The Grand Read

Writers dog

Last week I mentioned that I was taking part in a local spoken word event, The Grand Read. After spending the week torturing the dog with my practice…she probably knows if off by heart now…the night finally arrived. My rehearsals paid off and I succeeded in reading without mishap. I have included the flash fiction piece below and attached an audio file of the reading if you want to hear the spoken version recorded at the event.

Feet of Clay

Lilith rolled and pounded and prodded and plotted. Clay dripped from slender fingers, flecks thrown by the spinning wheel spattered into golden locks, made her beauty more desirable. Twice winner of the pottery prize, prominent and popular, she knew she would be made if she could triumph again. A hat trick to cement her place in the town’s history.

The Grand Read

Rex, her lover, her muse, her confidant, her king; had taken up the craft with the same passion and zeal he had when he had taken up with her, on a summer night many moons ago, on the banks of the river beneath a willow, embraced by the arms of soft green grasses. Lilith admired his body, his coils, his glaze when they sat side by side in the sweltering heat of the kiln, matched only by the heat in his loins, the love she knew he held for her.

Late one night whilst they potted and spun, the soft sounds of love leaking from the stereo; his Swayze to her Moore; Rex leant in close, whispered in her ear so she felt his hot breath brush the down of her lobe.

“I think I’ll enter the prize, we could stand side by side.”

They were doing what they often did, he behind her, clay sliding through fingers, along arms, a sensuous ritual that gave life to art and art to love. The work; a French ceramic flower pot that Lilith would glaze, just so, in imperfect green.

Eden

But his words planted a seed. Its tiny tendrils entwined, wrapping themselves in ever tightening circles around Lilith’s heart, her freedom, herself. That Rex would want not only her, but her dreams, her talents, her prize, struck weeds in her Eden that took root and slowly spread, a demon force that left thorns in her flesh, eroded her love.

Lilith began to work when Rex was away, ignoring his calls, in the dead of the night, to the cries of the owls, the yowls of the cats left out in darkness to hunt like jackals, feast on possums and bats. Creatures that belonged to the night’s forest devoured by those who would slink in and steal their lives.

Prickly Pair

She experimented with silkscreens, with decals and lustres, turned plates, bowls and cups till her back ached and her hands were raw, pitted with cuts and scrapes and burns. Before dawn she squirrelled away her finest work, hoarded from his prying eyes to ensure her stall would be a surprise.

Expo day arrived along with the blues and the whites and the reds of the French. Tents were sprung and tables were set with the fruits of eighty potters for all the world to see, but the coveted potluck prize waited for only one.

Lilith laid her wares with care on white lace cloth, her red dress flared as she twisted and twirled; a flourish here, a tweak there. Embraced in the imperfect green flower pot, planted in soil and ash was foliage the shape of lopsided hearts, splashed, slashed and swirled with plum and purple and scarlet. The showboat and king of the begonia world, its lush and lovely leaves quivered in the summer breeze and set off her stand to perfection.

Woman of Substance

The judge, a dour woman with puckered lips and bulging hips paraded along the river trail inspecting pots, peering in, tut-tutting, enjoying her own importance, before disappearing into a tent to deliberate. Finally emerging, she sauntered a windy path to Lilith’s stall. It was not until she was right up close that she allowed herself to crack a tiny smile.

“Congratulations Lilith, you have won the prize yet again. I was particularly taken with your centrepiece, the imperfect green flower pot holding the begonia. You must tell me your secret to ensuring the good health of this fickle plant.”

Lilith smiled sweetly, gave nothing away, but if you had been listening closely when she bent over the plant after the judge had left you would have heard her whisper.

“We did it Rex.”

Main image: The Queen of the Shire, Deborah Halpren

Microphone, Art Gallery of South Australia

Reading at spoken word events

Street Art, San Francisco

Spoken word existed long before the written word, but its roots as a contemporary performance art lie in the Black Arts Movement (1965-1975) and emerged in the wake of the killings of Martin Luther King, J F Kennedy and Malcolm X. Black artists declared war on racism though their art, spreading messages of black unity, power and nationalism via mobile units of performance poets and spoken word collectives that gathered on street corners and in community parks. As a performance, spoken word, whether poetry or prose, tends to exhibit a heavy use of rhythm and word play compared to traditional writing.

Spoken word can be in the form of poetry, prose monologues, jazz poetry, comedy routines or hip hop. Melbourne has a vibrant spoken word scene and you can go and listen to, or participate in, poetry and prose gigs on most night of the week in pubs and cafe’s and old courthouses across the city and out in the suburbs.

