Alt-Rock’s Demise

This piece was originally written in 2016, following the release of my first novel, Lonesome When You Go (Mākaro Press, 2016), hence some out of date references to “popular” music.

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Ed reckons Nirvana epitomised the peak of teenage angst, and the relevance of music to our collective consciousness has been going steadily downhill ever since.

Ed might be the fictional teenage drummer in my novel Lonesome When You Go, but he’s voicing a widely held opinion. Grunge died around 1996, taking the ‘alt’ of alt-rock with it and leaving us with highly processed, watered-down pop-rock –  much like the brightly coloured ‘alcopops’ of the late 90s that distracted us with their pretty bottles but did nothing to validate our true teenage feelings.

The years between the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and Kurt Cobain’s death have often been described as the height of authentic alternative rock. Earlier this month Sean O’Neal at the AV Club wrote “The faux-graffitied writing had been on the wall for alternative rock’s attenuation into corporate-engineered dross since approximately two weeks after Kurt Cobain’s suicide, right around the time Live’s Throwing Copper was released.”

Cue vivid flashback to the most popular, mainstream, best-grades-and-hair-award-winning girl at my school proudly wearing her orange ‘Live’ t-shirt tucked into her brand new Levis. A completely puzzling image to me at the time in my op-shop altered clothes and wearing-thin Converses. Alternative rock was no longer the alternative, but thank god the 90s gave us what they did.

Rolling Stone has a terrible list of the 100 best albums of the 90s. 

It’s probably about 75 albums too long and although the top ten includes six alt-rock bands and only two albums released after 1996, it glaringly omits Radiohead’s The Bends and Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, both from 1995. I was fifteen that year and am forever grateful for such perfect life-timing. If ever there was someone to take on the burden of voicing the complexities of teenage emotions for our entire generation, in the wake of Cobain’s passing, Billy Corgan was it. An unlikely hero by today’s standards, but a genuine one whose music burst straight from his own hurt soul to ours, making us realise we felt things, the names for which we had never known before.

Maybe one would argue that this new generation of teenagers have different emotions. Perhaps they don’t feel deep inexplicable sorrow or pure anger at the structure of society, and Ed Sheeran stating that falling in love is mysterious is just as meaningful to them as Corgan’s lyrics were to us. Or perhaps hearing over and over that Bruno Mars’ girlfriend’s face is amazing just the way it is is somehow empowering. But current teenage mental health is unfortunately not in good shape and Miley’s limited emotional vocabulary that reduces people and feelings to wrecking balls and Taylor Swift telling us just to “shake it off” can’t be helping. Emotions and love are much more deeply complex than that and 90s alt-rock allowed us to own those feelings and sit with them. On shuffle and repeat.

Music has always been hugely important to teenage culture and therefore holds a position of great power and responsibility. It’s not the teenagers’ fault it’s been doing a lazy job of connecting with them these last 20 years.

It’s not just the fault of the lyricists either. The need for rock music to speak an emotional truth to a generation appears to be woefully low on the musical agenda while production value and the dollar are high. Current music software is incredible and anyone with a laptop and a few hundred bucks to spare can set up a home studio. But the slick polished sound is a far cry from an authentic human voice, taking musicians yet another step away from their audiences’ hearts.

Back to the 90s and commercialism was already starting to break down the entire point of alternative rock before it had time to fully draw breath.

Some argue alternative music was doomed the moment it arrived. Like a baby born on the moon, emerging into a toxic context of an industry fundamentally devoted to the corporate dollar. Anger in the face of this brought us some of the best music we will ever hear, but the cage of capitalism was firmly locking in the passion and creative rage of not just Billy Corgan’s “rat”, but the whole spirit of the 1990s. A teen culture that was based on values of op-shopping and resisting the system, we were embracing feelings of hopelessness and frustration and sharing these through distortion pedals and low-slung guitar straps.

There’s much discussion about music in Lonesome When You Go – mostly in the form of sharing loved songs, finding the right album to fit a character’s mood, buying CDs and being completely precious about how other people handle your vinyl. It’s about having pride in your musical taste; being able to hold forth at a party and gain credibility from strangers. In one scene main character Paige says, “Music totally reflects the culture and societal perception of a particular time so even if we can completely dig the sound, since we weren’t alive during its inception, we can never really hold claim to the ideology – you know?” She’s perhaps defending why alt and indie rock can now only be emulated – covered and coveted – but never again will it be as truly authentic, pained, beautifully messy, sorrowful and angry, as it was in those heady days of 1995.

