Tag Archives: The School Magazine

Nicola Knox’s Green Light Running

Nicola Knox, Green Light Running (self published 2012)

glr.jpgThis is not one of those self-published books with a chip on its shoulder about the publishing industry.  It’s much more modest than that – so modest that I can’t find any information about where to buy a copy. Mine was a gift from the author, an honour to which I owe a number of Nicola Knox’s poems having appeared in The School Magazine when I was editor. My impression is that she only ever intended a small, intimate circulation. (Maybe I’m projecting: my own three self-published books of verse are glorified end-of-year greeting cards – though of course I’m delighted whenever someone buys one from Lulu.)

The book is a witness to the value of creativity, of making in response to experience. Where one person might take out a sketch book and pencil or paints, another will reach for pen and notepaper. Poems here have been inspired by travel, by family life, by childhood reminiscence, by works of art, by ancient and modern history. They are the fruits of life lived with an active mind, a mind that it’s a pleasure to spend time with.

Just to give you a taste, here’s a poem that speaks softly but carries a big stick to one of the big issues facing us at the present moment:

Refugee Boat

The heart of Pharaoh
was dry and shrivelled
as an old walnut.

But his daughter
dove gentle
beautiful and kind
was loved as her father
was feared.

On a morning
splashing with court ladies
in the Nile, she did not hide
her pity for the plump infant
found in a coracle
rocking gently
among river reeds.

So the princess
and the alien child
gazed upon each other
and from that moment
all things changed.

A second volume of Nicola Knox’s poetry, Verandah Man, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2016, and is available from the Ginninderra website.

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Green Light Running is the eleventh book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Dimity Figner

Dimity Figner, feminist, artist and generally lovely person died on Thursday in a nursing home in Nowra. She had been sick for some time, and some of her many friends were with her at the end.

There was a retrospective exhibition of Dimity’s art in Nowra earlier this year, and she was active in the Older Women’s Network until recently (at that link is a photo of Dimity and 13 other rambunctious older women celebrating the publication of a history of Nowra OWN). In the 1970s she designed a beautiful Women’s Liberation symbol that has been widely used on badges and publications in Australia. She briefly illustrated for The School Magazine in the early 1980s. Back when I used to run into her regularly I could count on her to say she liked my hair just about a day before my official grooming consultant told me it was time to visit the barber.

One of our most cherished art acquisitions is this wonderful little bust, her creation:


Many people will miss Dimity. I’m one of them.

Added on 6 May: I don’t think many people will be aware of Dimity’s work with The School Magazine. Here’s a scan we managed to get of a 1981 cover by her (difficult if not impossible to get a perfect scan, as the bound volumes don’t flatten out without damage):

A hundred years of The School Magazine

sm100.jpegI will probably write more about The School Magazine as its centenary year progresses, but for now I want to draw your attention to a sweet thing that happened on World Poetry Day. A number of poets wrote blog entries about their experience of being published in the magazine, and they combine to create a powerful statement of the magazine’s importance. You can see at least some of them by clicking on these links:

Jackie Hosking
Claire Saxby
Janeen Brian
Julie Thorndyke
Lorraine Marwood
Pat Simmons
Rebecca Newman
Sally Murphy
Sophie Masson
Stephen Whiteside
Yvonne Low

I was editor of the magazine for some years, and  (ahem!) am mentioned by one of these poets as a ‘great encourager’. I’m relieved that none of the poets took the opportunity to mention any of my blunders. And I’m delighted that a good number of them have begun publishing since my time.

Haruki Murakami’s Strange Library

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library (2008, translation by Ted Goossen, Harvill Secker 2014)

1846559219I received this as a Christmas gift, and I’m pretty sure that’s what the publishers had in mind.

Tucked away on the imprint page is a credit to Suzanne Dean as designer with a copyright symbol next to her name, and that is just as it should be. The library record pocket glued to the front cover is just the beginning. As one reads the book, almost every page offers a little (or big) design surprise: gorgeous illustrations (many of tangential relevance to the text), to the illusion of different paper stocks, simulated water damage, clumsily stamped page numbers. You can never forget that you are dealing with a book as physical object. I haven’t been been as entranced by a book design since Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium Is the Massage.

The creep, scary, dream-logical story of a boy who is imprisoned in a labyrinth beneath a library until he can memorise four thick books about taxation in the Ottoman Empire reads like Murakami’s version of a children’s story. If it had crossed my desk when editing The School Magazine, I probably would have voted to include it in our list of recommended books ‘for advanced readers’, though I would have understood if I’d been voted down because of some deliciously scary threats that the boy faces.

