Thursday, early evening… I clock out of work. I’m lucky enough to like the places and people that employ me; still, if someone’s paying you to do something, it’s probably because it needs to be done and nobody wants to do it for free. So you’re a utility, and on less inspired days you can feel like a mere bit of machinery. Not even the proverbial cog, which has a certain slow rotational grandeur and evokes luxury watches, but something more crude and forgettable – a washer, maybe. So today I’m feeling like a washer, and we all have washer days, which is fine, as long as it doesn’t surreptitiously snowball into washer life. And maybe the preventive for washer life, indeed a key antidote to capitalism, is poetry, which is everything that washer life isn’t.
None of this is going through my head as I buy a cheap sushi roll from Is Donburi, but perhaps some intuitive awareness of it is ebbing in my bones, because I find myself suddenly set on attending the local poetry showcase Ships In The Night. In this twilight hour, I manage to wangle a Black Sabbath t-shirt so as to discard my work uniform, and begin to feel less like a washer, Ozzy’s primordial wail echoing in the back of my brain. I wander aimlessly in Northbridge for a little while, noticing things, smelling the air, feeling the pavement as my feet clap down on it. Eating my sushi roll.
I climb the stairs into Paper Mountain – which if you don’t already know, is an art space above a café on William Street. Its central white-walled gallery is hemmed in by artist studios and a communal space called The Common Room. We find ourselves in the latter tonight. There’s a small PA and nominal stage at one end. Makeshift bar (bottles in ice buckets) at the other. Floor littered with cushions and other comforts, the walls lined with books, art-things and plants. And now Albie walks in – that’s Albert Pritchard from Shit Narnia – acoustic guitar in hand.
Playing the opening set to a silent, gazing crowd in a small, well-lit space is no easy task. Some would say it’s daunting. But if Albie’s daunted as he strums us into his songworld (which he here calls NEW NAUSEA), it doesn’t show. He seems both nonchalant and diligent as he clamps and plucks steel strings, and exhales charming melodies. The melodies carry redolent stories and images: tales of personal recollection or communal memory, old sentiments rendered in fresh phrasing, and flashes of the Western Australian landscape – from Claremont Quarter to the sweeping south-west. There’s a blistering Shit Narnia song in the mix, and plenty of hushed, minimal reflections that suggest a more soft-edged Gareth Liddiard. Despite its irony and bittersweet humour, there’s absolutely nothing cynical about this music – which feels as pure and worthwhile as the first song that ever got sung.
Local creative and feminist comedy-night instigator ALYCE WILSON is our host for the evening, bringing her marvellously awkward deadpan to bear on the unsuspecting flock. She thanks Albie and leads us through some metahumour surrounding jokes she’d prepared earlier, before introducing the next guest.
This is CICOCIA OLA, which is a pseudonym for Zoe Kilbourn, who apparently didn’t prepare any poetry to recite, pulled out at the last minute, and then pulled back in at the last-er minute.
Her reading is thus (reportedly) ad-hoc, but all the better for it. Zoe reflects on how she never quite finished her grandmother’s eulogy before reading it at the funeral, and how it was marked by pleasant generalities. Here, she attempts a kind of rectification, exploring her memories of her grandmother both good and bad; digging up strange facts, contradictions, glorious realisations and uncomfortable truths. As much as this is a tribute to her grandmother, the reading is also self-reflexive, a rumination on Zoe’s perceived inability to finish anything she starts or to adequately prepare for deadlines. Embracing these kinds of insecurities doesn’t always come off aesthetically, but here it really works, amounting to a performance that is raw and honest, thoroughly human, and which effaces its own flaws: in the end, Zoe had prepared exactly as she needed to.
AXEL CARRINGTON now stands before us. The man is best known for his work in various Perth bands (currently Hip Priest, Rag and Bone) and for writing some you-beaut, earnest music criticism. He begins tonight with some of the latter, reading a review of Shit Narnia’s EP from last year. It’s a good review, full of insight and warmth, and it’s delivered well. I only question the choice of reading in context, given that two members of Shit Narnia are performing tonight; it all feels a bit too pats-on-the-back. Still it’s plenty endearing. He follows up reciting the lyrics to his song ‘Tall Ships,’ seemingly a lament reflecting on early settlement. This sits easier: poetic, evocative, political without being self-righteous.
HUGH MANNING is the aforementioned other member of Shit Narnia, ever the poet, even when fronting the punk band. I first met Hugh at a double-denim party, he was stomping around the loungeroom bellowing his poetry apropos of nothing. It was fantastic. Tonight’s not so different but the room is still, Hugh is still; we all shut up listen closely.
This stuff is singular. Angry, gentle, unmistakably Australian and “unaustralian,” lyrical and direct all at once. In musical pentameter, he riffs on relationships, self-doubt, social paradoxes, leaving Albany. And though it gets bitter and loud and close to the bone, it never veers towards to the crude brashness endemic to “slam” poetry. Everything is measured, worked, carefully placed. It’s not a poet in a punk’s body or vice versa. It’s just Hugh, at his inspirational best.
