Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 1, Pt 2: Two panels

My next two festival sessions were panels – firstly at the National Museum of Australia, and then after a quick jaunt over the lake, chauffeured very kindly by Mr Gums, at the National Library of Australia. This Festival is spread too widely, geographically speaking – but I’ve said that before …

The power, politics and passion of poets: John Foulcher, Melinda Smith & Lesley Lebkowicz, moderated by Geoff Page

Moderator and local poet Geoff Page (whose verse novel The scarring I’ve reviewed) introduced the session. Noting the theme, he said that despite recent events (which I explained in my first post) poets tend not to be driven by transient events. He then briefly reminded us of the depth Canberra’s poetic tradition, with the likes of AD Hope, David Campbell, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, among others.

Canberra Poets

Lebkowicz, Foulcher, Page, and obscured by the curtain, Smith

To get us in the mood for the theme, he shared a few ideas about poetry: Shelley’s comment that poets are the “legislators of the world”; Auden’s statement that “poetry makes nothing happen”; and Brecht’s poem “The solution” in which he suggests it might be easier for “the government/To dissolve the people!”

Finally, he kicked off the session with an appropriate political poem of his own, one I’ve read and enjoyed before, “Call yourself a socialist.”

The session comprised three local poets reading a selection of their poems – some published, some not (yet) – that relate in some way to the alliterative theme of the three Ps! It was a well-moderated session – that is it flowed well and finished on time. I liked that the poets often explained the form of their poems, as well as why they’d chosen them. I will list the poems they read as best I can, from the notes I took while trying to hear the poems. I do enjoy hearing poets read their poems.

Lesley Lebkowicz

Lebkowicz is, Page introduced, a poet, ceramicist, reviewer, and essayist, whose work is informed by her Buddhist practice. Her next book is Mountain lion. I have reviewed her Petrov poems here.

Lebkowicz started by commenting that it was nice reading to “different people”. She then read her poems, some  humorous and most drawing on women’s experiences:

  • “Butter”: a humorous poem satirising British snobbery about “the colonials”, by positing dairy-farming kangaroos.
  • Suite of poems relating to Mary Alice Evatt, artist and the wife of HV Evatt (Australian politician and judge). Lebkowicz had initially wanted to write her Petrov poems from the point of view of women, but Vladimir Petrov’s voice proved too strong, so she developed this suite of poems separately. The poems reference either paintings by Evatt or information Lebkowicz gleaned from her research, and included “Mt Solitary”, “Portraits 1930s Various sizes”, “Notes for a picture jam/flood”, “Woman seated on grass”, and the delightful “Notes for a picture, falling towards earth” (which you can read here, including its inspiration – do click on the link, you won’t be disappointed.)

Melinda Smith

Smith has a long, impressive CV, including winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Prize for Poetry in 2014 with her collection, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call.

She started by saying she didn’t normally write political poems so her first poem would be about passion! Smith is, I’ve discovered before, pretty cheeky (in the best way.) She said that traditionally she’s not been interested in poems about recent issues because, by definition, they don’t last, but she feels that our current times calls for such poems. Her poems were:

  • “Splinter”: a very cheeky poem equating a splinter in the hand with a love gone wrong.
  • “Baby Joy”: a found poem, using Barnaby Joyce’s words to frame an apology to the gay community that they’ll never get otherwise from him.
  • “Sweetheart”: a found poem using misogynistic statements from the Ernie Awards, mostly from the 1990s, but they are strangely still applicable – she said.
  • “Newcastle reckoning”: a personal and political poem about the shock of seeing yourself as you are. It has a powerful refrain – “Having neither sought nor received permission” – referring to being on indigenous land without permission.
  • “No bed”: ending again on passion. A poem I’ve read – and in fact quoted from – before.

John Foulcher

Foulcher has published eleven books of poetry, the last being 101 Poems. He has also been a teacher for 40 years – a microcosm of politics and power!

His poems were:

  • “Fits and starts”: a very entertaining poem comprising the first words said by teachers to classes, from Grade 7 to 12. It garnered many knowing laughs from the audience.
  • “Why Ryan is on detention”: written around 2000 and unfortunately still relevant in these “Me Too” days.
  • “A revolutionary calendar”, his poetic biography of the French Revolution’s Robespierre. Architect of “the terror”, he had none of the obvious vices, but succumbed to power, and he too ended up at the guillotine. All dictators know, Foulcher said, that eventually the terror turns on you. The poems follow a calendar, and Foulcher read three: “Ventos” (month of wind), “Floreale” (month of flowers), and “Thermidor” (month of heat).
  • “The woman who danced with Stephen Hawking”: a monologue about a different power, one of mind, passion and body.

Before I end on the Q&A, I’ll share a line from Lebkowicz’s “Notes for a picture, falling towards earth”:

 Art, she knows, makes all things better.

If only our politicians knew, eh?


A questioner asked what advice – that you might not find in books – would the poets give to a poetry workshop. They said:

  • Foulcher said that there are two types of poems – the ones where you know what you want to say at the start (bad), and the ones where you work out what you want to say as you write (good)
  • Smith suggested that attendees be asked to find a feeling they can tap into.
  • Lebkowicz said be true to yourself, know what you feel and believe, be patient and write with integrity.

Another questioner asked about separating one’s own emotions from those of a character. Foulcher said it’s impossible, that you are always writing from within, and Lebkowicz admitted that for all her research into the Petrovs, the poems ended up revealing much of herself. Smith made the political point that you need to be careful about “whose microphone you are taking.” She has written in the voice of a dead 10th century Iranian, she said, and that was okay, because “my ancestors haven’t repressed her.”

The Prime Ministers 2017 Literary Award Recipients

Whiting, Lawrence, Orr and Cochrane

Whiting, Lawrence, Orr and Cochrane

The intended line-up for this session was Ryan O’Neill, Anthony Lawrence, Wendy Orr and Peter Cochrane, with  Sue Whiting as moderator. One of the main reasons I chose this session was to hear Ryan O’Neill, author of Their brilliant careers, but unfortunately his father had died necessitating his going to Scotland. I’m very sorry for him – but fortunately the session was very enjoyable, anyhow.

Whiting, the moderator, commenced by explaining the session’s aims, and then gave a brief history of the awards, which were 10 years old in 2017. They are among the best remunerated ($80K for the winner, at present) and are, uniquely, tax-free. She then asked the panelists to speak briefly about their prize-winning works:

  • Lawrence described his poetry collection, Headwaters, as a miscellany comprising various forms, and not having a particular thematic arrangement, but all represented a visceral reaction to the natural world. It’s eco poetry, though this is a new term for an old form! The poems are about the natural world, a place where animals, birds, trees and humans interact, and all explore the same problem, a physical reaction to the natural world, which his body and mind then work through.
  • Orr said that Dragonfly song, which is partly written in free verse, is the book she’s been writing all her life. It’s about an outcast, and has the standard hero tale trajectory. She realised later that it had come from her own sense of exclusion and despair after she’d broken her neck in a car accident.
  • Cochrane explained that his book, Colonial ambition: Foundations of Australian democracy had been commissioned for NSW’s Sesquicentenary. He talked about the challenge of finding drama, because there was “no mud and blood” as other countries have experienced. (I question that, given what we know about indigenous massacres.) Anyhow, he said he realised there was a great human drama, and there were rich biographical records for a few characters, including WC Wentworth, to tell it. To attract readers, he said, you need to include personal lives. Wentworth had the “driving theme of vengeance”, which of course got a laugh given last week’s political events.

Whiting then asked them to share how they felt when their names were read out as winners:

  • Orr was in a daze, not thinking it would be her. The neighbours gave her a party, she said, which hadn’t happened when she’d won CBC Awards.
  • Lawrence had forgotten the advice to have a speech prepared. He was ribbed by his mates because he’d been their maverick. The money was wonderful, he said, because poets don’t make money – they never expect royalties. But it is a “bit of a chook raffle.”
  • Cochrane, who won in 2007, has vivid memories because he was sitting at a table next to John Howard, and opposite Julie Bishop with her eyes. He was relieved to escape them when his name was called.

Whiting then asked about what the prize money, which is significant, meant to them. It was clear that it was meaningful for them all, but none, really, expressed that absolute depth of need that Luke Davies did when asked that question after winning in 2012, the first year poetry was included.

Whiting followed this by asking whether the prize had other benefits:

  • Orr said you need two forms of energy needed to write – physical (money) and emotional (including confidence). The award gave her confidence, largely because, although she’s lived in Australia all her adult life and although all her books have been written here, journalists are continually told they cannot call her an Australian writer. (What the?) This award took all that hurt away.
  • Cochrane said it brings your book to greater attention – both public and academic. He said the feedback from peers was surprisingly important. One reviewer said that it read like a fast-paced novel, which, in fact, encouraged him to write fiction, as he has now done.
  • Poet Lawrence was more circumspect, saying that “you would like to think a gold sticker would increase book sales, but sadly not.” It was, though, wonderful for his confidence, and awards like this do raise the profile of poetry, he said. Poetry is on the rise, he feels.


One questioner asked about the fact that, of all the prizes, this is the only one that has had political interference controversies. The panel explained that it’s due to the terms of the award: the judging panel makes a recommendation to the PM. Those recommendations have normally been accepted, with three exceptions to date, the most egregious being Frank Bongiorno’s “red-carding.”  (Feudal behaviour, said Cochrane.) In the other two cases, the PM intervened to force a joint winner. The terms of reference need to be changed, the panel agreed.

Whiting followed this up by asking whether judging literary merit was fundamentally flawed, but this was not really explored – at least from the philosophical point of view. Lawrence did talk about the value of blind judging, and Orr said that awards are important because they increase sales, promote literature, and get the public talking. 

Another interesting session. More analysis would have been good – how diverse have these awards been, for example – but time is always an issue.

6 thoughts on “Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 1, Pt 2: Two panels

  1. I love literary related festivities. Your posts seems to have captured the spirit of this one. I find that listening too writers, especially to ones that I have read, talk amount themselves to be fascinating.

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