BANANAS ARE SORRY WRITERS by Iggy McGovern
(PI News November/December 2006)
First stop is Varuna, The Writers' House in the Blue Mountains, two hours from Sydney. This is the equivalent of Annaghmakerrig but with some differences. First, it's much smaller, hosting only five writers, and only writers. Residencies are shorter too, with much pressure on places, typically one week. I'm here for a month and so I've become the permanent fixture, the caretaker, explaining things to each new batch of arrivals. And there is much to be explained, like dinner, for example. Varuna has no resident staff, but every evening around 7pm a car horn sounds on the driveway and the famous five writers begin slavering like Pavlov's dogs.
They gather round the boot of the car to receive wonderful meals prepared and delivered by the equally wonderful Sheila. But before that there's the business of the fire, and kindling to be gathered and logs to be borne ('poor Tom') into the hall; indeed, it all seems like Christmas, for this is winter, and up at the Hotel in Katoomba the decorations are up and the piano player serves up 'Jingle Bells'.
The house was the home of Eleanor Dark, a famous Australian writer, and is rumoured to be haunted. But when one of the writers complained of a ghostly presence in her bedroom, four pairs of female eyes swivelled in my direction! Apparently, there have been occasions of nocturnal visitations of a carnal nature over the years; the other poets all seem reassured (or disappointed) when I say that sort of thing doesn't happen in Ireland. As for myself, I'm haunted by different ghosts, my predecessors at Varuna, poets such as Harry Clifton, Mary O'Donnell, Tony Curtis and Leo Cullen, among others. Their books frown down at me from the shelves: 'Don't let us down,' they whisper. It's their witty contributions in the Comments book that worry me most. In the end I settle for just one word: 'BANANAS!' This is a reference to a poem I put on the fridge, itself occasioned by a Post-it on the same fridge which read: 'Dear Writers, bananas are too expensive! Sorry!' Will my poem survive? Will bananas become cheaper? Will I ever get to come back to Varuna? Here's hoping...
The Blue Mountains (as you might have guessed) are not really blue, but the air is! A bit of physics called Rayleigh scattering explains it all; the air has a high content of eucalyptus oil drops which create the effect. There is a physics connection too with my next poetry stop (via Melbourne) which is Wellington on the North Island of New Zealand. (New Zealanders refer to Australia as 'West Island'). I'm here for the Monday equivalent of the Out To Lunch readings (happily revived at the Irish Writers' Centre). It's in the very central location of the City Gallery, in a small theatre. There are about a hundred souls despite the rain, or maybe because of it. It's a combination of a reading and a conversation with Bill Manhire, New Zealand's Poet Laureate. Bill featured in this year's Poetry Now festival in Dœn Laoghaire, and this gig (against a background of heavy metal music) arose from a conversation in the Forty Foot. Bill has organised a collaboration of writers and physicists, resulting in a book called Are Angels OK? and we chat about that onstage. It all goes well until Bill asks for questions: first hand up is 'Bob', clearly under the influence, who begins a long rant about nothing and finishes with a general invitation to the audience to 'f#*k off'. I suspect that what set him off was my poor joke that the missing rhyme for 'death' in Yeats's Drumcliff epitaph was not 'breath' but 'meth'! Afterwards there is much apologising and insisting that nothing like this has ever happened before: I reassure them that this is the kind of thing that happens all the time in Ireland!
Gig number 2 is back in Melbourne: The Age Melbourne Writers' Festival. The Age is the local equivalent of The Irish Times (hear that, Tara St, it's okay to sponsor a writers' festival). This is a BIG festival, involving two-hundred-and sixty writers with over one-hundred-and-fifty events, running 4 parallel sessions over 2 weekends and with a late night Festival club. There is a dinner one evening for one hundred writers how scary can that be! The emphasis is on panel discussions about writing, sex, food, politics - you name it, they'll talk about it. Big names include Booker-nominee Kate Grenville and spy-master turned novelist Stella Rimington. Poetry is numerically the poor relation, but George Szirtes and John Kinsella draw the crowds. The latter's autobiographical Fast, Loose Beginnings: A Memoir of Intoxications has attracted much media attention on account of reported threats to Kinsella from persons named therein. In quiet contrast I read with three women poets (mirroring my Varuna experience); a reasonable crowd but not a single book is signed between us (by the end of this festival I had, alas, sold only three). I did, however, achieve a modicum of fame when someone (was it 'Bob'?) attempted to gatecrash an event claiming to be me - no such thing as bad publicity!
Some of the contributors were on the same reading circuit as myself, with a next venue of Christchurch in South Island, New Zealand. I have more visibility here, re-running the Physics-Poetry discussion with Bill Manhire and taking part in the Gala Evening readings. This is a much smaller festival, but in many ways more successful. For a start, it was possible to meet the other writers, including Glenn Duncan and Stuart McLean. McLean is billed as the Garrison Keillor of Canada, while Duncan fuses modern London with his Anglo-Indian roots. The same preference for panel discussion over readings, though. The weekend ended with a riotous evening of 'Poetry Idol': a spectrum of poetry that ranged from the pastoral (by a local farmer) to the painful (a poem about VD, by a doctor) - the farmer was the overall winner. Greater exposure here (I read twice and judged the 'Poetry Idol') was reflected in book sales, a grand total of twenty-seven (for shame, Melbourne). So where to next? Well if it's October, it must be the Tasmanian Poetry Festival…
On the Fridge at Varuna:
dear writers, bananas are too expensive, sorry
dear bananas, writers are too expensive, sorry
dear expensive bananas, writers are too sorry
dear expensive writers, bananas are too sorry
dear expensive bananas, are writers sorry too?
dear sorry writers, are bananas expensive too?
writers are bananas, expensive too, sorry dear
expensive bananas writers are too sorry, dear
sorry dear, expensive writers are too bananas
sorry writers, expensive bananas are dear, too
bananas are sorry writers, dear, too expensive