Am I my own other?

Should I have been surprised that a meeting about marketing poetry would lead to sobbing in a toilet and pondering phenomenology?

One of my “day jobs” is at Australian Poetry, and of late I’ve been organising the 2011 itinerary for our mobile poetry library, the “Omnibus”.  Basically, we take poetry books around to regional towns, run workshops, put on readings, give people the chance to browse, read, talk about, and buy books they may not normally get a chance to.  I had organised to meet with Marcus Powe, RMIT’s “Entrepeneur-in-Residence”, to chat about how to position and promote the Omnibus, but also how to think about it.  And, no Marcus didn’t make me cry.  The meeting wasn’t the problem – it just put me in a certain place.

I’d arrived earlier than I expected, so I sat on the lawn outside the State Library of Victoria, one of the few green areas in the CBD of Melbourne.  On fine days, it’s bathed in sun and swarming with students and workers of all shapes and colours.  Pigeons and seagulls jostle for crumbs.  The atmosphere is casual; friends meet and greet, some kind of communal recognition just below the surface, we’re all here to rest and take in the sky while the trams rattle past.

One guy, in his mid-thirties, baseball cap and 3/4 length pants, slows down as he passes me, looking back at me with bemusement.  He turns around, walks up to me, directly.  “What’s that?”.  He touches my back, then lifts my shirt, looking and poking.  I can’t remember exactly what I say, but it’s something like, “It’s me.  Do you mind?!…”.  And, as he’s walking away, “maybe you should ask before you touch someone…”.  To that, he says, “don’t fuckin’ talk to me like that”.

Let’s get two things out of the way first.  He wasn’t insane in any way.  He was just your run-of-the-mill working-class tough guy.  And me, I have a genetic condition called Marfan Syndrome – it’s reasonably rare, and within that rarity, my particular manifestation is visually obvious spinal curvature.

I spend a quick half-minute in the bathroom, try to push out some of the excess emotional energy, before the meeting.  You could call it sobbing.  I am sick of being people’s object, people’s Other.

This encounter, both mundane and extraordinary, raises some critical questions.  What does it mean to have a body?  What is normal?  Why is it that now and then something happens to rupture our habitual ignorance of embodiment?  And, do I, as an apparently different-looking person, have a different sense of self?

From my meagre understanding of him, French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty says that we engage with the world not as subject examining objects at a distance, but synesthetically and implicitly.  Our body opens onto the rest of the world, is the very condition of our experience.  Our senses resonate with a unity of perceptions.  In a way, the world is made for us, through the medium of our bodies, bodies that are situated and inescapably relational.  Experience is a continual, complex flow, where meaning and relationship is ongoing and always incomplete.

So, in that vast rushing flow of experience, as a universe of different bodies surround and pass us – the gaggle of school-girls, a ragged man rifling through bins, a meticulously groomed business-woman, towering Somalian boys, waddling overweight children, people of all shapes and colours and ways of moving – some kind of sense of “normality” emerges.  Edmund Husserl believed that our bodies seek always to normalise, to assimilate, to incorporate abnormality within the realm of the expected, through understanding or empathy.  Oh, that person is blind, this man is drunk, that woman must be lost.  We build our understanding on familiarity, push experience into categories, to ensure that we can move on, ready for our next encounter.  And, yes, sometimes that process of normalisation stalls; the person appears so other to us, we stare, in confusion, discomfort, anger.

When I mentioned my experience outside the library to people, the overwhelming response seemed to be “how rude!” or “what’s wrong with him?!”.  Fair enough.  What I want to know is this – what does what he did reveal about abnormality in our culture?  What sort of experiences help us to recognise self-hood in others?  How is it we can fail to recognise self-hood in others, or disregard their bodily integrity?  And what does poetry encourage?

Alexander Kozin, in his article “The Uncanny Body: from medical to aesthetic abnormality” (Janus Head, vol.9, iss.2, 2007), says that the experience of some bodies are purely unassimiliable.  He seems to have his epiphany at the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf, Germany.

