SWF 2017 Saturday

I had planned to start my third day at the Sydney Writers’ Festival with Maxine Beneba Clarke talking to Peter Polites at 10 am. But a text on Saturday advised that Maxine couldn’t be here, so we had an unexpectedly leisurely start to the day, arriving in time to queue for:

11.30  Resist!
‘Resist’ is a word that has come into frequent usage in the US since the election of Donald Trump as President. Let me say up front that there was a problem with this event: it was two USers (Teen Vogue Editor Elaine Welteroth and Nadja Spiegelman, daughter of two New Yorker illuminati) talking about US politics with a third USer (Slate‘s movie critic Dana Stevens) in the chair, so they could talk to each other as if they were at home and the rest of the world, including this audience, were peripheral. Luckily the third panel member, Hisham Matar (The Return), though he was born in New York, brought a very different perspective to the conversation.

The three US representatives addressed the word ‘resist’: why ‘resistance’ rather than the more usual ‘opposition’? is this self-dramatisation, or something more substantial? They generally agreed that the election had brought about a political awakening, a new energy and sense of purpose, in many people. It was interesting to learn that Nadja Spiegelman and her mother had produced Resist!,  a free 40-page broadsheet of political comics and graphics by mainly female artists in time for the big women’s march after the election; and that Teen Vogue has become a key source of news for teen girls, including a regular feature describing the lies told by the President between issues.

Then Hisham Matar shifted the ground. It’s not so much the word that concerned him as the register. He spoke of his childhood in an intensely political home, listening to conversation among dissidents with life and death commitment. As a child, he asked (I think he said ‘mischievously’), ‘Who is more sculpted by the dictatorship, those who work night and day to defend it, or those who work night and day to resist it?’ The challenge is not to let the oppressive forces define the world. Political dogma tends inexorably to simplify matters, and rather than resist in equally simplified terms, to always honour complexity, to show up as your full, authentic self is powerful activism and resistance, to always be engaged with complexity. He hoped, I think he said, to have a response to the current situation in he USA that was complex enough to include the recognition that Trump is his brother.

Wonderfully, the other panel member responded to this perspective without defensiveness, and the conversation took an interesting turn. Spiegelman commented that in the art submitted to Resist!, the male artists tended to create images of Donald Trump (small hands, etc), while the women addressed the reality of their lives as women. Elaine Welteroth spoke of young women she knows who are taking powerful leadership, and then described her own version of ‘turning up as your full authentic self’: she was the first African American to have a particular position in a large US corporation, but when she applied for the job it wasn’t with the aim of being ‘the first’ or ‘the only’, it was simply the next challenge in her career; when the press made a big deal of it she realised that it brought responsibilities, which she embraced.

The first question at the end raised the question that had been hovering in my mind ever since I saw that the session was sponsored by a skincare product: to what extent is resistance to Donald Trump being coopted by corporate America. One of the panellists quotes a disparaging witticism, ‘Activism is the new brunch.’ We had to leave before that discussion unfolded. The last thing I heard was someone saying, ‘we could do a whole panel discussion on that Pepsi ad.’ Indeed!

1.30 Memoir: A Slippery Art
I went to this session mainly because of Kim Mahood’s wonderful Position Doubtful. All I knew about the other panellists was that Brentley Frazer’s youth was misspent to the max and Graeme Innes is a promoter of worthy causes. Catherine Eccles, a ‘scouting agent’ from the UK, was in the chair for this unlikely gathering.

Catherine eccles kicked the conversation off with a question about maps, and read a brief quote about maps from Kim Mahood’s book. Before addressing the question, Mahood said that she had laboured over the passage that had been read out, so as to express her meaning as clearly and precisely as she could. Asked to speak on the subject, she wasn’t sure anything she would say could measure up.

I don’t think Mahood was trying to make a point when she said that, but she did make one. Nobody read to us at this session, and that is a shame. There was much discussion of how Brentley’s use of English Prime – his writing the whole book without using any of the copular verbs, amis, arewaswerebe, been, being – made his book Scoundrel Time wonderfully immediate, especially in its (unspecified) shocking moments, but we had to take the panel’s word for it. Graeme Innes has been blind from birth, and a natural story-teller from soon after. He described his book, Finding a Way, as all the stories he tells about his life connected up. He was a pleasure to listen to, but I would have liked to hear him, or someone else in the absence of a Braille text, read from his book. And Kim Mahood, well, I doubt if anyone in the audience who hadn’t read her book would have gathered from her unassuming manner just how profound the book is.

I mean no criticism of Catherine Eccles, but I did wonder if this session would have been more interesting with an Australian in the chair. All three books have something profound to say about Australia – Kim Mahood on relationships between settler and traditional Aboriginal people who have strong attachment to the same land; Brentley Frazer on  how we imagine masculinity; and Graeme Innes is a brilliant exemplar of a distinctive Australian yarn-spinning humour. But these aspects of their work were only incidentally touched on.

3 pm  Nevertheless, She Persisted

This is the second event today that owes its title to US politics. (If you don’t know the story of Elizabeth Warren’s silencing, you can read it here.) This time, though, the focus was on women, on feminism and the struggle against patriarchy.

Clementine Ford is a feminist celebrity and misogynist hate target. I haven’t read her Fight Like a Girl, a good reason to pay to hear her speak. Robert Jensen has written the intriguingly subtitled The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men. Catherine Fox, a tireless worker for women in the corporate world and the armed forces, chaired.

Ford apologised at the start, saying she was struggling with fatigue, and a possible explanation became evident in the course of the hour as her little son woke up and demanded her attention, then struggled first to be fed then to pull himself around the table on the stage picking up styrofoam cups and generally providing an alternative focus of attention.

It was a good discussion. I loved Jensen’s argument for men to join this conversation. If we put our hands in the air and say we have no right to speak, we are abrogating our personal accountability. And it’s not enough to say one is a feminist. There are many versions of feminism; he is a radical feminist. We didn’t get down to definitions about  what kind of feminism the other two panel members advocated.

There was civil but tense disagreement about pornography, about which the hour wasn’t long enough for real discussion.

Again, I would have liked to hear some of each of the authors’ books.

