TEXT Review

Performance and Community: Four Young Melbourne Poets

review by Ali Alizadeh

 

Hit & Miss Emerging Poets Series
Note: The Hit & Miss Poets Series does not use ISBN or ISSN

She Wore the Sky on Her Shoulders
Emilie Zoey Baker
Hit & Miss Publications, 2003
29 pp. $10

Dinted Halos
Angela Costi
Hit & Miss Publications, 2003
29 pp. $10

The Velocity of Night Falling
Dan Disney
Hit & Miss Publications, 2003
28 pp. $10

Love is the New Hate
Sean M. Whelan
Hit & Miss Publications, 2003
22 pp. $10

 

No matter how many publishers dissolve their poetry departments; no matter how many university departments suspend their poetry programs; and no matter how many arts funding programs refuse to sponsor poetry publications, there seems to be no shortage of books, chapbooks, anthologies, journals and fanzines of new poetry getting unleashed upon a less-than-enthusiastic reading public.

One explanation could be that our stubborn poets are simply refusing to get with the program; most older and established poets continue to publish books, even though general readers continually refuse to read them. These poets seem to be out of touch with the realities of today’s cut-throat winner-gets-all quick-profit guidelines. Perhaps they are too old and obstinate to grasp the realities of the post-Harry Potter literary universe.

But why on earth are younger writers of the so-called Generation X attempting to, as Pound would have it, resuscitate the dead art of poetry? Why do so many of Australia’s talented young men and women spend some of the best years of their lives writing poems when they could instead churn out best-selling children’s books or cookbooks? After all, aren’t these young hopefuls supposed to have been comprehensively brainwashed by neo-conservative myths of wealth, greed and success?

A new series of chapbooks by four young Melbourne poets, published by Kevin Brophy and Myron Lysenko’s Hit & Miss Publications, hints at the reasons as to why, against all the cultural, artistic and financial odds, promising young Australians are investing their energies into flogging what may seem like a very dead donkey. As individual writers, they each display different and at times conflicting reasons for writing poetry in the Age of Popular Fiction; but, as a group, their writing forms an exciting poetics, one of performance and community.

Emilie Zoey Baker has been an active member of Melbourne’s ‘spoken word’ scene since the beginning of the Babble poetry readings in Fitzroy over four years ago. She has been performing her lyrics and monologues to a growing inner-city audience while producing poetry CDs and participating in more traditional poetry readings. In her Hit & Miss chapbook, She Wore the Sky on Her Shoulders, she has collected some of her more enduring performance pieces, as well as poems published in small magazines and broadcast on local and national youth radio.

In many ways, Baker could be seen as a spokesperson of her generation. She’s obsessed with popular American culture: comparing, for example, a Smith Street shop-owner to the protagonist of the TV show Scooby Doo in ‘The Formula’; incorporating titles of recent Hollywood movies into her domestic setting in ‘Share’; and providing something of an elegy for the Barbie doll in ‘(Tender) Barbie Love’. In ‘Imp Boy’ she states: “My mind is an animated collage of pop culture”. There can be no denying that.

Such an overt emphasis on the more cosmetic and superficial aspects of today’s globalised youth culture may seem shallow and one-dimensional. Perhaps in defence against such a charge, Baker confesses (celebrates?) in ‘SMS ME BABY’:

i’m short attention/ span
kind of girl/ i’m generation MTV

It should therefore come as no surprise that, despite its apparent lack of depth, or perhaps precisely because of it, Baker’s poetry manages to tap into her generation’s collective unconscious; to conjure the images of childhood TV shows, resonate with the notes of adolescent pop anthems, and reminisce about what may be described as the innocence of being ignorantly and blissfully cradled by a cosy, and magical, fantasy of TV shows and pop songs.

While Baker seems to be enthusiastic about entertaining a young metropolitan audience, another of the Hit & Miss emerging poets, Angela Costi, approaches the ideas of community and performance from a more spiritual and multicultural angle. Costi is hardly an ‘emerging’ writer: her plays have been staged to great acclaim for the past five years – since her return from Europe, where she studied classic Greek theatre – and her writing has appeared in some of the more prestigious literary journals. Most recently, she was the writer-in-residence for the City of Melbourne’s reLOCATED project. She is also one of the founders and directors of the annual arts event, Saloni Mediterranean.

In ‘Somewhere overseas’, one of the opening poems of her Hit & Miss chapbook Dinted Halos, Costi provides what could be seen as a direct answer to the question I posed earlier: Why write poetry? Costi replies: “If my world is my thoughts on paper/then contentment is surely accessible”. One way of reading her poems then could be to see them as personal hymns; attempts at reaching the untenable heavens of religion through secular, and at times sexualised, revisions of sacred myths and iconography. In ‘The Daughter’s Liturgy’, for example:

Jesus is Son of Man
Hunky-Spunky root of Man
Bondage up on the cross
Chest smooth as ice-cream.

While Costi’s profane depictions of the sacred – cultural, mythological as well as Christian – are no doubt mischievous, a grave and profound disenchantment with devotion and worship seems to form the matrix of her poems. In ‘Grey Sundays and Unanswered Prayers’ the struggling protagonist’s church attendance is seen as futile routine. In ‘Mary Magdalene’s Redemption’ and ‘Zorba’s Widow’ Costi shows how female sexuality is marginalised and vilified in religious traditions, the latter ending with the ritualistic sacrifice of an outcast woman:

Knives sharpened as the church bell tolled
Her scream clawed for their mercy
Her blood entered their final prayer.

