Running blog of the festival

Guest writer Mark MacLean will be blogging for us during the festival here:

Day 5: Monday, 21 September 2015

– guest blogger Mark MacLean

I recently went to see a friend in a theatre production at Newcastle’s Civic Playhouse. It was a matinee and he was on again that evening so we’d agreed to go to the Criterion because they’ve got Coopers stout on tap and so I was standing outside the stage door, waiting for Pat, when out come half a dozen of the most gorgeous women I’d ever seen. They mooched down Hunter Street for a few yards before pulling out their packs of unfiltered ciggies from their shoulder bags and lighting up. Pat appeared, nodded in their direction and smiled. “They’re from the Moscow Ballet,” he said. “It’s what I love about this game: we can be all glamour and adoration on stage, but we all slope out the stage door the same way at the end of the night.”

It’s Monday and my friends are going to work and taking conference calls and getting on with the stuff that Real People do when they’re in the Real World. I know that I’ll have to engage with it soon but I’m reluctant to let go of Festival World; it was such a nice place to spend the weekend.

Last night I found myself at the bar of Monte’s at the same time as Candy Royalle and I shyly introduced myself and praised her for her performances. I suppose that she too leaves by the stage door at some point and has to move about among the Real People in the Real World yet somehow I can’t imagine it.

I flick through the program and think of all the things I didn’t get time to see or do. I bet that Glenn Morrison’s tour of the Todd River was fantastic. When I slipped across its dry bed the other day all I saw was a dead magpie.

Tomorrow I will find myself leaving Alice Springs. I’ll stare hard out the window trying to make a photograph in my head of what I’m seeing, just as I did the first time I left Alice Springs in 1985. And I also know that one day, much to my astonishment, I’ll be back.

Thank you to all the people who shared their stories and songs and poems over the last four days. It was a privilege to meet you and hear you speak about the many and varied sources of the creative wellspring from which we all drink. Go well, write, read, and let’s all do it again soon!

Day 4: Sunday, 20 September 2015

– guest blogger Mark MacLean

Second days of weekend festivals have a different vibe to first days. The crowd’s different: people who were too busy to come on Saturday (getting kids to soccer or pushing through twenty loads of laundry) finally have time for themselves. Everything’s a little looser and less frenetic. The only people who were up early were the emerging writers who settled in for a breakfast meeting while older, crustier writers hit the snooze button and grabbed another half hour.

That’s not entirely true: Lorna “Wrong Way Round” Hendry was out and about with a group of eager workshoppers developing memoirs at 10 am, and at 9.45 a throng gathered in the gazebo to hear four fine minds discourse under the subject Home Truths. Celestine, born and bred in Papunya, still feels like an outsider. Bob G, when asked the question ‘How long do you have to be in a place before it’s ok to start commenting on it?’ pointed out that it’s ok any time; some people live in a place for thirty years and that doesn’t necessarily give them special powers to get it right. On another tack, Kim M described the ritual she goes through when returning to country, reconnecting with Napparurla at the dam then picking up Kim on the way back to ‘civilisation’. (A bit cryptic, I realise, but you’d understand if you were there and you’d heard her.)

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Next up was Finding Home and Healing, a panel that poured out some cracking quotes. I loved the image of Christopher Raja sitting in Alice Plaza with his head full elephants and old Calcutta, a strangely dissonant experience that I’m sure every writer can empathise with. Life has thrown so much at Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ajak Kwai yet they were graceful and quietly determined in their creativity. Ali described Aboriginal people as being “creative in our pain”, while Akak’s story of growing up in Sudan with a speech impediment and therefore able only to sing, not speak, for years and acting as her blind grandfather’s “walking stick” was just extraordinary. Yet somehow it prepared her for the horrors of what was to come and, like many of the artists present, became a wellspring of their creativity.

And then it was my turn! Me and my new bestie, Lorna (yes, the same Lorna who’d just finished a workshop minutes before) all coffee-ed up and ready to hit the panels, with the careful guidance of Sally from the NTWC. What a delightful pair of people to work with, before an audience who let us run on and blather and generally enjoy ourselves under the pretence of “work”. I really could get used to this.

