I have to admit that few people who know me well would use the words “sports fan” to describe me. I’m appreciative of sports, of the rigor with which the athlete trains his or her body and even find a great deal of beauty in the enterprise. It’s not uncommon to see great dramas unfold on the field, and I love that idea of a huge number of people sharing a transcendent moment. And yet it’s rare that I sit down and really watch. When I do, I enjoy it—but I enjoy so many things, and when it’s athleticism I want to see I prefer to watch dance, or else the circus. (Since I’ve taken classes in both of these areas, perhaps it’s not so surprising. Whereas the one time I played touch rugby I was rubbish at it; I contend that this is in large part because I didn’t know the rules and at fifteen I was playing with a bunch of army enlistees in their twenties. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suppose that this affected my ability to put in a good showing.)
The exception to the rule is tennis. Coming to Melbourne for a family Christmas, I decided to stay through January so I could see some of the Australia Open in person, and watch the rest of it on the television set at my parents’ house. This week I put in a nine hour day of spectating: nine hours, and I didn’t open a book to read once. There are not many things, besides Christian Marclay’s mesmerising film work The Clock, and Dumas’s thrilling The Count of Monte Cristo that can hold my attention for nine hours at a time. Orson Welles might die at midnight every night, and the mysterious Count who was once a Corsican boy might take revenge at regular intervals, but when the players are playing a fifth set to advantage, the outcome is not foreordained, even if respective rankings suggest otherwise. I like to pick an underdog and hope he’ll rise to the second week of the action; almost invariably this leads to heartbreak.
Keep reading here…
When I was growing up, all the women in my house were using needles. I’ve always had a fascination with the needle, the magic power of the needle. The needle is used to repair damage. It’s a claim to forgiveness. It is never aggressive, it’s not a pin.
Last week I went to see the exhibition of Louise Bourgeois’s late works currently on display at Heide in Melbourne. It was a pleasure to go back to Heide for the first time in years—when I lived in the Banyule Flats area, I would often walk out to Heide for an afternoon, and going to see the current exhibitions was a somewhat nostalgic experience for me. It was also nostalgic because in 2009 I attended the retrospective of her work held at the Hirshhorn Gallery in Washington DC: a huge amount of space was given over to Bourgeois’s entire career. I had never heard of her before I attended that retrospective, but came away entirely converted. Both her use of text (predictable for the poet) and her use of the needle were particularly moving to me. I love, too, that the everyday materials of her own life become the materials of so much of her art—literally. Many of her sculptures incorporate the textiles of her own clothes. Entering Bourgeois’s world feels very intimate.
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I can only say that I am a creature of fits and starts, of ebb and flow. Finding myself ready to return to a blog, I also find that my blog is out of date. I am no longer the Sydney City Poet, though I want to continue with many of the threads I picked up with that role. I hope that in time that someone else will have the opportunity to pick up the mantle of the “City Poet” and no doubt whoever does so will make the role his or her own. As for me, I want to continue reflecting on art, literature and individual poems. As such, I will both be writing here, and at the same time migrating the content of the Sydney City Poet blog to Stitched with its Colour.
As well as posting new material there, I will gradually repost still-relevant items from this site as well in order to consolidate my work in one place. If you’re interested, please follow me on this new voyage…
As a blogger I have been, apparently, feeling rather ursine and gone into something like a hibernation mode for the winter. Which is not to say that I haven’t been writing, reading, thinking, attending—but that I have been recording more in my own diary and notebooks than I have in the public space of a blog. I can only hope that, in person, I haven’t seemed too bearish to friends.
I suspect my sudden hibernation it goes hand-in-hand with my own awakening (yet again) to my own ignorance. It is a periodic occurrence, like that moment when you step out of your own home library, where you are proud of all the books you have read, into the vast collection of a university or state library and realise how much knowledge you will never have. I find these moments incredibly humbling and also invigorating—but they do prompt me to put my head down and just try to get a little smarter rather than running to the keyboard. For all the odd facts I have accumulated and delighted in (eg. that tapirs bare their teeth and raise their snouts when they smell, a move known as the “Flehman response”; that the takin, a goat-antelope, is the national animal of Bhutan; that you can tell the sex of a Little Penguin by measuring its beak) I know scarcely anything of the world. And for all my reading in and around the particular area of literature (gleaning such tidbits as the fact that Christopher Smart was put in an insane asylum essentially for being “too devout”; that according to Euripides’s Helen, the Helen transported to Troy was a fake—the real Helen was secreted elsewhere, virtue intact; that Charles Olson, before he became the author of the Maximus Poems, was obsessed with Moby Dick—just as Dan Beachy-Quick, the contemporary American poet I am spending much of my time studying at the moment, is also obsessed) even there I feel that I have learned very little. Sometimes I even get the basics of prosody mixed up: I know my iambs, my trochees, my spondees and even my choriambs—but will often get my anapaests and my dactyls mixed up. (Lets leave those other feet out of it for now.) It is the same for us all, and I imagine that in such sobering moments of realisation we all want to listen a little more, clamour a little less.
