The Third in a Telling Triumvirate! John Jenkins reviews ‘The Verse Novel Australia & New Zealand’ by Linda Weste.

The Verse Novel Australia & New Zealand, by Linda Weste, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2021. Also briefly discussed: Inside The Verse Novel Writers on Writing, 2020; and Nothing Sacred, 2015, both by Linda Weste from Australian Scholarly Publishing.

The verse novel is a form now in constant transition and evolution, and here we see a huge range of writers interviewed, and their individual work explored. The Verse Novel Australia & New Zealand (2021) throws a wide and inclusive net, almost literally across the sea, from Australia to New Zealand, including parts of the Pacific.

Here 35 verse novelists are interviewed. Some write exclusively for children and/or young adults, others only for adults; and many for readers of all ages. I am also included, but will try to be objective in this review.

As Weste says in her Introduction, from years 1993 to 2021 there has been “…increasing numbers of verse novels being published in Children’s, Young Adult, and Adult categories.” Weste investigates this trend, with 35 writers interviewed in her latest book’s 309 pages. Its wide-screen glance across the ditch reveals how practitioners are often many-sided, though poetry is always central to their work, combined with a necessary talent for story-telling.

Of course, poets may also be novelists and writers of short stories and novellas. Many are also academics and scholarly researchers. Some are playwrights and dramaturges, teachers of creative writing, journalists, historians, musicians, song writers and film buffs/makers.

Here, Weste opens a huge window onto the verse novel and its wide-ranging possibilities. She discovers, despite its inherent diversity – or perhaps because of it – that this only seems to refresh and enliven this fast-evolving and unique form, however it may be defined.

Two words that sometimes pop up are ‘liminal’, which means occupying a space at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold; and also ‘interstitial’, or forming or occupying a space between things. The verse novels might evade easy definition, but one thing is clear: a huge consensus among the 35 exponents interviewed is that both poetry and a good story are key ingredients, and in equal measure.

With poetry, you can always tell more with less, by employing a wide range of poetic techniques to aid compression, including varying line lengths and enlisting the white page surrounding each line, while narrative provides stepping stones between the inner life of a strongly related series of lyrical, atmospheric and emotionally charged verses.

So, is the verse novel story-telling through poetry, or poetry with a tale? Well, it seems equally both, without drawing a strict line.

The 35 verse novelists featured in this book are afforded separate chapters; wherein, and in turn, each writer is asked an identical nine questions. This recurrent Q. and A. strategy is uniformly preceded by a short biographical summary/mini-CV, which lists the particular writer’s works, background, origins, publications, prizes and projects.

Weste’s nine questions may be identical, but the answers they elicit are certainly distinct and wide-ranging. As she says in her Introduction, by posing the same questions each time, this “…enable(s) comparable responses…” The Verse Novel Australia & New Zealand thus becomes a highly revealing jig-saw.

By putting all the pieces together, readers gain a rare and in-depth overview of contemporary forms, in all their richness and potential.

Here I can only quote crumbs of what writers say in answer to Weste’ nine questions. In the book itself, however, much greater length and detail is provided.

Weste’s first question is this: What ideas or influences did you have in mind when creating this work?

In answer, for example, Australian poet and children’s writer Loraine Marwood reveals how her verse novel Star Jumps (2009) was written for early high-schoolers. It explores social history and events around the year 1969, such as “…man landing on the moon and protests against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War….” Marwood also explores “…the changing nature of school friendships, including bullying…” as well as much 1969-era popular music.

Australian journalist and author Pip Harry’s The Little Wave (2019), written in a clear realist mode, also has younger audiences in mind. It tells the story of three children brought together “…when a city school invites a country school for a beach visit…” Harry tells how she had previously observed children playing at a beach for the very first time, and “…wondered what this was like for them, and how a coastal trip might send a ripple into their lives.”

We soon discover in The Verse Novel Australia and New Zealand that subject matter is as various as storytelling and lyrical poetics enable, as Weste’s key questions uncover many highly individual creative paths.

South Australian poet Diane Fahey, for example, is happy to be a very keen reader of detective fiction, which her The Mystery of Rosa Morland, a Verse Novel (2008) clearly reflects, spun from three highly reflexive tales by a certain crime writer called Rosa. Each, in turn, shines its light on a certain shadowy Baron Maldonbury, who the author describes as “…an actual murderer, (who) may or may not be murdered on a train…on the last night of the Nineteenth Century.”

