Lemons in the Chicken Wire – Alison Whittaker PLUS bonus poet interview

LemonsChicken

Today another collection from the 2017 Mary Gilmore Award shortlist and a bonus poet interview. Indigenous pet Alison Whittaker’s debut collection, “Lemons in the Chicken Wire”, has already been lauded as the winner of the State Library of Queensland Black & Write Prize and the plaudits are well deserved, this is a complex, multi-layered collection of poems.

Opening with a dedication “To the land, and those who grow from it.”, the Aboriginal connection to country is placed foremost in your mind, the opening poem, “Land-ed”, continuing the theme;

land
takes dead skin from my feet
and slips
from under me
while the city
puts dead shoes on my feet
and slips
right into me

this train, the wind, ploughs on
through suburbs I barely glimpse
but there is
land and land and
I am landing

There are many laments and hints of tragic nostalgia, as the subjects move through domestic violence and the importance of family, in “Ext Int.”, memories and celebrations of deceased relatives, as seen in “Preface: Another Funeral”, or emotionally draining moments as in “Growing Soon” and “Tidda//Jidgja”. Mix this with the powerful feminist rant as presented in expected female behaviour in “Whatcha”, a poem of tampons, shaving and dark towels, the reader has in their hands a Pandora’s box of wonderful breadth and depth.

The ‘lemon’ metaphor reappears throughout, switching meanings depending upon the setting, the poem “Lemons : Metaphor” hinting at a few of the references:

Lemons : metaphor
juicy, weeping, squirting, tart
flanked neighbour’s orchard

Like Stuart Barnes’ collection “Glasshouses” , which I reviewed earlier in the week, there is a “fear” of being openly homosexual, in the poem “Silver Pillow”, the proud gay woman still has reservations, “we lie but never rest”.

Using a range of techniques and styles this collection is not all politically motivated, there is humour, playful moments, and joy. The poem “Do Ya?” opens with;

Do you think that tenderness lies at the end of this?
When ankle pins like Christ wounds tether
you, with motion, to the road? Perhaps wherever

that motion yanks you, there will be tenderness
if only where your wounds become a fat, soft mess.
What awaits us when this ends – pleasure?

 

Ultimately these poems are a love story, neither black, nor queer, it is plain love, including all the associated confusions and concerns, Alison Whittaker showing a maturity well beyond her young years, an assured and very enjoyable collection, one that demands re-reading and revisiting many times. I am very grateful to the judges, and chair, of the Mary Gilmore Award for introducing me to a range of newly published poets, all of their collections exciting in their own way, pushing new boundaries with the artform and provoking a raft of emotions.

As always I would like to thank the poet, Alison Whittaker, for her time in answering my question, her honesty in her replies and the revelations about her work that are contained in her responses.

If you are interested in her work, she was the guest editor for the latest Rabbit Journal (number 21) the indigenous issue – a collection that contains twenty-five poems.

Here’s our interview:

Q. As a proud Gomeroi woman can you tell us your story and the story of the Gomeroi?

Maarubaa nginda for asking this question first off. I can’t tell you ‘the’ story of the Gomeroi nation, but I can tell you mine! I was grown up on country near the banks of Ngamaay (the Namoi River), and then in Tamworth on a guniyal (plain). My mum is Gomeroi, and my dad is non-Indigenous. Our language, Gamilaraay, and its linkage to country and kin is what underpins and accounts for all the work I do – in both poetry and law. It’s a supporting structure, but also kind of like an ecosystem – it supports you because you support it. If you break away from it or drain it, you can no longer call yourself part of it. At its core, my story in this sense is about feeding in and out of a bigger one.

Q. From the first poem the reader knows that land, your country, is important, with a dedication to land and the opening poem being “land-ed”, can you tell us a little more about your connection to country?

I kind of can, and I appreciate that you ask, but I won’t here. I think these conversations are best had outside of a broadcast setting.

Q. You speak of a lack of passing on of cultural knowledge, “I had to Google to understand // where is the diaspora of my people?” and as seen in the poems “Heavy Tongue” and “Sharp Tongue” you speak of loss of language. Is this a nostalgic passing, a sadness or an activist outrageous voice?

All and none, I guess! Cultural knowledge is still passed on, but its varied flows have been interrupted by colonisation. Maybe reflecting on these voices now, being a little older and a little further down the path, I can see the work being done to heal the flows. There’s no nostalgia for it – there’s a yearning. It’s fundamental to being who we are, and more than that, to doing what we need to do. There’s no other English name for it. Maybe it’s not nostalgia or outrage or sadness you feel in these circumstances, it’s bereavement and dislodgement.

Q. The importance of family comes through via reflections on their passing, and the “fear” of homosexuality being uncovered, as in the line “we lie but never rest”, and you touch on the family knowledge of your sexuality in “Insider Knowledge”. Is this baring of the soul in the collection cathartic, stressful?

It is stressful! Actually, it’s more stressful now than it was before. Writing some of this collection was reckless because I was quite driven to catharsis. It felt good in the shorter term to write about this experience, this life I lived and shared with others like me from birth to my late teens. The problem with life writing is that you live with the self you create in the public domain. Others live with it to, and communities, and the selves you make for them.

I don’t give a shit about being out (just kidding, I love it!) – but I care about how I represent queerphobia and colonisation and racism and trauma and relationships. That’s more than being out. That’s almost like inviting people in to someone else. Now, I’m much more careful and slow in the things I write. I want them to mean less to me, and mean more to other people.

Q. You use rhyme playfully, as in “Do Ya?”, personally this lifted my spirits, and you use a range of poetic forms, are there any particular formats you enjoy playing with?

Oh, maarubaa nginda! That’s kind of you to say. I love playing with wordwork and storywork, there’s so much packed in there that you can weave into all kinds of terrain. What’s my favourite? Not a clue! I have features that I especially like toying with – rhyme, rhythm, repetition, time, negative space, line length, punctuation, phonetics – but I now like leaving myself out of poetic forms (like haiku, sonnets, whatever) as much as I can.

Q. I know you are studying right now so the answer may just be “text books”, but I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

Not just yet! I’ll head over to Turtle Island North America to study in August, but for now I’m reading old loves like Home by Larissa Behrendt. I’m reading Home because I’m packing up everything I own, and completely forgot I borrowed it from a friend four years ago until I pulled it from my bookshelf last week. One last read before I give it back to her!

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

Yes! My next collection – blakwork.

 

 

Glasshouses – Stuart Barnes PLUS bonus poet interview

GlasshousesBarnes

Next month the Mary Gilmore Award will be presented by the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, it is for the best first book of poetry published in the past two calendar years, it was awarded annually until 1998, reverted to bi-annually and now appears to have reverted back to an annual prize. The shortlist was announced recently;

Stuart Barnes – Glasshouses (UQP)

Carmine Frascarelli – Sydney Road Poems (rabbit)

Aden Rolfe – False Nostalgia (Giramondo)

Alison Whittaker – Lemons in the Chicken Wire (Magabala)

Claire Nashar’s “Lake” (Cordite) was highly commended by the chair Michael Farrell and judges Ann Vickery and Justin Clemens.

I am hoping to interview each of the poets on the shortlist over the coming weeks and today start with Stuart Barnes, again I thank him for his time, the effort he put into answering my questions and his honesty and poetic instruction. His interview follows my personal thoughts on his book.

Stuart Barnes’ collection is split into four sections, “Reflections”, “Five Centos”, “Cyclone Songs” and “In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country”, and from the opening poem in “Reflections”, “Fingal Valley”, you are hit with a sense of nostalgia, with glass swans, “mother-of-pearl veneer”, “Nan’s budgerigar” and “Pop’s prized green” along with the iconic “leering toilet roll doll”, images of a grandparent’s country home are immediately brought to mind, you can settle in a comfortable environment and indulge in Barnes’ reflections.

The influences on Barnes as a poet is brought home in “Ebon Cans”, an homage to Gwen Harwood, where her quote “In the twinkling of and eye” becomes the personal, “in the twinkling of her eye”. Moving to playful poems such as “13”, a rondeau to the number thirteen, and “Horus and Set” a playful use of form;

Horus and Set
for Zachary Humphrey

From his ebony eyrie
the moon is salubrious,
round as the white lotus’ root.
The desert’s his adversary.

The moon is salubrious
with his godly left eye.
The desert’s his adversary,
spiteful, like a hippopotamus.

With his godly left eye
the moon is neither ossuary,
nor spiteful, like a hippopotamus,
a shape-shifting crocodile.

The moon is not an ossuary.
The desert us a troglodyte,
a shape-shifting crocodile.
The moon’s a fresh apothecary,

the desert is a troglodyte.
From his ebony eyrie
the moon’s a fresh apothecary,
round as the white lotus’ root.

With homosexual references, including the appearance of the “Grim Reaper”, which, in 1987, was a controversial advertising campaign in Australia about the spread of AIDS (if you’d like to watch the ad click here), there are poems of being bashed, being ostracised, “It’s immense the fear/of gay men”, there is also depression and mental illness as in the poem “sad”, mixed with poems about the chemicals (medication) required to create the mood altering states.

It is through these personal reflections, the voyeuristic peering into the life of another that the poems have a deep human touch, the ordinary, for example the musical references and homages, sound like any kid growing up in 1980’s/90’s Australia, but beneath the happy veneer there are dark secrets and messages aplenty.

Stuart Barnes uses innumerable references, literary and musically, to create a sense of time and place, and the use of different fonts, shapes and placement always keeps you entertained and intrigued, boiling works down to their essence, creating a depth well beyond the fifty poems (plus a proem) in the collection. A book I can thoroughly recommend.

As always, I thank the poet for their time and honesty in replying to my questions, Stuart Barnes giving detailed explanations of his work and the various forms used, therefore it is better to hear this from the creator’s lips instead of from my mere thoughts, over to the interview.

Q. Form throughout the collection is prevalent, as evidenced by “13” where you have 13 lines, 13 syllables in each line, presenting examples of 13 culturally and in the last poem in the collection “Double Acrostic” spelling out “the place where clouds are formed”. Do you find these “constraints” feed the creative?

 

In Glasshouses there are 51 poems. Of these, 15 are sonnets: ‘10.15 Saturday Night’ is kind of Bowlesian; the 17-line ‘Deep Sea Love’ and the 18-line ‘Bees’ are what I call slightly broken (the latter might also be kind of Heroic); ‘Mr Gingerlocks’ is a bouts-rimés.

Other forms include cento (‘Walking Wounded’), pantoum (‘Horus and Set’), senryu (‘Blackout’), sestina (‘Snowdrop in the Tropics’), terminal (‘Cups’) and villanelle (‘The ice storm’s’). ‘You do what you can, or Eleven Steps’ adheres to an 11-line, 11-syllables-in-each-line regulation. ‘eggshells’ and ‘colour wheel’ (dedicated to the memories of my paternal grandmother and grandfather, respectively) have four 7-line stanzas and similar end-rhymes. ‘In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country’ was influenced by the rhythms of the Boards of Canada song of the same name, Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born to Die’ (PDP / 13 Remix) and ‘Rings Around Saturn’ (Peshay & Decoder Remix) from Photek’s Form & Function.

