Today we are chatting with Joel McKerrow. Make sure you check out his new poem ‘Fences’ at the end of the post. Joel is an internationally touring performance poet, writer and speaker. Based in Melbourne with his gorgeous wife Heidi and newest member of the McKerrow family Aidan. Joel truly is an ambassador for the Arts, a troubadour and educator. Joel beguiles you with his sweetness, his gentleness and then slams you with his powerful messages making you think hard about cutting edge social issues.
Joel is a passionate performer and has been commended by performance poet Virtuoso Shane Koyczan as, ‘an exceptional spoken word artist…fiercely political and humane’. ‘A man who can tear a roof down with his performances and bring tears with his subtle eloquence’.
Brian McLaren said,
‘In a time when politics, theology, and other important avenues of human intercourse suffer from a flatness of prose and a vacuum of meaning,Joel walks on stage just when we need him,sounding off with all the craft of a first-rate poet and all the verve of a first-rate performer.’
Welcome to Friday Arts Day.
Joel, thanks for taking the time to chat today. Lets face it there are not many people in the world making a living out of poetry. For those of us less initiated into the world of ‘spoken word’, ‘performance poetry’, ‘slam poetry’, can you explain what it is that you do? What is slam poetry?
Joel: Performance poetry is poetry that refuses to stay on the page. It needs to be spoken. Needs to be heard. Before the printing machines we as a society were always an oral culture. This is where poetry began and so performance poetry hearkens back to this. The best way to communicate poetry is through the bodily performance of it. For me, it is as though in the writing I take what is inside me and put it on the page. Then, in the performance, I take the words back into myself and give them as a gift through my body to the audience.
The term ‘Slam Poetry’ is simply the competition side of performance poetry. At a slam night there will be five random judges chosen from the audience and they rate the poem out of ten according to both the performance and the written side of it. It is a way to bring some fun and hype into a performance poetry night but has also turned into big nation wide and worldwide competitions.
Lisa: You are the Artist Ambassador for the aid and development organisation ‘TEAR Australia’ and the co-founder of community arts organisation, ‘The Centre for Poetics and Justice’ (2010-2013, can you explain a little of what this entails for you?
Joel: I have always wanted my poetry to be about something larger than myself. For it to tap into the reality of the world and to be able to reflect back to others that reality. This began for me in starting, ‘The Centre for Poetics and Justice’ which ran for a number of years and now as the artist ambassador for TEAR.
TEAR is hugely passionate about advocating for the rights of the poorest peoples within our world and so as an ambassador I seek to connect people to their work through my poetry. I urge people not to just be emotionally moved by the words and stories I share through my poetry but to do something about it and TEAR is a fantastic vessel for that to occur within. It is a great supportive community for those wanting to go beyond just charity when it comes to their engagement with the social issues of our world. We have done a great film clip together which really sums up both my heart for the world and TEAR’s too…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHVRZ5R2UDY
Joel, you conduct very successful poetry and writing workshops with youth and schools. What is your sense of our youth today? What are they writing? Is there a common narrative emerging?
Joel: Here is what one Year 9 girl wrote yesterday in my workshop…
“When I love,when I love you,my vocabulary doesn’t know the word goodbye”.
There is SUCH a difference in all the schools that I get to go into that it is hard to pin down a general theme. I would have to say that in the more ‘Middle/upper class schools’ there is, overall, quite an apathy amongst the students as to the social issues that surround our society. Whilst, in some of the more traditionally known as ‘lower class’ areas, there is a lot more concern and passion and depth of writing around these issues.
Don’t get me wrong, whatever the demographic is, they are all teenagers facing the angst and the lethargy of what it is to be a teen and they all to some degree seem to struggle with apathy. There is just a noticeable difference in the things that impact them as to the demographic of the school.
The most common narrative that I hear, when they choose to go beneath the surface level, is simply the desire to be accepted. To not be judged. The feeling of being misunderstood and the desire to be accepted regardless.
Lisa: Joel tell me about some of the things that animate you, that set you on fire?
Joel: For all of my adult life I have worked with teenagers and emerging adults. Journeying alongside young people and seeing them develop and conquer fear and begin to live out of their own choices is what sets me on fire. When I see poetry work its way under the skin of a young person and suddenly they come to a realisation about themselves and their trajectory and they choose a different way of being. When I am able to share my story with them and see their eyes open to a different way seeing. There is nothing more satisfying than this.
I suppose it is nice that my work, my career, is the very thing that sets me on fire. I must say too when I write and write and write and struggle through the creative process again and again and then come back to what I was working on a week later and I feel like it exactly communicates what I was desiring. This generates much energy within me.
Lisa: As you look at our Nation of Australia, what is it that is breaking your heart at the moment?
