Tag Archives: BYDS

To Be Honest in Bankstown

To Be Honest, written and directed by Stefo Nantsou, produced by BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Service) and YOTS (Youth Off The Streets)

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This is an excellent piece of theatre, on for just five nights, counting the preview on Tuesday. What I write here might make it sound worthy, but if ‘worthy’ sometimes implies ‘dull’ it certainly doesn’t in this case.

This is the sixth theatrical work that Stefo Nantsou, formerly of the Sydney Theatre Company, has produced at the Bankstown Arts Centre (I’ve blogged about two of them, here and here). Amirah Amin, a social worker at Youth Off The Streets in Bankstown recognised that it would be great if Nantsou could create a show from the stories of the disadvantaged young people she saw as clients. Backed by Tim Carroll, CEO of BYDS, with funding from the NSW government’s Stronger Communities program, Nantsou took up the idea, interviewed a number of YOTS clients, and with their permission created To Be Honest from their responses.

Rather than shape his source material into an over-all narrative or a conventional well-made play, Nantsou opted for a verbatim theatre approach – in effect a collection of interwoven monologues, complete with the repetitions, stumbles and unfinished sentences of actual speech, punctuated by finely judged interactive moments. There’s music – background provided by a handful of musicians, and several big musical numbers, including a rap by one of the ‘informants’ appearing as himself.

The stories – of bullying, illness, homelessness, drug addiction, racism, migration, and above all resilience – are not so much showcased as made viscerally present.

Evidently the preview night was attended by a number of the people whose stories the play tells. Someone said the atmosphere that night was electric, whereas last night’s audience was like ordinary theatregoers. Speaking as an ordinary theatregoer, I was pretty electrified. It’s hard to single out individual performances, but hyper Aanisa Vylet, Bilal Hafda (recognisable from the Bankstown Poetry Slam) and rapper Matuse Peace gave riveting performances, and Esana Tanaki’s singing was heart melting.

Stefo Nantsou says, ‘In many ways I think Bankstown is creating work for the whole of Australia.’ He’s right. This evening produced the kind of buzz I remember from the early days of the Nimrod in Sydney or the Pram Factory in Melbourne: voices that need to be heard are being given a space to speak.

 

Coming Soon

If you live in Sydney, you ought to know about two fabulous things coming soon.

1.
HIDDEN: Rookwood Cemetery, from sunrise to sunset
Friday 18 September to Sunday 18 October
ENTRY IS FREE!

The Hidden website says it well:

Hidden is an outdoor sculpture exhibition that takes place amongst the gardens and graves in one of the oldest sections of [Rookwood] Cemetery. The exhibition invites artists to ponder the notion of history, culture, remembrance and love and allows audiences to witness creative expression hidden throughout Australia’s largest and most historic cemetery.

This is Hidden’s seventh year. I’ve been in previous years, and there’s something  marvellous about the sculptures placed among the tombstones. (It’s in an older part of the cemetery – no one will see the grave of someone who died recently being visited by an antic Don Quixote or a bright perspex rainbow.)

This year the Emerging Artist formerly known as the Art Student is part of the exhibition. Her piece, Bush Memorial, comprises two giant ceramic banksia seeds. Yesterday we installed it.

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2.
THE WAY: Bankstown Arts Centre, 1-10 October. (It’s not free but it’s unbelievably cheap)

The WayThis is the third play in a trilogy that has grown out of a collaboration between BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Service) and the Sydney Theatre Company.  I saw the second play, The Other Way, in 2013. The collaboration of professional actors with local community members, led by actor/ writer/ director/ musician Stefo Nantsou, produced a brilliant evening of theatre. Here’s a bit from my blogging about it:

This isn’t professional/industrial theatre, where success is judged by the length of the run and size of box office takings. It’s community, where the division between audience and performers is porous, where there’s an intimate sense that people are telling their own stories and those of their neighbours.
There’s a wonderful scene where a group of boys are teasing/harassing a group of girls, who are giving back as good as they get. In the middle of the chiacking and posturing one of the girls looks one of the boys full in the face and says, ‘Hello!’ and the group falls silent. The whole thing falls apart, moves onto a different plane. Sure, it was scripted and stylised, but it felt like it was really happening right then and there.

I gather that The Way has a similar structure to its predecessors: over a single day in Bankstown, storylines intersect as people from diverse backgrounds experience their multitudinous joys and crises. I’m looking forward to it.

The Other Way was evidently seen by a relatively small total audience over its short run. The Way has eight scheduled performances. If you live in Sydney I recommend that you put it in your diary and book seats soon. You can read more about it here. Bookings: 02 9793 8324 or http://www.trybooking.com/isqy

Bankstown Poetry Slam presents The Last Conversation

Ahmad Al Rady (editor), The Last Conversation (BYDS 2013)

1lcThe Bankstown Poetry Slam, which happens on the last Tuesday of every month, is one of the most exciting events on Sydney’s cultural calendar.

Last month nearly 400 people gathered in the Bankstown Arts Centre to hear more than 20 poets with varying degrees of virtuosity perform their own work – to hear, applaud and at least pretend to judge them as they at least pretended to compete with each other. There was also cake, strawberries and watermelon, all for a gold coin donation at the door.

My own experience of spoken word and poetry slams is extremely limited, but Wikipedia and YouTube inform me that many features of the BPS are standard to slam culture. There are procedural elements such as a loosely enforced time limit (two minutes this time because there were so many poets), judges chosen at random from the audience, a ‘sacrificial poet’ to kick things off without being part of the competition. And the range of subject matter is described well in Wikipedia’s entry on spoken word:

The spoken word and its most popular offshoot, slam poetry, evolved into the present-day soap-box for people, especially younger ones, to express their views, emotions, life experiences or information to audiences. The views of spoken-word artists encompass frank commentary on religion, politics, sex and gender, often taboo subjects in society.

Likewise the preponderance of non-white performers and the notion that spoken word and slam performance styles are generally influenced by hip hop. (I have listened to Muriel Rukeyser on a podcast since the slam, and it seemed to me that her powerful words would benefit immensely from a slam-style rather than in the measured manner available to her.)

Yes, poet after poet declaimed passionately, like prophets calling us to reject consumerism, psalmists crying out from the midst of suffering or yearning, orators decrying oppression in many forms. One man’s poem was short enough to allow him time for a brief introduction; he said he was honoured to follow those who came before and to precede those who came after, because ‘we are giving you our hearts’. He was right: there was plenty of witty wordplay, social observation, and even some elegant story telling, but again and again a shy young person would approach the microphone and be transformed into an eloquent, spellbinding exposed heart.

[Added later: Click here for a YouTube of Yasmine Lewis, who won the slam]

The air was thick with generosity. When anyone dried up and had to search for their next line – in memory or on a scrap of paper – the crowd applauded. When a judge gave anyone less than 9 out of a possible 10, she was booed. There was no party line: one person urged us to turn to God, another described religion as a stain on humanity, a woman in a hijab was followed by a man advocating for marriage equality, and all were equally met with finger-clicks (the convention for expressing approval of a good line) and cheers. The emcees, co-founders of the event Ahmad Al Rady and Sara Mansour, were unfailingly appreciative and kept the mood buoyant.

The slam happens under the auspices of Bankstown Youth Development Service, whose Director, Tim Carroll, was dragooned into speaking. Since this slam started nearly two years ago, he reminded us, there has been some terrible stuff in the media about Islam and Muslims. What a different picture was created by this event, he said, in which the Muslim presence was so pronounced. And what a shame some of those columnists weren’t there to see it.

The Last Conversation was published last December as a way of capturing something of the slam’s first exhilarating year. I blogged about its launch. As I’ve just read it cover to cover for the first time, I find myself thinking of it as a record of poetry – a book that hasn’t really been read until it’s been read aloud, with full attention to rhyme and assonance, and a hip-hop-like exaggeration of rhythmic effects. And maybe that’s true of any book of poetry.

Two Launches (with pic added later)

I’ve been sick with a cold since last Monday, and going stir crazy. Perhaps unwisely, I’ve struggled out of the house two nights this week to go to book launches.

rabbit10The first, on Monday night, 1XIII-Poemswas a double launch at Gleebooks – of the tenth issue of Rabbit, a Melbourne-based ‘quarterly journal of non-fiction poetry’, and XIII Poems by Jordie Albiston, the first in a series of booklets to be published by the journal. Both books are beautiful to look at and to hold, and I’m looking forward to reading the copies I bought on the night. Among other tempting morsels, the Rabbit offers poems by Julie Chevalier, Jordie Albiston, B R Dionysus, Lachlan Brown (to name the poets whose work I know), photographs, an essay, an interview and reviews, including one by A J Carruthers of two books I’ve loved, Jordie Albiston’s Book of Ethel (blog post coming soon) and Pam Brown’s Home by Dark (blog post here). And I’m fast becoming a Jordie Albiston fan, so I’m looking forward to reading what she calls orphan poems.

