Perth Festival review: Writer’s Weekend, Poetry ⋅
University of Western Australia, February 23-24 ⋅
Review by Elizabeth Lewis ⋅
Poetry punters often feel their events are pushed into small side rooms in festival programs which typically privilege popular novelists; not so with the 2019 Perth Festival Writers Week, curated by William Yeoman. There is a nice balance of poetry offerings, two in particular that have crowds queuing outside the sizeable University Club Auditorium.
The first is the launch on Saturday of An Open Book, the new poetry collection by David Malouf. It is clear that Malouf’s books have been companions to many over the course of their lives. His novels have been celebrated by various awards and studied in high school curriculums. The feeling in the room is expectant and engaged.
A show of hands from the audience indicates that not many knew Malouf as a writer of poetry before becoming a novelist, but he is keen to talk about his continuing passion for poetry and what it can do. “Presence is a word that is very important to me…poetry should be about a consciousness in time of an eternal moment.” Malouf talks about the intense focus of language and description to capture moments and meaning, “close attention is what most art is about”.
In a short session Malouf manages to dispense countless small stories and pearls of writing wisdom. He talks about the pleasures of observing the confidence of small children and recalls poignant memories of growing up during World War II, “I can remember the moment I received the first great shock of my life. The SS City of Benares carrying child refugees was torpedoed, 77 children died…I remember sitting on our front lawn with its chain link fence…there are places you will find yourself where your parents can’t save you”. Themes of childhood innocence and the loss of that innocence run through An Open Book. The title poem explores this tension:
“My mother could read me, or so she claimed,
like a book. Fair warning! But I
too was a reader and knew that books
like houses, have their secrets.”
The audience is warm, appreciative and full of questions. Many wait patiently at the signing tent while Malouf greets each reader and takes the time to correct a few small mistakes printed in his new book; to ensure the poems are read according to the finely tuned detail he intends.
In the same theatre the following day is Poetic Sensibilities, a panel featuring Nigerian poet Ben Okri alongside Australian writers Tracy Ryan and Malouf. The event is described as a discussion on the pleasures of poetry in contemporary times however panel host Terri-Ann White structures the session by asking the poets one question only and then inviting them to read from their work for the duration. Disappointment gives way to enjoyment as the three poets share from their collections and experience. Ryan presents a poetic case for the bonds of family and our responsibility to the next generation and Malouf offers poetry as a point of human connection: ‘the poet speaks directly to the reader about his experience in the world, which the reader picks up and makes his own experience.” Okri is the stand-out performer with his deep, melodic voice and romantic Rumi-esque imagery. Unfortunately, there is no time for audience Q&A either which leaves me feeling I haven’t quite connected with the poets or their ideas, only brief examples of their writing.
The highlight of Writers Week for me is the New Shoots Poetry Trail in the Kings Park Botanic Gardens. New Shoots is a nation-wide project by Red Room Poetry, commissioning poems designed to connect readers to the natural environment.
At New Shoots Poetry Trail four poets Nandi Chinna, Renee Pettitt-Schipp, Daniel Hansen and Luke Sweedman perform poems inspired by specific species of the native Mallee tree.
On Sunday at 8:30am it is bright and sunny, the air full of the chatter and chirp of birdsong and the scent of trees; a perfect scene for a suite of poems on the qualities and preservation of the Mallee tree.
More than thirty attendees separate into small groups and are led by guides along tree canopied walkways to four stations in succession, each featuring a different poet. The curved pathways form natural amphitheatres and an intimate atmosphere as listeners gather close to the poets.
The poems are deeply connected to their subject, passionate and educational. Nandi Chinna’s Anatomy of a Lignotuber describes the ingenious construction of the Mallee’s root system, growing buds below ground so that in the event of a fire the plant can survive and sprout again.
“Beneath the ground in living state;
woody swellings hold life in suspension,
a contorted arrangement of tissue,
swollen buds, a pulse of protection
against erasure, defoliation,
the flat horizon we call ‘clearing’…”
Renee Pettitt-Schipp explores the importance of naming, memory and sound in her poem Mallee, written after talking with her mother about her childhood memories of Mallee trees.
“…she knew them first by their sound
leaf-shift a dry wind moving
land’s tongue a gentle roaring
the day her father bought the farm
her father bought the farm
place of the mallee leaf lifting
home of the mallee fowl nesting
ears cupping a strange land’s tongue…”
Nyoongar poet Daniel Hansen speaks of his desire to connect with the land and with all people with honesty and energy.
“From the woodlands to the Sclerophyll,
Of the Eucalypt Forrest’s I know,
Within the air I can certainly feel,
A benevolence which resembles that of Home…” (Koolark-Home)
Our final poet Luke Sweedman, who happens to be the seed collector for Kings Park, gives us an intriguing insight into seed-collecting trips into the desert.
“I held the paper bag with the seeds we collected fresh
from the lost flowering mallee that was found alive”. (Exploration in mallee)
The Trail offers a fresh and delightful way to connect with poetry and nature and to realise how one can inspire us to better care for the other. Of all the events I attended at Writer’s Week, this blend of location, performance and the written word was the most moving expression of the themes of creativity and diversity underpinning Yeoman’s festival.
Pictured top: A sun-flecked morning as Nandi Chinna reads her poetry at King’s Park. Photo Elizabeth Lewis