A Chat With Izzy Roberts-Orr

By Kasia Kosidlo | @kasiakosidlo
Ahead of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, set to run from the 14th-23rd of June, Catalyst got the chance to speak to the festival’s co-CEO and artistic director Izzy Roberts-Orr about all things writing, her time at RMIT, and of course, the EWF.

Kasia Kosidlo: When deciding on the direction of this year’s EWF, what were you hoping to achieve and considered most important in terms of the involved artists and program? What do you hope attendees get out of the events?

IZZY ROBERTS-ORR: Our main aims with the festival are to give emerging storytellers access to professional development opportunities and support to engage new and larger audiences, regardless of who they are or where they’re coming from. A really important bottom line for me is that the festival represents the full spectrum of perspectives and experiences our community encapsulates – both in the artists programmed and the audiences coming along to be part of it all.

We have a  motto, that the festival contains ~tomorrow’s voices~ and what we mean by that are the voices you’ll be listening to well into the future, the voices that need to be amplified, the voices of our broader community.

We really do look at the open artist callout too – all of our events feature at least one artist who has never been part of the festival before – Bad Writing was pitched to us by Tim McGuire, and now he’s hosting that in the festival!

Which Emerging Writers’ Festival events are you EXTRA excited about?

This is really hard, and kind of like choosing your favourite child…but a few that I would say are ~not to be missed~ are:

Opening Night, featuring poet Omar Sakr, illustrator Rachel Ang, and our Indonesian exchange artist, sci-fi writer Azri Zakkiyah. We’ll also be hearing from the makers of the Messenger podcast, a collaborative project between Melbourne journalist Michael Green and Abdul Aziz Muhamat, who reports on the conditions he faces in detention on Manus Island.

Amazing Babes, which is exactly as excellent as the title suggests. A bunch of phenomenal women perform odes to the women who’ve inspired them, and as if we needed any more brilliance to top it off, Sovereign Trax is DJing.

Songs and Stories explores what ~home~ means, and I’m really excited to see what the line-up of jaw-droppingly talented musicians and poets will bring to this. Is home a place, a feeling or a person? Can you carry it with you?

Quippings: Disability Unleashed are bringing their raucous, raunchy voices to the stage of the Cooper Malthouse to perform Love Show. The show will be Auslan interpreted, and the theatre in full accessible swing to ensure everyone has a good view. It’s going to be seriously fabulous.

Climate change is real and present, and honestly terrifying. Tipping Points will be made in 24 hours by five writers, four actors and one director and I can’t wait to see what these brilliant and funny minds come up with as they tackle the hard stuff, envisioning a future on the brink of ecological collapse.

There are a couple of really good wrap-ups on our blog too, including our highlights from the National Writers’ Conference, and our top picks of the many free events.

Why do you think it’s important for something like the Emerging Writers’ Festival to exist?

The festival is a space for artists, audience and programmers to try things out, and cut your teeth – and probably most importantly, to find your people. The spaces between the events, when artists and audience are making friends and connections, are incredibly valuable.

It’s amazing to come together in a celebration that doesn’t deny that being a storyteller can be really challenging, to find like-minded folk, or have a bit of debate and learn something new. Knowing that there’s a whole festival full of people who’ve got your back is a great spur of inspiration to keep writing, pushing, experimenting, building, destroying, trying and telling stories.

What influences or themes inspire your work in all its forms – whether it be in your writing, producing or making?

Ooft, this is a huuuge question! I’m really interested in experimenting with form, and blurring the lines between mediums, which I guess makes sense because I work in so many different disciplines within my own practice and the work I do programming and curating.

Central to the ways in which I try to approach what I do is the desire to be a good person, and be a good artist. I’m super aware that ~good~ is a subjective term, but what I’m interested in is not perfectionism (the death of creativity, and confidence) but trying your best.

I think that art-making is inherently political, not necessarily in a partisan way, but more in a making-sense-of-the-world way, and so the work I do is informed by my belief in human rights, dignity, and striving for equality and inclusivity.

This is a hard thing to condense, and I guess it depends on the form I’m working in. My influences can be as concrete as the work of Chris Kraus, Anne Boyer, Maggie Nelson, and as abstract as the ambient sounds of whatever space I’m in, the moon, seafoam green, the smell of gum leaves in summer.

Right now, I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, which is a fantastic treatise on the transformative possibilities of a pragmatic optimism, and a good handbook for not giving up as an activist.

I’m pretty obsessed with creative nonfiction, and poets who work across mediums, experimenting with form in order to ask questions and interrogate their worlds. I also really love creative audio, and transom is a great place to find inspiration for audio nerds.

