Tag Archives: Fiona Wright

SWF 2019: Friday

I was in England when last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival broke away from its harbourside venue, so this is my first Festival at the Carriageworks. I miss stepping out of dim rooms full of bright words into the dazzle, or sometimes drizzle, of postcard Sydney. But I can walk there and back, which is something.


My SWF this year kicked off with a 10 o’clock session on Friday: Taking Flight: Stories of Expulsion and Migration

Julian Burnside chaired a conversation with German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck, and Omid Tofighian, translator of Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend but the Mountains, which is still on my To Be Read pile.

All three participants were interesting, more than that, compelling. Jenny Erpenbeck’s most recent novel Go, Went, Gone is based on a year befriending and documenting the experiences of migrants in Berlin – the kind of migrants who would be called refugees or asylum seekers in Australia, but have been defined out of that category in Germany. It emerged that the characters in her novel are all real people with changed names, except the main character, named Richard, who she admitted is herself. Asked by Julian Burnside abut the many references to classic Greek and Roman gods, she explained that part of her goal was to make it clear that northern African peoples aren’t the Cultural Others that mainstream media would paint them – that much of that ancient culture was shared by Europe and Africa. In the very brief Q and A, asked if sessions like this and perhaps novels like hers weren’t preaching to the converted, she said that migrants are generally portrayed as millions of displaced people deserving pity or stirring dread: what fiction can do is help us realise that ‘the millions are not millions’, but each one has a story, and these stories show our connection as humans.

Omid Tofighian has an impressive CV in his own right and a scholar and activist. He was on the panel as translator of Behrouz Bouchani’s book. He was fascinating about the process of translation from Farsi to English. (Incidentally, Farsi is an Indo-European language, with many similarities to German in how its sentences are constructed.) About 40 percent English version is in verse: this is because in many passages Behrouz’s long Farsi sentences had to be broken up into smaller sentences to make them work in English, and in that process what had been beautiful Farsi prose begged to be presented as English verse. Translator and author worked closely together on the translation. Replying to an audience member who asked for a practical solution to the problem of offshore detention, ‘the key word being practical’, he said two things were necessary: first to analyse and broadcast the financial dimensions of the detention industry, in particular what he and Behrouz call the horrific surrealism of Manus, which creates vast profits for a small number of people; and second to challenge the ideology that sees refugees as passive and not fully human. On the preaching to the converted question, he said that the thing about Behrouz is that he is holding a mirror up to Australian society in general, not pleading his own case as victim or seeking a benefactor: he is calling out Australians in general to reflect on our history of harshness towards the marginalised, from the beginning of colonisation.

Julian Burnside in the chair promised at the start that we were about to hear a conversation between the two others on the stage. In the event there was very little, if any conversation between Jenny and Omid. This seemed to be mainly because there was no obvious bridge between their subjects and were both giving us information, but also because Julian Burnside, admirable activist and advocate, had his own point of view and contribution to make.

The session was marred for me bursts of laughter and applause from the adjacent hall, actually part of the same vast space separated only by thick hanging curtains. And the man next to me should be given an award of some kind. He spent a lot of the time fanning himself with a newspaper, which tended to obscure my view of the stage, send a blast of air to the woman on the other side (we talked after the show), and make creaking sounds that disturbed the people in front of him as well as us. Every now and then he would reach down to a paper bag on his lap and rustle it a bit for no obvious reason. And then his phone rang, he answered it, he left by a gap in the curtain at the front left, and after a couple of minutes came back to rejoin his paper bag and his fan. I’m pretty sure if I’d asked him to tone it down he would have done so, but I was stupidly wimpy.


At half past eleven, Christos Tsiolkas chaired An Irrevocable Condition, a conversation with Melanie Cheng, Moreno Giovannoni (my review of his The Fireflies of Autumn here) and Melina Marchetta.

The title of the session came from James Baldwin, who wrote, ‘perhaps home is not a place, but an irrevocable condition.’ I don’t know how the quote related to the conversation, but it was a brilliant conversation. Tsiolkas kicked it off by asking, ‘Where are you from?’, a question he acknowledged is often rude or hostile, but can be a way to open connection. Certainly in this case that’s how it worked. The panel members told of complex relationships with the countries of their parents’ origins – sometimes their own birth or childhood countries, others experienced only in the communities in Australia.

Christos invited each of the others to read from their work. This is always the best thing in these panels, and in this case it was beautifully integrated into the conversation, as they were also invited to reflect on how the passages they read were part of developing an inclusive Australian language.

It was a wonderfully warm, generous conversation. The four panellists had had an interesting conversation in the green room, which they referred to frequently – the mutual appreciation of each other’s writing was palpable. Christos told of a recent visit with his mother to Richmond, where he was a child. She looked around and said, ‘Christos, it’s not the same,’ namong, as he said a kind of double migration: first from Greece to Richmond, and then from Richmond to a whole other suburb. This prompted someone to say that although they had been talking about the experience of being migrants, there was something universal there as well: the childhood home no longer exists for any of us. The panel members had a fabulous range of stories about their experience of the nominal home country.

