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.

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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
…………..is 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
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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

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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 http://pittstreetpoetry.com/anthony-lawrence/

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 https://www.facebook.com/events/268999346771528/

 

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Anthony Lawrence – the blog post Southerly refused to publish.

Each month Southerly (the Journal of the English Association, Sydney)  asks a writer or critic to write a number of blogs for its website (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/). In February the Southerly blogger was the poet Anthony Lawrence – he was introduced on the Southerly website on 10 February in the following terms:

Anthony Lawrence has published fourteen books of poems and a novel. His most recent collection is ‘Signal Flare‘ (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013).

His books and individual poems have won many major awards. In 2013 he won the Blake Poetry Prize.

He teaches Creative Writing and Reading Poetry at Griffith University, Gold Coast, and lives at Cabarita Beach, on the far north coast of NSW.  (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/2014/02/10/next-monthly-blogger-anthony-lawrence/)

Over the course of the next few weeks Southerly ran a number of Lawrence’s blogs:

Lawrence’s final blog was due to be published last Friday (7 March). It was to be an interview with Lawrence conducted by the young poet Robbie Coburn. Southerly, however, refused to run the interview claiming, according to Lawrence in a post on Facebook, that the interview shifts Lawrence “into the third person” and that the form of the blog “presents as self-promotion”.  Lawrence also claims that another reason Southerly refused to run his final blog as he was critical of an aspect of John Kinsella’s political poetry.

Given that the final Lawrence blog will now not appear in Southerly and that it does fit together with a number of the other blogs published during February (particularly the Adamson piece where Lawrence describes the influence that meeting Robert Adamson and a number of other poets had on his development as a young poet), Rochford Street Review has made the decision to publish Lawrence’s final banned Southerly blog in full.

Comments maybe left at the bottom of the article.

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Robbie Coburn interviews Anthony Lawrence

Anthony Lawrence

Anthony Lawrence reading at the Sydney launch of Signal Flare (Photograph – Robert Adamson)

Anthony Lawrence’s poems capture the Australian landscape like a photograph. His viewfinder captures nature, and with vivid imagery instills clear visuals in the mind of the reader.

One of Australia’s most important contemporary poets, his work has been widely published in Australian and international journals, magazines and newspapers, and represented in anthologies. He has published many books of poetry since his first Dreaming in Stone (Angus & Robertson, 1989), edited anthologies such as The Best Australian Poetry for UQP, and has published one novel In the Half Light (Picador, 2000). His poetry has won numerous prestigious awards, such as the inaugural Gwen Harwood memorial prize, the Peter Porter Poetry Prize and the inaugural Judith Wright Calanthe Award.

With the land changing so drastically, and the state of the world altering, it is inevitable that nature will be viewed differently by later generations. But Lawrence is a poet who creates somewhat of a time capsule for future readers in his studies of nature, combining this with a controlled lyrical intensity and explorations of relationships and lives. His latest collection Signal Flare was published by Puncher and Wattmann in 2013.

RC:
Nature is a consistent element of your work. Do you think nature can be preserved through poetry?

AL:
The natural world has been a central focus in my work since I began writing poetry. The first (written evidence) of a poem that references nature can be seen on a sheet of white cardboard. I must have been about 9 or 10. The poem is called ‘Currawongs’ and is written in red crayon. It’s a rhyming poem about currawongs trying to navigate a strong wind while returning to their nests. There is a description of a tree, most likely a eucalypt. The sky is mentioned. I had recently discovered, by way of my maternal grandmother, Alfred Noyes’ poem ‘The Highwayman,’ and I was filled with the need to tell a story in rhyme. Currawongs were frequent visitors to our back yard. I’d sit and watch them after school. I wasn’t aware of this at the time, as I was just following my nerve and desire to create something, but I was making a big claim, from my nine years on the earth, that these birds are worth close scrutiny. I didn’t consider that anyone would ever read it. I felt compelled to record details of wings, sky, wind, nest, tree, eggs, and their calls.

