Deluxe Paperweight – Holly Isemonger PLUS bonus poet interview

Deluxe

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Alison Whittaker about her Mary Gilmore shortlisted collection “Lemons in the Chicken Wire”, whilst we were communicating back and forth and finalising the interview the Judith Wright Poetry Prize winner was announced. Alison Whittaker’s poem “Many Girls White Linen” shared first place in that Prize with Holly Isemonger and her poem “OK cupid”.

The judges of the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, Jill Jones and Toby Fitch (stay tuned here I have a Jill Jones interview in the pipeline), said of Holly Isemonger’s poem;

‘OK cupid”…is a dark, post-digital love poem in which the words of three stanzas are recombined to tell a warper tale about the split-second decisions one makes in the world of online dating. The poem could be seen as a nocturne: the words rotate almost musically, but the recombinations also deconstruct the events within the poem. ‘OK cupid’ shows how repetition is really, in Gertrude Stein’s sense, insistence. (‘Overland Journal’ issue 226 p 28)

‘OK cupid’ can be read online here or better still support Australian writing and buy a copy of edition 226, or even better still subscribe.

Holly Isemonger’s “Deluxe Paperweight” was published last year, by Stale Objects Press, and is available to download here  (when at that page click on the word “link”)

Opening with a page of reviews of Lars Von Trier films, the collection engaged me from the off, as a filmgoer, who has both loved and loathed Lars Von Trier’s movies, Holly’s views on films “Breaking The Waves”, “Dancer In The Dark”, “Dogville”, “Melancholia” and “Nymphomaniac” brought my own experiences back to life;

Dancer in the Dark

Some reasonable people will love this film and others will despise it… but we are not reasonable… we have spent too long reading the little box that describes the art. We know the arc of tragedies, and musicals — we dread, so here we find ourselves with Bjork in the depths of hell. We raise our fists and look for Lars who has left. He is scooting away on the surface of this shallow film to the spiritual sequel, featuring Nazis, his mother, a communist and a swan that will leave him wondering how to get out of this sentence.

We then move into more formal psalms, onto images from iconic movies and then “Hip Shifts”, where repetition features again, the Tom Waits references bringing a broad smile to my face;

I am Tom Waits’ dumb teenage girlfriend.
We live in a shopping mall.
A car park surrounds our house
like a bruise. I drive.

Technology and the digital age is never far from Holly Isemonger’s work, manipulating an online translation tool to present the decay of language and meaning in “Free Online Translation Service”, an insight into the poet’s world where the essence of meaning is eroded by our current digital environment, the poem a stark reminder that text and language is ever shifting, faster and faster the more we utilise technology.

Finishing with “Failed Screenplays”, more images from art, film and the poet’s personal collection and then the questioning “Five Obstructions” the collection is a humorous as well as horrific take on our modern lives, when do we have time to simply live and love?

A further poem by Holly Isemonger was published earlier this week in the eChapbook “Tell Me Like You Mean It: New Poems from Young and Emerging Writers” – this online chapbook also featuring Alison Whittaker – you can access the book free here  and Holly Isemonger’s poem here a continuation of the “Sad Witch Psalms”, three which appear in “Deluxe Paperweight”;

museum incantation
let autumn crust the skin
on egg yolky afternoons
note hoe light leaks like
pus though windows
onto nudes burst the
culture blister only let
him touch u if u do him
the shit busker believes
you want him imagine
bob dylan is dead

Another young poet who is pushing the poetic boundaries and bringing a refreshing change to the flavour of the written word, to read a collection of poems that uses a raft of techniques to bring smiles to my face, and that questions the limits of language is an enjoyable exercise indeed. With recent recognition of her work, Holly Isemonger is a young poet to keep your eyes on, one that will challenge and amuse.

As always I would like to sincerely thank the poet for their time and honesty in answering my questions, Holly Isemonger being more than generous in her replies and time. I personally found this one of the more revealing and amusing interviews I have conducted and look forward to reading many more published works.

Over to the interview:

Q. Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson says, in his latest novel, “The poem surpasses the other literary arts in every way: in its depth, potency, bitterness, beauty, as well as its ability to unsettle us.” Some of your work is “unsettling”, do you think that’s a harsh or fair assessment?

Oh yeah for sure, unsettling is apt! I don’t ever set out to write things that are a bit gross, sad or creepy but those themes always seem to float to the top. I guess it says a lot about my psyche and interests?? Pleasure and repulsion are at the core of a lot of my poems but I don’t mean to write them like that. I guess it stems from the fact that I have an extremely ambivalent attitude toward poetry.

Some of my favourite poems convey both attraction and repulsion (with a certain sense of humour and wisdom) and I think those themes are particularly salient to people who identify as women. Too much can be made of the whole ‘hatred of poetry’ thing but I think there is something to it. To hate something, you have to respect it on a certain level. I love poetry, but it’s frustrating. I think my complicated feelings towards poetry is what makes me so interested in it… which perhaps says more about me than the form.

As for the quote you mentioned, I agree. Poems have a long history that is tied to the very nature of being human. There is a reason Ring Around the Rosie is still sung by children. It’s a form of play, it helps kids learn the rules of social interaction and teaches them about language- yet this is a song about the plague, but those sun drenched memories in pre-school and kindergarten are beautiful and they pass all too quickly- plus sometimes it’s v funny watching kids figure out language and coordination! So in this one nursery rhyme (which I would call a poem) you have this intersection that brings so many different elements of life together: humour, beauty, death, history etc. – plus there are the meditative and chant like qualities of poetry and rhyme. Combine all of these qualities and you have a précis of the human species. And I find that pretty unsettling! Like how in Jurassic Park the old dude has a fossilized mosquito caught in amber. To zoom out and see humans like that. It’s dark.

Q. Your Judith Wright winning poem “OK Cupid”, featured in the latest “Overland” Magazine (issue 226) uses a dating app as a subject, can the everyday be poetic?

Yeah this is my ongoing beef with poetry, it should reflect our everyday life! I think this is why lots of people don’t like poetry- it’s not that they don’t like poetry per say – it’s that they had to read a fuck tonne of Keats, Wordsworth etc. So people are like, ‘how does this relate my life? I have no time for this ivory tower bullshit.’

However, sometimes the idea of making poetry ‘relatable’ can be misconstrued. Ok Cupid is an ‘experimental’ poem, I used an exercise (or constraint) where I rearranged the words in three stanzas in three different combinations, but (I hope) it’s still relatable. Being relatable doesn’t mean that you that you can’t engage with form. We all spend a LOT of time manipulating text. Whether it is a text message, facebook, twitter or an email. Each medium demands a different kind of sentence or phrase. So poetry should engage with that process.

Reading NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! for the first time really made me understand how poetry, and particularly experimental poetry, is not an abstract academic idea. It opened up a whole new way of thinking about form, experimentation, history and subjectivity. AND it makes me SO angry that Kenneth Goldsmith is the go-to guy for “experimental” or “conceptual” poetry for many people.

Q. “Deluxe Paperweight’ opens with reviews of a number of Lars Von Trier’s films. He is seen as a “bad boy” of world cinema, and has said, “A film should be like a stone in your shoe”, are you poems “stones in shoes”? Are you the “bad girl” of Australian poetry? And, I have to ask this; did you watch the 5.5-hour Director’s cut of “Nymphomaniac” or the equally gruelling 4-hour version?

