As discussed last week, this is the first of the two promised interviews that I managed to salvage from the audio taken at the Williamstown Literary Festival. Here I’m talking with Emilie Zoey Baker, an award-winning Australian poet, educator, slam champion and spoken-word performer. She has toured a lot of the world as a guest of various international festivals. In Australia, she performs regularly at arts and literature festivals and has appeared at the Sydney Opera House and TEDx Melbourne. Her poetry has been published widely, including in journals and publications such as Going Down Swinging, Cordite, Best Australian Love Poems and the three Women of Letter anthologies: Yours Sincerely, Airmail and Between Us. Enjoy! Further details at the end.
K: Thank you for joining me.
EZB: My pleasure!
K: You’re one of those poets, a local luminary, who I’ve admired from afar for a long time, so it’s great to be here with you to talk about a topic I’m passionate about which is poetry. You teach and perform both locally and internationally and we will get to that soon – but I’d like to start with what kind of poetry you wrote or read as a child.
EZB: As a child, I remember thinking that poetry was kind of a wild thing, then later I was told that poetry was a formal thing you had to learn to write, so I hated it. Then when I got to high school the teachers hated teaching it. They shoved Kubla Kahn at us and told to analyse it. This was in a classroom that was supposed to be for cooking! Not even a proper classroom! I remember looking at these words on the page and seeing wonderful shapes happen, this kind of mystery unlocking and at that moment I understood what poetry could be. I really think in primary school they really need to do a better job of teaching it and definitely so in high school. Because if people hate poetry it’s because they’ve been tortured by it in school. If you say to an adult you’re a poet they’ll look at you, like ‘What? That doesn’t compute. Go get a job!’
K: Yes, teachers are pivotal in this whole relationship and how students get to know a text. In high school, I think I had a nice initiation into that world. In Year 12, I mostly studied Shakespeare and for some teachers, I think he’s a nice insurance policy. This was the year Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet came out and I think helped radicalise poetry, or at the least made some people sit up and take notice of it.
EZB: That fish tank scene was so sexy, wasn’t it? When they first see each other.
K: I watched it again not too long ago. I wasn’t too sure about it when it first came out but I have to say it has grown on me over the years.
EZB: I just love what that movie did to Shakespeare. I remember having studied Romeo and Juliet on the page and getting frustrated because I didn’t understand what was going on. The language wasn’t unpacked properly. Again, it was shoved at us. I feel that the movie paid respect to the text and gave it a beautiful interpretation visually and made it accessible to an entire generation. For that, I give it a massive high-five.
K: Talking about performance, this leads us to my next questions because you are an award-winning international slam poet. Can you tell listeners about those?
EZB: Oh, you mean the Berlin International Poetry Slam at the Berlin International Literature Festival 2010?! Yeah, I’ll tell them about that! It was a multi-lingual slam. Poets came from all over the world to do a poem in either German or English, and then their own language. So we had a Russian girl, a Polish girl, Germans (of course), a girl from Indonesia. I did a poem in English and then another in ‘Okka Australian’ called ‘Bloody Australian Legend’. And it won.
It was kind of one of those clap-o-meter things, a decibel counter of the crowd and how much noise they made. I won by a decibel or something. Pretty amazing. The point of it was to show that poetry in any language can still be understood. It can communicate something deeper than just words. The Russian girl, for example, did this incredible poem and I still remember the feeling that I didn’t understand a word of it but man it was beautiful.
Mine wasn’t beautiful, mine was about Leyton Hewitt. But it was so much fun.
K: Maybe you can explain to people who haven’t been before what a slam is? They can be judged in a variety of ways and it’s usually democratised because people are chosen to judge from the audience – is that right?
EZB: What happens at a typical poetry slam is the MC has a bag of chocolates and they will randomly chuck chocolates into the audience to catch. If you catch a chocolate you become a judge. Each poem is given a score out of ten and you have to hold up a scorecard straight away. It’s immediate. Did it affect you? Did you like it? If so, it gets a high score. If not, it doesn’t.
Because they are randomly picked, they could be anyone – a doctor, lawyer, mechanic, ribbon twirler, chip tester.
K: I think that’s why some people love it and why others might be affronted or disgruntled if they feel they performed better and don’t win.
