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‘Nitty, gritty, dirty’: Why poetry is finding a new audience in Sydney’s west

When Maddison Newman was 17 years old, she came across a video by noted American spoken word poet Rudy Francisco that encouraged her to start writing poetry. Nearly a decade later, she took the Penrith stage to perform her first poem in front of Francis himself.

“It was like the stars aligned,” he says, “I knew I was on the right track and exactly where I needed to be.”

Maddison Newman recites poetry at the Joan Sutherland Center for the Performing Arts in Penrith. Credit:Wolter Peters

The Brave New Word Poetry Festival spans nine suburbs in western Sydney, including Penrith, Blacktown and Parramatta, with over 50 participants. They have the opportunity to work on their poems with leading international artists of the spoken word such as Francisco, Safia El Hillo and Nate Marshall.

The rules of poetry slam are simple: Artists have three minutes to submit an original work. Five members of the audience are randomly chosen to rate the performances, but regardless of the scores, the audience provides reliable support and welcomes everyone who takes the stage.

The stories are raw and real. Some are seasoned performers who have been attending slams for years, while others are new faces joining a growing community rebuilding after the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The festival is organized by the popular Bankstown Poetry Slam, which has drawn an increasingly diverse audience from across the city since it began in 2013.

“Poetry is much more the gritty, dirty, essential stuff that we normally wouldn’t want to share.”

maddison newman

Aishah Ali, 23, who has attended the Bankstown slams since 2015, says she has recently seen more attendees from the northern suburbs. “It’s just a very authentic and warm place to be entertained,” she says. “It’s very open and accessible and welcoming, people enjoy sitting in that room.”

The variety, breadth and depth of poetry performed during each slam is as diverse as the audience. Around western Sydney, almost 50 per cent of people speak a language other than English at home, and the flexibility and lack of grammatical rules in poetry allow budding writers to explore their voices by breaking the rules of standard English. .

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