South Australian writer and teacher, Bel Schenk, describes her Every Time You Close Your Eyes (2014), as an historical recounting, by her recurring characters, through interlinked poems, and all concerning “…New York during the blackout of 1977 and 2003.” And also “…New York after September 11, 2001, as the attacks on the twin towers drastically changed the way the city functioned….” As Schenk says, “…certain recurring characters became more interesting to me and I fleshed out their stories to weave into the narrative.”

Widely published and much-translated author Geoff Page says he was influenced by “…romantic comedy films and social satire…” and one of his pieces even began as a screenplay, then morphed into a stage play, before eventually becoming Lawrie and Shirley: A Movie in Verse (2006).

We now move on to Weste’s second question: How did you approach writing this verse novel? What were the various stages in its development?

Judy Johnson’s brisk response, in reference to her Jack (2006; 2008), is: “First came the location and time. I decided to set a verse narrative on a pearl shelling lugger in the Torres Strait in the 1930s…. The shelling industry was under threat and its workers were worried about their futures…. Secondly, I decided to use dramatic monologue as the narrative vehicle… there should be just one person telling the story. That was Captain Jack Falconer… Once I had my character, and his presence was strong enough in my head, the plot followed fairly quickly.”

In answer to Weste’s second question, New Zealand writer Mark Pirie says of his Tom (2009) that he started with his own personal journal/diary of the years 1995-96, then put impressions of that time “… into the mind of a fictional character called Tom Grant… a year in the life of a young person in the 1990s, an emerging artist trying to make sense of world and times.”

Weste’s third question is: Can you recall particular problem solving decisions you had to make in the writing process?

To this, Western Australian teacher, tutor and writer Maureen Gibbons, whose The Butter Lady (2016) concerns a homeless and distraught woman found dead in a public garden, says she “…was aware of not wanting to romanticise or to objectify the homeless… (but rather) …present a detailed context…. Thus highlighting the marginal figure’s resilience.”

At this stage, we have reached half way into Weste’s compendium, where 25 of the 32 writers have already been interviewed, including those mentioned above.

Weste’s fourth key question is: What poetic and narrative techniques did you decide to employ, and why?

Paul Hetherington’s answer illuminates his Blood and Old Belief: A Verse Novel (2003), about a mother growing up in South Australian Mallee country, on a property racked with drought. He says, “I suppose the biggest decision in terms of technique was to chose to write in meter rather than free verse…” He adds, “In terms of narrative technique, my use of the third-person narrative voice was essential… I looked to give the incidents in the work human drama allied to the forward unfolding of storytelling, but simultaneously to slow the work down as often as I needed to, in order to allow the lyric impulse to come to the fore. I established the setting of the work at its outset, including providing colour in my depictions of place and landscape.”

Next comes Weste’s fifth question: If there were places in the book where you felt it was best to emphasise the poetic strategies over the narrative strategies, or vice versa – what guided these decisions?

In answer, Perth-born Christine Evans discusses her Cloudless (2015), initially affirming that “…some stories need the verse to come into being…” She describes Cloudless as “…a polyphonic novel about disparate lives colliding one hot summer day beside a public swimming pool…”

Evans’s work first began as a play script, then, as she explains: “I tried to listen to my characters, to draw on their own sense of language… Some of them (Bat Girl, who drives the second half of the novel) are quite idiosyncratic… There’s not much overt rhyme in Cloudless, but there’s a lot of assonance and near-rhyme – and a kind of rhyming of images that recur in different character’s stories, such as the brilliance of light bouncing off water, a black snake slipping out of view…”

Weste’s sixth recurring Q-and-A-format question, asked in turn of all her verse novelists, is: What poetic or narrative effects were you hoping to achieve?

Widely experienced theatre director and teacher Melissa Bruce, describes her debut verse novel, Picnic at Mount Disappointment (2017), as a fraught coming-of age tale: “It was very important to me that the poetic form did not distract from the reader’s immersion in the story… The brevity, line changes and stanza breaks were intended to aid emotional and dramatic emphasis and to propel the story forwards.”

Melissa Bruce currently lives in Sydney’s South Head – near those fatal cliffs and infamous suicide point named The Gap. Previously, Bruce lived on a farm, at the foot of Mount Disappointment, 60 kilometres north of Melbourne. Unsurprisingly, given these stunning locales, her work is full of atmospherics and gripping detail.

We have now reached Weste’s seventh recurring question: What is your thoughts on the verse novel as a form?

Rebecca Jessen’s Gap (2014) is about Ana, a young stressed-out woman on the run, who becomes suspect in a murder investigation. Jessen answers: “…verse novels are in a unique position to challenge what readers know about both poetry and fiction… especially for young readers… There’s so much potential for experimentation with its form and structure and narrative, and this is what makes it such an exciting genre to work with.”

