May 2024

The Pilgrimage

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In the lead up to the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne later in the month, Caroline Clements to the director Lisa Dempster about disco lectures, audio journals and other picks from the festival program, as well as how being a pilgrim in Japan was a turning point for the bookish lass.

The first time I met Lisa Dempster was at TINA (This Is Not Festival) in Newcastle few years ago. She was there speaking on several panels and selling her recently published Melbourne Veg Food Guide at the zine fair. She had just got back several from months in Japan, walking the 88 temple pilgrim trail (1200 kilometre) and writing a book about her journey. She had flown straight into Newcastle, and was a little disheveled, being thrown head first into hectic festival environment before even unpacking her bag.

Several years later, she is sitting at her desk at the new Wheelers Centre in Melbourne, in amongst the hectic environment of yet another festival. Only this time she is the director, and the festival is the Emerging Writers Festival. I spoke to her two days before the festival program launch, and one month out from the 10 day festival, I thought it would be manic. “Well, the program went to print a week ago and everything had to be locked down for the that, so we’ve had this weird lull. I know I’ve got a heap of stuff to do before the festival, but a lot of it is locked down, I think it’s the calm before the storm.”

The program has since been launched at the performance space at the Wheelers Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas. “It’s the epicentre of Melbourne city of literature, and we’re lucky enough to have an office here.” It’s a three-and-a-half day a week job for Demspter, but as with everyone in the arts, you end up working much more than that. I am interested in what the daily goings on are for a festival director.

“It’s really a varied role, I working with designers, funders, advertisers, sponsors, venues and then also the internal people working on the festival team, and I spend a lot of time with writers too, which is really quite nice… for me I love it because I come to work and do different things every day to get this one big event happening, so it’s keeping me on my toes.”

The Emerging Writers Festival has always had a kind of non-traditional outlook on what makes a writer, but this year they have taken this concept further. “This year the program includes bloggers and people who write for online mediums, song writers, joke writers, and someone talking about translation work, so we do have a much broader range than just poets and short story writers this year,” Dempster explains.

There are some really exciting new mediums such as an audio journal called Paper Radio, “they will be talking on a panel called The Pitch, where publishers, editors and agents get up and tell people how they like to be pitched to – practical writerly advice – which is great because they (Paper Radio) are the only audio journal that you can pitch to at the moment.” Evidently this festival is quite different from other festivals in that it is a festival for writers, not for readers, and is about the arts and craft of writing, not people spruiking their books.

Scanning the program, the line-up looks impressive and is certainly evident of Dempster’s strong vision for it’s content. “One of the funny things about running a festival is that you set up a festival that you really want to go and see and then you don’t actually get to see any of it.” One of the performers the director is most excited about is Craig Schuftan, who is JJJ’s culture club ‘resident nerd’. He is doing a performance called a Disco Lecture, where he talks about the subversive punk roots of disco.

“The whole lecture is set to disco music and it’s wild. It goes for just over an hour and he is delivering a sort of deadpan, quite serious lecture about where disco comes from in the background there’s just this disco music playing and it’s all timed to what he is saying. It is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in years,” Demspter reveals excitedly.

This years EWF will also include the world’s first mobile zine fair, The Zine Bus, which will be traveling the streets of Melbourne with zine-sters aboard selling their zines. “I once did a scrabble zine,” she offers, but now she uses her blog as an alternative dialogue for social commentary.

As a regular blogger on her own personal site, Demspter talks about how over the last few six to eight months she has become particularly interested in the online medium, how it works and to what extent the medium can be used for. “One of the amazing things about my blog is that the people that come and comment on it are really clever and thoughtful, so for me it’s not just about putting stuff out there, but it’s about starting a dialogue with those kinds of people.” She discusses topics on how to be vegan, takes part in social dating experiments and opens up the table for discussion on earning money in the notoriously underpaid industry of publishing and the arts.

Though Dempster has been involved in the festival for several years, it is her first role as Director. It seems like a dream job for someone like this, a writer with several books under her belt. Last year she put out her first autobiographic book documenting her experience hiking 1200 kilometres on an ancient Buddhist pilgrimage route in Japan.

She had lived in that area of Japan when she was much younger as an exchange student and had always wanted to do the pilgrimage. “What finally got me over there was the fact that I was really incredibly depressed and had withdrawn from life… I latched on to the idea that if I could go and do the pilgrimage that I would be cured. I was a bit naive,” she admits. Alhough she doesn’t think the pilgrimage did cure her, it was certainly a very influential time for Dempster.

As long as I’ve known her she’s always seemed very confident and comfortable, often driving the ship in the book club we are in together, divulging animated stories about vicious posts on her blog while handing out delicious vegan cookies. It’s hard to imagine her any other way. “It (the pilgrimage) was a complete turning point in my life, so it was kind of epic in all senses of the word,” she notes.

Epic is certainly what the last few years have been for Dempster. I find myself constantly impressed by her involvement in a community of writers and people in the arts, which is also why she is the best lady for the job as director of the EWF in 2010. She is devout like a pilgrim to the cause.

The Emerging Writers Festival runs from May 21-30.

Lisa Dempster

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