On John Sinclair

Who is John Sinclair, you are probably asking? Those of you who read my last post, Shy love smiles and acid drops: Letters from a difficult marriage, may remember that he was the husband of the marriage in question, and father of the author, Jane Sinclair. However, as I briefly mentioned in that post, John Sinclair was also a music critic in Melbourne from 1947 to 1985.

As a keen concert-goer I was intrigued, and so did a little digging. I found an interesting man with a passion for some things that might interest us here. This is to say, he had some definite ideas about criticism, and about supporting Australian music and culture. Most of what I’m sharing here came from a 1998 article by Adrian Thomas called ‘“Beware of snakes, spiders and Sinclair”: John Sinclair (1919-1991), Music critic for the Melbourne Herald: The early years’.

If you are interested, read the article, but regarding Sinclair’s background, Thomas tells us that he started out as an artist. In fact, in the early 1940s, newspaper owner Sir Keith Murdoch gave him a stipend over other prominent artists like Sidney Nolan (who was a good friend of Sinclair’s). It was during this time that Sinclair became involved with the Heidi artistic community. Thomas doesn’t know why he didn’t continue with art, but says that his association with this circle and “their artistic beliefs” informed his career as a music critic. He was determined “to encourage a vibrant and enduring musical culture in Melbourne” like that artistic one. He also advocated for contemporary music and championed “those Australian composers and performers whose talents he deemed worthy of support.” In 1947, he was employed as music critic by Murdoch’s Herald, and there he stayed.

The function of the music critic

Sinclair apparently wrote quite a bit about criticism. Re music critics, he argued that, in addition to having the skills necessary to determining “the merit or otherwise of a performance, it is equally important that he [this was 1947] should possess the ability to translate his musical experience into terms accessible to the layman”. He saw criticism as being still “relatively undeveloped in Australia”, and was keen to be part of its development.

He was known, says Thomas, for writing “direct and uncompromising reviews” which “shook the musical establishment”. As is the way of these things, people focused on the negative, but Thomas says that “quality performances were always acknowledged”. I couldn’t resist checking, and I found many positive ones in Trove, alongside some negative ones.

For example, he wrote in 1952 of a young Australian organist, John Eggington, just returned from England, that “certainly, Melbourne organ lovers would find it difficult to recall many occasions on which the playing was as clear, expressive and brilliant as Mr Eggington’s was today”. 

His negative reviews, though, were not gentle. In 1947 he wrote on a recital by Viennese-born Australian pianist Paul Schramm, saying he “sat at the piano, dispassionate and efficient — something of a musical pharmacist dispensing a potion with deft and skilful fingers. He is a natural musician, and a fluid and sensitive interpreter.” However, while it was good playing and musical, it was also “always facile”. Returning to the pharmacist analogy, Sinclair concludes that

Mr Schramm, however, appears more concerned with the effect of his dispensations on his listeners than a personal search in the deeper realms of the composer’s meaning. 

All told, I think Mr Schramm and I were among the few people who weren’t really enjoying themselves last night.

The negative ones caused controversy, which was good for the newspaper business, but even Murdoch himself, writes Thomas, stepped in to give Sinclair his view of criticism.

Anyhow, Sinclair said a few more things about criticism that are more broadly applicable, and appealed to me, such as that it is the critic’s

job to know his subject, to set his standards and then to hold to them so that any thoughtful reader, on the evidence of a series of criticisms, can determine where he and the critic stand in relation to music. Only then can the reader form a worth-while opinion of the music on which the critic has reported. (1952)

I like this point about critics having clear criteria/standards that we can get to know. He also noted in 1952 that “the critic stands between the musician and the public and contributes to the understanding of music by measuring the individual work or performance against the widest possible background”.

And in 1973, in a letter to the Australian Council of the Arts, he said, among other things, that:

I have always believed that my responsibility was to the cause of music in the widest sense [my emph.]; that I had a responsibility not only to make reputable judgements about performance but to understand the many and complex factors that determine the quality of music making in the community.

I like his views on the practice and role of criticism. What about you?

Supporting contemporary music and musicians

Thomas discusses Sinclair’s role in improving what was Australia’s “immature musical culture”, in terms of concert-going behaviour, but my main interest is Sinclair’s ongoing concern with public’s “indifferent attitudes towards Australian composers and performers”. He laid much of this at the feet of the ABC. It was Australia’s main concert organiser and it focused on international performers. He wrote in 1952 that “in the long run it is the quality of indigenous musical activity, and not the playing of visitors that determines the worth of a year”.

The public, he saw, was being trained to prefer the international celebrity. Even worse, the concerts these and local orchestras performed primarily comprised standards from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He argued that “the ABC has an obligation to foster public taste and to provide conditions in which Australian musicians can develop and mature”. He worked hard to promote contemporary music and local composers. I found a 1951 review of a concert conducted by Eugene Goossens in which he praises Goossens for “continuing his very tangible services to Australian composers” by conducting the first Melbourne performance of Margaret Sutherland’s tone poem “Haunted Hills”. Similarly, a review of a 1952 Victorian Symphony Orchestra concert starts:

Much more contemporary music than usual and an excellent standard of performance distinguished last night’s concert by the Victorian Symphony Orchestra under Juan Jose Castro in the Melbourne Town Hall.

Thomas tells us “by the time the ABC tried to change the culture by appointing composer and contemporary music advocate Juan Castro as resident conductor in 1952, a conservative attitude to music was firmly entrenched in audiences”.

Converting audiences to contemporary music has always been a tough ask, but it, like all contemporary artistic endeavour, must be supported if culture is to remain fresh. I have enjoyed getting to know John Sinclair a little more, and greatly enjoyed reading his writing in the Herald.

We don’t hear much about his work in Shy love smiles, but he and Jeannie do discuss music occasionally. I’ll close on something Jeannie wrote to him in 1961 about a concert she attended at Glyndebourne. The work was modern, “Elegy for young lovers” by Henze, with words by Auden. She loved it:

my hair stood on end as the symbols [sic] clashed on and on. You probably read about it. Ah well. Also the audience was more serious and highbrow and sympathetic. Obviously the society ladies were frightened.

They shared some values, it seems. I’ll leave it there.

