Language, slamming & life…. a conversation
02 February 2022
PHILIP FITZPATRICK, MICHAEL DOM
& KEITH JACKSON
PHIL FITZPATRICK | Tuesday 11.18 am
The thing about Motu, as with other Papuan languages, is that it’s musical. Someone can shout at you in anger in Motu and it still sounds pleasant to the ear.
The sound of a language, its tone and cadence, can tell you a lot about its speakers.
It may be stereotypical but Motu conjures up images of snoozing in the warm sun by the beach under a palm tree.
It even has a smell associated with it, a combination of smoky fires and warm coconut oil.
Some of the Aboriginal languages from northern Australia have a similar musical quality.
Listening to the late David Gulpilil speaking in his native Yolngu could make you tap your fingers without even understanding what he was saying.
Contrast that with a language like German and some of the eastern European languages, which are guttural and heavy. Among other things they conjure up discipline, hardness and abrasion.
French, on the other hand, is pleasing to the ear and reverberates with warmth and casualness, albeit with a touch of superiority.
You can listen to someone singing in French and enjoy it without understanding it. Think of Edith Piaf or Charles Aznavour.
Unlike Motu, which is a pure language, English is a bastardised concoction and relies on accent for its sensual impact.
Contrast the soft and lilting tones of a southern Irish speaker to a brash and nasally speaker from the Bronx in New York, a lazy drawl from a Texan or a screeching whine from a north Queenslander.
And then there’s the high faluting version as practised by the nobility and their acolytes whose plum-in-the-mouth or something uncomfortable stuck up their bum accents are designed to project a superiority and refinement that differentiates them from the hoi polloi.
Try listening to Prince Charles or some of the prominent monarchists in Australia telling you how better they are than you without actually expressing it in words.
Tok Pisin, with its basis in corrupted English and other sundry languages, is also a language that relies on accent.
Getting the accent right in Tok Pisin is crucial. How many times have you listened to an expatriate speaker who has got the vocabulary and grammar just right but still sounds clumsy in their speech?
Or perhaps listening to rapid fire Sepik Tok Pisin and contrasting it with the lazy New Ireland version or even a highland version that can sometimes come with the actual reek of pig fat.
You used to be able to tell where someone came from in Papua New Guinea through listening to their accent. That aspect has now diminished considerably.
Then there is cosmopolitan Tok Pisin as spoken by the so-called elite in Port Moresby.
This version is like a creole within a creole with its littering of English expressions and terminologies rendered incomprehensible by the fractured use of meaningless suffixes and misplaced emphasises.
These people have a lot to answer for because they have taken a quaint and magical version of English and bastardised it beyond probity.
Listening to these people speak, especially if it is coming out of the mouth of a smartarse politician, immediately tells you to be on your guard.
You wouldn’t think it’s possible but they can make Tok Pisin sound positively predatory.
Where Tok Pisin really comes into its own is in oratory. Unfortunately and contrary to what the politicians think, you don’t hear much good oratory these days.
What I’m thinking about are the old grey beards in the highlands who could rattle on for an hour or more about anything.
There is a newer version of this old Gris Pisin around and that’s spoken Tok Pisin poetry. Around Port Moresby and other big towns it’s quite popular in poetry ‘slam’ sessions.
Poetry slams are popular all over the world. We have some good slammers in Australia. Slamming is the great grandchild of the Greenwich Village beat poetry as practised by Allen Ginsberg and other assorted weirdo beatniks.
The Papua New Guinea version is unique because it combines old style oratory and poetry into a kind of hybrid that is both literary and polemic.
A lot of Papua New Guinean poets, I’ve noticed, write their poetry with how it might be spoken in mind. William Shakespeare would understand what they are doing.
That’s what tends to throw it out of kilter with what the purists consider good poetry.
The idea of standing up and belting out a bit of Wordsworth or Coleridge is anathema to them. Banjo Paterson or Rudyard Kipling, however, are a different proposition.
Language is not just warm air coming out of someone’s mouth. It has a tactile quality and an odour all of its own. You just have to listen a bit more closely to pick it up.
