“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.

 

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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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

False Claims of Colonial Thieves – Charmaine Papertalk Green & John Kinsella PLUS bonus interviews with both poets

Colonial

It has been quite a few months since I last published a poet interview here, however I have been working away in the background at getting a few new ones for you. Today I have two poets, the recent release being a collaborative effort.

The first thing that strikes you about “False Claims of Colonial Thieves”, a new release from Magabala books, is the striking cover. It is a collaborative artwork by Charmaine Papertalk Green (one of the two poets) and Mark Smith. As advised in the book itself;

This print tells the story of Geraldton’s foundation around colonialism and its impact on the First Peoples – the Wilunyu of the Yamaji Nation. Colonial structures built on traditional campsites, forced the traditional occupiers out of their long held space to become onlookers of where they once lived – sang, slept, ate, danced and yarned. Colonial and contemporary structures only hide the surface but not the memory or connection of Yamajii to their land, 2016.

A powerful statement and one that ideally sets up this important confronting book.

Poets Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella are in conversation throughout this work, coming from two completely different perspectives, Charmaine Papertalk Green the traditional owner voice, John Kinsella the voice of the whitefella. The prologue contains two short poems, one by each poet, with John Kinsella talking of mining companies “filling the holes they make in country with propaganda” and Charmaine Papertalk Green telling us “If environmental scientists say so/water comes from a plastic bottle”. If the cover, and explanation, alone is not enough to set up the depth and subject matter of this book, then the opening two poems surely let you know. Here is poets response to mining companies funding environmental scientists and their reports, funding education to fill the minds of future generations with mining messages all the time forgetting “country”, the very land they are exploiting.

Yes this is also a dedication to country, a book that comes at man’s relationship with nature from two very different perspectives, the Traditional Owner, First Nation perspective where the “country” is part of their make up their very fibre, as opposed to the invader perspective of it being “land” a place to use. Although John Kinsella has always been a poet deeply rooted in the natural world, so his “whitefella” view is not exploitative, more appreciative and in awe of his surroundings, you still get a view from two angles.

For a reader who has spent time in remote Aboriginal communities, who has set up a charitable event to raise funds for the retention of Aboriginal women’s law and culture, I have an understanding of the elements at play here. As a result I found the this an emotionally tiring work, draining as I became more and more outraged;

Balu winja barna real winja
Real old ones them ones
Man is a greedy monster
Interfering to satisfy self
Pulling old ones to surface
Birthing a dangerous little boy
Naming after a god and
Worshiping like a god
For the warfare toys of
Other little boys worldwide
Energy, power, death, destruction and money
Uranium is safe in the earth
Like a sleeping Elder

(from “Undermining 2.” By Charmaine Papertalk Green p2)

This is confrontational poetry from both sides of the fence, we have First Nationas people selling their country, selling their kids dreaming, for a “car four wheel drive car” and then pretend “owners” who have stolen the land. We have bashings, protecting the names of people from the police as there is a knowledge that any blackfella naming will end violently for the people involved (ie. They will be bashed by the police), growing up rough…

We have John Kinsella taking a more celebratory approach of the riches of the land, the flora and fauna, at times a chemical, educational view (especially when it comes to the impact of salt on waterways), whereas Charmaine Papertalk Green has more of a connected view of her country,, more immediacy, “right here on this land right here”.

The controversial, and hidden subject matter, is confronted head-on here, the reality of slave labour on Rottnest Island (Wadjemup) and how it should now be a memorial site not a holiday attraction is one of the subjects brought into play.

Two balanced voices addressing the same subject from two different points of view, as the work progresses you see a connection transpire, a mutual understanding, the commonality bringing an element of “reconciliation” to the book.

Although confrontational this is a powerful, important, and revealing book. Australia’s dark past is not sugar coated here, a work I hope gets overseas traction.

Over to the interviews, as always I am very grateful to the poets for their time and their honesty. I hope this brings a little more understanding of the creative process and the poems themselves.

