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.

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...

thanks to a founding member of the Australian Communist Party

As some of you know, I’ve been, as the euphemism goes, “between jobs”. Nine months after finishing a post-graduate course, I’d lost count of the number of positions I’d applied for, I’d been to about a dozen interviews and been knocked back in many varied polite and complimentary ways. What I’d wanted was to have interesting part-time work that would leave me with enough energy and time to write. All I had so far was time. And, perhaps paradoxically, I wasn’t doing much writing.

I did have something to look forward to, though.  A four-week residency in Perth.

When I arrived at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre, it was dark and one part of me was still in the plane, another still in Melbourne. This clean, simple room was to be my home for four weeks. I went for a walk – found suburban mansions, barking dogs and a rushing freeway. But, with a healthy dose of disorientation making things seem a little super-real, I also started to find my feet, and the start of a first poem.

As time went on, I covered a lot of territory. I walked through quite a chunk of the John Forrest NP, up and down almost all of the surrounding Greenmount suburban streets, around Midland’s shops and bus terminals, through the city in the shadow of cranes, and across the surface of Fremantle, wondering about its depths. I was also (thankyou Mardi!) driven around the Swan Valley, as the sun broke across vines and a still-being-completed Memorial Park for Yagan. I also went a long way while just sitting in my room – language and silence, human and animal, solitude, racism, public transport, parenthood, love, history, and more.

I wrote more poems in the four weeks of the residency than I wrote in the twenty weeks before it. This got me thinking – what is it that makes the difference? In what conditions does creativity flourish? It can’t be purely a question of the amount of time on my hands. It seems to me that it’s a complex cocktail – a blend of elements that is impossible to define precisely. But the most important factors to me seem to be a balance of familiarity and strangeness, home and holiday, stillness and stimulation. Plus, that most invaluable resource, time.

There is never any guarantee, but KSP helped bring these elements together. There is a wide window that draws in the sun, the trees, the flashes of parrots flying past. There’s a kettle for coffee. There’s internet access (to track down secondhand bookshops, plot a public transport journey, do important and trivial research, and stay in touch with home). Just up the hill, in the house, there’s a fantastic library, and a host of friendly and passionate writing groups. And further, in the National Park, the other wisdom of the bush. There’s a comfortable chair. And an occasional gentle, friendly knock at the door. Here is a place founded and maintained on an understanding that writing is a valuable, human, political, communal act – a reminder that writing grows not out of thin air, but in the soil of an encouraging and critical community. I arrived home not just to a new part-time job, but also thoroughly reinvigorated about what people can do with words.

I juggled a hundred elements to make a writing workshop – “writing through the body” – a success.  I spoke and read poems at a Literary Dinner, which was friendlier and more informal and fun than the name might indicate.  And mentored an emerging poet.  Oh, and spent time with some superbly keen writers groups – so down-to-earth they were almost subterranean.

So, thankyou to KSP the Writers Centre, but thankyou to KSP the person – Katharine Susannah Prichard, founding member of the Communist Party of Australia, impassioned novelist, scriptwriter, poet, thinker and doer.

Also, thanks to Janet and team at the Perth Poetry Club.  A great spot to check out the rich poetic grass-roots of Perth.

Rosebank – “out Cobaw way”

I’m very keen to tell you about the imminent arrival of “Among the regulars”, but for now it’s Rosebank.  I’ve just come back from a 3-week stay at “Rosebank Retreat“, generously granted through the Victorian Writers Centre, Mary Delahunty, the Sidney Myer Fund and Helen Macpherson Smith Trust.  And as the old cliche goes, it’s not a retreat as much as an attack.  The idea being, give a writer a place to stay and very little “real world” commitments, and the writer will write.

Before I tell you if that actually happened, let me give you a few images of the place and the surrounding area…

Rosebank Retreat
If you ride a trailbike through this, there's a lot you won't hear...

 

a curious and talkative local...
Macedon Ranges from the Cobaw State Forest

 

I had no strong plans for what I’d do here.  I wanted to write poems, maybe a dozen if I’m lucky, hopefully at least a handful.  I didn’t have any subjects, ideas, not a single rhyme scheme either.  The plan was to let the plan emerge out of the place, see how it affected me.  If you can put yourself into the photos above, you can guess – while it’s possible, it’s highly unlikely you won’t be refreshed and stimulated being here.  Oh, yeah, and by “here”, I mean between Woodend and Lancefield, not far from Hanging Rock.  Or, as we were told by someone at the nearest (8 kms away) General Store, “out Cobaw way”.

It may be way too early to talk about the quality of what I’ve written up there, but I did come out of it with a lot – something approximating the quantity of work I’d hoped for, but two other things happened.

I learnt more about how to work with my own creative energy – took breaks when I needed to, observed how my moods affected my writing, and above all, was reminded of “the power of the walk”.  Every time, without fail, if I went for a walk, some small or large poetic problem would be solved, especially if I wasn’t deliberately trying to solve it.

I also took on some new approaches.  More of that another time.

Big thanks go to George Dunford, novelist, travel writer and The Wire afficianado.  We shared Rosebank, and he gave me space when I had that “I’m getting creative” body-language, and we filled the evenings with food and drink and audio books (yes, believe it or not) and numerous in-jokes.

If you get a chance to spend time at Rosebank, do so.  Bring all your writing tools and something to take your mind off the writing too.  And remember that when you come back into the “big smoke”, you’ll feel a little weird, and you’ll miss the echidna, the kangaroos, the cows, the rosellas, the rusted old farming equipment, the wind shivering over the hills, the open spaces of the day…  and you’ll have to work out for yourself how to re-create little miniature retreats in your everyday life.

the future is somewhere

2010 is not the end of the world, nor is 2012.  Though I have no idea what it will entail for any of us, let alone me.  What I do know is that I’ve been offered two splendid residencies – one at Rosebank Retreat just near Macedon (an hour north of Melbourne) – http://www.http://vwc.org.au/services/rosebank-retreat – and the other at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in the Perth Hills (see the blogroll for link).  Looking forward to both, and hoping that any pesky hurdles don’t suddenly lunge in between me and them.

So, this is just a tiny update.  I’ve added a few useful links at the bottom right blogroll (he says, wincing at the name…) – I’d recommend checking Adam Ford’s blog each week for answers to the question “Why do you write poetry?”.