Overload Poetry Festival’s tenth anniversary this year and I’m hankering to be enthralled. I walk into a very big room with dizzyingly bright giant chandeliers and massive pillars. The venue seemed a bit formal and cold for a poetry gig. The program advertised a duration of 6-10pm. That’s a really long night to concentrate on poetry under these bright lights. I collect my media pass and choose a seat about four rows from the front. At 6:30pm, the Artistic Director, Luis Gonzalez Serrano apologises for the late start promising that the gig will start in five. 15 minutes later and the show begins.It’s
My favourites were Luka Lesson, Omar Musa, Alan Pham and Alia Gabres. Luka Lesson and Omar Musa performed a set of three poems together. Their first set mythologically themed; the second a reflection about their generation; and the third love and heartbreak. Both Luka and Omar are seasoned and champion slam poets. Luka’s first poem was like an epic Greek myth with a postmodern twist of writers on writing; it sounded like a powerful prayer invoking his ancestors and ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Omar’s first poem was also a beautifully written piece where he is walking on a metaphysical landscape and meets twins – one of forgetfulness and one of memory. Their second set and third set also blew me away. Luka’s “Confluence” was an unsentimental, beautifully crafted and viscerally charged poem about falling in and out of love. Omar’s “My Generation” piece had airplay recently on Q&A, and he prefaced the set by saying that after his performance on TV, he received a mixture of love and hate mail. “My Generation” is a sharp and scalding attack on a generation Y of selfish young people obsessed with artifice, megalomania and copycat ideas.
I was very excited when I saw Alan Pham on Youtube on the Overload website as I always keep my eyes peeled for emerging Asian-Australian talent. A young Vietnamese-Australian man with a lot of spunk and attitude with words that moved me nearly to tears. Alan’s poems were inspired by the Australian film based on John Marsden’s book, Tomorrow When the War Began. His first poem sets a scene asking us to imagine our Australian cities under siege. What would you do if you knew that today was the last day of your life? Would you leave everything behind for a foreign land whose name is unpronounceable to your tongue? His next poem is a memoir of his father’s escape from Vietnam, leaving his grandmother behind with the promise of coming back. His grandmother’s parting gift is a US$20 bill. 20 years later, she arrives in the States and sees her smiling son who still has her US$20 in his pocket.
Lastly, Alia Gabres. Last year, I was in a spoken word workshop at Footscray Community Arts Centre when I first met Alia. She had never performed poetry in her life. This year, after being involved as a co-curator of “Tell It Like It Is” nights and as a workshop facilitator for the Center of Poetics and Justice, Alia has grown to be a confident and evocative poet. Her first poem left me bewitched. It moved from being in a landscape of horror, of people who were “refugees in their own land”, and switched focus to folks switching news channels, a privilege that those living the reality cannot afford. Her second poem was another powerful poem about being “different”. She dedicates the poem to her 11 year old “brown-eyed, dark-skinned, braided-hair” sister. A poem about strength, dignity and love, the poem cautions against turning into the hate and violence of bullies and racists. However, Alia’s third poem, a love poem, left me wanting something more.
I wonder about the choices made regarding the opening night program. The majority of poets were local Melburnites, some interstate and three international guests from the UK. Altogether 14 poets performed on the night, including a slightly awkward and under-rehearsed homage to Cold Chisel’s poetic works by Jen Jewel Brown, Steve Smart and Meg Dunn. It was great to hear Steve Smart, Overload’s co-originator, reveal anecdotes that he spun into comedic tales about the ongoing running of this volunteer-run festival, which has been supported by the City of Yarra for nine out of its ten years. I liked Ken Smeaton who opened the launch with his book of poetry, Love, Poet, Live and Ed Burger’s whacky booming performance. I also liked Lauren Williams’ ballad on the guitar. But where was П. O. on the night, let alone in the program? How can a Melbourne poetry festival not have in its program pages an important Australian poet whose work spans 37 years? I wonder about the process of programming opening night and this festival and I think it would have been great to see more people of colour and Indigenous poets on the program.
The three UK poets on the night were pros, and I expected nothing less, since they were the international guests. Tim Clare was a charming bard with a ukelele and Luke Wright was passionate with his poetry and performance. Luke’s poem about embracing fatherhood and his love for his toddler was a beautiful gem about men taking responsibility of “women’s work”, like child-rearing and caring, and not being patted on the back for it. Unfortunately I can’t remember Hannah Jane Walker’s poems because at this point, my brain began to switch off with the overload of Overload.
My experience overall was mixed because on the positive side, I saw some amazing poetry, but on the other hand, the structure of the night and the constant bright lights were too intense and wasn’t enjoyable. It would have been great if there was an informal and relaxed atmosphere, with a lighting techie who could operate the dimmer. The length of the night shouldn’t have been such a big deal; this really comes down to the event management and artistic direction of the night.
Reviewed by Lian Low.