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My next panel was a very different affair, but just as much pleasure. Walking Home was the theme, with Glenn Morrison, Jan Bauer and Craig san Roque. Could there have been a more diverse group? Glenn has just finished his PhD on walking literature and its descriptions of Central Australia, while Jan’s graphic novel of trekking the Larapinta Trail is co-published in Australia and Germany, and then Craig took us to Delphi and the onto-poesis of landscape. Where on earth could a book about walking the storm water drains of Newcastle fit into that? No worries: Craig took me on a mythological tour of my own patch of dirt and wove it into the grander narrative that made the mundane world of concreted creek beds somehow poetic and filled with wonder.

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We were almost finished by now. The last panel, with Lorna, Jessie Cole, Kim M and local and writers centre stalwart Jo Dutton took apart a lot of what had discussed over the weekend. I liked how Jo looked back on the brash naivety with which she tackled her first novel with a sense of warmth and pride. I was particularly taken by Jessie’s ‘anti-hero non-quest’. In a world in which the story narrative has been nailed down and structured by disciples of Joseph Campbell and Robert McKee, it was really refreshing to hear someone describe their non-quest that took place without leaving home yet still created a novel that was bedded in place yet soared beyond it. (Though the locals’ response to her having written about their community was hilarious; i.e. not a word spoken for over a year until someone says, “Read your book [long pause]. Yeah.” That’s what we write for, isn’t it?

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And so to Monte’s for the Lit Kwiz. On stage on the Authors team with Lorna and Bernard, up against a team of local Teachers. They had squeaky dogs and we had castanets: we were doomed from the start. (So Jane Austen didn’t write Wuthering Heights? Whoops.) We got smashed and retired gracefully to drink beer amongst the hoi polloi while the Brains Trust took their turn. Who won? You never win against a teacher!

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And so we ended, with flowers for the extraordinarily hard-working organisers, the amazing volunteers who kept everything running, the lighting and sound crew who kept the microphones going (even when four-way boards were plugged into four-way boards out of four-way boards). As a woman said to me as we left the Leaving Home panel: “We should do this every weekend!” Dani? Sally? Fiona? Anyone?

Day 3: Saturday, 19 September 2015

– guest blogger Mark MacLean

A writer once described his book launch as ‘the storm before the calm’. I was anticipating something similar with the writers festival: there seemed to have been so much going for so long already that would the weekend itself feel anticlimactic?

The answer was, thankfully, no. Olive Pink Botanic Gardens at any time of day is a glorious venue, but early in the morning or late in the afternoon, it shows itself off at its best. The car park was filling, the Bean Tree Café was punching out coffees at a prodigious rate and the Red Kangaroo pop-up bookshop was shifting units.

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In the gazebo we gathered on metal chairs to listen to a group of women who between them hold centuries of wisdom. On occasions like this it becomes blindingly obvious just how much words like ‘custodian’ and ‘healer’ and ‘knowledge holder’ are puny attempts to render a word from a first language. Dr Josie Douglas led us with her usual calm dignity as the women told stories of living on country, on missions, and funny yarns of cheeky billy goats. But looking at the panel and the audience I was struck by a question that I find myself asking so often on occasions such as this: Where are the men?

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The helpful folk at the check-in desk tell me that I’m due on in Hut 1. Unfortunately none of us know where Hut 1 is, or if it’s even a hut. (Sally fesses up later that they just made the word ‘Hut’ up because they didn’t actually know what kind of shelter, if any, might be available.)

We scout out the location and decide that a metal shelter on the southern boundary is, of this minute, Hut 1, and at 11 o’clock, our ‘self-help’ teas in hand, six of us wander past the bower bird’s bower and settle down for a couple of hours of exposing our inner thoughts to a critical audience. Did I say this would be fun?

It was; in fact, it was big fun. Such a talented group of writers, prepared to make themselves vulnerable and share their creative thoughts in ways that had each of us nodding in agreement or clapping or laughing.

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So much talent.

