Binding Politics with Poetry: Anna Kerdijk Nicholson launches ‘swimming underground’ by Jenni Nixon

swimming underground by Jenni Nixon, Ginninderra Press 2015, was launched by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson at Gleebooks, Sydney on 27 September 2015.

swimming undergroundJenni Nixon’s new collection swimming underground, published by Ginninderra Press, is slim and neat but it packs a punch.

What interests me most about the poetry in Jenni’s new collection is how she has achieved her aims. For make no mistake, these are political poems which are outspoken. I have been thinking about her performative history, including her acting career, her role in outreach education using theatre, her performance-poetry and how she has translated this successfully onto the page. Jenni had long, long-standing poetic friendships with Dr Kerry Leves and Vikki Viidikas, both of whom were poets of ecstasy and outrage. All of that history and technique is here in these pages.

So how has she captured so much with such a light touch?

Excuse me if I read excerpts from the book as I know that Jenni is going to read you a rich selection of the pieces which you will enjoy all the more, hearing it in her own voice. So I’m going to give you exploratory tasters of how Jenni goes about her poetic work.

I think she’s worked to position the poems against one another so that they flesh out her political themes.

Jenni’s divided the book into four sections exploring her political concerns: war in all its forms including the domestic; the infection which is family; the marginalised in society; and the effect of the misuse of power.

Notice that somewhat strange glib assessment I made back there: ‘war in all its forms including the domestic.’ You see, this is the effect of Jenni saying things in her ‘Jenni’ way. The poems have soldiers come back into the domestic – her grandfather, her father and Tom Uren; and the battle ground of the home. Let me introduce you to her experience of Tom Uren. She travels on the 442 bus, describing the White Bay entry to Balmain in all its dodgy politics and she’s sitting next to Tom Uren whose history she relates. Mixing the present and the past, Jenni conflates the demonstration against war—which she attended and he led—with her meeting with him on the bus.

called the conscience of parliament
broken nose champion prizefighter
large practical hands rest on his knees
jovial smile under a brown bush hat
Tom Uren is travelling home to Balmain.


Tom Uren was witness in Japan
distant mushroom cloud atom bomb
………..dropped on Nagasaki
he protests war in Iraq and Afghanistan
…………………….marching out the front
I hobbled along back in the throng
Tom Uren tells me you stay in your seat
until the bus stops
you could fall.

 – a bombadier on the bus

Poetry which is political and defiant is often poetry which uses, ineffectively, hectoring or remonstration. Jenni’s poetry works ‘as well as it does’ because she controls her poetic style and her voice. The result is that she deals with insanity and its benign counterpart, eccentricity; suicide; alcoholism and sobriety; and successfully celebrates the marginalised because of her stance, her perspective. It is the tone of the work—that thing which is so very difficult to define but which is essential to good poetry—which binds the politics with the poetry, the personal with the general. Something which comedy, satire and irony have in common: a lightness of touch when dealing with the objectionable and, very importantly, entry into the problematic lived experience.

Here are some small parts of ‘dragons’ a superbly-toned poem about a child’s repetition of received family opinion and bearing witness to dysfunctionality:

tonight gran and i will study Word Power
read stories from the Reader’s Digest
laugh together at Humour in Uniform
she’ll correct my pro-nun-see-ay-shon
then off to bed with clean white sheets all starchy
as my new school uniform’s black box pleats


gran thinks granddad
too friendly with the local kids
written them poems on their dead dogs and stuff
kinda nice but she tells him to stop
they sleep in separate bedrooms

dinner tonight we had Rhinegold
love the bottle round with a green leaf
want more tingly sparkles
chase each other down my throat
gran’s teaching me to drink properly
so i won’t become a drunk like my dad

dad hates gran too bossy a regular dragon
he says she interferes too much
but i like it over here mum’s mad again
up all night for days talking to herself
writes things down on crumpled bits of paper


gran gets so tired taking care of us
her mouth is shrinking

 – dragons

When you have read the collection you will feel entertained, but that’s deceptive, because Jenni won’t let anyone, including herself, get away with it. The ‘it’ against which she uses her wit and descriptive power includes Clive Palmer, Centrelink, the invasiveness of CCTV, domestic violence, the Government’s transgressive treatment of asylum seekers, fracking, government resistance to same-sex marriage, and cant.

