Issue 22 Special Feature Contemporary Irish Poetry – Introduction by Mark Roberts

Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

Approaching the Irish coast

Like many Australians my family has a close connection to Ireland. Most of my mother’s side of the family came from Ireland in the decades following the famine. Growing up my grandfather played baseball rather than cricket and his team was made up primarily of the children of Irish immigrants. My first real lesson in Irish history came after I asked him about an old gold mining town in central NSW called Home Rule that we had passed through on a family road trip when I was about 10 years old. Then, when my parents and I were cleaning out his house after his death, we came across a number of old books at the back of his wardrobe including an old IRA songbook.

But while I learnt about our Irish heritage from my grandfather neither he, or my mother, ever left Australia. Interestingly, I am also not aware of any immediate family members who had returned to Ireland until my wife and I made a fleeting visit last year, crossing the Irish sea in a large ferry called Ulysses.

We were tourists arriving in Dublin on 15 June and immediately found ourselves discussing Joyce with our taxi driver. Of course the next day, Bloomsday, was something extraordinary as a city celebrated a novel. Late in the day, as we were walking down a laneway near the river, we came across one of those readings of Ulysses that you come across now and then on 16 June . In between chapters a local poet, Stephen James Smith, performed a poem called ‘Dublin You Are’ which managed to link the celebration of Joyce’s Dublin with modern-day reality.

As it was the centenary of the 1916 uprising the city was full of reminders of the struggle for independence, a struggle which played a part in the decision of my ancestors to leave. Another reason for migrating, of course, was the famine and a few days later at Roscommon I stood outside the Famine Museum and listened to wind and remembered a quote from Tim Robinson’s Connemara, which I had read early that year, where he described how a: “wave or wind breaks around a headland, a wood, a boulder, a tree trunk, a pebble, a twig, a wisp of seaweed or a microscopic hair on a leaf, the streamlines are split apart, flung against each other, compressed in narrows, knotted in vortices. The ear constructs another wholeness…..” At that moment I felt that wholeness and I decided to try and understand more about the links between my past and my history. As a poet and writer I knew this meant that I needed to read the Irish poets who were writing now.

Back in Australia I started looking them up. Sometimes it’s hard keeping track of what is happening in your own back yard let alone what is flying under the radar half way round the world. But I quickly realised that that this was a worthwhile and exciting exercise. With the help of a reading list supplied by the Irish/Australian poet Robyn Rowland and Paul Casey’s excellent essay in Cordite on Small Poetry Presses in Ireland, I started to discover some amazing poetry, some of which was deeply rooted in the Irish consciousness while others easily transcended national borders. One interesting thing, however, was that probably due to the Irish diaspora even the Irish centred work made connections on the other side of the world.

The work that will appear over the following three months as part of the Contemporary Irish Poetry feature is the result of that brief trip to Ireland and the discoveries that followed. I am still discovering poets and small Irish literary presses and I’m interested in hearing from people who might like to be part of this unfolding project. I’m particularly keen to publish reviews and launch speeches from recent publications. If you are interested in being a part of this project please contact me at and please keep coming back over the next three months to see how the project unfolds.
(Photographs by Mark Roberts)

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and has been active in the Sydney poetry scene for many decades. His latest collection of poems, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in 2016. He occasionally blogs at Printed Shadows


A Micro-Climate of Imagery: Mark Roberts reviews ‘The List of Last Remaining’ by Louise Nicholas

The List of Last Remaining by Louise Nicholas. Five Island Press 2016

list of last remainingWe choose to read books for all sorts of reasons, the covers, a good review, a recommendation from a friend, lecturer or taxi driver. In this case I came to Louise Nicholas latest collection because of its title – The List of Last Remaining. It’s a suggestive title, with an internal rhythm that suggests great things. I had never read Nicholas’ work before but I was immediately drawn in.

The List of Last Remaining is a carefully structured book. It starts and end with family, of parents and children. The opening poem, with the forbidding title ‘Coffin Bay’, relates a memory of when she thought her parents were feared lost at sea. Her fear in this poem is very real:

Then we walked along the the water’s edge as if it were
the edge of our lives, and gazed out to sea and thought
of killer whales that drape themselves in seaweed and lie in wait
for stray seals

but their parents do come back and normality returns:

And we ran along the beach and skimmed a few stones
and got back in time for tea.

The eleven poems in the first section are all about growing up, from young children skipping stones on the bay waiting for their lost parents and dinner to the awkwardness of adolescence. We are also introduced to Nicholas’ sense of humour in poems such as ‘Skittles’ where the poem itself is shaped like a skittle. The playfulness in this poem, however, isn’t restricted to its shape. The poet’s mother was a dressmaker in a small town and, as such, had access to measurements of most of the women in town – information that can prove useful to a schoolchild:

only I knew my grade seven teacher
was courting a ‘bust’ at all, let alone
38 inches of it squashed flat as two
trapped bundles of newborn naked-
ness by her buttoned-to-the-neck
blouses and double-breasted wool-
len jackets.……………………………

The other four sections in the collection continue this sense of playfulness, often at the same time as confronting quite serious or threatening situations. In a poem ‘Kibbutz Matzuva, Ulpan Class’, in the section ‘Israel 1972’ (1972 was the year of the Munich Olympic Games), Nicholas writes of a photo taken of a group of young international volunteers on a Kibbutz and remembers that the night before:

a bored kibbutz guard burst into our rooms
and threatened to kill us,

a situation that was only disarmed by Karen, who is first described as a “whining cockney” who simply said “Bugger off, I’m tired” and went back to sleep. While this is perhaps not the strongest poem in the collection, its structure does point to one of Nicholas’ strengths. The drama of the poem is announced within the first two lines and the poem then reverts to a everyday description of the people in the photograph before we return to the opening incident in the last few lines:

We, of the hot-to-trot, we, of the show-no-fear,
who, the night before, felt the great red pulsing muscle
of our hearts stopper up our throats like a fist…”

The emotions in this poem rise, fall, then rise again almost without noticing in the space of 16 lines.

Emotion is at the heart of some of the best poems in The List of Last Remainng which can be found in the middle section called‘….our little loves and commonplace deaths’. The poems here begin with the birth of the poet’s children and end with the death of her mother. These are finely crafted, intimate poems that stayed with me long after I read them. At times they almost seem a matter of fact, before a flash of Nicholas’ humour followed by a sudden turn of the screw. In the first poem, for example, the unexpected title, ‘ Rain, with a chance of miscarriage’, puts us immediately on edge, particularly when we read that it is dedicated to “Josh” who, we presume, is her son. The poem gets straight to the point:

One morning, you barely more than frogspawn,
I wake to rain and a trickle of blood.

