Tag Archives: Tricia Dearborn

Journal Blitz 2

I still have nearly a year’s worth of subscribed journals on my TBR shelf. Here some gleanings from a second catch-up binge.

Andrew Galan and David Stavanger (guest editors) plus Toby Fitch (Big Bent editor), Australian Poetry Journal Volume 8 Number 2: Spoken

This issue of APJ is in two parts: ‘Spoken’ comprises 42 poems intended primarily for performance – ‘Spoken Word’ creations; and ‘Big Bent Poetry’ is 19 poems commissioned to be read at a series of LGBTQIA+ events at literary festivals in 2018. Sound recordings of both sections are accessible at the Australian Poetry home page, australianpoetry.org.

The Big Bent poems may have been commissioned for performance, but they are mostly ‘page poems’, compressed, elegant, needing to be taken slowly; the Spoken poems are definitely ‘stage poems’, with declamatory rhythms and big gestures, one of them actually including stage directions.

I’m a long way from being a Spoken Word aficionado, but I love Bankstown Poetry Slam and was pleased to recognise a number of its stars here. Sara Saleh’s ‘InshAllah’ offers a multitude of meanings for that expression, of which my favourite is, ‘InshaAllah is the answer / when there are still questions but no answers to give.’ Ahmad Al Rady has a group of three short, tantalisingly oblique poems (on rain: ‘wet bullets crave the warmth of flesh’). In Omar Musa’s ‘Christchurch’, that earthquake-ravaged city is a setting for a break-up poem (‘I don’t believe in miracles any more, just bridges – some you walk across, some you jump from’).

There are strong Aboriginal voices, including Lorna Munro, whose ‘cop it sweet’ evokes the ravages of time on her inner city Aboriginal community, and Steven Oliver of Black Comedy fame, with a brilliant list poem, ‘Diversified Identity’.

Other poems that stand out for me are Emilie Zoey Baker’s ‘Hey, Mary Shelley’, in which the speaker imagines herself inhabiting Shelley’s body ‘like a flexible ghost’; Emily Crocker’s ‘the refrigerator technician’, a breakup, or near-breakup, poem full of sharp domestic metaphors; Tim Evans’s ‘Poem Interrupted by’, in which the speaker answers a phone call from the Abyss (this is the one with stage directions); and the anthem-like ‘Forget’ by the late and much-missed Candy Royale. The section ends with a photograph of a splendid graffiti mural at the Newtown hub featuring Candy Royale with a halo made up of the words, loving instead of hating, living instead of waiting.

Coming to this issue late means that I’ve actually read a couple of the Big Bent poems in books published in the meantime. It was a pleasure to re-encounter Tricia Dearborn’s ‘Petting’ and Kate Lilley’s ‘Pastoral’. Of the others, I particularly warmed to joanne burns’s shit-stirring in ‘a query or two’, which includes:

is there a point to getting grumpy
if you're addressed as 'sir' by
a sushi seller or a supermarketeer –
better than being addressed as nothing
or no one service is better for the sirs
of this world.

There’s also ‘(weevils)’ by Pam Brown (I don’t understand the title, but it’s a terrific poem); ‘my human’ by Quinn Eades (he’s the poet who appears in both sections – ‘my human’ is spoken by a dog); ‘A Song of Love’ by Omar Sakr; and ‘Bathers’ by Zenobia Frost (a longish prose poem that takes a Rupert Bunny painting as its starting point). There’s a lot of excellence to choose from.


Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 232 (Spring 2018)

First thing you notice about this Overland is the stunning collages by guest artist Bella Li, especially the front and back covers – a great waterfall among skyscrapers, and oceanside apartment blocks bursting into flower. Bella Li’s artist’s statement can be read on the journal’s website, here. (Most of the contents of this issue can be read on the website. The titles here link to them.)

As always there are excellent columns by Alison Croggon (‘On memory‘ – ‘The human capacity for delusion isn’t so much a bug as a feature’), Giovanni Tiso (‘On remembering to back-up grandpa‘ – a touch of dystopian technofuture) and Tony Birch (‘On Kes‘ – the role of books and an imagined falcon in his childhood, plus a sweet present-day harking back).

