Bankstown Poetry Slam: A powerhouse of performance poetry
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Women at the margins are front and centre at this slam.

Bankstown Poetry Slam: A powerhouse of performance poetry

by Daniel Sleiman See Profile
8th May 2019
Bankstown Poetry Slam: A powerhouse of performance poetry

“I wait in line, like, how many white poets do I gotta hear before they get to me.” Layla Mkhayber’s voice is steady, assured and a matching pitch to a sea of finger clicks. I’m at Bankstown Poetry Slam’s Women of the Word which is part of this year’s Sydney Writer’s Festival.

After a three-hour drive from Canberra to Sydney, I find myself at Carriageworks lining up to get into the Curiosity Stage. I am surrounded by ‘lie to me’ t-shirts, one of which tells us that the venue has reached capacity. There is only standing room left. I don’t mind, I’ve been sitting down all day.

Inside I spot Sara Mansour, the co-founder of Bankstown Poetry Slam and the MC for the night. I go and introduce myself. She’s visibly excited and readying to hit the stage. She tells me that I should try and hustle a chair.

I find a vantage point at the back-left end of the venue next to a woman who has her leg strapped up in some form of remedial apparatus. I ‘hustle a chair’ and take a seat next to her. She tells me that she was using crutches a few weeks ago after we make small talk. I didn’t have to wait long to hear the non-white poets, but not before Sara tells us to click our fingers when we like what the poet says and points out the exit signs in case Mark Latham shows up.

Tonight’s line-up of poets is predominantly non-white, with the exception of Alice Tame who delivers an opening gem “I didn’t know I was competitive, until I joined group therapy” and who Sara jokingly refers to as our “token white girl”.

In between sets Sara delivers some memorable and funny moments. She recalls the time when she worked at a Duty-Free store and a customer asked her how she liked it here, thinking she was a foreigner. At other times she mimics her father’s Arab accent and gives credit to someone in the audience for being able to pull off flare pants with pink sneakers. She genuinely seems to have fun on stage.

That genuineness comes across in the conversation I have with her over the phone when she tells me about how Bankstown Poetry Slam was born. Bankstown Poetry Slam came about after Sara along with Ahmad Al Rady, both Western Sydney University students at the time, noticed that most of the poetry events were held in the inner city and the Sydney CBD.

“It was a little bit cumbersome, costly and time consuming to have to commute to the city or Newtown just to attend a poetry event. For me there was also the added layer of my spiritual beliefs, because most of these events were taking place in pubs and around alcohol and I didn’t really feel comfortable because I don’t drink,” she says.

At the time, putting together a creative space for marginalised youth and communities was not on Sara’s or Ahmad’s minds. “We just wanted to have this fun event and invite all our friends. It wasn’t strategic at all. We didn’t understand the complexities revolving around people from Western Sydney feeling sidelined and silenced. We didn’t understand the impact we could potentially have,” Sara explains.

Today Bankstown Poetry Slam hosts some of the biggest performance poetry events in Australia. Last year they hosted a poetry slam competition at the International Convention Centre which drew in crowds of over 900 people. They host a monthly youth open mic called flip the script and have had many renowned spoken word poets perform including Wani Le Frere, Candy Royalle and Rudy Fransico.

The status of poetry has long been, as public perception has it, in decline. The death of poetry is a subject that has been in debate for decades. David McCooey, a professor at Deakin University, sees it as a “disjunction between poetry as something produced and as something consumed. Everyone, it seems is a poet. No one, apparently, reads poetry.”

Yet poetry slam is arguably a fresher, more invigorated form of poetry, performed with physical and tonal nuance, activism and cultural streak. We get to know the poet more intimately, their voice resonates in our conscience, the break of their tongue, the anger, the joy as well as their visual fixture on stage all come together to produce something entirely different. It is something unlike what you may have read on a page in a poetry classroom, with a teacher telling you how to read and understand the poem.

Poetry Slam or performance poetry breaks the rules, and as McCooey grants, its existence in public culture is “performing its marginality”. It is not just poetry’s marginality that is being performed at BPS’s Women of the Word but the marginality of the poets themselves.

“I bit my tongue when the world chose a wonder woman who shoots off and on screen” delivers Zena Maghchouch. “We want to be bosses like Benazir” shout Aishah Ali, Dainane Moret, Neishanka Nanthakrishnakumar. While Sharnay Mkhayber asks for forgiveness for being unaffected by the recent fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, pointing out the hypocrisy as “we turn our eyes away from the continued destruction of an oasis of sacred places” in the Middle East.

For Sara Mansour, her love of performance poetry finds its place in marginality too. At the age of 19 she recalls watching a video featuring the Palestinian poet Rafeef Ziadah.

“She [Rafeef Ziadah] has a poem where she repeats the line ‘I am an Arab woman of colour and we come in all shapes of anger.’ At the time I remember feeling so empowered and inspired by her work, and that’s what motivated me to start performing and writing myself. But at the age of 26 Sara jokes that she is having a quarter life crisis. Having been a lawyer for two years, and run Bankstown Poetry Slam for six, she’s contemplating what’s next for her.

Regardless, Bankstown Poetry Slam has and continues to bring us voices that refuse to be silenced, cultural cries of protest, marginal politics and underground metaphor. On Friday 17th of May they will be partnering with the Marrickville Legal Centre for a night of poetry slam on the theme of social justice. Their May monthly slam will also be featuring Omar Musa.

The last performer for the night at Women of the Word is Neishanka Nanthakrishnakumar and she leaves us with a killer line, one that will definitely get foodies thinking.

“I am ethnic fantasy fusion food, fulfilling Eurocentric gluttony.”

Find out more about Bankstown Poetry Slam.

Bankstown Poetry Slam
Daniel Sleiman

About Daniel Sleiman

Daniel is a freelance writer and content producer who is passionate about giving a voice to the voiceless and those in our society who have been marginalised. He has a strong interest in social justice and loves to tell stories. For Daniel, stories can be powerful, hard-hitting, and a call for change.

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8th May 2019