Years later when I discovered Crow by Ted Hughes, many of the poems of George Mackay Brown, the poems of Philip Hodgins, Robert Adamson, Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Hugo, James Dickey, Charles Wright, Mary Oliver and others, I realised how profoundly the best of their poems about the natural world have helped readers maintain a fierce interest in ecology, the minutiae of species, the underside of what seems obvious. I’m not interested in reading or writing poems that take the natural world at face value, where one or two physical elements are isolated and turned into verse. The only way poetry can invite or instigate serious debate about the natural world is to engage with it’s variousness: weather, the earth itself, flora and fauna, rivers and oceans and, personally, how humans interact with these things, either individually or through the changing filter of a relationship. A very early poem ‘Whistling Fox’, which you’ve mentioned and which I’ll address again later, involves a father-son relationship, Australian landscape, and the killing of a fox. It’s a poem that moves swiftly through these elements, but which I hope conveys a deep engagement with the natural world, while at the same time there is trespass, and sadness. It’s a paradox that surfaces frequently in my poetry: I’m here, and I’m involved, but in order for me to get close, I’m going to interrupt, briefly, the natural order of things. It’s what happens when we step out of our comfort zones and confront what’s happening beyond the window. Many know what a corella looks like. Many have seen a hawk floating at the side of the road, or riding an updraft over a headland. The difference between acknowledgement and serious study is to make the time to be still, to be watchful, to notice how a spangled drongo feeds and becomes a part of the shifting light in a tree. Poetry can offer us these things in unique ways. The poetry I love most is that which offers me different ways of seeing the natural world, and which challenges my perceptions of how things live and grow and move. This kind of poetry preserves and highlights what we can’t afford to ignore.

The poet John Kinsella professes to be one whose work is largely that of protest, of ‘disobedience.’ He has written that he ‘employs language in unexpected and ‘disobedient’ ways,’ and that it ‘jar readers into different modes of consideration, to reflect not only on the themes but on what poetry actually means.’ That sounds impressive, but much of Kinsella’s ‘protest’ work gets caught-up looking inward at itself, and this self-awareness strips the potential for reaching out to readers and can feel almost secondary to its intentions. Protest lost in language. The British poet Sean O’Brien, however, understands poetry’s potential for sharpening our awareness and our obligation to be vigilant, and demonstrate our desire to preserve what can so easily be damaged, and erased. Unlike Kinsella, he’s not afraid to be transparent, while employing a complexity of syntax and rhyme that add to, not subtract from, the poem’s intensity:

‘Be with me when they cauterize the facts.
Be with me to the bottom of the page,
Insisting on what history exacts.
Be memory, be conscience, will and rage,
And keep me cold and honest, cousin coat,
So if I lie, I’ll know you’re at my throat.’

– ‘Cousin Coat’

I’m not advocating that all poetry be protest, yet if we’re going to preserve anything we’re passionate about, or care enough about to want to set down in a poem, then surely we owe it to potential readers to be fierce, engaging, challenging and understood.

RC:
How do you think the human world reflects the natural world in poetry and can you give me some insight into how you use nature as a basis for an exploration of the self when approaching the writing of a poem?

AL:
My responses will no doubt cross over and under each other, and I can see how much of what I’ve just addressed will be relevant to this question… so let me be circuitous. There’s no point in offering a personal response to any aspect of one’s own work unless influence is summoned to put things into perspective. I can speak with confidence about the poetry of others whose work has involved and engaged with the human/natural/worlds, and I can speak with authority about how I see these things as being reflected in, and totemic of, my own work. I’ll begin with the poetry of James Dickey, since I’ve already mentioned him as an influence, and also my last blog post for Southerly was a poem-review of some of his (early) poems. Next I’ll discuss your question in terms of the poetry of Philip Hodgins.

Like many poets, James Dickey was someone who made mythologies from experience and wrote so convincingly of them that we enter his landscapes and rivers under the spell of his images and his control over the flow and shape of syntax. Whether he was in a canoe on a South Carolina river or recalling a story of killer whales tracking humans from under the ice, the raw human details are inextricably linked to the unfiltered details of the natural world in which these dramas and wild observations are played out. Dickey understood the power of narrative, and he cut his stories back to their essence. Certainly with his first three books, an intense lyricism was his defining gift: water, fish, trees, even a vast Antarctic scene – whatever aspect of the natural world he felt driven to define was done so through the eyes and pulse of a man for whom being alive was, for a long time, a hands-on, fully-lived adventure. Dickey’s images could be visceral and real, or surreal and playful, yet whatever he attended to had a vein of authenticity running through it. There was always a sense that this might have happened; that Dickey may have been there. If we sense that Dickey has invented a scene or situation, no matter how surreal the circumstances he evokes, there is almost always an accompanying sense that he had discovered something, about the natural world or himself, in the process of composition. Wallace Stevens wrote “The problem with surrealism is that it invents without discovering. To make a clam play the accordion is to invent, not discover.” When Dickey invented a heaven for animals or an eagle mating to death with a wolverine at the top of a sub-Antarctic spruce… you know he’s discovering things about what it means to engage in a raw, human way with the inventiveness of the natural world. I learned early from James Dickey that when writing about the natural world it’s okay to have a wild imagination and to engage with subject-matter some might find uncomfortable or confronting, as long as human involvement, whether peripheral or central, is part of the fabric of the poem.

