intToday I am privileged to not only present my review of Michael Farrell’s “Cocky’s Joy” but I also had the opportunity to interview Michael about his book and his upcoming plans. A larger than usual post, but for a special book it is more than deserved. I personally hope that tomorrow night, when the winners of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards are announced, Michael Farrell brings home the $80,000 (tax free) prize for poetry.
My final review from the 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award Shortlist for Poetry is Michael Farrell’s “Cocky’s Joy”, thirty-nine poems that are a rollicking insane journey though whitefella Australian history, recent, imagined and since colonisation.
From the very first line of the very first poem you know that this collection is not your standard fare, “two anchovies; a bowl of milk; fried crumpet”. The second poem, “Making Love (To A Man)’ featuring homosexual sex and internet hook ups.
If stalwarts of Australian white male poetry in Les Murray and Robert Adamson also feature on the shortlist of the Prime Minister’s Award, this is a book that is at the polar opposite of their “bush”, man on the land, creations. There is the Australian bush ballad featured in Farrell’s work, the surrealist “Bush Christie” with characters such as Mary Gilmore, Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson, John Shaw Nellson, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Charles Harpur, Henry Kendall, Bennelong, Ned and Dan Kelly all appearing. Who is the Christie? Who is the murderer? Iconic Australian names (for those of us taught “poetry” in the 1980’s) poets, a couple of bushrangers and the senior man of the Eora Nation, the Aboriginal people of the Port Jackson area, who served as an interlocutor between the Eora and the British at the time of the first British settlement in Australia in 1788.
Australia’s settlement history gets a different focus under Farrell’s lens, here’s the first eight lines of the poem “Steelers, Regurgitated”;
Victoria’s first settlers were whalers as well
as prostitutes. They were hale, they drank
ale. They were whalewrights, sexwrights –
they were Whites. They ate a lot of pasta
too, well before the Italians put in an appearance.
They didn’t call it pasta, they called it boiled
hay. The famous hay-twirlers of that time
have unforch been forgotten, their names deimagined.
Not your romantic poetic view of Australia, however this collection is more Australian than you could possibly imagine, overseas readers would be scratching their heads to references such as;
The flags say, ‘Help! We Are Out
of Daddy Cool!’ and Mondo Rock come and talk about
those early days, by the River of Babylon, of cowboy
hats and Molly Meldrum, where every mother wanted a
gay one under a gay sun –
Australian kids of the 70’s and 80’s could quickly explain that Daddy Cool was a band fronted by Ross Wilson, who had a huge hit with “Eagle Rock”, after they broke up Wilson fronted a band called Mondo Rock, the River of Babylon was a song by Boney M. and a (presumed) gay Molly Meldrum hosted a Sunday night television program called “Countdown”, wearing a cowboy hat and featuring all the latest hits, a massive ratings success. Personally, I preferred the musical clips where bands broke the mould and upset Molly, bands such as the “Sacred Cowboys”, “Jimmy and the Boys” or the drag queen Divine.
Rapid fire poetry, bizarre images, iconic images reimagined as surrealist scenes with zebras or some other strange animal. For some reason the Australian (Chilean) painter Juan Davila came to mind, (Google images of his works if you don’t know who I’m talking about), here’s an example from “Abstract Alcohol”
On/the altar, a gold soccer ball. Green Mandolins
recline on the pool table. Think of an RSL
lined with red velvet, a country singer eating
shards of Diamanda Galas records. Curtains.
For readers or fans of the Oulipo movement, the four-page poem “The Comic Image” features references to Perec and Calvino and the 1967 Oulipo, also having a sly dig at colonial writing (again);
I used to be a bush butcher or
a journalist and I always keen a pinch of drought in
my coin pocket to remind me of the dry anthologies of
This collection has innumerable literary references and mythological clues, with poems such as “Spoiled for Choice: 80 Ganymedes”, a poem of 80 lines, each dedicated to a male lover. The myth of “godlike Ganymedes that was born the fairest of mortal men; wherefore the gods caught him up on high to be cupbearer to Zeus by reason of his beauty, that he might dwell with the immortals.” (Homer, Iliad, Book XX, lines 233-235). This myth was the model for the Greek social custom of paiderastia, the socially acceptable erotic relationship between an adult male and an adolescent male.