After this initial shock the poem settles down to the regularity of a nighttime hospital:

In the middle of the night, my loss with nothing
left to lose and you still busy becoming,

But this is the maternity ward after all and there is the ongoing drama of childbirth, no doubt confronting for a first time mother facing the possibility of miscarriage:

a woman screams as if beaten and abused.
Words no mother taught her fall fully-formed
from her mouth

But then Nicholas’  laconic humour kicks in:

A baby cries. A heartbeat later, a man on the phone
… the corridor:
“Yeah it’s me, Darren … a girl, Melissa Jane …
seven pounds four ounces …
Nah, easy … coupla stitches but she’ll be right.”

The poem ends with the confidence that the immediate crisis is over:

I re-commit to raspberry-leaf tea,
yoga for ease of sliding you out.

There is another birth poem ‘Tunnelling into the Light’, this one dedicated to Zoe (presumably the poet’s daughter). This poem is full of the drama and movement of a second born announcing their intent to hit the ground running:

bracing………. the ram rod of……….  your back ………. against
………. one wall ………. of my uterus ………. and pushing
………. ………. with your feet……….  on the

The unexpected broken lines here add to the drama of the poem, the spaces suggesting the panting and the intake of breath necessary to brace for the next contraction.

These birth poems, and the poems of childhood which surrround them, are followed by a series of powerful poems about the poet’s mother’s death. These poems are perhaps even more powerful as we have already been introduced to her mother. She is the figure in the opening poem whom the young children fear has been lost at sea, she is the dressmaker in the poem ‘Skittles’. We have also, of course, just been through the drama of the poet herself becoming a mother.

Death is introduced gently in the poem ‘Family tree’. Here is the first recognition that the poet’s mother is moving away from the family she has been a part of for so long. She is no longer part of the “circle’, rather she is starting to stake her claim on the family tree:

………. ………. ………. ………. ………. ………. ………beside
her sister. Her parents are on the sheltering bough above,
she’ll save a place for her brother, tag it with her hand-bag
just in case.

and we are introduced to the cause

Her synapses have long struggled
to keep place with passing time. Now they fizzle
like a cooking pot plunged in cold water.

The poems that follow document her slow decent into death. They are, for the most part, beautifully crafted, sad poems which led to the inevitable conclusion

With finger and thumb, she held your eyes shut:
you were a child well past your bedtime
wanting to stay up for the rest of the show.
………. ………. ………. ‘On the day of your death’

The List of Last Remaining is a book that deserves to be read more than once. While it contains many very fine individual poems, its greatest strength is perhaps how well the poems work together, how each section creates a micro-climate of imagery, and how, the book as a whole brings this all together so that a reader is left with a feeling of completeness.

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his latest collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in 2016. He occasionally blogs at

The List of Last Remaining is available from



Collaborations! Mark Roberts reviews ‘The Silences’ by Amanda Anastasi and Robbie Coburn & ‘Scar to Scar’ by Robbie Coburn and Michele Seminara

The Silences by Amanda Anastasi and Robbie Coburn Eaglemont Press 2016, Scar to Scar by Robbie Coburn and Michele Seminara Press Press 2016.

the-silencesI have been thinking a lot about poets working together on projects recently. I suspect that this has grown from reading translations and feeling, at times, slightly frustrated by the idea that there is an extra layer between my reading and the original poem. I noticed this particularly a few months back when reading the translations by Stephen Kessler of the Spanish poet Luis Cernuda. The translations were presented next to the original Spanish and, while I couldn’t read the poems in the Spanish, it was clear that Kessler had taken some major liberties with the structure of the poems, moving words from line to line and even from stanza to stanza. Armed with a Spanish English dictionary and a good online translator I began to create literal translations from the Spanish which I then reworked myself into versions I preferred. This, I realised, was a great example of how a good translator must do more than simply translate between languages – give the same poem to three different translators and chances are you will come up with three different poems.

The collaborative nature of translations became clear to me many years ago when I first came across Moscow Trefoil: Poems from the Russian of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam (ANU Press 1975). This collection contained a number of ‘translations’ or ‘interpretations’ of poems by Akhmatova and Mandelstam by translator Natalie Staples and poets Rosemary Dobson and David Campbell. Staples would first undertake a literal translation from Russian to English, then Dobson and Campbell would write their own versions based on the literal translations. The result was a two stage collaboration, from the original Russian poem to a rough English copy and then a reworking of the concepts and images into a more polished English poem.

This process was in the back of my mind as I approached two recent poetical collaborations, The Silences by Amanda Anastasi and Robbie Coburn and Scar to Scar by Robbie Coburn and Michelle Seminara. While Coburn is the common element in each collection they are very different books and highlight different ways poets can collaborate on major projects.

The Silences is a thematic collaboration. We are given no guidance or instruction on how the poems were written or how the poets worked together beyond the title of the book, the cover image and the poems themselves.

Coburn’s opening poem, however, leaves little doubt about the central concern of this collection:

there are words that are never said.
we have no use of them

the arrow lodged at the centre of time,
finding nothing
……………………………….Fervour’ / Coburn

These are images of absence, of loss. The unspoken words and the emptiness that lies at the centre. It is interesting that these images are juxtaposed against the ‘fervour’ of the title – is this a passion for emptiness, silence?

Anastasi’s opening poem is as equally evocative. It takes as its subject matter an orthodox baptism, so at once we have the implied background silence of a church. But there are sounds here even if, at first,at first they are the accepted sounds of worship:

…….. A constant male rhythmic murmur.
A recurring melody over sustained organ chords.

But then comes the dissent cry of the child and the first attempts to control or silence that dissent:

……..The cooing and rocking in response
to a persistent ostinato cry. A protective

stroke of the head, and the hushing.
the endless hushing.

……………………………….The Initiation’ / Anastasi

The last line extends the poem well beyond the moment of baptism. The hushing, the attempts at silencing will continue long after the baby has ceased its “persistent ostinato cry”.

These images of silence, absence and hushing continue through the collection and provide the thread that Anastasi and Coburn use to weave their poems into the collection. We have phases like “make your clamour mute” and “your silence like a bullfighter’s stare” (Denial/Anasrasi), “ the coming of only a longer silence/death as absence’ (Autumn Proverb/Coburn), “voiceless breath” (The Afterlife/Coburn) and “The lead in a film for a decade unwatched” (Unexiled/Anastasi).

The collaboration here is often subtle and reveals itself only after multiple readings. There are, for example, a sequence of poems half way through the collection where you start sensing a pattern: ‘Unexiled’/ Anastasi, ‘How I feel About Living Here’ /Coburn, ‘The First Moments of His Absence’ /Anatasi, ‘Sacrificial’ /Coburn, ‘Night Walks’ / Coburn and ‘Night Arrows’ /Anastasi. Images and themes are also passed between the poets, so that the arrows that Coburn finds lodged in the centre of time later appear in Anastasi’s poem ‘Night Arrows’:

The arrows point uphill,
away from the dull prophecy

of familiar halls.

