A review of Solid Air by David Stavinger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu (Eds)

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Solid Air
Australian and New Zealand Spoken Word
By David Stavinger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu (Eds)
University of Queensland Press
ISBN: 9780702262593, Aug 2019, 228 pg, Pb, $29.99aud

Spoken Word poetry is, by its nature, ephemeral. Of course it can be recorded: the recording itself providing an archive, or written on the page and published in a book like Solid Air, but at its best, it works most powerfully in situ. Unless you hear the artist perform, you will only be getting a hint of the impact the work has. That said, spoken word artists David Stavinger and Anne-Marie Te Whiu understand the form like no one else, and have done an exceptional job of attempting to provide a flavour of the visual and sonic complexity of spoken word performance with its rhythm, rhymes, immediacy and vernacular. The result is actually very engaging and surprisingly pleasurable to read. The editors have taken great care to select a wide and rather beautiful diversity of poets with a range of styles.

Some of the poems fit perfectly on the page—literally and metaphorically, reading as well as they work in performance, while others require more space – whether that be sideways across the width of two pages, or broken out into visual shapes, numeric, caps, italics, redactions and spaces that merely hint at delivery. The voices come through clearly in the structures and rhythms of these work. These are poems that are grounded, non-pretentious, accessible, and invite the reader to laugh, clap, cry and join in the meaning-making process. A large number of the poems are available online as recorded performance. These are poems that lend themselves to that kind of augmentation and invite the reader to explore the work of the artists included in more depth. For example, Jesse John Brand’s “Dear Mrs Miller”, whose 2013 Australian Poetry Slam winning performance is available on YouTube, complete with Brand’s deeply moving gesticulations and stuttering repetitions: http://www.wordtravels.info/aps-champions/2018/3/16/jesse-john-brand-australian-poetry-slam-champion-2013-oblivion

Please never forgive me
My halo is spun with barbed wire
But if you seek me
I’ll be scaling
The infinity spires

After watching it, the re-reading of the poem in Solid Air becomes a re-inactment, because it’s impossible not to hear Brand’s voice in the poem.  Though an entirely different type of poem to Brand’s–one that is alternatively pedestrian and humorous, Hera Lindsay Bird’s prose poem “Children are the orgasm of the world”, creates a similar kind of solar-plexus impact in its denouement:

Or traveling into the future to high five yourself and creating a time paradox so beautiful it forces all of human history to reboot, stranding you naked on some distant and rocky outcrop, looking up at the sunset from a world so new looking up hasn’t even been invented yet.

This poem, read in Bird’s gorgeous NZ accent, can be found in animated form here: http://movingpoems.com/2018/01/children-are-the-orgasm-of-the-world-by-hera-lindsay-bird/

Channeling Jackson Mac Low’s “A Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore”,  Tim Evans’ “Poem, Interrupted” is presented as a set of stage directions, that can be imagined, remembered, or even followed:

[Mime lifting phone to ear, right hand in ‘phone’ shape. Mumble, sigh. Look off to side]

Or you can use what is on the page as a stimulus to find Evans’ own distinctive performance on YouTube (my personal recommendation): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npYBYVqm6Uc

These are poems that can be read silently and individually, dipping in and out, or read aloud, collectively.  The work lends itself naturally to collaboration, to imagined visuals, and to the inherent musicality that comes with the spoken word form. Sometimes the musicality is literal, as in Courtney Barnett’s “Depreston” which was written specifically to be listened to as music, even as Barnett’s vocals are delivered in her characteristically warm half-talking drawl: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NVOawOXxSA

Other times the poetry contains its own innate music, as in the sumptuous alliteration of Candy Royalle’s beautiful poem “Impermanent”:

Restricted totally by the binds we
roped round the sounds our mouths made
to halt longings not meant to be uttered
we held back just enough
so those lives we couldn’t have lived forever

There is so much variety here, representing a broad spectrum of experiences, stances, and perspectives: young and old, political and domestic, hilarious and heartbreaking, deeply introspective mingling with political invective, experimental or concrete.  Though the poems in this collection differ from one another, proximity forces connection. Taken collectively, the work makes the reader think about correspondences, or as the editors so beautifully put it in their introduction, they “join as a chorus and amplify each other.” It’s as if, by bringing in a multitude of varying voices including some multilingual, we begin to see a common humanity in the recognition that comes with such intense vulnerability, anger, self-reflection, empathy, and perhaps above all, the radical inclusion that is not only evident throughout the poems in this collection, but a powerful underlying theme.