Adrian Thomas
‘”Beware of snakes, spiders and Sinclair”: John Sinclair (1919-1991), Music critic for the Melbourne Herald: The early years’ in Context: Journal of Music Research, No. 15/16, 1998: 79-90

Omar Musa’s Killernova book launch, with Irma Gold

Local performance poet-novelist-artist Omar Musa’s latest book, Killernova, had two launches in Canberra this weekend, one with Polly Hemming and the other with Irma Gold. Being Gold fans, Mr Gums and I booked her session, and it was both engaging and illuminating, but I have it on good authority that Polly Hemming’s session, though different, was also well worth attending.

Omar Musa has three poetry collections, a Miles Franklin Award longlisted novel (Here come the dogs), and a play to his name. He has also released solo hip hop records. And now, he has turned his hand to woodcuts and woodcut printing. He is, you’d have to say, multi-talented – and it comes, I think, not only from a curiosity about the world, but a desire to find his place, to engage with it, and to explore ways of expressing the things that he feels strongly about.

Not surprisingly, then, this was not your usual “in conversation” launch. It started with Musa performing some of his poetry, and a song. There’s nothing better, really, than hearing a poet read or perform their own writing, and Musa is a polished performer. So there was that. Then there was a display of his woodcuts, most of which appear in his book, and home-made sambal for sale, along with the book, not to mention the conversation with Irma Gold.

The performance

It was such a treat to have Musa perform some poems. I’ve heard him before, and love his heart and his ability to convey it so expressively through words and voice. His poetry is personal but also political, carefully crafted yet fresh too. Here’s what he performed:

l am a homeland: Musa, who has Malaysian and Australian heritage, started with this poem that explores home and belonging, when you don’t have one place, and got some audience participation going, asking us to breathe in its meditation-inspired refrain, “inhale”, “exhale”:

Inhale – I am singular
Exhale – I appear in many places

UnAustralia: Musa explained that he is often criticised as being UnAustralian because he (dares to) criticise Australia. This poem is his answer to that, and perfectly examplifies his satirical way with words:

Come watch the parade!
In UnAustralia
Land of the fair-skinned.
Fairy Bread.
Fair Go.

Rose gold lover: this one was a song – part ballad, part rap, and beautiful for that. (You can hear it performed with Sarah Corry on LYRNOW)

Hello brother: Musa dedicated this poem to Haji-Daoud Nabi, who, with the words “Hello, brother”, warmly welcomed to Christchurch’s Al Noor mosque, the shooter who went on to kill him and 50 other people.

Flannel flowers: Musa introduced us to a rare pink flannel flower that grows in the Blue Mountains. It flowers only when “specific conditions … are met … fire and smoke, followed by rainfall”, making it bitter-sweet – and an opportunity to contemplate both the environment and our mortality.

The conversation

So, I’ve introduced Musa, and Irma Gold needs no introduction, as she has appeared many times on this blog, including for her debut novel, The breaking (my review). Click on my tag for her to see how active she is. Irma is also a professional editor, and co-produces the podcast Secrets from the Green Room.

Musa and Gold, National Portrait Gallery, 27 November 2021.

Gold commenced by introducing Musa as a multi-talented artist, poet, rapper. She also praised, as an editor, the book being launched, Killernova. It’s a collection of diverse poems and woodcuts, and yet flows seamlessly, she said.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable conversation that, with Gold’s warm and thoughtful questioning, covered a lot of relevant ground.

The woodcuts

Given woodcuts feature strongly in the book, and are a “new” art for Musa, Irma started with how he got into woodcutting. He explained how he’d been in a dark place – had started to hate what he was supposed to love, writing and performing – so was visiting his father in Borneo, when he came across Aerick LostControl running a woodcut workshop, and joined in.

He spoke of the leopard which appears – often playfully – in his woodcuts (including one on top of Canberra’s iconic bustop.) So much of his writing, he said, focused on the ugliness of humanity, on racism, depression, so he wanted to do something beautiful. His first woodcut depicted the local small leopard (Sunda clouded leopard, I think). Although he felt it was “childish”, his teacher saw talent – what a surprise! – and a new form of expression for Musa was born.

Gold also asked him about the practice of “stamping the spirit into the works”. This is, Musa said, the traditional Southeast Asian way of printing woodcuts, and is still used, I think he said, by Indonesian protest poster-makers.

Musa then talked about taking the craft of writing so seriously it can lead to paralysis. Language is so imprecise you can just keep going, tweaking, tweaking the words. In woodcutting, if you make a mistake, you have to move on, as what is done is done. To make art, you have to take risk. He’d been taking himself too seriously, he felt, so wanted (needed, too, I felt he was saying) to be playful.

At the end of the conversation, but I’m popping it in here, Gold asked about how woodcarving deepened his connection with heritage. Musa said that he “would like to say it felt like homecoming but it felt more like tourism”. Some of this tension is conveyed, he said, in the first poem he performed, “I am a homeland”. It explores how we can inhabit different identities. A box limits you, he said. He prefers fluid identities.

The writing process

Gold asked whether, given he’s a performance poet, he reads aloud when he is writing? Musa said he writes in a “trancelike state” then “sculpts” his work. “Write in passion, edit in cold blood” is his practice. He also shared the philosophy of his favourite poet, Elizabeth Bishop – write with “spontaneity, accuracy, mystery”.

On whether he ever edited a poem further after performing, I think he said yes! (Given I sometimes post-edit my blog posts – because I can – I say, why not?)

Art and creativity

Gold referred to the poem, “Poetry”, because she related to its ideas. In it, he plays with the traditional recommendation to “write what you know”, shifting it, first, to “write what you know about what you don’t know”, then rephrasing it to “write what you don’t know about what you know”, before finally getting to the crux – and I like this – “write a question”.

The best art, he said, makes us ask questions about the world around us, but he likes to start with a question about self, with something that tests one’s preconceptions. Art, he believes, does not have to provide answers, just ask questions. Yes.

Gold then asked him about the role of alcohol and drugs in creativity, something Musa has spoken about. Killernova, he responded, is partly about undercutting mythologies in the art scene. One is the singular genius writer or artist. It’s b***s***, he said. All artists are products of their environment, so, this book includes collaborative poems. Another concerns the “addict musician, drunk poet” which he had bought into, but this book was “written when clean”.

