Tag Archives: Jeff Sparrow

Journal Catch-up 16

I’m perpetually behind in my journal reading. Let’s see if my new approach of focusing on page 75 works for journals as well as for books.


Alexandra Christie (editor), Heat Series 3 Nº 4 (Giramondo 2022)

I’m glad Heat is back, and I love the slender elegance of Series 3, but this issue didn’t thrill me. More than the three previous issues, it feels like a sampler: a selection of pieces that are short enough not to be a bother if not to your taste, but to make you want more if they are.

I’m sorry to say that most of them weren’t to my taste this time. In the show-me-more category were:

  • Nine pages of gorgeous photographs from the series ‘Trees and Fences’ by Yanni Florence 
  • Four poems by each of Ella Jeffery and Ella Skilbeck-Porter
  • Amy Leach’s celebration of the unpredictable, ‘Amen to Nonsense’, which is available online.

Page 75 falls part way into the Amy Leach piece. On this page the writer is imagining that the present moment is already in the distant past:

Presidents had succeeded presidents, screeds had succeeded screeds, people trying their damnedest had given way to other people trying their damnedest. Some things are up for grabs, like jobs and dollars and votes, and are worth trying one’s damnedest for, and some things are not, like time and the moon and the stars. The Bible was always saying to ‘lift up your eyes’, maybe because when we lifted our eyes we remembered that not everything was up for grabs. (When they named ages they usually named them after grabbable things, like iron, stone, bronze, information, etc., not ungrabbable things like the moon and the stars.)

This interplay of whimsy and metaphysics moves on to musings on reincarnation, the importance of the notes not played in music, astronomy, and more, arriving at a reformulation of Keats: ‘”Beauty is Nonsense, Nonsense beauty.”– that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ It’s fun and thought-provoking. Sadly, it’s followed by several pages of, well, tediously quirky Glossary. It did leave me wondering about Heat‘s editorial policy: assuming that there are plenty of Australians writing essays at least as interesting as this, why give valuable space to someone with no perceivable Australian connection, whose work, according to her brief bio, is already available in Best American Essays and similar places? Having said that, I’m looking forward to the article by the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck in issue Nº 5.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 246 (Autumn 2022)
(Much of the content is online at overland.org.au, and I’ve included links)

The lead essay in this Overland is ‘That’s what drives us to fight’: labour, wilderness and the environment in Australia‘ by Jeff Sparrow. It’s a solid, possibly old-fashioned Marxist account of the relationship between settlers and First Nations people in Australia. It starts with the way some environmentalist rhetoric about preserving ‘wilderness’ erases First Nations history and the resulting question, ‘How can we defend the natural world, while still recognising Indigenous history?’ and proceeds to a discussion of the frontier wars that I can’t recommend strongly enough as a supplement to Rachel Perkins’s epochal television series, The Australian Wars.

There’s a lot else, including two short stories: ‘Home sweet slaughterhouse‘ a interesting take by Greg Page on the defacement of colonial statuary; and ‘New face in the fight against poverty‘ a futuristic satire of brand philanthropy by Andy McQuestin.

Page 75 is the tail end of a 13-page section given over to competition results. The section begins with ‘The labeller‘ by Saraid Taylor, a story of unprincipled opportunism in elite sports, which won the Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize. (The runners-up are on the Overland web site, here and here.) The Judith Wright Poetry Prize 2021 follows, first with the generous and lucid Judges Report by Toby Fitch, Keri Glastonbury and Grace Yee, then the winner, an excellent prose poem by Ender Baskan titled ‘are you ready poem’, and the two runners-up, one of which, on Page 75, is ‘stones‘ by Lily Rupcic, described well by the judges as ‘a condensed evocation of a mother’s illness and despair’. In the context of a journal most of whose contents have the feel of a battlefield, these sixteen lines offer a still, jewel-like reminder of basic human courage and connection.


Melissa Hardie and Kate Lilley (special issue editors), Southerly 79.3: The Way We Live Now (2022)

Described in the editors’ introduction as a ‘collection of pandemic inspired and pandemic-adjacent writing’, this is a digital issue, available free to download or read online – or, if you’re even more luddite than I am, to print off and read on paper.

It’s a rich 160+ pages, with 30 poems, three short stories, five review articles, and 10 pieces collected under the general heading ‘Essays and Memoirs’. Listed among the poetry on the Contents page is ‘Lost Matchstick Sonnets’, a series of clever and beautiful photos by Catherine Vidler featuring 14 wooden matches – the cover image on the left is part of the series.

Strikingly, all but one of the prose pieces, excluding reviews, were by women or gender non-conforming people.

As usual with me and Southerly, I skimmed some pieces: two pieces in dauntingly academic language, most of the reviews, some poems. If you want to dip in (remember, it’s free to access or download), you’re very likely to find something to delight or enlighten. To name a random few:

  • Claire Aman, ‘If There Are Zebra Finches’ (joint winner of the 2019 David Harold Tribe Award for Fiction), a clear, resonant short story set in an Australian desert
  • Sophia Small, ‘To Autumn Again’, which starts with a group of high school students laughing at extreme emotion in a movie they are being shown at school, and then claws back the ground for intense emotion
  • Eileen Chong, ‘Reason’, a starling evocation of a parent-child relationship over time, in a very few lines
  • Toby Fitch, ‘New Chronic Logics’, complex evocation of lockdown
  • Kate Lilley, ‘Commons, a kind of love poem
  • Beth Spencer, ‘chronic kitty covid city’, a lockdown poem that’s both funny and true (of many of us)
  • Alison Whittaker, ‘the poets are about to lie to you’, a terrific poem about responses to Covid lockdowns, excellent because one suspects that Whittaker is one of the lying poets as well as their denouncer.

