Aqua Spinach – Luke Beesley PLUS bonus poet interview

AquaSpinach

It is not my custom to weave any kind of fantastic plot about the figures I amuse myself in contemplating. I just see them, and their value lies purely in the fact that I can see them. Anything I might add would diminish them, because it would diminish what I term their ‘visibility’.
– Fernando Pessoa “The Book of Disquiet” opening to Fragment 125 (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet” sits on my bedside table, I dip in and out of the fragments quite regularly, it is not a book one reads from cover-to-cover, a collection of artefacts that add to/take away from your daily mood. I read Fragment 125, above, soon after finishing Luke Beesley’s latest collection of poetry “Aqua Spinach” and I thought it was utterly relevant. Into my notebook it went “Use Fragment 125 opening for Luke Beesley review”.

Scrap that thought….start again.

I quite often visit the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (‘ACMI’) where they screen iconic films. Recently I’ve seen movies by Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Bergman, Breton…there are so many movies to see.

Luke Beesley’s “Aqua Spinach” closes out a trilogy of books that explore the intersections between poetry, music, the visual arts and cinema. The epigraph coming from Leo Charney’s “Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift”:

In the empty moment, what you call identity ceases to be continuous,
linear, apparent.
It’s hazy and insubstantial, a jumbled, fragmented surface.
It skips around from one time to another, from one place to another.
It refuses to respect the need to keep one moment consistent and con-
tenuous with the ones that precede or follow it.
It’s a film.

And this collection of prose poems is a “jumbled, fragmented surface”, skipping “around from one time to another, from one place to another.”

Scrap that thought….start again.

“Aqua Spinach” is broken into three sections, “Ink”, “Paint” and “Film”, writing, visual arts and cinema being the points on a three pronged surrealist compass, the sixty-four poems seeping into your awareness, leaving scar tissue memories and setting off synapses of past experiences like miniature firework displays in your brain. Ah yes, the lobster telephone, I saw that at the ‘Salvador Dalí: Liquid Desire” retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria back in 2009…or did I, maybe I thought I saw it? I’ve definitely seen Dalí’s collaboration with Luis Buñuel, “Un Chien Andalou”, hasn’t everyone who is into film? You know the one, the dissected eyeball, or am I thinking of “Le Voyage Dans La Lune”? No definitely not that, it was made in 1902, Georges Méliès made that, something to do with the moon and eyes…

Scrap that thought…start again.

Luke Beesley’s final instalment, following on from “Jam Sticky Vision” and “New Works on Paper”, has just been released, by Giramondo Publishing. Get your bus ticket organised as you are about to board public transport, head to work, view several exhibitions, watch a film or two, however it is all going to take place at once.

Incomprehension came to mind as I started reading this new collection of poems, I was attempting to make sense of the surreal. Once I let go and allowed the journey to just unfold, the seemingly disparate images began to build a story of an artistic life alongside mundane everyday actions. Just as watching a single star in the sky of the city, polluted with light haze, is not as magnificent as seeing the same star as part of the the Milky Way in the clear skies of the desert, it is still the same star.

A Century of Poetry in English

Over pottery in the language inherited a century of prose
and lilac Iliads. The Iliads by binoculars and binoculars by
lower lake and the century in English against the French or
Spanish soccer grace, Keatsean anticlimactic brilliance,
William-to-William, wheeled in on bright cuts and English
lessons. The sentence flosses the Armadillo mountains in the
east and the sun reaches out of atmosphere like a sneeze,
centuries. We work around the spine.

The above poem appears in the “Ink” section of the collection.

The front cover features a still from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, the 2010 Palme d’Or winning film at the Cannes Film Festival. A movie that explores past lives and is the final instalment in a multi-platform art project centred in Thailand’s northeast. The mystical use of various media and the subject matter aligns nicely with Luke Beesley’s work that uses art, objects and humans to transform. The exploration of literature, visual arts and film through small bursts of comprehension creates a hybrid questioning of absurdity in the everyday. A collection that lingers and haunts your dreams…or your reality.

Yet again, I pass on my sincere thanks to the writer for taking the time to be interviewed and Luke Beesley’s answers and engagement with my high-level questions is really appreciated.

You can buy “Aqua Spinach” direct from the publisher here (where you can also purchase the poet’s earlier books).

Q. “…dust motes float around verb in all literature, the dust motes float.” Are your thoughts dust motes?

I like that idea. Rings of Saturn Sebald-ish and dust-like. Part of what my writing process might cause, I think, is a dust-like illustration of distracted thought. But also none of the metaphors in the poems are achingly mulled over with the full weight consciousness – they swim up out of somewhere during the fast first draft and, to me, this anchors them to something deeper, or they’re easier to trust.

 

Q. You reference Apichatpong Weerasethakul”s film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” in the poem “Wild Thing” and the cover image is taken from this film. The Director in an interview with the Bangkok Post says it is primarily a film about “objects and people that transform or hybridise”. Two questions here, (1) were you involved in the cover design, and (2) are your poems about “objects and people that transform or hybridise”?

1) Very big yes! The book cover is something I’m really into, as I’m sure the very patient staff at Giramondo Publishing will tell you. Whereas New Works on Paper’s key focus was the visual arts (hence a drawing for the cover) and Jam Sticky Vision’s a little more on the side of music (hence the detail from a Pavement record on the cover), this book was always tipped to the side of cinema. Apichatpong’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the film that has had the most transformative effect on me over the last few years. I didn’t go out of my way to reference it; it was just a big part of my imagination around the time Aqua Spinach was written. I did a whole series of drawings based on the film, too. I was fortunate to be able to track Apichatpong down, via a friend, and he was really responsive and lovely. He provided that beguiling image. I love the way the cover turned out and am grateful for Giramondo for including me in the process. (2) I guess everything’s moving and shifting in the writing, in the world, in the way we see each other. The film is mysterious and darkly aesthetic: bringing in photography, playing with formality, day-for-night filming, humour, banality, surprise – it’s the stuff of contemporary poetry. It’s the kind of film that puts me in the type of alert daydream place that is productive for writing.

 

Q. The collection is arranged into three sections, the nouns “Ink”, “Paint” and “Film”, can you talk a bit about the “Film” section, your influences by Éric Rohmer, Stanley Kubrick, Luis Buñel, Joanna Hogg for example?

Embarrassingly perhaps, I discovered Rohmer only a few years ago. I’ve since watched nearly all of his 25 or so films. It was so great to re-watch Full Moon in Paris on the big screen at MIFF. Actually, today I happen to be watching A Tale of Springtime which is one of the few films of his that I haven’t seen. I enjoy his use of colour, but I love that you spend time with a thoughtful, sensitive, hesitant, indecisive character and you gradually grow very close to them. And Rohmer will show his characters thinking while folding clothes or walking or reading or just popping back to an apartment to pick up a couple of books. He’ll show the whole sequence so that you as the viewer have time to think and you understand that the character’s mind is busy in thought while they fold or walk or read or eat or stare at a view (a view which more often confounds expectations by being either disappointing or unexpectedly interesting). Joanna Hogg, who is influenced by Rohmer, is probably – along with Apichatpong and Suwichakornpong – my favourite filmmaker of the last few years, and I’ve watched her three films over and over. I write while watching films – that dream trance they put you in – so it’s natural that they appear in my daily writing. Image-wise, I like the idea of the book springing up out of Un Chein Andalou (maybe minus the eye scene which I can’t watch, more ants, armpits, absent mouths and moth eyes). I like the following question: What has Un Chien Andalou got to do with inner-Melbourne?

The trilogy – New Work on Paper, Jam Sticky Vision, Aqua Spinach – ends with film, which goes back to the book’s epigraph. In the end, film wins, I think, concerning its relation to its influence on the moment.

 

Q. “Ink” being writing, “Paint” being art (painting) – you have an active cultural life – can you talk about some of your major influences from the poetic, painting arts?

If you went through the visual art references over the three books and took down names my obsessions at the time of writing would all be there. It’s more than the actual art, too. I like the names of artists and the way their names work in poems and how the name moves out, almost topographically, beyond the art, or rhymes visually with other names. A writer can be linked to a musician or painter via this visual rhyme.

