More specifically, I am back from the National Young Writers' Festival 2011.
Photos to follow.
This year was particularly excellent. I flew up on the morning of Thursday 29th of September. I swear Jetstar's economy class is shrinking. Hopped on a bus with some friends and took off for Newcastle, passing some beautiful industrial scenery on the way. I jumped at Denison St and made my way to the backpackers where the lovely people running the festival were putting me up for the duration. Got settled in and met Chad Parkhill, from Brisbane. Chad was to do a panel with me on Friday arvo and so we got to talking about that as we made our way to the artists meet-and-greet at Staple Manor, conveniently located, this year, above a pharmacy in the middle of the Mall (just down the way from the excellent coffee at the One Penny Black). Staple Manor is the NYWF hub and it was adorned with posters and a Giant Cryptic Crossword (a new one was put up daily). We got our artist packs and got stuck into wine and cheese and mingling and stepping out for cigarettes. Catching up with many of the crowd from last year made it feel like coming home.
The speech by Festival Coordinator, Zoe Norton Lodge, was written by Co-Director, Ben Jenkins. Zoe, of course, hadn't been allowed to see the speech beforehand and was pleasantly surprised (!) to discover that it was written in and was to be read in the style of a Year 7 presentation. Hilarity ensued.
To the Festival Club! This year at the Great Northern Hotel (!!) which made for pretty interesting times. Last year we were nearer the edge of town in a dark pool hall. This year was all bright lights and a pool table and a dining area and a stage and some pretty cool bar staff (Brigette! Thanks for minding my stuff!)
So, an afternoon of casual drinking became a night of fun and reintroductions and catch-ups. Never made it back to the hostel as I ended up crashing at the directors' place - which was nice of them.
I had a panel to chair on Friday at 1.30 at the Customs House. The title was 'The Voice of a City'. It was a suggestion in my application for this year and I was pretty pleased to find it in the program. The panellists were: Chad Parkhill, Emma Jones, Rochelle Fernandez and Barnaby Smith. Happily enough, we had representatives from a variety of cities - Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney, London/Sydney/The World/ and Dublin/Melbourne (me!)
An interesting discussion on a range of topics:
When a place influences voice in a story, it can often become a character in its own right.
What makes a city stand out as a setting?
How does prior knowledge of place affect the reading of that setting?
The importance of non-place in literature.
The panellists then read from other writers' works about their city of choice. We had some interesting audience participation, in particular from Nicholas Low, who is writing a piece for Griffith Review about post-quake Christchurch. The panel wrapped up just before 3pm.
From there to Staple Manor with Talina and Craig and Rochelle, grabbing noodles on the way. After dinner we headed to the Festival Club to check out 'Would You Rather?', the brainchild of Ben Jenkins. The panel was Lawrence Leung, Mark Sutton, Geoff Lemon, Dominic Knight and Zora Sanders (and Ben, chairing). Some examples of the hypotheticals put out there by the perpetually inventive and funny Jenkins:
Would you rather...
Own and control a giant Emu (upon which you could ride around)
Take part once in a real-life Mario Kart Tournament?
Would you rather...
Live at Hogwarts, but in a non-magical capacity (e.g. Bursar)
Be the next member of Danny Ocean's team of thieves?
Would you rather...
Be able to backflip on cue for the rest of your life
Be Nelson Mandela's pen-pal for the rest of his?
So, with the combination of questions like those listed above and the panel members listed further above...well, you can imagine the sort of responses...
A particular favourite of mine was Geoff Lemon's lightening speed response - 'Does that include moral backflips?'
Ok...So then came 'Writer Wants A Wife - The Selection'
Now, I'm not tremendously proud of this...ok, I'm maybe a little bit happy with the fact that I went through with it...
On Thursday night at the Festival Club, the inimitable, glamourous, Laura Jean Mackay, talked me into being a 'wife' for selection night. Come Friday evening, I made my way to the Customs House and killed a few beers for courage. In front of a crowded room, I joined three other 'gentlemen' on stage. We sat with microphones in front of us and a projector screen behind us. Images of 'Love', or somesuch nonsense, were beamed up at the screen. The audience leered and shrank, making catcalls and offering advice and commentary. Pack of hyenas. Jesus, I thought, what the hell have I got myself into. On the other side of the partition sat a girl with a cloth sack over her head. Very Guantánamo, were it not for the floral pattern. Laura introduced us all and then came the questions... At this point I will pass you over to Alex's (the girl only a partition away) brother's account of the events that followed. I should offer some extra information, though. First, I think it's fair to say that we (the 'wives') were in a bit of 'race to the bottom' (as Zora Sanders put it), given that if we were chosen we had to go on a 'date' (which was to be videoed by Mr Tom Doig) and then report back on Sunday evening in front of another room full of similar (if not the same) hyenas, eager for juicy gossip and embarrassing titbits...
Here's the link to Alex's blog (also worth a read in general. Pretty great!)
I didn't get chosen. My responses (for the record) to the questions, were (as far as I can remember...) as follows:
Question:If you were in a mime and had to use three props to describe yourself, what would they be?
Answer: Gin. Limes. A doona.
Answer: Gin, for obvious reasons. Limes, for the gin. A doona, it's the only want to properly crush limes...
Question: If you could travel back in time to any period in history, where would you go?
Answer: I'm tempted to say, 'Last night, so I don't get talked into taking part in this...thing! (massive audience cheers) Ok, yes, I'm going with that.
Anyway, Alex chose Luke Ryan and off they went to join the other couples on the lawn with their picnic blankets (except for Lawrence Leung and Sian Campbell - Lawrence had a soundcheck to do and left Sian sitting up a tree. Whatever works, I guess).
We would hear all about the exploits on Sunday night.
From the Customs House to the Royal Exchange to catch the end of 'The Sincerest Form of Flattery'. I arrived in time to see/hear Pip Smith reading her poem in the style of Ginsberg's 'Howl'. It was perhaps one of the best pieces of writing I heard all weekend. Amazing.
Back to the Customs House. Dinner with NYWF friends! Geoff Lemon wrapping (rapping) up the end of the Going Down Swinging launch.
I mentioned lightening speed earlier in relation to Geoff Lemon's comments at the Would You Rather panel. Well, in a delayed but appropriate link to said statement, I'd like to tell you about the storm that hit Newcastle on Friday night. Whatever we Melbourne-types thought we experienced on the Wednesday prior to the festival, it warn't nowt compared to Newcastle on Friday night. After the sincerest form of flattery, Nick and Sarah and I headed to the Festival Club to check out the Electrofringe Showcase. Tristan Courtney, bassist with Blackchords was performing as part of the showcase. I missed his set, unfortunately. However, we settled in for some experimental electro and interesting VJ & DJ sets. So many schooners. So many! Home to bed at some stupid hour knowing I had to chair a panel the next day at 11am. Bleugh!
On Saturday morning I dragged my ass out of bed at about 9am. Showered and dressed and hit the centre of town. Met my fellow panellists, Rochelle Fernandez and Jacinda Woodhead. Rochelle is a non-fiction editor at HarperCollins and Jacinta is an associate editor at Overland Journal and runs the Overland and Meanland blogs. We set up at Blackhall House and the audience started filing in. The title of the panel was 'Writing Revenge', and it was another of my application suggestion babies. Very happy to be doing it, despite the roaring hangover. Said hangover was soon dispersed by some scintillating conversation about the act of using writing to take revenge. We discussed things from my auto-fiction point of view - accepting the consequences of inserting real people and real events into one's writing, knowing when you're burning a bridge, the importance of the writing over the subjects, etc. Rochelle talked about autobiography and how the editing process works regarding those works that are clearly written with a view to 'setting the record straight'. Jacinda spoke about the editorial requirements at Overland with regard to protection from libel. The conversation then opened up into a general discussion of the pitfalls of naming people and places in literature and non-fiction, with some of the 'Voice of a City' themes rearing their heads once again (distraction for the reader, etc.) Some excellent audience participation and an obligatory discussion of that moron, Andrew Bolt, and his generally backward fear-mongering incitements. All in all, a brilliant panel.
After which, FOOD! Down to Sprockets for a bagel while preparing for my next event - MCing Poetry Picnic in the Park. Due to be held at Tramways Reserve, the rapidly darkening sky meant we shifted to Plan B - top floor of Staple Manor. Talina Mckenzie, NYWF Co-Director, set out a picnic on the beautiful varnished wooden floors (very moon-walkable) and the audience trickled in as the rain trickled down.
Poetry Picnic was great. Geoff Lemon kicked off proceedings in style before disappearing off to cheer his beloved Cats in the Grand Final. Next up was Kalyan Ky, who read some beautiful poetry, in particular one addressed to her mother. Emma Jones was next, followed by Barnaby Smith, who raced through a fair few excellent poems, hardly giving time for the well-deserved applause. I read last, four poems:
'For Is' (from Mitchum)
and a new poem, 'That It Is Not' (which I will post soon)
A few drinks at Staple Manor after this followed by a trip to MJ Finnegan's Pub to watch the second half of the Grand Final (VERY few places showing it in Newcastle!) I was all about the Pies...but alas...