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But there’s no time for congratulating one another because, immediately after, there are two panels to get to: first off, Jessie Cole and Clare Atkins; then Yugambeh woman Ellen van Neerven and the guys from the SWEAT-SHOP collective.

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Jessie and Clare are both such accomplished authors and yet, as is so often the case with creative types, humble and self-deprecating. We all want to know how they do it: fit writing and creativity in the whirlygig of life and ‘real’ work and children and … everything.

The SWEAT-SHOP guys come from a different world: one where the status quo is there to be challenged, where people talk of ‘queering the third space’ and where young people embrace old models of publishing in ways that unsettles the establishment. It was all quite unlike anything else that was happening around us, and when the ever gentle Dick Kimber asked a question in his quiet Centralian drawl it felt like the kind of cultural collision that Doris Stuart deals with on a daily basis.

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Do we get time for lunch? Only a quick bite. On my way through the gardens I come across Diane Lucas, clearing up after one of her gorgeous workshops. The ‘table garden’ is filled with the found objects that children have scavenged, the clay animals they’ve made and the puppets they’ve used to tell the stories of the land.

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Di’s books have helped non-Indigenous kids to understand the seasons of Kakadu, the ways of the desert and – most recently – the work of Indigenous rangers to nurture the Top End’s endangered fauna. All this with her signature warmth and laughter. Go Di!

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Festivals should surprise. If you don’t get to be surprised then someone isn’t doing their job.

These guys are doing their job because I was surprised in the best possible way at the Drawing Story presentation with Craig San Roque, Rod Moss, Joshua Santospirito and Jan Bauer. This multimedia presentation was like an MGM blockbuster from the old days: make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, leave ‘em wanting more.

Craig’s ‘lost weekend’ isn’t new as a publication but is still crispy fresh as a story. I took to heart the advice of the Warlpiri gentleman who sternly advised Craig: ‘We’ll look after our Jukurrpa. You whitefellas look after your own Jukurrpa.’

Jan’s reading of his Salty River graphic novel was wonderfully presented, with a ring-in ‘Morgaine’ providing the hilarious foil to Jan’s stumblingly besotted German trekker.

Morgaine: ‘I thought you liked to walk alone?’

Jan: ‘Um … ja. Usually I do.’

And afterwards, after I get Jan to sign my book, he sprinkles salt between the pages. I’ll keep this a surprise for CB when she opens it, then complain about the grit between the bedsheets.

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As the sun drops behind the ranges we gather around the Bean Tree Café for the last time that day for the launch of Ali Cobby Eckermann and Christopher Raja’s books. People sip beers and wind down after the adrenaline rush of the day, take mini nanna naps and get ready to rev up for the Rooftop Rant ahead.

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 And rant they did, at the Epilogue Bar beneath the stars. Candy Royalle closed the poetry section and had us all howling at the waxing moon (Ginsberg would have been proud of us). Candy has performed on each day of the festival and, each time, has come up with some new piece of material or new angle or new way of skewing the world People have really taken her into their hearts.

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Then, after wowing a packed house at Olive Pink with her performance Of Cows, Women and War, Ajak Kwai closed the evening with beautiful soulful songs that had the rooftop bar swaying.

What a day!

Day 2: Friday, 18 September 2015

– guest blogger Mark MacLean

The first time I left Alice Springs I stared hard out of the car window as the besser-block houses and busted sheet-metal fences and sun-beaten ironwoods slipped by. I was in a station wagon with two Swedes and a Norwegian (it might’ve been two Norwegians and a Swede) and we were bound for South Australia down the corrugated creek bed they called The Track. I’d stopped taking photographs and had given my camera to some random backpacker in a misguided attempt to ‘better remember’ the world and I would do this – stare intently at scenes and places – as though by doing so I’d fix them forever in my head in a more ‘authentic’ way than a picture could.

It was with a sense of astonishment therefore that, about 14 months later, I was back in Alice Springs: a resident with a partner and job and living in one of the ‘new’ houses past the horse stables on the far eastern edge of town.

I’ve left Alice Springs many times since and, whether its by road or plane, I still find myself trying to drink the scene in as though this will help me understand the place a little better. It never works. Alice Springs is more of a mystery to me now than it’s ever been. In the same way that living for a long time is no guarantee of wisdom, the mere act of having dwelt here for some years is no guarantee of better understanding it.

I’m not on my Jack Jones on this. Just look at this graffiti-ed, vandalised and generally abused sign at the top of Annie Myers Hill. It’s not enough to hold the Aboriginal history of the town in contempt; it’s almost a civic duty to erase it.

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Thankfully, Doris Kngwerreye Stuart and a group of thoughtful assistants is working to help me and a busload of folk attend to this situation. This afternoon we took a leisurely drive through Mparntwe while Doris, Dan, Lucy and Jodie pointed out the world around us in a way that was enlightening without being didactic or hectoring. Sure we’d belted through Ntaripe without asking permission and blithely swanned along bike tracks that formed concrete barriers between whimpering puppies and their recently murdered mothers but we weren’t to blame. We just had to stop, and listen, and take a deep breath.

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We did stop, and we listened, and we took many breaths. We ate ‘bush lollies’ too: the lerp that gathers on gum leaves.

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I think Doris has been taking deep breaths for her whole life but, as she read her son’s poem Compromise as the cruiser bus idled on ‘Broken Promise Drive’ even she teared up at the thought of all the ills heaped upon the Mparntwe Arrernte.

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It was a salutary experience as site after site of importance was displayed to us in all its desecration. And yet we left the bus elated and richer for the experience.

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This is the writers festival, but not all writers use words or pens or word processors. I stopped in the mall to take in the photographic exhibition put together by Mike Gillam. This is a verse novel written in light, a way of telling about place without the need for words.

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Everything about this exhibition refutes my opening statement. It is possible to understand place but to do so demands a commitment that’s beyond most of us.

Mike and his redoubtable wife Maria will keep the exhibition open beyond it’s original date and so, if you have half a brain about you, get up to the mall and let Maximo add to Doris’s story of Mparntwe.

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Surely the best thing about being a writer is the endless advice you get from non-writing friends about the things you Should Be Writing About (e.g. the NT Attorney-General’s ‘metaphorical’ slap of Labour MP Natash Fyles; the hilarious my Uncle Donald has done; parrots in general). I was also advised to be braver and more controversial in my posts (Is Penny Wong ‘hot’? Was that speech I sat through really the longest four minutes of my life?)

Over a meal of koftas and pork ribs and rice with friends I mention the Mix Tape Memoirs at the Totem. Some of the friends’ children, back from night-time tennis, are shown a cassette tape and asked what it is. One has no idea, the other valiantly remembers that it’s something to do with music, and ‘something my dad told me about once’. Another friend digs out the mix tape a former boyfriend put together for her in a vain attempt to woo her with his infinite hipness. (We attempted to date the mix tape based on the track listing; I went for 1984.)

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After that it was down to the Totem for the real thing. At the door I find Laurie May. Last night Laurie was striding the stage like a colossus, herding feckless poets and smashing hecklers with one-liners. Tonight she was bolting Thai takeaway straight from the plastic tub in between selling tickets and beers and coordinating volunteers and generally being glamorous and awesome.

The memoirs are much more personal and vivid than I’d bargained for, as is the experience of sitting in a darkened Totem listening to music from Raboul or Seventies jazz fusion. Ellena Savage, for example, wrote about how neither she nor her sister could write about their mother, then did so in ways that has the audience laughing and holding its breath.

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And then home, to lie awake in bed feeling anxious about tomorrow.

Day 1: Thursday, 17 September 2015

– guest blogger Mark MacLean

Of all the worst ways to arrive in Alice Springs, the worstest way of all is to arrive by plane.

It banks round the McDonnell Ranges and you crane your neck to see past the other passengers’ heads to get a view through the thick lens of the round-cornered window. For a brief moment a screen-grab of nut-brown and nankeen-coloured dirt and filthy mulgas fills the plastic pane before the big bird rights itself and grumbles to a standstill on the runway. You gather yourself and your possessions and do that smile-and-nod thing as you slide past the hostesses. But then the door opens to the stairs and you’re smacked hard between the eyes by the whole nine yards that is the Red Centre at midday. Wallop.

