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novel, coming seven years after his Australian/Vogel Literary Award winning “Birds of Passage” (the award is for an unpublished manuscript for writers under the age of 35).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

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“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….

Year of the Wasp – Joel Deane PLUS bonus poet interview

Wasp

The 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards and the 2016 Queensland Literary Awards both featured Joel Deane’s “Year of the Wasp” as a shortlisted title (the winners were Anthony Lawrence for “Headwaters” in the PM award and David Musgrave for “Anatomy of Voice” for the Qld Award), the book also winning the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize and making the John Bray Poetry Award shortlists. More remarkable is the fact that poet Joel Deane, at the young age of 42, had suffered a stroke in 2012. Previously a finalist for the Walkley Award and the Melbourne Prize for Literature, Joel Deane was an established writer at the time, with three books (one non-fiction and two fiction) and three collections of poetry to his name. As the back cover tells us, “Year of the Wasp” is a book about Joel Deane’s “battle to rediscover his poetic voice”, however I would like to add that it is also a story about the commitment of his wife to the poet’s recovery (more on that later).

The books is made up of three sections, “Year of the Wasp”, “Eight Views of Nowhere” and “Time’s Carrion Compass Course”. The first primarily focusing on Joel Deane’s stroke and subsequent hospitalisation. On page 2 Tithonus makes an appearance, drawn from Greek mythology Tithonus became a cricket, eternally living, but begging for death to overcome him.

It was foolish to hope. He prayed
               for rain but the heavens let fall
Tithonus instead,
                             whose every atom
was transfigured into a wasp. And
every wasp was born in fury
               and showered down and
                              stung and did not slake the thirst.

The first twenty-seven pages relaying the stroke, the trip in an ambulance, the hospital, the realisation of what has happened and of course the wasp;

                   The wasp
that was inside
                                the ward
is now inside
                   (his head)

Matching mythological characters, Tithonus, Icarus etc. with plagues of locusts and wasps the tragic event takes on Biblical and mythical proportions, this is not a simple revelation, an expected event. The setting of a dry mid Victorian country town adds to the effect of a disparate place, lonely and under attack. Effectively using the space on the page to create a sparse, deserted place, the marrying of environment and the gaps in the brain’s function are expertly sketched.

Section two, “Eight Views of Nowhere”, is where Joel Deane reflects on his place in the world, his relationship, his existential thoughts, his lot in life:

Contemplate her eight views of nowhere:
                     these eight views of myself
to which she made me an accessory.
Gaze unblinking into the mirrored,
reversed world of an extinction in progress,
a transfiguration from infinity to infirmary,
                    delusion to allusion, god to wasp.

In the final section Joel Deane takes on the political, as mentioned in the introduction Deane has been nominated for the Walkley Award, this is a yearly award for journalism. His book “Catch and Kill: The Politics of Power” was an insider’s account of the Labor Party’s run in state politics in Victoria in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. During this period of a powerful run in State politics, Joel Deane was speechwriter and press secretary for premier Steve Bracks. There is a poem with a political refrain;

Let us pilot a drone in Afghanistan from
a penny arcade in Anaheim.
Let is ride Magic Mountain until the trees
runout of leaves. Let us fly
under five thousand feet so
they can feel our engines humming,
hear the whiz of each and every M-69.
Let us explain that what we did was not Guernica
nor Bergen-Belsen nor Dresden,
was not war nor terror not crime
                   – just slaughter. Let us argue
at the Hague that the prisoners of Manus Island
are not people but haunted boke-zukin –
and that what is hidden beneath those hoods
is no longer human.

This is only a section of a much longer poem. The final section also explores his relationship with his wife, who has been his tower of strength throughout his ordeal. There are words of gratitude, words of appreciation, words of love.

This is a powerful collection of poems, where you can read the struggle to regain a language, where the finely crafted poems show meticulous work, a labour of love unfurls in front of you, you are imbued with gratitude that your everyday language remains, but at the same time you feel a wonder at the poet’s rediscovery of his voice.

For more about the book, including snippets of a number of reviews head to Joel Deane’s website 

As always I would like to thank the generosity of the poet in answering my questions, as always I hope the interview adds another layer to the collection as well as giving an insight into poetic practice. The interviews I have been conducting here have been extremely educational for myself and with over 30 different Australian poets now appearing at the blog I hope these short interviews help readers to discover poetry, new books and engage a little more with the art form.

Thank you very much to Joel Deane for making the time to answer my questions and for his patience as it took me five months to get to him after my initial request for an interview.

For interested readers, in his answers Joel Deane refers to a poem that was read at the anniversary of the Bourke Street attack, that poem can be read here .

Q. The out of control brain damage, from your stroke, is played out through the hospital scenes, but also through a wasp in your head, (“The wasp / that was inside / the ward/ is now inside / (his head)”), where do the marrying of the traumatic event and the wasp spawn from?

One morning, in the winter of 2012, I woke up, walked out the front door to fetch the newspaper and fell over. Couldn’t stand up. It felt as though the ground beneath me was a skateboard ramp. Later that morning, after a ride to Box Hill Hospital in an ambulance, I was told I’d had a stroke. There was no reason for the stroke. I was 42 years old and in good health. I didn’t think, “Why me?” My oldest daughter, Sophie, was born with Down syndrome and significant hearing loss, and one of the many things she’s taught me is that shit happens. What I did think about a great deal was, “What now?” I wasn’t sure to what degree I’d recover. Wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to write again. Wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to be a husband to my wife or a father to my children. That realisation led me to dwell on transfiguration; on becoming something else and, ultimately, becoming nothing. I also began to see things – animals, insects, elements – that both were and were not around me. It was as though the world was a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing. For instance, one night, lying in bed, I was sure that there was a wasp in the ward, doing flyovers, and I felt that I was the wasp. I internalised all that in the weeks after the stroke, then, over the next few years, found myself unable to write about that trauma. It took a few years for it all to come out again in poetry, and when it did I found myself constantly surprised by whatever word came next. I didn’t write Year of the Wasp. It wrote me.

Q. “The are of becoming nothing / is redaction:” do you see poetry as a way to fill in the gaps, ensure there is “a word printed // on the page”?
I don’t know if I have the words to describe what poetry is to me. I’ve always thought of poetry as using words to say that which is beyond words. I write, therefore, when I’m bewildered by the world and don’t know what to think, and the poetry that comes from that bewilderment helps me find a way. And, if I think the poems are good enough to make sense to someone else, I send them out into the world. They’re not a way to fill in the gaps, then; poems are much more important than the pages on which they are printed. Poems are alive. They have energy, they have force, they make things happen; and to tap into that all we have to do is internalise the words that have been wrested from the lives we live.

Q. You use space, blank areas, effectively, to stress the loss of a name, or of language or of memory. Can you explain a little about how you shape/form your poems?

Every poem has an ideal for, but it takes time to find that ideal form. Sometimes, especially if I’m working in traditional forms, that can be relatively straightforward. On other occasions, such as the Wasp poems, finding the ideal form can be as bewildering an experience as finding the right words. I wrote the Wasp poems in many different ways, and kept rewriting them until they looked and sounded and felt right. It was very labour intensive and intuitive. My previous collection, Magisterium, was different. On that occasion – and, again, I was writing to try to come to terms with the trauma of losing three children to miscarriages and a stillbirth – I used traditional forms to try to and force myself to make sense of things. That worked then, but, with Wasp, it didn’t. It took me years to get the poems right. To be honest, writing the poems was an obsessive process – and, yes, it was detrimental to my health.

Q. You’ve married trauma and poetics, can you explain the battle to rediscover your poetic voice?

Part of the problem with having the stroke was that I didn’t realise how fucked up I was for a few years. I came back from it like a maniac, insisting I was fine and that nothing had changed. My wife thought I was trying to kill myself and sent me to see a psychologist. That helped. Still, it took me two or three years to start to realise what I was blind to. In hindsight, the aftermath of the stroke was like driving on a freeway in heavy fog with the high-beam lights on. I thought I knew where I was driving, but all I could see was white. It wasn’t until the fog started to clear that the poems started to arrive. Some days are still foggy

Q. “Year of the Wasp” is a cycle of poems, a greater sum than the individual that you were reluctant to publish with the whole. How did you keep the motivation and the belief in the project going?

Writing the poems didn’t feel like a project. It felt like I was buried alive and was trying to find my way back up to the light. The writing was an act of desperation.

Q. The other memories in the third section, “Time’s Carrion Compass Course”, seem all the more vivid, a life rediscovered maybe, put against the trauma of section one, “Year of the Wasp”, are you still celebrating the “daily bread”?

“Time’s Carrion Compass Course” is the third and final section in the collection, and most of the poems in there were the last poems written for the collection. By then, I felt more fury than fear. The last poem, the one that has the line about the “daily bread”, was the very last poem written in the collection. It’s a love poem, addressed to my wife. By then, I was closer to the space I’m in now than the way I was at the beginning. The space I’m in now is simple: I’m grateful. Grateful to have people to love who love me, and determined to make the most of what I have while I have it.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, and a great reading list is building up by doing so, what are you reading at the moment and why?
I’m reading a lot of Irish poetry. That’s because I was lucky to win the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize and spend February and March in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It was a wonderful trip. I got to meet dozens of poets and am now reading their works. The quality of poetry coming out of Ireland and Northern Ireland is extraordinary. Here are a few of the collections I’m reading and rereading at the moment: On the Night Watch by Ciaran Carson, Bindweed by Mark Roper, Poems 19080-2015 by Michael O’Loughlin, Oils by Stephen Sexton, Foreign News by Aifric Mac Aodha, A Quarter of an Hour by Leanne O’Sullivan, Selected Poems 1978-1994 by Medbh McGuckian, Mountains for Breakfast by Geraldine Mitchell and Playing the Octopus by Mary O’Malley.

Q. Finally, another I normally ask all my subjects “what’s next” is there something you are working on that you can tell us about, will there be “happy endings”?

A clutch of poems have arrived in the past six months. Most of them were sparked by the death of my father. One of them was different. That poem, “January, 2017”, was written to mark the first anniversary of the Bourke Street attack when six people lost their lives. I’m also working on some fiction. I haven’t written a novel since the stroke, so I want to find out whether I can still climb that mountain. There are no happy endings, but, as the Wasp poems say, there can be “grace ephemeral” – and that’s enough for me.

 

Saudade – Suneeta Peres Da Costa

Saudade

I wondered what home may mean and what different routes one might take to get there.

Independent publisher Giramondo, has recently released two books in their “Shorts” collection, one titled “João”, a collection of sixty-four sonnets by John Mateer, the other a short novella, “Saudade”, by Suneeta Peres da Costa an Australian born author to parents of Goan origin.

This short work consists of eleven single paragraph chapters, runs to 114 pages, and is a coming-of-age story set in Angola, a colony about to move from Portuguese rule to independence. The cultural hybridity that I recently discussed with Asian-Australian poet Adam Aitken really comes to the fore in this novella with the protagonist narrator and her family being Goan immigrants in Angola. They had fled Goa, India, after the Indian “liberation” of the state from Portugal in December 1961. From one Portuguese colony that had been “liberated” to another which is now undergoing a similar fate.

Written in the first person, the book opens with childhood memories of a young girl and the simplicity of simply observing her mother, however there is a juxtaposition of fear, with the image of the dead walking backwards shimmering on the periphery. She is safe in her mother’s presence, but as a reader you know that fear and danger is always lurking in the shadows.

Told through the innocent eyes of a child the unsettling nature of being an exile in a land where you may soon be exiled is a wonderful balance of innocence and vulnerability.

I could hear them talking in lowered voices in Kimbundu. Ifigênia had been told to speak Portuguese in my company but she often forgot and spoke Kimbundu anyway. Though I could understand only a smattering, I found Kimbundu, with its spirited rhythms, beautiful. And if it did not occur to me that they may have been talking about me, this was less because of humility than beacause it has not yet dawned on me that Kimbundu might be the language, as I might be the source, of some of their plaints and grievances. When this became evident I might find Kimbundu a cacophony, at the first sound of which I would reach for pliable beeswax to stop up my ears! (pp 15-16)

Our narrator when young refuses to speak, but occasionally sings, and the awkwardness of being a single child, adoring of her mother, is beautifully presented through personal recollections and simply crisp language.

When the soldier had gone, her mother struck Inês across the face. Susana looked away ashamed and so did some others nearby, yet no one protested against this act of cruelty and little Inês herself seemed well acquainted with it; she only folded up her legs, rocked and murmured quietly to herself. I turned over the insight – those who hurt you may be the same who otherwise claimed to protect your interests and care for you – (pp 59-60)

A tale that has elements of domestic violence, fear, infidelity, but these are matter of fact events, part of our narrator’s make-up. It is the mother-daughter relationship that is more forefront here, even in the quote above it is not the shock of a domestically violent situation that comes home to roost with our young girl narrator but more the realisation that those who love you may also hurt you.

On the morning of my Crisma my mother braided my hair with moringa from the garden. She stood back after plaiting the buds into my hair and, congratulating herself on the work of art which I, lace dress, lace veil, and wearer of her well-tended blossoms had become, said see what a pretty girl I could be. The more often she said such things, the more I resented my sex and the awkward complications of my body. I looked with envy at boys my age, kicking footballs, able to go out late and return whenever they pleased, and swearing in the street. If I were a boy, I believed, I might escape all that those blossoms and my mother’s words seemed to prefigure… (p69)

The title of the novella, Saudade, means melancholy in Portuguese and it is through melancholic eyes that our protagonist views the end of colonial rule, with an innocence of youth and of being an immigrant.

Although short, this book opened up an understanding of Portuguese rule in Angola and Goa for me, it was only through reading this work that I spent some time reading more information about the political situations in those countries/states in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This is one of the beauties of reading fiction from many cultures, it expands my understanding of other diasporas, it opens my eyes to displacement and multi-culturalism from many different angles.

Congratulations have to go to Giaramondo for delving into the publication of shorter works, in the United Kingdom we have Peirene Press whose motto is “Two-hour books to be devoured in a single sitting: Literary cinema for those fatigued by film” and it is a welcome addition to Australian publishing to have a similar outlet here for smaller works, books that fit somewhere between a long short story and a novel.

A lingering work that may not answer the question of what routes need to be taken to get home, or what home may even mean – but you may need to read it to see if it does!!!

Archipelago & Notes on the River by Adam Aitken PLUS bonus poet interview

ArchipelagoAdam Aitken has been shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, more specifically the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, for his book “Archipelago”, the winner being announced on 30 April. He also has a chapbook, “Notes on the River” that has recently been published by Little Windows Press in Adelaide. You can buy the hand printed chapbook here, I suggest buying the collection of four books as the other writers are Jen Hadfield, Kathryn Hummel and the recipient of the 2017 Yale University’s Windham Campbell Prize Ali Cobby Eckermann, these chapbooks having a limited edition print run of only 111.

Adam Aitken’s “Archipelago” is a poet’s journey through France, an outsider observing the culture of another nation, however not purely as a tourist, more a world visitor observing the minutiae of small villages. The opening poem “Tributaries of the Seine” is rich with metaphor:

Hypothermic, I become obsessed with thermometers,
the way a red line rises, correlates, and falls
with the price of belief,
just like firewood, wool, or
fresh beetroot in summer…

This wonder of new surroundings, the connection to the environment is a theme throughout, with an underlying current of the human relationship hovering slightly out of view. You know the poet is travelling with a partner, and is staying in local’s house, however it is the connection to the place that always bubbles to the fore.

Using a harsh juxtaposition to inland Australia “Yuendemu” (sic) with dismantled chateaux’s looking different in the light “unseen in England or Australia”. And referencing Wollongong in “The Revenant” “a ghost looking over my shoulder”, the Australian is still not far from home. The passing through a foreign territory, it is an experience but one that is not the poet’s alone “- of the region – / of you and your territory” (from “Maruejols”) there are also the observations of others ways of life “These are mudflats of someone’s youth / small town genealogy…” (from “Tributaries Of The Seine”).

Very early on in the collection I found myself referencing the places on a map, following Adam Aitken’s journey, getting a sense of the places, and then delving further into information about the places (Google got a real workout as I worked through this collection, a plethora of places that I knew nothing about, their monuments, the architecture…)

Postcard

Chère Margaret,

Thank you for letting us stay so long.
Last night a bowl of water
froze overnight on the kitchen windowsill.
The digital thermometer I planted
seized in its small frost-frilled bowl.
A Siberian polar vortex
is putting us to death.
Mt Aigual is Raybans sharp in the alpine distance.
We have bought new wood
though it is green and won’t be usable till next year.
I am yet to cough up blood.
The other day I found a dead thrush in the letterbox.
I swept a few frozen comrades off the driveway.
Every day they are falling out of the sky.
Bud-sap of faux-spring in retreat
going back into the roots.
Much survives.
But not Danielle’s pintards
– they’ve all been plucked and eaten.
Young women in short skirts
are flagging down trucks
on the frosty road to Nimes
working hard, even in this weather.

A thank you note to the person whose house the poet is living in, a familiarity but at the same time anonymous and filled with calamity.

There is a poem where snippets of caught conversations at the Allicance Francaise are presented back to us, showing a cultural breadth and depth, all the time while attempting to learn French. There are also three ekphrastic poems, again I’m getting online looking at the artworks/photographs and getting a richer understanding of the artwork through the eyes of a poet.

LittleWindows

The chapbook “Notes on the River” uses a number of research style techniques and presents the Meekong, the fish and both sides of the banks, yet another cultural separation, another “border” that the poet has identified.

Both assured and environmentally connecting works, poems that have a real sense of place, vividly painting out a view for the reader to interpret, a poet moving through but a world weary one, a poet who has travelled far but still has much to learn and observe, and us as readers can learn plenty from him too.

Over to the interview. I am very grateful to yet another poet who has agreed to an interview and I hope these insights into the Australian poetic works demystify the art a little.

Q. You use a wonderful Geoffrey G. O’Brien quote to open “Maruejols”, ‘…begin / with reference to the territory…’, and your work has a real sense of ‘place’, but it is someone else’s ‘place’. After the immediacy of the connection to where you were did the poetic process take some time to gel or was it an instantaneous process that happened throughout your travels?

Adam: The places referred to in Archipelago are almost all in France. The collection grew out of a project I began when I was selected for the Keesing Studio in Paris in 2011. I wanted to write a book of poems that were responses to Europe and France, and to write back to Australian poets who had written about Europe, like Kenneth Slessor, Pam Brown, Martin Harrison and many others. Previous to this my poetry has been concerned with Sydney, Indonesia, Thailand, Central Australia and Hawai’i. I have been a travelling teacher and academic, but I prefer to stay in a place for long periods of time, so as to learn about it deeply.

Q. You were the Poet in Residence at the Keesing Studio in Paris, were these poems written whilst you were a resident or during another visit to France? Can you tell us a bit about your Residency, the travels themselves?

The Keesing Studio is in Central Paris is a rather imposing 60s complex. It’s rather a lonely place with hundred of rooms full of artists. The Australia Council sublet the Keesing Studio and offer a 6 month residency to Australian poets and other writers. After my term was up I stayed on for three months in the South of France, wintering in a small village called Maruejols. The change in context could not have been starker. In Maruejols I read the Romantic English poet John Clare and essays on the archaeology of the region. Maruejols has a population of about a 20 farmers. I was also learning French. My English mother-in-law literally lived in a farm house down the road, so many of yhe poems in Archipelago are about her life as an expatriate rural person.

Q. The book “Archipelago” contains three ekphrastic poems, can you talk a little about that process for you?

Adam: I studied Art and Fine Arts at uni and I’ve always been interested in describing visual art and am a keen photographer. I think I’ve been doing ekphrastics for a long time. I have certainly been a fan of the New York School of poems like Frank O’Hara and his poems about his friends, who were often painters. I also studied Auden’s Shield of Achilles, and Keats Ode on a Grecian Urn. I read about the New York photographer Alfred Steiglitz and was fascinated to learn about how much time he spent in a darkroom, and how he had waited for hours in a blizzard, just so he could photograph passing traffic in that atmosphere. I wrote the ekphrastic poems for a themed issue of Axon, a University of Canberra publication, and for a themed issue of Cordite. They were accepted and so I put them in Archipelago.  Les Wicks had also invited poets to write about a collection in the Manly Art Gallery, so I Ashton’s Notre Dame, as I had already been trying to write my own poems about Notre Dame (which are in Archipelago also). For a few months I had been walking past Notre Dame three times a week on my way to a French class, so it become part of my neighbourhood.

Q. In an article you wrote for “Southerly Journal” in 2013 you spoke about cultural hybridity and that theme is prominent in both of your collections. Can you explain that a little more in relation to these two books?

Adam: Actually Archipelago is my fifth collection. Are you referring to the memoir One Hundred Letters Home? All my writing refers to hybrid identity, as I my mother is Thai and my father was Anglo-Celtic. In the early 80s I spent some months living with my Thai family, and I became acutely aware of how I was Australian, but I also felt a bit Thai. I am fascinated by the experience of “being not one, but both”. this is not always a positive situation to be in, especially in societies that fear the ‘contamination’ of other cultures. But cultural hybridity is for me a normal part of modernity – especially in a multicultural society like Australia’s. it is no longer exotic to be Asian-Australian, but I still write with this in mind. With the memoir of my parents, the subject is their original attraction to each other, and their subsequent drifting apart. The “hybridity” could describe the way each influenced and changed the other, and how my father, especially, overcame a very Anglo-Celtic upbringing and came to appreciate Southeast Asian cultures. The story is also about my mother’s own story of becoming a ‘Europeanised” Asian migrant in London, and then in Australia.

Q. The title, “Archipelago” brings to my mind an extensive set of islands, are your poems travels at a micro-level and is that how the title came about?

Adam: Archipelago references geographic sets of islands, the nature of our fragmented sense of self, and also the philosophy of the French-Caribbean scholar Eduard Glissant. Glissant was interested in what we thought of as the origins of an archipelagic network of cultures. He thought about the centre of a culture, and about where it might evolve to. The archipelagic metaphor is also Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome – that cultures grow and spread laterally, with not central root systems or vertical power hierarchies. Archipelagos are often sets of linked cultures, but each part of that set is individualised, not homogenised. Empires have always sought to control their heterogeneous colonies, but people at the margins always influence the centre. Also, the archipelago on the cover is a photograph of a French cemetery map, Montmartre. The numbers are islands of the dead, each a tomb or grave of a celebrity who died in Paris. I thought it was a funny conceit to compare the map to an archipelago. On a deeper existential level I feel that an island is our subjectivity, and the network that connects us all depends on the poetics of ‘living together’. As Barthes ask: “Comment vivre ensemble?” – how do we live together, or how does it all come together? In 1976 Barthes was lecturing at the College de France, and his first lecture was about how to find the right distance between yourself and your neighbour? He invented the term the “idiorhythmy”  to refer to one’s own rhythm of life, a rhythm that allowed you to live with others. I have to say that my friend musician and naturalist Alex Chapman introduced me to the term.

Q. In “Notes On The River” we have separation, different tribes to the east and west, the left and right sides of the brain, do you see borders in every subject matter?

Adam: Yes, I tend to be analytical, and as a child I almost decided to become a biologist or a geologist. I love categorising things. The evolutionary tree of life fascinates me, as does anything to do with archaeological timelines. But also, I really think that my brain and thinking processes are quite clearly divided into intuitive and analytical. With my writing I think as a linguist and as a poet. I love grammar and studying narrative patterns. But I want poetry to have emotional impact.

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

Adam: I have been reading writing by George Saunders, Marguerite Duras (again), Joan Didion, and Helen Garner. They are all on my MA Writing subject which I teach at the University of Technology Sydney. I just finished a book of poems by the Polish writer Adam Zagajewski, and a novella by Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade. I am in the middle of Martin Edmond’s biography of New Zealand expatriates. There’s a ton of recent Australian poetry I am reading too, too many new volumes to mention. On the “theory” front I am about to read John Kinsella’s monograph on pastoral poetry Disclosed Poetics. The French experience brought me to a deeper contact with the land and with farming (in all its traditional and modern aspects) and ecology, and I hope to keep going with this subject when I go back to France later this year. John’s insights will be very inspiring I think

Q. Finally, another I normally ask all my subjects “what’s next” is there something you are working on that you can tell us about?”

Adam: I have a body of poems that didn’t make it into Archipelago because they didn’t fit the “place” constraints. I hope to bring them together for another collection. I will be spending a few months in France, in another village, and a very different one and far less rural, but still a village. I really want it to be a collective portrait of the people there, but also a kind of poetic treatment of the current social politics of that part of France. Unfortunately, the village is a bit right wing and suspicious of foreigners. I hope to understand that better, but also to uncover the less well known lives of the Algerian and Moroccan immigrant community who work in that region.