 I hope my poems are like a stones in shoes…I think. Or maybe like grit that slowly transforms into a pearl? I dunno, I lose all my jewelry anyway. It would certainly be an honour to be the “bad girl” of Aus poetry but realistically it’s more of a gang, or perhaps a coven. There are so many great poets pushing the form in Australia, like Emily Stewart, Alison Whittaker, Amelia Dale, Elena Gomez and Astrid Lorange- all have taught and inspired so many writers, artists and poets. And of course- the one and only Pam Brown! I don’t think Australian poetry would be where it’s at now if not for her, she is a huge inspiration to so many poets. If I could (and one day I hope I can) I would make her writing compulsory on every syllabus along with Ali Cobby Eckermann.

In regards to Lars, he is one really painful stone. Or maybe he’s like having an ulcer in your mouth but you keep touching it anyway because although it is a bit gross and painful it’s kinda satisfying? I don’t like that many of his films, and he is clearly a bit of a jerk, but I am glad (against my better judgment) that he and his films exist in the world.

And yes I did see the long version of Nymphomaniac at the movies. I liked the first half because it was fun, the girls were just trolling everyone and I loved it- and who doesn’t like to watch hot people root? But the second part was garbage: a woman who loves sex is crazy? And then she is slowly and gruelingly punished. It’s like- really? We’re still doing this?

But god bless Charlotte Gainsbourg, she’s such a trooper ❤ ❤

 Q. Your bleak imagery is also peppered with humour, “best buy your own beer”, or your acknowledgements containing the comment “and other stuff I can’t remember”, is it a fine balance between horror and humour?

 Well I’m glad you thought they were funny. I don’t really think about it, in general I have a pretty dry sense of humour and that seems to infect everything I write. Most of the writing I really love is a combination of comedy/melancholy (e.g. Lydia Davis, Russell Edson, Chelsey Minnis and Matthew Welton). Life is pretty funny – if sometimes painful- so I write poems like that.

Also, I wrote “and other stuff I can’t remember” because I literally couldn’t remember. I’m glad you found it amusing.

Also, Gone Girl was the best rom-com of 2014 and if u don’t agree I’ll see you in court 😉

 Q. Film obviously plays an important role in your life, with references to many classics, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Badlands, Chinatown just a few. Can you explain a little about your love of cinema?

 When I used to work at the local IGA in my home town I would ask every person who came through my checkout what their favourite movies were, I would keep a tally on the back of receipts and blue-tack them to my register. It was fun because I would have so many interesting conversations and bypass inane chats about the weather. It really opened up an unusual space for empathy, I met so many fascinating people with a wealth of knowledge about movies, books, life experience- I would have never had those conversations if I didn’t ask them about their favourite movies. If they came through my checkout and I just said ‘how are you’ I would have judged them, not in a bad way, but like: you are a dad, or mum, or grandmother or kid or a creepy guy from the RSL. And they probably would have done the same to me. Through this one question about movies, I learnt so much from a bunch of really wise and interesting people that I would never otherwise talked to. Don’t get me wrong there were still customers that were a pain in the ass, but most people were open and kind. That was a pretty formative period.

One shift, the people who owned the video shop (TOP VIDEO) next door came through my checkout and offered me a job there. Needless to say, I accepted. I adored that job. I compiled folders that had lists of all the different movies that had won awards, I wrote up little introductions to various directors and actors. I don’t think many people read them when they came into the shop. But it was fun nevertheless.

One of my favourite dick moves was when groups of women would come in to get a fun rom-com for a ‘ladies night’. They would hire stuff like My Best Friend’s Wedding, 27 Dresses, Runaway Bride etc. But people would often see Kirsten Dunst in a wedding dress on the cover of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (a movie about depression and the end of the world) and hire it thinking they were in for a delightful marriage plot. How I wish I could have witnessed their faces as Kirsten Dunst flees her wedding in a golf buggy and pisses on the green as the end of the world looms.

There are a million reasons to love movies but my passion for them came kinda late. It was through a subject at uni taught by the brilliant Sarah Attfield. I was introduced to films by Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Agnes Varda, Claire Denis, Chris Marker, Wong Kar Wai, Tsai Ming-liang, Roy Andersson- and watching Elem Klimov’s brutal war film Come and See still haunts me. Discovering these filmmakers really changed the way I thought about film. (N.B I watch so much trash- all these fancy directors could indicate otherwise- I’m terrible).

I think there is a correlation between poetry and movies. What was such a revelation to me was that some movies- like Tarkovsky’s for example- make you think in a very unusual way, and I think it is the same way you think when you read poetry or look at a painting. If you think of novels as linear/horizontal thinking, reading a poem is a kind of vertical thinking. You don’t think about the forward motion of the story. You don’t process the content, sound, image and temporal qualities separately. It’s an experience where you hold all these elements in your head at once and the meaning comes from a spooky place at the back of your mind. I don’t know much about art but I am obsessed with Hunters in the Snow by Bruegel the Elder. There is something in all the layers of meaning, which operate simultaneously, that I find super unsettling. That painting turns up in Melancholia and Tarkovsky’s film Mirror, which also features a voiceover reading Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry. So it’s all linked I guess?!

I could bang on about movies forever but I’ll spare you!

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

 The last book I loved was Transit by Rachel Cusk. I have never read anything like it. There’s not much in the way of plot but she just examines the interactions that happen around her, and how people are accidentally cruel to each other. I think she is trying to figure out a different way of formulating what the ‘self’ is: it doesn’t come from within but it’s how you relate to the people around you. It’s cutting yet compassionate. The book is filled with a deep sense of wisdom. And besides that- it’s a delight to read!

At the moment I’m reading some feminist theory on horror films. It’s so weird to me that the genre is often perceived as a bro-ish genre (well, I thought of it like that) when it is, usually, quite literally about women overcoming all the awful shit that they have to deal with irl, but on an allegorical level. There is still a lot of annoying horror sexism stuff… but hey- beggars can’t be choosers and I love my female leads!

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

Hmmm. I’m just trying to figure out how to make this whole writing career thing work. And it’s kinda tricky. I’m working on getting a collection of poetry together. And I am trying to get a daily schedule together- I’m not sure which one is harder! Can someone give me a job where I get to talk about movies and literature? (CALLING YOU SBS & ABC IF TURNBULL HASN’T GUTTED YOU ALREADY).

 

 

 

 

Lake – Claire Nashar PLUS bonus poet interview

Lake

Today I look at another title that was brought to my attention via the Mary Gilmore Award and feature another interview with the poet. I am always grateful for the time these writers put into answering my questions, their welcoming of my intrusions and the honesty in their answers. I am hopeful that their responses enlighten you a little in the art of poetry and give an extra layer to their works.

Today’s collection follows on from “Glasshouses” by Stuart Barnes and “Lemons In The Chicken Wire” by Alison Whittaker  both collections being shortlisted for the Award. “Lake” by Claire Nashar, although not shortlisted was “highly commended” by the Chair, another poet I have interviewed, Michael Farrell and judges Ann Vickery and Justin Clemens.

“Lake” is a difficult collection/presentation to review, the first impression a reader has is the stark page, the layout, the lines crossing pages and the melding of text, shapes, maps and a range of other techniques. As poet Claire Nashar advises in her ‘Preface’ “The poems…do not always start and end on discrete pages, and none have titles…” however you do glean a distinct sense of place and connection to the Lake in question, Tuggerah Lake on the Central Coast of New South Wales.

Although homage to the Lake this book is also a tribute, a eulogy to the poet’s grandmother, Beryl Nashar, a geologist and the first female Dean at an Australian university, the first woman to be awarded a Rotary Foundation Fellowship and she became the first Australian to be awarded a PhD in geology from an Australian university (The University of Tasmania), and this is just a snippet of her distinguished career.

erasure admits an understanding of circumstance, those sure obscurities of
nearness that breaks life from portable form and make all that’s mine what’s
                                                                                                                    left already

A work that shifts, as the surrounding environment would do, from page to page, a reading is an immersive experience, one where you flick backwards, forwards, around, as the structure evolves around you. A book that reflects deeply on the surrounding environment, man’s destruction of the natural wonders and plunges you into the concept of erosion, the page shifting in front of your eyes.

