Rathbones Folio Prize Shortlist 2021

The Rathbones Folio Prize commenced in 2014, under the name of the “Folio Prize” as it was sponsored by the London based publisher “The Folio Society” for its first two years. There was no prize in 2016.  Since 2017 it has been sponsored by Rathbones Investment Management.

The prize was created after a group “took umbrage at the direction they saw the Booker Prize taking…leaning toward popular fiction rather than literary fiction” its launch also coincided with the Booker’s decision to open the award up to international writers, writing in English, in 2013. However, during the first two years the prize was presented to an English language book of fiction published in the UK by an author from any country. The prize dropped from £40,000 in 2014 and 2015 to £20,000 in 2017 and 2018, then climbed to £30,000 from 2019 onwards.

Since Rathbone’s sponsorship, from 2017, the prize was awarded to the best new work of literature published in the English language during a given year, regardless of form (fiction, non-fiction, and poetry).

“The jury for the prize is called the Academy, a body of more than 250 writers and critics that includes Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, A. S. Byatt, Zadie Smith and J. M. Coetzee. Books are nominated by members of the Academy, three each, ranked. Points are given to each book depending on how many first, second or third rankings are earned. The top scoring books are made into a longlist of 60 books (80 in the first two years). The list of nominated titles is then judged by a panel of three to five judges drawn from the Academy who select a shortlist of eight and the final winner.” (Thanks Wikipedia) A full membership listing can be found here.

On 11 February 2021, the shortlist for the 2021 Rathbones Folio Prize was announced, here are those works (listed in alphabetical order by author surname). The blurbs are taken straight from the publishers.

Sara Baume, ‘handiwork’ (Tramp Press) – Non-Fiction

handiwork is a contemplative short narrative from acclaimed writer and visual artist Sara Baume. It charts her daily process of making and writing, exploring what it is to create and to live as an artist. handiwork offers observations at once gentle and devastating, on the nature of art, grief and a life lived well. Baume’s first work of non-fiction offers readers a glimpse into the process of one Ireland’s best writers, written with the keen eye for nature and beauty as well as the extraordinary versatility Sara Baume’s fans have come to expect.

Amina Cain, ‘Indelicacy’ (Daunt Books)

In an undefined era and place, a cleaning woman at a museum of art aspires to do more than simply dust the paintings around her.  She dreams of having the liberty to explore them in writing, and so must find the way to win herself the security and time to use her mind. She escapes her lot by marrying a rich man, but having gained a husband, a house, high society and a maid, she finds that her new life of privilege is no less constrained. Not only has she taken up different forms of time-consuming labour — social and erotic — but she is now, however passively, forcing other women to clean up after her. Perhaps another and more drastic solution is necessary?

Indelicacy is an exquisite gem of a novel about class, desire, friendship, art, and the battle to find one’s true calling.

Elaine Feeney, ‘As You Were’ (Harvill Secker)

Sinead Hynes is a tough, driven, funny young property developer with a terrifying secret.

No-one knows it: not her fellow patients in a failing hospital, and certainly not her family. She has confided only in Google and a shiny magpie.

But she can’t go on like this, tirelessly trying to outstrip her past and in mortal fear of her future. Across the ward, Margaret Rose is running her chaotic family from her rose-gold Nokia. In the neighbouring bed, Jane, rarely but piercingly lucid, is searching for a decent bra and for someone to listen. Sinead needs them both.

As You Were is about intimate histories, institutional failures, the kindness of strangers, and the darkly present past of modern Ireland. It is about women’s stories and women’s struggles. It is about seizing the moment to be free.

Wildly funny, desperately tragic, inventive and irrepressible, As You Were introduces a brilliant voice in Irish fiction with a book that is absolutely of our times.

Caleb Femi, ‘Poor’ (Penguin) – Poetry

What is it like to grow up in a place where the same police officer who told your primary school class they were special stops and searches you at 13 because ‘you fit the description of a man’ – and where it is possible to walk two and a half miles through an estate of 1,444 homes without ever touching the ground?

In Poor, Caleb Femi combines poetry and original photography to explore the trials, tribulations, dreams and joys of young Black boys in twenty-first century Peckham. He contemplates the ways in which they are informed by the built environment of concrete walls and gentrifying neighbourhoods that form their stage, writes a coded, near-mythical history of the personalities and sagas of his South London youth, and pays tribute to the rappers and artists who spoke to their lives.

Above all, this is a tribute to the world that shaped a poet, and to the people forging difficult lives and finding magic within it. As Femi writes in one of the final poems of this book: ‘I have never loved anything the way I love the endz.’

Rachel Long, ‘My Darling from the Lions’ (Picador) – Poetry

Rachel Long’s much-anticipated debut collection of poems, My Darling from the Lions, announces the arrival of a thrilling new presence in poetry.

Each poem has a vivid story to tell – of family quirks, the perils of dating, the grip of religion or sexual awakening – stories that are, by turn, emotionally insightful, politically conscious, wise, funny and outrageous.

Long reveals herself as a razor-sharp and original voice on the issues of sexual politics and cultural inheritance that polarize our current moment. But it’s her refreshing commitment to the power of the individual poem that will leave the reader turning each page in eager anticipation: here is an immediate, wide-awake poetry that entertains royally, without sacrificing a note of its urgency or remarkable skill.

Carmen Maria Machado, ‘In the Dream House’ (Serpent’s Tail) – A Memoir

In the Dream House is Carmen Maria Machado’s engrossing and wildly innovative account of a relationship gone bad. Tracing the full arc of a harrowing experience with a charismatic but volatile woman, this is a bold dissection of the mechanisms and cultural representations of psychological abuse.

Each chapter views the relationship through a different lens, as Machado holds events up to the light and examines them from distinct angles. She casts a critical eye over legal proceedings, fairy tales, Star Trek and Disney villains, as well as iconic works of film and fiction, infusing all with her characteristic wit, playfulness and openness to enquiry. The result is a powerful book that explodes our ideas about what a memoir can do and be.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa, ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ (Tramp Press)

A true original, this stunning prose debut by Doireann Ní Ghríofa weaves two stories together. In the 1700s, an Irish noblewoman, on discovering her husband has been murdered, drinks handfuls of his blood and composes an extraordinary poem that reaches across the centuries to another poet. In the present day, a young mother narrowly avoids tragedy in her own life. On encountering the poem, she becomes obsessed with finding out the rest of the story.

Doireann Ní Ghríofa has sculpted a fluid hybrid of essay and autofiction to explore the ways in which a life can be changed in response to the discovery of another’s – in this case, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill’s Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, famously referred to by Peter Levi as ‘the greatest poem written in either Ireland or Britain during the eighteenth century.’

A devastating and timeless tale about finding your voice by freeing another’s.

Monique Roffey, ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ (Peepal Tree Press)

April 1976: St Constance, a tiny Caribbean village on the island of Black Conch, at the start of the rainy season. A fisherman sings to himself in his pirogue, waiting for a catch – but attracts a sea-dweller he doesn’t expect. Aycayia, a beautiful young woman cursed by jealous wives to live as a mermaid, has been swimming the Caribbean Sea for centuries. And she is entranced by this man David and his song.

But her fascination is her undoing. She hears his boat’s engine again and follows it, and finds herself at the mercy of American tourists, landed on the island for the annual fishing competition. After a fearsome battle, she is pulled out of the sea and strung up on the dock as a trophy. It is David who rescues her, and gently wins her trust – as slowly, painfully, she starts to transform into a woman again. But transformations are not always permanent, and jealousy, like love, can have the force of a hurricane, and last much longer

The novel’s characters are an unlikely mix: a mermaid, a fisherman, a deaf boy, a Caribbean artist and sweetman and a benevolent white landowner. Miss Arcadia Rain’s own love story is interwoven with Aycayia and David’s and the rivalries and affections in both family and community are brought brilliantly to life. Themes of unconditional love, friendship, family and loss, are examined without sentimentality. Roffey manages to write convincingly about a mermaid, a ‘legend drawn from the sea’, returned to land, to survive, heal and live again, as a real woman in modern times.

This year’s judges are T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet Roger Robinson, the Irish writer, editor and broadcaster Sinéad Gleeson and novelist and short story writer Jon McGregor. A well-balanced jury indeed, the winner could be the Irish debut novel (Feeney) or the Irish non-fiction (Baume) or one of the two poetry collections or any of the other four titles!!!

