A Portrait of the Artist as Place: Joe Dolce Reviews ‘Bluewren Cantos’ by Mark Tredinnick

Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick. Pitt Street Poetry 2013.

Both of our mouths
Can fit upon this flute I carry.

-Hafiz, ‘I Saw Two Birds’

blue wren cantosIn the notes, to Mark Tredinnick’s Bluewren Cantos, he remarks, ‘I’ve rarely written a poem into which a bird did not want to fly and there are equally few into which those dear to me did not want to wander.’

Birds fly into forty-five of the sixty-two poems in this collection of verse and there are twenty-nine personal dedications.

Reading Bluewren Cantos is a most rewarding challenge. Love, sexuality, spirituality and bucolic meditation twist a lovely braid. To seriously open this book is to take a hike in poetic Country with an enthusiastic and observant guide. Unexpectedly, Leonard Cohen, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, JS Bach and Seamus Heaney trek along beside you. The result is a good and colourful picnic, in true Hafiz style.

In one of the shorter poems, dedicated to his daughter, ‘Lucy and the Maple Leaf’, we get a glimpse of the creative bond and love of words between father and child:

…………………………………….It is late
Autumn, a Saturday, and the maple by the house

Has begun to drop its fiery leaves like hints (hot
Tips) at winter’s feet. She holds one out for me: a paw
Print in a child’s hand, a slightly death that stole a small girl’s heart.

Make it a poem, she says. But I take the leaf and draw instead
A shape for memory to fill, some lines for love to learn…

The music in the above poem is reminiscent of the sensibility in Elizabeth’s Bishop’s, ‘Sestina’. There is a lot of music in Bluewren Cantos. After all, birds have been known to sing. (I think they were the first.)

The term canto itself, while a measure of division in a long poem, can also refer to the highest part in choral music, the canto firmo, the melody line forming the basic of polyphonic music.

A quiet flutter of Emily Dickinson also floats through Tredinnick’s forest of a book. From her opening introductory epigraph: ‘I am…small like the Wren’, the tone of mindfulness is set for the journey. But the Emily that inspires these poems is much different that the one that Billy Collins poetically undresses in his poem, ‘Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes’:

The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Mr. Collins clearly has some untoward zoological intentions for our little wren. But in Bluewren Cantos, she alights on a different branch:

…that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself –

also whispering, into ‘The Thing With Feathers’, Hope:

…so that I mighty sit here in a frayed linen shirt and weathered
Jeans a foot above the tide and wonder how I’m meant to live…

In the massive 297 lines, and 18 sections of ‘The Wombat Vedas’, which won the Newcastle Poetry Prize, in 2011, a simple key to unlocking the poem lay in these brief confessional lines:

We fought, you and I, when I left. And I drove down here as if all the way back
Into some old autistic childhood. But now, my bags unpacked,
…………………………the fire burning, and a three-quarter moon
Edging out of the dark hills behind, loneliness grows slender and stretches out beside me,
……………..and the night is a sackful of stars.

His bags are unpacked, his loneliness has grown slender and for the next few hours we stretch out beside Tredinnick as he surrenders to the common praeternatural available to us all.

Many of the longer poems, in Bluewren Cantos, are pastoral mediations. They flow together like parts of one infinite extended work in which verses could well be interchangeable.

George Seferis once wrote about the poetry of CP Cavafy:

“…the work of Cavafy should be read and judged not as a series of separate poems, but as one and the same poem…. and we shall understand him more easily if we read him with the feeling of the continuous presence of his work as a whole.” (On the Greek Style)

One emerges from a sustained reading of Tredinnick’s Cantos with this continuous presence of his work as a whole.

In the epigraph to the Bluewren Cantos title poem, he quotes Jack Gilbert’s ‘Trying to Write Poetry’:

There is a wren sitting in the branches
Of my spirit, and it chooses not to sing.
It is listening to learn its song.

Has Emily’s little bird also flown into Gilbert’s tree? Tredinnick says later:

I learn slowly, but the birds teach me distance and delight,
The knack of being here and elsewhere at once. The more I dwell, the less I know for sure;
I live in a state of habitual confusion, like Berger, a man who’s lived in love
A long time now. In art, as in love and weather, one’s mind is (in) one’s body again.
One is, for a time, a place. Painted by bluewrens.

