Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My not-so-radical speech about poetry

On Wednesday the 18th of April, 2012, I made a speech at the Street Theatre, Canberra, at a public forum about radical ideas and burning issues facing the A.C.T. arts community, at the request of The Childers Group. I had to cut a few things off due to time limits but here is the full speech. Just a few humble words about poetry and young folks from a local scallywag.

My not-so-radical speech about repopularising poetry in Australia

Good evening. I pay respects to the traditional owners of the land, the Ngunnawal people, their elders past and present. We stand on your shoulders.

I speak as a rapper, poet, Queanbeyan boy and a product of the Canberra arts scene. Tonight I want to talk about poetry. What I want to propose is to bring poetry back into public consciousness, make it accessible to young people and re- weave it into the cultural fabric of Australia. I'm not going to beat around the bush- for many years, poetry in Australia has been regarded by most as dusty, wanky and above all, boring and irrelevant. Furthermore, it is often considered a pursuit solely for white, middle aged, middle class people, for academics who like the smell of their own farts. There is also a sense that it is something difficult, sacred and removed. I always found this sad. I constantly try to tell the young people I work with that poetry isn't difficult, it is something natural and within all of us. Editing poetry, or writing good poetry might be hard, but poetry in and of itself is a natural human activity. I know of many countries where poetry is so ingrained in the culture that reciting poetry at a family meal or amongst friends isn't considered strange. I believe a change needed to come to make poetry more accessible to young people and I think that change came in the form of hip hop and slam poetry in Australia.

For those who don't know, a poetry slam is a competitive form of poetry that started in Chicago in the early 1980s to bring poetry "back to the people." Poets (in teams or solo) get 2-3 mins to impress an audience and randomly selected judges with their own words and performances and can win cash prizes, half a bottle of bourbon, respect from their peers, whatever. The point is that they are really fun and dynamic events and are a form growing worldwide and in Australia. I won the Australian Poetry Slam in 2008 and since then have been watching its explosion here. I have seen rappers, bush poets, singers, actors and comedians all go in poetry slams, so it's not restricted to one style. It's a great way of getting people who normally wouldn't write or perform get on stage. It tears poetry out of those ivory towers and puts onto the stage.

As a side note I want to say that I don't think it's the be all and end all of poetry and that Avant-garde and academic poets should be cast into the wilderness, shot at dawn and old poetry books burned. Oftentimes people get defensive and teachers bristle as if by bringing this all up I've said we ought to piss on T.S. Eliot's headstone. All I'm saying is that these forms have given a lot of young people a voice who previously didn't feel as if they had one and is a brilliant access point to poetry. I have seen first hand in schools, youth centres, in parks and on street corners (here and around the world), how liberating and exciting this new found way of expressing oneself has been for young men and women, gay and straight, in the country and city, people with disabilities, and folks of every different background in multicultural Australia. Personally, as an Asian-Australian man with a Muslim background, who can often feel dislocated or unwanted in mainstream Australia, it has been a place where I can express myself with dignity and freedom. It's a joy to see the movement growing.

However, the job is not done, in fact, I think it's only just started. I think there is a shining opportunity in front of us in the A.C.T. that needs to be seized. Many people have got the ball rolling in terms of getting poetry workshops happening in high schools, jails, and youth centres and starting youth slams, including the Centre for Poetics and Justice and Emilie Zoey Baker in Melbourne, the Street University and Miles Merrill in Sydney (among many others). However, we don't have to look outside Canberra to see this in action. We have two well established slams- Traverse Poetry Slam and Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit!- and probably more since I moved away. Will Small, who I believe is here tonight, has just started the first ever A.C.T. wide high school and college slam. In the next few months he will have two slams (one north side and one south side) before a big one at the A.N.U. that will also involve uni students, supported by A.N.U. student equity. It is in its fledgling stages and of course requires more funding and support.

I believe this is a brilliant start to what could be a whole movement where every few weeks kids can go to a poetry slam, prepare for it and then rock out in front of their peers. For example, I know that in the U.S.A. and in Europe at big high school slams they are often held in a hall or basketball court, with the crowd cheering for their favourite poets. I think that is pretty cool and envision a time in Australia where this is possible. Not only are slams a great way for young people to express themselves, but to meet others from different parts of Canberra, from public and private schools. I remember when I did debating in high school my mum driving me from Queanbeyan to the wilds of Belco and Tuggers to debate, weekly. I envision a similar thing for poetry in the A.C.T, but bigger and cooler.

What I am saying is not radical- there are dozens of others working tirelessly around Australia to do similar things but I try at any opportunity to bring light to poetry and to these issues. Imagine if we had a broader national structure of an Australia wide youth slam where Queanbeyan High or Lake G competes against schools from Sydney, the N.T. or W.A. I think that in the A.C.T. we have a unique opportunity to be a leader in this area, where we foster a culture where young people are encouraged to be expressive, confident, questioning and creative, and people of all backgrounds, sexual orientations and genders are are invited to tell their stories and partake in the joy of writing and performing. It will go a small way to encouraging similar things in broader Australian society- a better understanding of ourselves and others. So, here we are on the cusp of something massive. I say with a bit of vision, a bit of persistence and a bit of cash, this is not out of our reach.

Omar Musa, 2012