Monday, November 23, 2009

Australia in November: "the anti-travel travel poem"

As I left Sydney, it had reached over 40 degrees Celsius, or what my internet converter tells me is over 105 degrees Fahrenheit. I was in Australia to give talks on Tinfish Press at the University of Western Sydney and Monash University, as well as readings from Dementia Blog at UWS and Collected Works (Poetry) Bookshop in Melbourne. I arrived with a suitcase full of Tinfish publications, and left with a suitcase full of Giramondo books. Along the way I saw some dear friends, including Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, Anne Brewster, Pam Brown, and Ann Vickery, Mike Pianta and their three children. I also met some great people, from academics to poets to cab drivers; heard some young poets and older; went to a dance recital and a poetry launch; got tours of cities and beaches; learned a lot about jazz and computer music; experienced the dark side of Aussie culture on a Saturday evening train; and sweated through a wonderful farewell. I'm still in the throes of jetlag, so the post may be even more anti-narrative than usual! I don't intend to write a straight travel piece, but capture a few moments of the trip, as well as make a few recommendations for things Australian to read.

--My neighbor on the plane to Sydney was Australian, but lives in Mililani; she travels often to Australia. Confessed that her husband was piloting the plane. She dictated a list of Australian items to buy, things she loved to get at Woolies in Sydney, just off the plane. I wrote them dutifully in my copy of Daniel Tiffany's new Infidel Poetics, a book about riddles, poetic obscurity, the vernacular, and nightlife. So, underneath the last two words of Tiffany's index (two columns), "working-class philosophes" and Zukofsky, Louis, I have written:

Billy Tea & Nerada
Coles Supermarket bread mix in a box
licorice from Darrell Lea Shop
lolly aisle
violet crumble bar
veet (hair wax)

I didn't buy any of these items during my week in Australia, but the words remind me how far from American English is Australian. Oh, and above the last page of Tiffany's index I quoted the man sitting behind me, who asked his seat mate, "Does Australia have its own money?" before telling her a long story about traveling to Calcutta.

--Hazel Smith has a booming laugh. She has performed all her life, as a violinist, a poet, and a digital media artist. She grew up in England, graduated from Cambridge, and moved to Australia in 1989 with her husband, Roger Dean, whom she met when she was 14 and he 15, in the UK National Youth Orchestra. She is author of the amazing book of creative writing pedagogy, The Writing Experiment, and of The Erotics of Geography, book and cd-r, from Tinfish Press.

--Roger Dean is a polymath (though I think his birth year is not quite right on the link). He is a biochemist who ran a Heart Institute, a double bassist, a pianist, a composer of jazz and computer music, a researcher in music and cognition, a former Vice Chancellor and President of Canberra University. I expressed regret that I was not more musical and he told me, "none of us does everything." But I wondered.

[Hazel Smith & Roger Dean]

--My taxi driver from UWS to the Sydney airport was from Afghanistan. When I said I live in Hawai`i, he talked about Obama. Of the high expectations for this president, he said, "even the prophets could do nothing quickly." He had a degree in Public Administration from Creighton University in Nebraska, had returned to Afghanistan, realized things were crumbling, and had moved to Australia with his children. "Wars are created," he said, and told me they were made for money. "Do they know who he is?" he said of H. Clinton and Obama, who think Karzai can get rid of corruption. He liked Reagan, though Bush 1 a bully; his judgments went down from there. He took me to the wrong terminal, but who was to know that the plane to Melbourne left from the International Terminal?

[Michael Farrell]

--Michael Farrell is a Melbourne poet; he had kindly invited me there. Like many Aussie poets I know, he was deeply influenced by the New York School, Frank O'Hara in particular, though Farrell also experiments with collage, appropriated language, other slightly more avant-garde techniques. His new book is A Raider's Guide. He is getting a belated Ph.D. "for the money" (what a laugh I had about that one)--three years of a grant from the government. He has gathered about him a group of very talented younger poets. Those who read with me were Aden Rolfe, Bella Li, Claire Gaskin, Duncan Hose, Jal Nicholl, Joshua Comyn, and Sam Langer. Sam laughed all the way through Dementia Blog, which I enjoyed, as the book is (oddly) funny.

--Ann Vickery is an amazing literary critic, author of Leaving Lines of Gender, a book about women and Language writing in the US, and a newer book about Australian women poets. She's married to Mike Pianta, a scientist who loves Legos, checks his Legos blogs and website daily. Their three kids appeared since last I saw Ann and Mike together, but their cat, Puck, remains from my 1996 visit.

--I met Tom Doig on the plane from Melbourne to Sydney. He's 30, has an MA in Creative Writing from Melbourne, specialized in Hitler Humor and wrote a play on Hitler and David Hasselhoff, called Hitlerhoff. Originally from New Zealand, he's passionate about aboriginal issues, largely ignored in Australia. He's a friend of Aden Rolfe, whom I read with at Collected Works.

--Ehsan Azari is an Afghani academic, author of Lacan and the Destiny of Literature from Continuum. He came to my reading and remarked that my "muse is outside yourself, not inside, like Ashbery's." He'd read The Poetics of Impasse in Modern and Contemporary Poetry, which fairly blew me away. Like the next poet, he is an exile who spends a lot of time in the Writing and Society Group at UWS.

