“Staring at the Other” and “Unsettled Inhabitations”

I’m almost a Doctor. Of Philosophy, of course. Specifically, since doctorates are always severely specific, a doctor of poetry and bodily otherness. In the process of getting there, I’ve had two essays published.

The first was “Unsettled Inhabitations: Bodily Difference in Poetry”. This is a chapter in “Inhabitation: Creative Writing with Critical Theory”, edited by Dominique Hecq and Julian Novitz. My chapter was first delivered as a paper at the 20th annual conference of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs in 2015, and it scrutinises major modern and contemporary essays on poetry by poets – T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Charles Olson and Adrienne Rich – and finds that the body is often ignored or downplayed, yet always affirms itself through difference. I then propose a kind of “Disability Poetics”, adapted from writing by Tobin Siebers and by Mitchell & Snyder, and do a close (bodily) reading of a few of my own poems from “Music our bodies can’t hold”.

inhabitation cover

Second, the Canadian academic journal Critical Disability Discourses has published “Staring at the Other: Seeing Defects in Recent Australian Poems”. This is an expanded version of the third chapter of my PhD exegesis, “Disabling Poetics: Bodily Otherness and the Saying of Poetry”. The essay looks at poems by Cate Kennedy, Hazel Smith, Kit Kavanagh-Ryan, and Peter Boyle, all of which focus on encounters with disabled or physically-other people. I take an approach inspired by Emmanuel Levinas to suggest that the Other, to varying degrees in each poem, stares back.

What will happen to the other chapters of my PhD, and the poetry manuscript that was also part of the thesis, I’m not yet sure. Hopefully publication in some form, at some time. But right now is a time for recovery, recuperation, letting time do its work.

Poetry Season – an online workshop coming soon

A few days ago, I announced this on Facebook (aka Farcebook / defacebook), but of course not everyone is on social media, so I thought it best to let you know here. This summer, I’ll be running an online poetry workshop – Poetry Season!

Each week, for six weeks, I’ll send out a short essay, which will include a writing exercise (and a few examples). Participants will then write a new poem of their own, which will be distributed to the whole group. I’ll provide feedback on each of your poems (and everyone else will be encouraged to, too). So, at the end, you’ll have six draft (or maybe even completed) poems.

The workshop will cover place and season, self and other, body and poetic form. I want to give you opportunities to try some things you haven’t tried before, to engage in some serious play, to dive deeper into your own developing aesthetic. So, it’s for everyone who writes poetry and wants to refresh their practice – emerging, developing or established (as shaky as those categories are).

I’m still sorting out the exact details and pricing, but it’s likely to run from mid January to end February 2019, with a maximum of 10 participants (although there may be two groups), with concession for unwaged.

If you’re interested, and you haven’t already let me know, please do so asap, and I’ll make sure you get a chance to participate. It’s first in, best (poetically) dressed. If you miss out this time, I’m planning to run another Poetry Season in the future….

PS The other news is that this blog will soon be a website….

kindergarten AJ001
1975 – poet at work, pre-internet

(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).


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.


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.



Writing disability – incomplete and important

Something very interesting is happening at the moment in Australian literature. Disability is beginning to be given space to express itself. And not as inspirational or tragic, but in its complexity and diversity. There is a tremendous history, of course, to writing by disabled people in Australia, but this feels like a new wave of sorts. A beginning, and incomplete, but significant nonetheless.

Later this year, a landmark anthology of poetry (with accompanying essays by the poets themselves) will be published by UWAP. Shaping the Fractured Self, edited by Heather Taylor-Johnson, features the writing of 28 poets, many established, many emerging, from within the experience of chronic illness, pain and disability. It’s akin to the landmark anthology Beauty is a Verb, though with its own particular field. It takes trauma and experience head on, showing how poetry expands our sense of community and beauty.

And recently, major literary journal Southerly published Writing Disability (issue 76.2). I co-edited the issue with David Brooks. It features some breathtaking and intriguing poetry by Peter Boyle, Quinn Eades, David Stavanger, BR Dionysius, Shari Kocher, Kit Kavanagh-Ryan, Anne Elvey and many others; provocative and insightful essays on Henry Lawson’s deafness, the linguistic and personal meanings of vulvodynia, mental illness and marginality, autism and collaborative writing; as well as fiction that ranges from the unsettling to the humane. I’m proud of what we selected, while aware there is so much more out there. I encourage you to buy a copy, and while you’re waiting peruse the Long Paddock, the online section of the issue.

I should also say that the artwork for the cover is by Fulli Andrinopolous. Rather than select an image that illustrated or represented disability (a questionable aim, it seems to me), we really wanted instead to give an opportunity to a disabled artist whose work explores form and colour in a more abstract yet still intensely personal mode. Disability is not only a topic, but a way of seeing.

