Alyce Maree Wilson
Review of ‘Poetic Tension’ with Alison Whittaker and Hera Linsday-Bird, and ‘The Big Read’ with Alison Whittaker, Amanda Joy, Caitlin Maling, Charlotte Guest, Hera Lindsay Bird, Susan Varga, and Zoe Barnard.
At 2:30pm on Friday 24th of Febuary, Tropical Grove lived up to its name and became a borderline-unbearably-sweltering backdrop to ‘Poetic Tension’, with poets Alison Whittaker and Hera Lindsay Bird. While their discussion with Charlotte Guest of UWA Publishing was trained on what ‘taboo’ means when it is applied as a descriptor to their own creative output, the audience became privy to a deeper conversation—how exactly are young contemporary poets earning labels like ‘irreverent’ and ‘fearless’ in the first place?
Alison Whittaker prefers ‘unapologetic’ to fearless. A young Gomeroi woman whose work leans heavily on her own physicality, Whittaker expressed feelings of frustration that she doesn’t yet possess the words to wholly articulate herself. In this poet’s case, ‘irreverence’ equates to something altogether antithetical—Whittaker labours to code her work for an Indigenous female readership. The poet emphasised the significance of her close work with an Indigenous editor on her debut collection Lemons in the Chicken Wire, as well as her recent attempts to decolonise language. Whittaker frequently finds herself relying on silence when she writes—as decolonising of language involves using the tools of her colonisers, dismantlement and play with the English language itself allows Whittaker to access her truth with more ease.
Lindsay Bird suggested that it may be partly her (seemingly) flippant stylistic approach to the written word that has earned her a reputation for being subversive—she tends to punctuate her poems with the sort of loose style only considered ‘standardised’ by the unspoken rules of instant/text messaging, and evidently speaks to contemporary readers in a way ‘classic’ poets won’t necessarily. Her nods to the Old Masters of English poetry are consistently tongue in cheek, and her work is accessible to non-poetry readers and/or new poetry readers. A great irony that may have been missed by The Guardian readers who angrily reacted to a certain Lindsay-Bird poem online is that throughout history poets have always been ‘in conversation’ with each other—what makes Lindsay Bird different may in fact merely be a case of her deliberate, timely aesthetics of humour. Her motivation reads as unadulterated enjoyment of the poetic form itself, and she invites her most relevant audience to revel with her.
In the spirit of confessional writing, I will admit that after ‘Poetic Tension’ my mind kept drifting back to a single line from Lindsay Bird’s ‘Planet of the Apes’—not one of her infamous In-your-face-Creative-Writing-teacher-who-told-me-to-go-easy-on-the-similes similes, but the straightforward “Mark, I love you”. It may be trite to suggest that, in a world with 24/7 access to pornography and all the other once-shocking offerings of modern life, sentimentality is the final taboo, but with all the references to menstrual blood and sex that this session offered, ‘I love you’ somehow stuck like my dress to my thighs on that 40 degree day.
As an audience member commented after ‘Poetic Tension’, sometimes you just want to listen to poetry. ‘The Big Read’, hosted by Lucy Dougan and featuring seven poets (Alison Whittaker, Amanda Joy, Caitlin Maling, Charlotte Guest, Hera Lindsay Bird, Susan Varga and Zoe Barnard) reading for seven minutes each, certainly gave scope to that desire.
Each poet infused the reading with something uniquely theirs, something that can really only be appreciated ‘live’—from Whittaker’s ability to tease out the more subtle crevices and depths in a work via her resounding syllabic emphasis (and take immense, infectious joy in doing so), to the way that hearing the poems from Caitlin Maling’s Border Crossing aloud enhances the sustained, constant movement and resulting displacement of the subject matter, to the way Charlotte Guest’s stop-and-start, tip-toe delivery lended a certain studied delicacy to her verse.
During this session, Zoe Barnard mentioned that a friend once told her that instead of having feelings about your feelings, you should just feel them. This was compounded by the conviction with which these seven writers delivered their poetry. Though the poets’ styles and their backgrounds are diverse, several themes and connections persisted throughout ‘The Big Read’ and the 2017 Perth Writers Festival overall—specifically, how much talent and diversity abounds in not only Australian poetry at large, but especially amongst our female writers.
Alyce Wilson is a freelance writer from Perth, Western Australia.
