‘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/

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 (http://www.sff.org.au/).

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 http://www.varuna.com.au/varuna/index.php/varuna-sydney-writers-festival.

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 http://www.swf.org.au/. 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  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/about-rochford-street-review/contact-rochford-street-review/

-Mark Roberts

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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 https://rochfordstreetreview.com/about-rochford-street-review/contact-rochford-street-review/

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The Indomitable Spirit of the Film Maker: Michele Seminara reviews ‘Symphony of Strange Waters’ & ‘Don’t Bury My Heart’

Symphony of Strange Waters and Don’t Bury My Heart:  films by Saba Vasefi screened at NSW Parliament House on November 19, 2014

'Symphony of Strange Waters' a film by Saba Vasefi

Symphony of Strange Waters a film by Saba Vasefi

Last November human rights activist, film-maker, poet and academic Saba Vasefi launched her films, Symphony of Strange Waters and Don’t Bury My Heart, at  Parliament House in Sydney to an appreciative and supportive audience. The event was organised by Greens Senator Lee Rhianon and Greens Member of the NSW Legislative Council, Dr. Mehreen Faruqi. The audience were treated to speeches by author, academic and editor Michelle Cahill; Head Of Producing at the Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS) Andrena Finlay; and musical performances by the Tara Anglican School’s Axis Wind Ensemble (conducted by Iain Hoy), and Minerva Khodabande, cellist with the Sydney Youth Orchestra.

First screened at The United Nations in Geneva, Symphony of Strange Waters is a poetic and metaphoric film which deals with the experience of an Iranian child refugee arriving in Australia, a country where “even the taste of the water was unfamiliar to me”, and where her inability to speak English left her feeling isolated and unheard. The film is visually breathtaking, with the first half sub-titled and shot underwater, allowing the audience to experience the sense of exile and voicelessness of the young refugee before she discovers— on taking her cello to school one day—that when she plays “People stopped, and started to listen”. Able to speak for the first time through the medium of her music, she then emerges onto dry land, having found a way to connect with her new home and its people. The film expresses how vulnerable and “at sea” refugees feel in a strange new land, and how important artistic pursuits are in helping them to find their voice and express and process their traumatic experiences. As poet Michele Cahill pointed out, while our own government’s policies on refugees become increasingly regressive and ideologically reductive, the use of art and music therapy becomes even more essential, functioning—in essence—as a form of breathing, a method for survival.

Saba Vasefi - speaking at the screening of her films Symphony of Strange Waters and Don’t Bury My Heart at NSW Parliament House

Saba Vasefi – speaking at the screening of her films Symphony of Strange Waters and Don’t Bury My Heart at NSW Parliament House.

Don’t Bury My Heart—which has previously been screened by Amnesty International, the United Nations, the BBC, UCLA, and at the Copenhagen International Film festival and the Seen & Heard Film Festival—is a documentary dealing with the chilling issue of the death penalty in Iran as it pertains to children. Although it is illegal in Iran to put children who have committed a crime to death, they may, and are being, sentenced to death (from the age of 9 for girls and 15 for boys), and then held on death row until the age of eighteen, when they are executed. These horrific set of circumstances are explored in a compassionate and complex way in Don’t Bury My Heart: the victim’s—as well as the perpetrator’s—families are interviewed, and many of the scenes in the film are extremely emotional and harrowing. In fact, there was a stunned silence at the end of the screening, as the audience struggled to digest the shocking reality of what they had just witnessed.

In making Don’t Bury My Heart, filmmaker Andrena Finlay said that Saba was to be commended for using film as a tool to shine light on important human rights issues, literally bringing them out of the darkness of the Iranian government’s censorship. To highlight this she told the story of how some of Saba’s film footage was confiscated by officials, and how the documentary was only completed because Saba had the foresight to leave a copy of the film on a USB stick with her mother, who buried it in her garden and then emailed the footage piece by piece back to her in Australia. That the film was made at all is testament to the indomitable spirit of the film maker, and her determination to speak out on behalf of those whose voices are ignored, particularly those of children.

Don’t Bury My Heart - a film examining the death penalty in Iran as it pertains to children

Don’t Bury My Heart – a film examining the death penalty in Iran as it pertains to children

This type of activism has been a hallmark of Saba’s life. As she recounted to the audience on the night, at twenty-four she became one of the youngest lecturers to be appointed to the prestigious Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, but was fired four years later due to her human rights activities. These obstacles only made her more determined, however, and since arriving in Australia she has studied documentary film directing at AFTERS, and continues to fight for the rights of the most vulnerable in our society—refugees—using film as her medium. And while Don’t Bury My Heart deals with human rights abuses in Iran, Saba made a point of noting that refugees—including children—are also being abused here in Australia: “While the Iranian government are executing children by the rope, the Australian government are doing the same by torturing and locking them in detention centres. When I decided to make this film about child refugees, I was advised to change my topic because Australia is sick of refugees—however, this only made me more determined to make the film.”

