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Cultural Storytellers: Miriam Barr

Renee Liang blogs about the Going West Festival and interviews Miriam Barr about her work as a po


Renee Liang blogs about the Going West Festival and interviews Miriam Barr about her work as a poet and as a driving force behind performance poetry group The Literatti.

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I spent the weekend very pleasantly, at the Going West Books & Writers Weekend.  Going West is one of the two major literary festivals in Auckland - Going West focuses on NZ writers, whereas the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival (earlier in the year) hosts international writers (as well as some locals). They’re very different in “feel” – Going West has a real neighbourhood feel to it, and all the meals are included.  So all you have to do is sit back and absorb all the ideas, and every few hours you also get plied with food and cakes and juice and wine (not to mention the famous BBQed mussels on opening night).

One of the many things that piqued my interest happened during a discussion about the literary scene in NZ in the 1950s.  It was in the context of a celebration of the life of Bill Pearson, one of our most underappreciated novelists and literary critics. And the thing that caught my attention was when a poet stood up and commented that few younger writers are interested in what happened in NZ writing in the 1950s.

I was a little embarrassed to realise that I’m one of those uninterested writers.  Well of course I’m fascinated, in a gory kind of way. I’m not surprised to hear how different it all was –few women writers, a fair amount of homophobia (reflected from the society of the day) and without much awareness of diversity.  And I realise that this period marked the start of a flowering of our literature, slow recognition of “otherness” and some pretty crazy experimentation.

But I’m someone who’s just started on this path of using language and storytelling to explore my place in the world, who’s constantly bubbling over with the joy of colliding with other creatives and swapping ideas.  I don’t agree that NZ literature is by nature dark and gothic or that ours is a “literature of unease” – at least, not now.  (Would it be un-PC to say that what I have seen of Ronald Hughie Morrison has left me unmoved?)

 Maybe that was true in the 1950s, when New Zealanders felt marooned in the world and those who could, travelled, in order to learn.  These days many of us were born (or have parents that were born) overseas.  Although we still travel, we feel much more at ease as global citizens.  And with so many of us living here, Aotearoa is no longer an island.  The world has come to us and we no longer have to travel to find it (but we do anyway). And with all due respect to those early trailblazers who laid the foundations, what NZ literature was like in the 1950s is no longer relevant, except to realise how far we’ve come.

A quick disclaimer: I’m a writer, not a literature major.  If I was an academic, I think I’d be far more interested in untangling how the past has led to the present.  But what I’m arguing is that new writers should look forward – recognising but not leaning on history. (Phew. And now for a complete change of scene.)

Going West, of course, is not just one weekend but two months of celebrating all things creative in the West. 

To that end, I interviewed Miriam Barr, Creative Director of poetry performance group The Literatti.  (You may remember my interview with Christian Jensen a few weeks ago).  Miriam and I know each other well; we’ve been co-MCs at Poetry Live and cooked up quite a few projects together.  So it was fun to find out a few things I didn’t know.

Renee: How did you become a poet?

Miriam: For some reason, one day when I was around 8 years old I picked up a pen and re-wrote a nursery rhyme. I don't know why. And then I started to make up my own nursery rhymes, and then poetry, but I didn't really know what I was doing I don't think.

I just did it. And I just kept doing it.

Renee: That's hilarious. What did your parents think of it at the time?

Miriam: They really liked them. I don't know that they thought it was that much of a big deal. By the time I was about 11 or 12 they were putting stuff on the fridge and showing their mates though, so I think they thought it was good.

I think they worried I was a bit too grown up sometimes. Sometimes I wrote serious tracts about all the trees dying and things like that. I worried about the world. Ha, still do really eh?

Renee: You do! What kind of themes are you currently exploring? I know family is a big one, as is mental illness.

Miriam: My brother gave me my first ever notebook just for writing poetry in when I was about that age.

I am interested more in psychology than mental unwellness exactly. In what makes us tick.

Sometimes that means I'm examining myself and my own reactions and sometimes that means I'm examining other people or just plain making stuff up, but I'm pretty much always looking for a way to explore one of the undulations in the human condition.

It just fascinates me, how many different ways we could move in, how I could do anything I want in the whole world right now, but why I choose to sit here and talk to you, or do any other thing.

