Tag Archives: Robert Adamson

Jennifer Maiden’s Metronome (paper)

Jennifer Maiden, The Metronome (Giramondo 2017)

metronomepaper.jpegI don’t have anything new to say about The Metronome since I posted about the ebook version in January, and sadly I missed the launch at Gleebooks on the weekend. But for the sake of completeness, this is a short post to tell my readers the book is now out in the world, launched by Robert Adamson at Gleebooks on 26 March 2017. There are photos of the event on the Quemar Press website, and here’s a video of Jennifer Maiden reading ‘Mary Rose’ from the book:

One of the many things I love
about Gen Y is that they’re ready to accept
transgender in anything, as if Caitlyn Jenner
was the best fan fiction ever.

Poetry May 2016

Robert Adamson (guest editor), Poetry, May 2016 (Poetry Foundation, Chicago)

This special Australian Poets edition of Poetry magazine was launched at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year by the regular editor Don Share. Guest editor Robert Adamson spoke and a number of the featured poets, including several who were coopted from the audience, read to us. Who could resist buying a copy?

The magazine contains 28 poems by 20 poets, along with 18 beautiful photo portraits by Juno Gemes and two survey essays by Jaya Savige and Bronwyn Lea, plus a charming note on Robert Adamson by US poet Devan Johnston.

Where the articles, particularly Bronwyn Lea’s ‘Australian Poetry Now‘, struggle with the impossible task of giving the readership, presumably mainly from the US, an overview of the state of Australian poetry, the selection does something different: it’s personal, making no claims to be representative or definitive. It includes a wonderful variety in forms and concerns: narrative, lyric, prose poems, formal experimentation. The landscape and geography are well represented. There are cultural references – both to settler and Aboriginal motifs – that will set non-Australians frantically googling, but at last as much Biblical and classical reference.

It’s hard to generalise about a collection like this, and equally hard to single out individual poems. But here goes with a few:

  • Ali Cobby Eckermann has two strong, plain-speaking poems, ‘Black Deaths in Custody‘ and ‘Thunder raining poison‘, the latter an incantatory response to a work of art about the effects of atomic tests on traditional lands at Maralinga.
  • Samuel Wagan Watson’s prose poems ‘Booranga Wire Songs‘ and ‘A one ended boomerang‘ really sing.
  • The first poem in magazine, Bonny Cassidy’s ‘Axe Derby‘, which plays tantalisingly on the image of a woodchopping competition
  • Anthony Lawrence’s ‘My darling turns to poetry at night‘ is a richly complex villanelle, whose title doesn’t mean what you expect.
  • Jaya Savige has fun with mangoes and anagrams in ‘Magnifera‘.

(The whole magazine is up on the Poetry Foundation’s website, so you can read it all on screen. All the links are to that website.)

SWF: My Day 3

Circumstances made me miss Friday morning at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The Emerging Artist, however, got two sessions under her belt.

10:00–11:00 am: Sri Lanka: This Divided Island. She said this was marvellous. Samanth Subramanian, an Indian Tamil journalist, spoke with Michael Williams from Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre. Quite apart from its main thrust, an account of the recent three-decade war and its aftermath, the conversation helped her think about the ethics of her own current art project, which involves many people making small terracottta hearts.

11:30 am – 12:30 pm: Jonathan Franzen: My Reading Life. The main things she reported was that he enjoyed the famous German sense of humour, and was influenced by a number of women writers.

At 3 o’clock the Emerging Artist went to Migration: A World Without Borders? and pretty much fell in love with Aleksandar Hemon. She bought two of his books, even overcoming her vehement dislike of zombie stories to buy his novel, The Making of Zombie Wars.

At 4:30 she went to hear Starlee Kine: From This American Life to Mystery Show and discovered a new podcast to subscribe to, dealing in ‘mysteries that can’t be solved by Google’.

Meanwhile, apart from sitting and chatting over lunch, my Festival day began at 3 with The New Australian Poetry. Unlike previously, this year’s poetry events are in largish rooms and mostly aren’t free. This one was a book launch – of an issue of the US journal Poetry devoted to Australian poets.

As we queued in the scorching afternoon sun (yes, scorching in mid- May), we were regaled by the booming opinions of a youngish man who had evidently been all over the world (perhaps his time in the US accounted for his LOUDNESS) and wanted the world to know that poetry is held in lower esteem in Australia than anywhere else.

