Contemporary Irish Poetry Featured Writer: Mark Roberts

Three Poems              Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer, critic and publisher. He is a founding editor of Rochford Street Review and is the curator of the current feature on Contemporary Irish Poetry which has run through issue 22 of the Review.

Most of Mark’s family on his mother side left Ireland in the second half of the 19th century, driven out by the famine and a dislike for English oppression. Over generations in Australia they maintained their sense of ‘Irishness’ and, at times, that Irishness has found its way into Mark’s work.

Mark founded Rochford Street Press in the early 1980s to publish a literary magazine called P76. Rochford Street Press has also published a number of books, pamphlets and chapbooks over the years and is recognised as one one of the smallest literary presses in the  world.

Mark’s own work has been widely published in magazines and journals in Australia and overseas. Concrete Flamingos, a collection of his recent work was published by Island Press in 2016 and he currently has a few new projects in flight.

Books

P76 Magazine

Website

Mark Roberts: Three Poems

Biographical Note              Contemporary Irish Poetry Index

Leaving Roscommon – Strokestown Park
The Conscription Vote – 1916/17
Cities that are not Dublin

P .

Leaving Roscommon – Strokestown Park 
(Gorta Mór)

We drive out of the grounds of Strokestown Park,
the chill in our bones a reminder of a history
that follows us down these short country roads.

A land that tugs at memory. My grandfather’s
stories of why the English can’t be trusted:
grain exported while his grandparents starved,
his mother hung by her hair from a roof beam.

These things are hard to forget,
even across generations.

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P .

The Conscription Vote – 1916/17

History lies here, buried deep. Two bodies
laid neatly, face down. The male, head facing
the old road, the female on top of him, her head
resting on his feet – a better fit in the narrow grave.
A layer of stones to stop wild dogs searching for food.
Almost 100 years now, local victims of an imperial war.
Old Jack told everyone that his son had “eloped off” with that
“Paddy” girl. Better that way, he didn’t have to see their bastard
children or write his son out of his will. But there were rumours of
ghostly songs drifting down the hill above the farmhouse on moonless
nights. But life went on. Years later Jack went to his grave without a Catholic
………………………………………………………………………………in the family.

.

Australian voters were asked in October 1916, and again in December 1917, to vote on the issue of conscription. Irish Australians played a leading role in the defeat of both votes.

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P .

Cities that are not Dublin

I have a plan for reading Ulysses – actually more than reading it, finishing it. Today i am going to Neilsen Park alone with a picnic lunch. I will start reading next to the harbour, easing my way into the sections I have already read. Then tomorrow night I am travelling to Melbourne by train and plan to sit up all night and read.

I make good progress, sitting against an old Morton Bay Fig Tree, reading familiar pages, looking up occasionally at a city which is not Dublin.

**

This train is called the Spirit of Progress. It has dark brown leather seats, and the blue Vicrail carriages look out of place at Central Station. There is a little reading light above each seat that can stay on all night.

I read for hours and sleep briefly in the early morning. I am thick into Joyce when i sit up at the bench in the restaurant car and eat breakfast. My coffee splashes into the saucer as the train emerges into the morning.

**

Central …………………………Dublin Connolly

Strathfield ……………….. ……Tara Street

Moss Vale …………………. ….Dublin Pearse

Golburn……………………     .. Lansdowne Road

Yass Junction…………. . ….. ..Sandymount

Junee……………………..         Sydney Parade

Wagga Wagga………… ..  ….. Blackrock

The Rock………………. …….  Dun Laoghaire Mallin

Albury…………………… .        Sandycove & Glasthule

Wangaratta……………………  Bray Daly

Benella……………………   ..   Kilcoole

Spencer Street…………….    . Street Gorey

**

I am staying in Marie and Andy’s flat in Fitzroy Street, just above Leo’s Spaghetti Bar. They have gone away for the weekend and I have the flat to myself.

The flat has a curved balcony & large windows overlooking the street. Andy’s drum kit is in the corner and three of Marie’s paintings are hanging on the wall. The largest is of a crumbled tube of toothpaste.

You can’t see the bay but you can smell it when the wind blows in the right direction.

**

You can see the tram-stop from the balcony. It is twilight and I watch people getting on and off the trams. The sun has disappeared over the city and it feels like I’m watching a European film.

I see a man get off the tram. He is wearing a suit and a hat and looks very different to everyone else in the street. His suit seems to be cut from a heavy material and he is wearing heavy lace up boots. I watch him cross the street. He checks his watch and then enters the old Sportsman’s Bar.

I go into the kitchen and put the kettle on to make a cup of tea. Russian Caravan. I take it back to my vantage point just as he leaves the bar.

He is now with a another man, shorter and stockier and wearing a similar style of clothes. They walk down Fitzroy Street toward the bay. They stop and stand discussing something on the footpath outside the aqua coloured block of flats for almost five minutes. Then the second man hails a cab. The man in the hat walks back to the tram-stop and catches a tram back to the city.

I think of what has just taken place. I imagine a story. A meeting in the bar. A drug deal or organising a small scale robbery or perhaps just a drink with a friend and a discussion about football. I think of how that twenty minutes in the bar fits into the man’s schedule and begin to imagine what he has done today. Was he at work? Where in Melbourne he has travelled? Does he have a family? Who he has meet and what will he do now?

**

On my last night in Melbourne I go to a party. It is in High Street Armadale & Marie gives me a lift in her old Mazda. The party is in a flat at the back of a laundromat which is still open when we arrive.

A strobe light is is cutting the party to fragments and slinging them, three a second through cracks in the door. Hip Melbourne boys are wearing pointed black shoes & the girls all seem to be dressed in orange and green. I start talking to the only woman dressed in jeans. She works at the local community radio station and lives round the corner. When she learns that i am catching the train back to Sydney in the morning she gives me a crunched up ball of foil. Harsh crumbs for the trip she tells me.

As we leave the party, walking past the now closed laundromat, I see the streetlights reflected in pools of water along Commercial Road. A couple is having an argument at a tram-stop. He is yelling that he loves her. She is yelling at him to fuck off. They are holding hands.

**

O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

**

Sunset leaving Goulburn. Sydney just over an hour away. I swallow the last crumbs of the hash, & wash it down with a swig of vodka. I want to be ready for the lights of Sydney’s outer suburbs.

‘Cities that are not Dublin’ was runner up in the 2013 joanne burns Award for Prose Poems/Microfiction. It appeared in Writing to the Edge, Spineless Wonders 2014.

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Decades of Percolation: Anna Couani Launches ‘Concrete Flamingos’ by Mark Roberts

Concrete Flamingos by Mark Roberts, Island Press 2016 was launched in Sydney by Anna Couani on 27th February 2016 at the Friend in Hand Hotel. Concrete Flamingos, along with the other four titles on Island Press’ 2016 list will be launched in Melbourne at the Dan O’Connell Hotel, Carlton, on 19th March – details  https://www.facebook.com/events/914712998643164/

concrete-flamingosThanks for coming today and thanks to Mark for asking me to launch his long-awaited and beautiful book, Concrete Flamingos.

Mark is probably best known to most of us as a can-do person, as an officer of the Poets Union in the 80’s, running a small magazine P76 and now The Rochford Street Review online review journal. He’s also had a full-on career in various jobs, has so many skills and raised a family with Linda Adair. He’s always been kind of busy.

Mark and I were Poets Union officers at the same time during the 80’s where we were addressing important political issues and issues about payment of writers, and sales and distribution. Island Press was in existence at that time, previously run by Philip Roberts, taken over for a short while by Ken Bolton and I and then passed on to Philip Hammial when Philip Roberts left the country. The small press scene was pretty lively and buzzing – we all knew each other, even the interstate people (this was before Facebook, before the internet), and it was the remnants of that scene that Mark first encountered as a young poet. It’s so gratifying that it was publications like the ones I was involved with that inspired Mark to write and to publish poetry.

When I first met Mark and worked with him in the Poets Union, there was no need to explain what we older people were trying to do in the small press scene, and what we were trying to do with organising public readings, pushing for better book distribution, promoting women writers, writers from diverse backgrounds and gay writers because he understood all that perfectly, was probably more ofay with those ideas than some of the older people he was influenced by. The things we’d been fighting for were a kind of given for Mark and the other younger poets like Adam Aitken, Dipti Saravanamutu and Kit Kelen. And also for people like Sarah St Vincent Welch, Moya Costello, Jane Skelton and Virginia Shepherd, to name a few.

