Tag Archives: Jennifer Maiden

2015 favourites

Each December we – that is, me and the Emerging Artist formerly known as the Art Student – compile a list of our favourite books and films of the year. We’ve been caught this year with minimal internet coverage (and maximal sun, sand, beach, bush and rain, especially rain) so we’re running a bit late.

Three movies made both our top five lists:

ToYTestament of Youth (directed by James Kent), from Vera Brittain’s memoir, screenplay by Juliette Towhidi: A World War One film in the year when idealising  Gallipoli  was big in the headlines, it doesn’t focus on the battlefield but on the effects of the war on the combatants and their families and loved ones. It makes a powerful pacifist argument.

Meet the Patels (Geeta Pavel, Ravi Patel 2014): We saw this at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s unlikely to get a theatrical release, but it’s a very funny documentary about match-making among first generation Americans of Indian heritage. It’s really about intergenerational relationships. The EA says it’s a must-see for every parent.

hnmmHe Named Me Malala (Davis Guggenheim 2015): Another documentary, this one could be seen as hagiographic, but Malala Yousafzai is a remarkable young woman. I loved the way she spoke with the absolutism of teenagehood from a position of influence to tell the president of Nigeria to do his job and ensure the safety of the girls abducted by Boko Haram.

The Emerging Artist’s other two:

selmaSelma (Ava DuVernay 2015): A flawed movie, but it conveyed the experience of ordinary people taking part in Civil Rights marches. The leadership of the march across the bridge was particularly interesting: how to think strategically, resisting the push to be seen to take ‘decisive action’. The filmmakers weren’t given permission to use Martin Luther King Jr’s actual speeches, but the ones written for the film caught his style brilliantly.

 The Dressmaker (Jocelyn Moorhouse 2015): The humour, the flamboyance, the over-the-topness of it. Kate Winslett was marvellous. So was Hugo Weaving. In fact, there were no weak performances.

My other two:

 Ex Machina (Alex Garland 2015): The thing that stays in my mind is the image of the artificially intelligent creations – a fabulous effect where we see the cogs and wheels whirring away inside what is otherwise a human head. The story worked very well too.

ffm Far from Men (David Oelhoffen 2014): Apart from enjoying the easy irony that there were only men in most of the film (should it have been called Far from Other Men?), I was transfixed by this slow, beautiful film of a pied noir (Algeria-born white Frenchman) escorting an Arab prisoner through the austerely photogenic Atlas Mountains.

The EA’s top five books:

The EA’s reading year was bookended by titles that brought home the harshness of the oppression of gay men and lesbians, even in times and places where one might think it was comparatively mild. Damon Galgut’s Arctic Summer deals with novelist E M Forster’s agonising life in the closet, and the part of Magda Szubanski’s memoir, Reckoning, that tells the story of her coming out is genuinely harrowing.

But those books are in addition to her actual top five. Here are those, with her comments:

1846145066Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: This is a bracing book that everyone needs to read. We all know about climate change in a general way, and we know that powerful vested interests fight attempts to respond effectively. Naomi Klein gives detail and challenges us not to look away.

iocJean Michel Guenassia,  The Incorrigible Optimists Club: A novel about Soviet bloc refugees in Paris at the time of the Algerian War of Independence, this includes a coming of age story.

1743319118Biff Ward, In My Mother’s Hands: Excellent memoir of a 50s childhood. Buff Ward’s father was prominent left wing historian Russel Ward, so the domestic story includes elements of red-baiting. But the real power of the story is in her mother’s intensifying irrationality and the family’s attempts to deal with it.

1408703483Russell Shorto, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City: The birth of liberalism without the US-style individualism. This is not a travel book. It’s very accessible, thoroughly researched history that compelled at least one person to read big chunks aloud to her partner. The history of Europe looks different after reading this .

9781742232430Vivien Johnson, Streets of Papunya: Vivien Johnson has been involved with the Western Desert artists for decades. An earlier book told the story of the great Papunya Tula artists. This book tells the story of Papunya itself, especially after many of those artists left. Art is still being made there, by a new generation, mostly women.

My top five books:

I read at least 12 books in 2015 that did what you always hope a book will do: delighted, excited or enlightened me, changed the way I felt and/or thought about the world. I whittled the list down to five by selecting only books that touched my life in explicit ways. Here they are i order of reading:

1781251088John Cornwell, The Dark Box (2014): A history of the rite of Confession in the Catholic Church. The confessional was a big part of my childhood. I’ve dined out on a story of going to confession with Brisbane’s Archbishop Duhig when I was about thirteen. He asked in a booming voice that I was sure could be heard by everyone in the cathedral outside, ‘Would these sins of impurity have been alone or with others?’ Cornwall’s book felt like a very personal unpicking of that moment and the whole cloth it was spun from.

