Category Archives: discussions

An Accident That Thinks: Lee-Anne Davie interviews Nathan Shepherdson

Nathan Shepherdson has won the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize twice (2004, 2006), the 2005 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Award, 2006 Newcastle Poetry Prize and 2006 Arts Queensland Val Vallis Award. His first book, Sweeping the Light Back into the Mirror (UQP 2006), won the Mary Gilmore Award in 2008. In 2008 also he released what marian drew never told me about light (Small Change Press) and in 2009 Apples with Human Skin was published by University of Queensland Press. In 2012 Nathan collaborated with print-maker Julie Barret to produce the limited edition, concertina fold book, clouds in another’s blood (light-trap press) and in 2013 he will release his fifth collection, The Day The Artists Stood Still (volume one).

Nathan will be launching The Day The Artists Stood Still (vol. 1) @ QPF 2013 in the session, Dancing in Abstract (Saturday 24 August, 4pm. Shopfront Space).

Shepherdson

I was introduced to you, Nathan, in 2010 following the success of your third work, Apples With Human Skin, and I am amongst many who are in awe of the talent you have for giving words their own breath. The use of space and suspension around your words just adds to the physical and philosophical dimension of your poetry. Where have you drawn your creative inspiration?

In the simplest sense poetry is a form of thinking. Things occur and the decision is whether to write it down. Even unwritten it’s still poetry. The choice pertains to its physical form. It’s a big question, and not easy to elaborate. It’s a bit of a mantra, but essentially it’s a reductive art, so the elaboration is part irony, part head scratch. For better or worse my brain seems to operate in a visual way. So as the images form as words the words also become another set of images. So your allusion to space and suspension is very important to me. Mostly reading is a silent act, but the physicality is internal. One breath invites the next – and reading what you’re writing or what others have written can transform you into a machine for language. I want to be used as fuel for this process. For all the minimal aspects of its language, poetry makes the highest demands on the space within the page. This space allows the thoughts to approach the words, almost as objects – a few words can jell together as a static object holding a magnetic field. You take your bearing then turn the page. So in some ways the smaller poems demand more space. One face instead of the crowd. In Apples I was fortunate that my editor Felicity Plunkett backed this idea of one poem per page. It was questioned by UQP, but I convinced them of the physical punctuation of turning the page. Obviously this is not always possible, and I was very grateful to UQP for the latitude I was given. As to the philosophical dimension, I guess there’s something going on, but it’s difficult to say what. Perhaps it’s a quest for perfect self-contradiction. The consistency rests in being at odds with yourself. Where possible remove the ego and then try and re-trap it by direct confrontation, sleep or even sabotage. With any art what is attempted won’t necessarily be what is achieved. Things can come about via different gradients of failure. I accept failure as part of the process. After all you need to be defeated to complete a work. I know when a work is finished, but sometimes it’s just as much relief as satisfaction. So when you look at the words on a page, it’s like a photograph of the wreckage. Does that mean the editor is a mortician? Octavio Paz said something like “we are an accident that thinks”. I can’t do better than that really. To be there you can’t be here. Thinking is somewhere else.

Currently, on the QPF website, is a conversation with Rachael Briggs, winner of the 2011 Val Vallis Award followed by the 2012 Thomas Shapcott prize, and her feelings of winning back to back prestigious prizes.  How did you feel Nathan having also won both literary prizes back to back in 2005 and 2006, but in the reverse order of Shapcott followed by the Vallis?  How has your success in these poetry competitions influenced your poetry to date?

I was very lucky for a few years there. The ball (or full stop) started rolling in 2004 when I was fortunate to win the Ulrick Prize. (One of the judges was Tom Shapcott in that year). My work had never appeared in journals. I’d probably sent out two things in 20 years. I’d never given a reading. My mother died in 2003, so I guess that jolted me into taking work out of folders and doing something with it. I think that was a subconscious yardstick. The manuscript awarded the Shapcott Prize was Sweeping the Light, which consisted of 72 elegiac poems about my mother.  Of course without the vehicle that is the prize, those poems may still be in a folder. For a poet who had no idea how any of it worked, I ended up with a book in the pipeline, and with Bronwyn Lea as my editor at UQP. I was naïve, but that experience was invaluable. Bronwyn was very generous with time and ideas given my lack of pedigree. She is very astute, and unsurprisingly has a delicate editorial eye. The book was all the better because of her involvement. As a result of that period I got to know Tom Shapcott personally. Without doubt he is one of our finest poets.  You learn a lot in a short period through the contact and presence of someone like Tom. His knowledge not just of poetry, but of music, art and life is vast. You just hope to soak a bit of it up.

The history of the Shapcott and Vallis awards is probably known by many, but is worth repeating. Matt Foley was a minister in the Goss Government. He is steeped in the poetic tradition. He came up with the idea for the two awards. The consequences in what words have seen the light of day has been palpable. The fact that the Shapcott prize is a manuscript prize cannot be underestimated. It gifts the poet a full survey of a body of work with a leading publisher. Is there a better opportunity for unpublished work in Australian Poetry? In all modesty, I’m very pleased to be on the shelf with such a quality group of poets pre and post my own success.

With the Vallis Prize I guess it was a kind of reverse order to what might be expected. Perhaps (as in Rachael’s case) you would think an individual piece might pick up a prize before a manuscript. But naturally I have no cause for complaint. The piece awarded the Vallis prize was very different in content and context to the Shapcott material. That work ended up in my second UQP book so there’s a circular relationship of sorts there. I never met Val Vallis, but he lived to a great age of 92. He went blind in his later years. Again I feel fortunate – because Paul Sherman made a point of reading the winning work to him each year while Val was still alive. My poems in that sequence are perhaps a bit baffling, but for their part they were given due consideration and credit as part of a ritual designed by Paul. Paul very kindly related this process to me in a letter, with a congratulatory notation from Val. I’m very pleased to have this, something that provides connection however small. Poetry is the perfect vehicle for tenuous connections, that’s where the capacity in its imagination resides.