‘Double Acrostic’, a sonnet, was occasioned by reading Ofelia Zepeda’s ‘The Place Where Clouds Are Formed’ and by re-reading Gwen Harwood’s acrostic sonnets ‘Eloisa to Abelard’ and ‘Abelard to Eloisa’. When I 1st read Shakespeare’s sonnets at high school I was as turned on as Anne Sexton when she saw on television ‘I. A. Richards [a poet and literary critic] describing the form’ (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/anne-sexton). A couple of years later my then-partner gave me Shakespeare’s Sonnets (ed. Katherine Duncan Jones) for my birthday. In 2009, when I started writing poetry seriously, the sonnet was the 1st form I explored. At the time, I was seeing a psychiatrist who played several instruments and composed scores and who believed my writing poetry would weaken my depression and anxiety (it did). Like Sexton’s therapist, he encouraged me ‘to write between our sessions about what I was feeling and thinking and dreaming’.

I wrote hundreds of sonnets, but impatient for change I started to flirt with other forms such as villanelles, pantoums and centos. When I returned to writing sonnets I decided they had to have regulations (e.g., sonnets with double acrostics); when I stopped writing sonnets altogether I shifted my focus to other forms such as double acrostics with 13-line, 13-syllables-in-each-line regulations; one was published as ‘Double Acrostic’ in Glasshouses, another as ‘Double Acrostic’ in Southerly Journal’s Writing Disability issue (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/76.2-Stuart-Barnes.pdf).

I adore writing in form, be it fixed or one I’ve altered or one I’ve conceived; when writing in form I feel as if I’m at my most creative; I feel liberated, not constrained.

Finally, that Glasshouses’ last word is ‘formed’ wasn’t decided consciously.

Q. Shape also plays a role, for example “Doubleness, with anagrams” shaped like a weather map depiction of a cyclone, is shape an enjoyable format to use in your poetic imagery?

 

Yes. Making concrete poetry (temporarily) satisfies the wannabe painter in me.

‘Doubleness, with anagrams’, from Glasshouses’ Cyclone Songs sequence, was drafted on February 22, 2015, the 2nd of 5 days without electricity after Tropical Cyclone Marcia ripped through Rockhampton. At the time, I couldn’t get the meteorological symbol for a cyclone out of my head.

I won’t explain every doubleness and every anagram but I will say that David Lynch’s doubles and doppelgängers partially inspired this poem; that the number 22 is significant and is mentioned in the 1st line of this poem and the 2nd-last line of ‘Prelude’; and that ‘latent forecasts’ (a phrase from ‘Doubleness, with anagrams’) is, rather alarmingly, an anagram of Settlers of Catan, a board game I played with friends before (but not after) Marcia.

I enjoy experimenting with font, too. ‘Doubleness, with anagrams’ includes the phrase TWIN CYCLONES! which I hope mirrors spinning-quickly-into-focus Marvel movie tabloids’ headlines. I wanted the poem to move on the page, I wanted it to capture the post-Marcia vertigo and chaos. Earlier poems such as ‘Screaming Skull’ and ‘The Complaint’ (http://the-otolith.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/stuart-barnes-complaint-is-being-made.html ) were informed by shape and font, respectively; fans of Sonic Youth will recognise another inspiration.

Other Glasshouses poems—‘из России’, ‘another journey by train’, ‘Deep Sea Love’, ‘10.15 Saturday Night’, ‘Drums’, ‘The Mixtape’—experiment with shape, font and symbol.

Q. The band ‘The Cure’ are referenced throughout your poems, I never thought I’d ask a poet this but is Robert Smith an influence?

 

Each time I’m asked about my musical influences a wonderful Dorothy Porter quote comes to mind: ‘Music has been the key for me since I was a teenager … I wanted to tap into that dark potency of rock‘n’roll.’ Music has been the key for me since I was a little kid; I’ve always been open to the energies of varied genres: alternative, blues, classical, country, dance, electronic, indie pop, jazz, Latin, opera, pop, rock, soul, soundtrack, opera, world.

I inherited my craving for music from my parents; I remember their playing oodles of country when I was a kid so it’s apt that Johnny Cash’s ‘A Boy Named Sue’ surfaced in Glasshouses’ title poem. Ghastly songs by Warrant and Poison, which my cousins played to death on long stifling summer days, inspired ‘Fingal Valley’, the collection’s 1st poem; Art Department’s glittering, minimal ‘I C U’ shimmied into another. ‘i won’t let the sun go down on me’ takes its title from the Nik Kershaw song of the same name, and the five poems from Cyclone Songs from the five songs—Grace Jones’ ‘Hurricane’, ‘Pulp’s ‘This Is Hardcore’, L7’s ‘Pretend We’re Dead’, Snap!’s ‘The Power’, ‘Antony and the Johnsons’ ‘The Horror Has Gone’—that echoed in Tropical Cyclone Marcia’s wake. ‘Blackout’ pays homage to Kate Bush’s ‘Babooshka’, ‘Coda’ to Gounod’s Faust. I wrote ‘The Mixtape’ after listening to the mixtape my 1st boyfriend made for me; Pulp’s ‘Disco 2000’, Portishead’s ‘Roads’ and Suede’s ‘The 2 of Us’ all get a mention.

I 1st encountered The Cure on rage—‘Never Enough’, 1990; I found Robert Smith’s vocals and make-up both alarming and alluring—but it wasn’t until 1992, when my friend T made me listen to every album (Three Imaginary Boys through Wish), that I became hypnotized. I took up guitar and piano and wrote dozens of (very terrible) songs.

Since then, Smith’s influenced my writing more than any other singer-songwriter-musician.

His elastic voice is a shot in the arm; he throws it like the instruments—bass, flute, guitar, 6-string bass, synthesizer, violin—that he plays. Years ago, a friend who used to sing and score opera praised his vocal harmonies (‘gorgeous’).

