Negative Capability

Then I realized I had been murdered…

 
Then I realized I had been murdered. They looked for me in cafés, cemeteries and churches…but they did not find me. They never found me? No. They never found me.”

So wrote Frederico Garcia Lorca in his play “The Fable And Round Of The Three Friends”. It almost sounds like David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Stole the World,’ which Nirvana recorded. In a way it was a prediction about society’s values as it stigmatises and shatters the life of a writer, removing his or her presence. This liminality is part of an intensity inherent in the artistic project. In Lorca’s case this happened with acceleration; he was only 38 when he died. To kill a character might be the most difficult task a writer attempts, and yet we need to renew our foundational myths. The symbols and themes of sexuality, death and mortality abound in Lorca’s poems: the moon, blood, still water, the horse and rider. I remember reading his poetry in my youth and being intoxicated by their imagistic mysteries. 80 years ago today, on August 19, 1936, he was shot by Franco’s Falangist guards, a matyr to the republican anti-Fascist cause as world powers teetered on the brink of war. His writing had been anti-Catholic in sentiment but it was his homosexuality that was targeted.

In ‘Theory and Play of the Duende’ he writes of the relationship between creativity and the divine, between life and art; the cost extracted by art, the dying of the self as we try to inhabit two worlds, impossibly. He was Spain’s queer avant-garde, as Jorge Luis Borges was Argentina’s genre-bending solterón, or Pessoa was Portugal’s priestly, polyphonic modernist. It is  fascinating to read how Pessoa’s work has been classified, going by his own possibilities for the non-existent volumes kept as loose folios in his trunk. I sometimes think blogging can be like this; that these fragments and epistles can be arranged and sorted in many forms.

When copies of my book, Letter to Pessoa first appeared, they were announced by my cat Chester darting across the courtyard entrance to my modest townhouse. The courier had arrived with a box, which on opening revealed its treasure. I feel it is perfectly beautiful, the cover image, the design, the fact that when I turn the pages the names of writers I love appear on its pages as precursors: Lorca, Derrida, Woolf, Nabokov, Borges, Genet, Coetzee, Pessoa, though not quite in that order….What I love as well is that there are a few words I have changed in my mind, as privately, the editing never stops, or as I’ve paused, here and there, to postpone a preference.
 

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On the malleability of voice

My edits are finished and my book is now at the printers…I am indebted to Ivor Indyk for his sensitive appreciation of the malleability of voice in Letter to Pessoa. It will be launched next month in Sydney by Michelle de Kretser.

A few weeks ago I went to the Frida Kahlo exhibition; wonderful to see this collection of self-portraits, paintings, drawings, inscriptions, photographs, videos from the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman. I was particularly taken with one, a photograph by  Lola Alvarez Bravo from 1944, which invites a consideration of the painter as subject:

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Writing can do this; it’s a part of why I blog, it’s part of my interest in the fragment self and the double life of performing and erasing who we are.

Because I want to go back as I go forward, is why I write. Because of whom I left at the terminal, what thoughts and feelings came to me as the plane ascended, the vast sweep of a city, its forests and glittering skyscrapers, its river tributaries reclaimed, reaching farther into places foreign to my eyes, the vista of cumulo nimbus cloud …

I am going back to Negative Capability, which for several years was the title of this blog. Keats wrote  that the ‘poetical character… has no self—it is everything and nothing—it has no character and enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated—it has as much delight in conceiving an Iago as an Imogen. What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet… A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because (s)he has no identity, (s)he is continually filling some other body.’ (the bracket(s) are mine.)

I felt I wanted to be Michelle Cahill, but deeply, incoherently, there are things within which I cannot apprehend: my pains, my past uttering itself in fragments. It may happen abruptly but also slowly like a glacier retracting indiscernibly so that the effect is visible. “I have suffered two serious accidents in my life,” wrote Frida.

I turned after such an incident and in the distance I could see a speck: a boat dashed against rocks. The wind had entered my life and changed me; there I lived and was held and carried safely.

Saturday Night

….So, I survived last week’s Hokusai waves.

I am back in Sydney, of course; have been for a  few weeks, highlights of which have been the recording of poems from Vishvarupa with Prithvi Varatharajan (from the University of Queensland) for the ABC. His questions were engaging, and allowed me to reference some new research (into the terrain of Anglo-Indian identity.) Prithvi’s PhD on the radio program Poetica explores the poetry and social politics of John Forbes, Ouyang Yu, Vicki Viidikas and others. I think it’s going to be a fascinating and erudite contribution to understanding contemporary developments in Australian poetry.