I often return to moments from childhood reading to remind myself of things. In the case of my ignorance I remember, among other things, a moment in Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Mrs Which, Mrs Who and Mrs Whatsit give the children gifts to help them complete their quest, and Meg, the central character, is a little miffed when she is gifted her faults. Half the time I will burble on about the odd bits of trivia—mixed in with the moments of insight I have had; but then I go quiet as I remember that above all I am a student. On a daily basis I remember there is much to learn. Among things I would like to learn (or learn about) right now are the names of all the types of trees that grow in the suburb around me, the work of the Transcendentalists, how early explorers experienced the world as they “discovered” it, how to make more things with my own two hands, the basics of sailing, the physics behind the “singing” of icebergs, to navigate by the stars… and… how many other things?
I recently read the new book Quiet: as a study of introversion in a society that largely valorises extroversion, I found myself nodding in recognition at its descriptions on nearly every page. Though I am often loquacious and can “pass” as an extrovert in many situations, I generally fall strongly into the introversion column. One thing introverts need is down time after stimulation: and being the “City Poet” has ensured plenty of stimulation. It’s stimulation I have been incredibly grateful for—anything that provokes further thought is a gift—but that has also left me seeking the quiet conversation that takes place between the pen in my hand and the notebook on my desk.
So I ask that you forgive a quiet spell—and also encourage you to take some quiet time for yourself. I’ve been enjoying taking a book to Sydney Park on sunny afternoons and reading aloud to the ducks and passing dogs. (I clam up when other people are nearby; I don’t want to appear too strange. The animals don’t begrudge me the pleasures of reading aloud, and seem quiet interested in it actually.) On drizzly days I wander around the park with my umbrella, looking over the wetlands and searching along the ground for a four leaf clover. This is slow time, reverent time.
I’ve written before of slow time. Blogging takes place in fast time, but we all need periods of renewal. In her journals Susan Sontag wrote “Work = being in the world.” My way of being in the world lately has been circumspect, but I feel that as a result of this I will have dispatches to send back soon.
“Right or wrong, this is the road and we are on it.”
This is Gertrude Stein speaking to Alice B. Toklas—though I admit I have found it in Jeanette Winterson’s book Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Unlike Winterson, I somehow haven’t yet made it to this particular part of the section of “S” in the modern library, though I own a copy of Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and am once more reminded that I must read it. It moves up the pile. That in turn brings Stein’s Tender Buttons out for a rereading too. She also has me yearning to pull out Virginia Woolf again. So it shall be, once I finish reading Jeanette herself.
I recently realised that I’ve been reading Jeanette Winterson for more than half my life, and when I saw her at the writers’ festival in Sydney recently I told her that she is one of the reasons I am a writer. It is true that I had always written, and had always wanted to write, but I was also raised with true pragmatism, such that whenever I stated that I wanted to be a writer, I would be asked, “What else will you be?” I took it that the “what else” (answers were usually the obvious ones for a child bent on learning: a doctor; a lawyer; a vet) would be the career that took precedence, and that writing would be my hobby. Reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit as a teenager, and later the essays of Art Objects, I saw that it was possible to live mostly on books and grit.
I often tell people that “I take art daily,” as is proclaimed on a badge I bought in the Guggenheim museum in Berlin in 2003. I have gasped in front of artworks. I have gone to galleries to spend an hour or two with just one painting: sitting in front of it and looking, then turning to a book or letter or piece of homework for a while—then looking back to see what else I notice. Music—which I studied seriously for a long time, and wrote almost as seriously for a number of years at the Conservatorium—has long been a part of my life. Alongside all the wonderful concerts and recordings I have attended and heard there have been, in particular, three truly profound musical experiences in my life. These have made me understand why so many people say that all art “aspires to the condition of music”. Between the supposed celestial “music of the spheres” and the fact that many plants thrive not just when talked to, but when played to, music strikes me as absolute essential. I don’t play often anymore, but there is true joy for me in singing freely.
When I first heard a friend perform the fifth movement (Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus) of Olivier Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps from memory—eyes closed, she swayed with her cello, as if the two were a single animal, as the pianist accompanying her gently and insistently provided the constant pulse that tethers the movement to the earth—just—at the pace indicated: infiniment lent.The circumstances in which the quartet was written (composed for the only four instruments available in the Prisoner of War camp in which Messiaen was held during World War II: though sketches of some of the music had existed before Messiaen entered the camp) infuse the eight movements. It is the fifth movement in particular, which the violin and clarinet sit out, that makes me escape my own skin a little.
Nonetheless it is books that I feel have saved my life, their earthliness and earthiness a particularly important part of the way they fill a basic need in me.
So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language—and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is.
It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place. —
—Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
During my first year living in Ann Arbor, I was inspired by a group of poets in the year above me who, as the WCWPCCS (the Washtenaw County Women’s Poetry Collective and Casserole Society), published a chapbook of collaborative poems. Though others made appearances in it (including male poets) the primary collaborators were Amy Berkowitz, Beth Divis, Emma Gorenberg, Kellen Grady, Elisa McCool and Jessica Young. Their first chapbook was called The Feeling is Mutual. Having not written collaboratively for a few years at that stage (and then only on theatrical and operatic works) I was inspired by the ways in which the group mind opened out so many possibilities.
This was further highlighted in my first workshop in Ann Arbor, in which we discussed one of Elisa McCool’s poems. She used the phrase “the third mind” (which she in turn told us she had found from Anne Waldman—though it has been used by many people) and reading that made something click for me. Bringing together two things, a third thing emerges that is the thread linking the two. To collaborate with another is to create a third mind: because anyone who has really let themselves enter this alchemical process knows that what emerges is a creative neither collaborator could have made alone.
While still in Michigan I participated in a few collaboration sessions, and always found them incredibly rejuvenating; since getting back I’ve pulled out a notebook with relative frequency when sitting with other people to see what happens. Not knowing what will happen is among the most exciting parts of the game: something appears, sometimes quite lumpishly, word by word or line by line or in any other increments that seem to work—and suddenly there it is.
As a writer, I live in my own head a lot of the time. I’m not the only person I know who fits that description. When in social situations I am usually jolly, but I often creep away from events early to recharge quietly at home. I chase the subjects I want to write about obsessively, and that often involves being alone with the page. I don’t mind these things: I like that time spent in thought. But I’ve discovered that writing with someone else can also be a form of rejuvenation: because the discoveries in those conversational poems are often so surprising.
Tomorrow (Sunday 27 May) I’m giving a reading at the Brett Whiteley Studio (2 Raper Street, Surry Hills; the reading is at 2pm—there is no charge) with friends and fellow poets Michelle Cahill and Toby Fitch. For this reading I wanted to think about the fact that this monthly reading series takes place in a gallery—and a gallery that was once the working space of one of Australia’s most iconic artists. At the moment Whiteley’s massive work “Alchemy” is on display: what better subject for collaboration? It’s all alchemy.
As poets we have all responded to Whiteley’s art in different ways—in our ways collaborating with the artist himself—but one element of the reading that I’m looking forward to is reading a couple of collaborative poems written with Toby Fitch as we pored over Whiteley’s work. As a reading this is something of an experiment—both nerve-wracking and exciting. As ever, I’m glad to have found myself in such a state: doing something new to me that I hope proves as refreshing to an audience as it has been for myself as a writer.
Brett Whiteley Studio
2 Raper Street, Surry Hills
2pm, no charge
I often think that it is in the final line of a poem that the reader’s relationship to a poem really begins: it’s the last line that sends a reader back to the beginning of a poem that they will really love. These endings may open the poem out, resist a definitive “reading”, or they may feel like everything shuts up tight, a sprung trap. I’ve certainly heard arguments for both, and there are poets that have a decided preference for “open” or “closed” endings. For myself I find both approaches offer much to the reader: the widening view, the well-handled but slightly diffuse ending of course invites rereading as we seek to find out more about the processes, mechanisms, language, world of the poem; on the other hand, that sprung-trap feeling of a poem that brings everything together does not cut off the relationship of reader to poem, and invites the question “How did he/she do that?” just as much as the poem that contains, in Whitman’s words, multitudes.
David Campbell is a poet whose work I first encountered as an undergraduate: I was in a teacher’s office, and he was looking at some bits of poems for what I thought might turn into a verse novel. A particular phrase made him pull down a volume from the shelf and open to this poem, “Mothers and Daughters.” The longer I’ve spent with this poem the more astonished I am at its simplicity, and the way in which is simply works. Though I doubt I will ever write a verse novel now, I’m grateful that this long-aborted project brought me the gift of this poem.
The whole poem is a single sentence—a difficult feat, not made much easier for being just eight lines long; the lines are short, with two or three “beats” per line. There is enough regularity here that the poem may, overall, be considered formal, though enough variations in that regularity that the suddenly straight iambic motion of the last two lines have the effect of great propulsion; similarly, the rhyme scheme—a balladic ABCB—is only gentle in the first stanza of the poem, as the slant rhyme of “forty” and “beauty” hits the ear as intentional, but also loose. That slant rhyme also plays out something of the poet’s vision of the relationship between “forty” and “beauty”: in this poem they don’t quite meet. As such when the second and final stanza uses the full rhyme in conjunction with the regular meter, the whole poem falls—seemingly effortlessly—into place.
