Year of the Wasp – Joel Deane PLUS bonus poet interview


The 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the 2016 Queensland Literary Awards both featured Joel Deane’s “Year of the Wasp” as a shortlisted title (the winners were Anthony Lawrence for “Headwaters” in the PM award and David Musgrave for “Anatomy of Voice” for the Qld Award), the book also winning the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize and making the John Bray Poetry Award shortlists. More remarkable is the fact that poet Joel Deane, at the young age of 42, had suffered a stroke in 2012. Previously a finalist for the Walkley Award and the Melbourne Prize for Literature, Joel Deane was an established writer at the time, with three books (one non-fiction and two fiction) and three collections of poetry to his name. As the back cover tells us, “Year of the Wasp” is a book about Joel Deane’s “battle to rediscover his poetic voice”, however I would like to add that it is also a story about the commitment of his wife to the poet’s recovery (more on that later).

The books is made up of three sections, “Year of the Wasp”, “Eight Views of Nowhere” and “Time’s Carrion Compass Course”. The first primarily focusing on Joel Deane’s stroke and subsequent hospitalisation. On page 2 Tithonus makes an appearance, drawn from Greek mythology Tithonus became a cricket, eternally living, but begging for death to overcome him.

It was foolish to hope. He prayed
               for rain but the heavens let fall
Tithonus instead,
                             whose every atom
was transfigured into a wasp. And
every wasp was born in fury
               and showered down and
                              stung and did not slake the thirst.

The first twenty-seven pages relaying the stroke, the trip in an ambulance, the hospital, the realisation of what has happened and of course the wasp;

                   The wasp
that was inside
                                the ward
is now inside
                   (his head)

Matching mythological characters, Tithonus, Icarus etc. with plagues of locusts and wasps the tragic event takes on Biblical and mythical proportions, this is not a simple revelation, an expected event. The setting of a dry mid Victorian country town adds to the effect of a disparate place, lonely and under attack. Effectively using the space on the page to create a sparse, deserted place, the marrying of environment and the gaps in the brain’s function are expertly sketched.

Section two, “Eight Views of Nowhere”, is where Joel Deane reflects on his place in the world, his relationship, his existential thoughts, his lot in life:

Contemplate her eight views of nowhere:
                     these eight views of myself
to which she made me an accessory.
Gaze unblinking into the mirrored,
reversed world of an extinction in progress,
a transfiguration from infinity to infirmary,
                    delusion to allusion, god to wasp.

In the final section Joel Deane takes on the political, as mentioned in the introduction Deane has been nominated for the Walkley Award, this is a yearly award for journalism. His book “Catch and Kill: The Politics of Power” was an insider’s account of the Labor Party’s run in state politics in Victoria in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. During this period of a powerful run in State politics, Joel Deane was speechwriter and press secretary for premier Steve Bracks. There is a poem with a political refrain;

Let us pilot a drone in Afghanistan from
a penny arcade in Anaheim.
Let is ride Magic Mountain until the trees
runout of leaves. Let us fly
under five thousand feet so
they can feel our engines humming,
hear the whiz of each and every M-69.
Let us explain that what we did was not Guernica
nor Bergen-Belsen nor Dresden,
was not war nor terror not crime
                   – just slaughter. Let us argue
at the Hague that the prisoners of Manus Island
are not people but haunted boke-zukin –
and that what is hidden beneath those hoods
is no longer human.

This is only a section of a much longer poem. The final section also explores his relationship with his wife, who has been his tower of strength throughout his ordeal. There are words of gratitude, words of appreciation, words of love.

This is a powerful collection of poems, where you can read the struggle to regain a language, where the finely crafted poems show meticulous work, a labour of love unfurls in front of you, you are imbued with gratitude that your everyday language remains, but at the same time you feel a wonder at the poet’s rediscovery of his voice.

For more about the book, including snippets of a number of reviews head to Joel Deane’s website 

As always I would like to thank the generosity of the poet in answering my questions, as always I hope the interview adds another layer to the collection as well as giving an insight into poetic practice. The interviews I have been conducting here have been extremely educational for myself and with over 30 different Australian poets now appearing at the blog I hope these short interviews help readers to discover poetry, new books and engage a little more with the art form.

Thank you very much to Joel Deane for making the time to answer my questions and for his patience as it took me five months to get to him after my initial request for an interview.

For interested readers, in his answers Joel Deane refers to a poem that was read at the anniversary of the Bourke Street attack, that poem can be read here .

Q. The out of control brain damage, from your stroke, is played out through the hospital scenes, but also through a wasp in your head, (“The wasp / that was inside / the ward/ is now inside / (his head)”), where do the marrying of the traumatic event and the wasp spawn from?

One morning, in the winter of 2012, I woke up, walked out the front door to fetch the newspaper and fell over. Couldn’t stand up. It felt as though the ground beneath me was a skateboard ramp. Later that morning, after a ride to Box Hill Hospital in an ambulance, I was told I’d had a stroke. There was no reason for the stroke. I was 42 years old and in good health. I didn’t think, “Why me?” My oldest daughter, Sophie, was born with Down syndrome and significant hearing loss, and one of the many things she’s taught me is that shit happens. What I did think about a great deal was, “What now?” I wasn’t sure to what degree I’d recover. Wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to write again. Wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to be a husband to my wife or a father to my children. That realisation led me to dwell on transfiguration; on becoming something else and, ultimately, becoming nothing. I also began to see things – animals, insects, elements – that both were and were not around me. It was as though the world was a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing. For instance, one night, lying in bed, I was sure that there was a wasp in the ward, doing flyovers, and I felt that I was the wasp. I internalised all that in the weeks after the stroke, then, over the next few years, found myself unable to write about that trauma. It took a few years for it all to come out again in poetry, and when it did I found myself constantly surprised by whatever word came next. I didn’t write Year of the Wasp. It wrote me.

Q. “The are of becoming nothing / is redaction:” do you see poetry as a way to fill in the gaps, ensure there is “a word printed // on the page”?
I don’t know if I have the words to describe what poetry is to me. I’ve always thought of poetry as using words to say that which is beyond words. I write, therefore, when I’m bewildered by the world and don’t know what to think, and the poetry that comes from that bewilderment helps me find a way. And, if I think the poems are good enough to make sense to someone else, I send them out into the world. They’re not a way to fill in the gaps, then; poems are much more important than the pages on which they are printed. Poems are alive. They have energy, they have force, they make things happen; and to tap into that all we have to do is internalise the words that have been wrested from the lives we live.

Q. You use space, blank areas, effectively, to stress the loss of a name, or of language or of memory. Can you explain a little about how you shape/form your poems?

Every poem has an ideal for, but it takes time to find that ideal form. Sometimes, especially if I’m working in traditional forms, that can be relatively straightforward. On other occasions, such as the Wasp poems, finding the ideal form can be as bewildering an experience as finding the right words. I wrote the Wasp poems in many different ways, and kept rewriting them until they looked and sounded and felt right. It was very labour intensive and intuitive. My previous collection, Magisterium, was different. On that occasion – and, again, I was writing to try to come to terms with the trauma of losing three children to miscarriages and a stillbirth – I used traditional forms to try to and force myself to make sense of things. That worked then, but, with Wasp, it didn’t. It took me years to get the poems right. To be honest, writing the poems was an obsessive process – and, yes, it was detrimental to my health.

Q. You’ve married trauma and poetics, can you explain the battle to rediscover your poetic voice?

Part of the problem with having the stroke was that I didn’t realise how fucked up I was for a few years. I came back from it like a maniac, insisting I was fine and that nothing had changed. My wife thought I was trying to kill myself and sent me to see a psychologist. That helped. Still, it took me two or three years to start to realise what I was blind to. In hindsight, the aftermath of the stroke was like driving on a freeway in heavy fog with the high-beam lights on. I thought I knew where I was driving, but all I could see was white. It wasn’t until the fog started to clear that the poems started to arrive. Some days are still foggy

Q. “Year of the Wasp” is a cycle of poems, a greater sum than the individual that you were reluctant to publish with the whole. How did you keep the motivation and the belief in the project going?

Writing the poems didn’t feel like a project. It felt like I was buried alive and was trying to find my way back up to the light. The writing was an act of desperation.

Q. The other memories in the third section, “Time’s Carrion Compass Course”, seem all the more vivid, a life rediscovered maybe, put against the trauma of section one, “Year of the Wasp”, are you still celebrating the “daily bread”?

“Time’s Carrion Compass Course” is the third and final section in the collection, and most of the poems in there were the last poems written for the collection. By then, I felt more fury than fear. The last poem, the one that has the line about the “daily bread”, was the very last poem written in the collection. It’s a love poem, addressed to my wife. By then, I was closer to the space I’m in now than the way I was at the beginning. The space I’m in now is simple: I’m grateful. Grateful to have people to love who love me, and determined to make the most of what I have while I have it.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and a great reading list is building up by doing so, what are you reading at the moment and why?
I’m reading a lot of Irish poetry. That’s because I was lucky to win the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize and spend February and March in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It was a wonderful trip. I got to meet dozens of poets and am now reading their works. The quality of poetry coming out of Ireland and Northern Ireland is extraordinary. Here are a few of the collections I’m reading and rereading at the moment: On the Night Watch by Ciaran Carson, Bindweed by Mark Roper, Poems 19080-2015 by Michael O’Loughlin, Oils by Stephen Sexton, Foreign News by Aifric Mac Aodha, A Quarter of an Hour by Leanne O’Sullivan, Selected Poems 1978-1994 by Medbh McGuckian, Mountains for Breakfast by Geraldine Mitchell and Playing the Octopus by Mary O’Malley.

Q. Finally, another I normally ask all my subjects “what’s next” is there something you are working on that you can tell us about, will there be “happy endings”?

A clutch of poems have arrived in the past six months. Most of them were sparked by the death of my father. One of them was different. That poem, “January, 2017”, was written to mark the first anniversary of the Bourke Street attack when six people lost their lives. I’m also working on some fiction. I haven’t written a novel since the stroke, so I want to find out whether I can still climb that mountain. There are no happy endings, but, as the Wasp poems say, there can be “grace ephemeral” – and that’s enough for me.


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