Women with ME/CFS on the line

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Amid the hectic scramble to get the new Just A Spoonful episode out this week, plus other deadlines, I forgot to tell anyone that I did a radio interview with Melbourne’s 3CR last week! But I did, and it was a thought-provoking (for me) chat with Amy Middleton, host of Women On The Line and editor of Archer magazine. Here’s the link, or you can listen below:

I’ve listened back to it and lawd, I was so fatigued that day. Battling through some epic brain fog.

We talked about women and chronic illness, specifically myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (and I go into why the name of this particular illness is confusing and significant). We had time to go beyond talking about “what it’s like” living with ME/CFS and to get into the difficulties accessing a diagnosis, let alone treatment.

Amy asked for my thoughts on the overrepresentation of women in ME/CFS (more women are diagnosed with it than men), and while my answer was mostly speculation, it has sparked an interest in me to look deeper into this statistical anomaly. Could ME/CFS’s lack of funding be linked to its overwhelmingly female patients? Sounds a bit conspiracy-theory, but who knows. The more I learn about gender bias in medicine, the more alarmed I become.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the interview, and I hope you will too! If you’d like to read some of my writing about ME/CFS, here’s my Seizure piece from last year, ‘How To Talk To Sick People’, which I recently read aloud to an audience for the first time and oh my god, so snarky.

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I’ll be here all week (and next)

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Last night was the opening night of Not Much To Tell You at The Sue Benner Theatre, Metro Arts. It was a wonderful start to the season with a really great crowd and a good feeling in the room. I’m looking forward to doing it all again tonight, and then Friday, and then Saturday, and then Wednesday-to-Saturday next week! Tickets are still available from metroarts.com.au, or you can buy at the door tonight.

Here is a picture of my super hi-tech set:

I also had the pleasure of being interviewed by Sally Browne for yesterday’s Courier Mail:

‘Scuse me while I go laminate my copy. #sorrynotsorry

Not Much To Tell You is a part of the program for the most poetic weekend in Brisbane’s calendar – the Queensland Poetry Festival! QPF has its opening night tomorrow at the Judith Wright Centre, to usher in the greatest poetry festival in the southern hemisphere! LET’S HEAR IT FOR POETRY.

I’ll be giving my top picks for QPF on Metro Arts’ Instagram, so keep an eye out for that. Or you could just pick up a QPF program and throw a dart at literally any part of it, and I guarantee it will be good.

Property of Scum Mag

SCUMBAGS IN YOUR EARS: Chattin’ with Scum Mag on 4ZZZ

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SCUMBAGS IN YOUR EARS: Chattin’ with Scum Mag on 4ZZZ

I had a really fun show on Megaherzzz last Sunday, ‘coz I got to geek out about literature and poetry for the whole hour! We had the scumbag editors of Scum Magazine in the studio, scummin’ it up. (Click on the link above to listen.) Find out why the online editorial process means that they must be always drunk.

Also, Brisbane slam champ Angela Willock took time out of the Roar Poets East Coast Tour to chat with us. Angela is a youth worker by day, slam-winning poet by night. You can hear my interview with her, here.

SO MUCH WORDY GOODNESS.

Hey! I’m on the radio this weekend

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Photo credit: AleBonvini on Flickr.

Internet peeps! I’m being interviewed on a local radio program this Sunday afternoon (7th April 2013). I’ll be a guest on the Megaherzzz show on 4ZZZ (102.1fm). If you’re near a radio in Brisbane between 12.30 and 1pm this Sunday, tune in! Or, if you’re like me and haven’t owned a radio since that Ghetto Blaster you had in high school, you can stream it live online right herrrre: http://www.4zzzfm.org.au/listen-online

I’ll be talking about being a poet and being a female and anything else they ask me about. I may even do a couple of poems on air if they give me the slightest encouragement. It doesn’t take much!

Much thanks to 4ZZZ for inviting me on for a chat!

Inua Ellams: ‘Musical and delicious to the ear’, March 2012

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As part of Waxings blog’s coverage of the Perth Writers’ Festival, I had the opportunity to interview poet Inua Ellams. Here is the feature, as published on Waxings.org, March 2012.

Performance poetry is gradually finding its way out of the grunge-covered back rooms of dark pubs and catching the attention of wider audiences. One of the poets carrying this contemporary artform into the mainstream is Inua Ellams, a Nigerian-born Londoner who recently travelled to Australia to feature at the Perth Writers Festival.

Ellams was invited to the PWF to perform his play The 14th Tale, a one-man show combining poetry, performance, and personal narrative.

