Jan Dean lives at Cardiff, Lake Macquarie. Her work has been published in newspapers, journals and anthologies including The Australian, Blue Dog, Famous Reporter, Hecate, Quadrant, Southerly, Sunweight (NPP Anthology) 2005); The Best Australian Poems 2005 (Black Inc); The Best Australian Poetry 2004 (UQP). Interactive Press published Jan’s poetry collection With One Brush as winner of IP Picks Best First Book in 2007; it was shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Award in 2008.
Cranes fly on my blue and white porcelain brooch
People take several paths and transformations
to find and leave a closer view of the summit.
Some wait until mid-morning. Others
depart with pilgrims and lose themselves
in the mists of dawn. None may go further
than halfway. The summit is simply a frame
for platforms that cling to the slope.
I began at the launch pad and proceeded on foot
up the river of light, reminiscent of a ramp
on the face of a Mayan temple.
Close to the entrance souvenir shops crowd
the road into an avenue, confetti-bright.
Kindly avoid temptation until the return journey.
A few, as feathers floated by a gentle breeze
take the thin path on the left hand side facing the city.
In which case, they choose the time
of ancestor reverence, when final resting spots
marked by tall stones of charcoal flecked with white
diffused over the vast curve, enjoy blessings;
single red roses, mingling with companions
to set the sweep ablaze.
The right path is narrow and steep enough
to persuade a caterpillar persona. It is pleasurable
by sheen on cobblestones, heel-clack & feet-shuffle
or navy & white noren, damp yet aflutter
and the women
who surge into doorways and turn to face you
as parasols collapse into narrow vees
under facades; compact, mature, ghostly.
Back on level ground, you should meander over
to Gion in time for twilight, when lit paper lanterns
proclaim trainee geishas, who perfect their art
of fragility hovering on platform shoes.
Ruby lips and mime-like faces emit no emotion
yet receive the respect reserved for dolls
preserved in museums. They pose then disappear
silk kimonos rustling rainbows, and somewhere
along the way, I found my prize.
Note: A noren is a “doorway curtain” hanging in front of a shop to announce
the specialty within.
The Red Room Nightmare
Somewhere in Europe, 1925
A painting I saw in Paris provoked
this: A stranger persuades me
to strip to the skin, removing
all the protective layers, worn
whenever I venture outdoors
and follow him into his studio
with just a light robe to cover
Inside, I see red on everything;
the carpet, ceiling, tablecloth
and walls, only broken by swirls
of black and blue
which should warn me
what is in store.
The maid arranges food
on the table; a light snack
she says, which consists of fruit
wine and bread rolls, before
she departs and I am left
alone with him.
The man is a BEAST:
He rips off my robe
and tickles my nipples
with a paint brush
which sends me wobbly;
all the easier to bend.
The room is PASSION
but I’ll remember it as BLOOD
on my pale and perfect skin
lost and never restored.
Patrick Rosal is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive, which won the Members’ Choice Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and most recently My American Kundiman, which won the Association of Asian American Studies 2006 Book Award in Poetry as well as the 2007 Global Filipino Literary Award. Awarded a Fulbright grant as a Senior U.S. Scholar to the Philippines in 2009, he has had poems and essays published widely in journals and anthologies, including Harvard Review, Ninth Letter, The Literary Review, Black Renaissance Noire, Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Non-Fiction, the Beacon Best and Language for a New Century. His work has been honored by the annual Allen Ginsberg Awards, the James Hearst Poetry Prize, the Arts and Letters Prize, Best of the Net, among others. His chapbook Uncommon Denominators won
the Palanquin Poetry Series Award from the University of South Carolina, Aiken.
He has served as visiting writer at Penn State Altoona, Centre College, and the University of Texas, Austin. He taught creative writing for many years at Bloomfield College and twice served on the faculty of Kundiman’s Summer Retreat for Asian American Poets. He has read his poems and performed around the United States, Argentina, the UK, the Philippines and South Africa. His poems have been featured in film and media projects screened in Germany, Italy, Argentina, New York and Los Angeles.
A boy who played Chopin for my parents one afternoon
led another boy to the woods and hacked him in the neck
forty-two times with a knife
hoping squirrels would run off with the skull.
He and his buddy went back with slip joint pliers
to twist and yank, but they couldn’t pull out the teeth.
When the fat-fisted teachers of my childhood spoke,
they told us the soul’s ushered finally
to some bright space beyond a grand entry
where anonymity is a kind of wealth.
The sentinels, they said, are neither benevolent
nor cruel, though, as a fee, they take your name
in exchange for spending all of eternity looking at God.
So I aspired to be nameless and eternal
until the day I got enough balls to tell
those nuns and brothers in baggy cassocks
to go to hell, and in doing so, I was really committing them
to perpetual memory, the inferno being a place
where such spirits are never forgotten.
Let me begin again.
In the barrios of Ilocos Norte
there are precisely two words for slaughter.
In some languages, there is only one word for the sound of the tides’
trillion dice set loose on shores. In other languages
it is the sound of smashing chandeliers . My parents were born
on an archipelago where they worship salvation and ruin,
where, even if you can’t see the waves,
you can keep the sound of shattering glass on either side of you
and never be completely lost
you can wake up half way around the world
in the middle of the night, in a barrio of Ilocos Norte where you hear
an infant cry but see instead two men in jeans and flip flops,
hoisting onto their shoulders a 200-pound sow
bound to a spit, which howls all the way from pen to block.
The men, then, laughing, will slay, bloodlet, and gut the hog,
which gurgles, which is the same sound, my cousins say,
that is pressed from a man’s chest
during one drunken night of bad karaoke,
when he is stabbed five times through the armpit
until he’s leaking like a bad jar.
It’s true. You can ask a dead man’s son, watch him sweep
the masonry floor to his father’s crypt,
as he buffs their tiles into the kind of deep
blue that fills up small, unlit rooms by the sea
just before a typhoon starts swinging
its massive hammers down.
You might never get a second chance
to interrogate the accomplice, so ask him too,
and you’ll know the accomplice is telling you the truth
if he hands you by the neck that dead man’s only guitar,
all the bone inlay pried off, the body painted blue.
I know who killed his father. I’ll never say.
Have you ever taken a gun
out of the hands of a murderer
as a gift,
just to shoot a few live rounds into some slapdash target
fashioned from calabash and deadwood?
And in return do your ancestors expect you
to simply shutup and bring to the murderer a bottle of rum
and—god help you—a song?
I don’t remember much about the Chopin that one boy played
or much about the other boy he killed, except
he had brown hair and was the only white kid on the field
during our pick-up football games.
I remember the summer he went missing,
I stopped going to mass. And then I fell in love
with a girl as faithless as me, how she could sing
the devil into a Jersey cathedral choir.
Sometimes I dream of a city inside me, specifically
the edge of one, where a few low-wage grunts marshal
through hip-deep waters of a flooded street
a flock of bobbing carnage, bloated to sea-deep proportions of pink.
No one in the dream asks where they’ve come from.
No one mentions where they’re headed, and the workers,
they’re too exhausted by shift’s end
for more than a crude joke or a six-pack
and a half hour of Chopin on public radio.
I once stood twice that time in front of a Goya painting
in which soldier and civilian alike face off, point-
blank in a skirmish. They shoot and slash one another down,
their eyes wide and juvenile, the tender yowl
of their faces, their soft bodies rallied to battle – they seem boys
of snarling matter. They are men, women too, darkened
under the sky’s forty-day gray. In the far background,
on a hill, a single figure of ash appears to raise
both hands, the human pose of victory and surrender,
and maybe what Goya wants us to see from this distance
aren’t arms flung up — but wings: an angel
waiting to transport the grave bodies off the battlefield,
over the bright hill where he stands,
where no one will see them in good light.
a sudden fog of honeysuckle
will guarantee you
you can deny your children.
Let me tell you a story.
If you know how the A train gores
the dark with a steady hum,
perhaps you’ve come across
an old Caribbean man
patting his ass, his lapels,
first his front pockets
then again the back, looking
apparently, for a wad of bills.
He mumbles inward,
then reports to you,
Three hundred dollars.
I had three hundred dollars.
He looks you in the eye to assure you
he’s known crueler losses,
and even though heaven likes to bore us,
a woman dressed in tattered
black makes her entrance
as the old Caribbean leaves, and
at the same time
a trio of gradeschool boys
(the first chaos of spring in them
about to erupt)
a canvas sack
foaming with fresh-cut honeysuckle.
They place, too,
on the subway car’s floor
a radio. They bounce
on their toes
with a kind of pre-fight
jitter. The woman in black, in fact,
has a boxer’s under-bite
and announces herself
like this: Ladies and Gentleman, please
find it in your hearts to help a starving artist.
