Tag Archives: Ali Cobby Eckermann

Overland 227 & 228

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 227 (Winter 2017)
—-, Overland 228 (Spring 2017)

overland227It’s not that I read Overland out of obligation, but I do feel guilty if I leave an issue sitting on my to-be-read pile for too long because – among other things – Overland offers left perspectives that aren’t all that easy to come by elsewhere in the Australian media. So here’s a slightly guilty blog post about the two most recent issues.

The star of the winter issue (No 227) is Evelyn Araluen. The journal kicks off with her article ‘Resisting the Institution: On Colonial Appropriation, which takes recent activism around statues commemorating colonial ‘heroes’ as a starting point, and develops into a (for me at least) powerful introduction to the field of decolonial theory (as opposed to postcolonial theory):

Decolonial theory provides the Indigenous subject with the tools to deconstruct and challenge colonial infiltrations into our worlds and minds, but decolonial practice within the academy is restrained to that which the institution regards as profitable. In other words, it is safely contained within the classroom, in the form of critical frameworks, unsettling questions or creative-thinking asseignments. Outside of the university, I have given late-night workshops on decolonial theory to anywhere between two and 200 people, often squished together in a leaky tent.

Later in the journal her short story Muyum: A Transgression, winner of the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers, is equally powerful and challenging.

There are the regular columnists, Giovanni Tiso (on owning and keeping books), Alison Croggon (on kindness as a political act), Tony Birch (on his family history, racism and the Australian constitution) and Mel Campbell (on where writers’ ideas come from –  ‘an idea is a promise, not a commodity’). There are solid articles on the gambling industry (by Dan Dixon), tiny presses that publish poetry in Australia (Kent MacCarter), GLBTQ+ politics in contemporary Singapore (Ng Yi-Sheng), Professor Richard Berry and scientific racism (Helen Macdonald), and how much social transformation we can really expect from technological advances under capitalism (Lizzie O’Shea). ‘Pregnant in Mexico’ by Tina Cartwright is a tiny memoir that feels as if it was carved, to good effect, from a longer piece.

There are two short stories in addition to Evelyn Araluen’s prizewinner. ‘Broken zippers‘ by George Haddad, which could serve as a grim companion piece to SBS’s Struggle Street, stands out for me.

There are fourteen pages of poetry. The two poems that spoke most strongly to me are ‘Crossing Galata, Istanbul‘ by John Upton, a tourist poem acutely aware of the limits of its touristic perspective (that’s a mangled quote from Adam Aitken), which captures the feel of Galata Bridge in Istanbul; and ‘The Apology Day breakfast‘ by Ali Cobby Eckermann, which is what it says on the lid, but with a deep, bitter-sweet twist.

The winter issue features the weird photomedia work of guest artist Yee I-Lann.

overland228Sadly, I hadn’t read all of the spring issue (No 228) before it mysteriously went missing on a trip to the supermarket. as a result my vote  for the outstanding items mightn’t be completely valid. But I recommend this edition for Eileen Chong’s poem ‘The Task’ and Olivier Jutel’s article ‘Paranoia and delusion‘.

The Task‘ (do read it at the link; it’s short) is at first blush a straightforward childhood memory of eating crabs, but it drew me in on a number of levels. First, a splendid moral complexity: the crabs have eyes, so we – and the remembered child – know they’re sentient, so there’s no minimising of what’s involved when they are killed and pulled apart, but at the same time there’s frank enjoyment of eating them. Then the opening – ‘We fished with lines, not nets’ – suggests a whole other, metaphorical reading: so by the time we reach the final couplet there’s a strong sense that we’re not talking about crabs any more, at least not only crabs, but something about Chong’s creative process as well:

I left the claws to the others,

preferring only what I could mine
through my own precise undoings

Olivier Jutel’s article is a formidable intervention into the general conversation about Donald Trump.

Domestically, he has mobilised, however chaotically, the most retrograde forces in American society, who experience through him a carnivalesque transgression in ‘Making America Great Again’ one tweet, post and triggered liberal at a time.

He had me at ‘carnivalesque’. The article goes on to rip into the ‘liberal’ media’s obsession with the Russia connection, seeing in it a revival of Cold War emotions, and argues that the Democratic Party is completely at a loss for an adequate political response to the Trump phenomenon, falling back on, among other things, ‘the libidinal deadlock of politics as comedy’. I can’t claim to have followed the whole argument (Jutel is a PhD candidate who quotes Lacan), but if you feel the need of a gust of fresh air amidst the abundant Trump-based sarcasm and despair, this could be the article for you.

