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.

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.

‘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.

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’.

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.

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.