2007 Tasmanian Poetry Festival

Tardy again in our departure from Hobart, we arrive too late for the festival’s opening event, ‘Words on Water’ aboard the ‘Tamar Odyssey’; everyone intimates we’ve missed something special. But we’re in time for ‘Friday Night Read’ at the Tamar Yacht Club where Festival Director Cameron Hindrum, sartorially resplendent in his suit of regal red, opens proceedings before offering the floor to MC for the evening, Tony Rayner. Rayner begins by inviting Hobart poet Adrienne Eberhard to the microphone.

Adrienne’s fashioned her opening poem, ‘Knots’, around her husband’s concern with safe sailing procedures, and the suggestion - there's humour in her voice as she recalls this - that she might familiarise herself with at least some practical understanding of knotting prior to securing the vessel at its anchorage. Adrienne continues the aquatic theme with her next couple of poems, the first written when the family lived in Canberra and Rolan entertained dreams of owning a boat and sailing the world - [suffering from severe homesickness at the time, Adrienne wished simply to return home to Hobart] - the second, ‘Air and Water’, inspired by Adrienne’s eldest boy during a family excursion near Mole Creek in northern Tasmania.

‘When I spoke to a friend about participating in this year’s festival,’ Adrienne continues, ‘she advised me to "read your favourite poems so that you at least will enjoy the experience, even if no-one else does". Adrienne's pleasure in reading is shared by her audience: a personable and softly-spoken yet confident performer, she takes readily to the podium. ‘So on that note I’ve decided to read some of my favourite poems,’ she concludes. ‘Here’s a couple more…’

Melbourne visitor Michael Crane arrives on stage armed with his new collection Poems from the 29th Floor [Picaro Press]. He begins with the collection's opening piece - ‘Panoramic View’ - before moving to poems from previous books including ‘How to Write the Perfect Suicide Note’ [‘… start at the end and work your way back’]. Michael's followed by Joy Elizabeth, Graham Nunn - whose three selections include the title poem from his 2007 collection Ruined Man - and Kate O’Hearne.

Sheila Burchill opens after a break in proceedings followed by Tim Thorne. ‘Has anyone ever won the Cup back to back?’ asks Rayner rhetorically. ‘Maybe tomorrow night: I give you Tim Thorne!’

There’s a political dimension to the selection of poems Tim reads this evening; the recent APEC 2007 summit comes under scrutiny. Yet he's versatile. For good measure, he includes a poem describing the local seasons: summer, autumn, winter.... ‘Though I haven’t got round to spring yet cos it’s not warm enough!’

‘Wonder what that was about?’ asks Rayner reflectively, returning to duties at the microphone by introducing Joan Webb where here too the political intrudes. ‘What about a GST, / no no not me!’

It’s eric beach’s turn to the microphone. ‘I’m trying to remember the first time I ever met eric beach,’ Rayner contemplates, ‘it’d be outside Knopwoods in Hobart – about 88 or 89…. For a blow-in who stayed a long time, he had an enormous influence on Tasmanian poetry.’

For Tasmanians deprived of beach’s presence these past years, it’s immediately apparent the magic remains. A woman seated nearby listens intently, appreciation etched across her face as eric works through his bracket.

‘autumn leaves
no rake’

he recites. ‘That’s actually a poem that I shortened!’ he offers by way of clarification.

Eric continues with ‘Risdon Jail, Pink Palace’, ‘a long one – I started it twenty years ago, I finally finished it’.

His delivery is a mix of spoken word and rhythmic syncopation….

‘there’s no old men
there’s no old men
there’s no old men in jazz’

Not for nothing is he a former recipient of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award with his collection Weeping for Lost Babylon. The lazy smile and droll demeanour belie the depth and resonance of his poetry, delivered with typical generosity: for the predominantly local audience, beach favours his Tasmanian-themed work from local publisher Pardalote Press. ‘That’s Tasmania for you’ he concludes, leaving the stage.

Eric's departure brings Julie Beveridge to the microphone. ‘What an enormous night of poetry, my head is full of words,’ Julie begins.