Page 75 falls in the middle of the reviews section, on the final page of Vanessa Berry’s ‘From Catastrophe’, a review of Danielle Celermajer’s Summertime, a memoir of the bushfires of 2019–2020. .

Summertime is among those works of environmental life writing that expands the personal across time and space, where the writer is at once the perceiver of her thoughts and world, and a figure through which the reader can access collective feeling, knowledge and accountability. From the experience of the fire summer it sets out a generous and unflinching philosophy, unfolding from the most urgent question of our time: how to sustain life and future for all beings on this earth?

This has the opacity of much academic writing – I don’t know what it means, for example to expand the personal across time and space, though I’m pretty sure I would if I was well enough read in current academic writing – but the second sentence in that quote brings into sharp focus one key element of the way we live now, the challenge created by the climate emergency, and which most of us spend most of our time trying to ignore.

A tiny personal complaint: on page 144 the first name of Indigenous artist Jonathan Jones is misspelled. On behalf of all Jonathans I plead for special attention from proofreaders.

Australian Women Writers: Lesbia Harford

This blog post was first published on the Australian Women Writers blog on 11 October 2022, at this link.

Lesbia Harford is far from forgotten or overlooked. You could even argue that, for an Australian woman poet, she has received a lot of attention. H M Green’s monumental History of Australian Literature, Volume II (1961) devoted four pages to her, but a decade later she was completely absent from Harry Heseltine’s Penguin Book of Australian Verse (1972). These days, she is dependably included in historical anthologies, and her poems turn up on sites like allpoetry.com and poemhunter.com. Yet it’s unlikely that many readers of this blog will be familiar with her work. And that’s a shame.

Lesbia Harford, nee Keogh (1891–1927) was born into a middle-class Melbourne family that fell on hard times when her alcoholic father deserted them. She suffered from a congenital heart condition that meant her health was always an issue. She was an active and much-loved part of Melbourne’s small intellectual circle. At university in 1914 she often engaged in heated debate with the young Robert Menzies. She had a passionate, life-long relationship with Kate Lush, a Philosophy lecturer at Melbourne University. She had a close friendship with Communist Guido Baracchi (the subject of Jeff Sparrow’s Communism, A Love Story), and for a time they were lovers. She was a unionist , and joined the International Workers of the World – the Wobblies. Despite her physical frailty she decided on ethical grounds to work for years as a machinist in a clothing factory. In her brief marriage to a socialist activist and artist, she endured domestic violence. She tutored students in English literature. She completed a law degree, a rare achievement for a woman at that time, intending to use it to work for social justice, but she died before she could fully qualify as a lawyer. She was an intellectual, an ex-Catholic, a factory worker, an activist, a free spirit, a lover, a tutor and a student: all of these fed her poetry.

When she died in her mid thirties, she had published very little poetry. Three collections have been published since, in 1941, 1885 and 2014, each containing more poems than the previous one, and roughly 200 more of her poems exist only in notebooks held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney. (Her novel, The Invaluable Mystery, which was published in 1987 by McPhee Gribble with a foreword by Helen Garner, must wait for another blog post.)

Harford’s increased profile is probably due in part to a general shift in the culture. For example, when a lecturer on Australian modernist painting recently failed to mention any women artists, their student audience was scathingly vocal. There are good grounds for hope that a similar response would today meet an anthologist who, like Heseltine, included Peter Hopegood (Peter who? I hear you ask) but not Lesbia Harford. The general change was made particular in Harford’s case by work done by Marjorie Pizer over many years, culminating in the publication of Poems of Lesbia Harford (Sirius Books 1985), which she edited with Drusilla Modjeska. The book includes a number of photos, and Modjeska’s introduction gives a lively account of Harford’s life and work. If you can find a copy (no easy task), I recommend it.

Over the decades since her death, Harford has been viewed through many lenses.

In 1942, an anonymous, probably male reviewer in the Sydney Morning Herald wrote what was meant to be dismissive, but these days reads like praise:

There is … an absence of what one would call poetry. Moments of perceptions are recorded in her verse, crystallisations of feeling, but rarely in ‘words that burn’. In fact, the book reads rather like a rhymed diary.

Poet from the Past‘, Sydney Morning Herald 2 May 1942, page 6

In 1961, H M Green wrote that she was ‘a pure lyrist’ and went on:

Almost half her collected poems deal with love; in a sense indeed they all do, for she differs from many other social reformers in that the motive of her enthusiasm was love, in its largest sense.

in 1985, Drusilla Modjeska wrote:

Her voice, unmistakably her own, speaks as part of the multiplicity of voices speaking about social injustice, hope for revolution and the contradictory experiences of women … The radicalism of her verse did not rely on polemic but on the power of the female voice that does not apologise.

In 2014, Les Murray, presumably without intending the compliment to be backhanded, pronounced:

I consider Ms Harford … as one of the two finest female poets so far seen in Australia.

In the same year, Jeff Sparrow echoed the anonymous 1942 reviewer’s ‘rhymed diary’ comment, but with a completely different implied judgement (one that I agree with):

She often wrote about – and occasionally to – her friends and associates, referencing both public events and personal triumphs and sorrows. Like other private documents, the poems demand to be read in context – a context that, in Harford’s case, is not always obvious, both because the biographical record remains sketchy and, perhaps more importantly, because our historical moment is so different.

