Patron’s Keynote Speech

I gratefully acknowledge the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation, traditional custodians of this country we meet on, which was never ceded. I’m thankful for their reverence of it and for their welcome, which extends to all of us who have come from so many different places. I am personally especially appreciative of their cultural wisdom in which being, place and spirit are not separate. I hope some of that awareness has shaped the short address I am about to give.

I was invited to speak as Patron of our gathering in Perth, Western Australia to hold this live festival of poetry once again – despite Covid, the threat of lockdowns and the obstacles of border closures. That we do so is largely due to our organisers, volunteers and sponsors without whom such an event – lasting many days each year – would be impossible. They are too numerous to name here individually but nevertheless, will leave their imprint on the 2021 history of Perth Poetry and I thank them for it.  

I want to say a word about the ancient, worldwide tradition of annual Festivals, after having witnessed some of the oldest ones at key times in my life and travels. Though they weren’t dedicated to poetry, poetry has always been a part of community gatherings. I saw the Mayan Festivals in Guatemala, the Hindu Festival of Navratri in rural Magod, India, and the summertime Parish Festivals in Malta. All of them were and are preceded by months of preparation by dedicated volunteers, each with their own motivation. Although the preparations for Perth Poetry Festival are mostly invisible, they do go on all year round and are a labour of love.  And now here we are, writers and audience, present in person or by Zoom, being celebrants together of our art form, our craft. We are completing a precious gift to the poetry Daemons who inspire our writing.

Daemons belong to the ancient tradition of poetry, a tradition our Festival is carrying forward. I hesitated, writing that last word. Poetry doesn’t travel exclusively in linear time or in only one direction. And that’s not only because we stand on the shoulders of giants. There

is something uncanny in poetry’s bending of time, in the ability of the right words in the right order to unlock wormholes through space. Like quantum physics and as mysterious, it does weird and wondrous things with spatial and temporal norms, folding them into a few stanzas, also drawing in the different lives that, paradoxically, can exist within a single life. What a gift of integration that can be, because most lives, eventually, are a sequence of breakages and recreation; each of us made up of many stories, each survival built on the one before. And most times, an earlier story does not neatly pour itself into the shape of the next. And yet in poem we can bring our own or ancient images and our own or universal stories into the present, to be heard or read as an immediate and utterly personal experience. As if these narratives, images, epiphanies or moments were always intended to meet.

For the past week we’ve heard poems which have transported us in this way. We must have had many aha moments. You hear of Aha moments in science, of course. Archimedes overflowing bath water, Newton’s falling apple. Young contemporary writer Sophie Strand has found a metaphor in the study of electrons, specifically in how this study led to quantum physics. Because electrons defy classifications and live between them as both particle and wave. As they swoop endlessly around a nucleus, they have the intriguing ability to hop orbits without being traced. The only way scientists can locate where the electron has gone is by the photon – that flash of light – it emits when jumping orbits. And when Sophie Strand writes that “We must jump between orbits in order to produce light.” referring, metaphorically, to how survival is an act of creation, she shows me a vision of the creative mind when ‘in the flow’ of poetry – of writing it or of reading it. Leaps of association happen, surprising images appear, and our understanding travels in ways which seem to defy the laws of gravity and stretch the scales of dimension. In a single poem we can connect with beginnings and their endings, with the vast and the minute. Poetry exists in a kind of spacetime.

Much poetry is concerned with love and death, I think because these are times charged with transformations between inner states and outer stories; times when we go through the experience of ‘jumping orbits’. When we are living on the edge like this we are in liminal time. It is both dangerous and ripe with new possibilities. I sent an encouraging text message about this to a close friend whose relationship had ended suddenly, leaving her on just such an edge, but when she replied her auto correct turned the word LIMINAL into LUMINAL.  Luminal space, then, for poetry, is found ‘in between’ everything. The yogis teach that in between breaths is where and when the perception of Duality disappears, and for an instant we see clearly that everything is connected. What a gift for poets, since poetry is about connections.

I referred at the start to the Festival volunteer’s work being a gift to the poetry daemons. Apuleius who is best known for his prose narrative Metamorphosis (aka ‘The Golden Ass’) lived between 125c -180 at a time and in a world which still believed in a superior force or forces beyond one’s own labour, which might give you the gift of eloquence, if you were so favoured. Apuleius mentions the ancient Roman custom of each year, on your birthday, offering a sacrificial gift to your own Genius or poetic Daemon, your guiding poetic spirit. You could perhaps donate to your favourite writers group or activist association …

In his book The Writing Life, our contemporary Stephen King takes a more irreverent approach to daemons, writing that there is indeed a half wild beast that lives in the thickets of each writer’s imagination and that the place we call our study or writing room (that cafe table or library corner) is really no more than a clearing in the woods or those “thickets of the imagination”. It is in that clearing one trains the beast – so far as it can be trained – to approach you. And yet, he warns, on some days the beast merely appears at the edge of the tree line, turns its back on you, has a pee and leaves.