The room was filled to capacity. After brief remarks from Don Share, soft-spoken editor of Poetry, and Robert Adamson, guest editor of this issue, we were read to by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Lionel Fogarty, Lisa Gorton, Michael Farrell and Robbie Coburn. In response to an audience request, some of them read poems by other people that appear in the anthology. Then two poets – Susan Fealy and Petra White – were drafted from the audience. Taking a cue from David Malouf the previous day, I asked if any of them would read the same poem a second time – I named Lionel Fogarty and he obliged.

There were two questions, both from the same person, one for each of the Indigenous poets. Don Share made that’s-a-wrap noises, and we were gathering up our stuff when Lionel Fogarty stepped up to his mic again and called on us to break out of our individualism and think in terms of community.

Ali Cobby Eckermann took a turn at the mic and told us, shockingly, that when she was at an international gathering of poets recently some Syrians had asked her how come she writes war poetry. They recognised in her poetry about Aboriginal Australia striking similarities to their own war-torn lives, and she realised that, however deep and strong the denial, the Australian war of dispossession is still going on.

Don Share rose beautifully to the occasion: ‘The difficulty we have in understanding a poem,’ he said, ‘is the same as the difficulty in hearing another person.’

I went home to deal with various animals, then rejoined the EA in the evening for Magda Szubanski and George Megalogenis: Rated PG (Polish and Greek), an entertaining conversation between two children of immigrants.

Malouf Adamson Aitken Harrison: Rare Objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____-_____________________Such

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

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

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Creeley 1950–1965 (and Sonnet #12)

Robert Creeley, Poems 1950–1965 (Marion Boyars 1967)

First things first: If you’re a student looking for help with an essay or if you love Robert Creeley’s poetry and are looking for a like-minded spirit, stop, turn back, you are going the wrong way. I don’t pretend to have anything sensible to say. This is largely a blog post about my ignorance.

Robert Creeley is held in very high esteem by them that know about these things. I think he might be a poet’s poet. A quick google produces a number of learned and instructive articles, in which I learned much, including that this UK publication seems to be Creeley’s first US trade book, For Love, plus an extra five years worth of poems. Creeley makes a commanding appearance in Ron Mann’s 1982 movie Poetry in Motion. Robert Adamson lectured about him recently, and evidently he was a major influence on a generation of Australian poets. I know all this, because as I made my way through this book I felt at a loss, and was casting around for guidance. Sadly, asking for guidance on how to read a poet is like asking to have a joke explained. I could kind of see what people were saying but I was like the person who sort of understands the explanation but still doesn’t laugh at the joke.

I found a lot of mentions of Charles Olson (another gap in my general education), and when I looked Olson up on Wikipedia I found:

Olson called for a poetic meter [Wikipedia uses US spelling] based on the poet’s breathing and an open construction based on sound and the linking of perceptions rather than syntax and logic.

Ah, I was doing it wrong. I had to stop needing conventional syntax and use my ears more. In an excellent article in the London Review of Books, Stephen Burt says:

Creeley’s quiet poems demand that we read them slowly, even when they appear brief and simple. Taken too fast, or too many at a time, his poems … can sound cramped, monotonous and repetitive. Read at leisure, the best poems are subtle, musically gifted, memorably terse.

I had been finding the poems cramped, monotonous and repetitive, so clearly I was doing it wrong, again. I slowed right down, and read just a couple of poems at a time. That’s not to say I slavishly submitted my faculties to Burt. He describes ‘The Crisis’ as horrifying, and quotes its opening lines:

Let me say (in anger) that since the day we were married
we have never had a towel
where anyone could find it,
the fact.

Now this was one of the few poems that had actually spoken to me at the time I read Burt’s article, and I wasn’t horrified. Maybe it was possible to write those lines without self-mockery in the 1950s, but I read them as obviously ironic, an oblique apology from the poet for losing his temper.

Then there’s a Paris Review interview published in 1968, just a couple of years after this book:

INTERVIEWER: How long does the writing of a poem take for you?
CREELEY: For me, it’s literally the time it takes to type or otherwise write it – because I do work in this fashion of simply sitting down and writing, usually without any process of revision. So that if it goes – or, rather, comes – in an opening way, it continues until it closes, and that’s usually when I stop. […] I’ll come into the room and sit and begin working simply because I feel like it. I’ll start writing and fooling around, like they say, and something will start to cohere; I’ll begin following it as it occurs. It may lead to its own conclusion, complete its own entity.[…] Of course, I have no idea how much time it takes to write a poem in the sense of how much time it takes to accumulate the possibilities of which the poem is the articulation.

