Faces of the Dan Davin Literary Foundation Poetry Festival (Image: Tina Tiller)
Faces of the Dan Davin Literary Foundation Poetry Festival (Image: Tina Tiller)

BooksJune 25, 2024

I love Invercargill – and its poetry festival, too

Faces of the Dan Davin Literary Foundation Poetry Festival (Image: Tina Tiller)
Faces of the Dan Davin Literary Foundation Poetry Festival (Image: Tina Tiller)

A diary of the Dan Davin Literary Foundation Poetry Festival that took place Invercargill over the first weekend of June.

From north to south, Aotearoa is loaded with literary festivals, each with a unique way of inviting bookish people to come out and play. Over the last month we’ve seen our shiniest literary event, the Auckland Writers Festival, and our friendliest, the hyper-local Dan Davin Poetry Festival in Waihōpai-Invercargill. I was fortunate enough to attend both. Somebody with rhythm might write a Kiwiburger-type jingle about reading on down from Quay Street to Dee Street, Hobson Street to Don Street, but I am not that person.

I am also not a poet and yet here I am on a damp Friday afternoon at James Hargest College for a student poetry workshop. After a poetry reading at Gore Library and a panel at Invercargill Library yesterday, today is all about the teens. Sara Hirsch, London-grown poet, director and educator, now based in Tāmaki Makaurau, has come straight from Aurora College to their second workshop of the day. Meanwhile, up the road in Riverton, the wandering Ōtepoti writers Kay McKenzie Cooke and Jenny Powell have paid respect to the recently washed-up sperm whale carcass on a nearby beach and are working with young writers at Aparima College.

Signing in at James Hargest College I note that students in socks and kilts are learning an actual waltz in the adjoining hall. “They’re practising for the formal this weekend,” the school administrator smiles. “We still learn all the dances here at James Hargest.” 

Over in the school library, the students who have opted to join the workshop are in safe hands with Sara Hirsch, an experienced educator who opens the workshop with the best-ever icebreaker: “Does anyone have a name that people get wrong?” Three-quarters of the teenagers raise their hand. 

A lively series of activities get the young creatives buzzing. Sara has such a talent for torch lighting a way into a piece of writing, and I record some nuggets for myself: “you cannot edit something that doesn’t exist,” is going straight onto my lock screen. By the time I leave, the waltzing teens are onto something different. “I think it’s the Gay Gordons, that one,” a passing teacher tells me. 

Spritely Sara Hirsch leading poetry workshops at the Dan Davin Poetry Festival in Invercargill.

The Dan Davin Literary Foundation’s annual focus alternates between short fiction and poetry, and 2024 is a poetry year. Becs Amundsen has shaped a down-to-earth programme of panels and workshops to challenge Southland audiences but also to fertilise works in progress for the upcoming Dan Davin Literary Awards. Spoken word has been added as a category to this year’s competition so Sara Hirsch’s performance workshop will be handy for local writers looking to try something new. 

Other visitors include the acclaimed David Eggleton, and Ingrid Campbell, a Southland art therapist and storyteller. The essential Tusiata Avia, incisive and uncompromising, was set to headline but to the great sadness of all, is unable to travel. Also in town is Dunedin-based Kay McKenzie Cooke who has whakapapa to Ōraka and once lived in Orepuki, a tiny former rail town perched on coastal cliffs over Te Waewae Bay. She and Jenny Powell are no strangers to the hinterlands of Otago and Southland, often singling out places that don’t see many visits from poets, and taking their work to the road as J & K.

After the workshop Becs Amundsen, co-chair of the Dan Davin Literary Foundation, invites me along to a guerilla style poetry-pub crawl they’ve planned to fill the gap of Tusiata’s Friday event. How completely Invercargill, and how perfect: a bunch of Aotearoa’s great southern poets rushing the stage at the gorgeous old Civic Theatre then versing it up at the fancy new Langlands Hotel. I regretfully decline due to a prior engagement (why lie – it’s a beanbag by the fire in Colac Bay) but get major FOMO when I hear that Jenny Powell read her poem ‘Southern Woman’ at the Invercargill Club. The venue is home to what was formerly known as the Invercargill Gentleman’s Club, who formed in 1879 and started accepting women as full members from 1998. Good to hear it. 

At the risk of spoiling a great Southern secret, Invercargill has the best op shops in the nation. Today I hit St Vinnies which is off my usual circuit but fortunately provides the hoarder’s equivalent of Powerball — fill a bag for $5! Two 1990s denim skirts, a stack of good books and a yellow top embroidered with flamingoes later, I make my way to the Friday night fireside. 

