Issue 4: May – July 2012 Contents

Rochford Street Review

Six at Once: Pam Brown launches the latest Vagabond Press Rare Object Series

Beheld by Niobe Syme, Chooks by Adrian Wiggins, Don Juan Variations by S.K. Kelen, Green Thought – Green Shade by Kit Kelen, Imitation Era by James Stuart, Under Rats by Nicolette Stasko. Vagabond Press, Rare Object Series 2012.

This is a slightly edited version of Pam Brown’s launch speech for the six chapbooks at Gleebooks, Glebe, Sydney on 29 July 2012.

Pam Brown launching beheld by Niobe Syme, Chooks by Adrian Wiggins, Don Juan Variations by S.K. Kelen, Green Thought – Green Shade by Kit Kelen, Imitation Era by James Stuart, Under Rats by Nicolette Stasko at Gleebooks. (Photo Adrian Wiggins).

Six poetry books to launch together! John Ashbery called a review of a number of poets at once the ‘club sandwich review’ but that’s so New York New York.  In Sydney we’d probably find, at the breakfast-all-day cafe, various versions of a triple-tier vege burger. Let’s order one and check out the fillings –

Between the ancient-grain bun, this one is, of course, spelt. Starting at the bottom, resting on radicchio and romaine lettuce there’s an orange yolked egg that reminds us of Adrian Wiggins’ Chooks – this isn’t a vegan-burger – it’s a vege burger. James Stuart is occupying the organic gherkin and caper layer. Above that we behold Niobe Syme  sharing a Spanish vegetarian ground sausage – a soy protein soyrizo – with Nicolette Stasko. Next we come to the Kelen Brothers – Kit Kelen mixing in some Asian greens and beetroot and S K Kelen,  a.k.a  Zen Kelen, lathers the lot with sweet chilli sauce.

Because it’s not that great, it’s corny even, I don’t want to labour this allusion so I’ll stop –  but I do want to say that the beautiful design of Vagabond chapbooks transform each title into what looks like a delicious light crispbread with a nougat paper fly leaf.

Small presses have been in my published-poetry life since it began. (That’s quite a while ago now). ‘Independent or small poet-run press initiatives have had an enduring influence on the social histories of poetry communities: in part reflecting the relationships, ideals and shared spaces and chance meetings that underpin poetic activity'(1). In the last few decades of the 20th century, many poets were using roneo, gestetner or mimeograph to produce magazines, pamphlets, broadsheets and small books of poetry – and silk screen, potato stamps, rubber stamps, lino cuts and so on to make the cover art. Gradually, with the progression of technology, roneo, gestetner and mimeo have become antique, if not obsolete. And offset printing or lithography has become a luxury, a costly (for most poets) quality printing method, and luscious silk screen printing is now more of a fine art process. Xerox-digital innovation has become the means of extending this rich tradition. And Vagabond in that context is exemplary. Praise is due to Liz Allen, Kay Orchison, Chris Edwards and Mike Brennan, the main players who keep this lively publishing venture going.

Some of the poets whose work we’re celebrating today have done and still do participate in independent publishing. Steve Kelen had Glandular Press and a one-off magazine Final Taxi Review, Adrian Wiggins hosted Final Friday readings until recently and produced limited editions of poems by each guest reader. Kit Kelen currently edits Flying Island books and Association of Stories in Macau and used to have Cerberus Press, James Stuart had ‘non-generic productions’ – an electronic publishing outfit – and he edited an inventive collection of conceptual writing – ‘The Material Poem’ – which, because it was in portable document format, or pdf, can still be downloaded. Even though poetry in print usually has a lengthy shelf life the internet has given us an even longer one.

Now to the booklets – and I’ll have to be brief because you’ll want to hear the poets and then get on with drinking and further palaver.  I’d  like to note that Vagabond Rare Objects are refreshingly bio-note-and-blurb-free, and  although I did see the precis of each booklet in the gleebooks publicity, I wrote this little panegyric before that – so what I’m going to say shouldn’t echo any stale recommendations.

Adrian Wiggins reading from Chooks.

Adrian Wiggins has been writing poems for some years now. He co-founded, with Peter Minter, Cordite Poetry Review and published his first collection The Beggar’s Codex back in 1994. He also founded the online network ‘Sydney Poetry. Adrian’s poetry has a deft, complicated and original touch.

In this booklet, called Chooks, Adrian writes a number of sonnets, a deceptively difficult form to write and he does it superbly. These sonnets are filled with dilemma, often  relationship dilemma.  There is a reminder of Ted Berrigan in ‘Sonnet No 1’ –

  Dear Siobhan, hello. Is it 5:15am where you are?

at the end of the fourth sonnet, the mood is positively redemptive :

up on stage with yr bluegrass tunes & tight banjo-rich
hick panegyrics (oh the yips, licks & lyrics)
are so cool in an acceptably indecent & benign

Gen Y way – I heart yr 80s pants suit & yr Bali Writers
Retreat keepsake flashcards: See. Feel. Touch. Write.

There are also some noir poems here. One is ‘Cordeaux Dam’ – a dam that’s part of the Sydney catchment area, where over a decade ago now two teenagers murdered a friend, kicking him and bludgeoning him with a log, and then went to a party. A few years later his body was found when one of the murderers confessed to the police.

The murderer in Adrian’s poem has not confessed and still wears the victim’s chain. It’s a powerful poem written concisely and directly. There’s really no other literary method of managing this kind of topic.

and then there’s ‘The Astronaut’s Lovesong’  –

     …honestly, love, I want you totally
like a heatshield, an antidote, a splashdown.

From my home in Magnolia I’ve driven
in my transit nappies, in my husband’s wagon
with duct tape, cord and gear sacks
a steel mallet, a knife and rubber tubing
in the back.

Yes, it’s about the wildly jealous astronaut Lisa Nowack who tried to kidnap a female airforce captain who was involved with an astronaut on whom Lisa had a big crush.

But, not to dwell mainly on the darker side of Adrian’s beguilingly titled booklet s, the poems are diverse, often clever, sometimes contemplative and lyrical.  Contemplating ‘fate’ as in ‘destiny’ and playing on the word – the poem’s title is the French ‘fête‘ which translates as celebration – he sets an impossible task –  to weigh a mountain,

any mountain, Eyjatjallajokull say,
(go on say it)

There are also plenty of ‘up’ moments, poems that embrace a kind of Australian-ness, alongside some jokes and fun lampooning old poetry codgers (my generation) –  current dress fashions – sock-free men and fruit-print frocks. And, for me, Adrian’s tone is occasionally reminiscent of work by S.K. Kelen –

*

S.K. Kelen reading from Don Juan Variations. (Photo by Adrian Wiggins).

Steve Kelen has been writing preeminent poems for several decades, publishing early poems in Poetry Australia when he was only17. He is one of OzPo’s luminaries. Here, he takes on the legend of Don Juan, the fictional 17th century wealthy libertine who devoted his life to seducing women and who’s been portrayed through the centuries in various iterations – famously in opera by Mozart, in poetry by Lord Byron and even by Guillaume Apollinaire, and in myriad plays, songs and films.

In Steve’s version, in the two epic poems here, we begin in the traffic daze of Parramatta Road that is depicted so powerfully that it’s rendered a grotesque enargia – ‘roadside even/ A dead dog can be sexy’ . Through a choking throng of machinery, noise and fumes Don Juan gets his chariot to the shopping mall – where

Flamenco muzak is ecstasy, escalators
Are heaven’s path. You ride a dragon’s spine
Upward upward rise through the shiniest place of all time
Shining the way paradise should shine

This is a veritable arcadia of pleasures –

Juan was home, felt the mall satisfying.

A witty commentary on the poem’s artifice ensues and does my work for me in introducing the poems to you – so I’ll quote –

Of course they still ennoble the soul but today’s
Best loved poems are the ones that can be enjoyed
During the ads on TV, while playing air guitar
Downloading a game or sitting in an RSL drinking.
Thus this poem will leave much to the imagination –
What is given are some illuminations and bursts of story
Something extra for resonance maybe some startling imagery
Maybe not; as far as plot and meaning go
Like Byron’s Don Juan, this baby is an open field
A map with a lot of terra incognito.
A quick-epic or verse miniseries that approaches
the lyric in brevity and leaves time for other play activity.

And it goes on to critique Byron’s poem as old-fashioned in the face of the soft-core porn of today’s glossy celebrity magazines and tv soapies. And there’s much much more – we are even given the traditional epic’s shipwreck, a resume of multiculturalism  too, as we follow Don Juan’s numerous encountersin his efforts to work out where he’s landed – in 21st century Aussie culture.

