‘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
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
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
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.
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:
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
BBC Culture has just published a list of The 100 Stories that Shaped the World from international writers’ contributions. I was stoked to be one of the contributors! Check out the whole list at BBC Culture and read about my top 5 here:
- Song of Myself (Walt Whitman) and, indeed, Leaves of Grass as a collection, reads like a Humanist manifesto that celebrates a love of land, freedom, self and the connections between these. Whitman embodies a universal and omnipotent “I” into which readers can place themselves and have done over generations. It’s very much an epic poem, but plays with structure and language, the long lines moving with the breath, and surprising, explicit imagery. The shift away from traditional spiritual reflection – rumination on the connections between nature, God and the human mind – marks an important change in how we view the body and physical world. The many references to Song of Myself in pop and high culture over the years are testament to its potency, endurance and relevance. (number 87!)
- Howl (Allen Ginsberg) marked a cultural shift, not just in literature (although this is hugely significant), but also in the way people view literature and art as something powerful and dangerous. The poem spoke to a group of marginalised writers and musicians and challenged the expectations of language and ‘high art’. Post-WWII when people were feeling either a strong desire to settle into familiar comforts and gender stereotypes, or anger at the establishment, Howl opened a gate for freedom of expression and allowed discussion, anger, excitement and all kinds of love out into mainstream society, subverting and questioning the norms. The Howl Obscenity Trial (1957) sent a message to the world about just how powerful language can be and the idea that a poem could incite legal action is thrilling. (number 53!)
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) has been read and studied year after year in high schools and today, nearly 60 years after its publication, it’s still a deeply loved book by people of all ages. The links to American history and race relations are both specific to the Deep South in the 1930s and hugely relevant to today’s society. The themes of prejudice and empathy are quoted and referred to time and again to highlight aspects of our own society that need examining. To Kill a Mockingbird documents important historical ideologies that must never be forgotten as well as asking us to examine the way we treat all members of our communities. (number 27!)
- Romeo and Juliet (William Shakespeare) is considered a deeply romantic play, but there is less to learn about love here than there is to learn about the petty differences that keep factions of communities separated. The tragedy is in the secrecy of the love between Romeo and Juliet and it’s a constant reminder to always questions our prejudices, whether they be newly formed or ancient grudges. This play has also been studied and read in classrooms for generations, influencing the way people view human behaviour and highlighting those aspects which are centuries old; deeply engrained notions of love at first sight and the lengths some will go to. Of course, Shakespeare has also influenced literature and pop culture in more ways than we can count. (number 13!)
- The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), a powerful cautionary tale, has never felt more relevant. Ideas around the treatment of women and the dystopian society created are perhaps extreme, but feel like a plausible future for societies where women are continually being marginalised and their bodies legislated. The novel is a harsh indictment of gender stereotyping and patriarchal societies, reminding us how important it is to empower women to be agents of their own destinies and not allow their voices to be silenced. People have turned to Atwood’s horrifying view of the future time and again when reflecting on the current status of women in society. (number 16!)
I’ve recently moved house, but thankfully this hasn’t compromised my reading on the train time. As term 2 gets underway, I thought it timely to update you on my commuter reading habits this year. (You can read about the stuff I was reading last semester here).
Goodbye, Perfect – Sara Barnard
I felt very invested in the action of this YA novel. Narrated by Eden, whose usually “perfect” best friend has run off with the hipster music teacher, the old “trying to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped” tension was developed in a way that rang disturbingly true. Eden was a lovely nuanced character too, in foster care with a family who carved out a symbolic piece of garden for her to work and dealing with her own own feelings of imperfection.
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Who doesn’t love Austen? I’m looking forward to teaching this next term.
I am Thunder – Muhammad Khan
This is not my favourite recent YA novel, but I was drawn along by the tension and themes that feel important in understanding Islamic points of view. The main character struggles with controlling parents and, as a result, gets swept up into a world of extremism. The characters don’t quite feel real at times, with some clunky teenage dialogue, but the action progresses at a good pace and the choices and conflicts for the main character are important to consider.
Persepolis (books 1&2) – Marjane Satrapi
I enjoyed teaching this last term. Satrapi’s Graphic Memoir is another often neglected worldview – the effects of the Iranian Revolution on the population and, in particular, how these event shaped a childhood. Satrapi doesn’t portray herself as a perfect character, but she’s hugely likeable and struggles with all the normal teenage issues on top of bigger issues, such as faith, war, political beliefs and loss of family members. So many excellent scenes and the visuals are charmingly simple and affecting.
Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow – Yuval Noah Harari
I’m now currently reading Harari’s Sapiens, which is the back story in some ways to this. Homo Deus looks at where homo sapiens have come from and where we are potentially going, in a world where things like Google know more about us than we know ourselves; where we strive for immortality; where we’re creating artificial intelligence beyond our own abilities. Harari makes connections between topics that you never see coming, but are so convincing when they’re drawn together. This was an intense reading experience, as I couldn’t stop thinking about it and almost every conversation I had at this time seemed to be able to link to an idea from the book.
Take Three Girls – Cath Crowley, Simmone Howell & Fiona Wood
Three YA authors each create a character who’s figuring themselves out and developing a relationship with the others. It’s not uncommon these days for YA novels to flick point of view every chapter and sometimes this feels pointless, especially if the voices are not particularly distinct or add interest to the story. But this works really well as the authors have their own voice and style for their characters and they interact beautifully. The book looks at some important ideas and the girls are drawn together initially by a “Wellness” class – a clever device for allowing them to be cynical and then accepting of self-care and relationship lessons.
The Shepherd’s Hut – Tim Winton
I read this straight after hearing Tim Winton introduce his character and talk about toxic masculinity. I’ve loved Winton’s work for ages, and hearing him talk is so moving, as he’s a powerful blend of humble, intelligent, heart-felt and funny. The Shepherd’s Hut follows Jaxie Clackton as he attempts to cross the saltlands of Western Australia, escaping the home that has nothing left for him. He’s a deeply troubled boy, but I felt incredibly warm towards him and hoped only for his safety. The voice is authentic and consuming and the landscape – so often a character of its own in Winton’s work – stark and uncompromising.
Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit
Solnit has become my go-to on US political commentary recently, but it was also useful reading her essays on the back of Winton’s talk, as she reiterates the problem of the patriarchy, reminding me that these ideas and facts need to be voiced by everyone, before change can happen. She’s scathing and funny, but hits you with the reality of a society where it’s all too common to silence women.
The Natural Way of Things – Charlotte Wood
This had been on my “to read” list for a while and I’ve been wanting to read more Australian writers since moving here. This might not have been a good place to start! I was engrossed entirely and compelled to finish to ensure everyone ended up okay, but it was a rather harrowing read with very little sense of hope. The detached almost dreamlike narrative was appropriate for the characters who, given their circumstances, were trying to escape mentally and physically, but felt a bit too removed at times. As with Winton’s work, the Australian landscape is characterised as a harsh and unforgiving factor to be endured or overcome. Don’t let me stray too far into the outback, okay?
Windfall – Jennifer E. Smith
I read this as much needed fluffy light relief and it did the trick. It’s very much a teen love story, which I’m not usually a fan of, but there are some beautiful moments and incredibly well-written dialogue. I admire an ability to capture authentic teen voices and show the rapport and easy connection between characters with clever banter. Teenager wins the lottery, but realises love is the real prize in life. Aww.