I first read the poems of Philip Hodgins while studying at Charles Sturt university in Wagga. Back then it was the Riverina College of Advanced Education, set among dry hills and massive river gums. I loved the Riverina landscape – the greys, browns and pale greens of the plains and Murrumbidgee River, the irrigation canals and dusty light, the extremes of temperature. Discovering Hodgins’ poetry was a pivotal moment – here was a man writing out of the urgency and pressure of a diagnosis and ongoing treatment for leukemia, and his poetry was often simultaneously an indictment and invocation of wonder at the Australian landscape and farming methods. Hodgins’ personal trauma heightened his vision, and his poems that deal with dairy cattle, pigs, termites, invasive livestock treatment, or rural landscapes often have metaphors of illness or death woven into them. Philip Hodgins was a master at using an Australian vernacular in such a way as to disguise, not conceal, his intricate half-rhymes and sonorous tones, often leaving the bell-notes of the sounds of words to ring of each other from five or six lines away, such was his intuitive control over the language at hand. Hodgins’ poems have been a constant source of inspiration. His best poems are brilliant examples of how human influence ebbs and flows within the context of the natural world.

RC:
Almost all of your work revolves around vivid landscapes, particularly ocean imagery, and the relationship between nature and humanity.

Your 2009 collection The Welfare of My Enemy was quite a change of subject for you, exploring the terrifying circumstances involving missing people. What drove you to write about this? Even reading the work is terrifying when one considers how regularly disappearances occur…

AL:
lawrenceThere were well-defined landscapes and oceans in The Welfare of my Enemy too. As Frank O’Hara couldn’t enjoy a blade of grass unless there was freeway nearby, it seems I wasn’t able to enjoy a good mystery and disappearance unless there was a desert scene, mountain range, or sea spray blowing in from somewhere, and not infrequently.

On Friday night, August 25, 1978 Stephen Lapthorne and his partner Michelle Pope vanished while driving in Stephen’s lime-green Bedford van. I knew Stephen well. They disappeared somewhere between Pymble, on Sydney’s north shore, and Berowra in the Kurringai area. They’ve never been seen. My long sequence of poems (untitled) tried to engage with the phenomenon of missing persons in ways that embraced both narrative and lyric poetry, and using mostly half-rhymed end-words. The majority of situations are fictional, though many are informed by fact, especially the details of Stephen and Michelle’s disappearance. I believe Ivan Milat is responsible. He was working on the Kurringai council at the time. My theory is that he staged a breakdown in a stolen car on the Old pacific Highway, and when Stephen and Michelle pulled over to help, he overpowered them and drove the van to where it could be buried. I also believe that the van containing their remains may be buried on a property near the Wombeyan caves road. The Missing Persons unit seem loathe to act on what they see as wild conjecture, especially after thirty six years.

The Welfare of my Enemy was a difficult book to write. The subject-matter saddened me. Writing from the perspectives of victims, family members and perpetrators of crimes took its toll, and I stopped reading and writing poetry for awhile. If it’s true that writing poetry can be hell on our mental health, I wouldn’t recommend Missing Persons as a theme for anyone. I do feel it’s an important book. It was a long time in the making, and when it came to the writing, it happened fairly quickly. The poems fell into place, the voices announced themselves, and I had a good first draft in six months.

RC:
You have consistently written in a more ‘traditional’ style, compared to what is being done by some contemporary poets in terms of form. While some experiments lose feeling and sincerely, your style lends itself to great evocation and is consistently in line with the reputation you have already built. Your collections, throughout your career, have advanced this style, using free verse to create your syntax and music within the lines.

When considering this, do you think the quality of the work is in its syntax, rather than the form in which the poem is presented to the reader? And how much do you think the visual presentation of the poem on the page affects its reading?

