Tag Archives: Jennifer Maiden

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.

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.

Southerly 73/1

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 73 No 1 2013: The Political Imagination

1spiRoughly two thirds of this Southerly is devoted to essays that started life as papers for ‘The Political Imagination: Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, a conference held in Melbourne in April 2012. So the political imagination under discussion is much more specific than the issue’s title suggests. It’s as if the god of the mailbox saw me tossing terms like ‘immigrant poetry’ around in my last blog post, and decided to send me some heavy-duty reading matter as a reproach for my lack of theoretical rigour (or theoretical anything, if the truth must be known). Ali Alizadeh, one of the subjects of that last post, was responsible along with Ann Vickery for editing the essays from the conference, and co-wrote one of them with Penelope Pitt-Alizadeh: and he more than adequately fits my description of him as way out of my intellectual league.

Of the theme essays, the clear stand-out is Danijela Kambaskovic’s superbly readable ‘Breaching the social contract: the migrant poet and the politics of being apolitical’. When Kambaskovic left Belgrade in the 1990s she had already published poems, translations and criticism in Serbian and was fluent and well read in English. She came to Australia, gained a PhD and eventually began to write poetry again, now in English. The essay addresses the question of her deep reluctance to write about migration, to write poetry from the migration experience. In vivid prose, she lays out her own story and that of others with similar experiences: it’s the story of someone fighting for her own mind, resisting pressure to further her career by commodifying her painful history and at the same time searching for an ethical practice:

Traumatised writers spend their lives searching for precise verbal equivalents for the dread, the horror, the identity shifts, the hatred of one’s environment, the inability to identify with the structures and institutions of society, the fear of reality, the mental dysmorphia – all non-verbal and confronting emotions made even more complex by the awareness that one has moved into a much ‘better’ society and ought to be ‘grateful’. How is it possible to write about these for an audience who may be baffled, even confronted, by the uneasy conjunction of praise and criticism of their own society, which may make the migrant writer seem negative and ungrateful, or at the very least, unnecessarily conflicted? I salute those migrant writers who can find enough clarity in their minds to write about any of those, and avoid the pitfalls. Any of my attempts that have been in any way successful have skirted on the surface of the experience.

This essay is worth the price of admission, for itself, and for the way its flesh and heart helps with the preponderantly academic tenor of the other essays.

Those essays explore similar issues. Alizadeh and Pitt-Alizadeh carefully and meticulously discuss the dangers of categorising people and/or poetry according to a single ethnic or racial identity, and give a model of how to read a poem that avoids those dangers without imposing mainstream assumptions on it. A full understanding of their model depends on the reader being familiar with Alain Badiou’s readings of Mallarmé, which sadly I am not. Adam Aitken’s demanding discussion of hybridity casts interesting light on his own poetry:

Rather than a poet who writes about travel I would like to be read as a poet who charts the changing nature of the ongoing historical meaning of the Asian-in-Australia.

Peter Minter floats an idea of imagining ‘a decolonised twenty-first century Australian poetics’ by thinking in terms of archipelagos – I think he’s saying something that’s not just interesting but exciting, but I’d have to make headway with 15 or so heavy-duty theorists he cites to understand him properly. Had I but world enough and time! There is a lovely moment where he quotes in quick succession and mutual support Les Murray, Karl Marx and the Whole Earth Catalogue.

I also enjoyed Timothy Yu’s discussion of Asian Australian poetry. As a US scholar, he was struck by the different way migrant communities talk about themselves here. Sydney comedian Michael Hing, who can trace his family’s history in Australia back some five generations, refers to himself, not as an Asian Australian (the equivalent of Asian American, the most likely term if he had been in the US) or even as a Chinese Australian, but as ‘a Chinese guy’. Yu ruminates interestingly on this difference, and gets down to specifics in considering aspects of the poetry of Ouyang Yu.

The rest of the journal is taken up with poetry, short stories and reviews, all interesting, some wonderful.

Danijela Kambaskovic stars again in the poetry section with ‘Belgrade Sunday Lunch’, a translation from her own poem in Serbian (incidentally, her article has a nice riff on what it means to translate one’s own poem as opposed to someone else’s). She has two more poems in Southerly‘s online component, The Long Paddock, just a click away.

Of the stories, I liked best Jeremy Fisher’s modest domestic scene, ‘Ready to Dance’, which has a predictable but satisfying twist, and Rachel Leary’s ‘God’s Lost Sheep’, which plays like a short grunge movie of a bus hijack.

There’s an interesting combined review by Jal Nicholl of Michael Farrell’s open sesame and Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen. He sees these vastly different poets as inhabiting ‘different wings of the same belated [ie, post-modernity/post-modernism] dream-house.’ And one of life’s little mysteries is solved on page 256 where Sam Franzway review’s Vikki Wakefield’s young-adult novel Friday Brown: Sam is known in these quarters as franzy, creator of the blog Writing. So now we know why he’s been neglecting his blog – he’s doing a PhD and writing scholarly reviews, thankfully without a single mention of Deleuze, Kristeva, Baudrillard or even Foucault.

Curmudgeonly footnote: I would pass in silence over the ‘back-peddling’ character in one of the stories, because there is pleasure in such misspellings. But I have to complain about a moment in Danijela Kambaskovic’s brilliant essay where she was left hanging out to dry by the editorial team. Observing that some people question whether a woman of non-English speaking background can adequately teach Shakespeare to Anglo-Saxon students, she comments in parentheses: ‘This reminds me of famous quip by George Bernard Shaw that women writers are like dogs dancing on their hind legs: the wonder is not that it is done well, but that it is done at all.’ It’s a slip that anyone could make, but surely one of the many pairs of eyes that read that paragraph on its way to press should have picked up that the famous quip was made by Samuel Johnson, and it was about a woman preaching.

Southerly 72/3: Islands and Archipelagos

David Brooks and Elizabeth McMahon (editors), Southerly Vol 72 No 3 2012: Islands and Archipelagos

1southerly723The title of this issue of Southerly, ‘Islands and Archipelagos’, refers to its subject matter, but it could just as easily refer to its form: a literary magazine, archipelago-like, is a gathering of diverse entities, each with its own integrity but all having something in common, whether a theme as in this case or something less tangible, like a tone, or an ethos, or a presiding personality.

I enjoyed my island hopping. My favourite moment is the bravura opening sentence of ‘Outcast of the Islands: Malinowski Amongst the Modernists’ by David Brooks :

If there could ever be such a thing as a True History of Modern Thought, at least one chapter would have to trace that set of strange, 
neglected, yet teasingly-almost-direct lines between a heterogeneous
 crew of squatters, graziers, country postmasters, district magistrates, missionaries, and employees of the Overland Telegraph recording details of Indigenous Australian life and culture in the mid- and late- nineteenth century and the desks of Edward Tyler at Oxford, James George Frazer at Cambridge and Emile Durkheim in Paris, and, through them, and a number of other significant late-nineteenth-century anthropologists, to the likes of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Sigmund Freud (see, for example, the first half of Totem and Taboo), Marcel Mauss (Essay on the Gift) and so many other key figures in early twentieth-century thought and aesthetics that one wonders whether the Simpson Desert or the Trobriand Islands should be given a place – a quite significant place – amongst the generating landscapes of Modernism.

Yes, that is just one sentence. The article not only delivers on the sentence’s promise but ends with a link to a provocatively titled companion piece, ‘Origins of Modernism in the Great Western Desert: An Introduction’.

Tying for second favourite moment are:

  • Michael Sharkey’s poem ‘First Eleven’, eleven stanzas consisting of phrases that evoke an Australian baby-boomer childhood, presumably to the age of 11. Much of it might be inscrutable to people of other generations and other places, but I was born in 1947, a year after Sharkey, and his deft hand worked nostalgic wonders in me, even in the minority of phrases that didn’t touch directly on my own experience:

    The Royal Visit. Easter Show.
    My sherbet packet. Liquorice stick.
    My shop-bought pie. My Iced Vo-Vo.
    My Cracker Night. My Jumping Jack.
    My father’s gas mask. Old blue tunic.
    My small sister in the clinic.
    My six-stitcher. My first duck.
    The choko vine. The dunny truck.

  • Michael Jacklin’s ‘Islands of Multilingual Literature: Community Magazines and Australia’s Many Languages’, which prises open the subject of Australian literature in languages other than English. I’ve always felt odd about the portrayal of 1950s Australia as monocultural and monolingual: Italian and other southern European languages were part of the soundscape of my 1950s north Queensland childhood; one of my best friends in primary school was Chinese; my farmer father played poker with a Greek, a Korean and a Yugoslav; in the 30s and 40s my magistrate grandfather spoke to Italians who appeared before him in their own language. This essay discusses evidence, including a journal from Brisbane in the 1930s, that there has long been lively, linguistically diverse literature in the Australian context, much of it invisible to the mainstream literary establishment.
  • a new poem by Jennifer Maiden, always a thrill. ‘Diary Poem: Uses of Ethiopia’ is in part a polemical essay, taking issue with some feminists who are ‘well in favour / of ethical security’. I’m not sure what ethical security is (Google is no help): it’s related to rigid ideological narrowness, I think, and may have elements of self-serving moralism. Feminist ‘fandom for Gillard’ is a symptom. My regular readers know that I often feel like an outsider with contemporary poetry (and by the way I think that’s more about me as a north Queensland boy than about the poetry). With this poem, I probably get the references more than most readers: not the Ethiopian art or the story of Sylvia Pankhurst, which are central to the poem and beautifully fleshed out, but the passing allusions – to Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, and her cutting of the supporting parents’ benefit on the same day; to the earlier poem ‘A Useful Fan’, neatly encapsulated here as ‘trying to inhabit Abbott interestedly'; to a set-to on the Overland web site described as her ‘daughter the fire tiger’ (itself a reference to an earlier poem, ‘The Year of the Ox’) defending her ‘on a hostile magazine site now given / to ethical self-security’. Paradoxically, familiarity with the references predisposes me to foreground the detail of poem’s polemics (I want to argue about her view of Overland, for example, and I’m not sure about the connection she seems to be making between some feminists and abortion), rather than the poem’s central thrust, which I read as captured in the description of doves in Ethiopian art as

    aware of complex peripheries,
    well-mannered with watchfulness,
    —————————————-still.

As well as these pieces that topped my pops, there are learned essays on issues facing real islands and islanders, on Andrew McGahan, Randolph Stow, Drusilla Modjeska, and the rock band the Drones. There are short stories (especially Sandra Potter’s ‘“an empty ship in these latitudes is no joke”’, a lightly annotated list of things taken to and from Antarctica, and Terri Janke’s ‘Turtle Island’, a not-quite-ghost-story, not-quite-love-story, not-quite-war-story set in the Torres Strait in World War Two). There are other excellent poems and nearly 70 pages of reviews, plus the overflow in The Long Paddock, which includes a fine review by Sarah Holland-Batt of Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight.

A final note: the spectacularly beautiful cover, reproduced above, is described on the contents page as Sue Kneebone’s Continental Drift, but it’s actually a detail from that work, which I recommend you have a look at on Sue Kneebone’s web site.

The Maiden and the Griffin

Jennifer Maiden’s Liquid Nitrogen has been shortlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize, described on the Griffin Trust website as ‘the world’s largest prize for a first edition single collection of poetry written in English’. The judges’ citation reads in part:

An extended meditation on the uses and abuses of power, the moral gravity of Liquid Nitrogen is buoyed throughout by Maiden’s self-effacing sense of humour and her tenderness towards her grown daughter, Katharine, who stands at the heart of this collection. Epic in its scope and utterly eccentric in its approach, Liquid Nitrogen is a work of rare passion and unprecedented poetic achievement from one of Australia’s most prominent living writers, ‘alert to the point of twitching’, like the ox to whom she likens herself on page one, who nevertheless ‘still tramples through the difficult’.

For the full shortlist click here.