When I first met the enchanting Johanna Featherstone I was amused to discover that she was responsible for the ‘Spit or Swallow’ advice column in that esteemed satirical publication The Chaser. I’d known that she was a writer and had worked in book shops, but was most impressed to discover that she is also the Artistic Director of The Red Room Company, an entity devised, she says, in order to “create, produce and distribute” all manner of projects inspired by poetry, utilising the talents of “the most unusual, talented people” that she can find in the process. The ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition, mounted as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, is one of those projects. It seemed a worthy topic of conversation, and and so an interview ensued. During the course of it, I discovered that I was responsible – somehow – for introducing Johanna to her partner, composer Elliott Wheeler. But that’s a whole other story. He figures in this story, however, as providing the sonic landscape of songs that will feature at the launch, as does Timothy Brunero, who collaborated on the satirical room notes with Johanna. The interview that follows was broadcast Saturday 15 May.
Soundbite: ‘Bicycle’ – David Malouf, from the album David Malouf reads from Poems 1959-89
Demetrius Romeo: Johanna, tell me a bit about this ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition which is part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: The ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition is a collection of ten hand-written poems by Australian poets – a variety of very new poets who haven’t published anything before, such as a ten year-old poet who is coming down from Tamworth, who has written a fantastic bush ballad about a wolf, and then, from esteemed poets we all know about, such as Dimitris Tsaloumas and David Malouf.
They were asked to submit me on an A4 sheet of paper a hand-written poem. I gave them a few ideas of my favourite poems which they had written, and then they turned up to me – the most amazing experience and one of the most beautiful was Dimitris Tsaloumas’s submission, which is this divine calligraphy with a little note attached, saying,
You asked me to submit something on an A4 piece of paper, but I have no idea what an A4 piece of paper is, so I have just taken the closest piece of paper at hand and hope that fits.
And of course, it did.
Demetrius Romeo: In addition to the exhibition of the hand-written poems, you have an exhibition of art, as well as readings on the day.
JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: That’s right. Tonee Messiah is a student at Sydney College of the Arts and she was asked to create ‘a civilization of poets’, in terms of the visual interpretation of poets’ heads. This has luckily been supported by NAVA, which is the National Association of Visual Arts, and there are nine separate little heads that hang in between the poems to emphasise the idea of the poet as a person – just like the handwriting – rather than the poet being something only on a computer screen now.
Demetrius Romeo: Have we lost touch with poets in the modern age?
JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: I don’t think we’ve lost touch with them, but I think perhaps we forget how powerful and exciting poetry can be, in that a poem doesn’t just have to be something that you can read, although a great poem gives you everything in just that experience. Poems can bring about an entire cultural community; they can take people from the school halls into professional careers.
Demetrius Romeo: Who are the poets represented in the ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition?
JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: Well, there are ten all up, but to give you an example of a few, there’s a girl called Lucy Holt from Melbourne and another girl called Mia Dyson who’s an Australian blues singer who recently won an ARIA award. She’s submitted a blues lyric for us to decide whether it’s a poem or not.
Soundbite: ‘Roll On’ – Mia Dyson, from the album Cold Water
JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: John Clarke contributed a fabulous satirical poem called ‘The Hunting of the Smirk’, that’s a satire on one of Lewis Carroll’s poems. John Clarke is really appropriate for another aspect of the exhibition – a series of room notes that I have written, that talk about, in a fun way, the idea of how poetry is valued and financed in our society. On the back of these room notes are some absurdist price tags which actually stand, because if someone can produce the price that we say on these absurdist price tags, they can take away the poem. But I do warn the listeners that they range from a vial of imagination, to a cornfield of Cypriot corn.
Demetrius Romeo: So if I wanted the John Clarke poem, for example, what would that cost me?
JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: I think something like John Howard’s fiscal policy on a plate.
Soundbite: ‘The Hunting of the Smirk’ – John Clarke, listed as the track ‘Carol Lewis’ on the album The CD of The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse