Monday, May 14, 2018

Tales from the Slammer, Vignette 4

Our sessions have begun and the interest amongst inmates is not high, despite active recruitment and an ad run in the prison rag. The first session is held in a room that, despite having windows, is completely internal and is circled with computers sitting in various stages of awake.

I had no idea about how many we could expect to turn up and the LINC Literacy Coordinator, tireless and full time at the coal face, was concerned that we might have trouble getting people to attend. These concerns are now assuaged, but we began with three inmates only.

Before the session began Mark (no real names are used in these posts) popped into the office with a book of poetry he had borrowed from the library. It’s a book of poems by Geoff Goodfellow, a poet of the people, and one who uses his real life experience in his poems, and doesn’t gloss over the gnarlier aspects of life. I think that this augers well. There is a library in the prison, it’s called the Risdon LINC and I really, really love that this is present inside.

The first session was run with Mark, Andrew and Adrian and it was my first chance to ask them what they actually think of poetry. I was heartily surprised to hear that they didn’t think it was “girly” (sadly a derogatory word in this space) or that it had to rhyme. These ideas came later in our sessions, and the desire for poems to rhyme, as well as, in one instant, an insistence that it is not a poem unless it rhymes.

Both Mark and Adrian mentioned that they already write poetry, they use it as a method to nut things out, and they use it in an attempt to woo and communicate with women. Mark is quite skilled, literate, fluent. His prison swagger is practised, and we had specifically asked him to come along to the groups as he had some sway amongst other inmates. We asked him if he could help recruit for the group. While the future sessions attracted inmates with all levels of literacy, we are primarily seeking people for whom literacy is a challenge.

Adrian writes songs and suggests that his literacy struggle is profound but we’re not sure; his tests reveal an ambiguity. He has told us eagerly that he is a musician, a songwriter, though whether these songs are written down or not is unclear. They’re both smart, though Mark has a more formal education. Andrew is quiet, tough, an element of friendliness and interest that is diluted by wariness. I’d be wary too - some new eager employee, here to help (that’s me). Andrew is quieter, though he explained the lengths that he went to at school to avoid having to read out loud (he’d make excuses, fake sickness). He still actively engages in discussions.

We agree on some group agreement around behaviour, including some parameters around swearwords (attached) and then dive into what Slam Poetry actually is, what makes Slam different to Shakespeare, or to the dusty window sills of reluctant poets reading their words aloud.

The proximity in style to hip hop battles is a good way in, though we focus on Slam’s ability to make social change, and to give a voice to causes overlooked and communities disenfranchised. It is also about being heard, captivating the audience and providing good old entertainment. Slam, this contemporary iteration of performance poetry, has grown into an international movement with competitions happening all around the world, including in Tasmania. So what is Slam poetry? Slam, it seems, while known in theory, and known in terms of rappers and rhymers, is a new word for this group. And while poetry has been spoken aloud, from the balladeers, to the storytellers to the spokespeople for centuries, this incarnation – Slam - is a particular form of performance poetry that began in Chicago in the 1980s.

None of these fellas had experienced slam poetry, or were familiar with poetry in that form – and when asked about what poetry meant to them they had ‘emotional’ and a good way of explaining things to themselves. Andrew stated that he reads poetry because it explains his own emotions to them.

This session, as is the plan for all of them, we shared some videos from established performance (Slam) poets. To begin we looked at Kate Tempest, Erfan Daliri and Omar Musa. We talked about Erfan’s anger in ‘The Things I Hear,’ and the way he harnessed it as if it were a martial art – how he turned around his despair and called for revolution. We talked about how the three poets collapse timeframes into a few minutes of performance and how the poem itself is a prism through which to view the entire universe. We discuss, loosely, pulling focus and using a personal issue as a metaphor and a way to interpret the broader world. Their interest is piqued.

My challenges will be to keep a weather eye on written literacy – bring it back to the skills that can be developed on the written page – and how to improve them. I am learning in this space, glad to be working with the dedicated LINC Literacy program both for company and professional guidance. I am also curious as to how we quantify the improvement - or see tangible improvements. There will be assessments done before and after.

So – ideally our first three attendees will have tendrils and let their poetic energy and interest seep, noisily or quietly, into the wider community here, and that those with a desire to express, to improve their written and spoken language, those with a yen for performance or a yen to create, find this space. I plan to keep it loose around a central structure and with a clear core and motivation (literacy/creativity and expression) plus the opportunity to provide a creative mechanism for self-reflection (collateral for poetry, collateral for any form of writing – writing to get a better understanding of the self and of the world).
How many people will we get next time?

Friday, May 4, 2018

Tales from the Slammer, Vignette 3

Access to clean drinking water and a roof over our heads is vital. So is having access to story, to be able to listen as well as to telling them, and ideally to write and to read them. To be literate, in other words. This is maybe not crucial to staying alive, but necessary for a sense of self, and a sense of community. To be able to tell our own stories helps us nut out our place in the world, to see how we fit in and to see how we ended up where we are. It can mean a life that is more understood, more examined. In Tasmania, like any other damaged first-world state where literacy cleaves the population in two (haves and have-nots), and where we have been forcibly denied the ancient and living history of the island, story is even more crucial.

The decision has been made to explore slam poetry with a small group of inmates with low literacy levels. While well versed in poetry, and often an appreciative and exhilarated audience member, I’ve never taught, or even facilitated slam poetry. The thought that I will also have to write to perform is intimidating, though I have been rolling the idea around in my head for a few months and this is a way to make that manifest. A perfect confluence, a perfect storm. The slam performances I’ve seen are generally revivifying and energetic. In the performances, issues that may be dry and dour on a normal telling are given creative voice and poetic licence.
Slam is a contrary form of poetry, one that began in response to reluctant readings by poets who worship a canon – and ones who palpably did not enjoy reading their work out loud. Slam has been  considered crass and abrasive, an utter show pony in comparison to the hallowed halls of more traditional forms of poetry, though this opinion is most often wielded by those dusty old poets, the reluctant readers. It has also reinvigorated poetry as a form, excited generations of students and, hopefully, in Risdon, will provide a vehicle to work with inmates on their literacy.

Slam poetry offers an empowering opportunity to tell a story in an entertaining way, it offers the opportunity to make powerful social change through the stealth vehicle of poetry - and for us, it offers a way to improve literacy of inmates, and to provide them with a voice. This is a rare opportunity for members of society who, by dint of their imprisonment (by dint of their crimes) are voiceless, stereotyped in a system that focusses on the punitive.
We have placed an ad in the prison rag, and the full time LINC Literacy Coordinator, my right hand for the duration of this contract, has begun to actively recruit people who she believes will benefit, and also those who she believes will be good for the group dynamics.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Song Keepers, interview with director Naina Sen - podcast

Listen to the full interview here.
The Song Keepers is a wonderful and inspiring documentary about The Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir, which is made up of four generations of women from five communities in Central Australia.
Director Naina Sen had the fortune to be invited into one of their rehearsals and she knew straight away that the story of these women, the choir and a tour to Germany would make for rich documentary pickings. She knew she was witnessing something profound.
She was not wrong, The Song Keepers is an inspiring account of this journey – and the history of what they sing; music that was bought to Central Australia 140 years ago by Lutheran Missionaries, and translated into Western Arrente, one of the most complex languages in the world within three years. These hymns are set to Baroque music and the confluence of language that has been spoken for 40 000 with these deeply spiritual tunes is profound.

“The reason 32 women wanted to do this film is because they really, really wanted to share their music and this identity, and this history they are so proud of with the rest of the country, I think every Australian should see this film because these women are amongst the most extraordinary human beings you will ever meet,” said director Naina Sen on her recent visit to Tasmania for the Hobart premiere of the film.
The film shares a depth of cultural connection through time and space. Within a few years of the missionaries arriving in the desert, senior Arrente Law Men, took the music and the gospel, in language to surrounding communities.
‘If you codify language you preserve it, you preserve language, you preserve culture,” Sen said..
While the Lutheran missionaries left these communities in the early 1980s, and the men of the communities drifted away from choirs, towards Country Music, the women’s choirs remained strong.
‘140 year old choral music doesn’t survive without a conscious decision to retain the music,
‘It can not survive without an incredibly conscious distilling.’
Sen, who grew up in New Delhi, India came to Australia to study film. She thanks her younger self for being “foolish...brave...whatever it is,” as she travelled from Melbourne to Darwin and has spent the last decade working in Norther Australia and the desert.

Working up there has redefined Australia for her & what it means to call this country her own "it's an extraordinary privilege to be able to collaborate with extraordinary artists and musicians and painters who represent the depth of the oldest continuously living culture in the world in their work, and to have access to that, to be able to share something, to be able to collaborate -...."
"To me it is collaborating with people I have longstanding relationships with, who I love, who are my friends, and through whom I have a completely different understaning of this country, I am very privileged to do what I do, to me it is collaboration between artists”.
To listen to the full interview listen here.

Paige Turner - May

May seems that it should be a slowing month, one where we wend our ways a little closer to the fire, stay a little longer in our beds. It’s busy though, in the world of stories, of books and writing in Tasmania, who has time for hibernation? – well, maybe just in bed for one more chapter, one more chapter.
May 3 sees the launch of the debut novel from Robbie Arnott, a surreal novel about the intricacy of family, fissures running through Tasmania and a novel very distinctly of this island, with our shores and innards pulsing through the pages. It will be launched by Richard Flanagan at Fullers on May 3, 5.30pm. Mark my words, Robbie will be heralded as the new Flanagan.
You can read an extract of Flames in the latest Island magazine (which is a ripper edition by the way) – and you can also show your tax deductible support for the long running Tasmanian literary magazine by making a donation (which will be doubled by Creative Partnerships Australia. Participate in their survey, too, and go in the running for some good prizes.
The Australian Book Review’s State of Poetry, Tasmania is back again. Edited by Sarah Day it features work from poets including Ben Walter, Gina Mercer, Anne Kellas and Jim Everett-puralia meenamatta. It’s free and available on the ABR website.

The Story Island Project are running free storytelling workshops for young people of all abilities, aged around 6-11 starting on Tuesday, May 15 at the West Moonah Community House. They will run these afterschool workshops between 3.30-5pm over the next 6 weeks. Come for one, come for all!

The Dick and Joan Green Family Award for Tasmanian History is a new book prize delivered by UTAS that recognises works that have made contributions to understanding Tasmanian history. The inaugural shortlist includes Alison Alexander’s Beneath the Mountain, Tony Fenton’s wonderful Fleeting Hopes, a history of Port Davey – and the winner of the Tasmanian Book Prize Into the Heart of Tasmania, by Rebe Taylor which I have recently had the informative pleasure to read. The winner will be announced in June.

The Tasmanian Writers Centre, with less than two months worth of operating costs and a new board, elected after all former incumbents announced they were not renominating at an AGM late last month are still running Seasonal Poets - and I would definitely be heading along if it weren't for my wisdom teeth removal earlier that day-  as this is a valuable event on our poetry scene. Seasonal Poets for Autumn will include readings from Susan Austin, Ben Walter and Gina Mercer. $15 waged, $10 members and unwaged. 
Hadleys Hotel, May 21, 6-8pm

I'm super delighted to hear that a new SLAM night is starting down South, maybe we can rival the wickedness of Launceston's Slamduggery.
LINC Tasmania are hosting a SpecialStorytime with Victoria Ryle on May 16, to celebrate National Families Week. Discover how to transform a simple piece of paper into a book! This is a seriously excellent thing to do – and I’m speaking from experience. Take your kids along and they will walk away with books of their very own making. 
Speaking of All That We Are, you have until this Sunday, May 6 to get your EoI in to ArTELIER: Artists in Tasmania: Ecology of Learning, Intergenerational Exchange and Reflection, a new project that invests in Tasmanian young people by empowering the artists who work with them. ArTELIER will build the capacity of the Tasmanian arts ecology of artists, creative activists and educators who currently work, or wish to work, with children and families.
For more information click here.
The shortlists for the 2018Norma K Hemming Award have been announced. This award is presented by the Australian Science Fiction Foundation for a work of speculative fiction published in 2016-17 in Australia or written by an Australian citizen that explores the themes of race, gender, sexuality, class or disability – and for the first time, this year’s award has categories for both long works and short fiction. For the first time, this year’s Norma K Hemming Award comprises two categories: long works and short fiction and included in the short fiction category is Did We Break the End of the World’ (Tansy Rayner Roberts, Defying Doomsday, Twelfth Planet Press). The winners will be announced in June. 
The Society of Women Writers Tasmania Short Story Competition 2018 is now open for entries (closing August 31st but don’t put it off until then). They are seeking entries of short stories of 1200- 1500 words on the theme ‘Life Changing’. Word Count. Prizes of $200, $50, HC and C certificates are up for literary grabs in this competition which is open to all. For furtherinformation visit this link.
The recently announced Vogel Prize (awarded to Emily O’Grady for The Yellow House) has seen Tasmanian writer Kate Gordon commended by the judges for her manuscript The Light Between the Trees. I think that this wonderful writer, author of my favourite YA, Vulpi and Thyla has also been brewing a children’s book. Prolific!
The TamarValley Writers’ Festival, which is coming up in the middle of September (mark your diaries), The Star Cinema and Foot And Playsted are hosting The Sydney Writers Festival Live and Local at the Star Cinema in Invermay May 4-6. Authors who will be live broadcast are Jane Harper, bestselling crime writer, author of The Dry and Force of Nature, Peter Greste, Australian journalist and author of The First Casualty and Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage

Sustainable Living Tasmania has a graphic animator, Pan, doing an internship. He’s creating a video to inspire people about Tasmania’s role in securing a stable global climate. The concept is great and now they need a writer to volunteer their time and words to write a 2-3 minute script. Contact Todd Houstein at Sustainable Living Tasmania for more information.

