'This looks like Toastmasters for fuck-ups’, I thought, '… and I like it’. Around me were poets in fingerless gloves, poets heckling their friends, poets for whom a microphone was entirely unnecessary, poets not entirely successfully leaning on the bar and poets who were endearingly reserved. This was the first time I attended a Traverse Poetry Slam at The Front.
Our city’s performance poets aren’t really fuck-ups of course (well not all of them) but there is definitely something beautiful about the unusual diversity of Canberra’s poetry slam community.
Among the regulars who come to mind are the bookish (even for a poet) Julian Fleetwood, the wonderfully direct Miranda Lello, the sincere CJ Bowerbird, the strategic over-sharer Bernadette, the ever-joyful Flying V and the unpredictable Andrew Galan. Then there’s crowd favourite Jacinta (aka the now-Brisbanite Adam Hadley) who, like the bastard son of Tom Waits and Estragon, would constantly remind us that this is performance poetry.
Two other notables are Josh Inman and Tomas. Josh’s pieces are Trojan Horses filled with foul rotting innards. He will take you on a romantic road trip into the outback with his girlfriend, before pulling out an axe and striking her repeatedly. And that’s the least offensive thing ever to happen in one of his poems. The enigmatic Chilean Tomas begins his performances as he walks to the microphone, loudly reciting his works in staccato Spanish, or sometimes in a language of his own.
The year before last I headed to Sydney for the national slam finals, where I was disappointed to find the diversity of styles and subjects I was used to in Canberra lacking. There were so many earnest lefty pieces that the afternoon almost felt as monothematic as a Christian rock festival.
In fact, the finals reminded me of an usher shift I once worked at the Canberra Theatre for a Year Six dance competition. At least four of the schools performing chose the theme of Tiddalik The Frog. In isolation they all were fine performances, and perhaps one outstanding, but together they were painful. Each successive oversized cardboard amphibian wheeled onto stage killed me a little.
But something beautiful happened that day. A class of children immaculately dressed as 18th Century French nobility, filed onto stage and began a waltz. A waltz that was disrupted by a jarring jolt of rock, as the scene turned into a reenactment of the storming of the Bastille – to the tune of Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It. I wanted to find the teacher responsible and hug her. Repeatedly.
And so I wished Josh Inman had made the national finals that year. To play the role those juvenile insurgents had played at the theatre. To show that poetry could be something different. To be the performance poetry equivalent of Twisted Sister at the Bastille. But alas Josh wasn't there. And I wished I was back among the colour and the movement of a Canberra slam.