As Mary-Ellen Mullane (Investment/Development Manager in Documentary at Screen Australia) commented after seeing the films, “Symphony of Strange Waters and Don’t Bury My Heart are both very much works ‘from the heart’ of a strong woman with something to say. She (Saba) shows great potential as a film maker.” All who were in attendance on the evening, and who have viewed the films world-wide, could not help but agree.

– Michele Seminara

The screening was supported by the Tara Anglican School for Girls; Jan Bowen, chair of the Sydney Youth Orchestra and Stephanie Hutchinson, General Manager of the Orchestra; Pat Fiske, prominent member of Australia’s independent film making community; Mary-Ellen Mullane, Investment/ Development Manager in Documentary at Screen Australia; and Jennifer Ross, Executive and Research Assistant at the National Children’s Commissioner of the Australian Human Rights Commission. ———————————————————————————————————–

Michele Seminara is a poet and yoga teacher from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Bluepepper, Tincture Journal, Regime, Seizure, Plumwood Mountain and Social Alternatives. She is also the managing editor of on-line creative arts journal Verity La. She blogs at http://micheleseminara.wordpress.com/ and is on twitter @SeminaraMichele

At 24 years of age Saba Vasefi became a lecturer at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, one of Iran’s most prestigious schools. She became a member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters, and also worked as a reporter for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. She was twice a judge for the Sedigheh Dolatabadi Book Prize for best literature on women’s issues. However, she was expelled from the University after 4 years of teaching due to her activism, and fled from Iran to Australia. She completed a postgraduate degree in documentary film making at The Australian Film TV and Radio School (AFTRS). She is also the director of the prestigious ‘Woman Scream’ International Poetry Festival, to be held for the second time in Sydney, on 6 March this year. https://www.facebook.com/events/1396462200655728/?pnref=story

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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 http://adamaitken.blogspot.com.au/

Adam Atiken. Photo by Adrian Wiggins (www.pureandapplies.net/adrian)

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

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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.

Poetry Conferences each side of the Tasman: Short Takes on Long Poems and The Political Imagination

Over the next few weeks there are two poetry conferences you shouldn’t miss…unless like me you are in Sydney and the conferences are being held at the University of Auckland and the Melbourne campus of Deakin University.

First to Auckland…next week, on the 29th and 30th March I will be missing Short Takes on Long Poems: A Trans Tasman Symposium at the University of Auckland hosted by the New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre (nzepc). This  is the sixth symposium nzepc has organised (the others being Auckland 2004, Christchurch 2005, Bluff 2006, Auckland 2010 and Sydney 2010).

According to the conference organisers Short Takes on Long Poems will focus on “short long poems and long short poems; in epic and seriality; in the book-length or site-specific poem”. They continue:  “we like the challenge of folding the universe into a matchbox. We like matchboxes made of dark matter. We want to be surprised, diverted and delighted by what we can bring to points of exchange, and we want to bring those points – before, during, and/or after our symposium – into digital renditions”.

Some of the highlights, from an Australian perspective include John Tranter talking about his poem ‘The Anaglyph,’ collected in Starlight: 150 Poems (UQP 2010). Also on the program is Pam Brown who will presenting Kevin Davies’ long poem ‘Duckwalking a Perimeter’, the penultimate section of his book  The Golden Age of Paraphernalia,  Philip Mead on John Kinsella’s 400-page Divine Comedy: journeys through a regional geography, Hazel Smith on ‘The Film of Sound’ – the contemporary long poem exists not only on the page,” but has also evolved off the page through performance, intermedia work and new media writing”,  Sam Moginie and Andy Carruthers on Jas H. Duke’s Destiny Wood and Australian Experimentalism, Toby Fitch reading from his work ‘Rawshock’ a long poem in 10 parts, Martin Harrison on the question of endings, Jill Jones  on the intersection of the long poem  with “other art practices, other modalities”, Ann Vickery on on a series of collaborative longish poems written and performed by Australian poets Pam Brown, Carol Christie, Jane McKemmish and Amanda Stewart,  Ella O’Keefe on John Anderson’s book-length poem the forest set out like the night and Jessica Wilkinson on her long poetic-biography of early cinema actress Marion Davies,  And this is before we start looking at the New Zealand and other international presenters.