[…] i know your body like my own. the curves smells
folds of it. the licks of tongues to fire passions breath of it.
though we share our bed you cannot be my wife.
forbidden. no white frocks gold rings wedding bells
no rainbow confetti. no battered shoes to knock
the road behind a sign: just married. my love
here is my proposal. when the law is changed. marry me.

 –  proposal

She is also very aware of the layering of all history, particularly in this, our Harbour City.

… this harbour city thumping under constant reconstruction
in a ‘bag lady’s waltz’ twirl of traffic through tunnels
burning rubber over buried shell middens
of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation
on to freeways and down thoroughfares into back alleys
in an eternal search for parking.

– harbour spin

She’s framed the book with this starting poem about Sydney Harbour and given us a coda which is the epitome of her satirical pieces. She leads us to think she’s on our side and then turns the lens on us, lets us know that we are (and that includes Jenni) part of the local and global problems she wants us to help solve.

As we head toward the end of the book, Jenni uses this technique consistently and to good effect — not letting any of us get away with it. This is from Sydney Siege about the Lindt Café on Martin Place:

sprinkles of rain lightly fell
on field of flower left by mourners
that became a shrine
with a plaque for the dead.

snarled in traffic
the city is open for business
thousands offer #illridewithyou
…………for those fearing racist backlash
yet women in headscarves are spat on.

 – Sydney Seige

The final poem in the collection takes the ecstasy of near-resolution of our issues and holds up a mirror to us. It starts with the epigraph from Phil Ochs for the final section: ‘ah, but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty’.

into blue

space junk has in cracks and crannies life forms that change with
intense heat into a subatomic new life force that melds with a
meteorite on re-entry merges with everything metallic on Earth
to form a new cosmic collective consciousness that’s galaxy-blue
and humming. they’ve come home to their Creators. first law
of hummers is to harm no humans. fridges phones buildings
homes billion-dollar aircraft and bombs are turning blue and
hum. guns and bullets purr in people’s pockets. a young thug
at a convenience store pulls a knife that squeals turns blue
is hot and rubbery. with a yelp of pain the youth flees. the
knife returns to a pleasant vibrating whirr. In war zones planes
with bluish bombs refuse to fly. rockets won’t fire. cars don’t
crash. galaxy-blue is hard for dye makers to match but soon
the populace of New York and London are kitted out in blue.
some begin to worship hummers as the new manifestation of
Krishna. first were hip-replacements but now bodies turn blue
as Avatars in the fantasy film. no more wars. we hold our breath.
turn galaxy-blue. – awake breathless hear on the radio David
Bowie singing Planet earth is blue. And there’s nothing I can do…
a blue marble spinning in the cosmic playground is in danger
of losing the game.

 – Anna Kerdijk Nicholson


Anna Kerdijk Nicolson has a new book of poetry published by Puncher & Wattman – Everyday Epic.  ‘Her celebrated skill with form—so apparent in her first book, The Bundanon Cantos, and utilised to great effect with the modern sonnets in Possession—is also present, but in a playful way. Everyday Epic honours the courage of our small twenty first century selves who battle on—in the face of prejudice, racism, the Intervention, Australia’s Immigration policy—despite our ‘pathetic human-ness’.”

swimming underground is available from


Carol Novack – A life remembered. Tributes from John Jenkins and Rae Desmond Jones

Carol Novack, ca. 1974 / 1975, Adelaide, Australia (photo: Terry Bennett). Source Mad Hatters' Review

Carol Novack, writer, poet, editor and luminary publisher of the alternative and edgy Mad Hatters’ Review, MadHat Press and the MadHat Arts Foundation,  died on 29 December last year. Although she was born in the USA, and spent much of her life there, she spent a number of years in Australia during the 1970’s and made a major contribution to the development of Australian poetry during those years. During these years she worked as an editor for the Cosmopolitan, and began publishing her poetry.  Makar Press published her collection, Living Alone Without a Dictionary, as part of the Gargoyle Poets Series in 1974, and her work was included in The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets.  She was the recipient of an Australian Council of the Arts writer’s grant. She left Australia in 1977.

