IZZY ROBERTS-ORR: ‘The necessity of storytelling has never felt more vital’

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Izzy Roberts-Orr is a Melbourne-based writer, editor and radio producer. She is the Artistic Director and Co-CEO of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Executive Producer of the Sisteria Podcast, and a former Co-Director of the National Young Writers’ Festival. With the EWF kicking off in a couple of weeks from June 14th-23rd, we thought it’d be the perfect time to chat to Izzy for The Regal Fox.

We’re excited for this year’s Emerging Writers Festival. What are you most looking forward to?

There’s a lot to be excited about! A few of my highlights would be…

Songs & Stories of Home where poets and musicians share their take on what ‘home’ means to them. The brief is very open-ended, which means I’m sure we’ll get a huge variety of interpretations.

Is ‘home’ a place, or a feeling, or a person? Can you make a home inside yourself? It reminds me of a line from a Warsan Shire poem, for women who are difficult to love – “you can’t make homes out of human beings / someone should have already told you that”.

I can’t wait to see Quippings: Disability Unleashed bring their raucous, raunchy voices to the stage as they perform Love Show at the Malthouse Theatre. The show will be Auslan interpreted and the theatre will be in full accessible swing to ensure that everyone gets a good view.

Tipping Points is going to be a wild ride, as five writers, four actors and one director make a brand new theatre work about climate change in 24 hours. Brilliant minds creatively tackling difficult questions as they strive to envision a future on the brink of ecological collapse.

Christian Taylor, who is producing this ambitious project, is also presenting Fall Where They May at the festival – a brand new immersive solo show. Christian was the 2016 winner of the ‘Best Emerging Writer’ award we run in conjunction with Melbourne Fringe.

What do you look for when programming for a festival?

EWF is a festival for writers and storytellers, and the two core aims of the festival are to provide professional development opportunities and support emerging writers to engage new and larger audiences. So we’re looking for a mixture of things to program – including conversations and explorations around craft, content, and how to make your practice sustainable.

In terms of specific events, I look to ensure that there is contrast as well as cohesion between the programmed artists – in terms of their practice, experiences and perspectives. I think it’s far more interesting and valuable for the audience and artists to have some level of difference between their approaches, interests and histories to explore, because this is what draws out the true gems of advice and pulls back the curtains on what’s difficult as well as what’s motivating.

You’re relatively new to your role at EWF, but you worked with the National Young Writers’ Festival prior to this role. How different is your current role from your previous role?

A big thing for me is the practical difference in terms of my day-to-day engagement with running the festival. I work full time on EWF from an office, whereas for NYWF I was volunteering with 3 other (phenomenal) Co-Directors over skype, email and phone outside of my work hours.

I have a strong history with both festivals, and I love them both with all my heart. At EWF, I first attended as a punter in 2009, worked on the festival as a Creative Producer in 2015, then as an artist last year. At NYWF I was an attendee and press room podcaster before becoming a Co-Director. Part of the reason I applied to work with NYWF is that I was hungry for more experience programming a festival after working on EWF 2015.

In a lot of ways, the festivals work with similar communities – a lot of young writers are also ~emerging~ and vice versa. At the heart of both the festivals is a commitment to creating communities, having a go and supporting each other, which has the fantastic flow-on effect of caring for Australia’s upcoming writing talent in very real and meaningful ways.

Ultimately though, the festivals are very different beasts, and very different to attend. Most of the EWF team are going to be heading up to Newcastle for NYWF, which will be really fun!

What do you appreciate most about Australian writing? What do you (as a reader) yearn for when reading a story written by an Australian?

‘Australian writing’ is a very broad category, and I’d like to think it incorporates a huge variety of perspectives, forms and ideas. For me, one of the things I find the most rewarding is when a storyteller is articulating their truth – whatever that may be.

I look for depth and rigour – work that questions both the abstract concepts and feelings it relates to, as well as more concrete aspects of the world we live in. Personally, I think the old adage ‘the personal is political’ stands true, and no work exists in a vacuum. Work that is aware of, and maybe trying to grapple (even subtly) with the complex sociopolitical frameworks within which it exists really appeals to me.

A lot of my favourite work is creative nonfiction, so when I speak about work that’s aware of its context I suppose I also mean work that is having a broader conversation – poetry that is embedded in and breaking apart poetic traditions. Memoir in the form of lyric essays that uses the framework of academic enquiry to uncover personal truths.

I know it’s a cliche, but I also love writing that engages with place and the environment. I grew up between Alice Springs and Footscray, and my whole life has been a mish-mash of the stark contrast between urban city Australia and the bush so writing that speaks to the many histories and psychogeography of our landscape really speaks to me.

What piece of artistic work (film, literature, art etc) has resonated with you the most?