The 2020 Prize was awarded to Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli for her book ‘Lost Children Archive’ (Fourth Estate) becoming the first female writer to win the award.

Astute readers and followers of awards will have noticed that Monique Roffey’s wonderful ‘The Mermaid of Black Conch’ has appeared on yet another award list and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s ‘A Ghost in the Throat’ was also longlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize announced only a week prior, and Sara Baume was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize back in 2017 for her novel ‘A Line Made By Walking’.

I’ve recently reviewed Monique Roffey’s novel and will possibly get to Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s, a few others are tempting (especially Sara Baume’s ‘handiwork’) however I am unlikely to get to many of these books before the winner is announced on 24 March 2021.

The Juniper Tree – Brothers Grimm, T.S. Eliot & Nietzchka Keene

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining

We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,

Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,

Forgetting themselves and each other, united

In the quiet of the desert.

T.S. Eliot

Black screen, white text, so opens the 1990 film ‘The Juniper Tree’, written and directed by Nietzchka Keene, based on the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale. The quote is a short piece taken from the much longer work by T.S. Eliot’s, “Ash Wednesday”.

The juniper tree is mentioned only twice in Eliot’s poem, both references in part II of the poem, the one above appearing at the end of the section, the other reference at the beginning:

Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree

In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity

On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been

contained

In the hollow round of my skull. And God said

Shall these bones live? shall these

Bones live? And that which had been contained

In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:

Because of the goodness of this Lady

And because of her loveliness, and because

She honours the Virgin in meditation,

We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled

Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love

To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.

Reading Eliot’s poem, I found the juniper tree reference removed from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, although there are some similarities.

‘The Juniper Tree’ published in the Grimms’ collection was written by Philipp Otto Range, and has been seen as a counterpart of the Greek myth of Cronus, who devours his children in order to ensure he retains his power. The tale opens:

A long time ago, as many as two thousand years ago, there lived a rich man with a wife who was both beautiful and good. They loved each other dearly, but they had no children, even though they longed for them. Day and night the wife prayed for a child, but still they had none.

She becomes pregnant and “in the seventh month, she picked the berries from the juniper tree and gorged herself on them until she became miserable and was ailing. According to the classical antiquity physician Galen, the juniper tree’s berries can be used for contraceptive purposes and to induce abortion. However the mother eventually “bore a child as white as snow and as red as blood. When she saw the child, she felt so happy that she died of joy.” The child was a boy, the husband buries the mother under the juniper tree.

He remarries and his second wife gives birth to a daughter. “When the woman looked at her daughter, she felt nothing but love for her, but whenever she looked at the little boy, she felt sick at heart….The devil got hold of her so that she began to hate the little boy, and she slapped him around and pinched him here and cuffed him there.” The second wife eventually beheads the young boy by slamming the lid of an apple chest onto him as he is reaching for an apple. “The mother then took the little boy and chopped him up. She put the pieces into a pot and cooked them up into a stew.” The father thought the stew tasted really good and as he ate “he threw the bones under the table.” The daughter collects the bones in her silk handkerchief and puts them “down in the green grass under the juniper tree.”

“The juniper tree began stirring. Its branches parted and came back together again as though it were clapping its hands for joy. A mist arose from the tree, and right in the middle of the mist a flame was burning, and from the flame a beautiful bird emerged and began signing gloriously.”

The bird, the boy reincarnated, sings:

“My mother, she slew me,
My father, he ate me,
My sister, Marlene,
Gathered my bones,
Tied them in silk,
For the juniper tree.
Tweet, tweet, what a fine bird am I!”

Singing and collecting, a golden chain, a pair of red shoes and a mill stone. Continually singing his song, he drops the golden chain for his father, the red shoes for his sister and drops the millstone on the mother’s head crushing “her to death.” The smoke, flames and fire return and the “little brother was back, standing right there. He took his father and Little Marlene by the hand, and the three of them were filled with joy. Then they went back in the house, sat down at the table, and dined.”

A fable filled with eating aligned with death, gorging the juniper berries, apple chest, the child cooked as stew, happily dining once the step-mother is deceased, it is also a tale of childhood innocence vanishing and, according to the notes in “The Annotated Brothers Grimm”,  “by crushing the mother and joining the father, the children have been seen as “successfully” negotiating the path from dependence to autonomy.”

T.S. Eliot’s poem has a few similar references, primarily the bones, other interpretations of his poem state that the juniper tree in Eliot’s poem references the Bible – I Kings 19 (in some Bible versions it is a “broom bush” or “broom tree”, however in the King James Bible it is a “juniper tree”).

And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time. And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers. And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat. And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again. And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee. And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.

The poet is lost in the woods and like Elijah in the Bible, who is lost in the desert, he is nourished and renewed by an angel.

Onto the film, where we have a single father, with a son, Jonas, and two sisters who are seeking a new home as their mother has been stoned and burned for being a witch. The older sister becomes the stepmother, by using witchcraft, potions and incantations to attract the single father as her husband. The connection to nature, as appears in the Grimm Brothers tale is here, an early scene showing Björk, who plays the youngest sister Margit, reciting an incantation to stop the buzzing of the fly, and soon thereafter she entertains the young Jonas with shadow puppets, using her hands, whose actions align perfectly with the crowing of the rooster or the barking of the dog. Margit has a power over nature.

The film is filled with religious symbolism, crucifixes, prayer as well as the witchcraft elements. Margit also having visions of a mother figure.

Whilst the film does have elements of the Grimm fairy story, it deviates in a significant number of areas, a stand alone work that feels more aligned to religious and witchcraft themes, and less to the family, natural world, eating associated with death and childhood growth themes.

I loved the Brothers Grimm tale for its extreme themes, I rather enjoyed the movie and I question the T.S. Eliot reference, did the director just see a juniper tree in a poem and thought “I’ll make that the epigraph”?

Charles Baudelaire & Agnès Varda

Caryatids

Seems readers like the merging of poetry and film, last week’s post about Roy Andersson’s film featuring Peruvian poet César Vallejo’s poem ‘Stumble Between Two Stars’ has been my most popular post for 2020. Let’s continue the theme.

“The only female director of the French New Wave, Agnès Varda has been called both the movement’s mother and its grandmother” according to Criterion. Her short, 12 minute, film ‘Les dites cariatides’ (‘The So-Called Caryatides’) (1984) was made for French television, and features the music of Offenbach (his 1864 opera bouffe ‘La Belle Hélène’) and the poetry of Charles Baudelaire.

The film opens with a slow panning shot of a nude bronze sculpture light pole and then a nude man walking the streets of Paris. From the off the feminist themes abound, I won’t comment on these here, but if you’re after an explanation of the feminist themes in this short film I highly recommend the article “Wandering in the Presence of Women: Les dites cariatides” by Eloise Ross – click here for a link.

Caryatides, “the bearers of doors, lintels, capitals or balconies.” Agnès Varda tells us their origins and a brief history, whilst her camera pans from feet to head across a number of Parisian examples, from the late 19th century. In Paris there a twelve twin like men – “Pairs symmetrical but not identical” the males representing force and power, there are fifty twin like females, naked, bearing the weight on their heads, calm and composed.

Fleurs_du_mal

Poems from Charles Baudelaire’s ‘The Flowers of Evil’ are read by Agnès Varda, again whilst the camera pans the caryatides. The subtitles on the version of the film I watched were uncredited, so I can’t direct you to the translator, however I transposed a number of the lines and have managed to find three of the poems in ‘The Flowers of Evil’ (with very different translations).

Sonnet XLIII

What sayest thou, to-night, poor soul so drear,

What sayest—heart erewhile engulfed in gloom,

To the very lovely, very chaste, and very dear,

Whose god-like look hath made thee to re-bloom?

 

To her, with pride we chant an echoing Hymn,

For nought can touch the sweetness of her sway;

Her flesh ethereal as the seraphim,

Her eyes with robe of light our souls array.

 

And be it in the night, or solitude,

Among the streets or ‘mid the multitude,

Her shadow, torch-like, dances in the air,

 

And murmurs, “I, the Beautiful proclaim—

That for my sake, alone ye love the Fair;

I am the Guardian Angel, Muse and Dame!”

 

Illusionary Love

When I behold thee wander by, my languorous love,

To songs of viols which throughout the dome resound,

Harmonious and stately as thy footsteps move,

Bestowing forth the languor of thy glance profound.

 

When I regard thee, glowing in the gaslight rays,

Thy pallid brow embellished by a charm obscure,

Here where the evening torches light the twilight haze,

Thine eyes attracting me like those of a portraiture,

 

I say—How beautiful she is! how strangely rich!

A mighty memory, royal and commanding tower,

A garland: and her heart, bruised like a ruddy peach,

Is ripe—like her body for Love’s sapient power.

 

Art thou, that spicy Autumn-fruit with taste supreme?

Art thou a funeral vase inviting tears of grief?

Aroma—causing one of Eastern wastes to dream;

A downy cushion, bunch of flowers or golden sheaf?

 

I know that there are eyes, most melancholy ones,

Wherein no precious secret deeply hidden lies,

Resplendent shrines, devoid of relics, sacred stones,

More empty, more profound than ye yourselves, O skies?

 

Yea, does thy semblance, not alone for me suffice,

To kindle senses which the cruel truth abhor?

All one to me! thy folly or thy heart of ice,

Decoy or mask, all hail! thy beauty I adore!

 

Both of the above translated by Cyril Scott.

The third poem, the first Agnès Varda quotes is “Beauty”

Beauty

I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone,

And my breast where each one in turn has bruised himself

Is made to inspire in the poet a love

As eternal and silent as matter.

On a throne in the sky, a mysterious sphinx,

I join a heart of snow to the whiteness of swans;

I hate movement for it displaces lines,

And never do I weep and never do I laugh.

Poets, before my grandiose poses,

Which I seem to assume from the proudest statues,

Will consume their lives in austere study;

For I have, to enchant those submissive lovers,

Pure mirrors that make all things more beautiful:

My eyes, my large, wide eyes of eternal brightness!

Translated by William Aggeler, and if you’d like the original text with other translations click here.

More poetry on film and as I come across further examples I may post them here, Agnès Varda’s film may be short at only 12 minutes but it packs a lot into that time, worth hunting down.

César Vallejo & Roy Andersson

CesarVallejo

Something a little different from me. Literature and film culture blending.

An homage to Peruvian poet César Vallejo appears at the beginning of Roy Andersson’s 2000 film ‘Songs From The Second Floor’. “Älskade Vare De Som Säter Sig (“Blessed be those who sit down”) – César Vallejo 1892- 1938 In Memorium”

 

The film itself featuring lines from Vallejo’s poem ‘Stumble Between Two Stars’ and featuring numerous scenes that are direct references to the poem (for example, a door closed on a finger).

 

The film shared the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000, and reading a few online reviews, it appears as though several reviewers didn’t check the very obvious César Vallejo references.

SongsSecondFloor

I thought I’d present the poem here for people who have watched, or will watch the Swedish filmmaker’s first film in a trilogy, followed by ‘You, The Living’ (2007) and ‘A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence’ (2014). Worthwhile films indeed.

 

STUMBLE BETWEEN TWO STARS

There are people so wretched, they don’t even
have a body; quantitative the hair,
lowers, in inches, the affable grief;
the mode, above;
don’t look for me, the molar of oblivion,
they appear to come out of the air, to add up sighs mentally, to hear
sharp lashes on their palates!

They leave their skin, scratching at the sarcophagus in which they are born
and rise through their death hour after hour
and fall, along their frozen alphabet, to the ground.

Pity for so much! pity for so little! pity for those women!
The pity in my room, hearing them wear glasses!
The pity in my thorax, when they buy dresses!
Pity for my white grime, in their combined scum!

Beloved be the Sanchez ears,
beloved the people who sit down,
beloved the unknown man and his wife,
the neighbor with sleeves, neck and eyes!

Beloved be that one with bedbugs,
the one who wears a torn shoe in the rain,
the one waking the corpse of a loaf with two matches,
the one who clothes a door on a finger,
the one who has no birthdays,
the one who has lost his shadow in a fir,
the beast, the one who looks like a parrot,
the one who looks like a man, the rich poor man,
the complete skinflint, the poor poor man!

Beloved be
the one who is hungry or thirsty, but has no
hunger with which to satiate all his thirst,
nor thirst with which to satiate all his hungers!

Beloved be the one who works by the day, by the month, by the hour,
the one who sweats from pain or from shame,
that one who goes, by order of his hands, to the movies,
the one who pays with what he lacks,
the one who sleeps on his back,
the one who no longer remembers his childhood; beloved be
the bald man without a hat,
the just man without thorns,
the thief without roses,
the one who wears a watch and has seen God,
the one who has an honor and does not die!

Beloved be the child, who falls and still cries
and the man who has fallen and no longer cries!

Pity for so much! Pity for so little! Pity for them!

Taken from ‘The Complete Poetry César Vallejo – A Bilingual Edition’ (translated by Clayton Eshleman)

Personally I’m not convinced this is a great translation “the one who clothes a door on a finger” (“el que se coje un dedo en una puerta”) surely it means “the one who catches their finger in a door”? There are other translations of the poem available online, seek them out if you’re intrigued.

Aqua Spinach – Luke Beesley PLUS bonus poet interview

AquaSpinach

It is not my custom to weave any kind of fantastic plot about the figures I amuse myself in contemplating. I just see them, and their value lies purely in the fact that I can see them. Anything I might add would diminish them, because it would diminish what I term their ‘visibility’.
– Fernando Pessoa “The Book of Disquiet” opening to Fragment 125 (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of Disquiet” sits on my bedside table, I dip in and out of the fragments quite regularly, it is not a book one reads from cover-to-cover, a collection of artefacts that add to/take away from your daily mood. I read Fragment 125, above, soon after finishing Luke Beesley’s latest collection of poetry “Aqua Spinach” and I thought it was utterly relevant. Into my notebook it went “Use Fragment 125 opening for Luke Beesley review”.

Scrap that thought….start again.

I quite often visit the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (‘ACMI’) where they screen iconic films. Recently I’ve seen movies by Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Bergman, Breton…there are so many movies to see.

Luke Beesley’s “Aqua Spinach” closes out a trilogy of books that explore the intersections between poetry, music, the visual arts and cinema. The epigraph coming from Leo Charney’s “Empty Moments: Cinema, Modernity, and Drift”:

In the empty moment, what you call identity ceases to be continuous,
linear, apparent.
It’s hazy and insubstantial, a jumbled, fragmented surface.
It skips around from one time to another, from one place to another.
It refuses to respect the need to keep one moment consistent and con-
tenuous with the ones that precede or follow it.
It’s a film.

And this collection of prose poems is a “jumbled, fragmented surface”, skipping “around from one time to another, from one place to another.”

Scrap that thought….start again.

“Aqua Spinach” is broken into three sections, “Ink”, “Paint” and “Film”, writing, visual arts and cinema being the points on a three pronged surrealist compass, the sixty-four poems seeping into your awareness, leaving scar tissue memories and setting off synapses of past experiences like miniature firework displays in your brain. Ah yes, the lobster telephone, I saw that at the ‘Salvador Dalí: Liquid Desire” retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria back in 2009…or did I, maybe I thought I saw it? I’ve definitely seen Dalí’s collaboration with Luis Buñuel, “Un Chien Andalou”, hasn’t everyone who is into film? You know the one, the dissected eyeball, or am I thinking of “Le Voyage Dans La Lune”? No definitely not that, it was made in 1902, Georges Méliès made that, something to do with the moon and eyes…

Scrap that thought…start again.

Luke Beesley’s final instalment, following on from “Jam Sticky Vision” and “New Works on Paper”, has just been released, by Giramondo Publishing. Get your bus ticket organised as you are about to board public transport, head to work, view several exhibitions, watch a film or two, however it is all going to take place at once.

Incomprehension came to mind as I started reading this new collection of poems, I was attempting to make sense of the surreal. Once I let go and allowed the journey to just unfold, the seemingly disparate images began to build a story of an artistic life alongside mundane everyday actions. Just as watching a single star in the sky of the city, polluted with light haze, is not as magnificent as seeing the same star as part of the the Milky Way in the clear skies of the desert, it is still the same star.

A Century of Poetry in English

Over pottery in the language inherited a century of prose
and lilac Iliads. The Iliads by binoculars and binoculars by
lower lake and the century in English against the French or
Spanish soccer grace, Keatsean anticlimactic brilliance,
William-to-William, wheeled in on bright cuts and English
lessons. The sentence flosses the Armadillo mountains in the
east and the sun reaches out of atmosphere like a sneeze,
centuries. We work around the spine.

The above poem appears in the “Ink” section of the collection.

The front cover features a still from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, the 2010 Palme d’Or winning film at the Cannes Film Festival. A movie that explores past lives and is the final instalment in a multi-platform art project centred in Thailand’s northeast. The mystical use of various media and the subject matter aligns nicely with Luke Beesley’s work that uses art, objects and humans to transform. The exploration of literature, visual arts and film through small bursts of comprehension creates a hybrid questioning of absurdity in the everyday. A collection that lingers and haunts your dreams…or your reality.

Yet again, I pass on my sincere thanks to the writer for taking the time to be interviewed and Luke Beesley’s answers and engagement with my high-level questions is really appreciated.

You can buy “Aqua Spinach” direct from the publisher here (where you can also purchase the poet’s earlier books).

Q. “…dust motes float around verb in all literature, the dust motes float.” Are your thoughts dust motes?

I like that idea. Rings of Saturn Sebald-ish and dust-like. Part of what my writing process might cause, I think, is a dust-like illustration of distracted thought. But also none of the metaphors in the poems are achingly mulled over with the full weight consciousness – they swim up out of somewhere during the fast first draft and, to me, this anchors them to something deeper, or they’re easier to trust.

 

Q. You reference Apichatpong Weerasethakul”s film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” in the poem “Wild Thing” and the cover image is taken from this film. The Director in an interview with the Bangkok Post says it is primarily a film about “objects and people that transform or hybridise”. Two questions here, (1) were you involved in the cover design, and (2) are your poems about “objects and people that transform or hybridise”?

1) Very big yes! The book cover is something I’m really into, as I’m sure the very patient staff at Giramondo Publishing will tell you. Whereas New Works on Paper’s key focus was the visual arts (hence a drawing for the cover) and Jam Sticky Vision’s a little more on the side of music (hence the detail from a Pavement record on the cover), this book was always tipped to the side of cinema. Apichatpong’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the film that has had the most transformative effect on me over the last few years. I didn’t go out of my way to reference it; it was just a big part of my imagination around the time Aqua Spinach was written. I did a whole series of drawings based on the film, too. I was fortunate to be able to track Apichatpong down, via a friend, and he was really responsive and lovely. He provided that beguiling image. I love the way the cover turned out and am grateful for Giramondo for including me in the process. (2) I guess everything’s moving and shifting in the writing, in the world, in the way we see each other. The film is mysterious and darkly aesthetic: bringing in photography, playing with formality, day-for-night filming, humour, banality, surprise – it’s the stuff of contemporary poetry. It’s the kind of film that puts me in the type of alert daydream place that is productive for writing.

 

Q. The collection is arranged into three sections, the nouns “Ink”, “Paint” and “Film”, can you talk a bit about the “Film” section, your influences by Éric Rohmer, Stanley Kubrick, Luis Buñel, Joanna Hogg for example?

Embarrassingly perhaps, I discovered Rohmer only a few years ago. I’ve since watched nearly all of his 25 or so films. It was so great to re-watch Full Moon in Paris on the big screen at MIFF. Actually, today I happen to be watching A Tale of Springtime which is one of the few films of his that I haven’t seen. I enjoy his use of colour, but I love that you spend time with a thoughtful, sensitive, hesitant, indecisive character and you gradually grow very close to them. And Rohmer will show his characters thinking while folding clothes or walking or reading or just popping back to an apartment to pick up a couple of books. He’ll show the whole sequence so that you as the viewer have time to think and you understand that the character’s mind is busy in thought while they fold or walk or read or eat or stare at a view (a view which more often confounds expectations by being either disappointing or unexpectedly interesting). Joanna Hogg, who is influenced by Rohmer, is probably – along with Apichatpong and Suwichakornpong – my favourite filmmaker of the last few years, and I’ve watched her three films over and over. I write while watching films – that dream trance they put you in – so it’s natural that they appear in my daily writing. Image-wise, I like the idea of the book springing up out of Un Chein Andalou (maybe minus the eye scene which I can’t watch, more ants, armpits, absent mouths and moth eyes). I like the following question: What has Un Chien Andalou got to do with inner-Melbourne?

The trilogy – New Work on Paper, Jam Sticky Vision, Aqua Spinach – ends with film, which goes back to the book’s epigraph. In the end, film wins, I think, concerning its relation to its influence on the moment.

 

Q. “Ink” being writing, “Paint” being art (painting) – you have an active cultural life – can you talk about some of your major influences from the poetic, painting arts?

If you went through the visual art references over the three books and took down names my obsessions at the time of writing would all be there. It’s more than the actual art, too. I like the names of artists and the way their names work in poems and how the name moves out, almost topographically, beyond the art, or rhymes visually with other names. A writer can be linked to a musician or painter via this visual rhyme.

I feel I always have a pool of artists I’m focusing on, and then those artists will lead me to others. I could probably trace this movement, via hundreds of artists, over twenty years. In my 20s it was Rothko, Coltrane, Ondaatje, Lee Ufan, Malick, Egoyan, Pavement, Silver Jews, David Brooks and Leonard Cohen. Then later it was Kelly Reichardt, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler, Bill Callahan, Carlos Reygadas, John Ashbery, Gerald Murnane, Helen Frankenthaler. My favourite-pool of the moment is probably Joan Mitchell, Cesar Aira, Aldous Harding, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Lydia Davis and Enrique Vila-Matas. I also just finished a forty-odd-thousand word exegesis on the enthralling and elusive writing of poet Barbara Guest, and I’m in no way willing to let go. Her ekphrastic poetry has led me to many other painters, too.

Essentially the story of Modernist painting and the innovative writers of the 20th century are significant influences.

 

Q. The poem “The Lobster” uses André Breton and surrealism as a theme. Is your work surrealist automatism at play?

Yes, the lobster is a double reference to Breton and also a contemporary artist such as filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, who is trying to work today with what the surrealists offered up. Regarding automatism, it’s hard to say. My process is to write fast in pencil every day, and I’ve built up an improvisational approach by doing this for about eight years. There is a calm centre to it. I try not to think, that’s very important, but then it’s maybe, over the years, been honed to control the levels of pure automation so that I can have a poetry mode and a more narrative short-fiction mode. I like the idea of calling the writing surrealist, though.

 

Q. Individually these poems may appear incoherent, but as a whole the reader can see your day to day activities, catching a bus, in an office, reading poems, sitting on a park bench and all of the associated random thoughts that go with these activities. Can you explain a little about the timeframe where these poems were written and the writing process itself?

I feel I’m with you with this Q & A, in that we’re anticipating each other. It’s really pleasing to know that there is a shape to the book when you step back.

I’ve written a bit about my process. Perhaps I could add that the handwriting is important. I can’t read what I’ve just written – it can only be deciphered afterwards – so all my attention is focused on the associations thrown up by the what is going on around the point of the pencil. One phrase – its shape, images and sounds – leads to another, not unlike the way one author leads to another, below.

Concerning the timeframe, the poems were drafted in 2014 and a little bit in 2015 (there are one or two poems from my Barbara Guest research trip to New York and New Haven in early 2015), and edited from 2015 to 2017.

 

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

Hmm. I generally have about 2-3 long Modern classics on the go, on the bedside table, that I’m re-reading. And I tend to move between a number of books at the same time. I’m reading Woolf’s Jacob’s Room just because I love her writing and that novella had escaped me. I’m also reading Lydia Davis’ recent short story collection Can’t and Won’t which came out of reading her novel The End of the Story. I walked into a secondhand bookshop and saw the novel and picked it up and it helped me finish a long prose piece I was working on.

I’ve been in an Anita Brookner phase – her books are so crisply written and deceptively dark and sad. I sped through Look At Me and then A Start in Life but I’ve slowed a little to modulate the sadness. I’m now reading A Private View. I’m also reading the new Ondaatje, Warlight, but I’m disappointed with it, as I was of his last novel, in comparison with his earlier books, or I’m arguing with my younger self. Who’s changed? Him or me? His poetry and fiction were my first major writing influences, way back, and so I’m kinda sulking about this novel and only reading a few pages at a time. I guess I’m being a bit melodramatic.

I’m reviewing an Australian poetry collection, and I’m also re-reading the fabulous poetry collection Knocks by Emily Stewart. I’ve been reading Harold Brodkey’s wild and bold short fiction: The World is the Home of Love & Death and Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, and I’m always moving through Cesar Aira’s books in translation – am about to start Conversations. I’m also reading Czech novelist Michal Ajvaz’s bazaar Borges-like The Other City. Also Julio Cortázar’s expendable-chapters novel Hopscotch just arrived in the post.

