Book launches in the time of COVID-19

It’s been a difficult year for launching books. And it was an enormous relief, especially in hindsight, that Aidan Coleman and I managed to jointly-launch our books of poems a few short weeks before the COVID-19 restrictions clamped down in South Australia.

It was very welcome, then, to be able to attend the launch of Juan Garrido-Salgado’s Hope Blossoming in Their Ink in Adelaide last week, the first launch I’ve attended in person in many months. It was the sort of lively event we’ve felt the lack of amid our ‘Covid-winter’, even in a city and state that’s weathered the pandemic better than most. Touch wood.

It’s also been very welcome, and a small compensation of the pandemic, to be able to attend events and launches interstate, albeit as an online ‘attendance’. It’s a regrettable compromise for the poets and publishers concerned – a writer sending a book into the world (particularly a first book) deserves all the love and fuss that can be mustered – but, for those of us further afield, it’s been nice to ‘attend’ in some small way, even foregoing the customary signings, and conversations.

To the point, it was so enjoyable to attend the launch of Ella Jeffery’s book of poems Dead Bolt, launched by Lisa Gorton this evening, even if the setting, from my end at least, was my lounge room in Adelaide.

Congratulations to Juan and Ella, and all best wishes for the success of your books, particularly in this challenging time. Hope Blossoming in Their Ink and Dead Bolt are both excellent, and available from Puncher & Wattmann.

Reviews: John Kinsella’s ‘Hollow Earth’ and ‘Open Door’

I’ve had a long affinity with these words of the Russian-American poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky: ‘Every individual ought to know at least one poet from cover to cover: if not as a guide through the world, then as a yardstick for the language.’ In my early 20s, I developed a particular regard for a number of contemporary Australian poets whose work was synonymous with specific regions, among them were Robert Adamson (The Hawkesbury), Robert Gray (Mid-North Coast, NSW), John Kinsella (Western Australia’s Wheatbelt), and Les Murray (Mid-North Coast, NSW).

Through Kinsella’s work, in particular, I found permission – at a time I needed it – to write about the farming area in the Mount Lofty Ranges in which I’d grown up, and was then living. I made a compact that Kinsella would be a poet I read – more or less – cover to cover, in the way that Brodsky suggested. It’s a compact I’ve kept, though – as Kinsella is a notoriously prolific poet, novelist, and essayist – I’m often a book or two behind his latest publication. In this way, it’s Kinsella’s work, and perhaps also that of the late American poet AR Ammons, that I’ve returned to most consistently over the past 20 years.

It was very welcome, therefore, to have the chance to review two of Kinsella’s recent books for Australian journal Plumwood Mountain. Previously, Plumwood Mountain has published my reviews of Kinsella’s Graphology Poems: 1995-2015 (Five Islands Press, 2016), and Renga: 100 Poems (GloriaSMH, 2017), his collaboration with Paul Kane. Of the two recent reviews, Hollow Earth (Transit Lounge, 2019) is Kinsella’s first foray into the other world of the science fiction novel; and Open Door (UWAP, 2018) is the final book of poems in the Jam Tree Gully trilogy, an essential exploration of a central theme of his work. Special thanks to Anne Elvey, Managing Editor of Plumwood Mountain, for the opportunity to review the books.

Click here for the FULL REVIEW of Hollow Earth.

Click here for the FULL REVIEW of Open Door.

‘The cusp of Spring. Pear trees blossom…’

The cusp of Spring. Pear trees blossom (white) along the arterial. Callistemons (red) flower across the suburb. Soursobs (yellow) come up through the lawn. Earlier today, two Noisy Miners chased off an Australian Raven (black), till all three were out of sight over the rooftops. Out of sight. Out of earshot. Out of mind.

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In a culture so disposed to rational thought, we’re often confounded by poetry, which haunts the domain of the non-rational, as opposed to the rational or the irrational.

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There’s a well-inked association between poets and black birds – think crows and ravens, blackbirds and jackdaws. Think Edgar Allan Poe and George Trackl, Ted Hughes and Margaret Atwood, Gianni Siccardi and Max Porter, or Justin Vernon and Paul McCartney.

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From Wallace Stevens’ poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’: ‘I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.’