There were 17 people in the upstairs room at Gleebooks for the launch, of whom 8 spoke or read, all interestingly, and one or two others were part of the team who had flown up from Melbourne for the occasion. Jessica Wilkinson, Rabbit‘s founding Editor-in-Chief, graciously described it as an intimate affair, and urged us to take some grapes or cheese home in our pockets since the modest catering was clearly far in excess to requirements.

Whatever the cause for the poor turn-out, the launch was convivial, with plenty of humour about poets becoming members of the Warren, etc, and much joy in language used with precision and passion. I was glad I’d struggled up from my sickbed to put a bum on a seat and at least half a mind into the room.

As a segue, I’ll mention that at least one of the speakers mentioned their students, and one poet explained that she wasn’t reading her poem from the Rabbit because it was too much a ‘page poem’.

1lcThe next night’s launch was a completely different affair. The Last Conversation is an anthology of poems that have been read at the Bankstown Poetry Slam – that is, a collection of spoken word pieces attempting the transition to page poems under the guidance of slam co-founder and anthology editor Ahmad Al Rady.

The monthly Bankstown Poetry Slam has grown in the year of its existence into the biggest slam in Australia. I’ve never managed to get there, and if last night’s event is any indication of the nature of the experience, I’m missing out on something excellent. Ahmad Al Rady and his co-founder Sara Mansour were fabulous MCs – charming, witty, self deprecating and lavish in their appreciation of others. As many as 10 poets performed: a militant hymn to Gandhi and Mandela (timely, though obviously the poem was first performed when Mandela was still alive); cries from the heart from young men against violence against women; a disturbing piece about cutting into flesh after which the poet reassured us that she was not a serial killer or self-harmer but a surgeon; a passionate piece about the detention of asylum seekers; two sisters mining the rich field of sibling rivalry and sibling support.

The theatre at Bankstown Arts Centre was full to capacity,mainly with young people dressed in their best, as if for graduation. The audience whooped, cheered and (during the readings) clicked. It was a huge, enthusiastic celebration not just of the slam and each other, it seemed to me, but of what can happen when language is unleashed. At the start of the evening, Sara Mansour described how the Bankstown slam had started. It was laziness. She and Ahmad were tired of driving all the way into the city for poetry slams. Bankstown needs its own slam, they thought, and hunted around until Tim Carroll, the generous and welcoming CEO of BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Services) gave them a home. At the end of their first year, she said, she realises they were wrong on two fronts: running a slam in Bankstown was a lot more work than driving into the city once a month; and Bankstown didn’t need a poetry slam – poetry needed Bankstown.

(By way of full disclosure: I played a small consultative role in the editing of the anthology.)

Added later: This snap I took with my phone at the end of the evening shows something of the mood. These are the poets who read plus some others who are in the book.

last conversation

The Other Way

Mostly my theatre outings are relegated to the blog that appears in the right-hand column here. But as very few of my readers will have a chance to see The Other Way, here it is in the main body.

The Other Way, written and directed by Stefo Nantsou, is the third annual collaboration between the Sydney Theatre Company and Bankstown Youth Development Service (BYDS). The ABC’s inferior replacement for Ramona Koval’s Book Show (no disparagement of the excellent Michael Cathcart intended – the Powers That Be seem to have declared non-fiction books to be off limits, a stupidifying limitation) ran an interview yesterday with three people involved in the show, which you can hear here.

The show’s cast includes five professional actors, 23 school students and seven other performers from the community, some of whom wrote pieces On Western Sydney (Westside Publications 2012), an anthology of writing from and about Western Sydney edited by Michael Mohammed Ahmad & Felicity Castagna and produced under the auspices of BYDS. I mention the anthology because, although it wouldn’t be fair to say the show was based on it, there is a shared agenda of putting Western Sydney stories and story-makers into the public eye.

The action takes place in a single day, beginning with an old man summoning his family to prayer and ending with family prayer at night. In between, we see people commuting by train and going about their work days. Three main stories unfold, each involving children lost and found. In the most lighthearted, a woman loses her two small children in a shopping centre and they turn out to have been hiding for the fun of it. A second involves children being removed from a junky mother by Community Services and given into the care of a decent, loving couple. The third, which involves the family from the opening moment and nosy teenagers acting as chorus, has a young woman returning to the family after being missing for a long time. Alice Ansara has some big emotional moments of rock bottom despair as the junky mother, but it’s the story of the young woman returning to her family that is at the heart of the show. The responses of her siblings, her parents and her grandfather are richly complex (not glibly joyful, by any means). Only at the end do we discover why she left, and it’s a powerful statement about the difficulties faced by a generation caught between cultures and the vicious effects of anti-Muslim prejudice.

Binding it all together is brilliant hip-hop artist Matuse. He’s part of the family that prays; the returning daughter tells him her story; his songs provide the time frame and an exuberant conclusion; and his encounters with a little thief are a running joke whose punchline evokes not a laugh but breath of hope.

This isn’t professional/industrial theatre, where success is judged by the length of the run and size of box office takings. It’s community, where the division between audience and performers is porous, where there’s an intimate sense that people are telling their own stories and those of their neighbours. There’s a wonderful scene where a group of boys are teasing/harassing a group of girls, who are giving back as good as they get. In the middle of the chiacking and posturing one of the girls looks one of the boys full in the face and says, ‘Hello!’ and the group falls silent. The whole thing falls apart, moves onto a different planet. Sure, it was scripted and stylised, but it felt right then and there.

Just before the show started, a section, not of the audience but of the cast. I didn't get my hands on a program so can't say names, but from the left:

Just before the show started, a section, not of the audience but of the cast. I didn’t get my hands on a program so can’t say names, but from the left: a young man who did spectacular leaps to impress a young woman; two players of multiple minor characters; the junkie mother / train ticket collector; younger sister of the returning young woman / girl who was impressed by the boy’s athleticism; neglected son of the junkie;  Community Services worker / mother of the praying family / drummer; mother and two children from the lost-in-the-mall story.

The Other Way is on again tonight and tomorrow night and tomorrow morning (that is, Wednesday 17 and Thursday 18 July) at the Bankstown Arts Centre where tickets cost $5 or $3 (book at 02 9793 8324), and then Friday evening and Saturday afternoon at the Wharf 2 Theatre at Walsh Bay where there’s no charge, but bookings are essential (02 9250 1777 or online) and maybe impossible.

Western Sydney on Western Sydney

Michael Mohammed Ahmad & Felicity Castagna (editors), On Western Sydney (Westside Publications 2012)

In early 2011, an issue of the University of New South Wales’ student newspaper Tharunka had a cover illustration of maps of Sydney according to four different regions. Like Yanko Tsvetkov’s stereotype maps, their probable inspiration, they manage to be cheerfully offensive about just about everyone, but you’d have to be thin skinned to take serious umbrage.
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All the same, look at Western Sydney: ‘out there’, ‘someone has to live there’, ‘yummy exotic food’, ‘cultural cringe’, ‘refugees’, ‘day trip’. The anonymous cartographer has caught something, but if you stop and think for a bit you realise that he/she/they has/have surely pulled her/his/their punches, avoiding any references to drugs, sexual violence, Islamophobic stereotypes or the class attitude invoked by the word westies. More interestingly, there is no ‘Sydney according to Western Sydney’ map. Evidently, in the mind of the maps’ creator(s), Western Sydney lacks a view of its own.

Westside Publications exists to create a counter-narrative: to provide a platform for Western Sydney voices and, at least in part, to undermine the stereotypes, less by denying them outright than by seeking to paint a fuller picture. ‘I don’t mind a story that makes us look bad,’ writes Michael Mohammed Ahmad, chief editor of Westside, in his introduction to On Western Sydney, ‘so long as it’s honest and complex.’

