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Giramondo Talks: Antigone Kefala in conversation with Ivor Indyk

Antigone Kefala and Giramondo publisher Ivor Indyk. This photo was taken in November 2022 when Kefala was announced the winner of the Patrick White Literary Award.

Giramondo launches our new audio series with Antigone Kefala, the Sydney-based award-winning poet and writer of fiction and non-fiction. In a recording made in March 2023, she spoke with Giramondo Publisher Ivor Indyk about her books, her experiences, and her conceptions of poetry and prose.

Antigone Kefala’s most recent work, Late Journals (Giramondo, 2022).

Antigone Kefala wins 2022 Patrick White Literary Award

Giramondo is delighted to congratulate Antigone Kefala, who has been announced as the winner of the 2022 Patrick White Literary Award.

The award, presented by Perpetual, recognises Kefala’s achievements as a poet, and a writer of fiction and nonfiction. She has published four works of fiction and five poetry collections, including Fragments, which won the 2017 Judith Wright Calanthe Award and was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry. She has also published two collections of journals, Sydney Journals and Late Journals.

On winning the Award, Kefala commented: ‘I am full of admiration for Patrick White, and for the encouragement he has given to Australian writers. I met him several times and liked him. I am very honoured to receive this prestigious award given in his name, and the recognition it offers, as for a long time my writing has existed outside the major lines of Australian literature.’

Kefala will receive $15,000 in recognition of her outstanding contribution to Australian literature. The 2022 judging panel included Dr Felicity Plunkett (Chair), Dr Julieanne Lamond and Ms Michelle de Kretser.

The Patrick White Literary Award was established by Nobel Prize-winning author Patrick White to advance Australian literature ‘by encouraging the writing of novels, short stories, poetry and plays for publication or performance’. For the past 48 years it has been awarded to an author who has made an ongoing contribution to Australian literature but may not have received adequate recognition.

The Award is managed by Perpetual as trustee, and many authors of different status and experience may qualify for consideration. Perpetual Managing Partner of Community & Social Investment, Caitriona Fay said: ‘Patrick White has left a truly remarkable legacy through this award, with many past winners being authors that have made such a significant, yet sometimes understated, mark on the Australian literary community. Kefala’s longstanding contribution to Australian literature through her outstanding collection of fiction, poetry and collection of novellas and journals, encapsulates the very essence of the Patrick White Literary Award.’

Judges’ citation

Antigone Kefala is a poet and a writer of fiction and nonfiction. Born in Brăila, Romania in 1935 to Greek parents, Kefala moved with her family to Greece after World War II, at first living in a refugee camp in Athens. The family initially migrated to New Zealand / Aotearoa, where Kefala earned a MA in French literature at the University of Victoria, and then, in 1959, to Australia. Kefala has worked teaching English as a second language, and as a university and arts administrator with the Australia Council for the Arts, where she was instrumental in establishing supports for community and multicultural arts practice in the 1970s and 1980s. She lives in Sydney.

Kefala has published six collections of poetry and seven prose works. Martin Duwell, writing in the Sydney Review of Books, observes that Kefala’s career ‘is marked by the way in which it embraces almost all of the shorter forms of writing including… short stories, a number of novellas, journals and even a parabolic fairy tale for ‘advanced children’. Her work has appeared in bilingual English-Greek and English-Czech editions, and in a trilingual English-French- Greek edition.

There are two anthologies of criticism of Kefala’s work. Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey collects reviews, essays and analytical writing, and is edited by Vrasidas Karalis and Helen Nickas (Owl Publishing, 2009). Antigone Kefala: New Australian Modernities is edited by Elizabeth McMahon and Brigitta Olubas (UWA Press, 2021).

Kefala is a deliberately spare writer, practising an aesthetics of asceticism that is crucial to the power of her work across all forms. Her poetic minimalism belies the meticulous construction of echoes and patterns in her poetry, while the notable formal compression of both her prose and poetry distils intense experiences and perceptions.

In ‘The Journals of Antigone Kefala’, an essay in the Karalis and Nickas collection, Ivor Indyk identifies ‘powerful expressions of absence and loss [that] stem from her own experience of displacement as a refugee and a migrant’ as central to Kefala’s work.

In their Introduction to Antigone Kefala: New Australian Modernities, McMahon and Olubas write that ‘it would be difficult to overstate the significance of [Kefala’s] life and work in the culture of this nation’. Sneja Gunew notes the rhetorical sophistication and playfulness of Kefala’s writing, and locates it within a cosmopolitan, ‘ex-centrique’ modernism (‘ “To find our measure, exactly, not the echo of other voices”: Antigone Kefala’s Ex-centrique Australian Modernity’ in Antigone Kefala: New Australian Modernities).

Michael Tsiniakis comments on the ‘fundamental error’ of viewing Kefala’s work solely through the lens of multiculturalism/migration. He believes that Kefala has been ‘the victim of her biography’ and emphasises the intellectual underpinning of her writing (‘Antigone Kefala: “Clinical” View over a Shadowy Conscience/Consciousness’ in Antigone Kefala: New Australian Modernities).

Dimitra Harvey writes in Mascara of her early encounters with Kefala’s poetry, noting its ‘stark, radiant imagery; lean punctuation; the slightly disorienting effect of the syntax; an imaginative vision of sensuous waking life enmeshed in subterranean realms of memory and dream’. She praises Kefala’s capacity to evoke the senses ‘with startling vividness’.

Sarah Holland-Batt observes that Kefala’s poems ‘are supremely confident: composed of clean, terse lines, they ride on the rhetorical surety of the speaker’s voice. They invite you to embellish where they remain silent’ (‘The Fragment: on Antigone Kefala’ in Fishing for Lightning, UQP, 2021).

Kefala began publishing poetry in Australian journals and anthologies in the early 1960s. One of her poems appears in the ground-breaking feminist anthology edited by Kate Jennings Mother I’m Rooted (Outback Press, 1975).