“It is there that I saw a person whose appearance broke any and every anticipation of an embodied human being…    She was a collage made of odd objects; her arm stub and her twisted legs looked as if they came off from a non-human creature…  Her body, small and fragile, half a body, appeared to be torn apart by some mechanical mangler of flesh.  This strange assimilation of incompatible parts made her movements as bizarre and as majestic as if she was a royalty raised from some underground dream-world, invading one’s peace and usurping it, leaving us with nothing but emptiness in the wake of explosive astonishment and awe…”

I’m tempted to say, Alex, calm down.  This woman, whose mother took the drug Thalidomid during pregnancy, can hardly be said to have “half a body” – from her perspective, her body is entire.  And I doubt she came from an “underground dream-world” – more likely, her home in a typical German suburb.  But what he is says is revealing, on many levels.

Earlier in his essay, Kozin asks “How can abnormality of the body be available to us most generally?”.  Whether he realises it or not, just who is implied within this “us” is absolutely critical – and it is this that is potentially the most “explosive” element of his encounter with abnormality.  Think about it.  Does he mean “those of us who have normal bodies”?  It seems to me that the person he calls “the Contergan woman” is not included within the “us”.  By definition, she can’t be.

Based on what I know from my own experience of having an unusual body (though certainly not as unusual as hers), I expect that, to her, abnormality is normality.

I also know that the normality of an abnormal embodiment doesn’t cancel out it’s abnormality.  For some, of course, certain tasks, movements, journeys are immensely difficult or impossible, due to their bodily situation.  But even for those of us who are not “disabled”, we get our sense of self through our interactions with others and the world.  If I am continually reminded of my otherness, then I am other.  Self and other simultaneously.

I see people with unusual bodies and, yes, they are other to me.  Yet very often, something in me also feels a tone of recognition, affinity.  Self and other.

Kozin also unwittingly tells us something about poetry, too.  Whenever he discusses the appearance of “the Contergan woman”, he shifts from academic philosophical language into a heightened, almost ecstatic tone.  He crams his sentences with metaphor, analogy, hyperbole, disjunctions.  His experience of her body can’t be assimilated, doesn’t make sense – instinctively or deliberately, he drops the authority and detachment of rationality, dives into a disorienting, passionate poetry.  Then, as an academic should, he composes himself and returns to discourse.

What exactly is otherness?  What make us look at other people as Others?  Is that “making other” inevitable, primal, tribal?  Is it fuelled by an inability to empathise, a simple lack of familiarity, or a kind of shock at seeing repressed aspects of ourselves in other people?  And is poetry the natural home for that space between self and other?

By myself, I have no answers.  But then, I’m not by myself, am I?

Bodies of Poetry (an introduction)

Poetry is an artform of language, with its roots firmly within the body – in its fascination with embodied experience and in its incorporation of bodily rhythms.  But whose body are we talking about?  Apart from the question of male and female bodies, how are bodies that are deformed or unusual treated?  Does poetry reinforce a clear line between “human” and “abject”?  Or can it complicate our perception of normality?

This was to be the starting-point for my Masters thesis this year.  As it turns out, I was accepted into the program but missed out on a scholarship.  Since I don’t have a year’s income saved up, I’ve decided I’ll pursue this topic of mine outside of the University.  Masters without a Masters.  Who knows how long it will take, or if I’ll drop it half-way.  But the reading and thinking will be worth it.

My interest in poetry and physical difference is intrinsically linked with my personal experience. I was born with Marfan Syndrome, which has resulted in severe spinal curvature, yet without any significant physical impairment. My own poetry seeks to express the subjective experience of being visibly different, and is in some way an attempt to reverse the usual dynamic of naming and identification.

