In 2009, when I started to write poetry seriously, i.e., confidently, ambitiously, I noticed a change in my reading patterns—more poetry, more than one book at a time. (When I was a kid I established a rule of two halves—finish a book before you start another; finish every book.) Around six months ago I was reading only poetry and felt unbalanced so I started to read prose again and found my attention span for longer forms had shortened. Re-enter Vikram Seth’s infamously long A Suitable Boy, which honed my concentration (though when I first read it, at Apollo Bay in the late 1990s, it was more soporific than stimulating).
Another change in my reading patterns occurred in 2013, not long after I moved from Melbourne to Rockhampton, when I read Sylvia Plath’s Ariel: The Restored Edition. ‘These new poems of mine,’ Plath states, ‘are written for the ear, not the eye’. Ever since, I’ve read poems—others’, and my own—out loud.
Rockhampton has only one bookstore. I miss running my fingers along the shelves of Brunswick Street Bookstore, Collected Works, Hares & Hyenas, Readings Carlton and The Paperback Bookshop, to name a few, but each time I delve into Facebook, Instagram or Twitter I add another book to Goodreads.
In the morning, before I write, I read poetry and non-fiction; in the afternoon, fiction; after dinner, after I write, more poetry and non-fiction. These days I can’t read in bed—my mind’s too easily stimulated—so I meditate instead.
At the moment I’m savouring quite a few books—more free time since my debut poetry collection, Glasshouses was published—but I don’t dip into every one daily.
In What Days Are For Robert Dessaix writes ‘I simply can’t remember ever feeling happier than I do at this moment.’ This is how I feel when reading this exquisitely written memoir. I’m also very fond of it because its title’s a reworking of the first two lines of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Days’—‘What are days for? / Days are where we live.’
Eighty-three poets—well-established, regional and emerging—are represented in Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, edited by Nathalie Handal. There are voices of survival, freedom and war. I’m enjoying this collection very much—even when excavating devastation, the writing remains elegant. ‘[The book] was prepared to eradicate invisibility,’ writes Handal. This is a must-have, I think.
I don’t believe in those ‘What Six People, Living or Dead, Would You Invite to Dinner?’ lists, but if I did, Christopher Isherwood would be on mine. In Diaries: Volume 1, 1939–1960 he writes with candour, curiosity and wit about being a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda, his pacifism during WWII and working as a screenwriter in Hollywood. Also, he’s teaching me a lot about meditation.
It’s easy to see why Julie Proudfoot’s The Neighbour won the 2014 Seizure Viva La Novella Prize—gripping from the first page, it was difficult to put down. The language is pared back, the characterisation acute, and the pages ripple with grief, guilt, menace. This is already a much-loved novella.
As I finish these I’ll transfer them from my bedroom’s deco bookshelf to one of the dozens of alphabetised cardboard boxes stacked on pallets beneath my Queenslander.
Like Donna Tartt, ‘I always have a comfort book going too, something I’ve read many times.’
The poems in Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec are intimate and lyrical. Her command of forms such as the abecedarian, the ghazal, the pantoum and the triolet is astonishing, and encouraged me to try my hand at them too. This is not just a book about a brother’s crystal meth addiction and its effect on the poet and their family; there are other hard-hitting poems about Fort Mojave reservation life, and love.
For my thirtieth birthday a friend gave me a Brunswick Street Bookstore voucher. I bought Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems—the book that made me start to write poetry seriously. I remember cycling from Fitzroy to Dights Falls, sitting for hours in intense humidity, being unable to make sense of these poems that explore things that have always fascinated me—anatomy, gender, history, medicine and mythology. I was shocked when I read the title of one poem (‘Ariel’) and two lines from another, ‘The Jailer’ (‘I have been drugged and raped. / Seven hours knocked out of my right mind’). In 1996, after he spiked my drink, I was date-raped by a man named Ari (a diminutive of Ariel). Did I think Plath was speaking to me directly, or that these two poems had been written just for me? No. Rather, I sensed, then, that re-reading these two poems—this book—would be transformative. These days I re-read Collected for its clever, defiant, hopeful, humourous and sardonic voices.
I often re-visit Lisa Brockwell’s Earth Girls, Benjamin Dodds’ Regulator, Matt Hetherington’s For Instance, Nigel Featherstone’s The Beach Volcano and Felicity Plunkett’s Vanishing Point as a way of keeping friends close; these also remain on the deco bookshelf.
Online, I enjoy Axon: Creative Explorations, Cordite Poetry Review, Jacket2, Mascara Literary Review, and SOd press’ ‘Experiments in radical poetics’, edited by A.J. Carruthers and Amelia Dale.
I’m also reading poetry submissions for Tincture Journal Issue 16, coming out in December. When each window opens we receive hundreds of poems from writers across Australia and the world. Reading others’ work is intimate, a privilege.
And for months I’ve been lucky to be immersed in two friends’ works in progress.
Sun salutations stretch and strengthen each of the body’s major muscle groups; perhaps reading many things at once stretches and strengthens the mind?
Stuart Barnes was born in Hobart, Tasmania, and educated at Monash University. He won the 2015 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, resulting in the publication of his debut poetry collection, Glasshouses (UQP, 2016). Since 2013 he has lived in Central Queensland and been poetry editor for Tincture Journal. Visit his website, follow him on Twitter.