To Chapbook or Not to Chapbook?

In the midst of feeling a bit down about my prospects, with the interminable wait for my Canadian visa stretching on, I reached out to an old poetry professor to ask for some advice. I’d seen some chapbook competitions and prizes out there, nothing big, nothing splash, but it would be something, right? And I have whole swathes of poetry just sitting here, begging to be seen, to be heard and sung by many voices.

I could cobble together something out of that, I was sure. Something about the idea nagged at me though; I felt like I was cheating. As if a collection should either come together organically, sharing a common theme or aesthetic, or be built from the ground up around such. This didn’t feel right, and I was struggling with it. She advised me not to do it. Chapbooks are always coming and going, she said, and few make a mark, especially if they’re not from a reputable or well-known publisher.

Better to wait, to perfect the poems, gather together a first manuscript worth publishing, and to make an impact with its publication. Your duty is to the work, she said. She spent ten years putting together her first collection. Well, fuck. It was a bitter pill to swallow precisely because I knew she was right. Not that I have any intention of waiting 10 years, not by any stretch of the imagination, I’m not that far off, but I took her point.

It’s just incredibly frustrating when you’re putting yourself, and your savings, on the line to just barely squeak by and painfully produce art–to pull it from your blood and bone, from dream and memory–knowing there isn’t any money on the other end, no real payoff to speak of. I don’t have ten years, that’s for sure, I have this one year, at best, to live off my savings and hopefully finish my novel, or poetry collection, or anything, really. In the midst of all this, I had to remind myself why I do this, why I put myself through this strain day after day, night after night. Luckily, I’d already foreseen this need, and had a piece from a year ago to refresh my memory.

It’s a performance piece, and the formatting is screwy here, but fuck it.

Here it is anyway.

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A Simpler Time

We used to throw paper airplanes & lovelorn notes, used to consult the oracle of daffodils with the picking of petals – does she love me, does she not? Does she love me, or does she love Tom? Does he love me, does he not? Does mum love me, does she not? The answer never mattered because we could get to the end and start again, waiting for that perfect alignment of question & desire, waiting for the future to flower, but only if it flowered the way we wanted it to.

Those were simpler times.

Times that allowed us to play Russian Roulette with reality, our guns, pencils, our bullets, dreams, and we kept clicking through blank pages & empty chambers, until we found the one for us. When I grow up, I want to be an astronaut. I want to swim in the stars in the ocean of the universe, I want to ride comets past the coral reef of the Moon. When I grow up, I want to be a knight in shining armour, armour so bright, even the sun winks with envy, and majestic thrones buckle with grief, knowing they can never be so grand.

When I grow up, I want to slay dragons – no, I want to be a dragon, to soar through peerless skies and have the world cower in my shadow. I want to be a robot, an alien, a cowboy, a prince, a king, an emperor, a god! I want to be Achilles, I want to be Zeus, I want to be master of all that I survey! I want to be… a dentist? That’s the thing about times. They change. And it seems that with every foot we grow, our dreams shrink in proportion. With every pimple that pops, every hair that thickens, every heartbeat that expands, we lose another bullet, another petal, another page, until by the time we are grown, the floor is littered with split stems and cracked casings.

We start saying things like: I know what I’ll be, I’ll be an accountant, a banker, a baker, a bartender, a bricklayer, a lawyer, a soldier. Things we don’t believe in, but that are practical or respectable or adult – we do it in the mistaken belief that we have stopped growing – we never stop growing, we will never stop growing – except upward. Beneath the surface, our roots plumb the earth, piercing layers of history veined in silver and gold, in fire and stone, in tragedy and bone; through all this and more, we grow downward.

Down beneath our pillows at night, beneath our waking thoughts, our forgotten memories, down beneath the secrets we’ve buried and the treasures we’ve lost, down, down, down, beneath the swelling pause in our conversations, beneath the hitch in our breaths when we’re too afraid to talk, beneath grief that threatens to drown us, down, down, down, beneath the ordinary & the everyday, we stretch and we grow, so fuck it –

I want to be a forest. I want to be an ocean. I want to be a magician centaur cantering across distant planets. I want to be a galaxy. I want to be an ever-expanding body of knowledge, I want to be more than me, I want to be more than you, I want to be more than us, more than yesterday and more than tomorrow, here and now, I want to be everything that I possibly can, practically be damned because the last thing I want to find when I look down, are my hands drenched in the dust of what-could’ve-been.

