Kate Larsen on poetry, the state of Arts funding and our online world
Kate Larsen is a writer, arts and cultural consultant currently based on Kaurna Yerta in Tamtanya/Adelaide. As one of Australia’s best-known social media poets, her alter ego Katie Keys (aka @tinylittlepoems) wrote and posted a daily poem for over a decade. Her first printed collection, Public. Open. Space, was released in 2023.
Kate’s work has been published or commissioned by The Relationship is the Project, Meanjin, Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Voice & Verse and anthologies, magazines and arts organisations across Australia, Asia and the United Kingdom.
In this interview Kate discusses her 2023 essay in Overland, Tears for Peers: the hidden costs of Arts funding.
ASTRID: Congratulations on the publication of your first in print poetry collection, Public. Open. Space. I say in print because, of course, you published a poem a day on social media for more than a decade. The idea of your words being out there is not new to any of us.
KATE: Thanks, Astrid. It is a very special and quite a different delight to see those digital poems, if not the actual digital poems, from that decade of social media practice than certainly the evolution of those poems coming into this hybrid space and seeing them in print as well.
ASTRID: Today I mostly want to talk to you about poetry, but I would also like to talk to you about your phenomenal work, The Relationship is the Project, as well as that article you put in Overland recently, which made me feel things.
KATE: Yes, feeling things about the state of arts funding and the state-of-the-art sector in general in Australia right now, or certainly not limited to Australia, is how I'm spending my day job, making people feel things, but also trying to translate the feelings of a sector that I care so much about into words and into advocacy.
ASTRID: We will come back to those, but, first, Kate, poetry. Please introduce us to Public. Open. Space.
KATE: This is a collection that I started, which feels like a lifetime ago in that pre-pandemic world that I can barely remember. In 2018, I was lucky to get one of the last international fellowships from Asialink Arts before that extraordinary program, unfortunately, came to an end.
I spent six weeks in residence at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, which in 2018 was really in that ... The lull between the umbrella movement, the initial protest movement around the 2013, 2014 space. Then the protests and riots against the so-called national security laws that came in 2019 and 2020.
So it was an extraordinary experience and the gift of spending a long, dedicated period of time in a space that was not my space, which could have been any space, but then in a space that was so quintessentially Hong Kong, really got me thinking about how our physical and digital spaces are often contested or controlled, and how we as citizens and netizens resist that and protest that and push back against those controls.
ASTRID: What you've just articulated comes out in the poems themselves. You also have an unusually long, if I can put words out there like that ... You have an unusually long opening. It's almost about 20 pages of prose where you put the collection in context and you also really interrogate your own positionality as a poet. That's pretty rare for a poetry collection, and I'd like to ask you why., Also noting that the collection has just been published, have you got feedback from that?
KATE: So the why is, I guess, that it felt important to me as a white, non-Hong Konger going into a space that was not my space. While acknowledging that the collection is not about Hong Kong, it's not my place to write about a city that is not my own, and that I was really even ... Six weeks is a very brief period of time, though it was much longer than my previous immersions in Hong Kong and China, it was still a moment, and I was still very much other, very much outsider on the edge.
So I had absolutely no interest in writing another expat's observation about what it was when I was there, what I saw or what I felt. But the collection is very much influenced by Hong Kong if it's not about the city. As I was writing and then editing, choosing what to go in and what not to go in, I just found it such a fascinating process to think about my positionality going into a space, thinking about how we apply that in the digital realm, the borderless space of the internet that is still governed and contested and censored, even if it's not necessarily down straight geographic borders.
I think it's important for ... Well, it's important for me, I think it's important for writers, to bump up against our level of comfort and to question the assumptions and the privilege that we carry with us. That's not always a comfortable process. I guess I just wanted to show that working, I guess, to show that thinking.
Also, I think in different genres, the poetry did that, but then the essay does it in a slightly different way to try and express that discomfort, to try and express that journey, that navigation of contested spaces, including the contested internal landscape, I guess, so trying to show that work.
ASTRID: Have you read Indelible City by Louisa Lim?
KATE: No, although I just started, and it's extraordinary. Really, that's the perfect contrast to somebody writing with authority from a place that is this place. Even Louisa talks very eloquently about her positionality, about somebody who grew up in this space but who doesn't live there anymore, and the difference between the privilege that gives her to speak more openly where voices within Hong Kong have become more controlled and more silenced.
But, yeah, so there are so many people who ... And there are extraordinary writers writing within a Hong Kong space, Nicholas Wong. There's a beautiful girl, Tammy Lai-Ming Ho, still based in Hong Kong, writing extraordinary poetry. They're writing very much from that lived experience of place.
As I said, for me, this collection is not about Hong Kong. It's about what being in Hong Kong taught me about comparable experiences being contested in controlled space. So feminism and advocacy and ... Yes, and particularly within that digital space where, as a digital native, I spend so much of my personal and professional and creative life online.
ASTRID: You have always spent so much of your professional and personal life online. Can you remind the listeners who may not have been familiar with Tiny Little Poems, your Twitter handle where you publish a poem a day? What was the impetus for that and why did you stop it? That is a question that has been going around in my mind, Kate.
KATE: Well, so I started when I was living in London. I've always been a writer. I've always wanted to be a writer. I've always wanted to make that a cool part of my life. But one of the things I was best at writing was my own excuses about why I wasn't writing.
As an arts manager, I am a great believer that arts management and arts producing and being a practitioner in a non-artist sense within the art space ... I'm a big advocate. That's still an art form. Because there's a lot of creativity in arts management practice, I was very good at making up excuses. I use all my creative energy in my day job, and I have nothing less, a lack, for my own creative practice, or I spend all my days helping make other people's creative dreams come true and to spend on my own.
I was in London working for an extraordinary organisation that I cared a lot about and just got ... That was when I hit the wall at just being sick of hearing my own excuses. Because I was unsure how to go about addressing that, I thought let's start small. Let's not put too much pressure on myself. I set myself the task of writing and tweeting ... At that stage, it was exclusively on Twitter and exclusively text-based ... a tiny little poem every day, 140 characters or less, #tinylittlepoem.
They're all still there. You can scroll back through. That's about 12, 13 years ago now that I started. I do not recommend anybody does scroll back through that what I now call a very large body of very small work. But it got easier over time and I like to think it got better over time.
I started combining it with my day job by going to openings and events and conferences and writing short, site-specific poems about the things that I saw. Nothing inspires me more than clever people doing clever things on stage or on screen or in literature.
When I got back to Australia, I was doing the same. But when I started going to arts conferences here, people started to assume ... It's the fake it till you make it approach to a literary career. People started to assume that the organisers at the conference had paid me to write short site-specific poems as a form of the valuation or documentation of their events. And so, those participants, delegates to those conference started to invite me to do the same for theirs.
For several years, I had quite a flourishing career going to events and conferences and documenting them on behalf whilst maintaining my daily social media posts. They started to move into meme-based poetry. A combination of pictures and words. They expanded to different platforms. I'm now playing with video-based poetry because of TikTok.
Yes. So that's how it all began. It's not that I have stopped entirely, but the daily practice is something I said goodbye to, yes, about three or four years ago now. That just felt like it'd come to its natural end, I guess. It is a very large body now of short, often acrostic, site-specific poems across text-only memes and video works.
It led to so many opportunities all over the world, really, and it's something I'm not, I don't think, ever going to give up. But I'm also now focusing on other areas of my writing, and also playing with this hybridity of my poetry practice, I guess, so that how digital speaks to print and back again.
ASTRID: On that, a practical question. How do you go from someone who was so well-known for your online poetry to a poetry collection? I mean what was it like to pitch that to a publisher? Did they love the idea that you have such a large body of online work, or did they question if they could make money ... No one makes money off poetry, but what were their considerations? Did they love it or hate it?
KATE: I think the last decade has really seen worldwide an increase in digital poets and digital poetry being taken seriously. Across the world, there's a big trend of digital poets being taken into the online space. I'm not surprised that that has come to Australia as well.
The other thing I think is that it was a weird, I guess, symptom of pandemic and lockdown times that I started the collection, as I said, 2018. I worked on it throughout 2019 back here in Tandanya, Adelaide. Then I put it in a drawer when, like many people, the pandemic stole my creative brain and swapped it out for a worry brain. But while it was sitting in that drawer, the world changed. It went from some of us existing in that digital space and operating remote workplaces to everyone being on that space.
A friend, who it had been sitting in her drawer as well, pulled it out and gave me a call and said, ‘I think this has become more relevant over this time’. When I sent it to Fremantle Press ... Which I am a lapsed West Australian. I grew up in south west WA, in Kinjarling, Albany. So working with a WA publisher was a bit of a dream. They agreed. And so, that was quite a quick conversation that this moment around digital life and digital practice is worth having a conversation about.
ASTRID: Now I want to ask your opinion of what has happened or is happening to Twitter, and that is not completely random because I have read your poetry collection, Kate. On page 92, there is the poem ‘Freedumb’, and you have Twitter in there.
KATE: It's interesting because it was one of the last poems I wrote for the collection. Really, I could have started again just since Elon Musk's acquisition of the social media platform.
I am not the only, certainly, creative writer, but Twitter native, former Twitter native, who is grieving the loss of a platform that for many of us was the first entry into this global community, and global communities of interest across the board. But there is an extraordinary creative community of people making and sharing work in the Twitter sphere, and then supporting each other around those creative careers, which is still now limping along in a very sad and depressing state of affairs. Certainly not the collegiality, not the safe space. Certainly not the creative space that we once felt it was.
I think there's grief there. I mean I am a great advocate of social media across the board, but Twitter was where I began, and really that facilitated that 10-plus year career as a digital poet. I'm very, very sad that that seems to be lost, and I don't have a lot of faith in it returning.
ASTRID: On a different note, Kate, I would love to ask you about the poem ‘Easy as X, Y, Z’. Will you read it for us?
I listened to my lessons.
I read my way right to the edge
and didn't look beyond.
I listened to my teachers.
I learned respect as high as walls
I’d thought they'd climbed so we need not.
I didn't know their versions were
what they'd been told to teach.
I didn't know to ask them.
I didn't know asking
was a thing that I could do.
I didn't know the truth.
ASTRID: I really love that poem. I think it might be one of my favourite in the collection. I haven't asked you this before, but I read it as a reflection of my primary school in the '80s and what I got back then, and how deeply it was inadequate and how it took me a very long time to realise how inadequate it was.
KATE: Absolutely. I think within an Australian context, I often think back around my primary school and high school education, and the gaping absences about what we weren't taught about Colonisation, about genocide. I don't have contact with the current curriculum, but we can only hope that it is less of a deficit position.
The poem is about that. The poem is also about this new integration and acceptance of false news, of false truths, and that even in contemporary settings, very contemporary right now across the states, the amount of book banning legislation that is going on is just terrifying. There are inroads and complaints being lodged in Australia, certainly to a small degree, but it's happening here as well.
And that silencing of diverse narratives, that silencing of multiple voices based on, I don't know, a redneck backlash that I cannot understand, is again putting education in the context where we don't know, and so have to question what we're being taught, what our communities are being taught. We can't put our faith in our idea of truth and someone else's idea of truth being the same thing.
ASTRID: There are so many things that we should all ... Let me say that again. There are so many things that warrant marching in the streets, and I do think that the terror and the potential of the pain that book bans lead to for different communities is so very real, and I really would like Australia to not go down any form of American path.
I want to switch topics now, Kate, putting your different hat on. No longer poet Kate Larson, but now arts and cultural consultant Kate Larson. Can you tell us about The Relationship is the Project?
KATE: Absolutely. I'd be thrilled to. So The Relationship is the Project was the brainchild of Jade Lillie, who used her Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship several years ago to curate and commission a collection of essays about community-engaged practice, mostly within the arts and cultural sector in Australia, to help not just the art sector but anybody who works in community contexts, specifically or particularly who works with communities with whom they are not personally a member, who personally don't have that lived experience, so other communities, about how to do it better.
It was published in 2020 by Brow Books and has gained this life over the last three years, including making readings, books to help fight white supremacy, which is quite possibly the proudest personal achievement of any of our lives. It's got about 20 chapters from thought leaders across the community-engaged practice sector, and everything from First Nations first to platforming for communities, to disability-led practice, and everything in between.
ASTRID: Kate, you just mentioned the original and 2020 version, but I think there is news.
KATE: There is news, Astrid, and I'm completely delighted that you are the first person to hear it, that we've just entered into a new partnership with New South Books who will publish the second edition of The Relationships is the Project in 2024, thanks to a support of the Australia Council for the Arts, who also supported the first version. We are not only updating the collection, because obviously the world has changed a little bit since we launched it in the start of 2020, but we're extending it with 20 new chapters around the climate crisis, emergency response, death-led practice, and young people and agency and a lot of others.
ASTRID: I can't wait, particularly given that you are including thought on the climate crisis. I am quietly tearing my hair out about the arts and the climate crisis, which is a conversation for a different date. But one final question for you, Kate, which I think will open up quite a big discussion. Your recent article in Overland, Tears for peers: the hidden costs of arts funding. Ouch.
KATE: Ouch. Yes. I, over the last six years or so, have returned to full-time freelance practice. Before that, I was running Writers Victoria in Melbourne and Arts Access Australia nationally. But when I moved to Tandanya, I wanted to strike a balance between my writing practice and my professional practice. A lot of that comes together around my arts advocacy work.
I also feel like I've been in a privileged position, that because I no longer represent or speak on behalf of an organisation, I have a bit more freedom about what I can say publicly, both on my own behalf and on behalf of the sector.
One of the things that I always struggled with, and I think nearly every arts organisation in the country struggles with, is the workload and the pressures, let alone the actual funding that goes into arts and cultural investment at all levels, state, federal, local, philanthropic, private.
So with this year kicking off the new cycle of Australia Council national multi-year arts funding, four-year funding being not quite but almost the longest period that an arts organisation can be funded in Australia, I felt it was time to reflect on the costs of applying for that funding for applicants and the costs of the impact of the peers who are subcontracted to make the assessments of those funding decisions in an increasingly fraught environment.
ASTRID: It's incredibly fraught. I have been a peer assessor for Creative Victoria, which is the state-based arts body that does give out forms of funding in this state, and oh my goodness.
KATE: The workload is extraordinary. It's also an extraordinary privilege, and I hope I reinforced that in the article, as well as the fact that in no way do I critique the need for a peer assessment model. I think it's a vital gift. It is an opportunity for organisations and artists to have their work considered by practicing experts who are out there working in their field.
I am a huge advocate as an applicant, an advocate within the sector, and as a peer, as, like you, I've been a peer at state and federal and organisational levels. But it's because it's so important that we need to get it right.
I think one of the interesting things that's come from living with the pandemic is that we are emerging with a new sense of understanding that what our sector has not been good at looking after its people. Even in the good times, like any for-purpose sector, we are very good at saying, ‘I don't get paid that much, but that's okay because I love what I do’, or, ‘My working conditions are pretty rough, but that's okay because I believe in the organisation or I believe in the cause’.
I think the appetite for that is changing. I think less people are interested in doing things because it's the way they've always been done. I think we are all going into situations and workplaces wanting to question and poke existing practice a little bit, and ask ourselves and our funders, isn't there surely a better way?
ASTRID: I thank you for putting it like that, Kate. When I think about it, I have a lot more rage in my internal voice when I think about not just the lack of funding and the inadequate payments of so many people in the sector, but how the conversation which I'm a part of is normally focused on paying the writers, which absolutely must happen and does not happen, but it's also everybody else in the sector that keeps the wheels turning.
KATE: Yeah, absolutely. There are so many pieces of the puzzle. One of the things that I held back ... I originally started this article four years ago, when I was on one of the last round of multi-year panel decisions. But then the world changed, and it didn't seem as appropriate a time to raise the fact that things were a little bit hard for peers right now. There were some bigger issues.
Even raising it now, there's an awareness that peers, for example, are really one of the smallest cogs in this wheel. It's not to put us as peers ahead of when this ... We're coming from such a deficit position in so many areas of our work that it's not to position this argument above the others, but it's really ...
I think this is a moment, this is an opportunity for us to start to articulate some of the issues with our work, some of the hidden labour, some of the assumed practise, some of the, ‘This is just how we do it to make sure that the show can go on’. I think we've got this appetite and this moment to start articulating this and to hopefully see some change.
We also have the new centre for workplaces coming in as part of the new Creative Australia transformation that the Australia Council is in the process of becoming, and this feels like a perfect thing to put on that agenda.
ASTRID: So well said. And may we as an industry seize the day, seize the moment. Kate, thank you so much for your time today.
KATE: Thank you, Astrid. It's been an absolute joy to be on The Garret, which I was around when you first had this idea, and it's just a dream come true to be on this side of it.