Of the Moment

1. Blue Mountains, November 2012 

This garden’s fruits
(a continent, and decades
away) are not by any stretch
the fruits of his labour.

Yet under the balm
of afternoon herbs
and snapdragons,
lemon peel heating up,

I hang washing
and, with each breath,
fabricate memories.

 

2. Kenya, December 1941

Here’s the promised adventure, lads.

Against jungle backdrop,
red-fezzed vendors peddle fruit, sewing
machines, sweet grasshopper pancakes,
and (soldiers claim) their wives.

For a while, #5775477
is a boy from Edmonton.

Orchids take in the drunken spectacle
of white men dragging their own rickshaws

to USS Mount Vernon — ark of fresh goods:
papaya, tomato, eggs, sides of buffalo
like piano wire, live monkeys, dogs,
and finally a sailor leads
an elephant up the gangplank.

This elephant would not go on
to Singapore.

 

3. West Batu Parhat, January 1942

Camouflaged
as pantomime trees
and black-faced,
his first enemies pass by,

close enough to challenge.

You said (and you never said
much) you were more concerned
with self-preservation
than reporting them.

That day you realised
you’d been left talking
to the dead
beside you.

 

4. Changi, February 1942

“You are, of course, sole judge of the moment.” Churchill to General Wavell, 14 February 1942

How the quiet
must have struck them in the night,
all documents signed —

70,000 men surrendered.

Tin helmets in a silvery pile
and weapons stripped,
they march on Changi
to erect their own barbed wire
and bury masses of freshly butchered.

This part
Harold never talked about.

 

5.  Tha Khanun, June 1943

A rare scent: meat roasting.

Men who weigh like children
salivate into evening’s prison.

No dinner in sight;
cholera victims
burning.

 

6. Thailand, Christmas 1943

Breakfast: sweet
porridge, two sausages, corned beef,
pork and beans, buttered biscuit,
sweet milky coffee.

Tiffin: rice, curried fish
and veg, jam tart, buttered biscuit,
sweet and milky tea.

Dinner: roast beef, fried steak,
brown gravy, jam tart, pork pie,
fish on biscuit, four different veg, fried
potatoes, Xmas pudding, sweet sauce,
and sweet milky coffee.

 

7. Sydney, February 1946 / October 2012

In your pocket:
a notebook and a photo
of 100 Norfolk men dressed
in the last of their skin.

Decades apart,
our first look at the Harbour Bridge.

You once won
and kept
a cigarette card
with this view.

In ’32, the longest
single-arch bridge
in the world — a great
silver swell across water.

As a child, this seemed
such a miracle.

100 Norfolk Men

Harold Frost, my grandfather, is ninth from the right in the third row

 

Envoi

dredge the bones
from the river

shroud the bodies
in rice sacking

by boat or foot
the years go on


From Salt and Bone (Walleah Press)
Shortlisted for the Overland Judith Wright Prize 2013

ArtStarted

It’s real! My tickets to Germany are BOOKED!

I’ve not been to Europe since I lived in Cambridge for a couple of years as a kid. I remember mountains flashing past my Gameboy Colour from the back of rental cars and getting in trouble with security at a castle for fishing coins out of a grand wishing fountain. I was very privileged to also see a lot of art and eat a lot of delicious food. My parents are nothing if not adventurous.

This will be my first time travelling overseas in six years (New Zealand doesn’t count, right?). Thanks to the fairy godmother that is ArtStart, I’m travelling to Freiburg for two weeks in the Black Forest studying poetry. Whaaaaaaaat! I almost don’t believe myself, but now that I’ve paid for real actual existing tickets, reality is finally sinking in.

my feels right now

my feels right now (the whole video really)

I’ve been working my booty off at my fave home-away-from-home, Lush, so with my savings I’ll also be able to see Munich and Berlin; go hiking in Sorrento; make limoncello on a lemon farm; and say hi to some dead people in Pompeii. (I had a list of cemeteries and catacombs I dearly wanted to visit, but that’ll have to be next time.) I hit the road (or the air, really) for a month in July.

Meanwhile, back in Brisbane, I’ve finally made my first poetry subs of the year. I’m challenging myself with new themes — fewer graveyard poems this year; more poems about fury and desire. I spent this morning peeling drafts out from under the cat (of course she sat on whatever I was working on), and made breakthroughs with some tricky poems started last year. (Thanks to Bronwyn and Francis for critique time.)

