As Facebook reminded me this week, it’s two years since my debut book of poems, Carte Blanche (Vagabond Press), went out into the world. And it’s almost two years since I was in Sydney for its launch… a much simpler time. In the meantime, Carte Blanche has won the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award, for the best first book of poems published in Australia in 2019, and has been warmly reviewed by David McCooey for Australian Book Review (behind the paywall, unfortunately), Geoff Page for The Canberra Times, and Martin Duwell for Australian Poetry Review.
Australian Book Review has followed its 2020 podcasts Poetry for Troubled Times and More Poetry for Troubled Times with the more optimistically titled Poetry in Times of Recovery. The podcast includes Sarah Holland-Batt reading Adam Zagajewski’s ‘Try to Praise the Mutilated World’, Felicity Plunkett reading Tracy K Smith’s ‘An Old Story’, Peter Goldsworthy reading Eugenio Montale’s ‘Forse un mattino’, Judith Bishop reading Tomas Tranströmer’s ‘Face to Face’, and John Kinsella reading Emily Brontë’s ‘No Coward Soul is Mine’. Recently, I’ve been revisiting some of my favourite poems by Zagajewski, having come late to the news of his death on 21 March. Likewise, I was late to hear of the death of American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in February. And, finally, this week brought news of the death of American poet Stephen Dunn (24 June), whose poems ‘Sweetness’ (itself a consolation in times of bereavement) and ‘Poem for People Who Are Understandably Too Busy to Read Poetry’ I return to often.
On the back of Vagabond Press’s extraordinary success in 2020, there are new books by Tanikawa Shuntaro, Shinkawa Kazue, LK Holt, Bella Li, John Kinsella, Eleanor Jackson and Ann Vickery going to press. Vagabond has created a gofundme page in aid of two more books of poetry going to press in 2021: Petra White’s ‘Cities’ and Dan Disney’s ‘accelerations & inertias’. I’m looking forward to reading both. You can support the publication of Petra and Dan’s books via the gofundme page, or by purchasing from Vagabond’s extensive backlist of poetry, fiction, essays, memoir and criticism from Australia, the Asia-Pacific and the Americas.
There ought to be a mythology that depicts The Poet as a being with two skins: a tender inner membrane that’s pervious to the world, and a thick hide or pelt that insulates them from the inevitable slings and arrows of rejection notes, or reviews, or – failing that – the abject neglect of their work. In December 2020, critic Martin Duwell published a review of my book Carte Blanche (Vagabond, 2019) and Ella Jeffery’s Dead Bolt (Puncher & Wattmann, 2020) at Australian Poetry Review. It was a fearful thing to discover that the book had been reviewed by a critic I regularly turn to as one of the country’s most incisive readers of poetry. Sincere thanks to Martin for his careful and generous reading of the book. It was a delight to be reviewed alongside Ella’s debut book of poems, which I very much enjoyed reading, and which I had the pleasure of seeing launched online in September. Click here for the FULL REVIEW of Carte Blanche and Dead Bolt.
Vagabond Press has had an extraordinary 2020, with Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics winning the 2020 John Bray Poetry Award, Peter Boyle’s Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness winning the 2020 Kenneth Slessor Award, and my book Carte Blanche winning the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award. Not to mention the acclaim garnered by the recent books by Melinda Bufton, a.j. carruthers, Toby Fitch, LK Holt, and Jessica L. Wilkinson. For 20 years Vagabond has published established and emerging poets from Australia, the Asia-Pacific and the Americas. Like many small literary presses, it faces an uncertain future, and has launched a gofundme page to aid its survival. In particular, the campaign will support the publication of three new titles, presenting work by LK Holt, Tanikawa Shuntaro, and Shinkawa Kazue. You can support Vagabond via its gofundme page, or by purchasing from its extensive backlist of poetry, fiction, essays, memoir, and criticism.
It was so enjoyable to ‘attend’ the launch of Benjamin Dodds’ second book of poems Airplane Baby Banana Blanket, via Zoom this evening. The book was launched by Stuart Barnes, with readings by Ben, and Judith Beveridge. It’s become a small concession of the Covid year to be able to attend these launches from faraway Adelaide. And, in this case, it meant I had the chance to hear some of the poems in Ben’s own voice, to hear Stuart’s launch speech, and to get a sense of the rapport between Ben and Stuart, whose bodies of work I’ve been reading for some time. I really enjoyed Ben’s first book Regulator (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014). I’m glad he hasn’t kept us waiting too long for this second book, but also that Airplane Baby Banana Blanket draws us into new and worthwhile territory. I hope the book finds the wide readership and acclaim it deserves. For those wanting a foretaste of the book, there’s a recent ABC Radio National interview with Ben – Lucy’s Story: the chimp, the poet, and the interspecies experiment that went weird – describing the bizarre-yet-true story of Lucy, a chimpanzee raised by psychotherapist Dr Maurice Temerlin, which is at the heart of the book. Congratulations to Ben: Airplane Baby Banana Blanket is available from Recent Work Press.
‘April is the cruellest month…’, the opening line of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, is one of the most famous phrases in Twentieth Century poetry. It’s famous enough that it often escapes poetry’s sequestered colonnades and turns up in the popular culture. But for those of us in the southern hemisphere, the phenomenon Eliot was referring to is something we experience in October (‘if at all’) as a sort of seasonal affectivity, a dark irony rooted in the burgeoning Spring. (There’s a similar seasonal reversal required for Ted Hughes’ ‘October Dawn’, another poem I’ve had a long attachment to (it’s mastery of half-rhyme), though it’s hard to find a correlative for Hughes’ ‘premonition of ice’ in the Australian autumn or winter.) Michael Austin reflects on Eliot’s phrase, particularly in a time of pandemic, in a blog post from April this year, entitled: ‘Why is April ‘the Cruelest Month’? TS Eliot’s Masterpiece of Pandemic Poetry.’ Austin writes: ‘Eliot wrote his famous poem in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world. He and his wife caught the Spanish Flu in December of 1918, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery.’ He goes on: ‘In the Waste Land, nothing can be crueler than hope, since it can only lead to disappointment […] The more I have read the opening lines of Eliot’s great poem, the more I have realized just what a dangerous emotion the great theological virtue of hope can be. Cynicism and irony are safe. To hope, one must open the door to disappointment, rejection, and disbelief.’ It’s a timely thought for those of us in our own ‘cruellest month’, as the beginning of the southern Spring this year coincides with the lifting of Australia’s most stringent lockdown. The attached video footage captures some essence of an October evening in Adelaide, a welcome relief after a particularly subdued winter. Look at all that glorious cruelty.
As an extra addendum to my previous blog posts, it was so enjoyable to ‘attend’ the launch of Alice Allan’s book of poems The Empty Show via YouTube this afternoon (Adelaide time). The book was introduced by Jessica Wilkinson and launched by Louise Carter, with Alice then reading from the book and a lively Q&A. Like many, I suspect, my first introduction to Alice’s work was through her excellent Poetry Says podcasts: a series of engaging conversations with contemporary Australian poets. I hope Alice and The Empty Show get the ‘live/in person’ launch they so much deserve, at some future time. As I’ve written previously, a writer sending a book into the world (particularly a first book) deserves all the love and fuss that can be mustered. Congratulations to Alice: The Empty Show is an excellent book, and available from Rabbit Poets Series.
Vagabond Press has launched its new website. Vagabond’s books of poetry from Australia, the Americas, the Asia Pacific, and Europe are available directly from the website, which now includes a sample of each book. It’s been a great 12 months for Vagabond, with Natalie Harkin’s Archival-Poetics winning the 2020 John Bray Poetry Award, and Peter Boyle’s Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness winning the 2020 Kenneth Slessor Award for Poetry, among others. My book of poems, Carte Blanche, is available from the website as a paperback, and a limited edition hardback.
As an addendum to my last blog post, it was very enjoyable to attend the launch of Adrian Flavell’s second book of poems, Shadows Drag Untidy, in Adelaide this evening. The book was launched by Professor Nick Jose, and follows Adrian’s 2014 book, On Drowning a Rat (Picaro Press). I first encountered Adrian’s poems as far back as 1998 or 1999. In my teenage years, The Weekend Australian’s Review served as my piecemeal introduction to contemporary Australian poetry. Nowadays, we take it for granted that the internet is a reliable source of contemporary poetry, with the proliferation of websites, online journals, and blogs over the past two decades. But in the late 1990s it was only the newspapers that came into the household regularly that met my growing appetite for new Australian poetry. It was in The Weekend Australian, and later The Age, that I first read the work of poets such as Robert Adamson, Peter Boyle, Aidan Coleman, Luke Davies, Diane Fahey, Michael Farrell, Anthony Lawrence, Jan Owen, Peter Rose, Thomas Shapcott, John Tranter – and Adrian Flavell. Times have changed: The Weekend Australian still publishes and reviews poetry, but now any teenager with an internet connection can access as much poetry as they could possibly want. Congratulations to Adrian on the launch of the book. Shadows Drag Untidy is available from Ginninderra Press.