Alice Springs is “a very poetic place”, says Laurie May, director of the Red Dirt Poetry Festival in town this Thursday to Sunday.
She bases that assessment on the success of the previous festival in 2014 – “every event at capacity” – as well as the monthly Dirty Word events over the last four years – “the crowds are huge” – and on her experiences as poet-in-residence at Page 27 cafe for 18 months.
In that role she made “a poet-tree – get it?”. From its wire branches dangled little poetry parcels to which people could help themselves.
“Every day people would take away up to 20 poems,” she says.
She tried to provide for all tastes: “older poems” (that had passed out of copyright) and new, gathered from her networks, including a strong online poetic community.
She’s drawn on the same resources to put together the festival program, around a loose theme of “rebellion, resistance, revolution” and these lines from young Indigenous writer Ellen van Neerven: “we are heat maps / our footprints never fade”.
May says she has looked for poets who know “how to use their footprints, to leave good marks” through their love of poetry and fierce spirit.
Visiting poet Desiree Dallagiacomo, a slam poetry champion from Baton Rouge, Lousiana USA, “will bring a lot of action to the festival”, promises May. Her women-empowering poem “Thighs” has been an internet sensation (more than 600,000 views on YouTube). In other work she has written about growing up in poverty, describing herself as one of a group of “relentlessly honest” writers in the Baton Rouge slam scene. More recently she has been involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“All over the US, poetry is a form of revolution,” says May, “it’s written and spoken activism.”
Dallagiacomo will headline the Dry River Readings at the Totem Theatre on Friday, 6-8pm.
Another visitor, Eleanor Jackson, a Filipino Australian poet, has been hailed for her “ability to capture even the rowdiest slam crowd without the aid of histrionics, relying instead on understatement, clarity, and the power of her words” (Geoff Lemon). In Alice Springs she will present poetry installations at Watch This Space (opening Thursday, 5pm and showing across the weekend). The installations will draw the audience into a “very intimate experience of poetry”, says May.
A different approach again will take the form of poetry posters, featuring the words of ten specially chosen poets in graphic designs by Nico Liengme. This launches with a tour of the posters at 9am on Saturday, starting outside The Goods cafe (next to the cinema). The posters will remain on display at various locations in the CBD for the rest of the weekend.
And, of course, it wouldn’t be a contemporary poetry festival without its hip-hop beats and rhymes. Leading the line-up will be Sietta from Darwin, in a night on the Epilogue Rooftop, Friday, 8.30 till late.
May writes poetry herself. During the festival, one place you’ll be able to see and hear her, joined by other local and visiting poets, is at the Poetry High Tea (Sunday, 5-7pm at Watch This Space) at which food will be featured theme.
“I write to explain myself and how I fit into the world,” she says. “Poetry forces me to think.”
To see the busy program of events check out the festival website.
– Kieran Finnane
PHOTOS (from top): Festival participants • Eleanor Jackson • Desiree Dallagiacomo.