These poems are a narrative-driven tour de force. Here is a worldliness grown weary of consumerism, yet still able to see the comical. It’s an absurd knowledge that the material world is, finally, preposterous. In the second poem Don Juan joins a queue of unhappy souls, in various states of anomie, waiting toenter The Underworld. After further disconcerting disintegration there are some marsupials at the end of the road who seem to have figured things out –

Possums laugh, their bushy tails point to the sky.
‘Lost Paradise?’ they ask. ‘Regrets?’

*

James Stuart reading from Imitation Era. (Photo by Adrian Wiggins).

James Stuart’s Imitation Era begins with poems displaying a genial relational cognizance.

In a beautiful poem to his infant daughter the lyricism is consummate. ‘Postcard for Marilla’ encompasses the classic occasion when a father considers his projections into the future –

                                                  Whole empires
could balance upon your first tooth but this life
we have prepared for you will close more quickly
than it opens, no matter how much we love each other.

and

One day when you are ready I’ll tell you
about great migrations we have destroyed & marsupials

you’ll never meet, even as they ghost
across scrubland on the television screen.

James’ poems are diffused with exacting and mostly scarce description and nimble philosophical reflection as they shift through diverse locations. The Sydney Harbour Bridge looks like the handle of an old suitcase found in a second-hand shop in Enmore, there’s a business banquet in Hong Kong, a Venison Weekend at the Austrian Club near Bulli Pass, a decaying Doric Europe, bamboo forests, tropical storms and a quick and greedy street puppy. A few years ago James spent time in Chengdu in China on an Asialink residency.  In ‘Images, the outside world’ – he encounters and animates a dragon –

                                 A mangy dragon
pokes his head out from between Heaven’s West Gate
& sneezes, scratching lazily at lice between his scales.

Elsewhere, in the east near a well-worn ancient gingko tree, the poet experiences the ephemerality of his vocation –

The most unbelievable ideas spout up here
& are swept like plastic bags towards the ocean.

And in a cogent poem, ‘The White Horse’,  he learns what every self-conscious foreign-devil-poet learns at some point in any country, when his wise teacher’s advice and ancient romantic Eastern imagery fails him –

But the white stallion with its cloud-draped hooves
& silk-thread mane never turned up for collection.
Nor did my Vietnamese mother who had forsaken me on this,
the eve of the lunar new year. Only thus did I learn
that I am from Australia, that I am an Australian

The next poem, ‘Sudden Rain, Tilba Tilba’, incorporates the lesson naturally. The landscape of spotted gums and blackbutts and tin shed-and-flyscreen bric-a-brac are fleetingly imagined as a Chinese painting –

the grass as negative space upon which float
the black-ink strokes of eucalypts?

and the final poem ends in a photo of a mist, not the misty mountains mist, but, (I’ve imagined at any rate), the mists of the escarpment just north of Wollongong –

                                                              …even the swans,
who barely register our shapes from so high above, as we move
into & out of focus, signposting this inexplicable mist.

*

Niobe Syme reads from Beheld. (Photo by Adrian Wiggins).

For me, the title of Niobe Syme’s booklet, Beheld, sounds kind of biblical. You know, as if we’ve suddenly looked and beheld some heralding angels or the king of kings or one of his friends or relatives!

Niobe is a photographer who has shown her work publicly in various competitions and group exhibitions. This practice gives her poems a visual aesthetic and an occasional obliquity. She says on her web site that she has ‘a fascination with perception surrounding sense, meaning and time’ and that contextualises aspects of the poems in Beheld.

The opening lines in a poem set in a place called ‘Raglan Road’, ‘Late light bleeds/into the sitting room’ establish a photographic perception right from the beginning. And later these minimalist couplets continue with  ‘Now with cloudy eyes/she stands mute/in a haze of olive tones. Dust advances like an army/leaching highlights’ This poem engages with pastness, past time.

There is a poem in an urban hotel or bar that is busy with images of a signature Happy Hour, and  a couple of travel poems – at the Mississipi River where the American dream is subsumed to the mortgage crisis, and, then there’s a totally different place –  ‘Leaving Jodhpur’, a famously dusty Indian city –

Dust clouds around a ball
pursued by long-limbed children.
Rajasthan, Sofala or Mars?

Every moment and form is rusting
substance yielding to air
and carried away to settle

as desert-varnish, elsewhere.

Most of Niobe’s poems connect somehow with a photographer’s way of seeing – and there are traces throughout of tungsten, filament, colour definition, ‘sun and matter/hum out of shadow’ in a dark room, framed reproductions of painting masters, and photographs in a family house, a window has a ‘ferrous tint’, the sky (in Jodhpur again) is ‘in mineralised brooding’, there are ‘faded psycho-snapshots’, ‘the mind must have its frame’, ‘she gently roamed/from highlight to shadow’.

The poem ‘The Art of Peeling Skin’ is oblique, private, coded and ends with a line that gives the clue to the booklet’s title ‘as though in peril you might find it,
 a luminous core/or at least the suggestion that you were beheld.’

*

Nicolette Stasko reads from Under Rats. (Photo by Adrian Wiggins).

Nicolette Stasko, originally from Pennsylvania in the U.S., started publishing her writing in the 1990’s. She has edited, in the late ’80s, for a magazine called Phoenix,  written four poetry books, a novel and a book about a bivalve mollusc, the oyster. She has also taught creative writing.

Every poem in Nicolette’s Under Rats includes an animal, a bird or an insect so this chapbook is a series of natural world or fauna poems and, mostly, the context is the everyday.  Her neighbours, in the first poem and wasps flying around a line of washing, a pouncing marmalade cat, mouse spiders, (not that mouse spiders are very ‘everyday’) and sea shells. Hummingbirds, similar to Australian honey eaters, are found in north America and bring a sense of nostalgia for the poet. Even in a poem depicting three different moons there’s an animal reference – a reflection of one of the moons smiles like a Cheshire cat. Another poem, in a scene that’s familiar in Sydney, the poet is waiting for the bats to make their early evening crossing and, oddly, they fail to appear.

The title poem, ‘under rats’, is at a tangent to the others here It’s a complex, sometimes startling, sometimes darkly humorous kind of European poem. To me it suggests an historical figure, a writer, a playwright, a communist, a Jew, a Russian, or perhaps these are scenes from Nicolette’s Polish/Hungarian background?  I don’t know – it’s quite oneiric, coded and distanced and perhaps I’ve got it wrong ..? The structure is twelve stanzas that in pairs are of fourteen lines – like sonnets and the narrative shaping is engaging and very effective –

we began to be afraid of our shoes
they seemed to become more
aggressive   taking us places
we didn’t want to go
someone said to leave
them for a while
that  always fixed things
but they only became

more demanding
we had heard of a case like this
somewhere in chechnya

finally they had no choice
but to line them up and shoot
blindfolds were unnecessary

I’ll leave it there. Under Rats is an intriguing collection of poems.

*

Kit Kelen reads from Green Thought – Green Shade. (Photo by Adrian Wiggins).

Kit Kelen is currently on sabbatical from his job in Macau, where he teaches and publishes translations and original work at a prolific rate – both his own work and others. And on this sabbatical he has written Green Thought – Green Shade – a suite of pastoral poems about re-entering or re-engaging with the Australian countryside. Where, as he says in the first poem, he will ‘go bush’. He reflects on the return and the changes that have occurred during his absence from Bulahdelah in the poem ‘coming home’

where a tent was first pitched
the garden went

the oak from the acorn
come in the post

the reach of the branches
adventures in bark

heights of trees
now I am taller

Although Kit Kelen’s use of language in the poems is direct, and is in fact pretty much plain speech, he idealises the place where he has a great sense of belonging. The property is called ‘Iona’, an island in the Scottish Hebrides, but also , in the sububan tradition of using homynyms for house names like Dunromin – ‘done roaming’, ‘Iona’ is also ‘I owner’.

Here, he writes –

I sink in like fenceposts
this is the spot
where I’ll rot

In the poem ‘the morning’s headlines’ this particular idyllic arcadia is where the anxieties of daily news reports are soothed and parodied by the contrast of the Australian landscape –

local economy in overnight flatline

mist lifted
neighbour’s cows emerge unscathed

vine in gumboot tangle
hooves press on

haze fails to dampen sun

hoe flies off handle

kookaburras sit out last laugh scandal

These poems are written from an affection for a landscape and its details in a particular part of the country in which Kit Kelen has made his own sense of belonging. Readers can guage, from what he calls a ‘sabbatical set’ of poems, that he misses this place when he is away in Asia.

Kit Kelen’s reflective philosophy turns up in the final poem ‘art of passing’ –

and under distraction
victim of our own whim
I’m becoming past master
of the imperfect

and making this
my art

*

So – that’s a brief tour of these collections. My apologies for the length of time I’ve taken here and for the brevity of attention to each title but I’m sure the poets will amplify my notes by reading for you. I take great pleasure in announcing these six chapbooks launched and ready to read!

NOTES

1. A line I read somewhere, perhaps in Keri Glastonbury’s 2010 JASAL article – The New ‘Coterie’, or perhaps elsewhere. I copied it into my book of extensive notes on independent publishing but didn’t add the source.

