Island Press: the Story Continues

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After we republished Phil Robert’s memoir of the origins of Island Press (https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2015/10/01/ten-year-on-an-island-by-philip-roberts-the-beginnings-of-island-press/), in conjunction with the celebration of Island’s 45th Birthday Party, we received a number of inquiries from readers wanting to know the history of the press post Phil Roberts. The following is a brief note on the story since then: 

Martin Langford, Les Wicks and Phil Hammial with MC xxxx at the microphone during Island Press' 45 birthday celebrations.Picture ....

Martin Langford, Les Wicks and Phil Hammial with MC Roberta Lowing at the microphone during Island Press’ 45 birthday celebrations. Photograph by Michele Seminara.

Fortunately, the actual physical production of the book has become a lot easier since the first days. The problems around poetry receiving an audience remotely commensurate with the skill and vision that go into it, however, remain as intractable as ever.

After Phil Roberts returned to Canada, leaving his work as a lecturer at Sydney University to freelance, as poet, and writer about poetry, in Nova Scotiaproducing many more poetry collections, and achieving renown as the author of How Poetry Works (Penguin, 1986) – Phil Hammial continued the work of the press, overseeing the publication of titles such as John Tranter’s Dazed in the Ladies Lounge (1979) and J.S. Harry’s A Dandelion for Van Gogh (1985). Hammial consolidated the press’s original policy of being prepared to take risks with younger poets, publishing titles such as Adam Aitken’s Letter to Marco Polo (1985), and, if anything, increased the extent to which it was prepared to publish work which would not be acceptable to mainstream presses. Examples of the latter include Anthony Mannix’s Erotomania (1984), and Hammial’s own Vehicles (1985).

Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, John Tranter 1979

Dazed in the Ladies Lounge, John Tranter 1979

Running a press by oneself is a big responsibility, and there was a hiatus in Island activities between 1985 and 1992; when Hammial decided to get things moving again by inviting a small group of fellow poets Jutta Sieverding, Les Wicks and Martin Langford to join him in turning Island into a co-operative. In this, Island was fortunate to have access to the skills of Phil’s partner, Anne, whose expertise in the newly-legislated format was ideal for the press. Anne has been an essential element in the success of Island: each year she has reviewed the accounts and prepared the annual returns. Having someone who has been willing to offer us her knowledge about co-operative accounting pro bono has been a huge asset, and the press is extremely grateful to her for her generosity. Island’s aim had always been to provide an outlet for new poetry, to make a contribution to the artistic world first and foremost. So the new structure, which minimised business and governance costs, and which allowed it to get on with the job of providing an outlet for its poets with as little distraction as possible, was just what was needed.

Blonde and French by Ken Bolton was published by P. Hammial & P. Roberts in 1978 before Phil Roberts left Australia

Blonde and French by Ken Bolton was published by P. Hammial & P. Roberts in 1978 before Phil Roberts left Australia

The period since Island was incorporated as a co-operative has turned out be its most productive time – 37 books in 22 years: a little less than two a year (readers interested in the complete list should consult the Island website). It hasn’t published every year: it has not always been possible to obtain funding, and sometimes the directors have been caught up in other activities.

The nineties were to prove a busy little period, with publications from Lizz Murphy (Pearls and Bullets), Marcel Freiman (Monkey’s Wedding), Jutta Seiverding (Uneasy Weather) and Leith Morton (The Flower Ornament), amongst others. And then, as has sometimes happened, there was a break for a couple of years, while the press struggled to obtain funding.
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The 21st Century

Island poet Carolyn Gerrish reading at the 45th Birthday/Book launch celebrations. Photograph Michele Seminara

Island poet Carolyn Gerrish reading at the 45th Birthday/Book launch celebrations. Photograph Michele Seminara

Be Straight with Me from Langford saw the millennium in; this was a departure from our normal audience and focus as it sought to address and speak to the often neglected teenage male. Lizz Murphy, Leith Morton and Carolyn Gerrish rejoined the Island tribe with dynamic new titles and Philip Hammial’s exploration of the more lawless boundaries of language continued with several titles including In the Year of Our Lord Slaughter’s Children and Voodoo Realities.

