The stars of Auckland’s spoken-word poetry scene

Amanda Robinson meets five Auckland writers who are stunningly good at a much-derided art form – spoken word poetry.

Perhaps the most cringeworthy phrase in all the arts, the one that makes everyone recoil, including most poets, is “spoken word poetry”. But when it’s good, when a poem reading ends and you realise you’ve been holding your breath for the past two minutes, there’s nothing like it.

Five Auckland poets who have managed to wrangle this messy, often embarrassing form into something considered and good are Vanessa Crofskey, Ken Arkind, Jahra ‘Rager’ Wasasala, Mohamed Hassan, and Carrie Rudzinski. I spoke to them about their work, why they do it, and what they think of contemporary New Zealand spoken word poetry.

Carrie Rudzinski

Her heart is a phantom of shoplifted fears: paralysed from the waist down.

Carrie Rudzinski

A lot is said of making the personal political, but US-born Carrie Rudzinski’s poems are expert in making the political personal. She says, “Performing poetry is my career, it’s why I fell in love with my partner, it’s why I moved to New Zealand. It’s inseparable from who I am.”

Carrie ranked fourth in the World at the 2014 Women of the World Poetry Slam and was named Best Female Poet in 2008 at her first national poetry competition. A published author, Carrie has performed and taught writing workshops around the world. She tends to write about what it means to be a woman alive in the world, and the way she walks through the space that has been given to her.

“The most important way for me to approach a poem is with honesty. I am most interested in writing about what it feels like to dig in the darkness.”

Carrie is firmly grounded in Auckland’s poetry community, currently running JAFA slam, teaching performing arts and creative writing at Manukau Institute of Technology’s Faculty of Creative Arts, and working as the programme coordinator for the Michael King Writers Centre Poetry Project. When I asked her about the current climate of poetry in New Zealand, she said, “Poetry is alive at the moment.”

“Aotearoa is paying attention to the power of poets and responding in a passionate way as an audience. It’s a really exciting time to be part of this community and live in this country.”

Vanessa Crofskey

my phone vibrates every time a council says “diversity targets”

i get suggested ads for the national party in chinese,

and that thinkpiece on bubble tea is a redirect to my

dot com slash about me

Vanessa Crofskey

Vanessa Crofskey began writing when she was struggling with mental health at 15.

“I didn’t realise that what I was doing could be termed poetry. I was just imitating the stuff I’d seen online, like trying the same pose as a really hot girl on Instagram: articulating my feelings in a way that was anonymous enough to be safe. I have like, 300 untitled Google docs from that year. None of them are good.”

Five years later, she’s won numerous awards including the Auckland Theatre Company Here and Now Award for Best Storytelling & Spoken Word at last year’s Auckland Fringe Festival. When I asked her why poetry, she said, “I have a short attention span.”

Between poems she’s sarcastic and self-deprecating, but when she begins a poem she silences the room, save for a synchronised sharp exhale when she drops a line like “Weren’t you an open casket for the reckless?” She is in total control of her intonation; even her breaths feel calculated.

Her writing is often concerned with the idea of memory being spatial, and water and time being intertwined. She tends to focus on the broad themes of family, diaspora, identity, the body, trauma, survival and resistance, but with a specificity that renders audiences a little punch drunk.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as: I feel this, do you feel me too? Can we make do with that? How about this? Do you notice it?”

Last year, Vanessa graduated head of school in Visual Arts at AUT and performed in Alice Canton’s powerful work, OTHER [chinese]. She’s now Basement Theatre’s 2018 producer-in-residence and the country’s hottest Libra. When I asked her about the current spoken word scene in Auckland, she talked about the city’s “geographic voice”.

“It’s a dialect that talks very frankly to struggle. With the internet monopoly of Button Poetry out there, it’s really tough to try to distinguish your style away from… that. Like, they do what they do very well, but it can become very specific. And when those are the only examples you have available, it’s hard not to talk without their accent. But, I mean, poetry in Aotearoa is constantly growing and shifting. We’re a kid who has a dozen different babysitters now. My favourite writers in Aotearoa tend to be the ones that don’t write obliquely. They’re nuanced but accessible. In my opinion, poetry is in crisis the minute it decides to stay academic.”

Ken Arkind

When the air is thin it makes your heart bigger…This cowtown high-noon symphony, waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

Ken Arkind

The word ‘storytelling’ has been almost irreparably defaced by marketing campaign strategists looking to target millennials. Ken Arkind is the antidote to all that. He is a United States National Slam Champion, TEDx speaker, Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam Champion and published author who has toured his poetry extensively around the United States and internationally. He now lives in Mt Roskill and makes perfect green chili. When I asked him why poetry, he said, “It was the first thing an adult told me I was good at that wasn’t illegal.”

Ken runs the monthly JAFA Slam, emcees at Poetry Live, and facilitates the North Shore SUP Open Mic nights. In 2016 he graduated from MIT with a Masters of Creative Writing with a project called ‘Auckland: Speaks’, a multimedia performance event in which poets embodied various spaces around Auckland and performed from the voices of those locations.