Again the regular columnists are worth reading: On coal by Tony Birch (who quotes Murrawah Johnson, spokesperson for the Wangan and Jagalingou community, ‘We’ve seen the end of the world and we’ve decided not to accept it’); On experimentalism by Mel Campbell; On confusing reason and authority by Alison Croggon. Giovanni Tiso has a full-blown article, ‘Dynamite for the people‘, a lively piece on the European anarchists of the late 19th century, and how they differ from 21st century terrorists.

There are, as always, solid articles: Jessica Whyte on the politics of human rights; Mark Riboldi on virtual reality in fact and fiction; Roqayah Chamseddine on conspiracy theorists, those that are nutty and those that turn out to be right. I lost my copy before I got to Michael Brull on Saudi Arabia and Qatar or Chris di Pasquale on religious freedom under the Soviets: they’re up on line or soon will be, but I have trouble with sustained reading from a screen, so I’m sadly giving them a miss.

I did read the winners of the VU Short Story Prize: the winner, Breeding Season  by Amanda Niehaus, and first runner-up, Wharekaho Beach, 1944 by Allan Drew are both excellent. I missed the discussion between Jennifer Mills and Peter Carey about his short story ‘Crabs’, first published in Overland an amazing 45 years ago. It’s a nice idea for an institution like Overland to revisit past glories – I hope there are more interviews like this in the pipeline.

 

Australian Poetry Journal 7:1, Skin

Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven (editors),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2: Skin (2016)

apj71The cover of this issue of Australian Poetry Journal features a brilliantly eye-grabbing Destiny Deacon photograph, Escape from the Whacking Spoon (2007). As the first issue covered by the new policy of having different guest editors for each issue, this one is edited by two leading Aboriginal poets, which ensures that it follows through on the cover’s promise.

There are three sections:

  • Skin 1: 34 poems by 25 Indigenous writers
  • Skin 2: 16 poems by 13 non-Indigenous writers
  • Transforming My Country (edited by Toby Fitch): 12 poems responding to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’,

The selection is very rich, for many of the individual poems and for the extraordinarily valuable dialogue created by placing them between one set of covers. I dog-eared the pages with these poems from the first two sections in my copy (your mileage will very – I recommend you get hold of your own copy via Australian Poetry Pty Ltd’s web site):

  • Claire G Coleman, ‘Strawberry Juice’: starting from the image of spots of strawberry juice staining her writing paper, the poet plays with the notion that directions for colonial killings and records of them were written on paper. Ink stains, like blood stains, can’t be removed, and the lines that bring it home:
    _
    __Notice how paper covers rock
    __Covers
    __My country, my people are one
    __Notice how easily paper tears
    _
  • Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert, ‘Love comes in many colours’ The poet greets her granddaughter:
    _
    Her blonde hair cool against my black skin her whiteness grabs my heart a new day dawning for this land Australia as we dance to the sounds of the oldest culture in the world. Love comes in many colours.
    _
  • Kate Adler, ‘Sorry’. A non-Indigenous person at a Sorry Camp:
    _
     __Hard to witness wounds like these
    __but love is deeper than skin.

The third section includes work by some heavy hitters of Australian poetry, including brilliant poems by the editors of this issue, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven. Eileen Chong (‘My music is wrong – nothing / has been written down right’) and Hani Abdile (‘Opal-hearted country / I’m now one of your unwanted beings / I’ve come to love you sunburnt’) write from immigrant and refugee perspectives. The poem is deconstructed, thesaurised and anagrammatised. Toby Fitch’s introduction describes Lisa Gorton’s conceptually and concretely thrilling poem as an ‘almost-epic’ that ‘explores in microscopic detail the history of the grounds of Royal Park, Melbourne’. I’ll end with some lines from each of the Indigenous takes on the Mackellar poem:

Alison Whittaker (‘A love like Dorothea’s’):

I’m sorry, sweet Mackellar, that it famished all your cows,
y’paddock’s yellow-thirsty-sudden-green; no telling how.
That the gold-hush-rainy-drum hard to your violence and your plow.