 

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I also attended the Sydney Writers’ Festival; an event with Ivor Indyk, Kate Lilley and Kent MacCarter, curated by Toby Fitch and Australian Poetry. There was such a calm and intelligent atmosphere about the session on editing and the mysteries of poetry, thanks to Indyk’s moderation. I admire his work in Australian literature, his scholarship and engagement with avant-garde and migrant writers over the years. He has not entirely escaped being the target of a political correctness; the flourishing new wave of Australian anti-intellectualism. But this can happen to any of us who dare to deviate from what is perceived as popular knowledge towards a particularly individual interpretation of a text or of a cultural dynamic. To be literary is an indulgence. A writer must wear such appraisals, and be prepared to shrug them off and keep going with the task of writing.

I know for instance that some feminists may take offence at my story ‘Letter to Coetzee’ simply because it allows desire to be expressed by the ‘victim’ or subject of a misogynistic encounter, such as portrayed in Disgrace.  And some readers might question why my Nabokov story does not have a moral to its ending, refusing to ‘unlearn’ its narrator’s experience of anticipation and consummation being exquisitely intense and precariously balanced.  Why is it that a female writer, and especially one of colour is rarely permitted to articulate or embody this very desire, her own desire, as a speaking subject? (Rather, she is the fictional object of pleasure, commodified by others.) Well, it seems that after a protracted time fueled by writing, editing, digressions and beautiful distractions, I am almost ready to defend these concerns.

But it is Saturday night walking into Sunday. I have been meaning to write something here since returning, but couldn’t find the words. Have been reading Submission (in translation) by Michel Houellebecq, a very amusing satire, notorious for its Charlie Hebdo associations though surely not Islamophobic. It was released the day of the attacks with its author on the cover of the magazine. I’m enjoying the voice of its feckless professorial narrator, François. Have also been reading poems by Tina Giannoukos from her stunning collection of sonnets, Bull Days, and David Herd’s Through. I love the music of his adverbs and his broken syntax.

 

 ~~~

Letter to Pessoa

It’s wonderful being in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I am teaching a Creative Writing Workshop at UNC’s campus. It’s an inspired, welcoming faculty and a privilege to be here. I am teaching on memory, time and narrative with a focus on the poets Bronwyn Lea, Natasha Tretheway and short story writers, Andrew Porter, Ellen Van Neervan and Tom Cho.

I am also in final editing phases of my short story collection, Letter to Pessoa. In many ways it is experimental writing that resists or suggests an alternative to the stable identities and structures of conventional narrative. There are homage stories in the epistolary form as well as the ghosting of a single voice. I am thrilled about the book and looking forward to sharing my fictional prose with new readers. Here is the gorgeous cover designed by Giramondo, taken from the German-born-Australian-based artist, Madeleine Kelly, whose work I love.

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“I wasn’t meant for reality, but life came and found me.”
― Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Photograph Nicola Bailey

Photograph by Nicola Bailey

 

Mise en abîme

It’s been necessary having some time to myself; to prepare for travelling, to try and write often despairingly through distractions, overwriting, bewilderment, false beginnings. Virginia Woolf once spoke of the wildness of words being to blame, how words belong to themselves. I think my fiction manuscript is taking shape. Soon it will be time to select a cover and I have one in mind. A “Letter to John Coetzee” has been received, and accepted for The Lakeview Journal. As a #fangirl this delights me.

My “Loss”, an otter poem, has appeared in Meanjin, the last to be edited by the lovely Judith Beveridge. I’ve had another, ‘Museum of Natural History’ accepted for The Kenyon Review (It was fun to make an iPhone audio file for that.) And in the new issue of Island, I have a poem, ‘The Castle’ after a castle and Kafka’s Amalia. It might seem impressive, but this isn’t recent writing. I’m pretty sure that when these poems and the collection I’m preparing with the wonderful team at Arc are published, I would like to restore myself and renew my poetic sensibilities. I would like to have time to process the impact of technology, environmental contingencies and globalisation on the lyric.

The ghettoisation of some poetry, itself a marginalised genre, forces many of us to be reactive, defensive and that kind of noise is not a space for creative balance. Maybe I’ll take a long recess. I don’t want to repeat myself or force language into an exclusively theoretical frame.

 

Some New Work

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Many years ago I began to write a novel that was never published. It was called Ecstasy, and the ending was so exciting that I couldn’t bear to abandon it. So I shaped it, over the years, into a story called ‘Duende’, an Andalusian love story inspired by Frederico Garcia Lorca. It was rejected by Antipodes and Southerly, and The Best Australian Stories. With each rejection I kept editing until my luck changed last year and it was selected by Hilary Mantel as the winning entry in the Kingston Writing School short story competition. Writing ‘Duende’, I learned about the purpose of pacing and detail, the balance between style and the substance that makes a story believable, no matter how speculative or experimental its premise might be. I learned about homage; about taking historical facts and allowing my imagination to reconfigure them into something entirely unique; that it’s okay to be in conversation with writers from the past who have inspired me. (This is something I do in the collection I’m now finalising.) It appears in a recently launched collection of short stories What Lies Beneath, which has been published by Kingston University Press  along with stories by Rick Williams, Anne-Marie Neary, Catherine McNamara and a wonderful introduction by Hilary Mantel.

In other new work I’m thrilled that my poem “Twofold Bay, 1930” appears in The London Magazine. It’s a poem about the killer whales whose cooperation with Aboriginal and settler whalers on the south east coast of Australia came to a dramatic end.

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And Geoff Page has selected my poem ‘Bear’ for The Best Australian Poems, 2015. I’m glad; it was written a few years ago in my despair and appeared last year in Australian Literary Review, thanks to Jaya Savige.
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This month I’ve also edited the new issue of Mascara Literary Review, Between Black and White, which I’m hugely proud of. Do check out some of the excellent poems, stories and reviews. I’m also enjoying my research, reading the letters of Jean Rhys, edited by Frances Wyndham and Diana Melly. She writes: “A Zombie is a dead woman raised up by the Obeah woman, it’s usually a woman I think, and a zombie can take the appearance of anyone.” and in the same letter…”The Brontë sisters had of course a touch of genius (or much more) especially Emily. So reading Jane Eyre, one’s swept along regardless. But I, reading it later, and often, was vexed at her portrait of the ‘paper tiger’ lunatic; the all wrong Creole scenes, and above all by the real cruelty of Mr Rochester.”

