Tag Archives: Michael Brennan

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 2

One of the joys of the Sydney Writers’ Festival is hearing from friends and complete strangers about events you’ve missed. This morning in the coffee queue an older woman, a Millers Point resident currently threatened with eviction (Millers Point residents can look down in the festival from their rear windows) was off to a session on how to kill yourself (though probably phrased less bluntly than that) but was also planning one on enjoying old age. I went in out of the sunshine into the very life affirming

10 am: Marathon Reading: Asia Pacific Poetry

This event, presided over by the genial Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press, more or less continued the launch of that publisher’s new Asia Pacific Poetry Series at Gleebooks on Saturday.

A modest crowd sat around at small tables, while, to quote the Festival web site, a line-up of 10 writers made ‘poetry sing in its many voices across languages and get a little beyond the anglosphere’.

Kyoko Yoshida from Japan kicked off with a surrealist short story from her collection Disorientalism. She said she’d never been to Australia before, but the story was set here, and featured a weird love triangle in which one participant was a kangaroo who was very good at sales.

Violet Cho read a long poem in a Karen language, followed by David Gilbert reading us his English version. It’s fascinating to hear the music of a poem before having any idea of its meaning. And Karen is very musical.

Robert Nery, a Sydneysider, read poems translated from Tagalog: crazy, dangerous street scenes filled with brand names, many immediately recognisable to a Sydney audience – capitalism makes the whole world kin, perhaps.

Elizabeth Allen, one of the two pillars on which Vagabond Press stands, represented the Anglosphere – anglophone Australia is after all part of the Asia Pacific.

Nhã Thuyên fro Vietnam was next. In introducing herself she said she was nervous (and perhaps she had a cold as well), that she was usually more human than she was right then. She read beautifully and musically in Vietnamese, and Liz Allen stepped up to the mike with an english version.

Bella Li, from Melbourne, read in  a dour, uncompromising Melburnian manner.

Mabel Lee, who had been introduced by Michael Brennan as the matriarch of Chinese translation in Australia, read magisterially. ‘There must be as many women writing poetry in China as men,’ she said by way of introduction,  but it’s men who get all the attention in the outside world.’ Her edition of poems by three Chinese writers, two of them women, Poems of Hong Ying, Zhai Yongming & Yang Lian, is Number 6 in the Asia Pacific Poets Series.

Adam Aitken is too young and too mild-mannered to be called the patriarch of anything, but he brought a certain local gravitas with him. He read ‘Ala Moana’, which was published in his chapbook, Tonto’s Revenge, and is the only poem of the session that I’d read previously. Adam described it in his introduction as an anti-touristic touristic poem.

Dinah Roma read last. Her Naming the Ruins is the first book by a Philippine poet living in the Philippines to be published in Australia.

We walked out into the sunlight ‘with fragments of poems like ornaments in our hair’ (to quote a poem a student wrote for me in my brief stint as an Eng Lit tutor in a bygone era).

Usually it rains and is nasty for at least some of the Writers’ Festival. Not so far at this one.

It should be raining

11.30 am: David Malouf: Celebrating 80 Years
David Malouf is probably the most loved public figure in Australia. His novels are justly acclaimed. His poetry too. I was surprised to learn from Tegan Bennett Daylight, his interlocutor in this session, that the recently published A First Place is the first collection of his essays: it seems as if his writing about Brisbane and his Queensland education have been working away on the general consciousness for decades.

This was a wonderful session. Tegan Bennett Daylight mentioned in passing that she had been immersed in Malouf’s work for a couple of months in preparation, and it showed – not in any encyclopaedic knowledge but in a deep appreciation, and in a willingness to risk interpretations.

At one stage David said that in a conversation about a book, the only person who hasn’t read it is likely to be the author. Everyone else is in a position to see things that the author can’t see. (Doesn’t that just cry out for the hashtag #oftwasthoughtbutneersowellexpressed? A lot of his talk does that.) Emboldened, TBD offered her observation that all DM’s novels are about a man who finds himself removed from his usual environment, and in the new environment, seeing things freshly, discovers what it is to be. The example she gave as her test case was from Ransom. DM didn’t respond directly to her thesis, but spoke charmingly at some length about what he was trying to do with that part of the book. A little later almost apologised,  saying that what he had said didn’t in any way contradict her thesis.

The conversation played out like a beautiful piece of theatrical improvisation: no one blocked, every question led somewhere interesting. A couple of times Tegan had to take a moment to process what had just been said to her, while David stayed ready to field whatever she gave him as a result. When she ventured into potentially dangerous waters and asked this eminently private author about being in love when writing one of his books, he managed with extraordinary grace to give no information about his private life while answering the question very interestingly about the book.

The session finished with David reading ‘Night Poem’ from Earth Hour (I would have asked for ‘A Green Miscellany’ or ‘Touching the Earth’), and then, most beautifully, Tegan drew our attention to David’s generosity as an interviewee, in particular his generosity to her. I hope this conversation turns up on the radio. Do listen to it.

I dashed home to walk and feed the dog and generally attend to the rest of life, then back for the next session. In the queue, we heard about a brilliant session with the writers of The Gods of Wheat Street, in which among other things they talked about how tough Jimmy McGovern had been with them when they were working on Redfern Now: ‘Make the characters bleed,’ he would say, and ‘That’s furniture, cut it out.’

4. 30 pm: Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth
This was a  documentary movie by Pratibha Parmar, followed by  Alice Walker, again in conversation with Caroline Baum. It went some way to explaining the awkwardness of the previous evening’s conversation: how could they talk about Alice Walker’s life and times when they knew that the next afternoon many of the people in that audience would be seeing this movie, which is nothing if not the life and times of Alice Walker? The film goes into detail about her work, her activism and how they relate to each other in a way that was frustratingly not there yesterday. Her early life, her participation in the Civil Rights movement, her relationships, the writing of her books, all were in the film, where yesterday had tiptoed around them.

The film also shed light on what I registered as a kind of serene abrasiveness. Alice Walker hasn’t been in the habit of speaking in order to be liked: I knew The Color Purple  had been criticised, but had no idea what a  vehement and sustained attack she had endured. And there has been plenty of nastiness in the press since then, often enough from African and African communities, about her writing about uncomfortable truths as much as about her personal life. She has been on the receiving end of some of the worst of celebrity culture, so a little wary defensiveness is more than understandable.

Also, my companion pointed out, she has fabulous clothes and has created a beautiful living, meditating and working environment for herself.

We didn’t stay for the talk, because we had to eat, catch up and walk up town for our next session. Having just been to a movie, which arguably belonged in the Film Festival rather than the Writers’ Festival, we now went to a stand-up show, which you might think belonged in the Comedy Festival.

8.30: Sandy Toksvig: My Valentine
We knew Sandi Toksvig as one of the occasional women panellists on QI. This show, she said, was her Valentine to Life. It began and ended with bits of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; we learned a little Danish which led to a surprisingly poignant pay-off; we found out that Sandy Toksvig has been on British Television for 34 years, and some of the audience vocally remembered her from a children’s show – ‘I see that some of my children have gown up,’ she said). We laughed a lot, and bought one of her books, which turns out to be a female to male cross-dresser who enlisted to fight in the Boer War.

Malouf Adamson Aitken Harrison: Rare Objects

Adam Aitken, November Already (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 86, 2013)
Martin Harrison, Living Things: Five Poems (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 87, 2013)
David Malouf, Sky News (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 88, 2013)
Robert Adamson, Empty Your Eyes (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 89, 2013)

I bought this quartet of chapbooks at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where all four poets read brilliantly. At $15 each, this is poetry at just over a dollar a page, which isn’t a lot of bang for your buck if you measure it by the yard, but – speaking as someone who has ploughed through a number of Collected volumes in the hope of getting a feel for their authors’ work – I’d say these tiny, beautifully presented books are great value for money. The poems have room to breathe. [The list above is in order of publication, my random comments below are in order of my reading.]

1sn It’s common wisdom that learning poetry by heart is a good thing, because – besides being able to surprise and delight your friends – it’s a way of making the poetry your own, inscribing it on yourself (as Dan Beachy-Quick said memorably, here). Reading David Malouf’s Sky News, I realised that, memorised or not, I haven’t really read a poem until I’ve heard it in my own voice, at least internally. I’ve loved hearing David read his poetry ever since he made sunlight glint off milk churns and today blaze from a lapel in his 70s imitations of Horace. But there’s a different pleasure in taking the poems into oneself.

The poems in Sky News are like piano pieces: there’s a right hand with lots of trills and arpeggios, images and alliterative wordplay, and a slower, deeper, meditative left hand. As I got to know each poem, I found myself looking for my own balance between the two, between being charmed by the right hand, as in this evocation of a quiet night in ‘At Clerici’:

Crickets strike up
a riff on the razzle-dazzle
of starlight, then stop.

and being moved by the left hand, which doesn’t lend itself to quotation because it’s often there by implication or comes into the foreground only in the final moments of a poem.

In ‘A Parting Word’, a rendering of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Der Scheidende’, Malouf the translator engages in a similar balancing act. I can’t read German, but compared to what looks like a close translation of the original, it’s evident that Malouf’s poem is a lot livelier: ‘Estorben ist in meiner Brust /
Jedwede weltlich eitle Lust’ (‘It has died in me, as it must, / Every idle, earthly lust’) becomes the playfully alliterative ‘All’s dashed in me, all’s dished and done’, and this playfulness keeps up all the way to the final lines, where ‘Der Schattenfürst in der Unterwelt’ (‘The shadow prince in the Underworld’) becomes

__________________First
in rank of the resident zombies. Top
dog in this dog-house, Hades.

In Heine’s poem, the speaker moves from a cheerless contemplation of his approaching death to a grim acknowledgement that the most vulgar of the living are better off than the noblest dead, so in the end by implication what does art matter? In Malouf’s, the mood is less gloomy – it’s still a poem about age and mortality, but the scales tip towards a celebration of life – it’s not that art is futile, but life is the thing.

1eye The current submission guidelines for Going Down Swinging warn prospective contributors not to send ‘poems involving birds, wings, feathers or flight’. Luckily for Robert Adamson and his readers this prohibition doesn’t prevail everywhere. Henry Thoreau said an abode without birds was like meat without seasoning – Adamson without birds is unimaginable. From traffic casualties in the prose poem / flash fiction ‘A Proper Burial’ to birds that ‘call and call the light’ in ‘Michael Dransfield in Tasmania’, there are plenty of birds in Empty Your Eyes. Poets are here in plenty too: Adamson’s compadres like Dransfield and Charles Buckmaster, but also an assortment of Catholic convert poets – James McAuley, Pierre Reverdy and Francis Thompson (the only poet my mother ever quoted – ‘I fled him down the labyrinthine ways / Of my own mind; … and under running laughter’). Adamson’s poetry is steeped in the Hawkesbury River, in the world of poetry and poets, and increasingly in a kind of questing mysticism:

——————I read
‘The Hound of Heaven’
by a river in new South Wales:

There was a black chuckle
before the ‘running laughter’ –
Attention shifts, revelation grips.

1na Perhaps even more than Adamson’s, Adam Aitken’s cool, postmodern, intercultural poems abound in allusions – not in an arrogant bugger-off-if-you-haven’t-read-Rimbaud way, but more in a let’s-have-some-dislocating-and-provocative-fun way. I went googling quite a bit as I read November Already: John Clare (hardly an esoteric reference, but I hadn’t read anything by him), Rimbaud (I couldn’t find the arachnid referred to in ‘Rimbaud’s Spider’, so I don’t know what I’m missing, but enjoyed the poem anyhow), Ezra Pound (who wrote a travel diary, A Walking Tour in Southern France), Raymond Roussel (I found a note on Adam’s blog that helped hugely in reading the poem ‘Rousselesque’).

There’s a lot of France in these poems: Paris and the tiny village of Mareuil, the Resistance and the Revolution, Roman relics and Australian expats. From what I’ve read of Aitken’s work, I have a sense that he generally writes as if he’s not quite at home, always with a dislocated, interrogative feel. So when a poem about a deserted railway line is entitled ‘On the Chemin du Fer’, it doesn’t read as a mistyping of chemin de fer, but as a marker of the speaker’s outsider status. In the poem, this outsider is on a disused length of railway surrounded by blossoming almond trees, ‘tougher, more industrial’ than cherry blossom, and in these beautifully evoked surroundings, before evoking the Terror by a mention of Saint-Just, asks:

Was that old man “Europe”
so often so hard, so cruel
a one-stop shop
for the soul?

Likewise, I think of Aitken as an urban poet, so when he misspells ‘chicken coop’, it doesn’t read as a mistake, deliberate or otherwise, but as the equivalent of a visitor from the city wearing shiny shoes in a cow paddock, adding to the edgy feel of the poem.

1lt Martin Harrison’s poems, by contrast, feel completely at home in their mostly Australian landscapes. This may be especially true of the first poem in Living Things: Five Poems, ‘Wallabies’, a long, breathless (and sparsely punctuated) celebration of western New South Wales landscapes:

nothing is dead here the spaces between them are
inhabited leaves twigs debris fallen white-anted trunks

slopes rocks grass parrots galahs floating down
in pink streamers again the grey lack of edge

around sprays cream waterfalls of turpentines flowering
in high irrigated air-blue reaches she-oaks aspirant

with their million fingers and amber seed-flowers
spotted gums mottled as grandmothers but with contrasts

of grey brown white and silver as if dressed for a ball

He does more than describe natural phenomena, of course. A recurring theme here is ‘how events change time’s flow beneath perception’: a ‘small thump from somewhere’ (‘White-Tailed Deer’), thrips that are ‘quite possibly meaningless, quite possibly / microbes of non-significance’ (‘Cloud’), a frog you can hear ‘miles away, / long before you thought you could’ (‘The Frog’). Even the eponymous wallabies would be easy to miss if you didn’t read carefully. Some lines from ‘Blue Wren Poem’ suggest something of what’s going on:

____-_____________________Such

detail can be lost – bobbins, birds, refuge, storm –
when innocence starts holding out against the tide,
when radiance blurs the future.

Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press says this series will come to an end at 100 titles. That means there are 11 to go, and the distinctive design, with pasted-on cover art by Kay Orchison, will sadly be no more.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 1

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has been going for days now, but my festival started yesterday, on a bleak, wet, grey Thursday.

I began with a 10 o’clock launch of four chapbooks in Vagabond Press’s Rare Objects series. Chapbooks are books of poetry so small they don’t even rate an ISBN. But where some chapbooks have a cheap and cheerful feel, the Rare Objects are beautifully crafted, a hundred numbered and signed copies of each title. The books being launched were by the stellar line-up of David Malouf, Robert Adamson, Martin Harrison and Adam Aitken.

Luke Davies gave one of the best launch speeches I’ve heard. He paid tribute to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press and to the four poets in warmly personal terms, as people and as creators. The mutual respect and affection among the five people on the dais was something wonderful: completely the opposite of the internecine strife for which poets are supposedly famous. Each of the four launchees read: Adam Aitken from November Already, Robert Adamson from Empty your Eyes, Martin Harrison from Living Things)and David Malouf from Sky News (which my deafness heard Luke Davies announce, improbably, as Sky Nudist, but that would be a different chapbook). We the audience were very restrained, applauding politely after each reader – my guess is that we were too busy processing the complex pleasures we were being given to be too demonstrative. It really was a brilliant reading: a stunning prose poem from Adamson, crisp imagery from Malouf, Aitken taking the New York School to a tiny French village (not really, but that’s a mangled form of his own joke), Harrison in fine rhapsodic form. I loved Martin Harrison’s account of the genesis of his ‘Wallabies’: witnessing two young Australians in full xenophobic flight in a Parisian Internet cafe (and he described them to us with great relish), he took notes intending to write a satirical poem, but realised when he sat to write that what he really wanted to do was to celebrate the part is Australia they came from.

I couldn’t have asked for a better start. I bought all four of the Rare Objects, found a spot out of the rain and sat and read, did email things on my iPad, and chatted. (One of the striking things about the SWF is how easy it is to strike up a conversation with complete strangers.) Then it was time for the 1 o’clock session:Harbour City Poets: Some People You May Know, my first event in the Bangarra Mezzanine, which I think of as the poets’ space at the Festival. Again it was a pleasure to be read to, this time by a quintet of poets – Margaret Bradstock, John Carey, David Musgrave, Louise Wakeling and Les Wicks. The poems were about people, real, and imagined. Margaret Bradstock’s pieces about colonial characters made me want more. And there was some witty and elegant light satire. It may be because someone had told me just before the session about the man being hacked to death in London, but I found myself thinking that light satire, especially when performed giving broad Austealian accents to its objects, is a dangerous mode in which the satirist can all too easily come off as smug, class-bound, narrow-minded, bien-pensant and otherwise unappealing.

I rushed home (bus–train–bus), walked and fed the dog and was back, just a few minutes late for Robert Green: On Creativity at 4 oclock. This session wasn’t on my schedule, but a friend had a ticket she couldn’t use, and the Festival program promised ‘exercises to help rid [me] of blocks and unleash thinking that is more fluid and creative’. Given that I’m feeling out of my depth with a writing project just now, it was a case of what the hell archie, and I’d taken the tickets off her hands. It was turned out to be pretty much a motivational talk. The ‘exercises’ were three broadbrush strategies: embrace the blank page; think like an outsider; subvert your patterns of thinking. I enjoyed the talk, not least for the wealth of anecdote and Robert Green’s manifest passion for his message that every human brain is capable of brilliance, that mastery is possible. I especially liked the first question and response at the end. In summary, a white-bearded man suggested that next time a journalist asks him if he can seriously believe the stuff he says, he should try thinking like a mushroom; this was evidently meant as a witticism, but Green was completely nonplussed; after a bit of back and forth in which the point of excuse tin remained obscure, he agreed that he would give it a try.

More bus, more train, dinner at a pub in Chippendale then to the Carriageworks for Stories Then & Now. I’m a big fan of William Yang’s slide-show story telling, especially his exploration of his Chinese and north Queensland heritages over the years. For this show, along with Annette Shum Wah, he has mentored six mainly younger Asian-heritage people to tell the stories of their families (‘then’) and their personal stories (‘now’). Each story-teller had two turns alone on stage with a microphone in front of hem and two screens showing a series of photographs behind them. Ien Ang, Jenevieve Chang, Michael C. S. Park, Sheila Pham, Paul van Reyk and Willa Zheng were each completely engaging, and the combined effect of heir six presentations was extraordinarily rich. The Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, the American War in Vietnam, Indonesian independence, the White Australia Policy; a hilariously failed attempt at an arranged marriage, a weirdly romantic tale of serial fatherhood by sperm donation, a successful Internet match, intergenerational tension and conflict fled, faced and reconciled. We came out into the night exhilarated.