Tag Archives: Adam Aitken

Adam Aitken’s Archipelago

Adam Aitken, Archipelago (Vagabond Press 2017)

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Adam Aitken is a Sydney poet whose work often deals with aspects of living, working or travelling overseas. He has written about time spent in Asia, particularly his mother’s birth country, Thailand, in England and Hawaii. Most of the poems in Archipelago have to do with Paris or tiny villages in the south of France.

Aitken has written about his own work (in ‘A poetics of (un)becoming hybridity’, an article in Southerly Nº 73, 2013):

I would say that like many Australian poets who live and work overseas, I write as a temporary sojourner who is acutely aware of the limits of a touristic perspective.

In most of the poems in Archipelago, the voice is that of a temporary sojourner who may at times be a tourist (and part of the pleasure of the book for me is that evokes my own time in the south of France a couple of years ago), but is generally more engaged.  Possibly the closest thing to a simple tourist poem is ‘What (not) to do in St Victor-des-Oules’, in which the (non-)attractions of a tiny village are enumerated with wry humour:

Out of reception we stroll to the recycling depot
through a pall of burning autumn leaves.
A shooter lets off his blunderbuss
in a village with no twin – no cafes, no post office,
no fountain in the square.

Other ‘touristic’ poems are less ironic. In ‘At Maruéjols’, for example, the speaker’s stroll through the town is also a stroll through the centuries, beginning in the 5th Century, and arriving in 2012 with ‘two men on extended leave /around a fire / growing beards in a silk worm attic’.

Mostly, though, the poems engage with their places more intimately, as from the perspective of someone visiting family. Pam Brown told us at the launch of this book that Aitken has visited the south of France regularly because his partner’s parents lived there, but even without that information, that kind of connection is palpable in the poems themselves. ‘Postcard’, for example, which made me laugh out loud, could only be addressed to someone of whose affection you were confident. It starts out ‘Chère Margaret, / Thank you for letting us stay so long’, and goes on to a litany of complaints – not about the hospitality, but about the winter weather:

I am yet to cough up blood.
The other day I found a dead thrush in the letterbox.
I swept a few frozen comrades off the driveway.
Every day they are falling out of the sky.

‘Maruéjols’ (a different poem from ‘At Maruéjols’) captures the eerie process of going through the possessions of someone who has recently died:

Later, coming to empty your house, we felt
the dark matter of your brain
and what came through it.

The poems move beyond touristic engagement with place in other ways as well, mainly by engaging with other writers and artists associated with the place, and with its history.

The book drew me in and held me. I spent time reading around it, looking up the places, artists and poets described, addressed, mentioned or imitated, and then rereading the poems. My copy of the book is now bulked up with printed-off photos of tiny French villages – including Maruéjols-lès-Gardon (population 179 in 2007), Saint-Victor-des-Oules (pop. 254), Notre Dame de la Rouvière (pop. 410), Mareuil (pop. 1130) –  and images created by Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Rousseau, John William Ashton and Charles Méryon. I’ve read or reread work by or about Jean Jacques Rousseau, Roland Barthes, Ezra Pound, Raymond Roussel (including Adam’s blog post, which is a very useful gloss to his poem ‘Rousselesque’), Jules Renard, John Clare, Kenneth Slessor, New Zealand poet Jenny Bornholdt (the poem quoting her being one of the few with no French connection) and Australian Ouyang Yu, among others.

Adam Aitken’s One Hundred Letters Home

Adam Aitken, One Hundred Letters Home (Vagabond Books 2016)

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Just a short post on this book: no disparagement intended, it’s just that the Sydney Writers’ Festival is here and if I don’t get this post done now there will be too much time between the reading and the blogging.

One Hundred Letter Home is Adam Aitken’s memoir of his parents and his own youth. It has been a long time in the making – earlier versions of two of its chapters were published in the late lamented Heat in 2004 and 2009. In it, Aitken goes in search of his parents. Not the actual parents,with both of whom he is still in contact in the course of the book, but the young people they once were. He explores letters and photographs from more than 50 years ago to gain some understanding of how these two people met, married, and separated. His father was a white Australian advertising man posted to Bangkok, who after enjoying the nightlife for some time fell in love with a university graduate from southern Thailand, and after some vicissitudes married her.

Their son knows more about these events than most of us do about our parents because the young advertising man wrote detailed letters home to his mother, including notes on his alcoholic excesses, the taxi dancers and other women he was drawn to, and then – all others falling by the wayside – his great love. And Airken makes wonderful use of this resource. There are also photos, which he squeezes for their narrative potential, and on his mother’s side some wonderful sketches of Thai culture.

The story continues: the couple leave Thailand to live in England for some time, and eventually come to live in Australia – first in Perth and then in Sydney. The source material tends to be sparser, especially for the English period, until the writer’s own memory comes into play. Along with his father’s time in Thailand, the most gripping part of the book is Aitken’s account of his own visit there in his early 20s, in search of his Thai identity – where he finds that questions of identity are a lot more subtle than that.

Launching this book at Gleebooks recently, Beth Yahp commented that whereas mostly these days we want to rush through things we read, this book forces us to slow down, dwell on moments, go back and reread or have another look. She’s right. My impression is that it was written as a group of more or less stand-alone essays, and the joining of those essays isn’t seamless. The occasional rough edges, however, mean that the reader is made aware of the work involved in making the book. It’s not an entertainment in the manner of Clive James’s Unreliable Memoirs (not that there’s anything wrong with that!): you can feel the wrestling involved in getting these stories told.

