As a Fringe reviewer of shows with a mental health theme for mindshare, I went along to my first one Monday night; It’s Not Easy Being Green, a cabaret at the Chateaux Apollo.

Written and performed by Karen Lee Roberts accompanied by Mr Sunshine (aka Jeff Usher) on keys, it was an insight into a struggle with mental wellness (not illness) via a series of scenes, opening with Christmas Eve where everything was unravelling. Karen, in character, compared her state of mind to algae – green and always on edge, waiting to be devoured by something bigger – and talked about how depression is still taboo, asking can’t people bear to hear the truth??

Each scene explored acceptable conversation versus reality – the dinner party where she declared the food far better than what she’d received in hospital when mentally unstable; the photos of her wedding in which professionals expertly covered her self-harming scars; and the change in her behaviour when she came off her meds, the dark places she visited trapped by her myriads of faults and flaws.

And each snapshot was framed in song – ‘Problem solver’ and ‘Chameleon’ to name a few, the latter advising to keep your skin, don’t rearrange, a poignant message. Karen had an amazing voice pitched with feeling, all songs self-written to be made into a CD shortly. Then my husband became part of the show being invited on stage to play Daniel, the guy she’d met on Tinder, an amusing interlude to say the least!

The hour offered a raw, honest account of a person stripped bare – juggling demons, meds and their inevitable side effects with healthy eating, exercise and positive action – and revisited the Christmas Eve scene, a clever bookend, where the tree in the distance no longer represented something to hang from, but life itself.

I’m not a big fan of cabaret, so this wasn’t a show I chose to review, but because of its ability to leap beyond comfy mental health, I’m glad I did. Unfortunately the last performance was yesterday (it ran for three nights only), but if it returns next year I’d recommend the experience. Until then I’ll leave you with the closing line – it’s not easy being green, but it’s better than being blue.     

Giraffe is Bryony Littlefair’s fantastic debut collection. Published by Seren Books, it won the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition in 2017 and it’s easy to see why.

Through 19 poems, Bryony skillfully presents everyday life – from ‘Tara Miller’, the bad girl at school who leaves an impression to the lesson of healing in the title poem, where happiness when it comes “will be long-legged, sun-dappled: a giraffe.” We’re pulled into each scene, but it’s the insightful nuances that make these poems shine.

In ‘Dear Anne Monroe, Healthcare Assistant’, Bryony relays her sister’s blood-taking (somewhat apologetically) through the eyes of the nurse:

Sorry for her ratchety stubborn fear,

which will make you late for your next appointment. Sorry, also,

for the 16k a year, for the commute

from Clapham North to Archway

where the light is piss-yellow and everyone is angry.

Coming home early from school in ‘Hallway’, Bryony catches her mother “eyes closed, somewhere else” playing the piano as Bryony:

…stood quiet and uncertain,

shivering like a just-plucked violin string;

washed up in the hallway, wondering at her life.

It’s an absorbing collection – a series of expertly rendered snapshots in which Bryony punctuates conversational tone with poignancy. I’ll end with one of my favourites, for just this reason.

 

Amsterdam, July 2011     

 

I might have stayed, in that lighted carriage,

with its lullaby of whirring tracks, but stepped off here,

where the girls stare out from glass

as though they know your secrets, as though

they are okay with them.

 

The streets sing hymns here. The buildings talk quietly amongst themselves.

You check out early. There is no breakfast. Fuelled

by hunger, you can go and go. The ecstasy

of open space declares itself, and knows

of your relentless need to run roads.

 

Loneliness does not exist here, where every face looks like

one you might have loved in a previous life.

Undrunk vodka. Sky cool in my throat.

 

Like an empty suitcase, my heart flies open.

 

Copyright @ Bryony Littlefair 2017

The Grieve Writing Project is facilitated by the Hunter Writers Centre, and offers people an opportunity to write a poem or short story about their experience of loss and grief. Around 120 pieces are selected for publication each year in the Grieve Anthology, with the readings and awards held in August, Grief Awareness Month in Australia. Last year I responded to their submission call and one of my poems was included in the e-version of the book.

We all experience loss at one time or another; some more than others and at varying degrees. I lost my Dad to cancer in 2007 (it’s a funny expression, as if I’ve been trying to find him since). His death was sudden, somewhat unusual with cancer – primary in the bowel and secondary in the liver, which was ironic considering he was in a bowel-screening program. My Dad was a beautiful man and his going so soon hit me hard, as it did other members of my family. So my poem was about him; I’ll share it here:

 

Because

 

you’ve gone Dad, I’m arranging a new one

mending myself to you piece by fabricated piece.

 

I begin with your feet, position your once white

trainers so you’re surveying the back garden

 

what to trim and weed. Next, the grass-stained

paint-splattered jeans you wore at weekends

 

to do odd jobs around the house, which always

took you longer than planned. To finish, a red

 

sweater that hints of you, even now. All you

need is a little life. Closing the wardrobe

 

I swear I see your foot twitch, picture you smiling

at me like the last time I saw you, which I knew

 

would be the last. I tie your laces, just in case.

Copyright © J V Birch 2018

 

The anthology is an emotive read of fearless writing – poems and stories of grief and loss from authors who, from their own painful experiences, have bravely revisited and crafted them to share an amazing variety of pieces. It’s the kind of read that can overwhelm if not prepared; it left me with a profound sense of connection.

And I’ll leave you with one of my favourites by Rachael Mead, an extremely talented poet and very good friend, whose poem won the National Association of Loss and Grief (NALAG) Award:

 

Powerless

 

Three days without power and the only sounds

are wind, rain and the hiss of flame beneath the kettle.

 

I don’t mind. Quiet is the road blocked by tree-fall,

reminding us that electricity is not the fifth element.

 

I am reading on the couch when our neighbour

knocks.                      Tom has died, she says.

 

It’s the final erasure of that disease, the one

that eventually steals everything, from his last

 

conversation to the memory of his wife of 60 years.

She is strong but after she leaves the grey air

 

seems especially sad and even a little jagged.

The world is not what we want. Our minds,

 

those tender, playful muscles stiffen and seize,

however hard we work at making ourselves

 

original. Beyond the glass, the green earth

blurs with rain, the trees bend and crack

 

in allegories of wind.            My heart folds

and folds itself down into a tiny yet infinitely

 

dense thing: a grain of sand, a mote of dust,

a faraway star we all know full well is dead.

Copyright © Rachael Mead 2017

I was guest poet at Poets’ Corner Monday evening, a bi-monthly event held at the Effective Living Centre in Wayville, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Having been recommended by Jules Leigh Koch, fellow poet, friend and a member of the group, Mary Taylor who runs the event invited me to read, which I managed to do for an hour! The centre is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and the evening drew a small, but attentive audience.

Preparing for it, a few themes emerged – family, health and travel – so I structured my reading around them. I started by talking about my background, how I got into poetry, shared my first published poem (a whole nine lines!), and then my thoughts on the purpose of poetry and my creative process. I read 22 poems in all; some from my chapbooks and a few from the collection I’m currently working on. Questions followed.

Louise Nicholas, another fellow poet and friend, wanted to know how I can be so disciplined with my writing routine. Being fortunate enough to work part time, Fridays are my writing day, plus I love to do lists and so make one for what I want to achieve that week. And if I do something not on the list, I add it on and strike it through! (does wonders for the sense of achievement). I was also asked how I find out about submission opportunities. I’ve signed up to a weekly email, Submishmash, which lists upcoming deadlines for both national and overseas publications seeking work, and also hear about them through my poetry groups, with Facebook being a valuable source too. However, I plan to cut back on the number of submissions I make this year to focus on my next (and first full length!) collection.

It was a wonderful evening and I was surprised how quickly the time went. There was a short break followed by an open mic session in which others shared their own work. I sold a few chapbooks and had some interesting, and insightful, conversations. And that’s one of the many beautiful things about poetry – its power to bring people together, which sometimes, in itself, is enough.

I went to a workshop yesterday facilitated by Jane Turner Goldsmith at Adelaide University called ‘Write Yourself’.

Jane is a psychologist as well as a talented writer, who I first heard speak at Salisbury Writer’s Festival a few years ago. Having had a synopsis accepted by the Australian Psychological Society, Jane was keen to try out her workshop before rolling it out to a wider audience. I was one of six who volunteered and very happy I did.

Writing as therapy is a hot topic, with research by Pennebaker showing the therapeutic benefits associated with this particular form of self-expression, both mental and physical. In six hours, we completed 10 exercises, ranging from writing about something we were proud of and the significant object we were asked to bring along, through to eating chocolate mindfully and introducing narrative to a traumatic event. One of my favourites, and the most emotive for me, was writing a letter to our younger selves. When time was called, I couldn’t stop.

Parameters were given from the start. No one had to share what they’d written, only if they felt comfortable doing so. Some did, others chose not to. Jane was also interested in how we felt about completing each exercise – anxious, scared, enthused – to gauge how they’d be received. And this is the important bit.

As said, Jane is a registered psychologist with extensive experience in this area and so was very adept at managing the emotional consequences of such self-exploration. I’ve recently assisted a fellow writer in the UK, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, to publish an article in the latest issue of Mslexia about the safeguards in place when writing about mental health, and how alarmingly many running such workshops are not adequately equipped to deal with the fallout. Fortunately, I was able to provide examples of good practice here.

For me, the workshop was emotionally exhausting. I revisited traumas and even went places I’d never been. But then I didn’t expect anything less. Being a poet who draws on experience to produce work, this was safe ground. And completing the exercises has given me the foundations for five pieces I intend to develop further. So thanks again Jane for letting me be one of your guinea pigs. I’ve found new squeaks 😊

No, not quite, as this all took place in the latter half of last year, but the new one prompted me to look back on the changes I’d made, the impact they’ve had and thought I’d share them with you.

It actually all started the year before, so 2016, when I went to the doctors to discuss the side-effects of the medication I was on for my endometriosis (I believed they were making me short-tempered, moody, etc.), however, she explained that due to the low dosage of each of them, it was unlikely they were the cause.

She then asked me if anything had changed in my life recently, to which I replied I now work part time and use Fridays to focus on my writing, had joined three poetry groups, started an online course and was finalising my second collection. She pointed out that in actual fact I work full time and had taken on additional commitments, and I thought, well yes, if you put it like that (isn’t it funny how it takes someone else to point out these things and the different perceptions of writing as work?)

Anyway, it got me thinking, and I concluded that I only get stressed, ratty, etc. when I try to do too much, and the only person putting pressure on me, was me. For example, I like to exercise three times a week and if I didn’t achieve this, I’d feel guilty. One of the days I exercised was a Friday followed by the whole beauty regime (you know what I mean), doing some washing, tidying, making appointments, responding to emails, etc. so that before I knew it, it was nearly lunchtime. What was I doing…this is my writing day!

Still on the topic of exercise, I used to drive into work on the days I did it because I thought it quicker, so typically Mondays and Wednesdays to complement the Friday. Driving into the city from where we live at peak time is extremely frustrating (yes, even here). A 16km trip can take over an hour. And so I’d rush in, struggle to find a park, work, rush home, exercise, cook dinner, eat and then have little energy to do anything else before bed.

So, over the months that followed, I gradually made changes. I now exercise on a Saturday morning instead of a Friday, freeing up the latter to do what I should be doing, poetry.

I no longer drive into work. I cycle to the train station some ten minutes from our house (so exercise in itself albeit small), store my bike in the locker I rent and take the train in, where I can read, write, check messages, listen to music, even nap if it’s quiet enough.

We’ve started using Hello Fresh, a meal service which delivers the ingredients to make three meals a week to our door, which in turn avoids that age-old question “what are we having for dinner tonight?!” and eating the same thing.

I’ve also negotiated to work from home every Wednesday because with access to systems, I can do my job anywhere. This, I feel, has been the biggest change and is helping me to manage my endometriosis (i.e. less travel, less rush, less stress), which appears to be flaring up again annoyingly.

Small changes have made a significant impact. Coupled with taking things easier and not trying to do everything at once (because who is chasing me for it – no one!) has made me a happier, less stressed, more balanced person (cue sigh of relief from husband). So, my message to you? It’s your life, make of it the best you can.

This is an exceptional award-winning collection of short stories by an exceptionally gifted writer. The sort you never want to end. And when they do, they stay, having made a remarkable impression.

Published in 2016 by Jonathan Cape, part of Penguin Random House, the synopsis sums up the book beautifully:

The Fen is a liminal land. Real people live their lives here. They wrestle with familiar instincts, with sex and desire, with everyday routine. But the wild is always close at hand, ready to erupt. This is a place where animals and people commingle and fuse, where curious metamorphoses take place, where myth and dark magic still linger. So here a teenager may starve herself into the shape of an eel. A house might fall in love with a girl. A woman might give birth to a – well what? English folklore and a contemporary eye, sexual honesty and combustible invention – in Fen, these elements have come together to create a singular, startling piece of fiction.

Each story is unique, exquisitely and lovingly rendered. ‘Starver’ and ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ bookend the collection. In the first we find Katy, the eel-girl, her transformation told by her sister as Katy refuses humanistic needs to become something else:

They kept giving her oxygen. I wanted to tell them it wouldn’t work, it was no good. She was drowning in air. At night I brought her bowls of water, lowered her face in, watched the bubbles, saw how she came up just about smiling.

‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ returns us to water, where the keeper discovers an unusual being one day while out on the rocks trying to retrieve an umbrella:

The fish came cresting up. It was narrow-bellied when it rolled to curse her, the dark flesh sliding off to white before it reached the stomach; the eyes, when it lolled frontwards and ogled her, round as marbles. She stood watching the lope of it, the way it surfed up to jaw wordlessly at her.