So you can see how anecdotally none of the above could exist without those awards. However the writing was about the writing. With or without the awards those poems would still exist. The awards allow the passage of the internal to the external.

You never cease to be evolutionary with your poetic projects, having produced four collections with a fifth on the way, and enjoy collaborating with spoken word artists and artists of other mediums.  Can you tell the readers about your concertina fold book, clouds in another’s blood, and how the complement of collaborating with other artists has worked for you?

Clouds in another’s blood was written at the invitation of Angela Gardner. In the year I won the Vallis, Angela won the Shapcott; that’s how we met. So there’s another tangible between the two awards. Angela and her partner Kerry Kilner had formed light-trap press. Their idea was (and still is) to produce very high quality poetry publications in very limited numbers, built around the idea of putting the work a particular poet and artist together. She asked would I be interested? After a long deliberation of half a second I said yes. (Angela is also an artist, so has both streams flowing as a matter of course). There is a wonderful tradition between the two art forms. With any project of that sort I prefer to produce new work that at least attempts to cater to what is being proposed. However this is an inexact science, so you just hope that something lands in the right field. I see it as three-way collaboration. No such thing as a two cornered triangle. The artist Julie Barratt and typesetter Janine Nicklin did a wonderful job. It’s beautiful to hold in the hand; and its concertina format allows the 32 poems to roll around like a horizontal spinning wheel when you read it.

David Byrne said something to the effect of “there’s no point in collaborating if you end with what you would’ve done anyway”. I agree with this idea. You either have to stretch or contract your usual self to be at the service of what you’re doing within a shared context. A few years ago I wrote some micro pieces for Arryn Snowball which he absorbed into a series of paintings. Arryn pushed this to the point where the words are almost illegible. But they work. Whether you can read the words or not, they’re still there. It’s an open process. Subvert or illuminate. It goes the way it goes. Whether the result ends up as a diagram or deepest abstraction, the trick is to wear a blindfold and let intent be the driver.

In 2010/11 I produced a series of works for Alun Leach-Jones, six of which we chose for use as the basis for a suite of screen prints entitled The Philosophy of Objects (printed by Marnling Press in Sydney). I was amazed with what he came up with. The text and images are side by side on the same sheet of paper. Yet the images he produced were not illustrative at all. Alun went about it all in a very meticulous way, injecting his own responses into the words. A bit like slicing a psychological onion as fine as possible. The pungent translucence. We were both surprised with what the other came up with. Without Alun’s invitation neither poems nor images would exist. They become each other. Alun is a massive reader of poetry. It’s a primary tenet in his make-up as an artist. It goes beyond the thought. He believes in the inherent capacity for art and poetry to fit together. I agree with him totally.

While I’m more comfortable with the art/poetry collaboration, I’ve also done some work as writer and reader that involves music. Sometimes in a more casual way with people such as Leighton Craig, Sandra Selig, Eugene Carchesio and Ian Powne. Then at other times in a more structured way with Pascalle Burton and David Stavanger in the Outlandish Watch project (from QPF in 2011). I’m not quite as confident in this area, but really enjoy the process. If the opportunity ever arose it would great to work with a composer on a song cycle. In general collaboration is rewarding because it gives you the opportunity to break down the singular self.

You’re about to release a new collection, The Day The Artists Stood Still (vol. 1).   What has been your inspiration for this particular work and what are your plans for more volumes?

Again as good fortune would have it this book will be published courtesy of an invitation from Graham Nunn via his press Another Lost Shark. As a by-product of what I’ve been talking about above; I written a dozen or so sets based on different artists I know. (Some as friends, some as acquaintances). The poems are mostly short, what I call lingual drawings. They were produced between 2008 and 2013. In a way they’re discourse based; with many coming from an overflow of energy after writing the collaborative pieces for Alun.  My conversation is with the ideas within their work, rather than direct interpretation. Given that they’re written for each artist, I hope that something of their work is discernable, but as poems they also need to be able to stand by themselves. For reasons practical and aesthetic we decided to split the pieces over two volumes. The first to be published this year, with volume 2 coming out in 2014. There’s a wide range of artists, different ages, early to late career. The personal connections, or at least respect for the work of each artist evolves into a silent curatorship of words. Which is interesting for me, because I can’t imagine these artists would ever end up in the same exhibition with the way the contemporary art world operates under certain aesthetic, economic and intellectual camps. I was not trying to address that idea in writing these poems, but it’s an intriguing aside. They’re part dialogue, part homage, and maybe part collaboration – although ironically without consent from the other party. If readers have made it this far into the interview, they’ll no doubt realize I’m an art obsessive. There is no surprise really as my father Gordon is a highly regarded painter. He has been a very powerful influence on the shape of my creative thought. It’s a pleasure to know artists of a certain generation like Gordon, Alun Leach-Jones, Madonna Staunton and of course on the word front Tom Shapcott. Art itself may come from or be about the moment, but for the artist it’s a long haul process. These artists keep milking their minds and skills in order to continue living in their work. As people and as artists they’re wonderful examples. No matter what the fashion – a blank piece of paper will always be a blank piece of paper. Whether the line is written or drawn doesn’t matter.

Nathan, I’m really looking forward to your performance at this year’s Queensland Poetry Festival.  Can you give the readers a teaser of what we’re likely to expect from you?

