You don’t need to follow the sun to find anything. Here in the dark the sky is weeping from its heavy burden of liquid star blood."
(Starblood, Candy Royalle)
At Parramatta’s Mars Hill Cafe, people squash together to hear Candy Royalle say the things they only have the courage to think. Candy Royalle isn’t like other poets. Her mass of brown dreadlocks and Middle Eastern features make her look as if she is above and beyond every stereotype the people of Western Sydney have ever known. It’s not enough for Candy to leave people laughing and crying at the same time after one of her performances.
Along with the founder of the Australian Poetry Slam, Miles Merrill and other talented poets, Candy shares her skills with young people in Western Sydney to inspire them to tell their stories in a way mainstream media cannot: “To be voiceless is to be powerless so obviously the opposite is true - it is absolutely empowering to be able to tell our own stories in our own voices,” she tells me, in her characteristically melodic tone.
There’s no doubt Spoken Word Poetry is growing in the west, the number of venues and events is constantly expanding - from the Bankstown, Granville and Parramatta slams to other one off events in Western Sydney.”
And one visit to the Bankstown Poetry Slam is all you need to prove Candy right. In its earliest incarnation Spoken Word Poetry was used by the Ancient Greeks to praise their gods and criticize their government thorough entertainment. In 1984 a group of budding poets gathered to tell their stories at Chicago’s Get Me High Lounge where Spoken Word poetry was reborn as Slam Poetry or Slam as it is better known.
Slam is not about grammar or poetic devices and is judged according to the bond each poet builds with the audience. Slam is not the poetry of class rooms, academics or isolated social groups. Slam is the poetry of the people.
It’s no surprise then that it spread quickly in Sydney, where Slam veterans like Tug Dumbly and Miles Merrill battled for bragging rights at the most trendy venues in town. But it wasn’t until recently that Slam poetry began to find it’s roots in the West, where young men like Ahmad Al-Rady insisted he would be heard.
In the words of Miles Merrill, Ahmad recognized Western Sydney needed a soapbox, so the 23 year old went about building one. In the heart of one of the most negatively stereotyped suburbs in Western Sydney, Ahmad organised a Poetry Slam where he could listen to the untold stories of his community.
"I believe we all have stories, opinions and experiences to share, that's what makes us unique,” he wrote to me, “and that's why I believe poetry slams and spoken word is very important. Providing a medium for the aforementioned, facilitating dialogue, sharing struggles and highlighting similarities between others. We started the slam because we love poetry slams and there wasn't a single -permanent slam in the Western Sydney area - so Sara Mansour (co-founder) and I decided to start our own.”
What happened next was beyond Ahmad's wildest dreams. Within months the number of the people in the audience doubled and then tripled. Today, the Bankstown Poetry Slam can have over 250 audience members.
Yet the most moving aspect of the audience is its diversity. There, in a suburb that was described in by writer Ian Lloyd Neubauer in an article for Time World as a “Middle Eastern ghetto terrorized by members of its community," all creeds of people sit side by side laughing, crying and clapping loudly. The truth of Western Sydney is reflected in the rainbow of cultures celebrating life, love and their right to be heard at the Bankstown Poetry Slams.
It was the work by people like Miles Merrill and his organisation Word Travels, that began the movement of bringing poets together to teach. Initiatives like The Rumble, a youth based Poetry Slam held in Blacktown, teach the youth of Western Sydney to find their voice to work through the issues that can that lead to drinking, violence and race crime they don’t often have the spaces to discuss.
With the infectious energy that makes him memorable, Miles told me about the young man who had lost his mother and would not talk about it to his teachers or counselors.
“He was writing about it,” Miles said, still awed by the power of words, “he hadn’t spoken to anyone about it for a month.”
Though he had never written before, that young man picked up a pen and decided to begin his journey towards healing by writing his own narrative.
Over coffee, my childhood friends chat excitedly while I scrawl on the notepad in front of me. They don’t talk about anger, gang violence or hate crimes. Instead I smile as they relive the first time they ever heard me perform my poetry and when they will visit the Bankstown Poetry Slam. I pick up my pen and choose to start our journey towards healing by writing our narrative.
The Bankstown Poetry Slam will be launching an anthology of their best poems for 2013 later this month. You can find out more here.