the honeymoon stage – Oscar Schwartz PLUS bonus poet interview


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

god will send you nudes

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

in time, god will send you nudes

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Agonist – Shastra Deo PLUS bonus poet interview


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even though this becomes a ritualistic poem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. Your tarot readings? Anything you can reveal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constitution – Amelia Dale, poet interview


In late August Mascara Literary Review ran an article by myself where I reviewed Amelia Dale’s latest book “Constitution” and that piece contained a few comments from the poet herself. I interviewed Amelia Dale about her latest book, and naturally only used a portion of what she had to say in the review itself. As I am building a collection of Australian poet interviews here at Messenger’s Booker, I thought it prudent to publish the full interview with Amelia Dale here.

If you are interested in the review at Mascara you can access it here:

As always I would like to thank the poet for giving me their time, being open and honest in their replies and for their contribution to my “archive” of interviews. Amelia Dale and I conversed, via email, in early July and the unedited version of our “discussion” is below.

Her book “Constitution” can be purchased at the following locations, Melbourne: Collected Works, and Readings (Lygon), Sydney: Gleebooks, Hobart: The Hobart Bookshop or you can email the publisher, details at their website

Again, thanks to Amelia Dale for her time, and of course her book….

Q. Is the unrelenting rhetoric of your text taken from actual interview snippets from the ‘7.30 Report’? Who are the speakers?

Yes the text is edited transcriptions of interviews with Malcolm Turnbull from the 7:30 report. There are no other speakers. It is all Turnbull. I’ve deleted some words but all the text, the weird phrases, the odd metaphors are all his.

Q. The demeaning condescending talk to “Leigh” appears as an “interlude” throughout the text, did you purposely use this as a buffer to the “confusion”?

Again, this is Turnbull’s work, not mine. We can all speculate on his own reasons for needing the buffer, for needing an interlude. I just wanted to make the convolutions of his speech visible.

Q. “The truth is that all of us are a bit liberal and a bit conservative in differing degrees”, the right side of politics may think so, do you think so?

Claims for a sensible or objective “centre,” the idea that the grown-up place to start is compromise makes me nauseous. Turnbull of course markets himself as a kind of socially “progressive” left-of-right figure. We’re supposed to be happy that he doesn’t commit Abbott-level macroaggressions and not be angry that his policies kill people. Before I “wrote” the book I experimented with a twitterbot @democraticteddy, a markov chain bot that used as its data source the party documents from major Australian political parties. The idea was that it would end up being the tweets of an ideologically confused teddy bear politician, determined to claim the pragmatic, sensible middle ground #sensiblesolutions You don’t have to write a bot to get this language though. It’s everywhere in Australia you’re too bored to listen, its the language of cold neoliberal power.

Q Given you match the format and flow of the actual Constitution I need to ask where did this interest come from?

Being an “Australian poet” with all that entails it seems to me that the starting point has to be to try, as much as you can, to undo and damage “Australia” the nation state. This is not to say that I have any delusions that my book will enact in real terms political change. But I turned to the Constitution because to vandalise the Constitution seems like the sensible, the only thing to do.

Q. As you know I ask all my interviewees this, and in your case I hope it isn’t the “Tax Act” but what are you reading at the moment and why?

While I am typing up these answers I have been enjoying Buzzfeed’s Harry Potter anniversary content. I just did the quiz “Tell Us Seven Of Your Literary Preferences And We’ll Reveal Which “Harry Potter” Character You Are” (Luna Lovegood). Off screen, I’m reading the brilliant Rabbit 21 “Indigenous” edited by Alison Whittaker, love it all, especially Natalie Harkin’s interview, by Corey Wakeling and Damien Shen’s artwork throughout the issue, including his pictures of Abbott and Brandis. I’m also reading Melody Paloma’s In Some Ways Dingo (again Rabbit) which I’m excited about launching in Sydney in late July. Also looking forward to getting into Dave Drayton’s book of P(oe)Ms.

Q. And finally as I ask all my subjects “what’s next” is there something you are working on that you can tell us about?

I’ve determined that all my poetry for the rest of my life will be inspired by, about and against white male politicians. I’m about to move to Shanghai, so Kevin Rudd might be an appropriate muse.

Breaking the Days – Jill Jones PLUS bonus poet interview

BreakingTheDaysToday’s post is longer than usual; however I urge you to read the interview, you will not be disappointed,

Adelaide based Australian poet Jill Jones has just released a new collection of poems titled “Brink”, however as part of my reading of the 2017 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry I read her 2015 collection “Breaking The Days”. As I have been featuring recently interviews with Australian poets, I approached Jill Jones about her earlier book and she was extremely generous giving her time and an extensive in-depth interview follows my few short thoughts on her book.

A collection that contains forty-five single page poems, closing with a fifteen sectioned sequence “The plover in the poem and what meaning does not mean”. The book opens with “Lose Your Grip” where the unreliability of memory, “if you forget what you forgot”, and ageing shimmer throughout, with a core message of enjoying the moment, the “pleasure”. “Telltale” continues the theme:

The past might be connected to
pines, matchboxes
indistinguishable songs

As does “Evidence”;

The past is something a prisoner
might want to forget, or maybe
it uncovers, but what?

Through measured and stark poetics a number of seemingly insignificant observations are questioned, “appliances/pieces of a house”, and “Any life is accumulation/things, hair, fat, disequilibrium/traces where the drugs went on their way”, and “Even the fridge sings”, these examples across three different poems. But the collection is not insignificant, it is an appeal for the reader to dwell, to notice, to dissect and analyse and to enjoy the present,

Cold is colder

Feedback isn’t really food
thanks isn’t hope
feet are also traffic
stars are predictable, if also
and concurrently, untrue.

Political debate is no more stupid
on one day or another day
there’s always an excuse to
mention breasts.

Trains can bring out
the worst in people
noise is always noise
(there’s always noise)
traditions were once

I actually like writing, when I like it
the temperature takes it time.

Choice is kin to boredom
cold is colder than it looks
talking to yourself really helps.

If only I could stop dreaming about poems.

The seasonal, the weather, creep into most poems, in a lot of ways decay, “Some bug is eating the violets”, but the one constant is the weather, the sun, it contrasts with the ephemeral shopping malls, with material goods. Clouds and birds, themes we often see in poetry occur throughout, welcome visitors to the page, again a call to slow down, live in the present moment.

Touching on the political, “Email is record” a plea to address climate change, as well as being a collection that questions the reader, if you could observe your life as art, “if you were more open/would it make a difference?” Thoughtful ruminations where you need to abide and contemplate the poems, deeper works than the stark lines imply.

Recently I have been exploring more experimental poetic works and it was a breath of fresh air to read Jill Jones’ book, whilst not “traditional” the rhythm and cadence of these works left a lingering foggy feeling, a collection to be revisited, a collection to be read outdoors (in all types of weather), poems that you finish and return immediately to the beginning to gain further depth. A worthwhile addition to the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Award and I very much look forward to reading Jill Jones’ new collection “Brink”.

As always, I am indebted to the honesty and openness of the poet in giving me their time as well as contemplating my questions. Based on recent email exchanges I do know that a few of the interviewees have found the “unpicking” of their works an interesting exercise in itself and I am grateful that all of them have been so approachable.

