After reviewing and interviewing the collections from poets Eileen Chong and Tina Giannoukos, “Painting Red Orchids” and “Bull Days” respectively, I am now onto the final poetry collection from the shortlist of this year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s “Carrying the World”.
At the end of this short review, I also have an interview with the poet, Maxine Beneba Clarke, about her work, and would like to thank her for taking the time in her very busy schedule to answer my questions.
Shortlisted for both the Non-Fiction Award, for “The Hate Race” and the poetry award for “Carrying The World”, Maxine Beneba Clarke has had an extremely busy 2016, with numerous appearances at writer’s festivals, including the opening address at the 2016 Melbourne Writer’s Festival, getting her books ready for US release and a whole lot more. Read on to find out what else she is currently working on…
“Carrying The World” is a collection of 38 poems, arranged in alphabetical order by title, although spanning a “decade-long international poetry career” (from the back cover) the poems are not dated and besides the short explanation on the cover the sequence is not discernable. This is not a distraction as these are very powerful works indeed, the title poem appearing early in the book and covering racism, self destruction, an eternity in a rocking chair;
the rocking chair strains
under weight of it all
the ole woman’s frail
but she’s carrying the world
as she knits one purl
she knit knits one purl
with the African diaspora never too far away, Delilah advising us;
delilah / nobody cared
what happened behind
closed doors / with the body
of a brute who can’t bleed
bruised against yours
a fierce black woman
beating your way forward
in a world made
for mythical white men
sick of swollen purple eyes
washing bloody fingerprints
from curved thighs / scared
but ready to try anything
In the long poem “demerara sugar” Maxine Beneba Clarke recounts an overseas trip, an education of her children through visiting relatives in England and taking the kids to the “international museum of slavery”, this is powerful poetry, not beat poetry, not simply slam poetry but unflinching protest poetry an investigation of her roots and then an unwavering presentation of the uncomfortable facts. In “disappeared” there is the tale of insignificance of a black kid dying;
the immigration minister
of the day / he said
have a real problem
a black kid did not come home that day
and that was his eulogy offering
Here is a confronting collection by a writer who pulls no punches, even the white prejudice of children’s literature does not escape the poet’s ire, “fairytale” opening with;
the teacher reads snow white
in our fairytale
my daughter will scar herself
with household bleach tonight
crying mirror on the wall
erase this face as black as night
A collection that forces the reader to stop, think, reassess your prejudices,, to look through the poet’s eyes at the racisms, the privilege, a situation less published in Australian poetry, the land of white male bush balladeers, and Maxine Beneba Clarke still has hints of the iconic poetic motif, the great Australian landscape creeping in, even homage to indigenous songlines (from “marngrook”);
back when songlines hummed
a way through grey-gum
(which was not yet called grey-gum)
This is a wonderful collection that addresses a raft of issues, including homelessness, poverty, feminism and more all outside of the black celebration and protest, presented in a very readable and moving style. Not a capital letter to be seen, there are even poems about poetry;
poetry and i / we broke up last week
we just kind of grew apart
it wasn’t him / it was me
Another diverse collection on the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award shortlist and another worthy contender for the award. I would like to thank the poetry judges, Samah Sabawi, Emilie Zoey Baker, and Alicia Sometimes (convener) for presenting a wonderfully diverse collection of poets, all females from migrant backgrounds, but all very difference in style and approach, one of the better shortlists I have worked through in recent years.
Why this work should win the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize
Approachable, controversial, powerful and memorable, all components that could lead to winning the main gong, as well as being from the pen of a recently popular writer. Covering a decade ling period these works are multi-faceted and cover a raft of territory.
Why this work will not win the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize
With “The Hate Race” also up for the Non-Fiction Prize the judges may sway towards more “conventional” poetic works, and the polished firm writing of Chong or the esoteric sonnets of Giannoukos. This is a very hard shortlist to break down, all three works being worthy winners in their own right, all for very different reasons.
I interviewed Maxine Beneba Clarke via email, and the questions and answers are repeated here verbatim. Thanks again to all three poets for taking the time to be interviewed by myself, I will be awaiting the announcement of the winner on 31 January 2017 with bated breath.
Q. In ‘demerara sugar’ you write of opening old family wounds whilst exploring your roots (“don’t she know/there things we ole folks/don’t talk about”), memoir, whether poetic or through your book “The Hate Race” forces you to wrestle publicly with many demons. Can you highlight a few of your “yes/no” memoir moments?
A. I think there are two very distinct processes for a writer – the process of writing or creating the work, which is usually a very closed, very private act; and the publishing of the work, which puts the finished piece of art into the public domain and which usually requires the author to then engage with their own work in public.
As such, I don’t consider myself to be wrestling publicly with demons. By the time my non-fiction work (including my poetry) gets to the shelf, the artistic process is already long finished. With memoir (and the suite Demerara Sugar in my book Carrying The World is also memoir, even though it’s written in poetry), I feel it’s important to be open and as generous with experience as possible – even with things that don’t particularly cast you in a glowing light. Otherwise, what’s the story for?
Q. You must be immensely proud of being nominated for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, coming from handing out free poems “on the corner of gertrude and smith” in Fitzroy, not being a PhD bush man or a “working class hero”, you’ve broken the stereotypical poet’s image with your recognition. Besides the non-fiction listing too, I have a feeling your poetry shortlisting is special to you, can you tell us how you felt about the award listing?
A. Having been a publishing poet for a decade and a half, I’m particularly thrilled to be shortlisted for the 2017 VLPA for poetry. Poetry’s my first love, and always the first form I reach for. Attention to the sound and structure of words, and practice in the condensing and fracturing of language, is what’s made my fiction and non-fiction stronger.
Q. You’ve been extremely busy this year, with readings galore, opening night at the Melbourne Writers Festival, amongst the many appearances, do you find the role of spokeswoman on race, colour and African “diaspora” tiring? A mother as well I am shocked that you can find time to write! How do you juggle this workload?
A. For me, the impulse to write is almost like the impulse to breathe. I’m not precious about when and where I write. It can be on the back of a shopping docket in the supermarket line, on the fridge with a whiteboard marker while I’m making dinner, or at my laptop in my writing space. It’s much more difficult to negotiate public commitments than it is to find time to write at home.
I don’t really see myself as a spokesperson for the African diaspora. My experience, in terms of history, is pretty specific in that my family came to Australia from Africa via the Caribbean, then England. The African diaspora experience in Australia is so broad and varied. There are so many different stories that need to be told.
Q. What is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about? What are you currently reading and why?
A. I’ve just finished collaborating on writing an adaptation of my memoir The Hate Race for stage at Malthouse theatre with Melbourne writer Erik Jensen. My reading list has been wedded to this collaboration: I re-read Jensen’s book Acute Misfortune (a biography of artist Adam Cullen), then read quite an extensive play list that included Jane Harrison’s Stolen, Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of the Craig Silvey novel Jasper Jones. It’s really exciting to be tackling yet another form, and also bringing the language of poetry and spoken word to the Australian mainstage.
Thanks again to the poets for their time, stay tuned for an interview with the winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2016 Sarah Holland-Batt.