Amsterdam towards winter
entering the birthplace of your ancestors I saw
battle lines drawn from areola to umbilical
inside the air close and musty
this sweet thickness surrounding
bodies lounging with drinks
sprawled over keyboards computer
terminal eyes glazed maraschino
cold air riding off canals
under other lights
body parts torsos hang off the backs
of chairs dissected
by groups of lads carrying the loss
of national football teams
here, whores pay tax
wet cobblestone damp smell of sex daylight
exits a sky streaked bacon grease water turns
crystalline in canals potted geraniums bleed
transpacific cables carry her voice
she shot home chrome yellow—
orange ripe dripping juice outre-mer lapis
burst through window frames out of doorways
overflowing onto footpaths
what came back empty VB canned
dullness void as a McDonald’s wrapper
the memory opens — a wound
cauterised leaving the phone-box
its chord umbilical
“In Amsterdam, I was specifically looking at the words and silences between words, which are displayed as blank space on the page. They both join and separate the words, hopefully giving weight to both.”- Kate Rees
Z.T.: How did you use your time at the State Library of NSW? Did you encounter any challenges?
K.R.: I have always worked more than I have wanted to and written, well, a lot less. I’m sure this experience is a common one across the creative arts. That’s been my dilemma, finding how to produce work creatively while undertaking the necessities of life. Add in a family and the responsibilities that come with it, and you have two very strong counter-weights working against the space and time you need to produce creatively.
When I was doing the Café Poet gig at the State Library, I’d just quit my job. I was able to take up an unpaid opportunity, as I saved some money and planned to have an extended period of time away from work. I happened to apply to Australian Poetry at the same time. It was serendipitous. It was also rather confronting, as suddenly I had time to focus on the craft of writing. I felt I had little idea how to go about it.
I enjoy working in a public space, but I’m not sure that I know how to be a focus of attention within that space. I sat in the café with my Café Poet’s sign, which drew some interested looks from the lunchtime crowd. Sometimes, people came over and asked me what I was doing, or whether they could bring poems for me to read, which was lovely, but also a little daunting. I hadn’t even considered evaluating other people’s works, but in some instances, the people who brought work for me to read just wanted to share their poems. The need to share creatively is something I think a lot of artists search for.
Z.T.: Did you learn anything about the way you work in your time as Café Poet at the State Library of NSW?
K.R.: I produced what amounted to a journal of daily observations that I recorded and published online. This wasn’t meant as the project itself, but it was a familiar way of keeping myself honest and the writing muscles moving. It was a technique I used effectively when I was working full-time. Those observations would sit there unused until, I wanted to examine a facet of life in greater detail. I would then cherry-pick those observations into the guts of a poem and rework it into its essence over time. I also looked in detail at how other artists approached their work and the use of poetic forms.
I have yet to go over those journal entries. I’ve realised that my poems often go through a period of time where they need to ferment. Since my time as a Café Poet, I’ve recognised for me not to become frustrated, I need a few projects on the go and at various stages of completion. It’s a slow process. Sometimes exasperating, but mostly rewarding when you finally have the finished version in your hands.
Z.T.: What inspired you most about the Café Poet’s programme?
K.R.: I was lucky enough to be at the State Library and I always intended to split my time between the café and the library’s collections. There are so many amazing collections housed at the SLNSW it was a privilege to work in that space. They have a large collection of ephemera, pamphlets and advertising material; things that used to find their way into our mailboxes in the 80s and 90s. Items that have mostly disappeared due to the internet. I found myself strangely attracted to these items I would have dismissed as junk and noise at the time they were produced. It was a dull nostalgia that would prickle at the edge of my senses.
I was also in awe of the space of the café itself. On quite a few occasions, I spent the whole day there, gathering the sounds of the space. You could really feel the expression of mood shift around the busy meal times and morning and afternoon coffee peaks. It’s also a gloriously sunny spot with floor to ceiling glass. I spent some time trying to think of a way to display a portion of the poems I had been working on. In the end, I decided I would tweet a short series of ‘coaster poems’ that thematically drew on different aspects of the day. A sleep deprived morning, lunchtime with office shoes removed in a park and an evening, already full of the sounds of tomorrow.
I also wrote a few longer verse poems; these exist mostly in draft form.
Z.T.: You attended Judith Beveridge’s master class at the State Library. How would you reflect on the experience and the development of your own writing?
K.R.: I usually know that I’m writing a poem, as opposed to say, a short story, if I’m struck with a particular image and I think there is a possibility that it can be expressed in an interesting or unusual way. As previously mentioned, I take a while to figure out the best form for the expression. When I was at the State Library, Judith Beverage was there taking a master-class on the poetic line. I found Judith’s insights helpful in a very practical way. Judith recommended a book that has become a well-pawed volume in my library called The Art of the Poetic Line, by James Longenbach. In it Longenbach explains that the function of a line of poetry is sonic. Longenbach writes in the very opening of his book that “poetry is the sound of language organised into lines. More than metre, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry.” I think when I have studied poetry in the past, often the focus is on all those elements. They are recognisable in a check-box kind of way as your ‘in’ to the correct (or otherwise) interpretation of the poem. When you create your own work, It’s been my experience that you attempt to create meaning that may be translated to a reader, as well as, crafting the object in and of itself, and line becomes a powerful tool for this communication.
Z.T.: Do you find that you write on specific themes, or experiences in your work?
K.R.: I find with my poetry, I usually start with a question, or something like a question but one that I have been unable to articulate. I attempt an explanation through the form and words written on the page. In Amsterdam, I was specifically looking at the words and silences between words, which are displayed as blank space on the page. They both join and separate the words, hopefully giving weight to both. I often find myself writing character or voice poems, probably left over from my days working in theatre. The genesis of these works come from a scrap of overheard or imagined conversation. With these poems, I’m writing down a particular vernacular or use of language that I want to explore further. I keep notebooks that go back over twenty years. I often turn to these when I want a lived experience. There is usually a voice I can plunder and put to purpose.
Kate Rees has a Masters in Writing from the University of Sydney. In 2013 Kate was Poet in Residence at the State Library of NSW where she tweeted a series of ‘coaster poems’ to go with library patrons morning cups of coffee. She also produced a journal of her time at the library, available here. Kate is currently working on a novel length project and she continues to write poetry and short stories. Her poems have been published in Sotto and The Red Room Company’s The Disappearing.
Featured Writers Part 2: Past Australian Café Poets- Curated by Zalehah Turner
Read about the Australian Poetry Café Poet Program (2009-2014)
Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based critic, writer and poet currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor