By 7.10 pm there are but a handful of patrons who’ve arrived to listen to and take part in the Launceston Poetry Cup, the premiere event of the Tasmanian Poetry Festival. A table of interstate invitees mass at one end of the room, and a small group of locals settle in nearby. But the kitchen’s busy, where sandwiches are being produced en masse for inclusion in the $10 entry fee. The query ‘Need a hand?’ is met with a polite but firm refusal.
By 7:30 though, the hall’s full and Festival Director Cameron Hindrum commences the evening’s proceedings. As ever, the keynote - as it’s been since it began under Tim Thorne’s direction in 1985 – is friendliness and informality. ‘And as I’ve a habit of saying every year: if you’ve any complaints, keep them to yourself,’ Hindrum continues. He mentions the quiz which will be run during the evening and which he now puts in train with his first couple of questions.
‘That was the first one. Now question two: who was the winner of the 1991 Launceston poetry Cup?
‘Can we write down who should have won?’ a disembodied voice queries from offstage.
‘No Tim, that won’t do,’ comes Hindrum’s courteous but steady response.
The first event of the evening is Tim Thorne’s launch of the poetry collection Far Beyond the Sun which features the work of poets Andrew Hardy and Chris Rattray. Thorne compares Hardy’s contributions here to the poems appearing in his first collection, Cornford Press’ High in the Paw Paw Tree (2003). ‘Andrew’s poems in this book match the quality of the work in his first,’ he attests. ‘His untimely death in 1997 deprived us of a very valuable contributor to the running of the festival - he was always willing to get in and lend a hand; not so much on Sunday mornings perhaps – and it’s a matter of incredible sadness that we’re not able the witness the development of Andrew's poetic career. The release of High in the Paw Paw Tree drew a number of critical reviews, one of which likened him to a younger Eric Beach, and that of course is very high praise indeed.’ Chris Rattray, present in the audience, is welcomed to the microphone to read from the collection.
Cameron Hindrum returns to introduce the next segment of the evening’s programme. ‘Normally our festival guests are not programmed to read as a precursor to the Launceston Poetry Cup, but we’ve made an exception for Kristin Hannaford who needs to catch a 7 am flight back to Rockhampton tomorrow morning.’ Kristin is an assured performer, completely ‘Relaxed and Comfortable’ (to coin a Thorne poem). Her first offering is an extended poem moving from the northern Midlands of Tasmania circa 1972 through 1840’s Victoria, Sydney around 1880 and then to various Queensland locations. Next follow a number of Queensland poems, ‘Displacement, ‘Pumpkin Island Notes’ ("first published in Tasmania!") and ‘Night Storms’, speaking of the tail end of the cyclonic storms that sweep down from the north to vent their fury on central Queensland, ‘sticky with possibilities / of greater than average rainfall’ and their resulting inventories of ‘windows closed, children in." ‘I wondered if the poems I chose were too serious,’ Kristin says later, but it's doubtful. Rappers Choo Choo and Wire M.C. who performed at last year’s festival were deadly serious, as was ‘scribesisterspeaking’: ‘but we always knew that we were lucky / lucky country, young and free, this wide brown land for me / so we’d periodically bake cakes to raise money for those less fortunate / because injustice was something that happened elsewhere / mainly in Africa actually // full stop. next chapter.’. Admittedly, their gigs weren’t scheduled for Cup night.
Robin Archbold from Lismore takes the stage. ‘I’m a sophisticated new age man…’ he murmurs in what begins as perhaps the gentle serenade of an ideal partner but soon achieves its discombobulated apogee. It’s time for the Cup….
‘In the annals of great cupness,’ Hindrum begins, after the break…. Cameron’s frequently expansive. Fronting a classroom – day in, day out – could cure him you'd think, but apparently not. He revisits the rules - ‘Bribery won’t work, but feel welcome to try: preferably with beer!' – before settling down to business. ‘For this evening there are twenty-eight entries, a very big field; last year there were just twenty-two’.
‘People often ask me,’ Hindrum continues, ‘what is a Cup poem? I exempt myself from the Cup because I’m the festival director – I mean I know this is Tasmania, yet I have my standards – so here’s a typical cup poem: topical and funny.’ Cameron entertains on the subject of Brendon Fevola, who ‘thinks he’s a Porsche’. (Perhaps he’s a Corolla?)
‘To kick off,’ Cameron continues, ‘here’s Jacqui Williams.’
