by kevin brophy,
Australian book review, feb/march 1992.
ASHTON, SCUFFINS, LYSENKO & WILLIAMS Live Sentences Penguin, 182pp, S14.95pb,
KOMNINOS komninos UQP, 85pp, S10.95pb,
HAZEL SMITH Abstractly Represented Butterfly Boolcs, 106pp, 0947333363
Who owns poetry?
Performance poets want to give poetry back to the people. Kevin Brophy discusses
what that means and the variety of ways in which the aim is met.
WHO OWNS culture? Who owns poetry~ Where does poetry come from and who
determines its worth? Samuel Johnson gave the sensible answer that 'poetical
honours' must be declded upon the common sense of the common reader. However,
as we've come to see, common sense often turns out to be as watertight as the
flat-earth theory; and Harold Bloom nods to Johnson when he reminds us that to
be a reader of poetry Is to be uncommon, even elitlst, at thls end of the
The first two books here, by 'performance poets', wrestle wlth these questions
of poetry's nature, Its audience and its worth. Their answers are direct,
romantic and political. A potted manifesto for these performance poets might go
something like this:
Poetry can't be stopped, people are doing it everywhere; its roots are in the
spoken word and small groups of listeners; poetry is a resistance to the noise,
the crassness and the materialism of modern society; the performance wrenches
poetry out of the covers of anthologies, out of the academies, and returns it to
Given such a stance, we mlght expect performance poetry to be riddled wlth
Idealism and stunted by rantings and at times it is. However, in these books
there is also llve-liness, wit, wordplay, satire, elegance and the klnd of
poetic verve that makes you want to rush off and do it yourself.
The performance poetry movement, intensely centred round inner-city pubs,
cafes and clubs, has come to a second flowering with thiss Penguln collectlon (or
four books in one), a worthy successor to Penguin's earlier performance effort,
"Off the Record". Each poet here is given forty pages or more to present their
work, and space to reflect on performance poetry.
Myron Lysenko introduces himself as a performance poet who wants 'to be part of
the band of poets who are giving poetry back to the people 'where It belongs',
echoing unconsciously perhaps Johnson's falth in the common sense of 'the
people', and rejecting more consclously any elitist aura for the poet. I've
watched Myron perform around
approach these poems without hearing his distinctively droll delivery and
discovering again my own favourites. One of the gems In hls section comes
first„'Making a Baby (The Separatist Way)': While visiting a feminist
household / I'm asked if I'd be inter- ested / in contributing to a baby / by
giving a sperm donation/ once a month until conception.
Lysenko has the sklll of satirising soclal trends while at the same time
making a clown of himself. Not quite knowing who they're laughing at, hls poems
avoid the pltfalls of satire that focuses too heavy-handedly on easy targets. He
delights in the bizarreries of a naive loglc that's not as heady as Woody
Allen's but Just as weirdly surprising:
At night I lie awake thinking if we have the baby, I'll be at the birth,
watching so if we terminate, I should be there, watching I tell you: I want to
be a father. You're not convinced.
Lauren Wiillams, like Lysenko, claims a mission for performance poets: they are
givlng poetry 'back to the publlc'. Once a singer wlth a band, Lauren Willams's
poems sometimes swing with rap-based rhythms. Her ode to the plastic bag is a
witty swipe at mass culture. It's not just her clear hold on rhythm but the
cheeky fun she has with rhymes that makes this poem a favourite wlth audlences:
I went 2 th vet with a sick cat They gave him back 2 me in a plastic bag & when U
d ie & they put U in a coffin lt's plastic lined so when U go all rotten
U slopabout & smell real bad Cos they've got U wrapped up in a plastic bag
Under the Influence of rock and roll and blues her sweaty, thumplng couplets are
as nasty and as reveallng as the best poems in this book: Let's C how it feels
when a girl says No Maybe I'd B sad if u'd been a good lover But yr not yr the
kind of guy who does it 2 yr mother Don't know if I even made yr address book
There wasn't much room from th space all th rest took. There are jokes, polntedly
anti- romantlc poems and the quieter Iyric such as 'Real Human Footpath': The
best paths are unofficial, organic they f ust grow, democratic each footprint a
vote for maintenance or change A polite conversation with treeroot, tussock,
terrain. Everythlng Wllllams wrltes Is accompllshed wlth a sense of balance
In his introduction John Ashton reminds us of the theatrical elements ln
performance. 'Some of the best wrlters have all the presence of a floor mop the
moment they get up on stage. Conversely, a top performer can turn the Yellow
Pages Into an Instant hlt by approaching the work as a mo- ment of theatre.' Hls
poems here burst onto the page In something like the way they do in performance.
