Writing poetry involves a balance of the visceral and cerebral, content and style, says tutor Omar Musa. Ahead of his upcoming workshops, we talked to Omar about what he has learned from ten years of performing poetry.
At your upcoming workshops, participants will learn “to write in passion and edit in cold blood”. Can you elaborate a little on the shape this takes in your own writing practice?
To me, good writing is all about finding the right word vessel for an emotional or intellectual risk. If I am feeling heartbroken or furious or joyous, whether it be in response to a news article or something in my personal life, I try to simply let the pen run or fingers fly on the keyboard. You cannot edit something that isn’t there, so you have to force yourself to get pen to paper, and in that way, writing seems as much a physical action as a thought process. If you let the feelings and thoughts spill out in a trance-like state, the hope is that they will be more honest/have the depth of feeling that I think good writing is about. Now, sometimes the words will take the necessary shape immediately, but mostly, I let them fallow so I can some back and prune and sculpt in the cool light of day. There has to be a balance of the visceral and cerebral, content and style.
How does the process of writing poetry for performance differ from writing poetry for the page?
When I write for performance, I might be more aware of rhetorical techniques like the “rule of three” or playing with hip hop cadences, but in reality, I’ll also read my “page” poems or prose aloud, because awkward phrasing and extraneous words make themselves known. Reading your work aloud really helps with editing. If writing a character in a novel, I might even take a lead from actors and read the dialogue aloud in the voices of the characters to get a feel for them.
Writing is usually a solitary exercise, and yet performance involves putting oneself in the public spotlight. What advice can you offer to writers struggling with the idea of sharing their work with a live audience?
Well, I guess it starts with an act of bravery and risk, just to step up on that fearsome stage. Of course some people have more innate performance talents than others, but genuinely, like anything, you get better the more you do it. Cut your teeth on poetry open mics — the crowds are very forgiving and it’s not crazily high stakes, but you can pick up a lot of tricks by observing others; seeing what works and what doesn’t. I have been performing professionally for almost ten years, but I still feel as if I learn new things all the time.
Having worked primarily in hip hop and poetry, what inspired you to move to longer form fiction with your first novel ‘Here Come the Dogs’? Did your writing process change in any way?
It just seemed like a bigger canvas to paint a story on, and the right word vessel for this particular story, but also, as a person with a short attention span, it was a challenge to myself to see if I could persevere with a huge project and actually get it done. You often hear that old cliche “I’ve got a novel in me”, but the people who tell you that have never actually committed to trying to write it, and that pisses me off. I didn’t want to be one of those people. My process changed in that I had to become more solitary for longer periods of time to have sustained concentration. I also became a lot more aware of structure and the architecture of the form. I had to retrain myself as a marathon runner after being a sprinter my whole life.
You talk about plucking poetry from unlikely sources – where have you found unexpected inspiration for your own poems?
Oh man, great question. I’ve had poems inspired by Facebook statuses, scraps of conversation I heard on the train, all sorts of things. I wrote a poem named “Millefiori II” after seeing an exhibition of glass paperweights mounted on a wall in Chicago and it ended up being about goodbyes and lost love. Never thought seeing a paperweight would inspire that. “Here Come the Dogs” was reverse-engineered from a story I heard about a young man masturbating over a fire he had started. We live in a whirlwind of stories, sometimes it’s just a matter of reaching out into the tempest and grabbing one by the scruff of the neck.
About Omar Musa
Omar Musa is a Malaysian-Australian author, rapper and poet from Queanbeyan, Australia. His debut novel 'Here Come the Dogs' was long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award and the Miles Franklin Award. He was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Young Novelists of the Year in 2015.
About Amy Adeney
Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.