Hearts on the Run: Poetry Panels in Sydney
HOME & AWAY 2010 at the University of Technology,
Sydney 31 August – 3 September
The last conversation was in many ways the most interesting. Martin Edmond had offered to show me some Sydney bookshops earlier in the day, but after our ferry ride to Cockatoo Island there was really only time left for one: Abbey’s in York Street.
By the time we reached it, after a long amble up from Circular Quay, that time was ebbing away (Michael Farrell had stopped us on the way to point out that we were now standing in Martin Place, where the man was found crying in Les Murray’s ‘An Absolutely Ordinary Rainbow’ – ‘There’s a fellow weeping down there. No one can stop him’).
Martin Edmond and Mark Young kept on walking to some other mysterious destination, so I found myself at last standing in front of what seemed to me a pretty well-stocked Australian Poetry section.
‘What should I buy?’ I demanded plaintively.
The only other poets left in our little party by then were Michael Farrell and Amanda Stewart, who both started frantically rummaging through the shelves as if unable to deny themselves the written word a moment longer.
John Forbes’ Collected Poems was the first selection. Martin had recommended it to me earlier, and I’d even heard it invoked in verse the night before by Nigel Roberts. Michael and Amanda agreed I could usefully start off there.
At that point, though, volume after volume began to come down off the shelves, each one of them as crisp and desirable as only a new book can be: John Kinsella, John Tranter, Laurie Duggan, a bunch of others.
Eventually, after much anxious scrutiny (and the accidental discovery of a new translation of a contemporary Turkish verse epic which I felt I just had to have), I ended up with the Forbes Collected and the latest Tranter Selected. It cost me quite a pang to leave all the other books behind, but it was probably a bit quixotic to squander even that much of my remaining Australian cash at the end of such an expedition (my luggage was already stocked with numerous trades and purchases from the other participants at the symposium).
As I left, I could still see Michael scanning the shelves with his usual quizzical intensity. Amanda was sitting cross-legged on the floor leafing through a little stack of poetry books. Bliss.
Unfortunately, in my determination to get to at least one decent bookshop during my stay, I’d managed to miscalculate my departure time by an hour. When I got back to our hotel, the shuttle I’d booked that morning was long gone, and my subsequent dash to the airport was rather more breathless than I would have liked.
I still ended up in the same place I would have been if I’d been more clock-conscious, though: killing time in Sydney airport. In retrospect, that brief hour in Abbey’s Bookshop with Michael and Amanda was one of the most precious parts of the whole symposium. Why? Because the two of them were so obviously in their element – taking down books and talking about them; sharing their close knowledge and intense dedication to the craft and its local manifestations with a well-meaning stranger determined above all to buy something, that right something that would bring it all into focus somehow.
It was all a far cry from the first evening at the C Bar, when most of us sat at our little tables in the pub chatting away furiously to our own kind – the faces we already knew from other festivals in our own countries. David Howard, to his credit, was one of the few I saw going up to people he didn’t know, determined to break the ice. I lacked his self-confidence, and instead spent a fascinating hour or two hearing Jeffrey Paparoa Holman talk about his recent book launch in the Ureweras . . . an important piece of bridge-building in its own right, mind you, but not yet the kind we were actually there for.
But then what can you really hope to achieve in three days in another town? We were – not all, but mostly – so ignorant of one another’s work and antecedents, however willing we might feel to learn about both.
The panels themselves, when they got into session the next day, I would define as dominated by a series of questions. I’d like to take them one by one:
Panel 1, Wednesday 1 September
Pam Brown, Michelle Cahill, Brian Flaherty and Chris Price present new work
We were still feeling our way into the event with this session. The four poets read, each of them made comments about the work they were presenting, there were a few questions, and then . . .
Mark Young to Chris Price: ‘What qualifies that first piece you read to be called poetry?’
That put the cat among the pigeons. In itself I guess it was no more than a restatement of the old Poundian dictum ‘Poetry must be as well written as prose,’ but it was great to see the discussion suddenly coming alive. What is the difference between poetry and prose? Lineation? Depth of focus in the language? The materials? Which (in fact) comes first: form or content? It might seem like rather a banal question, but it’s actually more barbed than that: a kind of Zen koan designed to catch you out.
I don’t know in what spirit Mark intended his question, and I’m not sure that Chris knew either, but it did have the effect of immediately jolting us out of that super-polite, super-careful Warren Commission manner (‘How was your trip down here, Mrs. Oswald?’). Instead, it moved us on to the common ground of just how, exactly, one might go about defining the territory each of us there had chosen to work in. How can that not be a useful topic of discussion among peers?
We were feeling a bit guarded – the gloves hadn’t yet come off, despite Mark’s obvious glee at being so provocative – but I felt a lot more relaxed when I realized that this was indeed going to be a symposium about poetry, not some kind of official ambassadorial jaunt.
Panel 2, Wednesday 1 September
Jen Crawford, Martin Harrison, Jack Ross and Amanda Stewart present new work
And then it was our turn. It’s easy enough to sit there carping on the sidelines, but when you’re up at the front of the room, you generally find it’s not so simple to make the points you really want to make. All of us, Martin, Amanda (both of whom I’d just met), Jen and I, had clearly read each other’s work on the website, but we still weren’t clear about how we should present it.
Martin was in charge of our group, and had – he told us – been emailing us with his ideas over the past couple of days. Unfortunately none of these messages had reached anyone (his server was down). As the moments ticked down to our personal D-Day, there was no sign of Martin. He was, after all, on home turf in term-time, and had been swept off by one of the other currents of university life.
He finally made it with seconds to spare, and so – telling us that he’d like each of us to make some comments on how we saw our work intersecting with the theme of trans Tasman relations – he ushered us into our chairs.
I had nothing! And when I get flustered (as people who know me well will tell you), I tend to play things for laughs. I hadn’t anticipated having to address directly the theme of New Zealand / Australian connections. The poems I had with me were mostly reflections on / reactions to the work of Paul Celan . . . I am, though, half-Australian, as I proceeded to outline.
As each of us went through our paces, I began to see that Martin’s strategy in pushing us onto stage off-balance and unprepared was not as casual and coincidental as it may have first appeared. The poems he read – some of them written and published in New Zealand at the very start of his career – were starting to evolve into areas of casual roughness and intentional blemish and inconclusiveness. Since this was the territory he was exploring in his work, this may also have been the effect he wanted to achieve with this panel of fellow poets.
The crucial question this time came from Michael Farrell.
Michael to Martin Harrison: ‘I was just wondering about the last poem you read. I suppose it’s something I always feel I want to object to . . . I can see you’re trying to write some kind of immediacy in some kind of scene . . . but I find the expression ‘the heart’ not really usable.’
Roughness, lack of polish, unfinished structures, even – but were there tropes which could not be recuperated however hard you tried? Was sentimentality, the ‘heart-felt’ verse of the past just such an exclusion zone?
As it happens, this is a question which preoccupies me as much as it does Martin (and Michael too, I guess), so I found the discussion which erupted at this point very interesting indeed. Jen, too, has been accused of excessive displays of feeling in her work by those who see pervasive irony as the crucial plank in the Modernist platform, a point which cannot be conceded without sacrificing everything that has been gained since the Imagist revolution in the early twentieth century.
At last I felt at home – these were people alive to the kinds of issues that nag at me all the time. To hell with national divisions – it was linguistic and poetic divisions which now had us all going! Amanda, Jen, Martin and I stood revealed as fellow barbarian roughnecks, formalists detesting formalism, experimentalists determined to assert our right to a place in Yeats’ ‘foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.’
Panel 3, Thursday 2 September:
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, Jill Jones, Peter Minter and Lisa Samuels present new work
Panel 3 was every bit as interesting as Panel 2 had been – to me, at any rate. (I hope the audience found the long quizzing of the possibilities of recuperating feeling for poetry as fascinating as those of us on the panel did).
Lisa Samuels is an intensely cerebral poet (though her main preoccupation in the pieces she read us from her projected work Tender Girl lay, she said, in trying to find new ways of expressing emotion and physicality which might somehow sidestep the social and linguistic codes which bedevil our attempts to paint them more conventionally).
This prompted Mark Young to ask another loaded question.
Mark to Lisa Samuels (paraphrased): ‘Which comes first, the poem or the plan?’
You can’t really put Lisa on the spot with questions like that, though. She proceeded to outline certain aspects of her method and intentions, but clearly it was a chicken-or-egg dilemma to her. How can you have either without the other?
As the other poets spoke, I felt things which had been previously unclear to me in their work – Peter Minter’s use of almost absurdly baroque ‘poetic’ language, for instance, or Jill Jones’ insistence on using song lyrics in her titles – beginning to come into focus. I could see there was nothing unthought-through or adventitious in their choices. And I saw, too, that just as sometimes it’s necessary to hear someone read before you can really understand the underlying patterns in their work, in this case the pieces I’d read online by each of these poets had not sufficed to give me a clear sense of their respective projects.
It wasn’t that I felt I’d finally ‘got them’ in some reductionist way. It was more that I felt I had, now, a firmer understanding to base my reading on – that, and a determination to pursue my new acquaintance with their work.
Panel 4, Day 2, Thursday 2 September
Janet Charman, David Howard, Selina Tusitala Marsh and Vivienne Plumb present new work
By now I felt a pattern was more-or-less established. This was a symposium preoccupied more with questions of craft and intention than with attempts to find useful generalizations about the respective flavours of New Zealand and Australian verse.
How wrong I was, though! Panel 4 (for me) moved in entirely unexpected directions. I’d thought I knew the work of all four of the participants fairly well, but when some of them began to expound a kind of unproblematic public role for poetry, a way in which it could be seen as just another way of shaping (and selling) words, I felt for a moment as if we were re-entering the world of the ancient Bards and Skalds.
