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Famous Reporter # 34
 

 

 

RALPH WESSMAN

North to Garradunga

 

LIVING WRITER'S WEEK, TASMANIA: AUGUST, 2006

Living Writers’ Week held in August throughout Tasmania is heavily marketed, so much so that arriving late at one of its opening events – a poetry reading at Hobart’s Hope and Anchor Hotel one Friday evening – it’s simply too crowded to enter. Strong attendances are correspondingly reported elsewhere around the state, a reading in Devonport drawing an audience of eighty or so.

For $80, I’ve half a table at the IXL Atrium in Hunter Street, Hobart on Sunday 13th August at the Tasmanian Book Fair to market various Walleah Press publications. I’m sharing the table with Pardalote Press’ Lyn Reeves, arguably the finest publisher today of quality, contemporary Tasmanian literature. Various panel sessions are being held next door throughout the day: one imagines the book fair will be quiet apart from a brief break between sessions when  the place will perhaps be flocked by patrons curious to see for themselves the extent of contemporary Tasmanian literature. But - to our surprise - the Book Fair is packed with a couple of hundred people from its opening at 10am and remains that way till wrapping up at 4pm.

Keeping an eye on our table somewhat restricts me from listening to the panel sessions taking place on the Sunday, but I manage to take in a couple the previous day. Under the impression that ‘Investigative Journalism’, featuring Margaretta Pos, Lindsay Tuffin, Airlie Ward, Richard Herr and Wayne Crawford is the first event on the day’s programme, I arrive twenty minutes early to be certain of a seat – only to find actor/author William McInnes holding court in front of a packed room. McInnes, launching his first novel ‘Cricket Kings’, is in full flight, finishing one anecdote and carousing straight to the next. If literary journalist Jason Steger - with whom McInnes is sharing the table - is meant to be prompting McInnes, then his job is an armchair ride. Here – with the programme notes - lies the only fault I find with the festival. The panel sessions I’ve arrived to see (the first beginning at 10.45 am) appear on page 12 of the programme guide. McInnes’ launch is timed for 10 am, and appears on page 18 of the programme. I’ve overlooked it. Still, others manage to get it right even if I can’t.

Wayne Crawford is a fine choice as chair of the ‘Investigative Journalism’ panel, given the integrity of his even-handed investigative writing for ‘The Mercury’. Someone once defined news as what someone somewhere doesn’t want published, Crawford suggests, and points to a number of issues broken in Tasmania in recent times including ‘the reasons behind the Tasmanian devil’s facial tumor, the scandalous and tragic loss of millions of dollars by investors in a legal firm, questions about the financial practices by the Hydro,’ among others.

Introducing Lindsay Tuffin, Crawford portrays the print journalist and ‘Tasmanian Times’ editor as someone who doesn’t fit easily into the mould of respectability and conformity. ‘I notice he’s taken off his beanie at least!’

Tuffin speaks of his belief that investigative journalism within Tasmania is in a good state, expresses particular admiration for the work of Simon Bevilacqua, whose ‘quiet, enquiring mind has for years probed the darker recesses of Tasmanian public life with an admirable tenaciousness and consistency’, and for Sue Neales ‘whose journalism has flowered into a beautiful thing’. One of the unstated assumptions for journalists in Tasmania, says Tuffin, is that you have to play by the ruling party’s rules or you don’t play. Those who govern have a four-step response to taking care of ‘difficult buggers, the whistleblowers or the journos questioning and writing outside the tent’, he says. One. Deny the issue oxygen. (The issue doesn’t exist, ignore it). Two. The issue is not going away, so issue a veiled legal threat. Three. The issue is still around – ‘invite the Dissenting One to a private briefing which involves releasing selected private information which locks the Dissenter into confidentiality.’ Four. Ostracise.

Tuffin looks up from his notes. ‘I must be running out of time,’ he enquires diffidently.

‘You can have some of mine, I’m enjoying this,’ responds Airlie Ward, presenter of ABC television’s ‘Stateline’.

