Tag Archives: Penguin Plays Rough

Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man

Luke Carman, An Elegant Young Man (Giramondo 2014)

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/889/7316403/files/2015/01/img_1161.jpg Published at the same time as Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe, in a similar format (they are both Giramondo Shorts), and with a similar voice-from-Western-Sydney cover blurb, this book cries out to be read alongside that one. Both books comprise interlinked stories with a single narrator. Carman has shared the stage with Ahmad at a number of readings in Bankstown and elsewhere over the years, and his name has cropped up on this blog a fair bit, often alongside Ahmad’s. Both of them write fiction that feels as if it’s at one small remove from autobiography. They are, however, very different writers.

First, a trigger warning: if you’re sensitive to what the record companies call explicit language, you’d better give this book a miss. If you’re fine with the C word, but don’t want to have a vile image of sexual debasement served up to your inner eye, definitely skip pages 10 and 11, in which the narrator tells of an early encounter with pornography.

Quite apart from that, much of this book isn’t for the faint-hearted. The dominant theme is multiculturalism as it’s lived by working-class teenagers in western Sydney: plenty of violence, racist and sexist verbal abuse, drugs and desperation. In his performances of these stories, Carman has an oddly dissociated, almost robotic manner, with no attempt to mimic the natural rhythms of speech, or indeed of language. It’s as if we’re hearing a meticulously observed report from the point of view of a visitor from another plane – or even another planet: no judgement, no analysis, no emotive suggestions. I don’t think the stories work quite the same way on the page, but there are elements of it: after the description of porn I mentioned earlier, the narrator comments inscrutably, ‘In some ways, life was better before the Internet,’ and moves on with the story. When the narrator (named Luke, and with a number of verifiable things in common with the author) gets onto a fight with a Cronulla punk named Pivot, it goes like this:

…my head started erupting over and over with blows to my face before I realised I was in a fight. By the time I’d understood, I’d thrown a punch of my own. It hit nothing. I watched it miss and so did Pivot, delighted. The two security guards came out from the McDonald’s to cheer us on. One turned to the other and said, ‘It’s like Rocky V!’ The other guard laughed and my second punch connected so hard that I panicked. The first I knew about throwing it was the sound Pivot’s head made cracking against my fist. He toppled and clonked crown first against the concrete. I bent to my knees and put my knuckles against his forehead. Not punching. Just grinding them into him, saying things that didn’t make sense. Somebody grabbed me by the shoulders and yanked me away, saying ‘Oi! Don’t do that mate, it’s over!’ The crowd dispersed in an instant. The security headed back into Maccas and the sound of the clubs and bars came back to me. Tall bronzed meat-heads carrying cans of Woodstock in their hands helped Pivot to his feet and one in a Bundaberg jersey said ‘Better luck next time, Pivo, you weapon!’

About halfway through the book, the narrator leaves the western suburbs and moves to the inner west, where he listens to young men talk ‘in their lilting tones as if no shadow in the coming night would trip them up’. He and another ‘Westie come good’ (I did warn you about offensive language) go to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and ask offensive questions. They get Christopher Hitchens to inscribe a copy of God Is Not Great, ‘You’re the man now dog.’ In one of the book’s many funny scenes, a lightly fictionalised Penguin Plays Rough event in Sydney Park is disrupted by an Aboriginal homeless man:

‘Be gone! The lot of you! This is my home!’ And no one knew what to do, not just because he had a big stick and was wild and homeless and drunk but because he was Aboriginal and we were all white and so if somebody wanted to say, ‘This is public space, we have a right to be here!’ he could very easily say, ‘No you don’t!’

Be reassured, the situation is resolved peacefully.

