Tag Archives: Ellen van Neerven

Journal Blitz 8a

I’m chronically behind in reading the journals I subscribe to. I’ve had seven goes at dragging myself up to date by blogging about a batch in one post. But blog entries get unwieldy when they deal with several very different publications, and I wouldn’t blame my readers fro giving up after the first screen or so. So this time, there’s just the one journal:


Ellen van Neerven, David McCooey, Felicity Plunkett and Eunice Andrada (editors), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 10, Number 1: modern elegy (2020)

At the 2019 Melbourne Writers Festival, poets Ellen van Neerven, David McCooey, Felicity Plunkett and Eunice Andrada met with Jacinta Le Plastrier, publisher of the Australian Poetry Journal, on a panel called The Heart Bent for a discussion on ‘the ethics of elegy and writing on and from love’. Jacinta suggested that the panel members put together an issue of the APJ on the theme, and this excellent publication is the result. No one could have guessed that a pandemic would make the theme of elegy – a formal lament for the dead – bitingly relevant.

The journal is divided into four main sections, each wth a foreword by a different editor, a brilliant solution to the question of how to co-edit.

Each of the forewords ruminates on the nature of elegy. Ellen van Neerven invokes the context of the terrible happenings of 2020 – the ravages of country, Indigenous culture and First Nations people in Australia and around the world, and the rising up against racism that followed the deaths of George Floyd and David Dungay. In the thirteen poems she has selected, she says she feels ‘the energies of these pieces and the futures these poet don’t wish to mourn’. David McCooey writes, ‘We all live elegiac lives. Loss is endless, and the things we lose pile up like the debris in the wings of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.’ Felicity Plunkett starts from Denise Riley’s Say something back (2016), a book of poems that centres around the death of the poet’s son, and writes, ‘The question of what the elegy – and, more broadly, the elegiac mode – can and can’t do is one the poems in this anthology approach from different angles, counterpoints in an extensive song.’ Eunice Andrada hopes ‘that through engaging with these elegies, we can widen our collective vocabularies when attempting to offer language to our loss’.

Behrouz Boochani has a special place. His ‘Forgive me my love’, hand-written in Farsi and translated by Moones Mansoubi, stands alone before all four sections. Even if it was drivel it would have justified its place, given his heroic history as a beyond-marginalised Australian writer. But it’s not drivel:

Forgive me, my angel!
I am not able to caress your gentle skin with my fingertips.
But I have a lifelong friendship with sea zephyrs
and those zephyrs strum my nude skin here, in this green hell!

What follows is extraordinarily rich and diverse. Well established writers have beautiful work here: Jennifer Maiden (‘Meteors’, since published in Biological Necessity), Eileen Chong (‘Cycle’, in A Thousand Crimson Blooms), Evelyn Araluen (‘FOR POWER FOR PRAYER FOR PROMISE FOR PEACE’, in Dropbear), Toby Fitch (‘Spleen 2’ in Sydney Spleen, which is on my TBR shelf), Andy Jackson, Sam Wagan Watson, Jordie Albiston, Tricia Dearborn, and more.

There must be something in this collection for all tastes and moods. I want to mention three poems by poets who are new to me.

Winnie Dunn’s ‘God in the Margins’ dramatises three episodes from a young woman’s life involving menstruation, contraception and herpes. They are told in straightforward vernacular, but with footnotes that link to texts from Hebrew, Christian and Muslim scripture. The effect is stunning: hard to demonstrate by quotation, because the thrill of the poem lies in the way the footnotes create a kind of cosmic miasma around the scenes of demotic Western Sydney life.

Merlinda Bobis’s ‘Air: For my parents and all who passed (2018–2020)’ starts with a school music teacher telling students, ‘Open your lungs when you sing’ and contrasts it to her dying parents’ difficulty breathing on their deathbeds. Here’s the poem’s turning point:

Death gags us, or swallows
all the air and never ever
gives it back, but today
walking in Haig Park,

under the cedars, I chance
upon a Chinese woman,

alone she sings with the beat
of a tambourine I hear
before I see, we're trees and trees
apart, socially distanced
but what amplitude her air,
its rise and fall of notes

giving back, giving me back 
a song I cannot understand 
except that it's lament

Perhaps I responded strongly to Elena Gomez’s ‘Death and all his friends’, because I read it just after hearing a review of the movie Fast and Furious 9, but it’s a terrific poem even if you’ve never heard of the franchise. it enacts the way emotions evoked by movies and TV shows – in this case a Fast and Furious movie, an episode of Gray’s Anatomy, and Jurassic Park – can be a vehicle for grief that has nothing to do with the movie. I desperately want to quote the poem’s surprising, brilliant and devastating last four lines, but that really would be a spoiler.

Tucked away at the back of the journal are two related sections: ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ – five poems from an event at the 2019 Melbourne Writers’ Festival (not all by Melbourne poets); and ‘Introducing the Tagelied, the Dawn Song’, a brief essay by Nathan Curnow followed by six poems – by poets including Cate Kennedy and Bella Li – that are either examples of the form or relate to it somehow.

So poetry is thriving in Australia. I’m pretty sure copies of this journal are still available for Australia Poetry.

SWF 2021 Sunday

Sunday was another beautiful late autumn day in Sydney, and another day of challenge and delight at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Evidently one of our ideologically driven weeklies ran a piece online saying the Festival was extremely ‘woke’, which is apparently a bad thing. I don’t know about woke but, as someone who nods off whenever I’m in a dark room, I was kept awake almost without fail. (The one fail was inevitable, in the after-lunch slot when I would have slept through an announcement that I’d been granted the gifts of immortality and eternal youth.)


10.30: Land of Plenty

This panel addressed environmental issues about Australia from a range of perspectives. Philip Clark of ABC Radio’s Nightlife did a beautiful job as moderator, giving each of the panellists in turn a prompt or two to talk about their work, and managing some elegant segues. The panellists did their bit to make it all cohere by referring to one another’s work. (How much better these panels work when the writers on them have read each other!)

Rebecca Giggs, whose Fathoms sounds like a fascinating book about whales, said that whales are a Trojan horse for a conversation about other animals’ relationships to humans. She described a moment when she was close enough to a whale that she could see its eye focusing on her – and only to learn a little later that whales are extremely short-sighted and there as no way that that whale could have actually seen her. What is actually there isn’t what we want to think is there,

Bruce Pascoe, author of Dark Emu and co-author of Loving Country (about which more later) spoke about the difference between Indigenous and Western capitalist ways of relating to the land. Echoing Rebecca Giggs’s story of the whale’s eye, he said, ‘We look at animals and want to be friends with them, but as soon as a capitalist wants to be your friend …’ He begged us to take seriously the possibility of a reciprocal relationship with animals. Something terrible happened to humans, he said, when the combination of Christianity and capitalism happened. I think he has a book coming on the subject.

Victor Steffensen is a Tagalaka man from far north Queensland, author of Fire Country. Someone from my family had the privilege of doing some video work with Victor some years ago, and his stories from that time have given me a deep respect for Victor and his work in ‘using traditional knowledge for environmental wellbeing’, as the Festival site puts it. In this panel, he took off from Bruce Pascoe’s call for reciprocity with other animals, and spoke of relating to fire as a friend and not as something to fear. It’s about reading country, listening to landscape. His project of recording traditional knowledge that is in danger of being lost is not to archive it but to get it back into people, ‘to young fellas and then to the broader community’.

Richard Beasley, senior counsel assisting for the Murray-Darling Basin Royal Commission and author of  Dead in the Water about that catastrophe, said that the situation in the Murray-darling Basin had got so bad that ‘even John Howard’ did something about it. Howard’s legislation included clauses to the effect that whatever was done needed to be science-based. But then the lobbyists went to town, and in response to their pressure, politicians insisted that reports from the CSIRO were altered to suit the big capitalists’ agenda. His lawyerly rage was palpable.

There was a good question (a rarity at this Festival), about grounds for hope:

  • Rebecca Giggs: Thee’s hope. But you don’t get to be hopeful until you make yourself useful in some way – whatever your situation and abilities allow.
  • Bruce Pascoe: I have to think we can do it differently. We have to give our grandchildren a chance, not treat them with contempt. We need love of country, not nationalism.
  • Victor Steffensen: Language is important. [Sadly what I wrote from the rest of what he said was illegible. I think it was an elegant version of ‘Action is also important.’]
  • Richard Beasley: I’m a lawyer. I don’t know how to challenge any of this by law.