Two poems, however, stayed with me after I read and reread this collection. The Audenesque opening of Anastasi’s ‘The Prodigal Ones’ highlights her confidence in constructing near perfect lines and the setting up of unexpected rhythms:

Let us navigate this disfigured paradise,
collecting remnants of a landscape before

tar grounds, before the concrete islands
closed in, before fields became flanked

with unconcerned fences…

Coburn’s longish poem for Charles Buckmaster ‘Searching for the Lost Forest’ was also one that I kept returning to. Buckmaster, like Coburn, grew up on the rural fringe of Melbourne and was acutely of landscape and the way it has and is changing. He also used the imagery of landscape to represent the body, something Coburn also does. Coburn opens his poem with an image of the landscape where he grew up in Woodstock Victoria:

to wake again
gaze across the yellowed paddocks
the grasses have unearthed
leaving the soil bare

these lines seem to recall Buckmaster’s own memory of the landscape where his parents lived:

Gruyere – is being cleared of its forest – the mountains
become pastures – and carved wastes
and the sub-divisions come – within five miles


……………………………….an end to myth’ – Charles Buckmaster

There is another large silence which this collection actually breaks. Eaglemont Press, which was founded by the legendary Melbourne based poetry Shelton Lea, has been relatively quiet since his death in 2005, The Silences represents their first title in more than 4 years and it is hoped that there will be many more books from this important independent poetry publisher.

scar-scarThe second collaboration I will look at in this review, Scar to Scar, also features Robbie Coburn and is also from a poetry publisher (PressPress) which has recently reemerged after a break from publishing. This time Coburn is collaborating with Sydney based poet Michele Seminara and it is a very different collaboration to the one with Anastasi. Where the two poets in The Silences were working with a theme which drove their shared work, in Scar to Scar Coburn and Seminara are working directly off each other poems in a more direct collaboration.

Interestingly, Seminara’s opening poem in Scar to Scar does echo the theme in the earlier collaboration:

Listen. Silence now,
an empty bed, the sweep
of frantic embrace

……………………………….‘Pulse’/ Seminara

But it is not the silence that lies at the heart of this collection, rather it is the pulse of blood, the flow of water and of time and the connection between the poems. The blurb on the back cover refers to Seminara responding to Coburn work and it is becomes clear from the third poem that Coburn has taken the lead in this poetical dance. Much like a translator Seminara takes Coburn’s images and ideas and reworks them, responding and exploring the ideas and creating new poems.

For me the success of this collection lies in Coburn’s use of landscape to signify the body, something that was hinted at in The Silences. The scars that run through the rural landscape, that defines the young poet, are also the physical and mental scars that he takes with him into his art.

not the barren boneline of the property
the suns eye blinkers, but the repetitive
…………plot of humid air
the body pitching prayer against the silo’s shell

the connection between land and body here is almost religious:

(blood running through the property,
born into it)

……………………………….‘Boneyard’ / Coburn

This is a landscape inhabited by the poet, if only temporarily, but the strength of these poems makes a statement far stronger than any map or deed of sale:

this familiar anatomy of disconnect
where the seasons gather and enter,
should not be troubling.
as you turn, you recognise
the revolving pulse of your breath,
once again inhabiting this space.
……………………………….‘Depression’ / Coburn

For Coburn these poems are the poems of place, of where the blood runs through soil and vien. Seminara’s response then becomes once removed, like the translator, using the emotion and imagery to carve what could almost be called a ‘child’ poem:

the reason for your silence
does not matter.
body and breath in disconnect
as wind gathers in corridors – screaming
……………………………….‘Siren’ / Seminara (in response to ‘Depression’)

At the centre of this collection is the jointly written (composed?) poem ‘Scars and Counter Scars’. Like the best collaborations it can be read in multiple ways, I started reading it as a conventional poem reading from top left, down the page, then starting at the top of the next. But then my eyes wanted to read it all at once, as if it was a piece of music for two voices. The boundaries of the individual poets begin to blur and images from other poems find their way into this combined text.

These two strong collaborations show that, while writing is often a solitary process, there is always scope for conversations and collaboration between writers. Indeed it reminds us that most writing is in response to ideas, themes and images that other writers and artists have also worked with and, in many cases, each new poem is  adding another layer to an existing conversation. The Silences and Scar to Scar have joined Moscow Trefoil on my bookshelf as examples of how great poetry can be produced when poets work closely together.

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his latest collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in 2016. He occasionally blogs at

The Silences is available from

Scar to Scar is available from



A Slightly Frustrating Novel : Mark Roberts Reviews ‘Black Mountain’ by Venero Armanno

Black Mountain by Venero Armanno UQP 2012

black mountainI have a pile of books on desk waiting to be reviewed or to be more correct, waiting for me to have the time to review them. Black Mountain by Venero Armanno has been waiting longer than most. Published in 2012 it was one of those books that intrigued me with its back cover blurb about a boy being sold into slavery to work in the sulphur mines of Sicily over a century ago. Finally, four years late, I finally picked it up.

Interestingly, after finally reading it I had to wait a few weeks before putting pen to paper. The novel itself was relatively easy to read once you get into it and has a strong central narrative that drives the reader forward. But it is also working on a number of different levels, and not all of them are successful.

Black Mountain opens with a man dreaming of a creature with no face. The man and the creature are in a bare room and the creature begs for the man to strangle him one senses to put him out of his misery. As he chokes the creature the blank face takes on the form of the man strangling him. The dream belongs to Mark Alter, a twenty two year old university drop out living alone outside a small coastal town in Australia. He has been having the dream about the creature for as long as he can remember. One night after watching a movie in the town cinema he decides to write a film script featuring the creature and then sends it off to a well known film producer. A few weeks later the producer contacts him and accuses him of plagiarising the creature from a novel called Black Mountain by a writer called Cesare Montenero.

Alter finds a copy of the book and finds that his creature really does feature in Montenero’s novel. He then attempts to track down the elderly and reclusive Montenero in an attempt to understand how they can share the same creatue. When he finally does tracks him down he finds that Montenero has fled and that his home, or more accurately a mansion, is empty. But he also finds a metal box with a manuscript inside and it is this manuscript which provides the bulk of Armanno’s novel . The manuscript is split up into a number of books (Black Book, Blue Book, Green Book etc) and details Montenero’s life from his days as a young slave working in the sulphur mines of Sicily to old age in Australia.

It does, however, takes 30 pages to get to the beginning of Montenero’s manuscript and I had rapidly become tired of the story of Mark Alter by that point. Alter is a very one dimensional character and his story so unlikely that it was only my interest in how we would get to the sulphur mines of Sicily that kept me going.  But the manuscript is a different matter. The character of the young Montenero is richly drawn and the dissolution and hopelessness of the sulphur mines, and the child slaves that are forced to work there, stands out. This is powerful narrative writing which continues through much of the rest of the novel as the young Montenero escapes and is rescued almost on the point of death.

As the story unfolds, however, we begin to learn more about Montenero’s background. He was not, as he thought, sold into slavery as a young boy by his family, rather he was the result of a long running experiment to ‘clone’ humans, an experiment which was shut down during WW1. As Montenero learns more about his background the narrative again starts to break down as the fantasy element of the novel, a sort of Victorian genetic enginering, begins to assert itself.

