Hosted by Red Room Poetry as part of their new initiative Poetry Month, I zoomed into a workshop by Tony Birch – ‘Everything is everything’.

Image courtesy of Red Room Poetry

Poetry Month is all about celebrating Australian poetry, poets and publishers, and Tony is one of its finest poets. Author of three novels, including White Girl, winner of the 2020 NSW Premier’s Award for Indigenous Writing, and short story collections in addition to poetry, Tony is also an activist, historian and essayist.

The workshop focused on simplicity; the paring back of a poem to its bones to let it breathe and quietly be. Tony showcased the work of Agnes Martin (painter) and Alice Walker (poet) among other artists, sharing his method of holding a poem and not releasing it until it’s ready to be formed. And form really is key, something not to be forced, with Tony admitting he knows little about the technicality of poetry.

You can have the greatest technique but if the poem doesn’t have heart, it’s vacuous.

Tony Birch

Reiteration, writing body, themes of country, family and blood, Tony shared his own work as well as others, explaining how he often revisits poems to discover another layer. Referring to himself as a writing block plumber, Tony gave us prompts to try, one of which was to take a favourite photo and capture an impression of it rather than an exactness.

Tony was incredibly generous with his time, knowledge and skill, and answered questions throughout. We even got to see his writing desk! And what I love about these sorts of insightful workshops is being introduced to new work, new ways of seeing and of course the inevitable additions to an ever-growing wish list.

So the other writing course I’m now halfway through is a monthly Advanced Poetry Feedback Workshop facilitated by Cath Drake via Zoom.

Image courtesy of Cath Drake

Originally from Australia, Cath is based in London and has been widely published. Sleeping with Rivers won the 2013 Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Prize and The Shaking City from Seren Books was commended by the Forward Prizes for Poetry in 2020. Both are brilliant reads.

Cath runs two of these workshops over 6 months and it’s an intimate group of six poets; three from Australia and three from the UK. We submit a poem for feedback and Cath shares a contemporary one for discussion, as well as a prompt for next time. And the format is effective – someone volunteers to read the poem, we hear it from the poet who then mutes themselves while we discuss what works and what doesn’t, returning to the poet for their thoughts at the end.

Let’s make a good poem better!

This is Cath’s motto and her comments are perceptive and intuitive, encouraging us to review form, line breaks, syntax and meaning. The three poems I’ve submitted so far have been improved going through this process, two of which will be included in my next collection about my breast cancer experience. Cath is also organising readings later this year as part of the Where are we now? series, exploring connections to people and place, when we’ll get to read what we’ve written alongside some big names. This I’m looking forward to.

To satisfy the forever-hungry poet in me, I enrolled in two courses and am halfway through the first, Hearing Voices, through the Poetry School.

Image courtesy of the Poetry School

Run online via CAMPUS, the school’s social platform, five assignments are set over 10 weeks with no live chats, which makes it ideal for us international students. The tutor is Kathryn Simmonds, a British poet and short story writer with her most recent collection, The Visitations, published by Seren.

Inspiration for the course came from Tony Hoagland’s The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice and Kathryn shared this quote from the American poet in the first assignment:

One of the most difficult to define elements in poetry is voice, the distinctive linguistic presentation of an individual speaker…When we hear a distinctive voice in a poem, our full attention is aroused and engaged, because we suspect that here, now, at last, we may learn how someone else does it – that is, how they live, breathe, think, feel, and talk.

The prompts have produced some amazing work and I love being introduced to new poets. The first assignment focused on our voices, the second those of family and the third, voice and vulnerability. So far my poems explore my recent cancer experience and no doubt will form part of the collection I’m developing. I’ll share details of the second course shortly but in the meantime, never stop learning I say.

A good prose poem is something quite unique and who better to teach its essentials than two of its finest poets – Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington.

Image courtesy of Cath Drake

Hosted by brilliant Australian UK-based poet Cath Drake as part of her poetry masterclass series, Cassandra and Paul shared the main features of a prose poem, what sets it apart from flash fiction and poetic prose, as well as some examples. The class also had chance to draft their own prose poems, which I struggled with as I can’t always write on demand, however it did give me ideas.