So you can’t blame the biggest boy
for slapping the middle boy
on the back of the neck
when the younger one reaches
for the radio’s play button,
can’t blame the older one
who sucks his teeth
at the younger one
as if to say: Let her sing.
you’ve almost completely forgotten
the Caribbean man,
when this woman eases out
her first, perfect, raspy sob;
there are only a few of us who don’t
recognize the tune,
and since we think we can own
by disdaining it,
we try to pretend we can’t hear
the city’s legacies of misery
trembling the tunnel walls.
How explain you’re watching
a stranger hobble by
and that you have to lift
your eyes twice
to make sure it isn’t
someone you love?
I’m old enough now to understand
every silence is remarkable
not the least of which
is the silence of boys
swaying side by side
as a woman in black
walks the length of a train
with each crystalline note
poised in the air that trails her
and there isn’t a scowl among us
when, behind her, the end-doors
signaling the boys
to blast the train with a backbeat,
then throw their bodies
as if to translate everything
we’ve lost today
into a joy
we can finally comprehend.
The boys shut off their radio,
gather their capful of dollars
and rabble of white blossoms
and pounce out at the next stop
in single file, but not —
I swear to you–
the first four notes
to Coltrane’s gorgeous groan.
The subway doors close.
This is the end of the story.
We ascend one by one from the dark
and beneath us
Harlem’s steady moan resumes.
That was the year I cursed my father
for wanting to be alone
his entire life
and for falling into my arms so suddenly
one afternoon I felt the full brunt of a grown man’s weight
once he no longer breathed for himself,
but for the crowds of ghosts whose misfortunes
he’s pressed into the service of his name and mine,
phantoms who’ve abandoned love
the way one gives up salt or laughter
or the mad thrash of the heart
which is a fish
in a bucket of stones.
I too have given up on love
in the last week —
once when I saw myself in the breach between
the cupped hands of a beggar
and I dropped what I could into that empty space
to rid myself of that nothing,
as if a gesture could make me simply
disappear, as if I were nothing.
There are species of quiet I choose not to love,
the hesitation, for example, with which
a man will harvest berries he’ll feed his brother
in order to kill him
or bring him back from a long sleep,
or the way such berries sit
on countless tables of countless people
who can be blamed for the kinds of things
that merit punishment
far kinder than poisoning.
That my father’s brothers dug
their own graves is not a myth.
When people ask if
the imagination can return us to the scene
of its own crimes, I’ll say
I once walked with a woman toward water
without knowing where the water was.
I’ll say, the two of us turned around
without finding it,
and we sat together on a stoop
until it rained
and the fragrance of the bay
fell through a city whose sky
turns the color of berries
at dusk. I’ll tell them
I’ve walked since then with no one
but the ghosts of my forefathers.
I found the water.
And I wept for everything.
And I learned to tell the world
how gorgeous it is to be alone.
Frances Kiernan is an artist and designer and exhibits in and around London. She runs workshops and courses in making book structures in schools, adult centres and at the Chelsea College of Art, London. Frances also produces handcrafted book cards for the V&A Museum Shop, London.
Frances originally trained as a typographer and designer and worked for many years as a designer and art director/editor in advertising and publishing.
Photography taken at the Sanskriti Kendra gardens, New Delhi, India during a residency January 2010. All images copyright © Frances Kiernan
Banyan Tree Roots: 1
Banyan Tree Roots: 2
Leaf On Water: 1
Leaf On Water: 2
Tenzin Tsundue is a poet, writer and a noted Tibetan freedom activist. He won the ‘Outlook-Picador Award for Non-Fiction’ in 2001. He has published three books to date, which have been translated into several languages. Tsundue’s writings have also appeared in various publications around the world including The International PEN, The Indian PEN, Indian Literature, The Little Magazine, Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Better Photography, The Economic Times, Tehelka, The Daily Star (Bangladesh), Today (Singapore), Tibetan Review and Gandhi Marg. His work has also been anthologised in Both Sides of the Sky: Post-Independence Indian poetry in English, and Language For A New Century (Norton)
I interviewed Tenzin Tsundue at Rangzen “Freedom” Ashram, Dharamsala in October 2008, some months after he’d been arrested for a march to Tibet. Unfortunately it’s taken a while to present this, but I think Tenzin’s experiences and perspectives are extremely relevant to the political struggles that Tibetans on both sides of the Himalayas continue to face.
In the wake of the recent earthquake in Yushu, Tibet, which has been reported as having occurred in China, as many as 10,000 Tibetans may have perished; the 1300 year old Thrangu monastery has been severely damaged, and many monks have lost their lives. The area has suffered intense political repression since protests broke out across the PRC from 2008 onwards. Being in Dharamsala, witnessing the conditions of Tibetans living in exile and meeting Tenzin was an experience that deeply moved me.
MC: What came first for you, the impetus for political activism or the impulse to write?
TT: Writing was part of the education that I received from school, but even before that, from refugee camps, the first education, the first awareness that came to me is that our country is under Chinese occupation and that we have to some day go back to our country. This shock and lament of having lost one’s country and therefore one’s dignity of life was a huge disturbance for me from childhood. Writing came much later.
My concern has always been from childhood that we have to regain the dignity of life from being oppressed, from being a victim, from being a crying refugee to regaining the Independence of Tibet. I don’t want to be a refugee, here, with, or without money, and say that my country is under somebody else’s control. The sense of dignity is very important and if it is not there because I am not in my own country or my own home, the sense of dignity comes from the fact that I’m in the struggle. I’m in the process of regaining that Independence and the struggle is my identity.
MC: I’m interested to hear about your education and how that has shaped your journey?
TT: I realised that only my education would assist me to get involved in the struggle and to do anything useful for the struggle. I didn’t have a proper language, and that was my biggest concern. From school we learnt Tibetan and English and even Hindi, right up to the 8th standard. Most of the subjects were taught in English so we had exposure to the English language. But English is always considered the foreign language, the Other language. There was never the culture of spoken English; it was never the culture so therefore it was always the language that you spoke only in your English class. Even in English classes we hesitated and made fun of each other, but we never really got to speak English properly so the feel of the English language both written and spoken wasn’t there, which I think was huge loss and something I had to work very hard on.
In most Asian countries now, there are two or three languages being taught. Sometimes you don’t know what your real language is, the language that you feel comfortable with. Just to acquire a proper language was in itself a huge struggle for me. When I went to Madras I was the only Tibetan student in my whole class of 108 students studying English literature and I didn’t have this language. I didn’t have the fluency, the natural feel of the language. So I worked very hard, writing and re-writing.
It was only when I was studying my MA in English literature at Bombay University, that I started to write creatively, finding myself in a very supportive atmosphere. We used to have a small poetry circle of friends sharing writings with each other. That was a huge encouragement for me. Outside of class I used to attend readings by senior poets: Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jassawalla, Dom Moraes, Dilip Chitre. These Saturday poetry circles were my training ground. My writing seriously started in 1997, when I was 23.
MC: Many of your poems and essays express a manifested hybridity. You speak of being as much an Indian as a Tibetan. How important is hybridity for diasporic identities in our globalised world?
TT: Well I think this multiple identity is the identity now in this hugely mobile world. And I think patriotism is something that is kind of outdated, internationally. For me my country is in a freedom struggle, but at the same time I’m not in Tibet, confronting the Chinese. I’m in India. I’m born here and I think I’m more effective being here. And being here, realistically, I have to deal with the Indian situation. So having been born and brought up here all my orientation is Indian. I feel I am Indian. At the same time, I feel that I have a huge responsibility for the Tibetan struggle, and I’m most willing to do anything required there. So therefore I do have multiple identities, but I know that the Tibetan cause is the most important cause that I want to dedicate my life towards. There are Indians all over the world. And there are Tibetans living in America and Europe who by virtue of the atmosphere in which they grew up are, in a way, European and American but the kind of priorities they keep for their lives makes a difference.
MC: What writers first influenced you?
TT: To begin with it was Khalil Gibran. His love poems and political writings in English were a huge inspiration. I’m thinking of books like Broken Wings, Spirits Rebellious, The Prophet. We used to borrow them from the library and keep them within our circle at school in Dharamsala. There weren’t many who knew about this. We used to go right up into the mountains, and read poetry, and feel that we were reading the most important poem. It became a kind of performance in the jungle. Imagine two or three poets lazing around in the pinewoods, reading poetry to each other and sharing candies; (for one rupee you would get ten small candies.) There was a huge excitement about reading, unravelling, the scenario of the Lebanese struggle, and the freedom struggle that he spoke for. We would read his poems as if they were about us and we could identify with the Tibetan freedom struggle. And that’s how the excitement for poetry began for me.
