Thursday, November 13, 2014

How poetry is different to prose

I sit myself at the table and I write. The Muse? I will have none of it. I am more interested in hard work than in inspiration. If I wait for the muse I will be waiting a lifetime.

Poetry works differently. I sit myself down and there is nothing but the words on the page, written in a different, heightened state. Poetry must be seized, it seems. At this desk there is nothing. The strict discipline of the craft will leave me with a gaping whiteness on the page like a scream arrested.

Today I feel on the edge of a poetry. I am unbalanced, dizzy with the heat and the shock of my flesh melting into it. I flick between A Grief Observed and Harwood and Best Australian Science and there is a vague hum as if the books are speaking to each other when I am not looking. I pace. This is how I write poetry when I am not mad or bereft. I have to catch it at a glance, side-on, sidling up to it. My note paper capturing the words, resisting judgement.

I open a painting and it is there, that hum, that image between the spidery letters of a word. I am quick to scoop up three lines. Then my pen turns to dough on the page. I must walk away and let the syllables rise like an unwatched pot.
My grandmother is shaking her head, she of the workmanlike elbows and fists. You must grab it - and the fly plucked from the air.  But my grandmother never wrote a poem. There is no grabbing a poem. It is more like photographic developing than sculpture. It is a quite sitting, half-looking, squinting through dark, waiting for the words to settle blackly on the page.

Today I have written two poems.

My grandmother is behind me. Tsking her tongue.
As always,
She is not impressed.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Writing a Glunk

OK. I may have mentioned this in my blogging once before, but when I was a child I was very disturbed by a particular Dr Suess book. I think it was in The Sneetches and other stories. It was a story about a boy's little sister who used to sit and think little fluffy things into existence every night after dinner. Then one night she thinks up a Glunk and of course the idea is way too big for her and causes terror and mayhem and it is up to the little boy to 'unthunk the Glunk'.  Now little Sally only ever thinks up fluffy things after dinner.

This story disturbed me, even when I was seven.  I was already involved in thinking up Glunks. I was reaching for books way too age-inappropriate for a seven year old. By the time I was ten I fell in love with Peter Otoole playing Lawrence of Arabia and insisted on reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom with its bible thin pages and interminable recounting of one military push after another. I had no idea what I was reading but I pushed on anyway. I was so proud of myself when, after several months of slogging, I had finished the book. I even really loved some paragraphs and underlined them. I still have my copy of the book.

I did not want to be stuck thinking fluffy things after dinner. I wanted to over-reach.

Somehow I have found my safe-unsafe boundaries.  I know what I am comfortable writing and I stick to small contemporary stories with a manageable cast. I still over-reach but it is always about the concepts and not the parameters of the story.

I have an idea for a novel. It is a big novel. It requires lots of research. It is historical. It is about politics and cultural cringe and all the things that I am ignorant of.

I am really afraid to start this book but it won't let go of my head. It has a hook in me.  I am afraid that it is too big for me. I am afraid I will fail trying to write it.

Still, I was never satisfied with little Sally's parameters.  I suppose you can't get your teeth into the fruit unless you pick it first. I am reaching up into the tree for the forbidden apple. I have my Glunk in my sights. I am afraid I am going to start this impossible project. Frightened. Hesitant. Starting now.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Waiting for edits


My edits will arrive.

They will arrive yesterday or tomorrow or now. They will be just a rearrangement
of words and lines or great sweeping gouges that carve whole chapters away
leaving gaping holes that need to be replaced.

My chest is tight. I feel like perhaps my heart is giving up or giving out over the longest time.
Each night I die again. My edits cause a swelling
in the tissue, a drawing out where the blood thuds too hard.

I am waiting for my edits.

I am grinding my teeth at night.

I dream of children that I must save when I can not.
I dream of natural disasters coming to unnatural ends.

When my edits are done my book will be better or worse.
My book will be unchangeable
And I must embrace whatever wreck of myself I have left on the page.

I may die whilst I wait for my edits
Or perhaps they will come tomorrow, staving off this terrible loss of self
Beat by misshapen beat I come to an end
Of myself
or my waiting
or my book
or my career
or my self esteem.