I found myself itching to interrogate the received versions and silences about my own heritage. Thanks, Adam

Martin Harrison’s Wild Bees

Martin Harrison, Wild Bees (UWAP 2008)

1wild_beesWhen 11 year old Luke Shambrook had been missing for four days over the Easter weekend, Acting Sergeant Brad Pascoe spotted him from his helicopter. ‘Out of the corner of my eye,’ he said, ‘I just caught a little flash of something. It wasn’t much but it was enough to make me get the guys to turn the aircraft around and go back and have a look.’

It’s not so obviously a matter of life and death, but compare that to the silvereye in Martin Harrison’s ‘A Word’:

caught on the edge of vision,
forgotten in a glance
where nothing is anchored

The pages of this book are full of attention to tiny things and brief moments that are nevertheless enough to make the poet get us to turn around and go back and have a look. Something happens ‘out there, in dwindling light, / upon the edge, half-seen, a mere detail’ (from ‘Red Marine’). Something ‘catches my eye, half catches it, (tricking it, blinding it)’ (from ‘Winter Solstice’). In ‘Lizards’:

_____________ This
moment, they’re not here,
or are merely playing
at being silhouettes, quite still.

In ‘Tasmanian Tiger’:

ungraspable fineness of dark she-oak needles, ungraspable, I think, because so fine,
a thing merely visual, only meant in passing
to an observer perplexed by see-through shadowiness

Examples multiply.

The poetry does many different things with these ephemera and minutiae, usually at some length. Sometimes it’s like reading a gloriously fleshed-out haiku: ‘Watching Pelicans, Mallacoota’ spends the first 24 lines on a she-oak needle, and the remaining 19 on the pelicans of the title. More often, the poems are like essays, not always easy to follow, as the poet articulates thoughts or feelings that are as easy to miss as the objects or living things that give rise to them. One thing you don’t get is easy generalisations.

I saw Martin Harrison read a number of times. He was a witty, warm, impressive figure. He died in September 2014.  The November issue of Cordite Poetry Review published a piece by Adam Aitken, which included an interview, in which Harrison says, among many other interesting things:

I am trying to write poetry that lives in the same world as watching TV, listening to radio and watching movies. … I’m interested in the kind of detail that the camera can provide that the writer can be intimate with. If you take a room or a scene or a person there is something about the way those images cover the object, and something about the lingering attention you can give to what’s produced there. It defines a contemporary sensibility. I like that kind of attentiveness.

Wild Bees was published by the University of Western Australia Press.  I received a review copy from Giramondo Press.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 2

One of the joys of the Sydney Writers’ Festival is hearing from friends and complete strangers about events you’ve missed. This morning in the coffee queue an older woman, a Millers Point resident currently threatened with eviction (Millers Point residents can look down in the festival from their rear windows) was off to a session on how to kill yourself (though probably phrased less bluntly than that) but was also planning one on enjoying old age. I went in out of the sunshine into the very life affirming

10 am: Marathon Reading: Asia Pacific Poetry

This event, presided over by the genial Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press, more or less continued the launch of that publisher’s new Asia Pacific Poetry Series at Gleebooks on Saturday.

A modest crowd sat around at small tables, while, to quote the Festival web site, a line-up of 10 writers made ‘poetry sing in its many voices across languages and get a little beyond the anglosphere’.

Kyoko Yoshida from Japan kicked off with a surrealist short story from her collection Disorientalism. She said she’d never been to Australia before, but the story was set here, and featured a weird love triangle in which one participant was a kangaroo who was very good at sales.

Violet Cho read a long poem in a Karen language, followed by David Gilbert reading us his English version. It’s fascinating to hear the music of a poem before having any idea of its meaning. And Karen is very musical.

Robert Nery, a Sydneysider, read poems translated from Tagalog: crazy, dangerous street scenes filled with brand names, many immediately recognisable to a Sydney audience – capitalism makes the whole world kin, perhaps.

Elizabeth Allen, one of the two pillars on which Vagabond Press stands, represented the Anglosphere – anglophone Australia is after all part of the Asia Pacific.

Nhã Thuyên fro Vietnam was next. In introducing herself she said she was nervous (and perhaps she had a cold as well), that she was usually more human than she was right then. She read beautifully and musically in Vietnamese, and Liz Allen stepped up to the mike with an english version.

Bella Li, from Melbourne, read in  a dour, uncompromising Melburnian manner.

Mabel Lee, who had been introduced by Michael Brennan as the matriarch of Chinese translation in Australia, read magisterially. ‘There must be as many women writing poetry in China as men,’ she said by way of introduction,  but it’s men who get all the attention in the outside world.’ Her edition of poems by three Chinese writers, two of them women, Poems of Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian, is Number 6 in the Asia Pacific Poets Series.

Adam Aitken is too young and too mild-mannered to be called the patriarch of anything, but he brought a certain local gravitas with him. He read ‘Ala Moana’, which was published in his chapbook, Tonto’s Revenge, and is the only poem of the session that I’d read previously. Adam described it in his introduction as an anti-touristic touristic poem.

Dinah Roma read last. Her Naming the Ruins is the first book by a Philippine poet living in the Philippines to be published in Australia.

We walked out into the sunlight ‘with fragments of poems like ornaments in our hair’ (to quote a poem a student wrote for me in my brief stint as an Eng Lit tutor in a bygone era).