Black Mountain is for me a slightly frustrating novel and I sense that Armanno is trying to do a little too much in it. I did note that he has written a number of young adult novels (along with another 9 novels) and I did feel at times, particularly during the Prologue, that there elements of a YA novel close to the surface. Perhaps as a result I felt Black Mountain to be a uneven novel, which is ashame because when it is good, such as in the large section revolving around the young Montenero’s life in Sicily, his escape from from the sulphur mines and his rise and fall as a writer, it is very very good. There is just too much getting in the way of the core narrative. As an editor I would have perhaps suggested ditching the Mark Alter character completely and concentrating purely on the life story of Montenero. The novel may have been slightly shorter but you would be thrust into the drama of the sulphur mines almost from page one.

So in the end Black Mountain didn’t quite live up my expectations, which were perhaps a little high given how long I had waited before reading the novel. I felt a little like finally drinking a wine that had been cellared for years only to find that it had just past its peak.

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and publisher of Rochford Street Press. His collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February 2016.

Black Mountain is available from




Luciano Prisco – New Works, Poems from Christopher Barnett: Mark Roberts on Christopher Barnett, Poetry and Collaboration.

Luciano Prisco – New Works, Poems from Christopher Barnett opened at the Langford 120 Gallery (120 Langford Street North Melbourne Victoria 3051) on 10 September and runs until 9 October 2016.


Luciano Prisco ‘Buio’, 2016, oil on canvas

Luciano Prisco’s latest exhibition at the Langford 120 Gallery in Melbourne is a collaboration between the Port Phillip based painter Prisco and the Nantes (France) based writer Barnett. Mark Roberts, who has followed Barnett’s writing since the mid 1980’s, provided the following introduction to his work for the exhibition.


I have been reading Christopher Barnett’s work for over 30 years now. My introduction coming through ulrike meinhof sings and, embarrassingly, I can’t recall now whether I first saw it on stage or on the page. Either way within the space of a week or so in the mid 1980s I had read the text and seen the work performed at the Performance Space in Sydney. I remember being somewhat shell shocked after the performance, but also elated. I had heard a poetry that I had never before heard in Australia – defiant, radically political, alternative and explosive. The words bounced around me, afterwards I remembered large pieces of the monologue as if it had been burned into the back of my brain:

…………………………………………/……th first robbery
was like th first fuck……i knew there would be no glory ……
in my world ……even tho my comrade andreas my lover
andreas hoped there would be…….but when you watch those
you love either shrink or explode ……… glamor becomes
something only an artist like any warhol can understand


…………………….we have a story about martin schleyer ……
this mass murderer turn labour expert was going to australia
……. to teach their rich ……. about industrial democracy ……
well we plucked schleyer out & we left him in the back th boot of
a car ….. we wanted to show australian workers how to teach
their rich …….

ulrike meinhof sings was collected, along with two other extraordinary works, th last days of the world and basket weaving for amateurs in a collection by the important Melbourne based publisher Rigmarole in 1984 (Last Days of th World and other texts for theatre, Rigamore Press 1984). Together with the earlier works, A Fist in th Face of Public Taste (E.A.F 1978) and Selling Oursleves for Dinner (All Out Ensemble 1982), these works represent something unique and rare in Australian theatre and writing. At the time I sensed something of the “ultimate commitment” that Michael Dransfield referred to. A commitment to words, to their meaning and power, their pace and rhythm. If Barnett’s work didn’t make you angry, didn’t make you want to take to the streets then you were obviously on the wrong side of history – or that was how I saw it 30 years ago.

Recently I have increasingly found myself drawn back to basket weaving for amateurs. This text attacks the complacency of Australian culture and cultural criticism and takes the form of a series of voices, artists Margaret Preston and Thea Proctor and a number of critics such as Lionel Lindsay, Sydney Ure Smith, Bernard Hall, Humphrey McQueen, Max Harris and Kym Bonython as well as the generic voice of the “art critic” which functions almost like a reactionary Greek Chorus holding back art and protecting the status quo.

Early in the piece the art critic announces:

i possess no artistic sense but i find i like those pictures old & new which brings th highest price and in spite of everything sd to th contrary price still remains th practical expression of appreciation th decent middle classes have faith in what we defend it may be australia’s duty & privilege to save from th wreck of civilisation th little upon which we can build again

It is difficult not to read this and not think of the way Australian culture has developed since Barnett wrote these words. The flagship companies and galleries are seen in terms of economic multipliers, grass root artists have been cut loose, made to scramble for crumbs and scraps. Revolution may not be the current aesthetic but if this country is to have a cultural future it may become an imperative.

Before we leave basket weaving for amateurs it worthwhile to turn briefly to the last scene of the piece. scene six consists of a single extraordinary poem which is both an elergy and a celebration:


…………………th song of recognised failure

iam a…………………..iam a…………………. i am a
th larrikin daughter of your error
th dumb child at th window
th cripple who has lost his show
th painter with nowhere to go

iam a…………………. iam a…………………. i am a
th killer of a decade’s wrong story
th woman locked in sound
th man caught in the cyrstal night
th person with nothing to show

iam a…………………. iam a…………………. i am a
th city left like warsaw
th night bleached in terror
th story caught in fever
th tale left untold

iam a…………………. iam a…………………. i am a
th family album
th photograph of loss
th beginning of nothing
the failure of song

iam a…………………. iam a…………………. i am a
iam a…………………. iam a…………………. i am a

Looking back on it now this poem is at least the equal of the best work published in Australia over the last 50 years and confirms for me Barnett’s position as one of our most important poet/writers. It is possible to see basket weaving for amateurs as an farewell to Australia for in 1993 Barnett left Australia for France never to return.

The almost a quarter of century Barnett has lived and worked in France could be seen as a kind of self imposed exile but that assumes that he wants to return to Australia. I sense that Barnett has found a level of acceptance for his work in France that would be impossible in Australia and that the political and cultural changes that have taken place here since 1993 has made a return less and less likely as the years have passed.

In France Barnett established an experimental theatre company, Le Dernier Spectateur, in Nantes. Working collaboratively with the marginalized and disenfranchised, Barnett, used poetry, dance and music to help empower people and has attracted praise and support from all levels of French society.

In parallel with his work Le Dernier Spectateur Barnett has continued to write and the evolution of social media over the past decade has provided him a new platform for his work. Indeed, like many others, it was through his Facebook posts that I reconnected with Christopher a number of years ago. What I quickly realised, however, was that social media was another medium for Barnett – like the written page or the stage. It was a form of poetic pirate radio.

