Writers On Writing / Miles Merrill on performance that doesn’t ask permission

We interviewed the founder of Australian Poetry Slam Miles Merrill ahead of his one-day workshop at Writing NSW, Write to Speak.

Your name is renowned for launching the spoken-word movement in Australia. As a poet from Chicago, how did you introduce the concept of a poetry slam to a pretty cynical citizenry?

Adding a competitive aspect to what is essentially a poetry reading took off in Australia because people crave stories. Audiences watch their heroes rise and fall. It’s refreshing when people can engage in intellectual sport as well as physical. There’s always a comment about whether poetry should be competitive but a thousand submissions sit on an editor’s desk. Only three make it into the journal. That’s a competition with one judge. Poetry slams usually have five audience-based judges. Audiences, in the end, decide what thrives. 550 people pay $60 to see a slam at Sydney Opera House every year. That equates to a best-seller for a poetry book.

Did you always know you were going to be a poet and writer, or did you stumble onto this path accidentally?

Writing has been an outlet since I was really young. I kept it to myself while focusing on acting. When I kept being offered roles like Janitor 1, Janitor 2 or Indian Guy, I thought, maybe actors are elaborate puppets for other people’s ideas. I switched my major to English but also found homogeneity in literature. Performing my own writing gives me access to an audience without asking permission from people who might never understand what it’s like to be me.

How important is vulnerability in performance poetry?

I think audiences respect a writer who shows vulnerability. It’s a kind of bravery. It’s a reminder that we’re all human and it gives the listener a cue; signalling the emotional depth we are collectively allowed to dive to. We’ve all experienced significant drama and humour in our own lives. We need cathartic metaphors for this. It’s a shame when work only scratches the surface, dwelling in the realm of the everyday.

Miles Merrill writes and performs a mix of poetry, stories, lyrics and monologues. He does this internationally for festivals, private companies, cultural institutions, schools, libraries, theatre and music venues. Miles mainly performs solo but also collaborates with composers, musicians, film makers and visual artists. He publishes on CD, DVD, online and in print but is best experienced live. Miles brought poetry slams to Australia from Chicago, set up the international Australian Poetry Slam and is Creative Director of the literary and literacy arts organisation, Word Travels.

Write to Speak will take place at Writing NSW on Saturday 1 June, 10am-4pm. Book your spot here>


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