Woven Words: What a night!

Chanel Cole, Nishi Gallery (Photo: Katherine Griffiths)

Chanel Cole, Nishi Gallery (Photo: Katherine Griffiths)

As we were driving home from Woven Words, the most recent event associated with The invisible thread anthology, it occurred to me that the evening, which blended words with music, was rather like a three movement musical composition. It went a bit like this:

  1. Sara Dowse‘s bright and slightly quirky allegro
  2. Alex Miller‘s intense adagio
  3. Alan Gould‘s cheeky scherzo.

The event took place in an intimate venue in Canberra’s newest inner city precinct, New Acton, which, I understand, is positioning itself as an arts hub. Even before a fire in mid-2011 set the area back, there had been some lovely musical evenings in Flint, one of the precinct’s restaurants. The Nishi Gallery, though, is a very recent player on the block, so recent that I’m not quite sure what its long-term plans are. Last night, however, it became a delightful space in which a gathering of, guessing here, about 100 people heard three great authors read from their works, bookended by music (mostly) chosen by them and performed by local professional musicians. It was, in a word, a blast.

Sara Dowse text

Sara Dowse (Courtesy: NewActon.Com)

After some pre-show piano music performed by Adam Cook, Allegro started with the gorgeous Chanel Cole singing Kurt Weil’s “Speak Low” accompanied by Cook. Sara Dowse chose this because it was the theme song of Ava Gardner‘s film, One Touch of Venus, which is the title of Dowse’s piece in The invisible thread. In it she describes a weekend she spent with Ava Gardner when she was 7 and Gardner about 24. An unusual choice perhaps for a Canberra anthology, but the anthology isn’t solely about Canberra. Dowse’s piece is about those moments in your life in which you learn something precious and lasting. Her time with Gardner provided one of those moments for her. Her movement finished with another jazz piece performed by Cole and Cook, “Old Devil Moon”.

At question time I asked her how someone with such strong creative drive – she sings, writes and paints – ended up working in bureaucracy. She was, for those who don’t know, the first head of the Office of Women’s Affairs which was established by our new reformist Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, in 1972. Her answer was perfect: They were very creative times, she said.  Can’t argue with that. They were.

Alex Miller

Alex Miller (Courtesy: NewActon.com)

After a short break, it was time for Adagio, my least favourite movement when I was a young music-lover. I was impatient, wanted something faster, with more beat. Now, though, I’ve learnt to enjoy and love the slow and the opportunity it provides to dwell. Tonight’s Adagio provided exactly that … It was bookended by Adam Cook playing the “City of Carcosa” by Larry Sitsky and the CSO (Canberra Symphony Orchestra) String Quartet playing Samuel Barber’s elegaic “Adagio”. Alex Miller has a love-hate relationship with Canberra, mostly the latter it seems! He earned a polite but forgiving (I think) hiss from the audience when he said that no-one chooses to live in Canberra. Wrong! However, he also said that he felt privileged to be involved in the event.

Miller suggested that writers would like to write music, that music manages to express something that writers never quite achieve. Now that’s something for us to ponder. Has it to do with music being the universal language I wonder? Would all writers agree? He talked about writing – about the importance of voice, about the imagination and the act of “imagining something into being”. How to write his novel, The sitters, from which he read, came while he was sleeping on a plane flight between Los Angeles and Sydney. It is about a portrait artist, and explores the nature of “art” and the relationship between artist and subject. The reading ended on:

It’s a story not an explanation.

I like that … it sounds simple but packs a lot.

Alan Gould

Alan Gould (Courtesy: NewActon.com)

The final movement, Scherzo, belonged to poet-novelist Alan Gould. It started with CSO String Quartet performing Percy Grainger’s “Molly on the Shore”. I noticed Gould’s head, up front, bopping away just like mine. Gould read several poems starting with “The Roof Tilers” which I mentioned in a recent Monday Musings. I love that poem. Gould was an engaging reader, introducing each poem with some background. He read his most recent poem “A Rhapsody for Kenneth Slessor” and “Sea Ballad“. And concluded with two flamenco inspired poems, first describing the challenge of replicating in poetry a flamenco rhythm. He read “Flamenco Rehearsal” and “Flamenco Pair”, at times toe-tapping the rhythm as he went. Appropriately, Gould’s movement ended with guitarist Campbell Diamond performing two Spanish pieces, “Junto al Generalife” by Joaquín Rodrigo and (appropriately) “Finale” by Antonio José.

When asked, at the end, whether a sense of dislocation was important to being an artist, Gould, also a model shipmaker, said that for him it was more a sense of being “oceanic” which he described as “being at home in the unstable element”. That may be why I’m a reader not a writer!

The evening was beautifully em-ceed by ABC 666 Radio announcer, Genevieve Jacobs. She was a charming presenter who engaged well with each writer. And she managed her high heels on the tiny stage with great courage!

The evening had a few little challenges. The microphones did not properly work for the singer who opened the evening, the seats were a little hard after three hours, and the venue has just one all-purpose toilet. These were minor. Far more important was the wine! As an Anything-But-Reisling girl, I do hope a choice of white wine is offered next time …

Seriously though, it was a delightful evening. The writers were generous, the musicians superb. Irma Gold, editor of The invisible thread, is doing a stunning job of exploring and exposing the invisible threads that connect the anthology to other arts, to readers, to Canberra. It’s exciting to be part of it.

POSTSCRIPT: With thanks to Dave, of NewActon.Com, for the images.

Irma Gold (ed), The invisible thread (Review)

The invisible thread, by Irma Gold

Cover (Courtesy: Irma Gold and Halstead Press)

I even get nervous when I open a book, you know, for the first time. It’s the same thing, isn’t it. You never know what you’ll find, do you? Each person, each book, is like a new world … (from Mark Henshaw’s Out of the line of fire, in The invisible thread)

At last, you may be thinking, she’s going to review the whole book. At least, I hope that’s what you’re thinking, because this book deserves a dedicated review rather than the scattered posts I’ve done to date. The book I’m talking about is, of course, Canberra’s centenary anthology The invisible thread.

The aim of the anthology is a little different to that of Meanjin‘s special Canberra issue, which I recently reviewed. While its editor, Sanders, wanted to offer “a taste of Canberra”, Gold’s aim was to present “literature of excellence” from writers, past and present, who have had a significant relationship with Canberra. For her, Canberra is “not the headline act” but provides “the invisible thread” linking the writers to each other and to the rest of Australia. In her foreword, Robyn Archer, the centenary’s Creative Director, puts it this way:

Many of the pieces are not about Canberra, but they reveal a diversity of interest and style among writers in this region, and thus reflect the unique nature of a city which is located rurally, but positioned nationally.

In other words, The invisible thread is not a parochial apologia for Canberra but an intelligent presentation of the city’s and thence the nation’s cultural, political, social and interpersonal life. The nation’s concerns are Canberra’s concerns – at both the macro (war, indigenous-non indigenous relationships, the environment, and so on) and the micro (birth, marriage, death, and everything in between) levels. You would be hard-pressed as an Australian, or even as an international citizen, not to find something in this book to interest and move you.

Reviewing an anthology is tricky though, and this is particularly so with The invisible thread because it comprises highly diverse pieces – poems, short stories, essays, and excerpts of novels and non-fiction works.  The pieces are not grouped by form, like the Meanjin issue, but in a more organic way intended to take us on a journey in which, editor Irma Gold writes in her Preface, “each work is allowed to converse with those beside it”. And so, in preparation for my reading group’s discussion, I went back to the start and read the book in the order presented. What a pleasure that turned out to be because I did indeed discover added meanings that weren’t necessarily apparent from the dipping-in-and-out approach I had been using.

Let me give an example. The anthology opens with an excerpt from war historian CEW Bean’s Anzac to Amiens, itself a condensation of his Official history of the first world war. I knew of Bean but had not read his history. I was surprised by his use of imagery, such as this:

And out on every beautiful fresh morning of spring come the butterflies of modern warfare – two or three of our own planes, low down …

After another war-related non-fiction piece, the anthology segues to a short story (“The Good Shoppers”) by Lesley Lebkowicz, which is about her refugee parents, now old and shopping in the supermarket but still affected by the Holocaust, and then to two poems about age (Judith Wright‘s “Counting in sevens” and AD Hope‘s “Meditation on a Bone”). The “conversation” encouraged by this sequence is complex and, I expect, different for each reader. For me, the juxtaposition suggests an irony: “war” steals “age” from many of the youths sent to it. This is just one small example of the sorts of “conversations” Gold has set up in the anthology. Considering them as I read the book added another layer to an enjoyable reading experience. I like reading that challenges my brain on multiple levels.

Compiling an anthology involves, obviously, selecting what to include. It must be hard enough to choose poems, short stories and essays, but what about writers who are best (or only) known for novels or non-fiction books? They can only be represented through excerpts, but there is the risk that these cut-down pieces will be less satisfying to read. Alternatively, of course, they might encourage us to locate the full work and read it. The Bean example above is an excerpt. There are many others, including those from Kate Grenville’s Sarah Thornhill, Jack Heath‘s Third transmission, and Roger McDonald‘s When colts ran. I have noted many to follow-up, which tells you how I found the excerpts overall!

A trickier challenge, probably, is that of representing diversity – not just regarding chronology, subject-matter, tone, and form or genre, but in terms of the writers themselves, such as their gender, or whether they are of indigenous, migrant or other minority background. What emphasis should be given to these in the selection process? And, anyhow, should the writer’s background be highlighted? I’m not sure what Gold and her committee decided about this but the anthology, while primarily representative of the majority culture, is not exclusively so and probably reflects the writing community it drew from.

This is not the last you’ll hear from me on the anthology. It is much too delicious, much too rich, much too full of “luminous moments”* for me not to continue to draw from it. I’m possibly – probably? – biased, but I believe this book should be on every Australian bookshelf and, without disrespecting Irma Gold’s hard work, I’d say it doesn’t really matter whether you read it in its original order or just dip into it as the spirit moves you. What would matter would be to not read any of  it at all.

Irma Gold (ed)
The invisible thread: One hundred years of words
Braddon: Halstead Press, 2012
ISBN: 9781920831967

* from Marion Halligan’s essay “Luminous moments” which concludes the book.

Meanjin’s The Canberra Issue (Review)

Meanjin Canberra Issue 2013

Courtesy: Meanjin

Zora Sanders writes in her Editorial for Meanjin‘s Canberra Issue that Canberra has (or, is it had) a reputation for being The National Capital of Boredom. This is just one of the many less-than-flattering epithets regularly applied to Canberra: A Cemetery with Lights, Fat Cat City, and the pervasive, A City without a Soul. For me though it’s simply Home … a home I chose back in the mid-70s when I applied for my first professional job at the National Library of Australia. I was consequently pleased when Meanjin offered me their special Canberra edition to review.

Sanders describes the issue as being “full of the usual eclectic mix of fact, fiction and poetry” and says it aims to “offer a taste of Canberra as it is now, 100 years after its founding, as viewed by the people who live there, who’ve left there and who never meant to find themselves there in the first place”. The result is something that’s not a hagiography, if you can apply such a word to a city, but that offers a thoughtful look at Canberra from diverse angles – political, historical, social, personal.

With the exception of poetry which is interspersed throughout, the issue is organised straightforwardly by form, rather than by theme or chronology. This is not to say, however, that there is no sense of an ordering hand. The first essay, for example, is, appropriately, Paul Daley’s “Territorial disputes” which explores Canberra’s complex and sometimes controversial indigenous heritage, including the thorny question concerning Canberra’s name. Is it derived from “Ngambri”, which means the “cleavage between the breasts of Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie“?

The issue includes a Meanjin Papers insert comprising an essay by ACT historian David Headon titled “The genius and gypsy: Walt and Marion Griffin in Australia and India”. So much has been written about the Griffins over the decades, and particularly this year, that it’s a challenge to present them in a handful of pages. Headon’s approach is to focus on the Griffins’ idealism, on what drove them to do what they did, and bypass the complex story of what happened to the plan. That story is explored a little later by Chris Hammer in his essay “A secret map of Canberra”. Griffin, like the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman, was, Headon writes, inspired by the prospect of “a prosperous egalitarian future for the new democracy in the south”. He planned his “ideal city” to serve such a nation. It didn’t, as we know, quite turn out that way, but I love that our city has such passion in its genes.

Anthologies are tricky to write about, particularly one as varied as this (despite its seemingly singular subject). The main sections are Essays, Fiction, Memoir and Poetry. There’s also a Conversation and a Gallery – and an opening section titled Perspectives. These pieces provide a fittingly idiosyncratic introduction to the volume. First is novelist Andrew Croome (whose Document Z I reviewed a couple of years ago). He writes of the 2003 fire – Canberra’s worst disaster – and its impact on the observatory at Mt Stromlo. There was a terrible human cost to this disaster but, without denying that, Croome takes a more cosmic view, and turns our eyes to the future. It’s nicely done. Writer Lorin Clarke follows Croome with her cheekily titled perspective “The love that dare not speak its name”. She ferrets out, without actually using the word, some of Canberra’s soul, seeing it in small spaces rather than showy institutions and in, if I read her correctly, the gaps that appear between carefully planned intentions and reality. The third perspective comes from a previous Meanjin editor, Jim Davidson, who, like Clarke and other writers in the issue, starts with the negatives –  “a public service town” etc etc – but suggests that “the city is beginning to acquire a patina”. He argues, rather logically really, that Canberra is still young. Other planned cities, like Washington DC and Istanbul, have got “into their stride” and Canberra probably will too.

These perspectives – and the way they test Canberra’s image against reality – set the tone for the rest of the issue. I’m not going bore you – though the contributions themselves are far from boring – by summarising every piece. There is something here for everyone – and they show that the real Canberra is more than roundabouts and public servants. Dorothy Johnston‘s short story “Mrs B”, though set in Melbourne, reminds us of the hidden world of “massage parlours” and migrant workers, while Geoff Page‘s poem, “The ward is new”, addresses mental illness. Michael Thorley’s poem “Bronzed Aussies” reveres some of Canberra’s (and Australia’s) top poets, AD Hope, David Campbell and Judith Wright, while award-winning novelist Marian Halligan‘s memoir “Constructing a city, Constructing a life” recounts how a move to Canberra for a year or so turned into half a century and still counting. Several pieces describe Canberra’s natural beauty, including Melanie Joosten’s bittersweet short story, “The sky was herding disappointments”. And Alan Gould’s poem “The blether”, pointedly but wittily the last piece in the volume, suggests we could do with less aimless chatter and more of the “sweet unsaid”.

