Multi-award winning poet, Philip Wilcox, is the current Australian Poetry Slam National Champion (2015) and a two time NSW Poetry Slam Champion. Philip hosts and co-organises Three Poets Speak – a Sydney showcase of the finest spoken word artists from around Australia. Philip recently released his debut collection of poems ‘Beetle Prayer’ on a literary tour of China. He works teaching and performing poetry in schools and festivals in Australia and abroad. Jen sat with Philip to discuss all things poetry, performance and Kanye.
How do you get inspired to write? Is there something in particular that you turn to like music, your personal life or social issues to capture those ideas?
I don’t like writing a poem that I’ve written before in regards to style and content. It’s really hard, it’s like the theory that every artist has one painting and every musician has one song, and everything after that is just a variation of that song. It’s really hard to do something new but I get bored if I do the same thing.
There’s been some exceptions but mainly I think of the idea and then I think of a take on that idea that I haven’t seen before. For example I’m writing this poem at the moment which is a loop pedal poem about people’s voices in my life that have told me off about how I’m living. So I had the idea, and then I introduced the loop pedal as a way to communicate it differently, and I went to my drumming friend who knows all about timing signatures to help me take it even further. So I’m always trying to find different ways to communicate with people so that hopefully they can resonate with it more deeply.
So you’re more after an exchange and conversation between two people, rather than just presenting your experiences?
Yeah. One thing people don’t realise when they have such low expectations of poetry, whether it’s because it’s been destroyed for them during school, or they’ve read or heard some terrible poetry, is that they assume poetry is indulgent or nonsensical or too abstract. But there’s a social contract with every artform, and you have to move them or entertain them or educate them. There’s only so many times that people are going to listen to you if you don’t do that. So there’s an exchange. It’s kinda like a best man giving a speech at a wedding. Everyone’s going to listen to him, but he better be funny and tell good stories, it’s not a free ride. People often think that poetry is an exception to this, that it’s pure, somehow free from the trappings of expectation or audience or connection, that it just is, but if people aren’t being moved or entertained, somewhere along the line something has been lost.
Because you feel this responsibility to move people, do you feel like you have that responsibility to create a dialogue about certain social issues or things that you think need addressing?
I actually get a bit of heat sometimes from people because I’m not as political as some poets. There is a very strong sense of social activism in the spoken word scene, it’s huge. I personally find it hard to write good poetry that’s not didactic or that’s not too preachy when it comes to some issues, whereas other people are really good at it and it’s their whole essence, they live and breathe it.
Sometimes I think that the love can get lost when you focus on being a warrior, you can forget what it’s like just to be human and to be broken. Although there are systems that really oppress certain people and really need to be addressed, my personal focus is celebrating everyone’s broken humanity and what connects us as people. I think that’s what artists have done throughout the centuries.
If an important CEO sits down with the homeless person and they have lunch and just talk about things, that’s a radical act, it’s politically and socially radical. I think real change only happens when two people meet face to face and connect. The role of a poet is to tell stories to make connections and that’s my focus.
So what do you consider to be good poetry?
Oh man! Good poetry can often both tap into the zeitgeist and at the same time challenge it. It often pinpoints where people are at and then pushes them a little bit further. It’s all about that interplay. It’s what Kanye does (or did) so well. He has a chorus that immediately resonates, he latches onto something previously hidden in the public psyche and then pushes the form, the music to its limit. Why am I talking about Kanye?
So you mention Kanye, but are you following any contemporary poets…
Wait, I mean old Kanye, not Pablo Kanye…
There’s definitely Kanye the persona that you can’t anything he says seriously, and business Kanye who can be a bit of a genius.
I think Kendrick is doing Kanye how Kanye wishes he was doing Kanye.
Exactly! Aside from old Kanye, and Kendrick, are their contemporary poets or performers you follow that really inspire you?
Yeah absolutely! There’s an Australian poet who won the Australian poetry slam a few years ago, Omar Musa. His latest book got shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award, he’s a rapper as well as a novelist, his book got amazing reviews from The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, and Huffington Post. He’s just killing it. He writes with this brutal beauty when he describes suburban Australia. He’s pretty inspiring, travelling far beyond the little world of poetry
Another major inspiration is Kate Tempest. Her poetry is so different, her hip hop as well. She’s got this unique voice and sound, it’s haunting. She also writes plays, I’m a huge fan of hers.