12 o’clock: Sarah Dingle & Kaya Wilson

We hadn’t booked this session in advance, but faced with a gap of a couple of hours, we spent one of our Covid Discover vouchers to buy rush tickets. Kaya Wilson, whose book As Beautiful As Any Other has the subtitle A memoir of my body, is a tsunami scientist and a trans man. Sarah Dingle, author of Brave New Humans: The Dirty Reality of Donor Conception is a donor-conceived person. Their conversation was aided and abetted by Maeve Marsden, host of Queerstories who was also donor conceived, though not anonymously through the fertility industry as Sarah was.

Sarah’s revelations about the fertility industry were nothing short of shocking. Not only is it monumentally unregulated, but records that might have allowed people to know what had happened to a particular donor’s sperm, even anonymously, have at least sometimes been deliberately destroyed. Couples using donated sperm have been systematically encouraged to lie to their children about their origins, leaving them unaware of any genetic predispositions to disease, let alone possible incest.

What Kaya told us about the systemic treatment of trans people was just as shocking. He said that he tended to keep his scientific life and his trans life separate. ‘In some ways they hate each other.’ But he has a chapter in his book that tries to reconcile them. The scientific literature, like legislation about, for instance, changing one’s ‘sex marker’ on a birth certificate, is shot through with assumptions that bear not relation to the reality of trans experience.

Both people spoke of the joy of finding themselves to be members of communities they weren’t aware of when young. When asked what they read for relief, both named writers I’ve loved: Sarah chose Terry Pratchett; Kaya chose Ocean Vuong, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous.


2.30: Bruce Pascoe & Vicky Shukuroglou

Loving Country: A Guide to Sacred Australia was an initiative of Hardie Grant Publishers, who approached Bruce Pascoe suggesting a follow-up to Marcia Langton’s guide to Indigenous Australia, Welcome to Country. Pascoe joined forces with Vicky Shukuroglou, a non-Indigenous woman born in Cyprus, who took the photographs and also contributed to the writing. The Festival website says that the book ‘offers a new way to explore and fall in love with Australia by seeing it through an Indigenous lens’. Daniel Browning, host of ABC Radio National’s Awaye, chaired this conversation.

Again, we were called on to love this country. The thing I loved about the session was the way the two authors could disagree. Bruce Pascoe, speaking of the horrendous bushfires last year, said that the disrespect for Country shown by authorities afterwards was in some ways worse than the fires themselves. We meekly accept the terrible destruction of heritage in the Juukan Gorge. We have to rebel as a people, he said, meaning all of us, not just First Nations people. Vicky Shukuroglou argued against the idea of rebellion, and spoke of the importance of conversations and of love: ‘If we’re going to talk about marginalisation, we first need to look at our humanity.’ From where I was sitting it didn’t look as if the two things were incompatible, but I was struck by the way as a non-Indigenous woman she was secure enough in their friendship and working partnership to challenge an Indigenous man. I would have liked to know more about what she had done to achieve that confidence.

The book, Pascoe said, is about how to restrain human go and let Country have a voice, He got Vicky to tell a story about a sick echidna that, without her realising it, had come to know and trust her, as a result – she thinks – of her being still around it over time.

We don’t need a black armband.
We just need to know the facts.
This is the country that invented society, bread and the Richmond Football Club.


4.30 pm The Unacknowledged Legislators

This was a great way to end my festival. (The Emerging Artist’s festival ended with the previous session: she thinks poetry and she don’t like each other.) Seven poets read to us, hosted elegantly by ‘writer, poet, essayist and proud descendant of the Yorta Yorta’, Declan Fry. Here they are, in order of appearance.

Eileen Chong, whose poetry my regular readers will know I adore. She read five poems from A Thousand Crimson Blooms, which I’ll be blogging about soon. I was glad to hear her read the three part poem, ‘The Hymen Diaries’ after I had spent some time with it and checked out the artworks it refers to.

Maxine Beneba Clarke, poet laureate of the Saturday Paper, read three poems. I won’t report what they were because i wasn’t sure I heard their names correctly. One of them began, ‘When I say I don’t want to become my mother,’ and went on brilliantly to challenge the internalised sexism of that sentiment.

Ellen van Neerven read three poems from Throat (my blog post here), including ‘Treaty of shared power’ and ‘Such a sad sight’. The first-named is a play on the relationship between the writer of a poem and its reader that worked beautifully in this context.

Erik Jensen, reading to an audience for the first time, read six short poems from his first book of poetry, I said the sea was folded, a book that, he told us, is about falling in love and learning to be in love. He then read a poem by Kate Jennings, who has just died (this was how I heard the news) – and wept as he read it. He wasn’t teh only one to shed a tear.

Felicity Plunkett followed that hard act, reading four short poems from her 2020 collection, A Kinder Sea. The first, ‘Trash Vortex’, whose name tells you a lot, may be the kind of poem that Evelyn Araluen had in mind when she said artists have a responsibility to address the world’s urgent issues.

Omar Sakr read three poems, ‘Birthday’, Self-portrait as poetry defending itself’ and ‘Every Day’. This is the first time I’ve heard or read any of his poetry. I hope it won’ be the last.

Alison Whittaker, Gomeroi woman and a crowd favourite, read a piece that depended on knowledge of and (I think) contempt for ASMR, not that there’s anything wrong with such poems. She reminded us of the tragic reality of Black Deaths in custody and read a poem consisting of anodyne found phrases from court proceedings.


And my 2021 Sydney Writers’ Festival was over. There were at least four moments when someone on stage paid tribute to a parent in the audience or, in one case, on stage with them (and I’d left my run too late to see Norman and Jonathan Swan, and I probably missed other trans-generational moments). I didn’t see any of the international guests who attended on screen. It was a thrill to hear such a diversity of First Nations voices. I came home with a swag of books and a list for borrowing from the library. Hats off to Michael Williams and his team for making this happen in the flesh, and making sense of the slogan Within Reach: a living demonstration that the famous cultural cringe, while it may not be dead, has not much reason to live.

SWF 2021: Friday

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has come back from the virtual world, and though it hasn’t returned to the splendours of its old harbourside venue, the Carriageworks is an expansive site whose acoustic problems of past years are no longer an issue, and for me it has the advantage of being just a 40 minute walk from home. My festival this year got off to a slow start, with just two sessions on Friday.


Friday 30 April 4.00: Writing the Unspeakable

The Unspeakable of the title didn’t refer to the Great Australian Silence about the massive wrongs of colonisation or other vast silences, but to personal unspeakables like depression, grief, trauma and addiction. Each of the panellists has written a memoir about that kind of unspeakable – and in some ways the session played out the implication of the session’s title: you’ve written about something that’s unspeakable, but maybe that doesn’t make it any more speakable?

I haven’t read any of the panellists’ books: Lech Blaine’s Car Crash, which tells the story of a car accident where three of his friends were killed but he and two others survived; Ashe Davenport’s Sad Mum Lady, about the difficulties of being a new mother that had its origins in a blog, ‘Sad Pregnant Lady’; and Fiona O’Loughlin’s Truths from an Unreliable Witness, which deals with her long struggle with alcoholism and addiction, often in the public eye as a successful stand-up comedian. Michaela Kalowski was the moderator.

Rather than start out with each panellist reading a short passage from their book – even, say, the opening paragraph – which would have grounded the conversation, MK opened with a question to each of them in turn, ‘Why are these subjects taboo?’ The panellists weren’t terribly cooperative, but the way each of them avoided answering the question, and pretty much every question after that, led to some entertaining and sometimes illuminating conversation. Here are some snippets that I have managed to decipher from notes I jotted in the dark.

Lech (I’m going to use first names) said that these subjects aren’t actually unspeakable. He spent his childhood in a pub and by the tenth or eleventh beer anything could be talked about, though not necessarily in a civil or constructive manner. Ashe told a horrific tale of her mother being groped when a child, in full view of a room full of people who pretended it hadn’t happened.

Fiona ventured to ask her mother if there was anything in the book that upset her. ‘Of course not,’ her mother said. ‘I haven’t even read it.’ This prompted Lech to tell us that he showed his brother a passage in manuscript where the brother is quoted as saying something profoundly offensive about Labor voters. His brother said, ‘That’s brilliant! You got that exactly right.’

Ashe described the process of making the transition from blog to book. In the blog she would work hard at creating amusing anecdotes out of her struggles. The book could still be funny, but she realised that she had to become less abstract: not so much, ‘It’s hard being a new mother,’ and more, ‘This is how I struggled as a new mother.’ At MK’s prompting she told the story of how she went to an anger management group for women, thinking it would make an amusing story for the blog – and she told it to us in a way that got laughs, until she got to the point where one of the group of older women asked her a question, she burst into sobs, and the other woman simply placed a supportive hand on her back until she was finished.