Listen to the Lonesome When You Go playlist here.

Buy Lonesome When You Go from Mākaro Press here.

Tātou tātou e

Feeling far from home.

I left work early on Friday afternoon vaguely aware that something had happened, but not yet able to engage. I was overwhelmed anyway – so much work to do, unexpected difficulties, the things I want in my future taking far too long.

When I finally found somewhere quiet to sit alone and read the news… well. We have so much work to do, I thought. This is taking far too long.

Would it be easier to be surrounded by others who are mourning? I walked into class on Tuesday, Year 8s stood awkwardly while Tūtira mai ngā iwi played through a UE Boom. I half expected them to sing along, sway or move in gentle wiri, but this is all completely foreign to them and Tuesday morning roll call is no time for my tears.

Distance, so I didn’t realise the connection between the song and those currently standing strong. I was transported instead to my childhood primary school in Auckland when all teachers could strum a guitar in that particular way, show us line by line how to sing waiata, never quite explaining what it meant.

‘80s kids belting out Aue! at the end of each line, kids whose names I could pronounce with ease (it was ‘Christopher’ I had trouble with, I mean just look at all those consonants!)

We have so much work to do, but young people haka in the street, write condolences, visit mosques with their families.

Young people stand awkwardly listening to a completely foreign song, watching me listen because whenever New Zealand is mentioned they think of their teacher, turn to catch a glimpse of me in a crowded assembly hall, because they know I’m usually smiling

when I’m reminded of home.

2018 Literary Highlights

‘Tis the season for highlights and reflections! In a busy year of school camps, public speaking competitions, parent interviews, marking, reporting writing and teaching, I managed to squeeze a few literary moments into my calendar. Here are some that stood out, including events, books and my own small endeavours.

Top 5 Events

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1. Tim Winton on Toxic Masculinity

Promoting his latest book, The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton spoke with his usual mix of humility, intelligence, heart and humour. I always enjoy hearing him speak and this topic felt especially relevant. Here’s my good friend Alex Bisley interviewing Tim for Macleans.

2. Neko Case at Melbourne Writers Festival

I enjoyed many events at MWF and finding them in strange and unfamiliar corners of the city was fun too. I heard Neko Case first as part of a panel on the texts that influenced panel members’ feminism, then saw her again solo at ACMI. I’ve been a fan of her music for a long time and always love hearing artists talk about their craft. Neko’s latest album is Hell-On.

3. First Chapters Series at Brunswick Bound

I feel so lucky to have this amazing bookstore just around the corner (and down the road a bit) from my house. In this series, the store celebrates the work of local authors on the first Friday of each month, by inviting them to read a chapter from their work and engage in a Q&A afterwards. Highly recommended, and more information here.

4. Launch of Close to Home by Alice Pung

Another wonderful event from Brunswick Bound. Alice’s new collection of essays was launched by amazing Helen Garner and is such an insightful and engaging collection. I enjoyed chatting to Alice afterwards and she assured me her young adult novel, Laurinda is NOT based on the school I teach at, despite the suspiciously similar names. If you don’t know Alice’s work, definitely check it out!

5. Melbourne Writers’ Group Anthology Launch

The Melbourne Writers’ Group know how to throw a party! I was so proud of my friends who worked so hard to launch this book as writers and editors, readers, speakers and book sellers. This is their third anthology and they keep getting better. Find out more about the Melbourne Writers’ Group and come along to the weekly social nights and writing times here!

Top 5 Books

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1. Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong

This is such a beautifully crafted collection, where poems shift form and are experienced through all senses. I was totally captivated by it. You can read ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ here.

2. The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton

I never miss a chance to remind you all how much I love Tim Winton’s writing. In fact I’ve already mentioned this book here.

3. There but for the, Ali Smith

I’ve read so many good books this year, but this one stands out as it stuck with me: the quirky conversations and lack of resolution. Ali Smith might not be for everyone, but I think she’s a master of dialogue, voice, structure. I trust her completely and enjoy being taken for the ride. Here she is talking about the power of the novel.

4. Solar Bones, Mike McCormack

This was a startling book. Written in one gasping breath without a single full-stop, I suspect I read it with my mouth open. The style might seem gimmicky, but it’s completely in fitting with the theme and plot and works surprisingly well. Stream of consciousness is not technically correct for this book … anyway, it won Mike McCormack the International Dublin Literary Award.

5. Take Three Girls, Cath Crowley, Fiona Wood, Simmone Howell

A shout out to the many young adult novels I read this year. This one stood out as it had three strong and distinct female characters who work together to fight the system. Very cleverly and convincingly created by three awesome Australian writers.

Top 5 Writer Moments

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1. Photos of the Sky launch week

Obviously launching my third poetry book and spending a week reading it to small crowds of people was the highlight of my own writerly year. I was thrilled that Tim Jones was able to launch the book, and greatly enjoyed reading at Unity Books with Nicola Easthope and again at Volume in Nelson. There’s even a lovely review of Photos of the sky by Sarah Lin Wilson here.

2. Girls on Key Open Mic

When Nicola Easthope and I knew we were going to be reading together in Wellington, we made sure to meet in Melbourne first! Luckily, Nicola was on her way to the Tasmanian Poetry Festival, so we had the chance to catch up, meet with the lovely Jennifer Compton and read poetry together at an open mic night. Girls on Key is a monthly event hosted by Open Studio.

3. Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand

I was unable to attend any of the launches for this, but I loved being included in the anthology. There’s a new poem from Photos of the Sky in there and an old one from Wit of the Staircase. The anthology is edited by Michelle Elvy, Frankie McMillan and James Norcliffe.

4. BBC Culture: The 100 stories that shaped the world

There’s something pleasing about adding my top 5 into my top 5 and something even more satisfying about being quoted in the BBC. I admit there are many names on this list, but being asked to contribute was a nice writerly moment for me.

5. Teaching and Writing balance

I still haven’t nailed it 100%, but this has been an excellent year for me in terms of balancing my teaching and writing life. I am so lucky to work at a school that supports me with a day off each week, constant queries about how the writing’s going (!), acknowledgement of my achievements and actual promo from the marketing team. Watch this space for more news from my school, but in the meantime here’s a small fun, thoughtful, creative corner of the school I’ve enjoyed helping create.

 

Launching Photos of the Sky

I really love and value the process of launching a book into the world – reading it into life and physically passing the poems into the hands of readers. When I sign a book for someone and hand it back to them, I really do feel that the work belongs to them now.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about the week I spent in New Zealand, catching up with friends, family, writers, publishers, booksellers and people I hadn’t seen in years. I enjoyed all of it, and grew more proud of and confident about this collection, which was mostly written in secrecy, bar the few poems blogged here to my loyal audience. I think I’ve said before that it’s a deeply personal collection, something that became particularly apparent as I stood in front of my final crowd in Nelson (my home town) and felt teary farewelling some pretty hard feelings that existed as I wrote this book.

My friend and fellow poet Tim Jones, was kind enough to launch Photos of the Sky at the event at Thistle Inn, Wellington. His endorsement was another lovely and valuable aspect of sending this book into the world.

Tim used the words “confident” and “charismatic” to describe the new collection, and I’m incredibly grateful for his generous comments. Before reading from the book, Tim said:

Tim Jones

There’s so much to identify with in this collection, how could I not love it? Cricket bats, Game of Thrones, Bowie. Slugs sneaking inside to feast on cat food. Love, lust, rueful confessions. Taika Waititi – he gets a whole poem! Midland Park. Melbourne. Preston! The mention of that magical suburb makes me think of Courtney Barnett – and this collection is musical poetry from a musician who writes so well about music and many other things as well.


Photos of the Sky
is yours now. I hope you like it!

Available from The Cuba Press and local bookstores, or feel free to contact me here.

Missing my own metaphors

We’ve been studying Sylvia Plath in Year 11 Literature, reading too much into her work, perhaps and trying to avoid linking every poem to the one tragic thing everyone knows about her. The truth is, Sylvia was smart, worked hard, she crafted her poetry carefully, attended creative writing classes. She cared about what was happening in the world around her, she was a mother, she questioned society’s expectations. She wrote poems on good days and she wrote poems on bad days. Her poetry represents all of these things.

I’ll be launching my third collection of poetry in Wellington on Monday. It represents good days and bad days too; tough decisions, optimism and disappointment. It ends just before everything in my life fell astoundingly into place. All my poetry is personal, but in this collection, I feel like I’ve achieved a kind of honesty I’ve avoided all my life.

So, I’ve been nervously wondering if readers will notice.

One of the poems that looks least personal is ‘Building consent’, in the section Shift. I genuinely wrote it because I always had a dream of buying an old house and doing it up, but saw a renovation in progress and decided it looked exhausting, loud and messy. I like the poem. It says what I wanted it to, but as I read through it in the context of this book I realised I’d missed my own metaphor.

