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March-September 2010               

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Arriving at your time . . .

Janet Charman


Arriving at your time, 9 am, I did not look out of the window at Sydney spread under us as we landed, nor had I read the work on the website which had been put up there for our perusal before we all took off.

I thought I’d rather take it all in, in real, as over the next few days the poems got out into the open in the writers’ own voices. 

I was staying in a Superior Room at the Leisure Inn exactly five minutes walk from the Bon Marche Building where the symposium was unfolding. Viv came and met me in the blank hotel foyer and took me on a prowl around the amenities of Broadway and Parramatta Road. She showed me where to buy the staples of life (muesli and bananas) before the ‘big meet’ that night, for drinks at the C Bar, Chamberlain Hotel, 428 Pitt Street.

There the poets were clumped about the leaners with their brews and their polite chat, eyeing each other up. I didn’t stay for all of it, but later exchanged books with someone I met.

In the morning we assembled and the talk started again over a collaborative text Helen had envisaged. She clustered us together over words we needed to agree on. Not every poet wants to be collaborative: some lone wolves arrived later, in time to hear us read out constellations for the camera.

I liked this leaning in of the heads around the tables. The busy preskool hum of tasking that went on across the playground till we’d assembled our stars to the astrologer’s exacting specifications. She sealed them in their envelopes and carried them off to complete her digimancy.

Then the bell rang and the first panel fell in. In all the work from this lot there seemed to be a narrative drift I could immediately access.

But was it ‘open form’? Pam, quoting a recent debate:

anecdotal ‘sincerity’
wrapped up in the unified ‘I’

oh dear I think that must mean me,

Well no, not entirely, because in the next breath:

she wiped her face
with the wettex
then turned to kiss me

let me
track your parcel

And from then on, after, the parcel passed from hand to hand down the line of writers, each stripping back a layer of language for us listeners. 

I have to admit it, however illusory; I do want to get to that ‘kernel of meaning’ at the centre of our poetic discourses.

For me it is sounded in a woman’s voice, shamelessly expressing several of our femininities. Or it could be a man’s voice, although I can’t be doing with The Colonel of meaning; but rather, a man’s voice warily revealing the masculinities he has in his possession. Yes, it’s that ‘tender boy’ I long to hear from.

Those voices could come in the articulations of either men or women. But I feel anxious, if I think the authority of any canon’s being aimed at me.

At the centre of the parcel from this panel are:

                                        a woman’s dangerous moods

Michelle C.  The feminine river:

                                              what tectonic affair

 tipping underground to surface in: ‘The Straits of Mascara’

Chris says:

                 I told myself,
you’re not a special case,

Hey Chris, I think, secretly, Diogenes still thinks he is a special case. So I can’t make peace with this male voiced narrative you offer us. I think we women are adept at the cadences of men’s speech, having listened politely to it for thousands of years. But in this millennium we’re entering I want to work from a place where women are not ‘vessels’ of any kind, burning or otherwise filled with men’s insights.

I could see inside the lamp
of her. 

‘Black Sun’ is a poem of voiced power, but power that I worry can only be borrowed. On the other hand ‘Mondegreen,’ coming near, anatomises the masculinities performed by a character.

Brian makes the wall pour white words on a red ground. Paradoxical that here the visual text engulfs the sound. 

‘Lunch!’ ‘Lunch’ Jack! Some of us probably read that: ‘sex.’ But not me; I just went ahead and had a nice felafel. You probably dined on a smorgasbord of authentic anecdotal sincerity, such as you now serve us in this next panel. And Jack, if you’re an imposter, allow me to introduce you to my alter ego, Marie of Romania.

But my dear, dear Jack, I must also just say that I think poor Mrs Thatcher had all our best interests at heart back there in the 1980s. Are you not a little too hard on her with these naughty juxtapositions in ‘Maggie’s (animal) farm’?

Someone remarked to me recently that one of Mrs T’s first acts in possession of the treasury benches was to increase the British enlisted man’s pay, overnight, by 30 percent. Now that was a grant and a half was it not?

An impoverished soldier is always a worry for civilians anywhere in his sights. So she was arguably right to extend this benefit to her fighting men; or perhaps, when she sent them, there would have been a mutiny rather than a war over the Falklands. And in Northern Ireland.

And also, with regard to the other voice in your poem, I find I want to wriggle out of conceptualising any woman novelist as an unassailable ‘God.’

That Mr Ian McEwen is very talented but it requires a stretch of the imagination to which, I must confess, I somehow find myself unequal, to take this extract from his Atonement tale at face value.

As my dear uncle used so often to say to his best beloved: ‘Sir, a woman’s writing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’

And in such a climate, I can’t concede to Mr McEwen the inviolability of the female novelist and the consequent impossibility of her atonement. Since she, however omnipotent he makes her in her little literary world, always has, in real, The Boy God looking over her shoulder.

The Boy God, who through the aegis of Mr McEwen, made her character such that she would rather see A Decent Working Class Man rot in jail, than admit that a woman could be gagging for it. I mean ‘gagging’ for it in the sense that that entails doing it up against a bookcase, in the library no less; very symbolic.

Though perhaps if I tried it there I might like it: all those texts sticking into my back . . .