The environment

Gold noted that concern with desecration of the environment runs through book, and asked Musa about the role he saw for art. Art, Musa believes, both holds a mirror up to world as it is and as it can be.

There is a Utopia in Killernova, Leopard Beach. Are Utopias dangerous, childish ideas that distract us OR could they project the world as it could be? he asked. Good question. He described a successful turtle sanctuary in Borneo, which was the result of someone’s dream. Through art, we can reimagine the world, and make us feel less alone.

Can art change people’s minds?

Musa responded that Werner Herzog said no, but he thinks it can, through asking questions. However, this needs to go hand-in-hand with collective action.

The end

Musa gave us one more performance to end with. It was a collaborative poem (“after” Inua Elliams) about pandemic, F***/Batman. Loved it, with its wordplay on masks (“we could finally drop our masks”) and references to toilet paper, Zoom, jigsaws; its exploration of the positives, negatives, and potential contained in the pandemic; and the idea that we “grew madder yet clearer headed”. What will we do with this, though, is the question. A provocative end to a great launch.

Omar Musa’s Killernova book launch with Irma Gold
National Portrait Gallery
Saturday 27 November 2021, 3-4pm

The Griffyns are back – with Songs from a Stolen Senate

COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the performing arts industry, as we all know, and that, of course, included our beloved Griffyn Ensemble. However, they clearly didn’t spend the time twiddling their thumbs, because this weekend they returned to live performance at the new Belco Arts Theatre. What a thrill it was to see and hear these special musicians again – and with an inspired and inspiring program*. Titled Songs from a Stolen Senate, it featured music commissioned from some of Australia’s leading First Nation musicians. Their brief was to use Parliamentary text – hence the performance’s title – to create “song and storytelling from the perspective of their own life stories”. This is the first in an ongoing series that the Griffyns say will explore how Australian identity has been forged since European settlement.

It was a brave program, because it involved the Griffyns working collaboratively with a number of Indigenous Australian musicians and laying themselves bare to the discomfort – to leaving one’s comfort zone – that such collaboration inevitably entails if it’s conducted honestly. However, it also showed what such collaboration undertaken with open hearts and good will can achieve, which is why I started this post with the words “inspired and inspiring”. Of course, it goes without saying that Indigenous Australians have experienced discomfort – and much, much worse – for a long time, so it’s time that the rest of us opened ourselves up to that too, as Jimblah said in his video statement during the show.

Promo published on YouTube in October 2020

So, who did they collaborate with? With indigenous artists from around Australia: Warren Williams (Aranda country musician), Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse (Noongar singer-songwriters), Norah Bagiri (singer-songwriter from Mua Island in the Torres Straits), Christopher Sainsbury (Canberra-based Dharug/Eora composer), Brenda Gifford (Canberra-based Yuin composer), and with Canberra poet, Melinda Smith, who undertook parliamentary research and helped with the lyrics. If I understood correctly, to these original five collaborations were added Gina Williams’ beautiful Wanjoo welcome song, chosen by Griffyn soprano Susan Ellis; a piece composed by the Griffyns in collaboration with local Ngunnawal visual artist, Richie Allen; and the song “Not in my name” inspired by hip-hop artist from Larrakia nation Jimblah’s call for us to “activate”.

And what, exactly, did they collaborate about? Well, these won’t be a surprise as the musicians explored the sorts of topics you would expect, including the Stolen Generations, climate politics, Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, assimilation policies. The original brief was, as I’ve said, to use Parliamentary text, but some of the musicians needed to go wider. For example, Norah Bagiri wanted to write about climate change and rising sea levels in the Torres Strait, but that has not been covered in Parliament, so it was to the UN that she and Melinda Smith went! Similarly, Gina Williams was interested in AO Neville, the notorious Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, so they used words from the Western Australian government.

Anyhow, the end result was a musical program performed by the Ensemble, supported by beautifully curated verbal contributions from the creators, presented on a large screen, interspersed with the live music.

Program (jotted down in the dark so perhaps not quite right)

  • Wanjoo welcome song (Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse)
  • Instrumental work (Warren Williams)
  • The view from the shore (Norah Bagiri)
  • Music from Ngunnawal Country (inspired by local Ngunnawal Kamilaroi visual artist, Richie Allen)
  • Breathe (Brenda Gifford)
  • What are we to do (Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse)
  • Not in my name (Jimblah)
  • Red kangaroo standing (Christopher Sainsbury)

Some of the issues that came out through the program included exploration of our national anthem’s notion of “young and free” (Gifford) and the fact that Noongar language didn’t have words for “stolen” and “freedom” (Williams and Ghouse):

They have no word for stolen
They have no word for freedom
What kind of civilisation is this?

All the pieces were strong, engaging and musically interesting, but I found “What are we to do” and “Not in my name” particularly haunting.

The program ended on something a little more hopeful, Christopher Sainsbury’s “Red kangaroo standing”, which was inspired by Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous Australian elected to the House of Representatives, to serve as a government minister, and to be appointed to cabinet. Sainsbury, I believe, wanted to leave us with a positive sense of where Indigenous Australians are now and of non-Indigenous Australia’s increasing openness to Aboriginal culture. However, I couldn’t help hearing a touch of irony in the the last words of the piece – and of the program – “thank you”!

The Griffyns’ current line-up has been together for several years now, and the simpatico – musical, intellectual and yes, I’d say, emotional – that is clearly between them makes these concerts not only of high quality, performance-wise, but a real joy to be part of. It goes without saying that I look forward to their next concert. (Meanwhile, if you live near Castlemaine, Victoria, you can see this program there on 28th March.)

Griffyn Ensemble: Michael Sollis (director, mandolin), Holly Downes (double bass), Susan Ellis (voice), Kiri Sollis (flutes), and Chris Stone (violin)

* This program was intended to launch the new theatre at Belco Arts last May, but COVID-19 stopped that. It was then presented, virtually, last September in the Where You Are Festival, for which I booked, and then missed!

Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard, The voice of water (#BookReview)

I had planned to post on this beautifully produced book, The voice of water, earlier in the year, but the events of the year threw me completely off track, and here I am at the end scrambling to finish off the posts I planned oh so many months ago.

