The Poetry Project: Luka Lesson

The Australian Poetry Slam champion is in town for the Poetry Project

Photo by Mylie Nauendorf
'You better listen to this because poetry is the only place a real education can still exist,’ runs one line in Luka Lesson’s new album, Please Resist Me. ‘Lesson’ is an apt pen name for a former university tutor who also happens to be one of the funkiest performance poets around – not to mention Australia’s current poetry slam (live poetry recital) champion. In the album, Lesson tackles subjects such as colonialism, war, history, racism and love. It is worthy stuff. What’s more, it’s delivered in such a way as to make the kids sit up and take notice.

Luka Lesson (real name: Luka Haralampou, 29) was born to Greek parents in Brisbane, Australia. During his high-school years, he was more interested in hip-hop than poetry. Then Lesson came across Def Poetry Jam, an American television series produced by hip-hop entrepreneur and record supremo Russell Simmons, in which actors and musicians recite their own poetry. Inspired, he took the plunge himself and performed one of his pieces for the fi rst time at a regular Speed Poet night, held in his hometown.

‘I performed one of my raps I had written but without music,’ he remembers. ‘That was amazing. It felt so free to be able to perform a poem without adhering to a timing, to a beat. It’s a lot more subtle and a lot more raw and people can see your every breath, which is daunting, but really exciting. I find it truly addictive.’

Last December, Lesson won the national Australian Poetry Slam competition and took up the art full-time. His work is lauded online (a video performance of his anti-war poem ‘The New Crusades’ posted on YouTube has received over 10,000 hits) and he has appeared in some legendary locations across the world, including New York’s Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Lesson also helped found The Centre for Poetics and Justice in Melbourne, a community of poets that provides performances and workshops to the public.

Please Resist Me advocates social change – or, at least, the belief that to speak out loud is to raise awareness. Lesson, who is both modest and affable when we chat on the phone, believes he has a duty to write about the world’s wrongs. ‘If I have the opportunity to talk and people to listen to me, then there are so many who are voiceless in the world, I feel responsibility to speak about important issues,’ he explains.

Some of Lesson’s poems are personal (the album’s title poem was inspired by the racism Lesson encountered as a Greek-Australian growing up in the 1990s); others deal with Australia’s complex history. One of the most fierce is ‘History Books’, which refutes the idea that captain James Cook, the British explorer, should be celebrated. It is, ultimately, a rejection of colonialism.

On this front, Lesson knows his subject matter. Until last year, he tutored indigenous history at Melbourne’s Monash University and has spent time getting to know the Northern Territory's Yanayuwa people, helping kids from the area write their own hip-hop songs in dialect, to reappropriate a language that is dying out.

Despite this, however, he believes that the standard university system has limited outreach and he gave up tutoring last year. ‘University is only available to those who can enrol. I want [knowledge] to be a much more public thing, rather than locked away in the halls of power,’ he explains.

Not all of Lesson’s poems are political. One of his most powerful is ‘The Confluence’, a depiction of the obsessive, sometimes unhealthy, nature of love. Three years ago, Lesson was engaged to be married; but just two weeks before the wedding, the relationship disintegrated. ‘It took me a couple of years to put pen to paper about that,’ he says. ‘Poetry really can be an art therapy. It helps me heal.’

Does he feel that performance poetry is marginalised? ‘It’s both marginalised and totally global and historically vibrant,’ he says, laughing. Lesson rejects any philosophy that places written poetry over spoken poetry. ‘We have only been writing poetry on a page as long as language has been written – which is really not that long.’ By contrast, spoken-word storytelling is thousands of years older.

Lesson’s works are certainly unorthodox compared to John Keats or WB Yeats. Some tracks on Please Resist Me are unaccompanied; others merge music with spoken word, blurring the edges between hip-hop and poetry. This, and his searing language, is what will attract younger audiences. When Lesson visits Beijing this month he will do workshops at migrant schools, mirroring an annual slam-poetry residency that he holds at a school in Melbourne. ‘Teachers love it, because we’re making poetry cool again – which it hasn’t been for far too long,’ he says.