My relationship with reading has always been fraught. Like most writers I know, I often feel overwhelmed, even affronted, by the stacks of books that, despite my best efforts, steadily grow by the side of my bed. Like most writers I know, I’ve never felt like I read enough, am reading enough, have read enough. Like most writers, my reading habits are shameful, lazy, perhaps disingenuous.
Whoever said writing and reading, there are no short cuts, should have added procrastination and excuse-making—the bedfellows of an emerging writer. Most people don’t want to admit it, but reading, like writing, is hard. It isn’t, sadly, the sort of art form you can just put on in the background at a dinner party. You can’t stroll around a book pretending to understand its complex geometry, remarking I like this one. You can’t just mindlessly scroll on your phone while the book automatically skips to the next chapter. Reading is demanding. Reading is political.
Growing up in a country town, the closest my family came to literary fiction was Mills and Boon; the closest to poetry, the TV guide. My mum is an avid reader only in the sense there’s a book always on her bedside table—but five pages a night is enough for her. So mostly, I read what was front and centre at the school library: in those days, Morris Gleitzman and Emily Rodda. I was 22 before I even heard of a writers festival, and thirty before I attended my first one.
Often, I think Australian literature undercuts the privilege of reading, of getting to read, of knowing what to read, of having access to books and book adjacent events. Of having the sort of brain that picks up the latest must read and just devours it. For so long, I’ve lived in envy of all those people who just plough through novels; the people who always had books right there in front of them and were just able to plod along, enchanted. Maybe it’s my ADHD brain, but so often writing feels like something I have to overcome. So rarely am I hooked by a novel or memoir you might ask, why become a writer at all? Well, like writing, I prefer to have read than to be reading. I like that sense of accomplishment, the inevitable conversations reading leads to. For me, reading is just a beautiful conduit to ideas, to long-winded conversations with friends. Rarely, is it a particularly pleasurable pastime.
When I was in my twenties, I used to lie about how much I read, and sometimes, who I was reading. I did this because I was a writer who barely wrote. I did this because to have read says everything that needs to be said about someone. I did this because writers are supposed to read. One of my favourite first date questions is: ‘What book have you told people you’ve read, but are certain you’ll never read?’ Mine’s Anna Karenina—a book I’ve abandoned on several occasions. For years, I told myself that I’d be nothing until I read Tolstoy. What right did I have to write if I hadn’t even read all The Russians? And then one day I came home to find my copy of old Anna torn into snowflakes—my dogs having decided to do the hard work of destroying it. Christ, I was elated. Tolstoy would no longer stare at me, gloating from the shelves about how I’d failed to read that one book everyone needs to read.
All this talk of not reading might give you the impression that I don’t read all, but the truth is I go through bursts. At 21, I read Murakami’s entire back catalogue in about a month. At 25, I read everything Tim Winton’s ever written (22 books at the time, or there abouts). I did the same with Flanagan and Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick and Bret Easton Ellis (sorry) and Kerouac and Bukowski (double sorry) and Rushdie, and then later, when a female friend aptly pointed out that, shit, you read a lot of men, I read mountains of Margaret Atwood and Maggie Nelson and bell hooks and Helen Garner and Toni Morrison. All that before I started reading poetry, the one thing I can read a lot of, and consistently.
Poetry, for all its wankerisms, for all its unnatural pride and self-love, is an art form that you can dive in an out of—the sort of writing that hooks you with a line, an image, an idea, leaving you satisfied within seconds. It’s writing that can wash over you, suspend you, drop you, demanding little more than a few pages of your time. When I first started reading poetry, I wanted to understand everything; I figured the more I read, the more I’d get it. But I think the inverse is true: poetry is about the opening, not the closing. Expecting conclusions will likely lead to disappointment, frustration or confusion. Why do you have to ‘get’ a line to love it? The truth is, you don’t. Poetry is closer to visual art than it is to say fiction or non-fiction, or even most music, where the constraints of structure expect an introduction, conflict, apex and then a diminuendo. Poetry is a small window; a world framed by just a few stanzas. A metaphor elevated to a sledgehammer or a golden ticket. A place where voice and point of view are everything—where the poet is standing beside you, sharing the view, asking you questions. And perhaps this goes back to something I was saying earlier: reading and writing for me are about community, about connecting the writer with the work, about engaging in a dialogue.
Few will be surprised by the fact that the poetry scene in Australia is fairly insular.
There’s a running joke among poets that the only people who will buy our collections is fellow poets. In many ways this is true. The scene is so small that the line between friend, colleague and that editor who keeps rejecting your poems becomes utterly invisible. As an art form, Australian poetry is so underfunded that an award-winning poet that I deeply respect referred to the scene as ‘pigeons politely fighting over cold chips’. And so, condemned to survival mode, Australian poetry is a community largely talking to itself—benefits and drawbacks abound. For me, someone relatively new to the inner mechanics, the act of reading Australian poetry feels more and more like the start of a conversation, or the continuation of one. Again, the window opens—the poet beside intimately detailing all the refractions, how the light illuminates new ways of knowing.
This year, the Stella Prize opened its doors to forms beyond the novel or memoir or essay collection, with 5 of the 12 long-listed books being collections of poetry. After the announcement at The Wheeler Centre, I spent way too much money buying all the poetry books I hadn’t already read, and on the tram home I began reading them. Almost all of the collections—if you can call all of them collections—are hybrid forms, works that experiment in essay, in short story, in epitaph, in lyric, in still shot. By and large, they are enterprises in restraint and economy where the personal is densely political, where gutsy voice and overt style are mirrored in the truth and importance of the content.
Lucy Van’s The Open and Anwen Crawford’s No Document are both works written in vignettes which deal with the blurring of lines, the reckonings of trauma near and far. For me, Van and Crawford, like many poets, seem desperate to write themselves out of corners that someone else has written them into. In one blurb for Van’s book, she says ‘I am not the first to say that poetry is a form of enclosure, but I want to say it here again, anyway. I love how permeable this form of enclosure can be…’ Perhaps the title The Open leans towards rejecting language that constantly searches for lines, for boundaries, for borders. For building, as Van would say, fences. Again, I’m reminded that poetry isn’t about the closing, but the opening—that poetry’s power lays in its exploratory nature, in its uncertainty, in its ability to find ways to say what cannot be said.
While reading No Document, I was repeatedly reminded of Lebanese-Palestinian poet Hasib Hourani’s line, ‘I write in vignettes because all we have is fragments’—an incredibly poignant observation about what remains, historically and personally, in nations where violent occupation is ritualised. Like No Document, Hourani’s poem speaks to poetry as a form of resistance, as a form of recorded history where erasure seems imminent. But, like almost all the works on the Stella long-list this year, the poem raises questions about the failings of language to engage, to tell, to see. To actually understand.
No doubt, Toby Fitch was right when he recently wrote for this series that ‘reading and writing are tidal processes’. While reading these works I found myself returning to old poetry, to lines I’d forgotten, one in particular that I suspect was inspired by Hourani: ‘What more can I give you, when our lives are just aftermath’. I hope you’ll forgive me now, for a work of poetry that exists in dialogue, particularly to the works named above, but perhaps even more so to a younger self, who never had the language to say what could not be said.
in this town boys use lightbulbs like get away cars writer love letters in skid-marks
cram dead ends into tree trunks gurgle morse code from stomach pumps
turn cannonballs into smoke signals become ghost machines
in this town a noose is a snorkel a v8 a pacemaker
a bong a time machine a broken rib the theory
don’t be a fucking pussy
in this town
a breakdown needs a satellite phone
or a telecommunications tower
or a body hanging like
a bell an outpost
demountable cop shop
lazy missile silo
a technician flown in from sydney
to cut a body down
in this town kids don’t look up don’t make eye contact pupils bloodshot as
choked udders don’t play with that kid his mum’s a junky bouquets ringing power
poles like the second coming of jesus weathered crosses marking all the spots
where the olympic torch never made it
whose town is this
in this town a factory line is a god send even part time is something life’s about
getting off your ass benefits a once-weekly bus route while the paper mill starts
manufacturing plastics and teenagers don’t swim in the river
Tim Loveday is a poet, a writer, an editor, and a clown-lark. He is the recipient of a 2021 Next Chapter Wheeler Centre Fellowship, a 2021 Varuna Residential Fellowship, a 2022 Bundanon Residential Fellowship, 2022 Melbourne City Arts Grant, and a 2022 Writing Space Fellowship. His work focuses on masculinity, intergenerational violence and rural communities reckoning with climate collapse. His poetry/prose has appeared in Meanjin, Victorian Writers, Griffith Review, Cordite, Mascara, The Big Issue, Meniscus, TEXT, Foam:e, and The Big Smoke, among others. A Neurodivergent dog parent, he is the content editor at Hyperviolet Designs, the verse editor for The Creative Hub of Extinction Rebellion and IPEd’s Student Adviser (Victoria Branch).