photo credit: Arielle Cottingham by Brendan Bonsack
The interesting thing about having a poetry reading in Melbourne’s iconic La Mama theatre in Carlton, is you also get a different stage set each time. For the November event, this was the reflective square stage set for the play, Rust and Bone, with the audience sitting around the outside. Each of us received a different view of each poet, depending on where we were seated, like a Zen rock garden with multiple perspectives.
Convenor Amanda Anastasi likes to confound those who know what poetry is with her choice of readers, and this event was no different. In fact, this reading had something for every taste, with a national slam champion and dancer, a witty academic poet, a reclusive, but widely-published poet and an award-winning poet from interstate. In fact, each poet on the line-up was an award-winner of some kind, so it was high calibre selection.
The night felt like a game of two halves, with the more sedate readers gracing the first half. A few jokes about bottoms broke the ice, as at any one time, someone would be looking at a poet’s backside, due to the nature of the central stage. Fresh from the Melbourne launch of his book, Glasshouses (UQP), Stuart Barnes came out of the woodwork to prove that he does exist in the flesh. Well-known for his work published in many publications, Stuart typifies the idea of a poet, with his quieter persona. His book won the 2015 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, so he’s entitled to be however he wants. At times, because of the stage set up, it was difficult to hear the softly spoken poet, but his work was captivating and thought-provoking. At times challenging because of its breadth and depth of references, it should have been mandatory for the audience to buy a copy of Stuart’s book to be able to fully digest his cascade of images and vibrant ideas. His is a sharp mind. For this event, it was best to let it wash over you and like any good muesli to enjoy the crunchy with the smooth.
Lisa Brockwell was a poised and witty reader. The perfect act to follow Stuart, as she also uses pop culture references with a keen poet’s eye for irony and pathos. Her two-part poem, Jennifer and Angelina, about Jennifer Anniston and Angelina Jolie, had us nodding our heads at the absurdity of fame and the humanness of those we idolise.
After the usual crowded tea break and smoker’s cheap philosophy club outside, it was time for the second half. Glad to be out of the muggy Melbourne drizzle, we piled back in for Arielle Cottingham and Grant Caldwell. To call Arielle’s performance dynamic would be an understatement. Possessed of some fiery energy (that she acknowledges in her work – my blood is made of C4 and fireworks), Arielle worked the stage set as if it was made for her. She utilised every physical dimension of the space, and with her talent for projection, she wowed the audience with her dynamic movement and captivating theatrical performance poetry. A dancer first and foremost, Arielle jerked and writhed in a way that meant as an audience member you were not just listening, but experiencing the poem on an almost-cellular level. Her poem, Irony, about a miscarriage had her howling from a prone position. It was dramatic and impactful. Not one to shy away from giving it her all, Arielle had the crowd transfixed and created a memorable experience. One can see how she took out the coveted National Slam Championship prize this year in Sydney.
Although a hard act to follow, it was refreshing to have Grant Caldwell reading mainly from the page in one corner. He owned his brand of witty and extremely sharp poetry. It didn’t seem to bother him that an energy shift was required after the dynamism of Arielle, but welcomed it. He was dead pan and didn’t feel the need to embellish his performance, but treated it as a reading. It was refreshing and hilarious. Grant is an extremely astute and intelligent observer of the minutiae of life and his poems are often short and to-the-point. It is clear he prefers brevity over decoration. Although he is a Dr., he doesn’t bring the stuffiness of academia to play. One can sense a bit of the jaded cynic, but it adds to the humour of his character. He has been at this publishing game since 1979, so there is an air of knowing about him.
There wasn’t a boring moment to the night, meaning it sped by and then it was off again, out into the eclectic Melbourne weather, the poetry and chit-chat still dancing in the air like the cigarette smoke behind us.
For more on La Mama Poetica and upcoming gigs, you can view their website.