Weste’s question eight, also asked of all her 35 interviewees, is: Have verse novels you have read been influential on this work in some way?

To my amazement and delight, Wellington-based poet Gregory O’Brien, the author of Malachi (1993) names The Ferrara Poems as an influence, a work I co-wrote in 1989 with Ken Bolton, and which became basis for a same-named film directed by Jenni Robertson,

O’Brien’s lively Malachi follows a road trip taken by his main character from Wellington to a Trappist monastery in Kopua, in order to attend the abbot’s funeral. It is an engaging adventure shared with a carload of Pacific Island nuns. Like the (highly secular) The Ferrara Poems, Malachi is an ongoing travel story, with interactions between quirky new friends along the way; although, as O’Brien says, his work is much more reverential in tone, and even mystical and lyrical.

My own entry in The Verse Novel Australia & New Zealand is focused on A Break in the Weather (2003), long out of print and now rare. To remedy this, however, I have just supplied a pdf file of this book, now freely downloadable online.

A Break in the Weather is about climate change and approaching planetary disaster, as understood nearly 20 years ago. It initially attracted some hostile reviews from sceptics, and even an oddly-veiled threat from an anonymous hard-line climate change denier. These days global warming remains a scientifically proven and widely accepted fact, though problem still unsolved.

Another verse novel I co-wrote (in instalments) was with poet Ken Bolton, titled Gwendolyn Windswept (circa 1995), about the stormy adventures of a fashionable art school graduate who crashes a wild party on Scotland Island, Sydney. It was never published in book form, but serialised in Otis Rush magazine. I also wrote two short verse novellas, The White Liner and The High Tides, published by Little Esther Books in 1990.

Now we come to Weste’s ninth and final question: What have you learned about writing verse novels from the verse novels you have read?

Alan Wearne, long a leading advocate and exponent of the verse novel in Australia, gives a typically quirky, yet acute and challenging answer: “What verse novels actually are, and indeed what they are worth, is still very much up for grabs,” he says. “It could be a total way of the future, it could be the ultimate literary mug’s game, or it could be a reconciliation between these two visions…” One thing Wearne is sure of, however, is that “…the verse novel is the domain of poets not novelists.” And elaborates further on this conviction: “The poetry being both in charge of, yet also serving the narrative, the verse novelist must be a poet first.”

Wearne’s The Lovemakers (2008) with its welter of disparate, city-based and suburban characters, all interacting in post-war Sydney and Melbourne, is a unique page-turner. His culture-clashing and society-mapping ensemble includes lovers and losers, willing workers and bohemian ‘creatives’, plus some shady underworld figures connected with the drug trade and sex industry.

Throughout, Wearne puts his keen ear for vernacular to work, accurately registering speech cadence and rhythms, all those useful and reliable indicators of character(s), as they reveal or try not to reveal themselves, both inside and out.

The Verse Novel Australia & New Zealand also includes substantial chapters on Steven Herrick, Sharon Kernot, Tim Sinclair, Catherine Bateson, Sally Murphy, Brian Castro, Leni Shilton, Sherryl Clarke, Luke Best, Jeri Kroll, Bel Schenk, John Newton, Lisa Jacobson, Irini Savvides, Diane Brown, Jordie Albiston, Linda Weste, Lesley Lebkowicz, David Mason, Jennifer Compton and Michelle A. Taylor.

These gifted and well-known writers also make wonderful contributions, but unfortunately it would take too many pages to quote all here.

Among the many topics discussed by just about all Weste’s interviewees, however, are the various poetic effects used in their works, including verse layout and line structures, and how the placing and pacing of lines, all within the white spaces of a page, can reinforce narrative inferences; and also establish pauses, silences and conceptual boundaries, while helping to set or reinforce the rhythms of a character’s inner thoughts and/or distinctive speech patterns.

The use of free verse, its strengths and weaknesses, is also widely discussed. So too are traditional poetic forms, such as the sonnet, villanelle, ballad and canto. The advantage of poetic devices such as personification, regular and irregular rhyme, half rhyme, simile and metaphor, plus a range of poetic metres, are explored.

Dramatic and narrative arcs using first, second and third person point of view, conversations between characters, and various prose fictional devices and strategies, and the central importance of plots and the many twists and turns that can be braided into a tale, are also well covered.
Modes such as diaries and memoirs may also be incorporated. In fact, we learn how just about all the possibilities of poetry, non-fiction and prose fiction, when in the right hands, can become the raw stuff of verse novels.

