chalk borders by Sarah St Vincent Welch, Flying Islands Press 2021, was launched by Anna Couani at Smith’s Alternative, Canberra on 28 February 2022.
Thanks to Sarah for asking me to launch her latest book, chalk borders from Flying Islands Pocket Poets series. The Flying Islands series has now clocked up more than 90 titles and credit is due to the amazing Kit Kelen who started the press and continues to push it forward in its new incarnation as a not-for-profit enterprise.
Chalk borders is Sarah’s 2nd book following on from her wonderful debut collection of poems called Open from Rochford Press in 2019. The title comes from her #litchalk activities, where she chalks poems on footpaths during various Canberra arts festivals, an ongoing and brave initiative – a bit like a written version of improv but not quite as fluid as freestyle rap. And some of the short poems in the book are Sarah’s #litchalk poems, for example this one chalked on the foreshore of Lake Burley Griffin:
words are water
singing from pipes
The #itchalk poems often reference the place they’re in.
A few years ago when Sarah and I did a previous mutual launch of each other’s books, Sarah launched my chap book, thinking process. She was one of the few people who understood it. It was focused on objects and processes but had a lot to do with grieving the death of my parents. There was a hidden agenda. In her launch speech, I was surprised that Sarah focused on a line from one of my poems (the haunting) which goes – “both parents now gone/objects are not objects” and in this current collection, Sarah has riffed on the phrase objects are not objects in her poem, Transmitter & Receiver. This poem was a response to a prompt to write about certain objects and places, Sarah’s prompt was an extremely challenging one – it’s the CSIRO Wireless Local Area Network testbed wifi protoype from the 1990’s. You’d think – is it possible to make poetry out of this object? But yes! It is possible and not only that, Sarah so deftly connects this contraption to the fabulous world of wifi that we now live in, where “we walk play work love on the run skipping along sitting at home. I transmitter/ I receiver/ I am free”. Contrary to expectations, the poem has a jubilant exultant quality and there in the photo next to it is an object with cables and metal boxes that is not an object, it’s the herald of a new world. The image is one of the many interesting and enigmatic photos in the book – ones that might show an image framed, an image half seen, or an odd shadow.
Importantly, Sarah’s work demonstrates this principle of imbuing objects with special qualities, and special powers and comes back again and again to exquisitely observed descriptions of not only things but her own observation processes. Her work often crosses a subliminal border between the here and now and the imaginary, the mundane and the sublime. She tackles The Abject with a kind of swimmingly positive energy, embracing the putrid, the unmentionable, somehow making it all sweet again. Something mothers do routinely when confronted with babyhood. Very different from the way male writers deal with abjection. Sarah tackles it head on and recuperates it. Although women are constantly confronted by blood throughout their lives, things like menstruation and women’s blood remain remote from public discourse. It’s not something that Sarah foregrounds, but she includes it, somehow makes everything lovely, and a lovely colour – red. Her answer to KonMari, tidying guru – “all things bring me joy / in the spark of memory”.
The other day I was chatting to Sarah about her mastery of the Abject in poetry and she attributed it to growing up in a medical family where blood and gore are perfectly normal topics of conversation.
One interesting motif that crops up here and there in the book and that I especially love, is Morpheus, the god of sleep – but more normally in these poems, a demon of insomnia and aggravation.
I’m not a panic attack, he says
I’m the god of Sleep
you know that
In a different poem, as an agent of anxiety, Morpheus…
…shows me the minutes
in the stained bottom of a mug
the symmetry of my bathroom drain
the fold of the out-of-date prescription
the cracker crumb at the corner of my mouth
It’s another negative element that comes under Sarah’s taming powers. He or it is the imaginary negative male presence, the scary animus that all women harbour and fear and for many of us, has been a reality in our lives. He’s the male untrammelled by the moral code – unpredictable, menacing and sometimes violent. He’s also close up and personal, somehow getting IN when he should be OUT. For many of us, the fear of this demon is worse than the reality, somehow originating in the helplessness of childhood. Sarah captures this, names it, calls it out and by doing that, tames it for the reader.
There are so many interesting ideas in this book, so many launching pads. As a poet reading another poet, I find myself thinking – wow that’s a good idea for a poem! Or that’s a fantastic description that’s more than a description. There’s the beautiful ‘Wedding Dress’ poem where Sarah connects all those things that aren’t connected but which ARE now – the sea, the sky, the organza and tulle, the sounds of zippers, the wind. And amazing that this poem is situated on the fiendishly busy and noisy Parramatta Road in Sydney.
Especially for people who think about observation and perception, ‘People like us who read things into things” as Sarah says, this book is a rewarding read. It’s recommended reading and a wonderful progression from Sarah’s first book, Open.
Also in Sarah we have a fabulous conduit and catalyst for poetry and for other poets, as she continues to work at That Poetry Thing… here in Canberra with its great team of organisers, as I hardly need to mention. She organises for Flying Islands Books and carries on her own interesting projects. Flying Islands now has an impressive team of poets taking on the means of production. Brian Purcell has been working on the online bookshop on the Flying Islands website and Alan Jefferies has created a Flying Islands YouTube channel. In addition, there are non-poets on the team like Dylan Jones who’s brought his considerable skills to bear in the press, doing layout and design, photography, e-books, Zoom stuff and various high tech things with instruments I’ve never seen before. An amazing team!
I’m delighted that Sarah agreed to do a launch of my book tonight as well, both of us coming from Flying Islands in the same series along with more books by other people from our old established Sydney networks like Jane Skelton, Brian Purcell, Alan Jefferies and Laurie Duggan. The latest batch of 8 books has already been launched at Flying Islands HQ in Markwell and at my gallery in Glebe earlier this month. The launch speeches will soon be available as a series of videos if you want to check them out. All Flying Islands books are available from the Flying Islands website. That’s the thing about small press publications – we all become promoters and sales people!
– Anna Couani
Carol Archer also launched chalk borders at the end of 2021 at The Poets Picnic in Markwell
chalk borders is available from https://flyingislandspocketpoets.com.au/product/chalk-borders-by-sarah-st-vincent-welch/