This interview is presented (as always) unedited, hopefully it helps readers of poetry understand the art a little more, demystifies the process and gives the reader another level of understanding of their work. In the case of “Breaking the Days” I hope you read the interview and then seek out the book from “Whitmore Press Poetry”, you will not be disappointed.

Here’s the interview

Q. You challenge the reader, in the first poem, “Lose your grip”, to let go and live in the present, “fall into its pleasure/every time”. Was this a conscious decision to ask the reader, throughout your collection, to dwell?

The first poem is always important, yes. And the book is very much made around the idea of a continuous present – if not in the strict Steinian sense of that. But the thought behind ‘lose your grip’ could be as much directed to myself as to a reader. I’m always interested in ideas of what is ‘the present’, which is always becoming the past. That is, how do we grasp the ‘now’? Although presumably we do sense that ‘now’ is the only place we are, continually. I think I need to let go a lot more, in many ways, and get out a bit more. Writing, living. A sentence from Robert Duncan’s The HD Book springs to mind: “There must be currents of meaning as well as particularities of meaning”. I think my work moves within currents and particularities.

Q. You boil everything down to its essence, music becomes the smell of instruments, shivers painful cells, why this interest in minutiae?

Boiling down sounds a bit gruesome. This book was deliberately fined down, though, for sure. Still, I wouldn’t say ‘essence’. I’m not sure I believe in essences, at least in that sense. I’m interested in detail – image or sensual detail of things, as well as the details of language. It’s a way I connect to things, which can then spark off memory or reminiscence, maybe like Proust’s madeleine. Or it’s simply that there’s often one aspect of experiencing something that’s uppermost, that comes first, that leads you in. A smell, a taste, some sound. It’s also a form of materialism, in a sense. There’s also the part that stands for the whole (synecdoche, metonymy, I guess).

And do I always do that, boil down? I also use generalities – for instance, sky, rain, clouds – without always being specific, or locating them. One reviewer of the book felt it wasn’t specifically located – I know, a slightly different issue – and I found that interesting, and bemusing. It wasn’t a criticism, just how he felt it. To my mind the book is very located in where I live now, in Adelaide (with one or two exceptions of older poems originally written in my Sydney years). But I don’t add in street names (I do mention West Beach, however) or obvious landmarks so, sure, it could be anywhere, but there are Adelaide effects in there – the hills, the gulf, level crossings, provinciality, bad drivers, endless festivals – I do want my poems to seem as though they occur in a real, specific place where specific bodies and other entities exist and feel as though they are ‘real’. Even if my writing may seem at times syntactically complex, or linguistically intricate, or conceptual (these are things people have said to me about my work, by the way, not just how I might think of it). This book is less like that than some of my others, deliberately so. The new book, Brink, is more a big mix of detail and dislocation, images and word play, a lot of play, actually.

A lot of the poems in Breaking the Days originated from brief daily notes I posted on Facebook (I no longer post on FB) or as lines/ideas in an actual daily paper diary I kept around 2014 and early 2015 (again, I no longer do this). So, I wanted the book to have a sense of the quick (in its various senses) and the daily. Thus, a present thinginess. Also, apart from the final poem sequence (which is, in fact, a series of short fragments, ie daily notes), I wanted each poem to be no longer than a page. It took a bit of wrangling and rejection to get it to that. If Whitmore Press’s book design had been other than it was, ie if the pages and/or type had been larger or smaller, it would have changed some of the choices and, therefore, arrangements of the poems in the book. I have absolutely no problem with the design, it’s absolutely fine, but every book has its particular size, design, feel, and the way the poems fit into that is important to me.

Q. I used a quote in a recent question to poet Holly Isemonger, and given the cover of your book uses the word “unsettling”, I’d like to recycle that question for yourself. Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson says, in his latest novel, “The poem surpasses the other literary arts in every way: in its depth, potency, bitterness, beauty, as well as its ability to unsettle us.” Your work is described as “unsettling”, do you think that’s a harsh or fair assessment?

Haha, I was the one who wrote the cover blurb. I’ve never had a publisher write one for me, at least not so far. Most poets, I suspect, are in the same boat. You have to write yr own publicity and, mostly, schlepp yr own stuff around the place. So, I think it’s a fair assessment. I’d rather be unsettling than anodyne. The world is unsettled, even in its settlement. We surely see and hear and taste that every day. Besides, all is change, if I can get a bit Heraclitian for a moment, so nothing can settle. Even in stillness, bodies move, minutely, and internally it’s a continual flux. Unsettling, resettling. And in a very literal sense, I suffer from a form of vertigo (it’s an inner ear problem), so I’m always potentially off-balance. A bit ironic for a Libran, eh!

Q. The poem “Email is record” although a plea to Governments to stop global warming, is a resignation that they won’t listen, is this a defeatist attitude?

I once worked in Government bureaucracies as a public servant, and at times close-ish (more –ish than close, but nonetheless) to Parliamentary decision-making. I don’t ever think you can shrug off the cynicism that kind of experience engenders. Sadly, it’s a cynicism that’s also realistic. Especially these days, when the ‘government’ bit doesn’t actually seem to happen. It’s as though parliamentarians have forgotten that word ‘govern’. Instead, there’s a lot of bully-boy tactics, social media screeching or preening, one-up-personship, and simply noise.

I admire those activists and lobbyists who try to influence politicians about global warming or any number of other issues that need attention. Some times things get done but I realise it’s usually due to trade-offs (you win some …, etc), or being in the right place at the right time, or out-and-out push-and-shove, or blackmail. That’s politics as it’s ever been done, for sure, but at the moment I think it’s more toxic. That’s simply being a realist rather than being resigned. Though, essentially, I think we are defeated on climate change. I see no point in pretending otherwise. The only things that can be done now are adjustments – the climate has changed, and it won’t go back, or not for a long, long time. There can be/should be/is, however, a big salvage operation or series of them, that one hopes, might delay the magnitude of the disaster. Don’t know if it will save all the islands in the Pacific, or Miami or Bangladesh, or the beaches of Adelaide, let alone the poles, but there’s plenty to do and should be supported by politicians but they let petty point-scoring or religious manias or personal inadequacies over-ride community good, you know, the government thing. For instance, the Federal Government’s ridiculous blathering about power issues in South Australia – most of it lies and none of it constructive nor having any relationship to reality, the lived reality of individuals, nor the needs of communities, nor the environment. ‘Clean coal’ – please, spare me!

The poem, however, was also a take on the stupidities of media and technology (and, by implication, all of us as partakers of these) as well as politicians. I was trying to have a laugh at it all, but that maybe doesn’t come across. The references were local, it was a time when a past SA Premier was having a few public personal issues, as much as federal (it was the time of the Godwin Grech Utegate affair, in fact). Actually, I’m not sure people get my jokes (or perhaps they just ain’t that funny – note to self ).

Q. Neruda’s upbringing is said to be the blame for the domineering images of rain in his poetry. Did he influence your work or are your rain images from your upbringing or a more sinister place?