One is, for a time, a place. This line, for me, is the heart of Bluewren Cantos. And Tredinnick’s unique poetic vision.

JS Bach, my favorite composer, fugues along in the background in four poems, ‘Wombat Vedas’, ‘A Day at the Desk’, ‘Thing With Feathers’ – and in ‘Partita’:

…………………….Bach, you say, turned music
………………….into speech. He taught heaven how to walk, the gods
How to talk, on earth.

I’ve always viewed Bach as the fifth New Testament prophet – only arriving a millennium later. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John – and Johann Sebastian. Not simply Christian, but a mystic of the highest order. How else to understand a devout Lutheran who also created a choral masterpiece for the Catholic Church (the B-Minor Mass) that was so flawed in liturgical structure (but O so magnificent in Spirit) that it was utter heresy for any Roman Catholic clergy to even consider presenting it in its time. Hence why it was never heard until one hundred years after Bach’s death.

Mark Tredinnick

Mark Tredinnick

Bach lifted the Word to a place beyond Words. Even beyond Prayer. Christian scripture might arguably one day become as much top-shelf myth as befell the fate of the Greek and Roman gospels but the musical Testament of JS Bach will continue to remain vital and alive for as long as human birds sing.

And Bach, as mystic, is completely comfortable in Tredinnick’s country beside his other mystical poet Friend, Rumi.

So why did Mark Tredinnick title this particular collection of poetry Bluewren Cantos? As he says, ‘You don’t find the birds, they find you.’

Let’s step into the Grand Aviary of Poetry for a brief moment.

The Bird has replaced The Rose, star of ye olde Romantic times, as the most accessible metaphor in modern poetry. Charles Bukowski had a sensitive ‘Bluebird’ that he kept hidden away during the day. The bird wanted to get out but Charlie poured whisky on its head and blew cigarette smoke into its beak. He only opened the cage door when people were asleep because, as he admonished it, ‘You want to screw up the works? You want to blow my book sales in Europe?’

The bluebirds in Bluewren Cantos don’t drink or blow smoke rings and they don’t shuffle on perches. If they can be said to be metaphors, they are free-range metaphors. They soar, swoop and hunt – and sometimes simply sit still and ignore image-hungry poets until the poets tire and go home.

Fowl have been flying in poetry for a very long time. In classic Chinese, you find: Screech owls moan in the yellowing Mulberry trees, and A single wild goose climbs into the void, in the work of Tu Fu. A crowing cock wakes me like a blow, in Lu Yu, and the oriole is not to blame for the broken dream of a Bygone Spring, in Chu Shu Chen.

Wallace Stevens wrote about the (lucky) thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. And the blinding dazzle of his gold-feathered bird, singing in the palm at the end of the mind whose …fire-fangled feathers dangle down, seems a natural soulmate for Tredinnick’s lightning-strike kingfisher:

‘Catching Fire; or, The Art of Sitting’

……………………..for Judith Beveridge

………………………….As kingfishers catch fire,
…………………………  .dragonflies draw flame.
……………………………………….– Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

Mid-afternoon, I look up from my desk to see
A kingfisher alight in the water poplar.

For ten blue minutes she sits wrapped in
Her sacerdotal self, murder on her mind,

And I watch her steal her own silent show, doing
Nothing, immaculately, among the silver leaves.

Until, as if my eyes had pinned her, the instant
They drop, she flies: the stillest bird

In Christendom reaches escape velocity faster
Than I can find a pen. And I’d like to learn

To sit so still and to disappear so well, my body
Become a famished thought, my mind become a world.

I think Tredinnick’s understanding of stillness, and its relationship to action, is the focused and coiled spring of a Shaolin White Crane master.

WB Yeats imagined not a natural bird, but one of ‘hammered gold and gold enameling… to sing to the lords and ladies of Byzantium’. I wonder if Yeats’ wind-up bird also was intended sing for the poor and disenfranchised, who probably weren’t allowed anywhere near Byzantium? (Except, that is, via the back street dens of Coleridge’s laudanum-laced pleasure domes.)

