When all is said and done, poets love words. I have read many poems that were clearly written in part to catalogue a beloved lexicon, a set of “shoptalk,” and these poems are almost always in some way playful; fanciful. I have also contemplated that old saw about the Eskimos many a time: that they have many, many terms for snow. What I enjoy so much about Judith Beveridge’s poem “Liam” touches on both these ideas, because Beveridge provides a partial catalogue of winds, and that catalogue inverts this idea about a single language inventing all these words for different characteristics of a weather phenomenon, and shows instead a language inheriting these words for winds that vary in their character all over the globe. A samoon is not a sirocco. Beyond this, the poem exists as more than this catalogue of winds: it is also a portrait of Liam, the new boy on this fishing boat that is central to the narrative sequence of poems at the heart of Judith Beveridge’s Storm and Honey. As a portrait, though, the poem stands alone, even as the other characters present through Storm and Honey stand at the edges.
In my imagination, the act of fishing is a leisurely pursuit—but those tranquil hours of waiting for the fish to bite are simply my own naive association when I think of anglers. Not so in this and other poems in Storm and Honey, which follows commercial, rather than leisured, fishermen. “Liam” forces the reader to forget any idyllic ideas at the outset, so that the slowed pace that enters mid-poem is truly a surprise. Not only does the speaker “drive [his] blade into the fish’s anal opening” (how can one not be arrested by such a seemingly anti-poetic opening?) but he also drives the reader into an uncompromising poem that literally offers up the guts, and becomes not only a portrait of Liam, but also of the speaker. There is a distinctive character to the language: the specifics of the fish bodies around which the speaker is so comfortable (“I can smell/ the urea turning into ammonia”), the easy slang (“pissing against the pylons”; “Liam reckons”; “I hope Grennan doesn’t sack him”) and directness—“But I like Liam.” Beyond these features, the poem is distinctly physical, as the speaker drives, cuts, lifts, scoops, pulls, showing the reader a this bustle of activity.
Until that bustle slows. Halfway into the poem a stillness takes us by surprise, as “the silence goes on” amid the thoughts of our narrator, and Liam’s musings breaks into that silence. In contrast to the active speaker, Liam appears passive, looking up at the clouds, revealing his wish to lie down or to sit in different places in the world as his beloved winds blow through. This ritardando allows the reader to see the control Beveridge has over the musical and narrative pace of the poem.
This slowed interval of wind-talk stretches into the moment the poem resumes work, as the speaker suddenly tells us “I sever another fish’s head…” as, all of a sudden, he too stops to watch, likening the pelican who comes to take away the fish guts to a windsock raised by the breeze.
"Liam" appears in Judith Beveridge’s collection Storm and Honey, available from Giramondo.
I drive my blade into the fish’s anal opening, cutting through the belly all the way to the gills. I lift out the innards then scoop away the reddish brown kidney line from along the backbone. I cut across the belly flap, pull the fillet back, run my knife right through to the thick silver skin on the fish’s underside. I look over at Liam, the new boy. Already I can tell he’s ruined the afternoon’s catch of wobbegong. Grennan had told him to clean under the backbone, to remove all the blood and spleen, but he hasn’t drained all the blood out and I can smell the urea turning into ammonia. Girolamo, the fishmonger, when he smells the pungent odour, will not buy our catch. Liam has left the cleaning tables and is down by the shore pissing against the pylons and the truck tyres used to stop ferries banging into the wharf. Yesterday when we were cleaning, we found a bottle of old bourbon in a bull shark’s stomach. The top was starting to corrode, the label to dissolve. Later I found Liam behind the boatshed snoring, giving off loud burps. He reckons he once worked with a fisherman who opened up a mako and found a roll of lino and a tin drum. But I like Liam. We don’t talk much, we just think our thoughts while the silence goes on. Sometimes he’ll look up at the clouds riding quickly overhead and he’ll tell me about winds: virazon, zondo, bayamo, chinook, samoon, sirocco, tramontana. He knows which shores, deserts, oceans and mountains they all blow in from, which ones can reach hurricane force, how some will blow around the planet for months. He tells me one day he wants to lie down on the pampas grasslands of Uruguay just when the cold pamper follows the path of a depression as it tracks up from the south bringing its squall lines and heavy rain; to follow the cold blast of the williwaw into the Straits of Magellan; or sit where the dust-laden leveche brings the tang of mint, goats and lemons from Morocco into southern Spain. I know Liam will leave one day on a steady breeze, go somewhere inland. I hope Grennan doesn’t sack him. I sever another fish’s head, throw the guts to the pelicans, watch one of them lift as lightly as a windsock as it heads for the sea.
In “Ego Dominus Tuus” W. B. Yeats writes “A style is found by sedentary toil/ And by the imitation of great masters.” This is a much-quoted maxim, one which I have recently come to think about more and more as I have become increasingly fascinated by the process of imitation in my own practice. Placed alongside T. S. Eliot’s famous quip that “good poets borrow, great poets steal,” these words have given me a lot to think about regarding exactly how it is poets come to claim their place in a tradition.
In the first workshop I took as an MFA student in poetry at the University of Michigan, our teacher asked us to write five imitations of poems by poets who we read in translation in addition to producing the usual portfolio of poems during the semester. Many members of the class were confused by this request, which wasn’t explained any further, allowing us, as I saw it, to come up with our own definitions of an imitation. For me imitation came from the physical vessel of the poems I chose: from stanzaic form to line length to poetic devices (eg. slant rhyme, open-ended questioning) to perspective, I tried to keep these original elements in place, at the same time choosing an entirely different subject matter. (There are a few exceptions to this “different subject matter” trend, in which I have written direct responses to poets.) I found this a remarkably exciting exercise, and one that I have come back to again and again. At the time I graduated from the University of Michigan many of my friends—and teachers—were adopting projects or goals to keep or renew our writing momentum. I landed on a resolution to make imitations a regular part of my poetic practice. By doing so I have happened upon many poems I believe I would never have written without that impetus to start with a form and fill it with words.
The above image show New South Head Road over a century ago, in 1908. Want to compare the view this weekend?
Things seem to be getting busy in the life of this City Poet; and while last Saturday I had the pleasure of hearing someone else read my words at the inaugural “Acting on Ink” performance at the State Library of NSW (alongside wonderful poems by Robert Adamson, Jennifer Maiden, Cate Kennedy and Mark Tredennick), this coming Saturday I’ll be reading and speaking myself when I appear in conversation with Johanna Featherstone (of Red Room Company fame) at the Woollahra Local Writers’ Word Festival. An excuse to spend the whole day in Woollahra? And the opportunity to speak with people whom I might otherwise never meet? I think this sounds like fun.
The festival itself is small: there are only a few guests. Besides Johanna and myself, the novelist Adriana Koulias will be speaking about her journey as a writer, while Irina Dunn of the Australian Writers’ Network and Andy Palmer from Allen and Unwin will be leading the audience into the nuts and bolts of publishing. However the real focus is on celebrating the shortlisted and winning writers in this year’s Woollahra Writers’ Competition. This seems fitting for a local festival, and I’m glad to be a part of it.
If you live nearby and would like to join us for the day, apparently it’s best to book ahead: the event is from 10 until 4 this Saturday 26th November at Woollahra Council, 536 New South Head Road, Double Bay. To find out more you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The above image shows poet Frank O’Hara with Robert Motherwell, René d’Harnoncourt and Nelson Rockefeller at the Museum of Modern Art’s Robert Motherwell exhibition, curated by O’Hara. Among O’Hara’s poems drawing on art is the wonderful “Why I am Not a Painter.”
As you most likely already know, as the Sydney City Poet my work this year includes the writing of a series of poems in response to works of art. The artists and artworks I’m choosing make Sydney their subject in some way: for me, this project seemed the perfect way to address the aims of a role such of mine: through these poems I want to celebrate Sydney, and celebrate the place of art in our lives. (As I told a room of people in Newcastle in October, when I visited the Guggenheim Museum in Berlin, I bought a badge that proudly declared “I take art daily!” I hope that others find parts of their day to wrestle with the beauty and difficulty of different art forms as well.) If anyone is wondering, the idea for this series of poems was mine and grew out of my interest in ekphrastic verse as a result of writing, among other examples of ekphrasis, a suite of poems on works by the Heidelberg School artists. When I wrote those poems earlier this year I was still living in Michigan, in what always felt like the “wrong” season, and the images I returned to most frequently were images of works painted very close to the home in which I grew up, alongside Banyule Flats in Melbourne.
It is often the case that when I think of a city I have a strong association if some object with it: sometimes it will be the obvious landmark, but at other times it will be some other touchstone. In Melbourne, those Heidelberg School artists had guided the way I saw the city. Though I have visited New York City a number of times, I somehow find that whenever the city arises in conversation, my first thought is of the day I read Henry James’s novel Washington Square while sitting in Washington Square. When I think of Sofia, I think not only of the mark Alexander Nevsky cathedral makes on the skyline, but also of the luminous icons that are visible everywhere you turn. And when I think of Sydney, one of the first images that springs to mind is that of Brett Whiteley’s painting Balcony 2.
“The place of reading is a kind of yonder world, a place that is neither here nor there but made up of the bits and pieces of experience in every sense, both real and fictional, two categories that become harder to separate the more you think of them.”—Siri Hustvedt, from “Yonder,” Yonder: Essays
Meeting in the Hungry Middle: A Conversation with Kent MacCarter
I first met Kent MacCarter in 2005 when we shared a dinner of rabbit together at a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend. It was my first rabbit, and also my first exposure to the names of a number of American poets Kent threw out during the conversation that evening. We were intermittently in contact after that, but my recent return from studies in the USA—Kent hails from Montana (by way of Minnesota and New Mexico)—has given us much to talk about.
When I met up with Kent to conduct this interview, he had recently begun moving with his wife and child within the suburb of Preston. Not quite settled into his new home—an email followed a week or two later celebrating the arrival of furniture—we met at the High Street café Umberto’s on a Sunday afternoon, where we shared piccolo coffees and the following conversation.
As your publisher notes in the blurb of your collection, the poems of In the Hungry Middle of Here are international in flavour. What struck me, however, was how much of the Australian idiom is present in the poems. How conscious have you been to make use of Australian phrases?
For the poems in that book, I was very conscious of doing it, as I was enamoured of Melbourne and Australia immediately. I didn’t really start writing seriously until about a year after I came to Australia—until about 2005—and I’ve always thought of Melbourne as a bit of a muse. I can’t exactly say why, though if I could it would probably be inaccurate.
I’m geographically minded, so I’ve been exploring place in my poems. The one thing that is hugely different about Australia and America is the language—the idiom, the bend and the pitch of voice, Living here, I’ve found the sound of Australian English fascinating. So making use of that voice was very intentional through In the Hungry Middle of Here, though I’ve pulled back on it a lot now. It adds flavour to that book, but I suppose it has a limited life span for me.
Can you tell me about what limitations you might find in deliberately seeking out that Australian tone?
Like any gesture, if I keep doing it, it seems like I could write myself into a cul-de-sac.
I’m always a little paranoid about beginning provincial in some way. Whenever I read anywhere, and they come to introduce me, I always hear, “And the American…” So that gets you couched a certain way. And when I read at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, I’d say that three out of four comments that I received were along the lines of, “You write very Americanly…”
When I hear that, I say, “Okay. That’s a fair assessment—but can you tell me what you mean?” And people say, “Well, I can’t really tell you what I mean, but it just sounds so American. I just don’t want to get forever mired in the linguistic of slang: it can be a cheapening effect, whether it’s Australian or American slang. It can certainly be used to good effect at times—but if it’s too big of a footprint in your work, it really can look shoddy. So the Australian slang probably made a slightly bigger footprint in the third of the book that is set in Australia specfically—but I’m still proud of most of the book.
I imagine there are moments in everyone’s lives in which they experience or witness an event that seem so highly distilled that it is already something like a poem or other work of art. That was my first reaction to reading John Mateer’s “The President,” the opening poem of his latest collection Southern Barbarians. And yet, these moments that seem to arrive as poems are difficult to write: while “The President” has the light touch of anecdote, that light touch is deceptive. It is easy to miss the skill it takes to write a poem that exists almost as a single breath.
Xanana Gusmão, the president alluded to in the title of the poem, goes only by his first name—and how much power can be derived from the choice not to name him in full! As simply “Xanana” he is more approachable, that approach more personal. Yet, with the title solely pointing to his presidential position, this poetic subject also grows: he is his role in this moment in Melbourne. Mateer’s mingling of the person and the office is deft, and it is important to the shape of the work that the president does not speak until the final line, though of course his speech is the occasion for the poem.
This poem, too, is utterly of the moment: the poem is international in fascinating ways. The president of East Timor, one the world’s newest nations (well, in this latest iteration of its statehood, most recently free of the imposed rule of Indonesia) is sitting in a city thousands of miles away—in another nation famed for it’s supposed “youth.” Yet the old world of empire lingers: the President wants to write a Lusíadas for his nation. The spectre of Portugal looms. There have been other president-poets—Senghor, Cesaire—and they too have wished to write poems that would contribute to and shape a national identity. Mateer’s president reminds us that in fact poetry can be—is—important to how we think of ourselves in the world.
And then there is that final line, the reported speech of the president. First, Mateer has shaped it, giving the line, if you will, a double caesura by the addition of the words, “he mused.” “Mused” is perhaps the most charged verb used in a poem of deceptive simplicity. Musing (ah, the echo of the Muse!) gestures toward the uncertainty that the poem’s close captures.
Finally, of course, there is speech itself, the occasion from which the poem clearly arose for its author. That search for a rhyme, familiar to many a poet (even those who work largely within free verse—which so often includes internal rhymes), without the naming of those potential rhymes: badness; madness; or, perhaps, gladness. The restraint here, the decision to leave just this word sadness, lingering for the reader, is what creates the poem’s power.
“The President” appears in John Mateer’s collection Southern Barbarians, available from Giramondo.
Author photograph by Monica Esteves Alonso.
Xanana was on a chair outside in the Melbourne cold, puffing on a cigarette and again trying to translate the words he intended to recite before his speech that night. His biographer sat with him, prepared for his chain-smoking and with the knowledge that he had already published a few cantos of what he imagined could be a Lusíadas for East Timor. She was hoping he wasn’t struggling with that: her teeth were chattering. What is another English word, he mused, that rhymes with sadness?
I am in the process of organising the first real “event”—a reading—for my role as the Sydney City Poet. To be held at 6pm in the evening on 10 November in Wendy Whiteley’s garden in Lavender Bay, the reading will feature the first of the six poems I am writing in my official capacity, alongside short readings by Robert Adamson, Judith Beveridge, Martin Harrison and Fiona Wright. With these poets involved I’m sure it will be terrific… Please keep your fingers crossed for the thunderstorms to hold off.
As a result of this impending event, I have of course been working on the poem I am producing for the reading—a response to Brett Whiteley’s painting Balcony 2, currently on display at the Art Gallery of NSW—but I have also been busy thinking about logistics.
I am, I have discovered, quite capable of organising things: in June 2010 I had the wonderful experience of being the Associate Director of the RAWI Arab American Writers’ Conference in Michigan, working with poet, mentor and friend Khaled Mattawa. It helped that, in my role, I never once thought of saying “No” when anything was asked of me: there’s something wonderful about just getting on with it all.
I do find, however, that I don’t always find the best ways to balance my workload when I’m both organising other people and writing: the two tasks require such different parts of the self, and while people know me as quite outgoing, this is something I have learned to be. My writing self definitely bends toward the quieter homebody.
As is the case with so many people, I go through phases when I am reading a lot and phases when I scarcely seem to glance at a new book. Perhaps it is the real arrival of springtime, or the feeling of settling into my office and new home, but I am reading a lot at present. Though I plan to write some more formal reviews of things on the office desk and bedside table, I thought I would map out my reading here.
First, there have been poetic discoveries: not all of the discovered poets are entirely new to me, but still they bear that stamp because when I previously read them it hasn’t been the right time to let them seep in. I am grateful that I’ve so often had the opportunity to revise my opinion of books with rereading, and it makes me quite happy to put down a book I’m not sinking into and say the words—“Not Yet.”
Well, this month has been the opposite of “Not Yet,” leaning towards, instead, the “Yes! Now!” Perhaps chief among these has been my opportunity to dive deep into the works of Robert Adamson. Before this month I had dabbled, borrowed volumes from libraries, been diverted here and there. In contrast, this October I have gorged myself. While there are so many of his books worth looking into, I’ve particularly enjoyed the inventive forms of Waving to Hart Crane and the clarity and directness of the more recent The Goldfinches of Baghdad.