This image: Walking in Beauty by Petrina Kow | Photography by Kelly Fan
Featured image credit: Pip Herrero

Word Travels’ STORY FEST is Australia’s largest performing writers festival!  The Guide had the chance to speak with guest artist Singaporean poet Deborah Emmanuel who gave a fascinating insight into her creative process.

Deborah’s poetry career began after being imprisoned at just 19 years old, when police raided a wild nightclub party. Upon release, Deborah turned to writing to process her harrowing experience, chronicling her time in Changi Women’s Prison in her novel Rebel Rites. She is now a regular guest on TEDx panels, discussing cultural heritage, classism and womanhood, and has performed as both a slam poet and musician with her various bands at Festivals worldwide.

SAG:                     So have you arrived in Sydney yet for the festival? Have you been to our gorgeous city before?

DEBORAH:           Yeah I’m in Newtown right now . Actually I have been before, I came through here 2 years ago on my Australian Tour.

SAG:                      I wanted to begin by fangirling a little bit. I haven’t seen your work live but I love your writing. Your poem ‘imperfect’ really resonated with me. Has your creativity always been about words?

DEBORAH:           Thank you so much, Judith . What’s really funny is that it started with words when I was a kid, nobody taught me how to do it. It was kind of a secret when I was upset and I had stuff that upset me at home. So it was just a way to deal with my feelings. But it was the thing I did for myself … for a really long time without ever thinking of sharing or anything like that.

Then when I was a teenager I decided I wanted to be an actress.  So I pursued that and went to acting school and tried to make that my path. For various reasons I left that and got a bit lost for a while.

And then I was back in college and one of my lecturers heard me on the new campus radio which I had started, DJing on there with a few people and she was like ‘have you heard of this poetry slam?’ I was like ‘no’ and she told me all about it.

And it was perfect because it was performative and with poetry that I had been writing in secret since I was a kid. At this point I was 21. And… I wrote my first poem for performance and I performed it for this slam and tied for 1st place.

And so I kept doing it because (laughs) because I could do it!

SAG:                      Ha. I get it . How did the study influence your work?

DEBORAH:           I studied in Singapore doing Applied Drama and Psychology because after I figured out I didn’t want to be an actress, I knew that I still wanted to engage with performance in some way but use it more meaningfully.

SAG:                      You also sing don’t you?

DEBORAH:           Yes, I also sing.  I have a number of singing projects. I have one called Mantravine where we perform at a lot of different international kind of psychedelic festivals, more consciousness festivals around the world.  We played in Germany and New Zealand this year which were really cool gigs. 

And then I have another project with producer, he is a drum and bass kind of producer, and we had a pretty cool show at the Barcelona Poetry Festival. That’s a cool one for me because it’s really me putting poetry and songs together with these sick beats.

SAG:                      You obviously like to work collaboratively but do you find that the poetry needs to come with the quiet moments, the alone moments.

DEBORAH:           Mmm.  I definitely need space to write. When I’m writing something I need to be able to sit down and like to go inside, for sure. But I can construct something on the train (laughs). But then it is very much a process of construction as opposed to listening to what my higher self has to say.

Image credit: Lovis Ostenrik

SAG:                      So even though you say that you construct these poems, do you have, in your own mind, a shape of what poetry is for you?

DEBORAH:           Yeah definitely, for sure.  So I guess in some ways it does have mathematical elements because I do look at the length of the lines on my computer. I do like to be able to type the words out so they are laid in front of me so that I can create rhythm within the flow.

So that’s what’s different for me between writing a poem and lyrics for a song  …with lyrics for a song it already has a rhythm there for me to work with and with a poem, I’m creating the rhythm myself with my cadence and the placement of the words and where the rhyme goes. I don’t like using rhyme too much but, yeah, like using rhyme to create the rhythm and unpredictable parings and stuff.

And here I guess the depth of metaphor I would use really does differ. With a song I would keep the images much more quick and more accessible even, especially since a lot of my work is about wanting to deliver a message to the audience that I think is important to deliver or meaningful. With the poem I can communicate the message, over time.  Once they hear all the words of the poem and that’s the only thing they’re focused on, the audience can eventually understand what I’m saying.  With a poem I can communicate the message over time but with a song I don’t think I have as much time and maybe they don’t even listen to the words anyway. So I want to get in there as concisely as possible, if you understand.

SAG                       So when the poem comes to you does it come from the hard work or are there elements that come to you fully formed?

DEBORAH:           Ahhh.  Actually sometimes I realise that some of my favourite poems have been really written quite spontaneously and have just burst out of me. I have this one called ‘skinless’ and it’s just basically 10 or 12 lines. Yeah, it came out really quite quickly … maybe I had to work on it for an hour or something but I remember it just kind of arriving and me knowing where was going and what it wanted to be. And usually it’s just a few lines that are so clear, that I don’t need to work on it so much after that because the lines are actually formed and are perfect and they drive the poem forward.

SAG:                      And your new work ‘Alien Flower in Fundamentalist Fields’ will be presented at the festival.  What can audiences expect?

DEBORAH:           They can expect some theatre; some song; some movement; some videos that I made myself … which was cool for me to figure out how to make video to express what I’m saying.

They can also expect a lot of how do I explain this… Sci-fi. Increasingly my spirituality has become quite a big part of my life … I practice a lot of meditation and going deeper kind of work.  Yet I live in this kind of Babylonian city place, so I think that what the work demonstrates is the tension for me existing within those two spheres simultaneously and trying to find peace.  As well as me confronting my feelings of alienation that have pervaded my existence… Yeah ever since I can remember. Even now, increasingly, I feel unification and oneness with everything but also I still feel pretty alien sometimes. It just seems like in evitable part of artistry. 

This show is about that feeling.

Deborah will perform her new work Alien Flower In Fundamentalist Fields, dissecting cultural identity, and gender inequality, at STORY-FEST for the very first time,

Word Travels‘ [Facebook]  is the International Performing Writers’ Association and STORY-FEST [Facebook] returns on 19-21 October for three action-packed days of live literary mayhem, across Sydney venues including Customs House, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and The Rawson.  From haiku deathmatches to performance/workshops with some of the world’s hottest international wordsmiths, Story-Fest will also host the electrifying National Finals (Oct 21) of the Australian Poetry Slam [Facebook and YouTube]  at Sydney Opera House.