Flute of Milk – Susan Fealy PLUS bonus poet interview


Another massive thank you is in order, with poet Susan Fealy being very generous in her replies to my questions, I am slowly building up a nice little reference site of Australian poet interviews with the following poets all having recent works reviewed and being interviewed here (links on names are the links to the interviews):

Bruce Dawe 

David McCooey 

Alan Loney 

J. H. Crone

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Tina Giannoukos

Eileen Chong

Michael Farrell

If I can figure out a little more of the WordPress details I would like to set up a separate section on the blog featuring only the interviews with poets, bear with me whilst I learn to overcome my luddite tendencies.

To date the interviews have been with four male poets and four female poets and today I am now adding another female to the list, with more in the wings, and am very conscious of ensuring equal representation here, publishing numbers may not be equal, however I will do my upmost to ensure interviews and reviews are as gender balanced as possible.

Onto Susan Fealy’s debut work “Flute of Milk” another publication from the “poetry club” at the University of Western Australia Publishing, I have reviewed the first four releases from this collection and am now about to embark on the following six, and with another four due in May it appears I may be a little busy!!!

The collection opens with the ekphrastic “Made in Delft; after The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer”, a copy of the painting is here


(image courtesy of http://www.essentialvermeer.com/catalogue/milkmaid.html#.WOgcbtKGPIU )


“One can almost taste the milk/Escaping her jug.” Flowing perfectly to the title poem, “Flute of Milk”, which is a reference to John Banville’s novel “The Sea”, the opening two sentences of the novel reading;

They departed, the gods, on the day of the strange tide. All morning under a milky sky the waters in the bay had swelled and swelled, rising to unheard-of heights, the small waves creeping over parched sand that for years had known no wetting save for rain and lapping the very bases of the dunes.

And Fealy playing with the milky light;

Inside the dairy, washed so white
it approaches blue,
muslin-draped pans of milk
dream into their silence
and two steel milk-churns
(sentries in flat hats)
burn with white rosettes:
light held from the sun.
(from “Flute of Milk” p16)

This collection is a vibrant kaleidoscope of colours, whites, blues, “A paintbox:/a flock of parrots” (p20), reds and pinks of sunrise. With poems such as “A Confluence of Blues” – containing the Henri Matisse quote “A certain blue penetrates your soul” – celebrating the palette of colours in flowers, and the Brett Whiteley homage “For Cornflowers to Sing” celebrating his vivid use of blue.

The common thread being light and refraction, less shadows, more celebration of brightness, light, with the novels by John Banville, “The Sea” and Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping, two early references, both of those books containing light and the natural world as themes and threads.

A subtle collection, laced with metaphor;

crystalline as crème brûlée
and sometimes as acidic
as an ants’ nest undone by rain,

and sometimes as welcome
as the neighbour’s dog –
the one that meets you behind the fence
just as you reach your door.

(from “What Memory is Like” p 26)

And subtle readings, slow contemplative poems that linger long after the page has been turned;

A Poem

is close
to a musical instrument
It’s a place
to leave your fingers
and your lips.
A poem aches to be
a woodland flute
but is more a piano.
Some poems are conch shells,
familiar as bone
in your hands. A poem
gleams in the arc-light –
sparks from atolls in the dark.


Section two of the collection opens with a quote, the closing section, from Robert Hass’ short prose poem “A Story About the Body” (a copy can be read here),  The following poems then focus on the bees in that story, the danger that lurks beneath the surface, the collected detritus, the underlying truth.

This is a collection of light, “This whiteness assembles/only whiteness” (from “Southern Ice Porcelain” p68), colour and vibrancy,

The Wabi-sabi Storage Jar

It’s large enough to lair an animal.
Gravelled, rich-red, its slabs
Roughly rhyme around its opening.
One smooth black lip binds its craggy lip:
Night kisses a mountain.
It is pocked in sliver as if
Fire dragged its starlight to the surface:
A crime of green
Found a home here
When flame collided with clay.


Creation (porcelain and pottery) and the natural world (clay, plants and flowers). A sparkling array of poems, another welcome addition to the UWAP Poetry Club collection.

As always I thank the poet for making the time to answer my questions, and her honesty and in-depth replies. I have repeated the questions and answers verbatim, I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.

Q. Brett Whiteley is known for his vivid use of blue, and you capture that in “For Cornflowers To Sing”, the collection opens with a rendering of a Vermeer painting, is ekphrastic poetry an attraction for you?

I find that a poem arises when there are collisions between 1/ my internal world 2/attentiveness to the outside world 3/ an image or linguistic trigger. I have learnt that to produce a poem the experience of these collisions has to be immersive, and place me into an ambiguous space where tension between images, ideas and tonalities are worked through associatively. I write to help understand what I am experiencing and I write until I surprise myself. When the associations take a rhythmic, musical and structured form it can make a poem.

Ekphrastic poetry is an attraction because the visual arts place me into that immersive space quite readily. They also give an experience that has conceptual and sensual elements that are beyond my own understanding. Sometimes, I am filtering the aesthetic and seeking to grasp the creative energies that went into the making of the artefact. It might seem fanciful, but a deep engagement with a work of art approaches a radical intimacy. It can feel like I am engaging with the creative process of its maker. When I think about it, perhaps ekphrastic poetry is attractive to me because I mostly write in free verse and so the painting, photograph or other artefact provides a kind of container or boundary.

I find it fascinating that some art works produce an ekphrastic response, while others do not. I was lucky enough to attend Robin Hemley’s lecture on the ekphrastic essay (at the time, he was a visiting professor at RMIT university). He noted that creative writing in prose arrives to try and resolve the dysjunctions or ambiguities found in a painting or photograph. Locating these may be a necessary condition for utterance to arise but it does not seem sufficient as many works of art have mystery and complexity. I think poems only take off for me when the artwork resonates with my internal world.

Q. John Banville and Marilynne Robinson are just two references you use in section one, writers who play with light as a theme, something you’ve done throughout your collection. Why the attraction to refraction?

The recurrence of light and shadow may be a consequence of my imagist style and the fact that paintings and photographs have triggered poems. Light and shadow work with the painterly motifs of this collection but they also resonate with the exploration of hope and transcendence versus despair. Housekeeping and The Sea have ghosts that haunt the present and they are immersed in water and light; their immersive, haunted qualities help build the flow as it were.

Q. Robert Haas’ work “A Story About the Body”, which you quote to open section two of your book, can be interpreted in many ways, danger beneath the surface, underlying truth beneath a pretty veneer, being just two readings. What is your take on this poem and how has it influenced your work?

The power of this poem for me lies in its multiple meanings—each of which—mercurial, resist exact definition. I like the layers of the poem and the way the unresolved tensions charge it with electricity. I like its simple language and its interrogation of the human condition.  The meanings of the gesture from the spurned older woman spark with the meanings of the young man narrator receiving the gesture from a woman whose culture and aesthetic he is entranced by, but does not understand. But perhaps most of all what I like is how the poem hints at the possibilities for poetic language to contain and transform difficult experience. The poem buzzes with the sensual and the symbolic. It has the aliveness of her recent action and the shock of his response. The small blue bowl contains the allure and eroticism of rose petals, the history of her breast, the history of the erotic charge between them, and the sting of its dead, failed consummation. Numerous rose petals and numerous bees evoke the tactile and the swarm of her feeling. How different it would be ( as it were) if the small cultural artefact contained one of each! I aspire to write with such deceptive simplicity and charge. I chose an extract from this poem to open section two early in the development of the collection. It introduces the trope of bees and the ways in which artefacts might be containers, but it also alerts the reader to the allure and sting of relationships, and life cycles lived in the body.

Q. In “The Vase Imposes” you create the stillness, the meticulous preparation and the contemplation by the use of short lines and space. Is poetic “form” one of your more enjoyable pursuits?

The crafting of a poem always involves the working through of how best to yoke form and content. Yes, I do enjoy that process. When I began to write poetry I liked using traditional forms because they were reliable containers. I am less wedded to them now because I have found from experience that energy, strangeness and originality are more likely to arise when I let the page net the first draft.

Sometimes a poem finds its bones very quickly and often the structure of the line sets much of itself down in an early draft.  At times, I draw on Judith Beveridge’s advice to structure the poem in a number of different forms. It gives me distance and helps me apprehend what the poem is telling me it wants to be. When I wrote ‘The Vase Imposes’, it was clear from the beginning that the minimalist aesthetic of the Flower- Master and the tension of adopting its extremity was best conveyed by short, clipped lines and white space around small stanzas. The making of this poem meant working with the paradox of how simplicity is wrought from control. A control that suggests a kind of violence. The surprise of the poem for me was to see a link between the art form and the control of women in that era and culture.

Q. You end the collection with the poem “Writing with the Left Hand”, highlighting awkwardness, but also leaving the reader with a sense of personal honesty (“I will use the ink from my dead hand”). Was completing this collection a struggle, leaving such a large part of yourself on the page?

That is a really loaded question to ask a clinical psychologist! I have thought a lot about the relationship between the self and the artefact. I feel comfortable that by the time the poem has been shaped, it has become itself even if its genesis began with elements of lived experience or my imaginary life. I shaped the collection over a number of years and nearly all of these poems have been published elsewhere. By the time the collection was done it did not feel like I was leaving blood on the page.

‘Writing with the Left Hand’ was placed last in the collection for a number of reasons. The body and mortality are themes in part two. Blood is a liquid of our mortal body and of course I wanted to end the collection with flow. This poem flows into new possibilities but acknowledges that the rupture of change involves loss and this demands a kind of redress that paradoxically reconnects oneself with the past. I am glad that you sense the personal honesty in the poem. It was a classic case of seeking to write in a voice that is not one’s own becoming an accidental way of discovering insight into the self.

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

I like to really immerse in what I am reading, rather than skim over it on the way to something else. I read with the demand that it surprises me, moves me, challenges me spiritually and intellectually, offers me the possibility of being changed by what I read. I want to be jolted by language that is pushed to its limits. So, as you have asked me about what am I reading, and why, I will tell you about the work that is offering me, consistently, these kind of experiences.  I have returned to Peter Boyle’s magnificent translation of The Trees: Selected Poems 1967-2004 ( Salt, 2004) by the Venezuelan  poet Eugenio Montejo ( 1938-2008). Reading this poetry feels like walking through a cathedral of ancient trees while pierced to the quick by his profound insights into the human condition. These lines from the critic Perez quoted in the introduction by Miguel Gomes capture something essential about his work: ‘when we read his poetry we succumb to the sensation of being reached by the past, which has become a hidden aspect of the present, something we must uncover in order to restitute both memory and immediacy to their original state of communion.’

Jen Hadfield’s Nigh-No-Place (Bloodaxe, 2008) is a language of delight, verve and play that startles and invigorates. Even her brief poems contain whole worlds. Her subject is everyday lived experience in wild, cold climates and language itself. Her language is rich, deft, audacious, has something of Shakespeare and Hopkins. It is a radiant mix of the imaginative and scientific close-up observation.

In the wake of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s death I have returned to his Selected Poems (Penguin, 1962) translated by Peter Levi and Robin Milner-Gulland, and found video footage of him reading his work. It still leaves me breathless.

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

I am writing lineated poems interspersed with prose jottings. At this stage I am not sure where it will lead. I am happy to let it run its own course until I work out what it is telling me to do.

I have just finished my first review of an art exhibition ( O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism at Heide Museum of Modern Art). I decided to focus the review around ‘making’ and work towards an understanding of what modernism meant for each artist. I developed the review from responses to individual paintings because I trusted that this would provide a fresh response that I could shape. I had to keep in mind that the art world is not ready for a review written in verse! Seriously, I was never in danger of doing that, but I did learn that close observation and negative capability help to review an art exhibition just as they help to review a collection of poetry.

I have been rereading some of my early poems and reflecting on the fact that I write fewer overtly political poems. Making myself write a particular type of poem is a guaranteed way of making a failed poem but I want to think more about what political means in the context of the poem and be open to where this takes me.


Thanks again to Susan Fealy for her time and her wonderful replies. Coming up on the blog I have some questions with an “experimental” poet and am hoping to have this interview with you in the coming days too.


Border Security – Bruce Dawe PLUS bonus poet interview

BorderSecurityIt takes many types to make up the poetic landscape in Australia, and Bruce Dawe is one of the unique characters in that landscape.

His latest collection forms part of the University of Western Australia Publishing’s (‘UWAP’), Poetry Club, their first release being four books and all of them have been reviewed here. As per most of my recent Australian poetry reviews I have contacted the poet to conduct and interview and in Bruce Dawe’s case I was hoping to get an understanding from an ageing man about the progression of poetry in Australia over the last 60 or so years (Dawe was born in 1930) but my attempts at depth were in vain.

To start off with Bruce Dawe is, in his own words, “a PCP (pre-computer-person), so these answers will come courtesy of my wife, Liz” not the same person who receives a credit for typing in his collection “Border Security” (that’s Mary Coffey). He was also not that willing to share a whole lot, but I believe the simplicity and shortness of his replies gives an insight into his character and also into his poetry so I have chosen (as always) to publish my email interview verbatim.

The collection itself is not really my style of poetry with poems about Australian Rules Football matches “The Cup and The Lip”, walking the dog “Dog Heaven”, knitting, simply “Knitting”, or a poem titled “Considering Clouds on a Sunday Morning”, these examples, titles only show you that the collection has a very earthy, suburban, battler feel.

How do we sum up just how much we owe
To those who care for us when we are down,
When nights are long and days just come and go
And the sick body bids the spirit frown?
– taken from “Caring”

“Caring” the poem an “appreciation of my experience as a patient at Sunshine Coast Private Hospital, August 2008”

The least favourite of mine from the first four books in the Poetry Club collection, I can fully appreciate that there would be numerous Bruce Dawe fans out there who would relish a new collection, and can understand that this style of honest “battler” Aussie bloke poetry is something people appreciate. Unfortunately it’s not my thing. Therefore I will leave my comments short and head straight over to the interview – apologies for the curt, short replies

Q. You show that the everyday can be poetic, in this specific collection we have broad subjects such as an AFL match, walking the dogs, can you explain how you identify with something being poetic and how that translates into the urge to write?

I don’t ponder over the possibility of the poetic – I have never had a distinctive view of the term.

Q. Even though the title of this collection is from one poem, a number of your works contain “borders”, for example blocks of land, how did you choose the title of this collection?

Like most people, I see ‘borders’ everywhere in the world: social, political, personal. I watch the TV show Border Security regularly, aware of how often people seek to redefine or challenge borders.

Q. Rather than a sequence of poems this book appeared to me as a collection, how do you order the poems in a collection of this sort?

I don’t choose the final poems for a collection, believing I’m often ‘too close to the scene of the accident to be objective’ – I get a trusted (ie unbiased professional) friend to make the final choices.

Q. Referring to “Employment Problem” have your legs returned to employment?

‘Yes. The legs are okay again. Bursitis is slowing them up a bit, despite acupuncture.

Q. You’ve probably been asked this many times before, however I’m interested in your sequence of “careers”, how does one move from the RAAF to poetry?

I joined the RAAF because being a postman (on a walk round) took up a lot of the day (sorting at 6.00am, on the round until 10.30; back again at 2.00pm until 4.30pm…). What the RAAF gave me was time to study – not being much of a drinker. Uni study was a good discipline for me in my spare time.

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

I’m reading possible texts for my next U3A course – Mythology. I teach new texts every year, thus retaining most of my U3A students who are like a third family. I’ve taught U3A now for over twenty years, before that I taught for 20 years at tertiary level.

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

I’ve worked (over several years with a fellow dramatist) on various versions of my two political verse plays (published originally by Picaro Press): Blind Spots (Gillard/Rudd) and Kevin Almighty (guess who!).

As always I thank the poet for his time in answering my questions. I am hoping to run with an interview after approaching a more experimental poet in the coming weeks, stay tuned.

Star Struck – David McCooey PLUS bonus poet interview


The University of Western Australia Publishing (“UWAP”) has this week released six new poetry titles, the second release from their new “Poetry Club” imprint. Before I get to these titles I still have two from their October releases to look at, Bruce Dawe’s “Border Security” and David McCooey’s “Star Struck”.

A few months ago I looked at J.H. Crone’s “Our Lady of the Fence Post” and Alan Loney’s “Melbourne Journal: Notebooks 1998-2003”, both reviews also including interviews with the poets.

Today I have a wonderful extensive interview with David McCooey and thank him for the amazing effort he put into answering my questions, the full interview is at the end of this short review of his collection.

“Star Struck” opens, and closes, with “This Voice”, not forming part of the four sections of poems, these 2nd person poems act as parenthesies for the whole collection, the sounds of “phantom traffic, and the/enduring noise of a goods train” letting us know that the everyday noise drowns out our voices. Although the tone is isolating, removed, the reader knows that the singular multitude of voices throughout the collection are being amplified over the mundane.

Section 1 “Documents” opens with an epigraph from Renata Adler’s “Pitch Dark” (1983), advising us of the innocence of children, with the fifteen following poems, again using the second person, relaying the poet’s experiences whist in hospital for cardiac surgery. Clinically removed, the poems open with a family reality, the possibility of being entombed in a labyrinth, this juggles against childlike play where the realities of the impending critical surgery loom.

The human connection is brought home in “Music for Hospitals” and “Cardiac Ward Poetics” where numbered catalogues and lists suddenly move to “The Hunter” where the ‘male nurse’ shows photos on his phone. From “1. Hospital light, like any other/light is rarely ‘lemon coloured’” and “v) Everything happens at once;/a nurse with a needle;/the synaesthesia of breakfast.” to “ Then he turns to the other patient/who is sitting in bed in his striped pyjamas/and too far away to see anything./He holds the phone aloft like an offering/or a promise.”

“Second-Person”, although isolated, removed, explores the post-surgery rebirth, a new future:

Delivered by green-clad
medical staff to this place,

you enter the realm
of second-person singular,

a new you
to ghost the old,

the one on the other side
of a recalibrated life:

a body lying in
a bed, alive to

the homespun sounds of
each unprecedented sunrise.

Section 2, “Available Light” explores extremes, not simply light and dark, but man and woman, space and underworld, shouting and silence.

A collection peppered with literary references including Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”, Muriel Spark’s “Not to Disturb”, “The Takeover”, “Territorial Rights”, “The Driver’s Seat”, Tomas Transtömer’s “Selected Poems”, Roberto Bolaño and Georges Perec. Readers will be digging into their bookshelves with renewed vigour, looking for the references, and enjoying another reader’s view on them.

Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities uses a rigorous mathematical structure, and McCooey touches on these themes in his poem of the same name, also using the Oulipo approach to his poem “Georges Perec: A True Story”.

Section three, “Pastorals (Eighteen Dramatic Monologues)”, a collection of poems using pop culture, music (Mick and Bianca Jagger, Brian Eno, Tori Amos, Man at Work to name a few) as well as movies (Easy Rider). Who would have thought William Blake’s “Oothoon” could be compared to Kate Bush’s “Never For Ever” album?

The collection closes with “Two Nocturnal Tales”, with a Tove Jansson epigraph (from “The Summer Book”) these longer poems exploring romance, identity, the supernatural and, again, returning to the innocence of the child’s observations.

A very assured, enjoyable and varied collection, that contains a plethora of layers to explore.

Over to the interview I conducted with David McCooey via email, again I thank him very much for his time and efforts in putting together such extensive and interesting replies.

David Mccooey

February 2017

Q. Two poems titled “This Voice” act as parentheses to your collection, and the work contains a multitude of voices, for myself the use of the 2ndperson in these two poems creates a feeling of isolation, alienation. This also becomes very apparent in the opening section “Documents”. What is your attraction to multiple voices and forms of voice?

A. Yes, there are plenty of voices in Star Struck. The third section, ‘Pastorals’, is made up of dramatic monologues; that is, poems in which the speaker is not me. This was largely a reaction against writing autobiographical poetry, which I was getting a bit tired of. It was fun to pretend to be another character (including real people such as Joni Mitchell and Jim Morrison), and it allowed me to do things that I had never done before. It also allowed me to be a bit more expansive at times. By taking on a persona, I inevitably became more interested in narrative. My first book of poems, Blister Pack, is full of very short poems, but in Star Struck I struck out a bit more, and I enjoyed the prospect of a poem going past 20 lines!

But to get back to the use of the second-person address in ‘This Voice’ and ‘Documents’, I think there are a number of things going on there. In ‘This Voice’ I consciously wanted the use of second-person perspective to be alienating, and to undermine simple ideas of my poems simply expressing ‘my voice’ (whatever that is). In ‘Documents’, which is made up of poems that deal with my time in a cardiology ward and having surgery, I used the second-person because I didn’t want the poems to be too much about me. The poems are in part about the experiences (including some observations about the oddness of hospitals), rather than how I felt about those experiences. I wanted a sense of distance to avoid ‘confessional excess’, if I can call it that. Also, at some level, one does feel somewhat estranged from difficult or traumatic events as they happen to you. I guess I also wanted to put the reader in the position I was in, so that might account for the feeling of isolation that you mention.

Lastly, I am interested in the voice from a sonic point of view. My album of audio poetry (or ‘poetry soundtracks’), Outside Broadcast (2013), is in part a response to my frustration with the limitations of the poetry reading or the ‘straight’ recording of a poet reading her or his work. As in Star Struck, I wasn’t interested in my ‘real voice’ per se. Rather, I wanted to use audio technology (and music and sound design) to process, distort, and ‘stage’ my voice in ways otherwise impossible.

Q. When I interviewed Melbourne poet Michael Farrell about musical references in his work “Cocky’s Joy” he said “Pop music is a big part of the way I think about words/phrases, and to some extent poetic form…. I want to write equivalents of great songs – the feel as much as the form.” Reading section 3 of your collection, “Pastorals (Eighteen Dramatic Monologues)”, and with your musical background, I have a sense that you have a similar view. Is that correct?

A. Absolutely, though the poems in ‘Pastorals’ are mostly responses to my life-long immersion in popular music, rather than attempts to find a way of writing song-like poetry or to compete with the last 50 or 60 years of song. Many of the poems in ‘Pastorals’ are about finding a place somewhere between the lyric and narrative poetry. But in all cases, the song or musician evoked informs the imagery or architecture or concept of the poem. ‘Before and After Science: Brian Eno in Hospital’ is a good example; quite a few ‘tropes’ from Eno’s songs (as well as the liner notes from one of his records) inform that poem. I wanted it to be, perhaps, the poetic equivalent (impossible though that is) of Eno’s album, Before and After Science, which has been one of my favourites since I was 14.

Q. Who would have thought Roberto Bolaño writing about gazelles could be linked to Manus Island and Australia’s refugee policy, can you explain how you came up with that link?

A. The poem in question, ‘Election’, was written for Writing to the Wire, which was an anthology edited by Dan Disney and Kit Kelen. The anthology is a collection of poems about, and in some cases by, those seeking asylum in Australia. I very strongly wanted to be part of that project, but like a lot of poets, perhaps, I was struggling with writing a poem about such a charged political issue. My anger was making me inarticulate. I was re-reading Bolaño’s By Night in Chile, which is a short, powerful novel about how writers can and can’t write of, and against, repressive regimes, and how they can be complicit with those regimes. (Obviously, despite the contempt I feel for our current Federal government, they haven’t yet, thankfully, reached the criminal depths of Pinochet’s regime, but nevertheless, some of what is going on here is criminal in a literal sense.) Anyway, I came across the line about gazelles in Bolaño’s novel—‘We move like gazelles or the way gazelles move in a tiger’s dream’—and it seemed to open up a way of thinking about these things that retained the anger, but was also poetry. Of course, the epigraph (the translation of which is by the Australian translator and poet Chris Andrews) is the best thing about the poem.

Q. “’Whaling Station’ Redux” has vivid imagery and the story a child being shown the whaling industry as a “tour”, this is now too shocking too graphic to show a child. Is this simply a reflection of progress or a reflection of different generational sensibilities?

A. Hopefully it’s both. In 2017 it can sometimes be hard to think of progress, but it still shocks me to think that in the early 1970s it was considered acceptable for an operational whaling station to also be a tourist attraction. That’s profoundly shocking. And equally shocking is the fact that my parents thought that this was something appropriate to take their children to see. I have now written two poems about that experience, which suggests I have really struggled with the awfulness of that experience, in part (as you suggest) because of what it says about the assumptions people had in the past.

Q. You are obviously extremely well read with a large number of literary references throughout this collection (Italo Calvino, Muriel Spark, Tomas Transtömer, Georges Perec, Roberto Bolaño to name just a few), there is an attraction to the OulipoSchool, do you use any Oulipean constraints in your work? And I always ask this question, what are you currently reading and why?

A. Well, my day job is an academic in literature and writing, so I suppose it’s not surprising that writers and writing should feature in my poetry. But all literature, one way or another, is a response to other people’s writing. The writers who are named-checked in Star Struck are there because they fulfil a function in any given poem, though it’s true that they are all writers I admire a lot. Perhaps I’m trying to get a little bit of their magic by evoking their names. Evocation is an ancient poetic form of power, after all.

The Oulipo poem (‘Georges Perec: A True Story’) was another case of a writer fulfilling a function. I wanted to tell quite a banal domestic story, but I wanted to do it in an interesting way, so I simply gave each member of my family a letter (‘A’, ‘B’ etc). When I realised that my daughter, who now lives out of home, could be ‘E’ and therefore absent (like the missing ‘e’ in Perec’s lipogrammatic novel, La Dispiration, which was written entirely without the letter ‘e’), I thought that was a nice joke. It also seemed like a happy Oulipo outcome. But no, I don’t usually use constraints like an Oulipo writer would (though I am very interested in writing programmatically to a degree; that is, to have a project and write to it, rather than wait for ‘inspiration’, which I largely don’t believe in.)

I’ve just finished reading Rachel Cusk’s latest novel, Transit (2017), which is quite simply one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It’s one of those books that makes you think, ‘I’d happily give up writing’ if this is what one has to aspire to. I’ve also recently read Rod Jones’s first novel, Julia Paradise (1986), which is part of the Text Classics series. I was completely bowled over by that, too. I think Jones’s work breaks down the boundaries between prose fiction and poetry. I’m currently reading the Selected Poems of the New Zealand poet Jenny Bornholdt, whose work I admire enormously.

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

A. That’s a good question! I haven’t quite got into my next poetry book yet. I’ve written a few poems, but I’m not sure what shape a whole collection will take. Meanwhile, I’m finishing off my second album, which is called The Double. It isn’t audio poetry this time, but it does use samples of voices and some text-to-speech synthesis. I’m very interested in the way the spoken word—which isn’t a poem or rapping—can work within music. I think that interest comes out of my love of the complex soundtracks of movies, which mix together music, voices, and sounds. I love the observation by the French film director Robert Bresson, who writes the following in his Notes on the Cinematograph (1975, as translated by Jonathan Griffin): ‘The eye (in general) superficial, the ear profound and inventive. A locomotive’s whistle imprints in us a whole railway station’. That almost gets us back to the beginning, and talking about voices.



Melbourne Journal Notebooks: 1998-2003 – Alan Loney PLUS bonus poet interview


Earlier in the week I reviewed the debut poetry collection “Our Lady of the Fence Post” by J.H. Crone, a publication which forms part of a new initiative by UWAP (“University of Western Australia Publishing”), the “Poetry Club”. The Club was established last year “in response to the reductions in poetry publishing nationally”, with eight collections published each year, released as a set of four. Today I look at another book from that collection and feature another interview, this time with Alan Loney and his “Melbourne Journal : Notebooks 1998-2003”.

Last year Loney won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for his book “Crankhandle: Notebooks November 2010 – June 2012” (which I reviewed here), the third part in his notebook series, at that stage the second part was yet to be published, this work is that missing piece (Note I will review “Sidetracks: Notebooks 1976-1991” the first of the collection at some stage soon).

Very similar to “Crankhandle” this collection is a meditation on fragments, a collection of what appear to be scattered thoughts and contemplations, but rest assured, there is plenty going on one each page:

all my writing life I have regarded poetry as heightened language, in every way. I want the writing to be technically sound – no, better than that, I want it technically brilliant whatever one’s imperfections. Of course we get labelled ‘clever’, as if there is nothing else happening on the page. And decorum, always (page 8)

This quote forms part of the opening section “October 1998 – May 1999” which opens with “nothing’s familiar” (p8), Loney moving from New Zealand to Melbourne, part of his journey taking him to the country town of Daylesford:

/can you hear the quiet

/can you see the dark (p9)

These are statements, not questions, Loney playing with every fragment, each statement lingering on the page…in your mind…

Unlike “Crankhandle” this work contains a lot more detailed notes about the writing (and reading) process, the poetic form, his current reading, the qualities of printing and binding.

to what extent can one have access to deep cultural information without reading? Or, what access does the culture already provide to deep cultural information outside of reading? (p14)

Poems that form from statements, dipping into locations, roots, culture, native soil with possibly a hint of nostalgia…of jingoism? As you digest Loney’s “notes” (poems) a question about his sense of place comes to the fore, he is an “infinitesimal / flare / in / the / inconceivable / fire / of / creation” (p16), this statement broken up with each word appearing on a separate line. As always with Loney’s work the space on the page playing a role, but once you’ve read the words the form has changed, the space has vanished, and reading these works aloud it becomes altogether something else. You ask; is the “white page”…”a mirror to the self”? (p16)

Another feature is the open parenthesis, as a reader you are to muse on the gaps, the possibilities that are unsaid, unwritten.

Masterful in creation Loney’s background in printing shows through his appreciation of the printed form, as opposed to the written form on a screen. When you read the interview at the end of this post you will notice Loney has an opposition to his works appearing in electronic format, a whilst I was going to attempt a “review” without referring to any of his poetics, to give you a feel for what is happening on each page is impossible without some references.

Section II of the book “New Zealand, May 1999 – May 2001” opens with the epigraph “Grief keeps watch” (Maurice Blanchot) (p28) and muses on death and mortal existence, as well as alienation in one’s own territory, again a hint of the nostalgia coming through. Loney then returns to Melbourne in “May-December 2001” (p36) and a confession about the enormity of moving away from New Zealand. In 2002;

for a long time now I have wanted, at times desperately, to begin again. It’s impossible of course. But some kind of nostalgia for a beginning, a new beginning, as if I could clear the mind and start all over. As if the past was no more than a weight, not the accumulations of past experiences, thoughts, feelings, events etc, but simply a weight, a great stone slab on the back or shoulders one might simply throw off in a single shrug (p50)

As mentioned the written work, books, come in for Loney’s observations, as well do random people, are these observations or are they imaginings? Poems that are “experiments in manner, and thereby bad-mannered, improper” (p62)

“December 2002 – July 2003” reflects on ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry, Heart Sutra, Zen, Yamata no Orichi and includes Greek Sappho’s (and the space again leads to the question; “what’s missing?”).

The book closes with “New York London” journals “11 November – 7 December 2003”, the notebooks containing thoughts on the plane trip, the night time, the day time, the clouds, the reflections in windows, as the physical form of a book is a reflection of Loney’s thoughts, a collection of observances and awareness of current time and place, the periphery plays an important role, words are signs, as you read you are frequently outside of yourself.

Another wonderful revelation of Loney’s work, as was “Crankhandle” this is a book to be revisited many times, mulled over, these are jottings without an end.

I have become an unabashed fan of Loney’s work, also buying his novella “Anne of the Iron Door” and have been attempting to source his latest book “Beginnings” published in the United States by Otis Books but their distributor won’t send to Australia!!!

I know a number of followers of this blog who would adore Loney’s work, can I suggest you find one of his books, you will not be disappointed.

Again, I would like to thank Loney for taking the time to answer my questions, as per all of the poets who have been appearing here recently, I really appreciate their support and time. Hoping their replies are providing you with a nice reference site for understanding the poetic works in a little more detail, I’m hoping to expand on this feature over the coming year – stay tuned, more interviews to come.

Here are the unedited questions and answers from my email exchange with Alan Loney, as per his wishes, this interview is presented as he sent it to me, spacing, and line breaks all included.

Q. The “notebooks”, Sidetracks (’98), Melbourne Journal (’16) and

Crankhandle (’15), are, in your words, preparatory gestures, “on the

way to…”. Can you explain this concept a little more and how that

approach impacts the finished poems?

A. First, I think I should apologize if I gave the impression that the

Notebook pieces were ‘preparatory gestures’ – for me, part of the point

of the Notebooks is that each ‘piece’ is complete in itself. I’m aware

it is usual to think of notebooks or diaries being records of stray

notes, jottings, observations etc, that might later lead to finished

works, but I have never thought of the Notebooks in this way.

In this sense, the Notebooks are full of ‘finished poems’. The only

rider to this is that there are occasions when a piece in the Notebooks

has been incorporated into another larger work, and that has always

been the work of memory being triggered rather than any deliberate

compositional process from note to poem. There’s a wonderful precedent

in the Notebooks of Joseph Joubert (1754-1854, and translated by Paul

Auster). Auster writes : ‘At first, he looked upon these jottings as a

way to prepare himself for a larger, more systematic work, a great book

of philosophy that he dreamed he had it in him to write. As the years

passed, however, and the great project continued to elude him, he

slowly came to realise that the notebooks were an end in themselves’.

Q. Space is something that you use, your works created over a whole

page, the blank space having significance. I feel it becomes more

prominent in later years, do you think that is a fair assessment?

A. I think so, altho the question of space was critical in my first

book of poems, “The Bare Remembrance” (Caveman Press, Dunedin 1971). I

discovered space as a compositional process when I first read Charles

Olson’s “Maximus Poems” at the end of 1970. I had an initial

fascination with the formal mechanisms in e e cummings, but Olson

showed me that space could do two major things – 1) register how the

work was to be read, that is, what to sound, and when, somewhat like a

musical score, (or, if there’s a big space between words, then shut up

for that space), and 2) space, along with the open parenthesis,

permitted the introduction of new material into the poem by way of

juxtaposition (Pound had said somewhere that placing one thing beside

another thing can make a third thing) and Olson learned a lot from

Pound (in the Cantos) about the use of space. As I read my work aloud

very slowly, and in as neutral a fashion as possible, I can read the

spaces as I go – they also serve to allow a variety of reading options

– where to begin, where to continue, etc – in Crankhandle is the most

radical use of space I have come up with, I suspect.

Q.Your three “notebooks” have appeared under three different

publishers and not in sequential order. Can you explain why?

ANothing deliberate. Kent MacCarter had been asking me for some time

for work for the online Cordite Poetry publication, which I regularly

declined on the grounds that I had no interest in publishing online at

all – I write to see the work in a book, and my small experience of

publishing online in Jacket was not satisfying to me, so I decided not

to do it again. I did, however, send him “Crankhandle”, simply as an

index of what I was up to these days, but with a strict prohibition on

publishing any of it online. It was with this that he decided he wanted

to publish poetry in book form, and “Crankhandle” became one of the

first four Cordite Books. It was only after “Crankhandle” was

published, and the flurry of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards

had settled, that I sent “Melbourne Journal” to Terri-ann White at UWA

Publishing. There is a final work in the Notebooks, titled “Heidegger’s

bicycle”, which has just been accepted by Matthew McKenzie (son of the

great bibliographer and textual critic D F McKenzie, who also ran the

Wai-te-ata Press at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand

for many years). Matthew runs the Paekakariki Press at Walthamstowe,

England. “Heidegger’s bicycle” will be the last of the Notebooks for a

long time as my attention has now turned to a new and rather longer

work. As Don McKenzie has been one of my literary and printing heroes

for many decades, it’s fantastic for me that I will be printed

letterpress by Matthew.

 Q. Your move from New Zealand (Sidetracks 1976-1991) to Melbourne

(1998-2003) sees unease: Melbourne opens with the words “nothing’s

familiar”. Tell us a little more about the move.

A. In a small literary community like New Zealand’s, it’s very hard to

change one’s image in a field that has generally already decided who

and/or what you are. One problem that had been occurring to me in the

1990s was : How might I continue to grow as a writer when I had already

become something of a fixed identity in a small environment.

The answer came : move out, and Australia seemed to be a good place to

go. I knew other New Zealanders who had come here and did well, and

beyond the identities they had acquired in New Zealand. As it happened,

it was the best thing to do, and I have since been able to develop and

write things I would never have written if I had remained in New

Zealand. I also enjoyed the multiculturalism of Melbourne, as one who

has never identified with place or culture or class or ethnic

background at all. And yet it was true : nothing was familiar, even to

the sheer sound of the voices around me. If one was ‘at home’ in an

alien environment, then this was a great place to be. So, part of the

impetus of the early stages of “Melbourne Journal” was to register that

unfamiliarity so it stayed unfamiliar, yet it also became recognisable.

I have never had, and still do not have, any sense of ‘belonging’


Q. Traditionally printing is dear to your heart, however you have given

the art away, does that mean Gutenberg will no longer appear in your works?

A. Well, ‘many of my best friends are printers’ – and I will not

abandon the talking that we ordinarily do. I will occasionally teach

letterpress printing, certainly here and possibly  New Zealand. And the

book itself, as it says somewhere in “Melbourne Journal”, ‘remains an

issue’. I was a printer of poetry for forty years, and printing ink

still occupies my sense and senses, and while the printing press will

no longer figure in my activity, printing ink and paper remain deep

attractions for me. At this stage of my life, who knows what that

attraction will bring. But both for me and for the culture at large,

the Gutenbergian revolution is a long way from over.

Q. What are you currently reading and why?

A. I hope you will forgive me if I bypass this question. My life in

recent years, with Electio Editions, Codex Australia, and Verso

magazine, has meant I have had little or no time for reading at all.

Now that those three activities have come to a close, the question of

reading has become a serious matter, and I am still in process of

working it out. It’s not that I haven’t opened any books over this

time, but I have merely pecked at them, like the sparrows that haunt

our city cafés.

Q. Can you tell us what you are currently working on?

A. Two works. One, a long poem titled “The Unpermitted”, which will

occupy me for ‘the foreseeable future’. Two, a long prose work on an

aspect of  ‘the book’ which has come to interest me a great deal over

the last few years, and I expect this work to be completed by the end

of 2018.

Our Lady of the Fence Post – J.H. Crone PLUS bonus poet interview


This may sound like something from “The Twilight Zone”, the image of the Virgin Mary appearing in a fence post at Coogee Beach in Sydney, at a monument to the terrorist attacks in Bali, one year after the 9/11 attacks in New York, killing 202 people including 88 Australians. Yes we do things a little differently here in Australia – if you’re interested in the newsworthy event here is a link to a commercial news report of the time.

J.H. Crone’s “Our Lady of the Fence Post” debut poetry book is a “response” to the news reports. Taking the Marian apparition report, the documentary maker and poet, has created a collection of poems using part fact, part poetic licence to reflect on a range of political issues, the “war on terror”, the ingrained and ignored domestic violence, ISIS suicide bombings, terror cells in Australia, and a whole lot more.

A narrative sequence of poems, using a range of poetic forms (more on them later), the main players are; Joe, who paints the memorial, Mari who runs the local bakery and sells photographs of the apparition, Jesus (short for Maria de Jesus) who lost a son in the Bali bombings, and Mae the news reporter.

Jesus originally notices the apparition and points it out to Mari, and early in the collection we know that domestic violence is prevelant, even though ignored, in ‘Dough’ “Joe gave her the briny taste of a fat lip.” And in ‘An Odd Looking Sight’… “…she’s too full of grief to notice the tawdry,/mauve-rose bruise on Mari’s lip.”

Inherent racism is also simmering just below the surface, for overseas readers the East of Sydney was the scene of race riots in 2005, with the poem ‘The Silly Season” telling us “Squinter, towel-heads even/ crawling over Sunshine’s clean sand,/ looking to a post to save us./He’s not a racist, but who can say/ they’re not terrorists? Wogs should have/ never been let in this country.”

The feminist themes coming to the fore in the long poem “The Inquisition”, a verse exploring the Virgin Mary through many historical lenses;

…The more the
is elevated, the lower the status of women of ordinary birth.’

Feminist theologians discover that the ‘Virgin’ was given birth
by a Greek mistranslation of the Hebrew word
for girl. Yet, even as virgins,
we are not allowed to breathe
a homily to life.
Wearing dresses, you priest appropriate the female sex.
Mary’s rebirth at Sunshine Bay encourages our sex.
Trick of the light, or apparition, our words are freely given life.
Cardinals, tend your marble Virgins with bated breath!

As J.H. Crone explains later this narrative includes many poetic forms, the French triolet and rondelet and the English roundel, a Ghazal, a triple sestina (the poem quoted above “The Inquisition”). For the non-poetry readers here how about a short lesson to demystify three of those terms?

The French triolet:

The triolet is a short poem of eight lines with only two rhymes used throughout. The requirements of this fixed form are straightforward: the first line is repeated in the fourth and seventh lines; the second line is repeated in the final line; and only the first two end-words are used to complete the tight rhyme scheme. Thus, the poet writes only five original lines, giving the triolet a deceptively simple appearance: ABaAabAB, where capital letters indicate repeated lines. (Taken from Poets.org)

The sestina (triple is three of them)

The sestina is a complex form that achieves its often spectacular effects through intricate repetition…[a] thirty-nine-line form…[which] follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi. The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction. The form is as follows, where each numeral indicates the stanza position and the letters represent end-words:

    2. FAEBDC
    3. CFDABE
    4. ECBFAD
    5. DEACFB
    6. BDFECA
    7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

A poetry publication that not only uses multiple forms it also approaches multiple themes, from the role of females in the church, terrorism cells in Australia, the role of the media, sexism, racism, violence, this is a complex multitude to explore. J.H. Crone is throwing out bait, can you take the little enticement or is it worth awaiting a tastier titbit offered by the very next poem?

This debut publication forms part of a new initiative by UWAP (“University of Western Australia Publishing”), the “Poetry Club”, established last year “in response to the reductions in poetry publishing nationally”, with eight collections published each year, released as a set of four. I will review the others from the initial collection here also, hopefully including interviews with the poets.

J.H. Crone kindly answered my questions on the collection via email, as per all my “interviews” I publish these unedited, the questions and replies are below.

Q. The violence happens on many levels, domestic, Bali bombings, Cronulla riots, what attracted you to this theme?

I wanted to write about the changes that I saw happening in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and more generally across Australia during the crucial ‘war on terror’ period, which has played such an important role in shaping the ways Australians understand ourselves and our place in the world as well as producing ongoing crises or perceptions of crises in relation to terrorism both domestically and abroad. We are still living through the era shaped by those events. It seems clear to me that these aspect of violence and ideas about violence don’t only play out on the world stage. They affect people on domestic and psychological levels as well. For example, I don’t think it is an accident that women became worse off in terms of equal pay and lost funding for crucial services such as women’s refuges and single mothers pensions during the period that Australia was responding to the tragic events of 9/11 and the Bali bombing by idealizing the Anzac spirit and repackaging it in the form of the contemporary Australian identity. I wanted to make those links explicit.

Q. The voice of Joe is quite often a simple one with repeated messages, for example “The current whereabouts of the founder/of Al Qaeda is a mystery”. Why this technique for Joe?

I used the French triolet and rondelet and the English roundel forms for some poems in the book. The triolet and rondelet have three repeated lines and the roundel has a refrain repeated three times. Some of these poems are in Joe’s voice but some are in Mari, Mae and Professor Maire McCormack’s voices too. In addition the book has a ghazal written in Mari’s voice which repeats the refrain at the end of each couplet. There is also a triple sestina in which the word endings of the first stanza are repeated in every subsequent stanza in a prescribed order. So I think it is fair to say that the book as a whole includes a lot of repeated messages. Certainly the media is full of repetition. That said, it seems to me that every time a phrase or word is repeated it acquires a subtly different meaning and I find that aspect of repetition quite interesting.

Q. Although Mae is the journalist in this collection, the whole work has a journalistic feel, do you think that may come from your documentary background? Could you explain that a little more?

There is no doubt that my documentary background had a big influence on shaping the work. I did a lot of research and many of the themes and much of the language came from factual sources that I reworked in the poems.

Q. Mari, although beaten physically, and threatened for the Mary being a hoax, is no “victim”, to me she is the tower of strength. Was it your intention to make her the “backbone” of this work?

I am glad that you found Mari so engaging. Yes I agree that her story is the backbone of the narrative and I found her blend of skepticism about organized religion combined with her idiosyncratic ‘spiritual’ beliefs quite intriguing.

Q. You’ve used many forms here, sculpted, shaped poems, prose poems, refrains, every second line a different text, do you enjoy using numerous explorative forms?

I love playing with poetic form. In ‘Our Lady of the Fence Post’ I used quite a lot of structured forms but there is quite a lot of free verse too. In the early stages of writing the book I couldn’t write a poem unless I had a form to work it into. Now I am more interested in finding form within the syntax and structure of the poem.

Q. This work is essentially a narrative with main players, Joe, Mari, Mae, how did this concept take shape and what was the catalyst?

Initially I planned a documentary poem. But then I realized that in order to explore all the themes that I was interested in I would have to fictionalize the characters. Being released from the need to adhere to factual accuracy unleashed my imagination and allowed the work to acquire visionary elements that I hope readers will experience as psychologically authentic. I was also fascinated with the fact that religion had become so central to events in the world and I wanted to try to figure out why that had happened.

Q. As I ask all my interviewees, what are you currently reading and why?

I am reading the American poet Alan Dugan’s Poems Seven which is more or less his collected works. I heard of him through an essay by Louise Glück, the poet who I am writing my PhD thesis about. His poems are tough and spare and daring and he has a completely original voice.

Q. And finally, is there anything in the pipeline that you can tell us about?

I am working on some new poems, working with a composer on a musical theater adaptation of ‘Our Lady of the Fence Post’ and I have to finish my PhD!

I would like to thank J.H. Crone for spending the time answering my questions and wish her well with her PhD completion. Trusting you’ve enjoyed yet another poet interview.

Carrying The World – Maxine Beneba Clarke PLUS bonus poet interview


After reviewing and interviewing the collections from poets Eileen Chong and Tina Giannoukos, “Painting Red Orchids” and “Bull Days” respectively, I am now onto the final poetry collection from the shortlist of this year’s Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s “Carrying the World”.

At the end of this short review, I also have an interview with the poet, Maxine Beneba Clarke, about her work, and would like to thank her for taking the time in her very busy schedule to answer my questions.

Shortlisted for both the Non-Fiction Award, for “The Hate Race” and the poetry award for “Carrying The World”, Maxine Beneba Clarke has had an extremely busy 2016, with numerous appearances at writer’s festivals, including the opening address at the 2016 Melbourne Writer’s Festival, getting her books ready for US release and a whole lot more. Read on to find out what else she is currently working on…

“Carrying The World” is a collection of 38 poems, arranged in alphabetical order by title, although spanning a “decade-long international poetry career” (from the back cover) the poems are not dated and besides the short explanation on the cover the sequence is not discernable. This is not a distraction as these are very powerful works indeed, the title poem appearing early in the book and covering racism, self destruction, an eternity in a rocking chair;

the rocking chair strains
under weight of it all
the ole woman’s frail
but she’s carrying the world
as she knits one purl
she knit knits one purl

with the African diaspora never too far away, Delilah advising us;

delilah / nobody cared
what happened behind
closed doors / with the body
of a brute who can’t bleed
bruised against yours

a fierce black woman
beating your way forward
in a world made
for mythical white men

sick of swollen purple eyes
washing bloody fingerprints
from curved thighs / scared
but ready to try anything

In the long poem “demerara sugar” Maxine Beneba Clarke recounts an overseas trip, an education of her children through visiting relatives in England and taking the kids to the “international museum of slavery”, this is powerful poetry, not beat poetry, not simply slam poetry but unflinching protest poetry an investigation of her roots and then an unwavering presentation of the uncomfortable facts. In “disappeared” there is the tale of insignificance of a black kid dying;

the immigration minister
of the day / he said
these Sudanese
have a real problem
with integration

a black kid did not come home that day
and that was his eulogy offering

Here is a confronting collection by a writer who pulls no punches, even the white prejudice of children’s literature does not escape the poet’s ire, “fairytale” opening with;

the teacher reads snow white
in our fairytale
my daughter will scar herself
with household bleach tonight
crying mirror on the wall
erase this face as black as night

A collection that forces the reader to stop, think, reassess your prejudices,, to look through the poet’s eyes at the racisms, the privilege, a situation less published in Australian poetry, the land of white male bush balladeers, and Maxine Beneba Clarke still has hints of the iconic poetic motif, the great Australian landscape creeping in, even homage to indigenous songlines (from “marngrook”);

back when songlines hummed
a way through grey-gum
(which was not yet called grey-gum)

This is a wonderful collection that addresses a raft of issues, including homelessness, poverty, feminism and more all outside of the black celebration and protest, presented in a very readable and moving style. Not a capital letter to be seen, there are even poems about poetry;

poetry and i / we broke up last week
we just kind of grew apart
it wasn’t him / it was me

Another diverse collection on the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award shortlist and another worthy contender for the award. I would like to thank the poetry judges, Samah Sabawi, Emilie Zoey Baker, and Alicia Sometimes (convener) for presenting a wonderfully diverse collection of poets, all females from migrant backgrounds, but all very difference in style and approach, one of the better shortlists I have worked through in recent years.

Why this work should win the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize

Approachable, controversial, powerful and memorable, all components that could lead to winning the main gong, as well as being from the pen of a recently popular writer. Covering a decade ling period these works are multi-faceted and cover a raft of territory.

Why this work will not win the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize

With “The Hate Race” also up for the Non-Fiction Prize the judges may sway towards more “conventional” poetic works, and the polished firm writing of Chong or the esoteric sonnets of Giannoukos. This is a very hard shortlist to break down, all three works being worthy winners in their own right, all for very different reasons.

I interviewed Maxine Beneba Clarke via email, and the questions and answers are repeated here verbatim. Thanks again to all three poets for taking the time to be interviewed by myself, I will be awaiting the announcement of the winner on 31 January 2017 with bated breath.

Q. In ‘demerara sugar’ you write of opening old family wounds whilst exploring your roots (“don’t she know/there things we ole folks/don’t talk about”), memoir, whether poetic or through your book “The Hate Race” forces you to wrestle publicly with many demons. Can you highlight a few of your “yes/no” memoir moments?

A. I think there are two very distinct processes for a writer – the process of writing or creating the work, which is usually a very closed, very private act; and the publishing of the work, which puts the finished piece of art into the public domain and which usually requires the author to then engage with their own work in public.

As such, I don’t consider myself to be wrestling publicly with demons. By the time my non-fiction work (including my poetry) gets to the shelf, the artistic process is already long finished. With memoir (and the suite Demerara Sugar in my book Carrying The World is also memoir, even though it’s written in poetry), I feel it’s important to be open and as generous with experience as possible – even with things that don’t particularly cast you in a glowing light. Otherwise, what’s the story for?

Q. You must be immensely proud of being nominated for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, coming from handing out free poems “on the corner of gertrude and smith” in Fitzroy, not being a PhD bush man or a “working class hero”, you’ve broken the stereotypical poet’s image with your recognition. Besides the non-fiction listing too, I have a feeling your poetry shortlisting is special to you, can you tell us how you felt about the award listing?

A. Having been a publishing poet for a decade and a half, I’m particularly thrilled to be shortlisted for the 2017 VLPA for poetry. Poetry’s my first love, and always the first form I reach for. Attention to the sound and structure of words, and practice in the condensing and fracturing of language, is what’s made my fiction and non-fiction stronger.

Q. You’ve been extremely busy this year, with readings galore, opening night at the Melbourne Writers Festival, amongst the many appearances, do you find the role of spokeswoman on race, colour and African “diaspora” tiring? A mother as well I am shocked that you can find time to write! How do you juggle this workload?

A. For me, the impulse to write is almost like the impulse to breathe. I’m not precious about when and where I write. It can be on the back of a shopping docket in the supermarket line, on the fridge with a whiteboard marker while I’m making dinner, or at my laptop in my writing space. It’s much more difficult to negotiate public commitments than it is to find time to write at home.

I don’t really see myself as a spokesperson for the African diaspora. My experience, in terms of history, is pretty specific in that my family came to Australia from Africa via the Caribbean, then England. The African diaspora experience in Australia is so broad and varied. There are so many different stories that need to be told.

Q. What is next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about? What are you currently reading and why?

A. I’ve just finished collaborating on writing an adaptation of my memoir The Hate Race for stage at Malthouse theatre with Melbourne writer Erik Jensen. My reading list has been wedded to this collaboration: I re-read Jensen’s book Acute Misfortune (a biography of artist Adam Cullen), then read quite an extensive play list that included Jane Harrison’s Stolen, Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of the Craig Silvey novel Jasper Jones. It’s really exciting to be tackling yet another form, and also bringing the language of poetry and spoken word to the Australian mainstage.

Thanks again to the poets for their time, stay tuned for an interview with the winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2016 Sarah Holland-Batt.

Bull Days – Tina Giannoukos – PLUS bonus poet interview


Poet Tina Giannoukos has been extremely generous, allowing my intrusive questions and then providing detailed and enlightening answers. In my attempted review of her collection, “Bull Days”, I can’t do justice to her in-depth answers and explanations of her multi layered work, therefore I am presenting a simple short review. I think it is best you read right through this post and contemplate the poet’s answers below. You’ll learn a lot more from her than my humble self.

It is not often that contemporary Australian poetry throws a sonnet sequence your way, Tina Giannoukos’ “Bull Days” is a sequence of 58 sonnets. When the sonnet form is mentioned, I am sure quote a few of you will hark back to your schooling days and think Shakespeare and “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, beyond the fourteen lines, do you know a lot more about the sonnet? Let’s refer to the excellent “The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms” by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, and their explanation of the ‘sonnet’, given Tina Giannoukos has given an explanation of the history of the form in our interview, let’s jump straight to Stand and Boland’s “Contemporary Context”;

On one level, the sonnet suits our world. Despite the fact that its origins are in the formality and decorum of Italian court poetry, it has kept pace with some of the most important developments in modern poetry.
To start with it is short, easily comprehended and its historical structure still opens the way for living debate and subtle argument. One of the characteristics of recent poetic history, on both sides of the Atlantic, has been a tension between lyric and narrative. The sonnet is able to take its place in the debate: to suggest narrative progress through its sequence structure, while, in single units, it is capable of the essential lyric qualities of being musical, brief, and memorable.

I can assure you that we don’t need to only include “both sides of the Atlantic”, given this ephemeral collection by Tina Giannoukos, the form is alive and well here in Australia as well.

Each of the sonnets are numbered in roman numerals, and from the opening the metaphysical of creation, a fractured world born from the big bang;

The astrophysics of our encounter,
this dark energy of love, are unknown.
In a singular moment the explosion
that drove all things apart drove us too.

But don’t be fooled that this will be a simple sequence of sonnets, where love and creation are debated throughout, the alignment to the moon and stars is not only a romantic one here, as we learn in sonnet XXVI  “The woman knows the articulation:/ the heart is a murdering beast and then / the tired references to moon and stars / creep in.”

Using a multitude of voices, it is not clear if our poet is male, female, the lover the loved, clutching at the remnants of an emotional experience or letting them go. The argumentative form shifting each page we turn. In sonnet X our poet is surrendering;


I forget myself, forget I’m yours.
The body trembles in its urgency:
the promise and the vision I drink from.
I forget myself and she knows I will,
knows my hand will glide over flesh
with the urgency of a labour that will undo itself
with the passion of your entry
into this sphere of love and play.
My whisper is overheard, caught
on a breeze that blows itself out
before this heat of summer can undo me.
These breasts are honey to your eyes,
nipples harden as lips close around them.
This is the fire you want, the tremble you seek.

Two sonnets later the voice appears a mirror;


My body shakes off its paralysis.
I don’t care if I’m yours.
This is the promise and the vision.
My lover knows resistance.
Her hands glide over flesh.
This dyad cannot last.
I want to bar your entry, my fall
into this sphere of love and flesh.
I bow before this white heat.
Her breasts are honey to my eyes, nipples
harden as lips close around them.
This is the fire I want, the tremble I seek.
It’s too late, the time is past for
loving too loose to count as song or praise.

Many styles are used throughout the sequence, with the sense of urgency being brought home in sonnet VI, where no punctuation or capital letter are used, our poet blubbering whilst the subject has “a lover in every port”. This style is again used in XXV where “my love is one continuous take/no jump-cut no freeze-frame no edit”.

We have a bull speaking to the matador that’s in the process of slaughtering, this aligned to sex and adoration from his sweetheart, the sexual and slaughter combined, through to alternate line rhymes in XXIX, until the last two lines;

What insurance company sets its carriage
by the obfuscations of love or marriage?

Sonnet XXIII advises us “It is in contemplation that I know us best.” And with this collection it is through contemplation that you’ll get to know this poet best. A work that demands slow reading, multiple readings, revisiting and pondering, it is a complex work with many layers, many more questions raised than those answered, a work that contemplates love and its many shapes and forms.

Why this work should win the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize

Of the three collections shortlisted this is the most assured and detailed, with all 58 poems interlinked, as the poet says the poems “spill into each other” and therefore this is a more “complete” than the other two works. Using a traditional form, albeit in a contemporary context, “Bull Days” shows that Australian contemporary poetry can tackle the broader metaphysical themes, and is not simply a stage for “bush poetry”.

Why this work will not win the 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize

Is this too esoteric for a main gong? We do have a street poet, slam poet on the judging panel and will the more formal approach not appeal to those tastes? Only time will tell.

Over to the questions and answers – enjoy.

  1. Bull Days contains a sequence of 58 sonnets. Why the sonnet and the sonnet sequence in particular?

I have always been fascinated by the sonnet and in particular the sonnet sequence. I was lucky to study Italian at school. Although I don’t claim fluency in it, I am able to read poetry in Italian even if I have to use a dictionary. The sonnet originates in southern Italy in the 13th century, when Giacomo da Lentini invented this love poem of 14 lines. But it’s not until Petrarch takes up the form in the 14th century that its stronger possibilities materialise, including the philosophical. When I first read them, I found Petrarch’s sonnets to Laura in Il Canzoniere incredibly beautiful. A great edition of the Canzoniere is Mark Musa’s 1996 verse translation that also has the Italian text side by side. It’s the one I keep going back to. I enjoy Petrarch’s vernacular and Musa’s excellent translations. Much has been written about what Petrarch is doing in the sonnets. But we might say that in Western literature, the philosophical discussion of love begins with Plato while love poetry in antiquity reaches its apotheosis in Sappho. In Petrarch, Laura is idealized; there is this idea in the sonnet tradition that the beloved is in some way unavailable. I play with that in Bull Days. An important question to consider is how do women write in this tradition? The idealization of the woman begins with Dante in La Vita Nuova, when he writes of Beatrice: “Behold, a god stronger than I; who coming shall rule over me.” The Australian poet Gwen Harwood undoes the idealised female in “Suburban Sonnet”, when she writes: “Once she played/ for Rubinstein who yawned.”

