Getting Schooled by Luka Lesson

January 24th, 2013


By Freda Lisgaras for GOTH

Luka ‘Lesson’ Haralambou, Australia’s National Poetry Slam Champion of 2012, has spent the past year travelling the world, experiencing poetry, creating, teaching and learning. Born in 1983 in Brisbane, he holds an Honours Degree in Indigenous Studies from Monash University, where he also taught the subject. Last year, he also released his first album, Please Resist Me, finished his Masters’ degree, and was Co-Director of the Centre for Poetics and Justice in Melbourne. That seems like quite a busy year by any measure.

It didn’t stop there, however. He also performed poetry from shooting a hip hop video with Greece’s hip hop catalyst BD Foxmoor of Active Member and a sold out night at the Nuyorican Café to poetry slams in Denver, Bali and New Zealand and teaching poetry workshops with young people from China to the Bronx.

He also tapped his cultural heritage and learnt a folk song in his grandfather’s village that connected him to the migration experience and his grandfather in a deeply personal way.

In late 2012, I sat down with him for a chat about his amazing year travelling the world. I had come prepared with a list of questions, but when you’re talking with a poet you have to let the words take wing, so I began with a question – the differences and similarities between Greece and China – then let the conversation take on a life of its own.

Freda Lisgaras for GOTH: China’s up. Greece is down. What are the similarities and differences?

Luka Lesson: Beijing is dusty, kinda apocalyptic. Athens versus Beijing, 22 million people in Beijing. Like the apocalypse. On a clear day, you can see, but every 3rd or 4th day you can’t see beyond the next block. Similarities I loved / noticed/ felt like I was in Greece: disjunction and prevalence of the modern and ancient. China is rich in history, dynasties, leaders, art, pottery, ancient ruins, and temples. Then there’s the economy: neon lights, Coca Cola, Gucci, Adidas concept stores, the addiction to American culture with communist history in the background.

In terms of the people? In Greece it’s different because I have family, I can manage the language and blend in. In China I stick out and people touch your hair because it’s curly; people take photos. I was asked if a friend of mine, who’s Malaysian, and another friend, who’s from Boston, are my brother and sister because we looked the same to people.

The food was incredible. The difference with Greeks. We have an identified culture that is homogenised particularly because of the religion. In China there are so many differences; Ugur, Hong Kong, the south. In China today diversity is still huge. The government has promoted homogeneity because of atheism. There was the smashing of temples and so on.

The Chinese are exactly like Greeks because they feel they invented everything. Very ethnocentric.

GOTH: Can you tell me a bit about where you went and what you did this year?

LL: Melbourne, Woolongong, Brisbane, Darwin, Adelaide for writers’ festivals and workshops. China twice, first in March for the Beijing Bookworm Writers’ Festival. I did workshops in international schools, private schools for the children of nationals of other countries living in China, and migrant schools, which are set up for Chinese people who live outside Beijing and are without a Beijing ID card. There’s a fund that has set up these schools for the very poor, they have one meal a day, they are literally shorter than other kids their age, there’s no heating, so the kids wear these puffer jackets all day long, the toilet is a trough. There are millions of these kids in China. So at the this school I had an interpreter, I performed, the interpreter translated it for the kids, then the kids wrote poetry, and the interpreter translated it back for me to understand.

Then I went to the US, first to the Bay area, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkley. I saw my friend Drew Dillinger for a gig and workshop in Richmond. In Oakland I was at a poetry slam, there was a lot of Afrocentric story telling from Africa. Berkley was a more hipster uni student venue. In New York I hosted an open mic at the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe on a Friday night, and on Saturday night hired out the space for a gig. I went to a Bronx public school, and the International Hip Hop Festival in Connecticut, which collaborates with Yale.

Denver is one of the most amazing poetry communities in the world. I heard some things that changed me. They were so welcoming. They’ve inspired my work. That’s it. I’m in. I’m done. I’m a poet for life. I did some workshops and gigs with Ken Arcine. The first gig I got a standing ovation, from people who the year before had won the National Poetry Slam on that stage. They got me. I felt super humble. Beautiful people.

A funny anecdote: I had my ticket paid to Beijing, and I asked them to fly me to San Francisco instead of home, and then I’d arrange my ticket home. I didn’t have a lot of money, and I spent most of it on the ticket home because you can’t go the States unless you can show how you’re getting home. I had merch I had flown to different places, so I could start accumulating funds. I was crashing with people everywhere. But I didn’t have a place to stay in L.A. So a friend of my friend Drew Dillinger got in touch with me online, I said, look, I don’t know you, but I’m a good cook. So the friend says, yes, I can stay with her. I thought, whatever I can get, I can just crash on a couch, I’ll be grateful.

She ends up being the daughter of the founder of Village Records. I have my own room, with an ensuite. I got to check out the studios where Paul McCartney and Lady Gaga record. The big artists have their own studios: downstairs, my friend’s dad had built a studio especially for Stevie Nicks, done out in her style, because he had a huge crush on her. It’s where Fleetwood Mac recorded Rumours.

At one point, I found myself in the foyer of the studios singing Happy Birthday to Art Alexakis, the lead singer of Everclear, with eight other people. That’s where I met the producer of The Rolling Stones. We discussed yoga techniques. That’s what L.A’s like. It was crazy for me to fall into that situation. After that, Austin, Texas, is like the oasis of artistic life in Texas.

Then I went on to New Zealand. I love New Zealand to death, especially because of the difference with how indigenous people are treated; for example there are bilingual Maori signs everywhere.

I judged and performed at the Rising Voices Youth Slam. I went to the Ubud Writers’ Festival in Bali, then the Hong Kong Writers’ Festival. After that I did a residency in Beijing for 2 and a half weeks. I performed at universities and schools, signed a kid’s guitar, like I was a rock star. I had an amazing time. I had lunch with the most famous poet in China, Xichuan. He hosted us at lunch, there was the most amazing food. I performed for his students. In the car park later, he tried to rap.

Istanbul is where I filmed the video “The Light” with Omar Musa. Istanbul brought out my inner nationalist a bit, there were a lot of Attuturk flags. We’d landed during a national holiday, but I also felt at home there. It was weird because they all look Greek but they don’t speak Greek. I didn’t have encounter any racism or any problems. I had great conversations about the population exchange between Greece and Turkey.

The first time I had been to Greece was in 1998, where I spent a week with each side of the family. Then four years ago I visited my mum’s side near Aigio, in Peloponessus. This time I went to my dad’s side of the family in Rhodes. And there I proceeded to melt into the earth. Just had to be, to sit there, seep in, become complete again. I met cousins that I hadn’t met before, I remembered who was who, found my yiayia’s house, it was run down, empty. Pappou’s village, the house was also run down. I just listened to stories.

One story I heard was that when people left to emigrate, in the old days, the whole village had a yiorti, a party, dancing and singing for three days straight. They taught me a song, that was about the way the desert in Australia must have magnets that are pulling people away. That’s my next poem. The song goes like this:

Akougame Australia Olo kladia kai batous / M’afti exei erimi magniti kai travatous

We don’t own anything. We don’t have anything but stories.

Those are the words he heard. That’s not dead. It’s not a broken down old rock. It’s something I can sing back and they can sing it to me here when I go overseas.

I’m the result of the magnets.

Especially now that everyone’s experiencing displacement.

BD Foxmoor made me think a lot about the question, what is really Greek? What were we before the blue and white flag? At what end point do we stop? For example, in Rhodes, there’s a village called “Kritiki,” where people who came to Rhodes from Crete settled. What Foxmoor is saying is that, being proud to be from Perama, and being proud to be from Athens, this attachment has been taught to us so we can fight for them. In terms of political music, a Maori poet from outside Wellington put it best for me – instead of writing a poem as though you have the answers, it’s best to write the poem from the perspective of asking questions. So for me to say, fuck the government, whereas some people feel they’ve been saved or killed by governments, it’s best to write from a more contextualised perspective. I agree with having political movements. I don’t agree in being so broad that we forget the individual.

I got an email out of the blue: when will you come to Greece? We emailed back and forth for months, Foxmoor saying we’d like you to come to make music, you have a place to stay with us. I was in Greece, just connecting with my roots, trying to be present. I emailed Foxmoor, I might get to Athens a bit early. I got an email right back, saying we’ll pick you up from the airport. Basically we had a crew. I got picked up by Hristos, who’s making a documentary about Foxmoor, and taken to Perama where they live. The studio is downstairs, the office upstairs. I turn up, they say, so what do you want to do. So between Sunday and Wednesday, we made 3 songs and a video.

GOTH: Did you think that intensity helped the creative process?

LL: Some people have given me feedback that that’s the best verse I’ve ever written. Wrote, recorded, done. Same with the other 2 songs. This year I’ve decided not to be a perfectionist. Most of the time after the songs were written was taken up with choosing beats. What I love about hip hop is it’s philosophy, it’s community mindedness, the links with ancient oration and rhyming, it’s ability to speak for the forgotten. Hip hop’s ability to speak for people. I know some of that. There’s great knowledge of hip hop in Australia, too.

BD Foxmoor is a beautiful guy, a softie. My writing is heavy, dark, but it’s not who I am on a day to day basis. BD Foxmoor told me I was the next Gil Scott Heron. I spent those 3 days in a daze.

In Athens, you can see how people are suffering. The tourists still bring in most of the money, it’s profit led. People in Beijing have nothing. It saddens me to meet Greeks that are racist, that have forgotten so quickly what it was like. As migrants, we hold our own culture to be so less progressive automatically, we have a stronger nationalism as migrants. Greeks have been resting on their success and haven’t moved forward, like we don’t need to be open minded. There’s a lot of racism in China, too.

Knowledge is held in songs and stories. I did some workshops in Taree, New South Wales recently, with indigenous young people from the area. They wrote and performed a poem each. One young guy, Jack Noble, did amazing things. He has a condition where communicates by blinking through the alphabet and he wrote a poem. It goes:

I’m like a sponge

I soak up all your frowns and smiles

And keep them coming

He asked me to perform it. There was not a dry eye in the room. That’s why I do what I do.

The biggest lesson is that we learn from each other, rather than let the government or media dictate. Better to share stories in a gig or a village with each other than to watch the news and let it dictate. Let our knowledge be nuanced and not static or politically sanctioned.

For more from Luka, visit his website, find him on Facebook, Soundcloud or Twitter.

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