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I knew of Cassandra and Paul, having read some of their work, and met them at the Poetry on the Move Festival in Canberra last year. Garron Publishing have published a chapbook of their poems in their latest Southern-Land Poets series, the launch of which they joined via video link as both were overseas.

An award-winning poet, Paul is head of the International Poetry Studies Institute and Professor of Writing at the University of Canberra. Wedding Dress and Other Poems takes us on a journey of nostalgia, each stop a place of potency with a spectrum of feeling. The majority of poems are prose, with a few in tercets and quatrains, and their literary admiration for one another is clear, with both dedicating a poem to the other. In ‘Peeling (for CA)’, ‘Peeling an existence is easier than it looks’, which continues into an exploration of self, culminating in succinct advice – ‘When words fall from through your mouth listen to what they say.’

The nuances of other relationships are explored from different perspectives. In ‘Holding’, intimacy is balanced with unfathomable distance:

They held each other at slow arms’ length in the morning’s

indistinct light. So many words; a year of feeling their way.

Histories no longer kept known arrangements; their hands

were charged with intricacies of absence.

‘Apartment’ is an atmospheric poem, not just of place, but of the linear connection between people. From the start of something, when ‘their sense of themselves became vapour’ making love ‘against the damp bathroom wall’ to the break – ‘After weeks they knew they’d leave their mutuality there…He inspected the rooms and found no history he could keep.’

Cassandra is a prose poet and passionate about it. Her work has been widely published, she’s judged numerous awards, including the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry, and is the current poetry editor for Westerly magazine. In Pre-Raphaelite and Other Prose Poems, there’s beauty and chaos, an ethereal quality fracturing edges, as Cassandra gives us poems about loss, desire and resolve in various stages. In ‘Bonds’, representing both the brand and the tie between people:

I promise to unbind you and gather you in my arms. Skin on

skin. My sweat will be our glue as I rip off that t-shirt and

bond you to me one last time.

In ‘Plum(b)’, food smears thoughts in a stream of consciousness – plums are kept in the fridge, farmyard animals are too ‘cute’ to devour, chicken, fish ‘and sometimes beef’ are eaten, bringing us back full circle to the drupe:

He doesn’t understand the importance of a big, red, expensive fridge.

He thinks they are just for keeping things cold. Like plums.

Cassandra reciprocates Paul’s dedicated poem with ‘Pineapple (for PH)’, where ‘Pineapple gives me atlas tongue. But I eat it and travel the world on my tastebuds’. A personal favourite of mine is ‘Heartbreak Spondee’ on the opposite page, a powerful piece in two parts in which the first is of a union – ‘We leave the lights off and let the sun trace our bodies on the bed’ – and the second separation – ‘Too many new moons have set without your touch.’ The grief in this piece is palpable.

I don’t do resolutions as a rule, but like to have goals, so this year I’ll attempt some prose poetry, aim to pack a punch, leave a mark, like the work in these collections do. And just to note, Melbourne University Press will be publishing The Australian Prose Poetry Anthology, edited by Cassandra and Paul, in 2020 (work submitted must have been previously published). I’ve no doubt it’ll be a fascinating read.

Having decided to treat myself to a poetry festival a year, this time took me to Canberra for Poetry on the Move hosted by the International Poetry Studies Institute, University of Canberra.

With a focus on Inhabiting Language, it offered an eclectic mix of poets and perspectives, a fantastic few days of being immersed in pure unadulterated poetry. Heaven. Due to the amount of sessions, I’ll summarise those I attended and in the absence of some photos, illustrations are curated from my travel snaps over the years in an ekphrastic attempt!

Lines and shapes

My first session looked at form, the panel comprising Cassandra Atherton, Lisa Brockwell, Owen Bullock and Lisa Gorton, convened by Paul Munden. Each poet shared their thoughts before questions from the audience were invited.

Lisa Gorton spoke of an inward principle of growth, a place where line breaks come up against silence, unformed time and vacancy, structures of hesitation. Owen shared a quote by Lyn Heinjin – form is not a fixture but an activity – there’s link and shift, internal line breaks, a song in the narrative. Lisa Brockwell has a strong preference for the sonnet, finding its metre and form liberating rather than confining, allowing her to access a wilder part of her imagination. Cassandra is a prose poet and passionate about it, sharing the concept of the free-line from Sally Ashton, where stand-alone sentences run from margin to margin separated by a skipped line, using Ocean Vuong’s poem ‘Trevor’ as an example of this.

Jill Jones initiated an interesting debate by saying a poem never really ends. Shane Strange asked if it’s better for a poet to just read their work rather than introducing its form, e.g. ghazal, pantoum, sestina, etc., and Cassandra asserted she can identify a prose poem by how it’s delivered.

To conclude, form is organic and follows content, which it most certainly does for me, unless I’ve been set the task of writing in a particular form.

In between sessions, my neighbour asked if I was studying poetry to which I replied no, I’m a poet! In hindsight I thought what an arrogant response. Of course I’m here to learn and will never stop.

Poet to Poet

The next session was a dialogue about the art of translation between Iranian writer Sholeh Wolpé and Keijiro Suga a Japanese literary scholar, facilitated by Melinda Smith.

Sholeh has translated Attar’s work, The Conference of Birds, a piece comprising over 5,000 couplets, one of which is ‘a morsel of lover’s pain is better than the lovers’. Sholeh wants to be known as a writer, not a translator, as she recreates pieces in which nothing is lost, comparing it to using a scalpel; it must cut to the bone. With poetry building bridges, Sholeh is very keen to share the pearls of Iranian work, otherwise it will continue to be regarded as just a terrorist state.

Keijiro didn’t start writing poetry until his fifties and shared a Japanese translation of the poem ‘In a Country where December is Mid-summer’. Japanese society is monolithic and encourages self-declaration, and so for Keijiro, the word identity is bothersome as he feels country doesn’t define who you are, juxtaposing this with his interest in indigenous work. Keijiro explained how, by having to meet deadlines, he doesn’t have the luxury of thinking.

What I took away is that translation can be flexible. You can bring in elements of yourself and your own interpretation, provided the reader ends up feeling the same way.

 

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