Concrete Flamingos by Mark Roberts, Island Press 2016 was launched in Sydney by Anna Couani on 27th February 2016 at the Friend in Hand Hotel. Concrete Flamingos, along with the other four titles on Island Press’ 2016 list will be launched in Melbourne at the Dan O’Connell Hotel, Carlton, on 19th March – details https://www.facebook.com/events/914712998643164/
Thanks for coming today and thanks to Mark for asking me to launch his long-awaited and beautiful book, Concrete Flamingos.
Mark is probably best known to most of us as a can-do person, as an officer of the Poets Union in the 80’s, running a small magazine P76 and now The Rochford Street Review online review journal. He’s also had a full-on career in various jobs, has so many skills and raised a family with Linda Adair. He’s always been kind of busy.
Mark and I were Poets Union officers at the same time during the 80’s where we were addressing important political issues and issues about payment of writers, and sales and distribution. Island Press was in existence at that time, previously run by Philip Roberts, taken over for a short while by Ken Bolton and I and then passed on to Philip Hammial when Philip Roberts left the country. The small press scene was pretty lively and buzzing – we all knew each other, even the interstate people (this was before Facebook, before the internet), and it was the remnants of that scene that Mark first encountered as a young poet. It’s so gratifying that it was publications like the ones I was involved with that inspired Mark to write and to publish poetry.
When I first met Mark and worked with him in the Poets Union, there was no need to explain what we older people were trying to do in the small press scene, and what we were trying to do with organising public readings, pushing for better book distribution, promoting women writers, writers from diverse backgrounds and gay writers because he understood all that perfectly, was probably more ofay with those ideas than some of the older people he was influenced by. The things we’d been fighting for were a kind of given for Mark and the other younger poets like Adam Aitken, Dipti Saravanamutu and Kit Kelen. And also for people like Sarah St Vincent Welch, Moya Costello, Jane Skelton and Virginia Shepherd, to name a few.
It would be odd to speak about Mark and only mention his poetry because he has been a poet/producer/publisher, something like an artist run space in the visual art field. So a collection of Mark’s own work somehow has a special significance because it is positioned within a milieu that he has been rather instrumental in creating. He takes his place alongside lots of other practitioners who have participated actively in the literary world in ways that create infrastructure that benefits us all. I love the piece in the book that repeats the line you tell me I’m not a poet over and over again. Something writer/publishers often encounter from other writers.
This lovely book of poems is bedded in a sense of communalism. Mark’s authorial voice and perspective refer to this. The work has a self-consciousness, a knowledge of where we are and where we came from. It is obviously the precursor to the historical sequence he’s writing now, as in the poem crossing the mountains. It is a book of many disparate parts and that makes it interesting.
There are 4 concrete poems in the book, all called ‘Concrete Flamingo’. The first one consists of 8 columns of illegible text and this poem/image is then digitally transformed three times in the other 3 that are placed at intervals throughout the book. That’s one example of the humour that runs through the collection. In another poem, ‘Letter to Frank’, Mark (addressing Frank O’Hara I imagine) throws many odd referential bits together that are at the same time absurd and theoretically interesting. I’m quoting parts of it, it goes:
like you i want to be a construction worker/
i have a copy of the planning regulations
which i am rewriting in the style of the new york
& all the construction workers have gone home
maybe to write poems
Something like a good humoured Ken Bolton poem but one that also swipes at urban consolidation and the elitism of the literary world. There’s often a political dimension or reference in Mark’s work. Just creeps in somehow.
And Mark’s not scared to mention the domestic details that so many male poets shy away from. Like in shapes
a cluttered base
with papers & books
baskets of washing spilling
onto the floor an ironing board
with a shirt half ironed & discarded
a stain demanding a soak & a rewash
Some of the poems have an intense local feel, that is visual and immediate, many emphasising colour and somehow full of affect. An obvious example is ‘The only marigold in Erskineville. It starts:
i walk through a black & white suburb thinking
of a poem i could write about how longing & desire
creep up on you like a shadow on a cloudy day.
it ends with:
i transfer your postcard
to my coat pocket & notice
again the explosion of the marigold
outside the church
The emotions draw attention to themselves through their erasure and are made poignant somehow through the use of colour and contrast.
The poem red uses the colour (red obviously) as a recurring motif that has not only a visual intensity but also symbolic meaning
red neon pulses like veins pumping blood.
it appropriates a few crime fiction narrative devices and somehow conflates the road death of a possum with a human murder, ending with:
whose face is this?
i remember nothing
There are two short sequences in the book. The first one, breaking – 1918, based on Virginia Woolf’s diary for 1918 Mark writes in the first person about the end of WWII. Interesting in that he adopts Woolf’s persona.
The other sequence is from the life of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, based on an 1889 biography of a German writer who died in 1781. In this sequence, Mark inserts quotes from Lessing’s plays. The poems ironically recreate the over-inflected language of the era.
This is so much more to talk about in the book, the chunks of prose, the night walks, the Sydney landscapes, the train poems – gives me ideas about how to occupy myself on public transport – also how to manage the writing of a poem a day for project 366 (http://project365plus.blogspot.com.au/)– think local, publish global. There’s a lot to read and enjoy in this book, decades of percolation and consideration have gone into it. So buy the book to support the writer and the publisher. If you haven’t already explored Mark’s world, check out The Rochford Street Review and Printed Shadows (https://printedshadows.wordpress.com/), both online publications. There’s a wealth of material there.
Congratulations to Mark on the publication and to Island Press for bringing it out.
– Anna Couani
Anna Couani is a Sydney writer and artist who taught Art and ESL most of her life. Her most recent book is a collection of poetry, Small Wonders, Flying Islands Books. Some of her previous work is available at http://seacruise.ath.cx/annacouani/.
Concrete Flamingos is available from https://printedshadows.wordpress.com/2016/01/23/concrete-flamingos-poems-by-mark-roberts/
ISLAND PRESS 2016 LIST MELBOURNE LAUNCH
2PM 19th MARCH AT THE DAN O’CONNEL HOTEL
225 CANNING ST, CARLTON VIC