Tuffin wraps up his address by observing that the journo’s job is a tough one, particularly the battle with media management which is often conservative and subjective. He is critical of local media outlets: ‘The Mercury’, ‘The Examiner’, the ABC. ‘Sometimes I think the ABC balances itself out of existence – balance is appeasement … fairness is truth.’

‘Well Airlie,’ Wayne Crawford remarks as Tuffin steps down, ‘you’ve got about thirty seconds after that’.

‘Thank you: some very big shoes to fill after Lindsay.’

Airlie Ward points to the differences between print and television journalism, the way it’s impossible to base television journalism solely on documents. ‘Television needs people. Its strength lies in the opportunity it offers people to say the story in their own voices.’

‘There aren’t many journalists who have the time, money and resources to build up an investigative piece,’ she says. ‘I envy others their resources, but for a programme like "Stateline" I have to be realistic. Every week we have to get up a half-hour programme. Sometimes I get bogged down with other issues, find myself thinking, my God it’s nearly Friday and there’s nothing in the kitty. That’s the reality, the day to day routine of "I have a deadline, I have to find a story". What makes for good investigative journalism anyway? It’s getting behind the story, finding out who benefits, who loses. How do you find the story in the first place? Freedom Of Information? But that often alerts the department you intend to investigate, and as often as not you’ll get a friendly call, someone suggesting "hey, that’s not a story!" Or your FOI request is knocked back. Or if it does get up, you find yourself with a sheet of paper that’s been so blocked out that all that’s left is Dear Sir and Yours sincerely. These are decisions made in the public interest, we are told – but who is it that decides what is in the public interest?’

Wayne Crawford introduces Margaretta Pos, a writer from a teaching and arts background, who has worked in places as far afield and diverse as Delhi and Sydney, whose journalism has won many awards. ‘And I suspect somewhere that there might be a novel in the bottom of the drawer.’

Margaretta Pos speaks of her years spent with The Mercury, when she wrote a column entitled ‘Positively Speaking’ – ‘some who disliked me figured I should call it "Negatively Speaking"’ – and of the changes to her journalistic life since leaving The Mercury. ‘The spin doctors really don’t like you when you work in the maverick fields such as writing for Crikey.com, or for Tasmanian Times, because they can’t exercise any control over you’.

"I hope you don’t mind me saying this Richard,’ Crawford ventures, introducing Richard Herr, ‘but perhaps you too are something of a frustrated journalist.’ Herr laughs. "I’m sometimes frustrated with journalists," he goes so far as to admit.

Herr refers despairingly to the habits of the newspaper-buying public who’ve given up buying the quality press in favour of tabloids. "I regret this bitterly for the implications it has had on the maintenance of an effective civic culture," he says, adding that public expectation is also a factor in the ‘dumbing down’ of journalistic outputs. As Herr sees it, the problem areas for investigative journalism lie in the general weakness of daily news reporting, the lack of a strong and accomplished professional body of reporters within the existing pool, the reduction in the size of the state parliament with the result that there are too few opposition MPs to contest the Government, an emphasis on personality politics, and an editorial penchant for sensationalism at the expense of a fully formed story. Tasmania needs quality analytical reporting today more than ever, Herr maintains, but points out that presently ‘the Tasmanian voters as consumers of the media are not demanding enough and the media as producers are not always as professional as they should be’.

 

Another of Saturday’s panel sessions is ‘Writing for an audience: fiction, poetry’. Gina Mercer, editor of Island magazine, chairs this session, which - she contends – is the most relevant of Living Writers’ Week. ‘I was walking along the beach this morning wondering, can I make this grand claim? Well: put up your hands those who consider yourselves readers? Okay, a hundred percent – (and you lot on the panel, you should have put your hands up too!) Now, hands up those of you who consider yourself writers? Hmmm… well, I’d suggest that far more of you than those with their hands up are writers. Consider….’

