Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Queensland Poetry Festival 2015: More than Clive

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, August 2015 
“It’s been misreported that he’s headlining the festival – that is far from the case,” says David Stavanger, co-director of Queensland Poetry Festival. He is talking about a particular ‘artist’ who though not headlining, is certainly a name that stands out in the context of a poetry festival.  

The ‘poet’ in question is of course mining tycoon and politician Clive Palmer, who published a small volume of poetry in 1981, Dreams, Hopes and Reflections, which has met with a mixture of derision and bewilderment in media quarters in recent years. The book did, however, inspire an essay by Melbourne poet Mitchell Welch entitled ‘Poets in Power’ that was published in Australian Poetry Journal, which in turn motivated Stavanger and his fellow co-director Ann-Marie Te Whiu to take the brave and imaginative decision to recruit Palmer for the festival. The process was, he says, “not that difficult”. Palmer will read from his work and give an interview at the event.

As one might expect, his appearance has stirred up some fairly feisty debate among Australia’s poetry and wider arts community. And that was partly the point, says Stavanger.

“It’s been a mixed response. We’re into sessions that provoke different responses, and I think if you’re trying to please everyone there’s a danger in that. A public figure writing poetry, particularly a male figure and someone as intriguing as Clive Palmer, is definitely worth exploring.”

Another very deliberate reason for programming Palmer was as a small gesture to redress the ideological balance of literature festivals generally. Writers’ festivals are seen by many as unofficial hubs for those of a certain political persuasion, that is, conventions designed for “leftist, left-of-centre or social democrat” thinkers, according to Gerard Henderson of the Sydney Institute.

“I think there’s a danger within poetry circles where most poets tend to lean towards a left-wing ideology, and that’s great,” says Stavanger. “But I think it’s important sometimes to look at people writing outside that sphere, as that essay did. I think it’s important that artistic directors distance themselves from these sorts of things, and put on sessions that do provoke debate.

“There has been a few criticisms [of Palmer’s involvement with the festival], but even programming someone like Les Murray, literary editor of Quadrant and regarded by some as Australia’s greatest living poet, has had criticism too.”

Stavanger himself will conduct the interview with Palmer, and will, he says, discuss “things in his early work which had a sixties kind of philosophy and came from a bed of socialism. Compared to where he is now, one would ask him what happened. Is he writing poetry now? What does that poetry look like?”

It should be emphasised that Palmer is indeed not headlining, and that Queensland Poetry Festival is a multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted, far-reaching celebration of the form. Now in its 19th year, as well as Palmer and Murray the event this year features Los Angeles-based spoken word artist Kate Durbin as poet-in-residence, Quan from the Brisbane band Regurgitator and acclaimed Australian poets Michael Farrell, Sarah Holland-Batt, Lionel Fogarty, Abi Cobby Eckermann and Angela Gardner among many others.

While it may be true that literary festivals do have a generally left-wing slant, it is also true that the sheer cost of tickets for some festivals ensures they remain somewhat middle-class affairs, attracting a certain older demographic, and a painfully civilised atmosphere. Acknowledging this, Stavanger and Te Whiu have ensured that an impressive 85 percent of Queensland Poetry Festival events are free, even if it is a juggle to get the balance (and budget) right.

“Working in the arts, I am myself not part of the middle class, so I often can’t afford to go to literary festivals,” says Stavanger, who performs as a spoken-word artist himself as Ghostboy and won the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize in 2013. “I think poetry has always been a forum or a voice for the dispossessed, and I think it’s important that a poetry festival has a lot of sessions that are accessible to everyone. Considering we’re engaging artists from all kinds of demographics to work with us, for people in the community to not be able to come and see it would be a concern for us.

“Having said that, I completely understand why literary festivals have to charge what they do, just for the names they’re bringing into these festivals from overseas.”

Another balance that the two directors are extremely conscious of is that between the spoken-word or ‘slam’ scene of poets and those who dwell exclusively on the page. Queensland Poetry Festival, by far Australia’s largest poetry festival, is in the unique position compared to other literary festivals of being able to offer the actual essence of the art form it exults as part of its program, rather than merely the discussion and critique of written literature, which you consume at a different place and time and in a different format. The very experience of literature, in the form of spoken-word poetry, is part of the festival, not just its analysis. Therefore, there is a plethora of compelling spoken-word events, from performance to workshops to events that don’t fit easy categorisation and embrace the avant-garde.

“I think what differentiates Queensland Poetry Festival from a writers’ festival is its really strong performative focus,” says Stavanger. “The theme this year is ‘Language Is a Virus’, the idea of words in transmission, the idea that words exist in the air. “Poetry existed before printing presses as an oral form. I think in terms of an acknowledgement of the continuum of where poetry lies, to not program spoken word is to deny it’s such a critical part of the art form.”

For some years now the festival’s epicentre has been Brisbane’s Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts – a fact especially meaningful this year given it is the hundredth anniversary of the poet’s birth. The venue alone, remarks Stavanger, is a nod to Australian poetry’s established canon and an “important signifier… The challenge for us is to push it into new waters.”

With the aforementioned variations on what performance poetry can be, in their first year Stavanger and Te Whiu have undoubtedly done that – it is also to their credit that up to 40 percent of the program is made up of Queensland artists. Perhaps among the festival’s biggest challenges is promoting those ‘traditional’ poets publishing collections, for whom performance is not their primary domain, for whom popularity and financial rewards remain slim.

“A lot of poets are selling 100-150 copies,” says Stavanger, “and that’s disheartening given the quality of work being produced. I think one answer is more people getting the opportunity to see these people read their work and understand what quality we have in this country. It’s an amazing thing to take a book of poetry home and actually have time to digest it.”

Queensland Poetry Festival took place August 28-30, 2015 at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brisbane. www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com.

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