After a traveling in India and Europe, Carol returned to New York City where she completed a law degree. As an attorney, she worked first in the Criminal Appeals Bureau of the New York Legal Aid Society and later as a solo practitioner, championing the causes of artists and the underprivileged.

She went on to receive her master’s degree in social work (community organizing), and teach lyrical fiction writing at The Women’s Studio Center in NYC, returning to the serious pursuit of her own writing in 2004.  “The muse just suddenly reared her jerky head again,” she said.

From the mid-2000s, she began publishing her gender-bending hybrid metafiction— “her little aliens,” as she called them—in many journals and anthologies, including: American Letters & Commentaries, Exquisite Corpse, La Petite Zine, LIT, Missippi Review, Notre Dame Review and Caketrain.

In 2005 she founded the Mad Hatters’ Review, one of the first online journals with a true multimedia approach, marrying literature, film, art and music in an annual collage of some of the most explosive arts on the web.“

Carol curated the successful Mad Hatters’ Review reading series at KGB Bar in New York, and performed herself at many venues in New York City and elsewhere.  After re-settling in Asheville, North Carolina in 2010, she began a new reading series at The Black College Museum & Arts Center and founded a non-profit arts organization, MadHat, Inc., which now includes the Review; MadHat Press, a print publisher; and an artist’s retreat at her mountain home in Asheville.

Before her death,  Carol was working several new projects, including the novella Felicia’s Nose, in collaboration with Tom Bradley.  Both Felicia’s Nose and a collection of  Carol’s shorter works are anticipated for publication in the near future.

Thanks to Marc Vincenz for allow Rochford Street Review to run an edited version of his tribute to Carol which was original posted on Mad Hatters’ Blog on January 5 2012

Carol’s impact on Australian poetry can be measured by the number of moving tributes posted on the Mad Hatter Review following her death. John Jenkins and Rae Desmond Jones have given Rochford Street Review permission to republish their tributes.

Tribute to Carol Novack by John Jenkins

I first met Carol Novack in 1974 in Melbourne, at a literary party hosted by Meanjin magazine, an Australian literary institution published by Melbourne University. The new editor wanted to refresh and revitalize it by including new talent and directions. I had recently had a short story published, and was introduced to Carol by the novelist, Finola Morehead.

I remember leaning beside a settee, drinks poised; people chatting intelligently around us, as Carol and I hit it off from the first word: the attraction immediate and mutual, our conversation bright and animated. I was delighted by Carol’s effortless style: her quick intelligence, zany humor and ready smile. She was indeed a New Yorker and pure oxygen to me. Her urbanity was polished and real, yet refreshingly free of anything po-faced or ponderous. Indeed, there was always a hint of something wicked and unexpected: together with an infectious relish and enjoyment of people, life, conversation, everything.

She was on a visit to Melbourne, down from Sydney for just a few days. So I invited her to dinner, to discover if the attraction wasn’t something I had imagined, or just the sort from a wine glass. A few days later, we agreed that I should accompany Carol back to Sydney. Everything was moving very fast: but such throw-the-dice impulsiveness was often the badge of our relationship.

We set off in my old car, which nearly ended the story at the very start. At one point, I became fatigued, and asked Carol to take the wheel. She readily agreed, then struck something on the next bend. We ended flying through space and emerged, somehow, by the side of the road, as my car span slowly around on its roof in the middle of the highway, and a truck blared down upon us. The world might have stopped shunting into eerie slow motion by then, but—miraculously—neither of us was hurt.

