“Hello, are you there?”
“Hello? I’LL CALL YOU BACK ON THE LANDLINE.”
It’s Thursday night and I’m trying to talk spoken word with past Going Down Swinging editor Lisa Greenaway – but she can’t hear me.
As the only Australian literary journal to publish spoken-word CDs with every edition, GDS is a bit of a dissident in its fierce support for literature’s fringy cousin. Ten minutes later, rugged up on a couch beside a stray cat, my phone rings insolently. The serene voice of Greenaway trickles through my battered Nokia.
She’s explaining how, as a spoken-word performer with zero publishing experience, she became the editor of one of Australia’s longest-running literary magazines. Greenaway had been tinkering with the early Going Down Swinging website in Sydney before her time for editorship came up in 2005.
“Like most things with GDS, you get a tap on the shoulder,” she adds.
It was precisely this shoulder-tap that saw Greenaway reign as GDS editor for half a decade – introducing the journal’s first spoken word commissions with co-editor Steve Grimwade, and seeing this staunchly underdog publication through to Issue #30 in 2010.
“We wanted to pull the whole GDS community together in [that] issue,” she says, describing how Issue #30 united a motley bunch of four past editors, four overseas spoken word editors, one poetry editor and one comics editor to tackle thousands of submissions.
“It was a clusterf**k – it was huge; it was incredible.”
Going Down Swinging, like most fresh-faced literary journals, was never expected to last. Founded in 1980 by young punksters Kevin Brophy and Myron Lysenko with the Spartan premise to (at the very least) go down fighting, GDS is now on the verge of publishing its 1000th contributor in the impending Issue #33 – dubbed the ‘Jesus’ issue in honour of its miraculous survival.
Current editor, writer, and spoken-wordster Geoff Lemon was handed the GDS baton by Greenaway in typical Swinging fashion while he was mooching about in Argentina.
“I talked him into it on Google Chat,” says Greenaway.
When I meet up with Lemon, who has not only a print issue, but also GDS’s first-ever digital edition under his belt, he’s in a Melbourne University kitchenette squeezing sauce packets into a bowl of Mi-goreng. He’s also carefully avoiding the clots of foam oozing from the dishwasher under the bench. We agree the bubbles make for a much more interesting space, before a Melbourne University lecturer comes by and points out the problem – liquid detergent.
Lemon says it was the experimental element of GDS and its commitment to spoken-word that appealed to him.
“Performance artists don’t get a lot of support from the traditional literary publishing community,” he explains. “GDS made the decision to concentrate on [spoken-word] and really make that a feature of what it did as of about 12 years ago, when they started releasing CDs.”
Past contributor The Bedroom Philosopher aka Justin Heazlewood, who co-launched his book The Bedroom Philosopher Diaries at the launch of the new GDS website, has a performance history intermingled with that of the GDS set. Used to being sidelined as an artist himself, the Songs from the 86 Tram performer and Frankie columnist has a special affinity with the fringy rep of spoken-word.
“I’m like Lord of the Fringe,” he tells me in the crocheted livingroom of his Thornbury home. The whoosh of the 86 rattles the walls sporadically, like a soothing Melbournian lullaby.
“I’m sort of on the edge of the music scene; I’m on the edge of the comedy scene; I’m the edge of the poetry scene. I sort of just hang on the edge of everything.”
Heazlewood suggests it’s this alterity in his performances that makes the spoken-word crowd so receptive to his work.
“The best gigs I’ve ever done in my life pretty much have been poetry gigs,” he says. “They’re like the perfect audience for what I do. I just find they tend to be a lot more engaged and intelligent and kind of willing to go with you – and especially to go with weird shit.”
Having performed with GDS poets like Emilie Zoey Baker and Sean Whelan in the past, Heazlewood considers the spoken word performance a very special thing.
“You’ve got people getting up there and happily performing stuff about how f**ked up their life is, or how terrible something is, and I guess I kind of like the honesty of that. There’s not much hype in spoken-word – there’s almost no hype available. It’s just you and your words, which is kind of cool.”
Heazlewood says it’s important for emerging artists to remind themselves of what they want and to stick with it.
“Concentrate on what you want to happen, not on what you don’t want,” he says. “It takes about ten years of creating regularly to get truly good at what you do, so you may as well get started as soon as you can and be patient. It takes years to develop your own unique voice, in the meantime, rip-off Louis CK or Jonathan Franzen.”
For budding spoken-word artist, GDS editor Lemon warns against putting on any kind of affectation or “poetry reading voice”, which can put off listeners and distort the message that poet is trying to get across.
“The best work is usually the work that sounds natural – it doesn’t sound rehearsed, and that’s usually because it’s been rehearsed so much that it doesn’t sound rehearsed anymore.
“I want a poet to be someone who talks to you, and someone who talks to you like a real person.”
And Lemon’s advice for fledgling poets?
“Start. The only way you’ll get into it is to do it – you have to go to a gig. People doing spoken word are always very happy to meet anyone who’s interested – they’re not superstars, there’s not a huge amount of interest out there, and once you find the places to do it you just have to do it.”
Greenaway’s breakdown of the opportunities GDS offers spoken-word artists is clear enough.
“Spoken word is an important art form and storytelling form – it’s not the poor cousin, it predates writing. GDS has a really powerful role in giving people a professional, regular publication to submit to.
“In different ways, you’re still getting the same stories.”