I have no idea what to call this rebirth
and yet I’m here to name it
to feed the new flame
with wood from the old.
Hinemona Baker from ‘If I had to sing’
Solid Air: Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word (University of Queensland Press, 2019) is edited by David Stavanger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu. David is an award-winning poet, performer, editor, cultural performer and lapsed psychologist. Anne Maire, Te Rarawa, born and raised in Brisbane, is a cultural performer, weaver, theatre practitioner and emerging poet. David and Anne-Marie co-directed the Queensland Poetry Festival from 2015 to 2017.
Solid Air showcases over 100 spoken word artists from Australia and Aotearoa, from 2008 to 2018. In the introduction, the editors outline the increasing presence and vitality of spoken word. Festivals for example are willing to feature poets who have not published books but who perform to diverse audiences in diverse settings. As we see in New Zealand, the form resembles an open house that welcomes everyone without preconceptions or misconceptions on what a poem ought to do or be. Community is important: ‘Central to the ecology of spoken word is the artist returning back to the community.’ Here is the concluding paragraph of the introduction – as you can imagine it strikes a chord with me:
The pieces within this collection have their own agency and spirit, we have merely invited them into this space to create a place where they can join as a chorus and amplify each other. There is not one poetry or poetry audience; there are many and all of them are welcome to enter here. Solid Air is not only a gateway to the multiplicities of poetry available in our region – it is a house in which poetry resides, a speculative investment, constructed from open windows and unlocked doors.
One of the key attractions for me is the diverse range of Australian poets that are brought into view. I wonder if this is the same for Australian readers meeting Ken Arkind, Tusiata Avia, Hinemoana Baker, Hera Lindsay Bird, Ben Brown, David Eggleton, Anahaera Gildea, Jordan Hamel, Mohamed Hassan, Dominic Hoey, Selina Tustiala Marsh, Courtney Sina Meredith, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Ray Shipley, Grace Taylor, Tayi Tibble, Taika Waititi, Jahra ‘Rager’ Wasasala’. It makes a difference when I play an Aotearoa track because I play it in the voice of the performer. There is something electrifying about being in the actual room, about hearing the voices spin and spark. I found myself googling unfamiliar poets with the hope their voices would fill my room.
Yes the book is a wide open house but it is also a map that I can hold in my hand and then navigate richnesses for both my ear and heart.
The poems speak of connection, movement, disconnection, flight, anchors, home, origins, love, not love, war, peace. The poems are personal, the first person pronoun stands up and is speaking. The poems are often political; frequently the personal and the political are steeped in the same poetic brew where the edge of one is the edge of the other, as in Quinn Eades’s magnificent ‘What it’s really like to grow up with lesbians in the 70s and 80s’.
You will go to your first peace march before you can walk.
You will say handy person, fire fighter, police officer, and automatically refer to all
doctors as ‘she’ as if their gender has not been defined.
Your favourite song when you are four will be ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’ by X-ray
The poetry is radioactive, heated lines popping with detail and admissions, and then on other occasions the admissions come in quiet waves, small ripples that carry undercurrents of feeling, experience, reflection. One of my favourite poems – Anahera Gildea’s ‘Sedition – a letter to the writer from Meri Mangakāhia’ – makes clear the importance of language, the importance of one’s own nouns and phrases and ‘defiant speak’. I would love to share the whole poem (I respect copyright) but here is the first stanza:
Here’s what I had in mind, kōtiro, this
clipping at words like overgrown maikuku –
return the blankets of domestic life; don’t fold
washing or wear shoes, polish these rerenga kē.
If this anthology is an open home, a map, it is also a handbook on existence, on navigating a world under threat, along with its pasts and its futures. I pick a poem, any poem, and then linger upon the way language matters, the way story matters, the way a poem can start with one person speaking, offering words that spring to life in the air/ear and then open our relations with the world in myriad directions. My reading begins close up and personal, and then reaches wide into a global embrace. It’s essential reading.
and by default –
an open sea,
what language will not meet me
They convince my mother
her voice is a selfish tide,
claiming words that are not meant
this roiling carcass of ocean
making ragdolls of our foreign limbs.
In the end our brown skin
married to seabed,
Eunice Andrada from ‘ (Because I am a daughter) of diaspora’
University of Queensland Press page