We just sat by the roadside, wide-eyed, in utter disbelief to still be alive. It seemed we sat there forever, and might still be there today, but it was really only minutes. There was a pub nearby, with a tow truck parked outside. Almost casually, as if it happened every day—and maybe it did—the tow truck driver put up some barriers, righted our car and towed it back to his workshop somewhere. ‘It’s a total right-off mate’, he said, ‘but I won’t charge you if you let me strip it down for parts.’ I agreed, and the driver of the truck that nearly ran us down offered us a lift to Sydney.

Carol had been living in the palmy suburb of Woollahra, in a comfortable house she co-rented with the poet Joanne Burns, but the lease was almost up, so Carol and I moved into a small and comfortable place not far away, in the fashionable suburb of Paddington. We lived together there for about a year, and Carol told me how she came to Australia. Apparently, not long before we met, she had married an Australian academic in New York. Her husband then took a senior post at an Australian university. Carol said he was a terrific person, but she soon realised the path marriage paved for her was not the one she really, ultimately, wanted. The domestic life of housewife was not to be her destiny. She was much more artistically inclined; and very adventurous: so had parted from her husband after mutual agreement.

Our life together in Paddington was certainly never dull, as it happened, and not very domestic either. There were many parties, which we either hosted or attended; ferry voyages around Sydney harbor to meet poets and writers; always lively discussions of art, politics and writing – and it was sometimes hard to say whether the arguments or agreements were the more heated. A heady round of restaurant and café meetings where the wine and conversation flowed freely, and spirits were often high. Generally, the mid to late ‘70s were sunny and exciting years in Sydney literary life. Even when we moved from Paddington, after finding lower-rent places in down-market Ultimo then Glebe, the excitement continued.

We met, and often socialized and partied with, some of the most talented and interesting people connected with poetry and writing of those years: Frank Moorhouse, Joanne Burns, Michael Wilding, Rae Desmond Jones, Ken Bolton, Pat Woolley, David Malouf, Bob Adamson, Clive Evatt, Nigel Roberts, Anna Couani, Dorothy Porter, Kerry Leves, Bruce Beaver, Dorothy Hewett, Merv Lilley, Rudi Krausmann, John Tranter, Mike Parr, Dave Marsh, Vicki Viidikas, Dennis Gallagher, Laurie Duggan, Alex Danko…far too many to list here…but collectively creating an effervescent milieu both absorbing and upbeat.

Of course, Carol and I had also to earn a living. This proved relatively easy for Carol, who had always been an academic high-achiever, and proved an equally fast learner when moving from one profession to another. Her research skills were considerable, and she put them to work for Lachlan Vintage Village, a re-created historical attraction in Forbes, New South Wales, built according to historically accurate specifications Carol supplied to the architects. Meanwhile, I worked as a book distributor; before we somehow hit on the idea of writing (or sometimes co-writing) articles for Cosmopolitan magazine.

Cosmo liked Carol so much, they happily hired her, as staff writer and sub-editor; and she then arranged full-time work for me in the mag’s umbrella company, Sungravure, which had a big stable of magazines; and was further owned by the Fairfax group of magazine, newspaper and radio media. And this, effectively, is how we both entered well-paid commercial journalism. In parallel with this, we both continued writing poems, articles, stories and whatever took our fancy.

I remain forever grateful to Carol for opening this new career door for me, as I was rather directionless at the time, never quite knowing how to balance means and ends, or make the latter meet. It was only in the last few months of our time together, that things got really rocky. One of Carol’s favorite movies was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and we would sometimes have hilarious mock arguments in a parody style of Albee’s famous play. But it was sometimes too real, too close to the bone; such as one night Carol’s dramatic finale was to throw all my clothes out a second-storey window, down into the street. No doubt I had committed some misdemeanor or other, and thoroughly deserved it. I was often ‘a handful’, and emotionally unpredictable. Such as the night I splashed Vodka over dumbstruck friends, while staggering into an incoherent and feverish tirade against the world, with Carol chuckling wildly to one side.