Getting here by car or train or camel or even pushing a wheelbarrow would be better than this. The disconnect between your point of departure and the stretch of bleached tarmac leading to the terminal is too much to absorb. You feel it in your skin and you see it in the eyes of the other passengers: a vagueness of place that makes people hang close to one another or, in acts of self-affirming bravado, march with exaggerated purpose towards the luggage carousel.

Alice Springs does not pander to the visitor. It doesn’t care whether you like it or not because it knows it was here before you were even thought of and it’ll still be here long after you’ve gone: all of you. So as you struggle with its too-bright sun and talcum grit and zero-humidity it shrugs and says, ‘Too much, princess? Stay till the end of summer and then see how you’re travelling.’

And this is where we’ve come, to this deceptively suburban outpost, on a literary mission under the working headline ‘Finding home’.

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Surely if home is anywhere it’s in a bookshop. How lovely to meet Bri at Red Kangaroo (official bookseller to the festival) with a pile of bespoke literature!

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I’m interviewed on ABC Darwin and, in honour of the dreadful letter knife I made in woodwork in 1974, the full horror of which I describe in Five Boxes, they hold a ‘most piss-weak school project’ phone in.

A guy from Alyangula wins it for the bong he made in 1986, which his mother still owns and treasures. This is the Territory, mate.

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At the NT Writers Centre’s temporary home I finally get to meet Sally, Dani and Fiona. The last time I was in this building, two decades ago, it sold car parts and it still has the brutal functionality of Eighties Territory architecture.

While I mill around feeling useless, Dani and Fiona and Sally take calls and make calls and rearrange missed flights and line up media for anxious poets. We eventually sit down to plunger coffee and Berliners and so, embracing the spirit of Festival Blogger, I take a picture of it. And I write that I’ve taken a picture of it as a post-ironic shield against the barbs of sneering anti-hipsters.

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And then I take a picture of Sally and Dani being ‘natural’. Oh yeah. I’ve got this.

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And after I’ve foolishly bought bread at Woolworths I come across the source of the Berliners: a pop-up bakery at The Residency. Bugger!

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It would be impossible to not be remarkable with a name like Miss Olive Pink. We gather in the botanic gardens that bear her name and I wonder what she’d think of us all. I reckon she’d give us a hard time but secretly like us.

I climb the hill that overlooks the gardens and look down on the assembled writers and poets and songbirds below.

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The gardens at this time of day, late afternoon, have a dream-like tactility. The geology is so old here that the normal order is reversed: the rocks are worn to a friable softness while the plants bear the hards and sharps that allow them to thrive.

At the lookout there’s an interpretive sign that describes the Arrernte landscape of Alice Springs. It has, it goes without saying, being bashed and defaced to the point of illegibility. But through the bullet holes and the graffiti I can still make out the name Alhekealyele, Mount Gillen.

Later, Sylvia Neale reads a poem by MK Turner and Maureen O’Keefe that shuts us all up.

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And then Western Sydney mob blow us all away, and local singers sing of deserts made of Persian rugs, and then we retire to the gazebo to do what writers of all types do best.

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I don’t actively disbelieve in lay lines and spirit wormholes and divination which is why I’m prepared to believe any theory you like about the Totem Theatre. Was it a fluke that set it down here at this exact spot on the banks of the Todd River? I don’t think so. I love this raggedy-arsed collection of timber and tin sheets and plastic chairs that has hosted everything from Gilbert and Sullivan am-dram to, on this night, a collection of the scruffy marginalia that society – in the absence of any better descriptor – calls ‘poets’.

It’s poetry slam night and the Totem’s packed to its rickety rafters. The variety was immense. One woman read from her phone. Another from her journals. The winner was Sanya, an Alice Spring poet who, should he win at the Opera House, gets to perform at … um … Alice Springs.

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And so ends Day 1.

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