by kevin brophy,

Australian book review, feb/march 1992.

ASHTON, SCUFFINS, LYSENKO & WILLIAMS Live Sentences Penguin, 182pp, S14.95pb,

0140586822

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

twentieth century.

 

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

the people.

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 Melbourne for nearly a decade now, and can't

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

and occaslon.

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

returningatdawn, red-eyed

and shameless.

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

corporate images.

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

thinking?

let me expound my theory of poetic

these days you have to make your

words electric

to sizzle with energy and still be

††† euphonic

to dabble and dribble in dialectic

††† metaphoric

without too much boring didactic

††† rhetoric

to spell out the truth and still have

††† aesthetic.

]Komninos excels at the light humorous poems rare and exquisite achlevement.

His 'Superwog' is irresistible:

look'

up in the sky.

it's a bird.

it's a plane.

no...

it's SUPERWOG.

strange visitor from a european

country

with power and abilitiesfar beyond

††††† those

of normal anglo-saxons...

 

faster than a squirt of uinegar,

more powerful than tsatsiki,

able to use the Iifts in tall

buildings...

 

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

Swinging.