‘The other day, when I had to go out somewhere or other, I cooked a meal which I left along with a note: "Your dinner’s in the oven." Sometime later I received a telephone call on my mobile, ‘Hello darling, how are you?’ – his voice concerned, perhaps even a little defensive. He’d interpreted my message in a completely different context from the way that I’d intended. I forgot that perhaps it could be taken another way: I forgot my audience. I forgot to say, "Sorry I can’t share dinner with you, however…", I forgot to say "Looking forward to seeing you once I get home." So: audience!’

‘Even when we perform the most secretive or private of writing, we need to consider our audience in our heads – whether it’s an audience of one or of 100,000. We’re lucky today to have four very fine writers to share their views of audience.’ Gina turns to introduce novelist Monica McInerny.

‘The morning Monica finished her first novel – she was living in Hobart at the time - she learned of a competition for writing a best seller, so she entered it. She was living in Hobart at the time. At about the same time she bought a ticket in a raffle, first prize was an air ticket to Dublin. She won the prize, and travelled to Dublin. On the day she arrived she received a telephone call letting her know she’d won second prize in the ‘write a best-seller’ competition, and second prize was a three-book contract. Isn’t that a wonderful story? Monica….’

‘Thank you, I’m delighted to be back where I wrote my first book,’ Monica begins. Addressing the concerns of the panel session, Monica explains she’s unable to write for an audience beyond herself. ‘I think of one reader – I am that reader, the first reader of my book – and I’ll probably read it a hundred times by the time it’s reached a publisher. And I have to remain interested in my writing – of course, I’m not going to be surprised at how the book ends – but my goal is to entertain. I ask myself: what appeals to me? … what do I write about? … cry about? The answers include writing - about family, about being surprised by life, about stepping outside my comfort zone…. Some will like what I have to write, and others not at all, but you can’t control that. You need to come to terms with bad reviews, negative responses to your work. But I attempt to offer my humour and my heart and hope my readers and audience will respond.’

Gina introduces Louise Oxley, ‘a very fine poet … with a deep understanding of the way language works, and its structure.’ Louise speaks of her early years as a writer when she questioned whether or not to send her work out to magazines. Was it vain to do so? A close friend advised that it was vain not to. The questions – who am I writing for? why am I writing? – came as she persevered with her craft. "After a few rejections, ‘I began to wonder why am I writing at all?’ she adds. Louise continues to write because it gives her a sense – and greater understanding - of the world. ‘It lends me a semblance of order, allows me the opportunity – as writing does – to say something new and original, to utter words people don’t expect me to say.’

‘I learnt along the way that there are conventions – but that you can break them. Becoming a writer provides me with an opportunity to honour language. I write for my own sake. I write in the hope of an audience, but the problem with the idea of audience is the collective one. The encounter with the poem is a very private affair, so really I think of audience for a reader as an audience of one, and the ideal reader is the reader who reads in good faith, who opens the bottle and wants to know what is inside.’

Gina introduces Anthony Lawrence as someone ‘found by poetry’ at the age of fifteen. She alludes to his habit of ‘borrowing’ books from the library of his boarding school, an act he says he’s never repaid. ‘I don’t believe him,’ adds Gina, ‘it’s been repaid by the publishing of a dozen books of his own - though whether any of those books ever made it back to his boarding school…. ’

‘It’s an honour to have Anthony with us,’ Gina continues, ‘and if you ask politely he might even discuss with you the audience for email correspondence.’

‘Thank you Gina. I was wondering, actually, whether that might come up.’

‘Well, I had to ask….’

‘That whole thing’s been blown out of the water, it’s a folly,’ he states, referring to reportage on John Kinsella, Bob Adamson and himself that’s appeared recently in the national press.