The most? Phwoar, that’s a big question! I’m going to cheat and write a few…

I still talk about The Hayloft Project’s Thyestes because it was weird and wild, technically impressive, and broke apart a lot of the ideas I had about what theatre could be. It also feels like, looking back, that production heralded for me a great period of challenging experimental theatre that continued to smash up my preconceived ideas about how to make ~good theatre~

I’m pretty obsessed with creative nonfiction, and poets who work across mediums, experimenting with form in order to ask questions and interrogate their worlds.

Chris Kraus’ I Love Dick is a special one for me, that I often go back to pull quotes from. It explores desire, art, intellectualism, femaleness, illness and more with a nuance, depth and gutsy abandon that I find intoxicating. Reading it feels like permission to be messy and contradictor and human – articulating one kind of womanhood that is at times grotesque, but also deeply relatable.

Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women is a recent addition to my favourites list, and I’m re-reading it again at the moment. In particular, I highly recommend what resembles the grave, but isn’t and not writing.

Right now, I’m reading
Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women and Omar Sakr’s These Wild Houses.

What kind of attitude/mentality do you think people need in order to pursue a career in the arts? What would you tell your younger self about your creative journey thus far?

Some time ago, I made a resolution to try and ‘be a good person, and be a good artist’. I was keenly aware when I made this resolution that ~good~ is a very subjective term, and what I really meant by that was to make a promise to myself that I would try my best.

There are two central ideas there too that underpin a lot of the decisions I make.

Be a good person
Be kind. To yourself, and others. Pushing your way to the front might get you there faster, but wouldn’t you rather get to the top of the mountain you’re climbing and be able to look around and celebrate with all of the people you’ve climbed together with – that you’ve helped to pull up, and that have given you a foothold too?

Be a good artist
I define artistic rigour as a work that has been challenged and shaped by more than one perspective. Learn to fail, and be wrong. Make yourself uncomfortable.

Consume widely, and seek influences that extend your reach and worldview. The more wildly different from each other the better – it will strengthen your work.

Celebrate your achievements, and let yourself be proud of the things you have made.

I think about it something like – always be walking, maybe fast or maybe slow, but keep walking and throwing things out there. Every now and then, someone will tap you on the shoulder with a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Every now and then, someone will offer you a different door or path to walk through.

How do you think we can make literature more accessible to readers?

It depends on what kind of storytelling you’re speaking about, and who the readers are that you’re trying to reach. I think ‘literature’ in itself can be too narrow a term – I’m interested in storytelling beyond the written word.

In fact, just recently I spoke at Creative Mornings about exactly this!

What direction do you endeavour to take the EWF? Are there any aspects of literature that you’re keen to explore that you haven’t before?

The necessity of storytelling has never felt more vital. In a politics of fear, where language is being weaponised and the narrative is being condensed into a very narrow format – we need our storytellers more than ever.

EWF is here to find tomorrow’s voices, and do our best to support those voices to develop and be heard. A big part of what we engage with is a diversity of perspectives and forms – including digital media, aural and other aspects of storytelling that extend beyond the written word.

How important do you think it is for young and emerging writers to connect with each other? To support each other in the community?

Absolutely vital! Cuts to our sector can feel like they’re deep and coming from every side – with cuts to funding, and whole departments.

This fear about resources and job security can make it feel like there are a lot of us crowded around a very tiny food bowl – and I would argue that now more than ever it’s our responsibility to make sure we do our best to share what’s there and seek solutions together.

Sometimes, this path can feel a bit like Battle Royale or The Hunger Games – but to extend the metaphor, that means we’re far more likely to survive if we team up

The Regal Fox encourages new and emerging writers to submit work for publication. What advice would you give writers looking to start a career writing?

1.Read the publications you are submitting to – it will vastly increase your chances of being published, as well as supporting the platform you’re asking to be part of. Also, why would you want to be published somewhere you’re not interested in reading yourself?

2.Edit your work! Redrafting takes time, and sometimes you need time to mull over what you’ve said, and add to it or gain a different perspective with a bit of remove.

3.Find your people. I was lucky to join the Voiceworks editorial committee, and that provided the springboard that introduced me to the Wheeler Centre and everyone in it, as well as providing a reason to go to NYWF for the first time.

4.Just keep swimming! Keep reading, listening, talking, interrogating, writing and editing. Keep trying new things. It takes time and work to get to where you want to be, but invest in yourself and try to learn from the times you don’t succeed.

It takes time and work to get to where you want to be, but invest in yourself and try to learn from the times you don’t succeed.

And finally, what’s your advice for those who are just starting to write down their stories but don’t know where to put them. What outlets or writing publications would you recommend for young or emerging writers?

Lit journals – The Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Seizure, Cordite, Meanjin
Alien She, Pencilled In, Scum

The Emerging Writers’ Festival runs from June 14th – June 23rd. You can browse their website HERE


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