On Thursday, 12 September 2019, I’ll be appearing at the NO WAVE poetry reading at Holy Rollers Studios, 69 Prospect Road, Prospect, from 7.30pm. The reading accompanies Holy Rollers’ exhibition, The Scene is the Seen, which is part of the South Australian Living Artists (SALA) Festival. The event will feature readings by Em Konig, Alison Flett, Edith Lyre, Jill Jones, Thomas McCammon, and me. Further details on Facebook.
In 2009, I uploaded this photo of the Jubilee Chapel, Wistow, to a Flickr page I was using at the time. Many of the images I uploaded were of ruined buildings and farmhouses from Wistow, Bugle Ranges, Red Creek, Highland Valley, Hartley, Salem and Callington – parts of the southern Mount Lofty Ranges, also known as the Adelaide Hills, where I grew up. It’s an area I’ve often written about in my poetry.
I uploaded the photo with this note:
‘This photo was taken through the rain on a grey autumn morning in 2009. The chapel is located on a back road in farming country 7 or 8 kilometres from the Hartley Methodist Church [the subject of the previous Flickr upload, which I’ve included below].
‘The chapel was built in 1865 by a Methodist community that settled in South Australia from Cornwall, UK. It was built following a diphtheria outbreak and was named the ‘Jubilee Chapel’ because it was built in the jubilee (fiftieth) year of Methodism in Australia. By 1886 services ceased due to poor attendances, with many members of the community moving on in search of better prospects. My understanding is that many moved on to marginal areas of the wheat country in the state’s Mid North and fell on difficult times there too (as later arrivals many re-settled north of Goyder’s Line, where rainfall is low).
‘The chapel subsequently fell into a state of ruin. It was rebuilt in the 1980s and was used at one time as a bed-and-breakfast.’
A few years ago, an Adelaide historian tracked me down via Flickr to ask if the image could be published in a forthcoming local history book. Last year, the image – along with one of my poems – was published in Wistow and Bugle Ranges: A Community History, by Beryl Belford, Christeen Schoepf, Skye Krichauff, and the Wistow History Group. It’s a timely account of the area’s history.
Trove offers this précis of the book, which I was so pleased to have some small part in:
‘Changes in lifestyle due to the rapid loss of farming land through the government’s rezoning of land inspired members of the Wistow History Group to research the history of European settlement in their district. Drawing on oral histories and archival material including privately held photographs and documents, newspaper articles, maps and government records, this book provides a social and cultural history of the Wistow and Bugles Ranges districts of South Australia from 1830 to the present.
‘Topics covered include: Explorers’ records and early settlers’ reports of Aboriginal occupation; the early settlement process with the Davenport and Mt Barker Special Survey system and the allocation of land to new immigrants; short biographies of early settler families, the descendants of whom remain connected to the Wistow/ Bugle Ranges district; changes in land use and the shift away from subsistence farms due to developments in technology, market trends and climatic concerns; transport and postal services, beginning with the surveying of Chauncey’s Line in response to the gold rush; education and the formation of schools, childhood memories of growing up in the district; social events, fundraising and the building of the Wistow Community Hall; public houses and the social and political activities held in them; sport including ploughing matches, pigeon shooting, hunting, cricket and tennis; churches, in particular those established by the Primitive Methodists; burial grounds and cemeteries.’
I flew to Sydney for the launch of CARTE BLANCHE on Saturday, 20 July. After the launch at Mothership Studios, Marrickville, I had the chance to drive back from Sydney to Adelaide: a two-day, 1,375 kilometre (855 mile) journey by car, through the Great Dividing Range, and across the plains of New South Wales’ Riverina region and the Mallee districts of Victoria and South Australia.
Much of the journey I knew only from imprecise childhood memories (the Dog on the Tuckerbox, 5 or 9 miles from Gundagai – depending on whether you reference the poem ‘Bullocky Bill’, the later Jack Moses poem, or the Jack O’Hagan song), or through particular contemporary poems. I think of Geoff Page’s poem ‘Hay to Balranald’: ‘Heading west all afternoon the curvatures can still surprise you. / You might as well be out at sea; the skyline is a perfect circle. […] All afternoon forgetting physics / you drive into the sky.’