Then off to a little feast of poetry at:

4.30 AVANT GAGA
Toby Fitch, organiser of the monthly Avant Gaga readings at Sappho’s Bookshop in Glebe, hosted nine poets. The venue wasn’t quite as big as Thursday’s but it’s not late at night or tucked away in a glary room either. Maybe poetry is coming back out of the shadows. By way of general introduction, Toby said that all the poets had written or were writing books, some had won awards and they all had personal lives, so his individual intros consisted of a string of anagrams (which must have taken him hours to devise).

I jotted down notes of anagrams and lines that struck me, but sadly my nots are mainly illegible. In order, we heard:

  • Toby Fitch (no anagrams, but he read us a cool list poem about clouds)
  • Emily Stewart
  • Aden Rolfe (‘ear fondle’, a found poem consisting of the editorial notes on a government tender form)
  • Holly Isemonger (whose mother, in the audience, was cajoled into saying she didn’t like poetry because she didn’t ‘get it’)
  • Alison Whittaker (I wrote down a lot of quotes from her, and they look like spiders’ tracks – sorry!)
  • Ali Cobby Eckermann (‘mean backbone lyric’; again, she knocked us out of the park)
  • Amelia Dale (this poem was brilliant in the performance, though Lord knows what this poem would look like o the page: she mimed while a computer-generated voice recited the text of Malcolm Turnbull’s side of an interview with Leight Sales
  • Jane Gibian (‘Leftovers from a Pirate Party’, a poem made up of subject lines from freecycle emails – as a freecycler I loved this, even more than I loved aden Rolfe’s editorial poem)
  • Michael Farrell (‘While My Veranda Gently Weeps’)

Sorry, no more detail than that. But it was a lot of fun.

We walked up town, had dinner in the old GPO at Martin Plaza, then to the Town Hall for:

8.30 Advice from Nasty Women
And it’s a hat-trick for US-politics-derived naming of events today. This time it’s Donald Trump’s insult of Hillary Clinton that’s being reclaimed. (Surely some of our local reactionaries have given us a memorable phrase or two, or have they all shut up since the great success of ‘destroying the joint’?)

Here for an hour and a half we were read to, with Sophie Black as compere.

Anita Heiss kicked off with an acknowledgement of country, and a beautiful piece of writing about Barangaroo (the woman not the place), Oodgeroo, and Rosie Scott (a white woman with a black heart).

US writer, editor and cultural critic Chris Kraus, labouring through a heavy cold, took the ‘nasty’ in ‘nasty women’ literally, and read some of Kathy Ackers’s nasty letters.

Nadja Spiegelman read a personal essay about jealousy. This is the third time I’ve seen her at this Festival, and she has been good value every time, each time revealing another side of her writerly self.

Viola Di Grado, a depressed looking young Italian woman, read a depressing story about childhood bullying in a depressed manner, and ended with an exhortation, ‘Always be a witch. Always be real.’

Canadian Durga Chew-Bose read a letter to her infant niece, a kind of good-fairy blessing, and chief among the blessings she wished on the little one was to find meaning.

African-American Brit Bennett began by saying that the whole Twitter phenomenon of women reclaiming nastiness was pretty much restricted to white women, because in the US African American women have been labelled nasty already in a number of ways. In a serendipitous echo of Hisham Matar earlier in the day, she called for a more complex feminism than Twitter seems to envision.

So the take-home message from the day was go for complexity. I took it home.

 

SWF 2017 Friday

I heard a rumour that this will be the last Sydney Writers’ Festival to happen at Walsh Bay. That would be a great shame, because, especially when the weather stays bright as it has this year, it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful place in which to gather with hundreds of other reader-types.

Today, much to our dog’s displeasure, we gave her a very short walk i the morning because we had to be at the Sydney Theatre by ten o’clock for:

10 am A Murderer in the Family

The title of this session is from Art Spiegelman’s misquotation of someone’s remark that being related to a writer was like having a traitor in the family. Each of the three panel members has recently published a memoir in which a parent is a central figure. Michael Williams, from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, did a brilliant job as chair (in fact, I reckon that if he is listed as chairing a session you can be reasonably sure it will be excellent), beginning in a way I wish every panel at the festival could begin, with each of the panellists reading briefly from their work: Nadja Spiegelman from I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This, Susan Faludi from In the Darkroom, and Hisham Matar from The Return.

Such different books: a young woman’s exploration of her mother’s and grandmother’s stories, an older woman telling the story of her father whose violence led to much unhappiness in her young life and who is now a woman, and a man who returned to his native Libya after the fall of Gaddafi and searched for word of his activist father who disappeared when he was nine. Yet they had clearly read and appreciated each other’s books, and the conversation was lively and interesting.

Nadja Spiegelman did a nice inversion of the famous Kafka line about a book being an axe to break the sea of ice in the soul. ‘I needed,’ she said, ‘to freeze the sea so I could see it.’ Turning her mother and grandmother into characters inevitably flattened them, created a  single version of these complex, uncontainable beings, but it was necessary for her to be able to know her own mind. And the process brought her closer to both of them.

Susan Faludi was estranged from her father for more than two decades. When her father contacted her to announce that she was now a woman, she wanted Susan to write the story of her transition: Susan insisted that the life before transition still needed to be told.

When Hisham Matar read to us, I realised I read too fast. I must have skated over his delicate, nuanced reflections on what was happening as he searched for the truth about his father. He resisted the suggestion that it was cathartic to write the book: if it was catharsis, the book would have been serving his emotional needs, but in the process of writing, he felt that he was serving the needs of the book.

Then lunch, of lentil soup in thick cardboard containers.

1.30 pm: Human Baggage: The Hate Politics of Immigration

This was billed as ‘a frank and fearless conversation on the political and personal consequences of border control policies’ among panelists from the US (Mona Chalabi of the Guardian), Australia (Indian-born Roanna Gonsalves and Palestinian-born Samah Sabawi) and Canada (playwright Stephen Orlov), chaired by academic Claudia Tazreiter who among other things is the managing editor of The Australian Journal of Human Rights.

In fact, the conversation very quickly moved from the politics of immigration to the politics of racism. This wasn’t really a change of subject: as one of the panellists pointed out, most immigrants to Australia, and most illegal immigrants, are from Britain, but these are not the ones that attract the hate-filled rhetoric. It’s the TWLPs – Third World Looking Persons – who do that.