Something that I find a lot when I’m talking to creatives, is that often not much thought is put into the sustainability of yourself as a creative. If you want to bring all the passion projects to life that you pour your heart and soul into, these are rarely your day jobs. So it’s incredibly difficult not to get into a total creative burnout because all of your energy is going towards something that may not be what you love. I think it’s very hard for people outside of creative industries to understand the toll that it takes on someone and how much energy it exerts to have to be creative in all that you do. It’s hard for people to consider creativity and ideas as a marker of success, and that you can’t just pump something out on the spot all the time. Sometimes you actually just need time off in order to be the most creative that you can be.
Exactly. And how after you’ve just worked on a huge creative project that sometimes you just need time to yourself, to be huddled in the fetal position for a while.
It’s such a common experience and it’s so important to find that balance, finding that sweet spot in between branching out to diversify skills but also looking after yourself and the integrity of what you love doing.
It’s like a seesaw, sometimes I’m having lots of downtime and I’m percolating and working on something creatively, but it’s not all coming together and you can feel like you’re wasting your time. And then other times I’m just working so hard at my day job and I’m thinking, what am I doing I’m wasting my time!
Yeah sometimes when I have a lot on, people tell me I’m crazy and that I need a break. Then if I try to take a break I feel unproductive and it makes it worse. It’s a really fine line between being busy and productive and taking care of yourself!
With some of the workshops that you run, what benefits do you think that learning about poetry have for young people.
So much. With young people you just put the word slam there and they get excited. It has connotations of battle rap even though it’s not that at all, but it feels edgy and dangerous. The boys instantly get excited about it. But it’s basically a way of tricking young people into playing with words and being able to express themselves in ways that they’ve never been able to before. There’s two elements, it’s getting them to love language and words and have an appreciation for poetry and then there’s also what the words are actually saying which can be really powerful.
I did a poetry workshop at a school and there was a boy there that was just too cool for school. I was running some poetry exercises and getting the kids to write their own poetry, and he just kept saying no. So I gave him a different exercise, I gave him a template of a Childish Gambino song (‘3005’) and I said, I don’t want you to do the same exercises as everyone else, I want you to follow this rhyme structure, which is quite intricate and complex and write about yourself and your life. So then he really focused and furiously worked on it, and it was amazing. He got to realise how we could use language in a different way and he really embraced it.
Another example, a year 9 girl wrote a beautiful piece about what it meant for her to be bullied and how she had bullied people in return. After finishing reading the poem there was a noticeable, awkward pause and then suddenly two girls ran up and gave her a big hug. Sometimes poetry can just have so much impact.
Because there’s so much of a performance element to it as well do you think that it builds their confidence in being able to verbally express ideas?
For some definitely. The kids with the most beautiful heartfelt poems are often not the students who do the best academically at school. I love it when they share something that surprises even their teachers.
You are the current Australian Poetry Slam Champion what was the experience like preparing for something like that, and what have the opportunities been since you won?
That was a really bizarre experience for me. That whole year I wasn’t writing much poetry. I was suffering from pretty bad depression and because I don’t write cathartically it meant I wasn’t writing at all. I only had scraps and I didn’t have a full poem that I was proud of.
So there’s three rounds to the Australian Poetry Slam Competition, there’s heats, the state finals and the grand finals. I just said screw it, I’m going to write something and I’m going to enter myself into the heat. I wrote a poem which I wasn’t super proud of, but I ended up coming third. Only the top 2 go through so I thought, sweet, that’s easy I won’t go through, but at least it forced me to write.
A couple of days before the New South Wales final I got a call up saying that one of the people has dropped out in the heat so I’m next in line. I only had 2 days to write something, so while I was working full time I also have to write a new piece and memorize it. Which meant I had to do a lot of last minute memorizing in the toilet block before I performed. I did it and I won which was crazy. It also meant I was performing at the grand final at the Opera House which meant I also needed another new poem.
You perform one poem at the Opera House and if you make it through the first round you perform another one, but I just didn’t have a backup ready to perform. I was stressing like crazy, I was also working weekends dressing up for children’s parties so on the afternoon before the final I was dressed up as a ringmaster all the way out in Riverstone at a pub, so out of the way that there was literally a horse tied up out the front. I finish my shift and have to race there on the motorway to make it on time. I’m driving there, rubbing off my ringmaster moustache, a huge bundle of nerves and I think, I’m going to write a poem on the night about the night. I performed my first piece from the state final and I made it through to the next round, and I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have a second piece, so all I could do was write down random thoughts and notes from the night. I’m not a freestyle poet it’s crazy scary to me. I had a moment backstage with a friend and I thought I couldn’t go out there, there’s 500 people and I can’t go on stage I don’t have a poem and going to humiliate myself. She gave me a pep talk, prayed for me even though I’m pretty sure she’s an atheist.
My name gets called out and I’m walking down the stairs and I have my spiral notepad and I don’t know what I’m going to do. My brain’s going a million miles a minute. I knew I couldn’t look at my notepad, and I put it down beside my mic stand.
When I began I realised that I had all the time in the world to come up with the next line. So I just spoke, and while I was saying a line I was thinking about the next line. I even went fast a few times and still had to think about the next part. I was quoting different parts from the night, making fun of the MC, talking about the stage cracking open and all the voices spilling out. Everything went slow, but I had the audience. It was pure adrenaline.
When I finished I was absolutely exhausted I felt like I needed to sleep for days. It wasn’t the best poem in the world or the best poem of the night but it was raw.
What kind of opportunities have you had since winning?
I think people look at you in a different light but anyone could have won. It literally comes down to decimal points, but winning means I have a title that can carry weight. So when I’m in contact with animators or festivals or publishers, they listen to you just that little bit more which can open up great opportunities. It also has great prizes, like tours, one in China, one in Indonesia and one national tour. You are introduced to a publisher. But the main prize is being able to call yourself Australian Poetry Slam Champion because for me it meant that all these ideas that I’ve had, I’ve actually been able to make happen. There’s awesome winners like Omar Moussa and Luka lesson who make amazing careers out of this. It can really be a starting point.
You just got back from the China tour, what did that involve?
I went to 4 cities and visited universities, book shops and schools. I also had an hour long show and a copy of my manuscript to launch as well. I ran workshops, performances, judged slams and went on panels. I met Graeme Base! All these writers that I truly admire, and also realising that some of them were still struggling to survive. It’s really sad but also inspiring because you see all these people who are producing amazing work, and having the same struggles, and you can see that even if you’re not making big cash money, it doesn’t mean you aren’t really successful. It was liberating.
It has a dual effect, on one hand all these people who you really look up to are really struggling and it’s disheartening, but on the flip side you can relate to that experience and you can be motivated by that.
It just reinforced for me, that this is what I really want to do. Doing 3-4 shows a day, to a whole range of audiences really refines your poems, your set order, your banter between poems and it made me so much better. I don’t see it as a prize or the fruit of my labour, I see it as a way to learn and to get better. If you stop struggling you die, you have to keep working to get better.
Is your book in the process or it available now?
Yeah, it’s been published with Pitt Street Poetry and has been a long process. But it’s called Beetle Prayer. I was captivated by an image of a beetle on it’s back, and imagining a prayer from it’s perspective – and all I need to do is flip it over. It’s filled with a whole bunch of poems that I don’t perform, because they don’t work as performances. Often there’s not an overlap between the two.
I really had to relearn how to write again for a different discipline, I went in January/Feburary to Thailand to write it. I was in a house in the hills, outside a tiny town, in the far north near the border of Burma. There was no-one around, just the rice fields and a jungle, and I had to teach myself how to write for the page. Luckily I had a friend who was an editor, and I had nothing to do but get up in the morning and write, eat and sleep. It was really hard. Strips of my ego lay in tatters on the floor.
I was really proud of what happened, but it’s a completely different thing to performance poetry. I mistakenly thought if I can write poetry to perform then I can write it for the page which is not necessarily true. But I’m still really proud of the book in this moment and I want to get it out there so I can get started on the next one. I just wrote stuff that I wanted to see. There’s a love poem between a goldfish and a bream in separate tanks in a Chinese restaurant told through haiku. Leunig style prayers about politicians. Or rambling nights in the Cross. It’s stuff that I want to see.