I mostly read what might be termed contemporary experimental fiction/short fiction, and Modernist classics. And it leads to the next question.

p.s. for more on my reading habits go here

https://southerlyjournal.com.au/2016/05/27/followed-by-patrick-modianos-dog-what-ive-been-reading-last-part/

 

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

One of the reasons why Aqua Spinach is a full stop – the end of a trilogy – is that since I finished drafting it a few years ago, I’ve mostly only been writing short fiction and fiction. Having written that, sometimes stories come back from literary journals with a note from the editor saying hey this is poetry. Anyway, I’m writing what I love to read most at the moment, and I’m really into it. Ahead of me is a lot of crouching over my terrible handwriting, trying to transcribe it to the computer, but I have more than one manuscript that is getting close to completion.

 

Milk Teeth – Rae White PLUS bonus poet interview

MilkTeeth

The Annual Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, for an unpublished manuscript, is awarded at the Brisbane Poetry Festival with the winner having their book published by University of Queensland Press and launched at the Festival the following year. I have interviewed 2015 and 2016 winners Stuart Barnes, for “Glasshouses”, and Shastra Deo, for “The Agonist” and continue the association with the Prize by interviewing 2017 winner Rae White, whose book “Milk Teeth” was launched on 3 September 2018.

Rae White is a non-binary poet, writer and zinester living in Brisbane. Their poetry collection Milk Teeth won the 2017 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize and is published by the University of Queensland Press. Rae’s poem ‘what even r u?’ placed second in the 2017 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize – you can read that poem here. Rae’s poetry has been published in Australian publications such as Meanjin Quarterly, Cordite Poetry Review, Overland, and Rabbit.

Rae is the editor of #EnbyLife, a collaborative zine about non-binary experiences. They hold a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Creative Writing Production) from Queensland University of Technology.

Before you prepare yourself for a haunting journey encountering decay and body parts you need to crawl under your mother’s bed…

Each of your milk teeth, toddler shoe-
boxed under your mother’s bed.
You giggle, call out
her sentimentality but I’m dizzy
at dinner, preoccupied
with thoughts of tinkling
dentin slipping on my palm.
I excuse myself, lurch
into the bedroom.
My arm zigzags in the dark
touching fusty carpet before finding
the muted box compact with duct.
Pinpoint fingers remove
one creamy molar.
(from “Mother’s milk”)

This is taken from the opening poem to the collection and your “pinpoint fingers” are going to be working overtime collecting such matter as teratoma, a wand made from “the knotted dried leg of an ibis”, rusted tweezers and bones (teeth, osteopenia, “skeletons with eye sockets/for mouths”).

Most of these bodily parts undergo a transformation under Rae White’s microscope, a world of insomnia and nightmares.

Broken into six thematic sections, each with a epigraph, it is not always a dark place, there are humorous references, for example a flooded Macca’s, and nostalgic reflections. Part II primarily focusing on gender, enlightening the reader of the inherent bias in the everyday, for example the opening of the HTML poem “<title>gender options</title>” ;

<!DOCTYPE cis-centric>

<option value=”biological”>          MALE</option>
<option=”TRUE”>                            female</option>
<option=”Other”>                           404         404</not-an-option>

>>Gender not found<<

(taken from “<title>gender options</title>”)

Please note – rendering of this text is not ideal on a mobile phone.

Section IV are poems of love and sensual pleasures and section V the natural world, highlighting the broad and multi-faceted subject matter in this collection.

Engagement with other poets another highlight, the poem “under \ over” is in response to Shastra Deo’s poem “There Is a Cure”

under \ over

half awake stretch point the toes \ you shift rollicking the bed
edge phantom arm between cracked slats \ play my spine with fractured
knuckles like ice water                    trickling bone

press my skull onto mattress \ your whisper-teeth tracing pulsing neck
slide leisurely, bed screeches \ mother’s voice plump with
childhood warnings                        in my head

There Is a Cure

                The air was never sweet
here but now there’s oil

                slicked across the water,
the dark of it crawling

                four-footed into the house
I tell you not to let your feet

                dangle over the edge, because I
have found footprints

                that stop at the foot
of our four-poster bed,

                your phantom weight
crumpled in the covers.

These are only excerpts from each poem, to fully understand the response you’re going to have to invest in copies of both Rae White’s “Milk Teeth” and Shastra Deo’s “The Agonist”, the last two Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize winners to have their books published by UQP.

“Milk Teeth” is another engaging, thought provoking collection, with decay and body parts becoming glistening, with the human place in the natural world being questioned, but at the same time it can be playful, and humorous, using symbols, codes, social media posts, emails and a raft of textual techniques (for example how the poems are placed on the page) to engage, unsettle and ultimately reaffirm.

As always, I am forever grateful to the poet for their time in discussing their work. Rae White being extremely busy with the Brisbane Poetry Festival and the book launch was very generous in giving their time to discuss another brilliant addition to the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize Winners.

You can follow Rae White here https://raewhite.net/ where links to online stockists of the book are provided and you can follow them on Twitter using the handle @wings_humming

Over to the interview

Q. Nostalgia is a prominent theme, fishing, camping and the whole of section VI are examples, the poems “Sabbatical” and “Go and gone” ending with pumps pushing a “cat back with a slosh” or with trainers pushing “the gutted cormorant” it toppling “Into the water”. Is there such a thing as redemption?

I loved tying together both those poems about mobile games with similar themes of nostalgia, loneliness and, at the end, the bodies of animals and themes of morality. As for redemption, I wonder what the characters in these poems would do if given a choice? How far would the character in ‘Sabbatical’ go to have back ‘the lost days of breakneck fishing’? What lengths would a lonely fan of an augmented reality game go to in order to reconnect with kinship?

Q. You’ve shown that emails, Twitter, online dating profiles and Pokémon Go can be poetic, is there anything you don’t look at with a poetic gaze?

Probably not to be honest! My interpretation of things in life is quite reality-adjacent, where anything and everything could be mystical or memorable or have creative potential. Folks could interpret this as a side effect of my depression and mental health, but to be honest the conflation between ‘madness’ and creativity has always concerned me. If I look at the world with a poetic gaze, mentally tagging anything I could possibly use later in my work, does that make me ‘mad’ or does it simply make me a creative adult human? I believe the latter.

For example, I recently made this zine called Junk. I used words and phrases from a spam email I received to create poems and then crafted them into a zine. When people do or see something everyday, like a spam email in their inbox, it can become mundane. I like to polish the mundane, the domestic, and give things back their shine. I’m also not the only poet or creative person doing this either. For example, Zenobia Frost and Rebecca Jessen wrote a 12-poem performance based on the Bachelorette! And Holly Isemonger’s award-winning poem ‘OK Cupid’ is another great example of looking at something that perhaps wouldn’t normally be considered poetic in a poetic light.

Q. Several poems speak of the battle involved in “gender options” or of recognition, they bring home the exhaustion, the constant battle. Is writing cathartic for you?

Oh absolutely. The process of using things that have happened to me or someone I know (the misgendering, microagressions, discrimination, abuse…) is something I can angrily, exhaustingly piece together puzzle-like and massage into a poem. Once it’s complete, I feel this tremendous sense of relief and my shoulders relax. If that poem then brings something new to the non-binary conversation or acts as catharsis for someone else, then that’s even better.

Q. I’ve used this question for other poets, so pardon the repetition. Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson says, “The poem surpasses the other literary arts in every way: in its depth, potency, bitterness, beauty, as well as its ability to unsettle us.” Some of your work is “unsettling”, do you think that’s a harsh or fair assessment?

Definitely a fair and accurate assessment. I find this weird beauty in the grossness of things. At the Queensland Poetry Festival launch of Milk Teeth, a friend of mine gave me a stunning gift: a small jar containing crystals, lichen, butterfly wings and the small bones of a possum. I was both captivated and unsettled. It was utterly gorgeous but at the same time, would be something that some people might find yucky. I try to bring a similar conflicting duality like that to my work: to engage the reader through casually unsettling their expectations, asking the reader why they might find something unsettling and why. And for all those lofty goals, I also just like writing about mysterious, creepy and gory stuff because I enjoy it, and I can only hope it’s also entertaining for the reader.

Q. Besides the recent book launch, you always appear busy launching zines (in fact I have a copy of your “diary of a lavender plant” zine). Can you tell us a bit about this format of creating and how you got involved?