QPF is always an event. I feel part of it. I’ve had some great experiences there – with reading my own work, launching my first book, and being able to listen to and discover the work of others. It does alternate between exhilaration and exhaustion, (which I know you understand better than I as a former director of QPF). It’s an important point on the calendar for our somewhat marginalized art form.  My focus will be on the launch of the day the artists stood still. Generally the poems are sparse. The language is concise, with elements bordering on the aphoristic. Hopefully the words and images float off the page. In reading poetry to an audience, it’s about trying to wake the moment. It would be good if a few people are standing around the bed when that happens. Even in our own language we’re in a constant state of translation. Here’s one poem from the sequence absent landscapes written for Peter Hudson. It taps in to what the book is about.

V.

if birds

ever learn to paint

painter’s hands

will be found in cupboards

Interview with Lee-Anne Davie first published on www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com

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Break Open and Burst: Talking with Jacqueline Turner

For my final interview in the QPF series, I had the absolute pleasure of speaking to a lady who has had a profound influence on my own work, Jacqueline Turner. Jacqueline is a QPF favourite, so it is wonderful that she is returning for her third visit.

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Your first visit to Australia and QLD Poetry Festival was back in 2005 as the inaugural Arts QLD Poet-in-Residence. What is your memory of that first visit and how did it change you as a person and poet?

That visit had an incredible effect on all aspects of my life. First, what stands out in my memory is the amazing people I met from getting off the plane and going straight to lunch with a room full of poets at the Red Chamber to the folks at the Judy, to all the small town writers up the north coast to everyone who came out at NOGO in the outback and then to cap it off, all of the spectacular poets who performed at the festival to huge sellout crowds. Literary types, musicians, performance poets, bush poets all mingling in green rooms and then pushing it out on stage. It was a version of a poetic life I couldn’t have even imagined existed.

The land had a huge impact as well — my work deals with place so the tectonic shift of locale for me was significant. The light, look at the light! I kept saying. I was also slightly traumatized by the kangaroo road kill on trips to regional Queensland and mesmerized when the jacarandas in New Farm Park burst out. The stars were different in the outback and I felt like I was on the edge of the earth, could feel the curve of the planet.

The time and space to work on my writing changed everything for me. Personally, it allowed me to step out of my life for a moment and reinvent myself outside the domestic sphere I had inhabited since my early 20s. In terms of my poetic practice it created a loosening, an opening up to the vast potential of language beyond the ways in which I typically operated. I engaged with the lyric form in a new way and the credibility of the position gave me even more confidence to go with my particular poetic inclinations. I stopped censoring myself. I experimented with connections to music that events like SpeedPoets provided. The flow of the river my hair blowing on the CityCat and me opening. The world. Really it meant everything.

Your residency had a profound effect on the Brisbane poetry community too and in many ways, set the bar for every other residency to come. You have also been a return visitor to QPF since your first visit in 2005, so what is it about the festival that keeps you coming back?

It was great to see such tangible and vibrant manifestations of poetic communities when I arrived in Brisbane the first time and it only seemed to get better and better every time I returned. If my residency did anything, it was to merely encourage what was happening in Brisbane and regional Queensland already and to just reinforce the idea that community is vital to creative practice. It was also really important to me to come back and launch my book Seven into Even since I had written much of it during my residency and that QPF accommodated that desire was completely thrilling to me. QPF is unlike any festival or poetic event because it combines an intimate community feel with the expansiveness of performance with huge but particularly attentive audiences. To be in the presence of so many people who are genuinely seeking a poetic experience is intoxicating and gratifying. I could feel the way that certain lines were landing in the room. And then to combine that with the multi-disciplinary aspect of the festival made the conversations around the main events, in the lobby and out for drinks after, incredibly nuanced. It is a unique experience that I keep subjecting to the forces of repetition for my own pleasure!

We are so glad you do Jacqueline! And again, there are many fine Canadians sharing the QPF stage with you. In fact, QPF has had a real love affair with Canadian poets since your residency. What creates that spark of connection between Canadian poets and our audiences?

I think it’s the similar but different kind of thing. We have shared concerns resulting from similar histories with aboriginal people and the land. Also cultural considerations in relation to the dominant American culture. We all bring varying perspectives on those kinds of concerns. Aesthetically we push in a myriad of ways too that seem to both connect and echo with and maybe sometimes even provoke QPF audiences. And those audiences are amazing! Every Canadian poet I’ve talked to about being on the QPF stage is wowed by the particular responses to their work, but also to the fact that poetry is so important to this city, this country. That spark also comes from the opportunity for conversations around the pleasure and practice of writing, as well as the development of some genuine friendships that exceed distance in the age of social media. I’d also be remiss without acknowledging the support of the Canada Council of the Arts which helps to fund travel to bring lucky Canadian poets to Brisbane over the years as well as the incredibly dedicated work of people at the QWC.

This visit, Australian audiences will get the opportunity to hear you read from The Ends of the Earth (ECW Press, 2013), which is really exciting. I am also keen to hear about any other new projects you are working on that QPF audiences may get a preview of.

I’m working on a new manuscript called Flourish because I’ve spent quite a lot of time on dealing with the ends of things so I thought it would be good to explore how language operates when things are going well. I like the idea of an exuberant text so I’m experimenting with letting the writing break open and burst forth. The rush is an element I’ve used formally in my writing — the rush of the long line prose poem — as well as the mode of compression where language is put under pressure in short imagistic stanzas, so I guess I want to see what’s between the extremes of concision and excess. An recent example would be the Presence piece I did for the Cordite chapbook you curated and I hope to keep working that vein for awhile. It feels exciting. I’m curious to see how those stellar QPF audiences will take it all in…

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Jacqueline-TurnerJacqueline Turner has published four books of poetry with ECW Press: The Ends of the Earth (2013), Seven into Even (2006), Careful (2003), and Into the Fold (2000). She reviews for the Georgia Straight and lectures at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. She was the inaugural Arts Queensland Poet In Residence.

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In the Mind’s Ear: Talking with Lawrence English

The third interview in my QLD Poetry Festival series, sees me chatting with renowned composer and sonic explorer, Lawrence English. I have to say, I am excited beyond words about Lawrence’s involvement this year and this interview explains why…

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QPF is thrilled that you will be taking the stage as part of the Saturday night event, The Star Folder. This event sees you working with some of the poets on the program to produce a new body of work. What excites you most about a project like this?

Well I have to say I find the name a rather exciting proposition to start with. It’s part Arthur C Clarke, part tabloid – it could be some intergalactic compression or an aspirational dossier young Hollywood types hope to end up in!

In all seriousness though, this is a wonderful opportunity for myself and video artist scott morrison to trial a series of deconstructivist approaches to language, text and ultimately poetry. We’re both very interested in the transition of the macro (sentence, phrase etc) into the micro (phoneme) – and what the spectrum of possibility might be along that pathway. Once words or phrases become repeated they take on new capabilities as tools for both visual and auditory stimulus and we’re keen to test in just which ways that can be played out.

The poets we’ve been fortunate enough to work with have all kindly handed over their words and voices for us to transform, extend and explode.

I love that you are excited about the title of the event. The Star Folder is the title of a poem by MTC Cronin. Are you familiar with her work? And speaking of poets you are familiar with, who are the poets you love to read or who have had an influence on you over the years?

I’d confess to being aware of the reputation more than the work itself. Everything Holy is in fact the work that I first came in contact with her work. I’ve not had a chance to read any of the books for the past half decade or so.

I have to say it’s only very recently that I’ve found some poems that directly feed into my work – that’s not to say I don’t value the form – more just that the written word has not been a place I’ve sought inspiration for the kind of pieces I’ve been exploring. That changed fairly radically with the book ‘The Peregrine’ (which I honestly feel is a very long, free flowing poetry work…of sorts) and most recently I’ve been spending some time thinking on Gerontion – specifically the phrase ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’, which is in fact the title of a new solo LP I am working on presently. That collection of words I find profoundly provocative and insightful – somehow so very fitting of many of the challenges of the modern age.

Gerontion is right up there with my favourite poems by Eliot, so I can’t wait to hear how his words are helping to shape your new album. With your last album, The Peregrine, how did you discover J.A. Baker’s text of the same name? And I am really interested in what role the text took in the creation of the album.

I first discovered The Peregrine some years back whilst I was visiting with a friend, David Toop, in London. He’d just ordered a copy and it was sitting on his desk. Being an admirer of the bird, I picked it up and within a page, I’d decided I needed to order a copy for myself. What struck me first was the articulation of sound in his writing. To me, Baker seems able to create sound in the mind’s ear in a way very few authors can – truly stunning.

In terms of how the book shaped the recordings – often it was quite literal – taking Baker’s phases and descriptions of spaces and objects and using them as kind of compositional shaping tools. It was an interesting way to work and I’m not sure all texts lend themselves to this approach, but Baker’s work more than surely does.

Will you be transforming the poems of Jennifer Compton, Ian McBryde and Anna Fern in a similar way, or are you taking a completely different approach?

I’d say this will be an entirely different process – for the peregrine – it was taking those written materials and using them as a way to shape abstract musical concepts. For this work, myself and scott morrison are working with the poets – jennifer compton, ian mcbryde and anna fern – in very ‘concrete’ ways – using their voices and faces as material sources from which the sound and video world can be created. It’s an exciting process of discovery as we reduce the texts, gestures and voices into radical new forms.

I want to finish off with a grandiose kind of question… what do you think should be the relationship between an artist and the society they live in?

Well, that is a wide sweeper of a question.

Honestly, what keeps me involved in making works is a very simple proposition – ideas.

We have these quite amazing brains encased in our skulls and it sometime surprises me how much time, as a species, we spend trying not to use them.

Lets take something like TV as an example. Now not all TV is bad, but lets face it, a lot of it is there to ‘help me wind down’ or ‘turn my brain off’ – and lets be clear there’s nothing wrong with rest…but what other daily activity would you spend 3-5 hours doing consistently. People watch an awful lot of TV that does nothing but occupy time…if even a fraction of this time collectively was spent on other pursuits – writing a letter on a topic you feel important to your local politician, taking a moment to visit with people who might need company or assistance, tending some native trees in your yard that might provide food for other native mammals or birds – just a little bit of time spent thinking about ways to make this world somewhat better than what it is – to me, that sounds like a good plan…

So to summarise, I guess, my role I’d like to think is to share my excitement about ideas. About using these wonderful clumps of soft tissue that can make so many wonderful things happen. We’re faced with challenging times in this country – questions about who we are and ultimately who we want to become – a small bit of thought and the odd bit of action for all of us might just make a world of difference.

*****

Lawrence-EnglishLawrence English is a composer, media artist and curator based in Australia. Working across an eclectic array of aesthetic investigations, English’s work prompts questions of field, perception and memory. English utilises a variety of approaches including live performance and installation to create works that ponder subtle transformations of space and ask audiences to become aware of that which exists at the edge of perception.