Understandably this collection would not be for everyone, a rapid fire insane experimental collection, some poems hallucinatory in structure and style, others plain baffling, others humorous, yet others confronting. From “The Structuralist Cowboy”;
Sort of, meaning exactly. One cowboy rode a frog
another wore a cowpat hat. That was not on a range
nor even a ridge. Whether they rode in from the
crossroads of Trivia, or from a dry spot in New
South Fuckmyarse, was ever discussed. Aaiiee! might
just be the Apocalypse squealing. I wrestled with
my father: the thought that he was John Ashbery
gave me the extra strength to lay him on his back.
I then dragged his godforsaken Gertrude Steinish
hide to the tree in the orchard that opposed the
tree in another orchard I had read about. That was
pure instinct I believe. One cowboy I know liked
to say that the station he worked on was bigger
than Deconstruction. He read Corbière and Marx
in the cowboy editions but by the time they reached
him cowboy was an extinct language.
From the Prime Minister’s Literary Award Shortlist this collection is my favourite by far, a work embedded in 2016, unlike three of the other collections that although fine in style and structure are more collections that would be in place in a 1980’s high school class. Congratulations to Giramondo Press for bringing this book to a wider reading public, a shout out to the PM Literary Award Judges, Ms Louise Adler AM (chair), Mr Jamie Grant, Dr Robert Gray and Mr Des Cowley, for including a bold unique work on the shortlist, I have my fingers crossed that they continue the boldness on Tuesday night and recommend this collection as the winner. Noting that the judges make a recommendation to the Prime Minister, with him having the final decision, therefore we will not know if the judges do recommend any work with Malcolm Turnbull overruling their recommendation!
In order of preference here are my selections for the Award:
Cocky’s Joy by Michael Farrell (Giramondo)
The Hazards by Sarah Holland-Batt (University of Queensland Press)
The Ladder by Simon West (Puncher & Wattmann)
Net Needle by Robert Adamson (Black Inc.)
Waiting for the Past by Les Murray AO (Black Inc.)
I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the works win the award though, with such diversity on the shortlist it is impossible to know how the judges will lean, although I would be happy with either Michael Farrell or Sarah Holland-Batt, both more relevant and contributors “to the nation’s cultural and intellectual life” (the award’s mandate).
I interviewed Michael via email, I’m sure a number of his responses will appeal to readers here, let’s hope it extends his readership, and if any of my non-Australian readers buy the book and are unsure of the Australian references, drop me a line, in a lot of cases I’d be able to help out.
TM. If poetry is meant to evoke specific memories then I love the Countdown and 70’s & 80’s pop references, was there a specific thought process in adding/scattering these references?
MF. Pop music is a big part of the way I think about words/phrases, and to some extent poetic form. Countdown, and American Top 40 were highlights of the week when I was a kid. The references are added or scattered, (and there are 21st C refs too – Kanye, Pink), they’re just part of my image repertoire; and part of creating a particular affect/vibe. I want to write equivalents of great songs – the feel as much as the form.
TM. A couple of your poems in “Cocky’s Joy” feature detailed male-to-male sexual acts, sitting alongside Les Murray and Robert Adamson on the Prime Minister’s Literary Award Shortlists these references are confrontational. Was there any specific reaction you were aiming for with these references?
MF. I’m not sure .. to some extent “Making Love (To A Man)” was an attempt to write something less coded, less figurative, about sex .. I was partly resisting the hetero male poem of ‘the lover’, which I find cringey. I think there’s a queer element to my work generally that is resisted, but as long as it’s tagged experimental or whatever it can be rejected by self-styled progressives. Online dating is a big part of my life, and a recent phenomenon, and also to some extent invisible. It has a lot of potential for writing: poems are as likely to come from all the reading involved as much as the experiences.
