Language, slamming & life…. a conversation

& KEITH JACKSON – PNG Attitude Blog

PHIL FITZPATRICK | Tuesday 11.18 am

The thing about Motu, as with other Papuan languages, is that it’s musical. Someone can shout at you in anger in Motu and it still sounds pleasant to the ear.

The sound of a language, its tone and cadence, can tell you a lot about its speakers.

It may be stereotypical but Motu conjures up images of snoozing in the warm sun by the beach under a palm tree.

It even has a smell associated with it, a combination of smoky fires and warm coconut oil.

Some of the Aboriginal languages from northern Australia have a similar musical quality.

Listening to the late David Gulpilil speaking in his native Yolngu could make you tap your fingers without even understanding what he was saying.

Contrast that with a language like German and some of the eastern European languages, which are guttural and heavy. Among other things they conjure up discipline, hardness and abrasion.

French, on the other hand, is pleasing to the ear and reverberates with warmth and casualness, albeit with a touch of superiority.

You can listen to someone singing in French and enjoy it without understanding it. Think of Edith Piaf or Charles Aznavour.

Unlike Motu, which is a pure language, English is a bastardised concoction and relies on accent for its sensual impact.

Contrast the soft and lilting tones of a southern Irish speaker to a brash and nasally speaker from the Bronx in New York, a lazy drawl from a Texan or a screeching whine from a north Queenslander.

And then there’s the high faluting version as practised by the nobility and their acolytes whose plum-in-the-mouth or something uncomfortable stuck up their bum accents are designed to project a superiority and refinement that differentiates them from the hoi polloi.

Try listening to Prince Charles or some of the prominent monarchists in Australia telling you how better they are than you without actually expressing it in words.

Tok Pisin, with its basis in corrupted English and other sundry languages, is also a language that relies on accent.

Phil Fitzpatrick – “Motu conjures up images of snoozing in the warm sun by the beach under a palm tree”

Getting the accent right in Tok Pisin is crucial. How many times have you listened to an expatriate speaker who has got the vocabulary and grammar just right but still sounds clumsy in their speech?

Or perhaps listening to rapid fire Sepik Tok Pisin and contrasting it with the lazy New Ireland version or even a highland version that can sometimes come with the actual reek of pig fat.

You used to be able to tell where someone came from in Papua New Guinea through listening to their accent. That aspect has now diminished considerably.

Then there is cosmopolitan Tok Pisin as spoken by the so-called elite in Port Moresby.

This version is like a creole within a creole with its littering of English expressions and terminologies rendered incomprehensible by the fractured use of meaningless suffixes and misplaced emphasises.

These people have a lot to answer for because they have taken a quaint and magical version of English and bastardised it beyond probity.

Listening to these people speak, especially if it is coming out of the mouth of a smartarse politician, immediately tells you to be on your guard.

You wouldn’t think it’s possible but they can make Tok Pisin sound positively predatory.

Where Tok Pisin really comes into its own is in oratory. Unfortunately and contrary to what the politicians think, you don’t hear much good oratory these days.

What I’m thinking about are the old grey beards in the highlands who could rattle on for an hour or more about anything.

There is a newer version of this old Gris Pisin around and that’s spoken Tok Pisin poetry. Around Port Moresby and other big towns it’s quite popular in poetry ‘slam’ sessions.

Poetry slams are popular all over the world. We have some good slammers in Australia. Slamming is the great grandchild of the Greenwich Village beat poetry as practised by Allen Ginsberg and other assorted weirdo beatniks.

The Papua New Guinea version is unique because it combines old style oratory and poetry into a kind of hybrid that is both literary and polemic.

A lot of Papua New Guinean poets, I’ve noticed, write their poetry with how it might be spoken in mind. William Shakespeare would understand what they are doing.

That’s what tends to throw it out of kilter with what the purists consider good poetry.

The idea of standing up and belting out a bit of Wordsworth or Coleridge is anathema to them. Banjo Paterson or Rudyard Kipling, however, are a different proposition.

Language is not just warm air coming out of someone’s mouth. It has a tactile quality and an odour all of its own. You just have to listen a bit more closely to pick it up.

Michael Dom – “The poem that finds you will probably not be the one you were searching for”

MICHAEL DOM | Tuesday 3.46 pm

One contention I would make; I don’t know what the purist problem is, and I think Shakespeare bridges the imaginary divide well enough, between written and spoken word poetry since his most memorable poetic moments emerged from dramatic dialogue.

Slam poetry is mostly for entertainment, and while that may be dramatic in delivery, it’s mostly not a drama you’d write home about.

Slam requires a relatively high degree of extroversion (or empowerment) to execute and the audience is mostly there to be thrilled.

Also, there’s no repeat button when performed live and thus no time to savour the sound of sense, ponder the profound or hang on the highwire act.

So, maybe it’s not for everyone and shouldn’t be. (And vice versa for written poetry.)

