Notes: October 2017

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Well, October always reminds me of the opening lines of Ted Hughes’ poem: “October is marigold, and yet / A glass half full of wine left out // To the dark heaven all night, by dawn / Has dreamed a premonition // Of ice across its eye …” (“October Dawn”). It’s a poem set in the northern autumn, of course, but it was published in A. Alvarez’s 1962 anthology, The New Poetry, which was my adolescent introduction to the work of Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Thom Gunn and others – including Ian Hamilton, who was an improbable favourite at the time, given his modest output. As Hamilton himself wrote: “Fifty poems in twenty-five years: not much to show for half a lifetime, you might think.” The New Poetry was probably also my introduction to Jackson Pollock, as the cover features his painting Convergence. In Adelaide (and elsewhere, I imagine), October is associated with the flowering of native frangipanis; November, needless to say, is the month of jacarandas. All of this is an aside.

Mid-October was busy poetry-wise. It was great to be involved in a poetry workshop and reading at the Prince Albert Hotel, Gawler, on 15 October. Aidan Coleman and I ran a small workshop on editing poetry in the morning, followed by readings by Aidan, Jelena Dinic, Rachael Mead and I, and an open mic session. The event was supported by Country Health SA, Centacare and the State’s Mental Health Coalition, as part of Mental Health Week. Happily, it was an outdoor event that coincided with the finest spring day we’d had till then. A chapbook was compiled for the reading, featuring the work of local visual artist Henry Stentiford.

On 17 October I emceed Other Worlds: Pedro Mairal and Friends at the Wheatsheaf Hotel, Thebarton, featuring Liz Allan (SA), Jaydeep Sarangi (India) and Jennifer Liston (SA), with acclaimed Argentinian author Pedro Mairal. It was the second event I’ve been involved with at the Wheatsheaf this year, and the result of some very unassuming planning by Matt Hooton and Nick Jose from Adelaide University. It was the evening of another fine spring day. Liz, Jaydeep and Jennifer gave excellent readings (short stories or poetry), and Pedro finished the evening with a prose piece, poem and song written during – and about – his time in Adelaide.

On 22 October, Garron Publishing launched its Spring 2017 series of chapbooks (its fifth series), featuring Jill Jones’ The Quality of Light, Peter Goldsworthy’s Anatomy of a Metaphor, Heather Taylor Johnson’s Thump, David Mortimer’s Act Three, and Cary Hamlyn’s Ultrasound in B-Flat. I’ve been carrying at least one or two of the chapbooks with me since then, as an accompaniment for any impromptu coffee. Once again, it’s an excellent selection of poets and poems and, for those here and interstate, the chapbooks are available from Sharon and Gary via the Garron Publishing website.

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On 25 October, Alison Flett and Jill Jones gave an excellent poetry reading at Halifax Café. It was a perfect pairing: Alison and Jill, as Little Windows Press, will launch their second annual series of chapbooks at The Howling Owl, Adelaide, on 14 November (further details). In keeping with Little Windows’ intention that “[e]ach series has at least one South Australian poet, one interstate poet and one poet from a country other than Australia”, the 2017 series will feature chapbooks by Adam Aitken (NSW), Ali Cobby Eckermann (SA), Jen Hadfield (UK) and Kathryn Hummel (SA).

In terms of my reading, October included some of JM Coetzee’s early work, novellas by Denis Johnson, Jack Underwood’s debut book of poems Happiness (Faber & Faber, 2015) and Bonny Cassidy’s recent book of poems Chatelaine (Giramondo, 2017), among other things. There was also the inaugural Rogue State event on 31 October, but more on that at a future time.

Some recommended “October” reading:

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Notes: September 2017

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I began September reading the newly released The Best American Poetry 2017, edited by Natasha Trethewey. The annual anthology – like our own The Best Australian Poems – is an efficient way to stay abreast of certain currents in American poetry. The 2017 anthology is more overtly political than other recent books in the series, though its preoccupations predate the current Presidency, underscoring the deep-seatedness of the United States’ cultural rifts. The anthology includes John Ashbery’s poem ‘Commotion of the Birds’ – originally published in Harper’s, along with three other poems by Ashbery and a commentary from poet Ben Lerner. Ashbery was, of course, the guest editor of the series’ inaugural anthology in 1988. It was sad news, then, to hear of his death on 3 September.

