Tag Archives: Kate Lilley

Kate Lilley’s Tilt

Kate Lilley, Tilt (Vagabond Press 2018)

tilt.jpgThis must be one of the most publicised books of poetry ever to appear in Australia. Kate Lilley and her sister Rozanna Lilley made headlines in June by talking to the press about how, when they were young teenagers, they were sexually exploited  by much older men – writers, poets, artists, etc in the orbit of the girls’ playwright mother Dorothy Hewett, and how this happened with their mother’s apparent endorsement. The articles under the clickbait headlines generally mentioned Tilt and Rozanna’s book of memoir essays and poems, Do Oysters Get Bored? As Rozanna said in an interview on the ABC’s Hub on Books, the Lilley sisters didn’t set out to make scandalous revelations or impugn their mother’s reputation, but to tell their own stories, and perhaps reconsider their experiences and their parents’ milieu in the light of the #MeToo movement. You can hear that interview at this link:

I don’t expect I’ll damage the sales of Tilt if I say readers will scan its pages in vain for prurient thrills. Poems related to Lilley’s early life make up about a third of the book, in a section entitled ‘Tilt’, and based on my limited acquaintance with her work I’d say they are uncharacteristically personal. Poems in the second section, ‘Harm’s Way’, range widely in subject matter, including Australia’s offshore detention of people seeking asylum, a scandal involving a judge in Arkansas, and a Texas psychiatric institution. These poems often feel as if they have been constructed from words and phrases found in other sources – newspaper articles, court documents, institutional records, perhaps. The third section, ‘Realia‘, is an expanded version of the Vagabond Rare Object chapbook (the link is to my blogpost): the expansion consists largely of seven pages of prose about Greta Garbo, which – for prosaic readers like me – allows for a vastly richer reading of the poems that follow, mainly ‘GG’ which comprises a list of objects from the catalogue for the auction of Greta Garbo’s estate.

But back to the direct, personal poems in ‘Tilt’. The great children’s writer Katharine Paterson said somewhere that her novel The Great Gilly Hopkins started out from the question, ‘What became of the children of  the Hippies?’ These ten poems address a similar question: ‘What of the children of sexual libertarians?’ They are not a diatribe, nor do they ask for a response of moral outrage. They are complex, poised, sometimes angry, clear-eyed accounts of troubling moments in a young life. One poem that keeps coming back to me is ‘Conversation Pit 1971’:

conversationpit.jpg

This little poem is worth sitting with for a while. The title and the first couplet conjure up a period domestic milieu – according to Wikipedia conversation pits were popular from the 1950s to the 1970s in Europe and North America, and I guess we’d add in some parts of Australia. In the second couplet Mum’s blunt, explicit question disrupts any expectation of wholesome conversation. It’s the kind of incident that could be part of a hilarity-filled session of reminiscences among the grown children. The lines giving the speaker’s reply,

Kissing I said just kissing
whoever’s nearest (only boy-girl) then swap

would fit nicely in such a session.

Then what wasn’t revealed in the conversation pit: that the speaker also experimented with girl-girl kissing.

We thought we were so ingenious
I was 11 she was 12

Even though we’ve been told that the mother’s question relates to primary schoolchildren’s activities, it comes as a further shock that the girl being questioned was so very young. Then the poem moves on from outrageous family anecdote mode:

The question changed everything
what had seemed forward was now backward

There’s something almost clinical in this. We’re not being asked to condemn the mother, or to pity the daughter – it’s just one of the infinite variety of ways ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’, but that line, ‘what had seemed forward was now backward’ identifies this particular way with extraordinary simplicity and precision. And then a terrible ache is evoked in the final couplet:

I needed to speed up
at least get my period

Probably everyone has a story to tell about unhelpful parental intervention or non-intervention in their adolescence. Lilley’s poems have an extra dimension from the fact that her mother was Dorothy Hewett, whose poems, plays and prose often dealt with her own sexuality, and her father was Merv Lilley, author of the book Gatton Man, in which he argued that his father was a serial murderer. There are explicit references to the parents’ works: ‘Turn Around Is Fair Play’ amounts to a gloss on a moment in one of Dorothy’s plays, probably The Legend of Tatty Hollow; and ‘Her Bush Ballad (Bourke St Elegy)’ alludes to the subject matter of Gatton Man. But even without such references, this double handful of poems must change the way we read Hewett’s work. Elsewhere, Kate Lilley has described her mother as a ‘magnificently unabashed poet of female narcissism’. These poems expose some of the darker implications of that description, while never letting go of an enduring sense of connection, of complex loyalty. A line from ‘Memorandum’, the final poem in the section:

I’ll never get over (not) having you as my mother

[Added later: For a very fine, beautifully articulated discussion of the book and its place in the general ‘conversation’, I recommend Ali Jane Smith’s ‘A Book Is a Good Place to Think’ in the Sydney Review of Books.]