Another way I’d been doing it wrong! No wonder I was floundering. I tend to read poems as if they’re carefully wrought, deeply considered utterances, but according to the man himself his are something quite different, something much more risky and of the moment. I took this with a grain of salt, but I did take it.

I can’t say I’d come to love Creeley’s poetry in general by the end of the book. But it kept me reading to the end. Round about 1960, either he or I had a turning point, and I was enjoying a lot. Look at ‘Love Comes Quietly’:

Love comes quietly,
finally, drops
about me, on me,
in the old ways.

What did I know
thinking myself
able to go
alone all the way.

With this poem, I no longer felt that I was reading this collection because it was good for me. Creeley here seems to have a moment’s respite from the intense, punishing self-consciousness that characterises the poetry generally. But if something was different in the poetry, something had changed in me too. Suddenly I could hear the music: ‘quietly’ ‘finally’ ‘about me’ ‘on me’ / ‘know’ ‘go’ ‘alone’ / ‘old ways’ ‘alone all the way’. Such short lines and so much happening in the sound of them – as well as in the sense. Any number of other poems were singing to me from then on.

A handful of longer poems towards the end of the collection are just marvellous: ‘The World’, about a lover’s grief; ‘The Women’, an amazing attempt to articulate feelings about sex and the object of sexual desire; ‘Anger’, about anger;  ‘Something’, which starts – unpromisingly you might think – with a lover’s embarrassment at having a pee in his presence.

My warning at the start of this blog entry still stands, and I especially don’t get what’s going on in some of the poems with very short lines. But I’m glad to have made this poet’s acquaintance.

And now, because it’s November, a sonnet of sorts. This is not a parody of Creeley – in my wildest dreams I couldn’t bring off  his way with rhyme, so I’ve stuck to my usual rhyme scheme. But there are some quotations, and because his lines are characteristically very short, I’ve cut mine down:

Sonnet 12: Evening
I speak, I
think I think
it asks my-
self to drink.
Position is where you
put it. I care too
little, I smoke
no joke,
therefore I am not
in attitude perplexing
a man so vexing
to flex or rot.
Woman so addressed
is easily depressed.

Robert Adamson on Francis Webb

Someone emailed me a link announcing that Robert Adamson, UTS Chair of Poetry, was giving a public lecture on Francis Webb on Thursday night. How could I not go? As far as I know, UTS – University of Technology Sydney, whose main tower is Sydney’s monument to stark practicality – doesn’t offer any poetry courses, and the prospect of Adamson, anything but stark or practical in his poetry or his person, lecturing on Webb, ditto with bells on, was irresistible.

It turned out to be a fairly intimate affair in a shiny new building across the street from the anti-poetic tower. I recognised a smattering of poets and other writers, scholars, editors and UTS lecturers. I sat at the front, and my neighbours turned out to include Juno Gemes, Adamson’s photographer wife who discreetly plied her trade, Toby Davidson, editor of the new, excellent Francis Webb: Collected Poems, and Michael Griffith, who wrote God’s Fool, the best and only booklength introduction to Webb’s life and work. I’m not suggesting it was a family affair. The room was full, but I don’t think many of us were there without a prior connection to Webb, Adamson or UTS’s Centre for New Writing.

Adamson, whose CAL-sponsored professorship is for three years, began with a disarming list of thankyous – including to poet Martin Harrison for explaining to him what a lecture was. I hope the lecture is somehow made available, as it was a very clear account of Webb’s life and work, informed by a deep engagement with the poetry and a brief but significant personal relationship with the man. He read a number of poems. I’d say he read them brilliantly but that would give the wrong impression: he read them slowly, almost stumblingly, as if he was discovering them as he read them, or even encountering the language itself for the first time, mispronouncing an occasional word (couch in couch grass to rhyme with crouch, impotent with the emphasis on the second syllable), so that the listener was drawn in as a collaborator rather than being cast as a recipient. I find it hard to imagine a better way of reading this poetry.

