At a win for words
Poetry Slammer, CJ Bowerbird (Chris Huet), has recently won a national competition. Photo: Rohan Thomson
In a world where friendships, thoughts and emotions are routinely reduced to hyperlinks and online headlines, performing verse might seem a quaint and romantic notion.
But here in Canberra and around the globe, poetry has been getting a cut and polish.
You don't read it any more - you ''slam'' it. And you don't just listen to it. You hurl your thoughts at it.
A full house at Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit! Photo: Adam Thomas
In pubs, cafes, clubs and theatres, poets have shelved the secrecy of leather-bound scribblings and taken to stage, to battle it out against in each other in a fight for audience adulation.
It's called a poetry slam.
For those new to the concept, typically competitors perform original works of poetry and are scored by either audience members or a judging panel.
The rules vary between slams but typically there's a time limit, and no music, props or other gimmicks are allowed.
It's a new world order more akin to an open mic night and the Canberra scene has been gathering a loyal following.
Enter ''C.J. Bowerbird''.
By day Chris Huet is a husband and father of three, who works as a contractor for a government department in Canberra.
At night, he is C.J. Bowerbird - the 2013 Australian Poetry Slam Champion.
In December last year, after battling it out against fellow poets from Canberra and being named the ACT's champion, C.J. went on to win the national competition in Sydney.
Performing at the Sydney Theatre in front of a crowd of hundreds, he claimed a prize worth more than $11,000.
As part of the win, he will perform and present at the Bookworm International Writers Festival in China in March and at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali in October.
In his own words, his writing makes social observations and tells stories.
From a seat in the audience, his performance poetry is rhythmic, engaging and real, and touches on the nature of contemporary Australian life.
So what motivates a father who works full time to get mixed up in world of spoken word?
Huet says for him, it comes down to two basic things - a love of writing and performance.
''I perform because I love the engagement that you get with people, and the feeling of people listening to you and responding emotionally to your words,'' Huet says.
Writing, he says, is rewarding in more personal ways.
''I write because I really enjoy the introspective, reflective aspect that poetry provides. It causes you to think about yourself and what your feeling.''
Huet says winning the Australian Poetry Slam in December was an unexpected and thrilling experience.
''That was amazing … the final, it was just one of those days,'' he says.
''The audience reacted really well to my particular pieces … I didn't go in thinking that that was going to happen so it was something I'd never felt before and I don't know that I'll get the same feeling again. It was really very rewarding.'
He performed two poems on the night, titled Clickdivism and Tipping or Rocking May Cause Injury or Death, which can be read and viewed on his blog cjbowerbird.blogspot.com.au.
The first was a witty rant about lap-top activism, sealed with a cunning twist. The second was a scathing tongue-in-cheek reflection on the nature of performance poetry itself, which opens with the line ''We are not vending machines, we are Salvation Army bins.''
As well as ''social observation'', Huet says his poetry is about his own experiences.
''I write about personal things that I'm thinking or feeling,'' he says. ''I often disguise it though in other people's personas, or different perspectives.''
Personal poetry can be fraught with dangers for a poet's subject matter.
But so far, he's avoided any lawsuits.
''I'm not deliberately careful but … if there are things that affect other people and it's not just me that I'm talking about, usually they're pretty well hidden in my poetry if they're there,'' he says.
Huet says his family are big supporters of his performance poetry and his wife and two younger sons were there to see him win the national slam in Sydney.
And although he's made efforts to keep his work life separate from his poetry, his colleagues are slowly finding out about C.J. Bowerbird, too.
''A few of them know and I think more of them are going to find out … particularly if my photo is in the newspaper,'' he laughs.
But C.J. Bowerbird is no overnight-success story.
Huet began slamming in Canberra at The Front Gallery and Cafe in Lyneham in 2009 and has since honed and practised his craft on audiences across Canberra.
While poetry events have been held at a variety of locations in the capital over the years, the two primary venues for regular poetry slams are The Front and The Phoenix pub in Civic.