Created by Tasmanians, visual artist Sue Lovegrove and poet Adrienne Eberhard (who has appeared here before), The voice of water was described by Hobart’s Fuller’s bookshop in their book launch announcement, as “a collection of 30 miniature paintings and poems which celebrate and pay homage to the beauty and ephemeral life of wetlands”. This is a good description of the content, but it doesn’t describe its exquisite production. You can tell that this book was a labour of love by two people who have both a passion for the Tasmanian landscape and an eye for beauty and design.

In their brief introduction, Lovegrove and Eberhard describe their aim as being “to reveal the fragility and fleeting nature of life in a lagoon”, to capture “the constantly shifting light”, “the soundtrack of place from frog call and scratching index legs to the tapping of grasses”, and “the calligraphy of reeds and sedges”. Not surprisingly, they also note the threat to wetlands posed by climate change. They name the wetlands that inspired them, and describe their process:

We spent days simply sitting together or apart, amongst the banksias and tea-trees at the edges, or lying in the sedges and reeds, letting these places seep into our imagination. We waded through ponds and swamps, working side-by-side, drawing and writing, and we had many conversations.

Interestingly, there was an exhibition of Sue Lovegrove’s miniatures at my favourite local gallery, Beaver Galleries, so you can see some (if not all) of the images on their website. The images are beautiful, some having an almost Monet-esque impression of light and water, others being a little more representational, particularly of reeds and sedge. (The original images are watercolour and gouache on paper.) One gorgeous miniature pair features a pond of deep blue with overhead clouds reflected in it. Eberhard’s miniature poem is (without her spacing though I tried):

enamelled sky
where clouds mop
and soak tumbrils
of luminous blue

The words “enamelled” and “luminous” capture the colours perfectly. Other poems convey different watery effects, such as “like textured silk like ruched folds of material”.

Another miniature pair features rows of reeds or grasses in a pond. The accompanying poem is presented on the facing landscape page in portrait mode so that it looks like spikes of grass too. So much attention has been paid to the design, and how design can help convey meaning as much as the works themselves – representing, for example, “the calligraphy of reeds and sedges”. Another poem is arranged in offset columns to encourage us, or so it seems to me, to read the lines in different orders – down one column and then the other, or leaping across the columns – producing slightly different meanings or effects depending on the order.

I’ll share just one more poem, which exemplifies the attention they also paid to the “soundtrack” of the landscape:

jostle of noise a cacophonous counterpoint to the artist’s mark-making scribble and scratch
castanet-clack the scratching of insect legs
ratcheting and tightening an orchestration that ricochets
and rasps phonetics of frog call an infiltration a metronome’s sustaining heartbeat.

The book chronicles the water cycle in the lagoons, the water coming and receding at different times – “lagoon shrinks to water lines washing through reeds” – but this is not a polemical book about climate change. Rather, it is a hymn to what we have now. At least, that’s how I read it.

However you read it though, The voice of water is a gorgeous book to get lost in and carried away by, and I’m sorry I didn’t write it up earlier in the year.

PS I have tagged this “Nature writing”, which reminded me that I have just received advice that submissions are now open for the 6th biennial Natural Conservancy Nature Writing Prize (about which I have written here before). It’s an essay prize, and is worth $7,500 for the winner. This year’s judges are literary critic, Geordie Williamson, and Miles Franklin Award winning novelist, Tara June Winch. Being selected by them would be quite a feather in the cap, I reckon. For more information check the website.

Challenge logo

Sue Lovegrove and Adrienne Eberhard
The voice of water
Published in 2019 with assistance from an Australia Council for the Arts grant
64pp. (unnumbered)
ISBN: 9780646802541

Monday musings on Australian literature: New England Writers’ Centre

I thought I had finished my round-up of Australia’s writers’ centres with my post on the Australian Writers Centre, but then I came across a rather interesting – and active – regional one, and would like to share it with you (as well as document it here). It is the Armidale-based New England Writers Centre (NEWC).

Like most writers’ centres, the NEWC is a membership service, and has been running for over 20 years. It describes its activities very simply, as

delivering writing and illustrating workshops, professional opportunities, fabulous  literary events, showcasing of local talent, and more, to its members. (About Page)

Like the other membership-based centres it:

  • runs a variety of writing and outreach programs, in Armidale and throughout New England, as well as via online technologies
  • offers and/or supports various writing (and associated) awards and fellowships
  • communicates with members via newsletters, emails and social media.
  • provides resources (primarily prepared by Sophie Masson) to all sorts of sites of relevance to writers and illustrators. Check the link to see what I mean.
Arielle Van Luyn, Treading air

The Centre’s current Board includes, among others, published writers, Sophie Masson (who has more than 50 books to her name) and Ariella van Luyn (whose Treading air I’ve reviewed), professional editor Linda Nix, and local publisher (and, love this, “Rolls Royce trained, professionally qualified mechanical engineer”) Peter Creamer.

You may wonder how I came across this regional centre? Interestingly, it was via the new ARA Historical Fiction Prize which I wrote about recently. The prize was established by the ARA Group and HNSA (The Historical Novel Society Australasia), but this Centre was actively involved, by being part of the Prize sub-committee and administering the submissions.

Anyhow, as I’ve done with most of the other centres, I’ll share some of their main programs … but I must say that, as with most organisations this year, it looks like there’s been a bit of rejigging of programs and activities, and a willingness to turn to new forms of communicating and reaching out.

New England Thunderbolt Prize for Crime Writing

This prize seems to be one of their most significant ongoing programs. It has been running for eight years, and is a multi-prize award with the following categories: Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry, Youth Award, Emerging Author and the New England Award. The prizes are relatively small – $250 to $500 – but, a prize is a prize, and must help the cv.

Aussies will know of course, but for others, this prize was named for the infamous bushranger, Captain Thunderbolt.

They also offer an Illustration Prize, which is interesting, as I haven’t seen this aspect of writing/publishing supported quite so obviously in the other centres is it seems to be in this one.

Varuna/New England Writers Centre Fellowship

Regular readers here will have heard of Varuna Writers Retreat before, but in 2019 the NEWC established, in partnership with Varuna, a new annual fellowship. The prize is

a week’s inspirational writing residency in the beautiful surroundings of Varuna, in the Blue Mountains, and include full board and accommodation at Varuna, funds towards travel, a one-on-one consultation with a Varuna expert and more. 