A very handy “Index” allows the reader to revisit their biases, their first impressions and create yet another work from the sparsely populated pages.

Using references to historical images, documents, maps and catalogues of species, the reader is left to ponder the space, create their own image of the ever-changing lake.

Another stunning collection highlighted by the Mary Gilmore Award and one that both challenges and allows you to contemplate your surrounds as well as your impact on such.

Again, I would like to thank the poet, this time Claire Nashar, for her time and generosity in answering my questions, another wonderful insight into the workings of contemporary Australian poets.

I hope to be back with a few more poet interviews over the coming weeks, stay tuned!!

Over to the interview;

 

 Q. I get a very strong impression that a page 22.5cm x 15.5 cm is still a restricted space for you. Was depicting the Tuggerah Lake within a restricted space a struggle?

Haha yep, you’re bang on. I first wrote the book for landscape-formatted pages. Kent at Cordite was still working out what the books in the series were going to look like at that point, so I didn’t know what the final dimensions would be. If I had, I might have written a bit of a different book actually! But in the end, shoehorning landscape pages into portrait format had some really interesting results. I really liked how it allowed certain poems that would have originally been on discrete pages to then float toward each other across the hinge/spine of the book.

I think initially, back when I first started writing the poems that went into Lake, I thought of publishing them as a scroll—just one long stream of poems. It’s hard to imagine a publisher who would have been able to print something like that though. The pages of a book have a way of feeling episodic/linear/sequential and can impart those qualities to the relations between poems. I wanted to suggest more varied and complicated associations. That’s why the index at the back of the book is so important to me. It creates a whole series of connections between poems/images/references/sources. It also helps extend the poems beyond the book by pointing to other texts/places/people.

When I read from Lake I draw on this, mixing up the order of the poems and using a projector/slideshow to show the poems and bring in other materials and images as well. Like any lake, I want the poems to keeping being a porous project.

 Q. Erosion is a strong theme, physical forms changing, memories fading, and you present such in various formats, even questioning “whats erosion”. Did this “change” go through a number of iterations itself?

The language itself went through heaps of iterations. I guess writing an elegy made me feel self-conscious, like I had to always be deciding what was too much feeling, what was too little, what was formally exciting, what just a little too cute or on the nose. I could have kept making those calculations forever if there hadn’t been a print deadline. Even now there’s stuff I wish I could change. In death and publishing, you learn to let go.

Q. In your preface you state, “Long before us and long after us the area is home to the Darkinjung, Awabakal and Kuringgai peoples”. This implying that there is one constant throughout this shifting work. Can you explain a little more about this indigenous connection?

Writing about Australian landscape seems to me to be incomplete and unethical without an acknowledgement of this country’s deep and broad Indigenous history. Part of that history is the violence of white invasion, of which I and many others are the beneficiaries. It seemed crucial to acknowledge this at the start of the book as well as in a number of entries in the index—in fact the entries for each of the Darkinjung, Awabakal and Kuringgai peoples index every page of the book. Indexing, or directing attention toward, the specific Indigenous past and present of the land around Tuggerah Lake was a way of engaging that ethical imperative while doing my best not to coopt or speak for those peoples and their histories.

Q. You address human encroachment through fishing and pollution, but it is finely balanced with an honour to your grandmother Beryl Nashar and your family. Was this a dichotomy you struggled with?

The answer to that’s a bit tricky. In a way, the project began because I was thinking about how my grandma had just entered the lake via her ashes, and I was trying to work out whether she was a pollutant or just some more, natural, welcome matter. She’d become both human and not. That thought created the weave for the book, my mind dipping in and out of human and ecological narratives. So in the end, maybe it was easy.

Q. Again, in the preface, you speak of necro-geography but prefer the term “necropastoral”, one, in simple terms, being burial practices, the other a more inclusive poetic term “a strange meeting place for the poet and death”. In my reading your work is more a celebration of nature and the living, the many layers and uniqueness of the “lake”, intermingled with memory. Have I missed the point completely?

Hahaha no, not at all. I suppose my clichey response is that in some places and states the categories of ‘alive’ and ‘dead’ become swapped. Grief is like that, so is Tuggerah Lake. When I name all those animals and plants in my book I am thinking of them as having the ability to be both dead and alive—both swimming/flying/eating and in any state of decomposition you can imagine. That’s one of the nice (but also sad) things about language. I can still write “Beryl” even though she’s gone.

 Q. I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

Lately I’ve been reading a bunch of translation theory for my phd and Pierre Vilar’s A History of Gold and Money. I’m investigating the relationship between the economic metaphors historically used to describe translation (debts, credits, losses, gains, etc) and economic theory.

I’ve also been reading Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers, just for pleasure.

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’m not sure poetry-wise. I’d been toying with a series of Bush Studies after/through Barbara Baynton, but I don’t know. I think after Lake I might need a break. Instead I’m working on a translation of Louis Aragon’s Le Fou d’Elsa, which was originally published in 1963, and is both this great love story and a reckoning with Muslim/Catholic relations on the Iberian peninsula.  Along with my phd, it’s keeping me pretty busy for now!

 

Self imposed book buying ban

Whilst I took my annual trip to central Australia, to organise the yearly fundraiser for the retention of indigenous women’s culture, my wife secured and built significant bookshelf space in our front lounge room. Earlier this week I tidied up piles and piles of books and before I know it I had filled those bookshelves. The activity itself meant I was dwelling on certain titles, ones I had read many many years ago, ones I bought and never got around to, others that I’d never finished (they formed a “donation” pile) and yet others that I would like to reread at some stage.

This exercise had me dwelling on the practice of reading, raising numerous questions;

  • Why did I buy this book in the first place?
  • Did I enjoy this one so much I will reread it?
  • Why did I buy this title?
  • Why so little Australian fiction?
  • Who on earth gave me this one?

It was a nostalgic and memorable exercise, a little like spring cleaning, cathartic but also educational. The whole process highlighted something that I’ve known for quite sometime, however one I hadn’t quantified;

How many unread books do I own?

Without spending a considerable amount of time counting them, the obvious was brought home this week as eight new books arrived in the mail whilst I continued on with reading one, Marcel Proust’s “The Guermantes Way” (translated by Mark Treharne) part three of “In Search of Lost Time, there will be more posts about my Proust journey in the coming days. This stark fact meant that each week I finish one title and collect eight, meaning if the current trend continues each year I will add between 300-400 unread titles to my shelves!!!

Simply unsustainable, my house just isn’t that large.

Earlier today I floated the idea, on Twitter, of a personal ban on buying new books until I have read at least fifty titles from my existing shelves, this post was met with a range of responses from incredulity to laughing through full support.

Therefore, I am making a public announcement;

I AM NOT GOING TO BUY ANOTHER BOOK UNTIL I HAVE READ AT LEAST 50 TITLES FROM MY CURRENT SHELVES.

Now, with many independent publisher subscriptions this may still mean that I fall further behind, however I will keep a tab on the progress of reducing my unread bookshelves and it may even lead to a realisation that I need to reduce my subscriptions too.

How do I intend to remain firm is a decent question raised by more than one Twitter follower? I think I will implement the following strategies;

  • Tell my wife. She will certainly assist with curtailing spending
  • Keep a progress tab via Twitter (eg. “My book buying ban still requires 49 titles to be read before being lifted” etc. etc)
  • Before picking a title from my shelves to fill the “fifty book ban” I will ask myself “Why did I buy this?” helping me to understand my moving trends
  • Give myself an incentive book, something akin to a treat, to purchase once I have finished my fifty books

One title that is excluded from being completed is, of course, Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”, where I am making slow progress, dipping in now and again and revelling in the breadth of wisdom. I have been very remiss in my progress posts but plan to publish an update in the next couple of weeks.