Sydney Review of Books 16 September 2014

Sparrow’s comment is reinforced by the way the poems have reached us. In all three published collections, as in Harford’s notebooks, they are organised in chronological order (though the most recent and largest of them, Oliver Dennis’s 2014 edition, doesn’t give dates). So it’s tempting, often appropriate, and even necessary to read the books as elliptical autobiographies or memoirs that touch on world events as well as intimate ones. My own experience of the poems bears this out: read in isolation in anthologies or on poetry websites, they have little of the power they have when read together, in order.

Readers so far might get the impression that reading Lesbia Harford is like visiting the Poetry Museum. My aim in the rest of this blog post is to demonstrate that it’s not like that at all, by showing some small examples. Here’s the first of her poems that I read:

People sometimes tease me, saying
I have lovers many.
If I lack the one I sigh for,
What's the good of any?

I will never have a lover,
Though I am so bonny.
Love could only hurt that showed me
What I miss from Johnny.

Like many or even most of Harford’s poems, this looks and at first feels like light verse. It starts out as a jaunty, even frivolous rhyme. Then the tone deepens: the poem moves from a lively social circle, to reflecting on the relative value of good-time companionship and true love, to a rejection of the idea of having a lover at all, and then in the final lines, so calmly that it could be missed altogether, a bereavement is revealed. Read without context, it’s subtle and moving. If you read it as a poem from the home front of the First World War, it has a kind of devastating whiplash effect.

You may not read it that way, and it’s a strength of these poems that they don’t insist on a particular reading. The fairly early poem, ‘My mission in the world’ is explicit:

No marble meaning’s mine
Fixed for a school,

My singing ecstasy
Winged for the flight,
Each will hear differently
And hear aright.

That idea sounds awfully modern, even while it’s framed in pre-modern rhyming verse. Yet, even while the poems don’t insist on a single reading, they draw much of their power from their truthfulness. This tiny enigmatic offering is an example:

I have three loves who are all most dear.
Each one has cost me many a tear.
The one who is dead yet lives in me.
I were too poor had I less than three.

We don’t have to know names and dates to believe this is based in experience. It’s not naive: but while it defies what these days we would call something like monogamous heteronormativity (other poems make it clear that one of the loves is a woman), it still reads as a simple, fresh statement of an emotional reality.

There are surprisingly explicit poems about menstruation, ‘Periodicity’ I, II and III. This is the first of them:

Each month I go
Fathoms deep, ocean-whelmed, in woe.
Then agony, hopelessness roll
Wave-deep over body and soul,
Then pain's my familiar, darkness my friend,
And Time has no end.

Yet once again
I rise born anew from my pain.
Soul, body take radiant form.
Aphrodite-like out of the storm
I emerge. In their issue are blest
Those waves without rest

When I read that to my partner, she didn’t respond as if the poem was a hundred years old. She said, ‘She’s got endometriosis.’

A little poem about rowdy factory girls on the way home from work, snippets of conversation between machinists at work, a rhyme about missing a lover, a narrative of going for a swim just before dawn, a note on the weather – any one of these will draw the reader in, then turn at the last moment without breaking a sweat and leave you gasping or, sometimes, wondering if you just imagined that the poem did what you think it did.

References:

The Poems of Lesbia Harford, edited by Nettie Palmer (Angus & Robertson 1941)
Poems of Lesbia Harford, edited by Marjorie Pizer and Drusilla Modjeska (Sirius Press 1985; link is to an Open Access book at Sydney University Press)
Collected Poems: Lesbia Harford, edited by Oliver Dennis with a foreword by Les Murray (UWAP 2014)

H M Green, A History of Australian Literature: Volume II, 1923–1950 (Angus & Robertson 1961), pages 951–955
Gary Catalano, ‘Lesbia Harford’, Quadrant, December 1998, p. 53
Jeff Sparrow, Communism, a Love Story (MUP 2007), especially pages 67–93
Jeff Sparrow, ‘Render it barely: Collected Poems: Lesbia Harford‘, Sydney Review of Books,16 September 2014

Jeff Sparrow’s Fascists Among Us

Jeff Sparrow, Fascists Among Us: Online hate and the Christchurch massacre (Scribe 2019)

The central character of this book is the man who murdered 51 people in Christchurch mosques in March 2019. He is never referred to by name, but is called ‘Person X’ throughout. This is partly in deference to Jacinda Ahern Ardern’s plea, ‘Speak the names of those who were lost, rather than the name of the man who took them.’ But it is also a strategy to turn the reader’s attention away from the murderer’s personal psychology and towards his broader social and political context, to see him not as some kind of lone madman, but as part of a small but thriving fascist movement, ‘an anonymous young man who emerges from the shadows, gun in hand, already committed to an evil ideology.’ To use the terms of Jennifer Maiden’s The Cuckold and the Vampires (my blog post here), Jeff Sparrow is interested in the macrocosm rather than the microcosm

Person X (as I will also call him) wrote a 74-page manifesto that was (and probably still is) available on the internet, linked to the video he made of his rampage. Journalists mostly dismissed this manifesto as unhinged ravings. Jeff Sparrow has read it, and argues that it expresses ‘with stark clarity’ a distinctive political platform. I don’t have even the slightest urge to read that manifesto, but I’m grateful to Jeff Sparrow for reading it for us.

Sparrow argues that Person X’s manifesto wasn’t intended for a general audience, but was/is part of a conversation and a culture which this book sets out to explicate. Person X is a real fascist – not a generic right-wing extremist, but a follower of actual fascists, particularly Oswald Mosley, who unlike Hitler and Mussolini survived the Second World War and preached a Europe-first fascism for the post-war era.