Have people really said that? How curious it is to blame poets/writers for their choices of words. It’s like blaming them for their subject matter or choice of genre. But, no, I wasn’t aware that Neruda’s childhood led him to such heinous acts and, thus, ‘no’ his writing in that regard doesn’t bear any relation to my choices. And I have no negative or sinister relationship to rain. It can be annoying even dangerous, of course, as well as welcome, and good to watch. I guess, being Australian and now living in a much drier city than Sydney, rain or the lack thereof is something you notice and worry about.

Also, thinking back to my answer to the previous question, rain is obviously weather and, thus, climate, and thus, something I’m concerned about, a preoccupation in my work. It’s why there’s also a lot of sky, clouds, and, yes, birds various, in the poems.

I realise I write less directly about specific dramas of human relationships and don’t tell stories or anecdotes as much as some other poets, or not in recent years, anyway. I’m not that kind of poet (nothing wrong with being whatever ‘kind of poet’ one thinks one is, by the way). I’m more drawn to the discursive, or the reflective, sometimes the conceptual (in a very broad sense), rather than the narrative or purely descriptive. I sometimes try to move out of those modes, so, presenting shorter poems in Breaking the Days was a little in that direction, to my mind at least.

But what I think I’m doing and what readers read me as me doing can be two quite different things, I’ve found. And that’s perfectly fine, though disconcerting. I realised this quite recently when I got at least one of the endorsements back for my new book, Brink. The comments made me realise there was an obviously sensual/sexual, relational (and strange) thing going on throughout the book that I knew was there but saw as undercurrent, rather than the kind of thing someone else would go ‘oh hey, here’s what Jonesy’s really on about this time’.

Q. The art of forgetting, an unreliable memory, “Progress is better with forgetting” is another recurring theme. Why this connection to an unreliable memory?

Memory is a preoccupation of a lot of poets, and writers in general. It’s obvious, I guess, as we all live in memory time. But most memory is unreliable, or skewed. The line you’ve quoted, however, is more about how ideas of progress focus on ‘the future’ and that involves a lot of effacing of or forgetting of the past. My old city, Sydney, is a great city of forgetting. Australian history, white settlement, is all about forgetting, forgetting it’s based on theft, rape and murder. So, it’s not so much about unreliable memory but a refusal to face it, or telling lies about it.

Also, it’s generational. My relation to events I’ve lived through, have been close to, is clearly different to my relationship to events I’d only been told about, say by my parents, or teachers, or whatever I’ve read in books, seen on TV. Of course, each generation probably thinks they ‘own’ certain experiences because they lived them, and that experience still remains ‘true’ in the body somewhere, although the specific recall can often be pretty faulty.

On another level, there is woven through the book a lot of memory, including references to very old songs and music. There are poems in the book that directly reference or even quote from music, such as Brian Eno’s Another Green World and The Beatles’ Rubber Soul (‘Nowhere in Another Green World’) or a song by an old 1960s Sydney band, Phil Jones and The Unknown Blues (in ‘Negative Theology’). So, from the obvious to the obscure. That’s not to say that’s all music I like – my tastes are very broad if slightly odd or obscure at times – simply that, for one reason or another, that music wandered in and around the poems, whether I was playing it, or it was overheard somewhere, or part of a topic of conversation in the media, or I simply had an earworm thing happen. None of that’s recent music – but newer music lurks in other of my poems, I hasten to add. I’m not stuck in the 60s and 70s.

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

I’ve been re-reading Marianne Moore and just got the very recent New Collected Poems which I’ve yet to truly delve into. But I was using her work with students earlier in the year and noted that they seemed quite drawn to at least one of her poems, ‘The Fish’. OK, there was also one student who hated it. But I dug out an older Selected of hers I had on the shelf and it made me think again about syllables, shape and line break, and the ways appropriation or collage has been around for so long, as well as her characteristic precision and irony.

I was also looking again at HD’s poetry, partly because there’s a link between her and Moore as well as her and DH Lawrence (whose poetry must be due for a revival!), and partly because I finally sat down with Robert Duncan’s The HD Book, and am still slowly going through its dizzying thought (vertiginous in a good way), as well as HD’s own Tribute To Freud, which covers a great many things but certainly ideas of remembering, plus it shows a different kind of Freud than the one I’d been used to, less patrician, more collaborative.

I suppose this area of reading shows I’m thinking again about modernism, as you tend to do every so often, both from a formalist perspective, from the perspective of all the connections between so many of these writers, and also, in the broadest sense, the occult or ‘magical’ perspective – of what might be magical in forms as well as symbols, masks and ideas of metamorphosis. Yeah, OK, a dangerous area, which means it’s been an old fascination of mine. Besides, I was always rotten at maths so ideas around numbers and systems in poetry, magical or not, make me challenge my innumeracy. Regarding HD, I’m interested for instance in how one of her later works, ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’ as part of Trilogy, comes out of communal crisis, the very real and devastating experience of the bombing of London during World War II, yet is layered with its appeal to ancient wisdoms, a thinking through of recurrences, or a kind of palimpsest, as she stays also in the now: “though our books are a floor / of smouldering ash under our feet”. And, of course, she was working through her own personal crises using masks/personae and, at different times in her life, ideas of lyric or epic. So, yes, ‘currents of meaning’ and ‘particularities of meaning’.

I have also slowly been working my way through CD Wright’s last book Shallcross, published posthumously. Though I believe there may be other work still to follow. She was such a loss. I have followed her work for years. Her work is earthy and embodied (all those particularities of individuals and places), yet never afraid to play amongst language, approachable yet never afraid to experiment. I love her iterations, her grit, her compassion, her love of music, the way she makes fragments really work. There’s so much to love in it.

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

What is next is happening now. As I mentioned before, I have a new book out from Five Islands Press, titled Brink. It’s longer than Breaking the Days, although the title is shorter. It’s the first time I’ve ever used just a single word for a title. I had a great time editing it with the folks from Five Islands. They challenged me about a lot of things, from spelling and grammar minutiae through to deleting and replacing poems. It was a terrific experience in thinking through poem ideas and arrangements. The book covers a lot of ecopoetic territory, as the title Brink would suggest, but it’s more than that. There’s more formal experiment as well.

I have a couple of other things in the works. One is a chapbook but I don’t know when it will be available. The publisher, I think, is aiming for later this year. It’ll contain 17 pages of poems, some previously published and a few newies, and will be launched with titles by other poets but, to be honest, I’m not sure who all those folks are yet (well, I think I have some idea about one or two, but nothing official-like). Also, I have a new full-length book definitely lined up but that won’t be out until later in 2018. I’m writing towards that now, obviously. Both of these only have working titles, so there’s not much more I can say at the moment. I know that sounds a bit vague but until things have a name I feel they’re under the surface and should stay a bit secret.

Also, the project that poet Alison Flett and I started last year – a series of chapbooks from our Little Windows press – is continuing. We have four poets lined up again, three Australians (one of them from Adelaide) and one Scots poet, but again it’s best not to make announcements until it’s all ready to go. Life has a habit of intervening in plans, even well-sorted ones. But if the plan works, we’re hoping to release these later this year. And they’ll be great, definitely. All the poets are wonderful.

