Engraft and Hush – Michele Seminara PLUS bonus poet interview

engraft

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

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

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

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

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

which cannot happen

I
an old lady with an impatient
unsated belly

that will not rain

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

I
the one
who age must not tame –

May my drying up cause this spark to flame!

These are poems of self awareness, raw;

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

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

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

The Lover

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

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

And          the pain is
slowly                          borne towards pleasure.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

(‘so you want to be a writer?’)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

These Things Are Real – Alan Wearne PLUS bonus poet interview

These-Things-Are-Real

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

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

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

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

So I here’s part of a poem:

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or former Prime Minister Tony Abbott;

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

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

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

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

Over to the interview.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Fragments – Antigone Kefala PLUS bonus poet interview

Fragments

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

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

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

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

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

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

Night Thoughts

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

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

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

Moon Wolf

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

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

The Visit

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

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

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

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

I hope you enjoy the insights;

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand , there is the Greek proverb:

‘ Where you live, this is your country.’

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

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

 

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

What I am reading?

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

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

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

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

Mark Mordue. Darlinghurst Funeral Rites,  Transit Lounge

 

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

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

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

Vrasidas Karalis, The Continuum Press.

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

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

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

 

 

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

Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(from “Days of Hanrahan”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MembersOnly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soap – Charlotte Guest PLUS bonus poet interview

Soap

Western Australian based writer Charlotte Guest has recently launched her debut poetry collection “Soap”, published by ACT independent publisher Recent Work Press, a small imprint that publish “poetry, short fiction and non fiction, and other short-form textual experiments.” I have a large number of their publications on my shelves so am hoping to get to a few interviews with the poets over the coming months.

With a soft pink cover and the title “Soap” you could be forgiven for thinking this is a collection of indulgence, poems with a “girlie” bent, you would be very far from the truth, these works exploring the end of girlhood, full of sexual tension, and female oppression, male dismissiveness, they are poems buzzing with awareness.

Networking Drinks

‘You see society through old
frames, you are perpetuating that
against which you argue,’
says a confident boy with flushed
capillaries, exalting in this
repartee. ‘No, what I am saying is,
the historically oppressed
form allegiances based
on the common ground of di-
advantage.’ I
hold my gaze. His eyes bulge
as he takes a swig from
his Old Fashioned, looking
down his straight nose
at me. ‘Why are we still
bandying about old terms?
Why do we still talk
of race and gender?
Have the last fifty years
meant nothing?’
I open my mouth and
push bubbles out.
We are talking
underwater, sacks
over our heads, like
dipped witches.

A collection of female celebration, that also includes all the awkwardness, the angst, the unsure, finely balanced with revelations, as in “For Eurydice”, the oak nymph, who I know of as the wife of Orpheus, and his musical visits to the underground, unfortunately as in many mythological characters the female is known in relation to the male. Charlotte Guest giving us a clearer picture;

For Eurydice

The naturalist amid
her ground-truthing,
turns the sand and
gives it

a knowing look.
Picking her way up
the tan slope, a
bobbing desert bird,

she is attuned to the electric pop
of cicadas
and a sense of wrongness:
the sacrificial giving of

her skin
to the sun.

This is a very personal collection of poems, one where you feel as though you’re encroaching upon the poet’s own space, her private world, it is a though you are reading a diary of somebody you don’t know, as Charlotte Guest moves through various phases of womanhood. It even includes the personal slipping away of her Nanna, in the poem “Nanna, Kalamunda”, or a nostalgia for the family unit in “Daddies”;

Slumped on the garden step, my father,
his storied hands writ large, is
soothed by the night’s coolness and
harangued by images
of bigger moons.

Using many formats, generally prose poems, but including formats such as concrete poems, this is a fine debut where you can see a development as the collection progresses, the poems written over a six year period.

As always I would like to thank the poet for their time in answering my questions, and for the thoughtful replies, Charlotte Guest originally not being 100% convinced she should be interviewed makes me even more appreciative of her efforts. I am glad she finally agreed.

Q. In your “afterword” you state; “Like many poetry collections, Soap is a very personal document. It circles around notions of self and belonging, and questions of femininity and feminism. Soap is both an interrogation and celebration of private worlds, my private world.”, and I know you were reticent to be interviewed about your book. Does the notion of the private becoming public cause anxiety for you?

It both does and it doesn’t. As a reader of poetry and memoir, I know how respectful readers approach personal writing. Of course you can’t guarantee all readers will treat the material in the same way – as experience transformed and translated into something separate – but I think you have to trust your imagined and real readers. You have to let it go.

The reason I was hesitant to be interviewed was not necessarily to do with the book; it was to do with me! I think it’s a classic case of Imposter Syndrome, a loss of confidence in what I know and what I have to say. I have just started a new writing project on this very topic…

Q. You review poetry, or poetic criticism in the poem “the Seagull”, however professionally you work for the University of Western Australia Publishing and present video blogs discussing their poetry releases. Does this duality make you a harsh critic of your own work?

That poem is slightly ironic, I think. I was thinking about T S Eliot’s ideas of what makes a ‘good’ poem, or an aesthetically pleasing poem, and how I disagreed with some of those ideas. It’s ironic because I wrote my objections into the poem at the same time as trying to satisfy all this criteria of a good poem: having images that logically build upon each other, for instance, maintaining continuity of thought and argument, ideas of balance and symmetry. So it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek that one.

I am a harsh critic of my work, yes. I do my best to interrogate each line and word choice in a poem, and remove it if it’s not right. This means my self-editing tends to be a process of cutting things out, and as a consequence my poems are quite short.

Q. Your book contains a range of poetic styles, from prose poems to concrete (shaped) poetry and more traditional approaches. Can you talk a little about the different approaches and how the poem comes into being?

The collection is largely free verse poetry, and I think in future work I’d like to engage more deliberately with different forms of poetry – villanelles, sonnets, haiku, and so forth. One of my reflections after publishing this collection was that I’ve kind of started at the end, so to speak, and now wish to work my way back to the beginning. By this I mean that I want to produce work that adheres to the rules of traditional forms, to see what is possible through constraint.

So while I’m glad the collection presents as diverse in form, I know that my default mode of writing poetry is in free verse and I wish to now unlearn that, to pay more attention to different kinds of poems and their particular demands.

Q. You finish the book with loss and the book begins with an epigraph by Fay Zwicky “Is anyone ever ready for exactly who they are?”. You’ve taken this journey to define the moments in between these “events”, what “moments” do you find are the ones that require capturing in poems?

In many of the poems I have tried to capture feelings of uncertainty and trepidation. There are some poems about grief that I wrote as a way to work through accepting the deaths of certain people. Some are about the body as it matures and changes, both celebrating the female form and feeling estranged from this process we cannot control. I like the idea of ‘moments’ that you raise, but as I’m writing this it’s emotions that come to mind, as opposed to moments in time. Although memory is certainly I theme I return to often.

