Public broadcasters continue to upstage commercial Free to Air Networks over summer by providing first-run local content, that is also of a high quality.
Joining the ranks of SBS’ The Circuit and Secrets and Lives comes the ABC’s Bush Slam -a new six part series in which H.G. Nelson plays host to an original poetry contest in regional towns across Australia.
It doesn’t get much more Australian than this. In the first episode, set in Cowra, NSW, we learn about the town’s history during WW II when hundreds of Japanese soldiers broke free of the Cowra Prisoner of War camp (itself the subject of the miniseries The Cowra Breakout).
Our first poets to face off against one another, hip hop artist Joel Ma and bush poet Carol Huechan, have three days to familiarise themselves with the town, its people, history, landscape and character to be encapsulated by a public poetry reading.
As Joel Ma takes in the original site of the POW camp, Carol visits the cemetery where many were laid to rest. Both are affecting experiences for the two poets.
Both experience the town’s history, becoming storytellers of a corner of our wider social history. H.G. Nelson, on hand with his own robust, colourful descriptions, also serves as an enthusiastic guide.
As each poet begins to create ‘word snapshots’ of the town, we are given more contemporary slices of Cowra life: a worshop for men gives purpose to many in a town where the male suicide rate is notably high; ghosts inhabit an old railway museum; local youths hang out at a skate ramp.
The challenge for the two subjects is to deliver a poetry reading that the locals deem worthy of a win. But for Joel Ma, who harks from a multicultural background, the town’s juggle with its Asian history finds him asking himself whether he could be run out of town for publicly-stating what he is privately thinking.
Huechan, who lost a son overseas, remains moved by the cemetery with soldiers lain to rest on foreign soil.
The “Slam” itself, performed in a park before a humble local crowd of around 100 onlookers, isn’t necessarily the highlight of this very colonial, very original series. But it does remind us of our unique romance with bush poetry, even if it is seldom celebrated today.
Other towns to follow in the series are Stanley in Tasmania, Blinman in South Australia, Corryong in Victoria, Yarrabah in Queensland and Lightning Ridge in New South Wales.
Freehand Productions have packaged a joyous little series here, that may yet inspire some to put pen to paper, or rhyming words to syntax. Its mix of competition, art and social history sparkles.
Bush Slam airs 8pm Tuesdays on ABC1.