I also have a couple of other ideas for my own small projects, I suppose you’d call them chapbooky type things, that I’m hoping some one or another might be interested in. They involve the more odd or playful or just weird end of the spectrum of my writing, so maybe they’ll never surface. And I’m always writing … something. I’ve been a bit dissatisfied with my recent writing so I’m trying to loosen up – hey, ‘lose your grip’ – and see if something different may start happening. Paradoxically, some of that writing involves thinking about form and constraints. Let’s just say form never settles. Let’s just say I’m busy.




False Nostalgia – Aden Rolfe PLUS bonus poet interview


Today I complete the full suite of shortlisted and highly commended books from the 2017 Mary Gilmore Award, an award for the best first book of poetry published in the previous calendar year. As all of the poets shortlisted and commended for this year’s award, Aden Rolfe has participated in an interview about his collection “False Nostalgia”.

The interviews, and my thoughts on each book, can be found by clicking the links in the list below:

 “Glasshouses” – Stuart Barnes (UQP)

“Sydney Road Poems” – Carmine Frascarelli (rabbit)

“Lemons in the Chicken Wire” – Alison Whittaker (Magabala)

“Lake” – Claire Nashar (Cordite)

Aden Rolfe’s book commences with quotes, epigraphs, by Drake and Georges Perec and before you’ve read a single poem you know you are in for an interesting ride.

I’m looking forward to the
memories of right now


the picture is cut up not only into inert, formless elements
containing little information or signifying power, but
also into falsified elements, carrying false information

A collection made up of poems, essays, notes, reflections, it is broken into four sections, “Anamnesis”, “Ars memoria”, “False nostalgia” and “Autoplagiarism”, and closes with a quote by Eliot Weinberger.

Immediately the reader’s own memory is called into play, in the opening poem “Anamnesis”;

We are who we are because of
what we remember —

The opening poem also advising us, “the trees out of breath”, the second poem “The woods/wet and not quite real, breathe us out”. A collection that needs to be savoured, the realities of the present moment are interspersed with the facts of the future, laced with the inanity of social media; “Instead we set the scene / take the photo, update our statuses.” (p16)  preceding “but one day you’ll find a lump / with searching fingers // you’ll change your health cover / at last come to appreciate / the things you can’t buy your way out of // which is the dawning realisation / of our time / “ (p 19)

Similar to a number of the works featured on the Mary Gilmore Award lists, the spacing, the open page plays an important role, “a pause is a thoughtform”.

With snatches of Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch, the humour is also apparent, , for example a mnemonist and erratum appear only a few pages apart, the questioning of memory, the impact of time becoming all too apparent, is this a false nostalgia?

The wryness appearing to interrupt your immersion; “i’ve never / really known solitude / i even drove round all night looking for it” and “if I say apple / do you picture it as red or green? / With a worm or a snake or an archer?”

The same process underpins what Oliver Sacks calls ‘cryptomnesia’, a kind of unconscious plagiarism where you mistake a received idea for an original thought.

Through the poetry, essays and musings, the reader becomes trapped between the theoretical, the real and the present, and of course poetic licence. Masterfully constructed, your mood peaks and troughs as our poet waits, or reflects on the concept of time, or memory, I found myself bringing my own memories into the experience. Personally a playful work, thoroughly recommended.

As always I would like to thank the poet for their time and their honesty in answering my questions, and hope this series is continuing to inform you about the poetic art form and educates you about the work of contemporary Australian poets.

Onto the interview…

Q. I found your collection immersive, playful, so I’ve formed my questions along those lines, I hope you don’t mind…

And what if I said I did…?

Q. With references to Marcel Proust, Oliver Sacks, Plato, Socrates, Italo Calvino (to name a few) you’ve obviously been fascinated by time and memory for some time. Tell me about how that fascination came about.

The theme developed organically, or rather, unintentionally. It started with this concept of false nostalgia – the idea of looking back with fondness on something that wasn’t particularly great the first time around. I had a handful of poems that wrestled with this idea, poems that betrayed an interest in it, a desire to unpack it, but which had also come about as a result of the way I write. I tend to approach ideas sideways, composing by bricolage, sifting through notes and scraps and phrases until enough of them cohere into a poem. One of the consequences of this approach is that different parts of an idea can find themselves in different poems. At some point it occurred that I was returning to the same ideas about memory and forgetting – a kind of autoplagiarism about autoplagiarism.

My initial reaction was embarrassment. You can only write so many melancholy beach poems without seeming like a one-trick poet, right? It struck me as lazy – to keep going over the same territory. Only later did I think that this might become a sustained or focused investigation, later still before the pieces took on the shape of a collection

Q. Is this collection of your memories “a theory of your life, not a proof”?

Very little of the book actually stems from my direct experience. There are some autobiographic parts in “Ars memoria”, but the focus there is more on Simonides of Keos, who invented the memory palace technique, and Solomon Shereshevsky, the famous Russian mnemonist. They embody the idea of infallible memory, while I feature as their foil, as someone who forgets too much and recalls too little. I can’t even remember what I’ve already written.

Q. You wait a lot and contemplate whilst doing so, are you an overly punctual person? Did I make you wait too long before sending through these questions?

When it comes to appointments, yes; less so with deadlines, as you’re well aware. So no, you were not late at all.

Q. The opening section of your book is titled “Anamnesis” and we move through to “Ars memoria” straight to “False Nostalgia”, the unreliability of memory the theme throughout. Having said that you use a number of formats and poetic devices including argument, this “scrambles” the reader’s experience. Do you enjoy these “games”?

When I started work on the book in earnest, I was trying to find a form between poetry and essay. A space to explore the relationship between memory, identity and narrative more deeply than I could in poetry, but without losing its movement, the ability to jump between disconnected thoughts and images.

The different forms in the book – standalone poems, poetic sequences, essay, commentary – emerge from my failure to find such a form. In its absence the various modes and genres are a way to explore different aspects of the same idea. The title essay, for example, considers the concept of false nostalgia from a theoretical standpoint, but captures little of it as a sensation, a mood. This comes across much more strongly in poems like “How we tell stories about ourselves” and “We Watched the Waves”, which embody the concept without explaining it.

Q. The opening lines of the opening poem “Anamnesis”, “We are who we are because of/what we remember – ” leads to a blank space. Is there an implication that we aren’t who we think we are?

It’s not an implication, but it’s also not that simple. You are who you think you are, but only because of that thought. Or perhaps: you are only who you think you are. The idea of the objective self is a fiction. We build stories about ourselves to serve present needs and future trajectories, deploying memories as evidence. But what we leave out is as telling as what we include, what we forget and elide and edit.

Q. The collection is peppered with questions, forcing the reader to dwell, recall, add their personal journey. Is immersion part of your poetic toolkit?

The question is an important poetic – and rhetorical – device, don’t you think? In some senses all questions are rhetorical. So are compliments.

Q. Your collection includes a lot of pauses, and “a pause is a thoughtform”, could you explain that a little more?

Pausing is the active form of waiting. Both are loaded with potential, but while waiting is passive, pausing is always active. To hesitate, to think, to contemplate is to do nothing and everything. You arrest the flow, threaten a drastic shift, even if you end up resuming the course.

