Tag Archives: Fiona Wright

Journal Blitz 6

I subscribe to a number of literary journals as a way of supporting Australian cultural workers – specifically writers. I generally read the journals I subscribe to, plus occasional others: the prospect of this reading tends to loom as an obligation as the pile of unread journals grows, but the reading itself dependably turns out to be a joyful and invigorating experience. Then I blog, in the hope of communicating some of that pleasure, and possibly encouraging some of my readers to back these crucial enterprises. So here goes, with three journals that were published, um, some time ago …


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 236 (Winter 2019)

I mistakenly wrote that Overland 235 was the last issue of the journal edited by Jacinda Woodhead. This one is actually her last, and the new editors have brought out their third issue as I’m writing.

Overland 236 kicks off with two excellent articles. (Links are to the full items on the Overland web site.) In ‘After hours‘ Leigh Hopkinson, herself a former stripper, writes about the death of a stripper in a Melbourne club (Overland tend to be Melbourne-centred), and uses the case as a springboard to describe the terrible, and worsening, conditions of women who work in the adult entertainment industry. In ‘The great acceleration‘ Jeff Sparrow traces the history by which cars came to be established as the dominant, ‘natural’ mode of transport in the USA. Did you know, for instance, that before the automobile industry made a concerted effort to introduce the concept of a jaywalker, the term jaydriver was in common use, meaning someone who drove a car in the city with cloddish disregard of the danger for pedestrians, especially children?

There are more articles later, of which two stand out for me. But then, face to face by Joanna Horton is a wonderful account of the joys – and difficulties – of door-knocking for the Greens. Tina Ngata’s Toppling Cook puts a strong case, from an Aotearoa/New Zealand perspective, against celebrating the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s voyages of exploration.

Guest artist Sam Wallman has three spreads of sequential art (what some might call comics) that are brilliantly accessible lessons in recent English history, specifically the Sun boycott in the Liverpool region, the Annual Durham Miners’ Gala and the Grenfell Tower fire.

There are 13 pages of interesting and challenging poetry. My North Queensland heart leads me to single out ‘Toad‘ by Damen O’Brien, which begins:

Toad in the garden, which is the same as
a snake in Eden or a crack in a mirror.

and includes the gorgeously evocative line:

Inexhaustible armies of malevolence

Of the especially rich batch of short stories, the ones that most struck me are Jack Vening’s ‘Don’t tell me‘, a runner-up in the Victoria University Short Story Prize, and Allanah Hunt’s ‘Running to home‘, winner of the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers. No spoilers from me on either of them.


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Southerly Vol 78 No 3 2018: Violence (2019)

Southerly, after 80 years of publication Australia’s second-oldest literary journal*, is in trouble. In March this year the editors published a plea for help on Facebook, and in October the website went down with a promise of reappearing soon – we’re still waiting. The editors, who aren’t paid for their work, have set up a crowdfunding platform at https://gum.co/wYZRP in the hope of prolonging the journal’s life. As a reader I’m still back in 2019, and though the editors were already desperately chasing funds then, the journal itself came out, behind schedule but in rude good health. There has been at least one issue since.

Like the Overland, this Southerly starts very strongly, with three poems: jenni nixon’s ‘knock on the door at 6am’ is an impressionistic narrative that earns the right to its epigraph from Gandhi, ‘poverty is the worst form of violence’; Brenda Saunders’ ‘Boab tree, Derby’ comes at the famous ‘Prison Tree’ in a number of choral voices (click here if you want to know about the tree); Andy Jackson’s ‘To name what we feel’ enacts the ambivalence of working on a phone-in service for violent men.

And it goes on from there, compellingly. There’s memoir (including Brenda Downing’s writerly ‘Letter to the Editor’ in which she arrives at a huge ethical dilemma when she tracks down the man who sexual abused her when she was very young), essay (including David Brooks’ ‘A Roo Battue’, on the continuing mass slaughter of kangaroos, which raises the spectre of extinction for some species), short stories (including Winnie Dunn’s brilliant ‘Wanting to be White’, a drama set in a Western Sydney Starbucks). I usually skip the scholarly articles, but Fiona Morrison’s ‘The Antiphonal Time of Violence in Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife‘ was a way to revisit the pleasures of a great night in the theatre. Likewise I tend to skip or skim the reviews, but Rachael Versace’s review of David Malouf’s An Open Book, by quoting generously and incisively, opened the door to revisiting the pleasures of that book.

