Literary festivals happen again and again in Australia but you'll probably miss most of them. Even if you do reside in a major coastal city, then still, you'll miss things. I know. I used to not care so much, but now I read blogs and keep tabs on the activities of a lot of Australian writers; so I am privy to all the festival happenings, all the goss, and I am naturally left feeling left out. Why can't I go to these cool things if so many other people can?
There is no solution yet. Not until science perfects beam me up' matter transportation technology, or Harry Potter port-key wizardry. The age allows us to know clearly of what we lack. Therefore lack' and isolation' will feature as themes in this article. It seems apt, as the themes have arisen naturally. There are many truths these days. That's true. I'll present just one of them: my attempt to have the poetry experience' at This Is Not Art (TINA) 2009. Mostly it involved samplings from the National Young Writers' Festival (NYWF) and Critical Animals.
I'd only been to Newcastle for TINA once before, in 2008, and I only spent one day in total there, and missed just about everything, including a poetry reading Michael Farrell told me was his best ever'. This year I hoped to do more by spending three days in the city. Experience is the stuff of quantitative analysis.
Each time I catch the train to Newcastle I find myself amongst irritating passengers (last year, a bunch of kids who kept climbing into the overhead luggage compartments and boasting loudly of their sexual conquests; this year, a family that crowded itself into the five seats around me, and proceeded to talk loudly across and above me, and to swap seats with regularity). It's an interesting precursor to some of my festival experiences, the way one can often find oneself alone within a crowd (see: isolation).
So after the isolation of a crowded transit I emerge into the hot Newcastle air to face the further isolation of a hotel room. My university funded this trip, and so I place myself away from the atmosphere (the noise, and no doubt later on the mud) of the youth hostels or the tent-city. It was probably a wise move overall but in the beginning jovial company was something I lacked (lack). There's a considerable period of inertia where I'm caught between the urges to attack my mini-bar and watch Fox8, or to actually get out into the festival crowd. I do both.
Eventually I find myself slightly drunk (the feeling doesn't leave for the next few days) at the Festival club, listening to alternating performers: spoken word artists with concealed identities, officious launch speech types, DJs, and more nuanced electronic artists. The loud bustle of things is comforting but also slightly isolating (isolation). Of course it's not all bad. I meet people. I meet some friends from Melbourne and catch up via a word or two shouted over the noise.
I meet the Critical Animals Director (I am here, ostensibly, to participate in Critical Animals) and we discuss what I'll be doing over the next few days. I express some anxiety about doing things with people I haven't met. Will they be cool, I wonder aloud? He assures me these people are friendly and okay. I'm not too sure but by then I have had a few of the beers that help to make the festival a reality it is the one main source of income for TINA apparently so I am not too worried.
I don't think the beer is that great and feel mean-spirited for thinking this way. I meet people from Wagga and am surprised that they, like me, have come so far for the festivities. One of these people is involved with the organizing of the electronic music component of TINA, Electofringe. His thing' is to call me Dr. Motion' in public, despite the fact that I have not completed my PhD yet. Things get blurry and I establish a trait that is to become my Newcastle thing': I tell some people I am coming with them to some other happening and simply wander off and go to bed.
is to be the beginning of my poetry experience. But first I attend a panel-session where various artists consider the notion of popular culture within their work. There is probably always one person sitting on any panel who will comment that they don't quite know if their work fits with the panel theme. This happened here, and indeed I wondered if I really fitted with the audience, and then if perhaps accepting the previously proffered chair at the café outside, as I walked to the session (the Dr Motion' guy was doing the proffering) would not have been a better option.
There were no writers on this panel. There were vloggers though, and this interests me. Why blog and not vlog? For me it's the internet speed I can't attain, and the fact that I'm not keen on showing my face (my Facebook profile pic always cuts off part of my face: it's my thing). The talk about popular culture was limited for the most part to Reality TV however. It made my slight headache worse.
But then there was a chance to catch poetry in the park, at The Wild Brunch. At last some real writers, some inspiration, an experience'. The program suggested I would see …the latest spoken-word artists deliver a scrumptious selection of spoken spreads to cater to any taste.' This was a NYWF event and it featured some poets who would pop up in other contexts – Geoff Lemon, Simon Cox, Sommer Tothill, Josephine Rowe, Corey White, Anthony WP O'Sullivan, and Mandy Beaumont.
I had met up with a good friend from Sydney by this point of the morning, so I was feeling less of the isolation (nevertheless it hovered, present as an unfamiliar absence, a lack). The park setting was sunny and relaxed and so we fell into a critiquing mode. This poet's work does actually function well as both page-poem and memorized performance piece (Geoff Lemon); this poet has a strikingly beautiful poetry-voice (Josephine Rowe). This particular emcee is like, weird, but in a cool way I suppose.
