Tag Archives: Jordie Albiston

2016 Australian Poetry Anthology 

Lisa Gorton and Toby Fitch (editors), Australian Poetry Anthology Vol 5, 2016 (Australian Poetry Ltd 2017)

AP2016.jpgThis is Australian Poetry Ltd’s fifth annual anthology of members’ poems. It’s neither a ‘Best of 2016’ nor a kind of open mic in print. The foreword says the book aims ‘to recognise and mark the organisation’s vitality and range’. When it goes on to quote G K Chesterton, ‘Poets have been mysteriously silent on cheese,’ it signals unmistakably that a further aim is to give pleasure. It worked for me on both fronts.

There are sixty poems by 49 poets, award-winners cheek by jowl with people you’ve never heard of. There are neat sonnets and sprawling surreal narratives, elegy and sarcasm, poems previously seen in places as unalike as Overland and Quadrant and, the majority, poems previously unpublished.

Here are some highlights:

An opening line, from Jordie Albiston’s ‘³’ (one of three poems by her with that non alphanumeric title): ‘war is divisible only by war’.

A poem I was compelled to quote in an earlier blog post: Julie Chevalier’s ‘waiting with dignity’, which started with a reference to Anne Carson.

A piece of social commentary: ‘On average’ by PS Cottier plays devastatingly with the statistic that in Australia on average one woman a week is killed by an intimate partner.

A poem on ‘the pornography of suffering’: Ron Pretty’s ‘broken’, which looks into the abyss of humanity’s capacity for violence.

A poem that’s affecting for extraneous reasons: John Upton’s ‘On Shoes Encountered in a Museum’, a beautiful poem about ugly history that gains extra force from the fact that John Upton, author of the excellent collection Embracing the Razor, died in January.

A contrarian poem: ‘Why we shouldn’t trust birds’ by Chris Palmer begins with birds’ dinosaur ancestry and ends with parent-approved siblicide and cannibalism.

A poem I’d read elsewhere and was glad to see again: Jennifer Compton’s ‘Two Women’, previously published in Australian Poetry Journal November 2016, brilliantly renders the ambivalence of a relationship.

A dictionary query: From Amy Crutchfield’s ‘Egg’,

What shall the mother of the dead be called?
As widow is to wife,
what of the woman left behind?

Stand-out single line: Brett Dionysus’ ‘Bees Fleeting’ brought tears to my eyes with the line (about bees), ‘They are absconding from the planet’s giant hive’.

Unsettling single poem: Alex Skovron’s ‘Prognosis (1189 BCE)’, in which a Greek at the siege of Troy is convinced that the wooden horse ruse won’t work:

The Achaeans understand nothing of History,
they laugh, carouse, their Horse grows daily more arrogant;
some nights I weep for the fate that I know attends them.

Ekphrasis: Laura Jan Shore’s ‘A Little off the Top’, in which a group of people with dementia responding to an Edward Hopper painting.

Elegy: ‘Walking man’, a tribute to the late Martin Harrison by Brenda Saunders that begins:

He walked this country with the eye
of a newcomer, showed us how to see
close up, take in the sweep of distance
the shimmer on a paddock in drought

Those words, ‘country’, ‘newcomer’, ‘shimmer’, take on wonderful resonance when written by an Indigenous woman about an English migrant.

That is to say, there’s a lot to enjoy here

Australian Poetry Journal 5.2 and 6.1

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 5, Issue 2 (2015)
———,  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 1 (2016)

Australian Poetry Journal is the nearest thing we have to a community newsletter for Australian poets and poetry-readers. It is delivered twice a year to paid-up  members of Australian Poetry Ltd. My copy tends to wait until I’ve got a book on the go that’s too bulky to read while walking. Thanks to a couple of hefty books, I’ve recently caught up on two issues, as well as last year’s anthology (also covered by the cost of membership). In case you’re interested, the joys of these journals aren’t restricted to members: anyone can buy copies, and the entire contents of issue 5:2 are up online. I’ve included links.

APJ-5-2.jpg Issue 5:2 leads with a wonderful profile (here) by Dan Disney, Un Gyung Yi and Daye Jeon of some contemporary Korean poets, including octogenarian Ko Un, whom Allen Ginsberg called ‘a demon-driven Bodhisattva’. In other articles, Nicolette Stasko farewells JS Harry, who died last year, quoting generously from her work (here); there’s a knowledgable article about Stuart Cooke (here) and a number of reviews, including a piece on US poet and activist Denise Levertov by Felicity Plunkett (here); Adrian Caesar tells the story of David Musgrave’s Puncher & Wattmann (here).

I can’t resist mentioning that Adrian Caesar, who is enthusiastic about most of P&W’s publications, has misgivings about some of the criticism they publish. After quoting a paragraph of dense academic writing from a recent book, he lets fly:

In its determined promulgation of specialised language, its astonishing lack of wit or irony … and its pervading sense of high-minded seriousness, it made me wonder if the writers were not like adherents of some gnostic sect seeking to articulate their search for the numinous through their ‘belief’ in literary theory.

