ISSUE 23. July 2017 – September 2017

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Teasing Threads

 

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Published by Rochford Street Press
ISSN 2200-9922

 

“The core of Unmaking Atoms”: Zalehah Turner interviews Magdalena Ball

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“Poetry was a way for me to give my grief the time and energy I felt it needed. A loss like the loss of a parent changes and reshapes you… My feelings at that point were so complex that only poetry felt right… I found I was writing a lot of poems, and these ultimately became the core of Unmaking Atoms.” – Magdalena Ball

 

Zalehah Turner: Can you tell me a little about the story behind Unmaking Atoms- your mother, your relationship with her, and your experience of her diagnosis and death?

unmaking_atomsMagdalena Ball: I was fairly far along with the writing of a novel when my mother got sick. She lived in the United States, and though, we spoke every week on FaceTime, I couldn’t tell how much weight she had lost. [Despite being] a lifelong hypochondriac, she underplayed her symptoms dramatically when it counted. I thought maybe she had a urinary tract infection. Her many doctors didn’t pick it up either, though she had classic cancer symptoms. Something only apparent to me in hindsight. It wasn’t until she was bleeding heavily that they decided to remove her kidney. At that point, we still had no idea that it was cancer. She was only seventeen when she had me and her marriage to my father was very short lived. So, my mother and I were very close, shifting the role of mother and daughter at times, as we grew up together, often just the two of us. Although the landscape of our lives changed pretty frequently with different partners, and much later, brothers.

I left the United States when I was about twenty to go to graduate school in England. Basically, I never went back [except for short visits]. I migrated to Australia with my husband a few years later. I probably didn’t visit the America as often as I should have, and she wouldn’t fly, so we were limited to electronic communication. The trip back to the US with three children was prohibitively expensive and difficult, though we did go back as a whole family two years before she became sick. I [also] visited several times on my own and with my eldest when he was eighteen months. Through her sickness, I went back and forth three times: the first to look after her, after her kidney operation in September /October; again, in December, after the cancer diagnosis; and one more time in January, when I didn’t quite make it in time. She died while I was en route, at Los Angeles Airport, but at least I was there for all the post-death stuff with my three maternal half-brothers. My mother never fully trusted her doctors, sometimes with good reason – they made a hash of her diagnosis. I was torn. I wanted to look after her and be with her. I had no idea, at any point, that she would die so soon, and [I needed] to be at home to take care of my three teenage children. It was a very intense time!

I kept working on my novel through the first visit. I was actually trading chapter by chapter critiques with another writer and kept to the schedule: writing on the plane, at night at my mother’s house when I couldn’t sleep, and in snatches of time. However, by the time I was home after my first visit, I found that I had lost my interest in writing prose. My feelings at that point were so complex that only poetry felt right. In the meantime, I found I was writing a lot of poems, and these ultimately became the core of Unmaking Atoms.

Zalehah: Many of the poems deal with the pain and loss of a loved one; her absence in the everyday, the future, and in the eternal. Can you elaborate?

Magdalena: I certainly wanted to explore the notion of loss – obviously in the context of the loss I was experiencing but I wanted also to go further than that. So much of what we are, and the way we perceive ourselves, falls away. Our skin cells die and are replaced every day, our hair falls out, our body changes, we lose track of people who once filled our lives – life is a progression of transformations. This is partly what I wanted to explore, in the context of loss, an exploration of identity and what remains as a constant in the face of all that loss.

Zalehah: Did the incredibly short time she was given create a situation in which you could only think about your feelings and deal with the loss afterwards and is this why writing poetry appealed to you?

Magdalena: I did a lot of writing on the many flights I took (Sydney to Richmond was about 25 hours in the air), but I also did a lot of work in the years following. The things that were drawing me during that time, and what still continues to draw me, usually involves many things are going on at once. Poetry handles that complexity very well – better, I think, than other art forms. Poetry allowed me to go a little deeper, and to also allow for enough ambiguity to invite the reader in. No one is immune from grief. Patti Smith says, ‘the privilege of being human is that we have our moment when we have to say goodbye’ – it’s part of the ‘human package’.

Zalehah: Did you find writing it a healing process, an attempt at understanding all that had happened, a journey that is still ongoing, and/ or a tribute to her memory?

Magdalena: Writing for me wasn’t so much a healing process, but a way to transform an unapproachable and therefore poisonous pain – this inchoate, black thing – into something that could be lived with. I found that as I wrote, I continually rediscovered my mother: the person she was, but also the person who I am through her. I feel her with me – not in a supernatural way, but just as a part of who I am now – her voice is always in my head. Writing kept me open to that; to letting this sense of loss become also a way to find her.

I think the key for me, has been not to shrink from the pain – not to look away. Talking about it is hard. I never wanted to whine, or to fall into the trap of misery. From the moment I returned to Australia, and even while I was away, dealing with all the stuff that has to be dealt with when someone dies, there were so many distractions. My husband and kids needed me to deal with their issues after I’d been away so much. My job needed my attention. I had food shopping to do. The house needed a vacuum. It would have been easy to let those distractions keep me from the painful act of reflecting.

Poetry was a way for me to give my grief the time and energy I felt it needed. A loss like the loss of a parent changes and reshapes you, and to pretend otherwise isn’t healthy. I’ve been exploring that grief endlessly – allowing it in and exploring the universal nature of it and finding great solace in community.

Zalehah: What poetic devices did you find best suited your subject and themes?

Magdalena: There are lots of devices that I find myself drawn to, again and again. Anthropomorphism and Personification are probably the devices that I’m most drawn to. I think the idea of moving away from a purely human perspective – I mean it’s always a human perspective – but to open myself to the notion of ‘difference’ and explore a sense that there may be other forms of intelligence and other ways of experiencing life, by allowing rocks to talk, or trees, or planets, lets me get a little closer to the heart of alienation, or love, or loss, without falling into cliché or standard tropes.

Zalehah: The title, Unmaking Atoms, is immediately provoking, and draws to mind atomic bombs, where the atom is split, yet somehow the verb unmaking suggests an ongoing process. In Unmaking Atoms, you’ve managed to create emotive, scientific jargon which is, at times, antagonistic, by the juxtaposition of contrasting or conflicting words or phrases. How did you find the balance, in Unmaking Atoms between emotion and science, not to mention, the connection (or contrast) between the two?

Magdalena: I think that there is an essential poetic underpinning to physics. I’m not the only one. The physicist Richard Feynman has likened poetry and physics: ‘The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part… What is the pattern or the meaning or the why?’ This stretching of the imagination is the same impetus in the scientist, as it is in the poet.

I tend to naturally think in the space between emotion and science – it feels quite ordinary to me. It might be because I’ve worked for the last twenty-seven years in a science job as a kind of language focused/ non-scientist. So, I’ve developed a way of fitting in that environment that skirts at the edge of science. It allows me to explore similar questions and do my own form of experimentation that is language, rather than formula based. I think that the deep, careful observation of a poet is a kind of science. It’s very different from a lab experiment, but it still plays out in a similar trajectory.

Zalehah: Are you an atheist (or not religious) and, if so, is science your way of understanding, or questioning, disease, death, and the possibilities or limitations of existence afterwards?