Perhaps the most striking moment comes at the end of one of the shortest stories, ‘I Heart Henry Rollins’. The narrator sees the planes fly into the World Trade Center on TV. He wakes his mother and tells her America is being attacked. ‘That’s no good,’ she says, and goes back to sleep. [That’s the closest thing I’ve read to what happened in our house that night.] Then he arrives at school the next morning to find scenes of great rejoicing. The principal makes a perfunctory attempt to stop it, and the narrator is uncomprehending. His maths teacher is standing close by:

I asked him, ‘Why is everyone with the terror?’
He scowled, then he grunted an ugly laugh. He was missing a tooth.
He said, ‘When people die in other countries are you so concerned?’
I did not know what to say. I still don’t. Johnny the Serb had overheard us, and he said, ‘Exactly sir, exactly!’ and I wanted to go home … I sensed a great phantom of history was awake and visible for the first time, shadowing my town, looming over the Western Suburbs like an oncoming colossus …
The clouded sun looked like a blood clot. No one was really afraid.

That’s the end of the story. I don’t know about the colossus, which sounds like hindsight, but the schadenfreudeof those semi-alienated young people and their teachers, which has nothing to do with being ‘with the terror’, rings true. To describe it so bluntly comes close to breaking a taboo. The same can be said for the rawness of much of the book. It comes as a breath of fresh air, not as in sweet-smelling, but as in from a new place.

A final note: Like its back cover blurb, I’ve emphasised the book’s report-from-Western-Sydney qualities. I should mention that the narrator is also bookish. He reads Whitman. A poem by Viennese flâneur Peter Altenberg (1859–1919) is a key element of ‘West Suburbia Boys’. Patrick White, Frank Moorhouse, Peter Skrzynecki and other Australian writers ate brief mentions, not necessarily honourable. In ‘Rare Birds’ he sets out to undo the harm he did by enthusing a woman friend about Kerouac and ruining her life.

Details Unknown

Last night we went to the Penguin Plays Rough event at the Justice and Police Museum: the Grand Finale of the Details Unknown evenings. On previous evenings in the series people have presented stories, songs, and videos inspired by this photo from the museum’s archives.


For the grand finale, PPR handed things over to unhappen, an experimental theatre group that used the 18 pieces produced for the previous nights to create an interactive evening of experimental carry-on. There was a weird pas-de-deux in which to actors dressed in nighties enacted a bedroom murder over and over, alternating the parts of visitor and murdered woman (it didn’t seem to matter that one of the actors was male, the other female), and varying their actions in accordance with words typed by audience members. There was a silly puppet theatre. In one tiny courtyard a 1940s police photographer took mug shots. We could stand around watching a tattooed prisoner languish in her cell, though other people told me that when they went into that room they were offered a stick of opium (which turned out to be a chocolate bullet). My favourite of the small sideshows was the interrogation room, in which, though we’d been promised that interactivity did not mean audience participation, relatively unsuspecting audience members were grilled by a slightly demented pair of detectives as possible witnesses to the woman’s murder – I saw at least four people being questions, and sometimes virtually accused, and was impressed by how well they reacted under pressure: other people ran screaming from the room as soon as they realised what was happening.

The museum was originally a police station, and included a small courtroom. In that courtroom we could sit in the gallery, or perhaps it was jury seats, while one actor after another read a story that told how the woman died. We could, if we chose, draw images on butchers’ paper as we listened, and those images were hung on the walls of the murder bedroom.

It was great fun. We were promised a reward at 10 pm, but my little group had been out to midnight the night before at Flickerfest and up early, so we sloped off after only two hours or so. Penguin Plays Rough’s future is not clear. If there is to be a hiatus, it’s good that they’ve gone out with such a bang.

Usually Penguin Plays Rough has a number of wild cards – people who put their names down on the night and read something. That didn’t happen last night, but I wrote 14 rhyming lines anyhow:

Details Unknown
She’s dead, and though it may seem foolish
to make up stories, sing new songs
about her image, even ghoulish
imagining what dreadful wrongs
she may have suffered, or what shocking
act may have unclipped that stocking,
what cruel or pathetic scene
involved that true-crime magazine,
her death derides out pale inventions:
silent, name and tale unknown,
this monument of film, not stone,
though made for plain police intentions
commands our eyes: Attention here.
A life snuffed out. Be still. Revere

Penguin Plays Rough, the book

Pip Smith (editor), This Is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories (Pip Smith, 2011)

Since 2008, first in a room in a flat above a convenience store in King Street, Newtown, and then in the front section of a warehouse in St Peters, Pip Smith and her housemates have hosted Penguin Plays Rough – a series of monthly short story readings. I’ve been twice, and each time has been a joyfully mixed bag with an appreciative mostly inner-west, mostly young crowd.

