2017 Queensland Poetry Festival: the good, the bad, the ugly

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So, all in all I went to 12 events at the 2017 Queensland Poetry Festival, and would have gone to a few more on Sunday, but alas I was evicted from the event. More on that later…

The Good

Wednesday 23rd August:

Mark Doty’s poetry workshop was over before it began – the two hours went by so fast because we were all engaged by his words and American poetic wisdom. He started off by asking each of us to talk about one thing in writing that we are struggling with. Mine was the lyric ‘I’ of the poem in contemporary free verse. I said that I struggle with its validity and authenticity, even if the ‘I’ is not the ‘I’ that is written, even if your ‘I’ is something else’s unique perspective, I don’t trust it, it seems false to me, as though how could I ever conjure up the authority to speak from such an intimate position. I told him a lot of the contemporary lyric poetry I read seems interchangeable and homogenous; as though many different contemporary lyric poets could have written the same poem, or they have echoes of each other. Words like ‘inking’, ‘skein’, ‘wend’ and ‘fractal’ inhabit these poems with an irritating regularity.

That’s why I said I choose to mainly write historical narrative poetry in the third person that gives me greater distance from the subject. We then analysed Robert Bly’s translation of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer’s sequential poem, “Schubertiana” which inspired us to do some sequential writing practice. Mark suggested to list points down about a difficult subject quickly, so I started a poem about one of my Year 10 boys who died a few years ago from an aneurism in his sleep; and about the time I wrote a sonnet for his funeral and placed it inside a sympathy box for his parents. Mark then suggested we change the angle for the next part of the sequence, so I envisioned his parents after the funeral, opening the sympathy box and reading the poem I dedicated to their son.

Eileen Chong lastly asked Mark to read some of his poems to end the workshop which he kindly did, including his wry poem about his terrier ‘George’; now I’m a cat lover and have never housed a dog in my life, but that poem almost convinces me to pop my dog owning cherry.

Friday 24th August:

One of the first people I ran into at the festival was local Brisbane poet Ron Heard, who told me that 40 years ago Tom Shapcott did his taxes. I said to him that, that snippet has to be turned into a poem or a short story memoir piece, ‘When Tom Did My Taxes’.

Poetry without Borders – Paul Hetherington, Michelle Cahill

It was delightful to meet the Canberra poets who came up to festival – Paul Hetherington, Shane Strange and Paul Munden. Hetherington read narrative and ekphrastic pieces from “Burnt Umber” and poems like ‘Eggs’, ‘Burnt Umber’, ‘Fox’, Refugees’, Lorelei’, and ‘Squirrel’ are full of memorable imagery like, ‘each hair in the brush is a thought in the squirrel’. ‘Portrait of a Count’ was a moving poem for his late father obsessed with all things Italian.

Michelle Cahill is a powerhouse writer who read narrative poems from “The Herring Lass” like ‘Dying to Meet You’, Somewhere a River’, ‘Taboo’, the brilliant ‘Second Winter’ and right up my free verse sonnet sequential oeuvre, her fabulous sonnet sequence, ‘The Grieving Sonnets’. She finished with ‘Burial’  a hard hitting poem about her mother’s end and her brother’s projection of blame.

Deep North: Poetry reading – Zenobia Frost, Tamryn Bennett, Bronwyn Lea

Zenobia Frost is an emerging Queensland poet who didn’t pull her imagistic punches even with her parents in the audience! I think she captures the awkward share house experience like no tropical poet before her – with acerbic detail and wit. I absolutely love her line, ‘a bulb burns inside an avocado’ to describe the fruit seed. A big shout out to Ralph Wessman of Walleah Press in Tasmania who is promoting many fine Queensland voices like Kristin Hannaford, Vanessa Page and Zenobia.

It was also great to hear Tamryn Bennett of Red Room Company fame, read a long bilingual poem about her cross-cultural experience in Mexico, I think it was, matching the theme of this year’s festival ‘Distant Voices’.

Here I must also apologise to (and thank) Bronwyn Lea because I zoned out of her reading halfway through (not for any nefarious reason), but because she triggered me to write a poem, ‘Spinifex’ on the spot after I think mentioning the word ‘spinifex’ in one of her poems. In the July holidays I road-tripped out to Winton with the family and saw spinifex grass for the first time. So, I love it how Bronwyn’s sensuous and sinuous poetry has the power to influence and inspire!

We the Mapless: Poetry reading – Ian McBryde, David Musgrave, Jennifer Maiden

David Musgrave read his 2012 Newcastle Poetry Prize winning long poem, ‘Coastline’ and it was a thrill to hear it live and full-blown. A great aspect of the festival was that many poets like David commented that they could read longer works because of the space and time given by the festival, and I heard many of them from such poets as Quinn Eades, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Tony Birch and Christian Bök.

Ian McBryde is the hard man of Melbourne poetry and I’ve known him for about 25 years. In fact he was one of the first interstate poetry guests ever to be invited to the Queensland Poetry Festival back in 1997 along with Anthony Lawrence. Ian was giving me the finger before the finger was invented. What sheer delight then, that Queensland publishers Bareknuckle Books (Brentley Frazer and Adam Pettet, who are themselves Queensland poetry and publishing royalty, and were present back then at the Sailing Club with Ian) should end up publishing his New & Selected poems, “We the Mapless”  21 years later. Some things just come about in neat circles – nature understands this. Ian’s poetry is your conscience confessing to you when you walk down the street every day. It is the voice you wake up with and the whisper you go the sleep with. He also inhabits your dreams and is the genesis for your nightmares. ‘There is no winding back the soul’s odometer’. Really.

Jennifer Maiden is like an Australian poetry war hero. We should give her a Victoria Cross for bravery in sticking with poetry predominantly, over the time it takes you to write and publish 21 books of poetry and 5 novels. “It is when one is most afraid, that one is most a woman’, is a line that men need to wear on t-shirts  – such a powerful idea that cuts male privilege in half and undercuts perceptions of gender equality right to the core.

Avant Gaga Reading & Xenotext – Shastra Deo, Chloe Callistemon, Nathan Sheperdson, Pascalle Burton, Lionel Fogarty, Vernon Ah Kee, Christian Bok. (absent from photo – Stuart Barnes)

Is a xenotext like a xenomorph I wondered? I liked Toby Fitch’s poem to begin with (or was it just the introduction to the gig? Or both?) but then the magic of replacing select language choices from cosmology with the word ‘poem’ or ‘poetry’ kind of fizzled out for me in the end, like a dwarf star I guess. I did appreciate his stage trick of making anagrams out of the featured poets’ names to introduce them. Chloe had a memorable one – semi-colon hellcat. There were many cool lines of poetry in this gala avant gaga;

Shastra Deo – ‘foreign gods clenched in one small fist’.

Chloe Callistemon – ‘no animals were hurt in the making of this poem’.

Nathan Sheperdson – ‘he talks miracles down from their own end’.

Lionel Fogarty – ‘nature’s justice is cut up’.

Vernon Ah Kee – ‘letters should be drawn, not written’, ‘lies, like the southern cross should belong to this country’.

Christian Bök – ‘And now for the best poem I have ever written’.

QPF 2017 Literary Cabaret – Hera Lindsay Bird, Omar Musa, Sarah Holland-Batt, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Mark Doty

Hera Lindsay Bird was a great millennial stand up comic from New Zealand and her routine about Monica from “Friends” made many in the audience laugh appreciatively.

Ok, I’ll be the first to admit I am not a fan of rap or slam poetry. Rap music yes. Omar Musa weighs a little less than me, but has a bigger rap. Pretty honest to admit to domestic violence in his poem, (but maybe that wasn’t his ‘I’ – just a generic ‘I’ for all the abusive bros out there?). But I guess that’s slam – brutally honest, upfront, in ya face, with a simple cadence, mostly polemical, annoyingly didactic, not very multi-layered, not very mysterious, often clichéd, very predictable with its language choices, (I play this game where I try to guess the next rhyming word the poet will use), almost always just laying it all out there with a few interruptions to the flow, in order to explain some contextual point the slam poet assumes the audience doesn’t understand, with a self-deprecating laugh. When I do listen to the odd slam poem, they just sound like every other slam poem I have ever heard – tragically formulaic with that annoying ‘stretched out’ syllabic emphasis/gravitas in that irritating fake performance voice. (Ok, so a little bit of the bad has snuck in here!) Nice hoodie though and arm movements. I was wearing my blue hoodie yesterday too with the hood up and my elderly white neighbour took a long look at me to ensure that I wasn’t breaking into my own house. So, I really really really want a hoodie with ‘Oma’ or ‘Musa’ printed on the back of it, so I can freak him out even more.

