Rochford Street Review Previews the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival

Sydney-Writers-Festival-logoIt looks like being a busy month in Sydney with the Sydney Writers’ Festival officially kicking off next Tuesday with Mohsin Hamid’s Opening Address, followed by the Sydney Film Festival which opens with Ruben Guthrie on 3 June (

There is something of a tradition in the weeks leading up to these festivals for various people and organisations to make their selections/predictions on what will be the”must see events of the festival. As we don’t want to be left out, Rochford Street Review has decided to join this tradition and make our selection of the “must see” events of the festivals. Today we start with the Sydney Writers’ Festival and next week we will cover the Sydney Film Festival.

While the SWF doesn’t officially kick off until next week a number of events have crept outside of the official festival time frame of 18 to 24 May. One of the highlights, for example, took place on 1 May when former Prime Minister Julia Gillard was ‘in conversation’ with Jamila Rizvi. Editor in Chief of the Mamamia Women’s Network websites,  on the theme of “Standing for Something (Standing for Something – the raison d’etre of Julia Gillard: Linda Adair & Lucinda Adair-Roberts reflect on a conversation). This was followed on 8 May by another sold out event – James Patterson on The Rise and Rise of the World’s Biggest Author.

This weekend Rochford Street Review will be heading up to the mountains to Varuna, The National Writers House in Katoomba for a weekend of events leading into Festival week. We are looking forward to Whispering Trees, which is described as an “atmospheric sound installation created by local artists Solange Kershaw and Damian Castaldi in collaboration with local poets Mark O’Flynn, Vanessa Kirkpatrick, Emma Brazil and Craig Billingham, and micro fiction author Amanda Kaye”. The installation is set in Varuna’s gardens and we will be checking the weekend weather forecasts with fingers crossed. At 2pm on 16th there is a session where the poets and sound artists who took part in the installation will discuss the work and the process which brought it together.

Staying at Varuna, Sunday afternoon sees the storytellers of Yamakarra! take centre stage with a discussion about their history followed by the telling of their stories. Yamakarra! is built on the memories of Liza Kennedy (1902-1996) and it celebrates a group of Aboriginal people whose country lies between Cobar and Ivanhoe in far western NSW. Lack of water in this region meant that the grazing industry did not take hold until the second half of the 19th century, so Aunty Liza (Liza Kennedy) grew up with people who had been born before that industry took over their country. Full details of SWF activities in Katoomba are available from

Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid

The next entry in our diary is Mohsin Hamid’s Opening Address ‘Life in the Time of Permawar’ on 19th May (Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay). Hamid, who is the author of three novels, Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, as well as a book of essays, Discontent and Its Civilizations, will speak on how do we live in era of growing uncertainty and incessant conflict and what role does fiction play in such a world.

While there is amazing line up of international writers at this year’s festival, we will, for the most part, be concentrating on the local talent. In particular we are looking forward to:

  • Daniel Mendelsohn and David Malouf in Writers on Writers: Malouf and Mendelsohn on the Classics –  American memoirist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn and Australian writer and poet David Malouf discuss their appreciation for the classics. Malouf’s novel Ransom is an elegant riff on the Iliad, and was described as ‘profound and successful’ by Mendelsohn in The New Yorker. Mendelsohn’s newest book is an intimate portrait of him and his father as they follow in the footsteps of Homer’s Odyssey. They will both consider on why ancient narratives hold such power today. Thursday 21 May. 11.30am. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay.
  • Kate Grenville: One Life. In conversation with Tegan Bennett Daylight. Grenville’s latest book is based on fragments of memoirs left by her mother. One Life is a daughter’s intimate account of a mother who mixed ambition with domesticity at a time of great change for women. Thursday 21 May. 1.30pm. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay.
  • Helen Garner: How Can We Write About Darkness? Garner will share a few of the many sources that have inspired her non-fiction writing, from crime-scene photo archives to the poetry of Charles Reznikoff and the writings of Janet Malcolm. She will talk to Cath Keenan following the talk. Thursday 21 May. 8.30pm. City Recital Hall.
  • Writing Family: Kate Grenville, Romona Koval and Barrie Cassidy. Caroline Overington talks to three Australian writers about the delicacies, drawbacks and rewards of writing about family. Friday 22 May. 11.30pm. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay.
  • Give Me Back My Mother’s Heart a performance of Aborignal Poetry featuring Ali Cobby Eckermann (Aboriginal Writers Retreat) with Lionel Fogarty, Maggie Walsh, Ken Canning, Lorna Munro, Elizabeth Wymarra and the Redfern Writers Group. Saturday May 23 Wharf Theatre 2, Walsh Bay 11.30am

one lifeAlso on the agenda will be the MCA Zine Fair which will run from Friday 22 May 5pm through to Sunday 24 at 4.30pm at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

In addition to the central Sydney locations there are a range of activities and workshops across Sydney from Auburn to Sutherland. A highlight for anyone interested in writing and publishing poetry would have to be  ‘Get Your Poetry Up and Out There’ at Parramatta Artists Studios, Level Two, 68 Macquarie St, Parramatta on Thursday 21 May. This panel discussion is designed to cover all the ways of getting your poetry noticed from magazine and book publishing to performing, blogging and YouTubing and features Elizabeth Allen (Vagabond Press), Fiona Wright (Giramondo Publishing), Michelle Cahill (Mascara Literary Review) and Ahmad Al Rady (Bankstown Poetry Slam).

