Edited by Robyn Cadwallader
Solid Air is an anthology covering the last ten years of spoken word and performance poetry in Australia and New Zealand. It is the first such anthology since Off the Record, published back in 1983. This large gap in time itself probably says much about how live, performed work has been positioned in Australia, compared to its print-only cousin. Arguably, the quality of the latter is the result of a sifting process by the poetry editors of magazines and newspapers, whose views, whilst admittedly subjective, are, in the words of one rejection slip, ‘well schooled’.
Performance poetry, for better or worse, has not had such gate-keeping. The judges for slam poetry, for example, are picked from the audience. This less formal, more accommodating, approach has meant that performance and spoken word have become more accessible forms of poetry, particularly among members of marginalised groups. The competition among performance writers has become an increasingly serious thing, however, with talent and artistry duly emerging. But the time taken to reach this point has also meant that the acceptance of their literary merits has been slow and not without stubborn resistance. And yet, Solid Air is more than simply a project of validation. For its co-editors, David Stavanger and Anne Marie Te Whiu, there has also been the inherent difficulty of rendering into print a form that has been essentially ephemeral, and reliant on stage presence or theatricality, including incidental soundscapes or, in the case of singer-songwriters, the interplay of music with the lyrics. Indeed, Solid Air is an omnibus of disparate works which is nothing short of being commendably ambitious, given this twofold quest for literary credibility and inclusiveness.
The publication of Solid Air follows on from worldwide changes to how performance writing has been seen, including the emergence of Kate Tempest in the United Kingdom, winner of the T.S Eliot and Ted Hughes prizes, and the awarding — though not without some controversy — of Bob Dylan with the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. Some saw him belonging to another, undeclared category, altogether. However, it would be difficult to deny the impact Dylan has had on people who, ironically, have become print-only poets. In the meantime, the presence of performance poetry has also widened, as it has adapted to social media sites such as Instagram. Importantly, though, the editors did not want an audio or video version of the anthology. The words have been made to stand on their own.
Such an approach, in turn, begs the question of how best to read performance writing. On one level, one is immediately reminded of Roland Barthes’ famous essay, The Death of the Author, [i] in which he notes that with the printed forms of literature, the individual author is lost to the antecedents, etymologies and the free ranging associations of the words and phrases they use that appear on the page, and which thus become disassociated from their authorship. By putting performance poetry into writing, it therefore becomes open to such a theory of reading, which, ironically, threatens the particular sense of individuality inherent to much spoken word expression and thus the very raison d’etre of a spoken word anthology like Solid Air.
We see, though, in Pascalle Burton’s contribution to the anthology, ‘What is your ceiling?’ a reflexive play on such literary theory as it openly sources its material from a United States War Department’s Restricted Japanese phrasebook. Burton creates a found poem contrasting the commands to be ‘performed’ by military personnel and the more practical queries they must also make. It thus highlights, while simultaneously examining, the use of language as a communicative medium, with its limit being set in the ostensibly opaque enquiry that provides the title of the piece:
IDENTIFY YOURSELF! (Identify yourself)
THROW DOWN YOUR ARMS!
RAISE YOUR HANDS!
LINE UP HERE!
LINE UP THERE!
DON’T TRY ANY TRICKS!
OBEY OR I’LL FIRE!
is the water deep?
are the mountains high?
is the current swift?
is there a bridge?
where can I find a mechanic?
what is your ceiling? (38)
The capitalisation of words implies shouted orders, and adheres to the well established etiquette of e-mails and text messaging. Indeed, throughout Solid Air, one sees this graphic capturing of intonations and it is one of many ways performance is transferred to the page. In ‘Scenic Maps Parts’ by Lionel Fogarty, the emphatic nature of capitals heightens the use of Aboriginal English, the language of the colonised, as a means of disrupting and breaking open standard English, the formal language of colonisation and subsequent technological control:
TAKE YOUR SMART PHONE AND RUSH
A MIND TO ARTIST WAYS
TAKE YOUR IPADS AND FIND THE
PATHWAY THE BLACK MEN WALK AND TALKED BEFORE
THE DEVICES CONTENT DEMANDS.
Fogarty later renders this linguistic strategy within the discourse of the Dreaming:
DO THE FAVOURITE EMERGING REALM OF LITERATURE OF
DON’T FIELD THE WIZENED GHOST THAT EMBED FOR MONEY.