Shortlistees receive two free workshops of their choice from NEWC’s program. 

By the Book video series

This is a new program, just launched this month, comprising YouTube videos featuring “local professional writers, illustrators, editors and publishers offering tips and advice on all kinds of aspects relating to book creation and production”. They range from a couple of minutes to six or so minutes. Here is Sophie Masson introducing the series:

Finally …

For a (not so little) region, the NEWC sounds like an impressively active writers’ centre, which supports a wide range of writing activities in the New England area. It’s exciting seeing such energy coming from regional towns and cities, particularly now when regions seem to be coming into their own, with city-dwellers, post-COVID, starting to see the very real benefits of regional living.

Writers Centres posts: ACT, Australian Writers Centre, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Writers’ Centre

I have written posts now on writers centres in every Australian state and territory, but there is also, would you believe, an Australian Writers’ Centre. Who are they, and where do they fit in?

It seems like they are primarily a provider of writing courses. When you click on the About link on their website, the first thing you read is:

Welcome to the Australian Writers’ Centre

We’re Australia’s leading provider of writing courses and we’re so excited that you’ve found us at last!
If you’d like to improve your writing skills or simply find your inspiration, this is the place.

They say that they offer courses in “in creative writing, freelance writing, business writing, blogging and much more”, and that people love their courses “because of their affordability, short duration and accessibility – a risk-free way to gain new writing skills in a supportive environment”.  Their courses are “created by experts who are active in the industry”. They run in-person courses (Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane) and online ones.

Nick Earls, NoHoThey sound and look highly self-promotional, but who teaches their courses? Well, there are some well-known names there, including published (many of them internationally successful) Australian authors, such as Kate Forsyth (best-selling author of fantasy, primarily); Alison Tait (best-selling author, particularly of children’s books); Nick Earls (popular writer of books for adults, young adults and children, and who has appeared here); novelists Annabel Smith (who has also appeared here a few times) and Natasha Lester; plus others including Valerie Khoo, and various journalists and free-lance writers. I notice, for example, that Annabel Smith’s Creative Writing course that started today is sold out.

They also offer other free “resources” or activities:

So, as far as I can tell, the AWC is primarily an organisation offering courses and other resources for writers, both fee-based and free. Unlike the state-based centres it is not a member organisation, but I can’t find anything on their site, not even their FAQs, about their history or governance. (Wikipedia’s article on Valerie Khoo says she founded it in 2005.) This sort of information is not essential, of course. If they are providing a needed and appreciated service, that’s the important thing. But, I’m a librarian-archivist, and I do love it when organisations provide some history on their sites. It’s not hard to do.

A novel works its magic by putting a reader inside another person’s life. (Barbara Kingsolver, from AWC Newsletter, 6/2/20)

Exactly why I love to read (notwithstanding there are some lives I may not want to be in) … what about you? 

Writers Centres posts: ACT, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia.

Writers in Residence: An Online Festival

Program BannerWith information coming from every which way, I’m not sure how I heard about the Writers in Residence online festival. Organised by The Writers Bloc and inspired by Isol-Aid, its aim was to “ask some of Australia’s most exciting emerging writers to read from their new books” and share “what they’ve been reading in isolation”.

It ran from 5pm to 9.40pm on Monday, and involved 14 writers, each on for 20 minutes. All interviews were conducted by Geoff Orton, an English and Geography teacher and a founder of Writers Bloc. The format was that each writer provided some background to their book, did a 10-minute reading from the book, and shared some isolation reading.

I only managed to hear 6 properly, as 5-9.40pm is a pretty difficult time-frame, but I enjoyed what I heard. It looked like there were 50 to 75 people viewing throughout the evening. Here are the writers I watched …

5pm: Shannon Molloy

Book coverMolloy’s book, simply titled Fourteen, was published in March. It is an autobiographical coming-of-age memoir about being a gay teen. It is set in Yeppoon, in regional Queensland, in 2000. Molloy admitted that his story is harrowing, but believes it also has a strong message of hope. He wants kids “to know there is an end in sight”.

The excerpt he read described the annual coral spawn, which he sees as “the best metaphor for Yeppoon”. I understood this to mean that Yeppon is “pretty” but is also “a bit off”. (Apparently coral spawns give off a smell.)  He described how he “became a pastime for bored kids”. “I was there to taunt, to abuse, to bash”, he said.

To write his book, he drew on memories, talked with his mother and siblings, and listened to bad pop music from the era! Pop music, he said, was a way of accessing the outside world, of escaping.

5.20pm Katherine Tamiko Arguile

Book coverArguile’s debut novel, The things she owned, was published in late April. Describing herself as “from all over the place”, Arguile, was introduced by Orton as a Japanese-British-Australian artist and journalist. She explained the title of her book. The things are objects which the protagonist, Erika, inherited from her mother, Michiko. Erika is half-Japanese like Arguile, and the novel draws from her own experience. However, as she stressed, The things she owned is a novel, and Michiko is nothing like her own mother.

The novel is about Erika coming to terms with the death of her mother, which she gradually comes to accept by discovering the stories associated with the things her mother owned. Apparently, the book was the creative component of a thesis for a course at the University of Adelaide. Her research was about “grief and objects”, which is a topic other viewers, like myself, would love to have explored more.

Arguile noted that the things in the book are things she herself owns. These non-fictional objects anchored both her and the story, she said.

Orton commented on the role of the ocean in the book. Arguile replied that it hadn’t been something she’d planned but she’d realised later its strong presence. She referred to the Jungian understanding of water as “something unseen, something that lies underneath the conscious mind”. Makes perfect sense for a book about grief.

5.40pm Leah Swann

Book coverSwann’s novel Sheerwater, which was published in March, is garnering a lot of reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. (I’ve reviewed her short story collection, Bearings). The novel starts with a mother driving with her two young sons. They witness a light plane accident, to which the mother goes to see if she can help. When she returns to her car, the boys are nowhere to be found.

Journalist and speechwriter Swann said the idea had come to her during a road trip some time ago, but that, as the mother of young children at the time, she wasn’t prepared “to go there”. Understandable! When she did decide to do it, she found it easy to write the first draft. She just kept writing, seeing where it would take her. The first draft was 130,000 words, with the final book, four or five drafts later, being around 70,000 words. Like Arguile, she doesn’t plan her books. What she loves about writing is discovering things.