For complete details on the festival go to the official website Rochford Street Review would be interested to get your views on festival events – feel free to connect with us on Twitter or Facebook or email your comments to us

-Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is currently editor of Rochford Street Review and is Poetry Editor for Social Alternatives journal.

Rochford Street Review is anxious to cover writing, film and cultural festivals across Ausatralia and internationally. If you are involved in running a festival pleasemake sure we are on your publicity list and get in contact


Adam Aitken on The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries Conference

The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries Conference was held at Deakin University (Deakin Prime in Melbourne) on 12th and 13th of April 2012. Adam Aitken, who presented on “(un)becoming hybridity in my poetry”, looks back on the highlights of the conference. This account was first published on Adam’s blog

Adam Atiken. Photo by Adrian Wiggins (

The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries Conference was one of the best conferences I’ve been to. The conversations were lively, and there was a refreshing openness and willingness to understand the institutional limits of our thinking. The postmodern did its dance with the postcolonial in a good atmosphere that seemed free of the defensiveness and self-censoring that often occurs at such conferences.

One of the major debates has been the reasons for the demise of postcolonial study of poetry throughout the world, and the subsequent shrinkage of voices from the margins. But no-one came out and ‘blamed’ the postmodernists, no one blamed “po-co” theory for being out-of-date, but good critiques were mounted on the limits of these paradigms, and poetry as poesis or “making” (dare I say in Shelleyan terms the “Spirit” of Poetry) seemed to survive the machine that theorises it. (Or at least I didn’t feel overwhelmed by theory, but affirmed by the workability of bringing together of theory and poetry performance. It certainly allowed me a freedom to speak in ways I have been craving for years.)

To kick things off Peter Minter reprised his critique of the recent Gray/Lehmann battleship anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788. Minter argues that the project comes across as a “neo-colonial vanity project” that fails to achieve its claimed objective representation of Indigenous, ethnic and postmodern Australian poets; its fails to disclose its subjectivity, a point made already by David McCoohey in an early review of the book. Minter called the framing of the collection (by its introduction and its faux-Aboriginal emu-design cover pages) an example of nationalistic kitsch. One view is that whatever the quality of the selection, the canonising function of the national anthology represents a kind of management document for the archiving of a certain ideal Imaginary, one whose border are already belated and possibly out of date, an argument both Bridie McCarthy (“Border Protection: Neo-Colonialism and the Canon”) and Lucy Van (“‘Why Waste Lines on Achille?’: Tracing the Critical Discourse on Postcolonial Poetry”) touched on in their respective papers.

Minter’s figure of the archipelagic map of Australia swims for me, so rather than one island made of “empty space”, we are a constellation of geo-psychic centres scattered between the equator and semi-arctic latitudes. The desire is to connect these centres in a diplomatic way, through a poetics of relation and movement. Minter’s eco-poetic is complex and continually re-imagined and changing, and so far no national cultural “programme” or manifesto is offered to replace current Federal-State structures for the arts. In a sense, Minter’s Glissantian vision is antithetic to centralist bureaucratisation, is self-engendering and anarchic. (Should the participants in the debate over the direction of the ‘peak-body’ Australian Poetry take note here?)

The Eurocentrism of the academies was hardly apparent here (though the venue itself was pure High Modernist Corporate and rather neutral in terms of cultural markers of identity, but everything worked; and some of the conference food was “Asian”), and rather than merely accept any kind of approach as the “right one” for all of us, there was a thoughtful suspension (or muting perhaps) of the manifesto-impulse. That said, a certain participant confided in me that she thought John Hawke’s launch of VLAK, a journal produced by a coalition of Australian internationalists and expatriate Louis Armand, had a whiff of “cultural cringe”. Looking through the volume afterwards, I was impressed by how many Australian-based poets had a presence here, and rather than read this as “Australians going Euro-avant-garde”, I read a concomitant vector in which Australian marginalism and our own awkward multiculturalism and location hybridises the master signifier of “Europe” itself. VLAK is European, but the term already masks its own contradictions and the seeds of its own deconstruction and impossibility. VLAK comes out of Prague, not Paris or London or Berlin, and arguably it speaks of some kind of Eastern European marginality vis-à-vis the West, a marginality that invites collaboration with our own.

