Tag Archives: Ken Bolton

Journal Blitz 10

‘Blitz’ is a misnomer. My progress through my backlog of subscribed journals has been at anything but lightning speed. One of the journals has gone into a troubling hiatus, which has had the silver lining of reducing my pile of obligation, but I’ve filled the gap with a couple of one-off purchases, so the pile continues to grow at least as fast as I can read. The reading itself, of course, is largely a pleasure.


Jacinta Le Plastrier (editor), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 10, Number 2: tribute, observations (2021)

For this issue of APJ, Jacinta Le Plastrier commissioned 29 poets and poetry-connected people to choose a poem by another poet and write a response to it and to the collection it appeared in. It’s a terrific idea. Much as I love Francis Webb’s description of a poem as ‘a meeting place of silences’, I’m delighted by this project’s invitation to read poems in the company of other thoughtful and engaged readers.

The resulting collection of poems and ‘commentaries’ lives up to the hope. Jan Colville’s poem ‘Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium’, for example, was chosen and commented on by Kristen Lang, whose book Earth Dwellers I loved. The poem is a response to a collection of herbs made by Emily Dickinson when she was a girl. It begins:

words slip off the page 
paste_ more than a century old 
_____ barely there_  cracked with age
_ and still
_____ here is the light through the forest
_____ her young hands 
_____ choosing stems, bare feet 
_____________________ in the dirt

Kristen Lang’s commentary sheds light and warmth even from her first words:

It is difficult to force a gap between the name ‘Emily Dickinson’ and the word ‘poet’. [This poem] not only prises the two apart but embeds there the warmth of an absorbed and absorbing child. There’s a contagious tenderness in this poem …

After a few more words that (for me) open the poem right up, she describes the book it came in – Journey (Walleah Press 2019). I immediately put Jan Colville and that book on my To Be Read list.

The rest of the poems vary richly in form, tone and content. There are poems by award winners and by people you’ve never heard of; poems by people whose work I love and have blogged about and people whose work is thrillingly new to me.

The commentaries are just as varied – including close, but not too close, readings like Kristen Lang’s; intensely personal prose poems; scholarly abstraction; and general advocacy for particular kinds of poetry.

There’s a translation from Bahasa Indonesia: ‘Termination Letter’ by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao, whose commentary on translation as creative collaboration is fascinating.

There’s a bilingual poem, ‘BIGGER THAN SCHOOL STUFF’ by Arrente poet Declan Furber Gillick, accompanied by the poet’s note on the incomplete poem as ‘a glimpse into the process of language revival’, and then a commentary from Jeanine Leane, who edited the anthology in which it appeared, Guwayu – For All Times (Magabala Books 2020).

As a lively, challenging and enjoyable introduction to the thriving, multifaceted contemporary Australian poetry scene, this would be hard to beat.

And then there are items that aren’t part of the main project, including an essay on poetry and science by Alicia Sometimes, tributes to Melbourne poet Ania Walwicz who died in 2020, and a blurb on Poetry Sydney, an independent literary organisation founded in 2019.


Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk (editors), Overland 240: Activism (Spring 2020), with links to the articles at overland.org.au

Here’s Adrian Burragubba on the alliance between Indigenous activists and non-Indigenous environmental activists in the context of the Stop Adani campaign:

Wangan Jagalingou’s case overlaps with the fact that large numbers of Australians oppose the Adani mine, and want it stopped.

The positive is that many people also support First Nations rights, and are joining forces with us. They know that by standing with us they can help protect the Galilee Basin, the natural springs, the Carmichael River. We welcome them. The negative is that support for our rights is not extended unconditionally and may therefore evaporate when the common goal is no longer an issue …

This is dangerous ground.

We call upon people to stand with us, but it’ll be our walk, our path, and it’ll be under our circumstances. 

That’s from his essay ‘When I speak I speak for the land‘ in this issue of Overland. It’s one of a stunning line-up of First Nations voices from the Activism @ the Margins Conference held in February 2020 at RMIT in Melbourne. Others range from Warlpiri story-teller Wanta Jampijinpa (‘Say sorry to the land‘) and longtime activist Puralina Meenamatta Jim Everett (‘An open letter to the next generation‘), to historian Victoria Grieve-Williams (‘Oodgeroo: Breaking the iron cycle of settler colonialism‘) and Sir Hilary Beckles, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, whose ‘An Epistemic museum for modernity‘ calls for the thinkers and writers who legitimised white supremacy and slavery to be ‘identified, tracked down and held to account’. Taken together, the articles amount to an impressionistic history of Australian Indigenous activism from the 1960s Referendum campaign and the Gurindji walk off from Wave Hill to Blak Lives Matter and Indigenous hip-hop.

As always this Overland has rich selections of short fiction and poetry, edited by Claire Corbett and Toby Fitch respectively.

The poetry section includes stellar poets Omar Sakr, Samuel Wagan Watson, Ouyang Yu and Pam Brown. Jessica L Wilkinson has a beautiful historical poem, ‘Loïe Fuller entertains M. and Mme Curie at Boulevard Kellerman‘, and Zenobia Frost’s prose poem ‘sandwiches‘ is a powerful narrative of the loss of a parent.

Of the four sort fiction pieces, ‘Here comes the flood‘ by Perth writer Belinda Hermawan stands out for me. It’s a complex impressionistic tale of growing up with anti-Asian racism in Australia.


Vern Field (editor) Island 158 (2019)

As with the only other issue of Island that I’ve read, this issue is lavishly presented, with glorious full-page colour illustrations throughout. In fact, there’s hardly a page that doesn’t have some kind of image or colour effect behind the type, which is not always an advantage when a reader with deteriorating rods and cones is reading in artificial light.

This issue has a focus on the climate emergency, which is definitely a Good Thing, though maybe because I’ve been reading and brooding an awful lot about that subject I found more joy in the non-themed parts of the journal’s mix of creative nonfiction, essays, poetry, short fiction, excerpts from novels, and visual art.

Carmel Bird’s ‘Dr Power’s Prescription for the Fabrication of a Tasmanian Imagination’ is a nice piece of promotion for a work in progress, in which she discusses Colin Johnson’s largely forgotten historical novel Dr Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the End of the World and its importance in the history of Australian, particularly Tasmanian, literature.

Angela Rockel’s ‘Rogue Intensities’ is an excerpt from a forthcoming work that gives us three months out of five years of ‘sensations and thoughts arising from a life in place’. Its combination of personal observation and scientific information about the flora and fauna of her place is full of charm, though I don’t know how I’d go with a whole book.

Dominic Amerena’s story ‘Just Maybe’ has just two full stops. The first comes at the end of a four-page sentence that loops back and forward in time telling a slightly creepy story of seduction from the seducer’s point of view. Then there are two words and the story is over. It’s like watching a juggler on a high wire: will he lose control and have innumerable clauses come clattering to earth?

I read Ken Bolton’s long poem ‘Letter to John Forbes’ with undiluted pleasure. Writing 20 years after Forbes’s death, Bolton identifies himself as a fan, and as a fellow poet. In semi-formal seven-line stanzas and a disarmingly informal tone, he brings the departed Forbes up to date on developments among their community of poets and in the world in general – our recent run of prime ministers, the careers of Forbes’s poetic friends and enemies, speculating on how Forbes would have responded. You probably need to know a bit about all that history to enjoy the poem, but it’s full of life and wit. Here’s a taste:

__________________________________ Our foreign ministers
___you'd have cherished – Downer & his air of stammer, of blithering,
Julie Bishop's show-pony, best-girl competence
 _ _(the earrings & tailored clothes), Bob Carr – how he rose 
___ to the occasion – & Rudd, after years of talking down to us, 
was about to, patiently, talk down to the United Nations. Look at me, Ma! 
They must've objected, or seen it coming.

Ken Bolton’s London Journal London Poem

Ken Bolton, London Journal London Poem (Vagabond  Press 2015)

ljlp.jpg

There are just two poems in this book. In the first, ‘London Postcard – A Quiet Morning at the Wapping Project’, which is 24 lines long, the speaker describes the image of a woman on a postcard advertising what may be a film, and ruminates:

The fictive life of the tourist‘? Or would
I feel this way about this image
anywhere?

The words in purple are in italics in the book – it’s the best equivalent I can figure out in WordPress. The italics seem to signify that the phrase is a quote, but quote or not, it’s a nice way of naming a habit of mind common among tourists – a tendency to make up stories about things you see while passing through, or to see patterns in them. A couple of lines later the speaker rephrases that idea:

I attend to her in the idle moment.

The second poem, ‘London Journal’, begins with a reference to the first poem:

I have an intuition, that maybe that
particular poem – very short –
could serve to hang this – or anyway ‘a’ –
longer poem from. And this is by way
of being that long poem.

I’ll rush in where a proper critic might fear to tread, and say that this longer poem (more than 200 five-line stanzas) enacts touristic fictivity (if that’s a word): it attends to many details in a time that, however busy, could be described as an extended idle moment, a time spent being a tourist.

The speaker and his partner Cath are visiting her son Gabe and his partner Stacey in London, with excursions to Berlin and Barcelona. Tourist destinations  – the Brandenburg Gate, for example, or the Miro Museum – are mentioned, but so are tiny particuliarities of the travelling life: an odd show on television (Pointless as it happens); the book you’re reading; a quest for a strange place someone has told you about, and the anticlimax when you finally find it (a ‘fanatics’ ping-pong club’ in East Berlin); street signs and advertisements that are unsettlingly unfamiliar; evidence of poverty and the problematic status of immigrants; restaurants and bars; encounters with locals; information about the work life of one’s host (in this case, Gabe); lots of people-watching: pieces of a giant puzzle that are fun to play with but are unlikely ever to form a unified image. There are poetry readings, and an occasional moment when Bolton’s colonial status is made clear to him – maybe. The travellers go to museums and art galleries. It doesn’t take a lot of Web research to find out that Bolton is an art historian, but one doesn’t feel obliged to understand all his ruminations on the art he sees – enough for me at least to enjoy the way his experience as tourist connects with his abiding interests.

There’s a scattering of photographs, some of them blurry, as if to emphasise that this is a journal. And a scattering  of lines refer to the process of writing the poem, wondering if it will come together – yes, it’s also a poem.

Scanning for something to quote to give you a taste, I keep coming back to this at Canary Wharf:

of power and judgement. Shopping, food, all take place
underground: no-one seen outside. At lunchtime
vast crowds are disgorged below, moving at speed

to their destinations – all very much suited (men and women),
largely under 35, dressed in black for the most part: very
Brave New World, and much whiter than the general population
(only 45% of London identify as white anglosaxon).
We go with Gabe to a Jamie’s Italian. Good food.

Very noisy. In the toilets I come across a middle-aged,
middle-management type, seemingly doing an Al Jolson
‘Mammy’ impersonation, to the hand-dryer – down on one knee,
both hands smacking his chest, then flung out – Drying
his shirt front
, he tells me. I think for a moment

of joining him – ‘Mammy, how I loves ya, how I loves ya!’
etcetera. I nod encouragement.

In an excellent review in Cordite Poetry Review, Cameron Lowe suggests that ‘London Journal’ is a parody of a travel poem. He may be right, but ‘parody’ suggests a kind of formal imitation and/or mockery. There’s plenty of self consciousness about form and plenty of humour – like the photograph described as ‘Stacey with the author’, which appears to include only a solitary young woman, until you see half an arm almost lost in the page’s gutter. But I had no sense of a ‘proper’ travel poem that this was referring to. It’s just good fun, and interesting, in its own right.

In his elegant speech at the launch of Puncher & Wattman’s Contemporary Australian Poetry, David Malouf observed that while the poetry scene in Australia is extraordinarily vibrant in terms of the amount and quality of poetry being published, at the same time what he calls common readers have been turning away from poetry as if it is a foreign land, possibly because poetry has been turning away from them.

I think of myself as a common reader. And I want to say to other common readers: you can pick up this book without fear of being snubbed or made to feel somehow lacking. Cameron Lowe put it very well:

The poems here – as in Bolton’s other work – appear to imply that the process of writing poetry is an everyday activity (even while on holiday).

Recent journals (1) – Heat 21

Ivor Indyk (ed), Heat 21: Without a paddle (Giramondo December 2009)

Some of the reasons why you should subscribe to Heat, or at least read it:

1. Worthiness. Your money and attention help to sustain cosmopolitan Australian literary culture.

2. Self-protection. Extracts from works in progress allow you to prejudge the finished work. I’ve decided to avoid a significant number of award winning books on the basis of such advance warnings, and I’m likely to steer clear of one or two foreshadowed in this issue. The poetry provides a similar warning function: poetry is so much a matter of taste, and journals like Heat can play the crucial role of taster. And there are the critical pieces: on the strength of Kate Lilley’s detailed exposition of Susan Howe’s The Midnight, I won’t go looking for it any time soon (far too rich and recondite for my thin blood); Peter Craven’s critical review has put me right off Brian Matthews’s biography of Manning Clark. But it hasn’t enamoured me of Peter Craven: he’s bracingly forthright in his judgements, and even when he’s completely wrong-headed he provokes interesting conversations, but he comes across as too full of himself and too pugnacious for me to actively seek him out.

3. Titillation. Then there are the poems and extracts from works in progress that have the opposite effect. Poems from, among others, Pam Brown, Ken Bolton, Chris Price make me want more.

4. Education. In this issue, Josiane Behmoiras embeds an introduction to the work of Paul Virilio, a cutting edge French thinker, in an account of her recent trip to France (complete with implied travel advisories on the stench of urine by the Seine and problems with Australian Visa cards on the Metro); where her discussion of his work descends from glorious abstraction, it seems to be arrive at important conclusions about how we should live, very close to those of Bill McKibben’s much less abstruse Deep Economy.

The four-colour section in the middle introduces us to the  painter Jon Campbell, and offers us a hand in understanding why we should be interested in his work.

5. Base pleasure. Maybe this is only for people who are or have ever been editors, but Heat can be counted on for regular hits of the sour pleasure of Other People’s Gaffes. The best one in this issue occurs in a poem: ‘a woman rides a / pink vesper that you could / park anywhere’. I’m reasonably sure the poet had a chic little Vespa scooter in mind rather than an evening star blazing to the kerb in the sky.

6. More substantial pleasure. This is of course the real reason for reading Heat at all.

Here, Jena Woodhouse interviews Michael Hofmann, poet and translator, and though her introductory paragraphs use rude words like polytropic, once we get to Hofmann himself the prose becomes a joy to read.

Luke Carman’s three prose pieces gathered under the title ‘The Easy Interactions of an Elegant Young Man’ have a wonderful, disturbingly comic cumulative effect. Part way through the second I realised I saw him read similar work at the Sydney Writer’s Festival earlier this year, and described his reading as rapidfire and surreal. It works that way on the page as well.

And then there’s James Ley’s ‘A Degree of Insanity’, a straightforward, intelligent essay on Samuel Johnson that is splendid in itself, not least because it quotes generously from Johnson’s sonorous prose. Its appearance in this journal gives added pleasure, as it seems to send ricochets out, pinging off the rest of the content. Peter Craven, for example, drops a couple of Johnson’s famous quips into his argument for no apparent reason other than to establish his own gravitas. The notion, from Johnson’s Rasselas, that ‘all power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity’ bounces prettily off the mild derangement of Luke Carman’s pieces and some of the poetry. The excitement surrounding literary journals in eighteenth century London sparks reflections about the role of their descendants in our time, Heat among them.

Next:  Overland issue 197.