And I'm interested in ideas of selfhood, of 'who' we are, what makes us, and where we end. Sometimes though, I just have to find a place to put some of the things I have experienced.

Renee: So what about you? Who are you? What makes you tick? It's a big question, so maybe I'll narrow that down.  What's your family background and how much does that appear in your work?

Miriam: I grew up in the far north. My parents both moved there, rejected the city and capitalism and consumerism. I spent the first 5 and half years living on Mount Puketutu in a house in a clearing in 250 acres of native forest. We had a generator for power, and grew a lot of things, and went to town like once a week.  It was the best place on the planet to be small in.  When they split up, me and Ben went to live with mum in a more farming community.

I always had both my parents though, and I moved around with my mum, but we stayed very alternative, brown bread, chick-peas, hand-made, organic, felt, tie-dye, these are the things of my formative years.  And a bunch of really evil experiences from some people at school and a neighbour and things that mixed me up a lot, but wonderful parents.

I used to write a lot about all of that, about dealing with my relationships to them post-separation, about how we pass patterns down through generations, about what had happened to me, about how I would know how to nurture relationships myself, when I didn’t necessarily grow up seeing that kind of thing around me at home, not that I ever saw any violence, just an absence.  I wrote a lot about how we live with our pasts I suppose. 

Renee: So what about now? You've got a number of relationships that are very dear to you, and that you write about.

Miriam: Yeah, grandmother, fiancé, getting married (I find this utterly screws with my head), friendships, ending friendships, siblings, recently I have been interested in grandparents I never met too, finding I share traits with them, seeing them in their children, my parents.  And with Echoing the Ghosts it's been all about my relationships with historical figures, with society.

Renee: You write a lot about injustice as well, about the misbalances in society.

Miriam: Yeah, I suppose I do, don't I?  I see it a lot I suppose, and I feel like I have experienced it a lot. So when I'm talking about relationships and people, there's often a taste of that sharper edge of life in there.   It interests me how it is so often in these places, in these difficult places, where our humanity shines.  It seems we need some of them. 

Renee: So tell me about the Echoing the Ghosts project.  How did you conceive it?

Miriam: Well, it's my last one as creative director, so it had to be good. We had been workshopping most of the year, just to develop, and it was time for a new project.

I got Christian (Jensen) around and told him about how the Melbourne crew had taken an album as inspiration recently. We threw a few ideas around but there weren't any musicians who we felt we wanted to base a whole show on. And then I remembered the Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts project from the year before, so we decided we could take that album (or series of albums) and use the instrumental music itself to lead the poetry.

And then we decided that the title made a fantastic theme, and the rest is history. Everyone from the pool who had time to be involved brainstormed characters they felt had shaped the modern era, and then selected ones that they resonated with. They then chose tracks to write to, and went from there.

Renee: Let's backtrack a little - why and how were the Literatti formed, and how has it developed over the 5 years it has been in existence?

Miriam: Ah. Well, at the time, in 2005, there wasn't a lot happening in Auckland spoken word. Shane (Hollands) was doing the Beautiful Losers with Paul Williams, and Murray Haddow did a bit of stuff and so did Genevieve (Maclean) and The Faction, but that was about it; the people who used to do it seemed to have stopped, gone into hibernation. There was no unified scene, and we felt that there was nothing to do with performance poetry in Auckland other than gig on your own, no place to move to beyond that. 

Shane went to the Def Jam poets gig at AKO5 and he came round drunk one night, all like 'we could do that', and then the next day he asked me if I wanted to join a group. He had already gotten 5 other people on board.

I was dubious because I didn't consider myself a performer, but Shane did (he played me Ani Di Franco to prove it would work), and so I agreed and I never looked back. We wanted people to see poetry as something fun, dynamic and entertaining.  It was to be accessible, entertaining, musical and interesting. We were sick of readings. We wanted there to be a sense that performance poetry was a legitimate craft. So Shane got us memorising everything and taught us all how to work with music. And then a year later he handed it over to me.

I got us working on multiple person performances; I'd been watching them on Youtube and it had been on our original wish-list of things to do. So we started working on that, was pretty rare thing to see in those days, 2006, 5 poets all belting out a poem together.   It’s not as straight-forward as you’d think either. 

