Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 2

My Friday at the Festival was a long day. Also wet. Anticipating queues, I arrived early for my first event, and turned out to be one of three people sheltering under the long marquee for a good half hour. Sadly, attendance was pretty sparse for an excellent session:

10 am: Australia in Verse
As is often the case, this event’s title was irrelevant. With poetry events at the SWF, it’s the who that counts rather than the what.

Sam Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckerman were in conversation with Ivor Indyk. Jennifer Maiden’s name was in the program but back trouble kept her away, that and her wish that the two Indigenous poets should have the floor. I was sorry not to see her, but it was wonderful that we got so much of the two who were there.

The poets spoke about their backgrounds. Sam’s south-east Queensland childhood was full of story-tellers, writers and artists, solidly Aboriginal though not in denial about European heritage as well. He described himself as a child of popular culture. Ali’s mother was taken from her family when very young; Ali herself was taken; and she relinquished her own baby son. Their paths to becoming poets were vastly different, as is their poetry.

Both read a number of poems, and spoke about what their poetry meant to them. Ivor Indyk was wonderful in the chair. When Sam said something about his early poems being well received, Ivor said that was because they were good: ‘And I’ll say what was good about them in a minute.’

There was a lot of laughter, and some tears.

And on to:

11.30: Writers on Writers: Rilke
I know very little about Rilke. I read his Letters to a Young Poet when I was a young non-poet, and I love this passage from Etty Hillesum‘s diaries, written on her way to Auschwitz, which makes me want to know more:

I always return to Rilke.
It is strange to think that someone so frail did most of his writing within protective castle walls, would perhaps have been broken by the circumstances in which we now live. […] In peaceful times and under favourable circumstances, sensitive artists may search for the purest and most fitting expression of their deepest insights so that, during more turbulent and debilitating times, others can turn to them for support and a ready response to their bewildered questions, a response they are unable to formulate for themselves, since all their energies are taken up in looking after the bare necessities.

So I was interested.

There was a lot to absorb. All four panelists knew an awful lot about Rilke, which they were enthusiastic to share: much more than could possibly fit into an hour. Luke Fischer, enthusiastic young scholar–poet, fell over his own words as he gave us three trains of thought at once. Lesley Chamberlain, a learned Englishwoman in jeans, made sure we knew how to pronounce Brancusi properly. Peter Morgan, from Sydney University’s German department, was in the chair and had interesting things to say about translating Rilke. Elder poet Robert Gray seemed to rise every now and then from the depths of abstract thought to make a brief contribution. It was fascinating theatre, and pretty good as an impressionistic introduction to a poet who, they said, sits at the beginning of modernism.

Not that it was like a fish and chip shop, but I had three takeaways:

  • Rilke is the one who ended a short poem describing an ancient sculpture with a phrase that seemed to come from nowhere and go everywhere, ‘You must change your life.’
  • He regarded his letters as part of his literary output. (This was a relief, because if the Letters to a Young Poet were dashed off there’s no hope for the rest of us.)
  • Something that came up in response to a question at the very end, that seems relevant to to Etty Hillesum quote is Rilke’s concept of the reversal. As far as I could understand, the idea is that if you set out to experience any pain and painful emotion fully rather than numbing them out or seeking distraction from them, then at some point a reversal happens, and the pain is in some way transcended.

Time for lunch, in what was now a beautiful sunny day by the Harbour, and then:

1.30: The World in Three Poets

3 poets

This was a wonderful session. Kate Fagan (not pictured), herself no mean poet, did an amazing job of introducing poets Ben Okri, David Malouf and Les Murray. That is, she said just a few extraordinarily well crafted words about each of them, leaving most of the hour for them to read to us, followed by a short question time. It was an almost overwhelming combination of talents.

The woman sitting next to me said she was there mainly for Ben Okri – she’d read some of his novels (‘if you can call them novels’) and hoped that hearing him read in person would help to understand them. As if he’d heard her, his final reading was from his current novel, which he introduced by saying that his novels had often been described as poetic. My transitory companion was pleased.

Les Murray read nothing from his most recent book, which of course was because he had a whole session on that book – Waiting for the Past – the next day. What he did read was marvellous. And when David Malouf read, Les was a picture of concentration – as if he was in training for an Olympic event in Listening to Poetry.

David began with his ‘Seven Last Word of the Emperor Hadrian’. Heard in the context of the previous day’s session on the classics, this revealed itself more clearly: the speaker, anticipating death, bids a tender farewell to his soul, the reverse of what we would expect in the Judaeo-Christian mindset, and there is something deeply moving about that.

All three of these extraordinary poets shone in the question time.

3  pm: Australia’s Oldest Stories: Indigenous Storytelling with Glen Miller
It’s 51 years since Jacaranda Press published a children’s book, The Legends of Moonie Jarl by Moonie Jarl (Wilf Reeves) and Wandi (Olga Miller), which has been described as the first book written by Aboriginal people. The Indigenous Literacy Foundation have re-published it this year. Glen Miller, nephew and son respectively of the authors, talked to Lydia Miller about his own very interesting life – as very young worker in the coal mines, public servant, cultural tourism entrepreneur, and now as elder and activist in the Maryborough Aboriginal community – and about the origins of the book as he remembered them. He was very good value, but I can’t have been the only person in the audience who was hanging out to be read to. Eventually, he did read us one story – almost apologetically, as if an audience full of adults wouldn’t want to be read a children’s story. There were no complaints.