Magdalena: My family background is Jewish. I know I have the most Catholic name possible – my great grandmother was very distraught by Magdalena. Though my mother called herself culturally Jewish, she was actually a practising Hindu for most of her life, aside from a brief stint as a Zen Buddhist. She left very strict instructions for a Tibetan ritual to be performed over her body and left New York for Virginia to live close to her guru. So, I’ve had exposure to a lot of Eastern religions and I suppose I like to think of myself as a reasonably spiritual person, though I certainly don’t believe in a deity. I suppose, science tells us we’re all made up of the same stuff – that matter cannot be created or destroyed (the Law of Conservation of Mass). For some bizarre reason, this does oddly comfort and in some very small way, excite me (just the nerd in me). That said, I don’t think it’s fair to pitch science against religion. They’re not equivalents. Science is based on evidence, and isn’t meant to provide final answers. It’s always best evidence and repeatability, and scientists expect their work to be superseded. It’s part of the process. Faith is something else entirely and I think it can coincide with science, as long as, you see it as something that doesn’t contain a burden of proof.

Zalehah: Which are your favourite poems in it and why?

Magdalena: I’m not sure I can choose favourites, but I wrote the first set – ‘The Last Report of the Day’, ‘Charitable Crumb’, and ‘Luminous Air’ as a kind of trio in tribute to three writers – Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop and Edna St Vincent Millay – who I felt were almost like historic mothers to my work. I tried to contain their style and many of their lines and even some biographical details, while trying to create something that stood alone and had my own voice. It felt to me, as if I were in conversation with these three poets across time. As if, in my motherless state, I was leaning on them for the kind of unstinting support that mothers provide. It’s outrageous hubris I know, but there was something very enjoyable about doing that.

Zalehah: In ‘Ashes for the Earth’ you write in your mother’s voice, as one who has passed. Tell me about the importance of this poem and the variation in style and tone denoting a change in voice. What insights did you gain from writing ‘Ashes for the Earth’?

Magdalena: I don’t even know how it happened that I slipped into her voice when I was writing that poem. It felt a very natural thing to do. I did it again in ‘Six Realms’ though not as emotively. There’s a bit more of a wry edge in that one. This is partly what I meant by being able to continue to find my mother through the work. Writing the poem, felt almost like an extension of the Tibetan ceremony we held for her: like I was giving her permission to go. [It was] something I had to find in myself, because I wasn’t just sad, I was also angry and guilt-ridden. Letting go of my own pain, so I could see her off by taking her voice, felt a necessary step.

Zalehah: Which poets or specific poems did you draw on, or find connections with, when writing your book?

Magdalena: I’m a pretty regular reader of poetry, and am always inspired by other poets. Probably one of my biggest, most pervasive influences is Dorothy Porter. Her book, Other Worlds is a kind of gold standard for me on bringing together grief and science; the natural world and human pain. Of course, the influence of Emily Dickinson, Edna St Vincent Millay, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, and Gertrude Stein are quite strong through the book, but I was inspired by a lot of modern poets too. One example is Lisa Gorton’s Hotel Hyperion. Gorton also seems to walk a very fine line between the minute domestic and the grand scale; between big science and an often maternal emotion that appealed to me immediately and that continues to provide inspiration every time I return to the book.

Zalehah: Can you tell me about the new book that you have in the pipeline?

Magdalena: I’ve just finished writing a poetic memoir. I’ve tried to situate each of the poems in a specific historical context, so it’s not so much a book about my life, but about the nature of memory and time, primarily set in New York City in 1960s/ 70s /80s where I grew up. Time is such a complex thing to explore. We’re immersed in it. It makes up every aspect of how we define our lives, in linear intervals on a continuum, and yet the reality of experience doesn’t fit that very well at all. Time isn’t only relativistic in physics – it’s also relative psychologically. I wanted to play with the notion of time using a number of situations that happened to me, without discounting the dreamlike way we experience our lives. All those distractions, perspectives, sensations: our piecemeal memory that consists of different sensory imprints, not all of which are linguistic. Some of those experiences exist outside of language and I wanted to play with these forms of memory and perception.

So, while the book is in many respects deeply personal in that it traces a trajectory that is specifically mine, it’s all real in the sense of things that I can recall having happened. I didn’t want to shy from some of the more difficult things that took place. Some of the pieces were written in prose first to get the shape of them, but at the same time, I think there’s a scientific eye that is inquisitive in a fairly objective way. The tone is somewhat more upbeat than Unmaking Atoms. That said, I’m afraid I’m always a bit apocalyptic in my writing.

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Magdalena Ball

Interviewee: Magdalena Ball is a novelist, poet, reviewer, interviewer, and the editor of Compulsive Reader. She has been widely published in literary journals, anthologies, and is the author of several books of poetry and fiction. Her collection of poetry, Unmaking Atoms, was published by Ginninderra Press in 2017. Magdalena Ball was shortlisted for the Queensland Poetry Festival Philip Bacon Ekphrasis Award 2017, the Bayside Poetry Awards 2015, and highly commended for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016. She also received commendations in the Poetry competition at the Morisset Lake Macquarie District Show.

website: http://www.magdalenaball.com
Five poems from Unmaking Atoms
Unmaking Atoms by Magdalena Ball is available from Ginninderra Press
“the inner and outer worlds of the bereaved”: Malcolm St Hill reviews Magdalena Ball’s Unmaking Atoms

 

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Zalehah Turner

Interviewer: Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based poet, photographer, cultural journalist, and Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review (RSR). Zalehah is currently working on an intermedia poetry collection entitled, Critical condition, focused on the interstitial threshold between life and death in medical crises based on personal experience. Zalehah holds a BA in Communication with a major in writing and cultural studies from the University of Technology, Sydney where she continues to pursue pushing the boundaries of poetry and multimedia in Honours (Communication- Creative Writing).

Featured Writer issue 21: Four poems
Featured Artists issue 23

 

“my poem is a message to let people know what [a] terrible situation we are in”: Mohammad Ali Maleki talks to Zalehah Turner about ‘Silence Land’ from Manus Island

Silence Land

I have doubts about my sanity:
not everyone can bear this much.
They stole all my feelings;
there’s no wisdom left in my mind.
I am just a walking dead man.
I am just a walking dead man.

I yelled for help so many times –
No one on this earth took my hand.
Now I see many mad things and imagine
how the world would look if it collapsed.

Perhaps it would be good for everything to return to the past;
for nothing to be seen on the earth or in the sky.
It would feel so good to be a child
again and go back to my mother’s womb.
For there to be no sign of me,
for me never to have gone crazy in this place.

What if the woollen jacket I am wearing unravels
and begins to fall apart?
Or the butterfly flies back to its cocoon,
or the autumn leaf grows green and returns
to its branch on that old tree?
What if the tree becomes a seed in the soil –
I sound crazy speaking this way!

It’s the outcome of being detained for four years
after seeking asylum on the sea.

What if that sea returned to its source
and flowed back to the river mouth?
If that river receded back up into its spring?
What if only the sun and the moon remained in the sky?
If I saw even the sun’s birth reversed,
watched it dissipate into space?
Witnessed the moon implode upon itself?

All things returning to their starting place…

How beautiful, to live in a colourless world,
everywhere silent and still.
The earth would be calm for a moment,
free of even one miscreant.

But what do you make of my vision –
am I sane or mad?

 

-Mohammad Ali Maleki
trans. Monsoor Shostari
ed. Michelle Seminara

 

‘Silence Land’ was first published in Bluepepper. It has been republished with permission by the author, Mohammad Ali Maleki.

‘Silence Land’ by Mohammad Ali Maleki was read to an audience at the Queensland Poetry Festival 2017 as part of a series of events from Writing Through Fences organised by Janet Galbraith. Mohammad could not be present at the event as he is currently living in detention on Manus Island. He discussed the poem and his life on Manus Island with Zalehah Turner.