1555976905Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). What can I say? I’m white. In laying out the way a word or phrase between friends or strangers can disrupt day-to-day life, so that the ugly history of racism makes itself painfully present, and linking those moments to the public humiliations of Serena Williams and the violent deaths of so many young African-American men, the book is a tremendously generous gift. It and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me share this generosity of spirit.

dmfpDavid Malouf, A First Place (2015): I haven’t blogged yet about this collection of David Malouf’s essays. It feels personal to me because David lectured me at university, but also because he is a Queenslander, and these essays explore what that means. Even though he is from what we in north Queensland used to call ‘Down South’, these essays fill a void I felt as a child – I was a big reader, but the world I read about in books only ever reflected the physical world I lived in as an exotic place.

talking-to-my-countryStan Grant, Talking to My Country (2016): I was privileged to read this ahead of publication. Stan Grant is a distinguished Australian TV journalist. This book, part memoir, part essay, gives a vivid account of growing up Aboriginal. It includes the most powerful account of a ‘mental breakdown’ I have ever read, not as a medicalised episode of ‘depression’, but as the result of generations of pain inflicted by colonisation refusing to stay at bay.

The-Fox-PetitionJennifer Maiden, The Fox Petition (2015): I love this book in all sorts of ways. I love the way the image of the fox recurs – a literal fox, a fox as in Japanese folk lore, Whig politician Charles Fox. I love the chatty voice, and Jennifer Maiden’s trademark linebreaks after the first word of a sentence. I love the argumentativeness. I love the playful, almost silly, resuscitation of the distinguished dead to confront those who claim to be inspired by them. I love the way Jennifer Maiden makes poetry from the television news the way some poets do from flowers.

And now, on to 2016! I’m already about eight books behind in my blogging.

Jennifer Maiden’s Fox Petition

Jennifer Maiden, The Fox Petition (Giramondo 2015)

The-Fox-Petition Like all Jennifer Maiden’s books for several years now The Fox Petition has a huge cast of historical and fictional characters, as well as some living politicians and a couple of non-human entities.

Most of these appear in Maiden’s dialogue poems. Julie Bishop makes her debut, and so do father and son act Keith and Rupert Murdoch. Making return appearances are Kevin Rudd and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who seem to be forever on an aeroplane; Tony Abbott and Queen Victoria, whose relationship is becoming even more tense; George Jeffreys and Clare Collins continuing their adventures, this time in the Greek financial crisis and with refugees from Syria; Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt, still flirtatious and remonstrative in pretty equal measure.

I think the Hon. Carina Monckton, created by the inhabitants of the Carina Galaxy, has appeared in an earlier book, but I’m positive that the Harvard School of Business has not been seen before his chat here with Julie Bishop.

Then there are the Diary Poems, so called because they seem to ramble like diary jottings, though those appearances are hugely misleading. Many other characters get a guernsey in them, including Tanya Plibersek, Gillian Triggs, Penny Wong, Joan Baez, Labor politician Melissa Parke (Maiden’s ‘favourite politician / now’) and eighteenth century Whig Charles Fox (her ‘favourite politician / of all time’).

Heavily populated though the book is, it has an extraordinary coherence. The title refers to a recent protest against measures in New South Wales making it illegal to keep a ‘newly acquired fox’, even if neutered and vaccinated, and also to Charles Fox’s defence of habeas corpus during the Napoleonic Wars. What links the two, apart from the word play (of which there is a lot) is Maiden’s passionate dislike of the single-minded self-righteousness she has previously called ‘ethical security’, which here is represented literally and metaphorically by Biosecurity: the goal of being safe from germs, feral animals, refugees, and moral complexity of any kind.

As my regular readers know, I’m a fan. I love the voice of these poems. A Maiden poem characterically feels as accessible and even as interactive as a chat with a friend about the TV news, making you laugh and perhaps confirming your prejudices.Then extraordinary lines emerge, such as:

it is vital to be Australian, which
seems to mean rat poison and a flag.

Something else has been going on behind the chat. It is, after all, poetry made from the stuff of the nightly news, that pushes the reader to think and feel in new places. Did I also mention that it’s fun?

aww-badge-2015 The Fox Petition is the twenty-first and last book I read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Australian Poetry Journal, recent issues

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 5, Issue 1 (2015)
Bronwyn Lea (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 3, Issue 1 (2013)

apj51

Australian Poetry Journal is a twice yearly publication of Australian Poetry Ltd, which describes itself, surely with a wistful edge, as the peak industry body for poetry in Australia. You don’t have to be a poet to join APL (the poetry industry includes readers), and membership fees cover a subscription to the journal.

