“Girls on Key” is what they call it. It started off with a few female artists who set off to do what most artists aim to do—to express their art, be it music or poetry.
Girls on Key is a monthly event that showcases artists, musicians, and poets of all kinds. Its focus is on featuring female poets, including female-identifying and non-gender conforming poets and performers. Even so, anyone is welcome to come up and speak, and everyone is supported.
Through live performances and spoken-word poetry events, Girls on Key is able to direct whatever funds they raise to support a charity called Writing Through Fences.
Whether you’re a published writer, an award-winning poet, an enthusiast, a newbie, or simply a lover of words, you are welcome to join Girls on Key—and you are highly encouraged to come up to the stage yourself.
True enough, this was the scene that greeted the poets, musicians, and guests of the Girls on Key New South Wales launch.
Pictured: Girls on Key launch at The.Kaf
The spoken-word poetry scene
When entering The.Kaf, you’ll see the usual café setting—a counter where baristas, waiters, and cooks are busying themselves with preparing cups of coffee, glasses of wine, salads, pastas, and the like. Some tables were occupied, but the place didn’t look too busy at two o’clock on a Sunday.
In this café on Glebe Point Road, there is a bigger lounge area of sorts past the counter. Two or three sofas are spread about and a small wooden table is filled with poetry books of Eileen Chong, Anne Walsh, Michelle Seminara, and many other poets.
More tables and chairs are scattered about. There is no set stage, which gives a more intimate feel and a freer interaction between poet and audience. All there is a microphone on a stand. All you need to do is come up and speak into it—maybe while holding a piece of paper.
The first poet gets called up to the mic by Anne, the organiser of the event. With a piece of paper on their right-hand and their left-hand holding the mic steadily, the poet began to speak. There was only silence to be heard.
Pictured: A poet performing at the Girls on Key launch
From Melbourne to a café in Glebe
“Melbourne’s spoken word scene is quite big,” Anne said, when asked about how Girls on Key was able to expand there. The city is well-known for its strong emphasis on culture and arts, which is why it wasn’t too difficult to get the ball rolling.
Girls on Key is also established in Auckland, New Zealand, and the expansion from Melbourne to Sydney was certainly a challenge for them, given that they needed to draw in an audience to gain traction.
No fancy promotional marketing skills were used to get the word out that there was such a thing as Girls on Key. It was all about networking. “It’s really, um, over the years, I’ve built relationships with a lot of poets, by going to meetings and meeting people, and kind of asking them to come along. Then, they bring their friends, it just grew really naturally,” Anne explained.
“My focus has always been on community and the relationships in it, rather than promotional marketing,” She added.
The growth, Anne said, has been quite organic. A shared love for art and a sense of community made people want to go and to keep coming back. Through word of mouth, the community grew and it allowed them to launch their cause in Sydney and—possibly in the future—Newcastle.
For Newcastle-based poet Kerri Shying, her works are about uplifting people in “the in between”—people of mixed race, “the left behind, the left-out”. She writes in English, Chinese, and in the language of the Wiradjuri people.
“I write about transgender-love, sex work-love, loving the brutal life you live, refusing to leave your class and understanding how to stand strong and be a woman,” Shying explained. “Disability, race malice and in particular the continued derision shown towards mixed race people is a huge part of my work. Assimilation in this country produced so much wrong and we have to pay for it still.”
On the other hand, Eileen Chong says that she likes to let her poems to speak for themselves. Aside from writing about her family and heritage, she also writes about food and takes an interest in themes that involve history, plants, places, and love.
Pictured: Kerri Shying
Grappling with cross-cultural identities
Eileen Chong makes it clear that she is not a Singaporean-Australian poet. She identifies as an Australian, even if she was born in Singapore. “Singapore does not allow dual-citizenship, and I have chosen Australia.”
Shying is of Chinese and Australian descent—and she also belongs to the Wiradjuri people. When it comes to writing for an Australian audience, there are some frustrations.
“I think the dissonance between my appearance and my identity is confounding for people here. The image of Asian and Aboriginal people is of a certain face, a certain skin, curly hair, straight hair,” Shying said. “I have found myself spending time assessing my exposure to things and events that might be damaging to me; and then also hearing remarks dismissing achievements as ‘they wanted her because she is Asian/Aboriginal’, rather than on merit.”
For Chong, “Liminality is a state that many people exist within. I believe there is meaning in slippage, and power in the in-betweenness of things”. Here, there is opportunity for the poet in the in-between. “My cultural heritage informs, but does not limit or define me,” She finished.
Yet, this in-between also presents barriers.
As Shying puts it, “I find it hard to be accepted at times. By white people, not Chinese or Aboriginal people, that is,” Shying said. “I get tired of explaining myself, my physical self, but it is partly because I don’t easily fit into the ‘exotic’ or “gold rush” box. I had a proper education. My family concealed their Asian identity for some time during the period of the White Australia policy and we were able to stop doing that when I was a young child.”
Pictured: Eileen Chong.
Translating poetry into live performance
For Shying, reading your work out loud is like a “threeway of the arts world”. “It allows the personality of the writer to be revealed and the human form—a woman, and all the judgments that go with the way I am dressed, and other aspects of my presentation,” She said.
According to Shying, the importance of live performance is—of course—in the way it is read, the way it is made more tangible by the poet’s unique voice.
“We all have a voice in our heads who reads in a different way to the reading given by the writer—the emphasis and expression—and this I believe is what the audience seeks. [...] The collective experience becomes attached to that poem, and I think this is part of the reading poets’ pleasure,” Shying explained.
For the award-winning, Sydney-based poet Eileen Chong, the act of translating the written word into spoken word feels natural, given that she writes lyric poetry. “Poetry is a sonic art as well as a written art,” She said “Not all poets read their work well, and not all well-read poets are strong poems on the page.”
Chong’s advice for beginners of the spoken-word art form? “Be clear, don’t rush, don’t overact it. Drama doesn’t imbue words with meaning.”
Chong finishes with this: “Words carry their own weight. Let the words be heard.”
Eileen Chong’s poetry collections include Burning Rice (2012), Peony (2014), and Painting Red Orchids (2016). Being Singaporean-born, Chong writes a lot about family, her Chinese heritage, migration, and cross-cultural identity. Her works have been short-listed for various award such as the Anne Elder Award 2012, Australian Arts in Asia Award 2013, and the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award 2013, among many others. Her next poetry collection, Another Language, is currently in the works.
Kerri Shying is a Newcastle-based poet. She has been published in the Roland Robinson Awards and has appeared in the Women of Words series. She also writes her own blog here. Her first book in Australia will be written in Chinese and English with ASM/Cerberus/Flying Islands Press. She was also recently shortlisted for the Noel Rowe Prize.
To find out more about Girls on Key, click here.