Tag Archives: Peter Minter

SWF: My Day 4

Saturday at the Sydney Writers’ Festival the weather held, brilliantly.

My first session was at 11 o’clock: Paul Muldoon: On Seamus Heaney. Advertised as Muldoon discussing Heaney’s poetry, this turned out to be Muldoon reading Heaney. Did I mention earlier that David Malouf described Paul Muldoon’s reading as ‘at the right speed’? It’s such a spot-on observation: he makes every word count, the way Mandela did in his oratory. He read ‘Follower‘, ‘Digging‘, ‘Tollund Man‘, ‘Keeping Going‘, and stopped for questions. A woman in the front row – it may have been Kate Tempest – asked him to read more poems. He read ‘When all the others were away at Mass‘. It was an absolute treat.

Meanwhile, the Emerging Artist went to see First Dog On The Moon Live, which she said was wonderful: from the symptoms of windfarm pathology (all taken from real if somewhat delusional sources) to the grief caused by the death of a pet dog, the Dog is as captivating in person as his cartoons are compulsory reading.

We both went to see Kate Tempest: The Bricks that Built the Houses after lunch. Wow! Michael Williams, her interlocutor, set the ball rolling by reading the first couple of paragraphs of the novel that this session was named for. As he said, he’s not a bad reader. Then he asked Kate to read the same bit. She stood up with the closed book in her hands and gave us the first several pages as a passionate spoken word performance. It was a whole other thing!

For the whole hour, she was not just passionate about her world and about the world, but constantly self-questioning, challenging herself not to fall back on setpieces when talking about her work. Responding to one question she rhapsodised about the joys of freeform rapping; to another who asked what William Blake said to her she quoted half a dozen bits from (I think ) ‘The Proverbs of Hell’. As the session drew to a close and Michael Williams made the standard announcement that her books were on sale at Gleebooks, she interjected, ‘Nothing you can buy will make you whole,’ then explained that she would have to be snappy with any signing because she wanted to get to the session on the Stolen Generations with Ali Cobby Eckermann in half an hour.

We had some quiet time, then queued for The Big Read at half past 4. This lovely event has been downgraded from the main Sydney Theatre stage to the cavernous space known to the Festival as The Loft, with just enough room on the  tiny stage for MC Annette Shun Wah and the five writers. All the same, it was  a great pleasure to be read to by

  • Carmen Aguirre (Chile and Canada), from her memoir Mexican Hooker #1: And My Other Roles Since the Revolution
  • Paul Murray (Ireland), from his novel The Mark and the Void
  • Petina Gappah (Zimbabwe), from her novel The Book of Memory, a reading that included some very sweet singing
  • Marlon James (Jamaica), from A Brief History of Seven Killings and
  • William Boyd (England and France), from Sweet Caress.

I dashed straight from there to Avant Gaga, to be read to again, this time by poets in the Sydney Dance Lounge. One end of the space was occupied by people eating their dinner, and not doing so in monastic silence. Our crowded end was full of people straining to listen. There weren’t enough chairs for the audience – some sat on the floor, some on the spiral stairs in the middle of the room, one (me) sat on a low table under the stairs and managed to draw blood by bumping into the sprinkler there. Avant Gaga is a monthly event in the back courtyard of Sappho’s bookshop in Glebe, which it goes without saying is a lot more comfortable (unless it’s raining).

I can’t say it was an unadulterated pleasure to be read to in those circumstances, but there was a lot of pleasure. Our MC was Toby Fitch. He kicked things off with a seemingly endless list of entities and activities, real and then increasingly fanciful, that might be represented by the initials SWF. ‘Sesquipedalian’ featured and so did ‘fellatio’. Then, in order, a.j. carruthers, Amanda Stewart, Astrid Lorange, Elena Gomez, joanne burns, Kate Fagan, Kent MacCarter, Lionel Fogarty, Pam Brown and Peter Minter read. Toby Fitch asked our indulgence an read a poem called something like ‘A hundred fully-formed words’, in honour of his infant daughter. Here’s what Astrid Lorange looked like from my vantage point:

avant gaga.jpg

While I was there, the EA went to My Family and Other Obstacles in which Richard Glover hosted three much younger people talk about books about growing up with seriously dysfunctional parents. One of my siblings once said that our birth family was dysfunctional, and I’ve no doubt that my sons at various times would say the same of theirs. After hearing the stories from this session, I’m confident that its participants would be entitled to sneer.

