We can live without poetry

Thom Sullivan Poet Poetry NaPoWriMo 01

The truth is we can live without poetry.

Many or most people live perfectly fulfilling and contented lives without much exposure to poetry, day to day, month to month, or year to year. Yet I’m convinced that a good life, even the best life, is better with poetry. And, of course, many people still turn to poetry during the profoundest moments of their lives, so we still often hear poems being read at weddings and funerals.

But, by and large, we can live without poetry.

I would say though, to the many people who live without much poetry in their lives, if you find yourself in a world in which talk is cheap, in which words have become a devalued currency, in which politicians, shysters and hucksters have eroded the substance of truth and meaning, and in which a person’s word can be all but worthless – and if this aggrieves you, then maybe look again to poetry for what it can offer.

Poetry – through its careful trust and distrust of words, and its determined pursuit of meaning – is one of the antidotes to that world.

Notes: August 2018

Diesel and Dust Homestead

I began 2018 with the intention of blogging at least monthly, a plan that went awry when I was seconded to another role at work in mid-March. So, this is a return to my schedule of monthly blog posts. The last few months have been busy with poetry and writing activities, nonetheless. In early July, I submitted the final edit of my forthcoming book of poems, Carte Blanche, to Vagabond Press. I was enormously grateful to friends and fellow poets who helped out in the weeks before the final edit was due.

Since March, I’ve had a couple of poems published: ‘Threshold’ in The Canberra Times, ‘‘Diesel & Dust’ homestead [a landscape]’ in Otoliths; ‘Drysdale: Vaucluse, 1945’ (a terminal, responding to Ern Malley’s ‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495’) in Marrickville Pause; and ‘Hit Single’ in Australian Poetry Anthology, alongside the work of a number of other South Australian poets – Aidan Coleman, Jelena Dinic, Alison Flett, Ian Gibbins, Jennifer Liston, Bronwyn Lovell, Rachael Mead, Louise Nicholas, and Dominic Symes. Also, my review of John Kinsella and Paul Kane’s Renga: 100 Poems was recently published in Plumwood Mountain.

On 4 April, I was a guest poet at the opening night of Adelaide’s new No Wave poetry reading series, with Alison Flett, Heather Taylor Johnson and Banjo Weatherald. In June, I had the privilege of judging and announcing three selected manuscripts (by Bruce Greenhalgh, Maria Vouis, and Geoff Aitken) and two highly commended manuscripts (by Emelia Haskey and Inez Marrasso) for Friendly Street’s New Poets 19, a new addition to – and resurrection of – Friendly Street’s important New Poets series. On 22 June, I was a guest writer at the South Australian English Teachers’ Association’s Meet the Writers Festival. And on 28 July, I was a guest poet at DARK FOLK, featuring music by Jen Lush, Go Fish and Daniel J. Towsend, and poetry by Steve Brock, Juan Garrido-Salgado and me. The songs on Jen’s album The Night’s Insomnia draw on the work of 12 contemporary Australian poets, e.g. ‘The Louder Silence’, based on a poem by Jill Jones.

In recent weeks (since my secondment ended), I’ve had the chance to resume monthly poetry workshops, and editing work. And I have new poems forthcoming in Overland and Westerly.

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In terms of my reading, I’ve enjoyed and can recommend Ken Bolton’s Starting at Basheer’s, Jill Jones’ Viva the Real, Anthony Lawrence’s Headwaters, Bella Li’s Argosy and Lost Lake, Philip Mead’s Zanzibar Light, Nathaniel O’Reilly’s Preparations for Departure, and two of Vagabond Press’s books of poetry in translation – one from its Americas Poetry Series, featuring Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez and Alí Calderón (contemporary Mexican poetry), and another from its Asia Pacific Poetry Series, featuring Kim Yideum, Kim Haengsook and Kim Min Jeong (poetry from Korea’s ‘Future Wave’).

Notes: February 2018

Adelaide Writers’ Week 2018 – Notes on Tracy Ryan’s The Water Bearer

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I’m writing this on March 4, which means Adelaide’s ‘Mad March’ is well and truly under way. I can take and/or leave many of its attractions, which include the ‘Adelaide 500’ car racing event, with its air-force flyovers and traffic diversions; the various delights of the Adelaide Festival; the ubiquitous Fringe Festival; WOMADelaide; the Adelaide Cup, a public holiday, at least; and – this year – a particularly inscrutable state election campaign. To borrow a note or two from Keats, early autumn in Adelaide is drows’d with exhaust fumes, and the wailful choiring of supercar engines.

