Wednesday, 26 January 2011

four from the antipodes

I picked up several books in Brisbane and Melbourne. I've singled these ones out for comment.
Philip Mead's Networked Language came out with Australian Scholarly Publishing in 2008. I remember feeling that when the newer post-structuralist modes of criticism were taken up that maybe it would mean a move away from a canon that already seemed twenty years out of date. This didn't happen. Instead the academy either moved into Cultural Studies, abandoning poetry altogether, or else it timidly used items from the new toolbox to further expound already canonised work. Mead's book does indeed begin with 'canonical' poets though it takes their work to a completely different place. Later chapters deal with the work of John Tranter, Lionel Fogarty and Pi O. The author's approach to earlier texts is however intensely illuminating. The first two chapters, on Kenneth Slessor and 'Ern Malley', might serve as illustrations of the way this book works. In both cases Mead has uncovered material that nobody else has and that now seems central to the ways we might view the poet (in Slessor's case) ot the phenomenon (in Malley's). It was well enough known that Kenneth Slessor spent a good part of his time as a journalist writing film reviews, yet, astonishingly, nobody has ever collected these pieces, no doubt assuming them irrelevant. But Slessor's later poetic seems deeply indebted to film technique (this in the 'golden age' of the movies, the 1930s). Slessor was Australia's first real modernist and I've long admired his poems. Mead's book gives them another, deserved, dimension. One would have thought that everything that could possibly be said about Ern Malley has been. Michael Heyward's book on the 'affair' seemed exhaustive. But Mead takes a quite different tack, viewing the 'obscenity' trial of Max Harris and Angry Penguins magazine (where Malley's works were innocently published) as a trial of poetry itself. Here for the first time the reverberations of the Malley affair through the literary world are made clear and, additionally, a space is made for a new poetic.
Vicki Viidikas was a poet working in Sydney when I moved there from Melbourne in the early 1970s. I only met her on a few occasions but always felt that her work revealed a distinct sensibility and considerable craft. But while people seemed to want to commemorate a poet like Michael Dransfield (sex and drugs and Gustav Mahler) the Romantic myth didn't serve a woman like Viidikas so well, despite her clear superiority as a poet. Transit Lounge Publishing have brought out a considerable collection of prose and poetry, Vicki Viidikas: New and Rediscovered (2010), edited by Barry Scott with a fine introduction by her friend and fellow poet Kerry Leves. Many poets in Sydney admired Viidikas's work, not the least of these being Robert Adamson. Let's hope this book attracts new readers.
Martin Edmond and Nigel Roberts have edited a selection of work by the New Zealand poet David Mitchell, Steal Away Boy (Auckland University Press, 2010). Mitchell was a central figure, together with Mark Young and Nigel Roberts himself in the new scene in NZ poetry of the mid-sixties. Here were poets who focussed on performance with work that also read well on the page. This is an impressive collection from a writer whose work I'd only seen examples of in anthologies. A fascinating introduction tells Mitchell's story and, through him, the story of a vibrant poetic culture centred on Auckland.
Finally, a new booklet thempark (2010), from Canada's BookThug Press contains a further instalment of Melbourne poet Michael Farrell's terrific work. The author notes that it was written with John Ashbery's books Where Shall I Wander and Hotel Lautremont as templates. It nonetheless feels fresh and charged. A great read.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

decompression in London

. . . and where better than Swedenborg Hall for the first Shearman reading for 2011. Mike Heller made an always welcome visit, reading from Beckmann Variations (Shearsman) and Eschaton (Talisman House). Kelvin Corcoran (pictured) was going to launch Hotel Shadow last year but illness intervened. He did so with considerable style yesterday evening.

Strood, January

Sunday, 16 January 2011

four Melbourne shots

live at Brunetti's

It’s easy enough to grow out of touch with a local scene when you’ve lived elsewhere for a few years. It’s also easy for an older poet to lose track of what’s going on. I hadn’t felt excited by much new Australian writing for a while. But poetry, in Melbourne at least, is alive and well. And possibly elsewhere too. My old friend John Scott, nominally a fiction writer these days, was delighted that a recent crop of poets coming out of the University of Wollongong’s writing program regarded the novel as a hopelessly passé literary form. At last here were some poets who weren’t just closet novelists; who regarded writing poems a better bet than angling for fame and fortune in a grossly overcrowded fiction market. More importantly here were people who didn’t regard the poem as some kind of transparent autobiographical medium. I came across some wonderful work while guest editing an issue of foam:e journal due to appear in a couple of months. And while in Melbourne I met some of the poets. Seen above with Gig Ryan (second left) at Brunettis in Carlton are Sam Langer, Corey Wakeling and Tim Wright. Below are a couple of terrific small press productions emanating from these guys and many others.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

the gallery of unchallenging art

A now departed Dean at the Melbourne University Law School felt that the artworks from the University collection displayed on the walls of his faculty were rather too ‘challenging’ for his personal taste. In response, faculty member Ian Malkin instituted on the noticeboards outside his office a ‘Gallery of Unchallenging Art’. This slowly expanding collection of works includes to date several prints from the once ubiquitous series of dogs playing pool and various other indoor recreations (my short poems entitled ‘Dogs’ were once to be called ‘Dogs Playing Cards’). Also represented are examples of ‘tourist art’, bad amateur oil portraits, whatever Ian can lay his hands on. It’s all very much an overflow from his own office (pictured above). These two photographs can only hint at the contents of that amazing space.

collected works

I’d heard that Melbourne’s Collected Works bookshop was in trouble but I’m more than happy to report that this invaluable resource will continue to operate for the foreseeable future. When I visited the shop in the week after Christmas Kris Hemensley (above) explained that the rumours had related to the fact that the property owners were about to raise the rent for the next four-year lease. There had been moments of hesitation but Collected Works decided to host a benefit and to go ahead with the new lease. The benefit and subsequent patronage ensured that the shop will continue to be viable. It is a remarkable institution. Initially it was run by volunteers though the imposition of commercial taxes (despite the non-profit nature of the business) meant that it made no sense for the staff not to get at least nominal wages. Profits continue to be translated into new stock. To say that it’s the best poetry bookshop in Australia isn’t saying much these days. It is possibly one of the three or four best poetry bookshops in the Anglophone world. Since it doesn’t function on the usual sale-or-return basis that most bookshops do the books on the shelves are not periodically removed. This means, for example, that on my recent visit I was able to pick up a copy of Melbourne poet Garrie Hutchinson’s second (and final) book of poems, Terror Australis, published in 1975 by the long defunct Outback Press. Collected Works is well enough known (through the grapevine mostly: it doesn’t widely advertise) for overseas visitors to divert there, even when time is precious. Retta Hemensley told me on one occasion that Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth had come in while the band was on tour and bought a swag of hard to get works relating to the Beat Generation. Long may this marvellous place flourish.

[Kris Hemensley, by the way, posted a kind response to my piece on the University of Kent’s Charles Olson conference]

Friday, 14 January 2011

before the flood

It would have been hard to imagine, when I took this photograph not far from Brett’s Wharf on the Brisbane river that within a few weeks this very site would have been underwater, or that the River Cat that we travelled on would be out of action for up to six months (due to the damage done to most of the ferry terminals). In Brisbane’s botanic gardens there is a post that shows the height of the previous severe floods in 1974. The current floods, now receding, didn’t quite get to the same level but the destruction has probably been much more severe this time around. As the state Premier Anna Bligh noted, in 1974 Brisbane was more like a large country town. Now it’s a city of some three million people. While in Brisbane we stayed in West End, an inner suburb severely affected by the flood, though we were in a house that would have been well above the water level. Just down the hill from us was this corner shop (pictured below, courtesy of Kerry Kilner).

Thursday, 13 January 2011

in the studio

A writer’s room looks at most like a kind of untidy office. We all ‘write’. Many of us use such devices as the one I’m typing this onto. It’s pretty ordinary really. Perhaps this is why artist’s studios are places of fascination. While in Australia I visited the studios of four artists. In Brisbane Ian Friend (top) and Angela Gardner (second image) occupy spaces in adjacent backyards in Wooloongabba (in an area thankfully unaffected by the subsequent floods). In Melbourne Vera Moller (third image) and Philip Hunter (fourth) share the upstairs space of a large warehouse in East Brunswick. I always think it a privilege to gain entry to such spaces because what’s on display is something you’d never see in a writer’s room unless you were to look over their shoulder at the screen.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

jive bunny

Exhibit A: In the central courtyard of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, this gigantic inflatable cartoon rabbit. In its immediate vicinity, though not shown in this photograph, lurks a security guard charged with the sole task of keeping young children away from this object. Go figure.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

size matters

When we left Brisbane in 2006 the new gallery (GOMA) was still under construction. Now it exists, a short walk from its parent, the Queensland Art Gallery, past the refurbished State Library. GOMA is a welcome space though it partakes of the gigantism common to many galleries designed for contemporary art. I remember one of the members of The Dictators saying on the cover of one of their albums ‘Quantity is quality!’ The huge internal spaces are correspondingly designed for installations or large sculptural works and anything as small as a conventional painting or photograph tends to be lost in all of this. I noticed two major strands of contemporary work that are common to such spaces. One, the pseudo-religious, often makes use of darkened rooms with illuminations and churchy piped music. The other is what I’d call ‘kidult’ art and it can take various forms. It can resemble children’s toys, though the scale is often gigantic (this is the sub-Jeff Koons approach), or it can invite participation, like a giant slippery slide or an immense Leggo set (as shown above). Significantly the majority of people in GOMA on the couple of days I was there seemed to be under ten. I suppose at least the arrival of GOMA has meant that the QAG is able to show more work from the stacks. One favourite of mine has reappeared after a few years of storage or loan. It is Vuillard’s 1905 interior ‘Le Salon des Hessel’. It is a large painting, about a metre and a half by two and a half. It would still be lost in GOMA. Both of these Galleries, it should be noted, are perilously close to the edge of the Brisbane River.

Monday, 10 January 2011

I'm back

I'm back in Blighty, about as far away as it seems to be from such images as these. There'll be more to come.