As it is, it’s a brief, pleasant diversion for adults as well as whoever else might find it.

Bill Willingham’s Legends in Exile

Bill Willingham, Fables Vol 1: Legends in Exile (Vertigo 2002)

140123755XIn my former life as an editor of children’s literature, we regularly received manuscript stories and plays that rang the changes on classic fairytales – the wolf as a good guy slandered by dodgy pig developers or, far too often, a frog who is nothing but a frog but tricks a princess into kissing him anyhow.

Bill Willingham’s Fables belongs in that tradition. The many lands of fairytales have been invaded by a monstrous Adversary, seen only in flashback in this first book of the series, and the survivors of his onslaught have now lived centuries-long lives among the mundanes (that’s us) in a film-noir inflected New York City. At least, the action of this book takes place among those who live in New York – we are told that others, who can’t pass as human, live in enclaves upstate.

I expect that later volumes will tell the story of the expulsion. Here we are plunged in medias res, and the workings of the Fable community are revealed to us in the course of  a murder investigation. Rose Red has vanished and her blood is all over her apartment. Bigby Wolf, almost always human in form, is the hardboiled detective who investigates. The main suspects are Bluebeard (who is engaged to Rose Red) and Jack, of beanstalk fame (who has been her boyfriend for a long long time). Old King Cole is the figurehead mayor while Snow White does all the community’s real administrative work. Beauty and the Beast are a bickering couple with a difference – whenever she is angry with him, he starts to revert to his beastly appearance. Prince Charming is a parasitic conman. Pinocchio is a real boy, who is permanently enraged for reasons you might be able to guess.

It’s all good, knowing, M rated fun. The art, pencilled by Lan Medina and inked by Steve Leialoha and Craig Hamilton, serves the story well, tactful with the violence, restrained with the comic transmutations, moodily noir when it has to be, and just every now and then completely over the top.

Looking back: June 1964, 1974, 2004

Yesterday, searching for the name of a book I read in the early 70s, I dug out the little notebook where I listed every book I read from 1961 to 1974 – from ages 14 to 27.

As pure self indulgence – after all, what’s a blog for? – here is most of 1964:

1964
It was my last year of high school so I didn’t read a lot. It’s interesting to notice that before heading off to boarding school I read science fiction, crime, and a coulpe of James Bonds. After that, it’s religious books (I was on my way to being a member of a Catholic religious order), Charlotte Bronte (but not Jane Eyre), Goodbye Mr Chips, some Belloc, some Chesterton and some Paul Gallico. I know I also read Wuthering Heights and Macbeth, both more than once – evidently I didn’t count study texts as reading material for the purposes of this notebook.

By 1974, now 27, I had abandoned my unfinished MA thesis in Aust Lit and was working at Currency Press, publisher of Australian plays.

1974 June

In June – 40 years ago this month – I read 10 books and went to the theatre once. Religion had been replaced by C G Jung: I read two books about him, and one on the I Ching (which he sometimes used to diagnose children and others). There were two novels by Herman Hesse, which I don’t remember at all. Kind of work-related, I read some Sophocles, some Patrick White and some Peter Handke. (I’m surprised to find I read the Peter Handke eight months or so before I saw Peter Wherett’s brilliant production at the Nimrod in Belvoir Street with Kate Fitxzpatrick and Peter Carroll.) I went to Melbourne to see a Jack Hibberd play, at the Pram Factory with Bill Garner and the fabulous Evelyn Krape.  I also began reading a history of North Queensland, which a note says I took more than a year to finish. And there’s a book each from Bruce Beaver and Robert Adamson. Nothing by women.

I stopped making a note of my reading in my late 20s, so I’ll skip to 2004, just 10 years ago, when I was keeping a blog, the precursor of the one whose entries now appear in the right-hand column here. If you want details, you can click on this link. It turns out in June 2004 I read an amazing 25 books,  almost all of them for my work at The School Magazine. So I was paid to read fabulous novels by Terry Pratchett, Geraldine McCaughrean, Allan Baillie, Susan Cooper and Gillian Cross, picture books by Julius Lester & Jerry Pinkney, Alan Ahlberg & Peter Bailey, Colin & Jacqui Hawkins, and Anna & Barbara Fienberg & Kim Gamble, and poetry by Myra Cohn Livingston. Good work if you can get it!

On my own 10 cents in June 2004, I read three volumes of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman epic, and – some suffering is self-induced – The Da Vinci Code.

