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Where the Beat Goes On: Poetry Slam

When one thinks of poetry, it often conjures up images of dusty professors, tortured navel-gazers and angsty teens. A poetry slam, on the other hand, couldn’t be further removed from this bunch of bone-creekers. Throw in a few beers, some hip hop and humour, a wack of punk attitude and a desire to the command the stage and own the audience… now THAT’S a little more like a poetry slam.

When Chicago wordsmith Miles Merrill moved to Australia for a girl many moons ago, he missed the scene, the thrill of the performance and the sheer fun of the slam. As Miles says, “it is one of the most immediate art forms. It doesn’t require the publishing industry or the film industry. You can get up in front of a live audience after creating your work and they’ll tell you almost instantaneously whether you are successful with your work. There is no separation between audience and idea-maker because you’re performing your own work. Actors are really elaborate puppets for other people's ideas.”

So Merrill started up his own baby Slam in downtown Sydney, and within four years it spread from Balmain Town Hall to across NSW and eventually throughout the country. Not just capital cities, mind you; they head to Yeppoon to Wagga to Burnie and Alice Springs. Forget pastoral quaintness – think alien abductors channelling Charlie Chaplin. This year, the national finals will be held at the Sydney Opera House. His baby sure has come a long way.

Miles Merrill

The poetry slam scene grew up around Chicago and San Francisco during the 80s, although it clearly has its origins with the Beat Poets of the 70s, a time when jazz was the devil’s music. Since then Hip Hop has taken over the reins and a close relationship between the two art forms remains strong. Throw a dart in downtown Manhattan on any night of the week and you’ll hit a venue holding a battle or slam. There’s been a resurgence of rappers getting involved in the scene as “Hip Hop has become quite commercialised, and so hip hop artists have said okay, well, I’m just gonna turn off the music so I can move you with my words rather than just get your arse moving” says Miles.

Slam poetry is often held in small rooms at local pubs, which lends a real intimacy – the audience is able to connect with the performer because they’re up close and personal. The common thread in memorable performances is when the artist gets personal.
“I find when I memorise my work and look the members of the audience directly in the eye and speak to them as though I’m having a conversation with my best friend… you know, as though I’ve raced to their house and I have something to tell them… then the response is genuine. People laugh, they cry, they scream, they clap,” says Miles.

The slam poet can be unpredictable and, at times, shocking. During one performance Miles recalled a poet that dropped his pants and pretended to be using the toilet. During the final last year, one performer introduced his poem entitled “Everything I Learnt From My Father”, and then proceeded to stare at his watch, at the roof, at the door and so on, and say absolutely nothing.

Last year’s Australian Poetry Slam winner, Omar Musa, went onto produce his debut EP, The Massive, which has received airplay on Triple J. He has also been a guest at numerous writers’ festival jaunts across the world, and will soon appear in Bell Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

The grand final of the 2009 Australian Poetry Slam is on at the Sydney Opera House tomorrow night, and will be hosted by Miles Merrill. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (02) 9250 7777 for $25.

The Friend in Hand Hotel in Glebe hosts a poetry slam on the first Tuesday of every month, and Omar Musa is appearing at the Beach Road Hotel in Bondi on December 11.


words: Kristen Hodges

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