And whatever half formed thing I make of it
It will never be so many other perfect things
And I will not be them
Or something outside of myself.

Tomorrow my edits may arrive

Or not.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Your nightmares can be useful to your book: A glimpse from "Half Light" a novel in progress.


Philip leans against the trunk of a tree. He is a big man, made bigger by the hopes and dreams of the brethren. He is the chosen of god which adds an extra few inches to his already considerable height.  He walks with the lord, and his footfalls are strong and sure and without hesitation. He has heard about Jessica which is why he is here now.  Jessica’s mother is nervous. She tucks her hair behind her ear and smooths down her simple cotton smock, small signs of vanity. Why doesn’t he see this? He is always talking about the evils of vanity, the evils of greed, the evils of selfishness and yet when the women primp and preen around him he seems to swell up with their undivided attention. He is adored as God Himself should be adored. He is the son of God on earth and he will save them all if they follow him closely enough.
She has stopped believing. Philip is a man, and as a man he is fallible. Every time he predicts a new date for the apocalypse, once a year, more frequently lately, every time they all walk up the mountain with their crosses, Jessica follows them but she does so knowing that they will soon trudge down the hill once more.  Jessica still joins the women in the cooking and preserving, putting food away for the end-times, but now she knows that they are just storing food for winter. There will be no end times. Not now. Not soon. Certainly not in Philip’s mortal lifetime.
He nods and this is a sign that Jessica should raise her gun. She should be as nervous as her mother is but strangely, she isn’t. Philip rarely bother’s himself with women’s business. Still he has heard about her, how she, a child, has a God-given  sure hand and an unerring eye. He has come to see for himself. Jessica raises the rifle, braces it against her shoulder. It is all about breath. Breathe out. Sight. Shoot.  The can leaps into the air, tumbles. The bullet will have pierced it at the centre of the label. It isn’t hard. She wonders what all the fuss is about. She feels the pulse of her blood. Even this thudding will change the direction of the bullet. The shot must be timed to the breath and to the heart. She lines up the second can, sights, breathes out, pulse, shoot. Another can down. Philip nods.  Jessica raises the rifle and he holds up his hand to stop her. The women are all lined up waiting. They know what he wants of them. Her mother walks out onto the range. She replaces the next can with the bundle that she is hiding under her smock. When she steps away from the log Jessica can see that she has placed a kitten there. The thing mews, stares at her, licks his black face with a rough pink tongue. Another woman picks up the next can and in its place there is an owl, almost the exact same colour as the log, an owl made of bark, it ruffles it’s feathers. Its eyes are big and yellow and wise. Another can removed, a puppy, a labrador, sandy brown, velvety, wrinkled with all it’s extra skin just waiting for a growth spurt. The women step back, out of the line of fire.  Philip lowers his hand. She is supposed to shoot. They are waiting for her. She glances up towards her mother and the woman narrows her eyes. She wants her daughter to do it. She is angry at Jessica for hesitating. She wants her to shoot, this time to kill. She shakes her head. Jessica’s mother raises her hand and there is a pistol in it. She is aiming the pistol at her daughter. Her aim has never been accurate. Jessica can see that her line of sight is off. She is pointing the gun at her shoulder. She will wing her daughter. She will hurt her but she will be alive, bleeding out slowly. Jessica raises her rifle. Philip’s eyes are on her and the hair is rising up on the back of the girl’s neck. His eyes are dark and unwavering. She can smell a reek off him like a cave full of bats. Wild thing, wild creature of god. She takes aim. She breathes out, she waits for the pulse. She sights. The wide, innocent kitten is all eyes. She fires. 
The blood hits Jessica full-force. Someone has thrown a bucket of blood and it has slapped her in the face. She feels the warmth of it dripping down her neck, crawling across her chest under the plain modest smock. She can taste the metallic edge of it as she opens her mouth and lets out a strangled scream, a sob. She has hit the kitten right in the head, above the eyes which were flat and yellow and trusting. Now there are no eyes, or what is left of them has been flung forward and onto her skin. The blood should have sprayed back, away from the force of the bullet. This is a direct contradiction of the laws of physics. She has betrayed science. It is worse than her guilt at betraying God. Philip nods, satisfied. Philip has taken the basic principles of action and reaction and bent the physics against her. Philip is the son of god on earth. They were right and Jessica was wrong. He nods to the second target, an owl.  She can’t kill an owl. An owl is a portent of fate. An owl is a symbol of all that is true and old and wise. Jessica doesn’t believe in all that of course. She is a scientist. She knows that it is just a bird, a protected bird. Protected by the government, still, she  can’t seem to raise the rifle. Her mother’s gun is still pointed at her, this time closer to her heart, wavering. Her finger is tight against the trigger. She lifts her rifle, closing her eyes, her heart beating wildly and she doesn’t wait for it to calm. She shoots.  There is too much blood for a creature so small. She is covered in it, rocked backward by the force of it. It winds her.  Jessica can’t breathe, she is drowning in blood. Then it is over and she is still here, still alive.  Still expected to prove her marksmanship one last time. The puppy. She must shoot the puppy, the thing is so soft, big paws, head cocked to one side. She has it in her sights. It pounds it’s oversised paws playfully on the branch as if it wants her to throw a stick. She breathes out. She swings the rifle. She points it at her mother. Her mother’s eyes widen. Her mother shifts her gun till it is in line with Jessica’s left eye.  With a small shift of her shoulders Jessica swings the weapon wide of her mother’s head. She is aiming at Philip. The son of god, the chosen one, the saviour. He stares back at her unafraid. His lips are moving. He is mouthing words. What are they? She has no time to make sense of them. She squeezes the trigger, feels the kick of the rifle pressing her shoulder back. The bullet hits, all of this in slow motion, the hole drilling slowly through skin and bone, the force of the blood inside him like a tidal wave approaching. Jessica falls back, the blood rushes over her. There is nothing in the world except blood, gallons of blood. The sky is obliterated by a wall of it. What was it he said? Her mind clutches at the last movement of his lips, the soundless words: You’re Dead. You’re Dead. And then his head exploded.

