Limpid, Lucid & Luminous: Anna Couani launches ‘Open’ by Sarah St Vincent Welch

Open by Sarah St Vincent Welch, Rochford Press 2019, was launched in Sydney by Anna Couani at The Shop Gallery Glebe on 10 March 2019

Sarah St Vincent Welch reading at the Sydney launch of Open. Photograph Rochford Press

Thanks to Sarah for asking me to launch this book, her first book. It is a beautiful production and features a wonderful cover design and layout by Dylan Jones. Also congratulations are due to Mark Roberts and Linda Adair, small press people from way back, who reactivated their publishing enterprise 7 years ago with The Rochford Street Review, an online journal, and now Rochford Press, their imprint for book production.

I’ve known Sarah since the early 80’s, having met her at a mutual friend’s Newtown home and remember her as an admirable young person who’d just returned from Pine Gap from the demonstration there. It was called The Women’s Peace Camp and was the first significant national protest against the location of an American Base on Australian soil. Sarah is 13 years younger than me and especially at that age, was really the younger generation and I was amazed that this sensitive young woman had done such a thing. Sure there were 700 others with her but still. And despite her demure exterior, Sarah is always up to something interesting and often unexpected. I think this is due to her own openness to new experiences and to other people, her empathy and genuine concern for the people and issues in her world.

I hear from Sydney and read on Facebook of Sarah’s many interesting artistic, cultural and political activities. I was impressed by her work in the Art not Apart Festival in Canberra where she was writing poems on pavements with chalk, improvising – kind of like rapping I suppose. But what seems to be a constant across all her activities, is a concern for participation in community with a capital C. especially joining with other practitioners to collaborate and further the common cause, whatever that might be.

Now to the book!

One of the first poems in the book has a quote from the Serbian poet Vasko Popa:

He who is not smashed to smithereens
He who remains whole and gets up whole
He plays

It’s fitting that Sarah quotes this poet because firstly, the quote fits the person and also because Popa is a surrealist writer like Sarah herself, exploiting ideas of the uncanny. That is, making the familiar unfamiliar. I call it surrealism, Sarah calls it hyperrealism. Melinda Smith in the blurb on the back cover labels the work “mysterious and haunting”. Quite so, it’s a feeling that creeps up on you sometimes in the midst of the seemingly lyrical and mundane, something that can have a powerful impact. Like this stanza in Half Moon Bay

in the old year’s night
in blue violent haze
so many people waded back
waded back
through the bay
to me

The image this stanza evokes is so emotive, all those people wading, like something from a surrealist movie.

Sarah and I were both participants in Project 366, a fabulous collaborative online poetry project initiated in 2016 and it was there that, after all these years, I discovered Sarah as a poet, having only previously read her prose. The prose work was impressive in itself but I was amazed by the limpid, lucid, luminous quality of both her poetry and her beautiful photographs. I had also been ignorant of Sarah as a visual artist. As you can see from the single example in the book, all her photos have a mysterious and haunting quality, of capturing something just out of reach and beyond words.

Kit Kelen recently published Poor Man’s Coat and a line on the back cover goes: “Step in – let other worlds elapse. Read the leaves as they lie fallen. Follow the trail of light”. I launched that book a month or so ago and noted that Kit, like other poets, invites you into a liminal world, a transitional world where normal rules don’t quite apply. And Sarah’s introduction does likewise, as she writes a similar invitation in her introductory text to Open:

The book is a door. Open it. Close it. Stand in the threshold; turn the page. It may seem old fashioned to you, edges worked and worn and nibbled; you may notice the grain of the paper, the smell of print, the powder of age and of use, the crisp spine. Or it might be fresh, its cover shiny, its spine fragile, crackling. Rub the smooth cover on your face. A pressed flower falls, the memory of its shape left on the words. We both know this is an old door even if it has just been made, and like all others of its kind, might be magical. It could glimmer on a web, pages flipping, swiping in the breeze, caught in light. No space, no time, the door is opening and closing, spinning in our hands. Come in …

The book is open to the reader but also the writer is open to experiences, the poet opens a door to her own processes to allow creative work to emerge, the same place that dreams come from. And the writer absorbs experiences and visual elements, synthesizes them in new ways and constructs a new experience for the reader. So Open is the perfect title for the experience of reading poetry, it’s a kind of reciprocal process.

When you read this book, you’ll notice that Sarah’s work has a particularly spoken quality in some poems where the sound of the words creates interesting rhythms, again something like rap music. Listen to this particular stanza from Vasko asks me to play, and so I do…

orbit stones
blink and pop
the conker sun
rolls fast
scoop the moon lead
bruise a thumb-bed
shoot the comets
past chalk marks
squeeze the sun
against a knuckle
Kohoutek’s clinked
the Earth

By the way, the Comet Kohoutek was discovered in the 70’s and became the stuff of legends. But I love the way this stanza moves from close up to far away, miniaturizing the sun and the comet. And so much done with so little text.

The writing in this book is very accessible, it has a lovely open quality and often uses elements from ordinary domestic life. But at the same time, it avoids cliché and has a fresh new feeling about it, sometimes slipping in words you need to dip into the dictionary to understand. Like embouchure, what is that?

So congratulations Sarah, on the publication of Open, and I hope there’ll be many more to come. I know there must be hundreds of poems in your house somewhere, waiting to be collected into volumes!

 – Anna Couani

 ———————————————-

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.

Open is available from https://rochfordpress.com/open-by-sarah-st-vincent-welch/