The Grand Read

Since the 1980’s, the town where I live has hosted a two day festival each year that kicks off with a two hour road closure for the street parade with fabulous floats that promenade to the beat of a brass band from one end of town to the other. The weekend unfolds with a film night, an art show, a battle of the bands, pet parades, a giant water slide, canoe and camel rides, billy cart races, gold mine tours, a duck race and a beer brewing competition. One of the concluding events of the festival, commonly known as the cherry on top of the fabulous cake, is The Grand Read, a night of poetry and prose at the pub.

The Grand Read hosts a selection of local writers and poets, and one ‘outsider’ guest. Previous guests have included: poet and psychiatrist, Jennifer Harrison; author and human rights advocate, Arnold Zable; senior lecturer at RMIT and founder of the journal RABBIT, Jessica Wilkinson; and poet and author Kevin Brophy. This years guest is poet, playwright and actor Felix Nobis and I have been invited as one of seven local writers to deliver a seven minute reading.

The piece I will read is a tongue in cheek flash fiction piece about another local event, the potery expo. It will be my first time performing at a spoken word event, so I have been doing some research to help my preparation. Here is a summary of the advice I have gleaned…

Trespassers Welcome

Breathing: Diaphragmatic breathing is the type of deep breathing done by contracting the diaphragm, such as in yoga practices. You can practice it by lying on the floor and breathing in a way that fills up your belly. Pay attention to the rise and fall of your breath. Diaphragmatic breathing produces a better sound, and has a calming effect because it slows down your heart rate and reduces nerves and stress.

Practice, practice, practice: Performance is a physical activity and rehearsal creates muscle memory in your diaphragm, lungs and tongue, not just your memory. Knowing your piece will improve your performance. Read it out loud walking around the house or to the bathroom mirror until you know it well. Practice until you can lift your eyes off the page and look at the audience and add pause for impact where needed. Don’t be afraid of the quiet between sentences.

Project from your diaphragm: The people in the back of the room have to hear you, so fill up the room with your voice – this doesn’t mean shouting. Most people don’t fully engage their diaphragm, they rely too much on their throats, which not only strains your vocal chords over time, but produces a weaker sound, instead of the round, full sound spoken word poets are known for. To engage the full support of your breath, inhale, allowing your stomach to expand with air, and speak during exhale. The result will be a fuller, projected sound that won’t strain your vocal chords.

Enunciation: Exaggerate the shape of your mouth so you don’t mumble or run your words together. It might feel funny but it’ll force you to slow down and helps your audience understand you. Practice reading with the bottom of a pen or your fingers in your mouth. It helps you learn to shape your mouth the right way and forces you to over-enunciate. Err on the side of exaggeration.

Tempo and speed: It’s harder to slow down than it is to speed up—especially when you’re performing and adrenaline kicks in. Practice slowing down your speech to an uncomfortable, unnatural level so that you can play with pacing in your performance. Emphasize important moments and change pacing in order to help keep your audience captivated. If you feel like you’re speaking too slowly, you’re probably just right.

Spoken Word, San Francisco

Create tension and release: Consider pacing, sound, and intonation to better tell your story. Anticipate the emotional reaction you would like to inspire in the audience, and prepare the performance accordingly by slowing down in places, giving certain words extra space for emphasis, and altering your tone or volume. Identify places within your story where you can pause or add an extra emotional component through performance (you can mark these sections and highlight important words to create a roadmap). How can your voice emphasize the meaning behind the words? Which parts do you want people to remember? What’s the most important phrase or word? Take time to think about these questions and practice different delivery methods.

Be aware of your body: Spoken word is a full body art form – is there anything you can you do with your body that will add to your work? Use natural movement. Standing up straight while speaking is important to get the sound out. It’s especially important to elongate the spine in your neck so as not to constrict the breath in your throat. Lift your chin slightly and imagine a string is pulling the top of you head up. Plus when you stand up straight and assume a strong, confident stance, your audience will be able to hear it in your voice.

Create a warm up routine: Vocal coaches consistently suggest staying hydrated and soothing the throat with warm tea, lemon, and honey. Warming up the mouth and vocal chords is also a a good idea. Try humming your favorite tune to warm up vocal chords, massaging the muscles on the sides of your jaw to release tension, or rolling your tongue and blowing air through relaxed lips to warm up your mouth.

Give the microphone room: Keep the microphone about three inches away from your mouth to produce the best sound.

Waiting

Know that no one likes the sound of their own voice and the audience wants you to do well: When we hear ourselves speak in real time, we pick up on the internal vibrations, as well as the external sounds. But when we hear our voices in a recording, it sounds foreign because we’re not picking up the internal vibrations. We dislike our recorded voice because we rarely hear it as others do and therefore find it unfamiliar, but only you hate the sound of your voice. No one else is cringing and the audience is on your side – they want to have an enjoyable evening.