I love that he imagines a clearing in a wood. In nature writing we’d say that was an ecotone where the ground changes as the microclimate alters, as the tree line stops temporarily, more sun reaches the ground. Another edge place…. Botanists get excited about larger ecotones like the edges of swamps / deserts / rocky out crops and so on, because they are places rich in new responses and can become biological hotspots full of strange beauty, which in a literary context we might recognise as ‘poetic’, or a poem’s genesis, that seeding, sprouting, consciousness-altering moment that just ‘happens’.

Scientists at an ecotone would explain how the soil becomes thinner or deeper, more or less rocky and to survive this change, nature adapts. As do we, if we can. It’s complicated, delicate, difficult to put this human experience into words. When poetry does so successfully, it can take you deep into another person’s life. As a writer, it takes a brave gaze to go there, into your own experience, not to look away, and then go deeper still into what novelist Patrick White called the relationship between the inner self and the bodies shell, the inner self and the body’s shell. Which, he said, is as abrasive as it is sublime. Abrasive and sublime: paradox – just one of poetry’s many, many aspects. Along with Jane Hirshfield’s list of essentials: ‘hiddenness uncertainty, surprise’. Or Emily Dickenson’s advice to ‘tell it slant’.  And a whole raft of literary devices, from rhyme and humour to syllable, metre and all the plays on spoken sounds that we can muster from the Theatre of the Imagination. Festival goers have many wonderful workshops available in which to explore these techniques.

To sum up then, what I wanted to say, in addition to praising Festivals and Daemons, is this: seek your poem in the spaces between, because there you can most likely see through time and place. That is where your words can perforate lazy perception, shallow reality, consensus truth. And as your words go through, as you penetrate the surface, those who are reading or hearing your poem go through with you. They will go a little deeper or for the first time, perhaps, into another’s experience, into the pain and wonder of a refugee’s survival; or perhaps even into the cemeteries of unspoken languages and culture we migrants carry inside us; or into the unknown landscape, climate and language of the LGBTIQ+ world; or through the awful wilderness of deep loss, and sometimes out into the wonder of healing; into the full obscenity of habitat destruction, or the visible and invisible territories of human oppression and of racism, inequality, of injustice; or the unmapped world of living with chronic illness or disability.

Poems can even take readers into the experience of invisibility in all its guises – this empty chair is a powerful symbol, used by the organisation known as PEN which acts on behalf of writers who have been ‘invisibled’ by persecution and imprisonment. The man whose face is gazing out at us is Wiji Thukul. More invisible than most of PEN’s adopted poets, because he has been missing since 1998, a year after he went into hiding in Java, Indonesia where he was an icon of resistance for democratic change.  My own Maltese countrywoman (and contemporary, for we were both writing in Malta at the same time before I left the island in the 1980s) Daphne Caruana Galizia was brutally executed by a car bomb, in reciprocation for her politically explosive revelations as an investigative journalist and blogger. International PEN has championed her posthumously, as her sons fight for the perpetrators to be accountable and there is a site on their webpages dedicated to poems about her work and fate, one by my own partner Dennis Haskell of the Perth PEN Centre.

In Memory of Daphne Caruana Galizia        Dennis Haskell, Perth PEN Centre

A perfectly ordinary working day: Daphne turns a key
and suddenly all her words become memorials.
It is a kind of black magic.
A government frightened of remembering
turns a blind eye, whereby
power turns into disgrace.
Malta: this sun-laden, holiday-enticing
island turns into a murderous place.

I’ve always realised that poetry is a privileged language, by which I mean that it goes where other words we ordinarily share between ourselves don’t usually go. This is why I’m so enthusiastic about and grateful for the unexpected honour of being this year’s patron. I’ve attended, spoken at and been nurtured by so many past Perth Poetry Festivals. They are where I’ve made lasting and precious friendships across State and International borders, learned from generous mentors, where I’ve listened to and applauded old friends and voices new to me, as I know most of you here have done. Welcome back, welcome home!

And welcome to all who are with us for the 1st time. I hope we’ll meet again and again.  I want to wish us all a wonderful festival of poems which reveal and honour the world that you experience and that those around you experience. Poetry which encourages us to avoid despair in the face of lies and to search for truth behind the guise of convenience, knowing that as poets we are able to access qualities of prophecy, vision and optimism.

Let’s make this time together an offering to the Daemons on this annual anniversary/birthday of Perth Poetry. Happy festival!                     

Annamaria Weldon 16/09/2021

Sources referenced: 

Living Between Stories by Sophie Strand posted July 25th 2021 Facebook

Myth and Moor blog by Terri Windling

Westerly 66.1 Editorial by Daniel Jukes and Josephine Taylor