Changming Yuan, 8-time Pushcart nominee and author of Chansons of a Chinaman (2009) and Landscaping (2013), grew up in rural China and currently tutors in Vancouver, where he co-edits Poetry Pacific with Allen Qing Yuan and operates PP Press. With a PhD in English,Yuan has poetry appearing in Asia Literary Review, Best Canadian Poetry, BestNewPoemsOnline, London Magazine, Threepenny Review and 819 other literary journals/anthologies across 28 countries.
Like the little guy screaming to his own death
On the collapsing bridge in Edmund’s painting
My other self is constantly calling
At the very top of its voice from the deepest
Valley of my sub-consciousness, from
The most remote corner of my inner world
From the darkest spot of my dream
Although its calls are muted, they travel afar
Echoing even beyond a whole continent
Like the calls of a blue whale, whose salty voice
Has such a high pitch that no human ears
Can hear them here and now
Yellow-skinned, and yellow-hearted, you seem obsessed with the first letter of the word…
Using my yellow tail
From the Yellow River
As a yeast of the yellow peril
Against the yellow alert
In yellow journalism
With a yellow hammer
And a yellow sheet
I yielded to the yellow metal
At a yellow spot
¼ million yards away from Yellowknife
People call me yellow jack
Some hailed me as a yellow dog
When I yelped on my yellow legs
To flee from the yellow flu
Speaking Yerkish* like a yellow warbler
I have composed many yellow pages
For a yeasty yellow book
To be published by the yellow press
Don’t panic, I yell low.
* An artificial language developed for experimental communication between humans and chimpanzees.
Michelle Cahill lives in Sydney. Her fiction appears in Antipodes, Etchings, Southerly, Meanjin, TEXT, Alien Shores (Brass Monkey, 2012) and Escape (Spineless Wonders, 2011).She is the recipient of a Developing Writer’s grant from the Australia Council and has received prizes in fiction and poetry.
~Photograph by Nicholas Walton-Healey
Letter to Pessoa
When I open my eyes Aleandro has left, his bed sheet folded. For a moment I’m in Santa Monica. The whirring fan, the garish pink walls seem vaguely familiar. Alcohol settles like a carpet of snow falling softly in my head. On the desk next to your Selected, there’s a note, saying “Thanks” with no address. Not even a number.
It’s so humid my wristwatch could be melting as in Dali’s famed masterpiece but the dream is my own and the mattress is hard against my back. I rub my eyes. I’ve missed the last bus. (Should mention that I met him at a tapas bar, El-Xampaynet. And fell for his champagne curls, his unmannered charm.)
Resisting waves of nausea I stand. Pull on jeans. Check face in a piece of mirror stuck above the sink. Try for a clean shave.
Estrella is in the courtyard. She is busy stacking boxes of Fontvella, the floor cluttered with piles of dirty clothes and cylinders of gas. Fuse wires spread like vines across the cracked plaster. I can hear the squeak of the pulley used to hoist laundry up to the terrace.
Church bells gag. Beyond the rooftops the sky crushes me with its vivid blue. The old man at reception nods sympathetically. He guesses I have my suicidal hours. Aren’t we ever-restless? Rebellious clerks for whom the streets are never desolate, littered with cigarette butts and last night’s pardon.
Two blocks away a bar is open.
Coffee rouses me. The owner looks weary. He starts carving the jamon in thick slices. Strings of garlic and the chintzy jingle of a radio tell me it’s time to find your whereabouts, to leave this stinking city behind. An old man thumbs through the classifieds. The smell of his Rex mingles with the odour of stale piss, the floor trashed with butts and greasy smudges.
Flâneur, you made me dream of Lisboa. Of theosophy, of black and white mosaic tiles, of slaves and cool Atlantic breezes. Of Afro jazz, pastel facades and Alfonso Pereira. Or perhaps it was the poems of Álvaro de Campos. I’ve wondered if they were fabrications or if he lived in you? What ships left the rat-infested harbours transporting poets? What ships are docked within us?
Old radio plays a sevillanas, the guys at the bar are drinking cerveza, the coffee wakes me up. Then she strides in. The Countess of El Raval come without her chariot. Dressed in a flimsy blue dress, with her daughter, a three-legged dog and a fat man wearing bifocals. Her eyes are piercing, her face sharp though I can tell that once she would have been pretty. She’s waving her arms, still high, gnawing her pastry voraciously. Joking with the men at the counter. I can’t get over the mad glint in her eyes as her head spins and she feeds the dog a chunk of bread. Or the wide gap between her teeth when she smiles or the click of her heels. What voice speaks through her? What would you make of her in your song book of poets? Seafarer, ambassador of taverns, if I could read your marginalia, peruse your trunk stuffed with verses, chronicles and odes, uncensored. If I could hypertext as Pessoa to Pessoa of the Countess of El Ravel, or find in Portuguese the precise cipher.
Circumstance is drab, a deadweight lessened by drama. It could be five minutes later, it could be twenty though it happens approximately that the Duchess arrives. A fat platinum blonde she is wearing a fake tiara and so much eyeshadow her eyes are blue balloons like stingers. The bartender becomes angry, beads of sweat on his brow. He serves her swiftly before retreating to the scullery. But the men line up, talking while staring through her gaping dress.
How does one purge of this excess? I write as myself in the half-light, allowing a swarm of feelings and observations to grow. My epistles are tactless though the concubine retreats in me. She is mostly febrile, an impulsive raconteur, conversing with herself.
