"I found something that rang my bones like bells"

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 I wander in without any intention of buying anything - but more often than not, I leave 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. But poetry? I’ve never really been fan. In English classes back in school, prose dominated - mostly 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, yet 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 of mine. Living in Melbourne, the home of one of the world’s largest comedy festivals, has helped fuel this obsession. I’ve gradually been able to spot the theme in many of my favourite performances: clever turns of phrase, thoughtful storytelling, and a strong dose of heart - especially from comedians like Daniel Kitson and Cassie Workman.

Particularly with the storytelling focus, it’s a short step to me listening reverently to authors reading their works. One highlight from many years ago was being in the audience to hear Neil Gaiman read excerpts from his novel Anansi Boys. 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 my favourites in 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 with her spoken word performance of Marngrook. The show could have finished right then and there, and we would all have gone home satisfied.

My growing interest in spoken word was also fostered by the Link Festival. At last year’s edition, 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 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 and beautiful, and always human, I was drawn into every story and will not forget them any time soon. Thus, when hearing she had a new publication about to be released, I made sure I could be at Readings for the launch before knowing anything about what the book was about.

Once I realised that it was a poetry collection 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:

When 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 I managed to get in on the waiting list anyway, and 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 left that event with my heart singing, and with a burning desire to be a spoken word poet.

The Melbourne Writers Festival is currently running, and the opening keynote was given by none other than Maxine Beneba Clarke. Her speech was both brilliant and eloquent, and received a greatly deserved standing ovation. Much like at the launch of Carrying the World, the sense of community and appreciation was clear both in the audience and in Maxine’s 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 a gentle reinforcement for my appreciation of the moments when people on a stage speak from the heart and leave marks on our souls.

As many of my friends are aware from conversations over the past few months, I’ve found poetry on my terms, and I’m embracing it all - whether it be via lyrics, prose, comedy or slam. As Kate Tempest would say, it all rings my bones like bells.