1994 Tasmanian Poetry Festival


From 7 to 9 October this year the Tasmanian Poetry Festival celebrated its tenth anniversary. An overall audience of more than 400, who heard readings from Seamus Heaney, Muzaffer Orucoglu, Doris Leadbetter, John Jenkins, Kerry Loughrey, Bruce Roberts, Andrew Lansdown, Sarah Day, Angela Rockel, Karen Knight and Andrew Hardy, meant that the growth which the festival has experienced over those ten years is continuing, with an increase of over 10% compared to 1993.

The exception to this general trend was at the schools’ session at the Launceston Teachers’ Centre Hall on the Friday afternoon. About fifty students and a handful of teachers attended, numbers which were down on previous years. This session is an optional extra for the poets, who read on a voluntary basis in order to develop an interest in poetry among young people. For its success it depends on interest and enthusiasm from schools and colleges, which, in the past, has always been evident. Perhaps teachers are finding it harder to get enthusiastic in these days of heavier loads and more stress. It is a real pity, however, that the Writers’ Workshop classes of the senior secondary colleges aren’t encouraged to attend, but then they don’t take advantage of local or visiting professional writers in between festivals either.

One of the elements of the festival which has been integral to its structure since its inception is the open reading. Of recent years this has had to be restricted to about half an hour on the Friday night, but it has proved its worth not only as an opportunity for those who might not have enough poems for a ten or twenty minute reading, or those who couldn’t be fitted onto the formal program in a given year, but for those who, for whatever reason, haven’t attracted the attention of the organisers.

In many years this has provided a kind of talent-spotting session and quite a few poets have started their reading careers here. The most notable case was probably the late Don Briggs, who read for a couple of years in the open sessions and then was put on the main program, where he proved the most popular performer.

On the Saturday night, at Launceston’s Great Northern Hotel, the Launceston Poetry Cup was staged, attracting twenty-eight entries. The winner was a local, Roger Syms, with an ‘Ode to Fred Nile’. Roger, who described himself as ‘a closet poet, just coming out’, had never entered before, in fact had never read in public before, but defeated some pretty strong contenders, including fellow Tasmanians, Colin Berry, Jenny Gill and Robyn Mathison, last year’s winner, Lyn Reid and two former Melbourne Poetry Cup winners, Kerry Loughrey and Doris Leadbetter. The topic of Tasmania’s queer laws about sex and their homophobic supporters was common to many entries.

An analysis of the ten cups shows that the most consistently shared characteristic of winning poems has been reference to local issues, starting with John Kidd’s ‘Owed to Launceston’ back in ’85. There have, of course, been some notable exceptions, most strikingly the triumph in 1988 of Liu Yongbing with a poem in Mandarin which nobody in the audience understood, but which elicited the loudest response primarily for sheer audacity.

The other significant trend in the cup’s history has been the number of unknown, unpublished poets who have won. Roger Syms is the latest in a line which includes such non-household names as Michael Noonan and Lyn Reid as well as Liu and Kidd (who is the only double winner). On the other hand, the list of those who have tried unsuccessfully would include a veritable Who’s Who of Australian performance poetry. Gwen Harwood and Lauren Williams, however, have shown that a formidable reputation and a great amount of experience at public readings do not necessarily constitute an insurmountable handicap.

On the Sunday afternoon, in the grounds of City Park Radio, the final reading, which was broadcast live-to-air, included young poets whose work had been published in Traks, the annual anthology of Tasmanian student poetry. After the close association between Traks and the festival over the years one is no longer surprised at the quality of the best of the work by these young people, but whereas the quality of the poetry has always been high, the quality of its presentation, the confidence and performance skills of the poets seems to be increasing. A number of poets have graduated from this section of the festival to the main program (Kathy Allen, Madeline Gallagher, Shannon Harwood, Andrew Hardy come to mind) and it would not be surprising if a couple of this year’s contributors followed suit.

Following the festival, four poets, Doris Leadbetter, Bruce Roberts, Kerry Loughrey and Tim Thorne, spent a week giving readings and workshops in a number of towns around the state on the ‘Pieces of Cake’ tour organised by the Tasmanian Art Council and assisted financially by the National Book Council.

This was the latest and most extensive example of the co-operation between the festival and the Arts Council which began back in 1989 when Jenny Boult and Geoff Goodfellow took part in a similar tour. This year’s tour, which took its title from the fact that it was the festival’s tenth birthday and traditionally those kids who couldn’t make it to the party were sent a piece of the birthday cake, took a part of the festival to places as far afield and as starved of live poetry performance as Bicheno, New Norfolk and Wynyard as well as more regular venues such as Hobart’s Wheatsheaf Hotel. Workshops were held in a variety of venues, including St Helens Neighbourhood House, Risdon prison, Glenora, Somerset and Ulverstone. In total, nearly 200 people attended the workshops and readings.

Unlike Hobart, Launceston has never had a regular poetry venue. Between festivals there have only been occasional gigs when someone like Dorothy Porter or Peter Reading has been in town. From now on that situation will be rectified, with readings on the first Tuesday of each month (except January and October) at Hard Times Café. At this stage they are on the basis of no cover charge, no reading fee, and the first, in September, was a huge success. There is a core of enthusiasm and a growing pool of talent which augur well for the future of poetry as performance in this part of the world.