I did note her lockdown reading: Meg Mundell’s We are here (Affirm Press), which she described as “beautiful essays by people who have experienced homelessness”; and Meg Mason’s Sorrow and bliss, whose publication has been delayed until September, because of COVID-19 I believe.

7pm Pip Williams

Book coverThe dictionary of lost words, published in late March, is Pip Williams’ debut novel, though she has written other books. She was one of the reasons I was keen to register for this event as I gave this book to my mother for Easter. She, a retired lexicographer, loved it.

If you’ve heard of the book (see Lisa’s review), you won’t be surprised to hear that she was inspired by Simon Winchester’s The surgeon of Crowthorne. Williams said that she saw that the OED (Oxford English dictionary) was a completely male endeavour, that the lexicographers, contributors, and workers were mostly men, and most of the literature they referred to was by men. It made her wonder whether “words mean different things to men and women, and if they do what does that mean for the OED?”

She talked a little about the OED, and her research (which included reading a lot of the OED). After her reading, Orton asked whether she’d found any “hilarious” words. She had, of course, but decided to share some interesting ones. For example, “teen” used to mean “vexed”, “irritate”, and “teenful” meant “causing trouble or sorrow”. Has this played a role in our word “teenager”, she wondered! She discussed the word “bondmaid”, which went missing from the dictionary, and she shared the word “anythingarian”which describes a person with no belief in anything. Perhaps I, a self-described wishy-washy person, is an “anythingarian”!

Her lockdown reading included another Affirm Press novel, Rachael Mead’s upcoming novel The application of pressure.

7.20pm Sophie Hardcastle

Book coverArtist and writer Hardcastle’s novel Below deck, was published in March and is her first novel for adults. It is divided into four parts, with the last being set in Antarctica. Hardcastle had had, she said, an artist’s residency in Antarctica. She wanted to write a work that explored “climate change and our relationship with the natural world.” She thought that a story of the body being violated could work as a metaphor for the environment being violated. The rest of the conversation, however, didn’t really discuss this aspect further.

Asked, whether the story changed as she was writing it, she said that the bones of the story stayed the same, but because it’s a book about trauma, about the way the body remembers trauma, this did come out more during the writing. She wanted, also, to explore, the myths around rape culture. Orton briefly mentioned synesthesia, which both Hardcastle and her protagonist have, but there was no time to discuss this.

Hardcastle’s lockdown reading included Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Jenny Offill’s Weather (which reminded her of Max Porter, she said.)

7.40pm Laura Jean McKay

Book coverMcKay’s novel, Animals in that country, was published in late March. It’s another I had bought as an Easter gift, because, not only did it seem appropriate for the times, given it involves a flu pandemic, but it sounded innovative and feminist. Right up Daughter Gums alley! The novel does have talking animals, including a dingo called Sue! McKay had spent time in a Northern Territory wildlife park as part of a writer-in-residence program, and got to know some dingos here. Sue was apparently inspired by an actual dingo.

McKay read from the part of her book where the human protagonist first hears the animals talking, which happens just as a flu is whipping through the country. At the time she was writing it, she feared her idea was a bit too speculative, but as her publication date drew nearer, well, she realised not so much!

McKay’s lockdown reading included Ling Ma’s Severance (which is about a pandemic) and Ronnie Scott’s The adversary.

A well-conceived COVID-19 event. The writers I saw were thoroughly engaging, and Orton managed the technology with aplomb. Will these sorts of events continue post COVID-19?

Writers in Residence: An Online Festival
4 may 2020, 5:00 PM – 9:40 PM
ZOOM Online, organised by Writers Bloc

 

Writing War: A panel discussion about war and historical writing

In its original guise, I would not have been able to attend Writing war: A panel discussion featuring Nigel Featherstone, Melanie Myers and Simon Cleary because it was going to be held in Brisbane’s Avid Readers bookstore. However, in one of those lucky COVID-19 silver linings, the discussion was transformed into an online ZOOM discussion and, hey presto, I could attend for the princely sum of $5. Having read Featherstone’s Bodies of men (my review) and Myers’ Meet me at Lennon’s (my review), and being interested in Cleary’s The war artist, it was an opportunity too good to miss.

Convenor, and author herself, Cass Moriarty, started by introducing the authors and asking them to talk about their novels, particularly in terms of their inspiration or intention:

  • Nigel Featherstone talked about wanting to explore different expressions of masculinity, particularly as expressed under extreme military pressure. He wanted to look beyond the ANZAC mantra that all men are brave, all do remarkable things, and so on. Can being a deserter, he wondered, be an act of bravery?
  • Simon Cleary described his Afghanistan War novel as a homecoming story, as being about soldiers finding a place in their home countries, as looking at the cost to the community of sending people to war.
  • Melanie Myers introduced a new genre (or sub-genre) to me, the “ensemble home-front novel”, which, she said, was coined by writer and educator, William Hatherell. It encompasses books like Come in spinner. Her novel is primarily about women’s experience of WW2.

On the challenge of writing about past wars with nuance

Featherstone immediately turned to the ANZAC idea, asking how do we talk about ANZAC without being kicked out of the country, and how is it that we have created a day that we can’t critique. He referred to Peter Stanley’s history Bad characters, which is about soldiers who were labelled as “bad”. Stanley’s book counterbalances the traditional ANZAC mantra, and taught him that bravery and cowardice can have many meanings.

Cleary liked the word coined by Featherstone for ANZAC, its “uncriticability”! He spoke of something he returned to a few times during the evening, the idea that sending people to war is political act. It means, he said, that writing about war is also a political act. Too many war novels focus on glory, resulting in the more human facets, including genuine human trauma, often being missing.

On that tricky question of the authority to write about war, when you haven’t personally experienced it

Myers talked about the challenge of being true to the times and values you are writing about, while being sensitive to those of your own era. Writing about African-Americans in Brisbane during World War 2, for example, she had to deal with the “N-word”.

