Tag Archives: Devin Johnston

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.)

Sappho & Penguin play rough

Two literary events with the Art Student in the last week: Robert Adamson and Devin Johnston 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 Johnston were an excellent double bill, lots of river water and birds from two continents. The two stand-out poems for me were Johnston’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, Johnston 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.

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.