I ask Ellams if he had done any theatre before The 14th Tale. “The 14th Tale was my first theatric outing. My first collection of poems was published in about 2009 and I tried to stage the poems with a little bit of banter in between, but it didn’t quite work. There wasn’t a strong narrative, so I scrapped that and wrote The 14th Tale.”

Ellams’ poem-play is autobiographical, following the foibles of his mischievious childhood in Africa, weaving in tales of the men in his family. Ellams describes himself as a born trouble-maker, although he tells me over the phone (and you can actually hear the twinkle in his eye) that now he is making a different kind of trouble.

“Poetry for me walks the line between lyrics and finely, tightly written prose. I think that’s how I try to cause trouble – well, regarding work specifically, that’s how I try to cause trouble. By being aware of the line and walking it and constantly trying to redefine it. That’s one of the ways I cause trouble.”

Walking that line often means not fitting neatly into any one genre. Ellams is an accomplished poet of both the page and the stage but he still feels that he is not quite accepted by either.

“In London, I am often described as a performance poet, sometimes as a spoken word poet, sometimes as a page poet …” Ellams muses. “And sometimes I find that I am marginalised by both groups. There is this line that I seem to walk. And I continually try to further blur the lines, and even at performance poetry sets I just read my page poems. And when I write page poems, I just make them sound as musical and delicious to the ear as songs do.”

Speaking of delicious to the ear – Ellams’s voice is like a song itself. Soft and lyrical. Even when he talks casually, he sounds as if he is riffing on ideas for a new poem. And I think that is exactly the effect this poet is going for. Ellams speaks about poetry with a self-conscious pride, confident in his abilities as a wordsmith. He lacks the self-deprecatory humour that I personally can’t seem to shake off whenever I tell people I write poetry. For Ellams, poetry is not an indulgent activity. It is his craft. And it has held his life together.

Ellams tells me about a close friend of his from Dublin, Stephen Devine. They went to school together as teenagers, and the two boys had a friendship built on a love of language. “He and I would sit down and argue about the colour of the sky. We would just sit there for hours.” Then one summer, Ellams received a phone call telling him that Devine had been found dead, hanging from a beam in his garage. “I guess my world became very destabilised and the part of me that excelled with language, with Stephen, was no longer there. And I started writing to keep that part of myself alive, really.”

Since Ellams often performs his poetry, I enquire as to whether he takes the audience into consideration when writing. A debate that keeps coming up within the performance poetry community is whether a poet compromises their artistic integrity by writing to entertain the audience. Purists say one should perform for their own pleasure only; at the other extreme, entertainers seek only to win over the crowd. Ellams’s philosophy is an elegant compromise. “I always write for myself, of things that complicate me on a personal level. And then I edit it knowing that other people will have to come to this.”

So what does Ellams think of slam poetry, where poets are pitted against each other with only two minutes to please the judges? He hesitates. “I like it and dislike it in an equal sense.”

Ellams illustrates his opinion of slam poetry by telling me the story of a slam where he performed a poem that scored high – “it was the best poem of the night” – but ultimately did not win. “This guy, this huge guy stood up and read this poem about accidentally drinking urine which he found in a bottle of gin. And he got a full 30 points for that.” Ellams laughs incredulously. “I thought, this is never happening to me again.” He hasn’t slammed again since.

Whatever his personal feelings, Ellams is charitable as to the role of slam poetry in our culture. “I do think [slam poetry] has done a lot for the appreciation of poetry. Especially in the West, where we do have this competitive environment which champions oneupmanship and the idea of the individual. So, bringing poetry – which is old and classic and sometimes viewed as a dead past-time – bringing that into the twenty-first century I think has been really afforded and helped greatly by slams.”

Since first performing The 14th Tale in 2009, this already-established poet has written two successive solo shows, the most recent of which is currently touring Britain. Inua Ellams is a rising star of the spoken word scene. There is something about the frankness with which he describes himself and his work that borders on arrogance; there’s a lack of humility. But, as I talk to this charismatic young man, I can’t think of him as arrogant. He is simply focused. Poetry is a very serious craft in which he works hard to achieve a high standard. The Romantics would be nodding in approval. And the fact that Ellams is also crossing mediums to bring poetry to more people – that is just gravy.

Theatre People feature: “Watts Up With Alvin Sputnik”, Nov 2011

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A feature article I wrote for Theatre People, interviewing WA’s Tim Watts.