So here I am in June 2014, two books read and three on the go. My recent excursion into self-improvement with Alain de Botton is perhaps an equivalent of the religious texts of 1964 and Jung in 1974. I’m still reading weighty Australian novels, poetry (this time from China as well as Australia), history, and comics artists.

Maybe by 2114 I’ll have kicked the addiction.

Stephen Whiteside’s Billy that Died with its Boots On

Stephen Whiteside, The Billy that Died with its Boots On and other Australian verse, illustrated by Lauren Merrick (Walker Books 2014)

coverDiane Bates, children’s writer and tireless children’s literature activist, recently set up the Australian Children’s Poetry web site. Its aim, she said,

is to, for the first time, give a national and international ‘face’ to Australian children’s poetry.

The website, which is well worth a look, may change things, but until now poetry written for children in Australia has struggled to have a public face. The School Magazine, published by the NSW Department of Education, has been a dependable outlet just short of 100 years, but its index fairly bristles with lovely poems that appeared there and then were seen no more (except in readers’ memories: in my time at the magazine we received regular phone calls from people trying to track down a poem they had read in the magazine 70 or so years earlier).

It’s always heartening, then, when a children’s publisher like Walker Books brings out a new book of poetry, especially one by a single author.* It would quickly become disheartening, of course, if the poetry wasn’t any good, but The Billy That Died with its Boots On delivers the goods.

The poet’s Introduction proclaims his life-long love of rhyme, and encourages readers to ‘find a brother or sister, or mother or father, or cousin, or aunt or uncle, or grandfather or grandmother, or simply a friend, and read a poem to them’. So be warned, if you give this to a young person as a gift, be prepared to sit still and be read to.

Not that you will suffer if that happens. The book is bursting with gleeful love of rhyme and bush-ballad rhythms. There’s nonsense, fantasy, word play, jokes (some laugh-aloud, some groan-worthy), historical narrative; the beach, the bush, the snow, the sports field; dogs and cats, cormorants and spotted quolls; dinosaurs and flying whales. It’s not hard to imagine a young reader becoming permanently addicted to rhyme if exposed to this book.

If I have a favourite poem, it’s probably ‘We Headed for the Beach Today’. I’d love to give you the whole poem, but it’s long and I don’t want to breach anyone’s copyright: suffice to say it lists all the things that could have gone wrong on a day at the beach but didn’t, mixing the all too common with the extremely unlikely, all in impeccably scanned, rhyming couplets, as for example:

No one grizzled. No one snarled. No one yelled or jeered.
We didn’t see a baby grab his daddy by the beard.
A change did not arrive to make the water dark and wild.
A shiny flying saucer did not steal a little child.

It’s perfect for learning off by heart and performing for your brother or sister, etc.

By way of full disclosure: Roughly half of these poems were first published in The School Magazine, many of them when I was editor. Stephen graciously mentions me in the acknowledgements, and also in his account of the book’s long gestation on the Australian Children’s Poetry site. I received a complimentary copy from Walker Books.
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* I wouldn’t want to give the impression that this is the only such book Walker have published. Far from it. The last page advertises Guinea Pig Town and Note on the Door, both books by Lorraine Marwood, another fine poet who has graced the pages of The School Magazine.

Colleen Z Burke’s Splicing Air (and Sonnet 13)

Colleen Z Burke, Splicing Air (Feakle Press, 2013)

1saMore than 20 years ago in a pub in Glebe I heard Colleen Burke (I don’t think the Z had yet become part of her working title) read poems from which I still remember lines that move me, from what she presented as straightforward records of conversations with her children.

Many of the poems in Splicing Air capture moments with her grandchildren, and the conversations still smuggle killer lines into the poetry. Many others, in what I think of as her signature style, are short, impressionistic pieces about landscape or, especially, skyscape in and over Newtown and surrounds, or bushland. There are a number of pieces observing the social life of Newtown, past and present, and a handful of longer pieces. And some snapshots from New Zealand

Four of the longer pieces draw on the history of discovery and settlement of New South Wales: an narrative-essay on James and Elizabeth Cook, journal entries by the surgeon and an officer from the First Fleet, a biographical sketch of the early Australian poet Frank Macnamara. They lack obvious poetic embellishment, but in each of them the effect is unsettling and revelatory. There are straightforward accounts of the lives of two nineteenth-century women – ‘The publican’s daughter’ being the poet’s great grandmother, and ‘The fossil hunter – Mary Anning’ (which accounts for roughly a fifth of the book) an extraordinary Dorset woman who might easily have been lost to history because of her class and gender.