There is one moment of eerie prescience in this Southerly. Josephine Clarke’s ‘transnational’ laments the way technology, while enabling connection over great distances, still leaves us bodily unconnected. Covid–19 wasn’t even a blip on the horizon when it was published, yet there’s this:

what if I take ill? who will come back /
come home / come through 

and hold my hand      my real hand
where the creases run labyrinthine across my palm

– my palm where your newborn head once rested
and was safe   

*The oldest is a children’s literary journal, The School Magazine, published since 1915 by the NSW Department of Education.


Andy Jackson and Jennifer Harrison (editors), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 9, Number 2: DIS– (2019)

Andy Jackson and Jennifer Harrison, guest editors of this issue of Australian Poetry Journal, are both poets and advocates for writers with self-identified disability/ies. They have collected more than 60 poems related to disability, aiming, as Andy’s foreword puts it:

… for a diversity of voices, in many senses of that word – bodily experience, cultural background, age, gender, philosophy, aesthetic. We also strongly prioritised poems of lived experience, including the voices of carers, friends, lovers – poems of solidarity and care that recognise that distancing ourselves from disability is impossible.

By arranging the poems, mostly, in reverse alphabetical order of poem title, the editors have added an extra stroke of disorder: each poem stands on its own, spatially disconnected from others on the same subject or by the same author, defying easy categorisation. The effect is indeed a marvellous ‘diversity of voices’, all dealing one way or another with disability. As Jennifer Harrison says in her Foreword:

What poetry gives us is birdsong alongside activism, the outside word alongside the internal world of emotions, hope shadowing despair … Poetry has a unique ability to see behind doors previously closed …

In this journal, many poets opens doors to whole worlds of difference.

A number of them are poets whose work I already know. Fiona Wright, who has written a lot about her own struggles, speaks to someone who may be a version of her younger self in ‘poem for jessie’ (‘I want you to remember / how to want’). David Brooks makes translation look easy with a version of Baudelaire’s ‘The Albatross’, which in this context becomes a powerful metaphor for physical disability. Samuel Wagan Watson’s ‘DISlocation’ captures a raw moment of betrayal (‘I may have challenges but my sensory perception is still sharp’).

Mal McKimmie’s ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbirds’ is wonderful. It begins:

There are no 'blackbirds with disabilities' –
_____________all blackbirds can fly.
There are only 'blackbirds with disabilities' – 
_____________all blackbirds will one day fall from the sky.

E A Gleeson, whose bio tells us that she ‘cares for her sister who lives with significant physical and intellectual challenges’ gives us a graphic childhood vignette in ‘The First Seizure’. Oliver Mills, in ‘De-Coding’, speaks clearly and succinctly, and wittily, about the difficulty of being understood when you have cerebral palsy, as he does: :

When I'm out of breath
Or having a lazy laugh
I make the sound of a creaking door

I could go on quoting. There’s plenty here for anyone interested in poetry. There are drawings, as well as poems, by people with mental illness diagnoses and people with learning difficulties. Just reading the poets’ bios is a revelation of the myriad ways the body and mind can differ from the typical. Even if you’re (temporarily) non-disabled and not interested in poetry, these pages may expand your world immensely. They have mine.

As a bonus, up the back, half a dozen pages are given over to Rachael Mead, winner of the 2019 Australian Poetry/Nature, Art & Habitat Residency. She lived in a village in the Taleggio Valley in northern Italy in June 2019, and three of the poems she write during her stay there are reproduced here. What with one thing and another, it’s glorious to read her poem, ‘Pacing myself’, about waking in that beautiful place, so far beyond the reach of most of us just now.


Speaking of journals, there’s some good news on the horizon concerning Heat, which ceased publication in 2011, after 39 issues in two series over 15 years. According to the Giramondo web site, ‘The third series of Heat, in a new design and format, will be published from 2022.’

Camperdown Cemetery

I recently spent a peaceful hour or so in Camperdown Cemetery with the Emerging Artist and the Granddaughter. We played among the buttress roots of the giant fig. We rode a scooter on the rough tracks among one of Sydney’s few surviving patch of pre-colonisation grasses. We sat on the ledge of a tombstone whose inscription had been eroded to illegibility, and ate sandwiches.

I can’t think of another place in my life that is so filled with stories. I don’t mean that it’s filled with memories, though that’s true too. I mean it’s a place that calls to mind stories that are out there in the world, written, performed, become part of culture.