The panellists all agreed that home is where their family and friends are: the family and community that they live among now. Cosmopolitanism is great, but hard for many people, and a local community gives something that meets our deep needs.

As the lights came up, before filing out into the lunchtime crowd, I had a chat with the elderly woman who had been sitting on my left. (Elderly in this case could mean younger than me, but hey!) After we’d told each other how much we’d enjoyed the session, she said, ‘I’m fro South Africa, and I love living here. But I realise I’ve been unfair to other South Africans who complain about Australia – I’ve just thought they should appreciate what they’ve got here, but now I feel I haven’t been understanding enough about their pain.’


4.30 pm Home Truths

 This session was nominally about home, and would have made a thematic hat trick for my festival so far, but after briefly covering their discomfort at being categorised as Western Sydney Writers, Fiona Wright (click here for previous mentions in this blog) and Luke Carman (ditto here) got the bit between their collective teeth and gave us a very interesting chat about mental illness. 

Like Carman has a great gift for deadpan comedy about uncomfortable topics – in this case a psychotic episode and its aftermath. By contrast, Fiona laughs a lot, cheerfully asserting that she’s allowed to use words like ‘crazy’, at least when talking about herself. (Incidentally, I tend to be with Raimond Gaita in preferring the scary word ‘mad’ over the blandly medical ‘mentally ill’ to name a truly scary phenomenon.)

Ashley Kalagian Blunt did an excellent, self-effacing job of enabling the conversation. The Western Sydney gambit didn’t lead to much, but asking them each to name a favourite piece in the other’s book of essays and to say why was a brilliant way of setting them free to enjoy each other, their literary friendship, and their experiences with the mental health system.

Fiona said her first book of essays, Small Acts of Disappearance, was about extremes; her second, The World Was Whole, which is on the pile beside my desk, is about the ordinary, and how the ordinary must be negotiated by someone whose health is fragile. She mentioned her poetry, adding with mock defensiveness, ‘Don’t judge me!’ (I do judge, and the verdict is beyond favourable.)

Prompted by Ashley, Luke gave a wonderful account of the genesis of one of the essays in his book: he picked ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle’, in which he set out to write something that would enrage some people he was feuding with. It did that, as well as pretty much alienating everyone who read it. He decided to include it in the book all the same, as it fitted with the madness theme of the collection – an example of something written by a person who was off the air. (I just found the essay inits Meanjin incarnation, here.)


We went home for dinner, and watched a little tele, including Ece Temelkuran on the Drum. We’re seeing her in Sunday at the Festival.

Then we were back at the Carriageworks for Story Club at 9 o’clock.

Story Club is a monthly event that’s been running for 11 years at the Giant Dwarf in Sydney, created and hosted by Ben Jenkins and Zoe Norton Lodge. This evening’s hour was supposed to have a theme, ‘Fool Me Once’, in keeping with the Festival’s over-all theme, ‘Lie to Me’. As everywhere else I’ve seen at the Festival so far, the theme was completely ignored. Well not completely: it was named. But as Ben, then Alex Lee (a regular on the now defunct The Checkout with Ben and Zoe), journalist Jacqueline Maley and fonally Zoe took the stage to read stories from their lives from a big red book, if a theme emerged it was in two mercifully separate parts: excessive consumption of alcohol and the tribulations of early motherhood. Breasts, sleeplessness, public humiliation and family reunions gave rise to much merriment.

And so home to bed.


Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss

Sebastian Smee, Net Loss: The inner life in the digital age (Quarterly Essay 72), plus correspondence from Quarterly Essay Nº 73

The cover of the quarterly essay, which includes a small inset image of the  Mona Lisa's smile.

I postponed reading this Quarterly Essay for months for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t think I’d be able to stand the guilt if I read one more well articulated argument about the dangers of social media. And second, I’ve discovered that I prefer to read a Quarterly Essay after its successor has arrived, so that I can read the follow-up correspondence while the original essay is fresh in my mind.

The guilt factor decreased when I quit Twitter a couple of weeks ago (I haven’t missed it), and then Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (to be read in a couple of months’ time) arrived in my letterbox. So there was no need for further delay. Sebastian Smee’s essay turned out to be a delightful read. If, for reasons of your own, you haven’t read it, it’s not too late for you too to change your mind.

Like many of us, Smee is attached to his fruit-based or other device and a constant user of social media, and feels uneasy about it, not just because of the emergence of what Shoshana Zuboff has called surveillance capitalism, though that looms large in the essay, but also because of how it affects his sense of himself, and his relationships to other people and to the world – what he calls his inner life. ‘Can we protect ourselves,’ he asks

from corporate incursions into our private life by telling ourselves we have some hidden, impregnable inner life to which the algorithms can never gain access? Is this even realistic? It’s very hard to say. One thing we do know is that individual reality is beyond quantification. And cause and effect are always more complex than we like to think. That’ in part because perception itself is almost infinitely fluid.

(page 24)

In a nutshell, that’s the question the essay addresses and the response it comes up with.

