When Tugun teenager Vivi Baker got on a roll with her slam poetry, her writer father Tim became newly inspired in the form. Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
I’ve been a journalist my entire working life, for over 35 years. But it wasn’t until our daughter Vivi became interested in slam poetry that this style of writing caught my interest. (Proud dad warning!) Vivi was the Queensland Slam Poetry champion at 15 and performed at the national final at the Sydney Opera House. She went on to win the Somerset National Poetry Prize the following year.
Inspired by Vivi’s efforts, I accepted an invitation to a “Men of Letters” literary event in Brisbane, where a group of male writers were asked to write a letter to a woman who’d changed their life and read it out live in front of an audience. I wrote my letter to Vivi in the form of a slam poem, and so made my slam poetry debut at the age of 53. I took a similar approach when I was invited to collaborate with local musician Fletcher Babb on his Stories in the Key of GC project for HOTA.
When Blank GC asked if the father/daughter slam poetry duo could interview each other I figured the best way to communicate with my teenager was via text, so the following conversation was carried out over a couple of days from various rooms in our house during COVID-19 lockdown.
TB: So, (coughs, clears throat) is this thing on? How did you get interested in poetry?
VB: The dad joke counter has officially started.
TB: I’m here all week.
VB: I got into it through Wordsmiths initially when I first started high school – I’m sure you remember. My relationship with poetry went kind of in reverse – I first got into slam and spoken word online, where there’s a pretty big community. It wasn’t until I got older that I started to teach myself about the classics and appreciate more traditional written poetry. I feel like a lot of my generation have “discovered” poetry in this way – starting with the more recent, consumable, accessible stuff and then digging deeper, which I think is pretty interesting.
But I really have my high school teachers to thank for first encouraging me to both read and consume more writing early on. Plus, you and mum – we’ve always been a very literature focused household which I’m super grateful for.
TB: Tell us a bit more about Wordsmiths, your high school writing club at Somerset College, as the story of your false start in year seven is pretty classic.
VB: Hahahaha, oh dear. So, at my high school there was an official creative club (!!) that has developed a cool reputation. Naturally, it was one of the things I was most excited for upon starting high school. So, I showed up to the first meeting on the second week of school, embarrassingly eager, knowing maybe three people, only to be told that year sevens weren’t actually allowed in the club because of the “themes and topics discussed” during meetings.
My eleven-year-old heart had known no greater sadness. But it’s okay because they let me in the following year and I absolutely loved it.
TB: Why do you think Slam poetry and spoken word, ah, spoke to you and your generation more generally?
VB: That’s it, I’m making a dad joke swear jar. Consider it a trust fund. Okay, but in all seriousness, that’s an interesting question, I’ve definitely thought about it before. I think slam and spoken word tends to be more raw and overtly passionate and emotional – much like teenagers, as you see firsthand on a daily basis (sorry). There’s a certain catharsis that comes from performing spoken word that can’t really be replicated on the page. Especially right now, I think there’s a lot on young peoples’ minds. There’s a lot we want to get off our chests and spoken word provides a really special space to do that.
TB: I remember going along to Dust Temple the first time I saw you perform in public and it was pretty wild, a real eye opener. I felt like one minute I was sitting next to my nervous teenage daughter and the next there was this FORCE OF NATURE up on stage, having tripped over and composed yourself along the way. How does performing feel to you? Do you feel a kind of transformation? Transcendence?
VB: I was about to ask you what it was like for you when I first started getting into spoken word! It feels pretty amazing when I get it right, but on the flip side I feel like I can get thrown off so easily – there are good days and bad days. When I get it right, I feel like it’s as close as I’ve ever gotten to what people describe as “flow state”. Which is pretty cool. It’s been a long time since I’ve performed that style of spoken word though. How did it feel for you when you first performed?
TB: Terrifying but weirdly liberating. I’d been this working journalist all my life, interviewing, researching, fact, facts, deadlines, deadlines. Writing poetry felt incredibly freeing. I did that Men of Letters thing up in Brisbane, making my slam poetry debut at 50-something. Was that embarrassing for you? Like I was going round in a back to front baseball cap carrying a skateboard?
It was actually incredibly flattering! Because you said from the outset that my interest in spoken word was what inspired you. You and mum have always been two of the people that inspire me most, so to know the feeling is mutual is pretty awesome. You kept making jokes about how embarrassed I must be, but I think I’m super lucky to have a dad who has so much respect for my ambitions and pursuits to the point where they influence his own creativity.
TB: Awww. Encountering the slam poetry scene for the first time was fascinating – the whole culture and the way it operates. There’s good and bad in that as I think we’ve talked about. How did you feel going up to Brisbane for the Queensland final?
VB: Yep, definitely good and bad aspects and I think some people can find the whole community a bit polarising at times. My experience in Brisbane the first time round was awesome – I think I gave my best performance at the state final and nearly everybody I met was so kind. I felt so heard and empowered, and having that kind of experience at fifteen was incredibly formative. That being said, I have mixed feelings about the intensely competitive aspect of slam – now I find a lot more joy in writing for myself first. Would you ever consider competing?