I feel I always have a pool of artists I’m focusing on, and then those artists will lead me to others. I could probably trace this movement, via hundreds of artists, over twenty years. In my 20s it was Rothko, Coltrane, Ondaatje, Lee Ufan, Malick, Egoyan, Pavement, Silver Jews, David Brooks and Leonard Cohen. Then later it was Kelly Reichardt, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Bill Callahan, Carlos Reygadas, John Ashbery, Gerald Murnane, Helen Frankenthaler. My favourite-pool of the moment is probably Joan Mitchell, Cesar Aira, Aldous Harding, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Lydia Davis and Enrique Vila-Matas. I also just finished a forty-odd-thousand word exegesis on the enthralling and elusive writing of poet Barbara Guest, and I’m in no way willing to let go. Her ekphrastic poetry has led me to many other painters, too.

Essentially the story of Modernist painting and the innovative writers of the 20th century are significant influences.

 

Q. The poem “The Lobster” uses André Breton and surrealism as a theme. Is your work surrealist automatism at play?

Yes, the lobster is a double reference to Breton and also a contemporary artist such as filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who is trying to work today with what the surrealists offered up. Regarding automatism, it’s hard to say. My process is to write fast in pencil every day, and I’ve built up an improvisational approach by doing this for about eight years. There is a calm centre to it. I try not to think, that’s very important, but then it’s maybe, over the years, been honed to control the levels of pure automation so that I can have a poetry mode and a more narrative short-fiction mode. I like the idea of calling the writing surrealist, though.

 

Q. Individually these poems may appear incoherent, but as a whole the reader can see your day to day activities, catching a bus, in an office, reading poems, sitting on a park bench and all of the associated random thoughts that go with these activities. Can you explain a little about the timeframe where these poems were written and the writing process itself?

I feel I’m with you with this Q & A, in that we’re anticipating each other. It’s really pleasing to know that there is a shape to the book when you step back.

I’ve written a bit about my process. Perhaps I could add that the handwriting is important. I can’t read what I’ve just written – it can only be deciphered afterwards – so all my attention is focused on the associations thrown up by the what is going on around the point of the pencil. One phrase – its shape, images and sounds – leads to another, not unlike the way one author leads to another, below.

Concerning the timeframe, the poems were drafted in 2014 and a little bit in 2015 (there are one or two poems from my Barbara Guest research trip to New York and New Haven in early 2015), and edited from 2015 to 2017.

 

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and it is building up a nice reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

Hmm. I generally have about 2-3 long Modern classics on the go, on the bedside table, that I’m re-reading. And I tend to move between a number of books at the same time. I’m reading Woolf’s Jacob’s Room just because I love her writing and that novella had escaped me. I’m also reading Lydia Davis’ recent short story collection Can’t and Won’t which came out of reading her novel The End of the Story. I walked into a secondhand bookshop and saw the novel and picked it up and it helped me finish a long prose piece I was working on.

I’ve been in an Anita Brookner phase – her books are so crisply written and deceptively dark and sad. I sped through Look At Me and then A Start in Life but I’ve slowed a little to modulate the sadness. I’m now reading A Private View. I’m also reading the new Ondaatje, Warlight, but I’m disappointed with it, as I was of his last novel, in comparison with his earlier books, or I’m arguing with my younger self. Who’s changed? Him or me? His poetry and fiction were my first major writing influences, way back, and so I’m kinda sulking about this novel and only reading a few pages at a time. I guess I’m being a bit melodramatic.

I’m reviewing an Australian poetry collection, and I’m also re-reading the fabulous poetry collection Knocks by Emily Stewart. I’ve been reading Harold Brodkey’s wild and bold short fiction: The World is the Home of Love & Death and Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, and I’m always moving through Cesar Aira’s books in translation – am about to start Conversations. I’m also reading Czech novelist Michal Ajvaz’s bazaar Borges-like The Other City. Also Julio Cortázar’s expendable-chapters novel Hopscotch just arrived in the post.

I mostly read what might be termed contemporary experimental fiction/short fiction, and Modernist classics. And it leads to the next question.

p.s. for more on my reading habits go here

https://southerlyjournal.com.au/2016/05/27/followed-by-patrick-modianos-dog-what-ive-been-reading-last-part/

 

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

One of the reasons why Aqua Spinach is a full stop – the end of a trilogy – is that since I finished drafting it a few years ago, I’ve mostly only been writing short fiction and fiction. Having written that, sometimes stories come back from literary journals with a note from the editor saying hey this is poetry. Anyway, I’m writing what I love to read most at the moment, and I’m really into it. Ahead of me is a lot of crouching over my terrible handwriting, trying to transcribe it to the computer, but I have more than one manuscript that is getting close to completion.

 

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Milk Teeth – Rae White PLUS bonus poet interview

MilkTeeth

The Annual Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, for an unpublished manuscript, is awarded at the Brisbane Poetry Festival with the winner having their book published by University of Queensland Press and launched at the Festival the following year. I have interviewed 2015 and 2016 winners Stuart Barnes, for “Glasshouses”, and Shastra Deo, for “The Agonist” and continue the association with the Prize by interviewing 2017 winner Rae White, whose book “Milk Teeth” was launched on 3 September 2018.

Rae White is a non-binary poet, writer and zinester living in Brisbane. Their poetry collection Milk Teeth won the 2017 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and is published by the University of Queensland Press. Rae’s poem ‘what even r u?’ placed second in the 2017 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize – you can read that poem here. Rae’s poetry has been published in Australian publications such as Meanjin Quarterly, Cordite Poetry Review, Overland, and Rabbit.

Rae is the editor of #EnbyLife, a collaborative zine about non-binary experiences. They hold a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Creative Writing Production) from Queensland University of Technology.

Before you prepare yourself for a haunting journey encountering decay and body parts you need to crawl under your mother’s bed…

Each of your milk teeth, toddler shoe-
boxed under your mother’s bed.
You giggle, call out
her sentimentality but I’m dizzy
at dinner, preoccupied
with thoughts of tinkling
dentin slipping on my palm.
I excuse myself, lurch
into the bedroom.
My arm zigzags in the dark
touching fusty carpet before finding
the muted box compact with duct.
Pinpoint fingers remove
one creamy molar.
(from “Mother’s milk”)

This is taken from the opening poem to the collection and your “pinpoint fingers” are going to be working overtime collecting such matter as teratoma, a wand made from “the knotted dried leg of an ibis”, rusted tweezers and bones (teeth, osteopenia, “skeletons with eye sockets/for mouths”).

Most of these bodily parts undergo a transformation under Rae White’s microscope, a world of insomnia and nightmares.

Broken into six thematic sections, each with a epigraph, it is not always a dark place, there are humorous references, for example a flooded Macca’s, and nostalgic reflections. Part II primarily focusing on gender, enlightening the reader of the inherent bias in the everyday, for example the opening of the HTML poem “<title>gender options</title>” ;

<!DOCTYPE cis-centric>

<option value=”biological”>          MALE</option>
<option=”TRUE”>                            female</option>
<option=”Other”>                           404         404</not-an-option>

>>Gender not found<<

(taken from “<title>gender options</title>”)

Please note – rendering of this text is not ideal on a mobile phone.

Section IV are poems of love and sensual pleasures and section V the natural world, highlighting the broad and multi-faceted subject matter in this collection.

Engagement with other poets another highlight, the poem “under \ over” is in response to Shastra Deo’s poem “There Is a Cure”

under \ over

half awake stretch point the toes \ you shift rollicking the bed
edge phantom arm between cracked slats \ play my spine with fractured
knuckles like ice water                    trickling bone

press my skull onto mattress \ your whisper-teeth tracing pulsing neck
slide leisurely, bed screeches \ mother’s voice plump with
childhood warnings                        in my head

There Is a Cure

                The air was never sweet
here but now there’s oil

                slicked across the water,
the dark of it crawling

                four-footed into the house
I tell you not to let your feet

                dangle over the edge, because I
have found footprints

                that stop at the foot
of our four-poster bed,

                your phantom weight
crumpled in the covers.

These are only excerpts from each poem, to fully understand the response you’re going to have to invest in copies of both Rae White’s “Milk Teeth” and Shastra Deo’s “The Agonist”, the last two Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize winners to have their books published by UQP.

“Milk Teeth” is another engaging, thought provoking collection, with decay and body parts becoming glistening, with the human place in the natural world being questioned, but at the same time it can be playful, and humorous, using symbols, codes, social media posts, emails and a raft of textual techniques (for example how the poems are placed on the page) to engage, unsettle and ultimately reaffirm.

As always, I am forever grateful to the poet for their time in discussing their work. Rae White being extremely busy with the Brisbane Poetry Festival and the book launch was very generous in giving their time to discuss another brilliant addition to the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize Winners.