The most startling single phrase in the essay is ‘the commodification of our attention’. It’s not Smee’s coinage – a quick web search finds the phrase cropping up in many places. But it encapsulates the way we are being influenced and exploited to contribute to the unimaginably large profits of Facebook, Google and the like.

What Smee does is to embody the kind of attention that has not been whittled down and shaped by social media. He’s a self-described arty type, and here he elucidates the subtleties of passages from Chekhov, explains how a particular painting by Cézanne represents a revolution in ways of seeing, describes and spells out the implications of video works by contemporary artists Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch. He uses language in a way that invites thoughtful consideration, and stands as a living contradiction to his argument that we have entered an age of distraction.

The correspondence up the back of QE73 is, as always, excellent. The closest thing to a disagreement is a beautiful piece of writing by Fiona Wright, a string of cameos illustrating how her life is enriched by social media. There’s some heavy-duty philosophy from Raimond Gaita. Imre Salusinszky indulges some high-level nostalgia for, of all things, John Hughes’s movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Smee responds with the same grace and generosity that permeates the essay itself.

Added 18 April 2019: I’ve just listened to the podcast of David Gillespie talking with Richard Fidler the effects of iPhone and social media on especially teenage brains. It amplifies and makes urgent the gist of Sebastian Smee’s essay. You can get it here.

Fiona Wright’s Domestic Interior

Fiona Wright, Domestic Interior (Giramondo 2017)

Domestic.jpgOne of my New Year resolves for the blog is not to attempt to review every book of poetry I read. I’ll still blog about them, but for each book I’ll focus on one or possibly two poems that resonate with me in some way.

Domestic Interior tests that resolve, because an awful lot of its poems speak to me loud and clear.

I haven’t read Fiona Wright’s first book of poetry, Knuckled (2011), or her collection of essays, Small Acts of Disappearance  (2015), both published by Giramondo, but somehow I’d picked up an expectation that her work would bristle with introspective misery. That expectation, even though endorsed by the back cover’s reference to ‘highly charged moments of emotional extremity’, turned out to be wide of the mark. Even the section titled ‘A Crack on the Skin: On Illness’, there’s much lightness, grace, good humour and a pervasive celebration of friendship. And always, especially for Sydney readers, there’s plenty of recognisable life as we know it or, in a number of poems, as we overhear it.

I caught a glimpse of Fiona Wright at a funeral when I was still part way through my first reading of the book, reason enough to choose to blog about ‘Camperdown, St Stephen’s’:

StStephens

For the benefit of non-Sydneysiders: St Stephen’s Anglican Church is the site of the historic Camperdown Cemetery. The Moreton Bay fig that grows there featured in Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins’s classic and totally not-morbid picture book, My Place. It’s a beautiful and almost intimate setting, where it’s not terribly weird or morbid to eat a sandwich leaning against a headstone, so it may take a while for the force of that image to sink for a local reader. Rookwood is a suburb in Sydney’s west whose name is enough to evoke thoughts of mortality in most of Sydney and well beyond: it is home to what Wikipedia calls the ‘largest necropolis in the southern hemisphere’, now facing problems of overcrowding.

From the opening image, in which a stark memento mori lurks beneath a pleasantly mundane lunchtime scene, the poem plays first with the idea of hunger, associated with the sandwiches: the moss is like rice, the speaker is greedy for sun, and the sun for the earth. (It must be autumn, warm enough to have lunch outdoors, but cool enough that patches of sunlight are tepid.) Then, in a neat couple of almost rhyming short lines (‘I don’t want / a monument’), the headstone comes to the fore.

Which leads to Rookwood – yes, it stands in for death on a grand scale, but the lines are rooted in this specific time and place: there really are debates about how to deal with the vast numbers of bodies needing to be buried. Camperdown Cemetery is comfortably historical; Rookwood is today’s news. The dead are named for the first time, slyly rhyming with ‘read’ (maybe she’s reading news on her phone while eating her sandwiches).

Then she thinks of her friend’s photos (received on the same phone?). Roses lie against headstones, just as the poet does in the first stanza. Only now it’s many poets and they are the dead.  No sun no pleasant sandwiches there: the roses laid in homage don’t carry much force – images of litter and bedbugs come to mind, and from this distance perhaps the roses are reduced to something like little bursts of blood on hostel sheets.

‘My bones are cold’: she now identifies with the dead poets. And in the last three lines, the chill of that identification goes deeper: she is heading North, to that Europe littered with dead poets, and she fears that she is about to join them.

Maybe it’s just me, but I laughed. I don’t think the poem or I are trivialising death or the fear of dying. But the poet’s fear here is not the kind that strikes with a diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer. There’s something fancifully neurotic about it, an edge of mockery that doesn’t trivialise the fear but allows us to breathe around it, to approach it playfully: after all, how seriously can you take the the graves of poets when they are presented as littering Europe like bedbugs in a hostel?

