As the rain batters the Bankstown Arts Center in western Sydney on a humid Tuesday evening, a first-time poet at the Bankstown poetry slam struggles to remember his lines.
Shifting nervously in front of a sea of masks and eyes, Paul stammers and pauses, scrolling at light speed through his phone, searching for the right words.
The crowd, piled into a tight but echoey space, seated on plastic chairs, begin applauding, slowly at first but building into a cacophony, their cheers bouncing off the walls, drowning out the rain and the nerves.
An explosion of noise greets Paul’s success, who smiles broadly before launching into his collection of images and moments, the crowd breathing confidence into his first performance.
Paul’s debut last month marked the first time the Bankstown poetry slam could play to capacity since the Delta lockdowns, which affected this part of Sydney more than anywhere else in the city. Pre-pandemic, the slam would attract 200-300 people to their monthly events, but Covid prompted a shift to online or quasi-online events. On its full-capacity comeback from him, however, there was little evidence of rustiness; instead there was a sense of ease.
Slam poetry is a relatively new literary format: spoken word poetry performed dramatically, to a time limit and usually in front of a lively audience. In Bankstown, that audience actively participates – clapping ferociously through awkward moments, bantering with performers or clicking their fingers in appreciation.
Poet after poet takes to the stage, with work that covers a broad swathe of topics, from grief to racism, beauty standards, love and the cruelty of time.
Zia, one of the first performers, spins her words to paint a visceral image of an unhealthy relationship.
“You fed me your words, knowing without your words I would starve. Maybe it was better off I had starved,” she proclaims, her voice trembling, the crowd enraptured into silence, before exploding into applause and whistles when she finishes.
Another poet, Leila, describes her search for numbness amid a sea of anxiety – in feverish detail.
“But numbness is just pain’s ugly sister,” she reflects, the crowd cackling in delight, their infectious support.
Not one – neither the late arrivals standing in the corner nor those sitting deep in the hall’s dark corners – remains silent; the noise comes in waves and fills the space. The Bankstown poetry slam means many things to many people, but its most striking quality has to be the comfort it fosters within the community.
Throughout the night, host Bilal Hafda – also one of the volunteer organizers – banters with a crowd eager to respond. He occasionally refers to the slam’s traditions and its past in conversation with an audience who know what to expect.
“It’s a space that is owned by the community, even though they might not be the ones who run the event,” he says. “It’s the audience that makes me feel welcome every time I step into the Arts Centre.”
The slam is the largest regular poetry slam in Australia, where anyone can register to perform a three-minute poem, and has become a literary institution in western Sydney.
Before Covid, the event was held at least 10 times a year, would attract hundreds of people and many hundreds more for its grand slam which has sold out venues such as the Seymour Centre. International poets including Rupi Kaur and Rudy Francisco have performed at the slam, alongside high-profile Australian poets such as Luka Lesson and Omar Musa. It has had collaborations with the Sydney writers’ festival, Sydney festival, Biennale of Sydney and is due to do a slam for ABC Radio. Established in 2013 by volunteers, it has grown into a unique platform and space, anchored neither by theme or demographics, but by a feeling of what some call magic, others warmth, and which Hafda defines as openness.
Asked what the slam means to the community, Hafda chooses his words carefully.
“I don’t think it is my place to comment on how the community feels about it. I feel like one of the reasons why the slam is so fantastic is because no one voice speaks for it,” he says.
“The reason it’s such a respectful and safe space is that no one is trying to make everyone pick the same answer. It comes down to your personal experiences with it, whatever your journey with it is.”
Hafda describes the event as being “mechanically” of Bankstown, one of the most diverse suburbs in Australia. The founders and organizers are from the suburb, he says, but their focus was always in making an open space.
“The reaction to artists, regardless of theme, and craft, as long as it’s respectful, is always going to be met with the same encouragement, which means that it’s a space where lots of different kinds of art can be shown.”
The slam is one among a number of other unrelated writers’ events, workshops and writing centers which have been established in western Sydney – including SweatShop and WestWords – with new voices consistently emerging and reshaping the cultural output of the region. The first half of the year will see a variety of books published that are set in western Sydney, or written by western Sydney authors – including from Omar Sakr, Yumna Kassab, George Haddad and Shankari Chandran. The historically culturally marginalized area is finding its voice.
Hafda says it is the quality of the work performed at the slam which defines it, with poets peeling back their sense of self in front of an enthralled and supportive audience.
“I think the caliber of the performances and the written word – so the actual craft and mechanics side to the performance – is absolutely exceptional,” Hafda says.
“The poets are just so damn good, they are amazing, and it’s one of the reasons people keep coming back.”
After the slam, one of the performers, Ibrahim, says there was a particular magic in the room.
“Love is what characterizes this space. It was crazy, it’s just love in there, it’s nuts, it was so nice.”
He had traveled from south Sydney, having heard of the slam from friends, and wrote his poem on the way. He says he’d been performing as an MC for 20 years, and found the slam invigorating.
“It was crazy because there was so much heart, intention, love, togetherness. You’ve got all walks of life that are in there and they just came together. The space is a testament to that, to how people can come together.”
For all the love and community, it is a competition. Many poets are returning performers, eager to share their new or improved works, and the slam uses a points system to determine a winner.
At the beginning of the night, in another of the slam’s traditions, Hafda throws chocolates into the crowd, picking the judges at random. On the night Guardian Australia visited, Amarachi Ogugoum and Ezara Lowes were appointed, given whiteboards and a marker. They become part of the show, relishing their roles as the self-described villains.
Big scores are cheered, while lower scores are hissed at, as Hafda laughs and encourages the judges to stay strong.
“It’s important to keep it real, I’m not going to give someone a higher score unless they deserved it,” says Ogugoum. “And it’s all subjective opinion.”
Lowes adds: “When I was looking at the poem, I wanted something that felt genuine and not a bit tacky.” Both women had traveled some distance (Ogugoum from Newtown, Lowes from Kellyville) to be there.
“Its giving community a space to be free; there aren’t a lot of spaces to be artistic in lower socio-economic areas,” says Ogugoum. “This kind of place feels freeing.”
It is ultimately a close contest this Tuesday night, but Dai Amemoret wins with a poem addressing flooding in her hometown in Brazil. She says the slam is defined by the vulnerability it nurtures.
“Someone goes on stage and tells you things they haven’t told anyone else, and you have this level of proximity and intimacy, where you truly get to know someone, because they just pour their heart out,” she says.
“It’s where this magical thing happens, where we can be in a safe space to express the things that hurt us the most, and have that warmth reflected back into you.”