To go shopping in Old Delhi, most foreigners merely slip into a pair of comfortable shoes. Australian poet and performer Miles Merrill also wears a disguise. As he steps out of it in the library of the Children’s Park near India Gate, an hour before his session for the literature fest, Bookaroo, Merril says, “When I go out to the markets and I want a deal, I don’t want people to see me as an outsider. Today, I put a nondescript beige baseball cap on and kept my head down as I walked and asked directions only from people selling books because they probably speak English well, especially if the books are in English.” He got several pashmina shawls for Rs 200 a piece, after hard bargains and “because I have brown skin thanks to my father being African and Irish and my mum being British and Italian”.
Born and raised in Chicago before he made Sydney his home and introduced poetry slams to Australia, Merrill is on a mission to convert students into performers of the spoken word. A poetry slam is a competition where one presents a poem, monologue, lyrics or passage of words in style. “I am a writer that performs my words,” announces Merrill at Bookaroo. He asks the cluster of children to reply in one word, “When I say Delhi, what is the one word you think of?” “Pollution,” shouts one child. “Capital,” says another. “Close your eyes, take a deep breath, where were you last night?” asks Merrill. The single words add up on a white board and, at the end, Merrill strings these into a sentence, scrunches his face and presents it to a beat that makes even adults crowd around the performance space.
Poetry slams started in Chicago, with a construction worker and writer called Mark Smith who introduced competitions on Sundays that the audience would judge. What he found was that people memorised their work, theatricalised it, made eye contact with the audience and put on a show. Judges, chosen randomly from the audience, held up score cards and the person with the highest score got 20 bucks and “suddenly there was an audience for poetry”. “I was googling ‘poetry slam Delhi’ and there’s a website called Delhi Poetry Slam. When I first arrived in India, there was a Bangalore International School National Poetry Slam, where they had 12 different schools,” says Merril. He urges young listeners to voice themselves through performed words and upload these on social media. “You can use iTunes, Spotify or Soundcloud rather than put out a book. You don’t buy the book of Bob Dylan, you might, but you would rather listen, right?” he says.
Merrill, who runs a literary organisation called Word Travels, uses his phone to record ideas. As a child, he was always writing into his notebook as a way of getting ideas out because “sometimes I didn’t like the world around me”. His parents divorced when he was seven. “My father was a little abusive so, between the ages of four and seven, I was the kid with the black eye, bloody nose, busted lip or something else,” he says, which pushed him into fantasy worlds such as television and film.
His concerns range from nature to racism but, as he tells his young listeners: “When reality is different from expectations, creativity happens but I almost always start with personal experience. If you want to write about dragons, describe its breathing fire exactly as your mother blows on a cup of tea because you can watch it and describe it vividly,” he says. In India, he has been creating poetry about taxis that “drive on line instead of between lines” and education but “I create analogies and metaphors and tell a story. Then, you aren’t just up there expressing an opinion, you are actually taking them on a journey .”