disembodied poetics?

As many of you know, I was in the United States in July and part of August.  The main reason was to attend the (big breath…!) Summer Writing Program of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.  I first heard of the School  in the late 1990s, when I found an anthology of writing published by them, and bought the book partly out of cautious curiosity – how could poetry be “disembodied”?  And should it be?

Anyway, in the last year or so, I found myself feeling a little unsatisfied with my poetry, feeling I was beginning to repeat myself.  I wanted to give myself a jolt of poetic input, to be challenged, confused, encouraged and expanded.  So, a four-week schedule of workshops, readings, talks, panel discussions, meetings and mentoring, all held at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, with a roster of writers including Anne Waldman, Amiri Baraka, Anne Carson, Rae Armantrout, Jerome Rothenberg and Ron Silliman…  hmmm, let me think about that – YES.  And thanks to Copyright Agency, who gave me generous funding, I could attend and not come back entirely broke.

It is impossible to capture my time in Boulder in all its sunshine, rigour, shivers and momentum.  But I can give you some hints.

DSC06902

After I moved in to my sub-let on University Hill, while I was wandering around town looking for something salad-like for lunch, I noticed a guy looking at me fairly intently, curious.  Normally, I’d feel a little suspicion or anticipatory resentment, but I’m not at home and I’m determined to be open.  “Is that scoliosis?”, he asks.  So, I say yes, tell him the brief Marfan story.  He tells me he has a slight scoliosis and a lot of pain – when he was a little kid, in the 80s, he and his brother would play at professional wrestling (WWF-style) and he was slammed down onto concrete.  We talk for a while about how invisible pain is, how everyone’s story is different.  He asks me why I’m here; I tell him about Naropa.  Turns out he grew up next door to one of the founders Chogyam Trungpa, which is another story…  But something of the outgoing, genuine, unpretentious nature of this conversation is (to me anyway) very American…

DSC06747

Each of the four weeks at the Summer Writing Program, you choose a different workshop.  I was with Rikki Ducornet, Rae Armantrout, M Nourbese Philip and Anne Waldman.  We grafted our own writing onto fragments of Herodotus, extending threads into the surreal or hyperreal.  We took famous poems and (out of homage or critique or both) rewrote them into another era or voice or gender.  We recorded a collaborative performance poem in the studio.  We talked about imagination, research, appropriation, colonialism, modernism, rupture and environmental crisis, and of course a million other things.  If there was an overarching theme to the Naropa approach, I would say it’s a passion to integrate research and intuition within poetry, and to engage the writer’s own body in the writing process.

In Nourbese’s workshop, we were to tell our own story, one at a time, in a circle.  But we had a time-limit.  And when the automatic timer went off, no matter how intimate or mundane or traumatic (or mid-sentence), our story would have to stop and the next person start.  The accumulating, visceral sense of interruption accumulated, a palpable absent space, one that also was a kind of communion.  We wrote out of that space, not to fill it in, but to respect it and allow it to speak.

There were many rigorous lectures, thought-provoking panel discussions, powerful performances and readings, and in between sessions some rich conversations.  Some of us meditated in the mornings.  Some of us had tacos and beer in the evening.  There was blue summer sky, horizontal clouds, afternoon storms, and the mountains surrounding us.

DSC06777

I have a whole lot of unfinished poems in my journal to revisit, a percolating idea for a long poem, and many thoughts and provocations to sort through.  And many new friends and colleagues.  We keep hiking…

tortoise with a passport and a pen

I’m not the most prolific of poets (have a look at the dates on these blog posts if you don’t believe me).  I am the tortoise in that fable of Aesop (although I doubt I’m going to win or that it’s even a race).  For me, poetry takes time – not so much in the writing, but in the living and pondering, the overflow.

I realised a long time ago (but especially when I was co-running the infamous Collingwood cafe Good Morning Captain in the early 2000s) that full-time work takes a lot of energy out of me.  As does unemployment.  So I’ve accepted a kind of never-finally-resolvable “balance” – a mercurial mix of part-time work, facilitating creative writing classes and “open-ended poetry time”.  And that “poetry time” has come to rely (for better and worse) on grants and residencies.

In July, thanks to Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund, I’m off to Boulder Colorado USA, for the Summer Writing Program of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.  Four weeks of workshops, talks, panels, readings and collaborations.  I’ve been running quite a few writing workshops recently – which I love – but it’s time now to be immersed and challenged myself.