Australian poetry occupies a tiny niche market. The secret to longevity in the editors’ minds was to retain a tight focus, to keep our output manageable. Australia Council support was fundamental to our decision each year to commit to the next one. The process of obtaining that support was never simple and had some substantial on-costs related to our corporate structure etc. But support did come most years and it was frankly this input that was the deciding factor in the press’ ability to continue.

Adam Aitken’s first collection, Letter to Marco Polo, was published by Island Press in 1985.

Adam Aitken’s first collection, Letter to Marco Polo, was published by Island Press in 1985.

The editors have had the honour of performing in countries where our artform is somewhere near the core of those nation’s culture, even self-identity. Poetry in Australia is not a “popular” public entertainment; it needs support. One supposes one can make the choice that we will be a society without poetry and withdraw that infrastructure. But this will have long-term implications on what we are as a people. In New South Wales there will be billions spent in the years ahead on stadium upgrades. Poetry asks for just a trickle of tightly focused help.

With small presses, every corner that can be cut is cut. Working collaboratively with the chosen poets each year we reduce the burden at “head office”. Copies of the books are kept with the individual poets thereby circumventing the need for warehousing. We work closely with printers to obtain not just the best quality product but also a reasonably priced one. Often, book design is done in-house.

Uneasy Weather by Jutta Sieverding. Island Press 1993

Uneasy Weather by Jutta Sieverding. Island Press 1993. Her final book, A Dangerous Place, was published by Island in 2005.

In 2005, we were proud to publish the final book from Jutta Sieverding, one of the original four in our incorporated entity stage. The loss of her editorial and production expertise was felt deeply both by her fellow Island editors and the literary community generally. Her A Dangerous Place was a moving reflection on life lived and losing. A pinnacle of the first years of the 21st century was the publication of David Brooks’ Urban Elegies. David went on to provide strategic assistance for a number of years. There was somewhat of a history of Island publishing revered poets coming back to their practice after a hiatus, we jumped at the chance to put out Rae Desmond Jones’ Blow Out. David Musgrave, after spending so much effort publishing others, was a welcome addition to the Island stable with Concrete Tuesday. Roberta Lowing’s The Searchers is an important step in her development as a poet as well as a real contribution to the community generally.

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Ticket to Ride by Philip Hammial. Island Press 2015

Whilst tending to have Sydney focus for purely practical reasons of organisation, we felt it was important to have a regional or non-capital city component in our lists. Barbara Petrie, John Watson, Barbara de Franceschi and Rob Reil were invaluable additions to our catalogue from that grouping.

Publishing someone’s first book of poetry is a unique honour. Some of those we published in the 70s and 80s have gone on to be major figures in the canon. More recently, we were proud to be midwives to some fine titles in this category – Barbara de Franceschi’s Strands was a superb book. Christine Townend’s Walking with Elephants has had critical acclaim in the months since its launch and Susan Adams’ Beside Rivers was commended in the Anne Elder prize. We plan to continue with this as part of our selection criteria.

The Future?

Walking with Elephants by Christine Townend was launched at Island's 45th Birthday party

Walking with Elephants by Christine Townend was launched at Island’s 45th Birthday party

More recently, we have sought to include books from interstate poets both to better reflect the community’s output as a whole and to expand the Island Press footprint. Jeltje Fanoy’s Princes by Night is a glorious postcolonial exploration.

All three of the current editors “get around a lot” and are always on the lookout for potential additions to our list. Invitations are extended on the basis of obvious literary strength, a diversity of voice, mix of regional/capital city, gender balance, at least one first book and a proven track record of professional activism in the art form (i.e. giving something back). Our tentative 2016 program reflects this. Michele Seminara is a relative newcomer to poetry but already has an impressive following due to her energetic work within the community. Mark Roberts has been an engine for the dissemination of poetry for decades and is long overdue a book of his own. David Gilbey is of incalculable benefit to literature, particularly in regional Australia. Lauren Williams continues to be a loved voice over four decades and she also comes from regional Victoria. Les Wicks makes up the fifth title.

