I’m going to share with you two very different things that moved me, quite unexpectedly, this week. The first was a film. The other, a comedy show. Altogether, four fine poets who made the week that much brighter.
TO BE HEARD.
“If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you.”
I watched this documentary, which screened on ABC2 Sunday Best last weekend. Here’s the trailer:
Slam poetry is a pretty intense and raw art form. To Be Heard is about three teenage friends from the Bronx, New York, partaking in a radical ‘Power Writing’ poetry class. The aim of the class is to empower the students with self-awareness, to release their talents in order to transform their lives, and produce socially conscious, socially responsible young people. Their struggle to change their lives begins when they start to write poetry.
The official summary says:
“Pearl is the support and soul of the three; Karina is the passion and heart; and Anthony is the energy and physicality. In a community where friendships are kept tenuous for many reasons, these three build a bond based on language, respect, and the need to survive.”
Pearl, Karina and Anthony are best friends who have made a pact: to support each other and stick together right through to graduation, and beyond. But, as we see in the film, shot intimately over four years, the strains and burdens of their lives and environment put in jeopardy not only their drive to graduate together, but also their entire futures and freedom. They are fighting a very real battle to transcend the statistics, and social pressures, to become who they want to be.
I was so impressed by the honesty and strength of these three. All possess formidable talent. Anthony performs a self-penned piece in the middle of the documentary that is truly amazing in its vulnerability (hard to show, I imagine, if you are a young man from the Bronx). Pearl, Karina and Anthony are so young, so disadvantaged in many ways, and yet, through dedicated self-expression, they achieve more emotional integrity and self-awareness than many adults do in a lifetime. To share themselves through poetry in such a raw and fearless way is ballsy. That is why I have such respect for slam poetry.
Hats off to the trio of outsider teachers, Joe, Amy and Roland, who teach the class. Their genuine and heartfelt concern, and dedication to these kids from the ghetto, is absolutely admirable. Notably, they are not a part of any school faculty or formal curriculum. Instead, the Power Writing teachers come bearing a simple gift in the form of a motto – “If you don’t learn to write your own life story, someone else will write it for you.” As the official blurb says, their approach to teaching contains no secrets or tricks. It is simply this: to listen closely, if the writer wants to be heard.
On a personal level, I was inspired by Pearl, Karina and Anthony’s passion – need – for self-expression, and their evolution as writers/poets. I understand that need, that love. All of the joy and pain of their lives is remarkably, alchemically, transmuted into increasingly potent art, under the tutelage of Joe, Amy and Roland, who guide their development of craft. Some of my favourite scenes are in the Power Writing class itself, for they demonstrate the power of writing: of courageous, candid, transformative expression. Joe, Amy and Roland tell the Power Writing class, that they should improve their craft and arm themselves with words not merely to pass some test, to have their worth reduced to a number. They must do it to empower themselves, to define for themselves who they are…and let no other take that right away from them.
If you live in Australia, you can watch this film online on ABC iView for a few more days.
“My new [standup] show is called Numb because it’s about wanting to feel more. It’s about a feeling of disconnectedness, a feeling of wanting to love more, wanting to exist in the moment, not perceiving things from the outside but being in them and fully engaged.”
Clearly, I’m getting soft(er) and easier to please. Once upon a time, attending a comedy show during which I was not induced into at least three fits of laughter by aggressive subversive humour would have left me questioning the cost of admission. Not so, with Simon Amstell’s Numb, his debut, “Intensely vulnerable and excruciatingly honest” show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF). Despite not getting any belly laughs, I found the show gently, and surprisingly, satisfying.
I was unsure of what to expect from Simon. Melanie Sheridan on ArtsHub didn’t connect with Simon’s attempts to, well, connect, in this underwhelmed 2.5 star review. Whilst Mikey Cahill gave his “erudite and economical” show a 5 star review, and even threw in the word “genius” (twice, for added emphasis). The Guardian has described him as “The real deal. Where philosophy collides with anxiety: where Heidegger meets Woody Allen”, and The Scotsman has described him as “One of the most elegant, articulate, sensitive and endearing proponents of ‘Soul Comedy’ that there is”. It all sounds terribly hyperbolic, but I decided to ignore my misgivings, and his hipster appearance, and check him out anyway (to fulfil my resolution to see at least one act I had never seen before this festival).
In Numb, Simon Amstell talks about his desire for connection, and his great difficulty in satisfying this most basic of human needs. Without an ounce of self-consciousness or shame, the self professed neurotic shy guy confesses his neediness and vulnerability: about being the awkward one at parties, dining alone in restaurants and pretending to text, or pretending to write in a notebook and hoping that nearby diners are unable to see his aching loneliness: “Is he lonely? No no! He has a notebook. Perhaps he’s a travelling genius.”
Simon discusses his curse of constantly thinking about sex but (allegedly!) rarely getting any. An alternately shy and reflexively funny “horny sex pest”, hugging his cat alone at home (not a euphemism) and all too often succumbing to the temptation of unethical pornography consumption (thankfully he does not go into detail about this). He relates tales from his love life, his needy desire to kiss complete strangers, and dealing with rejection.
The admission of disconnection might seem strange given Simon’s popular performance on Popworld and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, in which he apparently confidently took the piss out of celebrities (famously, Britney Spears began to cry during an interview). His comedy series Grandma’s House, which is writes and stars in, more closely resembles the side of Simon Amstell in Numb and is rather self-referential – he plays a geeky young Jewish man called Simon who makes his name on television taking the piss out of pop stars, gets tired of it, and is desperate to find his soul and make it as an actor. I have not seen any of those shows, but I would guess that a number of people in the sold out audience I was a part of had – by their obvious affection for the man on stage.
On paper I have very little in common with Mr Amstell. Yet his need to connect is universal. Moreover he is seemingly cursed with the same propensity to over think at times rather than just be, and is evidently finding quite similar ways to overcome this affliction: he mentions casually, honestly, how he is now on a spiritual quest to transcend his ego. Then he talks about how his quest has, unfortunately, become completely egoic, thanks to the existence of a competitor – a friend who is on the same “journey”. A futile competition, given the end of both journeys, as far as we know for sure, will be bodily death.
At this point you might be thinking, “is Simon just another bourgeois Westerner dissatisfied with a life of material privilege?” Maybe. Simon obviously has serious dosh (definitely not something I can relate to) – enough to travel to Peru, and everywhere else (again, not something I can relate to) in search of some peace of mind, which he did, along with a bunch of other depressed Western people. But he says he found a measure of enlightenment out there, in the middle of all those Peruvian indigenous rituals and dream states. At one point he hints to this: “Remember when scientists remembered that science is the study of nature, and the religious remembered god is nature… and they stopped fighting and got along?”
In the end, not having any set expectations – and being in an utterly flat mood when I entered the show – worked in my favour. Numb, paradoxically, made me feel better. Maybe it was a mood thing, but, on this particular evening, I found Simon’s style and delivery very engaging. Actually, to be perfectly honest, I enjoy many kinds of comedy and styles of humour, and have seen few shows I have been unable to find some redeeming features in. And I do tend to immediately warm to people who are real about their foibles and their mess, despite the possibility of judgement from others (i.e. unenlightened halfwits). It is comforting, reassuring, and endearing. Perhaps not words one would want their comedy show described as, but it is a compliment.
Sincerity is so underrated.