– Pam Brown

————————————————————————–

Pam Brown recently edited Fifty-one contemporary poets from Australia for ‘Jacket2’ where she is an associate editor. She has published many books including Dear Deliria (Salt, 2002), True Thoughts (Salt, 2008), Authentic Local (SOI3 Modern Poets, 2010) and, more recently, a pocket book of ten poems, Anyworld (Flying Island, 2012) and a booklet, More than a feuilleton (Little Esther Books, 2012). A longer collection of poems, Home by Dark, will be published by Shearsman Books in the U.K. in 2013. Pam lives in Alexandria, Sydney and blogs intermittently at http://thedeletions.blogspot.com/

For information on how to buy any Vagabond Press Book email them at contact@vagabondpress.net

“Getting Excited by the Writing & Wanting More of It”: Ralph Wessman recalls 25 years as editor and publisher of ‘famous reporter’.

Shortly before the launch of famous reporter 43 in late May I asked Ralph Wessman, the founder and long time editor of the magazine, for some background information on the magazine. At the time my intention was to include this in a review of the final issue of famous reporter that he was going edit (the very final issue, No. 44, will be edited by Michael Sharkey and Dael Allison). What he sent me, however, was a detailed personal account of the history of famous reporter. In my view it would be a crime not to publish his account in full – so here (with a few minor edits) is Ralph Wessman on the 25 years he has spent publishing and editing the famous reporter…..

The cover of issue 1 of the famous reporter.

I remember a conversation with Philip Mead some years ago where I tried to explain to him that my magazine was like an extension of myself – like being blessed with another arm if you want to put it in a physical context though that’s not what I meant – and Philip nodded in agreement and more importantly, understanding. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised but I’d forgotten at the time that Philip had been an editor himself – of Meanjin.

At other times I used to say that with my magazine I’d found a place to park my head.

The beginning

I had no idea what I was doing when I began The Famous Reporter, although I’d taken a small publishing step with a small newsletter distributed free throughout St Kilda – St Kilda Beat – for three years. Then a friend established a literary journal, On the Off Beat, a magazine of women’s short stories. The editor had the advantage of working with a printer, so it was a case of satisfying an aesthetic urge while on the job. I liked the results, I was both interested, and encouraged, I have to admit, to have a go at it too.

So I did …and began with my ex wife a short story magazine. In 1986 I sent off letters to writing groups and universities around the country seeking material and early in 1987 we had enough material for an issue that we typed up on our old typewriter at home. Ambitious, we had no idea of the practicalities of producing a magazine.

We had problems finding a name, famous reporter as a name doesn’t do much for me these days but it’s too late to change it. Shane McCauley – a West Australian poet I’m in touch with – once said that he didn’t bother submitting to famous reporter for years and years because he was under the impression it was a magazine publishing material in the crime genre.

We began by publishing 500 copies for the first couple of issues; I guess a lack of knowledge is a dangerous thing, offset by possibility of making the thing work. I’ve never sold 500 copies of an issue of famous reporter, a couple of hundred copies is the norm.

Issue 2.

I had little knowledge of Australian literature other than as a general reader, so for the first three issues the magazine we published only short stories. It wasn’t until the fourth issue that we began experimenting with other material – in that issue there were not one but three interviews – with John Tranter (http://www.the-write-stuff.com.au/archives/vol-8/tranter.html), Mary Blackwood (http://walleahpress.com.au/FR4Blackwood.html) and Georgia Savage (http://walleahpress.com.au/FR4Savage.html). Issue five saw a further three interviews this time with Hilarie Lindsay, Chris Mansell (http://walleahpress.com.au/Int-Mansell.html) and Garry Disher (http://walleahpress.com.au/Int-Disher.html). Issue 5 also contained the first couple of poems appeared in the magazine, the first by Sue Moss (http://walleahpress.com.au/FR5Moss.html), something I’d heard her reading in at an event Battery Point & the first piece of poetry I actively sought out. ‘I’ve’ dined out on that story’, Sue’s told me since. The other came courtesy of a wonderful public talk that Libby Hathorn gave in 1990 which she allowed me to use – and illustrating her conversation was a poem.

Of course more poetry – more poetry contributors – appear in the magazine now than anything else. I’m interested in poetry, fiction, essays, reviews and haiku. Arts Tasmania has funded the magazine since 1994, so we’ve been able to offer a little money to contributors

The launch for FR43 was held on Wednesday 30th May in Hobart. Usually a decent crowd turns up to famous reporter launches in Hobart, anything from thirty to ninety – but it’s different on the mainland. We’ve had launches in places including Melbourne, Adelaide – twice – Sydney, Newcastle [that was lovely] and the Blue Mountains. But the first time in Adelaide, when I took my son Jazz along with me, he was twelve at the time was interesting. I remember how Graham Rowlands and I tried lots of promotion, but on the night there were seventeen of us who turned up, including Jazz and me. However I tried Adelaide several years later, and had a great time, taking my other son Noah with me, a mad keen Aussie Rules supporter so holding a launch & taking my son to the footy was killing two birds with the one stone. We had an audience of thirty-five or so that night in Adelaide, and I managed to put to rest something that had been holding me back for years – my awe of Jan Owen. I’d been in awe of her poetry for years and I’d often think when a poetry submission turned up in the mail from Jan, why me? Why am I blessed? But I invited her along to the launch and she turned up and put me at ease so quickly, from memory it was along the lines of: “like your magazine Ralph, enjoying your launch, don’t particularly care one way or the other about your footy team tomorrow night but if that’s your bent so be it “… yes it was a very good launch for more reasons than one.

But you never know how they will go, which is why it’s not a bad thing to do to have a launch as part of a reading programme put on by local writer’s groups, which is what [haiku editor] Lyn Reeves and I did with the magazine in Byron Bay some years ago. It was the Christmas function for the writing group Dangerously Poetic, at Bangalow just a little outside of Byron Bay. And we had a dozen readers, people we’ve met along the way as both Lyn and I have strong links with the area, and we had an audience of over eighty people and we had a fine time.

The reasons for one’s involvement with a literary magazine.

I am somewhat moved by Ken Bolton’s argument, the premise that a magazine renews itself, its vitality, by finding a course and sticking with it through thick and thin on a particular aesthetic, political [whatever] direction. This is the opposite of the eclectic magazine, the opposite of something like famous reporter. I’m somewhat persuaded by Ken’s arguments, I admit. But then I look at what is possible with a magazine such as Meanjin which often used to focus on thematic pieces … This is a danger, of course, if you take on a topic which has little appeal. But over the years, in my opion, Meanjin has managed to publish exciting writers speaking on a range of issues, resulting in eminently readable and successful issues of the magazine. So yes, I feel the eclectic magazine has something to offer.

I don’t see that FR set out to ‘change anything’, it’s a case of simply getting excited by the writing and wanting more of it. There are various styles of magazine, some accept contributions only by invitation. I’ve gone the other way and accept through submissions and seek out the occasional article that I seek out, I do this particularly with reviews. The result is an eclectic magazine. That’s not to say that I don’t seek to question, what would be the point of writing if it didn’t?

Mistakes

Invariably you make mistakes. Would the process be worthwhile if there wasn’t the possibility for making mistakes, the possibility of scaring yourself silly by what you’re about to write or publish next….

  • interviewing Mary Blackwood for the magazine and losing the tape I’d made of it and having to return to interview Mary for the second time.
  • issue three, I typed it up in a computer software package but for some reason experienced difficulty getting the magazine to do exactly what I wanted so reinstalled the software package, thinking it would reinstall alongside the old one and I could copy my files across, I was horrified to find it installed over the old one and I lost my complete magazine, had to start again. I hadn’t saved any of the stories into word, simply typed them straight into the package.
  • Another terrible moment was the day Kris Hemensley, of Collected Works Bookshop in Melbourne, telephoned to say that he’d just received his copy of famous reporter in which I’d published a launch speech he’d made in Melbourne some weeks before for a Melbourne literary magazine, Salt-Lick. I’d sent Kris a proof copy of the speech before publication, he’d duly made a few changes only to find to his dismay that, on publication, the mistakes remained. I’d made the changes, but used the wrong version of the speech. This was compounded by the fact I’d be meeting Kris face to face in a week’s time when he was due to launch my own magazine.

