Tag Archives: Fiona Wright

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.
20120926-163722.jpg

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.

Overland 206

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 206, Autumn 2012

I’ve just realised that this blog is largely about the vastness of my ignorance. In the years since I left full time work I’ve been reading widely and unsystematically on subjects in which I’m either uneducated,  misinformed or wildly out of date, hoping something will stick – and then blogging about it, sometimes in a shamelessly opinionated way.

Take this issue of Overland for instance.

I’ve never studied economics or political science or 20th century history, but I’ll tell you confidently that Richard Seymour’s ‘The European meltdown: Crisis across the continent‘ talks sense about the current economic crisis in Europe. He describes the European Community as ‘a project that, from inception to denouement, has evinced an extraordinary distrust of the masses’. The crisis, he argues, is brought on not so much by the fecklessness or other failings of the Greeks, Irish, Spanish and Portuguese, as by the inherent instability of a system built to give France and Germany dominance over the less powerful nations, and to foster profit over the interests of the working class (he says it much better than that). And Mike Beggs’s ‘Occupy abundance: On whether Australians are too rich to protest‘ does a similarly enlightening job of unpicking the current Australian affluence. It’s true that since mid-1997 there’s been a 10 per cent increase in purchasing power ‘over the whole consumer basket’, but:

The average hour’s pay now buys 59 per cent more clothing and footwear, 71 per cent more household appliances, and an incredible 1066 per cent more audio, visual and computing power than in 1997.

But such goods make up only around a fifth of the average household’s expenditure. Much of the rest of the consumer basket has actually become less affordable. Compared with 1997, the average hours work earns enough to buy 2 per cent less food, 8 per cent less housing, 26 per cent less water, electricity and gas, 18 per cent less petrol, 5 per cent less healthcare and 21 per cent less education.

That may not be news to people who understand economics, but it is to me.

What do I know about life as an immigrant targeted by racism? Yet I can tell you that Michael Green’s ‘Between two oceans: The life and death of Michael Atakelt‘ and The dangers of a single story: On acting and identity by Tariro Mavondo are brilliantly complementary explorations of the subject. In the former (of which an edited excerpt was reprinted in the Fairfax Age, which either takes the sheen off Overland‘s back-cover boast that it is of the loopy-Left or justifies the Australian‘s nickname for the Age, Pravda on the Yarra – you be the judge!), the writer is in touch with Footscray’s Ethiopian community as they struggle to come to terms with the drowning of a young man shortly after his release from police custody, and the extraordinarily long wait for any cause of death to be made public: ‘This has become a story about a community’s right to exist – its need to understand and to be understood – but it is also a story of grief,’ Green writes, and I would add that it’s also a story of an amazingly resilient community. Tariro Mavondo is about to become one of the first African-born acting graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts: from a relatively privileged background (‘the higher echelon of Zimbabwean society’), she is up against a different face of racism – but this article too is about the right of a community to exist – ‘”6 billion stories and counting.” But where is mine?’

What do I know about the history of sexuality? I spent the prime of my youth in a monastery, and working as a children’s editor didn’t send much of it my way. So Robert Darby’s ‘Another other Victorian: George Drysdale, a forgotten sex pioneer‘ was even more news to me than it will be to people who’ve read The Other Victorians. Drysdale’s tome, The Elements of Social Science: Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion, published anonymously in the 1850s, was never mentioned by name in mainstream writing and is generally ignored or misreported even today, but it ran through 35 editions and sold some 100 000 copies in 50 years. The book ‘argued for a new religion of reverence for the human body, condemned abstinence as unhealthy and productive of misery, called for an unfettered right to intercourse among the unmarried, and recommended regular use of contraception to guard against pregnancy and condoms to avoid venereal disease’. Sex wasn’t invented in 1963 (or in my case 1970) after all. The article is seriously interesting

Now, poetry. I did study Eng Lit and have a BA (Hons) to show for it. But I got my piece of paper before postmodernism broke upon the world. I’m not quite the guy who puts his hand up at the Writers’ Festival and asks why modern poetry doesn’t have rhyme or rhythm any more, and why are modern poets so deliberately obscure. My own poetry, such as it is, probably wouldn’t please that guy. But sometimes I feel as if I’m almost as much in the dark as he is. So I was very glad that Peter Minter took a full two pages for his Judge’s report on  the 2011 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets. Sadly, if I was hoping his notes on the winning poem, rock candy by Joel Ephraims, would be a guide to reading it, my hopes were dashed. But I could tell there was thought there, and a world of knowledge that’s yet to become open to me. Having said all that, it will probably not be received as a compliment if I say that I enjoyed the night-time flâneurism of ‘Constant companion‘ by the late Kerry Leves (who occasionally graced the School Magazine, with both his presence and his poetry) and ‘Sunday poem‘, an impressionistic take on a visit home by Fiona Wright.