 

Zalehah: Mohammad, I just saw the video of a person reading your poem, ‘Silence Land’ at the Queensland Poetry Festival. It is a wonderfully moving and powerful poem.

Mohammad: Thank you my dear. You always supported me.

Zalehah: Mohammad, did you write ‘Silence Land’ as part of the writing group with Janet Galbraith?

Mohammad: No, Michelle [Seminara] first edited [it] and then, [Justin Lowe] from Bluepepper published it. Then, Janet [Galbraith] sent that for the festival in Queensland.

Zalehah: What can you tell me about the poem, ‘Silence Land’?

Mohammad: Man does not get crazy at once. It depends on the situation we are in. A news makes people crazy at once. Or a sudden incident.

Mansoor: Mohammad says it. The situation makes people crazy.

Zalehah: Yes, I can see that motif in ‘Silence Land’. Can you tell me about the situation now?

Mohammad: I’m not in a good mental and spiritual condition. I take 10 pills a day and see nightmares at night.

Mansoor: Mohammad says if you saw freedom say ‘hi’ to it.

Zalehah: I’m sorry to hear that Mohammad. Where are you? Why are you still in on Manus Island?

Mohammad: Unfortunately, yes. I am still imprisoned on Manus hell.

Zalehah: I’m sorry to hear that. I heard that they were closing the camps down.

Mohammad: YES, but the government is trying to send us among local people with their machetes ready to kill us. If people of Australia want, they can free us in a week.

Zalehah: Can you tell me about writing poetry? Does it help you to write down your thoughts? Does it help to have an audience who wants to read them here in Australia?

Mohammad: But they just say, ‘sorry’. We got destroyed. Four years [of] torturing. I lost my… mind…When I got free, maybe.

Zalehah: Tell me about writing poetry.

Mansoor: I only help Mohammed for translating. We are in a very bad condition of mind. Lost memory.

Zalehah: Where on Manus Island do you write poetry, Mohammad?

Mohammad: We write our pains on paper and whatever we write we get worse. Because no country in the world did not treat us the way that Australia did. We came here to ask for help not to torture us. In my room. I write my poems. I am always in my room.

Zalehah: Does writing help even in a small way? Does it help to write down the things that are happening to you?

Mohammad: It doesn’t change anything. [I] wish I could not… understand what is going on here. I am suffering because I understand it. I can’t describe the situation by words.

Zalehah: Can you tell me about the things that have happened to you?

Mohammad: Unfortunately, I forgot things very soon. But there was murder, beating and many other bad things here. Murder of 4 people at least. Reza Brati, Hamid Khazaei, one Pakistani, one Sudani [Sundanese person]. They send no one to Australia for medical treatment until he dies here. Hamid Khazaei died that way.

Zalehah: The situation is incredibly ugly. However, your poetry has changed some things: people in Australia have read your poems and understand many things they would not have if you hadn’t written those poems. It draws attention to these issues.

Mohammad: We can’t focus on something.

Zalehah: Who can’t? What do you want to focus on?

Mohammad: I mean we have lost our minds… It’s really terrible.

Zalehah: I’m sure it is. What do you think of the video of your poem?

Mohammad: People have to change the government if they want to stop the torture we are suffering from. [I] hope my poem is a message to let people know what terrible situation we are in. Just ask Janet Galbraith and Marilyn Beach.

Zalehah: It is a message. A very strong message. It has moved many people. Keep writing, Mohammad. People need to hear your poems.

Mohammad: Thank you. My phone is losing its battery. I need to charge it now.

Zalehah: Having your poem on the internet will help more people understand your situation. I will let you go then. Good bye. Thank-you and thank Monsoor, as well

Mohammad: Thank you.

 

Partial transcript of an interview with Mohammad Ali Maleki and his translator, Monsoor Shostari, conducted by Zalehah Turner, Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review on 28 August 2017.

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MAM RSRMohammad Ali Maleki is an Iranian poet and avid gardener living in detention on Manus Island whose poem, ‘Tears of Stone’ was shortlisted and received a special commendation for the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016. Mohammad Ali Maleki was a featured writer in issue 20 of Rochford Street Review in 2016. His poem ‘The Strong Sunflower’ was originally published in Verity La’s Discoursing Diaspora project. His poems have since appeared in Bluepepper. ‘Silence Land’ was performed in his absence at the Queensland Poetry Festival 2017. Mohammad Ali Maleki’s poems are translated from Farsi by Mansoor Shoushtari and edited by Michele Seminara and Melita Luck.

 

Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based critic, writer and poet currently undertaking Honours in Communications (Creative Writing) at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies.

Featured artist Zalehah Turner: Biographical note

!'The light between' (2013)_Zalehah Turner_RSR issue 23 JPG

‘The light between’ (2013), photograph. Zalehah Turner.

Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based poet, photographer, cultural journalist, and Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review (RSR). Zalehah is currently working on a 30-page intermedia poetry collection entitled, Critical condition, focused on the interstitial threshold between life and death in medical crises based on personal experience. Zalehah holds a BA in Communication with a major in writing and cultural studies from the University of Technology, Sydney where she continues to pursue pushing the boundaries of poetry and multimedia in Honours (Communication- Creative Writing). Critical condition is her Honours Project and the Creative component of her degree at UTS.

'Reflections of Self' (2013), photographs, paper, QR Scan me codes. Mark and Remark, 107 Projects, Redfern. 'Reflections of Self' Zalehah Turner

“Reflections of Self’ (2013), photographs, paper, QR Scan me codes. Zalehah Turner. exhibited at Mark and Remark, 107 Projects, Redfern, 2013.

Zalehah loves the connection between poetry and images whether they be multimedia or photographic. Reflections of Self is series of poetry and photography that was first exhibited at 107 Projects, Redfern in 2013, and has since been published on the Writing Laboratory website, and displayed in Alice Springs and Moruya thanks to Australian Poetry Café poets Laurie May and Janette Dadd respectively. Interstices, a collection of five poems, one photograph, and two modified medical images, was published on the UTS website, Vertigo, in 2016. As a Featured Writer of Rochford Street Review, four of her poems and photographs connected by concepts of space were published in issue 21.

Zalehah’s poetry has also been projected onto the Federation Square Wall in Melbourne as part of the Overload Poetry Festivals, 2008 and 2009, printed on Salt and Pepper shakers, and published in Sotto (2013), Social Alternatives (2016), Vertigo (2016, 2017) and UTS’s The Empathy Poems Project in connection with Refugee Week this year.

She was co-judge of the New Shoots Poetry Prizes 2016 and published the winning and highly commended poems of the New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 and the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Poetry Prize 2016 in addition to interviewing the poets in Rochford Street Review.

She has curated many of the Featured Writers for RSR since July 2016, as well as, the artists in issue 20. She has reviewed a wide range of cultural events and interviewed poets for Rochford Street Review and Vertigo in addition to editing and publishing reviews and launch speeches as Associate Editor of RSR.

!'Cast in shadow' (2013), photograph, Zalehah Turner_RSR issue 23 JPG

‘Cast in shadow’ (2013), photograph. Zalehah Turner

Debra Adelaide, Associate Professor in Creative Writing at UTS expressed that ‘Hold on’ was “wonderful and moving”.

Award winning Irish poet, Patrick Deeley stated that he was “struck by the quietly impressed images and what you refer to as their ‘liminal loop’, as well as by your exploration of ‘internal space’. I also liked your photographs a lot – they really complement the poems.”