And though the festival continues today, that was it for me. I didn’t mention arriving one day to pass a senior poet wheeling a baby in a stroller, or pretty much looking up from the book I was reading to see someone whose name had been mentioned just a page earlier, or hearing a well respected political essayist exclaiming a common obscenity, or discovering that the Children’s Book Council had scheduled a conference to coincide with the Festival, or the pleasure of having my name spelled correctly on three hot chocolate lids in as many days, or the books I bought. But I don’t have to blog everything.

Overland 214

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 214 Autumn 2014

Overland-214There’s something irresistible about triplets: faith, hope and charity / birth, copulation and death / the three Graces / thesis, antithesis, synthesis / silence, exile, cunning … they’re everywhere. Overland‘s deputy editor Jacinda Woodhead invokes a nice one in this issue’s Editorial: for 60 years, she says, the journal has been encouraging dissent, interrogation and craft. It’s not just a pretty phrase: there’s plenty of all three in this issue, including in the first essay, Welcome to Curtin by Avan Judd Stallard, which comes craftily at Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. It’s a memoir of working in the Curtin detention centre: prevented by the threat of seven years in prison from talking about the treatment of detainees, he describes instead the relationships and attitudes of the workers, with a short story writer’s eye for structure and significant detail.

Jennifer Mills, the fiction editor, introduces a 60th anniversary year feature, Fancy cuts, in which contemporary writers are invited to revisit short stories from the archives, invokes mother triplet: Overland has always been committed to the urgent, emerging or marginalised voices of its day. To kick off the feature, Josephine Rowe’s A small cleared space riffs surprisingly on Roma O’Brien’s When the bough breaks, a story of a hospital stillbirth that must have been harrowing when it was published in 1965, but now reads as a tale from an era of almost unbelievable callousness.

B J Thomason’s A slippery bastard deftly interrogates the myth of poet, horseman and Boer-murderer Breaker Morant, and in passing links him with two other mythologised slippery bastards. So we have triplet of Australian anti-heroes: Breaker Morant, Ned Kelly and Chopper Reed.

‘Cats are out, sloths are in’ by Jeff Sparrow is positively bursting with triplets. Subtitled Truth, politics and non-fiction, it looks at the fact-checking practice or otherwise of clickbait sites like Gawker, Buzzfeed, and Upworthy and more ‘serious’ liberal news sources like Crikey, the Conversation, the ABC. Current fact checking differs from the famous rigour of, say the New Yorker, in three significant ways (for which you’ll need to read the article). But checking facts has a limited usefulness, unless you realise they are part of a triplet: ‘facts’, theory and political practice.

There are three short stories in the Fiction section, including Anthony Panegyres’ Submerging, a parable about global warming embedded in a genuinely distressing tale of adolescent misery.

Up the back, are the three finalists in the 2013 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize. Peter Minter, the judge, says he looks for poems in which every line ’embodies perception, ideation and the breath‘. That’s a lovely triplet. I’m sorry that I didn’t warm to any of the poems.

There are other triplets, including the three mysteries in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in The last space waltz? by Claire Corbett, but not everything comes in threes. Four columnists are entertaining and intelligent: Alison Croggon reflects on how literacy and orality affect memory and perception (a subject Ross Gibson tackles at length in his book about William Dawes’s notebooks,  26 Views of the Starburst World); Giovanni Tiso ponders gloomily on our changing concept of the future; Mel Campbell challenges habit of thinking of writing in terms of productivity; Stephen Wright managed to make me laugh a number of times in a column devoted to wishing he was funnier. I missed Rurijk Davidson, another regular columnist – on leave perhaps?