Shades of the Dunciad Minor.

Then there are the poems, roughly 50 of them. I turned down the corners of too many pages to talk about all the poems I responded to, so I’ll just list some of the raisins from the pudding.

Susan Hawthorne interrogates a photograph of her grandmother in ‘unknowing‘. Jennifer Compton’s ‘Two Women‘ explores the difficulty of the ‘inconstant narrative of bewilderment’ created by, well, is it dementia or just habitual white-lying? Ivy Alvarez, in ‘N‘ riffs on ‘n’ words chosen as if at random from the dictionary:

noctambulist:
_______I once walked out a sleeping house
_______to see the moon
_______trees tethered their shadows
_______and I was the only one that moved

Kit Kelen’s ‘In my incunabula‘ reminisces about technologies past, beginning:

TV was eternity.
There was always the promise of snow

Tom Morton’s ‘November‘ is a very Sydney poem, sweet to read on a cold July day:

The days get longer, a sudden heatwave
And the outrageous heavy sweetness
Of the jacarandas on the river path
Jiggles the deadlocks on
Whole rooms of me
I’ve not been in, this long winter

Jordie Albiston rings in the 2015 New Year in ‘strontium‘. Vanessa Proctor celebrates  a plant in ‘Bathroom Orchid‘. Ron Heard tackles birdsong in ‘currawongs‘. John Stokes offers an oblique love lyric in ‘She feels him at a seaside motel‘ (‘The curves of his buttock / and the moon / are the same’). There’s Andy Kissane, Eileen Chong, Ron Pretty … Michael Sharkey has put together a feast that has something for everyone.

APJ-6-1.jpgHe does it again in issue 6:1, which has a focus on women poets and their concerns: a lively article by Carol Jenkins brings an epidemiological approach to gender and age distribution in Australian poetry anthologies; Heather Taylor Johnson profiles Susan Hawthorne, poet–founder of feminist Spinifex Press; Tegan Schetrumpf argues that writing groups offer an alternative to the patriarchal lone-genius-poet paradigm. Off-theme, but who would complain, is a fine tribute by Helen Nickas to Dmitris Tsaloumis, Greek Australian poet who died in February aged 94; and reviews of work by πO and Lesbia Harford, among others.

And there are another 50 or so poems. I got tears in my eyes (though I defy anyone to guess at which poem), I smiled, I gasped, I felt moments of my own experience vibrate into new life.

‘Old haunts’, a haibun by Sam Wagan Watson, evokes childhood terrors at the sounds of the night. J. Richard Quigley’s ‘Fondue’ utters the thought one dare not speak when offered that cheesy dish. Heather Taylor Johnson’s ‘They Say’ makes poetry that transcends its ‘kids say the darnedest things’ source material. Rod Usher has serious fun with Italian verbs in ‘The imperfect’. My own peculiar edginess about kitchen knives is echoed uncannily in Claire Rosslyn Wilson’s ‘Cooking for Two’, and the precise language of ‘Stories from the kampong’, Mindy Gill’s narrative about a chicken-coop-raiding python, captured my own childhood memory of a similar incident (a significant difference being that, though we talked about the possibility, we didn’t eat the snake or the chickens it had eaten). Rozanna Lilley’s ‘Early onset’ touches on the pain of having someone close affected by dementia.The first poem of Brendan Doyle’s that I read began, from memory, ‘Sittin on the gasbox, / waitin for me dad’; in ‘The Wooden Gate’ here, his father ‘dead these sixteen years’ pays a reproachful visit in a dream. ‘Hearts and Minds’ by Stephen Edgar, master of rhyme, bounces beautifully off an artwork currently being created by the Emerging Artist. Dick Alderson’s ‘nail holes’ reminds me of my youthful fascination with the way holes in an iron shed ‘throw circles / on the floor / like soft pennies’.

There’s history: Virginia Jealous visits Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s war diaries in ‘Weary’s Birds’; and Judith Beveridge’s ‘Ode to Ambergris’ does what it says on the lid, with lovely light musicality. There are elegiac moments, as in Pam Schindler’s ‘Like someone who is leaving’. In the twelve delicate short lines of ‘Jumhoori’, Hessom Razavi describes a cat and laments the state of his native Iran.

Paradoxically, given that I get no sense at all that these poems are competing with each other, there is a prize fort he best poem published in the journal each year.This issue includes 2015’s winner, Andy Kissane’s ‘Alone Again’, reprinted here with commentary from Andy.

I expect if you were asked to make a list of stand-out poems from these journals  your list would be different from mine, but I’m pretty confident you’d find something here to nourish you and give you pleasure.

Southerly 75/3

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 75 No 3 2015: War and Peace (The Journal of the English Association, Sydney, Brandl & Schlesinger 2016)

Southerly75.3.jpg

In last May’s Quarterly Essay, Blood Year, David Kilkullen quoted Trotsky: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’

The only war to take an active interest in me (so far) was the US war in Vietnam. I attended fiery Front Lawn meetings at uni, marched in Moratorium rallies, was punched in the head by a policeman and beaten up, incompetently, by a neo-Nazi. My birthdate came up in the conscription lottery, I went to court and was granted conscientious objector status. On Anzac Day this year, I commemorated those times by wearing a white feather along with a sprig of rosemary.