I have been in the presence of a few poetry masters before – Seamus Heaney at the Irish Club in Brisbane in 1996 performing to 500 people; Yevgeny Yevtushenko at the Brisbane School of Arts building in 1994, who danced up and down the aisle reciting his poems in Russian, while an English translator kept up; Paul Durcan at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival maybe ten years ago, who the morning before a reading received the news that one of his friends had just died back home in Ireland, so his reading was imbued with the most powerful gravitas I have ever heard.

The obvious highlight was Mark Doty’s reading. It was akin to these memorable reading experiences; a perfection of stories, words and images where you stop bothering to write his lines down, because each line is masterful and you just stop for fifteen minutes to listen to this New York poetry whisperer control your soul. His devastating poem, “In Two Seconds” about the police shooting of Cleveland 12 year old, Tamir Rice in 2014, was as much a masterpiece as you’ll ever hear. It starts;

the boy’s face
climbed back down the twelve-year tunnel

of its becoming,  a charcoal sunflower
swallowing itself.

Please go and google the rest of the poem for yourselves and read it out loud to someone. That much we can do for Tamir. Oh, I also liked how the slam-loving millennials in the audience started to click their fingers while Mark Doty was reading – I first thought that they wanted him to get off the stage, but then Andy Jackson assured me that it was a sign of appreciation; that finger-clicking used to be a sign of hate in Queensland, but the Queensland slam scene fell into line with the other states, much like we have with our education system swapping over to external exams and the ATAR system in two years time. Now the slam scene in Queensland just sends in security guards to remove any dissent at readings!

Saturday 25th August:

Puncher & Wattman: Contemporary Australian Poetry Reading – Sam Wagan Watson, Liam Ferney, Toby Fitch, Bronwyn Lea, Kit Kelen, Felicity Plunkett, Nathan Sheperdson, Jennifer Maiden, Nick Whittock (as read by David Musgrave)

Another great line up and short readings from a stellar cast.

Sam Wagan Watson said in his preamble, ‘I’ll never be alone with this anthology. All my friends, lovers and enemies are in it!’ When you can say that, then you know you’ve made it in the poetry world.

Kit Kelen had a long and groovy metaphysical poem about men and their obsession with sheds. There were some fine lines like, ‘A parliament is mainly shed.’ ‘A man could fall to his knees in there, when god is shed.’ And ‘sheds are worlds’ fairs that no one saw.’

My apologies to everyone else who read as well, as I kinda zoned out again to write another long poem (Bronwyn, please don’t get paranoid, you’re just inspiring and catalytic), called, ‘God is in the Water’ – I think Felicity or Bronwyn may have been the muses responsible. Felicity Plunkett had a great line in her poem – ‘and verbs like lamps, illuminating sentences.’

UQP – Thomas Shapcott Launch – Shastra Deo’s “The Agonist”

Great to hear this wonderful new Queensland voice added to the milieu and to see the Shopfront space packed out by friends, family and poetry punters. Such confident and well-crafted poetry for a first collection and just go out and buy a copy from your favourite bookstore to support her as all the copies sold out at the launch.

Bareknuckle Poets/Hunter Publications Book launches – Andy Jackson and Ian McBryde

So heartwarming to listen to these two great Melbourne poets read from their new collections, “We the Mapless: New and Selected Poems” and “Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold”. Ian’s poems are that little voice in your head that you carry around with you and fight with, and Andy I think is possibly the best male Australian poet currently writing so powerfully and lyrically about the human body.

The Bad

Ah….who the fuck cares! We all write shite at times!

The Ugly

Haha! Tricked you!

There is no ‘more’.

There is enough ugly out there in the real world.

I’m more interested in getting back to those five long poems I started courtesy of Mark Doty and Bronwyn Lea and all of the other poets’ great work that I heard over the three days of the festival. Thank you all for the inspiration to keep on writing!

Books bought/given

Mark Doty – “fire to fire: new and selected poems”.

Mark Doty – “Deep Lane: poems”.

Andy Jackson – “Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold”.

Ian McBryde – “We the Mapless: New and Selected Poems”.

Michelle Cahill – “The Herring Lass”.

David Musgrave – “Anatomy of Voice”.

Caitlin Maling – “Border Crossing”

Caitlin Maling – ” Conversations I’ve Never Had”.

Small Packages – Issue 12.

Kit Kelen – “up through branches”.

 

 

 

 

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