The lovely moments

  • One of the lovely things is that every six months Lyn Reeves sends me the pages of haiku to go into the next issue, with the bio details of each contributor. I don’t have to lift a finger throughout the whole process, I think it says something for the possibilities for literary and publishing collaborations.
  • The time I interviewed Richard Flanagan and Pete Hay in my small South Hobart flat. Towards the end of the end of the interview I had to leave for the gents, when I returned I found Pete and Richard  still chatting, the tape recorder still rolling. I didn’t transcribe the tape till two weeks later to hear Richard telling Pete he’d won the 1995 Victorian Premier’s Award for his novel Death of a River Guide. ‘But you’re sworn to secrecy till October 20th Pete’, Flanagan went on. I suppose by implication I was sworn to secrecy too, it was a special moment.
  • Anna Bianke: one of the interesting things for me was that when I began the magazine I’d get a rush of excitement when a piece of writing came in from someone whose name I knew, and particularly, of course, if they were someone whose writing I respected. Well one day in the mailbox arrived a short story manuscript from Anna Bianke, of Launceston, and I was familiar with Anna’s work because I’d read several of her pieces in Overland. In fact her name was emblazoned across the front cover of Overland 101. You might remember, if you enjoy your magazines, that Stephen Murray-Smith who was editor of Overland at the time published a 100th commemorative issue, but found himself with so much exciting material that he the 101st issue became a commemorative issue as well, big and fat with lots of good reading. So the arrival of Anna’s manuscript meant quite a lot to me, and her story read with a delicate light touch, it was a beautiful piece of writing and I felt so proud to be able to publish and I suppose to some extent, to feel as if I really was some part of that great fraternity of Australian writing. It wasn’t until some years and perhaps some pieces of writing later, that Anna dropped me a line with an apology and an admission that for years she’d hid behind a pseudonym and that she wasn’t Anna Bianke of Launceston at all, but Stella Kent – playwright and fiction writer – of Launceston. And I’m pleased to say that my publishing relationship with Stella continues … only two or three weeks ago, she sent me an unpublished manuscript she’d come across, a poetry manuscript written by two young Northern Tasmanian students that simply blew her away … she wondered if any might interest me. ‘And if not,’ she added, ‘simply throw it away’. How wonderful is that, when someone with an eye for good writing takes the time to mail along something that moves them, how much simpler does an editor’s job become?
  • I think one of my highlights was to publish Pete Hay’s collection of essays some years back, Vandiemonian Essays. I’m a strong admirer of Pete and his work and it was an honour to be able to publish his book, just as it was to follow up with a collection of his poems three years later. There were 180 to 190 people at the launch of his book of essays – and what a launch it was! We sold 90 copies of the book at $20 each, I’d known there’d too many people in attendance to be able to cater for normally as I do with a famous reporter launch –  that is spend a couple of hundred dollars on light food, softdrink and wine – so I bought about five hundred dollars of various drinks – stubbies of beer, stout, softdrink – and sold them for cost price – and it was just so phenomenally successful.

And to the present?

I like the idea of continuing to publish. I’ve been using Lightning Source in Melbourne, a company with offices in the US, France and the UK and which set up in Melbourne last year. If you do the set up yourself, and provide your book in Indesign and with a cover that’s been Photoshopped – you can manage to publish relatively cheaply, so I’m giving it a go.

I’ve let my enthusiasm carry me away again and taken on probably a bit too much to chew, nevertheless I’m looking at producing several books later in the year, individual poetry books by four local writers – Philomena van Rijswijk, Anne Kellas, Susan Austin, and Cameron Hindrum. A book by Jill Jones, and a joint effort from Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow The Jones and Curnow/Brophy books are planned for August and to be available at the Queensland Poetry Festival where both Jill and Nathan are on the programme.

And once I’ve managed to fulfil the promises and half promises of my initial enthusiasm, I might slow down a bit and look a little more closely at the possibilities of wider publishing, of essays for instance.  And try to come to grips a little more with Dreamweaver and cascading style sheets so I can better promote and present the work of the writers I’m dealing with.

 – Ralph Wessman

A letter from Ralph I found inside my copy of issue 3.

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Ralph Wessman was the founding editor of the famous reporter and has been editor or co-editor of the last 43 issues of the magazine. He also runs Walleah Press whose latest publications include Fairweather’s Raft by Dael Allison and Undercover of Lightness by Andrew Burke. http://walleahpress.com.au.

The 44th and final issue of FR will appear late in 2012, edited by Michael Sharkey and Dael Allison. Unsolicited material (with the exception of haiku, which will not appear in FR44) is welcome, to:

PO Box 368
North Hobart
Tasmania 7002 Australia.

A Sparkling Constellation: Kate Pardey reviews The Hum of Concrete by Anna Solding

The Hum of Concrete by Anna Solding. MidnightSun Publishing. 2012

There should be a rule against acknowledgements at the end of a novel. How can readers be expected not to keep on reading? As I blithely turned the pages at the end of Anna Solding’s excellent novel The Hum of Concrete I was confronted with some details about its inner workings that I would rather not have known. It was similar to watching a woman being sawn in half and then being taken back stage to be shown how the woman contorts herself into small boxes while the saw cuts through only a hair’s breadth away from her toes.

Spoiler alert, spoiler alert …. We’re told in the acknowledgements how some of the stories which make up this novel existed independently and then how good friends, and there seems an army of them, helped Solding in those last intense months when she ‘frantically tied all the strings together’. To her credit Solding does tie those strings together beautifully; the ending of The Hum of Concrete is as satisfying as the ending of any good novel and her friends deserve their acknowledgements.

There are many novels which are a combination of short stories, deftly woven together, think Julian Barnes, David Mitchell or Gail Jones but perhaps there could be a new name for this kind of novel? A decameron novel perhaps?

The Hum of Concrete is called ‘a novel constellation’ which is as good a name as any. Is this a confession that the author does not see this as a novel at all but rather a collection of short stories, which like a group of stars, will eventually, form a recognizable pattern. This is not a criticism of the Solding’s work just a perspective of a reader who likes to know what kind of book she’s buying or borrowing before she commits.

Interspersed amongst Solding’s intriguing stories of five main characters are wonderful evocations of what life is like in the  Swedish city of Malmo. We’re given vivid descriptions of Malmo in the quiet of winter, lively markets in summer, picnics in parks and feeding the ducks all of which work to give greater depth to her stories. Sometimes these places seem incongruous with her characters’ lives although perhaps that is what Solding is trying to tell us; that lives can get too caught up with people and rather we should spend more time enjoying the beauty of what is around us, the seasons, ripening fruit and even hissing geese.

This wariness of people is a theme also played out in Solding’s clear and deep appreciation of children. All five women are mothers and whilst their children have the capacity to bring worry and fear into mothers’ lives they also have a capacity to bring love and to help adults make sense of the world around them. The trajectory of these women’s lives seems solely propelled by their relationship with their children. Perhaps on a second reading partners will appear more centre stage or better still this will happen in Solding’s next novel; her ability to deal with the complexities of relationships would work well on a bigger canvas.

A secondary theme, which reinforces her main message, is the idea of gender. Solding looks at people’s ability to cope with what is different, the failures and successes of acceptance. This aspect of the novel is thought-provoking and is too large an issue to be left on the periphery. These are small criticisms of what fundamentally is a very good  ….. decameron novel/novel constellation.

MidnightSun is committed to an honourable cause; in these troubled times they are prepared to take risks but, I would suggest,  their publication of Anna Solding’s The Hum of Concrete was never a risk but rather a guaranteed success.

-Kate Pardey

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Kate Pardey is a Sydney based fiction critic.

The Hum of Concrete is available from MidnightSun Publishing: http://midnightsunpublishing.com/books/the-hum-of-concrete/

Expectations – Great and Small: Linda Adair reviews ‘The Recluse’ by Evelyn Juers

The Recluse by Evelyn Juers. Giramondo Shorts 2012.

The title of this short essay hints at, but does not openly reveal, just how little will be learned about Eliza Donnithorne, the subject of Evelyn Juers ‘ investigation in The Recluse.  Juers says she ‘began by wondering to what extent Eliza Donnithorne  corresponded to, or had been subsumed by Miss Havisham’ (page 5). By the end of the 147th page,  no definitive answer is given as to who ‘Eliza Donnithorne’ was, or why she lived reclusively . All that is clear is that the sign is emptied of some erroneous meanings with regards her being a role model for Dickens’ Miss Havisham.  Fortunately, we know where the body is buried and this becomes one of the few certain facts on record and a touchstone for the piece.

Many people living in the inner west of Sydney, have heard the stories even if they had not read the press reports published at various times, stating that the inspiration for the archetypal Miss Havisham had lived in Newtown near Warren Ball Avenue . After dinner conversations about Dickens masterpiece, wherein wine and amusing chat about the latest screen version of Great Expectations prompted conjecture rather than academic rigour regarding the ‘woman on whom Miss Havisham was based’ were a right of passage. Common folklore has frequently claimed that Miss Havisham had been inspired by the unmarried, reclusive and wealthy woman Eliza Donnithorne. It is this hoary old chestnut that Juers most effectively dispatches in the course of her essay.

Like Great Expectations itself, a graveyard figures in the opening scene of The Recluse. Taking the bait of personal account, I was lured in, by the author’s first hand experiences in the early 1970s as a young undergraduate, with the introductory section titled ‘On the Corner of King and Queen’. As a former resident of North Newtown, who had studied  Dicken’s entire works as part of my honours course in  English Literature at Sydney University, I was understandably keen to find out who Eliza Donnithorne was and whether she bore any resemblance to one of the most infamously tragic figures in the canon of English literature. Like Juers a decade before me, the calm greenery of the old graveyard around St Stephens Church and its adjacent park (an open public space reclaimed from the original larger cemetery after the murder of a child during the Great Depression)  had provided occasional respite from the heat and pollution of traffic laden King Street.

The long- disused cemetery was an utterly benign park  by the 1970s, the cool dark earth having long since absorbed its mortal contents and recycling nutrients to the rich vegetation. Unsurprisingly, the known facts of the subject’s life would come from this matter of fact site.  Firstly that Judge James Donnithorne and his daughter Eliza were buried in the same grave, 34 years apart and secondly, according to church records , there had been no marriage planned for Eliza – which suggest no jilting occurred in Australia.  Lastly it is not surprising that two surviving members of a family which had travelled frequently between India, England, South Africa and Australia due to their involvement with the British East India Company, both found a final destination in a booming mercantile centre such as Newtown.

The Donnithornes were a prominent family linked to the British East India Company, and Juers cites Karl Marx’s observation that ‘the events of the Seven-Years-War transformed the East India Company from a commercial into a military and territorial power’ (p10). The subject of her search is therefore a member of a well connected family whose members travelled in pursuit of position and wealth. That said, Juers provides more information about the company’s fortunes from the 1757 (some 15 years before James Donnithorne was born) which seems less than relevant to the subject. Also, we learn a great deal about William Wright Bampton who was a contemporary and possibly a colleague of the yet to be Governor  of NSW, Lachlan Macquarie whilst he was in India. This William Bampton died in Calcutta in 1813 and it was his daughter Sarah (born 1787) who was the first legitimate wife of James Donnithorne, Eliza’s father. Whilst Sarah was Eliza’s mother, it is unlikely that she was the mother of the first two of James Donnithornes children (Henry born 1799) and Agnes Ann (born 1801) unless of course her recorded date of birth of 1787 is wrong, or she gave birth at 12 years of age. Eliza was born in July in  1821 in the Cape of Good Hope  and was the last child born to James and Sarah Donnithorne.

Notably, James Donnithorne’s eldest daughter Agnes was involved in an adultery scandal in India in 1822 within few year of Eliza’s birth.  Judge Donnithorne and his wife were not in India at the time of Eliza’s birth. After years in various postings in India and surviving a cholera epidemic, they had travelled to other posts of empire. Ultimately, the genealogy leading to Eliza’s birth, reminds one of museum curators search for the meaning of an object being defined by it provenance rather than its own use or meaning; such a strategy  works less successfully for human beings.

The cemetery at St Stephen’s Church, Newtown.

Other prominent family connections are made much of by Juers, including social rather than blood lines to the Thackeray and Shakespear families, even a tenuous but possible association with Charles Dickens whilst she resided in Twickenham. This seems little more than a desire to place the subject within a literary constellation. We are told that Eliza lived in Colne Lodge, Twickenham, in 1841 during the Census although, notably, the age of the subject is inaccurately recorded as 15 years of age which is younger than should have been. What is intriguing is that in 1845 Eliza came into a large sum of money bequeathed to her by her uncle William Wright Bampton,  who apparently  suicided.

When James Donnithorne came to Australia in 1838 he assumed the title Judge, just as many emigres gave themselves airs and graces on arrival in a new and naïve country. Given he had only been a judge in India from 1807 to 1808 where he was the Acting Judge and Magistrate of Rmgarh (Ramghyr) with District Headquarters at Chatra, this was a little opportunistic. On page 56 we learn that Eliza Donnithorne arrived on 8 Mary 1846 on the Agincourt and Juers speculates that this was possible following her financial independence. From 1849 until their respective deaths,  Eliza Donnithorne  and her father resided in Camperdown Lodge ( which in 1884 became 36 King Street) a house  leased by them despite their many properties. From the death of Judge Donnithorne in May 1852, through to the time of her own death in 1886 servants and a household continued to run – so reclusion had it limits.

Genealogy is an imprecise discipline at best ; omissions and assumptions abound even in one’s own family, where at least the oral tradition of stories will counteract some of the confusion that can arise when tracing back through historic records. Admittedly, Juers notes lost times in the life of Eliza Donnithorne.

For this reader, there was a vague feeling of deju vu to the extended gag in Salman Rushdie’s Midnights Children which told the story of the partition of India. Having traced a lineage of the fictional narrator for pages and pages, the joke is let out – it relates to nothing at all and I vividly recall laughing out loud on a city bus (the one time in my life I have done this), at the joke that had been pulled on me. Unfortunately, there is no great fun to be had here. It is a matter of wading through tedium and conjecture,  trying to remember a web of names and characters as if to assemble the frame of the jigsaw puzzle for which the central closing piece must forever be missing.

The hook for reading this book was always the borrowed glamour of the literary archetype Miss Havisham and her iconic but original shabby chic ensemble. The most useful question asked by Juers is what if any relationship did the real historic figure buried in the graveyard of St Stephen’s Church, Newtown,  have on the formation of the iconic character Miss Havisham of Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations?  She deftly deconstructs that myth for what it is but allows there are holes in the argument which she neatly reconciles in her use of the  imagery  of lace that is quite appealing on ages 116-7.

Interestingly, Juers cites Rosemary Shephard’s  (curator of Lace at the Powerhouse Museum in the 1980 & ’90s) view that ‘the space are the most important element of lace, that looking through a filter of spaces lends a different perspective to the view beyond’ (p117).

Tilly Olsen’s Silences explored the issue of people marginalized and silence in literature, because of race, class, gender or even status. Here the subject is a single white female from a prominent family with aristocratic pretensions, yet she vanished in plain sight.  Whether this was due to gender or temperament we do not know. Certainly we get to know what Eliza Donnithorne was not: she was not married nor is there any reliable indicator that she was to be married. Juers notes there were no marriage bans registered.  Eliza seems to have been a well read woman who may have had the last laugh – reading of Miss Havisham and hearing talk that she had been a model  for that character. What is conjured is the image of the open -doored house on the dusty main thoroughfare to Newtown village in which a wealthy  woman lived who seldom ventured out but who unusually had the means to live her life on her own terms, lived until she died.

The Recluse is therefore a somewhat postmodern deconstruction of the very inner west sub-urban myth that the reclusive Eliza Donnithorne was the model for the angry vengeful woman  and the fulcrum one of the preeminent novels in the canon of English Literature: Charles Dickens Miss Havisham.

We are never going to meet the chimera of the subject, Eliza Donithorne, who  is,  Juers notes, an ‘irretrievable presence’ (page5) which is not unusual in a time when women did not have the vote, seldom had property and were financially dependent.

The evidence – or lack thereof –would suggest an alternative understanding of what inspired Charles Dicken’s character Miss Havisham. Claire Tomalin’s biography Charles Dickens: A Life refers to the new weekly magazine Dickens launched in 1859 All The Year Round, in which he records that by October 1860 he had begun to write Great Expectations, expected to be published from December 1860 to June 1861.

‘It did not come from research or the theatre but out of a deep place in Dicken’s imagination which he never chose to explain’ (p309). Tomalin notes that  ‘Pip’s narrative is full of mysteries, not all of which are explained: for example his two visions of Miss Havisham hanging from a beam. Nor can he, or we, ever be sure how mad Miss Havisham is. She seems mad enough when he first sees her, fixed in her distress at being jilted on her wedding day, yet she decides things for herself, gives orders to Jaggers and others, controls her money even thought she chooses to let her house decay, and lives a life that is fantastical but deliberately so’(page 311).

In The Recluse, Juers has explored  the misread sign Eliza Donnithorne, and debunked an urban myth whilst giving us a glimpse of the world of colonial Sydney . But above all, she has drawn into high relief Australian popular culture’s need to bind art to real life, to sensationalise the ordinary and make everything personal. (The popular press do this still everyday on any number of topics). And to see Eliza Donnithorne as a model for Miss Havisham is still a furphy.

However, for me, Dickens provided in Great Expectations the clues from the outset; and for the purposes of this review he, via Pip, has the last word on what inspired Miss Havisham:

A childish association revived with wonderful force in the moment of a slight action, and I fancied that I saw Miss Havisham hanging to the beam. So strong was the impression that I stood under the beam shuddering from head to foot before I know it was a fancy – though to be sure I was there in an instant.

 – Linda Adair

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The Recluse is available from Giramondo Publishing http://www.giramondopublishing.com/the-recluse

Linda Adair is a Sydney based critic and an editor of Rochford Street Review.

Diversity and Cohesion: Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper reviews Thirty Poets edited by Felicity Plunkett

Thirty Poets edited by Felicity Plunkett. UQP 2011.