What follows is a brief excerpt from the essay “Ramps and the Stair”, by myself and David Brooks.


Framing this issue of Southerly as “Disability” is a curious constraint—how do we as editors decide what does and doesn’t fit into the theme? What is “disabled writing”? Is it simply any writing by a disabled person? Or, could the disability be within the writing itself, regardless of the bodily status of the writer—language that inhabits its own peculiar limitations?

Surveying the contemporary literary scene, it would seem that disability exists only either as topic or as identity. Someone writes a short story featuring a character who is in a wheelchair, or has autism, depression, an unnamed degenerative condition. Usually, the character appears to symbolise human vulnerability, or they overcome their impairment with courage or acceptance. Or, someone writes an essay—about the National Disability Insurance Scheme, or the media’s misrepresentation of disabled people, etc—attaining credibility as a writer either because they themselves are disabled or they work in the “industry”.

But writing is not only the subject and the author, but its mode, style, aesthetics—its form. And what is disability but a question of form, which forms are considered appropriate to the world as it is organised now? It would take a much longer essay, many volumes probably, to properly unravel the connections between disability and literary form. It’s an undertheorised area, for many reasons. Not least of which is the ambivalence writers and academics have towards admitting to any “lack” of ability or competence. Deconstruction happens to texts, not bodies, certainly not ours. But aren’t bodies also texts? And aren’t texts also bodies?

As I was reading submissions to this issue, I wanted to know who was doing the writing, where they were coming from. I felt, intuitively, that subjectivity matters. I wanted ‘“disabled writing”. What I found was a lot of writing by the parents, siblings, friends and carers of disabled people. If I read attentively, I was reminded that, while we think of pain as inherently isolating and individualising, disability isn’t quite like that. There is a leakiness to it. Something disabling overflows into the lives of those close to me.

Perhaps the poems, stories, memoir and essays here leak into each other. To quote or paraphrase: a mother locks herself in the pantry while her child screams inconsolably. A revolving door of psychiatrists. Sounds from words I’ve never spoken, but should have. How being marked speaks to wounding and to creativity. Max is a master of sound and rhythm more so than I. Learning to hate the word ‘“proud”. The inertia of overladen assumptions see how these structures melt. The twists and kinks of the paper were his mnemonic. Each piece of writing speaks for itself, and the connections speak. There is also writing here that wasn’t submitted specifically to the theme, but these also belong.

Some submissions were rejected for the way they perpetuated the clichéd figures of the unfortunate victim, or the victorious super-crip, a mode of characterisation which Stella Young called “inspiration porn”. Or, worse, where a disabled person appeared as an object, without agency or subjectivity.

Other submissions just didn’t even reach us. Some writers experience such isolation or suffering that the economic and psychological space required for writing just isn’t accessible to them. Other writers produce immensely interesting work that is hard to place in a literary journal. Still others don’t have language, at least not in the way you or I might think of it.

In The Biopolitics of Disability, David Mitchell writes, ‘“as a politics of atypicality, disability can be most productively understood as an identity based on incoherence… a fortunate dishevelment of normative coherency” (98). So, it should be no surprise if this collection of writing doesn’t quite seem to cohere. It’s incomplete, unwieldy, flawed; perhaps it even contradicts itself. You could say the same, perhaps, of this editorial essay. This is not a tragic accident or a heroic achievement. It’s how language comes out of our bodies.



Open poet

For those of you who live in Melbourne, or nearby, I’ll be at RMIT from Monday 27th to Wednesday 28th of March. On Tuesday 28th, I’ll be opening the literal and metaphorical doors – drop in any time between 1pm and 4pm for a chat (and possibly to have your words incorporated into new poems in the making), and/or come along to the poetry reading at 6pm. Details below…!


Each Map of Scars

each-map-of-scarsA few years ago, I collaborated with Rachael Wenona Guy on a puppetry-poetry performance called “Ambiguous Mirrors”, which explored genetics, family resemblances and secrets, and loss. This new show – featuring also Leonie Van Eyk and Rose Turtle Ertler – includes “Ambiguous Mirrors”, plus two more, “Secessionist” and “Unfinished”. It explores bodily difference from the inside, and from your perspective, through stop-motion animation, puppetry, film, photography, live performance and sound.

And the premiere is at the Castlemaine State Festival on March 18 and 19 (2017)!

Speaking personally, it’s been exhilarating to see my poems amplified and concentrated in such a visceral way by these talented collaborators. So I’d love to see you there. Tickets (of course) are selling fast. If you you want to enquire about the possibility of booking the show for a festival or event, just let me know.

A preview of the show is here at Vimeo.