It’s never easy to be called to read first, and Jacqui’s brief piece – cleaning: ‘I hate it!’ – is met with polite applause, as is Jocelyn Cooper’s reflection on the inherent dangers of gardening roses. Then follows a poem on junk mail, followed by perhaps the first serious contender for the evening, Kevin Gillam complete with his cello. Above the music’s pitch appears to be a reflection on ‘wet … is the colour of thinking’. ‘There goes Kevin Gillam: what a very fine cello he is,’ Hindrum intones as Kevin departs.
It’s left this evening to Sheila Burchill to introduce the topic of the proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill, with her reflection on Gunns’ little Green book: in Sheila’s view it's not so very dissimilar from Mao’s little Red one. Clara Murray asserts that in the beginning ‘all was iambic pentameter’ before Valerie Tinmouth takes off where Sheila left off. ‘You may think I’m rather queer / cos I made love to a Finnish pulp mill engineer’, (a reference to the interest of Finnish firm Jaakko Poyry in the pulp mill proposal). Evidently, for Tinmouth, it was far from a relationship made in heaven because following the lovemaking his little Finnish feet ‘vanished into Finn air’.
‘Okay, I’m game to go there,’ Hindrum continues. ‘ When he was in bed, did he Finnish early?’
Rob Morris wins plenty of support with his panel van perceptions, while Joy Elizabeth takes another swipe at political support for the pulp mill which she fails to see as sexy in the least. Mentioning the Libs, the Greens and Gay, she openly wonders about ‘intersex’: ‘Not quite Jack and not quite Jean’
‘What if you have sex with a Finnish pulp mill person, what’s that make you?’ Hindrum teases.
‘Traitor!’ comes the rifled response.
Vicky Riette visits Tasmania’s fox dilemma – ‘it’s tallyho, a hunting we go’ - while Ron Moss offers a cricket haiku and the competition’s first duet entry tackles a survey of Aboriginal education. Yvonne Gluyas is convinced her cat can speak, and Ian Howard declares himself a defender of rhyme. ‘Faster than a speeding metaphor,’ adds Hindrum.
Ross Donlon, visiting from Castlemaine, gathers immediate support with his entry. ‘To be born, press 1. / To know your mother and father press 2. / To speak to either parent, press 3....’ But though there’s sustained support for Ross, there’s plenty too for Ros Lewis, the next contestant. ‘Sixty-four days to Copenhagen / nineteen hours forty-five minutes and twelve seconds.’ Does Tasmania care, she asks? Does Princess Mary know what’s going on?
Zenobia Frost takes the stage - Cameron lowers the microphone - with a spiel about her namesake, the Warrior Queen Zenobia. Nick Flittner wonders why we spend so much time in supermarkets, those ‘cathedrals of consumption’. Tony Rayner makes an intelligent point with his cleverly composed creation questioning the island’s forest agenda- ‘yet we cut down the trees / acidify the seas’ - while Ross Coward capitulates to the ‘descent into twilight’ and the unrecoverable dreams of the mind. Jenny Neill garners support with her ditty of the perfect couple, who’d be awesome together ‘if I wasn’t a poet / if you didn’t hate haiku’, Belinda Jeffrey alludes to hardships in Kings Cross, Long Bay Jail and Steve Davis caricatures cows and cars. Robin Archbold declares his is the best f****** poem ever written, ‘all the great poets: Shelley, Keats, Thorne / wish they’d written this little rhyme’, concluding with ‘I will say without any fear / that the meaning of life is in here.’ Tim Thorne offers a dark piece about re-education possibilities for members of Timber Communities of Australia, and the final Cup entry concludes with the razing of a relationship over stealing someone’s boyfriend.
Judges move to appraise the winner, and to the astonishment of each there’s all but unanimous agreement. All judges have placed Ian Howard third. Two of the three have awarded Ross Donlon first place and Valerie Tinmouth second, while the other has placed Donlon second and Valerie first. For only the second time in twenty-five years, a non-Tasmanian resident – Ross Donlon - has won the Cup, (the winner the other occasion being Lauren Williams).
‘It’s a tradition of course for the winning poet to repeat his or her poem,’ demands Hindrum.
‘Thank you,’ says Donlon. ‘Thank you Launceston, thank you Tasmania, this lovely little island in the Bass Strait, thank you, thank you,… I'd like to dedicate this poem to Telstra.'
‘Don’t thank Gunns!!!’
‘Oh no, not Gunns! Mmm: do I still have to recite it in under a minute?’