One of the distinguishing features of fascism is the upholding of violence not just as an acceptable means to an end, but as a good thing in its own right. Sparrow gives a fascinating account of the repellent debates among the online fascist groups, mainly in the USA but also in Australia. After the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 in which men with tiki torches chanted, ‘Jews will not replace us,’ and anti-racist Heather Heyer was killed, most of these groups decided that their movement wasn’t ready for mass action in the streets. Donald Trump’s famous ‘fine people on both sides’ comment wasn’t enough to fortify them – and Trump himself was no fascist, though he provided a favourable context for fascism to grow. Many of the keyboard warriors weren’t up to having their photos made public, and the sheer size and energy of counter-demonstrations whenever they planned a further demonstration made them look ridiculous.

So they generally withdrew to the internet, where they infiltrated – or rather coalesced with – troll culture and ‘shitposting’. They would post horrific things in a way that you couldn’t tell if they were serious or just joking, aiming to ‘own the libs’. They became expert in developing and circulating memes. This was Person X’s home ground, and – Sparrow argues – the stuff in his manifesto that some commentators took to be incoherent ravings was really in the vernacular of The Daily Stormer and 8chan. He wasn’t prominent in Australian fascist groups, but he was known as an active participant. (Sparrow’s account of Australian fascism should bring a blush to the cheeks of many journalists who have described key fascists as activists and given them a platform.)

Person X’s murderous spree was a deliberate intervention in the debates among fascists. Acknowledging that the time was not ripe for organised action, he offered a model of ‘lone wolf’ terrorism. He took the form of the ‘autogenic mass killing’ – a lone man with a gun who lashes out – and recast it as a political act. It’s not violence against significant political targets, like assassinations or even the 9/11 attacks, but it sets out to intensify the existing sense of crisis (including the climate emergency crisis), and push towards total destabilising of society and the recovery of some sort of ethnic purity:

Person X presents a systematised manifesto calling for racist terror in the name of a social disruption he thinks will culminate in ethnic cleansing and genocide.

It’s an evil program, the wickedness of which is not diminished by its self-evident impossibility. But impossible programs still attract followers, irrespective of their wickedness.

(page 92–93)

And already when Sparrow was writing this book there had been a number of imitators who explicitly mentioned Person X and his manifesto in their own utterances.

Fascists Among Us was written and published well before the events in Washington on 6 January this year. It does seem that the strategy of organised street violence hasn’t been relinquished as thoroughly as Sparrow believed. But his warning that it’s important to understand people like Person X stands. This is a short book, a quick read, and though Person X has been tried and sentenced, Donald Trump is no longer President of the USA, and almost certainly the debates and practices of fascists in Australia and worldwide have moved on, it offers important insights into a clear and present danger.

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 (Spring 2019)

I mistakenly wrote that Overland 235 was the last issue of the journal edited by Jacinda Woodhead. This one is actually her second 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.’

SWF 2020, Post 8

Usually the Sydney Writers’ Festival lasts for two weeks. Usually I blog about the dozen or so sessions I attend live, and don’t feel the need to tell you about any podcasts. This year I seem to have made a decision to listen to them all and blog about every one. Here are sessions 35 to 40: journalism, memoir, First Nations voices, the world of high tech, terrorism, violence against women.

Long-form Journalism in Australia 12 August

I know Trent Dalton’s writing from his novel Boy Swallows Universe, which I loved (blog post at this link). It turns out he has also been writing ‘long form journalism’ for The Australian for years. For even more years, Jane Cadzow has been doing likewise for Good Weekend, the magazine published on Saturdays with The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Katrina Strickland is editor of Good Weekend.

This is an inside look at feature-article writing in Australia. There are lots of anecdotes about the biz, insights into the process (taping allows a journalist to take notes about things other than what is being said), and how ‘long form’ is seen by the ‘hard news’ journalists. As audience, I felt that I was listening in on a chat among people who knew each other well and moved in the same journalistic circles, rather than people who were discovering things along with us. The emphasis seemed to be on profiles of celebrities and others rather than stories from war zones or issues-based articles. But it’s a fun listen.


Jeff Sparrow: Fascists Among Us 17 August

My last batch of SWF sessions featured two white liberal male authors in conversation. This session features two white left-wing males. Jeff Sparrow, former editor of Overland, has written Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre. Here he talks to Antony Loewenstein, whose My Israel Question is terrific – and he’s written a lot since.

Starting with the Christchurch massacre, the conversation range widely over contemporary politics and media. The perpetrator (Sparrow doesn’t use his name and the discussion of his reasons is interesting) was not a ‘mentally-disturbed individual’ but a convinced Fascist, whose main inspiration was Oswald Mosley. Donald Trump is not a Fascist, but has created a sea in which Fascists can swim. Social media platforms have some responsibility for enabling Fascists to flourish. Here’s Jeff Sparrow:

Genuine Fascists were some of the early adopters of the internet, precisely because they realised the internet allowed them to mobilise and organise in a way that they couldn’t do in real life. The far right in Australia tended to be recruiting people from the outsides of big cities or small countries towns. How do you organise those people in the real world? It’s very difficult. Australis is a big country. How do you bring them all together? If you have a website, it’s much easier, and the most recent attempts to organise Fascist movements in Australia were for that very reason closely associated with platforms like Facebook, because here is a mainstream form of the internet, everyone uses it, everyone in a country town can get on Facebook, there’s this one group you can set up. It’s very well suited to the structure of Fascist organisations because it’s participatory but not democratic. You can set up a Facebook, everyone can be involved but there’s a leader at the top who runs everything. In a sense it replicates the structure of a traditional Fascist organisations. That’s one of the reasons the far right has done much better on line than the left has.