Overland always includes the results of at least one literary competition. This time it’s the VU Short Story Prize and the PEN Mildura Indigenous Writers Award. The winner and runners-up for the former are all terrific: in How to disappear into yourself (in 8 steps) by Katerina Gibson the narrator juggles an internship, a paid job, motherhood, a possible new relationship, and cultural complexity, and the story stays lucid; in Dear Ophelia by Erik Garkain a trans man who works in a morgue speaks to a trans woman whose corpse he tends – it’s a little teachy, but I just now many of us need teaching; Nothing in the night by Ashleigh Synnott is a short, gripping, surreal piece which Bella Li’s collage illo suggests is set in a dystopian future, though I’m agnostic about that. Her eyes by Maya Hodge, winner of the PEN Mildura prize, takes that moment when you look into a baby’s eyes and understand something profound.

I’m always grateful for Overland‘s poetry section, currently edited by Toby Fitch. This issue has nine poems, of which the two that speak most directly to me are Peripheral drift by Zenobia Frost (who also got a guernsey in Big Bent Poetry, above), which begins:

Turns out you can still pash in a graveyard
at 28, though by now my fear of spooks
has faded into a more realistic fear of people

and Patternicity by Shey Marque, a terrific evocation of a tiny sandstorm that includes the wonderful word ‘apoidean’.

Of the articles, the ones I have been talking about compulsively are The bird you are holding by Ashleigh Synnott (who also appears as one of the VU Prize runners-up) and Against apologies by Joanna Horton. Each of them makes a case for keeping in mind our common humanity, or at least our common struggles. Among other things, Synnott provides brief literature survey of the concept of ‘precarity’, and Horton, while agreeing that talk of ‘privilege’ is useful, argues that apologising for one’s privilege is actually buying into neoliberal individualism:

We desperately need a politics that frames a comfortable, stable life, one as free from oppression as possible, as a right to be fought for, not a privilege to be denounced.

‘Making the desert bloom’ by Barbara Bloch is a trenchant criticism of the Jewish National Fund’s activities in the Negev/Naqab desert. Like Chris Graham’s ‘So much like home‘ in the previous issue, she draws parallels between the treatment of the Palestinians and colonialism in Australia, which chimes with my sense that Israel is not a special rogue case, but part of a planet-wide pattern.

I’ll just mention finally that I was delighted to read ‘Everything that is courageous & beautiful‘ in which Nell Butler argues that Paul Gallico should be brought back from obscurity – ‘from the dead’, she says. The Snow Goose, the book and the record of Herbert Marshall’s reading, was one of the joys of my childhood.


David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Michelle Hamadache (guest editor), Southerly Vol 77 No 3 2017: Mixed Messages

Southerly is a literary journal. I expect culture warriors of the right would say it was infected by the Gay-Marxist-feminist agenda, but it’s a broad church, with no avowed political leanings like Overland (or for that matter Quadrant, which I rarely read). David Brooks, retiring co-editor, has come out as seriously vegan, as has John Kinsella, who has a poem and a story i this issue. Yet Debra Adelaide’s story, ‘Festive Cooking for the Whole Family’, makes a cheerful mockery of vegans, among others, as her Christmas hostess wrestles with the complex dietary and other demands of a large family gathering.

David Brooks’s article ‘Seven Gazes’ (for which I broke my rule not to read anything that mentions Derrida in the first sentence) wrestles with the challenge of moving outside the human bubble to understand what is happening in the Gaze (his capitalisation) of ‘non-human animals’, and if he is aware that there’s something potentially risible in leaving the door of his house open so the sheep can drop in, he gives no sign of it; John Kinsella’s ‘Roaming the Campsite’, a sharp short story told from the perspective of a neglected child, doesn’t push any belief system, and his poem ‘Graphology Soulaplexus 36: loss’, despite its hi-falutin title, is a straightforward and beautiful elegy.

One pleasant surprise is ‘Poetic Fire’, an article written by Thea Astley when she was a school student, reproduced here because Cheryl Taylor has an article about Astley’s novels that refers to it, and the editors have kindly made it immediately accessible. In these days when schoolchildren are playing a major role in fighting for action on climate change, it’s good to have another reminder not to patronise the young. (I broke another rule, not to read Eng Lit scholarly articles about books I haven’t read, and read Charyl Taylor’s article: her use of the school-student essay is deeply respectful.)

Among other excellent things are ‘Fresh Food People’ a short story by Nazrin Mahoutchi about a small, diverse group of migrants in a food preparation business. I broke another rule (not to read excerpts) and read Peter Boyle’s ‘Excerpts from Enfolded in the wings of a Great Darkness‘, a tantalising seven pages from a long poem in progress:

who picks among
the clothes left
by those stripped bare
for mourning

Who rinses their hands in
water that can no longer
cleanse

Who goes to hear
the hymns of forgiveness
but clutches in one hand
the prayer beads of vengeance

S K Kelen’s ‘More Words: Uses for a Father’, a joyous list poem that does what the title says, speaks to my condition as a new grandfather, though ‘cricket bat whack kick / box new fun’ isn’t on our agenda just yet.