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Crowbar, crowberry, crowcall, crowcry, croweater, crowflower, crowfoot, crowkeeper, crowstep, etcetera.

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The murder of crows. There is the archetypal poem about the poet-as-adult elegising a bird he (invariably, it’s a ‘he’) shot during his childhood. Over the years, I’ve read enough versions of this archetypal poem that it could be a discrete genre in itself (I wish I’d kept a list): there’d be enough for a small anthology. They’re inevitably poems about innocence, lost innocence, masculinity, initiation, memory, guilt, violence, and/or mortality.

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From Franz Wright’s poem ‘Solitary Play: Minnesota, 1961’: ‘… it was suggested / that I fire / on that muttering family of crows. / I complied / and watched as those big ruffled shadows / rose from the ground, scattered and vanished / in the direction of barren / border trees, commencing / to speak all at once / in hysterical tongues. / All except for one, / deceased.’

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Crowbar, barbell, bellboy, boyfriend, friendship, shipyard, yardbird, birdbrain, brainstorm, stormwater, etcetera.

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From JM Coetzee’s essay Roads to Translation: ‘… in the Italian version of Dusklands, a man opens a wooden crate with the help of a bird (what I wrote was that he used a crow, that is, a crowbar.’ (Coetzee, JM. Roads to Translation [online]. Meanjin, Vol. 64, No. 4, 2005: 141.)

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The murder-mind. Chapel Street, Strathalbyn, early 2000s. I remember waiting in a car, on a warm afternoon, with the windows wound down. A nearby house had its doors and windows open onto its verandah. From inside the house, there was the sound of a baby crying. At the front of the house, two ravens were calling back and forth to one another, and to a third raven visible at the rear of the house. As I watched, it became apparent that the ravens were trying to triangulate the source of the crying, which must have sounded to them like an animal in distress.

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From Raymond Carver’s poem ‘My Crow’: ‘A crow flew into the tree outside my window. / It was not Ted Hughes’s crow, or Galway’s crow. / Or Frost’s, Pasternak’s, or Lorca’s crow. / Or one of Homer’s crows, stuffed with gore, / after the battle. This was just a crow. / That never fit in anywhere in its life, / or did anything worth mentioning.’

Geoff Page reviews ‘Carte Blanche’ for ‘The Canberra Times’

In the 22 August 2020 edition of The Canberra Times, Geoff Page reviews my book of poems Carte Blanche. He writes: ‘It’s satisfying to observe that the sophistication and idiosyncratic uniqueness of Thom Sullivan’s Carte Blanche have recently been recognised by the judges of the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award for the best first book of poetry in Australia last year.’ A very big thank you to Geoff for his kind words about the book. Carte Blanche is available from Vagabond Press as a paperback, and a limited edition hardcover. Click here for the FULL REVIEW.

‘There’s a special obligation on poets, I think…’

There’s a special obligation on poets, I think, to know the names of things, and with specificity. Just as there’s a value in any or all of us knowing the names of those birds and plants that we find in our home environment, for example, our garden or our street. It’s part of a greater work of attention: we start to notice the comings and goings of birds at different times of the day, or across the seasons, and we begin to mark the progress of time by a plant coming into blossom, or a tree that begins to shed its bark. It’s a particularly worthwhile idea now, when many of us are spending more time at home.

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With a recent move, I’ve had to acclimate to a new home, and to a working/writing space that looks out onto a garden. I readily identified the birds that were coming and going, and the magnolias, but there is a shrub that’s been cultivated into a hedge that was unknown to me. I took a photo of it with the PlantSnap app: it’s a cherry laurel or type of viburnum, the app suggested. I researched a little further. It is a cherry laurel.

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Poetry has some role in mediating the world – for poets themselves, and sometimes for others – through words. In the Western Judeo-Christian account, the task of naming – of relating words to the things of the world – is so ancient and integral that it precedes the creation of woman: ‘And whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.’ (Genesis 2:19) Earlier still, there’s the account of God speaking the world into existence (‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.’ Genesis 1:3), as if the world itself is the magna poema.

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At the front of the house, a New Holland Honeyeater flits from the eaves to the crossarm of the Stobie pole at the streetside. (Of course, ‘Stobie pole’ is part of a distinctly South Australian dialect and design vernacular.) In the garden, two Common Blackbirds fossick in the leaflitter beneath the cherry laurels and magnolias: the male blackbird, which is glossy black with a bright orange beak, and the female blackbird, which is in fact dull brown.