And later:

We need to try to find some way to take the anti-Fascist principles that have worked in the real world into the online space. That’s easier said than done, and I don’t have a particular answer as to how that might occur, but it’s going to be a real issue from here on in, because the internet is gong to be central to whatever far right groupings emerge.

In normal times, Sparrow says towards the end of the conversation, the perpetrator’s eco-Fascist notion of mass murder as a solution to the climate emergency would be absolutely unattractive to absolutely anyone. In the context where the world seems to be breaking down, that may be changing. He concludes on what Loewenstein calls the ‘mildly optimistic note’ that it’s not enough to fight back against Fascism: we have to offer some genuine hope for a better world.


First on the Ground 19 August

As in the session on long-form journalism, here three journalists who work in similar fields compare notes and discover how much they have in common. But this trio are Indigenous, and until recently it was rare for Indigenous journalists to be have major platforms. The participants are Warlpiri woman and co-host of NITV’s The Point Rachael Hocking; Anishinaabe and Polish Canadian journalist Tanya Talaga; and Kamilaroi/Dunghutti founder of the Tiddas4Tiddas podcast Marlee Silva.

Like the earlier session featuring Tanya Talaga, this one discusses strikingly similar experiences of First Nations peoples in Australia and Canada.

This is another podcast in the Stories Worth Telling series created by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas and Sydney Writers’ Festival.


Anna Wiener: Uncanny Valley 24 August

Uncanny Valley is US journalist Anna Wiener’s first book, a memoir of her time working in the high-tech industry. Here she talks about it with Rae Johnston, NITV’s Science and Technology Editor. The conversation covers many familiar topics: the rise of surveillance, the exploitation of workers in the tech industry and by companies like Uber, the steady thrum of sexism in Silicon Valley.

There’s an interesting discussion of Wiener’s decision to name no companies and very few people in the book – for instance, there’s a company she calls ‘the social media platform that everyone hates’ and there’s no prize for guessing what that is. Another highlight was the explanation of ‘Down for the Cause’, unofficial motto of a start-up that calls on employees’ devotion above and beyond their official duty, and well beyond what they are paid for. But though both speakers mention several times that the book is very personal, the conversation generally stays at an abstract, journalistic level. Here’s Anna Wiener:

I just wanted to write about the way that it feels to look for meaning in work, to think you’ve found it and then to be totally disillusioned not just by your personal experiences but by the narrative and fantasies of an entire industry … I didn’t write the book as an instrument of social change. That was never my intention. I really wrote it hoping that people might see themselves in it in some way, people might see the world a little differently. I wanted to articulate the experience of being a fairly low level employee at tech companies in the 2010s in part because I just felt that was not a perspective that I was reading much about.

I would have liked to hear her read from the book, to hear something specific about those personal experiences and those fantasies. But the conversation was a good reminder that those unnamed/nicknamed companies aren’t necessarily our friends.

A small note about entertaining differences in pronunciation: Anna Wiener spoke of the importance of higher keys and buyer says, and it took me a moment in each case to realise she meant organisations with rising levels of power and prejudices.


Reckoning and Retribution 26 August

Lucia Osborne-Crowley’s I Choose Elena and Ellena Savage’s Blueberries are both the debut books, the former a memoir and the latter a collection of essays. They both deal with personal experience of sexual assault, and its long, hideous tail.

Maeve Marsden, theatre person and curator of the ‘national storytelling project’ Queerstories, does a lovely job of facilitating the conversation – I particularly appreciated her for having both writers read from their books at the beginning, so we got to hear their deeply considered and carefully deployed words before hearing the back and forth of conversation. In that conversation one of the writers mentioned her PhD a couple of times and spoke in academically-inflected language a little too much for easy communication, but that’s a minor grumble from a relatively uneducated listener-in, who nonetheless benefited from the conversation.


The next batch of podcasts promises to include some story-telling. And maybe there’ll be some poetry …

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Text 2015)

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Ta-Nehisi Coates writes for the US magazine The Atlantic. He’s a very engaging blogger, and his writing about racism in the USA is revelatory. Between the World and Me is an extraordinarily generous book on that subject, framed as a letter to his fourteen year old son in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

When it was announced that no one would be indicted for that killing, the teenager said,’I’ve got to go,’ went to his room, and could be heard sobbing. The book is his father’s attempt to reach out to him, to spell out ‘the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country that is lost in the Dream’. (‘The Dream’ in this book is the version of the USA that ignores ugly realities like racism, and which allows the Dreamers to perpetuate those ugly realities.) Coates describes this as the question of his life. So the book is something of an apologia pro vita sua – and like John Henry Newman’s contribution to the genre it transcends its immediate stimulus.

The title is from a Richard Wright 1935 poem. In that poem, what comes between the world and the speaker is the charred remains of a man who has been lynched. In the book, the construct of race and racism rises up in a similar way, a threat to the integrity of his body and his son’s body.

I was having trouble thinking what to say about this book apart from READ IT, IT’S GREAT, when I came across a ‘review’ on the Internet, which gave something to argue with:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a diatribe against white people by a paranoiac black writer. I don’t even think it is well written.

Well, maybe not argue with so much as repudiate.

1. It’s not a diatribe

It’s not even a polemic. Instead, there’s a substantial memoir that gives us an insider’s view of Baltimore as fictionalised in The Wire, where street and school were the poles between which a young black life had to be negotiated, and where harsh discipline accompanied the safety of home; that takes us to what Coates calls his Mecca, Howard University in Washington DC, a campus where he experienced the diversity of African and African-heritage people; and that shows us his growing understanding of racial politics in the US, from his youthful disdain for what he saw as the passivity of the Civil Rights marchers, through his embracing of Malcolm X, to an understanding that African-American experience in the USA is deeply complex.

