The Body, Slam Culture & Poetry as Healing | Interview with Maddie Godfrey

Maddie Godfrey is a Perth-born, internationally recognised performance poet who is currently based out of London. Her accent is still mostly Australian but with a subtle hint of London traipsing in and out of her words. With her infectious smile, trademark red hair and powerful voice, Maddie is taking the poetry scene by storm, and she demands to be heard. We took a moment to sit down with Maddie to talk all things poetry, body politics, slam culture and coming home for Fringe World

Let’s start at the beginning: how did you get into writing and performing poetry?

I feel like I’ve always written, for as long as I could remember. When I was younger I was really passionate about telling stories. Even when I was three years old, I remember my dad would read to me before bed, and it got to a point where I was like, “Can I read to you tonight?” So I feel like I’ve always been a storyteller and that’s what poetry kind of is, especially my poetry and what I produce, it’s telling stories and experiences from my life.

I started performing poetry because of an Experimental Writing unit at uni. We got an extra 10% on our grade if we performed or got published that semester, so I went and performed at Perth Poetry Club at The Moon. I did it and when I got off stage I thought, “Yep, that’s what I want to be doing.” It just felt so right. I thought it was going to be a one-off thing where I could just get a good grade and never do it again, but when I did it, halfway through I felt really calm and at home and comfortable.

Do you remember the first poem you performed?

It was called ‘Toxicity’. It’s really rhyme-y and angry. It’s about technology and why technology is bad. It says the word “screens” heaps of times. A lot of it was about my parents. It goes: “My parents are having an affair / with the glare / coming from their / screens”. It was really overdramatic and a reflection of, “Oh I’m performing this, therefore it must be theatre and I must be the most exaggerated version of myself.” In hindsight, I kind of think it’s horrendous but I was very proud of it. It’s interesting to go back and look at that like how rhyme-y and sound-based it is, and I look at where I am now which is very conversational and almost quieter.

It’s definitely a reflection of how much you’ve grown and developed as a poet.

Yeah, it’s the journey. If you showed me one of my new poems when I was first starting, I probably would’ve been like “Why doesn’t it rhyme?! Where’s all the cool sound stuff? What is this diary entry?” But I think it’s important that I see value in both of them. There’s value in that starting point because it was still a good poem, it just isn’t something I want to write now. But at the time it was honest, it was fun to perform, fun to listen to, fun to yell and it got published in the Department of Poetry run by Jakob Boyd (Laundry Man), with a photo of my parents and words cut & pasted over their faces. It was so good; they loved it.

What’s it like coming back to Perth and having a show at such a big and local festival like Fringe World?

It’s crazy. I came back just for Fringe, really, and to see my parents. All my family is still based here. I moved to Oxford in 2015 to do exchange for three months and I just never came back. After, I moved to London and lived in a share house — typical London thing living with too many people — and then really got set up there in terms of career, and managed to make it as a full time poet for a while which was a dream and it’s still bizarre to even admit.

I realised that this Fringe show was something I wanted to do for a long time. I’ve always wanted to make something longer. I wanted to make a structure, a home, for these poems to live in, because I’ve been writing the poems that are in the show since I first started performing. I feel like when I look at what the show is and how it’s constructed and the story it tells, all those poems make more sense together because they are a story, a narrative, and I really wanted a chance to present that. So coming back just felt like the coolest opportunity to see my friends, my family, people who have watched me grow up as a poet and be like “Look what I did guys! Are you proud of me?”

I thought about starting the show in Edinburgh or Brighton, even London, but it didn’t feel right to start it anywhere but here. There’s just so much history here for me. Doing a theatre show is terrifying because it’s something I’ve never done before and sometimes feel too young or too inexperienced to be doing a “Fringe” show. I’ve pretty much written, directed, performing and co-produced it as well as publicised it myself, which in itself is too much work for one person but I’m doing it, which is great. This show is very much my baby, so it feels cool to come back to where I’m from and be like “Here’s my new thing, what d’you reckon Perth?”

Tell us a bit about your show ‘If My Body Was A Poem’?