While I can take and/or leave much of that, I take time off work (when I can) to spend a few days at Adelaide Writers’ Week, which started on March 3 (‘yesterday’, at the time of writing). There’s lots to look forward to in the days ahead – including some gifts of serendipity, no doubt – though I’m particularly looking forward to sessions featuring Australian poets Pam Brown and Sarah Holland-Batt, and Adelaide Hills writers Rebekah Clarkson and Eva Hornung, and the traditional Writers’ Week poetry reading. I attended yesterday’s session for the announcement of the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature. It was great to see the successes of well-known Adelaide poet Jude Aquilina (the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship), and Pam Brown – who was awarded the John Bray Poetry Award for Missing Up (Vagabond Press, 2015). It was also great to see Eva Hornung win the Fiction Award for The Last Garden (Text Publishing, 2017), as well as the ‘overall’ Premier’s Award – evidently, she’s the first South Australian to win the Premier’s Award in its 32 year history (The Advertiser article). Though I’ve never met Eva, she’s my next-door-neighbour when I’m ‘home’ in Bugle Ranges, which is less often than I’d like at the moment.

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Of the hundreds of poems I read in February (Lowell, Boyle, Kinsella, Salamun…), the one that’s stayed with me most strongly is an apparently unassuming poem entitled ‘School Walk in German Winter’, from Tracy Ryan’s new book of poems, The Water Bearer (Fremantle Press, 2018). I won’t say so much (I hope) that I spoil the poem or its workings (or the workings it seems to offer the reader) for anyone who’s keen to read it for themselves. What’s noteworthy about the poem is the chance Ryan’s taken in publishing a finely worked poem when a superficial reader – and maybe many other readers besides – will miss its apparent secondary reading – one that notionally contains both the walk to and from school – after all they’re the same journey, but in reverse.

As a reader, there’s a particular pleasure in discovering some element or effect that’s been subtly worked into a poem. By not disclosing the effect in an explanatory note, the poet preserves the poem’s potential energy. Ryan’s poem had me thinking – more broadly – about the gamble writers take on their readers’ attentiveness. Does the writer disclose some element or effect they want a reader to discover in their work – for the reader’s edification, or as evidence of their own cleverness? – at the risk of being heavy-handed and untrusting? Or do they leave it undisclosed, keeping the poem’s full range of delight open to the reader? Some of the pleasure of discovering an undisclosed element or effect, then, is knowing you’ve rewarded the poet for their trust.

In addition to this one poem, it’s an excellent book – though I’ll leave it to others to say more in the reviews that will, no doubt, follow. It’s Ryan’s first book of poems since 2013’s Unearthed (Fremantle Press) and 2014’s Hoard (Whitmore Press). Unearthed is also an excellent book, and one which resonated with me at the time I read it – particularly the ‘Karlsruhe’ poems. Unearthed can be read profitably alongside Sharon Old’s Stag’s Leap (Jonathan Cape, 2012), winner of the 2012 TS Eliot Prize and 2013 Pulitzer Prize, which shares something of its circumstance and themes.

Notes: January 2018

2017-18 Noel Rowe Poetry Award – Book of poems forthcoming with Vagabond Press2018-01-29 22.26.49

This update for December 2017 and January 2018 is brief. I was delighted to find out on 1 December 2017 that my manuscript, Carte Blanche, had been awarded the 2017-18 Noel Rowe Poetry Award, which means it’ll be published by Vagabond Press in 2019. The award’s shortlist and judges’ comments can be read on Vagabond’s website. Over the next few months, I’ll be refining and finalising the manuscript. Then, early next year, I’m looking forward to sending the poems – which distill about 15 years’ work – out into the world, at last. (“Go, little naked and impudent songs, / Go with a light foot!” as Ezra Pound wrote – or, better yet, “Go, my songs [… ] Bring confidence upon the algæ and the tentacles of the soul.”)

The award and forthcoming publication give me the opportunity to ‘settle accounts’ with my work to date and strike out in new directions, which I’ve looked forward to for a long time. It was a wonderful finish to 2017, a year that – till then – had seemed a little lean in terms of its progress or successes, and it’s ushered in the new year with a sense of purpose, and clear(er) horizons.

Notes: November 2017

Adelaide, a Mediterranean city – Little Windows Press’ chapbook series – Poetry reading at Café Latino – The future of Adelaide Writers’ Week – Adelaide Writers’ Week 20182017-11-29 22.37.04bb

Adelaide, like some of the world’s most romanticised cities, has a Mediterranean climate with dry summers and mild winters: think Algiers, Athens, Barcelona, Casablanca, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Madrid, Marseille, Seville, and Rome, and – away from the Mediterranean – Perth, Cape Town, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It’s a climate that’s well adapted to human flourishing, associated with the ‘Mediterranean trinity’ of wheat, vines and olives. Here, in South Australia, the local wine and tourism industries enthusiastically remind us there are over 200 cellar-doors within an hour or so’s drive of the CBD – some in Thiele-country, others in Heysen-country, others to the south of the city. Even when the spring and summer days are harsh to us with their heat and dryness, they pay a dividend of long, warm evenings. (It was Camus who wrote in his essay ‘Summer in Algiers’: ‘The loves we share with a city are often secret loves.’) It’s a climate that’s favourable to Adelaide at its cosmopolitan – and romanticised – best: the vision of a hospitable and orderly city, of long summer evenings, alfresco dining, local wines and produce, and sunsets over the gulf. And the arts, and poetry, are an essential part of it, too.