Recently, I’ve been reading Anne Waldman’s poetry collection Manatee / Humanity (Waldman co-founded the School with Allen Ginsberg and others in 1974).  It’s a wide-ranging, intimate, philosophical and visceral odyssey into humanity’s relationship with animal otherness.  The poetry is compassionate and its experimentation comes out of the real rather than any kind of detachment.  It’s ambitious and angry and has a sense of wit.  One of the four workshops I’m taking at the Summer Writing Program will be with her, which is exciting, as are the other workshops and events.

There’s a certain anticipation which is really useful.  I’ve been so busy of late, but stimulated, so poetry feels like it’s simmering, ready to boil over.  With any luck, being transplanted into another country, and in a place that values poetry and creativity so highly, will be really fruitful.  I experienced that in Chennai India, when I was there 18 months ago.  Which takes me to this quote, which I read last night.

Poetry of the artists’ colony: poems about grass being cut a long way off, poetry of vacation rather than vocation, poems written on retreat, like poems written at court, treating the court as the world.  This is not to deplore the existence of artists’ colonies, but rather the way they exist in a society where the general maldistribution of opportunity (basic needs) extends to the opportunity (basic need) to make art.  Most of the people who end up at artists’ colonies, given this maldistribution, are relatively well-educated, have had at least the privilege of thinking that they might create art…  [Art] produced in an exceptional, rarefied situation like [this] can become rarefied, self-reflecting, complicit with the circumstances of its making, cut off from a larger, richer and more disturbing life.

Adrienne Rich, “Tourism and Promised Lands”

Image

Beneath this window in Chennai, I’d watch people go about their everyday lives – trading, eating, talking, waiting, laughing, begging.  From dawn to dusk and all through the night, they’d be there, the poignant and unsettling sensory overload pressing against the hotel window.  Yes, the hotel window.  In other words, I was there, but not there.

Chennai is not Boulder, of course, and a hotel is not a University summer school.  But I am taking this opportunity because I don’t want to “retreat” – I want my poetry to be stretched, expanded, deepened, all those words you scatter on grant applications but are so much more intangible and profound when you approach the empty page.  And when you approach the “full page” of the world as it is – immensely complex, beautiful, unjust, strange and familiar.  Wish me luck.

many kinds of distance

“Distant Reading” by Peter Middleton is (so far anyway) the most brilliant, intriguing and irritating book on poetry I’ve read.  Yes, all of the above.  And it’s not even that some essays in this book are brilliant, some intriguing, some irritating.  They are almost always all three simultaneously.

While it is a collection of eight discontinuous essays, they are linked by a desire to talk about poetry beyond the “meaning inherent in the text”, which Middleton rightly questions.  He sees a poem not just as a literary product but as an historical, cultural, political artefact, circulating via various means, and being transformed by those means.  This includes the poetry reading – in an astounding essay called “A History of the Poetry Reading”, Middleton discusses how intersubjectivity is integral to poetry.

Performance is a moment when social interaction can study and celebrate itself, and the poet is given significant new materials with which to extend the signifying field of the poem…  The presentation of the poetry in a public space to an audience that is constituted by that performance for the time of the reading enables the poem to constitute a virtual public space that is, if not utopian, certainly proleptic of possible social change as part of its production of meaning. (p.103)

No, I didn’t choose the most snappy, accessible quote, did I?  Actually, Middleton does have a keen literary wit, but he’s nothing if not ambitious in his scope.  Interestingly, though, for all of his depth of analysis and his assiduous care in respecting the complexities of how poetry circulates, there is very little mention of the specific and varied embodiments of authors and readers, of what these might mean for poetry.

I’m thinking of how writers and performers like Antony Riddell, Kath Duncan, and Angie Jones claim a space on stage that is entirely their own, that unashamedly present their own embodied difference as valuable and inextricable from literary meaning.  Simply by being themselves, visible and engaging, they expose the anaesthetics of the usual “author-audience” relationship.   The easy empathy, identification or abstraction that is usually generated by poetry readings is made all the more complicated and (appropriately) fraught.  I include myself in this.  When I got up in a Brunswick pub and read for the first time, “I have a hunch / that curvature / can be aperture…”, I knew that this was my poem, not just as author, but as this body on this stage.  That sharp intake of audience breath is not just the sound of a taboo being broken, but it is the drop of a stone into a pool, the beginning of ripples outward.

regulars launch 060

In “The New Memoryism”, Middleton analyses the role of memory in contemporary poetry.  He suggests that the recruitment of memory acts as a prop to stabilise ideas about identity.

During the past decade the rapid growth of interest in suppressed histories of oppressed, colonized, marginalized, and annihilated peoples led to a new method of cultural and literary study that could be called the New Memoryism.  Recovered histories of individual and collective self-representation make ethical and political demands that require the recognition of the different temporalities at work in recovery, atonement, trauma and forgetting…  The New Memoryism has yet to reflect on the consequences of its indebtedness. (pp138-9)

Interestingly, in this essay, Middleton doesn’t discuss poetry that arises from within any of these marginal communities.  The quote above, to me, indicates that his central thesis – that the internet and mobile technologies have fundamentally altered our way of reading and remembering – would have been even more powerful and nuanced had he examined how feminist and  “disabled” poets, for example, explore identity in an embodied but also strategic way.  Their use of irony, myth, deconstruction, confession and affect operates also upon the media of literature – whether performed live, displayed as text on a screen, as film on YouTube, or printed on a page, each version includes a destabilising reminder of embodiment and difference.  In a way, such poetry “re-embodies” a poetry that (at least in our common conception of it) has been disembodied by technologies.

I’m of course here talking about some of those moments in my reading of “Distant Reading” where I wanted to argue or interrogate.  There is much in the book that I found fascinating – including a chapter written in poetic form but right to left on the page (“The Line Break in Everyday Life”); and an essay (“Eat Write”) divided into two columns on the page, the two columns exploring food intolerance, consumption, postmodernism and capitalism in separate and contrasting modes.

At many points in an essay on J H Prynne, Middleton refers to “more sophisticated readers” or “familiar readers”.  With no “scare quotes”.  Which leads me to think he’s not being ironic.  I can’t decide if this is an accurate vision of what happens to readers (they become more “sophisticated”, less satisfied with more “straightforward” or “accessible” poems), or if this is a kind of elitism.  Middleton also says that “poems that wear their literalism on their sleeves and are bedecked with realist flair may nevertheless be much more secretive and uninterpretable than is usually allowed”.  So are all poems sophisticated?  And am I a sophisticated reader?  Should I be?  Does it matter?

I can say that I have been challenged, encouraged and confused by “Distant Reading”.  I will no doubt return to it later, read it again to see if I or the book has changed.

distant reading cover

“Under my skin I have a different name”

The latest issue of US-based online literary journal Wordgathering includes an essay of mine about the writing of Aidan Coleman, Antony Riddell and Mal McKimmie.  Here’s how it begins, but I’d urge you to go to the source, and check out the rest of the issue…

 

If I have one preoccupation in poetry, it is the body — this thing that is continually changing in a dance of regeneration and deterioration, this object that is in fact innumerable objects as well as subject, that generates our consciousness. These bodies are often taken for granted or underplayed, but they always makes themselves known in one way or another in poetry.

I have gathered here three contemporary Australian writers who speak with unique and powerful voices reflecting on embodiment and experience (sometimes directly, other times in enigmatic or convoluted ways). This essay is not an attempt to analyse or categorise them from a theoretical, stylistic or rhetorical perspective. I’m not interested here (though believe me, I could be elsewhere) in where they fit in the world of literature or the world of disability. None of these poets self-identify as “disabled” (one, we’ll see later, has attached a more provocative label to himself). Which I personally find more interesting. The self that is evoked in these poems isn’t straightforward or labeled, but slips between definitions, and in doing so, seduces the reader into places of productive doubt about their own embodied position.

Here, I simply want to place two poems and one novella together, hold them up to my ear, and listen. Of course, how they speak to me is very much shaped by my own experience and predilections, and I am fascinated by where the mind sits in the body and how we reach out towards other bodies, other people — these “others” that are perhaps not so separable from ourselves.

 

Asymmetry_coverThe-Brokenness-Sonnets-170x240

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If anyone can find a link to more information on Antony Riddell online, I’d appreciate it…. (can’t even find an image of the “Fingerprints” cover…!).

no-one in particular

Let me touch you with my words
For my hands lie limp as empty gloves
Let my words stroke your hair
Slide down your backand tickle your belly
Ignore my wishes and stubbornly refuse to carry out my quietest desires
Let my words enter your mind bearing torches

admit them willingly into your being
so they may caress you gently
within

This poem, “Love Poem for No-one in Particular”, was written by Mark O’Brien.  Mark was born in 1949 in the USA, and six years later contracted polio.  Through his determination, humour and honesty, he became an influential activist and a powerful writer, until his death in 1999.  He is now most known as the inspiration behind the recent film starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt, “The Sessions”.