Kefala’s first book-length poetry collection was The Alien (Makar Press, 1973). Gunew describes this book as launching ‘a disconcerting Australian poetic voice’ (‘We, the only witness of ourselves’ in Antigone Kefala: A Writer’s Journey). The collection is marked by a sense of strangeness and removal, emotional intensity and a determined ambiguity about the position or context of the speaker. Kefala continued to develop a poetics infused by European frames of reference but ‘welded to an Australian spatiality’ (Gunew) across her succeeding volumes of poetry, Thirsty Weather (Outback Press, 1978), Absence: new and selected poems (Hale & Iremonger, 1992), Poems (Owl Publishing, 2000), Wayfarers and Other Poems (Picaro Press, 2010) and Fragments (Giramondo, 2016).

The fragment is Kefala’s preferred form, evocatively deployed across her practice. A fragment suggests both destruction and salvage, and thus perfectly embodies the preoccupation with loss and renewal that runs through Kefala’s writing. Fragments is the title Kefala chose for her most recent collection of poetry, almost twenty years in the writing and published to acclaim.

Alexis Late writes that in this collection, Kefala ‘faces the disintegration of a life, but the fragments of her past and loved ones are elevated’ (Cordite). Holland-Batt describes these poems as feeling ‘urgent and necessary, full of sharp revelations about life’s fleetingness and the liminal state between life and death’. Efi Hatzimanolis is similarly struck by the poignant sense of time passing in this books. She also notes the ‘many fine poems that create a memorable sense of place in the Australian landscape – indeed there are poems that are almost elegiac in their compassionate view of the fragility of the land’ (‘Feeling for Time for Antigone Kefala’s Fragments’ in Antigone Kefala: New Australian Modernities). Fragments won the 2017 Judith Wright Calanthe Award in the Queensland Literary Awards.

The First Journey (Wild & Woolley, 1975), The Island (Hale & Iremonger, 1984) and Summer Visit: Three Novellas (Giramondo, 2002) are fictions that blur the boundaries between the short story and the novella, while also drawing on poetry in their expressive compression and figurative richness. Jane Gibian points out that this ‘in-between’ formal status mirrors the way Kefala’s work straddles cultures and continents (‘In-between Lives: The Island and Alexia: A Tale of Two Cultures’ in Antigone Kefala: New Australian Modernities). Journeys are a constant in her oeuvre, movement across space and, via memory and dreams, across time.

Like much of her poetry, Kefala’s fictions focus on departures and arrivals, and the disorientation they entrain. ‘I wandered from room to room among unknown people,’ says the narrator of The First Journey, encapsulating the fate of all those displaced by war. Memories and dreams, frequently evoked, are the refugee/migrant’s resource and consolation for loss. Yet at the end of the book, as heavy rain ends a heat wave, the narrator feels ‘free for the first time’, in an acknowledgment that the destruction of the past makes space for invention and possibility.

Konstandina Dounis draws attention to the ‘glorious mosaic’ of women’s lives that Kefala’s work pieces together (‘Antigone Kefala: Of Journeys, Songs and Stories’ in Antigone Kefala: New Australian Modernities). Kefala writes about older women with particular tenderness, as evidenced in her evocative and moving portraits of Aunt Sofia, Aunt Niki and Angheliki in The Island. As Dounis points out, women’s histories, including their very presence, are often invisible; this is especially true in Australia of the histories and presence of immigrants. In rendering such women visible through celebration of their stories and songs, Kefala’s writing resists that erasure.

Summer Visit: Three Novellas (Giramondo, 2002) continues this contemplation of losses and gains, couched in Kefala’s characteristically visual prose. Here the splendour of a new country, and specifically of Sydney, is emphasised: the ‘marvellous city, a living thing breathing in the night. The buildings full of crystal reflections, rising in the night sky sustained by a will of their own.’ The middle section of the book is a meditation on returning. When the narrator of ‘Summer Visit’ goes back to Greece, her memories of the country, like the people and scenes in old photographs, are at odds with the changes she finds. Everything now is ‘looking prosperous’ and people don’t resemble their old, pictured selves. The narrator finds ‘herself longing to escape from here and into her own life’. But when she is finally on her way back to Sydney, she is ‘alone in the dark universe’, in between again in the night sky. The sense of being permanently unhoused is prominent in the last piece, ‘Conversations With Mother’, an exquisite work of mourning that forms part of ‘the glorious mosaic’ noted by Dounis. The mother’s disappearance, at once ‘total’ and ‘impossible’, makes even art seem pointless; the struggle to transcend time leads only to ‘painted images in a dark tomb’. Yet the stories the mother used to tell live on, like the flowers she planted, and with time the narrator once again finds meaning in art and in the natural world.

Sydney Journals (2008) and Late Journals (2022) showcase Kefala’s distinctive, cosmopolitan vision. They are, among other things, wonderful Sydney documents, capturing the city’s changing moods and forms through charged, astute, visually rich observation. Indyk has written about the love of Sydney that runs through Sydney Journals.

Considering the description, ‘The magic of the city in summer, at dusk, holding your breath. The smell of the empty streets, the post office clock glowing in the night…My type of country’, he notes the sense of exultation and belonging implicit in the last phrase. This, he suggests, is ‘in stark contrast to the usual view of Kefala as displaced and in a kind of perpetual mourning for the past’ (Karalis and Nickas).

Similarly, while the loss of community attendant on migration is felt in Kefala’s Late Journals, this work highlights a different, sustaining kinship: the artists and intellectuals Kefala engages with, their presence and their work serving to enrich her days. There is wonderful generosity in Kefala’s acknowledgment of the creative work that matters to her, and a sense of celebration in her intransigent faith in the value and power of art.

Both Anna Couani and Brigitta Olubas have written about Kefala’s centrality to various creative circles in Sydney. This community, embraced by Kefala since the 1960s, isn’t limited to newcomers to Australia, but they constitute a significant proportion of it. Couani remarks on Kefala’s excitement and relief at encountering the ‘urbane, artistic and cosmopolitan’ aspect of Sydney life, and discovering shared experiences. (‘Before whom shall the drama be enacted?’ in Antigone Kefala: New Australian Modernities). While noting that some of the men in these circles were capable of dismissing creative work by women, Couani writes that Kefala’s artistic friends all ‘acknowledged and supported’ her practice.

