David Larsen reviews this year’s Auckland Writers Festival from a safe distance.
I thought we were going to need a doctor. An elderly woman two rows in front of me was clasping her chest, twisting awkwardly in her seat. She seemed to be struggling to breathe. After five or 10 seconds, her apparent distress subsided, and the people around her visibly relaxed. I scribbled a note in my programme: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you poetry is harmless.”
What had set this micro-drama rolling is going to sound absurdly hammy. Shane Koyczan, a Canadian poet, was performing onstage to a full house in the Aotea Centre’s NZI Lower Room. Midway through a long poem, he pulled one of the oldest tricks in the theatrical book: over a 30-second period he let his voice get progressively quieter, then shouted “Bang!” at the top of his lungs.
The bang was the sound of the gun he’d just been describing going off, and, I swear, it was as potent a moment of stagecraft as I’ve ever seen, the voice performer’s equivalent of a magician pulling an actual rabbit out of an actual hat. Koyczan’s hat was full of rabbits. At the end of his hour-long reading, the crowd instantly split into three groups: the ones who’d noticed he was one of the nine poets in the next session, and were rushing to buy tickets; the ones who wanted to buy his book before it sold out, which it promptly did; and the ones who’d already bought it, and wanted to get it signed.
Literary festivals. They’re such bizarre events. Writers! Live on stage! Talking! Come find out whether your favourite authors happen to have the gift of the gab!
Not a line you’ll encounter on promotional material any time soon. But isn’t it odd that we flock to see specialists in the written word doing something which writing in no way prepares people to do? As Richard Ford said during his on-stage chat with John Campbell, “If I’m better than my books, I’m doing something wrong.”
The interesting thing about Koyczan in this connection is that he is better than his writing. His work defines the difference between stage poetry and page poetry: what he writes is the equivalent of a musical score, requiring performance to bring it properly to life. His presence in the festival line-up highlighted the difference between events which are inherently theatrical and ones which aren’t. When you’ve got the poetic equivalent of a rock god on your programme, you’ve done your job simply by convincing him to turn up: at that point, unless you inadvertently set off the emergency sprinklers during the performance, you’re going to have a happy audience.
When you’re presenting events which are essentially scaled-up dinner party conversations, the available repertoire of potentially fatal mistakes is larger.
The backbone of this festival, as with previous ones, was the onstage chat: one or more writers, a chairperson, a little bit of reading, a few questions from the floor, and the bulk of the time given over to unscripted conversation. For this to work out well, you need a good venue, a good line-up of writers, and chairs who know what they’re doing.
Finding the right venue has been a vexed question for this festival in past years. This year the question finally got its ideal answer. Whatever hoops the organisers had to jump through to line up the Aotea Centre as the festival’s new, hopefully permanent home, it was time and money well spent. Auckland is famous for being a city without a true centre of gravity, but the Aotea Centre comes close: it’s easy to find, easy to get to, and its three stages provide intimacy and comfort at three different orders of magnitude.
The mix of writers this year was perfect: major literary figures as headliners, a grand array of prominent names backing them up, both local and international, and – crucially – lots of people I’d never heard of. Experience has taught me that while I’ll get on a plane to hear Richard Ford or Tim Winton and never regret the cost of the airfare, my best festival memories come from the writers I go to hear because I’m there anyway and I might just as well. (This time round, Shane Koyczan.)
You can do absolutely everything right when chairing one of these sessions, and still do a bad job because the chemistry between you and your writer isn’t what it needs to be. Something like that happened with John Campbell and Richard Ford: Campbell’s questions were intelligent, and he obviously knew Ford’s work backwards and loved it to bits. But, somehow, the “enthusiastic intellectual fan boy meets restrained, dignified American Southerner” equation didn’t work. It was like watching a Labrador puppy trying to make friends with a Siamese cat.
You can’t blame the festival management for that sort of failure, and a whole raft of other chairing decisions came off splendidly. Kapka Kassabova did a superb job with Pico Iyer; Ian Wedde was brilliant with Vikram Chandra; Harry Ricketts managed to steer biographers Carolyn Burke and Patrick Marnham through a tightly designed series of questions while maintaining the surface appearance of a spontaneous conversation. Kim Hill and Jeanette Fitzsimons both chaired three-person panels – organisational logjams waiting to happen, given the 60 minute time frames – to very good effect.
In point of fact, all of these chairs were largely invisible while doing their jobs, managing to serve as the frames to their writers’ pictures. The power of a chair to make or break a session was obvious only with the negative examples: sadly, an insufficiently small minority. I left several sessions early out of sheer embarrassment at the inept questioning, and others were marred by poor preparation or basic mistakes on the chair’s part. This is the only remaining area where this increasingly well-organised festival allows itself to look like an amateur operation.
Possibly the bravest example of chairing at the whole festival was Jo Randerson’s at the closing session, where a panel of seven writers were asked to look the audience in its collective eye and admit the names of the books they were most embarrassed about having once loved.
The bushy-bearded British writer Philip Ardagh was on the panel, but, as he was double-booked, the rival booking being his flight to Sydney, he asked Randerson to don a beard and read a prepared statement. Her performance kicked off a hilarious and fascinating round of disclosures, the highlight of which was Fiona Farrell’s knockdown performance in the role of the well-intentioned reader of improving books who has just spotted a trashy romance novel on the shelf. I don’t remember when I’ve laughed so hard. And I don’t remember when I’ve felt such absurd, happy pride to be a New Zealander as when Richard E Grant, invited by Randerson to speak his piece in Farrell’s wake, cocked an eyebrow and said flatly: “I can’t follow that.”