Later on, I read Shakespeare, EE Cummings, Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda, A.K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar, Woeser and Tibetan writers in Tibetan whose new writing captures a kind of a rebellious movement in Tibet. They have been a huge encouragement. I continue to read them and enjoy.
MC: In 1997 you crossed into Tibet where you were arrested and tortured. The Tibet you witnessed and described was more Chinese than you had imagined. Do you think the Western world still holds a stereotype of an ancient Tibet, a Shangri-La of Western orientalism and Western cinematic representations?
TT: Sure, I think the Western perspective on Tibet hasn’t improved much; the whole romanticised notion about the Dalai Lama and Buddhist monks. But I think what we have been successful in achieving over the past fifty years of living in exile is at least bringing about an awareness of what is Tibet is today. The stereotyping of Tibet as Shangri-La; the land of Buddhas where people lived like angels, levitating and living a superhuman life, I think, was hugely damaging because it immediately recognises Tibetans as not human beings but as interesting characters about whom it is interesting to write about or film.
What the Dalai Lama and Tibetans have been able to achieve in the last fifty years is to at least get the West to perceive that Tibet is a parcel of land, whose peoples’ culture is endangered like that of the North American Indians. And so there are tourists who go there and can witness how difficult life is for Tibetans living under the Chinese. This was especially highlighted in 2008 when Tibetans living in Tibet rose up in protest and people in the West were able to see it. So the Western stereotype of Tibet as Shangri-La is shattered. And this is a first success for us. It’s really damaging to look at an entire people and culture as if these are just characters and mythical elements who can be exoticised in cinemas. Films like Seven Years in Tibet, Kundun, do not step beyond the limitations of stereotypes. This is necessary in order for the West to recognise Tibetans as human beings, who have equal capacity for anger, hatred and violence.
MC: What is your understanding of the term “cultural genocide”?
Cultural genocide is a situation where there’s a disruption in the natural, organic growth of a culture and that disruption has not happened because of a natural disaster but because it’s been artificially imposed. The older generation Tibetans cannot tell the younger generation of what happened in the Cultural Revolution and how much they had to suffer. A silence was created by the political conditions and therefore a whole memory has been erased and hidden. By this strategy, the Chinese government is trying to homogenise the territories that are called China including the occupied Tibet, East Turkishtan, Mongolia and Manchuria. China is flattening all the cultural differences in the name of nationalism. As citizens of China we must practice one culture. Through the practice of population transfer, flooding the occupied lands with Chinese, and basically dictating that the Chinese language is the language of education, administration and media, China is trying to homogenise the culture so its uniqueness will not be recognised. This is what they call a peaceful liberation and the danger is that a whole memory will be erased and people will lose their memories.
MC: Is Buddhism and non-violence undermining the political cause of Tibetan independence?
TT: I think what His Holiness is trying to do with the process of dialogue, in itself, is an exemplary non-violent approach. How we want to approach the struggle is confrontational but at the same time non-violent. We want to confront the Chinese dictators and try to address the injustice they are placing on the Tibetans, while his Holiness tries to send delegations, one after the other. But when dialogue is not a sincere process, the dialogue will never work and has not been working. The Chinese try to buy time. In seeking a dialogue we are dependent on them. In confronting and demanding Independence we are not dependent on the dictator, who will never listen, who instead of listening places more conditions on us and therefore tries to stifle whatever little voice we have; a voice that we’ve acquired in exile, in a free country.
That freedom we’ve won in exile is the only power that we have to negotiate with the dictator and even that little power we seem to be losing. We prefer to take control of our struggle, confront the Chinese, and demand Independence and refuse to be dependent on the terms of their negotiation. I’m talking about the larger majority of young Tibetans. They absolutely do not trust the Chinese for any type of negotiation, and largely people think that only an Independent Tibet can really guarantee a future for Tibet. Our demand is Independence, our approach is non-violent, but it’s confrontational. It’s not about delegations or round-the-table dialogue.
MC: What role do you think the media has played in raising awareness of the struggle for Tibetan Independence?
TT: Being in exile in a free country means that the media is one of our most important partners. China, because of its business interests has to listen to the Western world. The Western world doesn’t voluntarily support Tibet. Sometimes the West uses the Tibet issue to counter China; they find it useful. Sometimes they are forced to take up the Tibet issue in the interests of public diplomacy, because it continues to arise in the international media right in their face. Before the Bejing Olympics, Presidents Bush and Sarkozy had to make statements that the Chinese had failed to keep their promise on human rights because of the brutality by the Chinese government against the Tibetan uprising. Hundreds of Tibetans were killed and thousands were imprisoned. This was openly reported in the Western media. Poland and Germany, in particular were genuinely interested.
Australia has a huge stake in Chinese business. Even if Australians would love to support the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people, I don’t think your government is in a position to do anything in favour of the Tibetans while China is actively importing Australian coal and iron ore.
MC: You have written about protest as a celebration of difference. But is the celebrity status of the Dalai Lama and his adoring Western fans overshadowing the political cause of a free Tibet?
TT: His Holiness has been created, and has become an icon for peace and sometimes we do feel that he’s becoming more a symbol for peace, and we feel we are missing the Dalai Lama as a Tibetan leader. But I think these are general concerns. The larger-than-life image that he has created is such a power that China is afraid of him. His Holiness has no gun. His Holiness has limited resources that can counteract China but what China fears is the media friendly image of the Dalai Lama. We are only six million Tibetans and China has a population of 1.3 billion, with financial resources and political power, but still in 2008 we shook the political assumptions of the PRC. We own the Dalai Lama’s leadership and power and therefore the Dalai Lama continues to be the symbol of hope for Tibetans, both inside and outside Tibet.
MC: Tibetan poets living in exile are writing in their native tongue and in English. But in Tibet, the Chinese language has infiltrated a generation of Tibetans, and has become the language in which they write. Is this a cause for concern?
TT: As it stands, the majority of the Tibetan population are in Tibet and they are speaking Chinese. Chinese has a strong influence in education, administration, economy and the media. The Chinese government has made this mandatory in Tibet. English might become the third language. For those of us born in India, English is the second language or even for some, the first language. The patois of Tibetan and Hindi is not necessarily an undermining of Tibetan culture. There’s a latent fear that results if you start to practise other languages, for example Tibetans are speaking Tibetan but then insert English or Hindi expressions. Also some Tibetans expressions are a direct translation of Hindi. We can observe this in the placement of verbs. In Hindi the verbs are placed first while in English the subject placement occurs before the object is placed. Grammatical shifts, the sentence structure indicates these are direct translation of Hindi. This happens in towns where Tibetans are swelling sweaters by the roadside, which they have been doing for the last 30-40 years, and therefore live that life of direct interaction.
There is a cause for concern if our language is being undermined, but at the same time language and for that matter culture is not static, and not something that remains frozen in time. Culture is always in flux; organically developing and we cannot stop it. We may be able to divert it but we are not able to stop it and if we do stop it then that’s the end of the culture. For example if we speak of a genuine Tibetan culture, then this particular phase in the natural flow of our culture is genuine. If we refer to Indian culture, are we talking about post-Independence Indian Culture, are we talking about the Ghandi era, the Moghul period or the Ashoka period? Culture is in a natural flow. We may be able to change its flow organically from constantly evolving but we can’t stop it.
So what is happening in exile, is that the kind of Tibetan we are speaking is a very fast pace, with new idioms that we’ve created which were not there in pre-Chinese occupation times. Tibetans inside Tibet today don’t understand us, and we have thus advanced. We have a reason to celebrate that we’ve created a new language. In this new language there are poems being written, songs, novels and essays. Thousands of essays are being written here and it sounds wonderful in this Indian-Tibetan community. Likewise in Tibet with the coming of Communist Chinese they have created amongst themselves, especially during the Cultural Revolution, a lot of idioms that reflect the new revolutionary anti-feudal, anti-Imperialist tones that speak of the glory of socialism. So all these new idioms are created and they are today a part of the Tibetan language, and are confusing to us, and sometimes so Utopian to us. So the Tibetan languages have been evolving both in exile, and in Tibet, and even for Tibetans living in America and Europe. And there are Tibetans in America singing rap songs in Tibetan.
MC: What are the possibilities for translation and transcreation of the languages that Tibetans today speak and write?
TT: I think translation and transcreation are very important border areas of literature but presently there are not many poets who have skills in Chinese, Tibetan and English. But I think that increasingly just as the trend is happening in other communities in India, translators are creating a new genre of writing. There is a huge scope of writing and this area will be explored more in time.