Even before I will be able to start to get over my disappointment at missing Short Takes on Long Poems, I’m going to have to confront even more disappointment when I  wont be able to make the trip to Melbourne for  The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries  at Deakin University (Deakin Prime in Melbourne) on 12th and 13th of April 2012.

According to the organisers ‘The Political Imagination’ will bring “together some of Australia’s leading poets and poetry scholars to investigate the state of contemporary postcolonial and diasporic poetries. It aims to explore the contentious, at times controversial, issues surrounding the production and discussion of poetry and poetics in work that engages with the politics of the postcolonial, the transnational and the diasporic. Among the topics addressed by symposium participants will be opposition, identity, subversion and hybridity”.

One of the potential highlights, as we approach the 39th anniversary of Michael Dransfield’s death later in April, is Michael Farrell’s presentation on ‘‘a needle spelling XANADU’: Reading Michael Dransfield’s ‘Courland Penders’ through the Neobaroque’. To quote from the abstract to this paper:

The neobaroque, also known as the colonial or counter-baroque is posed, in Latin American literature, as a counter-conquest mode. In this paper I attempt to reframe what has been seen as Dransfield’s romantic myth of Courland Penders as a neobaroque space: one that extends, critiques and parodies the colonial. As Alejo Carpentier writes in the Latin American context, ‘Let us not fear the Baroque, our art, born from trees, timber, altarpieces, and altars, from decadent carvings and calligraphic portraits, and even from late neoclassicisms’. Is this art foreign to Australia, or does it exist in imaginary inventions (or ‘folds’) like Courland Penders?

Two more quotes are relevant: Cuban critic Severo Sarduy writes that ‘Baroque space is superabundant and wasteful. In contrast to language that is communicative, economic, austere, and reduced to function as a vehicle for information, Baroque language delights in surplus, in excess, and in the partial loss of its object’; Irlemar Chiampi describes the neobaroque as ‘the aesthetic of countermodernity’. The former rejects the economic model of settlement; the latter affirms the former’s style. The specific poems I consider in seeking to read Dransfield as a producer of Australian baroque are ‘Portrait of the artist as an old man’, ‘Courland Penders: going home’, ‘Tapestry at Courland Penders’, and ‘Birthday ballad, Courland Penders’, all from Dransfield’s first book, Streets of the Long Voyage.

The other presentations look just as interesting:

  • Adam Aitken  “(un)becoming hybridity in my poetry”
  • Ali Alizadeh on “Metapolitics vs. identity politics: (re-)radicalising the postcolonial”,
  • Michelle Cahill on “The Poetics of Subalternity”
  • Danijela Kambaskovic-Sawers on “A migrant poet and the fine art of escapism”
  • Bridie McCarthy on” Border Protection: Neo-Colonialism and the Canon”
  • Lyn McCredden on “Poetry and the Nation”
  • Peter Minter on ‘Toward a Decolonised Australian Poetry’
  • Lucy Van on “‘Why Waste Lines on Achille?’: Tracing the Critical Discourse on Postcolonial Poetry
  • Ann Vickery on “Postcolonial Lovetypes: On Doing and Not Doing Her Kind in the Poetry of Juliana Spahr and Astrid Lorange”
  • Ania Walwicz on “cut tongue”-fragmentation, collage and defence”
  • Sam Wagan Watson on “Fight Club”

If, unlike me you are able to make the trip to Auckland or Melbourne, or if you are already in those cities, then it would be almost unforgivable not to make an effort to attend these conferences. For further information check out the relevant websites and book your tickets!

Short Takes on Long Poems: A Trans Tasman Symposium

The Political Imagination: Contemporary Postcolonial and Diasporic Poetries

I say AU, you say UA…..Mark Roberts reviews ‘AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia / Сучасна поезія України та Австралії’

AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia / Сучасна поезія України та Австралії  Edited by Les Wicks, Yury Zavadsky and Grigory Semenchuk. Published as ebook by Krok (Ternopil, Ukraine) in association with Meuse Press (Sydney, Australia). 2011.

Yury Zavadsky one of the editors of AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia

The past few months have not been the best time to release an anthology of poetry in Australia – that is if you want to get some mainstream attention in the literary press. That large anthology by Gray and Lehmann seems to have been sucking up all the reviews and interviews and not leaving much oxygen for anyone else. But things have been happening under the radar. One of the most interesting being the publication of an ebook anthology of contemporary poetry from Australia and the Ukraine. While the Gray/Lehmann anthology is bending bookcases in Libraries and bookshops this collection of Australian and Ukraine poets exists as a free downloadable ebook.