Jen you make the lurches of emotion hover then sink and settle disquietingly on your narrators. Is that sentimentality? Or is it natural history? You don’t let us acquiesce to romance; you keep us on our toes.

You say you like them, Martin H, but I’ve looked and I can’t find any mistakes in your poems. They seem to gel perfectly with the imperfections in my nature. Their transgressions set to improve my character. Their walksabout invite a distinct sensuality which lingers on the tongue.

Amanda, there are so many mistakes in what you right. Lies. Damned Lies. And God-awful statistics. All of which stick to my cardies like biddy bids that won’t come off even with a long hot wash. When things go wrong from now on, I will refer anyone who complains – to you, because you have the lists.

That night we go out before the group reading and eat at a Chinese restaurant. It’s good, twenty six bucks each for chilli ’n’ sugar snap peas and poems read aloud around the table, Kate and Viv and Ken and me and Cath:

the women will huddle discover we each have connecting bits of the puzzle

Though we are a little bit woolly about finding the Woolley Building but get there in the end.

I loved that group reading. I don’t know what yous thought but I felt like a million dollars after it. Though, sadly, overnight my cultural capital evaporated. And I realised my bit was indeed:

anecdotal ‘sincerity’
wrapped up in the unified ‘I’

Oh dear oh deary dear dear dear. Could I get a personality transplant anywhere? My poems that night weren’t full of ‘hearts’ though. They came from the Jungian flip side, full of liver.
But I don’t care do you hear; I just don’t care. I’m going to carry on and get it all out of my system so if you don’t want to listen, block your ears.    

Next morning I got up and went to an internet café and picked up my email before the next panel, and then I had a coffee with Jeffrey

– who gave me his book in exchange for one of mine. I got him to sign it: Autumn Waiata from which the night before he’d read a poem about his mother. I considered this to be a political act Jeffrey, because by my lights Baxter and Curnow, for example (among others), wouldn’t have advised any of us Good Keen NZers to write in the way you do on such matters. Their loss!

Jill says her poems on the next panel are at odds with their titles. But to me, the garments she hangs on these ‘hooks’ seem entirely at home. She takes us through difficult afternoons where her narrators work in the unheimlich or submerge in rhapsodies of words.

Peter tells us he has a foreboding feeling about the future. And which of us doesn’t share that? I concur I concur, I murmur. Yet his poems have the cheeriest lemon intensity: sweet, sour bitter, salt and umami. Some tarnished structures they’re in polished. Some other pieces wire brushed or rubbed over with a soft cloth, giving unexpected results.

And Lisa’s (re)vision of honoured binaries moving along edged in solid air behind her back could wean me off those texts I’ve been ‘made’ against, under the aegis of that decent library chap I met through Jack.

Then it’s our lot. Viv says ‘I am coming’ and Virginia Woolf glances up. Sends Mrs Dalloway to meet us by the stile where the bus stops on the way from here to you know where. ‘Home and away,’ Viv waves her along between the lighthouses. There are others approaching, something for which Viv’s prepared us, and yet we visit […] like strangers.

Selina has an incantatory survey of what’s been going down where we come from. Her sardonic estimation of our inconvenient geography tosses a poem of pick-up-sticks onto the table. Among the ‘lucky’ lines she shakes out the culture wrestle: elites who like to collect without referencing the rest of the matrix.

At the windowsill of a widow, David marks how the world ticks over. Fredrika translates. Out on Conincxstraet the tide takes forever. Then the rattle of a white sail, hailed by a waiting boy: ‘Sing at the top of your voice!’ 

From me? Modern haiku. Number 48 of my ‘100 snapshots’ reads:

the phrases unsettled 
Chen Li poems’ sense before us

How synchronous that one happened in real, in Christchurch, the very next night.

My 100 snapshots are written ‘after’ Chen Li’s Microcosmos.

Now Michele L, from the floor, lifts the tokotoko stick to a safe place where the spiralling song will carry on.

In the evening it’s a reading for fourteen. Ken Bolton, The Conductor, gives the ‘all aboard.’ As the last carriage flashes past, so many hands waving madly at the windows. A few bottles fly out and the people in the fields about us stand up straight for a minute. There they go, late as ever, A Botheration of Poets. Good riddance!

But hopefully anyone who heard the work has unexpected whirrings and trapdoors popping open in their brain.

Mark Young suggests ‘friends of friends’ protocols for a next meeting. And this echoes for me at Cockatoo Island on the last day, where I also recall that Michael’s take is:

don’t try too hard to make friends just come to
                                                                                – and we do.

Goodbye Martin E, goodbye Mark Young, goodbye John Newton, who remembered all his lines and spoke them with a warm dry wit and then some. Goodbye Adrian Wiggins you ace photographer and ‘pantsman’ you. Goodbye Ann Vickery, I hope we get a proper chance to talk sometime soon. Goodbye Kate Lilley and Nigel Roberts, and Cath Kenneally: A bientôt everybody!

Then it’s the last morning and I’m heading for the plane at 5.50 am but when I get to the check-in desk I find my flight has been cancelled though there doesn’t seem to be a reason, and I spend the next eight hours in fitful sleep under my jacket, on the carpet, next to a pillar, on the third floor of the Sydney airport building, before flying home . . .

Where I’m writing this to you.


Avondale, Auckland
Aotearoa New Zealand
7 September 2010


Last updated 21 November, 2010