Goodbye Cruel by Melinda Smith and Members Only by Melinda Smith & Caren Florance PLUS bonus poet interview

Goodbye

It is not often that a poet has two books launched within the space of four months, but Melinda Smith has managed that amazing feat. Published by Pitt Street Poetry, “Goodbye, Cruel” was launched at the Newcastle Writers Festival in April and published by Recent Work Press the collaborative effort, with artist Caren Florance, “Members Only” was released in August this year.

Don’t be misled by the title, “Goodbye, Cruel”, is broken into five sections, and it is only the section “Goodbye, Cruel” that deals with the subject of suicide. The book opens with the playful sparkling imagery of “Tiny Carnivals” and the poem “A never-to-be-repeated spectacle”, promising a breathtaking ride through a circus like world, immediately the following poem brings the images of neon lights to life

At the Neon Museum:
Las Vegas roadside with giant high heel
(after a photograph by Michael Shapiro)

Later, night will eat these trees
and she will own the stage. All day
she perches, wan and washed-out; still.

Only when the desert sky
is blush-pink, like her inner sole
her spangles come on, one by one.

Time to give them one more show.
Her motor chugs, she starts to turn
her solo pole-dance in the air.

Although I’ve never been to Las Vegas the image of the neon lit giant high-heel is crystal clear in my mind, maybe I’ve seen Michael Shapiro’s photograph before? But it is not all razzle-dazzle and sparkles, there is an underlying darkness, a theme of damaged relationships;

iv
if you must follow me
know
there will be fogs
and long shadows

(from “Days of Hanrahan”)

We then enter the world of suicide, a collection of eighteen poems all addressing this oft muted subject, “Let us go in” a poem constructed from the suicide notes of Virginia Woolf, Stefan Zweig, John Berryman, Arthur Koestler and Hart Crane. This poem added another layer to these notes, as I had read a number of them in the thoughtful book “Notes on Suicide” by Simon Critchley. There’s an erasure poem for the well-known “Waltzing Matilda” the iconic Australian song where a swagman jumps into a billabong and drowns. The section ending on a note of hope, with a poem celebrating a simple man who used to talk to potential suicides whilst they were visiting a notorious cliff area in Sydney.

The final sections include poetry drawn from tragic historical events, and the extensive notes section at the rear of the book helps to put context around a number of these poems. And the controversial is also addressed with subjects such as Australian’s treatment of Aboriginals portrayed through the poem “Mick Flick crosses the Barwon river on ANZAC Day”, where an indigenous returned soldier’s behaviour is questioned “What’s got into Mick?/He’s always been alright for a blackfella”

The Australian Government’s treatment of refugees, more specifically the treatment of those who have arrived by boat and are housed in offshore detention centres, is addressed in “Nationality II”;

No guards called me by name. They knew our name,
but only called by boat ID.

But this is not a collection purely of despair, there are refreshing moments of humour, as in the “Sausage Dog Apocalypse”, a few lines to give you the taste;

The dachshunds of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs will rise up on their
hind legs and demand the Range Rover keys and a lifetime
supply of badgers

One of the more diverse publications I have come across recently, using a number of poetic techniques to address entertainment, humour, political debate and the controversial subject of suicide. Another worthwhile addition to an Australian poetry collection.

MembersOnly

Melinda Smith’s other recent release is “Members Only”, a book that is a collaboration with artist Caren Florance and came about through a joint residency at Old Parliament House in 2014-15, a collection of what I would call “spatial” poetry. In the following interview Melinda Smith explains the process which led to the publication so I won’t go into details here.

This is a very different collection to “Goodbye, Cruel” in that the poems have been created using anagrams, erasure, and “found” techniques using documents such as the Government transcripts “Hansard”. Some of the anagrams are playful, for example “Housewives” becomes, in two lines only: “He sues, I vow;/He vows, I sue.” Parliament becomes “(rampant lie)”.

Even through this book is a reflection on 1962 it could well be a contemporary document, the lack of female representation in Parliament not changing much, the health warnings about tobacco not advanced a lot further.

An insightful look at history and an enjoyable immersive way to present what could be a droll subject.

Onto the interview, and as always I thank the writer for their time reading my questions and coming up with such wonderful replies. The generosity of the Australian poets has exceeded my expectations and has hopefully added another layer to your understanding of the art form and the amazing depth and breadth of writers we have in this country. I will continue to pester these writers so I can bring you, hopefully, even more coverage of Australian poetry.

Over to the interview (which I have presented un-edited, as always, including my two typos and Melinda Smith’s corrections for me):

Q. In the section “goodbye, cruel” your approach to suicide seems honest, not hysterical. I recently read Simon Critchley’s “Notes on Suicide” and he said “We lack a language for speaking honestly about suicide because we find the topic so hard to think about, at once both deeply unpleasant and gruesomely compelling.”, in my mind your poems address that “lack of language”. Do you think your approach can help to open up a taboo subject for discussion?

That was certainly the hope with which I began writing the ‘Goodbye, Cruel’ sequence of poems. I’ve not yet been too closely touched by suicide, but several people I know and love have talked about wanting to end it all, and one has tried twice (and is still with us). I have gradually become aware of the great pool of silence that wells up and spreads out around the subject and seems to forbid all discussion. This silence stops people who need help from seeking it, and stops families who have lost people from healing because they can’t speak about ‘the event’. I saw this sequence of poems as an attempt to lob one or two pebbles into that pool

Q. The section ends with a poem in memory of Don Ritchie, is this an intentional ending, on a note of hope?

Well spotted. It was actually one of the very first ones I wrote in that sequence – it was in fact the one that made me realise there was going to *be* a sequence –  but it was the only slightly upbeat poem in the bunch so of course it had to go at the end. For those readers who aren’t familiar with Don Ritchie’s story, he was an ordinary family man with a day job in sales who lived for many years near The Gap on the South Head of Sydney Harbour ( If you’re not from Sydney you might not know it’s an infamous suicide spot). He used to see lots of people hanging about near the edge of the cliff looking over the edge a little too intently. So he made it his business to go and start conversations. His family thought he saved about 160 people that way, although I later read another estimate that put the figure closer to 400. He was very modest about it all but he did become known for his ‘work’ and people started calling him the Angel of the Gap. Don Ritchie passed away in 2012 but I have been in contact with his family who are very appreciative of the poem. He was recognised with all sorts of civic honours near the end of his life as well, but as soon as I heard his story I wanted to memorialise him in a poem. I feel like this is the kind of person we should be building statues of, if we build them at all

Q. “Goodbye, cruel”, the book, opens with a carnival, a circus atmosphere, is the immediacy of the big-top a forewarning for the reader that they are in for an entertaining, holding-their-breath, time?