Fiona spoke beautifully about the shame of being an addict – and the importance of kindness. Tom Gleeson (the cheerfully cruel host of Hard Quiz) got a special mention as a kind person, but she said that the whole community of comedians is tremendously supportive.

Each of the panellists spoke about intensely personal difficulties. That they’ve written books about those difficulties didn’t make it any less easy to talk about them. Lech was often left staring blankly into his personal voice, and I felt that Ashe wasn’t quite ready to serve up her personal pain in person to a big audience. Fiona is a professional at airing her linen to live audiences, and did most of the work of keeping the conversation aerated by comic touches. At one stage Ashe turned to Fiona and said something like, ‘You know what it’s like to feel that you’re a bad mother.’ Fiona did a nice comic routine, turning away in mock denial. As Ashe continued with her point, it became clear that she was talking about something that was still raw. Fiona reached out and touched her on the forearm. A little later, doing her own bit of mock denial, Ashe waved her arms joyfully in the air and said, ‘And now I’m completely all right!’

Asked about how it felt writing this personal material for an audience, there were two very different, but equally memorable answers. Someone recalled the reassuring words of a wise editor: ‘Always bear in mind that no one is going to read every word you write.’ Fiona said that she wrote her book ‘for my children, to explain myself to them’.


Our only other event for the day was the Within Reach Gala at 8 o’clock. We managed to squeeze in a celebration dinner for a friend’s 70th birthday on our way to the Town Hall. Once there, we were taken back in time by the Town Hall’s insistence that masks were mandatory – though there was a lot more non-compliance than there was back in the day.

After a short introduction from Festival Director Michael Williams – in which he said among other things that Geoffrey Blainey’s concept of the Tyranny of Distance was regressive and idiotic but part of our culture – we were treated to a dozen writers speaking on the Festival’s theme, Within Reach, reflecting on the past year. Their interpretations of the brief ranged widely. Each speaker was identified simply by their name on a big screen, so that we were spared time-consuming introductions and appreciations by an MC, which made a huge difference to the pleasure of the evening.

Tony Birch told a beautiful story of how the gift of a stone at a wake made a huge difference to him when he was depressed and despairing from the death of a close relative and the lack of progress in action on climate change. He held up the stone.

Ceridwen Dovey said she has been working on space objects, and talked about the ‘golden records’ that have been sent out into space. There was a debate about whether those records should include material about the dark sides of humanity. In the end, the woman writer on the team managed to have the sound of a kiss included – and the actual kiss that was recorded was both an expression of tenderness and the beginning of a betrayal.

Sisonke Msimang spoke of the great movement of white women in response to allegations of sexual assault in Parliament. She was onside with the protests but couldn’t join them, knowing that she couldn’t ask her group netball mothers to join her on a BLM march. She spoke eloquently and generously about this impasse.

Ellen van Neerven started with the conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, and the question that resounded in her mind:’When will this country see as much justice?’ She said that like all First Nations people in Australia, deaths in custody was a family matter. She pledged to continue to tell the stories that need to be told.

Geraldine Brooks spoke from Martha’s Vineyard in the USA by video. I confess that the beauty of the country where she’s living largely overwhelmed my ability to take in what she was saying. I think that was her subject: missing home.

Trent Dalton, I think, meant to remind us of the importance of human contact and the pain of physical distance in pandemic times. He misjudged the moment by presenting himself as an indiscriminate hugger of strangers, telling a story in which he hugged woman after woman who were standing a in a queue for the toilet at a previous SWF. Sorry, Trent, but issues of consent are high on the agenda right now and the humour didn’t really work – but the crowd was forgiving.

Maria Tumarkin riffed on the question, ‘How close is too close?’ What she had to say was formidably complex and wide-ranging, and she spoke tantalisingly fast. I managed to jot down one sentence: ‘One person’s specific safety makes as much sense as one person’s piece of sky.’

Michael O’Loughlin, who came out as ‘not a writer’, told the story of his illustrious career as a footballer, from telling his mother when he was 11 that he would her a house to his final words, ‘I hope you’re enjoying the house, Mum.’ I’m appallingly ignorant about sport, so his story was a revelation to me in many ways, but especially about the significance professional sport can have for First nations players, and their families and their communities.

Adam Goodes, a footballer even I have heard of, did a brilliant, modest thing. He read to us the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and confined his own commentary to a single sentence: ‘That was 2017. It’s now 2021. We’re still waiting.’

Alison Lester told us a story of a medical crisis. As she was in hospital being wheeled into emergency she saw on a wall a clumsy copy of one of her illustrations. The orderly was unimpressed when she croaked, ‘That’s my picture.’ she described the experience of an induced coma as an awareness of darkness, cold and discomfort and nothing else, and the struggle to respond when at last she heard her daughter calling to her.

Fiona McGregor read what felt like a prose poem, ‘Eight scenes from a dancing life’: the profound joy of dancing as part of a community, witnessed and experienced

Christos Tsiolkas‘s opening words were, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ It’s Orthodox Easter, and this present moment is one where the gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars brings home for him the tension between his own life as a middle-class Australian writer and the life of his Greek migrant working-class parents, especially his much-loved mother.

Michel Williams then called all but Geraldine Brooks back onto the stage for a big round of applause and we all went home.


NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Night 2021

For the second year in a row, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Night has been an online event. I was one of 65 people watching it at the beginning, an audience that grew to 68 near the end. Not exactly the Oscars.

Here’s how it went:

After a number of introductory speeches – by State Librarian John Vallance who quoted Aristotle in the State Library’s Shakespeare Room, Wiradjuri woman Yvonne Weldon who welcomed us to Gadigal land, President of the Library Council of NSW George Souris, Minister for the Arts Don Harwin who promoted the government’s support for literature, Premier Gladys Berejiklian who came out as a passionate reader. We then went on to the winners, presented by John Vallance except wher I note otherwise:

Multicultural NSW Award presented by Joseph La Posta, CEO of Multicultural NSW: Throat, Ellen van Neerven (UQP) – my blog post here. Ellen van Neerven skyped in. ‘This book has been more than just a book. It has been a chance to write alongside my mum among others …’

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize (awarded every second year) also presented by Joseph La Costa, to two winners: Imminence by Marian Dimópoulos, translated by Alice Whitmore (Giramondo) and Autumn Manuscripts, Tasos Leivaditis, translated by N. N. Trakakis (Smokestack Books). Both spoke beautifully; Nick quoted a poem.

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting: Milk, Dylan van den Berg (The Street Theatre). In true theatre style, the winner thanked many many people, including ‘the Mob’ in the ACT.

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting: Freeman, Laurence Billiet (General Strike and Matchbox Pictures). Laurence Billiet acknowledged her subject, Kathy Freeman. The novel was made during the Melbourne lockdown, ‘or should I say the Melbourne lockdowns’.

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature: The Grandest Bookshop in the World, Amelia Mellor (Affirm Press). ‘I was a broke student when I started writing this book.’ She thanked libraries for making the book possible.

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature: The End of the World is Bigger than Love, Davina Bell (Text). ‘I am honoured and humbled and genuinely shocked.’ Among other people, she singled out her editor to thank.

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry: Ellen van Neerven again.

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction: The Warrior, the Voyager, and the Artist: Three Lives in an Age of Empire, Kate Fullagar (Yale University Press). Thanked the army of scholars who helped her write it. ‘I will donate some of the prize money to two scholarly organisations.’ One is a Cherokee organisation. The other is Pacifika Student Organisation.

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: Cherry Beach, Laura McPhee-Browne (Text). Interestingly, she thanked the judges by their first names. Her editor also got a big plug.

People’s Choice Award: The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams. when she has enjoyed a book she goes to the acknowledgements page and offers up a silent prayer of thanks to the author.

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction: A Room Made of Leaves, Kate Grenville (Text Publishing). ‘There is no best book, but the judges had to pick one, so thank you.’ She thanked the descendants of John and Elizabeth Macarthur for their generosity in depositing papers in the State Library, and spoke of Elizabeth Macarthur as a foremother.

Book of the Year, presented by the senior judge, Jane McCredie: Throat, Ellen van Neerven (UQP). They were stuck for words on their second prize, and even more so here. [Added later: But she did manage one glowing sentence: ‘It gives me a boost to continue doing what I’m attempting to do, which is to write as gently and as considerately as possible.’]

The Special Award: Melina Marchetta. Wow, and also Yay! Usually this prize goes to someone who is nearing the end of a career, possibly with death around the corner. Hopefully, Melina Marchetta has many yers of creativity and literacy activism ahead of her. She spoke of how stories came into her life around a table during meals, and she wishes she could be with us in person. ‘I feel so much pride that I wrote my first novel on Gadigal land.’ And she expressed gratitude to her family who allowed her – ‘I don’t know if they allowed me, but I did it anyhow’ – to use their stories. She dedicated the award to her daughter.

That was it.

You can watch the whole ceremony at:

Ellen van Neerven’s Throat

Ellen van Neerven, Throat (UQP 2020)

This is Ellen van Neerven’s second book of poetry. It picks up the themes of the first book, Comfort Food (my post here), and expands and deepens them wonderfully (and sometimes alarmingly). van Neerven discussed the book with poet Tessa Rose at the virtual Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year. The podcast, which you can access here, spurred me to buy a copy. And I’ve just listened to the inaugural episode of UQP’s podcast series, Extraordinary Voices for Extraordinary Times, where van Neerven chats with Western Sydney poet Eunice Andrada (Soundcloud here). It feels as if they are everywhere. (Gender fluidity features in Throat, and I believe that ‘they’ is van Neerven’s preferred pronoun.)

In the Sydney Writers’ Festival podcast, van Neerven reads the long poem ‘Chermy’ – about the Westfield shopping centre, Chermside – and describes its evolution as a social poem for and by her First Nations family in south-east Queensland (it’s on the Overland website, here). Another long poem, ‘The Only Blak Queer in the World’ is a similarly social poem about the poet’s identity as part of the Blak Queer community (you can read it on the SBS site, here). ‘Blak’, by the way, is a word coined by artist Destiny Deacon to signify urban First Nations people in Australia, a coining whose origins you can read about here. These two poems, appearing early in this book, provide a kind of backdrop for much of what follows. I love this from about the midpoint of ‘The Only Blak Queer’:

I hadn't yet been to Mardi Gras.

I saw the white gays and the white gaze I was used to and
then I saw Blak Queers everywhere and every conversation 
was an insight into a Blak Queer past, the street becoming a 
site of multi-time, the past-present beat, the future love, and 
forty years of Blak Queer pride spread into more than sixty 
thousand years of we-have-always-been-here.

My dance joined a big dance. I saw a Wiradjuri/Yorta Yorta 
lesbian couple who had been marching since the beginning, 
who chanted, 'Stop Police Attacks! On Gays, Women and 
Blacks!' in 1978 and they told me off for knowing fuck-all.

Every chant is a line of a continuing poem and I am 
learning the words.

You don’t have to be Blak or Queer to feel the huge joy of finding a community and a history in those lines. And you don’t have to be a 78er to love the humility in the second paragraph and the pride in the last sentence.

The book’s five loose sections all revolve around the lived experience of being Aboriginal/Blak and queer. There are poems commenting on political news, from ‘The Last Apology’ which likens Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations as the apologies of a domestic abuser (‘You want to make up and make out / with the Aboriginal flag / I want you to promise /you won’t do it again’), to ‘Four Truths and a Treaty’, which begins: ‘We gotta talk about sexism, homophobia and transphobia in the community. No point pretendin it don’t exist’, or ‘Engaged’, a wry take on the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Some poems turn a challenging eye on white allies. ‘Expert’, for example, begins:

poor me
don't know how it happened
think I got
a non-Indigenous girlfriend
who thinks she's an expert
don't know how she got her expertise
think I'm the first one she's met

Some poems celebrate being part of the community of Aboriginal women and find strength there. There are poems of connection to Country, and poems of travel – solidarity found with Indigenous people elsewhere, and dread at returning to Australia. ‘Questions of Home’ ends:

I brace my self so much on arrival
I forget to breathe.

There are joyful poems about queer relationships. My favourite lines in the whole book (from ‘Pleasure Seeking’):

Tell her ...
go'n, tell her ...
you're not really dating
unless you're dating each other's ancestors

Like Comfort Food, this book features a number of poems responding to works by other artists and writers, including Destiny Deacon ( ‘Portrait of Destiny’), Kerry Reed-Gilbert (‘White Excellence’), Candy Royalle (‘Queens’), Michelle De Kretser (‘Questions of Travel’ and perhaps two other poems), Alice Walker (‘All that is loved (can be saved)’), an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery (‘Body Flow’). In a category of its own is ‘HOMOFOMO’, brief, bitterly hilarious descriptions of eight (imaginary?) queer-themed mainstream movies.

It’s a rich, accessible, many-faceted collection from a strong, challenging and self-questioning voice. I had to use a search engine occasionally, but each time it was rewarding. I laughed a number of times. There is at least one too-much-information moment, but I think my embarrassed averting of the gaze was exactly the response the poet would have expected of me.

There’s so much to respond to but as usual I’ll just pick one poem to talk about in detail. Here’s ‘Call a Spade a Spade’. It wasn’t my first choice, but it kept waving its arms in the air demanding my attention:

Call a Spade a Spade

a heart a heart
a diamond a diamond
a club a club
call in invasion not settlement
call it genocide not colonisation
call it theft not establishment
don't call January 26 Australia Day
don't shy away from telling the truth
do't say 'no worries' say 'I worry'
for the future of our country, our environment
if we fail to listen and to act
don't say 'we're full'
say 'we're open'
call yourself an ally
call yourself a mate

This is one of a number of poems in the book addressed to non-Indigenous/settler readers. At first glance it feels pretty prosaic, even preachy, more Facebook post or Twitter thread than poem (though of course the categories aren’t exclusive). But if you take it slowly, that is if you read it as a poem, it opens out like a fan.

The poem falls into five parts: 1) the title 2) three lines, syntactically dependent on the verb ‘call’ in the title, with the form ‘a x a x’; 2) three lines that repeat that verb, and go ‘ call it x not x’; 3) four sentences starting with ‘don’t’, two of one line each, one of three lines, and the fourth of two lines; 4) two lines, back to the word ‘call’, each with the shape ‘call yourself x’.

The title for a start: it means of course, ‘Speak plainly without euphemism or hi-falutinness’: don’t call a spade an agricultural implement. As the title of a poem by an Indigenous woman, it also evokes a term of racist abuse, and if that were the primary meaning it would be a directive to use racist language. Clearly, in this context, that’s not what the poem is about to do, but the ambiguity hangs about, subliminally posing a question about the effect of racist abuse, and unsettling the white liberal reader (which is the only kind of reader I can speak for).

The first three lines takes us to a third and mercifully harmless meaning of ‘spade’ by enumerating the card suits. But thanks to the charged ambiguity of the title, each of these suit names now resonates with a charge of its own: ‘heart’ – these are people; ‘diamond’ – wealth, greed and the profit motive are major forces in our society; ‘club’ – so is violence.

If you were reading the poem as an instructional text, the next three lines are the core: four examples of language that names the reality without pussyfooting around. The list could have included, say, ‘call it massacre not dispersal’, ‘call it Uluru not Ayer’s Rock’, ‘write Aboriginal not aboriginal’, a seemingly endless stream of injunctions.

The first of the next three lines – lines starting with ‘don’t’ – adds to the list, and locates the poem as part of the current long-running conversation about 26 January, a conversation that ranges from Stan Grant’s Australia Day and the Twitter hashtag #ChangetheDate, and so carries with it a whiff of acrimony, a suggestion perhaps that the poem so far is making demands in the spirit of what is being called ‘cancel culture’, what an open letter to Harpers Magazine signed by 150 luminaries called ‘the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides’: use the language that I am specifying here or … But then, in my reading, there’s a turn away from that tone: ‘don’t shy away from telling the truth’ could still mean ‘my truth’, but it would be a stretch. The remainder of this section moves further away with ‘don’t say”no worries” … don’t say “we’re full”‘. Although the language is still about what the speaker wants us to say or not say, these are no longer instructions on how to clean up our language. The first is an exhortation against complacency; the second quotes a battle of slogans about asylum seekers and gives it tremendous metaphorical power: ‘say “we’re open”‘ surely is an appeal to the reader to open himself up to possibility, to other people’s reality, specifically the reality of Indigenous lives.

And the final couplet brings it home: ‘call yourself an ally / call yourself a mate’. The speaker isn’t calling on us for compliance, but for active allyship (is that a word?), and then, and this is the thing that lodged in my brain and made me go back to the poem, to be a mate, with all the associations of that word. We started out with card games, we stopped off at the problematic national day and what Wikipedia says (here) may be white Australia’s national motto, and we end with mateship. This isn’t about getting the words right or conforming to the current demands of wokeness: it’s an appeal for decency and an implied offer of friendship. An ally can retain a sense of superiority; not a mate.

For me this poem is a lesson in the value of slow reading. Skimmed, there’s not a lot to it that you haven’t heard at a hundred demonstrations. Taken meditatively, it pierces the heart.

Added later: If you’re interested in a review from an Indigenous perspective, there’s ‘On the Power of Being Still’ by Wiradjuri woman Janine Leane in the Sydney Review of Books, link here.