In between, the richness continues. We meet further fantastical creatures, some human, others not so much, but all with a sense of purpose, an allusivity made real and gleaming you want to pocket it and keep it. This is, without a doubt, one of the best short story collections I have ever read. Makes me want to explore turning poetry into another way of being.

Tuesday evening saw the launch at The Howling Owl of the second series of chapbooks from Little Windows Press; a small local publisher with ‘little books, big horizons’.

Launched by Jill Jones, an extremely talented and acclaimed poet herself, these chapbooks are exquisite – pieces of art in their own right – and in this limited-edition print run present work by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Kathryn Hummel, Jen Hadfield and Adam Aitken.

Ali read first from The Aura of Loss, a collection of poems exploring the stolen generation and its impact on those survivors who carry its grief. Ali is a Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal poet and author of seven books, including the verse novel Ruby Moonlight. Her poem ‘My mother’s love’ is a painful insight to maternal absence – ‘her touch is devoid and I am frantic’ – followed by a peeling of the self until ‘my fingers now bones dipped in blood I etch the lines of my first poem’, a haunting final image.

Kathryn’s diverse award-winning work spans poetry, non-fiction, fiction and photography, published and performed both here and overseas. Her last collection, The Bangalore Set, delves into her time in India. Among others, Kat shared ‘Wharf’ from her chapbook The Body that Holds, a poem about Port Adelaide where ‘time is a sinew to be thinned between thumb and forefinger’ and ‘rumination has its own magnifying silence.’ With nothing to do, two men wait while ‘between a jacket and its lining a flat light comes’.

Alison read poems from Jen’s chapbook Mortis and Tenon, a fellow Scottish poet whose own work is simply brilliant, while Jen lives in the Shetland Islands. As well as poet, Jen is a visual artist and bookmaker, winning the T.S. Eliot prize with her second collection Nigh-No-Place. Jen has language in landscape, beautifully evident in ‘Two Limpet Poems’ in which ‘above the rockpool everything is tilt or rough glazed in weed like afterbirth’ and where ‘This is no place to turn up without a shell / all that protects us from the press of heaven.’

 

Jill read some of Adam’s work in his absence who lives in Sydney and has had a number of poetry collections published, in addition to short fiction in journals and anthologies. Adam’s chapbook, Notes on the River, are just that; vivid snapshots that explore its nuances as in the title poem where ‘It is not a river but a question.’ A plethora of images flow thereafter, culminating in a favourite – ‘Eels find their way to flood. They dream of babies, stalk the shadows and lay each other down in them.’

With eye-catching covers and painstaking production, these chapbooks really are a gift, and in this series with the wonderful addition of pull out poems to keep handy when you need a little bliss.

Last night The Hearth hosted their ‘Of the Night’ readings at The Jade; an evening of themed writing shared by handpicked local creatives, which I was thrilled to be a part of.

The Hearth Collective comprises Lauren Butterworth, Alicia Carter, Emma Maguire and Melanie Pryor who met as English/Creative Writing PhD candidates and launched a series of themed events based on the old tradition of les veillées – when folk gathered around the fire at the end of the day to share stories, news and company.

Lisandra Linde kicked off proceedings by sharing her firsthand experience of cadavers and a crypt beneath a church in Rome; an interesting piece. Andrew Lee followed who read three intricate poems, which explored who we become at night, providing context after each one. Marina Deller finished the first set with an engaging piece woven with the untimely deaths of both her best friend and her own mum, and meeting her now partner.

After the break saw Melanie take to the stage, one of the Collective’s own, who shared a rather haunting tale about a murder that took place in the vast Australian landscape. I followed with six poems featuring the moon in some way; from an astronomer’s wife to how the moon feels waiting for the sun to set. The evening finished with a short question and answer session, where members of the audience quizzed us on our work, process and the techniques we use to convey ourselves.

Afterwards I was asked by a fellow poet if I had been nervous because it didn’t show. Despite being the last reader and the biggest crowd I’ve read to, I didn’t feel any nerves at all. There’s a certain comfort in art shared by all those there; a beautiful connectivity between readers, listeners, the hosts and a talented musician, Dee Trewartha, who played between sets.

The Hearth Collective facilitated a very memorable evening, so I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open for any further submission calls from them, that’s for sure!

Thrilled to be involved in the upcoming ‘Of the Night’ readings hosted by The Hearth on Thursday 26 October at The Jade on Flinders Street, Adelaide. Maybe see you there…

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