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Canberra Today 7°/11° | Monday, May 16, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Daunted poet’s in ‘First Seen’ but not yet heard

Spoken word artist CJ Bowerbird… “I’ve always written poetry as long as I can remember, but I started sharing my work in about 2009.”

“IT’S a bit like painting the house while I’m laying the bricks,” says spoken word artist CJ Bowerbird of writing his first play, part of The Street Theatre’s 11th “First Seen: New Works-In-Progress” season.

From May to October, each chosen playwright, CJ Bowerbird, Helen Machalias and Emily Clark, will have time to progress their works to production-ready stage through creative development with professional directors, dramaturgs and actors.

However, this year instead of live showings, the showcase part will be done through live-streamed performances. 

I caught up with “CJ”, a former fighter pilot who won the National Poetry Slam in 2012 and went on to a distinguished career in performance poetry.

“I’ve had it in my mind to write a verse play for years,” he tells me.

“I enjoy taking my practice into new areas, but to be quite honest it’s daunting, it’s a pretty big step.

“My understanding of a verse play is that each character must speak in a distinct voice and yet they have to sound poetic… it’s a challenge to try and replicate natural conversation using elements of poetry to give it a unique flavour.”

The big problem for CJ is that until he hears the voices of actors speaking his lines, he won’t know what his next move might be.

“That’s the whole idea of ‘First Seen’, doing it with actors so that you know how it will be played,” he says.

Luckily, his dramaturg will be Nigel Featherstone the novelist who, when he went through “First Seen” with his own song-cycle, “The Weight of Light”, consulted the poet Melinda Smith to help him be more poetic – he will understand.

“I’m not so much tapping into the ambiguity of good poetry as using imagery and metaphor, while at the same time creating commonplace dialogue,” CJ says.

So, who are his verse drama role-models? 

It’s an impressive list, Shakespeare, English poet-playwright Kate Tempest and even TS Eliot, who’s “The Cocktail Party” he’s recently come across.

“I’ve always written poetry as long as I can remember, but I started sharing my work in about 2009,” he says.

That was just three years after the former fighter pilot left the RAAF in 2006 to form his own business as a speaker and teacher of communication skills to engineering experts.

Never deployed overseas, he nevertheless enjoyed his time in the services, saying: “I found my home there and I did a lot of presenting and speaking, but not in the creative area.” 

He is too modest. 

In his spare time while at the RAAF Base Tindal in the NT, CJ played Oberon in the Katherine production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Also, for a good deal of the time, he was an instructor, presenting in front of big crowds, so he is not by no means a novice in the area of performance.

But he’s keen to develop and looks forward to the Q&A with the audience where he’ll ask them as many questions as they’ll ask him. 

“Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been open enough to take that, but now I feel I can,” he says.

In his play, he’s exploring aspects of masculinity, especially the problem of men being silent and not talking about emotions. 

“As a father you’re open to the challenge, this is the sort of thing that interests me,” he says.

“This is what brought me into theatre, the characters have to have life other than me. 

“My play starts with a violent display of masculinity where the son of a couple, Scott and Nicole, is killed by a so-called ‘coward punch’.”

The play goes on to explore what effect that has on the parents and their remaining son and how they manage the consequences of their grief, leading to a moment where one member of the family feels they have to relive that violent act.

And do we meet the perpetrator? 

“Not at the moment, I’m more interested in the effect on the family than on the perpetrator – that’s one of the dramatic questions I’m going to ask during ‘First Seen’,” he says.


CJ Bowerbird’s “Coward Punch”, live streamed at 5pm, Friday, May 27. All details at 


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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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