Fittingly, then, Little Windows Press – the enterprise of publishers Jill Jones and Alison Flett – launched its second annual series of chapbooks on a warm Adelaide evening at The Howling Owl, in a lively corner of Adelaide’s East End – between the fashionably unfashionable crowd at The Exeter Hotel, and the unfashionably unfashionable mock-Tudor of The Elephant British Pub. The 2017 series features Adam Aitken’s Notes on the River, Ali Cobby Eckermann’s The Aura of Loss, Jen Hadfield’s Mortis and Tenon and Kathryn Hummel’s The Body That Holds. It was a great launch. For notes on the event and each of the chapbooks, I recommend this blogpost by Adelaide poet JV Birch. The chapbooks are available from the Little Windows website.

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More recently, Café Latino at Woodville hosted an excellent and enlivening evening of food, poetry and music on Sunday, 26 November. The event neatly foregrounded the poetry, and offered a selection of favourites – courtesy Shakespeare, Hopkins, Shelley, and the like – along with lesser known poems, poems by local poets, and popular song lyrics read as poetry.

This month, old news was good news: I enjoyed posting a few words on Facebook, reflecting on the ‘Light & Glorie’ project Aidan Coleman and I ran in November 2012. Meanwhile, the new news was more complicated. It was sad to read that Tincture Journal will be publishing its final edition on 1 December 2017, having achieved a great deal since it began in 2013. A big congratulations and best wishes to editor Daniel Young, and the editorial team, including poetry editor Stuart Barnes. It was disappointing to read that Laura Kroetsch, Director of Adelaide Writers’ Week since 2012, will direct her final Writers’ Week in March 2018. One distinctive and welcome hallmark of Laura’s directorship has been her efforts to introduce many of New Zealand’s most celebrated poets to Adelaide audiences.

It was disappointing, too, to read that the Adelaide Festival Board is reconsidering Writers’ Week’s status as the country’s only free writers’ festival – an essential characteristic since it began in 1960. Being free to the public is a concession that gives all South Australians access to great writers, writing and ideas – particularly those people whom ticketed events would most readily exclude. I think back to my own tentative introduction to Writers’ Week, which was an initiation into a culture of ideas and writing, beyond the hallways and bookstacks of the university. 2006, my first serious Writers’ Week, acquainted me with the work of Nick Jose, Gail Jones, Simon Armitage, Judith Beveridge, Peter Skrzynecki, Vincent O’Sullivan, and others I don’t recall. And early March days at Writers’ Week are a paradigm of Adelaide at its cosmopolitan (and ‘Dunstanian’) best. It’s a vision of the city (indeed, the Province) that is (or should be) in keeping with the idealistic and dissenting ambitions of its founders, including those honoured by the Pioneer Women’s Memorial Garden in which Writers’ Week is set.

Of course, the city’s singular idealism is haunted by its notorious vulnerability to the sinister. It was Salman Rushdie who said at Writers’ Week in 1984 that ‘Adelaide is an ideal setting for a Stephen King novel or horror film … sleepy, conservative towns are where those things happen. Exorcisms, omens, shinings, poltergeists. Adelaide is Amityville, or Salem, and things here go bump in the night.’ Kerryn Goldsworthy quotes Rushdie more fully in her book Adelaide (NewSouth Publishing, 2011), and reminds us that his reckoning predates the events associated with Snowtown by two decades. She goes on, though, to counterbalance this view with that of Adelaide novelist Barbara Hanrahan (1939-1991): ‘[she] sees the strangeness of Adelaide crime as not unique to the city but rather as highlighted and thrown into stark relief by the contrast with its carefully maintained outer image, which is both of beauty and of virtue’ (p. 169). In any case, it’s a rumination that places Writers’ Week at the centre of Adelaide’s identity and cultural life. There’re plenty of reasons to be careful and protective of its legacy, and its accessibility to all quarters of the South Australian community.

To return to the good news, it was great to read poems by South Australian poets Ken Bolton, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Natalie Harkin, Jill Jones, Mike Ladd, and Heather Taylor Johnson among Sarah Holland-Batt’s selections for The Best Australian Poems 2017 (Black Inc, 2017). Sarah will be a featured writer at Writers’ Week 2018, along with New Zealand poet Ashleigh Young and US poet Patricia Lockwood. However, there’s plenty of summer to enjoy or endure before then. In the immediate short-term, the Mediterranean climate is offering a humid 34 degrees, partly cloudy, with the chance of thunderstorms.