They are word-zones aashing with the hor- rors of cars, hlghways, advertlsing,
newspaper headllnes, all the flash 3unk of a throwaway world. Ashton's writing
seems to come out of the work of those artlsts at the crltlcal edge of popular
culture such as Laurle Anderson, John Cooper Clarke and WlUlam Burroughs.
In a sliver-slit seam of a dream
†††† burst The Company Men in
†††† Sigmund Freud T-shirts and
†††† repossession notices for hearts
†††† and minds.
In a post-tensioned car chase at
†††† three in the morning my
dreams stayed out all night
I was shocked from my apathy
††† when my violin, complaining
††† of crueltyand maltreatment,
††† left home one morning with
††† a gypsy Strad ivarius.
I turned on the T.V., and there's
††† EdgarAllan Poe doingseat
††† belt commercials.Ashton's 'I Saw Mick Jagger In a Suit and Tle' Is worth the prlce of the book
for those ageing freaks near- lng forty now and watching thelr heroes take on
Kerry Scuffins earths this book In a serles of poems from the un- derground and
the underdog. She writes about heroin, bashings by cops, the hypocrisy of
rehabilltatlon In prlson, the secrecy of adolescent poets at school, women in
suburban homes, televisions, husbands who don't want their wives to write
poetry. Much of her poetry Is domlnated by rhyme. Mostly this plain artifice
works to glve the poems thelr alr of slmple hon- esty, though It can become
tlrlng. In 'On becomlng a prostltute„the phone caU', her rhyming Is more tenu-
ous, less a predlctable beat for per- formance and more a strlng of ech- oes
stltched Into the poem, sending us back and forward through It: rm stand ing in
the phone booth and I'm here to make a start along the road to nowhere to the
easy living land where moneyflows like magic at the laying on of hands.
The sly Intelligence with Im- agery here shows what a natural poet Scufflns Is.
She knows how emotlons adhere to the obJects ln our llves, and ln 'Moving Out'
she uses thls marveUously to teU the story of a smaU, suburban trlumph:
I used to be Hawthorn but now I'm Northcote I used to be aflat but now I'm a
garden I used to be ten yards by twelve now l'm fffty-nfne steps from the back
gate to the front gate I used to be four places for dlnner now I'm one...
Wlth the range and vltallty of the printed poetry here, the strange experlence
for the reader ls that whUe these poets clalm they are escaping the culture of
prlnt through perform- ance, here they are, packaged be- tween covers for study
in schools and academies, revlewed In ABR, vying for shelf space as the next Blg
Thing. It's not self-evldent that poetry (or language) began as a spoken event,
or that speaklng your poetry now makes It a more dlrect or more ac- cessible
communlcatlon. Apart from Derrlda's analysls of such notions, this phonocentrism
disregards the fact that we are (even In the metaphors of our language)
creatures hlghly focused on the vlsual.
Perhaps, rather than turnlng to nostalgia for a non-llterate troubadourlng
past, the performance poets have more Interesting possibilities in explorlng
their connections wlth thls century's development of technology for preservlng
the spoken voice.
THE BOOK Komninos, by performance poet Komninos, attempts a life in both the
printed and spoken worlds. It comes as book and audio cassette (though the
reviewer receives only the book). In hls foreword Laurle appeals to the
commonest of common readers 'graziers In the concert halls of country
towns' and declares, 'They loved hlm and hls poetry'. Muller tells us that
Komninos's appeal is universal because he has an empathy with basic humanity.