ELIZABETH LEWIS rises to the stage, the redness of her dress punctuated by a stack of white poem-etched palm cards that she shuffles through, choosing verses not quite at random. “Stop me after five minutes,” she requests, “or else I’ll just keep going.” These poems are relatively short – such that they often evoke the evanescent brevity of a haiku, without actually being haiku – and orbit the themes of love, loneliness and self-knowledge. There’s a stirring poem about Elizabeth’s mother (who’s in the crowd) and her ambivalent self-sacrifice. Others trace moments of unexpected emotional overload: having to cover up a photo of a beautiful smile, or leaning into strangers on a train to apprehend some closeness. The act of fishing becomes a metaphor for prescribed masculinity and self-sufficiency; distance becomes winter, and bones become warmth. These conceits belong to old traditions, but are used to great effect. Perhaps more than anyone’s tonight, these poems speak to an inner life, the private and unspoken world.
GOLDEN STRING is Mai Barnes, and sometimes Hayley-Jane Ayres or others, but tonight just Mai Barnes. Mai’s a remarkable songsmith, having appeared with her project seemingly fully-formed a few years back: warm-hued, piano driven compositions awash with misty vocals, canned percussion and swirling loops. Tonight feels like a valiant stride forward, at least from where I’m sitting. There are heaps I’ve new songs (I only recognise one or two), new textures and rhythms, and a more intense stage presence (Mai’s dancing like a fiend and literally climbing the furniture). Furthermore, her quotidian, self-deprecating banter now feels less apologetic and more like a light-hearted anchor to the real world. Without it we might all float away into the gilded heavens and never return.
We’re onto our “headliners,” TRISTAN FIDLER and LAURIE STEED. Exactly what constitutes a headliner (in any context) is unclear but in any case, these two gentlemen have certainly had a tremendous output of top-notch creativity in their time. I’m itching to hear what they’ve readied for us.
With Tristan, it’s a short story called ‘Please Be More Sombre’: divided into two parts, tailed by an epilogue. The story follows the fictional Evelyn, once a member of an esteemed Australian post-punk band, now a jaded office drudge. Tristan paints a hilarious portrait of corporate culture, more vividly familiar than say, The Office; richer for its inner monologues and local specificity. Evelyn entertains herself by dropping stationary to torment her colleagues, is harangued by her younger male boss, avoids crowds and listens to Suicide while waiting for the train. In part two she encounters an insufferable life-affirming flashmob (Tristan renders the inane pop-songs they wheel out perfectly) and is inadvertently featured in a viral youtube video. Despite having to read faster than he might’ve liked to fit in the time limit, Tristan does a magnificent job of reciting his hilarious tale – a piece of writing evidently informed by pop culture, observational humour and the incisive, gently hysterical musings offered by the likes of David Sedaris. Highly recommended if you can track this story down, but otherwise, busy yourself with Tristan’s excellent A Rich Tapestry webcomic/print sine.
Laurie Steed also serves us a short story (or rather, an excerpt from a forthcoming book) in two parts. Rather than “part one and two” it’s presented as Side A and B of a cassette, Just Hits ’85, a nostalgic compilation that frames the narrative. We meet a young boy, obsessed with Lionel Ritchie, who may or may not be a version of Steed’s younger self (I’m merely speculating, but there’s no doubt real life and fiction intermingle here). He picks daisies with a girl on the school oval, plays video games until dinnertime, watches his brother’s underwhelming footy matches and reads his sister’s diary. And of course, listens to pop songs on tape. It’s all sweetly familiar – almost achingly familiar – stuff. Everything takes a more melancholic turn around the end of Side A: divorce, confusion, allusions to an affair and a mother’s depression. Still everything is wrought through a bright-eyed, innocent voice that prefigures grim reality; I’m reminded of Tim Winton’s Lockie Leonard books, where sadness sometimes bleeds from between the childlike lines. Ultimately, Laurie’s most impressive feat is combining every detail – be it funny, tragic, or picturesque – into a singular thread, a snapshot of time and feeling that’s so cohesive it’s real. From chewing on a popsicle stick at school camp, to contemplating the realities of love, these scenes feel as vivid and tender as any memory I can lay claim to.
The evening wraps up per Ships in the Night tradition with an Open Mic segment. We get some good offerings: mostly artful spins on love, lust and attendant regret. Easily the highlight, I’ve gotta say, is the wide-eyed, lank-haired Geoffrey Power-King who delivers some truly surreal and revelatory standup. It’s a mashup of deadpan bad puns, fragmented social commentary and genuinely original jokes that have me laughing till my ribs hurt. When his brief time-slot’s up, Geoffrey rebuts: “It’s Ships in the Night, not Censorships in the night!” and continues, ultimately delivering the most drawn-out gag of the year. Weird and great. More of this please.
Two nights later I find myself at Jack Rabbit Slim’s: Shannon of KISSINGER X KRUZ firing rapid bars over Nathan Tempra’s sanguine beats, Nelson of POW! NEGRO launching wild rhapsodies, and then the amazing SAMPA THE GREAT belting her smart, dense, assured and optimistic verses. One thing I notice is that tonight’s and Thursday’s worlds of poetry are – if only incidentally – divided along racial lines, in any case along concurrent “genre” lines, perhaps lines that could happily overlap more freely. The archaic division between rap and literary verse are gladly dissolved in many pockets of the world and arts communities, but then again, scenes develop according to commonality of experience, and hefty beats or lack thereof. The main thing is that poetry is all around, a heady spiral towards the ceiling, rich lyrical expression not only occurring but doing so productively, in a way that seems to advance hopeful messages and expanded awareness. Of the world and the self. And we feel like human beings.