Carrying The World – Maxine Beneba Clarke PLUS bonus poet interview

carryingworld

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bull Days – Tina Giannoukos – PLUS bonus poet interview

bulldays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

X

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

Two sonnets later the voice appears a mirror;

XII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over to the questions and answers – enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Painting Red Orchids – Eileen Chong plus bonus poet interview

RedOrchids.jpg

The 2017 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize Poetry shortlist contains three collections only, all by women from migrant backgrounds, and all using very different forms, a very diverse collection that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Each of the shortlisted poets have agreed to be interviewed for Messenger’s Booker and today I present Eileen Chong, starting with a review of her collection “painting red orchids” and finishing up with a detailed interview. I’m very proud to be able to feature the three poets, their work and their thoughts.

Today I look at “painting red orchids”, Pitt Street Poetry’s 2016 publication of fifty poems from Eileen Chong. From the opening poem, the title work, “painting red orchids” you can see meticulous craftsmanship at work;

Painting Red Orchids

Last night, red orchids in the thatched hut burst into blossom.
Worrying about the wind and rain, unable to sleep.
‘Red Orchid’, Huang Shen

My brushes hang in stillness on polished rosewood.
Weasel hair, wolf tail, mink fur. This one, an eyelash
from a leopard. The inkstone was my father’s: slate

quarried from the lake where my great-grandfather
drowned himself one spring night. I scoop well-water
onto the stone and grind the inkstick back and forth.

Pine oils diffuse into the room. My wife has made
this paper with mulberry from our gardens. I lift
my brush, pull back my sleeve and saturate the hairs.

One stroke, one breath: leaves give way to blossom.
More water – rain and cloud above the trees.
Cochineal paste, jade seal – red orchids bloom on white.

The opening quote from Huang Shen, a Chinese painter and calligraphist, his story of creation and attention to detail presented in a style similar to his brushstrokes. You can immediately read into this work the family affair involved in the creation, the use of stark colours, black, white, red, blended with vivid recollections. You know from the opening page that this is to be a slow meditative experience.

huang-shen-300x208

Image courtesy of http://www.visitvictoria.com

The very next poem, “Bloom”, again showing astute observation, a night of “shadows and fallen blooms” can also be transposed as a scene for recollections and observations of the same scene “last week”.

Using a crisp, eloquent style, with not a single word on the page a waste, Eileen Chong lithely presents a raft of personal anecdotes, tales of displacement, “Vantage” including the line “the woman without a country”, stories of early Chinese immigrants, “The Photograph in Australia” portraying the gold rush Chinese miners and a sprinkling of flower metaphors, “embroidered magnolias of marriage”, “pollen from one smeared onto the sex of the other”, the style of these poems are not often seen in recent Australian publications.

Presentation on the page also being a feature, pauses, short three line stanzas where you are forced to allow the line endings linger for a moment before moving to the next, even when enjambment occurs, you still dwell on the previous thought before moving to the next. Very much like the title poem, the fifty works, individual pieces of art.

The theme of displacement runs strong, “Adrift” ending with “I am adrift, far from rock and shore” and the aforementioned “Vantage” opening with a quote from Eavan Boland’s ‘A Woman Without A Country’, which becomes “the woman without a country”, is this our poet, in Sydney? “the bridge is a miracle of engineering/spanning the headlands”, alone without another voice or another’s touch?

A collection that demands to be read aloud, as the poem “Resonance” alludes to, emotional, personal and touching the themes are broad, every so often drawing us back to family ties. “Child” detailing family heartache, the poet’s pain on the page in front of you. “Revisit” opening with “My grandmother has not yet forgotten me” and moves from “She sees who I am, and who I am yet to be” through to “She sees who we are, and who we are yet to be”, a fading mind but still an insightful woman.

This is a collection seeking a strong sense of identity, where do I fit in? In what relationship? In what family? Where is my place in this world? An example, (opening stanza only quoted here);

Family

Sunshine Avenue, Wagga Wagga

Lachlan’s house smells like home.
His mother has been cooking. I step
into the kitchen – steamed chicken on a platter,
clear soup on the boil, ginger scenting the air.

Here Eileen Chong is recollecting somebody else’s family, parallels to her own upbringing, does she “belong” there?

Fittingly the book ends with “Last Night”, a blessing to all the people in Chong’s life.

