by David Lau
While Beijing may well be the most international city in China, every spring reveals a particularly diverse side of the capital via the Bookworm International Literary Festival. This year, Australian poet Luka Lesson performed his volatile lyrics of race, politics, and personal catharsis at the Festival. As the reigning champion of the Australian Poetry Slam, a featured artist at literary events throughout Asia, and the co-founder of the Center for Poetics and Justice, Lesson brings the American-born genre of spoken word to an Asian Pacific audience. Lesson finds inspiration from another leader in socially conscious spoken word: USC’s own Javon Johnson, professor and Visions & Voices Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow.
Professor Johnson holds back-to-back titles in the U.S. National Poetry Slam, as well as a Ph.D. from Northwestern University with focuses in Gender Studies and African American Studies. His classic poem “Elementary” (featured on Def Poetry) has made it all the way to the classrooms where Luka Lesson teaches poetry in Melbourne. Bamboo Offshoot organized a two-way interview via email, allowing these poets to discuss their artistry from across the Pacific.
Luka Lesson: Where do academic texts meet slam cultural subtexts?
Javon Johnson: All over the place honestly. Most spoken word/slam poets make most of their money at colleges and universities. In addition, there are a growing number of spoken word poets who are joining the ranks of academia via MFAs, MAs, MSWs, PhDs, EdDs, PsychDs, and other advanced degrees. On the other hand, we are seeing a growing number of academics who are getting involved with poetry slam and spoken word communities as possible sites of study, as participant poets, and audience members.
L: Have you ever felt not accepted in academic circles because you ‘do poetry’, or in poetry/hip-hop circles because are an academic? If so, why do you think this is?
J: No. I actually study slam and spoken word, so spoken word and slam are the very reason I am accepted (literally in the sense of the reason I got into my PhD program at Northwestern, the reason I got fellowships and jobs too). I am not an “academic poet” so I have never dealt with that world, if that’s what is being asked.
L: Is there one poem you have written that has helped you transform into a better/stronger/more aware human being? How?
J: I hope most of them, but certainly “You, Still, Father,” a poem I wrote about how I both love and hate my dad in the same breath. Not only did it allow me to better understand our relationship (or lack thereof), but it also allowed me to both see and accept the tougher contradictory parts of all human relationships. In addition, it allowed me to understand that in order for our (as well as others) relationship is to heal, not only must he apologize, but I also must allow him to (meaning healing and growing are mutual processes).
L: I have shown your video ‘Elementary’ to many of my poetry students back home… and they wanted to know, are you a ninja turtle yet? Or at least as powerful as one?
J: I literally just smiled while reading this question. I grinned from ear-to-ear. I am. Whenever I want to be. But more than anything I am a creative being that has the ability, even if on a small scale, to change the world in which I live/love.
Javon Johnson: Why are you an artist/poet/writer? Why not any other career?
Luka Lesson: I was an educator at a university for a while. But for me I realized that the information I was being paid to disseminate among those privileged enough to have access to University, was almost banned in the public discourse, especially surrounding issues of colonial history and Indigenous people’s rights. So I decided poetry would be a good way for me to access people from all backgrounds who deserve to have access to this information, no matter what their advantage or disadvantage. I believe in edu-tainment, as coined by KRS1 from his album of the same name. Educating through entertaining means.
J: In what ways is the poetry world different in Australia and the U.S.? What can we learn from one another?
L: In Australia the Slam poetry world isn’t huge, but it is growing extremely quickly. There are many people being inspired by local poets and growing as artists exponentially week by week. The Centre for Poetics and Justice is at the forefront of this movement in Melbourne especially; we just had our first East Coast tour and are regularly hosting international guests and workshops. So far the scene is full of honest, sincere, loving people who are working to build the scene with connection and respect. So far the swindlers and the somewhat rude businessmen and women I have met in the States haven’t raised their ugly heads so much. […]
I think the most important things that we can learn from each other however live in the poems we will be hearing across the oceans in the future. Too many times in the USA have I heard the old cliché jokes about Australia and Australians, and I realize that most North Americans have no idea about our history and the underground/political movements held back home. I hope all the learning we do through watching Def Jam or touring the States is slowly repaid by audiences learning about my experience as a Greek-Australian emcee/poet through my work.
J: What do you hope/think/want your poetry to do in the world?
L: I do what I do to help people. I believe poetry is transformative, both for the individuals who write and perform their work, and for those who experience it as audience members. I have seen poems quoted in Parliament, had people open up to me and tell me things they have never spoken even to themselves. I have had people in my workshops grow and change within a day or two into better, stronger, and more powerful people by meeting their demons on the page and facing them with courage. I hope to continue to help people… Getting a name for myself and being able to support myself from my art is only a means to an end. I only do the business side of things in order to reach more people, and influence positive change in their lives and therefore in the world as a whole.
J: What are the roles of an artist in world we live in today?
L: I believe that there isn’t one role of an artist. I think that would be a little too restrictive. Some artists put all of their energy into making change and protesting/lobbying their governments and others paint portraits with their own shit… who am I to say what every artists role is? And on top of this I don’t think every artist pushes the boundaries, nor that pushing boundaries is always a good thing. I think so much boundary pushing has been done in the past that less will become more, and simple beautiful work will gain more momentum for it’s realness than the work that is always out to shock.
To answer the question in terms of where I think art is going and what function it will serve in this context and into the future… Art’s role is to complicate and provide nuance in a world where words like ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘Australian’, ‘racist’, ‘Muslim’, ‘poor’ and more seem to find a way to ‘explain’ the unexplainable. The media sells us each other’s identities in blocks of millions of us at a time… art will bring it back to individual, and help us to truly hold diversity and understand there is no blanket rule for any of us. Social media will help this along if we use it right. And maybe we’ll begin to call each other by our first names more and more not by our race, political allegiances or sexuality.
J: Blue or red?
J: Hot or cold?
J: Records or iPod?
J: Morning or night?
J: Serious or silly?
L: Silly as fuck.
J: Rich or poor?
J: First love or last love?
L: Last love.
J: Music or poetry?
J: Write any sentence that comes to mind after answering these absurdly random questions.
L: Fuck a definition, words are boxes we use to unlock our being boxed in. What a conundrum. Thanks God, for your contradiction. Somewhere between them all is the truth. Silent as it always is.
David Lau is the former Art Editor, illustrator, and writer for Bamboo Offshoot. He is currently studying at Tsinghua University in Beijing, before beginning medical school at USC Keck School of Medicine.