This issue is attractively democratic. Award winners with many books on their CVs rub shoulders with people who have had poems published in newspapers and journals. I wouldn’t dream of singling any poems out as ‘the best’ but I do need to give you a taste of some. This is from Judith Beveridge’s ‘Clouds’:

Let blue skies stop their rhetorical grandstanding.
We know they’re filled with the breath of men cocked
and fettled by greed. One by one I call the clouds in.
A cloud for each child hungry, ragged, naked. A cloud

for all exiles whose voices can’t find a single raindrop,
whose eyes are stones that out-weather the past.
A cloud for those in war-ravaged places where shadows
terrorise doorways, and the old live between rubble
and crumbled bread.

Jeff Rich’s ‘Not getting things done’ deals with those to-do lists where some items just got moved from list to list, or projects dreamed of but never begun. The final lines bring it all home beautifully:

Whole careers, projects without plans.
Journeys of recovery and feats of weakness

Pile like chaos in the attic
Awaiting defeat

By distraction and habit and boredom and chance
Four deadly horsemen more real than the rest.

Fay Zwicky’s ‘Boat Song’ responds to the callous feral poetry of a Tony Abbott slogan with child-like rhyming that is anything but infantile. I’ll resist the pull to quote the whole thing:

Remote ideologies send bonnie boats
Like broken-winged birds to our merciful votes.

And we turned them away, yes we turned them away
As we went out to play
In our dead-hearted country, the bounteous place
Where neighbourly love puts a smile on each face.

Apart from the poetry, there are interviews – Paul Magee interviews Samuel Wagan Wartson and Josh Mei-Ling Dubrau interviews Julie Chevalier; a personal introduction to Greek poet Tasos Leivaditis by his translator N N Trakakis; a review by Tim Thorne of eleven titles from Ginninderra Press – which expresses gratitude for the publisher’s ‘let a hundred flowers bloom’ policy while being unsparing of the blooms that aren’t up to scratch; a history of another small publisher of poetry, Black Pepper Press, by Margaret Bradstock, who paints a fascinating picture of the critical reception of a number of their books; and three review articles that I found illuminating, especially Bonny Cassidy on Spatial Relations, a two-volume collection of John Kinsella’s prose.

Bonny Cassidy begins her review, ‘It must be said, straight up, that this two-volume publication … is unlikely to attract the recreational reader.’ (And she might have finished it by saying that a smaller, more selective publication may yet bring Kinsella’s prose to a wide and appreciative readership.) I could have said, straight, up that while Australian Poetry Journal might not attract too many recreational readers, any who wander into its pages are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

1apj31Having been pleasantly surprised by Volume 5 No 1, I realised Volume 3 No 1 had been wallflowering on my bookshelf for a year. It turns out to be another treasure trove. I’ll just mention two very funny poems by Anthony Lawrence –  ‘The Pelican’, in which the eponymous bird snatches a Jack Russell puppy, flies off with it

clearly visible through the lit
_____transparent pouch beneath its beak

and swallows it in full view of a horrified human crowd, and ‘Lepidoptera’, in which a gift of butterflies to the speaker’s sister meets with a dreadful fate, with an implied analogy to the frequent fate of poems.

There’s  a section on the poetry of the late Philip Hodgins – an introduction by Anthony Lawrence and then a selection of poems, mostly in some way to do with farming life, and death. A section titled ‘Criticism’ includes, among others, David McCooey on Jennifer Maiden; Martin Duwell – always worth reading – on a book about postwar US poetry; and an essay by Stuart Cooke about stray animals in Central and South America, which I enjoyed but whose title suggests I missed the point: ‘A Poetics of Strays’.

Best of 2014 in 3 lists

List 1. Movies (with links to the movies’ IMDb pages):

The Art Student and I gave each of the 50+ movies we saw in 2014 a score out of 5. There was a respectable number of 4s and 4.5s. Here are the seven with a combined score of 9.5 or more, in no particular order:

17_dDisruption (Kelly Nyks & Jared P. Scott): we broke our tacit rule about not including movies we saw on the small screen for this one. It’s a brilliant presentation of the situation we face, made in preparation for the Climate Mobilisation in August, but still powerful and useful.

17_bhBoyhood (Richard Linklater). This does miraculous things with filming in real time. The actors actually age as the characters do. Towards the end, someone says, ‘I thought there’d be more,’ and we feel her pain.

17_L Locke (Steven Knight). Another film that does wonders with real time. One man drives in a car through the night, and is spellbinding. The spell is greatly helped by the beauty of Tom Hardy’s voice.

14_CCCharlie’s Country, Rolf De Heer’s brilliant collaboration with David Gulpilil is just superb. That it to some extent reflects Gulpilil’s own story gives it a depth of feeling.