‘When I was about eighteen,’ Lawrence begins, ‘I worked as a jackeroo on a cattle station. Dad gave me an Olivetti portable typewriter, I drove everyone mad writing all the time. Mum, in her wisdom, made a phone call to someone she believed might be able to help with what she saw as my problem, she picked up the telephone book, went through the white pages looking under "P" for poetry and telephoned the Poets’ Society of Australia. The person she spoke to – synchronicity, isn’t it Gina? – was Robert Adamson. She told Robert she thought her son was a poet and that naturally she was worried about it.'

‘Through Robert I met a good many poets, the first poetry session I sat down to included, among others, Robert Adamson and Judith Beveridge and the incredible American Robert Duncan who was visiting the country at the time….’

‘I threw myself in at the deep end, though I had no idea of this at the time. I was writing rhyming doggerel about working as a jackeroo – poems typically about my dog, about a water rat - poems I still keep and look on with tenderness. About this time, writing poetry took on such an intensity that if I wandered through Hyde Park and saw someone writing, for instance, I’d wander up to them and ask - are you writing a poem? They’d just look up from the shopping list or whatever it was they were scribbling – probably the draft of a restraining order put out against people coming up to them asking if they were writing poetry….’

‘It’s well known that it’s mostly poets who buy poetry. Poets do not write to make money, if your book sells 5,000 copies – 2,000 copies – you’re pretty much on the way to immortality. These days I write for myself, and have done for a long time. I’m at my happiest – and at my most vulnerable – when I’m writing a poem (unless it’s a love poem). The best audience I could ask for comes not as the result of a review, but is simply the comment of a stranger who appreciates something I’ve written. That’s the best. An audience does exist, but it’s a dangerous thing - for me at least – to anticipate in any sense.’

Gina introduces Katherine Scholes as ‘a stunningly diverse writer with several children’s books to her credit, and a young adult novel Blue Chameleon. A significant portion of Katherine’s audience live in Germany, and I think I’m right in suggesting that you don’t speak German, Katherine? No! So that’s an interesting slant on the concept of audience.’

Katherine Scholes admits to knowing little about the people who read her books. ‘My publisher talks of numbers, but that’s not me. If I want clues as to who my audience might be, I might turn to magazines – I’m something of a magazine junkie. I like all kinds of women’s magazine for the insight into human experience they can offer. I am, of course, a subscriber to Australia’s premier literary journal Island, edited by Gina. I also like to read a title or two from the Booker Prize shortlist, for example.’

‘When it comes to considerations of audience…. In the end, you’re writing the book you’d most like to read. It has to be a book you can live with, because you’ll likely be living with it for a couple of years. And it has to be a book that the audience you’ve established for yourself will be interested in reading.’ Scholes maintains that the single most important thing about writing style – her style, in any case – is to offer a limited point of view and tell a story through the eyes of one of the main characters. ‘It’s worked for me and probably for my readers. It would be a big decision for me to make to not continue in this fashion’.

During question time, Anthony reminisces on looking back over his earlier poems, ‘with their so many failings and inconsistencies and poor craftsmanship. But you recognise this about your writing, and – if you were looking for work to include in an anthology, for instance – you wouldn’t change them. It’d be a travesty to change them. They’re of their time, they’re markers in the time piece of your life.’

‘I feel a tenderness towards my early poems too,’ Gina confirms. ‘While I know they might be bad, it gives me a sense of relief to be able to recognise that.’

‘Not that recognising it makes it any easier to write the next poem,’ adds Louise.

‘Oh yes: it’s always easy to write a bad poem,’ Gina agrees.

A member of the audience asks whether good covers sell books. ‘I know that I buy books on their covers,’ Anthony quips. ‘And music. I play Russian Roulette with music in this way - but I’ve found some great stuff!’

 

Much else is happening besides. Enjoyable is the Five Islands Press session featuring six Australian poets launching their first poetry collections, including local writer Francesca Haig. There’s grateful acknowledgment of the pivotal role of Ron Pretty (manager of Five Islands Press) in Australian poetry publishing, and hopes for his speedy recovery, (Ron has been hospitalised two days beforehand, and unable to make the trip to Tasmania). A number of other book launches and planned as well, along with literary lunches, writers in schools, poems written for significant trees in the royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, a poetry trail with more than a score of sculptures on display, even the annual Bridport Writers’ Festival slots perfectly into the programme. ‘The whole thing has been such a success,’ someone ventures, ‘that maybe we’ll all be doing it again in two years time.’