‘I love poets who tell it how it is,’ she continues, perhaps referring to beach’s performance, ‘and I aspire to write poems that do this....’ Julie reads from her first collection, Rock n’ roll Tuxedo, with its  sharp imagery, sparkle and wit. ‘There’s 26 letters in the alphabet, and I spend my life trying to get from A to B’. She finishes with a Queensland poem,  ‘Forever on this road’, studded with its many references to the Sunshine State - emblematic, but not overwhelmingly, of her work.

The evening’s readings grind to a halt, but there's the promise of more the following day. We give the Saturday afternoon readings a miss; stroll instead through the city's streets. In a Launceston mall, a youngster – he’s about twelve – chats to two similarly-aged girls. ‘When my friend kisses girls,’ we overhear him remark, addressing them both, ‘he sits with them on the bed rocking back and forth….’.

Saturday evening, the night of the Launceston Poetry Cup. First to the microphone is Tim Thorne with a few words in memory of Chris Easton, a stalwart of the festival and a winner of the Cup – ‘famously, with a wonderful poem’ - in 1999. ‘Those who knew Chris personally will remember that the hooter that we use to wind up a poem after sixty seconds was donated to the festival by Chris, so it’s only fitting that we dedicate this evening to Chris Easton’.

Next on the evening’s agenda is the launch of Michael Crane’s collection The View from the 29th Floor [Picaro Press].

"For those who are not familiar with Michael Crane’s work, he’s a widely published Melbourne poet and the organiser of hundreds of poetry events throughout the country including one in 1991 that he understands to be Australia’s first poetry slam. The first time I ran into Michael was at the Republic Bar in Hobart some years ago. Michael had travelled down from Melbourne with a rock band that was playing at the Republic that afternoon, he was busy working the room helping flog the band’s CD’s. I’d known of Michael as a poet for a number of years, viewing him in this situation represented a paradigm shift for me. People such as Michael, Gig Ryan, Mike Ladd, have the ability to spread themselves widely, don’t appreciate being typecast.

"You’d be familiar with the analogy of poetry as inhabiting a mansion of many rooms…. While the analogy pays homage to poetry’s range and diversity, I’ve often been curious about the inhabitants of the mansion’s top floor. It’s the executives and decision makers who are traditionally located on the top floor, isn’t it? And, admission time: I don’t see Michael as a tenant of the top floor of the literary mansion: not cos I doubt he’d appreciate the view but because I see him suggesting the view from up there represents no more than one way of seeing. Yes it’s compelling, but it fails to tell the full story. My impression of Michael is as someone with an enthusiasm for examining the flip side of the coin – as you might guess from the opening poem of the collection entitled ‘Panoramic View’:

I am standing at the window of my twenty-ninth floor flat. I live in a hi-rise housing commission flat and I can see most of the city at night from my window. I wonder how many couples are making love at this very moment. There are hundreds of thousands of lights from all the inner city houses. I notice one light in the distance go out.

The husband whispers to his naked wife on their bed, ‘There, now that pervert on the twenty ninth floor can’t see in.’

"Now there are many possible readings of this particular poem, but essentially it points to a sensibility open to any number of perceptions – to perception of the absurd, of human fallibility, of the perversity of human nature. It's a little at odds with the remoteness and isolation suggested by the view from the 29th Floor, is more indicative – so far as I’m concerned – with the close up and personal, the cravings of desire, of the heart. Because Michael in fact is a romantic, interested - as he explains in his poem ‘Open Tuning’ - in living his life, not … ‘as a warrior, / not as a martyr, nor as a genius….’ but'as an open stringed guitar / so that when fingerless on the fret / a strummed chord will sound / in tune and the song is perfect’. Michael’s questions are those of an old romantic, comfortable with identifying as ‘an expert on loneliness’, a rubber man consigned to Siberia by a woman who packs him into a box marked ‘do NOT handle with care’ … a man concerned with Truth with a capital ‘T’, whether it be someone else’s Truth as for instance that of the Canadian basketballer in the Sydney backpacker hostel whose ‘every word that comes from her mouth smells like truth'’- or his own Truth, the man who wins admirers for his ability to ‘write a true line’.

"In Michael’s writing, Truth with a capital ‘t’ and Pain with a capital ‘p’ co-exist side by side. What’s the most pain you can suffer at the hands of an ex-lover? The occasion when he or she kisses someone new? Sleeps with someone else? Nope, it’s when your name’s no longer remembered '… when I am washed away from your life like a leaf in a drain.'

