Friday was my day for poetry, starting early:
10–11am In Conversation: Anthony Joseph
Anthony Joseph comes from Trinidad and is currently based in the UK. He was in conversation with Felicity Plunkett, one of the few Australian poets to appear on the program. Though his most recent book of poetry, Sonnets for Albert, won the 2022 T S Eliot Prose for Poetry, Felicity Plunkett assumed, correctly in my case, that the audience was unfamiliar with it, and filled us in: it’s a book, mainly in sonnets, about the poet’s father.
The conversation covered two main subjects, both engrossing: the story of Joseph’s father and his use of the sonnet form.
A young friend of mine once said of her father, with obvious affection, ‘He was a terrible dad.’ Joseph could go further: ‘He was my father, but he wasn’t a dad.’ He married very young, and left the marriage after just enough time for two sons to be born, then in the rest of his life had ten more children by a number of women. Joseph’s brother remained bitter about being abandoned until, at the very end, he was at his dying father’s bedside. Joseph himself lived with his paternal grandmother as a small boy and her affection for her son rubbed off on him. The poems, as I understand it, explore this emotional complexity. I’ve bought a copy of the book.
The sonnet – which Felicity Plunkett described as being an inheritance just as much family experience is – is more than a poem. In the English-speaking world, it’s a feeling, a thing you recognise in many places: in the shape of a pop song, even in the shape of the human body. It’s a way of thinking. For Caribbean/Black poets, it’s interesting to find ways of using the form and making it fit their experience. When he was writing the book, Joseph started out adhering strictly to the rules, but then began taking all sorts of liberties. His father’s voice said to him: ‘You can’t put me in this box.’
He quoted two Caribbean poets. Kamau Braithwaite: ‘The hurricane does not roar in pentameter.’ Derek Walcott: ‘The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination.’
Speaking of himself, he said that luckily he has access not only to standard English but to Trinidadian Creole, which (I’m almost certainly getting this wrong) uses English words with African-derived grammar. To illustrate, he read us sonnets from the book in standard English and in Trinidadian.
There were some good questions. I loved his description of his process for writing a poem: ‘You write it. You leave it. You come back and edit it, and hope the original resonance is still there.
After grabbing a late breakfast, it was off to join a much larger audience for:
12-1 pm Eleanor Catton: Birnam Wood
Eleanor Catton was in conversation with Beejay Silcox who I know mainly as a critic in the Australian Book Review. Everyone keeps saying that Eleanor Catton’s new book, Birnam Wood, is her second, the first being the award-winning The Luminaries. Catton was careful to let us know it was actually her third, and that she didn’t disown her first, The Rehearsal, about a theatrical production in a girls’ school.
She talked about her venture in screen writing – for the 2020 movie Emma. (full stop is part of the title), directed by Autumn de Wilde. She learned a lot from her immersion in Jane Austen’s novel, and from the way film requires character to be revealed through action. She learned the dictum that every story had to have a beginning, a middle and an end was important for drawing attention to the transitions between those elements, the turning points of structure.
She and Beejay Silcox agreed that Emma is one of the great monsters of English literature, but she said that the genius of Jane Austen is to beguile the reader into committing the same mistake as Emma makes, in thinking ourselves morally superior to her, and then turning it back on us. (I do love a bit of Jane-Austen-ophilia.)
As for Birnam Wood, it sounds interesting, a satire that sets out to unsettle readers of all political stripes. I’ll wait for recommendations or otherwise from the Emerging Artist and others. Maybe I’m unsettled enough already.
Then scurry scurry scurry (I’m sure in the olden days when everything was better there was a bigger time gap between sessions) to:
1–2 pm ABC RN: The Bookshelf
The Bookshelf is an ABC Radio National program where hosts Kate Evans and Cassie McCullagh chat with guest writers about their books and the books they cherish. Each episode of the program adds a number of books to an imagined bookshelf. Their guests on stage for this session were Shehan Karunatilaka (I was glad to see more of him after Wednesday evening), Jason Reynolds (interested to hear him more discursive than on Thursday evening) and speculative fiction writer Grace Chan (yay for genre!).
One of the pleasures of this panel was the way it embodied Anthony Joseph’s quote from Derek Walcott: ‘The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination.’ An African-American YA writer, a Malaysian-born spec-fic writer, a Sri Lankan novelist, all own the language and its literatures. I did make notes of the books they mentioned, but I’ll just mention a couple of moments that gave me joy.