Mark O'Brien
Mark O’Brien

The film centres on Mark’s decision as a 30-something man to lose his virginity by engaging a sex surrogate and the emotions, awkwardness and intimacy that these “sessions” stir up.  It’s not without its flaws, but “The Sessions” is funny, humane and a lot more “real” than I expected – there is a matter-of-factness that allows us to see both Mark and his surrogate Cheryl as fully human.  Since I have a (perhaps unjustified) bias towards non-fiction and poetry, I wanted to find out more about Mark O’Brien, to understand how sexual desire, paralysis, faith and poetic expression all found their home in his life, and by extension ours.

Ironically, more information isn’t easy to find, swamped by this successful film.  Mark now seems defined by his sexuality, which is perhaps unfair or a distortion of his life (see this brilliant article by Wesley J Smith).  Still, I think this intense focus is understandable – sexuality returns us to our bodies, to the unsaid, to the reality of our separateness and our desire to commune.

Near the end of the film, the above poem – which is the catalyst for tension between Cheryl and her husband, but is at that point in the film kept from the audience – is finally read out in full.  Many reviews of the film mention how the audience is moved to tears.  And we were.  Of course we were.  I’d like to look at why.

The poem takes on the familiar tone and structure of a love poem – it expresses a tender and passionate yearning, a dream that desire be conjured into reality by mere wish.  As with all great love poems, it also acknowledges and holds a sense that this dream is impossible – “hands… limp as empty gloves”, the “quietest desires” that “refuse to [be carried] out”.  Yet at the same time, love is expressed and fulfilled by words – not purely within the poem itself per se, but in what the poem does, in the real relationship it refers to (and by implication the other relationships it could refer to).

This impossible/possible paradox is very strongly related to another of the poem’s strengths – it says the unsayable.  This disabled man wants to be sensually and sexually intimate with this woman.  He wants to be generous, enlightening, loving – an agency that our broader culture routinely denies to people with disabilities.

But the poem, as it should, gracefully holds back from saying everything.  It also gestures towards silence and the unsaid.  In its formal brevity and its anticipation of what may or may not happen next.  But also importantly in its title – “… for No-one in Particular”.  This is of course a kind of wry discretion on the poet’s part – not naming her out of respect.  But this title also, in its self-deprecating irony, amplifies the intensity of feeling, elegantly suggesting the depths by speaking only of the surface.

And I would argue that it could even be taken as implying that the beloved in this case is not “particular”, exceptional, disabled, “special”.

I have always loved the word “particular”.  Not only for the spikes and undulations of its sound, but for its meaning – the unique, contextual, the exact individual thing or person that transcends generalities.  The poetry that I love is a miraculous yet naturalistic bridge between the particular and the general, between the other and the self, your life and mine.  Such a poetry affirms our own experience but also allows us to recognise how broad it is, that our lives also contain resonances with other lives.

“Love Poem for No-one in Particular” has this quality.  As does “The Sessions”.  But I would even more enthusiastically recommend Mark’s essay “On seeing a sex surrogate…”  He talks about repression, shame, desire, masculinity, fear, all in an unfalteringly honest tone – he is speaking of his own life always, but the light refracted off him is somehow on us.

In re-reading what I originally wrote, and my old journal entries from the time, I’ve been struck by how optimistic I was, imagining that my experience with Cheryl had changed my life.

But my life hasn’t changed. I continue to be isolated, partly because of my polio, which forces me to spend five or six days a week in an iron lung, and partly because of my personality. I am low-key, withdrawn, and cerebral.

I wonder whether seeing Cheryl was worth it, not in terms of the money but in hopes raised and never fulfilled. I blame neither Cheryl nor myself for this feeling of letdown. Our culture values youth, health, and good looks, along with instant solutions. If I had received intensive psychotherapy from the time I got polio to the present, would I have needed to see a sex surrogate? Would I have resisted accepting the cultural standards of beauty and physical perfection?

Where do I go from here? People have suggested several steps I could take. I could hire prostitutes, advertise in the personals, or sign up for a dating service. None of these appeal to me. Hiring a prostitute implies that I cannot be loved body and soul, just body or soul. I would be treated as a body in need of some impersonal, professional service — which is what I’ve always gotten, though in a different form, from nurses and attendants. Sex for the sake of sex alone has little appeal to me because it seems like a ceremony whose meaning has been forgotten.