It might be tempting to assume that the author of these poems has a personal agenda: a desire, for example, to protest against a possibly religious upbringing. But with the exception of two rather light-hearted poems – ‘Girls Have Them Too’ and ‘Grandmother Maroulla’ – there are no particularly revealing hints of the confessional or autobiographical in Dinted Halos. Costi’s subversive and critical voice is louder than a private whisper, and her poems speak out against dogma and inhumanity from a clearly public platform.

Costi makes the communal aspect of her writing explicit by including Greek words and phrases in a number of poems (including some of those already mentioned) in orde to, I believe, emphasise the cultural specificities – as opposed to private ambiguities – of her poetry. In this sense her poems perform most directly to a community – possibly an audience of bilingual readers who are likely to be aware of the cosmology of Christian and Mediterranean iconography, even though, not surprisingly, her worldly and committed writing has already appealed to a much more diverse audience.

Another of the Hit & Miss poets, Dan Disney, is hardly an ‘emerging’ poet either. He has been involved in the Melbourne poetry scene for a number of years and, as I understand, is completing his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne. His chapbook, The Velocity of Night Falling, seems to have a more clear-cut and fixed approach to designating its readership than Costi’s. Four of his poems begin with quotes by modern philosophers; two are dedicated to other poets; and one is written ‘after’ James Tate. This seems to suggest that Disney’s poetry is aimed for decidedly well-read, even academic, recipients. Yet the poems here, despite their refreshing intelligence and playful absurdity, are hardly intellectual. In ‘Ecce Hombres’, for example, Disney responds to the Hegelian paradox of Being, Nothing and Becoming by mocking:

A thing eats a thing
and it is then ate
by another thing. This thing
not lasting long, is ate
by a further thing
the further thing ate by something again
ate soon after
by something else.

This, and some of the other poems here, can be seen as satirical takes on philosophy and ideology, as in, for example, ‘Portrait of a Lost Encyclopaedia Salesman Trapped in a Fractal’ in which the theory of semiology – or at least Sartre’s take on it – is likened to a confusing and meaningless maze of interlocking wooden boxes. But Disney’s satirical glance stretches beyond theoretical notions and ideologies by, among other things, depicting the ironies of contemporary suburban life (in ‘The Unbizarro Time of Everything Nice’) and conversing with inanimate objects and animals in ‘The Idiom Box’. In one of the chapbook’s last poems, ‘Verticality’, he recommends his readers to tell god “of how it does not exist” – possibly another jab at the Hegelian paradox.

Humour also plays a part in Sean M. Whelan’s chapbook Love is the New Hate. Whelan announces his community from the very beginning of the chapbook – on the Contents page – by saying that some of his poems were “tested on” (which, I think, could mean “written for”) a live audience. His thank-you list reads like a who’s who of Melbourne’s younger media-savvy ‘spoken word’ performance poets. Either to further declare his poems’ desire for connecting with a large young audience or not, he has dedicated his book to Donnie Darko, the hero of a popular horror movie. There are also a number of pop cultural references in individual poems such as ‘Pamela Anderson Versus the Cynical Art of Spoken Word’ and ‘Mogwai’, the latter named after an ‘indie’ rock band.

I find the title of this gentle and often cheerful collection strange. There is nothing hateful or even sardonic about any of the sexual/romantic dialogues that take place in Whelan’s poems. While an occasional undercurrent of angst bubbles to the surface of ‘Mogwai’, and there are tinges of melancholy and unrequited love in ‘Donkeys and Antelopes’ and ‘Try Hard’, Whelan’s writing is nothing if not pleasant, romantic and, I suspect, ‘cute’. For example, consider a title such as ‘1 out of 2,543 Things She does that Sparks Fires in Your Grassland Heart’, or these closing lines from ‘I’m Growing a Beard the Wrong Way Up to See the World the Way My Mouth Does’:

And that piece of real estate between your nose and your chin,
is waiting
to be kissed.

As for his possible reasons for writing and reciting poetry, Whelan tells his beloved in ‘Try Hard’ that he’s “trying to break into every room in your heart,/using only a pen, a microphone and a fresh pair of underwear.” Although the symbolism or realism of the last phrase escapes me, I think it would be fair to say that Whelan, like the other poets in this review, is conscious of the function and raison d’etre of his poetry; he’s aware of his audiences, his tribe, and the tales they enjoy being told.

Although I admit that I’ve been rather reductionist in this review, I think it’d be fair to say that Hit & Miss Publication’s ‘emerging’ poets as presented in these four chapbooks, and possibly a good deal of other younger poets nationwide, are, more than anything else, dedicated to communicating with and performing to their chosen or designated communities. I realise that such a claim is not really comprehensive, particularly in the cases of Angela Costi; but I think this conclusion might provide the shortest answer to the question posed at the beginning of this review: People write and will continue to write poetry because they want to belong to, and be involved with, their subcultures, scenes and communities.

 

Ali Alizadeh is a Melbourne-based writer and a PhD Candidate at Deakin University's School of Communication and Creative Arts, where he also works as academic staff. He will be performing his poetry at the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival.

 

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TEXT
Vol 8 No 2 October 2004
http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady
Text@griffith.edu.au