And that’s all from me. Thanks for persisting to the end. I expect to do a ‘Journal Blitz 3’ post, but not for a little while.

Tricia Dearborn’s Autobiochemistry

Tricia Dearborn, Autobiochemistry (UWA Publishing 2019)

The Emerging Artist warned me that I would lose readers if I blogged about two books of poetry in a row. So, dear Reader, please take that as a challenge and stick around. Also, tl;dr: I love this book. You might too. It’s very accessible, scientific and sexy.

Tricia Dearborn was brought up Catholic, has worked as a biochemist and as an editor, is a member of the GLBTQI community, has done psychotherapy, and has made poetry out of all that. This is her third book of poetry*. My blog posts about the first two are here (Frankenstein’s bathtub, Interactive Press 2001) and here (The ringing world, Puncher & Wattmann 2012). It’s been a long time between drinks, but worth the wait.

Autobiochemistry begins with ‘A chalk outline of the soul’ (online at the Rochford Street Review at this link – you need to scroll down). You don’t have to have had a Catholic education in a certain era to love this account of an early lesson in metaphysics and of the child-speaker’s attention quietly turning elsewhere. It had me, who belong squarely in that demographic, eating out of its hand. This quiet turning away from religious doctrine is a perfect introduction to the book: there’s no talk of souls (no auto-bio-metaphysics) in what follows, and though devotional images and a gruesome line from a hymn do turn up, they belong unequivocally to memories of childhood. Instead of religion, the poems have glorious, deliciously nerdy materiality.

The title section consists of 22 poems, each named for a chemical element, and all suffused with what you’d have to call love for the elements, their properties (‘Carbon’s multivalence, its / chemical conviviality’), their roles in human life, specifically the poet’s (‘Manganese’ – ‘tea is not high in essential nutrients / except for manganese, a “dietary mineral”’), and – sometimes – their potential for metaphor.

The title of the second section, ‘Covalent bonds’, invokes chemistry as a metaphor for relationships. The poems themselves don’t muck around with that kind of metaphor. They are variously erotic, intimate, passionate, neighbourly, elegiac.

Then there’s a suite of poems with a psychotherapy theme: ‘Elephant poems’, as in the elephant in the room. ‘Virginia Woolf’s memoirs’ includes eight short poems about Virginia Woolf, each with an epigraph from her letters or diaries. The fifth and final section, ‘The change: some notes from the field’, has nine poems with ‘Perimenopause’ in the title, my favourite being ‘Perimenopause as a chance to get a few things off my mother’s chest’.

I love this book. I love its love of the material world, its ease with bodies and bodily functions (though I would blush to read aloud some lines in the love poems). I love the way it explores the poet’s personal history with humour and seriousness and the opposite of narcissism. Most of all, I love its championing of connectedness.

Currently when I blog about a book of poetry, I try to write about just one poem in some detail. Here it has to be one from the title sequence. I’m drawn to ‘Manganese’, a fabulously multifaceted look at tea. But ‘Sodium’ has got my favourite line in the book. Here it is (you can click on the image to see it large):

There’s nothing obscure in this poem (or indeed in the whole book): no cryptic wordplay and no need for a search engine to decipher a reference. The first five triplets set the scene; the next six play; and the final three bring the poem home. It’s like a sonnet, though in place of 14 lines it has 14 triplets – 5, 6, 3.

As in the other element poems, the element is real, acknowledged in its own right with an elegant, matter-of-fact account of its properties. The poem can afford to be matter-of-fact because sodium is so wonderful. These lines take me back to the joys of high school chemistry: the word ‘tossed’ recalls for me the dramatic moment when asthmatic Brother Foley showed us the sodium–water reaction by doing just that – tossing a small chunk into a filled sink, from a safe distance.

Then the poem turns. It could have gone on to musings about table salt and blood pressure, or the difference between swimming in the ocean, creeks and backyard pools. A backyard pool does appear in ‘Chlorine’, but when the poet’s mind reacts with sodium, a metaphor results:

I wanted to be the pure metal
solely myself, self-sufficient
swaddled in the safety

of needing no one

But in taking the behaviour of sodium as a springboard to musing about the speaker’s personal history, the poem doesn’t turn away from science. Instead, it invokes neuroscience. A mirror neuron, according to Wikipedia, is ‘a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another’. Like sodium, humans (the poem has moved unobtrusively from the singular ‘I wanted’ to the species-general ‘we see’) are in constant interaction with the environment. She doesn’t have to spell out that wanting to be self-sufficient is wanting a very limited existence, the equivalent of sodium being ‘stored under kerosene, under oil’.

