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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.

My third day kicked off with the first of two workshops I’d booked into, Deep reading for better writing, facilitated by Lisa Brockwell.

Lisa is another wonderful poet and having only had online contact, it was lovely to meet her in person. Lisa’s most recent collection, Earth Girls, had been on my wish list for some time now, so it was fab to get my copy signed.

Lisa loves sonnets and introduced us to a wide variety – from the traditional William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Barrett Browning through to the more contemporary Jo Shapcott and Terence Hayes. We explored content, meaning, rhythm and sound, bringing us to the conclusion there’s no such thing as over-reading and one of my favourite statements – sonnets are not small rooms!

I took away an array of poetic terminology I’d not been familiar with, for example, volta is a technical term in a sonnet for where there’s a turn of thought, which made me want to pursue the academic side of poetry further. The workshop also converted me into a sonnet-lover, as I confessed to Lisa after I’m not a fan of this form, but that was before I realised how flexible it can be.

Learning to have lost

This was a poignant session, because we all experience loss at one time or another. The panel comprised Penelope Layland, Paul Hetherington, Dominique Hecq and Oz Hardwick, convened by Lisa Brockwell.

Penelope began with an elegy by Seamus Heaney and discussed how this form employs traditional conventions, such as references to God and vegetation. Penelope read ‘In Miss Haversham’s Garden’, ‘Calendar’ and ‘Inverted Gaze’ from her collection, and explored the more taboo areas, for example, a suicide or the loss of a relationship not sanctioned by society. Penelope also explained how it’s counter-intuitive to write and read something that hurts.

Paul shared how absence is at the heart of his poetry, followed by a quote by Rilke. Paul read five of a six-part poem called ‘Elegy’, about his father who died in 2015, from his prose poetry collection, Moonlight on Oleander, one of many memorable lines being “what is gone, also belongs”. Paul explained if he hadn’t written these poems, he’d still be immersed in grief. He also confessed there is one elegy he can’t write due to the nature of the relationship.

Dominique read four fragments, the first two in French, the second in English, about a mother whose son died at the age of eight, from her collection which is split into colour chapters, this one being in the White chapter. Dominique discussed how loss is global, quoting Margaret Attwood, who believes all writing comes from a fascination with death, with Dominique adding that if musicians can explore death, why can’t poets.

Oz shared six small pieces, including a couple from his most recent collection, Learning to have lost, specifically ‘When he leaves’ and ‘Au’, both leaving an indelible mark, with the latter about a friend who committed suicide 11 years ago, which he could only write about now. Oz talked about David Kennedy’s study of elegy and getting to know your companion (death), and also shared how this art form requires bravery to do it justice.

Pivotal discussion points included whether all poetry is about loss in one way or another and other types of loss, such as the loss of a child’s innocence.

Loss was the focus of my first collection – of the self, another person or the connection between people – so I found this session particularly engaging, albeit infused with a definitive sadness.

The first session of my second day was Living Poetry, which focused on experience and biography by a panel comprising Andy Melrose, Kerry Nelson, Ross Gibson and Andy Jackson, hosted by Cassandra Atherton.

Andy Melrose is a songwriter who doesn’t consider himself a poet, having recently produced a song for an exhibition, which explored the very topical subject of immigration and being removed from one’s origins. Andy shared the song, ‘Your mama’s music box’, on guitar, a haunting piece with three narrative voices.

Kerry uses vernacular in her work, informed by her grandad who listened to Banjo Patterson and C J Dennis, as well as collaboration and humour. Kerry worked in Aboriginal Affairs and shared a poem called ‘Palm Island Kids’, in which children warned Miss about the “hairy man”, be it literal or symbolic.

Ross spoke about how biographising changes the person being written about as well as the writer, and stressed the importance of finding a bearing, using the example of Henry Thoreau who could recognise a person from across a field by their gait. Ross is currently working on a redact project, which explores the concept of the omitted centre.

Andy Jackson I’ve met before and whose work I love, with his most recent collection, Music our bodies can’t hold, being a series of 46 portrait poems about people with Marfan syndrome. Andy explained how a poet needs to inhabit other people’s lives and to do this, he thought of people as houses, tried to find a way in, sometimes ending up in the garden.

