Sunday, August 18, 2013

Launceston Poetry Festival
Tasmania, Spring 1997

Tim Thorne invited me to Launceston (pronounced, as I was to discover, ‘LONceston’) for the local poetry festival in 1997. I caught a flight on the now defunct Ansett Airlines from Sydney to Melbourne where, instead of connecting and travelling on to Launceston, I spent hours waiting in the airport while repairs were made to a mechanical problem with the plane. As I wandered around the airport lounge I noticed a young man with a pale, indoor look and a leather document bag. He was reading small books. Maybe he was another poet? Or, as I was drifting aimlessly in airport-dreaming, he was probably a scientist.

I wondered whether anyone from the festival would be there to meet us on arrival in Launceston. But I wasn’t worried - I could catch a bus or a taxi. There were no mobile phones in 1997.

Eventually, we boarded the plane and I sat next to a tall thin man with longish hair and glasses - he was annotating a beaten-up Penguin paperback with a pencil. Was he another poet?

Tim was at Launceston airport where a small group gradually assembled around him - a woman with an open umbrella even though it wasn’t raining, the indoors man, the annotator and me. These were poets heading for the festival. Lauren Williams from Melbourne, with the umbrella, explained that there was a hole in the ozone layer above Tasmania and you could get sunburnt even on overcast days. Adrian Caesar, the annotator, from Canberra, and Brian Henry, the indoors man, from the US who was on a Fulbright Scholarship and then living in Melbourne.

The festival presented a combination of poetry and contemporary dance . I found the short, clever, often witty, dance performances really terrific to watch. One evening I read in a theatre. I can’t remember much about the reading but I can remember being impressed by the dancers on the programme.

Some of the other poets I met and got to know a little at the Launceston festival were John Mateer (who had earlier sent me his first chapbook of poems). Although he wasn’t participating in the festival John was living in Tasmania and attended the readings. Since then, we’ve kept in touch and I’ve followed his writing. I spent a day wandering around Launceston with Melbourne performative innovator Ania Walwicz. I am still in regular contact with Brian Henry. He invited me to read to his students and I travelled to Richmond, Virginia to do so at the end of 2008. I think one of the valuable functions of poetry events is the communication between participants. I also met Tasmanian editor Ralph Wessman, publisher of Walleah Press and the magazine, Famous Reporter.

Of course I walked, in my Sydney city slicker shoes, the famous Gorge. Not that any rugged mountaineering or outdoor clothing was required - it was a clear concrete path that I strolled along, in awe of the towering cliffs so close to the small city centre. I made my way back across a hill of verandahed weatherboard houses overlooking the town, to the part of the city we were staying in. I do regret not visiting the miniature replica Dutch village that I saw on a postcard.

One of my memorable experiences was having an al fresco lunch of fresh, pan fried scallops on a mesclun salad, at an old mill that had been turned into an arts centre and café. It was right next to the Tamar River. Savouring the delicious fresh scallops, I sat in the warm spring sunshine watching ducklings pottering about on the water’s edge. What a dreamy place.

I also visited The Victorian & Albert Museum. Tim Thorne had recently published a book about the museum, having been poet-in-residence there, and after talking with him about it, I was curious to see the collection and the entire Chinese temple housed within. It was an impressive Victorian era museum - everything old, but nothing fusty. Locals in Launcestion were fond of telling me, proudly, that their city was “older than Melbourne”.

The best reading was held outdoors in the formal and beautiful Victorian-era botanical gardens. I think it was recorded for the local ABC radio station. Everyone was in good spirits and the readings seemed intense and energised.

Tim Thorne and his family generously held a very lively party at their house where I encountered a long shelf of vinyl records in alphabetical order. For some time, I stood next to the end of the shelf staring at Warren Zevon while a racket of chatting increased in volume around me.

Written on request for Island magazine in January 2010

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