Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Distillations [July 25]

One of the best things about the Mildura Writers Festival is that there is only ever one session on at a time, so we all get to listen to all the public conversations between writers, until it begins to feel like one long rolling conversation over three days.

I took copious notes in many sessions of the 2018 Festival because I am a journalist, and because I have a poor memory, and because I wanted to be able to remember what was said.

I have taken the liberty of using actual quotes from some of the festival authors and creating an imagined conversation between them.

Robyn Davidson, essayist and memoirist – Why did I cross the desert with camels? Because I knew I had to do something big and challenging to pull myself together. In the desert I could no longer see myself as a separate thing to the landscape. In deserts I learnt there were other ways of being in the world, of thinking of the human in nature.

Jane Hirshfield, poet – I am deeply engaged with the peril that our biosphere is in. That’s why I got involved in the March for Science, and we started Poets for Science. We are direly in need of intimacy, a sense of connection, a ceremonial rather than a hostile relationship with each other. Poetry is based on interconnection – we are all in it together.

Paul Kane, poet – I teach hope.

Jane Hirshfield – Poems are distillations, not distractions. They are rituals, and ritual is about noticing your changing state of being. Are poems useful or useless? The idea of the useless is a useful thing. A poem can surprise you into the remembrance of the dimensions of existence you may have forgotten about. The role of the poem is to leave us with sharpened alertness. Art makes us better at knowing ourselves.

Cate Kennedy, poet and novelist  – We carry stories around with us. Unless we can pass them on, they die. It can be a soothing relief to not have to just carry them around

Paul Kane – The great danger of grief is that it overflows and takes you with it. There is a constant need to hold together, and the writing form helps. Sentimentality is a falsification of experience.

Cate Kennedy – There is an embodied emotional surge of recognition of the universal theme or story in what you’re writing. Energy flows where attention goes.

Jane Hirshfield – Paying attention to everyday objects – thinking of the quotidian – is a doorway for poets. The momentary becomes the universe. It’s the sting of awakening.

Cate Kennedy – Yes, it’s about noticing. And you can’t help but reveal your preoccupations, your ‘bone’. You chew it, bury it, dig it up, gnaw on it again.

Paul Kane – For me, writing poetry became the catalyst for shifting. When the book of poems (A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina) ended, a certain phase of sorrow would be over. Grief kept me going. The process of writing the poems WAS the process of mourning.

David Malouf, poet, novelist – I don’t make a distinction between voice in poetry or fiction. If you have the tone right, a novel will write itself. I wrote my second novel An Imaginary Life thinking I was writing a prose poem.

Robyn Davidson – How do we find the right voice for memoir? It needs to be revealing yet reserved.

Marie Munkara, memoirist and novelist – I am now writing a PhD on mermaids. My totem is an indigenous mermaid, a creator being. It’s there in the rock art. She’s a femme fatale, a dangerous woman. There are mermaids everywhere in culture. Is it myth, archetype, global coincidence? I know that I know bugger all!

Cate Kennedy – You need to be able to sit with this imperfection. There is no right way of doing the writing. You go into the writing world to make those enormous blunders. As T. S. Eliot said, ‘writing is never finished, it is only abandoned’.

David Malouf – Yeats said ‘poetry is memorable speech’.  The thing that holds it together is music – sound, rhythm, repetition.

Jane Hirshfield – Good poems travel in ways that are, strongly or subtly, meandering, askew, counter, extravagant, peculiar, free, and freeing. They loosen the map-lines of mental and emotional constructs, underslip narrowness, and let us see more than we could by looking at things merely directly. They are raids on reality that allow raids on hearts and minds. With a good poem you feel filled, but wanting, at the end.


(And with a good writers festival, you feel the same.)


(This conversation was first published on the Mildura Writers Festival blog, July 2018.)