I got involved in making zines when I was published in Woolf Pack, a Brissie zine for women and non-binary folk. They were also the very first place to publish my poetry! From there, I decided to start making my own zines because it seemed fun, cathartic and accessible. All you need is some paper, glue, scissors and an idea, and you can make a zine! I think it’s that low barrier to entry that gave me the confidence to start getting work out there, being a part of zine fairs and stocking my work at rad places like Junky Comics (Brisbane) and Sticky Institute (Melbourne). One of the things I love about zines is how diverse and DIY they are. You can get your own voice out there and explore new ways of creating.

Q. You have a strong connection to the natural world, section V of the collection focusing on plants for example, is nature the “ultimate triumph”?

Ooh part of me hopes so! I have over 100 plants in my house and outside on my balcony, and I love watching them grow: they wrap around objects in my house, around each other, some of them close their leaves up at night to sleep. I love the idea that perhaps plants are just waiting for us to fuck up the world even more than we’ve already done, before saying enough is enough and taking over, triumphing over us. I like to explore that concept in poems like ‘Abandoned greenhouse’ and ‘EVIDENCE: house plant, Holland Park’.

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

I just finished reading Jos Charles’s feeld, which is explores trans narratives and the reclamation of language through this Chaucerian-like transliteration of English. It was utterly incredible and inspiring.

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

I’m currently working on my second poetry collection focusing on non-binary people and space: how non-binary transgender people are allocated or denied spaces in Australian society (including socially, politically, physically, digitally and linguistically), and the way in which our bodies continue to take up space despite marginalisation and violence. I’m also slowly working on a short story collection and on a couple of secret exciting projects, which I’ll hopefully be able to announce soon!

You can read some of my work, order my book and check out my upcoming events at https://raewhite.net/.

 

 

 

“Argosy” & “Lost Lake” – Bella Li PLUS bonus poet interview

Argosy_Cover

Apologies in advance, this post contains links to numerous poetry reviews and interviews, it appears the last few years of reading, writing and talking about Australian poetry has resulted me building up a decent a resource!!! I have also referred to various other reviews of “Argosy”, not out of laziness, but read on to understand why.

In the last twelve months if you’ve delved into many of the Australian Poetry Awards, you would have come across Bella Li’s 2017 book “Argosy”. This year “Argosy’ has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the Kenneth Slessor Prize (the Poetry Award for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards), and the book was highly commended in the 2017 Anne Elder Poetry Award (the winner being Rico Craig with “Bone Ink”- review and interview with the winning poet here) and commended for the 2017 Wesley Michel Wright Prize in Poetry (the winner being Susan Fealy for her collection “Flute of Milk” – review and interview with the winning poet here) as well as being shortlisted for the 2018 Mascara Avant-garde Awards (the winner being Amelia Dale for “Constitution” – I have an interview with the poet here and my review appeared at Mascara Literary Review here).

“Argosy” has recently been reprinted after selling out the first print run, something I’ve only come across once in the last twelve months for Australian poetry, Shastra Deo’s brilliant debut collection “The Agonist”, a book that has been shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal, alongside dual Booker Prize winning Peter Carey, Eva Hornung, Sofie Laguna, Steven Land and Gerald Murnane (review of “The Agonist” and interview with the poet here)

Bella Li has recently had a new book released by Vagabond Press, “Lost Lake”, and I have been fortunate enough to get in contact with Bella Li and she agreed to an interview about both of her books. Again, I am extremely grateful to the writer for their time and honesty and, as always, the full unedited text of the interview can be read at the end of this short look at Bella Li’s two most recent books.

Both “Argosy” and “Lost Lake” are sumptuous books, collections of collage, photographs, prose poems, found works, erasures and more, their presentation alone makes them stand out.

“Argosy”, an homage to Max Ernst’s collage novels, has two sections, “Pérouse, ou, Une semaine de dispaitions” and “The Hundred Headless Woman”, the first section using images and creating collages sourced from atlases and journals of discovery for the lost explorer Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse, a French Naval Officer whose expedition disappeared in Oceania in 1788. The second section uses photography and found texts to create further voyages of discovery. Here’s an excerpt from the section that responds to an interview with Elena Ferrante which appeared in “The Paris Review” (212, Spring 2015);

For instance, in Ischia. Those dark corners where the sound does not. But I remembered them that way and only that way do they appear. In each retelling, in the manner of chiaroscuro: stones shearing off the roofs of houses at sundown. Hunting the particularity, the moment, seen so closely from afar. Down the lanes, always in the company of a shadow, a woman, a cleaver. Always closer than before. (p123 “Argosy”)

“Lost Lake” continues the theme with eight distinct sections, one for each colour of the rainbow, plus pink, using found texts, collage and photography. An example, taken from “The Confessions of Saint Augustine” (translated by Edward Bouverie Pusey);

First

That I have written, of places I have not been. To Carthage I came, where there sang around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. And in the vast courts of memory, the caverns of the mind. I have heard great waves upon the shore, I have remembered what it is. In other ears: the scaling of heights. These circuits of stars, compass and pass by. (p 41 “Lost Lake)

Books that use memory, embedded experiences to present a layer thought provoking prompts. Dwell on the pages, contemplate the message, fill in the gaps, making both books an individual understanding.

Reviews and judges reports from the various awards have described “Argosy” as follows:

“Argosy” is a stunning hybrid artefact, textually and visually. Through Argosy, Li provokes the reader on the value of the object, of the book. This is a collection whose very reality insists on the necessity of print – it dwells within the materiality of form, and is a recognition of poetry as art and art as poetry. Argosy’s exquisite writing leads the reader through collages, prose poetry and photography, the meanings of which unfold through their juxtapostions – poetic gaps that spur haunting, dreamlike sequences. This is a collection of journeys and intertextual dialogues – between poems and works, and with culture and history.’ Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2018 judges’ report.

‘The powerful and surprising impact of the book made Argosy a clear winner. Bella Li’s sophisticated handling of language, form, time and image offers a remarkable synthesis of European surrealism and an antipodean sensibility, via a Chinese–Australian history. This important contribution to Australian poetic imagination and traditions doubles as a Southern Hemisphere rewriting and re-imaging of world traditions.’ NSW Premier’s Award (Poetry) judges’ report.

‘Bella Li’s is a cerebral, yet playful collection broadly presented in two movements. Li interrogates art, history, geography, film, philosophy, and language through the muscular form of the prose poem, juxtaposed with original photography and collage. Argosy is at once immediate and surreal, and self-reflexively leads us to question our received knowledge of the world, while engaging with and commenting on aesthetic traditions practised by experimental artists such as Joseph Cornell. As an artefact, the book is a singularly beautiful object that pushes the boundaries of what narrative, poetic meaning, and indeed, a collection of poetry might be.’ Anne Elder Award 2017 judges’ report

I find these “reports”, and my feeble attempts at writing a review, present a conundrum. Both books, amongst a range of techniques, draw upon existing texts and have numerous references to works that already exist in our psyche, Dante, Proust, Elena Ferrante, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, Cormac McCarthy to name just a few. As a result, a reader approaches “Argosy” and “Lost Lake” with their own personal lens, a view that has already been tainted by our own experiences of these canonical texts. We bring our own learned prejudices and expectations to our reading, and any analysis or presentation of views subverts the texts that Bella Li has shaped. I feel as though adding my interpretation of these two books would be to bring my world view to the table, and I believe that is not what these works are about . As books that hover with memory (for example the collage prints use works I distinctly recall seeing in publications, images in “mercredi: Dans le sang” appear familiar, however they are drawn from “editions of atlases appended to…journals of discovery, held at the State Library of New South Wales, State Library of Victoria and Special Collections, Baillieu Library, The University of Melbourne”, collections I have not seen, therefore my unreliable memory comes into play), they use recalled experience to add another layer to your reading involvement.

What I would suggest is for you to buy both books, open your imagination, immerse yourself in the delicacy, handicraft, and words, allow the mysterious gaps in Bella Li’s landscape to be slight shaped by your views, create your own cultural hybridity, journey with the writer/creator to places you thought you knew. You will not be disappointed.

Lost_Lake

Over to the interview, and thanks go to Bella Li for her time and her honesty.

Q. As you explained in a podcast for the NGV Triennial Voices exhibition, “Argosy” is a merchant ship, one that contains a lot of cargo. This implies there is a lot to “unpack”, however before a reader unpacks it, the packing needed to be done. Can you explain the project, how it started and the processes you underwent towards completion?