12y12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen). Nothing much needs to be said, except that this is a wonderful movie.

17_c4We saw Citizen Four (Laura Poitras) as part of the DOC NYC film festival. It’s a stunning documentary that plays out like a thriller, complete with grim comic relief, about Edward Snowden’s revelations of government surveillance.

tgsNick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which we also saw as part of DOC NYC, makes a mockery of most fiction movies about serial killers, and peels back the cover from race relations in the US.

Our worst movie
This prize has to go to the only film we walked out of: Woody Allen’s shouty, silly, predictable and unfunny Magic by Moonlight. (To be quite honest, the Art Student predicted the reveal; I just didn’t care.)

List 2. Books

The Art Student’s best five (with comments taken from my notes of a chat about them):

144477963XSiri Hustvedt, The Blazing World: The Art Student particularly loved how convincingly this novel describes the artworks created by its protagonist. [We heard Siri Hustvedt read from The Blazing World to about 30 people in Brooklyn last month. She read beautifully and answered questions generously. Memorably, she told us had found Kierkegaard to be great fun since she first read him as a teenager.]

1400066026Alan Furst, The Spies of Warsaw: a novel of espionage in eastern Europe in the 1930s. Strong on atmosphere and suspense, it manages to tell its story without contriving a catastrophe.

Helen Garner, This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial (Text 2014)Helen Garner, This House of Grief: Everyone who likes this book seems to give different reasons. The Art Student liked its tight, almost domestic focus on its characters.

1594486344James McBride, The Good Lord Bird: a novel about John Brown, the anti-slavery activist, from an African-American point of view.

0316322407Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: a fabulous, fabulous book that combines a History 101 of the Peshawar Valley with an account of two extraordinary people, Malala and her father.

I’m not going to list a best five books, but here are six that delighted, challenged and enlightened me, or did that thing of putting into words things I dimly felt or perceived. The images link to my blog entries.

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)

0702250139

David Malouf, Earth Hour (UQP 2014)

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

0571274161

Alice Oswald, Memorial: An excavation of the Iliad (Faber & Faber 2011)

0855757795

Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian nation (Aboriginal Studies Press 2011)

0805057404

Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza (1996, English translation @Metropolitan Books 1999; Owl Books 2000)

A note on gender and diversity: The Art Student announced proudly that she had read more books by women than by men (as she usually does). I read 25 by women and 32 by men. Up against recent Viva statistics on literary journals on reviews by women or about women writers, I’m doing pretty well. I’ve read 6 books in translation, from Chinese, Japanese, Bengali and Hebrew.

List 3. Best ‘Me Fail I Fly!’–related headline:

5ip

Onward to 2015!

Jennifer Maiden’s Drones and Phantoms

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

D&P cover pic

With each new book Jennifer Maiden continues a long-running conversation, or rather several conversations. Here’s a list of those that either continue or begin in Drones and Phantoms:

  • Clare Collins and George Jeffreys appear in 3 poems, bringing their total to more than 16 (not counting the novels where they first appeared). All a new reader needs to know is that the white-haired Clare was a child-murderer and George, her former parole office, is now her part-time lover. You don’t need to know about their past encounters with a Somali pirate or a Beijing dissident to enjoy the poems in this book, which find George in Iceland and Clare hiding in a tree on Manus Island. The pair’s adventures don’t constitute a single narrative: they turn up in hot spots on the slimmest of pretexts and, while the characters are much more than cardboard cut-outs, their conversations with each other and the figures they meet are also a vehicle for what Gig Ryan has called Jennifer Maiden’s ‘dialogic enquiries’.

Maiden’s dialogic enquiries also include a string of public figures, most of them in conversation with resurrected/awakened figures for whom they have expressed admiration in real life, and many of them addressing the complex relationship between the living characters’ actions and their proclaimed ideals:

  • Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt are up to their tenth conversation, full of consolation, admonition and – could it be? – flirtation
  • Tony Abbott and Queen Victoria costar in four brief poems, at the end of which VR appears to give up on TA (which is perhaps the poet relinquishing her attempt to enter Tony Abbott’s mind sympathetically)[*]
  • Tanya Plibersek and Jane Austen get on very well
  • Kevin Rudd seeks reassurance from Dietrich Bonhoeffer who observes silently in one poem and soothes indirectly in another (‘Numbers / you know are always deadly’)
  • Nelson Mandela is reluctantly drawn into conversation with Barack Obama about drones, justice and reconciliation
  • Mother Teresa and Lady Diana (who died on the same day) renew their acquaintance
  • Julia Gillard tells an unnamed disk jockey that riding in his Rolls Royce Phantom convertible would make her hair uncontrollable (the reference is to an interview with Kyle Sandilands). I think it’s fair to say that Jennifer Maiden is not a fan of Julia Gillard, whose previous relationship with Nye Bevan seems to have come to an end..