Throat is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge.


This review is a late contribution to Indigenous Literature Week, hosted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers blog.

Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort Food

Ellen van Neerven, Comfort Food (UQP 2016)

tl;dr: This is a terrific book. If you want a proper, thoughtful, well-informed review, you could read ‘Caitlin Mailing Reviews Ellen van Neerven’ in the Cordite Poetry Review, 22 August 2016, link here.

A poem by Ellen van Neerven made headlines late in 2017 when it appeared in the NSW Higher School Certificate exam. That it was there without the poet’s prior knowledge or consent isn’t what made the news – evidently that’s just standard practice. The headlines came from massive social-media trolling by students, all of it disgusting, much of it explicitly racist, and some of it threatening violence.

The poem was ‘Mango’, which appears on page 19 of Comfort Food. I’ve gotta say if that sweet reminiscence from when the writer was eight years old inspires you to make death threats, then you’re not a happy camper. I hope those adolescent cyber-haters have found a way past their exam-triggered, genocide-flavoured rage to seek out this book and sit with it a while.

What they would find is a generous, richly varied collection of short poems in which van Neerven wrangles into words some of what it means to be a particular First Nations person in Australia. van Neerven is a Yugambeh woman from south-east Queensland, living – according to my reading of the poems – in inner-city Melbourne, and that simple statement contains enough complexity for any number of poems.

The book is in six untitled sections of uneven length. Food is a strong motif, from chips to kangaroo tails in a wide range of situations, not all of them comforting or comfortable by a long shot (though the old use of ‘comfort’ to mean ‘strengthening’ is somewhere there). The poems do keep coming back to food, and the effect is to assert the poet’s survival and to remind the reader of what we have in common, even when hard matters of racism and genocide are being canvassed.

If you want a considered review of the whole book, I recommend Caitlin Mailing’s review in the Cordite Poetry Review (link here) or Kylie Thompson’s in Westerly (link here). When I started writing about it I couldn’t get past the first poem, ‘Whole Lot’, so I’m not going to even try.

‘Whole Lot’ is a response to Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s monumental painting Big Yam Dreaming (there’s a photo, and the poem, at this link, but this is a painting that cries out to be seen in person, and the poem differs in minor but significant ways from the one in the book). The poem’s title is taken from the artist’s reply when asked what the painting was about: ‘Whole lot, that’s whole lot.’ (I’m grateful for a note at the back of the book, without which I might have been baffled at first reading of the poem and not returned to it.)

The poem captures an experience of standing in front of that painting, of letting it work on the viewer. Let me walk you through my reading of it, stanza by stanza. Feel free to skip my commentary and just read the poem itself. First, a hint for readers who are intimidated by poetry: think of the line-endings as full stops, or at least commas. Here goes:

Whole Lot

family, earth
dingo, eagle
fire, food
Whole Lot
it’s all of those things

These opening lines reflects on what ‘Whole Lot’ means for the speaker. These are not the elements that Emily Kame Kngwarreye named in the rest of her reply I didn’t quote above – she spoke of her Dreaming, yams, lizards, emus. This is not an explication of the painting. It’s a response to it.

what we eat comes from our roots
if we stop sharing there will be nothing 

At a literal level, the painting represents a yam’s complex root system, which gives rise to this fairly abstract reflection. I read ‘we’ here as referring to all of humanity. The book’s food theme is introduced. The second line of this couplet follows logically from the first because of the implied metaphor: our spirits are nourished by contact with our roots, and we make that contact by sharing. But then:

we start with black
let it get hold of you
look at the stars
or are you afraid to?

Here, ‘we’ are the people who are looking at the painting with the poem’s speaker. Our attention shifts to the painting’s black background, beyond the complex interconnection of yam roots, as a place to start seeing it, surrendering to it. But ‘we’ is also all humanity, and ‘black’ could be a reference to our African origins, or the darkness of the womb, or, as the next line narrows it down, the blackness of the night sky, so that the painting’s complex lines are now constellations. You almost don’t notice the shift from ‘we’ to ‘you’ in the second line. Maybe here the painting is speaking to the viewer, including me/us, the poem’s reader/s.

The fourth line evokes for me a whole tradition in European literature where the night sky, the space behind the stars, is the subject of existential dread: Blaise Pascal, grim 17th century Christian, wrote, ‘Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinies m’effraie / The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me’; Kenneth Slessor, in his poem ‘Stars’, spoke of ‘Infinity’s trap-door, eternal and merciless.’ But here, rather than a statement, it’s a question about fear, asked of ‘you’, and I don’t think it’s the same fear as Pascal and Slessor were taking about: it’s not so much fear of infinite emptiness and silence, of nothingness, as a fear of facing an underlying and possibly sustaining reality.

the day shows
country spread open
a map of all that was and will be
don’t forget it
I’m tracing it to remember
don’t be scared

Underground, the night sky, and now a map of the land in daylight. A painting like Big Yam Dreaming can sustain multiple readings. In this stanza the painting speaks to us, offering – I’ll use the word because it’s in the book’s title – comfort. It’s not comfort as a gentle soothing, but a promise of knowledge that will fortify, a solid sense of totality that you can hold in memory. The painting is not just a decorative object, but a source of strength.

In this stanza ‘I’ appears for the first time. There are no capital letters in the whole poem except for ‘Whole Lot’, ‘I’, and later ‘Mibunn’. It may be idiosyncratic of me but I think of John Henry Newman writing in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua that there were ‘two luminous beings, myself and my Creator’. In this poem there are just three capitalised beings: the speaker, the painting and Mibunn. In this stanza, though, I’m not sure if ‘I’ is the painting or its viewer.

we are not here until we sit here
we sit in silence and we are open
there are different kinds of time
I hope you'll understand

What a brilliant description of sitting in front of a great work of art and letting it work on you.

sing it
I want this to be here
when I leave again
I’ve been leaving a lot of times
it doesn’t mean I want to
there is no easy way to cry
tell them I’ll be back soon
when I come back and sit here
I want to still see Mibunn
powering through the sky

On first reading I thought this was somehow about death and reincarnation. And you may read it like that. But my mind has settled on a reading at the level of a relationship with a painting. That shifty ‘I’ has settled on being the painting’s viewer. And there is no more ‘we’: the poem is now intensely personal, having left generalisations behind. After the stillness of the previous stanza, this one begins with elation – what comes next is to be sung. I will leave the painting reluctantly, as I have many times before, but it’s important to me that it’s still here, and I will return to it.

In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker’s Indigenous identity comes into play explicitly for the first time. I had to look up ‘Mibunn’: it’s the wedge tail eagle, a totem of the Yugambeh people, harking back to the eagle in the first stanza. Somehow, Big Yam Dreaming by a great Anmatyerre artist from the Northern Territory can speak to a Yugambeh poet from south-east Queensland through a painting in a gallery in Melbourne, remind her of deep cultural truths. As a settler Australian reader of the poem, I feel welcomed to read/listen without feeling that I’m eavesdropping.

let me tell you with my skin
under the earth we will find
Whole Lot
it’s all of those things

Here it’s the poet speaking to her reader. I hear her as saying that her encounter with the painting has deepened her sense of connection to her Yugambeh cultural roots. ‘with my skin’ refers to her bla(c)kness, ‘under the earth’ to the subject of the painting, and the poem ends with a direct quote from the artist.

Enjoying a poem is one thing. Saying why is another thing altogether. This poem has pulled me in, and kept me there for any number of readings over the last weeks. Maybe it’s that it establishes such a solid ground of shared humanity at a deep level – a level I associate with religious intensity – before moving to specifically Indigenous experience, where I can’t follow, but it’s there for me to witness. That’s the best I can manage for now.


Comfort Food is the thirteenth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


This review is a contribution to Indigenous Literature Week hosted by Lisa at ANZ LitLovers blog.

SWF 2020, Post 2

The Sydney Writers’ Festival, cancelled in deference to Covid-19, has gone virtual and is appearing in as a series of podcasts. This is my second post about it: five sessions I’ve listened to since 9 May (when I posted my first report, here). With any luck I’ll post about future sessions with shorter intervening intervals.

This time: five books that I haven’t read, all by authors none of whose books I’ve read talking to and sometimes about other authors whose books I haven’t read. So I’ve been learning a lot

Sophie Hardcastle: Below Deck 12 May 2020

Sophie Hardcastle talks to journalist and feminist commentator Georgie Dent about her novel Below Deck. She wrote it, she explains, in her time as a visiting scholar at Oxford University, where in her weekly meetings with her tutor she read to him from the work in progress. She reads to us at the start of the session, and to judge from that short and beautifully-written passage it wears its academic genesis very lightly. Nor does it show traces of what she says later in the session were its beginnings as a facebook status.

