We invited one of the finest working poets in Australia, proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta Declan Fry to share his thoughts on the 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival Opening Night Address... 

You can see Declan at The Unacknowledged Legislators

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Declan Fry on Opening Night

On the way to the Sydney Writers’ Festival Opening Night Address, I have dinner with Kylie Maslen, Sam Twyford-Moore and Brigid Mullane. Sam makes the most delicious soup I’ve ever tasted.

But how, I ask him, do they get the alphabets into the can? It’s hard enough getting them onto the page, for chrissakes… 

Before Sam has time to answer, or even consider the logistics, I’m out the door and waving goodbye. Dammit, Sam, we don’t CARE how good your soup is – we’ve got an opening night to attend!

And so we’re off and angling through the night-lit streets of Sydney. We’re late! I tell Brigid. Can’t this Toyota Echo go any faster? Heading to Carriageworks, someone says I wonder (who? Sam? Kylie? No, Kylie left earlier) what Melissa, Evelyn and Tara are gonna say?

On the radio, Baker Boy’s Meditjin is playing. JessB raps: JessB yeah the queen is in the building/You better come correct if you knocking at the kingdom.

And reader, I did not come correct. How could I? I was not able to come correct. I was not prepared.

Because it’s not every year three Indigenous women give the opening address at a writers’ festival. It’s not every year three Indigenous women give the opening address at anything. But I hope it does become a yearly event. Because for some, it’s not an event at all: it’s their life. 

Is this the first time three Aboriginal women have presented at opening night? I ask Brigid in the car.

That I know of! she says.

What. 👏🏼 A. 👏🏼 Time. 👏🏼 To. 👏🏼 Be. 👏🏼 Alive.👏🏼

Speaking of time, I have to admit that I’m nervous. Someone or something is telling me that I’m having too much fun at this Festival. You need to buckle down, Declan, I hear Declan tell himself. Need to sit in Kinokuniya or a cafe. Fine-tune that itinerary. Melissa Lucashenko sets a good example: earlier that day, she reports that she’s off to the State Library. But you only just got here! I say. She’s wearing her lovely ‘Sage Against the Machine’ shirt, too. Classy and diligent. But also: why aren’t I saging against the machine? Dear Mr de la Rocha, why should I do what they tell me? Even Paul Kelly seems to taunt me, sitting down at the Old Clare’s breakfast bar the morning after opening night, reading his new collection of favourite poems. Still – what nicer way to spend a Thursday, really, then grabbing a cuppa and relaxing with Paul? Even Paul Kelly has learnt the simple pleasures of settling down with Paul Kelly.

“I spend a lot of time thinking about responsibility,” Evelyn tells the audience on opening night. She quotes the poet Claudia Rankine: “There is no innovating loss”. She quotes the Korean-American poet Myung Mi Kim: “The poem is a responsibility to everyone”. She does not quote everyone she could quote because, guess what? Here’s the deal:  

“I’d like to write happy, beautiful poems about all the possibilities within our reach, but I don’t think we have enough time.”

And just think – marvel, really – that a few centuries back, the poet lamented how, “Had we but world enough and time”, all in the hope of getting into someone’s pants.

Tara June Winch implores listeners during her address to examine the gilded cage (Maya Angelou, 1969: I know why the caged bird sings); to give people the keys to come knocking at a kingdom that views incarceration as a first resort instead of a last. Incarceration is a spectre, really. It haunts the colony from dawn to dusk, and will not stop so long as everyone from the neighbour to the health services turn instinctively to the cops whenever problems arise. Seven deaths in the last two months: you can’t make this shit up (you don’t have to). It is real, it is structural, and it is aided and abetted by the poverty and homelessness Melissa Lucashenko describes in her address.

I think again of Araluen’s reference to Alexis Wright: “All times are important to us. No time has ended and all worlds are possible”. She describes refusing acclimatisation to grief. What alerts, alters, she says. Or is ignored. The alert becomes inert; the possibility that we might “imagine and aestheticise our way back to the world that was taken from us, that a novel or a poem or an artwork might be enough to evoke our fullest dreamings and that everyone else can buy a ticket to see it shining in the gallery” becomes a grotesque entertainment.

It reminds me of the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, quoted in a review of Tara June Winch’s The Yield (and another poem by him – ‘Sir from Biology’ – even wound up in Paul’s book). In the poem ‘Mona Lisa’, Herbert describes a survivor of war coming to view the great work safely ensconced in the Louvre. They think bittersweetly of how strange it feels, having lived and died several times over in the struggle of a  trauma that will not end, their trauma, arriving now to see something so beautiful, so storied, kept safe and static and inert – and unable to speak to the abjection of existence on a dying planet.

From little things, big things...say it, Declan. But can they, really? Had we but world enough and time...but first, more light. More raw materials. Some possibility. The option, as Araluen says, “of continuity, of descendants, of forevers”.

And I think again of being a forever reader, being a forever self (John Updike, 1989: ‘On Being a Self Forever’). I hope that we might sit longer with the words of these women, the forecasts of Tara June Winch and Melissa Lucashenko and Evelyn Araluen (rainy with a chance of ongoing colonial bullshit but be thankful we’re staying graceful); that we might take them with us for more than just tonight, just this year; more, perhaps, than our own all-too-human-all-too-short lives can allow. I hope we sit with them…

Well.

Is forever too much to ask?

But I know that forever might never come.

And so I quit hoping and start making up for lost time.

We’re late, after all.