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Judith Rodriguez performing at The Owl and Cat Theatre Photo: Brendan Bonsack.

“One of the great shames and sorrows of our time is the situation on Manus Island” Ann Shenfield, PEN Writers in Prison Convenor and poet said.

Ann is one of many poets that perform at Melbourne’s burgeoning and diverse poetry scene. It is also a hub for activism, particularly for the current crisis on Manus Island.

“I am angry about Australia’s continued non-compliance with its U.N. Charter obligations to asylum-seekers. I am ashamed of the government’s bribery of other nations to host detention camps for which Australia is totally responsible despite its lies on this subject” PEN Melbourne Committee member and poet Judith Rodriguez said.

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Judith cites that the death of Reza Barati (a “death by medical neglect”) countless suicides, abuse and “illegal detention” as an absolute tragedy. Photo: Brendan Bonsack

Brendan Bonsack, a poet and photographer, currently runs “Melbourne Spoken Word” at 3CR Community Radio Station. He believes the situation at Manus Island demonstrates the xenophobia running through Australian society.

“How far is my government prepared to take this calculated cruelty, and if I let them get away with it now, couldn’t it just as easily happen to me?” Brendan said.

Poetry is an effective medium for activism because it strikes an emotional chord that immediately provokes intense reflection and critical thought.

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“Poetry is about connecting with the audience on a human level and hopefully evoking something from them” Sharifa Tartoussi, host of Griffinspeak and poet, said. Photo: Brendan Bonsack.

“Poetry promotes human connection, and a lot of activism is essentially an appeal to empathy, so poetry is ideal tool in an activist’s arsenal” Brendan said.

At its core poetry is simple and lies in a tradition used by civilizations for years. Poetry has a primal and familiar resonance.

“Poetry is a storytelling medium” Sharifa said.

“It is brief but memorable” Judith said.

Poetry has yet to attract legal repercussions or media backlash.

“Poets try to find the kernel of truth behind circumstances. One could add that poems, rarely, in this country, attract charges e.g. of defamation” Judith said.

Yes, poetry is evocative but it can also be a coping mechanism for bystanders that feel hopeless and helpless.

“It is a kind of counter-narrative, so, writing through a lens of kindness, or love, perhaps as a reassurance to myself that these people are still alive” Brendan said.

Moreover, poetry can be easily and quickly distributed, be it, through physical spaces, online spaces or traditional performances.

“A poem can be read anywhere, posted online, pasted on a wall, written on a pavement, flown on a banner, stuffed into the letterbox of your local MP” Brendan said.

Indeed, many poets have personally experienced an audience’s physical reaction to their poetry.

Sharifa, Judith and Brendan say that many audience members have told them about their emotional response to a performance.

“The audiences will often vibe off of you when they realise that you are authentic” Sharifa said.

“Audiences generally express agreement, sometimes enthusiasm. And people tell you later they remember a reading of THAT poem” Judith said.

To hear the poets of Yarra rally against the crisis at Manus Island, tune into Melbourne Spoken Word at 3CR on Thursday mornings 9.00am, 855 AM on your radio. Alternatively, these sessions can be streamed at Check the Melbourne Spoken Word website for more details and information on other poetry events


Yarra Reporter’s farewell

Yarra Reporter is no longer being updated, with the project officially winding down from January 2017.

We would like to thank all of our writers, contributors, readers and passer-byers.

We’re thankful to our loyal readership over this journey, and incredibly proud of all of the stories our journalists have written about people living, working and playing in the City of Yarra.

