This weekend, Sydney plays host to spoken words. Words of all varieties, spoken by all manner of wordsmiths: poets, performers, MCs and anybody with a story to tell. When drawn together, these words become the second annual Word Travels Story Fest.
So what is spoken word?
Poet, author, rapper and former Australian Poetry Slam champion Omar Musa said, in fittingly poetic prose: “it is taking poetry off the page and putting it on the stage.”
Nick Bryant-Smith, aka Solo, a rapper, one half of Sydney-based rap duo Horrorshow, spoken word performer and a guest performer at this year’s Australian Poetry Slam final, said the performance elements of spoken word set it apart from traditional poetry that lives on a page.
“Spoken word is all about removing the rules and conventions that surround different styles of poetry. Here, anything can be a poem as long as you are able to perform it.”
Both poets, along with Word Travels creative director Miles Merrill, said the appeal of spoken word poetry could be explained by an inherent human desire for making connections through stories.
“Storytelling is how we understand ourselves, each other and the world around us. I think we would find it hard to survive as a species if we didn’t have a way of doing that,” said Musa.
“It connects us to an ancient part of ourselves. We need to be able to tell each other stories directly and immediately and without reservation,” said Merrill.
“Storytelling is so important to us as humans and has been since the very beginning of time. It is a way to make sense of things and to make sense of ourselves,” said Bryant-Smith.
Our age-old history of verbal storytelling also relates to it being accessible and without barriers to entry.
“It is a very immediate platform for people who are otherwise marginalised in our mainstream media,” said Merrill.
He continues, “It is very rare to see, for example, a Sudanese refugee getting up in front of an audience and saying exactly what he thinks and feels in a creative way. It is a vehicle for people who need to get their voices out there; people who feel silenced.”
Built around the national Australian Poetry Slam finals, which will take place on October 12, the festival brings together Australia’s best spoken word performers for a series of broad-ranging storytelling events.
The Australian Poetry Slam, now in its 10th year, is made up of a series of competitions involving poets battling it out for the title of national poetry slam champion.
Merrill told City Hub poetry slam is all about sharing stories in a public space; putting a voice to untold stories that are desperate for the presence of an audience willing to listen with an open mind.
“Poetry slam is a platform for writers to get in front of a live audience and tell thier own stories, and have the experience of seeing the audience cheer, scream, jump up and down and hopefully be entertained and inspired.”
Merrill said the festival’s second iteration is hoping to be more provocative than the first.
“This year we have taken on much more controversial topics.”
One example of this more controversial creative approach, according to Merrill, is the panel discussion on ‘the benefits of being brown’.
“We have brought people from more marginalised backgrounds to talk about the arts industry and its relationship to supporting multicultural artists,” Merrill said.
The creative force of nature has also organised a talk about the ethical issues of sponsorship in the arts, sparked in part by a controversy earlier this year in which major arts donors, the Belgiorno-Nettis family, cut ties with the Sydney Biennale. This was based on community backlash against their being invested in a company involved with construction in Australian detention centres.
“We want to look at the integrity of sponsorship; who gets it, why, and when to accept it,” said Merrill.
The festival includes dedicated sessions with both Nick Bryant-Smith and Omar Musa in which the artists, in conversation, will discuss their own work and experiences with poetic art.
Both artists will also be performing guest sets of their own work at the national final on Sunday evening.
A range of other events, including a Literary Love-Inn during which audiences sit in intimate groups with performers in an abandoned restaurant, will fill the three days of the festival, beginning on Friday October 10 and ending on Sunday October 12 with the national final.
Merrill told City Hub he intends to continue chasing more controversial themes in his creative direction in years to come.
Musa said the festival is sure to both surprise and excite newcomers to the world of spoken word and slam poetry.
“Poetry gets a bit of a bad rap as something that is a bit pretentious and dusty, but if people come to these events they’ll see how fresh it is. Leave your prejudices at home and come and see some real modern poetry,” he said.
Bryant-Smith said the Australian Poetry Slam final would be a powerful event.
“Every year poets stand up onstage and offer you a little fragment of themselves, and every year they blow your mind,” he said.
“This festival is our chance to get out there and spread the good word about the true power of words.” (LOC)
Oct 10-12, various venues, The Rocks, free-$44 (bookings essential), wordtravelsfestival.com