Carmine Frascarelli’s collection “Sydney Road Poems” would have to be one of the most visually arresting, multi-layered collection of poems that I have encountered in the last few years. Shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Award, along with Stuart Barnes’ “Glasshouses”, Aden Rolfe’s “False Nostalgia” and Alison Whittaker’s “Lemons in the Chicken Wire”, I have been fortunate enough to have the poets answer my questions about their works, and today I bring you another amazing interview with an Australian poet, as always the responses follow my short views on the book and appear unedited below.
For non-Melbourne based people, Sydney Road is a busy stretch, that runs from the north of the city, towards Sydney, past the old gaol and has traditionally been an area for migrants, recently becoming “gentrified” and hipster.
Carmine Frascarelli has captured the history and make up of this interesting part of Melbourne through concrete poetry, visual layering, blended with historical documents, shapes and so much more. This book is not simply poetry, it is a work of art.
Covering the history of the road, from pre white settlement, through to chain gang constructions, gold rush traffic, migrant population, controversial war moments, to the present day tram trips, cars and multi-culturalism, this homage to an area of Melbourne is both compelling and educational.
The loss of history is marked from the opening poem “#1”, “we poke up & down this road,/ where the old prison & religions ran out // (the walk home) / Gentrified no gentlemen / Hill side of the Green Field” . “#2” takes us back to the traditional owners and the possession of their land; “they drew a line on a sheet of paper & here =, they’d pave a way : in : out in order to settle / they would be unsettled”. Onto “1838” and the convict gang who commenced building the road, and then “1896” and religious riots.
The sense of time is portrayed through the use of now redundant language, “Bukko”, “Dagoes”, but it is not a collection that simply recreates a history of Melbourne, although there is the inclusion of the treatment of returning diggers, dissidents, women voters, the north of Melbourne becomes a microcosm of general society. Using the open (one sided) parenthesis throughout, the implication of a half finished story unsettles you on almost every page.
As it is impossible to quote a poem here without the visual layering, here is an example of one of the pages
A timeline of ownership of the original property called “Brunswick” (including subdivision), shows the fleeting existence, the passing of time, through layers, images and historical records.
The collection is not all visual, with poetic lines overlaying the present day with the historical, the activism peeping through, the current treatment of migrants becoming echoes of the past. This is a book all Melbourne residents should own, a collection that would resonate with many readers who live in the suburbs of Brunswick, Coburg and surrounds, a document that adds to the vibrancy of our city and through careful research and stunning presentation celebrates the multiculturalism that is weaved through our current time and place, without ignoring the traditional owners of the lands where we currently live.
Another brilliant collection from the Mary Gilmore Award list of 2017, again I thank the chair, Michael Farrell, and judges Ann Vickery and Justin Clemens for bringing these works to my attention.
As always, I would like to sincerely thank the poet, Carmine Frascarelli, for his time and honesty in answering my questions, I feel this is another dazzling interview to add to the collection I am slowly building here at Messenger’s Booker.
Q. One of the first things a reader notices is the visually stunning work you have constructed. I am sure there were many hurdles in getting a work like this to print, can you take me through the printing process, proof reading etc.?
It worked out much easier than expected. I was initially a bit worried with definite sympathies for the typesetter. I’d had a piece published in Rabbit before that had ‘visual’ text in it with some images as well and it got a slightly messed up with bits missing, a line repeated that I didn’t do, things out of whack etc. but Jess Wilkinson wasn’t fazed and had confidence in Megan Ellis, the new typesetter.
The first proof was great. With mostly minor things, and even the one bigger thing resolved easy enough (poem 26 had about 50 text boxes in it). I met with Megan and went through it all, I’m also a visual artist so conscious of the qualities text as a visual communication but in a very…I guess painterly way, so there was a lot of “up a bit” “down a bit” “left” “more” “more” “more” “go back” “can you get it as close to the edge as you can?…what?…let’s not worry what the printer’s gonna say” etc. Megan was great, patient, astute, knew what she was doing and had what looked like a professional computer.
I didn’t see the physical book until the launch. Some things shifted, namely the newspaper clippings which I wanted to haunt and pester around specific lines of mine. But no matter, I was (still am) more concerned with the bungled hurdles of how bad some of the poetry is than the visuals.
Q. Your collection opens with a stunning epigraph from Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”, an inspiration to stop and to dwell. How long did you allow Sydney Road to sit in your unconscious before the poems birth, crawling “like serpents from their cave”?