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

I have just finished reading Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, which is his book (not) about D. H. Lawrence. It’s an incredible, rambling, and seemingly untamed book in which Dyer wrestles with the intention of writing a study of D. H. Lawrence, but can never pin down his subject (or himself) enough to get started. I loved this book, and will be reading more of Dyer’s work.

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

I am working on a prose project at the moment, which I won’t divulge much about in case it doesn’t get off the ground (much like Dyer’s study of Lawrence!). It is a work of non-fiction, which I think I alluded to above…

P(oe)Ms – Dave Drayton PLUS bonus poet interview

PoemsDrayton

On January 1st, 1901, the Commonwealth of Australia was established and since then we have had twenty-nine Prime Ministers, starting with Edmund Barton, with Malcolm Bligh Turnbull the current incumbent.

Kanganoulipian poet Dave Drayton has used the twenty-nine Prime Ministers as the backbone of his new collection of poems, “P(oe)Ms”. Each of the Prime Minister’s names anagrammatically make up the poems about their era at the head of Australian politics.

All of the classic Australian references are contained here, riding on a sheep’s back, gambling on horses, and the political moments are captured using the constraint of anagrams, of the leader’s names, to present an historical document of our country.

Robert James Lee Hawke
1983-1991

Smash a beer O Robert
Set the hawk to “walk”
Smash a beer O Robert
A wet beak breaks the talk

This is a small section of the nineteen-line poem dedicated to Bob Hawke, a Prime Minister known for his drinking.

Every one of these poems, although constrained by anagrams, captures the political thought of the time, with more recent examples being Anthony John ‘Tony’ Abbott having the line “A boat, not a bathtoy.” In reference to his ongoing mantra about refugees “Stop The Boats”, our only female Prime Minister Julia Eileen Gillard…”Rare gendered ruler”. A very clever use of language, to bring the idiosyncrasies of the leaders, and the political climate of the times flooding back.

This is not all political speak though, with many humorous references, John Gorton on the grog, Malcolm Fraser with his pants down, Harold Holt “He had held a towel”. For overseas readers, John Gorton was continually questioned in the press about his drinking habits, Malcolm Fraser wandered into a Memphis hotel lobby without his pants claiming he had been drugged, Harold Holt went missing whilst swimming on Portsea Beach, assumed drowned.

Each poem contains a sketch of the accompanying PM and these are also humorous, Tony Abbott playing in the bath, Malcolm Turnbull taking a selfie…

An enjoyable collection that personally recalled a number of political moments in Australian history that I had forgotten, as well as giving me a lesson on a number of Prime Minister’s I knew nothing about, and their idiosyncrasies. A great accompaniment to Amelia Dale’s “Constitution”, who I interviewed here, and it is very heartening to see the young Australian poets challenging the literary boundaries, as well as the political establishment.

Only a short review today, but the interview with Dave Drayton is very educational indeed, as always I am very grateful to the poet for his time and the thought that he has put into his answers. I hope this interview enlightens you on the use of Oulipoen constraints.

And I am very pleased that he has made mention of today’s NRL (National Rugby League competition) Grand Final and the appearance of Macklemore, overseas readers may not know that Australia we are currently undergoing a hurtful postal survey about same sex marriage and Macklemore’s song “Same Love” has become a political hot potato for the extreme right soothsayers.

Q. Your bio says you are “Kanganoulipian”, can you explain?

To quote the official history of the organisation (as penned by Dr Ryan O’Neill), “The Kanganoulipo, an experimental writing collective that has been described as “the most exciting, audacious and talented group of authors to emerge in this country in the last hundred years”, owes its existence to the life and works of Arthur ruhtrA (1940-1982).” After a failed/foiled attempt to write a biography of ruhtrA (in which my person was sabotaged, and my research stolen) I was recruited by Kanganoulipo as an archivist.

Q. Scott Esposito and Lauren Elkin in the “preface” to their book “The End of Oulipo?” say; “The concept of potential literature is founded on a paradoxical principle: that through the use of a formal constraint the writer’s creative energy is liberated.” Is that a fair assessment for yourself?

In regards to my own use of constraint, absolutely. Though underpinning that concept is the idea that all writing is written to constraint – there are rules and requirements that govern the composition of a shopping list or the email sent when chucking a sickie, much the same as there are rules and requirements that govern the composition of a sonnet or a pantoum. The liberation comes from an acknowledgement of these rules: if the constraint is self-imposed the author is more conscious of the rules, and as such more capable of breaking/bending them.

For me personally another aspect of that liberation is the distance it allows between myself and the work in assessing and editing it. If I were to write a poem with no restrictions placed on myself and then assess that poem, my means of assessment are limited and more esoteric: Is it a “good” poem? But if I were to write a poem with restrictions in place these not only provide a guide or structure for its composition, but also its assessment – whether or not the poem is “good” (a difficult and subjective assessment to make at the best of times, and a harder one to make if you are given to excessive self-criticism) becomes a secondary concern; instead I have objective markers that can be considered in this self-evaluation: does the poem use only these letters/this many lines/this rhyme sequence/this particular pattern/etc.

Q. You capture the Australian sporting obsession in a number of your creations, “Edmund Barton 1901-1903” appearing as a cricket scorecard and “William Morris ‘Billy’ Hughes 1915-1923” as a rugby league formation to name just two examples. What’s your take on this sporting obsession?

We’ve just had a bunch of dunces in politics get up in arms about Macklemore singing Same Love at the NRL Grand Final. It’s conceivable the number of Australian that have watched footage of Bob Hawke necking a plastic schooner at the cricket outweighs the number that would have watched footage of him delivering any sort of parliamentary address. I think the sporting focus, particularly of these two early prime ministers, in a way highlights the origins of the links between sport and politics. I mean, that his ability to adjudicate a match of cricket was a contributing factor to the selection of our first prime minister is not insignificant…

Part of it as well I think is a response to the kind of person that dismissively refers to any significant sporting event on social as media as “sportsball” or something similarly disparaging. There are aspects of sporting culture that are problematic (toxic masculinity, nationalism, etc.) but these can be found in any subculture, and the kind of elitist posturing I mention above is dismissive of the important and significant social and cultural functions of sport in building and sustaining communities. The “sportsball” mentality positions sporting culture as something lesser than the arts, which is idiotic. So these poems, bringing the two together, is a small contribution towards closing that gap. More significant (and tremendously enjoyable efforts) have been made by the likes of Nick Whittock, with his cricket poems, and Jeff Parker and Pasha Malla’s “Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion”, which finds poetry in the post-match interviews of professional athletes.

Q. Recently I interviewed Amelia Dale about vandilisation of the “Constitution” and now yourself playing word games with Prime Minister’s. As Amelia said in her interview “Being an “Australian poet” with all that entails it seems to me that the starting point has to be to try, as much as you can, to undo and damage “Australia” the nation state.” Do you have similar motivations?

I was motivated in part by a desire to know more about Australia’s political history, the research required for writing “P(oe)Ms” was also a way for me to try to be better informed. Given my privileged position in the country I also feel I need to address and acknowledge what has contributed to that, but at the same time did not want simply to pay lip service to issues. The constraint underpinning the collection I suppose provided me with a justification for this approach as something that felt authentic to my practice.

