Poetry lovers were in for a treat on the night of November 15 when the acclaimed Australian slam poet, Miles Merrill, performed at The Velveteen Rabbit in Chennai.
The event which was organised by the Australian High Commission in collaboration with Stray Factory and The Spoken Word and saw many an important conversation being discussed from racism to relationships with witty repartee and enhanced by wonderful performances.
“This is my first trip to India and the experience has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Merrill. “Poetry is a form of activism, a way to change mindsets. You have to allow the listener to step inside your world, feel safe and then reel them in. You need to take them on a journey to encourage a conversation.”
Merrill introduced poetry slam to Australia, co-wrote and co-directed Slamming for the Sydney Festival and performed with UK DJ Billy Bizniz at the Sydney Opera House. He is a writer, performer, facilitator and event coordinator who combines poetry with theatre, experimental audio, hip-hop beats, stand-up and, occasionally, political confrontation.
The Australian poet spoke about how he experienced a ‘culture shock’ upon arriving in India. He said he was most taken aback when he saw that his cab driver was driving in the middle of the road, without keeping to his designated lane. Further, he said he was very amused when he noticed an ‘urban cow’ in the centre of a busy road. However, he said one of his biggest takeaways will be Indian cuisine. He said he relished the mutton curry in Chennai.
Recollecting one of the most moving experiences, Merrill said there was an instance where he conducted a workshop for 17 students in a school in Australia.
“I thought I was getting through to only one student,” he said. “Two years later, one of their teachers approached me and said the children were so inspired that they started their own radio station to perform poetry and rap. It was incredible!”
A few poets from Chennai too added local flavour to the evening.
“Earlier, there was no platform for poets to express themselves unlike in other cities,” said Michelle Anne James, co-founder of Mocking Birds, which is an initiative that looks at bringing poets in the city together. “There is abundant talent in the city but there was no platform to showcase it. While there has been a lot of progress in terms of understanding the concept of slam poetry and performance poetry, there is still a long way to go.”
James said funding was one of the biggest problems. Her partner at Mocking Birds, Ishvar Krishnan chipped in and said the Indian education system itself posted a challenge.
“We are taught to recite poetry in school,” Krishnan explained. “So often what happens is that we write a poem and talk it out rather than perform it. There are also a number of subjects that go untapped. While activist poetry is important and widely appreciated, poets must look at other themes too.”
Bhargav Prasad, one of the other performers for the night voiced the need for more vernacular poetry to be brought to the forefront.
“Poetry has the ability to move people,” said Prasad. “It has a great rhythmic quality. While I do see more people being receptive to the medium, I would like to see a lot more vernacular poetry being performed.”
Merrill toured across India from 13 to 26 November. During his stay in India he participated in the Bookaroo children’s literature festival in Jaipur and Delhi along-side school outreach programs in Bangalore, Chennai, Jaipur, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. Merrill’s performance on that Wednesday night in Chennai left the audience spellbound and with a lot to mull over. And while he might be back in Australia, his words and poetry slam are here to stay!