A Wand’ring Minstrel I

My buzzy head is abuzz with buzzing.

This has been, comfortably, the most enjoyable week that I’ve had since I arrived in Australia. There were some fantastic little moments in the preceding sevenish, but this is the first time I could really say I’ve had a great week, where each and every day has contained some pleasant-to-awesome experience or moment. Well, except Thursday. Thursday was still quite nice, though.
I’ve considered the phenomenon, and decided that it can all be traced back to being given a brownie on Monday evening. As suspect as I know that sounds, I do just mean a regular brownie (if such an epithet can truly be thought befitting of such a delectable treat). All this, though, will be explored in your regular scheduled viewing bloggy-type-blog post on Wednesday, where I will select juicy morsels from a cauldron of recent events including: letters from grandmothers; sudden giant increases in academic workload; RIVERS AND AEROPLANES ON FIRE; the whole making-new-friends thingummy; my early experiences of being a restaurant reviewer (sneak preview: lots and lots of phone calls); and also anything else which should chance to occur between now and then. Phew. As well as being lots of fun, it’s also been completely hectic, especially the increase in workload bit…as a result, this post may be a bit of a splurge. There really hasn’t been time to construct a well-structured argument or anecdote. In stark contrast to my usual habits, I’m actually writing this entry on its day of posting.

For now, though, I’m going to talk, yet again, about poems.

It’s funny how central poetry has been to my recent experience, given that I don’t generally regard it as one of my strongest interests. I mean, I wrote a lot of it about three or four years ago, which was occasionally even quite good, and now and again I do really like a poem – “The Frivolous Cake” by Mervyn Peake springs straight to mind. But compared to the twin arts of prose and music which dominate my cultural consciousness, it doesn’t really figure. I’m not even very good at reading poems. All of which is why I’m slightly surprised at its recent ubiquity.

It could, of course, be genetics — the “Ward” part of my surname apparently comes from the Gaelic “Bhaird”, meaning “bard”. Alternatively, it could have something to do with the poetry course I’m taking at university. Even this was a blunder, a last-minute decision when I found that the courses I’d meant to take had run the previous semester. But it’s proved a little goldmine of entertainment. Firstly, quite straightforwardly, it’s a lot of fun in and of itself. Additionally, the poetry bunch have proved the most consistently friendly and interesting student population of the four courses which I’m taking. It’s as close as anything has come to adopting the mantle of philosophy in Edinburgh, where the tutorials were as much of a social occasion as an educational tool (and all the better as the latter because of it). You sit in a circle round a table, read some professional poems, and then get to have a blether while attempting to write something yourself. It’s cool.
The other thing that taking this poetics course means (apart from having to write poetry to deadlines, which is weird) is that they tell you about any and all poetic-type events going down around Brisbane. And when you’re new in a country, with an interest in the arts but no real notion of where the arts are, that’s really helpful. It’s where I first heard mention of the Queensland poetry festival, which I visited with a friend — himself a previous student of WRIT2100, Creative Writing: Poetics — last Sunday. The quality was pretty variable, with a few too many of those nu-pastoral types who think that talking about their hometown or childhood in plodding free verse lends it some kind of profound significance, but there were also some great performances — a poet named Andy Jackson recited a touching poem accompanied by a yet more touching understated puppet show, in which an exquisitely operated puppet represented both himself and his dead father.
It also, happily, tells me about slams.

I realise I’ve already treated the phenomenon of slamming to a full-length blog of its own — but let’s face it, it is pretty much the most interesting thing which I’m likely to do anytime soon. I’ll spare the preamble, though — if you’re not sure what this “slamming” is but think it sounds terribly dangerous, click the word “here,” right here, to find out more.

This slam, though, was pretty different to that one. It was run by the same people, but in a very different setting. While that had been in a counter-culture hippy café leeching activist vibes, this was in the State Library of Queensland, and was much more formal as a result. The standards, too, were …maybe not higher, but different. There were no happily bumbling beginners this time around — the only bad poets were those whose poetry, though honed and practiced, was actually lacking. In contrast, the presence of alcohol meant that the amount of heckling, booing, and general crowd japery was much higher. The other nice thing this time was that I wasn’t just there by myself — Morgan came along, bringing a friend of hers, Julie. Although I’d really enjoyed meeting some weird and wonderful folk at slam(1), a lot of whom I re-encountered on Friday, it was more fun to have company. It also means that I might be able to steal some photos for this blog if either of them upload any… I did remember my own camera, but forgot the battery. Genius.

I’d had more time to prepare this time around, and had written a poem specially. I’ve added the words to the “creative writing” link on your right, but it does look pretty basic when reduced to text. The idea was to create a performance poem — something with louds and quiets and room to play with performance dynamics. The line “deep blue bankruptcy” was half-sung to exaggerate the awful pun, the words “my lord” were loaded with my best attempt at an ironic sneer, the final lines drawn out with quiet anger…at least in theory. How well this all came across is impossible for me to say, but I feel really happy with how it went.
My name was called very early on — the third or fourth poet of the twenty competitors — which is a massive disadvantage in terms of scoring, because the randomly-selected audience judges haven’t got the hang of saying high numbers yet. It also took all my stage-excitement completely by surprise; instead of building up nicely like it wanted to, it had to leap me all suddenly as I walked up to the stage. For a moment I was convinced that I’d forgotten every word.
Once I launched in, though, all was good. I did my best to control the phrasing for maximum effect while every nerve in my body did that fun first-song thing of jumping around my arteries going “we’re on a stage we’re on a stage we’re on a staaaaa-age!”, and got laughs and cheers in what were more or less the right places. The scores were pleasing; eight-point-somethings for the most part, I’m not certain of the details.

What really cheered me up about it, though, was the reaction of individuals afterwards. Morgan and Julie, being lovely people, were lovely about it, but convincingly (I am admittedly easily convinced on the subject of my own brilliance), and then a number of others emerged. When the girl going after me got a round of high scores, a guy in front turned around and told me he thought mine was better. Kylie, a fellow performer who I’d met at slam(1) — who sang her piece, with a gorgeous singing voice — said that she felt I’d really gone up a level from that last time. And nicest of all, when the first interval came, a random girl I’d never even spoken to came across from elsewhere in the crowd just to say that she had really liked my poem, had thought it was raw and genuine, and that it was her favourite so far.

That was amazing to hear. It’s all ego-massage, of course, but there’s nothing as important as a clap on the shoulder when you come off stage wondering did everybody hate that? (for my part, I made a special point of going to compliment a guy called Jo, who for the second slam in a row deserved to win but didn’t. He gave me a ginger nut), and it seemed as though people, well, didn’t. The nerves and the thrill and the pulse and the rush, vindicated. A couple of hours later on, when a seemingly random passer-by in the street paused to say “I liked your poem,” it was complete.

I really have to stop writing this now. I have a test to revise for and a poem portfolio to finish and a restaurant to speak to and two looming essays and one even more looming assignment and argh and aargh and hgraa and wahhh and aaargh…and that’s not mentioning finding time for the things I simply want to do…like sleep occasionally. It’s a lot to do. It’s a lot of stress. And just now, it’s proving quite a lot of fun.

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