Olubas, writing of these cosmopolitan ‘networks of friendships’ and their ‘poetics of displacement and self-establishment’, draws attention to the role landscape played in at least one of these creative connections (‘We Had Nowhere To Go: Artist Friendships and Migrant Poetics in the Work of Jurgis and Jolanta Janavicius’ in Antigone Kefala: New Australian Modernities). Late Journals testifies to what Olubas calls ‘friendship grounded [in both] visits to galleries and long drives through the bush and the Australian interior’, a reminder of the significance of both art and place in Kefala’s work.

Kefala’s oeuvre includes two books for younger readers, Alexia: A Tale of Two Cultures (John Ferguson, 1984) and Max: the Confessions of a Cat (Owl Publishing, 2009). However, Gibian points out that the former doesn’t fit neatly into the category of children’s books. She writes that it ‘unfurls multiple possibilities for the expression of the gendered, imaginative and literary self’ (Olubas and McMahon).

If a narrow concept of writing by migrants that would confine it to a certain kind of realism or memoir has affected the reception of Kefala’s work, she has continued, undaunted, to write in her chosen manner regardless of the demands of literary fashion and critical responses. In Sydney Journals, she quotes from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: ‘Works of art are of infinite solitude, and nothing is less capable of reaching them than is criticism’.

Duwell hopes that, with the passage of time, ‘critics, publishers and scholars are a little better at seeing Kefala’s output in some kind of perspective – perhaps, even, seeing it as a whole’. In naming Kefala the winner of the Patrick White Award, the judges acknowledge the scope and range of her work, its precision, insight and distinctive contribution to Australian literature. We also note Kefala’s contribution to Australian literary culture through her work at the Australia Council.

The judges congratulate Antigone Kefala on the award.

Antigone Kefala’s most recent work, Late Journals (Giramondo, 2022).
Fragments by Antigone Kefala (Giramondo, 2016).
Sydney Journals by Antigone Kefala (Giramondo, 2008).
Summer Visit by Antigone Kefala (Giramondo, 2003).

Imants Tillers: a note on Credo

Published below is Imants Tillers’ preface to Credo (December 2022), a collection of essays on art and art history, written across the distinguished contemporary Australian artist’s career.

From Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) to Joseph Kosuth’s ‘Art After Philosophy’ (1969), artists have always been important contributors to the written discourse on art. The first essay in this selection, ‘Locality Fails’, was commissioned by Paul Taylor for an early issue of Art+Text in 1982, and the last, ‘The Sources’, by Ivor Indyk in 2019 for this collection, and is published here for the first time. Unlike the iconic and polemical texts of Kandinsky and Kosuth, which can stand alone as powerful manifestos of a particular time and place, this selection of essays has no overarching theme, no grand narrative. It is fragmentary in nature, with essays written for specific purposes – for magazines, for exhibition catalogues, for conferences, for lectures – these texts are akin to ‘speeches delivered on just such and such an occasion’.

Since I never envisaged these essays being collected in a single volume, overlaps occur. Indeed, from time to time I have quoted the same sources exactly, and so inevitably there are a number of repetitions. Instead of editing out these repetitions, I decided to keep them. For I am not afraid of ‘repetition’ – indeed repetition is one of the fundamentals, not only of my writing, but of my painting as well. Occasionally I have tried to make exact copies of my own pre-existing work. In my paintings, which combine text and image, there are several phrases which have been repeated so many times that I have forgotten their origin, and they now seem to emanate from my own body of work.

Without doubt the phrase that I have repeated the most is from the French symbolist poet, Stéphane Mallarmé: ‘A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance.’ Since 1998 this phrase has become something of a mantra for me – framing almost every painting I have executed. It speaks to me about some kind of profound truth in relation to ‘chance’ and ‘destiny’ – the essence of the mystery of our lives – the degree to which we can and cannot mould, influence or determine our life-trajectory. We well know that the unexpected can arrive at any moment, though fortunately not every life will end up as a shipwreck!

Therefore, just as ‘quotation’ and ‘appropriation’ are fundamental tenets of my work, so too is ‘repetition’. Also, as Mallarmé once declared: ‘All the Great masters, ancient and modern, plagiarized Homer, and Homer plagiarized God.’

— Imants Tillers

Photo: Corinna and Dylan (2018)

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au wins the 2022 Readings Prize for Fiction

Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow is the 2022 winner of the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction.

The announcement was made at a ceremony at Readings Emporium in Melbourne on Wednesday 26 October 2022.

Cold Enough for Snow was ten years in the making and, during that time, being in the world of independent bookshops and talking to booksellers was one of the best literary educations I could have asked for,’ said Au upon receiving the news. ‘I was so humbled even to be part of this year’s shortlist alongside such incredible authors. My gratitude to Readings staff for their irreplaceable knowledge, and to the judges of this year’s prize.’

In their report, the judging panel said of the work: ‘It was a difficult decision to choose one title from this list. The judging panel reflected on, rather than judged, how each title gave us a new insight into our humanity. To that end, Jessica Au’s quiet contemplative prose about a mother and a daughter traveling was considered the needed juxtaposition to the past year.’

Au’s book is the inaugural winner of The Novel Prize, which saw her manuscript selected from hundreds of international submissions and published by three publishers in three continents: Giramondo Publishing (AU), New Directions (UK) and Fitzcarraldo (UK). The book has since been shortlisted for numerous awards and translated into 18 languages and counting.

The judges of the 2022 Readings New Australian Fiction Prize were Christine Gordon (head of community engagement and programming and chair of judges), Carolyn Watson (Readings Doncaster), Susan Stevenson (Readings Malvern), Tye Cattanach (former schools and libraries specialist) and last year’s winner, Andrew Pippos (Lucky’s).