Astute followers may notice that I may even read and review a book that has only recently been released, this does not mean I have lifted my ban, it simply means it was either pre-ordered, forms part of a subscription or was kindly sent to me by the publisher to review. One title that I think will fall into this category is the forthcoming “Letters to his Neighbor” by Marcel Proust (translated by Lydia Davis) and published by New Directions, currently I am making my way through his masterwork “In Search of Lost Time” (I will write more about that journey in the coming days) and have pre-ordered the forthcoming letters, a book I am very much looking forward to reading. Title one on the list of fifty books will be “The Guermantes Way” by Proust, I am sort of cheating here as I am currently 218 pages in but being less than half way through I have bent the rules to make this book one of my journey.

I do not intend to list the fifty titles I will read as my tastes will move as time progresses, however I do have four poetry titles I need to read as interviews with the poets are lined up, add in the four Proust books (volumes 3-6 inclusive) and I only have to source 42 more books to hit my goal!!!

Wish me well and keep tabs on my progress (or utter failure) via my Twitter handle @messy_tony – let’s see if I suffer withdrawal symptoms!!!

 

2017 Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury Winner

mbi2017-logoLater today the official judges of the Man Booker International Prize will announce their winner, and to steal a little of their thunder the Shadow Jury is a few hours ahead of the official jury in announcing our favoured book from the thirteen titles that made the longlist way back in March of this year. It is a blessing that we had a decent amount of time to work our way through all the nominated books as there were several weighty tomes in the list.

With eight members on the Shadow Jury the views were always going to be disparate, the debates and discussions lengthy and the observations into other’s reading tastes enlightening. I can assure you that there was healthy discussion on many titles, some of us hating one title, others ranking it highly, and vice versa.

Our shortlist was announced in early May and consisted of the following six titles:

“Compass” by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell

“The Unseen” by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett

“Fish Have No Feet” by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland), translated by Philip Roughton

“Bricks and Mortar” by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire

“Judas” by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange

“Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell

The official shortlist differing only slightly, with “A Horse Walks Into a Bar” by David Grossman (Israel), translated by Jessica Cohen and “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal” by Dorthe Nors (Denmark), translated by Misha Hoekstra taking the place of “Fish Have No Feet” and “Bricks and Mortar”.

After long, and frequent, deliberations the Shadow Jury was similar to election night in the United Kingdom and the last Australian election with the real possibility of a hung Parliament. With only a hair’s breadth separating four titles, the voting and deliberations continued.

However there can only be one winner and although it may have been tempting to name a “joint winner” the Shadow Jury has made a decision…

Highly, highly commended is “The Unseen” by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett

But close enough wasn’t quite good enough and we have decided that the 2017 Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury winner is…. drum roll (don’t they do that in primary school?)…

 

“Compass” by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell

Compass1

Not speaking as part of a Jury here, however personally, I am extremely happy with this announcement, for me this was the standout book of the 2017 list, a work that includes a soundtrack (if you take the time to play the frequent musical references whilst reading you will notice another layer added to an already outstanding novel). With homage to other great literary works, through deft references and an engaging plot line this work encompasses you, makes you think of the possibilities of literature.

After four years of being a Shadow Jury member for both the Man Booker International Prize and the preceding Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, I think I will make this my last year of involvement. Whilst I enjoy the debate and the opinion of others, I feel a “jury” approach doesn’t really suit my opinionated behaviour. I will probably continue to read the longlist and post my views however I will be a “lone ranger”, blurting out my dislikes left right and centre without the fear of offending a fellow jury member.

It has been fun being involved, but time to move on…

Lemons in the Chicken Wire – Alison Whittaker PLUS bonus poet interview

LemonsChicken

Today another collection from the 2017 Mary Gilmore Award shortlist and a bonus poet interview. Indigenous pet Alison Whittaker’s debut collection, “Lemons in the Chicken Wire”, has already been lauded as the winner of the State Library of Queensland Black & Write Prize and the plaudits are well deserved, this is a complex, multi-layered collection of poems.

Opening with a dedication “To the land, and those who grow from it.”, the Aboriginal connection to country is placed foremost in your mind, the opening poem, “Land-ed”, continuing the theme;

land
takes dead skin from my feet
and slips
from under me
while the city
puts dead shoes on my feet
and slips
right into me

this train, the wind, ploughs on
through suburbs I barely glimpse
but there is
land and land and
I am landing

There are many laments and hints of tragic nostalgia, as the subjects move through domestic violence and the importance of family, in “Ext Int.”, memories and celebrations of deceased relatives, as seen in “Preface: Another Funeral”, or emotionally draining moments as in “Growing Soon” and “Tidda//Jidgja”. Mix this with the powerful feminist rant as presented in expected female behaviour in “Whatcha”, a poem of tampons, shaving and dark towels, the reader has in their hands a Pandora’s box of wonderful breadth and depth.

The ‘lemon’ metaphor reappears throughout, switching meanings depending upon the setting, the poem “Lemons : Metaphor” hinting at a few of the references:

Lemons : metaphor
juicy, weeping, squirting, tart
flanked neighbour’s orchard

Like Stuart Barnes’ collection “Glasshouses” , which I reviewed earlier in the week, there is a “fear” of being openly homosexual, in the poem “Silver Pillow”, the proud gay woman still has reservations, “we lie but never rest”.

Using a range of techniques and styles this collection is not all politically motivated, there is humour, playful moments, and joy. The poem “Do Ya?” opens with;

Do you think that tenderness lies at the end of this?
When ankle pins like Christ wounds tether
you, with motion, to the road? Perhaps wherever

that motion yanks you, there will be tenderness
if only where your wounds become a fat, soft mess.
What awaits us when this ends – pleasure?

 

Ultimately these poems are a love story, neither black, nor queer, it is plain love, including all the associated confusions and concerns, Alison Whittaker showing a maturity well beyond her young years, an assured and very enjoyable collection, one that demands re-reading and revisiting many times. I am very grateful to the judges, and chair, of the Mary Gilmore Award for introducing me to a range of newly published poets, all of their collections exciting in their own way, pushing new boundaries with the artform and provoking a raft of emotions.

As always I would like to thank the poet, Alison Whittaker, for her time in answering my question, her honesty in her replies and the revelations about her work that are contained in her responses.

If you are interested in her work, she was the guest editor for the latest Rabbit Journal (number 21) the indigenous issue – a collection that contains twenty-five poems.

Here’s our interview:

Q. As a proud Gomeroi woman can you tell us your story and the story of the Gomeroi?

Maarubaa nginda for asking this question first off. I can’t tell you ‘the’ story of the Gomeroi nation, but I can tell you mine! I was grown up on country near the banks of Ngamaay (the Namoi River), and then in Tamworth on a guniyal (plain). My mum is Gomeroi, and my dad is non-Indigenous. Our language, Gamilaraay, and its linkage to country and kin is what underpins and accounts for all the work I do – in both poetry and law. It’s a supporting structure, but also kind of like an ecosystem – it supports you because you support it. If you break away from it or drain it, you can no longer call yourself part of it. At its core, my story in this sense is about feeding in and out of a bigger one.

Q. From the first poem the reader knows that land, your country, is important, with a dedication to land and the opening poem being “land-ed”, can you tell us a little more about your connection to country?

I kind of can, and I appreciate that you ask, but I won’t here. I think these conversations are best had outside of a broadcast setting.

Q. You speak of a lack of passing on of cultural knowledge, “I had to Google to understand // where is the diaspora of my people?” and as seen in the poems “Heavy Tongue” and “Sharp Tongue” you speak of loss of language. Is this a nostalgic passing, a sadness or an activist outrageous voice?

All and none, I guess! Cultural knowledge is still passed on, but its varied flows have been interrupted by colonisation. Maybe reflecting on these voices now, being a little older and a little further down the path, I can see the work being done to heal the flows. There’s no nostalgia for it – there’s a yearning. It’s fundamental to being who we are, and more than that, to doing what we need to do. There’s no other English name for it. Maybe it’s not nostalgia or outrage or sadness you feel in these circumstances, it’s bereavement and dislodgement.

Q. The importance of family comes through via reflections on their passing, and the “fear” of homosexuality being uncovered, as in the line “we lie but never rest”, and you touch on the family knowledge of your sexuality in “Insider Knowledge”. Is this baring of the soul in the collection cathartic, stressful?

It is stressful! Actually, it’s more stressful now than it was before. Writing some of this collection was reckless because I was quite driven to catharsis. It felt good in the shorter term to write about this experience, this life I lived and shared with others like me from birth to my late teens. The problem with life writing is that you live with the self you create in the public domain. Others live with it to, and communities, and the selves you make for them.

I don’t give a shit about being out (just kidding, I love it!) – but I care about how I represent queerphobia and colonisation and racism and trauma and relationships. That’s more than being out. That’s almost like inviting people in to someone else. Now, I’m much more careful and slow in the things I write. I want them to mean less to me, and mean more to other people.

Q. You use rhyme playfully, as in “Do Ya?”, personally this lifted my spirits, and you use a range of poetic forms, are there any particular formats you enjoy playing with?

Oh, maarubaa nginda! That’s kind of you to say. I love playing with wordwork and storywork, there’s so much packed in there that you can weave into all kinds of terrain. What’s my favourite? Not a clue! I have features that I especially like toying with – rhyme, rhythm, repetition, time, negative space, line length, punctuation, phonetics – but I now like leaving myself out of poetic forms (like haiku, sonnets, whatever) as much as I can.

Q. I know you are studying right now so the answer may just be “text books”, but I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

Not just yet! I’ll head over to Turtle Island North America to study in August, but for now I’m reading old loves like Home by Larissa Behrendt. I’m reading Home because I’m packing up everything I own, and completely forgot I borrowed it from a friend four years ago until I pulled it from my bookshelf last week. One last read before I give it back to her!

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

Yes! My next collection – blakwork.

 

 

Glasshouses – Stuart Barnes PLUS bonus poet interview

GlasshousesBarnes

Next month the Mary Gilmore Award will be presented by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, it is for the best first book of poetry published in the past two calendar years, it was awarded annually until 1998, reverted to bi-annually and now appears to have reverted back to an annual prize. The shortlist was announced recently;

Stuart Barnes – Glasshouses (UQP)

Carmine Frascarelli – Sydney Road Poems (rabbit)

Aden Rolfe – False Nostalgia (Giramondo)

Alison Whittaker – Lemons in the Chicken Wire (Magabala)

Claire Nashar’s “Lake” (Cordite) was highly commended by the chair Michael Farrell and judges Ann Vickery and Justin Clemens.

I am hoping to interview each of the poets on the shortlist over the coming weeks and today start with Stuart Barnes, again I thank him for his time, the effort he put into answering my questions and his honesty and poetic instruction. His interview follows my personal thoughts on his book.

Stuart Barnes’ collection is split into four sections, “Reflections”, “Five Centos”, “Cyclone Songs” and “In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country”, and from the opening poem in “Reflections”, “Fingal Valley”, you are hit with a sense of nostalgia, with glass swans, “mother-of-pearl veneer”, “Nan’s budgerigar” and “Pop’s prized green” along with the iconic “leering toilet roll doll”, images of a grandparent’s country home are immediately brought to mind, you can settle in a comfortable environment and indulge in Barnes’ reflections.

The influences on Barnes as a poet is brought home in “Ebon Cans”, an homage to Gwen Harwood, where her quote “In the twinkling of and eye” becomes the personal, “in the twinkling of her eye”. Moving to playful poems such as “13”, a rondeau to the number thirteen, and “Horus and Set” a playful use of form;

Horus and Set
for Zachary Humphrey

From his ebony eyrie
the moon is salubrious,
round as the white lotus’ root.
The desert’s his adversary.

The moon is salubrious
with his godly left eye.
The desert’s his adversary,
spiteful, like a hippopotamus.

With his godly left eye
the moon is neither ossuary,
nor spiteful, like a hippopotamus,
a shape-shifting crocodile.

The moon is not an ossuary.
The desert us a troglodyte,
a shape-shifting crocodile.
The moon’s a fresh apothecary,

the desert is a troglodyte.
From his ebony eyrie
the moon’s a fresh apothecary,
round as the white lotus’ root.

With homosexual references, including the appearance of the “Grim Reaper”, which, in 1987, was a controversial advertising campaign in Australia about the spread of AIDS (if you’d like to watch the ad click here), there are poems of being bashed, being ostracised, “It’s immense the fear/of gay men”, there is also depression and mental illness as in the poem “sad”, mixed with poems about the chemicals (medication) required to create the mood altering states.

It is through these personal reflections, the voyeuristic peering into the life of another that the poems have a deep human touch, the ordinary, for example the musical references and homages, sound like any kid growing up in 1980’s/90’s Australia, but beneath the happy veneer there are dark secrets and messages aplenty.

Stuart Barnes uses innumerable references, literary and musically, to create a sense of time and place, and the use of different fonts, shapes and placement always keeps you entertained and intrigued, boiling works down to their essence, creating a depth well beyond the fifty poems (plus a proem) in the collection. A book I can thoroughly recommend.

As always, I thank the poet for their time and honesty in replying to my questions, Stuart Barnes giving detailed explanations of his work and the various forms used, therefore it is better to hear this from the creator’s lips instead of from my mere thoughts, over to the interview.

Q. Form throughout the collection is prevalent, as evidenced by “13” where you have 13 lines, 13 syllables in each line, presenting examples of 13 culturally and in the last poem in the collection “Double Acrostic” spelling out “the place where clouds are formed”. Do you find these “constraints” feed the creative?

 

In Glasshouses there are 51 poems. Of these, 15 are sonnets: ‘10.15 Saturday Night’ is kind of Bowlesian; the 17-line ‘Deep Sea Love’ and the 18-line ‘Bees’ are what I call slightly broken (the latter might also be kind of Heroic); ‘Mr Gingerlocks’ is a bouts-rimés.

Other forms include cento (‘Walking Wounded’), pantoum (‘Horus and Set’), senryu (‘Blackout’), sestina (‘Snowdrop in the Tropics’), terminal (‘Cups’) and villanelle (‘The ice storm’s’). ‘You do what you can, or Eleven Steps’ adheres to an 11-line, 11-syllables-in-each-line regulation. ‘eggshells’ and ‘colour wheel’ (dedicated to the memories of my paternal grandmother and grandfather, respectively) have four 7-line stanzas and similar end-rhymes. ‘In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country’ was influenced by the rhythms of the Boards of Canada song of the same name, Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born to Die’ (PDP / 13 Remix) and ‘Rings Around Saturn’ (Peshay & Decoder Remix) from Photek’s Form & Function.

