Tag Archives: Michelle Cahill

Journal Blitz 7

Given the lack of government support for the arts in general and literary magazines in particular, it’s no small miracle that so many of them survive and continue to publish excellent work. I do my little bit, subscribing to three and buying an occasional one-off as the spirit moves me. Then I find time to read them, sometimes falling terribly behind.


Jessica L Wilkinson (editor), Tricia Dearborn (guest editor), Devika Belimoria (artist), Rabbit 31: Science (2020)

Rabbit is a ‘journal of nonfiction poetry’. I don’t subscribe, and I’ve only read one previous issue, Number 10 (my blog post here). Like that issue, this one is beautifully designed – it features gorgeous images made by Devika Belimoria using a mysterious (to me) process involving acrylic paint and macrophotography.

The Science issue is edited by Tricia Dearborn, whose poetry I love. Whereas Tricia’s own science-related poems tend to be accessible to a non-specialist reader (as I have testified in blog posts here, here, and here), some of the poems she has chosen here are dauntingly technical. But one good thing about anthologies is one can skim, though I didn’t skim very much at all.

To give you a taste, here’s a sampling of opening lines:

From ‘Perpetual Motion’, a series of prose poems by Amit Majmudar:

Amazonian nomads, last studied in the 1940s in Brazil (in that
anthropologist's recordings of their dirges, you can hear chainsaws buck
alive in the background), had a religion based on the quest for eternal
life – only immortality wasn't a quality, as it is for us, but a place they had
to keep walking to find

From Jacqui Malins, ‘If you’:

If you are reading this I may be dead
or alive and you have survived past
infancy

Jilly O’Brien, ‘No Laughing Matter’, which is a prime example of what Tricia Dearborn’s editorial describes as ‘science at play – revealing the world, cracking bad jokes and considering the big questions’:

Pierre met Marie in the lab
He had his ion her

Jaya Savige, ‘Starstruck’:

I cannot honestly claim to have met Stephen
Hawking. But once I was skidding down the steepest 
bridge in Cambridge – in the rain, on my rusty BMX 

As well as the science poems, this Rabbit contains the winners of the 2020 Venie Holmgren Environmental Prize, with clear and accessible notes from the judges; a number of articles including one by Tricia Dearborn about her own poetry’s relation to science; a stimulating interview with Astrid Lorange; an essay adapted from a performance piece; and several reviews of recently published books of poetry. All good reading.

I have taken Rabbit 31 into the sauna with me over a couple of weeks. It was ideal reading in that contemplative environment, but alas, it’s bound with glue, and my copy is now pretty much a loose-leaf gathering of poems, images and articles. (Also I was mocked for inappropriate sauna behaviour.)


Elizabeth McMahon (editor), Southerly 80!, Vol 79 No 1 (2019)

Southerly, Journal of the English Association, Sydney, has turned 80, and though no issue has appeared since this one came out in 2019, rumours of its death were apparently exaggerated. At least, the website is back up and running.

As befits a journal of such longevity, this Southerly has something for a range of tastes: poems, stories, memoirs, critical articles, notes about literary history, and a substantial number of reviews. A handful of contributors have been around for the majority of the journal’s lifespan, while others are writers appearing in print for the first time.

In ‘A Bell Note’, David Brooks, retiring editor, offers a fascinating account of his years in the chair, including the difficulty of producing the journal with mostly unpaid labour (contributors are paid, but not editorial staff) in an environment that has become increasingly hostile to literary magazines, or at least to the notion of funding them. His account of the role of literary magazines in the funding economy is worth quoting:

The government was using the journals as a means, on the one hand, of arm’s-length funding of writers (through their payments to contributors), so that, at ground level, it did not have to involve itself in deciding which writers to fund, and, at another level, the journals’ decisions as to who was worth publishing and supporting aided the Board in its decisions concerning which writers to give individual grants to. The journals, in other words, were supported because they were a vital filter in the government’s wider program of support for Australian writing. But increasingly, in the last two decades, this ground has shifted. Literary journals continue to perform this same function, but it’s now largely for the publishing industry; to the government they are supplicants, mendicants.

