Literary Festivals: Q&A with Melinda Smith

This month, we caught up with local poet Melinda Smith to chat all things festivals, including her upcoming appearance at Voci Lontane Voci Sorelle festival (‘Far Voices, Sister Voices’) in Florence, Italy.


Melinda Smith is a Canberra-based poet. She won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for her fourth book of poems, Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call (Pitt St Poetry, 2013). Her poems have appeared widely in Australia and overseas. She is currently poetry editor of The Canberra Times. Her fifth book will be out from Pitt St Poetry later in 2016.

Can you tell us about the International Poetry Festival in Florence that you will be a part of this year?

The festival I’ve been invited to is in Florence, Italy, from 20–23 September 2016. It is called the Voci Lontane Voci Sorelle festival (‘Far Voices, Sister Voices’). This is an annual poetry festival co-sponsored by a number of libraries and cultural institutes in Florence. This year there are four international guest poets (of whom I will be one) and four Italian poets on the program. Queensland poet Nathan Shepherdson is another of this year’s guests, along with Simon Marsh from the UK and Kristina Hocevar from Slovenia.

The festival features readings from all the guest poets, as well as live ‘in conversation with’ interviews (thankfully my interview will be conducted in English). We have had to submit the poems we will read in advance so they can be translated into Italian—when we do our readings, the Italian translation will be read out immediately after each poem. The festival also has sessions in both English and Italian on topics of literary interest. These include a round-table on ‘The Reading Public’ for poetry, and a discussion of ‘Poets in a time of Poverty’ considering work by Giuseppe Ungaretti, Apollinaire, Robert Frost, Vladimir Majakowskij and W.B. Yeats. This year, there is also a special satellite event on Palestinian poetry, but this is unfortunately on a few days after I fly home . 

What is your favourite aspect of literary festivals?

My favourite aspect of literary festivals is really the joy of knowing that most people in the room are fellow lit-geeks. This means the conversations you have and the friendships you form are deeper and more rewarding. For me this is more important than the actual content of the sessions! The intensity of a festival—the fact that it is limited to a few days in a particular place—brings a special charge to things; it’s a bit like being on a cruise ship but with interesting people. And also having the chance to share my writing with people who haven’t encountered it before is an enormous buzz.

Do you remember the first literary festival you attended, either as a guest or just a general participant? What did you take away from that experience?

I think the first literary festival I went to was probably the old Word Festival in Canberra in about 1998. I had started writing poems for publication, but hadn’t brought out a book yet, and I was still very new to the literary community. I remember I went in the slam, and to my immense surprise, I won (narrowly beating out past master Hal Judge). I also made some literary friends I still have today—Sarah St Vincent Welch is one of these. Also at that festival (I think—or it might have been one of the following years) I heard poet Dorothy Porter read for the first time. Mesmerising. I am still influenced by her work a lot.  

(The first one I went to as an invited guest I think was probably the Newcastle Writers’ Festival in 2015—so I spent a lot of years as a punter before getting up on stage.)

Do you have any tips for independent writers to make their way onto festival programs?

It is tough to get on the program of a big festival without a publisher. However, it is possible. First, go to a couple as a punter and work out whether the exercise looks like it might be worthwhile for you—it is not everyone’s cup of tea. If you decide you are keen, keep an eye out for festivals and events that have artist callouts and submit, submit, submit. It may help to target open-minded experimental ones like (locally) You are Here and Noted, Melbourne’s Emerging Writers Festival, Newcastle’s This Is Not Art and (for poets/spoken word types) the Queensland Poetry Festival. I submitted to QPF four years in a row before I finally made it onto the program. 

Also—take opportunities to share your work in public at other kinds of events—you never know what may come of it. I was eventually invited to the Sydney Writers’ Festival last year by the organiser of a smaller poetry Q&A (held in a North Bondi lounge room) which I had appeared at in 2013. And my invitation to Florence was partly because one of the organisers saw me read at QPF 2015. Of course a fair amount of luck and timing is involved—but putting yourself out there (often at a financial loss unfortunately) is the way to start.

A side note on the finance stuff: even as an invited guest with an appearance fee, you may still end up out of pocket for travel and accommodation costs, even if you manage to sell some books/zines/CDs at the festival shop. Even big festivals may only pay part of your attendance costs. And, obviously, this applies with bells on when there is no appearance fee. This is actually a huge issue in lit-world, particularly because this inbuilt assumption that writers don’t actually need to be paid for their time and trouble operates as a barrier to participation by writers who are struggling financially. This creates a lack of diversity on the festival circuit—locking out many working class, migrant and indigenous writers, not to mention writers who are parents or carers and who have to pay for someone to do their ‘other’ job while they are at the festival (see this article for some background and discussion—UK but the issues are similar to here ).


Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call by Melinda Smith (Pitt Street Poetry)


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