My writing of this blog post was interrupted by an expedition to Manly. After visiting North Head Project at the Manly Art Gallery (open until 18 February and worth the ferry ride), we went up to North Head itself and wandered in one of the three cemeteries connected to the Quarantine Station there. Walking among the graves of mostly young people, I thought of this poem, and realised that for all its lightness of touch, its rootedness in 21st century Sydney and a particular friendship network, it sits squarely in a tradition: ‘and I’m afraid’ echoes the refrain, ‘Timor mortis conturbat me (The fear of death confounds me)’, common in mediaeval European poetry. I went hunting and realised I knew it from William Dunbar’s ‘Lament for the Makers‘. That 16th century poem, of which every stanza ends in the Latin refrain, includes a kind of honour roll of poets who have died, beginning with ‘noble Chaucer’ and continuing with names now long forgotten. Rereading ‘Camperdown, St Stephen’s’ in that context, I like it even more, but you don’t have to have read Dunbar or visited North Head for the poem to work for you.

Domestic Interiors is the second book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo, for which I am grateful.

Overland 220 and my November rhyme #6

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 220 (Winter 2015)

220-cover

Almost a third of this Overland is given over to the winners of the inaugural Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize: two essays, two short stories, a poem and a cartoon.

The prize encourages artists and writers to engage with questions like: How does insecure, casual, precarious work affect a person and their community? What do you think a fair Australia looks like? How can we change Australia together? It’s not surprising, then, that there’s a certain sameness about the winners, but also a refreshingly straightforward sense that capitalism is a) brutal and b) not here forever. These 37 pages are a timely counterpoint to the recent publicity the NUW has been receiving from a Royal Commission.

As for the journal proper: Jacinda Woodhead’s editorial cites Slavoj Žižek (a Slovenian cultural critic – I had to look him up) as naming the four horsemen of the ‘apocalyptic zero-point’ of global capitalism as climate change, biogenetics, system imbalances and ever-increasing social divisions. The first and last of these figure prominently in the  rest of the journal.

The non-fiction sections put attention to a shopping list of pressing issues: misogyny and violence against women, the unsettled state of Europe, climate change, plus the politics of the science fiction ‘community’. It’s all worth reading, though some of it tends to be reporting on what has been written by someone else, and it sometimes feels that it might be better to just read the original. Three pieces stood out for me:

  • Anwen Crawford puts shoe leather into ‘No Place Like Home‘, an excellent piece of journalism about the destruction of the public housing community in the Rocks in Sydney
  • Jennifer Mills takes her fiction-writer’s skill to the abandoned buildings of a once great US city in Detroit, I do mind
  • In A person of very little interest David Lockwood adds his personal story to the growing body of funny but unsettling literature about ASIO’s activities back in the day.

Alison Croggon’s regular column is always a pleasure. This time she riffs on reading as a dangerous drug.

In the fiction section (and yes, Overland still presents its fiction and its poetry in two colour-coded clumps), it’s interesting to see Omar Musa – rapper, spoken word performer and author of the novel Here Come the Dogs – move away from the milieu of disaffected youth in an elliptic story, No breaks.

There’s some really interesting poetry. Two John Tranter ‘terminals‘ (a form that I believe he invented, in which he uses the end-words of other poems) are masterly, but create for me a nagging sense that the poem’s relationship to its ‘original’ is more important than the poem itself. I also enjoyed, and am in awe of, poems by Kate Lilley, Michael Farrell and Fiona Wright.

And now, because it’s November, I need to write a little verse. I went looking for the names of past editors (not as easy as you’d expect), and on the way I found a fabulous recent piece of invective against Overland that managed to include blatant sour grapes, sleazy innuendo, dubious history, straw-man arguments, weird illogicality, and one lovely typo. I won’t link to the invective (a search for ‘Overland’ and ‘cesspit’ will find it), but I’ve included the typo:

Rhyme # 6: On reading Overland No 220
Since 1954, when Stephen
Murray-Smith first sought to avoid
dread humourlessness, dogma, even
orthodoxy, we’ve enjoyed
two-twenty Overlands. The Party,
then the Green Left Literarti
gave the helm to Barrett Reid,
McLaren, Syson, then – new breed –
to Hollier–Wilson, Sparrow, Woodhead:
eight editors in sixty years,
provoke our thinking, laughter, tears
and even action. Here a good Red
is alive and well read. Long
may this voice sing its rebel song.

Overland 218

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 218 (Autumn 2015)

overland218

The editor has gone, long live the editor. With this edition of Overland, Jacinda Woodhead, who has been deputy editor for a while, takes over the main job. Most of the old editorial and design staff remain, and there has been no radical transformation.

For example, like the previous edition, this one includes the results of two writing prizes. These are the Nakata Brophy Short Fiction and Poetry Prize for Young Indigenous Writers, and the Judith Wright Poetry Prize:

  • The judges praise the winner of the former, Backa Bourke by Marika Duczynski, for its ‘energetic prose that knows when to withdraw’. What looks like a rough and ready outback yarn about floods and death and young men on motorbikes takes a surprising turn right at the end, in prose so withdrawn that the surprise hangs on a single word. To be parochial for a moment, I was chuffed to see that the writer, in this overwhelmingly Melburnian journal, lives in Sydney.
  • Peter Minter’s judge’s report on the Judith Wright Prize pays elegant tribute to Judith Wright herself in reflecting on form in poetry as ‘a moral or ethical problem, a political gesture’. Interestingly enough, the first prize winner, Hyper-reactive by Melody Paloma, has a similar linguistic vigour to ‘Backa Bourke’.