MC: Do you think that the stories and the memories of the now ageing generation of Tibetans who remember a free Tibet before the Chinese invasion have been adequately preserved?
TT: There is a very rich oral tradition in Tibetan communities. We grew up listening to our parents’ and grandparents’ stories about pre-Chinese Occupation: the fantasy land of Tibet, the heavenly kind of livelihood they lived, the pristine beauty of the natural resources, and the clean water they always described. This is the imagination of Tibet that we grew up on.
The imaginative Tibet has been preserved but what we’ve lost in the process is how we became accommodated in boarding schools where hundreds of Tibetan youngsters lived together. We never got to hear and learn from parents and from our ancestors during these times. The memory we lost is how the older generation of Tibetans survived in the economic urgency of creating a livelihood, selling sweaters, working as roadside labourers to earn a living. There was nothing in exile. Tibetan children were sent to school while their parents were earning an income as street vendors. And therefore there was a kind of separation between the two generations and we missed learning from our parents and grandparents.
What happened in Tibet was even worse. The Communist cadres used to send informers into the community and they would watch each other. It would happen in areas within China. You were constantly being watched by your own family, your own friends, your own relatives. So you couldn’t do anything considered to be disloyal to the Communist Party. Tibetans inside Tibet could hardly speak about the Chinese invasion of Tibet, the reality of Tibet before the Chinese occupation, and therefore they could not talk about the spirit to fight for freedom. You would be disbanded. Children would be interrogated in this process and if it was found out that they were speaking against the Chinese, they would be guilty of creating a treason.
So there was a disruption in the handing over of the memory that we needed to inherit. This is a huge disturbance.
MC: Your poetry seems to differ from Nyam Mgur tradition. It seems less concerned with stylised symbolism and spiritual insight, conveying instead a very real sense of the problems that Tibetans in exile must deal with: a denied sense of home, identity and belonging. Would you like to comment on this?
TT: I’ve read poetry from Tibet; coming from a traditional background as well as new poets writing in a revolutionary style. Their history, education and orientation is very different to mine. I’ve been influenced by India and the influence of English literature. In the expression of writing I don’t really speak in the language of symbolism. My writings are more monologues, a direct communication. I could easily say the same thing or I could read a poem. The language is very simple, and that’s why I think it works, because when it’s heard people identify with it.
I don’t feel I write from a traditional style or school of Tibetan writing. Neither do I adopt a spiritual perspective that might be expected of me as a Tibetan or as a follower of the Dalai Lama. It’s more an expression of a person without hope. All my writing is constantly in search of hope. The search of my writing is the process of searching for home, physically or in the imagination.
MC: Do you think writers can make a difference to the humanitarian issues that face the politically repressed?
TT: What writers can do is to express concerns and to speak the heart of the common people. They speak the truth; they don’t hide the truth or manoeuvre like politicians. So they are loved by the public. Politicians have to work desperately to win the heart of the people, because they’re never trusted.
Because writers tell the truth, they are respected. Naturally they have to bear the responsibility to understand the ground realities; to continue to bear the courage to speak the truth. They can have a huge influence in creating opinions and changing the direction of public opinion.
MC: What is your relationship as a writer and an activist to India?
TT: Whether I’m using the language of the writer or the language of the activist, for me the models are always coming from India. Ghandi is a huge influence as well as many other Indian writers: Dilip Chitre, Dom Moraes, A.K. Ramanujan, Arun Kolatkar. I’m indebted to the whole Indian environment and the hundreds of Indian friends I have, and how much I’ve learnt from them. Being in Bombay and travelling all over India, and learning from the Indian community are direct influences, and this is my relationship to India.
MC: Is there a risk of Tibetan literatures in exile becoming nostalgically repetitive, or without innovation?
TT: No, I don’t think so. Firstly, we are living in a fast pace modern world, especially here in the Tibetan community. So much change is happening, and we are either documenting or responding to these changes that we are witnessing as well as being nostalgic about an imaginative Tibet in exile. I think there are a host of things to write about, and I think that the poetry that’s coming out is very creative in terms of what is being expressed. It’s not just nostalgia. There is truly a voice of anger, frustration with the injustice and the apathy about Tibet from the Western world. There are solid expressions of anger coming from our writers, like the poet Bhuchung D Sonam. I can see that. There’s no concern.
MC: What do you think are more important; the verbal or the non-verbal acts of protest and remembrance?
TT: The trouble with non-verbal protest is that it’s transitory unless you have it published or broadcast in the media so that it enters the imagination and the memory of the public. But even that doesn’t help much and you have to be effective in the registering. Today the media with the greatest impact is film and television. But again the problem is that the memory of the broadcast is short-lived. There’s a barrage of cinematic information being targeted at every household. So a protest of climbing the Oberoi Hotel and confronting the Chinese premier is not a memory for Bombay people; it’s not.
Written memory is present as a reference and we can broadcast it with the use of technology, by the use of blogs, websites, personal community newsletters. We can personalise and present it. This can’t be erased. I’ve not been able to spend much time as a writer. I’ve spent more time being an activist, organising rallies, getting arrested, being in gaol and fighting court cases. There’s been more of all that and unfortunately less of writing.
I think I’ve created a little bit of written public memory.
Ankur Betageri, (18/11/83), is a bilingual writer based in New Delhi. His poetry collection in English is titled The Sea of Silence (2000, C.V.G. Publications.) Two collections in Kannada are titled Hidida Usiru (Breath Caught, 2004, Abhinava Prakashana)and Idara Hesaru (It’s Name, 2006, Abhinava Prakashana) He has also published a collection of Japanese Haiku translations called Haladi Pustaka (The Yellow Book, 2009, Kanva Prakashana). He holds a Masters in Clinical Psychology from Christ College, Bangalore. He co-edits the journal Indian Literature published by Sahitya Akademi and is contributing editor(India) of the Singapore-based ezine writersconnect.org. Recently, he represented India as a Poet at the III International Delphic Games held at Jeju, South Korea.
The quiet and rising tension in the jaw of the common man
You are drinking chai in the office canteen
looking out the window absentmindedly
at the unreal summer shadows of trees
thrown about carelessly
with the occasional bird
lighting the bough
and preening its brilliant wings
when suddenly you hear someone StaMMeRinG!
You look around and see
your whole inner self
in all its trembling
splayed out in the shuddering body
of the ‘boy’ who serves chai.
Racked by the nervous torment that being here
has become, he is stammering
unable to utter a sensible word,
he is stammering in a terrible frothing anger
at a bully customer
and – I realize – at a world that has failed him.
I see chai-drinking chootias around me
smiling; I gulp the chai and unable to make out
what is happening to me,
unable to contain the trembling which is possessing me,
unable to go on sitting at the table, on the chair
in this stable world, in this insanely stable world
which will continue to be stable even after my death,
unable to do anything that could stop
his quaking body from stammering,
unable to do anything about the laughter
which goes on quietly massacring,
I drink chai
chai-drinking, English-speaking, afsar-cunt that I am
I continue to drink chai as if nothing has happened,
as if nothing will ever happen,
as if the trembling within me has
nothing to do with what is outside
as if yoga, meditation, shitty self-help books
are what I require,
as if happy hours at the bar, Sunday-sair with a girl
would instantly restore me to normalcy –
ah happy-cunt of the great Indian middle class!
ah intellectual-cunt debating in news channels!
ah corporate-cunt discussing growth in ac boardrooms!
ah poet-cunt churning out verse for international journals!
ah bollywood-cunt selling flaccid dreams to the poor!
ah cunt on the election poster
ah cunt in the complicit rooms of police stations!
ah cunt selling merchandize and noise on FM channels!
ah cunt running newspaper by splattering naked bodies of women!
ah student-cunt fornicating and agitating in college campuses!
ah actor-cunt asking us to end poverty from your palaces!
ah brand-ambassador-cunt for fair skin, white teeth and slim hips!
ah soulless empire of cunts
looking down from hoardings, ad-widgets and social-networking sites!
I shall exorcise myself of you and your ghosts!
I shall speak now of the wrongs, speak now of the murders
I really have had enough of your chai!