In a similar way to the sporting poems this was an attempt to close a gap, or to remove politics and politicians from a pedestal, an act that can be read as undoing or damaging – the poems present the PMs as people, flawed and dirty and real and problematic and sometimes loving and always trying and occasionally doing so for all the wrong reasons…

Q. Poet Oscar Schwartz in his recent interview at my blog spoke of the intersection between technology and culture, saying “Throughout the history of this practice – what I call computational poetics – I found that boundaries become blurry: boundaries between the sciences and the arts, but also boundaries between the human and the non-human. It is the limits of these boundaries that I am interested in exploring.” Do you have a view on the role of the computational and poetics?

Early in “Many Subtle Channels”, his personal recount of co-option by the Oulipo, Daniel Levin Becker says, “What I want to talk about is how the Oulipo, and the principles it incarnates, can make unlikely pairings [my emphasis] – of people, of ideas, of ways of life – seem not only plausible but also promising, not only interesting but also indispensable.” I think of these unlikely pairings – variously between poetic materials and mechanics – as similar to blurred boundaries mentioned.

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

I have just finished reading Eula Bliss’ “Notes From No Man’s Land”, a collection of essays looking at race in America that seemed to dovetail brilliantly with Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” and the OJ documentary “Made In America”. And Elizabeth Tan’s incredible “Rubik”, which is tremendously enjoyable but also unsettling for how it documents the ease with which we can contort narratives.

I am currently reading Jordie Albiston’s “Euclid’s Dog”, for inspiration and for awe.

On the to-read list currently are a bunch of books about time (Simon Garfield’s “Timekeepers”, Lee Simolin’s “Time Reborn”, Andrew Benjamin’s “Style & Time”), research for a very poorly defined but unshakeable idea; Xiaolu Guo’s “Language”, from the very nice looking Vintage Minis series; and Brian Castro’s “Shanghai Dancing”, because I can’t find/afford Bernadette Brennen’s critical study of his work but am desperate to know more about this author who keeps blowing my bloody socks off.

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

I have recently finished the American equivalent of P(oe)Ms, Beaux Pres(id)ents – arguably the visual pun in the title works even better for this batch. A few of them have recently been published by Angry Old Man (https://angryoldmanmagazine.com/dave-drayton/).

I’ve just started a new project, tentatively titled State Of Origin, which hopefully will play around an intersection between cartography and poetics, using postal codes in Australian states and territories as fodder for making poems.

And I continue to chip away at a weird novel-in-voices called Wifthing, which is in part inspired by Anne Garétta’s “Sphinx”. It details an ungendered couple trying to procure an inheritance that is contingent upon their completion of an archaic yearlong wedding ritual.

the honeymoon stage – Oscar Schwartz PLUS bonus poet interview

HoneymoonStage

Through the process of reading, reviewing and interviewing Australian poets I have come across a range of styles, genres and approaches. Interviews have varied from Bruce Dawe not using computers (and getting his wife to type short replies) through to the in-depth engagement of experimental writer Holly Isemonger.

The poems themselves have taken various forms, including traditional sonnets, street poetry, experimental and digital. I can assure you that there is a vibrant community of young emerging poets in Australia using numerous tools to present their work, not everything is available in a bound paper book!

Giramondo Publishing has recently released Oscar Schwartz’s collection “The Honeymoon Stage” and describes it on the back cover as:

“…a collection of poems written for friends on the internet over a five-year period. These friends were spread across the globe, and most of them the poet had never met, and will never know. Poetry was the method by which the correspondents felt they could authenticate themselves to one another, despite their separation in space, and their friendships being mediated through screens. The poems engage with the flattened syntax of internet language, registering its awkwardness while bringing human qualities to the centre of the exchange.”

Opening with the title poem and then moving into three parts “Us”, “You” and “Me” the poet warns us;

The I, You and We in these pages do not belong to me, but came into being inside the boundless, invisible space in which we now spend much of our time.

These modern, digital, email texts are addressed to the anonymous, but address the anonymity of self in the digital world, through poems that have subjects such as a relationship with clones of yourself, the very nature of relationships is questioned deeply.

How much do we know of ourselves? How much do we know of each other? Does this blur even further with the presentation of self through social media? These poems use language such as; “my thoughts about you”, and “if there is one thing you know without doubt” questioning out real knowledge.

The thirty-four poems are mostly addressed to other people, littered with memories, but through this lens we slowly see the writer coming into shape, his views on love, nights spent clubbing, a nostalgia for a lost youth, ultimately revealing a singular lonely core. A writer in cyberspace, our social profile/image.

god will send you nudes

if you’ve been feeling guilty
about the sinful things
you’ve been enjoying on the internet
try to seek consolation
in the presence of your ancestors

in time, god will send you nudes

A collection that is full of questions, playing with the immediacy of information, with lines that juxtapose items such as coconut water and climate change, addressing the sheer volume of data, these are poems of immediacy that are littered with pop references such as rihanna, who has diet pepsi for tears, poems about “game of thrones”.

There is a connectedness between the three sections “us”, “you”, and “me”, there is a human relationship, but at the same time the exploration of social media and the immediacy of the poetry gives you that feeling of loneliness, all the connections are in cyber-space.

Another readable and enjoyable experimental work, addressing our current age.

Over to the interview with Oscar Schwartz, who I need to thank for the immediacy of his replies, I read the book on a flight to Sydney, emailed him the questions upon landing, before I was home again the same night there were the replies in my in-box!!! A poet who practices what he preaches!!

As always I appreciate the effort the poets put into talking about their books and I hope yet another interview helps you to understand the art form a little more, if you think poetry is too daunting, I suggest you read through these interviews, they will make it more accessible, maybe you’ll find the time to buy a book or two, poets can certainly do with more sales!

INTERVIEW

I know you open the book with “The I, You and We in these pages do not belong to me, but came into being inside the boundless, invisible space in which we now spend much of our time.”, so hopefully the questions do not miss the mark completely….

Q. Memories play an important role throughout your collection, as in “your new diet” which contains a diet based on memory, are we simply the sum of our own past?

I wouldn’t want to speak about all people, but for me, I’ve always enjoyed the process of reflecting on my life and crafting it into small narratives. It makes life more meaningful, for me. The risk is that I do this about my future, too. That I come up with narratives about what I want my life to be. But I try to avoid doing this because it generally just makes me feel anxious. Small narratives about things that have happened are interesting to me. Grand narratives about the future not so much.

Q. Whilst reading your poems I had a real sense of the future being quite grim, are you plotting “the downfall of the human race” or is it already too late?

The joke about planning the downfall of the human race is really kind of just a stab at a type of writing or discourse that seems to be really popular at the moment where some “genius man” makes a prediction about the future in a really ridiculous time line. For example, in 2019 we will have robots that we can fall in love with; in 2029 we will have a computer that is better than Picasso; in 2039 we will merge into computers. This form of prediction literature strikes me as a really cheap way of getting a lot of attention,. People listen because the future is unknown; it’s a cheap (and very old) trick to pretend to know how to tell it. People who talk with certainty about the future in terms of concrete events are snake oil salesmen in my opinion.

