Sitting in the foyer of the Judith Wright Centre in Queensland, Samuel Wagan Watson has people from all different walks of life asking him questions about poetry and inspiration.
Watson says the Queensland Poetry Festival has never before been so focused on Indigenous writing and wordplay.
“I honestly believe it’s because of the calibre of Indigenous writing that is now coming out… when I initially started, there was only a handful of writers on the Indigenous circuit. Now, we’re a full force."
The festival has returned for its 20th anniversary and will feature spoken word pieces, panels, films, installations, slams, comedy and hip-hop, all with a strong Indigenous focus.
There were more than 60 Indigenous applicants this year and Indigenous poet Samuel Wagan Watson has been appointed the festival's inaugural Aboriginal artist-in-residence.
Festival co-directors David Stavanger and Annie Te Whiu say it’s about time there was a greater focus on Indigenous representation.
“We’ve noticed a lot of writers' festivals were booking numerous Indigenous poets and artists. People are inspired by what they have to offer and the time is now,” David says.
“We felt like we had the ability to program a lot broader and we feel that the best storytellers are the First Nations.”
Annie is Mauri, from the Hokianta region, and says this was a very personal program for her.
“This festival... [is for] people whose voices are pushed aside and drowned out by democracy,” she says.
“This is a commitment to promoting involvement and talent. It’s not about having just one token Indigenous artist.
“We wanted to avoid the predictable, and have the ‘others’ at the front and centre.”
The 2016 Poetry Awards include the inaugural Oodgeroo Noonuccal Indigenous Poetry Prize – the first award named after one of Queensland’s greatest Aboriginal artists.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal is the name selected by Aunty Kath, an Australian poet, activist, artist and educator.
Oodgeroo: relates to the paper back tree on the country she grew up on
Noonuccal: refers to the language of her clan“In my dreams I hear my tribe” Oodgeroo Noonuccal -Kath Walker
Samuel Watson says Aunty Kath was a perfect choice for the name of the award, as the first Aboriginal Australian to publish a book of verse.
“The memory of her work and what she did in her life, teaching Aboriginal culture and stories – it’s another great initiative Indigenous people can use to take their writing into the wider world.”
David says it’s the first time Australia’s had an open age poetry prize for an unpublished poem for any Australian indigenous poet, Judged by indigenous judges.
The festival co-directors say the prize has a lot more to offer than just money.
“The prize is so much more than just money; it involves mentors, support and connections made with publishers, assistance with key editors.
"There’s no point in just winning a bunch of money. You need constant support and guidance with a direct intention to nature skill and keep the art alive.”
Samuel Wagan Watson is a Blackswell man from Munanjalli country near the Gold Coast. He was born into a family of published and award-winning writers, and has been writing professionally for 25 years.
“Give me just a pen and a notepad and I’m on my way, I’m set.”
“That’s why it appeals to many generations of Indigenous people, because we can access paper and pen so easily and we have the natural gift of storytelling,” he said.
An Indigenous poet-in-residence is not only someone in a performance role as a writer, but also a mentor to help people troubleshoot the blocks and challenges in their writing.
“It’s truly an honour to serve this position and to be representing the position of Indigenous writers within the literary establishment.”
Watson says the writing was great and he’s optimistic that the festival will continue to grow.
“For our first year the writing was excellent," he says.
"We didn’t have as many entries as we would have liked, but it’s an inaugural prize, so we're expecting this to grow each year."
Watson says there need to be more strong black women at the forefront of poetry.
“I’m really looking forward to Ellen Van Nerven. Her voice legitimises the need for more stronger young black women to be in the ranks of Australian literature."
Watson says he doesn't pick favourites within his own body of work, but there is one line that stands out.
“I am Frankenstien of the dreamtime” – ‘Monster’ By Samuel Wagan Watson
“Basically I am a refugee myself, as my grandparents’ sacred land is now one of the biggest coal mining projects, so I can’t go back to country," he says.
"The original Frankenstein monster [was made from] many different bodies, and I feel like that too sometimes as there are many different parts to me and my writing.”
“The fact that Australian bureaucracy treats Aboriginal peoples like rejects and monsters… just like Frankenstein was treated when he entered the world, enables me to relate to him.”