David Prater Interviews Amanda Kerley

By | 22 June 2001

For five glorious, sweltering days each October, Newcastle plays host to one of the biggest youth arts festival in Australia. Under the umbrella of This Is Not Art (or TINA) not one but four festivals are held simultaneously in the steel city. Amanda Kerley directed the National Young Writers Festival in 2000. Carlie Lazar barely survived it –

How is the Newcastle Young Writers Festival different to other writer's festivals in Australia?

I guess that's a question the festival itself is in the process of working out. There are a few different schools of thought as to why it's even called a writer's festival. One school is that it's just a funding category, and that it's really about getting media-makers together. There are people who feel quite violently ill at the thought of it being seen as a writer's festival. Personally I like to think that we can reclaim the term and make it into something people wouldn't normally associate with a traditional writers festival. We're trying to question the notion of 'expert'. So we try to challenge the hierarchy of writers, distributors, the whole machinery of the writing industry ??´ to the point where even when we are entertaining participants from the traditional, mainstream end of the industry, we try to put them on the same level playing field.

… in terms of how different types of guests and panellists are treated by the festival?

Yes, and presented in the festival. I mean, we don't have any money, really, and we don't offer five-star accommodation to anyone. You have to share your bathroom whoever you are. And no one is paid to come. The other big thing is that Newcastle is a free festival. I've been to the Melbourne writers festival, and I've had some really life-changing moments there, but I had to pay a lot of money to have them – and I've got a lot more from the festival in Newcastle for free. It's just addressing a different culture.

Do you think that 'young' is the right word to describe that culture? Or is 'young' just a funding category?

As far as politics are concerned, young people are seen as having a certain set of needs, and it's the administration's responsibility to address the needs of different areas of the community. The whole 'young' thing is a bit of a problem really, because there are so many variables involved in being an emerging or up-and-coming or young writer – if there was a good word for it, someone would have come up with it by now. Everyone stumbles when trying to explain what we are. When someone in their thirties goes 'well, I'm not really young, do I have to be young to come?' I say 'well, do you feel young today? Then come along. Are you feeling old today? Then maybe you should stay at home'.

What genres did you try to cover when programming the festival? I noticed that last year there were some hip-hop panels and performances. Did that fall under the umbrella of NYWF or TINA?

Both. With programming, each festival presents its ideas and then we look at ways to integrate them with the others. We had some hip-hop and electrofringe had some hip-hop, so we ended up having twice as much. That's the aim of having the festivals at the same time, to encourage that kind of cross-pollination. I was an attendant of the festival for the first two years – the first year I hung out with the zinesters and went to a lot of zine and comics panels, and the second year I'd had an overload of that stuff so I branched out and saw some other things. So by the time I was in a position to look at the programming, it occurred to me that there was a dichotomy set up between the zines and the other types of writing. I felt that it was becoming too cliquey, so I brought in some other coordinators – for spoken word and poetry – which may have been a mistake. By defining the genre threads it may have become more cliquey and compartmentalised, but I was aiming for the reverse effect.

How did you get involved in organising the festival?

Marcus Westbury rang me up and said 'do you want to run a festival? No one else will,' and I said 'let me think about it'. At the time, I had already moved to Newcastle and was working as a Participations Officer, coordinating arts, media, skateboarding, volunteers, that kind of thing. Part of my brief was writing, and the council has traditionally always supported the festival – so it looked like a neat little arrangement that would suit everybody. I went 'well OK, what the hell, I'll finish my degree, I haven't over-committed for the year yet' – in hindsight, though, it was so dodgy. It was the dodgiest way I could have got the job – it wasn't advertised, I wasn't interviewed, and no one had any idea who I was. That really worked against me.

What were the highlights for you in terms of the programming at the festival? What were you really happy with?

Well it's a weird experience, being the director, because you're not really experiencing the festival. I think I saw one panel through in its entirety. It was so surreal, and so different to just being a punter. I think I was most excited about people getting to know each other, making connections and collaborations. That's always what excites me about it.

What's the relationship of the festival to the city of Newcastle? Is there a lot of participation by people who actually live in Newcastle?

That's an issue that often comes into debate. The ownership of the festival is a really interesting topic. The festival was conceived in Newcastle, and has a lot of support from the council there. But also, it would drown in a larger city – Newcastle's the perfect size for it. And it's really gorgeous – who'd want to go to Sydney for it! But that's the goal, to get Newcastle people participating. It's the big issue. It's weird, and I haven't yet worked that one out. We did a campaign through the schools to try to get people involved, and we probably got about eight or ten high school kids involved as a result.

… as part of the general audience? Or was there a specific programme designed for them?

There was a programme, which was supposed to be a stepping stone to make it more accessible for school age people – so they'd come along and then see all the other stuff that was happening and find it less scary. It wasn't amazingly well executed, but the word did get out to a few English teachers. It was weird though – after the festival, I was walking through the TAFE and there was a computer music course on. They were talking about electrofringe, and they all knew it had been on and were having a bit of a chat about it, and one by one they all said 'no, I didn't go, did you?', 'no, I didn't go'. So I wonder why they didn't go! They didn't say.

