As the inaugural recipient of the Paul Sherman Community Poetry Award, I think it is my duty to share some candid thoughts about the direction of the Queensland Poetry Festival – Australia’s premier poetry festival for 20 years!
The Co-Directors of the Queensland Poetry Festival posted an article on Facebook about Tupac Shakur’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next year, stating that he was, ‘undoubtedly one of the most influential poets in the last 25 years.’ This is an interesting statement to let loose on the world, because it says more about the programming agenda of the two Co-Directors of the QPF than it does about Pac’s worthiness to be inducted as the sixth hall of fame rap star.
This seemingly innocuous post speaks volumes about an anxiety that has been developing in my gut over the last two years about the content and agenda of the Queensland Poetry Festival. Think back to the 2015 festival and the inclusion of the then billionaire Senator Clive Palmer. Now as a marketing strategy it did wonders for the festival’s publicity, even making the news on TV, however it begged the question, did Palmer with his single collection of juvenilia deserve to be in the QPF at all? No. A thousand times no. On his publication record – no. On his performance record – no. Not even his twerking was that good to be included. On his ideological grounds – no. This bastard wants to dig up half of the Bimblebox nature reserve in Queensland for his China First coal mine, destroying the habitat of the endangered black-throated finch. So, he was just there for sensationalism; like a bunch of slam poets getting nude. Quality. My major concern is about some of the dubious quality of the work being programmed at the expense of serious poets who deserve to be in this festival far more than the likes of Clive Palmer.
Ominously, it seems that over the last two years, the festival has become much more performance oriented than literary oriented. Hell, there was so much hip-hop, spoken word, music and performance poetry that I had to walk out of a Friday session because the international performance poet was becoming incoherent on stage, dropping papers while mumbling through their life’s ups and downs and broken relationships. Performance poetry – the reality TV of the writing world. Or as Bowie put it, “Making love to his ego.”
Okay, there were still influential local, interstate and international literary poets in the festival program – Tracey K. Smith, Chloe Wilson, Stuart Cooke, Bonny Cassidy and Brentley Frazer, being standouts, but they seemed to be mostly buried in the middle of Saturday’s and Sunday’s day programs, while the juicy night time events went to spoken word artists, storytellers, comedians, the Australian Poetry Slam – Qld final, assorted poetry-musicians paying homage to dead rock stars or established folk/country/singers. Sure they all have poetic souls like Tupac, but is the QPF a music festival? A performing arts festival with a bit of page poetry thrown in to keep the arts funding bodies happy? The below list is taken from this year’s festival website and emphasizes the performance orientation of these night gigs focused on being entertaining and popular ‘in a live context.’ Do the Co-Directors not believe in the power of the poem to stand by itself anymore?
KALYAKOORL : LITERARY CABARET
MANY WATERS RISE : LYRICS & POETRY PANEL
ARCHIE ROACH IN CONCERT
STEVEN OLIVER, SINGLE **SOLD OUT**
AUSTRALIAN POETRY SLAM – QLD FINAL
KURILPA : STORYTELLING SALON
SENTENCED TO LIFE-CLIVE JAMES
IVAN COYOTE LIVE
RAW STYLES: UNDERGROUND HIP HOP
Over the five years that I directed the festival, we made sure that our interstate and overseas guest poets were programmed on one of these popular prime night spots, and we programmed heaps of local and interstate page poets and finished off these events – yes with a band or two. Balance. It was a balanced program. Why should musicians get the best night time programming at the expense of hard working poets? Isn’t this Australia’s premier poetry festival? When questioned on FB about their programming content being weighted towards music and performance the Co-Directors responded with,”What we won’t do is limit the range of what contemporary poetry is today in a live context. Multiple forms of poetry were programmed this year, and QPF intends to continue this approach into the future.”
Well I beg to differ. These ‘multiple forms of poetry’ seemed to be all geared towards performance. My claim is that the quality of the festival is suffering from too much emphasis on performance poetry and music. Here’s a case in point about ‘limiting the range of contemporary poetry.’ Liam Ferney, a gifted Queensland page poet (and now goose hunter) whose last collection Boom was shortlisted for the NSW Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize and whose recent 2016 poetry collection, Content was shortlisted for the Judith Wright Calanthe Poetry Prize, was relegated to a quick ten minute spot in the festival program just before the launch of Hunter Publication’s Anthology of Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry. In festivals past, a good award-winning local poet of Ferney’s calibre who had a new book out, would have received a 30-45 min spot for a dedicated launch. In fact, when I directed the festival, this was the primary programming consideration, as we believed that promoting a new book of poetry (either from Queensland or interstate poets) was the most important aspect of the poetry festival, because of the limited distribution of poetry collections in book shops. Sadly, book launches at the festival are almost a thing of the past, with only UQP’s Thomas Shapcott winner receiving this rare promotion every year with regularity.
The programming emphasis is definitely on performance as opposed to the literary/page. The lack of book launches and the entertainment prejudice of these ‘multiple forms of poetry’ sic spoken word events is evidence of this claim. Indeed, the most literary events of the 2016 Queensland Poetry Festival which actually discussed the nuances of contemporary poetry practice in panel sessions were largely due to the efforts of Toby Fitch’s and Australia Poetry’s Australian Poetry Festival revolving door act.
It’s almost as if the current Co-Directors are somehow confounded by the poetry book. Or that they are deliberately creating a binary between the contemporary Australian poetry publishing scene as opposed to the Australian spoken word scene. Just go back and look at this year’s program and at the amount of performance oriented events compared to page/literary events. Just count how many times the words, hip-hop, spoken word artist, lyrics, slam, performance and musician are mentioned. Then count how many times published poet or award-winning poet is mentioned.
These should not be two siblings fighting over their Christmas presents. They should grow up and share. The Co-Director’s said I could have my opinion. I do.