Then, the killer lines:

I grew up in a house of liars
a houseful of people
pretending to be separate

but humans are never
found free in nature
it's how we're designed

I just love this. It’s not that it’s a new insight. I think of D W Winnicott’s much quoted ‘There’s no such thing as a baby, there’s only a baby and someone’. And Raimond Gaita riffing on the song ‘Falling in Love Again’, reading ‘I was made that way / Auf Liebe eingestellt’ to say that humans are configured for love. Or Forster’s ‘Only connect’. It’s not new to say that humans are made for connection, however unremitting the messages to the contrary from the neoliberal environment (and the currently dominant side of politics). But ‘I grew up in a house of liars’, which looks at first glance like a condemnation of the speaker’s early family, has a deep compassion just beneath the surface. They were liars, but they were the ones who suffered from the lie, and anyhow they can hardly be blamed for inventing it.

-------------------------------connection

as vital as oxygen
intermingled, impure
we shine

The poem has done a neat trick with its main metaphor/analogy, twisting it into its exact opposite. Sodium in air is still dull, but the analogous grey dullness is what makes humans shine. It wasn’t until I retyped those lines that I realised that ‘Sodium’ can be read as a response to ‘A chalk outline of the soul’: in Sister Pascal’s chalk drawing, God’s sanctifying grace removes all smutchy traces of sin to leave the individual soul pure and shining, here – and in the book in general – it is our smutchy impurity that shines.

Autobiochemistry is the twenty-first book  I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. My copy is inscribed to a friend who bought it at a launch, so I’ll have to return it to her. I plan to buy a copy for myself.


* She has also written at least one book of science experiments for children, which you can find if you know how to use Duck Duck Go (or search engines that abuse your privacy).

Tricia Dearborn’s Ringing World

Tricia Dearborn, The Ringing World (Puncher & Wattman 2012)

When I blogged about Tricia Dearborn’s first book, Frankenstein’s Bathtub, I said I responded to the poems as if meeting an old friend for the first time. This is her second book, 11 years later, and I find myself weirdly reluctant to blog about it. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed it. I think it’s because it feels as if commenting on the poems would be like reporting on a late-night conversation among friends – one of those conversations where guards can come down and people talk easily and openly, crying a little and laughing a lot, about a first kiss (‘The changes’), about the moment when you realise your mother is a vulnerable being (‘Mother seen from below’, especially part iii, ‘Shard’) and other childhood memories (I particularly like ‘The smiley spoon’), about the death of a baby niece (‘The quiet house’), about tinnitus (‘The ringing world’), about your creepy empathy for someone who volunteers to be eaten (‘Eat my secrets’), about proofreading (‘Galley slaves’), about those fanciful moments when it feels that the world is sending you a message (‘Memo’) or you’re caught off guard coolly contemplating your own death (‘Gravity’ and ‘The waiting earth’), about dramatic (‘Projectile’) or sweetly romantic (‘Anniversary’) moments in a long-term relationship. It’s not the intimacy of the confessional, the therapy room or the pillow, but it is intimate.  And tactful – never Too Much Information, which is quite an achievement given that one or two poems (especially ‘Come in, lie down’) are pretty explicit about sex, and one (‘You are my perfect’) is a poignant avowal of love.

I read these poems, more than once, while out walking. Reading poetry while walking is something I recommend: often the rhythm of walking and the rhythm of a poem play nicely off each other, and the poems and the world can speak to each other in unexpected ways. In this book ‘Gravity’ made me notice what my feet were up to. Here is its last six lines:

Earth’s substance draws us, yet
stops us plummeting to her core.

But see how we, through the rhythmic
daily greetings of our feet

the transmitted pressure of our bodies at rest
eventually get under her skin.

‘The rhythmic daily greetings of our feet’ – isn’t that fine? It’s an example of another main joy I found in these poems – the way they unapologetically sing within a western scientific, materialist view of the world.

Tricia Dearborn’s work, including a number of the poems from this book, featured in Jim Bennett’s Caught in the Net 79.