AL:
Many poets change their style. Some do this consciously, and the reasons for this can be complex. James Dickey made the decision to leave behind the ‘night-rhythm’ (written from the pulse, not a calibrated syllabic placement) of his first three or four books, and instead focus on a long line with gaps to represent pauses in breathing. Dickey was disingenuous in that he criticised the ‘Projective Verse’ of Charles Olson, then went on to employ in his own poetry much of what Olson was advocating. ‘Projective Verse’ involved the natural run, extension and end to the breath in a line of poetry, thus freeing the line from metrical constraints. Dickey called Olson’s theory ‘creative irresponsibility,’ yet he embraced the long, broken line, using the typewriter to great effect to shape both the line and its visual power. The appropriation of ideas is nothing new, though Dickey was not one to hide behind a device or theory and hope no-one would notice. His use of Olsen’s methodology worked. It became a part of his thinking and breathing, in the composition and editing, and the majority of his books used this long line.

The main problem with a deliberate attempt to change one’s style is the sudden shift in register, the general tone and shaping of the poems. On a surface level, this seems fine: why not cut the finely-crafted lines that connect stanzas and pack up the well-worn and second-skin twists to syntax? Anyone can make the decision to dramatically change how they write, yet by doing this, the essential deep unknowing that comes from many years of allowing association, chance and diffuse intuition free-play can be hobbled, or even cauterized.

There is no one way poems are made, yet most go through many stages. My poems generally begin with a line scribbled down with no thought as to what it might mean or where it’s likely to go. I will run with what arrives, extending the line, shaping it, teasing out its visual and aural possibilities, delighting in what emerges, word by word. I treat every line as a poem, and I’m not able to move on until I’ve taken it as far as it can go. Then I’ll start another. The process begins again. By working this way, each poem develops with a series of startling surprises and challenging problems. While I don’t over-think how a poem will look on the page, I do play with form as I go, concentrating, even in the very early stages, on where to end the line. This helps with structure and so assists with rhythm. Investigating the variousness and possibilities of syntax, a poem’s music begins to surface, and this leads to its shape. Eventually, when a poem has gone through many hand-written drafts; when the table and floor are patched with blackened pages; I’ll start to craft a poem into its final shape. The process begins again, though this time its a one made while being fully-conscious, and its done on the screen. Poems can go through fifty or sixty visual versions before I set them free. Finally, after putting constant pressure on each line, a poem will crack open and reveal its shape. My hope is for a poem that achieves the best possible balance between how it sounds, feels, and looks on the page. Given the precision and constant vigilance I bring to each new poem, I’ve never been able to step away and decide to change the way I write just for the sake of it. I don’t see the point. I’m told that my poems and books have changed anyway, over the years, in structure and tone. This might not amount to being experimental, and I’m fine with that.

A poem’s visual arrangement can be a major part of its ability to engage a reader, or it can be a distraction. Poems should never be fashioned from couplets or sestets just for the sake of it. If, after many combinations and variations, realignment of lines and how to end them, a poem demands a certain form, stay with it. It will be the right one. The poems in my new collection Signal Flare went through many drafts at the final, shaping stage – some as many as eighty versions – before I was able to cut them free. The puzzle-solving is something that both delights and distresses me. Its hard-work, especially when it comes on the back of having spent weeks trying to end a poem. But that’s what it’s all about. There is so much to consider. When I tell my Creative Writing students that putting words down on a page is just the first step in what could well be months of work before a poem is finished, they are bright-eyed, bristling with adventure, and they think I’m joking. By the end of the semester their expressions are dark. They arrive at workshops wringing their hands. They speak in careful, enjambed sentences. Their bags are heavy with drafts. They get it.

RC:
Do you find your influences have changed considerably throughout your years of writing poetry? One generally starts by reading the classics and those more well known international poets of old, moving on to contemporary Australian poetry later on. Are you influenced these days by new work you read as much as that which inspired you as a young poet?

AL:
My influences range from poets whose work I return to frequently for sustenance and inspiration, to investigating the poems of new writers. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s being published in Australia, the UK and America. The Best Australian Poems, Best American Poems, Best New Poets from the US, and Best British Poetry anthologies are always at hand. There are some wonderful new, young writers out there. The secret is to read constantly and widely. If you’re not an active, engaged reader of poetry, you’re work is unlikely to develop beyond its surface-tension. To break through, we need to embrace the past and present. A competent poet will remain within that competency if wide reading is abandoned. Recently I wrote a piece on Ambition for this blog. I mentioned poets who love the idea of being known as poets but who aren’t prepared to put the time and serious effort into craft, the nuts and bolts and false-walls needed to make poetry that stands out. Sadly, this is a common thread in poetry. There are young poets who just don’t extend their reading beyond the work of their peers. Big mistake.

