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.

 

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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!

 

 

 

These Things Are Real – Alan Wearne PLUS bonus poet interview

These-Things-Are-Real

Another recent release from Giramondo Publishing is Alan Wearne’s “These Things Are Real”, a very different read from a number of recent poetry books that I have reviewed here. The collection contains two sections, “Five Verse Narratives” and “The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre”. The back cover advises the reader that “Alan Wearne specialises in monologues and verse narratives” and although this collection contains five narratives and fifteen other titled works, the narratives are the “speciality”, they make up more than the half of the book.

Opening with five epigraphs, alone a secret into the work, the narratives commence with “They Came to Moorabbin”, a tragic post war story of a widow, a mother of four, and a couple with three children and their “friendship” in suburban Melbourne. A doomed relationship features next in “Anger Management: a South Coast Tale”, a discourse on domestic violence with no end “through regional Australia”. All of these narratives a complex detailed studies with a lot compacted into a small space, whole lives in 15-20 pages, complex lives explored, the people who are generally living on the margins. Of the five, two are monologues, three are “verse narratives”.

The epigraphs for the second section “The Sarsaparilla Writers Centre” include Ezra Pound, Irving Berlin, Graham Kennedy and Kevin Sheedy. For overseas readers Graham Kennedy was a television host for many years in early television in Australia and Kevin Sheedy a player and then a long-term coach for Australian Rules Football.

You can spot a bad critic when he starts by discussing the poet not the poem. EZRA POUND.

So I here’s part of a poem:

1.

                …it happens quick and (even stranger) smooth,
for it’s a suggestion, a suggestion which you follow
from a slightly oiled, brush-backed man,
with just that few more years of life about him,
who may have read some books and starts by sneering ‘Goose’
at you, this year’s smug term of derision.
                Later of course you’ll need to wander home, More than
half-hoping it had happened.

The opening of “Memoirs of a Ceb” one of the verse narratives, where the story of Peter’s sexual awakening, aligned to the “Holy Trinity’s Outreach Program” is explored.

The second section containing many humorous, satirical, playful pieces, including limericks, short rhymes, and formal poetic structures:

Lines (Really) Showing my Age
(for Laurie Duggan)
What care I for Kylie, Kurt or Bono?
I’ve Satanic Majesties…in mono!

The 1987 Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry recalled
What you see is what you get:
Runner-up to Lily Brett

The enjoyable satire may require an understanding of Australian literature, poetry or politics, however this sections contains a number of “laugh out loud” moments, including Les Murray’s introduction to D’arcy Niland’s The Shiralee where he speaks of Robert Mitchum, “in the heyday of his career” being “The first American actor we’d ever heard get an Australian accent right”;

The taken mile reverts to inch:
That actor, Les, was Peter Finch.
 

Or former Prime Minister Tony Abbott;

On the Deposing of Tony Abbott
Dumped in that ditch himself has dug,
The smart-arse Catholic schoolboy thug.

The “Notes” section is a worthwhile read, even if you know of people like Kevin Sheedy, as it contains some real gems of biting satire.

As mentioned above, not the standard work that I usually look at here, however one that brought many smiles, and a few cringes, to my face. The dichotomy of the narratives to the playful satire an interesting balance.

As always I thank the poet for their time, and honesty, in answering my questions. Yet again a great interview that reveals another layer to the writer involved. Thanks to Alan Wearne for making the time to reply to my meagre questions.

Over to the interview.

Q. The title of your book, and one of the epigraphs, is from Ern Malley, a literary hoax, is this book a literary game?

‘I am an elitist, I am an entertainer’ I’ve often announced, so I suppose a solid part of my writing is indeed a game, though whether it’s the elitist or entertainer who plays…take your pick.

If you wish to see the ‘game’ element I refer you to the latest volume from Grand Parade Poets, (GPP) With the Youngsters an anthology of Group Sestinas and Group Villanelles assembled by my students from over 18 years. These are indeed examples of out and out game.

Another game I suggested they perform was after my lecture on Ern Malley and his Australian descendants (the Free Grass crowd, Timothy Kline, Billy Ah Lun, Toby Nicholson etc.).

The students were to invent a poet, write a brief bio and then some of the poet’s work.

The greatest game players in poetry were Fernando Pessoa and The Heteronyms. He and they were glorious one offs.

Q. You don’t hold back in your book, with opinions in “Hail! Muse! Et cetera” one example, do you ever wonder if the subjects of your satire may not be easily amused?

Do I wonder? No more than Dryden, Pope or Byron did. Sometimes I wish I could be more rampaging but realise that restraint is one of many weapons in a satirist’s arsenal. Besides those being satirised can always reply in kind, or ask a friend to do it. I know that describing in a review a bad book of verse by the late Dorothy Porter as ‘conservative free verse doggerel’ didn’t endear me to her and probably others. Well she should have written much better poetry shouldn’t she? Of course I try to balance this poetaster obsession with backing a variety of good emerging or overlooked poets, see my GPP list for starters.

I trust my satire goes more after narcissists than egotists. The latter I believe can often laugh at themselves, enjoying the idea that if someone makes fun of them they are still very much in the limelight. The narcissist detests being made fun of, as the current United States president shows.

Q. You write one monologue in the second person, ‘Anger Management: a South Coast Tale’. Is this specific example addressed to somebody in particular or is it a case of purposely putting the reader into a difficult situation, heightening the impact?

This poem is one of only two I wrote set around Wollongong during my eighteen and a half years there, the other being Seventeen Illawarra Couplets dedicated to the now famous Vanessa Badham and her then boyfriend.

For whatever reason Anger Management was written over three days (at the most five) when most of my works of this size take years. Only after the completion did I realise it was in the second person.

I knew the man who turned into the male protagonist, got on well with him, found him amiable, talented, with solid elements of the lost soul. But when told of his violent madman side I immediately thought ‘Oh yeah…that figures…’ though I can’t explain quite why I had this reaction. I didn’t know the woman he abused. I believe I saw her twice and felt that she and I would have very little in common. Which of course made it a necessity to be fair in creating the ‘you’; an approach which could be summarised as ‘I’m going to do the right thing by her.’ I also wanted to be fair to the man, for there was a tragic person, though always hoping that in the poem I was on the woman’s side.

Q. With lines like ‘I can think of any number of poetasters and promoters of doggerel (rhyming, blank verse or free) who should be charged with bringing poetry into disrepute’, do you feel you may be on the outer?

If being ‘on the outer’ means being with Gig Ryan, Pi O, Nigel Roberts, Pam Brown, Joanne Burns, John Tranter, Ken Bolton, Pete Spence, Geoffrey Lehmann, Anthony Lawrence, Liam Ferney, Jaya Savige, A J Carruthers, Bonny Cassidy, Kate Middleton, plenty of others within this general drift, plus the shades of Martin Johnston, Jas H Duke, Robert Harris, John Forbes, Benjamin Frater and Rae Desmond Jones…let’s move to ‘the outer’ right now.

Q. Your monologues are tightly edited, to make such a compact story so rich within such a short space. Can you explain the process?

This writing practise of mine can be equated with a footballer playing a game or a student sitting an exam. Does the footballer recall everything he did on the field? Does the student recall everything they wrote? Can you recall details of something so intense as creativity? You operate at a different level of consciousness, surely.

In Victorian secondary schools fifty or sixty years ago one of the units in Forms Four, Five and Six English was precis writing, wherein students had to cut back and back a slab of verbiage to its essentials. I don’t think I was all that good at it but I did learn plenty that would help me in later life.

Having some kind of structure behind the poem assists of course. My own blank-enough verse certainly helps in reigning-in and focussing. Other than that it’s a poem by poem enterprise with near endless drafts, all but the very final versions in long hand.

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

I’m reading Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccamanno, a large contemporary Argentinian novel set in a small city south of Buenos Aires. Its cast of hundreds brings to mind Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, John Dos Passos’ USA, some of the better Robert Altman movies and indeed my own verse novels. Its inter-linked ‘noir’ tales the author tells are not so ‘easy-going’ at times (who need easy going?) but the volume does possess a certain sordid vigour. Mind you being translated into 21st Century American English with all its hideous dude-speak doesn’t help.

I try reading as many volumes from non-English writing authors as I can. I’ve no more interest in Contemporary Australian Fiction than, say, Messrs Flanagan and Winton have in Contemporary Australian Poetry. If I’m wrong and they read our poetry let them contact me and we’ll swap volumes and read each other.

Before reading the above book I read R J B Bosworth’s biography of Mussolini. Given the way the world might be heading, led by the quasi if incompetent Fascist in the White House I wanted to see what the original was like. Mussolini has of course been overshadowed by Hitler since 1933, and his is a sad enough tale for Italy, Ethiopia etc. but at least he was more an egotist that a narcissist and can be seen as human; for me Hitler can’t.

I try discovering new poets each year, and not just those bringing out volumes in Australia. In the past decade for example I was aware of Thomas Lovell Beddoes and Patrick Kavanagh as names and finally set about reading them. I’m very glad I did. Recently I borrowed the Farrar, Straus and Giroux Book of Twentieth Century Italian Poetry (a bi-lingual volume) to discover Raffaello Baldini (1924-2005) a poet of whom I’d like to read more.

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

I’m in the final drafting/typing stages of Near believing, a monologue spoken by a former Anglo-Catholic priest, now a Roman Catholic one, whose past as an Anglian sex abuser catches up with him. Of course I’m attempting to be fair to Father John, but his combination of narcissism, hypocrisy and sleaze, all propped with many a theological underpinning , make him a much more fascinating than his sex exploits, and thus ripe for satire.

 

 

 

Fragments – Antigone Kefala PLUS bonus poet interview

Fragments

Earlier this month the Queensland Literary Awards were announced. The winner of the ‘State Library of Queensland Poetry Collection – Judith Wright Calanthe Award’ was Antigone Kefala for her collection “Fragments”, this timely for myself as I had already arranged an interview with the poet. I read this book soon after it had been shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, won by Peter Doyle for “Ghostspeaking”.

Antigone Kefala was born in Romania in 1935 of Greek parents, the family emigrated to New Zealand in 1951, and she moved to Australia in 1960’s. Her collections of poetry have been very intermittent, with a seventeen year gap between her “Poems” from Owl Publishing in Melbourne, her book in 2008 “Sydney Journals” and this book.

Now in her 80’s I am very grateful that she took the time out to engage in an email interview with me, computer technology a new phenomenon in her life. Unlike an earlier interview I conducted with Bruce Dawe where the answers were dictated to his wife, who transposed them, Antigone Kefala, has been thoughtful in her replies, even if they are shorter than some younger writers, her choice of words very much like her poems.

“Fragments” contains sixty-one minimalist poems, broken into five sections. These sparse works explore the emptiness:

dried by a desert wind (from “Letter II” p4)
the road stretched empty (from “Dream” p5)

the space not only appearing on the page but featuring prominently in the themes.

Night Thoughts

Around her
the city breathing in the night
and she was walking home.
She knew that now there was
no home, and no home comings,
only the emptiness
inside that waits in silence
not searching for an answer.

She knew now that she had never
been in love with anyone, in love
only with her image of a love.

Exploring the elements fire, air, water the alchemy of existence is prominent, with the passing of time woven expertly into the works. At dawn the mist and fog, “the charcoal stubs/ of the burnt trees”, come noon “a lizard/ riding the dry leaves” and by late evening, dusk, the ringbarked trees are “skeletons/ patiently waiting in the sun/ eroding slowly into ashes” The sparse landscapes of inner and coastal Australia captured vividly, through the phases of light, flickering, colours, reflections.

Moon Wolf

The full moon watchful,
transparent olive green
floating in the dark sea
above my head
aiming at me, swooping down
a bird now
its hollowed eyes
penciled in crimson
its incandescent tail
a white light
searing through the air
around me, closing in
burning the ground.
At my feet, the white wolf
the tense arch of its back
blue phosphorescence.

Aesthetically pleasing, belletristic, these poems bring vivid images to mind. Ageing coming to the fore in the final section, a collection of character studies, observations of leaders, writers, committee members and people we will never know;

The Visit

Time passing
not an abstraction now
her face changing
under its leaden weight.
From deep inside her eyes
her resigned self
looked out.

These poems are polished gems, not a single word out of place, the impression that the poet has agonized over a single line, two or three words, this reminded me of Alexandra Pizarnik’s poems from “Extracting the Stone of Madness”, so I asked her about this connection, Antigone Kefala being totally honest in her reply, she’d never heard of Alexandra Pizarnik.

Recently reading a lot of young poets, a number of experimental poets, it was a refreshing change to visit a collection exploring the spaces, the passing of time, in a more traditional, minimalist approach.