~~~

Borges and I

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The September issue of Australian Book Review is now in print with my story, ‘Borges and I’ which was shortlisted in the 2015 Elizabeth Jolley Prize. It is about the bibliophilic dreams of a physicist, who receives a mysterious book, signed by the Argentinian poet and it shares its name, with the brief, elusive fiction Borges wrote to unsettle the autonomy of narration.

This is a beautiful issue with reviews by Christopher Menz, James Ley, Catriona Menzies-Pike and Michelle de Kretser. It was a great privilege to attend the Brisbane Writers’ Festival on Friday and read from my story. I feel honoured to be the first writer of colour who has been shortlisted in the Elizabeth Jolley Prize, something I mentioned which may have raised eyebrows, though my remark was intended to pay respect to my colleagues of colour, whose stories are too often silenced in the margins of our national narratives. But how wonderful it is to see ABR selecting stories which test the geographical borders of nationalism and which move away from domestic accretions, from realist mechanics and cohesion into the tropes of dream, water, memory and ontological abstractions. Borges asks us to consider “Who is the writer?” and “How do we know the writer?” I have been reading a powerful book, Silencing the Past by the Haitian anthropologist, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, which has deepened my awareness of this need we have to be both actors and narrators in history in order for our subjectivity to reach its capacity.

Here are photographs from the event in Brisbane. And there is a link to my story, edited and presented with great care, which you can read by subscribing to Australian Book Review

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Peter Rose, Michelle Cahill, Harriet McKnight, Rob Magnuson Smith

the Elizabeth Jolley Prize

Many years ago I attended the Sydney Writer’s Festival launch of Elizabeth Jolley’s Milk and Honey. It was wonderful to hear her read at the State Library and her presence was hypnotic. And now, just over two decades later I can revisit that special memory with a fully fledged feeling of privilege to be shortlisted in the short story prize named in her honour.

Here is the special announcement made by the organisers, Australian Book Review: Elizabeth Jolley Prize Shortlist I’m delighted that my Borges  mash-up, begun a few months ago, has made it into print as I so love my character :) You can read his story in the September issue of ABR !