Among those poems that I read on Facebook were sections of what was to become when they came/for you elegies/ of resistance (Wakefield Press 2013). This extraordinary work, at once a elegy for Furkan Dogan, the young Turkish activist assassinated by the Israeli military during an attempt to break the blockade of Gaza, and a memoir of Barnett’s own engagement with his own political and personal struggles.

i am
to wires
straight from heart
because murders
eat our sadness
so it is sung
by bodies
so broken

when they came/for you elegies/ of resistance is a dense work, for most of the 316 pages the poem runs in two columns down the page and the reader is propelled forward, taken by the rhythm of the words, the patterns, a machine gun scattering of words. But this is also a work that keeps pulling you back in, where you keep discovering new meanings, new references – for me it was also an education, the text has sent me off in numerous directions over the past three years – learning, discovering.


Luiano Prisco’Gates the New Jerusalem’, 2016 oil on canvas

And so to this exhibition. Once again many of the poems have appeared as posts on Facebook, sometimes accompanied by images of Luciano Prisco’s paintings:



fall over


mourn movement

off world’s

wherever you desire
that to be

amongst bone
& flesh


There is an immediate connection here between Barnett’s words and Prisco’s dark painting. The angular edges outlined in white, the thick browns, greys and black, the thin lines of white dripping through the painting and the surprise of maroon – are reflected back in the poem in lines such as “sound from blood….”, “streaming from skin” and “walk/off world’s/edge”.

Barnett has never conformed to the image of the solitary writer – he has always been collaborating – from his theatre texts in Australia, to his work with Le Dernier Spectateur and his poetry. Once again with this exhibition his words act as mirror for the images, reflecting and amplifying an intensity – while, at the same time the paintings are doing exactly the same with his words.

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. His latest collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press earlier this year. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review.

Further information on Luciano Prisco – New Works, Poems from Christopher Barnett can be found at

New Shoots Poetry Prize banner 2


Sydney Writers Festival: Ye Xin discusses ‘Educated Youth’

Educated Youth by Ye Xin was originally published in China in 1991. The first English translation has just been published by Giramondo Publishing (translated by Jin Han). Ye Xin spoke at Chatswood Library on 19 May as part of the Sydney Writers Festival.


Ye Xin with translator Jing Han discussing Educated Youth at Chatswood Library as part of the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival

It was an interesting experience to attend a literary event in Sydney where over half of the audience was non-European and where non-Chinese speakers had to rely on a translator to follow what was going on.

In retrospect, however, the real surprise was just how rare this experience is. Australia is a linguistically diverse continent – in the late nineteenth century there were approximately 250 indigenous languages or dialects in use around the country (and despite the best efforts of Australian governments over the last 116 years many of these languages are still spoken) – and to our north there are millions of people whose native language is not English. Yet our literature is still predominately an English language literature – work written in or by Australians, even in other European languages, still ranks as curiosity rather than part of the mainstream.

This maybe slowly changing Owl Press, which has been around since the 1990s, publishes writing by Greek Australians and Spinifex Press, is celebrating 25 years of publishing this year, has also been active in publishing and translating the works of women writers from around the world and has an Indian publishing program that stretches back 24 years. We have also seen publishers like Vagabond Press embrace writing from around Asia and the Pacific over recent years as it attempts to include Australian writing in a wider local literary context. Giramondo have also been active in expanding their publishing program beyond the English centric borders of Australian culture and their latest publication, a translation of Ye Xin’s 1991 novel Educated Youth, is further evidence of this.

Ye Xin spoke about his novel at Chatswood Library last Thursday as part of the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival. Through his interrupter he described the main themes of the novel, the “educated youths” or zhiqing, high school graduates who found themselves separated from their families and sent into the country side as part of the Cultural Revolution. Ye Xin, who was one of the zhiging, explained that many of them embraced the change with revolutionary zeal as they felt that they needed to be “re-educated”, others simply “went with the flow”. As the years passed many married, had children and settled down. Then when Mao died they were suddenly free to return to the city under certain circumstances. Only unmarried zhiging were allowed to move back. Many simply abandoned their families, or found means to quickly divorce and flee. Years later, however, the children they left behind began travelling to the cities to look for their parents, many of whom who had married and started new families.

Considering it is now 50 years since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution the publication of the English translation of Educated Youth is a timely one and Ye Xin’s author’s talk raised a number of issues for both the Chinese and non-Chinese members of the audience.

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his own work has ben published in numerous journals both in Australia and overseas. His latest collection, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February.

Educated Youth is available from

In the Shadow of Black Friday: Mark Roberts Previews the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival

The Sydney Writers Festival runs from May 16th to 22nd. complete details are available from
SWFLast years Sydney Writers Festival was, for many of us, overshadowed by the major attack launched on contemporary Australian writing, and Australian creativity in general, by the then Federal Arts Minister George Brandis. In an article written in the foyer of the Roslyn Packer Theatre, I wrote “I should be writing about the Sydney Writers’ Festival this morning, about the conversations, speeches and readings, but a media release from the Australia Council arrived suddenly late yesterday which stopped me in my tracks. Anyone with even the slightest connection to the Arts will be aware by now of the extraordinary attack launched on Australia’s Artistic community in the 2015 budget where funding to the Australia Council was slashed and diverted to Minister Brandis’ Slush Fund” (Artists Left Hanging by Australia Council Decision).

Now, a year later, as I sit down to preview the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival, we are faced with the reality of Black Friday when over 60 Arts organisations, find themselves defunded and the entire Arts Community face the fact that the cultural infrastructure that has been built up over the past 50 years is crumbling into dust. (see Alison Crogan’s excellent piece in The Monthly for a detailed analysis

So while this year’s festival is also being run in the shadow of an attack on the relevance of culture and writing to modern Australia it does also provide us with an opportunity to take stock and regroup. On a purely economic level, for example, the Sydney Writers Festival contributes far more to the economy of Sydney and NSW than the cost of any grant or subsidy it may receive. In fact, I suspect, that if an end-to-end cost benefit analysis was to be undertaken on the economic benefits of festivals such as writers and film festivals to the local, state and national economies, you would find that governments would make a much better return on their investment by investing in culture than by subsidising the mining industry through direct subsidies, tax breaks, the funding of major infrastructure like rail, roads and ports and the cost of cleaning up and rehabilitating sites after mining ceases. Of course, as we don’t measure economic benefits end-to-end, the arts industries are often portrayed as a drain on resources rather than a net contributor.

So moving to this year’s festival. Festival Director Jemma Birrell tells us that “Sydney will transform in May with authors and ideas flooding the city. Bringing fresh perspectives from all corners of the world….. enhance our community with their stories, humour, creativity and vision” and it is the big names that dominate the website and mainstream festival publicity. Kate Tempest ( opens this years festival on Tuesday 17th and, if her appearance on the ABC’s Q&A is anything to go by the audience, at the sold out launch is in for a treat.

Other big names at this year’s festival include Jeanette Winterson, Gloria Steinem, Marlon James, Julian Barnes and William Boyd among others. But the real connection with community often takes place takes place outside the centre of Festival activities on Hickson Road. Already a number of important sessions have already taken place. On Monday 16th, for example, Murri Elder Lesley Williams discussed Not Just Black and White at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba and Beth Yahp discussed her memoir Eat First, Talk Later, at Blacktown Library, while on Tuesday Craig Munro discussed his memoir of working in the publishing industry, Under Cover, at the State Library.

