Tag Archives: Cate Kennedy

Going Down Swinging 33

Going Down Swinging 33 (edited Geoff Lemon and Bhakthi Puvananthiran 2012)

20130222-211751.jpgGeoff Lemon, co-editor, was surely tempting fate and the critics when, as soon as the 32nd issue of GDS was complete, he nicknamed the impending No 33 the Jesus Issue. Wasn’t that like predicting the journal’s death, or at least inviting a crucifixion? Well, maybe, but after all it’s Going Down Swinging we’re talking about, whose title has been cheerfully proclaiming its imminent demise from the very start. Perhaps, then, the nickname was intimating that the physical object made of ink and dead trees was about to be resurrected, transformed into an incorporeal, wholly digital being. But no, though there is The Blue Corner online and a CD comes as part of the thing itself, the fabulous design of No 33, by Elise Santangelo and Stuart Hall, draws dramatic attention to its materiality, with tabs, die-cuts, a range of stocks, and clever use of showthrough – without, I say with heartfelt appreciation, detracting from legibility.

It looks as if the only actual consequence of the nickname was a number of Jesus-related submissions, enough of which made the cut to constitute a 38-page Jesus section. Like the rest of the magazine, these are predominantly hip inner-city Melbourne, the one surprise being ‘Out of the Kitchen Since 30 AD’, Elizabeth Redman’s straightforward personal essay reclaiming Christian faith from the reactionary fundamentalism and dubious institutional politics that tends to dominate public discussion of it.

Two other pieces stood out for me as admirably plain-speaking. André Dao’s ‘Out of Our Bodies’ is a memoir about Catholicism, atheism and mortality. He could have been describing a scene from Michael Haneke’s Amour in his final image of his grandparents singing together at his grandfather’s deathbed:

… My grandfather seemed finally to hear her, and then they were both singing, falling in and out of tune. For a moment they seemed lifted out of their slumped, brittle bodies, and their wrinkled faces were crumpled in concentration and remembered pleasure.

And Fiona Wright’s short poem ‘Consider the Camel’ feels as if it should always have been there, and manages to use the word ‘platyclades’ without missing a beat.

For the rest, there’s hardly a dud in the lot of them. ‘Atlas Dharma’, a commissioned by Cate Kennedy with watercolour illustrations by Simon MacEwan, recalls and recreates a childhood fascination with the Reader’s Digest atlas. Eric Yoshiaki Dando’s The Novel Teacher has fictional (I hope) fun with creative writing courses. Una Cruickshank gives us some memorable travel writing in ‘Varanasi’. I skipped an essay that begins with a quote from Lacan and a story that starts out, ‘Long, long ago, afore a-coming of the dust, the mani-lands were a-crowdening with mani-folk’, but that tells you more about me than them.

When I mentioned an inner-Melbourne sensibility, I wasn’t implying parochialism – quite the contrary, the feel is urbane, cosmopolitan. But I was struck by the way a number of pieces from oversea, and even interstate, stood out. You’d expect that of the stories from Russia and India (one each). It was contributions from the USA that prompted me, in the absence of an ‘About the Contributors’ section, to go Googling the authors – not because of a proofreaderish irritation at US spellings, though there was that, but because the voices were noticeably different in ways that are hard to specify – louder, more confident of their own centrality, something like that. When I think of the gigantic magazine that downloads to my RSS feeder, I’d guess that most of what I read there is from the US, and increasingly I live in a global culture. Here, where the proportion is roughly reversed, I’m surprised and reassured to feel a sense that local minds are engaging in locally inflected ways with issues that range from the intensely local to the cosmic.

Cate Kennedy’s taste of river water

Cate Kennedy, The Taste of River Water (Scribe 2011)

When Cate Kennedy read, marvellously, from this book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, she talked her poems as meditations through narrative, and that’s a nice description. Her poems generally have a narrative thread, whether it’s the story of the woman who wins second prize in a photography competition in ‘8 x 10 colour enlargements $16.50‘ or the moving hand of a baby at the breast in ‘Dawn service’.

Mostly this is no-frills poetry: very little by way of formal rhyme schemes, and even less prosodic adventure – no clever enjambement, uncanny syntax, esoteric allusion. Almost universally, the cadences and imagery are those of conversation, sometimes intensely intimate but always intelligent, generous and emotionally engaged. There’s an attention to fleeting moments, to things easily overlooked: a tight smile, a gesture accidentally caught on camera, a detail from a larger narrative, a parent’s childhood memory, a tiny act of wanton cruelty. These become the subject for meditation, their meanings explored. Many of the poems can be read as reflections on art and communication, though the immediate subjects range from the laying  of a brick path to being caught in a rip, and include a locust plague coming to the city, a little girl dancing in a square of sunlight, or the auction of the contents of a deconsecrated church.