If you have any book or writing related news drop me a line

Friday, April 27, 2018

Tales from the Slammer #2

Tales from the Slammer #2

On the first day, I walked around the edges of the tall, thick, whitewashed walls. There are sparse, newly planted native gardens and the prison itself is surrounded by bush covered hills and rocky outcrops. There is a whole suburb that wraps itself around the back of the prison. Nestled and a little incongruous. Strangely, on the path from the staff carpark to the entrance are some convict cut sandstone stairs that lead to the bottom of the wall. There are no doors there – a strange throwback to the time when this whole island was a prison and those large, heavy bricks were cut by the indentured labour, my ancestors, who we call ‘the convicts.’

I consider the myths of this place, Risdon Prison, anonymous and impenetrable. It crept into my childhood via the media with the harshest and most elaborate crimes, crimes that inform the psyche of all Tasmanians, crimes that in our small town are still too ripe and raw - unhealed tissue - to drop into casual conversation. Crimes that we still feel the sting of. 

The individual voices here are distinct and proud and personal and more often than not, damaged. They are fathers and husbands and sons, they are struggling with their lives, their incarceration and their crimes. They are individuals and their kid’s names tattooed on their arms belie how much they love them.

The Prisoner Education and Training (PEAT) section is lit with fluorescent lights and, although one of the rabbit warren training rooms has natural light, to work here in winter must be dispiriting. It’s summer now and the rumbling too-cold aircon makes a pervasive soundscape.

There is also an entire library, the Risdon LINC, which is a wonderful thing. It must be a bubble within the broader prison complex and, while the inmates bring their tussles and torments in with them, I can only imagine how the rehab unit feels, how maximum might feel, how an individual cell may feel. We are all just big pieces of tofu, taking on the flavours of those around us, the aromas of the space we inhabit. How does a space define and inform us?
I am doing this as a Writer in Residence and hope to use creative writing and storytelling as a vehicle to move them into a space where reading and writing is easier, where verbal communication (not with fists) is owned, powerful and even progressive. I hope to open some tiny creative cracks, to help them find tools to tell their own stories, to place themselves within a broader narrative. To pull focus and to tell their tales with a distinctive beauty. I have not yet held the first session.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Tales from the Slammer. #1

Tales from the Slammer -

The induction happened a few weeks before my first day at work, an induction like so many other jobs; a room of screens, an internal database with a series of multiple choice questions. The questions included the standard ones that any work place would have; about protocols and standards and what to expect, but also many unique to this new place of employment, Risdon Prison, where I was to work on a grant project for LINC Tasmania, the library, and their dedicated literacy service.

I have been contracted by LINC Tasmania as a Writer in Residence at Risdon Prison, through their far reaching literacy program. Literacy is one of the most significant and important issues affecting Tasmania right now. In Tasmania, half of us struggle to read and write. A report by the ABS for 2011-2012 shows that 49% (aged between 15-74) are functionally illiterate. This means that half of the people who live with on this island do not have some of the most practical skills to get by in the modern world. These are things like filling out forms or reading straightforward instructions. 

Literacy, in terms of readin’ and writin’ is one thing, social literacy, the ability to ‘read’ a situation and to ‘write’ a response is another. In prison it is worse. Inside the prison the 49% functional illiteracy increases to approximately 80% with low skill levels in one or more domains of literacy – reading, writing or numeracy. There are myriad reasons for this; including intergenerational illiteracy, less access to educational resources, contempt for education from those the system has failed in the past and the seemingly entrenched and often ignored class system in Tasmania.

The Writer in Residence role in this iteration was a blank canvas. In my public life speak long and loudly (not long enough, not loudly enough) about the need for all of us to have the tools to tell our stories, and how, whether through spoken or written literacy we can grow a sense of self and of community. More often than not I am speaking to a literate audience. This role affords the opportunity to work specifically with those who struggle with literacy and to hopefully let some light pour in to a world of reading and writing, and to celebrate literature and the written word. The program would also need clear outcomes, and a tangible improvement in the ability and confidence of inmates to read and write.  Where to begin!?

Tales from the Slammer, Vignette 4

Our sessions have begun and the interest amongst inmates is not high, despite active recruitment and an ad run in the prison rag. The firs...