(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.

 

 

Southerly Journal: four more excursions into poetry & bodies

Last month, I was the guest blogger for Southerly Journal.  For those of you who missed it, I made various attempts at hacking through the dense undergrowth around poetry, form, embodiment and otherness (as is my wont).  I won’t reproduce the posts here, but here are some teasers and the links…  Thanks to Tessa Lunney and David Brooks at Southerly for their support and kind words.

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1. Normal Land: Poetry, Disability and Solidarity (by way of Ian Dury and Quippings)

The more I immersed myself in poetry – reading it, writing it, performing it – the more I began to feel that poetry derived its power from the bodily experience of solidarity. The Macquarie Dictionary defines solidarity as “union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests” or “community of interests, feelings, purposes”.7 Solidarity is complex, especially because what is “common” is not always obvious. Solidarity can be latent, persisting underneath our social reality, in our biology and chemistry and physical interdependence. Something needs to unearth and activate it, some experience or event which prompts us to recognise that our lives are inextricably connected.

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2. Poetic Tourism & Deforming Form: India, Ghazals & Otherness

I’ve suggested elsewhere that we encounter poems as physical objects, textual bodies which have their own particular shape and energy, as a result of the subjectivity embedded in them14. Each poem is a mix of order and chaos, of expectation and surprise. On the page, and as sound, poems are instances of particularity, where precise detail catches our attention and where form refers back to cultural norms. And, in my experience, the ghazal is a particularly heightened example of this. There is a “normal” ghazal, just as we have a certain image of a “normal body”, and it is in the ways in which we depart from this norm that intrigue and frisson occurs. Of course, relatively normal bodies and formal ghazals, too, have their own undeniable, disruptive energies.

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3. Poetic Epigenetics: Bodily memory, silence & community

What my body is and what it isn’t seems like a pretty straightforward distinction. But perhaps “my body” as a phrase isn’t quite right – it assumes certainty and singularity, yet if we look closer, in spite of the continuity and stability we feel in our bodies, we might detect numerous possibilities, even multiplicity.

Certainly, when I look back at what I’ve written over the years, I can see the inflections and energies of other poets and writers. They course through my body and writing as disturbance and affirmation. And I can’t imagine who I am without recalling them. Think of this as poetic epigenetics.

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4. “Becoming-Marfan”: Poetry, Genetics & (Auto)Biography

Becoming proliferates in the soil of the complex instability of each body. The writer mines the multiplicity of their body in order that their writing becomes truly creative and viscerally connective. The writing implies not just one writer and one reader, but many others. Deleuze asserts, “[h]ealth as literature, as writing, consists in inventing a people that is missing”.15 Reading this kind of writing involves a kind of recognition, a sense that the reader’s own intuitions and bodily stirrings have been acknowledged, and even encouraged. The lone reader, sensing other hypothetical readers, suspects the existence of a community she might belong to, or come to belong to. In fact, she creates it by affectively engaging with the text and her own multiplicity.

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strangers and the responsibilities of being strange

Most of us in the West feel increasingly isolated from each other, monads with our heads craned towards our smart-phones, or wandering the aisles half-conscious. The proliferation of both social media and cafes is part of the same dynamic – we long for human contact, yet we’re nervous about stepping outside our comfortable circle.

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Talking to strangers is unsettling, in both senses – a little frightening and potentially liberating. That goes for all of us, but for those of us who are visibly different, whose bodies are obviously non-conformist, the approach of a stranger carries some peculiarly acute dilemmas.

I want to mention just two examples, and dwell for a moment in the gulf between them.

Late last year, at the local organic grocery, my partner and I were placing the last few items in our basket. Pumpkin, kipflers, silverbeet, most likely. It’s a narrow shop; you have to breathe in or walk sideways to pass people in the aisles. As we were leaving, a woman approached me with a vague smile on her face, her posture leaning slightly towards me. “Hello..”

I used to run a cafe, and I’m visibly memorable, so I assumed she recognised me; I smiled and said hi in return. She asked me how I was going, suggesting things must be pretty difficult. She told me she had a friend who specialised in alternative treatment, and that her own back pain was greatly relieved by visiting her. Oh, ok. She didn’t know me. It was going to be one of those “unsolicited charity conversations”.