There’s also some beautiful, richly suggestive thinking. I love this:

Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism – the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them – inevitably follows from this inalterable condition …

But race is the child of racism, not the father … [T]he belief in the pre-eminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organise a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.

Many subjects are touched on that could sustain whole books of their own. For example, at the very end he draws a line between the habits of mind that led to slavery and those that are now threatening the environment (‘It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age.’).

2. It’s not against white people

I don’t see how any careful reader could think this book was against white people. Even if you dismissed as mere rhetoric Coates’s argument that there are no such beings – that there are only people who believe they are white – it remains true that the problem isn’t white people, but deeply embedded institutionalised racism. And facing up to it, he recognises, is a massive challenge:

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practised habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered versions of your country as it has always declared itself and turning towards something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.

Those last two sentences, it’s worth pointing out, are addressed to his son. That they are all the more true for white readers, and not only those who live in the US, is not a point he labours.

3. It’s not paranoiac

To read this book as paranoiac would take extraordinary mental nimbleness. True, Coates describes mid-teenage years in which

each day, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not – all of which is to say that I practised the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body.

And he describes other moments when he felt the threat from racist institutions with terrifying immediacy. Racism is felt viscerally, he says. But still, surely what he is describing are social realities. (Come to think of it, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric would make a great companion book.)

4. It is well written

The book is a very fine example of an extended lyric essay. I want to quote passage after passage. Here’s just one, more or less random:

‘Make the race proud,’ the elders used to say. But by then I knew that I wasn’t so much bound to a biological ‘race’ as to a group of people, and these people were not black because of any uniform colour or any uniform physical feature. They were bound because they suffered under the Dream, and they were bound by all the beautiful things, all the language and mannerisms, all the food and music, all the literature and philosophy, all the common language that they fashioned like diamonds under the weight of the Dream. Not long ago I was standing in the airport retrieving a bag from a conveyor belt. I bumped into a young black man and said, ‘My bad.’ Without even looking up he said, ‘You straight.’ And in that exchange there was so much of the private rapport that can only exist between two particular strangers of this tribe that we call black. In other words, I was part of a world.

Indulge me if I quote a little more from this passage:

And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds – the world of Jews or New Yorkers, the world of Southerners or gay men, of immigrants, of Californians, of Native Americans, or a combination of any of these, worlds stitched into worlds like tapestry. And though I could never, myself, be a native of any of these worlds, I knew that nothing so essentialist as race stood between us. I had read too much by then. And my eyes – my beautiful eyes – were growing stronger each day. And I saw that what divided me from the world was not anything intrinsic to us but the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named us matters more than anything we could ever actually do.

Do seek out this book. As Toni Morrison says on the front cover, ‘It’s required reading.’  Jeff Sparrow’s review in the Sydney Review of Books is also worth a read.

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 217

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 217 (Summer 2014)

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This is Jeff Sparrow’s last Overland after seven years as editor. It’s a solid farewell performance at the end of an impressive tour, with the usual heady mix of politics, literary chat, fiction and poetry.

This issue has a lot of short fiction – the winners of two short story competitions (the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize and the Story Wine Prize) plus the runners-up of one of them (here and here), and the final piece in the Fancy Cuts series. All four prize-related stories are worth reading, especially Madelaine Lucas’s ‘Dog Story’, winner of the VU prize. In the Fancy Cuts, Ali Alizadeh’s takes on the brief of writing a story that somehow revisits one from a past Overland. He follows the same contours as his original, 1961’s ‘Taffy Was a Pacifist’ by James Aldridge, (which you can read here): an outsider immigrant child who is bullied exacts revenge with the help of an outsider adult, and in a brief coda becomes an admirable adult. Alizadeh’s title, Samira Was a Terrorist, signals the ways his work departs from the original. A girl rather than a boy, Samira exacts revenge that is much less socially acceptable than Taffy’s. The original’s moral ambiguity is deeply buried beneath a celebration of masculine virtues and skills, to surface only in the final paragraph, if at all; Alizadeh puts moral ambiguity front and centre in his much more violent, challenging and interesting tale.

Bias Australian? by John McLaren chimes nicely with Fancy Cuts’ juxtaposition of old and new Overlands. A writer for the magazine since 1956, McLaren traces the development of its cultural nationalism from its beginnings in 1954, including the evolution away from the realist fiction endorsed (required?) by Communist Party policy.

Of the non-fiction prose pieces, there are two stand-outs. The first, Happiness™ by Christopher Scanlon, explores the ways the apparently benign ‘positive psychology’ movement is being used in call centres and elsewhere in service roles, and the often deeply harmful effects it can have on employees. Not all of it is new – Scanlon quotes Arlie Russell Hochschild’s revelatory study of flight attendants, The Managed Heart: The commercialisation of human feeling (1983):

[T]he smiles are part of her work, a part that requires her to co–ordinate self and feeling so that the work seems to be effortless … part of the job is to disguise fatigue and irritation, for otherwise the labour would show in an unseemly way, and the product – passenger contentment – would be damaged.

The other stand-out is A Tale of Two Settler Colonies by Michael Brull, which compares Australia and Israel as settler colonies, and poses a substantial counter to the common (anti-Semitic?) tendency to single Israel out as somehow worse than other similar nation-states, including our own.