It being Friday, I was joined by the Art Student for:

4.30: The Big Read
The Big Read is where a big theatre full of people, mainly adults, sits back to be read to. This event used to be for ninety minutes, but it’s sadly been cut back to just an hour, and that hour has to accommodate the presentation of the Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist Awards.

This year the awards presentation featured some unscheduled theatre. The set-up has always been a little awkward, as one by one the young novelists stand silently off to the side of the stage while their novels are described, and then again while the others have their turns. This year, the first recipient, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, clearly feeling the awkwardness acutely, sat down in a spare chair while his book (The Tribe) was being described. When he was shepherded away from that chair after receiving his award, he looked around and saw that there wasn’t a chair (Beatles reference intended), so sat on the floor. His successors – Maxine Beneba Clarke, Ellen van Neerven and Omar Musa (Alice Pung, the fifth recipient, was in Melbourne with a small baby) – each made the decision to join him. Linda Morris from the SMH said it was like a sit-in. Perhaps next year there will be chairs, and the young novelists may even have a moment each at the microphone.

On to the show itself: Camilla Nelson read from Alice Pung’s book; Kate Grenville read from One Life, a kind of biography of her mother; Steven Carroll read an extended passage about a guitar from his novel, Forever Young; Damian Barr gave us a snippet of Glaswegian childhood from his memoir Maggie and Me. Annette Shum Wah was as always a warm and charming host.

It’s probably telling that when we went to Gleebooks on our way to dinner to buy Damian Barr’s book it was sold out. After a dinner up the hill at the Hero of Waterloo, we uncharacteristically returned to the Festival for an evening session:

8.00 Drafts Unleashed + Slam
MCd by Miles Merrill, mover and shaker on the Australian spoken word scene, this featured an open mic plus a number of featured guests, all of whom were invited to read something completely new. Benjamin Law read us the opening scene of the TV series currently in production based on his memoir The Family Law. He did the voices and the accents, and it was a wondrous thing to see this slight, mild man transformed before our eyes into a big, loud, wildly inappropriate woman. The rest was fun too, but we were weary and left before the show was over, walking back to Circular Quay through the spectacle and crush of the Vivid festival.

Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 1

I arrived at the Sydney Theatre (recently renamed something else in honour of a member of a media dynasty) yesterday morning without a lot of time to spare before my first event at this year’s Writers’ Festival.  In the absence of electronic ticketing I had a whole swag of cardboard to collect and the foyer was jam packed with milling sex- and septuagenarians. Luckily the system was working smoothly and within minutes I was settled in my seat next to a couple of women who had come down from Brisbane for the Festival, and for Vivid (which starts tonight).

11:30 Writers on Writers: Malouf and Mendelsohn on the Classics
Daniel Mendelsohn, memoirist and literary critic from the USA, was in conversation with David Malouf. They spent minimal time praising each other’s writing – Mendelsohn reviewed Malouf’s Ransom very positively in, I think, the New Yorker. They launched straight into stories of how they first became interested in classical culture – that is, the culture of ancient Greek and Rome. Mendelsohn, master of the witty remark, quoted John Winkler (I think): ‘What’s not to love about the Greeks? Naked statues and bad behaviour!’ They were both drawn to Greek culture when young as an alternative to the ones they were brought up in. The classics allowed exploration of aspects of existence that were forbidden in their own cultures – including but not limited to sex, and, as David Malouf put it, ‘the flesh as a good place’.

There was a seamless shift from their early attraction to classical images and stories to their serious engagement with the same as adults. Mendelsohn is a classicist, and Malouf put a case for polytheism as a sophisticated way of thinking about the world, certainly more interesting than the worship of what William Blake called Nobodaddy.

I hope that some of our current adapters of ancient drama for the Australian stage get to hear this conversation. Both men agreed that it is a mistake to strip away all the things that make the Greek characters different from us. Mendelsohn described a Medea in which the lead character was pretty much a New York housewife on the edge of a nervous breakdown. This, he said, completely missed the point of Euripedes’ play: that Medea was a granddaughter of the Sun, possessed of uncanny powers, and the Greek male audience would have been afraid of her because she was a woman who acted like a man – that is, destroyed her enemies. To make the play a domestic drama about a pill-popping neurotic is to drain it of its power. Likewise, they talked about how most modern adaptations take the Chorus out – but to do that is to radically change the nature of the play. Among other things, the Chorus underlines the nature of those plays as concerned with public events. In ancient Greece, you could never be alone. That may be why Achilles is so hard to grasp: he had almost figured out how to be an individual, and everyone freaked out because no one had ever tried that before.

There was a lot more: western poetry owes a huge debt to Ovid, the first flâneur; drama owes a similar debt to Aeschylus, who was the first to have woman characters give voice rage against the state of things, a tradition that led directly to Ibsen and Tennessee Williams; balance is central to ancient Greek culture (what is the Bacchae about if not the importance of stopping at three drinks?). Mendelsohn mentioned Edith Hamilton a number of times: I’m guessing she introduced generations of US children to the myths of ancient Greece and Rome – the way the Queensland School Reader did for David Malouf (and me), and the Argonauts Club for many of us as well. Oh, and my parents gave me a copy of Kingsley’s heroes when I was about ten.

Then out into brilliant sunshine and more milling bodies, to catch  a bus home. Back into the city in the evening, to the fabulous Eternity Theatre, where I met up with a number of friends for:

6.00 Readings of Matchbox Theatre
Michael Frayn, every inch the British literary gent, explained that while writing his many plays, novels etc, he also writes tiny plays that just accumulate in his files with nowhere to go. His wife, without consulting him, suggested to his publisher that these little doodles could’ve gathered into an anthology. The publisher agreed, and the book exists. It probably helped that his wife is the brilliant biographer Claire Tomalin. 

Frayn then left the stage to four actors who read no fewer than eleven of these plays: a David Attenborough account of the shy species of scene changers that lurk in the theatre; a mobile phone conversation between two people who turn out to be in the same supermarket; an irritable dialogue between tomb sculptures that could have been inspired by Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’; a torturer-tortured Pinter parody. 

It was all good clean fun. Which is more than I can say for the Wok On Inn where we had a quick and unpleasant dinner before getting back to the Eternity for:

8.00 Dalloway
A bravura one woman performance by British actor Rebecca Vaughan of an adaptation by Elton Townend Jones of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. My companions enjoyed this a lot more than I did. I responded to it as an actorly reading of the novel, which just made me want to read the novel itself without abridgement and without someone else’s insistent emotions being imposed on it. Others saw it as an engaging theatrical rendition of the substance of the novel.

And so home to the lonely dog.

Les Murray’s Waiting for the Past

Les Murray, Waiting for the Past (Black Inc, 2015)

1waiting_for_the_past

A new book by Les Murray is an event, and Waiting for the Past is as rich a mixture of pontification, playfulness, contrariness, enigma, earthiness,  erudition and verbal and visual delights as you could expect. The range of occasions that provide starting points for poems is huge: a flood, a moment on a ferry, children’s complaint about their father, two dogs jumping onto a tractor tray, the death of an octopus, the canonisation of Mary McKillop, his own rustic table manners. The poems themselves range from tiny squibs, through narrative, to combative meditations. Many, perhaps most, are concerned with the relationship between the past and the present – the remembered past, the historical past, and the deep, geological past. The book’s paradoxical title may refer to Murray’s championing of the rural past, but it also hints that almost anything in the present stirs up something from the past: if you let your mind rest you can just wait for the past to make itself felt.

I’m shy about blogging on Murray, partly because of the sheer brilliance of other people’s writing about him, of which ‘Widespeak’, Lisa Gorton’s review of Waiting for the Past in the Sydney Review of Books is a recent example. That essay has very interesting things to say about Murray’s use of sound and his relationship to other poets, but it’s especially brilliant in reading the poetry in the context of Anglo-Saxon riddle poems:

Until [a] riddle is solved, it could mean anything – everything. Only after it is solved does meaning settle into being in the words…
Murray’s descriptions have a riddle ancestry: they effect an estrangement that is perceptual. That is why, for all the force of the poet’s personality and reputation, Murray’s best poems are distinguished by the fact that reading them feels solitary: an encounter not with a personality but with language itself: its work of discovering the world through its patterns of sound. …
Most of Murray’s descriptions could start with that phrase from the riddle: ‘a weird thing I saw’.

There’s much more. If you’re interested in Murray’s poetry, you should read it all.

One thing about riddles that Lisa Gorton doesn’t say is that they are frustrating if you can’t solve them, and give great joy when you do. If you solve them after being frustrated, the joy is all the greater. I could give lots of small  examples from this book of such frustration and pleasure. Just one: ‘Grooming with Nail Scissors’ ends with a reference to toenail clippings as ‘grey beetle bix’. I puzzled over that last word. Google and a couple of dictionaries were no help. I decided it must be obscure Celtic lingo, and was about to move on when (I know, I’m slow!) I thought of Weet-Bix, and the words resolved into an image of little grey biscuits just the right size for a beetle’s breakfast. It’s a trivial example, maybe, but Lisa Gorton is right: the pleasure I got from it was all about me and the language.

‘Inspecting the Rivermouth’ gave me similar pleasure. In it, the poet describes a road trip to the mouth of the Murray River. There are several lines describing a reviivified scene on Hindmarsh Island:

the barrages de richesse,
film culture, horseradish farms,
steamboats kneading heron-blue
lake, the river full again.

It’s a straightforward evocation of a thriving place. Then I realised that the scene was covered by the general phrase ‘the Murray mouth’. That would have no resonance in another poet’s work, but here I take delight in recognising a hidden punning reference to the man Murray’s own return from his much-publicised chronic depression, so that his mouth is ‘full again’. George Herbert comes to mind: ‘I once more smell the dew and rain / And relish versing.’

I Wrote a Little Haiku‘ breaks the rules of comedy and explains a riddle.

IMG_1263

The little haiku ‘The Springfields’ appeared in Taller when Prone (2010), and at least one reviewer found it infuriating, saying it served ‘as a reminder that the urge to baffle, like the urge to shock, is usually best resisted’, so the present poem is responding to something real. In it Murray doesn’t merely explicate the earlier poem. He puts his mind to it in the way he puts his mind to any other subject when making poetry. The defensiveness of ‘Critics didn’t like it’ falls away, the riddling dimension of the ‘haiku’ is unravelled. If a reader in 2010 had googled ‘Springfield, Civil War’ they would have had a fair chance of solving the riddle. I wonder, though, how many would have got the richly poignant image of this poem’s last lines, which remind us to stay open to the possibility of deeper connotations in the riddles.