I was in a reasonably optimistic mood and felt ok about being open with her. People rarely talk about embodiment, so perhaps this was a chance to share my own version of being human, and move pleasantly onwards. I told her I have Marfan Syndrome, which for me has meant an unusual shape, but actually no pain, luckily and gladly, and smiling while I said how ironic it is.

“Oh, you must have pain”, she said.

“Um, no, not really, no more than anyone, probably less, actually”.

This went back and forth for a while. I kept telling her my experience. She kept insisting she could help me with the problem I didn’t have.

Eventually the pointlessness of it ate away at my resolve. I was polite, direct, with perhaps just a hint of impatience. “I’m sorry, I really have to go, I’m really fine, OK?”.

She was stunned, almost mortified. “Ughh, I was only trying to be helpful!”. I’m reminded that my body seems to raise all sorts of questions that “demand” answers, and that fundamentalism is not limited to religion.

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Fast-forward to just a few weeks ago. I’m in the middle of a busy period, wrestling with a thesis and other obligations, rushing into the local supermarket to pick up a few essentials. I only notice my own low-level stress when the little girl in the pink princess outfit cuts me off, running obliviously through the aisles – “Daddy! Look at me!” – and I’m instantly irritated. I try to avoid them, head down another aisle. Of course, being tired, I become indecisive and end up staring at a wall of condiments, unsure.

Suddenly, there’s “Dad” at my side. “Uh… hi…”, he says, casually but nervously, “my daughter was just asking me about your back, and I told her it’s better to ask than to stare, so I’m sorry to bother you, but is it ok if I ask you?”.

At these moments, a certain texture of solidity in my body comes up against a fluid world. I’m face to face with my own reluctance to engage, but underneath there is a way of being that accepts, even relishes, interconnection and the blurring of boundaries. Decision time, in a split second.

I tell them both, as simply as I can – yes, this is my spine, it’s just more curved than straight, and I’m healthy. Everyone has different shaped bodies. The little princess smiles, shyly looks down at her feet, then around the store. She’s obviously happy to meet someone unusual, but just as obviously awkward and a bit bored now.

Dad tells me they’ve asked other people before, and apparently she likes to hug people goodbye. Sure, why not? So, a hug and a brief chat later, we go our separate ways. Through the aisles and towards the checkout, with a slight crack in normality.

For a long time, though I wouldn’t have said it this way, I deeply resented my body and the kind of attention it attracted (and continues to attract). I wanted to be invisible, to move through the world with the anonymity I imagined everyone else had. Peoples’ eyes were like the rays of a harsh summer sun, the intensity magnified through the glass of my own discomfort. They burnt and hurt.

And nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment.

Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘Ecce Homo’

I have come gradually, fitfully, with some reluctance, to a realisation that this is the life and the body I have. Autonomy and self-determination is a mythical horizon. The love and support that I have been given over the years is evidence of that – without it, I would still be rushing back to the shadows, wishing for the impossible. In the face of the current neoliberal economy and consumerist culture, in spite of my own self-doubt and fragility, I want to build the connections that nourish myself and others. I want this life.

So, I think that being strange carries a kind of responsibility. There is no prescription, but I would suggest two guiding principles – openness to the unpredictability of the encounter, and respect for the particular embodied subjectivity of the other person. These principles go both ways of course.

For those of you who are strange and are often approached by strangers, I can’t tell you how to respond, though. We all have to find our own way of dealing with this “responsibility”, whether it be a repertoir of answers or a reserve of attitude that we draw on. Each body is unique, and each person makes their way through difference with their own temperament and aspirations. After all, we are more than what makes others stare at us.

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For some other thoughtful and useful perspectives, try Carly Findlay’s blog post, Carly’s guest blogger Bailey, and Haley Morris-Cafiero’s provocative photography project.

Feel free to suggest other links or your own suggestions or insights – I’d love to see them.

reverberations and affinity

 

Sometimes an acquaintance transforms into a friend.  Time passes, random events intervene and affinities flower.  Recently, I went to a Quippings event at Hares & Hyenas bookshop in Fitzroy – one of the most mind-blowing literary/performance events you are ever likely to encounter.  The next one is on 30th November and is entitled “Piss on Pity”, if you want a hint.  And you really should go.  Even if you’re not from Melbourne.