TM. A couple of your narrative poems make me think of a surrealist on acid in a shopping mall or out in the ‘burbs. At times images of Juan Davila’s more controversial works came to mind (“The Arse End of the World (1994)” for example). How do you feel about these elements of your poems, have I completely missed the point or is that part of your intention?
MF. I admire Davila, especially his work with Australian iconography: and I think it has influenced my thinking to some extent. As has looking at Surrealist painting. I grew up in a small country town and in the bush, so I tend to think of the suburbs as other. I prefer to stick as close as possible to the CBD. So it’s an abstract terrain, relatively speaking. I’m interested in making scenes that are out of control, that are not ‘I saw a bird and now I’m going to do a wee’ kind of epiphanies. I love melodrama as a pop mode … everything’s building, going blue, our giraffe heads are popping out from behind our human masks etc.
TM. With references to innumerable writers and poets, it is obvious to any reader that you are very well read, who do you see as your main influences, idols?
MF. I’m a fan more than an idoliser. The formative influences are a role call of (but not of all of) the big 20th C US poets: Stein, O’Hara, Ashbery, Stevens, Williams, Moore, Spicer, cummings, Cage, Berrigan. Brecht and Lorca stand out as the non-Anglophones. Some I spent so much time with that I don’t have the same desire any more. Others I’ve taken up a bit more gradually. Stevens and Lorca. Pound. Perhaps Lorca is my idol circa now (or Derrida?). But that’s to speak in a poetry vacuum: Michael Jackson and Sesame Street are as big. My father’s metaphors as Prince Jackson says / songs about letters. Warhol …
I’m influenced by Hamlet and Macbeth more than Shakespeare generally: which means there’s more to come there too. Tzara is cool. Locally, Neilson is very important to me, and I am still interested in Harpur and Lawson. Later poets include Campbell, Dransfield, Neidjie … Australian history, which I read through my own Eastern states upbringing. I’ll leave out the living.
TM. You mention the Oupilo in the poem “The Comic Image”, their theory of adding constraint results in the writer’s creative energy being liberated. I couldn’t pick any Oulipo constraint in the poem, however is there one, and is it a technique you use or would like to explore?
MF. I guess I didn’t say much about the avant-gardes in my influences answer. I read the Dadaists and overlapping Surrealists, which have had a general effect. Concrete poetry is still part of my thinking, as is the conceptual, both in art terms and Goldsmith’s internet-inflected version. Oulipo have interested me, I like Perec in particular. The image of the jigsaw puzzle on the cover of Life: A User’s Manual has stayed with me. I have used constraints before, more particularly in a raiders guide and open sesame. There is a poem in open sesame called “Debit of a Pirate Kino” which uses the noun plus seven constraint. I think using them has an ongoing effect, that is there in a sense in poems like “Mary” and “New I New Field”. I have used anagrams and chance a lot in the past … new constraints probably lie ahead.
TM. What are you currently reading and why?
MF. I am normally reading around 100 books at any one time. Which makes me slow. I read a lot of lit theory and a fair amount of biography, which is useful material. I generally follow tips from one book to the next, but often pick up new things from browsing the library. I read some things for academic papers, but mainly I’m following a feeling. I have one eye on the form, depending on where I’m at formally and if what I’m reading relates in some way. The things I’m getting something from at the moment are Alexsander Wat, Petrarch, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Weldon Kees, Yehuda Halevi. I try to leave space for non-Anglophone poets.
TM. What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
MF. Partly that depends on whether any of the irons I have in the fire come back with anything on them (funding applications). It feels pretty loose at the moment. I got a lot off my chest with Cocky’s Joy, and there’s more to come in a new book next year. My research is getting explicitly queerer, so I might have to pull Captain Cook’s pants down in a poem.