So I’m glad to see that this War and Peace themed issue of Southerly includes a voice from the resistance part of the war story, in ‘Wanted for War’, a short memoir of the 1960s by Michael Hamel-Green. (Hamel-Green is one of many men and women interviewed for Hell No! We Won’t Go, a documentary about draft resistance during the Vietnam War currently being made by Brisbane filmmaker Larry Zetlin. The project has a facebook group. Excerpts from Hamel-Green’s interview are here, here and here.)

Eloquent voices from other perspectives are also represented: ‘Eye into Eye’, a short story by Peter Dickison, formerly an officer in ‘various Special Forces units of the Australian Army’ is a convincing evocation of a terrible incident in Afghanistan and its long aftermath; ‘Iran–Iraq War: Diplomats on the Ground’, a memoir by former Ambassador to Iraq Rory Steele, captures the strangely removed world of diplomats in a time of war; Tessa Lunney’s short story ‘V’ consists of five linked monologues from survivors of World War Two – two Russian soldiers, a woman from Berlin, a British officer, and a Jewish survivor of a death camp; Beth Spencer’s poem ‘The Nine Principles of Breema’ imagines its way into one of Australia’s inhumane and illegal offshore detention camps.

There’s cultural history:

  • Robin Gerster’s ‘Our Ground Zero: Future Wars and the Imagined Destruction of Australia’s Cities’ extends his work about Australia and the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in his wonderful book Travels in Atomic Sunshine and in a previous Southerly, this time writing about Australian novels about nuclear devastation in the decades since 1945.
  • Moreno Giovannoni’s ‘When the War Came to San Ginese’ is an excerpt from his forthcoming Tales from San Ginese. It’s at least the second excerpt to appear in Southerly, and I look forward to the book itself.
  • ‘Aileen Palmer: Political Activist and “poet of conscience”‘ is part of Sylvia Martin’s project to salvage the reputation of this heroic woman, up until now known mainly as the ‘tragic daughter’ of Vance and Nettie Palmer. Here she emerges as a rare literary person who actually volunteered to be part of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, to work as nurse and translator. Martin’s biography of Palmer, Ink in her Veins, was published earlier this year. If this essay is any indication, it’s well worth reading.
  • Two articles revisit the story of Anzac. In ‘Writing the Anzac legend: The Moods of Ginger Mick’ Philip Butterss explores CJ Dennis’s role in creating that legend. Ffion Murphy and Richard Nile’s ‘The Naked Anzac: Exposure and Concealment in AB Facey’s A Fortunate Life’ hold that much-loved book up against the historical documents, and discover that Facey misrepresented his childhood suffering and war experience. Neither of these essays is the kind of academic nit-picking those descriptions might suggest: taken together, they deftly challenge what we are being urged to take as a national foundation myth. In particular, Facey’s apparent evasions of the fact that much of the damage he suffered in the trenches was mental and emotional rather than physical are discussed respectfully as an unsuccessful attempt to deal with that damage.

Not all the poems are on theme. Of those that are, apart from Beth Spencer’s poem that I’ve already mentioned, the most telling are Brook Emery’s ‘The Brown Current’, which counterposes scenes from peaceful Bondi with events from conflict zones, Lorraine McGuigan’s ‘Questions’, a lament for a ten-year-old girl suicide bomber, and Anne M Carson’s ‘Of the 2,700: one voice’, which visits the Nazi murders. Off topic, Jordie Albiston’s ‘Δ4’ is a 10-syllables-to-a line joy.

There’s more, including 21 ages of reviews, and a number of scholarly essays. All in all, this is a fabulous issue.
—–
A little note that might not matter to anyone but me: I’ve been puzzled by some of Southerly‘s house style decisions. Why US spelling and punctuation sometimes but not always, for example? This issue has put an end to my puzzlement: a character’s name in one story is spelled ‘Deidre’ 7 times and ‘Deirdre’ 13 times, often the two versions within a single paragraph. So it seems clear that the editorial team regards consistency in such matters as the hobgoblin of little minds. Mind you, the town Grañén is consistently misspelled with an acute accent over the first n, and elsewhere someone makes a ‘complementary’ remark, so perhaps the problem isn’t just disregard for consistency.

Southerly 73/2

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Teja B. Pribac (Guest Co-editor),  Southerly Vol 73 No 2 2013: Lyre/Liar

73-2-sI didn’t read enough of this Southerly to write a review. It says more about me than about the journal that I just couldn’t make myself read a collection that focuses on exploration of ’emerging ethical implications of writing, with a particular emphasis on representations of nonhuman animals’. A quick skim seemed to show writer after writer identifying as vegan or animal liberationist in a way that felt just a little too correct-line for my taste. I may be wrong, and if I come back and find that I am, I’ll write a retraction, but I wasn’t deterred from my rash judgement by an extraordinary disclaimer from the Southerly editorial team, saying their views are not necessarily reflected by the ‘views expressed in this issue’.