The key incident in the book is a rape at sea, and the podcast includes there’s a nuanced conversation about consent, sexual assault and #MeToo. An unexpected bonus is a fascinating chat about synaesthesia, a condition (or should that be superpower) shared by Hardcastle and her novel’s protagonist, in which a person sees sounds, numbers and other non-visual things as colours.

My favourite moment is this exchange, soon after the 30:40 mark, about a terrible relationship in the book:

Georgie Dent: Obviously I can’t ask you, but was it difficult to find inspiration for that relationship?
(Sounds that can probably be best described as snigger-snorting.)
Sophie Hardcastle: No.
Georgie Dent: That’s what I thought when I was reading it.


Intan Paramaditha: The Wandering 13 May 2020

Shirley Le from Western Sydney, who is working on her first novel, chats with Intan Paramaditha, Indonesian and currently living in Sydney, author of The Wandering, which is described on the Festival website as ‘a choose-your-own-adventure story’. The conversation feels intimate in a way that would have been hard to achieve on a stage in front of hundreds of mostly white festival-goers, and ranged widely – tips from a more-experienced to a less-experienced writer; the idea that the category of travel writing looks very different if you think of it as including Behrouz Bouchani’s No Friend but the Mountain as well as the usual books by white men and Eat Pray Love; brief but fascinating notes on the translation process (in this case the translator, Stephen J Epstein, worked closely with the author and the translation has some significant differences from the original); and much more.

I haven’t been a fan of the choose-your-own-adventure genre, which emerged when my sons were in the target audience, but it sounds as if in The Wandering it becomes a powerful – and also entertaining – way to embody stark contrasts between different modes of travel (as in tourism at one extreme and flight from threatened death at the other).

If this had been a live session, perhaps someone would have asked if either of the speakers had read Michelle De Kretser’s monumental novel Questions of Travel (my blog post here), which tackles similar issues, in a more conventional manner.


Ellen van Neerven: Throat May 19, 2020

Throat is second poetry collection from Mununjali Yugambeh writer Ellen van Neerven. In this podcast she talks with poet Tessa Rose. van Neerven reads her homage to a Brisbane suburban shopping centre, ‘Chermy’. The poem is a beauty, filled with affection for the place, family lore, and an occasional ember burst of long-range history. It’s a ‘page poem’ rather than spoken word, and you can read it in full on the Overland website, here, but I’m infinitely glad I first encountered it in this beautiful reading. van Neerven’s account of how she wrote it – interviewing elder relatives so that it became a social poem – is wonderful.

There’s a lot more to the conversation: the Queensland Art Gallery of Modern Art commissions poets to write poems inspired by their exhibits; though still relatively young, van Neerven works as a teacher and mentor and feels like ‘an emerging Auntie slash Uncle’; van Neerven speaks of young people and elders as both having a kind of wisdom that people in between may lack through being caught up in the day-to-day; a visit to Germany enriched van Neerven’s understanding of colonialism; there are many ‘Queensland Blackfeller’ artists who inspire the poet; and the process by which the book came together is described in an illuminating way. It’s now on my To Be Read list.


Richard Cooke: On Robyn Davidson May 20, 2020

Robyn Davidson is known almost entirely for her 1980 book Tracks, which told of her trek from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean in 1977 at the age of 27 with only camels for company. Self-described fan Richard Cooke sets out to expand her image in the latest title in Black Inc’s Writers on Writers series of books. In this conversation with Michaela Kalowski, he observes that in his case it could have been called the Non-writers on Non-writers series, given that Davidson hasn’t exactly been prolific. Nevertheless, he makes some big claims for Davidson’s status as an Australian writer.

It turns out that this session is the middle of a trio about travel writing. I would love to have seen Richard Cooke on a panel with Intan Paramaditha and Liam Pieper, with the brilliant Roanna Gonsalves as moderator.


Liam Pieper: Sweetness and Light May 25, 2020

This is the third session in the trio about travel writing. Liam Pieper is a white man whose novel, Sweetness and Light, involves a white Australian man and a white US woman in India. There is no elephant in the room, as Roanna Gonsalves names the obvious with characteristic acuteness and generosity right at the outset:

As an Indian Australian I am particularly interested in that version of India and Indianness as experienced by white people that you render on the page in a very interesting way in Sweet ness and Light. In some ways the book may be read as part of a long tradition of white people, including many white Australians whose names we shall not name here, of writing about finding themselves or losing themselves in India or saving Indians with no mention of the crucial work being done by Indians on the ground already, or of using India as a backdrop for coming to terms with their own frailty or … India as a catalyst for their true natures being validated or confirmed

What follows is a wonderful conversation. I love the moment where the speakers find common ground: neither can swim, and both have experienced the humiliation of being an adult in a swimming class with seven year olds.


I’m still missing the milling crowds, the glare from the Harbour at Walsh Bay, the celebrity spotting and eavesdropping, the queuing for muffins and hot drinks, the odd poetry readings that almost certainly won’t make it onto the podcast program, and all that. But this is turning out to be a terrific Festival.

Journal Blitz 5

I guess I’ll never be up to date with the journals I subscribe to. This is my fifth catch-up blog post, and I’m still reading things about a year after publication. Here they are: one from a university, one from the left, one from an organisation of poets and one from an island.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor) and George Kouvaros (guest editor), Southerly Vol 78 No 2 2018: The Lives of Others (2019)

This issue of Southerly, the back cover tells us, ‘is concerned with the debts and obligations that accompany the passing of the generations’, a way of saying that it has a theme of family – personal reminiscence, family history, lines of cultural genealogy.

Here are some of my highlights.

In ‘The Other Life’, guest editor George Kouvaros explores his childhood feelings about a photo of a cousin about his own age who stayed in Greece when Kouvaros’ family moved to Australia. He builds fascinatingly around the notion, borrowed from Marsha Gressen, that migrants are often haunted by a sense of a double life: the one they are living and the one they would have had if they stayed.

Brendan Ryan’s memoir ‘John Forbes in Carlton’ paints a vivid picture of Forbes (dobbed ‘God on a bicycle’ by a Melbourne wit ) as mentor, and is a sweet account of how the creative baton was passed down the generations.. It would have gone well as a chapter in Homage to John Forbes, edited by Ken Bolton in 2002. I’m a fan of both Forbes and Ryan (blog posts, here, here, here and here), but I don’t think you’d need to be to find joy in the essay.

Maria Griffin’s ‘Benjamin’ is a poignant, elegiac meditation on death and extinction. Her immediate subjects are her younger brother, who died aged 32, and the Thylacine / Tasmanian tiger. With a light but dagger-sharp touch she allows the subject to broaden to include the climate emergency. (One small cavil: she imagines Australia during the last ice age as covered with sheets of ice, whereas – correct me if I’m wrong – the archaeological evidence suggests that, though bitterly cold, it was covered in dust.)

Meera Atkinson’s fiction ‘Necropolis Drive’ makes brilliant and powerful use of archival material – her protagonist is researching the history of women incarcerated as insane in colonial times, and correspondence from the NSW Government State Archives and Letters leap from her pages to grab the reader by the throat.

Sharryn Ryan’s memoir ‘The Miracle’ is as powerful a story of growing up with an emotionally unstable mother as you’re likely to read anywhere. Its story of wildness is told with extraordinary restraint, and all the more effective and affecting for it.

Katherine Maher’s ‘One of Your Family’ reads as a fragment from a much broader piece of research. It approaches the issue of the Stolen Generations with a narrow focus, discussing a four-minute video of one Thupi Warra man’s response to Kevin Rudd’s 2008 apology. Maher tells us that this is one of 25 videos of this nature held in the State Library of Queensland. ‘I’m not sure,’ her essay concludes, ‘how to truly hear the history he tells.’ Essays like hers help the rest of us clean out our ears.

Three reviews inspired me to do some rereading, and re-savouring: Naomi Riddle on Fiona Wright’s Domestic Interior (my blog post here; I think Wright is funnier than Naomi Riddle seems to); Peter Kirkpatrick on Martin Langford’s Neat Snakes (my post here) and Brigitta Olubas on Sarah Day’s Towards Light (my post here).


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 235 (Winter 2019)

This is the eighteenth and last issue of Overland edited by Jacinda Woodhead. The woman on the cover isn’t her, but a ‘friend and fellow anti-fascist organiser’ of the guest artist Tia Kass. Still, that woman’s confident fist isn’t a bad emblem for Woodhead’s – and Overland‘s – work.