Poetry MayComing up Debra Adelaide will discuss her latest book, The Women’s Pages, at the Margaret Martin Library, Randwick, at 6.30pm on Wednesday and the May Bankstown Poetry Slam takes place at the Bankstown Arts Centre, at 7pm. On Thursday Ye Xin will discuss his book Educated Youth at the Chatswood Library on the Concourse at 1pm while Drusilla Modjeska’s session on the sweep of women’s history, love, friendship, home and finding the room to write (Friday 20 May 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM Pier 4/5 The Waterfront) promises to be another highlight.

One of the poetry highlights of the festival will take place on Friday at 3pm at the Philharmonia Studio (Pier 4/5) with the launch of the historic Australian issue of Poetry, edited by Robert Adamson and commissioned by Don Share, editor of Chicago’s Poetry Foundation.

The festival continues over the weekend with another highlight being poets Eileen Chong and Mark Tredinnick conducting a poetic walking tour of the Botanic Garden on Saturday and Hanya Yanagihara’s closing address on Sunday night.

So if you are in Sydney the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival might just provide a distraction for the doom and gloom engulfing the arts at the moment – at best it might just provide a catalyst to action!

Complete festival details are available at

 – Mark Roberts

Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his own work has ben published in numerous journals both in Australia and overseas. His latest collection, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February.

Making Connections: Mark Roberts Launches ‘Headwaters’ by Anthony Lawrence at the Newcastle Writers Festival

Headwaters by Anthony Lawrence, Pitt Street Poetry 2016, was launched by Mark Roberts at The Press Book House, Hunter Street Newcastle on 2 April as part of the 2016 Newcastle Writers Festival.

lawrence Newcastle

Anthony Lawrence at the launch of Headwaters at the Newcastle Writers Festival. Photograph Julie Manning

It is a great privilege to be here this afternoon to launch Headwaters, Anthony’s 15th (I think) book of poetry, at the 2016 Newcastle Writers Festival. Anthony is one of those poets whose work I have known and respected for decades and whose work has been a great influence on my own work.  His first book, Dreaming in Stone, was published in 1989 and, like an alluvial river flood, each of those previous books has added another layer of richness to Australian poetry and to Australian culture.

Headwaters is no exception – it is a particularly rich and complex layer that is washing over us today. It is, afterall, a book that could  probably launch itself. When I first picked it up it fell open at a poem called ‘The Deep’ which begins:

Crossing the bar from river to open ocean
had become a metaphor we’d devised
for separation, for moving on
so we learned to navigate by intuition
finding ourselves together and alone
beyond sight of land, where distance
and direction are defined by closure…

What need is there of an introduction after lines like these? A simple, beautiful image, the metaphor announced from within the poem easing us into the complexity to come. This is a poem of extremes – The opening image of the bar separating the river from ocean is at the end of the river which has its source in the “headwaters” of the book’s title.  The river and ocean, the land and water and most importantly, light and dark. Here Anthony references the photic and abyssal layers of the oceans – photic where light can penetrate and abyssal where the ocean is so deep no light can reach and which is in perpetual darkness.

Once again what powerful imagery we have here – a free diving couple entering the “fatal levels”. Of course there are many depths to this poem, it is wonderfully descriptive, but we are also told, in the second line, to read it as a metaphor – so we have “signal stations of remorse” and marker bouys “tethered loosely on a line”. To find out just how deep this poem goes you will have to buy the book but, rest assured, you will not be disappointed.

For the past few months I have become fascinated with a word – not a unique experience for a poet I guess, but the word has stuck with me and provided me with a tool to explore some of my favourite poets and poems – that word is ‘lacuna’ and, according to the Oxford Dictionary it means:

“An unfilled space; a gap” or “A missing portion in a book or manuscript” and finally in anatomy “a cavity or depression, especially in bone”

headwatersWhat a wonderful word and what poetic meanings.  This notion of a gap or an unfilled space is an important one for an artist, a gap suggests possibilities, untold stories, connections to be made, a space for the imagination. A good poet can find these gaps and spaces, recognise them when even when they hard to find or even seemingly non existent, but they have to also be able to make the connections and fill those spaces with poetry that makes us stop and wonder at what has been discovered. Fortunately for us Anthony brings this skill to Headwaters and we have the pleasure of watching the gaps and spaces open up and of seeing them filled with poetry.

‘Murmuration’ is one such poem. I read the title and loved the word without really understanding what it meant. I thought of the soft murmur of voices, of a conversation that you can just hear but can’t make out the words, that rises and falls in tones and which you think you may almost understand from the pattern of sounds rather than the hearing of words. But within a few lines I knew I was mostly mistaken:

The first two syllables of the word
that defines the way starlings take a spiral apart
only to fly it back together
………… also the sound of rain
………………………..falling over the Pantheon
or through miles of telegraph poles
on the Monaro Plain

“Murmuration” then is the pattern starlings make as they fly in large groups when they move almost as one. Not for the first time I am driven to research, Anthony has discovered this gap, this space I did not know of until I started reading this poem and now the opening lines have me diving into Current Biology Vol 22 Issue No 4 (and here I quote):

Collections of animals have been given some of the most fanciful, and sometimes unusual, nouns. ……. Tuneful finches are known as a charm, whilst corvids do less well: collections of crows and ravens are known as a murder or an unkindness, respectively. One of the most stunning examples of collective behaviour is the spectacular display of European starlings, the noun for which is a murmuration

By the way I can thoroughly recommend Andrew J. King and David J.Sumpter’s article on Murmuration if you want to really get into Anthony’s poem.

The poem has this mass movement, an aerial ballet if you like, seemingly choreographed yet spontaneous. At the same time, it celebrates the sound of the word that describes this movement, the gentle sound like rain falling over the Pantheon or through wires strung across the  Monaro Plains. So there was some intuitive logic and even meaning to my initial thoughts on the meaning of Murmuration.

– A Starling Murmuration

Anthony has now, however, sent me off in search of Murmurations and I discovered pages and pages of YouTube videos of flocks of starlings forming the most amazing patterns, moving backwards and forwards across the sky. You see he has opened up a space, a gap that I didn’t even know existed and he has filled it with wonderful imagery.

Often the imagery and strength of Anthony’s poems can hide the beauty of the poem’s structure, but it is worth paying some  attention to how the poems in this volume are crafted. Anthony has chosen the structure of individual poems carefully and it is clear, when we look at the poems on the page, that much thought has gone into the way they sit on the page, on the line indents, the white space around the poems and the actual stanza and line breaks. He seems particular fond of tercets, the three line stanzas serve him well both in shorter and longer poems, and there are variations on this structure, with three line indents replacing stanza breaks in poems such as ‘Lies’ and a slightly different structure in ‘Expectation’. There is a another variation in the longer poem ‘Taxonomy’ with every third line broken by a middle justified line, a structure that supports a quite amazing poem very well.

