Mad March. Just back from a bush camping off-road wild and wonderful trip to north west Tasmania. Between waterfalls, conical rocks, sun bleached middens and sand pyramids we got bogged, rolled the vehicle, lost brakes and battery and smashed three wine glasses. The thermos fell off the back of the truck and I was half swallowed by a peat bog. Feel close to our deadly convict and colonial past in this little state and while
its beauty is breath-taking we leave such a mess behind us. Abandoned mines, logs washed up on beaches making them look like boneyards. The one standout brilliance is MONA and thank you David Walsh for the best art space in the world. When I walked in I cried. The sheer scale and scope of this place has to be seen, experienced.
While I was away I found out that one of my poems had been selected for the Ekphrasis project at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. I’m so excited by this as I found the exhibition, Sensing Spaces so inspirational I didn’t stop writing for a week. I loved researching the architects and their work. I felt I’d travelled the world and learned so much.
Here is the poem and link to the piece.http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/sensingspaces/
A Forest went to Upton Cheney for a Walk
After Li Xiaodong’s exhibit at Sensing Space: Architecture reimagined at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2014
I went out to the hazelwood,
Because a fire was in my head
You can’t imagine how
stupid we looked
in the deepest
days of our hiding
My snow past
That day coppiced rods failed
to conceal us in our lust,
my red fur boots, leaking
We tried to make love
on the snow floor
Clothes on, gloves off
in some foolish trance or truce
where leaves had nothing
to do with it
There were none
just see-through see-all sticks
The floor gave way
Our clandestine meetings
on mountains in forests,
before that sinister storm front
diffusing what little light was left
made us hurry back to the car,
wet, looking ridiculous
It was later the ice burned through
Yesterday I received the latest Emma Press anthology Motherhood which is a thing of beauty and not at all pink and fluffy. I’m not a big fan of the themed anthology usually, but this packs a punch and Emma nd Rachel are such livewires and get things done quickly. I was lucky to have one of my poems in it along with the likes of Liz Berry, Clare Pollard and Catherine Smith. It really has some fabulous poetry in it.
I am checking the mailbox daily as am hoping to get Pete Spence’s latest ETZ which is always whacky and out there.
And the last treat for March will be my copy of Poetry Salzburg Review where I am hoping to have three poems. So, amidst the rejections, there are rewards.
Am now working on putting photos with poems and some smaller collections based on travels to remote parts of this amazing country.
Already February and rejections from a flurry of pre Christmas submissions are rolling in with the odd surprise. ‘Jimi’ has been positively reviewed in The Journal and Emma Press in the UK has accepted a poem for one of their new anthologies and may be launching it in London and Melbourne which is great. This is because they are featuring Australian poets which is good news.
Have just ordered Marion McCready’s new collection, enjoying Ocean Vuong’s beautiful poetry and Best Canadian Poems 2013. The year is underway with five Coursera subjects beckoning. These are online free courses with resources from places like Yale, Harvard, Edinburgh University and Penn Uni among many other top spots. It’s so refreshing to have a bit of brain food after those Xmas doldrums.
Abegail Morley’s Ekphrasis group on Facebook is calling for submissions in response to Sensing Space; Architecture reimagined at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Nilumbik Shire is holding a competition calling for ekphrastic poems. Pascale Petit, one of the most intriguing and exciting ekphrastic poets around, is so generous in including class content from her Tate classes on her blog.
Looking forward to Pete Spence’s next issue of his very own post modern ETZ.
Back to the blank page…
Welcome to JAN 2014 and my blog of writerly things and let’s rejoice that Xmas is over and we can crack on. Am I the only person in the world who didn’t go down with dysentery on Xmas Day or was this just an excuse to get out of it?
After a brief week in tropical Port Douglas I’m waiting for dengue fever to strike. On the beach, away from deadly stingers, I read and loved Best Australian Short Stories and think they are superior, as a collection, to last year’s Best British which harboured one too many ghost stories for my taste in traditional form.
I am going back to the short story, specifically Melanie Rae Thon, who has blinding opening lines like,’ Two nurses with scissors could make a man naked.’ Try NOT to read on.
Tania Hershman; award-winning writer of sudden fiction, Bridport judge, cat lover, has an excellent web site devoted to all things short story here.
I am also reading Keef’s autobiography and loving the personal revelations about Mick, Anita Palenberg and others, less so the pages on his music-making and even less the details of how he neglected his children. Amazing they survived. Astounding to think that the Stones roll on minus Brian but the Beatles are dead and gone, sort of. Above all, I do admire Keef’s candour. Takes muscle to let it all hang out, then again, at his age, who TF cares?
In need of a laugh, I have started a Howard Jacobson memoir which is doing the trick. I am on the lookout for exciting, daring short story writers like Eric Dando, whose work has such energy. I love it.
