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.