It always rankles with me when I discover, via conversation or interview, local prose writers who don’t read contemporary poetry. On the other hand, the Australian poets I encounter tend to read omnivorously and to keep up with other forms of their moment, not least other written forms.
What to make of this disparity: turn the other cheek? Or, perhaps tease our prose friends with what they’re missing. These past few months, for instance, such dullards might have overlooked debut releases from two young, queer, Indigenous poets: Ellen Van Neerven’s Comfort Food and Alison Whittaker’s Lemons in the Chicken Wire. Van Neerven, author of the totally original short story collection Heat and Light, has produced a slim series of minimalist, imagistic lyrics that trace over familiar highways and eating rituals. Whittaker, more engaged with disturbing the niceties of English, makes ratcheted elegies and rollicking body poems that build a new self from language. In parallel, I recently finished Writing to the Wire, an anthology of new Australian poems in response to local refugee policy, edited by two poets and critics who view their country of birth from a distance: Seoul-based Dan Disney and Macau-based Kit Kelen. While many of the poems repeat expected protests against cruelty and racism, most of them using found voices and personal narratives to offset an inhuman policy, there are a few standouts that really address what poetic form can add to the debate. Ahmed Hashim’s ‘The map’ and a number of poems by anonymous asylum seekers are haunting pieces of language.
Between poetry collections (which I tend to read as books, cover to cover) and prose titles, I chomp through journals as a kind of palate-cleanser. It’s not that I think magazines are light and frothy, but that their occasional and short-form structure allows a rhythmic break from dense poetics or longer-form narrative. Lately it’s been the new (online) issue of Plumwood Mountain, guest edited by Peter Minter; and the latest Lucky Peach, which turns its always-inventive food journalism to the subject of global pho soup. The New Yorker and New York Review of Books are usually staples, but lately I’ve been switching off due to an overload of US election commentary. Instead, this week I was grateful for a colleague’s sharing with me Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s bold and funny essay, ‘Bad Writer’, in the Sydney Review of Books. It reminded me of Alison Whittaker’s own blog post for Meanjin earlier this year, ‘On “bad poetry”’, which could be seen as a complicating epilogue to Ahmad’s argument.
Some of Whittaker’s perspective on Aboriginal women’s writing is expanded upon by Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up to the White Woman. This book is some sixteen years old now, and while I have read other of Moreton-Robinson’s cultural commentary and criticism, this is my first encounter with her in book-length form, which I am doing alongside Trinh T Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other. Both writers are concerned with the complications of intersectional feminisms, particularly for colonised and Third World women; they were on my mind when I came across an impressive feature last week in the New York Times, by Ellen Barry. Not only is it a terrific example of the form, but it also focuses upon a shaky, confusing moment of both empowerment and exploitation of women from India’s rural village societies.
As I’m currently preparing for a trip to India, I’ve been absorbed by John Keay’s ambitious but manageable single-volume India: A History. This has been bookended by the wildly chauvinist VS Naipaul’s A Wounded Civilization and, as a point of contrast by another ‘outsider’, William Dalrymple’s brilliant City of Djinns. There’ll be more to follow here, navigating between straight histories, journalism, travelogues, food writing and memoirs that help me to gather up a fragmented sense of political, economic and religious timelines and accounts.
Somewhere between journal and novel has been David Ireland’s serialised The World Repair Video Game, appearing over the last year in Island magazine. The final instalment came during winter, and has turned me back to reread his freakishly important 1979 novel, A Woman of the Future. I’ve gotten some good poem ideas from novels, this being one such example. While re-reading back into Ireland’s oeuvre, I also recently went from Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things to her earlier Animal People. Likewise, after being rocked by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian I have gone seeking out her Human Acts. In both cases, the latest, prize-winning novels are the master works—but seeing the development of style and theme in the earlier books only adds to my enjoyment of the later depths that these writers have explored. And then along came Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose, which has reset my expectations of a first novel—and my anticipation of a second.
If my poetry has been enriched by a life of reading novels and short stories, it has been equally fed by cinema. After our living room played host to a spontaneous Stephen King-adaptation festival last weekend (IT, Stand By Me and Misery), it was time to get out to the big screen and see the world. Having recently joined Melbourne Cinémathéque after five years of prevaricating (if I could turn back time), last night I experienced another great first work: Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. Director of the heady Morvern Callar and comparatively anaemic We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay’s 1999 debut feature has infected my dreams for this week. Following the Czech Film Festival and a priceless series of Ozu and Kayabashi restorations, my month of reading the screen culminates tomorrow with a cleaned-up print of Ozu’s Tokyo Story. I am anticipating the long pauses within Ozu’s married dialogue; the use of shoji screens and doorways to frame passing feet and the setting of the dinner table; and the strands of Japan’s eastern coast glanced from a train station or a dune.
Bonny Cassidy’s most recent poetry collection is Final Theory (Giramondo, 2014). She is Feature Reviews Editor for Cordite Poetry Review, and, with Jessica L Wilkinson, co-edited Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry (Hunter Publishers, 2016). Bonny lectures in Creative Writing at RMIT University.