Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The quest to find the rhyme and reason behind Sydney

Erin O'Dwyer
August 10, 2011

A CURIOUS assortment of people come out of the woodwork when you place an ad for a city poet.

"A 75-year-old who had written a few poems and a grandmother from Cairns who said her grandson was good at poetry," says Professor John Dale, the head of creative practices at UTS.

"It's really hit a nerve with younger people, too. What we really want is someone who can take poetry outside of the university. We don't want someone to sit in a room and write six poems. We want someone to engage with the city and make people think about what the city is like."

More than 70 applications were lodged after UTS sent out the call for the inaugural Sydney city poet. The idea had been percolating with Professor Dale since last year. He had recently returned from London, where he had seen snippets of poetry plastered around the Underground, when the arts faculty dean, Professor Theo van Leeuwen, mentioned his sister was the city poet of Antwerp.

"I looked up her details and found that a lot of her poetry wasn't text-based but image-based," Professor Dale says. "And I thought that it would be good to have visual images and text around the city of Sydney, other than for things to eat or drink or buy. The billboard outside my window is for Vodafone. There is hardly any text that is inspiring around the city."

Poet laureates date back to the 16th century. Wordsworth and Tennyson were poet laureates. The British poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, has breathed new life into the post, writing in honour of David Beckham's Achilles tendon and the banking crisis. Americans Charles Simic and Robert Frost were poet laureates in a country where almost every state, and many towns and cities too, has a resident poet. Dublin, Birmingham, Oxford, Calgary and Toronto have city poets.


"There is a presumption that poets sit in their rooms, are old-fashioned and wear jackets with patched elbows. But among younger people poetry is coming back. It's more performance-based, with rhymes that stick in the memory. There are a lot of young poets really enthusiastic about being taken seriously."

Dale wants the poet to interpret the city in an iconic way, in the same way as Kenneth Slessor's Five Bells.

"It's really up to us to show what a city poet can do and what a poet is," he says. "It's about language, about the vernacular and about words."

The city poet, sponsored by Arts NSW, will write six poems, give workshops and readings, and mentor other poets. The winner will be announced this month.

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