I met Cassandra and Paul at a Poetry On The Move Festival in Canberra a few years ago. Their work in this area is extensive and they’ve recently edited The Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry published by Melbourne University Press, which I was fortunate enough to be shortlisted for, but my work sadly didn’t make the final cut.

Their energy and enthusiasm for prose poetry is contagious and has spurred me to explore the form further, because I’m intrigued with its dichotomy of being fragmentary and a stand-alone narrative, like a snapshot of some larger work. So my aim is to practice with Cassandra’s advice in mind – a good prose poem should leave you barking like a dog at the moon.

First Fridays at South Australia’s Art Gallery (AGSA) provide an opportunity to experience art after-hours without the daily crowds. Last night saw brilliant local poets Jill Jones and Alison Flett read poetry inspired by the current exhibition Clarice Beckett: The present moment.

‘The boatshed’, 1929, Clarice Beckett, image courtesy of AGSA

This stunning collection is split into the times of day Clarice enjoyed painting – sunrise, daylight, sunset and moonlight – with each room lit accordingly. Her work is exquisite. Using a limited palette, she captures shimmering scenes that although everyday, have an ethereal quality, best viewed from a distance to heighten the depth of each piece.

And the poetry was just as stunning. Introduced by the gallery’s director, Jill and Alison identified the work or works their words sought to frame, then alternated between themselves, as well as haiku and longer poems. Both captured the delicate movement and light streaming through Clarice’s art superbly, insightful gifts beautifully rendered.

I plan to revisit the exhibition before it closes, compelled in fact. It moved me, swept me elsewhere and yet now, left me with Alison’s lines on life and our place in it and Jill’s question – how much do we need to love the world?

It’s been a difficult year. For everyone. Just before the pandemic hit I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Shocked wasn’t the word. But it was the best kind apparently and hadn’t spread beyond a few lymph nodes. Just to be sure, we threw everything at it – chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy and medication – and now I can honestly say I’m a different person. The experience has changed me. For the better I think.

And throughout this time, a world of action became a world of words. I turned to poetry, as many of us did, found comfort in writing about what I was going through to make sense of it all. When I told my boss the news, amongst other things she said ‘just think of it as fodder for your next collection!’ So true and one I’m currently working on (a poem from it has recently been published in StylusLit).

And speaking of collections, this debut is a gem – Sorry about the mess by Heather Trickey – published by HappenStance. Heather received a cancer diagnosis around the same time I did and explores this in these poems along with family, loss and love. More than 200 people from across the world attended Heather’s Zoom launch and London Grip released a stunning review of the book.

I hope to post more regularly, about all things poetry, just thought I’d break the silence 🙂

Sending your poems out can be daunting. Some return like boomerangs; others are snaffled like truffles. And sometimes the boomerangs don’t come back, which goes to show right place, right time.

A good source of submission calls is Submittable’s weekly newsletter, Submishmash, which lists creative opportunities for anthologies, competitions or just general intake, aswell as residencies and fellowships. I’ve discovered quite a few publications in this – Coffin Bell, a journal with a focus on dark literature and District Lit, an online magazine seeking themed work, both based in the US.

Facebook is another great place to find out who’s looking for what, particularly being a member of writing groups. I’m in the Adelaide Poetry Gig Guide and Writers South Australia to name a couple, and recently found a host of publications seeking disability-related work thanks to one of the posts, so intend to submit some endometriosis poems.

Like most writers, I keep track of my submissions on a spreadsheet. Inevitably the declines outweigh the acceptances, but it’s a wonderful way to track your work and more importantly, to ensure that poems rejected by one place are not resent to them!

Last week I read twice – Wednesday at No Wave hosted in The Wheatsheaf Hotel and Sunday as guest poet at Hills Poets in the Aldgate Pump Hotel.

