INSIDE: The wonderful world of "Spoken Word Perth"

INSIDE: The wonderful world of "Spoken Word Perth"

In the early afternoon of Sunday the 4th of August, I parked my car near the Perth train station, walked across the bridge that led towards the Art Gallery, and made my way down the auditorium steps of the Perth Cultural Centre. On the left, tucked into the side of Northbridge’s outdoor theatre space, stood the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA).

It felt strange as I approached the red-brick heritage building. I knew what the afternoon held in store, but the backdrop was unfamiliar. Despite living in Perth my entire life, and being part of Perth’s poetry community for the last 3 years, I’d never been inside the well-known arts space before. Yet here I was now, ready to walk through its white triple-arch doors for Spoken Word Perth. Knowing that I’d soon see my fellow poets again made it feel like coming home.

Spoken Word Perth (SWP), a much-loved local poetry event, has been my artistic home since 2016, when I was invited to perform as a feature poet at Paper Mountain, the performance/gallery space perched upstairs on William Street. After that, I had become a regular attendee at their open-mike nights, held every second Wednesday at 7:00pm. However, despite its cosy, casual, and intimate vibes, the only way to get into Paper Mountain was up a set of stairs, making it unaccessible for many. To rectify this, the SWP organisers put the fortnightly event on hiatus until a new venue could be found. And finally, after months bereft of the poetry nights that brought the community of artists together, we’d found a new home.

As I walked through PICA’s doors and looked to the right, I found Spoken Word Perth’s bubbly, pastel pink MC Jessie Appleyard, who hugged me and asked me how I was, before inviting me in. I rifled through my wallet for a $10 note, glad that I’d remembered SWP’s cash-only entry fee. I reflected for a moment on their generous $5 discount, back when I was unemployed. It was a long-standing rule at SWP that any unwaged attendee payed less, ensuring that even those who were struggling could still access the arts.

Since Jessie was also the one who took names for the open-mike, I asked her to write down mine. There were usually only ten to fifteen spots available, and I was determined that I’d get one. I missed performing my poetry, and was itching to get back on that stage. Even though I hadn’t written any new poems in months, I wanted to read a couple of old pieces, specially chosen for tonight. As she wrote down my name, Jessie asked me what the vibe of my poems were.

“Uhm, honey, and hugs”, I said, after thinking for a moment.

“That is the most Elise thing I’ve ever heard” Jessie exclaimed, ushering me through the door.

Inside, the performance area was dark and spacious, a far cry from the light colours and cosiness of Paper Mountain. Still, the black space was open and inviting, occupied only by a single microphone stand under a white spotlight. It felt a bit like the first night in a new house after moving. A part of me still ached for the home that was Paper Mountain, but also felt excitement at the novelty of the dynamic new space that PICA offered.

As usual, I was early, and one of the first inside. I eagerly grabbed myself a seat in the first row, and pulled my notebook and phone out of my handbag. I was here for 2 reasons tonight; business and pleasure. While I would have come to read anyway, I was also here to write a piece about Spoken Word for Isolated Nation. The phone had the 2 poems I planned to read in it, and the notebook was for taking notes and getting quotes to use in my article.

Behind me, the rows of theatre-style seating slowly started filling with excited people, eager to catch up and immerse themselves in this world. I found myself repeatedly jumping up from my seat to greet the friends I had made in the poetry scene as they arrived. Warm hugs were given, and updates on each other’s lives were happily exchanged. Many of us had not seen each other in months, and tonight felt a long-overdue reunion. I was particularly excited to personally congratulate David Cox and Anna Sheehy, two poets who had recently gotten engaged to each other. David is also Spoken Word Perth’s videographer, and is often spotted at the event with his tripod and camera, ready to capture the performance of poems and upload them to the SWP YouTube channel. I asked him if he was also reading tonight, and he said yes, claiming he had two love poems to share with us. I caught Anna blushing.

In amongst the familiar faces of old-timers, the swelling audience also had newcomers I’d never seen before. It was a good sign - though the Perth poetry scene is still relatively small, the influx of new poets showed that our little community is growing. While some visitors sat quietly, waiting for the event to start, I could see others striking up conversations, caught up in the innately friendly atmosphere of the room. I remembered being a first-timer back in 2016, surrounded by strangers, yet knowing that I had “found my people”. I hoped that our new arrivals would feel the same, and find the same sense of belonging that I had. We were all there for the same reason, after all; a love of, or curiosity about poetry.

The chatter settled as Jessie stepped into her role as MC, and kicked off the show centre-stage. The room filled with cheers of excitement and anticipation as she welcomed us all to this month’s Spoken Word Perth. Each SWP event has a different theme, which you can embrace or disregard entirely. Past themes have included words like Fake, Wonderwall, Family, Bright, and Eternity. Tonight, in honour of our feature poet Sam Needs, the theme was “Cwtch”. Pronounced ‘kutch’, and rhyming with ‘butch’, this is a Welsh word meaning a hug or safe place, which felt very appropriate for SWP. After the traditional Welcome to and Acknowledgement of Country, in which Jessie paid respects to the Whadjuk-Noongar people, she asked that performers pop a content warning into their introductions, if their poem may be triggering. It was clear that the SWP team aimed to make the event a safe space for all.

Finally we were under way, and one by one each open-miker got up to deliver their poems to the audience. As each poet poured out their confessional, chaotic, and/or comedic performances, there seemed to be an understanding amongst us all that vulnerability was a necessary part of such openness. Even Perth’s self-confessed cynical wordsmith Brilo later admitted to me that, while he doesn’t believe in such a thing as a safe space, “this is the closest you’re gonna get”.