For me, no other songwriter captures addiction (‘Open’), ageing (‘Secrets’), arachnophobia (‘Lullaby’), death (‘Bloodflowers’), dreams (‘Kyoto Song’), fame (‘Dressing Up’), hate (‘Shiver and Shake’), hope (‘Faith’), loss (‘Anniversary’), love (‘Siamese Twins’), loneliness (‘10.15 Saturday Night’), sex (‘Jupiter Crash’) and suicide (‘The Reasons Why’) the way Smith does.

He’s mastered alt-rock, cold wave, electronic, funk, house, indie rock, new wave, pop, post-punk, post-rock, psychedelic rock, shoegaze and synth-pop, yet his band remains uncategorisable. At its core, though, is ‘The Cure sound’, described by Smith as ‘songs based on 6-string bass, acoustic guitar, and my voice, plus the string sound from the Solina’ (‘a multi-orchestral machine with violin, viola, trumpet, horn, cello and contrabass’). For me, this sound is intoxicating, as are Smith’s howls and Ows, his Doo-doo-doo-doo’s.

He’s been influenced by some of my favourite novelists, painters, philosophers and poets: Iain Banks, Baudelaire, Camus, Capote, Cocteau, Penelope Farmer, Mary Howitt, Kafka, Robert Lowell, William Mayne, Edvard Munch, Thomas Nagel, Mervyn Peake, Plath, Christina Rossetti, Salinger, Shelley, Dylan Thomas, Patrick White.

With the media he’s warm, thoughtful, articulate (his triple j interviews with Richard Kingsmill introduced me to the music of Nick Drake, another inspiration); live, extraordinary (I’ve seen the band 4 times; not 1 concert’s run under 3.5 hours).

Robert Smith’s compelling, brilliant adventurousness continues to inspire me to bend to new styles.

Several of Glasshouses’ poems address The Cure directly. ‘Reflections’ takes its title from the band’s 2011 Vivid Festival gig of the same name, ‘another journey by train’ and ‘10.15 Saturday Night’ from two of the band’s songs of the same name. ‘13’ and ‘из России’ mention ‘The Cure’, ‘ValproateFluoxetineClonazepam’ ‘the cures’.

 

Q. The very personal ‘coming out’ poem, “I”, is placed sideways on the page. Is this to signify “off kilter”, “Different”, as the poem uses lines such as “You’ll fucking die of AIDS”, “My spine’s weak” and “poof”, questions of “fitting in”?

 

It’s interesting you read ‘I’ as a coming out poem. To those who don’t know I’m gay it might be; to me it’s about astrology, meditation, and an infatuation with a man practically paralysed by his fear of coming out to family and friends who he knows aren’t homophobic and already know he’s gay.

There was much umming and ahing on my part about including this poem in Glasshouses because of the phrase ‘You’ll fucking die of AIDS’, the 2nd thing my mother said to me after she asked ‘Are you gay?’. The reasons for including it were twofold: my mother and I have an honest relationship and we were able to talk about and to laugh about the past; some people still think HIV/AIDS ‘a gay disease’, which is, I believe, both naïve and repugnant.

‘My spine’s weak’ refers to my bulging disc. ‘Poof!’, of course, is a pun, intended to lighten the poem’s tone.

‘I’ appears sideways on the page, i.e., in landscape orientation, so that ‘my’, ‘quantified’, ‘final’, ‘fine’, ‘why’—the words that rhyme with the poem’s title—would end their respective lines. I wrote ‘I’ after listening to Björk’s ‘Five Years’; three lines from this song feature in the original version of my poem (https://walleahpress.com.au/communion3-Stuart-Barnes.html).

Q. Your centos show a massive breadth of reading, from Donne to Shakespeare to many recent poets, you’re obviously well read, how long did these free flowing word sculptures, homage in many lines, take to create? Can you take us through the process?

 

My parents and my father’s parents encouraged me to read widely (the Bible, comics, Encyclopedia Britannica, National Geographic, newspapers) from an early age; later, several teachers, including brilliant poets Gwen Harwood and Liz McQuilkin (http://walleahpress.com.au/Liz-McQuilkin.html).

Each of Glasshouses’ centos was crafted over many weeks. Surprisingly, the 6-line ‘Forcento’, about gravity, was pieced together quicker than the 21-line ‘Matrimonies’, a cento from Gwen Harwood (matrimonies is an anagram of Miriam Stone, one of Gwen’s pseudonyms).

The process: I choose a theme; I choose lines from poetry collections and online literary journals which I type into a doc; from these I sometimes succeed in creating a narrative I’m happy with; I sometimes don’t, which is better than fine—writing, not having written, is what’s most pleasurable for me.

Q. You also include a “proem”, a cento of nine of your own poems. A spiralling, a boiling down to the bare essentials. Is finding the “essence” of a work a key to your creation?

 

Yes. One of the 1st found poems I forged was ‘Stern Man’, a remix of some of the proem from friend and novel/la/ist Nigel Featherstone’s Remnants which I hope encapsulates the core of this novel. Nigel wrote about Remnants and ‘Stern Man’ at his blog (https://nigelfeatherstone.wordpress.com/2014/04/04/three-cheers-for-literary-miracles/); while you’re there, order his latest highly praised novella, The Beach Volcano.

My proem’s lines are taken from ‘The Raising of the Dead’, an unpublished poem, and 8 of Glasshouses’. 1st line ‘Bay of Fires’’ is from ‘colour wheel’, a day in the life of my paternal grandfather and 9-year-old me; last line ‘might inscribe similar discs of stillness’ is from ‘Snowdrop in the Tropics’, a transformation of a Grimm fairy tale.

My proem, ‘Stern Man’ and Glasshouses begin with conflagrations and end with crystallisations.