The sonnet tradition that many English speakers are most familiar with is the Shakespearean or English sonnet. Shakespeare did not introduce the sonnet to England, but he did give us one of the most beautiful sonnet sequences in the English language. A famous modern sequence is Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets. Another equally fascinating sequence is Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, which read so freshly they may have been composed yesterday. Another amazing collection is Bernadette Mayer’s Sonnets, who says of the sonnet: “How serious notorious and public a form”. Over the centuries, the sonnet and the sonnet sequence have emerged as an extraordinary way to explore all sorts of questions, including philosophical, political, ethical, etc.

In Bull Days, I wanted to engage in this complex tradition of the sonnet in all its modes and the sonnet sequence in particular. I wanted to do so both on a thematic and formal level. Is there one or multiple lovers? Is there even a lover at all? Even the speaker’s identity is fluid. It’s not even clear that the speaker is always gendered female, in the sense that the speaker is multivoiced. There is a thread of a narrative, which does seem to imply a certain lover or lovers, though the narrative seems to digress down all sorts of byways. I also wanted to explore what possibilities there may be for love on a poetic as much as philosophic level this late in the tradition of love poetry. I do so by often ironising the question. Shakespeare himself ironised the idealised Petrarchan beloved in his witty “My Mistress’s eyes are nothing like the sun”. But I also wanted to ask post-everything, what place idealised emotions? In other words, what possibilities of connection are there in a fracturing or fractured world, a world that has become multiple? Post-Freud, post-everything, how might we write love? Bull Days is one way. It is replete with ironies. It refuses to resolve into one mode. But Bull Days is not only about love. This would be a reductive reading. Love is only one of its modes. It picks up on the philosophical, existential and ethical domains of the sonnet tradition to think of being more broadly. If our world is fracturing, so is the natural world. Sonnet XLVII highlights this in its closing line: “Mines, rigs, towns and roads engulf the tundra”. In its reflective modes, such as the bird poems or even within individual sonnets, Bull Days seeks to ask questions about our connection to the broader world. But these more reflective poems are also the speaker’s way of performing the necessary turning away from the other to be in their own space, which has not always been a space women have been allowed. These poems also speak of other longings, desires, griefs that do not necessarily pertain to the other.

  1. Is there any specific meaning in having LVIII (58) sonnets?

Given that poetry is a highly determined art, this is a good question. However, the short answer is no. The long answer is that as a poet one needs to know when a collection has achieved all it can possibly achieve. Any more poems would have been mere repetition of what has already been explored multiple times from different aspects and perspectives. This revisiting of themes from poem to poem is critical in Bull Days. It allows for interconnections between poems to emerge. In this sense, there is a creative reiteration of language, themes, and forms. In rejecting titles for the individual poems, I wanted poems to spill into each other. In this way, poems speak to each other, revisit each other, and open up form and subject matter for interrogation. Individual poems are suggestive of form, Shakespearean or Petrarchan, even as others mould to their particular theme. A related question is whether the sonnet has to have 14 lines and rhyme. Well, not necessarily. Working in a sequence especially allows for a great deal of play in this respect. Again, Bull Days deals in explorations, in the sense that individual poems call up the sonnet form only to deviate from expectation. Bull Days enacts the shifts and turns in relating, in being, in moving in and out of the world. It also complicates the question of what a sonnet is by having individual poems write their own poetics, which encourages the collection’s multiple ironies. In this sense, the oft-repeated notion that a sonnet has 14 lines and rhymes does not stand up to scrutiny in the long tradition of both the sonnet and the sonnet sequence.

  1. You use a lot of mythological metaphor, lyres & albatross, for example. Can you explain a little more about your use of metaphor?

In Bull Days, I wanted to do my own thing. I didn’t want to be contained by the conventions, as others have seen them, of the sonnet or the sonnet sequence. I wasn’t especially interested in producing perfectly carved imitations of what had gone before or what others might think the sonnet is. Nor did I want to reproduce others’ experimentations in the form. Yet from the beginning the sonnet and sonnet sequence have tended towards the complication of form and themes. Even the notion of 14 lines is questionable; many poets have played with line number. But they have also played with form in other ways. I often repeat a word across poems and within poems but with different effects. The poems in Bull Days are mimetic of their own particular themes: they enact on the level of form whatever is going on in their subject matter. The tradition of love poetry in Western poetry also predates the medieval period of Dante’s or Petrarch’s idealised lovers. I wanted to reach back before that into the Sapphic tradition, which I make explicit reference to in Sonnet XVIII: “Is this the Sapphic line? O Sweet! O Love!” By allowing myself to ignore the conventions, which have essentially settled into predictable patterns, I was able to draw in whatever I needed. In this respect, contemporary reworkings of the sonnet are very interesting. The consciousness in Bull Days is a contemporary one(s), exploring ways of being and of relating in a world of proliferating images, sounds, and liaisons. But our world is also a mirage of all that has gone before and may come again or rewrite itself anew.

  1. Your collection includes humour, irony; at times there are games being played with the reader, for example sonnet XXXI: “I’d like to write a poem in which guru / was in the first or second line.” Do you enjoy playing games with your readers?

I’m glad that you make reference to the collection’s various ironies. Bull Days is a serious investigation of its subject matter and form. But it’s also shot through with irony. The reader is invited into the play of the work. Sonnet XXXI is as much about the art of poem-making as it is about fractured relationships. To write is, at least to a certain extent, to aestheticize experience. Sonnet XXXI is indirectly commenting on this. To invite the reader into the play of the work is, among other things, to open up possibilities for the exploration of the “I”. Especially since the Romantics, we think of the lyrical “I” as being one and the same with the flesh and blood poet. In its ironies, Bull Days critiques this notion. To read autobiographically is to miss the sharper questions being posed by Bull Days: Who are we when we are in love? Are we ourselves, whatever that means, or some concoction of ourselves, a shadow self or selves? Who is the object(s) of our desire? Again, are they some version of our imagination? These are deeply philosophical questions. In refusing to answer these questions in any definitive way, Bull Days allows for the play of the conjectural and of the entry into the philosophical. Moreover, in its twists and turns, which also mimics those of the sonnet form, Bull Days enacts the conjectural, the contradictory, the ineffable.

  1. A tedious question I ask everyone as it can help create a wonderful reading list, what are you reading and why?

Actually, as a poet I am also highly influenced by music, film and art. I am still thinking about a performance I recently saw by the Chinese classical guitarist Xuefei Yang at the Melbourne Recital Centre. I’m also still thinking about John Olsen’s exhibition at the NGV’s Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square, his The You Beaut Country exhibition. I was fascinated by his journals; they seemed replete with a poetic sensibility. Bull Days is a sequence. My first book of poetry, In a Bigger City, was also a sequence. I love film. I often escape into film where sound and image also come together. I think the sequence and film share something. My reading ranges across languages. I am fluent in Modern Greek, so I enjoy reading contemporary Greek poets. Of course, I remain a big reader of Cavafy. When I lived and worked in China, I immersed myself in the sound of Mandarin Chinese. Once I understood how the language works orally, I fell in love with Beijing Opera. I enjoy reading Chines poets in translation. I am always reading Australian poets. I think there’s some amazing poetry being written in Australia. Currently, I’m reading Peter Boyle’s Apocrypha and Ghostspeaking. I’m also reading Antigone Kefala’s Fragments.I also read contemporary American poetry. One of my favourite works is the poetic memoir by Eleni Sikelianos of her father, The Book of Jon. In terms of memoir, another favourite of mine is the Australian writer Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land. I try to discover new poets in English translation all the time. I sometimes read a poet in both Greek and English translation. I find comparing translations across languages fascinating. I also read in theory and philosophy.

  1. What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

I’m always thinking about poetry. In the early stages of a work, I tend not to discuss it. It allows images, ideas, sounds to come without forcing them. There is a moment to talk about a work more formally, when some of its key images, ideas, sound structures have started to evolve. Of course, nothing is ever set in stone, so things always change.


Thanks again to Tina Giannoukos for being so open with her time and her answers and patient with my questions. I purchased my copy of “Bull Days” directly from the publisher from their webpage, here.