Featherstone confronted the question more head on, asking “who gets to tell what story?” He did question his ability to write about war but, essentially, he believes “writers can do whatever they want”, with the proviso that they be prepared to talk about it. However, he also, a little anxiously but generously, shared his experience of inherited trauma (epigenetics), through his grandfather’s experience of World War 1.

Cleary noted that authority can come from various sources – personal experience, the novelist’s imagination and creative experience, and, returning to that idea of war being “a deeply political act”, he argued that “every citizen has a right to an opinion” about war.

Regular readers here will know that I agree, philosophically, with Featherstone, including that authors need to be prepared to discuss their choices. I also liked Cleary’s argument.

On the de rigueur question of research 

Myers explained some of her research process, saying that she starts with secondary sources, before looking at primary ones, and that in the case of this novel, she also walked the city imagining how it was, how it looked.

Cleary said that it was important to know the details – even those not actually needed in the work – to help avoid clangers. He also said – and I loved this – that writing novels is an excuse for learning stuff!

There was discussion about the impact of war on the social and economic opportunities for women, on values and prejudices, on the bonds forged during war, and on the burdens of war. Featherstone spoke of the physical and emotional scars of war. He pointed to a book titled We were there which reports on a survey of 3,700 World War 2 soldiers. A significant lesson from this book was that there can be multiple perspectives. He exemplified this by sharing a returned soldier’s view of his life versus the wife’s rather different view!

On should you write about war and love

Featherstone reiterated his position that there are no “shoulds” and that, anyhow, he wanted to write about love as a force of liberation. Love, he said, is what gets us through. Cleary noted that being in the proximity of death can make people feel vulnerable and therefore open to new things, and that these are the stuff of writing about war. However, he also said that war and gore can be depressing, and that art and love can provide useful “leavening”.

On whether war fiction is a genre

Myers answered that she specifically wrote in the “ensemble home-front genre” while Cleary didn’t see his book as being in the war novel tradition, but as simply being a story about humans dealing with an issue.

And on whether there are any parallels re society’s response to war and to the current pandemic, Cleary suggested that in war, as in the pandemic, humanity is fragmented, that borders are closed and self-interest reins, but, in both situations, he said, you can also “flip it around” to see a spirit of solidarity.

On the importance of documenting war

Featherstone responded that the work of artists is to ask difficult, dangerous, blasphemous questions, that we need artists to ask questions politicians won’t, that artists can “dream their way into answers”. Getting into trickier territory – though it wasn’t further explored – he also said that artists can explore different versions of history, the “what ifs”. (Kate Grenville would agree!)

Myers suggested that the volume of books still being written about World War 2 implies we still can’t make sense of it, that it is still unintelligible, while Cleary believed that it’s easy to forget the past, and that the role of fiction is to explore “the costs and consequences of the past”.

Ending the session

At this point the evening’s co-ordinator, Krissy Kneen, brought the event to a conclusion with some general questions:

  • Their advice to young writers: “if it feels dangerous, it’s worth doing”, “trust your instincts” and “be brave”.
  • War-related books they’d recommend: Dymphna Cusack and Florence James’ Come in spinner (Myers); Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Cleary) and The honest history book (Featherstone).

Melanie Myers

Melanie Myers (with the three novels faced out behind her)

Given the opportunity to plug their new work, only Myers was brave enough to name her project. I was thrilled to hear it as she’s research pioneering Australian filmmakers, the McDonagh Sisters. I look forward to that. Featherstone simply said he was not going near war for a long time, while Cleary said that he had a project but it was early days!

The hour whizzed by. Moriarty’s questions were focused and intelligent, the panelists’ responses were respectful and thoughtful, and the technology held up! It wasn’t the same as being in the room, but then, I wouldn’t have been, would I, so I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to hear these three writers speak.

Writing War: A panel discussion
20 April 2020, 6:30 PM – 7:30 PM
ZOOM Online, organised by Avid Reader (bookshop)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writing WA

Time for a change from COVID-19 inspired Monday Musings, methinks, so I’m returning to something more straightforward like continuing my little trip around Australia’s writers centres. Today, we travel west to look at Writers WA.

Unfortunately, I cannot find anything on the Writing WA website about its history. I do find it disappointing when organisations don’t provide a basic history of themselves on their sites. I did, though, find under Some Highlights from 2019 a reference to a “new brand identity”. How much change did this involve? A name change like several other writers centres have done in the last few years?

Dervla McTiernan, The ruin, book coverThe Writing WA About page is brief, starting very nicely with an Acknowledgement of Country, followed by a quote by the successful author Dearbhla (Dervla) McTiernan in support of the Centre. This is followed by a vision or mission statement, though it’s not labelled as such:

Writing WA is working between the lines and behind the scenes to build a state of opportunity in Western Australia for writers, publishers and other practitioners in the writing sector – not just for the benefit of practitioners themselves, but for the immense social value that great writing brings to individuals and communities.

It’s a lovely aspiration, but not exactly punchy. The About Page’s banner is punchier with its “We’re working to build a state of opportunity”. However, this could be pretty much any organisation?

Oh dear, I’m sounding a bit critical, and this is not the aim of my writers centre series at all, so let’s move on … because, despite what I’ve said, the site is clean, clear and easy to navigate.

2019 Highlights

I enjoyed reading about the centre’s highlights for last year, which included:

  • launching two writers festivals, both (sensibly) in partnership with other organisations: Confluence Festival (Mandurah), partnering with the producers of the Jaipur Literature Festival, and Quantum Words Perth, partnering with Writing NSW.
  • publication of an anthology of short stories from Singapore and Australia, In this desert, there were seeds. Conceived and funding by Writing WA, it’s the result of an international co-publication between Margaret River Press and Ethos Books.

For Readers and Writers

A lovely clear thing about the website is the way it distinguishes between services for Readers and for Writers. If you know which one you are you can find what you want pretty quickly!

For Readers

The banner at the top of this page is, appropriately, “We love to read local”. Their main service here is to support book clubs. They offer a free monthly Love to Read Local Book Club e-newsletter that people can subscribe to. Each issue contains “detailed information about our selected ‘Book of the Month’ with accompanying notes to prompt discussion in your group!”

Donna Mazza, Fauna, book coverUnderneath this is the current Book of the Month, with a link to more information suited to reading groups, complete with discussion questions and “if you like this book…” suggestions. Check out the info for the March book, Donna Mazza’s Fauna, if you are interested.

