Tag Archives: Tim Carroll

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.

 

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

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.