So why an anthology of contemporary Ukrainian and Australian poetry and why now? Unfortunately we don’t learn very much about the reasons why this anthology was put together. We have a list of editors (Les Wicks, Yury Zavadsky and Grigory Semenchuk), and a brief statement “UA/AU is an invitation to explore the contemporary poetries of the Ukraine and Australia”. I would have liked a little more information from the editors, an introduction for example, setting out how the connection between poets in the Ukraine and Australia came about, how the poets and poems were selected, a little background on the state of poetry in both countries and what the future might hold.

So we are left with the actual poems. Each poet, in both the Australian and Ukrainian section, is given a single poem – presented first in the original language and then in translation. While a single poem isn’t enough to get a sense of a poets’ work, it does allow the anthology to present a wider range of poetic styles from each country without creating a book of overwhelming proportions,

For an Australian reader the poets in the AU section are familiar names – Judith Beveridge, Susan Bradley-Smith, Pam Brown, Joanne Burns, Michelle Cahill, Michael Farrell, Phillip Hammial, Susan Hampton, Andy Jackson, Jill Jones, Christpopher Kelen, Cath Kenneally, Karen Knight, Mike Ladd, Anthony Lawrence, Myron Lysenko, Chris Mansell, Peter Minter, David Musgrave and Les Wicks.

But the importance of this anthology is that it makes us move out of our poetic comfort zone. For an Australian reader that means becoming acquainted with the Ukrainian poets and poems. But, as with any translation, it is not just the poets and poems, for the role of the translator is made very clear in this anthology. For example, in the translation of Pavlo Hirnyk’s ‘It Dawns, It Leaks, Its Light…’ (translation by Yury Zavadsky and Les Wicks) there is a very strong rhythm and rhyme:

Aloft the darken raven flies,

The colding home beyond my way.

The tiny tear imbibed by eyes –

My tired family in wait.

Without being able to read the original poem it is difficult to fully appreciate how much of this English poem is in the original and how much it depends on the translation. For instance, in order to maintain the rhyme has the meaning of the poem changed in a subtle way.? Was there another English word that would have conveyed the meaning of the original poem better, but would have broken the rhyme? For most of the readers of this anthology these are questions which we cannot answer.

Sometimes, however, a poem seemingly transcends the translation. In Yuri Andrukhovych’s ‘And Everybody Fucks You’ (translated by Sarah Luczaj), it is possible to forget that this is a translation:

A hundred bucks a month – I thought to myself.

And everybody fucks you.

Is it a plus or a minus, how to understand it? I wondered.

And it what sense, I thought to myself, in the literal

or maybe the metaphorical?

There are probably a number of reasons why this poem ‘works’ in the context of this anthology. It maybe that the orignal poem is written a style familiar to Australian readers, influenced by the same poets and poems that many Australian poets and poems have been. Or maybe the translator has found that fine balance between being honest to the original and creating a poem which stands in its own right.

Other Ukrainian poems which stand out in this anthology include Myhailo Hryhoriv’s ‘Renegrade Blizzards’ (translated by Yury Zavadsky, Les Wicks, Catalina Girona and Andrii Antonovskyi) and Victor Neborak’s ‘The Writer’ (translated by Mark Andryczk).

Iryna Shuvalova’s “You Are Black as Winter” (translated by Michael M. Naydan) is a particularly striking poem. It’s opening seems almost familiar and probably wouldn’t look out of place in an Australian literary journal:

…..you are black as winter

your palms shut

you clenched your treasure

of unspent lives

and angels rush

in the air –

In the end AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia is more of an appertiser than a main course. While most Australian readers will feel comfortable with the choice of Australian poems, I couldn’t help but feel that the anthology would have been more successful if there was a little more context to the poems. After reading the Ukrainian poems, for example, I would have liked to have been able to understand a little more about where these poems came from. Questions such as how has poetry in the Ukraine changed since the fall of the Soviet Union would seem to be an obvious starting point. I’m sure Ukrainian readers of the Australian poems would have similar questions about how Australian poetry has developed over recent decades.

In the final instance the value of this anthology is an introduction to poets and poems that many of us would not have come across before. In the long term its success will be measured by how many readers make the effort to chase down other translated poems by some the poets they first discovered in AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia.

AU/UA: Contemporary Poetry of Ukraine and Australia. can be downloaded freely at:

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.