Under the auspices of BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Service), Westside has work for years in schools and the community to develop skilled writers. On Western Sydney is their twelfth anthology featuring established and/or emerging writers and artists connected to the region. Ahmad says the goal has been ‘to source writing from Western Sydney and writing about Western Sydney’. Of course it’s not the only place where writers from Western Sydney get published – in my time at the School Magazine, for instance, some of our regular contributors were from the west, and off the top of my head eminent poets Jennifer Maiden and Peter Minter have strong Western Sydney connections. And a number of the writers in this anthology have been published elsewhere, including in the definitely Inner West This is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories. But there’s no doubting the significance of Westside. Last week Mohammed Ahmad received the Australia Council’s Kirk Robson Award which honours ‘outstanding leadership from young people working in community arts and cultural development, particularly in the areas of reconciliation and social justice’.

20120921-175932.jpg So On Western Sydney is a phenomenon. It’s also a good read, and not at all the dry sociological collection the title might suggest. It includes short stories, poetry, absurd parables, a photo essay; there’s lyricism, satire, rap, stinging social commentary, domestic observation, fantasy, memoir (I think), travel writing … from as culturally diverse a bunch of writers as you’re likely to find anywhere. Many of the contributors are familiar from Westside’s readings at recent Sydney Writers’ Festivals, and scattered throughout are Bill Reda’s photos of Moving People, this year’s event.

I wouldn’t rush to say that the stereotypes are completely repudiated. Some are reversed with varying degrees of subtlety. Two poems – Andy Ko’s surreal ‘A South Line Travel Guide’ and Fiona Wright’s deliciously ironic ‘Roadtrip’ (which begins ‘And it certainly felt like a Food Safari, such a long way from Kirribilli’) – could be read as direct, mocking responses to Tharunka‘s ‘day trip’ and ‘yummy exotic foods’ stereotypes. Predatory men are scarily realised in Amanda Yeo’s train-story ‘Nine Minutes’ and Frances Panapoulos’ poem ‘”puss puss”‘, though there’s no racial profiling in either. The class attitudes not quite articulated by Tharunka are challenged throughout, as when the protagonist of Peta Murphy’s ‘Roughhousing with Aquatic Birds’ suffers through some kind of arty inner west event (‘She doesn’t speak to me, / it’s as if she can see my Bunnings uniform’). The world evoked in Lachlan Brown’s long poem ‘Poem for a Film’ could well be labelled ‘Someone has to live there’, but there’s art – and heart – in the telling:

______On a blistering afternoon
a council truck is removing tall trees

so that no one will confuse this vista with
a place of moneyed elegance. And maybe

the scream of the chainsaw means you’re
not ignored, as cut limbs crash through

the dry air. And maybe what’s left is
for your own good, and the streetscape

becomes a mouth mashed up during a bar fight,
with its bare stumps grinning cruelly in the heat.

My guess is that the writers are mostly under 35. The problems of negotiating relationships is a dominant theme: under the judgemental gaze of older Arab women in Miran Hosny’s ‘The Weight Divide’; by phone in Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s own brief contribution, the deeply unsettling ‘The First Call’; in the gap between the world of song and the world of experience in Luke Carman’s ‘Becoming Leonard Cohen’ (though it’s pretty impertinent to describe Carman’s weird tangential verse as about anything); in bitter-sweet recollection of a high school crush in Tamar Chnorhokian’s ‘Remembering Leon’.

There’s so much to like. We’re told that this will be Westside’s last print publication. Maybe there’s a sense that its work is done, and the writers it has fostered can now find platforms further afield – in Asia Literary Journal, for example, whose current issue has a number of pieces exploring migrant identity. I hope so.

I received my copy free from BYDS. You can buy one from independent book shops in Sydney or directly from BYDS (email in@byds.org.au with your postal address and they’ll give you details on cost and bank transfer details).

Deep Suburbia

At a Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago Jennifer Maiden was reading at a Sydney-themed poetry session. She told us that she hadn’t been able to think of anything she’d written about Sydney. But when someone mentioned a couple of titles, she understood: ‘Oh, Western Sydney! I’ve got plenty about Western Sydney!’

20111105-111958.jpgThe show in the rehearsal room of the new Bankstown Arts Centre last night was all about Western Sydney, when five actors from the (not-Western) Sydney Theatre Company presented Deep Suburbia. In a nutshell this was a theatrical presentation of work from an anthology of the same name published earlier this year by the Bankstown Youth Development Service (mostly known as BYDS – I had to look up its full name).