Argosy began with a small commissioned work for the Ian Potter Museum of Art. I was to use an item from their collections to write a suite of poems. My proposal involved a large terrestrial globe, which had the voyages of three explorers—Vancouver, Cook and La Pérouse—mapped onto it. But for practical purposes (the globe was too deep in storage to retrieve), I ended up reading through the expedition journals instead. At some point I learned that La Pérouse had disappeared, shortly after leaving Botany Bay, and his journey became my sole focus.

The journals led me to atlases from this and subsequent expeditions sent in search of the missing explorer, filled with beautiful and strange illustrations. Transposing these images into words seemed to miss something distinct and important, so I made collages (from photographs I took of editions of the atlases held at the State Library of NSW, the State Library of Victoria and the Baillieu Library at the University of Melbourne), and then wrote two sequences of prose poems, based loosely on the journals. These formed the first part of the book, ‘Pérouse, ou, Une semaine de disparitions’.

The prose poem sequences and collages that comprise the second part, ‘The Hundred Headless Woman’, were written just before, concurrently, or after the work on ‘Pérouse’. The book design was the final part of the process, and involved a steep learning curve with InDesign and hand-trimming hundreds of pages of test prints.

Q. There has been a lot of focus on the collage aspect in your work, your homage to Max Ernst, I’ll leave readers to read about your work with images elsewhere. Therefore, I’d like to understand a little more about the section “The Hundred Headless Woman”, a mysterious shaping of anonymity, for example Elena Ferrante, are Isadora shaped through a 3rd person narrative. Could you tell me a little about the text manipulation and creative process here?

‘The Novelist Elena Ferrante’ was written after I’d read an interview with the author in the Paris Review. It gave such a strong sense of place, and of a particular personality—which was all the more interesting because of Ferrante’s anonymity. I wrote the poem as a speculative piece—a fictive persona based on a real pseudonym—set in Ischia, an island off the coast of Naples. At this stage I hadn’t read any of Ferrante’s novels. After Argosy was published, I read the Neapolitan Quartet and found that some of the most important events in the story occur in Ischia.

‘Isadora: A Western’ uses lines from Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian as chapter titles. Westerns are dominated by men, and by simple moral dichotomies. I wanted to write a miniature western—formally set somewhere between a screenplay and a novel—and to cast a central character who moved against type. The details were probably a composite of every novel and film in the Western genre that I’ve read or seen, guided by McCarthy’s text in particular, with its high lyricism and extreme violence.

Q. “Lost Lake” continues in a similar style, here eight colours of the rainbow (you’ve added pink) and found words using writers such as Proust, Jean Rhys, but also film “Blade Runner” and Tarkovsky for example. You are holding up a distorted mirror to works that shape popular culture. How does something grab your attention enough to be dissected?

For Lost Lake I drew on what I was reading, watching, seeing and listening to at the time—or texts that I’d encountered in the past—that spoke to particular themes. I have a great love of genre fiction—science-fiction, horror, adventure—as well as films, music and visual art in a range of styles, so the sources vary widely. Many of the texts I chose are classics or canonical in some way, and therefore more likely to be recognised by readers. Sometimes I was seeking to appropriate a certain mood or atmosphere, or gesturing towards subject matter without having to explicitly state what that might be. It was also a way of situating the text in a whole network of relations, among other texts and artworks. I find this very satisfying.

Q. You must be extraordinarily persuasive to get Vagabond Press to publish these exquisite, delicate, detailed works. Can you explain a little about that relationship?

I was lucky to have been found by Vagabond Press at a fairly early stage. I’m not sure anyone else in Australia (or anywhere) would have agreed to publish Argosy or Lost Lake as they are, and I can only say that I’m immensely grateful. Michael Brennan, the publisher, is a lovely soul and works tirelessly to promote the work of others. I have a great deal of respect for his dedication and judgment: many of the books on his list have won major prizes (half of the shortlisted titles for the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry were Vagabonds; the winner of the prize last year was also a Vagabond).

Q. + the absence
a
of the Witch
cannot
does       not
Invalidate
a
the spell –

+

Are your works spells?

They are an attempt to create whole worlds that have a particular internal consistency—in this sense, they ask you to believe in something that does not otherwise exist, as do all constructions made from language. Emily Dickinson, to whom that epigraph belongs and who spent most of her life within the walls of her family home, was herself a consummate world-builder.

Q. The section “Lost Lake” is your photography. Is this a well-known, or a private, place?

It’s not a private place; I think it is well-known to some and not so well-known to others.

Q. Voyages are prominent in your work, and discovery, are there any boundaries of discovery that you do not want to cross?

I’m going to say no, but probably after I’ve crossed them I’ll realise I should have said yes.

Q. I ask all my interviewees this, it is helping to build a great reading list, what are you reading at the moment, is it going to make its way into future work, and why?

The last books I compulsively enjoyed were Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance. (Alex Garland has turned the first book into a movie, but it’s such a different beast that it’s really its own thing.) I don’t want to say too much because the novels hinge upon certain blanks that are slowly filled in over the course of the series, but the story is a blend of weird fiction, science-fiction, horror, spy novel, detective fiction—pretty much everything that I love in one—and told in a manner that draws on existing conventions and tropes while also being entirely unpredictable and inventive. There are still parts that make me shiver in broad daylight.

I’m planning to write about Annihilation in my PhD thesis, but I don’t think it will make it into future creative work.

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

In the last eight months, with the aid of a grant from the Australia Council for the Arts for which I am extremely grateful, I’ve travelled to Finland, New Zealand and Japan, as well as domestically to Hobart and Sydney, to collect material for the next book. I did have a title and some loose themes, but I’ve made a start on the work itself and it already feels like it might be going in a different direction. Or maybe in the same direction with a different focus—I’m not sure yet. But I’m excited to be working on a new project and looking forward to seeing where it takes me, both in terms of content and method.

 

The Measure of Skin – Ramon Loyola PLUS bonus poet interview

MeasureSkin

Active social media followers would probably have come across Ramon Loyola, whose recent projects include poems in the new Verity La anthology, “The Hunger”, as well as designing the flyer for this new eBook, he is guest editing Issue 3 of “Pink Cover Zine” with Samantha Trayhurn, and he actively keeps his blog “ramon loyola in lowercase” up to date with references to his published poems (in the last month he has had work appear in “Pencilled In Magazine Issue 3: Food” and in “Other Terrain Journal Issue # 5”).

Earlier this year Vagabond Press released a small chapbook of Ramon Loyola’s poems as part of their “deciBels 3” Series, “The Measure of Skin”. The series was edited by Australian writer Michelle Cahill and is introduced at Vagabond press as follows:

Richly diverse in their cultures and communities, these poets trace their ancestries to South Asia and the Philippines, to North Asia, Europe, and South America. Their work encompasses a range of styles and voices that collectively challenges the biopolitics and narrow categories of white heteronormativity so powerful in the establishment. (Vagabond Press website)

In her introduction to the series Michelle Cahill says:

it is wonderful that we can celebrate the work of ten gifted poets whose cultures and languages, as much as they are inflected by an Australian belonging, trace to South Asia, to the Philippines, Greece, to the Jewish, Chilean and Taiwanese diasporas. Each of these poets is accomplished yet pressing against the limitations of their practise. Individually they are radicals, in the sense of breaking textual ground. They have applied language to new purpose and form as technê, by discerning thought, voice, tone and image. (Vagabond Press website)

And on Ramon Loyola’s chapbook she adds:

In contemporary Australian poetry we rarely encounter a poetics that attends to homoerotic subjectivity from the uncomfortable position of shared erasure and material suffering. Ramon Loyola’s The Measure of Skin nurtures the elemental strangeness of the other.

“The Measure of Skin” consists of twenty-one poems, this small book opens with “Familiar”;

your hands feel familiar

they are renegade tanks of warmth
charging through layers of hair
shooting pinpricks of invisible blood
through epidermis and veins

(from opening poem)

And there is a familiarity with Ramon Loyola’s work, he addresses the themes of loss, isolation, yearning, whilst creating a character who is searching for love, attempting to make concrete his place in the world.