Jessica gasped. She had been holding her breath under a river of blood. She woke and there was blood or perhaps it was not blood, but sweat, damp on her forehead.  She was panting. She was sitting up. She thought she might have screamed in her sleep. She woke to find herself alone in the bed and someone was dead. Matthew. Yes. Mathew was dead. The grief hit her fresh and heavy, but more, something new. Something terrible.

And then she remembered. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Winning a prize. A speech.

Ok so tonight I won the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Award. Very crazy. So happy. I was going to read this speech but I didn't. It is here instead. I said most of the bits anyway.

This is the first award I have ever won for my writing. It is such a surprise. Such a wonderful surprise.
I was raised by my maternal grandmother. When my grandmother died earlier this year it changed me. I was in the middle of writing a novel and suddenly I couldn’t write fiction anymore. I couldn’t write anything except poetry.  I had never written poetry before, and now, suddenly I was writing it obsessively. I was waking up in the middle of the night with words in my head. I slept fitfully. I wrote like I was possessed. I was writing poetry about my grandmother. I was trying to make sense of my grief and poetry seemed the only language available to me. 
There is an episode of Rake where a women suddenly starts speaking Indonesian. She can no longer speak English. It is a strange and surreal part of that story, but I thought of it often as I continued to write poem after poem.  When I was done I had something on paper, but I had no idea if it was any good. The only way to find out was to read more poetry.
I discovered Ann Carson, Miroslav Holub and Sharon olds. I re-read old favourites, Elliot Weinberger, Michael Ondaatje and Simon Armitage. I began to feel more comfortable about my own strange place in all of this. 
My friends Katherine Lyall Watson, Ellen Van Neerven, Asley Hay, Kris Olsson and Michelle Dicinoski and my wonderful boy Anthony Mullins encouraged me to finish what I was working on and to enter what I had into the Thomas Shapcott award.  I was away in Tasmania in an isolated shack writing and Anthony printed it all out for me and carried it down to Tasmania in his luggage so I could enter it. I would like to thank these people for making me do this. I would also like to thank the Judges of the award, the Qld Poetry Festival supported by Arts Qld, and UQP. This is a crazy new journey I am on but it really has opened up a new world for me to explore.