Anyway, at the last one, I re-met Carly Findlay, prolific blogger, appearance activist, writer and all-round great woman.  We got to talking, and she asked me to write a guest spot for her blog, basically telling my story of visible difference.  It starts like this –

In the last twelve years, I’ve had the pleasure of quitting four positions – the Commonwealth public service(Child Support Agency, would you believe?), a cafe-venue-bar I co-owned called “Good Morning Captain” in Collingwood Melbourne, Medicare Australia (yes, in a call centre), and a claustrophobic admin job for a micro-managing tax lawyer. And I’ve lived in eight different houses in the last twenty-five years (though, yes, all of them in Melbourne). But there are two things that I could never leave, even if I wanted to. They define me. I’m as inseparable from them as wings from sky, pith from fruit, thought from words.

Those two things are Marfan Syndrome and poetry.

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The blog post is here, if you want to know how it ends, but it doesn’t end, really, does it?  Poetic language and just being in the same room together can build bridges, sure, but the gulfs between us are perpetual and always at risk of expanding.  Everything needs reinforcing, extending, exploring…

Carly herself has just written an amazing post called “On ‘normal and cures and pride”.  She writes,

I see two sides to a cure: a medical cure and an appearance cure. I don’t want either. A medical cure (or treatment, as things stand now) may hold worse side effects than Ichthyosis itself. And I think that an appearance cure is conforming to what society expects of me – the expectation that I would want to look ‘normal’ and de-identify with a condition that I’ve become accustomed to and accept. I see it as a bit vain, even.

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In the future, I plan to introduce you to other writers, thinkers and activists who I feel affinity with.  Virtual community is also real community – full of arguments, passion, embraces, patience and complexity.  ‘Normal’ is incredibly narrow.  And ‘abnormal?  It’s not singular, it’s multiple, innumerable in all its manifestations of beauty and becoming.  It’s 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!

literature’s deformities (part 3 of 3)

[Below is the final, 3rd part of an essay I wrote a while back, but revised recently.  I’m currently looking at the position and impact of the unusual body in contemporary poetry – this essay looks at the role of these bodies in fiction.]

Even within the Magic Realist novel, perhaps especially within it, we find the extraordinary body laden with meaning. As a counter to the typical Western association of illness, curse, error or problem, there is the unusual body as a site or catalyst for transformation. In Erri De Luca’s God’s Mountain, a coming-of-age story set in post-War Italy, a young boy befriends a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust. Rafaniello has a hump on his back which will reveal wings to carry him to Israel.

Rafaniello is so light you can pick him up. His bones must be hollow. There’s air in his jacket. I see the curve of his folded wings and pass my hand over him to cover them better. In Naples people call the hump a scartiello. They think that stroking it brings you good luck. People are always putting their hands on Rafaniello’s hump without asking permission. He lets them. “In my hometown they called me gorbun and no one would even brush against me. Here I like the familiarity that people have with my hump. I don’t think I’ve brought anyone good luck, but all those strokes have helped me. They’ve awakened my wings”.

A body that, in its particular time and place, appears strikingly unusual will have meanings attached to it. Arguably, this could be some kind of recurrent tendency of ours to attempt to resolve intense anxiety over the results of capricious nature or of human evil.

Gunter Grass’ central character in The Tin Drum is both a magnet for such significances and ultimately manages to elude them. On receiving a tin drum for his birthday, young German boy Oskar decides not to grow up, retaining the stature of a child throughout World War Two. The drum remains his cherished possession and means of communication, along with his piercing wordless shriek which can break glass at a distance. After the war, while burying the body of his presumed father, he suddenly decides to grow again; the growth is so quick that he is deformed. Later, he earns an income and fame as an artist’s model.

