ACT News

Poetry in Canberra thrives with the help of new venue University House

When Geoff Page noticed a new cafe named after his favourite poet in Manuka 22 years ago, he knew it was a sign.

He walked straight in and proposed a series of poetry readings to be held in the cramped, cheerful surrounds.

Poet Geoff Page at his home in Narrabundah.
Poet Geoff Page at his home in Narrabundah. Photo: Jay Cronan

The owners, Chilean refugees who had even met the great Pablo Neruda, agreed without hesitation, and Canberra's longest-running literary event was founded.

More than two decades later, Page, a prolific poet himself and frequent Canberra Times contributor, is still running the monthly series of readings, although it has changed venues and, by necessity, names, several times.

Its latest incarnation, due to launch this week, bears little resemblance to the original 1994 Poetry at Neruda, but Page says the spirit of the readings has remained strong and constant.

When it launched in 1994, Café Neruda could fit just 25 people, and a single poet would read for 70 minutes with questions at the end.

"It was pretty intense in those days," Page said.

When his arrangement with the event's most recent venue, the Gods café at the Australian National University, came to end late last year, University House approached him to offer a space for the event.

This week, Poetry at the House will be held for the first time, with enough space for 150 people and Australia's best-known living poet, Les Murray, on the podium.

Page said the 11-month program varied from year to year, with a mix of local and national poets reading, and a large range of people turning up to listen.

"There's a small core that come nearly every time, but it varies quite a lot," he said.

"I would think in a typical year there'd be 1500 different people who come – I don't think it's the same group of 20 or 30."

Page recently co-edited a collection of poetry from Canberra, which includes work by more than 50 published poets who call the capital home.

He said he continued to organise the live event as much for his own enrichment as a poet as out of a sense of obligation.

"It's a different thing to hear the poet reading his or her own work than just reading it in magazines and collections. That's one reason I do it," he said.

"And I think it's important because Canberra's got quite a strong poetic culture and a fairly high proportion of poets to the population. There is a need to hear other people to be more aware of what's going on elsewhere."

One regular attendee and one-time guest is poet and deputy head of the International Poetry Studies Institute at the University of Canberra Jen Webb.

She said the invariably "warm-hearted" readings had become an important part of Canberra's literary landscape over the years.

"One reason is it's a longer reading than most venues permit. You read for a good 20 minutes. Normally readings are just for 10, 15 minutes," she said.

"It doesn't sound like much more, but it is quite a bit when you're reading … You actually think about your audience and really getting things out of them, and when you're listening, you're getting a much richer sense of the oeuvre, their voice, their mood, their approach."

Page has been able to pay poets for the readings with financial assistance from various sources over the years, including ArtsACT, and, with the help of the poetry institute, founded in 2013, Canberra's poetry scene is now firmly established.

Webb said the institute was also supporting the readings.

"We're financially subsidising some of the meetings at the house this year, as a mark of our investment for poetry locally and support for Geoff's project," she said.

The institute, which runs a yearly $10,000 international poetry prize, will also be holding its second festival in September, with Oxford professor of poetry Simon Armitage as poet-in-residence.

Readings at the House, featuring Les Murray, is at University House on Tuesday February 9 at 8.00pm, with limited seats available. To book, or for more information about Poetry at the House, email Geoff Page at gpage40@bigpond.net.au.

The House is Not Quiet and The World Is Not Calm – Poetry from Canberra is available at selected bookstores.