Robert Adamson, the most bird-watching poet in Australia, in his book, The Golden Bird, clearly nods his beak to Yeats’ but pessimistically, in the way he writes about the poet in the title poem:

……………When his heart
stopped, did he believe
it would transcend him:
gold-foil wings hovering
over the void…

Now as far as I can figure, Yeats’ budgie was fashioned of ‘hammered gold and gold enameling’, not ‘gold-foil wings’. More significantly, it certainly did transcend him, or else we wouldn’t be talking about it now.

Will Adamson’s own metaphoric fowls follow Icarus’s fate down or continue to enchant in two hundred years? (i.e. if a mechanical bird perches in a tree and there is no one there to wind it, does it still sing?)

Photograph - Southerly 23/8/2013.  Speaking of love - Blog post by  Mark Tredinnick  (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/2013/08/23/speaking-of-love/)

Photograph – Southerly 23/8/2013. Speaking of love – Blog post by Mark Tredinnick (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/2013/08/23/speaking-of-love/)

Xenophanes originated the word anthropomorphism to describe the perception of a divine being in human form. Anthropomorphism is present in all religious teaching and mythology.

But one of the inherent dangers of over-projecting human characteristics or psychological states into birds and other animals – known as abstract anthropomorphism – is its reverse state – dehumanization – the tendency in times of extreme crisis or desperation to view humans as nonhuman objects or animals. What that renowned ornithologist, Jung, might have called the Shadow-wren.

I remember once pulling a cuddly doe-eyed possum by its tail from the eave of a bush house and watch it transform from a cute Disney child’s toy into the Bride of Chucky in five seconds, whipping around and carving four long gashes in my forearm. And it pissed on me as well. I think the same possum must have visited Tredinnick, in ‘Tough Love: a Deconstructed Sonnet’:

It’s so much easier to show kindness, I find, to a possum
Around lunchtime the next day. . .
It’s so much easier then than it was at three am when the possum pulled,
For the fourteenth time – like a lover exchanged and all the locks changed –
At the wire you’d nailed over the only way into the home it had mistaken,

These past five months, for its own: your ceiling.

Deities can also be persistent territorial predators, and even Muses get horny and peckish.

‘Rainforest Bird; or, on Looking Over Someone’s Shoulder at the Photograph of a Hindu Carving in an Inflight Magazine’

Love is an abject goddess.
……………………..She’s a sculpture of beatific hunger,
All one’s wanting petrified, quickened by chisel, and left out to think about it
In the rain. Love is a wretched beauty, and her round breasts trine
……………………..her second mouth, and moss grows
Between her fingers. Her demeanour is serene, but soon
Her proverbial arms are all over you,
………………and her green tongue flashes
Like a rainforest bird across your breast, again and again and again.

Surfacing in some of Mark Tredinnick’s work is a tendency toward what a close friend of mine, an English teacher from McGill University, once admonished me for doing myself – always looking for an Absolute. A definitive experience from which one might, finally, be able to say: That’s it. Full stop.

Harvesting absolutes is a signature of the endearment of Tredinnick’s style but also tends to be somewhat predictable at times.

In the brilliant and well-deserved Montreal International Poetry Prize 2011 winning poem, ‘Walking Underwater’, he writes:

…moss deckles the edges of the oaks and firs,
Which hold out stoically inside the sweetest excuse for day-
Light I’ve ever seen.

In the Bluewren Cantos, he kingfishes the Absolute in ‘A Day At Your Desk All Along the Shoalhaven’:

…And you knew you’d never spend
A better day alive again on Earth.

‘Sulphur-crested Sonnet’:

The white bird high in the crown of the elm is a better idea
Than any you’ve had all day…

and ‘Half Moon in Late September’:

…there’s a half moon like half
An answer, as much of the truth as anyone can hope to catch.

I am reminded of the adage: do not question too much the Meaning of life; but Live one’s life so that it has meaning.

Thankfully, these poems do both. They are continually asking: what am I here for? But in the asking, they answer the question: the creating of the beautiful verse that is the core part of the kind of Living that gives his life meaning. Bluewren Cantos is a sparkling journal of ecdysis for Tredinnick – and anyone else who wants it.