So much here, too, is carried in the adjectives: there is nothing flashy about the words Campbell chooses, but they all feel terribly apt and irreplaceable. The once-“cruel girls” are held up against their “subtle daughters”; it is not just the eyes of these daughters but their stare that is “blue” (a hue that, of course, has both visual and emotional registers) and “cool” with surprise; against the subtlety and coolness of the new generation, the “anxious mothers” almost bristle, so that when these two generations are collapsed into one attitude, the tensions rise even as the poem locks into place. The girls who stare at their mothers “with their mothers eyes” presumably bear the cruelty and anxiety of their mother, while those mothers reflect coolness and a hint of mockery. The poem is elegant and taut, but in its eight lines presents the complexity of the relationship depicted with a startling clarity that is anything but simple.
A selection of David Campbell’s poems is available in the volume Hardening the Light, published in 2006 by Indigo.
Mothers and Daughters
The cruel girls we loved
Are over forty,
Their subtle daughters
Have stolen their beauty;
And with a blue stare
Of cool surprise,
They mock their anxious mothers
With their mothers’ eyes.
To believe that any appreciation implies a unified theory of value in art, to believe that a critic must develop one, is to commit at least on logical fallacy: it is to assume that just because “poem” and “poetry” refer to a relatively stable, relatively well-defined class of things, we must appreciate or deprecate all such things for the same reason, must ask them to serve the same goals. In fact, I go to Pope for this, to Keats for that, to Dickinson for a third thing, and would not willingly part with any of the three. The same holds for contemporary poetry: I do not seek ingenious compression and riddling wit from Les Murray, nor from Bernadette Mayer; I do not look for extended, shamanic engagements with the raw forces of the id from Kay Ryan. I do not look for deft comfort amid centuries-old techniques when I read Denise Riley, nor do I look for intellectually ambitious embodiments of poststructuralist feminism in Richard Wilbur. Yet all these desiderata (comic treatments, oneiric reenvisionings, and so on) are to be had in some of the poets just named. The map of poetry in English, in this respect, resembles the map of the New York City subway: many trains run to many destinations, and some routes overlap for much of their lengths, but not all trains run at all times. — Stephen Burt, Close Calls with Nonsense: Reading New Poetry
Many years ago I wrote a poem dedicated to one of my teachers that ended with the lines “Still I seem to need so much teaching/ still I am so unteachable.” Besides giving the poem as a small gift, I haven’t done anything else with it except, I hope, build on whatever skill I had at the time I wrote it.
Since that time, I suspect the sentiment of these lines has stayed true, though I have come under the eye of many more teachers in the intervening years. I’ve been thinking a great deal about my choice to study poetry: I was initially resistant to undertaking an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree in writing because I too questioned the degree to which creative disciplines could be taught. Having acted as both student and teacher, I have come over the course of many years to believe that, in fact, a great deal can be taught—and that at the same time what is “so unteachable” is a certain wildness that is perhaps what I most seek out when I look for new poets to read.
And despite this notion that, at the core of it all, there is something that can’t be taught, can’t be learned, the truth is that I have learned an incredible amount from both formal and informal relationships with more experienced poets—as well as from younger poets, friends and peers, from students, and of course from books.
I first realised how much I needed teaching when I gave my first attempt at blank verse to my first teacher, poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe. He had been very encouraging with the poems I had shown him previously. When he gave me back this one the only words written on it were “Flat as a pancake.” No comment on the fact that I was writing in a formal metre, or any other elements—because, in reality, there was no reason to comment on these things. What I had given him was a failed poem, and though I was proud for having tortured language into an iambic flow, all that hard work had killed off whatever was special in the poem. Perhaps if I had never been taught anything else that single line of feedback would have been enough: I think it is still the most significant I have ever received.
It was this feedback, which stung my eighteen-year-old self greatly, that made me realise how much work is involved in poetry. That maybe after I’d written another one or two hundred iambic lines I would find a good one; that after I’d experiment with another one or two hundred caesuras I would be able to see the ways in which a pause best enhances the line.
I was told a story by another friend and mentor about her own early days writing poetry, relating one of the first times she read her poetry to an audience. Afterward, amid the congratulations, someone said to her, “You are good, but you need to write another hundred poems.” Though this was a lesson received second-hand, it’s another I have come back to. Several years ago I took trapeze lessons, and one of my teachers told me that he was only ever allowed to perform a trick without the harness after he had performed it perfectly over a hundred times. All those studies on the passage from novice status to something like expertise are right. There are things that can be taught (such as how to recognise when your work is flat as a pancake) and other things that can’t be—such as the grit to recognise that a poem is a failure, and the next ten, or one hundred, may well be failures too, but to keep working anyway. That when you’ve worked so hard on a poem that the seams are showing, that you need to work as hard again to make the thing seamless.