Poets Go Public

22 August 2012 | 6:30 am | Helen Stringer

“I think the Australian accent is more than a way we speak. I think it’s a way we view things as well - we see things in an accent, if that’s possible.”

The uninitiated might be forgiven for thinking that spoken word is the purview of undergraduate arts students with a penchant for rhyming couplets and hearty doses of dramatics. Annually, however, Queensland Poetry Festival draws poets from far and wide to demonstrate inaccuracy of such stereotypes and the continuing vitality of the discipline. Melbourne-based poet, playwright, actor and academic, Felix Nobis, is making his inaugural appearance at QPF this year; he explains that for him spoken word is more than just enthusiastic recitation but a mode of performance with ancient roots.

Having translated epic poem Beowulf – a process, he explains, that began as a hobby and turned into three year project, with an extensively toured one-man show. Nobis sees performance as a basis for understanding the past. There's therefore a nice if not unexpected symmetry between Nobis' work as an academic where his area of study is medieval storytelling and his narrative-based spoken word.

“I started writing poetry when I was younger,” he says, “But really got into it in my twenties...looking back on those poems that I wrote when I was in my twenties, they're all quite narrative driven; I loved playing around with verse and  I loved playing around with rhythms. It was always stories. I was writing quite long poems…driven by narrative but being put together in verse.”

This early predilection for narrative-based prose led, at least partially, to his translation of Beowulf. “I came across the poem,” he says, “And all of a sudden something clicked. I don't think I would have taken to Beowulf as immediately and as strongly as I did if I hadn't been writing my own narrative verse and if I hadn't been playing around with that form or hadn't been thinking about how to tell stories through poetry.”

Fittingly, Nobis is by all accounts a consummate and hugely engaging storyteller; indeed, he explains that the performance element is intrinsic to his work. “Most of my work really is performance. I like an audience to be introduced to my poetry through my voice rather than reading it or having someone else perform it. I like to be the conduit between my work and the audience,” but, he says with a laugh, “I'm not some crazy performance poet who jumps on tables…” Whilst he's quick to dispel the possible misconception that his work is a form of “bush poetry” he explains that there's certainly an Australianness to it. “I enjoy playing with the Australian accent and I try to let…the accent influence the performance style,” he pauses, “I think the Australian accent is more than a way we speak. I think it's a way we view things as well - we see things in an accent, if that's possible.”

On the importance of festivals like QPF he says, “A lot of poets write on their own and it becomes a much lonely task. Having an audience to share with makes it a very public thing; as poets you're constantly torn between the private persona and the public persona. A festival, I think, balances both because people can be poets in a public space,” he continues, “I look forward to getting really inspired by hearing some of the poetry there being performed and just speaking with people about poetry. I think it's a great opportunity to get together with other poets.”

Felix Nobis' Smashing The Sunset (Part of the Queensland Poetry Festival) is on from Saturday 25 August, 6pm, Judith Wright Centre. The festival runs until 26 August.