The Searchers by Roberta Lowing was also launched at Island's 45th birthday celebrations

The Searchers by Roberta Lowing was also launched at Island’s 45th birthday celebrations

We cannot say with certainty whether any or all of these titles will emerge. Like so much of the literature community, cuts to government funding have made the future profoundly uncertain. At a time in this press’ life when we would ordinarily be discussing expansion and bringing in younger blood to the editorial process we can’t with any certainty plan towards our 50th year of operation. As the oldest still functioning poetry press in Australia this is not an enviable position. After all these decades of Quixotic optimism, strategic promotion, pennypinching, thankless pursuit of funding et cetera will Island be nearing its end?

 – Martin Langford & Les Wicks

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Martin Langford’s recent publications are The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (P&W, 2009) and Ground (P&W, 2015). He is the editor of Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1788-2008 (ed., P&W 2009). He is the poetry reviewer at Meanjin.

Les Wicks has toured widely and seen publication across 23 countries in 11 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013), his 12th (a Spanish selection) El Asombrado (Rochford Street Press, 2015). http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

For the full list of books from Island and to order titles see  http://islandpress.tripod.com/ISLAND.htm

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A Hummingbird Mind: Les Wicks reviews ‘Porch Light’ by Ivy Ireland

Porch Light by Ivy Ireland Puncher & Wattmann, 2015

porch light.
I was keen to receive this title, Ireland has a hummingbird mind, the reader is led into places they had not previously experienced to then find themselves pinned into that place by richly original language. Mercurial.

These are rarely simple journeys, you have to concentrate to stay on board as she flits from foam pits of human love to the Throne of the Most High (‘Porch Light’). Like planes slowing, edging in towards landing, the pieces tend to find focus as they finish:

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constantly switched on to reveal
meat, guts and skin twisting
another idea back on itself

 – ‘What we do for Survival’

I did, however, found some parts of this (comparatively short) book to be meandering – ‘LAX’ for example seemed to me be a big so what until we get to the sparkling last line clutching this airport lounge margarita as if it were magnetic pole.

Against this, Ireland can pick up subjects that didn’t promise much of interest (for me at least) and turn them into a linguistic delight. Take for instance ‘Velocity’ which concerns a carrier pigeon, with a line she grabs us –

his own mass the only anchor:
Hooked into sky.

Repeatedly the reader comes across the richest linguistic nectar. There is a great clarity in this woman’s vision:

while we live altogether alone out here
against the secrets of our bodies

 – ‘Venus Transits’

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The soul must be wedded to the flesh. There is only this. You leapt.

 – ‘Angel of the Neo-Burlesque’

‘Glass Eater’ is just fabulous.

This is one of those books that works so well on many levels as it stands while simultaneously holding out the promise of what the poet’s next book will achieve.

 – Les Wicks

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LES WICKS has toured widely and seen publication across 23 countries in 11 languages. His 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013), his 12th (a Spanish selection) El Asombrado (Rochford Street Press, 2015). He can be found at http://leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm

Porch Light is available from https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/porch-light

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martin h launch

For the Words…. Les Wicks experiences the International Poetry Festival of Granada (Nicaragua)

Les Wicks has just returned from attending the Festival Internacional de Poesía, Granada in Nicaragua. Here he shares his experiences of the Festival.

Poetry at the Plaza

Poetry at the Plaza de la Independencia

We do what we do. Mostly it’s like some sort of psychiatric itch, satisfied safely in dark corners well away from any hint of public gaze. Oh yes, to be a poet sounds dashing, even romantic… to anyone who knows nothing of the realities of our invisible art. I think the general consensus is that the world needs poetry just so long as nobody ever has to read it.

The first indication that something was different in Nicaragua was when two of us were plucked from the “huddled masses” at immigration in Managua airport to be spirited away to the diplomatic suite while our passports and luggage were processed by energetic others. We are not used to special treatment.

