Monday, August 10, 2009

A poet’s view of things

Australian poet Jayne Fenton Keane talks about the impact of technology in poetry, as well as the attacks on Indian students Down Under

By Shevlin Sebastian

‘Adam watches a beautiful,
yet appalling pair of buttocks,
Flap like canary wings,
Against a grille of customer laps’

In this excerpt from Jayne Fenton Keane’s poem, ‘Adam’, the adjective, ‘appalling’, seems unusual. “This is a deliberate use of a provocative word,” she says. “Imagine a caged bird. The fact that it is caged is tragic, though the bird itself is beautiful – hence it is ‘appalling’.”

The same, she says, is true of the lap dancers she saw on the Gold Coast in Queensland. They have a similarity of movement like that of a caged bird. “Those lovely girls behave as if they are half-drunk and are so scornful of the customers, 99 per cent of whom are male,” she says.

Jayne, who has written four books of poetry, focuses on human relationships, language, environment, politics and philosophy. She is known as a performance poet. “When I recite a poem, sometimes I shout and sing,” she says. “At other times I whisper. It is like a form of theatre.”

She also uses technology in her poetry. “I add visual elements and sound,” she says. Her poetry is available on CDs, the Internet, as well as the radio.

Till recently Jayne was the director of the National Poetry Week in Australia. “It was an attempt to bring poetry into public spaces,” she says. Poems were written on take-away containers, and with chalk on pavements. There were readings in vineyards, buses and ferries.

“In short, people were going about their business while poems were being read,” she says.

Jayne admits that nowadays very few people read poetry. “Most of them have been put off by it in school itself where teachers say, ‘This is a difficult poem,’” says Jayne, who is a tutor of creative writing at Griffith University. But thanks to performance and slam poetry a large new audience is coming into being.

Slam poetry has a competition format. At the American National Poetry Slam, each person gets three minutes to tell a poem. There are three to five judges in the audience who hold up a scorecard. “They score all the poets and the top few go into the next round,” she says.

But not everybody approves of this. Jayne says many traditional poets are aghast at these developments. “They want the page-reading experience to remain paramount,” she says.

The racism issue

Jayne is staying at the Brunton Boatyard in Kochi for rest and rejuvenation. Like any sensitive person, she is unnerved by the sounds of a couple of cats snarling viciously at each other besides the lounge. She runs to the side and claps her hands loudly. This sends one cat scurrying off in the opposite direction.

Recovering her breath in the sudden silence Jayne says that at Fort Kochi she has been intrigued by the sea. “There are clumps of weeds that go floating past the whole day,” she says. “And I think, ‘Where are they coming from?’ The water is gray, because of the pollution from the boats, unlike the blue it is in Australia.”

Jayne is much taken up by the dynamism and the energy shown by the people. “They are very intense,” she says. “I plan to come back because I like Kerala.”

But it has not been smooth sailing. At a party when Jayne was introduced as an Australian poet, a man said disdainfully, “I did not know they had such things as poets in Australia.” She recoiled from the remark. “It was a strange and unfriendly thing to say,” says Jayne.

Of course she is aware that this reaction might have been caused by the recent attacks on Indian students in Australia.

“There has been a media over-reaction here,” she says. “That does not mean there are no racist elements in Australian society. In fact, there is racism in every country on Planet Earth. That is human nature. However, the media is wrong in interpreting it only as a racist problem.”

She says Indian students often work late into the night and then commute on public transport. “It is risky,” she says. “Australia also has a high crime rate, unemployment and frustrated youth.”

But Jayne is convinced that it is not all bad news. “A friend told me there are 65,000 Malayalis in Melbourne and not a single one has said they had a bad experience,” she says. “So, Australia is actually a nice place to live.”

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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