Have sent off several poems this week and am about to catch the Kenyon deadline for the year. Nothing like a panic attack to sharpen the pencil. I am also going to start doing the simultaneous thing, I am so sick of waiting so long for a response, if I get one at all, so need to work a lot smarter.
On this page you can read interviews with award-winning funky writers. Meet Cassandra Atherton who gives tips on getting published and shows you what can be done with a hair clasp. Jo Langdon tells us where she writes and what to do with a cat. Carolyn Leach-Paholski reveals early passions from the land of Noir and Maria Takolander dons a cape and goes superhero.
Jan 9 And just when I started to think I was rubbish
I get an invitation from the Editor of a well respected poetry journal in the UK asking me to submit and then within 24 hours accepting three poems for the August issue. That gave me a Woo Hoo moment. And Pete Spence has asked me to contribute to his next ETZ. In the mail this week I received a back copy of ETZ and tucked inside one of his famous collages and a signed print.
Fabulous. I shall hold onto them in case he becomes ultra amazeballs more famous and I can retire to somewhere retirable. Among the poets in this issue were Cameron Lowe, Jill Jones, Liam Ferney and Toby Fitch. What company. I enjoyed being introduced to poets I didn’t know also. Speaking of which…whom….
This morning in bed I treated myself to an hour or two with the Poetry Foundation website and podcast where a poet friend of mine, the marvy Marion McCready is featured.
I also read Amy King’s piece on what she thinks about Best of anthologies, poetry syllabi stuck in the Pleistocene and Gertie Stein.
What I like about Amy and Marion is not only their poetry but the fact that they read and recommend great poets; European melancholy poets who know what it’s like to go without, to be persecuted, to be hungry, to feel like aliens among their own people. We have meltdowns when a burger comes without the pickle. This can lead to poetry without a heart, poetry too clever for itself, poetry we can’t understand but has some tricky words arranged trickily. I like a bit of blood in what I read.
I am considering my next guest poet and I have been drawn to two dead poets; Aileen Kelly and Marianne Moore. It would mean fictionalising an interview which could be fun. Both women were bold, crafty and make me read twice. I tried to watch the Yale lecture on Moore but the lecturer was very slooooow in his delivery and I just saw my life disappearing in a sea of ums and ahhhhs. Moore would have had none of it.
In the meantime I shall give you links to Amy King’s great feature from the Poetry Foundation and also Marion’s wondrous poems just up on the same site. I know she presented one of them at Ventenac in our week with Pascale Petit and it blew me away then. It makes me cry whenever I read or hear it. You can hear her lovely Scottish brogue reading it on a podcast here.
Jan 6 Yay etc! Christmas is over this goose got fat, please put a thousand bucks in my redundant sun hat. Rejections are coming thick and fast. I think any self-loathing poet can expect 8-9 rejections out of ten.Today, there is a memoir poem up here. The first gift of the year. Thank you, Ian Chung, editor of Eunoia Review. He responds in very gentle time and has some exciting work up here. Enjoying the increasing number of online poetry journals.
Have been busy sending out hard copies of my new manuscript and entering competitions. One lovely editor asked me for the e-copy so I hope that is a good sign.
Nov 16 Very excited to be shortlisted for the Whitmore Press Manuscript Prize for a second time. Congratulations to all!
Nov 15 Clare Carlin has interviewed me here for her divine Pieced Work website. I am alongside Ivy Alvarez which is an honour indeed.
Nov 1 Meet Carolyn Leach-Paholski, a writer of sublime poetry and prose
Born in Melbourne, I live there still sharing a slightly shambolic household with husband, son and dogs. I was the inaugural Watermark Literary Fellow and have since had residencies at Bundanon and Varuna. My novel, The Grasshopper Shoe was shortlisted for a Commonwealth Writers Prize – my poetry manuscript Rare Bird was shortlisted for the Alec Bolton prize.
If I could take myself anywhere in the world it would be to Klovharu – Tove Jansson’s summer house. I grew up being read and reading her books about Moomintrolls. As a teenager I read The Summer Book and the Finnish islands of Bredskar and Klovharu are a part of my internal map. Klovharu is no more than a rock – a speck in the ocean, taking less than a minute or two to circle. A step to the north and a step to the south and you would be in the sea. Tove and her partner, artist, Tuulikki Pietila built the house themselves, provisioned it lovingly with books, coloured cookpots, beach pebble paperweights, gull feathers in a vases, patchworked curtains and bedcoverings – it’s spare, rustic, seemingly shaped by wind.
For 28 years they boated out to it, carrying candles, cake, water and rye bread biscuits. They caught their own fish and swam, painted, read and wrote. It is my very ideal of summer. Of life really. When the time came when they could no longer make the journey, they swept the floors, wrote a letter detailing the idiosyncratic nature of the stove, the chimney, and rockpools and left the note and the house key on the kitchen table.
