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;
if you must follow me
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.
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.