"Add to these his reflections on the nature of living and his parallel questioning of death. ‘… is it worse than death, / knowing that you’re dying?’ Michael asks. Death is a constant in these poems, and not just death's finality but its impact on those who remain. ‘Sometimes you get over death’, is a poem written of a friend’s losing battle with cancer, ending with the reflection that slowly, eventually, one’s personal pain and anger subsides.

‘Slowly, bit by bit, you get over Death
And in the end that’s what angers me the most.’

"But Michael’s ouvre’s not all gloom and doom, other poems reveal an inclination to take time out to smell the roses, point to a passionate, and compassionate, writer with concerns far from limited to the prism of his view from the 29th Floor...."

'That how you really see me?' Michael asks reflectively. 'Old romantic? Well, old certainly…’ After a short break it’s Cup time. ‘I’ve managed to pry the Launceston Cup from Tim Thorne’s fingers, so if you’d like to have a go….’ invites Cameron Hindrum.

No-one enjoys being drawn early, least of all the serious contenders who despair at being thrown lamb-like to an audience yet to warm up. Who’ll be drawn first? How will the evening progress? Will attention again be focussed - as it has for the past year or two - on the Tamar Valley pulp mill, given the green light by the Federal Government this past week? Or will a winner emerge from out of left field, as did an entrant one year who famously won by reciting a shopping list. In Chinese.

A hand dips into the basket, emerges clutching a name. It’s that of Joan Webb.

The opening poem of the 2007 Launceston Poetry Cup refrains from addressing pulp mill politics, nevertheless Joan’s piece – ‘A Man Swore on a Melbourne building site’ – is definitely politically inspired.

A second name is drawn, that of visitor Graham Nunn, director for the past two or three years of the Queensland Poetry Festival. Will Nunn flirt with Tasmanian politics in the manner of Peter Minter ["Pulp … is a four-letter word"], a close runner-up in last year's event? But no: Graham's poem speaks of young love, Gene Simmons ….

Next into the fray marches Joy Elizabeth, contestant number three and the first this evening to embrace the pulp mill issue. Her passionate delivery - with key words thrown in for good measure: ' Gay', ‘dioxins’, ‘rooted’, etc – stirs the audience to full voice. ‘I’m sure that’s the last we’ll hear of that tonight,’ Hindrum ventures.

Various readers follow - Michael Crane, Clara Murray, Martin Hay – before Tim Thorne takes the microphone. Tim won the event last year with a topical piece turning on the deaths in 2006 of Peter Brock and Steve Irwin. What’s in the bag tonight? ‘Ode to the President of the People’s Republic of China’, he begins, with a poem in which reference is made to uranium sales, Opposition Leader Rudd’s capacity for speaking Mandarin .... He's rewarded with appreciative applause and appears at this stage of the event to be a clear leader.

Bruce Penn skiffles his way through ‘D.I.T. – Disinformation Technology’

‘… ya got yer wireless connected to the … landline
ya got yer router connected to the … modem
ya got yer modem connected to the … server’

only to be interrupted by the sound of the hooter for the first time this evening. Non-plussed, he takes in the sustained applause; grinning broadly, declares ‘I win’ and with arms raised victoriously, returns to his seat.

‘Not if I have anything to do with it,’ one senses in Anne Leyton-Bennett's determination as she launches into rhyme about the

                                         ‘ ... mill,
poisonous toxic monstrous plant,
they say will cause no ill…’

She's followed by Yvonne Gluyas, also keen on puncturing Penn’s confidence. Her poem somewhat echoes that of Thorne’s:  the words ‘Rudd’, ‘panda’ and ‘Olympics’ can be distinguished among the adulterated foreign words contained in the poem.  In my books, applause for Gluyas is definitely the most demonstrative thus-far, even Thorne is cheering and clapping enthusiastically. Hindrum too is visibly impressed. ‘Can I just say this? No-one likes a show-off!!!’

