When she spoke, her words seemed to be coming from another time and place, as if she was shouting to be heard from a distant room, and we strained our ears, desperate to catch every syllable. She spoke of the sea and in my eyes she swam with the colours of the sunset and her voice rippled across the room, splashing intimately against our ears. I sat enraptured in the semi-darkness…
– Written on the train, Sat 21 May, 2011
I’ve spent months trying to put Candy Royalle on a page and I have to admit – it has been harder than I thought. This strikes me as odd, because I don’t usually write like this. When I’m inspired, the writing usually comes in torrents and my fingers own the keyboard, almost as if they know what to say before my brain registers the thought.
And I have written about her – reams, actually. Disjointed paragraphs in that book and the other, even on my phone – all over the place really. Tackling a hundred different ideas and sensations that never really came together into one cohesive thought process. So here’s take number umpteen.
“I will her to want it all”, Candy admits from the stage, half singing, half speaking, staring directly into the collective gaze of her audience.
I drink in the tone of her voice, the sensuousness of her language and try to close my mouth, aware of the cameras deftly roving the crowd at intervals. I don’t want to be caught on screen with my jaw unhinged, but quite truthfully, that is how I feel on this late week night, sitting in this cosy pub enclosure together with a handful of people, watching this otherworldly poetess speak about love, sex, anger and politics.
This is the second time I’m seeing Candy Royalle on the stage.
The first was at a more public gathering, at the Sydney Writer’s Festival. I had seen her speak that same morning with a group of other poets, writers and artists who were using their work to inspire positive social change – a talk I enjoyed enough to want to know more about each of the speakers. So when I saw that most of them were performing that evening at a session of performance poetry, I thought ‘why not’. I had never seen performance poetry before and while I had a sneaking suspicion that I would find it pretentious or silly or downright depressing or all of the above, nevertheless, I figured there should be a first time for everything and decided to go along.
I’m not sure what gave me that first negative impression of performance poetry. I am a lover of language and I enjoy poetry even though it’s not usually part of my typical reading list. For whatever reason though, I had this picture in my head of self-proclaimed ‘poets’ standing on a dim stage with bits of paper in their hands, monologuing at length about their tortured feelings and depressing experiences, beating at their breasts while we sat in the audience trying to stifle our yawns.
So yes. The first time I saw Candy Royalle on the stage, I went with the eyes, ears and mind of a skeptic.
The poets who performed before her pleasantly surprised me – I marveled at their clever witticisms and wordplay and laughed at their impressions. I was enjoying myself. Candy was one of the last to perform. She had already intrigued me that morning – from her appearance, to her direct introduction of herself as a queer Arab woman, to the gentle huskiness of her voice, to her opinions on revolution and social change, to an excerpt of one of her poems that she had briefly performed.
Honestly, I don’t remember much about her performance that night – in that, I don’t remember what her poems were about, save for one which was a storytelling about a marijuana-laced conversation with Rastafarian on a beach somewhere. She said something about the colours of the sunset. Or was it the sunrise? I only have the vaguest impressions of the actual poetry. But what I do remember are the sensations that I felt watching her perform. I remember the array of emotions she bared to us, her audience, while she was up there; I remember feeling caught up to the extent that I’m pretty sure I was sitting at the edge of my seat, straining to be somehow more involved. I am also sure I wasn’t the only one who felt this way: when she told the audience that she’d always wanted to make an entire room howl like wolves, the entire room launched into a baying that would have made people outside stop in their tracks and wonder what on earth was going on in that darkened, curtained room.
On the train ride home that night, I pulled out the notebook I carry everywhere with me and wrote feverishly in it, about nothing and everything, simply inspired to write. Her performance made me think for days – not so much because of what she said, but how she said it, and my consequent reaction to it.
I have always thought of poetry as something that was meant to be written, and if read out, then read out from the page. I have thought, to understand poetry, you must understand how it’s been written – the placement of each word on the page, the breakages of each line. You must have it there, in front of you, to be able to go back, refer and study.
I could never read poetry quickly. It was always an effort to read – an effort I usually enjoyed, but an effort nonetheless. I had to think about what each line meant, and what it all meant as a whole. I do appreciate good poetry I think – although everyone has a different opinion of what makes ‘good’ poetry. Still, I find that poetry in general is quite difficult to understand. I certainly don’t claim to understand everything I have read but I’ve always been a little skeptical of poetry that was too enigmatic to be made sense of. Words can sound very pretty strung together in mysterious ways, but if it doesn’t make sense to me, then I cannot take anything from it. I can appreciate that it sounds very nice and sophisticated, but it will always have that cold, empty, meaningless ring to it. Of course, this is purely my personal point of view. To me, writing is about simplicity. Simplicity of language, simplicity of meaning. A sentence simply put can still be beautifully put, and render me to tears in a way that fancy, flowery language could never do.
So if poetry on the page was a hard sell for me, performance poetry was even more of one.
Watching Candy Royalle perform however, I had a revelation. For the first time, I saw poetry as something immediate and sensory. Something that I didn’t have to labour over to make sense of, but something that I could simply experience and drink in. Snatches of language that I could grab and savour at random, but then let go until the next one came along to be savoured alike. I didn’t have to have it there in front of me, mapped out, with notes on the margin. I could just appreciate it in that moment.
I have to admit though – going to see Candy perform a second time, I was nervous. Between that first time and this second time, I had not only exhausted all thought about written and performed poetry but I had also met her, knowing I wanted to write about her but feeling I needed to know more about this enigmatic persona. I wrote copious notes from our meeting but am reluctant to include that analysis here; to break her down according to my impressions of her personality and motivations. I will say that she was as alluring in person and she is on stage, as unabashedly vocal about her opinions on any issue she feels deeply about, and driven by a passion for language and speaking out that I was able to connect with on a personal level.
Nonetheless, I couldn’t escape the fact that I was genuinely nervous that night at the pub as I settled down in my seat and prepared myself for her performance. I worried that I had perhaps romanticized that first performance in my head too much – a tendency I will admit I am often guilty of – and that the sheer novelty of it being gone would take away that excitement I felt on that first night.
I needn’t have worried. As soon as she stepped onto that little platform holding a glass of wine and a sheaf of papers containing new, hitherto unperformed material, she owned the room. She sang more this time, her deep but strangely sweet vocals burgeoning to reach our ears before trailing off as she started to tell us her stories. I’m not sure if it was the setting or purely her talent or perhaps a mix of both, but I felt as if I were privy to the most intimate of conversations. The only way to tell the time passing was the dipping and swirling of the papers in her hand which would drop one by one, scarcely looked at, as she continued to speak to us and with us.
And this time, knowing in some ways what to expect, I was able to appreciate her poetry more, revel in the beauty of her language and take away more than simply sensory impressions of the performance. It was almost as if I had learned a new way of hearing and listening.
Either way, I ducked out into the cool night after her performance as enthralled as that first night, as restlessly inspired.
So why the delay then, in writing this?
It should have struck me earlier but for the life of me, I couldn’t put my finger on it until now. It’s only just dawned on me that I am attempting the nigh impossible. Candy Royalle is not meant for the page: She is meant to be seen in the most immediate sense and shared and experienced. Just like her poetry.
When it was time for her to go, we cried for more and she smiled, and complied. A few more minutes, she said, eager as us to extend this magic pocket of time in which we crowded each others’ space. A deep whooshing intake of her breath made us collectively hold ours as if to give her all she needed, and then she began again. We grabbed at the energy she threw at us in handfuls, mouthfuls, earfuls, greedy and cheering for more, but soon, our time was over. With a slow smile of thanks to our grateful noise, she left.
– Written on the train, Sat 21 May, 2011