On Thursday night I went to a spoken word event for the Emerging Writer’s Festival 2016 about the “Spirit of Punk”. I expected it to be full of activists, queers, old punks and maybe the token posers who think that punk is about music genre purity. The night was advertised as a place to bring or write something about what punk is and read it out to everyone else, to encourage people to really write from the heart.
To begin with, it felt a little disconnected and less genuine than I thought it would be, much more focused around the Writer’s Festival scene than anything else. The guy running the night clearly had elements of old guard punk and nostalgia driving him to run it, but it seemed weirdly mixed in with class privilege in a way that seemed a little oblivious. He waxed lyrical about his aimless desire to rebel in the face of a father who seemed to love him unconditionally and encourage his taste in punk music, and it was heartwarming, but did kind of clash later with his message when he sneered at the memory of young punk guys trying to scare him on the train, repeating what he said then; “Is that all you’ve got?” I was really tempted to stand up and ask him if that was all he had. To ask why he thought he was any different, any tougher than the young men he was disdainful of. If “rebel without a cause” and “punk is dead” were the prevailing attitudes of the night, I wouldn’t have been satisfied. But to be fair, this guy made that night for other words and perspectives to be voiced alongside his own. Still, I was not ready to see that what I expected as a fringe element of the evening feel a little more like the main course.
There were a succession of writers who weren’t there quite as much for the punk as they were there for the spoken word, and while their work wasn’t bad, it did feel off-key. And it was strange to go to an event expecting to share an understanding of disenfranchisement and anger, to look for an inter-generational community who understood that feeling, only to have a lot of smiles and gentle laughter and flowery prose. There were poems about sex and intimacy and jealousy, and one in which I couldn’t hear the words but I could hear the deliberate musicality of them. It was an open stage, and while I’m glad that different types of stories and levels of experience with spoken word were welcome, I was still waiting to see the energy I felt in my chest reflected on the stage, still waiting to be swept up in the passion for the theme of the night. I paid a little more attention to one guy who got halfway to punk by saying that it wasn’t about aesthetic as much as a political attitude, only to disengage again when he lost the path I hoped he’d go down and started talking about how buying a CD from a store wasn’t the same as exchanging zines and secret mailing lists. I get the more advanced concepts of not selling out or buying into consumerism, but when punk speakers dwell on those concepts in isolation from class issues, they feel like rather privileged discussions.
Maybe he said something more that didn’t have elitist, gate-keeping overtones when I was tuned out but I wasn’t holding my breath or ready to give the benefit of the doubt. I had anticipated that there would be some element of rosy-tinted uses of punk as a vehicle for excluding people who weren’t cool enough or educated enough about who the “classics” of the music genre were or how appreciation for it was meant to be performed. That petty purism and exclusionary condescension towards other disenfranchised youths is honestly why, IMHO, the punk scene stopped being what the old guard remember it as. It’s why the ‘spirit of punk’ has been maintained elsewhere, particularly in the queer + activist counterculture scenes I started exploring in university. I don’t think punk was ever meant to be curated like a piece of art in a rich old museum. It was never meant to turn a cold shoulder to poor kids who were too disliked or isolated to be shown the ropes or crack the secret codes. And god forbid anyone ever draw comparisons between punk and emo subcultures, the latter of which contained the same disenfranchisement and counterculture sense of challenging authority, and was a direct musical descendent. I wondered if any of the adults in the room were the kind who’d complained about the emo scene when it happened. The generational gaps seemed to hang in the air at that point in the night, an emptiness I had forgotten to account for. That drove me to write and perform my piece basically then and there.
After I performed I was followed up by Snow – who’d basically had a lot of the same thoughts and sentiments that I did. We were both quite emotional and angry and ready to flip off everyone in that audience for not saying what we wanted them to say. I think I was simultaneously surprised and not at all to find that the crowd seemed to respond to that energy with enthusiasm.
It was a little confusing when we found afterwards that enthusiasm manifesting in people approaching us – and particularly Snow – telling us how brave we were. I want to say that the encouragement was lovely, but have to admit that those words sounded disconnected from what we had both tried to say. I don’t think anyone who’s felt that kind of anger is ever expressing it to be happily congratulated for it. I feel like usually, by the time you hear those kinds of words in your life, you’ve already made yourself into the kind of person who doesn’t need them. I think maybe we wanted to see, if not an echo of ourselves, then an echo of our own righteous anger against society in the hearts of the people around us.
We got to see the kind of act we had really been waiting for when an older woman wearing the classic punk outfit of a wrinkled white shirt and blood red tie brought her chair up to the front of the room. She identified herself as an old member of the spoken word scene, as a woman who’d had barbed wire wrapped around her naked body during a piece about pain, and had to spend four hours afterwards agonisingly removing it. She spoke directly, had wiry arms that moved her seat and microphone around with a strong grip, with a battle-ready edge to her body. She was the most hardcore person I’d ever witnessed in my memory.
She spoke of all the old punks that she knew – “dead, to a man ” – and of squatting in a house with 12 people and no heating or electricity or anybody who cared for them, using stolen musical equipment to give themselves an emotional outlet, and it was a heart aching story, one that I think continues to resonate in the increasing class divides and rising living costs we deal with today. I felt that the tone of her words were different from a lot of other people there that night. Punk didn’t sound like an elite club of rockers when she sat on the stage. It was a refuge for the disenfranchised. Her set dealt with drugs and death, not about those earlier days as a time when things were better, or some kind of golden age, but as a time when things were worse, when music and culture was the only escape for people who were made to feel that their lives didn’t matter. It was no lighthearted tribute. You couldn’t deny that this was a person who had lived through it; that regardless of what the surface of disenfranchisement looked like, she knew what it felt like.
She finished her set, and there was some more poetry before the night wrapped up, and I went home with my head buzzing.
I know that the movement was art, and fashion, and politics, and it wasn’t just one thing. It was diverse. People empathised with different parts of it to varying strengths. If it wasn’t so malleable and welcoming and resonant, it wouldn’t have been the amazing, big thing in our culture that it was. It’s fitting that a Spirit of Punk night was an open mic, chaotic and sometimes at odds with itself.
I’m glad that I was challenged and inspired to challenge others, and it was right to take even a small moment out that night to dwell on the sense of mourning and loss, of the punks who might have grown up and contributed to the night, but are now only echoed in art and history and our memories. Especially considering the crossovers between punk and queer subcultures; between the losses the queer community faced during the AIDS crisis, and in the days prior to the spoken word event. All of that noise and anger and yearning for freedom and recognition had been intermingling in my head, and I think that night helped me process even just a small part of that.