You can follow Rae White here https://raewhite.net/ where links to online stockists of the book are provided and you can follow them on Twitter using the handle @wings_humming

Over to the interview

Q. Nostalgia is a prominent theme, fishing, camping and the whole of section VI are examples, the poems “Sabbatical” and “Go and gone” ending with pumps pushing a “cat back with a slosh” or with trainers pushing “the gutted cormorant” it toppling “Into the water”. Is there such a thing as redemption?

I loved tying together both those poems about mobile games with similar themes of nostalgia, loneliness and, at the end, the bodies of animals and themes of morality. As for redemption, I wonder what the characters in these poems would do if given a choice? How far would the character in ‘Sabbatical’ go to have back ‘the lost days of breakneck fishing’? What lengths would a lonely fan of an augmented reality game go to in order to reconnect with kinship?

Q. You’ve shown that emails, Twitter, online dating profiles and Pokémon Go can be poetic, is there anything you don’t look at with a poetic gaze?

Probably not to be honest! My interpretation of things in life is quite reality-adjacent, where anything and everything could be mystical or memorable or have creative potential. Folks could interpret this as a side effect of my depression and mental health, but to be honest the conflation between ‘madness’ and creativity has always concerned me. If I look at the world with a poetic gaze, mentally tagging anything I could possibly use later in my work, does that make me ‘mad’ or does it simply make me a creative adult human? I believe the latter.

For example, I recently made this zine called Junk. I used words and phrases from a spam email I received to create poems and then crafted them into a zine. When people do or see something everyday, like a spam email in their inbox, it can become mundane. I like to polish the mundane, the domestic, and give things back their shine. I’m also not the only poet or creative person doing this either. For example, Zenobia Frost and Rebecca Jessen wrote a 12-poem performance based on the Bachelorette! And Holly Isemonger’s award-winning poem ‘OK Cupid’ is another great example of looking at something that perhaps wouldn’t normally be considered poetic in a poetic light.

Q. Several poems speak of the battle involved in “gender options” or of recognition, they bring home the exhaustion, the constant battle. Is writing cathartic for you?

Oh absolutely. The process of using things that have happened to me or someone I know (the misgendering, microagressions, discrimination, abuse…) is something I can angrily, exhaustingly piece together puzzle-like and massage into a poem. Once it’s complete, I feel this tremendous sense of relief and my shoulders relax. If that poem then brings something new to the non-binary conversation or acts as catharsis for someone else, then that’s even better.

Q. I’ve used this question for other poets, so pardon the repetition. Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson says, “The poem surpasses the other literary arts in every way: in its depth, potency, bitterness, beauty, as well as its ability to unsettle us.” Some of your work is “unsettling”, do you think that’s a harsh or fair assessment?

Definitely a fair and accurate assessment. I find this weird beauty in the grossness of things. At the Queensland Poetry Festival launch of Milk Teeth, a friend of mine gave me a stunning gift: a small jar containing crystals, lichen, butterfly wings and the small bones of a possum. I was both captivated and unsettled. It was utterly gorgeous but at the same time, would be something that some people might find yucky. I try to bring a similar conflicting duality like that to my work: to engage the reader through casually unsettling their expectations, asking the reader why they might find something unsettling and why. And for all those lofty goals, I also just like writing about mysterious, creepy and gory stuff because I enjoy it, and I can only hope it’s also entertaining for the reader.

Q. Besides the recent book launch, you always appear busy launching zines (in fact I have a copy of your “diary of a lavender plant” zine). Can you tell us a bit about this format of creating and how you got involved?

I got involved in making zines when I was published in Woolf Pack, a Brissie zine for women and non-binary folk. They were also the very first place to publish my poetry! From there, I decided to start making my own zines because it seemed fun, cathartic and accessible. All you need is some paper, glue, scissors and an idea, and you can make a zine! I think it’s that low barrier to entry that gave me the confidence to start getting work out there, being a part of zine fairs and stocking my work at rad places like Junky Comics (Brisbane) and Sticky Institute (Melbourne). One of the things I love about zines is how diverse and DIY they are. You can get your own voice out there and explore new ways of creating.

Q. You have a strong connection to the natural world, section V of the collection focusing on plants for example, is nature the “ultimate triumph”?

Ooh part of me hopes so! I have over 100 plants in my house and outside on my balcony, and I love watching them grow: they wrap around objects in my house, around each other, some of them close their leaves up at night to sleep. I love the idea that perhaps plants are just waiting for us to fuck up the world even more than we’ve already done, before saying enough is enough and taking over, triumphing over us. I like to explore that concept in poems like ‘Abandoned greenhouse’ and ‘EVIDENCE: house plant, Holland Park’.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and it is building up a nice reading list, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I just finished reading Jos Charles’s feeld, which is explores trans narratives and the reclamation of language through this Chaucerian-like transliteration of English. It was utterly incredible and inspiring.

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

I’m currently working on my second poetry collection focusing on non-binary people and space: how non-binary transgender people are allocated or denied spaces in Australian society (including socially, politically, physically, digitally and linguistically), and the way in which our bodies continue to take up space despite marginalisation and violence. I’m also slowly working on a short story collection and on a couple of secret exciting projects, which I’ll hopefully be able to announce soon!

You can read some of my work, order my book and check out my upcoming events at https://raewhite.net/.

 

 

 

Double-Wolf – Brian Castro

Double-Wolf cover

Today I look at a complex book, one that has received little attention since its publication in 1991, so little attention that there is a single review at Goodreads, from somebody who obviously enjoys more straightforward fiction.

“Double-Wolf” is a novel written between parenthesis, an aside, an interruption. The complete book appears between parenthesis, but does that mean it should be dismissed?

Brian Castro’s third novel investigates the famous Sergei Konstanovitch Pankejeff, a patient of Sigmund Freud more commonly known as the Wolf Man. However, in this work he is known as Sergei Wespe, the notes advising us “Wespe, Castro’s name for the novel’s Wolf-Man, is German for wasp. Freud never named his patients when reporting his case studies.”

But it is not only Wespe who appears here, we have the obscure autodidact, living in Australia, Arthur S. Catacomb a character whose book appears in the end bibliography: “Catacomb, Arthur S. Fellow Traveller: In Praise of Freud New York: International Universities Press, 1970”, google this book and you will notice it does not exist, is even the bibliography part of Brian Castro’s fiction?

Catacomb, now down and out and dismissed in the Blue Mountains, is reflecting upon his life, a life that took in working with the Wolf-Man. Castro has taken an existing interesting tale, appropriated it for his fiction, added colourful and complex characters and handed it to the reader to interpret or simply enjoy.

The book opens in Katoomba, a town in the Blue Mountains, 100kms west of Sydney, during winter 1978;

(A misty rain is falling.
It smears the glass like somebody’s spit. Somebody talking too loud, too fast. (p 1)

This section becomes a second person narrative, “your urine streams”, “you’ll have to go out in it”, “if you stand still now”.

We then move to Vienna in 1972, and then finally to Sergei’s first-person narration, the book being a jigsaw puzzle of narrators, voices, interpretations, a musing on fiction;

He’s just attended a conference. He said to them: All writers are wankers. His advice to writers? Get a proper job. He wanted to discourage the herd. You can only speak the truth once. After that, all is paradox.
Later a middle-aged woman came up to him. ‘Mr Wespe,’ she exclaimed, ‘I really didn’t think that was
necessary.’ She took off her spectacles. ‘What about your audience?’ she scolded. ‘You never think of them.’
‘Let them eat words,’ said Wespe.
He was tired of being a curiosity and was in a particularly bad mood thinking of his Th
érèse in the hospital mortuary, turning blue, her lungs still filled with gas. (p 4)

These multiple voices are alluded to in one of the opening epigraphs;

‘Only for the egoist and the dogmatist (and maybe they’re one and the same, although I’m thinking of two different friends of mine) is there one “history” only. The rest of us live with the suspicion that there are as many histories as there are people and maybe a few more…’
(Robert Coover ‘Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears?’) (p xvii)

Many histories, maybe more than there are people, but is this also referring to Sigmund Freud’s case history on the “Wolfman”, to him there was “one history”. All of this adds up to a complex book of failed psychoanalysis, a man’s misinterpreted history, recollections, being ostracised, and the fiction created by Freud, as well as fictions created by fictitious writers!

…this idea that somewhere, inside, you were ready to become a hermit, to give it all up, to melt into someone else who inhabited the wilderness, distinguishable only by your handwriting, to be nothing more than an annotation, a note, a mark of such purity and yet of such insignificance that your life would be relished as a mere postscript, an afterword…this is the vanity of the repression of self…a social consequence…the pack gives birth to the outsider. But there is only the outside: you are a ghost-writer. (p109)

In “Double-Wolf” the patient, Wespe, becomes a writer in later life, a purveyor of pulp mysteries. Although there is actually a book called “The Wolf-Man by the Wolf-Man” written by Sergius Pankejeff, edited by Muriel Gardiner with a Foreword by Anna Freud, published by Hill & Wang in the USA in 1991, in this work it is more the fiction musings of Wespe that are the attraction of Catacomb.

A novel that works on numerous levels, using 1st, 2nd and 3rd person narration, a blur of characters, a blending of histories, real and imagined, a questioning of writing and of fiction itself, this work requires re-reading and unpacking on numerous levels. In the introduction to the 2005 edition, Katherine England sums it up so much better than I could;

Double-Wolf is so rich, so complex that virtually every sentence could be annotated. There is a compulsion to draw the prospective reader’s attention to more and more that an aficionado would not want them to miss – to the passing Lacanian play with signs and signifiers, the Joycean overtones underlined with a single Latin reference to Ulysses, to the parody Nazi’s, to Castro’s beguilingly equivocal answer to the wolf dream – another moment of haunting, multi-connected stillness that forms the climax of the novel. There is no way to capture it all, except perhaps to follow the author’s advice; to dance across his work, stepping lightly back and forth between reason and intuition, picking up what appeals and simply enjoying it. There is enough interest here for a lifetime of such dances – and to inspire Castro-informed meanders into Freud, Joyce, Kafka, Borges and Lacan into the bargain. (p xv)

In his two earlier novels, “Birds of Passage” and “Pomeroy” the role of the writer, the play of different narrators and the use of various narrative techniques were all used with stunning effect, here Brian Castro takes it to an extra level, where the fictions, dreams, histories and realities all become blurred, even the bibliographies and notes are fiction (or are they?). A playful addition to his oeuvre, a book I can’t adequately describe, but one I suggest you hunt down and “dance across”.

Pomeroy – Brian Castro

 

Pomeroy (1)Earlier this year I read Brian Castro’s “Blindness and Rage; A Phantasmagoria – a novel in 34 cantos” and was immediately drawn into the depth and breadth of the author’s language, style and literary references. I have not reviewed this book, a review may one day be forthcoming, in part due to the Sydney Review of Books’ in-depth look at the work (you can read the views of Mark Byron here), however I have now sought out all of Brian Castro’s back catalogue of ten more fiction works and am slowly making my way through them.

“Pomeroy” is Brian Castro’s second novel, coming seven years after his Australian/Vogel Literary Award winning “Birds of Passage” (the award is for an unpublished manuscript for writers under the age of 35).

This novel blends several genres and styles, part thriller, part mystery, part romance, it shifts between first and third person, with our protagonist Jaime Pomeroy, an investigative journalist, down on his luck, either being omnisciently viewed or personally presenting his deeper concerns and feelings.

The plot follows Pomeroy as he relocates back to Hong Kong, from Australia, to investigate corruption, the backdrop of the island being handed back to Communist control is ever present, as is the censorship and dangers involved in being too investigative. Pomeroy has replaced a missing editor, a coded message on his typewriter ribbon and an unopened bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label the only remnants of his existence;

‘He got that the day he disappeared. It came in the mail,’ Frisco said, trying to appear mysterious. ‘Who knows? We get all kinds of gifts. It’s the way they do things here. The more gifts, the more compromised the journalism.’
‘Look at us,’ Guitierrez went on, ‘every one of us with a prize-winning story in his head, unable to get it down because we have a wife and children to feed, bills to pay, reputations to protect. Now and again to please Stella we nail some fish who’s swum into the wrong waters…’ (pp12-13)

Early in the novel Brian Castro is relaying the difficulty of writing the truth;

‘That’s why we’re in the prison house of language.’ (p13)

And there are numerous references delineating the reader and the writer, a masterful approach using a writer protagonist, even if he is a hack journalist down on his luck, whereby Brian Castro is debating the role of the writer with you the reader.

This murkiness becomes even more clouded when you consider Brian Castro’s migration from Hong Kong to Australia as a child. What elements of this novel are autobiographical? Are there any whatsoever?

Jaime Pomeroy has migrated to Australia, as has his Uncle Amando, leaving behind his businessman father, a man with shady dealings, lurching from one disaster to the next. The book opens with Pomeroy visiting a childhood friend Rory Harrigan, and Rory’s wife, Pomeroy’s cousin and love of his life, Estrellita.

The elements of cultural identity, hybridity, are another sub-plot at play here. Uncle Amando meeting a sad end when encountering a crocodile, the harshness of Australia, never being accepted bubbling along in background.

It was hot. After a hundred miles my motorbike broke down and I was between places in the middle of nowhere and nobody stopped. I tinkered around for two hours and found that the piston was fucked, completely out of shape, the rings snapped and splintered into chards. So I undid my bags and walk and still no-one stopped. I couldn’t believe people wouldn’t stop. (p123)

Not accepted in his adopted country, always an outsider, nothing changes when he returns to Hong Kong;

When I returned to Hong Kong it was as a tourist. That was the only way I could learn to live there again. Gone was that other place of old China, the rickshaws, the slow ramshackle docks and the cheap eatery stalls. Gone the stubby colonial buildings, the post office with its clock at the Star Ferry, the police barracks, the playing fields. The air was heavy with pollutants, the harbour water green and viscous. Buildings were taller and trees were dying. Nathan Road, once a leafy boulevard at the harbour end, was now a busy market thoroughfare. But I was glad there were still beggars, there were still tourists and there was still a greasy layer of humanity beneath the cut throat exterior. (p10)

The book is also peppered with literary references, at one stage Pomeroy and Frisco break into an apartment searching for an incriminating letter, knowing the recipient was a reader, Pomeroy finds the letter in a collection of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing, replacing it with a torn-out passage from Flaubert’s The Temptation of St Antony;

I’d like to have wings, a carapace, a rind, to breathe out smoke, wave my trunk, twist my body, divide myself up, to be inside everything, to drift away with odours, develop as plants do, flow like water, vibrate like sound, gleam like light, to curl myself up into every shape, to penetrate each atom, to get down to the depth of matter – to be matter! (p59)

Immensely readable on so many levels, as a mystery/thriller you do not know Pomeroy’s fate as the use of third and first person means this is not simply him recalling his tale, and therefore cannot meet a gruesome fate. As a commentary on writing and the role of a writer to tell the truth, the blurred lines between autobiography and fiction. As a study on cultural hybridity and displacement (note Brian Castro’s collection of essays published in 1999 is titled “Looking for Estrellita: Essays on Culture and Writing” – in “Pomeroy” the love interest is Estrellita, the protagonist’s cousin). As a novel playing literary games, with Proust, Barthes, Poe, Flaubert just a few references.

I could write about the themes of corruption, both in Hong Kong and Australia, or the themes of loss, fear of death, sexual awakening, love, and so much more. Although presented/marketed as a “thriller” this is a complex, multi-layered work.

A writer who has won numerous high-profile awards, but who seems to have flown under the radar of readers, I was moved to write this small piece to fill in a gap at Goodreads, this book has ZERO, yes ZERO reviews on that platform. A book sorely overlooked, a writer not often enough mentioned when discussions about Australian writers take shape. Dig around in second hand bookshops (this book is out of print) and see how popular fiction genres can be melded into literary works, adding in numerous sub-plots and themes. A book I will surely revisit.

“Argosy” & “Lost Lake” – Bella Li PLUS bonus poet interview

Argosy_Cover

Apologies in advance, this post contains links to numerous poetry reviews and interviews, it appears the last few years of reading, writing and talking about Australian poetry has resulted me building up a decent a resource!!! I have also referred to various other reviews of “Argosy”, not out of laziness, but read on to understand why.

In the last twelve months if you’ve delved into many of the Australian Poetry Awards, you would have come across Bella Li’s 2017 book “Argosy”. This year “Argosy’ has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the Kenneth Slessor Prize (the Poetry Award for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards), and the book was highly commended in the 2017 Anne Elder Poetry Award (the winner being Rico Craig with “Bone Ink”- review and interview with the winning poet here) and commended for the 2017 Wesley Michel Wright Prize in Poetry (the winner being Susan Fealy for her collection “Flute of Milk” – review and interview with the winning poet here) as well as being shortlisted for the 2018 Mascara Avant-garde Awards (the winner being Amelia Dale for “Constitution” – I have an interview with the poet here and my review appeared at Mascara Literary Review here).

“Argosy” has recently been reprinted after selling out the first print run, something I’ve only come across once in the last twelve months for Australian poetry, Shastra Deo’s brilliant debut collection “The Agonist”, a book that has been shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal, alongside dual Booker Prize winning Peter Carey, Eva Hornung, Sofie Laguna, Steven Land and Gerald Murnane (review of “The Agonist” and interview with the poet here)

Bella Li has recently had a new book released by Vagabond Press, “Lost Lake”, and I have been fortunate enough to get in contact with Bella Li and she agreed to an interview about both of her books. Again, I am extremely grateful to the writer for their time and honesty and, as always, the full unedited text of the interview can be read at the end of this short look at Bella Li’s two most recent books.

Both “Argosy” and “Lost Lake” are sumptuous books, collections of collage, photographs, prose poems, found works, erasures and more, their presentation alone makes them stand out.

“Argosy”, an homage to Max Ernst’s collage novels, has two sections, “Pérouse, ou, Une semaine de dispaitions” and “The Hundred Headless Woman”, the first section using images and creating collages sourced from atlases and journals of discovery for the lost explorer Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, a French Naval Officer whose expedition disappeared in Oceania in 1788. The second section uses photography and found texts to create further voyages of discovery. Here’s an excerpt from the section that responds to an interview with Elena Ferrante which appeared in “The Paris Review” (212, Spring 2015);

For instance, in Ischia. Those dark corners where the sound does not. But I remembered them that way and only that way do they appear. In each retelling, in the manner of chiaroscuro: stones shearing off the roofs of houses at sundown. Hunting the particularity, the moment, seen so closely from afar. Down the lanes, always in the company of a shadow, a woman, a cleaver. Always closer than before. (p123 “Argosy”)

“Lost Lake” continues the theme with eight distinct sections, one for each colour of the rainbow, plus pink, using found texts, collage and photography. An example, taken from “The Confessions of Saint Augustine” (translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey);

First

That I have written, of places I have not been. To Carthage I came, where there sang around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. And in the vast courts of memory, the caverns of the mind. I have heard great waves upon the shore, I have remembered what it is. In other ears: the scaling of heights. These circuits of stars, compass and pass by. (p 41 “Lost Lake)

Books that use memory, embedded experiences to present a layer thought provoking prompts. Dwell on the pages, contemplate the message, fill in the gaps, making both books an individual understanding.

Reviews and judges reports from the various awards have described “Argosy” as follows:

“Argosy” is a stunning hybrid artefact, textually and visually. Through Argosy, Li provokes the reader on the value of the object, of the book. This is a collection whose very reality insists on the necessity of print – it dwells within the materiality of form, and is a recognition of poetry as art and art as poetry. Argosy’s exquisite writing leads the reader through collages, prose poetry and photography, the meanings of which unfold through their juxtapostions – poetic gaps that spur haunting, dreamlike sequences. This is a collection of journeys and intertextual dialogues – between poems and works, and with culture and history.’ Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2018 judges’ report.

‘The powerful and surprising impact of the book made Argosy a clear winner. Bella Li’s sophisticated handling of language, form, time and image offers a remarkable synthesis of European surrealism and an antipodean sensibility, via a Chinese–Australian history. This important contribution to Australian poetic imagination and traditions doubles as a Southern Hemisphere rewriting and re-imaging of world traditions.’ NSW Premier’s Award (Poetry) judges’ report.

‘Bella Li’s is a cerebral, yet playful collection broadly presented in two movements. Li interrogates art, history, geography, film, philosophy, and language through the muscular form of the prose poem, juxtaposed with original photography and collage. Argosy is at once immediate and surreal, and self-reflexively leads us to question our received knowledge of the world, while engaging with and commenting on aesthetic traditions practised by experimental artists such as Joseph Cornell. As an artefact, the book is a singularly beautiful object that pushes the boundaries of what narrative, poetic meaning, and indeed, a collection of poetry might be.’ Anne Elder Award 2017 judges’ report

I find these “reports”, and my feeble attempts at writing a review, present a conundrum. Both books, amongst a range of techniques, draw upon existing texts and have numerous references to works that already exist in our psyche, Dante, Proust, Elena Ferrante, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Cormac McCarthy to name just a few. As a result, a reader approaches “Argosy” and “Lost Lake” with their own personal lens, a view that has already been tainted by our own experiences of these canonical texts. We bring our own learned prejudices and expectations to our reading, and any analysis or presentation of views subverts the texts that Bella Li has shaped. I feel as though adding my interpretation of these two books would be to bring my world view to the table, and I believe that is not what these works are about . As books that hover with memory (for example the collage prints use works I distinctly recall seeing in publications, images in “mercredi: Dans le sang” appear familiar, however they are drawn from “editions of atlases appended to…journals of discovery, held at the State Library of New South Wales, State Library of Victoria and Special Collections, Baillieu Library, The University of Melbourne”, collections I have not seen, therefore my unreliable memory comes into play), they use recalled experience to add another layer to your reading involvement.

What I would suggest is for you to buy both books, open your imagination, immerse yourself in the delicacy, handicraft, and words, allow the mysterious gaps in Bella Li’s landscape to be slight shaped by your views, create your own cultural hybridity, journey with the writer/creator to places you thought you knew. You will not be disappointed.

Lost_Lake

Over to the interview, and thanks go to Bella Li for her time and her honesty.

Q. As you explained in a podcast for the NGV Triennial Voices exhibition, “Argosy” is a merchant ship, one that contains a lot of cargo. This implies there is a lot to “unpack”, however before a reader unpacks it, the packing needed to be done. Can you explain the project, how it started and the processes you underwent towards completion?

Argosy began with a small commissioned work for the Ian Potter Museum of Art. I was to use an item from their collections to write a suite of poems. My proposal involved a large terrestrial globe, which had the voyages of three explorers—Vancouver, Cook and La Pérouse—mapped onto it. But for practical purposes (the globe was too deep in storage to retrieve), I ended up reading through the expedition journals instead. At some point I learned that La Pérouse had disappeared, shortly after leaving Botany Bay, and his journey became my sole focus.

The journals led me to atlases from this and subsequent expeditions sent in search of the missing explorer, filled with beautiful and strange illustrations. Transposing these images into words seemed to miss something distinct and important, so I made collages (from photographs I took of editions of the atlases held at the State Library of NSW, the State Library of Victoria and the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne), and then wrote two sequences of prose poems, based loosely on the journals. These formed the first part of the book, ‘Pérouse, ou, Une semaine de disparitions’.

The prose poem sequences and collages that comprise the second part, ‘The Hundred Headless Woman’, were written just before, concurrently, or after the work on ‘Pérouse’. The book design was the final part of the process, and involved a steep learning curve with InDesign and hand-trimming hundreds of pages of test prints.

Q. There has been a lot of focus on the collage aspect in your work, your homage to Max Ernst, I’ll leave readers to read about your work with images elsewhere. Therefore, I’d like to understand a little more about the section “The Hundred Headless Woman”, a mysterious shaping of anonymity, for example Elena Ferrante, are Isadora shaped through a 3rd person narrative. Could you tell me a little about the text manipulation and creative process here?

‘The Novelist Elena Ferrante’ was written after I’d read an interview with the author in the Paris Review. It gave such a strong sense of place, and of a particular personality—which was all the more interesting because of Ferrante’s anonymity. I wrote the poem as a speculative piece—a fictive persona based on a real pseudonym—set in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples. At this stage I hadn’t read any of Ferrante’s novels. After Argosy was published, I read the Neapolitan Quartet and found that some of the most important events in the story occur in Ischia.

‘Isadora: A Western’ uses lines from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian as chapter titles. Westerns are dominated by men, and by simple moral dichotomies. I wanted to write a miniature western—formally set somewhere between a screenplay and a novel—and to cast a central character who moved against type. The details were probably a composite of every novel and film in the Western genre that I’ve read or seen, guided by McCarthy’s text in particular, with its high lyricism and extreme violence.

Q. “Lost Lake” continues in a similar style, here eight colours of the rainbow (you’ve added pink) and found words using writers such as Proust, Jean Rhys, but also film “Blade Runner” and Tarkovsky for example. You are holding up a distorted mirror to works that shape popular culture. How does something grab your attention enough to be dissected?

For Lost Lake I drew on what I was reading, watching, seeing and listening to at the time—or texts that I’d encountered in the past—that spoke to particular themes. I have a great love of genre fiction—science-fiction, horror, adventure—as well as films, music and visual art in a range of styles, so the sources vary widely. Many of the texts I chose are classics or canonical in some way, and therefore more likely to be recognised by readers. Sometimes I was seeking to appropriate a certain mood or atmosphere, or gesturing towards subject matter without having to explicitly state what that might be. It was also a way of situating the text in a whole network of relations, among other texts and artworks. I find this very satisfying.

Q. You must be extraordinarily persuasive to get Vagabond Press to publish these exquisite, delicate, detailed works. Can you explain a little about that relationship?

I was lucky to have been found by Vagabond Press at a fairly early stage. I’m not sure anyone else in Australia (or anywhere) would have agreed to publish Argosy or Lost Lake as they are, and I can only say that I’m immensely grateful. Michael Brennan, the publisher, is a lovely soul and works tirelessly to promote the work of others. I have a great deal of respect for his dedication and judgment: many of the books on his list have won major prizes (half of the shortlisted titles for the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry were Vagabonds; the winner of the prize last year was also a Vagabond).

Q. + the absence
a
of the Witch
cannot
does       not
Invalidate
a
the spell –

+

Are your works spells?

They are an attempt to create whole worlds that have a particular internal consistency—in this sense, they ask you to believe in something that does not otherwise exist, as do all constructions made from language. Emily Dickinson, to whom that epigraph belongs and who spent most of her life within the walls of her family home, was herself a consummate world-builder.

Q. The section “Lost Lake” is your photography. Is this a well-known, or a private, place?

It’s not a private place; I think it is well-known to some and not so well-known to others.

Q. Voyages are prominent in your work, and discovery, are there any boundaries of discovery that you do not want to cross?

I’m going to say no, but probably after I’ve crossed them I’ll realise I should have said yes.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment, is it going to make its way into future work, and why?

The last books I compulsively enjoyed were Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance. (Alex Garland has turned the first book into a movie, but it’s such a different beast that it’s really its own thing.) I don’t want to say too much because the novels hinge upon certain blanks that are slowly filled in over the course of the series, but the story is a blend of weird fiction, science-fiction, horror, spy novel, detective fiction—pretty much everything that I love in one—and told in a manner that draws on existing conventions and tropes while also being entirely unpredictable and inventive. There are still parts that make me shiver in broad daylight.

I’m planning to write about Annihilation in my PhD thesis, but I don’t think it will make it into future creative work.

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

In the last eight months, with the aid of a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts for which I am extremely grateful, I’ve travelled to Finland, New Zealand and Japan, as well as domestically to Hobart and Sydney, to collect material for the next book. I did have a title and some loose themes, but I’ve made a start on the work itself and it already feels like it might be going in a different direction. Or maybe in the same direction with a different focus—I’m not sure yet. But I’m excited to be working on a new project and looking forward to seeing where it takes me, both in terms of content and method.

 

The Measure of Skin – Ramon Loyola PLUS bonus poet interview

MeasureSkin

Active social media followers would probably have come across Ramon Loyola, whose recent projects include poems in the new Verity La anthology, “The Hunger”, as well as designing the flyer for this new eBook, he is guest editing Issue 3 of “Pink Cover Zine” with Samantha Trayhurn, and he actively keeps his blog “ramon loyola in lowercase” up to date with references to his published poems (in the last month he has had work appear in “Pencilled In Magazine Issue 3: Food” and in “Other Terrain Journal Issue # 5”).

Earlier this year Vagabond Press released a small chapbook of Ramon Loyola’s poems as part of their “deciBels 3” Series, “The Measure of Skin”. The series was edited by Australian writer Michelle Cahill and is introduced at Vagabond press as follows:

Richly diverse in their cultures and communities, these poets trace their ancestries to South Asia and the Philippines, to North Asia, Europe, and South America. Their work encompasses a range of styles and voices that collectively challenges the biopolitics and narrow categories of white heteronormativity so powerful in the establishment. (Vagabond Press website)

In her introduction to the series Michelle Cahill says:

it is wonderful that we can celebrate the work of ten gifted poets whose cultures and languages, as much as they are inflected by an Australian belonging, trace to South Asia, to the Philippines, Greece, to the Jewish, Chilean and Taiwanese diasporas. Each of these poets is accomplished yet pressing against the limitations of their practise. Individually they are radicals, in the sense of breaking textual ground. They have applied language to new purpose and form as technê, by discerning thought, voice, tone and image. (Vagabond Press website)

And on Ramon Loyola’s chapbook she adds:

In contemporary Australian poetry we rarely encounter a poetics that attends to homoerotic subjectivity from the uncomfortable position of shared erasure and material suffering. Ramon Loyola’s The Measure of Skin nurtures the elemental strangeness of the other.

“The Measure of Skin” consists of twenty-one poems, this small book opens with “Familiar”;

your hands feel familiar

they are renegade tanks of warmth
charging through layers of hair
shooting pinpricks of invisible blood
through epidermis and veins

(from opening poem)

And there is a familiarity with Ramon Loyola’s work, he addresses the themes of loss, isolation, yearning, whilst creating a character who is searching for love, attempting to make concrete his place in the world.

If you are looking for gooey, love themed poems, where the poets find their perfect match and the sun sets on a beautiful romance (a la the poets on the bestseller lists), then Ramon Loyola is going to unsettle your hopeful views. Here we have a collection where the uncomfortable displacement of the poet comes to the fore, his fears, his pain, his laments;

Touch me here, where it hurts like no other
where the mere flutter of kisses linger
on my neck, reminding me of letters
never sent, of souvenirs never
took from places I had never been to.
(from “Touch Me Where It Hurts”)

A Philippines-born, Australian based writer, Ramon Loyola writes poems of displacement and unease, not quite sure of his surroundings where foreboding fears lurk around every corner. Is there a subtle referencing of a cultural hybridity? A writer on the fringes?  And Ramon Loyola also does not shy away from homoerotic subjects, further pushing himself outside the boundaries, where he then reflects and where he is not always comfortable with what he sees;

My hair is not black but dark brown
It has streaks of white and old strands
A rendering of unfortunate genes and
Of old age and memories and regret

                (from “A Rendering of Genes”)

Raw, honest poems, where the writer questions himself, these are works that contain a measure of uncertainty, an unsure human looking for acceptance. There are numerous fears approached, fear of the dark, fear of the ocean, fear of letting oneself fall in love and they are all rooted in the physical world of skin, flesh, eyes, touch.

A short book, however one that reveals a lot about a writer attempting to make sense of their place in world.

As always, I would like to sincerely thank the poet for making the time to answer my questions, and his honesty in his replies. I hope this interview brings a little more understanding of the creative process and the poems themselves.

You can follow Ramon Loyola via his blog here  and you can purchase the chapbook “The Measure of Skin” here.

Q. Your poems are rooted in the physical world, touch, eyes, skin (that’s even in the title!), is the physical your way of making sense of the metaphysical?

I tend to write from the physical and material plain to understand the realm of what lies underneath the skin, the invisible pinpricks that provoke a physical reaction, that manifest by way of physical pain and emotion. The body, for me, is the source of all our pondering, a trigger for contemplation about the world, how it reacts to the stimuli of love, loss, grief, mortality, and morality. So, yes, I guess it is my way of making sense of the force of nature and the attendant influence it has on me. To know what is beyond the physical, I need to first understand the machination of how the body works, how it interacts to these stimuli, how it folds in the dark blanket of suffering and sorrow, how the heart struts on its beats when the prospect of love rears its head in the horizon. It’s a long process for me, understanding what is out there, but I need to start from within, to know myself down to the bone, in order to confront the many possibilities — delicious and sordid — inherent in the realms outside my own skin.

Q. You confront a lot of fears in your book, darkness, the ocean, love, is poetry cathartic for you?

Someone once told me that my poems are too dark and emotive, which sounded like it was the worst thing one could do. For me, it was my way of realising the worst fears I have encountered (and that with which I am still struggling). It’s also a way of putting myself to the test on how far I could go with negotiating my own feelings about the fear of the unknown and what resides in a place I’ve never been to. In the most literal sense, yes, I guess my poetry intends to be cathartic in that way, and the process of confronting the fears I have since known — fear of the dark, of the sea, of normal things and ideals, of being hurt again — is challenging in itself because of the safeguards I have put up around me without realising that I’d been isolating myself from all these experiences. But the reason for my poetry is not just a methodical calculation of my strength in times of fear and uncertainty, it’s also because of my yearning to reach out for answers and the clichéd ideal of companionship, and, yes, love. My poetry is not just personal; it’s also a conscious clarion call for friendship and understanding in these dire times.