RC:
Some poets actively distance their true self from their poetic self, so to speak, using characters. Your work is often extremely personal, addressing particular life experiences openly. Pieces that come to mind are ‘Whistling Fox’, ‘Home After Two Weeks Away’, ‘The Drive’ and your chapbook of love poems Magnetic Field. Do you think these pieces are written as a means of coming to terms with experiences, out of necessity, or do you think the poetic and true self should be separate? I’ve heard many poets say they believe poetry is not supposed to be therapy. Do you think there is still a place for catharsis even if the ‘work of the poem’ is the main focus?

AL:
In my course The Spellmakers – a dedicated poetry-reading course – I give a lecture on the so-called Confessional poets, where we read a number of poems by Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, John Berryman, WD Snodgrass, and to the list up to date, Sharon Olds. Many of these poems address intimate, often disturbing details from the poet’s life. For Sexton and Olds, especially, there seems little doubt that the poems chronicle personal events and scenes, and at their best the poems are captivating and brilliantly conceived.

With some poems I have not tried to conceal myself. The I is me, and for whatever reason I felt compelled to place myself front and center within a poem was of its place and time. I don’t regret this. The poems you’ve mentioned are, indeed, a lyrical recording of personal experience. I have tried, when addressing experience directly, to find a balance between the shock of the human presence and the best possible language with which to frame these experiences. When experience overrides the poem, it fails palpably. I also find the dramatic monologue a wonderful way to come to terms with experience. This form allows us to investigate personal issues while wearing a mask, or while standing off to one side, offering a list and commentary. It’s a powerful form but should be used sparingly. You’ve used the word ‘necessity’ and that’s exactly why these personal poems were written. They announced themselves. They needed to be written. I’m not interested, as mentioned previously in these blog postings, in poetry that works as therapy only, as catharsis. I’d rather stand in front of a mirror and play charades with myself. And while I love many of Anne Sexton’s poems, there were also a number that failed because she couldn’t harness the personal to the extent where it married the lyrical detail. The intimate or brutal details overextended themselves, and so the poems became like diary-entries in verse. In Signal Flare, many details of my life are there, yet I chose different vehicles with which to carry the details. And don’t forget the power of the lie. In this book I’m more interested in a close look at the lives of others. Aligning myself with the experience and emotions of others in a way that diminished (not removed) the raw effect of the I was my main objective here. Even when I was there, it might have been an embodiment of myself and others, or someone imagined completely. I don’t have a sense of where my next poems will lead me, but my bags are packed, my passport is current.

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Robbie Coburn

Robbie Coburn

Robbie Coburn was born in June 1994 and lives in the rural district of Woodstock, Victoria, Australia. His first full collection of poetry Rain Season (Picaro Press) was published in 2013. He is well into a second collection, The Other Flesh. A chapbook, Before Bone and Viscera, will be published by Rochford Street Press later this year. He regularly reviews books for Rochford Street Review.

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Courageous and Compelling: Judith Beveridge launches ‘Signal Flare’ by Anthony Lawrence

Judith Beveridge launched Signal Flare by Anthony Lawrence (Puncher & Wattmann) at the Friend in Hand Hotel on 14th October 2013.

Anthony Lawrence

Anthony Lawrence reading at the launch of Signal Flare (Photo Robert Adamson).

I’m deeply honoured to be launching Anthony’s new book Signal Flare today. As is usual with Anthony’s work, there are great treasures and riches on every page. Anthony‘s poems reward you every time you go back to them. And I go back to Anthony’s poetry a great deal. Over the years I have found the poems to be inspiring, sustaining, provocative, awe-inspiring, far-reaching, beautiful, wildly imaginative, yet also very grounded in emotion.

What I’ve always admired about Anthony’s work is his ability to express powerful feelings through complexities of form and language. Anthony uses language as a form of revelation. In his poetry, language is substance; a means of generating realities and of extending and shaping consciousness. William Carlos Williams said: ‘It isn’t what [a poet] says that counts as a work of art, it’s what he makes.’

