Poetic License

They say the pen is mightier than the sword, and what do you write with a pen? Words. Beautiful, glorious words that can evoke all sorts of emotions.

Outer Urban Projects are well and truly aware of this, and have paired up with the Footscray Community Arts Centre to create Poetic License, a poetry reading part of the Melbourne Writers Festival that combines all sorts of poetry, from classical poetry to street poetry, from calming to attacking prose, and everything in between. I spoke to Outer Urbans Project Producer/Director Irine Vela about what people can expect at Poetic License.

What inspired Poetic License? How did it come about?
Over thirty years ago at university, I did a subject called Classical Civilisation. I grew up watching World Championship wrestling and epic theatre, a TV show about gladiators and togas and Greek myths: Hercules, Odyssyes, the Muses, Jason and the Argonauts; Ancient stories from my mother’s country- stories mum would tell us at bedtime. So I thought it would be a fun and easy to do.

We studied a comic play by Aristophanes called The Frogs. Aristophanes believed poetry could inspire a nation, in his case, Athens. In The Frogs, Dionysus is frustrated with the culture and writing of Athens, and decides to undertake a journey to the underworld to find Euripides, his favourite poet – the one he misses the most, to bring him back to life with the hope that his words can inspire. When he gets to the deepest part of the underworld he finds Euripides, but also Aeschylus, another older poet who also wants the chance to be brought back to life. And so a battle between the poets ensues. Dionysus is forced to choose between them. The work is probably the first ever example of what we now call ‘slam poetry’ – a competition between poets.

When I began as an artist, I was attracted to words and poetry in particular. I admired and was inspired by the way composers in countries such as Greece and Chile would set poetry by exquisite poets to music – poets such as Pablo Neruda, Yiannis Ritsos, Frederico Garcia Lorca, Giorgos Seferis, Odyseus Elytis, Brendan Behan even Berthold Brecht. This movement married poetics with aesthetics successfully and extended the possibilities of the popular and folk music of those countries to a profound level – enriching it, making it relevant to a contemporary audience – bridging high art and popular culture.  In 1986, I was part of the first ever non-English speaking production at the Victorian Arts Centre. The production included a dramatisation with music of Yiannis Ritsos’ epic poem “Epitaphios” in Greek and also a contemporary Greek-Australian performance Poet called Komninos Zervos. 28 years later, I am working with him again!

This is the show’s first time being part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. How does it feel to be part of something like that?
It’s great to have rappers and hip-hop poets appear in the context of a writer’s festival. It places their art form within a literary context. It legitimises the value of spoken word and performance poetry and takes the form to a wider audience.

How did you manage to gather such a diverse group of poets together for this show?
When it was time to select poets for Poetic Licene, Komninos Zervos came to mind. He was my Euripides, or my Aeschylus so to speak! The elder poet. The poet that influenced me in my 20s. Komninos’ poetry is honest and immediate and also humorous…he is a poet who truly loves words. The real deal. I started to check out the spoken word scene, which thrives in Melbourne and I came across a number of poets who I thought would influence our mix of young poets along with Komninos in unpredictable ways – poets such as Ebony Moncrief, Koraly Dimitriades and Grace Vanilau.

Outer Urban Projects works with many amazing young rappers and singers – and rap is a form of performance poetry. In Poetic License, we have a virtuosic speed rapper and beat box champion Kevin Nugara. His ability to transform words into sounds is extraordinary – and the fun bit is to slow him down to hear and appreciate his gift for performing words – to align his rap tendencies with his poetic sensibilities. Mahmoud Samoun is also a rapper who in our last production Urban Chamber Beyond reduced the audience to tears by a prose piece about his deep connection and relationship with his mother. This experience turned him on to the power of the bare spoken word. Ileini Kabalan is a unique hybrid jazz alternative singer who is also a gifted rapper Her raps and poems are literary gems. I thought it would be interesting to give our work an intergenerational twist – and to see what would evolve by combining an energetic and curious 13 year old rapper, Dante Soffra, with spoken word artists in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s – the differences that age brings to a poets understanding of the world and their place in it is fascinating. And not only age…when and where you were born and raised impacts on the way you relate to the world and render it through words and what you choose to communicate to an audience. It would have been good to have had an octogenarian in the mix – and I hope if we remount Poetic Licence again, we will have a poet of an even grander age.

Outer Urban Projects community is based in the outer northern suburbs of Melbourne. We have a pool of young artists who are hungry for artistic expression and we facilitate their entry in to the arts world by conducting regular workshops and also by creating interesting performance outcomes in the mainstream arts community. Poetic License is one of these outcomes. The artists I mentioned interested us – the combination of them felt like an interesting cocktail of voices.

There is a jazz singer and a rapper performing in this show. How do you feel musical poetry compares to spoken poetry?
Spoken poetry is naked and pure…solo instrumental music, or the singing human voice is also naked and pure. When you combine the two, they then enter the domain of ‘song” and it works. To hear the spoken word on its own however privileges the words and therefore the words have to captivate on their own without any help – well that is only the help of the speaker, the reciter and their ability to perform the words effectively. The spoken word poet is is naked and vulnerable. Doing a show of spoken word feels a little dangerous as we are so used to the notion of a “soundtrack”. But let’s not discount the soundtrack approach either. Often music can help to make the words and their meaning reach the audience in other ways…it can alter our experience of the words, which is interesting in it. In our show we have included the harpist Natalia Mann. There is something about the classical harp that is ethereal, ancient sounding- and gentle. Gentle enough to compliment words and not compete with them.

What do you feel the appeal of poetry is?
Poetry can get to the point quickly in a rich ways. It condenses meaning with beauty and emotion, humour and irony. It helps us to close our eyes and connect with others and ourselves.

Originally published here at milkbarmag.com on Tuesday 26 August 2014

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