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Interview: Being.'s Jasmine Balmer Talks With Eliana Gray (Jaggers x Lines)

Interview: Being.'s Jasmine Balmer Talks With Eliana Gray (Jaggers x Lines)

Eliana Gray and Jasmine Balmer / Eliana Gray photo credit: Jessica Thompson-Carr / Jasmine Balmer photo credit: Josh Yong / Thursday 29th August, 2019 1:17PM

Eliana Gray of Ōtepoti duo Jaggers x Lines and Jasmine Balmer of Being. got together to talk poetry, primary school and process ahead of the release of Gray's debut poetry collection Eager To Break, out now via Girls On Key Press. Being. is playing at Gray's publication launch at Tāmaki Makaurau's Strange Haven on Saturday 31st August, opening at 6.00pm (free entry). Gray will perform a reading at the event, alongside Jordana Bragg, Onehou Strickland and essa may ranapiri. You can also catch Being. performing this Friday at The Others Way festival, on the Girls Rock Camp all-ages and alcohol free stage at 7.20pm, and at Neck Of The Woods at 9.00pm.

Eliana Gray: I want to talk to you about... poetry. But specifically, I want to talk about the evolution of how you’ve used spoken word in your performances. I remember the first time I saw you play, at Chronophonium, you did a poem in the middle of the set and it was super powerful.

Jasmine Balmer: It was my first time sharing poems!

I remember you saying that! It was the most killer poem ever, I cried! Best set at Chronophonium.

*appreciative love noises*

What I’m interested in is it seems like at that first set, the decision to include a poem in the middle was really on the fly, incredibly vulnerable. And the last time I saw you play, at Newtown Fest, you included a poem in the middle of the set again but it was backed by instrumentals and still vulnerable but seemed to be a much more incorporated part of the performance.

In those two performances, you have a massive spectrum of how intentional poetry can be to the set. For Chronophonium I had been asked to share some poems on the free stage in addition to my musical performance. And I chickened out a little bit, and didn’t necessarily show up for the poems, because I’d never spoken poems to anyone yet. So when I was up there doing the music, I was just made myself do it and thought, ‘this can be a one-time thing’. It felt like a really accepting audience, which made it easier because you don’t always get for poetry. Especially at music gigs, because the people there aren’t necessarily ready to engage with poetry. Do you find polarities between the audiences, being both a musician and a poet?

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, in relation to the next show that we’re playing together!

Because, one of the things I want to achieve with the book launches is a meshing together of the indie music and poetry communities, and getting people to realise that they probably are more primed to engage with poetry than they think. I think one of the reasons that audience responses to poetry and music can be so different is because of cultural dialogues around how we’re allowed to enjoy things and where the form is positioned in ideas of ‘seriousness’ and ‘academic intent’. Poetry is seen as very academic, serious and something that must be enjoyed in silent reverence. The poet is more removed from the audience. Whereas, generally speaking, with music, the vibe is more raucous, you’re encouraged to sing along, the audience is brought into the experience. This is a paradigm I really want to shift with my poetry performances, and one that I think a lot of contemporary poets in Aotearoa are also shifting. I want a raucous crowd.

It’s very interactive when you perform.

Yes! And I think that doesn’t really happen unless you let people know that they’re allowed to interact with the poems like that. I think poetry would be more accessible in a broader sense if people knew that it all...

...wasn’t quite so serious!


Something I’m not really privy to, is the more academic side of poetry. For me, it’s like, if someone is sharing words that I’m into, isn’t that enough?

That is a hill I will die on. I think that, because of the more academic nature of poetry the idea of “critically engaging” with the work is seen to be intrinsic to the world of “proper poetry”. People are constantly asking questions like, “what is poetry doing? What is THIS poem doing?”. And to me, those questions seem to be positioned to rate the validity of the work, which seems a bit strange and redundant. We don’t ask any of those questions about music to measure it’s validity. We just figure out if we like it or not.

[Eliana’s tangent: critical engagement with works is also beautiful and awesome, but imo, expression doesn’t need to meet an academic standard to be worth engaging with or worthwhile]

For a so long I didn’t call my writing poetry, or spoken word, because there seemed to be a such a set way of doing things in that community and that wasn’t what I was doing. I was so intimidated by the label of ‘poetry’ because our education, especially in schools, around what poetry is, is so based on the idea of poetry as something lofty and academic. It felt very difficult to access.

It makes me sad that so much of what people think is all poetry is just the, I don’t know what to call it... the old man’s club of poetry. It frustrates me because I feel so many more people would find poetry that they loved if they knew the multitudes the form contains. But because of this academic, gate-keeping vibe, there are these barriers to access that can be difficult to see around.

Poetry, to me, at its base, is people expressing how they feel about the human condition. So then, of course there’s going to be something for everyone because we have such a large multitude of different lenses that people are seeing the world through.

Something that I want from poetry is... I want everyone to write poems. Or find someway to express themselves. But, I feel like a lot of people feel closed off from poetry because they think they don’t know enough words, or can’t spell well enough or whatever. But the beautiful thing about poetry and written expression is that language is so mutable and poetry allows it to be so elastic. You don’t need to know grammar or how to spell ‘properly’ because the unique ways that you use language are what evolves everyone else’s use of it and makes for incredible, interesting poetry.

I moved around a lot of schools when I was younger, so there were gaps in my learning, and I was behind in learning how to read. So I always felt like writing wasn’t available to me because I couldn’t spell or read the same as others. But like you said, you don’t any of that to write.

I love that you shared that experience, because, and I’ve said this many times, you are my favourite lyricist in Aotearoa. I talk about it a lot. And you were getting messages when you were younger that writing wasn’t something you could do, but here you are doing it and bringing amazing experiences and emotions to people through your written work. There’s so many people that are getting told constantly when they’re younger that they aren’t good enough to do something, but they always are!

What were your school experiences like?

I got a lot of positive feedback about my reading comprehension and written work, so writing never felt out of reach for me. Music is what felt inaccessible, so the label that i felt uncomfortable with calling myself was ‘musician’. But the poetry that I was exposed to through school never did it for me. I was only ever really into my own angsty ten year old diatribes.

It’s so interesting to me that we had similar reactions to the poetry we were exposed to, almost polar experiences in how we were encouraged. You felt shut out of music, I felt shut out of poetry and somehow we’ve ended up meeting in the middle.

It makes me really happy that we didn’t listen to the people who were telling us that we couldn’t access these forms of expression.

[*a gentle chorus of support and increased accessibility fades gently on the breeze*]

Eliana Gray's debut poetry collection 'Eager To Break' is out now via Girls On Key Press.

Being. is performing on the all-ages, alcohol free Girls Rock Camp stage at Friday's The Others Way Festival at 7.20pm, tickets are still available right here.


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The Others Way Girls Rock! Stage: Jen Cloher, Mermaidens, BEING & More
Fri 30th Aug
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Fri 30th Aug
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