This whole line of thought makes me much less reluctant to spend time nutting out Murray’s frequent obscurities. I’m more open, too, to poems that seem to enact a kind of belligerent anti-modernism. I would love someone to walk me through ‘Persistence of the Reformation’, which begins with a description of  watered landscape, briefly laments the passing of old farming ways, then somehow finds itself giving a cryptic brief history of post-Reformation imperialism and sectarianism, before (I think) celebrating a non-denominational rural ethos:

belief may say Ask Mum
and unpreached help
has long been the message

Les Murray is appearing at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on a panel with David Malouf and Ben Okri. Can one room contain all three? I’ll tell you in a couple of days.

Omar Musa’s Here Come the Dogs and the Book Group

Omar Musa, Here Come the Dogs (Hamish Hamilton 2014)

1hcdAt the last meeting: Someone said he wanted us to choose a book that would blow our minds. By the usual apparently random process, we picked Here Come the Dogs. Would it provide the desired explosion?

Before this meeting: The novel follows the lives of three men in their 20s who live in the Town, which is a bus ride away from the City – as Queanbeyan is from Canberra. Solomon and Jimmy are half brothers. Solomon is Samoan, a former basketball player whose career and university scholarship were cut short by injury. Jimmy, whose ‘eyes cut left to right, / paranoid and grim’ – well, his father was a bit of a fabulist, and no one knowns the truth of his ethnicity.Macedonian-born Aleks, their friend and neighbour since childhood, has connections with organised crime. The friends live in hip-hop culture, tagging and rapping, tending their tattoos, ingesting a range of mood-altering substances, fighting when need or impulse calls for it.

A character describes Solomon as bilingual because he can talk to university students in their own language (‘I guess I have to check my privilege. My bad.’). By that token, Omar Musa is multilingual. The novel’s back-and-forth movement from verse to prose is only part of the rich variation in the language: street argot, delicate descriptive prose, fine dramatic scenes, an occasional voice from the mainstream – all are there without any apparent strain. I’ll leave it to someone else to comment on the accuracy of hip-hop language and references – of the hundreds of names dropped I recognised maybe three. But Musa evokes the milieu with tremendous energy. Likewise the tagging/bombing references: it’s something of a miracle that, without any obvious signposting, an outsider like me is rarely left wondering what they mean.

The first chapter, which is laid out as verse, introduces the three main characters. They’re on a night out, as ‘the only ethnics at the dog races’ and then wandering, partying, getting into fights, and one of them into a sexual encounter. It’s smoke-filled, drug-inflected, and definitely not to be read aloud in a vicarage, but it works beautifully as a sequence of poems. The form allows moments like this, a one line poem and its title:

Wish we had a white person with us
Ten empty cabs have passed us by

In the morning-after prose that begins the second chapter, there’s an abrupt change of tone as we find Aleks meticulously cleaning his kitchen and getting his little daughter ready for school. The book keeps on springing similar surprises: just as you expect one thing, it gives you another. An act of criminal violence is performed with genuine compassion; a relationship that looks set to be central to the plot ends with some blunt name-calling; what looks like a major catastrophe turns out to be just another incident in a character’s near-chaotic life; a prison sequence is convincingly real while standing prison-story conventions on their heads; moral choices faced by the characters are deeply complex.

I loved the book. It has a lot in common with fiction that’s been coming from Western Sydney lately, evoking the knockabout world of marginalised people who struggle to live with integrity. And like that other fiction, it burns with passion for that world.

The meeting: It was a big turn-up for lasagna and cheesecake. Everyone had read the book, an almost unprecedented occurrence, and though some were keener than others, we had all enjoyed it. Some found it hard to get past the swagger of the opening chapter. Some found the ending unsatisfactory – partly because there is no real climax, and partly because of a manufactured feel to what climax there is. (I didn’t see either of these as problems.)

One chap said that as novels are mostly read by middle class people, it’s possible to read a lot of this one as intended to challenge middle-class readers. The C-bomb that’s the fourth word of the first chapter is a message in code: You’re not in polite politically-correct land any more. On the other hand, while agreeing that the lives of these characters was very different from our mostly comfortable, educated and secure lives, I think we mostly felt that as readers we weren’t observing them as examples, but finding a lot to identify with.

This led to an interesting discussion about young men and violence – we compared stories of teenage years in suburban London, small-town New South Wales, suburban Sydney. The book’s arson episode drew out arson-related memories. In one episode a character drives his car with his eyes shut, guided only by a voice that may be on his phone or perhaps is just in his head: is it magical realism, or was the young man just very lucky? Someone confessed to once driving with his eyes shut when young, just to see what it would be like to be blind. Like the character, he opened his eyes not far from disaster.

