sydney morning herald - heather camPOETRY

heather cam, sydney morning herald, 16/11/91

THESE books record the recent resurgence in performance poetry, bear testimony

to the nexibility, of publishing, and remind us that the stringencies of

economic recession can generate ingenious solutions. But most importantly,

they present refreshing alternatives; their shared message is a resounding "vive la difference!"

Poets are among the best-trained to deal with a recession since, regrettably, so

many of them are permanent residents of that state. So it's not surprising to

find poets and their publishers devising creative schemes to make the most of

hard times. In the case of four performance poets from Victoria it has meant

moving in with friends and sharing a book.

Live Sentences. by Myron Lysenko Lauren William~, John Ashton and Kerry Scuffins

(Penguin, $14.9S), operates rather like a night at Writers in the Park or La

Mama Poetica. What you miss out on in terms of voice quality, bodily movement

and facial expression is compensated for by the inclusion of idiosyncratic

biographical notes, statements on performance poetry, a photo of each poet "in

action", and a

All four poets are committed to bringing poetry to the people, making it

accessible, relevant and fun, a rival to a night in the pub with a band. They

stress "the elements of music and theatre" so essential to this art form.

Acknowledge- ment is made to radio stations as much as to literary magazines.

The work differs from poetry for the page in that it is far less dense,

abstruse, metaphorical, and complex. Of neces- sity it must convey its message

to the audience and strike a chord there and then, otherwise the poem has

failed. As Lauren Williams points out, reviews are"instant" and "written on the

faces of the audience". Thus performance poetry tends to be extremely direct,

rather literal, inclined to joke, humour, challenge and shock the audience, and

to refer to topical and current events. Rhythm and rhyme come to the fore (most

strikingly in Williams' wonderful raps). The personality and opinions of the

poet are out front, on display though in "Making a Baby (The Separatist Way)"

and other poems Myron Lysenko plays up the modern "sensitive" male's

disproportionate sense of inadequacy and guilt by adopting a comic persona the

gullible, nice, but not too bright guy. Myths are ~leefully debunked and worn

phrases recoined, as in John Ashton's observation that the "Sleek inherit the

earth". The dark side of living outside the "System" is revealed in Kerry

Scuffins's poems about oppression, depression, poverty, addiction, and police


The quality of the poetry is at times uneven and the demands upon the reader not

great; nevertheless, congratulations to Penguin for bringing these poets to a

larger audience.

UQP has come even closer to recreating the experience of performance poetry in

the Komninos package of book and cassette tape ($19.95). The former intersperses

texts of Komninos's most popular and well-known pieces with photos of the poet

on the road, before his adoring audiences leaning into the mic, with school kids

and old codgers, and as a young boy amid his immigrant Greek family. To turn the

pages is to be constantly in the presence of this dynamic performer - an effect

intensified by listening to the tape of his "rich raspy voice . . . Iike the

bottom of a whisky bottle". The poet's consideable charisma and deep commitment to converting those who would normally have no truck with literature (let alone poetry !) accounts for his indisputable popularity.


The grapevine has it that the Little Esther Books were printed on off-cuts hence

their chequebook shape. Whether this explanation is apocryphal or not, these are

delightfully whimsical pocketbooks, both as physical objects and as literary

experiences. Ken Bol- ton, publisher of Lil Esther Books and editor of Otis

Rush. adopts an approach to things literary which is innovative, inteltectually

sprightly, and artistically refreshing. So too do the poets in this series

(Sestina ~o ~he Centre of the Brain. by Ken Bolton; The W~ld WhiteSea, by John

Jenkins; Adventures in Paradise, by Laurie Duggan; all $8). All three are

peppered with amusing references to artlstic movements or contemporary

Australian poets.

The tit!es are tongue-in-cheek, the illustrations comic (Boofhead is a key

character in Bolton's Sestina ), the ambience off-beat, amused, hip, and

experimental. These works appear to be written with consummate ease, yet they

tirelessly push at boundaries in order to claim more territory for poetry.

Bolton frames stories within stories and "stretches the rules a little". In a

reprinting of his 1982 work Duggan tackles "The Great Tradition" and "The New

Australian Poetry, Now !" John Jenkins offers a verse equivalent of B-grade,

action-packed thrillers, splatter movies, and comic books.

Hazel Smith is a text-sound artist, a musician and an academic. Abstractly

Represented: Poems ~ Performance Texts 1982-90, (Buttetfly, $11.95) includes

systemic, collage and permuting poems, as well as performance texts complete

with musical notations and instructions for performance.

Smith explains how systemic poems begin with a prose passage which is then

"dislocated and progressively transformed by layering, word associa- tion,

punning and permutation to produce new verbal continuities".

What emerges from this process of transformation is at times so dependent on the

poet's particular associations and unique experiences that for long stretches it

can be virtually impossible to garner meaning from the words. For the most part

the exercise was lost on me as I floundered through a dream- babble that at

times promised to convey sense, but then drifted off.

Heather Cam has performed her poems on radio, in res~aurants and in public.