The sense of place is strong here as in all Colleen Z Burke’s work: I think of her as the poet of Newtown. Earlier books have included a number of pieces set in Camperdown Cemetery, and this book has two beauties set there too: ‘Kangaroo grasslands and my 20 month old grandson’ and the wicked ‘Another take on recycling’.

It’s November, so a sonnet is obligatory. This one draws on the last couple of times I laid eyes on the poet, and occasions when her work has featured large in the urban landscape, as illuminated posters that were part of the Sydney Festival some years ago, and more recently on the Newtown Art Seat. (there are six different links there, all to this site)

Sonnet 13: Colleen Z Burke
She reads to us beside a Whiteley –
her landscapes quiet, his lewd and loud.
I’ve seen her sunset words shine nightly,
tall amid a milling crowd.
Her tiny poems tread light, illumine;
the details of decay are human’
as she bids a friend farewell.
Human too what she can tell
of autumn air and Maralinga,
clouds, trees, coprolites, cats, birds,
muskets, trinkets, children’s words.
This poetry’s a pointing finger,
self-effacing, yet with grace
it helps to root us in this place.

Full disclosure: I published one or two of these poems in The School Magazine in my past life, and may have rejected one or two others A significant event in my mother-in-law’s pre-dementia life was a creative writing class taught by Colleen Burke.

awwbadge_2013 I think this is the 11th book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

Western Sydney on Western Sydney

Michael Mohammed Ahmad & Felicity Castagna (editors), On Western Sydney (Westside Publications 2012)

In early 2011, an issue of the University of New South Wales’ student newspaper Tharunka had a cover illustration of maps of Sydney according to four different regions. Like Yanko Tsvetkov’s stereotype maps, their probable inspiration, they manage to be cheerfully offensive about just about everyone, but you’d have to be thin skinned to take serious umbrage.
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All the same, look at Western Sydney: ‘out there’, ‘someone has to live there’, ‘yummy exotic food’, ‘cultural cringe’, ‘refugees’, ‘day trip’. The anonymous cartographer has caught something, but if you stop and think for a bit you realise that he/she/they has/have surely pulled her/his/their punches, avoiding any references to drugs, sexual violence, Islamophobic stereotypes or the class attitude invoked by the word westies. More interestingly, there is no ‘Sydney according to Western Sydney’ map. Evidently, in the mind of the maps’ creator(s), Western Sydney lacks a view of its own.

Westside Publications exists to create a counter-narrative: to provide a platform for Western Sydney voices and, at least in part, to undermine the stereotypes, less by denying them outright than by seeking to paint a fuller picture. ‘I don’t mind a story that makes us look bad,’ writes Michael Mohammed Ahmad, chief editor of Westside, in his introduction to On Western Sydney, ‘so long as it’s honest and complex.’

Under the auspices of BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Service), Westside has work for years in schools and the community to develop skilled writers. On Western Sydney is their twelfth anthology featuring established and/or emerging writers and artists connected to the region. Ahmad says the goal has been ‘to source writing from Western Sydney and writing about Western Sydney’. Of course it’s not the only place where writers from Western Sydney get published – in my time at the School Magazine, for instance, some of our regular contributors were from the west, and off the top of my head eminent poets Jennifer Maiden and Peter Minter have strong Western Sydney connections. And a number of the writers in this anthology have been published elsewhere, including in the definitely Inner West This is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories. But there’s no doubting the significance of Westside. Last week Mohammed Ahmad received the Australia Council’s Kirk Robson Award which honours ‘outstanding leadership from young people working in community arts and cultural development, particularly in the areas of reconciliation and social justice’.

20120921-175932.jpg So On Western Sydney is a phenomenon. It’s also a good read, and not at all the dry sociological collection the title might suggest. It includes short stories, poetry, absurd parables, a photo essay; there’s lyricism, satire, rap, stinging social commentary, domestic observation, fantasy, memoir (I think), travel writing … from as culturally diverse a bunch of writers as you’re likely to find anywhere. Many of the contributors are familiar from Westside’s readings at recent Sydney Writers’ Festivals, and scattered throughout are Bill Reda’s photos of Moving People, this year’s event.

I wouldn’t rush to say that the stereotypes are completely repudiated. Some are reversed with varying degrees of subtlety. Two poems – Andy Ko’s surreal ‘A South Line Travel Guide’ and Fiona Wright’s deliciously ironic ‘Roadtrip’ (which begins ‘And it certainly felt like a Food Safari, such a long way from Kirribilli’) – could be read as direct, mocking responses to Tharunka‘s ‘day trip’ and ‘yummy exotic foods’ stereotypes. Predatory men are scarily realised in Amanda Yeo’s train-story ‘Nine Minutes’ and Frances Panapoulos’ poem ‘”puss puss”‘, though there’s no racial profiling in either. The class attitudes not quite articulated by Tharunka are challenged throughout, as when the protagonist of Peta Murphy’s ‘Roughhousing with Aquatic Birds’ suffers through some kind of arty inner west event (‘She doesn’t speak to me, / it’s as if she can see my Bunnings uniform’). The world evoked in Lachlan Brown’s long poem ‘Poem for a Film’ could well be labelled ‘Someone has to live there’, but there’s art – and heart – in the telling:

______On a blistering afternoon
a council truck is removing tall trees

so that no one will confuse this vista with
a place of moneyed elegance. And maybe

the scream of the chainsaw means you’re
not ignored, as cut limbs crash through

the dry air. And maybe what’s left is
for your own good, and the streetscape

becomes a mouth mashed up during a bar fight,
with its bare stumps grinning cruelly in the heat.

My guess is that the writers are mostly under 35. The problems of negotiating relationships is a dominant theme: under the judgemental gaze of older Arab women in Miran Hosny’s ‘The Weight Divide’; by phone in Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s own brief contribution, the deeply unsettling ‘The First Call’; in the gap between the world of song and the world of experience in Luke Carman’s ‘Becoming Leonard Cohen’ (though it’s pretty impertinent to describe Carman’s weird tangential verse as about anything); in bitter-sweet recollection of a high school crush in Tamar Chnorhokian’s ‘Remembering Leon’.

There’s so much to like. We’re told that this will be Westside’s last print publication. Maybe there’s a sense that its work is done, and the writers it has fostered can now find platforms further afield – in Asia Literary Journal, for example, whose current issue has a number of pieces exploring migrant identity. I hope so.

I received my copy free from BYDS. You can buy one from independent book shops in Sydney or directly from BYDS (email in@byds.org.au with your postal address and they’ll give you details on cost and bank transfer details).

Hilary Mantel brings up the bodies

Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies (Fourth Estate 2112)

20120704-175516.jpg I’m probably the only person of my generation whose grasp of what it was like to live in the courts of the Tudors comes mainly from an article written for The School Magazine by award winning children’s novelist and occasional commenter on this blog, Cassandra Golds. ‘The Princess in the Tower’ focused on Elizabeth, imprisoned during the reign of her half sister Mary, but there’s a memorable paragraph . It likens the court to a jungle where elegant people circled each other like wild beasts, seeking the advantage. Sadly, I’m writing this far from home, so can’t give you a quote. (Cassandra, if you read this, maybe you could add one in the comments section?) [Added later: Cassandra has commented with the passage which is even more apposite than I had remembered. Thanks, Cassandra.]

Even more than Wolf Hall, to which it’s a sequel, Bring up the Bodies validates that image in its portrayal of the court of Henry VIII. But at its heart there’s Thomas Cromwell, no wild beast but a methodical tactician, serving the king and good of the kingdom, receiving insults with apparent stolidity but forgetting nothing, keeping his own counsel, taming some beasts and destroying others.

I was reading this in a cafe in Goreme in Cappadocia, when an Australian woman (the cafe offered a decent flat white, much sought after by Australian coffee drinkers) called from several tables away.

Australian flat-white-drinking woman: ‘How are you finding that? I loved Wolf Hall but I found that one a bit hard to get into.’
Me: I’m loving it. I think it’s miraculous the way she gets right inside the minds of people from that time.
Australian flat-white-drinking woman’s grey-haired male companion: it’s all in the mind.
Me: Um, yes.
AFWDWGHMC: It’s past lives.
Me: Oh, you think Hilary Mantel was there in a past life.
AFWDWGHMC: Not just her, everybody.
Me: Well, that’s a conversation stopper if ever I heard one. (I didn’t say that, I just wish I had.)
AFWDWGH: She’s written another book, you know, a nonfiction book called Anne Boleyn, Witch.

So there you are. If anything was going to make me believe in past lives, it might well be this book. And if Hilary Mantel has written that nonfiction book, I wish she had spent the time on the next novel about Cromwell. It’s not that I want to see him get his comeuppance, as of course he will. I just want more of him. And I worry about his sweet, naive son Gregory.

PS: I read this in Turkey, among relics of rulers at least as much at the mercy of their whims as Henry Tudor. I wonder how English history might have gone if Henry could have had a harem. Surely if he had four wives at a time the need to have a son might have been less desperate. Mostly I didn’t take the book on outings, preferring to take thinner volumes. But here I am, reading it in the queue to see the treasures in Topkapi Palace.

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