A number of pieces were written especially for the book, so it’s not so much a ‘Best Of’ as a print equivalent of the anarchic creativity of those evenings, a showcase for the PPR talent. The text doesn’t lie quietly on the page as in a well behaved book. Each story is set in a different font, ranging from 8 to 24 point. One seems to have been hand lettered on note paper and scanned in. One (which I found unreadable) is laid out as a Wikipedia entry. Each has its own illustrator, and the range of graphic styles is impressive (email addresses and web sites are listed at the back).  It’s a shining example of self-publishing.

And it’s a good read. Fidel Castro walks in its pages, along with Johnny Cash, Lot from the Book of Genesis, Emanuel Swedenborg (in his own words), Tariq Ali, Cosmo Kramer and the characters from The Wonder Years. Some startling pieces seem to run close to memoir. There are well-made stories,  a film pitch, a playlet, some cut-ups.

It’s probably a generational thing that there’s quite a bit of explicit sexuality that seems to my aged sensibility to owe quite a bit to sustained exposure to porn. Zoe Coombs Marr’s ‘Genesis’ is a kind of Biblical fanfic whose subtitle gives fair warning: ‘The story of Lot, comprising the invention of buggery; the downfall and destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; Lot’s family’s flight to the mountains when his wife is turned into a pillar of salt; and his date-rape by his daughters in a cave’. The photographs illustrating the story are tactfully low res. If you have a low tolerance for misogynistic porn, do not read Luke Carman’s ‘All That Pap’, a memoirish piece that includes shocked adolescent exposure to some of it. It’s possibly relevant that when the Sydney Morning Herald interviewed Pip Smith (here), they found it necessary to substitute prim little dashes for some of her evidently unladylike language.

The stand-out pieces, to name just three in random order, are Pip Smith’s neat ‘Five Husbands’ (yes, she hosts a salon, edits a collection and also writes!), Amanda Maxwell’s pseudo horror story, ‘Playing Imaginary Cards with Jeremy’ and Michael Sala’s tale of love lost, financial intrigue and tourism, ‘The Catacombs’.

I’ve been discovering lately that some books I bought in the 1970s would be worth hundreds of dollars now if I had kept them in good shape. Who knows what this will fetch in 2050? Sadly, I’ve already given away the gorgeous poster it comes wrapped in.

Sappho & Penguin play rough

Two literary events with the Art Student in the last week: Robert Adamson and Devin Johnston at Sappho’s on Tuesday night, and Tom Cho and others at Penguin Plays Rough on Saturday.

I’ve been to one previous poetry reading at Sappho’s, in May this year. On that occasion Rhyll McMaster and the open-mikers read from just inside the shop, to an audience spread comfortably on the verandah and courtyard in the balmy evening, enjoying warm drinks and tapas. Tuesday night was a bit different, bitterly cold (by Sydney standards) with rain pelting down. We arrived early enough to claim the sole remaining indoor table, opting for dryness and comparative comfort behind the microphone rather than huddling in the chilly and dripping plastic-roofed and -sided balcony with good sight lines. The courtyard was completely out of the question. When the Talent arrived, they were given tables in the semi-exposed area, tables that we had rejected because they were awash.

It speaks volumes for the pulling power of these poets that the space, though small, was crowded. Adamson and Johnston were an excellent double bill, lots of river water and birds from two continents. The two stand-out poems for me were Johnston’s ‘Marco Polo‘ (the link, which needs Flash, has DJ reading this poem and two others) and Adamson’s ‘The Kingfisher’s Soul‘ (this also needs Flash), which he told us he’d written in response to his wife asking why he never wrote any love poems: it is indeed an achingly personal love poem.

Adamson, Johnston and their small entourage departed – presumably to a warmer, drier, better fed place – before the open mic, along with enough others to create the impression that all who were left were the open mikers and their pals: ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, the Dregs of the Evening’. But we soldiered on, reading one poem each. There was a long piece in terza rima that I couldn’t quite hear, a pantoum, a sharp witty observation on cockatoos, a tribute to Francis Webb, and to conclude the evening next month’s featured poet Eileen Chong gave us Mary Wollstoncraft addressing her unborn daughter, praying that one day her fingers would close around a pen. And somewhere in there I read a sonnet about snoring. To polite applause. Come to think of it, even the most excellent poems of the evening received only polite applause. Given the weather, that was about all that could be expected.

Penguin Plays Rough had a very different feel. It was my second time there as well, but my first at the new venue. The front section of an old warehouse has been curtained off from what I assume is the living space further back. The heavy red curtains lend a suitably theatrical atmosphere to the chequered lino floor, cosily ill-assorted couches and armchairs around the walls, and wooden podium with iconic red chair and standard lamp. By the time we arrived all but one of the sears were taken, and no mercy was shown to our elder status. We found a place on the lino. (At the first break in proceedings when we stood up to stretch our legs, I was shocked to discover a pack of young people moving in to claim the space we were relinquishing – behind us, in the tiny space between the front door and the first heavy curtain, they had been standing three deep, envying us our vantage point.)

We were physically uncomfortable, but we were warm, and we were part of a cheerful crowd. Many people were drinking mulled wine. Those in the know – and they seemed to be many – had brought their own mugs. Pip Smith, who edited and published The Penguin Plays Rough Book Of Short Stories, was a brilliant MC, using words like ‘awesome’ and generally exuding a mi casa es su casa aura. With one possible exception (he said humbly), the readings were terrific. The advertised readers were Emma Dallas (a character sketch of an inner west personality), Ryan O’Neil (a piece about depression that would have been scary if it wasn’t so brilliantly playful), Sam Twyford-Moore (a tale of travel, crosscultural romance and writerly rivalry), Jess Bellamy (letters to celebrities whose dysfunction feeds the tabloids, which became retrospectively more substantial with news of Amy Winehouse’s death yesterday), and the star of the evening Tom Cho. Tom read from ‘The Attributes of God’, a story that will be in a book he describes as being about the meaning of life. I wouldn’t have minded the physical discomfort of the evening anyway, but hearing this story would have been worth even more suffering. ‘God is love’ has taken on new meaning for me. He ended with a YouTube clip of otters that, far from being gratuitously cute, was a perfect accompaniment to his story.

Penguin Plays Rough doesn’t have an open mic. They do have ‘wild cards’: anyone can sign up at the door to read, and a selection of those who sign up are interspersed between the advertised readers. On Saturday we had an essay on relationships between the genders with a focus on schoolyard handball, a piece that Pip Smith described as a theatre review written by James Joyce … and me.

Yes, I put my name in the ring again, which I wouldn’t have done if I’d realised that PPR is actually a short story event and I only had a couple of sonnets and a dog poem in my pocket, and even more definitely not if I’d known I was going to be at the end of the evening – after Tom Cho and the otters. Astonishingly, the whole audience stayed put and even seemed to enjoy what I had to offer.

These are the first two times I’ve ventured to read in public. It’s not so bad.

Added later: I forgot to mention that I met Adrian Wiggins there, the mover behind the Sydney Poetry web site. He has uploaded some wonderfully atmospheric photos to facebook. Mercifully he had to leave before Tom Cho’s and my moments in the chair, so we don’t appear, except in the background of one of the shots.

Luke Carman audio

One of my highlights of last year’s Sydney Writers Festival was Alleyway Honour in the Bankstown Town Hall. Some of the same people who made it so brilliant will be in the prosaically named Inside the Westside Writers Group this year at Bankstown on 18 May. I hope Michael Mohammed Ahmad will read again. And Alexis Wright will be there as a special guest.

