BE FONZIE: an interview with Sean M Whelan
Poet, performer and DJ, hardly covers it when introducing Sean M Whelan. He is convener of the famous Melbourne open-mic night, Babble, and co-inventor and curator of the popular Liner Notes gigs. He is also the spoken-word front-man of The Interim Lovers and author of Tattooing the Surface of the Moon (Small Change Press, 2008). Nathan Curnow asks him about poetry, performance, keeping cool, and about which of the Rolling Stones he’d let eat his brain.
So Sean, no questions about writing routines, your writing space or where you find ideas, just some straight up talk about life as a performer. To me you’re the hardest working man in Spoken Word, rarely a week goes by when you’re not on stage with either Isnod or the Interim Lovers, add to that festival appearances, Liner Notes, plus your Super Poets gigs. I guess I’m in awe of how you do it, how you live it so consistently, seeing as I find the prep and lead up of just one gig a month totally exhausting. I’ve been reading a lot about the Rolling Stones lately and I found this quote from their ex-manager, Marshall Chess. I’m interested in your reaction to it.
Marshall Chess: ‘The blues guys not only needed $s, they need the applause of fifty people even if it was only in a small bar. The Stones love that shit. Because the feeling on stage is like being held in your mother’s arms. It’s the power. The only time they feel alive is when they’re on stage.’
Marshall Chess talks about need and power in terms of live performance and I can certainly relate to that. I was talking to somebody recently about playing Australian Rules football when I was a teenager and how much I really miss that, sometimes. In fact, I dream I’m playing football quite often and it’s always quite exhilarating to me when I do and I’m a little disappointed to wake from it. There was something I got from football that I don’t get from any other part of my life now. It was the combination of the rush of adrenalin and physicality and achieving something through camaraderie. The closest I get to the rush I got from football now is through performing live. Especially when performing with music, either with The Interim Lovers, or Isnod. I wouldn’t say the only time I feel alive is when I’m on stage. But when I’m on stage, that particular feeling of being alive is unique to that experience. There’s nothing else quite like it, that’s for sure. And I don’t always mean that in a good way.
It’s about being inside that moment for the duration of the performance, but it’s also about being outside of it at the same time. The inside element is about being true to the poem. It’s your chance to deliver the poem exactly as you intended it to be heard, and that’s a privilege. My favourite performers are the ones who treat that as a privilege.
The privilege being that, as the performer and simultaneously, the creator, you get to deliver every nuance and cadence and rise and fall exactly as you intended it when it ran through your head as you were writing it.
The outside element is being aware of your effect upon a room. Having that spatial awareness of the impact your voice makes as it traverses a room. Picking up on the audience reaction is a skill that the best performers have.
Also adding to the adrenalin rush of performing are the dreaded unknowns. What exactly is going to happen up there? Will the audience shut the hell up? One of the most humiliating things for a poet is to perform to a room full of people who are ignoring you, or deep in conversation with each other. Musicians have to deal with this all the time, but it’s different for poets, because in most cases it’s just you and your voice, you don’t have music to cushion the blow of being ignored. The naked voice demands attention and respectful silence, without it, the poet tumbles into the FAIL abyss. There are other unknowns too. My greatest source of anxiety (and adrenalin) as a performer is when I do material from memory. Will I remember everything? This causes me so much anguish. It’s amazing what nerves can do to the mind. It’s a totally different situation performing your poem in your bedroom at home to being on stage in front of a room full of people and sometimes words just… disappear. The trick is to keep your cool, don’t lose your bottle, be Fonzie. The audience usually don’t know your poems that well that they’ll probably even notice if you skip a line. So when you forget, wait a second, if it doesn’t come, then move on to the next part. Of course that’s easier said than done, because when I forget a line I feel the prickles on my forehead and the cold sweat breaking out. I have had some terrible times on stage, due to the unknowns turning into an unexpected and unwanted direction. But I’ve forgotten most of them. None of them have ruined me, yet. And the triumphs fortify the soul, at least for a night.
Jeez, I could wrap the interview up right there. There’s so much in that. Spot on. Hey, if I appeared in your football dreams what position would you play me? And remember the time I asked you to choose your top seven poets, the ones you would take to save a town like in Seven Samurai? Well in terms of the ‘naked voice’ alone, nothing to do with their writing or performance skills (although I know it’s hard to separate all that), whose voices do you like at present? Because it’s such an important element don’t you think? Whose vocal chords do you find instantly appealing?
Oh, you wanna be in on my football poetry team? You’d be a star recruit, Nathan. I reckon I’d put you in the forward pocket. I see you as a kind of Chris Johnson like figure (ex. Fitzroy/Brisbane Lions). A dazzling goal sneak confounding opponents with supernatural skills and the cunning instincts of a fox, (a fox who knows his way around a football and the odd turn of phrase.)
Now, voice? Yeah, that’s something I get off on. I remember a few years back I was at a spoken word festival in Montreal, the Festival Voix d’Amériques, and they had a late night open mic going. 90% of it was in French. I don’t understand a word of French but I really enjoyed going along to it every night just because of the voices. You can get a lot from a poem just from the way it sounds. The heart of the poem’s intention can sometimes be completely communicated just through tone and delivery. It also helped I guess that French is a very sexy language.