And, since I don’t want to be doing this “non-Masters” alone, I’ve decided to post short mini-essays on this blog, in a series entitled “Bodies of Poetry”.  I’m interested in how non-standard bodies find expression in poetry.  Poetic licence of the body.  I’d love your feedback, ideas, suggestions, personal stories, rants, whatever you feel fits into the topic, from whatever angle.

My partner and I just recently found a great little shop, upstairs at 381 Sydney Road – Mr Kitly – which has some great books on design, art, architecture, and some gorgeous tea cups and crockery.  Yes, very “new Brunswick”.  Anyway, we found this book – “Difference on Display: Diversity in Art, Science and Society”.

"Difference on Display: diversity in art, science and society"

It’s a mix of artists, film-makers, performers, theorists and activists – Donna Harraway, Tom Shakespeare, Bruce Nauman, William Kentridge, Patricia Piccinini, Louise Bourgeois, Critical Art Ensemble, and a lot more – and it approaches diversity and normality from a huge range of angles.  I’m sure it will find it’s way into my thoughts as they emerge here…

Again, yes, any suggestions and thoughts are very welcome, particularly on poets I should read…

2010 in review

It’s a new year and it’s about time I updated my “About” tab – times change and so do we.  Check out the About tab at the top left of the page (right next to Home).

And now a word from WordPress on this blog, probably of special interest to the statisticians and trivialists out there (yeah, I know, as if I’m not one of them…!).

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Fresher than ever.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 3,300 times in 2010. That’s about 8 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 5 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 30 posts. There were 11 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 2mb. That’s about a picture per month.

The busiest day of the year was June 9th with 42 views. The most popular post that day was yes, I am a tourist.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, queenslandpoetryfestival.info, middleeuropeanmelancholy.wordpress.com, slamup.blogspot.com, and vic.ipaa.org.au.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for puri beach, slogans on tourism in india, andy jackson poet, red light area in hyderabad, and not gay.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

yes, I am a tourist February 2009

2

new india tourism slogans February 2009
3 comments

3

a city is not a city February 2009
4 comments

4

Sikkim/Imsikk February 2009

5

About November 2008
11 comments

poems, abnormality, puppetry & reviews

What do those four words have in common?  In the best blogging tradition – me. 

October’s been a huge month.  I’ve been adjusting to a new job, ten hours a week (2.5 hrs x 4 days) at a medical library.  Plus, planning and preparing for the tour of the Australian Poetry Omnibus Mobile Library – which included a trip up the Maldon Folk Festival (a fantastic, vibrant, daggy, rain-enduring festival).  And I’ve also been preparing my application for Masters of Arts (Creative Writing) at the University of Melbourne.  If the door’s open (and if there’s a pile of scholarship money awaiting), I’ll be researching and writing about how unusual/abnormal bodies make themselves known through contemporary poetry.  Any thoughts on this topic would be hugely appreciated – from any angle – theoretical, poetic, personal, political, etc…

This week – I’m performing at La Mama Theatre in Carlton – that wonderful, iconic, intimate theatre venue.  They do a series of short seasons for experimental works-in-progress called “Explorations“.  I’m performing an adaptation of my poem “9/10/1973 M3”, called “Ambiguous Mirrors” – it’s a puppetry and poetry collaboration with Rachael Wenona Guy.  Details below.  An edited clip of an earlier version is here on You Tube

  • Ambiguous Mirrors (in a double with Home Stretch, by Tom Davies)
  • @ La Mama Theatre, 205 Faraday St Carlton
  • Thursday 11th, Friday 12th & Saturday 13th @ 7.30pm
  • Bookings on-line or on 03 9347 6142.

Also, now that my book “Among the Regulars” has been out for a while…  how does anyone get reviewed?  Is this because reviews are rarely published?  Is it because people write more than they read?  Do we just not have much of a reviewing culture?

thanks to a founding member of the Australian Communist Party

As some of you know, I’ve been, as the euphemism goes, “between jobs”. Nine months after finishing a post-graduate course, I’d lost count of the number of positions I’d applied for, I’d been to about a dozen interviews and been knocked back in many varied polite and complimentary ways. What I’d wanted was to have interesting part-time work that would leave me with enough energy and time to write. All I had so far was time. And, perhaps paradoxically, I wasn’t doing much writing.

I did have something to look forward to, though.  A four-week residency in Perth.

When I arrived at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, it was dark and one part of me was still in the plane, another still in Melbourne. This clean, simple room was to be my home for four weeks. I went for a walk – found suburban mansions, barking dogs and a rushing freeway. But, with a healthy dose of disorientation making things seem a little super-real, I also started to find my feet, and the start of a first poem.

As time went on, I covered a lot of territory. I walked through quite a chunk of the John Forrest NP, up and down almost all of the surrounding Greenmount suburban streets, around Midland’s shops and bus terminals, through the city in the shadow of cranes, and across the surface of Fremantle, wondering about its depths. I was also (thankyou Mardi!) driven around the Swan Valley, as the sun broke across vines and a still-being-completed Memorial Park for Yagan. I also went a long way while just sitting in my room – language and silence, human and animal, solitude, racism, public transport, parenthood, love, history, and more.

I wrote more poems in the four weeks of the residency than I wrote in the twenty weeks before it. This got me thinking – what is it that makes the difference? In what conditions does creativity flourish? It can’t be purely a question of the amount of time on my hands. It seems to me that it’s a complex cocktail – a blend of elements that is impossible to define precisely. But the most important factors to me seem to be a balance of familiarity and strangeness, home and holiday, stillness and stimulation. Plus, that most invaluable resource, time.

There is never any guarantee, but KSP helped bring these elements together. There is a wide window that draws in the sun, the trees, the flashes of parrots flying past. There’s a kettle for coffee. There’s internet access (to track down secondhand bookshops, plot a public transport journey, do important and trivial research, and stay in touch with home). Just up the hill, in the house, there’s a fantastic library, and a host of friendly and passionate writing groups. And further, in the National Park, the other wisdom of the bush. There’s a comfortable chair. And an occasional gentle, friendly knock at the door. Here is a place founded and maintained on an understanding that writing is a valuable, human, political, communal act – a reminder that writing grows not out of thin air, but in the soil of an encouraging and critical community. I arrived home not just to a new part-time job, but also thoroughly reinvigorated about what people can do with words.

I juggled a hundred elements to make a writing workshop – “writing through the body” – a success.  I spoke and read poems at a Literary Dinner, which was friendlier and more informal and fun than the name might indicate.  And mentored an emerging poet.  Oh, and spent time with some superbly keen writers groups – so down-to-earth they were almost subterranean.

So, thankyou to KSP the Writers Centre, but thankyou to KSP the person – Katharine Susannah Prichard, founding member of the Communist Party of Australia, impassioned novelist, scriptwriter, poet, thinker and doer.

Also, thanks to Janet and team at the Perth Poetry Club.  A great spot to check out the rich poetic grass-roots of Perth.

the words vs sleep equation

Last weekend, I did something foolish.  In the good sense.  As in, something that the rational Andy would have backed out of.

The 24 hr fix: Poetry Play Challenge is a joint initiative of Red Eight Creations and the Australian Poetry Centre.  They select five poets, five directors and ten actors, put them into five teams, and give them 24 hours to brainstorm, write, devise, rehearse and perform a 10-15 minute play.  This year the play was to respond to the theme “Glass Clouds”, the title of Grant Caldwell’s just-released book.

Now, I rarely write outside the 10am to 4pm window.  And I’ve never written a play.  But I need a stretch.  And a stretch it was – the constraint of time, theme, lack of sleep – all added up to mean that when I’d been writing for four or so hours, at 3.30am, I couldn’t tell what I’d done.  Was it any good?  Did it make sense?  Would an actor cringe as my words came out of their mouth?  I woke up at 7am to go to a group meeting wanting to delete some lines, but it was too late!