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Delightfully Slant: Talking with Jon Paul Fiorentino

Here’s number #2 in my QLD Poetry Festival interview series… a chat with the delightfully slant Jon Paul Fiorentino, who is keeping his promise and making his way back across the Pacific to launch Needs Improvement at QPF 2013.

*****

2013 is your second visit to QPF. What is it about the festival that has drawn you back across the Pacific?

When I was asked to read in 2010, I was able to launch Indexical Elegies and read with Ken Babstock, Angela Rawlings and August Kleinzahler. It was like a dream. I was overwhelmed to discover this amazing community of poets and writers. The positivity and kindness of the people was infectious and reminded me very much of the arts community I grew up in in Winnipeg. Brisbane quickly became one of my favourite places in the world. I promised myself that when the next book was ready, I would do everything I could to launch it at the QPF. Thankfully, I was invited again and my publisher, Coach House Books, helped to make it happen.

I am really glad that you have been able to keep that promise! What can you tell us about the new book? Is there a poem that you would like to share here as a preview?

Needs Improvement has three sections. “Things-As-Facts” which is a series of alyrics; “Needs Improvement” which is a series of misreadings and appropriations of various pedagogical materials as well as some visual schematic poems; and “Moda” which is a series of villanelles linked to various geographic places. It’s a very strange book, but I am a very strange person. Sure. Here is a poem called “Gag”:

GAG

Entirely my idea not a great one but entirely mine
There was a bicycle and an objectivist poet sort of riding it. Not
red or blue. Entirely my idea all twig and spoke and gag

I gag often these days like as if it wouldn’t catch up
Never my bicycle always entirely my idea and I share
the poet with a post-mountain time scholar from out east
Grey. Not silver but entirely grey

How does it feel to share the QPF stage with another bunch of fine Canadian poets – Sachiko Murakami, Jacqueline Turner, Paul Vermeesch & Shane Rhodes? And are there any particular events/artists on the program that you are really excited about seeing?

When I heard the other Canadians who were coming, I was thrilled. I am a fan of all four. I know Sachiko very well from the time she lived in Montreal. We have worked together on various projects and I was pleased to recommend her first book, The Invisibility Exhibit, for publication. Last time, I discovered the works of Jennifer Compton, Andrew Burke, and Jeremy Balius. I hope to discover more new voices this time.

What is your earliest poetry memory?

My earliest poetry memory is a memory of my grandfather’s laughter, and feeling shag carpet on my skin and being without words but longing for them. My earliest true engagement with poetry happened when I listened to The Smiths and heard Morrissey’s lyrics. The song was “These Things Take Time.” It prompted me to go out and steal a book of Oscar Wilde’s collected poetry. I read “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” over and over again. Since then I’ve never looked back but I’ve often looked sideways.

The root of the word ‘poet’ is ‘maker’. You’ve made wonderful mention of sense memories such as your grandfather’s laughter and lyrical memories such as hearing The Smiths for the first time, so what are the things that are currently influencing the ‘making’ of your poems?

I’m influenced a great deal by critical theory. Barthes is still my go-to guy. I’m very much moved by collaborations / discussions / healthy arguments with other writers these days. Also, I find that if I skip a day of anti-depressants, I see the world in a delightfully slant way.

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Jon-Paul-FiorentinoJon Paul Fiorentino’s first novel is Stripmalling, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Hugh MacLennan Award for Fiction. His most recent book of poetry is Indexical Elegies which recently won the 2010 CBC Book Club Award for Best Book of Poetry.  He is the author of the poetry books The Theory of the Loser Class which was shortlisted for the 2006 A.M. Klein Award for Poetry and Hello Serotonin and the humor book Asthmatica. His new book of poetry is Needs Improvement (2013: Coach House Books). He lives in Montreal where he teaches creative writing at Concordia University, and edits Matrix magazine.

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Blissfully Losing My Mind: chatting with CJ Bowerbird

QLD Poetry Festival is fast approaching (August 23 – 25) and in the lead up to the event, I have been lucky enough to have been given the job of chatting to some of the festival artists. First up in my interview series, I chat with winner of the Australian Poetry Slam, CJ Bowerbird.

*****

You were the winner of last year’s Australian Poetry Slam. How has this experience changed your life?

Winning the Australian Poetry Slam threatens to ruin my life as it currently exists. I have always written creatively in my spare time, the little spare time that exists between having a family and a non-creative career. But it is only in recent years I have shared my work with live audiences. And I love it!

It is the performance aspect of spoken word that particularly appeals to me. Winning the Australian Poetry Slam has given me opportunities to break out of the strictures of slam poetry to develop longer, more theatrical pieces. These have been well received by audiences in Australia and China, encouraging me to write and perform more.

Writing creatively does not necessarily fit well with a balanced home life or a regular 9-to-5 job. Now I have been given a taste, though, I am hooked. Through exploring concepts and situations creatively, I am re-discovering things about myself and about others I did not realise I knew. I am trying to find ways to continue developing as a writer and performer without risking everything I already have.

And I believe I am slowly, blissfully losing my mind.

I know what you mean about balance. I have come to think it’s almost impossible… there’s always a sense of something toppling. But if the slow losing of the mind helps the process of discovery, then let the unraveling begin! I am really excited to hear you perform some of the longer works you have been working on. The opportunity to perform this type of work in China must have been incredibly exciting. What will stay with you from this trip?

Taking part in the Bookworm International Literary Festival in China was tremendously rewarding and satisfying. I performed my 45 minute piece ‘Meta’ four times, in three different cities. The audiences varied from diplomats and ex-pats to Chinese university students.

