Starlings, Dead Authors, and Sexy Polliwogs: the WORD Foundation Pop-Up Festival

Erin Harrington writes about the Foundation Pop-Up Festival (AKA the Not-Quite-New Regent Street Pop-Up Festival) , which ran from 5-11:30pm at Foundation Cafe, Tūranga / Christchurch Central Library, on Saturday 13 November, the last night of the WORD Christchurch festival weekend.

The New Regent Street Pop-Up Festival has been a key feature of the last few iterations of WORD Christchurch – a free indie pocket festival within a festival. Under normal circumstances, boutique shops, cafés and bars up the street would host idiosyncratically themed sessions that would often resonate, in some way, with the setting or décor. Over two hours audience members could drift in an out as they saw fit, hopping between sessions on romance or body horror or memoir or sci fi or improvised story, grabbing gelato or cocktails along the way. Not so this year, thanks to COVID restrictions – but instead, through some impressive lateral thinking and complex people wrangling, the pop-up finds a new home at Foundation, the café at the city’s gorgeous central library Tūranga, which itself was already hosting the delicious Faraway Near digital pop-up venue upstairs. Two hours of drifting was converted into eight rolling themed sessions over six hours, and I decided to marathon it. We’ve been so starved of events because of distancing requirements that treating the night as a type of durational performance has real appeal.

I get there at 4:45. There are snacks and drinks, and bunting made from old books. We start forty minutes later, a bit behind, because of the sort of treacherous tech issues that only choose to make themselves known within minutes of opening. I mention it because it’s dealt with amazingly well, and if anyone cares, they’re not making a fuss about it. If anything, people have taken the opportunity to stock up on pastries and fries, lining up glasses of wine and pots of tea. The café runs out of one sort of IPA immediately. It’s busy, and although numbers ebb and flow we hover close to capacity for large portions of the night.

Multi-disciplinary storyteller Juanita Hepi opens the night and the space. Then, we welcome the night’s mastermind / co-ordinator / many-headed organisational hydra, Audrey Baldwin! She points out the giant magnetic poetry up the front, and a socially distanced poem dispensary down the back. She also asks for a round of applause in advance for all participants who’ve put up with weeks of ALL CAPS emails, and for the café staff, who are going to gamely keep serving food and drink until everyone’s fallen over or gone home.

Siobhan Tumai introduces Ōtautahi Kaituhi, who open the evening, as a new group for Māori writers and storytellers that “wants to put out words into this beautiful city”. Her own poems engage with presence and absence, gesturing to “how much we’ll never know because of colonisation”. There’s a poem that acts as a karakia; sad girls wait at bends in the road for missing taniwha. It’s a poignant way to throw open an evening of poetry and prose, for no matter the words we’ll hear tonight, we can’t ever know the scope of the words that are lost or that can’t be spoken. Kirsty Dunn is up next with two witty, dry poems that deal with names and naming, a writer’s identity, and sideways images of post-quake Christchurch. “I can’t really do serious ones” she says; good, because these not-serious ones are great. There are some audibility problems while microphone placement is being fiddled with so my profound apologies to Arielle Kauaeroa, whose work I only catch in part. What I do hear comes in small, delicious little slivers that are pointed acts of writing back, or naming things whose names have been stolen or scrubbed away. A complete change of tone: Kahurangi Bronsson-George theatrically enacts the story of a young Māori boy in Brixton dubbed Parry, a fencer fighting his competing desires to return home to find his whakapapa and to stay in England to whip things up with his épée. En garde! The audience cheers back. Isla Reeves is electric, reading in Te Reo and English about bringing language into being. There’s some wicked wordplay. I laugh at the line, about a remembered holiday home, “our house is white, or else I have fetishized in that way…” – my handwriting is terrible and I’ve written it down inaccurately, I think, but this hopefully illustrates the point. The set closes with DK Verrian, a self-described “hot mess” (unfair!), who talks about her mixed ancestry through poems about wāhine toa, and about slavery, because “my ancestors did not get a chance to be free – but I do”.