After the mayhem of the previous poems, Peter Ryan strikes a more serious note with a piece critical of US foreign policy, ‘American smirks / and excuses herself from collateral damage’. Both poem and Peter are accorded respectful appreciation, as befits the occasion. The poem was written by his daughter Genevieve, who slipped and fell to her death at Newtown Falls on Mount Wellington in February, 2005; one of a number of poems, journal entries and other writings collected and edited by her mother Elizabeth and published by Sid Harta Press as … regards, some girl with words.

The next contestants include Sheila Burchill and eric beach (with ‘Gunns Cable Chain Ball’), and Colin Berry. Berry is a previous winner – twice – of the Launceston Cup, and can claim to be the only contestant to have won in separate decades. In previous years there’s been a deserved build-up to his participation, but on this occasion there is none; perhaps it suits Berry this way. With nothing to lose, he takes the bull by the horns ... squares up to the microphone and launches into ‘Pulpmill Guidelines from a Latte Sipper’.

His drift is apparent from the opening line ...

‘There’s a whale in the bay / Mr Gay, Mr Gay…’

... the words clever, the delivery impeccable. Most applause is reserved for the lines ‘That’s not a walrus in the bay / Mr Gay, Mr Gay, / that’s just Paul Lennon on holiday, / Mr Gay, Mr Gay’, an echo down the years of the words by John Lennon, 'Well here's another clue for you all / The walrus was Paul'.

Christine Antwell broaches the same subject, but from a different angle

'... have we ever asked the Elders of this land
if the forests hold a secret plan?'

while Jenny Barnard – Cup winner in 2005 - entertains with a poem about her garden gnomes, 'two funny green men in the rain'. Mike Cooper plays loosely with the poetic connotations of 'lyric', 'rhyme’, 'limeric' and 'stanza', and Chris Rattray reads 'The Tokyo Subway' which, as he unnecessarily explains, is a poem written of a place 'thousands of kilometres away from a bloody pulpmill'. Again, there's the MC's refrain. 'What was that about?' Marie Stannus admits she's expected a flock of poems this evening on 'you know what', then proceeds to add to that collection - while Philip Salom contributes a fragmented piece about Hollywood love scenes, producers, cameras and horses: 'the bullet the bullet the bullet, the head...' 

Tony Rayner arrives at the podium. 'Boooooooooo' ... Bruce Penn's welcoming response is heard from somewhere in the audience.

'Get a haircut,' Rayner fires back.

Rayner addresses the motoring habits of performance poets, the safety net of comprehensive insurance....

'... I don't know about you
but I drive a haiku'

He's met with a chorus of support, but is it sufficient to trouble the judges?

Rayner's followed by the final entrant for the evening, Jenny Neill ( suffering a God-intolerance problem nothing can mend) ... and now it's over to the judges.

The judges need a little time to deliberate, so Hindrum embarks on a few 'public service announcements' beginning with a reminder about daylight saving - 'don't forget to wind your clocks forward one hour' - and ending with 'everyone's invited to the traditional post-Cup party at the Thornes' '.

'Of course I'll see you up there at some stage' he adds, 'in some state or another'.

It's time for the judges' announcements…. 'I've been reliably informed that the winner has won just by a whisker ... and that another couple of entries were very close ... so close, so close. The first of those close runner's-up is Colin Berry (‘that’s not a walrus in the bay / Mr Gay, Mr Gay'), the second is Bruce Penn ['... dem phones, dem phones, dem mobile phones'].... But this is the year of Yvonne Gluyas'.

Yvonne admits she's speechless - 'And anyone who knows me, knows that's not very common' - though not speechless enough thankfully to prevent a repeat performance to another generous round of applause.

Last chore for the evening is confirmation of the answers to the evening's quiz questions. 'The missing words that follow "kookaburra sits in the old ..." are "gum tree" ', Hindrum verifies. 'No, "in the old pulp mill" is not the correct answer!'

The evening’s winning poem – as well as that of Tim Thorne’s – deals with Kevin Rudd's politicking throughout 2007. Is this an indication that John Howard's Prime Ministership as a topic for poetic dissection - and frequent vilification - has reached its use-by date? Will we hear more on Rudd next year? Will the pulp mill remain a focus of the festival in 2008? Will poets and poetry continue to question and to challenge? And is the Pope….


(Published in famous reporter 36; February 2008).