Sommer Tothill performing at The Wild Brunch reading. Image by Sam Cooney.
At the end I decided yes, NYWF is really leading the field when it comes to poetry / literature. Not everything was great (this has to be the only open-mic section I've ever seen where everyone wanted to read more poems than time permitted, though this possibly says more about my limited experiences than anything else) but it was poetry, bold and colorful and entertaining. Spirits heighten.
The first event I had at least some small role in was a public reading of Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditation. This is an event of the type I think I've missed in previous festival / conference outings, a surprisingly subdued yet lovely public event. We took turns. We read stanza by stanza. I felt as if the text revealed itself to me a little more through the group act. I had to rush off to catch what I knew would be a more gossipy' session (this is the after-festival social currency I so desperately need) but, something was gained.
I make a note to myself: public performances or re-interpretations of texts are good. Whether this grows into something further remains to be seen.
The gossipy session was called Sweet Staple High; it was all about the future of lit-publishing in Australia. What are the newer journals offering? Facilitator Chris Currie began things by asking for a show of hands. Who has been published in Meanjin? Overland? Southerly?' etc. There weren't many hands going up and so the point was made most of the young writers in the audience hadn't been published in those venerable old journals. But I felt a little confronted too. I've been published in a few of them and I didn't raise my hand. I was a little embarrassed to do so, but mainly I didn't want to single myself out in the crowd.
This made me think (as some things do (thought = isolation)): if the older lit-mags do use a stable' of writers (the general consensus at this session was yes, they do), then is there also a younger stable? A group of young writers who clearly identify with certain magazines, certain trends, certain arms of certain festivals? I think there is, but I'm not so sure what that means. There certainly are some lovely looking new magazines being produced in the country, with design being a major concern. As for what else these journals should be doing to promote literature / art, it was a bit fuzzy. And no mention was made of online alternatives.
I had to have a beer after this session. The thematic air was becoming thick and heavy. For instance, there was a repetition of failed meetings. I was going to talk with Angela Meyer about what it means to be a blogger but she had to leave with a different group of associates, apologetically of course. I was going to compliment Josephine Rowe on her poetry reading at one point, but she too had to cut the conversation short to join someone else. There's only so much lack and isolation one poet can take.
Then, almost naturally, my friend and I found ourselves very obviously in a drinking establishment where the artists did not drink. It was full of locals, and the palpable feeling was that there is another place, a place where the cool people hang out. Another friend said to me later in the festival that he quite enjoys drinking in pubs where he feels unwelcome. The legitimacy of his utterance was difficult to ascertain.
Rain descends on Newcastle and does not cease until the day I leave.
I discuss everything with my friend, as it's happening, all the feelings in the air. I think to myself that this hyper-awareness of my artistic presence is something to come out of a festival trip. I'm not sure if it will be a good or a bad thing. I take this doubt with me into the next session, an extremely uncertain thing called Landscaping Aesthetics', an event where a number of different artists do their work in a collective space. People can observe. I am to be one of the artists.
Along the way I meet Michael Farrell and he tells me he will also be involved. We will be the poets', nice or not. Michael doesn't seem concerned that we are running a little late and so I feel less concerned. Later, someone mentions that the writers' were late. Writers are thusly characterised.
The event was one of the most unformed things I attended, but, likewise, one of the most stimulating. Many of my festival thoughts coalesced into what I actually produced during the hour, namely this:
The best thing tonight. not to formulate things live, before the act, cheating functions as our main rejoinder. this. but if there were a microwave atop my head functioning as my head, a microwave instead of my head i would not hide myself away from the public mainstay of coiffured mid-career lifers i offer my services tracing out other maps of good. not scanning for scanning's sake. (what's michael doing) ------ afterlife jest: the jibes levelled at onlookers you in red you in black you in green define your activity we walk naked through hotel rooms you, not i, staying in friend's houses opening draws like opened (& then unclosed) clauses ferreting the watchword in the search for the reveal there for the first hour / as directly as texts not meant to be comic you can't gripe at obscurity, you can't ------ you can't want me to look at you ------ i grafted a narrative to the afternoon's activity you like jay-z. i like disliking, but on a random basis, which casts this stance as experiential. we collaborate to resolve. i can perform whatever. (michael's eating a banana) the one thing i won't do is stand up. even while you take a tour of the work / evidencing the writing, making grand generalisation claims. to predict. salt are struggling. what does a print-run constitute. sincere conceptualism vs. conceptual sincerity. I'm not totally opposed to penetration.