But I don’t think I feel grim about the future.

Q. From where does the thought of sitting on a giant pair of lungs at a gathering of vegetarians spring?

I was just thinking about the breathlessness that sometimes accompanies very intense social situations. And the idea of having my lungs as a type of external companion just emerged from that. Also I saw lungs on display at an exhibition of the human body and they look pretty weird and amazing.

Q. Do you have “a book that allows you to dissociate fully from past conceptions of yourself”? If so what is it?

The book I had in mind was The Power of One by Bryce Courtney. When I was 10 my sister, who is two years older than me, read the book. She really liked it and when I asked to read it she said “you won’t get it. It’s too old for you.” Up until that point I had mostly read “kids books”, which I never really connected with. I found a lot of them kind of silly just for the sake of it, and that annoyed me. Against my sister’s advice I read The Power of One. It was the first book I lost myself in. I felt a sense of separation from my family and from other people. I guess it was like the first moments of identity formation. I remember this one scene vividly when a prison guard puts a baton up another man’s anus, and he haemorrhages to death. The violence of that was visceral for me. I guess my sister was right. I was probably a bit young. I was probably slightly traumatised by that image. But I’m glad I read it, and from that point on I only read “adult” books. At the time of reading it, I became obsessed with boxing (the main character is training to become a boxer). I decided I wanted to be a boxer. I used to make my dad and friends box with me for hours. This kept happening to me with every book I read after that. I wanted to become whatever the main character was. Eventually I realised I wanted to be a writer, because then I could pretend to be anything I wanted to be in my writing.

Q. Is it ironic that you’re being “interviewed by a … small literary blog”?

I don’t think so. I really love small literary blogs. They were how I met lots of the people that inspired me to write The Honeymoon Stage. I felt so excited that people were talking about and sharing my work and my friends’ work. Small literary blogs create community and friendship. For me poetry is all about community and friendship.

Q. The internet is a bottomless resource for your work, can you tell me a little about your research and “the intersection between technology and culture”?

The intersections of technology and culture was the focus of my academic research. I wrote a PhD exploring the question of whether computers can write poetry. When I started my research I thought that this question was a contemporary one, that it spoke to the cutting edge, or the speculative future, where sentient machines would learn to “feel” and then write poetry. What I realised, after around a year, was that people have been using computational methods and mechanisms to create poetic texts for millennia. From the Kabbalistic permutations of God’s name, to Ramon Lull’s combinatory poetics, to Ada Lovelace’s creative programming languages, to Edgar Allan Poe’s formula for generating The Raven, to the avant faddists obsession with algorithmic proceduralism, up to our present moment where programmers are making poetry bots on Twitter. Throughout the history of this practice – what I call computational poetics – I found that boundaries become blurry: boundaries between the sciences and the arts, but also boundaries between the human and the non-human. It is the limits of these boundaries that I am interested in exploring.

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

I’m reading a book called A Son of the Red Centre. It’s the memoir of Kurt Johannsen, a man born just west of Alice Springs in 1915 who invented the road train, those massive trucks that move stuff all around Australia. The reason I’m reading this is because I’m writing a chapter for a book I’m working on about humans being replaced by machines. Specifically I’m looking at how autonomous trucks will disrupt employment in logistics, but also destroy a way of life, that of the truck. I live in Darwin now. There is a strong sense of our dependance on trucking freight to get our supplies, more so than down south. When autonomous trucks come in, we will lose not only a type of employment, but a way of life up here, just like when the trucks replaced the old bullockies and cameleers.

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

I’m working on the above book for Scribe. It’s about humans being replaced by machines. I’m not just looking at this phenomenon from the perspective of workers, but also as carafes, companions, creators, decision makers, and as a species.

The Agonist – Shastra Deo PLUS bonus poet interview

Agonist

The Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize is a literary award for an unpublished poetry manuscript written by a Queensland author. The current winner has their manuscript published by the University of Queensland Press. Last month, at the Queensland Poetry Festival, the 2017 winner was announced, Rae White for the collection “Milk Teeth”. 2016 winner was Shastra Deo for her collection “The Agonist” which was launched at the Festival, and Stuart Barnes won the 2015 version of the award, I reviewed his collection “Glasshouses” and interviewed him here.

I have been fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of “The Agonist” from the publisher as well as talking the poet herself into an interview about her debut collection.

As always I will post my thoughts about the book before presenting the interview, verbatim, at the close of this post.

“The Agonist” is a book that questions the physical world, a collection that opens with an illustration by Henry Vandyke Carter from Gray’s Anatomy and then moves to an epigraph by Emily Dickinson, this is a world where the physical meets the metaphysical

The more I think about your body, the more I know
it is no longer your own: your heart is a house
with the doors left open: your brain is the basement

Filled with smoke. The skeleton hidden under the flesh
of floorboards. A stranger roaming the hallways, a
dappled shadow splashed on the wall, flickering in firelight.

Poetry of meat, sinews, bones and tendons. Rooting itself in the physical world, with water, fishing, drowning sitting alongside familial blood connections

Brother, do you remember the Bering Sea,
where we promised to go home again?

A collection of poems that contain (or are even partially called) lexical gaps, poems that demand reading aloud. The syncopation, the alliteration and simply the rhythm leading you to verbalise the poems you’re reading

/yaad/
My childhood, remembered: mouths unsynced
with sound, words swollen and sworn. Throats
dismantled from the inside out. My tongue turned
plosive, poised at the tip of my teeth,
dubbing out of dialect.

Whilst my description to date may seem very dark, there is also an erotic undertow at play here, dark magik sitting alongside the medical anatomical terms, with a hint of the sexual;

I was never good at being truthful
during daylight:
my lovers left wanting
to find the seam where belief and desire crossed,
to make narratives out of my body within their beds.
my fragile geometry reduced to a tangle of interlocked limbs.

Even though this becomes a ritualistic poem.

There is also use of formal constructs, for example the poem “Anatomy of being” is a fixed 26 line structure each line starting with a different letter of the alphabet, the poem talks of the body’s reaction to prayer, to breathing, to panic, linking these everyday functions to the medical term.

These poems recalled a road trip, where belongings are disposed of prior to travel, the poet always hovering on the edge, moving beyond the current physical world, to an unknown world, beyond something…

A collection that shows astute maturity, it is fascinating to know that this is a debut collection, as the depth of exploration, subject matter and deft word usage suggests a writer who has crafted their work for quite some time. One of the highlights of my poetry reading this year, it is a collection I urge you to explore, and keep your eyes out for more work from Shastra Deo, as I am very confident that we will be coming across her name again, yes I anticipate more awards here.

As always I would like to thank to poet for taking the time to answer my questions, to educate my readers in her art form and for her honesty with her replies.