--Muslim Al-Taan is an Iraqi poet, in and out of the hospital, who writes poems about southern Iraq and includes melancholy songs from that region, which he sings in their original language. He wants to write about Maya Angelou. He comments at the Poetry Foundation blog here.

--Ivor Indyk is an Australian editor and publisher. His press, Giramondo, publishes poetry and prose from Australia. I returned home with a box of books he's published, including one I especially like, by Adam Aitken. More on that in a minute.

--Kate Fagan is a musician, poet, literary critic (whose dissertation was about Lyn Hejinian's work). She teaches me the phrase "bitch pivot." She asks the inevitable, uncomfortable question about the white editor or teacher who presents the work of a non-white author as "experimental." Says she's thought long and hard about it, as she thinks of Lionel Fogarty's work as experimental. He does not. I suggest that if you present the work as experimental through one prism, but not others, there may be an opening.

[Judith Beveridge, Joanne Burns, SMS, Ivor Indyk]

--Judith Beveridge is a mainstream Australian poet, whose launch I went to at Gleebooks. I was surprised to find out that poetry launches feature a long introduction and a very short reading by the author. The man who introduced Beveridge said things like, "she shows us who we are by writing about what she is not" (meaning that this book is about fisherman, and she's not one), that her book is a "Mardi Gras of simile" and that her poems are primarily about poetry. Beveridge added that she likes "amenity with irksomeness" and "comedy with torment." I liked the long list of fish she read, in one of her poems; the others sounded very much in a lyrical, conservative tradition.

[Anne Brewster at The Gap, near Bondi Beach, Sydney]

--Anne Brewster travels the world talking about aboriginal writing in Australia; she is a prominent ficto-critic, a term Australian literary people have for a mix of autobiography and criticism. She showed me bats over the belfry in Sydney. (One of the things I love best about Australia is the sound of the place--birds sing and screech in tones never imagined here). The bats are often electrocuted by the wires, she says, but no one much likes them, so no measures are taken to protect them. Large black bats swooping over the streets. She fed a cockatoo while I sat on her porch; it was curious, hungry, but somewhat shy. Other cockatoos play games with her partner, Peter; when he held food behind his back, one cockatoo gently grabbed his big toe.

--Pam Brown wants to be taller than I am. She is a wonderful poet, but she is short.

[Pam Brown & SMS]

--Adam Aitken is a Thai-Australian poet who still carries an English passport. He is one of the finest contemporary poets in Australia, though his publisher, Ivor, assures me he gets very little attention. Adam's newest volume is Eighth Habitation, from Giramondo. It contains an amazing sequence of poems about Cambodia, where Adam spent at least a year. Like Pam Brown, Adam writes in a lyrical and yet vernacular tradition that contains just enough bitter truth to keep it from dancing with daffodils. "Who knows if suffering's inquiry lead you anywhere / but back to suffering?" he asks in "Forest Wat, Cambodia." His visit to Tuol Sleng netted him his poem, "S21," which concludes with an uneasy comparison of the poet to the documentarian of genocide:

I too have to write, wondering where I am
on the chain-link of paranoia
connecting a tyrant to a farmer's son
who was handy with a shovel;
someone like the accountant across the corridor
doing the company's credit/debit sheet--
the guy with all the stories, who
knew how to file, the one who said
he'd done his job protecting his nation
with a few blunt instruments
a fountain pen, and a beautiful signature. (106)

I hope to write more in the future about this poet of "The Anti-travel Travel Poem," but for now leave you to find his work.

--Sydney to Cronulla train, Saturday evening, 8 p.m. A man gets on, assisted by someone who then steps back on the platform. He sits two seats ahead of me, across the aisle, picks up his cell phone. "I just busted the screw and the wires that hold my ribs together, dear, and wonder if I'm in danger of the wire cutting my kidneys or something. I thought the doctor said no physical activity to mean no contact with other people, so I did this doing chin-ups. Yes, someone's waiting on the other side, and I told them my wife's a doctor. Love you." Click. A drunken guy gets on the train with his "girl," confers in a passionate whisper with the man who says his "chest fell out." Money is exchanged. Something about a gang attacking him over his girl. There's violence in the air, if only spoken. (The next group to get on, four young men, walk by with "her elbow was shattered" as their opening line.) The man with the broken chest hails his new friend, "you're a good man, mate!" and hobbles off the train. He is very thin. Veins wobble on his temple. He is last seen talking to a security man on the platform at Hurstville.

I'm home now and cooler (it's the rainy season here), happy to see family and cat, but with hopes for keeping ties to Australia and to Giramondo Press. I hope to have more on that in later posts. In the meantime, thank yous to everyone above, and to John Hawke and Simon West at Monash, and to the Writing and Society Group at UWS, in particular.


pb said...

To set the record straight, Pam Brown is 5'2" tall. One inch taller than Susan Schultz, who is only 5'1" tall.

Neither poet is shrinking, so far.

susan said...

You owe me for pushing the "publish" button, Pam. I could have suppressed it! And hey, I'm 5' 1 1/2" at least!

Rachel Loden said...

C'mon, you're not going to tell us how to find the lolly aisle? Or whether the crumble bar is violet in color or in scent? Let alone what "Wett-X" might be, other than a little on the dodgy side.
Great report anyway, since it leaves me envious and spinning with these mysteries!