It might be one of the smallest house museums in the world but it speaks volumes to me.
Why does one walk or play music? Because it keeps us sane is probably the truest and most basic response. But then there is the fact that I am probably one of the least organized people in the world – and my mind’s eye is equally disordered. I think my visual compass is not unlike an insect’s multi-surfaced eye. I deal with fractions – increments but seen at magnification. Colour and form collide in my head. It can be distracting. Writing brings some sort of equilibrium to this internal chaos. Writing is a machine – it imposes systems. Writing is my method – it’s a sort of yoga for my brain.
Books to keep at hand
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Annie Dillard
The Summer Book Tove Jansson
Celebration of the Senses Eric Rolls
Moby Dick Herman Melville
Waterlog Roger Deakin
The Sea John Berger
The Tall Man Chloe Hooper
Voss Patrick White
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary 1965 edition
Tarka the Otter Henry Williamson
The Shipping News Annie Proulx
A place of my own Michael Pollan
Lost Japan Alex Kerr
Singing was my first passion and music was everywhere in my childhood. My sister played the clarinet, I began with the violin, later the flute. Our mother played the piano every day. I can remember lying behind the upright and later under the baby Yamaha grand. The music could shake your teeth loose.
Songs, rhymes, chants came first. Reading came later. I was eight before I was reading well. I was mostly busy outside before then. I collected rocks and tree sap. I had the idea that I would make a museum from my finds. Life was full.
Mrs Pepperpot’s Busy Day was the first book I read to myself. But by the time I was ten I could not have lived without books.
On being an obstacle
Detail is both a fascination and a curse. I love research. I make notes longhand. I love the accoutrements of the trade – paper of various weights and shades – I prefer unlined although graph or dotted is good. I like ink, fountain pens, types of nibs, pencils, mechanical pencils – .7 lead is best – better than .5 which breaks too easily. I like notebooks too. An American stationer makes a pocket sized book called Field Notes – it’s a facsimile of a farmer’s jotter – the kind given by agricultural agents to their clients. The page is ruled in a faint blue grid, it repels water, fits neatly trouser or coat pocket, it has a ruler printed on the inside cover ….see how easily I can be distracted?
I work slowly. The snail is a household god to me.
I love the library. I love that they trust me with their books. I miss the card catalogue though. The see and see also references in a card catalogue were a sort of physical stream of consciousness – the loose connections of the subconscious made manifest. In my head I see a cobweb – where each strand of silk intersects with another is a see or see also.
I’m easily distracted by asides, laughter from another room, by reading recipes, by letter writing, conversation. I love to listen to the radio when I am drawing or sewing – in fact I find the work goes along more easily for it. But I find any sort of noise an interference to writing. It helps to have the song in your head the one you want on paper.
Procrastination is my middle name. Strike that. Procrastination is my first name.
I make innumerable cups of tea.
I am my own obstacle.
Having three dogs is a comfort and a bother too.
Note to self and other writers
- If reading is not your habit, make it so. To have a whole library of great writers in your head – what could be more wonderful?
- Reciting is a lost art. Having whole poems or passages by heart should be revived.
- Some writers like diagrams, some make lists or keep index cards. David Mitchell favours the fish bone chart – the spine being the chronology, the finer bones the chapters.
- Reading out loud helps. It helps me with the sense and music of what I am writing and the dogs are an excellent audience. I find if I append their names to the head of paragraphs they listen up.
- Love the process.
- Working through from thought to notes and draft to copy is craft.
- Writing is a witness. It’s a way of honouring our place and time.
Samples of Carolyn’s award-winning poetry, The Passage of Water is among my favourite poems. I read it often and never tire of its beauty and haunting power to move me.
The Passage of Water
( i )
It is late July –
ice winds follow the chalk ridge
and already two suns have looped over her bracken bed.
Night feeders visit her
their routes familiar with her cheek slope
her finger bridge,
moths fur blindly at her open mouth
beating their soft heads at her teeth
their whiteness a candle in the tree gloom.
her feet like small cuts -
she is already in the kingdom of flint and winking mica.
Chemical vapour escapes her lips and nose and
although her lungs are slack
her chest rises
flesh shifts under her shirt.
The slow stink
of wet rot calls other creatures from the night -
jaw loose earth shifters,
their eyeless work riding a bell of warm air under the sod.
Leaf cutters, twig-leg scissor mouths,
game feeding birds
their clockwork sideways eyes prick her over.
Men have already tramped the forest calling her name,
calls a man hooped over all of a sudden
knowing she will not call back.
Torchlight licks over tree roots,
stones, dark blots of burrows.
A year from now
he will hold her in a dream
where their hearts knock together like stones.
She will speak his name,
step through the sod wall,
her shoes fashioned from mud,
a clay bonnet fit over her skull.
( ii )
in cold July and he has criss-crossed the ridge
a damp plaster of leaves on his cut feet.
Already he has fallen
and fallen again,
he has fallen down inside himself
never fully to recover -
His lips to the bedrock,
like a mole he eyelessly sinks a pistol of light,
shifting the earth in cupped hands,
willing the distance between his cries and the underworld to be less.
She is at most only a hundred feet from where he is digging
on the far side of a small chalk lip hidden by trees.
But already the earth has a claim on her small bones,
minerals call to the juices in her fizzing gut
their chemical language more subtle than blood bond.
She sits now on a chalk chair, dust at her table
sucking the thin wafers of night food.
The earth’s water climbing towards her
the blue rot of tree waste.
Drawn as by salt
to crust and sparkle beneath her,
speaking to her own waters,
working the stiff skin, the set sap,
cutting a ditch to join the great waters
that slide back towards the sea.
You have all of your life to learn to be Santiago
but lesson one is to know that even your smallest finger has god in it,
that birds call your name and stars were invented for your pleasure.
Know that you are your own country
and we are pilgrims
on the way there.
Your language is a sparrow’s song –
all vowels – consonants come later.
Your mother studies this dialect
while you read
from a self-inventing dictionary -
all exclamation and imperatives.
Hunger is your first job and you do it well.
But today your verb is simply to be,
love is your only learning so far and it is enough.
to our tin pot planet small Buddha,
your smile is exactly the polish that it needs.
I bring you the gorgeous Jo Langdon
in good company with Edith the muse cat, showing us their purrrrfect writing space…
Jo Langdon is the author of a chapbook of poetry, Snowline, published by Whitmore Press in 2012. She is currently a PhD candidate at DeakinUniversity, where she teaches in literary studies and professional and creative writing. Jo was recently the inaugural winner of the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction.
Take us into your writing space
I like to think I’m pragmatic about where I write, so my answer to this question is usually that I write where and when I can. This is typically at home, and while I’m perhaps aiming to give an unromantic answer here, I have to admit that the space itself—although almost always in a state of mess and clutter—has its idyllic moments. My flat’s windows are big and let in a lot of sun; the flat is on the second floor overlooking a leafy street, and next to or just below the balcony are rooflines of slate with weird, curved over chimneys and interesting turret shapes. There are few distractions, other than those I can devise for myself. If I manage to stay away from the internet for a while, I might get something done.
How do you prepare yourself for a stint of writing?
Preparation seems so easily to slide into procrastination or avoidance, or at least it does for me, so the most I let myself do is make coffee. It sounds like a Nike slogan, but I’m often reminding myself to Just do it. Even though getting it done, so to speak, is a slow and sometimes painful process—nothing really happens until you face the blank page, or the words on the page. Ideas can arrive at any time, but transforming those ideas into something worthwhile or something that works is, of course, another story.
Indirectly though, I guess I am always preparing to write through reading as widely as I can, and vice versa; reading and writing are for me, as for many others, forms of the same thing.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Reading and writing seem to fit in around everything else—work and friends and family and the rest of life. I feel really privileged in that the work I’m doing at the moment, as a PhD candidate and as a sessional tutor for Deakin, kind of revolves around reading and writing; things I’m passionate about, but also things I often find challenging, in that they force me to think deeply, originally and creatively about different subjects. I’ve had lots of jobs though, from retail work to hospitality and a stint in childcare, as an au pair, and while it’s only recently that I’ve been writing and publishing my work—or should I say, writing work that is publishable—reading is something I’ve always done. So, I like to think that writing is something I’d be doing alongside any other occupation.
Was there a teacher or figure who had an impact on your writing life?
Of course! I’ve been so fortunate in having encountered so many supportive figures so far, however I’ll single out your guest writer for July/August, Maria Takolander, who was one of the earliest readers of my writing, and whose generosity, kind encouragement and brilliant advice I am immensely grateful for.
What books/authors have you loved?
So many! Where to begin? I feel like literature has the power to haunt us; that the stories or poems we’re moved by hang around in sometimes weird and ghostly ways, helping to shape the ways in which we remember and imagine. One of the first books I remember reading—or perhaps more likely having read to me—is Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The story and its characters really resonated with me as a child, and given that I tend to form some pretty deep attachments to places, I think I still have my share of Dorothy Gale moments.
More recently I’ve loved the novels and short stories of American writer Jayne Anne Phillips, and everything by Ali Smith, although perhaps I’ll pick it Like and Hotel World as particular favourites. In terms of specific short stories, I think Alistair Macleod’s ‘In the Fall’ is perfect and perfectly devastating—I am gutted each and every time I read that, and many of his other stories.
I realise I’m eliding poetry here, and without listing particular poets or collections—again, where to begin and end?—I’d like to include it as a form I love, in part for its precision and strangeness.
Can you tell us what project you’re working on and what triggered this work?
I’m in the late stages of a doctoral thesis, something I’m pretty hopeless at talking about. The work is something that I’ve pushed myself to persevere with; the final drafts I am working with now barely resemble the ideas I began with, but paring back and discarding feels in some ways like the best part. I realise I’m responding to your question most elliptically! To work in some key words, the thesis is examining the elegiac nature of magical realist literature, and also looking at representations of traumatic or extreme experiences. I’m not sure what triggered this work originally, apart from extensive reading and a desire to engage with the works of certain authors more closely. Perhaps what triggers the writing now, though, is deadlines!
Do you have any phobias?
None come to mind, which I guess is lucky! Like everybody though, I have plenty of fears, anxieties, and insecurities, but I can’t call these phobias.
If you won the election what 3 changes would you make?
This feels like both an easy and a difficult question…this election is filling me with all kinds of frustration and dread! My political views are probably most aligned with the Greens. To list just three changes: I want action on climate change, marriage equality (or more simply, all kinds of equality; a society in which everyone is afforded with respect and equality), and a kinder, more compassionate and humane refugee policy—one that shows that, rather than being driven by fear and selfishness, or a fear of sharing our privilege, Australians are capable of empathy.
An extract from ‘Split’, a short story published in issue 44 Famous Reporter (Walleah Press, 2012):
There was a time when, if I saw some light from a globe caught in a window reflection and thought it was the moon, I would have to tell my brother straight away, and he would have to see it too.
And when I learned that a group of crows was known as a murder, and that clams and oysters came in beds, and jellyfish in smacks, I’d had to tell Kip immediately, and hear him say it.
And when I dreamt of spiders, crawling across my eyelids as I slept, strangely shaped like our drawings of suns, Kip would listen and remind me to name them. On the ceiling above our beds we could identify Lois Lane, Muhammad Ali, or Don Bradman.
My brother collected cicada shells from the bark of tree trunks, holding them up to the sun and turning them gently, their brittle husks delicate and shiny.
And the antique bodies of spiders, their dead legs clasped, velvety remains on the verge of disintegrating. He handled each with the reverence of a taxidermist, because this one was Bruce Wayne, and this was Barbara Eden.
These collections lined the windowsills and the ledge of our chest of drawers, and in bed at night I kept still because of them.
Kip’s head was a dark shape on the pillow next to me, and sometimes he would hum, and I would remember the words in my head. Other nights he would play with my hair because we both liked the way it felt in his hands.
Once he took my face in his palms and looked at me carefully.
Shut your eyes, he said.
The scissors slid sideways through my fringe, and I held still; held my breath, suddenly very conscious of my eyelashes.
Links to poems available online:
Two poems in Mascara Literary Review: http://mascarareview.com/jo-langdon-3/
‘Ellipsis’ in Cordite Poetry Review: http://cordite.org.au/poetry/interlocutor/ellipsis/
‘About’ in Otoliths: http://the-otolith.blogspot.com.au/2011/10/jo-langdon-about-maybe-this-is-about.html
Magnanimous, mysterious Maria Takolander
poet, fiction-writer and literary critic
Maria Takolander is the author of four books: a collection of short stories, The Double (Text, forthcoming in August 2013); two books of poems, Ghostly Subjects (Salt, 2009) and The End of the World (Giramondo, forthcoming in early 2014); and a book of literary criticism, Catching Butterflies: Bringing Magical Realism to Ground (Peter Lang, 2007). Her poems have appeared annually in The Best Australian Poems or The Best Australian Poetry since 2005, she was the winner of the inaugural Australian Book Review short story prize in 2010, and she was the recipient of a $25,000 Australia Council new work grant in 2012. She is currently working on a novel, Transit, for Text Publishing, and she is a Senior Lecturer in Literary Studies and Professional and Creative Writing at Deakin University in Geelong.
Can you describe your earliest memory?
I can remember a lot from my preschool years, although such memories tend to be perturbing (which is probably why they have stayed with me.) One more palatable memory is of crawling through furniture stacked in a large shed in the backyard of our rented house. There seemed to be tens of couches stacked on top of one another, the seat cavities creating tunnels and hidey holes. I can’t imagine what those couches were doing there. As a parent now, I can’t imagine why I was allowed to undertake such a dangerous activity. Memory is, of course, ridiculously fallible.
What was the first book you ever loved and why?
I’ll single out Enid Blyton’s The Wishing Chair. It was so wholesome and otherworldly (my parents were Finnish migrants, not English), and I loved the idea of a magical escape. I think the book also intuitively represented for me, in a metonymic way, the power of books more generally to facilitate mesmerising flights of fancy. I talk a little about that in an essay published in Meanjin (http://meanjin.com.au/editions/volume-69-number-3-2010/article/lessons-learned-from-literature).
When was the first time you realised that the world may not be as it seems?
I’ve recently described, for Going Down Swinging (http://goingdownswinging.org.au/site/why-do-you-write-poetry-maria-takolander/), a game I used to play as a young child. It involved pretending that I was an alien visiting Earth from another planet. This anecdote suggests that I probably always felt like an outsider, and the world never seemed ‘given’. I think this had something to do with being the child of migrants. In my preschool years I lived a secluded life, confined to the house with my mother and sister (while my father went out into the new world to work), and trapped within my family’s language. In addition, my neighbours and peers always made it known to me that I was an outsider who did not see the world as they saw it.
What has been the most formative place in your life? Why?
The place of one’s childhood is always the most formative, I think, though places of education allow one to think critically about that. In terms of more strictly geographical ‘places’, I have travelled a lot and felt the impact of a lot of different landscapes. I am intrigued by the ways in which we respond in powerful and irrational ways to the Earth on which, through an extraordinary living process, we have come into being.
Which literary or historical character do you most identify with? Why?
I have always strongly identified with Gregor Samsa. I’m hoping that might not sound like such a strange admission in the light of the preceding anecdotes! In more romantic moments, I saw myself as Jane Eyre.
What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?
I spend time with my husband, young son and stepdaughter (when she’s around) at home, which is my favourite place to be.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
I had a lot of tedious jobs as a high-school and university student. The worst was probably working in the bindery section of a printing factory. I would stand at the end of a folding machine, wrapping bundles of flyers with elastic bands and putting them in cardboard boxes, during twelve hours shifts. There was a team leader trying to keep up morale, but one cannot be reduced to a cog in a machine and live happily.
If you could time-travel which literary world would you want to visit? Why?
As a child I always wanted to journey to prehistoric times, as represented in an imaginative (if not strictly ‘literary’) way by TV shows such as Land of the Lost. Another part of me yearned for the ultimately comforting worlds represented within English literature, from The Wishing Chair to Jane Eyre.
When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
I began to think of myself as a writer when I got a two-book contract with Text Publishing: for the book of short stories, The Double, which will be published in August 2013; and for the novel, Transit, which I’m working on now.
What’s the most extreme thing you’ve done in pursuit of your writing?
On an emotional and intellectual level, I always find writing extreme. A more conventional answer might see me refer to writing on Christmas day, and on every day of a subsequent interstate family holiday, in order to meet the deadline for The Double.
If you were to write yourself as a character, what would be your most defining characteristic?
In a recent blog for Southerly (http://southerlyjournal.com.au/2013/05/08/better-homes-and-gardens-and-the-role-of-impropriety/), I described myself as puerile, although perhaps I might better define myself as an outsider.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be? Why?
My superpower would be flying. I generally loathe dreams, but I enjoy the rare dreams in which I can fly.
What is the most important piece of advice you would give an unpublished writer?
Read well in order to write well! Literature is a conversation about the world. By reading, you can find a way of joining in.
What’s next for you in your work and life?
In the next year I will be: finishing the novel, Transit, for Text Publishing; earning a living at Deakin University in Geelong; and trying to bring up a humane and thoughtful son.
An extract from ‘The Obscene Bird of Night’, a story in the forthcoming collection, The Double (Text Publishing, Melbourne).
The man walked along the street. The winter air was still and cold, and the night was coming. Soon it would take hold of everything, although the city had yet to turn its face completely away from the sun. Already in the skyscrapers and on the streets the lights were being switched on. They stuttered into life against the darkening sky and shone there like talismans.
‘It doesn’t matter what you do,’ the night said in a soft voice. ‘I’m so much bigger than all of you.’
The man heard the words but kept silently on.
He stopped, along with a dozen others, at a pedestrian crossing. Mist was emerging from his nostrils and from the exhaust pipes of passing cars. The pedestrian lights switched from red to green, and a belligerent noise started up.
‘Hurry,’ it said. ‘Hurry.’
Stooped in his khaki jacket, holding a gym bag, the man walked slowly on. Snow began to fall from storm clouds kilometres above the darkening city.
‘Where am I?’ the snow said as it fell.
It drifted onto the road, dashed through by vehicles and their headlights. It collected with cigarette butts and hamburger wrappers in the gutters. Some of it alighted on the top of traffic poles and street lamps, soon hardening on the steel there. The snow settled on the man’s head. It seeped through his hair and slowly melted. The man felt the drops of water crawling on his scalp.