It is possible to imagine
Love that ends as beautifully as it began.

– Mark Tredinnick, ‘It is Possible to Imagine.’

Tredinnick often summons the Beloved – an intoxicating image I first discovered in the poems of St John of the Cross:

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved.

Christ was the Beloved of St John’s poems, the true source of his Bride’s longing.

Martin Luther King Jr spoke of peace on earth as ‘the Beloved Community’.

Rumi said:

The real Beloved is your Beginning and your End.
When you find that One,
you’ll no longer expect anything else.

Early Persians believed that poetry was a subtler vehicle than prose for approaching the ineffable mystery that was beyond words. The Orientalist scholar, Dr. W.M. Thackston, noted that Sufi poet, Hafiz, ‘sang a rare blend of human and mystic love so balanced that it was impossible to separate one from the other.’ (Hafiz also, unfortunately, in contemporary usage, means ‘memoriser’ – someone who knows the Koran by heart – something he was apparently able to do.)

There was another practical purpose in the Middle Ages for veiling God with the cloth of Beloved, Lover or Friend. It made it difficult to censor poetry for unusual mystical ideas that often fell outside of the traditional constricts of Islamic Canon.

In ‘Hell and Back (Again)’, Tredinnick introduces another brief confessional key to unlock the invigoration in ordinary miracles:

After a weekend low, under which I wandered, hardly able
To decide where, I made a poem, as if it were a decision
That made me.
……..And now, of course, the weather has turned
Out for the best, and love is a garden in the city, fashioning
Flowers out of light.
……..I am the fish in the Beloved’s stream again.

Returning to the mundane, however, can often take its toll. In ‘A Book of Common Prayer’, while lost in the contemplation of the flight of one flock, he almost annihilates another:

………………………………..They pray
By spreading their wings and falling into
Their lives. Each flight a book of common

Prayer. And at dusk I got another chance
To try my hand at grace. Driving, it must be said,
A little too fast, thinking a little too hard,

I almost took out a family of ducks, crossing
The road from the suburbs to the swamp,
One parent ahead and one parent after,

Six little ones strung in dactyls between. And
Even song would not have saved them, had my foot
Not pedalled then such a sudden and purposive prayer.

Insightful, very funny – and a memorable parable.

In his notes at the end of the Bluewren Cantos, he offers the complete lovely Emily Dickinson quote, a fragment of which first opened the book:

Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote to Emily Dickinson in 1892 asking for a picture. She replied, ‘ Could you believe me without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves. Would this do just as well?’

If we were to ask for a portrait of Mark Tredinnick from Bluewren Cantos, one that we too could believe, perhaps we could say ‘vast like the Beloved, with eyes, like moonlight left on the water, after a low flight, singing up poetic Country.’

Would this do just as well?

-Joe Dolce

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Joe Dolce was born in Painesville, Ohio, USA in 1947 and moved to Australia, 1979. His poetry has appeared in Best Australian Poems 2014, was shortlisted for both the Newcastle Poetry Prize 2014 and the Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Poetry Prize 2014 and he won the 25th Launceston Poetry Cup. He has poetry, essays, song-lyrics and photographs have been published in Monthly, Southerly, Canberra Times, PEN MELBOURNE, Quadrant, Australian Love Poems, Meanjin, Etchings, Overland, Cordite, Little Raven, Contrappasso, Voltage (US), Not Shut Up (UK), Tupelo Quarterly (US) and Antipodes (US).

Flowing Lines and Hypnotic Melodies: Jean Kent launches Bluewren Cantos by Mark Tredinnick at the Newcastle Writers Fesrtival 2014

Bluewren Cantos is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/mark-tredinnick/

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Flowing Lines and Hypnotic Melodies: Jean Kent launches ‘Bluewren Cantos’ by Mark Tredinnick

Jean Kent launched Mark Tredinnick’s Bluewren Cantos at the Newcastle Writers Festival on April 6th, 2014

blue wren cantosWhen Mark asked me to launch this new book, Bluewren Cantos, I took a very deep breath before I said ‘yes’. I had already been reading the book, so I knew it was an exceptional collection of poetry. I believe it is a book that will be written about with great excitement by critics and readers for a very long time, so whatever I say today to launch it will be just a brief wren-like twittering, compared with the chorus of praise with which it will undoubtedly be received as it goes out into the world.

Bluewren Cantos is not just ‘a book of poetry’ – although it is a very beautiful book, not only because of its contents, but also because it has been so elegantly produced by Pitt Street Poetry, with John and Linsay’s trademark care and thoughtfulness – no, what’s struck me again and again as I’ve been reading is that this is a ‘life of poetry’.

The stuff of poetry – words, visions, phrases, observations that stick in the mind or startle other thoughts, memories, associations, quotes from other poets … all these small starters for poems are what every living moment here feels suffused with.

In ‘The Wombat Vedas’, Mark writes

…………………………………….…….These lines are the roads I take into the world –
out and back into the Self – a shuffle
………………..performed with a pencil and a voice and their truth is how
They go, not where they start.

In fact, there is a feeling for me that the lines could start anywhere – in any moment, with any chance observation – so that longing and love, and meditations on the endless riffs on these within a multi-layered life, must lead, inevitably, to poetry.

Like the singing of birds, it all feels artlessly beautiful, but only because of the exceptional art, which keeps the music of what’s being said mesmerizing. Behind the flowing lines and hypnotic melodies, there is as much control of the rhythm and counterpoint and harmony as there is in any of the compositions by Bach or Mozart or Debussy, composers who compete with all the real birds in Mark’s Wingecarribie landscape.

Even before he began publishing poetry, Mark was renowned as a nature writer. His sensitivity to place and his ability to celebrate the Australian landscape are special joys in all his poems. The places are often so wonderfully recognizable – the Sculpture Garden at the NGA in Canberra, Margaret River in WA, the Southern Highlands: I know these places, and I love the way they lift off the pages of Mark’s book in as if they deserve to be treasured

There is also a deep spiritual possibility in this, as the poem ‘On Hammock Hill’ shows:

This is my devotion, then, to walk sometimes
…………………….with the dog through the schlerophyll

Cathedral of morning.

Often, Mark’s poems begin with nature – but invariably the solitary presence of the poet reaches out to another person – often a loved person – or, in an intimate connection, to the reader.

This is poetry like tightrope walking – a nonchalant, though thoughtful, ambling out into the world, which almost leads us into a transcendental state – only to be caught in a web of emotion and thought and connections to the daily reality of living.

I think this is beautifully illustrated by ‘Fight or Flight’, a poem about a butterfly flying into a spider’s web.

….Webs like soft targets stretch across
Every flight path and passage – traps
….So exquisitely laid you almost wish
You were small enough to spring them,
….For the terminal pleasure of being

So elegantly caught.

This could just as easily be a description of reading a Mark Tredinnick poem. So many ‘exquisitely laid’ webs, so much pleasure in being ‘elegantly caught’.

If all this sounds very serious, it is. But Mark’s poems are also full of contrarily playful paradoxes and wry humour. His tone may be debonair, well-dressed and conscious of manners and historical allegiances, but for all the hypnotic oratory, his voice is both questing and self-deprecating, and the earth he walks over is emphatically today’s.

This is a world of therapy and co-dependency and anxieties about what is happening to our planet – just to mention a very few current or topical concerns.

It is also a world of travel and work – and very notably and memorably – of family, of parents (as remembered from childhood, or ageing now) and children (those blessed ‘thieves of our time / love’s worst scoundrels’, taking the best and worst of us.

There are so many arresting images and lines in Mark’s poems, it is tempting to quote and quote … although where would I stop in any one poem? There is such a flow of words; one memorable moment just leads on to another.

Here is one, a description of ‘Sandhill Cranes’:

………………………………………………………..They carry their legs
Behind them like music stands they never learned
To fold, and they slash a loose graffiti
…………………………………………on the cloudbank as they come.

The book is called Bluewren Cantos, and there are so many beautiful poems about birds. For that alone, it would be a treasure.

