Deft, left and definitely def: Ben Mellor’s ‘Anthropoetry’ at FringeWorld

Last night I took the number 22 bus up Beaufort Street to FringeWorld venue Noodle Palace for the opening night of Anthropoetry, written and performed by UK poet Ben Mellor and his musical sideman Dan Steele.

Anthropoetry is billed as ‘a humorous, musical, spoken word journey around the human anatomy, attempting to get the measure of modern life.’ Let me be honest here: after reading that I was expecting to cringe. I was expecting lots of groan-worthy anatomical puns. I was expecting words spoken too fast to take in, competing unsuccessfully with too-loud music. I was expecting an overdramatised performance of forgettable poetry whose impact depended on the performer’s charisma more than the words. I was also expecting a boringly long show in an uncomfortable venue with terrible sound.

It wasn’t like that at all.The sound was excellent. Local artist management company JumpClimb have done a great job of setting up an intimate theatre in a back room of an old house. The stage is a tiny black-draped box with just enough room for Mellor to stand to one side of the card-table holding Steele’s keyboard and electronica. The producers have gone to some effort to get the room to sound good, with exotic umbrellas softening the ceiling.

Mellor performed for an hour. He recited ten poems, all set to music of the hip-hop or jazzy/funky variety, with a touch of metal guitar thrown in, some inventive beatboxing, and…well… rather than risking a spoiler, let’s just say these guys have thought up some truly weird juxtapositions of a microphone and a body.

The music was enjoyable in itself. Steele is an excellent musician, and his sounds and beats always complemented and supported the poetry rather than competing with it. And Mellor’s a pretty good beatboxer and wrangler of the loop-pedal.

In one or two of the poems I thought the music was a little too loud, but most of the time the words were clear. This is really important with poetry: poetry is art made of words, so if you can’t make out the words it’s kind of like looking at a painting through a smokescreen. As well as a smooth, well-practised flow, Mellor has good diction and a relaxed, focussed stage presence. He doesn’t feel the need to shout and emote — he lets the words and pauses and his excellent sense of theatrical timing do the work. His material is good enough to let him do that.

People always want to know what poems are about, for some reason. I reckon that’s like asking what the Mona Lisa is about. Huh? It’s art. You figure it out. But to give you a hint, Mellor’s poems aren’t about the body, at least not in the straightforward way I expected. The body motif is used as a framing device to segue between the poems, which are quirky, original sociopolitical comment. The poems are funny alright — plenty of cheap and not-so-cheap laughs — but underneath the humour are deep layers of emotion and intellect. It’s deft, left and definitely def.

One of the surprises for me was the way Mellor introduced each poem with an explanatory preamble: part lecture, part self-deprecating anecdote, part humour. The first one was very long and full of the expected body-part puns — others in the audience were laughing, but I was thinking ‘This isn’t a poem, and it’s not even that funny. When’s he going to give us a poem?’ — but the rest of the intros were shorter and more in accord with my surrealist-intellectual sense of humour. The guy’s a lot of fun to listen to. He’d make a great teacher.

And his poems are really good. That’s the thing that surprised and impressed me most about Mellor — how good his poems are. And that he is unapologetically a poet. He doesn’t feel the need to bill himself as a musician or a comedian or a cabaret act. He’s a poet. He even references other poets, such as Seamus Heaney, in his preambles. It’s inspiring! And after the show you can buy his poems on a CD and in a book, a real book, nicely produced, with a spine and everything. The preamble speeches are there too. (Weird.)

My favourite poems of the show were the deep, clever, deliriously-rhymed ‘Head State’ (‘when a guy’s life’s so desperate he’d die in flames escaping / Makes me wonder what state are the heads of our heads of state in?’) and ‘Peak Love’, a darkly funny dystopian vision of a future (or present?) in which love is a commodity in short supply.

The only poem that fell flat was ‘Naming of Parts’, written after the Henry Reed poem. (Look it up!) The applause for this one was lukewarm. The audience were hesitant. If you know the original, this poem works well on the page, sending up the language of violent masculinity… but maybe you just can’t reach people’s intellectual sensibilities with a rapid-fire performance of peculiar English penis-words.

All the other poems went down well, and at the end of the show the audience applauded long and loud. If Mellor and Steele hadn’t already been packing up their gear, I think people would have been yelled for more. You don’t often get that at poetry shows.

Before everyone wandered off, I asked a few people what they thought.

‘Masculine,’ said Andrea. I’m not sure whether she meant that as a plus or a minus, but I thought the show was intelligently masculine: masculine without being sexist.

‘Lovely… charismatic, enjoyable,’ said Leon.

‘I want to marry him!’ said Majda.

I can see her point.

Catch Anthropoetry from 7:45pm on 1-3 and 6-10 February 2013 at JumpClimb and Tomás Ford‘s venue Noodle Palace, at 451 (not 555!) Beaufort Street, Highgate. Standard tickets are $20.

What do you think?