So to be launched into a tardy, spectacular maelstrom that was the Festival  Internacional de Poesía, Granada. This beautiful lakeside town has a vast central public area called the Plaza de la Independencia. An extraordinary expanse – this was to be the heart of the Festival. Each night there was an audience ranging between 500 and 2000 – engaged, animated and happily munching on popcorn. I had experienced something similar in Medellín, widely acknowledged as the world’s biggest poetry Festival, but this extraordinary outpouring of that rarest commodity in poetry – interest – is deeply humbling. I know people use this phrase all the time but when you experience the real thing there simply isn’t another word for it.

This isn’t about star power. There were around 100 poets from 50 countries performing across the seven days. Each poet was probably only known to few of their compatriots, let alone this vast audience. With the exception of those like Ernesto Cardenal, to the audience we must’ve seemed like a collection of disparate oddities, a freak show of words. But we were part of something called poetry and that was what they showed up for… a conscious choice in a town where there was plenty else going on. They listened patiently to the, say, Friesian version of one poem waiting for the Spanish translation that would follow.

Throughout each day there were a series of smaller, but well attended readings. There was an exciting range of work available at the book fair. But just as we had settled in to this enriching pattern of engagement there was the biggest surprise of all – the carnival. This year themed around the proposition of celebrating a death of violence against women through poetry (this loses something in the translation) we were in a street parade lasting several hours (with thermometers hitting the mid 30s) – an array of musicians, dozens of dancers and thousands of onlookers. At each streetcorner the carnival stopped and poets were called to the stage to read their work. Earlier I talked about humility, in the carnival I cried at times. This was just so much.

Everything ran late. There were some interesting failures of organisation. But this was set against a planning incomprehensible anywhere else in the world. The scale was mind-boggling. We just shook our heads as we watched organisers going publicly mad juggling so many balls at once.

More than once we had to ask ourselves whether all this could be justified in a country facing so many economic challenges. Nicaragua is poor, the 2nd poorest in the western hemisphere. Nicaragua has vast inequalities. The newly restored Sandinista government faces an economy in many ways at a standstill. The endemic corruption throughout the region has allegedly breached the barriers and a proposal for a Chinese built canal to rival Panama cutting through the country’s gigantic freshwater lake sees the country deeply divided. Why would a fortune be wasted on words?

Granada3 071 (2)

The Carnival!

On the first night there were a few of us in the audience chattering quietly through the long blocks of indecipherable (for us) Spanish. The homeless guy in front of us tapped our knees and begged us to be quiet so he could hear. Over the week teenagers pulled us aside asking for autographs, but more importantly wanting to clarify points in our work that they wrestled with in their hard fought English. We engaged with the people at each point of this extraordinary week – some clearly from the social elite engaging in “high culture”, some penny-poor revelling in the roars from angry wordsmiths. The simple reality is that poetry rests close to the core of Latin America’s DNA. This didn’t happen over the course of a few decades, it didn’t happen by accident and it has been maintained through prodigious efforts by countless practitioners and volunteers. It is an amazing sacrament that those of us from other cultures can only marvel at. Is this the justification?

For me, the assessment of the Festival from a critical standpoint is a process that will take some months yet as I read through the array of books I took home to follow through from the live experience. Of course, one could revel in the lyric clarity of US poets like Richard Blanco and Jessica Hellen Lopez. I ran across the work of Campbell McGrath the first time and was fascinated. Sweden’s Bengt Berg had a canny anarchism that disrupted the easy assumptions of poetry. New Zealand’s Doc Drumheller had the crowd eating out of his hand. Peter Waugh, Immanuel Mifsud, Monica Aasprong, Aurelia Lassaque, Dylan Brennan, Claudio Pozzani, Alexander Hutchison, Hanane Aad, Gasper Malej and Johanna Veno all brought unique voices to play. After some rum fuelled insights into poetry shared with Maarja Kangro I looked up some of her translated work and thought yes, she gets it. I loved Luis H Francia’s work and attending the launch of Sudeep Sen’s Spanish book enabled me to immerse myself in a full hour’s worth of his words helpfully also read in English. It was a frustration that I was unable to understand the full richness of so many of the Latin American poets, but having previously read a superb anthology called The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry I kinda knew what I was missing. I recommend it to readers.

