Solid Air, a new anthology of Australian and New Zealand spoken word, shows performance poets can offer memorable experiences

Current Australian poetry (if not New Zealand poetry) is, arguably, divided into three asymmetrical camps: the literary mainstream, the literary "avant garde'"and performance or "slam" poetry. They are definitely cousins but, as in most families, disputes break out from time to time.

A strong sense of this is obtained when the editors of this new anthology of performance poetry, Solid Air, recall that their "project offered us the opportunity to disrupt the dominant narrative of what 'page poetry' is, challenge the notion that 'accessibility' is a dirty word and document the work of those poets who have been marginalised or excluded from print." Poets of the "dominant narrative" would reply that the "marginalisation" complained of is probably due either to "slam" poetry's lack of literary merit or, perhaps more fairly, that "slam" poetry is designed for performance and is thus not well served by print. Any anthology of "slam" poetry, they aver, is a bit like reading the score of Beethoven's Fifth rather than listening to a performance of it.

The reference to "accessibility" as a "dirty word" by the editors of Solid Air is also notable. Ironically, it reflects the wariness that both literary poets and performance poets feel for "avantgardists" who delight in frustrating mainstream audiences' desire for relatively straightforward syntax and imagery. It's no surprise then that there are almost no "avantgardists" in Solid Air.

All this is not to deny, however, that there is something peculiarly impressive about a good performance poet reciting his or her own poem from memory to an audience whose expectations are being met. With an unimpeded force of voice and gesture, performance poets can offer memorable experiences. Many of the poems selected here are from marginalised groups (by race, ethnicity, sexuality etc) and address their group's ongoing problems with considerable wit and directness. Quite often however, as in "War" by Teila Watson (aka Ancestress), they can tend towards sloganising, albeit in a good cause. The more successful usually find an original slant on an issue and develop it with ingenuity and dexterity. "Old guys" by Max Ryan is one such. It opens: "(Old guys) get to the club every evening early / with wives called Betty, Flo or Shirley // order the mixed grill with lots of gravy / look loud if they're not in something grey or beigey ...." The scansion in that last line may be dodgy but the point is made. Likewise in "Yiayia", an affectionate portrait of a Greek grandmother whose English is, understandably, less than perfect. "'You know Yiayia / - you know a lot; you're really smart ... / She always replies: / 'Yees Eliah, I'm very education.'".

  • Geoff Page is a Canberra poet.
This story Poetry performances from Australia and New Zealand that stay in the mind first appeared on The Canberra Times.