“I just like stories and facilitating spaces for others to share them. Stories are what make us who we are, the experiences we collect that shape us and our community. I believe in documenting things, it’s kind of the duty of an artist to me, to reflect the present so that future has a record of it. Joy too, I don’t think poets spend enough time on joy. I need that myself.

“Poetry is this hyper direct form of communication, at least on an emotional level. It’s the vocabulary of your gut trying to speak to the head. Poems allow me to pretend to win arguments I lost in real life.”

These days when Ken performs it’s less stand-up spoken word in the traditional sense, more gather-around-the-bonfire short stories about his grandmother, his home state of Colorado, or receiving a Facebook friend request from an old friend who once peed on him in a mosh pit. Many of his poems feel essentially American, which is to say tumultuous and cinematic, and when he brings that sentiment to writing about Auckland, it shifts the way you see this city.

“I don’t think the city always sees how amazing its spoken word scene actually is. There’s so much incredible talent. I love the unique collection of voices and experiences here. I also deeply respect how much the role of poet and community worker intersects, especially in Auckland. I feel very lucky to be here and to have been welcomed into the community.”

Jahra ‘Rager’ Wasasala

“their dogs won’t bite harder than I will.

their gods can’t scream louder than I will.”

PHOTO: Pati Solomona Tyrell

Jahra Wasasala says poetry came out of necessity during her dance training. “In dance culture, there is an unspoken code of not speaking up. Whilst training I reached a point of rupturing and needed immediate gratification for the ideas and opinions I had personally and politically. One of my best friends showed me Staceyann Chin’s poem ‘Crossfire’ and something in me immediately recognised the language and the world she was working within.”

Jahra has created collaborative and solo shows combining her dance and poetry work, including MOTHER/JAW, which had a sold-out first season as part of the 2015 Auckland Fringe Festival. Last year she presented her solo work a world, with your wound in it and participated in Foster Group’s ORCHIDS. Her work has taken her around the world, from an indigenous dance residency at The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada to performing in mini-festival The Witch Dance Project at Berlin’s Sophiensaele Theatre. She is a founding member of the Youth Advisory Group and spent time as a youth representative for the Auckland War Memorial Museum Pacific Advisory Board.

In recent years, her poems have revolved around the relationship between the female form and the way we interact with the earth, the belief that the world is a woman’s body, and vice versa.

“I like to endeavour to make the personal political. And I like to make the political physical. Breaking the queen’s tongue, the english language, through poetry feels like some small kind of retribution.”

A fierce defender of the arts, Jahra says we live in a world that doesn’t know how to support art, and doesn’t really see the value in what artists do.

“I think art being made on a ground level in Aotearoa is always tenacious. We have audiences in Aotearoa that don’t feel connected enough to us to turn up to our shows, and that don’t even really know we exist. We also don’t prioritise our own voices and stories from this side of the world. We never place ourselves at the centre of our own narrative.”

Mohamed Hassan

Even in the profound horror of all this

We are timid thoughts

Lingering

Mohamed Hassan

Though he no longer lives in Auckland, Mohamed remains such a vital part of the city’s spoken word poetry community. He is currently in Istanbul, working as a journalist for TRT World. Much of his writing attempts to reconcile his place in the world as a Muslim Arab immigrant living in diaspora.

“I think the same thing that drove me to become a journalist drives me to write poems. I want to create conversations and pull people into the perspectives they don’t usually get to see, or are pretending not to. The emphasis in the slam world about performing what you write means that everything you do is a conversation. When you’re on stage, the audience is responding to your work in real time, and that can be both confronting for you and for them.”

Mohamed was the 2015 New Zealand National Slam Champion and represented New Zealand at the Individual World Poetry Slam in 2016. He also won the 2013 Rising Voices Youth Poetry Slam and co-founded Waxed Poetic Revival. His first collection of poetry, A Felling Of Things, was released in 2016. Despite having written since his early teens, it wasn’t until university that he stumbled across spoken word.

“Poetry has existed in our collective imagination for longer than most other written forms of communication. In the Arabic tradition, poetry and even competitive poetry has been around for millennia. Bedouins used to gather in the desert and hold poetry slams, talking about everything from God to love to politics. More modern poetry is entrenched in the history and culture of the Middle East, and growing up in that environment, it is inescapable.”

It’s always amusing to look around the room while Mohamed is performing. No other poet holds attention and shapes the breath of an audience quite like him. He is thoroughly dedicated to the poem, and his excellence is consistent. When I asked him about this country’s attitude towards poetry, he said there are “so many poets who are saying exactly what New Zealand needs to hear.”

“It’s been amazing to see New Zealand develop its own voice and style of storytelling that’s very different from what it is in the US. When we talk about social issues, racism, immigration, gender equality and the other issues we’re currently grappling with, we now have voices from the poetry community leading the conversation.”

 


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