If you are new to poetry reading this is an ideal collection to begin your journey, a readable style, but with each poem having many layers and areas where you can explore the themes further, with research, or simply a work to read aloud and let the questions linger, slowly leak into your consciousness. I picked up my edition directly from the publishers at Pitt Street Poetry http://pittstreetpoetry.com/eileen-chong/

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

Meticulously crafted, tight eloquent poems that linger, meditations on grand themes, leaving breadcrumbs throughout questions that cause the poems to come back to you long after they have been read. The Australian poetry landscape should reflect our multi-cultural society and Eileen Chong’s words of displacement are fluent, articulate voices of a new Australian. A highly polished collection from a young poet who will surely bring many more worthwhile poems to the reading public.

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

The reasons why it should win the prize could also be the handicap, with the street poet, activist style of Maxine Beneba Clarke or the ephemeral, structured sonnets of Tina Giannoukos maybe more appealing to the judges’ tastes.

Thanks to Eileen Chong for taking the time to answer my questions, the interview conducted via email and published here unedited.

Interview

Q. This is an extremely personal collection of poems, with poems such as
“Child” and “Split Moon” revealing a lot of personal pain and emotion, do
you feel any sort of vulnerability putting these poems into the public
arena?

Emotional truth is very important to me. As a poet, I feel like I have to be porous, vulnerable and honest in order to make the kind of work that is true to itself. It is important to me to respect the privacy of the people in my life; and this is a good time to remind people that poetry isn’t reportage — there is a reason why the phrase ‘poetic license’ exists. Sure, it’s scary to reveal yourself on the page. But if one person reads my poem and feels less alone in this world, then for me, it’s worth it the risk.

Q. Close relationships with family and friends is a common theme throughout
your collection, even a hint of nostalgia coming through, can you explain a
little about the importance of the family unit on your work?

I’m very much an extrovert and I place great importance on the relationships in my life. I was born in Singapore and my first home was a large family home with my paternal great-grandmother as the matriarch. (I write about this in my poem ‘Shophouse, Victoria Street’, in my first book, Burning Rice). It was a situation where the oldest child took care of the youngest. Moving to Australia and having to start over again, meeting new friends, and being apart from my immediate and extended family was very challenging. I was also born at a time where the basic social unit was changing from the extended family to the nuclear family; the modernisation of Singapore and the rise of the public housing flat (as opposed to ancestral homes) as the primary place of residence affected my perception of relationships. I saw it as a loss; but also as a positive as it allowed for an increased sense of privacy that was impossible when living with an extended family.

Q. The poem “Three Ships” contains a reference to the boat the “Krait”,
originally used to rescue people from Japanese occupied Singapore, it later
became a boat used to launch a raid on Singapore Harbour, setting mines on
Japanese shipping. There are also several references to displacement and
your original Singaporean roots can you tell us a little more about your
move to Australia and the maintaining of connections, as the boat metaphor
appears to contain a lot more than simply a disguised fishing boat?
When I was studying at Sydney University and taking a class in screenwriting, I wrote a screenplay about a historical figure from Singapore, Elizabeth Choy. I did an extraordinary amount of research for this screenplay, and part of this research entailed reading an interview with one of the survivors of the Krait. Now as you know, the word ‘krait’ refers to an innocuous-looking but deadly snake native to Malaysia and Singapore. I was walking down the street yesterday and a white woman called out to me: ‘You Chinese c*nt!’ I was absolutely shocked. I was just walking down the street. I think there is a level of pretence involved in living anywhere — in fitting in, being seamless, looking like the others. I have always felt like a misfit, even when on the surface I wasn’t. I think this is a sustained theme in my poems, across all three books. I also enjoy poetic ventriloquism — entering into the mind and emotional space of a character is a trick I love to perform.

Q. Many of your poems use the tercet (three line stanza) form and are
meticulously formed, can you explain a little about your attention to
detail, and why the less common tercet?

I don’t consider myself a formalist, although I have written poems in formal verse. I do take a lot of care with line breaks and stanzas, and often I try to pay close attention to the internal rhythms of the lines that fall upon the page. I like the end of a line to simultaneously close and open up an image or an idea. Ends of poems are even more important. I’m not sure why many of my poems are written in tercets, to be honest. I would like to find out. Maybe someone will tell me.

Q. Many your poems open with an epigraph from well-known poets, such as
Neruda, Du Fu, Plath, you are obviously well read, can you tell us a little
bit about your influences, as well as what you are reading right now?

