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.