Reasserting the Lyrical: Anna Couani launches ‘Poor Man’s Coat’ by Kit Kelen

Anna Couani launched Poor Man’s Coat: Hardanger Poems by Kit Kelen, UWAP 2018, at the Friend in Hand Hotel Glebe, NSW on 2 February 2019.

Kit Kelen at the launch of Poor Man’s Coat. Photograph Rochford Street Review

Thanks to Kit for asking me to do the Sydney launch of Poor Man’s Coat.

Poor Man’s Coat is Kit’s latest publication, one of many books of poetry that have gone before, about 17, according to his online bio. As many of you here today will know, Kit is not in the mold of the languorous poet, leisurely dreaming up another verse but is a phenomenon and a force of nature, tapping into some inexhaustible source to produce a large output of poetry and academic work, to attack his many projects as a writer, publisher, scholar and catalyst for countless other people, including me. And today we’re also launching a book by Les Wicks that is published by Kit’s Flying Islands Press.

I remember first working with Kit in the early 80’s when he was living in Newtown and a number of us from the Poets Union got together and started up a small publishing group called Red Spark and published an anthology called Minute to Midnight which was a collection of writing for peace and disarmament by Australian writers. Even then, Kit was thinking big and I remember being alarmed by his suggestion that we get out there and promote the book with a gathering outside Sydney Town Hall, staging an event that could be reported in the mainstream media. Not quite the small scale small press initiative I was used to. I was thinking -‘Underground’, Kit was thinking -‘above ground’, let’s get amongst it!

Looking back over those nearly 40 years, we can trace Kit’s career from an underground and oppositional position in his youth, through a myriad international experiences (writing, studying, teaching, travelling and publishing), to a forceful influence and intervention in Australian literary life.

Kit has not only produced a prodigious amount of his own poetry and academic writing but has also been able to make a significant contribution to the ‘common good’by publishing and bringing together many writers in Australia and Asia. Kit calls it,“community publishing” and sees it proactively as a not-for-profit initiative (rather than an enterprise that doesn’t make money). His vision is global. From his vantage point in several Asian countries over 22 years, he’s operated outside of and beyond the narrow confines of the Australian literary world and brought a new perspective to the scene here in Australia.

Together, since their return to Australia a short time ago, Kit and artist Carol Archer have set about creating a kind of arts hub on their property in rural NSW. Not just a writer and artist residence but a place where things can happen with other practitioners.Kit is similar to Antigone Kefalain this way, in that they both insist on artistic production being a product of a cultural community rather than a solo enterprise. We’re all better off in it together,rather than eyeing each other suspiciously from our respective literary coteries. There isn’t just one star but a constellation.

One of the secrets of Kit’s success is that he looks for and finds stimuli and makes connections. And that seems to be how he approaches the residencies he does. Poor Man’s Coat is largely the product of work drafted during his residency in a “sleepy little industrial town”called Ålvik, situated on the upper reaches of theHardanger Fjord in Norway.

The town, however, is a bit unremarkable. His poem ‘Ålvik headlines’ reveals that not much happens there:“Breezeless Day, Leaf Falls –No Enquiry to be Launched”. But it’s not familiar and that’s the point. The art practitioners in residence there “live in a fairytale house”. And on the back cover of the book, Kit invites the reader to “Step in –let other worlds elapse. Read the leaves as they lie fallen. Follow the trail of light.”Also the epigraph “the forest is the poor man’s coat/keeps off the worst wind’s bite” immediately conjures up an environment that’s very much northern European, suggesting the magical places we Australians read in books as children

This is not exactly a book about Ålvik or even Norway although there are some rather exotic references where you might have to Google the odd word or place if you haven’t been to Norway.

Poems like ‘to be a member of the mist’ certainly evoke that real place –the ice, mist, and fjords very different from Australian alpine areaswe might know. However poems like the ‘mountain’ and ‘inside the rain’ could be other places as well, not necessarily Norway, using natural elements in an iconic way, not naming specific parts or places.

