Since Kate Jennings’s death in May this year, I have had long thoughtful conversations with Barbara Levy, who like me, knew Kate well in that fierce early 1970’s cauldron. Our focus always is that slim period when so much happened at Sydney Women’s Liberation, at 67 Glebe Point Rd and the short period in Glebe until Kate left Australia about 1978 and settled in New York. 1970 to 1980 roughly covers the territory.
There are lots of women who can and have recalled Kate’s role as writer in gathering together the poetry collection Mother I’m Rooted, her fierce advocacy for women writing, her published books. What comes to me in memory now are the other times, the tough struggles with substance abuse before we were very smart about all that, the highs of creative magic of her Front Lawn Speech, and the ferment of new forms and ideas that captured us all and especially Kate in her own unique way. Some of this is very private still, there are clear lines in memory, places where old friends recall but know what must remain silent. There are quite a few of these, written in journals no doubt for when we are all dead. Where did the Front Lawn Speech come from? It’s the poetic explosion that Kate will forever be associated with, that those of us who were there clearly still see and feel, filmed and historicized, its origins still to be traced.
I first properly met Kate through 67 Glebe Point Rd in early 1970, although we were undergraduates at Sydney University at the same time. Those were the days of the last Leavisite wars in the English Department, so destructive for uninformed students caught in vile ideological power struggles over texts and theories. I fled to History but Kate remained in her chosen territory, always with the poetry, the words themselves. A fractious place fed the rage in her that had deep roots and would be out. She was a poet, a writer, first and always. I think she never defined herself in political terms, and yet that was the goo through which we all were formed.
67 Glebe Point Rd was a dingy terrace house with a long past on the political left, the Sydney University Labor Club, a ragbag of activists, antiwar students, comings and goings which finally settled down to being just Kate and Barbara. The men all moved on, and Women’s Liberation meetings took over, with the MeJane newspaper office, and so it became a women’s building. Kate was around, on the edges, upstairs playing Janis Joplin loud, she rarely came to meetings in the beginning but was at the heart of what was brewing. Her own past was already so troubled, she had had shock treatment, was on some psych drug, she drank lots, she insisted that she was a Bluestocking, not political. The fact that Women’s Liberation was redefining what was political, declaring that the Personal Is Political, brought Kate right into the middle of the chaos of naming.
Many threads went into her Front Lawn Speech. Enraged with an ex-boyfriend who moved out, always enraged with matters around family, Kate was often angry, able to call up a new kind of rage, shaped by reading Valerie Solanas’s The Scum Manifesto and the fantastic rageful literature we received at 67 from the US women’s movement. Her sensibility held this complexity in some kind of balance, never polemical, she could also write about the street, the wonderful Glebe Point Rd, Bernie’s Pet and Greyhound Centre, the fish and chip shop, the grunge. The day of the speech is etched in my mind, it had been run off and printed on the Gestetner machine, I kept the old layout and it’s now in the National Library with the Lost Culture of Women’s Liberation archives. Short, rageful, beautifully structured, it changed the moment. No more can be asked of a poem read aloud.
I loved those years, I loved the adventures into the illegal, the provocative, the dangerous, the funny. Kate’s life continued miraculously, and would not have lasted long but for her quixotic ability to transcend (only just) the complications of addiction and visions. Many people got pissed off, she alienated so many friends, but that was just her, that was Kate. I remember with sweetness the conversations in the backyard at Westmoreland St Glebe where she moved after 1974, quiet thoughtful explorations of Katherine Mansfield, the true Muse for Kate, along with Woolf, and Janet Frame. Always a reader, she never lost the thread of the words, and somehow finally broke out of the madness. She was a champion of the anti-psychiatry movement and RD Laing, and I sometimes think of Septimus Warren Smith jumping out the window in Mrs Dalloway. That was not the way, and she survived. I know she feared the madness, but breaking away from the potent mix of drugs, alcohol, rage and Drs is never easy. Barbara reminds me that it was in 1978 that Kate had gone to New York with a tiny bit of money and no connections, living in horrible places and still drinking lots. The day after John Lennon was shot in 1980, Kate was taken to hospital after another binge. A Dr told her she was killing herself, and something went into her will and consciousness this time. She changed from that day, a long struggle but it happened, she recovered and wrote and lived the life she had wanted.
I asked Barbara what her word portrait is of Kate, in that period when we were all so close. An Exciting Articulate Voice, she said, in a period when all was flowering, when we were grabbing at new words. We agreed that Kate had a kind of fearlessness and ferocity, that she channeled her hurts into words. What more can be asked of an artist in a death struggle but to survive and work.
From Brazen Hussies, a film by Catherine Dwyer
– Suzanne Bellamy, Mongarlowe NSW
25 June 2021.
‘Moratorium: Front Lawn: 1970’ from Come to me my Melancholy Baby, Outback Press 1975 (scanned from the book).
Featured photograph by Andrew Jacubowicz. The man on the ground is Andrew Stewart. Part of gun and fur coat series.
Suzanne Bellamy is an Australian artist and writer with a PhD in Australian Modernism. Her work covers research on Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, text/image fusions, sculpture, printmaking. Most recent exhibition was Abstract Machines, the machina of text and images (Paris and Sydney), a la Joseph Cornell. Most recent publication is on Woolf and Australian Modernism, in The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and Contemporary Global Literature, Jeanne Dubino et al (eds) Edinburgh 2021. She was in the first Women’s Liberation group at Glebe from 1970, worked on the MeJane Collective, and was a friend of Kate Jennings. She lives in southern NSW in the bush at Mongarlowe.