The anthology is the third in the Westside Jr series, edited like its predecessors by Michael Mohammed Ahmad. It consists almost entirely of writing produced by school students during an artists in residence program that gave guidance and mentorship to the young writers over a number of weeks. Click on the image to the left for an e-book version – it’s a good read in its own right. The back cover isn’t wrong when it says that  its ‘writers and photographers channel the unique and often misrepresented  voice of Sydney’s infamous Western Suburbs’. Jennifer Maiden thinks of herself as a voice from Western Sydney. People who enthuse about Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap seem to read it as giving voice to a previously mute equivalent in Melbourne. This anthology and its predecessors demonstrate that given half a chance there’s a multitude of voices in the West ready to make themselves heard. I’ve been dipping into it for months, and always found something to enjoy, from sharp, short poems like this by Peta Murphy:

The mood turns from sympathy to scorn
when her end means the delay
of the 3:14 to Granville.

to longer tales of family life, or classroom romance/politics.

Last night was something of a revelation. The performers – Stefo Nantsou (who also directed), Arka Das, Elena Carapetis, Lindy Sardelic amd Miranda Tapsell – read the pieces with intelligence, humour and moments of great poignancy. They played around with form, so that the evening had a shape – among other things, the show finished with Filip Stempien’s enigmatically named ‘New Zealand Boys Drum’, a string of glimpses of the varied life of Bankstown, and we realise that a number of these glimpses have been acted out for us in the interstices of earlier readings. Most interestingly for me, the performances demonstrated something about the nature of young people’s writing. There were a couple of pieces, for instance – a rant about how annoying girls are (by someone who chose, perhaps wisely, to remain anonymous), a step-by-step account of a day spent obsessed with a boyfriend’s perceived bad mood (also anonymous), Kameron Omar’s recount of his mother’s time in hospital with an aneurysm – that one might be tempted to read as artless scribblings on the page, interesting mainly as sociological data. In performance, the depth of their creativity became blazingly evident: ‘Girls These Days’ sounds like Henry Higgins as Pizza Boy; ‘I Write to Remember’ does a brilliant job of mocking the thing it enacts; the beautifully understated ‘Aneurysm’ is permeated with quiet terror.

The show was only on for two nights. It was free, and food was provided. I’m sorry you didn’t make it. I’m very glad I did.

Freebies

Arthur Dean, The brigadier’s horse and other poems from the western front (Stephen Whiteside 2010)
Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Editor), Violence: Westside Jr Vol 2 (Bankstown Youth Development Service 2010)

My initial reason for doing a combined blog entry about these two books – a very slim vol of verse written by the publisher’s grandfather and a glossy publication showcasing writing by young refugees in Western Sydney – was the accident of their both arriving in my letterbox last week. (Even a blog as modest and marginal as mine occasionally cops a freebie.) On reflection, yoking them together is a long way from meaningless.

Stephen Whiteside’s previous self-published booklets have featured his own poems, mainly bush ballads and C J Dennis parodies. This one is not so different in style, and even includes a Dennis tribute, but it’s quite a different beast: it rescues from obscurity the poems written during the First World War by Arthur Dean, later to be a Victorian Supreme Court judge, and the publisher’s grandfather. The judge’s poetic endeavours have not gone unnoted before now. His Australian Dictionary of Biography Online entry says: ‘He was something of a “trench poet”, contributing light verse to army magazines.’ In this little book are eight of his poems, all – as his grandson tells us in his introduction – probably written in 1916. The title poem won  a £3 prize from the Diggers’ newspaper The Rising Sun, for which young Arthur received a congratulatory letter from C E W Bean, reproduced in an appendix here.

Arthur Dean was no Rupert Brooke. This is accomplished light verse, composed to distract the poet and his comrades from their lot as soldiers, and perhaps allow a little relieving laughter. Though offered as entertainment in 1916, it still hits some living targets:

Everyone’s scavenger, everyone’s slave;
The papers may splutter about us being brave,
How nobly we fell and how honoured our grave,
But that is the luck of the few.
ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo(from ‘Infantry’)

The ADB entry tells us that Dean’s ‘delight in composing “doggerel” was to continue all his life’, so perhaps we can expect further volumes – perhaps doing for the law what this one does for war.

