Andy Jackson Reviews Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word

By | 19 December 2019

Perhaps translation is an apt metaphor for a printed anthology of spoken word, with all its sense of imperfectly moving voice from one medium into another, where things are lost and gained. Certainly, there are some pieces here whose repetitions or refrains lose some of their potency when the eye can see their duration in advance (as opposed to the unknowing, expectant ear). But these poems aren’t translations in the sense that there is any ‘original’ as a measure. Both printed poem and performed poem are autonomous, neither relying on the other.

Jennifer Compton – who could have had any number of her wry, tender and tough poems selected – is here with ‘Love is not love’. There is a directness to the language and address here that amplifies paradox and complexity rather than reducing it:

The words we said shook us to the bone. Who knew
that words could be so precise, that we could mean

exactly what we said? Or that we could misunderstand
so much. Be lost forever, and yet, suddenly, be home.

The man and woman staring past each other in the street.
Angry and miserable, while sharing the exact same thought.

The rhythms of Compton’s poem are alternately abrupt and fluid, a kind of conversational music, yet uncanny, stopping the reader short. Rhythm and its intimacy are essential to all the most affecting, memorable and provocative poems in Solid Air. Claire G Coleman’s ‘I am the road’ hints at the epic reach of Ginsberg or Whitman, but is profoundly of Country and family interwoven, of ‘salmon gums, hakeas, blue-grey banksias’ and ‘a bassinet on the backseat of the Kingswood’, in a place fractured by land-theft, exploitation and poverty. ‘I am the road’ is both matter-of-fact and rousing, a song of survival and determination.

Rhythm, of course, has an infinite number of incarnations. Solid Air gives us the ruthless and flexible Rhyan Clapham (aka Dobby) with his slant rhymes and vigorous assonance breaking like waves with each line. Quan Yeomans of post-modern avant-rock band Regurgitator has a numbed, acid, ironic bluntness in ‘I get the internet’. Elsewhere, Ian McBryde’s ‘Spree’ inhabits media reports of mass violence with a chilling use of interruption and silence, the poem itself shaped into a kind of weapon.

There’s also a lot of pleasure to be had here, pure and impure. Eddy Burger’s clever and surreal ‘My VICES’ interrupts its own recounting of a mundane conversation about health with ‘COFFEE!’, ‘SUGAR!’ and ‘FATTY FOOD!’ On the surface, П. O.’s ‘Memo’ is a set of instructions for how public servants are to respond to a phoned-in bomb threat, but it contains its own hidden detonations of laconic humour and piercing satire on the obligations of work. There’s also Emilie Zoey Baker, Troy Wong, The Bedroom Philosopher and Hera Lindsay Bird, who each create their own unique combinations of audacious wit, surprising poignancy, and almost-subliminal wisdom.

Solid Air is both raucous and understated, public and intimate, melodic and harsh, emerging and mature, brutal and tender. This allows space not only for diversity but for complexity and dissonance. There is no centre, but it still holds, unassailably.

If it has any limitation, it’s that, arguably, some of the included poets are best appreciated at length, rather than with one, isolated or signature poem. The impact of work by Lionel Fogarty, Sean O’Callaghan and Ania Walwicz accumulates when given extended space and presence. Each of their poems resonate strongly in the context of the anthology, but only scratch the surface of their work as a whole. This, most likely, is partly the editors’ point. While the collection is an essential and timely intervention into contemporary Australian poetry, it is also, as they call it, a ‘gateway’; an encouragement to get into the venues that give space to spoken word, performance poetry, live poetry – what matters is not so much what you call it, but the ways these voices resonate.

I want to say that this is not an anthology of ‘identity politics’. Slam and performance poetry often seem to prompt caricatured critique – from Harold Bloom in 2000 declaring it ‘the death of art’ to US writer-critic Don Hall’s recent claim that slam has become a ‘Tribe of Identity’. I think such critiques ostensibly ignore the fact that poetry’s canon has always reflected and supported some identities and neglected others. Perhaps what is happening recently has been the expansion of which identities are affirmed, which aesthetics are given attention.

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