This issue is also like its predecessors in including writing about writing (including an essay on literary envy/jealousy that takes its title from the Clive James poem that begins, ‘The book of my enemy has been remaindered / And I am pleased’), and an interesting mix of short stories, this time two realist pieces and two that nudge into the surreal.

The issue differs, perhaps accidentally, in having an identified theme. Jacinda Woodhead’s editorial says it ‘gives voice to women’s unfiltered experiences of this world, and other subjects on which there’s been far too much silence’. To mix metaphors, it delivers that voice in spades, though it by no means a predominantly female voice.

Alison Croggon’s column begins ‘The first time I was raped,’ builds to a passionate cry that her children ‘have to live in this world where, all the time, men hurt women, dismiss women, marginalise women, silence women, kill women’, and ends with a quietly lethal account of a ‘pleasant and intelligent man’ communicating by his manner that a protest at women being ignored was ‘a footling political point about feminism’. It’s two tough pages and Croggon has an equally fine piece online about the writing of it.

Hackers, Gamers and Cyborgs by Brendan Keogh discusses the phenomenon of Gamergate, in which a number of woman video game developers have been attacked vehemently. I’ve been aware of Gamergate as one of those online places where outrage and reciprocal vilification flourishes. This essay instructively situates it in ‘the broader patriarchal structures in which video game culture emerged’. Even though the word sexism doesn’t appear, it’s reassuring that the concept of patriarchy is still alive and doing good work.

Justin Clemens, who is a poet among other accomplishments, writes about the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. The essay, Torturing folk, explores the implications for civil society of the current practice of and debate about torture. Paradoxically, he argues that even to debate the appropriateness of torture is in effect to close down freedom of speech.

Russell Marks  puts his head above the parapet in More than taboo, arguing the case against demonising paedophiles. Specifically, government funding has been channelled primarily into identifying and punishing offenders; funding has been withdrawn from programs that provide support to survivors, including programs such as SafeCare in Perth and Cedar Cottage in New South Wales that also offered treatment to offenders, with demonstrated success in preventing recurrence.

There’s more: Fiona Wright on grieving communally on facebook; Stephen Wright on different children; Michael Bogle on The Atomic Age, an exhibition about nuclear weapons shown in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in 1947 and 1948 (which sent me back to Robin Gerster’s wider-ranging ‘Exile on Uranium Street: The Australian Nuclear Blues’, in Southerly No 1 2104).

Overland is clearly still in good hands.

Overland 213

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 213 Summer 2013

213o I’m coming to this Overland late: the next issue must be just about due. Here are some brief notes with links, and because I’m late in writing the links are all live.

The reliably enjoyable regular columnists,  Alison Croggon, Rjurik Davidson and Stephen Wright demonstrate that just about any life event can prompt a writer and habitual reader to reflect on readerly–writerly matters: in this case they start respectively from packing up to move house,  serious injury and building a bedroom–library. Mel Campbell’s article The Writer as Performer offers a more sobering view of the writer’s life – the freelance writer as no more free of panoptic supervision than the less glamorised office worker.

In Paul Keating’s Redfern Park speech and its rhetorical legacy, Tom Clark does a very nice job of explicating the distinctive nature of that speech – different in significant ways from Paul Keating’s usual mode, and interestingly the subject of public squabbles over its authorship (the existence of the squabbles is what’s interesting rather than any proposed resolution). John Campbell, the Anti-Kim by David Brophy, explores a Victorian proto boy’s-own-adventure story and the reality behind it.

The centrepiece of this issue is the 2013 Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers. The three shortlisted stories are published here, along with comments from the chief judge, Jennifer Mills. All three of the stories are worth your time: Turncoat by Jennifer Down (the winner), Rush by Nic Low and The job by Robyn Dennison. I’m not quarrelling with the judges’ decision at all, but if you only click on one of them I recommend you choose Nic Low’s for sheer subversive fun.

As ever, poetry is sequestered up the back on tinted paper, and as ever it’s a feast. Treasure hunt, a prose poem by Anne Elvey, finds poetic form for the experience of a parent’s dementia.  Refrigerator by Elizabeth Allen, also a prose poem, has this memorable ‘out of the mouths of babes’ moment:

There were also the brightly coloured fish in my brother’s aquarium. One day when I saw my five-year-old sister staring at the tank, I said to her, ‘The fish are pretty aren’t they?’ She said, ‘I’m not looking at the fish. I’m looking at the space between them.’

Fiona Wright gives us Marrickville, an inner city love poem … kind of. Samuel Wagan Watson’s Cloud burst invokes T S Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men’ to devastating effect. Walmadany by Brenda Saunders puts poetic flesh on the issue of mining on traditional Aboriginal land. Mark Mordue (I didn’t know your eyes were blue) and Larry Buttrose (Toast) have elegies for their fathers, the latter with the arresting opening lines:

The smell of toast reminds me of my father,
Not only because he was cremated.

I want to pick a nit over Northgate by Adam Formosa, which begins

A cigarette bud sits
at my windscreen

but then doesn’t take the image of cigarette as blossom anywhere. It leaves its readers wrestling with phantom meanings until we finally conclude that bud was just a misspelled butt, and no metaphor was intended. The poem about the cigarette bud is yet to be written.

Going Down Swinging 33

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overland 209

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 209, Summer 2012

overland209There’s an interesting self-referential moment in this issue of Overland when Rjurik Davidson takes issue with the mainstream notion that writers engage ‘in an ongoing discourse among equals that takes place in the public sphere’, a notion that ‘presumes a single culture, a realm of enlightened discussion and the free play of ideas’. He argues for

a conception of the radical writer belonging to a counter-public (or more accurately, counter-hegemonic) sphere, a sphere that includes its own publications and institutions, its own periodicals and clubs and networks of power. It’s a quite different notion of the writer, one that recognises that polite liberal discourse excludes certain things from being said and that, within the public sphere, comments that strike at the heart of things and books that ask fundamental questions tend to sound shrill or unhinged.

Overland, as a periodical belonging to such a counter-hegemonic sphere, does have its unhinged-sounding moments: in this issue, ‘The pessimism of time: The paradoxes facing the Left‘ by Nina Power, calls on ‘the Left’ to abolish time, or at least to create ‘a life in which nobody seeks to make time measurable at all, for all time’. (Given that ‘Frank O’Hara’s Animals‘ by Tara Cartland, a short story further on in this issue, is a fantasy about a girl who really can make time stop, I haven’t entirely given up hope that Power’s argument is a poker-faced satire, or that its inclusion is an editorial prank, designed to make readers appreciate the sensibleness of the rest of the issue.)

Elsewhere there’s plenty of anti-hegemonic goodness that doesn’t come close to shrillness and stays on its hinges. In a characteristically elegant column, Alison Croggon skewers the commodification of writers and writing implied in the idea that a writer must be a ‘brand’. David Carlin gives a warts and all account of life in a successful anti-hegemonic theatre institution, Adelaide’s Red Shed Company. Everett True’s essay on Pussy Riot contextualises and actively embraces their music and their politics, both of which tend to be seen as shrill and unhinged in the mainstream media. Isabelle Skaburskis and Elizabeth O’Shea rely on their experience as activists to go beyond the familiar media narratives on human trafficking (sorry, no link) and the indefinite detention of asylum seekers respectively. Sophie Cunningham challenges the received version of what happened in Darwin after Cyclone Tracy, having found evidence of, among other things, including looting by NSW police (again, no link: they can’t give us everything for free). Don’t expect to see any of those articles reprinted in the mainstream media.

Among such riches, the stand-out piece for me is Lisa Farrance’s article, ‘Living the life within: The benefits of sport‘. It’s fairly common when people are bewailing the lack of funding to the arts that an arts–sport dichotomy is invoked. You know the line: more Australians visit an art gallery or take part in another cultural event on any given weekend than attend a sporting match, yet sports receive disproportionately more help from the public purse. So it’s refreshing to read an article in a literary journal that celebrates sport as a means to ‘find ourselves whole again’, to challenge sexism and the alienation we experience under capitalism, to enact progressive politics: not just exercise to keep fit, but sport to become whole. And not only that, but Ms Farrance’s exemplars of sports with radical potential are two that are easily dismissed with a shudder in ‘polite liberal discourse’: boxing and roller derby.

There’s a fiction section comprising the three winners of the inaugural Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize for New and Emerging Writers: ‘Killing Floor‘ by John Turner, ‘The day the world stayed the same‘ by Melissa Fagan and ‘Frank O’Hara’s Animals‘ by Tara Cartland. All three stories make me look forward to their authors’ continuing emergence.

And tucked away up the back on tinted paper, as if in a kind of quarantine, ten pages of poems. The little I’ve read of Michael Farrell’s work until now I’ve found shiny but inaccessible – something for hardcore poetry readers. His poem here, ‘Making Love (to a man)‘, makes me reconsider: it’s funny and sexy and warm and friendly. The same is true – with less of the ‘sexy’ – of Fiona Wright’s ‘Obit‘, whose 24 lines, like a conversation at a wake, evoke a sense of loss through cool, anecdotal reminiscence.

I know the Overland subscriberthon is over, so if you subscribe now you won’t win any prizes (like the block of chocolate and free sub I won in November), but you would get your money’s worth.