Or there’s Mike Ladd’s poem ‘Out of Balranald, just on dusk’: ‘Now the last light catches old fridges on their plain of resurrection – / a voice says ‘I AM’ from a burning roly-poly bush […] Kenworths and Macks in their prides / roaring down the gears through the drowse of distant towns.’ It’s an experience of a distinctively Australian Sublime – horizontal and understated, rather than vertical and imposing – as alluded to in On the Hay Plain, a radio episode about the ‘big sky country’ surrounding Hay, written and produced by Ladd.
I took photos regularly during the portions of the trip when I wasn’t driving. None has any artistic intent: they were captured only as aide-mémoires. They document something of the journey and the incremental changes in the landscape: green hills, grasslands, riverine plains, dry creeks, brown rivers, river red gums, woodlands of black box and grey box, dry lake beds, sheep, cattle, roadkill kangaroos, saltbush, grain crops, a crop fire, silos, siding towns, salt flats, mallee roadsides, and semi-trailers – and kilometre after kilometre of white-lined bitumen, varying in colour from dark grey to soft grey to ochre.
Of course, ‘experiencing’ a landscape while driving through it at 110 kilometres per hour is little better than watching it on TV. In both cases we sit in a comfortable chair, watching images flash past on a (wind)screen. Nonetheless.
Mascot, Sydney, NSW.
Hume Highway, Oakdale, NSW.
Federal Highway, Lake George, NSW.
The Nation’s Capital, ACT.
Barton Highway, Jeir, NSW.
Hume Highway, Coolac, NSW.
Hume Highway, Tumblong, NSW.
Hume Highway, Mount Adrah, NSW.
Morning fog, Murrumbidgee River, Wagga Wagga, NSW.
Sturt Highway, Sandigo, NSW.
Sturt Highway, Sandigo, NSW.
Crop fire, Sturt Highway, Maude, NSW.
Sturt Highway, Keri Keri, NSW.
Sturt Highway, Yanga, NSW.
Sturt Highway, Yanga, NSW.
Balranald Tooleybuc Road, Balranald, NSW.
Bridge over the Murray River, Tooleybuc, NSW/VIC.
Mallee Highway, Manangatang, VIC.
Mallee Highway, Ouyen, VIC.
Mallee Highway, Parrakie, SA.
A bit random, or a bit of serendipity? This is an outtake from a long webcam video that dates to the afternoon of Saturday, 21 July 2012, which I filmed inadvertently while doing some reading and writing. I discovered the footage a few days ago on a long discarded laptop. (Spoiler: the footage is a minute or so of nothing happening.)
It’s a strange piece of footage to watch, though it’s a sort of video portrait of the poet or writer at work. Other videos in the sequence are of me reading poems I was working on at the time, presumably so I could play the audio back to listen to their rhythms. One of the books I was reading, Franz Wright’s 2009 Wheeling Motel, is identifiable by its cover which appears earlier in the footage.
All in all, it’s not quite Spenser’s Bower of Bliss, or the full range of the poet’s work as described by Luke Wright (‘drinking in the daytime, crying at night / going to parties and saying oh I write / to you a ‘war of letters’ to me it’s a fight’, from his poem ‘A Poet’s Work is Never Done’). Instead, it’s a long moment of lying around on a pleasant winter afternoon (t-shirt weather), reading from a few books, and typing away to an airy ambience of suburban street noise, wattlebirds, and passing cars.
A diary note for that day says I spent the afternoon at home writing and listening to music. There’s no music playing in the footage, so it must have come later. And while the diary note doesn’t mention the band or artist, the note for the next day mentions Wilco – which means either Summerteeth or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, as I didn’t catch up with their albums again till 2015’s Star Wars.
My ‘Notebook 2012’ (a Word document) has two pieces I edited and two short new poems (or parts of) I worked on that day – drafted, as usual, in blocked paragraphs with colons separating the units or phrases. All four pieces are unpublished. I’ve included them below. The two edited pieces are labelled ‘For ‘Vox’’, which is a poem that will appear in my forthcoming book as a poem in seven parts. The two parts below were either culled entirely years ago, or were simply never worked into the larger poem. There are clear echoes of Franz Wright’s poem ‘Intake Interview’ (via YouTube) in ‘IV’.
The two new poems (or pieces of) were also left on the cutting room floor, and maybe haven’t had a moment’s attention since they were set down on the page. ‘Notebook 2012’ is about 65,000 words worth of drafts and re-drafts and re-re-drafts and off-cuts and writing exercises and notes and diary entries.
Anyway, the footage is a curio. A sort of portrait of the poet at work, and of the work in progress, and of the word and the (moving) image coupled together. An interesting co-incidence, or an artefact, or a bit of serendipity.
we are here now : at the edge of a world that promises no future : asking for words : what happens now : tell me about the soft music i cannot hear : what if i could give you this moment : what’s to be made of it : what should i do if i find you breathless : troubled for words : if you fall asleep now who will watch over you : what are you prepared to sacrifice : why are we here :
what love means : look at us : the words i return to cannot touch it : things grasped : like a hand no longer offered : here we are : strange company to each other : something less than a life : something sudden like laughter that is gone : the waters you searched for dispersed in an instant : a world that never had a need for us : that never asked a thing of us : not love : what it means to see the world in all its terror : a note never struck : a phrase never uttered : there has to be something more :
THIS IS ALL (21.07.12)
this is all we have : fast forward : i choose : right now : thorns : of sunlight : necessity : this is all : dissolving : & she is : home : again : shining :
BONSAI POEM (21.07.12)
to find in beauty : an uprightness : something like : a bonsai’s bent loveliness :
A few of the books I’ve enjoyed reading, or returning to, in February and March 2019:
- Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family: Book I of the six My Struggle (Min Kamp) novels (autobiographical novel: Vintage, 2009).
- Ada Limón’s The Carrying: A follow-up to 2015’s acclaimed Bright Dead Things (poetry: Corsair, 2018).
- JL Carr’s A Month in the Country: Published by Penguin as a ‘Classic’, and the source of a 1987 film starring Colin Firth and Kenneth Branagh, in their third and second film roles respectively (short novel: Penguin, 1980).
- WS Merwin’s Garden Time (poetry: Copper Canyon, 2016).
- Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency (poetry: Grove, 1957).
- Alejandra Pizarnik’s The Galloping Hour: French Poems: Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander’s translations of the French poems of Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik, who died in 1972 (poetry: New Directions, 2018).
- Forrest Gander’s Be With (poetry: New Directions, 2018).
- WS Merwin’s The Shadow of Sirius (poetry: Bloodaxe, 2009).
- Ron Rash’s Poems: New and Selected (poetry: Ecco, 2016).
- David Marno’s Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention: An extended study of John Donne’s poem ‘Death, Be Not Proud’, which argues for the possibility of poetry as a kind of ‘inception’ (criticism: University of Chicago, 2016).
When I speak to school students about poetry, I often tell them about an exercise or challenge I’ve used to help me write. The idea of 30 or 100-day projects began for me with a TEDx Auckland talk, called Inspiration Wherever You Are, The 100 Days Project, by New Zealand graphic designer Emma Rogan:
As Emma Rogan explains in her talk, it’s an idea she’s adapted from Michael Beirut, a graphic designer and design critic at the Yale School of Art. Each year he asks his students to undertake a project where they repeat one simple creative exercise of their choice every day for 100 days.
I’ve used the practice for periods of 100 days, or 30 days, and it’s the latter I usually recommend to students. For example, in the past, my daily exercise was as simple as writing a 12 line draft of a poem, perhaps about something that made an impression on me that day.
As I explain to students, the results are very imperfect, but the practice helps you develop creative discipline, encourages you to be attentive to ideas that arise in your day-to-day life, and generates creative work you can return to later to edit or rework.
I emphasise that it’s not an idea designed by or for poets, and can work just as well for aspiring novelists, short story writers, graphic designers, photographers, painters, songwriters, game designers, choreographers, actors, and so on. It’s a great idea, and one worth spreading.
A few of the books I enjoyed reading, or rereading, in January 2019:
- Patrizia Cavalli’s My Poems Won’t Change the World: a selection of Cavalli’s poems from 1974’s My Poems Won’t Change the World through to 2006’s Lazy Gods, Lazy Fate, edited by Gini Alhadeff, with translations from the Italian by Alhadeff, Jorie Graham, Kenneth Koch, Susan Stewart, and Mark Strand (poetry: Penguin, 2007).
- Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses (Los versos del Capitán): translated from the Spanish by Donald D. Walsh (poetry: New Directions, 1972).
- Autumn Royal’s She Woke and Rose (poetry: Cordite Publishing, 2016).
- Clare Nashar’s Lake (poetry: Cordite Publishing, 2016).
- John G. Trapani Jr’s Poetry, Beauty, and Contemplation: The Complete Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain (philosophy: Catholic University of America Press, 2011).
- Albert Camus’ Selected Essays and Notebooks (essays: Penguin Books, 1970).
- Franz Wright’s Earlier Poems: a selection of Wright’s poems from 1982’s The One Whose Eyes Open When You Close Your Eyes through to 1995’s Rorschach Test (poetry: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).
A few practical ideas for getting (a little more) poetry into day-to-day life:
- Keep a book of poems on your bedside table. Reading a poem or two at bedtime is a vastly better prospect than falling asleep halfway through the next chapter of that novel you’re reading. A poem or two is a perfect nightcap for those who sleep alone; for those who don’t sleep alone, there’s Pablo Neruda’s The Captain’s Verses (Los versos del Capitán), a collection of the 20th century’s most ecstatic and passionate love poems.
- Keep a book of poems on your coffee table, or wherever it is you sit down to drink your cup of daily grind. Poetry is a perfect companion for good coffee, good food, good wine and good company, even if ‘company’ means a few quiet moments by yourself.
- Print out a favourite poem and put it on your fridge.
- Carry a small book of poems with you. You’ve got a spare minute or two? Your lunch date is running late? Why pull out your phone, when you can flip open a book of poems instead?
- Use poems as part of your mindfulness practice. Read a poem. Be attentive to the words: their meanings, their sounds, their feel in your mouth, the rhythm of your breath, the resonances or reminiscences, the textures of the book or page… Choose a word or phrase that speaks to you. Carry that word or phrase with you during your day.
- Write a few lines from your favourite poem or song on a bookmark.
- Read a poem to your kids at bedtime. Anyone for Dr Seuss? All those nursery rhymes you remember from your childhood? They’re all poems.
- Sign up for Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day. We’re all busy people: why not have poems sent straight to your device of choice? The Poetry Foundation site has a wealth of resources, including poems for children and teens, audio poems, information about poets and schools of poetry, collections of poems by theme, and guides for poetry newcomers.
- If you’re keen on Australian poetry, try the Australian Poetry Library. The poems can be browsed for free. The site also enables you to save poems to a personal selection, which you can download or email for a small copyright fee. The poems are searchable by title, author, theme and form. Looking for somewhere to start? Try the poems of David Malouf, Judith Beveridge or Thomas W. Shapcott.
If you’re new to poetry and don’t know where to start, try getting hold of an anthology of contemporary poetry from your local library or bookshop.
What is a poetry anthology? It’s a book that includes poems by a variety of poets, rather than just one poet. Anthologies often have a particular theme (e.g. Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse), or focus on a particular place and/or time (e.g. The Best American Poetry 2018, or The Forward Book of Poetry 2019), or present a survey of poetry over time (e.g. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, which includes poems in English from the 7th century to the present, or Australian Poetry Since 1788, or Puncher & Wattmann’s Contemporary Australian Poetry).
Why an anthology? Because an anthology includes poems by a variety of poets, though usually only one or two poems by each. This helps you get acquainted with a range of poems, in a range of styles, with a range of themes, and by a range of poets. It increases the likelihood you’ll come across poems you enjoy. As you read the anthology, trust your judgment on which poems you like or dislike, enjoy or don’t enjoy, are engaged by or not engaged by. Follow up on the poems you like best: see if you can find more poems by those poets online, or try getting hold of a book of poems specifically by that poet.
Why contemporary poetry? Because contemporary poetry, meaning poetry from the 20th and 21st centuries, generally uses words and syntax that are familiar to us – in contrast to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, for example, which reads: ‘And for a woman wert thou first created, / Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting.’ There’s a good argument for reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, but if you’re new to poetry, why not start with something closer to home, in terms of what a poem describes and the way it uses language to describe it.