Q. Love and lust are the two dominant themes is this chapbook, but there is also a lurking loneliness, a yearning, are these poems a cry? Have you given too much of yourself?

I once used ‘crying poems’ as a working title in one of my earlier collections, but ultimately abandoned it in order not to give away too much of the themes I was working on. Then, again, my writing (as in this chapbook) has always embodied deep feelings of longing and yearning (hence, my first collection, not poems, just words carried a subtitle, ‘on loving, living and longing’). At first, it was a scary thing to reveal myself like that to the whole world. After the release of not poems, just words in 2014, I’d been branded a sham, a fraud, an imposter, a wannabe-Yeats and e.e. cummings-tragic. But I was also encouraged and feted by many readers as someone brave enough to make such intimate disclosures that it is what is now expected of my writing and myself. Loneliness, indeed, informs my writing, for it also pervades my life. I’ve been on my own, by myself, unpartnered — and, perhaps, unfortunately, still wistful for something else, even at my age — for over a decade now. It doesn’t get any easier, what with the increasing demands of the modern times to be more sociable and sympathetic, and the stigma attached to ‘aloneness’. But the fact that I am sitting here, right now, answering your insightful queries, makes it more real to me that there are times when the loneliness should simply take a back seat to make way for some inner joys, and to complete the cyclical fruit-bearing seasons of living. And, yes, I have given a lot of myself, of this loneliness, in my writing. But, in doing so, I have abided by my self-directive motivation of sticking to the truth. In one of my capricious jaunts in social media, I’d witnessed the online badgering (bullying, trolling) of a very talented and emerging poet when he posted an extract of a poem in the works. One conservative and ‘seasoned’ (but obviously ill-meaning) critic commented on the post by posing a bewildering query of ‘where is the truth?’ which then led to lengthy thread discussions by others and, sadly, resulted in the poet’s literal withdrawal from the world. But he was simply writing the truth. Since then, I have always kept it in mind: Write what is true, write the truth about you, regardless of the feelings the task evokes or entails, write about what you feel. I’ve steeled myself somewhat from all the potential trolling and rejection, despite the hurtful sting when it comes. And, so, in my own writing, the poems that come out carry the truth in me, about me, of what it feels like to be an outsider looking in, to be always on edge and always in the fringes, to be sexually ‘different’, to be gay, to be lonely. If my poems don’t give away a little about myself (like the ones in The Measure of Skin), then I would not be adhering to my own truth and I would have failed in embracing it. There’s always the risk of giving away too much of myself, yes. But, oh, there is so much of me to give … I have so much to give.

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?

My to-be-read pile is seriously big and bad. Among all the precious titles I’ve accumulated, I am currently engrossed in three poetry books (at the same time) by Eunice Andrada’s Flood Damages (Giramondo, 2018), Nathanael O’Reilly’s Preparations for Departure (UWAP, 2017), and the late Max Ritvo’s Four Reincarnations (Milkweed Editions, 2016). I have just finished gorging on the delights in Lachlan Bloom’s Limited Cities (Giramondo, 2012), which made me realise that the path towards brilliance and clarity for someone like me is always paved with difficulty and suffering before I could even reach that place where Bloom and the others have been. I chose these poetry titles mainly due to my affinity with the themes of diaspora, grief, identity, ideas of staying and leaving. I haven’t been to a lot of places in my long, uneventful life, and these poets are taking me to those places—real and imagined—where I will probably never be in. I have also started reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Less, by Andrew Sean Green (Lee Boudreaux Books and Abacus, 2017), perhaps in the hope of finding a common experience and mutuality of the writing soul. I like to mix things up a bit when it comes to my reading chores, so I have lined up, on the non-fiction genre, Welcome to Country by Prof Marcia Langton (Hardie Grant, 2018) with Stan Grant’s foreword alone making me quiver, so that I can show a deeper appreciation towards and convey an intimate gratitude for Indigenous Australia, and Jonathan Miller’s Duterte Harry (Scribe, 2018), to digest the unfortunate goings-on in my home country, the Philippines, brought on by an alleged despot-in-the-making. Winter signals my hibernating-reading phase, so there’s always something in my TBR pile of wonders.

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

There are a few drafts of poems in my WIP folder that will probably never see the light of day. But I’ve been labouring on them for quite some time, always with tentativeness inherent in all my attempts to write truthfully. After receiving more than five rejections from various journals and publications in the last two weeks alone, however, I have this nagging urge to improve them even more, but not in haste, this time. I need to learn to edit myself more, to increase and improve my vocabulary, and to be more confident about my capacity to tell the truth. It’s never easy, but I persist.  In my still-feeble and not-so-bright mind, I encourage myself that perhaps it’s time to go back to learning and re-learning the basics so that I can be also be more sophisticated in mastering the complexity of poetry while manifesting my intentions in the simplest, most effective way. It may be trivial to some and pedestrian to others, but I’d like to think that The Measure of Skin has provided a glimpse of the interplay between complexity and simplicity. These rejections are my reminders, my signposts for those moments. So, in my attempts now to forge ahead on writing another full collection of new poetry on various (but, as usual, personal) themes, I’d like to think that I’d be more than ready to confront my personal truths and the world on all its doubts about what I have to say or can do in my own words. There is hope. There is hope.

 

Another World In This One – Gerald Murnane’s Fiction – Goroke Symposium

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Mid spring 2017, as I scroll through a social media feed, an image appears, panoramic, a blue sky speckled with wispy clouds, and endless haze of an horizon populated with shrubs, trees and the purple hint of the hills, and in the foreground, a paddock, yellowing grain stalks, stubble from left to right and greying fence posts holding rusting barbed wire, blocking our journey, we must go either left or right down the hint of a country road.

A printed message “Another World in this One: Gerald Murnane’s Fiction”. A full day symposium to be held in Goroke, a tiny hamlet on the border district of Victoria and South Australia, with speakers and an address from the reclusive author himself.

When the last of my completed but unpublished works has been published in a few years from now, my readers will be in possession of all that I’m capable of giving them. (Gerald Murnane – closing address at the Symposium “Another World In This One” held at Goroke Golf Club on 7 December 2017)

Online maps, train and bus timetables, fruitless telephone calls to pubs long closed, more maps, more timetables and then a plea on social media for a willing driver.

Early summer, 2pm Bourke Street Melbourne. Not dissimilar to John Brack’s 1955 painting “Collins St, 5pm” just baseball caps, not hats. A reader, a writer and a publisher arrange to meet at a bookshop. Not your ordinary bookshop, but one bursting at the seams, translated literature tumbles off “recommended” shelves alongside the latest copies of “New Philosopher”, the poetry section relegated to the back right, horizontally and vertically stacked, where inquisitive buyers need to stand on tiptoe to avoid trampling the latest arrivals that are yet to find a home on the shelves. The tiny and iconic venue has been around since the 1960’s, a shop that surely stocked Gerald Murnane’s first novel “Tamarisk Row” when it was released in 1974, and now stocks, front and centre on the new releases shelf, his latest, and he claims last, novel “Border Districts”, a book that has been gathering momentum in the media over the last few months and one that was released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the United States in April.

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Photo credit https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/explore/collection/work/3161/

 

The writer, reader and publisher head from Melbourne towards Goroke, a tiny hamlet approximately 400 kilometres North Westwards. A wrong turn leads to five hours of driving, through the suburbs, the fruit zones, the old goldfields and out onto the wide open plains, the Wimmera, the township of Horsham being our base for the next two nights.

Thursday, an early alarm clock and nervous anticipation, we have a 45 minute drive to get to the Goroke Gold Club, where proceedings will kick off at 9am. Soon after the turn off from the township of Natimuk, the endless flat terrain is suddenly broken by the stunning sight of the Arapiles a rock formation that juts out of the plains, a site popular with rock climbers.

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Mailtimes.com.au credit http://www.mailtimes.com.au/story/2690736/mt-arapiles-death-man-falls-from-king-rat-gully-climb/#slide=2

The golf club was simple to find, the small grey brick building having half a dozen cars parked out front gave it away! The “welcome” was your traditional country town fare, with an urn heating water, some tea bags and a jar of instant coffee alongside a collection of china mugs, a number of small plates with a selection of Arnott’s biscuits available, something to nibble on whilst you have your morning beverage. The man of honour, Gerald Murnane himself, was present chatting to his publisher, and more than happy to informally talk to any of the guests.