All of a sudden it seems to have become an accepted norm. But at one point that kind of thing got criticised for being too performance based, some people thought it detracted from the poetry. But now it seems that people can see how it adds another layer to the meanings you can convey and the sounds you can make. 

It's taken ages, from just simple line-sharing, to now, where we can chorus and do out-of-sync rounds and echoes and mix in song and all sorts of things. I think our performance skills have come a long way too, and the way in which the show is formulated. Once upon a time, everything was always done in blocks of poets, everywhere you went, that was the way you did a poetry show. And we did away with that, I structured our shows by poems. And so we started trying to relate our pieces to other pieces; I see that happening more elsewhere now too. I like it. It's much more interesting to watch as an audience member, when things keep shifting. 

Renee: You raise a very interesting point, about the controversial line between "page" poetry and "performance" poetry.  Is there a point where poetry moves beyond being poetry?

Miriam: Ah, the performance/page dichotomy is annoying.  All poems begin in your mind and the words have a sound and an expression in there. You then generally put them all on the page. For me, that original expression I heard in my head when I wrote the words is the poem in its perfect form, the poem as it ought to be heard by the reader in their own head; it’s what the poem is always trying to be, if I can just manage to get the best words into their best order for it.

When I perform a poem, I am trying to enact that intention behind the words. And I think that this is possible with all poetry – it can all be presented in a way that tries to relive its original emotion and drive.  (Actually it needs to, otherwise the reader kills the poem).

HOWEVER, some poems also play games with the look of the words on the page, these things are difficult to perform, certain ee cummings poems would be impossible to convey fully, for example. I think that most poetry needs to be read aloud AND looked at closely on the page to be truly appreciated.  If a poem was written to be performed, sometimes it needs a more adventurous reader in order to be utterly understood; some of its bliss will lie in the sound of it.  

So if you are going to read it in a monotone then it would be best not to bother. Poetry needs to be felt. I think it exists all over the place and some of us write it down.

But they are definitely two separate things that I do, I write poetry, and I do performance. I use performance to express my poetry. But I write poetry first.  I do it on a page in a notebook.

I agree that sometimes things that are great in performance don't carry so well in bare text. But then that's probably because they aren't the best poem full stop. 

Does that answer the question or simply pose more questions?

Renee: It poses some very good questions! You have been collaborating a lot - with musicians, visual artists and moving image makers.  How does that change the intent and delivery of the poem? 

Miriam: It just changes the various factors that influence the mood, pace, and tone of the piece. Sometimes we still just write and then see what we can make of the poem afterwards. But occasionally, like with this show, we find things to lead the poetry, in this case music – it totally changes the tone and style you take with your character. We then build the set, movement, props etc in around those two central aspects.  If the poetry is sound and effective, then it has enough movement and emotion in it for any artist, actor or musician to work with I think. It’s got to be good poetry.  I've really liked doing it in reverse and making the poetry to the music instead of the other way around. It makes the relationship between the poem and the music more authentic.

Renee: Does the work then become more than a poem?

Miriam: It totally becomes more than a poem. It's a poem translated through multiple mediums - through action and sets and music and song as well through words. The most important thing to me has always been to try to personify poetry in our shows, to lift above the page, make it much more than words, to communicate it the way it was heard and felt by the poet when they made it, we want to connect.

Renee: So this is what you mean by "theatrical" poetry - it's poetry unified with other art forms to become an experience.

Miriam: Yes. The theatre components are the joining of voices (our poems become scripts in these cases), the addition of sets, the addition of back-drops, props, costumes sometimes even, these are all things that belong to the world of theatre rather than poetry.

Renee: So this style of performance moves poetry from the personal moment to the shared moment?

Miriam: Yeah, exactly, It's like taking each of the parts of the poem and laying them out on the stage and on the performer’s face, in their body, the way they move their head, their tone of voice, their eyes, the direction of their gaze....

It's using all of you to communicate. I sound like a nut about it, but I think that the performance of poetry is one of the most beautiful things when it is done well.  It sings in you, when you hit it right. 

