Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015 Review (AKA why weren’t you there?)

Renae Burgess recaps SWF and formally invites you to next year’s event.


It was raining, overcast and cold, so far from ideal weather that I almost rolled back over in bed and went back to sleep last Friday morning. However, despite the damp conditions, a long train ride to Sydney and a forty-minute walk to Walsh Bay, when I stepped through the tall archways of the Sydney Dance Studio piers, I stumbled into a crowd so large it took me a moment to adjust.

The Sydney Writers’ Festival is an annual event that runs from the 18th to the 24th May each year, offering a myriad of events and seminars hosted by renowned writers for aspiring writers about the complicated art of writing.

There is the option to attend expensive craft-building workshops with published authors or fairly cheap panel discussions (psst, students get a discounted price) about topics ranging from cultural awareness to how to handle being a full-time writer as well as a full-time mother. The festival becomes a melting pot for a dizzying array of people, all drawn together through an interest in the art of literature and the multitude of topics discussed within it.

Now, being the uni student that I am, which ultimately means I have very little money to splurge on character-building workshops with veteran writers, I attended a number of free seminars throughout the course of the day. There are a lot of them. There were so many to choose from that I found myself weighing the pros and cons of each on the train ride there because often, as the universe decrees, everything you’re interested in are all scheduled at the same damn time.

Eventually I found myself in a line heading into Studio 1 for the seminar ‘Neuroses and Diagnoses: Character and their Psychology’, where Australian author Anne Buist, Canadian Michael Christie, and English Matt Haig discussed their characters, books and own experiences with mental illness, and acknowledged how that allowed them to capture it honestly on the page.

Now, I don’t know if it was just because this particular event was free, or if suddenly the interest in understanding and incorporating mental illness into literature has spiked, but my line grew very, very long. It folded in on itself about four times. I huddled in my scarf and jacket, occasionally glared enviously at those holding umbrellas, and observed the growing number of people surrounding me who were interested in the exact same thing as I was. The beauty of the Writers’ Festival is that it doesn’t matter who you are within these forums, whether spectator, budding author, journalist or high schooler. Everyone is welcome. We all understand why the other is here.

The most interesting part about the crowd gathering around me, however, was the general age of it. Apart from a group of three seriously annoying and loudly-talking teenagers behind me, the majority of the line was over 40-years-old. The elderly couples who were seated on either side of me remarked on this as well, before drilling me about my day and why I was there. They weren’t writers in any regard; they were just interested in the topics. While I struggled to balance my iPad in my lap and tap out notes on it, they simply enjoyed the discussion and the strange humour that topics of mental illness often fall into.

Another great thing about the festival is its diversity of subjects and activities that go well into the night. After an exhausting day full of writing, chatting with strangers, listening to writers talk about writing and how to evoke feeling and emotion through words, it was finally time to experience one of the rawest versions of this: slam poetry.

Kicking off at eight o’clock in the Sydney Dance Lounge, I snagged one of the most precious commodities of the night (a chair), settled in with a glass of wine and again found myself surrounded by an older crowd. All the people my age were clustered over by the stage, reading and memorising their poetry and visibly shaking with either nerves or anticipation as the host, Miles Merrill, a spoken word poet himself and creator of the Word Travels performance poetry festival, rolled his tongue dramatically to get our attention.

People sitting around me kept glancing from me to the huddle of poets in the corner and back again, to which I vigorously shook my head, probably with fear in my eyes. One of the best parts of the festival is allowing yourself to admire the talent of others and learn from what they have to say.

The event of the night, Word Lounge: Drafts Unleashed + Slam, called for any poet to attend and perform a piece of performance poetry that was still a draft, and that they had never shown or performed to anyone before. I was in awe as these brave souls took to the stage one after the other, wondering how they were continuously topping each other’s work.

The event featured sit downs with local, published poets such as: Abigail Ulman who just published her first book, Zohab Zee Khan who won last year’s Australian Poetry Slam competition, Benjamin Law who has published two books, one of which is being adapted into an SBS television show, and Omar Musa, a former winner of the Australian Poetry Slam, author of two poetry books and has released three hip hop albums. I was star struck. Two out of the four I had previously seen perform at last year’s Australian Poetry Slam.

The night buzzed with raw emotion, shaking hands, unapologetic honesty and sheer talent. The crowd cheered, hair stood on end, collective murmurs of appreciation for a particularly well-phrased moment rippled, and there was even a standing ovation.

I stumbled from the doors of the Sydney Writers’ Festival late that night, drunk on the words, the atmosphere, maybe a little wine as well, and couldn’t understand why so many people don’t know about this event.

Next year, I want to see more people my age interacting with such a unique week down underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Next year, you’re formally invited. I’ll see you there.


Image: Laurie Wilson, Flickr, no changes made.

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