Of course, as this is Canberra, there has to be some politics. I particularly enjoyed Gideon Haigh’s essay, “The Rise and Rise of the Prime Minister”. Looking at the recent development of prime ministerial libraries à la America’s tradition of presidential libraries, he argues that the political landscape is being personalised, resulting in a shift in focus from ideology to leaders and their personalities.

Many of the pieces interested me, and I plan to write separately about one or two of them in future posts, so I’ll end here with architects Gerard O’Connell and Nugroho Utomo. In their essay “Canberra LAB – a mythical biography; or the art of showing up”, they say:

One has to understand that Canberra is a dream. It doesn’t exist. It is an ideal unrealised. A half-finished work on the way to becoming a masterpiece.

I like that. Meanjin has compiled an anthology that shows, as contributor Yolande Norris puts it, how “rich and strange” Canberra’s history is. It’s hard for me to be objective, but I’d say this volume has enough variety and good writing to appeal to a wide range of readers – whether or not they know or care about Canberra.

Meanjin, Vol 72 No.1 (Autumn 2013); or,
Meanjin 1, 2013, The Canberra Issue
University of Melbourne
ISBN: 9780522861938

(Review copy supplied by Meanjin)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Reading about Canberra

If you’re not already aware of it – through my blog or elsewhere – Canberra turns 100 this year. Tomorrow, Tuesday 12 March, is THE day. How does one date a city with such precision? Well, in Canberra’s case it’s pretty easy because it was (is) a planned city. I suppose a number of dates could have been chosen – the date the location was announced or when the design competition or its winner was announced, perhaps – but the date we use is the date it was officially named, the date a bunch of white people came riding across the sheep paddocks and declared this place would be Australia’s national capital and called Canberra. We have movie footage of the event – and the city has been well-documented in all media ever since.

The invisible thread, by Irma Gold

Cover (Courtesy: Irma Gold and Halstead Press)

I’m not going to dwell long on this, because I’ve talked about it before and will again during the year, but I thought I’d list three useful resources for those interested in the city’s literature:

  • The invisible thread, edited by Irma Gold, is the anthology I’ve written about several times already. It’s not exclusively about Canberra but the 70-odd pieces within are all by writers who have a connection with the city. It includes fiction (short stories and novel excerpts), non-fiction and poetry.
  • Meanjin Quarterly Vol 72 No. 1, 2013, The Canberra Issue. Meanjin, arguably Australian’s most venerable literary magazine, aims in this issue “to take the pulse of our elusive, much maligned-capital”, the city often dubbed, writes editor Zora Sanders, The National Capital of Boredom. Little do they know, we longstanding residents mutter, but quietly so (for we rather like our secret). This beautifully produced issue is organised into sections labelled Essays, Fiction, Gallery, Memoir, and Conversation, with poetry interspersed throughout. The contributors include Gideon Haigh, Drusilla Modjeska, Marion Halligan, Dorothy Johnston and Alan Gould. (Click here for subscription and stockist details).
  • Dinner at Caphs is a blogger whose Centenary project is to “attempt to read in 2013 only fiction that is set in Canberra. I want to try to see this city the way others see it, and to examine how I feel about what they see”. Dani has a page on her blog listing books she has identified as being set in or about Canberra. I’m hoping she’ll update it as she comes across more. My own reading group has decided on a (not exclusive) focus on Canberra-related writing this year so I was chuffed to come across Dinner at Caphs.

I started this post by mentioning how well Canberra’s history has been documented. I’ve mentioned film and writing, but music too has played a part. What better way to close this week’s Monday Musings than on the chorus from popular Australian songwriter Jack Lumsdaine’s song written in the late 1930s and titled “Canberra” or “Canberra’s calling to you”. Click this “Canberra’s calling to you” link to read more about the song and hear some old and new versions. (It’s a bit of a hoot.) The chorus begins:

Like a jewel so rare,
In a setting so fair,
A city of white was born.
With its gardens of blooms and its rare perfumes
That greet each sunny morn,
Australia’s creation the heart of a nation
‘neath azure skies of blue.

Very much of its time of course, but it’s part of our history. I am grateful to our national institutions – the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Library of Australia, the National Archives of Australia and the National Museum of Australia – for the work they’ve done to capture and preserve the history of this city I call home. Roll on the next 100 years …

Monday musings on Australian literature: Capital male poets

Today’s Monday Musings is the second in a series of posts I plan to write this year about Canberra writers to commemorate our centenary. The first post covered Canberra’s women poets. Like that post, all the poets mentioned below appear in The invisible thread, Canberra’s centenary anthology that I’ve mentioned before.

AD Hope (1907-2000)

The American poet Ezra Pound apparently once said “I haven’t known anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible”. Well, we have, I believe, a few Aussie poets who would live up to that description, and AD Hope, one of Australia’s most significant poets, would be one of them. He is famous, for example, for describing Patrick White’s novel The tree of man as “illiterate verbal sludge”, which, not surprisingly, offended Patrick White who was, I must admit, also known for being irascible. All this, of course, has little to do with Hope’s poetry except that, like White, he was highly critical of Australia. Reviewers have variously described his poetry as “sardonic”, satiric” and “sharp-edged”. One of my favourite poems of his, “Country Places“, makes fun of Australian place names and was included in Jamie Grant’s 100 Australian poems you need to know. Being of a certain age, I also like the following lines from “Spaetlese” in his collection A late picking:

Old men should be adventurous. On the whole
I think that’s what old age is really for:
Tolstoy at Astapavo finds his soul;
Ulysses hefts his oar.

