Ethan Switch - Friday, 21 May 2004
Kicking off the Fairfield City Writers' Festival for its third year, The Whitlam Library in Cabramatta played host to An Afternoon of Poetry, one of the few events on the Sydney Writers' Festival programme that wasn't being held in or around the city streets.
Clear from the front desk of the library, the fragrant aroma of grilled meat and greasy kebab sticks smacked the nostrils expecting the accustomed hint of moldy carpet, chipping stone and dry books. Laid out on tables usually reserved for kids doing their homework, platters of sandwiches of the familiar kind. Vegetarian plates numbered twice and the chilled eggs looked like they were turning. Chicken and tuna fillings were fed into the cold warmth of rye and wholemeal and a couple of trays featured meat chunks holding tight with their might on the roasted sticks. Parts of the feasting mob were split down with those out for the poetry session and those out for free food in a place of books.
Shortly on the turn of four, a large man—who resembled a lop-locked Penn Jillet—ushered the flock toward the adult fiction section. Lining the black chairs, survey forms for later with questions certainly not geared for local residents inside of a week. Half of the front section was already filled with people and high school students looking for some insightful crib notes straight from the guest poets. At least one chair just happened to be broken from its hold on the metal legs making for a rocky lean, close enough for a full fall back splat.
Opening the festival with a traditional welcome, Fred Malone, Chair of the Gandangara Local Aboriginal Land Council. Mentioning something about the Cabrogal people for which Cabramatta was named after, the official launch was cracked open by Mayor of Fairfield City, Nick Lalich. As soon as they were done, they promptly bolted as did most of the front right row.
Air-conditiong ducts painted pale blue with a spiral casing alternated with chunks of the white stone speckle ceiling. The feature of which made for an illusory nauseating feeling of unending repetition and recursion, overlapping eyeballs treated much unkindly on sight. Situated below the line of heads, speakers which sounded straight into the temples and eyeballs. The combination of both sensory assaults making for a headache inducing run up to the poets still yet to take their turns at the podium addressing the audience. That the place wasn't covered in vomit was a matter of sheer will coupled with a lack of food and water to eject.
First of the two poets, Judith Beveridge. A softly spoken affair with a voice somewhat laboured toward a mixed level of tired and weathered. Most of her session featured recitals of poetry from her three volumes (The Domesticity of Giraffes, Accidental Grace and Wolf Notes) interspersed with notes of process, thoughts and inspiration. Such was the muted volume of her voice that the strains of trying to pick up the near whispered words threw up an even greater clamp around the head. What was dying at the start looked like it was back on its way. Pacing married her actual output as each word in her poems was tasted with a reserved alacrity and reflection. Questions from the floor brought this further to focus as one called up on her poem The Domesticity of Giraffes as well as why a poet and not a novelist for a writing profession. Perhaps daunted by the prospect or subliminally signaling the crowd, Beveridge pathed a frequent footing between the podium and her chair on every other question answered.
Following on was Peter Skrzynecki. Masterful with the words and hinting at the style of subtlety, Skrzynecki breathlessly stated his proud association with Western Sydney while at the same time calling the Eastern side a land of wankers. Relying less on filling his hour with recitals, a great deal of time was given toward the whole life experience behind his lot that bled into his poetry and prose. A more jovial set was had as he regaled the audience with life tips and comparing his resignation from twenty years of teaching as better than sex. The greatest cream came when dissecting one of his works currently set for the HSC. Breaking down the stanzas and images into their actual meaning, cutting through the poem with clear definitions. Pulling notes for references and the separation of surrealism and realism mixed in, the high schoolers who had toughed it out were scribbling madly into their notebooks. It was a shame that the close of the poem also marked the frosty and dark night outside.
Soon after the final question was posed—and there was a pretty lengthy one thrown in the mix that went for a near minute—the students ran to the back and wiped the table. On it, forty free copies of The Beloved Mountain snapped up like there were only twenty. The closing announcement drowned in all the kerfuffle with Skrzynecki signing away copies and a chunk hovered around the remaining plates of sandwiches under the cling. Surveys were swapped for Freddos and finished the night for good.