I did read, though, an excellent review of Jordie Albiston’s The Book of Ethel by Mark O’Flynn (which articulates nicely some of what Albiston does with internal rhyme), some memorable poetry including ‘Mouse Plague’ by John Kinsella and ‘A Second Ago’ by Pam Brown, and an illuminating essay on lyric poetry in ‘post-theory’ times by Claire Nashar.

Rabbit 10, Jordie Albiston 13

Jessica L Wilkinson, editor, Rabbit No 10: Gravity (2013)
Jordie Albiston, XIII Poems (Rabbit Poets Series 2013)

I bought these two slim volumes at their Sydney launch a couple of weeks ago.

rabbit10 Rabbit is a beautifully produced ‘journal of non-fiction poetry’ based in Melbourne, with a great feel for deign and a sense of humour. This issue, for which Felicity Plunkett was guest poetry editor, includes not only poetry from Melbourne and beyond, well beyond Australia in fact (I was a little disconcerted when sagebrush and coyotes turned up in the first poem), but also a generous selection of evocative photographs of 1970s Melbourne by poet Ian McBryde, a scholarly essay on Dante, an interview, and a number of reviews.

I’m not clear what the non-fiction tag means apart from excluding fiction narratives. I hope we’re not being encouraged to take lines about heartbreak or suicidal intentions as transparently representing the writers’ condition. But the question didn’t exercise my mind too much … I enjoyed the poetry: so much that was excellent, but the ones that struck me most were ‘The Gravity of Bones’ and ‘Crunchy No Bruises’ by Anna Jacobson, which read as if they’re from a series about visiting a nursing home.

Nicholas Walton-Healey’s interview with Kerry Loughrey is excellent. Kerry Loughrey has been performing her work around Melbourne for more than two decades, but had her first poetry collection published just over a year ago. She has interesting things to say about the relationship between performance poetry and page poetry, and about poetry in general – like this, which begins with an updating of Pope’s ‘What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Exprest’:

I’ve always thought that the poet was supposed to say what’s on the tips of other people’s tongues. That’s our job. So people have this sense of relief when they read or hear it and go ‘ahhh, that’s what I meant.’ …

I’m compelled to say things … I feel it at the back of my throat. And I think everyone does when they’re like ‘I really want to say this.’ Or a bloke talking to his missus who’s much more articulate and so he’s going ‘I wish I could just say this thing but she’s going to take it the wrong way.’ I guess I have to consider being taken the wrong way as well.

xiii Jordie Albiston’s previous books have been unified works rather than gatherings of disparate poems. So, she told us at the launch, when Jessica Wilkinson invited her to be the first in the new Rabbit Poets Series, she saw a prospect of new life for some of her ‘orphan poems’.

The orphans gathered here are not impoverished waifs begging for alms. On the contrary, they are rich in many ways, and speak from a place of deep belonging. They are, however, extraordinarily diverse.

There are a number of what I think of as public poems. ‘Gallipoli’, which opens the book, is a long narrative poem commissioned as inspiration for a piece of music commemorating the centenary of the landing at Anzac Cove. Three long poems – ‘Six Black Saturday Squares’, ‘Lamentations’ and ‘A Kinglake Quartet’ – respond to Victoria’s terrible 2009 bush fires. And ‘A White Woman’s Guide to Indigenous Art’,another commissioned piece, is a response to a painting by Carol Maanyatja Golding that broadens out to the endlessly interesting question

At the other extreme, there are intensely private poems: three love sonnets – ‘The Sea’s Pleasure’, ‘Three Degrees’ and ‘Duplex’ – and ‘Golden’, a poem celebrating the poet’s body on her 50th birthday.

The poems are also wonderfully varied formally. Some of them rhyme, and Albiston’s way with rhyme, both at line ends and internally, is truly wondrous. So is her extraordinary way of playing poetic form off against speech rhythms. Take the first eight lines of ‘Three Degrees’, for example:

Three degrees against your skin, and the heart
begins to freeze. The inclement night creeps
right in, shoves blood aside with its starting
gun, and you become antarctic. Yes, steeped

in snow from tip to toe, the land outside your
carapace says little, remembers less: no choice
but that of missing him, missing him, warmth
a continent ago. You try to invoke his voice.

For me, the most striking piece is ‘Lamentations’. It speaks in the language of the King James Bible, including the odd word in italics and a smattering of ‘Behold!’s.

Alas! we are the people that have seen the fire, on this day of days, on this seventh day of the second month of the year.
Alas! it has led us, and brought us to darkness, and delivered us not into light.
Against us has it turned: it has turned with the wind, against us all the day.

It could have been an embarrassing pastiche in lesser hands, but it’s actually extraordinarily powerful.

awwbadge_2014XIII Poems is the first book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Yes, I’ve signed up again.