I loved it when someone mentioned a book I love. Jason Reynolds mentioned Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, a tiny book about a boy who writes poetry that I had forgotten until he reminded me of it. Grace Chan recommended Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho, saying that it had magic, and boarding school etc, and then referred, not to the obvious inspiration but to the late, great, beloved of me, Diana Wynne Jones. Shehan Karunatilaka was cajoled into confessing his love for the Choose Your Own Adventure books – it’s not that I loved them so much as that they were a feature of my early parenthood, and somehow it was a thrill to realise these formidable people were young enough to be my children.
Drums got a mention. Jason Reynolds quoted James Brown (I don’t remember the context): ‘Every instrument is a drum.’ Shehan Karunatilaka said he loved to play the drums: ‘I bang the drum, read some Yeats, and I’m ready to go.’
The most interesting moment was when one of the facilitators suggested that these writers of non-Anglo background were redefining the canon. ‘No,’ said Jason Reynolds. ‘We have different canons to start with.’ He listed a number of great African American writers, not as favourite authors of his, but as the eminences who defined the literary landscape. He suggested that each of the others on the panel had a similar lineage behind them. We’ve come a very long way since my days studying Eng Lit under the shadow of F R Leavis (even though that shadow was fading in my time), when there was The Great Tradition – a very short list of The Writers Who Matter. I for one am very happy for that distance.
7.30–8.30 pm The Rhythm of the Word
The thing I love most about the Sydney Writers’ Festival is being read to. The Big Read, when half a dozen writers would read to a packed Town Hall is now apparently a thing of the past, but moments like Sebastian Barry bursting into song at the beginning of his reading are still with me years after the event.
So I was happy to venture back out from my warm home for this poetry reading. Poetry readings at the SWF used to have a home-town feel, and when the festival was beside the Harbour poetry had a base in small, often crowded, sometimes glare-filled room at the end of the wharf. The Carriageworks doesn’t allow for such nooks and crannies, and poetry events have somehow become rarer.
Not that there was anything unattractive about this event.
Western Sydney poet Omar Sakr was the host. He used his platform as MC to slip in a poem of his own (the only poem I heard at the festival by a Australian living east of the WA border!). It was ‘Diary of a non-essential worker’ a Covid poem, and I wrote down two lines that struck me. I can’t read my own writing, but I think the lines are:
Everything is a miracle when you're alive I'm learning that reluctantly
Madison Godfrey did a reprise of ‘When I grow up I want to be the merch girl’, which they read on the opening night. Their other poems were ‘Harry Styles was [illegible] on a beach and the horizon was aligned with his thighs’, ‘Utopia translates as no place’ (a heartbreak poem), and ‘Impulse’ (named for a brand of deodorant).
Joshua Whitehead, Canadian First Nations scholar and poet (a different person from novelist Colson Whitehead who is also a guest at the festival) did a stunning performance of a medley of poems from his two books, including Making Love with the Land (2022). If you heard his astonishingly rapidfire stuttering delivery on a recording you could easily assume his effects were achieved by electronic feedback but he did it all.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai read three poems, first in Vietnamese and then in English. At the end, she gave us a short lesson in the importance of diacritical marks in Vietnamese (‘those funny little marks above the letters’). She had us all pronounce Quế , and explained it means ‘cinnamon’. Then she taught us Que (which is how her English-language publishers) wanted to print it). It sounds quite different and means ‘snake’. Point made.
Anthony Joseph read two poems, quite different from the sonnets of this morning’s session. They were ‘On the Move’ and ‘The Ark’ He introduced the latter saying it was an elegy for a London hip hop performer whose name I didn’t write down. It’s a list poem, or a litany: name after name of African-heritage writer or singer or performer with the recurring phrase ‘is on the Ark’. The cumulative effect is powerful – for me, partly by making me aware of how few of the names I recognised (making me think back to Jason Lester’s observation this morning about different canons), and partly by invoking the force of those I do recognise (from Langston Hughes to Maya Angelou). At the end his friend’s name was added to the list, and Omar Sakr came onstage wiping his cheeks and saying his face had melted.
After the reading I looked around and saw just one face I recognised. We had a chat, and were soon commiserating over the absence of Sydney’s usual poetry audience from the event, and the near absence of Sydney or even eastern Australian poets from the Festival program. We happened to walk past Ann Mossop, Artistic Director, and buttonholed her briefly on the subject. She said that it’s hard to find an audience for poetry. I wonder what would happen if the Festival commissioned someone like Magdalena Ball of Compulsive Reader or Toby Fitch, poetry editor of Overland and organiser of Avant Gaga, a monthly poetry reading in Glebe, to curate a poetry stream in a tiny room somewhere at Carriageworks. If such a curator needs t be someone who’s not white, what about Eileen Chong, or Sara Mansour of the Bankstown Poetry Slam? Just wonderin’.