But, the poem in The invisible thread, “Meditation on a bone“, is a different thing altogether. Inspired by an inscribed bone from about AD1050, it is about passion, rage and age, ending with:

… When I am dung
What bone shall speak for me?

David Campbell (1915-1979)

Canberra is a small city, and was even more so a few decades ago. Consequently, poets like AD Hope, David Campbell and Rosemary Dobson knew each other pretty well. In fact, I mentioned David Campbell in my Capital Women Poets post because he and Dobson were good friends and, among other things, translated Russian poetry together. Like Hope, who was born in a country town about 100kms south of Canberra, Campbell was born in an even smaller country town a similar distance by road due east of here. But, unlike the highly academic Hope, Campbell was a war hero, a skilled sportsman, and a keen fisherman, among other things. His humorous poem, “The Australian Dream”, which gently mocks Australia’s fascination with royalty around the time of the 1954 Royal Tour, is included in Grant’s abovementioned anthology.

The poem included in The invisible thread, “Mothers and daughters“, is short and sharp but complex too. Its subject is mothers and daughters, but its themes are youth and age, competition between women, anxiety about sexuality, and there’s a little revenge sting in the tail because the first line of this taut 8-line poem introduces the male gaze as well:

The cruel girls we loved

The poem makes me both smile and grimace at once!

Geoff Page (b. 1940)

Geoff Page is particularly special to me – not that he would know it – because he taught my son English at Narrabundah College and he was also the first author to attend my reading group’s discussion of his work. We did two of his verse novels, The scarring (my review) and Freehold, and Geoff was wonderfully generous in sharing his thoughts with us. The scarring is one of the most shattering works I’ve read in a long time. Geoff is, in fact, well-known in Canberra, in certain circles at least, because he has, for many many years, supported Australian poetry and jazz through his monthly Poetry at the Gods and Jazz at the Gods events, of which I have attended a few over the years. He also holds a popular Dead Poet’s dinner every winter and is a regular reviewer of poetry for ABC Radio National.

Page is also represented in the Jamie Grant anthology by one of his best-known poems, “Smalltown Memorials“, about the plethora of World War 1 war memorials in country towns. His poem in The invisible thread is “My Mother’s God“, a rather wry but affectionate look at the beliefs of his protestant mother’s generation:

His second book, my mother says,
is often now too well received;

the first is where the centre is,
tooth for claw and eye for tooth
whoever tried the other cheek

Well, Christ maybe,
but that’s another story

Oh, and he too was born in a country town, Grafton, some long distance north of Canberra.

Alan Gould (b.1949)

Alan Gould is another poet I’ve reviewed here – but for him it was his novel, The lakewoman – and he also agreed to attend my reading group’s discussion of that book. I haven’t, I must say, read much of his poetry – and, unlike the first three poets, he was born in a city. London, to be exact! His poem in Jamie Grant’s book – yes, he’s there too – is called “Pliers“.

The roof tilers“, Gould’s poem in The invisible thread, immediately brought to mind a delightful short film that I fell in love with, oh over 30 years ago now, called The Log Driver’s Waltz. Made by the National Film Board of Canada in 1979, and sung by the gorgeous Kate and Anna McGarrigle, it delighted me with its whimsy but also because it’s an ode to the grace (and courage) that can be found in the working man. Of course, I had to check You Tube and there it was. Have a look …

Thanks Alan Gould for a beautiful poem and for letting me wander down memory lane!

Both are slender; one is already high.
You watch as he steps on his wire legs,
from batten to batten, pauses, steps,

like a grazing antelope…

Omar Musa (b. 1984)

My last poet – unlike the previous four – is younger than I and, while he hasn’t attended my reading group, I have seen him perform live. He is a poet and rapper from Queanbeyan – sometimes unkindly called “struggle town” – which is the New South Wales town that borders Canberra. Our cities are, as a result, bound closely together, even if sometimes those binds fray a little. Musa is, for an oldie like me, exciting and refreshing. He performs at poetry slams (and can be found on You Tube) and his subject matter often deals with social justice issues to do with multiculturalism, youth opportunity, and similar. His poem in The invisible thread is, of the poems I’ve quoted here, the most grounded in our region. It’s called simply, “Queanbeyan”, and describes his love-hate relationship with a city that contains some of the worst of urban life – “alcos”, “used syringes”, bullies, and people playing pokies – but that’s also “a place where you can still see the stars”. I plan to keep an eye on Omar Musa in coming years.

Who are your favourite male poets?