I feel no enthusiasm for the seemingly doomed project of pursuing women. My desire to love and be loved sexually is equaled by my isolation and my fear of breaking out of it. The fear is twofold. I fear getting nothing but rejections. But I also fear being accepted and loved. For if this latter happens, I will curse myself for all the time and life that I have wasted.

This was Mark O’Brien’s life.  This is your life.  And mine.  And it isn’t.

~

mark & susan

PS I originally put a truncated version of the poem up.  Thanks “Mechi” for putting the full version in a Comment.  I’ve corrected it now.

poetry and flesh

Sometimes you may not want to know the poet behind the poem (let’s not go into that right now), but sometimes it’s unavoidable.  When I say “poem”, I think of a page – white A4, bound into a book, or some kind of virtual scroll.  Unavoidable and instant association.  And while I know there is a poet behind the page, culturally the page appears as some kind of mask.  The implied contract between reader and writer is to focus on the writing, and that the writing will involve a self or selves that both reader and writer readily identify with – but who is neither of them.  Reality is a metaphor.

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between the body of the poet and the body of the reader.  A close friend loaned me their copy of “Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability”.  This anthology of poems and essays, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black and Michael Northen, is a brilliantly provocative (though US-centric) introduction to the advancing maturity of the “disability poetry” community.  It’s thrilling and confounding.  Because bodies are foregrounded, because the real world is not a metaphor, but unavoidably seeps through the page onto the fingers of the reader.  And, as we all know, skin is porous.

I want to quote two poems.  The first is by Jillian Weise, and also appears in her book “The Amputee’s Guide to Sex”.

The Old Questions

When I asked you to turn off the lights,

you said, Will you show me your leg first?

 

I heard Rachmaninov through the wall,

a couple making love without prerequisites.

 

Do you sleep with it on? I forgot

there would be this conversation.

 

Do you bathe with it on?

I need to rehearse answers to these questions.

 

Will you take it off in front of me?

I once steeped into a peepshow in New Orleans.

 

Over the door, signs read: Hands off our girls.

Is it alright if I touch it?

 

I am thinking of a hot bath, a book.

The couple on the other side of the wall laughs.

 

She has found the backs of his knees.

What I love about this poem is its revelations and its withholdings, how it turns the usual mix of discomfort and furtive empathy that sex usually conjures into a productive and open encounter with another person.  I was going to write “encounter with the other”, but this poem proves such a phrase abstract and almost absurd.  We are reminded that sexuality is an encounter between particular bodies,  bodies that desire, but also can’t escape their history, politics and positions.  It begins with a moment of iconic intimacy, but its trajectory is interrupted – by the “old questions”.  She is pulled back into self-consciousness, memory and the allure of easier sensualities (a hot bath, a book).  The reader is taken, too, from this scene of intimacy into a peep-show, from the private to the (male) public, where broader questions of spectacle, exploitation, entitlement and ownership are opened.  And it is also no coincidence (I think) that Rachmaninov is the composer who seeps through the walls – a man who suffered depression and (arguably) Marfan Syndrome.  Bodies and their unerasable traces.

Weise is revelatory here.  She takes risks.  But while the poem ushers us into her private, bodily space, it also pushes us back out into the world, into ourselves and our own positions.  It re-presents us with the complicated, beautiful weight of our bodies.  Interestingly, “The Old Questions” is also an intensely visual poem that absorbs and refracts the gaze.

John Lee Clark’s poem “Deaf Blind: Three Squared Cinquain” engages with the visual and otherness in another way, both witty, mundane and sublime.

 

Deaf Blind: Three Squared Cinquain

BARBARA WALTERS IS IN AWE

of a deaf- blind man

who cooks without burning himself!

Helen Keller is to blame.

Can’t I pick my nose

without it being a miracle?

 

AM I A NOBODY, TOO?

I am sorry to disappoint,

but I am.  But nobody

would let me be one,

not even when I catch

a bus stinking of Nobodies.

 

ONE AFTERNOON, I FOUND MYSELF

walking with my cane dragging

behind me but still knowing

the way.  There was nothing

to see.  Everything saw me

first and stayed in place.

