value in his current writing, and wonder if we all have this mode when we read over ancient pieces. True, the piece he reads is as dismal as anything a 14 year-old would write, but still.

The audience at this reading is mainly those of us who have been writing all night. We lounge in bean bags, lulling, and we begin to feel a bit heavy-lidded. Second winds will come later. For now, sedate is the way to be. Chad Parkhill plays a ridiculous DJ set (“full of funky beats with a fat bass line”) to perk us all up, and it works in a way. We dance like fools for a little bit, before a friend arrives and a few of us head to the Domed Reading Room at the State Library.

This is the only thing that I really want to catch at White Night; the only thing that I absolutely need to see. The Domed Reading Room is expansive and overwhelming at the best of times, but in this ethereal space where the city hums and everybody is dreaming, it’s almost too much. The Exaudi Youth choir send their voices up to the ceiling, where projected lights move like ripples in a slow stream. It feels like sleep. Every person is surrounded by calm. People scatter, sitting on desks and chairs. Many heads take the opportunity for a quick nap.

Returning to the Wheeler Centre feels strange, stepping back into the real world. People come and go, and while people still write, the hours between 5 and 7 feel more like a drop-in centre where people stick their heads in out of curiosity.

The tram ride home hits me in the face, and I struggle not to close my eyes as we trundle up a now-quiet, very rubbishy Collins Street. 

The night was certainly white; brilliant with creative light and a generous crowd hungry for culture. Every piece of the city opened up and poured out all the secrets that are so often hidden.

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.

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