And of course, the conversation ranged: James Turrell in Canberra, Marina Abramovic’s coming visit to Sydney, the merits of the GP that a number of us go to, things we learn from our children, travel tales, movies, theatre …

Thanks, Omar.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards night, 2015

The New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards were presented last night at the State Library. At one stage I thought I might be able to go as a handbag, but it turned out handbags had to pay their own way, so you won’t see a pic of me in cocktail attire on Twitter. But speaking of Twitter, it’s now possible to participate in such events by proxy and non-simultaneously. Here’s my version of the evening.

The earliest interesting tweet was from someone worrying about the dress code. I could have told her not to worry. This is an event for writers, and though some of the pics that began to appear at hashtag  at about 6 o’clock were decidedly glam, there were plenty to put the worrier’s mind at ease.

Uncle Allan Madden did the welcome to Country, playwright Ross Mueller delivered the Address (in which, as well as saying some wise things about the arts he made an AFL joke or two and commented, amicably I hope, on recent events to do with literary awards in Queensland), Acting Premier and Arts Minister Troy Brampton spoke briefly, so did Richard Neville the Mitchell Librarian, and the show was on the road.

John George Ajaka, NSW Minister for Multiculturalism, announced the winner of the biennial Prize for Translation and the inaugural NSW Early Career Translator Prize. Brian Nelson won the former, and Lilit Zelukin the latter. Few if any other literary awards include prizes for translation, so these are a win for all translators.

Multicultural NSW Award. I saw Donna Abela’s Jump for Jordan at the Griffin Theatre Company last year with the wonderful Alice Ansara, and would have been happy to see it win. The winner, Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo by Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond, is a book I hope to read.

Of the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting shortlist I’d only seen Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts, featuring Hunter Page-Lochard’s terrifying performance of a young man on the edge of self-destruction, at Belvoir. The smart money was on Tom Wright’s Black Diggers, about World War One’s Aboriginal soldiers. The smart money had it right.

The Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting was taken out by The Babadook by Jennifer Kent. I’m glad on two counts: it’s good to see a genre piece being gonged, and this film in particular has been much more honoured abroad than at home. Jennifer Kent’s acceptance remarks were recorded on Twitter as mentioning the joys of libraries.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature was shared by Tamsin Janu’s Figgy in the World and Catherine Norton’s Crossing, both published by Scholastic Omnibus.

The Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult Literature went to The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty, who shared some letters from her readers..

(At about this point in the evening, the ABC Book Club’s Twitter account decided that the embargo was lifted and revealed the remaining winners. This would have been the moment to lay bets on David Williamson.)

The favourite for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry was surely David Malouf’s  Earth Hour, which happens to be the only shortlisted book I’d read. It won. David was described on Twitter as ‘wonderful’, ‘amazing’ and an ‘Australian icon’. A text sent to me from the room described him as ‘ever gracious and lovely’.

How do people possibly choose among the range of books shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction? Intimate memoir, passionate court reporting, grand history, cultural essays: it’s a lot harder than apples vs oranges. However, choose the judges did, and gave the gong to Don Watson’s The Bush. In accepting the prize he said, no doubt with his usual gloomy demeanour: ‘You need encouragement when you’re young, but also when you’re old.’

The UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing: I’ve just finished reading Omar Musa’s Here Come the Dogs (blog post to come after the book group meets) and was backing it to win. The actual winner, An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman, is a worthy recipient of whom I am a fan, though I expect the judges did some soul searching when they realised he was the only white man on the shortlist. Omar Musa congratulated Luke on Twitter within minutes.

The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, generally regarded as the big prize of the night, went to The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw, who compared writing a novel to running a marathon.

The special award was given to David Williamson. The State Library’s tweeter described his work as laconic. Is that the sound of pedants writhing? Laconic or not, the tall man is giving his prize money to the Ensemble Theatre to ensure the production of new Australian work. [Later: My mistake. The tweet in question said iconic, not laconic. I’m not sure how DW is iconic, but that description fits him better than the other.]

The book of the year went to Don Watson for The Bush, who Twitter said was dumbstruck.

Voting for the People’s Choice Prize, which is restricted to the grown-up novels – so Helen Garner and Biff Ward aren’t in the running – closes at midnight on Thursday. The prize will be announced on Friday.

So there you have it. Congratulations all round. People in the room acknowledged the Auslan signers. I acknowledge the tweeters. It was almost like being there.

Overland 218

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 218 (Autumn 2015)

overland218

The editor has gone, long live the editor. With this edition of Overland, Jacinda Woodhead, who has been deputy editor for a while, takes over the main job. Most of the old editorial and design staff remain, and there has been no radical transformation.

For example, like the previous edition, this one includes the results of two writing prizes. These are the Nakata Brophy Short Fiction and Poetry Prize for Young Indigenous Writers, and the Judith Wright Poetry Prize:

  • The judges praise the winner of the former, Backa Bourke by Marika Duczynski, for its ‘energetic prose that knows when to withdraw’. What looks like a rough and ready outback yarn about floods and death and young men on motorbikes takes a surprising turn right at the end, in prose so withdrawn that the surprise hangs on a single word. To be parochial for a moment, I was chuffed to see that the writer, in this overwhelmingly Melburnian journal, lives in Sydney.
  • Peter Minter’s judge’s report on the Judith Wright Prize pays elegant tribute to Judith Wright herself in reflecting on form in poetry as ‘a moral or ethical problem, a political gesture’. Interestingly enough, the first prize winner, Hyper-reactive by Melody Paloma, has a similar linguistic vigour to ‘Backa Bourke’.

This issue is also like its predecessors in including writing about writing (including an essay on literary envy/jealousy that takes its title from the Clive James poem that begins, ‘The book of my enemy has been remaindered / And I am pleased’), and an interesting mix of short stories, this time two realist pieces and two that nudge into the surreal.

The issue differs, perhaps accidentally, in having an identified theme. Jacinda Woodhead’s editorial says it ‘gives voice to women’s unfiltered experiences of this world, and other subjects on which there’s been far too much silence’. To mix metaphors, it delivers that voice in spades, though it by no means a predominantly female voice.

Alison Croggon’s column begins ‘The first time I was raped,’ builds to a passionate cry that her children ‘have to live in this world where, all the time, men hurt women, dismiss women, marginalise women, silence women, kill women’, and ends with a quietly lethal account of a ‘pleasant and intelligent man’ communicating by his manner that a protest at women being ignored was ‘a footling political point about feminism’. It’s two tough pages and Croggon has an equally fine piece online about the writing of it.

Hackers, Gamers and Cyborgs by Brendan Keogh discusses the phenomenon of Gamergate, in which a number of woman video game developers have been attacked vehemently. I’ve been aware of Gamergate as one of those online places where outrage and reciprocal vilification flourishes. This essay instructively situates it in ‘the broader patriarchal structures in which video game culture emerged’. Even though the word sexism doesn’t appear, it’s reassuring that the concept of patriarchy is still alive and doing good work.

Justin Clemens, who is a poet among other accomplishments, writes about the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. The essay, Torturing folk, explores the implications for civil society of the current practice of and debate about torture. Paradoxically, he argues that even to debate the appropriateness of torture is in effect to close down freedom of speech.

Russell Marks  puts his head above the parapet in More than taboo, arguing the case against demonising paedophiles. Specifically, government funding has been channelled primarily into identifying and punishing offenders; funding has been withdrawn from programs that provide support to survivors, including programs such as SafeCare in Perth and Cedar Cottage in New South Wales that also offered treatment to offenders, with demonstrated success in preventing recurrence.

There’s more: Fiona Wright on grieving communally on facebook; Stephen Wright on different children; Michael Bogle on The Atomic Age, an exhibition about nuclear weapons shown in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in 1947 and 1948 (which sent me back to Robin Gerster’s wider-ranging ‘Exile on Uranium Street: The Australian Nuclear Blues’, in Southerly No 1 2104).

Overland is clearly still in good hands.

Overland 217

Jeff Sparrow (editor), Overland 217 (Summer 2014)

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This is Jeff Sparrow’s last Overland after seven years as editor. It’s a solid farewell performance at the end of an impressive tour, with the usual heady mix of politics, literary chat, fiction and poetry.

This issue has a lot of short fiction – the winners of two short story competitions (the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize and the Story Wine Prize) plus the runners-up of one of them (here and here), and the final piece in the Fancy Cuts series. All four prize-related stories are worth reading, especially Madelaine Lucas’s ‘Dog Story’, winner of the VU prize. In the Fancy Cuts, Ali Alizadeh’s takes on the brief of writing a story that somehow revisits one from a past Overland. He follows the same contours as his original, 1961’s ‘Taffy Was a Pacifist’ by James Aldridge, (which you can read here): an outsider immigrant child who is bullied exacts revenge with the help of an outsider adult, and in a brief coda becomes an admirable adult. Alizadeh’s title, Samira Was a Terrorist, signals the ways his work departs from the original. A girl rather than a boy, Samira exacts revenge that is much less socially acceptable than Taffy’s. The original’s moral ambiguity is deeply buried beneath a celebration of masculine virtues and skills, to surface only in the final paragraph, if at all; Alizadeh puts moral ambiguity front and centre in his much more violent, challenging and interesting tale.

Bias Australian? by John McLaren chimes nicely with Fancy Cuts’ juxtaposition of old and new Overlands. A writer for the magazine since 1956, McLaren traces the development of its cultural nationalism from its beginnings in 1954, including the evolution away from the realist fiction endorsed (required?) by Communist Party policy.

Of the non-fiction prose pieces, there are two stand-outs. The first, Happiness™ by Christopher Scanlon, explores the ways the apparently benign ‘positive psychology’ movement is being used in call centres and elsewhere in service roles, and the often deeply harmful effects it can have on employees. Not all of it is new – Scanlon quotes Arlie Russell Hochschild’s revelatory study of flight attendants, The Managed Heart: The commercialisation of human feeling (1983):

[T]he smiles are part of her work, a part that requires her to co–ordinate self and feeling so that the work seems to be effortless … part of the job is to disguise fatigue and irritation, for otherwise the labour would show in an unseemly way, and the product – passenger contentment – would be damaged.

The other stand-out is A Tale of Two Settler Colonies by Michael Brull, which compares Australia and Israel as settler colonies, and poses a substantial counter to the common (anti-Semitic?) tendency to single Israel out as somehow worse than other similar nation-states, including our own.

There are a couple of beautifully contrapuntal pieces on the writer’s life: The authentic writer self by Khalid Warsame (‘There is the fear that people will look at my name or my face and say, “Oh, right, another African writer who writes about Africa. How inspiring and nice.”‘) and Go, little book by Kirsten Tranter (‘Before The Legacy was even published it attracted attention because of my literary family background (my mother is a literary agent and my father is a poet). “If you were to put money on anyone getting published it would be Kirsten Tranter,” said one memorable notice, with the unspoken “no matter what she wrote” impossible to ignore.’).

Of the juicy ten-page poetry section, I’d single out three poems: Skater by Tim Thorne

Somewhere on a minor island something worthy
of literal tragedy plays out. Meanwhile
the circus tents are planted firmly, even though
the clowns could never be trusted

Save Behana Gorge by Phillip Hall, which felt like my childhood before I saw that it was indeed set in north Queensland:

_________________Sometimes,
though, when I spend time in the gorge, all I hear is the zeroing-
in of Mozzies, all I see is the spray of the torrent
as I wait for curlew to call their drawn-out wailing
weeer-eearr.

and The PM and Me by Mark O’Flynn, which I read as an account of the poet’s encounter with an Aboriginal man in Sydney:

He tells me when he worked for the fish market
they paid him in crabs, which is why he went back
and robbed them. Never earned an honest dollar
in his life, he declares with misplaced pride
in the rite of passage of these years.

Unlabelled, green-tinted pages feature the ever-reliable columnists, especially Alison Croggon being intelligently reassuring about writer’s block, and Giovanni Tiso striking terror into our hearts about the end of the internet.

No 218, which is already published and sitting beside my bed, has Jacinda Woodhead in the chair.

Pamela Hart’s Soldier’s Wife

Pamela Hart, The Soldier’s Wife (Hachette Australia 2015)

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Romance novels really aren’t my thing, but Pamela Hart, as Pamela Freeman, has written a number of magnificent books in other genres, so I stepped out of my comfort zone to read her first venture into the world of historical romance. Also, it’s the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli, and in our house the schmaltzy, revisionist jingoism in the media has made it close to impossible to attend to the occasion. James Kent’s movie of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth was a big crack in that frozen wall. The Soldier’s Wife promised another.

The book  delivers on both fronts: as a story of the WWI home front, and as a all stops out romance.

Ruby has had a blissful honeymoon week with her tall handsome husband Jimmy, and then one last day in town before he is shipped off to Gallipoli, where they know he is going into harm’s way. (If I was being true to the period and to the book, I’d call her Mrs Hawkins, but after all I’ve been though with her, she’s Ruby to me.) Hailing from Burke, Ruby lodges with the friend of a friend in Annandale, a Sydney suburb, and gets a job as bookkeeper in a timber yard – the boss of the yard has a son who is an officer in the same battalion as Jimmy, which accounts for his willingness to take on a woman.

And it goes from there: Ruby lives in constant terror that the next telegram to be delivered will bring news of Jimmy’s death; she negotiates the perils of the all male workplace, where she fends off sexual predation and high-toned disapproval; having so briefly enjoyed married life and then left, she is strongly drawn to the handsome, muscular foreman of the yard; bit by bit she takes on more responsibility in the workplace and her relationship with her landlady becomes more solid.

I was surprised by some of the plot twists, and though in retrospect they were completely logical I don’t want to spoil them for you. I’ll just say that we are not spared the harrowing experience of learning of a loved one’s injury and death in battle; and the changing balance in power relationships between men and women that was brought about by the war is made painfully real, along with the ghastly difficulty in communication between those who went off to the unreal nightmare world of war and those who stayed behind in the all too real struggles at home.

The main characters are all Catholic – attending St Brendan’s in Annandale, where I have been myself more than once – and the moral world of the book is that of early 20th century Australian Irish Catholicism. I love this, because so much historical fiction shies away from such religious dimension, yet it is so important to an understanding of the times. It also adds a particular kind of intensity to Ruby’s temptations with the foreman – and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that I desperately wanted her to yield to temptation, and that the matter stayed unresolved until almost the last page.

The Soldier’s Wife is being promoted as an ideal Mother’s Day gift. I think my mother would have liked it, though she might have been unsettled by some of the discreetly worded but nevertheless explicit sexual references. I doubt if my father would have read it, but he would have enjoyed it too. It’s a good yarn. You care about the characters. And there’s the blessed relief of being able to think about Gallipoli through the experience of life-sized, complex people without the background noise of rascally patriotism.

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The Soldier’s Wife is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lucy Dougan’s Guardians

Lucy Dougan, The Guardians (Giramondo Poets 2015)

1DouganWhen I started blogging about my reading more than 10 years ago, I had a vague idea at the back of my mind that I would do it as an amateur. I could be subjective, ill-informed, cantankerous, idiosyncratic, sometimes enthusiastic, occasionally splenetic, but never claiming any kind of authority.

In that spirit, let me say I found The Guardians  almost completely uninteresting. I approached poem after poem with hope, and time after time was disappointed. I thought I’d find one poem I really liked and just blog about that, but no such poem arrived. I re-read the book, thinking perhaps it had been a matter of poor timing. Same thing.

In the current Sydney Review of Books Ivor Indyk editorialises about ‘difficult’ poetry. He attributes the perception of difficulty to a failure to recognise that poetry needs a ‘different method of reading’ from prose:

You should feel easy with the prospect of reading a poem many times, in the process of weighing its implications, in contrast to the largely single and forward-directed reading you give to a novel.

Paradoxically, I find The Guardians difficult because a ‘single and forward-directed reading’ of many of the poems seems to be more than enough, while others read to me as disparate jottings on a theme.

Maybe the problem is that the poems are so pared down, so restrained, that I lack the imagination to feel their substance or emotional impulse. Understatement taken to the point of inaudibility. A series of poems narrates an experience of breast cancer (‘The Guardians’, ‘Right Through Me’, ‘The Deer’, ‘Driving to the First’, ‘Eve’, ‘Here’, and ‘The Hammock’), a big subject if ever there was one, but they hardly touch the sides.

I did read one poem to the Art Student, who professes to hate poetry, and she loved it. The poem was ‘A Renovation (Girl’s Work)':

renovation

It would be tedious for me to say what I dislike about it. Enough to say that the Art Student, perhaps of an age with Lucy Dougan’s mother, resonated with the final section, was touched by the praise of imperfection, and loved the lines:

for think of a time
when only this labour
covered the body.

I can’t quarrel with her about any of it.

If I have one comment on the book that’s verifiably about the poetry rather than me as its reader, it’s to do with the sense of place. A recurring theme is place as containing personal and ancestral history. Yet, place is so abstract in these poems that – apart from those poems where places, all but one of them European, are named –it’s not clear even what continent we are on. The first poem, ‘A Mask’, with its mention of ‘dimpled louvres’ and ‘a room beneath the house’, suggests Australian architecture, but then gives us a child’s imagining of rooms beneath rooms beneath rooms, each with an ancestral identity – that is to say, a child’s imagining that her family has been in this land from time immemorial. Fair enough that a child might imagine that, but neither this poem nor any of the others about revisiting childhood locations and memories acknowledges the key element of non-Indigenous Australian experience: that our forebears come from elsewhere. (I’m assuming here that these childhood memory poems do refer to Australian places – mostly on the basis of what little I know of the poet’s biography, but also from the mention of wallabies in one poem.)

Maybe that’s what was nagging at me as I tried and failed to relate. On a third reading, I was no longer just unengaged, but positively dismayed, by the lines in ‘A Bourne’ in which the speaker, visiting Chudalup (the one non-European place to be named), feels a patch of rock, ‘warm to its core':

A whole unschooled knowledge of place streamed in
and the liquid vision of boatmen,
was mine in constellations.
Just in this moment the way the planet turned
moved through the axis of my bones

I’m writing this the day after going to a demo in Sydney about the closure of remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia. With the speakers’ eloquent assertion of Aboriginal connection to the land fresh in my mind, this poem’s claim to ‘knowledge of place’, even if ‘unschooled’, and even though based in an experience once can sympathise with, reads as a Eurocentric denial of Indigenous knowledge and history.

I received a complimentary copy of The Guardians from Giramondo Publishing.

aww-badge-2015This is the eighth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Richard Powers’ Orfeo

Richard Powers, Orfeo (Atlantic Books 2014)

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Margaret Atwood, no less, is quoted on the cover of this book as saying, ‘If Powers were an American writer of the nineteenth century he’d probably be the Herman Melville of Moby-Dick. His picture is that big.’ That’s probably taken out of context, and it’s a wee bit over the top, but, you know, only a wee bit. If Melville had been writing about the music scene rather than the whaling industry, he might have written this book. The digressions are just about as long as the ones in Moby-Dick, and for my money at least as interesting; the quest at the centre of the story is as doomed and self-destructive; the frame of reference as global.

Peter Els, a 70 year old composer who has had very little popular or critical success, calls 911 when his dog dies. The police who come to his door have their security-threat detectors set off when they see that he is a DIY biochemist, and soon he is on the run with the full might of Homeland Security behind him. The story of his flight, which becomes a kind of Thelma-and-Louise flavoured 12-steps amends-making pilgrimage, is told in counterpoint with his back story. Folded into one story is the world of Homeland Security vigilance about real and imagined terrorist threats, media panics and the surveillance state; and into the other the history of 20th century US cutting-edge music in its broader world political context.

It’s a gauge of how well Powers writes that just as Els’s flight is reaching a critical moment, he stops off to give a lecture in an old people’s residence, and everything stops while we are told the story of the composition and first performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time – and it’s so interesting that 17 pages later, when we return to the main narrative (‘That was the story Els told his eleventh-hour pupils … ) we do so as if waking up from a vivid, satisfying dream. There are other, shorter digressions, in which Els listens to a piece of music, and we are taken through it moment by moment: this is a book to be read, not just with Google on hand to chase up interesting references, but with access to a music library to listen along with Els to Mahler, George Rochberg, John Cage, Harry Partch, and on and on. And yet it has the pace and suspense of a thriller.

I scored (no pun) Orfeo at my book-swappng club. Since I’d had Powers’ Galatea 2.2 on my TBR pile for some years, I decided to read it first. If the creative and life crises depicted in the earlier book when author and character, both called Richard Powers and in their mid 30s, were based in reality, it seems that they passed. Six novels and 19 years later, I don’t know that Orfeo is any more cheerful than Galatea 2.2 but if Galatea 2.2 contemplated the abyss, then Orfeo is gloriously, operatically, romantically over the cliff.