The whole conversation was interesting. Roanna Gonsalves gave the most memorable quote. We imagine Australia as white, she said, and it’s not only the white Australians who do it. when some of her relatives came to visit from India, they were astonished. Her accent became much more pronounced as she mimicked their surprise: ‘Oh my God, there are so many Asians!’

4.30  Caroline Brothers: The Memory Stones

Caroline Brothers, a novelist, historian and foreign correspondent, chatted with Kate Evans from ABC’s Books and Arts program. Kate Evans was the most straight-down-the-line interviewer of my festival, and elicited a wonderful hour’s talk from her interviewee, who explained the history of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. It’s a terrible story. Thousands of suspected enemies of the Junta in Argentina were snatched and disappeared in 1976 – not imprisoned, but detained in unofficial places, tortured and mostly killed, leaving their families not knowing what had happened to them. Some of the snatched women were pregnant, and when their babies were born they were taken away and given to other families, mainly members of the military, to raise. The Grandmothers have for decades followed up every lead to find and reclaim these babies – so far about 125 have been found, the most recent one earlier this year.

Brothers first encountered this story when she heard that the poet Juan Gelman had found his granddaughter after 26 years of searching. The combination of those two story lines, the quest on the grandfather’s side, and the coming of age on the side of the lost child, struck her as tremendously powerful.

She spoke very interestingly about the difference between reporting on this tragic story as a journalist and writing a novel that stuck as closely as possible to the reality. I’m writing this two days later, somehow I’ve lost my notes, and I can’t remember anything about the novel (The Grandmothers), which is an indication of how powerfully her telling of the real story grabbed my imagination. She evoked very sharply the moment when a young person who has been raised in a family that believes the military dictatorship of Peron was a good thing and that those women on the Plaza de Mayo are mad is faced with irrefutable evidence that she was snatched from her own kidnapped mother by the agents of that dictatorship.

We had a lot to talk about as we made our way home through the crowd gathering to watch the Opera House being lit up to mark the beginning of Vivid.

SWF 2017 Thursday

It was T-shirt weather for my first day of this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival at Walsh Bay. The crowds and queues were big enough to create a buzz without  inducing panic. Having collected my tickets for the next five days I started out with a free event in the early afternoon:

1.30 And the Award Goes to…

This is a regular event showcasing winners of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Not all of them, of course: this year’s it was Heather Rose, who won the Christina Stead prize for her novel The Museum of Modern Love, and James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe, who won the Ethel Turner Prize for their A Thousand Hills. Suzanne Leal, the Senior Judge of the Awards, chaired.

Heather Rose spoke of the advantages of obscurity: The Museum is her seventh novel, all the others having been published to little acclaim. Add that she lives in Tasmania, and she has been able to write as she wants, without having to meet someone else’s marketing or other agenda. She said she wrote this novel as a love letter to women in art, who do marvellous work and then are sidelined by art historians. Marina Abramovich, whose performance piece The Artist Is Present is central to the book, became famous when the novel was well under way, and her new celebrity meant significant changes in the book: if I heard properly, at that stage the character in the novel had to be Marina herself rather than a fictional Marina-like character.

James Roy had a different take on obscurity. He opened with something he would have liked to say at the awards ceremony but realised it would have been graceless: even though he has been well supported and has won substantial prizes, he knew on Sunday night that if he won the award on Monday night, he would still have to turn up for his job in retail on Tuesday morning. (Suzanne Leal interjected that she had recently interviewed some women who had collaborated on a writing project because they wanted to earn a lot of money – cue disbelieving laughter.)

Noël Zihabamwe’s own story is similar to that of the book’s hero – both lost their families in the Rwandan massacre of 1994. So for him the writing was an intense experience. He told us that one effect of having the book published was to feel that he was acknowledged: ‘I’m not nothing. I’m something.’ He read from the book, and the conversation addressed the big question, how to write about such a monstrous event and keep some sense of hope.

All four people on the stage were warm, open, smart. James Roy did a nice favour to those of us who couldn’t be at the awards ceremony. He quoted a number of times from Joanna Murray-Smith’s address. An image that resonated with him and, he thought, with every writer, is that every work begins as a tiny burning wick, which if you persevere expands until it lights up all the corners of the room. I think it’s fair to say that the Sydney Dance 2 was lit up by these four luminaries.

I sat next to a young man who arrived clutching a copy of Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife (which won Book of the Year). I asked if he’d seen the play at Belvoir Street. No, but he had seen the archive video – evidently you can contact the Belvoir and arrange a time to see the archive version of any of their productions. How good is that bit of incidental learning?

3 pm: Poetry and Performance
Poetry has moved up the status chain at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. This event didn’t happen in the tiny sun-drenched mezzanine room at the end of the wharf that we have been accustomed to, but in the main theatre across the road with more than ten times the capacity. And it wasn’t free.

But maybe of course it’s not poetry as such that’s moved up. Maybe today’s crowd was drawn by clickbait titles like Keats is Dead so Fuck me From Behind,  or fusses about menstrual images on Instagram, or the prestige of poet laureateship, or other forms of cool, rather than the art of purifying the language. Whatever, this was a terrific event. In order of appearance:

