A Small But Explosive Book: Moya Costello Launches ‘Cactus’ by Stevi-Lee Alver

Cactus, by Stevi-Lee Alver (Rochford Street Press 2016), was launched by Moya Costello at the Bangalow Heritage Museum & Tea Rooms on 30 April 2016

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Stevi-Lee Alver at the launch of Cactus

Thank you Nancy, for the welcome to country (Bundjalung nation). I do feel a great sense that this country has made and is making Stevi-Lee. The Mirning and Wirangu nations border the Great Australia Bight: Cactus mentions both the Koonalda cave, in Mirning country, and, of course, Cactus Beach in Wirangu.

This launch, this setting of this book into the world, is an exciting moment for the Writing Program of Southern Cross University (SCU), and we are very, very proud of Stevi-Lee. And it’s also a moment when I think teaching is a privilege.

I’m just going to give you a little bit of history. But being history, Stevi-Lee most probably has a different version of it.

I remember, distinctly, teaching Stevi-Lee in the equivalent of Writing 101 at SCU. And I remember saying to her, when she handed in her first creative-writing assignment, something like: ‘No, you can’t write like this; this writing won’t work’. And she looked at me, unforgettably, with a mixture of utter confusion and suppressed anger.

But in my version of history, that happened only once. And from then on, I never read anything from her that wasn’t astounding and outstanding. She understood what to do immediately – though she was studying other subjects, of course – and reading and reading and reading.

Another important thing to point out about Stevi-Lee is that she has an entrepreneurial spirit, a pro-activeness and self-actualisation that you need as a writer, or, indeed, for being any form of artist. She pursues, or takes up, opportunities I suggest to her. And she’s finding her own now and sharing them with others.

For example, according to my version of history, I suggested Rochford Street Review to her for reviewing books. It’s not a highly paid gig, but these kinds of gigs are important for emerging writers to build up their CVs, gather skills, and get their name out.

Rochford Street Review is Australian poet Mark Roberts’ project. Mark, of course, is the publisher of Rochford Street Press and has published Cactus.

I think I also introduced Stevi to Spineless Wonders which is another small, independent Sydney press who have been publishing anthologies of prose poems and micro fiction for some years. Stevi responded to a call for their anthology Writing to the Edge, and she and I and another local writer, Byron Bay’s Nick Couldwell, had pieces in it. Subsequently, Stevi and I co-organised a reading of our work from that anthology at Uncle Peter’s Books in Clunes. In Writing to the Edge, Stevi had a piece inspired by Gertrude Stein, that she wrote in the SCU experimental writing subject, Writing from the Edge. Mark Roberts was in that anthology too, and he asked to see more of Stevi’s work, or if she had a collection together. And, hence, Cactus came about.

So Stevi has had a short, so far, but extraordinary history in writing, including winning a number of prizes – the Class of 1940 Creative Writing Award for poetry from the University of Massachusetts while she was on a student exchange there (a difficult thing to do, given the varying language rhythms of nations); a 2014 Questions Writing Prize for a short-story; and the 2015 Southern Cross University award for Excellence in the Arts. Her story about her writing journey, including Cactus, is recorded in the SCU Lismore Campus Soundtrail. And I recommend her blog, under her own name, for reading her work.

I think we are going to see Stevi’s name develop and take a place in Australian literature, either as a poet, or short-story writer, or in what other form she takes on.

Significantly, Cactus is an interlinked series of prose poems, perhaps the way Frank Moorhouse used to write interlinked series of short fiction, called discontinuous narrative, and I know Stevi is a Moorhouse reader.

The prose poem is the most adorable of genres. Because it’s a hybrid, a mixture of the prose sentence and the aesthetics of poetry, and therefore impure, the Sydney academic Anan Gibbs has lovingly called it a form of literary detritus¹. And the Sydney poet joanne burns, who has had an award named after her by Spineless Wonders, has memorably said of the prose poem that it is humble: that it ‘knows the potential, the freedom of not being too obvious. The prose poem says find me’.

The prose poem is not obvious, large, brash or quick-smart. It is small and subtle and works relatively slowly via resonance. It is a quiet revolutionary of the hybrid, working with narrative balanced by lyricism, making leaps of association, with implications of drama, and developed by small sequences and accretions. It’s a minor literature in the Deleuze and Guattari sense. It’s a small intensity.

Because of its brevity, it can easily be dismissed, abandoned as something of little value, hidden in its self-effacement. But James Ley², the Australian essayist and literary critic, has said of hybrid texts that they:

place demands on the reader in excess of most forms of entertainment. They require not just reading, but re-reading. Their aesthetic is one of complexity, indeterminacy, slow philosophical reflection. As such, they run counter to the contemporary idea of entertainment, offering instead more esoteric and cerebral pleasures.

But I must say, and as evidenced by Stevi-Lee’s work, that they offer emotional or affective pleasures too, indeed sensual ones.

CactusCactus is, of course, a plant surviving desert dryness. Another incarnation of ‘cactus’ is as a colloquial Australian term meaning not in working order, something gone very wrong, a mess. And several things go awry: food and water are difficult to access; the climate is hot and windy but cold at night; young men invade the camp site of the two women whose narrative the book is; the two women’s relationship is unsettled; and sharks have taken surfers off the beach in the past. Cactus is also a surfing beach off the desert of the Great Australian Bight.

So Cactus could be a ‘surfie chick’ narrative, a fine, radical reworking of that twentieth-century Australian female surfing memoir, Puberty Blues³.

The striking thing about Cactus is how finely judged, how well-balanced the writing is in its choice of vocabulary and image, its movement through a narrative, its conception of the ecological and of love.

This sequence is a song. It’s a song that’s deeply moving, deeply affecting, about women, Australia, Australia’s Indigenous peoples, surfing, ecology.

Publisher and poet Mark Roberts, in his own fine judgement, saw something in Stevi’s work. And all praise to him. Mark has been a literary activist, one might say warrior, for decades. He was and is part of the independent, small-press movement of poets, literary magazine productions and readings from around the 1970s and 1980s onwards. His generosity and energy, and acute judgement and appreciation of poetry are themselves extraordinary. He has nurtured and is nurturing several present and former SCU students through Rochford Street Review and Press. This year, Mark has had his own admirable, striking and deeply moving collection of poetry – Concrete Flamingos – out with another historical Australian, small, independent press, Island Press.

So I recommend the purchase of this small but explosive book, Cactus, that shines and resounds with love, that acknowledges the sacred, that has a warm and exemplary appreciation of the more-then-human and the Australian landscape and its ancient and present history.

I want to repeat that Stevi-Lee Alver will be a name we’ll keep seeing in Australian literature.


¹Gibbs, Anna 1997, ‘Bodies of words: feminism and fictocriticism: explanation and demonstration’, Text, vol. 1, no. 2.

²Ley, James 2005, ‘The tyranny of the literal’, Australian Book Review, April.

³Carey, Gabriel and Lette, Kathy 1979, Puberty Blues, Carlton, Vic. :McPhee Gribble.

 –  Moya Costello

Moya Costello is a Writing lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Southern Cross University. She has been awarded writer’s grants, a residency, fellowships, guest spots at several writers’ festivals, and judged several writing prizes. Her books are two collections of short creative prose, and two novellas, the most recent being Harriet Chandler described by Nicholas Jose, in the Sydney Review of Books, as a ‘beautiful, brilliant book’. Short creative works have most recently been in TEXT, AAWP 2015 proceedings and Spineless Wonders anthologies.

Cactus is available from https://rochford-pressbookshop.square.site/product/cactus-by-stevi-lee-alver/9?cp=true&sa=true&sbp=false&q=false

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