It’s an exercise in trust and release from ego, really.  You have to give up over-editing.  You have to push through the blank uncertainties, the writer’s disorientation.  And you have to allow your work to be placed into the hands of others.  

As it turned out, “my” play was somewhat abstract and perhaps over-ambitious, but the actors Rachel Taufa and Luci O’Brien (along with director Bronwyn Dunston) took it’s emotional and psychological core, it’s sense of journey, and made something quite haunting.  Thanks, people!

I also have to say I agreed with the Judges’ decision – Elise Hearst‘s piece was a classic, humane, focussed work and deserved to win.  Steve Smart too proved again his skill in fusing pathos and humour.

I can’t say I’m rushing to write at midnight again, but the process was like a drug – euphoric and addictive.  So, if you’re thinking of doing it in 2011, don’t think too much.  Do it.

PS.  I was also very encouraged by the crowd’s welcoming of the judges’ criticisms – we don’t critique in this culture regularly enough, and with enough consideration and clarity.  We (especially I) need more than just encouragement.

launch season 2010 – or, why just do it once?

Earlier this week, I heard the sweet thump of a box of books landing on my doorstep.  So, time to announce the launch of “Among the Regulars”, and also to mention a few other readings I have coming up.

Friday, June 11th @ 5.30pm for a 6pm start – Brunswick Bound Bookstore, 361 Sydney Rd Brunswick.

Hosted by the inimitable Maurice McNamara.  Launched by the inestimable Jennifer Harrison.

If you’re that way inclined, you can find the event (and me) on (de)Facebook!

Other feature readings this year include – 

  • Saturday, June 5th @ 3pm – Word Tree, Burrinja Gallery, Olinda.
  • Monday, June 14th @ 6.30pm, Readings at Readings, Carlton.
  • Saturday, June 19th @ 2.30pm – Dan Poets, Dan O’Connell Hotel, Carlton.
  • Sunday, July 4th @ 3.30pm – EcoCentre, St Kilda Botanical Garden.
  • Monday, July 19th @ 6.15pm – Wheeler Centre, Debut Mondays.
  • Saturday, August 14th – Perth Poetry Club, The Moon, 323 William St, Northbridge, WA.
  • Tuesday, August 17th, 7pm – Literary Dinner at Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, Greenmount, WA.
  • Last weekend in August – Queensland Poetry Festival, Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane.
  • Wednesday, October 27th – Somewhere in Sydney.
  • Tuesday, November 9th – Somewhere in Canberra.

More details as soon as they thump onto my inbox, but for now, here’s the book cover….  If you can’t make these, and you’d like to buy the book, click on the Papertiger link on the right.

Rosebank – “out Cobaw way”

I’m very keen to tell you about the imminent arrival of “Among the regulars”, but for now it’s Rosebank.  I’ve just come back from a 3-week stay at “Rosebank Retreat“, generously granted through the Victorian Writers Centre, Mary Delahunty, the Sidney Myer Fund and Helen Macpherson Smith Trust.  And as the old cliche goes, it’s not a retreat as much as an attack.  The idea being, give a writer a place to stay and very little “real world” commitments, and the writer will write.

Before I tell you if that actually happened, let me give you a few images of the place and the surrounding area…

Rosebank Retreat
If you ride a trailbike through this, there's a lot you won't hear...

 

a curious and talkative local...
Macedon Ranges from the Cobaw State Forest

 

I had no strong plans for what I’d do here.  I wanted to write poems, maybe a dozen if I’m lucky, hopefully at least a handful.  I didn’t have any subjects, ideas, not a single rhyme scheme either.  The plan was to let the plan emerge out of the place, see how it affected me.  If you can put yourself into the photos above, you can guess – while it’s possible, it’s highly unlikely you won’t be refreshed and stimulated being here.  Oh, yeah, and by “here”, I mean between Woodend and Lancefield, not far from Hanging Rock.  Or, as we were told by someone at the nearest (8 kms away) General Store, “out Cobaw way”.