I know that when I read a poem by Anthony Lawrence I’m going to be taken somewhere transformative and unique. I know that something within me is going to be activated and enlarged. Wallace Stevens talked about the power of the imagination to transform reality. He is famous for saying that poetry ‘helped people live their lives’. By this I think he meant that poetry can change our perceptions and help us escape the numbness of habit and daily routine. We need the poet’s eye to explore, to celebrate, to make the familiar extraordinary and to make space for the inner life. Anthony’s ability to keep his readers, and also himself, in a state of wonder and amazement, is one of his great specialties.

Signal Flare, the new book, is riddled with wonder and amazement, yet it is also underpinned by an ability to obverse meticulously, and to go about its image-making as ‘primarily a discipline of rightness’ -(another phrase from Stevens). Let me list a few of these truth-to-feeling images:

….Sydney rock oysters
like ceramic fuse plates
sparking and shorting-out in the wash.

– ‘Lines in Absentia’

After the black rain squall
………of an argument has blown over
……………….we talk about how we
………are spirits with working mouths
a crazing of bones
………and a scribble of red and blue
……………….
electrical wiring
………heated by blood
from a four-chambered engine room.

– ‘Nocturne’

Blood, you gnarly old scholar
pouring over illuminated texts
an arterial wound brings up from stack
turn off your lamp and write your name
before you thumb the uncut pages
of my skin.

– ‘Signatures’

 Orb spiders lie cruciform on nets they have thrown.
They have a bladderwrack bulb for an abdomen
and graffiti stencils
above the poised, furred joinery of their legs.
They like to harvest blown pollen
which they keep in a sling below the sleeves
that house their fangs.
The netted shells of insects
are kept for their fine acoustic qualities
when stitched into mobiles
along with the lacework of dead leaves.

– ‘Orb Spiders

 The discordant, wrought-iron choir inside a storm
unmantles your resolves.
On nights like this
you dig a wick from its hollow
and carry cupped-flame from room to room.
In the clapped-out framework of a high window
the furred treble clef
of a spider in snared repose
is enough to keep you occupied
as the rain dies away like forced applause.

– ‘A Night at Home’

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You can see how the details have a sparkling precision and make us see things in an enlarged and energised way.

Something revolutionary occurs, I believe, when the poet, through exploration and invention, discovers the images and metaphors, the rhythms and sound patterns which open up and reveal a new set of meanings. Anthony’s poetry is remarkable for this. I’ve always enjoyed the way that Anthony integrates observation with thought and reflection, so that his poems are never just descriptive, but they open up vistas and perspectives, simultaneously linking and activating many assumptions and ideas.

Many poems in Signal Flare are meditations on nature, metaphysics, love, loss and mortality. These are Anthony’s prevailing themes, yet there is a more pronounced elegiac tone in this book, There are many poems of tenderness and compassion, and they sing with a generous voice. I’d like to read Moth Orchid, which expounds so simply yet movingly on loss

I’ve been trying to find the flower
that best defines you.
That it has to be unusual
in need of care
requiring an abundance of warmth and light
difficult to find and has a name
with the music of earth or air inside it…
the moth orchid comes to mind
and remains –
……..a flower that thrives
……………….at rare altitudes
one that’s been behind and above
the deaths of men who fell
while trying to claim it
from some distant, lofty place.
Have I said enough?
Has my definition gone
some way towards revealing you?
Let me say the flower’s name again:
the quiet vowels
the heavy consonants of grief.

In a poem, I always look at the poet’s ability to capture a number of extras, or windfalls. Anthony‘s poems are full of bonuses, because he pays painstaking attention to craft. He is able to garner much from his syntax, his rhythms, his lineation and his stylish and sure-footed metaphors. He is able to modulate his voice in ways that are both casual and intense.

I think with this volume, there’s no question that the level of astute attention that he as given to craft has gone up a notch: each line break has been carefully thought out, each move serves the poem. There are so many aspects which have been so expertly calibrated. Anthony often runs his sentences over many many lines, yet he never loses control; the branching or architecture, the flow of the sentences across the lines are simply masterful; he beautifully settles the weight and drift of the cadences in ways that are satisfying and surprising. Though his sentence constructions are often complex, his use of the line disencumbers any heaviness that might be produced by a build-up of phrases and clauses. A great part of the effect of Anthony’s poems is achieved through the balancing and positioning of the thoughts over the lines; each line will let a poem run out a little further on its syntax, shaping the pulse of thought: This is especially true of the very first poem in the book ‘Lines in Absentia’.