But there are a number of poems that have the expected exotic references. For example:

at kvandal

in the rowan wood
winter has begun
over the bridge to Lussand
the sign says
moss up to your ankles
bridge like a sprung bed
sags in the middle
so we bounce across
deeper into the cold and climb
sun still high in treetop
leaves in faces of cliff
and on the wide water
on the forest floor
all the green
grey now
and the track goes on without me
into seasons far and away
never as yet lived

The last two lines giving evidence of the poet being a foreigner in this landscape. Similarly lines from the poem Utne

Utne

see them rowing the fjord
across fiddle in the bows
some idle chitchat
open in most pious hands
for a seasickness charm
a little book of psalms
keeps the brain well washed

The poem, ‘A Door’ connects us to the world of old fairy tales. These connections must be especially strong for Kit who has done academic studies of children’s literature.

It has

a trail of crumbs, demons,an underworld portal, a hidden door in the mountain and doors to other things like storms, trees, sky, the day

It’s obvious that when you’re in a place writing, you’re not necessarily thinking and writing about that place and most likely, not as a local would write about it. A specific landscape or dwelling place in literature can be thought of as a bridge to a liminal literary space that a writer creates.Especially for someone who is as widely travelled as Kit, and someone who has lived for long periods of time in other countries.Someone who’s loosened the ties to country. We don’t exactly enter the physical space of Ålvik, we pass through “a door in Kit’s head”, enter a liminal world that “never leaves us”.The liminal world is deterritorialized through the deletion of specific references, as a lot of Kit’s writing in this book does, using references to iconic landscape elements like “the mountain”, “the rain”, “the moon” etc.There’s the specific made universal then there’s the quotidian that seems universal because it’s stuff we do everyday. As in ‘Cuppa’:

to brew the image in a pot
to sit in silence with the view
to pour a cup of tea

We could be anywhere.Another way Kit’s poetry occupies a liminal space is in the way he uses language. We need to keep in mind that the audience for poetry is mostly other poets and literary scholars who understand the way Kit uses language and his references to writing of the past.When writing creates its own liminal space, it castsaside normal conventions of writing. We’re used to this in poetry generally, but Kit’s case is a bit different because he’s created his own poetic ideolectwith its own rules. It’sa collage of styles.

In a liminal literary space normal language conventions need not apply and the writer is free to make up their own rules, or combine language forms that vary in that they come out of differing sets of conventions. Many of us these days use collage deliberately, butting chunks of language against each other, sometimes for example taking a chunk from advertising language or from contrasting literary genres. In Kit’s case, he often operates at the level of the word or phrase, habitually sneaking in archaic snippets with ellipsis of articles, word order, and syntax that is different from contemporary vernacular. It has become a hybrid poetic style. It is rhythmic and spoken-like but not normal English, so disrupts ones thinking.It has a strange distancing quality, defamiliarizing, crossing as it does the boundaries between the colloquial and the classical, the modern and the archaic, the universal and the specific.

Kit rebels against the prosaic quality of modern poetry and reasserts the lyrical. His work appeals to the universal and the permanent, a sense of wonder and grandeur, in the Norwegian references, the arctic sublime when considering the natural world, reminiscent of the Romantic writers of the past, conjuring up the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. And that somehow sits quite well with a contemporary Australian Green consciousness. This is evident in the poem ‘always look on the bright side’ that is critical of logging of forests:

forest of gallows
where Eden was
timber a plenty
for crosses yet

to warm the cockles
winter nights
such tales
of foes felled
set hair on end

the human race
may go on like this
till we come to
the last tree

So I’d like to congratulate Kit on bringing us another collection of his poetry, adding to his substantial oeuvre.

 – Anna Couani

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Anna Couani is a Sydney writer and visual artist who runs The Shop Gallery in the inner Sydney suburb of Glebe. Her most recent book is Thinking Process, Owl Publications 2017

Poor Man’s Coat: Hardanger Poems is available from https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/poor-mans-coat-hardanger-poems