‘Double Acrostic’, a sonnet, was occasioned by reading Ofelia Zepeda’s ‘The Place Where Clouds Are Formed’ and by re-reading Gwen Harwood’s acrostic sonnets ‘Eloisa to Abelard’ and ‘Abelard to Eloisa’. When I 1st read Shakespeare’s sonnets at high school I was as turned on as Anne Sexton when she saw on television ‘I. A. Richards [a poet and literary critic] describing the form’ (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/anne-sexton). A couple of years later my then-partner gave me Shakespeare’s Sonnets (ed. Katherine Duncan Jones) for my birthday. In 2009, when I started writing poetry seriously, the sonnet was the 1st form I explored. At the time, I was seeing a psychiatrist who played several instruments and composed scores and who believed my writing poetry would weaken my depression and anxiety (it did). Like Sexton’s therapist, he encouraged me ‘to write between our sessions about what I was feeling and thinking and dreaming’.

I wrote hundreds of sonnets, but impatient for change I started to flirt with other forms such as villanelles, pantoums and centos. When I returned to writing sonnets I decided they had to have regulations (e.g., sonnets with double acrostics); when I stopped writing sonnets altogether I shifted my focus to other forms such as double acrostics with 13-line, 13-syllables-in-each-line regulations; one was published as ‘Double Acrostic’ in Glasshouses, another as ‘Double Acrostic’ in Southerly Journal’s Writing Disability issue (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/76.2-Stuart-Barnes.pdf).

I adore writing in form, be it fixed or one I’ve altered or one I’ve conceived; when writing in form I feel as if I’m at my most creative; I feel liberated, not constrained.

Finally, that Glasshouses’ last word is ‘formed’ wasn’t decided consciously.

Q. Shape also plays a role, for example “Doubleness, with anagrams” shaped like a weather map depiction of a cyclone, is shape an enjoyable format to use in your poetic imagery?

 

Yes. Making concrete poetry (temporarily) satisfies the wannabe painter in me.

‘Doubleness, with anagrams’, from Glasshouses’ Cyclone Songs sequence, was drafted on February 22, 2015, the 2nd of 5 days without electricity after Tropical Cyclone Marcia ripped through Rockhampton. At the time, I couldn’t get the meteorological symbol for a cyclone out of my head.

I won’t explain every doubleness and every anagram but I will say that David Lynch’s doubles and doppelgängers partially inspired this poem; that the number 22 is significant and is mentioned in the 1st line of this poem and the 2nd-last line of ‘Prelude’; and that ‘latent forecasts’ (a phrase from ‘Doubleness, with anagrams’) is, rather alarmingly, an anagram of Settlers of Catan, a board game I played with friends before (but not after) Marcia.

I enjoy experimenting with font, too. ‘Doubleness, with anagrams’ includes the phrase TWIN CYCLONES! which I hope mirrors spinning-quickly-into-focus Marvel movie tabloids’ headlines. I wanted the poem to move on the page, I wanted it to capture the post-Marcia vertigo and chaos. Earlier poems such as ‘Screaming Skull’ and ‘The Complaint’ (http://the-otolith.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/stuart-barnes-complaint-is-being-made.html ) were informed by shape and font, respectively; fans of Sonic Youth will recognise another inspiration.

Other Glasshouses poems—‘из России’, ‘another journey by train’, ‘Deep Sea Love’, ‘10.15 Saturday Night’, ‘Drums’, ‘The Mixtape’—experiment with shape, font and symbol.

Q. The band ‘The Cure’ are referenced throughout your poems, I never thought I’d ask a poet this but is Robert Smith an influence?

 

Each time I’m asked about my musical influences a wonderful Dorothy Porter quote comes to mind: ‘Music has been the key for me since I was a teenager … I wanted to tap into that dark potency of rock‘n’roll.’ Music has been the key for me since I was a little kid; I’ve always been open to the energies of varied genres: alternative, blues, classical, country, dance, electronic, indie pop, jazz, Latin, opera, pop, rock, soul, soundtrack, opera, world.

I inherited my craving for music from my parents; I remember their playing oodles of country when I was a kid so it’s apt that Johnny Cash’s ‘A Boy Named Sue’ surfaced in Glasshouses’ title poem. Ghastly songs by Warrant and Poison, which my cousins played to death on long stifling summer days, inspired ‘Fingal Valley’, the collection’s 1st poem; Art Department’s glittering, minimal ‘I C U’ shimmied into another. ‘i won’t let the sun go down on me’ takes its title from the Nik Kershaw song of the same name, and the five poems from Cyclone Songs from the five songs—Grace Jones’ ‘Hurricane’, ‘Pulp’s ‘This Is Hardcore’, L7’s ‘Pretend We’re Dead’, Snap!’s ‘The Power’, ‘Antony and the Johnsons’ ‘The Horror Has Gone’—that echoed in Tropical Cyclone Marcia’s wake. ‘Blackout’ pays homage to Kate Bush’s ‘Babooshka’, ‘Coda’ to Gounod’s Faust. I wrote ‘The Mixtape’ after listening to the mixtape my 1st boyfriend made for me; Pulp’s ‘Disco 2000’, Portishead’s ‘Roads’ and Suede’s ‘The 2 of Us’ all get a mention.

I 1st encountered The Cure on rage—‘Never Enough’, 1990; I found Robert Smith’s vocals and make-up both alarming and alluring—but it wasn’t until 1992, when my friend T made me listen to every album (Three Imaginary Boys through Wish), that I became hypnotized. I took up guitar and piano and wrote dozens of (very terrible) songs.

Since then, Smith’s influenced my writing more than any other singer-songwriter-musician.

His elastic voice is a shot in the arm; he throws it like the instruments—bass, flute, guitar, 6-string bass, synthesizer, violin—that he plays. Years ago, a friend who used to sing and score opera praised his vocal harmonies (‘gorgeous’).

For me, no other songwriter captures addiction (‘Open’), ageing (‘Secrets’), arachnophobia (‘Lullaby’), death (‘Bloodflowers’), dreams (‘Kyoto Song’), fame (‘Dressing Up’), hate (‘Shiver and Shake’), hope (‘Faith’), loss (‘Anniversary’), love (‘Siamese Twins’), loneliness (‘10.15 Saturday Night’), sex (‘Jupiter Crash’) and suicide (‘The Reasons Why’) the way Smith does.

He’s mastered alt-rock, cold wave, electronic, funk, house, indie rock, new wave, pop, post-punk, post-rock, psychedelic rock, shoegaze and synth-pop, yet his band remains uncategorisable. At its core, though, is ‘The Cure sound’, described by Smith as ‘songs based on 6-string bass, acoustic guitar, and my voice, plus the string sound from the Solina’ (‘a multi-orchestral machine with violin, viola, trumpet, horn, cello and contrabass’). For me, this sound is intoxicating, as are Smith’s howls and Ows, his Doo-doo-doo-doo’s.

He’s been influenced by some of my favourite novelists, painters, philosophers and poets: Iain Banks, Baudelaire, Camus, Capote, Cocteau, Penelope Farmer, Mary Howitt, Kafka, Robert Lowell, William Mayne, Edvard Munch, Thomas Nagel, Mervyn Peake, Plath, Christina Rossetti, Salinger, Shelley, Dylan Thomas, Patrick White.

With the media he’s warm, thoughtful, articulate (his triple j interviews with Richard Kingsmill introduced me to the music of Nick Drake, another inspiration); live, extraordinary (I’ve seen the band 4 times; not 1 concert’s run under 3.5 hours).

Robert Smith’s compelling, brilliant adventurousness continues to inspire me to bend to new styles.

Several of Glasshouses’ poems address The Cure directly. ‘Reflections’ takes its title from the band’s 2011 Vivid Festival gig of the same name, ‘another journey by train’ and ‘10.15 Saturday Night’ from two of the band’s songs of the same name. ‘13’ and ‘из России’ mention ‘The Cure’, ‘ValproateFluoxetineClonazepam’ ‘the cures’.

 

Q. The very personal ‘coming out’ poem, “I”, is placed sideways on the page. Is this to signify “off kilter”, “Different”, as the poem uses lines such as “You’ll fucking die of AIDS”, “My spine’s weak” and “poof”, questions of “fitting in”?

