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Bankstown poetry slam: a place to connect

How Western Sydney youth are rewriting the narrative through poetry....

Bankstown poetry slam is unlike anything you’d expect.

Nothing about the slam is censored, and there are absolutely no boundaries around how individuals choose to deliver their message. You can stomp, yell, dramatically pause, sing, or flail your arms as passionately as possible. The content and form of their performances are limited by their own imagination.

One event alone can offer the audience insights into personal thoughts and experiences related to religion, heartbreak, racism, and anything outside and in-between.

With the events comprising of mainly youth, their stories provide an artistic opportunity to educate, challenge, heal and connect. While prejudices among Bankstown and its people can run-heavy, the youth are determined to retune and rewrite this narrative.

Attendees and performers of the events have connected so deeply with the performances and experience, that slamily has become the term for their ‘fans’ and regular attendees.

Bankstown Poetry Slam event
Source: BPS website

Bankstown’s misunderstood narrative and culture

Situated in Sydney’s West – Bankstown is a culturally diverse melting pot. A 2016 report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics report highlights this, with its main ethnic demographics ranging from Vietnamese and Lebanese, to Pakistani and Bengali. Additionally, Bankstown’s affiliation with Islam amounts to eight times more than the national average.

Bankstown’s unique diversity has often been met with various religious and cultural prejudices and stereotypes, unfortunately stigmatising many of its residents.

“Traditionally, Sydney’s Western suburbs have been associated with all the markers of poverty and disadvantage, and a distinct lack of cultural sophistication… More recently, as Western Sydney has become increasingly multicultural, the stereotypes have focused more on ‘ethnic crime’ and immigrant ‘ghettoes”, says Josephine Parsons to The Guardian.

A long-time resident (user name Impact) of Bankstown reviews Bankstown on Homelyacknowledging that Bankstown’s negative perceptions are influenced by the high crime rates. Nonetheless, the user adds there have been significant improvements over the years.

“Bankstown is changing,” says Impact  “There have been horrific stories, arson, stabbings, store robbings.. but the old picture of crime is leaving at a fairly fast pace” Impact adds.

Other Homely reviews on Bankstown are a fair reflection of the polarised views encompassing the suburb. While some state that Bankstown is “not a safe place to live or even visit”, others refer to their authentic and friendly multicultural residents and community. Despite the positive progressions made, the negative and outdated perceptions can often overpower.

Despite the positive impact and coverage of the Bankstown poetry slam, politician Mark Latham labelled the slam an “Islamic political group ranting hatred towards Australia and our institutions”. This shows how such a positive platform can be turned to reinforce the surrounding narratives.

Sara Mansour
Source: The Guardian

With co-founder Sara Mansour raised in Punchbowl, a suburb next door to Bankstown- she has admittedly lived throughout this narrative, relative to much of Bankstown’s youth.

Being an Islamic female, she admits that the formative years of her life were blemished by feelings of division and exclusion to The Guardian.

My generation grew up against the backdrop of 9/11, the Cronulla riots … and the Lindt cafe siege,” says Mansour.

“The media and politicians have constantly targeted the Muslim community, bolstered their campaigns with us, made us the subject of their clickbait articles and their front cover sensationalist headlines,” Mansour adds.

Re-writing the narrative

“It feels like a protest every time I got up on the stage” – Sara Mansour, The Guardian.

 

21-year old Egyptian Pola Fanous is a spoken word poet from Western Sydney. All in 2018, Fanous debuted his first book STRONGSOFT and won the Australian Poetry Slam Final.

Pola Fanous in his element
Source: Word Travels

“BPS and I grew together- them as a platform and space, me as an artist”, says Fanous. In his poetry, he draws on topics related to cultural and social identity, addiction, mental health, and fighting expectations of masculinity.

“[At the slams] I feel a deep ethnic sense of belonging. Most people are Arab and most voices are from Western Sydney” he says, which he admits provides him with a lot of encouragement on that basis. 

While many would not think Bankstown and the arts are synonymous, Fanous states that the slam is challenging this perception that Sydney’s West has little to offer.

Streets of Cairo I’m a stranger, streets of Sydney I’m a danger”

Similarly to Fanous’ experiences with the slam, 21-year old Leila Mansour also feels a deep sense of empowerment and belonging to express her emotions and thoughts at BPS.

Leila Mansour performing “Where does your accent come from”
Source: Bankstown poetry slam YouTube account

As a regular performing poet at Bankstown poetry slam, she shares that her poetry has themes of patriotism, social justice, identity struggles, politics, and mental health.

Mansour states that the monthly events have provided the youth of Bankstown and Western Sydney the platform to defy some of the “unfortunate” stereotypes surrounding the area and its residents.

“It has solidified Bankstown as a force to be reckoned with and challenge whoever underestimates its community”.

For artists like Fanous and Pola, they are educating others while re-creating their own stories by artistically portraying their life challenges and experiences.

“There are so many people that come from diverse and marginalised backgrounds that don’t have anyone in the public eye that can positively represent them, so they task themselves while doing it,” she says, referring to the preconceptions reinforced by mainstream media and politics.

Nonetheless, Bankstown Poetry slam has made positive and powerful impacts on its community and beyond its borders. Through their highly successful Real Talk program, they mentor high school students from different schools to write poetry related to their personal struggles, experiences, and thoughts. This enables them to express themselves in a healthy and creative way.

Bankstown poetry slam has even sparked the inspiration for the 2018 Australian drama film called Slam, where Mumbai-born director Partho Sen-Gupta admits he enamoured and ‘struck’ by one of the performances. His own preconceptions were challenged by the notion that Muslim women are oppressed and submissive, through the female performer’s strong and powerful demeanour. He mentions that these views were influenced by mainstream media, according to an interview with the SBS.

“You tell me Muslim women are silent, but all you do to us is silence and erase”

… “You tell me I’m breaking stereotypes, but why do you stereotype me in the first place”

BPS performer Layla, They call me a good muslim.

Bankstown poetry slam is essentially becoming a renaissance for today’s youth, encouraging them to find a creative outlet to educate, express, and heal. By courageously telling their own story, they have begun to rewrite the narrative and ultimately slam the stereotypes.

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Flip the Script opens up a stage for young performing artists in Sydney

A new opportunity for young performing artists in Western Sydney has once again risen from the roots of Bankstown, with the aim to have their “disen...
A new opportunity for young performing artists in Western Sydney has once again risen from the roots of Bankstown, with the aim to have their “disenfranchised” voices heard.

Flip the Script is the latest project of the Bankstown Poetry Slam (BPS) that opens up a stage for anyone under the age of 26, to perform their artistic practices through an open mic performance.

“With respect to young people, I think poetry is a great tool that can be used to help them address whatever it is that they need to address.” Sara Mansour, the co-founder of BPS, said in an interview with Create NSW.

According to Bilal Hafda, one of the committee members of BPS, young people of a diverse background and culture are typically spoken for, making it hard for their own voices to be heard.

“There should be an opportunity for young people to speak their mind on things that are already established… but they don’t have that opportunity because no one opens it up to them.” Hafda said.

Flip the Script came about through discussions by the BPS committee to have an open mic event for the younger generations who attend the slam but might be intimidated to perform, Hafda says.

“You also need a kind of sense of community that gives the opportunity to speak and who is an ear that will listen to you,” he said.

The performers can showcase their talents through many art forms such as poetry, music, storytelling, and stand-up comedy.

They also receive “on the spot feedback” from the hosts, and encouragement throughout and after their performances by the audience, Hafda says.

“We would open up that space for them and just get them to apply their art and… practising so that they would feel more confident to do that in the kind of wider range.” Hafda said.

The free event is held monthly at the Bankstown Arts Centre, and also offers these young people the ability to network, allowing them to meet new people with common interests, and to be a part of a community.

“People from our community feel that they have a safe space that they can regularly return to, to share their poetry, to vent, and to validate their lived experiences.” Mansour said in the interview with Create NSW.

Photo: Bankstown Poetry Slam Facebook page.

There are a variety of themes in the performances, where the topics range from love to politics, from religion to sexuality, each portraying an important message the performers would like to be heard, according to the organisation.

“That whole general sense of it being this is something that I want to talk about and I’m going to write a piece and I’m going to perform,” Hafda said.

17-year-old Hannah Tulk, is a performer at Flip the Script, and says it is the only event she could find in her area that is “spot on” in targeting young people.

“They give young people a platform and a voice to tell other people what they think,” she said.

Inspired by other performers at Flip the Script, Tulk built up her courage over months of sitting in the audience, until one night she finally stepped foot on that stage herself.

“Poetry is a great way for people to express their emotions and their thoughts and I think that Flip the Script is just one the best places to do that,” she said.

She performed at the May Poetry Slam and came second in the top four performances of the night, placing her in the Grand Slam at the end of the year.

“I’m trying to tell people my experiences with mental illness and pain and suffering, as well as trying to be encouraging and helpful to others who have similar struggles,” she said.

The monthly Slam attracts two to three hundred people a night, whereas Flip the Script draws a much smaller crowd, fluctuating from 40 audience members to just three, but Tulk says it makes it feel more welcoming and “like a family”.

“They remember you, your name, your face and your poetry…” Tulk said.

Photo: Bankstown Poetry Slam Facebook page.

Disclaimer: There is no relation between the author and the source.

Written by Chanelle Mansour