Apologies in advance, this post contains links to numerous poetry reviews and interviews, it appears the last few years of reading, writing and talking about Australian poetry has resulted me building up a decent a resource!!! I have also referred to various other reviews of “Argosy”, not out of laziness, but read on to understand why.
In the last twelve months if you’ve delved into many of the Australian Poetry Awards, you would have come across Bella Li’s 2017 book “Argosy”. This year “Argosy’ has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the Kenneth Slessor Prize (the Poetry Award for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards), and the book was highly commended in the 2017 Anne Elder Poetry Award (the winner being Rico Craig with “Bone Ink”- review and interview with the winning poet here) and commended for the 2017 Wesley Michel Wright Prize in Poetry (the winner being Susan Fealy for her collection “Flute of Milk” – review and interview with the winning poet here) as well as being shortlisted for the 2018 Mascara Avant-garde Awards (the winner being Amelia Dale for “Constitution” – I have an interview with the poet here and my review appeared at Mascara Literary Review here).
“Argosy” has recently been reprinted after selling out the first print run, something I’ve only come across once in the last twelve months for Australian poetry, Shastra Deo’s brilliant debut collection “The Agonist”, a book that has been shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal, alongside dual Booker Prize winning Peter Carey, Eva Hornung, Sofie Laguna, Steven Land and Gerald Murnane (review of “The Agonist” and interview with the poet here)
Bella Li has recently had a new book released by Vagabond Press, “Lost Lake”, and I have been fortunate enough to get in contact with Bella Li and she agreed to an interview about both of her books. Again, I am extremely grateful to the writer for their time and honesty and, as always, the full unedited text of the interview can be read at the end of this short look at Bella Li’s two most recent books.
Both “Argosy” and “Lost Lake” are sumptuous books, collections of collage, photographs, prose poems, found works, erasures and more, their presentation alone makes them stand out.
“Argosy”, an homage to Max Ernst’s collage novels, has two sections, “Pérouse, ou, Une semaine de dispaitions” and “The Hundred Headless Woman”, the first section using images and creating collages sourced from atlases and journals of discovery for the lost explorer Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, a French Naval Officer whose expedition disappeared in Oceania in 1788. The second section uses photography and found texts to create further voyages of discovery. Here’s an excerpt from the section that responds to an interview with Elena Ferrante which appeared in “The Paris Review” (212, Spring 2015);
For instance, in Ischia. Those dark corners where the sound does not. But I remembered them that way and only that way do they appear. In each retelling, in the manner of chiaroscuro: stones shearing off the roofs of houses at sundown. Hunting the particularity, the moment, seen so closely from afar. Down the lanes, always in the company of a shadow, a woman, a cleaver. Always closer than before. (p123 “Argosy”)
“Lost Lake” continues the theme with eight distinct sections, one for each colour of the rainbow, plus pink, using found texts, collage and photography. An example, taken from “The Confessions of Saint Augustine” (translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey);
That I have written, of places I have not been. To Carthage I came, where there sang around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. And in the vast courts of memory, the caverns of the mind. I have heard great waves upon the shore, I have remembered what it is. In other ears: the scaling of heights. These circuits of stars, compass and pass by. (p 41 “Lost Lake)
Books that use memory, embedded experiences to present a layer thought provoking prompts. Dwell on the pages, contemplate the message, fill in the gaps, making both books an individual understanding.
Reviews and judges reports from the various awards have described “Argosy” as follows:
“Argosy” is a stunning hybrid artefact, textually and visually. Through Argosy, Li provokes the reader on the value of the object, of the book. This is a collection whose very reality insists on the necessity of print – it dwells within the materiality of form, and is a recognition of poetry as art and art as poetry. Argosy’s exquisite writing leads the reader through collages, prose poetry and photography, the meanings of which unfold through their juxtapostions – poetic gaps that spur haunting, dreamlike sequences. This is a collection of journeys and intertextual dialogues – between poems and works, and with culture and history.’ Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2018 judges’ report.