Set two. No mucking about. Next up is a representation from the Canterbury Poets Collective, a long-running institution that stages regular meetings featuring readings from local and national poets. Tonight’s featured poets each find rare beauty in the everyday. John Allison presents jaunty work about being terminal, “Dying for Dummies”; there are death doulas and Mazda Demios. Catherine Fitchett gazes at salmon ponds and evokes M C Escher, painting a beautiful image wherein “swallow becomes fish, and salmon, bird”. She writes, movingly, back to her late father; her voice thickens with emotion. James Norcliffe’s poems are vital, frisky, concentrated little hits: there’s a man in desperate search for connection who falls in love with an ATM (a sorrowful little bit of commodity fetishism), a poem to the mysterious inter-stellar object ʻOumuamua, another still to blowflies. A piece about doomed Russian space dog Laika conjures gorgeous but ambivalent images: ash falling from the sky becomes cascading alyssum flowers become bubbles in a glass of champagne. A bell somewhere goes ding – is this time-keeping? Maybe, but that goes out the window pretty soon. Gail Ingram finishes up with work about flora, whispering seeds, Gondwana. Some work flirts with indigeneity, but I admit that this Pākehā feels pretty weird about Pākehā in general invoking Papatūānuku without good reason; it toys with appropriation. Perhaps there’s some context I’m missing. I do, however, like the idea of souls as very hungry caterpillars.

The third set, Starling Alumni, showcases young writers who’ve published in the excellent journal Starling, which focuses on outstanding poetry and prose by New Zealanders aged under 25. Claudia Jardine is a champion of the cause who sits on the editorial committee, and she has charm for days. She mournfully begins with “I too was once a young writer… but now I am 26.” Shut up Claudia, I think, weeping into my metallic-tasting IPA, I turn 40 next week! Actually, I laugh my ass off: Claudia’s a charismatic and very funny host, offering droll epigrams between readers in the faux-historical mode of Borges. Anyway, these young women can wipe the floor with my own pallid efforts. E Wen Wong’s eco-poems braid art and science: tears falling into carbon sinks, a clouded humus of stars, neonicotinoids as sparkling metaphor. Her work is sharp, crystalline, and apparently written while procrastinating on her studies in environmental science. A marvel. Cerys Fletcher offers sunny poems that grapple with the fact that “I’m scared that everyone will die!” Me too, Cerys. They feature a very handsome boyfriend, menstrual clots (my favourite!) and cute little yoga farts. Amelia Kirkness pokes fun at metaphor and pathetic fallacies, presenting the great image of “the sun slipping down like a bra strap”. Her poems are sensory, tangible, running their fingertips through hydroslides and rain. Claudia wraps up by shouting out to all those emerging writers whose first releases have been disrupted by COVID: it’s hard enough at the best of times to get traction, let alone when you’re trying to build a career and everyone’s scared to death of people.

Brindi Joy opens Letters to Dead Authors not with work of her own – she writes great flash – but by reading Toni Morrison’s eulogy to James Baldwin, the man “who made American English honest”. It’s an apt way into a series of “love notes, commendations, updates” that marry the vulnerable with the declamatory. Chessie Henry writes back to someone whose work supported her in her hour of creative need: Nigel Cox, whose book The Cowboy Dog helped her think about ways of reimagining the New Zealand landscape. Erik Kennedy, always a high voltage reader, cracks out a killer poem in praise of that greatest and most enigmatic of all writers: ‘Anonymous’, “the deadest and livingest author there is”, the nom de plume of “writers who fear to write”. AJ Fitzwater warns us that that their work “is gonna be a bit of a downer”. It’s a compassionate and moving letter to sci fi author James Tiptree Jr, aka Alice Bradley Sheldon, whose “tainted legacy” asks tricky questions about sexuality, identity, agency and trans-ness. “I recommend you with an asterisk” says AJ; it’s a lovely piece. Appreciative clicks from the audience echo like fat drops of rain bouncing off a tin roof. Gwynneth Porter finishes with a letter to Margaret Mahy, rainbow-haired titan of literature for the young, that’s prompted by the recent sale of Mahy’s Governor’s Bay house. We’re in a witch house on the edge of town, though as Gwynneth rightly notes, all witches’ houses are on the edge of something. She writes of seeing the empty shelves in the real estate agent’s photos: “I’d have liked to have scanned your shelves… these are not the shelves of a supplicant”. I know the pictures she means: she’s not wrong.