There are two excellent pieces that I couldn’t shoehorn into my numerical scheme. Brendan Keogh’s On video game criticism, cast as a letter to Susan Sontag, manages to communicate the intellectual excitement in its eponymous field, even to someone whose video game experience doesn’t go much beyond Space Invaders, Pacman and Tetris. Jill Jolliffe’s A new thalidomide? tells you more than you wish was true about hospital use of DES and other drugs, often without consent, on single mothers from the 1940s all through the 1960s in Australia, with health consequences still being discovered, including in the grandchildren of the women given the drug.

Sixty years of dissent, interrogation and craft! May the road rise to meet you, Overland, and the wind be at your back for at least 60 more.

Southerly 73/1

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 1 2013: The Political Imagination

1spiRoughly two thirds of this Southerly is devoted to essays that started life as papers for ‘The Political Imagination: Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, a conference held in Melbourne in April 2012. So the political imagination under discussion is much more specific than the issue’s title suggests. It’s as if the god of the mailbox saw me tossing terms like ‘immigrant poetry’ around in my last blog post, and decided to send me some heavy-duty reading matter as a reproach for my lack of theoretical rigour (or theoretical anything, if the truth must be known). Ali Alizadeh, one of the subjects of that last post, was responsible along with Ann Vickery for editing the essays from the conference, and co-wrote one of them with Penelope Pitt-Alizadeh: and he more than adequately fits my description of him as way out of my intellectual league.

Of the theme essays, the clear stand-out is Danijela Kambaskovic’s superbly readable ‘Breaching the social contract: the migrant poet and the politics of being apolitical’. When Kambaskovic left Belgrade in the 1990s she had already published poems, translations and criticism in Serbian and was fluent and well read in English. She came to Australia, gained a PhD and eventually began to write poetry again, now in English. The essay addresses the question of her deep reluctance to write about migration, to write poetry from the migration experience. In vivid prose, she lays out her own story and that of others with similar experiences: it’s the story of someone fighting for her own mind, resisting pressure to further her career by commodifying her painful history and at the same time searching for an ethical practice:

Traumatised writers spend their lives searching for precise verbal equivalents for the dread, the horror, the identity shifts, the hatred of one’s environment, the inability to identify with the structures and institutions of society, the fear of reality, the mental dysmorphia – all non-verbal and confronting emotions made even more complex by the awareness that one has moved into a much ‘better’ society and ought to be ‘grateful’. How is it possible to write about these for an audience who may be baffled, even confronted, by the uneasy conjunction of praise and criticism of their own society, which may make the migrant writer seem negative and ungrateful, or at the very least, unnecessarily conflicted? I salute those migrant writers who can find enough clarity in their minds to write about any of those, and avoid the pitfalls. Any of my attempts that have been in any way successful have skirted on the surface of the experience.

This essay is worth the price of admission, for itself, and for the way its flesh and heart helps with the preponderantly academic tenor of the other essays.

Those essays explore similar issues. Alizadeh and Pitt-Alizadeh carefully and meticulously discuss the dangers of categorising people and/or poetry according to a single ethnic or racial identity, and give a model of how to read a poem that avoids those dangers without imposing mainstream assumptions on it. A full understanding of their model depends on the reader being familiar with Alain Badiou’s readings of Mallarmé, which sadly I am not. Adam Aitken’s demanding discussion of hybridity casts interesting light on his own poetry:

Rather than a poet who writes about travel I would like to be read as a poet who charts the changing nature of the ongoing historical meaning of the Asian-in-Australia.

Peter Minter floats an idea of imagining ‘a decolonised twenty-first century Australian poetics’ by thinking in terms of archipelagos – I think he’s saying something that’s not just interesting but exciting, but I’d have to make headway with 15 or so heavy-duty theorists he cites to understand him properly. Had I but world enough and time! There is a lovely moment where he quotes in quick succession and mutual support Les Murray, Karl Marx and the Whole Earth Catalogue.

I also enjoyed Timothy Yu’s discussion of Asian Australian poetry. As a US scholar, he was struck by the different way migrant communities talk about themselves here. Sydney comedian Michael Hing, who can trace his family’s history in Australia back some five generations, refers to himself, not as an Asian Australian (the equivalent of Asian American, the most likely term if he had been in the US) or even as a Chinese Australian, but as ‘a Chinese guy’. Yu ruminates interestingly on this difference, and gets down to specifics in considering aspects of the poetry of Ouyang Yu.

The rest of the journal is taken up with poetry, short stories and reviews, all interesting, some wonderful.

Danijela Kambaskovic stars again in the poetry section with ‘Belgrade Sunday Lunch’, a translation from her own poem in Serbian (incidentally, her article has a nice riff on what it means to translate one’s own poem as opposed to someone else’s). She has two more poems in Southerly‘s online component, The Long Paddock, just a click away.

Of the stories, I liked best Jeremy Fisher’s modest domestic scene, ‘Ready to Dance’, which has a predictable but satisfying twist, and Rachel Leary’s ‘God’s Lost Sheep’, which plays like a short grunge movie of a bus hijack.

There’s an interesting combined review by Jal Nicholl of Michael Farrell’s open sesame and Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen. He sees these vastly different poets as inhabiting ‘different wings of the same belated [ie, post-modernity/post-modernism] dream-house.’ And one of life’s little mysteries is solved on page 256 where Sam Franzway review’s Vikki Wakefield’s young-adult novel Friday Brown: Sam is known in these quarters as franzy, creator of the blog Writing. So now we know why he’s been neglecting his blog – he’s doing a PhD and writing scholarly reviews, thankfully without a single mention of Deleuze, Kristeva, Baudrillard or even Foucault.

Curmudgeonly footnote: I would pass in silence over the ‘back-peddling’ character in one of the stories, because there is pleasure in such misspellings. But I have to complain about a moment in Danijela Kambaskovic’s brilliant essay where she was left hanging out to dry by the editorial team. Observing that some people question whether a woman of non-English speaking background can adequately teach Shakespeare to Anglo-Saxon students, she comments in parentheses: ‘This reminds me of famous quip by George Bernard Shaw that women writers are like dogs dancing on their hind legs: the wonder is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.’ It’s a slip that anyone could make, but surely one of the many pairs of eyes that read that paragraph on its way to press should have picked up that the famous quip was made by Samuel Johnson, and it was about a woman preaching.

Overland 210

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 210, Autumn 2013

210-overland Your mileage will vary, but the article in this Overland that stands out for me is Beyond denial by Philip Mirowski, Jeremy Walker and Antoinette Abboud, which argues that ‘the phenomena of science denialism, emissions trading and geoengineering are not in fact unrelated or rival panaceas but rather constitute together the full neoliberal response to global warning’. The article makes a distinction between neoclassical economics and neoliberalism, describing the latter, in what I wish was a harsh caricature, as worshippers at the shrine of an all-wise market, who hold, for example, that ‘Science is not an independent mode of truth discovery: it is a boutique knowledge format only validated by “the marketplace of ideas”‘.

The neoliberal response to the climate change challenge is, if I understand the article correctly:

  1. Deny the science so as to distract attention from the crisis and buy time for commercial interests to find a way to profit
  2. Back emissions-trading schemes in order to divert political actors from using state power to curb emissions into setting up carbon markets, which won’t ever work, because the big polluters are already finding ways to go on polluting
  3. Develop grand geoengineering schemes that will make huge profits for corporations but will not address the root problem of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations or stop ocean acidification.

The article doesn’t come up with an opposing plan, but it gives a salutary map of the terrain. I recommend the whole thing.

Elsewhere, this issue strikes a nice balance between giving pleasure and holding the reader’s feet to the fire.