Jordie Albiston’s Book of Ethel

Jordie Albiston, The Book of Ethel (Puncher & Wattmann Poetry 2013)

1boI bought my secondhand copy of this small miracle of a book in Sappho’s, lovingly inscribed by the author to a couple of evidently ungrateful friends. Well, Jordie, it’s my copy now and I’m definitely keeping it.

The Ethel of the title was the poet’s great-grandmother. Born in Cornwall in the 1870s, she emigrated to Australia as a child, married a minister, raised six children, and died in the 1940s. That broad outline of her life emerges from these poems, though the story is not told in a straightforward narrative. This isn’t a verse novel. It’s a series of 60 short poems, each capturing a moment of the life, with little if any narrative flow from one to the next. A note up the back tells us who Ethel was, and leaves us to surmise that Albiston has drawn on archival sources – letters and diaries, perhaps, and a small book mentioned in passing, Parsonage Peeps. Google confirms that the book really existed, published in the 1930s, and I’d be astonished to learn that other writings by Ethel aren’t used, sometimes verbatim.

This found material is integrated into extraordinarily lively poetry, all in Ethel’s voice and held in a tight form. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the form to start with. I just went along for the ride with Ethel, aware that the text isn’t generally structured according to ordinary prose conventions, and is peppered with eccentric exclamation marks, italics and spaces. I don’t mean that the poems are obscure or annoyingly mannered; on the contrary, while the precise meaning of a phrase may not always be obvious, the sense of a living, complex mind in action is strong and very attractive. But perhaps inevitably somewhere along the line I paused to figure out what’s going on.

Anyhow, here’s the first poem (the word in bold here is in italics in the original – I can’t make WordPress give me non-italics in a quote):

so Life!__we meet once more__you
& I__in concert__concord
happy agreement to do
until done__my act__your stage
make__lie in it__this! my bit-
part__play__World__with me aboard
a Speck!__then__gigantic

It’s a great opening that sets the reader’s mind racing in a number of directions at once. Who is speaking? What is the theatrical imagery doing? Is there an echo of ‘You’ve made your bed, now lie in it’ in line 5, and if so what does it mean? And how about that fabulous change of perspective in the last line?

But what is going on in the poem’s form? Are the line breaks arbitrary? Are those rhymes incidental? Is the punctuation just eccentric, or hip in some poetic way that’s obscure to unsavvy readers? Such questions multiply, and intensify, as you get further into the book.

(A word of warning: sensible readers of this blog might want to skip the next bit as it’s all poetry-geeky without being all that poetry-educated. It may be that the form here is quite common, not invented by Jordie Albiston as I imagine.)

It turns out that every poem in the book uses the same stanza form as the one quoted above, though the number of stanzas varies – most poems have just one, but there’s one with four and a number with two or three. Each stanza has 7 lines, of which the first and third lines rhyme, and the second and sixth – if you allow ‘rhyme’ to include such pairings as kindly/Queenie or Lizzie/tiny. More significantly, though, each line has 7 syllables, with none of the regular patterning based on emphasis that is usual in English verse. It’s what Wikipedia calls syllabic verse. There may be other rules – certainly there’s always a lot of internal rhyme, alliteration and so on. But the point is that every word in the book is held in a tight, mathematically dictated structure.

The form, the structuring principle, doesn’t give any indication of how the poem is to be spoken – yet from that opening exclamation this is verse that cries out to be heard as well as seen. So the whole book is animated by a tension between Ethel who is speaking to us and the tight restrictions of the form in which she is allowed to speak. It may be stretching it a bit, but it feels to me as an enactment of the way Ethel could flourish as a human being within the extraordinary limitations placed on her by the society of her time.

The result is just wonderful, and I am in total awe of Jordie Albiston’s ability to pull it off.

(End of nerdy bit.)

If you’re interested in reading a response to the book from someone much less ignorant than I am, I recommend the review by A J Carruthers in Rabbit No 10.

awwbadge_2013This is another title in my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013.

Two Launches (with pic added later)

I’ve been sick with a cold since last Monday, and going stir crazy. Perhaps unwisely, I’ve struggled out of the house two nights this week to go to book launches.

rabbit10The first, on Monday night, 1XIII-Poemswas a double launch at Gleebooks – of the tenth issue of Rabbit, a Melbourne-based ‘quarterly journal of non-fiction poetry’, and XIII Poems by Jordie Albiston, the first in a series of booklets to be published by the journal. Both books are beautiful to look at and to hold, and I’m looking forward to reading the copies I bought on the night. Among other tempting morsels, the Rabbit offers poems by Julie Chevalier, Jordie Albiston, B R Dionysus, Lachlan Brown (to name the poets whose work I know), photographs, an essay, an interview and reviews, including one by A J Carruthers of two books I’ve loved, Jordie Albiston’s Book of Ethel (blog post coming soon) and Pam Brown’s Home by Dark (blog post here). And I’m fast becoming a Jordie Albiston fan, so I’m looking forward to reading what she calls orphan poems.

There were 17 people in the upstairs room at Gleebooks for the launch, of whom 8 spoke or read, all interestingly, and one or two others were part of the team who had flown up from Melbourne for the occasion. Jessica Wilkinson, Rabbit‘s founding Editor-in-Chief, graciously described it as an intimate affair, and urged us to take some grapes or cheese home in our pockets since the modest catering was clearly far in excess to requirements.

Whatever the cause for the poor turn-out, the launch was convivial, with plenty of humour about poets becoming members of the Warren, etc, and much joy in language used with precision and passion. I was glad I’d struggled up from my sickbed to put a bum on a seat and at least half a mind into the room.

As a segue, I’ll mention that at least one of the speakers mentioned their students, and one poet explained that she wasn’t reading her poem from the Rabbit because it was too much a ‘page poem’.

1lcThe next night’s launch was a completely different affair. The Last Conversation is an anthology of poems that have been read at the Bankstown Poetry Slam – that is, a collection of spoken word pieces attempting the transition to page poems under the guidance of slam co-founder and anthology editor Ahmad Al Rady.

The monthly Bankstown Poetry Slam has grown in the year of its existence into the biggest slam in Australia. I’ve never managed to get there, and if last night’s event is any indication of the nature of the experience, I’m missing out on something excellent. Ahmad Al Rady and his co-founder Sara Mansour were fabulous MCs – charming, witty, self deprecating and lavish in their appreciation of others. As many as 10 poets performed: a militant hymn to Gandhi and Mandela (timely, though obviously the poem was first performed when Mandela was still alive); cries from the heart from young men against violence against women; a disturbing piece about cutting into flesh after which the poet reassured us that she was not a serial killer or self-harmer but a surgeon; a passionate piece about the detention of asylum seekers; two sisters mining the rich field of sibling rivalry and sibling support.

The theatre at Bankstown Arts Centre was full to capacity,mainly with young people dressed in their best, as if for graduation. The audience whooped, cheered and (during the readings) clicked. It was a huge, enthusiastic celebration not just of the slam and each other, it seemed to me, but of what can happen when language is unleashed. At the start of the evening, Sara Mansour described how the Bankstown slam had started. It was laziness. She and Ahmad were tired of driving all the way into the city for poetry slams. Bankstown needs its own slam, they thought, and hunted around until Tim Carroll, the generous and welcoming CEO of BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Services) gave them a home. At the end of their first year, she said, she realises they were wrong on two fronts: running a slam in Bankstown was a lot more work than driving into the city once a month; and Bankstown didn’t need a poetry slam – poetry needed Bankstown.

(By way of full disclosure: I played a small consultative role in the editing of the anthology.)

Added later: This snap I took with my phone at the end of the evening shows something of the mood. These are the poets who read plus some others who are in the book.

last conversation

Hommage to Jordie Albiston

Inspired by Jordie Albiston’s use of her grandmother’s diary in The sonnet according to ‘m’, I dug out the folder of letters from my mother that I typed up in the mid 1970s. Here’s a sort of a sonnet based on one of the earliest of the letters, written in June 1964. My sister Mary Ann and I were both at boarding school, in Brisbane and cold Mittagong respectively. Our youngest sister Elizabeth was still at home, and our elder brother Eddie was working on the family farm.

Just a hurried scrawl which I hope you can read –
MA quite often can’t read certain words.
Eliza’s doing a Guides Test on Sat, Child Minding,
we’ve realised we don’t know any three year olds.

They mind a child in the Tester’s house. She checks
for what they do wrong. Lize can’t mind Stephanie Dillon
who’s barred because she’s too good & not a fair test.
Jackeline’s engagement’s still secret. Rumour predicts

a party in July to announce it – they’ll be broke!
I hope you’re taking the tablets to stop your chilblains
’cause you’ll feel the cold worse this year. Eddie’s in bed
with an awful cold he’s had for 2 weeks, but

he’s worked in the rain the whole time. Dad
has started painting the outside of the house.

I don’t know if it’s fun to read, but it was fun to do. Almost every word, including the ampersand, is from my mother’s pen.

Sonnets according to ‘m’

Jordie Albiston,  The sonnet according to ‘m’ (John Leonard Press 2009)

The M in these poems is not from Fritz Lang (‘When out of grace in Peter Lorre’s eyes’?) or the James Bond franchise (‘If gin and vermouth stirred not shaken are’?), but is, as the back cover blurb tells us in a manner ominously reminiscent of the  labels in contemporary art exhibitions, ’emblematic of recurrence and precipitousness’. It’s a commonplace that poets nowadays don’t generally have a huge audience. The most recent variation I’ve heard was from David Brooks, at a Sydney Writers Festival workshop: the world is desperate for poetry but poets aren’t writing the poetry that the world wants. It’s almost as if, he said (but blame me if this is crudely expressed, I took skimpy notes), you have to choose between writing for poets or writing for the public. As a reader, I definitely identify as part of the public, and Jordie Albiston’s clever play with the sonnet form in this book tends to intimidate and alienate me rather more than it delights. Yet, there is delight here, and a little sharpening of attention brought rewards.