Following the book of the month are a number of “What we are reading” books, with links to brief reviews. Below these is a “more book reviews” link which brings up the first of many pages of books reviewed. There is a search box in the side-bar and a broad genre list (biography, children’s, crime, etc) that will help those with specific interests. I wonder how many readers use this resource?

For Writers

The resources for writers are divided into five areas:

  • Find your people: this helps writers find writing groups and workshops (though it doesn’t actually list workshops being offered)
  • About publishing: explains in simple, straightforward language, the main publishing options available to writers.
  • Resources for writers: the say, here, that “Great books are the product of successful collaborations at every stage of the process, requiring effort and expertise from the writer, the editor, the publisher, the book designer, the printer and, eventually, the bookseller and librarian.” This section contains commissioned articles helping writers understand these. Clicking on I want to know about competitions, awards and other professional opportunities will take writers to the Noticeboad, which is also visible on the Home page. Here is where you find the guts of the Centre’s programs – the workshops, masterclasses and other events (most of which, if you look now, are of course cancelled due to COVID-19 – but they look varied and interesing)
  • Other resources for writers: a list of links to all sorts of relevant organisations including other writers centres; organisations providing say, legal or copyright information; and organisations supporting Indigenous and CALD writers
  • Rates of pay: a general statement about advocacy on payment for writers.

COVID-19

Not surprisingly – but pleasingly given not all organisations are doing this – the site has a tab on the Home Page for COVID-19 information. Clicking here will take members (and others) to a wealth of information including government policy, ways to keep working and reaching readers, and ways to stay healthy. Really nice to see.

And that’s about it for Writing WA. It’s probably not the best time to highlight an organisation in terms of showing off what it does, but the link is now here for anyone to follow up whenever they like!

Writers Centres covered to date: the ACT, New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria.

Monday musings on Australian literature (and the arts): COVID-19

I don’t know about you, but I’m finding it hard to settle to read, let alone write thoughtful reviews right now. (I’m sitting on one at the moment that I really want to do justice to, but my brain is all over the place.) Consequently, I’m going to just write a COVID-19 Monday Musings – and try to keep it simple, and focused on the things most important to us, that is, books and the arts.

A couple of days ago, The Saturday Paper (paywalled except for one free article a month) published an article by award-winning essayist Alison Croggon on “COVID-19 and the arts“. In it she discusses the impact on the arts, particularly on small companies and independent artists in the greatest jeopardy, of COVID-19 containment measures. These measures have certainly affected me with various cancellations, including our beloved National Folk Festival. Mr Gums and I count ourselves lucky to have managed to see the Australian Ballet’s last performance of the season of “Volt”, before Melbourne Arts Centre was closed down.

Anyhow, Croggon writes that:

As always, the brunt is being borne by thousands of small companies and independent artists and ancillary workers – publicists, stage managers, technical staff, ushers, caterers and others. Many are in desperate situations, exacerbated by the fact that their major sources of alternative income – teaching, casual work in the hospitality industry and so on – have also dried up.

She shares the experiences of a musician and a theatre designer to put flesh on the facts. And it’s pretty withered looking flesh. One talks of having all those jobs carefully cobbled together to create a living income disappear in one go. It’s important, therefore, that governmental assistance package/s include support for freelancers and independent arts workers, because they are critical to the survival of the industry as a whole.

Meanwhile, “freelancers are calling for institutions to pay out cancelled commissions” but not much of that is apparently happening. I certainly think that those of us who can should do this, and/or not ask for refunds for cancelled events. I figure that I’ve spent the money anyhow. However, I appreciate that life will become more tenuous for some people and that money recouped (or not spent) will make a difference to their surviving this period. All I can say is that each of us needs to do what we can but to not judge what others do – unless we’ve walked the proverbial month in their moccasins!

For up-to-date information on COVID-19 and the arts, the Australia Council for the Arts has a web-page and the Australian Government’s Office of the Arts also has a COVID-19 Update page.

Bookish stuff, in particular

I can’t even begin, really, to offer suggestions about this because ideas and opportunities to maintain our literary culture are coming thick and fast, ranging from ways to keep buying books and supporting our bookstores to potential livestreaming of literary events (like the Yarra Valley Writers Festival). It’s impossible to keep up and, anyhow, I suspect that those of you reading this blog are well enough connected to be receiving news and notifications yourselves. We can’t catch it all, but we can catch enough to keep us well engaged.

My reading group, which was to have met at my place next week, is setting up a WhatsApp group to try out virtual book discussion. There may be better apps, but as this one is known to many of the group already, it’s where we are starting. Within minutes of the group being set up, 8 of the 12 of us had joined, which is a measure, I think, of how much we value each other and our book discussion.

Many bloggers have written COVID-19 posts, including Lisa (ANZLitLovers) with three posts to date, Bill’s (The Australian Legend) more personal one, and Welsh blogger Paula’s “Coronatome” version of her Winding up the Week posts in which she provides a bumper crop of reading, including one of Lisa’s posts and a Books + Publishing article about the expansion of Australian Reading Hour.

Albert Camus, The plagueBooks have been written over the years about epidemics/pandemics/contagions, including our own Geraldine Brooks’ Year of wonders. This is historical fiction inspired by the Derbyshire village of Eyam which, when struck by the plague in 1666, quarantined itself to prevent the spread of disease. An interesting read in the light of what’s happening now. But, my favourite of them all is Albert Camus’ The plague (which I’ve read a few times, including since blogging, so here’s my review!) Camus explores the three main responses to plague – rebel, escape and accept – through the actions of his various characters. Rebelling, of the right sort, is his preferred approach. Read it if you haven’t already! In the end though, whatever happens, I’m hoping that what the lovely Dr Rieux says proves true with our COVID-19 experience:

… what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.

Finally, if you are finding it difficult to cope with the stresses of the current situation, there’s always Up Lit (check my post from 2018 to get you started.) Seriously, though, many jurisdictions have their helplines, including, in Australia, Lifeline (13 11 14). Do call the one most appropriate to you if you find the impact of isolation or just overall worry about COVID-19 starting to seriously affect your mental health. It’s not easy right now, and we all want to come out healthy and ready to go on the other side.

Take care and be safe my blog friends.