 

Thursday Poems: The Suspect Corpse by Les Murray

The dead man lay, nibbled, between
dark carriages of a rocky river,

a curled load of himself, in cheap
clothes crusted in dried water.

So begins this wonderful little poem, nestled in Murray’s Taller When Prone collection. I was in a rush to find something to share last week, so I picked up the nearest book and flicked open to a page – this one.

You will find, with every poem I share, one thing binds them all together: the sounds. The poems I love best tend to be the ones with the most dynamic sonics on display, a kind of aural fireworks that dances on the tongue, that delights. Of course, sound is not enough in and of itself, no, I look for those paired with a strong narrative, or else which communicate an emotion most strongly.

Since I’m not sure of copyright laws, I won’t share the entirety of Murray’s poem here and instead, I’ll link you to another poem I found this week — it was a rich week of poetry for me, and I can’t wait till next week to show you more — by Yusef Komunyakaa, a poet I was tragically ignorant of until just a few days ago. This is called Envoy to Palestine.

It’s got everything I want in a poem; searing lyricism, strong narrative, and a sonic interplay with ideas and emotion which should be the envy of every poet. My favourite line — and I could quote the whole damn thing at you — is this:

I know a prison of sunlight on the skin.

Needless to say, I have to buy one/all of this man’s work. I’ve read a few others since I stumbled onto that one, and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Click on over to read that poem on Poetry Foundation, which I also have to give a massive shoutout to — it’s an invaluable resource, a gift that keeps on giving, ensuring I keep getting to dig into the guts of poetry to find these sparkling bloody gems.

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Wordless in Tartarstan by Stuart Beedie

 

September, 2013.

It was 10:34pm when the train drew into the station at Yekaterinburg, wheezing as it crawled the last meters to platform’s end. Its final exhalation flung dozens of men and women from the high doors of each dust-encrusted carriage, clasping dearly sought cigarettes and bounding for the stalls that had opened in anticipation of their arrival only three minutes earlier.

The cabin was empty as I entered, abandoned in the tumult. Blankets had been drawn over three of the beds – the last, clad in tattered brown leather, was mine. The unmistakable fragrance of smoked herring, sold by the armful on stations hundreds of miles to the east, still clung to the sheets. The side table was strewn with fruit-skins and half-devoured cured meats; a large red sausage balanced on the askew lid of the inevitable jar of pickled cucumbers. I never met a Russian who travelled without pickled cucumbers.

A single bite had been taken from the flank of a tomato, and a pungent shot glass sidled up to an open carton of tropical juice. Seven minutes later, without so much as a demonstrative warning or a blaring horn, the train inhaled, filling its steel lungs once more with dozens of passengers clad in low-slung track pants. The locals are deft students of the railway’s unforgiving scheduling.  Within a minute the great belly of the engine had began to churn, and we recommenced the westward crawl.

Three men tumbled into the cabin mid-chortle, to find me propped up against a laundry bag of fresh sheets in the corner of their cabin, buried beneath the browned pages of Pasternak. Reeking of hastily-stubbed smokes, they didn’t appear so inviting at first glance: a haggard, moon-faced old man with a crown of coiled grey hair and three gold teeth, a young man with a scratchy black bear and low-cut singlet bursting with chest hairs, and a third who wore his unwashed matted hair combed straight down over his forehead, just shy of a pair of dark eyes bulging out from a hollowed face.

“Zdrast.”

“Zdrast.”

“Zdrast.”

“Drast-vuy-tye!” I offered in a well-rehearsed echo, setting down the book to throw in a broad wave of the hand and a toothy grin. Clad in coat and scarf, face swaddled in a poorly-kept ginger beard, I was easily marked as a foreigner whilst travelling in eastern Russia’s early autumn. Only belatedly did I find that fashions had progressed (largely by way of sweat pants) since Dostoevsky dipped his pen to describe the student haunts of nineteenth century St Petersburg. Perplexed but not perturbed, the three men stashing cigarettes and swinging into place on their respective bunks and had questions.

In the wide expanses east of Moscow, foreigners remain a novelty in regional trains and lower class carriages. Days earlier, setting out from Lake Baikal in the forty-strong platzkart compartment, an assembly of curious babushkas, Ukrainian nurses and soused old men fanned out to the adjoining carriages to find me a translator. We happened on a wannabe spiritualist who was interested foremost in discussing the creationist theories of American actor Ben Stein.

