So, I went to the 2017 Queensland Poetry Festival program launch at Gilimbaa headquarters last night and the first person I ran into was David Stavanger just inside the front door. “David,” I said, as he quickly fled my presence into the backroom busy preparing his launch speech or on some other such pretext. The next person I saw was Sam Wagan Watson who broke the awkwardness as he offered me a sip of spicy rum from his silver hip flask.
So I hung around Sam mostly, and Liam Ferney who turned up to support Michael Farrell’s pre-launch reading of poems from his next book out in November with Giramondo. Stuart Cooke was there too fresh from organizing a literary environment conference on the Gold Coast. Ross Clark looking dapper in his retro blue, pin-striped suit complete with an ironed on quaver on his lapel was also there representing the significant history of Queensland poetry and this 20 year old event – like the ghost of Christmas past who has seen it all and knows the truth about things. Ross has had over 400 individual poems published in a significant writing career stretching from the 1980s, yet I can’t remember the last time he read at the festival.
So I had some allies amongst the 80 or so younger, inner-city, arty, hipster type dudes and dudettes who turned up to celebrate this year’s program. Hell, one of this year’s young queer guest poets was wearing a poncho channeling either The Mighty Boosh circa 2004 or Clint Eastwood in his spaghetti westerns. It did feel a little bit like a Mexican stand-off at times to me. At one point I was talking a bit too loud during the hip-hop act (he goes for Port Adelaide btw) and one of the co-directors stalked across the room to shut the door in my face, but I acquiesced and was silenced.
So, the speeches were performed, sponsors thanked, Stavanger was even a bit teary-eyed lamenting about the emotional toll festival organisation takes on the human soul; said how QPF operated on exactly 1.5 positions compared to the Brisbane Writers’ Festival which has substantially more arts workers (and dollars?). Ironically, the new director of the BWF seems to have the same problem as QPF does with the old Brisbane cultural cringe syndrome, both flooding their festivals with interstate imports at the expense of local writers (some even with published books out this year). There was also an attempt to smooth over the lack of established Queensland poets’ inclusion in QPF, when Stavanger stressed that the festival was grooming the next generation of Queensland poets, establishing a legacy of looking ahead. That’s all fine, but if there are no mentors for the next generation to learn from, then how can you guarantee that you are establishing anything worthy in the future? I’m sure this is how totalitarian states justify their programs of future development too, (sic North Korea) caught in their terrible conundrum of having to control the flow of information to prop up their tyranny, yet knowing that the only way to get ahead is to share new ideas amongst their population.
The honourable Jen Howard Member for Ipswich and Assistant Minister for The Arts was also present to speak on behalf of the Queensland State government’s role in fostering the QPF. I had a nice little chat to the Honourable Member after the speeches; she knows me from Ipswich/teaching at IGS/reading poetry and I invited her to my gig at the Secret Garden on the 8th September. You know you’ve made it in the politics of poetry and power, when you can say to the great unwashed, “My car is here”.
There was a bit more hip-hop and music to end with I guess, because these art-forms are becoming a mainstay of the QPF ethos, so there was no real surprise there. I also congratulated the Reverend Hellfire on his Paul Sherman Community Poetry Award win and said to him that I hoped his time in the light would not be as controversial as mine has been!
I must say though, that I am a bit confused by the 2017 QPF program. The little blue book released last night comprises of 18 biographies resplendent with cool black and white photos of who I guess the QPF team consider to be the superstar poets at this year’s festival – Joy Harjo, Courtney Sina Meredith, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Tusiata Avia, Tony Birch, Hera Lindsey Bird, Mark Doty, Quinn Eades, The Bedroom Philosopher (with cat ears like the anime/manga folk wear), Andy Jackson, Luka Lesson & Kahl Wallis, Michael Leunig, Patricia Lockwood, Omar Musa, Ben Salter, Sarah Holland-Batt, Maxine Beneba Clarke, and three international poets from WrICE. Then, the rest of the booklet consists of the other guest poets’ names dumped in a block of names from Thursday through to Sunday between 9.30/10am – 9.30/10pm in no discernible listed events. It’s a lump sum of poets!
I find this treatment of the rest of the guest poets odd, when you have local, interstate and international poets of the calibre of Jennifer Maiden, Michelle Cahill, Paul Hetherington, Eileen Chong, Ian McBryde, Lionel Fogarty, Christian Bok, Brentley Frazer, Chloe Callistemon, Nathan Shepherdson, Uncle Herb Wharton, Ali Alizadeh, Kit Kelen, Derek Motion, Caitin Maling, Kerry Loughrey and Toby Fitch performing in this year’s festival. Hopefully their biographies will appear magically on the website, along with in what gigs they are actually connected with, as this important information is also missing.
On the QPF website there is another schedule document that gives information on the actual programmed events and times, however most of these events don’t have who is actually on in these reading and panel sessions. (See the example of Friday’s festival program above). I don’t understand why these two strangely conflicting programs just weren’t meshed into the one comprehensive document? Maybe that’s coming on the website? So, I don’t have any idea who is on the Deep North: Poetry Reading from 1-2pm, or on the Seeds: Eco Poetry Panel from 3-4pm on Friday? Is it a lucky dip perhaps? Does the audience take their pick out this mass of poets and run with it?
Oh, on a personal note, there is a reading for the Puncher and Wattman Contemporary Australian Poetry: 1990-2015 anthology, but as I found out from Liam last night – he and Bronywn Lea and Sarah Holland-Batt (most of the Queensland contributors) are reading, but not yours truly! It seems whistle-blowing or just living in a democracy that gives you the right to criticize an event that uses public funds, warrants you a death-card! Is this some kind of weirdly perverse, reverse McCarthyism I wonder? Where the left is now acting like the right and blacklisting anyone on the left if they speak out? Or do they think that I am right-wing and they’re justified in their treatment of me? Hadley and Rose did refer to me as a racist earlier this year, so maybe they do? Funny though, how one of my Indigenous Year 12 students is writing an autobiographical story about the night I talked him out of committing suicide, when I found him sitting on the window ledge of the boarding tower, five stories up.
Another concern of mine is that out of the 100+ artists (not poets you mind) featured in the 2017 event, by my count only 15 are from Queensland. And maybe only 2-3 of these are from regional Queensland. Wait. Isn’t this the Queensland Poetry Festival? Don’t other literary festivals in every other state usually fill the majority of their programs with writers from their own home state? Can you imagine a literary event in Sydney having more Queensland writers in it than NSW writers? I suspect that this is a trend that has been growing over you guessed it, the last two years since the two co-directors have taken artistic control of the QPF. What next? Ten in the 2018 festival? And I’m supposed to be the only cranky, mad, white, hetero, middle-aged, male Queensland established poet who cares about this disturbing phenomenon!
The night ended with Sam, Liam and myself going to dinner with Michael, Stuart and two other academic mates. I had another swig of spicy rum to assuage the chill winter wind. A troop of the other camp (the Loyalists) came in (Burton, Pound, Shepherdson, et al), but left rather quickly. Maybe they just ordered takeaway? Chloe Callistemon came in a bit later and sat at our table; a sign of fraternity? Has she joined the resistance?
Go see her. She’s in the festival. She’s a great poet. I will be.