What is a poem worth?

Amelia Swan

Loughrey explores the liminal territory between a theatre show and a poetry reading.
What is a poem worth?

Image: Terry Doran 

Kerry Loughrey is part of a large network of deeply talented and highly progressive performance poets and sound artists that presently, and for the last twenty years, have been producing challenging and vibrant work. Kerry Loughrey, along with Amanda Stewart and Chris Mann in Sydney and Jas H Duke and Ania Walwicz in Melbourne continue to push the boundaries of spoken word and performance poetry.

The 50-minute piece at La Mama that showed this week presented as its provocation the worth of a poem. It came as a final essay from the practice-led PhD Kerry has been embroiled in at Monash for the last four years. Her thesis is an interrogation into poetry’s significance in contemporary Australia.

The performance piece was divided into seven sections: Question, Ontology, Theory, Hypothesis, Review, Survey, Findings. Using breath, assonance, alliteration and a dizzying array of tongue twisting and mind bending metaphors, Loughrey opens the show wandering around an elegant set with the words 'Answer me' projected onto the back drop. The stage is monochrome, with large white sails and vertical black ropes articulating the space, some with foil leaves wrapping around the ropes like metallic vines.

Loughrey is dressed in a white suit and walks with a nonchalant gait around the space, looking out sideways at the audience through slightly squinting, unsure eyes, appearing very much the beat poet, bush poet combination that her poetic style pays homage to. Allen Ginsburg, Walt Whitman and Eric are cited as inspiration but the program’s extensive bibliography reveals the extent of her research is enormous, spanning cultural theorists galore, experimental poetry publications and personal research.

Four other highly talented personalities from the sound poetry world enter the stage from time to, reading Loughrey’s work or accompanying her with a chorus of moans, breaths or statements.

Loughrey ​mentioned that one of the key questions that she ​explores in the performance is the liminal territory between a theatre show and a poetry reading; 'How to make a play that was still allowed to be a poem'. Understated and elegant direction by Alison Richards enabled that marriage to be seamless

Loughrey's personal charisma as a performer, the simple and stunning lighting and design of the show and the understated but mighty presence of her fellow performers made for a very complete aural and visual experience in the small theatre of La Mama. The traditional theatrical set up, with the audience tiered up looking at the stage, was made fresh and direct by Loughrey’s gusto and eye contact. Her fluidity of speech, dexterity of mind and huge reservoir of memory reminded me that poetry belongs as much to the orator as to the writer. 

Loughrey’s poetry was dynamic and intellectually confronting and often humorous: statistics about poetry were used to make a beat in the song, the pomposity of the voices of cultural theorists is played with in a section in which many are quoted layer upon layer, parodying the babbling of academic discourse.

Her words left me spinning. At one point Loughrey marched on stage with a leaf blower to blow coloured pieces of A4 paper, that had been carefully filed under meaning, around the stage. The gesture reminds us to let go of trying to make meaning, ​and instead allow words and suggestions to spin inside our mind.

Kerry Loughrey is a vital and fascinating talent. 'The poem is the answerer, the poet is the listener' Loughrey offers. Destabilising, contradictory and hard to locate though her poetry is, Loughrey’s work has a simple heart-felt message within it: poems are precious, and she exhorts against the contemporary obsession with celebrity and personality over the creative product itself.

Hard as life may have treated her, Loughrey’s investigation speaks of an undying love of poetry. In gently cupped hands and with the tenderness of a guardian who will never leave its post, Loughrey re-presents the poem rather like an endangered animal. Loughrey shakes her audience awake with visual and audial variety and creative energy, urging us to be freed of our sleepy ingratitude for the tiny splashes of transcendence that poems represent in a world of all too often monochromatic phrases and stock language.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5

What is a poem worth?

Written by Kerry Loughrey
Directed by Alison Richards
Set by Stuart Spencer, Anna Loughrey, Tim Oddie
Performed by Kerry Loughrey, Anna Fern, Liz Landray, Kristin Henry and Hilary Dobson
La Mama Theatre

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Melbourne-based art writer and historian.