Poetic Grenfell: Henry Lawson Festival

The crowd enchanted at Poetry on the Board at the Henry Lawson Festival.
The crowd enchanted at Poetry on the Board at the Henry Lawson Festival.

As birthplace of Henry Lawson, poetry is in the blood of Grenfell and is rightly a big part of the annual Henry Lawson Festival.

I spoke to organiser of the festivals’ performance poetry events, Carly Brown, about the role of the rhyme in the festival, which runs June 7 -11, and the modern twist she’s brought to the event.

The June long-weekend festival started in 1958 and poetry has been an important part of the event since the beginning.

“The first Henry Lawson Festival Souvenir Program hosted a Children’s Drama Day for Schools,” Ms Brown said.

“Students still do this today; verse is read or recited and it is an introduction to performance poetry.”

At that 1958 festival the Grenfell Dramatic Society also played host to a bracket of Lawson ballads in the Oddfellows’ Hall, performed by actor Leonard Thiele.

Fifty-four years later, you’ll still find poetry recitations, but things have amped up a notch. Last year the festival hosted their first ever heat of the Australian Poetry Slam, a fast-paced, anything-goes style of performance that puts poets in the spotlight. They chant, they rap, they make sound effects, anything to get their poem across and win the audience’s vote.

Ms Brown brought Poetry Slam to Grenfell after seeing a flyer for the Cowra regional heat in 2009. She went along, had a lot of fun and introduced herself to Poetry Slam front man Miles Merrill. Mr Merrill is a fast-talking, Chicago-born poet who introduced Poetry Slam to Australia in 2007 as a national competition. Last year Mr Merrill ran public and schools workshops in Grenfell before hosting the local heat for a fascinated – and competitive - crowd of locals and visitors.

“Miles Merrill is a gift to the poetry scene. He is one of the easiest performance poets I have ever had the pleasure of working with,” Ms Brown said.

“People gravitate to him, Miles has an infectious affinity with words and he and his fellow wordsmiths continue to inject new and exciting poetry projects into the Sydney poetry scene, so it is a real treat for us to have his return to Grenfell.

“Most of our audience come along because they are intrigued. They also come because they can participate at a Slam by becoming an audience judge. I find this is great as a co-ordinator as it is inclusive and it brings the audience a sense of ownership of poetry content and style as judged by them.

“My inkling is that there is a perception that Poetry Slam is a giant leap away from traditional verse and bush poetry recitation. People are exposed to new forms of expression through words. It is unique, fresh and a stylistically artistic. It is a new vehicle for communication and audiences respond to it.”

But how would Henry Lawson respond to Poetry Slam if he was alive today?

“Personally, I think Henry Lawson would march right into the Poetry Slam venue and demand the stage,” Ms Brown said.

“Lawson often came under close scrutiny for his writing and often used his printed verse as rebuttal. Henry was not averse to penning political or religious topics and I delight at the mere suggestion that Henry Lawson might have entered a Poetry Slam.”

Poetry Slam is held Saturday June 9, 3pm at the Uniting Church Hall in Grenfell, hosted by Miles Merrill and guest poet Candy Royalle.

Ms Brown is a fan of performance poetry in all its forms and the festival supports a range of options for wordsmiths. It’s something, she says, everyone should try.

“Be it Bush Poetry, Free Form or Slam, performing is experiencing a natural rush of adrenaline. It should be a must for the adrenalin junkie who has tried everything but not yet taken on performing live. Performing poetry is connecting with others in a friendly environment. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it all fun, performing poetry can be a very emotive and cathartic experience and we recommend it daily.”

Alongside the new Poetry Slam one of the festival’s other draw cards is Poetry on the Boards.

“Poetry on the Boards is typically for bush poetry or humorous verse,” Ms Brown said. “It is a very relaxed and friendly environment. Poets atop the boards, which is a small timber platform, and can read or recite their own poetry or a classic old favourite.”

This year Poetry on the Boards is on Saturday, June 9 with a 9.30am sign up for poets to register before the kick-off at 10am. Anyone can sign up as long as their poem goes for no longer than six minutes, with a maximum of three poems per poet performed.

Then there’s Poetry in the Park, hosted by John Hetherington and Bruce Roberts, which has been held for 26 consecutive years at the Henry Lawson Obelisk the site of Henry Lawson’s birth in Grenfell. The poetry is performed by the two local retired school teachers, Hetherington and Roberts, and the poetry is various verse by Henry Lawson. Banjo Patterson and other Australian balladeers.

“The atmosphere of the poetry early on a cool, foggy Sunday morning is enhanced by the campfire and visitors can keep warm by sipping on freshly made bill tea and damper,” Ms Brown said.

On top of that there’s the Verse and Short Story Competitions, the written component of the festival. The writing awards will be presented at the opening and awards reception at the Grenfell Bowling Club on festival Saturday. An Anthology of the works will also be published and available at the festival. Following the opening and awards Stephen Tandy will perform in his one man show “Steven Tandy Reads Henry Lawson” directed by Alan Ingram.

See the full festival program at