But my reason for blogging is to let you know that Luke Carman, whose readings at Alleyway Honour were a thrill and a delight, having had a couple of pieces in the latest Heat, has now, thanks to Penguin Plays Rough and FBi Radio, turned up in audio on the internet. You can hear him with just one click.

GDS launch at PPR in Newtown


Last night I went to the Sydney launch of Going Down Swinging No 28. As I may have mentioned, I have not one but two poems in this excellent publication, and I’d missed the Melbourne launch last Wednesday. So of course I made my way to Penguin Plays Rough headquarters in Newtown for last night’s event.

I’d left my PDA at home, so we had a little trouble finding the place. I remembered the address as 475 King Street. That turned out to be a convenience store, which didn’t seem right. My companion wanted to phone home for instructions, but my dim recollection of the Google Street Image made me expect to find a door down the side street. And sure enough there was one.

‘But look, through the windows, you can see that it’s someone’s home,’ said Madam Circumspect.

‘Remember the New American Vaudeville,’ I said.

‘That was fifteen years ago,’ she muttered, but the little New York adventure I was referring to had taken us to a door just as unlikely as this one in the Bowery, and it had opened onto a strangely enjoyable evening of fire-eating, Groucho Marx impersonations and bad folk music. So we climbed the stairs last night, to an evening that was at least as enjoyable, with its own kind of strangeness.

It turns out that we had been seeing someone’s home through the windows. The story as I gleaned it in the course of the evening is that two young women moved into the flat above the convenience store, and when they took a good look at the high-ceilinged, crumbly front room, they decided it was too big to waste as a bedroom or even as a shared living room, and should be put to work as ‘a space’. And so Penguin Plays Rough was born: at 8 o’clock on the third Sunday of every month five programmed writers and five wild cards sit in a red velvet wing chair and read from their work to a paying audience (a wild card is someone who puts their name on the blackboard at the door on arrival).

Last night the room was comfortably full of mostly young people drinking beer and what I thought at first was soup but was actually mulled wine. An assortment of chairs – wooden from the kitchen, wrought iron from the garden, upholstered and plastic – lined two walls, but most people sat in comfortable, picnic-style circles on the floor. My companion’s prediction that we would be the oldest people in the room proved correct by a good ten years, and we were possibly as much as 30 years above the mean. Klare Lanson and Lisa Greenaway, editors of GDS were there. I knew a couple of people, including Mark Tredinnick, poet, essayist and creative writing teacher, who was there to give moral support to one of his students who was reading. But mostly I had a sense that this was a thriving group of people who enjoyed each other’s work, had fun writing and reading and providing an audience for each other. We were treated, among other things, to the final instalment of a Philip Marlowe spoof serial drama with a zombie and cheerful gay male incest. My favourite PPR part of proceedings was a nasty homophobic encounter on Windsor Railway Station told in the language of Shakespeare (‘Ho, varlet, what music doth enter thine ear through yon iPod buds?’ ‘This be Anthony and the Johnsons’), and incorporating a giant green tentacled alien.

A charming young man introduced simply as Shag (who Google tells me is a Radio FBi personality) did the actual launching. He hadn’t actually seen a copy of GDS until he arrived at the venue, but that didn’t stop him from doing a nice job: he had written a piece of ‘Creative Writing’ entitled ‘What I Imagine It will be Like to Launch Going Down Swinging’ which managed to be funny, self-deprecating and devoid of actual reference to the subject of the launch. Nonetheless there was a sweet mood of celebration. Klare Lanson had a few moments in the chair, and managed to slip us a couple of factoids (Peter Carey and Brian Castro appeared in early issues, and in spite of the implied pessimism of the title, it’s now been going and swinging for 30 years). A couple of contributors read their poems and stories from the GDS, Literary culture is alive and well and having a good time in a room above a convenience store in Newtown.

Mark Tredinnick mentioned in a break that his book The Blue Plateau is to be launched tonight at Macquarie University. ‘Do you imagine it will be like this?’ I asked. ‘Absolutely not,’ he said, ‘and that’s not altogether a good thing.’