This night, four men to a compartment, we made do on our own. As the lights of Yekaterinburg faded from view behind the grime-caked windows, the first question was lobbed. It is always the easiest, safe to jump into without parsing the language to and fro. “Sydney. Australia,” I responded, forefinger directed at by chest. “A-vy?”

Any follow-up sentence heralds an impasse. Over-pronounced place names can only get one so far. The Russian phrases I had mastered, allowing me to apologise profusely, ask directions to the local Kremlin or order up to ten pieces of various foodstuff, were of little use. The trio similarly had half a dozen English words between them a best. We needed to find a better way to communicate.

Fortunately, my new companions were deft hands with props. From the rings on each man’s fourth finger on the right hand we discovered they were married – by my lack of band or gold, that I was not. From the crescents slung around their necks on silver chains we discovered they were Muslims – by my lack of iconography, that I had no god to speak of. Less easily adapted are notions of “it’s complicated” or agnosticism. Best to let them lie.

The men did not begrudge me my absences but powered on, to conjure children from the stale air with height estimates and phantom hugs. To evoke their work they had merely to flash and flex well-honed muscles, built heaving and hauling in the mines east of the Urals. My flexing of fingers and proffered notepads of scrawl in a foreign script did not translate quite so readily. I did not need to ask where the train was taking them, for the nostalgic smiles as they contemplated absent wives and a bevy of children promised enough – home.  Continue reading

Thursday Poems: Faint Music by Robert Hass

A few weeks ago, I enrolled in an online summer poetry course being held by the University of Iowa. Each week involves a different youtube talk by a respected poet, and various exercises and workshops based on said talk. The second week’s presenter was former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass. I had no idea who he was, but his dry wit and razor sharp wisdom really appealed to me, and I thought, ‘I have to get this guy’s books.’

Luckily, I happened across this poem, quite by accident, and now the desire to get his books has become an imperative. It is, in a word, staggering. A poem that tells a story, that has a powerful message, that is rich in situating detail, in placing you beneath the skin of the setting and allowing you to breathe in its atmosphere.

All this, and it’s beautifully composed too. It begins:

Maybe you need to write a poem about grace.

And somehow manages to only get better from there. This is a poem about music (and pain, life, humanity), so I urge you to pay attention to its own internal rhythm, to read it aloud. It renders even the most basic sentences musical, in gentle lifting loops you can catch the first strains of song.

He climbed onto the jumping girder of the bridge,
the bay side, a blue, lucid afternoon.

My favourite part is the ending, which hits like a catapult to the soul, and which I won’t spoil by posting here. I can only urge you to read it in all its majesty.

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In other news, I have a feature non-fiction piece in which I reflect on my grandmother’s dementia and the way my family dealt with it, over at Sajjeling, a nifty, independent site emphasising Arab-Australian narratives. Head on over to check it out. It is by no means my best-written piece; I was more than a little emotional in writing it, and part of me wishes I could go over it now with a red pen, but equally, there’s a truthfulness to that messiness which I would hate to erase.

Also, in the next few days, I’ll be launching a new semi-regular segment, Awesome People, wherein I finally tap into the network of wonderful, amazing individuals I know, and have them feature guest posts here to share a story or anecdote or anything really.

That’s all from me for now, so until next time…

Happy reading, all!

Thursday Poems: Immigrant Picnic by Gregory Djanikian

So, it’s Thursday once again, and I’m here to share my picks from last week. It’s rarely a case of just one poem being chosen, I should say, especially if it’s a short one, we often end up reading a few.

I’m going to cheat a little here, because while my official choice was Immigrant Picnic by Gregory Djanikian, I was too lazy to bring the laptop into my housemate’s room, and instead read from the book I had in my hand, Mark Haddon’s The Talking Horse, The Sad Girl, and the Village Under the Sea, which is an eclectic, odd, and often beautiful collection of poetry.

Since I can’t find those poems online, I’m sharing Djanikian’s poem instead. I love this poem, and the photo at the top, too. It evokes a sense of community and country so palpable you can almost taste it. As the son of migrants – one Turkish, one Lebanese – it really hit me hard. I might be a little biased then, being uniquely positioned to be affected by its message. I’ve lived this poem, after all.

Though immigration is a hugely complex, multifaceted issue affecting multiple generations, crossing thresholds of language and identity, Djanikian handles it with an assured, delicate touch. And a warmth that can only come from love, from deep familiarity, no matter the exasperation of the character in the poem. My favourite line sums up the confusion, the scrambled lines of communication perfectly:

The paper napkins
are fluttering away like lost messages.