TAKE ALL IPADS AND PUT THEM IN THE OUTBACK STARS
FALLING FOR THE FIRE LIGHTS. (77)
The graphic analogues of spoken language also add to implications, past and present, associated with words and phrases on the page. Thus, as we see in Amanda Stewart’s ‘Postiche’ the creation of visual puns and ironic humour:
everything’s relative in the doctrine of commodities
reconnaissance body trans
ng in a stockmart of
t cheap b
y inducing abstractions an
y deducing re
for your convenience (178)
Elsewhere, the page becomes the site upon which what one consciously chooses to communicate to others is contested, as we see powerfully in ‘Dear Mrs Miller’ by Jesse John Brand:
the sky’s what we were aiming for when we were shooting up
Sam pushed that doorway into the eternal black
and one day he walked
down that hallway
and never came back
you said we were made of fire
Dear Mrs Miller, I owned the stardust that killed your son
Dear Mrs Miller, I owned the stardust that killed your son. (34)
In this example and in the others already mentioned, we see how, far from shrinking from the challenges posed by literary theory, Solid Air demonstrates work which embraces their possibilities. In doing so, the anthology blurs the boundaries between what may be considered print only and performance work. Thus, it also shows that in valorising the latter on the page, it need not do so in terms that remain prejudiced in favour of the former. Importantly too for the anthology, it has allowed Stavanger and Te Whiu to include contributions, as they say, from ‘page poets who also work at times in a performative context’. As a result, we see the appearance of work by print poets such as Omar Sakr, who has been noted for the reading of his work, and Ali Cobby Eckermann, who read at last year’s Sydney Writers Festival.
Throughout Solid Air, fidelity to the performed aspect of the poetry which has been included comes via such traditional poetic routes as the use of pauses, implied by poetic meter, enjambment, spacing, and punctuation. By closely following these features, a reader may attempt to re-create or discover the nuances in rhythms which are intrinsic to what is being expressed. At the formal end of the spectrum, we see in ‘Sigrid Sassoon: The Prime Minister’ by the late comedian and actor, John Clarke, the use of dactyls and iambs that, despite the humour, allows the piece to share something of the succinct power of A. D. Hope’s ‘Inscription for a War’ or W.H. Auden’s ‘Epitaph for a Tyrant’:
‘Good morning, good morning,’ the PM lied,
as he paused on the doorstep and turned to the press.
He was saddened, he said, that some children had died,
in the rocket attacks, which were such a success.
‘It’s hard to avoid,’ he told Lawsie and Jones,
as they both went out ‘live’ on their satellite phones,
‘… if people build schools in our targeting zones.’ (41)
Many of the poems in Solid Air demonstrate varying degrees of influence of hip hop rhythms and rhyming. The works of rappers Ryan Clapham (Dobby), Joelistics and Morganics being among those that bear the usage of these poetic devices in this style most strongly. For Clapham, in ‘Maury Wiseman’, it complements the anger within the demand for Aboriginal people to be understood in a complete sense, on their own terms:
Our culture is everlong and our history not forgotten
But dammit we need support in the journey into equality
So learn from us, listen up with empathy
But fuck a school textbook, that shit be elementary. (40)
Joelistics’ ‘Nostromo’, meanwhile, offers poignant introspection:
Whoever you are, wherever you’re from
we all get given time and then it’s time to move on
one day you’re in the midst of it, the next you’re gone
and if you think it’s different to that you’re wrong.
Life’s an addiction we’re all on the nod
And it’s a beautiful dream so dreamer dream on
breathe in, remember everything from the start
the end is the beginning the beginning is past. (101)
More often, though, we see in the anthology how the use of hip hop style devices have become looser as they are adapted into work wherein one can trace the conscious control of a performed delivery, something as unique as the breathing of the poets themselves. We see this in ‘War’ by Teila Watson (aka Ancestress), with the line lengths and line spacing:
The truth of our masses still a
Feeling the affects in misdirection
The infection purely clear
You might be fighting wars on other
But still there’s war carried out here (201)
Similar strategies are employed in the work of other poets outside the rap realm, such as Emily Croker’s ‘Spooks’ and the cascade of words and phrases in Amy Bodossian’s ‘My Housemate’s Girlfriend’:
your face still fresh,
but I can still access it if I absolutely have to —
trying to remember
trying to forget
just enough to make me come
get the job done
and then I lie
a tiny pebble in the huge night. (24)
Perhaps it is not surprising, given the individual nature of performance, that most of the work in Solid Air should be reflective of another famous essay, The Race for Theory by Barbara Christian, in which she notes how people of colour, feminists, and radical critics have long struggled to make their various voices heard ‘and for whom literature is not an occasion for discourse among critics but is necessary nourishment for their people and one way by which they come to understand their lives better.’[ii]
Indeed, we see in Evelyn Araluen’s ‘Fern your own gully’ a concluding, emphatic rejoinder to Hollywood’s appropriation and etiolation of the Aboriginal Dreaming discourse, in which the figure of ‘the beautiful thin white woman’ becomes the heroine:
fern up the gully girls
go live those pastel bush dreams
while me and my ancestors sit pissed swinging on the veranda couch
RIGHT WHERE YOU WROTE US! (7)
By contrast, we see in Candy Royalle’s ‘Impermanent’ a subtle, understated piece combining sexuality, desire and pain:
Restricted totally by the binds we
roped round the sounds our mouths made
to halt longings not meant to be uttered
we held back just enough
so those lives we couldn’t have lived forever
didn’t intrude on this
impermanent heaven of never
Had you bothered asking for honesty
I would have answered honestly
truth is not my forte (163)
The expression of identity often extends throughout Solid Air into the use of first languages by many of the contributing poets. The interplay between these languages and English is used in exploring not only personal identity, but collective identity as well. Thus we see in Eunice Andrada’s ‘(Because I am a daughter) of diaspora’ the mix of English and Tagalog:
I don’t respond
the words a recognition
of the mongrel flag
I call my face.