Martin Duwell (Australian Poetry Review, 1.2.12) considers anthologies:

… weird and fascinating reading experiences. In many ways they are rather like poems themselves. They have an intention … but the possible meanings of the work often overtake its intention. Like poems they have a personal stamp but they also have a context – the context of other anthologies. Like poems they have complex and important internal structures …

An anthology is like a bunch of flowers, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, and there is an art in arranging both flowers and poems. The two opposing principles of variety and cohesion often create a tension, as it is difficult to achieve both in equal measure. In the case of this anthology, the structural principle is the nature of the selection criteria: the poets were born after 1968 and had to have at least one publication. In fact, as far as we can judge (not all the poets reveal their date of birth in their biography), the dates of birth fall somewhere between 1968 and 1980. Apart from the criterion of year of birth, the arrangement is studiously neutral, poets being represented in alphabetical order, a common practice these days (e.g. Best Australian Poems). The advantage of a neutral arrangement is that readers may find their own connections. For example, there seems to be a deep link between the first poem, Ali Alizadeh’s ‘Listening to Michael Jackson in Tehran’and the last poem, Petra White’s ‘The Gone’: a journey across geographical and cultural territory and a mourning for those ‘packed into the present tense of here lie/ and the single past tense of the headstone’. David McCooey, in his introduction, has commented that Plunkett ‘has chosen the poems…so that the collection reads like a ‘book’, with artfully repeating motifs and themes.’

Themes and motifs I have chosen to trace have been those identified by David McCooey (‘Surviving Australian Poetry – the new lyricism.’ International Poetry Web, May 1 2007) as being part of a ‘new lyricism’. He identifies three elements of this new lyricism: ‘worldliness’, ‘the uncanny’ and ‘lyricism’. While, as McCooey has stated in the introduction to the anthology, there is clearly an enormous variety of theme and form represented, and we would not push this framework too far, I found it useful in exploring the ‘flavour’ of the anthology, with the caveat that both Potter (Poetry International Web, July, 2011) and Alizadeh (Cordite, 30th May, 2011) have expressed reservations about such a classification.

McCooey defines ‘worldliness’ as: ‘… the ‘recumbent poetic’ that can be found through any number of antecedents not determined by nationality.’ He has identified ‘key concerns in Australian poetry’ as ‘self and place’.

Place is interwoven with memory, as in the poems of Samuel Wagan Watson; as a source of ambivalence, as in ‘Antipodes’, by Bronwyn Lea, exploring the ambivalence of a European in Australia. Jaya Savige, in the persona of Michael Dransfield, exposes the Australian abroad:

I guess I’ve never understood
the romance of those ruins of the blood.

In Sarah Holland-Batt’s poem ‘The Art of Disappearing’, it is the self that keeps changing:

Desire will not hold …
Something is always about to happen.
You get married, you change your name…’

In Petra White’s poem ‘The Magnolia Tree’, the tree is a metaphor for:

A mind beginning to know itself again
after a long period of hostage.

Finally, Alizadeh and Kambasovic-Sawers explore self and place from the perspective of their bicultural heritage.

The ‘uncanny’ has to do with ‘strangeness, eeriness … we can find it in the unfamiliarity of the familiar, or in the sense of the familiar in the unfamiliar.’ The uncanny, of course, has a long list of antecedents, not least surrealism. In discussing the uncanny, McCooey uses as an example a poem by Michael Brennan, which has been republished in this anthology: ‘The Other’:

‘… the doppelganger (sic) … is associated with sleep … with
death … sleep is uncanny because it unsettles notions of the self …’

In Brennan’s first ‘Letter Home’ the narrator’s brother, who has died, appears in his mind: he seems to see him everywhere, as in a dream. Whilst he doubts there is an afterlife, the image is at once disturbing and comforting. The second ‘Letter Home’ consists of a dream sequence where dream and poetry are interwoven:

The people douse themselves in petrol
As though poetry mattered

As in a dream, all elements: earth, sky, water, fire, are confounded.

Kate Fagan’s ‘Dadabase’, dedicated to Michael Farrell, is a mosaic of non-sequiturs, a word- and soundscape.  ‘A Little Song’ presents a surrealist landscape, with juxtapositions that make you sit up: ‘Before the world was blue/it was a little darker …’ ‘Concrete Poem’ consists of a series of mini-poems, statements reminiscent of Neruda, dream-like associations with their own internal thematic logic.

In Lisa Gorton’s ‘Dreams and Artefacts’, dreams, history and poetry merge:

‘ … the mimic ship’s hull half-
sailed out of the foyer wall,
as if advancing into somebody else’s dream –
… these things raised
from a place less like place than like memory itself –’

Lyricism ‘is what we associate most commonly with poetry: musicality; brevity; intensity; the drive to epiphany or insight and an emphasis on thought, feeling and subjectivity… The ‘new lyricism continues the lyrical project by being both faithful and unfaithful to poetry.’ (McCooey, op.cit)

Lyricism is as old as the hills – so what might be new about the ‘new lyricism’? Perhaps nothing, or perhaps it lies in the notion of poets being ‘both faithful and unfaithful to poetry’ – maintaining an ironic distance from their own work, weaving into their poetry reference to the whole poetic enterprise. Many of the poets make specific reference to the poetic process in a variety of ways, such as using words such as ‘poetry’, ‘rhythm’ ‘syllable’, thus doubling the frame; the poem contains within it the history of its evolution. In Nick Riemer’s: ‘The Thing You’re In’, the poet is ‘in it’, yet sees himself somehow as an outsider, sitting on the sofa watching movies: ‘Everything happens fast and then is gone’. The poem is also about the frustrating task of capturing this fleeting reality speeding past as water down the drain:

I type full stop and an arrow
appears: today is a flickering thing, there’s
not much I could say about today.’

In Petra White’s ‘Karri Forest’, the forest, in the process of being destroyed, still ‘swirls you in its poem’, so that the creation of the poem in some way counteracts the destruction of the forest.

Referencing other authors and literary works: David Prater’s ‘Sunbathing’ begins with a quotation from Bernard O’Dowd, and the narrative voice seems to suggest this author; in ‘Oz’, Prater references O’Dowd’s ‘Australia’, at the same time creating his personal sardonic eulogy to the country. In ‘A821.4’ that library classification stands for ‘…the place where we all somehow hope to die’, a place where we are ‘in solidarity with those whose fame/ exceeds our own’.

Finally, in Jane Gibian’s ‘Sound Piece’, the items stored in the curiosity cabinet, such as ‘a baby sister sucking her dummy in the night’ are the stuff of poetry, making the whole poem a metaphor for the poetic process.

There are many more paths to explore through this varied and cohesive anthology. You could simply revisit your old favourites and acquire new ones. A poet who has for some time been a favourite of mine is Sarah Holland-Batt. In ‘This Landscape Before Me’, the natural environment, history, the present, in the form of the poet, and the future, in the shape of the rabbit, who is about to die, are all anchored. Then there is the delicacy of ‘Night Sonnet’, with its startling metaphors: ‘Cars drowse under the window quiet as mousetraps’ and ‘a grit of light trembles…’

I am not in the habit of criticising choices made by editors of an anthology. We all have our favourites and each editor has their own notion of what matches. Generally, the poets are all beyond the ‘emerging’ stage and are both competent and interesting. However, not all poems by individual poets are at the same level. The practical constraint of selecting roughly the same number of pages from each contributor, while having the advantage of providing a substantial representation, also carries the disadvantage of including some lesser work. As the poets are relatively young, this may eventually prove to be a disservice.

Another constraint perhaps too rigidly applied was ‘post 1968’. Plunkett herself mentions in the preface several poets  who could have been included, both ‘emerging’ and older poets. I agree. I wonder why she did not do this, as it would have provided greater continuity, instead of giving the impression that the cut-off point had more than ‘practical’ significance.

This collection has effectively balanced competing demands of diversity and cohesion: it is a richly coloured and thoughtfully arranged bouquet of poems. It has already inspired another anthology with authors selected on the basis of age: John Leonard’s Young Poets: An Australian Anthology (John Leonard Press, 2011), featuring 7 poets at greater length (some of the same poets, and even the same poems, as in Thirty Australian Poets). It will be interesting to see what other anthologies might follow in its wake.

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Thirty Poets is available from UQP http://www.uqp.uq.edu.au/

Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper was born in Amsterdam and survived the Holocaust in hiding. She arrived in Australia at the age of 11 with her family. She taught foreign languages and English as a Second Language and lectured in Teacher Education at several universities. She has been published in Australian and overseas journals and anthologies, has won several poetry prizes. Her Dutch-English poetry book and CD Island of wakefulness appeared with Hybrid in 2006. She is a former president of Melbourne Poets Union.

The lives of three saints: Lucas Smith reviews Unaccountable Hours by Stephen Scourfield.

Unaccountable Hours by Stephen Scourfield. UWA Press, 2012.

There is something refreshing in Unaccountable Hours, Stephen Scourfield’s compendium of three novellas released early this year by UWA Press. The refreshing thing, or rather the refreshing absence, is irony. Irony saturates modern culture. We are ironic about our tastes in television, books, music (especially music) and clothes. It’s probably fair to say that irony is modern culture. There even exist those who practice religion ironically. Not so much swimming against the current as floating far out beyond it, Scourfield has delivered an utterly sincere book. It is an amazing achievement but not necessarily an entertaining one and the refreshment leaves a puzzling after-taste.

In the first novella, “The Luthier” Alton Freeman is a meticulous crafter of fine violins. He uses Australian hard-woods in his monomaniacal search for the Sound.

“The sound makes Alton Freeman’s chest vibrate. It seems to enter his body and force its molecules to drum together. It feels almost dangerous. It is as familiar as his own pulse, as the sloshing tide inside him when he plugs his ears with his fingers. It is as familiar, but better. It isn’t just biological or organic, it is emotional, expansive, interpretive. It is majestic.”

The sound is a recording of Bach’s cantatas and partitas made by the fictional violinist Monica Erica Grenbaum.

Majestic! In a modern novel. Incredible. Surely this is a sign that the story is a tragedy. Surely Alton Freeman is due a major misfortune, perhaps a fire to burn his precious viols or a jealous rival to steal his shaping techniques? In fact not only is “The Luthier” not a tragedy, it is a story in which not only the main character’s dreams are fulfilled (through those awfully true clichés hard work and determination) but his precocious child also enjoys great success. It is a story without a villain and therefore only half a story. Though he struggles mightily with his tools and the limitations of his ability he is not even in battle against himself. No vices plague him, and his loving family and loyal friends do everything they can to help him (with the exception of his initially sceptical father).

The writing is often elegant and there is much to enjoy for lovers of classical music or those who enjoy learning the details of somewhat archaic crafts. (I am both, by the way.) If Scourfield is not himself an amateur instrument-maker then he has done some incredible research and love for the Alton and the rest of the characters drips from every page.

The second novella, “Like Water” is the most humourous of the three. It is narrated by thirty-four year old Australian-Italian writer Matthew Rossi. He divides his time between Rome and Perth, two cities which are in most ways polar opposites. The idea of the “Dyadic—of two parts,” defines the story. “I occasionally adopt the name Sydney-Fairfax…using both components of this has the advantage of, overseas, of defining a refined antipodean, which everyone loves.”

Freed from quotidian concerns by a hefty inheritance and a lucky movie deal for one of his novels Rossi muses on such things as “the question of Happiness,” and remembers, in great detail, former lovers. But he is like all of Scourfield’s characters concerned with how to live. He has determined not to procreate, “not to exacerbate the situation generally, not to make everything worse.” In a turbulent encounter at the beach he befriends seventy-two year-old Beatrice and perhaps does more than befriend. Of the three works, “Like Water” features the most conflict, though it is internal. Rossi is intensely neurotic and self-concerned but likeable.

In the final novella, “Ethical Man” Scourfield creates Bartholomew Milner, a sort of old-fashioned naturalist obsessed with doing things the right way. “It mattered. It all mattered. It mattered to Dr. Bartholomew Milner—scientist, biologist, ornithologist, author of numerous papers, namer of two species—how he moved, his quietness, his fluidity, not just whether he could complete a given task, but how he could complete it.” (his italics)

Milner is given a contract to survey a section of the Little Sandy Desert—it’s plants, insects, reptiles and mammals. For six months he will live alone in the desert following what has become known, scornfully among some, as “Milner’s Ethic”: “not even treading lightly, in the popular idiom, but leaving absolutely no trace whatsoever.”

Somewhat implausibly, given his talent for solitude, Milner is “a mesmerising speechmaker.” The speech he gives at a university about the coming “Sixth Extinction” gives Scourfield a chance to repeat pious, millennial ideas about the destructive nature of humanity, which will end up causing our own annihilation. Ideas which are hard to deny, but when found in fiction as barely concealed authorial comment have me reaching for the most scurrilous Kingsley Amis novel. To Milner’s great credit, he does live his ideals but painstakingly having respect for nature is not the most compelling storyline available to a novelist. A nasty mining concern, hunters or even dirt-bikers would have provided a much-needed counterfoil for Milner’s musings.

Unaccountable Hours gives us three saint’s lives in circumspect, careful and often elegant prose. What’s missing is plot and conflict both inner and outer. There is a deep Christianity about these stories as well, unusual in Australian writing and Scourfield has grasped well the way faith and ideas influence our behaviour. Unaccountable Hours is an at times fascinating read but it remains un-compelling despite the attention to detail. There’s a reason hagiographies aren’t read much anymore.

– Lucas Smith

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Lucas Smith is a writer living in Melbourne. He has been published in The Australian Book Review, New Matilda, Eureka Street and The Lifted Brow. He is currently one of those ‘responsible’ for The Nose http://thenose.com.au/, a Melbourne based free fortnightly newspaper of satire, journalism and literary review.

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Unaccountable Hours is available from UWA Publishing, http://uwap.uwa.edu.au/

Hope and Resilience: Linda Adair reviews ‘Bathing Franky’

Bathing Franky. Directed by Owen Elliott, Produced by Michael Winchester and Owen Elliott, screenplay by Michael Winchester. Starring Henri Szeps, Maria Venuti, Bree Desborough and Shaun Goss. For latest distribution details check http://bathingfranky.com/

Rodney(Henri Szeps) and Franky (Maria Venuti) in Bathing Franky.

The independent feature, Bathing Franky is many things, but above all it is a story about love and resilience, both in terms of the narrative on screen and the background story of how that story came to be told. In order to make the film, director Owen Elliott and a group of creative people local to Paterson, Dungog and Gresford in the Hunter Valley NSW, denied the power of the word ‘No’ and their distance to the capital cities and serious funding capital. Like the promotional flier says “With our imagination we make the world”, and it was only through imagination,  determination and lateral thinking, that a world view existing in the  Hunter Region crystallised  as this lovingly crafted film.

By turns hilariously funny, genuinely moving and even, at times chillingly cold, the surprises of the screenplay are always grounded in the emotional truth of the characters. Disarmingly light in touch, it nevertheless pulls few punches as it handles issues seldom considered in bigger budget Australian films.

When Steve (Shaun Goss) is released on parole from prison, he is unable to connect with his girlfriend Susie (Bree Desborough) and his former friends. Needing a job, he takes on a meals-on-wheels delivery job for a community welfare agency run by the forthright Peg (Kath Leahy) and this is how he meets Rodney (Henri Szeps) who cares full-time for his mother Franky (Maria Venuti) .

The story unfolds in magical moments sustained by Szeps’ irrepressible Rodney.  The audience is swept along by the hope and resilience of people whose lives are impacted by trauma in many forms, be it the day-to-day struggle to get by, the after-effects of imprisonment, the endless self-sacrifice of unpaid carers, or the question of palliative care and the right to live and die with dignity in a system geared up for institutionalized care of the elderly and infirm.  Goss delivers a finely nuanced performance in this striking feature film debut; Venuti’s performance as the now ancient but once glamorous Franky is, despite two hours of ageing latex makeup each day, bravely vulnerable and affecting.

It was startling to watch a feature film which looks so good, plays so well, and has such a big heart, only to discover in conversation with Director, Owen Elliott after the screening, the absurdly meagre budget on which it was created. Whilst both Elliott and Michael Winchester (writer) had referred, during the Q & A at the red carpet launch at Dungog’s historic James Cinema on 16 June 2012, to the nano-budget they had stretched to make this film, hearing the actual dollar value amazed me. One can only imagine how extraordinary this movie could have been, had a realistic budget been available! What has been achieved is miraculous and evidence of the generosity of regional communities working to support their own.

Maria Venuti and Henri Szeps on a (soggy) red carpet at Dungog’s James Theatre.

During the Q & A, Elliott and Winchester  alluded to the challenges small budget films face to obtain distribution under the prevailing distribution models. I had travelled up from Sydney to the Dungog screening to see the film, and to enjoy a weekend in the country at the request of John O’Brien who was the Script Editor, First Assistant Director and who worked on the post production of Bathing Franky.  But something happened during the screening of the film; as I  found myself falling under the spell of the amateur magician Rodney, his once-exotic, now-ancient mother, and the influence they have on Steve and his girlfriend Susie (played superbly by  Desborough).

As fresh eyes from Sydney, I came to the view that the struggle to make, and then distribute, Bathing Franky is emblematic of the struggle about what matters in our culture and society where the majority of the population in the cities and know little of the life of  people living  in country towns and the struggles they face. The narrative on screen is about people living on the margins; the story of the making of Franky is about  people committed to telling our stories who work on the margins often without pay. Even if the resulting product was not as good as it is, it would be a shame for it only to be distributed on the  margins.