I – the Cunt with a Conscience – shall master this human trembling
I shall rescue from the rot this precious inner feeling
I shall hug the fevered hearts and speak for all those
The Indian Soul
for Shri Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul
The Indian soul is pure
no amount of money, corruption and sophistry in the world of high art
can corrupt its soul
look at the Indian dog licking at the worn out tyres of a Maruti 800
look at its eyes and you know it is sacred
its hungry and cold in the misty Delhi winter
and you can weep out of pity for it
(my head grows soft like a peeled cucumber
as my face weeps inside the cheeks)
but the dog doesn’t need my pity
it feels my love and runs away barking
as if its dangerous to linger in my pity…
The Indian women are pure
I loathe them and call them rubbish
and they let me go
yes, they tried to shackle my heart, break my spirit
yes, they enticed me with the dream of babies
BUT when they saw my purpose they let me go
I slept over them like on the warm sunny beaches
and looked at the sun take the sea with it
and when I rose they fell off my body
like so much sand,
they never stuck to me –
(it was I who stuck to them
coming in the way of their life in comfortable cars
bearing sun-faced babies and listening to technicolour songs –
and when they saw that my spirit was getting muddy
in the warm pools of their cosy homes
it was they who kicked me out
complementing me, indirectly:
you are too much for us, too much!)
The Indian women are pure
they mind their business and know
each one has his own destiny to fulfill –
Just look at the beautiful women in the sarees
how graceful their movement and many-splendored their bangled hands!
its just that they are not for me
and they smile at me warmly and let me go
and I smile back at them happily, flapping my wings.
The Indian soul, no matter how deep in the muck it gets pushed
is pure and full of joy
look at the Indian cow lying on a bed of its own dung
look at the buffaloes wallowing in their own shit
but still giving – two times a day – pure white milk!
look into the buffalo’s eyes
can anyone be as calm and quietly contented as her?
The Indian soul is pure and joyous and sacred
and no amount of western shit splattered on the shop fronts
hoardings and newspapers can change it –
Half-naked women swing hips to tasteless tunes of bollywood?
Let them! Let the buffoons and jokers pass themselves off as heroes
and once done, let them do netagiri
folding hands, showing teeth and all –
none of it is going to change the Indian soul
it will always be deep and pure and joyous
away from all that is ephemeral!
The Indian soul – no kidding, guys, – is pure
(no, not as pure as the beauty soap just taken out of the box
like they show us in the ads
but pure in a way our drugged imagination cannot even conceive –)
Deep in the Delhi night
I breathe the glacier-pure air
it quivers in my nostrils, in my lungs, in my hair
I breathe in the great expanse
and breathe it back in space
The Indian soul is us, a will that has found its sap
the Indian soul is us, a light that cannot be stopped
and India is the earth, whose map cannot be drawn.
by Rhyll McMaster
Brandl & Schlesinger, 2007
Reviewed by DEBBIE LIM
What repels can often also compel. In Feather Man, author Rhyll McMaster seems to know this as she draws us into the life of Sooky – a girl who is sexually abused by her neighbour in 1950s suburban Brisbane. The story opens with Sooky helping her perpetrator, Lionel, in his chook yard. By the third page, we cannot help but read in growing horror as Lionel commits the violation that will set up the damaging patterns that define Sooky’s relationships in adulthood.
The confronting scene in the chook shed could be a microcosm of the novel’s world. This is a visceral place that’s stifling and grubby, where women rank low in the social pecking order. But it’s also in these early pages that Sooky’s gift for observation becomes apparent:
I saw a pair of chook’s legs walk by my head. Even the chooks acted as if everything was normal… But my thighs looked unusual, the way Lionel had jacked them up and spread them apart. I wasn’t used to seeing them that way. They looked pale and nude, the inside of frogs’ legs, as if they were too unripe to be like that.
This ability to ‘see’ leads Sooky to become a successful painter in later years. Her capacity to find an idiosyncratic beauty amongst the urban squalor is also what allows us to venture into what could otherwise be a bleak setting. One morning, for example, when the adults are still asleep after a night of partying, she goes outside:
I walk out onto the grass in the sloping backyard and bend down. There is much to look at in this close-up world. The heavy dew lies in tiny round crystal balls on the clover. A grasshopper with a green spike extending from its head springs out of nowhere onto my hand. Its mandibles graze my skin. I can feel it eating me…I am queen and king of this region and nothing can harm me.
Ultimately, Feather Man is a novel about self-identity. In Sooky’s case, it’s less the search for identity than a struggle to reclaim the ‘ordinary’ self that was taken from her by Lionel as a young girl. For while her artist’s eye is acute, her heart still knocks to the dysfunctional rhythms of childhood. After breaking off an engagement to a besotted but conventional footballer, Sooky marries her childhood idol, the charming Redmond – who is also the son of her abuser Lionel.
For Sooky, the attraction is primal:
The first and most important thing to mention about Redmond is his burnished hair. It is the colour my father brings up out of mahogany, as he polishes in small oily circles. The fox coat. Deep and rich, active, alien.
But Redmond also turns out to be a cruel narcissist. This becomes increasingly apparent after Sooky marries him and they move overseas so he can forge a career in the London art world.
It could be said that none of the characters in Feather Man are particularly likeable. Even Sooky is not conventionally endearing: she is blunt, obstinate and unpredictable. But it is also her lack of convention that makes her such a sympathetic character.
Neither is Sooky one of the two stereotypes she might easily have been: the victim quietly nursing her wounds or the veering car crash leaving a trail of debris. While she has aspects of both, she is intelligent, resilient, introspective and, perhaps most importantly, has agency. Her dispassionate observations can be blackly funny. For instance, during the first time she has sex with Redmond:
The moment has a flavour of clinical deadness. He has taken off his trousers and his shirt and I see he wears a string singlet. Oh, Redmond, I grieve.
Below the dreadful singlet, in the light from the street, I can see his erection. That looks funny too, a polyp or sea worm waving around in the current. I admonish myself: It is not really waving.
One of the achievements of Feather Man is that, via Sooky’s internal reflections, it explores the complicated and enduring relationship between victim and abuser. It is due to McMaster’s skill that, rather than bog down the narrative, these sections deepen the complexity and our understanding of the issue. With Sooky’s eyes, we see how the beast of abuse wears a coat of subtle shades of grey, how it operates in the liminal zone, where the back fence is ignored and boundaries blurred.
Since its publication in 2007, Feather Man has won the 2008 Barbara Jefferis Award. It remains a relevant and powerful book. I was also happily surprised to discover that Rhyll McMaster’s personal website provides detailed notes on the novel’s development. This includes original sections that were later edited out and even the initial reader’s report by the book’s publisher, Brandl & Schlesinger. It’s a fascinating and refreshingly open look into the author’s creative process.
Readers familiar with McMaster’s poetry (she has published six books of poems) will likely be fascinated to learn that her debut novel incorporates poems from two of her previous works (Flying the Coop and Chemical Bodies). According to McMaster, poems have been re-worked as prose in an ‘attempt at post post-modernism’. Also woven throughout are numerous references to fairy tales and nursery rhymes.
The pages of Feather Man bristle with animal imagery. This is skillfully used to depict humans in all their brutality and strange complexity. Sooky’s father, for instance, keeps a tank of sea horses and anemones. However, his seeming fascination with the creatures reflects his disconnectedness and lack of self awareness:
He liked the idea of horses and flowers underwater. He searched for the ridiculous or the out-of-place, the askew, the left-handed, like himself… He looked at those sea horses with so much incomprehension.
In another passage that echoed vaguely the voice in Nabokov’s Lolita, Sooky likens her susceptibility to Lionel’s attentions as unavoidable as basic cell replication:
Lionel, how I loved you…I was a plate of medium in a laboratory ready for someone to seed me with the bacteria of love. Anything might have stuck. Healthy, unhealthy, fungoid, parasitic. I couldn’t discern between them.
McMaster frequently uses animal similes to describe the characters, resulting in vivid portraits. It also lends a sense of dissociation, a certain fantastical edge. The ultimate beast, of course, is Lionel who is the menacing ‘Feather Man’ of the title. As the name suggests, he looms as a type of half-man half-animal, the childhood monster from the henhouse that eludes capture.
The actual animals that appear in the novel typically don’t fare well under the custodianship of humans. The seahorse tank cracks and gushes its inhabitants onto the carpet, chickens are scalded and disembowelled, while the family cat is put down without warning and perfunctorily replaced. Overall, humans are seen as negligent and with a tendency to abuse power.
In Feather Man, life is a savage place where only the fittest survive. This is a powerful and uncomfortable work that refuses easy rescue. Although self-empowerment through art is one of its themes, in the end this is not a lofty tale. There are feathers on the ground, grit under the fingernails, and a sense that the wolf will always be watching from the shadows. Even so, in McMaster’s hands, there is a strange poetry to be found for those whose gaze remains unflinching.