‘You can’t ignore me,’ the night said to the man as he walked. ‘I’m all there really is.’
The man stopped on the icy pavement, next to a bin, standing aside from the other pedestrians, and scratched his head. He dropped his bag and scratched with two hands, as if he was having some kind of a seizure, until the skin beneath the hair felt raw and hot, blood prickling at the follicles. Then he pulled up the collar of his jacket and picked up his bag.
Bowing his head to the growing chaos of the city lights and the falling snow, the man moved on.
He stopped, with the other men and women hunched in their coats, at the next intersection. A delivery van sped through an orange light, hurtling through the slush forming in the middle of the road. There were black letters on its side: THE PREMIUM BUTCHER. Cars cried out in alarm, skidding to a stop in the crushed snow. The van disappeared down the street, its tail lights blurring. The pedestrian lights flashed green, and again came that raucous instruction to panic.
The man took his time and crossed the road. He no longer had it in him to care, but he followed the others just the same.
Links to short stories & poems available online
‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, originally published in Griffith Review and now forthcoming in the story collection The Double (Text): https://griffithreview.com/edition-26-stories-for-today/the-red-wheelbarrow
‘Winter war’, originally published in Overland and now forthcoming in the poetry collection The End of the World (Giramondo): http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-209/poem-maria-takolander/
Sensual, balletomane Cassandra Atherton
Cassandra is an accomplished fiction writer and poet and has published short stories and poems/prose poems in a range of Australian and international journals. She has a novel, The Man Jar, published by Printed Matter Press (New York and Tokyo) and a chapbook of poetry, After Lolita, published by Ahadada Press (Toronto and Tokyo). Work on a third book, dealing with the role of public intellectuals in the United States, is to be published in July 2013 by Australian Scholarly Press.
What made you want to be a writer? In grade four I was given a Roget’s Thesaurus. I fell in love with it. I used to take it to bed with me, place it under my pillow and wish that I would somehow absorb all the words overnight. It was a love of words that led me to writing and then to my mentor, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, who honed my skills at university. He made me want to be a better writer with a unique voice. He taught me to play with words.
What is the best way to get a book published? A publisher will be more interested in a writer if they have a record of publications in print and online journals. Most publishers don’t like to take risks on writers, so they often choose those writers who have endorsements from other publishers or editors. When I first started publishing my work, there weren’t many online journals, so I had to send my pieces — snail mail — to publishers with a SASE. After I had my first short story published in Island Magazine, it perpetuated a series of publications in the following months. I think it was because editors of Australian journals often read the full gamut of national journals each quarter and so my name, on some level, was familiar to them after my publication in Island. Publishing in good journals and writing a succinct and memorable covering letter/email always gets a publisher’s or editor’s attention. And it doesn’t hurt if your manuscript is a knock-out!
How should you choose a publisher? A publisher and writer should be a good fit with one another – like a bee and a yellow dahlia. It is important that a writer respects the publisher he/she is approaching and feels as if his/her writing complements their current stable of writers. I always make sure that I am happy with the production quality of a publisher’s books. It might sound superficial, but I don’t want a cheap looking book with a flimsy cover. I also ask about the editing process. Books you have to edit yourself do not have the same quality or finish as a publisher who hires an editor to make changes and track changes for the writer to consider. I always make sure that I read several books which have recently been published by the publishers I am interested in; this gives me a feel for the style they prefer and the themes they are promoting. I also like to take note of whether any of their books have won awards – I was lucky enough for my publisher to nominate my book for a number of prizes, one of which I won for my novel. While at my age and at this point in my career I am not really interested in vanity publishing or paying a reading fee or a subsidy to a publisher to read or publish my work (although I guess I could definitely hit a dry spell in the coming years and change my mind), that doesn’t mean an emerging writer might not be interested in these forms of publishing. Publishing a first book this way can lead to a seriously good publisher for your second book, if you can prove the first one had a good, strong readership. But however you choose to publish your work, there is a wonderful, magical, terrifying moment of seeing it for sale and knowing you have a readership.
What input did the publisher have over your work? The publisher had a quite a lot of input over my publications and there were certain decisions I had to make as a writer, which centred on whether or not I was convinced that the changes suggested would make my manuscript better. Most of the time, the publisher is right. They know what works in the current market and they are looking to make your book the best it can be – for you and for them! I wanted to title my novel Crush, for what I saw as its triple meaning – to be crushed; to crush something; the have a crush on someone. They thought it sounded too much like a book of teenage fiction and changed it to The Man Jar. That didn’t really concern me, nor did the suggestions they had for some of my chapter endings, with which I dutifully tinkered. However, a few years ago I was asked to change the entire thrust of my manuscript on secondary school teaching by my literary agent. It was a memoir and so I didn’t want to change it. I don’t regret my decision, I have had a series of excerpts published in journals, but let’s just say it is still sitting on my desktop unpublished as a book!