In an Afterword to Violence, BYDS Director Tim Carroll tells us that his father, ‘a gentle man, full of love’, serves in the Air Force in World War 2: ‘He killed hundreds, if not thousands, of people in those dark times and carried the guilt of those killings with him to his death.’ This is the kind of thing that simply could not be said in prize-winning light verse written in the trenches, or perhaps in any poetry written by a soldier in a combat zone: do any of the celebrated war poets talk of themselves as killers? And how could they contemplate the long tail of war – the creation of refugees, the lives devastated by loss, the generations of dysfunction?

The long tail features loud and clear in this book.

Refugee Action Support (RAS) is a government funded program that supports young refugees with English language literacy. As part of the program, BYDS Bankstown Youth Development Service) ran a number of two-hour writing workshops in schools in Western Sydney. The bulk of the book is writing that emerged from those workshops. There are eloquent photographs of BYDS facilitators working with students, and a number of pieces by non-students (including interviews with a boxer, a psychiatrist, Wafa Zaim, manager of Muslim Women’s Association, and Craig Greenhill, who took some of the most telling photographs of the Cronulla violence in 2005), but it’s the refugee students’ writing that makes the book.

The editor, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, explains in his introduction that he decided ‘to present the raw versions of each artist’s work’ – that is, not to ‘repair the grammar’, and so on. He also decided to preserve words and passages that had been crossed out by the writers, so every few pages there is a word, a phrase a sentence with a line through it. My editor’s heart recoiled when I read this, but having read the result I think the decision was completely correct. The effect is to present the writing as process rather than as product: most of the young writers are clearly struggling with English as at best a second language, and most of the pieces are struggling with crushingly difficult subjects – war, domestic and other violence, dislocation, racism. The unconventional use of English and the occasional striking out effectively dramatise the difficulty of the undertaking. For example, this short piece (author not specified from the list of participants, as a way of protecting privacy):

Being Muslim is crime in this world. When some people heard of Muslim or meat a Muslim they think of terrorists. They don’t think who real Muslim people are. They don’t know who the real terrorists are.

Tidied up, that would lose what it now has, a strong sense of a mind seeking to communicate across a cultural divide. The reader is granted an unexpected sense of intimacy.

Interesting things are coming out of Western Sydney.

SWF: Inside the Westside Writers Group

One of my highlights from last year’s Sydney Writers Festival was a staged reading in Bankstown Town Hall by members of the Westside Writers Group. Naturally, we trekked west in the rain to see what they were putting on this year.

A big room in Bankstown Youth Development Headquarters had been set up with a couple of sofas, cushions, a standard lamp and a coffee table for the group and seats for the audience in the rest of the room. They proceeded to have a meeting like the ones they’ve been having every fortnight for years: each member of the group read a piece she or he had been working on – some brand new, some reworkings or extensions of things the group had heard before.

It was a risky idea, and could have failed in any number of ways. But it was great. All the writers have been trained in reading to an audience, and as their mode of working is to read to each other rather than circulating printed copies of their work, they have all become skilled listeners. So we were treated to a lovely range of readings, and then some tender but forthright exploration of what made each one tick and where it could be improved. Luke Carman and Michael Mohammad Ahmad were the stand-outs for me, the former with another of his strangely surreal monologues/stories, the latter with a vignette (a word evidently much discussed by the group) of life in a small ethnic community in the western suburbs. Nothing was dull: sestinas by Lachlan Brown, other poems by Fiona Wright, Lina Jabbir and Rebecca Landon, stories by Susie Ahmad, Sam Hogg, Felicity Castagna and Peter Polites (the dark-haired man on the couch in the pic, shaven headed and unrecognisable on the night), and video in the making from Bilal Reda. All this with the delicate, respectful probing and prompting of Ivor Indyk, resident literary guru.

And you know, from where I was sitting none of these young writers seemed at all fazed by having an audience of roughly fifty people watching and listening from the shadows as they exposed the fruits of their imagination to one another’s critical gaze.

Later addition: I can’t believe I forgot to mention that Alexis Wright was there as a special guest, putting her two cents worth into the discussion and reading what may end up as the start of her next book. When she’d finished her reading – an unsettling piece involving a personification of drought, a young woman carrying a not-quite dead swan in her arms – Ivor Indyk challenged the group: ‘Anyone want to take on a Miles Franklin winner?’