‘The Lifeblood of the Poetry Communities Across Australia’: Zalehah Turner reviews The Australian Poets Festival

APF National Program Director Toby Fitch photograph by Tim Grey

APF National Program Director, Toby Fitch. photograph by Tim Grey

Launched in both Melbourne and Perth on February 20, at Blak & Bright and Perth Writers’ Festival, respectively, Australian Poetry CEO, Jacinta Le Plastrier, said that, “The Australian Poets Festival was the crown jewel of the new national program.” She confirmed that it “will bring the passion of poetry to writing and poetry festivals across the country, highlighting the best and brightest of Australian poets nationally, by state or territory” as well as, supporting younger and emerging poets.

Australian Poets Festival National Program Director, Toby Fitch, added that, the festival “is designed to add new and more diverse poetry events to the major writers’ festivals across Australia, so as to bolster the presence of contemporary poetry in the national conscience.” In developing the APF 2016-17 program, Toby Fitch pitched several events to the major literary festivals, two of which, ‘The BIG READ’ and ‘Mysterious Ways: Poets and Publishing’, were particularly popular with the festival directors but he was keen to point out that there were a range of different events in the APF program, with others to come.

Both ‘The BIG READ’ and ‘Mysterious Ways’ have an obvious appeal as part of a truly national program. An impression that is of vital importance to Australian Poetry, which under Jacinta Le Plastrier, is committed to engaging poets across the country through a range of new programs and services despite the loss of four-year funding from the Australian Council of the Arts.

‘The BIG READ’ focuses the poets and audience on the poetry of the state or territory of the hosting writers’ festival and ‘Mysterious Ways’, on ‘the lifeblood of the poetry communities’: poets who not only write but sell, edit, teach, or publish. Both events formed part of the program at the Australian Poets Festival launch on 20 February at the Perth Writers’ Festival with ‘The BIG READ’, featuring different poets, also at Wordstorm: The Northern Territory Writers’ Festival on 7 May and ‘Mysterious Ways’ at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on 22 May.

While, the structure, theme and focus of ‘The BIG READ’ and ‘Mysterious Ways’, remains the same, the selection of poets at each changes as of the APF tours the significant writers’ festivals around Australia. Allowing for a diverse range of opinions, poetic style and experience to inform and engage audiences across Australia. The Australian Poets Festival has the potential to encourage a more inclusive as well as, expansive perception of Australian poetry. Australian Poetry’s new national program may well succeed in revitalising the community’s perception of poetry by showcasing a range of voices “in new and exciting ways” (Le Plastrier) which have the power to engage audiences directly, drawing it closer to the hearts and minds of the community, as a whole. At the sixteen writers’ festivals that the APF will take part in over the next few years, audiences are sure to get a sense of the strength and diversity of poetry and the poetry community within Australia.

While, the Sydney Writers’ Festival did not include ‘The BIG READ’ in its program, it embraced ‘Mysterious Ways: Poetry and Publishing’ as well as, the well-known, Sydney, experimental poetry event, ‘AVANT GAGA’ which was, according to Toby Fitch, “loads of fun.” AP CEO Jacinta Le Plastrier was proud and delighted at the turn out at both Australian Poets Festival events at the SWF. Jacinta Le Plastrier maintained that, “Australian poetry is flourishing and we want to showcase that in a way that is exciting and unexpected” with the Australian Poets Festival, the highlight of the Australian Poetry’s new national program.

Hosted by National Program Director, Toby Fitch, ‘AVANT GAGA’ featured ten poets, including, 2016, Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize winner, joanne burns, alongside, the short listed, Lionel Fogarty, in a sold event with close to 140 in attendance, on Saturday, 21 May. ‘AVANT GAGA’ is not unique to the APF program but rather, comes from a successful, experimental poetry night hosted by Toby Fitch at Sappho Books which most definitely has been succeeding in showcasing poetry in exciting and unexpected ways. While, every event has a different line up, Sydney-siders that missed ‘AVANT GAGA’ at the SWF, can catch it at Sappho Books in the near future.