And then there’s genre fiction. Overland doesn’t go in for it much, and nor do I, though I’m doing my best to pick up where I left off when I was 14. It’s probably fair  to say that James Bradley’s ‘The inconvenient dead‘ is a zombie story for people who don’t read zombie stories. Anyhow, it worked wonderfully well for me.
The whole contents of the magazine are readable online. All the links except the one to the Age will take you to the Overland web site.

Overland 203

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 203, Winter 2011

This is another excellent issue of Overland. Rodney Croome puts the current debate over who’s allowed to marry whom into an Australian historical context where restriction of marriage rights has been significant for convicts and until shockingly recently for Aboriginal people. Benjamin Law tells how Twitter kept him connected with his home city, Brisbane, when he was in India during the floods. Phillip Deery gives three alarming case histories from the bad old days (we hope) of ASIO. There’s a swag of poems, of which the ones that spoke most to me are by Ali Alizadeh (a poem dedicated to the Bard of the Hawkesbury Bob Adamson that begins cheekily, ‘Rivers are all the same. Dirty water / if you’re lucky, smelly mud and silt / increasingly the case.’) and Thomas Denton (an energetic vernacular narrative that shared with Judy Durrant the 2010 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize).

Fiona Wright has an excellent, optimistic piece on the Death and Rebirth of Heat. This is the first in the Meanland series of essays about the changing world of publishing that I’ve been able to engage with, and anyone who misses Heat as it was ought to read it. The essay took an unexpectedly personal turn for me. After noting the paucity of metropolitan newspaper reviews of Heat and other Giramondo publications, it goes on:

We’ve had much more support from bloggers, many of whom have given the magazine – and the books – consistent coverage and space. They’ve often written about HEAT with a level of thought and understanding that we should have expected, but didn’t. (One blogger in particular has always taken great pains to point out any typos we missed. But you can’t expect in-depth without a few ripples.)

Oh my god, she’s talking about me! Though perhaps not, because I didn’t so much point out typos as complain bitterly, some would say churlishly, about errors that either confused or, probably more often if I’m honest, amused me: ‘gauge’ instead of ‘gage’ really did stop me in my tracks, whereas ‘vesper’ for ‘Vespa’ was to smile. It would be nice to think I have been ‘instrumental in generating and spreading word of mouth’ for Giramondo’s publications, as she says bloggers often are, because of course I love their work.

A final word, because now I have a reputation to maintain: Thomas Nelson’s poem ‘The Pirouette’, set in a ‘beach joint’ in New Zealand, includes the line, ‘New Zealanders call this kind of house a Batch’. Well, not really. That’s not a typo, it’s a spelling mistake. What New Zealanders call that kind of house sounds like ‘batch’, but it’s generally spelled ‘bach’ (as in bachelor, I think). The mistake in this case may be attributed to the poem’s narrator, of course, but this is a piece of New Zealand English, like ‘pottle’ (what yoghurt comes in) and ‘section’ (allotment) and ‘dairy’ (milk bar) that can trip up unwary Australian editors.

SWF: Inside the Westside Writers Group

One of my highlights from last year’s Sydney Writers Festival was a staged reading in Bankstown Town Hall by members of the Westside Writers Group. Naturally, we trekked west in the rain to see what they were putting on this year.

A big room in Bankstown Youth Development Headquarters had been set up with a couple of sofas, cushions, a standard lamp and a coffee table for the group and seats for the audience in the rest of the room. They proceeded to have a meeting like the ones they’ve been having every fortnight for years: each member of the group read a piece she or he had been working on – some brand new, some reworkings or extensions of things the group had heard before.

It was a risky idea, and could have failed in any number of ways. But it was great. All the writers have been trained in reading to an audience, and as their mode of working is to read to each other rather than circulating printed copies of their work, they have all become skilled listeners. So we were treated to a lovely range of readings, and then some tender but forthright exploration of what made each one tick and where it could be improved. Luke Carman and Michael Mohammad Ahmad were the stand-outs for me, the former with another of his strangely surreal monologues/stories, the latter with a vignette (a word evidently much discussed by the group) of life in a small ethnic community in the western suburbs. Nothing was dull: sestinas by Lachlan Brown, other poems by Fiona Wright, Lina Jabbir and Rebecca Landon, stories by Susie Ahmad, Sam Hogg, Felicity Castagna and Peter Polites (the dark-haired man on the couch in the pic, shaven headed and unrecognisable on the night), and video in the making from Bilal Reda. All this with the delicate, respectful probing and prompting of Ivor Indyk, resident literary guru.

And you know, from where I was sitting none of these young writers seemed at all fazed by having an audience of roughly fifty people watching and listening from the shadows as they exposed the fruits of their imagination to one another’s critical gaze.

Later addition: I can’t believe I forgot to mention that Alexis Wright was there as a special guest, putting her two cents worth into the discussion and reading what may end up as the start of her next book. When she’d finished her reading – an unsettling piece involving a personification of drought, a young woman carrying a not-quite dead swan in her arms – Ivor Indyk challenged the group: ‘Anyone want to take on a Miles Franklin winner?’