Lucy Dougan: a note on Monster Field

The award-winning Western Australian poet Lucy Dougan reflects on Monster Field (November 2022), her fourth collection following  The Guardians, winner of the 2016 West Australian Premier’s Poetry Award.

The landscapes I have in mind are not part of the unseen world in a psychic sense, nor are they part of the Unconscious. They belong to the world that lies, visibly, about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived. — Paul Nash

My title is borrowed from the artist Paul Nash, who chanced on a field full of ancient, decaying felled trees that seemed to him imbued with an unusual spirit. Nash was never sure that he could locate that field again and whilst driving he would, as he described it, let things slide by his eyes, hoping he might be lucky enough to find the spot again. The search became a charged activity for him and the inspiration for much of his work, especially a series of landscape photographs. He called this elusive place Monster Field.

I wanted to write through the implications of the term ‘monster field’. The word ‘monster’ is derived from the Latin monstrare, from which the poetically apt process of demonstrating, or showing, is etymologically derived. A poem, like a monster, is a ‘showing’: the spectral bougainvillea flowers at the end of ‘The Brazier’ and the abandoned vanity seat in ‘The Throne’. It is also connected to the ordinary spaces, re-encountered daily, which are important to my practice. I think it is a common experience, a kind of haunting in a way, the sense that you are close to something that is significant but that nevertheless eludes you. Slippages could be a good word to describe it. It’s the intersection between the absolutely ordinary and the occult. These two things lie close together, and Nash knew that.

Explorations of the hidden and the lost have been a preoccupation for me. Touchstones and influences have been as diverse as the sculptures of Rachel Whiteread, the writings of John Berger, and the films of Roberto Rossellini. I also want the title of this collection to reverberate in different ways throughout the book. Whilst it marshals an aesthetic concern and approach that attempts to see and articulate a part of the visible world that is not always or not fully or adequately ‘perceived’, I also want its potential meanings to be sounded against the sense of disorientation I feel at mid-life.

It has taken me a while to realise that there are connections between this body of work and my being a cancer survivor. Even though that is perhaps more visible in other work, I think that survivorship is there in a low-key way in Monster Field. It’s a book about survival at mid-life – about losing parents, gaining grandchildren, and change of life. And it’s a book about the ways in which mysterious connections are enlivening. When I went to work in the Tate archive on Nash’s papers in 2007 I had just recovered and was well enough to travel independently. It was a real return to the world, so there is a strong connection for me between looking for the elusive place or thing, the monster field, and feeling alive.

— Lucy Dougan

Photo: Julia Dolin

Extract: Mortal Divide by George Alexander

Read an extract from Mortal Divide, George Alexander’s award-winning novel, and one of the great works of Australian literature on the relationship between migration and identity. First published in 1997, the book was re-released in 2022, with illustrations by Peter Lyssiotis. Click here to read the extract in PDF format.

It had been ten years since I had been to Perth. Ten years since I had last visited my father. Like every city, Perth has its own odour, a scent most distinct during the hours before dawn. There is salt in the air of course, a nod to the abiding presence of the Indian Ocean.

But on certain nights when the breeze blows from the north-east, a more powerful essence soaks the dark air: the ancient memory of the desert. Maybe that’s why Dad liked it here. Like the dunes in the deserts of Islam. Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli rhymes the two deserts well: one eroded and sub-lunar, the other mystical.

I try and make sense of these rhymes between Egypt and Australia – the frangipani would have been familiar, and the flame trees; the Khamseen wind that behaved like the Fremantle Doctor; the yachts on the Swan and the feluccas on the Nile; the Islamic refrain of maalesh and the Aussie’s ‘she’ll be right’; the shared sense of the sacredness of the land, of the land – al-Khemi – around the delta-rich Nile, and the Rainbow Serpent crossing the Swan; the fellaheen and the blackfella.

Perth today has an architectural skyline like the punched cards of a computer. It hums with the hubbub of a clamorous and anxious culture about to jettison its innocence. But this July morning, off the plane from Sydney to the hospital, the ancient memory of the desert remains, and it is as if all the gleaming old hotels and banks and shopping centres, the schools and churches, are some dull afterthought.

Going through his flat, sorting out his clothes, there wasn’t much to pass on: his small cups for Turkish coffee, his hookah, nargileh, waterpipe, his naturalisation papers signed by Harold Holt, and an 8×11 jiffybag, that felt like a sort of MS in the raw. Notes maybe, or studies put together against a book unwritten – recipes – a treatise on the iskander kebab? – dreams. And heavily inscribed on this jiffybag, ‘only to be opened on my lawyer’s instructions’.

Who was my father really? What sort of man? Wolf or sheep, true or false, sweet or sour? My mother, who took me away to Sydney (at two, three, five finally), claimed he was a gambler, always at a forwarding address. The first sounds I heard – I tell my friends – were the clatter of dice cubes and ice cubes. Between his chef-ness and his cigars he used up all the oxygen in the room, and so was happiest with women who breathed shallowly and aspired only to excellence in the art of devotion.

Kyriakos, an absent father. So to me he became a mythic figure like Dionysius or The Crucified, but done up as Flash Harry, lovable hustler.

‘Today,’ says the doctor, ‘forms of masculinity are in crisis. You know all those inner wild man weekends? People trying to figure out from the inside relationships between fathers and sons.’

‘Yeah, but I ain’t going to no session where they beat up on trees, pound nails, snore loudly and have open-mike poetry yelling,’ I said. ‘Alys doesn’t mind. “Just take the garbage on your way out.”

…I hope, Doc, I don’t turn into one of those guys over forty for whom football is more real than women…No, I’m just trying to figure out what sort of man my father was – storyteller, rebel, warrior, trickster, songster, natural gent, man’s man, a man born with his boots on, a man born with roses in his mouth – and also to figure out how one dreams oneself together as a man.’

‘The normative transitions from youth to maturity have been blocked. Doubly so with you. Write it out, bridge those broken transitions,’ he said.

So, Toto, I’m trying to connect the dots, pick up the pieces.