Untitled (Four poems) in Rochford Street Review (2017): https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2017/03/25/zalehah-turner-four-poems/
‘Hold on’ in Empathy Poems (2017): https://empathypoems.squarespace.com/blog/2017/6/2/hold-on
‘Interstices’ in Vertigo (2016): https://utsvertigo.com.au/webexclusives/poetry-feature-interstices/
Reflections of Self on the Writing Laboratory website: http://writinglab.patarmstrong.webfactional.com/portfolio/reflection-of-self/

 

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Zalehah Turner

 

‘Snakes known to exist in this area’: ophidiophile poets Amanda Joy and Liana Joy Christensen talk to Zalehah Turner

Zalehah: Hello Liana and Amanda, anything you’d like to say about snakes, poetry and Western Australia by way of an opening?

Liana: Poetry in Western Australian is a lively and diverse ‘ecosystem’, where the poets are likely, on the whole, to welcome serpents! Encounters with snakes in the wild always leave an indelible impression, so it’s not surprising to me that such highly charged moments will find an afterlife in poetry. Without being overly mystic, an encounter with a snake sharpens the moment: life and death are revealed as conjoined.

Amanda: I grew up largely outdoors, due to being in the desert and living in a caravan in the heat, I have barely a memory of being inside. My father in particular made sure I knew a lot about snakes, which ones were poisonous, how to walk slowly in order to encounter them and the need to stand completely still when I saw them. It has left an indelible hyper-sensitivity to them which means I encounter them in my reading as well with that same recognition. Liana has already mentioned, a sharpening, but also a familiarity. There is barely a collection of poetry I have read and loved which doesn’t have a snake or several.

Zalehah: Liana and Amanda, what are your thoughts on endangered species, snakes, and the destruction of their habit through deforestation and urbanisation?

Liana: My thoughts immediately turn to our Biblical heritage. The queen of heaven crushing the serpent; the conflation of the serpent with ‘evil’. These ideas are so powerful in our culture. I see the current, parlous state of deforestation, loss of species, and unchecked urbanisation as directly connected. It has created a world where in many cultures humans view themselves as ‘having dominion’. I think we have much to learn from Indigenous cultures that have a more respectful concept of cohabitation.

Amanda: Recently, a huge tract of land was bulldozed in an area of remnant bushland where I walk regularly. I have rarely walked in there without at least one snake sighting, I found myself grieving for all the terrestrial animals which may not make their way back in there for quite some time. There is something about the spaces inhabited by snakes, the ‘gap in things’ to borrow a line from Luke Davies’ ‘Totem Poem’ that I have had moving around in my head while wandering in there. It speaks to me of wild and untouched space, understories and humus, shrubs and caves, where things go to breed and incubate and generate. When the ground is barren and animals lost, when seeds have nowhere to fall, regeneration is impossible. There is a starkness in the destruction of wild spaces which fosters more starkness, which speaks to me of a terror.

Zalehah: Can you tell me about any experiences with snakes or snake skin that you’ve had? The strongest, most memorable.

Amanda: Of course, the entirety of Snake Like Charms is about my experiences with snakes and even some snake skins. The most memorable was a face-to-face meeting with a tiger snake while walking in an area of Beeliar Wetlands with an anthropologist. We were in a very important sacred site and I was on my knees taking a photograph of a quite large Burton’s legless lizard. As I swivelled away, still on my knees, I found myself directly level with the tongue of a huge snake, its head was flared. I’d never seen one from quite that angle before. Fortunately, my body, in its infinite wisdom, froze. I have no idea how long we were like that, facing each other. It was that meeting and the next couple of days of adrenaline coursing through my system which solidified the conception of Snake Like Charms.

Liana: I have had the privilege of visiting a very special place in the south-west, one that very few people have experienced. It can only be accessed by walking ocean wards from the back of a private property in Walpole. After much flat landscape, the earth opens up in a deep fissure. You realise that the little green shrubs you had thought you saw were, in fact, the tops of jarrah trees. This place, called Lander’s Gully, has a freshwater spring at one end. Although known to few people, it is, naturally enough, known to the wildlife. We were resting on the sandy track down into the gully, when my companion said in one word: ‘damnbloodyhell’. I turned and saw a tiger snake approaching us from behind. We moved to either side of the track and watched the snake make its slow way to the head of the springs and drink its fill. Shades of D.H. Lawrence!

Zalehah: These experiences are life and death. I am pleased that you both managed to survive! Mythological and symbolic references to snakes appear throughout your poetry: the Ouroboros and the headless Medusa. Are these powerful motifs, images and life experiences the reason that you express yourself through poetry or prose? Why poetry in particular? What is about the form that appeals to you?

Amanda: There is a fantastic essay by James Hillman in his Dream Animals collection titled ‘A Snake is not a Symbol’ where he writes about a workshop exercise he uses, having the group discuss all the snake references which come to mind. So many! Then he asks them to consider the ‘snake-ness’ of an actual snake. The wonder of that, the physical attributes actually bring about its prominence in mythology and in particular creation stories. It is a brilliant meditation on the tempering involved when balancing the motifs and myths with a contemporary context within a poem. Stuart Cooke in his introduction to his translation of George Dyuŋgayan’s The Bulu Line discusses the ‘haze’ in the songs (poems) he is translating, the uncertainty. That same ‘gap in things’ I mentioned earlier, it’s a space we as readers need to sift for meaning which draws me to the form as a writer and a reader. A meeting place within the text as an encounter, where we can bring with us all our points of reference. It would be impossible to think of snakes without bringing the mythos of the snake, especially on Country which was sung into being by serpents.

Liana: Oddly enough, that encounter (and several other close ones) have not evoked mortal terror for me. More a feeling of respectful fascination. I have seen my neighbour’s dog die from dugite venom, so I’m not unaware of the dangers. But in my encounters fear has never been the dominant emotion. It is, of course, not possible to shed all the cultural and mythological scales from our eyes . . . nor is it necessary. I agree with Amanda, though, on the importance of resisting the possibility of cultural overlays obscuring the actual existence of another life. The snake is Saturn, haloed by rings of mythos, no doubt, but centrally and intrinsically itself.

Zalehah: As ‘female, activist poets’ (Liana’s words!)- what do you hope readers will think/ or rethink about their perceptions of the world, wildlife, and precious existence of animals (deadly or not) within it? What do you feel strongly about? What do you hope readers will take away with them after reading your work?

Liana: There is a strong tradition of activist, female poets in Australia – Judith Wright pre-eminent among them. I’ve often pondered this topic as Amanda and I — together with poets, Nandi Chinna and Jennifer Kornberger, among many others — have been involved in direct action campaigns in defence of wild spaces. The most recent of these was a protracted struggle to protect the Beeliar wetlands from a massive road project (think ‘WestConnex’ for a parallel). From time to time we have comforted each other by quoting excerpts from Gerard Manley Hopkin’s poems about trees and wetlands. You can, of course, write about the bush from the city, as Henry Lawson did. However, I think that poets are potentially receptive to nature as more than just a theoretical construct, and some of them are willing to put their bodies — as well as their words — on the line to protect the wild. Poetry is not a didactic art form; however, it can excel at shifting consciousness indirectly. I would hope that both my poetry and prose may cause some such shifts in the reader towards a revaluing of that which is being lost at too rapid a rate. I have been involved in the Animals and Society Study group since its foundation at UWA several years ago. My passion for wildlife and wild places is the heartwood of my life.

Amanda: I’m so grateful Liana brought Nandi Chinna into this conversation. When I read the poetry of Nandi or Liana, or any female poets of this rich heritage we have from Judith Wright, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Dorothy Hewett, and so many more, I find myself yearning for those spaces and encounters found within them. I’m reminded that I need, on a very deep level, to make my way back into bush or desert country and the ‘wild’ encounters I can find there. I would hope that my own poetry at its best, might inspire those same desires. Even more so I would love to think it might feed a sense of urgency in readers to make contact and protect the Country the poems come from.