The op shop haul including the rare $5-fill-a-bag deal. And a house in Invercargill currently for sale for $395K on TradeMe.

Who is Dan Davin – and why is a literary foundation named after him?

Dan Davin is a sort of a background hero to New Zealand literature, which is a very Invercargill way to become a literary icon. The fourth of six children, he was born to Irish Catholic parents in 1913 and brought up in Gore and Invercargill, later winning a scholarship to study at Otago University and later a Rhodes Scholarship. Post-war, Davin took up a role at Oxford University Press where he ascended to academic publisher. 

Davin achieved some critical attention with his first two novels, one about his war experience and another drawing on his Southland childhood. The work to read, Becs Amundsen says, is his collection of Southland stories and poetry, The Gorse Blooms Pale. The semi-autobiographical Mick Connolly stories are her favourites. 

Davin is considered a diaspora writer by academics, in the vein of Katherine Mansfield and Fleur Adcock. He never returned here to live but provided significant support to New Zealand writers from abroad. There’s a story of tightly crammed Aerogram exchanges with Joy Cowley, for example. 

The Dan Davin Foundation, like the man himself, does an extraordinary job of promoting creative writing in the large and sparsely populated region of Murihiku. The foundation’s work began in 1994 with a workshop and short story competition for Year 11-13 students and has extended to meet demand from adults who also wanted writing opportunities. As a result, the secondary schools programme very much remains at the heart of the Foundation’s work; more so than some festivals where it can be a sidecar to the grown up stuff. A bequest also helped the Foundation to launch a writers’ residency which alternates yearly with a literary festival and includes trips for writers to the Murihiku gems, Piopiotahi-Milford Sound and Rakiura-Stewart Island, along with accommodation for 3-6 weeks and a stipend. (Applications open later this year for the 2025 residency).

Dan Davin (left) bears a striking resemblance to Daniel Craig as Bond (right). Photo of Dan Davin: Ref: PAColl-5498. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Baby tuatara and the ‘new world of Invercargill’

On Saturday morning, a glowing mist lifts to reveal that crisp winter clarity you only see in the south, and everyone is talking about a fifth baby tuatara being discovered at the old enclosure in Queens Park. The little miracle reptiles spotted by the demo team as the machines rolled in is by far my favourite news story of the year.

At the Invercargill library Sara Hirsch runs a leisurely, yet comprehensive workshop around the seam of storytelling. People have brought stories from all over the region and after two hours, even I feel like I could write a poem. 

I’m desperate to see the tuatara but so is every family in Invercargill, it seems. Instead I slow-drive past open homes – three bedrooms, an established garden, recently remodelled: $435,000. Just saying. 

On Saturday, the poetry showcase – drinks and snacks provided – confirms that an open mic event really is the best way to see a community’s heart. Eleven locals share their work, safely and expertly MC’d by the ebullient Sara Hirsch who is somehow still zinging after two days of workshops.

The invited poets cap off the festival. Musical and masterful as ever, David Eggleton shares a torrent of subversive images as the voice of 2024, “you’re swole, you slay, you’re enchanté”. Jenny Powell privileges us with ‘Searching for Peter Olds’, a piece written for the great Dunedin poet’s memorial in 2023 and never to be read again after this, she says. There’s reference to an event here in Invercargill during which she, Peter and other poets imagined New Zealand towns as glamorous counterparts: Dunedin as Berlin, Balclutha, a town of the tropics and “the new world of Invercargill where Bob Dylan is swinging between shelves of books.” Powell produced her work ‘Alive in Berlin’ out of that event, and Becs Amundsen shares that it was the first she organised with the Foundation – proof of the creative fuel these opportunities provide for the south. 

People can be a bit mean about Invercargill – even Davin himself who is on record calling it “New Zealand’s worst small town”. By contrast though, he also romanticises aspects of Southland life in his work. It’s an apt summary of the conflicted feelings many creatives have about this place.

I love Invercargill’s straightforwardness, its unassuming nature, and the tendency for people there to describe everything as “good as gold”. As a Queenstowner, I appreciate Invercargill’s limited tolerance for artifice, and for people who can’t back a trailer (me). It’s a very sensible place. 

There’s also a unique creative energy here, one that increasingly draws on more than just Southland’s isolation and wild landscapes – this poetry festival is proof. I’ll be back.

The Dan Davin Writing Awards are open now to writers residing in the Southland province, as well as the Queenstown, Glenorchy, Arrowtown, Tapanui and Heriot areas, and close on Friday 26 July. More information online here.

Keep going!