The Sydney Writers Festival is an extraordinary undertaking. Not only there is a battery of renowned writers, publishers, critics and commentators packed into Sydney’s Walsh Bay precinct over six days, but the festival program is punctuated by performances, spectacles and side events – from poetry walking tours to speed networking, designed to satiate even the hungriest bookworm.
Given that the festival is blogged about by the luminous Josephine Rowe, I won’t attempt to do justice to the program as a whole, preferring instead to give some space and consideration to just one session – Contemporary Australian Asian Poetry – which featured at the Richard Wherrett Studio on Friday 24 May.
Under the gentle guidance of editors, Adam Aitken, Michelle Cahill and Kim Cheng Boey, the session launched with a speech by Nicolas Jose and was accompanied by a beautiful selection of readings from poets as diverse as Misbah Khokar, Andy Quan and Christine Ratnasignham, to name but a few.
The event marked a new publication by Puncher & Wattmann, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (note the inverted title of the actual collection as opposed to the session). While it was not as well-attended as some of the more blockbuster events of the festival it still provided nourishing food for thought about the nature of Australian poetry and the place of those poets who link their roots, experiences and writing to Asia within the current cultural and literary context. As far as meals go, it was a hearty banquet – spiced and piquant – with more than enough of the alimentary memory evoked by Kim Cheng Boey in his editorial, acts of “ingesting, digesting and assimilating, mediating between what is outside and what is within, between that which is past and the here and now”.
For my mind, however, the most striking feature of the session was its willingness to depart from the standard panel discussion format of the festival, to showcase a selection of the poets featured in the collection. It is as hard to generalise about the poets, their themes and their styles as it must have been for the editors to draw definitive lines in their selection of poets and poems (hence their alphabetical listing) – but it is clear from the quality of the works collected that the project, for perhaps “project” is a more resolute term than mere anthology, is a thoughtful, sensitively realised one that seeks to go beyond mere representation to explore a beautifully ambiguous, ambivalent and therefore more exciting set of linguistic, historical and cultural possibilities.