These dialogue poems are a means for the poet to offer reflections on current events, on the nature of power and violence, and state sanctioned evil. (It’s a measure of their success that when I watched our elected leaders struggling to find words in the wake of the Martin Place siege this week, I wanted instead to eavesdrop on George and Clare, or perhaps Mike Baird and Winston Churchill.) But – call me shallow – the poems are also good, eccentric fun. While Tony Abbott is working as a volunteer bushfire fighter, Queen Victoria fans herself with a copy of his book The Minimal Monarchy. Tanya confides to Jane:

Jane, sometimes the need for tact
disconcerts me so much that I grin
like a guilty schoolgirl, then try to make
it seem deliberately charming.

Eleanor Roosevelt’s hand

seemed much larger than Hillary’s now, had
stilled and covered it like the pod
around a seed.

There are other dialogues:

  • LM Montgomery, creator of Anne of Green Gables, wakes up in the modern museum version of Green Gables and alarms a tourist
  • There are real, remembered conversations that Jennifer Maiden has had with Judith Wright and with her daughter Katharine; and an imaginary chat with Frank O’Hara, a poet whose work she has never read.

The conversation in this book isn’t limited to the imaginary or remembered dialogues. In a number of essay poems (some of which Maiden labels ‘Diary Poems’ in ironic response to a critic who dismissed some of her earlier poems as diary excerpts), the conversational tone is marked, and occasionally the reader is addressed directly, as in this, from ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Silence’:

I often value my lack of audience (except
for you, of course) in that one
can speak freely in a poem because
no one will read it, which is like
being silent, but with almost none
of the corollary frustration.

Closely related to this pervasive use of dialogue is another kind of interactivity. Maiden increasingly flies in the face of the truism that no good can come from a writer responding to critics or dissing editors. There’s the mild amusement in ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Frank O’Hara’ at a reviewer who ‘said I’d learned a lot from Frank O’Hara’ and then ‘professed shock that I had never read O’Hara’, and in the opening of ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Judith Wright’:

After a couple of reviewers who decided
I was not Judith Wright’s successor, I
began to recall my encounters
with Judith herself

But there’s less amusement, something closer to rancour, when she tells of a row with an editor (in ‘The Sweet Sheep Gone’), when she refers in ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Ethiopia’ to feminists who are ‘well in favour / of ethical security’ and ‘a hostile magazine site’ ‘now given / to ethical self-security’, when she gets stuck into ‘The Director of a Writers’ Society [who] tweets / flatly that my book is not her “thing” / because it is too political with only / a “niche” of poetry’ (in ‘In Proportion’ ). I find it hard to know what to make of these responses to critics, especially because, as a bit of a fan, I often recognise the reviews and have read the relevant comments threads. It is interesting, though, that she speaks back from within the poems – resulting in a kind of vertiginous cross-referencing within her body of work.

You probably have to be interested in the political news to enjoy this poetry. Or maybe not. I’m at home with references to Forbes and Hope, Christmas Island, Fukushima, Run-Over-the-Bastards Askin, Santamaria. But there are a lot of references that I don’t get. I generally enjoy the play of language and mind enough anyway, but when I decide to let Google be my friend, the results invariably enrich the reading experience: I had to reread Hopkins’s ‘Elected Silence’, find out who Frieda Hughes is, and learn about the killing and ‘autopsy’ of the giraffe Marius in Denmark, among, come to think of it, many other things.

There’s more, lots more. But that’s enough for one blog post.

awwbadge_2014Drones and Phantoms, is tenth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge, and with it I have met the quota I accepted at the beginning of the year. I am very grateful to Giramondo for sending me a complimentary copy.

[* Added on 4 July 2015: In today’s Sydney Morning Herald, she comes back for a further barbed but sympathetic conversation]

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 1

By one count, the Sydney Writers’ Festival has been going since the weekend. The opening address, by all accounts brilliant, was on Tuesday night. My festival started yesterday.

My first event – a poetry reading in the English Department’s Common Room at the University of Sydney – wasn’t strictly part of the Festival, but two of the poets were in Sydney for the Festival, so I’m counting it. I had to leave early to catch a bus to the Opera House so I only got to hear one and a half poets, all of Fiona Hile and half of Kate Lilley. Sadly, I missed out on Louis Armand from Prague, and Pam Brown.

The room was full of poets. Overheard pre-reading conversations (there were nibbles and drinks) included happy reports of ‘having something accepted ‘ in a coming anthology. John Tranter recorded proceedings for the Penn Sound Archive. Vagabond Press was selling in a back corner.

I enjoyed Fiona Hile’s reading but I wouldn’t say I understood much of the poetry. Partly this was because she read fast, the room was a bit echoey, and I’m a bit deaf. Mainly, though, I expect it was because she’s what the Spoken Word people call a page poet, and even more an experimental poet, which tends to mean that meaning isn’t easy to grasp. There were lots of striking lines. I managed to jot down:

The lilliputian threads of the old ways make me want to lose a limb

and in a context to do with sheep:

That wolf you’re wearing goes with everything.

In introducing Kate Lilley, Fiona Hile conjured up a fabulous image. She said she used to think it was uncool to have heroes, but when she began writing her own poetry, she had four horsewomen: Kate Lilley, Pam Brown, Gig Ryan and Jennifer Maiden. I’d love to see the movie that has those four poets charging into battle.

Kate Lilley read from Ladylike, and was about to read from Realia when I reluctantly tore myself away to catch a bus to the Quay, have dinner and then climb the stairs to the Joan Sutherland Hall of the Opera House for:

7.30 pm: The Life and Times of Alice Walker, in which Alice Walker was interviewed by Caroline Baum and joined by Archie Roach. The SWF blog already has a report.

As is customary at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, the session bore little relation to its title. Alice Walker was in no mood to tell her life story, or to discuss her ‘times’ with any specificity. The tone was set right at the start when Caroline Baum asked, ‘Are you nervous at the start of events like this?’ and Alice Walker replied, ‘No,’ and waited serenely for the next question. CB bounced back by asking her to read us a poem, and she obliged with ‘You Should Grow Old Like the Carters’, which she read beautifully, giving each word its full weight, conveying the music , treating herself and the poem as worthy of our full, serious attention. That mix of awkwardness, resilience on Caroline Baum’s part, and weight on Alice Walker’s kept up for the whole session.

Part of the awkwardness came from the level of unaware racism in the room, or at least a reasonable expectation of it on Alice Walker’s part. She didn’t give her interlocutor the benefit of any doubt. For example (from memory, so probably missing a lot of nuance):

CB: So you grew up in a house without books and were part of an oral, story-telling culture.
AW: Oh, no, we had books. My parents got hold of old books that people had thrown out. But yes, there were lots of stories that everyone told, wonderful stories. [End of reply.]
….
CB: You read a lot when you were young. I believe your favourite books were … and Jane Eyre. What was it like the first time you read a book with black characters you could identify with?
AW: Oh, I identified completely with Jane. White people seem to think they can’t identify with black characters, but when we read it’s not about these divisions. It’s the spirit we identify with.’ [Applause]

Fortunately, Caroline Baum has a wonderful capacity for putting herself out there, and then bouncing back when she has her knuckles ever so serenely rapped.

Another reason the session seemed such hard work is possibly a problem of definition. Is Alice Walker at the festival as a writer, an activist, or a vague kind of celebrity?

Well, obviously, she’s a writer. But The Color Purple was published roughly 30 years ago, and I wonder how many people in that huge hall had read Possessing the Secret of Joy, or made it all the way through The Temple of My Familiar. As a poet she would draw a crowd, but not this big a one. Many of her essays are absolutely brilliant: ‘In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens’, ‘Only Justice Can Remove a Curse’, her essays on Zora Neale Hurston and Bessie Smith, on olive oil, the scar in her eye … I can rattle those off without googling. And a new collection of essays – Cushion in the Road: Meditation and Wandering as the Whole World Awakens to Being in Harm’s Way – has just been published. But how many essayists can fill the Opera House?

As an activist, she has an impressive record. She campaigned very visibly against female circumcision a while back, and was part of the flotilla that was intercepted so dramatically on its way to Gaza. But as far as I know she’s not part of any activist organisation and her activist philosophy boils down to stressing the importance of having friends (a ‘circle’) you can be completely honest with, and meditation seems to fit there.

Celebrity seems to be the key. So although the conversation touched on many things, and Caroline Baum kept pulling the conversation back to the recently published book, my overwhelming impression was that we were in the presence of celebrity, who was dispensing her wisdom for our benefit. The most telling celebrity moment was when she was asked about her daughter’s very public statements that her activism had made her a neglectful mother. Her reply included no whiff of self doubt, no hint that her daughter might have had a legitimate point (as the children of many activists surely would). The problem was that her daughter suffered from ‘mental instability’, from which she had now mercifully recovered. This dismissiveness was cloaked in serious and valid reflections on the legacy of slavery on her family, but it was dismissive all the same. We were to make no mistake who was the important person in this conversation.