I’ve been making some progress on my doctorate and while it is deeply traumatic to consider the extent of historical and constitutional gaps in the history and discourses concerning racially marginalised groups such as Anglo-Indians, there is some inspiring research. Power, race, democracy, culture and nation are competing and conflicting currents in any society and now more than ever there is a climate of fear and anxiety in this country.

But beneath that are chilling layers of discourse cemented as ‘authority,’ feeding and fostering beliefs of racial superiority and cultural purity. It is very much about silence and fear. How often are we silenced by veiled forms of discrimination and bullying masquerading as bureaucracy or decorum? That is why writing and speech are so important. A novel is not merely the ludic fantasy of a promising wordsmith; it is about history and the right to speak for oneself, to claim one’s place in the repertoire of stories. I may have revised my illusions about writing many years ago along with numerous drafts, but I won’t abandon my characters!

Every time we write, we are re-inscribing discourses, we are constructing not just an argument for reality but we are remodelling that reality, much like a potter does with her clay; because the language we call ‘God’ is a hybrid with the blood and sexual juices of many.

Back to JStor  for now ~

Rochford St Review

I’m  really pleased to be featured in issue 14 of the marvellous Rochford St Review, edited by Mark Roberts and Linda Adair. The journal is highly regarded and publishes almost as many poetry reviews each year as Australian Book Review or The Australian according to a Sydney Review of Books overview by Ben Etherington from the Writing and Society Research Centre at UWS. Rochford Street Press takes an interest in political issues and literary culture. They published a first collection by one of our most highly regarded South Asian poets, Dipti Saravanamuttu, Statistic for the New World, and more recently a chapbook by Robbie Coburn, Before Bone and Viscera.

I’ve been reading a soon-to-be-released collection which features poetry by Coburn who lives in rural Victoria, along with Stuart Barnes, Michele Seminara, Nathan Hondros, Rose Hunter and Carly-Jay Metcalfe. Forthcoming with Regime Press, and titled Bend River Mountain, it’s an exciting anthology of six emerging poets who reinterpret poetic tropes by subversion, abstraction, centos, surreal narratives, lyrics of grief and dissociation and verses of animation.

Tomorrow, I’ll be heading to the Gong for a few days of writing and conferencing as the ASAL literary meeting kicks off. I’m looking forward to hearing papers by Tony Birch, Sneja Gunew, Mridula Chakraborty, Lucy Sussex and Pip Newling. I’ve started a Doctorate in Creative Writing at UOW this year, working on a fiction project that seems to have metamorphosed, though not quite overnight.

And recently I was asked to write a testimonial for Katia Ariel, a gifted editor whom I have had the privilege of working with previously. Her gorgeous new website has been launched with strong recommendations from several authors. So if you might be in need of editing services to freshen up your manuscript, do take a peek.

Sydney Stories

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I guess we are all a little tired on the Sunday evening following a week of the Sydney Writers’ festival. It was fun to participate in a Sydney Stories Poetry Night curated by Felicity Castagna with poet and essayist, Fiona Wright from Giramondo, Liz Allen from Vagabond Press and Ahmad Al-Rhady, an award-winning slam poet. I haven’t travelled to Paramatta for a while so I enjoyed catching the train there and having a drink at Trattoria’s beforehand while the rain sleeted down on pavestones in Macquarie St and the fountain was lit by coloured lights. There was a sharing of culturally diverse narrative poems, lyric poems about grief and childhood and a discussion on the various ways of developing a poetry presence for those who are preparing a first manuscript or wanting to submit to magazines and journals.

Sydney Stories is held monthly in a very cool space: a suite of artists and writers studios in Macquarie street, and I highly recommend it as supportive meeting of creative colleagues. You can follow their page on Facebook. On June 1 the featured writers, Felicity Castagna, Robynne Young and Jason Gray pair with three artists, Elena Papanikolakis, Tarik Ahlip & James Ngyuen in talking about place and writing.

For me the most exciting discovery of this week has been reading Helen Macdonald’s superb book, H is for Hawk  I love the pace of the writing and its integration of description, observation, narrative, nature writing, memoir. It rates as one of my favourite books; there is so much joy and truth in her voice. Truly a gift.

I’ve been thrilled myself, to have poems recently accepted for The Wolf magazine in the UK while other poems have appeared in the latest issue of Shearsman. It’s been enjoyable working quietly on my poetry manuscript and my short stories. But also exhausting work. Fiction is such a demanding, if beautiful, obsession.

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