Over to the interview, as always a huge thanks to the poet for making the time to answer my questions. Today I open with the email reply about Alexandra Pizarnik, not an answer to one of my questions per se but an insight into the poet herself. As always I have presented the interview, un-edited (I did fix one spelling mistake), and have also included the poet’s closing line of the email exchange.

I hope you enjoy the insights;

 

“But first, many thanks for introducing us to Alexandra Pizarnik. Except for a few well known names in Latin American poetry , we have never heard of her Some information on line , which I looked at, and now we are trying to order ‘Extracting the Stone of Madness’ Poems 1973-73 , Translated by Yvette Siegert , published by New Directions In 2015 . I hope we can find it.”

Q. It has been a very long time in between books, your last “Sydney Journals” in 2008, and this latest collection each poem is finely crafted, not a word out of place. At times I was reminded of the work of Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, another writer who contemplated each word in each poem. Is the poetic creation a slow process for you?

Yes, writing is a very slow process for me. You must also remember that I came to English rather late . A long process of maturity in language and writing . But probably I would have written at the same tempo in languages that I was born into , but because of so many changes I never managed to master well enough to use them creatively.

Q. Elements such as earth, wind, fire, water are prominent in your book, from where does this “ancient” interest stem?

Possibly part of my Greek inheritance, in awe of powerful , elemental forces. But then Australia too is also part of these forces, the size of the continent, the tremendous land mass, a powerful continent with metaphysical undercurrents, the Aboriginal inheritance, the transformation into a European place, possibly only skin deep.

Q. Section three of “Fragments” muses on loss, wandering in the emptiness, light prominent but the themes dark, do these poems form part of a grieving process?

A personal grieving process, but at the same time an attitude to life, to death, our terrible vulnerability.

Q. Your heritage is Romanian, Greek, New Zealander and Australian, do you think this influences your concept of “home”?

Of course, so many different landscapes , cultures, languages. all leave  their mark, an active core that colours one’s attitude to life to writing. Home- a difficult concept for us forced to change countries. An impermanence would probably  best describe our attitude. A permanent Impermanence would probably be more appropriate.

On the other hand , there is the Greek proverb:

‘ Where you live, this is your country.’

Q. Your book ends with “an exuberance/of youth”, is the future rosy?

Youth, always a promise of positive things, more, energy coming into society, more idealism, Involvement with living.

 

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?

What I am reading?

Some poetry books, essays, books recommended by friends, books written by friends, reviews, a return to books one has read a long time ago and were of great influence. I am reading at the moment a new translation by Robert VIlain of Rilke’s prose work -The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge

Poetry books:  Austerity Measures, the new Greek Poetry edited by Karen van Dyke; Anna Couani, thinking process, Owl Publishing; Zenny Giles,Parables. Owl Publishing;

Elizabeth Smithers. Night Horse, -Auckland University Press; Les Wicks. Getting by not

Fitting in,Island Press Cooperative. Ali Cobby Ekerman. Inside My Mother, Giramondo

Mark Mordue. Darlinghurst Funeral Rites,  Transit Lounge

 

Prose Elizabeth Harrower, A few days in the Country and Other Stories, Text Publishing;

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, The girl from the Metropol Hotel ,Penguin ; James Baldwin, The

Last Interview and other Conversations, Melville House Publishing; A History of Greek Cinema,

Vrasidas Karalis, The Continuum Press.

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

At the moment I am looking at a lot of accumulated material and trying to sort things out, whether anything will emerge remains to be seen.

Dear Tony. This is the longest text I wrote on line , I came to these new devices only some months ago. I hope I have not made too many errors.

 

 

Goodbye Cruel by Melinda Smith and Members Only by Melinda Smith & Caren Florance PLUS bonus poet interview

Goodbye

It is not often that a poet has two books launched within the space of four months, but Melinda Smith has managed that amazing feat. Published by Pitt Street Poetry, “Goodbye, Cruel” was launched at the Newcastle Writers Festival in April and published by Recent Work Press the collaborative effort, with artist Caren Florance, “Members Only” was released in August this year.