It’s the opening night of the Perth Theatre Company’s latest production at the State Theatre Centre. An eager crowd pours in, primed by two years of rave reviews from this show’s runs in New York, Seoul and Edinburgh. Reviewers have used no shortage of gushing adjectives for this show, even calling it the theatrical equivalent of a blockbuster Pixar film. But if this audience is expecting a big-budget production, they aren’t going to get it. They’ve come for the story of one little man made out of a buoy and a white glove. This is the fringe theatre darling known as The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is set in a bleak future where the seas have risen and wiped out most of humanity. Someone must volunteer to journey down into the watery depths to find a new place for the survivors to live. Alvin Sputnik takes on this dangerous mission, hoping to follow the soul of his beloved wife, to be with her once more. Alvin Sputnik is told through a fusion of live performance, animation, mime, puppetry, projections, music, live drawing and even a ukelele. Alvin himself is portrayed by a mix of performance, stick-figure animation, and clever puppetry.

Two weeks before the show’s opening night, I’m sitting in a North Perth café with Alvin Sputnik’s creator, Tim Watts. He has come a long way since the first performance of Alvin Sputnik at The Blue Room in 2009. The show was quickly picked up by the Perth Theatre Company and went on to tour the United Kingdom, the United States, South Korea, India, New Zealand and, of course, Australia. Watts and Alvin picked up a swag of awards along the way. Now, in 2011, Alvin has come back to Perth a hero, starting a season at the newly minted State Theatre Centre.

After all the positive press over Alvin Sputnik, is Watts feeling the pressure to deliver? “I’m just worried that it’s going to be over-hyped,” he admits. “Towards the end of the UK season, I think people came in with really high expectations. I think no matter what happens when you go into a show and your expectations are through the roof, it can never really measure up.

“At the beginning of the show, where I’m just doing the live drawing, I try to bring things down to a basic level, so that people aren’t necessarily going to expect a big song and dance. Then I can surprise them from there.”

Despite the show’s accolades and years of touring, Watts has been careful to preserve what he calls its “nice little handmade quality.” Since Alvin Sputnik’s first incarnation at The Blue Room in 2009, Watts has added more animation and more puppetry, but says it is still essentially the same show. “You don’t want to polish it up to where it doesn’t have any heart left.”

Watts developed Alvin Sputnik in collaboration with fellow Perth theatre peep Arielle Gray. Their development process focused on audience response; they would work on the show together, then present showings to their friends and ask for feedback. Watts was prompted to try this kind of process by watching stand-up comedians.

“I got really jealous of stand-up comedians who’d have an idea for a joke, and could get up that night and try it out. They got real feedback as to whether the delivery was right, whether the joke was any good. They could work on their set through actual response from the audience, as opposed to a lot of theatre shows where you have an idea, you write out a script, and you spend six months putting it on. Then you perform it for two weeks, and no one is really honest with you as to how it goes. If anything negative is said about it, you just go and sit in a hole. You think, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do about it now’.”

The character Alvin was created in a puppetry workshop with ‘Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’ in Fremantle, out of a buoy and a white glove. Under Watts’ expert hand, these abstract objects take on a very human life. He attributes Alvin’s anthropomorphism to the audience’s imaginative engagement. “To be able to pretend that this is a little guy … it’s as though you’re delighted at your own imagination. Then, when he does something human, it looks even more human,” he says. “When you’re really imaginatively engaged with something, you’re more likely to be emotionally engaged as well.”

Whenever he mentions Alvin, Watts absently arranges his hands into the shape of the little puppet, so for a moment it’s as if the deep sea explorer is at the table with us. It’s clear that Watts has formed a strong bond with the little round-headed man. So, how long do they plan to stay together? “Next year I’m kind of winding it down a bit. I don’t have a finite date where I’m like, ‘2015: no more Alvin’. I’m happy to keep doing Alvin, but I’m hoping to introduce more shows into my repertoire.”

But for now, it looks like Alvin will be sticking around. It’s the opening night of Alvin Sputnik’s Perth season for 2011, and I’m sitting in the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground, holding my breath in anticipation. Watts needn’t have worried about the hype. It’s not often you see a show that wins over the audience’s heart so quickly, or so completely. But Alvin Sputnik does it. During the performance, theatre-goers of all ages are sitting forward in their seats, faces shining, completely enamoured of Alvin. There are soft gasps of delight the first time puppet-Alvin emerges, and bursts of joyous applause throughout the 45-minute show.

Alvin’s underwater adventures arc towards a poignant finale. This is the second time I’ve seen The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik (having seen it during its inaugural season in 2009), so I reckon I’ll be able to steel myself against the emotional gutpunch and maintain a cool demeanour. Err, not so much. I straight-up weep. But I am relieved to see plenty of other patrons dabbing at their eyes as we leave the Studio. Something about this simple story of love and self-sacrifice has certainly captured people’s imagination. Perth audiences are usually dour and bestow admiration grudgingly, but Alvin Sputnik receives an ovation that seems to go on forever, and cheers such as are usually reserved for rock stars. But that’s how it is now. Alvin is a rock star. And it’s only a matter of time before Tim Watts achieves the same status.

