Poetry and innovation

‘Poetry is the artform that allies what we say with the way we say it. Language is the material of poetry, whereas the material of the novel is character and story. If a thing has been said it doesn’t need to be said again. If a thing hasn’t been said – if a poem attempts to say something new – it ought to find a new way of saying it. To find a new way to say the thing is a matter of experimentation. An experiment that succeeds – in its own terms – is an innovation. An innovation in poetry is a new way of saying a new thing through the material of language. Any canon of poetry, or any artform for that matter, ought to be a catalogue of innovations.’ (from a notebook)

Recommended: ‘California Hills in August’

Adelaide – like California, and relatively few places outside the Mediterranean – has a ‘Mediterranean climate’, characterised by dry summers and mild, wet winters. Listening to The Daily Poem’s recent episode (Spotify) about Dana Gioia’s poem ‘California Hills in August’ was a welcome reminder of the warmer months ahead of us. In particular, it reminded me of early evening walks at Brown Hill Creek and Chambers Gully. Both can be a breathless hike, especially on a hot summer day, but the view of the sun setting over the city and the gulf beyond is a just reward, and something to look forward to. You can read ‘California Hills in August’ at the Poetry Foundation website.

Carte Blanche: two years on…

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.

Vagabond Press 2021 titles

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.

Throwback: Writers’ Week podcast

This week the literary folk have reclaimed the sunny, grassy environs of Adelaide’s Pioneer Women’s Garden for this year’s Writers’ Week. Five years ago more or less to the day (29 February 2016), Peter Goldsworthy presented a feature session on South Australian poetry, with readings by Aidan Coleman, Jelena Dinic, Jill Jones, Kate Llewellyn, and me. The podcast is still available on Soundcloud: Peter’s introduction (0:17), Aidan (2:40), Jelena (17:06), Jill (28:48), Kate (40:50), and me (53:12). Click here for the PODCAST.

Vagabond Press 2021 survival fund

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.

Book launches in the time of COVID, part II

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.

Book launches in the time of COVID, part I

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.

‘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.’

‘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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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’.