I’m sorry if that’s jaundiced. I’m still a fan. I will buy the new book of essays, and probably her new book of poetry as well. I’m seeing another session with her on my second day, and hoping I’ll have a change of perspective.

Southerly 73/3

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 3 2013: The Naked Writer

1nwAlain de Botton was on the ABC recently arguing that we need to reclaim art (and by extension literature) from the academies and museums, to recognise its role in our ordinary lives. He was annoyingly persuasive, and had me wondering whether I really needed to read Southerly, which is after all solidly grounded in the English Department of the University of Sydney, largely written and edited by academics for academics. It seems to have stopped publishing poems by Jennifer Maiden, the regular appearance of which led me to re-subscribe a couple of years ago. So despite the fabulously daring cover, I approached this issue warily. What was in it for me?

It seems I enjoy reading about friendship. Alex Miller’s ‘A Circle of Kindred Spirits’ is a moving account of biographer Hazel Rowley’s career, seen through the prism of Miller’s long friendship with her, which they conducted almost entirely by email. Ann-Marie Priest’s ‘“Colour and Crazy Love”: Gwen Harwood and Vera Cottew’ explores a deep friendship between two women that has been sidelined in most discussions of Gwen Harwood’s poetry. It’s a beautiful essay, explicating some of the poetry and exploring the complex possibilities of friendship between women.

Scott Esposito’s ‘The Gate Deferred: J.M. Coetzee and the Battle against Doubt’ is interesting for similar reasons: at heart it’s about the relationship between readers and writers. The essay explores Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Far from writing dry academic analysis, Esposito begins by telling us how as a child of non-religious parents he (Esposito) experienced his own version of Pascal’s ‘le silence eternel des espaces infinis m’effraie’ (the Pascal reference is mine), then gives us a beautiful account of how in Coetzee he found someone with a similar sense of things, expressed in part by Coetzee’s engagement with Kafka. Coetzee, Esposito writes,

gives us not an answer to Kafka, nor an interpretation of him, but rather his experience of dwelling within Kafka’s mysteries.

Esposito comes close to dwelling within Coetzee’s mysteries. (I haven’t read enough of J M Coetzee – just Disgrace and the three volumes of quasi-memoir – to have an opinion on the validity or otherwise of Esposito’s reading, but that seems beside the point.)

Rowena Lennox’s ‘Head of a Dog’ is about another kind of relationship – that between dogs and humans. Her account of walking her dog made me wonder if she lives near me: could my collie be the one she describes as driving her kelpie-cattle dog cross to such paroxysms of exhilarated rage simply by existing behind a fence? Dogs ‘are the closest we have come to living with and knowing another species’, she writes, and whatever the cat brigade may say I think she’s right. The essay ranges widely, drawing on, among others, Frank Dalby Davison (Dusty), Jack London (The Call of the Wild), and Aboriginal elders Tim Yilngayari and Daly Pulkaa (as quoted by Deborah Bird Rose in Dingo Makes Us Human).

There are fine poems: Tracy Ryan has four on a hoard hidden and centuries later found;  Judith Beveridge (‘Peterhead’), Geoff Page (‘Angus’) and Stephen Edgar (‘The Sense of an Ending’) lend lustre (and just watch that Stephen Edgar use rhyme!); Ali Jane Smith (‘The Galapagos’), Simeon Kronenberg(‘Death of a Bull’) and Ross Donlon (‘Storm Water’) each do narratives it will be good to spend more time with.

There are fine reviews. I was especially glad of Anne Brewster on Melissa Lucashenko’s novel Mullumbimby, which I plan to read, and John Tranter being generous, illuminating and a little gossipy on Pam Brown’s Home by Dark.

That’s just some of the highlights for me. Other people may fall with cries of joy on the 42 page offcut from a forthcoming experimental novel by John A. Scott, Michael Buhagiar’s elegant discussion of Christopher Brennan’s debt to A. C. Swinburne, Robet Darby’s explication of the homoerotic content of a Martin Boyd novel, or … well, there’s quite a lot that I haven’t mentioned.

I’m going to finish with some whingeing, so feel free to stop reading now.

• First, does Southerly deliberately follow US spelling conventions for things like centre/center or the verb practice/practise?

• Second, is it just a little disrespectful to display a poet’s naked body on the cover and make no reference to him or his work except in the photo credit? If you’re interested, here’s a video of spoken word poet Randall Stephens full frontal, clothed and performing:

• Third, was it inattention or editorial illiteracy that allowed Ann-Marie Priest to go into print saying that

there is no mainstream literary tradition of female friendship, as there is with male friendship (think of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., Achilles and Patroclus in The Illiad, and Jonathon and David in the Bible).

Maybe Ruth and Naomi just a few pages over from David and Jonathan ‘in the Bible’ don’t constitute a tradition, but surely they deserve a mention; even spellcheck knows how to spell The Iliad; and however many people name their children Jonathon, it’s Jonathan in the Bible. Even if you don’t count the ‘with’ that really ought to be an ‘of’, that’s an impressive error count in so few words.

Blogging from New Caledonia

I’m writing this in a house in Portes de Fer, a suburb of Nouméa whose name translates as ‘iron gates’. We’re here for 10 days, on a holiday that was handed to us rather than planned for. A couple of months ago we received an email via homeexchange.com asking if we’d like to swap homes with a New Caledonian family. The dates fitted both our schedules, the cost of travel wasn’t prohibitive, and we knew almost nothin about New Caledonia. So we wrote back accepting, and here we are.

That’s my excuse for not being among the first to report that Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, which the press release evidently described as the richest literary prize in Australia. JM commented that in the absence of superannuation it was a very welcome contribution to her finances. Just in case there’s anyone out there relying on my fannish notes to find out such news, I’m telling you now, a couple of days late. John Kinsella has a nice piece on the award in Crikey. Other Australian news, including Tony Abbott’s continuing war with the real world, does reach us, but I’m confident no one depends on this blog for that.

Inspired by the streets around here, which like those in Byron Bay are named after poets, I’m indulging my sonnet fixation:

First Impressions of Noumea, January 2014
With no rough strife at Portes de Fer
we’re lazing in rue Mallarmé,
a stroll uphill from Baudelaire
or down to bus stop du Bellay.
In town we hear no hostile gun
on Austerlitz, la Marne, Verdun.
These tricouleurs the only flags
though tri means sorting garbage bags
and colours won’t be kept to three:
dark skin, bright clothes and humble stance,
the Kanaks say, ‘We’re not in France!’
Some took up arms for Kanaky,
and died, but now if art’s a word
these words of colour will be heard.

Jennifer Maiden: A Rare Object

Jennifer Maiden, The Violence of Waiting (Vagabond Press Rare Objects Series No 95, 2013)

1vwAs Vagabond Press’s beautifully crafted Rare Objects series of chapbooks approaches its hundredth and final title, Jennifer Maiden makes her debut at Nº 95. There are just six poems in the book, mostly in modes established in Maiden’s recent books:

  • Nº 15 of the George Jeffreys series, which finds George and Clare Collins in a purgatorial Western Suburbs Poker Machine Palace
  • Nº 10 of the Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt dialogues – this time with a little Lady Diana thrown in
  • A Lady Diana–Mother Teresa dialogue – this may be the second time they’ve appeared together in a Jennifer Maiden poem, the first time being shortly after they both died
  • a ‘Uses of’ diary poem, about cosiness and Sylvia Plath among other things
  • A Kevin Rudd–Dietrich Bonhoeffer dialogue
  • ‘Maps in the Mind’, a lyric that invokes successive Australian governments’ treatment of asylum seekers a little in the manner of ‘My Heart Has an Embassy’, which referred to Julian Assange

As I was starting this blog post, my Feedly reader presented me with ‘The poetic spirit of Rare Objects’, an excellent review by Jessica L Wilkinson of the four Rare Objects launched in Melbourne last weekend. Having read that review, which originated on the Overland site, I find it hard to think of anything else I want to say, so I recommend that you click on the link. For those who don’t click, here’s her final sentence, which captures the mood of the book beautifully:

This collection is quietly yet resolutely political, and leaves us considering our own strengths and vulnerabilities, and who we may imagine clinging to for guidance through tough decisions.

awwbadge_2013I nearly forgot and perhaps I should have as it’s such a small book, but this is another title in my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013.

Jennifer Maiden in the Age

In yesterday’s Age, and in the online version of the Sydney Morning Herald, Jennifer Maiden has a new poem, ‘The Reflection’ (scroll down quite a way at that link). In it a re-awakened Kevin Rudd and Dietrich Bonhoeffer chat on a plane as they did in the earlier poem, ‘Deep River’ (you need a sub to the Australian Book Review to make that link work).

The earlier Rudd–Bonhoeffer dialogue took place soon after Rudd’s replacement by Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, and as in many of Maiden’s poems in which politicians converse with their proclaimed models it has a sense of moral jeopardy, sympathy for the one who is in jeopardy, and a respect for the enigma of their humanity. It ends with the observation that Rudd’s ‘strangely stylised’ slang seems to say:

‘Okay:
So we’re all self-constructed out of trauma.
Standing here,
I defy you to file me away.’

In ‘The Reflection’, the sympathy and enigma have receded, and the moral jeopardy intensified. Do read it.