Q. Any reader can tell from your book that you are well read, I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why?

In terms of poetry, I just picked up Melody Paloma’s In Some Ways Dingo, which I’ve been looking forward to for a while, and I’m revisiting Bella Li’s Argosy and Monica Youn’s Blackacre.

I’m also in the middle of a couple of series: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan tetralogy and Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, both of which have been on my reading list for a while.

I was reading Patrick White’s The Vivisector, in an attempt to finish it before the Centre for Deep Reading’s White Out weekend, but work got in the way. So it’s back on the pile while I have another stab at Roberto Calasso. I got nowhere with The Ruin of Kasch, but I’m finding The Marriage of Cadmus of Harmony more rewarding, at least so far.

Q. I normally ask my subjects “what’s next” is there something you are working on that you can tell us about?”, however I’ll ask it this way, are you continuing to “write to forget” or are you now an “empty vessel”?

Writing to forget, always. Both in the sense that an idea or a line, once written, ceases to tap me on the shoulder and ask to be remembered, and in the sense that it then risks being erased from memory altogether. How often do you go back through a notebook and find that a thought you had that morning is the same as one you had four years ago? But writing is also thinking, and I’m always reading to remember, so the important things come back eventually.

At the moment I’m working on a poetry and poetics project called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, the title of which comes from a certain Chinese encyclopaedia uncovered by Jorge Luis Borges. In its distant pages, he writes, animals are not divided into mammals and fish and birds, but more creative categories like “those that belong to the emperor” and “those that have just broken the flower vase”. Each poem in my Heavenly Emporium corresponds to one of the encyclopaedia’s categories, proposing an Australian animal that could fit that particular classification.


Sydney Road Poems – Carmine Frascarelli PLUS bonus poet interview


Carmine Frascarelli’s collection “Sydney Road Poems” would have to be one of the most visually arresting, multi-layered collection of poems that I have encountered in the last few years. Shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Award, along with Stuart Barnes’ “Glasshouses”, Aden Rolfe’s “False Nostalgia” and Alison Whittaker’s “Lemons in the Chicken Wire”, I have been fortunate enough to have the poets answer my questions about their works, and today I bring you another amazing interview with an Australian poet, as always the responses follow my short views on the book and appear unedited below.

For non-Melbourne based people, Sydney Road is a busy stretch, that runs from the north of the city, towards Sydney, past the old gaol and has traditionally been an area for migrants, recently becoming “gentrified” and hipster.

Carmine Frascarelli has captured the history and make up of this interesting part of Melbourne through concrete poetry, visual layering, blended with historical documents, shapes and so much more. This book is not simply poetry, it is a work of art.

Covering the history of the road, from pre white settlement, through to chain gang constructions, gold rush traffic, migrant population, controversial war moments, to the present day tram trips, cars and multi-culturalism, this homage to an area of Melbourne is both compelling and educational.

The loss of history is marked from the opening poem “#1”, “we poke up & down this road,/ where the old prison & religions ran out // (the walk home) / Gentrified     no gentlemen / Hill side of the Green Field” . “#2” takes us back to the traditional owners and the possession of their land; “they drew a line on a sheet of paper  & here =, they’d pave a way  :  in    :  out    in order to settle / they would be unsettled”. Onto “1838” and the convict gang who commenced building the road, and then “1896” and religious riots.

The sense of time is portrayed through the use of now redundant language, “Bukko”, “Dagoes”, but it is not a collection that simply recreates a history of Melbourne, although there is the inclusion of the treatment of returning diggers, dissidents, women voters, the north of Melbourne becomes a microcosm of general society. Using the open (one sided) parenthesis throughout, the implication of a half finished story unsettles you on almost every page.

As it is impossible to quote a poem here without the visual layering, here is an example of one of the pages


A timeline of ownership of the original property called “Brunswick” (including subdivision), shows the fleeting existence, the passing of time, through layers, images and historical records.

The collection is not all visual, with poetic lines overlaying the present day with the historical, the activism peeping through, the current treatment of migrants becoming echoes of the past. This is a book all Melbourne residents should own, a collection that would resonate with many readers who live in the suburbs of Brunswick, Coburg and surrounds, a document that adds to the vibrancy of our city and through careful research and stunning presentation celebrates the multiculturalism that is weaved through our current time and place, without ignoring the traditional owners of the lands where we currently live.

Another brilliant collection from the Mary Gilmore Award list of 2017, again I thank the chair, Michael Farrell, and judges Ann Vickery and Justin Clemens for bringing these works to my attention.

As always, I would like to sincerely thank the poet, Carmine Frascarelli, for his time and honesty in answering my questions, I feel this is another dazzling interview to add to the collection I am slowly building here at Messenger’s Booker.

Q. One of the first things a reader notices is the visually stunning work you have constructed. I am sure there were many hurdles in getting a work like this to print, can you take me through the printing process, proof reading etc.?

It worked out much easier than expected. I was initially a bit worried with definite sympathies for the typesetter. I’d had a piece published in Rabbit before that had ‘visual’ text in it with some images as well and it got a slightly messed up with bits missing, a line repeated that I didn’t do, things out of whack etc. but Jess Wilkinson wasn’t fazed and had confidence in Megan Ellis, the new typesetter.

The first proof was great. With mostly minor things, and even the one bigger thing resolved easy enough (poem 26 had about 50 text boxes in it). I met with Megan and went through it all, I’m also a visual artist so conscious of the qualities text as a visual communication but in a very…I guess painterly way, so there was a lot of “up a bit” “down a bit” “left” “more” “more” “more” “go back” “can you get it as close to the edge as you can?…what?…let’s not worry what the printer’s gonna say” etc. Megan was great, patient, astute, knew what she was doing and had what looked like a professional computer.

I didn’t see the physical book until the launch. Some things shifted, namely the newspaper clippings which I wanted to haunt and pester around specific lines of mine. But no matter, I was (still am) more concerned with the bungled hurdles of how bad some of the poetry is than the visuals.

Q. Your collection opens with a stunning epigraph from Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”, an inspiration to stop and to dwell. How long did you allow Sydney Road to sit in your unconscious before the poems birth, crawling “like serpents from their cave”?

Sensitivity to the ideas of place and relationships to it (social place, cultural place, environmental place, historical etc.) has been with me since childhood. I think the migrant heritage plays a big part in that hyper-awareness. There’s both a strong sense of estrangement mixed with an overcompensating urge to prove yourself & belong, all complicated by the hypocrisy of “Australian” as a benevolent reliable macho identity founded on dispossession & displacement. Then, after getting a grip, seeing it change, and what you grasped at, shift. There’s an inherited chip on my shoulder.