Tilt is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Overland 220 and my November rhyme #6

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

220-cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 1

By one count, the Sydney Writers’ Festival has been going since the weekend. The opening address, by all accounts brilliant, was on Tuesday night. My festival started yesterday.

My first event – a poetry reading in the English Department’s Common Room at the University of Sydney – wasn’t strictly part of the Festival, but two of the poets were in Sydney for the Festival, so I’m counting it. I had to leave early to catch a bus to the Opera House so I only got to hear one and a half poets, all of Fiona Hile and half of Kate Lilley. Sadly, I missed out on Louis Armand from Prague, and Pam Brown.

The room was full of poets. Overheard pre-reading conversations (there were nibbles and drinks) included happy reports of ‘having something accepted ‘ in a coming anthology. John Tranter recorded proceedings for the Penn Sound Archive. Vagabond Press was selling in a back corner.

I enjoyed Fiona Hile’s reading but I wouldn’t say I understood much of the poetry. Partly this was because she read fast, the room was a bit echoey, and I’m a bit deaf. Mainly, though, I expect it was because she’s what the Spoken Word people call a page poet, and even more an experimental poet, which tends to mean that meaning isn’t easy to grasp. There were lots of striking lines. I managed to jot down:

The lilliputian threads of the old ways make me want to lose a limb

and in a context to do with sheep:

That wolf you’re wearing goes with everything.

In introducing Kate Lilley, Fiona Hile conjured up a fabulous image. She said she used to think it was uncool to have heroes, but when she began writing her own poetry, she had four horsewomen: Kate Lilley, Pam Brown, Gig Ryan and Jennifer Maiden. I’d love to see the movie that has those four poets charging into battle.

Kate Lilley read from Ladylike, and was about to read from Realia when I reluctantly tore myself away to catch a bus to the Quay, have dinner and then climb the stairs to the Joan Sutherland Hall of the Opera House for:

7.30 pm: The Life and Times of Alice Walker, in which Alice Walker was interviewed by Caroline Baum and joined by Archie Roach. The SWF blog already has a report.

As is customary at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the session bore little relation to its title. Alice Walker was in no mood to tell her life story, or to discuss her ‘times’ with any specificity. The tone was set right at the start when Caroline Baum asked, ‘Are you nervous at the start of events like this?’ and Alice Walker replied, ‘No,’ and waited serenely for the next question. CB bounced back by asking her to read us a poem, and she obliged with ‘You Should Grow Old Like the Carters’, which she read beautifully, giving each word its full weight, conveying the music , treating herself and the poem as worthy of our full, serious attention. That mix of awkwardness, resilience on Caroline Baum’s part, and weight on Alice Walker’s kept up for the whole session.

Part of the awkwardness came from the level of unaware racism in the room, or at least a reasonable expectation of it on Alice Walker’s part. She didn’t give her interlocutor the benefit of any doubt. For example (from memory, so probably missing a lot of nuance):

CB: So you grew up in a house without books and were part of an oral, story-telling culture.
AW: Oh, no, we had books. My parents got hold of old books that people had thrown out. But yes, there were lots of stories that everyone told, wonderful stories. [End of reply.]
….
CB: You read a lot when you were young. I believe your favourite books were … and Jane Eyre. What was it like the first time you read a book with black characters you could identify with?
AW: Oh, I identified completely with Jane. White people seem to think they can’t identify with black characters, but when we read it’s not about these divisions. It’s the spirit we identify with.’ [Applause]

Fortunately, Caroline Baum has a wonderful capacity for putting herself out there, and then bouncing back when she has her knuckles ever so serenely rapped.

Another reason the session seemed such hard work is possibly a problem of definition. Is Alice Walker at the festival as a writer, an activist, or a vague kind of celebrity?

Well, obviously, she’s a writer. But The Color Purple was published roughly 30 years ago, and I wonder how many people in that huge hall had read Possessing the Secret of Joy, or made it all the way through The Temple of My Familiar. As a poet she would draw a crowd, but not this big a one. Many of her essays are absolutely brilliant: ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’, ‘Only Justice Can Remove a Curse’, her essays on Zora Neale Hurston and Bessie Smith, on olive oil, the scar in her eye … I can rattle those off without googling. And a new collection of essays – Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way – has just been published. But how many essayists can fill the Opera House?

As an activist, she has an impressive record. She campaigned very visibly against female circumcision a while back, and was part of the flotilla that was intercepted so dramatically on its way to Gaza. But as far as I know she’s not part of any activist organisation and her activist philosophy boils down to stressing the importance of having friends (a ‘circle’) you can be completely honest with, and meditation seems to fit there.