I don’t usually read editorials, let alone quote from them, but as this was Jacinda Woodhead’s farewell, I made an exception (link here). She asks, ‘So what is a left-wing literary magazine today?’, and replies in part:

Now more than ever, we need projects like Overland: we may not always agree with the positions and experiments published in its pages, but it’s critical to build spaces where collective alternatives, where collective futures can be articulated.

I subscribe to Overland to support the building of such a space. Then I read it because it generally includes news and thinking that I don’t easily get elsewhere. Here’s how the journal starts (with links to the articles online):

In ‘La mina no se cierra’, Caitlin Doyle-Markwick walks one of the variants of the Camino de Santiago in Spain (definitely not the walk with guides advertised in today’s Sydney Morning Herald that costs $25 thousand a head). The essay’s title – Spanish for ‘The mine will not close’ – is from graffiti she saw in Asturias referring to a major struggle early last decade. The graffiti, and the history that gave rise to it, is a springboard to rich and complex reflections on the current move against coal mines in Australia and the need for a just transition to renewables.

In ‘On grief’, regular columnist Tony Birch, as always, avoids grand rhetorical statements and takes us briefly into his own recent experience of bereavement.

Restorying care’, a PEN essay by Ellen van Neerven writes about the struggle of many First Nations people to ‘feel heard or tell our story’ in the health system. A brief quote:

Data is used to build, and claim, story. Recently, the term ‘data sovereignty’ has been used to describe mob’s sovereign right to their own data: all data should be subject to the laws and governance structures within the Indigenous Nation where it is collected. This data should be accessible to the community. Unfortunately we are a long way from that.

Then there are nine pages of poetry, including ‘Report on Norman – after Vigan’ by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (the title is mysterious to me, but the poem itself is terrific), ‘Walis tingting’ by Ivy Alvarez (which finds poetry in a Philippine palm-leaf broom), and ‘The hymen diaries’ by Eileen Chong (a set of four short poems that stands up on its own, but becomes much richer when seen alongside the stunning works of art it references – by Katie Griesar, Annette Messager, Paul McCarthy and Juana Francés).

But I won’t go on listing the whole contents. Here are some of the rest:

  • The gunboat nation in a lifeboat world’, by Scott Robinson, subtitled ‘On the militarisation of climate change’, wins my prize for the most telling metaphor in a title
  • Alison Croggon ruminates ‘On art‘ in times of crisis like ours
  • Giacomo Lichtner celebrates Primo Levi’s hundredth birth year by singling out ten fragments of If This Is A Man, in ‘One hundred years of Primo Levi
  • There are five short stories, of which the one that stands out most for me is Jem Tyley-Miller’s ‘The island’, which imagines a surreal solution to the refugee crisis involving those vast collections of garbage in the ocean
  • The most natural thing’ by Natalie Kon-yu is a peer-reviewed personal essay that introduced me to the parthood model of pregnancy, as opposed to the container model
  • Enza Gandolfo’s ‘Making & shaping’. which would have fitted nicely into the Southerly‘s theme, is a moving meditation on her mother’s crocheting artistry and  her own changing understanding of it
  • and regular columnist Giovanni Tiso strikes an intimate note in ‘On not moving to Australia‘, linking his decision to stay in New Zealand because he has two children who live with autism with Australia harsh rules for New Zealanders who come here, and it’s even harsher treatment of some refugees.

Yvette Holt and Magan Magan (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Volume 7 (2019)

This is Australian Poetry Inc’s seventh annual anthology of members’ poetry. In the words of one of its editors, it hosts ‘a focus on poets heralding from the Northern Territory, from the Top End, Western Desert, Utopia, Barkly, and of course Central Australia’. Those poets aren’t corralled into a special section, but take their place alongside others, including some whose books have won prestigious prizes. There are plenty of First Nations voices, including some writing from in prison and some who are household names. A fair number of the poems come from the Spoken Word milieu. It’s a beautifully democratic, diverse collection.

Having said that, I’m reluctant to single any individuals out. I’ll just quote some lines from a handful of poems that deal with fire, drought and flood, perhaps surprisingly many given that this anthology was published well before the current bushfire season,.

Kaye Aldenhoven’s ‘Cleaning the Country – April in Kakadu’ is about fire as a benign tool for land management:

Cool Dry season wind shifts the wind chimes
sending clear bell sounds out over fire-cleared land.
On the tongue the metallic smell of yesterday's smoke.
In the burnt area
an invisible wind spirit
raises puffs of dust as she sweeps ashes of grass.

Kelly Lee Hickey, ‘Notes from a Heatwave’, captures the lassitude of hot dry weather in five short stanzas:

All the nests are abandoned.
The pea chick dies
in my hands.

Peter Mitchell, ‘Forgotten Sparks’, recalls a 1968 bushfire:

We were surrounded by tongues, the speech of flames: shouts,
clamour and argument. Their babble charged our homes.

Fiona Dorrell’s heartbreaking image from a drought, ‘Forty Horses at Santa  Teresa’:

One horse lies down
crosses and tucks its legs
up close to its body.
Others stretch heads back in dirt
almost smelling of algae
and sieve hot air through
yellow spade teeth.

Not quite on topic is Michele Seminara’s ‘Family Tree’, which laments the loss of a tree that has been part of her life since childhood:

They amputate the limbs
to make it easier to fell; 
I know that feeling.

Vern Field (managing editor), Island 157 (2019)

I don’t have a subscription to Island, whose web site describes it as ‘celebrating ideas, writing and culture from our base in Hobart, Tasmania’ since 1979. I bought this issue because it features a poem by Jennifer Maiden (who isn’t from Tasmania).

Compared with the other journals in this post, Island is a lavish affair, with full page colour illustrations and advertisements for theatre events.

It’s a good read, with a preponderance of items that are excerpts from longer works (from Favel Parrett’s There was Still Love, which I intend to read; from a graphic novel, Islands and Ships by Joshua Santospirito, author of The Long Weekend in Alice Springs (my blog post here); from a lecture by Sharon Rider, which introduced me to some basics of Kant’s philosophy), and author’s notes on works in progress (Laura Elizabeth Woollett doing research on Norfolk Island; two separate accounts of artist and writer visits to Iceland; Rohan Wilson musing on the ethics of setting a climate-change (‘cli-fi’) novel in the Maldives).

Burnt Out’ by Liz Evans is a tale of not losing her home to bushfire in the 2018–2019 summer. Though the experience she describes is harrowing, it feels oddly tranquil when read in the aftermath of the recent mammoth fires, as it places the fire events in the context of the writer’s London background and is illustrated by gorgeously dramatic photographs.

There are short stories, of which Anne Casey’s comedy of teenage errors set in a cake shop, ‘What I’d Do If I Was in Charge’, stands out.

Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Pollock, Whiteley and the Critic: Seven Layers‘ isn’t the only poem, but it’s the one that spoke most strongly to me. (Perhaps I should have listed it as one of the excerpts above, as it’s included in Maiden’s The Espionage Act recently published by Quemar Press.) It’s one of her imaginary dialogues: the two painters of the title and an art critic stand in front of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, and their conversation ranges over an early self portrait by Brett Whiteley (I looked it up, it’s real, there’s an article on it here), the CIA’s program to back abstract expressionism as a counter to social realism, the effect this had on Pollock’s art and life … As is generally the case with Jennifer Maiden’s dialogues, it works as a strangely surreal encounter among recognisable characters, with a strong undertow of not-quite-pindownable meaning.

Thanks for reading this far. It’s not the last of my journal catch-up posts …

Journal Blitz 4

I subscribe to literary journals partly for pleasure and partly as an act of civic responsibility, and lately (only lately?) I’ve neglected to keep up with reading them. This is my fourth blog post in five months reporting on a catch-up read, starting this time with a journal I don’t actually subscribe to.


The Blak Women’s Brow Collective (Editors), Blak Brow (#40 of The Lifted Brow 2018)

Though I’ve heard plenty about the Melbourne-based The Listed Brow, this is the first issue of I’ve read – it came to me by way of the Book(-Swapping) Club.

When the editors of The Lifted Brow approached Paola Balla, whose bio describes her in part as a Wemba-Wemba and Gunditjmara woman based at the Moondani Balluk Indigenous Centre at Victoria University, she ‘saw the opportunity to work collectively and went for it’ (the quote is from the journal’s editorial). Edited by a collective of Blak women – Blak, a note on the inside cover explains, was coined by artist Destiny Deacon in 1990, and names the lived experience and identity of urban Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples – Blak Brow has a strong collective feel, and is rich with voices speaking of the lived experience of Blakness.