I’ll wait for you in Bar Trindade on Coelho da Rocha. Perhaps you’ll enter carrying under your arm a leather suitcase. You’ll order a 2, 4, 8 and the waiter will bring matches, cigarettes and brandy. He will fill your empty bottle. Perhaps you will observe my profile, my gaze and all of us will converse through one medium. Or you will drink alone until you leave staggering into an evening of sparrows and dust. What happens isn’t certain. All that we have are fragments of the mirror. Cold and sharp in their edges but precise and dazzling when the light sweeps back into them and we see outside of time.
They say you write in English and in French, sometimes in Edwardian cafés. I believe so. The wind speaks to you saying silence is everything. You dream like an argument without feeling. You are two singing in time; you are a double pain which I already know, weary as I am of climbing these stairs to the fifth floor of a building in Rhonda de San Pedro. Maria Gonzales with the heavy accent asks me to come back in an hour. Waiting on a Consul’s initials.
‘I’m so sorry’ she purrs with a flirtatious smile, behind the counter of the dark room. (Her honey-blonde hair pinned, her details imprinted on a card I’ll keep for a few days in my back-pocket.)
So what if there are postponements? Delays should not concern me—genius of dreams. I’ll never be anything. I sit in a café, drink a green glass tea and read Álvaro de Campos’ “Tobacconists”. Tomorrow evening we could meet among the ministries in Martinho da Arcada. Strangers like us belong to the street: we ebb and flow with the crowd, we rise with the evening as the heat swells slowly by degrees. The straight guys lunch in cafeterias under the shade of trees and umbrellas, watching the pretty signorinas parade. I’m starting to feel jaded but my bags are packed. A train leaves this evening for Lisboa Oriente.
Passengers hurl their baggage into racks. Young and tough and cheap, we display all the talents that Dali would despise. We reek of sweat. The guard stamps my ticket. A shrill whistle reins-in the day. Now my journey begins and I’m reminded of your best heteronyms. So many minds and sundry, the petitions of your shadow portraits. Not one could erase Aleandro or the genteel women of Barcelona, who seem like the dreams I know are not dreams. Their voices unravel and speak over me, and in my thoughts as I begin to write them….
Autumn Royal is a poet and PhD candidate at Deakin University. Autumn’s writing has appeared in publications such as Antipodes, Cordite, Rabbit, and Verity La.
I saw my heart on the airport terminal floor,
and gasped at how my misunderstanding bled
into fibres scarred by shoes and suitcase wheels.
My organ’s meatiness was too raw to keep in mind,
so I bought a New Idea predicting my horoscope for 20__.
I rolled up the magazine and squeezed,
hoping for a meaning to drip from the gloss.
Melbourne Poets Union Series
Reviewed/Launched by KEVIN BROPHY
The first thing we might say is that the backyard lemon tree is an iconic fixture in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, as heraldic as the Hills Hoist clothes line is for the rest of Australia’s backyards. The lemon is a humble icon, usually hard working, long living, and it packs loads of zing. Those who know Wendy Fleming, and that is most of us here today, know that she is a Melbourne icon, she is hard working, she has endurance, and she packs considerable zing. I have never been able to say no to her.
It is worth noting that Wendy took particular care to choose the lemon on the front cover photo. It had to be a lemon that showed signs of being battered by the weather, knocked around by insects, blemished by life. So, you can take the lemon as a kind of self-portrait of Wendy.
This is Wendy’s first book, after 25 years of writing poetry, and even longer reading poetry. In fact, the first piece of writing Wendy had published was in Going Down Swinging, when Myron and I were the editors, a short story called ‘The Mission’, featuring a nurse caring for a woman who had killed her baby, a very going down swinging story. The nurse was no accidental character because, as you know, Wendy spent most of her working life as a nurse and nurse educator, beginning at St Vincent’s where she trained and lived with a group of 15 other young women, most of whom are still in touch with each other. In fact, the recent deaths of two of these almost lifelong friends and comrades form the material for poems of grief in her chapbook.
Wendy began writing poetry in earnest by going to a workshop at the Victorian Writers Centre when it was located in George Street in Fitzroy. That is where she met Connie Barber (who seemed to be in charge of the group), Charles D’Anastasi, Leon Shann and Marietta Elliott Kleerkoper. It was from this group, and with this group’s support that she found her way to her pivotal place in the Melbourne Poets Union. Wendy knows how to work with people.
Her acknowledgements page impresses on us the fact that she is part of a family she has long loved, and she is at the centre of a wide community of poets. Even though writing is a solitary vocation, we poets know that there is a deeply felt communal, even tribal element to our particular kind of writing. The scratch of the pen is balanced by the buzz of the spoken word for poets. We cannot help but come together to speak our poems to each other, and eventually form committees and workshop groups and fund raising events of one kind or another. Wendy has been part of this activity for a long time, and all of us want her to keep doing it.
She has also been away by herself with her keyboard and pen, doing what poets must do when they are left to themselves: write poems.
Wendy’s book presents 21 poems to its reader. Each one of them is as real, as pungent, as marked by weather, time and experience as any lemon worth its juice hopes to be. The first phrase in the first poem is one that might fill the head of every lemon that ever lived: ‘The morning sun’.