What I wasn’t prepared for was that the sixteen poems in the second section of this book constitute what Frank Moorhouse used to call a discontinuous narrative: each poem stands alone, but there are lines, even words (a throat-tightening ‘again’ in ‘Thank you’, for instance) that gain tremendous force from their place in the sequence. Although it’s in many ways a very different beast, I was reminded of Sarah Gibson’s wonderful short lyric film The Hundredth Room.

Cate Kennedy read some of the poems and chatted with Ramona Koval on the Book Show on 19 May. It’s worth a listen, but be warned that the conversation reveals quite a lot about Section 2. Not that there’s a twist to the tale or anything of the sort – but there’s something to be said for letting a narrative reveal itself to you rather than approaching it with foreknowledge.

SWF 2011: Bombs and Poetry on Thursday

After I uploaded my sketchy report on last night’s SWF event at the Town Hall I searched for #swf2011 on Twitter and saw that everything I’d quoted had been tweeted to the universe within seconds of being uttered. Undaunted, here I am again, lumbering along with my antiquated longwindedness to bring you My Thursday at the Festival Part One: 10 till 2.

10 am: The Poetry of War with Daniel Swift and A C Grayling
Daniel Swift’s grandfather flew in planes that dropped bombs on German cities in World War Two. He failed to return from a bombing mission in 1943 when Daniel’s father was four years old. The book, Bomber County, tells of Daniel and his father visiting the grave. Daniel, by my calculations now 34, wanted this small story to open out into a bigger picture. He sought out and interviewed participants in bombing missions, and people who were in the cities bombed by his grandfather on the nights of his missions All this, plus an exploration of World War Two poetry, which anyone (else) will tell you barely exists, fed into a project of considering the bombing campaign, not to praise the heroism of the men or condemn or defend the atrocity involved, but to try to imagine – resurrect was Swift’s word – the human experience.

A C Grayling , when he’s not busy being the nice one of the current crop of aggressive British atheists, is an ethicist. His book, Among the Dead Cities, deals with the ethics of those same missions. The focus of this session was on Swift’s book, which Grayling clearly loves. They claimed to disagree on the ethical question, but I couldn’t spot any disagreement. The conversation was lovely in many ways, not least for the spectacle of an eminent professor putting his considerable intellectual heft into recommending the work of a much younger man. The air fairly crackled with respect – mutual between the speakers, from both of them to the men who flew on the mission, and during question time to the rambler and the autobiographer.

11.30 am: Antipodes: Poetic Responses
Antipodes is an anthology, edited by Margaret Bradstock, of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal poets addressing the relationship between Aboriginal Australians and settlers – the survivors of genocide in conversation with the perpetrators, descendants and beneficiaries, as it were. The facilitator, Martin Langford, said it was the first book of its kind, and warned us that some of the sentiments, especially in the early settler poems, might be repugnant to modern readers – the book is meant to be read as whole. In order of appearance we were read to by:

Anna Kerdijk Nicholson, who read a number of poems from Possession. It was good to hear them read, though my impression was that the poet was intimidated by the context. I wouldn’t have objected if she’d explained the universally cryptic titles of her poems, but she just read and then sat down.

Lionel Fogarty: again I was very glad to hear him read, as I have a copy of his New and selected poems : munaldjali, mutuerjaraera but haven’t been able to read very much of it. Now that I’ve seen and heard him I may have a better chance. He read a semi-rap, ‘True Blue, Didjeridoo’, which he and his son wrote when Nicole Kidman was culturally insensitive enough to play a didjeridoo on television.

I don’t know the work of either Margaret Bradstock or Brenda Saunders. They both read well, but I have trouble absorbing non-narrative poetry that I’m hearing for the first time. Ali Cobby Eckermann, a little of whose work I’ve read in anthologies and journals, read us excerpts from an unpublished verse novel, Killing Fields, a massacre story. ‘You’re privileged,’ she said.

Anita Heiss read last. With her brilliant control of tone she had us laughing and devastated from moment to moment. A woman of many talents, she thanked the organiserd for calling the writing in her book I’m Not racist, But poetry. ‘It’s not really poetry,’ she said, ‘but it’s not prose because it doesn’t go to the end of the line.’

I’m not sure what this anthology is. It may be intended for schools. Not that there’s anything wrong with that of course, but it does make me hesitate to rush out and buy it for myself.

1 pm: The Poetry of Three
This was Mark Tredinnick, Kim Cheng Boey and Cate Kennedy. Mark is a nature writer, and the poems that worked best in this context dealt with the nature of a parent-child relationship. I particularly liked ‘House of Thieves’. Kim Cheng, whose work I know only from his readings last year, was again delightfully urbane. Cate’s poems are narratives, and went over like a charm. I plan to buy her book.