The poem represents a shift in my dreams: what once excited me just looked like hard work at that point. I was in the middle of trying to make an unfixable relationship work, a relationship I’d travelled miles to be in. Making it work was my dream, but sometimes you just have to know when to quit.

On one level, the poem’s not a metaphor at all. I looked at the physical labour going into the renovation and had no capacity to embark on such a task myself. I was tired and anxious from my situation. Doing up a house was far from my mind.

On another level, it’s creeping into metaphor – homes represent a kind of stability, a decision couples might make together, a project to establish partnership. My relationship was nowhere near that point of joint purchase and effort.

On yet another level, it’s all metaphor. The house is the relationship. Pure and simple. It was time to give away my desire to fix things that are so obviously a broken mess…

Or am I giving myself too much credit here?

Building consent

The romantic notion of buying a rundown clapboard villa
pouring heart and soul into doing it up by hand
spending all of your time loving it
back to life – gutting out the back half, sourcing
sustainable surfaces for breakfast bars and just the right shade –
is quickly debunked as I walk past a weathered
rusted bungalow, boards rotted through
shirtless men shouting across the trampled front garden
propped with piles of Bunnings purchases
and a ‘dunnys R us’ in pride of place
sounds of dropped steel and hammered edges
everything shifting slightly in the relentless
heat of yet another day on this damned project
too many chiefs, too many cooks and not one chef in the kitchen
that currently looks like a workshop
sawdust lining surfaces and can’t even make a cuppa
with all this mess
all these people coming and going
traipsing through our idealised disaster.

From Photos of the Sky, The Cuba Press available 5th November

Ubud

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A hummingbird the size of a large bumble bee hovers through bougainvillea. We watch from the pool’s edge. In the same day, my legs turn brown and my new cat-shaped two-piece leaves cat-shaped tan lines on my chest.

We’re trying out all the recommended eating spots: tofu curries, too much tempeh, supplemented with bags of chips and unfamiliar biscuits from convenience stores dotted down the main road. Our villa feels far from that traffic as we spend hours in the hammock or on day beds, under the mosquito net or by the pool, reading, snoozing, swimming with a view of improbable jungle.

The river lulls us further into laziness with its white noise rapids, or ferries squealing tourists in red rafts through the valley. It’s 30 degrees until it’s not. A complete downpour in straight lines brightens already lush greenery, highlights crimson bougainvillea, red birds of paradise, frangipani in yellow and pink clustered on leafless branches.

The river rises then, villas across the valley obscured in mist. Fat drops fall until the clouds are empty, drip musically from the edges of the thatched roof. Fallen logs of bamboo gather at the river’s sharpest bend and the sun’s revealed again just in time to set pink behind palm tops and gold.

I still call writing days writing days

but really they’ve become

sleeping late under a pile of cats days

letting my washed hair dry in the sun days

lunchtime yoga class followed by lunch days

reading poetry in a café, scribbling notes in my journal days

 

slow stride along the bike path back to the space

where maidenhair ferns its way down one wall

devil’s ivy curls its lips like leaves to the light

thick arms of monstera press against the corner window

obscuring a laundry line of last week’s life

 

the heartbeat rhythm of solitude, solace, self-solicitude days.

I take a blood test like an exam; am told I have high cholesterol and low vitamin D. The numbers bold and red on the  print-out. Sun’s been lazy recently, and I hunt down supplements like little drops of captured light.

~

Yesterday in bed my thin brown forearm came into focus, resting across both bodies. A crease at the crook of my elbow and familiar freckles, a pebbled path towards my aging wrist, hand, fingers, nails that need cutting. This has always been my arm, I thought, this has been me all along.

~

I catch the train twice a day and every time I don’t miss it I’m reminded I’m a capable human being.

~

I write my books, I teach my classes, I strengthen my core and take vitamins. I lie in bed late as the sun streams in from the other side of the sky.

Situational Awareness

What were you doing alone in a park at night?

with your violent thoughts twisting into violent acts

the way fear morphs as the streetlights disappear behind you.

 

What were you thinking dressed like that in the dark?

grey hoody hiding your face

disguising your dangerous form as a shapeless blur of nothing.

 

Were you never taught to stay in the light where we can see you?

or to call a friend if you felt that surging

desire to hurt someone, take something you had no right to touch.

 

When tree-like shadows cast across your mind

did you not know to clench a fist

around your car keys as a reminder of strength

 

reminder you’re a threat. Keep your distance.

This park is no place for you

lit candles erase darkness and the silence is on our side now.

 

From this muddy soccer field springs a shrine of flowers

laid by everyone who’s ever said

be safe, let me know when you’ve made it home.