Don’t be misled by the title, “Goodbye, Cruel”, is broken into five sections, and it is only the section “Goodbye, Cruel” that deals with the subject of suicide. The book opens with the playful sparkling imagery of “Tiny Carnivals” and the poem “A never-to-be-repeated spectacle”, promising a breathtaking ride through a circus like world, immediately the following poem brings the images of neon lights to life

At the Neon Museum:
Las Vegas roadside with giant high heel
(after a photograph by Michael Shapiro)

Later, night will eat these trees
and she will own the stage. All day
she perches, wan and washed-out; still.

Only when the desert sky
is blush-pink, like her inner sole
her spangles come on, one by one.

Time to give them one more show.
Her motor chugs, she starts to turn
her solo pole-dance in the air.

Although I’ve never been to Las Vegas the image of the neon lit giant high-heel is crystal clear in my mind, maybe I’ve seen Michael Shapiro’s photograph before? But it is not all razzle-dazzle and sparkles, there is an underlying darkness, a theme of damaged relationships;

iv
if you must follow me
know
there will be fogs
and long shadows

(from “Days of Hanrahan”)

We then enter the world of suicide, a collection of eighteen poems all addressing this oft muted subject, “Let us go in” a poem constructed from the suicide notes of Virginia Woolf, Stefan Zweig, John Berryman, Arthur Koestler and Hart Crane. This poem added another layer to these notes, as I had read a number of them in the thoughtful book “Notes on Suicide” by Simon Critchley. There’s an erasure poem for the well-known “Waltzing Matilda” the iconic Australian song where a swagman jumps into a billabong and drowns. The section ending on a note of hope, with a poem celebrating a simple man who used to talk to potential suicides whilst they were visiting a notorious cliff area in Sydney.

The final sections include poetry drawn from tragic historical events, and the extensive notes section at the rear of the book helps to put context around a number of these poems. And the controversial is also addressed with subjects such as Australian’s treatment of Aboriginals portrayed through the poem “Mick Flick crosses the Barwon river on ANZAC Day”, where an indigenous returned soldier’s behaviour is questioned “What’s got into Mick?/He’s always been alright for a blackfella”

The Australian Government’s treatment of refugees, more specifically the treatment of those who have arrived by boat and are housed in offshore detention centres, is addressed in “Nationality II”;

No guards called me by name. They knew our name,
but only called by boat ID.

But this is not a collection purely of despair, there are refreshing moments of humour, as in the “Sausage Dog Apocalypse”, a few lines to give you the taste;

The dachshunds of Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs will rise up on their
hind legs and demand the Range Rover keys and a lifetime
supply of badgers

One of the more diverse publications I have come across recently, using a number of poetic techniques to address entertainment, humour, political debate and the controversial subject of suicide. Another worthwhile addition to an Australian poetry collection.

MembersOnly

Melinda Smith’s other recent release is “Members Only”, a book that is a collaboration with artist Caren Florance and came about through a joint residency at Old Parliament House in 2014-15, a collection of what I would call “spatial” poetry. In the following interview Melinda Smith explains the process which led to the publication so I won’t go into details here.

This is a very different collection to “Goodbye, Cruel” in that the poems have been created using anagrams, erasure, and “found” techniques using documents such as the Government transcripts “Hansard”. Some of the anagrams are playful, for example “Housewives” becomes, in two lines only: “He sues, I vow;/He vows, I sue.” Parliament becomes “(rampant lie)”.

Even through this book is a reflection on 1962 it could well be a contemporary document, the lack of female representation in Parliament not changing much, the health warnings about tobacco not advanced a lot further.

An insightful look at history and an enjoyable immersive way to present what could be a droll subject.

Onto the interview, and as always I thank the writer for their time reading my questions and coming up with such wonderful replies. The generosity of the Australian poets has exceeded my expectations and has hopefully added another layer to your understanding of the art form and the amazing depth and breadth of writers we have in this country. I will continue to pester these writers so I can bring you, hopefully, even more coverage of Australian poetry.

Over to the interview (which I have presented un-edited, as always, including my two typos and Melinda Smith’s corrections for me):

Q. In the section “goodbye, cruel” your approach to suicide seems honest, not hysterical. I recently read Simon Critchley’s “Notes on Suicide” and he said “We lack a language for speaking honestly about suicide because we find the topic so hard to think about, at once both deeply unpleasant and gruesomely compelling.”, in my mind your poems address that “lack of language”. Do you think your approach can help to open up a taboo subject for discussion?

That was certainly the hope with which I began writing the ‘Goodbye, Cruel’ sequence of poems. I’ve not yet been too closely touched by suicide, but several people I know and love have talked about wanting to end it all, and one has tried twice (and is still with us). I have gradually become aware of the great pool of silence that wells up and spreads out around the subject and seems to forbid all discussion. This silence stops people who need help from seeking it, and stops families who have lost people from healing because they can’t speak about ‘the event’. I saw this sequence of poems as an attempt to lob one or two pebbles into that pool

Q. The section ends with a poem in memory of Don Ritchie, is this an intentional ending, on a note of hope?

Well spotted. It was actually one of the very first ones I wrote in that sequence – it was in fact the one that made me realise there was going to *be* a sequence –  but it was the only slightly upbeat poem in the bunch so of course it had to go at the end. For those readers who aren’t familiar with Don Ritchie’s story, he was an ordinary family man with a day job in sales who lived for many years near The Gap on the South Head of Sydney Harbour ( If you’re not from Sydney you might not know it’s an infamous suicide spot). He used to see lots of people hanging about near the edge of the cliff looking over the edge a little too intently. So he made it his business to go and start conversations. His family thought he saved about 160 people that way, although I later read another estimate that put the figure closer to 400. He was very modest about it all but he did become known for his ‘work’ and people started calling him the Angel of the Gap. Don Ritchie passed away in 2012 but I have been in contact with his family who are very appreciative of the poem. He was recognised with all sorts of civic honours near the end of his life as well, but as soon as I heard his story I wanted to memorialise him in a poem. I feel like this is the kind of person we should be building statues of, if we build them at all

Q. “Goodbye, cruel”, the book, opens with a carnival, a circus atmosphere, is the immediacy of the big-top a forewarning for the reader that they are in for an entertaining, holding-their-breath, time?

Perhaps a rollercoaster ride! … I like to vary the pace and tone throughout a book and the opening section is much lighter and more playful than what comes later. I hope it doesn’t feel like a bait and switch (I mean, I did put the content warning on the front cover by calling the whole book Goodbye, Cruel ) but I didn’t want to start straight in to the heavy heavy material on p 1. The poems in the Tiny Carnivals section are engaged with the creative process in all its forms – there are lots of poems based on photographs and other visual art pieces, a cento or two made up of lines from other poems, even a poem written with smartphone predictive text. They are all little celebrations, little immersions in the wonder of making, being inspired and/or finding and framing

Q. You use tragic historical events in your poems, for example a child and a father drowning in the Shoalhaven River in 1922, how does your research lead you to these events?

I am a huge fan of Trove, the National Library’s online archive of newspapers, photographs, and other publications, and a lot of my research for this book – and for Members Only, another recent project – was done there.  For instance the poem from the Goodbye, Cruel section called ‘#otd’ (short for On This Day) is compiled from short regional newspaper reports of suicides, all published on or around 22 April in many different years. I wanted to reach back across time to acknowledge a whole range of people who had decided for whatever reason that that day (or week, really) would be their last on this earth.  This is the kind of thing it is quite easy to find using Trove and which using older methods would have taken much longer. It is interesting too how matter of fact the reporting was, 70 or 100 years ago – the silence we’ve referred to didn’t extend to newspaper coverage in quite the same way it does now.

The particular poem you mentioned, ‘The Life Sentence of Miss Jean Mackenzie’,  was also completed using Trove but I got the idea for it from a 2 week residency in the Writer’s Cottage on the Bundanon property near Nowra. Arthur Boyd’s former homestead, a few hundred metres away from the Writer’s Cottage, is now a museum, and there was an exhibition on when I was there about previous owners of the homestead, including the ‘first’ ones, the Mackenzie family – who would probably still be there if it hadn’t been for the tragic double drowning that day. In the poem I have used the local newspaper article about the incident as a source of information but then reframed the story in the voice of the surviving daughter and done some fictional filling-in. The whole area is a very special place, with the Shoalhaven river winding through it marking an important boundary and meeting place between Yuin and Dharawal lands. It seemed to me quite plausible that the river would enact a revenge on the family who had invaded that space snd started fencing it off and farming it

Q. You use many forms, anagrams, and acrostic just two examples, do you enjoy the restrictions that these forms require?

Yes. Well, I enjoy having finished a formal poem. The process of writing against the restrictions is often not much fun. Why form ? Sometimes the form is part of the point the poem is trying to explore. If I am doing a poem of anagrams of a particular phrase it is because I want to vibrate that phrase in the reader’s head and set up a lot of strange echoes – the phrase itself may well draw its significance from outside the poem. But I also use forms to push poems further – the restrictions take them in unexpected directions and almost always make for a more interesting result. It also helps with getting started in the first place: I have said in other interviews that I often find the blank page so terrifying that it helps if I turn the writing of a poem into a kind of crossword puzzle or brain teaser exercise. I don’t always write in a form though. The poem tells me what it wants to be as I dream on it before I start writing, and sometimes it has its own shape that won’t be forced into anything else

Q. On the topic of research, your book “Member’s Only” is a collaboration with artist Carmen Florance and came about through a joint residency at Old Parliament House in 2014-15, can you explain the creative process that took place a little more?

Members Only (no apostrophe) is the latest phase of a collaboration that started in 2014. Caren (no ‘m’) Florance is a visual artist, letterpress printer and book artist who does amazing work and is collected by a number of major institutions. She decided to collaborate with several poets as part of her PhD research and I was one of the people she asked. We applied to participate as a team in an exhibition at Old Parliament House; the brief was to make new work to respond to items in the furniture collection, and Caren and I chose a set of 8 timber hand lettered signs. We ended up re-mixing the text from the original signs and making a set of 8 new signs talking back to the originals in their own words. From instructions like STRICTLY MEMBERS ONLY and TAKE CARE ON POLISHED FLOOR we made statements like MEMBERS ARE NOT ABOUT TO BE POLISHED FOR THE VISITORS. If you want to use fancy art theory words we did a French Situationist style detournement  (or you could just say ‘culture jamming’ and more people might get the gist). The ‘text installations’  were on display for 12 months inside OPH alongside a broadside of 4 more traditional poems I wrote for the project. We then went on to make an artist’s book together (1962: Be Spoken To), reproducing the sign text and the 4 poems but also going deeper with our response to the building by using Hansard and newspaper articles from the year 1962 to make a suite of new found poems. This was where Trove was useful again. I also did a heap of anagram poems of phrases like OFFICIAL SECRETS and CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS and these are also scattered through the book. The artist’s book, being all hand-rolled letter press and hand stitched rare paper, is the size of a coffee table and sells for several thousand dollars (although the National Library owns one now so you can check it out for free if you’re in Canberra). Luckily for non-Canberrans and people who like to take their poetry home, almost everything in the artist’s book is reproduced in chapbook form as Members Only for $12 or so

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?

New UWAP books by Sarah Rice (Fingertip of the Tongue) and Paul Munden (Chromatic) so I can launch them in a few weeks. Having another go at Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons for my own self education – I find I get more out of her now than last time I tried. And relishing the incredible Vahni Capildeo (her chapbook Seas and Trees was just published to coincide with her appearances at the Poetry on the Move festival here in Canberra last month). Lots on the TBR pile including Dew and Broken Glass by Penny Drysdale, Flute of Milk by Susan Fealy, and Arielle Cottingham’s Black and Ropy. Also a fabulously rich bilingual anthology of ten Japanese women poets translated by Australian poets called Poet to Poet (Recent Work Press). I had the privilege of translating five of Harumi Kawaguchi’s unsettling and mysterious (and occasionally hilarious) poems for that book, but the other 9 poets are all fabulous finds too, especially Takako Arai

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

Next book will be a while off, and the pace of production depends on the result of a couple of grant applications. I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about it in detail yet but I have found the theme for the central section and am going to get back to writing around that once school holidays are over. I’m also preparing for a little reading tour to Melbourne in the first week of November to give Goodbye, Cruel a southern airing – 5 gigs in five days which will be hectic but fun. I’m also enjoying regular sessions pushing way outside my comfort zone improvising spoken word with Canberra dance company The Australian Dance Party and electronica outfit Ample Sample (which may lead to some very experimental performance work next year). I am also very excited at the prospect of doing a song cycle libretto with the Canberra chamber group the Griffyn Ensemble – again some more found poem / verbatim work based on historical Hansard speeches, critically engaing with the history of the White Australia Policy. That one also depends on a grant application but it would be incredibly great if it came together.