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As the southern winter persists, many of us find ourselves working from home still. And there’s a natural progression to the final hour or so of daylight that wasn’t evident while I worked in a city office. After 5:00 p.m. the light falls quickly, and the garden darkens. The blackbirds become indistinct beneath the shrubbery and, for a time, cars come and go more frequently in the lane. I usually work on for a while longer, till there’s a natural pause in whatever I’m working on, then I push back my chair, and close the laptop over. By that time, the room itself is dark, and the street lights have come on, casting a soft glow into the garden.

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Recommended: Matthew Hooton’s story ‘Welcome to Fordlandia’ (Sweet Tree Review); Aidan Coleman’s article on the 25th anniversary of the death of Australian poet Philip Hodgins (The Conversation); Philip Hodgins’ poems ‘Making Hay’ and ‘Shooting the Dogs’; Rae Armantrout’s Partly: New and Selected Poems 2001-2015 (Wesleyan UP); and (song-wise) Donovan Woods’ ‘Portland, Maine’ and Field Guide’s ‘You Were’.

New poem: Raining Poetry in Adelaide

One of my poems is among 20 that have been tagged on the footpaths of Adelaide’s CBD. The poems have been stencilled with invisible paint, and will only appear when it rains… a little something to brighten our downcast/overcast winter days. A map of the poems’ locations is forthcoming, but I particularly like the idea that many people will come across the poems incidentally. A big thank you to Jill Jones (who selected the poems), the Raining Poetry in Adelaide team, and the City of Adelaide.

New poem: Australian Poetry Anthology

My poem ‘Buonanotte’ has been published in Australian Poetry Anthology, the annual anthology produced by Australian Poetry, our peak body for poets. The 2020 anthology (volume 8) was edited by Melinda Smith and Sara Saleh. It includes poems by Stuart Barnes, Anne Casey, Tricia Dearborn, Shastra Deo, Toby Fitch, Jane Gibian, Dominique Hecq, Paul Hetherington, Geoff Page, and fellow South Australian poets Jill Jones, Bronwyn Lovell, Rachael Mead, David Mortimer, Heather Taylor-Johnson, and Manal Younus.

2020 Mary Gilmore Award

I’m so delighted to say that Carte Blanche has been awarded the 2020 Mary Gilmore Award for the best first book of poetry published in Australia last year. I feel incredibly honoured, particularly knowing what a great shortlist it was, and how many great books of Australian poetry have received the award in the past.

I had the chance to say a few thank yous at the award night, via Zoom, including thank yous to: the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (ASAL); the three judges who selected the book for the award – David McCooey, Jill Jones, and Dan Disney; and Michael Brennan, my publisher at Vagabond Press.

Carte Blanche is available from Vagabond Press at www.vagabondpress.net

Poetry that stays news

‘Literature is news that STAYS news’, as Ezra Pound wrote in ABC of Reading (1934).

In many Australian states and territories, there’s an annual award for ‘enduring architecture’, meaning buildings of at least 25 years of age that are considered high quality works of architecture. At a time when contemporary architecture is often derided as faddish and elitist, these awards celebrate – and perhaps encourage – architecture that proves its importance and influence over time.

As in the field of architecture, awards for literature and poetry proliferate. They’re an important means for celebrating newly published works – a benefit to the writer, their publisher and the reading public. But an award that recognises enduring books of poetry is also an attractive idea. It could be, for example, an award for a book of poems published at least 25 years ago – prioritising individual books of poems, rather than anthologies, or a particular poet’s book of collected, selected or complete poems.

Such an award could be a means to renew interest in books that have unduly lapsed from public consciousness or from a wide readership, particularly if the book is out of print, or the publisher has since closed. It could also be a means to acknowledge books that have remained vital, beyond the immediate circumstances in which they were published. It would be a way to celebrate poetry that has stayed news in some sense.

It’s imaginable, in many cases, that a book that didn’t garner much attention at the time it was published has nonetheless accrued importance over time, either through its influence on other poets, or in light of the poet’s subsequent work.

At any rate, such an award is an attractive idea and a modest proposal.