Saturday, May 31, 2008

What I'm reading...

By Tracy

Not much else is happening, because poor Tim is still sick, and we're a bit housebound. We'd hoped to take him to the Model Railway Show over this long weekend, as we've been twice in past years, but even without the tonsillitis, Perth's weather would be a bit daunting: around 40mm of rain in a day -- we spent most of the day on edge checking the radar to be prepared if it hit up here in the wheatbelt, but nothing doing. (Not that I'm complaining -- I am no fan of storms.)

So we still have light to read by (apparently 20,000 homes across Perth lost power today, though most had it restored), and this is what I've been dipping into:

The new (very new, just launched on Thursday night) anthology from the Fellowship of Australian Writers' WA branch, Lines in the sand: new writing from Western Australia, edited by Glen Phillips and Julienne Van Loon. There are too many highlights to list here, but they start from the very first piece, Liz Byrski's unforgettable "The Man Who Wasn't There", about those who returned facially disfigured from WWII and the way in which they were treated -- in all senses, medically, socially and emotionally -- in the town of East Grinstead, Sussex, which was also the town of Liz Byrski's childhood, so there is a personal angle to this reportage.

I also appreciated Carol Millner's short, deft prose-piece, "Say World", understated and yet so telling, about a mother's migrant experience re-examined by her grown daughter. Apparently this story had previously won the Joyce Parkes Writers' Prize, sponsored by the Australian Irish Heritage Association, and "aimed at promoting and encouraging women as writers in Australia", with Joyce Parkes herself as patron.

And a real coup for the anthologists is the brief but warm memoir of the late Dorothy Hewett (here's an interview with Dorothy from Jacket magazine) by her sister Lesley Dougan.

Other reading: The Australian Book Review -- the February 2008 issue which I picked up in Canberra because I had somehow missed it, and because it contained a prize-winning essay by Rachel Robertson whose talk at the Canberra conference I had also missed. (Rachel Robertson also has a short story in the FAWWA anthology, and I'm glad to have come across her both in person and in print. I look forward to reading more of her work.)

And last but not least, an unexpected (came in the mail) and beautifully produced short work by Lee Ranaldo (musician, poet, artist, member and co-founder of Sonic Youth) and multimedia artist Leah Singer, Moroccan Journal: Jajouka excerpt. I picked it up to browse last night, and couldn't stop reading till I'd finished it. It's about time spent in 1995 with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, who it seems were the first "world music" group, and who'd been visited and apparently used to make a record by Brian Jones in the 1960s, as well as by Mick Jagger a couple of decades later (I didn't know about any of this because, unlike John, I'm not familiar with this strand of modern music history, so came to the book with no particular expectations. John has been saturating himself lately with Sonic Youth rarities, and intends to blog them further down the track.).

This little work is a detailed and sensitive account of an intercultural meeting-through-music (or meeting-in-music), complete with photographs, with a wonderful sense of sharing and open-hearted exchange on the part of the locals and the visitors.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Launch of John Mateer's Elsewhere

By Tracy

Elsewhere, the latest book by poet John Mateer, was launched Wednesday night at Planet Books in Mount Lawley.

Below is the text of the launch speech made by John Kinsella at the event, which drew a good crowd.

John Mateer’s Elsewhere

By John Kinsella

The persona behind these poems is a wanderer, and is indeed ghostlike, making small witnessings as he goes – even in his home-place – which pass through him, leaving a residue of loss, even pain, though often too degrees of love. The poet’s persona is a thing of emptiness that craves to be filled but must always remain bereft. Even poems that celebrate friendship, and celebrate the strength of resistance against imprisonment, oppression, and a litany of human wrongdoing, still convey a sense of the loss this process of witnessing must bring.

Poems for Mateer are not cathartic but inevitable. Though his poems express themselves clearly and concisely, noting observations of human behaviour communally and socially, there are also the private individual moments glimpsed and refracted through the wanderer-poet-ghost. For example, a street-kid or a prostitute or a white uncle and aunt who inflect the trauma of white colonisation in South Africa, or the tourist held up in a toilet block without surveillance, bitten on the shoulder by someone in “this land of AIDS”.