In Signal Flare Anthony’s voice is still seasoned with lyrical, dramatic and narrative impetus, but it’s also a book that is more graceful and enterprising, perhaps more of a book of mood, of memory, past and present. Though it startles with its agile, daring, off-centre imagination, it still has tenancy in the extrinsic world and has strong emotional coherence built from the layering of finely crafted lines. It is obvious that Signal Flare has a grandeur of language and thought that must surely have been hard-won. It also attests to Anthony’s courageous and compelling consciousness and his remarkable ability to work his material extensively and ambitiously.

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Judith Beveridge is the author of The Domesticity of Giraffes, Accidental Grace, Wolf Notes and Storm and Honey all of which have won major prizes. Her new collection, Devadatta’s Poems, will be published by Giramondo Publishing in 2014 and Brazilier Publishers are bringing out a new and selected volume, Hook and Eye, in 2014 for the US market. She is the poetry editor for Meanjin and teaches poetry writing at postgraduate level at the University of Sydney.

Signal Flare is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/signal-flare

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Recording Images: Robbie Coburn reviews ‘Flying Low in the Minor Key” by Anthony Lawrence

Flying Low in the Minor Key by Anthony Lawrence, River Road Press, 2011.

Anthony-Lawrence-CD-cover-image-21-150x150Anthony Lawrence is unquestionably one of Australia’s most important contemporary poets. Flying Low in the Minor Key, released on CD as part of the excellent River Road Poetry series, brings together 30 of Lawrence’s finest poems spanning from his first collection to his most recent and uncollected work, read by the poet himself.

There is much to enjoy here, and it is clear this fine compilation has been delicately chosen to be listened to either in its entirety or simply as individual tracks.

The blurb for the release sums up Lawrence’s style perfectly, as “perhaps the most Romantic of Australian poets” but the true appeal in Lawrence’s work is in his stark imagery and diversity, and this collection is a wonderful display of his command over the lyrical, and the clear drive of narrative that runs fiercely through his verse.

This is evident from the moment the listener presses play in the fantastic opener “The Drive”, which recounts a childhood incident involving the firebombing of a car, beginning with Lawrence remembering the drive to the police station with his father:

My father could not look at me as we sat in the back of a white Sedan
on our way to the police station
But I looked at him.
He was staring straight ahead through all the years his son
had disappointed him.

It is this no-holds-barred, controlled lyricism that separates the poet from many of his contemporaries, tackling less glamorous topics with clarity while still upholding his use of description, creating an atmosphere that is honest, confessional and compelling. The poem continues:

When the detectives arrived I was having a family portrait taken…
I ran behind the Sunday school buildings and confessed
to the lawn scraping currawongs,
I watched black smoke, like useless prayer, gutter into the Sydney sky.
The sirens were a long time coming.

While ultimately being an appreciation and acknowledgement of family that is hidden during the angst and turmoil of adolescence, as the poet and his parents now “talk… about the violent spirit of a teenage son”, while sharing “their names” and “blood”, Lawrence consistently manages to intertwine experience with evocative imagery, creating a visual element most written poetry fails to achieve.

Another standout is the award-winning and hauntingly atmospheric “The Rain”:

Rain, and driving thoughts of rain, miles
and hours of it, inches and yards of light
and dark rain, where seamless cloud has been
stitched and gathered into a great undoing
of itself…

A heavily descriptive piece, water is a consistent theme in Lawrence’s work, particularly in earlier collections The Darkwood Aquarium, Three Days Out of Tidal Town and Cold Wires of Rain, and becomes a foundation for much of the work presented here.

The poet has a particular appreciation for the alluring qualities of rivers and oceans in poems such as “The Trawler” and “Oceanography”, while the title poem, far different in subject describes “the night’s paint being prepared or still wet on the leaves and grass”, as a change unexpectedly occurs.

The latter poem breaks away from Lawrence’s usual take on the lyric, written in the 2nd person, creating vivid imagery that causes the listener to ponder its deeper meaning, revealing the impressive range and control of the poet’s voice. Lawrence characteristically writes from the point of view of a naturalist, and this piece effectively summarizes the collection as a whole.

Ultimately, this is a brilliant CD, presented in a beautifully printed cardboard sleeve that demands to be heard again and again, and would be enjoyed by any regular readers of Lawrence’s work and indeed all lovers of good poetry.

To hear the poems is an experience far more intimate than simply reading in silence, and Flying Low in the Minor Key is moving and memorable listening, reaffirming why Lawrence, all these years on, remains at the forefront of Australian poetry.