Without the right speaker (usually the author) with the right approach (trained) and the right conditions (arranged) at the right time and place (prepared), the slam poem can flop and die in mid-flight, or not even leave the ground or, worse still, fly off to somewhere no one can follow it.

Also, from what I’ve heard, most of slam is political, speaks too often of ugliness, and tends to voice dissent without a hint at solution.

In other words, for exuberant teenagers with a bent for shocking and thwarting the system and speaking passionately about a life of which pains they have not yet even plumbed the littoral zone let alone the abyss.

(Swimming in the shallows?)

It’s fun while it lasts I guess.

Then we go home and recall nothing very significant unless it was a rant on our own pet peeves or special needs group (read victim status) that was addressed.

That’s sad. Mostly.

Or maybe I need to hear more slam poetry, although somehow I know I’ll survive without it.

But the quiet word that sits and waits for you to arrive, well, there’s almost no one who survives that ambush.

PHILIP FITZPATRICK | Tuesday 4.47 pm

Michael, you’re obviously a purist. That cute lady who spoke at Biden’s coronation was a kind of slam poet. Leonard Cohen plus guitar was good at it too.

KEITH JACKSON | Tuesday 5.01 pm

I guess slam verse sounds better if there’s a nearby bar.

MICHAEL DOM | Tuesday 5.33 pm

I come from the reading end of the spectrum rather than the listening end.

If that makes me a purist then I suppose the other end is the adulterated.

And that’s a bad equation for poetry preferences because as I’ve said before I like to meet poems one by one.

There’s something to be said for the privacy to explore a poem, as much as there is to have the privilege to experience a poem performed.

My habit is the former. My preference; that it is good.

I have watched a few YouTube clips of slam events but not had the chance to attend one in person, so I am definitely biased that way.

However, if replaying a live slam event video clip still leaves me mostly unsatisfied then I suppose slam is just not my cup of tea.

The chick at Biden’s big day was, to me, unappealing in spoken word and appearance regardless of how impressive she was pampered up to be.

But that’s just me, and everyone is entitled to their own opinion.

As a poet, I judge her words as fair, her performance as expected and her appearance as appealing to the fashion crowd that follow her.

I’ve heard some gruff bloke in dirty jeans and a torn T-shirt pull off a poem that shook the air without a presidential blessing to do so.


Meet your poems where you can and if that is at a slam event then good for you.

But the poem that finds you will probably not be the one you were searching/waiting/wishing for.

The poems that found me out surprised me in the pages of some random book or website, an overheard or an incorrectly recalled song lyric that I went back to explore, a note or a meme that most may ignore….

But a shout and a scream leave less inspiration to me than a mute nightmare or a silent dream.

What’s your proclivity?

KEITH JACKSON | Tuesday 9.45 pm

Ah, mine is to read. And not to waste what time I have left on cant or propaganda or ugliness dressed as itself or, worse, dressed as ego. Same goes for people.

And to read what has value – takes me somewhere, teaches something, draws an emotion; making me wish I’d written it is the highest praise I have to offer.

Keith Jackson – “I’m intolerant of lazy writers who will not check a fact and poseurs who seem to think readers are meek devotees, not the harsh judges they really are

Most days my illness gives me few workable hours – as little as two of writing or editing time before the brain begins to foreclose. Never more than five on a good day. Everything there is to do evaluated at the cost of what it means I can’t do.

This is a strange, limited but not limiting time of life. And I’ve found that excitement is not important. I’ve had lots of it. No need for more. But it can be fun.

Dangerous satire is fun. Taking a risk is fun. I guess a poetry slam is fun. Like you, I’ve never experienced it and now I won’t because it probably wouldn’t get through the triaging I apply to everything so I can do what I really want, or must.

I love clever argument and am thrilled by insight but intolerant of lazy writers who will not check a fact (or a spelling) and poseurs who seem to think readers are meek devotees, not the harsh judges they really are.

I do not see PNG Attitude as slam. Although it can slam. We all can slam.

Nor is it me, except in the sense it may do some good and is an equal opportunity publisher. Otherwise it is a creature of fifty writers (maybe five hundred) who give it character and effervescence and meaning.

I’m a poor poet, a middling writer and a fair enough editor. And, given I can’t do a helluva lot anyway and have plenty of other diminishing bits of life to dabble with when I can, the ragged repertoire I’m left with suits me just fine.

That’s my proclivity.

The days are gone when I could drive across the harbour bridge and look at the skyline with the names of huge corporations lighting the tops of buildings and think, ‘Half of them are my clients’.

I once was a dog and that was my day.

Yokomo – the delight he invoked in children in the 1960s was a boon to reading and literature

MICHAEL DOM | Tuesday 10.16 pm

They’re the refined habits of a well-lived life.

I hope myself to be half as lucky and the same measure of witty.

God keep you Keith Jackson AM.

(Or else He’ll not hear the end of it from me ‘anywhere I roam’.)

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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