Adam Aitken was born in 1960 and spent his early childhood in London, Thailand and Malaysia. As well as numerous reviews, articles on poetry, and works of creative non-fiction, he is the author of four collections of poetry. Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles (2000) was shortlisted for the Age Poetry Book Award and the John Bray South Australian Writers Festival Award. He has been the recipient of an Asialink residency in Malaysia, an Australian Postgraduate Award and most recently an Australia Council Literature grant for new work on Cambodia. His most recent work includes a Doctorate in Creative Arts thesis on hybridity in Australian literature, and a new book of poems, Eighth Habitation (Giramondo Publishing). He lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. Adam is appointed Distinguished Visiting Writer at the University of Hawai’i for Fall semester 2010.
“Went up north for short holidays again last week.
And thankfully missed the floods in KL.
You have to pass Kelly’s (sic) Castle
Clearwater Golf Sanctuary, right?”
Appeasing temple, or a Scots-Victorian Taj Mahal
built for the love of Agnes, English heiress by rumour.
Designed with “splendour in mind”
unfinished supplement to 1890s
tin-money, and rubber.
Filmset strangler figs “reclaiming civilisation”.
“While driving to Ipoh for ICT annual dinner (courtesy of zaman), we stopped
by kellie’s castle for a wee bit of look-see.”
“Not a haunted house, a haunted castle”.
Moorish. Built by Hindu stone masons.
Spanish flu killed Kellie,
decimated the master builders
& coolies too.
somewhere between Singapore
(some say Portugal).
Agnes went home to Scotland.
The surviving workers
built their avatar:
in khaki and boots
standing between two fakirs
atop their temple
just behind the scullery.
I’m here for the “pictorial possibilities”, and like a good poem
there’s Juliet balconies
hidden tunnels and
the “doors and windows open and shut
light and dark.
My eighth habitation?
“Windows open and bang shut by themselves, we’ve been in there …
you can ask Joyce or Loo Hui. We spent only about 45 minutes
in there, and the clouds started to get darker and darker,
and we had to get out of there coz there’s no visibility in there
in case it got too dark. We walked quickly outside
into the open space, and I told the girls I HAD to take this shot
with the dark clouds directly on top of the castle, it’s really
a golden opportunity for a good shot that I think even the locals
find it hard to find! We got on our knees, frame a low angle,
and got these shots.”
Capitalist myth No. 357:
the workers deify The Boss
Capitalist myth No 358:
the workers poisoned his cigars.
Eccentricity that becomes the Boss,
for which the locals thank him –
for Malaya’s first hydraulic lift,
each room with a view,
the library of hardwood shelves,
much text that
rotted there unread.
Scott’s Waverley novels, Eliot, Dickins.
the attractions are
ghosts, hidden passages,
a class excursion
or a promo
for “Ted Adnan’s Location Portraiture Lighting Technique Workshop”
(code for tropic porn
among the Gothic moldings
in the equatorial boudoir
for heat-struck Ophelias).
Heritage? Thirty, quite useless, rooms
including indoor tennis court,
of graduated offence (from “Abdul 2000” to
the spouting appendage
drawn from hearsay
to “Malaysia 20/20 Vision”)
In guidebook-speak: “a defaced labour of love”?
Thanks to the haunted Celts
the rubber boom turns to palm oil and tourism
plus a hundred or so internet plagiarism essays
just absent on leave,
one deregulated voice
channelled thru the living
“it’ll b a cute cute castle
wif lotsa hello! kitty stuff in there..
it shall not b spooky…
it’ll b like every kid’s dream castle… haha…”
Trans-Pacific writer and photographer Alex Kuo’s most recent books are White Jade and Other Stories, and Panda Diaries. His Lipstick and Other Stories won the American Book Award, and recently he received received the Alumni Achievement award from Knox College.
Having taught creative writing in the US as well as in Hong Kong/China, I have experienced the major difference that evolve from one very significant cultural/educational background: history.
In the US, as far as I can determine, individual creative writing courses were taught at Yale and Columbia in the early 1920s. J.D. Salinger is rumored to have taken a short story writing course at Columbia in 1939. And full-blown programs leading to graduate degrees in creative writing slowly started emerging in the late 1930s.
The historical difference is quite dramatic.
I may be corrected, but I believe the first creative writing course taught in a Hong Kong university occurred in 1996 at Baptist University, and the first in China in 2005 in Beijing Forestry University. That same year the English Department at Fudan University in Shanghai flirted with the idea of becoming the first Chinese institution to offer a creative writing program, but the concept fell apart mostly from incompetency and in-fighting within the department, a most common phenomenon in English departments on all sides of the Pacific.
When I entered Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop forty-nine years ago in 1961, there were only four creative writing programs leading to a graduate degree in the United States, University of Iowa, Stanford University, University of Oregon and Columbia University.
A student had two concentration options, fiction or poetry.
When I received my MFA in 1963, there were two recipients of that degree in poetry—the other was Marvin Bell. Including fiction, Iowa awarded seven graduate degrees in creative writing that year. Adding Stanford, Oregon and Columbia’s, the total that year was about 15 for the entire country.
In the next half-century, graduate degree programs in creative writing in the US have been the fastest growing cottage industry in American academia, at the amazing rate of five new ones every year. At last count, there are two-hundred-and-forty five such programs. California leads with 25, followed by New York with 21, then Texas and Illinois with 13 each.
Today a student has a wide range of concentration options besides fiction and poetry. They include non-fiction, the memoir, script writing, young-adult fiction, even Christian fiction.
A conservative estimate of the number of graduate degrees in creative writing that will be awarded this 2010 year: 2,500. Wow! A nation of 300 million produces 2,500 talented writers every year from its MFA factories. Too bad our schools can’t even turn out that many readers.
With this astronomical number, the teaching of creative writing has been professionalized since 1967 with the establishment of the Association of Writing Programs that lends respectability to its members. Today, writers are joiners and networkers who go to conferences, our professional identity socially and academically stapled to tenure, promotion and bureaucracy. This international organization now has more than 500 member colleges and programs. Its services include publications such as the program directors handbook. Oddly enough, such a how-to manual does not exist for any other academic field, physics, law or history.
Starting at the end of the 1960s, the number of students choosing to major in English nationally has plummeted, until Arizona State University responded by developing an undergraduate degree in creative writing, a stimulus package to its English Department. While the overall enrollment hemorrhaging has not abated, the majority of English majors across the country have elected to focus on this creative writing track, accounting for 60-80 percent on most college campuses. While some programs such as that at the University of Washington has been selective in responding to this student interest and screens its applicants, others such as Washington State University accepts any student taller than an AK-47, even when it appears that many are those who have failed to get into the communications program.
How do we apprehend this dramatic change, especially in an era when the publishing industry is looking at something such as literary fiction as an anachronism in much the same way that the music industry has been on the endangered species list for more than a decade.
In apprehending this popularity, it might be useful to re-visit some of the historical discussions surrounding the inclusion of creative writing courses in the academic curriculum. Can creative writing be taught? Should it be taught? What is talent? How should the students be marked/graded? Who is qualified to teach it? And what should be taught? What is a writing workshop?
While it is relatively easy to look at this change from an exclusively binary model—that the old programs were elitist and exclusive, and the new more responsive and egalitarian—I think it’s more complicated than that.
It could be argued that these four highly respected creative writing teachers of the 20th century, Donald Justice, Ted Roethke (who refused to read any of his students’ writing and therefore did not make any writing assignment), Yvor Winters and J.V. Cunningham challenged and encouraged their students to produce literature; but it should also be pointed out that some of them were mean sons-of-bitches whose behavior pushed too many of their students to an early exit from the program and the university, and terminated their habit of buying books and reading them.
They despised the memoir, and believed that creative writing must not be confused with self-expression. Their students were made to conform to their view that writing is art, and not to dwell on the ordinary pathetic little lives of everlasting unimportance. Most of the time they would praise such writers as Donald Barthelme, Amy Hempel, Robert Coover, Barry Hannah, Cathy Aker, Gilbert Sorrentino, George Chambers, Thomas Pynchon the same writers who would find it very difficult to get their work published today.
But they made the writing workshop work, in which they validated the peer criticism of students in their early twenties with no publication history—and many have no reading history either—and validating self-expression from those who’ve never had a thought in their head. (I might add that today these students have no reading history either.) Today, the successful management of the workshop classroom has become a litmus test in assessing a candidate for a creative writing hire or tenure, as if management and teaching were the same thing.
Some have argued that the workshop has worked so well that its original intentions of encouraging excellence has resulted in compromises and consensus, so much so that many editors of publications warn against submissions that look as if they have been workshoped, that the writing programs have eroded into the lowest common denominator.