The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer is showing at the State Theatre Centre of WA (Perth) from Tuesday 22 November to Saturday 3 December.

Tim Watts performs with one of the Alvin puppets


Waxings interview: “On poetry, writer’s block and eating”, Sept 2011

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Since the unfortunate decimation of the National Young Writers’ Month blog, my interview with poet/filmmaker David Vincent Smith disappeared with the rest of the NYWM blog posts. But ALL IS NOT LOST because the article has been republished on Waxings.

I’ve just sat down for a chat with Perth writer and filmmaker David Vincent Smith, also known as DVS (pronounced ‘Devious’ – see what he did there?). DVS is one of Perth’s best performance poets, as well as one of the founders of Seventh Continent Productions. And he’s twenty-three years old. When he saunters in with his scruffy beard and wide grin, you might mistake him for a bad Gen Y stereotype – but this is one of the hardest working young writers in Perth.

“I’m a firm believer that writer’s block doesn’t exist,” he says. “I think it’s just an excuse. The idea that you could sit down and not be able to write is a load of shit. Writer’s block is not being able to write up to the standard that you want to be writing at that moment. I mean, nobody can always write their best piece every day. So, you just sit down and start writing and eventually, after maybe a page or two, you get into the flow. You get one line that will trigger an entire new thought and bang, you’re away. So, whenever people say, ‘Aw, yeah I’ve got writer’s block, I haven’t really done much in six months,’ I’m like, bullshit, you haven’t got writer’s block – you bought Call of Duty. Sit down over there, start writing.”

It might sound a bit severe, but this writer expects nothing less from himself. “I was working in a supermarket from when I was fourteen to nineteen, and I used to get fifteen-minute lunchbreaks. Because it was such mundane work, the whole time I was working I’d memorise paragraphs of the book I was working on, then write them out in my lunchbreaks. At night I’d go home and just compile it together. I was like, don’t waste a minute of your time, always be writing. Now I’m really brutal on myself – I just work, work, work.”

And all this effort has been paying off for the writer/director. In 2010, DVS was flown back and forth between Perth and Sydney, for free, twice. The first trip was to attend the finals of the Optus One80Project with his co-director Aaron Moss, where their film Southern Cross won the Viewers’ Choice Award. The Award came with a $10,000 cash prize, which the guys re-invested in their production company Seventh Continent. They also got to chat with Australian film industry success stories like Blue-Tongue Films (Animal Kingdom) and David Wenham (The Return of the King, Oranges and Sunshine).

DVS’s second trip to Sydney last year was for the national finals of the Australian Poetry Slam. He entered the 2010 WA Poetry Slam and quickly won his way to the state finals with a hip hop poem entitled ‘Fortified’. With lines like ‘My father gave me a shovel at twelve/ And I’ve been burying my emotions ever since,’ he won over the crowd and took out first place, snagging himself a place in the finals held at the Sydney Theatre Company.

Since then, he’s barely sat still. Earlier this year, he and Aaron produced a short film about slam poetry, called The Ballad of Nick Chopper, for which DVS wrote the script and most of the poetry. The film screened at the Perth Poetry Slam finals in February. They also entered another film in the 2011 Optus One80Project, Family Tree, as well as working on several other projects, including two new feature films and several music videos. Even as we speak, DVS reminds me that he can’t stay long because he has to get another script finished by today. Phew, this dude never stops!

“I usually have so many different projects on the go. I’m usually either writing for film, writing for music, or writing for spoken word. Or some article that I feel like writing just for the hell of it. If I want to take a break I just switch what I’m doing. Like, okay I’ve had enough of poetry, I’ll do film writing tomorrow. But I usually have so many different deadlines.

“Deadlines are really good, because they kind of force you to be creative. You could be like, well, my life goal is to write a novel. Well you could start that when you’re fifty, you know. One of my first life goals was ‘you must write a novel before you’re twenty-one’ and I ticked that off my list, and now my next goal is ‘you must make a feature film before you’re twenty-five’ and I’m really stressing out about that one! Unless someone gives me millions of dollars after reading this interview…” (NB: Cheques are payable to David Vincent Smith.)

DVS and I get to chatting about life in the creative arts. Like most young, arty-type people, we almost immediately began with ‘OMG how broke are we?’ While our friends with Law and Economics degrees are slaving away with the (possibly incorrect) assurance that they’re guaranteed a well-paid job one day, we of the Arts have not even that comfortable illusion. Sometimes following your passion means giving up financial security. DVS lives by himself and pays his own way, so I ask him how he’s been supporting himself while he makes his career in writing and film. He does some casual shifts at a bar in Northbridge, but I find out most of his money comes from an unusual source.

“I’ve gotten by for fourteen or fifteen months now just by winning random competitions and pawning off the prizes. Last year Aaron and I each won a Blackberry [for Southern Cross], and I sold mine to a chef in the kitchen next door at work. I hell needed money that week; I needed to go grocery shopping, haha.”

I ask him if he thinks we’re right to be encouraging kids to pursue writing when it’s such a poorly paid career path. Would it be wiser to caution them to get ‘real jobs’ to fall back on, rather than risk being a starving artist?

“I think you can only say what you did, and then let them make their decision,” DVS reasons. He knew from the age of eight or nine that he wanted to be a writer, and no threats of financial insolvency could hold him back. After high school, he enrolled in an Information Management course at Curtin University, but it didn’t interest him. “To be honest, I don’t even remember it. Uni was something that happened between what I wanted to do with my life, so it’s all a blur. If I didn’t find the odd assignment in my drawers every now and then, I’d forget I even went.”

Instead, he switched to TAFE (now called the Central Institute of Technology) and completed an Advanced Diploma of Screen (Directing). “I knew what I wanted to do and what I wanted to be in terms of film studies, so I asked my lecturers lots of questions and really tried to get out what I wanted.”

Does he regret choosing the uncertain path of an arts career over a steady job in Information Management?

“I definitely thought about going the safe way, and then I thought, stuff it. Obviously it makes sense to have something to fall back on – it just depends how much you care about security. I like the idea of being able to eat food, but my aim in life is not to have a mansion or drive around in a Mercedes-Benz. My aim is to be able to spend every day writing and growing as an artist. I mean, that sounds really pretentious, but [that lifestyle] is more enjoyable, to be honest.”

I point out that, for most committed artists, their aspirations don’t reach as high as mansions or flash cars – they’re just aspiring to eat well and pay rent. A lot of young artists can’t afford to move out of home. David nods. “I do live out of home, but I’d love to be able to live out of home. And not slowly die out of home,” he laughs.

Having seen DVS in action on stage, I’m curious to know what goes through his mind while he’s performing his poetry. He laughs, and explains, “I was about to say, ‘not a lot’. I guess I’m very conscious of trying to engage people. Also, my hands – I see the words as movements. It’s hard to explain, but I see it as connections. I usually try to break each line down into an actual hand movement.”

I remember this from watching his performances – he almost seemed to have choreographed his poetry.

“When I’m writing I’m already seeing the hand movements,” he says. “I usually don’t sit down when I write, I usually walk around in circles. It’s like I’m orchestrating what I’m writing. It’s kind of a strange thing. So if you ever see me writing I’m just walking around in circles waving my hands in the air. It looks like I’m trying to do swimming freestyle through the air. And then [the movements] slowly become more controlled and constructed.

“I guess the other thing that’s kind of weird is sometimes before I start writing I know I kind of want to write a piece about [a certain idea], but I’m not really sure what it’s going to be about. So I kind of just let all the words that have to do with that kind of idea just bubble in my mind, and I just keep thinking of words that have to do with that. And then like you kind of get a – it’s hard to explain – like a taste in your mouth, and then you just go after a while.

“Sometimes if you have a good idea, rather than just starting to write it, you just let it simmer in your mind for a few weeks, and you let it build and build until you feel the story in your body, and then after a few weeks it just happens.”

Like they (whoever they are) say, writing is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration. David Vincent Smith is a writer who seems to understand the importance of both.

NYWM interview: “Why I Write: David Vincent Smith”, May 2011

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Today I posted my interview with David Vincent Smith (the man known as DVS) on the NaNoWriMo blog – we discuss writer’s block, David Wenham (swoon), and being poor.

Have a read:


DVS

I’ve just sat down for a chat with Perth writer and filmmaker David Vincent Smith, also known as DVS (pronounced ‘Devious’ – see what he did there?). DVS is one of Perth’s best performance poets, as well as one of the founders of Seventh Continent Productions. He has been featured at poetry and spoken word events around Perth (including Cottonmouth just last night), and was invited to be a guest at the 2011 Bali Emerging Writers Festival. And he’s twenty-three years old. When he saunters in with his scruffy beard and wide grin, you might mistake him for a bad Gen Y stereotype – but this is one of the hardest working young writers in Perth. READ MORE…