Note: if a poem is hyperlinked, it is to a copy of that poem on the web.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Capital women poets

Since Australia’s capital, Canberra, is celebrating its centenary in 2013, it seems timely to devote a few Monday Musings posts – scattered throughout the year – to its literature. Comparatively speaking, Canberra is a small city, but it is rich in poets, past and present, female and male, so I’ve decided to make my first topic Canberra’s women poets. I’ll write, as I usually do in these sorts of posts, about a representative few. They all appear in The invisible thread, Canberra’s centenary anthology about which I’ve written before.

Judith Wright (1915-2000)

Australian high country (Mt Stilwell)

Australian high country (Mt Stilwell)

Wright spent the last 28 years of her life in the wider Canberra region, and is arguably Canberra’s best known woman poet. She was a prolific writer, and a committed environmentalist and Aboriginal rights activist. Her poetry ranges over a huge range of subjects from the bush, birds and nature, through life and relationships, to all sorts of social justice and political issues. Like her contemporary Patrick White, she was not afraid to speak out about the issues that concerned her. As pretty well every biography reports, she took part in an Aboriginal Reconciliation March in Canberra not long before she died at the age of 85.  Several of her poems, including “Bullocky”, “Woman to man”, and “South of my days”,  are anthology standards. A self-confessed lover of our bush, I adore this from “South of my days”:

low trees, blue-leaved and olive, outcropping granite-
clean, lean, hungry country. …

I also like the lesser known (to me, anyhow) poem selected for The invisible thread, “Counting in sevens”, in which she counts off her years in, yes, sevens:

Seven threes are twenty-one.
I was sailing my own sea,
first in love, the knots undone.

Rosemary Dobson (1920-2012)

Another grand dame of Australian poetry, and also a prolific one, Dobson moved to Canberra in 1971 with her husband Alec Bolton. I’ve written about them before in my Literary Couples post. Like Wright, she turned her hand to many forms of writing and also worked as an editor. Both women knew that to make a career out of writing, you wrote … but in Dobson’s case she also translated – Russian poetry! I quoted a couple of her poems in the post I wrote after her death, including the one she wrote to/for Christina Stead. The poem from which I’ll quote here, though, is the intriguing “Child with a Cockatoo” in which a child, sitting for a painting by Simon Verelst in a time before the discovery of Australia, is given a sulphur-crested cockatoo, presaging Europe’s future contact with the southern land:

That sulphur-crested bird with great white wings,
The wise, harsh bird – as old and wise as Time
Whose well-dark eyes the wonder kept and closed.

Susan Hampton (b. 1949)

I must say I know Susan Hampton more as the editor, with Kate Llewellyn, of The Penguin book of Australian women poets, than as a Canberra-based poet, but I’ve discovered that she’s lived in Canberra since 1993. Her poems, from what I’ve seen, tend to be personal with a witty, whimsical or poignant edge, such as this one about “Hands” which starts

for some reason are battered and speckled,
the claws of an old hen poke through the skin.
I stare at my hands the way Escher
makes you stare at his …

I know the feeling … and isn’t that partly what poetry is about?

Melinda Smith

Now Smith, who has been in Canberra, on and off apparently, since 1989, is new to me, but I do love her cheeky poem in The invisible thread. It’s titled “No bed” and here is its beginning:

When love is on the wrong side of the sheets
romance must give way to expedience
and, short of coupling in the public streets,
all places serve at love’s convenience.

Kerry Cue at Poem Pig quotes another of Smith’s poems, “Mother love”. It’s a beautifully structured poem but you’ll have to go to Poem Pig to see that, as I’m just going to quote a verse:

Heaving itself onto an empty beach,
the sea still finds the energy to give.
I start a task whose end I’ll never reach.
I give you life, not knowing how you’ll live.

And here are the first two lines of a poem called “Virginia Woolf” from Smith’s own blog, Mull and Fiddle:

Veiled in muslin,
intellect like a steel ribbon.

“Intellect like a steel ribbon”. Love the combination of strength and fragility, masculinity and femininity, solidity and fluidity, in that image.

Penelope Layland (b. 1962)

My last poet – but there are many more in Canberra, including one I’ll review soon – has spent pretty much all her life in Canberra. I’m most aware of her through her work as a journalist and columnist but she is also a poet. I’m rather tickled that the poem of hers included in The invisible thread speaks to an earlier Monday Musings, that about the “lost child” theme in Australian literature. The poem was published in 2005 and doesn’t feel dated. The “myth” clearly resonates still. The poem starts:

They search the stock dams first –
neighbours, solid men feigning nonchalance,
the self-righteous, the busy-bodies, the merely excited
and somewhere the father, whose looks keep going
to the bush beyond, gathering itself.

And there you have it … an all too brief introduction to some of our capital women poets.

Who are your favourite women poets?

Monday musings on Australian literature: ACT Writers Showcase

It’s been a good week for literature in the ACT. Not only was the UC Book Project announced but on Thursday, our centenary anthology The invisible thread was launched.

Irma Gold, The invisible thread

Irma Gold, editor, at the launch of The invisible Thread

The launch was a well-organised event: it found the perfect balance between formality and informality, and didn’t run too long! The book was launched by writer Felicity Packard, best known as one of the award winning writers on the Underbelly series. She spoke entertainingly about the invisible threads – people, places, events – between her and the book. It was nicely and appropriately done. She was followed by four readings from the book, three by authors Blanche d’Alpuget, Adrian Caesar and Francesca Rendle-Short, and one by Meredith McKinney, daughter of Judith Wright. Being of a certain age, I related to the fact that Wright’s and Caesar’s poems both dealt in some way with age. Editor Irma Gold concluded the launch with the usual thanks … and the whole was emceed by local radio announcer Alex Sloan. The venue – the New Acton courtyard – was perfect for the warm spring evening. It was a treat to be present.

The invisible thread, by Irma Gold

Cover (Courtesy: Irma Gold and Halstead Press)

Irma has also been interviewing many of the still-living authors included in the anthology. The interviews – and the stylish book trailer – can be seen on her You Tube channel. Well worth checking out during those hazy lazy post-Christmas days if you don’t have time now. Nigel Featherstone whom I’ve reviewed is there, as is the exciting poet and rap artist Omar Musa, as is the new-to-me poet Melinda Smith, as is … well you get the point. More interviews are to be added weekly over the next couple of months.

But, these are not, really, the point of today’s post. At the launch Irma announced another initiative associated with the book – wow, that woman has worked hard. It’s the ACT Writers Showcase, a website dedicated to, obviously, showcasing writers from the ACT. Irma explained at the launch that the anthology includes only 70 of the 100 plus writers considered for it. The showcase is an attempt to ensure that all writers are noticed, promoted and, most importantly, receive the due they deserve. Irma, herself, for example, is not in the book – but she is in the showcase.

Authors can be located via the search box or the writers’ index. There is a brief bio and list of publications for each author, and an excerpt of their work. I’m told this is a pretty unique site – but, whether it is or not, it’s not only a great resource for readers but also makes a significant contribution to documenting “all that’s past and what’s to come”* in ACT literary culture.

Are you aware of any similar initiatives in your corner of the world?

* from “A Valediction”, by Adrian Caesar

Monday musings on Australian literature: Canberra’s centenary

The invisible thread, by Irma Gold

Cover (Courtesy: Irma Gold and Halstead Press)

In 2013 Canberra, Australia‘s national capital, will celebrate its centenary. A whole raft of events and activities has been planned to keep us busy and buzzing all year – and I look forward to them – but for me, a reader, one of the most exciting projects inspired by the centenary is The invisible thread. It’s an anthology of fiction, non-fiction and poetry by writers, past and present, who have had an association with Canberra.

Some 75 writers are represented. Seventy-five! Even I, with my now rather long history in the capital, am surprised by the number, which perhaps gives you a hint to the meaning of the title. Robyn Archer, the Creative Director of the Centenary, writes in the foreword that much about Canberra is hidden or invisible but, she says, “just because you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there”. Like, for example, service stations! We do have them, contrary to popular opinion, we just like to keep them tucked away a little! Bill Bryson also noticed this feature of Canberra in his book Down Under. He wrote:

It’s a very strange city, in that it’s not really a city at all, but rather an extremely large park with a city hidden [my emphasis] in it. It’s all lawns and trees and hedges and a big ornamental lake [Lake Burley Griffin] – all very agreeable, just a little unexpected.

Hence The invisible thread!

Now, I haven’t yet read the book, having only acquired my copy last week, but I’ve given it a good look. And within its pages I’ve found many friends – personal and literary. Some are writers I have reviewed in this blog over the last three years or so, namely Francesca Rendle-Short, Alan Gould, Geoff Page, Alex Miller, Nigel Featherstone and Marion Halligan. Others are classic writers I’ve mentioned in various posts, particularly the Monday Musings series. These include some wonderful women, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, Kate Grenville, Miles Franklin and the collaborative team M Barnard Eldershaw. There are writers I’ve known for reasons external to their writing, like Michael Thorley and Sarah St Vincent Welch. There are young writers like the internationally published Jack Heath and rap artist Omar Musa, and older writers like historian Bill Gammage whose The biggest estate on earth won this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Award and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. And there are some of the grand men of Australian letters, like the poets AD Hope and Les Murray and the historian Manning Clark. If all these don’t tempt readers, I’m not sure who will, except perhaps those I haven’t mentioned!

The book is divided into four sections: Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards, Pts 1 and 2, and Looking In, Looking Out, Pts 1 & 2. Editor Irma Gold*, whose collection of short stories I reviewed earlier this year, describes the breakdown as “open-ended and kaleidoscopic”, and says that while Canberra features in the writings,

it is not the headline act. Rather, it supplies the invisible thread that links writers to each other, as one-time or full-time Canberrans, and to everyone who call Australia home. Like writers everywhere, the writers showcased here are looking both in and out, backwards and forwards, conveying the world through the lens of their experience.

Each of these sections is introduced with a delightful cartoon by Judy Horacek, one of my favourite cartoonists.

