RALPH WESSMAN


Tasmanian Poetry Festival 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?