Liana: Amanda’s poems do exactly that!

Zalehah: I’m interested in your views on ecopoetry. Is it tame?

Amanda: I want to find the opposite of ‘tame’ I look for it as much in what I read as in where I walk. There is some fantastic poetry coming out under the banner of ecopoetry, the best of it has a lot of ‘wild’ in its many definitions.

Liana: Ecopoetry is a broad umbrella that shelters a very diverse array of works. Some of these works may be ‘tame’, as you put it – contemporary versions of the Romantic poets’ nature idylls. I’m inclined to disrupt any binary I happen to encounter, though (to quote from my poem ‘Beastitudes’: Blessed are the carnivores/ reviled for being wild/ Blessed are the companion animals/ reviled for not being wild. I guess I incline to inclusiveness, and feel there is a role for the lyrical as well as the spiky in ecopoetry. My own poetic responses are often to the beauty implicit in scientific accounts of nature.

Zalehah: A few questions about the poems from each of you published in Rochford Street Review:

Zalehah: Amanda, ‘Making a Meal of it’ is skillfully executed and surgically expresses the horror of killing and eating snakes. Can you elaborate?

Amanda: In regard to eating snakes further, I think I revere them too much to do it. I couldn’t when I have had the opportunity and can’t envisage myself doing so.

Zalehah: Amanda, in ‘Snake Skin, Roe Swamp’ you describe yourself or the narrator of the poem as coming across a snake skin only to put it on. In ‘Locus’ you are belly down and snake-like only to then wish you were the water around the krait. The boundaries blur. Do you feel that there is a deep connection between the snake and yourself, a longing and an incredibly strong link or perhaps even, no division between yourself and nature/ the wildness?

Amanda: I have a mild fascination with the limbic portion of the brain, that part which we share so closely in its purpose with all creatures: the way it maps bodies through landscapes externally and encounters, and in turn, maps the way bodies respond internally. There is something in the mutual understanding I was writing of in the tiger snake encounter, the way in those meetings you have to overcome the ‘fight or flight’ and freeze or one of you will come off the worse. I suppose this is what you are questioning when you ask about the connection or longing between myself and the snake in ‘Snake Skin, Roe Swamp’ and ‘Locus’. I believe it is the same longing I am indulging when I immerse myself in readings of ecopoetry or eco-feminist literature, not merely a ‘something I can relate to’. More the ‘strangeness’ of the snake, the impossibility of closeness, that ‘gap in things’ again. That’s wilderness – what could be untouched, in the natural world, physically, but also by ideas.

Zalehah: Liana, in ‘Crunching the numbers’ you expressed that you ‘drew a line in the sand’ at eating endangered species and poetically laid down the maths of humans eating other species, asking the reader to crunch the numbers themselves. Can explain you explain your views in relation to eating snakes further?

Liana: ‘Crunching the Numbers’ shows that by playing with mathematical concepts. The poem had its genesis in a trip I took to China that caused me to revise my thinking about what we consume. Like many in the West, I find the notion of eating snakes, insects or anything outside a very small range to be a challenge. I cannot imagine taking up eating snakes. However, I did see quite clearly that eating a much broader span of animal species does, at least ‘spread the load’.

Zalehah: Liana, in ‘Hey Kekule’ you reference Kekulé’s Ouroboros dream and reverse snake charming to ‘charming snake’. What are your feelings on the tradition of snake charming and the mythology of life and death within the snake eating his/ her tail?

Liana: Ouroboros has always been a compelling symbol for me (I have been known to quote at length a passage from Pynchon that directly connects the symbol to a non-linear, self-contained natural world). I think it’s a significant metaphor for those of us who desire a more ecocentric world view. ‘Hey Kekule’ also references the tantric tradition which speaks of the serpent coiled at the base of the spine that with esoteric training can be ‘charmed’ into rising up through the chakras. Wildness is, as Amanda so beautifully explains, not reducible. It is both potent and dangerous and requires the containment of respect.

Zalehah: Liana, in ‘Cohabitation 2’ you make you views clear leaving the reader with ‘snakes known to exist in this area’. The title appears to express your views. Would you like to elaborate?

Liana: As for Snakes known to exist in this area – it is, of course, a reverse reading of the intended meaning of the sign, which was meant to serve as a warning. For me there is no such thing as a ‘paradise’ without snakes. Whether or not I see them – the continuous hum of other life forces, the homeliness of cohabitation is deeply precious. I celebrate all beings known to exist in this area!

Zalehah: Liana, Wild Familiars and Deadly Beautiful. Your interest and experience with wildlife and scientific journalism attracted you not just to snakes, ‘a matter of scale’, but deadly animals. What’s the attraction and intrigue?

Liana: As I mentioned above, my response is not restricted to dangerous or deadly animals. I grew up near Fremantle, and spent a lot of my childhood in the local bushland. It formed me in significant ways, including a responsive joy to wildlife, both plant and animal. My first professional job was as the editor of Landscope magazine, which was much concerned with wildlife and science. Since then I’ve done a lot of science writing and also found myself having poetic responses to the science I was reading. I like to wander back and forth across those territories. I was approached by Exisle Publisher and they asked if I want to write a book on ‘dangerous animals of Australia’. Once I ascertained that it was not a schlock-horror theme, but a conservation one, I readily agreed. However, somewhere between my agreement and the writing, they decided that they wanted ‘deadly animals of the world’. Gulp! However, I found that cold-emailing scientists in other places often resulted in very warm and helpful responses. The process also had some poetic outcomes. In my research for the book, for instance, I came across the fact that scorpions fluoresce under ultraviolet light. This had to be a poem (‘Scorpionism’ was published in Unusual Work.) Years ago, I was putting in a paper for the inaugural Animals and Society conference at the University of Western Australia. I mentioned to an artist friend, Kati Thamo, that she should submit some of her prints to be part of the conference exhibition. Then I promptly felt jealous that she would have the fun of a creative response while I was stuck with an academic paper. This inspired me to write some poems and enter them as part of an art exhibition with Kati. Later I wrote some more, and collected them together for Wild Familiars. Kati Thamo’s exquisite work ‘The Embrace’ adorns the cover.

Zalehah: Amanda, congratulations again on winning the Peter Porter Prize in 2016 for ‘Tailings’. I love that blue tongue lizards, cockatoos and a man looking for a hookup on Grindr all appear in your poem. You’ve written a wonderful, contemporary, Australian poem that takes in the landscape from a very intimate and personal perspective. Take me through ‘Tailings’: your thoughts, inspirations, and your poetry collection, Snake Like Charms.

Amanda: Thanks, Zalehah. A friend recently posted a photo on Facebook of a swamp beneath a highway overpass, filled with litter jettisoned from vehicles passing over. The overpass was supposedly a way of preserving what was underneath. I held the picture in my mind’s eye a lot over the past few months and what it conveyed was a lot of what gave urgency to publishing Snake Like Charms and writing ‘Tailings’. Since the industrial age, there has been a fear of swampland and these spaces which necessitate ‘discomfort’ in the settled parts of us. Here in Perth vast areas have been filled in for housing and roads, what is left accumulates marginalised wildlife and all manner of what is pushed aside. As a child, when we came to Perth I spent a lot of my time finding those places, even climbing out of my bedroom windows at night to get to the river and swamp. I suppose that’s why if I write them, I write them in as I find them and as I found/ find myself in them. They are the places which hold memories of a marginalised and lonely childhood in many ways and are still the places I go to find my solitude as well as all manner of other solitudes driven to the margins by suburbia. ‘Tailings’, by one definition, are the unusable detritus left over from mining or industrial activities. I found it a potent metaphor for many of the inspirations behind the poem.