Add to that my reading of travel books with author philosophical interludes; West’s Black lamb Grey Falcon & Henry Miller’s the Colossus of Maroussi, Hunter S. Thompson & Walter Benjamin, then William’s Paterson, Susan Howe’s Europe of Trusts, locally π.ο’s, Thalia’s & Jordie Albiston’s stuff,  then even more influential was Olson’s Maximus Poems, also seeing Fellini’s Roma as a teen, an unresolved need for exploring or atomising what person to place was, is,& could be, was waiting then just sort of gradually unleashed for my own entertainment & catharsis (as private relief & distraction during a troubled relationship combined with that chip on my shoulder) then gradually more serious until Jessica asked if I had anything for a book, I stopped having fun and did deeper research and thinking and made a book. But time from the first poem to the finished manuscript was about 18 months. Though there’s more poems I wanted to do. I sort of consider it incomplete.

Q. The newspaper reproductions add yet another layer to your work, quotes like “famous previously for bricks, pottery, mud and poverty” revealing another depth to the suburb. Can you explain a little about your research process?

The first stuff I wrote was from my immediate experiences and daily observations of the place with some influence of local knowledge. Then it slowly built. I was personally, instinctively curious about it all so there was no academic or scholarly impetus or method to any of it. Secondary sources: Laura Donati’s book Almost Pretty: A History of Sydney Road being the main one which led to stories & primary sources both in the Local History Room at Brunswick library and going through digitised newspapers on Trove. The staff at the library were very helpful too. They have excerpts from the Sands & McDougall Post Office records just for Brunswick from 1885 to 1970 listing tenants & property owners for Brunswick addresses. Saved me a heap of time & trouble & let a piece I really wanted to do & felt vital for the work (poem 26) finally happen.

Because it was for poetry not dissertation, I wasn’t concerned with finding or justifying a conclusive position. So, I tried to have fun and throw all these sources against & in with one another to test & challenge and see what it all may or may not mean.

Q. In your hands a walk down Sydney Road and the encounters made is a “cluttered” experience, “the ordeal a footpath”. Did this “concrete poetry” and shape and form come easily?

A sense of self, others, place and their histories, present & futures as interconnecting unpredictable improvisations. Yes! With shoes on my hands. Also, that was a bad proof read on my part “the ordeal of a footpath” should’ve been the line. Shit.

I consider myself instinctively a visual artist, but having said that my sketch books have lots of text in them. Abrupt annotations. Sometimes the best way I felt I could capture & express my reactions & thoughts is through diagrams or keep myself from interjecting as much as possible & just do a kind of textual frottage or bricolage.

The “concrete” aspect, I feel, can aid and enhance the ideas expressed. Like how the assured projection of a line or a path may either continue to head wherever or suddenly morph & avert to remain relevant & existent. Though I tried to employ it fluidly, organically, erratically more than architecturally. Not for novelty sake either. Which is why I loved Jessica’s work so much. It’s a valid & vital mode. Believe it or not I wasn’t interested in being experimental or too recondite & I didn’t want to write a poem about a mouldy banana in the visual form of a furry teacup either, for example.

Q. Pardon my ignorance, can you explain your use of “pe,ople” to me?

It’s a clumsy (mis)appropriation of something Melbourne poets Thalia & π.ο do, where they use mathematical commas to group letters like digits. “pe,ople” as opposed to “people” was to try and refer to people as a number, a bulk of data, objects, statistics more than a collection of poetic personifications of humanity. Not sure it works.

Q. The poem “1991” shows a forward thinking and forthright mentality by the council on the issues of the Gulf War and “Moslems” in general, are you proud of Brunswick Council’s stance at that time?

I think I’m too cynical to be proud. And I was too young then to really remember first-hand what things were like for Muslim Australians especially with Middle Eastern heritage. But it seemed like an impressive gesture by the council to act from principle and passionately reach out, represent and defend the locals especially considering Brunswick’s intense & mixed migrant heritage all experiencing that agitation I mentioned earlier. That was Romper Stomper time as well.

Q. Are we all just visitors here, the “t-shirt/the white kids with the black sky red earth sunned chests (pseudo – “sorry”s & crypto-“so what”s” ?

Visitors is a soft, evasive way of putting it. Hard for me to answer assuredly. Probably why I listed some of what we are with question marks in that poem. The whole book could be considered a response. As in visitors or guests or invaders or fugitives in a planetary sense? Cultural? Geographical? Mystical? I dunno. (Falsed roots brings false fruits (hello Matthew Hall)

Again, I’m cynical, or maybe naïve, I believe it’s more in a nuanced awareness & self-awareness & integrity of relationship to place & people that goes further than simply waving a flag or putting on a t-shirt. Anyone can do that. It can be distortive. Ethical complexities reduced to (moral) fashion and not much really changes. Token appeasement & mutable affiliations are sugar (bulls)hits. Genuine engagement with the issues lay elsewhere, maybe inwards. For all my gentrifications & lush-haired-clean-shaven-Roger Moore-ness, I’m a cagey wog at heart.

Q. Is non-fiction, historical, “metaphysical hysteria”, poetry a genre?

One may, perhaps, consider it a nomadic non-linear line of trans-ideological enquiry more than a genre my dear Sir. A mode of consciousness that meanders in the rift between my inherited peasant strand of defiant nihilism & my constructed bourgeois conceited aloofness. I think what I do could be  a hyper-judgmentalist projectivism maybe. It’s also a nod to Rachel Blau Duplessis’ “hysterical masculinities”.

Q. With references to Ezra Pound, Joseph Brodsky, Howlin’ Wolf (to name a few) you are obviously well read and a music lover. I ask all my interviewees this, what are you reading at the moment and why? And for yourself, what are you listening to and why?

(I’m thinking of Bill Hicks “watcha readin’……for?”)

My kitchen table is my desk/workbench. Currently stacked & sprawled across it are; the latest Rabbit Issue 21 along with Melody Paloma’s excellent book & Dave Drayton’s too. It’s all just so bloody bunny good. And what value! Flash Cove 4 & 5. I’m onto the second book of Rachel Blau Duplessis’ extraordinary Drafts which is becoming increasingly influential for me. Lionel Fogarty Selected Poems 1980-2017 (signed). Rosi Braedotti Transpositions. An old Japanese book with Japanese text (the photos are in Australian) a nice friend lent me about ceramics & tea bowls & the styles & traditions of glazing. Wabi sabi! That’s what I should have called “metaphysical hysteria”. I’ll just list the rest: The Essential Mary Midgley Reader; a stack of monographs: Soul of a Tree by George Nakashima; one on “prototypes, one-offs & design art furniture”; Robert Motherwell; Cy Twombly; Arte Povera; Yvonne Audette; Cy Twombly & Poussin; Cy Twombly Sculpture; Out of Hand: Materialising the Post digital & one called Post Digital Artisans.

Music’s always on. Music’s the best. I’m actually a failed musician. Howlin’ Wolf was a homage to my brother. I listen mostly to….jazz I guess. Everything from the 20’s to now. Mostly stimulated by the 50’s/60’s stuff. Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk etc. I play a lot of Melbourne band the Hoodangers too because they don’t perform live so much these days. I usually get New York bassist William Parker’s music when it comes out. At the moment Marc Ribot Requiem For What’s-His-Name is on. Recently purchased: Mary Halvorson Meltframe, Marc Ribot Rootless Cosmopolitans, Charlie Haden & Liberation Music Orchestra Time/Life & Archie Shepp Blasé.