Again, one of the things I love about this poem is that Clark has placed himself firmly in the center of the frame (and I do mean this visual metaphor deliberately), but uses this turn the reader’s gaze back on the broader society – on stereotype and othering – and finally on our own subjective sensory worlds.  Not only do we find ourselves in a bus “stinking” of Nobodies, but we’re also drawn empathically into the experience of negotiating city streets as a blind person.  Knowing most of his readers will not have had this experience (and that some certainly will), Clark writes with a lightness and vividness that brings the poem close to a sense of epiphany, while never allowing his experience to be anything but everyday.  His embodied life cannot be appropriated, but it can be appreciated.  Like Weise, Clark uses honesty, movement (both poetic and physical) and discomfort to open up some vital questions.  The answers, like our bodies, our lives, are always ultimately outside the poem.

I said earlier, I’d been thinking about the relationship between the body of the writer and of the reader.  But it’s broader than that – I’ve been thinking about how different art forms affect us differently, how bodily presence is sometimes viscerally communicated, while at other times the body is theoretical, abstract, conjured but not felt.  Recently, I visited ACCA to see “We are all flesh”, an exhibition of sculptures by Berlinde De Bruyckere.   In the cavernous main room, two huge bodies hang suspended from industrial structures – they are horses and yet not horses, corpse-like yet somehow they have the weight and presence of life.  In another room, a museum cabinet displays branches and blankets.  In another, a lump on the floor becomes as you approach it a human figure, curled in on itself, as if wanting to escape a world of grief or terror.  Sticks, bones, flesh, intenstines, hair, history, colonialism, war, animality and humanity.  What sounds on paper grotesque is in presence beautiful and sympathetic (while always remaining viscerally and philosophically challenging).

It’s not a cop-out on my part to say that it’s hard to communicate the power of these sculptures, but it’s at the heart of what I’m trying to get at here.  After going to the exhibition, my partner and I looked up more images of her work online.  In a short span of time, I found myself fatigued – the sense of empathy I had in the gallery had evacuated, leaving me with a sense of discomfort in the spectacle/spectacular, the freakish otherness of these bodies.

We have a visual culture, no doubt.  But there is a huge difference between the digital screen and the breathing body, between the reproduction and the original.  In the presence of a something or someone, you are in a relationship.

What’s that got to do with poetry?  I’m still unsure.  But I have an instinct that moves me towards readings – where poets take to the stage or microphone or just stand up and project their poems to an audience.  I don’t want to play that off against the page, like some contest.  I just know that when a poem is lifted off the page by a voice, pushed across the space between people, landing on bodies with skin, organs, hearts, histories and desires, the poem is changed and our relationships to each other are re-vital-ised.  Anyway, I have spent enough time now with this computer, thinking, typing, erasing, rewriting.  Maybe I’ll see you out there.

rigour & flow – or, guncotton & cordite

A micro-post this time – just to mention I have a guest post on “Guncotton”, the new blog on that superb poetry website “Cordite”. They’re doing a series on poetry and place, and in my post, I think out loud about my time in Chennai.

Click on this link. Go on…

a few more things before I (try to) land back in Melbourne

I had every intention that I’d write this post before I left India, or perhaps in Bangkok on the way home.  But as those last few days sped by, they felt precious.  Faced with a choice between soaking up the last sights of Panjim and Chennai, and staring at a monitor in an internet cafe, well, what would you do?

Most of my last week in India was spent in Goa, a place I really knew very little of, apart from its reputation as being crammed with ageing hippies and beach resorts, with a segment of the local population desperately fighting to protect its natural resources.  After my very short visit to the capital, I can say it’s not entirely untrue, but there is of course worlds more.  When I think of Panjim now, I remember the old buildings’ flaking paint, dozens of dim little bars the size of walk-in-robes, small hills blanketed with palm-trees, floating casinos (yes, boats on the river), and the overall sense that while tourism has its impact, the city and its people persist.

Old Portuguese quarter, Panjim, Goa
Mandovi River, Panjim, Goa

I came here to attend the Goa Arts and Literary Festival, at Dona Paula, just south of Panjim.  While the attendance left a little to be desired (due mostly to the festival co-inciding with a plethora of other events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Indian army entering Goa to claim it back from the Portuguese), the talks, readings and discussions were an absolute feast.  A sample of some of the events can be found on You Tube here.  We saw and heard Amitav Ghosh on Goa’s resilence, Jerry Pinto on Indian cinema, powerful poetry from Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih & Robin Ngangom, a wonderful philosophical short story from Anjum Hasan, and of course, and a whole lot more.  I was scheduled to read my poems alongside Manohar Shetty.  A long story, but I read alone – to a small but appreciative audience.