The final question is both difficult and tedious. What is the biggest poetry Festival in the world, Medellín or Granada? I’m not sure I’m ready to take that call as they have quite significant points of differentiation. But to have been a guest at either changes a poet’s perception of self and their art fundamentally. Both richer and poorer we sit before our computer screens knowing each word must count, somewhere.

– Les Wicks

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A review of The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry can be found on Jacket 2 http://jacket2.org/reviews/multilingual-latin-american-poetries

Les Wicks’ 11th book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013), his 12th (a Spanish selection) El Asombrado (Rochford St Press, 2015) is available on-line http://elasombrado.com/. He attended the 2015 festival with assistance from Copyright Agency for part of the transit costs.
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New from Rochford Street Press – El Asombrado by Les Wicks

cover 2Rochford Street Press is excited to announce the publication of Les Wicks’ 12th title.  El Asombrado is available as a free e-book from Rochford Street Press. Just visit http://elasombrado.com/.

The title loosely translates to “He Who Watches and is Amazed”- it is a selection of work from over the past 15 years presented in both Spanish & English. The translator, Colombian G. Leogena is a master of the art.

Two fabulous graphics front and back from Australian-born, long-time Mexico resident, artist Elizabeth Skelsey.

PDF copies can also be obtained for just $1 from http://elasombrado.com/rochford-street-press/purchase-el-asombrado/ or by clicking here

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Once purchased the PDF will be emailed to you within 24 hours – please ensure you enter the correct email address for delivery.

Don’t forget to check out the other Rochford Street Press titles at https://rochfordstreetpress.wordpress.com/rochford-street-press-titles/

Disclaimer: To state the obvious Rochford Street Press is the Publisher of Rochford Street Review.

With Pretty Air and Marginal Grace: Rebecca Kylie Law review’s ‘The Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience)’ by Les Wicks

The Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) by Les Wicks.Puncher & Wattman 2013.

sea_heartbreak_310_438_sOne of the quirks of Performance Poetry is to speak from the heart; and if a word or phrase brings to mind an image then such matters need to be voiced. It seems this spontaneous combustion of language happened to Les Wick’s in his composition The Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience), as, I can only suppose, he wants to paint a familiar metaphor but at the word ‘heart’ falters and sees a bird’s beak instead of the more painful realisation inherent in ‘break’. In this sea inside Wick’s, the waters are rough but expertly thwart by denial. Wicks has come up with a strategy it seems, in overcoming disappointment. ‘Love hurts but it can be cured’, he says, ‘divine then dive’. It’s not apathy but a gung-ho battle of wits to demystify romantic demonstrations. ‘Seems even harmony is a habit’ writes Wicks, the trick being, it seems, to believe in something besides the obvious, to ‘riot in the empty’.

With six sections dividing the poems in The Sea of Heartbeak, the labour of love is an odyssey buoyed by hope and reckless humour. ‘Lament ruthlessly’ suggests Wicks and the ‘new lyricism’ will be a ‘walk in wonder’ with ‘the heart in there somewhere/ but hardly worth the mess’. From a cemetery to a forest of trees, past a ruler of three winds to a bay disassociated from others, the journey is a ride in strange lands where matters of the flesh are the only reminders of life as a heart-beat or ‘a silenced chick’. ‘Got nothing this year/ just what I wanted’ remarks Wicks in “On the Nature of Wickedness and Plums” and it’s not humour this time but a cunning to outfox hope’s opposition, despair. With history directly behind us, there’s ‘barely a cloud says the weatherman’ and ‘christmas is dead, /right on schedule’. This poem, wedged midway on our journey from cemetery to ‘yawning daffodils’ purports a selfhood wounded by the past, uncertain of a future but glad of company. ‘Cats snigger in the shade/ But I’m smiling and silly is my key’. This, it seems, is the unexpected resilience finding its way through the stodge of misfortune, the wickedness and plums.

The poetry in this collection is aptly both surface and depth at once, both performance verse and poetic literature. If, as Les Wicks tells us, he is the ‘afterthought of birds’ then the voice, for its sing-song quietude is authentic. There is an irony to Wick’s poetry for though he is rioting about his own life, caring less for this, sparing thoughts to regard that, his poems are peaceful musings close to scores for a whistle. Towards the end of the collection he suggests we are blundering in our dialogues and need to go ‘back into the wood’. That this is the perpetual cycle of life, a back and forth movement like the tides is, for Wicks, the consolation that keeps his spirit joyous, albeit a fence-sitter. There is a lot of ‘flapping’, ‘smiling’, ‘tinkling’ and physicality in the poems that succeeds in achieving a sense of their immanence. They are restless, balletic and seemingly wanting lift off though authored by a smiling hopeful, know better than to leave. There is a ‘silence beyond glance’ says Wicks and in spite of the frivolous tumbling, walkabouts and fleeing from love, the poems have not forgotten the gravity of the very substance they choose to shut out: love through a window pane than behind a closed door. Of course, lest we forget, this is poetry.

They call Les Wicks a “stage” and “page” poet and for the purposes of this review, considering the latter, I can attest to this being an actual fact. Although there is nothing stylistically outlandish or radical about the poetry in The Sea of Heartbeak (which one would suppose a “page” poet would strive to accomplish) there is the expected attendance to rhythm, syntax and grammar for all their respective traditions and creative potentials. The poems are all left to right on the far left of the page, which I hasten to add, is not, these days, stating the obvious. Aside from this however, they are unique compositions that capitalise letters when required, italicise accordingly and arrange stanzas in the usual fashion. I am pointing this out by way of emphasising just how much of a “page” poet Wicks is…though the honesty of the language, the stop, starting you see best explained by ‘heart’ (stop) ‘beak’, is where the stage is envisioned comfortably. Wick’s poetry has a beat, a steady, unrelenting beat that pauses only when acknowledging another presence- a dog or woman, cloud nine or a’ holy man’s chant’. Phrases such as ‘Love you as the stars cave in’, cram the collection with playfulness and childlike innocence (‘that suddenly purposeful possum’) and appear as welcome antidotes to more despairing realities such as death or a heat-wave leaving ‘eucalypts inflamed, mangy’.

The unexpected resilience assisting the journey’s end or perpetual return as Wick’s would have it in The Sea of Heartbeak backs up a poet who ‘knows less each year/ & cannot rise to judge’ but considers ‘another day of life’ as marvel enough not to restlessly walk around with ‘grey abandon’. For Wick’s love comes in smoothly and goes away like rough rain, at times ‘placed in blossom’ and others as bleak as ‘the bogong moth…fooled by trashy suns humans make’. Culture these days is casual and hippie, Wick’s is wearing Indian shirts, backpackers are aimless in Coogee and the water skiers have found the river. There’s new road works taking place on the pathways to Hell, someone’s noticed the potholes,; and the stars belie a higher paradise, best to keep an eye on that or more delightfully find promise in a sun. Cerulean blues on white spell out the cover of The Sea of Heartbeak, Unexpected Resilience like the night and tides that accompany bed linen, fingers that ”ferry’ and a tinkling mind.

– Rebecca Kylie Law

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Rebecca Kylie Law is a Sydney based poet, essayist and reviewer. Published by Picaro Press, her poetry collections include Offset, Lilies and Stars and The Arrow & The Lyre. Other publications include The Wonderbook of Poetry (http://wonderbookofpoetry.org/?s=Rebecca+Kylie+Law), Notes for The Translators, Best Poem Journal, Virgogray Press, Australian Love Poems 2013, Southerly and Westerly. She was short-listed for the Judith Wright Prize in 2012 and holds a Masters Degree in Poetry from Melbourne University.

The Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) is available from  http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/sea-of-heartbeak/

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“There is history, but it won’t tell”: Rae Desmond Jones Launches Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) by Les Wicks

Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) by Les Wicks, Puncher & Wattman, 2013 was launched at the Friend in Hand Hotel Glebe on 22nd June this year. Rae Desmond Jones wrote the speech but as he was unwell it was delivered by David Musgrave.

Photo by Susan Adams

Les Wicks – Photo by Susan Adams

I have never before been asked to launch a volume. It is an honour because of the nature and quality of the volume and the long ongoing creative relationship I can claim with the author. I also deeply regret not being able to deliver the address in person, and would gladly forego the ease and attention of a sickbed to attend, simply to support the author, one of the most generous and selfless supporters of the cause of poetry in this country.

Be that as it may, this occasion is about Les, or more specifically the achievement of his book. Les’ poems are demanding, and don’t reveal their intricate layers on a first reading. Even the simpler poems are dense with imagery so that they require a second and even a third reading, but the effort is well worthwhile. For example, the first poem in the book is conversational and superficially casual in tone:

Girilan

This dozen amused tourists
surround a dead dragon on the sand.

Its last ferocity
is the stench that armours each ending.
Already delicate fins are trimmed to lace
by the scission of crabs.

Beneath a corona of flies
spirit is urged to shuck flesh.

Harp of teeth
reach out to voice.
A roadmap of spine leads to the spume.

Hygienically cleansed
under flash-bulb asepticism.

Any shift in the tide will send this
crashing to the tale.
There is history,
but it won’t tell.

Each line in this casual sounding poem contains an image of great weight, with the possible exception of the first, which sets the scene of the dozen tourists: however they are amused. One interpretation of the deep seriousness of the rest of the poem is that it is a comment on this amusement. It is a dead dragon, a warrior … ferocious, when alive. I check out dragon: the biblical reference is to “a large serpent, a crocodile, a great marine animal, or a jackal” then “A name for Satan”. Immediately the image of the great whale in Moby Dick arises … “Hygienically cleaned / under flash bulb asepticism”, free from the living germs of disease, fungus or putrefaction. But what is being described but a process of putrefaction? It is the flash bulbs of the ‘amused’ tourists that are censoring the process of death, & the dignity of this great animal. When looked at with this level of detail, this poem yields up much more than the casual tone would suggest. Then there is history … but the real great whale, not entirely distinct from Herman Melville’s prophetic version, isn’t history. At least, not yet.

The contrasts and conjunctions between animals, the environment and the human mind & body is a recurring theme through these poems. In ‘Tuart’,

It is said elephants & crows share
This knowledge of death it
Is the crown of our intellect
“Things are happening” are all
In slow resolve.

In launching these poems, I can think of no better tactic than allow the poetry to speak for itself. It does this so excellently that it makes any speech focused on the halcyon days of the poets union in 1978 or a long friendship seem facile. This poetry is serious and addresses significant issues that should be of concern to all of us. Underlying issues which appear regularly on the news or in the papers which are too often described in terms of party politics and sectional self-interest are described in this poetry with unflinching moral courage:

Only humans play all their years, biologists think maybe
something about efficiency.
Do we take to the air
while refusing to look beneath?

‘Tuart’

Sea Of Heartbeak is determined to take the reader on a dive beneath. It took me on a voyage which I found bracing and stimulating at the same time as it did not turn away from the discomforting reality of the costs our lives inflict on our futures.

What I have said so far does not do justice to the other aspects of this volume. Just in case some of you may be thinking that to read this volume is to be immersed in some of the more obscure philosophy of Mr. Heidegger, Les Wicks also has a lively and irreverent sense of humour on display. He indulges in some lighter relief with a series of aphorisms under the tongue in cheek title of “Secret Saids (everything I know)” where he displays his gift for whimsy:

“people in glass houses enjoy the view.” (pause)

“Britney’s sister is gluttony.” (I won’t repeat this one to my daughter)

“Love hurts but it can be cured” (How, I ask… don’t torment me Les. Tell me the secret…

“Hair is the window of the brain..” (where are the curtains?)

“Sex would never reach minimum / occupational health and safety standards.” (Nor should it. The human race would die of boredom…)

There is also a poem I must mention, not only because it is a poem around my hometown, Broken Hill. It is an area where the environment and colour attracts painters and film makers but not often poets, but it is attractive to Les Wicks. In ‘Aeolus at the Mulga’:

The desert wind wears a blunt dust
Cantankerous yap
lifts sheetmetal
from the deaths
of the snub nosed Silverton buses all
cut like raw opal
pressed into a humiliating servitude
windbreaks for camels.
Punctuation of crows
affixed on air.