Our final thanks goes to the City of Yarra for funding and believing in Yarra Reporter’s vision. We hope that you have had many years of happy reading, and continue to enjoy the archive of our stories here 🙂 

We Are Yarra

Wren, Abbotsford

“I think more restaurants need vegan options, it just makes sense. That way shops would get more business and more people would be able to participate in Melbourne’s foodie culture. I mean, Melbourne’s already pretty good when it comes to vegan options, better than Brisbane definitely. At least, if you walk into a restaurant [in Melbourne] they can make stuff vegan for you on request, and they understand what you mean when you say ‘vegan’. And the food being made vegan doesn’t compromise on its quality. In Brisbane, there’s not as much creativity when it comes to vegan food – it’s all just salads. People are quick to assume that vegan food is just generally bland, but it’s nice to see that that assumption is being challenged here. People are giving veganism a go, and that’s really refreshing to see.”

Pop-up poetry cafe: a birthplace for flourishing poets

Ms Millie’s Pop Up Poetry Cafe, held at North Carlton’s Afro Hub, is a beautiful space that transforms undecided and inexperienced voices into standout performers.

The pop-up poetry cafe, happening on the second Saturday of every month, is simultaneously a performance space, social space and patisserie.

Creator and poet Jehnet Kaya (Jay for short), also known as Ms Millie, could not attend Melbourne’s poetry events because of her five-year-old son. Taking matters into her own hands she created a safe and inclusive space for community members to share their poetry and indulge in home-cooked sweets.

“I figured I could just get the poets to come to me,” Jay said.

The performers and audience experience a range of emotions. Photo: Brendan Bonsack.

The strength of Melbourne’s poetry scene lies in its close-knit and caring community.

“The poetry community is paramount. It’s so important on so many levels for poets. The poetry community gives – it gives comfort, support, assurance and assistance,” Jay said.

At the event, cheers and encouragement can constantly be heard in support of the performers.

“I get to listen to people perform for the first time and see them gain their voice and see their confidence climb,” Jay said.

Jay hosting Ms Millie’s at Afrohub. Photo: Brendan Bonsack.

Ms Millie’s Pop Up Cafe has been a stepping stone for many, but also for Jay herself. Encouraged by those around her, she began performing her personal poems for the first time.

Even as a child, she remembered having a penchant for food. Merging her Turkish and African American ancestry to influence her bite-sized culinary delights, Jay’s sweets are a standout to be anticipated at each pop-up poetry event.

“I’ve always had a love for sweets and poetry so I figured I could combine two of my favourite things together and make it a thing, and people responded really positively,” Jay said.

“The influence of sugar either in the form of cake or syrup drenched baklava has carried over into my adult life,” Jay said.

Ms Millies Pop Up Cafe Facebook page is punctuated by delicious and evocative descriptions of food. Consider options “varying from honey pistachio cheesecake to sweet potato pie, orange marmalade cake to cherry pie”. They fire up the imagination and materialise as a picture perfect reality.

Jay’s personal favourites are her banana cream pie and sticky date cake. She calls them her “favourite dishes” and cites the influence of her father’s African American family.

Jay has big plans for the future, hoping to expand the pop-up event into Melbourne’s first “poetisserie” – a hybrid of a patisserie and a poetry space.

Ms Millie’s next event is on the 11th of November from 7.00 pm. Click here for all the information.

Written by Devana Senanayake

We Are Yarra

Kevin, Collingwood

“I know a lot of restaurants, but I never eat at any of them. There’s only one place, Toto’s on Lygon Street. It’s an Italian restaurant, but they serve food from a lot of countries, so I always go there for my meals between deliveries. This is not my lunch though! This is my breakfast. It’s late, yes. Today has been a very busy day. Saturdays – everybody’s ordering food on Saturday.”

Photograph by Ruwanthi Wijetunga

We Are Yarra

Lisa Currie, North Carlton

“I went to the marriage equality rally with my mum. She’s always been pretty open-minded.  She’s been finding out more about the movement and equality, and she’s really getting into it now. We’ve been having some really great conversations about things lately. I was curious, so the other day I asked her if she gave my brother a talk about consent, like she had given me a talk on safety and sexual assault. She said “no” because she didn’t think she’d need to. She didn’t assume her son was going to hurt anybody. Nobody wants to assume that of anybody.”

Photography by Ruwanthi Wijetunga