Celebrity seems to be the key. So although the conversation touched on many things, and Caroline Baum kept pulling the conversation back to the recently published book, my overwhelming impression was that we were in the presence of celebrity, who was dispensing her wisdom for our benefit. The most telling celebrity moment was when she was asked about her daughter’s very public statements that her activism had made her a neglectful mother. Her reply included no whiff of self doubt, no hint that her daughter might have had a legitimate point (as the children of many activists surely would). The problem was that her daughter suffered from ‘mental instability’, from which she had now mercifully recovered. This dismissiveness was cloaked in serious and valid reflections on the legacy of slavery on her family, but it was dismissive all the same. We were to make no mistake who was the important person in this conversation.

I’m sorry if that’s jaundiced. I’m still a fan. I will buy the new book of essays, and probably her new book of poetry as well. I’m seeing another session with her on my second day, and hoping I’ll have a change of perspective.

What Maisie and the Book Group Knew

What Maisie Knew, Henry James (1897, this Kindle edition based on Echo Library Large Print Edition 2006)

1_wmkBefore the meeting: When I read Henry James at university (Portrait of a Lady in first year and What Maisie Knew some time later), quite a bit of it went right over my head. I loved the prose, but the worlds of his novels were a long way from the North Queensland pragmatism and Catholic piety that I had been brought up with. Perhaps now, more than forty years of secular urban life under my belt, I’d have more luck. After all, Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s movie adaptation just about tore my heart out a few weeks ago, and Kate Lilley’s poem ‘Maisily’ moved me simply by listing the adverbs from the book.

The Kindle edition gets right down to business – cover, title page, table of contents, and then, without so much as a chapter heading:

The litigation seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal the judgement of the divorce-court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child. The father, who, though bespattered from head to foot, had made good his case, was, in pursuance of this triumph, appointed to keep her: it was not so much that the mother’s character had been more absolutely damaged as that the brilliancy of a lady’s complexion (and this lady’s, in court, was immensely remarked) might be more regarded as showing the spots.

We’re thrown right into the middle of a story, everything in plain sight, embedded in metaphor and sarcasm. This can’t be read fast, and once you know that by this stage of his life James dictated his novels, it can’t be read without the mental image of a portly gentleman pacing the room enjoying the sound of the sentences as they roll out from his mouth.

And it continues as it has begun: rich, sonorous, intricate sentences that tell a story of child neglect from the point of view of the child, but with no attempt to tell it as a child would: instead, we are asked to explore the great complexity of this little girl’s perceptions of the adult world and her strategies for dealing with it, in language that is at times as baffling to the reader as that world is to her.

I enjoyed the book, but I can’t pretend that I always understood what was going on in that adult world. Specifically, in the last movement Maisie – now well past the age of six that she remains in the movie – has to make a decision about her living arrangements in a context where the adults clearly share an understanding of the issues and believe incorrectly that Maisie does too. James seems to expect his readers to have the insider’s view as well. But times have changed, and the reference point of the culture have shifted so much that I at least could only follow the broadest outlines of what F R Leavis calls the ‘moral squalor’ of the adult world. The governess Mrs Wix, who is possibly meant to be a kind of moral centre of gravity (and who is not there in the movie) wins out in the end, and I think we’re meant to see this as a triumph of good over evil, but I completely couldn’t see why Maisie’s rejection of Mrs Beale, who has always defended and loved her, should be seen as a good thing (though who can tell when the air is so thick with irony?).

By telling the story from Maisie’s point of view, the novel throws into question the whole concept of moral squalor, if that refers primarily to sexual behaviour: what Maisie doesn’t get is all the sexual stuff, so being a kept man or a loose woman or a gold-digger or someone who pays for sex, as various characters appear to be, matters not at all, whereas loyalty, patience, kindness, generosity and their absence are what count.

F R Leavis thought very highly of this novel, which is probably why it was set for us to study at Sydney University in the 1970s. I don’t know that it’s a book I’ll be in a hurry to reread, though many of James’s sentences merit many re-readings.

After the meeting: Words like ‘loathing’ kept cropping in emails leading up to last night’s dinner. However, it was hard to feel loathing for anything much, as we sat outside eating barbecued chicken and sausages on a balmy, mosquito-free Sydney spring evening, as darkness brought an end to a day that had been predicted to be full of bushfire horror but had instead been one where the volunteer rural fire service could be justifiably proud of having averted disaster by strategic backburning the day before.

There were six of us. A couple had been travelling, and shared travellers’ tales. One had been living in Darwin and told spectacular yarns of Territory life. Some of us had been to the theatre and had stories to tell from there as well – one involving a smart phone that played Beatles tunes as background to the drama until an actor politely asked the blithely unaware owner of said phone to turn it off. It was a warm, convivial evening.

We did talk about the book, happily and with minimal rancour. Only one of us – me – had read the whole thing. Only one of the others said he planned to finish it. I may have been the only one who found the sentences fascinating rather than perversely complex. As we were going home, we clapped eyes on the paperback that one chap was holding, and several of us had difficulty reconciling the slimness of the paperback with the size of the book we felt we had read on our various electronic devices.