There are at least three Ms: ‘me’, Marsi  and em. Marsi, the acknowledgements page informs us,  was the poet’s maternal grandmother, whose diary, kept for a month in 1959, provides the basis for 12 of the book’s 54 sonnets.  Em is Emily Skinner, Jordie’s paternal great-great-grandmother, whose memoir lies behind another four of them. I found the use of these sources fascinating. At the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Adam Aitken read a poem based on his father’s letters, so perhaps this kind of familial translation is a common practice. It’s certainly an interesting one, and here the Marsi sonnets in particular provide a kind of rootedness. They tend to observe metrical and rhyming conventions, not strictly, but more so than the ‘me’ poems, and the quiet intelligence they bring to the concerns of a 50s housewife  demonstrate Albiston’s range marvellously:

well we have waited twelve months to see
what the nuns would do with the old wood
house 00 a noise at last from the sainthood:
the roof is coming off! 00 now of course we

are curious to know What Next!

and so on. Compare this to the ebullient play with form in ‘mandatory’ (all but the ’em’ poems have titles beginning with  m):

well you gotta be good 00 but
you gotta be bad 00 you gotta
be both glad & sad 00 yep you
gotta be human it says in the
book but look! 00 there’s that
creature inside! 00 you gotta be
nothing you gotta be all 00 you
gotta be both great and small

Would you have picked that as the octet of a sonnet? There’s a huge variety here. There’s quite a bit that seems to be just for fun (as in ‘methinx (i)’, ‘2moro 2moro & 2moro / goes slo frm day 2 day’). Katherine Mansfield scores a sonnet. There are a number entitled ‘mural’ that celebrate and mourn the passing of verbal graffiti. Some seem to embody a very contemporary feeling of derangement. And so on.

I ended up being completely won over.

NSWPLA dinner

There’s a quote from James Tiptree Jr I’ve been wanting to sneak into my blog for some time. When an editor asked her to write an afterword to her short story, ‘The Milk of Paradise’ she wrote that some authors are ‘walkie-talkie writers … who are named Mailer and Wolfe when they are good’ and went on:

But the rest of us, poor carnivores whose innards meagrely condense into speech. Only at intervals when the moon, perhaps, opens our throats do we clamber up on the rocks and emit our peculiar streams of sound to the sky. Good, bad, we do not know. When it is over we are finished, our glands have changed. Push microphones at us and you get only grumbles about the prevalence of fleas and the scarcity of rabbits.1

That, in short, is why I’ve become a dedicated paying guest at the annual  NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner. I love to see those poor carnivores clamber up onto the podium to be honoured, even the ones who can’t manage any more than ‘Thank you’.

I nearly didn’t go this year, fearing that the dreaded PowerPoint’s incursion, begun at the shortlist announcement, would continue. I was also trying to think like a grown-up about the expense, and then there was the Dîner des Refusés precipitated by the nul prize for a playscript. But here I am again, home from the Art Gallery, out of pocket but flush with the inside dope, even though the on-the-spot tweeters and newspapers (with self-promoting or surprise-upset hooks) have beaten me to publication.

It turned out, no surprise, to be a pleasant evening. The company was convivial, the setting brilliant, the food excellent. There was no PowerPoint as such, but sadly the dinner has become an Event, the creation of Events Organisers, with glossily impersonal results. There was a would-be witty typewriter centrepiece on each table. Two huge television screens told us who was talking to us at any given moment, threatening but thankfully not quite managing to distract us from the mere humans on the stage between them. And the pause between the announcement of each winner’s name and their arrival at the microphone – that is, the time it took them to reach the stage, be photographed kissing the Premier and cross to the mike – was now filled, not just with applause and a buzz of conversation, but with a blast of fanfare from the sound system. I hope someone whispers to the Organisers that this isn’t the Oscars, still less the Logies.

Auntie Sylvia Scott welcomed us to country. As last year, she told us she was an avid reader, and revealed that though Nathan Rees had promised her a pile of books, she never saw any. As she left the stage Carol Mills, Director General of Communities NSW and MC for the evening, promised her a pile this year. She was gracious enough not to look sceptical.

Richard Fidler gave the address. He was funny, and with enough meat to be satisfying, with quotes ranging from Neil Gaiman (about the joys of being a writer), by way of Stalin (writers are the ‘engineers of the soul’) to the unnamed Bush aide (‘probably Karl Rove’) who derided the ‘reality based community’. He advise women in quest of a man to look to their bookshelves – men don’t care so much about appearances, it’s the books that count: ‘Ladies, if we see a copy of a book by Deepak Chopra or Erich von Daniken, we’re out of there.’ He recommended The Moth podcast, and inveighed against Twitter as the ruination of literature – all those writers being witty in 140 characters instead of being at work: ‘Get back to your desks you Gen Y bastards!’ (At that point I saw my Baby Boomer friend misrule discreetly tweeting.)

