by Meelee Soorkia

Feature photo: Carlos Andres Gomez

It was a sight I’d never seen before – six poets being mobbed by an elated crowd, but that’s exactly what happened after ‘An Economy of Words. In a packed-out session at Left Bank, a panel of poets from Indonesia, Singapore, Sudan and Australia demonstrated exactly how performance poetry can be exhilarating, absorbing and enriching.

In my university days I had suffered through countless poetry readings that made me fantasise about an on-the-spot lobotomy. I’d long ago given up on the idea that performance poetry could be anything but tedious, but chair Carlos Andres Gomez obliterated my prejudices with an electrifying opening performance, before inviting the panel to share their motivations for writing poetry, their creative processes and how they navigate the responsibility of being a poet. After all, poetry has the ability to affect the social landscape and poets need to respond to profound social and political issues.

For Sukabumi-born Regi Sastra Sena who writes in Bahasa Indonesia, ‘Writing poetry is like a life calling … that explores the suffering and conditions we see in the world, but all of that has to be based on honesty’. For Jesse John Brand, the residing Australia Poetry Slam National Champion, performance poetry is like a two-way undressing – you need to be naked in front of the audience, but you are also undressing the audience in the process. And for spoken-word poet Abe Nouk, a Sudanese refugee who now lives in Australia, poetry is a constant conflict between the head and the heart – a war which the heart should always win because ‘poetry needs to make people feel something’.

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Abraham Nouk

As with all forms of art, the poets’ approaches to the creative process are many and varied – how can one apply a cookie-cutter approach to something as diverse and intricate as poetry? Singapore-born Stephanie Dogfoot views it as ‘a freeze on memory’. When she gets an idea, she writes out 3–4 pages of text, sets it aside to percolate for weeks or months, before editing down the words. Award-winning Australian poet Emily Zoe Baker likens an idea for a poem to a shiny coin you see glinting in the sand when you’re walking on the beach – if you don’t pick it up immediately, it gets swallowed up by the sand. Writing poetry is not easy for Regi Sastra Sena; it’s a process of trial and error, not unlike cooking: ‘We’ll continue to fail on a regular basis, but eventually we will come to a beautiful perfect poetry.’

Performances were interspersed through the session and after witnessing one compelling performance after another, one audience member was compelled to ask: Do we need to review the way in which we teach poetry to students? Why is poetry viewed as a waste of time?

‘We’re teaching all kids to be one person,’ said Jesse John Brand, ‘but the power of the spoken word lies in allowing kids to be themselves. We have the Iliad thrust upon us at too young an age, and never get an opportunity to experience how powerful poetry can be.’

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Jesse John Brand

‘We’re born poets but then we forget that,’ said Emily Zoe Baker. When a student recently asked her what the point of poetry was, she responded with the this scenario: ‘The world will end in one day, and there are only five people left on the planet – an academic, an essayist, a journalist, a fiction writer and a poet. Who would you entrust to sum up all of human existence? Who could fit all of that on one piece of paper?’

If poetry is an ‘economy of words’, then it’s an exchange between the writer and the audience, and the writer and their peers. Today’s session was the perfect example of how dynamic and relevant that exchange can be.