 

It’s interesting you read ‘I’ as a coming out poem. To those who don’t know I’m gay it might be; to me it’s about astrology, meditation, and an infatuation with a man practically paralysed by his fear of coming out to family and friends who he knows aren’t homophobic and already know he’s gay.

There was much umming and ahing on my part about including this poem in Glasshouses because of the phrase ‘You’ll fucking die of AIDS’, the 2nd thing my mother said to me after she asked ‘Are you gay?’. The reasons for including it were twofold: my mother and I have an honest relationship and we were able to talk about and to laugh about the past; some people still think HIV/AIDS ‘a gay disease’, which is, I believe, both naïve and repugnant.

‘My spine’s weak’ refers to my bulging disc. ‘Poof!’, of course, is a pun, intended to lighten the poem’s tone.

‘I’ appears sideways on the page, i.e., in landscape orientation, so that ‘my’, ‘quantified’, ‘final’, ‘fine’, ‘why’—the words that rhyme with the poem’s title—would end their respective lines. I wrote ‘I’ after listening to Björk’s ‘Five Years’; three lines from this song feature in the original version of my poem (https://walleahpress.com.au/communion3-Stuart-Barnes.html).

Q. Your centos show a massive breadth of reading, from Donne to Shakespeare to many recent poets, you’re obviously well read, how long did these free flowing word sculptures, homage in many lines, take to create? Can you take us through the process?

 

My parents and my father’s parents encouraged me to read widely (the Bible, comics, Encyclopedia Britannica, National Geographic, newspapers) from an early age; later, several teachers, including brilliant poets Gwen Harwood and Liz McQuilkin (http://walleahpress.com.au/Liz-McQuilkin.html).

Each of Glasshouses’ centos was crafted over many weeks. Surprisingly, the 6-line ‘Forcento’, about gravity, was pieced together quicker than the 21-line ‘Matrimonies’, a cento from Gwen Harwood (matrimonies is an anagram of Miriam Stone, one of Gwen’s pseudonyms).

The process: I choose a theme; I choose lines from poetry collections and online literary journals which I type into a doc; from these I sometimes succeed in creating a narrative I’m happy with; I sometimes don’t, which is better than fine—writing, not having written, is what’s most pleasurable for me.

Q. You also include a “proem”, a cento of nine of your own poems. A spiralling, a boiling down to the bare essentials. Is finding the “essence” of a work a key to your creation?

 

Yes. One of the 1st found poems I forged was ‘Stern Man’, a remix of some of the proem from friend and novel/la/ist Nigel Featherstone’s Remnants which I hope encapsulates the core of this novel. Nigel wrote about Remnants and ‘Stern Man’ at his blog (https://nigelfeatherstone.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/three-cheers-for-literary-miracles/); while you’re there, order his latest highly praised novella, The Beach Volcano.

My proem’s lines are taken from ‘The Raising of the Dead’, an unpublished poem, and 8 of Glasshouses’. 1st line ‘Bay of Fires’’ is from ‘colour wheel’, a day in the life of my paternal grandfather and 9-year-old me; last line ‘might inscribe similar discs of stillness’ is from ‘Snowdrop in the Tropics’, a transformation of a Grimm fairy tale.

My proem, ‘Stern Man’ and Glasshouses begin with conflagrations and end with crystallisations.

Q. Following on from the centos question and your breadth of reading, I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

 

Writing by friends and poets Benjamin Dodds and Felicity Plunkett, and Shanghai Wedding, a novella-as-manuscript by friend Daniel Young: ‘swap-edit’, to borrow a phrase from Felicity. Robert Adamson’s Inside Out: An Autobiography, a gift from friend and poet Matt Hetherington. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and Kwame Dawes and John Kinsella’s Speak from Here to There because I enjoy their poetry and poetic interlocutions. Re-reading a.j. carruthers’ Axis Book 1: ‘Areal’, Melinda Smith’s Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call and Alison Whittaker’s Lemons in the Chicken Wire is like opening the largest matryoshka doll and finding inside differently painted, more detailed ones. Gail Crowther’s The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath, which focuses ‘on the readers of Sylvia Plath, not the historical figure herself’. Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries, Volume 1: 1939-1960: bold, witty, intriguing. Tyehimba Jess’ Olio ‘weaves new and reimagined facts with poetry, prose, and biographies of first-generation freed slaves who performed in minstrel shows.’ My contributor copy of Shaping the Fractured Self: poems of chronic illness and pain (ed. Heather Taylor Johnson): small essays and poems by 28 Australian poets who happen to live with chronic illness and pain. Pedro Pietri’s Selected Poetry because I’ve never read his work. My favourite female novelist Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Jeet Thayil’s Collected Poems and Narcopolis, both recommended by Matt Hetherington. Imma Tubella’s Un secret de l’Empordà, which I’m translating into English.

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

 

Glasshouses begins with a section called Reflections and ends with In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country; the poems I’m writing for my 2nd collection look to the future. I’m learning Catalan and translating Imma Tubella’s Un secret de l’Empordà into English. I’m preparing 2 poetry workshops—my 1st, very exciting—for CQ University’s Idiom23 Writing Retreat to be held on nearby North Keppel Island in early July.

 

 

 

Bone Ink – Rico Craig PLUS bonus poet interview

BoneInk

I am back from my adventures in central Australia, another successful trip organised where thirty-two people walked the Larapinta Trail to raise awareness and funds for the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council (‘NPYWC’), this year raising over $107,000 for the retention of indigenous women’s culture in the region. However, my return means a backlog of blog updates for you, numerous books to review and several interviews to publish.

Today I look at a recent new release, Rico Craig’s “Bone Ink” and through his generosity and speedy replies I have another wonderful interview to present to you after my thoughts on his book.

Rico Craig’s debut collection is split into two sections, “Bone Ink” and “The Upper Room”, opening with the Western Suburb’s homage “Angelo”, a tale of young men from the west, stolen cars, graffiti, cigarettes and hanging around car parks, a lament for a lost mate;

Soon we’ll give up, drive to the BP near the corner

of Victoria & James Ruse; where they do the kebabs
Angelo liked, & we’ll lean on the car, & listen
to traffic, & watch the safety lights spit insects,

& we’ll feed his ghost.

The poems aren’t all petrol heads and yahoo’ing by rough teenage boys, the hint of nostalgia, the encroachment of progress and suburbia on the innocence of you, where our poets hides eats blackberries and steals kisses, is presented in the following poem, a story of lost innocence, one that was wild AND sweet. But the indestructibility of youth, surfing in a cyclone, drugs and stolen cars also repopulates the pages, all finely balanced with a dash of humour;

…If we meet again
it will be unexpected, as will-less shoppers,
caught lingering in front of a cheese cabinet,

shocked, seeking salvation in a slab of brie.

With the benefit of hindsight Rico Craig looks back on turbulent times, rebellious activities with a wise omnipresence, presenting moments of youth with a mature distance, as in “Life Savers”;

We’re trapped in the vodka decade,
battered by the aftertaste of Skinny Bitches,
lime between our fingers, septums
scraped raw, my Burberry scarf
louche around your neck all summer.

You’re so Sid Vicious you make
the cyber-dykes swoon. Your tongue
is a luxury car sweeping around
a manicured hedge, your lips taste
like spirit poured from a crystal skull.

I’m on your trust fund diet. We’ve
been talking to the warehouse doctor;
chicken, pork and Life Savers
the only food that’ll pass our lips. Each
dawn you pace the gritty floor barefoot,

searching for the right pill. You push me
to my knees so we can make another
bullshit narcotic pact. We’re full of holes,
but I promise anyway, something
about being beaten clean with sage bush,

drinking ouzo and being weathered
by salt air. I lie and listen to the birds
that roost in the roof above, they coo
at the empty din rushing from our bodies.

The restlessness of youth gives way in the second section, “The Upper Room”, to more adult pursuits, including the ekphrastic “With Chris Ofili in The Upper Room” where Rico Craig visits the works of the controversial artist and gives the multitude of monkeys a life in the streets of London. A section including mythology, shaped poems;

like me                 water
doesn’t hold shape          or settle to being

and a conclusion that promises a more settled future, six poems making up “Lampedo”, the tale of the “one-breasted warriors” the Amazonian archers.

This is a very readable and multilayered collection, moving through numerous phases of the poet’s life, the experiences that have constructed him, from a wild youth to a cultured adult, a journey that is well served by Rico Craig’s style, enough angst, sprinkled with humour, but open enough to allow the reader to fill in the spaces and draw their own conclusions.

Onto the interview, as always I thank the poet for their time, and their honesty, my questions always attempting to demystify poetry, hopefully allowing enough room for the poet to explain their craft to you. I’m very grateful to Rico Craig for making the time to answer my questions, his honesty, openness and promptness.

Hopefully I will be back later in the week with another Australian poet review and interview, stay tuned.

Q. Who could have imagined a Bunnings sausage sizzle as the subject for a poem, and you’ve done a heroic version. How does the everyday become a poetic subject for you?

I’m really interested in the myths that individuals build to explain the world they live in, the personal stories people use to fortify various aspects of life. It’s the starting point for a lot of the poetry I write, I try to think about the myth, the anecdote that is more than an anecdote, the story people tell over and over, then I try to twist it a little – like I’m trying to turn it inside out so I can see what makes the story work and what gives the story a heartbeat.

This poem comes from a time I was doing some work at a children’s hospital; I was working with a group of kids and the parents kept dropping by to check how things were going. What hit me were the guys who were hanging around watching their kids, big tatted up guys, tradies in hi-vis, you could see they were heartbroken and on the edge of busting up because their kids were so sick. I couldn’t get the guys out of my head, I kept wondering what they’d do, if they spoke to each other. So the poem in a way comes from them trying to find a way to keep busy, to stop themselves from thinking too hard about what was happening with their kids.

Outside that, Bunnings carparks are just bizarrely interesting places, the mix of people is just weird, and if there are gods at Bunnings it’s the tradies so I thought I’d put them behind the bbq.

Q. “Spaniards Road” uses shape and form to convey a wistful message, a soul flying like a kite, (this being only one of a handful of similar poems in the collection), does the creation of space/shape intrigue you?

The short answer is yes, I’m interested in the way the shape of a poem works with and against the content of the poem. In this poem I wanted the shape of the poem to reflect the image of the kite and to also say a little about the wispiness of memory; even, eventually, the wispiness of desire and loss. I guess in this case the shape is also me wondering what a memory might look like when it’s cut from all the other things that are happening in a life. The white space around this poem is the emptiness surrounding a memory when you’ve stripped the rest of life away. In a way, Spaniards Road is like a weird tissue sample that’s been cut from a body and sent off for a biopsy.

Q. Other “shaped” poems include the tidal “Abruption – near the bear northern”, and the map in “Hand in Glove”, do you think form and space, or even a pause, can create vivid imagery, without the use of language?

I work pretty hard on the shape of poems, be they in the a more regular form or the slightly unusual shapes of Abruption and Hand in Glove. I was aware of the shape of each of these poems on the page and how the shape worked as its own image, but I have to admit that wasn’t the primary reason for the shape of the poems. What I was mostly focused on was using the space within the poem to intensify and clarify the images.

I struggled a lot with both these poems, particularly Abruption, in drafts they’ve existed in heaps and heaps of different forms, with different degrees of punctuation etc. What I found with both these poems is I wasn’t getting a clear enough sense of the images when I used a regular structure, the images felt too jammed up against each other and the poems felt too cluttered with punctuation. Spreading the poems on the page and using spaces within the lines allowed me to create internal line breaks; I got to separate facets of images into smaller fragments without pushing them onto different lines or filling the poem with punctuation.

Q. The collection includes the ekphrastic “With Chris Ofili in The Upper Room”, a controversial artist (I loved his “The Holy Virgin Mary” which I saw at MONA in Tasmania), but your poem is thick, like his work, layered and lacquered. Was this effect you were after?

When Bone Ink was launched I went on what was probably an unnecessarily extended rant about the paintings that this poem is based on. They were first shown in London in 2002. To get to the Upper Room exhibition you had to walk up a thin flight of stairs into a darkened, windowless room, there were thirteen paintings in the collection all illuminated from above, six paintings each along the left and right walls and one larger painting at the end of the room. All the paintings were of rhesus monkeys, all different colours, using paint, paper, pins, lacquer, elephant dung and I’m sure other materials. The paintings are big, I remember them as pretty much human size; as you walked up the room there was a real sense, because of the way the paintings were lit, that you were looking out through the darkness into a totally different world. For me the paintings created this other world and when I left the exhibition, I took that feeling with me, so for me a lot of the work the poem is doing and that density you mention is about trying to capture the experience of walking around in the world with the aura of excellent art still surrounding your perception. I think really good art alters your perception of the world in the same way that strong emotions can alter your perception. For me the awareness that you’re seeing the world in a different way, but accepting that (even temporarily) as your new reality is really layered and complex. I’m trying, in this poem, to capture a little of that strange, new world opening up within the day to day.

Q. Blending the working class with mythology is a unique approach, how did a western suburbs kid end up a poet?

He started as a prose writer trying to write ridiculously long and complex stories, it didn’t go well, but I kept trying, maybe for too long. I finally clicked with poetry as a form when I understood that it gave me a way to tell a fragment from a longer story, but tell it in a way that was satisfyingly rich. Most of my poems are cuts from imagined longer stories and I’m using the less narratively constrained space of poetry to explore the story through images and characters’ myth creation. I also feel like I have a lot of bad debts with the Western Suburbs, there are people I owe and I think maybe poetry is my way of paying off the debt.

Q. The collection ends with “Lampedo”, the one breasted Amazonian archers, blended with images of a hunted fox. An ending that promises more mysteries to come, what is next for you? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

Lampedo is a pretty good example of the characters creating strange stories to wrestle sense from what they’re feeling, sometimes with the poems in Bone Ink it seems like the more intense the emotions of the characters the more the realism in the poems is cut with images alien to that reality. I’m glad you picked up on the promise of more at the end of Lampedo, I wanted to leave the collection with a sense of opening into something new.

There are a few things on the go: I’ve got a stack of poems that look like they might form the core of a second collection; I’m working on a chapbook of poems that follow an animal smuggler through a series of unpleasant events in the south of Spain; I’ve also got a feature length film script set in the Western Suburbs of Sydney that I keep playing around with. So yeah there’s stuff, but I don’t know what will get across the line first.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

It’s pretty much all poetry at the moment, I bounce around a bit so I’ll give you the ones that are hitting me hardest this year: Caitlin Maling – Border Crossing for the voice and the way she makes her poems simultaneously about so many things; Michelle Cahill – The Herring Lass for the craft, thought and wonderful flare of images; Alison Whittaker – Lemons in the Chicken Wire for the structures, the way she toys with form, the vivid sense of country and people; Layli Long Soldier – Whereas for totally blowing me a way every time I pick it up, it’s so adventurous in terms of form, and commits itself utterly to the belief that poetry can fight back, amazing collection; Ellen Van Neerven – Comfort Food for the sparseness and real world beauty; Solmaz Sharif – Look for the way it claims language and reshapes what poetry of protest can look like.