Legend has it that the first poetry slam in Canberra was held by a group of communists and anarchists in the 1990s.
But more recently, Traverse Poetry Slam at The Front kicked off in 2006 and a few kilometres down Northbourne at The Phoenix Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit! began in 2009.
A regular at both slams, Huet says each poetry slam venue offers a different experience.
''They both have a very different feel to them, I love both of them,'' he says.
''The Front is very welcoming, low-key, very relaxed. Whereas the Phoenix is much more high-energy, more audience interaction.''
Huet follows in the footsteps of Queanbeyan's Omar Musa, who won the Australian Poetry Slam in 2008, and at last national finals he took to the stage alongside fellow ACT finalist Callam Reid.
Huet says the Canberra scene has been strong since its beginnings, but in recent years it's been gathering momentum.
''For the last year or so the, the Phoenix slam was always packed and the second half of (2012) the Front was always packed as well. There's a lot of people turning up,'' he says. ''There have been a few out of town acts come in and I think that that's going to grow.''
The champions of Canberra's slam scene have worked hard to encourage that growth, particularly Andrew Galan, one of the hosts and organisers of Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit!.
Along with his co-host ''The Master of Conflict'' Joel Barcham, score adder Amanda Coghlan, ''Sacraficial Poet'' Bela Farkas, and the enigmatically named Hadley (who was a Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit! co-host until early 2012), Galan has been a driving force behind Canberra's slam scene for several years.
The Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit! team ran all three of this year's ACT heats for the Australian Poetry Slam.
And Galan agrees Canberra's poetry scene has been expanding.
''Our very first night there was a line-up outside the Phoenix. It was packed to capacity,'' he says.
''In our first year we also had nights where there were 30 people who were die-hard keen … [and] we really varied between that. But since then we've really been growing.''
In recent times the Bad!Slam! team have managed to make the pub feel what Galan describes as ''full and sweaty'' - a sentiment many slam regulars would attest to.
''I'm pretty bad when I'm running it at actually trying to count people, but it feels full and it feels like there's a lot of energy,'' he says.
''I think for us as a venue the key is that everyone is having fun and that energy is there … rather than it necessarily being the amount of people.''
The Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit! vibe is noisy, high-energy and the audience is encouraged to get involved by cheering, booing and letting the poet know how they feel about the performance.
Conversely, the poet is encouraged to respond by booing and cheering right back.
First time poets are guaranteed at least three hugs from the audience and all announcements of ''new poetry'' are greeted by the mysterious chant of ''bang a drum''. At it's best the slam is challenging, moving and hilarious. At it's worst, it's chaotic and comes with a language warning - but it's nearly always entertaining.
''It is a rowdy crowd, but its still a respectful crowd who'll have a listen to what's going on. But then vocalise about it,'' Galan says.
Both Traverse Poetry Slam at the Front and Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit! are constantly looking for new poets and anyone can get involved.
Galan's advice to new poets is, ''do it''.
''My first ever poetry slam was at Woodford [Folk Festival] and that was in front of a stack of people, and I was so nervous,'' he says.
''I'd memorised the poem for it and I was literally shaking. I thought my legs were going to fly off. But you do it and you get through it, and you'll soon discover whether you enjoy it or not. But I think if you've got something to say and you're thinking about getting up there you probably will enjoy it once you do it.''
Similarly, Huet says his best advice to new poets is to get involved. But for those who like to ease their way into things, he recommends trying out the ''open-mic'' session at The Front, where poets can perform without being scored or judged.
''That's often an easier way to get into it,'' he says.
''Go along, have a look, get up and present some of your own work. And then if you really like it and you like the competitive aspect then do a slam.''
■ For those keen to sample some award-winning poetry, C.J. Bowerbird will be performing his own show at The Front on March 7, along with several other performance poets and local music acts from 7.30pm. Traverse Poetry Slam and Bad!Slam!No!Biscuit! are held monthly.