Zalehah: Lastly, any insights you’d like to share about each other’s work or your own? Comments or even questions for one another?

Liana: Having had the privilege of sharing creative space with Amanda during the time she was writing Snake Like Charms (we are part of a small group of women poets convened by Jennifer Kornberger), of course I looked forward to reading the finished collection. The collective impact of the works was even greater than I expected. I found the poems to be sinewy as well as sinuous. Familiar with fear and yet deeply unafraid. I learned a lot from paying them close attention.

Amanda: My gratitude for Liana’s work lies in part to the forensic listening, looking and research which I know is contained within its form. The greater conversation it contributes to is omnipresent, nature and science, animals and human society, domestic and wild spaces are given voice in a unique and enlightening way. Her writing is always vital and surprising and I deeply admire her unique blend. I have to say here also that Deadly Beautiful has been gifted to almost all my nearest and dearest over the past few years!

Zalehah: Wonderful to be in such a writing group!

Liana: Oh yes, it’s a small, highly supportive and productive group. We all find it very useful. 🙂

Zalehah: Liana and Amanda, just to clarify, I do not think ecopoetry is necessarily tame by any means. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the e-interview with both of you. Thanks so much for your time. You’re both incredibly inspiring and have given my readers and myself much to think about.

Liana and Amanda: Hi Zalehah, thank you. It’s been a most enjoyable conversation. We have no problem with ‘tame’!

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Amanda Joy photograph by Alex Chapman 2017 cropped jpeg

Amanda Joy. photograph by Josephine Clark 2017.

Amanda Joy was born and raised in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions of Western Australia. Her first full-length book, Snake Like Charms, is part of the UWAP Poetry series. Her poem ‘Tailings’ won the 2016 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. She is the author of two chapbooks, Not Enough to Fold and Orchid Poems.

‘Making a Meal of it’, ‘Snake Skin, Roe Swamp’ and ‘Locus’ by Amanda Joy

 

Purchase Snake Like Charms by Amanda Joy

Liana Joy Christesnen photograph

Liana Joy Christensen. photograph by Amber Bateup Photography.

Liana Joy Christensen is an ophidiophile, as well as a writer and poet. She is the author of Deadly Beautiful, and Wild Familiars, prose and poetry, respectively. Her work is widely published and she was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2014.

‘Hey Kekulé’, ‘Crunching the Numbers’ and ‘Cohabitation 2’ by Liana Joy Christensen

 

Purchase Deadly Beautiful by Liana Joy Christensen

ISSUE 21. January – March 2017

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Luciano Prisco Terra, earth, osso, bone. acrylic on five panels.

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Teasing Threads

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New Shoots Poetry Prize 2016 winner: ‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’ by Stuart Cooke

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stuart-cooke-picStuart Cooke lives on the Gold Coast, where he lectures in creative writing and literary studies at Griffith University. He has published collections of poetry, criticism and translation. His latest book, Opera was published by Five Islands Press in 2016. Stuart Cooke is the winner of the 2016 Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize.

‘Fallen Myrtle Trunk’: Zalehah Turner interviews Stuart Cooke

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A thought-provoking, immersive multimedia experience: Zalehah Turner reviews ‘EXIT’ at UNSW Galleries

EXIT (2008/2015) created by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with Laura Kurgan, Mark Hansen, and Ben Rubin, in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith. UNSW Galleries – Part of the Sydney Festival. 7 January to 25 March 2017.

EXIT is a monument to the present time that traces the movement of our world.”- Hervé Chandès, General Director of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris.

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EXIT (2008-2015). view of the installation, EXIT. collection: Fondation Cartier pou l’art contemporain, Paris. Diller Socfidio+ Renfro, Laura Kurgan, Mark Hansen, and Ben Rubin, in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko and Stewart Smith. photo by Luc Boegly.


As part of the Sydney Festival, UNSW Galleries presents the Australian premiere of EXIT, a 360-degree immersive installation based on a concept by philosopher and urbanist, Paul Virilio and commissioned by Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain for its 2008 exhibition, Native Land, Stop Eject. Hervé Chandès, General Director of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, Paris stated that, “EXIT is a monument to the present time that traces the movement of our world.” Updated in 2015 for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris, EXIT is an impressive multidisciplinary team effort created by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, a New York-based studio of artists and architects, in collaboration with Laura Kurgan, Mark Hansen, Ben Rubin, Robert Gerard Pietrusko, Stewart Smith, and a team of scientists and geographers.

Lord Mayor, Clover Moore who opened the exhibition at UNSW Galleries on 6 January 2017, declared that EXIT was “riveting, overwhelming and informative” and “one of the most powerful exhibitions of our time.” Clover Moore had first seen it in Paris in 2015 and was instrumental in bringing it to Australia for the 2017 Sydney Festival.

EXIT runs from 7 January to 25 March at UNSW Galleries and is free to the public. It reflects the university’s desire to push the boundaries between art and technology; as well as its ambition to situate itself at the forefront of debate and policy response to the biggest issues of our time.


EXIT – Virilio, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Hansen, Kurgan, Rubin, Pietrusko, Smith – 2008-2015. Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. 30 November 2015.

The 45-minute multimedia work breathes life into statistics gathered from over one hundred sources reflecting the increasing pressures which the world faces today, including the unprecedented rise in displaced populations; migrants and refugees who are forced to leave their homes. The audio and visual impact of EXIT creates a sense of urgency with a 3D panoramic view of an orbiting globe moving across the screen in almost full circle, broken only by the entrance and exit. Each time it begins its cycle, the audience is stuck by the visual and auditory representation of data and statistics which fall under the six themes: Population Shifts: Cities, Remittances: Sending Money Home, Political Refugees and Forced Migration, Natural Disasters, Rising Seas and Sinking Cities, and Speechless and Deforestation.

The data collected from a variety of sources has been geo-coded, processed through a programming language, and translated visually to provide the greatest impact. One can’t help but feel a sense of dread. EXIT is a projection of the present, an insight into the future and a call to action. The multimedia event is art as social commentary. The six themes of EXIT cover significant issues with the animated facts and figures behind the events designed to provoke thought, encourage discussions and initiate change.


Terre Natale, Ailleurs commence ici – Paul Virilio – 2009. Produced by Axelle Poisson. Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain. 10 November 2015.

Upon entering and leaving EXIT at UNSW Galleries, the audience is addressed by Paul Virilio who discusses the central themes and the impact of climate change whilst walking towards the viewer in a video in French with English subtitles commissioned by Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in 2009. Virilio asserts that, “It is almost as if history is on the move again.” Adding that, “It’s almost as though the sky, and the clouds in it and the pollution of it, were making their entry into history. Not the history of the seasons, summer, autumn, winter, but of population flows, of zones now uninhabitable for reasons that aren’t just to do with desertification, but with disappearance, with submersion of land. This is the future.”

UNSW Galleries Director Felicity Fenner confirmed that, “This is a must-see ‘wake-up call’ to Australian audiences.” She added that, “EXIT encapsulates three of the Grand Challenges currently being investigated by UNSW researchers – climate change, refugees, and global inequality.” As part of their Grand Challenges initiative, UNSW has organised a program of public discussions which includes a talk given by EXIT’s US-based creators.

