Black Rider Lines: In conversation with Maxine Beneba Clarke

by Mark William Jackson

Maxine Beneba Clarke is a fugitive on the run from conventionality. She’s been spotted in the dark corners of Melbourne’s literary scene where she takes hostages in various poetry slams. She demands to be heard. Her essays, fiction & short stories have been broadcast & published nationally, including Voiceworks, the Age, the Big Issue, Overland, Kunapipi, Peril & Going Down Swinging, on 3CR radio’s Spoken Word and Hip Sista Hop and on RRR radio’s Aural Text and Max Headroom. Maxine’s second poetry collection Gil Scott Heron is on Parole was published by Picaro Press in 2010.

Mark: What, or who, got you in to poetry?

Maxine:  Poetry always just seemed to be around. My favourite book as a kid was a picture book called Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp. I remember being amazed that writing could be so lyrical and poetic. Instead of Church clothes, there was Sunday-go-to-meeting-finery. Instead of being careful, plucky little ittle afroed Lou was told ‘mind you keep your wits about you’. The rhythm of it all was spell-binding.

In my early years, my mother was a sometimes-actress. Sometimes, not because she wasn’t formally trained, but because she was a young, black actress in seventies and eighties Australia, with three young children. When we were old enough, we helped her with her lines and I remember then, loving the repetition and rhythm of calling out the line before hers, hearing and checking her response.

I guess I never started writing what I’d deem to be real poetry until I was a teenager though. And predictably, most of what I wrote in those early years was cringe-worthy. I wrote enough to realise though, that if I persisted then one day I just might have a chance of being be half decent, and that I loved writing. Later, there was a Creative Writing degree which was instrumental in honing my writing skills.

Awesome response!  And a great insight into the birth of one of my favourite poets – no grovelling intended, a simple statement of fact.  Are you addicted to poetry? If there was a Poets’ Anonymous, would you attend?

Yes, I’d say I’m a poem addict. There are times, months even, when I either don’t read, write, blog or perform poetry, but these times have never all coincided – poetry has always been there in some way at least over the last six or so years.

As for poetry rehab: that would entail some kind of willingness to change, or an admission the addiction was somehow detrimental to my health, so I’d say no. I’m the Amy Winehouse of poetry addicts. My loser gold-digger hubby could be in jail, my beehive could be dreaded into a skanky rats nest, my boobjob could be caving in, tacky tatts could be inching their way around my rapidly shrinking body, and it probably still wouldn’t occur to me to kick the shit.

Let’s rip it off the page and take it to the stage.  Can you put together your ideal backing band, musicians, poets, actors, anyone you’d want up on stage with you for a slam to end all slams. Your backers can be living or dead but cannot be Jon Bon Jovi!

Great question. Okay, Let’s see. I’ll go Ben Harper, The Last Poets, Tracey Chapman, Staceyann Chin, Gil Scott Heron, Imiri Baraka (aka Leroi Jones) Leadbelly and Odetta…and that’s just for starters. How much space is there on stage? Could we add Ladysmith Black Mambazo – the whole entourage of them?

Cool, I’d make the stage huge to contain all that talent, Leadbelly is angst personified, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s version of Amazing Grace is the definitive. I might‘ve thrown Nina Simone up there with you and had you slamming over Strange Fruit, bringing home the history. Just between you and me, and the Black Riders, what’s the Melbourne literary underbelly like?  I’m no lawyer but I don’t think slander exists on the internet so please let fly!

Incidentally, in my ‘Clark Kent’ life I am a part-time lawyer, and I’m not so sure about your interpretation of cyber-slander laws, but here goes…Melbourne Literary Underbelly? Well, it’s seedy as all hell, violent and as dangerous and volatile as a bob-cat let loose in a crowded elevator. Only the clever and cunning could ever hope to survive it.

Seriously? There are so many branches and sub-branches of ‘literary Melbourne’. The spoken word scene here is amazing: supportive, engaged, innovative and always evolving. In the broader Melbourne ‘scene’ there are so many literary events on all the time though: launches, performances, festivals, poetry slams, that it can become a real effort to stay engaged with everything that’s going on, and there’s a danger that that engagement comes at the expense of creative time, which when you have other paid work and a family, is something that’s already so limited.

With literary Melbourne I’m like a kid in the candy store: I have no self control, will soon be morbidly obese, and I’m almost always on the verge of slipping into a diabetic coma.

When you look back on your career, are you on track, is there anything you would have changed, and what works in the pipeline and dreams can we expect in the future from Maxine Beneba Clarke?

At the moment it’s one of those times for me where I stop at take stock of my writing. I’ll probably be leaning towards more freelance journalism in the coming months, out of necessity. Poetry is my first love, but unfortunately in Australia it’s one of those fields where no matter how many ‘accolades’ you get, how big of an audience you draw, it’s still extremely unlikely you can make a decent living from poetry alone.

I’ve performed on stage at the Arts Centre, on a soapbox in Federation Square, at the Melbourne Writers Festival, in a Buddhist temple in Sunshine, via Skype to a literary festival in Singapore…done some really amazing things through spoken word… and frankly, while it’s been an absolute blast, I’m bloody exhausted.

I’m am excited, though, about my upcoming performance at the Melbourne Writers Festival – a Going Down Swinging Commission – because it’s taken my spoken word (back) into narrative form, and longer format (I first started out performing my work as poetry monologues on the theatre stage in Sydney’s Short & Sweet New Short Works Festival some five or six years ago). In this sense, my performance work has almost come full circle.

I’m also both excited about, and distracted by, another creation of mine – the impending birth of my second child in two months. So writing-wise, I feel like I’m at a cross-roads, and will probably be also focussing over the next year a little more on my prose and non-fiction writing, and on pushing a couple of in-progress prose and non-fiction manuscripts forward to publication.

Thanks for your time Maxine. Good luck, especially with baby number two!

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7 Comments

Filed under Black Rider Lines, Black Rider Press, Mark William Jackson, Melbourne, Poetry, Spoken Word

7 responses to “Black Rider Lines: In conversation with Maxine Beneba Clarke

  1. Pingback: Where I’m At: Black Rider & Verity La. « Mark William Jackson

  2. Mark William Jackson

    Thanks for this opportunity Jeremy, Maxine is an incredible poet, it was an absolute pleasure to chat with her and get some of the back story.

  3. peter j

    A great and lively interview with the joy of poetry soaking through all the layers, even unto childbirth, probably humanity’s greatest creation,eh?
    we wish Maxine well and Jeremy you shape your questions well and rapidly responsively.

  4. peter j

    Oh, oh I didn’t see the byline properly, Mark, so all the nice things I said to Jeremy apply to you.
    A year ago, I saw Jeremy as the MC of a panel of young Perth writers, and he has a similar facility with language as you and a generous responsiveness.

  5. What a great interview. A two-way full of energy. Maxine, having met you in this wonderful blogosphere, having found and followed your blog. Now, I feel like I’ve now actually met you, almost face-to-face; you are such an interesting, dynamic, creative soul.

    I wish you all the best with your second child!!

  6. gnunn

    Imagine Leadbelly and Maxine on stage together… Oh man, that would send a shiver through the universe!

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