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).

#555writers: Lismore to Coffs

Listening faces as Zacharey Jane reads from The Lifeboat at the Tatts in Lismore.

Listening faces as Zacharey Jane reads from The Lifeboat at the Tatts in Lismore.

With limited time, these blog posts just have to flow from my head onto the screen. Please forgive all unfiltered thoughts, badly chosen words, grammatical errors and digressions of narrative and theme…

I want to start with what just happened. I invited the five writers Zac, Craig, Ash, Sam and Nick, and filmmaker Tim, into my parents’ home in Coffs. They needed a good feed, and I knew Dad’s homemade bread and pesto would suffice. There was quite a spread, and the red wine flowed. As we were arriving in Coffs, I began to shake, which I think nobody noticed. I always get a bit shaky here. Nothing very bad ever happened, but I was often in a bad place when I lived here, and I had wanted to leave, but remained for a variety of reasons. Let me just say that this had nothing to do with my folks, they’re great people; it was more my own psychological ‘stuff’. One way I dealt with it was to start this blog more than seven years ago.

Here we were. Old worlds and new, colliding on the back veranda. And it was lovely.

#555writers in the Meyer house. Dad's pesto received five-star reviews.

#555writers in the Meyer house. Dad’s pesto received five-star reviews.

Memory and the past can be fuel for writing. Craig Sherborne has spoken a lot about his mother on the trip (and you would be familiar with her if you’ve read his memoirs Hoi Polloi and Muck). He has described her as ‘big, loud, intimidating and proper’. She both pressured and smothered him, and for him there was deep love and deep antagonism.

Ashley Hay’s grandfather was killed on the railway, and her grandmother was employed as a librarian for the railway, which made Ashley think about what it would be like for her grandmother to hear the noise of the trains, constantly; to be reminded of her husband’s death over and over. This was part of the impetus for writing The Railwayman’s Wife. 

The past is layered through Samuel Wagan Watson’s work. In Lismore, when the topic of literary influences came up, Sam went to childhood and Saturday mornings: Scooby Doo, Land of the Lost, and Cheech and Chong (with a perfect impression). The poem ‘Hallowed Ground’ opens on Saturday morning on Logan Road in Brisbane. The poet is taking his lady to a cafe. Four stanzas are indented within the poem, emphasising the past in place. Here are two:

Dinosaurs are buried here with the remains of their
tracks; this place was one only known as Central.

This place was where my mum and dad had their first
kiss on the tram!

His lady says, in the poem, that he is distant, but he is ‘very HERE’, he writes; he is taking in past and present all at once. At the end he is moving across the table to attempt a kiss, sealing past and present together, ‘safe from chaos for the time being’.

At the SCU Campus bar, Lismore.

At the SCU Campus bar, Lismore.

The Lifeboat came out of experiences in Zacharey Jane’s past. She didn’t realise until years later that seeing an old couple at various times on a holiday, and then seeing the old man die in a storm, had had such an effect on her. When she was leaving Mexico, the whole novel came to her as she wondered what would happen if the ferry sank, and there were no markings on the lifeboat, and one’s memory was erased. It was an old couple who became her castaways in the novel.

Nick Earls told us an amazing story from his past (related to someone else’s past) that has never gone into a novel, because no one would find it plausible. When he was a doctor, he saw a woman in emergency who was having some trouble she’d never had before. She was perplexed by people playing cricket on TV, and was wondering why her hands looked so strange. He asked her some questions and she told him her father was a bootmaker, and that they’d come over from England on a big ship. She said she remembered her father taking her to Southampton to see a ship like the one they’d leave on. She knew she’d gotten to Australia but she had no idea that the ship she saw had in fact sunk. Nick realised that her father must have kept the news from her, about the Titanic, so she wouldn’t be afraid of the journey on another large ship not long afterwards. So Nick was talking to a woman who had not only seen the Titanic, but who had no idea (in that present moment) that it had sunk. It turned out that the memory loss was a very rare side effect of her medication, and the remaining years filled in once that had been adjusted.

So stories arise from the past. And in the present, a writer collects (knowingly and unknowingly) images, moments, bits of dialogue and anecdotes which may become story sparks. Craig aptly summed up this process in Tweed Heads: ‘As a writer, you’re a parasite.’

I’m sure this trip will result in many more stories.

Comedians are parasites, too. We had a good laugh seeing a couple of them at the Tatts Hotel in Lismore last night after our gig. With the magic of YouTube, I can share the experience with you. Here’s Loz, he’s good at wordplay:

And bringing more LOLs, here’s Matthew Ford:

Tonight we’re at the Coast Hotel, a place I associate with short shorts, Smirnoff Ice, sneaky cigarettes, and finding a $50 note. WORLDS COLLIDE.

Here’s a cool dog we saw in a car today. He treated the #555writers tour with skepticism:

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Interviews in The West Australian and Tincture

Picture by William Yeoman for the West Australian.

Picture by William Yeoman for the West Australian.

In the West Australian:

‘I thought of (Captives) as a pillbox of stories,’ Meyer says. ‘There are different coloured pills – a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one—and they produce different effects and maybe you can’t take too many at once. And they’re a little dark and a little strange. But I think they have to be that way to get across those ideas of fear and that we’re captives within our own minds. We can’t escape ourselves. I hope Captives taps into peoples’ fears—but in a good way.’

Read the rest.

And interviewed by Daniel Young for Tincture Journal (where some of my stories have been previously published):

‘[The themes are] definitely something that emerged organically, although I’ve been aware for a while that my best writing tends to emerge from the place where my anxieties lie (which is not far removed from my passions). There’s a knife’s edge between happiness and melancholy, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, and my writing is attuned to that. The knife’s edge also separates what is considered ‘normal’ from what is not. That’s something that fascinates me and is another theme that runs through the book.’

Read the rest.

x

LiteraryMinded is seven; Captives is born; writing-work balance

CaptivesFCR (1)I missed my blog’s birthday. For the first time. You can imagine why. Something else I’ve written has just been released, my tiny book of short fictions, Captives. 

Actually, there’s more to it than that. I haven’t felt like I’ve had a proper chance to let publication wash over me, that now when I say to someone ‘I’m a writer’, and they ask, ‘what’s your book?’ I have an answer.

It’s just that I’m back in extraordinarily-busy-saying-yes mode… That’s why I truly missed my blog’s birthday. I’m working on two contracts (one editing, one writing), have started an awesome new casual job at Nant whisky bar, have two reviews, one essay and one academic paper due, am judging two writing competitions, preparing to report on a conference, preparing an interview, preparing for a HUGE amount of festivals, events and workshops, and trying to keep on top of social media etc. around my book’s release (and continuing to promote The Great Unknown). I’m a little stressed, admittedly, but I’m also grateful. When I got back from overseas it was so difficult, at first, to find work. I’d much rather have too much work, than too little. And everything feels (almost) balanced: a little reading, some writing, a bunch of emails, some editing, and then whisky.

Except for one thing: not enough creative writing going on. I’m managing about once a week at the moment. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Do many people manage to write a lot when they’re in the throes of promoting the current book? And how do other authors manage balance between book promotion (and career building) and making enough of a living? This is a question that’s been fascinating me, last year (when I finished my doctorate) and this year: what is the ideal job for a writer? Is my bar job ideal, because it’s casual and flexible, and still stimulating (I love the smells in the bar, and hearing people’s different stories about how they came to like single malts—it often involves travel). Or is freelance editing ideal? I just love putting that logical part of my brain to work: problem solving; knitting text, spaces and punctuation into something neat. I get to put the control freak to work, purge her a little. Editing feels powerful, I think. But it does use up a lot of brain power, not exactly from the same area as the writing (at least the drafting) comes from, but close by. Enough to drain you of words for the evening. I don’t think I’d want to edit full time.

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I don’t think I want to do any one job full time.

Can I manage this ‘juggling’, then? And still write, and still pay the bills? I’m going to try.

A grant would be helpful, of course! Or an advance. I am so enjoying writing this novel and it would be great, after some of these contracts ended, to have more time in the week to immerse myself in remote 19th century Scotland.

But hang on, let me take a moment here. I have a book out! (Always thinking of the next thing.) And it’s even receiving some lovely reviews and attention. The other day I received an email from an author whose book I very much admired, telling me she admired my book! It made my day. I couldn’t quite believe that she’d written to me as a peer (I know, but I’ve admitted to my inadequacy complex on here many times over these past seven years).

I’ve linked in the past few weeks to some of the guest posts/interviews I’ve been doing around the book’s release, but recently Captives has also been reviewed in Readings Monthly by Brigid Mullane, and Bronte Coates interviewed me for the Readings blog. Author Annabel Smith also interviewed me (on the writing process) on her blog.

And The Great Unknown is kicking on! It received a review in the Australian last weekend, by Kirsten Krauth, alongside the latest Sleepers Almanac. I still have to put up the last of my author posts from TGU on here. Will do soon…

Please also check out my events page while you’re here!

And while I’m rambling on, I must say that I’m reading some incredible books for upcoming festivals: Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is bowling me over, and Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals is lingering long in my mind. I put a small note on that one on Goodreads.

But I also feel I’ll never catch up on all the books I want to read: Alex Miller’s Coal Creek, Chris Womersley’s Cairo, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (not to mention Carpentaria), Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda, Emily Bitto’s The Strays, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, and now Paddy O’Reilly’s new novel, The Wonders, has just landed on my desk. And I have an advance proof of Jessie Cole’s Deeper Water… (!)

All the books.

OK, I best get on with my work for the day. Thanks for coming by, it’s been swell.

Dear anonymous

Thank you, whoever you are, for renewing my Writers Vic membership for the next two years. What an incredibly generous gesture.

Since, it seems, you are interested in my work, let me reveal where the manuscript I’ve just begun is partly set, via Brian Cox:

Which is close to:

In the realm of the estate of:

South of:

And I conducted research while staying in:

Hopefully one day we can share a dram. Thank you again, it means so much x

Vertigo

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Yesterday I climbed the mountain Beinn Eighe, and it was breathtaking. I get a bit of vertigo; when there’s a drop by the path I have to lean away from it and not look down or else my legs crumble and my head spins. As I laid in bed last night, my muscles humming with tiredness and pleasure, sleep came upon me as a drop, my head spun and I kicked out.

We’re staying on a small island, accessed by a footbridge. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. Like, ridiculously stunning. Photographs can’t capture it. Today, G and I were digging out a campsite in the rocky earth of a smaller island that joins this one, and we paused to watch a pod of seals swim by. But I’ve also felt uneasy since we’ve been here, with all those annoying physical symptoms I experience—from hardcore heartburn to a twitching eye—and I’ve been trying to analyse why.

island

It’s because I’m feeling a little unmoored, and it’s a difficult feeling for me to embrace, though I’m aware that’s partly the point of (long term) travel. I feel very ‘in-between’ things, despite the fact that I do have projects on the go, being at the point of editing one, and spreading the word about another. I’ve also started researching a novel over here, but the idea is large and only slowly taking shape (the plot, the characters, what it’s ‘about’), and I’m incredibly impatient. I want to start writing it properly, but there’s a period coming up where we’ll be staying with relatives and I know I can’t be at the beginning stages of a novel then. I want to spend quality time with my relatives and thinking about the novel even more than I already am might impede that.

What we’re trying to make happen is a month after November where both G and I can just write. But we don’t really have the dough. We’re only able to travel for so long because we’ve been working, and working for board, and staying with very kind rellos, and we’ll have to continue in that vein. Of course, that has been amazing, and I am not underestimating the wealth of knowledge we’ve gained, not just the places and characters and gestures that writers can’t help collecting, but identifying birds, digging holes and making paths, ironing sheets (!), how to run a B&B, what to wear on long walks in the rain, what pleases a seven-year-old, how to make Banoffee, the best Speyside whiskies, the geology of a mountain, fables and histories, how to pronounce ‘Eilean’, and many other items.

I guess my problem is staying present, and trusting that I haven’t gone ‘off the path’. I was fine in Speyside, on our last Workaway assignment, probably because I had a firm routine. And this makes me laugh at myself. Because when I’m ‘stuck’ in a routine, at home, all I want to do is bust out of it. Writing this out is helping, though.

An added layer is that my 29th birthday has just passed. There was so much I thought I’d do before 30, and now that’s only a year away. I’ve been mentally readjusting my goals for a while now, taking in reality and everything that crops up, but… it’s pretty ingrained. Mostly ambition is pretty positive—the dreaming drives me—but the flip side (focusing on ‘failures’, disappointment, whatever) makes you see everything through a fog.

It’d be great to just feel ecstatic about everything I have going on right now: a long working holiday, two forthcoming books with my name on them, an incredible relationship… Yes. Let’s stop there.

I climbed a mountain yesterday. Sometimes I got dizzy. Occasionally I wandered off the path. Sometimes I struggled to see the next marker. But I always found my way back.

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Carmel Bird Award shortlist

The shortlist for the 2013 Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award has just been announced on the Spineless Wonders website. These are all excellent, imaginative stories, and I’m so excited that they will be joining those by the invited writers published in The Great Unknown (including Carmel Bird herself). They range from an existential story from the POV of a pet bird (‘Bluey & Myrtle’ by Mark O’Flynn), to two touching stories about women reconnecting with their families after strange happenings (‘Navigating’ by Helen Richardson and ‘Significance’ by Susan Yardley), to two very sharp speculative stories (‘A Cure’ by Alex Cothren and ‘A Void’ by Guy Salvidge) and one very spooky outback tale (‘The Koala Motel’ by Rhys Tate).

Congratulations to the shortlisted authors! The winner of the $500 Carmel Bird Short Fiction Award will be announced soon.