Western Sydney on Western Sydney

Michael Mohammed Ahmad & Felicity Castagna (editors), On Western Sydney (Westside Publications 2012)

In early 2011, an issue of the University of New South Wales’ student newspaper Tharunka had a cover illustration of maps of Sydney according to four different regions. Like Yanko Tsvetkov’s stereotype maps, their probable inspiration, they manage to be cheerfully offensive about just about everyone, but you’d have to be thin skinned to take serious umbrage.
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All the same, look at Western Sydney: ‘out there’, ‘someone has to live there’, ‘yummy exotic food’, ‘cultural cringe’, ‘refugees’, ‘day trip’. The anonymous cartographer has caught something, but if you stop and think for a bit you realise that he/she/they has/have surely pulled her/his/their punches, avoiding any references to drugs, sexual violence, Islamophobic stereotypes or the class attitude invoked by the word westies. More interestingly, there is no ‘Sydney according to Western Sydney’ map. Evidently, in the mind of the maps’ creator(s), Western Sydney lacks a view of its own.

Westside Publications exists to create a counter-narrative: to provide a platform for Western Sydney voices and, at least in part, to undermine the stereotypes, less by denying them outright than by seeking to paint a fuller picture. ‘I don’t mind a story that makes us look bad,’ writes Michael Mohammed Ahmad, chief editor of Westside, in his introduction to On Western Sydney, ‘so long as it’s honest and complex.’

Under the auspices of BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Service), Westside has work for years in schools and the community to develop skilled writers. On Western Sydney is their twelfth anthology featuring established and/or emerging writers and artists connected to the region. Ahmad says the goal has been ‘to source writing from Western Sydney and writing about Western Sydney’. Of course it’s not the only place where writers from Western Sydney get published – in my time at the School Magazine, for instance, some of our regular contributors were from the west, and off the top of my head eminent poets Jennifer Maiden and Peter Minter have strong Western Sydney connections. And a number of the writers in this anthology have been published elsewhere, including in the definitely Inner West This is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories. But there’s no doubting the significance of Westside. Last week Mohammed Ahmad received the Australia Council’s Kirk Robson Award which honours ‘outstanding leadership from young people working in community arts and cultural development, particularly in the areas of reconciliation and social justice’.

20120921-175932.jpg So On Western Sydney is a phenomenon. It’s also a good read, and not at all the dry sociological collection the title might suggest. It includes short stories, poetry, absurd parables, a photo essay; there’s lyricism, satire, rap, stinging social commentary, domestic observation, fantasy, memoir (I think), travel writing … from as culturally diverse a bunch of writers as you’re likely to find anywhere. Many of the contributors are familiar from Westside’s readings at recent Sydney Writers’ Festivals, and scattered throughout are Bill Reda’s photos of Moving People, this year’s event.

I wouldn’t rush to say that the stereotypes are completely repudiated. Some are reversed with varying degrees of subtlety. Two poems – Andy Ko’s surreal ‘A South Line Travel Guide’ and Fiona Wright’s deliciously ironic ‘Roadtrip’ (which begins ‘And it certainly felt like a Food Safari, such a long way from Kirribilli’) – could be read as direct, mocking responses to Tharunka‘s ‘day trip’ and ‘yummy exotic foods’ stereotypes. Predatory men are scarily realised in Amanda Yeo’s train-story ‘Nine Minutes’ and Frances Panapoulos’ poem ‘”puss puss”‘, though there’s no racial profiling in either. The class attitudes not quite articulated by Tharunka are challenged throughout, as when the protagonist of Peta Murphy’s ‘Roughhousing with Aquatic Birds’ suffers through some kind of arty inner west event (‘She doesn’t speak to me, / it’s as if she can see my Bunnings uniform’). The world evoked in Lachlan Brown’s long poem ‘Poem for a Film’ could well be labelled ‘Someone has to live there’, but there’s art – and heart – in the telling:

______On a blistering afternoon
a council truck is removing tall trees

so that no one will confuse this vista with
a place of moneyed elegance. And maybe

the scream of the chainsaw means you’re
not ignored, as cut limbs crash through

the dry air. And maybe what’s left is
for your own good, and the streetscape

becomes a mouth mashed up during a bar fight,
with its bare stumps grinning cruelly in the heat.

My guess is that the writers are mostly under 35. The problems of negotiating relationships is a dominant theme: under the judgemental gaze of older Arab women in Miran Hosny’s ‘The Weight Divide’; by phone in Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s own brief contribution, the deeply unsettling ‘The First Call’; in the gap between the world of song and the world of experience in Luke Carman’s ‘Becoming Leonard Cohen’ (though it’s pretty impertinent to describe Carman’s weird tangential verse as about anything); in bitter-sweet recollection of a high school crush in Tamar Chnorhokian’s ‘Remembering Leon’.

There’s so much to like. We’re told that this will be Westside’s last print publication. Maybe there’s a sense that its work is done, and the writers it has fostered can now find platforms further afield – in Asia Literary Journal, for example, whose current issue has a number of pieces exploring migrant identity. I hope so.

I received my copy free from BYDS. You can buy one from independent book shops in Sydney or directly from BYDS (email in@byds.org.au with your postal address and they’ll give you details on cost and bank transfer details).

SWF 2012: Poetry, prose, performance

Here it is, Sunday already and this is my blog on Friday at the Writers’ Festival. Sorry! All this talking to people takes up good blogging time.