The description of wind lifting the iron is something familiar which Les has caught in a way that is unexpected for anyone who has not grown up with it. The old buses I rode in as a schoolboy are now dumped to rust in a paddock on the border of the town where Les has spent some time as a writer in residence, and he catches the pathos of those ancient clapped out machines perfectly.

Les’ tone is terse and he concentrates a complex web of simple seeming words, through narratives that are complex and demand intense concentration. Links and breaks between images, puns and dual meanings demand close attentive reading. The way he solders each image to the last brings to mind the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. It is my business to launch this excellent volume, not to review it: I recommend it and declare this volume duly launched.

– 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 Selected Poems has just been published from Grand Parade Poets and was launched by Kit Kelen in August . He is also the editor of The Selected Your Friendly Fascist (Rochford Street Press) 2012.

Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) is available from http://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/sea-of-heartbeak

Concentrated ‘Ratbaggery’: Mark Roberts reviews ‘Barking Wings’ by Les Wicks

Barking Wings by Les Wicks. PressPress 2012

Chapbooks have a tendency to concentrate a poet’s work into a ‘confined space’ with little margin for error. While a collection of between 60 to 80 pages allows a poet to spread out, take a breath and look around, for a chapbook of around 30 pages to be successful, the poet has to hit the ground running and keep running flat-out. Les Wicks does precisely that in his latest collection, Barking Wings.

One has the sense that Wicks has taken a very deep breath at the beginning of the book and not taken another breath until the final full stop on page 31. But that is not unusual for Wicks. Following the publication of his first book, The Vanguard Sleeps In (Glandular Press 1981), Wicks’ work was described in the following terms: “ frantic beat of rock music” (Access magazine), “Successfully evokes….atmospheres of ratbaggery” (SMH) and “good sleazy fun” (Rae Desmond Jones). I was sorely tempered to recycle some of these statements in this review of his tenth book.

There is more than a touch of the performance poet about Wicks. While his poems work fine as traditional poems on a page, they are constantly demanding to be read aloud, shouted even, so that the sounds of the words can be considered as equals along with their meaning. In ‘Luck hard’ for example, we are told:

My GP has warned
I must face an occasional
Illogical exuberance….

This exuberance quickly becomes a series of word/ sound plays:

Ignore the Bad Thoughts
during a commercial break.
4 is a jagged number, we are
impaled impala.
Always a fine line, suppression of mind (the
filthy brumby) & requirement to be open, queerly, qwerty.

To fully appreciate these lines they need to be read aloud to allow the sounds of the words to bounce off each other ….”queerly, qwerty”.

But Wicks can slip easily back into a what seems to be a more conventional form:

It is raining somewhere else
& the world wont finish yet.
Over breakfast
a lite  northerly  wind grooms
crimson rosellas.  Joy is deceptively busy.

   ‘Enough’

But the ordinariness of this poem is only skin deep. The deliberate misspelling of ‘lite’, the image of the wind ‘grooming’ rosellas, and is he talking about a person or an emotion when talks of ‘Joy’ being deceptively busy? If this is ordinary it is the ordinary of a Reg Mombassa painting.

Suddenly the poem changes gear and a borrowed rhythm picks us up and sweeps us towards the end of the poem:

The back-bone’s connected to the
sky-bone. The wish-bone’s connected
to the home-loan…..”

Barking Wings shows Wicks at his playful best. In the 18 poems crammed into this pocket-size book we have image piled up on image, words and sounds crashing to together and, even when we can see ‘blue sky’ for a few lines, we are always aware that another surprise is only a line break away.

After 10 books surely its now time to start asking when will we see a Collected/Selected volume of Wick’s work? It would be fascinating to trace his development from his early poems in those out of print collections to mature playfulness of his latest collection.

– Mark Roberts

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Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review.

Barking Wings is available directly from PressPress. http://www.presspress.com.au/Wicks.html