Bodies, effort, straws: The Special by David Stavanger

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David Stavanger, myself, Jennifer Compton.

I had the pleasure last night of launching The Special by David Stavanger, winner of the 2013 Thomas Shapcott Prize. The book is published by UQP and available now. David and I didn’t know each other beforehand, but connected through words (in emails, but mainly through our work) and it was a wonderful night, with much warmth. David asked me to read a few pieces from Captives before launching his book, which was kind. The legendary Jennifer Compton read also, and it was great to meet her. Her next book will launched in a couple of months.

My launch speech also acts as a review of The Special, so I’ll share it with you now:

The special

What I came away with from this collection was a series of images, connected meanings, and a mood. I can try to explain or capture that mood through this speech, but it may end up being slightly different for each of you. A poet allows for space in between the words, words that either spill like bodily fluid, or that are drawn slowly and agonisingly, like impacted teeth. The space becomes yours, the reader’s.

I’ve already invoked some of the imagery in the book right there, that of bodies. Bodies tattooed, divided, diseased, under floors, naked, flying through air, young and old, on a plastic sheet, and featuring ‘so many exit points’ (that line being from the very affecting ‘Inheritance Triptych’).

There are throats, lips, chests, colons and legs tumbling into feet (‘Baby’). The bodies are a source of fascination, but also of weight. It’s an effort to be bodily, to have conversations with other parents at the school gate. With his father, the poet states: ‘I am the ghost and he is the father.’ The body doesn’t fit right. Sentience is floating, not necessarily tied to the body. It may even be found in objects, like a fridge in the flood. A fridge that ‘mourns broken seals’ and ‘once dated an esky’.

The emotional state is often worry, like when the ghost worries about his father. Worry plus a sense of fatalism leads to an absurd sort of humour. The worry doesn’t hide behind the humour, it’s present in it. The poem ‘The Future’ is a pinnacle of this, the worry almost seems a precursor to the events in this piece. There’s a sense of: yes, everything bad can happen, has happened, is happening, will happen. We just have to open another door, or keep walking a dead dog. And what else can we teach our children but to do this also?

There’s also an expression, overall, of a sense of effort—the effort that everyday living requires. The poem ‘Digestives’ really sums this up: minding someone’s place, being alone and heartbroken, then locking yourself out, having to spend all your money on a locksmith, having nothing to eat but digestive biscuits. Then there’s ‘In the Palace of Broken Men’ which has lines like ‘sighing is the first act of the morning’, and ‘an unnamed smell in the bedroom’, and ‘bins put out not brought back in’. Just think about that for a moment, the bins still out on the street.

The horror of the ordinary, it’s what a lot of people with mental illness face. And some of the poems here reference David’s time as a psychologist, and his own personal and familial experiences with mental illness. Some poems push boundaries, mainly I noticed in their treatment of the desire for oblivion, or in their respect for other states of being other than the continually shrinking idea of ‘normal’ in an overdiagnosed society. ‘Jack, the Moon’ is a brilliant poem, a record of the poet’s maternal grandfather, who had bipolar. The final lines are:

Madness is not fully measured by the harm done,
it’s in the beauty only lunar suns undo.
Who was I, at seventeen, to deny the ascent.

Complementary to these themes is a thread of control. Having it, letting go, and others having it over you, even through words. A panic, but perhaps an inevitability, too, over a loss of control, is captured in one of my favourite poems ‘Straws’, where straws exist to keep mouths at bay, because the sensations of glass and ice would be too much. There’s definitely humour in the line: ‘feeling better if something is between: clothes, surnames, bodies of water’. And the final stanza, which I won’t ruin for you, makes you both smile and feel a short buzz of panic. The poem seems a parody of a human being who is trying to keep some distance from physical sensations and the effect they may have on them.

Or perhaps it is a parody of the writer himself, fascinated by the straw between the mind and the words on the page, always some distance between them. Or, perhaps, it acknowledges the straw between the writer and the world. The writer as a person, always feeling, but as a writer, always looking down on the scene from above, distant from their own self. Maybe this is the distance between David and Ghostboy, his alter-ego.

This kind of writerly distance, tied with a vision both warm and dark, made me think about a state or outlook described by Janet Frame, looking back on the time she was in a mental hospital and thought her plight was hopeless. It’s an incredible description, and I hope David and some of you find it relevant.

I inhabited a territory of loneliness which I think resembles that place where the dying spend their time before death, and from where those who do return living to the world bring inevitably a unique point of view that is a nightmare, a treasure, and a lifelong possession; at times I think it must be the best view in the world, ranging even farther than the view from the mountains of love, equal in its rapture and chilling exposure, there in the neighborhood of the ancient gods and goddesses. The very act of returning to the world, however, tends to remove that view to the storeroom of the mind described by Thomas Beecham as ‘the room two inches behind the eyes’. One remembers the treasure and the Midas effect of it upon each moment, and sometimes one can see the glitter among the ordinary waste of each day.

And with that I declare The Special officially launched.

The quote is from Frame’s An Angel at My Table.

Read an interview with David Stavanger on Verity La.

Watch David’s performance as Ghostboy at Tedx Noosa (where he recites a couple of poems from The Special).

MWF 2014, Flashing the Square, Memory Makes Us

Melbourne Writers Festival has been fantastic so far. Stimulating keynotes from Helen Garner and Chris Hadfield, and I really enjoyed yesterday’s panel ‘Crossing Cultures’, about cultural hybridisation. There were some great insights into contemporary China from Zhang Tianpan: contemporary China is very complex, but also very simple. There are many commonalities with the West—’we all love beauty and freedom’. The Chinese are ‘so clever they can make simple things complex’, and there are two Chinas: the real China and the one on the internet. Which is more beautiful? The one on the internet, Tianpan said, as it is ‘vibrant, free, and active’. Tianpan was born the same year as me; I found him informative and also very warm and funny. I’m a bit sad I missed the Beijing panel as well. I’d love to go to China one day.

FTS

But what I meant to come on here and tell you about are two events at the festival next weekend. I’m helping to launch Flashing the Square, which is both a book and an audiovisual project, featuring pieces of microliterature. I helped to judge the joanne burns competition, and the winner and shortlisted entries are included in the anthology. I was also invited to contribute a piece myself. My piece and many others have been made into videos, which are being projected onto Fed Square during the festival. Keep an eye out for them! The audio recordings are available for a limited time for free on the Spineless Wonders website. The launch is on Saturday 30 August at 7pm in ACMI’s The Cube, and I’ll be in conversation with Flashing The Square’s curator, Richard Holt, writer/ critic Cassandra Atherton and writer, A.S. Patrić.

I was on a panel about microliterature yesterday, too, with Oliver Mol, chaired by Samuel Cooney. I was delighted to find a very healthy tweetstream afterwards. Thanks to Sonia Nair and Veronica Sullivan for recording the following quotes from yours truly:

‘I want to be an artist. Not just a writer. Different ideas can take different forms.’

‘I would never tell people which of my stories are fiction or nonfiction, because it doesn’t matter.’

It was great to sign a few books afterwards, too, including one for an author I admire very much, Meg Wolitzer.

I’ll be a guest on The Morning Read session on Friday 29 August at 10am, alongside Lauren Beukes (yay!), Chris Flynn & Mark Henshaw.

And the other MADNESS in which I’m participating is a live-writing event called Memory Makes Us, alongside Paddy O’Reilly and Nicholas J Johnson. My subject is ‘desire’. From 10–4 on Sunday 31 August we’ll be in the Atrium in Fed Square, constructing stories from our imaginations and your prompts. Contribute on the day, and here. Also, bring me whisky and images of Benedict Cumberbatch.

Appearance on Jennifer Byrne Presents: Envy

Angela Meyer J Byrne

I was honoured to be a guest on Jennifer Byrne Presents, an offshoot of the First Tuesday Book Club, to discuss one of the seven deadly sins, envy, along with Greg Sheridan, Lyndon Terracini and Kate McClymont. The show aired on 19 August on ABC, and will be available for a limited time on iview. There’s also an outtake up on YouTube, where I discuss Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

What was it like? It was a surreal and wonderful experience. I always suffer from nerves, a terror that I will say something incredibly stupid or not be able to say anything at all. I worry that I will freeze, say ‘uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’ until everyone wonders why the hell I was invited to be on the show, let alone do anything in public, ever. The nerves are physical. You can’t tell on screen but my knees were juddering the whole time.

My reading around the subject was crammed; the shoot happened during the busiest period of my life so far. But I did find I had plenty of opinions on the topic of envy, and books from which I could draw. Study comes naturally to me. I love to read deeply, probe books through to their guts and bones (meaning, themes, context, structure). I probably don’t have to mention that—it’s why I do so much of what I do!

As soon as I knew about the appearance I saved to buy a dress just for it. Funnily enough, the green was an accident. Which is quite embarrassing to admit. The dress was chosen for me by Tracey at Frocks & Slacks in St Kilda, who is incredible and knows your size and what will suit you just by looking at you. I didn’t realise I was dressing to theme until Jennifer called me out on it (she was going for subtle green). It might sound like a superficial detail, but dressing up, wearing make-up (thanks ABC make-up department), doing my nails—these are part of preparing for the stage or a camera. Not armour; more coaxing out the confident part of myself, trying to sneak her past the quivering, doubting part. Because of course I want to do this, am capable of doing it, and may even be good at it. 

It was all a bit of a blur, because of the adrenaline. Walking onto the set was exactly how you’d imagine it would be: bright lights, lots of cameras pointed in your direction. There was a small studio audience, which I found very helpful. I’m more used to speaking to an audience.

I didn’t remember much of what I’d said, afterwards, so I felt relief when I watched the show the other day and realised I did just fine. Jennifer also said some kind words to me afterwards. It’s not that I ever fear I don’t have the knowledge (because I always prepare); it’s more a worry of being unable to articulate what I know. I imagine being caught in this absurd, Beckettian loop of miscommunication. ‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.’ I also have a shocking memory, which fails me more when I panic.

When I left the ABC studios, I was on a high. It did feel like a step in a new direction, and that’s been confirmed by the amount of people in my Facebook feed who never normally talk to me but suddenly think I’m famous. (Publishing a book wasn’t enough for ya, ay?) But I’m also aware it’ll fade, as anything does. I’ll just enjoy this glow for a little longer, while getting on with my work. Dentist bills are certainly keeping me down here on earth.

One other thing: out of the other guests I most enjoyed meeting Lyndon Terracini, the director of Opera Australia. We clicked over Kafka, and I found him a very warm person. That’s something I’m grateful for, with all the travel and gigs I get to do: meeting interesting people. Jennifer Byrne, as you can probably tell from her screen presence, is also incredibly warm, smart, and funny.

Thanks to all of you who watched, and those who have come by the blog afterwards. Subscribe to my YouTube channel if you want to see more of me talking to camera about books!

Whisky Literature: I’m playing with video again

This is the first in a series called Whisky Literature (combining two loves), where I will muse on literature, discuss recent reads, or read aloud over a dram of whisky.

This episode features Ardbeg Uigeadail and the books Deeper Water by Jessie Cole, The Empress Lover by Linda Jaivin, and Tampa by Alissa Nutting, with mention of The Fictional Woman by Tara Moss and Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Expect a mix of passion, enthusiasm, absurdity, and tipsiness.

Review: Slush Pile by Ian Shadwell, for The Australian

Slush Pile

Sometimes an author will have one big hit and then … nothing. When we meet Michael Ardenne, the antihero of Ian Shadwell’s Slush Pile, it has been more than a decade since he won the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel Ephesus. Now, he is ‘as dry as an old dog turd’. Instead of writing, he pseudonymously occupies message boards about his own book, watches porn, drinks his cellar dry and leers at the teenage girl next door.

Read the rest of the review here.

#555writers: Grafton to Lennox Head

This’ll be a short one. It’s the fifth day of the five writers, five towns tour. We were all heartened to see Sam looking perkier this morning, after a good rest at the Quality Inn in Grafton. As for the rest of us…

tired dog

I think by the time we separate we will be both relieved and terrified to navigate the world on our own. When Nick tells his anecdote about the smartphone and the clicking hip for the 80th time tonight I will think, simultaneously: thank god I never have to hear that again, and I’m gonna miss that guy.

We’ve become so close that today at lunch we spoke at length about rowing for Cranbrook. OK, that’s an in joke. We have in jokes now, and some of them are unblogable.

Last night at the Clocktower in Grafton was great. The crowds are growing every night, and apparently we’re expecting a full room in Lennox tonight. Hopefully we will all be awake enough to finish the tour in style. I wish I could stay up partying afterwards, maybe have a dry martini with Craig, but I’m teaching a workshop tomorrow (which is great, of course, but I don’t want to have to teach with sunglasses on, excusing myself every ten minutes to go in search of carbs. Though if any of my students does want to bring me a Bloody Mary you’ll be my instant favourite).

Authors, coffee, sun.

Authors, coffee, sun

This morning I was going to go to Nick’s Word Hunt event, but there was the beach and its siren call. I did cartwheels in honour of Annika, the protagonist in Ashley Hay’s The Railwayman’s Wife. Craig advertised his book on a rock. So the beach was literary, after all.

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What else happened? Well, we drove past a house where someone had once been beheaded, so that was macabre. We headbanged to Nirvana and the Violent Femmes. And we learnt that Zac once had drinks with the guy who invented the barcode. She’s also met R2-D2 and C-3PO. And Sam told us about the best literary gig he ever had. He was due to do some events in New Zealand, but when he arrived no one picked him up from the airport, and when he took a taxi into town the arts part of the embassy was closed. Apparently, this was something to do with the invasion of Iraq, but a guy came downstairs with a wad of cash and handed it to him and said: ‘enjoy New Zealand’. Indeed he did.

This will probably be the last ‘on tour’ blog post, though I’ll try to write something after our last panel all together at Byron Bay Writers Festival this weekend. And I’ll post Tim’s no doubt FASCINATING film of the tour when it’s done.

Thank you for reading, and thanks a bunch to the Australia Council, Byron Bay Writers Festival, the Co-op Bookshop (Luke in particular!), all the wonderful venues that have hosted us, and all the people who have come along to see us ‘on the road’.

x

#555writers: Coffs to Grafton

This morning Zacharey Jane interviewed Craig Sherborne and myself in the Coffs Harbour Library. The crowd was fantastic, and asked lots of intriguing questions. Coffs all up was WONDERFUL. I’ll never say a bad word about my home town again. Maybe.

Poor Nick Earls is right now performing his Word Hunt talk at the Grafton Library for the third time today. All of us have been hungry for audience questions because we’ve been talking to each other for four days. (Now being the chair of the pub events, I’m also trying to mix things up, but of course it’s not just about the authors, it’s about the audience and what is interesting to them.) We’re all looking a bit eye-bagged and saggy, but none of us are as bad off as poor Sam, who is still suffering his lurgy, and currently resting up in our Hacienda-style motel in Grafton.

At the Coast Hotel, Coffs Harbour

At the Coast Hotel, Coffs Harbour

Today we went to Grafton High School and walked into a packed hall of teenagers. I just about fainted. For this event, Zacharey Jane, Craig Sherborne, Ashley Hay and myself read a little and then answered questions from the teens. Craig chose a passage about breastfeeding, containing words like ‘nipple’, which caused a few titters. I thought it was great that he was treating the teenagers as mature; as being able to handle the material. Later he said he just hadn’t thought it through.

I did want to be a little controversial and read my story about the teenage girl keeping a child in her room. They were pretty quiet by the end, so I think it went OK. Overall, they were superbly behaved, and asked awesome questions, such as ‘do you ever want to just keep writing and writing?’ and ‘Have you read 50 Shades of Grey?’ which led us into talking about genre and literary fiction.

One of the best was: ‘How do you know when you’ve gotten to the ending of a story?’ But we found out later a PE teacher had paid a kid a dollar to ask that, as it’s something he always wanted to know.

Grafton High put on quite a spread for lunch (lasagne, drool) and we talked Shakespeare with the English teachers.

Our conversations in the car today included a puzzling over the logistics of a seed bank. Questions asked included: if the earth was so wrecked after a disaster, would the seeds even grow? If the seeds are kept underground in a bunker, how would anyone find them? Will a seed ‘banker’ be the last remaining person on earth? Yes, there’s story potential. Ashley has claimed it.

Zac also revealed that as she gets to know people she associates them with certain breeds of horses. Mainly these are hers, but I have chosen Tim’s (because they didn’t quite decide on one), and Craig has chosen Zac’s:

Nick Earls: Irish Cob

Irish Cob

Ashley Hay: Welsh Pony

Welsh pony

Samuel Wagan Watson: Quarter Horse

Quarter Horse

Craig Sherborne: Thoroughbred

thoroughbred

Tim Eddy: Akhal Teke

Akhla Teke

Zacharey Jane: Palomino

Palomino

And apparently I am an Arab Horse

Arabian