  • Miles Merrill, who has done more than anyone to foster spoke word in Australia, emceed, opening proceedings with some of his trademark mouth noises, which he told us was a work called ‘Some poems can’t be written down’
  • Carol Ann Duffy, proving that a UK poet laureate can be fun, read from a lectern at the side of the stage  from her collection The World’s Wife. The witty, acerbic narratives of ‘Mrs Tiresias’ and ‘Mrs Aesop’ were perfect for the occasion. ‘Mrs Tiresias’, a monologue by the wife of Tiresias, a man who was turned into a woman for seven years, lightly challenges some modern pieties about gender fluidity.
  • Hera Lindsay Bird (who wrote the aforementioned clickbait) walked to centre stage and read a number of poems, including one that revolved around her dislike for the character Monica in the TV sitcom Friends. So pop culture reference, frequent use of the work ‘fuck’, and a preoccupation with relationships: not my cup of tea.
  • Canadian Ivan Coyote started out by saying, ‘I’m not a poet, I’m a story teller,’ and read us a number of ‘Doritos’, which would certainly pass for poems. Most of them dealt with other people’s struggle with Coyote’s challenge to seeing people in terms of  gender binaries. I loved the moment when a small child, told by his mother to stop bothering (her) Coyote, looked long and steady ito COyote’s eyes and said,  ‘I don’t think he’s a lady. I think he’s a man, but with pretty eyes.’
  • Ali Cobby Eckermann took things to a different place: she began with an acknowledgement of country, reminded us that this is the 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home report, and said that more Aboriginal children have been removed from their parents in recent years than ever before in Australian history. Having grabbed our attention, she then held it with poems from a number of her books, including the marvellous Inside My Mother.
  • Rupi Kaur (who has been the subject of a big fuss on Instagram) read some poems and then performed a couple of spoken word pieces. I think I would have preferred to hear her (and Hera Lindsay Bird) at a spoken word event, where audience response is so much part of things. No clicking of foot-stamping or voting here, so lines like  ‘I want to apologise to all the women I have called pretty before I’ve called them intelligent or brave’ end up sounding a little glibly correct-line.

Even if people came for the sexy controversy, they got poetry, and a fabulous variety of it.

Then I got to sit in the sun and read, occasionally chatting to passing strangers (including one man who had been to school with Tom Keneally), and back to the big theatre a bit later for:

6.30 pm The Politics of Fear
David Marr and John Safran chatted with the Wheeler Centre’s Sophie Black about Pauline Hanson’s followers and Australia’s extreme right. Sophie introduced them by saying they would join the dots between those two groups, but not a lot of dot-joining happened, or really was needed.

David Marr spoke to his recent Quarterly Essay The White Queen, and John Safran to his Depends What You Mean By Extremist: Going Rogue with Australian Deplorables. Both were interesting and insightful, and at times surprising. It was an excellent conversation, an I left it wondering if there isn’t something futile about too much close reading of the far right, with the end message that even though these people are a small minority they wield a lot of power because of the way our electoral system works. As David Marr said towards the end, the vast majority of Australians – including most Hanson followers – think same-sex marriage and euthanasia should be legalised and penalty rates should stay in place, but governments simply won’t or can’t follow the clear will of the people. It took one of the questioners at the end to ask what is to be done, and the answer wasn’t particularly satisfying.

So we went home glad we’d been but a little disgruhntled through the final run-throughs of a number of Vivid installations (opening the next night).

NSWPLA 2017

Last night (that is, Monday 22 May), the New South Wales Premier’s Literature Awards were announced at a cocktail event at the Art Gallery of NSW. The award recipients collectively took home a total of $310.000. I have attended this event in the past, but for a number of years now I’ve settled for watching from afar, depending on the generosity of tweeters for glimpses of the event. Here’s what I garnered this year, depending mainly on the hashtag #PremiersLitAwards. Links are mainly to either my blog posts about books or the State Library’s listings of the awards.

In the lead-up, there were plenty of congratulations to the shortlisted authors, plus an occasional erotic spam and on Sunday the rumour that the evening would be hosted by Sunil Badami. A little before 6 last night that rumour was scotched when Hamish Macdonald (not the comedian Hamish who appears on radio with Andy) tweeted that he was ‘delighted to be hosting’ and added that the awards were to be presented by ‘@GladysB’, which I think makes her the first non-Labor premier to have done so in person for a very long time.

Uncle Allen Madden started things off with a ‘wonderful’ Welcome to Country. Joanna Murray-Smith gave the keynote address. Don Harwin, Minister for the Arts, spoke briefly. Gladys Berejiklian gave the Premier’s address. No tweet quoted any of them as saying anything memorable – which I attribute to the tweeters not realising that there were people out here hanging on their words.

Hamish Mc took the mic. His first act was to pay a ‘lovely tribute to the late Dr Rosie Scott’, recipient of the special award last year. His second tweeted utterance was to promise to tackle anyone who made too long a speech. This may be the reason that hardly a word from any of the recipients was tweeted from the room. A pity, because the acceptance speeches are part of the joy of these evenings.

The serious business of handing out the prizes began with the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting. My money was on The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell. I hadn’t seen any of the other shortlisted works, but they would have had to be bloody brilliant to snatch the prize. They didn’t.

The Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting was shared by The Code, Series 2 Episode 4 by Shelley Birse and Down Under by Abe Forsythe. No argument from me, though a citizen of Sutherland Shire, the setting of much of Down Under, had dimmed my enjoyment of that movie with some pretty telling information about its lack of attention to detail. (I wonder if anyone from the Shire is on the judging panel.) .

They were now zooming through the prizes. The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature went to Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall, and the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature to One Thousand Hills by James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe.

Peter Boyle’s Ghostspeaking won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, and he had the distinction of being quoted on Twitter. He thanked Vagabond Press for ‘allowing him to have the length he needed to express himself’.

I’m glad I wasn’t a judge for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, because i would have found it hard to pick between Talking To My Country by Stan Grant, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft by Tom Griffiths and Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner. It turned out the judges chose Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead by Thornton McCamish, which must be a fabulous book.

About now, @RobinElizabee tweeted, ‘So many authors were so confident that they wouldn’t win that they didn’t prepare a speech. Imposter syndrome is real.’ Ah, the humility!

The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing went to Letter to Pessoa by Michelle Cahill.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, one of the big ones, went to The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. I haven’t read this book but the Emerging Artist has been going on about it for months, so the judges’ decision is heartily endorsed in my house.

At this stage, the Premier handed over the Distributor of Bounty role to Ray Williams, Minister for Multiculturalism, He spoke and presented the next three awards.

The biennial Translation Prize went to Royall Tyler (who translates from Japanese). This year for the first time, there’s a second translation prize, the Multicultural NSW Early Career Translator Prize, which was won by Jan Owen.

Of the contenders for the Multicultural Award NSW I’d read only The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke (aka @slamup). I was very happy to see it win. @JulieKoh tweeted a photo of the book’s publisher Robert Watkins, a very white man, accepting for Clarke, a very black woman. On the screen above him his words are being typed: ‘I am very clearly not [her]’, the only laugh of the night that made it out to the Twitterverse. It was followed by tears: @RobinElizabee tweeted, ‘Robert Watkins reading of @slamup’s speech had him and all of us in tears. Let’s do better.’

Now @thatsunilbadami, earlier rumoured to be hosting the event, appeared on Twitter to congratulate Maxine Beneba Clarke ‘for her powerful, inspiring & accomplished memoir’. Western Sydney solidarity is a beautiful thing.

The People’s Choice Award went to Vancouver, the third novella in the series Wisdom Tree by Nick Earls, who shortly afterwards tweeted this photo with the words, ‘People! Look what you did! Thank you.’gong.jpg

The evening ended with the big prize: Book of the Year went to The Drover’s Wife, the first play to win this award. I wish I’d been there to applaud. The State Library tweeted video of Leah Purcell’s completely charming acceptance speech (if you watch, be sure you stay to the very end). ‘I’m speechless. Just as well I got my thankyous in first, eh?’ You have to love the contrast between her demeanour and the completely appropriate tone of the judges’ report as quoted in today’s Guardian:

Leah Purcell’s retooling of Henry Lawson’s story represents a seismic shift in postcolonial Australian playwriting. Brave, ruthless and utterly compelling from the first image, this epic tragedy is a passionate howl of pain and rage … a bold and exciting contribution to Australian playwriting – and, arguably, to Australia’s very identity.

Which is part of why I love these awards evenings. People of whose achievements I am rightly in awe step up to the podium one after another and reveal themselves as people just like you and me, even though they are still awe-inspiring. Who knew?

Added later: Lisa Hill has a post on the awards that gives links to reviews, her own and other people’s, of almost all the winners, plus the shortlisted titles. Click here to get there.

2016 Australian Poetry Anthology 

Lisa Gorton and Toby Fitch (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Vol 5, 2016 (Australian Poetry Ltd 2017)

AP2016.jpgThis is Australian Poetry Ltd’s fifth annual anthology of members’ poems. It’s neither a ‘Best of 2016’ nor a kind of open mic in print. The foreword says the book aims ‘to recognise and mark the organisation’s vitality and range’. When it goes on to quote G K Chesterton, ‘Poets have been mysteriously silent on cheese,’ it signals unmistakably that a further aim is to give pleasure. It worked for me on both fronts.

There are sixty poems by 49 poets, award-winners cheek by jowl with people you’ve never heard of. There are neat sonnets and sprawling surreal narratives, elegy and sarcasm, poems previously seen in places as unalike as Overland and Quadrant and, the majority, poems previously unpublished.

Here are some highlights:

An opening line, from Jordie Albiston’s ‘³’ (one of three poems by her with that non alphanumeric title): ‘war is divisible only by war’.

A poem I was compelled to quote in an earlier blog post: Julie Chevalier’s ‘waiting with dignity’, which started with a reference to Anne Carson.

A piece of social commentary: ‘On average’ by PS Cottier plays devastatingly with the statistic that in Australia on average one woman a week is killed by an intimate partner.

A poem on ‘the pornography of suffering’: Ron Pretty’s ‘broken’, which looks into the abyss of humanity’s capacity for violence.

A poem that’s affecting for extraneous reasons: John Upton’s ‘On Shoes Encountered in a Museum’, a beautiful poem about ugly history that gains extra force from the fact that John Upton, author of the excellent collection Embracing the Razor, died in January.

A contrarian poem: ‘Why we shouldn’t trust birds’ by Chris Palmer begins with birds’ dinosaur ancestry and ends with parent-approved siblicide and cannibalism.

A poem I’d read elsewhere and was glad to see again: Jennifer Compton’s ‘Two Women’, previously published in Australian Poetry Journal November 2016, brilliantly renders the ambivalence of a relationship.

A dictionary query: From Amy Crutchfield’s ‘Egg’,

What shall the mother of the dead be called?
As widow is to wife,
what of the woman left behind?

Stand-out single line: Brett Dionysus’ ‘Bees Fleeting’ brought tears to my eyes with the line (about bees), ‘They are absconding from the planet’s giant hive’.

Unsettling single poem: Alex Skovron’s ‘Prognosis (1189 BCE)’, in which a Greek at the siege of Troy is convinced that the wooden horse ruse won’t work:

The Achaeans understand nothing of History,
they laugh, carouse, their Horse grows daily more arrogant;
some nights I weep for the fate that I know attends them.

Ekphrasis: Laura Jan Shore’s ‘A Little off the Top’, in which a group of people with dementia responding to an Edward Hopper painting.

Elegy: ‘Walking man’, a tribute to the late Martin Harrison by Brenda Saunders that begins:

He walked this country with the eye
of a newcomer, showed us how to see
close up, take in the sweep of distance
the shimmer on a paddock in drought

Those words, ‘country’, ‘newcomer’, ‘shimmer’, take on wonderful resonance when written by an Indigenous woman about an English migrant.

That is to say, there’s a lot to enjoy here

Anne Carson’s Float

Anne Carson, Float (Jonathan Cape 2016)

9781101946848.jpgSince I’ve read Float, the 2016 Australian Poetry Anthology has arrived in my letterbox. The opening of Julie Chevalier’s delightful ‘waiting with dignity’ on page 31 seemed tailor-made as an introduction to this blog post:

into one hostage story anne carson crams
a python named robert, zombie slaves,
chinese tourists in greece, putin,
extract of puffer fish, the urge to piss,
the british museum, how boring torture can be
& lapsang oolong falling off the counter.
what an exciting life anne carson must lead

I haven’t read the story the poem refers to yet (Sister Google found it for me here), but having read the 22 chapbooks in Float I’m not surprised that Anne Carson can cover such varied terrain in a short story.

Float is a clear plastic box that opens to the left. When you pick it up with your right hand, 22 saddle-stitched books plus a couple of loose pages cascade to the floor. As you scrabble them up, you wonder if they need to be in any particular order (mostly they don’t). Later you may discover that you missed one or two booklets and a sheet that bears the title page and the slogan: ‘Reading can be freefall.’ Boom tish!

It may sound like a gimmick. Wouldn’t it be cheaper, neater and kinder, to print the 22 pieces conventionally, between one set of covers? Maybe, but this presentation is peculiarly appropriate to Anne Carson’s multi-faceted work. She is a poet, a classicist, a translator, and a script-writer. The chapbooks include essays, performance pieces, the text of lectures, original poems, poems translated from French, and so on. One of the shortest booklets, a single spread titled ‘Performance Notes’, explains the occasions for which a number of others were written: a lecture accompanied by dance and music; various pieces composed for Laurie Anderson, including a poem for Lou Reed’s 70th birthday and another for a quiet occasion after his death; words to accompany or be incorporated into a range of artworks.

Because of the presentation as separate chapbooks, the reader comes fresh to each piece, or small subset of pieces, as a separate work. There’s no temptation to look for an over-arching narrative or other clear coherence. They are all produced by the same mind, but it’s a mind that can focus sharply and interestingly in a striking range of modes and on a vast range of subjects.

Your mileage will almost certainly vary, but the books that most appealed to me are ‘Contempts’, ‘Pronoun Envy’, ‘Merry Christmas from Hegel’, and ‘By Chance the Cycladic People’, though I did also like ‘How to Like “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso” by Gertrude Stein’, a plausible reading of a poem that at first blush looks pretty much like gibberish, and ‘The Designate Mourner by Wally Shawn’, a poem about going to the last night of a play by a friend.

I suspect I enjoyed ‘By Chance the Cycladic People’ because it made me feel smart. It consists of a series of short, numbered paragraphs – the first three are:

9.4. __They put stones in the eye sockets. Upper-class people put precious stones
16.2__Prior to the movement and following the movement, stillness.
8.0. __Not sleeping made the Cycladic people gradually more and more brittle. Their legs broke off.

You don’t rally need to be a genius to figure out that you should find 1.0 and read in numerical order rather than in order of appearance all the way to, as it happens 16.3.3, but I was very pleased with myself that I did figure it out, and discover that a weird, dreamlike story emerges, all the more dream like for the work one has to do to find each step of the way.

‘Merry Christmas from Hegel’ is more serious, a prose poem in which struggling to understand some of Hegel’s thinking offers some relief from the ‘icy horror’ of bereavement by way of a moment standing in snow in a fir wood.

‘Pronoun Envy’ is a poem that looks back in playful anger to November 1971 when a Harvard Linguistics Professor disparaged feminist objections to the pronoun ‘he’ being used to refer to both genders:

_______ ____________As if all
the creatures in the world
were either zippers

or olives,
except
way back in the Indus Valley
in 5000 BC we decided
to call them zippers

and non-zippers.

By 1971
the non-zippers
were getting restless.

‘Contempts’, subtitled ‘A Study of Profit and Nonprofit in Homer, Moravia and Godard’, is one of the larger booklets, a witty and instructive essay that runs to a little more than eight pages. It starts with an incident in 2007 when an unknown man punched an artist and called him a sell-out, and goes on to consider the difficulty of identifying the dividing line for an artist between selling out and making a living, by way of a fascinating discussion of the Odyssey, Alberto Moravia’s novel Il disprezzo (Contempt) and Jean Luc Godard’s movie Le mépris (also Contempt in English), which was based on Moravia’s novel. I learned an awful lot about the Odyssey from these pages, especially Odysseus’ manipulation of the aristocratic gift economy as the motive for his prolonged travels (who knew?), but the real kick was in the discussion of Brigitte Bardot in the Godard movie (young readers may need to be told that Brigitte Bardot was famous as a sex symbol way back, long before she was famous as an animal liberation spokesperson). Here’s an excerpt:

There are, I think, three places in the movie where Bardot puts on a bathrobe. In each case as a single action she shrugs it on, flings the belt around her waist, draws it tight with both hands and leaves the scene. It’s stupendous. She wraps herself and goes. She wins. Every time she does this, she wins the movie. Are you an innately unbounded thing? the movie asks Bardot and instead of answering she wraps herself in boundlessness and exits.

I you want to know what that has to do with Homer, I encourage you to seek out the essay, or indeed the whole collection. I am now determined to seek out Le mépris and watch it again.

Bill Willingham’s Fables 14–22

Bill Willingham (writer), many artists, mainly Mark Buckingham, Lee Loughridge (inking) and Todd Klein (letterer), Fables:
– 14: Witches (Vertigo 2010)
– 15: Rose Red (Vertigo 2011)
– 16: Super Team  (Vertigo 2011)
– 17: Inherit the Wind (Vertigo 2012)
– 18: Cubs in Toyland (Vertigo 2013)
– 19: Snow White (Vertigo 2013)
– 20: Camelot (Vertigo 2014)
– 21: (two short chapters written by Matthew Sturges) Happily Ever After (Vertigo 2015)
– 22: Farewell (Vertigo 2015)

Tl;dr: I binged on the last nine volumes of Bill Willingham’s witty, edgy, intelligent, original stories entwined with twisted versions of fairytales. Mark Buckingham and a host of other artists serve the story brilliantly. While catering to the bloodlust and other lusts of ‘grown-up’ comics readers, this huge work does what the best fantasy does, makes us think about what it means to be human – with a particular emphasis on power struggles. But really the story is the thing.

Fables is a long-form story whose telling spanned 13 years, 150 individual magazine comics, and 22 compilation volumes. I’ve written about earlier volumes here, herehere, here, here and here, and have just finished a most satisfying binge-read of the last nine volumes in less than two weeks. What follows here is a spotty recap.

fables14 In Volume 14, Witches, the narrative picks up with new coherence and energy after a bit of stumbling and crossing over with spinoffs after the halfway mark, when the great battle that had been stewing from the start had been fought and won, and a new, more dangerous enemy unleashed (shades of ISIS rising from the ashes of Saddam Hussein).

Bufkin, the ape librarian who is a close cousin of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld librarian, begins his transformation into a revolutionary hero whose feats appear as a B plot until his apotheosis as a Hanuman-like figure in Volume 20. Here, he is still bookish, as his friend the magic mirror testifies to Baba Yaga, Bufkin’s antagonist in this volume:

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP imageTotenkinder, the powerful ancient witch, becomes even more fearsome, and transforms into a gorgeous young witch (clearly about to become a heroine, as heroines in comics must be young and gorgeous). Ozma, little-girl in appearance, vast in ambition and witchy power but fortunately on the side of good, moves toward centre stage. And Geppetto, the conquered Adversary, begins his long attempt to regain power, in this book with two naked wood spirits as his protectors. As always, the family life of the Fables continues: Beauty announces to Beast that she is pregnant, which is alarming given the gift that Totenkinder has given them (see image on the right).