One of the strongest lessons I gained from this trip was the power of performance as a complete activity. While some of the attendees at my shows reacted to my words, others were strongly moved by my actions. This variety was reinforced by the fact English language ability varied through the audience. It was very gratifying to have the freedom to engage with people in different ways.

That said, it was the conversations I had which focussed on the words that were most satisfying. These conversations often led in unexpected directions, as others found things in my work I didn’t realise were there.

Is it that ‘sense of discovery’ that keeps you eager to hit the stage? And speaking of hitting the stage, what can audiences expect from you at QPF 2013?

It is the sense of discovery that keeps me writing. The more I write, the more I learn about myself. It is the thrill of connection that keeps me eager to perform, the feeling of shared experiences and common emotions.

These are the two constants I find in performance poetry – learning and sharing.

I will be doing two 15-minute performances for QPF. For one, I am planning a conventional set of poems. For the other, I will put together more of a themed performance, where the poems link together to offer a more complete narrative. I have a bit of a love and loss story arc I am working on that should be ready for the festival.

To finish up, what are you most looking forward to at QPF? Are there any sessions, or artists that have really peaked your interest?

To be vague and general: everything and everyone. Winning the Australian Poetry Slam has allowed me to attend several festivals this year and meeting other writers and performers has definitely been the highlight of every one of them.

More specifically, TT.0 is someone whose work I have followed for some time. I am looking forward to hearing the work of Canadians John Paul Fiorentino and Paul Vermeesch. I have recently started following them on Twitter (@stripmaller and @paulvermeesch) and their conversations have caught my attention.

I really want to meet Betsy Turcot, having seen a lot of her work online. Catching up with Kelly-lee Hickey, another Australian Poetry Slam winner, and seeing what she is doing now will be a highlight, as will seeing Scott Sandwich.

Bertie Blackman will be a standout. I get a thrill out of cross-genre/form collaboration and have had some good experiences hearing contrasting story telling in poetry and in song.

Finally, I am really looking forward to meeting you Graham, and catching up with friends on the QPF committee, Scotty Darkwing Dubs and Eleanor Jackson.

I can’t wait!

*****

Australian Poetry Slam-FinalsCJ Bowerbird is the 2013 Australian Poetry Slam Champion. He tells stories through verse and explores what it is to be human. CJ crafts poetry into paper planes of performance, taking audiences on flights through despair and salvation without ever losing his sense of humour.

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Under the Same Sky with Cindy Keong (part 1)

The launch of Same Sky by Cindy Keong is edging closer, so in the lead up to the launch on Saturday July 27, I have been chatting with Cindy about the call of poetry and how it feels to have her first publication out in the world.

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How does it feel to be holding Same Sky in your hands?

Strangely enough, a mixture of pure excitement and relief.  Same Sky is a mix of older and newer work that evolved considerably during the editing process.  So after spending so much time with the same set of poems there is definitely a feeling of accomplishment. I am also starting to feel deep within me, the stirring of new work buzzing to be written.

When did you first feel the calling of poetry in your bones?

With a brother called Clancy it is no surprise that bush poetry was a feature in my childhood.  However, my earliest memory of really being fascinated with poetry was reading a collection of Kath Walker’s (Oodgeroo Noonuccal) poetry when I was nine.  I distinctly remember a short poem about Albert Namatjira, and even as a child it conveyed a profound sense of loss and cultural injustice.  Fast-forward a decade or three and the inclination to learn how to write poetry became more significant.  Through the local poetry community and the fine poets I have met along the way I have been guided and inspired to write, share and perform my work.

The work in Same Sky covers three distinct landscapes; the east coast, the big-sky country of Western QLD and the the interior landscape of love and family. Was this a distinct choice when you began writing the poems? And what is the significance of these landscapes to you?

I did not necessarily start out to write poems that could be grouped distinctly by physical or interior landscapes, but would say my initial writing process was all about feeling satisfied I could write a poem that not only meant something to me but would hopefully resonate with an audience. Starting with what I know and had a deep connection with seemed like the place to start.

The poems that explore aspects of my interior landscape were probably the most deliberate in choice as these experiences whilst unique to me are ones that connect us all.  The specific physical landscapes that locate my poems are born out of lived experiences as a child and as an adult.  I calculated recently that in total I have moved 21 times in my 41 years so it is no wonder this has vicariously made itself a distinct feature of my poetry.

*****

Another Lost Shark Publications
launches
Same Sky by Cindy Keong
When: Saturday July 27, 1:30pm – 5:00pm
Where: The Hideaway, 188 Brunswick St Fortitude Valley
Entry: Gold Coin Donation

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On One Foot: a review of Balance by Luke Beesley

I recently had the great pleasure of reviewing Luke Beesley’s sophomore collection, Balance. Here’s a section of the review and a link to where you can read it in full on Sotto.

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It is clear after reading Luke Beesley’s sophomore collection that he is deeply aware of what the great American poet Robert Kelly meant when he described poetry as ‘perfected attention’. What makes Balance such a thrilling read is its dual focus. At its core, Balance is a detailed exploration of India’s glittering topography, but throughout the book’s thirty-two pages, Beesley never shifts his focus from the language itself; language that is muscular, evocative and bursting with surprises.

Read the complete review here.

And if you would like to get yourself a copy you can do so here.

 

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Popping the cork of ThunkBook #1 (or rambling with Joel McCaffery)

With issue #1 recently launched, I caught up for a chat with the man behind ThunkBook, Joel McCaffery. Here’s how said chat went…

THUNKBOOK-COVER FINAL pdf

ThunkBook is described as Taiwan’s inscrutable book of letters. Tell us about how the journal came into being and just what makes it pop!