The show is about body positivity, gender, sexuality, and it also tackles sexual abuse and sexual assault as an undercurrent of the topics. The more I’m doing the show, the more it feels like a conversation with my body. It is highly personal and highly based upon my own experiences and the conversations I’ve had with myself. When I first started writing I was like, “Oh yeah it’s just me telling this story about my body.” But the more that I do it the more I realise I’m literally talking to myself in it. Despite the fact that there’s a room full of strangers, it still feels like I’m talking to the mirror or to younger versions of myself.

It’s no secret, and I mention it in the show, that I grew up with an eating disorder, which was very hard for me, and then I went through mental illnesses and have had history with sexual abuse and trauma as well, which a lot of my writing tackles and addresses. This show for me is kind of the healing of that. It’s a celebration of healing. There’s this quote from ‘Lemonade‘ that says “If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious” and I think that’s what I keep coming back to with this show. The show itself is a lot about the healing and not the pain.

A lot of my earlier work was about this hurt, this caused me pain, this is the trauma. If you look back earlier, the poem ‘Consent’ is a harsh poem and it’s really sad. There’s a line that goes, “My body is a prison / my body is a crime scene / my body is a puzzle and I don’t know what it means / my body isn’t mine / my body isn’t home.” And I look back at that and I can’t believe I felt that way. It’s beautiful to have that as a moment in my life to say that it was valid and that poem is valid, but I wanted to make a show that showed the healing after that. A big line from the show is “I love the way you take up space” which is a lyric from ‘Pine Tree Lines’ by a band called Told Slant and, as much as “if my body was a poem” is the intro, “I love the way you take up space” is the tag line.

What does the phrase “If my body was a poem” mean to you, then?

It came from a poem I wrote in Oxford last year. I was doing an independent supervised project with an amazing queer specialist and we would sit in his office every week and just chat for hours about everything. I got to choose to do an essay or do a performance and I chose to do a performance all about body theory, so the poem literally from all those discussions with him. We were saying, if the body was a poem what would it be like? And that was me just free balling, just doing a stream of consciousness.

“If my body was a poem” was an introduction to this idea of if my body was something that I had created or had constructed or something I had more ownership over, what would it be like. If you’re born girl, your body is always someone else’s, and that reclamation of “This is mine and I’m proud of it to be mine”, that’s what the phrase eventually meant after I wrote it. The end of the show – spoiler alert – is if my body was a home. Which is the flip side to all of it, which I think is my new mantra.

Your career has accelerated pretty quickly in the past year, was there a defining moment that pinpointed the ‘before’ and ‘after’?

I think the Perth Slam was a huge one because it was the moment when I realised my work could be really powerful. Around that time I was also organising, hosting and marketing Spoken Word Perth’s fortnightly event, which went from having only six people to over sixty over time, and it was so great to be able to share what I love and give people a space that was safe to talk about everything. At the same time, I had this personal thing of going through the slam heats and getting into the finals at the Sydney Opera House. And on the other hand, I was about to leave for the UK, so it was like a really crazy, crazy, stupid point in my life. But it was at that point where I realised this was taking over my life and I was cool with it. It stopped being a hobby and I woke up everyday thinking, “This is what I’m doing, this is what I want to do, this is what I’m passionate about.” And that was the moment for me where it clicked because until then I would be like “Oh yeah I perform every second Wednesday and I do The Moon sometimes…”

Going to the UK was also a really big moment as well. It was big in different ways, like learning how my voice existed in a scene I’ve never been a part of and going into a room full of strangers and trying to be like “Here’s part of me. I have a weird accent and I feel like a very small, lost girl. But here’s a part of my life story.” It was also the moment where I feel like my relationship with poetry changed because I had to validate it myself. There was no friend in the audience to say, good one. There was no family member to clap. It was, I know no one, I might crash and burn here and I am okay with that.

You’ve had the opportunity to participate in last year’s Women Of The World Poetry Slam (WOWPS), what was it like being a part of such a well-known and inclusive tournament?

I have actually just been accepted to perform again! I’m so excited. Women Of The World for me came at a point where I wasn’t doing well in my life — in terms of mental health and I was in a not healthy relationship. It was a pretty spur of the moment decision to register, which happened after I had a couple of drinks. It was one of the biggest weeks of my life, I went home every night and sobbed. I just went home and sat on my bed and cried for an hour. It wasn’t sadness, it was just release. I’ve never been able to fully explain how it felt but it felt like letting go of something.