Q. Following on from the centos question and your breadth of reading, I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

 

Writing by friends and poets Benjamin Dodds and Felicity Plunkett, and Shanghai Wedding, a novella-as-manuscript by friend Daniel Young: ‘swap-edit’, to borrow a phrase from Felicity. Robert Adamson’s Inside Out: An Autobiography, a gift from friend and poet Matt Hetherington. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell and Kwame Dawes and John Kinsella’s Speak from Here to There because I enjoy their poetry and poetic interlocutions. Re-reading a.j. carruthers’ Axis Book 1: ‘Areal’, Melinda Smith’s Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call and Alison Whittaker’s Lemons in the Chicken Wire is like opening the largest matryoshka doll and finding inside differently painted, more detailed ones. Gail Crowther’s The Haunted Reader and Sylvia Plath, which focuses ‘on the readers of Sylvia Plath, not the historical figure herself’. Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries, Volume 1: 1939-1960: bold, witty, intriguing. Tyehimba Jess’ Olio ‘weaves new and reimagined facts with poetry, prose, and biographies of first-generation freed slaves who performed in minstrel shows.’ My contributor copy of Shaping the Fractured Self: poems of chronic illness and pain (ed. Heather Taylor Johnson): small essays and poems by 28 Australian poets who happen to live with chronic illness and pain. Pedro Pietri’s Selected Poetry because I’ve never read his work. My favourite female novelist Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Jeet Thayil’s Collected Poems and Narcopolis, both recommended by Matt Hetherington. Imma Tubella’s Un secret de l’Empordà, which I’m translating into English.

Q. Finally what is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

 

Glasshouses begins with a section called Reflections and ends with In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country; the poems I’m writing for my 2nd collection look to the future. I’m learning Catalan and translating Imma Tubella’s Un secret de l’Empordà into English. I’m preparing 2 poetry workshops—my 1st, very exciting—for CQ University’s Idiom23 Writing Retreat to be held on nearby North Keppel Island in early July.

 

 

 

Bone Ink – Rico Craig PLUS bonus poet interview

BoneInk

I am back from my adventures in central Australia, another successful trip organised where thirty-two people walked the Larapinta Trail to raise awareness and funds for the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council (‘NPYWC’), this year raising over $107,000 for the retention of indigenous women’s culture in the region. However, my return means a backlog of blog updates for you, numerous books to review and several interviews to publish.

Today I look at a recent new release, Rico Craig’s “Bone Ink” and through his generosity and speedy replies I have another wonderful interview to present to you after my thoughts on his book.

Rico Craig’s debut collection is split into two sections, “Bone Ink” and “The Upper Room”, opening with the Western Suburb’s homage “Angelo”, a tale of young men from the west, stolen cars, graffiti, cigarettes and hanging around car parks, a lament for a lost mate;

Soon we’ll give up, drive to the BP near the corner

of Victoria & James Ruse; where they do the kebabs
Angelo liked, & we’ll lean on the car, & listen
to traffic, & watch the safety lights spit insects,

& we’ll feed his ghost.

The poems aren’t all petrol heads and yahoo’ing by rough teenage boys, the hint of nostalgia, the encroachment of progress and suburbia on the innocence of you, where our poets hides eats blackberries and steals kisses, is presented in the following poem, a story of lost innocence, one that was wild AND sweet. But the indestructibility of youth, surfing in a cyclone, drugs and stolen cars also repopulates the pages, all finely balanced with a dash of humour;

…If we meet again
it will be unexpected, as will-less shoppers,
caught lingering in front of a cheese cabinet,

shocked, seeking salvation in a slab of brie.

With the benefit of hindsight Rico Craig looks back on turbulent times, rebellious activities with a wise omnipresence, presenting moments of youth with a mature distance, as in “Life Savers”;

We’re trapped in the vodka decade,
battered by the aftertaste of Skinny Bitches,
lime between our fingers, septums
scraped raw, my Burberry scarf
louche around your neck all summer.

You’re so Sid Vicious you make
the cyber-dykes swoon. Your tongue
is a luxury car sweeping around
a manicured hedge, your lips taste
like spirit poured from a crystal skull.

I’m on your trust fund diet. We’ve
been talking to the warehouse doctor;
chicken, pork and Life Savers
the only food that’ll pass our lips. Each
dawn you pace the gritty floor barefoot,

searching for the right pill. You push me
to my knees so we can make another
bullshit narcotic pact. We’re full of holes,
but I promise anyway, something
about being beaten clean with sage bush,

drinking ouzo and being weathered
by salt air. I lie and listen to the birds
that roost in the roof above, they coo
at the empty din rushing from our bodies.

The restlessness of youth gives way in the second section, “The Upper Room”, to more adult pursuits, including the ekphrastic “With Chris Ofili in The Upper Room” where Rico Craig visits the works of the controversial artist and gives the multitude of monkeys a life in the streets of London. A section including mythology, shaped poems;

like me                 water
doesn’t hold shape          or settle to being

and a conclusion that promises a more settled future, six poems making up “Lampedo”, the tale of the “one-breasted warriors” the Amazonian archers.

This is a very readable and multilayered collection, moving through numerous phases of the poet’s life, the experiences that have constructed him, from a wild youth to a cultured adult, a journey that is well served by Rico Craig’s style, enough angst, sprinkled with humour, but open enough to allow the reader to fill in the spaces and draw their own conclusions.

Onto the interview, as always I thank the poet for their time, and their honesty, my questions always attempting to demystify poetry, hopefully allowing enough room for the poet to explain their craft to you. I’m very grateful to Rico Craig for making the time to answer my questions, his honesty, openness and promptness.

Hopefully I will be back later in the week with another Australian poet review and interview, stay tuned.

Q. Who could have imagined a Bunnings sausage sizzle as the subject for a poem, and you’ve done a heroic version. How does the everyday become a poetic subject for you?