I’ve found Ashbery’s work at times impervious and unsatisfying, yet I’ve remained a consistent reader of it right up to his most recent books. For anyone new to Ashbery’s poetry, Al Filries’ list of 64 ‘indispensable’ Ashbery poems (published in Jacket2 in 2013, therefore omitting poems from 2015’s Breezeway and 2016’s Commotion of the Birds) is a good starting point – many of the poems can be found on the Poetry Foundation website. While uncharacteristic of Ashbery’s work, ‘The Painter’ is one of the few sestinas that bears repeat readings. And there’s something worthwhile about listening to the canonical ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’ in the poet’s own voice.

In terms of my September reading, I enjoyed reading Shastra Deo’s debut collection of poems The Agonist (UQP, 2017). One notable characteristic of the collection is the repetition of simple, elemental words across multiple poems – e.g. ‘body’, ‘blood’, ‘skin’, ‘mouth’, ‘tongue’, ‘teeth’, ‘throat’, ‘thirst’, ‘hunger’, ‘wound’, ‘scar’, ‘flesh’, ‘blood’, ‘bone’, ‘sweat’, ‘dust’. The use and repetition of these words is unlikely to be incidental as it’s not a book of imprecisions, as is evident elsewhere in the collection: for example, fish are referred to precisely – e.g. ‘black drum’, ‘mackerel’, ‘mullet’, ‘flounder’, ‘white trout’, ‘minnow’, ‘brook trout’, ‘cod’, ‘Alaska blackfish’, ‘silver shiners’, ‘rock greenling’, and ‘bream’. The collection is also characterised by its use of ‘simple’ terms for human anatomy: ‘hands’, ‘feet’, ‘fingers’, ‘toes’, ‘fist’, ‘kneecap’, ‘ribcage’, ‘chest’, ‘lungs’, ‘ankles’, ‘belly’, ‘elbows’, ‘knees’, ‘wrist’, ‘collarbone’, ‘spine’, ‘gut’, ‘pelvis’, ‘kidneys’, ‘liver’, ‘skull’, ‘waist’, ‘thumb’, ‘cheek’, ‘jaw’, ‘shoulder’, ‘eyelids’, ‘knuckles’, and so on – in contrast to the prevalence of precise anatomical terms – e.g. ‘melanin’, ‘synapse’, ‘gyrus’, ‘fibroblast cells’, ‘serum’, ‘metastasis’, ‘arrhythmia’, ‘dorsal and ventral cavities, ‘epithelia’, ‘ganglia’, ‘medulla oblongata’, ‘trachea’, ‘vena cava’, ‘deltoid’, ‘iliac crest’, ‘transversalis’, ‘humerus’, ‘glenoid cavity’. So, there’s an interesting tension between general terms and precise or formal terms throughout, and it presents an engaging way of reading into the book’s key themes.

In keeping with its use of anatomical terms, the book also includes drawings from Gray’s Anatomy. The body is conceivable as the stage or threshold (or, perhaps, altar stone) of the poems, either relationally or biologically – ‘agonist’ meaning ‘protagonist’ (the ‘I’ of the poems, perhaps), and being an anatomical term for a muscle that directly acts on part of the body. There’s something almost self-referential to the lines: ‘You may be forgiven / for thinking that love / is a butcher’s ritual’ (‘Chine’, the poem’s title, refers either to a joint of meat or an act of cutting). The repetition of the simple, elemental terms, and the use of the anatomical terms, binds the poems even at the level of the individual words, giving the collection a strong sense of coherence. The collection also coheres around its use of religious terminology – e.g. ‘desecrate’, ‘baptism’, ‘absolution’, ‘litany’, ‘crucifixion’, ‘benediction’, ‘penitence’ and ‘tenebrae’ (a number of which occur in the sestina ‘Bad Ritual’) – and its references to forms of divination. The collection includes several sequences of poems, including ‘Scout Tests and How to Pass Them’ and ‘Tarotology’, and a number of found poems/centos drawn from The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. It’s a visceral and (at times) ominous read, and a memorable and accomplished debut. Australian Book Review has published a more thorough review of The Agonist, and I expect it will go on to garner further high praise.