And lastly…be your authentic self, and eat a banana – it can help you relax…oh, and have fun.

Take a Leaf Out of My Book

This week I wrote a flash fiction piece for fun, inspired by my trip to WOMADelaide.

WOMADelaide is a four day open air festival of Music, Arts and Dance held in beautiful Botanic Park in Adelaide. Every year, around 500 artists from 30+ countries perform on 8 stages spread across the 34-hectare park and 18,000 – 20,000 people go each day.

The leaf people shown in the photos were artworks around the park which I found spooky and were the inspiration for this story…

Take a Leaf Out of My Book

I was amongst the thousands who made the pilgrimage to the music festival each year. We traipsed around the parkland gardens like the faithful seeking redemption, enveloped in sound waves that vibrated through the air around as we lay on the cool grass beneath river red gums, Moreton figs and pencil pines. Reality receded fast amongst the tie die, Indian cotton, beards and pigtails, and the thin trail of weed smoke that wended it’s way through the crowd to a melody so sweet it tasted like fairy floss, enfolding me in clouds of saintly bliss.

I wandered around the park to soak up the atmosphere and noticed creatures fashioned from chicken wire into the shape of people. They were stuffed with brown autumn leaves that looked like skin after too much time in the sun and scattered through the forest like aberrant seeds. Someone’s idea of art, frozen in ghoulish stances, sitting in chairs, leaning on walls and spilling from the hollows of trees. Faceless creatures in poses of waiting. They appeared at every turn and I started to feel like they were watching me.

On the second day I noticed that the leaf creatures moved around the park over night. One that had been playing a piano in a gully on the first day was no longer there and another riding a bicycle had materialised alongside a path. When I mentioned this to my girlfriend she said I had been drinking too much.

At dusk I was sprawled on the grass listening to the sounds of a throat singer and animal sounds emanate from a wind instrument. Their cries were answered by creatures deep in the park. At one point I was sure I heard a human scream, but when I struggled to my elbows all eyes around me were faced front to the stage, no sign anyone else had noticed, so I lay back down again. After an hour the throat singer melted into the forest and an aboriginal women’s choir dressed in colours of the desert emerged on stage and started to croon. Their haunted voices echoed through the night competing with the owls that dwelled in the high tree branches.

My bladder started to fill to bursting so I scrambled to my feet and headed into the dark toward the portaloos down the back, far enough away that the stink wouldn’t seep into the crowd. I passed through a stand of pines and couldn’t tell whether the rustling of leaves was coming from beneath my own feet or others walking in the shadows out of sight. The gouls in my head took shape in the night around me as I thought I caught glimpses of movement in the dark.

Fortunately the dunny queue was short. The bathroom experience was the worst part of festivals. No matter how often the tireless staff mopped out the stalls, at the end of a hot day the smell of urine was still nauseating, but the relief of emptying my bladder to the distant keening of the singers overrode any feelings of disgust I had for my stinky box cubicle with its invisible splashes sprayed around the walls.

When I stepped back out of the loo, I was alone with the sounds of the night. Already a bit spooked, I started to walk stealthily in the direction of the haunting melody that filtered through the trees, then tripped and landed sprawled on the ground. I heard a low painful moan nearby and scrambled to my feet. In the dim shadows I thought I saw a figure prone on the ground and in my mind it’s mouth was stuffed with flaking brown autumn leaves. I turned and ran through the night as adrenaline flooded my body.

I passed a large tree and something latched onto me from the shadows. When I swiped at it I felt my sleeve grabbed and tugged and started to swing around wildly. A shriek escaped from deep in my throat and I struggled with the dark figure feeling the scrape of chicken wire and the crunch of leaves as it wrestled me to the ground. My panicked mind realised that my daytime fantasy of the chicken wire and leaf people coming alive in the night was real. The person I had tripped over lying prone in the forest must have been a victim and now they had come for me.

Another scream echoed through the forest louder than the distant singing. I was fighting for my life, could feel the sting of wire cuts on my arms. In the distance I thought I heard my name being called and yelled for help while I struggled.

Flashes of torchlight leapt through the forest nearby and after what seemed like a lifetime found me. All the spots converged on my face and there was a deathly silence. I scrambled to my feet and wheeled around wildly in the torchlight ready to defend myself again. Peals of laughter started to fill the forest around me. My attacker, one of the chicken wire and leaf sculptures, was flattened to a pulp at my feet, no signs of life having ever been in it.