Eventually, we decided neither of us was ready to settle down, into even a casually de-facto version of married life, as we both had wild oats to sow, if not so carefully nurture or cultivate. Besides this, I wanted to travel to Indonesia, while Carol began longing for family, and familiarity, in New York. Eventually, we sat down together, and after a long, sober and rather melancholy conversation, agreed to part; but it was in a spirit of true friendship, and without bitterness.

Carol always had a wonderful sense of humor. She was also naturally kind-hearted and had a great capacity for joy and happiness. She was generous to a fault, both in spirit and materially when people needed help. Though always a ‘straight talker’, very frank and to the point when she needed to be, she was also a fiercely loyal friend. Once she liked and trusted you, you were there for life. All these fine qualities in her nature, and many more beyond listing here, were always evident to me, as they were to all who knew her well. And Carol had a talent for attracting friends to her warm and generous and outgoing nature, which always illuminated her wonderfully buoyant and creative life.

I saw Carol on two occasions after we had split up, and she had returned to New York. The first time was at her West 13th Street apartment in New York, when Carol introduced me to her (decidedly zany) friends, then took me around town to see the sights. At that time Carol was a member of ‘The Party Line’: nothing political, but a group of amusing ‘party animals’, who rang each other to pass on addresses of the best gigs in town.

I went along for the ride, ending up at a ‘do’ thrown by novelist Joseph Heller, at the swank Four Seasons Hotel; and another bash for friends of Lou Reed in some ratty, black-painted room downtown where the amplified sound of smashing bottles rang from the walls as one-time Velvet Underground singer Nico wailed into a frenzied, feeding-back microphone.

The very last time I saw Carol was in Ireland, in 2004. A quiet meeting. We both happened to be in Dublin at the time, and our paths crossed almost by chance. It was a happy reunion; and we took a coach tour, on a rare sunny day in Ireland, to some interesting historical sites. We were clearly both older and wiser by then, and spent a gentle afternoon reminiscing about good times and bad, about what had come to both of us, and friends past and present. Carol studied Asian culture, and even spoke a little Mandarin. She often quoted one of her favorite poems, I think it was by the Chinese poet Ouyang Xiu: ‘Life is best like a drunk falling off the back of a wagon, who rolls to the roadside, and by chance sees only the star-filled sky.’ I can’t remember the exact quote, but this might be close: and I always think of it when I think of Carol.

—John Jenkins, Melbourne, Jan 2012

Memories of Carol Novack – Rae Desmond Jones

I set eyes on Carol Novack one warm evening late in 1972. My first chapbook had been published, and I was invited to read at a forthcoming Adelaide Festival of Arts. I had never read out loud before, and needed practice. This took place in a semi derelict Protestant Church in one of Sydney’s less desirable suburbs (things have changed). I was sitting in the front pew shuffling poems when a striking woman draped in flowing clothes with long raven hair walked onto the stage and began to read. Her poem was a tapestry of chthonian images, showers of light and darkness.

Our friendship proved deep and enduring. Through 1976 she shared a small white terrace house near Bondi Junction with the poet Joanne Burns, where the conversation and the wine flowed well into the early hours. The house was a vibrant centre of literary and cultural ferment. Carol loved the company of poets and artists and frequently encouraged others before fully developing her own considerable talent. The late poet Vicki Viidikas heard her read in a small studio and asked her pointedly why she had not written and published more of her truly astonishing poems. Carol was unable to respond, a rare event.

Carol had courage. After she returned to the United States she contacted me from New York. On 9/11 I phoned her. She was calm and controlled, despite ash and dust and smoke in the air. She also was able to know and accept individual weaknesses and failings with humour and sensitivity. Once you were Carol’s friend, it was for life. This may have been linked with her literary gift, in which she examined and sought to reconcile her own complexity and ambiguities. Like her personality, her writing is complex and demanding: it lives.