The effect created by the use and repetition of particular words in The Agonist is reminiscent of the references to colour throughout Sarah Holland-Batt’s The Hazards (UQP, 2015). Of the 55 poems in The Hazards, all but three (‘Medusa’, ‘In the Mauerpark’ and ‘Ensign’) specifically refer to a colour – for example, the opening lines of ‘Of Germany’: ‘Of a green bicycle with a brown basket / and a slim pack of menthol Vogues / in a Munich café in June, of a black motorcycle, / or riding a black motorcycle in the countryside / to a palace with mirrored rooms …’ And the point is not just the number of references to colours, but that the colours are referred to in the simplest terms: ‘yellow’, ‘red’, ‘pink’, ‘green’, ‘orange’, ‘black’, ‘blue’, ‘white’, ‘grey’, ‘silver’, ‘gold’, ‘indigo’, ‘purple’, ‘brown’, and ‘olive’ (which is used just once) – resisting the impulse to broaden the poems’ vocabulary by substituting, say, ‘red’ with the more decorative ‘crimson’, ‘ruby’ or ‘scarlet’. The Hazards has been widely (and very favourably) reviewed, so I’m sure one reviewer or other has noted the extensive references to colour – though not to my knowledge. The strategy used by both Sarah and Shastra underscores (is underscored by?) a fundamental compact between the poet and reader that the ‘simple’ or ‘ordinary’ word is enough, and there’s something bold and inviting about this – particularly in contrast to a prevailing cultural and theoretical distrust of language.

The September poetry reading at the Halifax Café, Adelaide, was an excellent event, featuring Ken Bolton, Cath Kenneally and Banjo James. It was interesting to note a change of tone in some of Ken’s most recent work. In terms of poetry events in October, I’ll be emceeing Other Worlds: Pedro Mairal and Friends at The Wheatsheaf Hotel, Thebarton, on Tuesday, 17 October (further details). Pedro is an acclaimed Argentinian novelist, poet, travel writer and screen writer. It’s a free event that will also feature readings by special guests Jennifer Liston, Liz Allan and Jaydeep Sarangi. Also, Garron Publishing is set to launch its fifth series of chapbooks with a poetry reading at the Halifax Café on Sunday, 22 October (further details). The poets featured in the new series are Peter Goldsworthy, Jill Jones, Heather Taylor Johnson, David Mortimer and Cary Hamlyn.

Notes: August 2017

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Winter’s on the wane in Adelaide, despite a dogged run of achingly cold days. Still, the daily drive to work has been sweetened in recent weeks by roadsides lined with early blossoms, particularly those of Manchurian pear trees (Pyrus ussuriensis), which have something distinctly bridal about them.

Early August was replete with opportunities to break the winter hibernation, including a night of readings from the Griffith Review’s South-Australian themed ‘State of Hope’ edition, at Matilda Bookshop, Stirling. The event, hosted by Patrick Allington, featured readings by Anna Goldsworthy, Jill Jones and Rebekah Clarkson, and an interview with photographer Annette Willis. It was a great complement to the session at Adelaide Writers Week this year, but in a more intimate setting. The following night, Jill Jones’ new book of poems, Brink (Five Islands Press, 2017), was launched at The Wheatsheaf Hotel. It’s an eagerly anticipated follow up to Jill’s highly regarded recent collections.

An ill-timed, mid-month head-cold gave me the chance to catch up on a few recent books of poetry, including Brink, Lachlan Brown’s Lunar Inheritance (Giramondo, 2017) and Afloat in Light (UWAP, 2017) by Adelaide poet David Adès. Apart from that, the two pieces of writing that’ve stayed with me are essays by South Australian writers: Shannon Burns’ personal and incisive ‘In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class’, also discussed on ABC Radio National’s Religion and Ethics Report, and Kathryn Hummel’s in-turns-familiar-and-exotic ‘Scented Memento’, both published in Meanjin, and both having some grounding in Adelaide’s western suburbs.

I shared a poetry reading with Peter Goldsworthy at the Halifax Café, Adelaide, on 30 August. The reading was well-attended and it was great to debut half-a-dozen or so new poems for a generous and attentive audience. The September reading will feature Ken Bolton and Cath Keneally.

David Campbell’s review of Contemporary Australian Poetry (Puncher & Wattmann, 2017), published in The Australian, provided some food for thought – in particular, his complaint that the anthology omits (“airbrush[es]”) “[t]raditional rhyming verse, often misleadingly referred to as “bush poetry””. Robert Wood’s response (Overland) also provoked debate (witness the comments section), proving there’s still plenty of fervour to the arguments about poetry, good poetry and good Australian poetry. I’ve had plenty to say about the issue in private, but my summary point is that the anthology has its omissions (individual poets), but is an accessible, well-considered and well-produced book, and an excellent starting point for anyone wanting a survey of (as the title suggests) contemporary Australian poetry. For a fuller consideration of the anthology, see Robert’s review in Westerly.

Another pause for thought was a program on ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone, featuring Professor Barry Smith, philosopher and Director of the Institute of Philosophy at the University of London. The program (downloadable as a podcast) takes “the philosophy of wine” as its subject matter, but its thoughts on subjectivity and objectivity, personal preference, judgments of quality, developing critical competence, and experts are transferrable enough to an appreciation of poetry, and the arts more broadly.

In terms of “forthcomings”, I’m looking forward to new books of poems by Michael Farrell and Fiona Wright, which will be released by Giramondo on 1 November.

Finally, I’ve been on Twitter for a while, but you can now also find me on Facebook.

Notes: July 2017

Poetry reading by Jill Jones & Jerome Rothenberg – Review of Arjun Von Caemmerer’s Vice Versa – Results of the National Arts Participation Survey

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The highlight for July was the opportunity to emcee a poetry reading by Jill Jones and Jerome Rothenberg at The Wheatsheaf Hotel, Thebarton, on Thursday, 20 July. I’m a long-time proponent of the two-volume anthology, Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry (University of California Press, 1998), edited by Jerome and Pierre Joris. Poems for the Millennium, described by Publishers Weekly as a ‘gatecrasher’ of an anthology for its contravening of aesthetic and national boundaries, covers the Fin-de-Siècle to Negritude period (Volume 1), and the Postwar to Millennium period (Volume 2).

In practical terms, it’s a challenging anthology for new readers of poetry, but an invaluable working anthology for poets due to the breadth of its content, including selections from the forerunners to Modernism, the various ‘-isms’ of Twentieth Century literature (e.g. Futurism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Objectivism, Dada), translations of French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and South American literature, as well as selections of concrete, sound and oral poetry, Language poetry, and a gesturing towards cyber-poetics.

At any rate, it was an excellent reading, and well attended. Jill read from her recent books of poetry, including The Beautiful Anxiety (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014) and Brink (Five Islands Press, 2017). The latter will be launched by Peter Goldsworthy at The Wheatsheaf on Wednesday, 2 August. You can find details for Jill’s launch here.

I recently reviewed Arjun Von Caemmerer’s Vice Versa: New and Selected Poems (Collective Effort Press, 2016) for Cordite Poetry Review. You can read the review here.

Finally, I read – with some interest – the Australia Council for the Arts’ Connecting Australians: Results of the National Arts Participation Survey (June 2017). These are the extracts that pertain to poetry:

  • ‘One in five Australians participated in creative writing in 2016 (20%), up from 16% in 2013 and 2009. The increase is driven by increased participation in writing poetry, plays and creative non-fiction. A contingent of Australians use social media as a platform for creative writing, and the increase may reflect the popularity of blogs and other inherently social forms of creative writing.’ (69)
  • ‘Eight in ten Australians read creative writing in 2016 (79%) down from nine in ten in 2013 (87%), and eight in ten in 2009 (83%), with declines in the proportion of Australians reading novels, poetry, creative non-fiction and short stories. This decline in reading can be attributed to Australians’ increasingly busy lives, increased time spent on social media, and the proliferation of entertainment options …’ (74)
  • ‘Poetry has declined in popularity (14%), after a peak in 2013 (26%).’ (74)
  • ‘Females are more likely to read creative writing (83%) than males (74%). This is particularly true for novels with 69% of Australian females reading novels compared to 53% of males. This is also the case for poetry, with 17% of females reading poetry compared to 12% of males.’ (76)

You can read the full report here.

Notes: June 2017

Meet the Writers Festival 2017 – Robert Wood on John Kinsella’s Graphology – New books by John Kinsella & Jorie Graham

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June’s been a busy month poetry-wise. This week (Thursday, 22 June) I was a guest writer at the Meet the Writers Festival, an event that’s been run by the South Australian English Teachers’ Association (SAETA) for the last two and a half decades. Next year’s event will be SAETA’s twenty-fifth.

The festival is a great gift from our English teachers to the students of South Australia (2,000 of whom attend each year), giving them a chance to hear from and speak to writers from here and interstate. This year my fellow guests were: Andy Griffith, Isobelle Carmody, Phil Cummings, Rosanne Hawke, Stephanie McCarthy, Kristin Weidenbach, James Phelan, Tony Shillitoe, Ruth Starke, Allayne Webster, and Dan McGuiness.

I finished the day full of optimism and enthusiasm for the young people I spoke to. I was reminded of my own gratitude for those who taught me English in middle- and high-school, who went further than they knew in shaping my future. I was also reminded of the importance of developing young readers’ interest in and confidence around poetry, if we want to ensure an enduring readership.

In other news, my recent review of John Kinsella’s Graphology, for Plumwood Mountain, was discussed by poet and editor Robert Wood in his essay, The Boys in Cambridge: Clive James’ Injury Time and John Kinsella’s Graphology. It’s a worthwhile read for an alternate and well-considered view of Kinsella’s important three-volume work.

In terms of reading, I’ve enjoyed catching up with a few recent books of Australian poetry, including Shari Kocher’s The Non-Sequitur of Snow (Puncher & Wattmann, 2015), Jillian Pattinson’s Babel Fish (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014), and Dan Disney’s form-bending Either, Orpheus (UWA Publishing, 2016).

I’ve also enjoyed a preliminary read of the new collections of poems by John Kinsella and Jorie Graham, both of whom have been important touchstones for me. Kinsella’s On the Outskirts (University of Queensland Press, 2017) consolidates and extends the form and concerns of his earlier work, Divine Comedy: Journeys through a Regional Geography (University of Queensland Press, 2007), while Graham’s Fast (Ecco, 2017) breaks new ground for her oeuvre.

In the next month or two, I’ll post a link to a review that’s currently under construction.

Notes: May 2017

Franz Wright – Diane Fahey’s A House by the River – James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line

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Today is the two-year anniversary of the death of American poet Franz Wright. He and his father, James, remain the only parent-child pair to have won a Pulitzer Prize in the same category. The Washington Post, in its obituary, described Wright’s poetry as ‘frank, confessional verse [that] reflected a search for self-discovery and spiritual yearning amid struggles with mental illness and substance abuse.’ Critic William Logan called his poems ‘the Hallmark cards of the damned’: they are minimal, exact, melancholic and unflinching. The poem that began my exploration of Wright’s poetry was ‘Thoughts of a Solitary Farmhouse’:

[…] the Canadian wind // coming in off Lake Erie / rattling the windows, horizontal snow // appearing out of nowhere / across the black highway and fields like billions of white bees.

For further reading from Wright’s work, there’s ‘Woman Falling’ and ‘Home for Christmas’ from Kindertotenwald (Knopf, 2011), a collection of prose poems, and ‘Another Working Dawn’ and ‘Night Flight Turbulence’, readings from Wheeling Motel (Knopf, 2009) with musical settings by Michael Rozon and Daniel Ahearn.

I spent the week reading Diane Fahey’s most recent collection of poems, A House by the River (Puncher & Wattmann, 2016), and James Longenbach’s The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf, 2008). Fahey’s is a likable collection of restrained and self-contained 14-line poems, primarily about nature and grief:

Rain falls in the middle of the night – / a statement, an unanswerable question. / Lightning flares for a sustained moment / in the rooms of the dreaming. (‘Summer Rain’)

I’d hoped for a marsh harrier, keeping / its place in the wind – a bookmark between / airy pages […] / […] My gaze hovers, sweeps over / that crack in the sea: a fault-line of foam / jagged as a gull’s flight through storm. (‘At the Cliffs’)

I’m still under way with Longenbach’s book, but among other things, he offers a fair argument for preferring the term ‘line end’ over ‘line break’:

Some lines end with a full stop – a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point. Others end with a comma, a semicolon or a colon that joins together two clauses or phrases within a sentence. And others end with no punctuation at all: the syntax continues on the next line. We might be tempted to say that the line “breaks” at such a moment, but the line merely ends – it doesn’t break […] it’s more helpful to think about “line endings”: the syntax may or may not break at the point where the line ends. (page 8)

Poem published in “Tincture”

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I’m delighted to have my poem ‘Beach Road’ feature in the newly released Tincture Journal Issue 17 (Autumn 2017), particularly as it appears with poems by Pam Brown, Eileen Chong, Aidan Coleman, Tricia Dearborn, Nathanael O’Reilly and Mark Roberts.

Tincture is a quarterly e-book journal, edited by Brisbane writer Daniel Young. It publishes fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. Daniel and poetry editor Stuart Barnes have earned a great reputation over the 17 issues to date. You can buy a copy of the latest issue, or previous issues, or subscribe to Tincture at its website.