The achievement of Mateer’s verse is that he has the art of the storyteller but also an intense lyrical interiority that brings us close to both the experience being witnessed and the persona doing the witnessing. That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily reading Mateer himself, of course, but it does give a sense of great humanity.
As the poet wanders the globe in search of the meaning of the poet’s role, and ultimately in search of redemption in humanity, he focuses an acutely local eye on what he sees. By this I mean he is not appropriative of local custom and identity, but rather attempts to become a conduit for witnessing and even experiencing the uniqueness of any given place. Having said this, he can also be bitingly satirical toward those who hold the cultural and political capital, and how these are used to deprive others of their own heritage and rights of place. In a remarkable sequence of poems on the culling of elephants, Mateer manages both an elegy for the loss of elephants themselves and their complex social interactions, and the creation of a non-diminishing analogy for the broader condition of the oppressor and the oppressed.

One of the vibrant and deeply intelligent characteristics of Mateer’s verse, even in bleaker moments, is the revitalising nature of words themselves. He comfortably switches between English and languages of location, but this shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a celebration of the power of language to redeem; in fact, quite often in the case of Afrikaans the language carries an ominous weight that is almost invasive – as does English itself. Rather, language can ironise its own terms of production and allow us to see the faults in those who use it, including the poet himself.

It should be said, though, that there are also moments of great linguistic beauty, where friendship, place, experience and words themselves light up and almost synaesthetically become one. Mateer has also made himself a master of the line – he paces the line perfectly. He judges exactly when to end a line, when to enjamb, and when to break the stanza. In many ways, he is a formalist using a whole variety of prosodic techniques, but his crossing between language and place inevitably invests the English he primarily uses with a new energy. This energy isn’t just for pleasure, but is political. It implores the reader to follow “him” into these witnessings.

Don’t for a moment think that these are travelogue-poems – they couldn’t be if they tried. The persona behind these poems feels too much of the pain, and even more than that, fears the possibility of ennui. He desires love, though is not always sure of its presence; he celebrates the body and its sexuality but is always hesitant in exploring these. This hesitancy is what brings a trust to the reader of the poems; they are never lascivious.

I should say that there is also a searching spirituality at work here. At times you feel as if some inner peace has been arrived at, but then the doubt overwhelms. In seeing a truth, we find, to quote one poem:

“The translated man I am is becoming numerical: zero, ok.”

It would be a mistake to read this persona across Elsewhere as consistent and the same traveller-ghost in every poem – he is not. He transforms and transmutes – even though in many ways the external observer, he always absorbs a bit of the place he is in, which alters him. Then there’s the haunting intelligence which leads to the inevitable ironising of his own condition. Irony becomes his survival technique, the only way he can get through the trauma of this witnessing.

In the final section of the book we are in the Americas. His harshest insights are there at the centre of empire; “after the eagle has sprung to the Astroturf”, we join the eagle as empire inevitably draws us all to its centre. From America to Mexico, the final poem of the book, which is in the voice of the drug-smuggler (as Holy Ghost), the final line is “Wherever there is commerce I AM THERE”; the harshest judgement is reserved for the poet-wanderer-ghost-witness himself. This is also part of his persona, as inevitably all witnessings involve vicarious participation. He does not depict himself as standing outside the problems. There is no sense of the holier-than-thou in this book, and this is what makes Mateer one of the most genuinely ethical, sincere and visionary of poets.

The title of the book is so telling. Whenever we are not “at home”, we are elsewhere. And yet home for Mateer is one place and many. The book has made me realise how often the concept of elsewhere in so much other writing is an evasion of the responsibilities of respecting each and every place we pass through. The word “elsewhere” as it is generally and generically used seems so dismissive, but in the context of Mateer’s poems is so strongly evocative of the diverse threads that make up all of us, and our responsibilities toward each other.

Fairly obsessive #2 ?

By Tracy

Tim (5) has been off school with tonsillitis this week, but it hasn't stopped him singing around the house (hoarsely at times) all day long (and pretty well into the evening until bedtime too).

He's more Brel-addicted than I am now, and the acquisition of a Brassens CD was not so much a question of passion as of trying to "diversify" -- not to wean him off Brel exactly, but to get some relief from repetition... he has been in the habit of doing full-on Brel tribute performances (complete with gestures and facial expressions) for months now, and we need a little variety.

He did this with Syd Barrett for a long time too -- Syd is his earliest hero. While still a baby who couldn't talk sentences, Tim would chime in with the end-words of every line of every Barrett song. All of us in the family love Syd Barrett -- but you can have too much of a good thing...

Anyway, he likes the Brassens -- especially "Chanson Pour L'Auvergnat" and "Je Me Suis Fait Tout Petit" -- and is quite smitten with a short DVD of old Edith Piaf performances too, even to the point of incorporating one or two of her numbers into "his" routine.

But he still maintains (and I have to agree) that Brel is superior to both.

Already with Brel I have to watch some of the lyrics (for a 5-year-old!) as he can be quite risqué -- but Brassens goes even further, to the point of satirical obscenity (in order to condemn other kinds of obscenity, for example in "Le Gorille", which was banned in France for some time). They are, nonetheless, very clever.

We've also spent time making little books which I stitch together, Tim illustrates, and I fill with the words he tells me to put in. (He can write, but only slowly, so that's expedient.) He is very smitten with this process and told me yesterday, "I am a real illustrator" as he went to put his book alongside all the "real" books in his room.

Speaking of the written word, I've been enjoying -- insofar as you can enjoy anything when your child is sick -- the new issue of Meanjin, especially some of the prose, which includes a striking story by Robert Drewe, a bizarre piece of memoir from Pip Proud (disappointingly disparaging and brief in its mention of Dransfield) and an article on matters Austenesque by Laura Carroll.

There's also a snappy piece of memoir -- "Full Immersion" by Vanessa Russell ("on growing up with the Christadelphians"), which particularly drew my attention because my own novel about evangelical Christians, not Christadelphians but Baptists (Sweet), has gone off to the printers and is due out in September -- to be launched at the Big Sky Festival in Geraldton. So my thoughts have been "immersed" in that sort of material for a while now.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Philip K. Dick Interlude

By John

Been reading (or mis-reading, as I do all Dick’s work) Philip K. Dick’s novel We Can Build You. Have probably read over half his novels now and many of the short stories. Starting to shape chapters of the book I am writing on his work, but there’s still a long way to go — I need to read everything, and then again and maybe again. I am, by nature, one who needs to read a writer’s whole oeuvre. Before Dick it was Stendhal, right down to his so-called Three Italian Chronicles.

The Dick is particularly interesting in its portrayal of Pris, another of his definitive, affect-testing (of the reader!) and significant female characters. Mental ‘illness’ and the terror/effect/administration/policing of ‘treatment’ resonate through the novel’s anxieties and paranoias (so characteristic of almost all Dick’s work), but the greatest paranoia is to do with gender and role play, and the obsessive distractions of sexuality and its implications for loss of control, and also redemption.

Dick is overtly ‘guilty’ of sexist cliché at times (he always seems to describe how a woman is dressed and what her breasts are like and whether or not she is good-looking; actually, he is breast-obsessive — it’s to do with the trauma between concepts of nubility, ripeness, fertility, and a weird form of body pastoralism versus artificiality: the doll versus the flesh), but this is offset by the sub-genre de-role play of his female characters.

His brilliant so-called ‘mainstream’ novel Mary and the Giant, originally written in the 1950s (and set in California) but unpublished until 1987, years after his death, deconstructs female stereotypes of genre novels to the nth degree. It’s still ‘genre’ in that it writes out of genre methodologies. The same grammar, syntax, sentence structure as his sci-fi writing of the period. It parodies genre and mimics the ‘literary’. Creates something new in the process. Its own limitations of social perceptions are choices made to illustrate the limitations of fiction itself.

I often think Dick is the ultimate fictionalist. Fiction is a ploy, a smoke-screen for the degrees of separation we hide behind. Fiction is closest to reality, in other words. It is as remarkable as Stendhal in its sympathy for the female protagonist (Mary Anne Reynolds). It also deconstructs racial stereotypes and examines nodal points of prejudice that come out of self-protecting primary societal discourses. How ‘whiteness’ is self-protecting, and creates its own hierarchy of oppressions (reaching a crisis of ‘masculinity’ — or maybe self-masculinity — in terms of comparison with perceptions of ‘black’ masculinities) that cross over, overlay, and delete.

It doesn’t equate bigotries as exchangeable, but explores the contact points and sub-narratives of prejudices that encompass creating ‘subaltern’ figures in order to preserve their own privileged status (even though Mary is forty years younger than her oldest — white/middle class/experienced — lover, Schilling, she ultimately and definitely de-loves). A bit like conservative Anglicans in Australia fighting against the ordination of female bishops. But hey, I left the Church when I was sixteen and have never looked back. All are systems of oppression to me.

Tangentially brings to mind again We Can Build You where Louis is telling Pris (whose only friend as a child was her chemistry set, and that was as she seemed to want it) about a young bird having fallen from a nest and his going to pick it up to attempt to return it to the nest, and the bird opening its mouth. Louis sees this as evidence of the bird’s trust, of the ‘mutual love and self-assistance in nature as well as cold awful things’, Pris rejects this, saying it ‘was ignorance on the bird’s part.’ Louis says ‘innocence’, not ‘ignorance’. In there is all ‘God’, in its contradictions, and the system of language serves as well — or better — than the system of control that is organised religion.

Personally, I respect all religions and no religions at once. I certainly respect each individual’s right to spirituality, to choice of belief system, but not to a right to impose this. Obviously. Speaking of Dick’s ‘mainstream’ novels, another favourite of mine is In Milton Lumky Territory, also published long after its writing and set in the 1950s (Reno etc).

Apart from reading Dick, I have been pondering a new short story. These things take so long for me to sort in my head. The hardest genre, I reckon. I have the narrative (which is something more than plot) — derives from a story told by my brother (a shearer) to Tracy and then by Tracy to me. It’s the germ of the idea that will go into various other places. I like stories derived out of stories derived out of stories. The degrees of separation enhance the fictionalism.

Oh, some real progress was made today with the reconstruction of my novel Morpheus. Written when I was seventeen going on eighteen, it has been tracked down in its various locations (it was broken up and chunks lost etc) by Paul Hardacre at Papertiger Media, and with a fair bit of reconstructive writing by me, and detective and editorial work by him is being reconstituted for publication early next year. A bizarre and difficult task! I am sure Paul would more than agree.

Finally, Mary and the Giant brings me to music — music binds the novel together — and class. I am hearing snippets of Tracy’s latest passion (and Tim’s)... an anarchist... Georges Brassens. You’ll get no facts from this entry, just bendings and warpings. Why? you might well ask. Why?

Niall Lucy and I have finished working on 'our' plagiarism book and are now starting work on another on ersatz. Dick again... The Simulacra. American soldiers in Germany. And so on...

Monday, May 12, 2008


By Tracy

I'm in Canberra, surrounded by fallen leaves and yellow-crested cockatoos which are loud and beautiful. It's very cold tonight. I was here at first as a guest of the In the First Person conference at the National Library; then tomorrow night to read in Geoff Page's Poetry at The Gods series, alongside Jan Owen, whom I've never met before, so I look forward to that.

I find the architecture and the whole geometry of Canberra very daunting, but I'll talk about that another time. Being away from home is a strange emotional -- and physical -- wrench. I feel as if part of me is missing. What's more, our little boy got a bug yesterday, and though John tells me he's much better today, it still feels unnatural to be so far from him, despite the fact that he's in the very best hands. I have nothing but cliches for this! I'm impatient to feel the good weight of little Tim in my arms or on my knee again, or pulling at the wrinkles in my elbow, as he often does...

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Henry Lawson and me - and the contradictions

By John

The garden has been dormant over the summer, but in the last couple of weeks, I've been turning it over, and today I put in two large beds of broad beans from the seed saved from last winter's crop. Surprisingly, some artichokes I thought had completely died off over summer have come to life again, with some lush, fervent growth. That's always a buzz. As autumn is taking hold, there's a new rush of bird life, ranging from robins, black-faced cuckoo shrikes, through to black-shouldered kites.

Have been working on my introduction to the Penguin Henry Lawson Selected Short Stories. I think that Lawson is a master of the short form, especially the sketch, and I can genuinely relate to his equivocal and ambiguous views of the bush, though I think I have a far more inherent love of the land and the bush than he did. His portrait of bushwomen (of "white settler stock") has been increasingly underrated by critics over the years, but I think it is phenomenal in its admiration and respect as well as insight into how this portraiture does and doesn't segue with the blokesy world of the bush.

However, I am really struggling with his racism, for which there is no excuse. There are occasions when his very brief portraits of non-whites show some empathy, sympathy, or recognition of something outside subalternity; but largely this is not so. I don't really know how in the end one can respect even the most astute writing of place as any more than a surface gesture where this is the case. Especially given he's writing about an Australia that is constructed out of the destruction and dispossession of the traditional owners of the land.

I've also been reading Manning Clark's Henry Lawson: The Man and the Legend, and aside from finding it a ridiculously digressive book, I think he gets his readings of Lawson's stories quite wrong at times. He states that Lawson doesn't see the bush itself, that is, its flora and fauna, with a close eye, but there are numerous descriptions that I think contradict this. It is a mistake to think that Lawson's descriptions are generic; rather, they capture the bush-person's interaction with place, producing a different kind of description.

It is easy to admire Lawson's acute sensitivity to "mateship", that even swagmen up-country seemingly wandering without purpose can find moments of deep connection through anecdote, humour or recollection. However, Lawson's vision is ultimately a negative one, in which as he writes more of the country, a darker vision, a loss and lack of purpose overwhelms. Manning Clark is good at recognising this. Still, a figure like Joe Wilson with his poetic spirit and grim determination is always going to be admirable. To one, like myself, who has a shearer for a brother, the anecdotes of the bush that Lawson creates almost as refrains are entirely recognisable and transferable from generation to generation.

My brother says that humour in the shearing shed works as the escape valve on the pressure cooker. For Lawson, for whom humour was so definitive in characterising the ordinary Australian bush-person (white!), it was more than a release, it was an entire world-view, an acceptance of grimness and hardship that ultimately could not be overcome. It had to be cherished because it was the actuality.

Lawson feared that the old ways of the bush would give way to technology, but in many ways they are the same, including the inherited bigotries of the invader/settler culture. Lawson's parents, the feminist and later publisher Louisa Lawson, and the Norwegian prospector Niels (Peter) Larsen, had a notoriously difficult marriage that eventually resulted in their separation, and a kind of split view of the world in their son. The mother's moral rigour, and the father's belief in the outdoor outback world, really do create a tension and a fusion in Lawson.

Working with my five-year-old son in the garden today, it struck me that it is possible for the masculine and feminine comfortably to coexist within the one gender. Timmy likes being a little "bloke" but doesn't see that as excluding his mother or sister. I find this fascinating. Lawson's portrait of women often fuses elements of the masculine and feminine, and it's really in his portrait of sexual relations between men and women that the distance is created. Without consciousness of sexual difference, it is easy for a child of either gender to embody characteristics of both and not create a hierarchy.

I have been keeping Lawson, and my experiences on our block as well as in the district, in mind with my own short-story writing, which is such a slow process for me. As I use "description" so intensely in my poetry, I want to use some other way of seeing place and space in my short fiction. I have much to learn from this apparent "inadequacy" of Lawson's, technically, I think. I have certainly been looking at our place in a different light, having been reading Lawson so closely.

I am looking at description of the land through an empathy with the people "working" it. Of course, I take to this my politics and deconstructive sense of what that land has become through dispossession, so it could never be the same as Lawson.

Interestingly, Lawson came to Western Australia on a couple of occasions, but generally stayed around the city, even camping in East Perth. He also visited Albany, writing for the local newspaper, but loathed it, as he did Perth!