Leaving aside the question of whether common readers and basic humanity are
convenient f~c~„ tions, such gushing forewords are usually more an embarrassment
than a help. However It has the air of an Introductory speech and does set
Komninos up as a performance.
There are lots of photos of komnlnos himself performing with the very young and
very old, In libraries, schools, pubs and on the road. The poems are nearly
always typographlcaUy lively, reminding us that the poem Is meant to work on
the page as well as on the stage.
On first reading the book I was dellghted by a number of sharply observed
satirical, autoblographical, humorous poems that deal wlth the
multlcultural/migrant experience. But then I was disappointed to flnd that there
seemed to be such a large gap between these poems and the rest. I thought the
book was uneven, until I realised that perhaps the problem lies in my not
belng 'unlversal' enough for a book that aims sometlmes at adolescents and
even primary school chlidren who want to see how a poem might be written, or
how a poem might entertain them. This apparent unevenness is realiy a poet
working wlth his audiences, sensitlve to thelr interests and llmits. With such
a poet it's difficult to know, at times, how to take the apparent tone. In
'Poetics' for example, are we hearing simpllfied advlce designed to make
some basic points clear to beginners or is this the full extent of the poet's
let me expound my theory of poetic
these days you have to make your
to sizzle with energy and still be
to dabble and dribble in dialectic
without too much boring didactic
to spell out the truth and still have
]Komninos excels at the light humorous poems rare and exquisite achlevement.
His 'Superwog' is irresistible:
up in the sky.
it's a bird.
it's a plane.
strange visitor from a european
with power and abilities† far beyond
†of normal anglo-saxons...
faster than a squirt of uinegar,
more powerful than tsatsiki,
able to use the Iifts in tall
At his best there's a mordantly critical intelilgence at work In the humour. For
one end of the spectrum of readers there's a wlcked street-wlse wit to be
savoured here, and at the other there are poems that will make school kids shout
poetry at each other in playgrounds. Plck your way through it.
HAZEL SMITH comes at po- etry and performance from other sources. She develops
her work out of performance art, minlmallst muslc, experimentallsm and the avant
garde. Thls Is not per- formance poetry In the sense meant by the above band of
poets, and It exposes the llmitations of what they are doing whlie also exposlng
the limi- tations of audlences, revlewers and language Itself.
Smlth explores the llves words lead outslde mimesls, where sound, assoclatlon,
pattern, randomness, punning, coliage, contradlctlon, am- blguity and
disintegration can come to the surface.
The flrst four sections of this book divlde the poems according to the
technlques used for construct- ing them. There are 'Systemlc Po- ems'. 'Collage
Poems', 'Permutlng Poems' and 'Performance Texts'. In her useful Introduction
Smith explains how she used each of her methods, and in thls way she demystlfies
the world of experimental writing, making this a book for anyone who wants to
see how It's done, how the end- product relates to an inltlal plan, and how they
might try It themselves.
The performance texts fuse her words wlth muslcal scores whlie the permutatlng
poems rely heavliy on word assoclations and puns:
†I can't pray
prayers aren'tfor me
my prayers aren't heard hunted
eueryth fng preys on me
†what can worcls say~There Is a final large section called 'Earlier Poems' whlch relles more
traditionaliy on narrative and metaphor, showing that Smith has worked gradually
towards her present methods.
Hazel Smith's is the kind of 'aca- demlc' exercise that the above per- formance
poets would want to rebel against. However, It Is at the same tlme an ally In
belng commltted to keeping the body and the voice present In poetry. The
difference Is that Hazel Smlth's interests are dif- ferent. The joy Is that
poetry is a loose and baggy monster; It can accom- modate both approaches.
Poetry will contlnue to do as It pleases, regard- less of convenient fictions
such as 'the people' or 'the common reader'.
kevin brophy is a writer and one of the editors of the rnagazine Going Down