In the excellent Q&A, freed from his written text, Adamson loosened up and spoke more personally: of how Webb was crucial to his own development as a poet, of how James McCauley looked him in the eye and said, ‘You’re on the right track with Webb – follow him instead of these Americans, of how he and his friends turned up like rockstar fans at Angus & Robertson’s bookshop the day the first Collected Poems was published, only to be told, ‘We publish it, but that doesn’t mean we have to have in here for sale.’ He gave a very funny, and accurate, account of A. D. Hope’s article on Webb: ‘Hope was a vitalist, and suspicious of Webb’s religious dimension, but he discusses the poem Canobolas, saying, “Look, he sees the mountain as a naked woman, so he must be all right, he’s one of us.”‘

SWF 2112: Poets, Harbour, pitches and more poets

This was my first day at Walsh Bay, and in striking contrast to recent weather, the sky was cloudless and there was no wind – perfect festival weather.

The tiny harbourside room generally reserved for poets at the Festival couldn’t have been a more appropriate venue for my first event of the day, Harbours and Rivers, with Robert Adamson, Neil Astley, Martin Harrison and Jennifer Maiden. I joined the uncharacteristically long queue with minutes to spare, and only when it became clear I wasn’t going to get in I realised I was in the wrong place: this time the tiny room had been given to young writers talking about the Second Novel Effect, and the poets had been given a much bigger and incidentally much darker space. I briskly walked the length of the Wharf and arrived part way through the introductions.

The poets, refusing as poets should to be pigeonholed, paid at best slant regard to their allocated topic. Jennifer Maiden read a long new poem, ‘The Uses of Powerlessness’, which she described as a diary poem but was actually pretty much a philippic on Julia Gillard, not in the ‘X woke up in X’ form, but a straightforward furious meditation. I wrote down one of many striking lines: ‘The Labor Party, like Gillard, is an obedience addict.’ Martin Harrison and Robert Adamson both spoke of the complex interplay between observation of the natural world and self-discovery. ‘All my harbours and rivers are internal,’ the latter said, somewhat disingenuously, ‘even though I live on a river.’ Among the poems he read was the sublime ‘Kingfisher’s Soul’, an intensely personal love poem that grows richer with each hearing. Neil Astley, advertised as editor of English publishing house Bloodaxe Books, turns out to be a poet as well. He was in Darwin for Cyclone Tracy, about which he read two striking poems followed by an excerpt from a novel that engages with an English countryside.

Jennifer Maiden, Robert Adamson, Martin Harrison and Neil Astley not far from the Harbour

In short, it was very good. Afterwards I ventured to introduce myself to Jennifer Maiden, but I was probably working so hard at no being too fanboyish for the conversation to have made much sense.

After a brief interval I went to the Club Stage for So You Think You Can Write, my first time to this a regular Festival event in which random audience members get to pitch a project to a panel of publishers.

The specially decorative lights for the Club Stage area – each bulb has an open book for a shade.

I don’t know that anyone who was at all savvy about publishing would participate in this, unless for the sheer fun of it. And it was mostly fun. A 15 year old boy pitched a detective story set among the Egyptian pyramids. There was an earnest tract for children aiming to foster leadership skills and an understanding of democracy. One or two pitches were for books that could have been anything, so broad were the descriptions. One woman had already had an iBook version of her project downloaded thousands of times. The winner – of nothing apart from the glory – was a psychological detective story in which the character realises a day of her life has gone missing and then is shown photos of herself taken on the missing day. The thing that won the audience and panel’s approval was that the photos were improbably and bizarrely orgiastic, involving vegetables and cigars in unspecified lewd ways. It may not be Scandi-Crime, but this audience loved it. You read about it here first.

And then off to the poets’ lightfilled room. Gig Ryan and Kate Lilley, feminist-identifying experimental poets, drew an overflow crowd, including Adamson, Harrison and Astley from this morning, plus John Tranter, Ivor Indyk, Toby Fitch and many faces familiar from the Sappho open mike nights. Each of the poets introduced the other. They read from recently published books and, on being requested by an audience member to  compose a poem together on the spot, they parlayed the request down to each of them reading a poem by the other – with interesting results.

