New poems in ‘InDaily’

Thom Sullivan Poet Poetry Wistow Bugle Ranges

I’m delighted to have three short poems appear together in the Poet’s Corner section of Adelaide’s InDaily. Back in 2007, my first published poems appeared in Poet’s Corner, when InDaily was still the weekly print newspaper The Independent Weekly. Thankfully, more than a decade on, InDaily continues to publish a weekly selection of poems under the curatorial hand of John Miles. The three poems can be read here.

The permutations of poetry

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Spare a thought for the poets.

When your favourite band records their latest 12 track album, there are 479,001,600 ways they can arrange the songs on the album.

When a poet writes an average-sized book of 70 poems, there are 11,978,571,669,969,891,796,072,783,721,689,098,736,458,938,142,546,425,857,555,362,864,628,009,582,789,845,319,680,000,000,000,000,000 ways they can arrange the poems. And, even if they arrange them well, it’ll be something that’s scarcely noticed.

Every book of poems I’ve had a hand in editing has gone through a tried and tested process. The poems are printed, then laid out on a large floor for painstaking arrangement and rearrangement. It’s an arcane task that’s part intuition, and part logic. Its aim is to find a compelling order and a natural balance for the poems’ themes, images, vocabulary, etcetera.

But, anyway, that’s the maths.

Recommended: Writing the long poem

There seem to be those who regard the craft of poetry as an engaging and useful topic for discussion, and those who regard it as a somewhat contemptible and self-indulgent one. I’m among those who often find something insightful or useful in discussions about the practicalities of writing poetry, whether it’s via a writers’ festival, a radio interview, or a podcast. And the more practical the discussion is the better.

I recently watched a number of videos by poets.org, including a video in which American poet Ron Padgett talks about writing long poems. In particular, he suggests the following writing strategy:

‘I just made a dumb rule. I said, I’m going to write every day. I’m going to sit down at my desk every day and I’m going to write ten pages. And I don’t care if it’s good or bad, or indifferent, or if it’s notational or whatever. I’m going to write ten pages every day. And I did that for five or six days … I came up with about fifty or sixty pages of material and I put it away for a while. And I went and looked at it again later and a lot of it was dreck … But some of it was pretty good. I was surprised. So I did the obvious thing: I took out all the dreck and I stuck the other pieces together … It all fit together and made this long poem.’

The full video is available here:

Those familiar with Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson may be aware that Padgett is the author of several of the poems supposedly written by the eponymous main character, played by Adam Driver:

Four things: a reflection

Thom Sullivan  Poet Poetry NaPoWriMo 19

Personally, it was a week for celebrating the birthdays of friends and colleagues, an enjoyable poetry reading at Holy Rollers Studios, as part of the South Australian Living Artists (SALA) Festival, and the ascendancy of spring in Adelaide. In the wider world, this week marked the 18th anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, which is the starting point for 4 things that were on my mind this week: 3 poems, and 1 folk rock song.

1.
In a contributor’s note in The Best American Poetry 2005, American poet Kay Ryan (b. 1945) writes about the provenance of her poem ‘Home to Roost’. She explains that what she regarded as an essentially personal poem was written several months before September 11, and was under consideration by a poetry editor when the attacks occurred. It’s a short, simple poem full of foreboding: ‘The chickens / are circling and / blotting out the / day…’, she writes, ‘Yes, / the sky is dark / with chickens’. After the attacks, Ryan hastily withdrew the poem, which had taken on new, irresistible significance as a commentary on the United States’ involvement in global affairs: ‘Now they have / come home / to roost – all / the same kind / at the same speed.’ Ryan went on to publish the poem some years later, after the sting had gone out of it, but it’s impossible still to read it as a purely personal poem. As Ryan writes in the note, the poem was ‘warped’ by the events of that day. Ref. Muldoon, P. and Lehman, D. (2005). ‘The Best American Poetry, 2005.’ New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 185.

