Good poetry is beautiful; but great poetry strips the paint off walls. Candy Royalle is a great poet. Over a number of years she’s amassed a body of work that is powerful, lyrical, musical, dynamic and bold. Hailing from Sydney, she is a giant of the Australian literary scene, bringing a brand of performance that is unconstrained by genre and as gritty and uncompromising as it is gorgeous.
Armed with a loop peddle and a phenomenal sense of rhythm, Royalle has released three albums blending spoken word and music. The most recent album, Birthing the Sky Birthing the Sea, was made with her band the Freed Radicals and launched at the 2016 National Folk Festival before taking it on a national tour.
These days she’s highly sought after for festivals both at home and abroad. She has performed and presented at the likes of the Sydney Writers Festival, Australian Poetry Festival, Austin International Poetry Festival and the Woodford Folk Festival. However, we still hold a special place in our hearts for her sold-out show Love Spectacular on Sydney’s first ever Fringe Festival.
We spoke to Candy, one of our 2017 Fringe Ambassadors about poetry, activism in the arts and the importance of staying angry.
What is it about poetry specifically that draws you in as a performer?
Poetry is a form of storytelling that has the capacity to not only transport people but also bypass the intellectual and hit the audience straight in the heart. I think some art/artists have a propensity to over-intellectualise work which causes a disconnect. It’s also a form of elitism that causes alienation between artist and audience. The type of poetry I love and work with (i.e.: not the poetry of old / dead white men) is an invitation for the audience to share in my vulnerability, to be unmasked by it themselves, to connect through this sharing of our humanity. I feel there aren’t many art forms that allow for this in the same real and raw ways.
You’re a prolific collaborator, always bringing people into your creative process. Why do you think you’re so attracted to working in tandem?
I love the process of making with another creator - the ways in which our ideas bounce off each other, inspire each other, the ways in which we can challenge each other. Though I do love working in solitude too and creating solo work, sometimes it can be disconnecting and lonely. It’s hard to remain objective. With another creator, there’s an opportunity to look at things in ways you just can’t alone. Additionally, poetry often gets a pretty bad rap - most people had an awful experience of it in school so they’re afraid they wont understand or like it. Collaborating with other artists allows me to almost “hide” the poetry so that people don’t realise it’s poetry until it’s too late - and they suddenly realise they love it! I have no shame in admitting this manipulative trickery!
Your work is deeply personal but it’s also unashamedly political, do you feel a sense of obligation to use your platform to push for justice?
Originally when I started out, it was predominantly because I felt like my voice had been silenced since birth. I wanted a platform from which I could be heard. As the years have progressed and my profile has built, thousands of people are now exposed to my work every year and so even as a queer woman of colour I must acknowledge this as a level of privilege that definitely comes with a responsibility to use my prominent voice as an instrument for justice. I have always believed that silence equals complicity and so it is imperative I share those stories not given the same air time by a media tightly controlled and governed by corporate agendas. It is imperative I share stories that enable people to truly understand the impact of oppression, racism, misogyny and all those important things that we must continue to push against. My role is to rehumanise the dehumanise and it’s what I’ve committed my life to - creatively and otherwise. That being said - I strive to ensure my work is much more nuanced than just beating people over the head with a political message and endeavour to find the human within the political and I believe this is part of my success as an artist who can reach people.
On a similar note, you’ve spoken before about the stigmatisation of anger in women. What role do you think performance has in challenging the expectations of women’s behaviour?
Nothing makes me more angry than people asking me why I’m so angry! ha! But truly, yes, anger can be righteous and an excellent way in which to propel oneself into action. Men in particular have used the accusation of anger as a way to silence women - “Why are you so angry? Calm down. Stop being hysterical. You’re being over emotional”. And yet mens anger - even that which manifests in violence, is seen as entirely normal! Performance, writing, all art really, enables women to challenge these preconceived ideas of what it is to be woman. Personally, I have no shame in being a butch, angry woman who loves fiercely and compassionately and my art reflects that. I am proudly woman even if I don’t present in the ways the media promotes women to present. My art and I can both be examples to women of how we can move in the world - against it or within it - in our own ways and not in the ways we’re expected to. And get angry! We have a lot to be angry for! The trick is ensuring we never allow that anger to dictate our actions but instead, channel it into our work.
You’ve also been known to run a fierce workshop, what made you decide to start teaching and facilitating as well as performing?
Actually in the beginning I was resistant to facilitating workshops but at one stage it became financially necessary and I’m so glad that happened because I have now witnessed first hand the power of helping people access their own unique voices. How it’s not only cathartic but incredibly empowering. I have *literally* seen it change peoples lives - tangibly so. I have witnessed broken people find themselves again. I have witnessed the healing power of it. I have watched as the young makers I’ve mentored over many years, develop into true, independent and unique creators. I have worked in prisons, schools, with Aboriginal mob, refugees and many other marginalised groups. These are the people who have been told by society, for the entirety of their lives, that they are not valued, their voices worthless. Witnessing their power as they discover the potency of their own voices is unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced as a human and it’s a huge part of what motivates me. It’s not in the governments interest to give these voices platforms - if the disenfranchised can speak and speak passionately and well, they become dangerous to the status quo. That’s why the government pulled so much funding from the arts, funding which predominantly affected small to medium arts organisations who traditionally work with these marginalised groups. That’s no accident, it’s absolutely intentional. So this work is an additional form of activism - fostering voices which push back against the oppression of a white, extremist government.
Now that you’ve taken your works all over the globe, how do you think the Sydney live performance scene compares to the rest of the world?
I have a deep and abiding love for Sydney for so many reasons. I do not believe in unconscious patriotism but this occupied land is my home and I acknowledge that it is deeply flawed and often unwilling to acknowledge the suffering of first nations people. But I witness many artists trying to address this, trying to create an environment of active change through art. I think Sydney’s underground and fringe art scene is definitely up there internationally. We are unafraid to push the boundaries, to blur the lines between activism and art. We’re not easily bullied or silenced. That being said, there are many ways in which we can continue to be critical and grow.
You’re an old friend of ours at the Sydney Fringe Festival, and you’ve also performed at the Adelaide Fringe; how important do you think Fringe arts culture is to foster work that pushes boundaries?
I’m not much of a fan of the large established arts organisations. The level of elitism is breathtaking. On the occasion I can afford to see something, a quick glance around the audience and it’s a sea of middle to upper class white people. If the audience is conservative you can bet your bottom(less) dollar that the work they’ve come to see is equally conservative. So the role of the fringe arts culture is most definitely to create and perform works those organisations aren’t interested in. The occasional cross over is such a coup - “Hot Brown Honey” is an example of this. Every now and again, a fringe show makes it over to the other side and these are our greatest triumphs - when we take work critical of the system and show it smack bang in the middle of that system. This should be our goal. To use the fringe festivals as launching pads for dangerous, challenging, fearless work that we eventually manage to bring into the mainstream so the unconverted can witness what we are building out here on the fringes.
What would you like to see more of in the Australian independent arts scene?
A conscious move to curating events and work made by queers, people of colour, trans, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, by people with disabilities. These are the interesting stories. The majority of decision makers are still white, even as we outsiders push and rally and demand space. So those white people must be allies, they must look critically at what they are curating, what they are producing and ask themselves whether they have truly gathered a diverse group of people (and not a tokenistic attempt) that really reflects Australian culture - not just white Australia, as it has done for too long. Additionally, allowing more of us who are not white, hetero, cis gendered, male, etc to be the producers, to be the curators as this ensures our stories are being told - and we’re the ones doing the telling.
Written by Michael Kennedy