I want to say to him, We are the same
Pareho lang po tayo. (4)
We see too the mix of Maori and English as a political statement in ‘Sedition — a letter to the writer from Meri Mangakahia’ by Anahera Gildea:
Here’s what I had in mind, kotiro, this
Clipping of words like overgrown maikuku –
Return the blankets of domestic life; don’t fold
Washing or wear shoes, polish these rerenga ke.
butcher up a clause, get buried
in Pakeha kupu, then dig that
out like the old people. No one approved
of their language either. (88)
Saba Vasefi’s poem, ‘Student Day’, is accompanied by a rendition in the Farsi script on the following page. Unfortunately, the inclusion of the latter by the co-editors is probably an act of over-reach, alienating rather than engaging the reader and denying them a means to appreciate the sonorous textures of language generally, something educing the possibilities of words for performance on the page, which is, in turn, an essential premise of Solid Air.
That the anthology should include singer-songwriters rests less on the achievements of Bob Dylan, than with the ability of songs to provide, as Mark Mordue said in Meanjin: ‘alternative visions of the country that are buried, private, rejected.’ [iii]
Perhaps, a salient example of this is Courtney Barnett’s sardonic take on the real estate market, with ‘Depreston’:
It’s got a lovely garden, a garage for two cars to park in
Or a lot of room for storage if you’ve just got one
And it’s going pretty cheap you say, well it’s a deceased estate
Aren’t the pressed metal ceilings great?
Then I see a handrail in the shower, a collection of those canisters for
coffee, tea and flour
And a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam
And I can’t think of floorboards anymore, whether the front room faces
south or north
And I wonder what she bought it for
If you’ve got a spare half a million
You could knock it down and start rebuildin’ (18)
The darkness in the anthology has been balanced by the co-editors by choosing a lot of humorous pieces, including work by Pi O, Quinn Eades and Ben Frater. Their inclusion creates a sense of wholeness about the performance writing scene. Not all of it quite fits, though, with The Bedroom Philosopher’s ‘In my day (Nan)’, seemingly too reliant on a tired, ‘back in my day’ gag that seems at odds with the general tenor of the collection. Ironically, something more like his ‘hit’ song ‘I’m So Postmodern’ probably would have fitted better. The similar ‘Old Guys’ by Max Ryan, with its self-depreciating twist, is arguably a more apposite selection.
Overall, Solid Air manages to capture a distinctly energetic atmosphere encompassing the performance writing scene. In capturing the diversity of talent, and especially by bringing it to the page, the anthology has demonstrated the wide possibilities of performance poetry and what it shares with the work of print-only writers. Perhaps another anthology might step back in time to include the work of late-eighties writers such as Kominos, Myron Lysenko and a younger Steven Herrick (pre-children’s writing). For now, though, what we have is something that is thick with anticipation for what will come next, something that fills the space between mouth and microphone as words are amplified and heard throughout an auditorium, something as thick as solid air.
[i] Barthes, Roland, ‘The Death of the Author’, originally in Aspen, 5-6 (1967), available at: http://www.ubu.com/aspen/aspen5and6/threeEssays.html#barthes
[ii] Christian, Barbara, The Race for Theory (Spring 1987). “The Race for Theory”. Cultural Critique. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse (6): 51–63.
[iii] Mordue, Mark, Meanjin Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 3, (2006), p1. Mordue was guest editor for this edition: ‘Meanjin on Rock’n’Roll: All Yesterday’s Parties’.
David Stavanger and Anne Marie Te Whiu (eds.)
University of Queensland Press, 2019
Ben Hession is a writer based, in Wollongong, New South Wales. His poetry has been published in Eureka Street, the International Chinese Language Forum, the Cordite Poetry Review, Verity La, the Mascara Literary Review, Bluepepper, the Marrickville Pause, The Blue Nib and the Don Bank Live Poets anthology Can I Tell You A Secret? He has also reviewed poetry for Verity La and the Mascara Literary Review. Ben Hession is also a music journalist and is involved with community broadcasting. Find more from Ben on Facebook & Twitter.