You should see Staceyanne Chin, she is just beautiful, a graceful, powerful expression of humanity connecting to humanity.  She is in the moment when she is performing and she takes you with her there, and you go willingly. That is what I want to do. That is what I want The Literatti to do.

Renee:  You mention many overseas influences in your work - the Def Jam Poets, Melbourne poets and Youtube performances - how much do you consider what you are doing a "global" movement, and how much comes from Aotearoa?  Or is that an unnecessary distinction?

Miriam: Oh we are very much part of a global movement.  What we are doing carries on in a long tradition of spoken word and performance poetry, right back through time, through the beat generation, jazz, blues, they all did spoken word.  And, yeah, well as I said, there wasn't a lot currently happening when we started and so we had to look elsewhere for inspiration at a certain point.   There is a lot of it.  But you’ve got to search.  Different areas definitely have different styles, as influenced by their area’s politics, geography, industry, economics, environment, scope of their community etc. 

We've ended up working with a number of NZ performance poets too, there used to be a strong Wellington spoken word contingent but it has waned.  Most of the people performing now, we have performed with.  It’s been great.

NZ has its own style of performance definitely, but it’s much more eclectic than in the States and the UK, which are more hip hop influence.  In NZ we are influenced by Baxter and Kerouac more than hip hop. It's clearly influenced by Sam Hunt being pretty much the only well-known performer for a very long time too - he actually still is! NZ poets are more 'real' on stage I find than in other countries, Apirana Taylor, Tusiata Avia (two of our greatest), these people get up on stage and belt out their insides without artifice, like Staceyanne Chin (who is rare amongst Def Jam Poets) does. Whereas in the States where there is much more of a fame focus, the emphasis is often on presentation, on hip-hop rhythms or rhymes, things that will cross-over into mainstream and make you famous.   But here, we just do things because we think it will be cool, so there are fewer boundaries perhaps.  When we worked with Nikki Patin, she spoke a lot about that, she’s different too.  About how competitive it was in Chicago, so that poets there didn’t often work together in a collaborative way like we did.  And maybe that’s why there’s grown to be such a distinctive style coming out of there, everyone competing to do this one thing better than anyone else.  Actually, I watched this doco on Youtube by the guys that started the first Slams, and even they were warning of conforming to a formula.  But they're more rhythmic I think, as a general rule, there's more of the (NZ performance poet) Tourette's style going on there, he mimics what they’ve got going on really well, but of course with his own flavour.  And there’s the Belfast Poets too, Scream Blue Murmer, they are one of the only groups in the world we’ve seen doing the combination of factors we do, only they don’t really do sets and things.  So it was great to have them over and experience what they do.  Great for us too, to see that what we are doing and where we are at is on par with international groups.  

Renee: Looking at the Auckland poetry performance scene as a whole, how much have overseas visitors influenced it?  You've helped organise a few visits by overseas performers.

Miriam: Not nearly as much as it should.  There is so much happening in the world and I wish people were more aware of it.  I try to watch as much overseas things as I can - I keep in touch with performance poets in New York and Chicago, and I try to watch out for what Alicia Sometimes and Steve Smart and all that crew over there are up to. 

I think it's important.  The only way to keep growing and evolving is to know how much amazingly awesome stuff came before us, influenced us, and continues to grow alongside us. At the moment I'm getting into early jazz/blues singers, I suppose, maybe it's really funk.  Marlena Shaw, I swear that shit is spoken word, or the beginnings of it.

It was watching and commenting on women’s performance poetry on Youtube that I met Nikki Patin, who came over and toured with her Phat Grrrl Revolution Tour.  We collaborated online for months and then she rehearsed with us intensively for about a week before we performed this show called Growl at the London Bar (I miss the London Bar) for Auckland Fringe last year.  That was a highlight.  She loved our poetry scene.  Nearly moved here. 

