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This is a review of the 2016 This is Not Art Festival, by Cameron Colwell.
2016 is the second year I attended Newcastle's This Is Not Art festival, but it's the first I feel I really got involved, both in the sense that I was a lot more outgoing, but also that I stayed in the city itself, rather than a suburb. I told the guy manning the bar at my hotel that I was here for a writer's festival – Most of the events I attended were, after all, part of the National Young Writer's Festival – and he looked politely curious. “What do you get up to at that?” He asked.
As it happened, I got up to quite a lot: Among other things, I attended panels on such disparate topics as the gendering of loneliness, being a female writer, and the complexities of reviewing art, read out poetry to a packed cafe, heard Alex Griffin at Dan Hogan's 'Freaky Stories' event announce that Banksy was behind Brexit, listened to Chloe Alison Escott discuss the role of Jessie Ware's '110%' in navigating her gender identity at Heart Beats, and attended an antic-ridden 'Fiction vs. Non-Fiction' comedic debate in which, at its nonsensical peak, Patrick Lenton took a break from addressing the audience as if it were a jury and poured the 'judge' some whiskey from a hip flask. Just as it did last year, the festival presented a smorgasboard of intellectually and emotionally stimulating events that educated and moved everyone lucky enough to attend.
Chloe Alison Escott at The Royal Exchange – Image by Bridget Lutherborrow
As a general statement, the festival seemed to have more particapatory events than last year. I had gained the impression that the festival was defined by its panels, but this year, I attended two roundtables and two forums (One for disabled writers, and one for queer writers.) I asked one of the festival organisers about this, and it turns out this was part of a deliberate push to create a more involving festival.
While it was great to meet people who write about similar issues to myself, I felt that there was something underorganised about the promotion both of the closed forums: Not many people seemed to be aware of them, and once there nobody seemed sure how we were to spend the two hours allocated to them.
Another kind of event that featured more than last year were the debates. 'Page vs Stage,' in which two sets of poets engaged in critically discussing the pros and cons of poetry being published and poetry being performed. Eunice Andrada's passionate espousal on the freedom and access performed poetry gives was likely the most memorable part in the debate, and it was very clear throughout that alongside her debating partner Admas Tewodras, the 'stage' team had the better and more concise arguments.
Eunice Andrada – Image Supplied
Everything I loved about the festival seemed encapsulated by the final event: Late Night Readings: Sex, Death, Money. The audience was treated to hearing the poetry of Freya Daly Sadgrove, amid her hilarious, if mesmerising, ramblings, Anthony Nocera's memoir piece which included scraps from sex app messages he's received, Jack Vening on the comedic tale of his idiot son, Harvey, who is bitten at a wintertime dance, the moving poetry of Emma Marie Jones, and Laura Woollett, author of The Love of a Bad Man, who read a story from her recently published collection. The art shared that night was funny and touching and sizzling with the kind of frenetic energy I, because of this festival, have come to associate with young people's writing.
Closing the reading was Tahlia Chloe, who included a poem that listed a series of 'ideal dates.' These included: “We do yoga and never touch. After years we turn into separate trees full of regret” and “Ideal date: I am a small bird cupped in your hands. You are also a small bird so there isn't an unfair power dynamic.” Chloe's poem tied together humour and tenderness, and the sense of cathartic release I felt shared with the rest of the audience became a definite inclusion in my mental list of festival highlights.
Outside the Royal Exchange after the final Late Night Readings, I found myself clustered with other exhausted artists after four days of discussion and sharing, much of the chatter about trips to the Newcastle baths or the damning realisation that tomorrow meant a return to day jobs, home states, and normality.
As I thought about how last year compared to this time, I reflected that already NYWF has become a highlight of my year.
After all, this was the only place I could freely talk about writing and books without feeling odd about it. I admit to having doubts about writer's festivals in general, when I struggle to reconcile the essential aloneness of large portions of the writing process with the necessarily social nature of a festival. Often, when I write, I'm confronted with thoughts that nobody gives a shit, that nobody reads anymore, that what I am doing I am doing as an isolate. NYWF, then, dispels these ideas. I've only been twice and yet it has a role for me as a place to gather and absorb ideas, to 'recharge' – For me, NYWF functions at once as a link to a robust, vibrant community, and a reminder that the future of Australian writing is in very capable hands indeed.
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Cameron Colwell is a writer, critic, and poet from Sydney, Australia. He has appeared on a panel at National Young Writers Festival, has had work published in The Writer's Quarterly, Heaps Gay, and The Star Observer, and was the 2013 winner of the Mavis Thorpe Clark award for a collection of short stories. His Twitter is @cameron___c and his work can be found at www.neonslicked.wordpress.com
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