Q. These are poems that demand reading aloud, and you have touched on a fascination about the brain’s processing of language and sound, where does this interest come from?

A few people have said that to me since The Agonist was released—that the poems work well when read out loud. I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision, as I’m generally most focused on how the poems look on the page. But, I usually hear the rhythm or tune of a line before I know what the words are. Amy Hempel describes something similar: the act of hearing and humming that tune over and over until it translates into a sentence.

I rarely get a first line though, and typically build around whatever’s come to me. “Haven” started with lines that are now part of the final stanza: “And his back, freckled / with oracular precision”. They’re not the most sonically interesting lines (though I like the repetition of the ck sound in “back”, “freckled”, and “oracular”; and how “freckled” and “oracular” each have an r, ck, and l sound in the same order) but they do feel musical to me. I try to infuse the rest of the poem with that same music.

As for the brain, my interest starts with the gross anatomy. I love that the human body houses so many labyrinths—the brain, ear, belly. And more. I also wonder where we house other things, like memory and emotion. I’m no longer fluent in my native language (Hindi), but that’s not really interesting to me: I want to know where my memory of the language went—where it used to live and how it was expunged from the brain and the tongue.

Q. Another fascination is rituals, religious, magik, tarot, divination, from where did this interest stem?

Haruspicy—the reading of omens in the entrails of animal sacrifices—is my favourite form of divination. It all comes back to my interest in the corporeal body and where the body holds its histories. I want the body—medical, cultural, historical, individual—to be something more than the sum of its parts. Archive, container, repository. If we can read the future in the gut, then why not the past? And the relationship between the medical body and magic is well documented—there’s a lovely quote from Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s book, Witches, Midwives, and Nurses – A History of Women Healers:

“It was witches who developed an extensive understanding of bones and muscles, herbs and drugs, while physicians were still deriving their prognoses from astrology and alchemists were trying to turn lead into gold.”

As for ritual, I think we take its quotidian nature for granted. The act of brushing teeth, steeping tea, or turning key in lock become symbolic when enacted within a poem, but these rituals are part of the reality of everyday living. I’m reminded of Bronwyn Lea’s “Routine Love Poem”: “they make & remake coffee / they make & remake the bed”. Ritual isn’t limited to hallowed spaces or the shedding of blood. You may not be lighting candles, but what a many-splendoured thing it is to pass through your doorway after dark, turn on your lights, and remake house into home.

Q. There’s a sense of displacement in a number of poems, can you talk a bit about your sense of a “homeland”/“homecoming”?

I’m interested in texts that treat place or setting as a character in and of itself. Jane Harper’s The Dry and Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing come to mind: the Australian landscape, in both texts, feels like a maw waiting to scrape teeth against the ankles of the unvigilant. While I’m happy to research as needed to create a convincing setting, homeland, for me, is a tricky thing.

The Agonist is written almost entirely in persona. When dealing with a new speaker, or one that does not easily fit within an existing mythos, I think about the physical place they inhabit and where it is they want to go. These settings don’t always appear in the poems: more often than not, I catch speakers during moments of travel, or trapped within some sort of liminal space. There’s a sense of wanting to move forward but remaining tethered to the past, or wanting to hold on to a moment while knowing what’s ahead is unavoidable.

Memory, I think, is homeland, and I believe that so much of memory is embodied. I’ve actively tried to problematise that relationship by writing about bodies in crisis. All you can do then is wait to see what emerges.

Q. You are studying for your PhD, you are to become a “doctor” of what? If I had to guess I’d say medicine or something to do with teeth!!

If only! It would be better for everyone if I remain a hobbyist when it comes to medicine and teeth. I’m doing a creative writing PhD: my dissertation will be made up of a poetry collection and a critical essay. The critical essay is focused on body phantoms—that uncanny sensation of an arm, leg, or organ where no such body part remains. I’ll be examining body phantoms as they appear in medical and literary canons up until the First World War, paying particular attention to the moments when they disappear from history. The poetry, so far, has again found its roots in ritual: medical rituals, burial rituals, and séance. But there’s also the issue of creating a corpus or body of work for the phantom to inhabit—how to write both the haunting and the house.

Q. Your tarot readings? Anything you can reveal?

Sadly, I’m not adept at reading tarot. I like the iconography and symbolism of the cards, and how meanings can change depending on the card’s position, the spread used, and the other cards drawn. It’s not a static form of divination. I have drawn cards to carry with me when I know I’m going to be under stress—I had The Chariot in my pocket during the launch of The Agonist! My friend, Madeleine Dale—a fantastic poet—is the real talent, having used tarot to accurately predict our fickle Brisbane bus times. I’m not as gifted.

I think there’s an odd sort of… metonymy at play when invoking the tarot as potential (and uncertain) characters and speakers. A layering, really, of what the name of the card instantly evokes, what the card represents, and whatever else the reader brings in their reading of both card and poem.

Q. I ask all of my interviewees this, I’m building a nice reading list based on the replies, what are you reading at the moment and why?

I’m currently reading Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone—a poetic memoir about her years as a nurse during the First World War—for my dissertation. It’s a marvellous book, weaved of fragmentary moments—figures reduced to fragment. And the noise of war. I’m also slowly rereading parts of Catherine Malabou’s The Ontology of the Accident, Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, and Felicity Plunkett’s Vanishing Point. But I recently had a dream that I met and embarrassed myself in front of Anne Carson, so something of hers should probably be next.

To be honest, I haven’t been reading or watching TV as much as I’d like, mostly because of my gaming habit. I hope Marvel’s The Defenders will inspire some poems, as the first season of Marvel’s Daredevil did. But I’m still happily entrenched in Final Fantasy XV; that’s where the majority of my free time goes.

Q.  You end this collection with walking away, so what is next?

Strolling towards something, hopefully! As mentioned, I’ve just started my creative writing PhD, so another poetry collection is in the works. Since reading Stuart Barnes’s Glasshouses, I’ve been trying to make more of a conscious effort to work within form. Not only sonnets and the like, but recipes, instruction manuals, how-to guides. I’ve been playing with the idea of weaponised domesticity—something that unconsciously worked its way into a number of poems in The Agonist. Household tricks are small acts of witchcraft, I think: coffee, cloves, and baking soda to eliminate unpleasant odors; a little lemon juice and sunlight to draw out the bloodstains.

Constitution – Amelia Dale, poet interview

Constitution

In late August Mascara Literary Review ran an article by myself where I reviewed Amelia Dale’s latest book “Constitution” and that piece contained a few comments from the poet herself. I interviewed Amelia Dale about her latest book, and naturally only used a portion of what she had to say in the review itself. As I am building a collection of Australian poet interviews here at Messenger’s Booker, I thought it prudent to publish the full interview with Amelia Dale here.

If you are interested in the review at Mascara you can access it here:

As always I would like to thank the poet for giving me their time, being open and honest in their replies and for their contribution to my “archive” of interviews. Amelia Dale and I conversed, via email, in early July and the unedited version of our “discussion” is below.

Her book “Constitution” can be purchased at the following locations, Melbourne: Collected Works, and Readings (Lygon), Sydney: Gleebooks, Hobart: The Hobart Bookshop or you can email the publisher, details at their website

Again, thanks to Amelia Dale for her time, and of course her book….

Q. Is the unrelenting rhetoric of your text taken from actual interview snippets from the ‘7.30 Report’? Who are the speakers?

Yes the text is edited transcriptions of interviews with Malcolm Turnbull from the 7:30 report. There are no other speakers. It is all Turnbull. I’ve deleted some words but all the text, the weird phrases, the odd metaphors are all his.

Q. The demeaning condescending talk to “Leigh” appears as an “interlude” throughout the text, did you purposely use this as a buffer to the “confusion”?

Again, this is Turnbull’s work, not mine. We can all speculate on his own reasons for needing the buffer, for needing an interlude. I just wanted to make the convolutions of his speech visible.

Q. “The truth is that all of us are a bit liberal and a bit conservative in differing degrees”, the right side of politics may think so, do you think so?

Claims for a sensible or objective “centre,” the idea that the grown-up place to start is compromise makes me nauseous. Turnbull of course markets himself as a kind of socially “progressive” left-of-right figure. We’re supposed to be happy that he doesn’t commit Abbott-level macroaggressions and not be angry that his policies kill people. Before I “wrote” the book I experimented with a twitterbot @democraticteddy, a markov chain bot that used as its data source the party documents from major Australian political parties. The idea was that it would end up being the tweets of an ideologically confused teddy bear politician, determined to claim the pragmatic, sensible middle ground #sensiblesolutions You don’t have to write a bot to get this language though. It’s everywhere in Australia you’re too bored to listen, its the language of cold neoliberal power.

Q Given you match the format and flow of the actual Constitution I need to ask where did this interest come from?

Being an “Australian poet” with all that entails it seems to me that the starting point has to be to try, as much as you can, to undo and damage “Australia” the nation state. This is not to say that I have any delusions that my book will enact in real terms political change. But I turned to the Constitution because to vandalise the Constitution seems like the sensible, the only thing to do.

Q. As you know I ask all my interviewees this, and in your case I hope it isn’t the “Tax Act” but what are you reading at the moment and why?

While I am typing up these answers I have been enjoying Buzzfeed’s Harry Potter anniversary content. I just did the quiz “Tell Us Seven Of Your Literary Preferences And We’ll Reveal Which “Harry Potter” Character You Are” (Luna Lovegood). Off screen, I’m reading the brilliant Rabbit 21 “Indigenous” edited by Alison Whittaker, love it all, especially Natalie Harkin’s interview, by Corey Wakeling and Damien Shen’s artwork throughout the issue, including his pictures of Abbott and Brandis. I’m also reading Melody Paloma’s In Some Ways Dingo (again Rabbit) which I’m excited about launching in Sydney in late July. Also looking forward to getting into Dave Drayton’s book of P(oe)Ms.

Q. And finally as I ask all my subjects “what’s next” is there something you are working on that you can tell us about?

I’ve determined that all my poetry for the rest of my life will be inspired by, about and against white male politicians. I’m about to move to Shanghai, so Kevin Rudd might be an appropriate muse.

Breaking the Days – Jill Jones PLUS bonus poet interview

BreakingTheDaysToday’s post is longer than usual; however I urge you to read the interview, you will not be disappointed,

Adelaide based Australian poet Jill Jones has just released a new collection of poems titled “Brink”, however as part of my reading of the 2017 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry I read her 2015 collection “Breaking The Days”. As I have been featuring recently interviews with Australian poets, I approached Jill Jones about her earlier book and she was extremely generous giving her time and an extensive in-depth interview follows my few short thoughts on her book.

A collection that contains forty-five single page poems, closing with a fifteen sectioned sequence “The plover in the poem and what meaning does not mean”. The book opens with “Lose Your Grip” where the unreliability of memory, “if you forget what you forgot”, and ageing shimmer throughout, with a core message of enjoying the moment, the “pleasure”. “Telltale” continues the theme:

The past might be connected to
pines, matchboxes
indistinguishable songs

As does “Evidence”;

The past is something a prisoner
might want to forget, or maybe
it uncovers, but what?

Through measured and stark poetics a number of seemingly insignificant observations are questioned, “appliances/pieces of a house”, and “Any life is accumulation/things, hair, fat, disequilibrium/traces where the drugs went on their way”, and “Even the fridge sings”, these examples across three different poems. But the collection is not insignificant, it is an appeal for the reader to dwell, to notice, to dissect and analyse and to enjoy the present,

Cold is colder

Feedback isn’t really food
thanks isn’t hope
feet are also traffic
stars are predictable, if also
and concurrently, untrue.

Political debate is no more stupid
on one day or another day
there’s always an excuse to
mention breasts.

Trains can bring out
the worst in people
noise is always noise
(there’s always noise)
traditions were once
revolutions.

I actually like writing, when I like it
the temperature takes it time.

Choice is kin to boredom
cold is colder than it looks
talking to yourself really helps.

If only I could stop dreaming about poems.

The seasonal, the weather, creep into most poems, in a lot of ways decay, “Some bug is eating the violets”, but the one constant is the weather, the sun, it contrasts with the ephemeral shopping malls, with material goods. Clouds and birds, themes we often see in poetry occur throughout, welcome visitors to the page, again a call to slow down, live in the present moment.

Touching on the political, “Email is record” a plea to address climate change, as well as being a collection that questions the reader, if you could observe your life as art, “if you were more open/would it make a difference?” Thoughtful ruminations where you need to abide and contemplate the poems, deeper works than the stark lines imply.

Recently I have been exploring more experimental poetic works and it was a breath of fresh air to read Jill Jones’ book, whilst not “traditional” the rhythm and cadence of these works left a lingering foggy feeling, a collection to be revisited, a collection to be read outdoors (in all types of weather), poems that you finish and return immediately to the beginning to gain further depth. A worthwhile addition to the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Award and I very much look forward to reading Jill Jones’ new collection “Brink”.

As always, I am indebted to the honesty and openness of the poet in giving me their time as well as contemplating my questions. Based on recent email exchanges I do know that a few of the interviewees have found the “unpicking” of their works an interesting exercise in itself and I am grateful that all of them have been so approachable.

This interview is presented (as always) unedited, hopefully it helps readers of poetry understand the art a little more, demystifies the process and gives the reader another level of understanding of their work. In the case of “Breaking the Days” I hope you read the interview and then seek out the book from “Whitmore Press Poetry”, you will not be disappointed.

Here’s the interview

Q. You challenge the reader, in the first poem, “Lose your grip”, to let go and live in the present, “fall into its pleasure/every time”. Was this a conscious decision to ask the reader, throughout your collection, to dwell?