Perhaps a rollercoaster ride! … I like to vary the pace and tone throughout a book and the opening section is much lighter and more playful than what comes later. I hope it doesn’t feel like a bait and switch (I mean, I did put the content warning on the front cover by calling the whole book Goodbye, Cruel ) but I didn’t want to start straight in to the heavy heavy material on p 1. The poems in the Tiny Carnivals section are engaged with the creative process in all its forms – there are lots of poems based on photographs and other visual art pieces, a cento or two made up of lines from other poems, even a poem written with smartphone predictive text. They are all little celebrations, little immersions in the wonder of making, being inspired and/or finding and framing

Q. You use tragic historical events in your poems, for example a child and a father drowning in the Shoalhaven River in 1922, how does your research lead you to these events?

I am a huge fan of Trove, the National Library’s online archive of newspapers, photographs, and other publications, and a lot of my research for this book – and for Members Only, another recent project – was done there.  For instance the poem from the Goodbye, Cruel section called ‘#otd’ (short for On This Day) is compiled from short regional newspaper reports of suicides, all published on or around 22 April in many different years. I wanted to reach back across time to acknowledge a whole range of people who had decided for whatever reason that that day (or week, really) would be their last on this earth.  This is the kind of thing it is quite easy to find using Trove and which using older methods would have taken much longer. It is interesting too how matter of fact the reporting was, 70 or 100 years ago – the silence we’ve referred to didn’t extend to newspaper coverage in quite the same way it does now.

The particular poem you mentioned, ‘The Life Sentence of Miss Jean Mackenzie’,  was also completed using Trove but I got the idea for it from a 2 week residency in the Writer’s Cottage on the Bundanon property near Nowra. Arthur Boyd’s former homestead, a few hundred metres away from the Writer’s Cottage, is now a museum, and there was an exhibition on when I was there about previous owners of the homestead, including the ‘first’ ones, the Mackenzie family – who would probably still be there if it hadn’t been for the tragic double drowning that day. In the poem I have used the local newspaper article about the incident as a source of information but then reframed the story in the voice of the surviving daughter and done some fictional filling-in. The whole area is a very special place, with the Shoalhaven river winding through it marking an important boundary and meeting place between Yuin and Dharawal lands. It seemed to me quite plausible that the river would enact a revenge on the family who had invaded that space snd started fencing it off and farming it

Q. You use many forms, anagrams, and acrostic just two examples, do you enjoy the restrictions that these forms require?

Yes. Well, I enjoy having finished a formal poem. The process of writing against the restrictions is often not much fun. Why form ? Sometimes the form is part of the point the poem is trying to explore. If I am doing a poem of anagrams of a particular phrase it is because I want to vibrate that phrase in the reader’s head and set up a lot of strange echoes – the phrase itself may well draw its significance from outside the poem. But I also use forms to push poems further – the restrictions take them in unexpected directions and almost always make for a more interesting result. It also helps with getting started in the first place: I have said in other interviews that I often find the blank page so terrifying that it helps if I turn the writing of a poem into a kind of crossword puzzle or brain teaser exercise. I don’t always write in a form though. The poem tells me what it wants to be as I dream on it before I start writing, and sometimes it has its own shape that won’t be forced into anything else

Q. On the topic of research, your book “Member’s Only” is a collaboration with artist Carmen Florance and came about through a joint residency at Old Parliament House in 2014-15, can you explain the creative process that took place a little more?

Members Only (no apostrophe) is the latest phase of a collaboration that started in 2014. Caren (no ‘m’) Florance is a visual artist, letterpress printer and book artist who does amazing work and is collected by a number of major institutions. She decided to collaborate with several poets as part of her PhD research and I was one of the people she asked. We applied to participate as a team in an exhibition at Old Parliament House; the brief was to make new work to respond to items in the furniture collection, and Caren and I chose a set of 8 timber hand lettered signs. We ended up re-mixing the text from the original signs and making a set of 8 new signs talking back to the originals in their own words. From instructions like STRICTLY MEMBERS ONLY and TAKE CARE ON POLISHED FLOOR we made statements like MEMBERS ARE NOT ABOUT TO BE POLISHED FOR THE VISITORS. If you want to use fancy art theory words we did a French Situationist style detournement  (or you could just say ‘culture jamming’ and more people might get the gist). The ‘text installations’  were on display for 12 months inside OPH alongside a broadside of 4 more traditional poems I wrote for the project. We then went on to make an artist’s book together (1962: Be Spoken To), reproducing the sign text and the 4 poems but also going deeper with our response to the building by using Hansard and newspaper articles from the year 1962 to make a suite of new found poems. This was where Trove was useful again. I also did a heap of anagram poems of phrases like OFFICIAL SECRETS and CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS and these are also scattered through the book. The artist’s book, being all hand-rolled letter press and hand stitched rare paper, is the size of a coffee table and sells for several thousand dollars (although the National Library owns one now so you can check it out for free if you’re in Canberra). Luckily for non-Canberrans and people who like to take their poetry home, almost everything in the artist’s book is reproduced in chapbook form as Members Only for $12 or so

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

New UWAP books by Sarah Rice (Fingertip of the Tongue) and Paul Munden (Chromatic) so I can launch them in a few weeks. Having another go at Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons for my own self education – I find I get more out of her now than last time I tried. And relishing the incredible Vahni Capildeo (her chapbook Seas and Trees was just published to coincide with her appearances at the Poetry on the Move festival here in Canberra last month). Lots on the TBR pile including Dew and Broken Glass by Penny Drysdale, Flute of Milk by Susan Fealy, and Arielle Cottingham’s Black and Ropy. Also a fabulously rich bilingual anthology of ten Japanese women poets translated by Australian poets called Poet to Poet (Recent Work Press). I had the privilege of translating five of Harumi Kawaguchi’s unsettling and mysterious (and occasionally hilarious) poems for that book, but the other 9 poets are all fabulous finds too, especially Takako Arai

Q.Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

Next book will be a while off, and the pace of production depends on the result of a couple of grant applications. I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about it in detail yet but I have found the theme for the central section and am going to get back to writing around that once school holidays are over. I’m also preparing for a little reading tour to Melbourne in the first week of November to give Goodbye, Cruel a southern airing – 5 gigs in five days which will be hectic but fun. I’m also enjoying regular sessions pushing way outside my comfort zone improvising spoken word with Canberra dance company The Australian Dance Party and electronica outfit Ample Sample (which may lead to some very experimental performance work next year). I am also very excited at the prospect of doing a song cycle libretto with the Canberra chamber group the Griffyn Ensemble – again some more found poem / verbatim work based on historical Hansard speeches, critically engaing with the history of the White Australia Policy. That one also depends on a grant application but it would be incredibly great if it came together.

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For Isabel: A Mandala – Antonio Tabucchi (translated by Elizabeth Harris)

ForIsabel

A short book, a short review.

Although I own five books by Antonio Tabucchi, I have only previously reviewed two titles here. In 2015 I looked at “Time Ages in a Hurry” (translated by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani)  and “The Women of Porto Pim” (translated by Tim Parks) both published by Archipelago Books, and they have just published another Tabucchi this time with a fourth translator, Elizabeth Harris, the translator who brought us “Tristano Dies – A Life” late in 2015.

Unlike the previous tales by the celebrated Italian writer, “For Isabel – A Mandala” is a more obscure plot, containing a narrator, Tadeus Slowacki, a Polish writer who has returned to earth, more specifically Lisbon, from space, to search for the missing Isabel, his former lover. The book made up of a number of clandestine meetings between Tadeus and people who last saw Isabel. Each of these meetings leads to another meeting, whilst Fascism lurks dirtily in the background.

The photographer shifted positions and lit another cigarette in his long ivory holder. He seemed uneasy. Silent, he eyed me from head to toe. And then he said: are you a journalist? I allowed myself a chuckle. Though I didn’t want to be sarcastic, his question somehow invited sarcasm, and so I told him: you couldn’t be further from the truth, Mr. Thiago, I assure you, your guess is completely off-track, death is a curve in the road, to die is simply not to be seen. Then why? he asked, even more perplexed, to what end? To make concentric circles, I said, to finally reach the centre. I don’t understand, he said. I’m working with colored dust, I answered, a yellow ring, a blue ring, like the Tibetan practice, and meanwhile, the circle is tightening toward the centre, and I’m trying to reach that centre. To what end? He asked. I lit a cigarette as well. It’s simple, I answered, to reach consciousness, you photograph reality: you must know what consciousness is.

Like the subtitle itself “A Mandala” this is an expertly crafted work, like a mandala, slowly a cohesive picture comes into place, just like the sands of many colours placed on the plain canvas in front of you. And the nine concentric circles, do they have a deeper meaning, is Tadeus making his way through his own “hell”?

A tale of searching for meaning, whilst Tadeus is searching for Isabel, each of the other characters is searching for something else; “the important thing is to search”, and again, like the mandala, are these searches are in concentric circles? “A person can’t believe it’s possible to reach the boundaries of the universe, because the universe has no boundaries”. The characters searching outwards, Tadeus, inwards, he is “trying to reach a centre”. Like Dante’s “Inferno” as Tadeus moves closer and closer to the centre, the characters become increasingly bizarre, are we witnessing Tadeus’s own journey, masquerading as a search for Isabel? Tadeus’ journey into the depths of hell?

I’ll find a lover and I’ll make him die from unhappiness

Another beautifully crafted and subtle tale from the pen of Antonio Tabucchi, a story of grief, a search for meaning, a travelogue, the eternal pursuit of happiness. All of the standard characteristics of an existentialist work, tightly packaged into a story of a man searching for a girl, and slowly learning about himself. As Tabucchi says in the “Justification in the Form of a Note” that opens the book:

Private obsessions; personal regrets eroded but not transformed by time, like pebbles smoothed down by the current of the river; incongruous fantasies and the inadequacy of reality: these are the driving principles behind this book.

Fans of Antonio Tabucchi will surely appreciate this latest publication, yes they continue to appear five years after his death, readers not familiar with his work may find this one slightly off kilter and would probably be better placed being introduced via the two titles above, or “The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico” or “Tristano Dies, A Life” all published by the independent publisher Archipelago Books.

Having not read all of the different titles back to back it is hard to compare the different translators, and how they treat Antonio Tabucchi’s subtleties, this work gliding along without a hitch, a sign that all is well with the world. However not being an Italian speaker I can’t go into detail about the different approaches.

Disclaimer – My copy of this book forms part of my annual subscription to Archipelago Books.

Soap – Charlotte Guest PLUS bonus poet interview

Soap

Western Australian based writer Charlotte Guest has recently launched her debut poetry collection “Soap”, published by ACT independent publisher Recent Work Press, a small imprint that publish “poetry, short fiction and non fiction, and other short-form textual experiments.” I have a large number of their publications on my shelves so am hoping to get to a few interviews with the poets over the coming months.

With a soft pink cover and the title “Soap” you could be forgiven for thinking this is a collection of indulgence, poems with a “girlie” bent, you would be very far from the truth, these works exploring the end of girlhood, full of sexual tension, and female oppression, male dismissiveness, they are poems buzzing with awareness.

Networking Drinks

‘You see society through old
frames, you are perpetuating that
against which you argue,’
says a confident boy with flushed
capillaries, exalting in this
repartee. ‘No, what I am saying is,
the historically oppressed
form allegiances based
on the common ground of di-
advantage.’ I
hold my gaze. His eyes bulge
as he takes a swig from
his Old Fashioned, looking
down his straight nose
at me. ‘Why are we still
bandying about old terms?
Why do we still talk
of race and gender?
Have the last fifty years
meant nothing?’
I open my mouth and
push bubbles out.
We are talking
underwater, sacks
over our heads, like
dipped witches.

A collection of female celebration, that also includes all the awkwardness, the angst, the unsure, finely balanced with revelations, as in “For Eurydice”, the oak nymph, who I know of as the wife of Orpheus, and his musical visits to the underground, unfortunately as in many mythological characters the female is known in relation to the male. Charlotte Guest giving us a clearer picture;

For Eurydice

The naturalist amid
her ground-truthing,
turns the sand and
gives it

a knowing look.
Picking her way up
the tan slope, a
bobbing desert bird,

she is attuned to the electric pop
of cicadas
and a sense of wrongness:
the sacrificial giving of

her skin
to the sun.

This is a very personal collection of poems, one where you feel as though you’re encroaching upon the poet’s own space, her private world, it is a though you are reading a diary of somebody you don’t know, as Charlotte Guest moves through various phases of womanhood. It even includes the personal slipping away of her Nanna, in the poem “Nanna, Kalamunda”, or a nostalgia for the family unit in “Daddies”;

Slumped on the garden step, my father,
his storied hands writ large, is
soothed by the night’s coolness and
harangued by images
of bigger moons.

Using many formats, generally prose poems, but including formats such as concrete poems, this is a fine debut where you can see a development as the collection progresses, the poems written over a six year period.

As always I would like to thank the poet for their time in answering my questions, and for the thoughtful replies, Charlotte Guest originally not being 100% convinced she should be interviewed makes me even more appreciative of her efforts. I am glad she finally agreed.

Q. In your “afterword” you state; “Like many poetry collections, Soap is a very personal document. It circles around notions of self and belonging, and questions of femininity and feminism. Soap is both an interrogation and celebration of private worlds, my private world.”, and I know you were reticent to be interviewed about your book. Does the notion of the private becoming public cause anxiety for you?

