I’m at an elite writers’ colony on the east coast of the United States when the news comes through: George Zimmerman is not guilty in the shooting manslaughter of Trayvon Martin. As the token Australian, people take care to explain the situation to me. Martin, an African-American youth, was walking home from buying candy and a soda on the night of 26 February 2012 when he was followed by neighbourhood watchman Zimmerman (despite Zimmerman having been told repeatedly by 911 operators to desist). An altercation ensued and Martin, unarmed, was shot to death.
Around the table our assortment of artists – composers, sculptors, poets and painters – evince different types of shock reactions. There is a surprising amount of humour, mostly politically incorrect; someone says that not only has Zimmerman been found not guilty, he has now been promoted to honorary white person (Zimmerman is commonly identified in media reports as ‘half-hispanic’). But the humour is of a true tragic type – Lear half mad acting the fool against the elements. Down the table from me, someone asks the question that will be repeated over and over: ‘How can we be here, when this is happening out there?’
Most of the time, to continue using Shakespeare for figurative purposes, the colony is like Midsummer Night’s Dream. We work in dream states alone throughout the day, convene in a mansion in a forest for dinner, and drunkenly run through the woods at night. All talk is of lovers – who is and who isn’t. In one day you might write a poem, go to a presentation of a new opera in the Rococo drinks room, become a god at ping-pong, kiss someone you shouldn’t, cry on the shoulder of the best person you’ve ever met (who you only met the day before), fall asleep in your four-poster bed, forget it happened, and repeat it the following day. That is to say, it’s an unreal environment; the exact environment you imagine is the perfect furnace for the firing of artistry.
The overwhelming sense here is one of respite and relief. Conversations revolve around how nice it is to be in a place where nobody judges you for being an artist. Many people, with the exception of some of the more famous or successful artists, are candid in their discussions about how low status, how socioeconomically impoverished, the careers we chose to pursue are.
In the twentieth century, Bertolt Brecht developed epic (or dialectical) theatre in opposition to the naturalistic theatre of Soviet propagandists such as Stanislavski. It was dangerous, he proposed, to create art that was as convincing as life; people watching theatre should always be aware that what they are viewing is false.
With Zimmerman’s acquittal, the fourth wall falls off the colony – we go from viewing ourselves as endangered species in need of protection to seeing ourselves in light of the privilege we have in simply being able to create, and the question becomes, exactly what should we be creating now?
These are questions I remember asking myself after the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004, and again with the Cronulla riots in 2005, and then after the death-in-custody of Mr Ward in 2008. For me, being a white Australian poet has always involved negotiating the slippage between identity and artistry. Yet being here over when Zimmerman was found innocent, I realise I have been guilty of creating another false wall – because it isn’t enough to consider how my work interacts with these Australian contexts. There is an urgent need to reach out beyond our particular selves, our particular nations, and engage in the world.
The question then becomes not just what should we be creating, but how can we go about creating it? It is not a question I know the answer to. But hopefully tonight at dinner with the many multinational artists huddled in these woods, rather than who is hooking up with whom, we might start discussing these questions instead.