Visiting the Perth Writer’s Festival

29 March 2010
Occurring each year as part of the Festival of Perth, the 2010 Perth Writer's Festival was held on the Labour Day long weekend at the University of Western Australia's Crawley campus, right next to the Swan River. It features both local and interstate writers with special guests from overseas and includes poets, novelists and book designers along with local anthology creators, publishing houses, independent publishers and zinesters. Significantly, all poetry panels and events this year were free which made it very easy for those who were curious to simply drop by.

The first poetic event of note for the weekend was the launch of The Witnesses and The Tibetan Cabinet, two CDs composed by prominent Australian poets Fay Zwicky and Caroline Caddy respectively. Recorded by River Road Press, an Australian establishment set up specifically for such a purpose, the idea of the poetic voice was a significant overarching theme. Certainly both Zwicky and Caddy write poetry that lends itself very well to being read to an audience, and have both done many such readings at festivals in the past. However, with the launch of their respective CDs such readings are more accessible and contain more poems as well as the added opportunity for listeners to experience such readings in environments very different to those usually offered by festivals.

The voices of Zwicky and Caddy are wonderfully distinctive, with Zwicky's voice having a richly powerful tone and a distinctive Australian accent that lends a sense of the local even to her more internationally focused poems. Such readings also assist in establishing the idea of an Australian poetics that is not forced to be either displaced if it wishes to deal with international issues or expected to draw on the unique landscape, flora and fauna if it is to be accepted internationally as ‘Australian' poetry. The recordings worked well to highlight the significance of the Australian perspective for our national poets.

Caddy also has a very distinctive voice, having been born in Australia but brought up in both the USA and Japan. Opening her reading by stating that she spent many years getting over her fear of such speaking, she drew attention to the fact that her poetry is full of silences which reflect this lingering trepidation. Having read and loved much of Caddy's poetry, it was a fascinating experience to hear how such spaces on the page were negotiated and became vocable silences while she read. Her unique accent also gave depth to certain parts of the poems which might not otherwise have been recognised or enjoyed.

Other poets who appeared at the festival included Robert Gray, Mark Tredinnick and Samuel Wagan Watson who were part of the panel entitled ‘From the Poetic to the Sublime'. Including readings by all the poets, one of the most interesting parts of this panel was in fact how each poet defined the sublime and what that meant for their work.

Gray gave the most academic definition and quoted several poems, all incredibly recited by heart. His selections both demonstrated his ideas well and were very evocative. He noted the frequent difference between the poetic and the sublime, stating that the poetic is often looked down on as contrived while the sublime seems to be inspired by some outside force greater than the writer. Noting Turner as the painter of the sublime he also drew attention to the idea's connections with the visual and the quality of dread it often encompasses.

Tredinnick used his new book The Blue Plateau, a memoir of the Blue Mountains, to describe his version of the sublime based on reflections of the landscape. Locating the sublime in a combination of dread and desire, through the backdrop of some of Australia's most picturesque and deadly mountains, Tredinnick explored the possibilities for the sublime in the antipodean landscape. Traditionally the sublime landscape isn't located in the southern hemisphere, however Tredinnick recognises the huge potential for the sublime this landscape offers; his is an antipodean sublime that both utilises and develops the concept of a combination of desire and dread.

Taking a completely different slant Samuel Wagan Watson finished off the panel in a very dynamic way. Drawing attention to the dearth of the sublime in many contemporary people's lives, through tales of his job as a writer in residence for a radio station Watson urged the finding of the sublime in little things that may be missed if not looked for. Discussing the amount of his poetry which comes from conversations with his family, Watson unified the idea of the everyday with the idea of the sublime. Watson chose poems that demonstrated his family orientated storytelling tradition and his contribution to the discussion was the ideal place to conclude. The ideas of the sublime moved in this panel from the eternal to the landscape to a matter of perception of the everyday.

The evening brought with it Cottonmouth, a group that celebrates up and coming writers and the power of the spoken word. Attracting many young people, even though the average age of the audience was still higher than a typical Cottonmouth event. The event was held in UWA's New Fortune Theatre, an outside venue with seating on many levels. This meant that the atmosphere was both casual and invigorating, and the energy many performers brought to their pieces was palpable. The arrangement of seating in front of the stage as well as to the sides and on the upper balcony meant the audience was free to adopt many viewpoints of the performance and the presence of roosting peacocks gave rise to much impromptu banter and made the evening even more interactive.

The writers performing mostly came from Australia although there were two international guests and the juxtaposition of poetry and prose with performance and music gave the night an air of spontaneity. The emphasis on the originality of work was also a very promising feature. The highlights poetry wise included Samuel Wagan Watson, who closed the evening, and Josephine Rowe whose reading – in particular, her poem ‘Fireworks', which is a particular favourite of mine – was very evocative and kept everyone on the edges of their seats,. Cottonmouth also used the event as an opportunity to promote their new anthology which collects the best works from their two years of existence and is well worth owning if you are interested in exciting upcoming writers. The anthology was launched officially on March 11th at the Rosemount Hotel, in North Perth.

The final poetry panel on offer over the Writer's Festival long weekend was entitled ‘Modern Day Bards' and sought to discuss the connections between songs and poetry. While the panel consisted of Samuel Wagan Watson, Robert Forster and Niall Lucy the discussion fell disappointingly flat. Host Carol Jenkins espoused the view that poetry and song were very similar, however it was unfortunate that none of the panel agreed with her. This led to rather strained and static discussions that didn't flow well for the audience. It was finally agreed that Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen could be considered both songwriters and poets however neither were discussed in any depth and appeared as nothing more than a passing mention. Further the idea that poetry, like song, used to be a very performative art was only mentioned and not investigated.

Lucy had some interesting comments throughout, describing why poetry and song are no longer similar. For him the idea of the poet as a separate individual who is only a poet and need not combine poetics with practices such as music or philosophy came about with the Romantics. He also noted that while poetry is often experienced alone in contemporary times, music is frequently a social event. To end the panel Watson also made the interesting comment that for contemporary Indigenous Australians many are poets before they are musicians due to the scarcity of musical instruments in their communities.

The most surprising poetic occurrence of the festival came from the guerrilla poets, which included the local poet, Maree Dawes, jumping in during the ‘Modern Day Bards' panel to give a spontaneous reading of her book Women of the Minotaur. This sudden addition was both charming and effective, giving a voice to local poets who may not otherwise have been heard. Unfortunately at no other poetry events did any other guerrilla poets break in, which was a shame as such an idea champions the unexpected experience and definitely works well in such a festival environment.

The Writer's Festival drew to a close on Monday however the poetry programme was finished by Sunday, must to the dismay of the eager audience. In such a small community, and one as physically isolated as Perth these events are few and far between, and so the festival has become a great way to promote local poetry in a place where it's often easier to find the Romantics than any celebrated local poets in stores. Having national and international guests as well increased the calibre of the festival and highlighted the importance of local poetry within the broader national scope. The fact that all the poetry events were free was a great opportunity for those simply interested in what is going in Western Australian poetry to come along and actively engage in what may be a small but nevertheless vibrant scene.

720 ABC Local Radio Perth taped several panels over the weekend of the festival and has now uploaded content in podcast form.

Rosalind McFarlane recently graduated from the University of Western Australia with first class Honours in English Literature. She is an aspiring poet and her interests in culture and anthropology filter through her poems and prose. She also holds an abiding interest in botany and polysyllabic words. Further, she strongly believes that local voices are a vital part of the poetic scene.

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