Tranter and Lilley: Rare Objects

John Tranter, Ten Sonnets (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 90, 2013)
Kate Lilley, Realia (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 91, 2013)

This series of elegant chapbooks finishes up this year at No 100, which means that John Tranter and Kate Lilley at 90 and 91 respectively are leading us into the straight – which may be the only straight thing about either of them (no reference to sexuality intended).

I went to the launch at Gleebooks on the weekend because I am generally baffled by the work of both these poets, and hoped for some guidance on how to read them, and I got it. John Frow, Eng Lit and Cultural Studies scholar, who did the honours, commented that in both books – and in The Tulip Beds by A J Carruthers, Rare Object No 92, which he was also launching – the poems were generated using a mechanism: in Tranter’s case the rhyming sonnet form and in Lilley’s a found-object framework.

10sonnetsFive of Tranter’s ten sonnets have an additional mechanical dimension: they list the five vowels and assign each of them to a colour. And other mechanical elements turn up in other poems: for instance ‘Poem Beginning with a Line by John Anderson’ was written, we’re told in a note, ‘while listening to a paper on his poetry given by Ella O’Keefe at the University of Auckland in March 2012’, and incorporates lines from Anderson and from Ms O’Keefe’s talk. (I hope she’s flattered by being incorporated into the sonnet rather than offended by the lack of attention.)

Speaking of notes, six of the books 16 pages are taken up with notes, which quote liberally from Wikipedia. It’s hard to tell for the most part whether these notes are meant to inform the reader, to mock the reader for wanting information, to slip an extended prose poem or two under the radar or simply to get the book’s pages up to a multiple of eight. One note explains what ‘Scuba’ is an acronym for, but is no help in explicating the couplet in which it appears:

U, olive green of underwater hair –
Scuba, the acronym, in a crowded room.

Another manages to compare Tranter’s work to Shakespeare’s, if only on the matter of complexity. On the other hand, a good half of the very long note on ‘Poem Beginning with a Line by Bunting’ is a lucid explication of a poem that at first I found impenetrable, which begins:

Boasts time mocks cumber Rome.
Roasts thyme scents set on ledge.

Interestingly enough, the note explains, that first line (from Basil Bunting’s ‘At Briggflatts Meeting House’) can be decoded into standard English. So can the second, but the rationale for its existence is that it echoes the first – it’s not clear if its sense matters at all.

realia001Following John Tranter’s lead, I’ll now quote Wikipedia and tell you that the great modernist American poet William Carlos Williams ‘summarised his poetic method in the phrase “No ideas but in things”‘. It’s tempting to say of the poems in Realia, ‘no ideas, just things’. The longest poem in the book. ‘GG’, is mainly a list of items from the estate of Greta Garbo sold at auction last December, presented without commentary:

Greta Garbo flatware
Greta Garbo cordial glasses
Greta Garbo Sherbet stemware
Greta Garbo Swedish butter press
__Viking mould imprints 14 5/8″ x 4 1/4″

and so on.

Of course, the art is in the selection. I looked up the actual 302 page catalogue, and the poem got even funnier. You can almost hear Kate Lilley saying, like Anna Russell, ‘I’m not making this up!’ The weirdness of starting each item with ‘Greta Garbo’ is not her invention. I didn’t check that everything in the poem is genuinely from the catalogue, but I did search for the line that most aroused my suspicions

Greta Garbo Stim-U-Lax Jnr Hand-Held

and there it was, hidden in plain sight:

ggm

Some liberty taken as befits a poet, but an honest steal.

Neither of these books appealed to me much on first contact, but when I came to write about them, even so spottily, I warmed to them both. My own fiddling with sonnets has taught me that there’s a lot of mechanics in poetic form, and it’s interesting to put the mechanism front and centre and see what you get. And listing found verbal objects without comment or interpretation can create interestingly comic or disturbing effects.

The Vagabond Press facebook page predicts another five titles by the end of the year, by Emma Lew, Bella Li, Emma Jones, Ania Walwicz and Jennifer Maiden. To be launched in Melbourne.

Southerly 72/1

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 72 No 1 2012: Mid-century Women Writers

20121018-203833.jpgSpring is here – ‘a box where sweets compacted lie’ as George Herbert called it, in a phrase that could apply just as well to this issue of Southerly. (Or to put it prosaically, this post is an annotated list.)

There’s a new Jennifer Maiden poem, ‘George Jeffreys 13: George Jeffreys woke up in Beijing’. This series of poems has had to find a new focus now that George W Bush is no longer reliably on the television obsessing about Iraq as he was for the first poems. George and his kind of girlfriend Clare seem to be travelling the world, waking up in one troubled locale after another, having adventures involving guns, fires and pirate ships as well as discussing politics, morality, philosophy etc. It’s not a verse novel, or even a discontinuous narrative really, but it is never uninteresting. In this poem George and Clare meet with a recently released Chinese dissident in the Forbidden City where they are joined by Confucius and the Duke of Zhou.

There’s Fiona Morrison’s excellent essay, ‘Leaving the Party: Dorothy Hewett, literary politics and the long 1960s’. Like many Communists, Hewett stayed in the Party after the 1956 invasion of Hungary despite serious misgivings, then left when the tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968. In effect this essay traces the movement of her mind between those two events as revealed in her writing. Strikingly though, it doesn’t refer to either Hungary or Czechoslovakia, restricting itself to literary matters. Some of the essay’s specialist scholarly language took my fancy, and revived my love of double dactyls:

Higamun hogamun,
Fíona Morrison,
writing in Southerly,
gathers no moss:

says that our Dorothy
ex-Marxist-Leninist
wrote a sustained tropo-
logics of loss.

There’s Karen Lamb’s ‘“Yrs Patrick”: Thea Astley’s brush with timely advice on “the rackety career of novel writing”’, an inside look at the relationship between Astley and other writers, with a focus on a particularly unsparing letter from Patrick White. I once heard Astley quote a dollop of writerly advice she had received from White: ‘If you’re going to write about a shit, Thea, you have to make him a really big shit.’ This article is fascinating but doesn’t include anything quite that colourful. Karen Lamb is writing a biography of Astley. Reading her account of Astley’s approach to friendship, I wondered if biographers don’t run the risk of coming to dislike their subjects through knowing too much:

Karen Lamb
surely doesn’t mean to slam
Thea Astley
but she makes her seem ghastly.

I’ll refrain from doggerel for the rest of this post.

There’s the other piece I turned to the day the journal arrived in the mail, David Musgrave’s review of Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s Australian Poetry Since 1788. In a measured and judicious manner, Musgrave joins the line of anthologists, poets and publishers who give this anthology the thumbs down. (Incidentally, I note that neither David Brooks, Southerly‘s co-editor, nor Kate Lilley, its poetry editor, got a guernsey in the anthology, but that didn’t stop them from including an elegant narrative poem by Gray elsewhere in this issue.)

Of the theme essays on mid-century women writers other than the two I’ve already mentioned, Helen O’Reilly’s ‘“Dazzling” Dark – Lantana Lane (1959)’ and Susan Sheridan’s ‘“Cranford at Moreton Bay”: Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant‘ persuaded me to add the books they discuss to my To Be Read pile. I skimmed the essays on Christina Stead, Eve Langley and Elizabeth Harrower, and a second one on Jessica Anderson, which are intended for specialist readers. I mean no irony when I say I was grateful to read this near the start of an essay: ‘In her well-known formulation of performativity, Judith Butler argues that repetition of a discourse actually produces the phenomena that it seeks to control.’ Such sentences serve as warnings: what follows is intended not just for readers who can understand the warning sentence, but readers to whom its contents are familiar.

Off theme, there’s Ed Scheer’s ‘“Non-places for non-people”: Social sculpture in Minto’, an account of a performance art event, Big Pinko, in which two artists painted a house pink. It sounds like an interesting project, but I found article a little disturbing in the way it talked about the people of Minto. Perhaps the Judith Butler formulation is relevant: the phrase ‘non-places for non-people’ is meant to encapsulate a criticism of the dysfunctional environment in this outer western suburb, but as it is repeated in this essay it comes to read like a dismissal of the people who live there. The essay has a lot in it that’s beautiful and evocative, but in this respect it makes me appreciate all over again Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s at Westside’s labours to foster writers in Western Sydney.

This issue has abundant rich poetry. I love B. R. Dionysius’ ‘Ghouls’, a set of five sonnets about the Brisbane floods.

The white festiva shunted like a tinny, half-tonne maggot into
O’Hanlon Street’s winter bulb cul-de-sac. The Bremer’s brown
Muzzle investigated the bottom stairs of a corner house, sniffing
For the scent of past flood levels left by more malicious beasts.

Of the other poems, I particular liked ‘Rose Bay Airport, 1944’ and ‘Standing Soldiers’ by Margaret Bradstock (both after Russell Drysdale wartime paintings), ‘Holiday snap’ by Andrew Taylor, ‘Hardware 1953’ by Geoff Page, and ‘The Roadside Bramble’ by Peter Minter.

Of the fifty pages of reviews, John Kinsella on David Brooks’s The Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette and a secret history of Australian poetry andPam Brown on Kate Lilley’s Ladylike stood out for me, Kinsella for fascinating ruminations on the nature of literary hoaxes, and Brown for her usual generous intelligence.

Rhyll McMaster goes late night shopping (with washed money?)

Rhyll McMaster, Late Night Shopping (Brandl & Schlesinger 2012)
—, Washing the Money (Angus & Robertson 1986)

At Sappho’s recently, Kate Lilley said she had always enjoyed the work of the poet whose book she was launching but had never previously had to speak to that enjoyment, a very different and challenging  thing. I sympathise. I enjoyed Late Night Shopping – a lot – but don’t know that I’m up to giving an account of my enjoyment. As often happens to me when I contemplate writing about poetry – any poetry from ‘My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose’ to, I dunno, Christopher Brennan’s translations of Mallarmé – I feel a bit lost for words.  If you want a proper review of Late Night Shopping, I recommend Lyndon Walker in the Rochford Street Review. But here’s my two bob’s worth.

‘The Shell’, the first poem in the book, confronts us with the fresh corpse of a woman who has died in hospital:

After that rasping sound when the woman died
she was bleached pale on the surface like a sponge.

The poem foreshadows the main subject of the collection: not so much death as the relationship between physical reality and the reality of the mind; ‘The mind [is] embodied and embrained’; ‘A sheep’s skull is a sculpted housing / fine and hard for a sheep’s brain, / built to retain its idea of itself’; or this, from ‘The Image of the Box’:

All philosophy’s a game,
It’s a clever fox
That stops us thinking

of the universe
as void condensed,
a roaring silent trinket

of energy rampant

It’s not nihilism or morbidity, but a kind of cool, radical wondering.On the one hand there’s the physical universe, including us, and on the other there’s what we make of it all. Rejecting illusion, perhaps, but still enchanted. The lines from ‘Nomenclature’, ‘Call the unknowable / what you will / from your dug-in position / on the side of a hill,’ could be read as advocating intellectual despair, but that hill, coming at the end of a poem full of abstractions, hill feels to me like a promise.

A number of poems are responses to images – a photograph, nine paintings by Sidney Nolan, five drawings by Terry Milligan. It seems to me that the surreal Nolan sequence, ‘Evolutionary History of Edward Kelly in Primary Colours’ needs to be read beside the paintings it refers to. As a public service, then, here are the Nolan paintings that I could identify from the notes on the poems, with the name of the poems that refer to each of them (I’ve struggled with the formatting here. I hope it looks the same in your browser as it does in mine):

Kelly and Horse, 1946:
 
‘The Creature’s Morphology’

Kelly and Sergeant Kennedy, 1945:
‘Most Mutations Fail’

Kelly in Bush, 1945:
 
‘What the Land Told Us’

Policeman in Wombat Hole, 1946:
‘Mesozoic Territory’

Kelly, 1946:
‘DNA’

Glenrowan, 1945:
‘Fossil Record’

Return to Glenrowan, 1946:
‘Extinction Imminent’

Kelly and Horse, 1945:
‘Final Classification’

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The day I finished reading Late Night Shopping for the first time, I found a copy of Rhyll McMaster’s Washing the Money, published 26 years earlier, in a secondhand bookshelf (the aforementioned Sappho’s, as it happens). Self-described as ‘Poems with Photographs’, this is full of verbal snapshots of the poet’s early life and her life as a young mother. These poems give us the remembered world of a 1950s childhood in precise detail – a ‘narrow crack at finger-running height’ in a brick wall, a newspaper delivered ‘with a stuffed thud’, ‘grandma’s hair like silkworm thread’. There are actual photos, and some of the poems are responses to them; other poems refer to photos not included.

This book spoke to me in a very personal way: Rhyll McMaster and I were both born in Queensland in 1947, so when she uses words like ‘port’ and ‘togs’ I’m there. The family car, the beach excursions, the mosquito nets are all home territory for me. My father didn’t wash and iron the family’s money at weekends, but the description of the notes strikes a chord. (Incidentally, the poem ‘Washing the Money’, which documents a weird family ritual to comic effect, becomes a rich and deep reflection on family connections when read, as it was by me, with the recent book’s elegiac ‘His Ordered World’ fresh in the mind.)

My biggest pleasure from this book, though, was a piece of uncanny serendipity. Among the photographs is a 1939 studio portrait of the poet’s mother, Jean Isobel. Here it is, and next to it is a studio portrait of my own mother, Esme Isabel, taken a few years earlier. It’s not the first time I’ve felt that a writer knew something very private about me, but I don’t know that any other book has ever come this close:

wp-image-9371 wp-image-9370

SWF 2012: Poetry, prose, performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they gave us pizza!

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

I’ll write about the weekend tomorrow.

SWF 2112: Poets, Harbour, pitches and more poets

This was my first day at Walsh Bay, and in striking contrast to recent weather, the sky was cloudless and there was no wind – perfect festival weather.

The tiny harbourside room generally reserved for poets at the Festival couldn’t have been a more appropriate venue for my first event of the day, Harbours and Rivers, with Robert Adamson, Neil Astley, Martin Harrison and Jennifer Maiden. I joined the uncharacteristically long queue with minutes to spare, and only when it became clear I wasn’t going to get in I realised I was in the wrong place: this time the tiny room had been given to young writers talking about the Second Novel Effect, and the poets had been given a much bigger and incidentally much darker space. I briskly walked the length of the Wharf and arrived part way through the introductions.

The poets, refusing as poets should to be pigeonholed, paid at best slant regard to their allocated topic. Jennifer Maiden read a long new poem, ‘The Uses of Powerlessness’, which she described as a diary poem but was actually pretty much a philippic on Julia Gillard, not in the ‘X woke up in X’ form, but a straightforward furious meditation. I wrote down one of many striking lines: ‘The Labor Party, like Gillard, is an obedience addict.’ Martin Harrison and Robert Adamson both spoke of the complex interplay between observation of the natural world and self-discovery. ‘All my harbours and rivers are internal,’ the latter said, somewhat disingenuously, ‘even though I live on a river.’ Among the poems he read was the sublime ‘Kingfisher’s Soul’, an intensely personal love poem that grows richer with each hearing. Neil Astley, advertised as editor of English publishing house Bloodaxe Books, turns out to be a poet as well. He was in Darwin for Cyclone Tracy, about which he read two striking poems followed by an excerpt from a novel that engages with an English countryside.

Jennifer Maiden, Robert Adamson, Martin Harrison and Neil Astley not far from the Harbour

In short, it was very good. Afterwards I ventured to introduce myself to Jennifer Maiden, but I was probably working so hard at no being too fanboyish for the conversation to have made much sense.

After a brief interval I went to the Club Stage for So You Think You Can Write, my first time to this a regular Festival event in which random audience members get to pitch a project to a panel of publishers.

The specially decorative lights for the Club Stage area – each bulb has an open book for a shade.

I don’t know that anyone who was at all savvy about publishing would participate in this, unless for the sheer fun of it. And it was mostly fun. A 15 year old boy pitched a detective story set among the Egyptian pyramids. There was an earnest tract for children aiming to foster leadership skills and an understanding of democracy. One or two pitches were for books that could have been anything, so broad were the descriptions. One woman had already had an iBook version of her project downloaded thousands of times. The winner – of nothing apart from the glory – was a psychological detective story in which the character realises a day of her life has gone missing and then is shown photos of herself taken on the missing day. The thing that won the audience and panel’s approval was that the photos were improbably and bizarrely orgiastic, involving vegetables and cigars in unspecified lewd ways. It may not be Scandi-Crime, but this audience loved it. You read about it here first.

And then off to the poets’ lightfilled room. Gig Ryan and Kate Lilley, feminist-identifying experimental poets, drew an overflow crowd, including Adamson, Harrison and Astley from this morning, plus John Tranter, Ivor Indyk, Toby Fitch and many faces familiar from the Sappho open mike nights. Each of the poets introduced the other. They read from recently published books and, on being requested by an audience member to  compose a poem together on the spot, they parlayed the request down to each of them reading a poem by the other – with interesting results.

I confess that I went to this session expecting to suffer. I’ve read very little of either of them and my experience has been that if I don’t know a poet’s work I have trouble hearing it when read to me. (A possible contrary experience was hearing Jennifer Maiden this morning, but I am familiar with her voice and preoccupations, so had a head start.) Gig Ryan reads quickly, and her language is very compressed: I had difficulty distinguishing the words, let alone grasping the connections between them. Kate Lilley has a gratifyingly expressive delivery, and the woman beside me kindly allowed me to look over her shoulder and read along as the poems were read. But I was still pretty completely mystified. Both women talked about how people in their lives met their work with blank expressions, so I didn’t feel too stupid, or at least not alone in my stupidity.

One of Kate Lilley’s poems, ‘Maisily’, consists of a string of about a hundred adverbs. This was the first time she’d read it aloud and it was quite a feat – all those lys. It seemed like pointless nonsense to me. Then she explained that it was made up of all the adjectives used by Henry James in What Maisie Knew. That made it seem like hi-falutin pointless nonsense to me. Then I remembered that it was part of an elegiac sequence about the poet’s relationship with her mother, and it no longer seemed so pointless – maybe I was finding an emotional subtext because that’s the kind of reader I am, but I did find one, like a deeply submerged nostalgia for childhood when the adult world was as inscrutable as to little Maisie in James’s novel. I wonder how it wold go if read, not as a near tongue twister, but with the rhythm of a tolling bell.

As if the poets had read my thoughts, their conversation turned to the business of reading poetry aloud. Lilley said she knew and loved her poetry long before she heard her read, but when she did hear her read it was a revelation. Maybe my difficulty is as much to do with my increasing deafness as with unfamiliarity with the poetry.

