Slow Canoe is a live journal event held in Melbourne, a chapbook press, and a website, which includes the interview series ‘Walks with Writers’. At their live journals, they present works of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, film, sound, photography and graphic pieces, as well as those that exist between forms. They aim to give a platform for all forms of narrative, whatever they look like.
Camilla Eustance spoke to the editors of Slow Canoe, Oliver Driscoll, Angus Keech and Bella Li
How did Slow Canoe begin?
OD: I was sharing a pokey little space in the original Schoolhouse Studios in Abbotsford with another writer, Melissa Howard (we pulled up asbestos floor tiles together, I accidentally knocked a full tin of white paint off the window sill, her child drew a picture with three of us linking our orange and pink arms, I slept in there after a breakup for some weeks, until she said ‘move out’—it was nice), and we were asked to run some kind of literary event because we were the only writers there. We ran it together monthly for maybe two years. We quickly ran out of friends to invite to read, so we approached authors we admired and trawled through journals for new writers.
With Angus and Bella getting involved, it became apparent that we really wanted to play around with form, and that we could make the event its own thing, with a vaguely filmic sensibility. We also wanted to move somewhat beyond the literary audience. We started to throw in things like sound, moving image, photography, artist talks, translation, and performed readings by international authors, and to start looking much further afield. This enabled us to stop running up against our and our audience’s attention spans—I still have nightmares of someone grabbing my arm during the second long reading in a row of historical realism and whispering to me, So boring, shoot me. But it also means that the three of us have drawn-out discursive chats about possibilities in this kind of endless, many-headed conversation. I get the impression the artists appreciate the mixed and generous audience that now come along; the very wonderful folk musician Al Parkinson said during her set recently something along the lines of ‘you guys really listen to me, it’s so nice!’
When Schoolhouse closed, or was bulldozed, we moved around a little (our next two venues also closed) until settling on Sundry in Fitzroy. The people there are great and easy and they’re architects and makers, so we can have some fun with how things are staged. More recently, Bella started the chapbook press, which has also shaped our night and enabled us to produce more new work. We’re still smallish, but a comfortable size.
Why do you find that having the publication as a live project works better than having it as a static medium?
OD: I wouldn’t say it works better—it’s just another thing, and maybe something we personally enjoy. Though we do like that it’s not only significantly cheaper and less time-intensive than running a regular journal, it’s also a place where the artists, those who come and the three of us can to think about all forms of reading—whether it be of text, image, sound, movement, architectural space or objects (we have a ceramic display at our upcoming summer event). Further to this, your experience of a ‘static’ journal is likely to be non-constant and drawn out. As editors of a live event, we have a little more control over this experience. When it all works, you’re left swimming in voices, ideas, and your own good will towards those who create.
BL: And this swimming in voices, ideas and good will is what really brings the Slow Canoe together. Over the years the live journal has built up a community of regulars who come along frequently enough for there to be a sense of an evolving yet somehow familiar body of artists and audience members. Contributors meet each other at a dinner we put on beforehand (something started by Melissa in the Schoolhouse orchard), and people tend to linger at the end of the night, and talk and talk during the breaks. So it’s equally about what happens before and after events, or in between acts.
Do you ever feel limited by Slow Canoe’s live-ness, or, conversely, do you find it liberating?
AK: While you do consider each work’s performative potential, I wouldn’t say it’s a limitation. Putting something in front of an audience makes it immediate and visceral, and each work is inevitably sitting in conversation with all the other works presented that night. This shared experience can open works in ways that wouldn’t be possible if they existed solely in print or online, so in that sense it’s quite liberating.
Occasionally we come across something really great that won’t quite fit, generally because it jars with what our curatorial ideas are for that particular Live Journal. However, the lack of any blueprint means that we are often able to find a way of making something presentable if we really want to. Often by discerning the elements of a work that got our attention, we’re able to find a way to pair that with live, performative components that still honor the intent of the original work but lift it to something that works better in a live setting as well.
What do you think is the significance of the IRL over the URL element of Slow Canoe? Interpret this however you like.
AK: I think you can create a lot of unique intersections by putting works in a live setting. Online, we’ll have emails pinging back and forth, flick through 15 open tabs, while waiting for someone to text us back. We can distractedly trawl through articles and read great works online, but they aren’t always received in a way that is going to allow for more intersections to open them up further. We might see an amazing image, but we don’t sit with it, scrolling onto the next thing before we even realise. It’s usually frenetic and almost always fractured.
The Slow Canoe is about giving people the space and time to take a step out of over-stimulated lives, to engage with story, art and creativity in a more present way. The shared experience, a collective engagement, is something we try to actively influence: in slowing down, hopefully, there’s a type of temporal expansion, that allows an exploration of these intersections in greater detail. As Bella said, the discussion that happens before, during and after the events is just as important, too. Sure, there are online chatrooms or comments sections that allow for exchange, but because it isn’t shared in the same way, it can’t quite be talked about in the same way as a live event.
What is the role of The Slow Canoe Press?
BL: When we started the press, the idea was that the journal and the press would complement each other, but remain distinct entities. The press isn’t there to be a record of the journal—it’s about taking the ethos of Slow Canoe into another medium. For each live event, we release one chapbook, and they both feed into and grow out of each other. Like the journal, the chapbooks are collaborative and cross-fertilising in a loose sense: contributors create independently, but have their work curated and thrown against each other, and it’s in the entanglement where interesting things happen.
There’s so much you can do with the form—chapbooks are small, relatively inexpensive to make, and themselves inhabit an in-between space, being neither zines nor journals or books, though borrowing freely from all three. Of course, there’s always the lure of the object—that mass of paper and staples you can hold in your hands, that you can experience more than once and at your own particular pace, and that days, months or years later might remind you of something you thought you’d forgotten. And it’s nice for people to have a little thing to take home at the end of the night.
Why, specifically, ‘forms of narrative’ rather than forms that don’t require a beginning, a middle and an end?
OD: Part of this project in a broad sense is about exploring what narrative is, or the problem of representing people in time. We’re quite loose with how we think about this though—with, say, film, we tend to avoid video art (which you could very crudely and probably wrongly say is art about representation or the medium itself) in favour of short films in which something happens. Similarly, there’s a particular kind of photography that suggests relationships, and consequently time and sequence. With something like non-fiction, we might give preference to works that have an in-scene author-narrator. Part of this is just to be interesting, to give the audience something to hold onto, but we’re also concerned with the technical difficulties and possibilities of narrative representation and experimentation. If a work is good or successful on the night, it’s probably because in some way it’s telling a story.
We like dialogue and dialogues (the event itself is a kind of dialogue), and connections. This could be between elements within a work, or between two pieces on a night. If, for instance, we listen to Robert Skinner reading an essay set in central Australia after hearing the strangely anachronistic thumping folk music of Lucky Moore and watching the quietly searching film of Audrey Lam, who explores displacement in suburban and industrial landscapes, we may experience the internal elements or relationships in that piece differently to how we otherwise would.
You remark that Slow Canoe is also interested in ‘[projects] that exist between forms’: can you describe what you mean by this liminal zone between forms?
BL: There are lots of sub-forms or sub-genres floating about and disrupting boundaries—these have always been around, but have perhaps stayed out of the spotlight because they’re not so easily framed as products for a consuming public. The photobook, for instance, has been described as the midway point between a novel and a film, though it has become a popular form in and of itself. Perhaps it’s not so much ‘existence between forms’ (because you could keep endlessly dividing the pie) as the way in which such projects show how formless and porous forms can be, in the sense of there being acute resonances between, say, non-fiction and poetry, or photography and music.
And perhaps what makes the Slow Canoe unique is that it occupies that liminal zone, too. The live journal showcases music, but it’s not a gig. There’s artwork, but it’s not an exhibition. There are dramatic monologues, but it’s not a play. The venue isn’t a theatre or a gallery or a pub, and the ‘stage’ is just a cleared space at the front. On the night, it becomes all of the above and none of it, and we find that what results is precisely a kind of clearing—of the expectations people usually bring to particular genres of events set aside for particular genres of art. What’s left is the most basic expectation of any audience: that of a collective experience of watching and listening, of paying attention and finding unexpected bridges between pieces and performers.
Bella, Ollie, and Angus: How has your own work been influenced by Slow Canoe’s mixing of forms?
AK: I have always been a creative mongrel, so the mixing of forms is probably a natural inclination anyway. Beginning in theatre and performance, the immediacy of interchange between audience and art, and the rhythm that unfolds out of that, has always interested me. Now I’m more focused on writing, filmmaking or more experimental forms, but the person on the other side who might engage with the work is always front of mind.
BL: I would say the same is true for me. I like practising different forms, though I’m not particularly good at any one thing. And being ‘good’ seems less important than being curious and having the desire to make, regardless of what it is you make in the end. I recently took a beginner’s pottery class and could barely produce anything that looked pot-like (everything was either hilarious or horrifying), but the necessary part was the learning and doing and trying. I like amateurs and autodidacts and polymaths—people who aren’t afraid to step into areas they aren’t familiar with.
OD: They are really good answers. I find discussions on how different mediums might restrain, preference or promote certain elements endlessly fascinating. Film, for example, in comparison to prose, restricts or at least problematises internalisations; photography, in comparison to other forms of visual art, can seem to do away with the idea of design and abstraction, and to preference selection over creation (these are gross simplifications). The noise from these discussions and these differences inevitably makes you question and rework how you do a particular thing.
Oliver Driscoll is a PhD candidate and manages fiction submissions at Overland Literary Journal. In 2015, he won the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Award for Narrative Non-Fiction.
Angus Keech has been a bit of everything. Theatre, film, literature. Acting, writing, directing. Something. Nothing. Advertising. Mongrel.
Bella Li is a writer, editor and PhD candidate. She is the author of Argosy (Vagabond Press, 2017)—a book of poetry, photography and collage.