I’m really interested in the myths that individuals build to explain the world they live in, the personal stories people use to fortify various aspects of life. It’s the starting point for a lot of the poetry I write, I try to think about the myth, the anecdote that is more than an anecdote, the story people tell over and over, then I try to twist it a little – like I’m trying to turn it inside out so I can see what makes the story work and what gives the story a heartbeat.

This poem comes from a time I was doing some work at a children’s hospital; I was working with a group of kids and the parents kept dropping by to check how things were going. What hit me were the guys who were hanging around watching their kids, big tatted up guys, tradies in hi-vis, you could see they were heartbroken and on the edge of busting up because their kids were so sick. I couldn’t get the guys out of my head, I kept wondering what they’d do, if they spoke to each other. So the poem in a way comes from them trying to find a way to keep busy, to stop themselves from thinking too hard about what was happening with their kids.

Outside that, Bunnings carparks are just bizarrely interesting places, the mix of people is just weird, and if there are gods at Bunnings it’s the tradies so I thought I’d put them behind the bbq.

Q. “Spaniards Road” uses shape and form to convey a wistful message, a soul flying like a kite, (this being only one of a handful of similar poems in the collection), does the creation of space/shape intrigue you?

The short answer is yes, I’m interested in the way the shape of a poem works with and against the content of the poem. In this poem I wanted the shape of the poem to reflect the image of the kite and to also say a little about the wispiness of memory; even, eventually, the wispiness of desire and loss. I guess in this case the shape is also me wondering what a memory might look like when it’s cut from all the other things that are happening in a life. The white space around this poem is the emptiness surrounding a memory when you’ve stripped the rest of life away. In a way, Spaniards Road is like a weird tissue sample that’s been cut from a body and sent off for a biopsy.

Q. Other “shaped” poems include the tidal “Abruption – near the bear northern”, and the map in “Hand in Glove”, do you think form and space, or even a pause, can create vivid imagery, without the use of language?

I work pretty hard on the shape of poems, be they in the a more regular form or the slightly unusual shapes of Abruption and Hand in Glove. I was aware of the shape of each of these poems on the page and how the shape worked as its own image, but I have to admit that wasn’t the primary reason for the shape of the poems. What I was mostly focused on was using the space within the poem to intensify and clarify the images.

I struggled a lot with both these poems, particularly Abruption, in drafts they’ve existed in heaps and heaps of different forms, with different degrees of punctuation etc. What I found with both these poems is I wasn’t getting a clear enough sense of the images when I used a regular structure, the images felt too jammed up against each other and the poems felt too cluttered with punctuation. Spreading the poems on the page and using spaces within the lines allowed me to create internal line breaks; I got to separate facets of images into smaller fragments without pushing them onto different lines or filling the poem with punctuation.

Q. The collection includes the ekphrastic “With Chris Ofili in The Upper Room”, a controversial artist (I loved his “The Holy Virgin Mary” which I saw at MONA in Tasmania), but your poem is thick, like his work, layered and lacquered. Was this effect you were after?

When Bone Ink was launched I went on what was probably an unnecessarily extended rant about the paintings that this poem is based on. They were first shown in London in 2002. To get to the Upper Room exhibition you had to walk up a thin flight of stairs into a darkened, windowless room, there were thirteen paintings in the collection all illuminated from above, six paintings each along the left and right walls and one larger painting at the end of the room. All the paintings were of rhesus monkeys, all different colours, using paint, paper, pins, lacquer, elephant dung and I’m sure other materials. The paintings are big, I remember them as pretty much human size; as you walked up the room there was a real sense, because of the way the paintings were lit, that you were looking out through the darkness into a totally different world. For me the paintings created this other world and when I left the exhibition, I took that feeling with me, so for me a lot of the work the poem is doing and that density you mention is about trying to capture the experience of walking around in the world with the aura of excellent art still surrounding your perception. I think really good art alters your perception of the world in the same way that strong emotions can alter your perception. For me the awareness that you’re seeing the world in a different way, but accepting that (even temporarily) as your new reality is really layered and complex. I’m trying, in this poem, to capture a little of that strange, new world opening up within the day to day.

Q. Blending the working class with mythology is a unique approach, how did a western suburbs kid end up a poet?

He started as a prose writer trying to write ridiculously long and complex stories, it didn’t go well, but I kept trying, maybe for too long. I finally clicked with poetry as a form when I understood that it gave me a way to tell a fragment from a longer story, but tell it in a way that was satisfyingly rich. Most of my poems are cuts from imagined longer stories and I’m using the less narratively constrained space of poetry to explore the story through images and characters’ myth creation. I also feel like I have a lot of bad debts with the Western Suburbs, there are people I owe and I think maybe poetry is my way of paying off the debt.

Q. The collection ends with “Lampedo”, the one breasted Amazonian archers, blended with images of a hunted fox. An ending that promises more mysteries to come, what is next for you? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

Lampedo is a pretty good example of the characters creating strange stories to wrestle sense from what they’re feeling, sometimes with the poems in Bone Ink it seems like the more intense the emotions of the characters the more the realism in the poems is cut with images alien to that reality. I’m glad you picked up on the promise of more at the end of Lampedo, I wanted to leave the collection with a sense of opening into something new.

There are a few things on the go: I’ve got a stack of poems that look like they might form the core of a second collection; I’m working on a chapbook of poems that follow an animal smuggler through a series of unpleasant events in the south of Spain; I’ve also got a feature length film script set in the Western Suburbs of Sydney that I keep playing around with. So yeah there’s stuff, but I don’t know what will get across the line first.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

It’s pretty much all poetry at the moment, I bounce around a bit so I’ll give you the ones that are hitting me hardest this year: Caitlin Maling – Border Crossing for the voice and the way she makes her poems simultaneously about so many things; Michelle Cahill – The Herring Lass for the craft, thought and wonderful flare of images; Alison Whittaker – Lemons in the Chicken Wire for the structures, the way she toys with form, the vivid sense of country and people; Layli Long Soldier – Whereas for totally blowing me a way every time I pick it up, it’s so adventurous in terms of form, and commits itself utterly to the belief that poetry can fight back, amazing collection; Ellen Van Neerven – Comfort Food for the sparseness and real world beauty; Solmaz Sharif – Look for the way it claims language and reshapes what poetry of protest can look like.

 

2017 Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury Shortlist

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I’m a little late with my official Shadow Jury duties, and our announcement of the shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

You’ve probably seen our list via other members of the Shadow Jury, but not to be remiss in my duties I’ll follow suit and announce our six titles vying for the main gong.

Extensive reading has been undertaken by the following bloggers:

Chairman Stu at Winston’s Dad

Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List

Grant Rintoul at 1st reading

David Hebblethwaite at David’s Book World

Clare at A Little Blog Of Books

Dolce Bellezza

Lori Feathers

With thirteen titles, many running to 300 pages plus, it was an arduous task to read then all, confer, debate, agree, debate some more, disagree, debate some more, repeat. Finally we have a list of six impressive translated titles. I did list my top six titles when the official shortlist was announced, and astute followers will notice that five of my favourite six have made the Shadow Jury’s shortlist, I’ve got to be happy with that!!!

Here are the six books we believe were the strongest of the thirteen longlisted for the award:

 

“Compass” by Mathias Énard (France), translated by Charlotte Mandell

 

“The Unseen” by Roy Jacobsen (Norway), translated by Don Bartlett

 

“Fish Have No Feet” by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (Iceland), translated by Philip Roughton

 

“Bricks and Mortar” by Clemens Meyer (Germany), translated by Katy Derbyshire

 

“Judas” by Amos Oz (Israel), translated by Nicholas de Lange

 

“Fever Dream” by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), translated by Megan McDowell

The other bloggers have eloquently explained our rationale and the list itself, I don’t have a whole lot more to add to their thoughts. Stay tuned for us to announce the winner before the official judges get around to announcing theirs (with four in common there’s a pretty good chance we will agree!! Good grief!!)

Antígona González – Sara Uribe (translated by John Pluecker) – 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry

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Today more from Mexico, moving from Valeria Luiselli’s latest book “Tell Me How It Ends” back to the 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry longlist. Sara Uribe’s “Antígona González” uses the daughter/sister of Oedipus and the tale where she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices who was killed in battle, and transposes the search for a corpse to the present Mexican landscape where numerous people go missing.

My name is Antígona González and I am searching/among the dead for the corpse of my brother. (p7)

A work that is a grieving book, for a missing brother, for nameless bodies, for an uncaring society that allows disappearances to become the norm.

I came to San Fernando to search for my brother.
I came to San Fernando to search for my father.
I came to San Fernando to search for my husband.
I came to San Fernando to search for my son.
I came with the others for the bodies of our people. (p103)

Our poet’s missing brother is Tadeo and Sara Uribe uses a raft of inputs to explore disappearance, “the verb to disappear”, this is a heart wrenching work gives voice, and life, to the nameless, the anonymous;

 In my dream, I’m certain one of those suitcases is
Tadeo’s. Mamá gave him that name because he was
the one who struggled most at birth. She promised
ninety novenas to Saint Jude if he would save her son.
She prayed those novenas and baptized him in his
honor so that the hope of the hopeless would always
shine on him. So that the smallest of her children
would never forget that from his very birth he had
overcome adversity. (p43)

Through extensive use of space, some pages with central text, others from the top, others from the bottom of the page, the English translation appears alongside the Spanish text. The all-encompassing vastness of the Mexican desert, the missing persons and a fruitless search is relayed through the visual open presentation;

So I head out to my job on an empty stomach and as
I drive I thank of all the gaps, all the absences no one
notices and yet are there. (p81)

The stress, tension of not knowing comes through in the tight language, it is easy to imagine the poet ranting these lines at you, yelling her frustration at you. The book contains fourteen pages of references and notes, a detailed explanation of the resources used to create this multi-layered work, quotes from blogs, italicised text an interloper’s voice, facts including testimonies from victims and family members as compiled by journalists and quotes from other writers, including a sequence of questions by Harold Pinter from the poem “Death”, such as “WHO WAS THE DEAD BODY?” with answers coming from various other sources, the book resembles a performance art piece rather than simply a poetry collection.

All of us here will gradually disappear if no one searches
for us, if no one names us.

All of us here will gradually disappear if we just look
helplessly at each other, watching how we disappear one
by one. (p 165)

A book that explores the impacts of people disappearing, the grief that remains behind, the questioning, “the interpretation of Antigone is radically altered in Latin America – Polynices is identified with the marginalized and disappeared” (p23)

Also including seventeen pages of translator notes;

There is a startling specificity to this Antígona. We are in Tamaulipas, a state along the Gulf coast in Mexico and bordering the Río Bravo/Rio Grande in South Texas. It is a time of brutal violence that strains the very definition of the word “war,” as it evades any previous understanding of what “war” might be. A specific moment and a specific horror.

Antígona González is not Sophocles’ Antigone, though Uribe’s book is inexorably tied to the long trajectory of Sophocles’ tragedy. In his version, Antigone could not bear the dictate of Creon to leave her brother’s dead body exposed and unburied on a dusty plain. In Uribe’s version, Antígona González is bereft of a body to mourn, a body to bury. (p191)

Including a rationalisation process where the poet wonders what to do with Tadeo’s killers, the various stages of grieving are walked through as you become further and further frustrated at the lack of knowledge, the unknown and the endless missing persons, this is a very complex and moving book. Yet another worthwhile inclusion on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award longlists.