There’s a point in these sorts of long-form into-the-evening events where things tip over into ridiculousness, and that comes in Robots vs Classics, in which literature is thrown forcefully through the Babelfish shredder and patched back together as best as possible. Host Moata Tamaira does a dramatic reading of the Friends theme, run through a number of languages, now rendered as a stark, menacing psychosexual drama. The “Wombling free” of The Wombles theme some becomes “without Wombling”, again and again; disaster! Juanita Hepi offers us waiata translated in and out of Te Reo, via Shakespearean English, and Shakespearean sonnets run through a gamut of Eastern European dialects. (“I tried to translate Te Tiriti”, she starts, “but here’s the catch – it was really fucking boring!”) Josiah Morgan has done something arcane with chunks of Joyce’s Ulysses and a random number generator, by way of an Oulipian constraint (ripping out all the letter Ls), resulting in Molly Bloom’s famous ‘yes’ monologue becoming even more of a frenetic glossolalia (gossoaia?). All three show what how much you can punch up weird material with strong recitation skills.

But the evening’s watershed moment comes as Kyle Mewburn reads her bestselling picture book Bog Frog Hop, a tongue-twisting counting book, then its translation in and out of Latin. It’s quickly and unexpectedly erotic: grumpy sex frogs and sexy polliwogs gambol in the swelling marsh, interspersed with the portentous claim: “the clay condemns”. The clay knows what it’s talking about. This book is no longer child friendly. “I get paid for this” she quips between sequences, to roars of laughter, tears, hiccups, snorts. It’s all downhill from here.

Session six, Dice Roll Poetry, is part game-show, part reading, part lightning round challenge. Brendon Bennetts, an improviser and writer who is the host and Dungeon Master of the popular Dungeons and Comedians live podcast, tasks a group of writers, comedians and improvisers to quickly construct poems using words (some easy, some hard) and constraints (like poetic styles or devices), selected randomly by rolling giant dice. The session was originally designed to take place in The AV Club, a neat little shop on New Regent St that stocks vinyl and retro gaming gear, and the writers’ un-mic’d reactions to their distribution of elements is a bit hard to hear from the back, but honestly a welcome little break in proceedings. They are given 10 minutes each and a pair of industrial ear muffs to cancel out distractions – I love a good gimmick. While we wait for the goods, Brendon leads us to collectively write a limerick about a struggling poet polishing a turd: a harbinger of things to come?

Dice Roll Poetry

Show and tell time! Nathan Joe, who openly admits that “I’m shitting myself”, and had earlier asked loudly “what rhymes with OnlyFans?”, gives us a filthy poem about a sneaky rendezvous. Ciarán Searle’s poem follows someone who breaks their nose while reading a Harry Potter book. It’s built around a great pun, it’s suspenseful, it has a good narrative arc… good grief Ciarán! Break a sweat, already! Georgie Sivier offers up an ode to a bumble bee (which also matched on Bumble) that wrings a good gag out of her required ‘hard’ word, ‘Machiavellian’. Briana McZant also goes the OnlyFans route, in a furry and illicit story about Disney’s Beast gone rogue and entrepeneurial. Melanie McKerchar gives us an acrostic about a pet alligator. It might be a game, but everyone wins.  

It’s getting dark outside, it’s been hours by now, and people are a few drinks / coffees / bits of cake deep. It’s a warm night and the doors open out into Cathedral Square. Drunks from town are starting to totter past, all slurred bravado, fukn this and fukn that. Thankfully no one plays the dickhead card by trying to barge in. No culture for them! They don’t deserve it!

Things stay ribald with Salty Spiels: salty rants, emotional voyages and odes to the ocean. By now we collectively need a whisky with a pickleback. Rebecca Nash starts with a description of a bit of panty flinging performance poetry she’s done in the past – “season the food, season the vagina!” – before sharing a beautiful and brittle piece I’ve heard before, but that never gets easier to hear, about the accidental death of her partner, the father of her daughter. “Gotta keep up with the poetic melancholy façade!” – so time for a poem “that is quite dirty and quite sad – so sorry about that”. The poem’s moral: leave them for long enough and dirty undies clean themselves.