Um...So, Ok, after the grand final we (Luke Ryan and I) headed back to the Festival Club. We settled in for a few drinks with the crowd there. I was introduced to a few new people and one or two of them asked me about what I was working on. I told them about Mitchum. They asked what I had done with it. I told them I had entered it into the Vogel. They looked sympathetic...
'Oh, did you hear?'
'You know, about the Vogel?'
*Looks exchanged all around the table*
'You didn't hear anything?'
'All the rejections came out yesterday and today. It's all over Twitter, people saying they didn't win, etc.'
'I haven't heard anything'
*More glances around the table. More people listening now*
'Call your house!'
*Called my housemate* - 'Hi, any mail for me yesterday?' 'Nope' 'Ok, great, thanks!!'
'HE WON THE VOOOOGGGGEEELLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!!!'
'Oh, come on, I did not win the Vogel! I DID NOT WIN THE VOGEL'
'PAINT A 'V' ON HIS FOREHEAD, HE WON, HE WON!!'
'I didn't win. Maybe I cleared the slush pile?'
'HE CLEARED THE SLUSH PILE!!!!'
*Awesome, I cleared the slush pile. Longlist? Maybe!*
Jumped a train back to the hostel. Shower and change and back to the festival club for the Big Top Ball. The whole place decked out in bunting and circus streamers etc. People in costume. Crack Theatre people in REAL costume! Terrifying!
I threw on some face-paint and the night began!
Cut to the end of the Big Top Ball. Rain threatening. Writers and actors on the hunt for booze and beats. We struck out looking for some more fun. Nothing doing at The Crack House...Nothing doing anywhere, in fact. So, we started walking home. Nick took off on his rented bike. I cursed myself for not having got myself sorted with one. I walked with Sarah as the rain started. Oh, the rain!!!! You know when it starts and then gets heavier and then maybe feels like it needs to make a stronger point and just seems to push EVEN HARDER INTO THE GROUND? Yeah, well, it was like that. Mostly we were walking under cover until we got to Sarah's hotel. We sat and had a cigarette. Had random guys come up and ask us if we knew where they could find obscene things that I won't bother spelling out because this is public and I will probably need a job next year (no f-bombs kicking around either, notice!).
Anyway, I decided, about 3.30am, to push on home. At first I tried dashing across the streets to the relative shelter of the awnings (awnings?) over the shops. Pretty soon it became clear that I was essentially going to have to swim home. And swim home I did.
Cut to 5am, crawling into bed having divested myself of the three-times-heavier, drowning-victim's garments...
Into the Mall just before midday. Massive breakfast, juice coffee juice coffee breakfast cigarettes...all the rain, too. So much rain. Non-stop rain. Rain.
And then, just after breakfast, as I sat there reading (the latest GRANTA - I have a subscription now!!!) there came from the sky above, the BIGGEST CRACK OF THUNDER I HAVE EVER HEARD EVER
I mean, this was mortar fire. People screamed, involuntarily. Windows rattled. The ground actually seemed to shake. LOUD! And the fizz in the air. It was incredible. I ran into Zora Sanders soon afterwards and said, 'Did you hear the ....'
'YES! My god, we saw it strike the ground. It was amazing!'
Anyway, off I went to watch Tom Doig's documentary 'Moron2Moron' at the Royal Exchange.
Catching up with Tom beforehand, he told me about the genesis of the project. In 1999 he spotted on an atlas that there were two places in Mongolia with the same name. They were 1,423km apart. Both towns were called 'Moron'. This is too good an opportunity, thought Tom. He and his friend, Tama Pugsley, allowed the idea to gestate for ten years. Then, in 2010, Tom decided the time had come. The two put the plan into action and Moron2Moron was born. I'll give you the festival guide version of the documentary:
Last Year, Tom Doig and Tama Pugsley cycled 1,423km across northern Mongolia. They had one tent, eight hundred Marlboro cigarettes for bribes, and two gay disco welding visors. One year later, NYWF is thrilled to host the world premiere of their documentary: Moron2Moron. Pain, Heartache. Spandex. Dried fermented milk of a horse.