2017 Miles Franklin Award Longlist

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The longlist for the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award has been announced.

A literature award that was first awarded in 1957, it is presented each year to the novel which if “of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.”

A first prize of AUD$60,000 makes the Miles Franklin Award one of the most sought after in Australia. The Award was established through the will of the author Miles Franklin (most well-known for the work “My Brilliant Career”).

The winner will be announced in September, with the shortlist to be announced on 18 June 2017.

Here is the 2017 Longlist

Steven Amsterdam “The Easy Way Out”

Emily Mcguire “An Isolated Incident”

Mark O’Flynn “The Last Days of Ava Langdon”

Ryan O’Neill “Their Brilliant Careers”

Josephine Rowe “A Loving, Faithful Animal”

Philip Salom “Waiting”

Inga Simpson “Where The Trees Were”

Kirsten Tranter “Hold”

Josephine Wilson “Extinctions”

 

Tell Me How It Ends : An Essay in Forty Questions – Valeria Luiselli

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Valeria Luiselli, successful author of “The Story of My Teeth” and “Faces In The Crowd” (both translated by Christina MacSweeney and both shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award), has released a new title, again through Coffee House Press, but this time written in English and not fiction, this time an essay.

Titled “Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay In Forty Questions” this is a timely release from a writer who has recently received her US “Green Card”, an exploration of Mexican US relations, through the view of child refugees arriving in the USA, via Mexico.

The book opens with a reflection of 2014, a time when thousands of “refugee” children arrived in the USA.

In varying debrees, some papers and webpages announce the arrival of undocumented children like a biblical plague. Beware the locusts! They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen – these menacing, coffee-colored boys and girls, with their obsidian hair and slant eyes. They will fall from the skies, on our cars, on our green lawns, on our heads, on our schools, on our Sundays. They will make a racket, they will bring their chaos, their sickness, their dirt, their browness. They will cloud the pretty views, they will fill the future with bad omens, they will fill our tongues with barbarisms. And if they are allowed to stay here they will – eventually – reproduce!

We wonder if the reactions would be different were all these children of a lighter color: of better, purer breeds and nationalities. Would they be treated more like people? More like children? We read the papers, listed to the radio, see photographs, and wonder.

In this enlightening essay we learn of Luiselli’s role as an interpter for these children when they have to face the New York City’s federal imigration court, filling out a questionairre containing forty questions about their immigration status.

Each child comes from a different place, a separate life, a distinct set of experiences, but their stories usually follow the same predictable, fucked-up plot.

Which goes more or less as follows: Children leave their homes with a coyote. They cross Mexico in the hands of this coyote, riding La Bestia. They try not to fall into the hands of rapists, corrupt policemen, murderous soldiers, and drug gangs who might enslave them in poppy or marijuana fields, if they don’t shoot them in the head and mass-bury them. If something does go wrong, and something happens to the child, the coyote is not held accountable. In fact, no one is ever held accountable. The children who make it all the way to the U.S. border turn themselves in to Border Patrol officers and are formally detained. (Often by officers who say things like “Speak English! Now you’re in America!”) They are then placed in the icebox. And, later, in a temporary shelter. There they must start looking for their parents – if they have parents – or for relatives who will sponsor them. Later, they are sent to wherever their sponsor lives. And finally, they have to appear in court, where they can defend themselves against deportation – if they have a lawyer.

This is a brutal book, highlighting news reports of mass graves, relaying stories of horror, both at home in countries such as the Guatemala, EL Salvador and Honduras or along their journey through Mexico and upon arrival in the USA. It is through Luiselli’s role interviewing these children that we learn about a few specific examples, the painful lives that these children have already lived, simply to take a chance on a “new life”.

Numbers and maps tell horror stories, but the stories of deepest horror are perhaps those for which there are no numbers, no maps, no possible accountability, no words ever written or spoken. And perhaps the only way to grant any justice – were that even possible – is by hearing and recording those stories over and over again so that they come back, always, to haunt and shame us. Because being aware of what is happening in our era and choosing to do nothing about it has become unacceptable. Because we cannot allow ourselves to go on normalizing horror and violence. Because we call all be held accountable if something happens under our noses and we don’t dare even look.

This is a very important book, and although looking at a specific cog in the massive wheel that is the refugee crisis, it uses a simple humanistic approach, the questioning by Luiselli’s own daughter “tell me how it ends?”

Debates about all refugees, not only child refugees, generally overlook the cause of the exodus but it is a “transnational problem that includes the United States – not as a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem.”

An eye-opening, educational and important book, that I fear is only going to be read by people who are already wanting to understand more about the refugee plight, the audience of “wall builders” will somehow be missed.

Luiselli’s fiction includes humour, radical plot devices and bizarre tales, here the reality of her adopted home is brought to you in her new language, a stark shock to your senses. A book that I hope receives the attention it deserves, an important contribution to the worldwide debate about refugees, essential reading when attempting to understand the Donald Trump rhetoric about building a wall.

This essay doesn’t simply present the issue, there are glimmers of hope provided, although I personally found them a little shallow, it also works you through the forty questions that these children must answer as part of their application, factual but balanced with human stories. One of the highlights of 2017 to, date.

Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” where numerous nameless corpses mount up in the Mexico desert towns, may be a fictional account of the border area, here Luiselli puts a children’s human face to some of this horror and in the coming days I will look at a poetry work that made the 2017 Best Translated Book Award Longlist, “Antígona González” by Sara Uribe, a Mexican work whereby the poet is searching for the corpse of her missing brother. It is through these literary works that we can understand, and hopefully stop “normalizing” this “horror and violence”.