Now you’re published, what comes next? I’m always thinking about the next publication before the previous one is published. You have to keep up the momentum. While your name and writing is circulating it is important to publish more writing. When you have a book you are (somewhat) in the public’s eye, you can’t afford to take a break. Currently, I am writing a critical book on public intellectuals but I have a chapbook of poetry I have recently finished and I have started working on a novel which I like to think of as a cross between The Ghost and Mrs Muir and Cleveland Amory’s The Proper Bostonians.
How do you juggle writing with everything else? I am very fortunate that my job as a Senior Lecturer builds writing and researching into my work hours. Prior to working at MelbourneUniversity and DeakinUniversity I worked in secondary schools. I used to write short stories at the back of the hall when the students were undertaking their examinations. I liked the subversive feeling that if my story got published, I would be paid twice for the same hours of work. I also used to write in my lunch breaks, late at night and often during family dinners! One of the things I am renowned for as a writer is having multiple windows open on my computer, each with a different project that I constantly switch between. On any day I could have my students’ correction as one window, a book review I am writing as a second window and a half finished prose poem as my third window.
What can you do to promote your self and your writing? A writer needs an online persona. A publisher is keen for a writer to write a blog, upload excerpts of work to their website and advertise via facebook and twitter. These are the things by which a publisher can measure your popularity and you can prove to a publisher that you have a market for your book. It is powerful advertising and reaches a broad audience. Attending other writers’ book launches, going to writing festivals, attending events at the Wheeler Centre and making contacts is another way of promoting yourself to other writers, editors and sometimes even publishers. Network, network, network!
Any hints for unpublished/emerging writers submitting their work? Be tenacious and do your research. Don’t send out the same covering letter/email to multiple journals or publications. Tailor your letters/emails/writing to the publisher and tell them why you have sent your work to them, specifically. You can’t expect a publisher to want to publish your book if you won’t read theirs!
I can’t write for you anymore. Not today, not tomorrow or even yesterday. Poisoned pen. Frozen between my fingers. I’ve found somebody now. He’s dead, but he’s perfect for me. When I sleep he paints my body violet. Brush strokes prickling my hip bones. Rash. He paints the air above me. Pygmalion. Painting me to life. Like I haven’t lived before this moment.
He straddles me in my sleep, punishing me for every second I wasted on you. Introducing me to violins and grapes. Scrawling Blake across my stomach. He pushes his thumb into my mouth and I suck the murky rainbows from beneath his fingernails. Bittermoon.
At first all I could think about was you. Your nails, your tongue and Wordsworth. I pictured your legs between hers. Hot pink backdrop. Caged canary. Monogamy is not for bohemians. Faithlessness is the key to an empty twenty-first. Everyone thought you were Don Juan when you were really just Rip Van Winkle. Wake up.
Slither beneath my crisp apple sheets. In the mornings. On alternate days. Between ten and twelve. Free float like the worm at the bottom of my tequila bottle. Translucent. Engorged. Try not to remember what it was like with her. Try not to conjure her large lips. Devouring my image. As I fade to black.
The train shuddered as it snaked its way through the loop. Flavell sliced the shiny peel from his apple crescent and tucked it into the envelope at his side. He’d travel the loop until it was dark, crossing and uncrossing his ankles. Waiting. Changing seats at every station. Moving the envelope from seat to seat. At 2.37 he sketched her leaning against the Kensington station sign, sipping a hazelnut macchiato. She was there again at 3.10 with his Degas umbrella. He sketched her with longer hair this time. My hair. Her eyes. He wrote ‘fairy floss and turpentine’ and turned the page.
The genesis of the piece…the inspiration or trigger, process, difficulties. ‘Triptych’ is special to me as it is the first piece I had published in Meanjin and it felt like a huge achievement at the time. I have always loved exhuming famous writers in my work. This piece began after I had read George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. I wanted to craft a modern Pygmalion that foregrounded the idea of the body as a canvas. I’ve always loved the idea of writing on the body and many of my short stories investigate this theme of indelible words on the skin. The character, Flavell, is based on Daphne Du Maurier’s character of a similar name, in her novel Rebecca. I wanted to associate him with apples like Nabokov’s Humbert to demonstrate his temptation. In my writing process, I always start with some kind of literary obsession and build a story around my intertexts. I like to write in long hand on paper to begin and then eventually transfer my words to my computer. I always find it hard to relinquish a piece of writing – I think I could keep tinkering with them all for a decade, if I had the time. I can see how Flaubert would spend the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it!
Links to Cassandra’s work
After Lolita (an excerpt in e-book format): http://www.ahadadabooks.com/content/view/196/31/