For everyone the challenge was to talk about Australian poetry as something that is still growing and negotiating its own relations to it own marginality, and to speak with/back to the grand body of European postmodern theory, to postcolonial traditions (the subaltern studies group, Latin American traditions, hybridity theorists and others), and to Asian-American literary studies, a kind of big sibling of a nascent Asian-Australian formation represented here by Tim Yu a leading theorist and Asian-American poet in his own right. As Michael Farrell’s quip about “marsupial consciousness” suggests, the organism is still semi-foetal and in need of many mothers’ protection, and it would be premature to champion any kind of eco-poetics or hybrid consciousness as the future terrain of our reading.

Ali Alizadeh offered a post-Marxist critique of how we over-determine identity in migrant and indigenous poetries, and, in a controversial reading of an Ali Cobby Eckermann poem, suggested that identity is virtual and operates as a kind of fantasy that obscures the material and eco-political conditions that oppressed subjects deal with. Arguing against that I suggested a way of reading identity in Butlerian terms, which sees identity as performative and constituted in the interpellative moment. We become who we are – gendered and raced – through self-identity, but also because we respond to the labels others put upon us, and the effects of language and of naming are material; identity is symbolic as language itself is a system of symbols with communicative and ideological effects; identity is not merely symbolic or virtual or to be relegated under macro-economic superstructures and ideologies, and there is a complex pre-ideological moment before identity is affixed, through language, on the body. But I argue that in the face of essentialistic racism we can hybridise those labels deliberately and disobediently through speech acts.

Maintaining a hold on Australian studies, the enthusiastic, warm, and venerable Lyn McCredden gave a brilliantly strong reading of the tropic traces of “Australian nation” (its status as a centring Imaginary) in poems by John Forbes and Ken Bolton. Opening up her own position to debate, she invited different readings. I suggested that she extend the study of nation in Forbes and Bolton to include their poems about other nations, European ones at that. McCredden’s main point is that however we try to break away from controlling discourses of nation in the popular imaginary (e.g. ANZAC, the Beach, Tom Roberts painting of shearers etc.) Nation and Nationalism Aussie style won’t go away and should not be ignored. Indeed poets need to address such a demotic in order to remain relevant as critics of the current neo-colonial regress in popular Australian culture.

Other notable papers included Michael Farrell’s reading of on the Neo-baroque in Michael Dransfield. Michelle Cahill gave a brilliant paper on the subaltern and the necessity, perhaps, to step outside the institutions that continually silence the subaltern. There was a good discussion of what the margin-centre looks like now in the Australian poetry scene, and how an Asian-Australian literary formation might address margin-centre formations. It was my own sense that good will exists towards the project of opening up the space with an Asian-Australian anthology, and many are looking forward to have more discussion of form and language in AA poetries.Tim Yu’s paper re-enforced a perception that AA poetry was invisible, and that in his own research he had begun to see that there was no easy parity between the two versions of AA – Asian-Australian was NOT an obvious kindred model of Asian-American literature.

Other great papers and performances included Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawers, “A migrant poet and the fine art of escapism”and Ania Walwicz reading “‘cut-tongue’-fragmentation, collage and defence”. Danijela’s story of how she overcame her own silence, and learned to speak of post-war trauma, was extremely moving and instructive. Her own sense of her own migrancy in Australia reminded everyone that being a migrant poet is subject to all sorts of limitations and expectations and impositions from the audience. Her own work, however, is both resistant and critical of what “migrant poet” means in the first place, and her life and work which is often surreal, playful, confounding, often transcends the limits of the framework imposed by managed multiculturalism.

A fitting closure was Ann Vickery’s wonderful paper on Juliana Spahr’s book Fuck You Aloha I Love You, a book very much about how a white woman negotiates cultural chauvinism in Hawai’i, and how the white female critic can respond to anti-white racism. In the face of hateful vilification, what responses are open to scholars to keep the debates and conversations open? How do empowered white scholars deconstruct their own cosmopolitan readings of the non-white, the non-cosmopolitan and the colonised on the margins? The ideas were familiar, but what moved everyone was Ann’s reading of Spahr’s poem and Ann’s “confession” that she felt guilty that she had neglected race in much of her scholarship. Awful silences occur in classrooms when race-talk becomes a divisive machine, a taboo subject, so if the military atmosphere is to be decommissioned, poetry like Spahr’s should be heard and conferences like this one need to continue.

Finally it was a great loss not to have heard Sam Wagan Watson, who was ill. I wanted very much to discuss how he saw hybridity theory and its limits, the subject of my paper. In defiance of much hybridity-theory’s need to “smash essentialisms” I am sure he would have given an impassioned description and defence of the essential at the heart of his identity and how his poetry configures nation, land, imagination, desire, and identity. A conversation for another time.

Adam Aitken


Adam Aitken latest collection of poetry is the chapbook Tonto’s Revenge (Tinfish Press). He has just returned from three seasons in France and now lives in Sydney.