Super Poet, Furious Cowgirl and Slam Ma’am-Emilie Zoe Baker

Interview by Helena Den Exter.

Visiting the North coast recently was local girl EMILIE ZOEY BAKER to perform at the Byron writers Festival as part of the literary cabaret Liner Notes which presented a poetic tribute to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.

Emilie is an Award-winning Australian poet, spoken-word performer and as her website says “ Super Poet, Furious Cowgirl and Slam Ma’am”.  She performs regularly at arts and literature festivals and has travelled extensively.    Emilie teaches poetry and slam in schools and in April 2014, joined the  core faculty at Canada’s Banff Centre. Emilie is also the author of eighteen children’s books and has published several poetry collections.

Her achievements are many – just search the internet and you will be impressed.   She is passionate about literature and to find more about her background and what motivates her we asked her a few questions.  Read on for an entertaining ride…   join the journey and spread the word..   EZB is an inspiration for promoting the written word…  Australia we need you —

You were recently here for the Byron Bay Writers Festival.  Is this the first time you’ve been involved with the Festival?

Yes, even though I have a very strong connection with the area, having lived there for many years – I went to Brunswick Primary and Mullumbimby High – it was the first time I had been part of the writer’s festival.

What were the highlights of the Festival for you?

Sadly I was in and out very quickly and only got to do our event, Liner Notes, at the Byron Theatre, but I’m hoping if we come back next year we’ll be able to milk more of the festival’s magic.

As a former ‘Mullum’ girl, is it fun to revisit the area?

At first it was a real spin-out – it was like a movie. I was seeing myself as a gawky teenage kid everywhere I looked – eating tofu chips at the Emporium café, walking endlessly up and down the main street, making ivy headdresses on my way to school with the vines from the bowling club, Petria Thomas beating me at freestyle (Mullum pool is now named after her), throwing myself off the bridge in Brunswick Heads yelling ‘MADONNA!’ as I crashed into the water below, finding old friends’ houses like hotspots of memory… I was downloading everything all at once, I had to close my eyes in some bits because it was so overwhelming.

Did living in Mullum influence your creativity?

I did a lot of theatre in Mullum. I didn’t just cut my teeth, I sharpened them to a fine point. I don’t know what I would’ve done without the Old Drill Hall, the Byron Youth Theatre and various others in the shire (I joined them all). It was my life – I had a rehearsal or a performance every night of the week and I loved it, it gave me ALL the confidence. But I always dreamt of going to Sydney and becoming a REAL actor. Now all I think about is, how do I get back?

What’s your first memory of being in love with words?

I always remember words and stories were my thing. Those were my gold-star moments (literally – those little stickers were serious kid currency of the highest degree). The more I wrote, the more the stars started piling in. I was rich – RICH, I tell you! Poetry came a lot later. I remember pressing poems into my English teacher’s hands, trying to impress her with my teenage prose.

You now write for children, do you have any advice for a parent trying to encourage word skills in their child’s developing years?

Read to them with enthusiasm! Your love of a story is infectious, the more fun you make it, the more fun they will have. Pick a word from the dictionary each night and try and guess what it means, have a dinner table spelling bee, do a family ‘exquisite corpse’, write amazing quotes on the chalkboard, put poetry in their lunchbox, hang words in a tree and call it a ‘poetree’, re-label all the household items have fun with words!

You seem to have travelled a lot with your work.  What is your favourite place?

I have travelled a lot – I’m so, so lucky. I always tell my students: ‘Look, I’ll be frank – there’s not a whole bunch of money in poetry. But man, I’ve seen some of the most beautiful places on the planet simply because I write, and that’s the kind of life I want to live. So I’m basically a millionaire.’ It’s hard to pick a favourite: it’s the WORLD, it’s terrifically diverse. It’s overwhelmingly exciting. Travelling is bliss.

In April this year, I read that you joined the core faculty at Canada’s Banff Centre.  What is your role there?

