Perfectly resonant with live music performance, yet flying so humbly under the radar, it’s high time spoken word poetry got a little more love from WildnFree. Having gone to several events herself, and feeling immediately thrilled and captured by the sheer humanity of the experience, of people sitting together, in warm and dark spaces, listening to someone bare their heart and soul through words, WildnFree really needed to know more. Speaking to Melbourne Spoken Word‘s Chief Poetry Officer Benjamin Solah, Melbourne’s hidden wealth of speakers, writers and poets letting it all out on stages across the city, are now uncovered for your, and her, information and pleasure.
WF: Tell me all about the beginnings of Melbourne Spoken Word!
BS: I started Melbourne Spoken Word about 4 years ago. A few years before that, I’d been writing prose, and short stories for a while, and a friend invited me along to a spoken word open mic, and I found I really liked it straight away. It was a different experience to perform in front of others instead of just writing by myself.
I also learned that people only found out about these events through Facebook or word of mouth, so my inspiration for starting Melbourne Spoken Word was to find a wider audience. I knew there would be so many people who’d love it once they knew about it.
WF: How does it work?
BS: If you look at our events page, you’ll see there’s about 25 poetry events going on around Melbourne every month. We run a feature event each month, often featuring someone touring from overseas, or a poetry slam like Slamalamadingdong, or an event like the Melbourne Spoken Word prize at the end of the year.
WF: What, may I ask, is Slamalamadingdong?
BS: It’s one of the two poetry slams held in Melbourne. The tradition started in the US in the 80s and 90s by Mark Smith who had the idea to make poetry more exciting, like a wrestling match. The traditional format has 3 rounds, 12 poets, 5 randomly selected judges from the audience who score the poems out of 10, a 3 minute limit, original work, no props, no costumes; just you and your voice and people try to win it. It’s competitive, but also really fun and exciting.
WF: Since pretty much everyone can talk and write, yet not everyone’s had the time, inclination or opportunity to learn an instrument, there’s virtually no barriers when it comes to spoken word performance, unlike a music performance. Would you agree?
BS: Yes, and I think there’s a great bridge between people who do it for fun, and people who take it more seriously. It’s much more accessible than the rest of the literary scene too, you don’t have to be accepted into a journal for publication, and it’s open to anyone to participate. You improve quickly because you’re getting the instant feedback, you’re making connections and then perhaps getting invited to feature. Most events will have an open section, plus invited poets who are paid to perform. Generally, people asked to feature are those who’ve proved themselves at an open mic and spotted as a talent.
WF: It seems to be a very unloved and unrecognised art form amongst the wider arts scene, yet I can feel there’s such a need for poetry and spoken word events. Did you feel this too? Is this part of why you started Melbourne Spoken Word?
BS: When I discovered the spoken word scene I thought, ‘Why haven’t I heard of this before?” When people see it for the first time, it defies their expectations of what poetry really is. Most people think poetry is just written on the page, they don’t necessarily understand it as performance. A lot of performers have used the spoken word space to explore social justice issues, or identity, which has been really important. When people turn up and find out what it’s like, they wonder why we don’t do it more.
WF: Why don’t we?
BS: I think that’s a long conversation about a society that discourages people to express themselves and stifles their creativity. There’s so many people who could tell you a whole bunch of stories about having their creativity stifled because it doesn’t make money. There’s massive potential for the spoken word scene, but as yet, literary funding bodies haven’t gotten behind it, but we’re trying.
WF: Why haven’t they?
BS: Some poets and poetry critics would say that spoken word poetry doesn’t have a craft attached it, or it uses more basic language, and some critics would say slams aren’t poetry at all.
WF: That sounds like bullshit, but yes, there’s definitely a perception that only well-to-do literary types should do poetry.
BS: Yes. When I think of poetry, I do think of it as elitist form, but that’s not true. So many people express themselves through words. I think I also had that perception, that poetry is abstract and obscure and clever, but it’s really about finding news to say things, and it doesn’t have to be something you struggle to understand.
WF: What’s your vision for Melbourne Spoken Word?
BS: I’d love to see the scene getting into bigger venues, more gigs going on with hundreds of people attending, a spoken word festival, and more people doing poetry full time. I do it all unpaid, so I’m trying to find ways to fund it and make it sustainable. We’d love to take a step up and become a properly-funded arts organisation through grants, but that’s even harder at the moment given all the cuts.
Thank you Benjamin Solah! WildnFree thinks you’re Melbourne’s very own angel of poetry. But, he needs a little extra help. If you’ve always aspired to be a patron of the arts, you can do so now by giving Melbourne Spoken Word some love on their Patreon page. Or, simply head to tomorrow night’s launch of Audacious Three: The Collected Smirks Of Santo Cazzati for your own taste of the sweetness of spoken word, performed by a 10-year veteran of the Melbourne scene. Rookies, take notes.
Here’s Chief Poetry Officer Solah himself performing I’d Like To Speak To The Minister at a past Melbourne Spoken Word event. Perhaps we should call the Minister for Arts and ask if he could kindly appoint a Minister for Poetry. I vote for Benjamin Solah to do the job.