Articles on Komninos

Southerly, 1992 number3, Poetry, Edited by Ivor Indyk and Elizabeth Jolly, pgs123-137, Six Months in a Poet's Hat.

Australian Poets and their Works, William Wilde, 1994, Oxford University Press.

From "A Reader's Guide To Contemporary Australian Poetry", Geoff Page, University of Queensland Press, 1995


Born 1950, Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria; grew up in Richmond; has been performing his poetry since the early 1 980s in venues throughout Australia.

Komninos Zervos is currently one of the most popular of Australia's performance poets. He has read and recited at all kinds of venues, often to audiences who are relatively unfamiliar with poetry. He has worked extensively with children. His performances, unaided by music or dance or other theatrical devices sometimes employed by performance poets, are marked by great selfconfldence, good humour and an ability to reach a very wide range of people simultaneously.

Like other performance poets, his readings and recitations have considerable dynamic range‹though unusual loudness and swiftness of delivery are often-used devices. The poems on the page can look like long columns of free verse but are usually underpinned by some much more traditional rhythms. The use of rhyme is also extensive, though it is sometimes reduced to half rhymes or increased to a single reiterative rhyme for a whole poem (as in his poem 'the bombay cafe' which uses the 'ay' rhyme at least three or four times per line for two pages).

Like other performance poets, Komninos also believes in 'bringing poetry back to the people' from whom, by implication, it was stolen by poets such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and the academy some years back. He proclaims loudly, 'I'm a poet / that's right / a poet / i write, i read, i perform, i entertain / i earn my living / by poeting.'

When one reads Komninos' eponymous collection published in 1991 without listening to the accompanying cassette, one might be inclined to ask just what is actually being brought back to the people. In his poem 'workplace poets tour' Komninos catalogues the places he has performed in and defends poetry generally as well as his own approach to it. He points out that 'poets have been around for a bloody long time' and associates himself, in passing, with poets who 'defy prison, torture and authority's curse. / like rendra and hikmet and ritsos and brecht, / write words that their people will never forget'. There is no doubting Komninos' sincerity here, but whether he has yet written 'words that (the) people will never forget' is debatable. The quality of Komninos' work throughout the book as poetry on the page steadily improves, but still stops well short of being memorable compared to poems by the poets referred to. Some poems are more or less memorable for their subject matter and their overall technique (for example, the well-known performance piece, 'the baby wrap') but others can be very slight, particularly the two sets of haiku which are strikingly unmemorable. It's not likely that anyone who writes 'the sudsy water / splashing my naked body / reveals my nudity' or 'the telephone ringing / renews my relationship / with the outside world' has read Basho or Issa very closely.

What Komninos is good at, however, is the evocation of his own background and social milieu. In 'childhood in richmond' he gives a graphic and ultimately very moving picture of growing up in a Greek takeaway and the bitter servitude of his father 'who left greece / with a bag / full of dreams / but spent the / rest of his life / as a slave /to a stove / till his dreams / were all greasy / and his hope / had all gone'. In what amounts to a kind of anapaestic tetrameter Komninos recalls with a certain non-permanent resentment the bleak urban landscape and the limited recreational options ('the lane / out the back / where the kids / used to play') and at times reaches an almost lyrical-nostalgia vision of his father when he remembers 'the scales / of the fishes / how they'd fly / like confetti / and my dad / who'd be covered / from his head / to his toes / and his arms / that would / glisten just / like the fishes .. ~

There is a similar sociological accuracy about his more recent poem 'my friends', where he tellingly evokes their double standards and their pretensions as well as their real human needs and at the end neatly identifies himself with them instead of merely standing back and being satirical. On the other hand, Komninos can be devastatingly satirical when he wants to be, as in his 'it's great to be mates with a koori', which continues 'to know a gay man or two. / to have five lesbians for dinner, / and cook them a vegetable stew. The rest of the poem gives us a brief but comprehensive coverage of middle-class pseudotolerance and offers a sharp ending which says: 'but what do you see in the mirror, / when there's only yourself and you. / and who really knows the truth, / of the fascist, that lives inside, you.'

There may be some paradox in printing a book of performance poetry when it's really designed to be performed live, but the same could be said of a Beethoven score. In some ways it may be even dangerous since it gives the reader, as opposed to the hearer, the opportunity to look at the work more closely and detect certain weaknesses in logic that might be passed over in performance. In Komninos' more explicitly political poems, such as 'fringe network anthology', the thinking can sometimes be a bit woolly, as when he notes that the end of the first world war, his father's arrival from Greece, the sacking of Gough Whitlam and a 1984 poetry reading all occurred on November 11. His tribute to Shakespeare in 'monologues' is also a bit off-course when he declares that the 'bard' speaks to us 'from 500 years ago' rather than 400.

Lest this should seem like quibbling it is important to point out that Komninos does have many real abilities. In addition to those mentioned already one could also point to his feeling for the movement of a conversation and his ear for colloquial speech. In 'bustalk' he manages to give the impression of a whole conversation overheard while telling us absolutely nothing of its content. The function of dialogue as a reaffirmation of human contact rather than as a transmitter of information is persuasively illustrated. In Wilhelm retch's mass psychology of fascism' he does something similar with a police raid on a hapless marijuana smoker. Komninos may not be a heavyweight for those who sustain themselves on French critical theory but he does do what he does very well and there is no denying he reaches a wide range of people. It is surely hard not to like a poet who can describe himself as 'far away in a footscray take-away / a modern day protege of rabelais / au fait with roget and wordplay / drink(ing) cafe au fait and survey(ing)) the passing array / day after day after day.'


Komninos University of Queensland Press 1991