Beth Spencer launched A Pocket Kit 2 by Kit Kelen, Flying Islands, 2016 at Poetry at the Pub, Wickham Hotel, Newcastle, Monday 30th May 2016.
I first met Kit back in the early ‘90s when I had a small job choosing a ‘new writer’ each week for a five min segment on Radio National. In a folder I inherited was this astonishing poem called ‘Republics’ — a visual and auditory feast of images and ideas and Australian vernacular mixed in with concepts from Plato. (Actually I’m guessing that last part, because I’ve never actually read Plato. But Kit is nodding, so that must be right.). So I rang the poet and got him to record part of it at the Newcastle ABC studio. And then sometime after that when he was in Sydney we got together for a very very long chat about poetry and poets and Australia, ostensibly for research for his PhD thesis.
A few years later I was at a literary conference and Kit was there so we sat together during a session that — as these things often do — put me in a semi-sleep state. I do love theory but my brain often objects to being forced to focus on it. Next to me, Kit was doodling away on an art notepad, now and then bringing out some pastels to add some colour. It was one of his marvellous line and colour works that you may have seen. I watched him doodle and the words of the speakers floated over me. (I was a little jealous that I hadn’t brought something to occupy my time too.) Then as they finished Kit immediately put up his hand, stood up and delivered an incisive and word-perfect comment and question directly relating to what they’d been talking about. It was very impressive, and says a lot to me about Kit, and about this wonderful little book.
I love the way he has forged such a dynamic continuity between his academic, creative and personal life — or between and within these states of being. This is a mind constantly engaged in play with everything around him. Creativity, connection, ecology, politics, generosity, life, music, rhythm… Across worlds and across forms.
Indeed while writing this speech I was listening to a CD of his guitar tunes that he gave me about ten years ago.
Each poem is wild and playful, but also intricately honed: shaped and presented as an instrument for feeling and thinking and awareness. As perfectly resonant as the craftsman-made ukulele he might play for us later.
There is a line in one of the poems in this book that kept coming back to me as I thought about what I might say tonight:
go to the makers
not to the mockers
Undoubtedly Kit is a stirrer — in the very best tradition of that lovely Australian expression. But he is not a mocker. There is nothing mean or unkind in these poems even when they are biting and unflinching in their observations. From ‘Views from Pinchgut’, for instance:
Roll that gaze out onto a coin
poisoned with flour and blankets.
(The sun smiles over my gumboots and I
driven on by greed and luck. For the sake
of a good feed we murder our way across borders
Flog some sense
into the trees and ringbarking’s a miracle
of endurance but we go at it like there’s
Go to the makers, not the mockers.
This book is a pocket version of a much wider project of writing, creating, publishing, painting, doodling, building, critiquing, editing, curating, exploring and loving. A book about how to live both lightly and deeply in the world, by someone who has made his whole life into a creative connective project.
This is a discipline — writing, painting, yoga in the mornings, and putting it out into the world at every opportunity.
And there is both a discipline and wildness in the writing that I love. From the opening poem:
embrace the poem
squander the soul
sleep to dream and wake to play
let everything go wild today
This is also a making and remaking of the self — within the canvas of history, memory, ancestors, imagining children, blokes, sheds, bears…
canvas is linen really
like a tent clouds abide in
there are rats have your pants
vultures all sorts
one lies down in it all
till the rags make ladders
next beanstalk’s got your name on it
next stop the stars
‘the priming of a painter’s canvas’
I love the back cover photo too — Kit playing his uke under a tree full of children with a glorious smile on his face.
There is a wonderful poem called ‘Imagining Children’ and I was reminded of a line I quoted in one of my own stories, from a woman who said that sometimes when you don’t have children of your own, your love is more free flowing: ‘all the children are your children’.
Kit, as many of you know, is currently Professor of English at Macao University in China. He has also taught in Japan and created and connected in an amazing range of places around the world. And this is a poetry and a life where ‘all the world is your world’ — all the world matters.
But while sailing around the world there is also a fine thread anchor that — fortunately for us — pulls him home. So it’s a cosmopolitan book that is also deeply Australian. A complex love song.
