Castlemaine State Arts Festival
“Pushing Words”, a poetry reading held as part of the Castlemaine State Arts Festival, featured Melbourne poets Dorothy Porter, Ian McBryde, Lauren Williams, Kevin Brophy, Ali Alizadeh, Jennifer Harrison and Myron Lysenko.
Organiser Ross Donlon promoted the event as a chance to catch top poets who you'd never see reading together on the one bill. Each poet gave a strong performance, no doubt influenced by the company around them.
And the company in front of them. More than 100 people filled the `Australians in Venice' room of the Castlemaine Art Gallery, a testament to poetry's increased pulling power as arts punters return to the raw edginess of the page made voice.
Myron Lysenko opened the afternoon and produced a near faultless display of performance poetry. His choice of material, from a poem about the apostrophe to another about leaving himself only to find himself, was vintage Lysenko; chosen to ensure the audience was with him all the way.
Lysenko delivered his work with good humour and with unaffected self-deprecation (He refused to name any of his works, bar one, as a poem, because someone in a workshop earlier in the day had remarked that Dorothy Porter is a poet, but I can't see how Myron Lysenko is!).
A terrific performance was made brilliant when Lysenko launched into several haiku and senryu. Winner of Japanese prizes for haiku, Lysenko's short takes on the Oriental forms are hilarious and insightful – kind of like American comedian Steven Wright's one-liners made unashamedly literary.
Ali Alizadeh, the youngest poet on the bill, performed admirably, mixing passion with politics. Australian Alizadeh grew up in Iran and his poems and translations focussed on the asylum seekers' struggle for freedom and the writer's role in providing freedom for them and for all.
Alizadeh has a hypnotic, chant-like-delivery, influenced by Sufi poetry performance. His works were colourful, romantic (small and big `r') and, through the delivery, he created eddies on the edges of consciousness. A careful listen to the words, however, at times left this listener wondering if more editing was required to get the best out of such passionate and humane subject matter.
Multi-award winning Jennifer Harrison took the stage next. Harrison is the epitome of a `page' poet brought to the stage. Her works are stunning, arresting, deft and calculated. And I feel I would have been better reading along as I listened to get the best out of what was evocative material, two of my favourites being her poems about a teenage boy skating on a half-pipe and watching a busker at the Mortlake Busker's Festival. Outstanding imagery coupled with profundity.
Harrison has a breathy, almost ethereal delivery that doesn't vary much in volume or tone. That sometimes, especially from further back in the audience, meant it was difficult to catch the range of difference in her material. But often a reading is an entry point into a poet's written catalogue, and Harrison certainly offered that.
After the wineglass refill it was time for one of Melbourne's more enigmatic poets, Kevin Brophy. Another widely published, multi-award winner, this founder of Going Down Swinging (along with Myron Lysenko) is known, like Harrison, more for his page poetry than performance, at least these days.
As a reader, Brophy is a risk-taker. He read more widely from unpublished work than most others and also took a chance by reading his Daffodil Day-commended poem, `What to do when you're told its not cancer'. The poem takes a sometimes light-hearted view of the cancer self-help world – risky subject matter and even riskier reading. I know I'd be asking, What will people who have/had cancer in the crowd think? Or people whose relatives have died of cancer?
Brophy's answer was to read the poem. In this way – and in many of his poems – Brophy's reading peeled back the wrapping on `objects' in our lives that might be gifts, might be empty boxes. In entering the poems we entered our possible selves.
Lauren Williams appeared next and, like all the other poets, she mentioned her gratitude at being on a bill that included some of the most respected poets going around. Was this experienced campaigner serious? Well, I think so: I noticed the books in her hand uncharacteristically shaking.
But there were no nerves in her voice. Williams delivered a warm-hearted, often tender and sometimes funny set that acted as a great foil to the loops and mind bends involved in Brophy's reading. Not that Williams is without subtlety, not at all: she has a graceful control of the line and image and sends it to the live audience uncluttered.
Her `Elle McPherson' poem remains a classic take on the `surface society', but it was her new works, first-person narratives of people in working class jobs, that grabbed this listener's attention. While some appeared in need of a few cutbacks (no pun intended), they all had a refreshing honesty and each one ended particularly well, especially one about a woman who delivers flowers.
As a reader, Ian McBryde is an institution and he lost no fans and no doubt gained many in Castlemaine. His breathy, eerie Canadian-accented delivery is a signature on the Melbourne poetry scene and when he began with the words, “I want you electric”, I felt like I was front row at a Rolling Stones concert as they ripped into “Satisfaction”.
But, unfortunately, I wasn't front row. And, as a consequence, I had trouble catching McBryde's performance as he worked through old favourites and new material. If there was a mixer he or she should have turned McBryde up or else asked him to lift the volume of his delivery. It was a big, full room and sometimes hard to hear in.
That said, what I heard was magnificent. His new book, Domain, is a reflection on Europe under Nazi occupation. I must admit at first I thought, Do I really want to read that kind of poetry? What can McBryde tell me that others closer to the action couldn't? But judging by this reading, McBryde, no stranger to historical material and an uncompromisingly `heavy' poet, is at home amongst these ghosts of the past.
There's little doubt that the name Dorothy Porter (famous for the verse novel The Monkey's Mask, adapted for screen and stage), draws people to poetry readings. It's hard to say how many she brought to Castlemaine's Art Gallery, but the volume of applause would suggest quite a number.
Even Porter commented on the strength of the line-up, stating that she hoped she wouldn't let the side down. When you're top of such a bill – and often at the top of such bills – the expectation and pressure must be sometimes hard to handle. But Porter put in a generous and passionate display.
She read from her new chapbook, Poems January – August 2004, including a work called “The Ninth Hour”. Porter was commissioned to write this poem, based on the last words of Christ, for the Australian Chamber Orchestra's Last Words concert. As she mentioned, she fell very ill soon after and had a whole new outlook on Christ's suffering.
“The Ninth Hour” is a strong work, but you get the feeling that it would have even more strength in its context. Porter's new lyric poems, while sturdy, seem to be missing the spark and power of her earlier one-off poems. Perhaps she is working herself into a new style, but it is clear that her verse novels are where her formidable poetic strength is now best demonstrated.
Her readings from her latest novel, Wild Surmise, showed the intelligence, wit and humanity present in that work, and acted as a summary for what exists in The Monkey's Mask and What a Piece of Work (also soon to be adapted for film). Reading from her narrative, Porter was a maestro among maestros.
“Pushing Words”, with seven feature readers at 15 minutes each, pushed this listener's patience, though others were satisfied with the event's length. No one, however, went away impatient with the event's quality and Donlon and the Festival are to be congratulated for putting it together.