I’m nearing the half-century mark of my creative writing teaching career. But those initial questions still haunt me each time I walk into a writing class, especially if writing can be taught at all. I try to turn the students in a certain direction, but remind them that my voice is only one of many in their writing lives. I encourage them to read day and night, and not just what’s on the page or on the screen, because I tell them that’s what a writer does, to see all, remember all, and understand as much as possible. Cut loose and take a chance. And hopefully, don’t write about anything that is not important. Sometimes we have to confront and work through the screaming cultural conflicts of what we deem is important.
Most of the lives of most of us are filled with the repetitive, pedestrian and unimportant. Is it the social, herding glue in us humans that makes us want to write and read about it? Isn’t good writing always about writing across cultures, about the other, even when we ourselves may be the other? Writing that will startle and astonish us, make us jump, stir doubt and dread, perhaps even change our lives? Aren’t we always reading across cultures to escape from our narrow-mindedness, to see what Anna and Vronsky felt and believed, but not to have lived through the consequences of their decisions? To look beyond our inviolable lives? And how to write as witness?
Is this what our creative writing programs are encouraging, I ask.
Maybe one possible consideration for the development of creative writing programs is to adopt the requirement of merging with a second area of study such as microbiology or economics, so that our graduates would be knowledgeably engaged in producing that I call informed public writing (see George Orwell on England’s coal miners or James Agee on tenant farmers), substantial writing that would offer some important insight that would generate interest in the public and not just in family and friends, such as dependence on oil, the adopting/stealing third-world children by fundamentalist Christians, or why China’s football team was eliminated in the early rounds of this year’s World Cup.
I for one believe that we do not write in a vacuum. Likewise, we do not teach in a vacuum. Creative writing is fast emerging as a very popular course of study in Asia. Aside from the complex issues of mother-tongue, diaspora of who we are and what is home, and indeed other elements that define and signify what are we and what are the other, Asian programs can perhaps learn from the American mistakes and develop its own distinctively, one unique program at a time.
Finally, are our programs producing writers whose work will be read, and will they be imprisoned, exiled, or killed? It is of course easy for me to raise these questions in this sanitized multi-media center. But I want to raise one more question: can we produce such writers in our programs? If we can’t, what the f* are we doing besides holding down an unimportant day job.
The Best Australian Poems
Edited by Robert Adamson
Black Inc. 2009
Reviewed by CAMERON LOWE
The first thing to say about this anthology is that it is full of birds. Currawongs, crows, egrets, magpies, cockatoos, finches, owls—the list could go on. This is hardly surprising given Robert Adamson’s preoccupations with birds in his own writing. The second thing to say is that while birds—and the natural world more generally—are a common thematic in the anthology, it is a less pervasive theme than a first reading might suggest. Adamson’s anthology is far more than the sum of its birds.
None of which is to imply that there is anything wrong with writing about birds. On the contrary, A. Frances Johnson’s ‘Black Cockatoo: Calyptorhynchus funereus’, Barry Hill’s ‘Egret’, or Lia Hills’ ‘an anatomy of birds’—a beautiful meditation on a bird’s skeleton—show clearly that Adamson is not the only contemporary Australian poet writing excellent poems structured around bird as subject.
The value of these annual collections—and the UQP anthology should be recognised in this respect as well—is not simply limited to providing an interesting batch of what are arguably the best poems written in the past twelve months or so. They are also, in a sense, a meeting place, where readers may engage with writing by celebrated poets, as well as work from talented new (or lesser-known poets). Additionally, although in a perhaps less tangible way, they are also a meeting place for the poets themelves; as Adamson somewhat romantically notes in his introduction, ‘the poets sing to each other and their poems set words dancing in our souls’.
The coming together of the new and the established is a major feature of these anthologies, one that Adamson has been keen to continue. Interestingly, for Adamson it was the work of lesser-known writers emerging out of the selection process that excited him most: ‘the exuberance in the language and ideas of poets whose names I hardly knew…started to threaten to take over the space reserved for those whose poetry I have been following for many years’. Just how ‘new’ is new is of course problematic; most of the poets represented in the anthology, even the younger ones such as Lucy Holt and Elizabeth Campbell, have published at least one full book-length collection of poetry. One notable exception is Sarah K Bell—younger again than Holt and Campbell—whose ‘Reconstructing A Rabbit’ was first published in Cordite Poetry Review, underscoring the value of including on-line publications within the scope of these anthologies. While it is understandable that Adamson may be unfamiliar with many of these poets, it is also worth noting that in most cases they have been publishing in newspapers and journals for some time.
Adamson’s stated intent for the ‘book to be a fairly inclusive survey of the “best” poetry written in Australia in the last year’, has led to the anthology being relatively long, with this year’s version nearly seventy pages longer than that of 2008. Additionally, there are no biographical details of the poets in this anthology, which means even more space is dedicated to the poetry itself. While this is seemingly positive, in that a larger number of poets are represented, there is also a concern that such a long anthology potentially dilutes the overall quality of the writing. As with most ‘best of’ collections—and without wishing to unfairly single out individual poems, or more pertinently the poets—readers will undoubtedly come across poems in such a large anthology that don’t seem to make the ‘grade’. Happily though, judging by the majority of Adamson’s selections, Australian poetry is in a pretty healthy state.
One of the benefits of Adamson’s inclusive approach is the diversity of the writing. From Ali Cobby Eckermann’s powerful performance piece ‘Intervention Pay Back’—a highly political work focused on recent events in the Northern Territory—to Stephen Edgar’s formal rhyme scheme in ‘Murray Dreaming’, the anthology covers a wide range of poetic voices and styles. Indeed, Adamson has even included the lyrics to two songs by Paul Kelly, and while they may lack somewhat for musical accompaniment Kelly fans will still hear the musician’s distinctive vocals while reading the poems.
There are many fine poems from established poets in the anthology. Peter Rose’s ‘Morbid Transfers’—a response to the fifth poem from Bruce Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets (1969)—is a disturbing account of a young man dying while playing table tennis. Rose’s poem, like Beaver’s, articulates at once the fragility of life and the seeming indifference of those bearing witness:
Finally, a bouncing ball invaded the mortuary
and the server, too spirited for niceties
or condolences, stepped over the low excluding fence,
negotiated the crumpled mystery at his feet
and retrieved his urgent ball without a word.
Ken Bolton’s ‘Outdoor Pig-keeping, 1954 & My Other Books on Farming Pigs’ is also a wonderful poem. Written in the unmistakable Bolton style, the poem takes a haunting turn when the narrator imagines a farmer, alone at night, writing on the methods of farming pigs in an exercise book that once belonged to his dead daughter:
Perhaps he writes with
extra care because it is her book. Perhaps he writes
because it is her book. He has not written
anything else before. He writes now
because she is gone.
Other worthy poems from the established poets in the anthology include Philip Salom’s ‘Reading Francis Webb’, John Watson’s long poem ‘Four Ways to Approach the Numinous’, and Meredith Wattison’s brilliant ‘Holbein Through Silk’ where:
Death, the cool, black ambassadress, is foetal, rigor,
silk in that rough skull’s glass mouth.
Death, she sits, the foliate weave of her fingers
is their tender matrix. The intuitive, the profane,
the incalculable, the vernal seat, indulged.
Of the less established poets, at least as far as published books are concerned, David McCooey’s ‘Memory and Slaughter’ is deserving of attention. Unusually long for McCooey, the poem explores the gaps and imperfections of our memories, where much of our personal history is an act of re-imagining the past, an act of writing it into being. In McCooey’s case the result is a narrative of hazy details in which ‘memory now repeats, like / a stone skipping across bright water’.
Equally impressive is Lisa Gorton’s ‘A Description of the Storm Glass and Guide to Its Use in Forecasting Weather’. Gorton’s beautiful imagery has a dream-like quality, where crystals of ‘fantastical ambition’ create:
haunting a small room. Clouds, which hurry for no one,
which, amassing, betoken
that undifferentiated grudge some call ambition, here confide
motive without gesture
As if to say There is
Anne Elvey’s ‘Between’, like Gorton’s poem, also works to make the familiar strange. A poem of approaching loss, Elvey has crafted a work that speaks of the limits of poetry as much as it does the inevitable coming of death:
A speck on the horizon! Charon comes
but not tonight. And my fingers tell you I can’t go
past the thin place between the word and the thing,
nor write the way for you, in the hieroglyphs of home.
Elvey’s poem has an elegiac tone, is in a sense an elegy for what will soon be lost. There are many other fine elegiac poems within the anthology, such as Pam Brown’s ‘Blue Glow’, or joanne burns’ ‘harbinger’. But perhaps most successful is Martin Harrison’s superbly understated ‘Word’, in memory of Dorothy Porter: ‘in which briefly suddenly one voice’s glimmer is lost’.