In ‘ping pong’ for instance, a moving poem to his Hungarian refugee father:
I remember your remembering
snow from Great War winters
ten years and you’re more than a hundred —
good innings even when you’re out —
we’ve still got the ashes
‘drongo’ ‘buckley’s’ — I learnt
Australia from you — and that there’s nothing like
the love of a country you’ve chosen for yourself..
In Paul Carter’s seminal book, The Road to Botany Bay, he talks about the way Cook named places according to what they reminded him of from his vantage point in that moment (‘Pigeon Mountain’ and so on) and contrasted this to the more territorial naming of the invaders and settlers who came after him. Those seeking out definitive names rather than playful ones. Carter refers to Cook’s as the ‘light glance’ as compared to the ‘possessive gaze’.
And I think there is much of that in Kit’s poetry. A light sharp joyful glance. Never definitive. Constantly stirring and shifting and remaking and shuffling — even with his own poems.
And I think this is one of the strengths of poetry as a discursive practice. It allows room for others to bring themselves to the page. It creates connection. It creates space. It undoes itself even as it makes itself.
where was I
when the tree became me
mid-flight, like an arrow’s twang
where was the instant
green became me
danger was outrun
because I took
the tide to heart
and made a moon
where no word would
ashen I bent to turn the man
where? where was I just then?
To me this also speaks to the importance of poetry, in all its forms — writing, art, music, nurturing life with a sense of lightness rather than possessiveness — for a healthy community; for a republic of souls.
What is a book? . This seems an appropriate question to ask when launching someone who has written and produced and published so many of them.
I was listening to an interview with the writer and filmmaker Sebastian Junger the other day and he talked about how we evolved to live in small groups. Nowadays there are too many of us to sit around campfires to figure out who we are, how we want to live, what are our values. We can’t do that anymore, but we need to; and in some ways, more than ever, as we have so many changes happening and so many ways to destroy ourselves and the world and each other.
And he suggested that perhaps the only way we can now have these kind of conversations — which are vital — is through books. Only books can contain enough thought and information and ideas in an accessible and a cheap enough way to be shared throughout large groups of people.
He said, ‘Books are kind of sacred objects — sacred in the sense that I don’t think our society will survive without them.’
I’ve also been thinking about the play on words in the title here — A Pocket Kit.
A kit is a set of articles or equipment needed for a specific purpose… To kit someone out is to provide them with what they need for a journey.
Go to the makers, not the mockers.
In every book there is an entire universe. Cheap at the price. And these beautiful little pocket books are a bargain at ten dollars each.
Pocket books to suit your pocket. So you can grab a bundle, and explore. Or give them away as wonderful pressies. In these days where a card that gets thrown away costs $5, why not pay a bit extra, write your message inside one of these, and pop it in an envelope instead. Send something that contains a whole world, and that the receiver can carry with them — in their pocket, in their soul. Something never finished but that each reading tinkers with. Something alive as we bring to it our own moments and life.
Or as Kit has it:
in a book
are certain heavens
more than gods count
as in the pages of a tree
which tells its years in standing
And in the poem,
keep this book
walk with it
sleep with it
read it out loud
then when it
you’re the glue
And finally, from his ‘Advice to Poets’:
worship the earth
the all we have
with the heart give
with each breath be given
do this with each word
Poetry, the breath of life.
I highly commend this book to you, I thank Kit for writing and producing it, and for being such an extraordinary ‘maker’. And I hereby declare A Pocket Kit2 — in all its wildness and joy — alive and launched.
– Beth Spencer
For more information about A Pocket Kit 2 and Cerebrus Press and Flying Islands books see https://flyingislands.org/. To purchase a copy of A Pocket Kit 2, email directly to Kit at KitKelen@gmail.com. Pocket books are $10 each plus $2 postage for within Australia.
Christopher (Kit) Kelen is a well known Australian poet, scholar and visual artist, and Professor of English at the University of Macau, where he has taught Creative Writing and Literature for the last sixteen years. Volumes of his poetry have been published in Chinese, Portuguese, French, Italian, Swedish, Indonesian and Filipino languages. Japanese and Spanish collections are currently in preparation.
Beth Spencer’s most recent books are the verse memoir, Vagabondage, from UWAPublishing, and The Party of Life, a bilingual collection from Flying Islands/ASM. She has a website at http://www.bethspencer.com
For more information about Cerebrus Press and Flying Islands books see https://flyingislands.org/