And sets up the messy end perfectly, the lack of clarity.

It really is a lovely, affecting poem. If you get even a fraction of what I did from it, it will surely improve your day greatly. Go on, give it a read, and by all means, feel free to share the last excellent poem you came across. I’m always looking for more!

Scrubbed

Recently, I had quite the scare: my laptop shut down, and wouldn’t restart. Cue the horror, the endless waves of fear – yes, I have some major work saved elsewhere, but there’s a whole lot of writing I haven’t bothered to back up that could be lost forever. So, it was in a state of fragile calm that I ended up at the Apple store, not quite daring to hope (lest disappointment crush me).

Thankfully, I managed to save my writing, but the rest of my data was not so lucky. It was all wiped. At first, it was my music that occupied my mind most – or more accurately, the prospect of silence. Music is everything to me; it is the means by which I am able to exist in a languid dream-state throughout the day, to not be caught and hung up on the sounds of the everyday. The harsh cries of birds. The squawks and squeals of children, the braying cries of their parents. The honk of cars, the scream of tires, and hum of engines.

I take them out, these noises, and gently plug music into the gap; it is on chords I walk, it is to rhythmic beats I run. The sense of loss I felt was huge, all those beloved tracks, those writing-playlists. I paid no mind to whatever else was on my computer, the photos, movies, etc. Therein lay my biggest mistake, because it is that which consumes me now. See, I got my laptop back in the end, and didn’t have to spend $1200 on a new one, which is great, but it’s more complicated than that.

I hesitate to anthropomorphise a machine, but I have to say, this is not the same computer I gave in. I feel as though my laptop died, and did not come back. Or more accurately, that the digital self I’ve built over the past four years and imbued in the laptop, was killed. Scrubbed clean. My desktop looks strange, empty. My programs, Word, FinalDraft, sundry others, are gone. Nothing symbolises this emptiness more than Chrome, my favoured web browser.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, it tracks your most visited websites. If I were to type the letter ‘a’, for instance, it would immediately bring up either the ATP website, or AVClub. ‘S’ for Sydney Morning Herald, ‘t’ for Twitter, ‘h’ for Huffington Post, ‘n’ for New York Times. These were paths I’d trodden so often, I needed no more than a letter for Chrome to know where I was going. These busy online woods had roads I’d carefully cleared with repetition. Each place, each platform, had my details saved, my passwords.

It knew me, they knew me – the same way the dour Asian couple who run the local convenience store know me, and what I’ll buy each morning, after a year’s worth of routine – and now, they don’t. I’m a stranger online once again. Put in a letter, it has no clue what I’m doing, or where I’m going. This intangible familiarity is a concern for most people, I know, and I’d have said before this that I’m sympathetic to the many privacy / advertiser-based fears people profess.

Now, however, I’m a little less sure. I never realised just how much comfort I took from the incalculable small changes I’d wrought on my laptop, browser, etc, to personalise it, and the various ways it was all connected to my day-to-day life. I feel a curious lightness, too, however: my browser history has been permanently deleted, my online baggage is gone. Or at least, my connection to it has been interrupted. Enough to give me clarity on something that had become frighteningly comfortable, anyway.

If only there were a real-world equivalency, an ability to scrub old broken friendships, failed relationships, and the various detritus accumulated over years of life. To, at the very least, be temporarily relieved of the burden of memory. The prospect is both terrifying and alluring, and I can’t quite decide which I prefer right now; the familiar, the comfortably clear paths and known quantities, or the totally strange, the thick brambles and unknown. I suspect the answer is both. I want enough familiarity to be comfortable, but not be rote, and enough of the new to keep things interesting, to myself on my toes.

All of which is to say I’ve suddenly been forced to look anew at the way I use this machine, the way it learns of, and accommodates me, like any old friend. How much does your laptop or device know about you? How much have you tweaked it to suit your every peculiarity, your random whim? How many times do you trawl the same web pathways, and how open are you to changing, to casting off your habits and starting again?

One way or the other, all I’ll say is this: save everything you can, kids. At least that way you can pick and choose what to lose when the inevitable upgrade/crash occurs.

Thursday Poems

I meant to post this yesterday, but was overwhelmed by a very busy schedule, so let’s all just pretend it’s still Thursday, okay? Great. Now, my housemate and I have had a standing challenge for the past few months: that every Thursday, we each must find a new great poem to share. ‘New’ here merely means something we haven’t read before.

The purpose of this is twofold. Firstly, it forces us to look further and further afield to find excellent poems, and in the process, discover poets we’d never have otherwise come across. There’s just so much out there we’ve yet to read, and this is a great incentive to range far and wide. Secondly, it keeps us engaged in a field of writing we both love – it ensures we aren’t simply passive in our readership, that we’re both investigative and critical.

It’s also just a fun, lively way to spruik what might be an otherwise ordinary day or night. It’s something I’ve grown to love, and while we’re not zealous in our application of it – sometimes we miss the day, or forget – we always catch up. And if we don’t get to share it because we’re busy, we’ll still have read more poetry during that week than we otherwise would have, and that’s a win in my books.

So I thought it’d be a good idea to start sharing the poems I find on this blog, so that everyone can have a look at what I’ve stumbled into. The last entry, which I’ve read a half-dozen times, and is fast becoming one of my favourite poems ever, is an absolute delight. I’m talking about Bill Manhire’s ‘Hotel Emergencies.’ It’s evocative and powerful, mixing mundane observations with an ever-widening ripple of connected thoughts, taking branches both logical and poetic, and always, always building its rhythm beautifully.

I highly recommend you read it aloud.

You will not regret it!

Still Kickin’

I feel like the title for this post should be ‘A Fresh Start’, but it feels odd to say that considering I’m turning 25, have two degrees, and no job. Just over a week ago, I quit my comfortable, well-paid position at Fox International Channels. Most people would consider that crazy; it’s a good job to have as a young man, a good start on the way to a good life.

This is how people live, and for them, it’s enough. A stable job with good money, a lover or more, then a home to call your own (if you’re lucky). Why the hell would anyone look at that and say, ‘No thanks, I’d rather live in constant uncertainty –  in a crumbling, shifting marketplace of words as likely to cut you as pay you.’ I don’t have an answer.

I don’t have an answer except to say that words are responsible for my life, are what spared me from a life of mediocrity totally unaware of the brilliance of literature suffusing the world. Totally unaware of poetry. I don’t have an answer because it’s not even a choice. It’s a necessity.

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So, I’m free of my 9-5 job, awaiting the results of my visa application to Canada, and generally trying to figure out the next step. It’s not all indolence and daydreaming, either, this decision to quit and focus on my writing. I get up at 9 every day; often earlier, as my body refuses to adjust to a better schedule. I’ve enrolled in an online poetry course being run by the University of Iowa, just to keep myself thinking about poetry in different ways, to expand my reading list.

I’ve also enrolled in a 5-week Picture Book course with the Australian Writers’ Centre, as I’m currently working on a children’s book. Funnily enough, 4.5 years of tertiary level writing studies never covered picture books. It was more than I wanted to pay, but I love this little story, this world I’ve created for kids, and I want to do it justice, so I bit the bullet and signed up. Hopefully I get to tell this inventive, multi-ethnic story, and help increase diversity in our children’s literature.

I also write / edit for two websites, as I’ve mentioned previously, so even before I get to work on my projects, I still have a whole lot on my slate. And no money coming in. Just my savings, and my own dedication to getting something finished before I run out of money, and have to start again.

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Happily, my ‘fresh start’ began on a good note. While the very first day did start out with a rejection for poems submitted three months ago, the next day I found out my poem ‘Mad Like A 12 Year Old Boy’ had been accepted into Carve Magazine’s Premium Edition. Carve publishes both online, and in print. In about a week or so, you’ll also see a non-fiction piece of mine appear on Sajjelingan independently run online magazine dedicated to recording and unravelling Arab-Australian stories.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be writing more freely, updating the blog regularly – including the debut of my Awesome People guest blogs – and hopefully finishing up my picture book. As I carry on with this poetry course, I may also start sharing the experience and knowledge gained there, so stay tuned, y’all.

Definitions

Several weeks ago, I took a trip down to Canberra to stay with a friend and work on a collaborative poetry project.

While I was there, I also wrote this poem ‘Definitions,’ based off a conversation we had which featured the throwaway line, ‘Love is overeating and resentment.’ It got me thinking about that infernal love thing, and I started writing – trying not to think at all, to put down my first instinctual response to the question.

Later, I discovered Telescopic Text, and thought it would be a perfect fit. After some trial and error, this simple electronic poem was the result. Check it out here: Definitions.