Your CV is incredibly immense and varied, so what might a typical workday look like for you?

I work full time at EWF, so a typical work day is split between meetings and lots of facetime with my computer. Outside of work, I apparently like to do more work for fun, which means speaking at events, producing podcasts and working on launching a new podcasting network with a couple of amazing babe women, Bethany Atkinson-Quinton and Areej Nur.

I’ve often been told to stop doing so many things, that to the outside eye might seem completely random and unrelated. The thing that those ‘unrelated’ things all have in common though is that I’m interested in them! It’s turned out to be a really great thing for curation and programming that my interests and experiences are so varied.

Someone told me when I was shortlisted in both the poetry and narrative non-fiction categories for a major literary prize that perhaps if I just picked one form to be an expert in, I might have won. To that I say, poo-poo! Having the depth of being ~very good~ if not ~the best~ (according to one set of criteria, at least) at a number of things is great because the skills you learn from each different medium or community of makers crosses over and informs your practice in all the other things you do.

In an interview you mentioned you feel a bit of ‘imposter syndrome’ at times, how do you counter this and why might it be so common?

It is very common, and very well documented! I think when you’re doing something you love, that you’ve worked incredibly hard at, it can feel super weird to achieve any modicum of success in that field.

It takes a long time for most folks to feel like they can say with confidence ‘I’m a writer!’ or ‘I’m an artist!’ because within creative fields we don’t have straightforward hallmarks where someone can say ‘congratulations, now you are the thing!’ You kind of have to just keep doing the thing, and trying and failing and trying again.

After graduating from RMIT Communication (Professional Communication) is there anything you miss or don’t miss from being a uni student? What skills learnt at RMIT have proved particularly useful?

Something I really miss is the access to resources that uni allows you. It’s an incredible thing that I’m not sure everyone I studied with fully took advantage of. You have access to great thinkers in the form of your teachers, a library with a wealth of information, curated reading lists that if you pay attention can lead you through a rabbit warren of more and more interesting knowledge on topics you’re interested in, and of course the tech equipment for media kids.

I used to spend a lot of time working in the building 9 basement editing suites. I tried to make sure I didn’t hog the computers if other people needed them to do assignments, but I definitely also spent a lot of time experimenting and working on a few projects that weren’t strictly uni related…specifically, I produced Dear / Hello with my pal and collaborator Josie Smart in the uni holidays, and it was sooo much easier working on the editing computers.

You first joined EWF as part of a Creative Producer internship and now you’re back as Artistic Director and co-CEO (how amazing – well done)! With internships such a staple in the comms field, do you have any tips on making the most of them? 

A million-dollar question! A big one is to try and make sure that you’re getting something out of the internship – are you learning specific skills or knowledge? Are the specific skills and knowledge you’re learning to do with what you’re interested in?

It’s really important to make sure that the work you’re doing is fulfilling, and make sure that you’re not taking on more than you can handle. I’ve seen so many folks – myself included – work themselves into the ground for little or no reward (financial or otherwise), and burnout is not good or helpful for anyone.

It’s up to you to maintain balance, and a big thing I realized is that if you keep on chipping away you will eventually get to somewhere you want to go. It might not happen overnight, but trust that if you’re putting yourself out there, trying your best, and not destroying yourself by working too hard, it will happen.

Any additional advice for young or just-starting-out writers that are reading this? 

  1. Be a good person. Be kind. To yourself, and others. Try to be patient, and to make space for other voices as well as your own. Pushing your way to the front could get you there faster, but I think it’s way more rewarding if it takes a little longer but you’re surrounded by folks that you’ve supported along the way too.
  2. Read the publications you’re submitting to! You’re waaay more likely to be published if you know what they’re after, plus this supports your community. Also, why would you want to be published somewhere you’re not interested in reading yourself?
  3. Edit your work. I promise that it will make it heaps better, even though sometimes it can feel excruciating to read the thing you wrote over and over again. Hot tip – reading aloud is very useful.
  4. Find your people. They will be your support, your muses, your reason to keep writing – they’ll be there when things are exciting as well as when they’re tough. It’s incredible to have a network of other creatives to talk to about your work.
  5. Just keep swimming! Keep reading, listening, talking, interrogating, writing and editing. Keep trying new things. It takes time and work to get to where you want to be, but invest in yourself and try to learn from the times you don’t succeed.

The Emerging Writers’ Festival will take place from the 14th-23rd of June. More details can be found here.

Read more of Catalyst’s Emerging Writers’ Festival interviews here.

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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