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?

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?

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.

Home > Poetry > News

Finally. How long has it been since my last confused and bemused post on returning to the grey streets of Melbourne? Too long. So, of course, there’s a bit of an unhealthy build-up of news. I myself don’t like to read long tracts of text on the internet, so I’ll try not to afflict you too much with the blowing of my own trumpet.

Before that, a few reading recommendations.  First, Robert Pinsky’s deceptively deep and broad short book, written in reflecting on the impact of the USA’s Favourite Poem Project, Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry.  Pinsky has a lot of intelligent things to say about exactly what it is that poetry is and does, in distinction to other artforms, but especially in its unique role in the culture, its ability to reconcile the individual and communal.  Read it.

I’d also say hunt down, at any cost, the poetry of Eunice De Souza.  A wise, courageous, precise poet from Pune, India, who I read in an Oxford anthology while I was in India.

And, go and see Kafka’s Monkey at the Malthouse.  A provocative, multi-layered allegory, performed in stunning physicality by Kathryn Hunter.  If you want it reduced, it’s about the process and cost of becoming human.

OK, so now me.  I’ve just come back from the Woorilla Poetry Prize.  Congratulations Bob Morrow on winning.  I carried away the runner-up certificate, but also the glow of being in good company.  Kevin Gillam had two poems commended (Hi, Kevin, if you’re out there!).

The other thing that’s just arrived this week is confirmation of the Australian Poetry Centre’s Cafe Poet in Residence program.  It’s extended to (now) five of us in Melbourne.  After A Minor Place in Brunswick mysteriously baulked, I approached a little joint on Albert St, La Paloma.  Actually, perhaps I shouldn’t say who they are.  They’re not interested in publicity.  It’s a lowwcal place for lowwcal people…  Great coffee, and a place to sit regularly and write, and watch, and write, and listen, and be…  Thankyou APC.  Check out http://www.australianpoetrycentre.org.au/?page_id=379 or http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cafe-Poets/6899549657 for more.

I also won the Rosemary Dobson Prize for an unpublished poem, for Secessionist. http://www.arts.act.gov.au/pages/images/Secessionist.pdf

Oh, please, that’s enough!… 😉