– Rae Desmond Jones, Sydney, 2012

Other tributes from Australian writers have also been published on the Mad Hatters’ Review Blog:

Link to Mad Hatters' Blog

Link to Mad Hatters' Review

The Beautiful Dead – THIRTEEN POEMS FROM THE DEAD by Rae Desmond Jones

Thirteen Poems from the Dead by Rae Desmond Jones, Polar Bear Press 2011

First impressions are always important and in the case of Thirteen Poems From the Dead, first impressions create very high expectations. This is a beautiful book, printed in a very limited run of less than one hundred. It is printed, we are told, on Magnani Velata Avorio and set in Minion and Gill types. And if that isn’t enough there is apparently a deluxe edition on its way – twenty six copies “lettered a-z”, signed by the poet and artist and each with an original print by Michael Fitzjames.

But while it’s all too easy to be seduced by the way this book looks and feels I have, after all, come for the poetry – and fortunately I was not disappointed. Rae Desmond Jones has led a rich and varied life. I first became aware of him as a poet courtesy of Robyn Archer’s 1978 LP The Wild Girl in the Heart. On this album Archer put the poetry of a number of Australian poets to music – among them was Jones’ ‘The Deadshits’. This poem is a fairly graphic account of a pack rape at a suburban party and, at the time, resulted in calls for the entire album to be banned. Jones’ was already an established poet in 1978 and over the ensuring years released a number of books of poetry, two novels, a book of short stories as well as a video. In addition he found time to become involved in local politics, being elected to Ashfield council and serving as mayor from 2004 to 2006.

Jones’ of course is no longer a young poet. Born in 1941it is perhaps understandable that many of the poems in this small collection deal with issues of aging, mortality and death:

body when it is young:

how lush it is when in decay

hanging from the bush too long

‘How sweet the layered blossoming rose’

Like the rose in the title of this poem, Jones’ poetry in this collection is multilayered and and rich. The rose, traditionally a symbol of love, in this poem becomes a metaphor for an aging body that can still remember that it “once tingled/ to the eager hungry touch”.

With age comes the richness of memory and in ‘The Fairies of 520 Williams Street” there is the memory of a childhood home – images of a history that can only exist in the poet’s mind, now committed to the page:

I write to bequeath my part of this history to you –

remake it in images you own.

‘The Fairies of 520 Williams Street”

‘Ash Wednesday’, dedicated to the poet Kerry Leves who died in May 2011, is a stunning poem. Combining a rich Catholic/Christian imagery with everyday observations of Darlinghurst, the poem recalls a visit to the dying Leves at the Scared Heart Hospice. Jones’ states in the poem that he is not Catholic: (forgive me,/ Irish Grandfather), but one suspects that the poet’s grandfather would have found much to appreciate in this poem. The poem opens with the striking imagery of:

the moving stairs at Kings Cross station

groan upwards from deep beneath Victoria street

but to finally leave the darkness of the underground station and emerge into the light of Kings Cross the poet has to pass the barrier, in the same way as a Catholic has to accept the sacraments:

I have a ticket, which allows me

to pass an unlikely Angel at the gate,

a heavy middle aged man in blue

who glowers as the machine

chews my ticket like a broken biscuit

(Give us this day our daily bread)

The unexpectedness of the ticket machine becoming a metaphor for the communion sacrament is effective and surprising and prepares us for the imagery that continues to build up, layer on layer, as the poet nears the Hospice. There is the man with the “Satanic tattoo on the back of each leg” and the “demons revving engines.”

While the sadness that accompanies the process of dying is all to apparent

but you wait with your mind

sharp as ever even while your body

collapses softly, elegantly into the ash

on your forehead

There remains a sense of optimism in the almost Audenesque conclusion:

around us hover those we have helped

& a little distant, those we have failed

their lives assemble quietly,

clothed in light.

Of course the irony is that neither Jones, or Leves was/is Catholic (See Pam Brown’s memory of Leves in The Overland Memorial) adds yet another level to this already rich and complex poem.

While there are only fourteen poems in this collection they are of such quality that it is possible to spend hours reading and reading them. The richness of the imagery, the almost virtuosic display of poetic technique coupled with a beautifully design and produced book makes this limited edition collection one to queue up for.

Mark Roberts

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