The rich artistic tapestry that is Perth’s poetry scene was evident in the variety of ways that each poet read to the captivated crowd, which soaked up every new voice like a sponge. Some poets spoke in slow intimate whispers, as if hesitantly sharing their deepest secrets (which sometimes they did). Others almost roared, whether in triumph or in anger. David’s romantic love poems, which he dedicated to his new fiancee, were spoken with a sweet sincerity and bold devotion that had the audience swooning at his words. Per SWP tradition, the first-time performers were given extra loud applause as they nervously got up to share, and afterwards were encouraged to come back to future events. 

When Jessie called my name, I finally surrendered to the gravitational pull of the spotlight, and gleefully got up to take the stage. Facing the mike and my audience with a smile, I explained how I had chosen my two poems, using one to convey the Cwtch theme, and the other to pay homage to our feature poet. Sam, who was selling a collection of his honey-themed poems in a zine/chapbook, had once said that my “Honey Heart” poem made him want to write again. There are few higher compliments. I took a deep breath, feeling time slow around me as I began to perform. Even after years of experience speaking in public, I still felt my legs and hands shake a little with the thrill and exhilaration of being behind the mike again. The familiar words were soon spilling out of me like water, ebbing and flowing like the tide in a practiced rhythm that I knew by heart, but found anew with each performance. I couldn’t help but smile from ear to ear when my beloved community clapped in appreciation of my poems about Ancient Egyptian honey, and my boyfriend’s hugs.

After half of the open-mikers had read, and the feature poet Sam had performed the first of his two sets, Jessie announced a short 10-15 minute break. The brief reprieve allowed us all to get out of our seats, stretch our legs, use the facilities, and grab a drink from the PICA Bar next door. It was also an opportunity for me to catch up some more with poetry friends, and scribble down a few quotes for the article. As I darted from friend to friend, asking them what they loved about SWP, I felt like a bee moving from flower to flower, collecting golden pollen to make honey with.

Jessie was happy to gush about the event she hosts: “I love the space it gives people to share, to be brave, to be vulnerable, and to be loved”.

David, who was stepping away from his video-camera for a moment, spoke about what makes SWP special. “I love the creative outlet. I love the community. It’s great to have a communal space where you can mingle with other adults who have similar interests to you”.

Biddle, a poet returning from a self-imposed hiatus, captured the feeling in the room by describing Spoken Word Perth as “a church without religion”.

Saoirse Nash, a local poet, organiser, and small press runner, explained how important the event has been to her over the years. “Spoken Word Perth has been instrumental to me. My medication kept me alive, but Spoken Word made me want to be alive. It makes being alive beautiful”.

Pleased with my collection of quotes, I returned to my seat, ready for the second half of the event. The rest of the audience soon followed, equally eager for more poetry. As the open-mikers resumed, the poets continued to discuss every subject imaginable with their pieces. Relationships, identity, nature, politics and activism, trauma and recovery were frequent topics. The poems about ugly babies, sex positions, bees, and watching Mary Poppins whilst high as a kite were rarer and certainly unexpected, but oh so wonderful to listen to.

There was plenty of applause punctuating readings, along with smatterings of the clicking fingers that have become synonymous with these events. While it may have sounded odd to newcomers, the habit is a great way for the crowd to engage with the poets and feed into their performances without distracting them. This custom, which began as a sign of cool aloofness in the beatnik sub-culture of the 50’s and 60’s, has become a modern form of audience participation that conveys appreciation, and reinforces that no matter who has the microphone and the spotlight, we all have a part to play in this.

The feature poet Sam, whose poems seesawed back and forth between rib-cracking hilarity and heart-breaking vulnerability, received many a clap and click for his touching words. During his second set, I looked down the row of seats to see tears glistening on Saoirse’s cheeks, and felt them run down my own as well. But there were plenty of laughs as well. Sam certainly set his performance apart from everyone else’s by bringing along two mugs filled with paper slips, which he randomly picked from between poems. One mug contained his favourite quotes, and the other a baffling list of sex position names. To this day I still don’t know what an Edinburgh Burrito Shop is, but I imagine it has something to do with eating out a Scottish girl’s taco.

As the afternoon went on, other related events were plugged on the microphone. As veteran poets like Scott-Patrick Mitchell (SPM) spoke about the heats of the Australian Poetry Slam, the Perth Poetry Festival, and other open-mikes around the city, newcomers got a glimpse of how much Perth’s spoken word scene is thriving. And there’s an open invitation to anyone who wants to join.

When the applause finally died down after the final set, the crowd made their way outside into the open air, souls replenished. As newcomer Ebonyelle described it, “We were all there for different reasons, but the movement of the event and the constant endurance of ‘this is a safe space’ was so compelling […]  Like that little bit of kindness […] made a difference in my day, personally. As an event, I felt that y’all were conscious of everyone who may be battling things they don’t talk about.”

As is customary, some people stuck around for post-poetry drinks across the road at Mechanics Institute Bar. Everyone was welcome to come along. The event may have been finished for the night, but the community persists beyond it. As we walked, I asked the feature poet (and former organiser), Sam, what Spoken Word Perth means to him. After all, this would be his last Spoken Word before he heads back home to the UK. He smiled thoughtfully at the question before giving a simple answer. “It’s like a cwtch.”

Spoken Word Perth’s open-mike events are held monthly at PICA. For information about upcoming events (and other Perth poetry happenings), check out the SWP Facebook page.

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