(Not) hating poetry

So, I’ve survived the first year of my PhD on poetry. One of the risks of academia, they say (whoever they are), is a kind of creativity-crushing self-consciousness, knowing too much for your own good. Also, doing what you love as a job, or as the primary focus of your life, can sometimes bring you closer to love-hate. I’ll admit, at times, the fact of the PhD – not only knowing that there is a community of thinkers and writers surrounding me virtually, but the high expectations I have of myself – has been intimidating.

This is the flip side of the sense of feeling lucky or privileged. I’ve been given such a rare opportunity – to spend a few years reading, thinking and writing in an area I’m deeply passionate about, and in a genre that’s infamous for being obscure, the antithesis of popular or useful. It’s like an extended arts grant or residency, but with institutional support (and administrative hurdles). I want my efforts to bear fruit, so I strain, push, ruminate, argue with myself (do fruit trees do this?).

Almost all my reading has been directly related to my topic – bodily otherness in poetry, using Emmanuel Levinas and Disability Theory as philosophical guides – but I’ve also been reading a little more broadly. Which brings me to The Hatred of Poetry.


I read a fascinating essay by Ben Lerner recently, which was the core of this short book of his. He begins from the classic Marianne Moore poem called “Poetry” (which I’ll quote below) to argue that poems are inevitably unsatisfactory – they all fail – which is precisely the reason we are drawn to them.

I, too, dislike it.
***Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
***it, after all, a place for the genuine.

It’s a much more complex and nuanced argument than that, of course, and there have been many very interesting and insightful reviews of the book – for example, in Cordite Poetry Review, The New York Times , and The Conversation, among many others – which I won’t even pretend to compete with.

I think Lerner is onto something with this book. He captures something about the transcendent frustration (or frustrating transcendence?) of poems. But I think its flaw is that he mis-identifies the “genuine”. It seems Lerner’s argument is that the problem is not poetry per-se, but poems. In other words, he takes Moore as saying that if we read poems with a kind of contempt, we will find the genuine poem, or poetry. Instead, I interpret her “genuine” as something more like “reality”.

When I am writing a poem, I am maneuvering through a dim landscape, an uncannily familiar yet definitely unmapped terrain which is psychological, political, linguistic and bodily all at once. I’m trying to capture something, or at least point to it. What I invariably find is that I fail to capture or point. But the poem does something. And the best ones, the ones I’m happiest with, seem somehow to include the failure to capture, include it within their structure, underneath the lines, almost subliminally.

The poems I’m most drawn to, the ones that bear re-reading, dwelling within, tell me something about life, embodiment and the spaces between us – but they tell me this by the way they renew my desire for the actual world. They succeed by failing.

I’m very much drawn to the idea of poetry as embodying failure, but not quite in the sense that Lerner seems to intend it. Our bodies fail – they break down, certainly, but they also live through processes of decay and transformation, and we move through the world by turning whatever brokenness we carry to our own ends.

Has my PhD been a success so far? Well, I’ve leapt all the technical hurdles so far. I’ll be presenting a version of the first chapter of my exegesis at the Australian Society for Continental Philosophy’s annual conference. One of the poems I’ve written received third prize in the inaugural Health Poetry Prize through the University of Canberra. Another was published in the new literary journal, Deaf Poets Society. And I’m writing poems I didn’t expect to, some in modes that are quite different than what I’m used to – so, in a way, it’s hard to tell if I feel like I’ve been successful on a personal, creative level. Time will tell.

What I do know is that I still love poetry (and my thesis topic), not in spite of the way it fails, but because of it.



Speaking of poetry, I can highly recommend that if you’re able to make it to Castlemaine on the weekend of 21st to 23rd October, then you book the Castlemaine Poetry Festival into your diary. Featuring Omar Musa, Chloe Wilson, Mike Ladd, Nathan Curnow, myself, and others, it should be a memorable, stimulating and very poetic few days.


And speaking of failure (of the body, but of nothing else), Fully Sick is a tremendously down-to-earth and informative podcast about the realities of chronic illness. Host Jenny draws her interviewees out of themselves (including me) with warmth and humour – the show reminds us that brokenness is not something we can fix or ignore; it just is. Somehow we succeed, sometimes beautifully, through failing.


That knocking

I didn’t quite expect this, but I’m about to release another collection of poems. That knocking is a short collection, just 7 poems, but one I’m excited to see released. Sometimes there are poems that sit neatly in a full-length thematic book, but often some poems just don’t – they’re loners, awkward in crowds, not sure where they belong. But they’re strong and have things to say – about jet-lag, love, pain, Morrissey and silence – so they keep quietly knocking.

2009 01 058

That knocking is being published through Little Windows, a new small-press based in Adelaide, but globally-minded. It’s being launched as a sibling to three other chapbooks – by Jill Jones (SA), Alison Flett (SA/Scotland) and John Glenday (Scotland). Beautiful small objects, tactile paper, tracing paper inserts, limited numbered editions of 111.