Titled, ‘The New Order’, and beginning as it does with a breakfast scene, it promises to be a domestic poem, an aubade perhaps, welcoming reader and sunlight to a new beginning. But it is a far darker affair than that, and more complicated, because it is about, as it turns out, how to start a new day alone, suddenly, after thirty years of marriage, family and companionship. The beauty of the poem is in its spareness, its brittle sparseness, combined with a vivid sense of line and image. Wendy uses the ten-syllable, five-beat line neatly and persuasively with ‘The garden beds soak up the recent rain’—a line that also makes music with the chiming of garden with recent, and the alliteration in ‘recent rain’. Similarly, she knows how to use the spondee, in the strong phrase of one-syllable words: ‘full buds ripe’ a couple of lines down. What I am wanting to point out here, is that at the level of the word, phrase and line this poetry has been attended to with care, with clippers, with a no-nonsense attitude towards shows of fussiness in language. I can’t resist bringing your attention to Wendy’s sly humour too in the construction of her lines. The second poem in the book, ‘Changing’, begins with the line ‘I’m good at getting into my clothes’, a wonderfully curious and eccentric observation, making me want to go on with that poem. This is an artfulness that makes an art of speaking plainly, of bringing art out of the galleries and academies, and into the streets, onto the trams, into the homes, airports and change rooms of our ordinary lives.
I want to say more about this form of artfulness in a moment, but first, I want to step back a little further to see what kind of stories, what kinds of thinking and feeling are going on in these poems. They seem to be so smoothly accomplished, so sure in themselves of their range of diction and voice that you don’t expect them to be coming up against the difficult themes that do emerge.
That first poem deals with imposed change, including the losses that time and aging must bring, and the second poem too, contrasting two women in a public change room, one older and the other so young that ‘in a T-shirt neck to thigh/her two new bumps barely move the cloth’, brings us up against the knowledge that life imposes change upon us. There is the frightening poem, ‘Hannah’, a glimpse of the holocaust juxtaposed with the images of cleaner and nurse. Her poem, ‘Beijing Airport 1998’ might be the one that brings to the fore a line of thinking running through the book: a series of reflections and observations on the way we ‘follow the coloured lines to Go’. She writes of her experience:
[I] go through x-rays, checks and gates,
point at the pictures in my passport,
(not a good likeness). No one cares.
Take directions from Mao-jacketed
Women, unsmiling, wordless ….
What I find here is a detached voice, an observing woman acutely aware of the way time and life impose themselves upon us. ‘I stand bereft on this side of the eternal flow,’ Wendy writes. When I told Wendy that I found the voice and stance of her poetry a steady, detached one, she agreed and had two comments to make. Firstly, she said that through her nursing training she has become an accomplished diagnostician. She is always working out what is wrong with the people she knows and meets — medically wrong. I couldn’t help it, I asked her what was wrong with me. ‘I’m not telling you,’ she said. So there. The second comment she made was that her detachment is part of her being a third child. The third child has to please everyone, she said. The third child cannot take up too much emotional space in a family, and must become self-reliant. Wendy has perfected this stance of the diagnostic outsider. This stance of detachment is not all there is to the book in the way of themes and emotions (The final poem, ‘Letter to my Husband’ is as powerful a love poem as you could ever wish to read: in fact there are a series of poems that are love poems to her husband).
To return to the theme of change imposed upon us, ‘Sylvan’, makes the point most starkly: her companion tells her, ‘There is no five year plan.’ Indeed, there is no plan without that plan’s helplessness in the face of both the unpredictable and the predictable ends and impositions we face. The paradox here is partly the perfection of the poems as they speak so tellingly of helplessness, and also the sense of indestructible force in the voice of each poem as it tells us of the mist spraying over us, silent and insidious, obliterating us. Even the lemon tree, in its poem, is the scenery for a photo shoot featuring her friend, ‘elegantly gaunt’ after treatment for cancer. The speaker in the poem, asks, ‘Grant me a moment to complain’, but of course that moment does not arrive, because these are no poems of complaint in this book, the poems are something else, something more difficult to pin down and sum up.
Perhaps, all across this book, like a mist weaving though it, is that feeling we call grief, and for Wendy, it is the loss of her husband in stages to absence, illness and death, and the recent loss of good friends. The poems that detail these experiences are not strictly autobiographical. They are in fact calmly, delicately, unswervingly observed. The poetry is committed always to what images, scenes and sense experience might show us. The poem, ‘The Message of Flowers’, is one of these, superb in its attention to detail, and both tough and poignant in its approach to the relation of language to feeling. Her repetition, of ‘blooming, blooming; blooming not dying’ in the final line of this poem takes up an echo of the grief expressed in Tennyson’s most famous poem, ‘Break, break, break,/On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!’
It is utterly fitting that in the centre of her book there is a poem on Ron Mueck’s sculpture exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2010. Ron Mueck’s is an art without art. When Marcel Duchamp upturned a urinal in 1917 and presented it as an art object, it was art because he found it, he chose it, and he recognized its possible strange doubleness as urinal and fountain, as hardware and art. Ron Mueck has made his utterly real sculptures art through isolating them as figures for us to inspect. This is not the realism of a Vermeer or Rembrandt because technique is not the point. Making vivid, for once, or once again, what has always been in front of our eyes is the point. When Wendy writes,
Each sculpture is a masterpiece of detail
Very lifelike, every hair, skin pore, crease
Of thigh, arms, chest, tits, and vulva
Reproduced in fiberglass. Silicone. Epoxy resin
And ends with, ‘It is very real and it doesn’t feel like art’, we know she has found a way of describing what she does herself in her own poetry. In the repetition of that word ‘very’ I hear her voice too.
And is it art or is it simply documenting the world? Wendy Fleming is working in this highly contemporary documentary tradition, perhaps most spectacularly exemplified by the English artist Damien Hirst, and also she works in the now hundred-year-old tradition of William Carlos Williams and the imagists that followed him. The historian of modern poetry, David Perkins, made the observation that William Carlos Williams’ ‘naturalness and ease involved a lowered pressure or intensity and for his followers made poetry easier to write’ (p 254 A History of Modern Poetry Vol 2). It might have seemed that this new poetry of plain speaking was not artful, or not artful enough. It can seem spontaneous at times, and at other times it might seem merely simple. But I hope that you can understand by now through my comments that this mode of poetry in fact activates reflection, and provides for the reader what Williams called ‘a fresh beginning’—and by that he meant each moment we live must in some sense un-do, must subvert the previous moment. He wanted poetry to ‘breathe the air of the present-day’ (Perkins p 263).
In his uncompromising poem, ‘Credences of Summer’, Wallace Stevens declared,
Let’s see the very thing and nothing else.
Let’s see it with the hottest fire of sight.
By keeping her poems clear, uncluttered and unscattered, by allowing the nuances of speech and thought to work on us if we are attentive enough to the attentiveness of her poetry, Wendy Fleming achieves a fine fire of sight, burning everything to ash that need not be there. Admiring her spare poetry immensely, I asked her if she might, after publishing this book, move to a more expansive mode of poetry. She told me that sometimes you workshop the poems and people cut things out, then they cut more things out. I know what she is talking about. She confessed that there are some poems in this book where she has not in fact cut out as much as her workshop group wanted her to. Strangely enough, her editor for this book, Garth Madsen, urged her to be more expansive sometimes.
All of which brings us again to the community that surrounds Wendy. A book of poetry is not produced in isolation, and during those final months of preparation, poets often lean upon friends and editors. In this case, Garth Madsen has been the critical eye and the strong support the poet needed to get through to the end and to find the book that was always there in potential. Wendy and Garth have made a great little chapbook. The chapbook does carry the shadow of a poem that Wendy wanted to put in because, she said, ‘People love it,’ though her editor didn’t, and her editor’s judgment won the day. All poetry books carry the shadows of poems that almost made it in but didn’t, and this is the mark of books that have been brought to us with love for poetry and respect for the reader who wants only the juiciest, most pockmarked, and character-filled lemons between the covers. Buy it. Taste it. Enjoy it.
KEVIN BROPHY is the author of thirteen books of poetry, fiction and essays. He teaches Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne. His latest book is Walking,: New and Selected Poems (John Leonard Press, 2013)
Tom Cho is an artist whose fiction pieces have appeared widely. Among his 70 short fiction publications to date, he has pieces in such outlets as The Best Australian Stories series, Asia Literary Review, Meanjin and The New Quarterly. Before its release in North America and Europe, Tom’s book, Look Who’s Morphing, was originally published in Australia. It was shortlisted for three awards, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, and is now in its second Australian printing. Tom has performed his work on the stages of many festivals, from Singapore Writers Festival to Sydney Mardi Gras. He has a PhD in Professional Writing and is currently writing a novel about the meaning of life. His website is at www.tomcho.com
MD: Your wonderful book Look Who’s Morphing (Giramondo Publishing 2009) was just republished by Canada’s Arsenal Pulp Press. Can you tell us about the events leading to its publication in North America and Europe?
TC: I originally wrote Look Who’s Morphing for a world audience and while writing it, I frequently felt that it could find appreciative audiences outside of Australia. But although the Australian edition did well critically and commercially, it proved a struggle to attract any interest in the book from overseas publishers and I eventually gave up on my ambition to see the book published elsewhere. Then, in late 2012, I did an artist residency at Vermont Studio Center in the US. I had to give a reading as part of my residency and I read a piece from Look Who’s Morphing. The audience response was so positive that I decided to revive my old ambition. I was about to do some overseas travel anyway, so I decided to use my forthcoming travels in North America as an opportunity to build local interest in the book.
Well before Arsenal Pulp Press published the book, I had been gradually accruing interest in my work from outside of Australia for many years, particularly through scholarly networks in the arts and humanities. This interest increased after the Australian publication of the book. One of the scholars who had come to be a great supporter of Look Who’s Morphing was Larissa Lai, also a fiction writer and poet, who is based in Vancouver. Two of Larissa’s books were published by Arsenal Pulp Press. So, last year, when I decided to go to Canada as part of my travels, Larissa arranged a reading for me in Vancouver and brought my work to the attention of this excellent publisher.
MD: You wrote and published six issues of a zine, Sweet Valley Zine, between 2000 and 2004. For those of us who might not be very familiar with zines, can you talk a little about how you came to write SVZ, and how zine culture and your involvement with it might have shaped your subsequent work?
TC: In its early days, my career was nurtured via some great support from Australia’s youth arts sector. Probably the most pivotal example of how this support changed my practice was in 1999, when the youth arts organisation Express Media included me in a contingent of young writers that was travelling to Newcastle to attend the second National Young Writers’ Festival. This festival’s vision of writing included (and was not limited to) comics, graffiti, MCing, spoken word, blogging and zines. It was through this festival that I was first exposed to zines and came to produce my own zine, Sweet Valley Zine.
Years earlier, when I had studied creative writing at university, literature was presented to me as largely comprising fiction, poetry, non-fiction and play scripts. In that vision of literature, prose and poetry were mostly to be found in literary journals and in perfect-bound books. It was a very limited horizon for me, even if I didn’t know it at the time. So it wasn’t even so much zines specifically but my experience of that entire festival in 1999 that dragged me out of my more silo-ed and purist idea of literature and helped to cultivate my cross-artform sensibilities. As a result, these days, I tend to see myself less as a writer and more as an artist whose primary practice is writing fiction. I think that kind of inter-disciplinary horizon can absolutely be seen in Look Who’s Morphing.
The zines that I most admired contained personal writing and had an explicit political orientation. This was a world away from the literary restraint that I had been drilled in as a creative writing undergraduate student. The kind of anti-didactic, impersonal restraint of “Show, don’t tell” that I’d been schooled in could never have accommodated the political rants and diaristic reflections that I found in my favourite zines. There was also collage, a staple aesthetic technique in zining that permitted a much more free-ranging and lateral use of reference and allusion than I had ever attempted in my own work at that stage of my development. Moreover, some of my favourite uses of collage in zines were those that were done for the purposes of parody. So I think zines loosened my grip as an artist in some important ways: I became less invested in an ideal of an impersonal and restrained author, and I took a more playful and, in a sense, a more promiscuous approach to textual reference.
The writing that I began to produce out of that period was not likely to attract interest from many publishers, but fortunately what I also took from the culture of zining was an interest in doing literature “otherwise” – in finding different models of disseminating writing and also in better appreciating smaller readerships where the engagement with the work often felt more personal and intimate.
MD: Many of your stories, including “Dirty Dancing” and “The Sound of Music,” re-write classic film narratives in inventive and humorous ways. How great an influence has fan fiction (including slash fiction) been on your work?
TC: There was actually a stage in the life of Look Who’s Morphing when I was asking myself if the book could itself be considered a work of fan fiction. My fiction pieces have mostly circulated in literary journals and at performances for arts festivals and other arts events. So the book is unlikely to fit a more narrow definition of “fan fiction” that rests upon participating in the kinds of critique and dissemination that exist within fanfic communities. I’ve never done any of that. Then again, we could instead drift towards a broader and more open-ended definition of “fan fiction” as involving, say, creative production by fans in response to other texts. If we do that (which is what I’m inclined to do), things get a bit more interesting. At any rate, it would be ill-advised to try to settle the matter once and for all – the whole endeavour of defining fan fiction needs to remain open to revision as new fanfics and theorisations of fanfic are produced.
There are traces of slash influences in Look Who’s Morphing (and I was also especially interested in the Mary Sue genre of fanfic while writing the book). That said, once again, I’m more inclined to drift towards a broader view. What impulses led me to incorporate a queer relationship into my response to the film “Dirty Dancing”? On one level, the answer is “an interest in slash fiction” but more broadly, the answer concerns my queer desires. It was these desires that prompted me to realise a potential for the film “Dirty Dancing” to be read and written queerly.
Incidentally, what I’ve also been thinking about lately is that all of these creative readings of books and films that I do aren’t confined to the world of texts. For example, my practice of reading queerly pertains not only to classic film narratives but also how I might read, say, the gaze of a person I might encounter on the street or at a park. What can I say? Sometimes, I have this hope that I might be able to live with as much imagination and suppleness as I try to bring to the books, films and other things that I read.
MD: Some of the stories that ended up in Look Who’s Morphing first appeared in some form in Sweet Valley Zine. Some were later published by literary journals and magazines before appearing in Look Who’s Morphing. Since the collection takes morphing as one of its main themes, I was wondering if you could comment on your writing process. How did the stories shift over their writing periods? And is this an approach that continues in your work to this day, in that you revise over a period of years?
TC: Look Who’s Morphing had a long gestation: about 9 years from its beginning to its Australian publication. And you’re right – during that time, many of the pieces materialised across various contexts: in the pages of literary journals, in my zines, at various venues as part of readings and performances that I gave, over the course of Giramondo’s editorial process, and even over the course a doctoral research process when I incorporated the book into a PhD in Professional Writing. It was a rich mix and it no doubt enriched the manuscript and it was entirely in keeping with the kind of polymorphous and poly-morphing project that Look Who’s Morphing turned out to be. Doing readings was a great way to test how the work was resonating with those whom I consider my core audiences. And one of the wonderful things about working with Prof Ivor Indyk, my publisher at Giramondo and also one of my PhD supervisors, was that he could not be so easily seduced by my popular cultural references. I remember when he saw a very early draft of the manuscript. On one of the pages for my piece “Suitmation”, he asked: “Who is Tony Danza?” I knew at that moment that I would have to work hard to impress him. He is a very astute reader. When I wrote the piece “Cock Rock”, which heavily draws on Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, he responded with his own commentary on Swift’s work. His contrasting reading tastes and academic background enmeshed very well with the project and working with him was, shall we say, a great cross-cultural experience.
Throughout my writing process, I wanted to write this open-ended work that would reward creative readers and tease them, in the best possible way, with codings (“in-jokes”, I once called them) or at least the promise of codings in the text that would speak to them and their desires. This is at least one reason why the book is so slippery and multi-layered, and why it can and has been read as Asian-Australian literature, as queer literature, as transgender literature and yet also none of these. Maybe it’s also why some readers of an academic bent have imagined that I have a background in cultural studies or gender studies, amongst other academic disciplines. Developing the project across so many different contexts enabled me to progressively cram more influences into the work and to in turn create more possibilities to tease and speak to readers and to provide the conditions for them to feel, I hope, in some way recognised and energised and even appreciated by what this text might offer them.
My novel-in-progress has longer chapters that don’t lend themselves so easily to readings and publication in journals. I no longer have a PhD process either. Nonetheless, this current project is benefitting from another long gestation and is again being enriched by a fantastic mix of influences, including my continuing and very important work with Ivor Indyk.
MD: Speaking of the writing process, would you like to talk about the novel you’re currently working on?
TC: I’m still trying to find the language for talking about my novel-in-progress (which is an issue that’s entirely in keeping with the kind of project it is). The way that I’ve been describing it lately is that it’s fiction “that is not only informed by the philosophy of religion, but fiction that might, in some small way, do some of the work of philosophy of religion”. Under the umbrella of its plot, it explores some key questions pertaining to the philosophy of religion – questions about the occurrence of suffering, about the nature and existence of God, and the like. Importantly, it has far too many robots and other anime-inspired influences in it to be as dry and boring as what that description might suggest to some. Also, the plan is to close the book with a response to the question “What is the meaning of life?”, which should also keep things interesting. Hence the working title of the book: The Meaning of Life and Other Fictions.
It’s been invigorating to work with a new set of pop cultural influences and with subject matter that departs so sharply from what I’ve written about before. It’s also been hugely intimidating because when I started this project, I’d had no prior academic engagement with the philosophy of religion and had done very little formal study of philosophy in general. When I was writing Look Who’s Morphing, it was a great challenge for me to find a corpus of language that I could use to discuss identity in fresh ways that resisted solidification. Writing about religion has proven to be perhaps even more difficult because the language comes with so much baggage and, as I once said on another occasion, words don’t grip very well when talking about divine figures such as, well, You-Know-Who. In the end, when I wrote Look Who’s Morphing, I think I found not so much a corpus of language but an array of techniques. Now that I think of it, I think this is what’s happening with my second book too. It’s been very exciting for me.
I’ve been progressively sending chapters from the second book to Ivor Indyk and have been greatly encouraged by his comments. I really do think that this next book is quite special.
MD: In the final issue of Sweet Valley Zine, you write:
At present, I am finding that I don’t really need many labels for myself…except for one that might look like this:
*subject to change without notice
Similarly, on your website you write about revising a chapter from your work-in-progress, which examines the attributes of God. You write: “The question of God’s attributes, then, is one that I’ve had to revisit a few times. But a revisable response, one that is not too sure of itself, is what this question requires.” Would you say that a revisable response is what the questions require in all your work? Is everything still morphing?
There’s an open-endedness in my work that rightly suggests that we – both myself as author, as well as my readers – should resist the urge for pat and final answers. As I have said before, fiction and life need mystery, if only to keep our sense of mastery in check. The kinds of questions that I explore in my work don’t lend themselves very easily to conclusiveness anyway. Besides, once read, any literary work is subject to being re-read. And re-readings, like re-writings, inevitably involve some level of revision.
I should add that the metaphor of morphing, when used in a more indiscriminate way, can become banal. And a state of “all-morphing, all-the-time” sounds exhausting too. Maybe it’s more the case that we can and should allow ourselves some moments of stability of knowledge, however tenuous and projected that stability is. This is also something I’ve written of before – that, in amongst those moments of apparent stability, we are trying to discern what’s knowable and what seems to work. Sometimes it’s hard to make our knowledge coalesce and the insights that we glean can be so fleeting, but perhaps that sort of piecemeal approach is not only more doable in life but to some extent inevitable.
MICHELLE DICINOSI is the author of Ghost Wife: A Memoir of Love and Defiance (Black Inc, 2013) and the poetry collection Electricity for Beginners (Clouds of Magellan, 2011). A Hedgebrook alumna and recipient of a Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship, Michelle has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Queensland. She has taught writing at various universities over the past decade, and is the creative non-fiction editor of Mascara Literary Review.
By Mark Tredinnick
Pitt St Poetry
Reviewed by ANNE ELVEY
When Bluewren Cantos opens ‘With Emily in the Garden’, the reader hears a beguiling voice. In shorter lines than is often the case with his work, Mark Tredinnick weaves the tropes of attentiveness to the other, mortality and finitude, together with his wry humour, to tell a
loving engagement with place, human persons and otherkind. This is poetry as blessing. It is a poetics of witness where observation is astute and singular:
In the lower branches a rufous fantail turns
And demurs, displaying his tail the way a cardsharp
Shows his hand—giving nothing but grace away.
(‘With Emily in the Garden’, p. 2)
There is a gentle mix of the sublime and the mundane, so that we are invited to let such dualisms be undone in us:
Came to vacuum the last stubs of daylight
From under the feet of the eastern greys,
Mobbing the riveroaks and downing last
Drinks along the river.
Until later, Bach kicked
The door in and sat with you on the couch,
And you knew you’d never spend
A better day alive again on Earth.
(‘A Day at Your Desk All Along the Shoalhaven’, pp. 6-7)
Emily Dickinson and JS Bach inhabit these poems. They are joined from time to time by Mozart, the Buddha, Hindu gods and even sometimes the memories of a Protestant Christian old time religion. Charles Wright wanders through in the shape of many of the poems but despite the similarities in line length, form and a sometime irreverent sacrality, Tredinnick’s voice is distinct from Wright’s. With Vedas and Eclogues, Partitas and Cantos, Nocturnes, Sestets and even a deconstructed sonnet, Tredinnick writes both with an ear to older traditions of sacred and poetic writing and with a feel for the way form and music work on and in the body.
In the title poem, ‘Bluewren Cantos’, it is as if the writer’s body is itself the site of writing, and the writer “becomes for a time, a place. Painted by blue wrens.” The poet is an instrument of place, writing and being written by it. In ‘Margaret River Sestets’, for which Tredinnick won the Cardiff Poetry Prize, the poet develops this theme of relationship to place, as a kind of addiction or falling in love, around which there is some ambivalence: “My whole life an addiction to country, falling forever for places/that were never going to be any good for me.”
The language of love and eros that Tredinnick uses to express this dance of relationship with place and otherkind often employs the feminine in ways that reinforce problematic identifications of women and nature, such as can function to devalue both. Ecofeminist philosophers describe this problem. The late Val Plumwood’s approach is highly nuanced: while the “backgrounding and instrumentalisation of nature and that of women run closely parallel”, and this backgrounding involves a “denial of dependence on biospheric processes”, women [and men] need to “consciously position themselves with nature” (Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, p. 20). I doubt stereotyping of either women or what we sometimes simplistically call “nature” is Tredinnick’s intent as he makes explicit, and unsettles, a poetic or ecopoetic vocation—for example in ‘The Wombat Vedas’, for which he won the Newcastle Poetry Prize, where we read: “I’m writing a kind of confessional ecology here,/and you mustn’t believe a word” (p. 11). The poet is witness, a participant observer who exercises an ethical self-suspicion, reminiscent of Judith Wright, who says in her poem ‘Two Dreamtimes’ addressed to Oodgeroo Noonuccal, “Trust none—not even poets” (Collected Poems, p. 318).
Tredinnick wants to “tell it slant”, as he suspects the world does: “The world works best when it misses/Its mark”, and sometimes a poem works best when it surprises with a twist on the known: “still the river is a habit that can’t quite shake me”.
The poems of Bluewren Cantos are something like blues, a lingering music with a bit of a swagger and a bit of philosophy thrown in for good measure. At times they are breathtaking:
Winter is the slowness in us all,
the world at prayer. Winter
is a picture of how one remembers
And gets on with it, anyway: a peaceable kind of
Resistance, a protest performed
by surrender to the exquisite
Blind etiquettes of the actual world.
(‘Resistance’, p. 115)
While I wonder at ‘blind’ (and in another poem at the use of ‘spastic’ as an adjective), the word fits the flow of the line and much can be forgiven for the articulation of such a con-cept—”the exquisite … etiquettes of the actual world”—and the suggestion that the poet might surrender to these etiquettes.
Bluewren Cantos rewards reading and re-reading. Among my favourite poems there is ‘Cro-cuses’, a three part immersion in a day of heavy rain, on which the first crocuses of the season appear. As Phillip Gross says on the cover, in some senses every one of Tredinnick’s poems is a love poem. Among the many poems of love and family in this collection, I was particularly taken by the dream of a staid grandfather preacher rapping and dancing at the pulpit. The col-lection ends fittingly with an epilogue entitled ‘The Trees’ and its one poem ‘It Matters How We Go’. The poem remembers the late Seamus Heaney. Here ‘walking/Is a prayer the trees seem disposed to answer sometimes’.
In conclusion, Tredinnick’s ‘Lyre Lyre’ encapsulates much that is distinctive of his work. The feminine reference, surprising because it is the male lyrebird that has the more diverse repertoire, is strong, working to effect a layering of Beloved as partner/lover, bird, place, perhaps also a/the divine. The repeated lyre of the title suggests that the poet is not only riffing on the bird as performer, but inviting the reader to attend to his (the poet’s) lyric performance. In this poem, as in so many others, there is a gentle but wry interweaving of attention to an other and a kind of love that spills between human relationships and other than human ones, celebrating kinship and mourning loss, so that all love is more than human. In ‘Lyre, Lyre’, as in Bluewren Cantos as a whole, Tredinnick strives to capture an ecotone in language, to write us into an environmental culture, into the habit of ecological ensoulment.
Plumwood, Val. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. London: Routledge, 1993.
Wright, Judith. Collected Poems 1942-1985. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1994
ANNE ELVEY is author of Kin (Five Islands Press, 2014) and managing editor of Plumwood Mountain: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics. She holds honorary appointments at Monash University and University of Divinity, Melbourne.
Saba Vasefi is a poet, a documentary filmmaker and human rights activist. She was a lecturer in Tehran, Shahid Beheshti University. She became a member of the Committee of Human Rights Reporters. She also worked as a reporter for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. She was twice a judge for the Sedigheh Dolatabadi Book Prize for best literature on women’s issues. She was expelled from the University after 4 years of teaching due to her activism. Her documentary film about child execution in Iran ”Don’t Bury My Heart” has been screened for the BBC, United Nation, Amnesty International, The Copenhagen International Film Festival, SOAS university, University of Oslo, Dendy Opera Quays cinema and Seen & Heard Film Festival. She has published poems, research papers, articles, reports, interviews and multimedia about executions, censorship, and women and children’s rights. Her multimedia piece, “Shirin, A Soloist in the Silence Room” was screened in Geneva for the UN. She has also had work published in the anthology “Confronting the Clash: The Suppressed Voices of Iran. She was director of First Sydney International Women’s Poetry Festival (Woman Scream). Currently; she is completing a postgraduate degree in documentary at The Australian Film TV and Radio School (AFTRS).
Translated by Sheema Kalbasi
It is not without reason
that I no longer miss
Like the tea stirred in the cup
Haze dances around my temple
flock by flock
And the shameless
Scream their pain loud
It is still I
who expands like blood from
ripened enough to be picked from
The more the wheel turns around
the more confused I become
Like a reptile crawling handless and
Tell me where in this rotten hole I
should give birth to my daughter
So that the titmice paint her dress
With ruby grapes
Now that in the long famine
I swallow rationed moldy bread
Where on earth should I entrust
lest my imprisonment arrest the
motion of the Heaven
In the long term prison of life
Where is safe
For this out of circle baby
Who goes round and round
To find a face
Branded with slap fingerprints
Deb Matthews-Zott has published two collections of poetry, Shadow Selves (2003) and Slow Notes (2008). She runs the Australian Poets’ Exchange Facebook Group, which has a membership of over 800, and is convener of SPIN (Southern Poets and Musicians Interactive Network). ‘The Weir’ and ‘The Pug Hole’ are from her verse novel in progress, ‘An Adelaide Boy’.By day she is a Librarian.
The Weir – Changing
Generations of Adelaide boys
have fished and swum at the Torrens Weir.
There’s a photo at the State Library
of five boys playing in shallow water
on the other side of the sluice gates
before they were installed.
It’s taken in the early 1900s
and the boys are all naked,
without any shame.
Was it different then?
or did the men with secret desires
always lurk there in bushes and change sheds
awaiting their prey.
One summer I was taken by surprise
in the old stone building, cool and damp
reeking of urine and keeping the shouts of play
at a distance.
Paralysed, I clenched my whole body, aware of my skin
the tug at my swim trunks. Thick fingers trembling
over early pubic hair. The fight or flight response letting me down
as bearded lips brushed me there, thrill of tongue, trembling thighs
a sick chill in my stomach, being drawn in, afraid, confused, but
somehow pleasant, heart lurching, unsure how to move away,
to end. Creak of old wooden door, the slackening of a spider web,
a fly caught in sticky silk, to be devoured. The world of boys burst in,
innocent, the flick of towels, push and shove of rough play, breaking
the act, in a flurry of escape. Utterly changed.
The Pug Hole
From Port Road, Welland, to the brickworks
at Hindmarsh, was only a 3K bike ride.
Off the main road, just beyond the river
the pug hole was an adventure playground,
where we’d spend all day clambering down
into the cocoon of clay, with deep pockets
of water, sprouting reeds, and a cache of
rusted rotting junk we transformed for play.
Old corroded tins were threaded with wire
for catching tadpoles in murky puddles.
Abandoned car bodies, afloat in deep
wells of oily water, became pirate ships
as we straddled them, and fought each other
with sticks, constantly shifting our weight
to keep the wrecks from sinking into the mire.
It wasn’t unusual then for a boy
to carry a slug gun or .22, slung across his back,
and to fire at bottles or tins lined up at a distance.
There were holes all over Hindmarsh and Brompton
which, having given up their clay for bricks
became dumping grounds for waste
and a rich source of amusement
or childrens’ imaginations.
The watery fissures were muddy but slicked
with slippery rainbows. When you stopped to notice,
the smell was a mixture of dead animal, iron, and rotten socks.
When it was time to ride back home
we carried the swampy scent of the pug hole
on our clothes,
to our mothers’ ire and disgust.
Hani is a young Somali writer. She writes poetry and prose and previously wrote and published a small newspaper called CC Weekly. Her work is vibrant and her spirit strong. Hani writes from within Australian Immigration Detention where she has been held for 11 months – and where she remains detained. Hani is a lead member of Writing Through Fences and is working toward her goal of becoming a journalist. She is an honorary member of PEN International.
I will rise
You now lock me in detention
and damage my hopes
but it’s like dust
and one day I will rise.
You may avoid my sadness
and send me to Manus
but one day I will rise.
You may hide the reality
and break my heart
but one day I will rise.
You may send me somewhere else.
Why can’t you help me?
I may be a female of under age
who needs assistance from you.
You may send me to other countries
and shoot me with your words
but one day I will rise.
You may punish me
by saying lies
but one day I will rise.
You may kill me with your hateful action
but it’s like air
and one day I will rise.
You may never care about my awful past
and enjoy my tears
but one day I will rise.
I may have bad memories
rooted in pain
but one day I will rise.
I may have left a fearful life of horror
but one day I will rise.
Does my mind upset you
so full of thoughts?
I am an asylum seeker
who seeks for freedom and doesn’t
have anywhere else to go.
Does it come as a surprise to you
that whatever you have done to me
I will forgive you?
Wherever you send me
as long as I see the sun rise and the moon come up
I will rise…
I will live and Survive and Be Asked
How dangerous was it to leave my country alone?
How my family allowed me to leave?
How afraid I was for my self – that I would be raped or killed?
How I made the decision to travel alone?
How I survived without food some days?
How I walked bare feet – even as I got more injured?
How I allowed them to lock me inside a toilet?
How I stayed inside the toilet for hours?
How I jumped from far places and got damaged?
How I knew I had come to the right place?
I will live and survive and be asked:
How I felt to come by boat?
How I felt to risk my life?
Did I know I would stay in detention?
Did I know I had come ‘illegally’?
But I will smile –
and I will listen to them –
because when I survived the sea
I thought I was born again.
When they ask:
did you know the law was changed?
I will tell them:
I didn’t have a choice
When they say:
Doesn’t it hurt you to remember?
I will answer them:
it is past.
When they ask:
What are u planning now?
What do you want to be in the future?
I will answer them:
I am planning to live in Australia
and I want to be a journalist.
They will ask:
what about if they send you somewhere else?
And I will say: “As long as I breathe I will reach my goals”.