EZB: The best poet never wins. Let’s just lay that down. I think, anyway. Even though I’ve won quite a few! But it is so random. I used to host the Australian Poetry Slam Nationals for the Victorian heats and I would go around regionally and the same poets would enter the exact same poems and do them the same way and just depending on who caught the chocolate they could get a low or a high score. Some poets kept doing it until they won.
K: I suppose it shows that persistence can pay off, which is what you need. Especially if you have to get back up on that stage time after time.
EZB: It takes courage. If you’ve written your own poem for judgement, even more. It takes a certain kind of hunger, and resilience comes from that. I explain slam a lot when I go into high schools, I get asked about the intricacies of judging and how it works. The first question I always get is “Can I eat the chocolate?”
K: Do you find slam audiences are different around the world?
EZB: Definitely. Oh, definitely. Americans are amazing. They will live the poem with you, breathe each line, and they click – which I find a little pretentious here when we do it, it feels forced, but over there it’s natural. Mahogany Brown, who runs the Nuyorican Poets Café, she is an amazing presence and when she clicks your poetry you’ve won a million dollars inside your own heart.
K: How differently do you perform in a competitive environment as opposed to a non-competitive one, like a festival or performance? Do you delineate?
EZB: You have to be strategic in a competition. There are usually rounds, so in the first round you have to pick something, like a crowd pleaser you’ve done before, that will get you through to the second round. For the second round your strategy is to do something a little different so the crowd goes ‘Oh, we’re going to get something even better!’
K: I’m interested in your process when you’re composing your own work. Do you start with an idea?
EZB: It depends. It feels like I have a few characters inside my head who I write with. I’m writing a poem at the moment and I haven’t worked out how to do it. It’s very simple, it’s about working in an office, which I did early in the year, and going to get a doughnut and walking back to the office with the doughnut. It explores that moment, kneading it like bread, to catch the essence of office life.
K: I love that – capturing the banalities of life, but celebrating them too.
EZB: I tell my students it’s like still life art. A still life of an object makes you look at that object differently. That’s the whole point. And a poem is a still life of a moment.
K: Does that help you write about difficult topics as well? For example, you’ve performed Julia Gillard’s Misogyny speech.
EZB: ‘Dear All The Women…’ was written for Women of Letters, and my brief was to write a letter to a wish. I was watching The Tudors at the time, I binged it. It made me realise that a big part of western civilisation was moved, the Church of England created, basically because Henry wanted to have sex with Anne Boleyn. I thought about poor Anne and how many other women were used and abused and thought of as witches because they were attractive. There was never any responsibility given to the men. The burning of witches is still something that is raw for me. It’s like I’m back in 1508.
So to write ‘Dear All The Women…’ I thought about all the stories that haven’t been told. These women were never given a stage to speak on. I want them to know that I heard them and that I’m watching.
K: When you’re teaching poetry to teenagers, do you find them creatively or experimentally very different? Do you know what you’re going to get depending on what age they are, say if you walk into a Year 9 classroom or a Year 12 classroom?
EZB: I think the older they get the harder it is to teach poetry, they are more closed. I teach at a lot of high schools – co-ed, all girls or boys, private, public, different socio-economic areas – and one thing I’ve noticed is that at all-girls schools they are so much more confident and willing to talk about absolutely anything: politics, time, dreams, creativity, Facebook, Fortnite.
But if it’s a co-ed school, they tend to stick to subjects like beauty, confidence and being a girl. But at that point in time, a lot of girls want to talk about what it’s like being a girl and want to have that exchange with other girls and that’s important to them. Boys never have a problem talking about anything and everything – and they do so. Girls in co-ed schools are much quieter.
K: How does that make you feel?
EZB: I try to sprinkle feminism wherever I go. Sometimes I get up in front of a class and ask, “What’s feminism?” And they’ll look at me like “Uhhhhh…” I might get a hand up in the air and someone says “Is that where you wear flowers in your hair?”
So they get mixed up with femininity. Or they say that it means you hate men. It’s always good to unpack that one.
I asked EZB to end our interview by reading aloud some of her Twin Peaks poems, which I’m so sad you can’t hear, but – thanks to the glories of the internet – you can read them here! You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram. As it is now Book Week, I feel it apt to say to educators – take a look at her schools talks page.