What’s a chapbook, you ask? ‘Ceap’ actually comes from the Old English word for business, trade or barter (not chap as in ‘man’ or ‘fellow’). It’s now jargon for a short book, usually stapled or stitched rather than with a spine, and often distributed informally, direct from author to reader.

If you’re in Adelaide, the launch is on Thursday June 16th, 7pm at Booknook & Bean, Shop 18, Topham Mall, Adelaide CBD. If you’re Facebook inclined, let us know you’re coming – https://www.facebook.com/events/1556074694693777/

If you’re in Melbourne, I plan to make That knocking (and hopefully the other chapbooks) available at Collected Works, the greatest poetry bookshop there is, Nicholas Building Level 1 at 37 Swanston St Melbourne.

If you’re not in either of those places, I’ll be selling them direct at readings and by mail, and you can of course get them direct from Little Windows. Yes, they’re actual objects, something for the body as well as the eyes and the mind.

A matter of surprise

“For myself I am neither ‘jealous’, nor ‘inquisitive’, nor ‘hunchbacked’, nor ‘a civil servant’. It is often a matter of surprise that the invalid or cripple can put up with himself. The reason is that such people are not for themselves deformed or at death’s door. Until the final coma, the dying man is inhabited by a consciousness, he is all that he sees, and enjoys this much of an outlet. Consciousness can never objectify itself into invalid-consciousness or cripple-consciousness, and even if the old man complains of his age or the cripple of his deformity, they can do so only by comparing themselves with others, or seeing themselves through the eyes of others…”

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Phenomenology of Perception”


Around two weeks ago, two things happened that I didn’t expect.  I went to the funeral of a dear friend.  Norman was a phenomenally curious and wise man, and while I was trying to pull myself together to write a eulogy, I was reminded of his blogs.  One of them, “A body’s in trouble: some resources on the lived body in philosophy and the arts”, was in a way a parallel to the journey I’m on with this blog, though it’s much more a reference point, containing some key resources and insightful juxtapositions.  This is where I found the astounding Merleau-Ponty quote above.

Is it a surprise that I can put up with myself?  Do I have a hunchbacked-consciousness?  Do I know myself only through the (imagined) eyes of others?

maurice merleau-ponty smoking

I know almost nothing of the life and physicality of Merleau-Ponty.  Here he is smoking.  The phrasing of the quote is intriguingly ambiguous.  He says he is neither ‘jealous’, nor ‘inquisitive’, nor ‘hunchbacked’.  That these words are held in quote marks seems to me to potentially imply that he is these things, yet is not defined by them.  Consciousness is consciousness, shaped not by itself, but by its position in the world, in relationship.

At the funeral, I had the sense that my friend was not in the coffin, or in heaven, or anywhere else but in the bodies of his family and friends.  It was as if, without the central consciousness, his core of being, all that was left was the reflections, resonances, seeds, which we held in us.

The day after, I was offered admission to a PhD program, with scholarship – my proposal was titled “Disabling Poetics: Bodily Otherness and the Saying of Poetry”.  I’m planning to write a thesis and a series of poems which will “attempt to outline the mechanisms through which poetry can generate a productive, bodily encounter with the Other”, drawing on the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas and Tobin Siebers, and the work of a few of my favourite poets.  I suspect that poetry is uniquely placed to incorporate (pun intended) the consciousness that arises from unusual bodies.  We’ll see.

I’ll be writing in the context of a community of friends, poets and thinkers that have come before me, and are around me now.  Perhaps they are my others and I am theirs.  Which makes this richly complex and unpredictable.  So, I don’t know what will come out of this, though I’m certainly looking forward to the privilege.  Here’s where you’ll find sporadic updates and minor insights…

captured whispers – puppetry and poetry collaborations

CAPTURED WHISPERS EFLYERIn 2013, I travelled to Ireland to perform “Ambiguous Mirrors“. Very soon, on Sunday 17th May at 5pm, at Thousand Pound Bend, I’ll be performing this piece to a Melbourne audience. This short performance is very personal to me. It meditates on grief, family and genetic inheritance. And the puppetry adds another, profound layer – evoking deep emotion and a sense of the uncanny.

The night also features four other puppetry-poetry collaborations – Lia Incognita with Beth McMahon & Michael Bevitt; Barry Dickins with Rod Primrose; Jennifer Harrison with Victoria Osborne; and Terry Jaensch with Eliza-Jane Gilchrist. This should be very special. If you can make it, please join us – details on the flyer above.  Bookings essential and available here.

I also have a number of poetry readings in May, so please check the Readings & Performances tab for more info.

Andy Jackson (Vic) 1