MICHAEL DOM | Tuesday 3.46 pm
One contention I would make; I don't know what the purist problem is, and I think Shakespeare bridges the imaginary divide well enough, between written and spoken word poetry since his most memorable poetic moments emerged from dramatic dialogue.
Slam poetry is mostly for entertainment, and while that may be dramatic in delivery, it's mostly not a drama you'd write home about.
Slam requires a relatively high degree of extroversion (or empowerment) to execute and the audience is mostly there to be thrilled.
Also, there's no repeat button when performed live and thus no time to savour the sound of sense, ponder the profound or hang on the highwire act.
So, maybe it's not for everyone and shouldn't be. (And vice versa for written poetry.)
Without the right speaker (usually the author) with the right approach (trained) and the right conditions (arranged) at the right time and place (prepared), the slam poem can flop and die in mid-flight, or not even leave the ground or, worse still, fly off to somewhere no one can follow it.
Also, from what I've heard, most of slam is political, speaks too often of ugliness, and tends to voice dissent without a hint at solution.
In other words, for exuberant teenagers with a bent for shocking and thwarting the system and speaking passionately about a life of which pains they have not yet even plumbed the littoral zone let alone the abyss.
(Swimming in the shallows?)
It's fun while it lasts I guess.
Then we go home and recall nothing very significant unless it was a rant on our own pet peeves or special needs group (read victim status) that was addressed.
That's sad. Mostly.
Or maybe I need to hear more slam poetry, although somehow I know I'll survive without it.
But the quiet word that sits and waits for you to arrive, well, there's almost no one who survives that ambush.
PHILIP FITZPATRICK | Tuesday 4.47 pm
Michael, you’re obviously a purist. That cute lady who spoke at Biden’s coronation was a kind of slam poet. Leonard Cohen plus guitar was good at it too.
KEITH JACKSON | Tuesday 5.01 pm
I guess slam verse sounds better if there’s a nearby bar.
MICHAEL DOM | Tuesday 5.33 pm
I come from the reading end of the spectrum rather than the listening end.
If that makes me a purist then I suppose the other end is the adulterated.
And that's a bad equation for poetry preferences because as I've said before I like to meet poems one by one.
There's something to be said for the privacy to explore a poem, as much as there is to have the privilege to experience a poem performed.
My habit is the former. My preference; that it is good.
I have watched a few YouTube clips of slam events but not had the chance to attend one in person, so I am definitely biased that way.
However, if replaying a live slam event video clip still leaves me mostly unsatisfied then I suppose slam is just not my cup of tea.
The chick at Biden's big day was, to me, unappealing in spoken word and appearance regardless of how impressive she was pampered up to be.
But that's just me, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
As a poet, I judge her words as fair, her performance as expected and her appearance as appealing to the fashion crowd that follow her.
I've heard some gruff bloke in dirty jeans and a torn T-shirt pull off a poem that shook the air without a presidential blessing to do so.
Meet your poems where you can and if that is at a slam event then good for you.
But the poem that finds you will probably not be the one you were searching/waiting/wishing for.
The poems that found me out surprised me in the pages of some random book or website, an overheard or an incorrectly recalled song lyric that I went back to explore, a note or a meme that most may ignore….
But a shout and a scream leave less inspiration to me than a mute nightmare or a silent dream.
What's your proclivity?
KEITH JACKSON | Tuesday 9.45 pm
Ah, mine is to read. And not to waste what time I have left on cant or propaganda or ugliness dressed as itself or, worse, dressed as ego. Same goes for people.
And to read what has value - takes me somewhere, teaches something, draws an emotion; making me wish I’d written it is the highest praise I have to offer.
Most days my illness gives me few workable hours - as little as two of writing or editing time before the brain begins to foreclose. Never more than five on a good day. Everything there is to do evaluated at the cost of what it means I can’t do.
This is a strange, limited but not limiting time of life. And I’ve found that excitement is not important. I’ve had lots of it. No need for more. But it can be fun.
Dangerous satire is fun. Taking a risk is fun. I guess a poetry slam is fun. Like you, I’ve never experienced it and now I won’t because it probably wouldn’t get through the triaging I apply to everything so I can do what I really want, or must.
I love clever argument and am thrilled by insight but intolerant of lazy writers who will not check a fact (or a spelling) and poseurs who seem to think readers are meek devotees, not the harsh judges they really are.
I do not see PNG Attitude as slam. Although it can slam. We all can slam.
Nor is it me, except in the sense it may do some good and is an equal opportunity publisher. Otherwise it is a creature of fifty writers (maybe five hundred) who give it character and effervescence and meaning.
I’m a poor poet, a middling writer and a fair enough editor. And, given I can’t do a helluva lot anyway and have plenty of other diminishing bits of life to dabble with when I can, the ragged repertoire I’m left with suits me just fine.
That’s my proclivity.
The days are gone when I could drive across the harbour bridge and look at the skyline with the names of huge corporations lighting the tops of buildings and think, ‘Half of them are my clients’.
I once was a dog and that was my day.
MICHAEL DOM | Tuesday 10.16 pm
They’re the refined habits of a well-lived life.
I hope myself to be half as lucky and the same measure of witty.
God keep you Keith Jackson AM.
(Or else He'll not hear the end of it from me ‘anywhere I roam’.)
I was born in Oxford, Ed, but I didn't get no plum for me mouth nor a silver spoon for that matter.
My father just happened to be working in Lord Nuffield's Morris car factory at the time.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 05 February 2022 at 06:31 PM
To return to the 'southerners vs northerners' accentual theme, but in a different geographic context.
The designation 'Queen's English' aka 'Received Pronunciation' (RP) - generally acknowledged as being the accent of those from Oxford, Cambridge and the so-called upper and educated classes of London - was coined, and secured currency, in the mid-19th century.
This was in response to some of those dastardly northerners (from Liverpool, Manchester etc) who'd accumulated huge wealth during the Industrial Revolution and, as a consequence, demanded access, socially and otherwise to the great and good of London, the Royal Family included.
The horrified London upper classes and, perhaps, Queen Victoria herself, could/would not countenance rubbing shoulders with northern yokels (who might have included, of course, some screechers and whiners) and so a rule of sorts emerged.
Only those who spoke with an acceptable accent (that is, the aforementioned Oxford, Cambridge, upper class variety) would be received at court. Hence the term: Received Pronunciation.
Posted by: Ed Brumby | 05 February 2022 at 05:56 PM
This conversation reminds me of four men talking on how to save the city of Port Moresby - their home from destruction by rebels in my recent novel 'The Old Man's Dilemma'.
The men are from Madang, Mendi, Tari and Simbu. Imagine them expressing themselves in Tok Pisin .
Close your eyes for a moment and hear them speak in the distinct style of Tok Pisin spoken in their areas. We speak it in much the same way as we speak our Tok Ples (mother tongue), don't we?
Well, here's the dialogue as recorded in my novel:
“I am glad to have come to hear you speak. My father came as a mankimasta for a kiap. When the kiap left before independence, he settled down at Sabama and raised me and my siblings.
“Now I teach at Gerehu secondary school and my children attend city schools. I have no land in Madang. I do not want the city destroyed. It is now my place.”
As the crowd muttered approval, a burly man from Simbu stood up.
“Like my friend I’m a second generation settlement dweller. My father came to work at Doa rubber plantation as an indentured labourer. He ran away to the city to work at Steamships as a storeman.
“I too have no land at Gembogl. I too am fearful that my city may be destroyed. We must find ways to make the government give back the Old Dairy Farm land to the settlers.”
Then a man from Tari spoke.
“Yu na mi em mitupela brata. Mi Huli na yu Opone. Tasol mi stap long sait bilong Papua. Sapos samting igo bagarap, em ol Papua bai rausim yupela ol Niu Gini igo na mipela ol Papua bai stap yumi iet long hia.”
[You and me are brothers. I am Huli and you are Opone. But I am on the Papua side of the border. If this current crisis leads to us separating, then Papuans will chase New Guineans away to their own provinces.]