It may be way too early to talk about the quality of what I’ve written up there, but I did come out of it with a lot – something approximating the quantity of work I’d hoped for, but two other things happened.

I learnt more about how to work with my own creative energy – took breaks when I needed to, observed how my moods affected my writing, and above all, was reminded of “the power of the walk”.  Every time, without fail, if I went for a walk, some small or large poetic problem would be solved, especially if I wasn’t deliberately trying to solve it.

I also took on some new approaches.  More of that another time.

Big thanks go to George Dunford, novelist, travel writer and The Wire afficianado.  We shared Rosebank, and he gave me space when I had that “I’m getting creative” body-language, and we filled the evenings with food and drink and audio books (yes, believe it or not) and numerous in-jokes.

If you get a chance to spend time at Rosebank, do so.  Bring all your writing tools and something to take your mind off the writing too.  And remember that when you come back into the “big smoke”, you’ll feel a little weird, and you’ll miss the echidna, the kangaroos, the cows, the rosellas, the rusted old farming equipment, the wind shivering over the hills, the open spaces of the day…  and you’ll have to work out for yourself how to re-create little miniature retreats in your everyday life.

the future is somewhere

2010 is not the end of the world, nor is 2012.  Though I have no idea what it will entail for any of us, let alone me.  What I do know is that I’ve been offered two splendid residencies – one at Rosebank Retreat just near Macedon (an hour north of Melbourne) – http://www.http://vwc.org.au/services/rosebank-retreat – and the other at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in the Perth Hills (see the blogroll for link).  Looking forward to both, and hoping that any pesky hurdles don’t suddenly lunge in between me and them.

So, this is just a tiny update.  I’ve added a few useful links at the bottom right blogroll (he says, wincing at the name…) – I’d recommend checking Adam Ford’s blog each week for answers to the question “Why do you write poetry?”.

overload | ambiguous mirrors

In April this year, at La Mama Theatre, and then this week, during the 2009 Overload Poetry Festival, I performed alongside Rachael Guy and David Churchill in a piece called “Ambiguous Mirrors”.  It’s a 12 minute collaborative piece, combining puppetry and poetry, with live cello and voice.  I talk about my father, Norman Charles Jackson, born 1926, died 1973, of complications from the same genetic condition I have.  The poem is a blur of my searchings for him – sincere, complicated, clumsy and fated searchings.  The puppet is me, and echoes of him.

With any luck we’ll do it again sometime.  Last night we were awarded Overload’s “City of Yarra Award for Most Innovative Work” (in a festival that was full of originality, I felt, so this was quite an encouragement).  It’s exhausting to perform, in a way – little barbed tears tend to well up no matter how cold I feel.  It will get easier, I’m sure.  Performance is, I suspect, a kind of doubling – being present and detached simultaneously – while poetry, traditionally, for me has meant pure autobiographical bodily communication, presence.

Enough.  Anyway, thanks (as I hope I said on the night) to Rachael for her exquisite puppet and voice and performance, and to David for his sheer unshakeable tones.  And to Kate Hood, who provided sensitive and intelligent direction.  And thanks to the City of Yarra and Overload.

Overload highlights?  Ali Cobby Eckermann, Maxine Clark, Lewis Scott, Barry Dickens… and the fact it only went for 10 days.  You can have too much of a good thing.  I feel tired, but fuelled, excited to get back to the page.

I’d like at some point to post up a few ghazals, and some thoughts on form.  For now, let’s just say, I’ve written two dozen ghazals, felt their concise, disorienting, rhythmic textures, become addicted to the stitching together of loosely-connected couplets, grown a little fatigued of the close-up editing required, and now itching for the horizons of free verse again.

Next time, not so long between posts…