How’s this for serendipitous? Determined not to repeat last week’s hunger-induced rudeness, I opted for an early lunch on the far side of campus. Moments after putting away my last Le Snack biscuit (yep, I eat eight-year-olds’ lunches), I was approached by a guitar-toting woman who asked me for directions to the Writing and Publishing block. This was Lauren Williams, our guest speaker. I escorted her to said destination and, on the way, told her a bit about myself and this ’ere blog.
‘I’m recapping the year’s guest speakers!’ I enthused – no doubt coming across like Peter Brady. ‘Don’t worry: I won’t put anything salacious in it!’
She wasn’t worried, and would later go on to share a few of her tangos with the media. Par for the course for a published poet, I discovered. Right away, Lauren struck me as approachable and passionate. Admirably, she wasn’t afraid to share her strong views on the industry – my kind of guest speaker!
Anyway, let’s proceed with the recap.
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Lauren Williams began writing poetry recreationally in the early Eighties. Initially, she did it for fun, and did not intend to publish. Like last week’s Pepi Ronalds, Lauren spent seven years actively resisting the title of ‘poet’ (and a further seven resisting ‘songwriter’). The chance discovery of a local spoken-word poetry night sparked her interest and eased her into the performance poetry community. (Amazingly, she frequented these evenings for twenty-five years!) Once hooked, Lauren devoted herself to her craft and the development of her own voice. She was greatly influenced by the live scene and didn’t develop an interest in print poetry until years later.
A born-and-raised Victorian, Lauren believes Melbourne has the largest, most active poetry community in Australia. Poetry slams are particularly popular, though Lauren stresses there is an oft-overlooked distinction between slam and spoken-word poetry (the latter peaking in the Nineties).
Lauren grew increasingly disillusioned the more she involved herself in the Australian poetry scene. She isn’t cynical about our cultural climate, and reasons that there will always be underground artistic movements with passionate communities. But The Arts have always been under funded, and local opportunities for poets are few and far between. Grant councils are conservative and favour insular, academic poetry. Harder still is getting today’s public to muster enthusiasm for poetry. Poetry has been out of step with mainstream culture for years now; the modern poet’s struggle is for their work to be taken seriously. Even prose writers, I’ve noticed, regard their verse-writing kin with suspicion – if not outright derision. Where does this divide stem from? I’ve never been especially interested in poetry, but respect the medium. Why do so many prose writers today view poetry as a lesser art?
According to Lauren, the situation’s a little better overseas – particularly in Europe. Across the Indian Ocean, poetry festivals thrive. Why then are Australian print and performance opportunities so comparatively few? It’s difficult to say. To Lauren’s chagrin, fashions have changed – and not for the better. Australians have grown increasingly liberal, but our tastes in poetry have paradoxically narrowed.
By the time Lauren began setting her poetry to the page, the modernism movement was back in fashion and critics were reluctant to embrace anything else. Performance poetry was unfairly dismissed; free verse, too, was canned. Lauren offers some examples of this. She said Sydney-based Modernist Poets caused a minor controversy after running pieces which brazenly tarred both working-class and performance poetry. Similarly, a poetry reviewer at ABR left a damning, close-minded review of Lauren’s own work, dismissing her penchant for free verse as ‘ill-disciplined’. Media personality Philip Adams famously derided performance poets: ‘… whose words are like graffiti on a toilet wall’. He was also unapologetic in claiming that poets had to be either/or; in his mind, there are performance poets and there are academics. Lauren winces at this. She loathes our cultural obsession for labels. Poets – all artists – should feel free to indulge their present interests, no matter how much they contrast to what’s come before. I’m inclined to agree. Labels are handy marketing artifices, but restrictive if allowed to infringe upon the creative process.
Lauren believes the enduring trend of modernism has made it difficult for the masses to write and read poetry. It has turned poetry into ‘the province of academics’. This is reflected in the conservative awards culture. Conformity ensued, followed by schmoozing. The Australian poetry scene has become almost as duplicitous as Australian politics. Career poets shape their work for acceptance. Accessibility, equated with thoughtlessness, is dismissed. But accessible writing, Lauren argues, is deceptive in its simplicity; it is much harder to write than most realise. Similarly, free-verse, often misconstrued as having no structure, follows the rhythm of speech. There are myriad subtle, idiosyncratic differences depending on the poet’s country and culture of origin. All of these factors amount to an unacknowledged complexity.
It comes as no surprise that Lauren self-identifies as being on the outer of the status quo. She has entered the public sphere several times throughout her career, leaping to the defence of that which she cares about. In response to her blithe ABR reviewer, she penned the satirical reactionary poem, ‘Neo-Formalism Gets Drunk’. In another instance, Pan Brown published her poem-cum-letter to the editor. The opening line – ‘Shakespeare was a performance poet’ – said it all. She is vocal in her belief that the poetry published in The Age is overly esoteric and in need of a good shake-up. I’m admittedly ignorant about the Australian poetry scene; however, it amuses me that the climate Lauren describes is similar to that of Australian literary journals, the majority of which blatantly favour literary fiction above all else.
Despite these counterculture leanings, Lauren has been widely published – even, most notably, in an anthology put out by Penguin (See: Live Sentences). She read to us from her early zines, but confessed to feeling disconnected from this, her juvenilia. She encouraged us to get our work out there quickly, but stressed to take care and ensure it’s the best it can be. There’s no retracting it once it’s out there, and you don’t want your early work to embarrass you later.
These days, Lauren self-identifies as a songwriter, rather than a poet, and cites Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits among her influences. When asked to define the mediums, she explained that lyric-writing is typically simpler than poetry, to be more readily digestible. On the page, the reader can pause and return to a work, allowing for more nuances and a complexity of ideas. The audience to a performer, however, can only ingest so much information at a time. Music can help communicate an idea, which makes up for any deficiencies. Good songwriting often uses repetition to effectively reinforce its themes.
Another interesting juxtaposition is that Australian songwriting communities tend to be more accepting and inclusive than their verse equivalents. Lauren reasons this is because songwriting has broader appeal; generally, the public will understand a song, whereas the mechanics of poetry might alienate them.
The key to writing good lyrics and verse, Lauren says, is to search the depths of your subconscious. (She likens this process to ‘fishing’.) Though she doesn’t outright dispute the merits, intellectualising poetry – as in, engineering it to a taste or subject – has never worked for her. She says it’s important to be honest; you must mean what you say and have good reason for saying it. If you find reading or writing a particular style boring, move on. There is no point limiting yourself to some false perception of what ‘proper poetry’ ought to be.
Regarding her own writing habits, Lauren says she prefers to write lighter or even humorous lyrics. Given the choice, she prefers directness and a wry tone. Of course, the tone must fit the subject matter. She always carries a notebook, and encourages all writers to do the same. ‘Write down your ideas – you won’t remember them!’
Before finishing up, Lauren told an amusing anecdote about her first performance on the Spanish poetry festival circuit. At the time, her Spanish was limited, so she employed the help of a translator. Unfortunately, a recurring mistranslation derailed her entire performance and the audience met her with a confounded stare. This horrifying experience proved the impetus for her to begin formally studying the Spanish language; she wanted to ensure that would never happen again. She also performed for us a cover of Shelton Lea’s ‘Peach Melba Hat’, and a surprisingly potent rap about plastic bags, which was a hoot.
I was sceptical I’d have anything to learn from a performance poet. However, I was happy to be proven wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Lauren Williams, and learnt a lot of interesting stuff about the local scene and Lauren’s creative processes. She was open, entertaining and widely knowledgeable in her field. I hope my recap was helpful – or at least interesting – to any bourgeoning poets who may be reading.