EXIT at UNSW Galleries is a thought-provoking, immersive multimedia experience that is essential viewing and one of the visual art highlights of this Sydney Festival.

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-Zalehah Turner

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Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based critic, writer and poet currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor

exhibition: EXIT
where: UNSW Galleries cnr. Oxford St and Greens Rd, Paddington, NSW 2021.
dates: 7 January – 25 March 2017
opening hours: Tuesday–Saturday 10am–5pm
cost: free
information: https://www.artdesign.unsw.edu.au/unsw-galleries/exit

‘Leaving Wilona’: Zalehah Turner interviews, John Karl Stokes, winner of the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016

“Finally, the poem, [‘Leaving Wilona’] was edited, boiled down, bred up again, titled, questioned and left to season before being let out into the garden.”- John Stokes

Zalehah Turner: Take me through your poem, ‘Leaving Wilona’…

John Karl Stokes: Well no work of mine is destined to end up starting at the beginning. Here we have no exception. The last can be first.
I started with the idea of the speaker’s old home on the edge of Sydney harbour having “bitter-vine grown over with lies”. The “bitter” of course stands for both the bitter, real plant and its strangling habits and the hurt of revisiting.
We then move to the father, growing flowers (he is a displaced farmer and horticulturist) near the Harbour Bridge (he worked on it) on borrowed ground opposite the Royal Botanic Garden.
Humans enter the structure of the poem. Especially a Bavarian grandfather.
Followed by that is the marine, sensuous smell and knock of harbour water.
Next comes: “that you might find nothing under a memory” (speaker lifts a piece of roof iron). Which means a quick back-fill stanza is needed: – “the second mother” (don’t ask) and “fright and decay” rotting into regrowth.
Then, things get interesting: – the speaker/narrator knew and knows years in advance, that he should not come back again in the future. But he will. He will have that strange, but well known, feeling of meeting himself and his ghost going their opposite ways.
Then we have the final dance-beat. The punch-line ending. The bit that makes a poem. As with a much of my work, endings can take months or years to turn up. There is no exception here: –
“Brush past … alone … into the new ground” … … “Say nothing”.
That “say nothing” (to your ghost) is really interesting. Public event readers of those two words, “Say nothing”, have had a variety of ways of saying them. I was inclined to a poignant, “nothing you can do”, mood. Another reader has spoken them as a strange interaction between two ghosts “outside of time”. Another- and I feel now, I would sometimes prefer it this way – gave them out in a loud, bloody fury shocking an audience out of its slumber.
Finally, the poem was edited, boiled down, bred up again, titled, questioned and left to season before being let out into the garden.

Z.T.: What is the relationship between ‘Leaving Wilona’, the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, and the life (and death) of plants?

J.S.: The speaker in the poem, his father and his grandfathers have direct relationships. There was the growing, nurturing and disposal of the plants and their dependants. The family gatherings. The air and sight therapy in that garden especially, before the years of fumes. There is a meeting of first boy or girlfriend. There is the history: the speaker in the poem was once the Assistant Keeper of the Book of Peppercorn Rentals for the Crown, and later one of its Crown Surveyors for the area. There was the matter of the silent cycle of growth and decay which gives the death and life of plants to the new generations; to the courting and marriages of new people while the secret creek dries, goes under, and is renewed.

Z.T.: You’ve spoken about the strong connection of place and memory in your poetry in an interview with Nigel Featherstone. In your words, place and memory interweave and ‘place’ is a “dark angel”. Explain the connections to place, memory, nature, growth and decay in ‘Leaving Wilona’?

J.S.: Place, memory, nature, growth and decay form the opening path, to borrow somewhat pompously from the Buddhists. In this work we, writer, listener, watcher, singer in the brain and body, are led on a little journey through all these aspects of an ancient, derelict house and garden only to come to a shiver of memory we can’t explain. There’s the rub.

Z.T.: What is your personal experience of the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney?

J.S.: Many years of appreciating its beauty, its calming illusions, its secret places, its useful fruits, its temporary pausing of time, its modelling for me coming from the East Sydney Arts School, its funnelling of the world down to that distant, bitter-sweet romance of the leaving of flying boats to the “honeyed islands”.

Z.T.: Your spoke with Nigel Featherstone about the memory of a place being coloured by experience specifically, that of personal, traumatic experiences. Is ‘Leaving Wilona’ situated within such a context?

J.S.: Don’t think a context like that necessarily applies here. Yes, jolts like that do happen, but the hurt in this poem is a long-term loneliness and loss, particularly of a mother, but not nearly bad enough by world standards. The horror in this poem is ill-defined. It is a wild but long drawing of the wire.

Z.T.: You mentioned that, ‘Leaving Wilona’ was connected to the longer poetic sequence, Drowned Haven. Tell me about Drowned Haven.

J.S.: Drowned Haven is subtitled ‘Confessions of drinker of sea-light’. It is a highly emotional, poetic sequence lamenting the rushing past, and ultimately, accepting of a painful hope for small futures*.
The drowning in this case refers to Port Jackson, a drowned estuary harbour and also, remembrance at once for our immigrants lost into the open seas.
We lament on the death by hospital neglect of the last, local, Australian aboriginal man living on his ancestral land on the peninsular: – ‘Man who lived under the spiders’. We have ‘Going from the Valley’; ‘Night surfers’ and ‘Midnight’s talk’. We have ‘A Girl is dancing in her green, green bonnet’ and ‘Mother. The birds are silent’. Then we come to ‘The Place, The History, the devil’s musician’ dealing with plants choking on their own fertility behind the McMansions overlooking the gardened swards of the children at play and the windswept, waterside brides under the palm trees.
Finally, we come to the specifics. A drowning which is to come by sea- and- storm-rise over the plants and creatures we share; a lonely, bewildered boy-child placed on the stone lions in the Gardens; a panicking wartime father shouting the Latin plant-names at him; a faint, sad hope that with the plants, and the bats coming in over the water gardens (“downward to darkness”), we will prevail. And nature with us. ‘The White foam sings’ (Stokes).

*For the technically minded, Drowned Haven currently stands at two lyrical “movements” of about 300 lines each in what my friend and far superior poet, Robert Adamson, might call The New Romanticism with added bite.

“We do not hide under the blankets …like the waspsand the leaves… we are blown away” (Hewitt).

Z.T.: Do you have anything else you would particularly like to add to give us some background into ‘Leaving Wilona’?

J.S.: I would like to say that for much of my writing life, I have dealt with “truth” as a guard against cant. I passionately knew that truth was larger than fact, and people need to identify themselves in the writing, unless you are too famous for words. It has only come to me very recently, only at the last decade, that there is another need. That of ‘theatre”, the emotional projection, the greater good. Watch your back. The Shadow Players are abroad.

‘Leaving Wilona’ by John Stokes: winner of the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Poetry Prize 2016
New Shoots Poetry Prizes: the winning and highly commended poets
The winning and highly commended poems from the New Shoots Poetry Prizes can also be found on The Red Room Company’s website.

Songs of truth and passion: an interview with John Stokes by Nigel Featherstone in Verity La

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John Stokes

John Stokes is renowned internationally for his passionate campaign for plain-speaking in literature. He has won, been short-listed, or long-listed for many prizes including, University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s and Montreal International Poetry Prizes in 2014 and 2015, respectively. His third book, Fire in the Afternoon was published in the Poets and Perspectives series by Halstead Press in 2014 and won the won the ATC Writing and Publishing Awards 2015 for best poetry book of the year.

