Emily Writes speaks with the writer who spent eight years running Ōtautahi’s beloved literary festival – and caring, possibly too deeply, about everyone involved.
This post was first published on Emily Writes Weekly.
It was not the way Rachael King had hoped to say goodbye. Word Christchurch’s once sold-out opening night gala event was a shadow of its former self, with just a third of the usual audience in attendance. Writers and publishers from outside the city were absent. The lineup was still impressive – an array of Aotearoa’s best writers, poets and speakers – but many were Zooming in from their living rooms.
Watching King tear up as she spoke to the small audience was hard. As a writer, like so many writers in Aotearoa, I’ve been a beneficiary of King’s generosity over the years. She has acted as a mentor to many, and after that November night we talked about how hard it was to see her so upset.
In contrast, on the final night of the festival King received a standing ovation, and much hollering, from a lively crowd at the Foundation Pop-Up, held in the café at Tūranga. Champagne was popped; the party spilled into the street. After 40 events over five days – and, for King, eight years – the party was over.
You could tell a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
A fortnight later, King and I are chatting through a screen, nursing wine. She’s upbeat, though clearly tired.
In June, she’d decided she would leave the festival. In early August she told the chair of the board. On the day they announced her decision to the Word Christchurch Trust, she was huddled around a radio with the festival’s staff and board, waiting to hear whether the country would go into lockdown.
It was a week before the festival was meant to start.
“It was the worst year of my life,” she says, before quickly following up with, “No, that’s not true! It was definitely my worst year at the festival. Just trying to work out what was going on and what we could and couldn’t do, rescheduling to a level one festival then saying ‘Oh, we can’t do that’ … and then Aucklanders can’t come, and then ‘Oh shit there’s cases in Christchurch now so we can’t do that!’ We ended up planning seven festivals.
In the end, King says, “we had to refund the bulk of ticket sales. It was really hard on all of our staff and contractors”.
This isn’t where it all started. King is an award-winning novelist and a brilliant essayist, but for a long time now her name has been synonymous with Word Christchurch.
“That’s one of the beautiful things about it, but it was also one of the things that made me feel like I needed to leave. The job followed me around. It was with me all the time. It was in my head all the time.”
Being quoted as a festival director instead of a writer when she contributed to an article as a writer added to the feeling that she had lost her identity outside of Word.
“[The festival] felt like my baby and I cared about it like a living and breathing creature – that was one of its strengths, but maybe it was not so healthy”.
“I think there’s a high burnout factor in organising festivals,” she says. She believes she was somewhat shielded by the biennial nature of the festival. Still – many months were “insane”.
The shoestring budget didn’t help. “I always felt like the arts are undervalued and what we do is undervalued. It’s pushing shit up a hill to get enough money to pay people what they need to do what they need to do. I won’t miss that.”
Along with executive director Marianne Hargreaves, King was usually in a part-time role to satisfy budgets, but was often working fulltime to achieve what they wanted the festival to be.
“Marianne and I have been a team since the start. It was brilliant when we brought Magdalena Lorenzo on as admin assistant in 2017. We could relax a whole lot more because she could manage some of the things that fell through the cracks. She set up our whole volunteer system and looks after it. We’re known now for having an army of amazing volunteers. But it was still an enormous job, even shared by more people.”
King lights up when talking about the people she works with. Describing the admin of a festival she loses interest quickly. She tells me of programming on her days off because her working weeks were spent deep in “the work that happens around the programme, working with Marianne to keep the organisation ticking over – promotion and fundraising and relationship building”.
She loved programming. “That was always my favourite part. I love playing matchmaker. I love putting writers together.” It’s intuitive, she says. Sometimes you just know.
In 2008, she went to her first poetry slam, in Portland, Oregon. “I’d never seen anything like it. It was like a rock concert. It completely blew me away.” She met the winner, Anis Mojgani, and told him he needed to come to Aotearoa. He was the first person she invited when she took over the reins of the 2014 festival.
“Watching him onstage and seeing everyone just fall in love with him I knew I was on my way as a festival director, as someone who could introduce people to a writer they’d never realised they needed in their life. By the time Anis’s solo session came along all his books had sold out. I remember saying to the bookseller ‘Why didn’t you get more books?’ and they said ‘Well, poetry doesn’t usually sell at festivals’, and I thought ‘Great, I’m going to change that’.”
She shares her highlights from the past eight years thick and fast. She is a writer that loves writers.
“Ivan Coyote definitely – it felt like a real turning point when we brought them over in 2016 … Ivan just changed a lot of people’s hearts and minds about what it is to be transgender. They always said storytelling is how you change the world, and they came here and told stories and they changed a lot of people.
“Robin Robertson, he dedicated my favourite poem in the whole world, ‘At Roane Head’ to me on stage and I just…!” She dissolves at the memory.