Sensitivity to the ideas of place and relationships to it (social place, cultural place, environmental place, historical etc.) has been with me since childhood. I think the migrant heritage plays a big part in that hyper-awareness. There’s both a strong sense of estrangement mixed with an overcompensating urge to prove yourself & belong, all complicated by the hypocrisy of “Australian” as a benevolent reliable macho identity founded on dispossession & displacement. Then, after getting a grip, seeing it change, and what you grasped at, shift. There’s an inherited chip on my shoulder.
Add to that my reading of travel books with author philosophical interludes; West’s Black lamb Grey Falcon & Henry Miller’s the Colossus of Maroussi, Hunter S. Thompson & Walter Benjamin, then William’s Paterson, Susan Howe’s Europe of Trusts, locally π.ο’s, Thalia’s & Jordie Albiston’s stuff, then even more influential was Olson’s Maximus Poems, also seeing Fellini’s Roma as a teen, an unresolved need for exploring or atomising what person to place was, is,& could be, was waiting then just sort of gradually unleashed for my own entertainment & catharsis (as private relief & distraction during a troubled relationship combined with that chip on my shoulder) then gradually more serious until Jessica asked if I had anything for a book, I stopped having fun and did deeper research and thinking and made a book. But time from the first poem to the finished manuscript was about 18 months. Though there’s more poems I wanted to do. I sort of consider it incomplete.
Q. The newspaper reproductions add yet another layer to your work, quotes like “famous previously for bricks, pottery, mud and poverty” revealing another depth to the suburb. Can you explain a little about your research process?
The first stuff I wrote was from my immediate experiences and daily observations of the place with some influence of local knowledge. Then it slowly built. I was personally, instinctively curious about it all so there was no academic or scholarly impetus or method to any of it. Secondary sources: Laura Donati’s book Almost Pretty: A History of Sydney Road being the main one which led to stories & primary sources both in the Local History Room at Brunswick library and going through digitised newspapers on Trove. The staff at the library were very helpful too. They have excerpts from the Sands & McDougall Post Office records just for Brunswick from 1885 to 1970 listing tenants & property owners for Brunswick addresses. Saved me a heap of time & trouble & let a piece I really wanted to do & felt vital for the work (poem 26) finally happen.
Because it was for poetry not dissertation, I wasn’t concerned with finding or justifying a conclusive position. So, I tried to have fun and throw all these sources against & in with one another to test & challenge and see what it all may or may not mean.
Q. In your hands a walk down Sydney Road and the encounters made is a “cluttered” experience, “the ordeal a footpath”. Did this “concrete poetry” and shape and form come easily?
A sense of self, others, place and their histories, present & futures as interconnecting unpredictable improvisations. Yes! With shoes on my hands. Also, that was a bad proof read on my part “the ordeal of a footpath” should’ve been the line. Shit.
I consider myself instinctively a visual artist, but having said that my sketch books have lots of text in them. Abrupt annotations. Sometimes the best way I felt I could capture & express my reactions & thoughts is through diagrams or keep myself from interjecting as much as possible & just do a kind of textual frottage or bricolage.
The “concrete” aspect, I feel, can aid and enhance the ideas expressed. Like how the assured projection of a line or a path may either continue to head wherever or suddenly morph & avert to remain relevant & existent. Though I tried to employ it fluidly, organically, erratically more than architecturally. Not for novelty sake either. Which is why I loved Jessica’s work so much. It’s a valid & vital mode. Believe it or not I wasn’t interested in being experimental or too recondite & I didn’t want to write a poem about a mouldy banana in the visual form of a furry teacup either, for example.
Q. Pardon my ignorance, can you explain your use of “pe,ople” to me?
It’s a clumsy (mis)appropriation of something Melbourne poets Thalia & π.ο do, where they use mathematical commas to group letters like digits. “pe,ople” as opposed to “people” was to try and refer to people as a number, a bulk of data, objects, statistics more than a collection of poetic personifications of humanity. Not sure it works.
Q. The poem “1991” shows a forward thinking and forthright mentality by the council on the issues of the Gulf War and “Moslems” in general, are you proud of Brunswick Council’s stance at that time?
I think I’m too cynical to be proud. And I was too young then to really remember first-hand what things were like for Muslim Australians especially with Middle Eastern heritage. But it seemed like an impressive gesture by the council to act from principle and passionately reach out, represent and defend the locals especially considering Brunswick’s intense & mixed migrant heritage all experiencing that agitation I mentioned earlier. That was Romper Stomper time as well.
