Tag Archives: Adrian Wiggins

Two Rare Objects and a Stray Dog

Christopher (Kit) Kelen, Green Thought – Green Shade: A Sabbatical Set (Vagabond Press, Rare Object No 79, 2012)
Adrian Wiggins, Chooks (Vagabond Press, Rare Object No 81, 2012)
J S Harry, Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow (Vagabond Press, Stray Dog Editions No 3, 2000)

I bought these three books last weekend at the Gleebooks launch of half a dozen chapbooks from Vagabond Press. A chapbook is a small collection of poetry – usually cheaply produced and inexpensive to buy. The Rare Object series, now numbering more than 80, small (16 pages), saddlestitched and without ISBNs, with a print run of 100 copies each, are at the deluxe end of the chap spectrum: they have swanky, translucent fly leaves, and a small printed image glued on the front cover, and each numbered copy is signed by the author.

At the launch there was some uneasy joking about the presence of non-poets. Like sceptics at a seance or woman reporters in a male football team’s change room, we were kind of welcome but unsettling. (Although I’ve had a handful poems published, as a reader I’m definitely a non-poet.) Pam Brown’s launching remarks, an edited version of which is up at the Rochford Street Review site, had none of that uneasiness. She was generous and straightforward, made all six books sound desirable, and modelled in an unfussy way the kind of work needed to read these compressed, allusive and/or oblique contemporary poems. (Besides the books by Kit Kelen and Adrian Wiggins, the others being launched were by Niobe Syme, S. K. (Steve) Kelen, James Stuart and Nicolette Stasko.)

Kit Kelen’s book is a set of poems written while home on sabbatical in country New South Wales. For a prosaic reader like me, it helps to know that before you start, and to know that he mainly lives in Macau, and is a painter as well as a poet. You may also need to be warned that you’re entering a punctuation free zone, so a little extra decoding work will be needed. Given all that, the poems speak very directly, with a sweet sense of place, and a whiff of Chinese or Japanese sensibility. From ‘Iona’:

mosquito the size of a small bus
comes and passes and is gone

Kelen has made some interesting remarks about how these poems relate to the pastoral tradition and to the problematic nature of non-Indigenous land ownership in Australia. ‘The challenge,’ he says, ‘is to have fun while you problematise (otherwise please don’t write a poem).’ The elegance, humour and directness of the poems mean the problematic elements slide into the reader’s mind without a bump.

Chooks is Adrian Wiggins’s second book of poetry – it’s 18 years since the first. I understand the title to be presenting these poems as a yard full of chooks, each going in its own direction, scratching, pecking, clucking, fussing over chickens, and generally filling the yard with life. I can’t say I follow them all, or even most of them. For example, ‘The Astronaut’s Lovesong‘, which mixes cosmic imagery with images of bondage, might have been impenetrable to me without Pam Brown’s gloss: ‘Yes, it’s about the wildly jealous astronaut Lisa Nowack who tried to kidnap a female airforce captain who was involved with an astronaut on whom Lisa had a big crush.’ I suspect there’s a lot of play with poetic conventions and politics in the book, some of which I get: I find the idea of John Forbes cosplay (in ‘New Season’) irresistibly funny, but there are almost certainly people who would be driven to Google by both ‘John Forbes’ and ‘cosplay’. One person’s esoterica are another person’s commonplaces, and if the prose meaning eludes me I still enjoy the ride – in some ways it’s like being a child reader again.

For the fun of it, I scribbled all over the first poem in the book, ‘Galah’ (a photocopy – I wouldn’t dream of defacing this beautiful rare object), just to have a visual take on where the poem took me. It’s not a particularly obscure poem, but it does fly off in many directions:

It’s a measure of how much I enjoyed the poem that my inner proofreader didn’t spot the misspelling of ‘plane’, deliberate or otherwise, until I was quite a way into the annotating.

For me (Mr Prosaic Reader), apart from ‘Galah’ the prize fowl is ‘Macquarie River swimming’, a sharply rendered piece of nostalgia for youthful days when the poet and his friends, swinging on ‘a straggly rope tied to a river-gum’,

________________________let rip
with an imitation aerialist’s flip, a shout,
and fell through the day, new bullets

through old rifling, laughing from the noon’s
blue meridian to a cold, dark hole midstream.

J S Harry’s Not Finding Wittgenstein (2007) featured the adventures of Peter Henry Lepus, a rabbit who goes to Iraq and other places and knocks around with philosophers. I was intrigued by this odd character, and tantalised by the few poems about him I’d read. I thought Sun Shadow, Moon Shadow from 2000, not much bigger than the Rare Objects (though big enough for an ISBN) – might be a way to ease myself into his world. Alas, there was no easing to be had, no Origin Story, just a rabbit who has been provoked into trying to think. He’s a strange creation, and the poems are strange too, peppered with erratic spacing and capitalisation and font changes. But definitely alive, and wide ranging. Peter tries without much success to understand the poetry scene. He encounters a literary critic in a poem that might be more fun for readers who know or are willing to find out who Altieri is. In ‘They‘, Peter tries to explain to ‘the flowerbed rabbit / who lives deep in dark leaves’ what humans (‘they’) mean by the ‘pronoun called I’. In ‘A Sunlit Morning, Labor Day, Late Twentieth Century’, he sees and does not understand the death of a magpie friend. He’s clearly a device for looking freshly at the world, for exploring philosophical questions and any number of things, but he is also a character in his own right. His meeting with the cat Chairman Miaow (a different Chinese whiff from Kit Kelen’s) in “Moonlight Becomes You?” may be an enigmatic meditation on art, but it’s also a scary confrontation with a predator. After his conversation with the flowerbed rabbit about the pronoun called I, he realises he has lost an opportunity to

follow the white
bobs of her tail
disappearing
into the scarlet flowers.

I guess I’ve now got Not Finding Wittgenstein on my To Be Read list.

Sappho & Penguin play rough

Two literary events with the Art Student in the last week: Robert Adamson and Devin Johnson at Sappho’s on Tuesday night, and Tom Cho and others at Penguin Plays Rough on Saturday.

I’ve been to one previous poetry reading at Sappho’s, in May this year. On that occasion Rhyll McMaster and the open-mikers read from just inside the shop, to an audience spread comfortably on the verandah and courtyard in the balmy evening, enjoying warm drinks and tapas. Tuesday night was a bit different, bitterly cold (by Sydney standards) with rain pelting down. We arrived early enough to claim the sole remaining indoor table, opting for dryness and comparative comfort behind the microphone rather than huddling in the chilly and dripping plastic-roofed and -sided balcony with good sight lines. The courtyard was completely out of the question. When the Talent arrived, they were given tables in the semi-exposed area, tables that we had rejected because they were awash.

It speaks volumes for the pulling power of these poets that the space, though small, was crowded. Adamson and Johnson were an excellent double bill, lots of river water and birds from two continents. The two stand-out poems for me were Johnson’s ‘Marco Polo‘ (the link, which needs Flash, has DJ reading this poem and two others) and Adamson’s ‘The Kingfisher’s Soul‘ (this also needs Flash), which he told us he’d written in response to his wife asking why he never wrote any love poems: it is indeed an achingly personal love poem.

Adamson, Johnson and their small entourage departed – presumably to a warmer, drier, better fed place – before the open mic, along with enough others to create the impression that all who were left were the open mikers and their pals: ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Dregs of the Evening’. But we soldiered on, reading one poem each. There was a long piece in terza rima that I couldn’t quite hear, a pantoum, a sharp witty observation on cockatoos, a tribute to Francis Webb, and to conclude the evening next month’s featured poet Eileen Chong gave us Mary Wollstoncraft addressing her unborn daughter, praying that one day her fingers would close around a pen. And somewhere in there I read a sonnet about snoring. To polite applause. Come to think of it, even the most excellent poems of the evening received only polite applause. Given the weather, that was about all that could be expected.

The red chair, the lamp, and the Art Student (who managed to grab the last seat)

Penguin Plays Rough had a very different feel. It was my second time there as well, but my first at the new venue. The front section of an old warehouse has been curtained off from what I assume is the living space further back. The heavy red curtains lend a suitably theatrical atmosphere to the chequered lino floor, cosily ill-assorted couches and armchairs around the walls, and wooden podium with iconic red chair and standard lamp. By the time we arrived all but one of the sears were taken, and no mercy was shown to our elder status. We found a place on the lino. (At the first break in proceedings when we stood up to stretch our legs, I was shocked to discover a pack of young people moving in to claim the space we were relinquishing – behind us, in the tiny space between the front door and the first heavy curtain, they had been standing three deep, envying us our vantage point.)

We were physically uncomfortable, but we were warm, and we were part of a cheerful crowd. Many people were drinking mulled wine. Those in the know – and they seemed to be many – had brought their own mugs. Pip Smith, who edited and published The Penguin Plays Rough Book Of Short Stories, was a brilliant MC, using words like ‘awesome’ and generally exuding a mi casa es su casa aura. With one possible exception (he said humbly), the readings were terrific. The advertised readers were Emma Dallas (a character sketch of an inner west personality), Ryan O’Neil (a piece about depression that would have been scary if it wasn’t so brilliantly playful), Sam Twyford-Moore (a tale of travel, crosscultural romance and writerly rivalry), Jess Bellamy (letters to celebrities whose dysfunction feeds the tabloids, which became retrospectively more substantial with news of Amy Winehouse’s death yesterday), and the star of the evening Tom Cho. Tom read from ‘The Attributes of God’, a story that will be in a book he describes as being about the meaning of life. I wouldn’t have minded the physical discomfort of the evening anyway, but hearing this story would have been worth even more suffering. ‘God is love’ has taken on new meaning for me. He ended with a YouTube clip of otters that, far from being gratuitously cute, was a perfect accompaniment to his story.

Penguin Plays Rough doesn’t have an open mic. They do have ‘wild cards’: anyone can sign up at the door to read, and a selection of those who sign up are interspersed between the advertised readers. On Saturday we had an essay on relationships between the genders with a focus on schoolyard handball, a piece that Pip Smith described as a theatre review written by James Joyce … and me.

Yes, I put my name in the ring again, which I wouldn’t have done if I’d realised that PPR is actually a short story event and I only had a couple of sonnets and a dog poem in my pocket, and even more definitely not if I’d known I was going to be at the end of the evening – after Tom Cho and the otters. Astonishingly, the whole audience stayed put and even seemed to enjoy what I had to offer.

These are the first two times I’ve ventured to read in public. It’s not so bad.

Added later: I forgot to mention that I met Adrian Wiggins there, the mover behind the Sydney Poetry web site. He has uploaded some wonderfully atmospheric photos to facebook. Mercifully he had to leave before Tom Cho’s and my moments in the chair, so we don’t appear, except in the background of one of the shots.