I'm spending too much time watching Fox8. It's a luxury I don't allow myself at home. I'm back in my isolated hotel being treated to the show that has informed my development as an artist, and also my predilection for irony and pop-culture references: The Simpsons. I talk to my wife on the phone, say goodnight to my two-year-old daughter, and wonder what I'm doing here. My wife says that I really should get out of the hotel and take advantage of being here. We talk of Tom Cho's short stories, about how I've had slight conversations with him on Twitter, and it is decided for me that I should head out again to catch his reading in the Church.
The readings are inspirational. Inspirational in a way that makes me firmly believe I should be writing in a far more confessional vein. So I do so with this piece of writing before your eyes. Perhaps it works. Perhaps it doesn't. At any rate, performances by Matthew Lowe, Patrick Pittman, and Amber Fresh really make me glad to have walked the distance and shunned The Simpsons (later, I befriend Amber on Facebook, a sort of after-the-fact act of networking. As a newly confessional writer I am trying not to be embarrassed to admit this).
Tom Cho reads a fantastic piece from his book Look Who's Morphing that manages the tricky thing of working firmly within the confessional mode, but also being about confession in general, in a fantastic sense, and hinting at all the fantasy and thought this can entail. After drinking champagne with another friend, managing not to meet Tom (lack), and discussing the merits of another poet's piece that involved adulterous cunnilingus (an audible intake of breath issued from the audience), I decide the Bless me Reader, For I have Sinned readings will probably have been a festival highlight for me.
I front my morning panel session, my real official reason for being in Newcastle, a little hung-over. This doesn't matter though; the session is amiable and for me works well. I sit with Jill Jones, Stu Hatton, Michael Farrell, and facilitator Aden Rolfe. I even add a few lines to the poem composed the night before during proceedings. A very good discussion of what went on can be found on Stu Hatton's blog here, so I don't really need to re-work that. What I can add is that I found the real validity of our session was the use of poetry. This was all about composition what makes our various stabs at poem-objects experiments and because of this the ego of the poet was not fore-grounded.
The traditional zine fair, held this year for the first time in a multi-storey car-park. Image by Benjamin Law.
Maybe this only became apparent to me at the NYWF session Are Poets Nice? This session was about the poets. Full stop. Are poets nice? What makes us different, special, more emotionally in-tune, fucked up, or all of these things simultaneously? The consensus at the end was that poets are not nice but, also, poets are not not nice. Indeed, the sub-group poets' is just as difficult to categorise in such a general way as any other segment of the population.
The way consensus was arrived at was with the now familiar show-of-hands approach. If anything though, the functional platform for this event was the personalities of the writers. Poets are nice because we think they are. Let's put them up on stage and let them be funny. This is all well and good, and yes, quite entertaining (someone answered their phone loudly during the session etc). Innuendo and stories about fellow writers ripping you off will always make me listen. But it made me hanker for discussion about the merits of poetry.
People will always have various personalities it is something we are cursed and blessed with and therefore the only way to really discuss personhood in a context where change is allowable, normative, is one in which the making of things is the issue. The issue of composition is important to our poems and our constitution as beings, even as poets. This is nice, I thought to myself amidst the laughter (isolation).
We caught the All-Star Literary Smackdown, which was bizarre and pseudo literary but, well, hugely entertaining. Highlights for me included: scantily clad scoring girls wrestling suggestively for their respective teams (fiction and non-fiction); out and out arguments between the host and the audience; Anna Krien belligerently claiming all the questions were retarded'; Marieke Hardy not saying much; and Shantaram Shot-put, where OH&S issues were made into part of the joke).
This was about all I could manage for the festival. I ate Indian food late Saturday night and collapsed in bed under the weight of thought, obstinately forgoing the last events I could have conceivably made it to. I am wondering if what I managed to take in amounted to an experience', but at the same time I know this feeling as common. There is no way around distance and parallel programming.
I catch half of the collage poetry session, but the reality of catching trains and planes is already occupying me. Of course you definitely want to know what I've already blogged about the festival that on the way home a huge dozing man decidedly cramped me into a corner for two hours. All I could think about instead of mulling over my festival experiences was how good it is to have the freedom to stretch one's legs. To flex one's muscles, so to speak.
But then lack' and isolation' most probably are conditions that allow the freedom to flex. And when under the thrall of these two feelings, the connecting tissues between poet and composition, between artist and activity, are revealed almost surgically. This is what the hullabaloo of TINA can do for you. I leave dishevelled and aglow with possibilities.
Sneaky head-shot of the author courtesy of a photograph by Tim Wright.