‘What a nice guy!’ Poet Hollie McNish exclaimed of host John Campbell as she took the stage. Campbell was in his usual fine form, gushing over each of the gala night’s participants, generating excitement for who and what we were about to see. He picked up the festival’s theme of adventure, and wove together his introduction, equally generous in his praise of each of the seven storytellers, poets, writers, activists, and filmmakers.
First to take the stage was Joseph Hullen, a Ngāi Tahu storyteller. Hullen was a perfect choice to ground the proceedings, a local who talked of the increased visibility of his iwi and their story in post-quake Ōtautahi.
Next up was Scottish poet Robin Robertson, who read grim poems that captivated the audience. Robertson has been blessed with the kind of voice you could easily listen to for hours, slow and deep, with just the right amount of gravel. He dedicated his final poem to programme director Rachael King, who has brought all of these seemingly discordant writers to her city and bound them together in the epic event that is WORD.
Documentary filmmaker and author Yaba Badoe (Ghana/UK) read the first chapter of her book A Jigssaw of Fire and Stars. The story told of haunting dreams, of a perilous sea journey that ended in destruction, of hope lost, and histories that replay over and over, demanding to be heard.
Hollie McNish announced she was going to read two poems about the most adventurous person she knows – her daughter. They were poems full of love, fear, anger and hope. She then read her poem ‘Polite’ as mentioned by Campbell in his introduction, a hilarious yet poignant tale about a teenager giving her boyfriend a blow job.
Wellington novelist by way of India via Canada, Rajorshi Chakraborti, talked of his latest book, The Man Who Would Not See. He told the tale of researching the personal family story that was the basis for the book. Intended as a work of non-fiction, Chakraborti’s investigations changed the course of his family’s story, meaning he had to switch forms and instead write a novel.
Following Chakraborti, UK author Philip Hoare read two short sections from RisingTideFallingStar. The first told a tale of rotting deer carcass, brutal in its descriptions of the natural world, but switching into fantasy at the end. Then came a piece about a performance of breeching whales, and the audience felt we were right there on the boat, marvelling at the sight.
Sonya Renee Taylor (USA) was a powerful end to the evening’s proceedings. She read a section from her book The Body is Not an Apology, then performed two poems. The first, about her mother, was heartfelt and emotional, leaving more than a few audience members teary eyed. The second, a rousing, powerful, and unapologetic rendition of the piece her book is named for, filled the Isaac Theatre Royal with her presence. It demanded attention, and lifted everyone’s spirits.
John Campbell then retook the stage to remind the audience that what we had seen that night was uniquely special. ‘We go to so many events,’ led Campbell, ‘where we watch the same thing. I’ve watched so many rugby games and seen the Crusaders beat the Hurricanes over and over again.’ Appealing to hometown hearts is always a winner. ‘But what we’ve seen tonight,’ he continued, ‘will never happen again. These seven artists will never again share a stage. They will never again be in a room together. And that’s special.’ And indeed, it was.
Reviewed by Gem Wilder
Other times you can see some of these folks:
Mortification (Robin Robertson – Saturday, 5.30pm)
Hollie McNish and Hera Lindsay Bird: Poetry Stars
Te Ao Hou: Weaving indigenous identity back into Ōtautahi (Joseph Hullen, 2pm Sunday)
The Politics of Fiction (today, 4pm – Rajorshi Chakraborti)
Soundtrack, or, dancing about Architecture (Sunday, 11.30am with Philip Hoare)
Robin Robertson: The Long Take (Sunday, 2.45pm)
The Freedom Papers ( Yaba Badoe – Sunday, 2pm)