Probably the strongest visual image from the Festival is the huge queues, all of which today seemed to have Bob Ellis in them. The queues for poetry were all short, and at each poetry session one of the readers expressed gratitude and surprise that so many people turned up.

Journals: Overland 201, Asia Literary Review 18

Overland 201 (Jeff Sparrow 2010)
Asia Literary Review 18 (Stephen McCarty 2010)

A dear friend of mine was once a member of the CPA (that’s the Communist Party of Australia, not the Chartered Accountants’ thingummyjig). Years after she left the Party, a former editor of Tribune asked her what she was reading to keep up to date with politics. When she named the National Times, an eminently liberal weekly of the day, he was scathing: ‘Surely you don’t think you can get decent information from the bourgeois press!’ I thought of him as I was reading these magazines: at least part of my motivation for subscribing to them is to ensure that I have a regular injection of thinking from respectively left and non-Western perspectives, neither of which – to put it mildly – is dependably represented in the mainstream press.

So, for instance, Jeff Sparrow’s article ‘The Banality of Goodism‘ starts with a quote from Aimé Césaire on the dehumanising effect that colonisation has on the coloniser, and goes on to argue that the war in Afghanistan is actually a colonial enterprise, that colonial enterprises have always dressed themselves in the robes of what he calls ‘goodism’ (we’re in Afghanistan for the sake of the women, the peoples of Central America needed to be rescued from human sacrifice), that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (bad) used some of the same justifications as the US invasion (good). He also reminds us that in the week after 11/9 George W Bush visited a mosque and described Islam as a religion of peace, a gauge of how the dominant Western conservatism has degenerated in the last nine years. This kind of thing has to be good for the soul.

Similarly refreshing are a debate on population policy, a reply to Cate Kennedy’s anti-Internet rant in issue 200, a piece on Bruce Petty’s heroic cartoon-wrestling with economic subjects, an article that discusses the state of ‘flow’ (that focused state attained by craftspeople), a challenging argument against corporations’ providing breast pump ‘lactation’ rooms in lieu of maternity leave, and indeed the replacement of ‘maternity leave’ with ‘baby leave’. I may have come across any of these pieces on the net, but I would have skimmed them there. Here, I either read them with full engagement or skipped them altogether (I couldn’t bear to read Marty Hiatt’s rebuttal of Cate Kennedy, for example, because Kennedy’s piece was exactly the kind of intervention that an incipient Internet addict such as I needed: I don’t want it watered down).

A third of this issue is given over to showcasing the work of Young Writers. No ages are given, but it’s fairly evident that the four writers involved aren’t young in the sense that term would be used in the context of children’s literature. The introductory note by retiring fiction editor Kalinda Ashton and Samuel Cooney invokes Mark Davis’s Ganglands, thereby apparently implying that these ‘young writers’ are Gen Xers. Whatever! In my naivety I had assumed that magazines like Overland would publish work by Gen X and much younger writers as a matter of course, and I found myself reading these four stories with half an eye out to see what made them ‘young’, not a good frame of mind for enjoying a story.  They’re all good stories, but Sam Twyford-Moore’s creepy ‘Library of Violence‘ was the only one that overcame the handicap created in my mind by the pigeonholing.

This issue of Asia Literary Review focuses on China, to the extent that all but three items are on topic.  There are photo essays, travellers’ tales, expat narratives, an odd little memoir by Jan Morris, and short stories. A short essay by John Batten, ‘Cracking the Sunflower Seed’, reflects on contemporary Chinese art such as we have seen at the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney. There’s a poem by last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiao Bo, as well as ten or so other modern poems, with a useful five page orientation by Zheng Danyi. I miss a lot of what’s happening in Chinese poetry – Zheng quotes a quatrain that ‘infuriated Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing’, but all I can see is a lament for a broken stove. So Lord knows what’s happening in Liu Xiao Bo’s poem, ‘You Wait for Me with Dust’, besides surface action of a man in prison writing to his waiting wife.

The three pieces that aren’t about China are almost worth the price of admission: Marshall Moore’s short story, ‘Cambodia’, about three US siblings visiting Phnom Penh, Burlee Vang’s ‘Mrs Saichue’, set in a Hmong community in the USA, and Anjum Hasan’s piece on E M Forster’s time in India, which includes this glorious photo:

I think it’s fair to say that Asia Literary Review is more fun than Overland this issue. Overland, on the other hand, invites sharper engagement with issues closer to home.

Journals: Asia Lit Review 16 & Overland 199

Stephen McCarty (editor), Asia Literary Review Nº 16 ([northern] Summer  2010)
Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland Nº 199 (Winter 2010)

Both these journals have been sitting on my desk for too long.  This is the first Asia Literary Review with Stephen McCarty as editor, which is not the hot news it would have been if I’d read it when it arrived months ago. With Overland, my tardiness is even more embarrassing – the  much awaited special 200th issue is being launched in Melbourne this weekend, making issue 199 so last season.

