Literary Lockdown: A Check-in with our Resident Organisations

The COVID-19 pandemic has made things pretty complicated (to put it mildly) for people who make, present and champion creative work. It’s been incredible to see what artists and arts organisations have managed to conjure out of extremely tricky situations.

We caught up with some of our literary neighbours from Melbourne Writers Festival, Australian Poetry, PEN Melbourne, Emerging Writers' Festival, Express Media, Writers Victoria and the Small Press Network to find out what they’ve been working on and what they’ve got planned – during today's restrictions and beyond. 

Photograph of a white room with bookshelves and a long table and chairs

The Australian Poetry library at the Wheeler Centre

Gene Smith, Melbourne Writers Festival

What's happening at MWF?

Team MWF is working on our 2020 program, which will be delivered entirely online between 7–16 August. It will include a mix of pre-recorded video content, livestream events and written content. We recently provided a sneak-peak – announcing that celebrated Australian author Kate Grenville, cultural critic Mikki Kendall and award-winning investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe will be joining us in August for the festival.

What has been the most challenging moment, for you and your team over the last few months? Have there been any amazing highlight moments?

Producing a festival – whether wholly online or otherwise – is an incredibly stressful and high-pressure undertaking. One of the things that alleviate that intensity is being able to celebrate the big (and small) milestones with the team. It has been hard finding the right way to do that with everyone working individually from their homes (Zoom is great, but it doesn’t hit quite the same spot as sharing the same pound of cake with everyone). The biggest highlight has been witnessing the team’s adaptability and levity. Their grace, goodwill, and humour is inspiring, and makes logging in every morning a treat.

Have you created any work, or done any piece of programming, that you could not have imagined doing this time last year? 

All will be revealed on 22 July.

Do you have any ideas about how adapting to the lockdown and social distancing might change the kind of work you do in the future?

Online programming will remain a key part of any MWF offering for the foreseeable future. Speaking more broadly, and despite all the uncertainty, one thing I believe to be true is that people’s desire for stories and connection will continue to sustain our arts organisations into the future.


Jacinta Le Plastrier, Australian Poetry

What's happening at Australian Poetry?

We have just published our annual 2020 Australian Poetry Anthology (Vol 8), which gathers powerful voices from across the country, including a number of significant First Nations, queer, ‘all abilities’ and culturally diverse poets. Our first Australian Poetry Journal for the year – 10.1, themed ‘modern elegy’ – is in production. Most excitingly, we have been adapting all our 2020 literary festival events, where we partner with Australia’s major and emerging literary organisations, from live-in-person events to digital events.

What has been the most challenging moment, for you and your team over the last few months? Have there been any highlight moments? 

The most challenging moment I feel is a sustained one – how to adapt as staff working remotely, away from the Wheeler Centre hub, which is hugely collegial and mutually supportive; how to ensure staff’s well-being is as high as it can be; and, finally, how to maintain a disciplined endurance and vision to adapt programming to the best outcomes. Underpinning all of this, for me, is holding a deep, daily compassion for the world we are living in and those suffering in it.

The highlight has been converting our festival events, originally curated to be live, into digital events  – either livestreamed or pre-recorded or pre-filmed. This has taken the poetry we support out to much larger audiences and territories. A recent poetry launch event we presented with Sydney Writers’ Festival has had over 4,500 downloads, for example, compared with a live audience of 100 or so.

Have you created any work, or done any piece of programming, that you could not have imagined doing this time last year? 

Still under embargo, we have upcoming events (including with Melbourne Writers Festival) which should be awe-inspiring and for these times.

Do you have any ideas about how adapting to the lockdown and social distancing might change the kind of work you do in the future?

We have been developing an expanded audio programme, recording the poets we either publish or present in festivals. This hopefully will include recording many poets for a separate anthology early next year. We hope to provide these audio archives for free, and it also means recorded poetry can be accessed from anywhere and by anyone.​ 


Alice Muhling and Ruby-Rose Pivet-Marsh, Emerging Writers' Festival

What's been happening at EWF?

We’ve just wrapped up Emerging Writers’ Festival 2020, which was a huge undertaking. We are incredibly proud of the festival and are still buzzing! Right now, we are working on the evaluation and reporting stage – collating numbers, gathering feedback and processing invoices. 

What has been the most challenging moment, for you and your team over the last few months? Have there been any amazing highlight moments?