I plan to return to this book, when I’ve had time to digest it more, so I’ll finish here on a little anecdote. In 1988, some good friends and I started a reading group, one that will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. Our initial focus was Australian women writers, and so in those early years we read Marion Halligan, Kate Grenville and more. We were Canberra women readers. However, also in 1988, a group of Canberra women writers (which included Marion Halligan and was known as the “Seven Writers”) produced a collection of short stories titled Canberra Tales. Several of those writers are included in this anthology, including Dorothy Johnston. Johnston’s story in that collection, “The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin”, is also in this anthology. Its opening sentence is:

To look at the lake, you’d think nothing dramatic, scarcely anything human happened there.

But how wrong you’d be …

Irma Gold (ed)
The invisible thread
Braddon: Halstead Press, 2012
ISBN: 9781920831967

* To hear interviews with some of the anthology’s authors, check out Irma Gold’s You Tube page

Monday musings on Australian literature: Aussie Lit and Facebook

In writing this week’s Monday Musings I will be venturing a little into my discomfort zone. It’s not that I don’t use Facebook because I do, having been a member since 2007, but that I’m not an expert in how to make the most of it. I figure though that this post might encourage some discussion and teach me a few things in the process. Let’s see …

Early in the life of Facebook, cultural organisations and groups saw that it was the place where people – particularly young ones – were congregating, and so they decided they needed a presence there. Most though, it seemed to me, had no idea what to do with that presence, and their pages languished somewhat. But, in the last year or so, things have changed dramatically. Part of the reason is that Facebook’s functionality has improved, particularly in the way pages now “push” information. Previously, I had to GO to an organisation’s page to see what was happening. There was no way I could remember every organisation on Facebook that I was interested in – and if I did remember, I didn’t have the time to GO to them just on the off-chance they had added something new. Now if I “like” an organisation, its communications appear in my feed. A big improvement – except of course the quantity of material being fed to me can be overwhelming (even with my pretty small list of “friends” and “likes”). I’m not sure what systems are out there to help me manage that … but I assume there are some. If you have any hints, please let me (us) know.

Facebook certainly isn’t my prime source of literary news and information, but I’ve noticed that I’m learning more from its feeds now, than I did even a few months ago.

That’s my intro … the rest of the post will simply list a (highly selected) few of my favourite pages that relate to Australian literature. (I’m not sure whether the Facebook links will work for you if you are not on Facebook, but I’m providing them anyhow).

  • 100 Years of Words is special to me because it relates to the production of an anthology of writing to celebrate the centenary of Canberra, Australia’s capital. The anthology, titled The invisible thread, will be published in 2013. I can’t wait to see it … but in the meantime I am enjoying the literary bits and pieces the team shares about literary things of interest to we capital residents!
  • Australian Women Writers was established in response to discussions over the last couple of years about gender bias in Australian publishing and book selling. I have mentioned the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 on my blog (and have a clickable badge to it in my sidebar). The AWW page aims to network authors, reviewers, bloggers and readers – and is very keen to look at all the genres women write and read in. It serves a broad church (within its gender-limited field).
  • Meanjin (which ran last year’s Aussie Tournament of Books) is a good example of a literary magazine Facebook page that keeps me in touch with their magazine, their blog and general literary news.
  • Text Publishing and Allen & Unwin are two publishers whose feeds I find useful, partly because they publish overseas authors as well as Aussie ones. I’m not totally nationalistic, you see!

In addition to the above are pages for writers centres (such as the NSW Writers Centre), literary festivals (such as the Melbourne Writers Festival), blogs (such as my friend Lisa’s ANZLitLovers), and so on. There are also author pages, but I’ve not generally found them to be particularly useful for general literary news. I guess that’s natural. They’re primarily about promoting their own books.

Finally, just to show that I’m not totally rah-rah about new technologies, much as I appreciate the benefits, I’ll close with a quote from a post on Meanjin’s blog. The writer James Douglas discusses Jaron Lanier‘s book, You are not a gadget. Here’s Douglas’ conclusion:

The message is simple: the tools available to us from digital technologies, especially the tools that afford us the opportunity to ‘publish’ ourselves—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.—may offer us exciting and stimulating opportunities for communication, but they also change us as people. It is our own responsibility to pay attention to what these tools do to us, how they express our individuality, how they value or devalue our work. This, I think, is one way to make sense of DeLillo’s remarks that email encourages ‘a response that I may not be willing to execute.’ The immediacy of email, in DeLillo’s view, interpellates him as an individual marked by ‘availability’; accessible and responsive to contact. Web 2.0 open culture may necessitate open people, which is not always to our benefit.

There’s much to think about here on how we engage with social media. For me it’s not a case of not doing it, but of working out what I’d like to get from it and trying to keep it to that. Easier said than done, and I recognise that some impacts on me may be subliminal, but I plan to keep trying.

I’d love to know if you use Facebook and, if you do, what you like and don’t like about it. Do you primarily use it for communication with friends, or is it also a useful tool for news in your areas of interest?