First, the pleasures include:

  • interesting chat from regular columnists Alison Croggon and Rjurik Davidson  about, respectively, Tolkien and Hollywood’s version of Second World War resistance movements
  • Francesca Rendle-Short writing about writing about her late father (as she has elsewhere), including poignant moments that will strike a chord with anyone who has a close relative with advancing dementia:

    [H]is hands dance largo, float and rise and fall in a slow movement set to its own tune, an adagio. First, he clasps them in front of his chest as though in a praying gesture, a supplicant hold where the palms lie flat against one another. Then he pauses a moment to pray, to ask for God’s blessing before the fingers start to stir larghetto. They loop first this way so the fingers interlace each other; then right then left, before rising up elongated in a slow, seesaw action. A ritual dance.

  • The cartography of foxes,  a deeply satisfying and unsettling short story by Theresa Layton that augurs well for Jennifer Mills’s tenure as Fiction Editor
  • Peter Minter’s report as judge of the 2012 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets, which is almost as enjoyable as the winning poems, particularly his description of how he read and re-read the submissions in the midst of domestic life
  • The winning poems, especially the winner, Augury? by Luke Fischer
  • An essay by Californian Aaron Bady that, after going on a bit about the Great American Novel, confirmed my decision not to give any cash to the makers of Zero Dark Thirty, with an argument that chimes with my experience of The Hurt Locker. The movie succeeds as propaganda, he writes,

    because it never tries to glorify the protagonist’s obsession, never tries to rationalise it, defend it or even make it seem attractive … But it’s still the one we’re stuck with for two and a half hours … You have no choice but to identify with torturers whose motivations you understand, and with the victims of Muslim terrorists whose motives you are not allowed to be privy to.

  • Judy Horacek’s dark cartoons (I couldn’t find a link), especially one that should probably be in the ‘feet to the fire’ category, in which two people holding a ‘Save the Planet’ sign face a gang holding signs that read  ‘Save our Profits’ – she manages to be funny about discouragement.

And then there’s what Overland does so well, argument and analysis of the harsh realities of our times from a progressive point of view. Some highlights:

  • Alyena Mohummadally on being same-sex attracted, Muslim, and organised in Australia
  • Panagiotis Sotiris offering an alternative view of the Greek economic situation. His repeated calls for ‘struggle and solidarity’ as the necessary response to the fascist Golden Dawn, is little more than sloganeering shorthand, but where else can you find a clear challenge to the mainstream narrative about Greek laxity finally being brought to heel by the benign forces of the EU, the IMF etc?
  • Martin Kovan on the alarming number of ethnic Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in recent years, mostly with fatal results. The article discusses how these burnings remain largely unnoticed in the West, ‘inside the narcissism of self-interested, racially conditioned and materially anaesthetised ethical immunity’, then focuses on the English Buddhist novice who self-immolated in southern France late last year. Kovan knew the monk, and his reflections are personally charged
  • Guy Rundle, self-described default Luddite, reporting on 29c3 – the twenty-ninth Chaos Communication Congress, at which hackers confronted the rise of the total-surveillance state. He reflects on the relationship between hacktivism and the Left, in particular on what their different histories mean they can learn from each other. In doing so, he manages to end the journal on a note of restrained optimism.

I’ve included links to everything except the cartoons. Overland make its entire content available on line. It also publishes background interviews on some articles in its Editors’ Blog, which is one place on the Internet where the comments don’t make you want to run screaming from the room.

Southerly 72/1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overland 206

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 206, Autumn 2012

I’ve just realised that this blog is largely about the vastness of my ignorance. In the years since I left full time work I’ve been reading widely and unsystematically on subjects in which I’m either uneducated,  misinformed or wildly out of date, hoping something will stick – and then blogging about it, sometimes in a shamelessly opinionated way.

Take this issue of Overland for instance.

I’ve never studied economics or political science or 20th century history, but I’ll tell you confidently that Richard Seymour’s ‘The European meltdown: Crisis across the continent‘ talks sense about the current economic crisis in Europe. He describes the European Community as ‘a project that, from inception to denouement, has evinced an extraordinary distrust of the masses’. The crisis, he argues, is brought on not so much by the fecklessness or other failings of the Greeks, Irish, Spanish and Portuguese, as by the inherent instability of a system built to give France and Germany dominance over the less powerful nations, and to foster profit over the interests of the working class (he says it much better than that). And Mike Beggs’s ‘Occupy abundance: On whether Australians are too rich to protest‘ does a similarly enlightening job of unpicking the current Australian affluence. It’s true that since mid-1997 there’s been a 10 per cent increase in purchasing power ‘over the whole consumer basket’, but:

The average hour’s pay now buys 59 per cent more clothing and footwear, 71 per cent more household appliances, and an incredible 1066 per cent more audio, visual and computing power than in 1997.

But such goods make up only around a fifth of the average household’s expenditure. Much of the rest of the consumer basket has actually become less affordable. Compared with 1997, the average hours work earns enough to buy 2 per cent less food, 8 per cent less housing, 26 per cent less water, electricity and gas, 18 per cent less petrol, 5 per cent less healthcare and 21 per cent less education.

That may not be news to people who understand economics, but it is to me.

What do I know about life as an immigrant targeted by racism? Yet I can tell you that Michael Green’s ‘Between two oceans: The life and death of Michael Atakelt‘ and The dangers of a single story: On acting and identity by Tariro Mavondo are brilliantly complementary explorations of the subject. In the former (of which an edited excerpt was reprinted in the Fairfax Age, which either takes the sheen off Overland‘s back-cover boast that it is of the loopy-Left or justifies the Australian‘s nickname for the Age, Pravda on the Yarra – you be the judge!), the writer is in touch with Footscray’s Ethiopian community as they struggle to come to terms with the drowning of a young man shortly after his release from police custody, and the extraordinarily long wait for any cause of death to be made public: ‘This has become a story about a community’s right to exist – its need to understand and to be understood – but it is also a story of grief,’ Green writes, and I would add that it’s also a story of an amazingly resilient community. Tariro Mavondo is about to become one of the first African-born acting graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts: from a relatively privileged background (‘the higher echelon of Zimbabwean society’), she is up against a different face of racism – but this article too is about the right of a community to exist – ‘”6 billion stories and counting.” But where is mine?’

What do I know about the history of sexuality? I spent the prime of my youth in a monastery, and working as a children’s editor didn’t send much of it my way. So Robert Darby’s ‘Another other Victorian: George Drysdale, a forgotten sex pioneer‘ was even more news to me than it will be to people who’ve read The Other Victorians. Drysdale’s tome, The Elements of Social Science: Physical, Sexual and Natural Religion, published anonymously in the 1850s, was never mentioned by name in mainstream writing and is generally ignored or misreported even today, but it ran through 35 editions and sold some 100 000 copies in 50 years. The book ‘argued for a new religion of reverence for the human body, condemned abstinence as unhealthy and productive of misery, called for an unfettered right to intercourse among the unmarried, and recommended regular use of contraception to guard against pregnancy and condoms to avoid venereal disease’. Sex wasn’t invented in 1963 (or in my case 1970) after all. The article is seriously interesting

Now, poetry. I did study Eng Lit and have a BA (Hons) to show for it. But I got my piece of paper before postmodernism broke upon the world. I’m not quite the guy who puts his hand up at the Writers’ Festival and asks why modern poetry doesn’t have rhyme or rhythm any more, and why are modern poets so deliberately obscure. My own poetry, such as it is, probably wouldn’t please that guy. But sometimes I feel as if I’m almost as much in the dark as he is. So I was very glad that Peter Minter took a full two pages for his Judge’s report on  the 2011 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets. Sadly, if I was hoping his notes on the winning poem, rock candy by Joel Ephraims, would be a guide to reading it, my hopes were dashed. But I could tell there was thought there, and a world of knowledge that’s yet to become open to me. Having said all that, it will probably not be received as a compliment if I say that I enjoyed the night-time flâneurism of ‘Constant companion‘ by the late Kerry Leves (who occasionally graced the School Magazine, with both his presence and his poetry) and ‘Sunday poem‘, an impressionistic take on a visit home by Fiona Wright.

