I wrote this poem from my imagination, looking up images and descriptions of what it might feel like to have a life growing inside me.
after André Breton
Girl with the eyes of blown glass
With the limbs of a curled tadpole
With the thoughts of a startling gesture
With the breathing of a baroque organ.
Girl with the fingerprints of tiny forecasts
With teeth of tight buds and a harvest of rice
With the quickening of fists
With the heart of a fusible link
With the heart of a bicycle pump.
Maybe-boy with the eyelashes of ellipses
With the ears of fine bone drums
With the eyelids of swift translucent fish
With the fingers of quotation marks.
With the hair of hiccupping
And the ends of guitar strings
And of a shelter of bracken
With the bones of clay
With the weight of the world.
From Wit of the Staircase, 2009
There are images here which I love – the “eyelashes of ellipses” and “eyelids of swift translucent fish”, for example. But the last two lines feel awful to me and I wonder what feelings I had back then about having children. “Bones of clay” is vulnerable and soft in a terrifying way and “the weight of the world” feels devastatingly unfair.
Here’s a recent poem, this time based entirely on experience. She is a marvel and she is strong – I’ve seen and heard the four chambers of her heart beating and feel her movements deliberate and determined.
We saw you on the fourth day of spring.
Still part of me and in ghostly black and white
but there you were, like a photo of the moon.
The sonographer chatted the whole way through
recommending nappy brands and hypnobirthing.
We could see your bones, your organs and eyeballs.
You are beautiful and perfect and even if you weren’t
you still would be. When we stepped outside
jasmine was everywhere, new blossom
on the otherwise bare twigs of winter. The next time we see you
you’ll be entering the world, exiting the world you’ve made inside me
and joining this marvellous place of birdsong and magnolia.
Each day the temperature rises gently, our body swells
ripples of your quickening strengthen your underwater dance
beating heart, undeniable presence of being.
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written in 2016, following the release of my first novel, Lonesome When You Go (Mākaro Press, 2016), hence some out of date references to “popular” music.
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.
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.
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
‘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.
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!
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
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.