The first poem is always important, yes. And the book is very much made around the idea of a continuous present – if not in the strict Steinian sense of that. But the thought behind ‘lose your grip’ could be as much directed to myself as to a reader. I’m always interested in ideas of what is ‘the present’, which is always becoming the past. That is, how do we grasp the ‘now’? Although presumably we do sense that ‘now’ is the only place we are, continually. I think I need to let go a lot more, in many ways, and get out a bit more. Writing, living. A sentence from Robert Duncan’s The HD Book springs to mind: “There must be currents of meaning as well as particularities of meaning”. I think my work moves within currents and particularities.

Q. You boil everything down to its essence, music becomes the smell of instruments, shivers painful cells, why this interest in minutiae?

Boiling down sounds a bit gruesome. This book was deliberately fined down, though, for sure. Still, I wouldn’t say ‘essence’. I’m not sure I believe in essences, at least in that sense. I’m interested in detail – image or sensual detail of things, as well as the details of language. It’s a way I connect to things, which can then spark off memory or reminiscence, maybe like Proust’s madeleine. Or it’s simply that there’s often one aspect of experiencing something that’s uppermost, that comes first, that leads you in. A smell, a taste, some sound. It’s also a form of materialism, in a sense. There’s also the part that stands for the whole (synecdoche, metonymy, I guess).

And do I always do that, boil down? I also use generalities – for instance, sky, rain, clouds – without always being specific, or locating them. One reviewer of the book felt it wasn’t specifically located – I know, a slightly different issue – and I found that interesting, and bemusing. It wasn’t a criticism, just how he felt it. To my mind the book is very located in where I live now, in Adelaide (with one or two exceptions of older poems originally written in my Sydney years). But I don’t add in street names (I do mention West Beach, however) or obvious landmarks so, sure, it could be anywhere, but there are Adelaide effects in there – the hills, the gulf, level crossings, provinciality, bad drivers, endless festivals – I do want my poems to seem as though they occur in a real, specific place where specific bodies and other entities exist and feel as though they are ‘real’. Even if my writing may seem at times syntactically complex, or linguistically intricate, or conceptual (these are things people have said to me about my work, by the way, not just how I might think of it). This book is less like that than some of my others, deliberately so. The new book, Brink, is more a big mix of detail and dislocation, images and word play, a lot of play, actually.

A lot of the poems in Breaking the Days originated from brief daily notes I posted on Facebook (I no longer post on FB) or as lines/ideas in an actual daily paper diary I kept around 2014 and early 2015 (again, I no longer do this). So, I wanted the book to have a sense of the quick (in its various senses) and the daily. Thus, a present thinginess. Also, apart from the final poem sequence (which is, in fact, a series of short fragments, ie daily notes), I wanted each poem to be no longer than a page. It took a bit of wrangling and rejection to get it to that. If Whitmore Press’s book design had been other than it was, ie if the pages and/or type had been larger or smaller, it would have changed some of the choices and, therefore, arrangements of the poems in the book. I have absolutely no problem with the design, it’s absolutely fine, but every book has its particular size, design, feel, and the way the poems fit into that is important to me.

Q. I used a quote in a recent question to poet Holly Isemonger, and given the cover of your book uses the word “unsettling”, I’d like to recycle that question for yourself. Icelandic author Jón Kalman Stefánsson says, in his latest novel, “The poem surpasses the other literary arts in every way: in its depth, potency, bitterness, beauty, as well as its ability to unsettle us.” Your work is described as “unsettling”, do you think that’s a harsh or fair assessment?

Haha, I was the one who wrote the cover blurb. I’ve never had a publisher write one for me, at least not so far. Most poets, I suspect, are in the same boat. You have to write yr own publicity and, mostly, schlepp yr own stuff around the place. So, I think it’s a fair assessment. I’d rather be unsettling than anodyne. The world is unsettled, even in its settlement. We surely see and hear and taste that every day. Besides, all is change, if I can get a bit Heraclitian for a moment, so nothing can settle. Even in stillness, bodies move, minutely, and internally it’s a continual flux. Unsettling, resettling. And in a very literal sense, I suffer from a form of vertigo (it’s an inner ear problem), so I’m always potentially off-balance. A bit ironic for a Libran, eh!

Q. The poem “Email is record” although a plea to Governments to stop global warming, is a resignation that they won’t listen, is this a defeatist attitude?

I once worked in Government bureaucracies as a public servant, and at times close-ish (more –ish than close, but nonetheless) to Parliamentary decision-making. I don’t ever think you can shrug off the cynicism that kind of experience engenders. Sadly, it’s a cynicism that’s also realistic. Especially these days, when the ‘government’ bit doesn’t actually seem to happen. It’s as though parliamentarians have forgotten that word ‘govern’. Instead, there’s a lot of bully-boy tactics, social media screeching or preening, one-up-personship, and simply noise.

I admire those activists and lobbyists who try to influence politicians about global warming or any number of other issues that need attention. Some times things get done but I realise it’s usually due to trade-offs (you win some …, etc), or being in the right place at the right time, or out-and-out push-and-shove, or blackmail. That’s politics as it’s ever been done, for sure, but at the moment I think it’s more toxic. That’s simply being a realist rather than being resigned. Though, essentially, I think we are defeated on climate change. I see no point in pretending otherwise. The only things that can be done now are adjustments – the climate has changed, and it won’t go back, or not for a long, long time. There can be/should be/is, however, a big salvage operation or series of them, that one hopes, might delay the magnitude of the disaster. Don’t know if it will save all the islands in the Pacific, or Miami or Bangladesh, or the beaches of Adelaide, let alone the poles, but there’s plenty to do and should be supported by politicians but they let petty point-scoring or religious manias or personal inadequacies over-ride community good, you know, the government thing. For instance, the Federal Government’s ridiculous blathering about power issues in South Australia – most of it lies and none of it constructive nor having any relationship to reality, the lived reality of individuals, nor the needs of communities, nor the environment. ‘Clean coal’ – please, spare me!

The poem, however, was also a take on the stupidities of media and technology (and, by implication, all of us as partakers of these) as well as politicians. I was trying to have a laugh at it all, but that maybe doesn’t come across. The references were local, it was a time when a past SA Premier was having a few public personal issues, as much as federal (it was the time of the Godwin Grech Utegate affair, in fact). Actually, I’m not sure people get my jokes (or perhaps they just ain’t that funny – note to self ).

Q. Neruda’s upbringing is said to be the blame for the domineering images of rain in his poetry. Did he influence your work or are your rain images from your upbringing or a more sinister place?

Have people really said that? How curious it is to blame poets/writers for their choices of words. It’s like blaming them for their subject matter or choice of genre. But, no, I wasn’t aware that Neruda’s childhood led him to such heinous acts and, thus, ‘no’ his writing in that regard doesn’t bear any relation to my choices. And I have no negative or sinister relationship to rain. It can be annoying even dangerous, of course, as well as welcome, and good to watch. I guess, being Australian and now living in a much drier city than Sydney, rain or the lack thereof is something you notice and worry about.

Also, thinking back to my answer to the previous question, rain is obviously weather and, thus, climate, and thus, something I’m concerned about, a preoccupation in my work. It’s why there’s also a lot of sky, clouds, and, yes, birds various, in the poems.