I can also officially announce (last time I mentioned it, it was actually embargoed — whoops) that Salt and Bone was commended in the FAW Anne Elder Awards. Hooray! Congratulations to Cathy Altman for her winning collection, Circumnavigation (Poetica Christi Press). The judges, Anne Elvey and Garth Madsen, had the following generous things to say in their report:

Salt and Bone shows intelligent writing with a brilliant use of metaphor, poems that twist their way and are always surprising.

I’m currently rereading Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, which for me has always felt like a big velvet poem. Not that you ever really finish reading a poetry book, but Patricia Lockwood’s Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexual has continued to be rewarding and confronting. I also read the whole of Kristin Hannaford‘s Curio in the bath a little while back and it was a damn fine bath.

I also finally scored a copy of Woolf Pack‘s fourth issue, celebrating a year in print, and let me tell you it is a gorram ripper of a zine. I especially loved Dashurie’s gorgeous and empowering comic “Rise of the Merbabes”, editor Rebecca Cheer’s confronting personal essay “Vagina Christmas”, K. Queene’s Spice Girls collage and basically any image drawn by Talia Enright. You can find out how to buy a copy here.

Woolf Pack: Issue #4

Woolf Pack: Issue #4

This post shouldn’t end without saying I had the immense privilege of seeing Hot Brown Honey Burlesque at the Judith Wright Centre earlier this month. On a personal level, this cabaret burlesque combined exactly the right blend of rage and joy I needed that night. On a critical level, Queensland is so bloody lucky it is to have this performance collective making great art and fighting the power right here, right now. I wish I’d had the space in my work-life that week to write a thorough review (and to see it more than once), but I had cider and a dance-at-the-end instead. Hot Brown Honey Burlesque is technically polished, politically informed and artistically confronting. As always, hell yeah to the Judy for supporting challenging new work.

That’s about all from me. If, by chance, you’re reading this from London, my oldest and probably most genius-y friend, RAM composer Timothy Tate, has a show on at St. Marylebone Parish Church on April 22. Like on the Monopoly Board.

Zenobia x

On Death

Ten days ago I woke to find that Terry Pratchett had died, surrounded by family and with his cat on the bed.

I’ve read stacks of Discworld but I certainly can’t claim to have read them all. When I’m in the library and feel in need of wisdom, wit and lolz, I usually head for “Pr” in the fiction section and choose at random. To me, Discworld books read like nutritious comfort food — that one soup recipe your mum always made when you were sick that was somehow both delicious and good for you.

Despite all this I was surprised to find myself waking to the news of Terry’s death at 5.30 am and weeping. And sobbing and weeping. A fairly stoic friend texted me to say they were sobbing at their desk at work. It felt like the collective sense of loss in the world had magnified itself and everyone affected by Terry and his work was swept up in this shared grief. It was a weird experience.

terry DEATH

I got to meet Terry once, at a signing in a school hall. I asked him what must have been a very tiresome question about getting stuck on a plot point — I was drafting a fantasy novel at the time — and he told me about a scene in Monstrous Regiment he couldn’t puzzle his way past, where the main characters are all imprisoned. His advice to me — to himself — was to let the characters figure it out. You’ve given them personalities and strengths; they’ll know what to do. I went home and read that book and that scene, and had the profound backstage experience of imagining Terry at his writing desk giving real agency to the people he’d created.

This was a major revelation to me as both a writer and a reader: writers have the power to create people who themselves have the power to invent and to love. As a reader, I thought about this throughout The Hunger Games recently travelling with Katniss as she develops and uses her singularly irreverent problem-solving skills. I remember struggling with shame as a nine-year-old whose only friend was Buffy; looking back — thinking of the team of writers and the actor who gave that character life and agency — I was bloody lucky to have such a resilient friend. Terry changed the way I thought about fiction.

At that signing, I gave Sir Terry a copy of a zine I’d made at school called Schrödinger’s Shoe. It was a collection of poems, comics and drawings by me and my school friends (including Bettina Marson). He took it very graciously and I always presumed it’d find its way to the recycling. Years later, my friend and fellow poet ReVerse Butcher travelled from Australia to the UK and visited London College of Communication’s Zine Library. Upon her return, she contacted me with a bizarre story: the very first thing she’d pulled from the huge sliding shelves, at random from thousands of zines, was Schrödinger’s Shoe.

Terry saw enough value in our work — made by 16-year-old girls in Macromedia Freehand — to donate it to a library.

Terry did not go gentle into that good night — and rightly so — but Death is very, very good at his job. Like millions of others, I’m grateful for Sir Pratchett — for the world and people he created and nurtured; for his irreverence; and for the 10 influential minutes he gave me a decade ago.

The Invisible Puppeteer

Over the last year, I’ve been privileged to work with linguist Kit Loke on her collection of poems exploring her experiences with chronic neuropathic pain, spasm, disability, and illness. To kick off 2015, I’m very pleased and proud to help Kit launch her poetry blog, The Invisible Puppeteer. This project was made possible by Access Arts and arts-worker/performance-maker Nathan Sibthorpe.

What I love about Kit’s poetry is the way it engages the reader’s empathy and sense of hope. Ultimately, her work chronicles her decade-long journey to mentally triumph over the chronic pain and illness she experiences.

I hope you’ll visit, follow and share The Invisible Puppeteer.

Hares, Hyenas and Home

Just dragged my suitcase in the door after a whirlwind week in Newcastle (at National Young Writers’ Festival) and Melbourne (for the Melb. launch of Salt and Bone at Hares and Hyenas). I met so many fantastic writers and readers at NYWF, thoroughly enjoyed lording it as a judge at the Epic Word Nerd Battledome (pictured, with Jane Howard and Adolfo Aranjuez), and relished reading Foreign Soil on the beach.

Word Nerd Battledome JudgesHearty congratulations, also, to Scum Mag on the launch of their first print zine. It comes with TEMPORARY TATTOOS. What’s cooler than that? Zero things. The zine fair was a highlight, as was getting up on stage at the launch orgy in a nightie to perform Blood Spells with the Scum gals. (Photo below by Alan Weedon.)

I’m so grateful to ReVerse Butcher and the team at Hares and Hyenas for hosting the Melbourne launch of Salt and Bone. Thank you to everyone who came along. Here are the lovely Broede Carmody’s words on the book (and thanks, Broede, for the launch snap):

“Zen describes herself as an expat of the Voiceworks editorial committee, for which she read and edited poems for a number of years before she turned 25 and we realised she was not just too old but also too disgustingly talented to be involved in the magazine any more.

“But seeing as we’re here for the launch of a poetry collection and not a memoir I should probably talk a little about Zen’s work itself and not just her pretty face.

“I think it’s appropriate that this book is called Salt and Bone because not only does the powerful imagery in Zen’s poetry leave a taste in your mouth but it also affects you physically. Poems like ‘Aftershocks’ deal with sexual assault but importantly use the language of survival. Similarly, other poems celebrate women, sex, polyamory and the queer identity. A lot of poetry out there—particularly the kinds we are introduced to in high school or that are available in book stores—are by old, white men and Zen’s poetry really strikes a chord with me because it’s different. It’s so important that queer Australians see themselves reflected back on the page.

“So with that I would like to say fuck you to the patriarchy, and consider this book launched.”

Hares and Hyenas launch

Total Eclipse of the Zen

Well! I’m about to go undercover (read: do a lot of poem-writing and grant-applying in bed) to prepare for upcoming festivals and new work. Salt and Bone is ready to launch (!) and I’m ready to zoom up and down the east coast (including a Lushie work retreat in Sydney). Here’s some of what’s coming up:

  • Queensland Poetry Festival: Celestial Monsters, 31 Aug @ 11am
    Judith Wright Centre shopfront space (FREE): Rachael Briggs and Zenobia Frost have been places humans shouldn’t tread. And they’ve returned with poems, song cycles and the lingering smell of graveyard dirt.
  • Queensland Poetry Festival: Into the Warmth, 31 Aug @ 1.45pm
    Judith Wright Centre performance space (FREE): Poetry can be sung from the rafters, and it can be an intimate act between strangers. Join us for this very special Sunday Poetry Yum Cha session – come in, find a seat, grab a snack, open your ears and your heart. Featuring Candy Royalle, Max Ryan, Cyril Wong, Zenobia Frost and Adam Hadley
  • Wunderkammer: The launch of Salt and Bone and Curio, 18 Sept @ 6pm
    Avid Reader (FREE): Kristin Hannaford and Zenobia Frost co-launch their new WALLEAH PRESS poetry collections. Join us for drinks and nibbles as we celebrate confluence, quolls and possums — and send Hannaford’s CURIO and Frost’s SALT AND BONE into the world. Bookings essential.
  • National Young Writers Festival: Newcastle, 2–5 Oct
    Program launched soon — watch this space. Basically lots of this:
    212dance
  • Salt and Bone: Melbourne launch, 7 Oct
    Salt and Bone launches in good company at Hares & Hyenas. Details TBC.
  • Sleep: Oct–Nov

 

Poems and Possums

July is here; we’re at the halfway mark of 2014 already.

I had a great time last week reading new poems at Ruckus! Slam and a few of 2014 Arts Queensland poet-in-residence Warsan Shire‘s poems at Riverbend Books. And today Scum Mag has published one of the poems I debuted that night: “Blood Spells“.

Lots of projects will come to fruition in the year’s second half: Rachael Briggs and I will trouble you with two-voiced monster-poems at Queensland Poetry Festival; my friend Kit Loke will launch the poetry blog we’ve been working away at together; and Walleah Press will launch my book Salt and Bone.

Here’s a sneaky preview some of Bettina Marson‘s cover art for Salt and Bone, partly to celebrate the half-year and partly because I can’t wait to share Bettina’s amazing work:

by Bettina Marson

by Bettina Marson

Stay tuned for launch deets — coming soon!

The Poetry Object: Concrete Poems / Virtual Workshops

Last week marked my first South Australian poetry gig, thanks to The Red Room Company: I took a Skype trip to Adelaide to visit the Year 8s of Wilderness School, who are taking part in Red Room Poetry Object.

The Poetry Object is an annual competition open to school students in Years 3–10. Last year, Red Room asked me to contribute my own talismanic poem to the project — and the object I chose was my local Civic Video. In Red Room’s words: “‘Civic Duty‘ is a restrained detailing of the slow death of video rental stores: a period business that may one day be remembered with nostalgia, like milk-bars and roller-discos.”

Vale Civic Video Rosalie

Our Skype workshops were brief, with 20 minutes per class, so I framed them as conversations. What did the students already know? What did they want to discover? The young women of Wilderness School, it turns out, are pretty clued up when it comes to the mechanics of poetry, so together we unpacked ‘Civic Duty’ — its rhythms and devices — and discussed how they might approach their own poems.

There were plenty of blank faces when I explained my grief at the recent loss of Civic Video Rosalie. It’s enough to make a gal feel old. But it was otherwise wonderful to engage with these students, whose planned poetic talismans range from shells to farmsteads. Their knowledge and enthusiasm about poetry — and their wit — might surprise the bean-counters currently stripping Australian arts and education funding.

Photo by Ann Rooney (Wilderness School)

The workshop was organised by Ann Rooney, an English teacher at Wilderness School, who wanted the girls to learn that reading and writing poetry are skills that can be learned. I’m with Ann on this. Poetry has a mysticism, sure — as Prof. Dumbledore put it: “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.” But viewing poetry as a craft gives writers control over their word-magic. To give students — especially young women — tools with which to hone their communication and art-making is to empower them.

For me, poetry is a process of fearless editing in the pursuit of what Sylvia Plath called “a closed fist” — poetry as a contained potential energy: a fistful of lightning. I hope I passed even a little of that idea on last Wednesday. And I look forward to reading their object-poems!

Only WA and NT to go before I’ve poeted in all states of Australia. Workin’ on it.

The Poetry Object is open to students in Years 3–10 in Australia and New Zealand. The Red Room Company has a wealth of poetry resources available online for teachers and students. Get in on it.

Salt & Bone: A Blog Hop

Ms Kaitlyn Plyley, poet and comedian extraordinaire (also generally a great gal and my true Harry Potter Scene It! adversary), invited me along to her bloggy sock-hop. This is a selfie-interview — a chance to reflect on (and, perhaps, pitch) a current project; then, I tag a few more bloggers and send the blog hop on its way.