There’s surely more to this place than I know, but here’s a list.

Engraving of Thomas Mitchell from the Queensland Digital Library

Thomas Mitchell, an early surveyor-general in the colony of New South Wales is buried there. I don’t suppose many people these days have read his Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, but I have. My lasting impressions from that long-ago reading are of his descriptions of countryside in south-eastern Australia as resembling an English gentleman’s estate (descriptions that Bruce Pascoe draws on in Dark Emu), and of his accounts of brutal violence against Aboriginal people who, as we now know, were responsible for the beauty of that land.

Martita Hunt and Tony Wager in Great Expectations (still from IMDB)

Also buried there is Eliza Donithorne, believed to be a model for Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. I was 12 when I read Great Expectations, having been swept away by David Lean’s 1947 movie. My visits to the cemetery are haunted by a time-blurred image of Martita Hunt (I had to look up the actor’s name) in her wedding dress among the cobwebs waiting for the bridegroom who will never come.

The tree among whose roots we played is the tree from Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins’s brilliant picture book My Place. A series of children, each a decade further back in time, claims that tree as their own until in the last spreads, just before the arrival of the colonisers, the child says (from memory), ‘I belong to this place.’ I remember first reading the book with the not-yet-Emerging Artist on the floor in the children’s section of Gleebooks, both of us thrilled by the way the text communicated so much Australian social history and especially by the splendour of the tree in the final spread.

Then there’s Colleen Z Burke, who seems o have spent a lot of time in the cemetery with her children and grandchildren. It’s a frequent presence in her poems. Here’s a spread from Wildlife in Newtown (1994; my blog post here; right click on the image for a bigger version):

And Fiona Wright, a couple of generations younger than Colleen Burke, has also written beautifully about eating a sandwich while leaning against a tombstone. I wrote about that poem here. Come to think of it, though they are very different poets, both Fiona Wright and Colleen Burke seem to have given similar gifts to readers who live around Newtown, of filling the air with words. I heard recently that the thing that makes humans so successful as a species (so far) isn’t that we’re more intelligent than others, but that we communicate with each other. These poets help us to hear at least a little of what the environment is saying to us.

[Added later: The grave of Eliza Donnithorne and the magnificent fig tree feature strongly I Am Susannah (1987), a book for young people by Australian national treasure Libby Gleeson.]

I imagine that having literary allusions whirling around you isn’t anything special if you live in New York City or London, or in the Lake Country, or St Petersburg, etc. But it’s a pleasure worth noting for me in Marrickville-Enmore-Newtown.

Fiona Wright’s World Was Whole

Fiona Wright, The World Was Whole (Giramondo 2018)

[Added later: If you read only one article on this book, I recommend Ashley Kalagian Blunt’s brilliant essay ‘Comfortable and Comforted: The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright’ in Sydney Review of Books (click here) rather than mine. Of course, I’d be happy for you to read both.]

This is Fiona Wright’s second book of personal essays. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year, she said the first book, Small Acts of Disappearance, was about extremes, particularly those brought on by her severe health issues, and this book is about the ordinary, and how the ordinary must be negotiated by someone whose health is (still) fragile. It’s a very good description.

The essays are beautifully written, combining personal detail, literary reference and information about the social and historical contexts. They revolve around three main things.

First is the experience of chronic illness. Fiona Wright lives with a rare and complex digestive disorder, which gave rise to behavioural difficulties. Dealings with dietitians, psychologists, hospitals and the mental health system feature prominently, and there’s a revelatory quality to her recounting of the micro-moments she has to negotiate as a person for whom eating is always problematic. One example at random: in ‘Back to Cronulla’ she has a meal with her family to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary, course after course of beautifully plated dishes:

It was beautiful food, truly and terribly wonderful – because for once I actually felt like I was missing out. I was cautious with my meal, aware than any of these dishes might make me throw up, and eventually something did. I left the three-hour-long lunch feeling hungry, and wound tight with anxiety and disappointment. My oldest niece, bored at one point with the meal, had asked her mother, why are we eating so much food for lunch? and all the adults had chuckled, out of the mouths of babes! But oh, I wanted to say, I know exactly what you mean.