 

 

OVERHEARD

From one of the publishers represented at the book fair, Living Writers Week, Hobart – August 2006.
 
"If books had tyres, most of these people would be kicking them, wouldn’t they?"

 

 

LEBANESE & ISRAELI BLOGS

Last issue, famous reporter ran a blog entry by ‘Perpetual Refugee’ (a Lebanese blogger) in which he expressed hope at the possibility of Lebanese exiles returning soon to their homeland.

Weeks later, war erupted between Israel and Hezbollah.

Commentary on the war is more or less outside my brief, but it's nevertheless decidedly painful to see go down the drain the openness - the potential for dialogue - that had sprung up between Israeli and Arab bloggers over recent years. That idealism they shared was a palpable thing … how far down the track before it returns?

 

 

ON THE LOOKOUT

A friend’s writing an application for a residency at Varuna. ‘Just looking for 900 good words,’ she confides.
 
Aren’t we all?

 

 

LAUNCH, ESTHER OTTAWAY COLLECTION

There was a good turn-up in response to the launch of Esther Ottaway’s Blood Universe in Hobart; lots of pregnant women and prams in attendance, along with a strong male contingent. Blood Universe, Ottaway’s first collection featuring a series of poems on pregnancy and childbirth, was published by the Poets Union in September, though it had been accepted for publication as early as late the previous year. ‘In fact, one of the first things I asked my publisher when the book was accepted,’ said Esther, ‘was how long it might be before it appeared in print.

"Mmm . .. about nine months," was the reply.’

Esther Ottaway and her daughter Layla at the launch of
Esther’s Blood Universe (Hobart, September, 2006)

 

THE IMPETUS FOR WRITING

Ah, the things that bind.

Adrienne Eberhard, reading at Hobart’s Republic Bar & Café in October, spoke of the impetus for some of her most recent poems, with their emphasis on cleats and sheets,  reef knots and sheepshanks.

‘My husband’s passion for sailing lead him to suggest to me that I attend a TAFE course on knotting', Adrienne explained, 'he was somewhat concerned as to what might happen if it should ever be my responsibility to tie up the boat at the end of the day’s sailing."

 

TASMANIAN POETRY FESTIVAL, OCTOBER 2006

It’s a two and a half hour drive up the Midland Highway from Hobart to Launceston. We’re heading north to catch the Tasmanian Poetry Festival, and though we’ll be too late for the first event – Friday evening’s poetry cruise on the Tamar River – we're hoping to arrive in good time for the second. The questions ‘Do you think the place’ll be crowded out? Will we have to stand if we’re late?’ are met with muted laughter. Poetry? Sold out?

Finding the Yacht Club takes a little time, but directions from friendly locals help us  to arrive ... eventually. The reading’s already in full swing, Esther Ottaway’s at the microphone entertaining a packed audience. We wander to the rear of the room by the bar, drag up some stools.
"Seasick lurch of nausea…" Esther recites - but the microphone’s not carrying well.
‘That sounds awful,’ murmurs the barmaid in sympathy.
‘Nothing less than he deserved, cracking on to me missus like that,’ retorts a bloke at the bar. He can't hear the poetry but neither is he interested.
‘… anger, jaw a knotted fist...’ Esther continues, spoken word and conversation merging as one. This is ridiculous, we have to move.