Interestingly, it was here that a nagging doubt about this project (writing poems about medical tourism in India) started to untangle itself.  For a long time, I’d felt uncomfortable about what I was writing – was it too much focussed on the spectacular, the poverty, the visible disparities between India and the rest of the world?  How could I be true to the complexities I was encountering, which included scenes and scenarios that stir up anger, grief, confusion as well as admiration?  Were my poems too much concerned with the Otherness of India?  Will there be a difference between how they are received by Indian people and non-Indians?

"Unselfishness is God", Mylapore, Chennai

Unanswerable questions really.  But I couldn’t stop asking myself.  To the point where, over the course of the residency, at times I’ve felt a bit constrained by my own self-critique.  And somehow the Goa Lit Fest helped me relax.  Himanshu Suri (Heems from US hip-hop act Das Racist) said he often worried that he was at risk of “self-exotifying” or “performing his race” in front of their predominantly white audience, while also trying to remember that there may only be a few people at their gigs he really relates to – and it’s they who he is “winking at”.  I am also always encouraged and challenged when I hear resident Indians express a sense of injustice.  Novelist Kiran Nagarkar said something so clear and important, inspired by a compassionate anger at the clearing of Mumbai slums, that “architecture is about human dignity”.

It seems to me now that the key to the dilemma of this project is that there is no key – except to continue to question, and to take risks, to explore various dimensions of empathy and affinities, to include the gaps and doubts, to be immersed in the poems not in how I imagine they might be received.  I have about 25 or 30 rough drafts of poems to work on.  Who knows how many will survive my surgical eye, but for now, it feels like there is a good chance a lot will.

The early poems feel a little chaotic and flailing around trying to capture the initial shock of arrival, with the urgency of a sense of injustice and discomfort.  The poems from mid November feel a little fragmented and tangential, finding fascinating stories and grappling to fit them into poems.  And the poems from my last few weeks are relatively settled, calm, philosophical, as if I had found some kind of stable poetic ground.  I shouldn’t be surprised that the poetry went on a journey parallel to mine.

I have a lot of thankyous – Asialink and the Australia India Council for funding and supporting this project, the staff and students of the English Department at the University of Madras for their enthusiasm and interest, Prakriti Foundation, India Intercontinental Cultural Association, Goa Arts & Literary Festival, Anna University, Wellspring India MediTour, Dr Smilez Dental Clinics, my friends and contacts (especially Syam, Prabalan, Eugenie and Mr Matthew), and everyone where our conversation went further than where I’m from and cricket!  It’s been an amazing journey.  I’m still on it, and I hope it brings me back to south India soon.

Marina Beach, Chennai
one last sit on Marina Beach...

welcome back to Chennai

We have a (what can I say…?) a complicated relationship.  There’s a lot of love between Chennai and I, but it’s a little like an arranged marriage.  Coming back here from Kochi (via Vellore) was almost a little bit slightly like coming home, somewhat.  Especially Mylapore.  Nageswara Rao Park, my regular restaurant haunts, the bustle and honking, the streetside stalls, the local Temple…  Familiarity breeds affection.  Which is reciprocal.  But not always.

Chennai, view from the Metro

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have learnt a lot in the process of this week (well, I feel I’ve been taught a lot – who knows if I’ve learnt anything!).  One small example – I’d been invited to give a talk at Anna University about how to teach creative writing.  Me being stuck inside my own experience, I suggested the ideal number for facilitating creativity is around ten, twelve at most.  When it came to question time, someone said their classes are usually around 50 or 60, so did I have any suggestions as to how they could incorporate creativity and participation under such conditions?  Ummmm…..  Sometimes while here I have felt so very very Australian, sheltered…

Speaking of Vellore, I wish I could show you a few photos of this intriguing, bustling, paradox of a town.  Essentially, it’s really a small city, centered around trading and industry, but dominated by two buildings – the Christian Medical College Hospital (CMC) and the Vellore Fort.  The CMC isn’t monumental or extravagant visually, but it’s renowned as being one of Tamil Nadu’s best hospitals, if not India’s.  And there are also many signs around the town which commemorating how CMC donated the funds for this or that piece of infrastructure.  Where government fails or is slow, business or community steps in.  The CMC is also absolutely surrounded by rickshaw drivers and people sitting on the footpath in various states of illness and misfortune begging.