  1. What are you working on at the moment?
    My big announcement for 2014 is that Walleah Press will soon turn my manuscript, Salt and Bone, into a living, breathing, spine-y paper thing. We’re hoping to launch the book around July. I’ve finally stopped fiddling with punctuation and order-of-poems. (Ralph at Walleah has been very patient with me.) Bettina Marson is working away at the cover design, which — in keeping with the books Brisbaniness — will feature possums, curlews, stilts and mud. (You can see Bettina’s designs for my 2009 chapbook in her ink portfolio.)
  2. How do you think your work differs from that of other writers in your genre?
    I like to think — I hope, at least — that I’ve developed a distinct poetic voice: a Brisbane voice, concise-but-not-sparse, flexible enough for both page and stage. That would be the answer as far as poetry as concerned. As regards nonfiction, I hope my writing is getting more precise and, if I’m lucky, funnier.
  3. Why do you write what you write?
    I write poetry because choosing the lowest-paying category of arts (and in this budget climate) just seemed like fun! Jokes aside, I find poetry compelling as a craft that’s impossible to perfect; each poem is an impossible puzzle. I can work on them infinitely, chipping away. It’s satisfying in an it’ll-never-be-satisfying sense. I also write poetry because a) I enjoy reading poetry and b) it’s short. Creative nonfiction gives me space to research and mull over and really get my teeth into a topic. It’s very different from writing poetry, and that’s good.
  4. What’s your writing process, and how does it work?
    I write a terrible first draft very quickly and then I spend millennia editing, fiddling, editing, proofing and putting-the-final-touches-on. This usually happens in the wee small hours, in bed with a good notebook.

Enough navel-gazing! Thank you for reading. Up next:

Michael Gerard Bauer: Michael is one of my favourite children’s/YA writers. His books are currently sold in over 20 countries including the USA and UK and translated into nine languages.

Sarah Gory: Sarah directs the Queensland Poetry Festival. Her blog, Highgate Hill Kitchen, started “as a way to document my cooking ventures, stay motivated to keep on trying new things in the kitchen, and share my daily stories.”

Eleanor JacksonEleanor is a performance poet who casts spells with her silky voice. Her most recent work, Now You See Me, was an interactive installation exploring the theme of queer visibility in visual art.

While we’re here, here’s a newish poem in Cordite’s No Theme III.

not that poetry is a trap but prayer

I’ve just finished reading Nathan Curnow’s half of Radar, a 2012 Walleah Press collection shared between Nathan and Kevin Brophy. (The title of this post comes from “Gently Against the Grain”.) Great way to spend a spare sliver of a Tuesday. I should be reading more. Great poetry always reminds me I should be reading more. On to Kevin’s half!

I have some thrilling news I’ve been struggling to keep quiet: a poem of mine has been shortlisted in the Overland Judith Wright Prize for Emerging Writers. It is a wonderful feeling to be included on this list, alongside 11 very talented poets, especially as this is a personally significant poem. Our house-Francis (aka Jeremy Thompson) was shortlisted for this same prize back in 2011; he’d actually forgotten until today, so now I’m doubly pleased. May the odds be ever in our favour, shortlisters!

I’ve been darting back and forth between New Farm and everywhere else this week, with World Theatre Festival on at Brisbane Powerhouse. Thus far I’ve managed to catch All That Fall (Pan Pan Theatre), JiHa Underground (Motherboard Productions) and She Would Walk the Sky (Company 2). Here’s my review of the latter for The Guardian UK (the show is on its way to London after Brisbane) and here’s my friend Nerissa’s Arts Hub review. And here’s an overview/preview of WTF14 Tahnee Robinson and I cooked up for Theatre People.

Make sure you catch at least something at this innovative festival! I’ve never experienced anything like All That Fall, which I think I’d categorise as “listening theatre”. Audience members sat together in rocking chairs (I took the photo above to show you) and listened to Samuel Beckett’s first radio play commissioned for the BBC. I’ve heard The Great Spavaldos is a unique experience, putting you in the role of trapeze artist via, I presume, immersive science-magic. She Would Walk the Sky experiments with Brisbane Powerhouse’s wonderful and challenging spaces (read both reviews above to read some contrasting thoughts on that).

In other news, I have an essay on consent and ethical nonmonogamy included in the upcoming Sex Issue of The Lifted Brow, which you can pre-purchase here (or, if you’re in Brisbane, at Avid Reader after March 1). There’ll be launches in Melbourne and Sydney early in March, too. 88 pages of awesome writing by awesome writers (and also me). Woooo!

Zen x

P.S. I have bought a stack of crafting supplies and I am super excited to start creating horrifying regresty-able works of art for friends (and maybe also some poetry crafts). Stay tuned for BROOCHBACK MOUNTAIN.