There are strong individual voices: ‘Fight or Flight’, a wicked short story by Melissa Lukashenko; ‘Fern Your Own Gully’, a poem by Evelyn Araluen that savages the May Gibbsian version of the bush; ‘Because of You I Can’, a pair of short essays by poet Ellen Van Neerven and her mother Maria Van Neerven-Currie; ‘The Crucial Voices of Aboriginal Women’, an account by Celeste Liddle of the struggle to be more than a token Aboriginal presence on panel presentations.

But those are exceptions: while all of the voices here are strong and clear, most of them carry a sense of representing a constituency. The powerful first speech of Lidia Thorpe, first Aboriginal woman to be elected to a lower house seat in the Parliament of Victoria, is given in full. She captures the tone of most of the writing in Blak Brow when she says: ‘I have been inundated with messages from Aboriginal people across the country. I speak today on behalf of them.’ Even intense accounts of personal experience – ‘Binak’ and ‘A Room with a View’ – are followed by brief essays explaining that they are ‘composites’, the first ‘bringing together the real experiences of young women’ who have come under youth justice supervision in Victoria; the second, written by Vicki Roach, ‘a composite of [her] own and many other women’s lived experiences of finding housing when released from gaol’.

It’s a very rich collection of poems, song lyrics, fiction, art, journalism, scholarly writing, speeches to parliament and to a Federation of Community Legal Centres symposium, memoir, reports on art projects and academic ventures, and more. Some of it, as in the WAR response to attacks on their members, is very raw. As a middle-class white man in my early seventies, I was challenged, informed, delighted, and then challenged some more.


John Kinsela (guest Editor), Australian Poetry Journal 9.1: resist (2019)

This is a brilliant collection of poetry. John Kinsela, guest editor, says in his unusually long introduction:

We have a collective responsibility to live justly, and to work for mutual justice … , understanding each other, and respecting difference. Again, poetry is one of the most effective and linguistically affecting ways of achieving this. The poem as thing in itself is … a form of ‘agora’ in so many ways. Even very disparate issues of justice can find common ground.

The poems cover a huge range of ‘issues’ in a magnificent diversity of voices and poetic forms, and a strong sense emerges of ‘common ground’. As I read, I started out turning down the corners of pages I wanted to revisit and/or mention here, but soon gave up because there were too many – this blog post would have ended up as little more than a list. I’ll restrict myself to just a couple poems – passing over some wonderful poems in silence! (Oh well, almost in silence. Let me mention Evelyn Araluen’s ‘Mrs Kookaburra Addresses the Natives’, which like her ‘Fern Your Own Gully’ in Blak Brow, makes very funny and very unsettling use of language from May Gibbs’s children’s books; Eileen Chong’s ‘Rot’, on violence against women; Sarah Day’s ‘Nation’, on bullying; Dan Disney’s ‘let us rejoice’ an eerie mash-up of speeches by Scott Morrison and (I think) Hitler; Lisa Gorton’s ‘EKPHRASIS I. THE NYMPH OF FONTAINEBLEAU’, which juxtaposes an art critic’s comments on a painting with narrative about the exploitation that accompanied its creation; Jennifer Maiden’s ‘Umbrage in Vault Seven’, a current adventure of George and Clare; Jaya Savige’s ‘Spork’, on racism within a family. The list could go on.) I’m pretty sure that anyone interested in poetry or social/political issues will find something here that strikes a deep chord.

A little more detail on two moments in the collection.

The first is Toby Fitch’s ‘The Last Few Budgets in a Nutshell’. At a quick look this just looks weird. It begins:

Torquing about debt is always exshiting but
weaken nut and muscle knot becomb a carbone
cuppy of the Labna Putty.

The penny drops, and you realise that a politician’s speech (perhaps a particular one, perhaps a composite) has been tortured. There’s probably a word for this process: key words are replaced by words that sound something like them so that ‘Talking’ becomes ‘Torqueing’, ‘we cannot’ becomes ‘weaken nut’ and so on. For the reader then, there’s a double perception: we read the words on the page and hear the original. To do this and make it something more than just a bit of nonsensical clever-dickery is a challenge, and Toby Fitch pulls it off: those first lines give a whiff of the biting satire that he creates. This poem has stayed with me because its technique so beautifully captures and even generates the feeling one has when listening to political spin, and also perhaps a little because it makes me feel smart!

My second moment is call-and-response pair of poems by Kaitlen Wellington (‘It’s about time’) and Alison Whittaker (‘In response to Kaitlen Wellington’s “It’s About Time”‘) respectively. It took just a slight deviation from alphabetical order to have these poems appear consecutively (Rae White’s ‘Rainbow confetti pixels’ graciously allowed Alison Whittaker’s poem to nudge ahead of it in the queue).

‘It’s about time’ is very straightforward – the speaker goes ‘walkin old tracks’, reconnecting with traditional Indigenous knowledge, ‘lookin for some sarsparalla’:

Walkin, walkin
sticks, stones
dreamin track her, there
watch ya step.
We surrounded by the richest green,
earth's soil moist,
dry leaves scatter our path,
we are locked in our country's
secure embrace

It’s not just a bush walk, at least not what a seventy-something whitefella like thinks of as a bush walk. ‘A sea eagle is ‘lettin us know, / “It’s about time youse come walkabout here”‘. The final stanza begins:

We know what to do now:
unite, fight and teach.
Let our mob know
ain't no takin our culture away no more.

It’s a good poem. I was seduced by its idiosyncratic spelling, especially of ‘sarsparalla’, because that’s how we pronounced it in my North Queensland childhood – though we were talking about a softdrink, not a bush medicine. I could feel its seriousness, and then moved on … to Alison Whittaker’s response.

She begins with a question, ‘What does it mean to resist in this colony?’ and goes on to describe the cycle of necessary work – ‘in the courts of the public or in institutional tribunals’ – and necessary self-care. ‘I become a consistently self-optimising tool. In some ways, indistinguishable in discipline and form from that which I am resisting.’ Kaitlen Wellington’s poem brought the insight that there must be more than that cycle. She concludes: ‘What’s the point of making a nicer colony, when you can breathe sovereignty?’

This poem and this response to it offer something profound, not just for people who are the targets and survivors of colonisation and genocide, but to anyone up against any oppressive force. If you get a chance to browse this journal, do flip through to page 99 and read to the end of page 101. But don’t stop there.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 234 (Autumn 2019)

This issue of Overland is bookended by two excellent articles from the Wrights.

Alexis Wright, in Telling the untold stories, begins with the problem facing writers in today’s increasingly chaotic world:

The question for the writer of stories is how to fight your way through imposed boundaries of indifference, ignorance, or political interests, and to perhaps learn how to do this by not getting directly into the ring and wrestling the pig ‘because a. it is only going to get dirty, and b. you will get dirty as well’.

and she relates this to the survival of aboriginal stories through the catastrophe of colonisation. It’s a magnificent essay, an excerpt from her Stephen Murray-Smith talk given in December 2018 (available in full online here).

Fiona Wright (probably only a very distant relation) writes about Tinder in State your intentions. Sometimes intensely personal, sometimes confidently snarky, this is a beautifully executed mosaic picture of what it is to be young and happily(?) single today.

Of the regular columnists, Tony Birch’s On thinking is the stand-out. Writing partly as a tribute to Deborah Bird Rose (my review of one of her books here), who died at the end of 2018, he quotes her:

Any conversation we humans may wish to start up concerning the living world, our place in it and our responsibility toward it must bear the knowledge of the terrible harms we have done and continue to do.

and pits that against Tony Abbott’s famous remark, ‘Climate change is crap.’

There are four pieces of short fiction – In Cassilis by Louis Klee, Buried time by Mykaela Saunder, ‘Into the valley’ by Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi, and ‘The melancholy new patriot’ by Corey Wakeling – introduced by Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk, who at the time of publication hadn’t yet been announced as due to become joint editors of Overland late this year. There are just three poems, the place-getters in the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, by Julie Jedda Janson,  Joel Scott and Ross Belton.

As well as these, there are articles on Cambodia (That bird is for us by Adam Curley, which takes an episode of something called Survivor as his starting point), Kashmir (Combat breathing by Tim Robertson), burning-off as a gross and destructive distortion of Aboriginal firestick farming practices (The fire cult by Katherine Wilson), current prejudice against Chinese people (Not all yellow and white by Gabriel Ng), and an essay on swimming pools and the beach that makes an excellent companion piece to the ABC doco series The Pool (Aqua Profonda by Gavin Scott).

The cover and moody internal artwork for this issue are by photographer Hoda Afshar.


I was going to include a review of Southerly 78.2, which I’m still reading, but if you’ve read this far I think you deserve a rest, so I’ll save that for the next catch-up blitz.

Australian Poetry Journal 7:1, Skin

Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven (editors),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 7, Issue 1: 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.)