On the plane back from WOWPS, I’d felt the most empowered I’ve ever been to be a poet and to identify as a female. I felt so proud, I got on that plane and was like, Yes. This is this female body that I love. I am a poet and I love that. I felt really empowered and that was what I took away from the event. I saw so many incredible artists and people — compassionate people above all, even those who didn’t compete. I think the connections were really authentic; it was so honest, so bare. I still have people who I talk to regularly, who I met there and became very close to.

Having been a part of a few slam poetry communities around the world, how would you compare Perth’s slam community to the ones of larger cities like New York and London’s? Are there more similarities than differences?

Poetry styles are different everywhere I’ve gone. I try to talk about it and it always seems very stereotypical but London itself feels grungier, more hip-hop and rap influenced, and you can hear that in the rhythm of it in the slam and spoken word scenes and at the open-mics, even. America, at least New York, is very influenced by the Button Poetry style — very metaphor-heavy, very conversational, often spoken quietly and the uses of silence and breaths. Australia has always felt like a mix bag of weirdness, which I love. When I went to the national slam in Sydney, everyone was so different.

But I think slams can be very universal. Wherever I go, there’s still the politics, still the same kind of arguments happening, which I think is really interesting. Even though with every country I go to, slams are slightly different in terms of the rules and format, when it comes down to it, I think slams are beautiful because the audience is always so attentive, and that’s the same everywhere.

It’s been interesting seeing different slams, I think they’re valid in a lot of ways but I also have a problem with them when they become limiting, when people only do slams and they don’t do open mics or read poetry as well. Slam is a valid genre of poetry and a good avenue to start —I almost think I started as a slam poet. When I started getting momentum, it was through slam and when I went to the UK that was my way to get noticed. Slam for me has been about pushing me forward, but it’s not the end point. I think that’s the most important thing. When I talk to younger slam poets who ask for advice about slams, I say “Use them.” Use them to get seen. Use them to say something important. But then keep ahead.

Photo Credit: Leni Battalis of Sad Girls Co.

What does your writing process looks like?

All my poems are a stream of consciousness. I don’t really plan poems, they just come out. It’s called word vomiting. My first bio was, “Maddie Godfrey: the word spewer” which I still love.

Has this process changed since you started or has it always been just “word vomit”/stream of consciousness?

It’s always been word vomit; it’s still largely word vomit. I feel like I’m better at making myself write now. When I didn’t have to, I would be like “Oh I won’t write today, it’s fine!” These days I wake up and I’m like, “I have to write today.” I do a lot of thirty-thirties. I have a group online where people post poetry/art every day for thirty days, which has now over 150 people who are amazing and from all around the world. We critique and help each other do more. It’s one of the things I’m proud of, this community that has gotten bigger than I am.

I’m definitely more disciplined, that’s the main difference. I still do stream of consciousness, I still word vomit all the time, but now I know how to sit down and make myself do it. Also I think the more you write, the better you become. It’s the whole analogy of: if you want to do the Thing, you have to do the Thing everyday. And I want to be a poet and I want to be a writer, so I write everyday. I think when I started, I didn’t have that discipline and I didn’t want that discipline. Now, it’s my full-time thing. It’s my life-source, my passion and my love. So I sit down everyday and I read and I write.

What do you think of the idea of “writer’s block”?

I think it’s in an interesting term. The term itself is problematic because once you say you have writer’s block you’re putting yourself into that mindset. If you say you have writer’s block then you’re like “okay, I’ll sit with this and I’m not going to force it.” My best poems come out when they’re not forced. My best poems are the ones where I don’t sit down and make it happen, it just happens. “Little Sister” is one of my best poems and I wrote that crouched down in an alleyway with my groceries on either side, raining, on a back of a receipt. “Consent” I wrote on the day of my first slam, at 11:30 in the morning and performed it at 7pm, read it from a piece of paper. The best poems come out just like that, but there’s something to be said about forcing it.

Writer’s block exists but I like to sit down and be like, “What’s a word, write one word, write two words, why not another one?” And it might be total crap, it’s often total crap. I write really terrible poems, I write the worst metaphors, I write corny rhymes, but it’s still doing something that day. A writer – I don’t remember who it was – said a quote that goes something like, “I sit down everyday and I make time for work. It might not come out everyday but when it does, it’s like I put in my hours.” Writer’s block exists but I think as long as you’ve written something, you can say you did something. And it might trigger something later, or be one good combination of words, which you can put into your next poem.

Do you have any pre-show rituals before performing?

I stretch a lot. Before every slam, I stretch. It’s become kind of a joke with people who know me. There’s stretching in my show, I start on the floor and that’s me literally doing my pre-show ritual on stage. I drink a lot of water and I have weird habits where I look at a photo of the person I’m performing about, if it’s someone I love, like my mum or my little sibling. I have a lock I usually wear which my parents gave to me.

For my big shows, I like to wear my ring from my dad and necklace from my parents. For this show, I have a little thing my pop gave me before he passed. I am such a sentimental person, to the extent that I used to perform with a photo of my mum in my pocket because I love her so much and she’s that person who supports me. I’ve gotten better, I don’t freak out if I don’t have my little things, which is good. I like to have reminders of people I love around when I’m performing because I always want the performance to come from a place of love.

Your work feels incredibly personal and focuses on a lot of feminist issues, would you say that was something that formed organically?

I never thought of myself as making political work until someone else said it, because it is so personal. When I was studying academically, I was really into body politics. I did a lot of research on female bodybuilders and body transformations, and some of that was feminist writing. So before anything, because of the eating disorder and the recovery, the body pride that I have, I was just like “What else can I learn about bodies?” and particularly, female bodies. I think I wanted to learn more about female bodies because I live in one and identify as female. My writing mainly came from what I was interested in and passionate about and I’ve always been passionate about expression — I was a pole dancer for a while and that comes into my writing in terms of exploring how I move the body and the erotic assets of the body.

I never saw it as feminist until someone sat down and said, “Your writing is feminist.” And I was like, “No it’s not, what do you mean?” and they were like “No, no you are a feminist artist.” And I had to really go through what that meant because at that time it was a dirty word to me. I was like, “I don’t want to be that! I don’t hate men!” But I just wasn’t informed. I had to sit down and be like, let’s actually be informed of these words before we defend ourselves against them. There was someone called Shirley Randall who is an incredible woman who is 73 years old and a proud feminist. I sat down to have coffee with her in London and we talked about the word feminist. I came away from that conversation with: Yes, I am a feminist. My work is feminist and is political and I’m okay with that.

After that conversation I realised I wanted to do activist work. I didn’t want to be poet but an activist who uses poetry. I’m still trying to figure out how to get there but it manifested in me doing more festivals and charity gigs. Last year I did a festival called Festival of Choice, which was about pro-choice and abortion rights. It was really intense, but one of my favourite gigs of the year. I also did a feminist solidarity festival, which was a big turning point for me because it made me realise that my work can be feminist and that’s a good thing.

I’m sure your poetry has empowered many women, myself included, but how has poetry been a vehicle for understanding/healing/empowering for you?

I think, especially as a performance poet, it’s about taking up space and having a voice. Growing up I was really scared of being loud and having opinions. The more that I become confident in myself, I’ve been having more opinions. That’s what poetry largely is, it’s saying: I’m here and I’m saying things that are worth you listening to. When you stand on a stage, you’re taking up people’s time, energy and sometimes even their money. You have to believe in yourself and your words enough to say, “Yes, this is worth listening to.” It’s a lot about self-belief and self-respect.

There’s still something so powerful to me about being able to put my body on a stage and to stand on a stage and say, “You can look at me,” and not be scared of it. That was really hard for me at the beginning when I was not as body-confident as I am now. I would have to put loads of makeup on before a slam, which is fine but I was hiding behind it. On this show I do now, it’s me in a bra and shorts, stripped back. I don’t wear much makeup. I eat before I go on, sometimes I’m bloated, and sometimes I’m not. It’s this thing of honesty that is really powerful for me. The honesty in poetry is also powerful because it is saying, “I have the power and the right and the validity to express myself.”

Can you give us a line from something you’re working on right now?

“I am ready to live a life that treats trauma like somewhere I travel, not somewhere I stayed.”

Find Maddie Godfrey on Facebook to keep up-to-date with her performances, or check out her website here!

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Bad at Mario Kart, better at writing.