The film was excellent. Hilarious. Tom is a natural comedian and he and Tama worked brilliantly together. The trip took the two guys 23 days. Some of the footage was heartbreaking, some beautiful and some just plain funny (Tom and Tama dancing naked in a field of naturally-growing cannabis, with leaves in their mouths). Afterwards, Tom took questions and asked questions of the audience with a view to revisiting the editing of the film. Then, we were treated to a 30 minute monologue of Tom's adventures. One of the highlights of my festival experience.
From Moron2Moron 2 the Spelling Bee at the Festival Club. Hosted by Lawrence Leung, with Zoe Norton Lodge assisting, this event had a lot to live up to. They pulled it off! It was a cracker. Contestants on stage joined by audience wild cards (winners of audience games, 'Cheese or Font' and 'Real Book Title or Fake Book Title' were selected to compete). This particular writer got up to try and spell Blackguard. And screwed it up. I KNEW it was an oddly spelled word. You can follow the event HERE thanks to Geoff Lemon's tireless live blogging efforts.
After the Spelling Bee I headed to Octapod to get some printing done for my final event of the festival. From Octapod I went to the bottle shop to catch up with Sarah and grab a bottle and some beers. We got a booth at the Royal Exchange and settled in for the finale of Writer Wants a Wife. The couples sat in a row across the stage and Laura sat with each, interviewing them about their dates and showing us a few videos (and video messages from those who had had to go home before the end of the festival). Love is in the air for at least one couple, it seems. The two boys? Not so much... Lawrence and Sian? Maybe? Who knows. Laura ran an excellent event, amidst heckles from the audience (yours truly partook, of course). Heaps of fun!
Next, my final event. I was honoured to be reading at the Royal Exchange with some pretty excellent writers, including Ben Jenkins and Zora Sanders. The event was called, 'Here's Where I Think I Went Wrong'. Ben Jenkins read first - an hilarious story about a 'date' at the movies with a girl he liked when he was 13. The girl, of course, was unaware it was a date, and brought along a male friend. Comedy gold ensued. Zora Sanders went next, with a story about her mother's crime-stopping antics and her own genetic tendency towards a desire to call people on their illegal behaviour (such as putting everything through as 'Brown Onions' at the self-serve checkouts). Matthew Lang was next with a freaky vampire role-play story. I think I went next. I'm pretty sure I did, anyway. I know I watched Alice Grundy from backstage, but can't remember if she came on before or after I did. Anyway, I stepped out to applause and Ben Jenkins announcing me as follows:
'He can't spell, but he can write. Please welcome,...'
I decided to read from Mitchum. I read the section set in Perth and involving the car accident, then jumped to the murder. I also decided to do it AS Ben Tyler. With an accompanying beer, of course. It was a fantastic experience, reading to an audience for the first time from the final draft of Mitchum. Not just an audience, but an audience of my peers; people whose work I have a great deal of respect for. The response was pretty phenomenal. Needless to say I was grinning stupidly afterwards.
I popped out for a cigarette as Ben wrapped up the artists' readings and opened it up to the floor. I'm sorry I did, as I missed the intro to Nicholas Low's story about Slick and Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. I caught the second half of it and was blown away. I'm told the story is available in some publication. I'll have to find out which one and post it. Nick has an incredible control of language and the story had this air of Charlie Kaufman and Paul Auster about it. You knew it couldn't be true, but were willing to suspend disbelief entirely, such was the audacity of it. Excellent stuff.
Next to a warehouse party off Auckland St, with a bottle of Jamesons in tow. We danced for hours to some mad dubstep beats, before wandering off across Civic Park and then heading home. Deep sleep.
Monday was the TiNA comedown. First, a trip to Darby St. for a hard-earned breakfast. From there I wandered down to the Lowlands Bowls Club. We listened to 'Show Us Ya Early Work' and chilled in the sunshine with some schooners. I headed to a house with Miss Marita Fox (you remember Waterproof?) and her crew. We had dinner and then a few of us went to check out the Festival Club. It was closed. I joined Zoe and Ben and Talina and Gen and Tom in a tiny room above a hotel and we played a plot game, drank a few longnecks and learned some telepathy before trekking back to the Directors' house where I crashed out at 3.15am.
6am! Up! Dress! Grab bag! Lug bag to Hunter St! Catch bus to terminus! Eat bad food! Drink worse coffee! Catch bus to airport! Get on flight! Bake! Read! Land! Get Skybus! Get tram! Arrive at Tin Pot! Get BLT and Milkshake. Breathe!
Thank you Newcastle.
Thank you TiNA.
Thank you NYWF.
Until next year!