Professor Kuchen led me to a studio, lifted me up with his own hands on a revolving platform, and spun it about, not in order to make me dizzy, but to display Oskar’s proportions from all sides. Sixteen easels gathered around. The coal-breathing professor gave his disciples a short briefing: what he wanted was expression, always expression, pitch-black, desperate expression. I, Oskar, he maintained, was the shattered image of man, an accusation, a challenge, timeless yet expressing the madness of our century. In conclusion he thundered over the easels: “I don’t want you to sketch this cripple, this freak of nature, I want you to slaughter him, crucify him, to nail him to your paper with charcoal!”… These sons and daughters of the Muses, I said to myself, have recognised the Rasputin in you; but will they ever discover the Goethe who lies dormant in your soul, will they ever call him to life and put him on paper, not with expressive charcoal but with a sensitive and restrained pencil point? Neither the sixteen students, gifted as they may have been, nor Professor Kuchen, with his supposedly unique charcoal stroke, succeeded in turning out an acceptable portrait of Oskar. Still, I made good money and was treated with respect for six hours a day.

For readers, The Tin Drum is almost infinitely interpretable. Oskar’s child-size body is a rejection of the duplicity and cruelty of the adult world, and his sudden deformity is his body’s own reaction to taking on that world again. His body may be the physical expression of the inability of language to express the atrocity of the War. He could be symbolic of Germany’s guilt, or perhaps of Germany’s economy. Oskar’s body has by some been conceived as a Freudian reflex. Even as the Twentieth Century itself.

Perhaps it is all of these interpretations, or even none of them. Oskar tells the story from the bed of an insane asylum, flips between the first and third person, muddies the narrative waters in innumerable ways. Grass evokes a strange kind of alienated sympathy for Oskar in his readers, but he does not want us to have confidence in Oskar’s story, and certainly not in any larger historical or national Narrative. Like the drum and the shriek themselves, what The Tin Drum speaks is both devastatingly critical and irreducible to a particular ideology. Grass offers us the truth of the inconclusiveness of reality, its essential ambiguity. The extraordinary body is certainly still a spectacle, but it also has its own uncontainable meanings.

Exceptions unsettle. They mock our sense of certainty, our familiar and comforting associations. They provoke a rupture in the mundane. Deformity can be arresting, fascinating, confusing, awe-inspiring, even spiritual. All the same, with Medicine’s accelerating ability to alleviate or remove deformity altogether, the unusual body has become even more invisible, especially in the West. This adds another layer to the archetypal response – the sense that a body has slipped through the medical net, the unnerving possibility that Nature is still uncontrollable.

The body I inhabit, or perhaps I should say, the body that I am, is visually extraordinary, due to a condition known as Marfan Syndrome. I am six foot three, and weigh around sixty-five kilograms; I am slender, with long limbs. My spine curves dramatically from side-to-side and front-to-back; I would be perhaps six foot six if my spine were straight. In a way, my body has easily adjusted to this shape. But in another way, this is the shape of my body, and it is normal. I do not experience pain or physical difficulty, as some people have assumed. My body experiences its shape in much the same way as any body experiences its shape. Except, at times it seems little literary micro-ghosts hover over my shoulder.

I was born one hundred and forty years after Quasimodo, into an immensely different era, in terms of medicine, media and social structures. Yet I have been called by his name many times, mostly from the windows of passing cars, by men in their twenties. They are gone before I can conjure an appropriate retort; ensuring I remain, for them, a body. They are not interested in the speculations of a French paediatrician Antoine Marfan, whose intense and close observations of his patients in the late nineteenth century led him to describe the key visual features of the syndrome.

Interestingly, the most common parental response to the curiosity their children display, is an embarrassed injunction not to look. I suspect this looking-away, this leaving-be, is common in many cultures, but is acutely expressed in Australia. There is a profound caution about the way we relate to each other, which reflects our political history.

In celebrating the fair go, Australians portray themselves as fundamentally relaxed about the doings of others, as tolerant. The very need to paint such a picture, however, reflects less its veracity than a wish for projecting an image. The image is defensive. “We are patient in the judgement of others” means, really, “Do not judge us”… Such an ethic is self-protective and concealing, amounting to an agreement not to discuss one another’s sins. Extending the right to a fair go amounts to an injunction to each mind their own business.

Daniel Ross, “Violent Democracy”,  2004

Everyday public speech is the very opposite of deconstruction. It leaves things, efficiently, alone. This is not just about people’s right not to be questioned about their behaviour or inheritance, but also about their bodies and the meanings attached to them. Our culture has evolved a plethora of ways of describing the other. Yet we do not seem to have grasped a way of apprehending the world, a way of speaking together, that is able to adequately deal with variety – that is able to recognise the other within the self.

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…