In 2016 Kevin Brophy and Nathan Curnow began a correspondence, Kevin living in the remote Aboriginal community of Mulan in the Kimberley region, Nathan living in Ballarat, Victoria. This is an excerpt from a year of letters exchanging views and ideas about poetry, teaching, creativity and failure. The correspondence continues.
Hi Nathan, Kerryn and Daughters of amazing achievement in keeping your parents in line, here I am in the school staffroom at Mulan on a Sunday afternoon (no internet at home yet, though we do have a phone on), red sand outside, a small hill topped by ancient looking red rocks, an Aboriginal woman strolling past in a pink tee shirt, colourful skirt to her ankles, Andrea beside me checking my latest poem on Facebook, lunch beckoning, forty degrees or more outside, and just back from mass in the library with Father Ernest who comes from Kenya, with half a dozen of the young children at the mass, fidgeting all the way through it. He says mass out of a suitcase, wearing basketball shoes, with a sports top on under his robes. He goes back home to watch English soccer afterwards, and home is in the next community nearly an hour away on a rough bush track.
We have had a missive from head office (that’s the Catholic Education Office) this week telling the women teachers they must not show cleavage and must not wear tee shirts, and that any pants are to be tailored. No jeans or tee shirts with logos allowed. Here the children come to mass and school in bare feet so we look formal in sandals and stubbies. The world is as strange as a Kafka novel, which keeps it interesting.
We watched a game of footy, all-Aboriginal, between Mulan and Halls Creek, on Saturday, barefoot teenagers kicking up dust and kicking goals. It was spectacular to see, and it was the first game played at Mulan in 16 years. Towards sunset we went over to the other side of the ground to get some shade on the school Toyota, and Andrea almost trespassed on to land that only men can enter. It gets stranger and stranger for us. We are liking it a lot.
Today a truckload of our belongings might arrive (if it doesn’t get bogged on the way in). We’ve been living out of what we could bring in in suitcases, and realised that’s all we need. We’re learning to hang around at the shop with the town dogs, and that’s where we get to talk with the parents of the school kids, though the kids came up to us on Friday and asked us, ‘What are you doing?’ We could only say, ‘Nothing,’ just like everyone else.
ps. What about writing a novel together, since we’re already co-authors?
Yes, we are already co-authors so tackling a novel together would be the perfect next step. God knows how we’d do it, although it must have been done before, probably by the French. The French have tried everything in literature.
Not being French myself I must admit to some misgivings about the idea. Unless Sophie is our editor. In fact it might be a way for us to settle who gets to use her keen eye first. She’s your daughter, but I swear you stole that idea from me. If we decide to write a novel together then we get to use her skills at the same time.
In fact I’ve been thinking about approaching you with an idea of my own. It goes like this ...
I’m teaching creative writing at university for the first time and looking to take a break from poetry, while you’re in the middle of a beautiful desert after a lifetime of writing and teaching. So we’re at interesting stages, with a chance to engage about the day-to-day, the creative life, general hopes and reflections. I’m wondering if we should start a correspondence, for a future reader somewhere, a correspondence written for and without a reader in mind. Something for us and others, or maybe no one at all.
It’s a project that’s been done before but I’m reluctant to mention Rilke at this stage. Everyone brings up Rilke when toying with something like this. I’m not Rilke, you’re not Rilke, our mothers didn’t dress us up in girls’ clothes and send us to military school, and neither are we Rilke’s young poet. But I’m guessing we have things to say at this point, things about the way we live and about the way we intend to in the future. Perhaps saying them to each other will work. What do you think? Knowing that if you tell me what you think we’ve begun.
Great idea Nathan,
let’s see how it goes. You are starting out on something I spent years loving doing, and mainly I think it was because I could sense the passion and the ambition of some of the students. Only always some of the students, but that was always enough.
Happy now though to see other brilliant teachers go on with the job. After nearly two decades at it, it became difficult not to be repeating myself, and the students too began to seem to repeat themselves.
Perhaps my first question to you would be, what do you do in the classroom, and how does that go for you? Are you teaching poetry writing while taking a break from poetry writing then?
You can’t trust me when I say that I’m taking a break from writing poetry. I can’t trust myself. Even when I try I just can’t seem to stop. And I know that you’ll never be done with it either, or with teaching.
It’s almost intoxicating to see passionate and ambitious young writers, isn’t it? Every class comes with one or maybe two if we’re lucky and they’re all set to throw themselves down that path, committing everything to a creative life. It’s inspiring and daunting at the same time. I’m scared for them. But to be a part of their journey is a privilege.
I think you’ll always be writing and teaching, Kev, because you know, like me, that it’s your purpose. It’s something we’ve worked hard at and paid for along the way, but it’s also something that’s been gifted to us by others. The discipline, the outlook on life, the ‘responsibility to awe’ (that title of Rebecca Elson’s book) is a kind of fire, and as we get older we realise that we get to carry it for the time we’re here. Our job is to pass it on. We show the younger ones how to hold it, tell them they’ll see visions, tell them they’ll burn themselves sometimes and then hopefully, eventually, they’ll pass it on too. We borrow the fire for a while, that’s all, trying to do with it what we can.
So my classes look like this …
In the first weeks of semester I try to set the tone, being clear, confident and above all approachable. I say hello to each student as they enter and even thank them for turning up. I want to imply that we’re all on the same page of possibility, that they’ll be teaching me as much as I’m teaching them. I want them to be comfortable enough to contribute; that way we all win. I try and break the class time into different activities. I get them writing, reading, doing group exercises, anything so that the energy doesn’t flatten out. It doesn’t always work. Everything can fail at any time. All I can do is give them my best head and heart for the subject and see if they take it up for themselves.
But what do you think? I’m rabbiting on here because I’m passionate about teaching but unnerved by it as well.
your energy and application will be infectious. Education mainly works by passing on a fever. Exposure to the rabid presence of the teacher, being touched in some way, being vulnerable to influence, this is education when it’s working.
Learning students’ names is the key to getting a handle on them as personalities. I like the image of you thanking them for coming.
I tried to teach S— (five years old, birth date uncertain) on Friday to say-sing, ‘L, M, N, O, P’. She was bewildered by my mad repetitions and funny lip movements trying to get her to see and feel the difference between ‘m’ and ‘n’ and then my blowing in her face with ‘P’. She blinked and laughed, and said ‘A B C’ when she pointed to the letters ‘LMNOP’. She seemed like a fish under water, or I did. Later in the day, Andrea taught her ABC by giving her the letters as plastic pieces and getting her to put them under the table out of sight, and then discover what letter each one was by blindly feeling the shape of each one. S— got it.
I have a lot to learn about teaching these children.
Sometimes, with teaching, I thought that my strength as a teacher was in introducing students to starting points for thinking and writing. The extension and complication of it all would have to be the work of smarter teachers they would hopefully be prepared for after emerging from my nudges and provocations.
Two kinds of teaching attracted me. The first, exemplified in that poetry reader, was the well prepared, curated performance, and invitation to be influenced by poems that are read attentively, and understood as part of a history of writing into the world.
The second was exemplified by a fourth year subject I called ‘Extreme Poetry’ where we challenged each other to exploit, explore, and extend every assumption about what poetry is and could be. Mainly the students led that subject with occasional prompting from me through examples, histories of the avant garde and readings, but they often went far beyond what I had uncovered. They often took to it and rose to the challenge with all sorts of surprising projects and angles on poetry. I felt a bit out of my depth in the matter of marking these students, but luckily for them marking wasn’t the main point of it by the end of the semester.
We are hoping to start up a reading club after school here, but things happen slowly. For instance, our belongings coming on a truck (Grace Removals) have still not arrived and each time it rains it gets less likely anyone will risk their monster trucks on those soaked roads.
That’s okay though. We’ve realised how little we need to keep ourselves alive and amused.
I like your term ‘the rabid presence of the teacher’, that’s such a huge part of it, as much as sharing the technical skills and insights. The upfront presence of someone living a creative life gives them permission to explore it for themselves, something a career-driven secondary school education often neglects to show them. A few students might even see me as a bit of a freak, the way that some in the broader community do.
Artists live an alternative lifestyle which nine-to-fivers can find difficult to understand. We don’t live for the usual guarantees of a wage, the accruement of holiday leave or the step-by-step career path that provides certainty in a profession. Even this teaching role at uni is something I’ve scrambled hard for and it might not last for long. We’ve thrown those usual securities up in the air to live for other things. And yet being a ‘presence’ for the students is what unnerves me about it too — my role in front of them all. What if this leads them down a path that ruins their lives, a path they become desperately bitter about?
I recently watched the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with Gene Wilder, Willy being a strange, magical freak. Beneath all the chocolate and candy it’s really about being exposed to a life of wonder and creativity. Willy asks the children to sign an unreadable contract before they enter his ‘world of pure imagination’, their anxious parents tagging along, fretful and confused, as all parents are when their kids choose the Arts.
Remember the boat ride through the tunnel, representing the subconscious, the scary side that artists can’t avoid? Then one by one the children fail because of their own hubris and greed, until only Charlie — the pure of heart, apparently — remains. There’s also the part where Willy says to a child, ‘We are the music makers and the dreamers of dreams’. He doesn’t say ‘I am’. He tells her, ‘We are’. It’s in all of us, potentially.
But something about Willy disturbs me. Because there are days when I’m suspicious about what he’s peddling. Still, I pursue this writing life, the flawed and difficult faith of it because it’s the best path for me. It’s framed my way. I get to experience life through words and wonder. I love the music of the word ‘jalopy’ for example. The fact that each letter in the word ‘egg’ kind of looks like it’s an egg sitting in its own cup.
Even with doubts I can’t help but pass this on.
That’s why I love hearing about S—. I love that she’s experiencing the music, shape, even the feel of each letter. I envy you and Andrea out there. Are you slowly picking up terms in S—’s language? To think of the richness of the languages that have been stripped, stolen and now in some cases gone forever. What a shameful past we bear. Indigenous language should really be taught in primary schools ... the potential of it to connect us to history, to each other and country. We are all missing out.
Good luck with the reading club. And with the truck arriving, although the slowness sounds like its own kind of blessing.
Jalopy, yes, I know what you mean about the loose charm of that word as a set of sounds, a little song to itself and its meaning.
I have had a lot of nine-to-five in my life, and was glad of it because it helped to pay for the raising of children, it put me in the stream of humanity, it taught me my place in the socio-economic, historic, geographical, military-industrial world. It stood me up and then it stood me up.
As a teacher I’ve been careful — as much as I could be — to be the teacher in front of them, not the writer. I come prepared, I have a syllabus to cover, and I am in front of them as a reader of the works we’re looking at and of their works. If they go to the library or a shop (or the internet a little later) and find the books I have written, it’s awkward for me, because I’m not the point, as far as the classroom goes. It suits my inhibitions to be the teacher-facilitator, not the writer in front of them.
In workshops with adults it’s different, I can be more the writer then and even sell them some books (!)
I approach teaching from the point of view that students are interested in looking inside the engine and learning something about how the thing (the poem, the story, the essay) might have been made, and how this might show them a way of making something themselves out of words/phrases/images/ sentences/sounds. I don’t think they will become writers, but rather students of writing who might come out the other end as readers with some appreciation for the actual work, the bumbling, the inspiration, the play and the rigour that go in to producing a piece of writing. If one or (an exaggeration) two of them do become writers then that’s something that was going to happen anyway, because it’s down to them to pursue that. A few more get involved in small press publishing, working in the arts, curating readings, performance, editing and that’s a good outcome too. You were unusual, coming to me with your novel and a new project, highly unusual. I wondered if you would burn out in front of me, but here you are getting more and more brilliant as you go, a kind of reverse falling star.
I didn’t extol the life of the writer, or for that matter criticise it either, and maybe I should have been more honest with them about the difficulties of that path. Occasionally I pointed out to them that the writing life can only end in bad posture, arthritic thumbs and RSI. But then again every profession and trade takes it physical and mental toll on its practitioners.
This week it was J—, who cannot seem to want to apply herself, but manages to learn more than the others along the way. She is either crying or smiling, nothing in between. She hasn’t discovered the long earnest feat of concentrating the mind on something. A mystery to know how to get her to find this in herself.
My latest poem is about J— writing a sentence while I watched and encouraged, aghast at how many ways a piece of writing can be almost ruined.
Love for now,
At first she holds it correctly,
then her forehead comes down
to the pencil’s end
till she’s pushing it around
with her forebrain.
Easy to let the end slip
into one nostril
for a more delicate manoeuvre.
Her hand shifts to hold it
like a digging stick,
a wand, a baton,
it can be anything
and almost is
as the sentence emerges
from her tiny storm
its words scorched across the paper
as if finally scratched out with the tip
of a lightning bolt.
Not sure if you’ve seen the latest article in Meanjin that’s got the literati all stirred up. It’s a grenade of an essay, provocative and also extremely boring, called ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle’ by Luke Carmen. The arguments we have with each other just baffle me sometimes. Writers can get so cut-throat, and for what? The good of conversation? It’s like spending your day watching a messy game of football. You end up feeling like a loser even though it’s not your fault. You turned up and stayed for the full four quarters, hoping that the play would get better, but it didn’t, and there’s no chance of getting your day back.
Carmen takes aim at arts administrators, ‘middlebrow’ writers and creative writing programs. He says:
Much of the blame for creating the chasm in our culture from which these deluded demi-gods of arts management have arisen must lie with our universities – and the corrupting influence of ‘creative writing’ courses that serve as cash cows for our beleaguered and fatigued humanities departments.
A recent Onion article titled ‘Creative writing professor takes time to give every student personalized false hope’ spread through the halls of my university late last year. Its barb, obviously, was the betrayal of the young and wishful by the peddling of insincerities and fantasies under the banner of creative writing. Every student who sits in on a tutorial is encouraged to believe publication is only a degree away. It is a cruel lie, perpetuated by the complicity of tutors and lecturers who have no option. The directive to avoid the truth — formerly, I’m led to believe, of some concern to the humanities — is driven by the perpetual commandment from upper management to commercialise or perish.
It’s a ludicrous essay in many ways, odd for its anger and rhetoric. I only mention it here because you never spread false hope or fuelled fantasies. You just asked questions of my work, one or two at a time, and I had to go away and answer them in the writing, because they were always the right infernal questions! I was equally amazed and frustrated by you. You were so quiet, so quick, and then it was all back on me again. You offered the most honest of apprenticeships.
I distinctly remember choosing to trust your questions, trusting that your approach would get me there. Because I was burning for the fantasy, looking for all sorts of guarantees. Kerryn and I had three kids under three by then, all born at the Royal Women’s Hospital on the opposite corner to your building at the University of Melbourne. Rue, our third, was born two months prior to meeting you, and becoming a writer was my only plan. The fact that you didn’t over-indulge me made me even more determined. I kept returning to your office with new work and you kept sending me away with new questions.
So how to teach J— might seem a mystery at the moment, but I’ve no doubt the patience and commitment of you both will find a way. I was a crying, smiling mess once too, until the company of concentration sorted me out (although I still have my days).
Here’s to her learning how to craft many words into a direct piece of fork lightning that hits the reader.
Hard to know what exactly Luke Carmen is attacking, except maybe anyone teaching creative writing at a university. He is not the first to do this, and won’t be the last. It’s amusing — as though only some select few (chosen by whom?) can or should be allowed to be creative, learn about their limits, test themselves against the best they can read, dream even, and find out what the tricks of the trade of writing might be. It is also amusing because of the way that such complaints portray students as dupes and dopes who are taken in by some promise in a brochure that they will become the next Bryce Courtenay or the next Francesca Haig (!). Students are not that dumb. They know, mostly, exactly what they are doing and why, and it doesn’t take them long to understand the quality of the teaching they’re getting. Students’ motives, reasons, and non-reasons for studying creative writing are as varied as they would be for students doing psychology or sociology or history. Why isn’t there outrage over too many students studying law? Not many of them will become QCs or even suburban solicitors, so what do the law schools think they are doing taking these students’ fees and giving them crusty old lecturers who have forgotten what a criminal looks like? And why aren’t philosophy departments told they are giving a false promise to students when they promise to teach them to think? No one really knows how to think. I know I don’t. Some rare, rare angels do. I wish Mr Carmen had named names, then at least it would have been clear what he was complaining about. Like many who love to condemn, he seems to exclude the few writers and poets (and lecturers?) he has got to know personally. The ones he doesn’t know he feels free to slam. Give me silence any day, if conversation is like this. We know universities are in a pickle over whether they need to be commercial training facilities or halls of intellectual and creative inquiry.
Back to work, sorry for the diatribe.
Don’t apologise for the diatribe. It sums up the response it’s receiving – a mix of confusion, irritation and just general despair. Alison Croggon commented at Overland:
Reading the essay just made me think of starving rats in a cage eating each other. If that’s what it’s seeking to mimic, I guess all well and good, though I still question why; and I still don’t see why that energy isn’t directed against those who really are wrecking our future.
I’ve grown so tired of these blow-ups and their worth, Kev. I’ve only been in this game for sixteen years but they’ve become excruciating. I’ve been involved in a few myself, wittingly and unwittingly, sometimes dragged kicking and screaming into the fray, trying to say things of clarity and value. But very little good seems to come from it and it steals energy from my creative work.
You must have seen so many literary spot fires by now, these ‘urgent’ complaints and provocations that are usually aimed at the same soft targets. Have you ever been hauled into them? If not, how have you managed to steer clear? I read Delinquent Angel, the biography of Shelton Lea, which gives a terrific account of the turbulence in Australian poetry from 1969 and into the 70s. Passions were high in Sydney and Melbourne. I’d love to know how you navigated all that, and navigate it still.
These days, if I’m to have a conversation with other writers, I prefer it to be through the texts we produce, the mystery of how stories speak to each through time, for and against, across the bookstore shelves. And what is at the heart of this sustained conversation? Surely, it’s something ancient. Something about the experience of being.
I also like your line, ‘No one really knows how to think’. I was about to respond with the confession, ‘sometimes I wonder about the value of thinking’, a comment that succinctly betrays itself. I remember eavesdropping on a conversation once, a bunch of high school students talking about the grief they experience when coming to the end of a good book. One of them said, ‘I don’t like endings full stop’, oblivious to the irony of the phrase. It was so good I had to steal it and use it in a poem.
I’ve attached it here for you, it’s coming out next month in The Apocalypse Awards. It’s a poem about a group of book lovers who’ve barricaded themselves inside a library, protecting the titles from some rampaging force that’s closing in.
we barricade ourselves inside
and select the best reader among us
what’s the point of protecting all these books
if they’re not being read by someone
we havelves and banners and bean bags
desks stuck with all the gum we can stomach
we’re a dedicated chapter of bookish guards
trading cigarettes for sets of bookmarks
10 Ways Reading Will Save Your Life
although everyone knows what’s coming
a mix of The Road and World War Z
plus A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
we’re taking our stand among the titles
because it’s stories that keep us living
our natural tendency is to romanticise
imagine the fire at Alexandria
we have popular weapons for medieval war
and a whiteboard for emergency use
a catalogue search and we’re off to find
How to Take Hostages for Dummies
our reader consuming an array of genres
stacked in a makeshift literature fort
the sentence coming is overdue
we don’t like endings full stop
not sure if it is theft or found art. You could imagine that most people who speak are in fact throwing words and phrases away, not intending them to be archived, elevated, marvelled at or owned. You have rescued something rather than stolen it ... could we say?
I can’t even keep that essay in my head for long, and seem to have forgotten already what it was about, except that creative writing teachers are either unforgivably untalented or are deluding the masses that they might themselves — the masses — have talents, inspirations, aspirations, dedication.
Andrea has spent the weekend dusting and sorting books in the library, truly barricaded in there doing a job that properly done will have no end. The library it turns out is short of good stories for children.
I am looking out the window here at Gnarpu Hill (Jesus Hill) sometimes called Fish Hill (manganamana, I think, or some word like that. The Walmajarri words are often Germanically long and the locals skate over the syllables in a low grumble).
There are rough red rocks on the hill that seem moulded like plasticine around each other. The schoolchildren sit on these rocks with their dogs in the morning, waiting for the school gates to open at 7:20 am. The dogs try to follow them into school. The teachers chase the dogs out. Once everyone is in the classrooms the dogs return looking for bits of breakfast the children might have dropped around the place. Some of the dogs are just looking for shade.
My job this week is to get a photo of S— with his dog (Jake), and get the text of his story and D—’s story to Westerly who are producing an Indigenous issue. D— has written about playing footy here, and S— has written about the dogs in Mulan, as well as a dreamtime story of two local dingoes.
I know they won’t really understand what they have done until they see the journal itself with their work in it.
I hope it gives them a taste for telling.
Yes, the student threw her beautiful line away and I sniffed around the worth of it, like Mulan dogs sniff out the scraps of the children. I can imagine it like that, but I’m not sure it is. I imagine many things that aren’t right or honest and then hold up the imagining as some kind of trophy in itself. Because what truly needs rescuing? What needs to be marvelled at? This is the conceit at the heart of all writing. Every thief justifies their crime as ‘rescuing’, their fingers as nimble as ours across the keyboard.
I visited Werribee Zoo the other day. There were enormous school holiday crowds filing in, families queuing up with their prams, packed lunches and sunscreen. We were paying to see animals who invariably sit around doing very little, either sleeping in a bunch at the far end of an enclosure or staring at the clouds having mysterious animal thoughts. What were we hoping to experience?
From one enclosure to the next we suffered the agony of negotiating each other, waiting for our turn at the glass panel or on the step where we could glimpse something that’s essentially manufactured. Were we hoping for a kind of magic, an ounce of their power, a chance to value their wildness, although they’re trapped now and routinely fed? Parents were yelling at their kids, trying not to lose them, fumbling ice creams, tissues and nappies, pushing prams as best they could. We were the most active things in the zoo. It was a zoo of humanity. That’s not what we’d paid for but it’s what most of the day involved.
Which is to say I can imagine it like that, but I’m not sure it is. And there you are half a continent away, surrounded by dogs in the shade, staring out your window at rough rocks that also look like plasticine. What needs rescuing? What needs telling? Everything around us is ancient, older than human imagination. We are thieves in the contemporary crime of consciousness.
Your visit to the zoo, well observed, and yes, disappointing for what I guess one hopes to get from seeing animals caged, enclosed, protected, displayed, collected or however we come to think of it. You are right that it is some accident of nature that we are the animals outside looking in at the animals inside looking out. I hope you have written about it in a poem in your way of writing-about.
I too think that the few people reading my poems regularly on Facebook (about a dozen, and I am pleased to write for them) would not really get a feel for the rubbishy, dusty, untidy, scraping the daily bits of a life together kind of place this is. The canteen at school still stinks to the point of making me gag as I walk in because the freezer went off during the summer break, and we arrived to a horrid slime of de-frozen food at the bottom of the freezer. The smell just won’t go away. Then there are the flies in the canteen (the ‘a’ on my keyboard is almost falling off) and my dilemma over whether to use Mortein on them, and then there’s the mess left in the sink each day that needs to be washed up. Andrea has been dusting the books in the library, a few weeks work, possibly endless, and necessary for the sake of the books, but also to find out what books are here since there seems to be no catalogue, or if there was it is lost in some ancient computer up the back of the room with a dozen brand new guitars. We came, I guess, for the children, but a lot of the time is spent setting things up and setting things right, and sweeping the desert away for a while.
Perhaps many lessons here, the usual ones. Life is like a visit to the zoo during the Easter break when every other family is doing the same? Disney was on to something with his litter and poo free anodyne animal world. But we both know it’s the sordid, sorry, unremarkable details that really make an Alice Munro story or a Sharon Olds poem work.
I think Westerly will publish the two stories about Mulan. I hope they publish the photo of the Mulan football team in a tight hugging circle before the game started, every player in a different kind of pair of shorts. I like this place a lot. It is a town of wild hair and casual attire.
I hope your trip to Melbourne and back has gone well. Is the smell of the freezer still lurking around? Has the ‘a’ on your keyboard completely fallen off yet? Time to sweep away the desert and dust off the books in the library again. I expect you’ll be feeling the contrast of the two worlds even more now in light of your first trip home. How are you both?
And thanks for your new book, This is What Gives Us Time, such a strong body of Rome work. Can we call it your ‘Rome period’? I’m always struck by your style and tone, which the back cover rightly describes as ‘delicately aware’. It’s a strange quality to articulate but the reader gets the sense that each line knows the play and possibilities of itself. Was it Wittgenstein who said we must ‘let language speak’, that wonderful contradiction where the author must somehow, impossibly, get out of the way of their own writing? There’s a mystery in that which I enjoy and your work always reminds me of it.
Back here we’ve just had the Ballarat launch of The Apocalypse Awards, and I’m on the poet’s circuit of strange events and readings. A punter complimented me by saying ‘you’re psychotic’ when I got off stage the other day, while another told me he wasn’t a fan of free verse. I enjoy the variety of responses, mostly, the necessary business of readings, although the business model for poetry is long broken. Still, it’s the writing and crafting that I enjoy the most. I only get out there because the poems deserve an audience.
Now I’ve told you that I’m planning to take a break from poetry but I’ve just submitted a couple to Going Down Swinging’s next issue. Kerryn told me to submit, although I often wonder if I should. She says it’s a good way for the younger generation to discover my work, but maybe I should step out of that pond for good.
In other news I’m reading Anthony Lawrence’s new collection Headwaters, Erica Jolly’s Challenging the divide: Approaches to Science and Poetry, and my father has just sent me a paper he’s written about violence in the Old Testament.
we have the freezer subdued, and we use eucalyptus oil when we need a masking aroma. As I read (at night) one of the novels that arrived in our cargo, sand sprinkles down upon my chest. It is in everything, even the fiction. We are okay. Andrea has a daunting task, and now a long stretch here at the school to test herself, her program, and the kids, hoping for signs of progress. We are both very fond of each of the children and have hopes for them, naturally. I think in two years she could turn one or two them around and change the direction their lives would otherwise go. I’m hoping the outcome can be something like that.
I like being back here in the relative quiet and relative simplicity (though I still have lists of to-do items swirling in my head at night). Keeping in touch with people is the challenge for me. Plus gradually making contacts in the community here.
Tell me about your daughters and what they are up to, what they’re thinking. How many hours work do you get each day with teaching?
It was Heidegger, I think, who announced that language speaks through the poets, in his final years of writing. The problematic and brilliant Heidegger. Maybe Wittgenstein said it too. I ask the students to listen to what they have written, and as they re-draft, do more listening than writing. I don’t know if it works, but it gives them a method to begin with and think about.
I have your book too, and hopefully sand won’t fall from it as I read it. I’ll begin it tonight, and let you know how I go with it.
I have a monthly column to write for The Conversation on the theme of writing poetry, so hope to be mentioning my current reading in the columns. This first time, for the May column, it will be Alison Strumberger I mention, in a piece on ‘What is poetry?’. There will need to be a discussion of free verse, so that might be how yours is woven in. What do you think free verse is? (trick question, no multiple choice answers)
With the Rome book, you might see that sometimes the lines are set with a fixed number of beats (4 or 5) and syllables, though not always. I was trying to work towards a more formal or more musical line, trying for a shift of tone. It felt different to what I have done in the past. I have no idea whether the verse is any better, or whether the poetry comes through more or less powerfully. Intentions were sound, as usual, but we know that honing the intentions doesn’t hone the poetry.
The 2016 Mulan poems are much looser, more wild, and more anecdotal. More uneven, but just as much fun.
Your book is a lot of fun, the way it throws out and throws up images and ideas. The whole book is like watching one of your YouTube performance poems when you’re teamed up with Alexis. ‘and the rest is delirium’ is something for the historians and Hamlets of fate to consider.
let’s keep this going,
I’m just home from the Clunes Booktown festival, a lovely weekend where I got to catch up with old friends in the Green Room before we each headed off to our respective panel sessions. It seems like the only chance we all have of catching up these days is in a Green Room somewhere, and that’s if we’ve been lucky enough to get on the bill. They’re such odd spaces, charged with nerves, excitement, preparation, and fresh success or failure. I’d prefer to meet up in the haunts of Hemingway’s Paris.
I went to the bookseller tent and found that my book wasn’t there, despite my publisher’s assurances that they’d supplied it. I’m not sure who dropped the ball, but it happens regularly to poets, no matter how good the cover looks, or the quality of the writing inside. I took my own stock from my bag, put them out on the table at my reading and worked the microphone again like some kind of professional.
Little things like that still get to me. It has to do with my own expectations and I should be tougher about it by now. Our work is launched into a world of calamity and happy accidents. No telling what awaits it or why. I guess our only option is to be stoic about it, but truthfully, it wears me down.
On the flipside I got to chat with our dear friend Cate Kennedy. I lined up a reading some years ago, with her, Miles Allinson and myself, and through a series of fortuitous events it led to her collection The Taste of River Water coming out. To think that I played a small part in the emergence of such a fine book. Swings and roundabouts, hey? The disco rollercoaster of it all. The ride’s not just the horse, it’s the tumble from the horse.
Now I asked Kerryn your question about free verse and she said it’s like an hourglass clock, it works by flow, a flow delivered through the tightest point of itself (the line). Verse then is like a household clock on the wall, speaking through the metrical, mechanical cogs that make it work. I think she’s on to something, so I might add that prose is a giant digital clock on a stadium scoreboard — it’s blindingly obvious, with lots of readers.
In light of this metaphor I’m hoping that sand does pour out of my book for you.
To be honest, sometimes I think free verse is a great swindle but that’s mostly when I’m reading sloppy, lazy lines that are broken without any real purpose. They’re excruciating to read. When a line is tight with intention then it’s a thing of beauty, its break essential. Free verse is a system of delivery that can build, bend and collapse meaning in language, in ways that prose can’t. But that sounds too close to something you said once.
Thank you for asking about the girls. They are very fond of you. Darcie is doing Year 12, Scarlet is in Year 11, Rue is in Year 10 and Alexis is in Grade 3, so we’re in this mad routine of study, sport, music, sleepovers, shifts down at the local pizza shop and driving lessons. It’s a busy house of emotions and responsibilities that we’re all navigating as best we can. They’re extraordinary people. They arrest me. Alexis was blowing bubbles into her milk through a straw this morning and said that she’d like to do it for a living. She said that she will make kids happy this way.
Brophy, K 2016 This is what gives us time, Melbourne: Gloria SMH
Brophy, K, D Neach and SmHill-Kopp 2016 ‘Introduction to Mulan’, Westerly 61.1: 39–44
Carmen, L 2016 ‘Getting square in a jerking circle’, Meanjin (Autumn),
https://meanjin.com.au/essays/getting-square-in-a-jerking-circle/ (accessed 17 September 2017)
Croggon, A 2016 ‘Comments’, Overland, 18 March,
https://overland.org.au/2016/03/vulgar-rhetoric/ (accessed 17 September 2017)
Curnow, N 2016 The apocalypse awards, Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing
Elson, R (ed A Berkeley and B O’Donoghue) 2001 A responsibility to awe, Manchester: Carcanet Press
Heidegger, M 2001  Poetry, language, thought, New York: HarperCollins
Jolly, E 2010 Challenging the divide: Approaches to science and poetry, Adelaide: Lythrum
Kennedy, C 2011 The taste of river water: New and selected poems, Melbourne: Scribe
Lawrence, A 2015 Headwaters, Adelaide: Pitt Street Poetry
Strumberger, A and G Sze 2015 Redrafting winter, Ottawa: BuschekBooks