Requiem: The Poets

Image by Anna Lori on Shutterstock ID_1614827743
Wednesday 20 January 2021
4.00 - 5.30pm

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Paddington Reservoir
251-255 Oxford St, Paddington, NSW



Sydney Festival

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During the great purges in early 20th century Russia, another woman waiting outside Leningrad prison in the hope of seeing a husband, a father, a son, asked the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova if anyone could ever describe what they were experiencing.  The poem, Requiem, was Akhmatova’s answer: it was her “tortured mouth, through which a hundred million people shout”. Part of what we face as we contemplate the black summer fires is the limit of our own capacity to be present to the magnitude of the losses, the thoughts and the feelings they provoke in us. It is to this impossibility of containing the worlds beyond of and beyond our experience, and to our own complex, fragmented and often strange thoughts and feelings that poetry speaks. Australian poets Michelle Cahill, Brenda Saunders, David Brooks, Felicity Plunkett, Coco Huang and Viv Pham will offer their poetic witness of the black summer fires, to the beings who lived and died through them, and to our struggle to be present and receptive to the three billion whose shouts we did not hear. Luke Fischer is chairing the event.

Renowned cellist Christina Christensen will be performing compositions addressed to trees between poetry readings. Christensen is an internationally recognised musician who composes for both film and solo cello performances that are inspired by nature.


David Brooks is a poet, novelist, short-fiction writer and essayist. He has been described as ‘one of Australia’s most skilled, unusual, and versatile writers’. His first collection of poetry, The Cold Front (1983), won the Ann Elder Award and was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Prize; The Book of Sei (1985), his first collection of stories, was said by Don Anderson to be ‘the most exciting short-fiction debut in Australian since Peter Carey’s’; his second novel, The Fern Tattoo (2007), was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. From 2000 until 2018 he was co-editor of the journal Southerly. In recent years has become increasingly involved in animal advocacy, writing extensively for and about animals and animal suffering.

Michelle Cahill is a Goan-Anglo-Indian poet and author who lives in Sydney and the Red Room Poetry Fellow for 2020. Her first collection of short stories Letter to Pessoa (Giramondo) won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for New Writing. She received the Val Vallis Award, the KWS Hilary Mantel International Short Story Competition and has been shortlisted in several prizes including the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Prize, the Blake Poetry Prize and the Newcastle Poetry Prize. Her poems have appeared in MeanjinSoutherlyThe London Magazine, The Weekend Australian and The Kenyon Review. Michelle’s Fellowship project is a poetic reflection and resistance to the impact of colonialism, species hierarchy and climate emergencies following the Australian bush fires and extending her work within Extinction Elegies.

Luke Fischer (Chair) is a poet and philosopher. He is currently an honorary associate of the philosophy department at the University of Sydney. His diverse publications include four authored books: the poetry collections Paths of Flight (2013) and A Personal History of Vision (2017), the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems (2015) and the book of bedtime stories The Blue Forest (2015). His books have been reviewed widely in Australia and internationally in periodicals such as the Times Literary Supplement, the Wall Street Journal and the Australian Book Review.

Coco Huang is a Chinese-Australian writer, musician and scientist. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Voiceworks, Australian Poetry Journal, The Lifted Brow, Going Down Swinging and Award Winning Australian Writing. She was shortlisted for the 2020 Woollahra Digital Literary Prize and was a Citizen Writes participant and Faber Writing Academy scholarship recipient. She enjoys creating interdisciplinary hybrid works that challenge and extend conventional forms and is currently developing her first novel.

Vivian Pham is a Vietnamese-Australian fiction writer, closet poet, amateur screenwriter and university student. Her father was a Vietnamese boat refugee, and she grew up loving stories because she knew there was one inside of him. Vivian made her writing debut with her 2020 novel The Coconut Children, inspired by her father’s journey. In 2018 and 2019, Vivian attended the International Congress of Youth Voices and shared a stage with incongruously successful writers and activists like Dave Eggers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rep. John Lewis and Khaled Hosseini. It is her greatest hope to have an impact on political issues through her creative work.

Felicity Plunkett is a poet and critic, whose latest collection is in A Kinder Sea (2020). Her first book, Vanishing Point (2009), won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for several other awards. She has a chapbook, Seastrands, in Vagabond Press’s Rare Objects series and is the editor of Thirty Australian Poets (2011). She has a PhD from the University of Sydney and is a widely published essayist and reviewer. Felicity was the recipient of Australian Book Review’s 2019 Patrons’ Fellowship.

Brenda Saunders is a Wiradjuri writer and artist living in Sydney. She is an active member of FNAWN (First Nations Aboriginal Writers Network) and is a mentor for Black Cockatoo, the Emerging Indigenous Poets site at Verity La. Brenda has written three poetry books and her recent collection, Inland Sea, is set to come out next year with Ginninderra Press. Her poems and reviews appear in anthologies and journals, including Australian Poetry JournalOverland, Southerly, Westerly and Plumwood Mountain. She has won several awards including the 2014 Scanlon Book Prize (Australian Poetry), the 2018 Oodgeroo Noonuccal Prize (Queensland Poetry) and the Joanne Burns Award for Prose Poetry (Spineless Wonders).

Lyndsay Urquhart joined Red Room Poetry company in 2020 as the Manager of First Nations programs. A proud Munkata Yuin Koori woman, Lyndsay’s poetry is informed by the cultural knowledge and heritage inherited through the environment, family and community and she works as an oral historian. Lyndsay’s poetry commissioned by Red Room Poetry was recently featured in the book ‘Guwayu’ For All Times collaborated with Tamryn Bennett in 2020 for a commission at Kew Gardens, London and at the Bundanon Trust.


Christina Christensen is a world travelled professional cellist who also enjoys composing music primarily for solo cello often inspired by nature and moments in time. She has performed at various events collaborating with other artists, poets and other musicians. Her music has been used in film and video to save wilderness areas such as the Tarkine in Tasmania.


This is a free event, registration is required due to limited numbers complying with NSW Covid restrictions. For more information, visit the 2021 Sydney Festival website.