Natalie Harkin (‘Heart’s Core Lament’, which is hard to represent accurately here, as it depends on justifying the text on the page, and includes quotes from colonisers’ texts in the margin, but here goes):

harkins.jpeg

Ellen van Neerven (‘My Country’):

my country
is between two rivers

two ribs
two hip bones

Ali Cobby Eckermann (‘Transforming My Country’, which plays with Mackellar’s words to produce radically different meanings):

Who pays back to Earth?

Not she and soft-hearted love
What a hush of her heart, and her
I have her share, her jewel
Though not her land
Your love of my land is tragic

——-

(I won’t repeat my own favourite anecdote about ‘My Country’ and Dame Mary Gilmore, If you’re interested you can read it here.)

 

 

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).

Poetry May 2016

Robert Adamson (guest editor), Poetry, May 2016 (Poetry Foundation, Chicago)

This special Australian Poets edition of Poetry magazine was launched at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year by the regular editor Don Share. Guest editor Robert Adamson spoke and a number of the featured poets, including several who were coopted from the audience, read to us. Who could resist buying a copy?

The magazine contains 28 poems by 20 poets, along with 18 beautiful photo portraits by Juno Gemes and two survey essays by Jaya Savige and Bronwyn Lea, plus a charming note on Robert Adamson by US poet Devan Johnston.

Where the articles, particularly Bronwyn Lea’s ‘Australian Poetry Now‘, struggle with the impossible task of giving the readership, presumably mainly from the US, an overview of the state of Australian poetry, the selection does something different: it’s personal, making no claims to be representative or definitive. It includes a wonderful variety in forms and concerns: narrative, lyric, prose poems, formal experimentation. The landscape and geography are well represented. There are cultural references – both to settler and Aboriginal motifs – that will set non-Australians frantically googling, but at last as much Biblical and classical reference.

It’s hard to generalise about a collection like this, and equally hard to single out individual poems. But here goes with a few:

  • Ali Cobby Eckermann has two strong, plain-speaking poems, ‘Black Deaths in Custody‘ and ‘Thunder raining poison‘, the latter an incantatory response to a work of art about the effects of atomic tests on traditional lands at Maralinga.
  • Samuel Wagan Watson’s prose poems ‘Booranga Wire Songs‘ and ‘A one ended boomerang‘ really sing.
  • The first poem in magazine, Bonny Cassidy’s ‘Axe Derby‘, which plays tantalisingly on the image of a woodchopping competition
  • Anthony Lawrence’s ‘My darling turns to poetry at night‘ is a richly complex villanelle, whose title doesn’t mean what you expect.
  • Jaya Savige has fun with mangoes and anagrams in ‘Magnifera‘.

(The whole magazine is up on the Poetry Foundation’s website, so you can read it all on screen. All the links are to that website.)

SWF: My Day 3

Circumstances made me miss Friday morning at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Emerging Artist, however, got two sessions under her belt.

10:00–11:00 am: Sri Lanka: This Divided Island. She said this was marvellous. Samanth Subramanian, an Indian Tamil journalist, spoke with Michael Williams from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Quite apart from its main thrust, an account of the recent three-decade war and its aftermath, the conversation helped her think about the ethics of her own current art project, which involves many people making small terracottta hearts.

11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Jonathan Franzen: My Reading Life. The main things she reported was that he enjoyed the famous German sense of humour, and was influenced by a number of women writers.

At 3 o’clock the Emerging Artist went to Migration: A World Without Borders? and pretty much fell in love with Aleksandar Hemon. She bought two of his books, even overcoming her vehement dislike of zombie stories to buy his novel, The Making of Zombie Wars.

At 4:30 she went to hear Starlee Kine: From This American Life to Mystery Show and discovered a new podcast to subscribe to, dealing in ‘mysteries that can’t be solved by Google’.

Meanwhile, apart from sitting and chatting over lunch, my Festival day began at 3 with The New Australian Poetry. Unlike previously, this year’s poetry events are in largish rooms and mostly aren’t free. This one was a book launch – of an issue of the US journal Poetry devoted to Australian poets.

As we queued in the scorching afternoon sun (yes, scorching in mid- May), we were regaled by the booming opinions of a youngish man who had evidently been all over the world (perhaps his time in the US accounted for his LOUDNESS) and wanted the world to know that poetry is held in lower esteem in Australia than anywhere else.

The room was filled to capacity. After brief remarks from Don Share, soft-spoken editor of Poetry, and Robert Adamson, guest editor of this issue, we were read to by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Lionel Fogarty, Lisa Gorton, Michael Farrell and Robbie Coburn. In response to an audience request, some of them read poems by other people that appear in the anthology. Then two poets – Susan Fealy and Petra White – were drafted from the audience. Taking a cue from David Malouf the previous day, I asked if any of them would read the same poem a second time – I named Lionel Fogarty and he obliged.

There were two questions, both from the same person, one for each of the Indigenous poets. Don Share made that’s-a-wrap noises, and we were gathering up our stuff when Lionel Fogarty stepped up to his mic again and called on us to break out of our individualism and think in terms of community.

Ali Cobby Eckermann took a turn at the mic and told us, shockingly, that when she was at an international gathering of poets recently some Syrians had asked her how come she writes war poetry. They recognised in her poetry about Aboriginal Australia striking similarities to their own war-torn lives, and she realised that, however deep and strong the denial, the Australian war of dispossession is still going on.

Don Share rose beautifully to the occasion: ‘The difficulty we have in understanding a poem,’ he said, ‘is the same as the difficulty in hearing another person.’

I went home to deal with various animals, then rejoined the EA in the evening for Magda Szubanski and George Megalogenis: Rated PG (Polish and Greek), an entertaining conversation between two children of immigrants.

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Inside My Mother

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Inside My Mother (Giramondo 2015)

1imm

If you haven’t read anything by Ali Cobby Eckermann, you’re not keeping up. In the last five years or so, in three books of poetry, two verse novels and a memoir, she has made a huge contribution to our general understanding of what Australia is. She was taken from her Aboriginal family when she was a small child, and brought up by a white, German heritage family. Her writing is largely animated by the charge from her reunion as an adult with her mother and with  her Yankunytjatjara and Kokatha relatives and heritage.

The memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, tells her story and is on my reading list. The poetry in Inside My Mother touches on it in many ways – on her relationship with her mother, and the pain of her death soon after renewing contact; and also on her rediscovery of Aboriginal culture, as in the first poem in the book:

Bird Song
our birds fly
–––––on elongated wings
––––––––––they fly forever
–––––––––––––––they are our Spirit

–––––––––––––––our bird song
––––––––––is so ancient
–––––we gifted it
to the church

This kind of assertion of the power of Aboriginal culture is hard to pull off without coming across as defensive or preachy, but Cobby Eckermann manages it here, and throughout the book, with grace and a faint satirical edge.

The poetry here is wonderfully varied: love lyrics, fables, autobiographical narrative, polemic, surrealism and some silly humour.

As I’ve been ruminating about this book over the last couple of weeks, my mind keeps returning to ‘Hindmarsh Island’, not because it stands out as excellent, but because it cries out to be read alongside Les Murray’s ‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’ in his most recent book, Waiting for the Past.

Les Murray’s fine poem can be read online here. It celebrates the renewal of the mouth of the Murray River, in particular the prosperity and vitality that has come to Hindmarsh Island thanks to the bridge that has recently joined it to the mainland. It has Murray’s characteristic joy in linguistic display, the wonderful image of the bridge throwing houses onto the island, and the joyful underlying pun on ‘Murray mouth’.

Then along comes Ali Cobby Eckermann’s ‘Hindmarsh Island’:

hindmarsh Island Cars drive over the babies!

And we realise that for all his emphasis on the importance of the past, Les Murray as a non-Indigenous poet can glide over some elements of our history. The Signal Point café is part of the thriving scene celebrated in ‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’, but from an Aboriginal perspective, we don’t have the luxury of forgetting that the bridge was built over the prolonged protests of a group of women who asserted that it meant the destruction of a significant cultural site. It’s possible that Cobby Eckermann had read the Murray poem (which was first published in Quadrant in September 2010), but I doubt if it’s a deliberate response: this is just a different take on the same phenomenon, one that demonstrates how important Aboriginal voices are if our national conversation is to have integrity.

Ali Cobby Eckermann’s previous books of poetry are Kami (a Vagabond Press Rare Objects chapbook, 2010) and little bit long time (Australian Poetry Centre’s New Poets Series, also 2010) and love dreaming and other poems (Vagabond 2012). Her two verse novels are His Father’s Eyes (OUP 2011) and Ruby Moonlight (Magabala Books 2012). Her memoir, Too Afraid to Cry, was published by Ilura Press in 2013.

aww-badge-2015

Inside My Mother is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 2

My Friday at the Festival was a long day. Also wet. Anticipating queues, I arrived early for my first event, and turned out to be one of three people sheltering under the long marquee for a good half hour. Sadly, attendance was pretty sparse for an excellent session:

10 am: Australia in Verse
As is often the case, this event’s title was irrelevant. With poetry events at the SWF, it’s the who that counts rather than the what.

Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckerman were in conversation with Ivor Indyk. Jennifer Maiden’s name was in the program but back trouble kept her away, that and her wish that the two Indigenous poets should have the floor. I was sorry not to see her, but it was wonderful that we got so much of the two who were there.

The poets spoke about their backgrounds. Sam’s south-east Queensland childhood was full of story-tellers, writers and artists, solidly Aboriginal though not in denial about European heritage as well. He described himself as a child of popular culture. Ali’s mother was taken from her family when very young; Ali herself was taken; and she relinquished her own baby son. Their paths to becoming poets were vastly different, as is their poetry.

Both read a number of poems, and spoke about what their poetry meant to them. Ivor Indyk was wonderful in the chair. When Sam said something about his early poems being well received, Ivor said that was because they were good: ‘And I’ll say what was good about them in a minute.’

There was a lot of laughter, and some tears.

And on to:

11.30: Writers on Writers: Rilke
I know very little about Rilke. I read his Letters to a Young Poet when I was a young non-poet, and I love this passage from Etty Hillesum‘s diaries, written on her way to Auschwitz, which makes me want to know more:

I always return to Rilke.
It is strange to think that someone so frail did most of his writing within protective castle walls, would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live. […] In peaceful times and under favourable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions, a response they are unable to formulate for themselves, since all their energies are taken up in looking after the bare necessities.

So I was interested.

There was a lot to absorb. All four panelists knew an awful lot about Rilke, which they were enthusiastic to share: much more than could possibly fit into an hour. Luke Fischer, enthusiastic young scholar–poet, fell over his own words as he gave us three trains of thought at once. Lesley Chamberlain, a learned Englishwoman in jeans, made sure we knew how to pronounce Brancusi properly. Peter Morgan, from Sydney University’s German department, was in the chair and had interesting things to say about translating Rilke. Elder poet Robert Gray seemed to rise every now and then from the depths of abstract thought to make a brief contribution. It was fascinating theatre, and pretty good as an impressionistic introduction to a poet who, they said, sits at the beginning of modernism.

Not that it was like a fish and chip shop, but I had three takeaways:

  • Rilke is the one who ended a short poem describing an ancient sculpture with a phrase that seemed to come from nowhere and go everywhere, ‘You must change your life.’
  • He regarded his letters as part of his literary output. (This was a relief, because if the Letters to a Young Poet were dashed off there’s no hope for the rest of us.)
  • Something that came up in response to a question at the very end, that seems relevant to to Etty Hillesum quote is Rilke’s concept of the reversal. As far as I could understand, the idea is that if you set out to experience any pain and painful emotion fully rather than numbing them out or seeking distraction from them, then at some point a reversal happens, and the pain is in some way transcended.

Time for lunch, in what was now a beautiful sunny day by the Harbour, and then:

1.30: The World in Three Poets

3 poets

This was a wonderful session. Kate Fagan (not pictured), herself no mean poet, did an amazing job of introducing poets Ben Okri, David Malouf and Les Murray. That is, she said just a few extraordinarily well crafted words about each of them, leaving most of the hour for them to read to us, followed by a short question time. It was an almost overwhelming combination of talents.

The woman sitting next to me said she was there mainly for Ben Okri – she’d read some of his novels (‘if you can call them novels’) and hoped that hearing him read in person would help to understand them. As if he’d heard her, his final reading was from his current novel, which he introduced by saying that his novels had often been described as poetic. My transitory companion was pleased.

Les Murray read nothing from his most recent book, which of course was because he had a whole session on that book – Waiting for the Past – the next day. What he did read was marvellous. And when David Malouf read, Les was a picture of concentration – as if he was in training for an Olympic event in Listening to Poetry.

David began with his ‘Seven Last Word of the Emperor Hadrian’. Heard in the context of the previous day’s session on the classics, this revealed itself more clearly: the speaker, anticipating death, bids a tender farewell to his soul, the reverse of what we would expect in the Judaeo-Christian mindset, and there is something deeply moving about that.

All three of these extraordinary poets shone in the question time.

3  pm: Australia’s Oldest Stories: Indigenous Storytelling with Glen Miller
It’s 51 years since Jacaranda Press published a children’s book, The Legends of Moonie Jarl by Moonie Jarl (Wilf Reeves) and Wandi (Olga Miller), which has been described as the first book written by Aboriginal people. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation have re-published it this year. Glen Miller, nephew and son respectively of the authors, talked to Lydia Miller about his own very interesting life – as very young worker in the coal mines, public servant, cultural tourism entrepreneur, and now as elder and activist in the Maryborough Aboriginal community – and about the origins of the book as he remembered them. He was very good value, but I can’t have been the only person in the audience who was hanging out to be read to. Eventually, he did read us one story – almost apologetically, as if an audience full of adults wouldn’t want to be read a children’s story. There were no complaints.

It being Friday, I was joined by the Art Student for:

4.30: The Big Read
The Big Read is where a big theatre full of people, mainly adults, sits back to be read to. This event used to be for ninety minutes, but it’s sadly been cut back to just an hour, and that hour has to accommodate the presentation of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Awards.

This year the awards presentation featured some unscheduled theatre. The set-up has always been a little awkward, as one by one the young novelists stand silently off to the side of the stage while their novels are described, and then again while the others have their turns. This year, the first recipient, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, clearly feeling the awkwardness acutely, sat down in a spare chair while his book (The Tribe) was being described. When he was shepherded away from that chair after receiving his award, he looked around and saw that there wasn’t a chair (Beatles reference intended), so sat on the floor. His successors – Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ellen van Neerven and Omar Musa (Alice Pung, the fifth recipient, was in Melbourne with a small baby) – each made the decision to join him. Linda Morris from the SMH said it was like a sit-in. Perhaps next year there will be chairs, and the young novelists may even have a moment each at the microphone.

On to the show itself: Camilla Nelson read from Alice Pung’s book; Kate Grenville read from One Life, a kind of biography of her mother; Steven Carroll read an extended passage about a guitar from his novel, Forever Young; Damian Barr gave us a snippet of Glaswegian childhood from his memoir Maggie and Me. Annette Shun Wah was as always a warm and charming host.

It’s probably telling that when we went to Gleebooks on our way to dinner to buy Damian Barr’s book it was sold out. After a dinner up the hill at the Hero of Waterloo, we uncharacteristically returned to the Festival for an evening session:

8.00 Drafts Unleashed + Slam
MCd by Miles Merrill, mover and shaker on the Australian spoken word scene, this featured an open mic plus a number of featured guests, all of whom were invited to read something completely new. Benjamin Law read us the opening scene of the TV series currently in production based on his memoir The Family Law. He did the voices and the accents, and it was a wondrous thing to see this slight, mild man transformed before our eyes into a big, loud, wildly inappropriate woman. The rest was fun too, but we were weary and left before the show was over, walking back to Circular Quay through the spectacle and crush of the Vivid festival.

Southerly 72/3: Islands and Archipelagos

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 72 No 3 2012: Islands and Archipelagos

1southerly723The title of this issue of Southerly, ‘Islands and Archipelagos’, refers to its subject matter, but it could just as easily refer to its form: a literary magazine, archipelago-like, is a gathering of diverse entities, each with its own integrity but all having something in common, whether a theme as in this case or something less tangible, like a tone, or an ethos, or a presiding personality.

I enjoyed my island hopping. My favourite moment is the bravura opening sentence of ‘Outcast of the Islands: Malinowski Amongst the Modernists’ by David Brooks :

If there could ever be such a thing as a True History of Modern Thought, at least one chapter would have to trace that set of strange, 
neglected, yet teasingly-almost-direct lines between a heterogeneous
 crew of squatters, graziers, country postmasters, district magistrates, missionaries, and employees of the Overland Telegraph recording details of Indigenous Australian life and culture in the mid- and late- nineteenth century and the desks of Edward Tyler at Oxford, James George Frazer at Cambridge and Emile Durkheim in Paris, and, through them, and a number of other significant late-nineteenth-century anthropologists, to the likes of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Sigmund Freud (see, for example, the first half of Totem and Taboo), Marcel Mauss (Essay on the Gift) and so many other key figures in early twentieth-century thought and aesthetics that one wonders whether the Simpson Desert or the Trobriand Islands should be given a place – a quite significant place – amongst the generating landscapes of Modernism.

Yes, that is just one sentence. The article not only delivers on the sentence’s promise but ends with a link to a provocatively titled companion piece, ‘Origins of Modernism in the Great Western Desert: An Introduction’.

Tying for second favourite moment are:

  • Michael Sharkey’s poem ‘First Eleven’, eleven stanzas consisting of phrases that evoke an Australian baby-boomer childhood, presumably to the age of 11. Much of it might be inscrutable to people of other generations and other places, but I was born in 1947, a year after Sharkey, and his deft hand worked nostalgic wonders in me, even in the minority of phrases that didn’t touch directly on my own experience:

    The Royal Visit. Easter Show.
    My sherbet packet. Liquorice stick.
    My shop-bought pie. My Iced Vo-Vo.
    My Cracker Night. My Jumping Jack.
    My father’s gas mask. Old blue tunic.
    My small sister in the clinic.
    My six-stitcher. My first duck.
    The choko vine. The dunny truck.

  • Michael Jacklin’s ‘Islands of Multilingual Literature: Community Magazines and Australia’s Many Languages’, which prises open the subject of Australian literature in languages other than English. I’ve always felt odd about the portrayal of 1950s Australia as monocultural and monolingual: Italian and other southern European languages were part of the soundscape of my 1950s north Queensland childhood; one of my best friends in primary school was Chinese; my farmer father played poker with a Greek, a Korean and a Yugoslav; in the 30s and 40s my magistrate grandfather spoke to Italians who appeared before him in their own language. This essay discusses evidence, including a journal from Brisbane in the 1930s, that there has long been lively, linguistically diverse literature in the Australian context, much of it invisible to the mainstream literary establishment.
  • a new poem by Jennifer Maiden, always a thrill. ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Ethiopia’ is in part a polemical essay, taking issue with some feminists who are ‘well in favour / of ethical security’. I’m not sure what ethical security is (Google is no help): it’s related to rigid ideological narrowness, I think, and may have elements of self-serving moralism. Feminist ‘fandom for Gillard’ is a symptom. My regular readers know that I often feel like an outsider with contemporary poetry (and by the way I think that’s more about me as a north Queensland boy than about the poetry). With this poem, I probably get the references more than most readers: not the Ethiopian art or the story of Sylvia Pankhurst, which are central to the poem and beautifully fleshed out, but the passing allusions – to Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, and her cutting of the supporting parents’ benefit on the same day; to the earlier poem ‘A Useful Fan’, neatly encapsulated here as ‘trying to inhabit Abbott interestedly’; to a set-to on the Overland web site described as her ‘daughter the fire tiger’ (itself a reference to an earlier poem, ‘The Year of the Ox’) defending her ‘on a hostile magazine site now given / to ethical self-security’. Paradoxically, familiarity with the references predisposes me to foreground the detail of poem’s polemics (I want to argue about her view of Overland, for example, and I’m not sure about the connection she seems to be making between some feminists and abortion), rather than the poem’s central thrust, which I read as captured in the description of doves in Ethiopian art as

    aware of complex peripheries,
    well-mannered with watchfulness,
    —————————————-still.

As well as these pieces that topped my pops, there are learned essays on issues facing real islands and islanders, on Andrew McGahan, Randolph Stow, Drusilla Modjeska, and the rock band the Drones. There are short stories (especially Sandra Potter’s ‘“an empty ship in these latitudes is no joke”’, a lightly annotated list of things taken to and from Antarctica, and Terri Janke’s ‘Turtle Island’, a not-quite-ghost-story, not-quite-love-story, not-quite-war-story set in the Torres Strait in World War Two). There are other excellent poems and nearly 70 pages of reviews, plus the overflow in The Long Paddock, which includes a fine review by Sarah Holland-Batt of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight.

A final note: the spectacularly beautiful cover, reproduced above, is described on the contents page as Sue Kneebone’s Continental Drift, but it’s actually a detail from that work, which I recommend you have a look at on Sue Kneebone’s web site.

NSWPLA Dinner: I wasn’t there

Just in case anyone was wondering after my post deliberating whether to shell out $150 for the pleasure of attending and blogging the presentation dinner for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards: I didn’t shell out.

I thought I might storify the event from afar, and went so far as to register on the storify site and explore how to do it. But apart from a couple of images of the fabulously lit-up Mitchell Library reading room, and the relaying of this solitary comment by a winner

the tweeters confined themselves pretty much to telling us who won what. I couldn’t even tell if David Ireland, recipient of the special award, was there.*

Today’s newspapers didn’t give us much colour and movement either. The Sydney Morning Herald printed an abridged and edited version of Kathryn Heyman’s address, and a piece by Susan Wyndham listing the winners, with some detail about the Book of the Year, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight. (That’s the only one of the prize-winners I’ve read. It’s a brilliant book.) Stephen Romei in the Australian focused on David Ireland, who it turns out wasn’t there, but wrote a ‘typically idiosyncratic acceptance speech’ which was read out by his agent.

Did George Souris keep up tradition by mispronouncing at least one person’s name? Did any prize-winner except Tim Soutphommasane say anything memorable? What was idiosyncratic about David Ireland’s speech? Was the food OK? Did everyone behave themselves? We may never know.

* But if you’re interested, the State Library of NSW did storify the event, here.

Ali Cobby Eckermann

Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kami (Rare Object No 54, Vagabond Press 2010)
——-, Ruby Moonlight (Magabala Books 2012)

Like other Rare Objects chapbooks, Kami is beautifully crafted. A hundred copies were printed, signed by the author, with a small, square, torn-edge print of an Australian desert landscape glued to the cover. I mean no criticism when I say it reminds me of a tasteful bijou hotel, each guest/poem with a room/page to itself. Ali Cobby Eckermann is a Yankunytjatjara woman, and the guests, it turns out, aren’t as genteel as that analogy might suggest. They don’t trash the rooms or anything of that sort, but they raise their voices any way they want. There’s throwaway surrealist satire (‘Pauline Hanson’, about a giant carrot), poignant domestic vignettes that shed light on the stolen generations (‘Comical’ and ‘Sink’), astringent comment on the intersection of sexism and racism (‘Intervention Allies‘), a sweet-sad love song (‘Kami‘ – at the link it’s the first of five ‘Yankunytjatjara Love Poems’), C&W dramatic monologue (‘I Tell Ya True‘ – click to hear Joe Dolce sing his own musical version), and so on. It’s a wonderfully diverse set of poems.

If any one poem out has special resonance for me it’s ‘Wild Flowers‘. It reminds me of Douglas Stewart’s ‘Glencoe‘, one of the few poems I remember from school days. I’ve thought a lot about ‘Glencoe’ over the years: it’s fascinating that an Australian nationalistic poet wrote this lament for the victims of a massacre that took place centuries ago on the other side of the planet (‘Terrible things were done / long, long ago’), as if that’s as close as he could get to acknowledging the terrible reality of our own colonising history, but was impelled to make at least that much. Cobby Eckermann’s poem includes similar imagery of children’s bones, but she can name the event as very much of this place and not safely consigned to the past. An additional, idiosyncratic resonance – you’ll have to take my word for his – comes from the way the poem’s opening lines almost be describing a moment from our short movie, Scar:

Mallets pound fence posts
in tune with the rifles
to mask massacre sites

There’s a massacre in Ruby Moonlight too, though most of the book is about what happens next for the sole survivor. Subtitled ‘a novel of the impact of colonisation in mid-north South Australia around 1880’, the book is a lot slimmer than you’d expect of a novel, just 80 pages all up, and you’ll look in vain for the lecture that subtitle might suggest. This is spare, restrained story-telling. If it wasn’t for the power generated by the flash of imagery, it would feel like notes for a novel rather than the thing itself. It’s a story of ill-starred love. A young Aboriginal woman survives the murder of her community and after wandering for some time with just nature and an ancestor spirit for company, she finds companionship and intimacy with an isolated Irish fur trapper. Their idyll, forbidden by both their cultures, can’t last. You might think you know this story before you open the book. You don’t.

In an interview with Michael Brennan on the Poetry International Website, Ali Cobby Eckermann has some very interesting things to say about her work, including this:

I want to use my poetry to educate Australians, to overcome their innate fear of Aboriginal people. Most Australians have never met an Aboriginal person outside school, sport or work. I want to highlight the benefits that Aboriginal people can provide through friendship and equality, and highlight the dangers of racism and judgmentalism. I have been happy with the heartfelt responses from festival audiences, and the new friendships shown to me and my family.

MB: Do you see your work in terms of literary traditions and/or broader cultural or political movements?

Ali Cobby Eckermann: I think it is impossible to be an Aboriginal writer, and be free from a political view. I always use cultural ethics in my writings. Some of my poetry has a unique style, due to my life between my adopted German Lutheran family and my traditional Yankunytjatjara family, who have also adopted the Lutheran religion. I hope my sense of truth becomes my literary tradition!