One of my favourite poetic voices is a North American writer/performer by the name of Anis Mojgani. Mojgani would be widely considered a Slam Poet. I first saw him at New York’s Bowery Poetry Club, I think he’s relocated to Portland now. I find that North American Slam Poetry can be a little formulaic sometimes, in its delivery anyway, if we’re talking about voices. The poems often start off quiet and then slow build into a loud rant of some description. What I love about Mojgani is that he doesn’t really follow that formula. I find it hard to describe exactly what it is I love about his voice. It has this unique gentle earthly elegance about it. He has a brilliant sense of pace and timing too, which is very important when it comes to reading work aloud.
Hey thanks for putting me in the forward line. Time to have a break soon and suck on some orange quarters. But before we do that, thanks for the lead on Anis Mojgani. I hadn’t heard of him before so I’ve been checking him out. I love how he saves this poem when he breaks down and forgets it halfway through.
And yes, French is a sexy language. But yeah, it’s hard to pin down what we like about certain voices. I think essentially it comes down to breath. The most compelling voices seem to have mastered that somehow. I often think of Ginsberg’s quote about Bob Dylan:
‘He had become at one with, or became identical with, his breath. Dylan had become a column of air so to speak, where his total physical and mental focus was this single breath coming out of his body. He had found a way in public to be almost like a shaman with all of his intelligence and consciousness focused on his breath.’ Allan Ginsberg, 2006
We could talk more about that or about ‘formulaic’ Spoken Word but you know I can’t let you get out of here until we discuss love. Your work often focuses upon it, as well as memory and loss. To me you are the quintessential voice of Melbourne heart and heartbreak. Tell me about the first love poem you ever wrote.
I can’t really remember the first love poem I ever wrote, although it was probably contained somewhere within the first love letter I ever wrote to a high school crush. I don’t remember all of its contents now (thankfully) but I do remember some of it being extremely cringeworthy—something about living without you is like living without air. I like to think that my love letters and poems have improved since then.
One of my earlier love poems that I’m still quite fond of is a piece called Elvis Tears. I think I was reading a lot of Raymond Carver at the time so his influence is stamped quite clearly upon it. The setting is a man and a woman sitting inside a car. They’re very close friends but he has just confessed to having strong romantic feelings for her and it hasn’t gone as well as he hoped. He is dropping her off at her house and he is concerned that perhaps there is a new lover waiting inside for her. He really doesn’t want to lose her. It starts raining and she tells a story passed onto her by her mother about the rain being the tears of Elvis Presley falling down on us all. “That man will never stop crying.”
I heard it said once that all poems are love poems. And really, what other reason is there? Love is such a powerful force and universal source of motivation behind most things we do, that even the act of not speaking of it, becomes an act of love in itself. The absence of love, becomes a lament, without even trying. Or maybe I write so many damn love poems because I’ve been so chronically unsuccessful at it, maybe it’s the equivalent to taking a watch apart in a desperate attempt to find out how it works? I don’t know. I don’t really know anything about anything and least of all about writing. I came into the game pretty late I guess, at least professionally speaking. I started writing when I was in my early twenties but I only really showed it to friends at first. They all liked it, but I didn’t really believe them. It was mostly pretty generous portraits of them, so they would say it was good! It took me quite a while to get my writing out into the general public. I’ve been plagued by self-doubt and a general lack of confidence most of my life. I think I was past thirty when I did my first reading. But even after all this time when I sit down to write it still fills me with dread and fear. The fear is not really knowing how this shit works. I don’t subscribe to the theory of only writing when ‘inspired’, you have to just sit down and do it, like a job. But writing to me, is like turning up to work every day and not knowing if you’ll get your heart broken or not.
From your answer here alone I think it’s safe to say that you know more than you think you know, especially about love, lament… and watches.
‘… even the act of not speaking it becomes an act of love in itself…’
Your line above reminds me of something the character Lucius Hunt says to his mother in Shyamalan’s The Village. (A good movie overall despite some flaws, but I don’t care if you like it because you didn’t even like Hugo!!!)
Alice Hunt: And what makes you think that he has feelings for me?
Lucius Hunt: The way he never touches you.
The smallest gestures can be the most powerful/telling, and sometimes the absence of those gestures says just as much. It’s all related. So I’m glad you mentioned Elvis Tears because the poem is full of these small moments. I love listening to how you craft things. It’s a beautiful portrait loaded with ache and yearning. http://www.myspace.com/seanmwhelan/music/songs/elvis-tears-38204795 Finally, I want to mention the Rolling Stones photo exhibition we both went to last night. I’m glad you came along because the portraits were cool but some of the showbiz types at the launch were intense (ie. business cards, close talking and the constant referencing of their past productions). And when they invited us to go to their monthly showbiz lunch I half suspect they were asking if we would like to be their lunch.
So my last question is on a lighter note… if all the Rolling Stones turned into Zombies which one would you like to eat your brains? I’d have to go with Charlie Watts because he’s always looked like he could use a good feed.
Mmm, well I probably would have immediately said Keith Richards, just because he’s… well, he’s Keith Richards! Right? But Keef kinda pissed me off a little after I read his biography, which is mostly a brilliant read, except for the part when he dropped a rock on the shell of a snapping turtle, because, he claimed ‘Goddamn, it’s you or me, pal.’ Really Keef? A turtle was that much of a threat to a gnarly old rock and roller like you? In fact after reading Life none of the Stones come off appearing as particularly nice except for Charlie! But I think in a pinch I’d choose Mick Jagger as my zombie brain-eater because I’m hoping that those big luscious lips may cushion some of the pain of having my brains sucked out of my skull. Happy?