And then there’s genre fiction. Overland doesn’t go in for it much, and nor do I, though I’m doing my best to pick up where I left off when I was 14. It’s probably fair  to say that James Bradley’s ‘The inconvenient dead‘ is a zombie story for people who don’t read zombie stories. Anyhow, it worked wonderfully well for me.
The whole contents of the magazine are readable online. All the links except the one to the Age will take you to the Overland web site.

Lehmann & Gray’s Australian Poetry since 1788: A first post

Geoffrey Lehmann & Robert Gray, Australian Poetry Since 1788 (UNSW Press 2011)

This was a thoughtful and generous Christmas present, and it’s a daunting 1080 pages. After a bit of dipping and checking, I started at the beginning on Australia Day (after all, the title implies that in this book Australian poetry began on or after 26 January 1788), expecting to take a year or so to read it in bits here and there. Rather than wait till next January or thereabouts to blog about the book all in one go, I’ll post now and probably a couple more times over the coming months.

It’s the age of the interwebs, so naturally before I’d gone much past the Introduction I went looking to see what other people were saying. It was no surprise to come across snippets of ‘poetry-war’ conversation. John Tranter called the book the Death Star and blogged some inflammatory sarcasm. Someone on The Rereaders called it the Grey Lemon. So far so expected. I followed a trail of links to a video of a lecture given by Peter Minter at a seminar last October, and suddenly we were out of the poetry wars (in so far as that phrase implies squabbles among the marginalised) and into serious cultural issues. Minter starts out by saying that as a poet you don’t often have to take a stand, but this is one of those moments, and even though some of the lecture, particularly the discussion of the endpapers, is gleefully sarcastic, the over all feeling is a kind of passionate no pasaran. The anthology, he points out, includes only two modern Aboriginal poets. [Have a guess who they are, and if you’re at all familiar with Australian poetry you’ll probably get one right, but almost certainly your other name is one of the excluded. If ten of my readers did this in a room together we’d probably come up with ten names – that is to say, it’s an obviously significant exclusion.] This wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t being sold as a grand canonising statement rather than a selection of stuff that a couple of men happen to like. As it is, though, the omission, along with the ethnographic treatment of the traditional Aboriginal songs that are here, amounts to a ‘disappearing of modern Aboriginal poetry’ (Minter’s phrase), a contribution to this country’s continuing genocide (my phrase, and though it’s intemperate I’ll defend it if need be). Minter lists numerous omissions beyond the Aboriginal poets, and says there are many errors in the commentaries (the only one he specifies is the description of the 1967 referendum as giving Aboriginal people ‘special recognition’ in the Constitution, whereas in fact it removed ‘special’ provisions). The video is well worth watching, even though it misses a lot because it doesn’t show us Minter’s slides.

Poor old Geoffrey and Robert! I’d heard one of them on the ABC’s late lamented Book Show being quietly pleased with the representation of women among their poets. ‘Whew!’ you could almost hear him saying. ‘We dodged that bullet.’ One mitigating factor is that while the book is generally being touted as in some way definitive, the actual Introduction presents it pretty unambiguously as a product of the compilers’ idiosyncratic tastes and preferences.

All the same, I gave quiet thanks for Edward Said’s notion of counterpoint (that is, roughly, rather than boycotting a work of art that is, say, racist, it is preferable to read it along side of work by the people it has belittled or slandered or erased), and promised myself that I would dig out my books of poetry by Lionel Fogarty, Kevin Gilbert, Samuel Wagan Watson and read them and other Aboriginal (and non Anglo, and so on) poets in parallel with this anthology.

The two Aboriginal poets who made the cut are Odgeroo Noonuccal and Elizabeth Hodgson. There are quite a few versions of Aboriginal songs and stories ‘as recorded by’ white men, and in the case of those recorded by Roland Robinson, the storytellers’ names are given. This doesn’t negate Minter’s main point, but it does indicate that the editors were more aware of Aboriginal people as cultural creators than his lecture might seem to imply.