‘The powerful and surprising impact of the book made Argosy a clear winner. Bella Li’s sophisticated handling of language, form, time and image offers a remarkable synthesis of European surrealism and an antipodean sensibility, via a Chinese–Australian history. This important contribution to Australian poetic imagination and traditions doubles as a Southern Hemisphere rewriting and re-imaging of world traditions.’ NSW Premier’s Award (Poetry) judges’ report.
‘Bella Li’s is a cerebral, yet playful collection broadly presented in two movements. Li interrogates art, history, geography, film, philosophy, and language through the muscular form of the prose poem, juxtaposed with original photography and collage. Argosy is at once immediate and surreal, and self-reflexively leads us to question our received knowledge of the world, while engaging with and commenting on aesthetic traditions practised by experimental artists such as Joseph Cornell. As an artefact, the book is a singularly beautiful object that pushes the boundaries of what narrative, poetic meaning, and indeed, a collection of poetry might be.’ Anne Elder Award 2017 judges’ report
I find these “reports”, and my feeble attempts at writing a review, present a conundrum. Both books, amongst a range of techniques, draw upon existing texts and have numerous references to works that already exist in our psyche, Dante, Proust, Elena Ferrante, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Cormac McCarthy to name just a few. As a result, a reader approaches “Argosy” and “Lost Lake” with their own personal lens, a view that has already been tainted by our own experiences of these canonical texts. We bring our own learned prejudices and expectations to our reading, and any analysis or presentation of views subverts the texts that Bella Li has shaped. I feel as though adding my interpretation of these two books would be to bring my world view to the table, and I believe that is not what these works are about . As books that hover with memory (for example the collage prints use works I distinctly recall seeing in publications, images in “mercredi: Dans le sang” appear familiar, however they are drawn from “editions of atlases appended to…journals of discovery, held at the State Library of New South Wales, State Library of Victoria and Special Collections, Baillieu Library, The University of Melbourne”, collections I have not seen, therefore my unreliable memory comes into play), they use recalled experience to add another layer to your reading involvement.
What I would suggest is for you to buy both books, open your imagination, immerse yourself in the delicacy, handicraft, and words, allow the mysterious gaps in Bella Li’s landscape to be slight shaped by your views, create your own cultural hybridity, journey with the writer/creator to places you thought you knew. You will not be disappointed.
Over to the interview, and thanks go to Bella Li for her time and her honesty.
Q. As you explained in a podcast for the NGV Triennial Voices exhibition, “Argosy” is a merchant ship, one that contains a lot of cargo. This implies there is a lot to “unpack”, however before a reader unpacks it, the packing needed to be done. Can you explain the project, how it started and the processes you underwent towards completion?
Argosy began with a small commissioned work for the Ian Potter Museum of Art. I was to use an item from their collections to write a suite of poems. My proposal involved a large terrestrial globe, which had the voyages of three explorers—Vancouver, Cook and La Pérouse—mapped onto it. But for practical purposes (the globe was too deep in storage to retrieve), I ended up reading through the expedition journals instead. At some point I learned that La Pérouse had disappeared, shortly after leaving Botany Bay, and his journey became my sole focus.
The journals led me to atlases from this and subsequent expeditions sent in search of the missing explorer, filled with beautiful and strange illustrations. Transposing these images into words seemed to miss something distinct and important, so I made collages (from photographs I took of editions of the atlases held at the State Library of NSW, the State Library of Victoria and the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne), and then wrote two sequences of prose poems, based loosely on the journals. These formed the first part of the book, ‘Pérouse, ou, Une semaine de disparitions’.
The prose poem sequences and collages that comprise the second part, ‘The Hundred Headless Woman’, were written just before, concurrently, or after the work on ‘Pérouse’. The book design was the final part of the process, and involved a steep learning curve with InDesign and hand-trimming hundreds of pages of test prints.
Q. There has been a lot of focus on the collage aspect in your work, your homage to Max Ernst, I’ll leave readers to read about your work with images elsewhere. Therefore, I’d like to understand a little more about the section “The Hundred Headless Woman”, a mysterious shaping of anonymity, for example Elena Ferrante, are Isadora shaped through a 3rd person narrative. Could you tell me a little about the text manipulation and creative process here?