Why? Short answer is for pleasure, inspiration & vindication. Knowing there is & has always been fervent nutters after my own soul existing & expressing.

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

I’m currently completing an Associate Degree in Furniture Design at RMIT. No idea what’ll come of it though. I’ve just had a short burst of writing so I hope to do a few submissions, which I haven’t really done for a while. Also, gradually working my way back through a stack of short poems I did as a kind of journal/daily medicine a few years ago during the mercurial relationship that spawned the Sydney Road stuff. Actually, the book started in that stack. Maybe someday I’ll coax & hoax another manuscript of it.


Hopefully I will round out the set of Mary Gilmore Award shortlisted, and highly commended poets, Claire Nashar’s “Lake” being highly commended, with an interview with Aden Rolfe, about his book “False Nostalgia”, in the coming weeks.

Deluxe Paperweight – Holly Isemonger PLUS bonus poet interview


A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Alison Whittaker about her Mary Gilmore shortlisted collection “Lemons in the Chicken Wire”, whilst we were communicating back and forth and finalising the interview the Judith Wright Poetry Prize winner was announced. Alison Whittaker’s poem “Many Girls White Linen” shared first place in that Prize with Holly Isemonger and her poem “OK cupid”.

The judges of the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, Jill Jones and Toby Fitch (stay tuned here I have a Jill Jones interview in the pipeline), said of Holly Isemonger’s poem;

‘OK cupid”…is a dark, post-digital love poem in which the words of three stanzas are recombined to tell a warper tale about the split-second decisions one makes in the world of online dating. The poem could be seen as a nocturne: the words rotate almost musically, but the recombinations also deconstruct the events within the poem. ‘OK cupid’ shows how repetition is really, in Gertrude Stein’s sense, insistence. (‘Overland Journal’ issue 226 p 28)

‘OK cupid’ can be read online here or better still support Australian writing and buy a copy of edition 226, or even better still subscribe.

Holly Isemonger’s “Deluxe Paperweight” was published last year, by Stale Objects Press, and is available to download here  (when at that page click on the word “link”)

Opening with a page of reviews of Lars Von Trier films, the collection engaged me from the off, as a filmgoer, who has both loved and loathed Lars Von Trier’s movies, Holly’s views on films “Breaking The Waves”, “Dancer In The Dark”, “Dogville”, “Melancholia” and “Nymphomaniac” brought my own experiences back to life;

Dancer in the Dark

Some reasonable people will love this film and others will despise it… but we are not reasonable… we have spent too long reading the little box that describes the art. We know the arc of tragedies, and musicals — we dread, so here we find ourselves with Bjork in the depths of hell. We raise our fists and look for Lars who has left. He is scooting away on the surface of this shallow film to the spiritual sequel, featuring Nazis, his mother, a communist and a swan that will leave him wondering how to get out of this sentence.

We then move into more formal psalms, onto images from iconic movies and then “Hip Shifts”, where repetition features again, the Tom Waits references bringing a broad smile to my face;

I am Tom Waits’ dumb teenage girlfriend.
We live in a shopping mall.
A car park surrounds our house
like a bruise. I drive.

Technology and the digital age is never far from Holly Isemonger’s work, manipulating an online translation tool to present the decay of language and meaning in “Free Online Translation Service”, an insight into the poet’s world where the essence of meaning is eroded by our current digital environment, the poem a stark reminder that text and language is ever shifting, faster and faster the more we utilise technology.

Finishing with “Failed Screenplays”, more images from art, film and the poet’s personal collection and then the questioning “Five Obstructions” the collection is a humorous as well as horrific take on our modern lives, when do we have time to simply live and love?

A further poem by Holly Isemonger was published earlier this week in the eChapbook “Tell Me Like You Mean It: New Poems from Young and Emerging Writers” – this online chapbook also featuring Alison Whittaker – you can access the book free here  and Holly Isemonger’s poem here a continuation of the “Sad Witch Psalms”, three which appear in “Deluxe Paperweight”;

museum incantation
let autumn crust the skin
on egg yolky afternoons
note hoe light leaks like
pus though windows
onto nudes burst the
culture blister only let
him touch u if u do him
the shit busker believes
you want him imagine
bob dylan is dead

Another young poet who is pushing the poetic boundaries and bringing a refreshing change to the flavour of the written word, to read a collection of poems that uses a raft of techniques to bring smiles to my face, and that questions the limits of language is an enjoyable exercise indeed. With recent recognition of her work, Holly Isemonger is a young poet to keep your eyes on, one that will challenge and amuse.

As always I would like to sincerely thank the poet for their time and honesty in answering my questions, Holly Isemonger being more than generous in her replies and time. I personally found this one of the more revealing and amusing interviews I have conducted and look forward to reading many more published works.

Over to the interview:

Q. Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson says, in his latest novel, “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?

Oh yeah for sure, unsettling is apt! I don’t ever set out to write things that are a bit gross, sad or creepy but those themes always seem to float to the top. I guess it says a lot about my psyche and interests?? Pleasure and repulsion are at the core of a lot of my poems but I don’t mean to write them like that. I guess it stems from the fact that I have an extremely ambivalent attitude toward poetry.

Some of my favourite poems convey both attraction and repulsion (with a certain sense of humour and wisdom) and I think those themes are particularly salient to people who identify as women. Too much can be made of the whole ‘hatred of poetry’ thing but I think there is something to it. To hate something, you have to respect it on a certain level. I love poetry, but it’s frustrating. I think my complicated feelings towards poetry is what makes me so interested in it… which perhaps says more about me than the form.

As for the quote you mentioned, I agree. Poems have a long history that is tied to the very nature of being human. There is a reason Ring Around the Rosie is still sung by children. It’s a form of play, it helps kids learn the rules of social interaction and teaches them about language- yet this is a song about the plague, but those sun drenched memories in pre-school and kindergarten are beautiful and they pass all too quickly- plus sometimes it’s v funny watching kids figure out language and coordination! So in this one nursery rhyme (which I would call a poem) you have this intersection that brings so many different elements of life together: humour, beauty, death, history etc. – plus there are the meditative and chant like qualities of poetry and rhyme. Combine all of these qualities and you have a précis of the human species. And I find that pretty unsettling! Like how in Jurassic Park the old dude has a fossilized mosquito caught in amber. To zoom out and see humans like that. It’s dark.

Q. Your Judith Wright winning poem “OK Cupid”, featured in the latest “Overland” Magazine (issue 226) uses a dating app as a subject, can the everyday be poetic?

Yeah this is my ongoing beef with poetry, it should reflect our everyday life! I think this is why lots of people don’t like poetry- it’s not that they don’t like poetry per say – it’s that they had to read a fuck tonne of Keats, Wordsworth etc. So people are like, ‘how does this relate my life? I have no time for this ivory tower bullshit.’

However, sometimes the idea of making poetry ‘relatable’ can be misconstrued. Ok Cupid is an ‘experimental’ poem, I used an exercise (or constraint) where I rearranged the words in three stanzas in three different combinations, but (I hope) it’s still relatable. Being relatable doesn’t mean that you that you can’t engage with form. We all spend a LOT of time manipulating text. Whether it is a text message, facebook, twitter or an email. Each medium demands a different kind of sentence or phrase. So poetry should engage with that process.

