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I went to the launch of Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain on Wednesday, a stunning collection edited by Heather Taylor Johnson, and the first of its kind in Australia from UWA Publishing.

Launched by Peter Goldsworthy, this is an exquisite book; to be absorbed, examined, shared and treasured.  In his foreword, Peter explores poetry as a cathartic process, the ‘cleansing of emotional wounds’, with ‘much hard-earned wisdom and hard-wrung poetry in the pages that follow.’

A plethora of diseases and conditions are represented – cancer, mental health, disability, postnatal depression, ageing and dementia.  Heather herself suffers from Ménière’s disease, an imbalance of the inner ear, and one she writes about here.  But what makes this anthology so special is its structure; three poems from each poet preceded by a narrative describing their illness and the impact it has.

And Heather has gathered together some fine Australian poets – the likes of Fiona Wright, Andy Jackson and Stuart Barnes alongside those who read at the Adelaide launch – Gareth Roi Jones, Ian Gibbins, Rachael Mead, Rob Walker and Steve Evans.

Gareth suffers from migraines, a debilitating condition painfully conveyed in his poem ‘aching’:

hours when simply standing up

is a pickaxe

when the growling dog

won’t let you through the gate.

Ian is a neuroscientist so knows about the body, how it works and how it doesn’t, demonstrated by his brilliant performance of ‘Cataplexy’, a poem which explores this rare condition where extremes of emotion trigger a switch from consciousness into a waking dream-like state.

Rachael was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, states eloquently expressed in ‘What lies beneath my skin’, which opens with:

The ringing telephone ratchets me into tension.

providing an insight into her daily management, when walking the dog offers some relief:

I put myself in the path of wildness

let it fill my long and hollow bones.

Rob’s condition is chronic osteoarthritis, a degenerative bone disease, where in his poem ‘radiology’ (composed with Magdalena Ball), ‘holding our future in nervous hands, we come with X-rays’, likening this process to ‘reading the stars within’, an ‘internal astrology’, a captivating image.

Steve suffers with temporal epilepsy, experiencing Alice-in-Wonderland-type moments of surreal forgetfulness.  In the ‘Body Electric’, he shares what it feels like:

My body is short-circuiting.

a tumultuous journey culminating in the final stunning lines:

And my words are brittle copies

Of what I used to do. My fingers fail.

I just can’t make a fist of this.

These snapshots are enough to tempt anyone living with chronic illness and pain to seek the bigger picture captured in this collection.  And they need not be a fan of poetry to be able to appreciate the unequivocal raw beauty of the afflicted self.

is a must have collection. Published by Puncher and Wattmann and edited by Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson and David Musgrave, this 658-page book anthologises Australian poetry for the last 25 years.

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Taking 10 years to compile over 200 poets and 500 poems, it really is a landmark publication, a credit to the Australian poetry scene, and includes some incredible poets – Ken Bolton, Jennifer Compton, Peter Goldsworthy, Jill Jones, John Kinsella, Mike Ladd, David Malouf, David Mortimer, Les Murray, Jan Owen, Dorothy Porter, Mark Tredinnick, Fiona Wright, not to mention the editors themselves.

It’s being launched in Adelaide at the SA Writers Centre next Friday, which unfortunately I can’t make (off exploring Noosa), so I promptly ordered a copy. Flicking through for the first time, because this will need endless reads, two poems caught my eye – ‘Grief’ by Elizabeth Allen and ‘Snowflake’ by Anthony Lawrence.

Elizabeth is a Sydney-based poet and her chapbook Forgetful Hands is on my wish list.  Hers is a powerfully poignant piece about her sister, who having lost her ‘Botticelli curls’

‘…has been looking into people like mirrors

but does not know how to make a face

that resembles the pain inside her.’

Anthony I saw at Mildura’s Writers’ Festival the year Sharon Olds headlined, who I was lucky enough to meet.  His poem centres around his mother who cultivates a snowflake in the freezer ‘between the peas and the ice cream’, setting sapphires into her teeth:

‘At dinner I would pretend

to be a good son, and her smile

enameled the table

with points of dark blue light.’

This is a remarkable anthology, to be read, smiled, laughed, cried and absorbed between breaths, bit by brilliant bit.

It’s rare I do this – buy a book I’ve borrowed. But this one I wanted to keep. Fiona Wright’s essays on hunger in Small acts of disappearance are just captivating, published by Giramondo Publishing.

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Fiona is also a poet, which shines through when reading this very personal account of her eating disorder, her first collection Knuckled was published in 2011 also by Giramondo. Each chapter is an essay offering a different perspective on her illness at different stages of her life, beginning in university as a physiological issue before escalating into a dangerously intricate disease from she cannot disassociate herself.

Having never understood the concept of anorexia, what drives a person to inflict such extreme discipline on the body, reading Fiona’s experience is the closest I’ve come to ‘getting it’. Below are the opening lines:

I’ll always remember the particular intensity that malnutrition brings on…That alertness of sensation, where every minute cell in the body is awake and alive to the smallest details of the outside world.

This alertness, this finite sense of being, the paring down of the self to increase connectivity, could be compared to the state a poets seeks – an extension of the world around them in which they are insignificant and merely serve as a conduit for expression. Wow. That’s deep I know, but this is the kind of thinking this books provokes.

Of course I’m not advocating restricting nutrition to increase perception (and I doubt I’ll ever be afflicted with such a disorder because I love food too much!), but for the first time I understood the appeal, if that’s the right word. This is further explored in Fiona’s interview, Everyday Intimacies, with Rachel Morley from Sydney Review of Books. In Fiona’s case, this balance of the self against the outside reaches an alarming and life-threatening degree, where she confesses that ‘at my sickest, a lover once folded a blanket over my shoulderblade before curling against my back to sleep’.

Interestingly I briefly discussed this book with a fellow poet the other night, and she too found the chapters on books, about how eating disorders are portrayed in characters, the least interesting, skimming through them as I did. Because the appeal of reading these essays is to get insider the author’s head, gain insight into a real person coping with it firsthand, rather than a fictional one.

Anyway, I just found this book fascinating; it has given me a certain respect for the power of such an illness and indeed for Fiona, for sharing such intimate parts of herself and her private battle with the literary world.

Australian Poetry took a different approach to the release of its latest edition of the Australian Poetry Journal (APJ) by launching it online.

APJ

The live streaming video session took place on 23 July hosted by Lisa Gorton, poetry editor of the Australian Book Review, who interviewed four prominent poetry editors:

Each editor spoke about their job, the changing industry and most importantly what they look for in a submission.

Some said that a piece had to grab them in the first few lines and be doing something different, while others looked for evidence of reading and pleasure from reading the poem. The obvious no-nos were use of clichés, obscure formatting particularly for online publication and a certain spilling of the guts!

The conversation can be viewed in full at www.digitalwritersfestival.com, an insightful and entertaining discussion, and invaluable to anyone wanting to break into the Australian poetry scene.