‘The Novelist Elena Ferrante’ was written after I’d read an interview with the author in the Paris Review. It gave such a strong sense of place, and of a particular personality—which was all the more interesting because of Ferrante’s anonymity. I wrote the poem as a speculative piece—a fictive persona based on a real pseudonym—set in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples. At this stage I hadn’t read any of Ferrante’s novels. After Argosy was published, I read the Neapolitan Quartet and found that some of the most important events in the story occur in Ischia.
‘Isadora: A Western’ uses lines from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian as chapter titles. Westerns are dominated by men, and by simple moral dichotomies. I wanted to write a miniature western—formally set somewhere between a screenplay and a novel—and to cast a central character who moved against type. The details were probably a composite of every novel and film in the Western genre that I’ve read or seen, guided by McCarthy’s text in particular, with its high lyricism and extreme violence.
Q. “Lost Lake” continues in a similar style, here eight colours of the rainbow (you’ve added pink) and found words using writers such as Proust, Jean Rhys, but also film “Blade Runner” and Tarkovsky for example. You are holding up a distorted mirror to works that shape popular culture. How does something grab your attention enough to be dissected?
For Lost Lake I drew on what I was reading, watching, seeing and listening to at the time—or texts that I’d encountered in the past—that spoke to particular themes. I have a great love of genre fiction—science-fiction, horror, adventure—as well as films, music and visual art in a range of styles, so the sources vary widely. Many of the texts I chose are classics or canonical in some way, and therefore more likely to be recognised by readers. Sometimes I was seeking to appropriate a certain mood or atmosphere, or gesturing towards subject matter without having to explicitly state what that might be. It was also a way of situating the text in a whole network of relations, among other texts and artworks. I find this very satisfying.
Q. You must be extraordinarily persuasive to get Vagabond Press to publish these exquisite, delicate, detailed works. Can you explain a little about that relationship?
I was lucky to have been found by Vagabond Press at a fairly early stage. I’m not sure anyone else in Australia (or anywhere) would have agreed to publish Argosy or Lost Lake as they are, and I can only say that I’m immensely grateful. Michael Brennan, the publisher, is a lovely soul and works tirelessly to promote the work of others. I have a great deal of respect for his dedication and judgment: many of the books on his list have won major prizes (half of the shortlisted titles for the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry were Vagabonds; the winner of the prize last year was also a Vagabond).
Q. + the absence
of the Witch
the spell –
Are your works spells?
They are an attempt to create whole worlds that have a particular internal consistency—in this sense, they ask you to believe in something that does not otherwise exist, as do all constructions made from language. Emily Dickinson, to whom that epigraph belongs and who spent most of her life within the walls of her family home, was herself a consummate world-builder.
Q. The section “Lost Lake” is your photography. Is this a well-known, or a private, place?
It’s not a private place; I think it is well-known to some and not so well-known to others.
Q. Voyages are prominent in your work, and discovery, are there any boundaries of discovery that you do not want to cross?
I’m going to say no, but probably after I’ve crossed them I’ll realise I should have said yes.
Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment, is it going to make its way into future work, and why?
The last books I compulsively enjoyed were Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance. (Alex Garland has turned the first book into a movie, but it’s such a different beast that it’s really its own thing.) I don’t want to say too much because the novels hinge upon certain blanks that are slowly filled in over the course of the series, but the story is a blend of weird fiction, science-fiction, horror, spy novel, detective fiction—pretty much everything that I love in one—and told in a manner that draws on existing conventions and tropes while also being entirely unpredictable and inventive. There are still parts that make me shiver in broad daylight.
I’m planning to write about Annihilation in my PhD thesis, but I don’t think it will make it into future creative work.
Q. Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything that you can tell us about?
In the last eight months, with the aid of a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts for which I am extremely grateful, I’ve travelled to Finland, New Zealand and Japan, as well as domestically to Hobart and Sydney, to collect material for the next book. I did have a title and some loose themes, but I’ve made a start on the work itself and it already feels like it might be going in a different direction. Or maybe in the same direction with a different focus—I’m not sure yet. But I’m excited to be working on a new project and looking forward to seeing where it takes me, both in terms of content and method.