Her quiet first words belied the passion and politics that would follow, but anyone who had seen Q&A on Monday night knew what to expect from tempestuous poet Kate Tempest as she gave the Sydney Writers’ Festival Opening Address on Tuesday evening.
Shuffling onto stage, shoe-less and wearing turquoise socks, the poet and writer shyly greeted the audience in the sold-out Roslyn Packer Theatre in her heavy South-London accent. She responded quietly to the award-filled introduction given by the festival’s Artistic Director Jemma Birrell with a self-deprecating “that was a long list”, but she would not stay subdued for long.
The buzzing opening-night crowd soon fell into a rapt silence as Tempest delivered biting spoken word poetry interspersed with incendiary political commentary. She had no speech prepared: “I just want to talk to you a little bit, I hope that’s okay,” she said. The audience seemed to think it was.
Tempest has been a poet, rapper, playwright and novelist for over 15 years. Her accolades include the Ted Hughes Award in 2013, and a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize in 2014. She recently published a novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses.
In her first poem of the evening, a rousing piece containing excerpts from her song Europe is Lost, she addresses consumerism, apathy and narcissism.
“Change don’t come at the end of your pencil. Change comes in each mind that’s ready to embrace a new way of seeing things, a new way of being in this world.”
And: “Selfies, selfies, selfies. Here’s me, outside the palace of me. Construct a self and psychosis. And meanwhile the people are dead in their droves, and nobody noticed. Oh no, some of them noticed. You can tell by the emoji we posted.”
Identifying in her poem as “half priestess, half circus freak, with bright eyes and dirty teeth,” Tempest paced the stage with a presence at once both unassuming and commanding. She regularly appealed to the audience with a gruff “alright?” or “you know?”. Tempest had their undivided attention throughout the 40-minute address.
She threw directions and challenges to the crowd. Some were peremptory; others, comforting.
“Stop for breath and know it’s yours. Hold your own.” Then: “Smile at a stranger in this room and actually mean it. Take that smile out into the street and do something beautiful with it.”
Repeated, chant-like refrains set the scene for the political musings that would follow. “What am I going to do to wake up? We are lost.” Blurring the line between performance poetry and a speech, Tempest continued with a stream-of-consciousness critique of modern Western society, calling on the audience to change dominant narratives around racism, inequality and consumerism.
“Don’t clap, let me do what I’m doing,” she commanded several times, speaking of a “dangerous and poisonous racism at root” in Australia. “Guilt is not good enough anymore. Guilt is narcissism. Your guilt is about you. My guilt is about me. It’s not good enough.”
Tempest deftly wove threads between the writings of Carl Jung and the festival’s theme, bibliotherapy, drawing on the Jungian idea of the “spirit of the depths” as a way of encouraging empathy in modern society. The crowd hummed in recognition as she spoke of the feeling of connecting with an author, as she had with Jung. “It’s not like you’ve learnt something, it’s like you’ve remembered something you already knew.”
She lamented the disconnect in modern societies between people and their mythologies. Storytelling, she said, “has the power to transform experience … Literature is the greatest teacher we have of empathy.”
At times Tempest appeared to snap out of her impassioned reverie and stop to check her own earnestness: “I feel really fucking awkward and weird but this must be said.”
The festival’s opening formalities also highlighted the importance of storytelling to the festival and in Australian culture. The SWF Executive Director Jo Dyer said the festival was just a small part of a long tradition of storytellers gathering and sharing stories in this country. Matthew Doyle, a descendant of the Muruwari people of north-western NSW, welcomed the audience to Gadigal land.
The Hon Kevin Anderson, Parliamentary Secretary to Deputy Premier and Minister for the Arts Troy Grant, spoke enthusiastically about Live and Local, the festival’s digital live-streaming project and about being “knee-deep” in Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series with his son. Artistic Director Jemma Birrell described the festival as “an oasis amongst the political slogans” of the election campaign, a week where people can stop, think, ask and listen.
Tempest ended the night with an excerpt from her epic poem Brand New Ancients. “The stories are there if you listen. The stories are here. The stories are you and your fear and your hope is as old as the language of smoke.”
The Book That Saved Me
May 20 8.15-9.45pm
Sydney Town Hall
The Bricks That Built The Houses
May 21 1.30-2.30pm
The Loft, Pier 2/3