Last year a friend of mine forwarded me a news clip from New York about The Poetry Brothel.  When it came time for the next Side Stream fundraiser I decided I’d organise New Zealand’s first poetry brothel.  It was awesome.  Somewhere along the way, Nicolas Adamski aka Tennessee Pink, one of the founders of the original group, found out about us on Facebook, sent me a friend request and we connected up.  He was amazing, offering advice around how to organise it and telling me how they ran their nights.  We chose a prohibition-era theme and all the poetry prostitutes dressed in 1930’s garb supplied by Titirangi Theatre.  You looked fabulous Renee!  The New York originals ran an event at the same time in their hometown on the other side of the world.  Their last event had a prohibition theme! So the influence goes both ways too.  A couple of our poetry prostitutes just ran a brothel down in Wellington, so it’s spreading!  We love it.  That’s why Ghosts is so cool, because it’s all creative commons.  We’re putting any recordings back onto the creative commons.  Share-alike baby!

Renee: It sounds like over the time you've been active (and from what I’ve observed), NZ poets are getting a lot more comfortable with their voices.

Miriam: I hope they are. I think so too. Someone came up to me after a performance not long ago and said 'wow, you can really put a lot of control on the sounds can't you?' and I thought, well, yeah, but that was news to him, it's cool when shit spreads a bit, when people notice there's actually a technique gone into it and start trying it out for themselves. 

Renee: And you guys are not the only ones playing with performing poetry in different ways now...

Miriam: Well, that's right too. There's Printable Reality just started up, and South Auckland Poets Collective have just put out a DVD and then there's your FOB too, and Polynation. 

Renee: So am I the only one who thinks that poetry is somehow becoming "cool" at the moment, or do you think so too? I mean some of it is inappropriate - I saw rugby described as "poetic" the other day in the paper! But does this "re invention" of poetry have anything to do with the shift in attitude?

Miriam: There have always been poets who wrote about the rugby unfortunately. And people have always said things were poetic that really weren't.

But then again, I think that there's been a renaissance of poetry in Auckland in the last while.  More groups, more collaborative projects, more slams, bigger audiences, more media can't argue with any of that.  And within the community itself there has been a real excitement, a sense of urgency and inspired passion.  People have felt that they were part of something I think, with Poetry Live, and (collaboration project) Metonymy and Literatti and (poetry journal) Side Stream and all the things that have been happening.  I think a few people have maybe finally woken up to what has been happening.  These things have been there all along, but I think that, yes, they have probably reached more people now, it’s started to have its intended effect maybe, perhaps Poetry is no longer perceived as the dull p-word.

Renee: So, where to next for you?  You're stepping down as Creative Director of the Literatti.

Miriam: Yes, I've been Creative Director for 3 and a half years now and it's been wonderful but I am really tired and looking forward to spending some time focussing just on my own stuff.  It was only ever meant to be a 1 year job but there hasn’t been another literartist brave enough to step into it until now – I am SO glad we got Christian. 

I'm going to spend some real time just being a poet and a performer again. Doing what I do and not having to worry about what other people do. :o) I'm also getting a bit responsible and have started doing paid work in mental health and setting up my own mental health business.  I'm going to knuckle down and be married and try my hand at living happily ever after, hahahahahahahaha....

 But seriously, all of these years of poetry projects haven't left a lot of time for earning money, which is kind of icky to say, what with my non-capitalist leanings, but it is time to put those degrees in action and build my other career where I help people recover from mental unwellness.

Renee: But then you just became a playwright this week...

Miriam: Ah, yeah, that was a total experiment, I am so surprised it got selected to be put on. It seems crazy. It’s part of the RETHiNK Theatre Challenge.  It was weird to write it.  Not like with poetry, where I feel driven. 

I also have this manuscript I've been sitting on for a while called Bullet Hole Riddle, I thought it was finished, but now I have some more poems to add to it, and I think I'm going to see if anyone wants to publish it. And if they don't, well, then I'll publish it myself.

Renee: How does your academic career tie in with your artistic career? (the dual career thing is something that interests me obviously!)

Miriam: Ah, well my academic career has been in psychology and this is a font of poetic inspiration. I mainly have focused on the emotion regulation system - on what we feel and why and what it is trying to tell us and how we can help it. I write about that all the time.  I think it is the same interest in life and change that inspires me to be involved in both poetry and psychology.

Written by

Renee Liang

15 Sep 2010

Renee is a writer who is exploring many ways of telling stories, including plays, short stories, poetry (which she also performs), and cross-genre collaborations with composers, musicians, sculptors and filmmakers.