At the second APF poetry event at the SWF on Sunday, 22 May, ‘Mysterious Ways: Poetry and Publishing’, Kent MacCarter, Kate Lilley and Michelle Cahill each read a selection of their poetry and discussed the ways in which their work, editing Cordite, Southerly and Mascara respectively, and university teaching in the case of Kate Lilley, impacted or influenced the writing of their own poetry. Chair Ivor Indyk, founder of Giramondo Publishing, co-founder of Sydney Review of Books and university professor, carefully negotiated the poetry readings and discussion which under his guidance, intertwined naturally. Ivor Indyk informed the audience as to poets’ background, including their own publications, impressive awards and achievements as well as, those of the journals they edit, create and publish while all the time, gently steering the poets towards the positive connections between the two.

Editor and publisher of Mascara Literary Review, Michelle Cahill claimed that before working on projects which focused on contemporary Asian Australian and Indigenous writers, she had never really identified as writer from a particular background. Having the voices of so many people from different cultural backgrounds come across her desk as an editor was not only eye-opening but helped her reflect on personal notions of race and identity.

Poetry Editor of Southerly and Director of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney, Kate Lilley, is the author of two prize winning books, Versary and Ladylike, with another, Tilt forthcoming. Kate Lilley maintained that until, poems were published in a book, they remained unfinished, continually open to editing and rewriting. She claimed that through reading the poems she shared with the ‘Mysterious Ways’ audience, she hoped to give them a sense of finality.

Kate Lilley read the title poem of Tilt which is also part of the Red Room Company’s Disappearing app. that connects poetry to place. The poem describes her job at the old pinball parlour, Fonzie’s Fantasyland which used to be on Oxford Street, Darlinghurst. By the end of the poem, she knows she is leaving and on to another life. One, she informed the audience at SWF, she was much more suited to, that of academia. Another poem she chose to read, ‘GG’ from Realia, she felt reflected the interconnectedness between the research she undertook at university and the poems she wrote as a result. She also included, ‘Harms Way’, a poem inspired by her own engagement with the crisis of detention policy in this country.

An active member of Melbourne PEN, Creative Director of Cordite and author of three poetry collections, Kent MacCarter claimed that he would read four poems directly influenced by jobs he was working on at the time. However, his first poem, a combination of bricolage and journalism about the ‘incomputable persistence of life’ was ironically inspired by the hardest job of his life, being a father, and the survival stories of airplane crash victims, among others.

He maintained that while working at Cordite came at a great personal cost to his own writing, it gave him a unique position to see what was going on in the world. He also felt strongly that his varied work experience had exposed him to jargon and terms specific to those particular areas which, when taken out of context and used in poetry, had the capacity for wonderful word plays.

Interestingly, in response to an audience member who had seen the explosion of interest around English poet, Kate Tempest since her appearance on Q & A and her opening address at the SWF and wanted to know how poetry could engage that level of attention consistently and why it didn’t generally, Kate Lilley suggested that poetry was constantly engaging with enormous interest and support from the community particularly, in Australia. According to Kate Lilley, poetry was no longer just for the elite and this intense level of interest in poetry which she claimed to witnessed first-hand was happening around us all the time.

‘Mysterious Ways’ certainly addressed several issues surrounding poetry and the publishing industry from the perception of poets who form the ‘lifeblood of the community’ by not only writing and publishing their own but working in ways that make poetry possible for others. Along with ‘AVANT GAGA’, it gave a voice to a range of poets and lead to a successful Sydney premiere of the Australian Poets Festival.

However, National Program Director, Toby Fitch was quick to point out that there were a range of different events that he had been pitching to the literary festivals around the country. “There’s the BIG READ gala, there’s AVANT GAGA, which originated at the Poetry Night at Sappho Books I run monthly, and there’s Mysterious Ways, but there are other events too, and that will happen at festivals to come.”

While those APF poetry events are part of the programs of writers festivals to come, Toby Fitch announced that, “At Queensland Poetry Festival and at Melbourne Writers Festival, on consecutive weekends, along with the [other] events, I’ve also organised for something called ‘Transforming My Country (by Dorothea Mackellar)’, in which poets will read and discuss a poem they’ve written (say, a version, an experimental translation, a response, or a riposte) to that famous Australian poem about Australian identity.” According to Fitch, “The poets in the two iterations of this panel will reflect the diversity of poets at work in Australia.”