No Wave is a series of poetry readings held on the first Wednesday of each month, the brainchild of brilliant local poet, Dominic Symes. Four poets are invited to read for ten minutes. I was first, with two relatively new poems on a seasonal theme, followed by one from each part of more than here, then a few more new ones. Next up was Dylan Rowen who shared a brave, poignant poem about his mum and the atmospheric ‘Twilight Men’. After the break was Louise Nicholas, a talented poet and friend, reading ‘At Faber and Faber’ about her recent workshop experience and another on drinking in poetry, very entertaining. Paul Turley closed the set reading a series of short poems, one of which was ‘In the Fish Tank’, a goldfish’s perspective.

I’ve been guest poet at Hills Poets before, so it was great to be invited back. Jill Gower convenes the monthly poetry group, another wonderful local poet with her latest collection, Winkle Pickers & Brothel Creepers, also published by Ginninderra Press. After a poem had been shared by each member, Jill introduced me. I started with both the first and last poems from A bellyful of roses followed by four poems from more than here (a different four to No Wave), but finishing with the same new ones. A break followed with another round of poems from all, spanning a combination of styles, content and meter.

As well as the readings, I have some poems upcoming in Ache Magazine, Coffin Bell Journal and The Poeming Pigeon, about endometriosis, strange encounters and the moon respectively. It’s good to be busy. With words.

This is a formidable collection of sixteen short stories by Aimee Bender split into three sections, culminating in the title one, “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt”.

Intricate worlds are unravelled where nothing is what it seems and desire has many faces – a bowl mistakenly gifted intensifies existing introspection, a runaway teenager holds a woman’s life in his hands, a robber and his girl steal gemstone rings until the gems start to leak. And Aimee’s style is fantastical, both her characters and sentences bristling, alive.

In “The Rememberer”, a woman watches, helpless, as her boyfriend reverts to the origin of the species, the first lines captivate with amusing brevity:

My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month and now he’s a sea turtle.

In “Quiet Please”, a librarian sates her sudden lust by fucking men the day her father dies. When one parades her through the library on a couch, she reaches for the mural of fairies on the ceiling to give the fairy missing a mouth “a big wide dancing smile.” The next day, “an hour before her father is put into the ground”, she notes:

…the laughing ones now pull along one fairy with purple eyes, who is clearly dancing against her will, dragged along with the circle, her mouth wide open and screaming.

In “The Healer”, two girls attempt friendship at school – one has a hand of fire, the other has ice – finding they cancel each other out upon contact:

Their hands dissolved into regular flesh – exit mutant, enter normal. The fire girl panicked and let go, finding that her fire reblazed right away, while the ice spun back fast around the other girl’s fingers like a cold glass turban.

Lives on tilt, these encounters, while inhabiting elsewhere, are grounded in the visceral – love, fear, death, hope, what is real and what is less so. Aimee has another collection, Wilful Creatures, which is also on my wish list, because the magic is here, and there.

pays. So far this year, I’ve had two poems accepted by two magazines I’ve been trying to get into for ages. Years in fact. Happy just isn’t the word!

The first one is Magma, a UK-based magazine publishing three themed issues a year, each with a different editor. The theme of the issue my poem will appear in is ‘Work’ due out next month, and was inspired by a bee colony that took refuge on the side of the building where I work while it scouted for a new home. I took the draft to one of my poetry groups and half-hardheartedly included it in the suite of poems I submitted. When told it had been longlisted late last year I was thrilled, as this was the furthest any of my poems had got with Magma. So, you can imagine my reaction when it made the final cut.

The second publication is Cordite, an online magazine here in Australia based in Victoria. Like Magma, Cordite has themed issues, with the occasional no-theme one, and a different editor each time. My poem, ‘Every other Friday’, appeared in the ‘Monster’ issue edited by Nathan Curnow this month and was published on my brother’s birthday, which was apt seeing as he featured in it. This is quite an old poem that I wrote back when we were living in London and again, I included it in my submission on the off-chance it might resonate. It did.

So, is this luck, timing or perseverance? I think all three. Poetry is incredibly subjective and what one editor disregards, another selects. I remember a blog by Kim Moore, a UK-based poet, who shared her experience of finally getting into The Rialto. The message is, never give up.  And the irony is, I’m appearing in the next issue of Mslexia, another magazine I’ve been trying to get into for years, albeit with one sentence about this very thing.

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