And finally, still on the subject of loss, it is worth noting Fiona Wright’s ‘Kinglake’. Now that it is slightly more than twelves months since the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria, Wright’s poem returns us to the horror of that weekend, but finishes with a note of hope: ‘I send you irises, / and try to write / some kind of greening.’
There are, of course, many other fine poems in such a large anthology that have not been mentioned in this review. Readers will find them for themselves, which is one of the joys of reading new books of poetry; finding that image that resonates, that sequence of words beautiful just for their sound. Black Inc. should be commended for continuing to publish the work of our finest poets, as should Robert Adamson for his efforts in compiling this impressive collection of poems.
by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson
Five Islands Press, 2010
ISBN 978 0 7340 4111 1
Reviewed by MARGARET BRADSTOCK
Following on from her poetic achievements of The Bundanon Cantos (FIP, 2003), and co-editorship of the journal Five Bells from 2000-2003, comes Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s immaculately presented collection, Possession.
There are as many interpretations of Captain Cook as there are writers about him, each version taking on something of the personality and vision of the individual biographer. A tradition arises. As a Yorkshire-born woman herself, Kerdijk Nicholson is well positioned to grasp the underlying forces that went towards creating James Cook, navigator, and to express them through poetry:
From the first you knew it –
at Aireyholme Farm you knew. Out the door, up the hill,
you weren’t like the other lads…………………………
…………………………..You’d wind your scarf
across your chest and be out, round the curtain, through
the door, off into the wilding wicked stuff
and all the time your eyes were gathered to the coast
for you could smell it, touch it in your mind, that
which would let you leave this filthy soil and muck
behind and take your breath, your muscle, take
your lily-white body and brown arms off-shore
So long as you are let to live
you will mimic it: others stream before it,
shelter, or break, or are lifted up and carried away;
but you have let it into your bones so it flutes you.
You are, for this life’s breath, one,
and you take on its traits: you are whimsical,
caressing, cruel, strong, each of these things;
but above all, you are never wrong.
Three storylines interweave in this book – the literal journey undertaken by Cook; the philosophical or emotional response of protagonists, as represented in poems from the “lost manuscript”; and, finally, the poet/persona’s own voyage of self-discovery.
Like the chronicler Vanessa Collingridge, but at a deeper level of metaphysical apprehension, Kerdijk Nicholson follows Cook on his personal odyssey, experiencing and retrieving each stage of the journey :
Anchored: the time before dark is reflective. Candles
are lit in the Great Cabin, but the great black
is still visible and noises come from without
– which Banks’ dogs bark at – things
move at the corner of the eye. There’s enough light
inside for your standing apart to be shown
in the glass and for you to see the vastness outside.
You watch for the showing of unfamiliar stars.
The gentlemen work on. With daylight gone,
your time for charting’s done. You make your way
to the quarter-deck and wait for the track of a meteor,
once-only-given, and your unstoppable breath in:
A postcolonial slant on events allows us to go beyond recorded history, to subvert the chronological account with contemporary awareness:
You take possession of islands every day: every
thing within range of your eye seems capable of
dissolution and reconstitution at the tip of your pen.
It is ‘all for the Glory of God and for your King’,
they say; but only the sons of bitches could say that:
in this phosphorescent age, you are footprints on the moon.
The “lost manuscript” provides closer identification with the subject, a rendering of imagined thought processes and philosophical reflection, as in “You, the one who stands for us”:
What you started to measure, we have measured.
We have counted the words
of the world.
We have catalogued ourselves,
the outcomes of your dreams. (20)
or “Ambition is such a small thing”:
It is like the pip in the haw, hard
nor is there much flesh on it.
How is it that such a small thing
once it takes hold, hedges acres in?
If hacked at the base, slit
and laid, it still binds on,
thorny covetous bugger. (36)
“Today the distance between the threads of the net” enters into an imaginative re-creation of Cook’s state of mind after completion of his appointed tasks, the gap between intention and outcome:
Let us imagine it is the width of a chink of light
falling near her foot as she passes her husband’s door;
the worn dip in a butcher’s block on the Mile End Road;
the width of a carriage rut in the mud in York;
the fatness of folded secret orders from the Admiralty;
or perhaps as thin as a quill in an ink pot
on the St. Lawrence River; but how shall it be measured
now, and how will we know when it is done? (51)
The poet/persona’s own voyage of discovery parallels Cook’s, and is seamlessly interwoven into the narrative. Again it is about possession, the desire for appropriation, and the need to come to terms with these ambitions in some cognitive way. Like its namesake, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, the juxtaposed text reveals that research can, in the end, bring to light as much about the persona’s own story as it does about the subject. This progression emerges in the series of poems at Kangaroo Valley, and several in England and Torrox, Andalucia in the early 21st century, disturbing certainties and rearranging chronological ‘truths’ to create new meaning.
The different strands are interlinked by recurrent themes, motifs and references, which reverberate throughout the collection as a whole – preoccupations such as codes, maps, recording, measurement, even the reassuring barking of dogs. Pre-eminent is the cultural significance of naming, as though the act of naming might pin down an object/concept, allow ownership and prevent loss. This is exemplified in the poem “How strange to have a name, any name…”:
These huge blank territories are down to you to name.
Will those going where you have come before
touch the maps, lick their fingers and know you –
or just your salty aftertaste? (39)
Words themselves are signifiers, value laden, time and culture-specific, as in “Their words what the beads say”:
Do words have a price? Do they change
in value according to place or day? What does
with the Consent of the Natives mean?
Beads meaning ‘friendship’ or perhaps ‘no war’ are not
‘take our beads and you give informed consent’.
As language has no plumage or scent, how do you
reach the code-breaker for intent? (41)
This is one of the very few poems to register an Indigenous perspective, indirectly, via situational irony. The poem on p.42 is another. The overall lack of such representation is perhaps intentional, given that the collection is directed through the subjectivity of Cook.
Words can be obfuscating, hiding meaning, as in “Each word is a failure”:
Spills of madeira and wax
record events; words let you down.
You make a fair copy. Nor it nor your journal
get you where you were; not how you are,
or where you’d like to be…………………….
You are sick, of obfuscating lexicology. (46)
Naming is seen as no protection against loss:
When you’d got to the Cape, de Bougainville’s name
everywhere: how he gave Tahiti the Name
Cypre. Naming issued no protection.
Baptism didn’t stop your two being taken –
fragile life, one jolt and the future’s out,
bleeding at its parents’ feet. You press your eyes,
succumb to leaden Yorkshire skies.
She says, What’s the name of the place
We’ve just been through? You say you can’t recall
but does she think perhaps it will rain?
The ephemerality of words and their link to meaning, yet the need to pin down the unnameable, is encapsulated in the poem “It is difficult to live so long without words”:
There is a space on the table for a bowl
but that is all. The air is thick with words
breathed in, breathed out, read, some uttered;
some of them hooked up with meaning, carrying it
like a rosella’s tail; others still in their state of code,
There are books in the cabin with lists of meanings and uses:
attempts, laughable, made by one or a committee:
what do we know of words’ origins and where they might go? (49)
As a paradox to this questioning, Kerdijk Nicholson’s own linguistic pyrotechnics control the voyage of discovery and its meditations:
a celestial map, up is the flat black, fat black
glittering, not the stuff for feet and dirt.
then there’s trees and clouds and neighbours’ lights:
I’m not getting it at all, I’d lose myself if I had to navigate
back to the front door. Would I keep my eyes on
one constellation or its feature, follow it for all
I’m worth – but what about its pace, if I’m a liner or a dhow,
does it make a difference how I keep a grip on the pin pricks?
I start to muse on the same old stuff – we’re made from
the dust of stars, every bit of me’s recycled, I’m drinking
water which passed through other beings
many times before. What profound need or compulsion
would get me out there spotting Magellanic clouds?
Both narrative lines end with a sense of dubiety and loss, the ongoing futility and importance of human endeavour. In the wake of such iconic texts as James McAuley’s Captain Quiros and Kenneth Slessor’s Five Visions of Captain Cook, Kerdijk Nicholson’s Possession is an impressive contribution to the poetic reinterpretation of history.
Byatt, A.S. Chatto & Windus Ltd: London, 1990.
Collingridge, Vanessa. Captain Cook: Obsession and Betrayal in the New World (Ebury: London, 2002).
McAuley, James. Collected Poems (Angus & Robertson: Sydney, 1971).
Slessor, Kenneth. Poems (Angus & Robertson: Sydney, 1957)