Usually it rains and is nasty for at least some of the Writers’ Festival. Not so far at this one.

It should be raining

11.30 am: David Malouf: Celebrating 80 Years
David Malouf is probably the most loved public figure in Australia. His novels are justly acclaimed. His poetry too. I was surprised to learn from Tegan Bennett Daylight, his interlocutor in this session, that the recently published A First Place is the first collection of his essays: it seems as if his writing about Brisbane and his Queensland education have been working away on the general consciousness for decades.

This was a wonderful session. Tegan Bennett Daylight mentioned in passing that she had been immersed in Malouf’s work for a couple of months in preparation, and it showed – not in any encyclopaedic knowledge but in a deep appreciation, and in a willingness to risk interpretations.

At one stage David said that in a conversation about a book, the only person who hasn’t read it is likely to be the author. Everyone else is in a position to see things that the author can’t see. (Doesn’t that just cry out for the hashtag #oftwasthoughtbutneersowellexpressed? A lot of his talk does that.) Emboldened, TBD offered her observation that all DM’s novels are about a man who finds himself removed from his usual environment, and in the new environment, seeing things freshly, discovers what it is to be. The example she gave as her test case was from Ransom. DM didn’t respond directly to her thesis, but spoke charmingly at some length about what he was trying to do with that part of the book. A little later almost apologised,  saying that what he had said didn’t in any way contradict her thesis.

The conversation played out like a beautiful piece of theatrical improvisation: no one blocked, every question led somewhere interesting. A couple of times Tegan had to take a moment to process what had just been said to her, while David stayed ready to field whatever she gave him as a result. When she ventured into potentially dangerous waters and asked this eminently private author about being in love when writing one of his books, he managed with extraordinary grace to give no information about his private life while answering the question very interestingly about the book.

The session finished with David reading ‘Night Poem’ from Earth Hour (I would have asked for ‘A Green Miscellany’ or ‘Touching the Earth’), and then, most beautifully, Tegan drew our attention to David’s generosity as an interviewee, in particular his generosity to her. I hope this conversation turns up on the radio. Do listen to it.

I dashed home to walk and feed the dog and generally attend to the rest of life, then back for the next session. In the queue, we heard about a brilliant session with the writers of The Gods of Wheat Street, in which among other things they talked about how tough Jimmy McGovern had been with them when they were working on Redfern Now: ‘Make the characters bleed,’ he would say, and ‘That’s furniture, cut it out.’

4. 30 pm: Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth
This was a  documentary movie by Pratibha Parmar, followed by  Alice Walker, again in conversation with Caroline Baum. It went some way to explaining the awkwardness of the previous evening’s conversation: how could they talk about Alice Walker’s life and times when they knew that the next afternoon many of the people in that audience would be seeing this movie, which is nothing if not the life and times of Alice Walker? The film goes into detail about her work, her activism and how they relate to each other in a way that was frustratingly not there yesterday. Her early life, her participation in the Civil Rights movement, her relationships, the writing of her books, all were in the film, where yesterday had tiptoed around them.

The film also shed light on what I registered as a kind of serene abrasiveness. Alice Walker hasn’t been in the habit of speaking in order to be liked: I knew The Color Purple  had been criticised, but had no idea what a  vehement and sustained attack she had endured. And there has been plenty of nastiness in the press since then, often enough from African and African communities, about her writing about uncomfortable truths as much as about her personal life. She has been on the receiving end of some of the worst of celebrity culture, so a little wary defensiveness is more than understandable.

Also, my companion pointed out, she has fabulous clothes and has created a beautiful living, meditating and working environment for herself.

We didn’t stay for the talk, because we had to eat, catch up and walk up town for our next session. Having just been to a movie, which arguably belonged in the Film Festival rather than the Writers’ Festival, we now went to a stand-up show, which you might think belonged in the Comedy Festival.

8.30: Sandy Toksvig: My Valentine
We knew Sandi Toksvig as one of the occasional women panellists on QI. This show, she said, was her Valentine to Life. It began and ended with bits of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; we learned a little Danish which led to a surprisingly poignant pay-off; we found out that Sandy Toksvig has been on British Television for 34 years, and some of the audience vocally remembered her from a children’s show – ‘I see that some of my children have gown up,’ she said). We laughed a lot, and bought one of her books, which turns out to be a female to male cross-dresser who enlisted to fight in the Boer War.

2013 in review (lazily)

Many good things happened in my life this year. Possibly the biggest was that Ngurrumbang, the short film whose screenplay I co-wrote with my elder son, was screened at three festivals in Australia and one in Europe, with Flickerfest still to come. But here are three relatively lazy looks at the year that’s just finishing.

One: The first sentence (or sometimes the first two sentences) of the first blog post for each month:

January: Whatever the ghost of Rembrandt might think about the state of Dutch art in the early 21st century the arrival of Florentijn Hofman’s magnum opus in Darling Harbour today was a hit, even after the seeming endless and mostly lame concert and tumbling act that preceded it.

February: I heard Paul Ham speak about this book [Hiroshima Nagasaki] at Gleebooks early last year.

March: Geoff Lemon, co-editor, was surely tempting fate and the critics when, as soon as the 32nd issue of Going Down Swinging was complete, he nicknamed the impending Nº 33 the Jesus Issue.

April: I recently heard a distinguished novelist claim that she grew up believing New South Wales was mostly settled peacefully and that damage to the original inhabitants was largely unintended, caused by infectious diseases and the like.

May: The launch of this book [Pam Brown’s Home by Dark] last weekend was a convivial affair in an Erskineville pub.

June: Sydney has Vivid. Wellington has Lux.

July: I was extremely lucky in the timing of my university studies. I started at Sydney Uni in 1967 when, because of an overhaul of the New South Wales school system, only a very small cohort had graduated from high school the year before.

August: After Karl Ove Knausgaard’s mountains of mundane detail, we wanted our next book to be one that spins a great yarn.

September: It’s about two and a half years since we moved home. About a year ago, the grass tree (Xanthorrhoea) that had stood outside our kitchen window in the old house was ailing in its new location – most of its fronds were brown or browning.

October: This book [Contemporary Asian Australian Poets edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill] seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing.

November: It’s November, and once again, while all over the world people with stamina take on NaNoWriMo, I’m setting myself the modest goal of 14 sonnets in the month – LoSoRhyMo (Local Sonnet Rhyming Month).

December: As Vagabond Press’s beautifully crafted Rare Objects series of chapbooks approaches its hundredth and final title, Jennifer Maiden makes her debut at Nº 95.

Two: Top Ten Movies (in no particular order)

Me The Art Student
Philomena (Stephen Frears) 1p
In Bob We Trust (Lynn-Maree Milburn)
130_ibwt
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
140_bj
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
140_swt
The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt)
1r
A Gun in Each Hand (Cesc Gay)
1geh
Twenty Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville)
140_20f
The Past (Asghar Farhadi)
136_past
What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee and David Siegel)140_wmk
The Attack (Ziad Doueiri)
140_a
No (Pablo Larrain)
140_no
Barbara (Christian Petzold)1barbara A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman)
140_p

Three: Notes on the year’s reading

Rather than single out some books as the best, let’s see how I went in reading diversely.

I’ve listed 63 books in my ‘Reading and Watching’ column. I didn’t finish at least five of them and quite a few were journals, not books at all. It looks as if I read 53 books as such.

  • 31 were by men, 22 by women
  • 6 were translations – two from Norwegian, one each from Bengali, Russian, German and Catalan
  • 32 were Australian
  • 24 were poetry books, including substantial anthologies as well as tiny chapbooks
  • 7 were Book Group books
  • not necessarily the best, but 3 books that enriched my sense of what Australia is were Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy, Noel Beddoe’s The Yalda Crossing and Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, the anthology edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill
  • the Art Student’s pick from her year’s reading were Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Eleanor Caton’s The Luminaries and her crime fiction discovery, Martin Walker’s Bruno xx series.

That’s it. Happy New Year, all!

Contemporary Asian Australian Poets

Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann 2013)

1caapThis book seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing. The current Southerly focuses on ‘Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, with particular attention to Asian Australian (or Asian-Australian, or Asian/Australian etc) work. The recent OzAsia Festival in Adelaide included a two-day OzAsia on Page component which featured ‘significant and contemporary Asian and Australian voices’. Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Writing Series is looking formidably good.

It’s hard to imagine a more disparate gathering of poets than those collected between these covers, not just in nationality or ethnicity (‘Asia’ is a big and varied place, and there seems to be someone here from just about every part of it except, interestingly, Japan), but in just about every other conceivable way as well. The poetry ranges from work with the exuberance and directness of Spoken Word to compressed, elliptical, allusive capital-L Literary offerings. It’s the poets who are Asian Australian, not necessarily the poetry, so though there are poems of the pain of loss of home and culture (I was going to say ‘nostalgia’, but that’s a word that no longer conveys any sense of real pain), poems that explicitly deal with or enact cultural duality or hybridity, poems about multicultural relationships, poems that tackle white racism head-on, and poems exploring questions of cultural identity, there are also poems that don’t do any of those things.

There is a brief introductory essay from each of the three editors. Adam Aitken outlines and celebrates the extraordinary range of voices and attitudes in the anthology, and the range of possibilities in the term ‘Asian Australian’ itself. Kim Cheng Boey focuses on the experience of migration:

Home is never a given, for first-generation migrants, and continues to be a complex issue for subsequent generations. Being beneficiaries of two or more cultures, and entangled in a complex web of affiliations and attachments, they are wary of identity politics and monolithic formations.

Michelle Cahill points out the anthology’s significance in bringing greater visibility to Asian Australian women poets, who experience ‘the double exile of migration and mediation of patriarchal terrain, so inimical to the female psyche’. Seventeen of the 37 poets in this collection are women, and very few Asian Australian women have been included in any previous anthologies.

All three introductory essays are worth reading, and they give invaluable guidance to the poetry. But in the end, it’s the poetry you pay for – and I’m happy to report that I was immersed in this book for days, being dragged from one engaged mind to another. Christopher Cyrill, whom I have previously known as the events organiser at Gleebooks who always spoke too softly when introducing people, here turns out to have a clear, strong, brilliantly modulated voice in the extract from his prose poem novella Quaternion (and that’s me saying it who hates extracts and doesn’t much care for prose poems). Andy Quan’s ‘Is This?’ is a brilliant abstraction of the moment of anticipation on meeting a new person. Omar Musa contemplates buying a pair of shoes and redefines the notion of choice. I finally get to read Kim Cheng Boey’s ‘Stamp Collecting’, which I’ve heard him read at festivals and loved, and his ‘Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB’ – what can I say? Eileen Chong is here, with some of the finest poems from ‘Burning Rice’. I was about to read Debbie Lim’s ‘How to Grow Feet of Golden Lotus’ aloud to a friend and then realised I wouldn’t want to inflict it on anyone who didn’t have plenty of time to recover. Merlinda Bobis’s ‘Covenant’ (‘after you bomb my town / I’ll take you fishing / or kite-flying or both’) conveys the poignancy (another word that has lost its hard meaning) of peace for a defeated people. Jaya Savige’s ‘Circular Breathing’ could hardly be more mainstream Australian, a kind of version of Les Murray’s ‘Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’ set it in Europe and acknowledging Indigenous Australia (with only the barest allusion to Asia, but who’s counting?). Louise Ho’s ‘A Veteran Talking’ is a killer poem, a chilling, hard, dry killer. I’m glad Adam Aitken included a decent, brilliantly varied selection of his own work.