The poem now known as ‘My Country’ by Dorothea Mackellar compares England to Australia and was redrafted several times before its initial publication under its original title, ‘Core of My Heart’ in The Spectator, London, 1908.

Some may remember reciting, ‘My Country’, at school until, the words lost their meaning. Still others, may feel strongly that the intensely patriotic poem written by Mackellar at nineteen while homesick in London does not reflect the experience of the average Australian, let alone acknowledge the original landholders, nor the horrors of what was an incredibly recent history at the time the poem was written.

The title itself, ‘Transforming My Country’ suggests that the event allows members of the panel in both cities to reflect and transform through their response, not only the original poem but the concept of national and cultural identity. Through reading and then, discussing the poem they have written for the event, the poets will have the chance to engage the audience in questions of national identity, pride, history, heritage, and culture. As well as, reflecting on the concepts of place and community which are inherent in both the focus on the Australian landscape in the second two stanzas of Mackellar’s poem and the overall theme of belonging.

Given the significance of ‘My Country’ to questions of national identity in Australia, ‘Transforming My Country (by Dorothea Mackellar)’ has the potential to be a key poetry event in the Australian Poetry’s revitalised, national program and the Australian Poets Festival.

However, the APF program is not just about increasing the visibility and diversity of successful poets but also offers workshops, such as the up and coming, ‘Poetry of the Eye: The Visual Aspects of Poetry’ hosted by the Program Director Toby Fitch at the Emerging Writers’ Festival on Wednesday, 15 June at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne. ‘Poetry of the Eye’ is part of the EWF’s ‘Writers’ Night School’. Workshop participants are encouraged to bring a poem or text written by themselves or another, to reshape after learning a brief history of concrete and visual poetry.

The APF is also showcasing other events and awards within Australian Poetry’s new national program. At the Australian Poets Festival launch at the Wheeler Centre on 20 February, Samuel Wagan Watson and his mentee, Caution read poetry, rapped and discussed the importance of Blak voices and the AP Blak mentor program at Blak & Bright, The Victorian Indigenous Literary Festival in Melbourne. Samuel Wagan Watson is one of the poets on the ‘Tune Your Poetry’ committee, an online poetry mentoring service run by Australian Poetry that aims to connect prospective mentees with mentors from the same state or background and identity if requested.

Another significant event in the APF program is the announcement of the winner of the Scanlon Prize at ‘SUNBURNT COUNTRY’, the APF event at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on Friday, 2 September. The Scanlon Prize is a partnership between Australian Poetry and the First Nations Writers’ Network made possible by the Scanlon Foundation.

The Australian Poets Festival is certainly showcasing and increasing the visibility of Australian poetry at writers’ festivals around the country and hopefully will continue to do so with the help of the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. The Copyright Agency contributes 1.5% of its annual income to development projects, such as the APF, that support the Australian publishing and visual arts industries, and have a broad cultural benefit. The program is truly diverse and national with the launch of the Australian Poetry mentoring service at Blak & Bright, ‘The BIG READ’ reconnecting poetry and place, ‘Mysterious Ways’ focusing on the strength of the poetry community, ‘Transforming My Country (by Dorothea Mackellar)’ on questions of national identity, AVANT GAGA on the playful and experimental side of poetry and ‘Poetry of the Eye’ on practical and informative advice on creating your own visual poem.

Given the significant impact of the funding cuts announced by the Australian Council of the Arts on Friday, 13 May to Australian Poetry, along with sixty-two other arts based organisations, one can only hope that people vote in favour of change and the return of adequate and stable funding to the Australian Council of the Arts.

Blak & Bright x Australian Poets Festival: Samuel Wagan Watson and Caution at the launch of the APF at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne on 20 February 2016: Blak & Bright x Australian Poets Festival

-Zalehah Turner

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Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based poet currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review:  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

The next Australian Poets Festival event is ‘Poetry of the Eye’, a workshop held by Toby Fitch at the Emerging Writers’ Festival at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne on Wednesday, 15 June at 6:30pm. Tickets cost $35 and $30 for concession holders. ‘Writers’ Night School: Poetry of the Eye’: http://www.emergingwritersfestival.org.au/event/writers-night-school-poetry-eye/

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