On Saturday, Grace Taylor organised a fundraising event for the Rising Voices Youth Poetry Slam project. It was held in a grand house in Remuera where the host, Jo, provided mouthwatering food (an absolute feast of food). In between the tasty morsels, there were equally tasty poetry treats from four talented slam poets (Grace, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Brian Gashema and Husam Aldiery).
The event was to raise funds to help with the mentoring of the young poets. Unlike other Slam Poetry events, this one mentors the poets for six weeks prior to the competition — with writing and performing workshops. The third Rising Voices Poetry Slam will be held this Saturday (14th) in the Auckland Town Hall’s Concert Chamber at 7 pm. You can book through http://www.ticketmaster.co.nz or phone 0800 111 999 or 09 970 9700. Tickets $15 – $20.
Each poet read several courses of poems with poignant introductions and comments. This is the standout thing. These poets tap deep into what matters to them so the poetry is as much from the heart as it is furnished with political bite (without sappy emotion or sentimental cliches or angry shouting). The page can appear so much more reserved than the intimacy of open space in someone’s lounge. Everybody was both moved and challenged, entertained and comforted. These poets are storytellers as much as they are musicians. Poetry is an entry point for awareness and attentiveness -both politically and of the self.
Grace kicked off the afternoon. She is a youth worker who was born and raised in South Auckland with a Samoan mother and an English father. Grace said that poetry has enabled her to ask and navigate the important questions (Why I can’t speak Samoan? Who am I?). Her debut collection will be released on November 2nd. Her first poem, ‘I am the Va’a,’ was in debt to Albert Wendt as she explores that space between one person and another, places and experiences. This, then, was a powerful and moving performance of a personified Va’a — as a person of mixed culture.
Grace said listening to music (Ben Harper, Bic Runga) was her way into poetry. She used to write down lyrics in a songbook, and from that her love of playing with words grew. She performed ‘Black Black Tea,’ a poem that responded to her cousin in Samoa, a solo mother of three. It affected Grace as she performed it and it affected us as we listened. The musical intricacies coupled with the pain and the love was a combination that hooked your attention utterly (‘her salts and knots unravelling before me’).
She also performed a poem that she wrote before and after the birth of her son and said that some poems need to be written for the page (as well as performed) and this was one of them. It was very moving (both for Grace and us).
Brian, a 17-year-old student at Northcote College, won the Rising Voices Poetry Slam last year. His family are from Burundi, but he was born in Kenya. He was inspired by hip hop – borrowing and adding lines of his own. A number of his poems have been for English oral assessments with a teacher helping him find a starting point for a poem (memory, for example). He poems luxuriate in rhyme. That is the first gift — the way the phrases and rhyme choices are nectar for the ear; ‘came bold and rolled masses of the old’ ‘taught you to live enormous and never be dormant’ and rhymed ‘answer’ with ‘cancer’ and rhymed ‘history,’ ‘mystery’ and ‘intimacy.’ The second gift was the way poems layered insight upon heart — thus you get compassion and warmth and thoughtfulness.
Before he performed his poem, ‘Tick Tock,’ (his teacher got home thinking about time) he said, ‘It kinda just happened but it didn’t turn out the way I thought it would’ (that’s poetry!). And in his poem, ‘new writers will arrive with less italics and more bold’ (nice!). And ‘define your time and design a new movement.’
Husam is from Syria although he has never lived there (lived in both The States and here). He is currently a third-year student of medicine. His first poem ‘Hijab’ explores the experience his mother faces wearing the veil and how he reacts to that experience (‘my mother’s headscarf is a symbol of her modesty’). Husam also read the first poem he wrote. He wrote it on his phone when he had to wait somewhere for two hours. The poem opened and spread with thinking and being (philosophy and experience). ‘What the hell are you fighting for?’ and ‘teach myself to open my eyes and descend your gravity’ and ’19 years of unanswered questions in the corners of my face folds.’
Husam said people often come to him with ailments as though he can diagnose them. He read ‘Surgery in Space,’ a terrific poem dedicated to his father (a brick wall). The lines grew in poignancy as the son dug and peeled the layers back in a portrait that sung out with honesty: ‘In my eyes my father was a brick wall’ ‘dug through layers of regret that accumulated beneath the skin’ ‘galaxies of missed opportunities and lost love.’ It felt like we were invited into the most intimate moment: quiet, subtle, heartfelt.
Selina read from Fast Talkin’ PI before moving on to new poems. Her new collection, Dark Sparring, will be released on November 15th. She read the love poem, ‘LA International Airport’ that she read to her husband for the first time at the Poetry Olympics in London. (‘You and I are a big, international airport terminal under renovation.’). Moving and witty, her words jilted you. In her second love poem, ‘Fish Man,’ the lines were sparking: ‘your words icebergs tearing a strip into the ship that sunk’ and ‘Your love has tsunamied me.’ She performed this last poem from memory and said she had practiced it walking down Queen Street pretending she was talking on the phone.
Selina’s new collection comes out of grief – the grief at her mother passing from breast cancer and the way kick boxing channelled her mourning. Her poem, ‘Kick Boxing Cancer’ is like a sequel to her ‘Fast Talkin’ PI’ poem with her compounding ‘I am a woman …’ lines. But while this poem is also about empowering women, it is too about remembering and replenishing the maternal line (‘I am the woman with the pot, I am the woman with the pen’ and ‘I am the woman storming out/ I am the woman storming in’). This taster from her new collection, just made me want more.
This was a special occasion. I liked the way poems were performed by memory but were at times read from the page (Selina’s blue biro in a notebook, and Husam from his phone). I also liked the way the seasoned slam poets were more interactive than the rest of us as an audience. The way they audibly react to the bits they love — like you do inside your head when you are reading a poem in the hammock or waiting for the bus or in bed late at night.
To finish up Grace said: ‘We give a part of ourselves and we all have a moment of being vulnerable.’ I agree. For those people that think Slam Poetry is all shouting and overstatement and emotional floodgates and shonky rhyme, think again. This was the best poetry gig I have been to in ages. Moving, challenging, inpsiring. I salute you!
If anyone wants to support this project financially let me know and I will put you in touch with Grace. there are a handful of tickets available for The Rising Voices Poetry Slam on Saturday night.
PS Apologies if I misheard any of your lines!