Tricia Dearborn’s Frankenstein’s Bathtub

Tricia Dearborn, Frankenstein’s Bathtub (Interactive Press 2001)

I read this book in Istanbul, mainly in brief snatches while waiting in queues or similarly engaged. To lift a phrase from one of its poems, (‘this book will change your life’) you could say it was ‘the necessary unwelcome weight in [my] backpack’, though as it’s a very slim volume it was hardly unwelcome.

As one of the striking features of Istanbul in this hot summer is the length to which some tourists go to conceal the female body, I was delighted by the sweet, witty female sensuality in the poems of the book’s first section, ‘Body Parts’. When I say sweet, I invite you to think of mangoes rather than sugar cubes or apple tea – ‘slicing slivers of yielding flesh / that fill my mouth with / lusciousness / and after-tang’, which of course is about actual mangoes. I would have liked ‘the white dress’, from a later section, anywhere, but its tale of childhood rebellion gained an extra poignancy from the proximity of so many young women sweltering obediently beneath layers of black cloth:

the white dress

I knelt with your sewing scissors
beside the towering wardrobe

carefully I snipped holes in
your authority

I would see my life
through those holes

creating them I rained to the red rug
triangles of fine corduroy

I would not wear that dress

There are poems about growing up female, having a female body, female friendships, mother–daughter relationships. And quite a bit that doesn’t fit easily into that field. The titles of the book’s other sections give an idea of its range:

laboratory days, which includes the magnificently named ‘the biosynthesis of 3-nitropdropanoic acid in penicillium atrovenetum’

the leaping spark, about books and sex

short-circuit, which includes ‘the white dress’ and other poems about childhood, reproduction, same-sex attraction and violence against women (yes, I’m not sure what the common thread is there either!)

the uncertain human, containing the title poem and eight other short, strong poems, in which again the body asserts itself:

I think, therefore I am
said Descartes, but

while he thrice denied
the body, his neurones

pulsed with electric
solutions
(from 'proof')

home, dealing with cockroaches, visitors, travel

I respond to these poems as if meeting an old friend for the first time. I have met Tricia Dearborn once or twice, but that’s not what I mean. I think it’s the way the poems refer back, fairly obliquely, to a Catholic childhood, and turn their back on it, joyfully asserting the materiality of humanness.

SWF 2012: The Weekend

First, a photo from Friday night. This is Tamar Chnorhokian, who read first in Moving People. That’s not a sponsor’s logo in the background, the story was set in a supermarket. You can see what I mean about the performers having nowhere to hide.

And now a sprint through my crowded weekend. My only serious queuing experience of the Festival was for the 11.30 session of What Would Edith Do? on Saturday – I got there before the previous session finished and so was comfortably towards the front of the queue. Edith Campbell Berry, the main character in Frank Moorhouse’s Dark PalaceGrand Days and Cold Light, may not have seized my imagination, perhaps because I haven’t read the first two books, but she has clearly been important to many people. I went to this hoping to find out what I’ve been missing and I got what I was after. Emily Maguire, novelist, discovered Edith in her late teenage years as a model of how it might be possible to live – rising to challenges and living nervously out of one’s depth rather than settling for the life mapped out by social expectations. She said there had been a number of times when she had actually asked herself the WWED question. Sadly, she deemed only one of them suitable for public exposure, but as it involved being invited to speak at a function in North Vietnam when she actually had no idea of the purpose of the function or who the Party functionaries thought she was, it was a perfectly satisfactory anecdote. The other panellists, journalists Annabel Crabb and Cynthia Banham, had come to the character later in life, but managed to convey the appeal. I realised that Cold Light is all aftermath: a woman who has lived daringly and intelligently, challenged convention in her private life and made a contribution on the world stage, returns to Australia in the 1950s where there is no place for such a woman and lives on scraps for the rest of her life. For those who have seen Edith riding around Geneva in a cowgirl suit or (is this really what they said?) stroking Anthony Eden’s head in her lap, the third trilogy is heartbreaking. Frank Moorhouse wasn’t there, but the best line of the session was his. He had told Annabel Crabb that one of the advantages of having spent 20 years with a single character was that she can now do her own PR and he doesn’t even have to turn up.

National Treasures was another poetry session that wasn’t quite what I had read the advertising to mean. I thought the participants – Mark Tredinnick, Vivian Smith and Judith Beveridge – were going to talk about Australian poetry they treasured, and read some to us, plus some of their own. What we got was excellent, but it wasn’t that: Judith Beveridge stayed firmly in the chair role, and the others talked of their own writing careers, and read from their work. When he was 15,  in the 1940s, Vivian S had sent off poems to The Bulletin, then pretty much the only place that published poetry in Australia. He received encouraging responses from the literary editor, Douglas Stewart, advising him to ditch the archaic poeticisms and recommending that he read contemporary poets such as T S Eliot. Decades later, Mark T was similarly advised by critic Jim Tulip, but the poets he recommended were William Carlos Williams, Robert Gray and Vivian Smith.

Tasmanian Aborigines was next, in which Lyndall Ryan talked to Ann Curthoys about her new book, a rewrite of her 1981 book on the same subject. Inevitably, the session involved a revisiting of the so-called History Wars: Keith Windschuttle had singled Professor Ryan’s 1981 book out for his accusation that lefty historians had fabricated evidence of massacre and his claim that in fact the original inhabitants of this country had just faded away when the Europeans arrived, possibly because of their inherent weaknesses. Windschuttle has been thoroughly discredited as a historian, of course, but it was interesting to hear Ryan’s take on the episode now. Asked what difference his intervention had made to our general understanding of Australian history, she said that paradoxically he had driven her and other back to interrogate their sources more thoroughly, and where in her first book she had focused on Aboriginal resistance, she had now looked at ‘settler activism’ and found that the evidence indicates that the violence of the frontier was much worse than historians had previously understood. Massacre, for instance, looms much larger in the new book than it did in the original.

Anne Curthoys was warm and personal as her interlocutor. She opened with a wonderful quote to the effect that in order to write history, one needs to have a deep commitment to the subject that relates to some great love or business in the present, and asked Lyndall Ryan what this love or business was in her case. But Professor Ryan was not to be seduced away from her calm, scholarly demeanour, and answered in terms of the breakthroughs in research since 1981. The question in my mind, which I didn’t get to ask, was along the same lines: as a white Australian, uncovering the evidence of terrible things done by your own forebears, how do you keep your composure, or if (as I think would be desirable) you lose your composure how do you keep your scholarly integrity? I guess I’ll just leave that one hanging.

Then I was back to the sun-filled Bangarra Mezzanine for Poetry Australia with Robert Gray, Rhyll McMaster, Tricia Dearborn, Geoffrey Lehmann – and the unfulfilled promise of Robert Adamson. It was a dazzling session – the sun was low over the Harbour and from where I was sitting it was impossible to look directly at whoever was at the lectern. Speaking less literally, it was okay. Each of the four poets read from their own work – some startling eroticism from Tricia Dearborn (I mean that in a good way), two poems from Rhyll McMaster that had me reaching for my pen to write down brilliant lines I knew I’d forget, in a scribble I now can’t read – her new book, Late Night Shopping, is now on my To Buy list. Geoffrey Lehmann read ‘Parenthood’, which begins ‘I have held what I hoped would become the best minds of a generation /  Over the gutter outside an Italian coffee shop watching the small / Warm urine splatter on the asphalt’, and lives up to the promise of it opening. Almost as if in direct reference to Ali Alizadeh’s scathing Overland review of the Lehmann–Gray anthology, Robert Gray read a number of John Shaw Neilson’s limericks.
In the short Q&A, someone did tactfully name the elephant in the room. A bookseller from Perth, she said that the anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788 was selling brilliantly. But, she said, she didn’t understand how a fine poet such as Fay Zwicky hadn’t made the cut. Ali Alizadeh, John Tranter, Peter Minter and other fierce critics of the anthology might have asked the same question but added a hundred names and whole classes of poetry, and gone on to challenge the inclusion of limericks. Here it was a genuine question rather than an attack. It seems to me that what was missing in the selection process was the intervention of someone who knew the field  and could veto the editors’ eccentricities. I can see why it would be hard to resist modifying the general perception of John Shaw Neilson by including a swag of limericks, or to include 14 poems by ‘Bellerive’, whose poems never even made it to the literary pages of the Bulletin of his time. But that’s when an authority figure needs to step in and rap someone over the knuckles.

Oh my paws and whiskers, across the road again to see Hilary Mantel on a huge screen in the Sydney Theatre talking about Bring Up the Bodies. What can I say? She was magnificent, and I’ve now got the book on my iPad. A friend of mine couldn’t read Wolf Hall, because he couldn’t tell who was being talked about a lot of the time – the book would say ‘he’ and expect you to know it was Thomas Cromwell. Evidently a lot of people had the same difficulty, because this new book says ‘he (Cromwell)’. As Michael Cathcart, interviewing Ms Mantell from our stage, said, you can almost hear the author saying, ‘Is that clear enough for you?’

