We interviewed Izzy Roberts-Orr, Melbourne writer, editor, podcasting whiz and radio producer, as well as one of the National Young Writers’ Festival Co-Directors. Her work has been published widely, including in Voiceworks, Seizure and various anthologies. In 2015, Izzy completed a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship, was a part of Melbourne Fringe’s ‘Uncommon Places’ and was shortlisted in the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards.
You’re one of the cool kids of the Melbourne ‘literati’, one of the youngest and busiest powerhouses. Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a writer and arts manager? Where – and how – did you start?
I’m totally chuffed that you think I’m a cool kid! I still have a fair amount of imposter syndrome about that. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by so many amazing babes, and there are a lot of incredible humans in Melbourne.
Where did I start out? That’s a really hard thing to pin down… I don’t have any concrete answer. I’ve always been excited to get involved with anything and everything I can. I remember applying to be part of [Voiceworks] EdComm, and sitting down with Kat [Muscat] over coffee and her being like “Right, we need some poetry editors” and I was like “yeah, I’m gonna do that!” And that was about five years of working with that crew. With the Emerging Writers’ Festival, I applied three times. [The first time] I actually applied and then couldn’t do, because I was already over-committed. And then the second time I was overseas. Then the third time I applied I did the Creative Producer internship! So that was a long time of wanting to be engaged with the festival.
With poetry… when I was 18, I’d never shown anyone any of my poems, and a good mate of mine was going to an event called The Spinning Room, which no longer exists, but was in Prahran at a pub. And I basically begged my way out of it every time that it came up. Then I moved into a house that was literally around the corner from where it was, so I had no excuse. I remember going along and I thought “well, I guess I may as well put my name down, and if they pull me out of the hat then I’ll just have to brave it.” So I read, and they did something called a ‘call-back,’ which was where they ask you to read a second work, which is a really beautiful and inclusive way to give someone a pat on the back. That was the first time I read in public, and they asked me to read again and I was like “fuck! At least I’ve got another poem in my bag!” Someone came up to me afterwards and said “what are you doing on Wednesday?” and I said “I don’t know” and he said “You’re coming to a slam!” and I said, “Okay!” And that was how I got involved with the Melbourne Spoken Word scene.
Just saying yes to everything?
Yeah. I’m starting to learn to say no. But saying “yes” is a really powerful thing. I am definitely a Yes-person. Learning to say “no” is also important though, in terms of not being over-committed, and I’ve found out the hard way that sometimes it’s just as important to say no if you’re not gonna be able to do the best job possible. You don’t have to do everything. Life is short, but it’s also long. Try and do the things that are most important and pressing for you right now.
Is there a secret to being able to do so much? Do you have a time-turner or amazingly detailed schedule?
I wish time-turners existed! I have an amazingly detailed schedule; if it doesn’t go in my diary, I don’t do it. I have to put my trust in tools like that… part of that is learning to be present. I find it really stressful if I’m thinking about everything I have to do today, and everything I have to do tomorrow, and for the next week after that. I have to be just thinking about what I have to do today. Part of that is scheduling, making task lists, all of those organizational tools, and trusting that it’s like “wake up, okay what’s now”, and taking things step by step. It’s one of the easiest ways to not get stressed out and overwhelmed by the amount of things on my plate.
It’s really important to take time out of that as well though. I always enjoy realising I’ve spent a few hours not looking at my phone at all. Just before I was having coffee with a friend and he had my undivided attention; I didn’t look at my phone at all. Just doing that for nearly two hours was so refreshing and invigorating.
So that’s really important too, making sure that you have time to have downtime, days off. Every now and then you need to have that space and time to realign your values a little bit, and like I said I’m learning to say “no”.
Aside from learning when to say no, what advice do you have for youngin’s looking to make a career in the arts?
I’d still like some advice on that too personally!
That’s a tricky one, because it’s quite individual a lot of the time. A lot of the people I know who are doing stuff that’s incredible are doing it in their own way and carving out a space that is unique to them. It’s quite hard to provide a blanket; the scariest thing about the arts is there isn’t a clear trajectory or a path that you can be like “do this thing and then do this thing and there you go.”
I’m someone who’s had a finger in a lot of different pies; as a writer and a media maker I work across sound and podcasting and poetry and plays and all these different mediums, and I’m also trained as a journalist. There’s a huge spread, and sometimes I look at that and think “if I’d just written plays I’d be so much further along in that one area than I am right now.” But instead I’m spread across all these different things, and that’s okay.
I’m going to come back to that idea that life is short but it’s also long. It’s okay not to do everything right now. Some things can wait. Trying to prioritize and go “the thing that feels best for me right now is writing a poem everyday”. I love that, so I’m going to make the time and the space to nurture that. I do want to write a novel at some point, but if that’s what you want to do with the most passion then you would be doing it today. So, learning to prioritize and go “yeah, that’s cool, maybe you’ll do that when you’re in your forties, that’s alright.” That’s maybe a long time away, but you’ll get there. And there are other things to look forward to.
The most important thing is to nurture and respect the people around you, and yourself as well.
Something I’ve noticed is people, intentionally or not, burning bridges by not being nice. Be a nice person, that’ll get you really far. It really will help. It might take you longer than if you don’t take the time to be nice. Let other people take up space sometimes. It means that when you get to where you want to be, you’ll be respected and you’ll have great people around you.
What did you find the most valuable thing that you learned during your time as a CP intern for EWF?
One of the biggest moments for me in last year’s festival was when Sam [Twyford-Moore, former CEO and festival director] was talking about EWF as a community more than just a festival. It was the opening address of the festival, and he said “look around you, pay attention to the person next to you. This is your community. Support each other, this is what this is about.” That was a big moment, because I think at EWF, the artist and the audience are often quite close to each other. That community of people supporting each other and investing in each other’s work is what we really need at this point of being “emerging”, especially in terms of the emerging sector being one of the most affected by arts funding cuts at the moment.
Do you have a highlight of your previous EWF experiences?
I really enjoyed working on Alice in Downunder Land, which was an event that we ended up putting at the Dancing Dog in Footscray. I grew up in Footscray, and the Dancing Dog was always kind of a big feature, and I’ve worked with that venue quite a few times before. I used to run poetry stuff there when I was a bit younger. It was really great to use that venue, and we had an incredible lineup of women reading work that responded to that “through the looking glass” idea; it was the 100th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland. And that event was really fun, and the women we had reading were just phenomenal.
I really enjoy a lot of things that happen in between the cracks of the events, the moments where you see people having a conversation as they’re in the elevator or on their way between listening to a panel and then going to workshop on the conference day. Having those moments in the elevator of “oh wow, you like that thing too!” or “oh wow, you also came in from a really far-off rural place, amazing!” Those behind-the-scenes parts, or the after-hours parts; everyone going to a reading and then getting a drink afterwards, or seeing a performance and people meeting afterwards. I remember introducing the Voiceworks crew to some of the artists and watching that divide [between artist and audience] break. Where there were youngin’s being like “wow this person writes poetry that I really love, fuck how cool! I’m talking to them and hanging out in the same space!” Those things breaking are really incredible to watch.
The theme for your Late Night Lit performance is love poetry. Can you tell us a little about this theme and how you plan to interpret it?
That’s such a broad question! I’m actually wondering a bit about this because I’m… feeling a little jaded at the moment. There’s an Anthony Lawrence poem called ‘The Bird and the Wing’ and basically the key contention of this poem is “belief (in love) is the burden… it’s the heaviest thing, and it’s the wing, it’s also the thing that makes you think you’re flying.” Believing love is possible is both the most difficult things, and one of the things that motivates us to keep going. That really covers a lot of aspects for me; believing in love is hard a lot of the time. Whether you’re “in it” or not, believing that it’s possible and that you deserve love, and being able to give it to someone or someones, the people around you, it’s hard.
That for me really accurately talks about the tension where… I’ve realised I’m a die-hard romantic, I write a lot of love poetry and I have for a long time, and it’s something that is central to how I view the world; love and lack of thereof, and there’s many different types of love, it’s not always romantic love. That nurturing and good-feeling between people is something that I’m really fascinated by… But also I’m feeling a bit jaded by it at the moment, at least in a romantic sense.
Other exciting things; can you tell us about how cool NYWF is going to be this year? Can you give us some themes that are cropping up in particular?
Well, we haven’t released the program yet, so mum’s the word at that at the moment.
One part that we’re really focusing on is navigating the maze that is arts and writing careers in particular, and how difficult it can feel when there’s both a plethora of options and sometimes it feels like you’re backed into a corner as well. NYWF is effectively a boot camp, it’s taking a bunch of young writers and placing them in a really intense environment for a couple of days to work on their skill set, to meet each other and network, and experience something that hopefully stays with them for a long time.
One last question; what would you like us to ask you?
The only other thing I’d like to add is just a reminder to everyone, to think about what kind of future we want for our writing and our arts, and try not to feel disempowered by what’s going on with the arts cuts. Our community is our strength, and continuing to create work is a strength. Don’t be afraid to be political. It’s tricky [right now] for a lot of organisations to think of what the future’s going to be. It’s terrifying to think of where you might be in five years. Even the other day when I mate asked me “if you’re still publishing poems when you’re 60, what will they look like or can you imagine that?” and I’ve just never thought about that. Try to start thinking about that, both for yourself and for your community. Think about what you want to be consuming, producing, think about who you want to be surrounded by. The future’s a scary place but it’s also really freaking exciting. We have to think about it in order to build it. Don’t let what’s going on in terms of funding scare you.
Izzy Roberts-Orr is a Melbourne writer, editor and radio producer, as well as one of the National Young Writers’ Festival Co-Directors. Her work has been published widely, including in Voiceworks, Seizure and various anthologies. In 2015, Izzy completed a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship, Melbourne Fringe’s ‘Uncommon Places’ and shortlisted in the Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards poetry and narrative non-fiction.