The Art of Performance Poetry Is Booming around the World, and the North Coast Is Home to Many Accomplished Performers Who Have Been Honing Their Skills Here for Many Years, Writes JENNIE DELL; Poems on the Page, Poets on the Stage {Ndash} It's Performance Poetry

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IF you live on the North Coast you can't go far without hearing someone talk about 'performance poetry'.

But what exactly is performance poetry?

Local poet and musician David Hallett explains the difference between reading and performing.

"When a poet performs their poetry its their own work, and it's often memorised," he says.

"Memorising frees up the body for movement, and eyes not focused on a page can better engage with the audience."

Hallett, who lives at The Channon, has worked hard to create a vibrant performance scene locally, ever since his first poetry reading in Nimbin in 1978, enticing shy poets who had never fronted audiences before to read at the Rainbow Cafe in Nimbin, and later in cafes in Byron Bay.

When the Lismore Club was open, briefly, to general Lismore audiences, before its demise in the early 90s, it was the perfect venue for much of the exciting emerging cultures of the district.

With jazz, blues and comedy nights already established, Hallett brought performance poetry into the mix. This was the genesis of the popular Live Poets nights, which started in 1991 and continue even now at the Rous Hotel in Lismore.

"The following year I started up Writers At The Rails at the Railway Hotel in Byron Bay so we could encourage coastal poets who could not get to the regular Lismore readings," Hallett recalls. "Around here there are poets, young and old, who write original pieces and are encouraged to perform by attending readings here or in the cities; a few English teachers seeking to broaden their poetic horizons; people who like to read aloud the works of others, including the classics; bush poets; and importantly, a lot of people called the audience, who just love to listen to spoken word in these special forms."

A seasoned traveller around NSW and interstate through various tours featuring North Coast poets, Hallett now teaches poetry master classes for HSC students at local high schools, as well as presenting his own show, Rhythm, Rhyme and Rap for students in years 7-11.

"We must remember that we have a great freedom here. In many countries we wouldn't have the political, religious or cultural liberty to express ourselves publicly as we do," Hallett says.

There is a distinction between Stand Up Poetry - usually blank verse with contemporary political or personal themes, performed much as a stand-up comedian might use the stage - and Bush Poetry, usually bush yarns in rhyming metered verse. There is some cross-pollination between the two and, while contemporary poetry is in its ascendancy, bush poetry has a huge following. Some performed works fit into both forms.

Retired Bonalbo Central and Kyogle High school teacher Max Strong, winner of the Bigelow Poetry Prize at this year's North Coast National Exhibition, and State finalist in ABC Radio's National Poetry Slam this year, spans the gap between bush and performance poetry, as well as having an alter ego as Salty Pete the Pirate, entertaining children and adults in public spaces and festivals.

Strong's bush influences include Henry Lawson, Barkrost Boake, Bobby Miller, and the highly respected bush poet Ray Essery, 'The Mullumbimby Bloke'. Gerard Manly Hopkins, T.S Eliot, Jack Kerouac and the Beat Poets have inspired his contemporary work.

"My dream is for a world that produces enough shared wealth for poets and troubadours to be properly paid," Strong muses. "On the other hand, my nightmare is that if this happens, there'll be no more grist for the mills of the poets. …