Miles Merrill talks the art of performing prose ahead of Story Fest

Writers’ Festivals are growing exponentially with quite a flurry. While you have the big guns out there, many other fascinating festivals bubble under the literature surface. One of those festivals is Story Fest – a festival focusing all on the performative aspect of art, as opposed to the written word.

Director of the festival Miles Merrill was kind enough to chat to us about the event and what it has in store for lovers of slam poetry.

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Can you tell me what encouraged you to start Story Fest?

Well I am the director of Word Travels, which is a literary arts organisation, and we’ve been running the National Poetry Australian Slams since 2007. Prior to that we had a Sydney Slam and other versions of that slam as well. We thought that right now that there were enough people doing slams and reading poetry around the country that it’d be a good opportunity to showcase artistic excellence around spoken word, monologues and poetry.

We encourage people to experiment more with the artform, particularly with audience interaction. We just want to allow for more freedom of expression on spoken word.

How many people in your estimation are involved in poetry slamming in Australia today?

Well I can say within the National Australian Poetry Slam Program we run about 50 heats across Australia. In each of those heats we get sometimes more than 20 people wanting to perform. Doing the maths, it’d be around 1000 poets a year just in our program, and then a handful of poets who have participated in our program have gone onto set up their own poetry slams, like Bankstown Poetry Slam and Perth Poetry Slam.

So they are doing monthly events and they are probably getting the same amount of people going to their events as well. I would take a guess that around 10,000 people are performing in poetry slams. Maybe even more than that are attending as audiences. Like, hundreds of thousands.

Why did you feel the need for Word Travels to be here in Australia?

I feel like with most art forms, if you’re a musician, there’s an organisation that you would go like a guild or something. There’s also an industry that supports you as a musician, like venues, managers, agents, distributors. There’s a whole world there for musicians. There’s a similar thing if you’re an author – there’s nothing out there to support an artist here in Australia if they decide that they want to perform their writing as a poetry, reading or monologue.

Our aim is to try and set up those kind of structures for the art of spoken word. Hopefully in the future, an Australian high school student may decide that rather be a musician or a author, they may decide they want to perform their work as spoken word. There’ll be the structure there to pursue their art professionally.

What entices yourself to the spoken word and the performance of it?

Well there’s a few things that are strikingly different and engaging from my perspective. One is that if we have the opportunity to have the artist in front of us, it’s much more valuable to have the artifacts.

Having someone to be able to tell your story around a campfire, and to read a story to you is a luxury that many of us can enjoy.

Distribution and sales for most authors see a lot of them go ”well, here’s my product, go and buy it.” That’s one aspect. Another is the direct human to human experience is a blessed experience that we could have. The ephemera of everyday life is there, in front of you, happening spontaneously without it being repeated, or documented. It’s like actual, live communication.

I think with our current addiction to screen life, it is so important to find opportunities to celebrate looking each other in the eye and saying what we feel.

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Tanya Evanson

Story Fest provides that opportunity in a big way. The festival itself has a great lineup with performers that parlay that experience to you, as an audience. I was wondering though if you could talk a bit about your workshops you have in the festival. What is involved in that?

Well one of the workshops being involved in the festival is actually being presented by our key international artists. Her name is Tanya Evanson and she is the Director of the spoken word program at the Banff Arts Centre in Canada – one of the most lauded arts centres in the world. She’s also a trained whirling dervish so she comes from a background of Sufism and will include a workshop that not only teaches writing and performance but also whirling dervish meditation. That combination of those three forms that will feature in the workshop.

Are you looking forward to any other events at Story Fest?

Absolutely. This year for the first time we have a Sydney Poetry Slam final where we showcase all the best poets from across Sydney. All the way from Double Bay to Parramatta to Rockdale and Canada Bay as well. All these areas have put forward their best spoken word artists at the Sydney Dance Lounge. I’m looking forward to seeing that because I think it’ll be the cream of the spoken word crop in Sydney.

The National Slam Final at the Sydney Opera House is the climax as well, so that’ll be good.

The National Slam Final has been happening at the Opera House for a few years now, hasn’t it?

That’s right. It’s one of my favourite bits, because you’ve got two poets from every state and territory basically revealing a barometer of the Australian social, cultural and political psyche. Particularly because of the topics that rise to the stage. You really get a snapshot of what Australians are thinking at the moment in a creative way.

In terms of experimentation, we’ve got an event called Pin the Tail on the Station, where the audience meets the artists at Circular Quay train station. The three artists then blindfold themselves, turn around three times and point to a station on the transport map. Then a third of the audience follows each of the artists. From there they go to the suburb where the station is at. They’ll collect artifacts in that suburb and then they’ll also get a performance from the artists on the way there too.

On the way back, they’ll do a workshop based on the artefacts they collected. They write material, and then the audience themselves perform for each other!

That’s a fascinating way to include the audiences which you’ve been focusing on in this chat. I suppose that’s the crux of what you are trying to achieve.

You have a lot of people who are young. 18 or 19 years of age or right out of university. Why did you think young people is important to focus on at Story Fest?

Well it’s not up to me or staff to curate the artists. Because of the nature of slam, the audiences in their various communities choose people to represent their communities. So they are like from Newcastle, or Moree or Albury, or Wagga or from wherever in Australia. There are two that get chosen from those areas to represent them. That’s just been the nature of poetry slamming.

Once we know who they are, we try to program them through the festival. For people who have kind of come from interstate like Victoria and South Australia, not only will they be here for the National Poetry Slam Final, they’ll be put into other events. We have another program called Poetaster where we put a menu into a cafe in The Rocks and as people order their coffee they can order a poet who will come to their table to perform for them. They can order a five, ten or 15 minute show at their table. We will be using poets from South Australia for that program!

What do you hope audiences who attend Story Fest come away with once the event is over?

A couple of things. I hope they get inspired to create their own poetry or monologue. Great stories happen to people who tell them. Being inspired to tell a poem with your friends or to perform them as well. Also to maybe inspire other Australians to get along to poetry nights and stuff that can form an incredible story. When we hear other people saying things normally that we couldn’t express ourselves – it’s quite empowering. Especially if you’re from a more marginalised community where you don’t see yourself on Home and Away or Neighbours. You kind of go “Huh? Will my perspective ever be represented?” and to see other people have the courage to say that stuff that you are holding onto – it’s just hugely empowering.

The other thing that would be great is if people would just go back to their communities rather than their own poetry slams. As I’ve seen happen quite a number of times now over the years – not only does someone write a poem on the train, they go back home and set up their own poetry slam, which is really exciting.

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Story Fest is happening over this weekend in various venues around Sydney until the Sunday 16th October. For more info about spoken word workshops and performances, head here