(Auto)biographical poems and the pencil to the head

In many circles, confessional poetry is considered passe. Embarrassingly naive – how could the poet think there was some straightforward connection between themselves and the poem? Don’t they realise the author is dead? At the other end of an assumed spectrum is are all kinds of impersonal experimentation of language and form (as if these poets were not also, inadvertently, confessional).

If you do write what people might think of as confessional poetry, then the least you can do is grow out of it. The young, supposedly, are self-absorbed, but their worlds expand as time passes. A poet ought to mature, leave themselves behind. This, of course, assumes that you have a stable, recognisable, culturally-accepted self, which can be cast off (or deconstructed) at will. It’s not that simple for disabled people – or anyone whose body is devalued. And aesthetics isn’t that simple, either.

I’ve been writing poetry for about twenty years now. In one sense, sure, I started from the point of view of my own body. And I’ve increasingly become interested in other lives, what might be called documentary or non-fiction poetry. But, of course, there’s always more than meets the eye.

My latest poetry collection is Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold (Hunter Publishers 2017). Each of these poems is a portrait of someone else with Marfan Syndrome – historical figures speculated to have had this genetic condition, such as Abraham Lincoln, Akhenaten, Mary Queen of Scots; actors, sportspeople, composers, musicians, such as Bradford Cox, Flo Hyman, Isaiah Austin, Peter Mayhew; and a slew of people I interviewed and/or researched.

One the one hand, these poems are experiments in voice and shape. Each one is different in the texture and tenor of their language, and in how they physically appear on the page – as thin, elongated and exposed; as vociferously assertive and blunt; as awkward, asymmetrical and broken. United only by genetics, they speak in a huge diversity of voices. Voices that are not mine.

And, yet, on the other hand, they are all confessional. Within each one, there is a fuel, an engine, whatever the right metaphor is – I had to find a way into each person, a resonance of affinity or empathy. A method-actor’s poetics, I guess, though it seems to me now to cut both ways. Because, while I do feel I have given them voice, they have also given me voice(s).

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In her book “Visceral Poetics”, Eleni Stecopoulos recounts how Antonin Artaud, while drawing portraits, would press “his pencil point into the part of his head that corresponded to the part of the sitter’s head that he was betraying… no objectifying gaze, but a literal act of empathy… [which] does not mean comprehension: it means visceral sensibility of a perceived connection”.

Something like this happened while I wrote the poems for “Music Our Bodies Can’t Hold”. I found myself instinctively pressing the pencil, so to speak, into parts of me. Fatigue and pain. Self-consciousness. The paradox of being recognised and unknown. Grief. Ambivalence. Defiance. The surprise of being loved.

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Three of these poems were recently published at Rochford Street Review.  A mini-launch happened as part of the Queensland Poetry Festival recently, at which the brilliant writer and editor Heather Taylor Johnson spoke very generously. And very soon, the book will be launched in Melbourne – Saturday 9th December, 2pm, at Collected Works Bookshop at the Nicholas Building (Level 1, 37 Swanston St) – details here. I’d love to see you there. The book is published by Hunter Publishers, so any bookshop will get it in for you.

 

 

Marfan lives

There’s nothing like waiting for the results of a funding application.  I’m in the habit now of expecting nothing.  Which makes it all the more celebratory when the letter actually says “yes”.  Thanks to Arts Victoria, I’ve begun a poetry project very close to my heart, figuratively and literally.

“Marfan lives” (ambiguity accidental originally but deliberate now) is a series of poems based on the lives of people with Marfan Syndrome, both historical and contemporary, well-known and everyday.  I’m thinking of the allegedly Marfan-affected, like Abraham Lincoln, Akhenaten, Paganini and Osama bin Laden (?!), but also of people such as Edith Sitwell, John Tavener, Jonathan Larson, Vincent Schiavelli, Robert Johnson and Joey Ramone.

Antoine Marfan

But I’m also currently seeking to interview regular people, from all backgrounds and histories.  Because this project is about diversity and variety, how a genetic condition can shape people’s lives, sometimes dramatically, other times in a very subtle way – how it may make life hard for some, but how it may even give some people exceptional abilities.  It is a condition I inherited from my father.  He died when I was 2; my particular manifestation isn’t of the heart but the bones, particularly the spine.  So, it’s not just academic or aesthetic for me.

I’m interested in the stories of anyone with Marfan Syndrome, especially first-hand, but also from family members and friends.  If that includes you or someone you know, please contact me through this blog.  Thanks!