Reading NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! for the first time really made me understand how poetry, and particularly experimental poetry, is not an abstract academic idea. It opened up a whole new way of thinking about form, experimentation, history and subjectivity. AND it makes me SO angry that Kenneth Goldsmith is the go-to guy for “experimental” or “conceptual” poetry for many people.

Q. “Deluxe Paperweight’ opens with reviews of a number of Lars Von Trier’s films. He is seen as a “bad boy” of world cinema, and has said, “A film should be like a stone in your shoe”, are you poems “stones in shoes”? Are you the “bad girl” of Australian poetry? And, I have to ask this; did you watch the 5.5-hour Director’s cut of “Nymphomaniac” or the equally gruelling 4-hour version?

 I hope my poems are like a stones in shoes…I think. Or maybe like grit that slowly transforms into a pearl? I dunno, I lose all my jewelry anyway. It would certainly be an honour to be the “bad girl” of Aus poetry but realistically it’s more of a gang, or perhaps a coven. There are so many great poets pushing the form in Australia, like Emily Stewart, Alison Whittaker, Amelia Dale, Elena Gomez and Astrid Lorange- all have taught and inspired so many writers, artists and poets. And of course- the one and only Pam Brown! I don’t think Australian poetry would be where it’s at now if not for her, she is a huge inspiration to so many poets. If I could (and one day I hope I can) I would make her writing compulsory on every syllabus along with Ali Cobby Eckermann.

In regards to Lars, he is one really painful stone. Or maybe he’s like having an ulcer in your mouth but you keep touching it anyway because although it is a bit gross and painful it’s kinda satisfying? I don’t like that many of his films, and he is clearly a bit of a jerk, but I am glad (against my better judgment) that he and his films exist in the world.

And yes I did see the long version of Nymphomaniac at the movies. I liked the first half because it was fun, the girls were just trolling everyone and I loved it- and who doesn’t like to watch hot people root? But the second part was garbage: a woman who loves sex is crazy? And then she is slowly and gruelingly punished. It’s like- really? We’re still doing this?

But god bless Charlotte Gainsbourg, she’s such a trooper ❤ ❤

 Q. Your bleak imagery is also peppered with humour, “best buy your own beer”, or your acknowledgements containing the comment “and other stuff I can’t remember”, is it a fine balance between horror and humour?

 Well I’m glad you thought they were funny. I don’t really think about it, in general I have a pretty dry sense of humour and that seems to infect everything I write. Most of the writing I really love is a combination of comedy/melancholy (e.g. Lydia Davis, Russell Edson, Chelsey Minnis and Matthew Welton). Life is pretty funny – if sometimes painful- so I write poems like that.

Also, I wrote “and other stuff I can’t remember” because I literally couldn’t remember. I’m glad you found it amusing.

Also, Gone Girl was the best rom-com of 2014 and if u don’t agree I’ll see you in court 😉

 Q. Film obviously plays an important role in your life, with references to many classics, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Badlands, Chinatown just a few. Can you explain a little about your love of cinema?

 When I used to work at the local IGA in my home town I would ask every person who came through my checkout what their favourite movies were, I would keep a tally on the back of receipts and blue-tack them to my register. It was fun because I would have so many interesting conversations and bypass inane chats about the weather. It really opened up an unusual space for empathy, I met so many fascinating people with a wealth of knowledge about movies, books, life experience- I would have never had those conversations if I didn’t ask them about their favourite movies. If they came through my checkout and I just said ‘how are you’ I would have judged them, not in a bad way, but like: you are a dad, or mum, or grandmother or kid or a creepy guy from the RSL. And they probably would have done the same to me. Through this one question about movies, I learnt so much from a bunch of really wise and interesting people that I would never otherwise talked to. Don’t get me wrong there were still customers that were a pain in the ass, but most people were open and kind. That was a pretty formative period.

One shift, the people who owned the video shop (TOP VIDEO) next door came through my checkout and offered me a job there. Needless to say, I accepted. I adored that job. I compiled folders that had lists of all the different movies that had won awards, I wrote up little introductions to various directors and actors. I don’t think many people read them when they came into the shop. But it was fun nevertheless.

One of my favourite dick moves was when groups of women would come in to get a fun rom-com for a ‘ladies night’. They would hire stuff like My Best Friend’s Wedding, 27 Dresses, Runaway Bride etc. But people would often see Kirsten Dunst in a wedding dress on the cover of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (a movie about depression and the end of the world) and hire it thinking they were in for a delightful marriage plot. How I wish I could have witnessed their faces as Kirsten Dunst flees her wedding in a golf buggy and pisses on the green as the end of the world looms.

There are a million reasons to love movies but my passion for them came kinda late. It was through a subject at uni taught by the brilliant Sarah Attfield. I was introduced to films by Tarkovsky, Lars von Trier, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Agnes Varda, Claire Denis, Chris Marker, Wong Kar Wai, Tsai Ming-liang, Roy Andersson- and watching Elem Klimov’s brutal war film Come and See still haunts me. Discovering these filmmakers really changed the way I thought about film. (N.B I watch so much trash- all these fancy directors could indicate otherwise- I’m terrible).

I think there is a correlation between poetry and movies. What was such a revelation to me was that some movies- like Tarkovsky’s for example- make you think in a very unusual way, and I think it is the same way you think when you read poetry or look at a painting. If you think of novels as linear/horizontal thinking, reading a poem is a kind of vertical thinking. You don’t think about the forward motion of the story. You don’t process the content, sound, image and temporal qualities separately. It’s an experience where you hold all these elements in your head at once and the meaning comes from a spooky place at the back of your mind. I don’t know much about art but I am obsessed with Hunters in the Snow by Bruegel the Elder. There is something in all the layers of meaning, which operate simultaneously, that I find super unsettling. That painting turns up in Melancholia and Tarkovsky’s film Mirror, which also features a voiceover reading Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry. So it’s all linked I guess?!

I could bang on about movies forever but I’ll spare you!

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

 The last book I loved was Transit by Rachel Cusk. I have never read anything like it. There’s not much in the way of plot but she just examines the interactions that happen around her, and how people are accidentally cruel to each other. I think she is trying to figure out a different way of formulating what the ‘self’ is: it doesn’t come from within but it’s how you relate to the people around you. It’s cutting yet compassionate. The book is filled with a deep sense of wisdom. And besides that- it’s a delight to read!

At the moment I’m reading some feminist theory on horror films. It’s so weird to me that the genre is often perceived as a bro-ish genre (well, I thought of it like that) when it is, usually, quite literally about women overcoming all the awful shit that they have to deal with irl, but on an allegorical level. There is still a lot of annoying horror sexism stuff… but hey- beggars can’t be choosers and I love my female leads!

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

Hmmm. I’m just trying to figure out how to make this whole writing career thing work. And it’s kinda tricky. I’m working on getting a collection of poetry together. And I am trying to get a daily schedule together- I’m not sure which one is harder! Can someone give me a job where I get to talk about movies and literature? (CALLING YOU SBS & ABC IF TURNBULL HASN’T GUTTED YOU ALREADY).