Charmaine Papertalk Green

Q. “Mass Rock is not my significant site”, is the refrain in “No other road”, can you tell us a little about your significant sites?

A. Mass Rock was named by religious sector of society and the name continues to be privileged today disregarding the  Yamaji space in  which it  sits.  The space in which it sits  is the historical campsite  of my people – a historical site of significance  where families lived and  ceremonies were held   .  This is the significance of the site not that a catholic priest came on horse back to preach  to a group of Yamaji who had to live on the outskirts of a township.

Q. “Don’t want me to talk” is about you having a voice but we don’t listen. Do you feel poetry gives you a stronger voice?

A. I have a strong voice and poetry adds to this strength . The problem is not my voice or the strength of it but rather that Australia either has selective hearing , is deaf or has a certain level of amnesia when it comes to the First Nations people of Australia.

Q. The retention of culture is a strong theme throughout your work. A culture that is 40,000+ year’s old but has taken a blow in the last 200 years. I see a resurgent awareness of the importance of Aboriginal culture happening, do you see a bright future for the retention of your cultural practices, or is it more “still invisible”?

A. First Nation peoples are very resilient people to have survived everything that has happened to the many nations across Australia since the time of Invasion . The process of colonisation has not been  and is not kind to the  First Nations people of this country – especially in devaluing our culture, continual denial of our cultural worth  and attempting to continually  erase our knowledge systems.  The Yamaji cultural practices have felt the brutal  force of colonisation and assimilation yet we have survived as a people even though the many contemporary colonial structures in my region continue a process

Q. As part of this project there would have been a large time reflecting, recalling your youth, was there anything that surprised you, that you thought you’d forgotten?

A. I am in a continual process of recall of my formative years which of course includes my youth. As a young female Aboriginal growing up in Mullewa my youth was quite difficult in some ways and then not so in others .  Recall is so important in telling our stories and sharing what we need to or want to share.  There are things I want to forgot but remain part of my story so there is always a form of tension in this storytelling.

Q. Two distinct poetic identities “in response” would have been difficult project to be involved in, could you share a little about the process for writing this book, what did you learn through this process?

A. I think this process emerged organically through conversation over a 10 year period . I learnt through this process John is genuine in his interest in the protection of country/land  and the position of  Australia First Nations people  and for a better Australian Society .  I would not have got involved in this project  if this was not the case – please dont call it an experiment as I think one reviewer did it was a genuine conversation process  between two poets .

Q. As I ask all my interviewees, as it has given me, and readers a wonderful reading list, can you tell us what you are reading right now and why?

A. Right now I am reading Ali Coby Eckermann Too Afraid to Cry 2012 and Lionel G. Fogarty Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Mobo Mobo ( Future) 2014 simply because I love their words and storytelling .

Q. Finally, what are you currently working on, is it something you can tell us about?

A. I am currently working on a manuscript around mother-daughter letters – I am responding to letters my mother wrote to me when I was going to school in Perth in 1978=1979

John Kinsella

Q. When you return to Geraldton to what part of you is there, you “rest in a dry creek bed/and listen to their river gums” amongst several connections to the natural world, and your work is always grounded in the environment. Have you always had this “nature” connection?

A. Yes, it goes to the core of all my responses to the outside world, and likely my interior world as well. I can’t separate off from the natural world, and don’t want to. That doesn’t mean I necessarily comprehend the natural world, but I try to be respectful to it — to observe closely, to learn.

Q. A lot of your poems are about travelling throughout the west, with white man’s interference a constant. You appear as having a restless past, is that a fair assumption?

A. Yes, I struggled with many years of alcoholism and addiction. I have been sober now for twenty-three years and am grateful for it. However, my distress at ongoing colonisation, at a lack of adequate actual material response to the theft of Aboriginal lands, is more relevant to my restlessness. I acknowledge I am part of the problem, and wish to contribute towards fixing the problem.

Q. Through many relationships with the First Nation’s peoples over many years, do you think there is a recent change towards accepting traditional cultural practices, is the future looking brighter or is it “still invisible”?