Well, Graham, ThunkBook from its inception has been a wholly—and unabashedly—offshoot of its predecessor, Pressed, A Literary Journal, nee Pressed, Taiwan’s English Literary Journal. By unabashedly, I mean the book is basically Pressed but with a different name. I suppose Pressed felt too generic. We had originally intended to rename the book Taiwanika, and sell it in Taiwan as a literary-cum-educational tome replete with a translated version and a workbook—all to be sold at university campuses throughout the whole of Taiwan. Unfortunately, that enterprise fell through due to domestic responsibilities and a pervasive unwillingness of publishers around these parts to go beyond the bounds of tradition, never mind that Taiwan is in a completely different dimension than the rest of the world. So then we were left with the original—and successful—model of Pressed, which we renamed ThunkBook, just for the hell of it. There is, of course, much more to the ThunkBook story than can be assigned to these lines, but the gist of the matter is that I and my my wife have been rocking this publication in its present form since 2004, from Taiwan—to Australia for one issue—and then back to Taiwan again. And so, what makes it pop?

Submissions, by krickey! Yeah, submissions. Although from the outset we sought out material from Taiwan-based writers in order to make this a truly Taiwan-made (although expat slathered) publication, a torrent of excellence has ever poured in from points elsewhere around the globe. And while this caused a dilemma of sorts at the beginning—that we weren’t being true to the talent available in Taiwan—I realised that at my most essential as an editor . . . the only thing I’m responsible for is blasting the readership with a kick-ass book. So, everyone is invited to submit, and submit they do. From over 150 submissions from around the globe, this inaugural edition of ThunkBook is packed with poetry and short fiction from the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, China, Scotland, Germany, the UK, South Africa, Turkey, and Taiwan. Also adding to ThunkBook’s pop is the choice of submissions. With poetry, we always try and mix in some chainsaw-hewn doggerel with the more technically masterful with the absolutely sublime. And with short fiction, it’s all about how the yarn is spun and the retrospective cognizance of it all. Ultimately, the impetus of the book is to enthral discerning readers.

You mention that you make it your mission to include a ‘broad church’ of poetry in ThunkBook – from doggerel to the formal. This seems quite unique to me, as (it could be argued that) the majority of journals publish work that has a more unified voice. I would love to hear how you came to this decision.

The way I see things, poetic import comes from its ability to first strike a chord, and second to linger after its being struck. I’m personally a stickler for the true mechanics of a poem—punctuation, meter, line breaks, enjambment, assonance, etc.—but if something cracks me over the belfry despite all that and leaves my jaw twisting in the wind, I’m all in. Basically, if a poem is truly memorable and is perched on the the graspable side of the creative cusp, it’s worth publishing, convention be damned.

Where do you see ThunkBook fitting into the constantly shifting landscape of publishing? Any plans to embrace new technologies?

Awesome question, and a question I was grappling with last night while talking to the CEO of World Gym Taiwan. He asked me how the ThunkBook launch went and I told him that over the course of the night, where 200 people came to the venue, only 35 books were sold (at a modest 9AUD). He then replied that those numbers were abhorrent and that I should have hired scantily-clad Taiwanese girls to walk around the venue and hawk the books for me—at $15 a pop. I told him that although a good idea from a marketing standpoint, it might fly in the face of what constitutes a literary journal (although there’s some sexy content in the book . . .). Then he asked, ‘Why not sell the book online?’, to which I replied, ‘Nobody cares. ThunkBook’s basically a chapbook, replete with topnotch submissions from mostly amateur writers. The book is basically a one-off.’ To which he replied, ‘Do me a favour: when you go to print your next volume, let me know; I’ll sell the whole fucking thing.’ I went home after that chat imagining hardcore porn ads replete with a flashing THUNKBOOK TWO ad banner.

So, to answer your question about new technologies, I don’t know if it’s worth it. I’m sure that we could could sell a few more copies of ThunkBook in e-book form, but services like PayPal—or Amazon for that matter—take so much of your profit upfront to sell your book (and a large percentage per unit), that unless you’re selling something at at least $10 per book X 200 books, it becomes a bit of a risk. To put things in perspective, we used to print 3000 copies of Pressed and tack them onto to the admission price of live music gigs all over Taiwan—and almost break even. Now we’re making 300 books and selling them at a major loss.

As a side story to funding ThunkBook, get this: I teach at a university in the middle of Taiwan and I approached the Dean of the International College on how to go about funding ThunkBook. He came up with great idea that I should write an email the university’s president (a man who with his brother owns two universities, a hospital, a national cancer research center, and is on the board of two Fortune 500 companies), and ask him for money. And so I did. I proposed to the president that the university cover my printing costs, and that any money generated from the book goes directly to a charity of his choice—in his name. My boss said that the president did get the email, but he never replied. I don’t think he cared. Maybe he dreamt of this haiku, which is in ThunkBook:

fairyflies fuck
atop ambrosial brumes—
hot, hot cow dung

Maybe I should have put the book up on our website and never had printed a hardcopy in the first place. But that’s not my style; not ThunkBook’s style.

I’m glad it’s not your style Joel, or ThunkBook’s. The physical object will always reign supreme for me. That said, what do you think of Print on Demand? Have you had any experience with it and is it something you would consider for ThunkBook?

I actually researched this very topic for a paper I wrote 5 years ago and concluded then, as I do now, that POD is an oddball technology made by and for idealistic futurists. POD may work at universities, where students can bind together their own study-packs, but for literary journals, say, whose core readership is family and friends and a weirdly erudite mob of bohemian thinkers, it just isn’t feasible. At best, most lower-tier and hobbyist authors or editors who use this technology stand to make 10-25% royalties on the cost of a book, which looks good on paper, but not when just 35 books have been sold. And then there’s the problem that hardly any businesses outside of university presses want to change their current (and ancient) business model in doing business with their distributors. E-readers have already derailed physical purchases, causing many bookshops to shut down; the last thing the remaining struggling shops want to do is subvert their infrastructure by gambling on an expensive piece of equipment that nobody may use—just to save a few trees.

