Wordsmiths’ Convention

The First English Literature Festival in Vienna: “It Takes Courage to Open up to an Audience.”

On The Town | Alexandra Ruths | October 2006

For four days in October, English will hold sway in Vienna’s 7th District, when poets perform, writers mentor, when high school hopefuls take their first steps out onto a small stage in front of an audience for "ViennaLit," Vienna’s first Festival of English Literature.

Organized by Julia Novak and a team of volunteers, ViennaLit is an opportunity for the city’s English-speaking community, to take part in workshops, experience poetry jams, listen to spoken word artists, applaud at the book launch and be impressed by the creativity of Austrians’ high-school students reciting their own poems on stage.

The performances, scheduled from Oct.12 to 16 at the performance space "replugged Vienna" at 7., Lerchenfelderstrasse 23, are to be followed by discussion, drinks and a reception with the performers, writers and artists.

"We’re trying to make literature less frightening and more inclusive," organiser Julia Novak explained, "to encourage people to participate and to get in touch with the artists and authors"

Novak’s vision for the festival followed her return from studies in London in 2005, "spoilt" by the number and variation of literary events circulating there.

"I couldn’t image not having the possibility to go to readings or poetry jams anymore, having to live without all that in Vienna," Novak explained. At a cultural seminar, she found two like minded literature lovers, and the three of them started the project. The festival required a year of intense organisation, fundraising and perseverance – all of them working on a volunteer basis

The four-day program of ‘indulging in English literature’ includes readings by established authors like John Siddique; jam sessions by spoken word artists like Anthony Joseph; and workshops will be held at the British Council for all who want to put pen to paper themselves.

In addition there will be a book launch night and an evening of celebration for the winners of the poetry and the writing competition.Patricia Häusler Greenfield, Professor English Philology, at the University of Vienna is one of the three judges for the writing competition, work described as "a written response to Vienna, in English, in prose or verse, deriving from personal experience" – an outsider’s view on Vienna and its people.

"We met culture shock and horror; laughter and satire, in the broadest sense, it really was a topic dealing with cultural clashes," Prof Häusler said.

"We jurors were duly grateful to those of the Vienna Lit team who screened the original 120 or so entries, making our task of "judging" a little easier," Häusler reported. The shortlist of 40 included a range of text-types: anecdotes, ballads, essays, letters, poems, stories and vignettes.

The first prize? "The glory of being published in a real book called Vienna Views," Häusler declared. On Thursday, Oct. 15, the Vienna Views anthology of the twenty best entries, will be launched by the publishing house Luftschacht° – a highpoint of the festival.

The judges describe Vienna Views as "a real page turner."

"Emotions run high if you challenge resident foreigners and exiles to write about their experience of a strange new world," Häusler explained. "It’s meant to give the reader a deeper understanding of what it is like to be a stranger in another country!"

While pleased, Häusler was not particularly surprised by the level of creativity. Looking back onto her long history of teaching, she had learned "how creative people can be if you only give them a chance."  However she was inspired that people had taken the time "to sit down and to find a form to express what they felt," Häusler admitted. "It takes courage to open up to an audience and expose yourself; I, personally did not have the guts or the time to do that."

Those who do can put their ideas on paper in one of the workshops offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in the British council. Experienced and passionate writers will share their love for literature and English text.

"What is new and special about the Vienna Lit festival is that it is a platform where one can get in touch with the community of people who are writing in English in Vienna or who want to write in English in Vienna," Novak explained.

John Siddique is one of those who are already writing successfully. Reading a selection of his poems on politics, race and love, he will show that, as he sees it, "poetry can be noisy, humorous and sexy." Many other artists such as Anthony Joseph, a group called ‘the Fugitives’ or Jay Bernard will in extraordinary, new ways combine text with rhythms and sounds- experimenting with the connection between words and music– an explosive mixture prone to leaving many in the audience open mouthed and shouting for more.

"Our festival is exceptional not only because of the innovative stuff and ideas we present, but also because this way of experiencing language is totally new to most Viennese! You should be prepared to face one surprise after the other," Novak smiled.

Totally new as well: the "school slam" on Saturday of the festival where the most interesting texts of the high school poetry competition will be read/performed by their authors. For the competition the participants were to take on of John Siddique’s list poem "YES," as inspiration for writing a kind of counter poem ("NO"). Individual performances will be judged just like in a dancing competition, for the Vienna Lit School Slam Champion 2006!

In the final days, Vienna Lit is looking for "ambassadors" to herald the festival, about 15 students to distribute flyers and programs and bring friends along with them to the festival.

Ambassadors get a free ticket to all performances at the Vienna Lit festival, the chance to meet with the renowned poet John Siddique at an exclusive setting ‘outside’ the festival, and a free drink on Monday (16 October) at the Fundus Theatre, after the Monday Night English event.

Interested students are asked to send an email to office@viennalit.at (subject ambassador) briefly describing their background and goals at Vienna Lit.

Sponsors hope that this first festival will demonstrate the value of the project to sponsors, to help finance a repeat in Spring 2008.

"We’ve had to get by with so little. I think it’s going to be a lot easier next time," Novak added. Even though sponsors had shown great interest, they did not want to risk putting money into something most of them had never heard of before. "We’d much rather pay the artists a decent fee for their work.

"Many of them simply chose to come because Vienna is a beautiful city." However, without more financial support, Novak said, Vienna Lit "won’t happen again."

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