After a morning spent catching up on email and keeping the neglected dog company, I bussed back to the Wharf for what Kate Lilley called the Mum Show: Dorothy Hewett Remembered.

It’s ten years since Dorothy died and this Monday would have been her 89th birthday. The room was full of fans, friends, fellow poets and family, including my former employer Katharine Brisbane, founder of Currency Press. The elderly woman sitting beside me told me that when she was a Communist in Melbourne in the 1950s, someone from the Party had said to her, ‘There’s a young woman Party Member who’s just come over from Perth. She doesn’t know anyone yet and has a very sick baby. Would you go and visit her?’ The young woman was Dorothy and her friendship with my new acquaintance endured.

I expect that half the people in the room could have shared Dorothy Hewett / Merv Lilley stories (Merv, as larger-than-life as Dorothy, is her widower, whose health is too fragile to allow him to attend). On this occasion, fittingly, Dorothy was celebrated almost entirely through her own words: ‘I used to ride with Clancy’, ‘On Moncur Street’, ‘The Dark Fires Burn in Many Rooms’, other poems, excerpts from memoir and a conference paper.

Kate Lilley was joined by her sister Rozanna Lilley and their brother Joe Flood, as well as Fiona Morrison (editor), Gig Ryan (poet), Rosie Scott (novelist). As a finale we were invited to sing along with Dorothy’s song ‘Weevils in the Flour’, which Joe described as ‘synonymous with the Depression in Australia’:

Dole bread is bitter bread
Bitter bread and sour
There’s grief in the taste of it
And weevils in the flour.

I had a ticket for my next session, so no need to queue, and could spend some time catching up with old friends, one of whom I didn’t recognise until we were introduced – embarrassingly, we had chatted as strangers the day before.

Then I crossed the road to the Sydney Theatre for some prose in The Big Reading. This is as much a tradition as Thursday’s pitching session, but this one has been on my must-see list for years. I love being read to, and I’ve been introduced to some fabulous writers. I also tend to nod off – though not deliberately: my sleep mechanism has a mind of its own and is unyielding in its judgement. This year’s sleep-inducers will not be identified.

As always, the writers were wonderfully diverse in age, gender, nationality, and reading style.

Emily Perkins, from New Zealand, played a straight bat with an excerpt from her most recent novel Forest. Geoff Dyer’s comic tale of cultural difference and queue jumping from Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanasi struck a chord – pertinent for me as I’d just seen a man who could have been from Varanasi blithely bypass the previous session’s sluggishly moving queue.

Riikka Pulkkinen read her quiet, introspective piece in Finnish first ‘so you get the idea’, a great way of educating us in how to listen to someone whose English is a little unsteady. Jesmyn Ward’s Katrina piece would have been the highlight of the evening if she hadn’t been followed by Sebastian Barry, who began and ended in resonant song and filled the space with the music of his narrative, from The Other Side of Canaan.

Then we hopped in the car, stopped off at home to feed the aforementioned dog, picked up some friends and drove to Bankstown for the not-to-be-missed BYDS and Westside Publications event, this year entitled Moving People.

With Ivor Indyk as tutelary deity and Michael Mohammed Ahmad as inspired energiser, these events are always strikingly staged. This year there was a microphone and a lectern on a bare stage, backed by a screen. Each of the fourteen participating writers in turn strode out from the wings and read to us without introduction, explanation or by your leave. This created a tremendous sense of connection between each reader and the audience – there was nowhere to hide. Unlike at the rest of the Festival, there was no veil of celebrity, no established persona to speak through. The exceptions test but don’t demolish the rule: Luke Carman has appeared in the pages of Heat and in This Is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories, about which I’ll blog when I’ve finished reading it; Fiona Wright, also with Heat connections, published Knuckle, her first book of poetry, last year; Michael Mohammed Ahmad himself appeared recently in Roslyn Oades’s brilliant I’m Your Man Downstairs at Belvoir Street. Their pieces – respectively an oddly dissociative tale of male, twenty-something aspiring inner-city writers, a memoir of a stint as a young female journalist in Sri Lanka, and a riproaring cautionary tale about young Lebanese men, cars and drugs – were given no special treatment, simply taking their places as part of the evening’s tapestry. Benny Ngo did some spectacular break dancing while his recorded words played. Nitin Vengurlekar had a nice turn reading absurd short poems from crumpled pages found in his jacket pockets. A smooth essay on getting the dress codes wrong in Indonesia, a dramatic monologue from a supermarket security guard, traveller’s tales, the chronicle of a shared house experience, a young Muslim woman’s story of getting a tattoo and her family’s unexpected response (this one sounded like autobiography, but the writer’s family were in the row in front of us and their attitude was not at all that of the story’s family): it occurred to me that part of the reason that I was less enthusiastic than many people about Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap may be partly that his treatment of multicultural suburbia doesn’t seem so very groundbreaking if you’ve been following the creations of this group.

And they gave us pizza!

[Added on Wednesday: Kevin Jackson, theatre blogger, was at Moving People too. You can read his excellent account of it here. And the Australian Bookshelf blogged it here.]

I’ll write about the weekend tomorrow.