My Friday at the Festival was a long day. Also wet. Anticipating queues, I arrived early for my first event, and turned out to be one of three people sheltering under the long marquee for a good half hour. Sadly, attendance was pretty sparse for an excellent session:
10 am: Australia in Verse
As is often the case, this event’s title was irrelevant. With poetry events at the SWF, it’s the who that counts rather than the what.
Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckerman were in conversation with Ivor Indyk. Jennifer Maiden’s name was in the program but back trouble kept her away, that and her wish that the two Indigenous poets should have the floor. I was sorry not to see her, but it was wonderful that we got so much of the two who were there.
The poets spoke about their backgrounds. Sam’s south-east Queensland childhood was full of story-tellers, writers and artists, solidly Aboriginal though not in denial about European heritage as well. He described himself as a child of popular culture. Ali’s mother was taken from her family when very young; Ali herself was taken; and she relinquished her own baby son. Their paths to becoming poets were vastly different, as is their poetry.
Both read a number of poems, and spoke about what their poetry meant to them. Ivor Indyk was wonderful in the chair. When Sam said something about his early poems being well received, Ivor said that was because they were good: ‘And I’ll say what was good about them in a minute.’
There was a lot of laughter, and some tears.
And on to:
11.30: Writers on Writers: Rilke
I know very little about Rilke. I read his Letters to a Young Poet when I was a young non-poet, and I love this passage from Etty Hillesum‘s diaries, written on her way to Auschwitz, which makes me want to know more:
I always return to Rilke.
It is strange to think that someone so frail did most of his writing within protective castle walls, would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live. […] In peaceful times and under favourable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions, a response they are unable to formulate for themselves, since all their energies are taken up in looking after the bare necessities.
So I was interested.
There was a lot to absorb. All four panelists knew an awful lot about Rilke, which they were enthusiastic to share: much more than could possibly fit into an hour. Luke Fischer, enthusiastic young scholar–poet, fell over his own words as he gave us three trains of thought at once. Lesley Chamberlain, a learned Englishwoman in jeans, made sure we knew how to pronounce Brancusi properly. Peter Morgan, from Sydney University’s German department, was in the chair and had interesting things to say about translating Rilke. Elder poet Robert Gray seemed to rise every now and then from the depths of abstract thought to make a brief contribution. It was fascinating theatre, and pretty good as an impressionistic introduction to a poet who, they said, sits at the beginning of modernism.
Not that it was like a fish and chip shop, but I had three takeaways:
- Rilke is the one who ended a short poem describing an ancient sculpture with a phrase that seemed to come from nowhere and go everywhere, ‘You must change your life.’
- He regarded his letters as part of his literary output. (This was a relief, because if the Letters to a Young Poet were dashed off there’s no hope for the rest of us.)
- Something that came up in response to a question at the very end, that seems relevant to to Etty Hillesum quote is Rilke’s concept of the reversal. As far as I could understand, the idea is that if you set out to experience any pain and painful emotion fully rather than numbing them out or seeking distraction from them, then at some point a reversal happens, and the pain is in some way transcended.
Time for lunch, in what was now a beautiful sunny day by the Harbour, and then:
1.30: The World in Three Poets
This was a wonderful session. Kate Fagan (not pictured), herself no mean poet, did an amazing job of introducing poets Ben Okri, David Malouf and Les Murray. That is, she said just a few extraordinarily well crafted words about each of them, leaving most of the hour for them to read to us, followed by a short question time. It was an almost overwhelming combination of talents.
The woman sitting next to me said she was there mainly for Ben Okri – she’d read some of his novels (‘if you can call them novels’) and hoped that hearing him read in person would help to understand them. As if he’d heard her, his final reading was from his current novel, which he introduced by saying that his novels had often been described as poetic. My transitory companion was pleased.
Les Murray read nothing from his most recent book, which of course was because he had a whole session on that book – Waiting for the Past – the next day. What he did read was marvellous. And when David Malouf read, Les was a picture of concentration – as if he was in training for an Olympic event in Listening to Poetry.
David began with his ‘Seven Last Word of the Emperor Hadrian’. Heard in the context of the previous day’s session on the classics, this revealed itself more clearly: the speaker, anticipating death, bids a tender farewell to his soul, the reverse of what we would expect in the Judaeo-Christian mindset, and there is something deeply moving about that.
All three of these extraordinary poets shone in the question time.
3 pm: Australia’s Oldest Stories: Indigenous Storytelling with Glen Miller
It’s 51 years since Jacaranda Press published a children’s book, The Legends of Moonie Jarl by Moonie Jarl (Wilf Reeves) and Wandi (Olga Miller), which has been described as the first book written by Aboriginal people. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation have re-published it this year. Glen Miller, nephew and son respectively of the authors, talked to Lydia Miller about his own very interesting life – as very young worker in the coal mines, public servant, cultural tourism entrepreneur, and now as elder and activist in the Maryborough Aboriginal community – and about the origins of the book as he remembered them. He was very good value, but I can’t have been the only person in the audience who was hanging out to be read to. Eventually, he did read us one story – almost apologetically, as if an audience full of adults wouldn’t want to be read a children’s story. There were no complaints.
It being Friday, I was joined by the Art Student for:
4.30: The Big Read
The Big Read is where a big theatre full of people, mainly adults, sits back to be read to. This event used to be for ninety minutes, but it’s sadly been cut back to just an hour, and that hour has to accommodate the presentation of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Awards.
This year the awards presentation featured some unscheduled theatre. The set-up has always been a little awkward, as one by one the young novelists stand silently off to the side of the stage while their novels are described, and then again while the others have their turns. This year, the first recipient, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, clearly feeling the awkwardness acutely, sat down in a spare chair while his book (The Tribe) was being described. When he was shepherded away from that chair after receiving his award, he looked around and saw that there wasn’t a chair (Beatles reference intended), so sat on the floor. His successors – Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ellen van Neerven and Omar Musa (Alice Pung, the fifth recipient, was in Melbourne with a small baby) – each made the decision to join him. Linda Morris from the SMH said it was like a sit-in. Perhaps next year there will be chairs, and the young novelists may even have a moment each at the microphone.
On to the show itself: Camilla Nelson read from Alice Pung’s book; Kate Grenville read from One Life, a kind of biography of her mother; Steven Carroll read an extended passage about a guitar from his novel, Forever Young; Damian Barr gave us a snippet of Glaswegian childhood from his memoir Maggie and Me. Annette Shun Wah was as always a warm and charming host.
It’s probably telling that when we went to Gleebooks on our way to dinner to buy Damian Barr’s book it was sold out. After a dinner up the hill at the Hero of Waterloo, we uncharacteristically returned to the Festival for an evening session:
8.00 Drafts Unleashed + Slam
MCd by Miles Merrill, mover and shaker on the Australian spoken word scene, this featured an open mic plus a number of featured guests, all of whom were invited to read something completely new. Benjamin Law read us the opening scene of the TV series currently in production based on his memoir The Family Law. He did the voices and the accents, and it was a wondrous thing to see this slight, mild man transformed before our eyes into a big, loud, wildly inappropriate woman. The rest was fun too, but we were weary and left before the show was over, walking back to Circular Quay through the spectacle and crush of the Vivid festival.