It both does and it doesn’t. As a reader of poetry and memoir, I know how respectful readers approach personal writing. Of course you can’t guarantee all readers will treat the material in the same way – as experience transformed and translated into something separate – but I think you have to trust your imagined and real readers. You have to let it go.

The reason I was hesitant to be interviewed was not necessarily to do with the book; it was to do with me! I think it’s a classic case of Imposter Syndrome, a loss of confidence in what I know and what I have to say. I have just started a new writing project on this very topic…

Q. You review poetry, or poetic criticism in the poem “the Seagull”, however professionally you work for the University of Western Australia Publishing and present video blogs discussing their poetry releases. Does this duality make you a harsh critic of your own work?

That poem is slightly ironic, I think. I was thinking about T S Eliot’s ideas of what makes a ‘good’ poem, or an aesthetically pleasing poem, and how I disagreed with some of those ideas. It’s ironic because I wrote my objections into the poem at the same time as trying to satisfy all this criteria of a good poem: having images that logically build upon each other, for instance, maintaining continuity of thought and argument, ideas of balance and symmetry. So it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek that one.

I am a harsh critic of my work, yes. I do my best to interrogate each line and word choice in a poem, and remove it if it’s not right. This means my self-editing tends to be a process of cutting things out, and as a consequence my poems are quite short.

Q. Your book contains a range of poetic styles, from prose poems to concrete (shaped) poetry and more traditional approaches. Can you talk a little about the different approaches and how the poem comes into being?

The collection is largely free verse poetry, and I think in future work I’d like to engage more deliberately with different forms of poetry – villanelles, sonnets, haiku, and so forth. One of my reflections after publishing this collection was that I’ve kind of started at the end, so to speak, and now wish to work my way back to the beginning. By this I mean that I want to produce work that adheres to the rules of traditional forms, to see what is possible through constraint.

So while I’m glad the collection presents as diverse in form, I know that my default mode of writing poetry is in free verse and I wish to now unlearn that, to pay more attention to different kinds of poems and their particular demands.

Q. You finish the book with loss and the book begins with an epigraph by Fay Zwicky “Is anyone ever ready for exactly who they are?”. You’ve taken this journey to define the moments in between these “events”, what “moments” do you find are the ones that require capturing in poems?

In many of the poems I have tried to capture feelings of uncertainty and trepidation. There are some poems about grief that I wrote as a way to work through accepting the deaths of certain people. Some are about the body as it matures and changes, both celebrating the female form and feeling estranged from this process we cannot control. I like the idea of ‘moments’ that you raise, but as I’m writing this it’s emotions that come to mind, as opposed to moments in time. Although memory is certainly I theme I return to often.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I have just finished reading Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which is his book (not) about D. H. Lawrence. It’s an incredible, rambling, and seemingly untamed book in which Dyer wrestles with the intention of writing a study of D. H. Lawrence, but can never pin down his subject (or himself) enough to get started. I loved this book, and will be reading more of Dyer’s work.

Q. Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I am working on a prose project at the moment, which I won’t divulge much about in case it doesn’t get off the ground (much like Dyer’s study of Lawrence!). It is a work of non-fiction, which I think I alluded to above…

Malacqua – Nicola Pugliese (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

Malacqua

I have been extremely lax in my blog duties, with many, many titles being read and unreviewed, promises made of updates on my Proust journey or updates on progress through Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream” and it has all come to naught, hopefully over the coming weeks I can make some time to update you on a bunch of titles I have recently read, or am reading.

Today an upcoming publication,  “Malcqua: Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event” is a novel originally published in 1977, the author did not allow a reprint, and it is only after Nicola Pugliese’s death that the book has now returned to the shelves. The original book, “Malcqua” was published by Italian writer Italo Calvino and is now available for the first time in English from independent publisher And Other Stories. “Malacqua” is similar to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, being set in Naples, however I think this is the only thing they have in common (besides originally being written in Italian).

Although “Malacqua” has one steady character throughout, in journalist Carlo Andreoli, following him during four days of endless rain, the real protagonist of our story is the city of Naples itself.

And on the city this veil of rain, and they were aware of the waiting, waiting as draining as an animal’s agony, alive and dense as an interminable outpouring of blood. The horse lies supine on the asphalt of Via Partenope, the powerful cage of its chest rising as it breathes, and the silence all around is palpable, and from the horse’s nostrils the blood gushes and gushes. There is little left to say: That it was part of a team of eight, and that on the sea of Via Partenope, along with his seven travelling companions, with the coachman, and with the gravediggers, it had set off on its last dignified job: the collection, carriage and disposal of the corpse of a name who had expired the previous night, in his bed, in his own sheets, with the breath of his children on his face. The horse, however, was dying alone, yes, truly alone, a horse on the asphalt breathing its last, his heart giving up?, what?, through the veil of rain that was coming down and fraying the city’s edges you could sense the unease and the sad presentiment: life would have to change. And perhaps it was changing at that very moment. In the greyish weft of silence, the rain came down as a warning and an admonition, it came down and it grew, black regret unwaveringly consolidating between rib and rib, and in the bones that rainy dampness, and that disconnected noise that suddenly detached objects and people, built walls, and green partitions, and drove newly pregnant women into their houses and constrained them there, besieged.

The novel takes place over four days of incessant rain, firstly sinkholes appear, the next day mysterious voices start coming from the Maschio Angioino but their source cannot be found, on the third day five-lira coins start playing music which can only heard by ten-year-old girls, day four… “waiting for the occurrence of an extraordinary event”…

Through looping repetitive prose Pugliese creates a labyrinthine effect, as a reader you become lost in the darkness and rain, just like the characters themselves;

The men had begun to desert the offices and factories, the banks and offices. It wasn’t fear, it wasn’t that, just a sad presentiment…

In some ways you could treat this as a mystery story, is there a link between the sinkholes and collapsing buildings and the mysterious voices? What will be the “extraordinary event” referred to in the title? However at the core of this novel is a tale of loss, a story of despair.

Each chapter introduces small character studies, the anguished lives of dread, all against the never ending backdrop of ceaseless rain.

The meandering paragraphs that can run for many pages cause time to become distorted, in the time it takes to have a shave an existentialist crisis can occur, and the four days of rain feel like months, however some events happen rapidly, for example a death is quickly followed by a funeral, and other simple events can take hours.

How, in the end, do we tell the story of that distorted anxiety that climbs, and pants, and groans, and that voice that sails and flies across the asphalt: on his hands now it descended to press on the provisionality of an inconclusive gloomy and unbreakable presentiment which still drags glowing decorations down into the mud of anxiety. It goes on now, it goes on drawing assents to shame, the uncertain fear.

The future is very bleak indeed, even when awaiting an “extraordinary event”.

A masterful engrossing tale of decay and loss, the City of Naples moving into the modern era, not a style for readers of straight narrative plots, but one that hooks you into the darkness and bleakness of a city that is subjected to an event that cannot be controlled. Yet another fine addition to the And Other Stories collection.

As a subscriber to And Other Stories publications I receive the titles ahead of the general public release. This title is due for release on 14 November and unfortunately it is ineligible for the Man Booker International Prize as the author needs to be living to be eligible for that award, otherwise I would be tipping it to be in contention.

P(oe)Ms – Dave Drayton PLUS bonus poet interview

PoemsDrayton

On January 1st, 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was established and since then we have had twenty-nine Prime Ministers, starting with Edmund Barton, with Malcolm Bligh Turnbull the current incumbent.

Kanganoulipian poet Dave Drayton has used the twenty-nine Prime Ministers as the backbone of his new collection of poems, “P(oe)Ms”. Each of the Prime Minister’s names anagrammatically make up the poems about their era at the head of Australian politics.

All of the classic Australian references are contained here, riding on a sheep’s back, gambling on horses, and the political moments are captured using the constraint of anagrams, of the leader’s names, to present an historical document of our country.

Robert James Lee Hawke
1983-1991

Smash a beer O Robert
Set the hawk to “walk”
Smash a beer O Robert
A wet beak breaks the talk

This is a small section of the nineteen-line poem dedicated to Bob Hawke, a Prime Minister known for his drinking.

Every one of these poems, although constrained by anagrams, captures the political thought of the time, with more recent examples being Anthony John ‘Tony’ Abbott having the line “A boat, not a bathtoy.” In reference to his ongoing mantra about refugees “Stop The Boats”, our only female Prime Minister Julia Eileen Gillard…”Rare gendered ruler”. A very clever use of language, to bring the idiosyncrasies of the leaders, and the political climate of the times flooding back.

This is not all political speak though, with many humorous references, John Gorton on the grog, Malcolm Fraser with his pants down, Harold Holt “He had held a towel”. For overseas readers, John Gorton was continually questioned in the press about his drinking habits, Malcolm Fraser wandered into a Memphis hotel lobby without his pants claiming he had been drugged, Harold Holt went missing whilst swimming on Portsea Beach, assumed drowned.

Each poem contains a sketch of the accompanying PM and these are also humorous, Tony Abbott playing in the bath, Malcolm Turnbull taking a selfie…

An enjoyable collection that personally recalled a number of political moments in Australian history that I had forgotten, as well as giving me a lesson on a number of Prime Minister’s I knew nothing about, and their idiosyncrasies. A great accompaniment to Amelia Dale’s “Constitution”, who I interviewed here, and it is very heartening to see the young Australian poets challenging the literary boundaries, as well as the political establishment.

Only a short review today, but the interview with Dave Drayton is very educational indeed, as always I am very grateful to the poet for his time and the thought that he has put into his answers. I hope this interview enlightens you on the use of Oulipoen constraints.

And I am very pleased that he has made mention of today’s NRL (National Rugby League competition) Grand Final and the appearance of Macklemore, overseas readers may not know that Australia we are currently undergoing a hurtful postal survey about same sex marriage and Macklemore’s song “Same Love” has become a political hot potato for the extreme right soothsayers.

Q. Your bio says you are “Kanganoulipian”, can you explain?

To quote the official history of the organisation (as penned by Dr Ryan O’Neill), “The Kanganoulipo, an experimental writing collective that has been described as “the most exciting, audacious and talented group of authors to emerge in this country in the last hundred years”, owes its existence to the life and works of Arthur ruhtrA (1940-1982).” After a failed/foiled attempt to write a biography of ruhtrA (in which my person was sabotaged, and my research stolen) I was recruited by Kanganoulipo as an archivist.

Q. Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin in the “preface” to their book “The End of Oulipo?” say; “The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principle: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated.” Is that a fair assessment for yourself?

In regards to my own use of constraint, absolutely. Though underpinning that concept is the idea that all writing is written to constraint – there are rules and requirements that govern the composition of a shopping list or the email sent when chucking a sickie, much the same as there are rules and requirements that govern the composition of a sonnet or a pantoum. The liberation comes from an acknowledgement of these rules: if the constraint is self-imposed the author is more conscious of the rules, and as such more capable of breaking/bending them.

For me personally another aspect of that liberation is the distance it allows between myself and the work in assessing and editing it. If I were to write a poem with no restrictions placed on myself and then assess that poem, my means of assessment are limited and more esoteric: Is it a “good” poem? But if I were to write a poem with restrictions in place these not only provide a guide or structure for its composition, but also its assessment – whether or not the poem is “good” (a difficult and subjective assessment to make at the best of times, and a harder one to make if you are given to excessive self-criticism) becomes a secondary concern; instead I have objective markers that can be considered in this self-evaluation: does the poem use only these letters/this many lines/this rhyme sequence/this particular pattern/etc.

Q. You capture the Australian sporting obsession in a number of your creations, “Edmund Barton 1901-1903” appearing as a cricket scorecard and “William Morris ‘Billy’ Hughes 1915-1923” as a rugby league formation to name just two examples. What’s your take on this sporting obsession?

We’ve just had a bunch of dunces in politics get up in arms about Macklemore singing Same Love at the NRL Grand Final. It’s conceivable the number of Australian that have watched footage of Bob Hawke necking a plastic schooner at the cricket outweighs the number that would have watched footage of him delivering any sort of parliamentary address. I think the sporting focus, particularly of these two early prime ministers, in a way highlights the origins of the links between sport and politics. I mean, that his ability to adjudicate a match of cricket was a contributing factor to the selection of our first prime minister is not insignificant…

Part of it as well I think is a response to the kind of person that dismissively refers to any significant sporting event on social as media as “sportsball” or something similarly disparaging. There are aspects of sporting culture that are problematic (toxic masculinity, nationalism, etc.) but these can be found in any subculture, and the kind of elitist posturing I mention above is dismissive of the important and significant social and cultural functions of sport in building and sustaining communities. The “sportsball” mentality positions sporting culture as something lesser than the arts, which is idiotic. So these poems, bringing the two together, is a small contribution towards closing that gap. More significant (and tremendously enjoyable efforts) have been made by the likes of Nick Whittock, with his cricket poems, and Jeff Parker and Pasha Malla’s “Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion”, which finds poetry in the post-match interviews of professional athletes.

Q. Recently I interviewed Amelia Dale about vandilisation of the “Constitution” and now yourself playing word games with Prime Minister’s. As Amelia said in her interview “Being an “Australian poet” with all that entails it seems to me that the starting point has to be to try, as much as you can, to undo and damage “Australia” the nation state.” Do you have similar motivations?

I was motivated in part by a desire to know more about Australia’s political history, the research required for writing “P(oe)Ms” was also a way for me to try to be better informed. Given my privileged position in the country I also feel I need to address and acknowledge what has contributed to that, but at the same time did not want simply to pay lip service to issues. The constraint underpinning the collection I suppose provided me with a justification for this approach as something that felt authentic to my practice.

In a similar way to the sporting poems this was an attempt to close a gap, or to remove politics and politicians from a pedestal, an act that can be read as undoing or damaging – the poems present the PMs as people, flawed and dirty and real and problematic and sometimes loving and always trying and occasionally doing so for all the wrong reasons…

Q. Poet Oscar Schwartz in his recent interview at my blog spoke of the intersection between technology and culture, saying “Throughout the history of this practice – what I call computational poetics – I found that boundaries become blurry: boundaries between the sciences and the arts, but also boundaries between the human and the non-human. It is the limits of these boundaries that I am interested in exploring.” Do you have a view on the role of the computational and poetics?

Early in “Many Subtle Channels”, his personal recount of co-option by the Oulipo, Daniel Levin Becker says, “What I want to talk about is how the Oulipo, and the principles it incarnates, can make unlikely pairings [my emphasis] – of people, of ideas, of ways of life – seem not only plausible but also promising, not only interesting but also indispensable.” I think of these unlikely pairings – variously between poetic materials and mechanics – as similar to blurred boundaries mentioned.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I have just finished reading Eula Bliss’ “Notes From No Man’s Land”, a collection of essays looking at race in America that seemed to dovetail brilliantly with Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” and the OJ documentary “Made In America”. And Elizabeth Tan’s incredible “Rubik”, which is tremendously enjoyable but also unsettling for how it documents the ease with which we can contort narratives.

I am currently reading Jordie Albiston’s “Euclid’s Dog”, for inspiration and for awe.

On the to-read list currently are a bunch of books about time (Simon Garfield’s “Timekeepers”, Lee Simolin’s “Time Reborn”, Andrew Benjamin’s “Style & Time”), research for a very poorly defined but unshakeable idea; Xiaolu Guo’s “Language”, from the very nice looking Vintage Minis series; and Brian Castro’s “Shanghai Dancing”, because I can’t find/afford Bernadette Brennen’s critical study of his work but am desperate to know more about this author who keeps blowing my bloody socks off.

Q. Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I have recently finished the American equivalent of P(oe)Ms, Beaux Pres(id)ents – arguably the visual pun in the title works even better for this batch. A few of them have recently been published by Angry Old Man (https://angryoldmanmagazine.com/dave-drayton/).

I’ve just started a new project, tentatively titled State Of Origin, which hopefully will play around an intersection between cartography and poetics, using postal codes in Australian states and territories as fodder for making poems.

And I continue to chip away at a weird novel-in-voices called Wifthing, which is in part inspired by Anne Garétta’s “Sphinx”. It details an ungendered couple trying to procure an inheritance that is contingent upon their completion of an archaic yearlong wedding ritual.

the honeymoon stage – Oscar Schwartz PLUS bonus poet interview

HoneymoonStage

Through the process of reading, reviewing and interviewing Australian poets I have come across a range of styles, genres and approaches. Interviews have varied from Bruce Dawe not using computers (and getting his wife to type short replies) through to the in-depth engagement of experimental writer Holly Isemonger.

The poems themselves have taken various forms, including traditional sonnets, street poetry, experimental and digital. I can assure you that there is a vibrant community of young emerging poets in Australia using numerous tools to present their work, not everything is available in a bound paper book!

Giramondo Publishing has recently released Oscar Schwartz’s collection “The Honeymoon Stage” and describes it on the back cover as:

“…a collection of poems written for friends on the internet over a five-year period. These friends were spread across the globe, and most of them the poet had never met, and will never know. Poetry was the method by which the correspondents felt they could authenticate themselves to one another, despite their separation in space, and their friendships being mediated through screens. The poems engage with the flattened syntax of internet language, registering its awkwardness while bringing human qualities to the centre of the exchange.”

Opening with the title poem and then moving into three parts “Us”, “You” and “Me” the poet warns us;

The I, You and We in these pages do not belong to me, but came into being inside the boundless, invisible space in which we now spend much of our time.

These modern, digital, email texts are addressed to the anonymous, but address the anonymity of self in the digital world, through poems that have subjects such as a relationship with clones of yourself, the very nature of relationships is questioned deeply.

How much do we know of ourselves? How much do we know of each other? Does this blur even further with the presentation of self through social media? These poems use language such as; “my thoughts about you”, and “if there is one thing you know without doubt” questioning out real knowledge.

The thirty-four poems are mostly addressed to other people, littered with memories, but through this lens we slowly see the writer coming into shape, his views on love, nights spent clubbing, a nostalgia for a lost youth, ultimately revealing a singular lonely core. A writer in cyberspace, our social profile/image.

god will send you nudes

if you’ve been feeling guilty
about the sinful things
you’ve been enjoying on the internet
try to seek consolation
in the presence of your ancestors

in time, god will send you nudes

A collection that is full of questions, playing with the immediacy of information, with lines that juxtapose items such as coconut water and climate change, addressing the sheer volume of data, these are poems of immediacy that are littered with pop references such as rihanna, who has diet pepsi for tears, poems about “game of thrones”.

There is a connectedness between the three sections “us”, “you”, and “me”, there is a human relationship, but at the same time the exploration of social media and the immediacy of the poetry gives you that feeling of loneliness, all the connections are in cyber-space.

Another readable and enjoyable experimental work, addressing our current age.

Over to the interview with Oscar Schwartz, who I need to thank for the immediacy of his replies, I read the book on a flight to Sydney, emailed him the questions upon landing, before I was home again the same night there were the replies in my in-box!!! A poet who practices what he preaches!!

As always I appreciate the effort the poets put into talking about their books and I hope yet another interview helps you to understand the art form a little more, if you think poetry is too daunting, I suggest you read through these interviews, they will make it more accessible, maybe you’ll find the time to buy a book or two, poets can certainly do with more sales!

INTERVIEW

I know you open the book with “The I, You and We in these pages do not belong to me, but came into being inside the boundless, invisible space in which we now spend much of our time.”, so hopefully the questions do not miss the mark completely….

Q. Memories play an important role throughout your collection, as in “your new diet” which contains a diet based on memory, are we simply the sum of our own past?

I wouldn’t want to speak about all people, but for me, I’ve always enjoyed the process of reflecting on my life and crafting it into small narratives. It makes life more meaningful, for me. The risk is that I do this about my future, too. That I come up with narratives about what I want my life to be. But I try to avoid doing this because it generally just makes me feel anxious. Small narratives about things that have happened are interesting to me. Grand narratives about the future not so much.

Q. Whilst reading your poems I had a real sense of the future being quite grim, are you plotting “the downfall of the human race” or is it already too late?

The joke about planning the downfall of the human race is really kind of just a stab at a type of writing or discourse that seems to be really popular at the moment where some “genius man” makes a prediction about the future in a really ridiculous time line. For example, in 2019 we will have robots that we can fall in love with; in 2029 we will have a computer that is better than Picasso; in 2039 we will merge into computers. This form of prediction literature strikes me as a really cheap way of getting a lot of attention,. People listen because the future is unknown; it’s a cheap (and very old) trick to pretend to know how to tell it. People who talk with certainty about the future in terms of concrete events are snake oil salesmen in my opinion.

But I don’t think I feel grim about the future.

Q. From where does the thought of sitting on a giant pair of lungs at a gathering of vegetarians spring?

I was just thinking about the breathlessness that sometimes accompanies very intense social situations. And the idea of having my lungs as a type of external companion just emerged from that. Also I saw lungs on display at an exhibition of the human body and they look pretty weird and amazing.

Q. Do you have “a book that allows you to dissociate fully from past conceptions of yourself”? If so what is it?

The book I had in mind was The Power of One by Bryce Courtney. When I was 10 my sister, who is two years older than me, read the book. She really liked it and when I asked to read it she said “you won’t get it. It’s too old for you.” Up until that point I had mostly read “kids books”, which I never really connected with. I found a lot of them kind of silly just for the sake of it, and that annoyed me. Against my sister’s advice I read The Power of One. It was the first book I lost myself in. I felt a sense of separation from my family and from other people. I guess it was like the first moments of identity formation. I remember this one scene vividly when a prison guard puts a baton up another man’s anus, and he haemorrhages to death. The violence of that was visceral for me. I guess my sister was right. I was probably a bit young. I was probably slightly traumatised by that image. But I’m glad I read it, and from that point on I only read “adult” books. At the time of reading it, I became obsessed with boxing (the main character is training to become a boxer). I decided I wanted to be a boxer. I used to make my dad and friends box with me for hours. This kept happening to me with every book I read after that. I wanted to become whatever the main character was. Eventually I realised I wanted to be a writer, because then I could pretend to be anything I wanted to be in my writing.

Q. Is it ironic that you’re being “interviewed by a … small literary blog”?

I don’t think so. I really love small literary blogs. They were how I met lots of the people that inspired me to write The Honeymoon Stage. I felt so excited that people were talking about and sharing my work and my friends’ work. Small literary blogs create community and friendship. For me poetry is all about community and friendship.

Q. The internet is a bottomless resource for your work, can you tell me a little about your research and “the intersection between technology and culture”?

The intersections of technology and culture was the focus of my academic research. I wrote a PhD exploring the question of whether computers can write poetry. When I started my research I thought that this question was a contemporary one, that it spoke to the cutting edge, or the speculative future, where sentient machines would learn to “feel” and then write poetry. What I realised, after around a year, was that people have been using computational methods and mechanisms to create poetic texts for millennia. From the Kabbalistic permutations of God’s name, to Ramon Lull’s combinatory poetics, to Ada Lovelace’s creative programming languages, to Edgar Allan Poe’s formula for generating The Raven, to the avant faddists obsession with algorithmic proceduralism, up to our present moment where programmers are making poetry bots on Twitter. Throughout the history of this practice – what I call computational poetics – I found that boundaries become blurry: boundaries between the sciences and the arts, but also boundaries between the human and the non-human. It is the limits of these boundaries that I am interested in exploring.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I’m reading a book called A Son of the Red Centre. It’s the memoir of Kurt Johannsen, a man born just west of Alice Springs in 1915 who invented the road train, those massive trucks that move stuff all around Australia. The reason I’m reading this is because I’m writing a chapter for a book I’m working on about humans being replaced by machines. Specifically I’m looking at how autonomous trucks will disrupt employment in logistics, but also destroy a way of life, that of the truck. I live in Darwin now. There is a strong sense of our dependance on trucking freight to get our supplies, more so than down south. When autonomous trucks come in, we will lose not only a type of employment, but a way of life up here, just like when the trucks replaced the old bullockies and cameleers.

Q. Finally, another question I ask all interviewees, what’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’m working on the above book for Scribe. It’s about humans being replaced by machines. I’m not just looking at this phenomenon from the perspective of workers, but also as carafes, companions, creators, decision makers, and as a species.

The Agonist – Shastra Deo PLUS bonus poet interview

Agonist

The Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize is a literary award for an unpublished poetry manuscript written by a Queensland author. The current winner has their manuscript published by the University of Queensland Press. Last month, at the Queensland Poetry Festival, the 2017 winner was announced, Rae White for the collection “Milk Teeth”. 2016 winner was Shastra Deo for her collection “The Agonist” which was launched at the Festival, and Stuart Barnes won the 2015 version of the award, I reviewed his collection “Glasshouses” and interviewed him here.

I have been fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of “The Agonist” from the publisher as well as talking the poet herself into an interview about her debut collection.

As always I will post my thoughts about the book before presenting the interview, verbatim, at the close of this post.

“The Agonist” is a book that questions the physical world, a collection that opens with an illustration by Henry Vandyke Carter from Gray’s Anatomy and then moves to an epigraph by Emily Dickinson, this is a world where the physical meets the metaphysical

The more I think about your body, the more I know
it is no longer your own: your heart is a house
with the doors left open: your brain is the basement

Filled with smoke. The skeleton hidden under the flesh
of floorboards. A stranger roaming the hallways, a
dappled shadow splashed on the wall, flickering in firelight.

Poetry of meat, sinews, bones and tendons. Rooting itself in the physical world, with water, fishing, drowning sitting alongside familial blood connections

Brother, do you remember the Bering Sea,
where we promised to go home again?

A collection of poems that contain (or are even partially called) lexical gaps, poems that demand reading aloud. The syncopation, the alliteration and simply the rhythm leading you to verbalise the poems you’re reading

/yaad/
My childhood, remembered: mouths unsynced
with sound, words swollen and sworn. Throats
dismantled from the inside out. My tongue turned
plosive, poised at the tip of my teeth,
dubbing out of dialect.

Whilst my description to date may seem very dark, there is also an erotic undertow at play here, dark magik sitting alongside the medical anatomical terms, with a hint of the sexual;

I was never good at being truthful
during daylight:
my lovers left wanting
to find the seam where belief and desire crossed,
to make narratives out of my body within their beds.
my fragile geometry reduced to a tangle of interlocked limbs.

Even though this becomes a ritualistic poem.

There is also use of formal constructs, for example the poem “Anatomy of being” is a fixed 26 line structure each line starting with a different letter of the alphabet, the poem talks of the body’s reaction to prayer, to breathing, to panic, linking these everyday functions to the medical term.

These poems recalled a road trip, where belongings are disposed of prior to travel, the poet always hovering on the edge, moving beyond the current physical world, to an unknown world, beyond something…

A collection that shows astute maturity, it is fascinating to know that this is a debut collection, as the depth of exploration, subject matter and deft word usage suggests a writer who has crafted their work for quite some time. One of the highlights of my poetry reading this year, it is a collection I urge you to explore, and keep your eyes out for more work from Shastra Deo, as I am very confident that we will be coming across her name again, yes I anticipate more awards here.

As always I would like to thank to poet for taking the time to answer my questions, to educate my readers in her art form and for her honesty with her replies.

Q. These are poems that demand reading aloud, and you have touched on a fascination about the brain’s processing of language and sound, where does this interest come from?

A few people have said that to me since The Agonist was released—that the poems work well when read out loud. I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision, as I’m generally most focused on how the poems look on the page. But, I usually hear the rhythm or tune of a line before I know what the words are. Amy Hempel describes something similar: the act of hearing and humming that tune over and over until it translates into a sentence.

I rarely get a first line though, and typically build around whatever’s come to me. “Haven” started with lines that are now part of the final stanza: “And his back, freckled / with oracular precision”. They’re not the most sonically interesting lines (though I like the repetition of the ck sound in “back”, “freckled”, and “oracular”; and how “freckled” and “oracular” each have an r, ck, and l sound in the same order) but they do feel musical to me. I try to infuse the rest of the poem with that same music.

As for the brain, my interest starts with the gross anatomy. I love that the human body houses so many labyrinths—the brain, ear, belly. And more. I also wonder where we house other things, like memory and emotion. I’m no longer fluent in my native language (Hindi), but that’s not really interesting to me: I want to know where my memory of the language went—where it used to live and how it was expunged from the brain and the tongue.

Q. Another fascination is rituals, religious, magik, tarot, divination, from where did this interest stem?

Haruspicy—the reading of omens in the entrails of animal sacrifices—is my favourite form of divination. It all comes back to my interest in the corporeal body and where the body holds its histories. I want the body—medical, cultural, historical, individual—to be something more than the sum of its parts. Archive, container, repository. If we can read the future in the gut, then why not the past? And the relationship between the medical body and magic is well documented—there’s a lovely quote from Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s book, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses – A History of Women Healers:

“It was witches who developed an extensive understanding of bones and muscles, herbs and drugs, while physicians were still deriving their prognoses from astrology and alchemists were trying to turn lead into gold.”

As for ritual, I think we take its quotidian nature for granted. The act of brushing teeth, steeping tea, or turning key in lock become symbolic when enacted within a poem, but these rituals are part of the reality of everyday living. I’m reminded of Bronwyn Lea’s “Routine Love Poem”: “they make & remake coffee / they make & remake the bed”. Ritual isn’t limited to hallowed spaces or the shedding of blood. You may not be lighting candles, but what a many-splendoured thing it is to pass through your doorway after dark, turn on your lights, and remake house into home.

Q. There’s a sense of displacement in a number of poems, can you talk a bit about your sense of a “homeland”/“homecoming”?

I’m interested in texts that treat place or setting as a character in and of itself. Jane Harper’s The Dry and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing come to mind: the Australian landscape, in both texts, feels like a maw waiting to scrape teeth against the ankles of the unvigilant. While I’m happy to research as needed to create a convincing setting, homeland, for me, is a tricky thing.

The Agonist is written almost entirely in persona. When dealing with a new speaker, or one that does not easily fit within an existing mythos, I think about the physical place they inhabit and where it is they want to go. These settings don’t always appear in the poems: more often than not, I catch speakers during moments of travel, or trapped within some sort of liminal space. There’s a sense of wanting to move forward but remaining tethered to the past, or wanting to hold on to a moment while knowing what’s ahead is unavoidable.

Memory, I think, is homeland, and I believe that so much of memory is embodied. I’ve actively tried to problematise that relationship by writing about bodies in crisis. All you can do then is wait to see what emerges.

Q. You are studying for your PhD, you are to become a “doctor” of what? If I had to guess I’d say medicine or something to do with teeth!!

If only! It would be better for everyone if I remain a hobbyist when it comes to medicine and teeth. I’m doing a creative writing PhD: my dissertation will be made up of a poetry collection and a critical essay. The critical essay is focused on body phantoms—that uncanny sensation of an arm, leg, or organ where no such body part remains. I’ll be examining body phantoms as they appear in medical and literary canons up until the First World War, paying particular attention to the moments when they disappear from history. The poetry, so far, has again found its roots in ritual: medical rituals, burial rituals, and séance. But there’s also the issue of creating a corpus or body of work for the phantom to inhabit—how to write both the haunting and the house.

Q. Your tarot readings? Anything you can reveal?

Sadly, I’m not adept at reading tarot. I like the iconography and symbolism of the cards, and how meanings can change depending on the card’s position, the spread used, and the other cards drawn. It’s not a static form of divination. I have drawn cards to carry with me when I know I’m going to be under stress—I had The Chariot in my pocket during the launch of The Agonist! My friend, Madeleine Dale—a fantastic poet—is the real talent, having used tarot to accurately predict our fickle Brisbane bus times. I’m not as gifted.

I think there’s an odd sort of… metonymy at play when invoking the tarot as potential (and uncertain) characters and speakers. A layering, really, of what the name of the card instantly evokes, what the card represents, and whatever else the reader brings in their reading of both card and poem.

Q. I ask all of my interviewees this, I’m building a nice reading list based on the replies, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I’m currently reading Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone—a poetic memoir about her years as a nurse during the First World War—for my dissertation. It’s a marvellous book, weaved of fragmentary moments—figures reduced to fragment. And the noise of war. I’m also slowly rereading parts of Catherine Malabou’s The Ontology of the Accident, Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, and Felicity Plunkett’s Vanishing Point. But I recently had a dream that I met and embarrassed myself in front of Anne Carson, so something of hers should probably be next.

To be honest, I haven’t been reading or watching TV as much as I’d like, mostly because of my gaming habit. I hope Marvel’s The Defenders will inspire some poems, as the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil did. But I’m still happily entrenched in Final Fantasy XV; that’s where the majority of my free time goes.

Q.  You end this collection with walking away, so what is next?

Strolling towards something, hopefully! As mentioned, I’ve just started my creative writing PhD, so another poetry collection is in the works. Since reading Stuart Barnes’s Glasshouses, I’ve been trying to make more of a conscious effort to work within form. Not only sonnets and the like, but recipes, instruction manuals, how-to guides. I’ve been playing with the idea of weaponised domesticity—something that unconsciously worked its way into a number of poems in The Agonist. Household tricks are small acts of witchcraft, I think: coffee, cloves, and baking soda to eliminate unpleasant odors; a little lemon juice and sunlight to draw out the bloodstains.