More portside poetry: Popi Newbery gives us some genuinely salty poetry sticking it to exes, small town gossip, and Lyttelton’s self-indulgent wintertime identity as “Port Emo”. Jadwiga, officially one of the funniest people in the country, tears the roof off with a piece about trying to sell some size 15 rose gold gladiator stilettos on Facebook. (“I’m salty because those glorious shoes didn’t fit me.”) Ben Brown, in an aside, offers something that’s a perfect distillation of his Margaret Mahy memorial lecture earlier in the day: “Māori know metaphor – we invented that shit”. His poem about a seagull scavenging for fish and chips on London St is one of my absolute favourite things of the night. Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i reads her poem “Wayfinding and Wayfinders”: “A to B only exists in the English alphabet”. The language is rich and rolling like the ocean waves; you can hear her read it here. Hester Ullyart closes the set. She channels the monologues of Steven Berkoff in a one-woman performance of rain-streaked midnight tragedies about the pain of leaving home and clandestine fucks behind petrol stations. It’s quite a shift in mode, but points clearly to the final half hour.

Some time after 10pm Aotearotica editor Laura Borrowdale introduces the final session of the night, Love and Lust, as the “climax of the evening”. The room is loose. Her piece about a woman throwing out self-restraint and banging her lover while the kids sit downstairs watching Donald Duck cartoons has people quacking up – sorry, I couldn’t help it, but it does end with a laugh. FIKA co-founder Danielle O’Halloran-Thyne, who has charisma and then some, ascends to the stage and tells us “we’ve given trigger warnings to our children” – the kids have been popping in and out all night – “I won’t give them to you”. Her poems are luscious; they strut. She prods around in the tricky bits of love where bonds between lovers are tight, fraught, fractured and rebuilt. Amy Blyth, a self-described “cliché white chick who likes Jane Austen” reads from her lesbian / bi reimagining of Persuasion, Within My Reach . She makes us wait, knowing that we’re greedy, giving us the love first, then the lust.

And then we have that rarest of creatures – an out-of-town writer! From overseas, even! Wellington counts as overseas, right? Emily Writes is thrilled to be here: “fuck everyone is so talented! It’s so fucking rude!”. She takes whatever Jadwiga left of the roof and smashes it to bits, first with a poem about bringing Big Mum Energy to an orgy, which she dedicates to “all the people not getting a root”, and then with a dramatic reading of the post that took her blog international and viral, a drunken ramble / paean to Alexander Skarsgård’s cut-glass abs in the D-grade blockbuster Tarzan. Any sense of decorum’s long gone and people are bellowing with laughter. Then, a surprise guest! Tusiata Avia opens with “I want to do something rude to the microphone”, and offers her appreciation of Emily’s enthusiastic use of the word ‘root’. She performs a swaggering rendition of her poem “Pa’u-stina” in honour of WORD’s co-programme director, Rachael King, “queen of the best writers’ festival in New Zealand – and I’ve been to all of them”.  The final reader: Nathan Joe is back and still filthy. He wraps the night by sending up a flare, all fizz and energy. He shares a poem about the danger of pashing cute Pākehā boys, then some of the work he recently developed as an artist in residence at The Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora. It’s an anaphoric litany by the Bacchae, all “wet hot girl summer causing global warming”, his invocation of “succubus, incubus, party bus” immediately pre-figuring a purple double decker Vengabus full of drunks cruising round the back of the busted-up Cathedral and past the venue. Oonst oonst.

It’s a fitting ending. We’ve gone on for ages, and the café staff and the lovely women from UBS who are flogging books down the back of the room have stuck valiantly through. Audrey returns and gets well-deserved whoops for orchestrating and curating such a smooth-flowing (and eventually rowdy) evening.

It’s the last event of the festival weekend; Rachael King, who is finishing an eight-year tenure as programme director, speaks. There are lots of cheers, lots of love, some tears. It’s late, way later than programmed, with more more more at the end, but there’s still last drinks, last snacks, some pots of tea and the snap and hiss of bubbly. The pop-up pops down. The bottles are open; the library is closed.

WORD Christchurch ran from 10 – 13 November 2021. Disclosure: I sit on the board of trustees of WORD, though have no direct involvement with the festival proper except for attending events, buying books, drinking drinks, eating snacks, and marveling at what the staff can pull off under outrageous circumstances.

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