[Added on Wednesday: The Literary Dilettante has an excellent account of this conversation here.]

Gluttons for punishment, we rushed from the theatre and drove to Marrickville for an evening of youthful cabaret/burlesque, which might have been on a different planet, but that’s another story altogether.

On Sunday, I only managed one event, The Oskar Schindler of Asia? in which Robin de Crespigny (pronounced Crepny) and former people-smuggler Ali al Jenabi conversed with ABC’s Heather Ewart (who is much smaller in person than she seems on the TV screen). This was 2012’s equivalent of last year’s conversation with David Hicks. Like Hicks, Ali al Jenabi is being treated unjustly by the Australian government. Although the title of the session is a quote from the judge who tried him for the crime of people smuggling, the government is so committed to the demonising term ‘people smuggler’ or at least so terrified of being attacked by the snarling Tony Abbott  if they are seen to be soft on such people, that al Jenabi, who seems to be a perfectly decent man who has endured terrible things, remains on a bridging visa pending deportation, even while all his family are now Australian residents.

It was a great Festival. Now I have to get back to work.

SWF2011: Sunday

I didn’t get to the Festival on Sunday morning, so missed out on A C Grayling’s session, The Good Book, which the Art Student said was superb. I plan to listen to the podcast. We bought a copy of the book, which describes itself as a secular bible, and the Art Student is threatening to organise a bible reading circle among our atheist friends.

I was back on deck in the afternoon for

2:30: Poems on Pillows
Australian Poetry Ltd, the new ‘peak industry body for poetry’ (I didn’t make that up!) ran a competition in the lead-up to the Festival. People were asked to submit 10-line poems on the theme of Sweet Dreams. Seven poems were selected, printed on postcards and placed on the pillow of every bed in the hotel where Festival guests were staying. At this session the seven winning poems were read to us, six of them by the poets.

My guess is that the audience was mostly friends and relatives of the winners, and losers who had come to see what they’d been beaten by. It turned out I belonged in both categories. My submission, which I’m too embarrassed to reproduce here, played around with  Daisy Bates’s phrase ‘smooth the pillow of the dying race’ and amounted to a little squib about genocide. I’d failed to notice the Sweet Dreams theme and wasn’t surprised when I didn’t make the cut.

I would have been delighted to find any one of winning poems on my pillow, and it wasn’t surprising to hear that at least one distinguished writer was seen addressing his postcard poem to his mother.

Five of the winners are connected in some way with writing for children or young adults: Tricia Dearborn, Bill Condon, Libby Hathorn, Laura Jan Shore and Richard Tipping. I don’t know about the others, Scott Chambers and Josh McMahon. When I pointed this preponderance out during the brief question time, one of the panellists recognised me and replied by drawing attention to me as a benefactor of children’s poets in my past life as editor of the School Magazine, which was good squirmy fun.

4.00: David Hicks and Donna Mulhearn
This was my last Festival event, David Hicks’s first public appearance since the publication of his memoir, in fact since his detention in Guantanamo Bay. He was in conversation with pacifist Donna Mulhearn, who had gone to Iraq as a human shield. She did a very nice job of shepherding him through what must have been a gruelling event, even though the audience was demonstratively sympathetic. She kicked off, for example, by saying she was going to ask him the question that was on the forefront of everybody’s mind: was it true that he had been invited by Channel 7 to appear in Dancing with the Stars? Yes, he said, it was true, and his wife had wanted him to wear the costume to this event, but it’s purple with sequins.

For the most part, things felt very raw. Talk about terror and pity – and shame and rage! Mine, I mean. Hicks said at the start that during those years of being kept incommunicado, thankfully unaware that he had been abandoned by the Australian government, he had learned to detach from his experience, and that was how he was managing this experience. He spoke pretty much in a monotone, but did manage to say he was ‘annoyed’ by the way the press had bought into the lies and distortions told about him. He has never been convicted by a legitimate court of breaking the US or Australian law, and has received no compensation, explanation or apology from either government, not even an acknowledgement of the extraordinarily harsh treatment. The press received his memoir with almost total silence. And Donna Mulhearn told us of something Miranda Devine said in her review that went beyond her normal level of vicious contrarianism to pure evil. The current Labor government, having decried the treatment of Hicks when in opposition, has made no moves in his support in government.

‘This shouldn’t be about me,’ Hicks said. He got passionate describing the sufferings of the people of Kosovo as they were told to him when he went there to join the KLA, and reminding us that people are still being killed in Kashmir. Julia Gillard’s statements about Julian Assange sound very like John Howard’s about Hicks: both seem perfectly content to abandon an Australian citizen to a dangerously extra-legal fate in the US.

One tiny grace note: throughout, Donna Mulhearn pronounced the Gitmo prison’s location as Guantamano Bay. Of course this was inadvertent, but I imagine angels rejoicing at this tiny act of disrespect.

I plan to buy David Hicks’s memoir. It feels like a duty to give the horse’s mouth a go, given all agenda-driven stuff I’ve read about him elsewhere.
——
I haven’t mentioned the absence of PEN Chairs this year. At past Festivals theere has been an empty chair on the stage at some events, representing writers who are imprisoned or harmed by governments. At each session where there was a chair, details about one such writer would be read out. It’s a shame that the tradition was abandoned this year, when Liao Yiwu, invited to appear here, was prevented from attending by the Chinese government. And I haven’t mentioned the busker who sat hunched over a clickety-clackety typewriter offering to type a word portrait for five dollars. I haven’t said much about the weather (glorious), the crowds (big), the volunteers (orange-shirted and everywhere), the app (fabulous), the serendipitous encounters (constant), but I imagine you know the sort of thing.

Now it’s all over bar the reading.

Out of the Box

Michael Farrell and Jill Jones (editors), Out of the box: Contemporary Australian gay and lesbian poets (Puncher and Wattmann 2010)

I approached this anthology with suspicion. Does it really make sense, I wondered, to read David Malouf’s or Pam Brown’s poetry in a context that draws attention to the poet’s sexuality? Wouldn’t it skew, and narrow, the reading? My suspicion wasn’t allayed by having recently read editor Michael Farrell’s ultra-skewing assertion in Jacket Magazine 39 that he has ‘always read Judith Wright’s “Woman to Man” as referring to the experience of gender transfer’. But … well, once again the Book Club has dragged me from the path of least resistance.

Of Michael Farrell’s introduction and its use and abuse of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I can reasonably say I didn’t find it congenial, and his readings of poems strayed too far into hip idiosyncrasy for my taste. Jill Jones, his co-editor, gives a nice potted history of identified gay and lesbian writing in Australia since the late 70s, and provides some useful orientation to the lesbian poems – I mean of course the poems written by identified lesbians, because as the book’s subtitle makes clear it’s the poets, not the poems, that have sexual identitites.

The poems are wonderfully diverse. They belong together not because of shared themes or concerns or formal qualities, but because their creators are contemporary (ie, alive?), Australian and gay or lesbian. A number of the poems are outed by the context – that is, poems I would elsewhere have read as heteroerotic I here read as homoerotic. That’s probably a good thing – my heteronormative mentality is being challenged. Others shrink: Pam Brown’s ’20th Century’ (‘And as we were the tootlers / we tootled along’) here tends to read as referring to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras rather than something more global. I don’t know that that’s so good. At times I caught myself approximating a Beavis and Butthead snigger: ‘Hur hur! He said fist!’ Definitely not cool, though I plead in mitigation that Michael Farrell’s introduction does something of the sort more than once, and a handful of poems seem to be intent on a kind of high-culture gay Beavis-and-Buttheadism.

A good bit of the time while reading these pages, I got to feel very straight – not necessarily in the sexual sense, but in the sense that I prefer my language syntactical, don’t warm to commas at the start of sentences or parentheses that don’t close, and hate it when I can’t tell whether something is a typo or deliberate wordplay (when Javant Biarujia’s ‘MappleTROPE’ gives us Mapplethorpe’s deathbed utterance as, ‘I just hope I live long / enough to see the frame’ – has he inserted that r into the last word as a piece of witty surrealism or is it just bad proofreading? I genuinely don’t know, and it bothers me).

There are wonderful poems by David Malouf (‘A History Lesson’), Dorothy Porter (‘The Ninth Hour’), Pam Brown (‘Peel Me A Zibibo’), Martin Harrison (‘About the Self’), Peter Rose (‘Plague’), Kerry Leves (‘the escape’ – I’ve known Kerry mainly as a children’s writer, and he is definitely not that here) and joanne burns (‘aerial photography’), among others. I was delighted to be introduced to Stephen J Williams (‘Museums of beautiful art’), Andy Quan (‘Oath’, possibly the single poem that touched me most directly) and Tricia Dearborn (‘Life on the Run’) among others.

It probably doesn’t make sense to talk about a book of poetry without quoting any, but every poem I wanted to quote turns out to feel like an all or nothing proposition. I guess if you’re interested you’ll just have to find the book.