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Why we need poets more than ever before

Andrea Simpson

International and local poets meet in NSW to celebrate the spoken word, reminding us the power of human communication and connection.
Why we need poets more than ever before

Image: 2016’s Australian Poetry Slam Champion, Arielle Cottingham. Supplied.

'Poetry is indeed something divine. It is at once the centre and circumference of knowledge,' wrote Percy Shelley in A Defence of Poetry, 1821. Nearly 200 years on and Shelley's words still reverberate.

Arielle Cottingham, a poet and performance artist out of coastal Texas, now based in Melbourne and 2016’s Australian Poetry Slam Champion reminded ArtsHub of another line in Shelley’s essay: ‘"Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."’


Cottingham is one of many poets heading to Word Travel’s Story-Fest – a three-day spoken-word festival that celebrates spoken word, poetry, stories, lyrics, monologues. It will also host the Australian Poetry Slam National Final. Held at various locations in NSW including the Rocks, Sydney Opera House and the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Story-Fest is celebrating its fifth year.

Poets are moral barometers

Cottingham continued, ‘[Shelley] argues that poets are the moral barometers of their times and circumstances – and look at the well-known poets today. Bob Dylan is lauded as the voice of a generation. Maya Angelou elevated the voice of the black woman to an unprecedented visibility. Gil Scott Heron wrote a single line of poetry so prescient that it became more famous than he himself did – "The revolution will not be televised." To quote Miles Merrill, "poets are more honest than politicians."'

The gathering of poets this weekend will see current problems faced by our society probed and vocalised. Miles Merrill, Creative Director of Word Travels said: 'This year’s line-up will showcase the most exciting spoken-word artists both locally and internationally, as they stun audiences with their jaw-dropping performances. From the heartbreaking to the uplifting, the thought-provoking and the downright hilarious, the stories they share will no doubt inspire budding slammers and seasoned pros alike.

’I’m also thrilled to welcome the renowned performing artist and poet Candy Royalle, as guest curator for this year’s Story-Fest,’ he continued.

This year Story-Fest has also attempted to engage a broader audience through an online competition. Inspired by the Yes to Equality campaign, Story-Fest invited poets passionate about marriage equality to submit their thoughts via Facebook in a two-minute video, with the public voting ‘Yes’ for their favourite entrant.

In another event at Story-Fest, Cottingham will perform at Spoken Four, held at The Joan, where four poets are asked to dissect a chosen topic. She will be joined on stage by fellow poets Philip Wilcox, Ian Keteku and Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa. Keteku will explore the question: can art really bring about positive social change, help break down barriers, and raise awareness about local and global issues? Cottingham will explore how the personal influences the public, and vice versa.

For those new to slam poetry, Cottingham explained, ‘Poetry slams have a competitive element that demands at minimum an awareness of your audience, as opposed to an open mic, where you can get up and ramble as much as you like before even getting to your poem, regardless of whether or not the audience is interested.’

She said of her discovery of poetry: ‘I got into poetry by watching it on YouTube, and one of the first spoken word poets I ever stumbled across online was Anis Mojgani.

‘He gave a workshop and performed in Melbourne while I was studying abroad there, and after years of watching him online I jumped at the chance to see him live. At the gig, members of Melbourne Spoken Word were handing out flyers with all of the upcoming local open mic nights and slams. I went to my first open mic two days later, and the next the day after that, and it grew from there.' 

When asked about her favourite poem or poet she said: ‘Some people can give you an answer straightaway, but most people have more complex tastes than a single favorite. I could be sentimental and say Anis Mojgani, since his tour started my whole career. I could say Sam Ferrante or Sharifa Tartoussi, since they're my best friends and also happen to be incredible poets in their own right. I could say ‘These Things Are How You Make Me Feel’ because it's like getting an injection of happiness, or ‘Libretto of the Opera Death of a Black Boy’ because it's one of the most conceptually vivid pieces I've ever seen performed in a slam, or any of the 47-plus poems I've been adding to my ‘Favorite Poems’ playlist on YouTube.’

Cottingham continued: ‘Humans have been telling each other stories and speaking at gatherings since before we ever had codified writing systems – finding the precise word and the most nuanced tone to express something exactly as you want an audience to hear it takes a level of empathy that gets lost in everyday interactions … and at the end of the day, isn't all art at its core an attempt to connect with other human beings?’


Spoken Four is part of Story-Fest 2017 13-15 October 2017.

About the author

Andrea Simpson is an ArtsHub staff writer.


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