Joel: Ah so many things, but certainly at the top of the list is our treatment of those who escape war torn countries seeking a new life here. That we would use the harsh abuse of a group of innocent people to deter others from coming to our country. This breaks my heart. And that we turn a blind eye to this happening. That we dehumanise people enough to not care. How different our perspective would be if they were our family, our loved ones seeking safety. How different if it was our children who were imprisoned. Someone once said:
‘Before all else, we are first of all human’.
We simply cannot call our society a ‘civilised society’ if we knowingly abuse the rights of a group of innocent people to deter others’.
Lisa: I know that you feel passionately about the globe and the care of the planet, what do you believe are the issues that will consume us in the next decade. What should we, could we be doing to make a difference?
Joel: I think this asylum seeker issue will always continue to be there as long as there is war in the world. I do think that our impact upon the environment is also a massive issue.
That we are consuming more from our earth than she has the ability to handle. Be it in terms of climate change, but also what we do to our fisheries and our forests. As they say, if the whole earth were to live at the rate of consumption that we in the west do then we would need 3-5 more planets. This is a HUGE issue. Beyond the politics of climate change, there is a great reality that we, in our greed and consumer driven society, have bitten off more earth than she can handle.
But at the heart of all of this I keep coming back to our obsession with the myth of the Western Dream. We have all bitten from this particular fruit. We are given models from the media as to what our lives are ‘meant’ to look like and so we spend ever increasing hours at work to meet the economic demands of our lifestyles of consumption. These lifestyles do not satisfy our innate desires for belonging and intimacy and purpose and so we are left high and dry and strung out. I absolutely believe this leads to family breakdown as the average time spent having quality time with family is something like 2 hours a week whilst we spend upwards of 40 hours a week at work. No wonder Chap Clarke, a youth culture scholar, says:
“THE defining factor of contemporary adolescents is one of abandonment”.
This perpetual cycle of the Western Dream Rat-race will continue to consume us over the next decade.
Lisa: Spend 5 min with you Joel and a person is impacted by your peace, your simplicity and your ease with people. I know that you care passionately about people and that you are a deep thinker. What are the things that personally keep you on your knees?
Joel: I am a poet. I guess this means I play with words. That is, when I slow down enough to catch them. Which is always my greatest challenge. That which keeps me on my knees. The slowing down. The choosing to stop and sit and be present enough to find the poems that are waiting for me. I am not very good at it, so I have to force myself to do so. Everyday. Choose to write.
Even when the words feel like dust and the tongue is dry and beautiful poetry laughs at me from other peoples pens. Even then. I figure if I show up and just do the work then the good stuff will come. And usually it does. Beauty is such a flirt. This chasing and this wooing and this hard to get and this falling in love. This is my way of prayer and my worship and my small steps that lead to big ones. I am a driven and entrepreneurial type of person and yet I sense the call to be contemplative in my lifestyle everyday. It is SO HARD to manage the two. A Contemplative Activism.
“To stop resting from work andstart working from a place of rest.This is what I desire”.
Lisa: Who inspires you? Who or what are you reading at the moment?
Joel: A few years ago, after three degrees and a masters I decided that I would no longer read big academic or theological books. I decided I would read poetry and mystical meditations and fiction only. I am still on this. My favourite writer of all time is the Irish Catholic poet and mystic John O’donohue. He has influenced me more than anyone else and I cannot recommend him enough. I am also hugely inspired by the Sufi poets- Rumi and Hafiz and by the American poet Mary Oliver and the great lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran. At a more heady and Christian level I am inspired by writers like Peter Rollins, Brian McLaren, Donald Miller, NT Wright, Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne. In regards to lifestyle I am inspired by everyday people seeking to make a difference in lifestyle choice and standing up for others.
At the moment the work of the ‘Love Makes a Way Movement’ with Jarrod Mckenna is hugely inspiring me.
Lisa: For those who aspire to be performance poets, or for those who love to write poetry just for the love of filling journals with prose. What creative tips can you give us to help expand and improve?
Joel: The biggest thing that I would suggest is this…just show up and write without judging or critiquing or even editing your work to start with. The more you can get out of ‘editing brain’ and just let whatever is inside flow out, the better and more creative your writing will be. When writing poetry most people get stuck because they want the poem to sound good. Don’t even worry about that. The editing step comes later.
You just create. Write it out. I often use ‘Flow of conscious’ writing to get this happening. This is to put pen to paper and start writing and your pen is not aloud to stop moving for the whole time. You have to be writing.
No thinking. No editing. Just writing.
Is it good or not? Not your business. You just be the vessel. Don’t force it to rhyme. Don’t write in structure. Just write. The only way to write great poetry is to write tonnes and tonnes of crap poetry. Our job is just to show up.
Lisa: What are you currently working on?