Fables15With Volume 15, Rose Red, we’re deeply immersed in complex power politics.

Mister Dark continues to consolidate his power, and wreak havoc in New York City, but the Fables are engaged in a web of struggles for dominance. Much of the volume is taken up with Rose Red’s back story, a delightfully, darkly twisted version of a number of Grimm tales (Snow White’s time with the seven dwarfs is spent in a ‘comfort cottage’, and if that phrase reminds you of Japanese army’s treatment of Korean women in the Second World War, you’re barking up the right tree). Things come to a head with a great, shapeshifting duel between Mister Dark and Totenkinder.

fables 16.jpgVolume 16, Super Team, makes the necessarily but potentially dreary preparation for further armed conflict not only tolerable but even enjoyable, as the comics-educated Pinocchio persuades the Fables that they need to dress as superheroes to prevail against the mounting forces of darkness. The battle when it comes is much more personal that the build-up suggests, but this is the book where Mister Dark is disposed of, thanks to fairytale cleverness rather than big explosive violence (though there is some of that amidst the shape-shifting).

fables 17.jpg

Volume 17, Inherit the Wind has many plot balls up in the air, or should I say plates spinning – the dexterity of the telling is brilliant to behold. Mrs Pratt has had a change of name, lost a lot of weight and turned to the Dark (capital intended) side. Ozma utters an oracle about the seven ‘cubs’ of Bigby and Snow, providing a slightly clunky spine for their unfolding narrative (one is to die, one become a king, etc). Rose Red has a Scrooge-like dream on Christmas Eve.

fables 18The main story of Volume 18, Cubs in Toyland, is a digression in which the Fisher King legend is mashed up with the notion of a place where lost toys go.

About here the game of Spot the Author comes on the scene – that is, Bill Willingham come close to disclosing that his alter ego in the Fable universe is the plump and earnest Ambrose, son of Snow White and Bigby. Ambrose narrates much of this book, and, we discover, is to end up partnered with one of the most formidable (and gorgeous) of the fairies.

fables 19.jpegAlmost half of Volume 19, Snow White, is taken up with the revolutionary adventures of Bufkin and his diminutive unrequited lover Lily. Bufkin&Lily.jpgThe art, by Shawn McManus, is brilliantly comic.

In the main story, Snow White’s history comes back to haunt her, and tragedy ensues, not without a lot of big, noisy drama. In this story, not even the most loved characters are safe, and there’s a devastating death, not the first.

fables 20.jpegIn Volume 20, Camelot, things comes to a head, ready for the climactic showdown in the last two books. Rose Red assembles a cohort of knights of a new, very large Round Table. Bigby Wolf meets Boy Blue in an afterlife, and is brought back into this world, but whether a force for good or evil who can say. The former Mrs Sprat is planning major bad stuff. Geppetto has found a way to build a new wooden army of his own – and the last time he had a wooden army he conquered many worlds.

fables 21.jpegThe title of Volume 21, Happily Ever After, is at least partly ironic. But each chapter of the main narrative is followed by a short ‘Last Tale of’ – so we see how at least ten characters end up, or at least what further good or evil they are up to when the series ends (Prince Charming is fighting the good fight on a world that is being taken over by Sinbad, Sleeping Beauty is turning into a zombie somewhere in space, Beauty is happily on the road with a new Beast, the Three Blind Mice logic their way to a happy ending …)

Meanwhile, on the main screen, the great final battle is shaping up to be be between Rose Red and Snow White. The rest of their back story is now told, and in a wonderful use of fairytale logic their sisterly rivalry is revealed as part of a family curse. Both discover they have vast magical powers, and both begin to wear armour. The character who has inherited the title of North Wind (I’m avoiding spoilers) is gathering great forces of nature. There are two male threats to be dealt with: Bigby Wolf, back from the dead, and Snow White’s apparently immortal first husband. There’s a very funny version of Sir Gawain’s decapitation of the Green Knight. By the end it looks as if everyone we cared about in the series is either dead, exited or about to kill the others.

fables 22.jpegAnd then, ‘Farewell’: where other volumes are compilations of up to 11 individual magazine, this one is from a single bumper issue, Nº 150, featuring what the text calls ‘the battle which ended Fabletown for all time’. (If like me you were just a little bored by the big battles at the halfway mark, be of good cheer, this battle has much more character – Willingham isn’t an idiot.)

For evidence that Bill Willingham is a brilliant story teller, you wouldn’t have to go past the way the Bigby-Wolf-out-to-kill-his-children story is resolved, in three and a half spectacular spreads. The dispatching of Snow White’s first husband is masterly in a different way – we’ve understood how it will come about for a hundred pages, but the execution is just beautiful.

Once the final confrontation has played out, there are more ‘Last’ stories. Some are on the raunchy end of the spectrum, as in the solution to the Snow Queen’s love life. Some are blissfully domestic, as in (The Lady of the) Lake’s. There’s politics (Pinocchio becomes a President of the US who will never lie – imagine that!), religion (the Boy Blue cult leader moves on to mammalian jihad), and philosophy (Death’s single page story is not a story). And then there’s a four-page fold-out happy-ever-after picture of Bigby and Snow with 20 generations of descendants.

A word about guest artists and stand-alone stories: in the last two volumes these are the ‘Last’ stories, but every volume has some of them. My favourites are:

Volume 15: ‘A Thing with Those Mice’, in which three blind mice could almost be characters invented by Lewis Carroll, art by Brazilian João Ruas.

Volume 18: ‘The Destiny Game’, in which Ambrose tells the unexpected story of how the Big Bad Wolf came to marry Snow White, with breathtaking guest art by Gene Ha. This incidentally sets up one of the main themes of the remaining volumes, that if someone enters a version of an old story, there is a powerful force at work to make things go the way they did in the original.

All the tired horses in the sun …

… how’m I gonna get any reading done?

