‘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.
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 saw you. Sunday 4pm, old hood
until then I hadn’t known for sure if you’d stayed on
although sometimes I’d find selfies framed with the familiar
white walls of a kitchen we briefly shared.
I knew what you were doing. Sunday 4pm
rounding the corner with your reusable shopping bag
well-trod path to TT Mart, well-browsed aisles of not-quite-fresh-enough bread
potato chips whether on special or not, the endless search for kale.
Most days we would laugh, dance down those aisles
criticising pop that blared through shop speakers, but falling for it too.
Wasn’t that always your way? The world is awful, you’d say
and move to its beat nonetheless.
Sunday, so perhaps you were headed for apple pie
to stand in front of the freezer door
staring into reflected childhood traumas
explaining away the guilt you felt at wanting dessert.
Deep-dish psychological reasons why
no one in your adult life should deny you your desires.
You could talk yourself into anything
with those qualifications of yours.
I don’t remember bad times at the TT Mart with you
but there were moments when neglecting to go
resulted in empty cupboards. I copped it.
And at least once we walked home in blue-stone silence
your face sinking to the shadowy state
that made my stomach flip and clench, my whole system in a holding pattern
until it could work out what I’d done wrong. Always searching for
that mysterious thing I’d done wrong.
Cobbled silence reached crescendo back in the kitchen
you hurled the filled bag at white walls, settled into that hollow place of yours
while I cleaned up scattered vegetables
smashed mushrooms, broken bottles.
Sunday 4pm and we were driving past your corner
on our way to play tennis. I hadn’t held a racket in years
six of us piled into my boyfriend’s car, a week’s worth of news
bursting to tell them we’re moving in together.
My new friends had heard all about you
so when I pointed to your shape moving along the footpath
they joked unrepeatably.
Jason kept an eye on you from the rear-view mirror
but I knew exactly where you were headed
walking solo with your empty bag.
Last week I spotted my ex in the neighbourhood we used to live in together. I hadn’t seen him in over a year and had at times been curious as to how I would feel if I did. I wrote this poem to show how that simple walk to the supermarket could be a microcosm of an entire confusing, anxiety-provoking and often emotionally abusive relationship. It felt so perfect that I was happily crammed into a car with some of the lovely new people in my life, being driven by a much calmer, kinder man when we saw him. Everything’s symbolic, of course, but it’s also just how things are now: safer and better; far less lonely and much more fun.
I didn’t realise the front yard’s potential until you took to it in gardening gloves, trimmed back the privet.
As last year changed from this year, and I could stop saying ‘last year’ with such portent, such regret; a phrase loaded with the weight of an on-coming sob-story, we were camping by the Wellington river. A settlement of pegged-out shelters, fairy lights and bonfires. I was miles from my Wellington home.
I say the h word again with a kind of inflection, trying it out for size, sighing out the həʊ, the m buzzes past my lips. I hold it in my mouth like a pill. This constant starting over exhausts me. Always has. Newness of a cleared front yard. I’ll dig in my toes, resolve to thicken like the trunk of a grapevine, let the porch be built around me for a change. Feathered things perch in my branches.
Disturbing the privet seems to be making my eyes stream, but on New Year’s Day I sprained my finger, slipped on rocks in flimsy jandals, a little drunk. There were bull ant bites on the tops of my feet and a blush of sunburn between my breasts. What I mean is, these things pass, they clear up. We heal and adapt. We look back and see fairy lights strung between trees, flickering with comforting regularity, we move closer to each other on an old brown couch. We look back and then we don’t look back.