Joel: I am in the studio at the moment recording my first band album with my band ‘Joel McKerrow & the Mysterious Few’. So it is my spoken word poetry, backed by some amazing musicians. Mainly guitar, piano, female vocals, violin and percussion. It is coming along beautifully! Working with muso’s has been one of the funnest and most rewarding processes. It forces you to hone and craft your writing in new and different ways. We are so excited about the album. It should be out at the end of March and you’ll be able to get it from my website www.joelmckerrow.com.
Lisa: Often as an artist, you are blown away by facets of your work that other people see, or resonate with. Is there a piece of work that has surprised you?
Joel: The poem of mine that has had the most surprising reception from people is one called ‘Christian Confession’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7d-Hg5h3rMo). It is one part of four confessions for the white, rich, christian and masculine part of myself. It is a desire to, on behalf of these cultural groups that I find myself in, to say sorry for what has been done to the people of the world by these groups. The Christian confession has been widely circulated amongst both Christians and non-Christians and seems to really speak to people that have been hurt by Christianity in the past. There has been people rip into me about the poem, as they don’t feel I should say sorry, or from the other side that saying sorry could never be enough. There has also been people who are adamant that I do not have to say sorry for what I myself did not do. In the last lines of the Masculine part of the series I speak to this though to say,
‘But I am more than just me, more than just individuality, I am one with humanity. So on behalf of humanity to humanity I do need to say, I am sorry.’
Lisa: Joel I’ve asked you if you can chose a poem for us today.
Joel: This is a poem called ‘Fences’. It is a brand new poem of mine that puts forth that ‘sitting on the fence is exactly where we should be’.
The first fence that I ever hated
was the electric fence that I peed on as a child,
it was not a fun day.
There are after all only two types of people in this world
those who learn from the others who have gone before them,
and those who just have to go and pee on the fence themselves.
I was always the latter.
And since then, I’ve never liked fences.
The second fence that I came to hate was during my teenage years.
It was the corrugated iron variety standing tall behind my hotel in Vanuatu.
The peek of a boy face over the top,
I wondered who he was,
walked from hotel room passed swimming pool across lush green grass,
stood on tip toes to see,
the boy and his sister,
standing knee-high in rubbish and the scrimmage of desperation.
I lent on the fence, it cut my chest
where lush green grass abruptly stopped
and the dirt of an ugly city began.
The grass is never greener on the other side when it is we who keep all the water.
I’ve never liked fences
nor the walls that divide us
those things that separate us
stacked between us.
Built high to keep them out, to hold us in,
but holding is not really the right word,
fences do not hold us,
they scare us, into rigidity, into security, into a small space,
I have stood on the Palestinian side of the border, placed hands like a prayer on the mortar, where a boy showed me Banksi but could not show me his girlfriend for she lived on the other side of the wall,
Oh Montague oh capulet. Oh Palestine. Oh Israel.
“Two households, both alike in dignity,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”
I have never liked fences.
I have walked, in Berlin, the wall that was torn down,
25 years the separation of mother from daughter from child from son.
I have knelt in Dachau prison camp,
hands torn by the barbed wire of genocide.
I have stood in Belfast at the Peace wall
I do not know why, we would ever call it, a peace wall.
No wall has ever been.
Have you ever been to Wall street,
Our fences are not always physical.
The fence between top floor management and the beggars on the street,
between the haves and the have-nots,
where the money is and where it is not,
the white picket fence is not as innocent as we once thought.
I’ve never liked fences,
Walls held up by both sides, the left and the right, white Vs. Black, men Vs. Women. christian Vs atheist Vs Islam, pro-life Vs pro-choice, Our voices rise till we cannot hear the cries of those forgotten in the middle of it all. The pregnant teenager who just needs someone to love on her. We fight our wars and forget the people.
I have picked up too many bodies riddled with too many bullets that been
fired from my own gun,
killed by my own gun,
I am deafened by my own gun
Bullets do not discriminate by race or gender or political ideals.
that it is not good to sit on the fence
and yet I am wondering if
if this is exactly where we should be,
Between force and retaliation,
Between us and them and them and us,
Between the violence of our arguments,
Between the walls that demarcate what is mine from what is yours,
my land from yours, your land from theirs,
anywheres must be better than this.
So let us sit,
on the fence,
not twiddling thumbs and no opinion,
but with bandages for the broken,
with chisel in hand, with hammer and with axe,
To swing, to swing, to swing till the wall is torn down.
I have never liked fences.
Joel, thank you so much for joining us today. You can follow Joel on his website: www.joelmckerrow.com
These Wandering Feet
One Foot in the Clay all from
Available at http://www.joelmckerrow.com/Joel_Mckerrow/merch.html
In 2012 Joel, released his first published book Beyond Rhetoric – Writings in the Tradition of Kahlil Gibran (published by UNOH publishing with foreword by Fr. Richard Rohr) and his debut spoken word album One Foot in the Clay. In 2013 he released his second spoken word album and first straight book of poetry both named These Wandering Feet: Reflection from a travelling pilgrim (released through The Poatina Tree label).