We sometimes hear politicians talking about the financial and personal sacrifices carers make and the need to support them in a country with an aging population. The message is not sexy and most voters do not care. This film brings one carer’s situation to life with colour and joy and a surreal twist of humour.

A good script,some great camera work by Gavin Banks and some lovely performances make it a special treat. Some high risk moments are handled sensitively and joyously. And although there are a couple of scenes likely to take some people beyond their comfort zones, these are never gratuitous.

Rochford Street Review wants  encourage audiences in Sydney and  Melbourne, and indeed across Australian, to go and see this film because it is both great fun and a story of good faith.  The problem is, where is it showing? Whilst special screenings have been held to sold out houses in Parramatta, Dungog, Maitland and Newcastle,  distribution in Sydney or Melbourne is far from assured as yet; simply due to the way the prevailing distribution models do not favour small, independent film makers.

Hopefully, the Friends of Franky, and some champions too, will take up this challenge and at least  a limited release in Sydney or Melbourne will be made possible. Again lateral thinking and community support may be the only way this can be done because money is a very real obstacle for people who have put their own funds and unpaid time into the project. Crowd funding is one possible way of raising funds for a screening in a capital centre.

Visit the Bathing Franky website, www.bathingfranky.com, for updates and information, and offer to help if you can to bring this wonderful movie to a cinema in a capital centre near you.

Afterall  ‘with our imagination we make the world’ … but a little bit of practical support  goes a long way too!

At the Q & A after the Dungog screening of Bathing Franky (from left to right) Owen Elliott (Director and Co-Producer), Henri Szeps, Maria Venuti and Michael Winchester (Co-Producer and Writer). (Photo Linda Adair).

– Linda Adair

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Linda Adair is a Sydney based critic and an editor of Rochford Street Review.

Rochford Street Review – More than just words…..

Up until now Rochford Street Review has concentrated solely on reviewing Australian creative writing. Over the past seven months we have published close to 50 reviews and articles about Australian writing – many of these pieces have reviewed small press publication which would normally not receive critical attention.

While we have every intention of continuing to our concentration on creative Australian writing at all levels (from the smallest small press to larger established publishers), we are also looking to expand our gaze slightly to other areas of cultural endeavours. Rochford Street Review, therefore, will start to feature the occasional review/article on independent Australian films, or on ground breaking /interesting Australian drama and performance or indeed any area of the creative /visual arts we find interesting and/or challenging.

While we are Sydney based we would like to encourage contributions from across the country so if you are interested in contributing please get in contact with us.

We trust you will enjoy our slightly expanded scope. Stay tuned!

Mark Roberts and Linda Adair
Editors Rochford Street Review

The quest for infinity: Francesca Sasnaitis reviews ‘Conjuror’ by Allan Browne

CONJUROR by Allan Browne (includes Jazzhead CD of new music). extempore publishing, 2012.

On Tuesday, June 6, I was driving down from Sydney to Melbourne, and happened to arrive just in time to attend the media and friends launch of Allan Browne’s Conjuror at Uptown Jazz Café in Fitzroy. Miriam Zolin, extempore’s founder, managing editor, tireless worker and promoter of all things jazz, throws a mean party, and I was primed to hear the poet speak and the drummer play; to hear word and sound collide and collude.

For those unfamiliar with jazz and improvisational music in Australian, Allan Browne has worked as a drummer in bands as diverse as the Red Onion Jazz Band, which he co-founded in 1960, and the Paul Grabowsky Trio in the 1990s; his drumming crosses over from the traditionalist to the avant-garde. As a musician he is a multi-award winner and elder statesman of the form. As a published poet, however, he is a newbie (this first collection covers forty years of writing practice) and a self-confessed autodidact.

In Browne’s realm ‘jazz’ is a form of collaborative writing:

i write in public

(with others)

our tangled arcs

threaded on grammar, are screeching chalks

or a sea of question marks

That quest for infinitely evolving connections is exactly what jazz and poetry should be about. In Making Your Own Days, Kenneth Koch calls non-traditional rhyming poetry the ‘new music’: ‘a big, fragmentary collection of clearly depicted anecdotes and scenes, held together by invisible connections of sound and emotion . . . in which meaning and music seem to have melted into one another so as to be indistinguishable.’

Supported by Sam Pankhurst (bass) and Marc Hannaford (keyboard) Browne first paid homage to an early exponent of performance poetry. His reading of Vachel Lindsay’s fabulously rhythmic poem ‘The Congo’ (1914) reminded me that jazz is rooted in an oral tradition which goes back to the call-and-response of Afro-American spirituals and field songs, and forward to contemporary rap. Browne’s poems are best read aloud with a drummer’s voice: the beat brings the word to life. If you lack imagination, the CD accompanying the book is an excellent introduction to the music of The Allan Browne Sextet and to Browne’s distinctive Aussie drawl.

Miriam Zolin (left) introducing the band at the launch of Conjuror, Allan on drums, Sam Pankhurst on bass, Marc Hannaford on keyboard. (Photo by Francesca Sasnaitis).

Much of the collection, in sections headed ‘Performed with Music’, ‘Muses, Music and Musicians’ and ‘From CDs’, is given over to elucidating the art of jazz: observations of playing, players and their world. Even sections purporting to deal with matters of the body (‘Frail Vessel / Steely Stuff’), the family (‘Heart and Home’) and life in general (‘Mad Mad World’), abound with jazz references. In the title poem ‘Conjuror’, the drummer walks through the crowd hampered by the appurtenances of his trade; he observes himself, the crowd and his progress. The poet and the drummer are both insiders and outsiders; actors and observers. Browne embraces the poetics of reflection and participation. He borrows freely from music and literature, mixing and merging the languages without self-consciousness. In ‘silhouettes ahead’:

the next narrative nags

half baked

ripped off, verbatim, empty

and falls a spent flare on a safe sea

Years ago, when I ran a bookstore, Browne would occasionally drop in. His reading was eclectic, a self-education in what might have been the Bloom-ian canon. I remember him buying Stendhal’s Le Rouge et Le Noir (The Red and the Black), which chronicles a provincial young man’s attempts to rise above his modest beginnings with a combination of talent and hard work. It amuses me to equate Browne, the lad from Deni (Deniliquin, NSW), with Stendhal’s hero, Julien Sorel, but a momentary doubt assails: I might be mis-remembering. Perhaps it was not The Red and the Black he bought, but The Charterhouse of Parma; perhaps he bought both on different occasions; perhaps I am making the whole thing up? In any case, though I can detect no direct references to Stendhal in Conjuror, other classics are openly acknowledged. Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ inspired nine recorded compositions and Arthur Rimbaud’s ‘The Drunken Boat’ inspired both the The Allan Browne Quintet’s eponymous CD (2007) and several poems, including ‘je ne puis plus’:

notes of resignation

fashioned spiritually

into her own misère

the notes are bells

ringing, chastely tuned

pitched to her god

and humanized

by a human catch

a larynx shrunk

in fearful artistry.

The first verse ends on a tone of awe at the vocalist’s talent: her ability to pitch her voice to heavenly spheres, but to remain fragile, vulnerable, ‘human’. I assume Browne refers here to Stella Browne, who sings on the CD, but the sentiment could apply equally well to any jazz vocalist, who has stood upon a spotlit stage and soothed the audience with the panacea of her voice. The second verse concludes:

a frail nightingale

halo’d in grubby light

lifted the jaded spirit

of an exhausted quintet

thankful for the darkness.

The best poems in this collection evoke similarly atmospheric scenes. They also display the same irritating quirk of punctuation: a full-stop at the end of every verse. Why, I wonder, use this emphatic point when the tone of the verse would be better served by remaining open ended; when neither the line breaks nor the rest of the poem’s punctuation warrants a full-stop? I wonder whether this is not some residue of musical composition (of which I know nothing). I would have expected a looser structure, something closer to the notations made for improvisation, from this jazz master.

Drummers are traditionally regarded as a somewhat diffident species, but Browne is not of that type. I have seen him flirt shamelessly across the footlights, pluck a rant out of the ether at random and pump out a set of controlled rolls, all at the same time. He is a raconteur who should be allowed to speak for himself:

oh yeah, but no

just family diffidence

no, but yes

the old hum hah

precursor only

to the final no or yes               whatever

– Francesca Sasnaitis

Allan Browne – “The poet and the drummer are both insiders and outsiders; actors and observers.”

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FRANCESCA SASNAITIS is a Melbourne-born writer and artist, currently based in Sydney, where she is completing an MA in Culture and Creative Practice at the University of Western Sydney. Her poetry most recently appeared in extempore and Visible Ink and can be read online at gravellyviews.wordpress.com.

Conjuror is available directly from the publishers, extempore publishing http://conjuror.extempore.com.au/