As inconspicuously as possible, we file to the front of the room to where an arrangement of seats lines an alcove by the wall. From here we can observe the readers from side on; by now Sam Wagan Watson’s at the microphone and comfortably into his stride. Not sure what I’d expected of Sam Watson, but it certainly isn’t the unassuming demeanour of the poet on stage. Anger, perhaps? Certainly it’s there in the writing, but not in the mannerisms and expressions that register across his face. There’s passion in the poetry but there’s subtle observation, humour and narrative too. "Whenever I’m reading at a venue set near the river,’ says Watson, ‘I like to end with this poem which reminds me of the time some years ago when I was living in Brisbane and sharing a place with a chap who worked as a bouncer at a nightclub. He’d finish work early in the morning, whereon his routine was to grab a New York pizza and a few cold beers before coming home to wake me up. At 4 am we’d be sitting down by the river – eating, drinking, talking. This poem reminds me of those days....’

The open mic poetry session sees Andrew Peek at the microphone with a poem for George W. Bush, a poem on freedom, or more specifically, a poem on the degradation of the word 'freedom'. There's applause for Andrew, who's followed by local writer Brian Dore. ‘You’ve heard about the Unknown Soldier? Well you know what I’m about to say, don’t you? I’m the Unknown Poet, I’ve had one poem published, but I’m up to my eighty-fourth written piece.’ Jenny Barnard reads a poem that, she admits, is still in its developmental stage. ‘I’ll try it out on you cos I’m on alien soil.’ Like us, Jenny’s travelled north from Hobart for the weekend, she’s here to defend the Launceston Poetry Cup she'd won in 2005.

Luuc Zyl strides to the stage. As he adjusts his reading glasses, he laments on growing older. ‘I need these now,' he says. Luuc’s mellowing with age. Fifteen years ago his readings were accompanied with the flamboyant jettisoning to the floor of his poems as he read.While there's no longer volatility in the actions, it remains in the words. ‘This is a poem entitled "Carbuncle of Despair"’, Luuc announces to subdued laughter that rocks gently round the room. ‘The poem’s … not really funny,’ he adds needlesssly.

Peter Minter takes the floor. His reputation precedes him, not only for his poems and his poetry editorship of Meanjin, but for his sharply defined ecological views. With shirt collar creased and dishevelled, he presents as affable and relaxed, but there’s an edge, a steely resolve, to his poetry. It’s not conveyed in his manner, however; on completion of his set Minter takes time to lead a round of applause for Steve on sound mixing duties.

Canadian poet Jacqueline Turner, one of the festival’s couple of international guests, reads next in a set that concludes with ‘a canadian poem’. A Canadian poem is many things, it appears; it is long, like the transcanada highway, it is flat, like the prairies. The line "a canadian poem would / wonder why you were / reading it, when there / are so many other / poems to read" engenders an appreciative response. ‘A canadian poem would / be emblazoned on a / backpack, as if to say / this is not an american / poem,’ Turner continues, in the process precipitating a rush on her books which by the Saturday evening of the festival have sold out.

 

Saturday arrives, blustery and squally but the conditons don’t affect enjoyment of the day’s poetry which begins with the Launceston launch of Esther Ottaway’s Blood Universe. A casual stroll across the street immediately afterwards brings us to an upstairs café, the venue for another two hour session of poetry. "Love is…’ read the words blazoned across Peter Minter’s T-shirt, but love’s conundrum is an unfinished sentence that remains obscured under the folds of his jacket. He takes the microphone, left foot flat to the floor, right shoe edged and angled. There’s nothing linear to the poetry (at least to my mind), it’s more a series of impressionistic discernments seemingly less concerned with making a point than with suggesting an integrity of perception, an honesty of engagement.

Island editor Gina Mercer begins with a series of kitchen poems – ‘after all, we are in a restaurant’. The delivery is nimble-minded and energetic, the body language hints at ease with an audience . Gina concludes with a political piece, the decision to offer something more serious being a means of forestalling 'being written off as a flaky poet’, she explains.

The innate intelligence of Esther Ottaway’s poetry is accentuated by a wide-eyed and observant, clearly pitched delivery; since publication of her first collection a few weeks ago, Ottaway has assumed the poetic aplomb of the veteran performer.
‘That was truly wonderful, Esther.’
‘Ah – but I felt so nervous.’
‘You did? You’d never know.’