Please don’t let this book be seen as a marginal anthology of poems by the marginalised. It’s a fabulous collection and belongs at the centre of our culture.

Southerly 73/1

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 1 2013: The Political Imagination

1spiRoughly two thirds of this Southerly is devoted to essays that started life as papers for ‘The Political Imagination: Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, a conference held in Melbourne in April 2012. So the political imagination under discussion is much more specific than the issue’s title suggests. It’s as if the god of the mailbox saw me tossing terms like ‘immigrant poetry’ around in my last blog post, and decided to send me some heavy-duty reading matter as a reproach for my lack of theoretical rigour (or theoretical anything, if the truth must be known). Ali Alizadeh, one of the subjects of that last post, was responsible along with Ann Vickery for editing the essays from the conference, and co-wrote one of them with Penelope Pitt-Alizadeh: and he more than adequately fits my description of him as way out of my intellectual league.

Of the theme essays, the clear stand-out is Danijela Kambaskovic’s superbly readable ‘Breaching the social contract: the migrant poet and the politics of being apolitical’. When Kambaskovic left Belgrade in the 1990s she had already published poems, translations and criticism in Serbian and was fluent and well read in English. She came to Australia, gained a PhD and eventually began to write poetry again, now in English. The essay addresses the question of her deep reluctance to write about migration, to write poetry from the migration experience. In vivid prose, she lays out her own story and that of others with similar experiences: it’s the story of someone fighting for her own mind, resisting pressure to further her career by commodifying her painful history and at the same time searching for an ethical practice:

Traumatised writers spend their lives searching for precise verbal equivalents for the dread, the horror, the identity shifts, the hatred of one’s environment, the inability to identify with the structures and institutions of society, the fear of reality, the mental dysmorphia – all non-verbal and confronting emotions made even more complex by the awareness that one has moved into a much ‘better’ society and ought to be ‘grateful’. How is it possible to write about these for an audience who may be baffled, even confronted, by the uneasy conjunction of praise and criticism of their own society, which may make the migrant writer seem negative and ungrateful, or at the very least, unnecessarily conflicted? I salute those migrant writers who can find enough clarity in their minds to write about any of those, and avoid the pitfalls. Any of my attempts that have been in any way successful have skirted on the surface of the experience.

This essay is worth the price of admission, for itself, and for the way its flesh and heart helps with the preponderantly academic tenor of the other essays.

Those essays explore similar issues. Alizadeh and Pitt-Alizadeh carefully and meticulously discuss the dangers of categorising people and/or poetry according to a single ethnic or racial identity, and give a model of how to read a poem that avoids those dangers without imposing mainstream assumptions on it. A full understanding of their model depends on the reader being familiar with Alain Badiou’s readings of Mallarmé, which sadly I am not. Adam Aitken’s demanding discussion of hybridity casts interesting light on his own poetry:

Rather than a poet who writes about travel I would like to be read as a poet who charts the changing nature of the ongoing historical meaning of the Asian-in-Australia.

Peter Minter floats an idea of imagining ‘a decolonised twenty-first century Australian poetics’ by thinking in terms of archipelagos – I think he’s saying something that’s not just interesting but exciting, but I’d have to make headway with 15 or so heavy-duty theorists he cites to understand him properly. Had I but world enough and time! There is a lovely moment where he quotes in quick succession and mutual support Les Murray, Karl Marx and the Whole Earth Catalogue.

I also enjoyed Timothy Yu’s discussion of Asian Australian poetry. As a US scholar, he was struck by the different way migrant communities talk about themselves here. Sydney comedian Michael Hing, who can trace his family’s history in Australia back some five generations, refers to himself, not as an Asian Australian (the equivalent of Asian American, the most likely term if he had been in the US) or even as a Chinese Australian, but as ‘a Chinese guy’. Yu ruminates interestingly on this difference, and gets down to specifics in considering aspects of the poetry of Ouyang Yu.

The rest of the journal is taken up with poetry, short stories and reviews, all interesting, some wonderful.

Danijela Kambaskovic stars again in the poetry section with ‘Belgrade Sunday Lunch’, a translation from her own poem in Serbian (incidentally, her article has a nice riff on what it means to translate one’s own poem as opposed to someone else’s). She has two more poems in Southerly‘s online component, The Long Paddock, just a click away.

Of the stories, I liked best Jeremy Fisher’s modest domestic scene, ‘Ready to Dance’, which has a predictable but satisfying twist, and Rachel Leary’s ‘God’s Lost Sheep’, which plays like a short grunge movie of a bus hijack.

There’s an interesting combined review by Jal Nicholl of Michael Farrell’s open sesame and Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen. He sees these vastly different poets as inhabiting ‘different wings of the same belated [ie, post-modernity/post-modernism] dream-house.’ And one of life’s little mysteries is solved on page 256 where Sam Franzway review’s Vikki Wakefield’s young-adult novel Friday Brown: Sam is known in these quarters as franzy, creator of the blog Writing. So now we know why he’s been neglecting his blog – he’s doing a PhD and writing scholarly reviews, thankfully without a single mention of Deleuze, Kristeva, Baudrillard or even Foucault.

Curmudgeonly footnote: I would pass in silence over the ‘back-peddling’ character in one of the stories, because there is pleasure in such misspellings. But I have to complain about a moment in Danijela Kambaskovic’s brilliant essay where she was left hanging out to dry by the editorial team. Observing that some people question whether a woman of non-English speaking background can adequately teach Shakespeare to Anglo-Saxon students, she comments in parentheses: ‘This reminds me of famous quip by George Bernard Shaw that women writers are like dogs dancing on their hind legs: the wonder is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.’ It’s a slip that anyone could make, but surely one of the many pairs of eyes that read that paragraph on its way to press should have picked up that the famous quip was made by Samuel Johnson, and it was about a woman preaching.

Malouf Adamson Aitken Harrison: Rare Objects

Adam Aitken, November Already (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 86, 2013)
Martin Harrison, Living Things: Five Poems (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 87, 2013)
David Malouf, Sky News (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 88, 2013)
Robert Adamson, Empty Your Eyes (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 89, 2013)

I bought this quartet of chapbooks at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where all four poets read brilliantly. At $15 each, this is poetry at just over a dollar a page, which isn’t a lot of bang for your buck if you measure it by the yard, but – speaking as someone who has ploughed through a number of Collected volumes in the hope of getting a feel for their authors’ work – I’d say these tiny, beautifully presented books are great value for money. The poems have room to breathe. [The list above is in order of publication, my random comments below are in order of my reading.]

1sn It’s common wisdom that learning poetry by heart is a good thing, because – besides being able to surprise and delight your friends – it’s a way of making the poetry your own, inscribing it on yourself (as Dan Beachy-Quick said memorably, here). Reading David Malouf’s Sky News, I realised that, memorised or not, I haven’t really read a poem until I’ve heard it in my own voice, at least internally. I’ve loved hearing David read his poetry ever since he made sunlight glint off milk churns and today blaze from a lapel in his 70s imitations of Horace. But there’s a different pleasure in taking the poems into oneself.

The poems in Sky News are like piano pieces: there’s a right hand with lots of trills and arpeggios, images and alliterative wordplay, and a slower, deeper, meditative left hand. As I got to know each poem, I found myself looking for my own balance between the two, between being charmed by the right hand, as in this evocation of a quiet night in ‘At Clerici’:

Crickets strike up
a riff on the razzle-dazzle
of starlight, then stop.

and being moved by the left hand, which doesn’t lend itself to quotation because it’s often there by implication or comes into the foreground only in the final moments of a poem.

In ‘A Parting Word’, a rendering of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Der Scheidende’, Malouf the translator engages in a similar balancing act. I can’t read German, but compared to what looks like a close translation of the original, it’s evident that Malouf’s poem is a lot livelier: ‘Estorben ist in meiner Brust /
Jedwede weltlich eitle Lust’ (‘It has died in me, as it must, / Every idle, earthly lust’) becomes the playfully alliterative ‘All’s dashed in me, all’s dished and done’, and this playfulness keeps up all the way to the final lines, where ‘Der Schattenfürst in der Unterwelt’ (‘The shadow prince in the Underworld’) becomes

__________________First
in rank of the resident zombies. Top
dog in this dog-house, Hades.

In Heine’s poem, the speaker moves from a cheerless contemplation of his approaching death to a grim acknowledgement that the most vulgar of the living are better off than the noblest dead, so in the end by implication what does art matter? In Malouf’s, the mood is less gloomy – it’s still a poem about age and mortality, but the scales tip towards a celebration of life – it’s not that art is futile, but life is the thing.

1eye The current submission guidelines for Going Down Swinging warn prospective contributors not to send ‘poems involving birds, wings, feathers or flight’. Luckily for Robert Adamson and his readers this prohibition doesn’t prevail everywhere. Henry Thoreau said an abode without birds was like meat without seasoning – Adamson without birds is unimaginable. From traffic casualties in the prose poem / flash fiction ‘A Proper Burial’ to birds that ‘call and call the light’ in ‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’, there are plenty of birds in Empty Your Eyes. Poets are here in plenty too: Adamson’s compadres like Dransfield and Charles Buckmaster, but also an assortment of Catholic convert poets – James McAuley, Pierre Reverdy and Francis Thompson (the only poet my mother ever quoted – ‘I fled him down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; … and under running laughter’). Adamson’s poetry is steeped in the Hawkesbury River, in the world of poetry and poets, and increasingly in a kind of questing mysticism:

——————I read
‘The Hound of Heaven’
by a river in new South Wales:

There was a black chuckle
before the ‘running laughter’ –
Attention shifts, revelation grips.

1na Perhaps even more than Adamson’s, Adam Aitken’s cool, postmodern, intercultural poems abound in allusions – not in an arrogant bugger-off-if-you-haven’t-read-Rimbaud way, but more in a let’s-have-some-dislocating-and-provocative-fun way. I went googling quite a bit as I read November Already: John Clare (hardly an esoteric reference, but I hadn’t read anything by him), Rimbaud (I couldn’t find the arachnid referred to in ‘Rimbaud’s Spider’, so I don’t know what I’m missing, but enjoyed the poem anyhow), Ezra Pound (who wrote a travel diary, A Walking Tour in Southern France), Raymond Roussel (I found a note on Adam’s blog that helped hugely in reading the poem ‘Rousselesque’).

There’s a lot of France in these poems: Paris and the tiny village of Mareuil, the Resistance and the Revolution, Roman relics and Australian expats. From what I’ve read of Aitken’s work, I have a sense that he generally writes as if he’s not quite at home, always with a dislocated, interrogative feel. So when a poem about a deserted railway line is entitled ‘On the Chemin du Fer’, it doesn’t read as a mistyping of chemin de fer, but as a marker of the speaker’s outsider status. In the poem, this outsider is on a disused length of railway surrounded by blossoming almond trees, ‘tougher, more industrial’ than cherry blossom, and in these beautifully evoked surroundings, before evoking the Terror by a mention of Saint-Just, asks:

Was that old man “Europe”
so often so hard, so cruel
a one-stop shop
for the soul?

Likewise, I think of Aitken as an urban poet, so when he misspells ‘chicken coop’, it doesn’t read as a mistake, deliberate or otherwise, but as the equivalent of a visitor from the city wearing shiny shoes in a cow paddock, adding to the edgy feel of the poem.

1lt Martin Harrison’s poems, by contrast, feel completely at home in their mostly Australian landscapes. This may be especially true of the first poem in Living Things: Five Poems, ‘Wallabies’, a long, breathless (and sparsely punctuated) celebration of western New South Wales landscapes:

nothing is dead here the spaces between them are
inhabited leaves twigs debris fallen white-anted trunks

slopes rocks grass parrots galahs floating down
in pink streamers again the grey lack of edge

around sprays cream waterfalls of turpentines flowering
in high irrigated air-blue reaches she-oaks aspirant

with their million fingers and amber seed-flowers
spotted gums mottled as grandmothers but with contrasts

of grey brown white and silver as if dressed for a ball

He does more than describe natural phenomena, of course. A recurring theme here is ‘how events change time’s flow beneath perception’: a ‘small thump from somewhere’ (‘White-Tailed Deer’), thrips that are ‘quite possibly meaningless, quite possibly / microbes of non-significance’ (‘Cloud’), a frog you can hear ‘miles away, / long before you thought you could’ (‘The Frog’). Even the eponymous wallabies would be easy to miss if you didn’t read carefully. Some lines from ‘Blue Wren Poem’ suggest something of what’s going on:

____-_____________________Such

detail can be lost – bobbins, birds, refuge, storm –
when innocence starts holding out against the tide,
when radiance blurs the future.

Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press says this series will come to an end at 100 titles. That means there are 11 to go, and the distinctive design, with pasted-on cover art by Kay Orchison, will sadly be no more.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 1

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has been going for days now, but my festival started yesterday, on a bleak, wet, grey Thursday.

I began with a 10 o’clock launch of four chapbooks in Vagabond Press’s Rare Objects series. Chapbooks are books of poetry so small they don’t even rate an ISBN. But where some chapbooks have a cheap and cheerful feel, the Rare Objects are beautifully crafted, a hundred numbered and signed copies of each title. The books being launched were by the stellar line-up of David Malouf, Robert Adamson, Martin Harrison and Adam Aitken.

Luke Davies gave one of the best launch speeches I’ve heard. He paid tribute to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press and to the four poets in warmly personal terms, as people and as creators. The mutual respect and affection among the five people on the dais was something wonderful: completely the opposite of the internecine strife for which poets are supposedly famous. Each of the four launchees read: Adam Aitken from November Already, Robert Adamson from Empty your Eyes, Martin Harrison from Living Things)and David Malouf from Sky News (which my deafness heard Luke Davies announce, improbably, as Sky Nudist, but that would be a different chapbook). We the audience were very restrained, applauding politely after each reader – my guess is that we were too busy processing the complex pleasures we were being given to be too demonstrative. It really was a brilliant reading: a stunning prose poem from Adamson, crisp imagery from Malouf, Aitken taking the New York School to a tiny French village (not really, but that’s a mangled form of his own joke), Harrison in fine rhapsodic form. I loved Martin Harrison’s account of the genesis of his ‘Wallabies’: witnessing two young Australians in full xenophobic flight in a Parisian Internet cafe (and he described them to us with great relish), he took notes intending to write a satirical poem, but realised when he sat to write that what he really wanted to do was to celebrate the part is Australia they came from.

I couldn’t have asked for a better start. I bought all four of the Rare Objects, found a spot out of the rain and sat and read, did email things on my iPad, and chatted. (One of the striking things about the SWF is how easy it is to strike up a conversation with complete strangers.) Then it was time for the 1 o’clock session:Harbour City Poets: Some People You May Know, my first event in the Bangarra Mezzanine, which I think of as the poets’ space at the Festival. Again it was a pleasure to be read to, this time by a quintet of poets – Margaret Bradstock, John Carey, David Musgrave, Louise Wakeling and Les Wicks. The poems were about people, real, and imagined. Margaret Bradstock’s pieces about colonial characters made me want more. And there was some witty and elegant light satire. It may be because someone had told me just before the session about the man being hacked to death in London, but I found myself thinking that light satire, especially when performed giving broad Austealian accents to its objects, is a dangerous mode in which the satirist can all too easily come off as smug, class-bound, narrow-minded, bien-pensant and otherwise unappealing.

I rushed home (bus–train–bus), walked and fed the dog and was back, just a few minutes late for Robert Green: On Creativity at 4 oclock. This session wasn’t on my schedule, but a friend had a ticket she couldn’t use, and the Festival program promised ‘exercises to help rid [me] of blocks and unleash thinking that is more fluid and creative’. Given that I’m feeling out of my depth with a writing project just now, it was a case of what the hell archie, and I’d taken the tickets off her hands. It was turned out to be pretty much a motivational talk. The ‘exercises’ were three broadbrush strategies: embrace the blank page; think like an outsider; subvert your patterns of thinking. I enjoyed the talk, not least for the wealth of anecdote and Robert Green’s manifest passion for his message that every human brain is capable of brilliance, that mastery is possible. I especially liked the first question and response at the end. In summary, a white-bearded man suggested that next time a journalist asks him if he can seriously believe the stuff he says, he should try thinking like a mushroom; this was evidently meant as a witticism, but Green was completely nonplussed; after a bit of back and forth in which the point of excuse tin remained obscure, he agreed that he would give it a try.

More bus, more train, dinner at a pub in Chippendale then to the Carriageworks for Stories Then & Now. I’m a big fan of William Yang’s slide-show story telling, especially his exploration of his Chinese and north Queensland heritages over the years. For this show, along with Annette Shum Wah, he has mentored six mainly younger Asian-heritage people to tell the stories of their families (‘then’) and their personal stories (‘now’). Each story-teller had two turns alone on stage with a microphone in front of hem and two screens showing a series of photographs behind them. Ien Ang, Jenevieve Chang, Michael C. S. Park, Sheila Pham, Paul van Reyk and Willa Zheng were each completely engaging, and the combined effect of heir six presentations was extraordinarily rich. The Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, the American War in Vietnam, Indonesian independence, the White Australia Policy; a hilariously failed attempt at an arranged marriage, a weirdly romantic tale of serial fatherhood by sperm donation, a successful Internet match, intergenerational tension and conflict fled, faced and reconciled. We came out into the night exhilarated.

Adam Aitken’s Tonto’s Revenge

Adam Aitken, Tonto’s Revenge (Tinfish Press 2011)

Tinfish Press is a small Hawai’ian publishing house run by Susan M Schultz, the poet who wrote Dementia Blog. It publishes poetry in the Tinfish journal, in books and in chapbooks. Even if Adam Aitken hadn’t been Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Hawai’i–Mānoa in 2010,  would have been a natural fit for Tinfish. He wrote recently on his blog:

I have spent my whole career as a writer trying to critique and understand a cross-cultural poetics and [my] multicultural cultural capital.

Almost like call and response, the Tinfish website says:

We publish work from the Pacific region, concentrating on language issues, colonialism, Buddhism, place, and poetic form. Above all, we seek to create alliances between writers whose work crosses national and aesthetic borders.

Tonto’s Revenge is the second title in the Tinfish Retro Series, which will comprise 12 chapbooks, $3 USD each or $36 for the set, available from http://tinfisheditor.blogspot.com. (You can read Susan Schultz’s blog entry on this book here.)

I enjoyed the book’s twelve poems very much. Most of them are responses to Hawai’i: conversations on TheBus (not a typo), an encounter with a homeless woman, an elegy for the actor who played Danno in Hawai’i Five-O, a meditation on a major shopping precinct. Five monologues by ‘The Sheriff’ are less Hawai’i specific, but they too relate to encounters with the US more broadly. For example, ‘The Sheriff as Recidivist’ which gives the book its title, plays with a particularly US flavour of political correctness, in which certain words have been declared ‘bad’:

I know I can’t call him that, my dusky Injun,
but I does.
[…]
Tonto.
Now that Tumbleweed U’s banned the term
now that it’s banned
it’s even sexier.

Here, as elsewhere, the play turns serious in a surprising way, but you’ll have to read the poem to find out how.  There’s a lot of playfulness in the book as a whole – playful puns, play with syntax, play with paradox – and a lot of affection.

Since this is a blog entry and not a review, here begin a couple of paragraphs on a very minor matter:

As is pretty inevitable these days, when we can never assume a common set of references between a poet and any given reader, there are plenty of obscurities. For example, in ‘Ala Moana’, the piece on the shopping precinct, which to my mind is the most interesting poem in the book, the narrator has been meditating on nostalgia:

So I want to write 747 poems
and not worry. Whose home is it?
Whose nostalgia?

Presumably he doesn’t mean he want to write seven hundred and forty-seven poems. Is he looking forward to the time when we will be nostalgic for 747s?  Perhaps he is stating an ambition to write big poems that will carry many people to new places. This morning, re-reading the poem while walking the dog, I stumbled on this line, and moved on – as you do. Just now, checking to see if Adam had uploaded the poem to his blog as he has some of the others, I read this: ‘I feel deeply complicit in a kind of poetic tourism, where I am always unmoored, or detached from a deep sense of belonging to a place. Susan Schultz calls this the “747” poem, a poem of shallow impressions, a sketch.’

Ahh! (And since I wrote that last sentence, I’ve googled ‘747 poems’ and found lots of references: it’s not a deliberate obscurity.)

Added later: Susan Schultz has added a clarification in the comments.