Image: Peter Lyssiotis

Bon and Lesley, a playlist by Shaun Prescott

Ahead of the launch of his second novel Bon and Lesley, an event which includes live music by Newcastle band Troth, Shaun Prescott presents a playlist of the music he loved while writing the book.

With a few exceptions, none of these songs inspired the writing of Bon and Lesley. Some of them create moods that seemed like appropriate places to start from, while others are just songs that filled my life during the years I spent writing the novel. I don’t know what any of these songs are about, if they’re about anything. If they have words, I never notice the substance of them.

Most of the time I can’t listen to music while writing, because that would almost be like trying to write a song while listening to one. But I sometimes want to capture, through writing, the sensations that music evokes for me. I mustn’t be alone in this. Music is the most powerful art form, and the best music seems accidental, like it is not just humans making it. My apologies to musicians, but it seems to me that the creators of music have almost no control at all. They do not construct the power in their works, they are noticed by strange living resonances that choose them as vessels. I used to write about music but gave it up because explaining its power lost its appeal. I just believe it’s magic now.

Akira Rabelais’ ‘The Little Glass III’ would have appeared at the top of this playlist, but it isn’t on Spotify. You can listen to it here. I highly recommend you do.

Troth – Attar of Roses

This is from Troth’s 2021 cassette Small Movements in Radiance, which I listened to while editing the final drafts of Bon and Lesley. Troth is the Newcastle duo of Amelia Besseny and Cooper Bowman. All of their releases are very different, but a melancholy calm pervades all of them, carried by Besseny’s ghostly voice. I’ve long admired Cooper’s label, Altered States Tapes, which despite keeping a vigilantly low profile has amassed a huge trove of strange, extremely unmarketable, and transporting music. If you want to dive in, Th Blisks’ How So? Is a brilliant place to start. Troth create the kind of discomforted dream worlds I sometimes aspire to evoke in fiction, and it is an honour to have them play at my book launch.

Disembowelment – Your Prophetic Throne of Ivory

I discovered this singular band only five years ago, though their sole album was released in 1993, which is hard to believe, because its marriage of dreamy atmospherics with cavernous death metal is way ahead of its time. During the early stages of writing Bon and Lesley I started listening to metal, because my character Steven seemed to force me to. I stopped listening to metal when I was around 19, and I guess it makes sense that I, a 38-year-old man, would return to it now, but only in intense weekly spurts when my mood calls for it. This particular track feels genuinely unsettling to me. Another metal song I listened to during the period I spent writing Bon and Lesley is Bell Witch’s ‘Mirror Reaper’, but it runs for an hour and a half, so it’s not a great playlist candidate.

Cross Record – PYSOL My Castle

When I finished Bon and Lesley, but before it had been edited, I listened to this song through laptop speakers and its embrace was so forceful it brought me to tears. I was sitting on my balcony late at night, and two possums – a mother and her baby – were sniffing at our cat’s dry food.

Blue Divers – Kitchen Light On

This is just a really beautiful instrumental that, due to the suggestion of its title, reminds me of the sensation of waking in the early hours to find a single light left on in the house. A comforting reminder of waking life in the dead of night. The whole album is gorgeous.

DJ Loser – beat09422

I wanted to include the song ‘beat09422’ from DJ Loser’s cassette In Order to Protect, but it’s not on Spotify, so this will do. I ordered the aforementioned cassette after hearing DJ Loser in a Kode9 mix, and I listened to it a lot while thinking about my writing. ‘Beat09422’, and this song too, feels like a radio violently admonishing me. The way everything is amplified to its breaking point results in an unlikely, tranquillising ambience.

Babyfather – Meditation

Dean Blunt is an artist from London whose work covers a lot of territory. He’s never released anything I haven’t loved, whether under his own name, as Babyfather, or as Hype Williams (a duo with Inga Copeland, not as in the director). I listened to this Babyfather album a lot while thinking about how to write Bon and Lesley. It’s a record full of incredible, atmospheric pop songs, all couched in what many would consider ‘unlistenable’ noisy collage. There’s a real sense of crisis spread across this Babyfather record, but it’s also playful and weird, and funny at times. It’s probably an old-fashioned way of thinking about cultural production in the 2020s, but I feel like this record will become a classic.

OneFour – Spot the Difference

I listened to OneFour a lot after reading about their infamy in this article. I have always loved the crisp, brazenly digital production in grime, and drill seems to be a direct evolution of that subgenre. Drill reminds me of the good Dizzee Rascal albums, early Wiley, and Trim, but there’s a somehow even greater mood of urgency, which circa-2005 I would have thought impossible.

After discovering OneFour I became briefly obsessed with this country’s underground rap, following seemingly endless YouTube rabbit holes. Sometimes I would plan to write late into the night, but instead would fall into the trap, admiring the incredible DIY spirit of these artists (OneFour is massive, but there are hordes of artists with far smaller profiles uploading material, and if you follow the rabbit hole long enough, you end up finding the portrait-orientation smartphone recordings with sub-500 views, recorded in messy bedrooms). The only relevance this has to my writing is that my novel might have been finished earlier if I hadn’t discovered OneFour. You can’t write while listening to them or their fellow travellers. You can’t even really do the dishes, or walk, because it throttles you. Despite all this, it’s one algorithmic path I’m glad to have followed.

Lustre – Part one (Dream of Stars)

Another metal song, though it isn’t heavy. It reminds me of the atmospheric, symphonic style of black metal that emerged from the ‘90s, the stuff about Tolkien, made by larping young men who probably had Gary Gygax’s portrait framed on their bedroom walls. With a handful of exceptions, metal is all texture to me, and this song really is just all texture, and it’s lovely in its own melodramatic way, especially on misty afternoons. I’m not really into fantasy novels, but I love fantasy videogames. I don’t care for the story details, the politics, the lore, the lords, kings, queens, battles, lizard people etc, I just want the visions of towering castles with snow-capped mountains in the background. That’s basically what Lustre evokes.