This is only the third issue of the ALR I’ve read, and as far as I can tell the editorial change doesn’t herald any major shift in direction.

This issue includes work from and about Thailand, Laos, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Indonesia, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, Turkey, and their diasporas. Intergenerational tensions loom large in almost every piece. Two sayings, one Indian and the other Chinese, capture something of the tenor of that looming. In Sandip Roy’s ‘No Country for Old Women‘, reporting on government attempts to reunite families where elderly parents have been abandoned or abused, he comments:

Love, my mother always says, flows downwards. You can’t force it flow the other way if it does not want to.

The fading popular singer who narrates Stephen Hirst’s ‘It’s All in the Silhouette‘ quotes a ‘lovely Chinese saying’:

one generation plants the trees, the next gets the shade.

Story after story, some very good, deals with a parent’s love and sacrifice, a child’s obedience or resentment and rebellion. There’s an awful lot of pain – grandmothers with bound feet occur in more than one story, and there are a number of guilt-pricked young men living in the USA.

There are other subjects: Gary Jones reports on the Red Shirt encampment in Bangkok earlier this year; Jaina Sanga’s story ‘The Maharaja and the Accountant‘ is a tale of politics from the dying days of the Raj; and there’s a short essay by Tippaphon Keopaseut, ‘Looking for Laos‘. In this last, the writer explores the cultural traditions of her country, beginning with the shocking observation that ‘compared to the great nations of the world, Laos seems little more than an empty space’, continuing with savage wit to give a history of colonisation and concluding:

So, I continue looking for Laos. And if it doesn’t exist? I’ll just have to invent it. After all, isn’t that what writers do?

I hope that’s not just youthful braggadocio. Certainly it’s not the words of someone obliged to stay in shade that someone else has sacrificed their life to plant for them. (The full stories behind those links are available only to subscribers, sorry!)

If the Asia Literary Review serves to expand an Australian reader’s horizons, Overland helps one see more clearly what’s happening near at hand. The entire issue is, as always, available online, so it’s a bit ironic that the first item in the real-world version is ‘Driven to Distraction‘, in which Cate Kennedy inveighs persuasively against internet addiction. As soon as I’d read it, I opened the Twitter app on my iPhone and unfollowed @annabelcrabb, @andrewbolt and the other Tweeters whose witty observations had been delighting (and distracting) me since the election. My Twitter addiction is nipped in the bud. Thanks, Cate! All the same, as with many articles here, I did have a ‘Yes, but’ response: Yes, the internet is a distraction, but I hope not all blogging grows from ‘a compulsion that blunts our capacity for reflective, private contemplation’.

Sean Scalmer and Jackie Dickenson in ‘The March of the Insider‘ do a nice job of deconstructing the historico-journalism of Paul Kelly. I haven’t read any of his books, or indeed any insider accounts of Australian parliamentary politics, but I did recently read Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Race of a Lifetime, and this article’s shoe fits that book’s foot pretty well:

… the claim of political journalists to a special ‘insider’ knowledge might be considered an impediment rather than a spur to full democratic participation. The ‘inside’ requires an ‘outside’. The same rhetoric that elevated the journalist and the politician thereby also positions the voter as a perpetual outsider, sending the message that there is a separate political sphere of which they are not, and never can be, a part.

Yes, but isn’t it a whole other story when journalists, political or not, write books about issues such as the Tampa, the AWB scandal, or events on Palm Island?

Tad Tietze analyses the rise of the Greens as a party attractive to the left but with a complex relationship with left politics and left perspectives. Thomas Caldwell argues against the likes of Antony Ginnane and Louis Nowra who have recently been critical of Australian films en masse, with box-office takings as their sole criteria of success or failure. There’s a trio of articles that save from possible oblivion aspects of activist history: Zanny Begg discusses and illustrates political art and the counter-globalisation movement (yes, a tremendously interesting piece which I recommend, but isn’t it odd to discuss participatory art in terms that exclude people not trained in artspeak?); Michael Hyde’s memoir ‘Getting out of the Boat‘, gives the inside story of some key moments in Australian opposition to the Vietnam war; Seb Prowse talks to Iain McIntyre about the latter’s How to Make Trouble and Influence People (Breakdown Press, 2009) which deals with imaginative Australian protest, culture-jamming and graffiti from White settlement to the present.

And there’s literary stuff as well: short stories, poems, reviews, an engagement with the controversy around the PEN/Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature and the new Cambridge History of Australian Literature.

I skipped the article on literary piracy, part of the Meanland project of exploring the implications of new technology for the written word. I know its important, but for now I’m very happy to get my literary journals in holdable, stainable, dog-earable form.