Hidden treasures everywhere in Story Week 2021

2019 Australian Poetry Slam winner wāni Le Frère. Image: supplied.

Story Week, presented by Word Travels, is an interactive celebration of writing and discovery, fusing new technology with traditional arts culture. The Sentinel spoke with creative director Miles Merrill about this innovative event. By Rita Bratovich.

During lockdown, Miles Merrill observed people going for walks and chatting in groups, and he thought about how that experience could be enhanced. He wanted to work with the idea of culture being on the street rather than in a venue. 

Using location and image recognition technologies together with internet capabilities, Merrill developed activities to help connect people with poetry and stories in a fun and inventive way. 

“One of the things that I’m most excited about, we’ve embedded poetry into stop signs. So, if you open a link it will then open your browser [it will request access to your camera] then with your camera you can point it at any stop sign in the world and a poem will appear on your camera,” explains Merrill, the founder and director of literary arts organisation, Word Travels.

In another activity, you can register your phone number and have someone call you back and personally read you a poem. 

For the adventurous, the Story Week team has tapped into the geocaching community. Geocaching is a worldwide scavenger hunt whereby subscribers share the location of hidden containers using GPS coordinates. The containers hold ‘caches’ which can be anything from trinkets and toys to, in the case of Story Week, slips of paper bearing poem or story fragments. Participants photograph the fragment and share it online. All the fragments are then put together to form a whole story or poem. 

Wiradjuri poet Jazz Money will appear on $10 notes during Story Week. Image: Mikki Gomez.

As with the stop signs, a $10 note can also be transformed into performance art using a smartphone. In this case, the transformation has a deeper context.

“We’re replacing Mary Gilmore on the $10 note with First Nations poet Jazz Money. Basically by pointing your camera at the $10 note, Mary Gilmore’s face disappears and Jazz Money’s face appears and she performs a poem about stolen land and currency and gold. It’s particularly poignant because Mary Gilmore has several essays that she wrote about her advocacy for the White Australia Policy.”

The voice of First Nations people is a very important part of Story Week. They’ve partnered with Awesome Black, a podcast network, to create First Nations content for the program. 

“For us it’s been a matter of recognising that there are incredible writers and performers out there in First Nations communities, so we actually hired two First Nations creative producers to work with us,” says Merrill. 

The creative producers have curated content that includes workshops such as ‘Love Letters to Country’ and a panel discussion on how to celebrate First Nations languages. 

Another special co-curator is Somalian refugee Hani Abdile, whom Merrill has been working with since 2014. 

Abdile fled Somalia when she was 17 and spent 11 months in refugee detention on Christmas Island. She began writing poetry and sharing it on social media while in detention. After being released, she attended a workshop with Word Travels and has since appeared on the ABC’s Q&A and The Drum, and is an ambassador for Amnesty International. 

There’s loads more going on during the seven days of Story Week, including the finals of the ever-popular Poetry Slam. 

The program is divided into three themes, explains Merrill: “Incubate, which is about learning and conversation; Create, which is about interactive and digital experiences where you kind of go out into the world or you get a phone call, so it’s really about engaging in a new way with writing; and then you’ve got Celebrate, which is the gatherings, the poetry slams, meeting up with people you know and having what we might think of as more of traditional going to a gig.

“The three themes are based on the concept that in 2019 we were caterpillars, and in 2020 we all went into chrysalis, and we’ve just come out of chrysalis and now we are butterflies. The collective noun for a group of butterflies is kaleidoscope. So you can kind of think of the program as pupae, chrysalis, butterfly, kaleidoscope.”

Story Week 2021 takes place from Monday, 22 November to Sunday, 28 November. For full the program, to book tickets for live events, and to access QR codes for free interactive events, visit: www.wordtravels.info/story-week-2021.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel.