Poem: “Graveyard Haibun”

(Previously published in Voiceworks #92 ‘THING’)

On Thursday morning I meet Death. We inherit Sydney’s red-dust storm, and our backyard is thick with it. The white cat with the poodle-cut is now auburn. She cleans herself uselessly, tongue moistening dust into clay.

Six am sun casts every gravestone reflective. I never get up this early. I settle on the hot, steady concrete of a grave, and try to learn silence.

Scarlet beetles skitter through dry leaves. Cicadas hum in hollows. Our raised necropolis is more awake than anywhere in this lidded city.

cemetery
spring’s new crows
let sleeping dead lie

I breathe and watch. For a rare moment, my mind too is warm, dark stone.

I go out to feed my flatmate’s old rat and find that his lungs are full of the desert. I sit on the kitchen floor with him in my lap. He is thin-blooded – an aspirin-thief in his youth. Now, his nose has stopped bleeding for the first time in months. Droplets congeal in the dust on his snout. I feel his body cease.

on the floor
we share rigor mortis

The cats sniff around us. They do not interfere.

I return alone, and enter the wilderness without pith helmet or field knife. Birds own the graveyard, swooping for me to turn back; the dead and I are just guests.

If I am very still, I fade into this place. My shadow thickens into my own ghost, leads me down paths that are only pretending. I wouldn’t mind being lost here. (I am already lost.)

hoop pines rise
from the jaws of skeletons
a final word

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VW Flashback: Write of Passage

A few issues ago, I wrote an ed-comm-itorial for Voiceworks #93 “Cell”. Voiceworks publishes the work of writers under 25; in a couple of months, I’ll be forced to make my own way in the big world, elderly and alone. Not really — but I have had my last ever things published by VW. Gonna miss ’em. Stumbled across my recentish editorial today, so here’s a flashback. Sorry-not-sorry about the title pun.

 

Write of Passage 

In writing, as in life, the first cut is the deepest. Baby, I know. My first time was online. On a poetry critique forum. Some punk who didn’t even understand my poem thought they could tell me, the author, how to improve it. Hot damn! That first dose of red ink can sting.

I was sixteen and top of English. I was used to my poetry taking pride of place on my parents’ fridge. Yet someone out there thought my writing could be better. Much better. I’d like to say that was the day I left the comfort of LiveJournal and became a Writer-with-a-capital-W, but in reality I was too busy making my school-friends troll this anonymous butcher who had applied his untrained scalpel to my perfect poem.

First Critique can be a significant and habit-shaping event; it can separate the diarists from the crafters. It’s an experience many of us share—perhaps even an essential writers’ rite: to undergo the painful epiphany that accompanies extreme butthurt in the face of criticism. It didn’t sink in that exact day, but it was a step towards realising that first-drafting is only a small part of writing.

That poem was titled ‘Narcissism and Existential Lust Backstage at the Con’. Seriously. I wrote it while skulking around with my trumpet in the eerie blue lights backstage at the Brisbane Conservatorium, waiting for school band dress rehearsals. Dressed in yellow crepe, I mostly gawked at a hot sound guy who looked enough like an Anne Rice vampire for me.

So I wrote a poem for our sound tech Armand, employing ultra-subtle addiction metaphors because, at sixteen, I was pretty worldly (read: drank Absinthe once):

I can’t shoot up sense
I can’t see my veins
I’m floating in opium blue
there’s no substance abuse
there is only you.

I think I may even have tried to hand-deliver a copy. Bad habits start early.

That First Critique, perhaps, sets writers apart from musicians and sports players. While other kids take piano lessons and go to soccer training, few young-’uns are sent to poetry class or writing lessons. (Start more Dead Poets Societies in schools!) In ice-skating class, the first thing you learn is how to safely fall down—but most young poets, untutored, forge their own ways in cossetted, private notebooks.

Looking back, that critic’s advice was firm, but kind—and asked me questions, rather than directed me or rewrote my work. I had to realise I’d willingly entered a workshop forum where the aim was not so much to showcase as to practise. And one of the best ways to get better as a writer is inform your editing with readers’ feedback.

Of course, the critiqued poem doesn’t exist in a vacuum and neither does the poet’s response. I empathise with each new writer struck with the revelation that Plath and Neruda didn’t just pop those poems out fully formed. The nature of First Crit can bubble-wrap, buoy up, encourage or scar a new writer.

If you, dear reader, are one whose formative First Crit is far in the past, I urge you to think back on that experience and be considerate. But the real trouble is something much more insidious: beyond the boldfaced anonymity of online critique groups, serious peer feedback can be hard to find. Be considerate, but do still be critical. The only feedback worse than ‘You suck’ is ‘Don’t change a thing!’

The poems and stories you’re about to read in this issue have all been edited in collaboration with their authors. Works that didn’t make it in this round will receive feedback, too. Voiceworks is the only publication I know of that does this. Last issue, Chloe Brien discussed the monikers writers instinctually take. I’m a poet, but I think I’m an editor first.

I submitted ‘Narcissism and Existential Lust Backstage at the Con’ to Voiceworks in 2006. It was my first national publication—but more than seeing my name in print, I remember the thrill of working with an editor who knew my poem could be better. If only we’d taken the scalpel to that title.

Voiceworks #93, 2013.

Express Media: John Marsden Prize

I received some good news this week! A poem of mine, “The Hobby”, was awarded second place in the 18-24 division of the John Marsden Prize for Young Australian Writers. This was my last chance to enter, so I’m pretty stoked! Jeremy Poxon won first place with “The last time I went fishing, it was raining”. (I can’t wait to read it!)

Thank you, Express Media and John Marsden!

I’m fond of this poem. Anatoly Moskvin is such an interesting figure. I have performed “The Hobby” with Richard Grantham accompanying on piano a couple of times — Richard’s music gives it such pathos and humour. Here it is (sans piano, alas):

The Hobby

for Anatoly Moskvin, a cemetery archaeologist arrested in Russia in 2011

I crawl from dust to dust
each Monday morning

I have the teeth of archaeopteryx
and flaking tomes I drew up with the dead

each man must claim one diversion
from corner desk buried
under papers in shrinking faculty

the first dig was the thrill of my career
her skin was perfect, dry as leather
her lips were parted just to whisper
nothings in the words of Cleopatra

I took her home and made her dinner
I seduced her with thirteen ancient tongues
she stayed for breakfast
she stayed forever

the second was more delicate
but her name had struck my linguist’s heart
I dressed her in my mother’s clothes

my bevy, twenty-nine exotic birds
there’s barely room for me against my desk
there’s barely room anymore at home

let me keep the only company I keep
let me have my littlest of rewards
and do not doubt that they will testify

our histories are six foot in all their rot
I’ve exhumed and slept in coffins for this art
I have walked for miles with my chisel
eaten dirt and sipped from graveyard puddles

yet with one bag of much-loved bones
you find me, and you call me mad

Civic Duty & other poems

A splash of November news:

  • The Red Room Company commissioned me to write a poem about an object dear to me — so naturally I wrote a love poem to my local Civic Video. You can read it here.
  • In 2014 (and beyond!) I’ll be helping out Five Islands Press, serving as their consulting poetry editor for Queensland. Their annual submissions window for poetry manuscripts closes on Nov. 30.
  • Voiceworks Magazine launches “Prime” at the 2013 Express Media Awards on Dec. 5. VW is always stuffed full of wonderful stuff. Broede Carmody (2013 Booranga Prize-winner for fiction; Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize finalist — such talent very babe wow) edited a poem I was lucky enough to have included. It is possibly my only successful sexy poem.
  • Tincture Journal launches its fourth issue on Dec. 1. Tincture is a fantastic digital publication — in fact, it has been nominated for the Express Media Award for “Best Project By/For Young Writers”. Nice one! They’ve kindly included a couple of my poems in the new issue.
  • A poem of mine has been included in the inaugural Jean Cecily Drake-Brockman Prize Anthology. Hooray! I think this is the first time I’ve been anthologised.

Today's mail

Avid Reader: Voiceworks #89 Launch

Express Media’s awesome Voiceworks Magazine is slowly working their way to world domination, and Brisbane is next on the map. VW #89 — Space lauches at Avid Reader on July 26, and we’ve got a super-cool trio of Brisbane writers to help us: Michelle Law, Jack Venig, and Alberto Vasquez Sanchez.

Voiceworks publishes the words and art of Australians aged under 25. Come along to learn more, hear awesome writerly talents, buy Voiceworks, and find out how to submit your poetry, prose and non-fiction. Also there will be wine.

Find out more on the FB event page, or follow @Express__Media for updates.

How seapunk is our cover?

Tales from the Gutter

It’s going to be a busy year. I’ve penciled in a nana nap in for November—so you know now not to disturb me then. Preferably for the whole month. Until then, a lot of black tea is going to pass these lips. And words.

On February 10th I’ll be reading some Bukowski-inspired poems at Spoken: Tales of a Dirty Old Man. This is a gig seriously outside of my comfort zone, and I’m researching, reading and writing this week. Who knows what might happen! Come along and find out. Here’s the poster: SPOKEN.

I’m delighted to announce I’ll be joining co-poetry editor Jessica Alice on the editorial committee of Voiceworks Magazine as something of a Brisbane representative. Express Media have supported my poetry for years, and I’ve always wanted an opportunity to help out–but Melbourne is even Down Underer than here is. Now we have the Internets and Skype and magic!

So far I’m sticking to my resolutions: write often, submit often (to journals and stuff, that is!), and read more. (I’m reading Damon Galgut’s In A Strange Room, Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All, and Krissy Kneen’s sensual and touching Affection. Oh, and Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs for funzies.)

Otherwise, I’m hermited away in my office writing grant applications and working away at freelance projects. This weather transforms our lower storey (i.e. where I exist) into a damp, chilly cabin in the woods, and “home office” comes to mean “in bed with hot water bottle, laptop, and giant octopus plushie.” But it works, and I have the company of Delirium and Sigmund, betta fish who determinedly blow bubbles at me when they’re happy.

2012: One Week In

One week in and 2012 is already miles better than 2011. I spent NYE in good company, and started the year with a clean house and an organised office. Let’s see how long that lasts. Anyhow, I’ve decided that 2012 will be a year of writing. Today I emailed in the first poetry submissions of the year, along with another poetry-related application. And there are more to come this week; I’ll be working hard to meet a crowd of deadlines!

I should also cut 2011 a little slack: the year ended well, in poetry at least. I was thrilled to be awarded third place in the John Marsden Awards for Young Writers for a poem called auf wiedersehen spiegeltent. It should be up on the Express Media website soon if you’d like to read it, otherwise I’ll plonk it here at some point. And that poet I live with, Jeremy Thompson, had a well-deserved success at UQ: he won the Ford Memorial Prize for Poetry. Just to bring it all full circle, both of us had pieces published in the latest issue of Voiceworks (#87 Play).

My new year’s resolutions are to blog more frequently, write a poem a week (at least!), submit more writing and apply for more opportunities, and start a dream journal. (Seriously, weird things go on in my brain at night. I shouldn’t let those ideas slide!) So far I’ve used Freedom a lot to keep focused and I’ve blocked most of the silly blogs I read regularly, with the exception of Sex is not the Enemy and Oglaf.

As a final note, I’ve been listening to Flap! all week, and I recommend that you check out their album. They produce ear-to-ear grins and bounciness. Oh, and I saw The Dresden Dolls a few days ago at The Tivoli. It was amazing! I’ve seen Amanda a few times, but Brian’s incredible drumming creates a sound that’s quite different — and really rich. And loud. Hooray!

Happy new year, readers. I hope 2012 is the year it all falls into place.

Nuns, Punks, and Iggy Pop dressed as 007

The other day I was passing through Queen St Mall and observed the following:

  • A young boy in a home-made cardboard top hat with a big orange flower attached on a spring.
  • A man who, from the neck up, looked like Iggy Pop on a bad day but, from the neck down, looked like James Bond in a perfect black formal suit and bow-tie.
  • A punk asking a flock of querulous nuns in blue questions about Jesus.

This is irrelevant. I think all low-fat milk tastes like it’s gone off. I am having treacle cake and a glass of milk for brunch.

If you like poems, you can find something called I Dreamt You Were Dead and It Was Grand (A Love Poem) by me, over at Black Rider Press (come along with the Black Riders, etc.). Even if you don’t like poems, it will still be there. Even if you don’t like treacle cake, I will still be eating it.

No one in my house likes treacle. I would like to find someone else who likes treacle, and give them a hug. But I won’t give them any of my treacle. It’s English, don’t you know.

In other news, I’ll be doing performing at a poetry event called ‘Not Aloud in the Library’ at the Brisbane Square Library on the 16th of April. I will be reading other people’s erotica. Fuzzy-tingle times are not allowed aloud in the library, unless you are one of my housemates. Darkwing Dubs will also be performing, along with burlesque and circus acts.

In other other news, that same weekend I’ll be a busy bee at the state library on the 18th, doing a poetry workshop as part of Express Media’s Mini Publication Ride. It’s so awesome to have an Express Media thing happening up here in Queensland. If you don’t know them and their publication, Voiceworks, you ought to. Anyhoo, this is a four-week series of workshops. They will be on short stories (Chris Somerville), poetry (me), opinion (Benjamin Law) and zine making (Tiara the Merch Girl) – and if you do all four you’ll have your own zine at the end of it. You can book here if you want to come, which you really ought to. If you don’t, I’ll still be eating treacle cake, though I might be sick of it by then and have moved onto a different kind of cake.

Happy Easter. Avoid invoking the fertility gods today unless you really want to. Eat a lot of chocolate, though. Food babies are safer.