“Sapos mipela Papua kamap wanpela kantri em bai mi ino inap wan bel. Pasin nogut bai stap yet long gavaman. Tasol sapos mipela join wantaim Australia em bai mi laikim. Australia bai lukautim mipela gut. Australia gavaman save gipim moni nating long ol manmeri ino gat wok. Dispela mi laikim.”
[If we Papuans form our own government, I won’t like it. Corruption will still persist. But if Papua joins Australia, I will favor that. The Australian government will look after us well. They also give social security money to everybody who is unemployed. I like that arrangement.]
“Olsem na tingting bilong mi em paul liklik long lusim yupela ol Opone. Tasol wanpela samting mi laik tok olsem, ol lida bilong mipela save paulim yumi gut true. Ol stil tumas. Na mipela ol pipol painim taim.”
[But my mind is a little confused to separate from my Opone brothers. But something I’d like to say is that our leaders are causing all the problems.They are stealing too much.]
A Mendi man, also from the Papuan side of the border, agreed with everything the Tari said except he doubted Papuans would allow highlanders to remain if they broke away....
So let me say there can be found all kinds of people saying the same thing but in their own distinct styles apart from whining screechers.
Imagine a Frenchman, German and Indian speaking English.
There, that’s it, I can hear the sound of laughter.
Posted by: Daniel Kumbon | 05 February 2022 at 08:28 AM
Fuss and Chups?
The Kiwis can't tell the difference between an 'a' and an 'e' either.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 04 February 2022 at 07:31 PM
Dear Michael - In the mid 1980s 'Australia Sux' was spray-painted along the wall of the underpass leading to Sydney's Central railway station.
A short time later some enterprising Kiwi graffiti artist added 'New Zealand Seven'.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 04 February 2022 at 07:09 PM
I'll put you both at ease Ed and Phil, all Aussies are screechers. It be the Kiwis who speak the Queen's English.
Posted by: Michael Dom | 04 February 2022 at 05:15 PM
Thanks, Phil: There are whining screechers (or screeching whiners) everywhere, of course. Even, I dare say, in the Athens of the South....
Posted by: Ed Brumby | 03 February 2022 at 04:06 PM
You must remember that I come from Adelaide Ed, the ... ahem ... "Athens of the South", to quote Don Dunstan.
I didn't have you in mind when I wrote that line; I was thinking of Bob Katter.
How about "or a screeching whine from certain parts of north Queensland". Or perhaps "or a screeching whine from certain north Queenslanders."
Unless, of course, you maintain there are no whining screechers in North Queensland?
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 03 February 2022 at 03:13 PM
Duke Ellington's classic, 'Take the A Train' was retitled when it was released in Queensland and called 'Take the Train A'
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 03 February 2022 at 10:04 AM
Call me thin-skinned by all means, Phil, but as a proud North Queenslander I am obliged, no, compelled, to call you out for describing the North Queensland accent as "a screeching whine".
I have heard my accent described in many ways, but never as a screech, or whine.
That said, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so sonority (and degrees thereof) is in the ear of the listener and so I have to accept that you might just 'hear' my utterances as a screech, or a whine, or both.
I suspect, however, that your description is more reflective of the condescending attitudes of some 'southerners' to we 'northerners' than of the manner of our utterances.
Phil spent a few years in Queensland himself but left because he couldn't stand the noise. By the way, I have heard Ed speak and believe his North Queensland howl to have been much tempered into a mellifluous drone by his long exposure to articulation in the southern states - KJ
Posted by: Ed Brumby | 03 February 2022 at 07:28 AM
A fascinating piece that had me reviewing the work of the late Adrian Henri who was born in my hometown of Birkenhead in the United Kingdom:
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 02 February 2022 at 10:29 PM
Lo mekim save, emi no hat,
Em inap lo tok stret, mauswara nogat,
Oli ken skelim, emi samting tru,
Sapos oli lukim, pes bilo yu,
Sapos yu belhat, lo samting olsem,
Kamautim ol tingting, bai yu noken sem.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 02 February 2022 at 01:00 PM