If you are looking for gooey, love themed poems, where the poets find their perfect match and the sun sets on a beautiful romance (a la the poets on the bestseller lists), then Ramon Loyola is going to unsettle your hopeful views. Here we have a collection where the uncomfortable displacement of the poet comes to the fore, his fears, his pain, his laments;

Touch me here, where it hurts like no other
where the mere flutter of kisses linger
on my neck, reminding me of letters
never sent, of souvenirs never
took from places I had never been to.
(from “Touch Me Where It Hurts”)

A Philippines-born, Australian based writer, Ramon Loyola writes poems of displacement and unease, not quite sure of his surroundings where foreboding fears lurk around every corner. Is there a subtle referencing of a cultural hybridity? A writer on the fringes?  And Ramon Loyola also does not shy away from homoerotic subjects, further pushing himself outside the boundaries, where he then reflects and where he is not always comfortable with what he sees;

My hair is not black but dark brown
It has streaks of white and old strands
A rendering of unfortunate genes and
Of old age and memories and regret

                (from “A Rendering of Genes”)

Raw, honest poems, where the writer questions himself, these are works that contain a measure of uncertainty, an unsure human looking for acceptance. There are numerous fears approached, fear of the dark, fear of the ocean, fear of letting oneself fall in love and they are all rooted in the physical world of skin, flesh, eyes, touch.

A short book, however one that reveals a lot about a writer attempting to make sense of their place in world.

As always, I would like to sincerely thank the poet for making the time to answer my questions, and his honesty in his replies. I hope this interview brings a little more understanding of the creative process and the poems themselves.

You can follow Ramon Loyola via his blog here  and you can purchase the chapbook “The Measure of Skin” here.

Q. Your poems are rooted in the physical world, touch, eyes, skin (that’s even in the title!), is the physical your way of making sense of the metaphysical?

I tend to write from the physical and material plain to understand the realm of what lies underneath the skin, the invisible pinpricks that provoke a physical reaction, that manifest by way of physical pain and emotion. The body, for me, is the source of all our pondering, a trigger for contemplation about the world, how it reacts to the stimuli of love, loss, grief, mortality, and morality. So, yes, I guess it is my way of making sense of the force of nature and the attendant influence it has on me. To know what is beyond the physical, I need to first understand the machination of how the body works, how it interacts to these stimuli, how it folds in the dark blanket of suffering and sorrow, how the heart struts on its beats when the prospect of love rears its head in the horizon. It’s a long process for me, understanding what is out there, but I need to start from within, to know myself down to the bone, in order to confront the many possibilities — delicious and sordid — inherent in the realms outside my own skin.

Q. You confront a lot of fears in your book, darkness, the ocean, love, is poetry cathartic for you?

Someone once told me that my poems are too dark and emotive, which sounded like it was the worst thing one could do. For me, it was my way of realising the worst fears I have encountered (and that with which I am still struggling). It’s also a way of putting myself to the test on how far I could go with negotiating my own feelings about the fear of the unknown and what resides in a place I’ve never been to. In the most literal sense, yes, I guess my poetry intends to be cathartic in that way, and the process of confronting the fears I have since known — fear of the dark, of the sea, of normal things and ideals, of being hurt again — is challenging in itself because of the safeguards I have put up around me without realising that I’d been isolating myself from all these experiences. But the reason for my poetry is not just a methodical calculation of my strength in times of fear and uncertainty, it’s also because of my yearning to reach out for answers and the clichéd ideal of companionship, and, yes, love. My poetry is not just personal; it’s also a conscious clarion call for friendship and understanding in these dire times.

Q. Love and lust are the two dominant themes is this chapbook, but there is also a lurking loneliness, a yearning, are these poems a cry? Have you given too much of yourself?

I once used ‘crying poems’ as a working title in one of my earlier collections, but ultimately abandoned it in order not to give away too much of the themes I was working on. Then, again, my writing (as in this chapbook) has always embodied deep feelings of longing and yearning (hence, my first collection, not poems, just words carried a subtitle, ‘on loving, living and longing’). At first, it was a scary thing to reveal myself like that to the whole world. After the release of not poems, just words in 2014, I’d been branded a sham, a fraud, an imposter, a wannabe-Yeats and e.e. cummings-tragic. But I was also encouraged and feted by many readers as someone brave enough to make such intimate disclosures that it is what is now expected of my writing and myself. Loneliness, indeed, informs my writing, for it also pervades my life. I’ve been on my own, by myself, unpartnered — and, perhaps, unfortunately, still wistful for something else, even at my age — for over a decade now. It doesn’t get any easier, what with the increasing demands of the modern times to be more sociable and sympathetic, and the stigma attached to ‘aloneness’. But the fact that I am sitting here, right now, answering your insightful queries, makes it more real to me that there are times when the loneliness should simply take a back seat to make way for some inner joys, and to complete the cyclical fruit-bearing seasons of living. And, yes, I have given a lot of myself, of this loneliness, in my writing. But, in doing so, I have abided by my self-directive motivation of sticking to the truth. In one of my capricious jaunts in social media, I’d witnessed the online badgering (bullying, trolling) of a very talented and emerging poet when he posted an extract of a poem in the works. One conservative and ‘seasoned’ (but obviously ill-meaning) critic commented on the post by posing a bewildering query of ‘where is the truth?’ which then led to lengthy thread discussions by others and, sadly, resulted in the poet’s literal withdrawal from the world. But he was simply writing the truth. Since then, I have always kept it in mind: Write what is true, write the truth about you, regardless of the feelings the task evokes or entails, write about what you feel. I’ve steeled myself somewhat from all the potential trolling and rejection, despite the hurtful sting when it comes. And, so, in my own writing, the poems that come out carry the truth in me, about me, of what it feels like to be an outsider looking in, to be always on edge and always in the fringes, to be sexually ‘different’, to be gay, to be lonely. If my poems don’t give away a little about myself (like the ones in The Measure of Skin), then I would not be adhering to my own truth and I would have failed in embracing it. There’s always the risk of giving away too much of myself, yes. But, oh, there is so much of me to give … I have so much to give.

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

My to-be-read pile is seriously big and bad. Among all the precious titles I’ve accumulated, I am currently engrossed in three poetry books (at the same time) by Eunice Andrada’s Flood Damages (Giramondo, 2018), Nathanael O’Reilly’s Preparations for Departure (UWAP, 2017), and the late Max Ritvo’s Four Reincarnations (Milkweed Editions, 2016). I have just finished gorging on the delights in Lachlan Bloom’s Limited Cities (Giramondo, 2012), which made me realise that the path towards brilliance and clarity for someone like me is always paved with difficulty and suffering before I could even reach that place where Bloom and the others have been. I chose these poetry titles mainly due to my affinity with the themes of diaspora, grief, identity, ideas of staying and leaving. I haven’t been to a lot of places in my long, uneventful life, and these poets are taking me to those places—real and imagined—where I will probably never be in. I have also started reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Less, by Andrew Sean Green (Lee Boudreaux Books and Abacus, 2017), perhaps in the hope of finding a common experience and mutuality of the writing soul. I like to mix things up a bit when it comes to my reading chores, so I have lined up, on the non-fiction genre, Welcome to Country by Prof Marcia Langton (Hardie Grant, 2018) with Stan Grant’s foreword alone making me quiver, so that I can show a deeper appreciation towards and convey an intimate gratitude for Indigenous Australia, and Jonathan Miller’s Duterte Harry (Scribe, 2018), to digest the unfortunate goings-on in my home country, the Philippines, brought on by an alleged despot-in-the-making. Winter signals my hibernating-reading phase, so there’s always something in my TBR pile of wonders.

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

There are a few drafts of poems in my WIP folder that will probably never see the light of day. But I’ve been labouring on them for quite some time, always with tentativeness inherent in all my attempts to write truthfully. After receiving more than five rejections from various journals and publications in the last two weeks alone, however, I have this nagging urge to improve them even more, but not in haste, this time. I need to learn to edit myself more, to increase and improve my vocabulary, and to be more confident about my capacity to tell the truth. It’s never easy, but I persist.  In my still-feeble and not-so-bright mind, I encourage myself that perhaps it’s time to go back to learning and re-learning the basics so that I can be also be more sophisticated in mastering the complexity of poetry while manifesting my intentions in the simplest, most effective way. It may be trivial to some and pedestrian to others, but I’d like to think that The Measure of Skin has provided a glimpse of the interplay between complexity and simplicity. These rejections are my reminders, my signposts for those moments. So, in my attempts now to forge ahead on writing another full collection of new poetry on various (but, as usual, personal) themes, I’d like to think that I’d be more than ready to confront my personal truths and the world on all its doubts about what I have to say or can do in my own words. There is hope. There is hope.

 

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.