Ok, well look if you HAD to push me for a favourite, this would be it. Nestled in Banff National Park, the centre is about two hours from Calgary. It’s surrounded by huge snow-capped mountains, and has its own natural hot springs and some of the most iconic natural wonders of the world, including the perfectly turquoise glass-mirrored Lake Louise. I was there in April (spring), so everything was waking up. Buds were shyly making their way out from branches, ice was melting, bears were shaking the sleep out of their eyes, the huge sapphire river that bordered the town was sparkling and the sky was a mixed cocktail of late snow and sunshine. There were elk roaming the grounds of the campus, their little tails shaking in the morning frost as they pulled the newly exposed tufts of grass from the wet ground. I once pushed the ‘walk’ button in town for a small family of deer moseying across the street by the pub.

I was invited as core faculty for the annual spoken word program. I taught and mentored an amazing group of Canadian and American artists, and it was one of the most unbelievably rewarding times of my entire career.  It made me want to run back to Australia find about nine trillion dollars and start one of my own.

How does the presence of poetry in Canada compare to Australia?

Canada has a great and wonderful respect for all the arts – in fact, Canada had poet Shane Koyczan open the Winter Olympics. A POET, you guys! WHERE THERE WAS SPORTS. Could you imagine Australia swapping Nikki Webster for Les Murray? Or inflatable kangaroos for Dorothy Porter? In Canada, there’s respect for writers, musicians, dance and theatre, for people who create stuff. And if Canada is heaven for artists, the Banff Centre is smack bang in God’s own lounge room.

Canada has a Poet Laureate. Should Australia have one?

Absolutely. When shit goes down, a poet’s job is to be able to help people deal with it – that’s what my understanding of a laureate is. Someone who can help us untangle the wonders, horrors, miseries and miracles. Australia needs that now more than ever.

If there was one thing you’d like to see change in Australia what would it be?

THE GOVERNMENT, OMG. I think the current government is already the most damaging to our society, the environment, culture and to the future in general that we’ve had ever had.

What would you say about the statement “are poets born or made?”

I think everyone is born a poet. There’s this cool story I heard in a writing class – a little girl held up her hand, fingers splayed, and asked her mother ‘How much is this?’ ‘Five,’ her mother told her. ‘And do you know what happens when you put up both hands together?’ The girl replied, ‘Yes – a butterfly!’ The mother resisted telling the girl she meant five and five is ten, and thought, ‘Let art happen when it happens.’ And I think that’s doing an excellent job at parenting. Kids are poetry – let them be poets.

How have your life’s experiences influenced your ideas?

Travel is a big part of my life and perspective is always a great thing to have. I’m also a bit of a history nerd and that is a big influence on my writing. I think everyone has access to a time machine – they’re called books.

What is one of the greatest hurdles you’ve had to cross?

Not being considered a ‘real poet’, mostly by old guys. But so far that hasn’t really damaged any opportunities. I try to stay true to who I am and keep working hard and doing what I do. The older I get, the less of a crap I give what other people think.

I admire your passion and optimism.  You are not afraid to speak out what you believe. Has anyone particular influenced you in this regard or where does that come from?

I had a strong feminist mother, a great artistic household, amazing female role models and Pat Benatar to look up to.

What memorable responses have you had to your work?

I won the Berlin International Literature Festival’s poetry slam with a poem about Australian sports celebrities, which was a pretty great moment. The competition was judged by measuring the decibels of the audience’s response, and that’s how I won.

Would you like to comment on the concept of having ‘Slam Politics’ with a party called ‘Poetry United Party”? 

It would beat the Palmer United Party. But please don’t make all the policies rhyme.

Something you couldn’t live without? 

Nature – I need it like breath.

Bet you didn’t know?

I hate butter – ALL types of butter, and that includes you, avocado.

Finally, Emilie wishes so very hard that creativity was more inclusive in the curriculum and she is working towards it.   Visit her website and join her passion and like her work, she is a local gem.


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