The Vellore Fort is another thing altogether – a mediaeval fortress with its own moat (now plied by paddleboats!), inside is a still-functioning 14th-century Hindu temple, a mosque, a church, two museums, and various government offices.  In a way, the architecture provides a physical narrative of India’s succession of colonial and internal empires.

Why no photos?  My camera broke down!  But I did find a fantastic shop in Chennai called Camera Service Point.  It’s currently at 1st floor, Bata Building, 829 Mount Road (Anna Salai), but the building will be demolished some time in the next year or two, so maybe call them on 93800 62185 first, to check.  A huge thanks to the man who opened up my Sony and made it work again, with not a single photo lost.  Is it hyperbole to say that in India everything can be fixed?  Yes, probably, but still, I was impressed and grateful.

Camera Service Point is in this building

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the last week, I’ve given 4 poetry readings, 1 lecture and 1 workshop, as well as sitting in the audience for 4 other readings, a poetry slam, and a carnatic music concert.  I am sated and exhausted.  Huge thanks go to the organisers and volunteers behind Poetry with Prakriti.  Like most poetry festivals, it runs on a shoestring, attracts passionate audiences (not always big numbers, but insightful and engaged), and provides a smorgasbord of words and performances.  Many readings were at local universities and colleges.  Thanks go too to the many students who listened, thought, and asked some fantastic questions.

I found Ranjit Hoskote’s translations of Lal Ded refreshing and intriguing, full of air and insight, especialy in the light of his accompanying discussion of this fascinating woman (14th century Shaivite mystic and Sufi saint from Kashmir, whose legacy now seems to be much contested between communities who wish to claim her exclusively as their own).  Kazim Ali’s poems were a potent blend of disorientation and revelation, both ecstatic and casual (at the risk of misquoting him, I loved the line “you unpacked all my shirts of silence”).  Wonderful too to meet Dutch poet Maria Van Daalen, whose metaphysical and subtly emotional poems were to be savoured.  I also was lucky enough to hear a few poems from Carrie Rudzinski (USA), Giuseppe Conte (Italy), Salah Stetie (France/Lebanon), Anand Krishnan, P Sivakami, Kavitha Muralidharan & Alok Bhalla.  I would have liked to have heard more, but I was either reading my own poems, in transit, or recuperating!

Of course, ironically, while this post is “welcome back…”, I’m typing it while I’m about to leave.  I have a mountain of affection and admiration for the people of Chennai.  But I am so looking forward to being home, with the love of my life…

what about the poetry?

It’s about time I let you know how I’m going poetically.  I’ve been away now for about 7-8 weeks.  Which I should say has been a rollercoaster – ie, full of ups and downs, and not something you can just stop halfway because you feel you need a little break.  At times, it’s been astounding, sublime or just plain odd (see photos in the previous post!).  Other times, mundane, difficult or exasperating.  Mostly, India gives you the opposite of what you’re expecting, or at the very least it goes off on its own tangents.

I’d planned to write a suite of poems exploring the personal side of the medical tourism industry.  And I think I’m getting there.  There’s a lot of roughness to the drafts, but I should end up with 20 to 30 poems.  It hasn’t worked out how I expected – making contacts in the industry itself has been hard (with a few exceptions) and sometimes the smallest hurdles have felt like great walls.  As many wise people have said, channel it all into the poetry.  And I have.

The dilemma has been that I’m very aware that the outsider’s perspective is very clouded by the obvious sensory assault – poverty, rubbish, religious ritual, traffic, etc – and a poetry composed of this risks not only cliche but distortion.  India is much more complex.  Of course, I also don’t want to succumb to the current demand from (a segment of) middle-class India to “not focus on poverty”.  There is an incredible (perhaps understandable) sensitivity within India to how the nation is depicted in the rest of the world, a desire to be seen to be transcending its historical shackles.  Which to me is all the more reason to focus on the economic disparities, as well as exploring what might be behind this sensitivity.  India is a country that has enough maturity, intelligence, wealth and ingenuity to not only handle criticism but to come up with its own solutions.  By the way, I think Australia has its own version of this…

I suspect the other tricky thing will be the redrafting – I’m trying to do the bulk of that here, because I know that a lot of the heart of a poem depends on mood, which is difficult to recreate.  Of course, I could always recruit a thousand auto-rickshaws and cars to encircle our house honking their horns, but there’s more to India and poetry than that.