I confess that I went to this session expecting to suffer. I’ve read very little of either of them and my experience has been that if I don’t know a poet’s work I have trouble hearing it when read to me. (A possible contrary experience was hearing Jennifer Maiden this morning, but I am familiar with her voice and preoccupations, so had a head start.) Gig Ryan reads quickly, and her language is very compressed: I had difficulty distinguishing the words, let alone grasping the connections between them. Kate Lilley has a gratifyingly expressive delivery, and the woman beside me kindly allowed me to look over her shoulder and read along as the poems were read. But I was still pretty completely mystified. Both women talked about how people in their lives met their work with blank expressions, so I didn’t feel too stupid, or at least not alone in my stupidity.

One of Kate Lilley’s poems, ‘Maisily’, consists of a string of about a hundred adverbs. This was the first time she’d read it aloud and it was quite a feat – all those lys. It seemed like pointless nonsense to me. Then she explained that it was made up of all the adjectives used by Henry James in What Maisie Knew. That made it seem like hi-falutin pointless nonsense to me. Then I remembered that it was part of an elegiac sequence about the poet’s relationship with her mother, and it no longer seemed so pointless – maybe I was finding an emotional subtext because that’s the kind of reader I am, but I did find one, like a deeply submerged nostalgia for childhood when the adult world was as inscrutable as to little Maisie in James’s novel. I wonder how it wold go if read, not as a near tongue twister, but with the rhythm of a tolling bell.

As if the poets had read my thoughts, their conversation turned to the business of reading poetry aloud. Lilley said she knew and loved her poetry long before she heard her read, but when she did hear her read it was a revelation. Maybe my difficulty is as much to do with my increasing deafness as with unfamiliarity with the poetry.

So the poetry was difficult, but the session was excellent. Both were very funny about the business of being poets, and how they see each other’s poetry. Even when they drew our attention to the complete absence of critical articles on Gig Ryan’s work, even though she is generally acknowledged as an important Australian poet, and surmised that this absence may well be because she is a woman, somehow that seemed richly comic.

On the way home in the bus, I ran into an old friend who had been to a panel with Peter Hartcher, George Megalogenis and a third journalist talking about Australia’s parlous economic situation. I felt I had been very frivolous, but I was glad of it.

Adamson’s Kingfisher’s Soul

[I accidentally posted a beginning draft of this a couple of days ago, and couldn’t make the automatic Twitter feed shut up. Sorry!]

Robert Adamson, The Kingfisher’s Soul (Bloodaxe 2009)

I’ve read many of these poems before, in Mulberry Leaves (Paper Bark Press 2001) and The Goldfinches of Baghdad (Flood Editions 2006). But they all feel new to me. This may be because I’m a lousy reader of poetry. It may also have something to do with this book’s careful ordering of the poems into something like a sequence (most evident in the middle and third of the three sections, the former playing obliquely with the mythic figure of Eurydice, the latter consisting entirely of poems named after birds). And it may have to do with the nature of the poems themselves: bear in mind that I know very little about poetic schools and movements (I wouldn’t know a Black Mountain poem from a New York lunch), so anything I say is sure to be crude and/or naive, but it seems to me that Adamson’s poems flow into one another: edges and boundaries blur, as he and the Hawkesbury River, birds and fish, and other poets and artists, all intermingle in a strangely compelling, elusive oneness.

When he read at Sappho’s recently, Adamson remarked in passing that he generally doesn’t know what his poems are about until he’s finished writing them, and often not even then. I’ve heard a couple of people recently say that a lot of contemporary poetry is like cryptic crosswords – it’s largely a matter of unravelling complex codes etc etc. I don’t think that’s what Adamson is talking about. I don’t have the book with me so can’t give examples (I’m at the airport), but time and again a poem will move from a vivid description of a bird and the speaker’s interaction with it; a metaphoric or even allegorical meaning, sometimes with satirical will be set up; and then it’s as if the poem gives up such ventures as futile and we’re left with the bird, the river, the silent poet.

I recently heard a passage from a recent novel read on the radio, beginning, ‘The Hawkesbury was lovely.’ It’s hard to imagine Adamson writing that sentence, or going on to talk about its golden cliffs as the novelist did. Adamson’s poetry doesn’t describe the Hawkesbury. It lives it. My flight is being called.

Sappho & Penguin play rough

Two literary events with the Art Student in the last week: Robert Adamson and Devin Johnson 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 Johnson were an excellent double bill, lots of river water and birds from two continents. The two stand-out poems for me were Johnson’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, Johnson 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.

The red chair, the lamp, and the Art Student (who managed to grab the last seat)

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.