I have just finished Breath by Tim Winton. As a poet with a regular focus on the sea and as a reader already well acquainted with the other two great portraitists of the West Australian coast, Robert Drewe and Roland Leach, it’s one of life’s funny accidents that I hadn’t yet touched on Winton.
This coming-of-age novel, whilst exploring a created link between various aquatic challenges and autoerotic asphyxiation, does create a troika of profoundly believable male characters and eventually one believable female one. There is some great language and an imparted love/knowledge of the ocean. But the end is a jumble of tied-off loose ends.
I’m led again to ponder men writing women and women writing men. As a reader, I’m perpetually irritated with work where the opposite gender is painted as an afterthought, the two-dimensional object, the addendum to the writer’s primary preoccupation.
On one level it doesn’t matter. The woman exploring women’s issues, women’s stories, is a perfectly valid path. Exactly the same process applies in reverse with men writing men as in Winton’s novel. But it’s such a delight when a novelist or poet captures the opposite sex with three-dimensional clarity—Val McDermid immediately comes to mind.
When we fail to explore and capture half the population in our work are we profoundly self-limiting? How much of this is somehow the inevitable consequence of an innate narcissism prevalent amongst wordsmiths?
I pick a book at random from my shelves to test these observations – Anna Couani’s Small Wonders (a book I enjoyed immensely and beautifully produced by Flying Islands Books, 2009). Yes, she is wrestling with the concept of character and three dimensions—‘and the writer is simulating, pretending to/get inside someone’s head’. While you can see the poet’s preoccupations, fascinations and self-reflections, it’s also quite clearly a world inhabited by both men and women.
John Watson displays a certain profligacy with an array of poetry titles out over the last couple of years. I have just finished Louise and Three Obituaries and an Afternoon Tea, published by Picaro. Both books tackle biography in verse form and Watson’s sharp, comic pen alongside a spectacular choice of characters makes both these books a great read… ‘Only the fabulous must be redeemable.’ And yes, in these books he does create believable women.
From the practised artisan I’m shifting to editing a manuscript from the emerging Canberra poet, Paul Williamson. I have worked with Paul for some years, genuinely feel privileged to watch as a voice emerges over time through artistic exploration, hard work and life lived. The book, its working title To the Spice Islands, will be well worth the read when it is published. Williamson’s poems are sparse, clear and engaging.
Then some new poems from Cecilia Morris, another emerging voice with an enquiring vitality. I will be excited to see the book that will eventuate.
For decades I’ve been a workshop facilitator across the country but hadn’t attended a peer feedback workshop of peers since the 1970s. Over recent years my trajectory has been towards a denser interplay with language. Some have suggested the balance is awry and there is an issue of inexplicability with my recent work. Attending the Walter Street poetry group on monthly Saturdays (coordinated by Paula McKay) with its mix of established and emerging poets has been deeply enriching as we chisel away at early drafts with our sometimes wildly diverging perspectives. Last Saturday was athletic reading at its best.
Arriving in the mail this week was a little magazine From the University of Calgary Students Union—NoD #16. Having been somewhat wary about the title, my reaction in reading it was anything but nodding off: a rich, energetic range of voices summed up in the lines from Darren C. Demaree ‘we are all/young grass,/unaware of how/important/rubbing dirt/in your hair/can be.’
It’s easy to be iconoclastic in the Australian word world. The sales and cultural penetration of poetry are going nowhere (last year I performed in Colombia, it was profoundly humbling to be embedded a culture that embraced poetry at all levels), reading of novels is in decline and print newspaper readership is in freefall. Firmly entrenched as a reader of all three I dutifully fret for a little while then turn back to the pages.
My copy of the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald has arrived on my lawn and provides me the only true sustenance needed for breakfast. This paper, with its truly great figures in analysis like Paul McGeough, Ross Gittens plus arts writers like John McDonald and Susan Wyndham, is a fundamental part of my continuing engagement with the world (though the poetry has disappeared from its pages). What will I be reading in five years time? If papers like the Herald are still in existence will the dumbing down be continued—for world news will we hear that celebrity Z has broken her leg skiing in Switzerland? This paper is not the treasure it was ten years ago, but it retains value nonetheless. Will it in the future?
And what will replace it? Sure, The Conversation has changed the game for online information. So often what I read there on Monday becomes the news story on Radio National or Fairfax for Tuesday. The Guardian Australia has so far offered a succession of glimmers, but not much gold.
Les Wicks has been published across nineteen countries in ten languages. His eleventh book of poetry is Sea of Heartbeak (Unexpected Resilience) (Puncher and Wattmann, 2013). This year he will be performing at the World Poetry Festival (Delhi), Beyond Baroque (L.A.), Austin International Poetry Festival (Austin), Brett Whiteley Studio (Sydney) and RhiZomic (Sydney). He can be found at leswicks.tripod.com/lw.htm
13 Apr 14 at 11:56
Though his comment about Breath feels spot on to me, I disagree with Les Wicks about the boredom of men writing about men and women writing about women. These rules, though attractive, feel artificial to me. A good book is a good book, it can break all the rules or follow every single one, its mystery will still be complete. People who write about writing try and explain what just ‘happens’ – or doesn’t. When push comes to shove, we don’t know how the mocking bird got killed.
02 Jul 14 at 13:09
Interesting to see your views on this, I’ve seen similar views expressed by some of the guys at http://beyondnlp.com.au/.