TB: I don’t think so. Competing seems like an odd word to attach to poetry. Also, as much as I admire the egalitarian spirit of the slam format you see some pretty dubious judging. If I can play proud dad for a moment, seeing your 15-year-old daughter up on stage at the Sydney Opera House in the national poetry slam final, having won the state final, was very exciting. Are there any hard does and don’t for parents in this situation, like, should they not scream when you walk out on stage, for example?
VB: Hmm. I think the biggest thing is to just step back and let your kid do their thing. A big part of the experience is meeting other people and making connections, and if they’re one of the younger competitors they’re probably already feeling pressure to be taken seriously so it’s important for them to feel independent. If they’re cranky it’s because they’re nervous! Wait until the show’s all over to smother them with love and praise (I know it’s hard!!)
TB: Makes sense.
VB: But I agree – the concept of incorporating competition into something as subjective and personal as poetry feels odd. Was poetry ever really on your radar when you were my age? I know you were quite good at creative writing … something about a certain HSC result? I don’t know, the details are hazy. (this is a family gag about how I still remember my year 12 English mark).
TB: No, poetry and I just … missed each other somehow. I think maybe having to study it in English Literature killed it for me, the whole process of dissecting and analysing a poem and writing weighty essays about it felt like overkill. I had a couple of little dabbles at writing it, and I guess song lyrics are a form of poetry, but it wasn’t until I went along to slams with you that I got interested. It all felt quite new and fresh and inspiring seeing all these diverse, mainly younger people sharing their most deeply held angst.
VB: It’s a pretty dynamic space to be in when it’s done right! I think it’s a common predicament honestly, so many people my age have said similar things, that they were put off poetry early on by the way we’re taught about it in schools. It’s a shame, because it can be so passionate and cathartic and I think in many ways it’s the perfect creative outlet for a young person. Or any person!
TB: Even quite elderly people! How was it for you when Loki asked me to get up at that last poetry night (at Dust Temple) where we both read? Was that weird, like I’d stepped on your turf, or okay?
VB: It did feel a little bit like worlds colliding! I’d never try to claim spoken word as my turf, though. I think it’s awesome that my involvement has inspired you. And I liked seeing how you’d created your own style and how different it was from mine. It was just overall very flattering and fulfilling to see you go up on stage and perform, and I was so stoked that the audience loved it!! There aren’t many father/daughter spoken word duos. It’s almost as obscure as the third most popular folk duo in New Zealand.
TB: Ha ha. Honestly it was so liberating and such a buzz to write and then deliver it in that way, I totally get it now. Where are you at with your poetry now? I remember when you had your picture in the paper for Storyfest you were kind of bummed, like it was spoiling the purity of the thing.
VB: I guess the biggest way poetry has changed for me is in who I’m writing it for. When I was super into slam I was very focused on writing and performing the way I’d seen other people write and perform – I didn’t really write about personal stuff and wanted to be angry and make a statement. And sometimes I still enjoy doing that! But as I’ve gotten older I’ve been drawn less to performing and more to just doing my own thing and keeping it as something for myself, developing more of a personal style and not writing based on what I think other people want to hear. Because writing has become super therapeutic for me, which I didn’t realise it could be. I’m super grateful for how supportive a lot of my teachers were of my writing when I was in school, but I sometimes felt like I was being paraded which made me uncomfortable and embarrassed, hahahha, but I know it came from a good place. Do you ever find that writing can be therapeutic? Or does making it your job kind of take that away?
TB: For sure it still can be, but not so often when so much of your writing time is just meat and potatoes paid work that might not be real passion projects. But it definitely still has that potential, and when I’ve done a bit of personal writing lately it’s been especially so. Being able to get stuff down on a page or screen and just look at it makes it less scary, easier to process or something.
VB: Definitely! Writing stuff out can really take a weight off. Do you find the writing and refining a poem harder than the longer stuff you’re used to writing? Because for me, part of why I like poetry is because I can be as abstract as I like and I don’t have to commit to a super lengthy, more heavily structured story. But for some people, that’s exactly why they find it tricky.
TB: I guess I found it both easier and harder – easier because there wasn’t the physical slog of assembling a large volume of words and it felt like there were fewer rules to worry about but it was harder to tell if it was any good or just embarrassingly awful. We should probably wrap this up – any last thoughts on writing and poetry, words of wisdom for aspiring writers/poets?
VB: Oooh… okay, I would say, consume as much poetry as you can get your hands on, but try not to become overwhelmed by the talent of other writers – honing your skill/style takes time and you don’t have to write like anybody else. You are your own creative force! And get the whole family involved.
TB: Well, finally I have to say, it’s a joy watching you do your thing and I hope you keep writing and take seriously (but not too seriously!) your gift as a writer because it’s a rare and precious thing.
VB: Thanks dad, you’re the best. ❤️❤️ I’m so lucky to have family who love and respect what I do so much! It’s a lesson to me on the way I want to treat my future children’s passions so thank you.
Find out more about Australian Poetry Slam here.