There are a couple of beautifully contrapuntal pieces on the writer’s life: The authentic writer self by Khalid Warsame (‘There is the fear that people will look at my name or my face and say, “Oh, right, another African writer who writes about Africa. How inspiring and nice.”‘) and Go, little book by Kirsten Tranter (‘Before The Legacy was even published it attracted attention because of my literary family background (my mother is a literary agent and my father is a poet). “If you were to put money on anyone getting published it would be Kirsten Tranter,” said one memorable notice, with the unspoken “no matter what she wrote” impossible to ignore.’).

Of the juicy ten-page poetry section, I’d single out three poems: Skater by Tim Thorne

Somewhere on a minor island something worthy
of literal tragedy plays out. Meanwhile
the circus tents are planted firmly, even though
the clowns could never be trusted

Save Behana Gorge by Phillip Hall, which felt like my childhood before I saw that it was indeed set in north Queensland:

_________________Sometimes,
though, when I spend time in the gorge, all I hear is the zeroing-
in of Mozzies, all I see is the spray of the torrent
as I wait for curlew to call their drawn-out wailing
weeer-eearr.

and The PM and Me by Mark O’Flynn, which I read as an account of the poet’s encounter with an Aboriginal man in Sydney:

He tells me when he worked for the fish market
they paid him in crabs, which is why he went back
and robbed them. Never earned an honest dollar
in his life, he declares with misplaced pride
in the rite of passage of these years.

Unlabelled, green-tinted pages feature the ever-reliable columnists, especially Alison Croggon being intelligently reassuring about writer’s block, and Giovanni Tiso striking terror into our hearts about the end of the internet.

No 218, which is already published and sitting beside my bed, has Jacinda Woodhead in the chair.

Overland 215 & 216

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 215 Winter 2014
Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 216 Spring 2014

overland215I know it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover, but the creepy, Not Suitable for Public Transport sexual-predation image on the cover of Overland 215 was enough to put me off reading it until Nº 216 arrived in the mail. I did have a quick look before consigning it to the shelf.

I skipped discussion of the Sydney Biennale boycott (this year’s Biennale was a fizzer anyhow), the politics of Wolf Creek 2 (gore fests aren’t my cup of tea), the importance of writers being paid (a no-brainer, surely), and Joe Hockey’s disingenuous anti-entitlement rhetoric (it’s enough to endure it without  going on about it). I skimmed a debate about privilege discourse, an article on queer Indigenous identities, a piece about girls in detention in Victoria in the 1970s for ‘offences’ that included being raped.

I read the instalment of ‘Fancy Cuts’, fiction editor Jennifer Mills’s project in which contemporary writers respond to a short story from Overland‘s archives: here Tara Cartland responds to ‘Josephina Anna Maria‘, Katharine Susannah Prichard’s gruelling tale, published in Overland in 1958, of a migrant woman who dies in childbirth. In Cartland’s story, ‘Nativity‘, a single mother moves to a new town and deals with an invasion of small lizards. The comparison makes our modern protagonist seem awfully individualistic and pampered, which may have been the intention.

There’s some excellent art, particularly a graphic about our complicity in the government’s border protection policies by Sam Wallman, Javed de Costa and Angela Mitropoulos (with a suggestion that we visit xborderoperationalmatters.wordpress.com) and a powerful Mary Leunig image of oppressive domesticity.

In the poetry section, I particularly enjoyed Luke Best’s ‘Desire‘ which riffs on some bits from  Song of Solomon, John Hawke’s ‘The Point‘ which starts out as a backhanded homage to (I think) D H Lawrence and goes somewhere completely unexpected, and Michelle Cahill’s ‘Castrato‘ whose final extended simile I restrain myself with difficulty from quoting.

Overland 216 You can’t tell from the image on the left, but Overland 216 has a very flash cover – a stylised map of a port city with dots on the water, some of them spot varnished: reading this on public transport creates no worries at all. On close inspection it turns out that we’re looking at a partly submerged Melbourne –  artist Megan Cope‘s futuristic vision.

As part of Overland‘s 60th anniversary (pretty good going for a literary magazine, more than half The School Magazine‘s age), there’s quite a lot in this issue that approximates navel-gazing – essays on aspects of the writer’s life, a number of literary magazine editors commenting on their magazines, another Fancy Cut, and an article about Overland‘s founding editor, Stephen Murray-Smith.

In the Fancy Cut, Christos Tsiolkas’ ‘Petals‘ riffs beautifully on Brian Gorman’s ‘Afternoon among flowers‘ from 1965. They are both prison stories, both grim, but unlike the two previous Fancy Cuts, this new story is tougher, nastier, more convincing than the original, and Tsiolkas has found a brilliant equivalent of the Gorman’s broken style by casting his story as written in Greek and translated by its author. ‘Stephen’s Vector’ by Jim Davidson gives us a fascinating glimpse of post-WW2 left politics, and the machinations needed to produce a literary magazine that’s affiliated to an often doctrinaire and authoritarian left.

Imagined worlds by John Marnell is another piece on the importance of writing, this time about African sexualities and the importance of queer theory in the struggle against oppression in a number of African countries: ‘Queer Africans are the new thinkers, the new criticism and in many ways they are at the cutting edge of political and social transformation on the continent and its diasporas.’ It’s almost as if, in his view, sexuality has replaced class as the key to understanding and combating oppression. I used to feel that people who insisted on relating everything back to class were a bit tedious – I seem to have changed sides in that equation.

Not all the writing here is about writing and publishing.

Disappeared in Laos‘ by Andrew Nette and ‘Hope Dies Last’ by Shannon Woodcock are two pieces of hard news that would surely have met with the approval of the 1950s Communist Party: the former, on the disappearance of Sombath Somphone in Laos and the international campaign to locate him and return him to his family (more information here), reminds us that this popular tourist destination has a very dark side; the latter is a straightforward account of the deportation and murder of Romanian Romani under the Nazis.

