Queensland Poetry Festival
Words by mr oCean
Photos by Elleni Toumpas
There are moments in certain concerts when you feel like you and the performer are alone, floating in space, with an emotional conduit running between you. When it’s really working, you come down from that knowing that everyone else in the room felt it too. Although common enough in music, it’s hard for poetry to draw me in that deeply. At the Queensland Poetry Festival, there always seems to be something that does put me in that state, many times over. Even the CDs compiled each year manage to convey an intensity of emotion that I find rare outside of actually being there, in the moment.
In almost every performance I saw, there was a real honesty and commitment, and none of the pretension I might have expected 10 years ago, when all I knew of poetry readings came from parody via “Duckman” and “So I Married an Ax Murderer”. And being part of it was an absolute joy.
When it works, one of the best things about performing — and I expect it’s the same regardless of the type of performance — is the clarity of the moment. In that moment, there is no chatter in the mind. For one so practised in self-distraction, that focus is an amazing thing. (The one minor downside to it was that, when there were unplanned delays between the videos I was using, my head was completely empty of things to say!)
Like the SpeedPoets open mic, where I first let some poems out of my mouth, there was such communal warmth at QPF that the doubts that can cripple a performance just didn’t make it onto the stage. It also helps that there’s such diversity in the program that any of the poets can walk out there feeling absolutely licensed to just do what they do. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that calm in a performance before, and I think some of that has to be due to the feel of the festival, which comes from the audience as well as the organisation (although it could also relate to giving myself difficult cues to listen for).
Not all poets had the same feeling of freedom to be just as they are, it seems. After being told his poems were all too dark, Philip Hammial took to telling stories on Sunday afternoon — they were pretty amazing stories, though. Then there were poets who gave an amazing performance and, afterwards, talked about how they were going to work on making it better. Being surrounded by that much talent can’t help but inspire you to reach higher.
In fact, there were poems that made me not just want to write and perform better, but to live better, too. The warmth and depth of relationships in poems from the likes of Kathryn Lomer, Nathan Curnow, Paul Summers, Janaka Malwatta and Tiggy Johnson and Andrew Phillips left my nerves feeling like I’d been scorched with a burst of steam. The feeling lingers.
And then there were performances that just dazzled. Their emotional and intellectual content moves beneath the surface, but in the moment, the poems hit like a wall of water and leave you breathless. The standouts for me were MC Lady Lazarus vs. DJ Thought Fox, Geoff Lemon, Holly Throsby and Darkwing Dubs. The whole Going Down Swinging showcase — Geoff Lemon, Eleanor Jackson, Mantra and Felix Nobis — was likewise breathtaking. Steve Smart and Nicholas Powell also delivered strong performances that kept me grinning in the wings.
I like poetry that bypasses the conscious mind and whispers straight to the emotions. So, to me, the sound poetry and jazz poetry I heard at QPF tended to put aside the imagery I often rely on. It felt like trying to read a foreign script: maybe there was something in there, but I just couldn’t connect to it. It felt like a kind of intellectual exercise. Having said that, there were moments in both a.rawlings’ and L.E. Scott’s work that did get through, and I know there were plenty of people who were constantly delighted by both.
The sound was consistently good, and apart from the occasional roller-coaster sensation from the moving images behind the performers in “Reading the River”, the lighting was effective, too — including on stage for the readers.
For me, QPF’s strength is in its buzz. There is a beautiful feeling of warmth and community between the mingling performers and audience. That feeling is why I could hardly stop grinning, even in sessions that weren’t really to my taste. Although I’ve been away for the last five festivals, the audience numbers seemed rather smaller than I’d remembered/expected; despite that, the feeling was every bit as strong. The lasting impression is that Brisbane remains an unexpected wonderland of poetry.
QUEENSLAND POETRY FESTIVAL ran at The Judith Wright Centre from 24 to 26 Aug, 2012. http://www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com
MR OCEAN slinks between poetry, biology, fiction, engineering and music, testing for secret doors. In this, his first Queensland Poetry Festival appearance, he combined spoken word with video and music. www.misterocean.wordpress.com
ELLENI TOUMPAS is a Melbourne- and Brisbane-based photographer specialising in live music, portrait and event photography. She has been photographing the Queensland Poetry Festival since 2007. www.ellenitoumpas.com.au