Topics duly covered include modes, moods/atmospherics and emotions – those afforded by the mysterious, the heroic and elegiac, by satire, humour or high drama – and the ongoing plus of a good plot, with lots of room for ongoing experimentation. Indeed, linked poems, or even contrasting stanzas, may be calculated mood swings, moving readers to tears then to laughter.

Throughout, by reading Weste’s 35 adroit interviews, we see how plots can be advanced by their pacing, adding dramatic tension, surprise, conflict and resolution. And we also learn how these devices may be, and often are, employed in the verse novel, equally well as in prose.

Influences, too, are legion. Many writers look fondly back to the classics, to ancient epics and Greek drama, to Homer and Virgil; then on to Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Browning, Coleridge, Byron; then Dylan Thomas, Ashberry and other influential contemporaries; ever forward to emerging new forms, of tomorrow and beyond.

Overall, the verse novel remains a high-wire act, one strung between the old and the new, between narrative and poetry, and demanding constant balance.

As a sort of postscript, I was impressed by how often the late Dorothy Porter (1954-2008) and her pioneering work is widely mentioned as both influence and inspiration. This makes me recall, in mid-1970s Glebe, when Porter and I were living almost next door, in a sprawling Sydney flat complex. We did not know each other very well, but sometimes had polite, passing chats, usually on our way out to shopping. I remember Dorothy one day enthusing about the many possibilities of narrative in poetry, but never realised how resolutely, and how extremely well, she would carry this into her own fast-forwarding work.

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A device often used in novels, and universally in film-making, is the flash-forward and flash-back. Hence my cheeky segue, right now – click! – back to Linda Weste’s 2020 compendium, Inside The Verse Novel Writers on Writing (2020) in which she interviewed 22 verse novelists from the UK, USA, Australia, Ireland and Canada. Interestingly, in this slightly earlier Anglophone-focused book, the very same nine questions now reprised for The Verse Novel Australia & New Zealand, and listed above, were also employed.

Indeed, eight of the 22 authors and their chapters have now been recycled exactly word for word, into The Verse Novel Australia & New Zealand.

These lucky ‘double-headers’, complete with their same author portraits, are Paul Hetherington, Geoff Page, David Mason, Linda Weste herself, Brian Castro, Judy Johnson, Christine Evans and Alan Wearne.

Like others included in Weste’s first verse novel round-up, those listed above write primarily for an adult readership. But, as Weste reminds us, “…that is the extent of their homogeny – such is their diversity.”

This previous Anglophone net similarly delivers a big catch of genres and sub-genres: from romantic comedy to crime thrillers, from fantasy and speculative fiction to historical drama, with variants aplenty.

For anyone thinking of writing a verse novel, or simply reading and enjoying one, Weste’s twin compendiums are a must: not only for their combined depth and breadth, but for their thoughtful style. They will hold equal appeal to literary scholars, the intelligent general reader and any dedicated teacher of the form.

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Finally, we must briefly flashback again: this time to Linda Weste’s own verse novel, Nothing Sacred (2015). It is set in late Republican Rome, just prior to the assassination of Julius Caesar – marking the fall of the last oligarchy before the Roman Empire was ruled by Octavian Augustus.
Nothing Sacred was reviewed in Rochford Street Review by Susan Hawthorn (herself also a verse novelist) and I strongly urge readers to read it, here: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/04/19/is-there-such-a-thing-as-inner-crookedness-susan-hawthorne-reviews-nothing-sacred-by-linda-weste/. Hawthorn’s review reveals how Weste’s Nothing Sacred dramatically follows key players of Rome’s elite, examining the entrails of this fascinating era: a vivid, gripping and visceral account which propels readers into its world, as if 44BCE were only yesterday.

Because Weste is able to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk, as it were, her analysis of the form is doubly convincing, and these three books are strongly recommended.

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Vale, a sad postscript. While writing this review, I learned that Jordie Albiston (1961-2022) an important exponent of the verse novel and widely published poet, has died, aged 60. A terrible loss to her friends, and to Australian literature.

 – John Jenkins

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John Jenkins is a widely published writer living on Melbourne’s semi-rural fringe, near the Yarra Valley. His selected collaborations with poet Ken Bolton, Double Act, is forthcoming from Puncher & Wattmann in 2022. Meanwhile, John is working on a collection of short stories. Website: www.johnjenkins.com.au

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The Verse Novel Australia & New Zealand is available from https://scholarly.info/book/the-verse-novel-australia-new-zealand/#:~:text=Description,genre%20of%20the%20verse%20novel.

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