Kali Malone – Glory Canon III
Harold Budd – Abandoned Cities

In 2019 I went away for a weekend to a small house near Branxton, and listened to these songs on repeat for two days and nights while writing, in pretty much its entirety, the third section of Bon and Lesley. The other two parts were much harder.

Sometimes I can write to music, but the speakers need to be far enough away, ideally in another room. The sound needs to fill a space softly, and it cannot command my full attention. For that reason, headphones won’t do. It’s a hard effect to achieve at home if you have kids who might not appreciate bleak ambient music infecting their dreams.

Roy Panton and Millie Small – Oh, Shirley

When I bought this collection of Roy Panton and Yvonne Harrison songs, my then three-year-old daughter immediately latched onto it. I adore this song and have heard it roughly 500 times since 2018. That’s a guess, but it’s not an exaggeration. I am lucky that my daughter seems to share my inability to function without music, and that she loves most of the music I play her. It’s a level of companionship that I have always sought in adult friends. Another family favourite, Decadance’s ‘On and On’, isn’t on Spotify except in the form of some inferior remixes.

Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper

To avoid accusations of cowardly playlist making I have added Bell Witch’s ‘Mirror Reaper’ after all, but at the end, even though it clashes badly with Roy Panton, so that you can stop listening if you want. It’s a truly amazing creation.

Listen to the full playlist:

Headshot_Shaun Prescott_

Michael Farrell: a note on Googlecholia

The award-winning Melbourne poet Michael Farrell reflects on Googlecholia (October 2022), his latest poetry book following Family Trees (2020).

Googlecholia is my sixth book with Giramondo, but its publication is not something I take for granted. The book’s title obviously alludes to melancholia, which, in the context of long-term depression, might be seen as a relatively manageable period. Elsewhere I have referred to the affects associated with using the internet as a writing resource (in a conventional research sense, rather than, what used to be called, the ‘google sculpting’ of Flarf, and the wholesale appropriations of what was conceptual poetry). 

The titling has come to seem less neutral since first writing the manuscript, as I began to suffer from screen sickness, due to severe depression and anxiety, exacerbated by Melbourne’s lockdowns. (Writers – be careful.) During this time (about eight months) I found it difficult to look at my phone – let alone make calls – use my laptop, or watch TV. I could not read or write. In my morbidity, I sent the manuscript to Giramondo more as a safekeeping gesture, than as an expression of readiness. Eventually I emerged from the worst of it, and was able to work further on the book. 

The forms of the poems themselves vary. While some appear relatively standard, in terms of type and stanza, the newest poems (‘In The Year Of Our Modernism 1922’, ‘The Big Blue Play’, ‘Where Her Refers To Lydia Davis Or Proust’) attempt to unsettle these forms; to resist verisimilitude. While experimentalism, as a framework, can defuse the impact of specific experiments, for myself, in this case, it keeps the writing alive to poetry’s possibilities: not just in terms of form (in its various aspects), but in terms of what can be said, and the range of voice deployed: the positions and positioning of voice. 

More recently I have been writing new poems, so, hopefully, the books will continue. 

— Michael Farrell

‘French Open’: a poem by Michael Farrell

The following poem is from Googlecholia, a collection by Michael Farrell published in 2022.

French Open

You can’t see said Chuck Baudelaire your own shoelace
Flowering flowers of New York nearly demonstrating an 
Evil can derive from doing another person’s job for them 
Flowers of evil Yves Montand Alain Delon in the stands 
Angering McEnroe with their intrusive invasive glamour

Cameras of evil with hovering operators inviting violence 
American epidermis sensitive all over in its unlikely eros 
Vulnerability of tennis player juxtaposed with his double 
Cardboard relatively innocent next to plastic grows quieter 
Photographers breathe more uneasily as game progresses

Hostility is my drug my defining structure quips Baudelaire 
When the ref chants baby over and over they’re not quoting 
Flower of evil extraordinaire petunia of evil Justin Bieber 
Bieber in 1984 is no more than a glyph in his father’s thigh 
Gladioli of evil Sofia Loren eating homemade marinara

Forking it up in the sun her glinting shells favouring Lendl 
Climate change feeling it breathing hurricaning on his neck 
Just a breeze it’s not the twenty-first century Johnny not yet 
He says bet you can’t see where the ball will be when game 
Ends with a drop shot

Shaun Prescott: a note on Bon and Lesley

Shaun Prescott reflects on Bon and Lesley (September 2022), his latest book of fiction following the critically acclaimed The Town.

Bon and Lesley started from a desire to write fiction based in a real-world town that I have dreamt about all my life. Other than wanting to inhabit that setting – a dream-aberrated version of a barely known place – I had no firmer plans for it, for a while. Writing fiction is often a way for me to inhabit half-imaginary places that I feel a creative urge to fill out. If the place holds my attention for long enough, the work gathers power from it, and is able to then move in other directions I’m interested in. 

Four years later, that playful desire to create and inhabit a place via the writing of fiction seems to belong to another, much younger, person. I have never especially wanted to write novels that have a lot to do with obvious contemporary concerns, and I am probably not alone in feeling weary of modern novels that brush too explicitly against humankind’s currently unfolding situation. But I am an anxious human first, a parent second, novelist third, and the third is subservient to the concerns of the first two. 

So this is inevitably a novel with concerns, and they are not subtle ones. I won’t list them. It’s not a journalistic novel, nor a speculative one, nor an auto-fictional one. I wanted to avoid languid, authoritative subtlety, or, in other words, that mode of fiction where the writer has a point, the reader quickly understands the point, but the point is skirted out of literary tastefulness, so that everyone tucks in feeling wiser (but still, wisely, doomed). This is a novel written by a person with no elevated understanding of the forces and phenomena that inspired its mood. I don’t have a point. It’s a work of imagination written by a parent, a worker, a family member, during a time of crisis. It’s a work of imagination contaminated by reality. 

Hopefully the reader will find a lot of messy life in it, because that’s the crucial dollop. Unlike other fictions I’ve worked on in my adult life, I felt like I had to see this through to completion, that I could not write anything else until it was out of my way. Now that it’s finished, I feel like I’ve been evicted from a cold but nevertheless sheltering home.

To put it in a way my imaginary friend and fictional character Steven would appreciate: This is my doom metal novel. I hope to one day write a psytrance novel. To some it may make no sense, to others it may make too much mundane sense. 

— Shaun Prescott

Headshot_Shaun Prescott_

‘Magnificence’: a poem by Lisa Gorton

The following poem is from Mirabilia, a collection by Lisa Gorton published in 2022.


In his study Il Magnifico kept a bronze statue of Marsyas
they called The Nude of Fear. He liked to think about
the mechanics of clocks. He had Verrocchio finish his
antique porphyry statue of Marsyas, its missing limbs made
with such art they had white veins in the red stone
where nerves show in living bodies when they are flayed. 
Among his treasures he kept a mirrored glass sphere,
a unicorn’s horn the length of a lance, an elephant’s tooth. 
When he adopted the child he made out the mother
had been ‘a woman of the Gorini, his friend’. After he died
they found his doctor drowned upside down in a well.

Lisa Gorton: a note on Mirabilia

Lisa Gorton reflects on her poetry collection Mirabilia (August 2022), which follows on from her acclaimed books Hotel Hyperion, Empirical and The Life of Houses.

I wrote the title poem Mirabilia during one of Melbourne’s lockdowns. It’s a poem about pangolins: the most-trafficked mammals on earth; they die in captivity. Perhaps, scientists said, the bat coronavirus mutated in a human host; perhaps the bat and pangolin coronaviruses met in the same host, caged together.

‘Mirabilia’ is also a meditation on a line in Marianne Moore’s poem ‘The Pangolin’: ‘if that which is at all were not forever’. ‘Mirabilia’ is written in Fibonacci syllabics, reflecting how a pangolin spirals up in itself. That pattern in the poem is also a lament for the natural pattern of growth and return, which has lived in the background of poetry’s images for so long.

Over time, reading about poets’ lives, I noticed how often mothers, particularly of male poets, are characterised as destructive. Slowly I started to put together a long poem ‘On the Characterisation of Male Poets’ Mothers’. For this, I set myself a rule: only to use quotes from Wikipedia, because, in this poem, I’m trying to hold to light to generally received ideas.

I wanted to disrupt the language of connoisseurship, organised around the dream of the male ‘genius’ – to force the experience of the artist’s muse back into the picture. I set quotes from Cellini’s Autobiography against the Louvre’s suave description of his artwork. And, after reading Bernard Berenson’s dismissal of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Benois Madonna – dismissed because the ‘young woman’ in it had ‘puffed cheeks, a toothless smile, blear eyes’ – I spent a year trying to trace the life of the woman who is, I think, the model for this picture.

So, the sequence ‘Tongue’ sets Leonardo’s artwork in context, in the year of the Pazzi conspiracy, when Giuliano de’ Medici was murdered, and it traces the life of Fioretta del Cittadino who was the mother of Giuliano’s child. After his murder, her child was taken and she was forgotten. Art, broken bodies, grief, effigies, and the myth of Medusa: these poems worry at the relationship between the human body and its language.

I wrote ‘Great World Atlas’ for Izabela Pluta’s artist’s book Figures of slippage and oscillation (Perimeter Editions, 2019). For this, Pluta made darkroom contact prints from three editions of the Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas. Her artworks have the colours of an x-ray. They show maps, overwritten, backwards against each other.

These poems track the vast extent of nuclear testing in the years of these editions. They include the careless brutality of Ernest Titterton, for instance, who, knowing that Britain had ploughed plutonium into the sands of Maralinga, said: ‘If aboriginal [sic] people objected to the tests they would vote the government out’ – when Australia’s First Nations people were unenfranchised, still.

In Mirabilia, I was questioning the relationship between art and politics. These poems are crowded with quotes, events, anecdotes, inventories, and fragments of myth, because I was trying to bring into poetry that heteroglossia (raznorechie, ‘varied-speechedness’) which Mikhail Bakhtin found only in the novel: a clash of different voices, different conceptions of world.

— Lisa Gorton

George Alexander: a note on Mortal Divide

From George Alexander’s foreword to Mortal Divide: The Autobiography of Yiorgos Alexandroglou (August 2022), the new edition of a landmark work of Australian literature first published in 1997.

All over the world, across cultures, people wear masks, actors wear costumes, paint their faces, speak in funny voices… From Shakespeare’s plays to Billy Wilder’s 1959 film, Some Like it Hot, men play women, women men. We are confused by twins or doubles in so many plays and doppelgänger movies. The works celebrate fantasy, doubling, the tricky transformations that occur when we change from one self to another. We laugh as we stand on the brink of seeing an old regime overthrown: the double-take.

When your own name feels like an alias, the experience is akin to that sort of wonder, when you look at an old snapshot and puzzle over your connection to the person you were then: the body-shape you inhabited, the hair, skin, look in the eye. Or the fog that descends when you hear your voice on tape: you sound like a person trying to sound like a person talking. The limited-consensus reality ignores the strangeness of most lives, of the consciousness that lives in us. Who was I then? Who am I really? Am I ‘George’ or ‘Yiorgos’? Angel or devil? Well, both, of course.

These ideas were in the back of my mind when I conceived Mortal Divide. Gertrude Stein’s ‘autobiography of somebody else’ – of Alice B. Toklas – provided a clue as to how to go about writing it. The book is also about a clash of cultures, as well as names – trying to fit the Greek Yiorgos Alexandroglou into the Anglo-sounding George Alexander – and it called up the past that always lies in wait. What do you hold on to? What do you let go? Is life a story? Yes, many stories.

The postmodernist always rings twice, it’s been said. Reading Mortal Divide today – my first novel, written twenty-five years ago – I’m surprised how much of my real life got into this fiction. And I’m delighted that the book has outrun Cyril Connolly’s enquiry, in Enemies of Promise (1938), ‘into the problem of how to write a book that lasts ten years’. Literature, he added, is the art of writing something that will be read twice.