As a team, the most challenging part has been working remotely to deliver a festival from our respective homes. Festival work is intense, even in the digital space (or maybe, especially) so it was hard not being next to each other in order to bounce ideas around or provide in-person support. We are a tiny team (only six team members delivered this year’s festival).

We made it work with daily meetings, individual staff check-ins and sharing fun things in our Slack channels along the way, including playlists, memes and wins. The festival itself was a huge highlight. Witnessing the EWF community come together is a beautiful thing to behold and we were blown away by the love, enthusiasm, passion and heart of our artists and audiences. 

Have you created any work, or done any piece of programming, that you could not have imagined doing this time last year? 

We made a whole eight-day digital festival! We programmed over 150 artists across around 60 events and projects, most of which you can still access on our website.

Do you have any ideas about how adapting to the lockdown and social distancing might change the kind of work you do in the future?

EWF has a strong history of digital programming, but nothing of this scale. It was really exciting to see artists and audiences respond to it so positively. It’s given us a lot to consider about the proportion of digital events and projects for future festivals.


Christine McKenzie, International PEN Melbourne Centre 

What's happening at PEN Melbourne?

There are a number of major concerns around freedom of expression around the world, some arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some governments have used [the pandemic as an opportunity] to dampen down freedoms and have threatened journalists and media.

PEN Melbourne continues to advocate and campaign for writers who are at risk and who have been imprisoned and threatened for simply doing their jobs. Currently, PEN Melbourne is working to support well-known Filipino journalist and founder of Rappler, Maria Ressa, convicted of cyber-libel and facing a jail term of six years. We continue to call for justice for Australian citizen Dr Yang Hengjun, imprisoned in China since January 2019; Julian Assange; and Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian/British academic imprisoned in Iran for more than 600 days.

What has been the most challenging moment, for you and your team over the last few months? Have there been any amazing highlight moments? 

PEN Melbourne is a membership organisation, which is run by a committee of volunteers, and we are able to carry on our main work pretty much as usual and meeting via Zoom. We do have a few public events each year that focus on our major concerns around freedom of expression and the ways that oppressive regimes silence their writers and truth-tellers. So it is hard not be in the public eye in this way. 

In November this year, PEN is planning an event in partnership with the Wheeler Centre. Maria Ressa will be interviewed from Manila (details to be confirmed). For those who have heard Maria speaking out about the state of journalism and the necessary values of a free press, this will be a highlight. 

Do you have any ideas about how adapting to the lockdown and social distancing might change the kind of work you do in the future?

The work of human rights groups of all kinds, including PEN International, is becoming more and more necessary as the pandemic continues around the world and freedoms are increasingly under threat. It has been claimed that many governments are using the coronavirus pandemic to increase already repressive laws. We have already seen an increase in surveillance measures, restrictions on free expression and information, and limits on public participation in many countries. Australia is not exempt from some of these practices. For example, the threat of charges against ABC journalist Dan Oakes, whose work is clearly in the public interest. 

Lucy Hamilton, Express Media

What's happening at Express Media?

Lots of exciting programming! Here are the things we’re excited about right now:

 Issue 119 of Voiceworks, 'Butter', launches this month. Keep an eye out for details of the online launch, or subscribe to Voiceworks here to get the issue sent out to you as soon as we have it.

 Art and comic submissions are open for issue #120, ‘Divine’, and submissions are always open for Voiceworks Online.

 We are running our Toolkits online mentoring programmes in Poetry, Digital Storytelling, Graphic Narratives and Regional Playwriting. While most sessions are closed to mentees, we live-stream all our guest sessions on our website.

 Our Making Tracks Adelaide workshops with Katerina Bryant finished up this month, and we’re working on the production of a zine with submissions from participants.

 The Hachette Prize for Young Writers is open for submissions for work by secondary school students across poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

What has been the most challenging moment, for you and your team over the last few months? Have there been any highlights?

We've had some staff changeover over this time, and it’s been really sad not to be able to say goodbye properly to colleagues finishing up their contracts, as well as not to be able to really welcome new team members to the building and get to know them better over a cuppa!

I’ve been really impressed with the adaptability of the team to move everything to working from home, and to moving face-to-face programming online where relevant. Launching Voiceworks issue #118 in Animal Crossing (more below) was a particularly special moment.

Voiceworks 'As If' Launch

Watch the launch of Voiceworks #118

Have you created any work, or done any piece of programming, that you could not have imagined doing this time last year?

With restrictions, we were really sad not to be able to launch Voiceworks Issue #118, 'As If!', in person – especially as this was Mira Schlosberg’s last issue as editor and Michael Sun’s last issue as designer. But of course the incredibly creative team put together a fantastic launch using Animal Crossing. You can go back and watch it on the Voiceworks website/YouTube.

While online events and programming are by no means a new thing to us (just look at the Toolkits program), we’ve always held launches in person. It was nice to be able to play with the possibilities of online events when planning the launch.

Do you have any ideas about how adapting to the lockdown and social distancing might change the kind of work you do in the future?

We have a number of Voiceworks editorial committee (EdComm) members who are based outside Melbourne. Having their weekly meetings move online, along with the whole selection process, has made the whole gamut of EdComm opportunities more accessible to our interstate people. This is something Adalya (Nash Hussein, Voiceworks editor) is keen to incorporate into our processes even when we are able to gather again.

We are also reflecting a lot on how we do our programming for 2021 and beyond as the needs of young writers and editors are evolving. Beyond practical considerations of distancing, the types of connection and specific skills that people want from us are changing, and we need and want to adapt to that. Watch this space!

Angela Savage, Writers Victoria

What's happening at Writers Vic?

Surely the 2020 word of the year is 'pivot'. When the COVID pandemic forced our team out of the office to work from home, Writers Victoria pivoted our entire professional development program to online delivery – something we could never have anticipated doing.

It has had unexpectedly pleasing results. We’ve been able to support more writers than ever before, including those for whom geography, caring responsibilities and mobility issues have previously acted as barriers to their participation in our workshop program. Frankly, we’ve been blown away by the positive response to our online offerings. Even those sceptical about online learning were converted, with one writer telling us, 'It was one of the most useful classes that I've done and there were no distractions of people coming in late, being off-topic etc – so it was very focused', and another saying, 'I just loved [today’s webinar]. I feel "writerly" reconnected again – amazing in this time of unique social distance.'

We’re grateful for the flexibility from our donors to reallocate grant funding away from activity that is currently unfeasible, such as regional travel, toward supporting as many individual writers as we can through paid commissions, subsidised professional development opportunities and fellowships.

Every year since 2013, the Write-ability Fellowship Program has nurtured outstanding writers with disability through mentorships and other professional development opportunities. This year, with all fellowships offered online, we’ve welcomed more regional writers than ever before and extended the number of fellowships from five to seven.

While maintaining our manuscript assessment and mentoring services during lockdown, we also launched Spotlight, a suite of budget options that links emerging writers with experienced writers, editors and industry experts for personalised feedback on their work. Writers can elect to have a mix of written and/or spoken feedback on a single chapter, poem, short story, synopsis – even on their social media.

Fellowships, feedback and development are all ways that emerging writers can feel connected to the wider literary community. Another is Live Write, a meet up of writers that takes place Tuesdays at 8pm and Fridays at midday on Zoom, hosted by our chair Noè Harsel. A COVID-era initiative, Live Write provides inspiration and motivation to help maintain creativity during these unsettling times.

Do you have any ideas about how adapting to the lockdown and social distancing might change the kind of work you do in the future?

Online workshops, seminars, mentorships and meet-ups will definitely be a greater part of our program mix going forward. However, we do long to see our community come together in person again. Public health guidelines permitting, we’d like to throw a big party at the end of the year to celebrate all the books released by our members in 2020.

Tim Coronel, Small Press Network

What's happening at SPN?

All of a sudden, everything is happening at once! We’re planning for our annual Independent Publishing Conference in late November, which will be held online for the first time. We’re very pleased to have Jessica Harvie on board again as conference coordinator. 

Bookings for our Christmas catalogue are now open. The catalogue is distributed to bookshops and libraries around Australia to showcase the huge range of books published by our 150+ publisher members. And we’re about to announce some exciting changes to our annual book award.

Until recently, we really hoped we’d be able to hold our conference as usual, with hundreds of people gathering at the Wheeler Centre over three days … but circumstances made it clear to us that that’s not going to happen. So we – like everyone else – did the pivot to online. Already, that change is opening up some exciting new avenues. For one, conference attendees don’t have to travel to Melbourne to participate, so the event becomes not only national but potentially international in scope. We already have an international keynote speaker lined up who we probably couldn’t have got in person.

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