On to the awards:

The UTS Glenda Adams Prize for new writing: Andrew Croome – Document Z
I started to read this a while back but couldn’t bear to read yet another book on the subject. Perhaps seduced by the sub-Oscaresque music that accompanied him to the mike, Andrew Croome gave a straightforward thank you speech, an example followed by most of the award recipients. In particular he acknowledged his debt to University creative writing courses. The book started out as a PhD – ‘But that doesn’t mean it’s boring.’

The Community Relations Commission Award: Abbas El Zein – Leave to Remain: A Memoir
A lovely book. He said, ‘I never thought I’d shake hands with the Premier and be paid for it,’ introducing another recurring motif of writers responding to Kristina Keneally’s physical presence.

The NSW Premier’s Prize for Literary Scholarship: Philip Mead – Networked Language: Culture and History in Australian Poetry
I hope to read this hefty volume some day. The very tall Philip Mead (nickname ‘Tiny’) commented that it was lovely to stand next to someone of normal height. The Premier leaned over to his mike and said it was lovely to stand next to someone who was taller than her. He went on to thank, among others, independent Australian publishers, who are like tussocks: ‘we do everything we can to destroy them and they keep coming back.’

The Play Award: Controversially not awarded

The Script Writing Award: shared by Jane Campion for Bright Star and Aviva Ziegler for Fairweather Man
Jane is abroad. In accepting the award for her, the film’s producer Jan Chapman threw us the pleasing tidbit that in the absence of any letters from Fanny Bryce to Keats, Jane looked for inspiration on her character to her own teenage daughter. Aviva spoke about the ways writing a documentary is of its nature so much more a collaboration than other forms of writing.

The Kenneth Slessor Prize for poetry: Jordie Albiston – The Sonnet According to ‘M’
I bought the last copy of this on my way home.

At this point in the evening, the main meal was served. I was the only one at my table vulgar enough to want to trade fish for meat. One of my fellow guests was gracious enough to do so. The steak and mushroom and mashed potato was delicious, though it didn’t look a bit like the way my mother used to do it. Then on with the show:

The Ethel Turner Prize for young people:Pamela Rushby – When the Hipchicks Went to War
Pamela Rushby wins the Me fail? I fly! award for the best acceptance speech. She may have been the only recipient who began with the formal ‘Distinguished guests’, but she recovered from that slightly distancing moment by telling us she had pitched the book to publishers as Apocalypse Now meets A Chorus Line. Apart from giving us some little known information about young women who went to the Vietnam War as entertainers, she thanked her family, ‘without whose support the book would have been finished in half the time’.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for a children’s book: Allan Baillie – Krakatoa Lighthouse
Allan writes with remarkable precision, but he speaks with difficulty – so he can be difficult to follow. I thought he said that on this project his wife had to endure more than most writers’ wives because he’d been carrying on with an orang utan. I probably misheard, but he does have an unsettling sense of humour. He definitely did say that his wife climbed Son of Krakatoa with him.

The Douglas Stewart Prize for non-fiction: Paul McGeough – Kill Khalid: Mossad’s failed Hit … and the Rise of Hammas
‘Madame Premier, Ms Premier?’ ‘Kristine.’ He mainly thanked his editors, and said very little about the book.

The Christina Stead Prize for fiction: J.M. Coetzee – Summertime
Unsurprisingly JMC wasn’t there. Meredith Purnell (?) from Random House read a brief note: ‘Whether I deserve to hold my head up with the esteemed previous winners is something only time will tell.’ So Summertime!

The People’s Choice Award: Cate Kennedy – The World Beneath
‘I can’t believe my luck that all this has come about from just telling stories.’

Book of the Year: Paul McGeough – Kill Khalid
This time, without notes, he spoke about the vulnerability of writers in these late-capitalist times (my term), and daringly drew a parallel with the Taliban, a ragtag collection of warriors holding at bay the great technological firepower of the USA, the closest the evening came to ‘the prevalence of fleas and the scarcity of rabbits’.

The Special Award: The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature
This may have been an inevitable award, but it was sad that we didn’t get to honour an ageing lion, who would have responded memorably.

I didn’t realise until this morning how many of the writers receiving awards were born and partly educated outside Australia: Abbas El Zein of course, but also Jane Campion, Aviva Ziegler (I’m guessing from her accent), Allan Baillie, Paul McGeough and J M Coetzee. That’s at least six out of eleven. Does this mean, as a friend of mine insists, that Australians can’t write? I don’t think so. Does it mean anything at all? I don’t know.

The main pleasure of the evening for me, and I suspect others, was catching up with friends. I was sitting with people I didn’t know well, and that was another pleasure, especially as the three people I could talk to most easily were judges who managed to be gloriously indiscreet about some of this year’s processes. It’s often said that literary awards are given to compromise candidates, books that are no one’s favourites but that no one objects to. It seems this was not the case with these awards. There were sharp divisions of opinion over a couple of them, and my impression is some of the uncontroversial decisions had their share of anguish.
——
1From the collection, Meet Me at Infinity, edited by Jeffrey D Smith, 2000, p 238