And of course I can’t end without acknowledging the physical beauty of  book as artifact – from its beautiful front cover featuring a stunning wood cut by Julie Manning, to the design and production of the book – the look and feel of the book if you like. We must congratulate the publishers, Pitt Street Poetry, of course,  for bringing together such a fine production. To be a poetry publisher in Australia is a commitment of love, perhaps the 21st century version of Dransfield’s “Ultimate Committment” . It is a love of poetry and a commitment that art, and in particular poetry, has to be an important part of our lives, both individually and as a society. Pitt Street Poetry, and all other publishers that make that commitment, deserve to be supported – without them it would be much, much harder to find work like the extraordinary poems we are launching today.

This is a book that you will want to carry around with you for days. Read it through once and then return to it again and again. The poems will open up, you will find spaces that you didn’t even know existed filled with wonderful imagery and layered meanings – a tonic for this ‘always on’, instant gratification culture which surrounds us today.
So congratulations Anthony and Pitt Street Poetry and I am very happy to declare headwaters launched at the Newcastle Writers Festival on the banks of the Hunter

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review and his own work has ben published in numerous journals both in Australia and overseas. His latest collection, Concrete Flamingos, was published by Island Press in February.

Headwaters is availabe from

Headwaters will be launched in Sydney on Saturday 16th April at 3.30 at Gleebooks by David Malouf as part of a double launch with Anna Kerdjik Nicholson launching Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong




Featured Artist: Tony Oliver Biographical Note – Curated by Mark Roberts

Tony Oliver Circle Within Circle April 2013 acrylic on board Ninh Hòa, Khánh Hòa, Vietnam

Tony Oliver Circle Within Circle April 2013 acrylic on board Ninh Hòa, Khánh Hòa, Vietnam

Tony Oliver’s journey has been an extraordinary one. Born in the Victorian town of Wonthaggi in 1958, Tony moved to Melbourne with his parents when he was 6. A promising VFL player he signed with the Melbourne Football Club and was awarded the MFC Scholarship in 1975 and played a session in the under 19s team.

Oliver studied Art at the Preston Institute of Technology between 1979 and 1981 where he was taught art history by Betty Churcher. While still at Art School he opened his first gallery, the Reconnaissance, on the corner Gertrude and Napier Street, in Fitzroy where he started exhibiting the works of contemporary Australian Artists and building relationships with US and international artists and galleries. While he was running the gallery Oliver met Andy Warhol at the Factory in New York and discussed the possibility of an exhibition – Warhol’s exhibition, Myths, later runs at Reconnaissance. He also met the New York gallerist David McKee and began an ongoing lifetime friendship.  Among notable exhibitions at the gallery at this time include Phillip Guston, Richard Bosman, Roy Lichtenstein, John Perceval, Hans Nammuth,  Jean Dubuffet and Arron Siskind. The inaugural performance of Christopher Barnett’s, Last Days of the World with the All Out Ensemble

Tony Oliver with Andy Warhol at The factory NYC , 1982. Photograph Peter Leiss

Tony Oliver with Andy Warhol at The factory NYC , 1982. Photograph Peter Leiss

In 1985, after the death of his  niece, Natalie Anastasiou, Oliver sold Reconnaissance and moved to Wat Pah Nanachat, a Buddhist monastery on the Cambodian/Laos border where he became a novice monk. In 1987 he returned briefly to Australia before moving to New York and immersing himself once again in the arts scene, meeting and working with David McKee, Jake Berthot and Harvey Quaytman among many others. Returning to Melbourne in 1989 he set up the Tony Oliver Gallery and, over the next 3 years his exhibitions include work by many contemporary and international artists including Paul Boston, Jeffrey Harris, James Clayden, Nicole Page Smith, Jake Berthot, Harvey Quatyman, and Porifirio Didonna. A dispute over rents results in the Gallery closing in 1992.

For the next four years Oliver lived in the Illawarra area South of Sydney. During this time he painted and read vast amounts of literature and was increasingly influenced by the essays of Isaiah Berlin and the ‘history of ideas’ and the writings of the Italian Renaissance thinker Gianbattisto Vico and writings of Theodore Adorno. He also began to develop a serious interest in Aboriginality as a result of living in the Illawarra landscape as well as through the writings of Xavier Herbert and D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Kangaroo, and its timeless and ancient subtext. He renewed his friendship with the mathematician Chris Czarnes, who lived nearby, and he also worked with potter Margaret Tuckson whilst curating an exhibition including her husband’s work, Reversals: Philip Guston and Tony Tuckson (Ivan Dougherty Gallery, Paddington 21 Apr 1994–21 May 1994, Heide Museum of Modern Art  31 May 1994–17 July 1994 )’ . Oliver spent time going through Tony Tuckson’s work in his studio where the influence of Aboriginal, Melanesian and Oceanic art on his paintings became clear.

A meeting with Aboriginal Artist Freddie Timms in Melbourne resulted in an invitation to accompany Timms back to the Kimberley. During this trip Oliver met many Gija people which included artists. The question of establishing an Aboriginal arts centre or company was initially  raised during these discussion. He assists Timms set up a solo exhibition at the Watters Gallery in Sydney where Timms is treated on the same terms as all other Watters artists – a far cry from his previous experiences selling his work. A description of the artistic relationship between the two men can be found in Quentin Sprauge’s article in the Monthly Review (Two Painters in the Kimberley, December 2013 –

From left - Rusty Peters, Paddy Bedford & Freddie Timms at the opening of the exhibition, Jirrawun in the House. Parliament House, Canberra. Photo Giancarlo Mazzella.

From left – Rusty Peters, Paddy Bedford & Freddie Timms at the opening of the exhibition, Jirrawun in the House. Parliament House, Canberra. Photo Giancarlo Mazzella.

The Painting group, which is made up of Freddie Timms, Hector Jandalay, Paddy Bedford, Peggy Patrick, Rusty Peters, Phylis Thomas, Goody Barrett, Timmy Timms and Rammey Ramsey, is named Jirrawun by Hector Jandalay which means one mob standing together’. The central policy of Jirrawun other than creativity and production was to insure economic and social equity for all of its members. Over the next ten years Jirawun grows and expands with over 50 Jirrawun artists exhibitions curated for galleries in all Australian capital cities including Canberra over the decade of Olivers directorship. Some of the highlights of that decade were:

  • Jirrawun exhibition at Martin  Browne Fine art, Sydney attended by the artists
  • Jirrawun exhibition at William Mora Galleries, Melbourne attended by the artists.
  • Waterbrain, Rusty Peters – inaugural exhibition at the Grant Pirrie Gallery Sydney
  • Paddy Bedford Retrospective, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney. Australia
  • Beyond the Frontier – Exhibition at the Sherman Gallery Sydney
  • Women’s Business – Sherman Gallery Sydney
  • Jirrawun in the house exhibition held at Parliament House Canberra
  • Blood on the spinafex – (exhibition Ian Potter Museum, University of Melbourne.
  • Fire fire Burning Bright, a stage production based on a local massacre is produced and performed at the Perth Festival and opens the Melbourne Arts Festival at the Victorian Arts Centre.
  • Numerous exhibitions with Raft Artspace, Darwin and William Mora Galleries Melbourne.
  • The Jirrawun suite of works on paper created in Melbourne and later purchased by the Art Gallery of NSW
  • Lunch with the Lawmen, Gija Lawman. Painter, Paddy Bedford addresses Federal Court Judges at a lunch at the Victorian Federal Court held in his honour along with lawyer Peter Seidel and Tony Oliver.
  • Local and international curators travel to Jirrawun to purchase works by the artists.
  • A relationship is established with Charles Darwin University which results in Jirrawun artists attending workshops at the university and becoming artists in residence.
  • The creation of the Jirrawun Centre in Wyndham .
  • Oliver becomes CEO of Jirrawun and later the CEO and Artistic Director of Jirrawun Atrs Corporation.
  • Relationship with the Melbourne Law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler who work pro bono for a decade for Jirrawun Arts. Oliver forms a close frienship with the firms Pubic Interest lawyer, Peter Seidel, who works tirelessly to realise Jirrawun legal initiatives which include its historic corporate constitution which is the first to recognize Gija traditional law working simultaneously with Australian law. The establishment of a consignment legal contract document for Jirrawun artists with commercial galleries to protect their equity and intellectual rights and the creation of wills and estates for Jirrawun artists. These legal initiatives were then shared with other aboriginal arts organizations
  • Sir William Deane becomes the Patron of Jirrawun Arts and Nemuwarlin Dance Group
Leaving Jirrawun

Leaving Jirrawun

During his time at Jirrawun Oliver visits Vietnam and, on the death of Paddy Bedford, he resigns and moves to Vietnam where he marries.

Tony Oliver and his wife, Le Chi, live in Ha Noi for the first year and a half after being married and their home turns into a art salon which includes historical Vietnamese paintings covering all of its walls mainly from the American war era and post war period. The house is frequented by a variety of artists, writers, film makers and older communist party members. During this time it was not uncommon to see the kitchen table surrounded with guests eating lunch or dinner. Friendships were formed with the silk painter Nguyen Thu, oil and silk painter the late Madam Vu Giang Huong,  Madam Vo Thi Hao and oil painter Pham Luc. Their son, Jack Oliver, was born during this period and eventually the family moved back to Le Chi’s fishing village at Dong Hai – a little hamlet north of Nha Trang City. Here they lived in a little house in the village whilst Oliver built a house studio beside the beach not far from the village. Oliver continues to paint there and recently the family had a addition with the birth of a daughter Hoa Mi. Oliver exhibited work from this period at the William Mora Galleries in Melbourne In 2013  – Notes from Vietnam ( ). Recently one of his paintings, Circle Within Circle appearing on  the cover of Christopher Barnett’s recent book when they came for you / elegies of resistance  (

Tony Oliver, Exile, 2012 - William Mora Galleries, Melbourne

Tony Oliver, Exile, 2012 – William Mora Galleries, Melbourne

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is the founding editor of Rochford Street Review. His first major collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, Island Press 2016 will be launched by Anna Counai at the Friend in Hand Hotel in Glebe, NSW on Saturday 27 February at 2.30 pm.



Blink and You’ll Miss It: Mark Roberts discovers ‘Eight Paintings in One Night’

Eight Paintings in One Night: Lauren Beasley, James Thomson, Blake Malone, Soop, Joel Easson, Matthys Gerber, Elmo Aoyama and James Aksman-Glosz at the Bevery, Holme Building , The University of Sydney. 6pm Thursday 15th October 2015.

8 paintings1 night

Blake Malone Composition Nasa (front), James Aksman-Glosz, Ares III: Living and Dying in Fear of the Naked Sun (middle), James Thomson Candyland (back). Photograph Mark Roberts.

Earlier this year a cafe shut down in Chatswood Plaza close to where I work (my day job that is). It has remained vacant ever since with a “to lease” sign stuck in the window. During the same period my local shopping centre has slowly shut down. Sometime over the next few months it will be demolished to make way for a new development. But by that time many of the shops and offices will have been empty for over a year. Surely these spaces could be put to some use during this period. They may not be economically viable for an ongoing commercial lease (or perhaps, in the case of the cafe in Chatswood, the rent is unsustainable, but couldn’t these spaces be repurposed for a few months?

As they are mostly retail spaces they are unsuitable for short term accommodation for the homeless (though there maybe other spaces that are suitable) but there are many other uses that these spaces could be put to in the short term that would return some value to the community. Two that spring to mind would be temporary gallery spaces and artists and writing studios.

Imagine that derelict building that has sat empty for a year because the developer went bankrupt full of artists studios and exhibition spaces – the building itself could become an artwork – a last burst of colour before it is knocked down. Such spaces would be, by definition temporary, transient spaces recorded on film, in words and in the artworks that were produced. Art as social history – who lived, worked and died in the building. There are lots of possibilities.

There are, of course, numerous roadblocks to such a vision – commercial, planning, regulatory, safety and the like – but surely there would also be numerous benefits.

An example of how easy it would be to set up a very temporary art exhibition space occurred last Thursday at Sydney University. A temporary exhibition of eight paintings by eight artists was set up in a room in the Holme Building, one of the Buildings operated by the University of Sydney Union. The exhibition was organised by a group called MASS which describes itself as “a nomadic gallery that make use of alternative spaces for exhibiting”. MASS appear to have grown out of Sydney College of the Arts and still have a close relationship to the University of Sydney – hence the use of aq room in the Holme building for their one night exhibition.  They do, however, state that they want to work “through shop-fronts, offices and warehouses and matching these to suitable artists to work with/in”, so perhaps we might hope to see some life in abandoned shop fronts yet.

An interesting part of the 8 Paintings in 1 Night exhibition was that it didn’t feel like a ‘proper’ art exhibition. Works were leant up against the wall or upturned tables were used to lean larger canvasses up against. The result was refreshingly informal, you could actually walk around the backs of many of the works and see the wooden frames, the stretched canvasses – things that are normally hidden in a gallery exhibition.

Each artist had a single work on display so there were eight works in all and as the works were spread throughout the room (ie not simply hung on walls) the space actually felt quite full.

Walking back through the Quadrangle I wondered is MASS had stumbled over a model that could breath some life into doomed spaces and provide access to studio and exhibition space to artists and writers struggling to find outlets. Possibly – lets see if they can expand off campus and into the suburbs.

Eight paintings in One Night. Photograph Mark Roberts

Eight paintings in One Night. Photograph Mark Roberts

 – Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochfors Street review and has a collection of poetry, Concrete Flamingos, due for publication in 2016.

MASS can be contacted through their face Book page

robbie add