Jim Everett opens with a poem on the theme of water, adding ‘I especially wanted the opportunity to read this after having listened to Esther’s poems at her launch earlier in the day.’ Everett’s come directly from the launch of his own book the night before with ‘not too many hours sleep’, and is somewhat unprepared. ‘I’ve left my books behind at my motel … but that’s okay, I’ve managed to find some others.’ He reads from a variety of work written over a range of years. ‘I have to read from the page,’ he explains, ‘because once a poem’s written, it’s left me, it’s gone, I’ve moved onto something else.’ It’s good to listen to Everett’s poetry hinting at the depth of his compassion, but poetry’s only one string to his bow. Everett is accomplished in a range of writing genres; for me, his writing truly resonates with his essays.

Darwin guest Kaye Aldenhoven takes to the floor to read a mix of poems light and heavy in content. ‘There was a time when I could still write love poems without feeling silly,’ she admits as she ends a poem on the subject of getting older, ‘so now I’m going to feel silly … because this one is a love poem.’

When Geoff Page advances to the microphone, he’s clutching a copy of his latest collection, Agnostic Skies. ‘I’d like to read some poems from the first part of the book, and perhaps tomorrow I’ll read a few from the second half.’ His recital dovetails in well for me, I’ve been dipping into Agnostic Skies over the past month but have reached only as far as its fifteenth or sixteenth poem ... appreciate being able to gauge the inflections Page gives to pieces with which I’ve a little familiarity.

 

Opening proceedings on Saturday evening, festival organiser Cameron Hindrum launches Tim Thorne's chapbook Best Bitter (PressPress). It's always a pleasure to hear Thorne read, but he soon dons another cap since it's his responsibility to launch Liz Winfield's new chapbook, Calatogue of Love. Thorne is an apt choice to launch Liz's latest offering as it was his Cornford Press that published Too Much Happens, Liz's first collection, in 2003. 'I knew that [the publication of Too Much Happens] would be just the start of a career as a poet that would develop into something substantial enough for the Australian poetry world to take notice', Thorne reflects, adding that in his view 'Liz Winfield may well be the best poet in Tasmania at dealing with the intimacies of life, of the poignancies of family situations, of personal doubt and the insecurity which is never far from the surface of any relationship, but she is also able to transcend the immediate, the particular, and strike a chord that resonates in those chambers where the big universal themes abide'.

Irish poet Iggy Mcgovern squeezes into the half-hour timeslot between the chapbook launches and the running of the poetry cup. Iggy's come to read some of his latest work, but begins with a joke. 'Have you heard about the Irish boomerang? No? It doesn't come back. It just sings about coming back.' McGovern relates the confusion he experienced recently on spending four weeks at Varuna Writers' Centre in the Blue Mountains. 'At Varuna, they have these notes written around the place for the benefit of visiting writers. Stuck to the door of the fridge was a note that read, "Dear writers, bananas are too expensive. Sorry." I wondered to myself - perhaps I'm missing something? And proceeded to write a response.' McGovern's response bends and misshapes the sentence (and I've probably failed to capture the more memorable of McGovern's lines - too busy listening, not jotting) but they're in the vein of 'Expensive sorry writers: bananas are too dear' and 'Sorry dear, writers are bananas ... too expensive' and 'Sorry: bananas dear ... writers are expensive too.'

Festival director Cameron Hindrum lays down the rules for Saturday evening’s Launceston Poetry Cup. ‘Festival policy dictates that any bribes made to the festival committee will be kept, especially chocolates.’ Bated breath awaits the announcement of the first contestant, considered an unlucky slot given the audience will have barely had time to warm up. A hand in the box pulls out a name … contestant number one for the 2006 Cup is Liz Winfield. She puts on a brave show, but – sorry Liz, you’ll need to bide your time till next year. The ice broken, it’s now on for young and old.