Richard Nile’s ‘Desert Worlds’ is a survey of the way literature has portrayed the Australian soldiers’ sojourn in Egypt in 1916. It’s almost as if the proponents of patriotic myths should be very glad of the disaster of Gallipoli, because without it those gallant men might now be remembered as racist, sexist, drunken hoons.

Alison Hoddinott’s ‘Poetry and Musicophobia’ does a quick tour of distinguished poets and other writers who have been, not deaf like Henry Lawson, but tone deaf – unable to hold or even recognise a tune, even while being extremely sensitive to the musicality of language. There are amusing anecdotes about Hal Porter, Ezra Pound and Sylvia Plath, among others.

’Editing Daniel’ is a brief account of the life and work of Daniel Thomas, art historian and gallery director, written by Hannah Fink, co-editor of Recent Past: Writing Australian art, the first collection of Thomas’s writing.

Jumana Bayeh’s ‘Australian Literature and the Arab-Australian Migrant Novel’ glances at a couple of pages of Patrick White’s The Aunt’s Story where, she says, an Arab-Australian character appears in an Australian novel for the first time, then goes on to a fascinating discussion of two much more recent novels by Arab-Australians, Loubna Haikal’s Seducing Mr Maclean (2002) and Michael Muhammad Ahmad’s The Lebs (2018), with Edward Said’s Orientalism as theoretical backdrop.

There’s a wonderful variety of poems, including: the melancholy ‘wrap’ by joanne burns (whose apparently is reviewed by Margaret Bradstock elsewhere in the journal); the harrowing ‘Explant (caveat emptor)’ by Beth Spencer (I had to look up breast explant surgery to understand this poem); Anne Elvey’s poem in memoriam Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Grevillea Robusta’; and Jaya Savige’s ‘Coonoowrin (Crookneck)’, on which I spent far too much time and still have only deciphered less than a quarter. Just in case my reader shares my love of impossible word puzzles, here’s the opening of that last-named poem:

Hushbound, mountchain, coiled for-kin ache
revenant, calm. Warm hay be stark enigma flags, but cannot 
rarely be sore heart to tune and luck upon your sighin'?

Decoded:

Husband, mountain, [unintelligible] 
[unintelligible], come. We may be [unintelligible], but can it
really be so hard to turn and look upon your son?

If you can fill in the blanks, the comments section is open.

Of the reviews, Michelle Cahill made me want to read David Brooks’s The Grass Library; Toby Fitch reviewing Dave Drayton’s P(oe)Ms offered valuable insight into some contemporary poetics; Oliver Wakelin on Luke Carman’s Intimate Antipodes, perhaps inadvertently, caught me up on some literary gossip.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 237 (Winter 2019)

As a marker of how far behind I am in my Overland reading, while I was reading this issue, the last one edited by Jacinda Woodhead, the fourth edited by her successors, Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk, has landed in my letterbox.

Mind you, Overland isn’t all that committed to timeliness either. The punchiest article in this issue, ‘Crocodile tears‘ by Russell Marks, is a blistering criticism of a book published in 2016, Cathy McLennan’s Saltwater. After noting that the book met critical acclaim and won awards (not to mention modified praise from bloggers such as me, link here), it goes on:

All of this should come as a surprise because Saltwater‘s myriad problems could have excluded from publication altogether.

Drawing on his own extensive experience as a lawyer working with and for First Nations people, he makes a very convincing case that Cathy McLennan’s memoir of her time as a young lawyer working for an Aboriginal legal service in Townsville is full of poor legal practice which the older McLennan seems to endorse, is misleading in many ways and feeds a racist agenda, while distracting readers from its reactionary politics by ‘vivid and shocksploitative descriptions of her clients and their lives’. (I searched online in vain for any defence of the book.)

The only moment that felt seriously dated was a citation of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth in Hannah McCann’s ‘Look good, feel good‘, an otherwise excellent article about the emotional labour of beauty salon workers. Though The Beauty Myth may well hold up, it’s hard to imagine an article in Overland these days quoting someone who so bizarrely argues against masks and basic contact tracing mechanisms.

My other highlights in this issue were: ‘Only the lonely‘ by Rachael McGuirk, discusses the NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug ‘Ice’ from the perspective provided by her family’s long-term, harrowing experiences with drugs, mental illness and the justice system, ‘Inspired and multiple‘ by Rebecca Ruth Gould and Kayvan Tahmasebian, who describe their process of co-translating poetry as ‘a dance in chains’; ‘At the crossroads‘ by Con Karavias, a history lesson about the German revolution that raged from 1918 to 1923, but will never be restored to mainstream respectability because to do so would be to acknowledge that conservative forces unleashed Hitler and Nazism in order to crush it.

Of the four short stories, ‘Womanhood‘ by Mubanga Kalimamukwento, a Zambian coming of age story involving female genital modification, had most impact on me. ‘The Sublime Composition‘ by Gareth Sion Jenkins incorporates elements of Microsoft Word’s track changes feature in a deconstruction of an incident recorded in Thomas Mitchell’s journals of exploration, but it’s an extract from a work in progress, a taste rather than a meal.

In the eight pages of poetry, I loved the way ‘Tenor and vehicles‘ by Shastra Deo and ‘Learning‘ by Jini Maxwell resonated with each other. One begins:

Fact: things are like other things. Supposition: liking
tweets is like a simile. 

The other:

There is a very fine line
between writing and just sitting down

Overland has a number of regular features:

  • a guest artist. Number 237 has Matt Chun, who is currently – or was in January 2020 – the Children’s Literature Fellow at the State Library of Victoria, and who brings a children’s illustrator’s sensitivity to these sometimes necessarily grim pages.
  • three columnists: On failure by Alison Croggon; On the school as utopia by Giovanni Tiso; and On writing in water by Mel Campbell
  • the results of at least one competition. This time it’s the 2019 Fair Australia Prize (FAP), an annual prize co-sponsored by the United Workers Union and Maurice Blackburn Lawyers. The winners – two short stories, an essay, a poem and a cartoon – share a fresh directness in the way they address issues facing working people in Australian and, in the general fiction prize winner, in India.

And three more journals are now on the shelf above my desk …

NSWPLA 2017

Last night (that is, Monday 22 May), the New South Wales Premier’s Literature Awards were announced at a cocktail event at the Art Gallery of NSW. The award recipients collectively took home a total of $310.000. I have attended this event in the past, but for a number of years now I’ve settled for watching from afar, depending on the generosity of tweeters for glimpses of the event. Here’s what I garnered this year, depending mainly on the hashtag #PremiersLitAwards. Links are mainly to either my blog posts about books or the State Library’s listings of the awards.

In the lead-up, there were plenty of congratulations to the shortlisted authors, plus an occasional erotic spam and on Sunday the rumour that the evening would be hosted by Sunil Badami. A little before 6 last night that rumour was scotched when Hamish Macdonald (not the comedian Hamish who appears on radio with Andy) tweeted that he was ‘delighted to be hosting’ and added that the awards were to be presented by ‘@GladysB’, which I think makes her the first non-Labor premier to have done so in person for a very long time.

Uncle Allen Madden started things off with a ‘wonderful’ Welcome to Country. Joanna Murray-Smith gave the keynote address. Don Harwin, Minister for the Arts, spoke briefly. Gladys Berejiklian gave the Premier’s address. No tweet quoted any of them as saying anything memorable – which I attribute to the tweeters not realising that there were people out here hanging on their words.

Hamish Mc took the mic. His first act was to pay a ‘lovely tribute to the late Dr Rosie Scott’, recipient of the special award last year. His second tweeted utterance was to promise to tackle anyone who made too long a speech. This may be the reason that hardly a word from any of the recipients was tweeted from the room. A pity, because the acceptance speeches are part of the joy of these evenings.

The serious business of handing out the prizes began with the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting. My money was on The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell. I hadn’t seen any of the other shortlisted works, but they would have had to be bloody brilliant to snatch the prize. They didn’t.

The Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting was shared by The Code, Series 2 Episode 4 by Shelley Birse and Down Under by Abe Forsythe. No argument from me, though a citizen of Sutherland Shire, the setting of much of Down Under, had dimmed my enjoyment of that movie with some pretty telling information about its lack of attention to detail. (I wonder if anyone from the Shire is on the judging panel.) .

They were now zooming through the prizes. The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature went to Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall, and the Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature to One Thousand Hills by James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe.

Peter Boyle’s Ghostspeaking won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry, and he had the distinction of being quoted on Twitter. He thanked Vagabond Press for ‘allowing him to have the length he needed to express himself’.

I’m glad I wasn’t a judge for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, because i would have found it hard to pick between Talking To My Country by Stan Grant, The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft by Tom Griffiths and Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner. It turned out the judges chose Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead by Thornton McCamish, which must be a fabulous book.

About now, @RobinElizabee tweeted, ‘So many authors were so confident that they wouldn’t win that they didn’t prepare a speech. Imposter syndrome is real.’ Ah, the humility!

The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing went to Letter to Pessoa by Michelle Cahill.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, one of the big ones, went to The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose. I haven’t read this book but the Emerging Artist has been going on about it for months, so the judges’ decision is heartily endorsed in my house.

At this stage, the Premier handed over the Distributor of Bounty role to Ray Williams, Minister for Multiculturalism, He spoke and presented the next three awards.

The biennial Translation Prize went to Royall Tyler (who translates from Japanese). This year for the first time, there’s a second translation prize, the Multicultural NSW Early Career Translator Prize, which was won by Jan Owen.

Of the contenders for the Multicultural Award NSW I’d read only The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke (aka @slamup). I was very happy to see it win. @JulieKoh tweeted a photo of the book’s publisher Robert Watkins, a very white man, accepting for Clarke, a very black woman. On the screen above him his words are being typed: ‘I am very clearly not [her]’, the only laugh of the night that made it out to the Twitterverse. It was followed by tears: @RobinElizabee tweeted, ‘Robert Watkins reading of @slamup’s speech had him and all of us in tears. Let’s do better.’

Now @thatsunilbadami, earlier rumoured to be hosting the event, appeared on Twitter to congratulate Maxine Beneba Clarke ‘for her powerful, inspiring & accomplished memoir’. Western Sydney solidarity is a beautiful thing.

The People’s Choice Award went to Vancouver, the third novella in the series Wisdom Tree by Nick Earls, who shortly afterwards tweeted this photo with the words, ‘People! Look what you did! Thank you.’gong.jpg

The evening ended with the big prize: Book of the Year went to The Drover’s Wife, the first play to win this award. I wish I’d been there to applaud. The State Library tweeted video of Leah Purcell’s completely charming acceptance speech (if you watch, be sure you stay to the very end). ‘I’m speechless. Just as well I got my thankyous in first, eh?’ You have to love the contrast between her demeanour and the completely appropriate tone of the judges’ report as quoted in today’s Guardian:

Leah Purcell’s retooling of Henry Lawson’s story represents a seismic shift in postcolonial Australian playwriting. Brave, ruthless and utterly compelling from the first image, this epic tragedy is a passionate howl of pain and rage … a bold and exciting contribution to Australian playwriting – and, arguably, to Australia’s very identity.

Which is part of why I love these awards evenings. People of whose achievements I am rightly in awe step up to the podium one after another and reveal themselves as people just like you and me, even though they are still awe-inspiring. Who knew?

Added later: Lisa Hill has a post on the awards that gives links to reviews, her own and other people’s, of almost all the winners, plus the shortlisted titles. Click here to get there.

AWW 2016 challenge completed

AWW2016

This is my mandatory round-up post about the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2016. I undertook to read 10 books by Australian women writers. I read 14, which ranged from revelatory and richly entertaining to definitely meant for readers who aren’t me. Here they are. I’ve tried to be clever with the lay-out. My apologies if it shows up on your screen as a jumble.

Poetry:

x

Novels:

Short Fiction:

lp
Michelle Cahill
Letter to Pessoa

x

x

x

x

x

x

Memoirs:

njb&w
Lesley and Tammy Williams
Not Just Black and White

x

x

x

x

x

x

A comic (that’s a graphic novel to those who think ‘comics’ means superheroes or Disney):

alli
Lee Whitmore
Ada Louise

 

x

x

x

x

x

Essays:

I’m signing up for the 2017 challenge.

My general gender stats: This year I read 39 books by men and 31 by women.This includes at least five (the Y: The Last Man series) that were jointly written by a man and a woman.

Michelle Cahill’s Letter to Pessoa

Michelle Cahill, Letter to Pessoa and other short fictions (Giramondo Press 2016)

lp.jpgThere’s a device that writers known for their children’s books sometimes use when they write for adults. They put some serious swearing or almost-explicit sex on the very first page as a coded warning: ‘This is not suitable as a gift for little children.’ Have a look at the first page of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods or Margo Flanagan’s Tender Morsels.

Letter to Pessoa has a similar device, right there in the title: If you have to ask who Pessoa is, it warns subliminally, this book may not be for you. It’s no idle warning: of the 24 short prose pieces in this book, about half are framed as letters to other writers or otherwise assume that certain writers are part of the reader’s mental landscape (either that, or the the reader is happy to do some research): [Fernando] Pessoa, [Jacques] Derrida, Jean Genet, Tadeusz Rózewicz, Virginia Woolf, [Vladimir] Nabokov – I could go on. For the uninitiated, the reading experience is a lot like listening in on one side of a phone conversation as Michelle Cahill and her narrators engage – playfully, critically or earnestly – with those writers and their creations.

Such intertextuality not only limits a book’s potential audience. It runs other risks as well. When I read ‘Aubade for Larkin’, for example, I looked up Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Aubade’, and was bowled over by it. In ‘Borges and I’ and ‘Letter to John Coetzee’ I found it hard to focus, because my mind kept drifting off to the remembered pleasures of Borges’ stories and the challenges of Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. I was grateful to Michelle Cahill for sending me (back) to those other works, but found it hard to pull my mind back to the writing in my hands.

The less intertextual stories are much stronger. They feature a huge range of narrators and central characters – from a cat (in ‘Biscuit’) to an Argentinian poet with AIDS (in ‘Duende’). Those in the best stories, including the cat, are travellers or members of diasporas (or both), mainly sharing the author’s South Asian and African heritage. These stories involve rich  cross-cultural encounters.

‘The Sadhu’ captures brilliantly a complex interplay of spiritual power and seedy sexuality, exoticism and nostalgia, naiveté and wariness, as a young woman from Dee Why meets the holy man of the title in Nepal. In ‘Fever’, a young woman of ‘part-Nepalese, part-Australian background’ visits an older Nepalese man, her uncle, a Cambridge scholar who now trains rebels in arms and explosives, and the story refuses to give us relief from her discomfort as she feels the gap between her world and his. The protagonist of ‘A Wall of Water’ recalls moments from her childhood in northern India, but the present tense of the story is in jacaranda season in Sydney 2010, and the Christmas Island boat disaster is on the television. Again, the discomfort:

Cocooned in the safety of her peaceful apartment Sarita is numb with grief for those drowned and those who survived: Iranians, Iraqis and Kurds. She knows what happens to missing people, how they become little more than a monthly statistic, how the past is a territory. So much has been excised. There are walls of water and walls created by bureaucratic bias. Ruminating on the foreseeable enquiries and broadsides Sarita slumps down with a vodka and soda.

I don’t know that that deserves the first part of Hilary Mantel’s praise quoted on the back cover – ‘Line by line, Cahill’s writing is musical, assured’ – but it does exemplify the second part:’her seriousness is evident, her ambition impressive.’

AWW2016Letter to Pessoa is the eleventh book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy is a generous gift from Giramondo.

Overland 215 & 216

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not all the writing here is about writing and publishing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2013 in review (lazily)

Many good things happened in my life this year. Possibly the biggest was that Ngurrumbang, the short film whose screenplay I co-wrote with my elder son, was screened at three festivals in Australia and one in Europe, with Flickerfest still to come. But here are three relatively lazy looks at the year that’s just finishing.

One: The first sentence (or sometimes the first two sentences) of the first blog post for each month:

January: Whatever the ghost of Rembrandt might think about the state of Dutch art in the early 21st century the arrival of Florentijn Hofman’s magnum opus in Darling Harbour today was a hit, even after the seeming endless and mostly lame concert and tumbling act that preceded it.

February: I heard Paul Ham speak about this book [Hiroshima Nagasaki] at Gleebooks early last year.

March: Geoff Lemon, co-editor, was surely tempting fate and the critics when, as soon as the 32nd issue of Going Down Swinging was complete, he nicknamed the impending Nº 33 the Jesus Issue.

April: I recently heard a distinguished novelist claim that she grew up believing New South Wales was mostly settled peacefully and that damage to the original inhabitants was largely unintended, caused by infectious diseases and the like.

May: The launch of this book [Pam Brown’s Home by Dark] last weekend was a convivial affair in an Erskineville pub.

June: Sydney has Vivid. Wellington has Lux.

July: I was extremely lucky in the timing of my university studies. I started at Sydney Uni in 1967 when, because of an overhaul of the New South Wales school system, only a very small cohort had graduated from high school the year before.

August: After Karl Ove Knausgaard’s mountains of mundane detail, we wanted our next book to be one that spins a great yarn.

September: It’s about two and a half years since we moved home. About a year ago, the grass tree (Xanthorrhoea) that had stood outside our kitchen window in the old house was ailing in its new location – most of its fronds were brown or browning.

October: This book [Contemporary Asian Australian Poets edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill] seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing.

November: It’s November, and once again, while all over the world people with stamina take on NaNoWriMo, I’m setting myself the modest goal of 14 sonnets in the month – LoSoRhyMo (Local Sonnet Rhyming Month).

December: As Vagabond Press’s beautifully crafted Rare Objects series of chapbooks approaches its hundredth and final title, Jennifer Maiden makes her debut at Nº 95.

Two: Top Ten Movies (in no particular order)

Me The Art Student
Philomena (Stephen Frears) 1p
In Bob We Trust (Lynn-Maree Milburn)
130_ibwt
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)
140_bj
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
140_swt
The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt)
1r
A Gun in Each Hand (Cesc Gay)
1geh
Twenty Feet from Stardom (Morgan Neville)
140_20f
The Past (Asghar Farhadi)
136_past
What Maisie Knew (Scott McGehee and David Siegel)140_wmk
The Attack (Ziad Doueiri)
140_a
No (Pablo Larrain)
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Barbara (Christian Petzold)1barbara A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman)
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Three: Notes on the year’s reading

Rather than single out some books as the best, let’s see how I went in reading diversely.

I’ve listed 63 books in my ‘Reading and Watching’ column. I didn’t finish at least five of them and quite a few were journals, not books at all. It looks as if I read 53 books as such.

  • 31 were by men, 22 by women
  • 6 were translations – two from Norwegian, one each from Bengali, Russian, German and Catalan
  • 32 were Australian
  • 24 were poetry books, including substantial anthologies as well as tiny chapbooks
  • 7 were Book Group books
  • not necessarily the best, but 3 books that enriched my sense of what Australia is were Heather Goodall’s Invasion to Embassy, Noel Beddoe’s The Yalda Crossing and Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, the anthology edited by Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill
  • the Art Student’s pick from her year’s reading were Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, Eleanor Caton’s The Luminaries and her crime fiction discovery, Martin Walker’s Bruno xx series.

That’s it. Happy New Year, all!

Contemporary Asian Australian Poets

Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann 2013)

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This book seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing. The current Southerly focuses on ‘Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, with particular attention to Asian Australian (or Asian-Australian, or Asian/Australian etc) work. The recent OzAsia Festival in Adelaide included a two-day OzAsia on Page component which featured ‘significant and contemporary Asian and Australian voices’. Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Writing Series is looking formidably good.

It’s hard to imagine a more disparate gathering of poets than those collected between these covers, not just in nationality or ethnicity (‘Asia’ is a big and varied place, and there seems to be someone here from just about every part of it except, interestingly, Japan), but in just about every other conceivable way as well. The poetry ranges from work with the exuberance and directness of Spoken Word to compressed, elliptical, allusive capital-L Literary offerings. It’s the poets who are Asian Australian, not necessarily the poetry, so though there are poems of the pain of loss of home and culture (I was going to say ‘nostalgia’, but that’s a word that no longer conveys any sense of real pain), poems that explicitly deal with or enact cultural duality or hybridity, poems about multicultural relationships, poems that tackle white racism head-on, and poems exploring questions of cultural identity, there are also poems that don’t do any of those things.

There is a brief introductory essay from each of the three editors. Adam Aitken outlines and celebrates the extraordinary range of voices and attitudes in the anthology, and the range of possibilities in the term ‘Asian Australian’ itself. Kim Cheng Boey focuses on the experience of migration:

Home is never a given, for first-generation migrants, and continues to be a complex issue for subsequent generations. Being beneficiaries of two or more cultures, and entangled in a complex web of affiliations and attachments, they are wary of identity politics and monolithic formations.

Michelle Cahill points out the anthology’s significance in bringing greater visibility to Asian Australian women poets, who experience ‘the double exile of migration and mediation of patriarchal terrain, so inimical to the female psyche’. Seventeen of the 37 poets in this collection are women, and very few Asian Australian women have been included in any previous anthologies.

All three introductory essays are worth reading, and they give invaluable guidance to the poetry. But in the end, it’s the poetry you pay for – and I’m happy to report that I was immersed in this book for days, being dragged from one engaged mind to another. Christopher Cyrill, whom I have previously known as the events organiser at Gleebooks who always spoke too softly when introducing people, here turns out to have a clear, strong, brilliantly modulated voice in the extract from his prose poem novella Quaternion (and that’s me saying it who hates extracts and doesn’t much care for prose poems). Andy Quan’s ‘Is This?’ is a brilliant abstraction of the moment of anticipation on meeting a new person. Omar Musa contemplates buying a pair of shoes and redefines the notion of choice. I finally get to read Kim Cheng Boey’s ‘Stamp Collecting’, which I’ve heard him read at festivals and loved, and his ‘Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB’ – what can I say? Eileen Chong is here, with some of the finest poems from ‘Burning Rice’. I was about to read Debbie Lim’s ‘How to Grow Feet of Golden Lotus’ aloud to a friend and then realised I wouldn’t want to inflict it on anyone who didn’t have plenty of time to recover. Merlinda Bobis’s ‘Covenant’ (‘after you bomb my town / I’ll take you fishing / or kite-flying or both’) conveys the poignancy (another word that has lost its hard meaning) of peace for a defeated people. Jaya Savige’s ‘Circular Breathing’ could hardly be more mainstream Australian, a kind of version of Les Murray’s ‘Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’ set it in Europe and acknowledging Indigenous Australia (with only the barest allusion to Asia, but who’s counting?). Louise Ho’s ‘A Veteran Talking’ is a killer poem, a chilling, hard, dry killer. I’m glad Adam Aitken included a decent, brilliantly varied selection of his own work.

Please don’t let this book be seen as a marginal anthology of poems by the marginalised. It’s a fabulous collection and belongs at the centre of our culture.