Early interactions with the organisers of the symposium, where I asked about local accommodation was happily replied to with “maybe you can stay at the golf club”. I can assure you the golf club is a rudimentary version of what city folk would regard as a “club”, with mid shin length grass, fairways lined with gnarly gum trees, and sand greens, the ones you rake after playing your putt. The course itself was out of action, with it being used for competition only during the winter months, maybe the snakes cause the operator of the slashing machine to be a little nervous. Operating with only 33 members the club is currently finding things a little tough, with older members passing away and the young folk either not interested or already part of the distant city, part of the coastal migration statistics. I spent a little time chatting to one of the locals who had prepared our morning tea, and she let me know that amongst the younger ex-Goroke folk there didn’t appear to be a lot of enthusiasm for the longevity of a crucial meeting place for the locals. With the pub now closed, I can only assume the bar facilities and the clubroom itself are a central part of Goroke’s community,

There’s been a whole host of Goroke sub-genre writing about the speakers themselves, the presentations, the academic side of things, my report doesn’t attempt to add to these, this piece is my journey to Goroke where I spoke to Gerald Murnane about a favourite subject of his…horse racing. Most of the guests were eager to talk about his books, naturally, I know of only one other that took notice of the fact Gerald’s reading material for the day was the Herald-Sun form guide for Kyneton races. In days on on-line racing form, it is quaint to see a member of the older generation with a newspaper lift out, scribbling his notes on the newsprint. One of the contemplative photos, featured in the Sydney Review of Books, of Murnane that accompanies a piece about the symposium, shows him sitting on the verandah of the Goroke Golf Club, reading, it is not some editorial or the financial pages, or a review of his books, it is the daily racing form, take my word for it.

“The New York Times” article, published in late March mentions Murnane’s obsession with horse-racing and goes into some detail about his Antipodean Archive (more on that later), however this obsession with analysis and cultivating a method of predicting the future is only lightly touched upon when reviews of Murnane’s work are presented. The archive, the playing of racing games with coloured marbles, actual horse races, the flashing of coloured silks across a finishing line, correlates wonderfully with numerous “predictions” and unwavering self-belief that Murnane shows throughout his fiction.

I had a personal attachment to a section in “Tamarisk Row”, having been a collector in my teens and early twenties of the photo finish pages.

Clement shows his father two photos on the front page of Wednesday’s Sporting Globe. One picture shows more than twenty horses strung out around the turn into the straight in the Doomben Ten Thousand. A white arrow points to Bernborough, barely distinguishable among the tail enders. The second picture shows the finish of the same race with Bernborough clearly in front, having passed twenty and more horses in the short Doomben straight. Clement puts his hand over the arrow in the picture and asks his father to guess which horse is Bernborough. He hopes to astonish Augustine with the sight of the horse’s incredible finishing run.
– “Tamarisk Row” (p57)

Each Tuesday and Saturday evening the Sporting Globe was published, with a pink wrap around cover, it was the definitive racing guide for Victorian horse racing. Remember this is prior to the days of video replays, anything on-line – a computer was a dream and the internet??? – these photo finishes reproduced the field in each race at the 800 metre, 400 metre and finish lines and were a vital tool in finding, predicting future winners.

During the morning tea break, after presentations by Anthony Uhlmann and Emmett Stinson, both introduced by Samantha Trayhurn, it was time for another cuppa and some home baking from the members of the Goroke Golf Club, this also allowed a few more informal chats to take place, and to put a face to a name. It was also a chance to walk the grounds of the Goroke Golf Club

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The break also allowed us to view a number of papers that Murnane had left on the bar for us to read, a palindrome and a copy of the 1965 Department of English examination from the University of Melbourne. An exam paper that Murnane would later liken to the torture chambers he viewed at the old Melbourne Museum!!!

More discussions by the academics followed with Shannon Burns, Suzie Gibson and Luke Carman talking about Murnane’s work, whilst he continued to decipher the racing fields from Kyneton.

A one hour break for lunch followed, where Gerald Murnane personally manned the bar, asked us to complete the Goroke Gold Club Guest Book, a requirement before being served alcohol, and chatted small talk.

Personally I spent quite some time talking to him about old horse racing tales, the 1981 Ararat Gold Cup won by a horse named Gary Bruce, whereby a plunge (from memory the price tumbled from 33/1 into 7/2 favourite) was successfully pulled off and after months of investigation thirty-nine charges were laid against ten people. Charges ranged from attempting to fix the race itself, to prior races being fixed to ensure Gary Bruce had an average racing record leading into the event, after a long period of investigation and days and days of inquiries the charges were all dropped. This is one of the most notorious “betting plunge” tales of the 1980’s where a horse with terrible form was backed to win a fortune and mysteriously improved hundreds of metres to win and pull off the plunge. Numerous rumours abound about how the plunge was planned and pulled off, and whilst I would love to detail some of these here, and Murnane and I did chat about a couple of the rumours, a number of the “players” are still alive so I think it is wise to leave the stories at that – rumours.

The talk of Gary Bruce led us to another infamous betting plunge and a horse called Torbek. In 1979 a New Zealand trainer Alan Jones had a horse called Shady Deal which, although unraced, had won seven trials in New Zealand. He sent it to Australia, transferred the training to an unknown Bendigo trainer BA Fawdrey, changed the horse’s name to Torbek (similar name to a poorly performed Torbreck) and entered it in a maiden race (a race for non-winners) at the provincial track at Seymour. The meeting co-incided with the New South Wales Australian Jockey Club meeting at Randwick where the AJC Oaks and Metropolitan Handicap was being run – a day where there were bookmakers galore working and turnover would be high, a guaranteed day to instigate a large betting plunge. Punters were rumoured to have flown to Sydney, where the betting ring was strong, and backed Torbek from 25/1 into 5/2 favourite, it is rumoured to have been backed to win over a quarter of a million dollars, the horse duly cantered in. Transferred back to the original trainer Alan Jones it won its next start and it was then transferred to trainer Wayne Walters (the same trainer of Gary Bruce!!!), it went on to win twenty-three races including a number of Group One (the highest level) events.

Plunges, shady deals and obscure racetracks were the preferred subjects of discussion between Murnane and myself, as you could imagine the readers of his books wanting to understand more about the plains or shading their eyes were itching to get a word in sideways, eventually I moved aside letting a few of the academics to ask a question about his books, Murnane generally met them with a friendly “I’ll answer that later in my talk”.

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Photo credit – Andre Sawenko

The afternoon concluded with talks by Ivor Idynk (publisher of Murnane’s books at Giramondo Publishing), and Brigid Rooney and of course Gerald Murnane himself, the content of his talk can be read here. (Sydney Review of Books). Prior to Murnane’s talk he told us that he may have to have a break, and if he did we were to recite the following (the quote is from memory, I’m sure it contained more names “Commencing in 1861 with Archer, 1862 Archer, 1863 Banker and concluding with 2015 Prince of Penzance, 2016 Almandin, 2017 Rekindling” – he was reciting from memory the full list of the Melbourne Cup winners, a very impressive feat indeed.

Over the coming weeks and months I’ll address the subject of horse racing in Murnane’s work, as I review some of his books here. Avid readers of his work would know his “archive”, a collection of filing cabinets, contains numerous literary items, the following two attracting my attention:

“Documentation of Gerald Murnane’s lifelong interest in horse-racing and of his continuing efforts to devise a means of earning a regular income from betting”, and


“The Antipodean archive…in the files are bour a thousand pages of typescripts, manuscripts, maps, charts, diagrams, lists, and sketches describing the organisation, administration, and day-to-day running of horse-racing in two imaginary countries by name New Eden and New Arcady and called collectively the Antipodes. Many of the pages report in detail the results of several hundred races decided in each country. One file contains several letters and essays comprising in total more than 10,000words and explaining Gerald Murnane’s reasons for setting up the Antipodean Archive in 1985 and adding to it continually in the years since.”

These notes from Gerald Murnane’s archives can be read, along with more details of other files, letters, essays, manuscripts at the Music and Literature website here http://www.musicandliterature.org/features/2013/11/11/the-three-archives-of-gerald-murnane

Having a real life background that crosses a lot of the same territory as some of Murnane’s fiction (and of course his memoir of the turf “Something for the Pain”), I plan to write about this specific theme in his works, racing, chance and speculation of future events. But I will save that for the reviews….