Valerie Tinmouth is an early frontrunner, as is Ros Lewis. A number of entrants mistime their entry but prefer disqualification and the opportunity to finish their piece: Joy Elizabeth, Jimmy Everett, and Georgie Todman among them. Iggy McGovern puts in a credible performance, and then it’s the turn of the fifteenth competitor: Tim Thorne. 'After the stingray got stuck into Steve,' Thorne begins. When he finishes, applause sweeps the room; a new benchmark's been set. Yet competitor sixteen - Geoff Page – receives similar thunderous acclamation, as does Bruce Penn, competitor seventeen. Entry eighteen settles for another disqualification, whereon Peter Minter at nineteen chimes in with yet another strong performance. For a Sydneysider, he’s certainly done his homework on what’s considered topical. ‘Pulp … is a four-letter word’, and ‘Have mill will pulp, have beer will gulp’…. ‘Thank you Peter Minter; there’s a petition for you all to sign at the table at the back. Next, contestant number twenty…’ intones Hindrum. With contestant number twenty-two - Gary Stannus - comes a play on the acronym SNAG. Does he refer to sensitive new age guy? Or perhaps to sensitive new age Gunns? ‘What do you think / about that pulp mill they’re going to build? / I says – just between you and me mate…’ - but his revelations are interrupted by the discordant note of the asthmatic goose. A collective sigh of dismay sweeps the room. ‘Perhaps we can hear Gary’s entry again at the end of the Cup,’ Hindrum decides, ‘and did I mention there’s a petition to sign?’ Even Canadian visitor Jacqueline Turner is pulpmill-aware. Her visit to the podium is again followed by Hindrum’s patter advising of a petition to be signed: divisions over the twin issues of the pulp mill and the Victorian Supreme Court battle, (pitting corporate concerns against those of John Citizen), have bitten deep in the North. Two-times winner Colin Berry is the twenty-ninth and penultimate entrant, but neither he nor final contestant David Jones manage to worry the judges.

Any number of fine poets dot the room – Carolyn Fisher, Gina Mercer, Andrew Peek, Sue Moss, Kate Fagan, Jane Williams, 1993’s winner Lyn Reid amongst them – who’ve declined to enter the competition, though perhaps they’re concerned at the evening perambulating on into time at the Thorne's traditional post-Cup party. In their deliberations, one judge is unable to distinguish between Tim Thorne and Bruce Penn in a tie for first place, both poets ever so barely shading Geoff Page and Peter Minter in a tie for equal third. A second judge has arrived at a choice between the same four contestants, but cannot choose between Thorne and Minter for the winner. The third judge’s short list is decidedly dissimilar - ‘perhaps I heard things differently from where I sat’ – but nominates Thorne as the clear champion. Thus for the first time, the Launceston Poetry Cup is Thorne’s - and he’s euphoric. ‘I’ve finally won the Cup!!!' Nevertheless, he makes no great claims for his poem. He's written better in the past but gotten nowhere, he says. ‘This one was specially written for the event and was called "Revenge", dealing with the response to Steve Irwin's death, and how we see nature as the enemy. It was not a great poem, by any means, but it must have hit a chord … anyway, it's easier to get a loud response when the audience has had a few drinks." For his troubles, he’s won a bottle of champagne and ... a mint copy of the new Tim Thorne chapbook Best Bitter. And the Cup is back in the North once more; back where it belongs, some might say.

 

                                              Revenge

After the stingray got stuck into Steve
someone had the bright idea to leave
dozens of killed rays stranded on the beaches:
‘eye for an eye’, a bright idea that reaches
back to the old bloodthirsty bits of the Bible,
when everything was primitive and tribal.
When Top End crocs make lunch of German tourists
the rifles come out. ‘Sentimental purists’
is what us conservationists get called.
Like Sunnis and Shiites, peace talks all have stalled.
Now Brocky’s gone will someone tell me please:
do we wipe out more Holdens or cut down more trees?

 

 

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