Possibly her favourite event is one that hasn’t happened yet. “Commissioning a show with David Mitchell and Tiny Ruins, where he has written stories inspired by her songs, and which we have filmed at the Irish pub down the road from him in Clonakilty, was going to be my swansong! It’s utter magic.” It will still happen, when circumstances allow.
Her proudest moments, she says, were shaped by the city she loves. The festival’s links with Ngāi Tahu were strengthened during her time because she and Hargreaves knew how important the partnership is to the festival’s sense of place. Nic Low, Ngāi Tahu author and arts organiser, became programme co-director this year, and King says leaving the job in his hands “absolutely feels right”.
King has long recognised the importance of sharing decisions. In 2018 she introduced a guest programmer role. “I approached Tusiata Avia and asked her to come up with three events – the brief was to think about who she would like to see on stage and what conversations she would like to hear, or that have been absent from festivals to that point.”
The idea of guest programmers has stuck, and the role has since been filled by Ray Shipley, A.J. Fitzwater and Daisy Lavea-Timo. Nic Low and Kurdish-Iranian author Behrouz Boochani were originally earmarked as guest programmers for the 2020 festival, and two Iranian writers were lined up to attend before the pandemic put a stop to it.
“Guest curators are now a welcome standard at New Zealand festivals, but this year I wanted to go a step further and share the job equally, which was how Nic came into the picture as co-director for 2021.”
Word takes over the city, filling the cracks left by the earthquake. That’s testament to a commitment to Ōtautahi and its people, and they in turn are what makes King tick.
Her emotions are clear when she talks about bringing Boochani from Papua New Guinea, where he’d spent four years held at the Manus Island detention centre, to speak at Word in 2019. Boochani applied for asylum at the end of his one-month visa and was permitted to stay in New Zealand until he was granted refugee status in July 2020.
“Having him come was a life changing movement … When he arrived, he did back-to-back international media interviews. How he was still standing I don’t know. And doing the event itself, we sold out 1300 seats and he was given a standing ovation and then of course the aftermath … He was used as a political football, I was in a constant state of anger. When he applied for asylum, legally nobody was allowed to talk about it. It was very stressful. It was wonderful when he was granted asylum and he could finally relax a bit.”
King is hugely protective of her writers. It’s clear in the way she talks about them and the way she embraces them during the festival. It’s not unusual to be picked up at the airport by King. She is somehow always in every green room, if not every audience. She has been seen racing from event to event on a Lime scooter. Last month, I watched her stop multiple times after being called to almost every table along Regent Street. This was well past midnight.
“Last year, late evening after going all day, I finally sat down to enjoy Ray Shipley’s Late Night Poetry event. Then I saw some poets who hadn’t eaten so I got them some food. Then I was heading back to my hotel and walked through New Regent Street and had to stop and chat to the writers and then finally I got back to my hotel, and I lay down and I thought, I think this year has to be my last one.
“I love these people so much and maybe that’s to the detriment of my…” she pauses. “If anyone felt like they’d had a bad time, I’d feel like I’d failed them. I really wanted to make people feel good. I put that pressure on myself.”
King leaves a festival that has changed. Writers are zoomed in, events are live streamed, everything has been downscaled – although the organising burden has doubled if not tripled.
Staff did their best under the challenging circumstances. Low, as digital programme director, took on the bulk of the initiative, with what King calls his “typical creative flair”.
Live streaming has presented new challenges. “It’s extremely expensive! There’s no way the tickets sold can pay for the live stream. You have to get funding from elsewhere. People don’t understand how expensive it is!”
The trick now is to balance demand for virtual festival attendance against the need for festivals to be intimate, the vulnerability of writers and poets on stage, and the “you had to be there” vibe.
“I think things will change a lot. We had heaps of people tuning in from Auckland and it was great to be able to give them something to watch while they were locked down. But every time someone puts a live stream on free, because they’ve been funded to do it or whatever, it kind of fucks it up for everyone else who relies on box office to survive.
“We did a pay-what-you-can system – it started at $10 for a day pass, which is an accessible amount, but most people paid more – but if you do it free, people really undervalue it, and festivals won’t survive. We want to pay the writers! We want to pay the people who do this work.”
King is clearly grateful she no longer has to grapple with these issues. She’s heading off to a writers retreat where she will work on her children’s novel and book of essays. She says she had many days that started with tears as the team tried to lead the festival. Now she’s looking forward to being a festival attendee, rather than an organiser.
“I think this year we put a lot of buffers and systems in place that will ensure the festival is prepared for anything that Covid throws at it. I’m excited to see where Nic, as programme director, takes it.”
Through it all, she never lost her belief in the importance of festivals.
“It’s a place to commune. It’s a completely unique experience. Festivals are also where all the baby writers are born. This is where they go to be inspired. They go to a slam poetry festival and say ‘I never knew poetry could be like that, that’s not what I was taught at school.’ And suddenly there’s a community there. They might have thought they were alone, and here’s someone on stage…” She trails off.
“I could write a thesis on the importance of writers festivals.”