– Robbie Coburn

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Robbie Coburn is a poet and writer from country Victoria. His first chapbook Human Batteries was published by Picaro Press in 2012. He can be found at  www.robbiecoburn.com

Flying Low in the Minor Key is available from River Road Press: http://www.riverroadpress.net/?page_id=331

Poetry of the Great Australian Nightmare: Rae Desmond Jones reviews The Welfare Of My Enemy by Anthony Lawrence

The Welfare Of My Enemy by Anthony Lawrence, Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2011.

Anthony Lawrence and Friend (image courtesy of Manning Clark House – http://manningclark.org.au)

In The Welfare Of My Enemy, Anthony Lawrence’s vision moves back to the early poet, Barcroft Boake, who described the ominous quality of the Australian landscape  in 1891:

East and backward pale faces turning –

That’s how the dead men lie!

Gaunt arms stretched with a voiceless yearning –

That’s how the dead men lie!

Oft in the fragrant hush of nooning

Hearing again their mother’s crooning,

Wrapt for aye in a dreamful swooning –

That’s how the dead men lie!

‘Where the Dead Men Lie’ Barcroft Boake (1891)

by contrast however, Lawrence creates his vision of the uneasy dead within the Australian landscape in language that is deliberate, flat, detached and cold. The poems lack a title: each poem has a six cornered asterisk, as though to emphasise the questionable identity of the subjects: victims, perpetrators, Policemen, grieving relatives, friends, or simply those who became ‘absent’. Many poems are dramatic monologues, but they don’t vary much in tone according to the personality of the speaker. All are written in irregular two line stanzas using mostly half rhymes, which add to the discordant unspeakable absence:

.

Children don’t say his name or try to find him.

Dad is not a word they use. His absence is a thin

.

Erratic line through the years. At five, his own

Father left, and never returned. Call it a pattern.

.

An understated prosaic tone effectively evokes the emptiness of grief and absence, while it serves to layer the detached charm of a manipulative murderer:

.

No joke. She thought the game was about passing time.

You show your hand and you say the words. It’s lame

.

But she looked so pretty as she laughed and ate

The bullshit. Rock, Paper, Scissors, Dynamite.

.

Even when we pulled off the road and she knew that “later”

Was now a word from the past: Dynamite, Scissors Rock, paper.

.

In writing on these themes, Lawrence may be deploying ideas similar to those that inspired Professor Ross Gibson when he wrote (in prose) about  the ‘horror stretch’ of road between Rockhampton and Mackay in Queensland. For Gibson, these Badlands ‘offer a no-go area, a dumping ground for those voices, thoughts, memories, grim realities that contemporary, “civilised” Australia would prefer to forget as it seeks accommodation, a sense of belonging, of “wellness” in what remains for many an alien landscape.’ (Reference Huxley, J., Badlands, Interview with Ross Gibson, SMH November 26 2002 http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/11/25/1038173697682.html ). Australia has many known dumping grounds of this type: the Beaumont Children, the Truro Murders, the Belanglo State Forest.

Despite the flatness of tone, Lawrence is not writing journalese. He actively interrogates his speakers and their place in the environment. Judgement is left to the reader. While grief and loss, horror and brutality abound, this is not James Elroy in verse:

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He went for a swim. He’s not been seen since.

.

You think of your own place in the world

how flimsy your grip on the earth really is. it boils

.

down to a random act, an accident where nature conceals

your fall, or something planned – they steal

.

more than your life – your absence becomes the absence

of those who inhabit the place you’ve fenced

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The Welfare Of My Enemy does not offer a reason for these absences, although Lawrence presents us with compelling portraits of perpetrators as intent on control and power over the powerless. He may therefore indirectly support Gibson’s thesis, that the origin of ‘atmosphere’ in these spaces lies in the treatment by the invaders of indigenous people who remain both absent and present. Such ambitious poetry remorselessly takes the reader into the minds of the victims, the survivors, the perpetrators. To Lawrence, layers of history permeate the landscape and the earth. The author may be invisible but in this work he is not dead. At a time when poets and writers often concern themselves with poetry and the process of writing this is substantial – and present. Powerful stuff.

Rae Desmond Jones

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Rae Desmond Jones is a major Australian poet. His first book was Orpheus With A Tuba, Makar Press, 1973. His latest book is Thirteen Poems from the Dead, Polar Bear Press 2011. There has been lots of poetry in between.