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"I found something that rang my bones like bells"

Posted on 27 August, 2016

A few months ago, I found myself at Readings’ bookshop - an institution of Lygon Street in Carlton. It’s a shop I’ve ventured inside countless times - often without any intention of buying anything. More often than not, I’ve left with at least one book under my arm. This time, though, I was visiting for a specific reason: the launch of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s latest poetry collection Carrying the World.

I love the written word, and I while I don’t read quite as voraciously as in my youth, it’s not unheard of for me to devour a book in a weekend. Fiction - particularly fantasy and science fiction - dominates my shelves. Political and social commentary is slowly establishing a foothold in my collection. But poetry? I’ve never really been fan. In English classes back in school, prose dominated - mostly in the form of the inescapable essays. Sometimes poetry would get a look in, but nothing that made a lasting impact on me. Very occasionally, we’d need to write some poems ourselves, but it felt simplistic - just make it rhyme, and you’d be fine.

And yet, here I was, at the launch of a collection of poetry!

Music has always held the keys to my soul. Some of that is the sound: soaring strings or sharp horns or a beat from the drums that you can’t help but tap along to. Of course, lyrics often draw me in as well - whether it be the imagery of Elbow’s Great Expectations, the wry and delightful turns of phrase of The Lucksmiths’ Sunlight in a Jar, or the simple and effecting storytelling of Darren Hanlon’s House.

Comedy is another great passion. Living in Melbourne, the home of one of the world’s largest comedy festivals, has helped fuel this obsession. Through this, I’ve been able to understand a theme to many of my favourite performances: clever turns of phrase, thoughtful storytelling, and a strong dose of heart - especially from comedians like Daniel Kitson and Michael Workman.

Particularly with the storytelling focus, it’s a short step to me listening reverently to authors reading their works. I had the great pleasure of hearing Neil Gaiman read excerpts from Anansi Boys many years ago, and every time I re-read the book, it’s his voice in my head narrating the story.

Melbourne is so very luck to have The Wheeler Centre as a regular host of events. Sometimes they feature authors such as Neil Gaiman, but there is also an extensive roster of musicians, journalists, politicians, philosophers and other interesting people. As far as I’m concerned, The Wheeler Centre is a key part in what makes Melbourne the best city in the world.

One of the highlights of their calendar is The Show of the Year, a variety night hosted by the inimitable Casey Bennetto which occurs in December. Twelve performers of different stripes - a decent representation of the wider Wheeler Centre roster - are each given a month of the year, and they ruminate on a specific event that occurred in that month. In the inaugural Show of the Year of 2013, Maxine Beneba Clarke took on the month of May and floored everyone in the audience with her spoken word performance of Marngrook.

My growing interest in spoken word was also fostered by the Link Festival. Early last year, they handed their stage over to Still Nomads, a group of young adult African-Australians who took it in turns to inspire and move us with their own brilliant slam poetry. It was a different touch for a conference focused on design, technology and social change, and everyone in the audience was spellbound by the performance. The Link Festival crew kept the tradition going this year, with Joel McKerrow using spoken word to spark a call to arms.

After seeing Maxine perform and host a handful of Wheeler Centre events, I picked up a copy of her short story collection Foreign Soil. At times devastating & beautiful, and always human, I was drawn into every story and will not forget them any time soon. Thus, when hearing there was a new book about to be released, I made sure I could be at Readings for the launch before even spotting that the new work was a collection of poetry. With that realisation I did pause, but only for a moment - I knew I wanted to read more of whatever Maxine had to write, so along I went.

On that evening, I stood up the back. Most of the other people there seemed to know each other and were chatting away, but as an outsider who struggles to open conversations with strangers, I sipped my water and waited quietly for the event to start. During the proceedings, though, Maxine turned what would have otherwise been an event focused on herself and her book into a celebration of the local poetry community. She asked her friends and peers to perform their own works, and shared her own stories of how she came to be a part of the scene with fondness. The joy and deep appreciation shared amongst everyone there was clear and infectious.

The following day, I came across British spoken word poet (and writer and rapper) Kate Tempest performing Progress on Q&A, full of fire and rage:

Once I recovered from the power of the poem, I found out that Kate had an event scheduled in Melbourne as part of her visit to Australia - at The Wheeler Centre (of course), and hosted by Maxine Beneba Clarke (of course). The one catch? It was completely booked out…

Thankfully, though, myself and a dozen other hopefuls put our names on the waiting list before the session started and were lucky enough to fit in. What followed was an intoxicating hour of thoughtful questions and answers, with Kate ruminating on hip-hop: “I felt like I found something that rang my bones like bells”, poetry: “if you don’t find it on your own terms, you’ll never find it”, and art in general: “if you feel it, if it’s found you, it’s for you.” She also read from her novel The Bricks that Built the Houses - which I promptly bought and greatly enjoyed.

I walked out after that event finished with a burning desire to be a spoken word poet.

Maxine Beneba Clarke gave a brilliant and eloquent opening keynote for the Melbourne Writers Festival last night - and again, the sense of community and appreciation was clear both in the audience and in her words. In defending spoken word as part of the broader literary world, Maxine elegantly said “spoken word is where literature began.” A simple reminder of the history and power of performed storytelling. And now that I’ve found it on my terms, I’m embracing poetry - whether it be via lyrics, prose, comedy or slam - that rings my bones like bells.