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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.

I was one of five guest poets invited to read at Payneham Library yesterday as part of the Friendly Street Poet readings and it was a fab line-up – with Thom Sullivan headlining backed up by Cary Hamyln, David Mortimer, me and Russ Talbot, all introduced by the charming Louise Nicholas.

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Now I warn you this is not an in-depth detailed analysis like my usual posts. Mainly because I find it difficult to focus when I know I’ll be up there shortly! But also because I’m going to the launch of both Cary’s and Russ’s chapbooks later this week, so you know, didn’t want to duplicate too much (and then there’s the nervous concentration thing…)

Anyhow, Thom kicked off still basking in the glow of his reading at the Adelaide Writer’s Week a few weeks ago. Thom reads well, there’s a certain quiet strength about him with which he captures his audience and what particularly stood out for me was Thom’s acknowledgement that we poets stand on the shoulders of greats, a responsibility we all share, a profound statement. Thom shared poems he wrote during last year’s National Poetry Month, including ‘Crow poem’ and ‘Living in a draught, which can be found here on his blog.

Next up was Cary who, although not new to the poetry scene, confessed she has not given many readings (like me!). Cary read from her new chapbook Scraping the night, part of the Picaro Poets series published by Ginninderra Press and began with the title poem, followed by ‘Moment of departure’, ‘Time is a hound’ and ‘Future prince’ to name a few, with the titles alone enough to pull you in. Cary’s poems left me with some very vivid images but as said, more to follow about this shortly.

David went up next, reading a selection of poems from his collections, including ‘No wonder’ and ‘Towards evening’ from Magic Logic published by Puncher & Wattmann. David, like Thom, is one of many amazing local poets here in Adelaide and is also adept in his delivery, finishing with a very clever poem about Keats and Wordsworth, who are considered to be part of the thousands of greats Tom referred to earlier.

And then it was me. Louise did a wonderful introduction, mentioning my blog so I thought yes, better post about this event then(!). I opened with a new poem based on our Oodnadatta travels last October, a kind of sestina and probably the longest poem I’ve written to date. I then shared ‘Hoodlums’ recently published in InDaily, followed by three from my collection Smashed glass at midnight and ended with a poem I plan to include in my next collection I’m just finalising (yay!). Think I did ok.

Russ finished the guest poet line-up sharing work read by Jennifer Liston due to his acquired brain injury as a result of a brain tumour. I’ve never read any of Russ’s work before, it was breathtaking, as poems were read from his new collection Things that make your heart beat, also part of the Picaro Poets series from Ginninderra Press. And like Cary to be officially launched later this week, so I’m going to leave you hanging for the detail.

After a short coffee break it was open mic time, where we heard the likes of Ian Gibbins, Martin Christmas (who was also happily snapping away), Judy Dally, Louise Nicholas (the MC) and Mike Hopkins, all of whom were highly entertaining. And there were a few first time readers as well whom the room applauded, something that happened to me at my first ever reading here, which is incredibly endearing and encouraging.

So that’s it. I managed to sell, correction, the dazzling Jules Leigh Koch (who invited me to be a guest poet) managed to sell five of my chapbooks (which made my husband happy when I got home!) and I also had a lady approach me in the break to tell me how beautiful my poems were and how much she could relate to them, which I found very touching. All in all it was a wonderful way to spend a Sunday afternoon, set me up for the week it did.

Tuesday’s Lee Marvin had a line-up of Ian Gibbins, Aidan Coleman, Cath Kenneally and Anna Goldsworthy, introduced in full Lee Marvin style by Ken Bolton.

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I’ve never heard Ian read before. A neuroscientist and poet, Ian captivated the audience with his performance (and it was just that, due to years of teaching he told me after). The first poem Ian read was from a collaboration with Judy Morris called Floribunda, in which his scientifically expressed poems are paired with her beautiful pictures of flowers. Ian pauses at just the right moments with the last line delivered dramatically – ‘always lost at sea, find anchorage’. With his second poem Ian selected random words from The Advertiser and ordered them alphabetically, producing a thought-provoking summary of the news. Ian then read a short story, ‘Last shave’, which opened with ‘The ants have returned’ and continued to draw us into a world of infiltration and conspiracy. Ian finished with ‘After thoughts’, a poem that was shortlisted for the Ron Pretty Prize with striking images of ‘fairies running on schedule’ and ‘favourite islands displaced.’ Ian really was a delight to listen to.

Aidan I’ve heard before and read a series of sonnet length poems beginning with ‘Crossing the bar’, followed by six poems about colour, which he felt slightly daunted about sharing with Peter Goldsworthy on the front row (who has, I’m told and have yet to read, written exquisite poems about colour). The series alternated between ‘Primary’ and ‘Secondary’, opening with a description of a red car compared to a ‘half-sucked Jaffa’, with the next primary installment likening yellow to ‘easy pour of olive oil’ and ‘a tiny Easter’. Interestingly the primary pieces struck me more than the secondary, hence no reference to the latter! Aidan then read a poem called ‘The end of weather’ with a delicious line of ‘summer stops short of nudity’, conjuring beach scenes and heat, and then finished with another two poems, only one of which I caught the title, ‘Jolt’ (trying to listen, appreciate and make notes takes some doing, all while balancing a glass of wine!).

Cath has a variety of guises – art critic and journalist, novelist and poet – and shared a couple of poems from her ongoing Australia – London compilation, the first being ‘Creatures of the forest’, with some beautiful lines like a woman of ‘all nerves and steely perm’ and ‘my legs fizzing with the urge to run’. Cath’s second poem cited parts of inner city London – Marylebone, Baker Street, Highgate, Brick Lane – making us ex-Londoners feel slightly nostalgic! Cath finished her set with a three part piece each told from a character’s viewpoint, beginning in the first person, the second from that person’s sister and the last from their mother. This is the first time I’ve heard Cath read and found her almost breathy style alluring.

Anna, I found out, is Peter’s daughter and read an excerpt from a book she originally shared at the Festival of Ideas a while ago, in which she describes the first holiday her and her partner take following the birth of their first child. The piece is beautifully written and conveys her hysterical (in terms of humour) obsession with their holiday home’s long drop toilet! Lines like ‘clumsiness ticks over into disaster’, ‘the baby must never go in there’ and the repetitive mantra of it would never be her to drop the baby into the composting toilet therefore it must be Nicholas to drop the baby into the composting toilet – fuel her irrational fear of the baby ending up in the composting toilet! Anna takes some extreme measures, barricading her partner into bed with suitcases so she would hear if he stirred and trying to stay awake to prevent her from accidentally sleepwalking the baby into the composting toilet! I do not do it justice, but it was highly entertaining and unfortunately not in stock in the Dark Horsey Bookshop, so I have it on order to enjoy its entirety.

And then I just wanted to end this blog with, you know, something about me. I was told I read very well by Peter Goldsworthy, learned that David Mortimer enjoyed my debut collection so much he has recommended it to his poetry group and sold a signed copy to Shannon Burns to get his thoughts! Enough now. Long post. Exhausted. But happy.