Miah De Francesch
– ‘Challenging Assumptions: 30 Years of Independent Indigenous Publishing’ featuring Jared Thomas, Bruce Pascoe, and Alison Whittaker. 11.30am Feb 24.
– ‘The Flame Throwers’ featuring Elspeth Muir, Clementine Ford, Nakkiah Lui, and Omar Musa. 1pm Feb 24.
– ‘Common Ground’ featuring Kim Mahood and Bruce Pascoe. 2.30pm Feb 24.
– ‘Offbeat’ featuring Omar Musa, Ziggy, L-FRESH The LION, and Inua Ellams. 11.30am Feb 25.
– ‘Little Magic’ featuring Ken Liu, Julie Koh, and Lauren Elizabeth Woollett. 11.30am Feb 26.
– ‘The Placemakers’ featuring David Francis, Patrick Holland, and Holly Throsby. 1pm Feb 26.
Ken Liu, author of The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, began the ‘Little Magic’ panel with an analogy that summarised my weekend at the 2017 Perth Writers Festival. Short fiction, he said, is reminiscent of novels in the same way insects are reminiscent of elephants. Although alive, they are fundamentally different. You cannot shrink an elephant and expect to have a beetle, nor can you enlarge an insect to anticipate the majesty of an elephant. Although similar, each is unique.
In much the same way, the poetry and words from the spoken word artists at the session ‘Offbeat’ were hardly the same as the stories of bandits and small town murders in country Australia that filled ‘The Placemakers’. Each textual medium and panel at the Festival fit this exact sentiment. Everything I came across was fundamentally the same but different—the heart of a story presented again and again in different bodies and forms.
This was my first year at the Writers Festival, and I hadn’t known what to expect. I approached the weekend with fresh eyes and a nervousness to fulfil the task I had been assigned to do—to live-tweet some of the events for Westerly, and to help sail lines of poetry in their ‘Festival Poem’. I left absolutely inspired, my fingers itching to write something, anything.
Although the weather itself was oppressive, the event was anything but. I pushed through the heat, wandering starry-eyed to panel after panel, absorbing words and becoming addicted to the passion of the people on stage before me. I began the weekend with ‘Challenging Assumptions’ from Magabala Books, and sat enraptured by the stories and ideas from Jared Thomas, Bruce Pascoe, and Alison Whittaker, before moving on to ‘The Flamethrowers’, where the incredible Elspeth Muir, Clementine Ford, Nakkiah Lui and Omar Musa set my passion for social issues alight.
‘Offbeat’ continued this fire, with Ziggy, L-FRESH The LION, Inua Ellams and again Omar Musa using their voices to reshape social narratives, while both ‘Common Ground’ with Kim Mahood and Bruce Pascoe, and ‘The Placemakers’ with David Francis, Patrick Holland, and Holly Throsby brought me back and grounded me in the familiarity of the Australian landscape that I, and many of us, call home.
For me, however, ‘Little Magic’ was truly as described. To sit and listen to three short fiction authors talk about short fiction as an art form, to listen to them talk about their motivations and reasons for writing, was the most inspiring point of my weekend. The panel was insightful and inspiring. Almost immediately I found myself in the bookshop, snatching up the very last copy of The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, along with Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities, and Lauren Elizabeth Woollett’s Love of a Bad Man. They currently sit on my bedside table, waiting to be read.
With every panel I attended, I was grounded time and time again. The words of these authors—the passion and ideas that pervades their writing—are more than they seem. They are calls to action and they are marks of history. They push us forward to grasp at hope and beat our hands bloody against walls, all the while reminding us of who we are and of the history we come from.
And though I left desperate to read the anthologies I purchased or to clutch a pen in my hand and stain the page with words, I also left with a burning heart. I left reminded of the impact of my ancestors and of my privilege and position on this land—an impact and privilege that continues to this day. I left with the desire to change the mistakes of the past and to ensure that they did not happen again. I left inspired both write and to act.
Aside from the heat and the insects, I sit here now with only fond memories from my experience at the Writers Festival. My only regret? That I couldn’t bend time and space to attend more. I’m already booking off next year.
Miah De Francesch is an intern at Westerly Magazine and a recent Communication and Media Studies graduate. When she’s not neck deep in a book or podcast, she’s looking for other stories to sink her teeth into. See what she’s munching on @miahdefran