The interesting question for me in this panel was when someone in the audience (whose name I didn’t catch) asked David Howard, à proposs of his dual-language Dutch and English poem about Abel Tasman, how much research he did for his historical poems.
It wasn’t that I doubted the validity of this approach to poetry and poetics – just that I hadn’t expected to find it so boldly on display. I felt, I guess, a little like Michael Farrell must have when he heard an attempt to end a love poem with the word ‘heart.’ It was as if a door had suddenly swung open which one had assumed had been rusted shut for generations.
Plenary Session, Thursday 2 September
Pam Brown, Michael Farrell, Michele Leggott, Jack Ross and Ann Vickery
As I understood it, the plenary session was intended to present a series of assessments of the whole HOME & AWAY venture: the Auckland and Sydney symposia, as well as the idea of providing advance materials for discussion on the digital bridge.
That’s how I approached my part in it, anyway. I gave a rather briefer version of the reactions recorded above to the various panels and readings we’d been enjoying over the past couple of days.
It was therefore a bit of a surprise to me to find that both Michael Farrell and Ann Vickery had come with written papers which they proceeded to read.
Their papers, though, were so fascinating that I found myself wishing that I’d done the same. Michael Farrell’s positive assessment of various aspects of contemporary New Zealand poetry came as quite a revelation to me. Of course I was pleased to find how much he liked (envied might be a more accurate description) the set of three Auckland UP audio/text anthologies edited by Jan Kemp and me. I was glad I’d gone to so much trouble to include a long performance piece by Keri Hulme in the middle volume, Contemporary New Zealand Poets in Performance (2007), when he singled it out as particularly interesting and representative of a type of poetry – in his view – not often heard in Australia.
When he went on to praise the last couple of issues of brief magazine, especially one piece of delirious raving by the inimitable Richard Taylor extolling the virtues of (among other things) ‘Delicious peanut butter’ (brief 40: 85), I started to wonder if I’d gone through some kind of wormhole to Bizarro World. I’d had no previous intimation at all that Michael admired any of the crazy stuff we’d been getting up to across the ditch. Good on him.
Ann’s paper, too, was closely reasoned and constructive, and set – I thought – a good agenda for future contacts and discussions between New Zealand and Australian poets.
The discussion that came after it was perhaps more dominated by logistics than theory, but I guess that’s inevitable when this whole event had just demonstrated so clearly how important it is, from time to time at least, to all sit in the same room and talk to one another.
I believe that the Sydney symposium was a very promising beginning to a series of dialogues I hope will continue. I did have some very good conversations with my room-mates Lisa and Jen, but then I already knew from past experience that we were on fairly compatible wavelengths. The warm and interesting chats I had with my fellow-panellists Amanda Stewart and Martin Harrison were, however, new departures for me.
What else? There were so many good readers among the ones I listened to: Ken Bolton, king of the MCs; the dry cool wit of Pam Brown; the one I’m still trying to get my head around is, however, Michael Farrell. I bought a copy of his book of cartoons, Break Me Ouch (2006), and I have to say that it pleases me immensely. He just can’t draw at all. And he doesn’t care. Most of the cartoons seem quite pointless, but of course that’s precisely why they’re not. I very much admired A Raider’s Guide (2008), which he gave me on a previous visit to Auckland, but I have to say that those cartoons really blew me away. I’ve had a not dissimilar project on the stocks for quite some time, and this has emboldened me to persevere with it.
Maybe that’s the conclusion I’d like to come to, then: emboldening each other to go one better, one step further than we’d otherwise dare. I found this Sydney experience very worthwhile for that reason alone.
Farrell, Michael. Break Me Ouch. St Kilda, Victoria: 3 Deep Publishing Pty Ltd., 2006.
---. A Raiders Guide: New Poems. Giramondo Poets. Sydney: Giramondo Publishing Company, 2008.
Forbes, John. Collected Poems. 2001. Blackheath, NSW: Brandl & Schlesinger Pty Ltd., 2010.
Harrison, Martin. Wild Bees: New and Selected Poems. New Writing Series. Crawley, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press, 2008.
Jones, Jill. Dark Bright Doors. Kent Town, South Australia: Wakefield Press, 2010.
Murray, Les. Collected Poems 1961-2002. CD included. Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, 2002.
O’Neill, Sharon. ‘Hearts on the Run.’ Foreign Affairs. CD. Australia: Columbia, 1983
Ross, Jack, & Jan Kemp, ed. Classic, Contemporary, & New NZ Poets in Performance. CDs included. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2006-2008.
Stewart, Amanda. I/T: Selected Poems 1980-1996. CD included. Surry Hills, NSW: Here and There Books, 1998.
Taylor, Richard. ‘Reading Things.’ brief 40 (2010): 80-86.
Tranter, John. Urban Myths: 210 Poems [New and Selected]. St Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2006.