I realise I write less directly about specific dramas of human relationships and don’t tell stories or anecdotes as much as some other poets, or not in recent years, anyway. I’m not that kind of poet (nothing wrong with being whatever ‘kind of poet’ one thinks one is, by the way). I’m more drawn to the discursive, or the reflective, sometimes the conceptual (in a very broad sense), rather than the narrative or purely descriptive. I sometimes try to move out of those modes, so, presenting shorter poems in Breaking the Days was a little in that direction, to my mind at least.

But what I think I’m doing and what readers read me as me doing can be two quite different things, I’ve found. And that’s perfectly fine, though disconcerting. I realised this quite recently when I got at least one of the endorsements back for my new book, Brink. The comments made me realise there was an obviously sensual/sexual, relational (and strange) thing going on throughout the book that I knew was there but saw as undercurrent, rather than the kind of thing someone else would go ‘oh hey, here’s what Jonesy’s really on about this time’.

Q. The art of forgetting, an unreliable memory, “Progress is better with forgetting” is another recurring theme. Why this connection to an unreliable memory?

Memory is a preoccupation of a lot of poets, and writers in general. It’s obvious, I guess, as we all live in memory time. But most memory is unreliable, or skewed. The line you’ve quoted, however, is more about how ideas of progress focus on ‘the future’ and that involves a lot of effacing of or forgetting of the past. My old city, Sydney, is a great city of forgetting. Australian history, white settlement, is all about forgetting, forgetting it’s based on theft, rape and murder. So, it’s not so much about unreliable memory but a refusal to face it, or telling lies about it.

Also, it’s generational. My relation to events I’ve lived through, have been close to, is clearly different to my relationship to events I’d only been told about, say by my parents, or teachers, or whatever I’ve read in books, seen on TV. Of course, each generation probably thinks they ‘own’ certain experiences because they lived them, and that experience still remains ‘true’ in the body somewhere, although the specific recall can often be pretty faulty.

On another level, there is woven through the book a lot of memory, including references to very old songs and music. There are poems in the book that directly reference or even quote from music, such as Brian Eno’s Another Green World and The Beatles’ Rubber Soul (‘Nowhere in Another Green World’) or a song by an old 1960s Sydney band, Phil Jones and The Unknown Blues (in ‘Negative Theology’). So, from the obvious to the obscure. That’s not to say that’s all music I like – my tastes are very broad if slightly odd or obscure at times – simply that, for one reason or another, that music wandered in and around the poems, whether I was playing it, or it was overheard somewhere, or part of a topic of conversation in the media, or I simply had an earworm thing happen. None of that’s recent music – but newer music lurks in other of my poems, I hasten to add. I’m not stuck in the 60s and 70s.

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

I’ve been re-reading Marianne Moore and just got the very recent New Collected Poems which I’ve yet to truly delve into. But I was using her work with students earlier in the year and noted that they seemed quite drawn to at least one of her poems, ‘The Fish’. OK, there was also one student who hated it. But I dug out an older Selected of hers I had on the shelf and it made me think again about syllables, shape and line break, and the ways appropriation or collage has been around for so long, as well as her characteristic precision and irony.

I was also looking again at HD’s poetry, partly because there’s a link between her and Moore as well as her and DH Lawrence (whose poetry must be due for a revival!), and partly because I finally sat down with Robert Duncan’s The HD Book, and am still slowly going through its dizzying thought (vertiginous in a good way), as well as HD’s own Tribute To Freud, which covers a great many things but certainly ideas of remembering, plus it shows a different kind of Freud than the one I’d been used to, less patrician, more collaborative.

I suppose this area of reading shows I’m thinking again about modernism, as you tend to do every so often, both from a formalist perspective, from the perspective of all the connections between so many of these writers, and also, in the broadest sense, the occult or ‘magical’ perspective – of what might be magical in forms as well as symbols, masks and ideas of metamorphosis. Yeah, OK, a dangerous area, which means it’s been an old fascination of mine. Besides, I was always rotten at maths so ideas around numbers and systems in poetry, magical or not, make me challenge my innumeracy. Regarding HD, I’m interested for instance in how one of her later works, ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’ as part of Trilogy, comes out of communal crisis, the very real and devastating experience of the bombing of London during World War II, yet is layered with its appeal to ancient wisdoms, a thinking through of recurrences, or a kind of palimpsest, as she stays also in the now: “though our books are a floor / of smouldering ash under our feet”. And, of course, she was working through her own personal crises using masks/personae and, at different times in her life, ideas of lyric or epic. So, yes, ‘currents of meaning’ and ‘particularities of meaning’.

I have also slowly been working my way through CD Wright’s last book Shallcross, published posthumously. Though I believe there may be other work still to follow. She was such a loss. I have followed her work for years. Her work is earthy and embodied (all those particularities of individuals and places), yet never afraid to play amongst language, approachable yet never afraid to experiment. I love her iterations, her grit, her compassion, her love of music, the way she makes fragments really work. There’s so much to love in it.

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

What is next is happening now. As I mentioned before, I have a new book out from Five Islands Press, titled Brink. It’s longer than Breaking the Days, although the title is shorter. It’s the first time I’ve ever used just a single word for a title. I had a great time editing it with the folks from Five Islands. They challenged me about a lot of things, from spelling and grammar minutiae through to deleting and replacing poems. It was a terrific experience in thinking through poem ideas and arrangements. The book covers a lot of ecopoetic territory, as the title Brink would suggest, but it’s more than that. There’s more formal experiment as well.

I have a couple of other things in the works. One is a chapbook but I don’t know when it will be available. The publisher, I think, is aiming for later this year. It’ll contain 17 pages of poems, some previously published and a few newies, and will be launched with titles by other poets but, to be honest, I’m not sure who all those folks are yet (well, I think I have some idea about one or two, but nothing official-like). Also, I have a new full-length book definitely lined up but that won’t be out until later in 2018. I’m writing towards that now, obviously. Both of these only have working titles, so there’s not much more I can say at the moment. I know that sounds a bit vague but until things have a name I feel they’re under the surface and should stay a bit secret.

Also, the project that poet Alison Flett and I started last year – a series of chapbooks from our Little Windows press – is continuing. We have four poets lined up again, three Australians (one of them from Adelaide) and one Scots poet, but again it’s best not to make announcements until it’s all ready to go. Life has a habit of intervening in plans, even well-sorted ones. But if the plan works, we’re hoping to release these later this year. And they’ll be great, definitely. All the poets are wonderful.

I also have a couple of other ideas for my own small projects, I suppose you’d call them chapbooky type things, that I’m hoping some one or another might be interested in. They involve the more odd or playful or just weird end of the spectrum of my writing, so maybe they’ll never surface. And I’m always writing … something. I’ve been a bit dissatisfied with my recent writing so I’m trying to loosen up – hey, ‘lose your grip’ – and see if something different may start happening. Paradoxically, some of that writing involves thinking about form and constraints. Let’s just say form never settles. Let’s just say I’m busy.