When I first started reading Mark’s book, in a very hot January when cicadas were the most deafening choirs all around our house, the dollar birds who visit us each summer were also in residence.

I saw one at twilight on the same day I read Mark’s dollar bird poem, and it was one of those electric shock moments that can come when poetry connects absolutely with life.

This is the poem:
The Currency of Turquoise (P 87)

“What is the worth of the world?”
……………..Tim Lilburn ‘The Return to the Garden’

“I caught this morning morning’s minion …”
……………..Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘The Windhover’

What is the world worth these days, do you suppose?
A dollarbird at a distance looks like nothing much at all:
A myna at Vipassana on the gatepost. But in flight later
He’s a peregrine falcon. The way of poetry never looked
So sleek: loneliness never travelled so fast. Wings raked
Back, her heart stenciled cheaply on both her sleeves,
Her colours running from scarlet tip to lapis tail, she free-
Falls in turquoise to the treeline, then pulls back hard
On the joystick, her bill slick with insect, and glides away,
As if the whole world were nothing more than a reject
Shop on a Saturday afternoon. But the world, in truth,
Is ten thousand expensive things heaven forgot to say.
And the dollarbird, at her semi-precious plunge, spruiks
Two of them for the price of one, and flies away for free.

Congratulations Mark! Apart from the excellence of the writing, what we have here is a BIG book, in a multitude of meanings of that word. It is an awe-inspiringly generous collection of poetry, abundant with language and vision and experience. I’m honoured to be launching it, and I wish it great success and the very many appreciative readers it deserves. May they be as enriched by reading it as I have been.

– Jean Kent

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Bluewren Cantos is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/mark-tredinnick/

Jean Kent has published four collections of poetry. Her most recent is Travelling with the Wrong Phrasebooks (Pitt Street Poetry, 2012).
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Launching Love at Byron Bay – George Megalogeni to launch Australian Love Poems 2013

Australian Love Poems 2013, edited by Mark Tredinnick. Inkerman and Blunt

australian-love-poems-2013-edited-by-mark-tredinnickThe Byron Bay Writers’ Festival kicks off today and while I would be love to be attending this year I am stuck in Sydney looking at the program and quietly cursing…..

Among the highlights of this year’s festival is the launch of not just another poetry anthology, but of a new Australian literary publishing house. If you are lucky enough to be in Byron for the Festival make sure you don’t miss the launch of Australian Love Poems 2013, edited by Mark Tredinnick on Sunday at 1pm at the Launchpad at the Lakehouse, 2 Bay Shore Bay, Byron Bay. It will be launched by author and columnist George Megalogenis and will feature a discussion with the editor of the anthology, Mark Tredinnick as well as readings from poets Kate Lumley, Phillip A Ellis, Michael Thorley, Rosanna Licari, Phyllis Perlstone, Candy Royalle, Erin Martine Sessions and Lisa Brockwell.

Australian Love Poems 2013 is the fist publication by Inkerman and Blunt who state that they are “dedicated to publishing books of originality, intelligence and beauty”. If their first book is anything to go by they are well on their way!

The 200 poems in the anthology are grouped together into a number of different sections: ‘Unruly days’, ‘It can’t work, but nothing does’, ‘It’s time to take off our clothes’, ‘You and I sitting out the world’, ‘A betrothing rain’, ‘But I have known you in the winter, too’, ‘You are gone again’, ‘I’ve been drunk with you for millennia’, ‘We outgrow love like other things’ and ‘There is another universe in which our song is not yet finished’. This adds a certain level of ‘poetic complexity’ to the anthology which comes as an intriguing surprise when compared to the majority of anthologies that take the democratic, but simple, alphabetic path.

While Rochford Street Review hopes to be able to profile Inkerman and Blunt in the future as part of series on independent literary publishers we are still insanely jealous that we are not spending the weekend in Byron helping to launch this anthology!

-Mark Roberts

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Australian Love Poems 2013 is available from Inkerman & Blunt http://inkermanandblunt.com/home/projects/australian-love-poems-2013/

For more information on the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival go to http://www.byronbaywritersfestival.com.au/

Disclaimer – Mark Roberts has two poems in this anthology.