 

N.B. The judges of the New Shoots Poetry Prizes were unaware that ‘Leaving Wilona’ by John Karl Stokes was previously published in ‘Fire in the Afternoon’ (Halstead Press, 2014) at the time of the selection and announcement.

-Zalehah Turner

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Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based critic, writer and poet currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor

‘our primitive lives’: Zalehah Turner interviews John Bennett, highly commended for the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016

“We forget just how fundamental plants are, especially primitive ones, like mosses and fungi (more animal than plant) for our air, water, soil.”- John Bennett

Zalehah Turner: In your notes you write, “This wall stands as a reminder that there is a story I want to trace.” Is ‘our primitive lives’ that story?

John Bennett: There are many other interconnecting stories: the garden as a Persian hunting park with walls keeping out the wild; botanic gardens arising from trade and empire and the rise of the consumer; the English landscape garden which, with poets and Italian painting (and Whig nationalist politics) helped shape the British idea of nature.
The Eora had no walls. Eden must have had a wall or fence through which we were expelled.
For 99% of human existence, hunter–gathering was the way of life, which has finished. In the last few years, the world population has tipped to urban not rural, and our agriculture has evolved quickly into industrial production. These changes are revolutionary and distance us from the natural processes collapsing through global warming, loss of biodiversity and habitat, the poisoning of the land, waterways and the seas. That’s a story.

Z.T.: You write, “my camera stitches connections”. Why did do you chose the combination of the visual image and prose poetry for ‘our primitive lives’?

J.B.: They complement each other, as well as possibly distracting each other – and we are so easily distracted in our culture. A photograph can reveal beauty or a truth beneath our noses and interrogate a text – not just illustrate. Poetry stitches connections too, an ability at the heart of the art. Poetry can connect the intimate, cosmic, mundane, sublime, thought and feeling. Hopefully the combination can nurture a creative engagement.

Z.T.: What is it about mixed media and ‘Photovoltaic poetry’ that is so essential to your understanding and expression of the world?

J.B.: Our culture has become overwhelmingly visually based, despite music being a vital art. Yet the visual is so powerful. I cannot draw or paint and the environment here is so beautiful. To show the beauty of the natural world is important now that we are distanced from it.
My current project is Eos: text, video and images of predawn when the visual can be sublime. Yet in the fifteen minutes before sunrise, colour fades and other senses come into play. Eos is an opportunity to become intimate with traditional elements – earth, water, air and light – and gain some understanding of our ancestors’ experience of a world before farming, roads or cities; before writing, machines, electrification or algorithms.
At the same time we are creative, playful and curious. We were reliant on machines and now, rely on technology. My art uses word processing and digital photography – I ask in one poem:

…My lens slams light onto an oxidised
silicon semiconductor powered by charged lithium ions
processed by robots and third world labour. Is this appropriate
technology to attempt intimacy with the environment?

Z.T.: ‘Our primitive lives’ takes in history, landscape, ecology, photosynthesis and the beginnings of life. Can you tell me a little about their interconnections in the ‘present’ and specifically in ‘our primitive lives’?

J.B.: Aldo Leopold was one of the first to value historical, cultural and scientific aspects of a place or landscape as part of its aesthetic appreciation, of its presence I would say. We need such understanding to see clearly, or in the words of Arran Gare (1995, p.160), to ‘enable individuals to construct narratives which can relate their own lives to a new grand narrative, the global struggle for an environmentally sustainable civilisation.’ Poetry has a vital role to play. When I was a boy, I thought the wars were coming to an end and progress (a relatively recent idea) was inevitable. There’s a cornucopia of violent conflicts, unfair trade, continuing famines, violence against women, and the ongoing war with nature. A war the NSW Baird Government is continuing, passing a bill last week to weaken land clearing laws. Australia is mostly an urban world deracinated from the natural processes that donate fresh air, clean water and food. How many of us can name any of the eight desert mammals we have sent extinct since invasion?

Z.T.: Why do you turn your attention to the cliff face in Sydney Harbour and away from the Harbour Bridge in ‘our primitive lives’?

J.B.: I lived in Sydney for thirty-five years and know the Bridge and Opera House; they oil the massive engine of Instagram, flooding 8 million images every day. The wall is a more subtle aesthetic treasure, packed with the marks and deposits of humans and nature – it is a vertical version of Darwin’s ‘tangled bank’.
Cézanne wrote in a letter to his son on 8 September 1906, ‘Here on the bank of the river the motifs multiply, the same subject seen from a different angle offers subject for study of the most powerful interest and so varied that I think I could occupy myself for months without changing place’ (Galenson, 2002, p.52).
The same could apply to this beautiful wall.

Z.T.: When writing about plants, you chose Commelina, moss and fungi, and added that, “the intimacy of slime lives with me”. When focusing on the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney you chose the cliff face. What particularly drew your attention to them, what is their connection and why do you feel so strongly about them?

J.B.: More than half of us are alien, cells that belong to other lives, and even our own cells are powered by mitochondria that were once primitive bacterial cells. We are symbiotic creatures intimately connected to our environment, but are stuck with damaging Platonic, Christian, Cartesian dichotomies: body/mind; reason/emotion; nature/culture. Reason is thought to be fundamental to our species and separating us from other animals, but consciousness is overrated. Much of our feelings, perceptions, attitudes, actions are achievements are hidden from us.

Z.T.: Commelina is known for its short life and referred to commonly as dayflowers. Why is this contrast between the short life span of a dayflower and immense stretch of time since the beginning of life so important to your poetry and ‘our primitive lives’?

J.B.: What will this wall look like in a thousand years? The time span of a politician’s thinking is four years, most of us have even less. Some struggle to survive from day to day, but the vast majority of us in the ‘first world’ have the opportunity to look ahead to what we are leaving our children. We can also remind ourselves that we are about ten billion years old (our materials are star stuff).
We now have responsibilities, have to manage habitats and species or we would lose both. An estimated ten per cent of the 28,000 plants introduced into Australia to feed stock, decorate gardens, or accidental invaders, would take over.

Z.T.: You write, “I think it’s plants that can mend the earth”. Can you elaborate?

J.B.: We forget just how fundamental plants are, especially primitive ones like mosses and fungi (more animal than plant) for our air, water, soil. If only our natural environment was richer worldwide . . . Evidence is increasing from multiple scientific fields that exposure to the natural environment can improve human health and wellness. So it goes back to both natural aesthetics and the fundamentals of healthy ecosystems.
It’s great that Red Room has the energy and ideas to drive poets to further creativity.

Z.T.: Congratulations on being highly commended for the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016. Is there anything you’d like to say about winning the award for ‘our primitive lives’?

J.B.: I’d like to thank judges for enjoying a poem revelling in discursivity – not that common these days…and congratulations to the Red Room for opening up new challenges for poets and new inventive spaces for poetry to breathe in.

Reference list

Galenson, D. 2002, Painting outside the lines: patterns of creativity in modern art, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, US.

Gare, A. 1995, Postmodernism and the environmental crisis, Routledge, London and New York.

‘our primitive lives’ by John Bennett: highly commended for the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016
New Shoots Poetry Prizes: the winning and highly commended poets
The winning and highly commended poems from the New Shoots Poetry Prizes can also be found on The Red Room Company’s website.

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John Bennett

John Bennett has won the Mattara (now Newcastle) Prize and the David Tribe Prize and is represented in Puncher and Wattmann’s Contemporary Australian Anthology. A documentary on his work was broadcast by ABC Radio National’s Earshot in February 2016. His PhD updates a Defence of Poetry and he now melds poetry and image with Photovoltaic poetry.

 

-Zalehah Turner

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Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based critic, writer and poet currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor