Word Hurl Anti-Slam - poetry in action

Poet David Graham at Anti-Slam at Vinyl Cafe in Newcastle. Picture: Marina Neil
Poet David Graham at Anti-Slam at Vinyl Cafe in Newcastle. Picture: Marina Neil

ON the first Wednesday of each month, a diverse crowd hangs around Perkins Street, in and outside of Vinyl Café.

Everyone's here for Word Hurl Anti-Slam (a no-rules spoken-word poetry night). At the Anti-Slam, one might find many scenarios: a first-time-poet, nervously reading her only piece to an encouraging crowd, a dramatic reading of an email from an ex-lover, a story written just 20 minutes prior to the writer's arrival or a rhythmic poem rapidly recited.

The anti-slam has gained regulars over the years, and these poets and performers are of all ages and backgrounds, though everyone is over 18 and most don't mind a little bit of rowdiness. Some come to listen and many come to be heard.

At Word Hurl Anti-Slam, no two nights are ever the same. Each month comes with a theme which participants are encouraged to either embrace or disregard (next month's theme is April Drools). A random judge is selected from the audience, and the winner of the night could receive anything from a famous poem printed on A4 paper, to a hug, to a feature in the off-again on-again Word Hurl Times. Some winners get all three.

"I THINK poetry is thriving everywhere, but there's not always a place for it to be brought into the public eye," says 26-year-old poet and Anti-Slam organiser David Graham.

Graham has been hosting the anti-slams in Newcastle since 2011, when it began with a "strange crowd of about 20" in the vegetable garden in the Croatian Club.

He said that Word Hurl's origin is from another Novocastrian anti-slam event held at Art Hive which was above where Honey Café is now in the Newcastle Mall. They called it the "Penis Tower Anti-Slam", and it was prepared and hosted by poet Di Drew in 2010. Back then it attracted a variety from the Newcastle arts scene. Veteran performers from the Lovelorn Living Party, Lass O' Gowrie musicians and other young creative types came and participated in spoken word.

"There was a capella singing, painfully long comedy routines and bizarre moaning pieces about love and love lost," Graham remembers.

From those origins, Graham established Word Hurl, which moved from the Croatian Club to Art Hive and then to The Terrace Bar, where it continued until The Terrace shut down last year.

Many who first come to an anti-slam expect it to be similar to poetry slams which are increasingly popular across the globe. Poetry slams are a style of poetry where poets compete, and poems are performed (not read) within a time limit.

Graham explains the difference.

"An anti-slam is a reaction to slamming. It revels in unpolished pieces that are probably more experimental and it's less concerned about what people are going to think," he says. "There's a focus on there being no rules, so people are encouraged to do whatever they want for as long as they want, or, sometimes, as long as people can stand them."

Graham has a multitude of strange and beautiful memories from Word Hurl including local character Peter Hore's semi-regular appearance where he rambles over guitar music, musician Pete Cuppaidge ukulele playing and dramatist Alex Martin's comedic theatrical monologues. Often poets tell tales of free love, anti-prohibition and anti-authoritarianism. Sometimes people take off their shirts.

Retirees, people who work in offices, people on industrial sites, students, wanderers and, of course, regular poets come in. All are encouraged.

"Sometimes it feels like there's a completely different crowd each month," Graham says. "It's given a lot of people an avenue to express themselves and also write more poetry for performance."

UKULELES and shirtlessness, however, aren't for everybody, and for the more traditional poets, there's room at The Wicko. The Wickham Park Hotel hosts the well-established (26 years) Poetry At The Pub. The event brings a different vibe on the third and fifth Wednesday of each month (it will be held on March 23 and 30 to coincide with the Newcastle Writers Festival).

Poet Clark Gormley has been acting as the president of Poetry At The Pub for eight years. Gormley, 48, also hosts Club Sandwich (a cabaret show at the Royal Exchange) and works as a chemical engineer.

"The thing about Poetry at the Pub is that it's egalitarian," Gormley says. "Anyone can come in; there's no snobbery or class distinction about it. And actually, the audience is very gentle, you'd think because it's in a pub you'd get heckled a bit, but no one does."

Membership at Poetry at the Pub is $5 a year, and anyone can join.

Some of Australia's leading poets have been guests of the event, including Bruce Dawe, Roland Robinson and Les Murray. Recently it featured Andy Kissane, Anthony Lawrence and Mark Tredinnick.

"It provides a creative outlet for a lot of people, and it provides a lot of joy," Gormley says. "Because it's so established now, people know that it's on. You have people showing up whom you haven't seen for years."

Along with locals and the occasional drunk, Clark says there's also an academic presence at Poetry At The Pub.

"It covers the popular life, but it also has some very experienced and serious complex poets," he says.

TO go with Word Hurl Anti-Slam and Poetry At The Pub, a growing group of youth are paying up to $7 a head to attend poetry events in a church. Brave Bones Poetry Slams have been held twice at the old church on Watt Street (Watt Street Arc), which is also home to Tantrum Youth Arts.

The organiser is 18-year-old university student Jemima Webber. While poets are welcome to read rather than recite, the event is inspired from the poetry-slam movement.

‘‘I think poetry is thriving everywhere, but there’s not always a place for it to be brought into the public eye.’’

Anti-slam organiser David Graham

"I love to write poetry, but with performance the poetry is right there in front you, you see every accident and mistake. It's the most emotional and expressive one for me. Poetry spills straight out of me and it's so unique in such a beautiful-flawed way," she says.

"Initially [the slam] was to just show people what it was," she adds. "There was this thing I loved and I didn't know anyone else who was into it at all."

There were some performance guidelines that went with it, including, if possible, to keep the performance under six minutes.

"It was pretty structured, but I tried to keep it open. People were talking about deceased parents, being homosexual, there were sexual abuse poems and also love poems and simple things," she says.

She's planning to hold the next one in June. Other poetry events in Newcastle including Newcastle's Poetry Bomb, organised by Janette Hoppe and regular events at Real Coffee in Lorne.