So the poetry was difficult, but the session was excellent. Both were very funny about the business of being poets, and how they see each other’s poetry. Even when they drew our attention to the complete absence of critical articles on Gig Ryan’s work, even though she is generally acknowledged as an important Australian poet, and surmised that this absence may well be because she is a woman, somehow that seemed richly comic.

On the way home in the bus, I ran into an old friend who had been to a panel with Peter Hartcher, George Megalogenis and a third journalist talking about Australia’s parlous economic situation. I felt I had been very frivolous, but I was glad of it.

Dorothy Hewett’s Selected Poems

Selected Poems of Dorothy Hewett, edited and introduced by Kate Lilley (UWA Press 2010)

When she launched this book at Gleebooks Gail Jones warned against becoming so fascinated by the iconic figure of Dorothy herself that we forget to actually read her poetry. Good advice, no doubt, but I’m probably no different from anyone who knew Dorothy at all in being completely incapable of reading these poems without feeling that I’m in the presence, not so much an icon as a … well, a presence.

Dorothy was a frequent visitor to Currency Press, where I worked in the 1970s. She commanded attention, was never dull, and was never stuck for words. Her first appearance in my time there was by way of a letter written to her good friend our editor in chief Philip Parsons, which he read aloud to the staff (all three of us). She was approaching 50, and wrote that she wanted to celebrate her birthday on a beach in Bali, laid out in a coffin surrounded by black candles. We were amused. When she saw the Currency edition of her play The Chapel Perilous (on the front cover a glamorous photo of  Dorothy when young, on the back a pensive Dorothy in her late 40s), she exclaimed,  ‘Time’s cruel!’ I really don’t need to say this, but Dorothy approaching 50 didn’t exactly lack glamour. We were amused again. In 1976 we published her much earlier play, This Old Man Comes Rolling Home, and I marked up the typescript for the printer. When you mark up a text you take it one word at a time and if it’s a play it tends to perform itself in your head. As I neared the end of my pencil-wielding way through This Old Man, tears were streaming down my cheeks. Dorothy walked into the office soon after I’d finished it, and I told her, with feeling, how much I loved the play. ‘Ah well,’ she said, rolling her eyes, ‘you work away for ten years and they still say your first thing was the best.’ Once, impertinent pup that I was, I told her she had misused a word in a piece published in Overland (writing bisexual but meaning, I said, androgynous). She didn’t slap me down: her eyes lit up, and we had an animated conversation. The last time I saw her was at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dinner in 2000, where she received the Special Award, and though she was ill and walked with difficulty, she was as commanding and glamorous a presence as ever, her hair still wild.

If you said that none of those random memories had anything to do with the poetry I couldn’t say confidently that you were wrong.  But it would be odd to quarantine Dorothy’s poetry from her plays and prose, or from what we know of her life. The subject matter of her plays and autobiographical writing is revisited here: her childhood in the Western Australian wheat belt, her sexual adventures and ordeals, her history with the Communist Party. As Kate Lilley writes in her introduction, Dorothy was a ‘magnificently unabashed poet of female narcissism’. (She’s also a magnificently unabashed poet of Australian Communism and disillusion with Communism.) In the poems, even more explicitly than in the plays, she puts herself on the … I was going to say ‘on the chopping block’, and I think I’ll stick with that. If this is narcissism, it’s a ruthless variety; if sometimes her laments over her suffering as a woman sound like self pity, there’s a pitilessness in the way she holds that emotion up to the light. Nothing is quarantined in these poems, and when I read them, I hear Dorothy’s voice.

I think I’m blathering.

Excerpts from the autobiographical  ‘The Alice Poems’ take up about a third of the book, and fill me with chagrin that the book Alice in Wormland is out of print. But the quieter poems of the last 20 pages, which look squarely at old age, the effects of cancer, and the approach of death, are the real treasure. From ‘The Last Peninsula’:

death in his blue cowl
takes one reluctant step away
while the suffering flesh
cut sewn and sealed
lies still in its narrow bed
the spirit looks down and is healed
Healed for what? says the voice
More of the same?
And the currawong sings Rejoice
I have called your name
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I find the last poem in the book, ‘What I Do Now’,  intensely moving. After a quote from Frank O’Hara (‘I always wanted my life / to have some kind of meaning’), the poem walks us through the speaker’s day – lying in bed reading, getting up at 6 pm, watching television until midnight, and staggering back to bed. Then, with what might be read as desolation, but which to me sounds like a reprise in a minor key of Dorothy’s grimly stoic, eye-rolling response to the Chapel Perilous photos or my response to her early play:

–––––––––the wind howls
ripping my poems to shreds
the paper lantern whirls

I listen to the semis
changing gear
to tackle the 40 Bends
in the tapestry chair
the cat snores loudly
will I live to a great old age?
there are lots of mad old women
in these mountains
shut up in their houses dying.