Do you have a theory?

I sometimes worry about the funk factor. Personally I have a strong anti-funk thing. If I myself go to something, I assume that it can't be too funky. I have a problem with funk, I've got a funk-detector. So I wonder how funky or inaccessible the festival appears to people in the community. But on the other hand, there are quite a few local people there, and you have to take the smaller population into consideration. And most of the people who run the damn thing are locals, generally, or have had to move there. And the people who carry the books around and set up the tables are all from the local community. There's constant criticism that we're not servicing the local community, and while I think it could be improved, I don't think the issue is being ignored. I think it's just a challenge we haven't worked out a strategy to completely deal with yet.

Was last year the first time the festival was managed by two people?

No. The year before that, Marcus Westbury and Nick Beuret ran it. People don't always notice Nick Beuret, but he was there and he was doing a lot of shit. But the names of the positions changed a bit, last year we defined 'director' as a creative role and 'manager' as a more functional role. Anna Poletti was the manager. We were sort of told 'oh, you do this stuff, you do this stuff'. It took us a while to work it out, and that's why we came up with the terms 'manager' and 'director'. I was ultimately responsible for the programming, but because Anna and I have a really good reciprocal relationship, it seemed kind of dumb to say 'oh, that's my job'. We tried to take a equal approach to it.

How was it, being part of a management team comprised of two women?

It was really difficult, and it's difficult to talk about, but I do want to talk about it. Since we were working with people who were fairly progressive in their approach to things anyway, when we did try to discuss things which were gender-issues, the defenses came up straight away. They're not 'blokes', but sometimes we'd come up against subtler gender issues, and I find those kinds of issues really hard to address and work through. Usually people would get too defensive, so you'd throw your hands up and walk away from it. It would be simple things – like you'd been working in the room together all day trying to communicate and having some difficulty, and then when one of the other guys comes in and says 'do you guys want to come down and have a beer at the brewery,' then all the festival stuff would get discussed at the brewery and I'd be, like, 'I've been trying to talk to you all day!' It's a blokey bonding thing – I mean, I know chicks drink beer too, but when blokes do it together, it engages a different type of socialisation.

How does the egroup work and who's on it?

There's a few hundred people on it, and about fifteen are active. Some are lurkers, some have an industry interest in the festival, and some people join and disappear. The problem with an e-group though, is that it can't be democratic because email isn't democratic. Computer access is not democratic. It's very efficient, and it's a shortcut, but lots of people don't have access to the Internet. The other big gripe I have is that it's a really temporal thing. What gives you the right to vote – how much money you've got or how much access time you've got? How much time you've got to shout your mouth off? You can be having an argument or discussion with someone who's just sitting there waiting for you to respond, while you've only got access every third day when you go to Uni or at your dad's or whatever. It's hard to create a fluid dialogue that way.

Can you suggest a better way to use that kind of technology, that kind of instant communication?

I think in terms of getting feedback on the writers festival and programming, a bulletin board and maybe a confidential email response would be a lot better. It's hard, because we were trying to create a culture of discussion, but in a forum like that, some people are just more dominant and the written word comes across to some people as more intimidating than the spoken word. Sharing that space is a real issue. The other model, which might work with a smaller organisation than the writers festival, would be to have a few different egroups going simultaneously at different levels of the organisation. But even with fewer people, you've still got some with more access than others. And some have a more apologetic email style, some are more gung-ho.

There was an article published in Overland about last year's festival, which was quite critical and caused a bit of a stir. Did you have a personal reaction to it?

I found out about the article when I was on holidays, and I stressed about it for a while – but I didn't want to buy into it at that stage, and I didn't end up reading the article itself for another month, at which stage I went 'oh fuck! Is this what everyone's getting stressed about! Jeez!' I found it kind of amusing, in a way, and then I read the editorial, and realised that Overland were trying to set themselves up as a forum for this debate. The problem, I think, is that Overland published a piece of reflective writing and disguised it as a piece of argumentative writing. I think that it was an editorial mistake – it was very hard to respond to that piece of writing without making a character assassination. Some people were quite riled by it, but by the time I'd read it, I'd already dealt with everyone else getting upset about it, so it wasn't as bad as I'd expected. Other people I know who read it thought it was really funny, and brought up some good points. And that was the saddest thing about it – the article brought up some really good points that really do need to be discussed, like the issue of local representation, and cliquiness. These things need to be out in the open and talked about, but it wasn't a piece of writing that encouraged discussion.

What's next for you?

Well, I'm working on a film, I've got an application in at the moment, and I'd really like Anna to be my producer. I've decided that working from the sidelines might be a bit more effective for me instead of being a central person. I'd like to get more low-key; I think I'm more comfortable working that way.

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