I’m currently reading a long essay on debt by Margaret Atwood, which I found in my local op shop for $1. It’s a signed copy, too, which astounds me. It’s fascinating. I’ve read two Jeanette Winterson novels in the past week, and I’m also reading the poetry of Alice Oswald, Jane Hirshfield, Lorine Niedecker, and Marianne Moore. Hirshfield’s excellent essays on poetry are a must-read. I also went on a Linda Gregg binge a while ago, which seemed to affect my use of rhythm and the line for a while. I feel like I should try to read more modern British poetry, but I know I tend to gravitate towards North American writing. I read almost everything that comes across my path, and then some. I follow my nose. I find lots of books in the op shop, and one writer leads you to another. I read fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, comics, everything that is good.

Q. Are you working on something right now that you can tell us about?

I’m finalising the edits on my next book, Another Language, which will be published in winter 2017 by George Braziller in NYC as part of the Braziller Series of Australian Poets. I’m working with the wonderful Paul Kane on this book. There will be a selection of poems from Burning Rice (2012), Peony (2014) and Painting Red Orchids (2016) as well as some new work. I am also working on my fourth collection. I’m not sure what that is about yet, but I have every confidence that it will reveal itself to me when it is ready. My Australian publishers are the wonderful John and Linsay Knight at Pitt Street Poetry. You can contact me at www.eileenchong.com.au

I would like to thank Eileen Chong for her time in answering my questions and also for her wonderful poem “Xiao Long Bao”, a poem that reminded me of the very first time I had eaten those wonderful dumplings, the ginger, vinegar and soy mixture as a dipping sauce, making my mouth water. I think Chinese dumplings are on the dinner agenda tonight!!

American PEN and Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2017

Award lists time. The PEN America 2017 Translation Prize Longlist was announced over night, ten titles will be whittled down to a shortlist, announced on 18 January 2017 with the winner announced on 22 February 2017, prize of US$3,000. Here are the ten titles (in the order presented on the Pen America website):

  • Confessions by Rabee Jaber (New Directions) translated from the Arabic by Kareem James Abu-Zeid
  • The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Muller (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company) translated from the German by Philip Boehm
  • Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was by Sjón (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
  • Between Life and Death by Yoram Kaniuk (Restless Books) translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav
  • One Hundred and Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin (Deep Vellum Publishing) translated from the French by Christiana Hills
  • Angel of Oblivion by Maja Haderlap (Archipelago Books) translated from the German by Tess Lewis
  • Justine by Iben Mondrup (Open Letter Books) translated from the Danish by Kerri A. Pierce
  • The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke (Grove Press) translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Hogarth/Crown Publishing) translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith
  • Limbo Beirut by Hilal Chouman (University of Texas Press) translated from the Arabic by Anna Ziajka Stanton

vicpremiers

Earlier in the week the shortlists for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards were announced. Each category winner receives $25,000 and is eligible for the $100,000 Victorian Prize for Literature. The winner of the People’s Choice Award receives $2000. Here are the shortlists:

Fiction

  • Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain (Scribe)
  • The Healing Party by Micheline Lee (Black Inc.)
  • Wood Green by Sean Rabin (Giramondo)
  • Waiting by Philip Salom (Puncher & Wattmann)
  • The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong (Text)
  • The Love of a Bad Man by Laura Elizabeth Woollett (Scribe)

Non fiction

  • Songs of a War Boy by Deng Adut & Ben Mckelvey (Hachette)
  • The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette)
  • The Killing Season Uncut by Sarah Ferguson & Patricia Drum (MUP)
  • Offshore: Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru by Madeline Gleeson (NewSouth)
  • Position Doubtful by Kim Mahood (Scribe)
  • The Fighter by Arnold Zable (Text)

Poetry

  • Carrying the World by Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette)
  • Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong (Pitt Street Poetry)
  • Bull Days by Tina Giannoukos (Australian Scholarly Publishing)

Young adult

  • When Michael Met Mina by Randa Abdel-Fattah (Pan)
  • The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon (Lothian)
  • The Other Side of Summer by Emily Gale (Random House)

Drama

  • Girl Shut Your Mouth by Gita Bezard (Black Swan State Theatre Company)
  • Trigger Warning by Zoë Coombs Marr (Melbourne International Comedy Festival)
  • The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell (Currency Press)

The poetry list a very short one and containing three women from migrant backgrounds, means we have an intriguing shortlist which has been presented by judges Samah Sabawi (Palestinian born Australian/Canadian, living in Australia a playwright and author) Emilie Zoey Baker, (Australian, Melbourne based, award winning slam poet) and Alicia Sometimes (convenor, Australian Melbourne based writer poet). I will read and review all three titles and do my best to interview the poets involved, stay tuned for more from this list.