I doubt if the CPA central committee would have approved of Alison Croggon’s column, ‘On intimate otherness’, but I do. Always good value, Croggon manages – even in the age of the Internet – to be fresh and intelligent on the subject of cats. In the city, she writes, pets are an important reminder ‘that human beings are not the only species on this planet’.

Alternative Spaces‘ by Barnaby Lewer would probably have been too academic for the 1950s Realist Writers project of bringing literature to the workers, but they would have been poorer if they’d ignored this discussion of Andrea James & Giordano Nanni’s play Coranderrk as ‘one example of the way that art, culture and history can reveal how the seemingly “natural order” of our contemporary situation is produced and imposed’.

As always, sequestered up the back, is the poetry.  Whereas issue 215 had a number of activist poems – on our government’s asylum seeker policies, the desecration of sacred sites – this batch tend to be inward looking. Not one, but two despondent poems from Pam Brown, ‘Fading’ and ‘Collected Melancholy’ – so many quotable lines, but I like this bit of poetic injoke:

no phenomenon but in things
like slim cyber tablets
scissors sharpeners vinyl bucket seats
glass paperweights brass padlocks
a sundial

Really I just quoted that because of the nice resonance it has with Kate Fagan’s wonderful ‘Thinking with Things‘, which takes as its starting point a line from Pam Brown’s 2008 poem ‘Things‘, which in turn is taken from Heidegger, ‘why are there things rather than nothing’. Fagan’s poem ends up happily not much caring about the answer.

Overland puts most or all of its content online, but it does it bit by bit. I’ve given links to some of the articles. Others will be available online some time soon at https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-216/. If you subscribe to the paper journal you get them when they’re fresh.

Overland 214

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 214 Autumn 2014

Overland-214There’s something irresistible about triplets: faith, hope and charity / birth, copulation and death / the three Graces / thesis, antithesis, synthesis / silence, exile, cunning … they’re everywhere. Overland‘s deputy editor Jacinda Woodhead invokes a nice one in this issue’s Editorial: for 60 years, she says, the journal has been encouraging dissent, interrogation and craft. It’s not just a pretty phrase: there’s plenty of all three in this issue, including in the first essay, Welcome to Curtin by Avan Judd Stallard, which comes craftily at Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. It’s a memoir of working in the Curtin detention centre: prevented by the threat of seven years in prison from talking about the treatment of detainees, he describes instead the relationships and attitudes of the workers, with a short story writer’s eye for structure and significant detail.

Jennifer Mills, the fiction editor, introduces a 60th anniversary year feature, Fancy cuts, in which contemporary writers are invited to revisit short stories from the archives, invokes mother triplet: Overland has always been committed to the urgent, emerging or marginalised voices of its day. To kick off the feature, Josephine Rowe’s A small cleared space riffs surprisingly on Roma O’Brien’s When the bough breaks, a story of a hospital stillbirth that must have been harrowing when it was published in 1965, but now reads as a tale from an era of almost unbelievable callousness.

B J Thomason’s A slippery bastard deftly interrogates the myth of poet, horseman and Boer-murderer Breaker Morant, and in passing links him with two other mythologised slippery bastards. So we have triplet of Australian anti-heroes: Breaker Morant, Ned Kelly and Chopper Reed.

‘Cats are out, sloths are in’ by Jeff Sparrow is positively bursting with triplets. Subtitled Truth, politics and non-fiction, it looks at the fact-checking practice or otherwise of clickbait sites like Gawker, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy and more ‘serious’ liberal news sources like Crikey, the Conversation, the ABC. Current fact checking differs from the famous rigour of, say the New Yorker, in three significant ways (for which you’ll need to read the article). But checking facts has a limited usefulness, unless you realise they are part of a triplet: ‘facts’, theory and political practice.

There are three short stories in the Fiction section, including Anthony Panegyres’ Submerging, a parable about global warming embedded in a genuinely distressing tale of adolescent misery.

Up the back, are the three finalists in the 2013 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize. Peter Minter, the judge, says he looks for poems in which every line ’embodies perception, ideation and the breath‘. That’s a lovely triplet. I’m sorry that I didn’t warm to any of the poems.

There are other triplets, including the three mysteries in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in The last space waltz? by Claire Corbett, but not everything comes in threes. Four columnists are entertaining and intelligent: Alison Croggon reflects on how literacy and orality affect memory and perception (a subject Ross Gibson tackles at length in his book about William Dawes’s notebooks,  26 Views of the Starburst World); Giovanni Tiso ponders gloomily on our changing concept of the future; Mel Campbell challenges habit of thinking of writing in terms of productivity; Stephen Wright managed to make me laugh a number of times in a column devoted to wishing he was funnier. I missed Rurijk Davidson, another regular columnist – on leave perhaps?

There are two excellent pieces that I couldn’t shoehorn into my numerical scheme. Brendan Keogh’s On video game criticism, cast as a letter to Susan Sontag, manages to communicate the intellectual excitement in its eponymous field, even to someone whose video game experience doesn’t go much beyond Space Invaders, Pacman and Tetris. Jill Jolliffe’s A new thalidomide? tells you more than you wish was true about hospital use of DES and other drugs, often without consent, on single mothers from the 1940s all through the 1960s in Australia, with health consequences still being discovered, including in the grandchildren of the women given the drug.

Sixty years of dissent, interrogation and craft! May the road rise to meet you, Overland, and the wind be at your back for at least 60 more.