I’ve recently had a collection published about endometriosis, comprising poems which explore different aspects of the condition from personal experience. This session got me thinking about a potential next step.

Speaking in Tongues

Four international poets – Eileen Chong, Omar Sakr, Ravi Shankar and Jen Webb – were brought together for this session, convened by Anita Patel.

Eileen was born in Singapore and is another whose work I admire, reading a poem called ‘Chimera’ from her most recent collection Rainforest, having explained how the characters depicted on the cover are the symbol for rain over forest. Eileen feels a connection to Chinese poetry, but has only ever read them in English, despite being forced to learn Mandarin at school. A point that struck me was how Eileen thought herself a person before moving to Australia, after which time she became an Asian person.

Omar read two poems, one of which was ‘A beautiful child’, a very powerful and moving piece. Omar’s mother is Lebanese, his father Turkish, but having been raised by his mum, his heritage is predominantly Arab. Omar spoke of ruptured belonging and unbelonging, about being happy in his unbelonging space with shards of broken prayer, turning to Arabic when scared. I particularly liked Omar’s observation of language being the least favourite daughter, a powerful statement in patriarchal cultures.

Ravi began by sharing a yoga transcript, followed by his translation, and a poem called ‘Exile’ from his latest collection Many uses of Mint. With South Indian parents who emigrated to the US, his country of birth, Ravi found that responding to languages not understood turned him to poetry. As a student, Ravi both embraced and rejected his heritage, translating work with a colleague, producing multiple versions.

Jen hails from South Africa and grew up in the apartheid, viewing language as political and changeable, speaking both Afrikaan and English. Jen spent some time in New Zealand, which she compared to living with your lovely aunt, and has been in Australia for 26 years, with the belief people aren’t of land, they are not planted, rather moving constantly like water. Being multilingual and bathed in many languages, Jen finds she often picks a word or phrase from a language that suits her at that time.

This got me thinking about my own heritage, which is, as far as I’m aware, just English, albeit infused with my preference for French at school and having a German husband.

Poetry reading

Tonight’s poets were Bella Li, Jill Jones, Paul Hetherington and Sholeh Wolpé.

Having recently purchased Bella’s latest collection Argosy, I was looking forward to hearing her read from it. Bella read parts two and three from ‘Lost Lakes’, the last sequence in the book, followed by three pieces of microfiction, encouraged to fruition by Cassandra Atherton.

Jill’s work I’m familiar with, she’s an amazing poet, reading from her vast array of collections – from Brink, her latest back to Ash is Here and So Are Stars, one of her earlier ones.

Paul’s poetry I wasn’t familiar with it and enjoyed it immensely, as he read from his latest prose poetry collection, Moonlight on Oleander, including the title poem, in which “the moon sits on the horizon like a serious word”.

Having heard Sholeh speak on one of the panels, I was also looking forward to her reading, which she did so with passion, sharing poems from her schooling in Trinidad to a catholic boarding school in Southern England, where “home is a missing tooth”.

This was a rich and memorable line-up, both contrasting and complimentary, one of many credits to the festival.

The University of Canberra is hosting a Festival of Poetry from 1-11 September with fantastic international poets in residence, Philip Gross and Katharine Coles, along with a positively star-studded cast including the likes of Mark Tredinnick, Lisa Jacobson and Peter Rose.

POTM banner

The International Poetry Studies Institute carries out poetry-related research and publishes its findings across the world, along with journal issues and a chapbook series. Their aim is to “develop new communities of poetry and to make new links between poets wherever they are”, and this event will do just that.

Through a series of master classes, interviews, book launches and readings, including announcing winners of the 2015 University of Canberra VC’s International Poetry Prize, the program is jam-packed with opportunities to network, learn and appreciate poetry as the significant literary art form it is.

And if it weren’t for other poetry commitments around that time I would definitely go along, and then could have also ticked Canberra off being the only Australian city I have yet to explore! Alas, timing is everything.

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