It would be odd to speak about Mark and only mention his poetry because he has been a poet/producer/publisher, something like an artist run space in the visual art field. So a collection of Mark’s own work somehow has a special significance because it is positioned within a milieu that he has been rather instrumental in creating. He takes his place alongside lots of other practitioners who have participated actively in the literary world in ways that create infrastructure that benefits us all. I love the piece in the book that repeats the line you tell me I’m not a poet over and over again. Something writer/publishers often encounter from other writers.

This lovely book of poems is bedded in a sense of communalism. Mark’s authorial voice and perspective refer to this. The work has a self-consciousness, a knowledge of where we are and where we came from. It is obviously the precursor to the historical sequence he’s writing now, as in the poem crossing the mountains. It is a book of many disparate parts and that makes it interesting.

There are 4 concrete poems in the book, all called ‘Concrete Flamingo’. The first one consists of 8 columns of illegible text and this poem/image is then digitally transformed three times in the other 3 that are placed at intervals throughout the book. That’s one example of the humour that runs through the collection. In another poem, ‘Letter to Frank’, Mark (addressing Frank O’Hara I imagine) throws many odd referential bits together that are at the same time absurd and theoretically interesting. I’m quoting parts of it, it goes:

like you i want to be a construction worker/
poet

i have a copy of the planning regulations
which i am rewriting in the style of the new york
school

and finally,

& all the construction workers have gone home
maybe to write poems

Something like a good humoured Ken Bolton poem but one that also swipes at urban consolidation and the elitism of the literary world. There’s often a political dimension or reference in Mark’s work. Just creeps in somehow.

And Mark’s not scared to mention the domestic details that so many male poets shy away from. Like in shapes

my life
demands
a cluttered base
rooms scattered
with papers & books
baskets of washing spilling
onto the floor an ironing board
with a shirt half ironed & discarded
a stain demanding a soak & a rewash

Some of the poems have an intense local feel, that is visual and immediate, many emphasising colour and somehow full of affect. An obvious example is ‘The only marigold in Erskineville. It starts:

i walk through a black & white suburb thinking
of a poem i could write about how longing & desire
creep up on you like a shadow on a cloudy day.

it ends with:

i transfer your postcard
to my coat pocket & notice
again the explosion of the marigold
outside the church

The emotions draw attention to themselves through their erasure and are made poignant somehow through the use of colour and contrast.

The poem red uses the colour (red obviously) as a recurring motif that has not only a visual intensity but also symbolic meaning

red neon pulses like veins pumping blood.

it appropriates a few crime fiction narrative devices and somehow conflates the road death of a possum with a human murder, ending with:

whose face is this?
a memory?
i remember nothing
except blood.

There are two short sequences in the book. The first one, breaking – 1918, based on Virginia Woolf’s diary for 1918 Mark writes in the first person about the end of WWII. Interesting in that he adopts Woolf’s persona.

The other sequence is from the life of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, based on an 1889 biography of a German writer who died in 1781. In this sequence, Mark inserts quotes from Lessing’s plays. The poems ironically recreate the over-inflected language of the era.

This is so much more to talk about in the book, the chunks of prose, the night walks, the Sydney landscapes, the train poems – gives me ideas about how to occupy myself on public transport – also how to manage the writing of a poem a day for project 366 (http://project365plus.blogspot.com.au/)– think local, publish global. There’s a lot to read and enjoy in this book, decades of percolation and consideration have gone into it. So buy the book to support the writer and the publisher. If you haven’t already explored Mark’s world, check out The Rochford Street Review and Printed Shadows (https://printedshadows.wordpress.com/), both online publications. There’s a wealth of material there.

Congratulations to Mark on the publication and to Island Press for bringing it out.

 – Anna Couani

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Anna Couani is a Sydney writer and artist who taught Art and ESL most of her life. Her most recent book is a collection of poetry, Small Wonders, Flying Islands Books. Some of her previous work is available at http://seacruise.ath.cx/annacouani/.

Concrete Flamingos is available from  https://printedshadows.wordpress.com/2016/01/23/concrete-flamingos-poems-by-mark-roberts/

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ISLAND PRESS 2016 LIST MELBOURNE LAUNCH
2PM 19th MARCH AT THE DAN O’CONNEL HOTEL
225 CANNING ST, CARLTON VIC

Island Press' 2016 Poets will be at the The Dan O Connel Hotel Melbourne at 2pm on 19th March 2016

Michele Seminara Engraft, David Gilbey, Pachinko Sunset, Lauren Williams Cleanskin Poems, Les Wicks, Getting By Not Fitting In, Mark Roberts, concrete flamingos