Q. Are we all just visitors here, the “t-shirt/the white kids with the black sky red earth sunned chests (pseudo – “sorry”s & crypto-“so what”s” ?
Visitors is a soft, evasive way of putting it. Hard for me to answer assuredly. Probably why I listed some of what we are with question marks in that poem. The whole book could be considered a response. As in visitors or guests or invaders or fugitives in a planetary sense? Cultural? Geographical? Mystical? I dunno. (Falsed roots brings false fruits (hello Matthew Hall)
Again, I’m cynical, or maybe naïve, I believe it’s more in a nuanced awareness & self-awareness & integrity of relationship to place & people that goes further than simply waving a flag or putting on a t-shirt. Anyone can do that. It can be distortive. Ethical complexities reduced to (moral) fashion and not much really changes. Token appeasement & mutable affiliations are sugar (bulls)hits. Genuine engagement with the issues lay elsewhere, maybe inwards. For all my gentrifications & lush-haired-clean-shaven-Roger Moore-ness, I’m a cagey wog at heart.
Q. Is non-fiction, historical, “metaphysical hysteria”, poetry a genre?
One may, perhaps, consider it a nomadic non-linear line of trans-ideological enquiry more than a genre my dear Sir. A mode of consciousness that meanders in the rift between my inherited peasant strand of defiant nihilism & my constructed bourgeois conceited aloofness. I think what I do could be a hyper-judgmentalist projectivism maybe. It’s also a nod to Rachel Blau Duplessis’ “hysterical masculinities”.
Q. With references to Ezra Pound, Joseph Brodsky, Howlin’ Wolf (to name a few) you are obviously well read and a music lover. I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why? And for yourself, what are you listening to and why?
(I’m thinking of Bill Hicks “watcha readin’……for?”)
My kitchen table is my desk/workbench. Currently stacked & sprawled across it are; the latest Rabbit Issue 21 along with Melody Paloma’s excellent book & Dave Drayton’s too. It’s all just so bloody bunny good. And what value! Flash Cove 4 & 5. I’m onto the second book of Rachel Blau Duplessis’ extraordinary Drafts which is becoming increasingly influential for me. Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems 1980-2017 (signed). Rosi Braedotti Transpositions. An old Japanese book with Japanese text (the photos are in Australian) a nice friend lent me about ceramics & tea bowls & the styles & traditions of glazing. Wabi sabi! That’s what I should have called “metaphysical hysteria”. I’ll just list the rest: The Essential Mary Midgley Reader; a stack of monographs: Soul of a Tree by George Nakashima; one on “prototypes, one-offs & design art furniture”; Robert Motherwell; Cy Twombly; Arte Povera; Yvonne Audette; Cy Twombly & Poussin; Cy Twombly Sculpture; Out of Hand: Materialising the Post digital & one called Post Digital Artisans.
Music’s always on. Music’s the best. I’m actually a failed musician. Howlin’ Wolf was a homage to my brother. I listen mostly to….jazz I guess. Everything from the 20’s to now. Mostly stimulated by the 50’s/60’s stuff. Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk etc. I play a lot of Melbourne band the Hoodangers too because they don’t perform live so much these days. I usually get New York bassist William Parker’s music when it comes out. At the moment Marc Ribot Requiem For What’s-His-Name is on. Recently purchased: Mary Halvorson Meltframe, Marc Ribot Rootless Cosmopolitans, Charlie Haden & Liberation Music Orchestra Time/Life & Archie Shepp Blasé.
Why? Short answer is for pleasure, inspiration & vindication. Knowing there is & has always been fervent nutters after my own soul existing & expressing.
Q. Finally, what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?
I’m currently completing an Associate Degree in Furniture Design at RMIT. No idea what’ll come of it though. I’ve just had a short burst of writing so I hope to do a few submissions, which I haven’t really done for a while. Also, gradually working my way back through a stack of short poems I did as a kind of journal/daily medicine a few years ago during the mercurial relationship that spawned the Sydney Road stuff. Actually, the book started in that stack. Maybe someday I’ll coax & hoax another manuscript of it.
Hopefully I will round out the set of Mary Gilmore Award shortlisted, and highly commended poets, Claire Nashar’s “Lake” being highly commended, with an interview with Aden Rolfe, about his book “False Nostalgia”, in the coming weeks.