Another burden of being creative being super self critical!
Yeah and people always want you to recreate what you’ve already done but sometimes you’ve moved on from there.
It’s really interesting because a lot of people really wouldn’t see the difference between spoken word poetry and written poetry, but there really is a lot of work that would never translate between the two. Sometimes the performance element is absolutely crucial and how it needs to be communicated or people won’t be able to understand its intentions, and vice versa. For you, did the performance side of it come first or is it something that you’ve had to learn along the way to be able to communicate what you were writing?
When I was younger I really wanted to be an actor and I realised that I just don’t have it. Other people just have this presence and you want to watch them. You can learn so many different techniques and you can be competent, but you just need to have a natural watchable presence, and I didn’t have that with acting. But I love being able to communicate things to people. Sometimes you see people performing poetry, that you know would be a stunning piece of writing, but it’s just not written with performance in mind and it doesn’t work. Even if Morgan Freeman was performing it, it just wouldn’t work as it’s not written to be performed.
That should be the test, Morgan Freeman should have to read it out, and if it doesn’t work then you know there is no way it can be performed.
Yeah exactly! It works both ways, there’s also amazing performance poets, and then you read their written work and it doesn’t translate the same way. There’s a lot of techniques too that don’t translate, for example repetition works well in performance, but not on page, internal rhyme and assonance often is used a lot by performance poets, but when you read it, it doesn’t work in the same way. Same with overuse of alliteration, it doesn’t work in the same way.
A poet has their own meter which drives a poem, and you need to put that in subtly on the page if it’s going to work. You can’t rely on yelling or repetition to make the impact.
So much of the impact relies on those techniques and variations, you really need to hear them, as not everyone will read something in the same way.
I think that’s why a lot of people love and hate Walt Whitman. I’ve spoken to people who hate Walt Whitman, they just can’t get into it. They think it’s rambly and has no structure. But I got a tip from someone to read Walt Whitman out loud, so I read some of his work out loud in my room and really tapped into his rhythm. It’s not in iambic pentameter, he doesn’t use formal structure, but I just rode the wave and frequency of his voice and it just worked. I think some poets have an ability to do that really well outside of formal structures on the written page.
When you performed at the Kaleido Launch, the entire room stood still. It was so captivating and you had such a presence which really engaged everyone, even people who had not been involved with spoken word before. Why do you think it’s such a powerful vessel for storytelling?
My goal is to always have someone who’s never heard poetry to come away thinking I really enjoyed that. That’s a win for poetry in general, as it will lead them to discover more poets and performers that they like. So it’s important to not be too self indulgent, or too abstract to the point where people can’t connect with it. Otherwise you just feed into those negative stereotypes about poetry.
I weirdly feel the responsibility to open people up to the medium. I’ve done a set before at a pub, where everyone was drunk and yelling, and I was placed between 2 hardcore screamo bands. I had 4 poems, 1st poem no-one was listening. 2nd poem, half of the people were listening, 3rd poem most people were listening and by the 4th poem the whole pub was silent. At the end I had people come up to and say “that was ACTUALLY good”, they were genuinely surprised and it’s coming from people who don’t like poetry or care about poetry, and it struck a chord with them. That’s what I love.
How many avenues were there for you when you started? Are there lots of opportunities to get involved?
Absolutely, there’s a lot. I think there are at least 4 regular nights held for it in Sydney (check out Bankstown Poetry Slam, Caravan Slam Parramatta and Glebe). When the APS finals come around, most of the slams hold heats and then they send through representatives which becomes a bit of a tribal thing too. Every year the slams get better and better. There can be such a range of styles, from prayers, to stand-up comedy, to social justice… Everyone is playing to different rules, and it’s good to start by going to slams, and then work up the courage to perform your own piece.
Do you have any performances or workshops coming up that people can come along to?
Yeah, I’ll be performing at the Sydney Writers Festival on the 19th-20th of May. I’ll be hosting Phil and Sarah Kay on the 19th and then performing with them at the Riverside Theatre on the 20th.
Grab your tickets to catch Philip at the Sydney Writers Festival here, and head to one of your local poetry slams to experience the power of spoken word.