2.
At the time of the September 11 attacks I was 19, and in my second year of university. It was a troubling time to be a young male, newly of military age, with little sense of proportion about the events that may transpire in the following months and years. A sense of trepidation wasn’t entirely unwarranted. After all, my father, my grandfathers and my great-grandfathers either served in the military (my maternal grandfather served in World War II), or were at some risk of conscription while they were of military age. My mind turned to a series of poems written by American poet Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1941) about his experiences as a war correspondent in Vietnam. The poems were published in 1988’s Dien Cai Dau. Komunyakaa’s poem ‘Thanks’ is a litany of thankfulness to an unknown and unnamed force that kept him alive in the jungles of Vietnam: ‘Thanks for the tree / between me & a sniper’s bullet. / I don’t know what made the grass / sway seconds before the Viet Cong / raised his soundless rifle. / Some voice always followed, / telling me which foot / to put down first.’ His poem, like Ryan’s, ends with a sense of the unknowable or unnamable, though in Komunyakaa’s poem it’s a benign power rather than a sense of foreboding: ‘I know that something / stood among those lost trees / & moved only when I moved.’

3.
Komunyakaa’s poem brings to mind ‘The One I Love’, a single from Life in Slow Motion, a 2005 album by English singer-songwriter David Gray (b. 1968). Supposedly, the song has been a popular choice as a wedding waltz, due to its buoyant vocal hook and ostensibly quixotic lyrics: ‘Gonna close my eyes, girl / And watch you go / Running through this life, darling / Like a field of snow’. Yet a closer listen reveals that it, too, is a song about war. Where Komunyakaa’s poem refers to the ‘sniper’s bullet’, the speaker of Gray’s song watches ‘As the tracer glides / In its graceful arc’. Where the speaker of Komunyakaa’s poem recalls being distracted by the thought of a woman in San Francisco (her ‘wild colors’), Gray’s speaker is a wounded soldier recalling the memory of his beloved as he bleeds out: ‘There’s things I might’ve said / Only wish I could / Now I’m leaking life faster / Than I’m leaking blood’. As to the date of the war Gray’s speaker describes, the soldier mentions dancing the ‘twist and shout’, which likely dates it to the Vietnam War era, with the release of The Top Notes’ ‘Twist and Shout’ in 1961, and The Beatles’ cover of 1963.

4.
At the time of the September 11 attacks, Australian poet Thomas Shapcott (b. 1935) was teaching creative writing in the English Department in which I was studying. The events of that day prompted him to write his poem ‘New Year’s Eve’, which was published in 2006’s The City of Empty Rooms. In his poem, he writes: ‘If Modernism died in the ovens of Auschwitz / Or at the Nuremberg Trials / Then Post Modernism met its death / On 11 September 2001 in New York.’ No doubt, it’s a contention that’s been hashed and rehashed in countless bar and barbecue conversations since then: the idea that September 11 ended Post Modernism and shocked us into a new age of ‘passionate intensity’, to borrow a phrase from ‘The Second Coming’ by WB Yeats (1865–1939), which was heavily quoted at the time. We find a similar sense of foreboding or unease in ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), possibly written while Arnold was on his honeymoon. Arnold’s poem might only have come down to us as an example of romantic melancholy, if at all, were it not so prophetic about the devastations of the century that would follow: ‘we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.’ What Shapcott reflects on in hindsight is perhaps anticipated in Yeats’ word ‘conviction’, and Arnold’s ‘certitude’.

Poetry reading: NO WAVE / Holy Rollers

No Wave Poetry ReadingOn 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.

Writers who define an age…

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It’s sobering to think that some of the writers and artists who will define our age will be utterly unknown to us, if the past is anything to go by. Think of Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Franz Kafka, for example, whose works were unknown or virtually unknown during their lifetimes.

Local history: Jubilee Chapel

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.

Jubilee Chapel l Wistow

35°08’18.3″S 138°56’11.7″E

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.’

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35°11’01.3″S 139°00’11.6″E

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.’