I am only just beginning my journey in this new language but I love what I am discovering on the way. I would also like to thank the poets of Brisbane for always supporting me and accepting me. I have a lot to learn and you are the most fun teachers. Poets are always the most outrageous people to be with at any festival and it is really great to join your crazy crew.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Poetry revisited

What is poetry?

I was just asked what my favourite poems were and it was not quite as easy as I suspected.

My answer:
1: All of The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson,
2: Lacandons by Eliot Weinberger
3: You're Beautiful by Simon Armitage
4: All of Stag's Leap by Sharon Olds read very fast
5: Daddy by Sylvia Plath (old favourite of mine)

But I wanted to include a short essay that feels like a poem but is not divided into lines as a poem would be. I wanted to include other Weinberger essays, similarly rhythmic and amazing but looking like prose.

What is a prose poem?
What are the rules?

I have so much to learn.

Where do I go to find this out?

On Writing too Quickly

I write quickly. I put all my available time into the work. I work with a breathlessness that makes the work flow more easily. I race into a project and cling to it until it is done.

One of the reasons for my speed is because I am afraid I will forget. My memory causes me terrible anxiety. I forget people. I forget conversations. I forget I have written something. Sometimes I come across an errant file on my computer and it is as if a stranger has written it. I have no memory of that particular short story. I don't remember putting those words down in the file. Maybe this is a story sent to me by someone else? Only I recognise a turn of phrase. It has my accent. Therefore it must be mine.

It is worse with a novel. A novel has so many disparate parts. By the end of a book I have no idea where I started. I will have forgotten almost everything about it.

And don't get me started on having to answer questions for an interview. Really? Did I write that? Of course I must have because the journalist has done her research even if I have forgotten what I actually wrote.

Sometimes I wonder if I have an actual medical condition. My memory is so bad that I will bet to the last scene in a movie and suddenly find it almost familiar. Yes, we have seen that before, my husband will say, don't you remember?

I don't remember.

So I hop on a book like a runaway horse and cling on till the ride is over. This is how I have always worked.

The problem now is that I am frightened the books will grow stale before they emerge into the world. I do understand why my publisher will only consider a book by me every two years. We don't want to wear readers out. If a short time has elapsed they may not be ready to read another book by me, particularly when each book seems to be so different from the last. Maybe readers don't want to be confused by my tendency to leap across genres with each new offering.

But in my panic to finish a book before it shakes me off I tend to do a draft in a matter of months. A second draft in half a year. Subsequent redrafts can be fast and furious. Sometimes I have two books written simultaneously done in under a year. This is what happened with Steeplechase and Triptych. Steeplechase was a longer, more fraught process. Between the beginning of the first draft and the final redraft I had interspersed my writing with two other books, A YA book that has never seen the light of day, and Triptych which ended up being published two years before Steeplechase came out.

I am working on two books at the moment. Holding Hands is still giving me grief. It is not yet done. I have a second draft and it is 8 months since I started. In that time I wrote a book of poetry, Eating My Grandmother, and two drafts of a horror novel called Half Light. I have been racing to get a perfect draft of Half Light completed but I realise that my next book, Holly's Incredible Adventures in the Sex Machine, will not be published till February next year, 2015. After this there will be a two year gap as there always has been. Half Light probably won't be out in the world till 2017. Then, of course I will have to wait till 2019 to put out Holding Hands.

I have three other ideas on the boil at the moment. I have Crawl Space - a surrealist novella, tapping at the back of my head, and then I have the sequel to Holly's Adventures mapped out in my brain.  I am also making notes for a book on writing sex and and a sexual adventure with other writers. Given the pace of the publications, Crawl Space will be out in 2021 and Holly's sequel in 2023. Who knows when the two sex projects will find their way into the world. In 2023 I will be 55 years old.  I don't know how many books I can fit in before I die but I know I can write way more than will be published at this rate.

Is it any wonder I write fast? How can I contain all those characters and all those plots unless I tackle them at a run?

I do know this is a good problem to have. Better too many ideas than no ideas at all, but perhaps one day it will dry up. One day I might sit down at the page and realise I am done.  Until that day I must continue to write in a fury. I must race myself. I am a ticking clock. I will die. There will be an end.