(page 41)

The second recurring subject is home, as housing and as locality, home that is never the stable, warm reliable nest of stereotype, but home that is uncomfortable, and sometimes precarious. Born and raised in Sydney’s Western suburbs, Wright now lives in the Inner West, and one of the beauties of the book is the way these places, and others such as Cronulla, come alive on the page. In particular, even while she makes it very clear that she doesn’t feel completely at home in her current suburb of Newtown any more than she did in her childhood suburb, her love for it is tangible, and never more so than in this account of the Newtown Festival:

The street itself was thronged and milling. A beautiful young woman with a shaved head and silver glitter pressed onto her eyelids placed a sticker in the shape of a heart onto my chest. I ran into one of my housemates in the park, an old colleague and then the girlfriend of a woman I used to live with; a little further on, I saw one of the nurses from the hospital, although it took me a moment to place her properly, dressed in denim and wearing jewellery, rather than navy-blue scrubs and a duress alarm.

Later, I met a friend in a café on King Street, and the barista said, we haven’t seen you for a while, and reached for the skim milk before I’d even had a chance to speak. I used to bristle when this happened, when a waiter or bartender asked if (or assumed that) I wanted my usual, it used to embarrass me acutely, because I didn’t want anybody else to recognise how predictable, habitual, routine I could not help but be. It seemed to be a failing and a fault, but in this afternoon, all afternoon, I felt it as a recognition of my place, of my home and my inextricability, almost, within it.

(‘Relaxed, Even Resigned’)

There’s a lot about the joys and tribulations of shared rented houses. ‘Perhaps This One Will Be My Last Share House’ – the title says it all – casts a cool eye on the process of being evicted, finding new housemates and searching for a new house. It’s personal, but it’s worth a hundred newspaper articles about the housing problems facing young people in Sydney (and many other cities).

The third thing, not so much a theme or a subject as a practice, is attention to moments. In the Correspondence section of the current Quarterly Essay, responding to Sebastian Smee’s Net Loss, Fiona Wright has a piece that pretty much starts out:

I am a millennial, and this response will probably seem solipsistic, and it will be fragmentary. It’s not that I can’t help it. It’s not my attention span, my inherent narcissism. I’m just making a point.

A number of the essays here are fragmentary – congeries (a word my high school Latin teacher used to love throwing at us) of moments, observations, eavesdrops, beautifully chosen quotations from other writers. Only an inattentive reader would think they were solipsistic or narcissistic. And they do have a point, though not one that is argued for as if in a debate.

A woman about my age sits at the next café table with someone I take to be her mother, slung beneath a bag as enormous and as orange as a pumpkin. The older woman says to the waitress, I’ve quit sugar so I’ll just have a chocolate croissant.

(‘What It Means for Spring to Come’)

I catch a train into the city, in the late afternoon, and hear a young woman’s voice somewhere behind me: it smells of seaweed in here.

(”The everyday Injuries’)

There are two marvellous travel pieces – Iceland in ‘A Regular Choreography’ and China in ‘Little Heart’ – which combine all three of those features. By its nature, travel imposes extra stress on vulnerable bodies and minds, raises issues of home and belonging, and is disjointed and fragmentary.

The collection’s title, and the title of one of the essays – ‘The world was whole always’ – come from the poem ‘Aubade’ by US poet Louise Glück (click here for the whole poem):

A room with a chair, a window.
A small window, filled with the patterns light makes.
In its emptiness the world 

was whole always, not
a chip of something, with
the self at the centre. 

I stumbled across another of Glück’s poems, ‘Formaggio’ (on a pdf file here), which includes the book’s title, though without the ‘always’ of the essay. It begins:

The world
was whole because
it shattered. When it shattered,
then we knew what it was.

These lines could have served as an epigraph to the whole book. One way or another, the essays are about being shattered, or its aftermath: precarious housing, chronic illness, life away from the security and predictability of the family of origin. The writing is a way of understanding, of knowing what it is.

The book hit a number of personal spots for me: I live on the edge of Newtown and recognise many of the places mentioned; it’s a while ago but I’ve lived in a number of share houses; there’s a discussion of one of the few Chinese poems I’ve tried to engage with intimately (here if you’re interested); and I’ve recently become aware that though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we have 12 years to prevent irreversible and calamitous damage, yet I go on pretty much as before, so I was struck by this:

So much of our lives we cannot control, especially in an environment of unspecified global threat, imminent global disaster, increasing workplace uncertainty, but within the boundaries of a home (four brick walls, a fence) we can fixate on the little things, and we can fix them.

This is also exactly how anorexia works.

(‘To Run Away from Home’)

Oh!

The World Was Whole is the twenty-third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Giramondo for my copy.

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.