And then there’s the question of who needs print on demand when you can fire Moby Dick onto your Kindle for free—or better yet, play Candy Crush on your goddamn iPhone? I honestly believe that beyond the clutch of family and friends of lit journal authors, and the oddball zealots who understand/feel/live the fervent  and communal possibilities of grassroots creativity, there resides an exponential indifference to anything that isn’t free—or is more than one remove from the ego.

Do you have any thoughts on how the ‘indifference gap’ might be closed, or at least made smaller?

For us mere mortals, networking seems the best approach. It’s slow, but it’s effective. In the transient vagabond foreign arts scene that is Taiwan, the best thing to do is to get out there and meet people and do stuff like get kicked off the stage at a premier poetry event like I did last Christmas. And another way is to create, cultivate, and preserve a working relationship with writers who have helped make your literary journal a thing of excellence.  If you make a name for yourself among the stable of writers who keep your publication in the creative stratosphere, more often than not, they continue to up their game and kick submission details and links over to their likeminded brethren, and things roll from there. Key submitters are invaluable, and can keep a publication at a critical mass until more people get involved—writers and readers alike.

That’s so true Joel… publishing for me has always been first and foremost about realising the vision of the writer. Making sure that as the publisher, I am walking alongside them and ensuring their best foot is put forward. This gets me thinking about the role of critical feedback in the submissions process. What’s your take on this, when receiving a vast number of submissions from across the globe?

For me, giving feedback is one of the most rewarding parts of the process. It keeps me sharp and I think it lends me some credibility in the minds of those writers who would like more insight into their ideas and why I’ve edited their stuff the way I have. I also feel feedback is vital in appeasing those feistier, more defensive authors who would rather eat a bowl of live ants than have me tamper with their words. With these particular writers, I make it my mission to have them appreciate that I’ve truly given their material a keen and objective eye, and that I might even know what I’m doing—or at the very least that I’m not completely full of shit. Sometimes the correspondence can be time consuming, but it’s fun.

And before we wrap up, I want to ask, who does ThunkBook speak to? And in what way (if any) do you hope it will be remembered?

Be remembered? Sounds like you want an epitaph. Let’s hope it speaks to the living:

Debt-laden. Dead.
ThunkBook flung down—
fallen off a cliff,

dead. Debt then laid
ThunkBook downfallen—
flung off a cliff,

laid dead in debt—
ThunkBook, down a
cliff; flung off; fallen

dead; laid in debt.
ThunkBook—flung—down—off—a—cliff.
Fallen.

*****

Joel McCafferyJoel McCaffery teaches at a university in Taiwan to what he believes are eerily apathetic facsimiles of students planted by the Chinese government to subvert peace in East Asia—and to mess with his mental fortitude and wavering optimism in the human condition. Other than that, Joel writes epitaphic poems in jest, because, by the beard of Zeus, there will be a ThunkBook Two. And it will find critical acclaim in those precious few who will be fortunate enough to read it.

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Springsteen and his moments of miracle

Since seeing Springsteen in April, I have been completely under his spell… listening to every album in chronological order, including the box set Tracks and a handful of incredible bootlegs including Bruce and The E-Street Band Live at the Main Point in 1975 and at Winterland in 1979. Both contain there fair share of miracles… moments that make your skin tighten and your nervous system ignite. The version of E-Street Shuffle from 1975 is one of those moments; you can hear in every note that the band is playing for their lives and that Springsteen has everything to prove, everything to live and die for.

springsteen

I have also been reading Clinton Heylin’s compelling, E-Street Shuffle: The Glory Days of Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band. It is a superbly researched book that takes the reader deep into, the at times infuriatingly perfectionist world of Springsteen, from his early days with The Castilles up to the recording of Tunnel of Love and the end of the first E-Street era. And for the real buffs, it provides detailed notes on the 300 songs Springsteen penned during this time. It really is the work of a true aficionado.

One of the few issues I took with the book was Heylin’s final note; that the moments of miracle are fewer these days. Anyone who experienced the recent ‘Wrecking’ shows would attest to the fact that night after night, Springsteen continues to perform miracles. Maybe it is because audiences go expecting nothing less, and that these days Bruce and band are performing in much larger arenas that some of the subtle magic is lost. I can’t say for sure… but what I do know, is it wasn’t lost on me.

Here’s three moments of miracle from three different E-Street eras. Get your fill.

Now I am off to start reading Peter Ames Carlin’s ‘Bruce’.

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On Joy and Sorrow

QLD Poetry Festival’s ‘Artistic Director’, Sarah Gory, recently invited a number of Australian poets to respond to a handful of questions that explore the wild landscapes of Joy and Sorrow. This interview series, named for Kahlil Gibran’s famous poem in which he artfully says that joy and sorrow are two sides of the same coin, was inspired by the ‘on beauty‘ series that Lemon Hound are currently running.

On Joy and Sorrow

In inviting us to participate, Sarah has encouraged us to open up about how we as poets interact with the emotions we are often accused of ‘evoking’. Living with and responding to these questions was a genuinely moving experience, so I hope there is something in these responses to carry with you… So here I am, talking ‘On Joy and Sorrow.’

And while you are reading, I recommend exploring the responses of Betsy Turcot and Matt Hetherington; there is much to revel in.

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