I’ve been neglecting the blog a little bit lately, because other things (I think they’re collectively called ‘life’) have intervened. No tired horses involved, I just like that song.

One of the distractions has been my role as offsider to the Emerging Artist. On the weekend a small mob of us went up to Fingal Bay north of Newcastle to shoot a short video. I took this little mother and son snap. (Mother is Emerging Artist, son has short film Red Ink showing at the Sydney Film Festival as part of the Lexus Australia Short Film Fellowship Gala Screening).

P&A

Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges’ Great Fables Crossover

Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges (writers),
Mark Buckingham, Tony Akins, Ross Braun, Andrew Pepoy, José Marzán, Jr and Dan Green (artists),
Lee Loughridge and Daniel Vozzo (colorists)
and Todd Klein (letterer),
Fables 13: The Great Fables Crossover (Vertigo 2010)

fables13.jpgThe crossover of this title refers, not to any plot developments in the continuing tale of the Fables (see my earlier posts on Books 1, 3–4, 5, 6–10, and 11–12), but to the fact that its contents were first published in three separate comics franchises – Nos 83–85 of Fables, Nos 33–35 of the spin-off Jack of Fables, and the first and so far only 3 issues of The Literals.

There’s a fairly bumpy start for those of us who haven’t seen Jack since he long ago stormed out to start his own franchise. It seems that he has been heading an army, toying with the affections of a formidable trio of sisters (no, not the Fates but the Page sisters, glamorous librarians with special powers), and generally amassing an entourage of odd non-human and possibly immortal characters. Perhaps readers of Jack of Fables will feel at home; latecomers like me can work it out as we go.

The Mister Dark story arc is put on ice for a story involving the Literals – personifications of aspects of the story-producing process. The most powerful Literal is Pathetic Fallacy, but he rarely uses his power because, well, he’s pathetic. There’s the Reviser, the enemy of imagination. There are the Genres. There’s Writer’s Block, a drooling idiot in a straitjacket. And so on.

Much meta fun is to be had, and this crossover sequence may have been intended to introduce a separate Literals franchise. But it turns out to be a bit of a squib. Rather than character development there’s silliness (the Writer turns Bigby Wolf into a cute little girl) and violence (the cute little girl has a couple of pages of graphic mayhem – and I remind you that the technical meaning of mayhem is the ripping off of parts of an opponent’s body). Though the Genres argue among themselves about how to fight the Fables, it’s the more violent ones – Blockbuster, War, Western and Science Fiction – rather than romance or Comedy, who dominate the action. The comic ends up being a grim reminder of just how militarised the US and its imagination have become.

Of course there are good things: the weird Boy Blue cult that developed in Volume 11 takes an interesting turn; a strange little blue bull, possibly familiar from the Jack of Fables franchise, does a deft parody of a Snoopy Peanuts strip; Jack Frost, son of Jack and the Snow Queen, has a lovely coming-of-age story; the meta elements are interesting – to what extent, for example, do characters take on a life of their own so that their creator can’t change them?

I guess it’s good to know that Jack of Fables exists, but I haven’t been seized with an irresistible urge to read it. I’m looking forward to getting back to the Mister Dark story in Volume 14.

Bill Willingham’s Fables 11 & 12

Bill Willingham (writer),
Mark Buckingham, Niko Henrichon, Steve Leialoha and Andrew Pepoy (artists),
Lee Loughridge (colorist)
and Todd Klein (letterer),
Fables 11: War and Pieces (Vertigo 2008)

Bill Willingham (writer),
Mark Buckingham, Michael Allred, Andrew Pepoy, David Hahn and Peter Gross (artists),
Lee Loughridge and Laura Allred (colorists),
and Todd Klein (letterer),
Fables 12: The Dark Ages  (Vertigo 2009)

fables 11.jpgI’ve blogged about earlier volumes of Fables here, herehere and here. Volume 11 was originally published in single magazine form (that is, as monthly comics) as Fables 70–75. The epic battle that has been brewing between the forces of good and evil – the exiled Fables versus the Adversary’s hordes – in earlier volumes explodes into action here.

The teaser line at the end of the first section says, ‘Next: More gratuitous mayhem.’ And it’s not kidding. There’s a lot of gore, lots of explosions, plenty of dismemberment. Not my cup of tea, especially on Anzac Day, when the Australian government and media cloak the hideous waste of young men’s lives at Gallipoli in borrowed rhetoric about freedom.

I’m glad I read it all the same. It’s intricately plotted with a gratifying twist or two at the end. Bill Willingham is consistently witty – I love his dedication, to ‘the wonderfully restless shade of Edgar Rice Burroughs’. The longer story arcs move along significantly. And it’s a light read, perfect at bedtime and for a walk with the dog when the other book I’m reading at the moment requires solid concentration.

Mercifully, the war comes to an end with this volume, and we can move on.

fables12.JPGVolume 12 (comprising magazines 76–82), The Dark Ages, introduces a new slew of artists. In contrast to the ominous title and the James Jean’s dark pietà on the cover, an optimistic note is struck in the new, bright, clean look of the first chapter’s art, by Michael Allred with color by Laura Allred. It looks as if the main problem now will be how to integrate the recalcitrant but now virtually powerless old Adversary into the community.

But no! As with real wars, the war with the Homelands casts a long shadow. In chapter two Lee Loughridge’s moody color work is back and the Fable community has to deal with terrible grief, first with the loss of one much-loved hero, and then with the slow, agonised death of another.

Worse, as with real wars, new dangers, even more deadly, rise from the ashes of the old. The end of World War One gave rise to Hitler. George W Bush’s declared victory in Iraq unleashed civil war and the horrors of ISIS. Here, the looting of the conquered and devastated Homelands sets loose a dread figure known only as Mister Dark, and all of Fable land is in deep trouble again.

By the end of Volume 12, the whole political geography of this world has changed. The Fables have fled their refuge in Manhattan, and there are hints that Mister Dark is corrupting their relationships from afar, and sowing the seeds of a weird cult (or maybe the weird cult is a separate postwar ailment). Perhaps the ending of the war wasn’t so merciful after all.

There are ten books to go, and I’ve just borrowed the lot from a fellow enthusiast.