A. I hope there is — and I hope there’s a realisation that Aboriginal people define their own practice in whatever form it might take. Non-Aboriginal people have no right (in any capacity) to tell or even suggest what is right to/for Aboriginal people. I listen and learn. There’s nothing else I can say outside my absolute commitment to learn (and to keep learning) how to respect. I should also add, Aboriginal knowledges are intense and massive — all the sciences all the arts all the skills are in their knowing. Listen, experience, learn, if you are offered the opportunity. Never take this learning for granted, but be grateful if it comes your way.

Q. As part of this project there would have been a large time reflecting, recalling your youth, was there anything that surprised you, that you thought you’d forgotten?

A. Interesting question! Yes, I think you get to one of the most vital threads of the writing process – to reveal those bits of ourselves we have left behind or even closed over. Maybe I didn’t recall things I’d forgotten, but I did reconsider and consequently — I hope — better understand what had happened in my past at salient points (to my mind).

Q. Two distinct poetic identities “in response” would have been difficult project to be involved in, could you share a little about the process for writing this book, what did you learn through this process?

A. It was a sharing process. A process of exchange. Of swapping stories and experiences and finding a way of talking out of those stories and experiences. ‘Larger’ pictures developed as we built the layers of our stories, finding overlaps and digressions, working towards a common purpose of speaking out about injustice (and justice) regarding country. I needed to hear, I needed to learn. When talking of family we found such different experiences — different experiences wrought (and imposed) by the wrongs of colonialism. How to we address these issues? I think we found some ways over many many years. We had purpose and we needed to speak together then out loud to others.

Q. As I ask all my interviewees, as it has given me, and readers a wonderful reading list, can you tell us what you are reading right now and why?

A. I am rereading the earlier novels of Ursula Le Guin, not because of her recent death, but because they were so formative for me in my teenage years and were part of my strong growing awareness of anarchism around the age of sixteen/seventeen. I am also (re)reading the poetry of Rita Dove with whom I am co-editing an activist issue of The Kenyon Review. And slowly remaking my way (again and again) through Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason – to undo the things I want to undo, it’s a useful text!

Q. Finally, what are you currently working on, is it something you can tell us about?

A. A long poem against the arms industry — I despise what the federal government is attempting to do regarding turning Australia into a ‘top ten’ arms exporter. I resist this as a pacifist, and I resist it as a human being. The arms industry should be shut down, not expanded! Life, not death!

Sarah Holland-Batt poet interview

Southerly77.1

A few months ago, I had a review and interview published in Southerly Journal (issue 77.1). I looked at Sarah Holland-Batt’s “The Hazards” and quoted few answers that she kindly provided in an interview. If you are interested in the Southerly article you can purchase a copy here

As the interview had a lot more detail that I was able to include in the final published work, today I present the full un-edited version. As always I am extremely grateful to the poet for her time in answering my questions, and with Sarah Holland-Batt being the editor of “Best Australian Poems 2017”  (and in 2016), as well as being a judge for the Fiction and Poetry categories for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards I am amazed that she found the time for my humble blog.

As always I hope you enjoy the insights into the poetic world of last year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Award winner.

Q. Your epigraph is from Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, taken from the German Luther Bible, ‘For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower therefor falleth away.’ A number of your poems musing on fleeting existence. What drew you to that theme?

For almost half my life I have watched the torturous decline of one of my parents due to their debilitating illness; this made me think about death and mortality relatively early, and it’s a subject that has persisted in various ways for me in my work. When someone who you are close to is in decline—even figuratively, say, insofar as they are losing their memory, or their personality—the idea of death as a gradual process rather than a singular and definitive event takes root and comes to infuse everything in your life.

Q. Poetry has a long association with animal metaphor, and Section II of “The Hazards” are all dedicated to animals, predominantly birds and appear to link to a travel journal of sorts, can you explain this a little more?

I think of those poems (perhaps strangely) as chiefly political poems rather than ‘bird poems’ per se. Several were written in Central America, and chime with recent political histories—juntas, dictatorships, evolutions/uprisings and so forth. I’ve always been interested in animal hierarchies and animal violence; in their often brutal ecosystems and behavioral patterns, I see echoes of certain kinds of human activities and drivers—basest instinct, opportunism, self-preservation and self-interest, but also recklessness, proteanism, opulence, indulgence, contrarianism, and on and on. I suspect all my poems are travel journals of a sort; I tend to write while on the move, rather than while at home; I find estrangement from myself, my mother tongue, my latitude and longitude a powerful inducement to write.

Q. You talk of ekphrastic poetry in the Notes and personally the images from Emanuel Phillips Fox’s The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770 (1902) were extremely vivid. The other poem that really struck me was Reclining Nude after Lucien Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), what drew you to this controversial work and can you tell us a little more about the resultant poem?

“Reclining Nude” was simply an attempt to replicate the sheer materiality of the paint in Freud’s painting—which has an incredibly thick, trowelled-on texture—using language alone. It was a challenge I gave myself: work toward that sort of impasto using language. It is also a poem about the inherent class gap between painter and subject, and, of course, about the painter’s gaze, which (in characteristic Freudian fashion) is incredibly unforgiving towards—or perhaps just honest about—the human body. Flesh seems to me Freud’s perpetual subject, a compulsive fascination that approaches that of the Dutch Masters’ obsession with fabric, haberdashery and upholstery; for Freud it is skin, rather than velvet or gauze, that he renders in faithful deeply textural detail.

Q. The collection ends with the title poem “The Hazards”, and images of distance, vulnerability, and finishing with an existentialist refrain. It leaves the collection with a hint of “what next”, so what is next?

Another book of poems, eventually, although I like to take my time between books. I also have a novel manuscript that I’m working on at a snail’s pace; my work commitments make poetry a more achievable form, but I’ve always loved writing prose and am hoping to find time in the near future to recommence work on the novel as well.

Q. Congratulations on winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry for 2016, one of the most financially rewarding Awards for poets in the country. Female representation on the shortlist was limited to yourself alone, so congratulations on your work being recognised despite the gender bias. Has winning the award sunk in and do you think this will positively impact your ability to write more poetry? Do you think it will increase your popularity?

This is perhaps a side point, but I don’t particularly believe that because there happens to be only one woman on a shortlist in a given year that the judges’ decision necessarily reveals underlying or systemic bias. I read the books of the other poets—Les Murray, Robert Adamson, Michael Farrell and Simon West—and thought they were all extremely fine collections; I was pleased to be in their company. And as it so happened, women won the vast majority of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards this year, which was pleasing to see. Winning the award still feels surreal; winning on the eve of Trump’s election to the Presidency made it feel doubly so. It certainly will allow me to write more poetry, and to spend time researching, writing, and travelling—all necessary components of my work. But I do think the establishment and continuation of the PMLAs is important for Australian writers. In the context of the severe budgetary cuts to several state literary awards, the continuing presence of national awards that robustly and generously recognise literature’s importance to Australia, and the part writers play in forging our culture, is heartening.

Q. Finally, I always like to ask this, what are you reading at present and why?

I had a year of the most extraordinary reading as editor for Black Inc’s The Best Australian Poems 2016; systematically reading every Australian literary journal, a large number of anthologies and collections, and thousands upon thousands of individual poems certainly occupied the vast bulk of my reading time. I’m gearing up to do the same thing for the 2017 edition, so I predict another avalanche of poems just around the corner, too. Of the individual books of poetry I read over the past year, I loved Peter Rose’s The Subject of Feeling, Liam Ferney’s Content, Jennifer Maiden’s The Fox Petition, Dan Disney’s either, Orpheus, Michelle Cahill’s The Herring Lass, Michael Farrell’s Cocky’s Joy, and on and on. I have the new (and beautifully produced) Puncher & Wattman Contemporary Australian Poetry on my bedside to read in the new year. And as far as fiction goes, I just finished rereading the unsettling, unrelenting Submission by Michel Houllebecq, which does everything I want a novel to do.

Engraft and Hush – Michele Seminara PLUS bonus poet interview

engraft

Today another Australian poet review/interview, Michele Seminara, who has recently released a small book “Hush” through the small independent publisher Black Rune Press, I purchased and read this collection soon after release and then was fortunate enough to be sent a copy of Michele Seminara’s earlier book “Engraft” (Island Press) by the poet herself.

“Engraft” has four sections, the opening one titled “Mammoth”, the opening poem “Hoary” starting;

Fifteen thousand years I have slumbered
In my icy casket, a hoary
Princess waiting
Not to be kissed, but punctured
By the pick of a prying scientist.

Personally I was reminded of a song by The Triffids “Jerdacuttup Man”, although miles apart in content, the book reflecting a digging up of the past, a collection of memories. Moving straight from a digging up to the honesty of ageing in “All Dried Up”;

I
an old lady
waiting in this parched bed
for something to happen

which cannot happen

I
an old lady with an impatient
unsated belly

that will not rain

I
an old lady
whose slow mind spreads
so far her eyed has
lost sight

I
the one
who age must not tame –

May my drying up cause this spark to flame!

These are poems of self awareness, raw;

Impassive as a mountain
I sit, hand resting reverentially in
the infertile valley of my lap,
(from “Self Seen”)

the self being compared to a dog in the very next poem, pulling on a leash, “world jerks my neck”

The book contains unsettling works, poems addressing child sexual abuse, but they are also, at times, sensual, the shorter poems breathless, drawn out with space, stretching, extending the experience;

The Lover

The skin’s sumptuously soft.               The body’s
thin,
                                                hairless,

                                    vulnerable. She
doesn’t look
            She      Touches                       his
sex,          caresses                  the strange
novelty. He moans,     In dreadful love

And          the pain is
slowly                          borne towards pleasure.

This poem is an erasure poem sourced from Marguerite Duras’s novel “The Lover” (translated by Barbara Bray). Erasure poems take an existing work and erase text, framing the end result as a poem. The collection containing four such poems. Three other works are a free-form remix of Stuart Barnes’ work, another poet I have interviewed, and Michele Seminara’s poems highlighting the evolving thought processes, highlighting language.

The trials and tribulations of motherhood are explored in the section “Mother” “obediently becoming (for me)/what I never wanted/you to be”. All domestic depths are explored here on the page, a drug addicted child, the loss of a child, a tender but harrowing collection.

“Hush” a smaller book, also soaring with familial bliss and plunging to the depths. A work that contains only thirteen poems it features an Edvard Munch paiting on the front, “Ashes” (1894). The book a limited edition print run of only fifty copies, is beautifully presented. If you are interested in a copy, try blackrunepress at gmail.com

 

Over to the interview with Michele Seminara, and as always I am forever grateful for the poet’s time and honesty. I am working on something else with both Michele Seminara and Stuart Barnes, hopefully it comes together and you will get to see the result in the upcoming months.

 

Thanks you for agreeing to this interview, I’d like to talk about your two publications, “Engraft” and “Hush”.

Q. Both of your works are very “unsettling” and in “Dead Ottla” (a poem sourced from the letters of Franz Kafka) you say “(Writing is a form of prayer, Dear Ottla,/ a key to the chambers inside oneself:” Your work is very personal, leaving yourself open and raw on the page, is writing cathartic for you?

Absolutely. Especially writing poetry, which expresses the inexpressible best of all, in my view. Basically, when life feels intense, I pick up a pen. I also write to have fun, relax, learn, experiment, grow and communicate – but I’m first and foremost of the Bukowski school:

unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.

(‘so you want to be a writer?’)

That might sound naff, but that’s why and how I write poetry, and also why I read it. It’s a solace for the soul.

Q. “Engraft” ends with a cento drawn from the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, unrequited love and “Hush” with “Only darkness; easeful darkness.” Is there any hope?

Always, but we don’t always feel it. That’s why there’s poetry – and religion! For many, like Kafka, they are forms of the same thing.

I’m a Buddhist, and it’s a faith that encourages you to look at life realistically – although not in a morbid way. Buddhists meditate upon their own deaths to bring an awareness of life as ephemeral, and to inspire themselves to apply effort to creating peace within. That’s where the hope lies.

 Q. Your latest publication “Hush” features an artwork by Edvard Munch “Ashes” (described as when  lovers are consumed by the hot flame of passion their love turns to ashes) and it contains an ekphrastic poem “Blood Nature” in response to his famous work “The Scream of Nature”. You obviously have a love, a connection to his work, how did this come about?

I feel Munch’s artwork, like Bukowski’s poetry, shoots ‘like a rocket’ out of his soul. I resonate with the darkness he sees in the everyday. It amazes me how we live as if life lasts forever and as if there isn’t sickness, separation and death. I’m drawn to Munch’s heightened sense of seeing. I think we all experience this when we go through difficult times – our skins are thinner, and we see things as they really are – but often we’re quite distracted, or numb. I like to look things in the eye. I find it perversely comforting.

 Q. I really enjoyed your “erasure poems”, can you explain a little about the process, why you chose those texts, did you have a clear message or view before/during/after the erasure?

I love the process of erasure, and usually work with texts I’ve read many times and feel an emotional connection to. I instinctively choose a favorite passage and start circling words and teasing out connections. I’m looking to converse with the writer, as well as to find an objective correlative to my own experiences within the text.

Sometimes writing erasure or found poetry is a way of saying what you want to say using some else’s voice. It’s a strange process! You have to be ok with some initial chaos and embrace chance when you write that way. You’re not completely in control of what emerges. I enjoy the discovery! I also like being able to say things I wouldn’t be bold enough to say in my own voice, and hiding behind the other writer.

 Q. As I mentioned in the first question, your poems address unsettling subjects, for example childhood sexual abuse, all the dirty laundry’s here on the page, however there is a Buddhist hint of forgiveness, is the art of writing about these experiences a forgiveness in itself?

That’s a wonderful question. I think it is a forgiveness – of the self, and others – a way of processing experiences, some of which can be quite horrendous, but still holding a sense of compassion around it all. I am definitely from the ‘better out than in’ school of writing. I look to poetry to help me with the big questions and experiences.

 Q. Your book “Engraft” contained a section “Mother”, a celebration as well as the frustrations and anguish of being a mother, and your new chapbook “Hush” is very deeply rooted in “family”. These are subjects you return to often, but it is not always a rosy picture that you paint. Can you talk a bit about this subject matter and why it features so prominently?

Because that’s what I’ve been doing with the last twenty years of my life – mothering – and because it’s the most intense role I’ve played: the ups are so up and the downs are so down. Therefore I write about, and from, my domestic trenches. Some people might think that’s boring, but I think it’s the real deal.

 Q. As I ask all my interviewees, and given your breadth of reading where your poems are drawn from many sources, including the Bible!!!, can you tell us what you are reading right now and why?

I’m reading a lot of Sharon Olds. I love her passion and boldness, and also her simplicity. She’s a very intuitive writer. I find myself binging on certain writers when I sense I have something particular to learn from them at that point in time. Perhaps there’s something in my own writing technique that’s holding me back, or some new way of seeing or expressing that I’m ready to learn, but whatever it is, I’ll be drawn to a certain writer to learn via the osmosis of reading. So I’m rereading Satan Says, Stag’s Leap and Odes.

 Q. Finally, what are you currently working on, is it something you can tell us about?

I’m working on BUGGER ALL because Verity La has sucked me dry this year, and I don’t write well when I have my administrative hat on. I LOVE being Managing Editor of Verity La – it feeds me in many ways, and I thrive off the connections I make with other writers, and learn a huge amount from it all. BUT it leaves little time for the creative brain to kick in. So although I’m tinkering on a few poems, I have a sense that I’m creatively gestating, waiting until the end of the year (when we take six weeks off publishing) to give birth to a whole book of poems. Either that or I’ll just go to the beach and enjoy an empty mind. Will keep you posted!