When Miles Merrill took a leap in love by leaving behind his home in Chicago and moving to a relatively unknown country – Australia, he wasn’t sure about what to expect. A performer since he was a little child, a poet since his days at University and an experimenter by nature—he combined the three and birthed the poetry slam culture in Australia.
Miles organised Australia’s first slam poetry festival and is currently the Creative Director of a not-for-profit organisation called Word Travels that supports marginalised communities in the country so that they find a voice for themselves. A writer who is always looking to fuse poetry with all sorts of performance elements, Miles has performed at various festivals across the world and is currently visiting India as a part of the Bookaroo Festival 2017.
We spoke to him about his creative endeavours, his craft and the growing potential of the spoken word culture.
How did your romance with spoken word poetry begin?
I’ve been writing poetry since I was very young. The thing that really changed everything for me was getting up at an open mic and reading from my notebook, after which somebody approached me and offered to give $50 if I would come and perform at their pub. So I started doing that. One day I’d be performing for a friend at a cafe or for another at a bookstore. Soon I was doing three shows a week and earning almost $200 just performing poetry.
Have you always been a performer?
Yes, I have always been a performer. Back in primary school there was a talent show and I was booked in to play four different roles. But on the day of the talent show, my mother got into a car accident so I never made it to the talent show. I think it scarred me and it made me want to make up for it for the rest of my life. With almost 4000 performances all over the world, I think I have done that. Incidents like these form your core memories and define who you become.
You are visiting six cities in India—are you excited?
This is my first time in India and I’ll be visiting Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, Kolkata, Jaipur and Delhi. I must admit that it has been quite a culture shock for me. Things that are basic and simple for you are totally new for me. Like the taxi driver driving in the middle of the lane; I actually thought my taxi driver in Bangalore was drunk!
Have you been exposed to any spoken word poets in India?
I’m getting to know them now. I met three of them in Bangalore. I’m meeting a few local poets in Chennai too. I also went to the Bangalore International School National Youth Slam last week and saw 36 different high school poets perform. It was amazing.
You created Australia’s first Spoken Word festival––The Night Words Festival. How did it come about?
The first Night Words was in 2008 and I guess I was just looking for an opportunity to experiment. I was looking at artists who could go beyond just a poetry slam and find other ways to perform poetry, with music, costumes, props, transitions. I wanted to look at stories, monologues, and standup comedy. The one unifying factor was that they were all writers performing their work.
Night Words has now become Story Fest—a three day spoken word festival organised in the second week of October every year, in collaboration with Sydney Opera House. We also have a big National Poetry Slam; the winners of which get to tour Writer’s Festivals around the world. Additionally, we also run a Multilingual Poetry Slam, a Youth Slam, a National Slam from June to October every year that goes to 60 different cities around Australia.
Last year we had an event called the Poet Taster where you could go to a cafe and order a coffee, the person behind the counter would ask, “Would you like a poem with that?”. If you say yes, then a poet would come and sit down with you at your table and then he/she would perform for you. I like the idea of two people looking each other in the eye and telling poetry to each other. I think its a very powerful experience.
As the Creative Director of Word Travels, can you tell me about the organisation?
Word Travels started as an idea in 2002 and has been running as a not-for-profit, literary and literacy arts organisation in Australia since 2010. Our aim is to empower people from marginalised communities to be heard. Unfortunately that usually only means brown people in Australia. We create programs where writers can perform and be heard. Our current Australian Poetry Slam champion is a 12-year-old Sudanese boy from a small town in Australia and we had him perform at the Opera House, filmed it and put it up on the Guardian’s Facebook page and within a week he had 3 million views. We want to empower more people like that.
When did you move to Australia?
I met an Australian and we travelled around South America together. When she moved back to Australia, I would visit her often which is when I fell in love with the country and moved there for a bit. In 1998 when I had the choice of going back, I was living an hour outside of Sydney, on a cliff overlooking the ocean with rainforest in my backyard. It was January and in Chicago it was -27 degrees Celsius. I thought to myself: I could go back to Chicago and live next to a factory and be mugged a couple of times a year or I could live on a cliff overlooking the ocean and in love with someone. So the choice was pretty simple.
What is the role of spoken word poetry today?
It gives voice to the marginalised. People can speak on social issues and be heard regardless of who they are. Moreover, the community itself is very welcoming. As soon as I walk into any poetry slam in the world, I get a good encouraging feeling. I know that anyone who is shy about it will be supported with cheering and finger snapping and probably get a hug after. Even if you stumble or forget your lines, people are supportive.
What are you looking forward to at the Bookaro Children’s Literature Festival?
I’m looking forward to hearing children perform their poems. I feel like children often get inspired by the world around them and have so much to share but don’t get enough opportunities to actually speak up.
Are you working on any new project?
Currently I’m writing a play called The Arctic Queen, it’s a commissioned project from the Australian National Maritime Museum. It’s a children’s play. The only condition is that it should require two actors and should include a large polar bear puppet. I am also writing a novel. I have also been asked to write a textbook on Poetry Slams for high schools.
Miles Merrill's work can be accessed here.
Text Pankhuri Shukla