— George Alexander

Andy Jackson wins 2022 ALS Gold Medal

Melbourne poet Andy Jackson has won the 2022 Australian Literature Society (ALS) Gold Medal for Human Looking, a visceral yet compassionate collection which speaks on the diverse experiences of disability, and gives a voice to those often treated as ‘Other’. The prize is Australia’s longest-running literary award, and recognises the best contribution to literature in Australia in the preceding calendar year. 

In their citation, the award judges described Human Looking as a ‘sharp and brilliant collection…with powerful poetic skill and infinite compassion, this book illuminates the world differently and gives us a new way to see.’

Jackson, who lives with the rare genetic disorder Marfan Syndrome, used the announcement as an opportunity call for the government to fix the NDIS.

‘When I first started writing poetry I wasn’t aware of a single poet who wrote openly about disability,’ he said. ‘I try to write poems that stare back… in shapes and forms that are themselves disformed.’

Read the judges’ citation in full below.

The poems in this sharp and brilliant collection pay sustained and loving attention to the human form. Opening out of disabled/disfigured experience, they reckon with the history and iconography of deformity: using medical documents, news reports, trial transcripts, literary texts and visual artworks, Jackson inhabits, transforms, and speaks back to a deeply rooted way of looking that casts the disabled or disfigured body as deficient, repulsive, or the object of prurient fascination. His poems provide a more capacious account of the aesthetics and experience of the human body, displacing the ‘normal’ body from the centre of our attention and expanding the possibilities for human looking. Measured and dispassionate in tone, the poems nonetheless burst with anger and joy.

Each poem has exceptional merit individually, but they are also carefully sequenced, and their cumulative effect is considerable. The sequence opens with the deceptive simplicity of an apparently autobiographical lyric ‘I’ in the first poem, which describes a body altered by surgical intervention. Next, the reader is moved through a series of poems that contextualise the speaker’s experience, relating it to mainstream discourses about disability; the ongoing history of violence against disabled people; and the voices of other disabled, disfigured or deformed figures from art, myth, and history, including Frankenstein’s monster and Sisyphus. In the final, enormously affirmative poem of the sequence, we return to an autobiographical ‘I’ with new eyes, and inhabit the speaker’s universal body: like all human bodies it is vulnerable, imperfect, and in need of care. Our interdependent bodies are the basis of our connection to one another, to our loved ones, and to the more-than-human world.

With powerful poetic skill and infinite compassion, this book illuminates the world differently and gives us a new way to see.

Photo: Marnya Rothe

Human Looking was also shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2022. Order the book here.

Luke Carman: a note on An Ordinary Ecstasy

Luke Carman reflects on An Ordinary Ecstasy (July 2022), his latest collection of short stories.

As sometimes songs and scenes of old
come faintly unto you and me,
When winds are wailing in the cold,
And rains are sobbing on the sea.

— Henry Kendall

An Ordinary Ecstasy was written in a time of isolation. I wandered the empty streets of an evening, and I walked the deserted beaches at the edges of town, watching the darkening waves crash over the sands, and the pelicans huddled on sandbank islands in the channel’s stream. With me, in the beginning, was an audiobook of Ulysses, but between the lines of that masterwork of interiority, I began to hear the voices of the people I knew, slipping into consciousness over the stream of Joyce, coming to me like ghosts from some more populated time. Soon enough these interdicting voices were all that I could hear, so that I couldn’t hear Joyce’s masterpiece at all, and when I looked at the silent unit-blocks and the empty sundowner-shacks around me on the walks, all I could hear was the imaginary voices of the people who would be around me in a time more ordinary. In the end, I was so assailed by the chattering cavalcade of strangers, that I lay awake at night, after my walks, with their murmurs become an obsessive constancy of oratory.

With these new works of fiction, I have tried to exorcise myself of the above possession by bringing this unsolicited heteroglossia to the page. Captured in the series of stories that make up An Ordinary Ecstasy are the voices of people strange to me, all of them in states of ordinary ecstasy – those moments of everyday intensity which punctuate the general calamity of consciousness. An old man’s lust for life keeps him raging against the dying light all around him; a middle-aged woman in need of a connection taps into the raw materials of her distant past; two broken-hearted rogues try to heal on a road-trip to the Northern Rivers; young lovers cling to one another on a flight to Argentina; a journalist with aspirations of poetry takes on a puff-piece about a local hero; a folk musician rides the winding tracks up the Blue Mountains with songs and daydreams on his troubled mind; and a couple reflect on their recent loss with the white waves crashing near them like a fallen storm. The day-to-day shocks and flashes of inner worlds are laid out here, and I see in them the lives of people who are, in their own way, just like us.

— Luke Carman

Photo: Marnya Rothe

Eleanor Goodman: a note on In the Roar of the Machine

From translator Eleanor Goodman’s introduction to In the Roar of the Machine by Zheng Xiaoqiong (July 2022).

Zheng Xiaoqiong’s poetry brings to the fore issues of Chinese domestic migration, global capitalism and income disparity, the contemporary Chinese poetry scene, geopolitics and the world economy, feminism, wage discrimination, and workers’ rights. Quite aside from the sociological import of her work, it is Zheng’s own unique poetics that gives life to these issues, providing a powerful experience through which readers can understand and empathise with often overlooked people, including workers, women, and the rural poor. Although Zheng has published several books and her work has been enthusiastically received in China and in international poetry circles, her poetry has typically been viewed under a narrow rubric, namely that of ‘migrant worker poetry’ and the ‘migrant worker poet’. While this is where Zheng’s literary career began, it is only one part of the story of Zheng’s life and work.

From the start, she wrote across genres, producing essays, fiction, informal reportage, and poetry; the juxtaposition and melding of these different modes of writing are characteristic of her style. Her poems sometimes seem to slip towards prose, and her ability to capture voices and experiences that are not her own shows an ear highly attuned to both song and narration. Much of her work comes from her own direct experience or observation, and pulsates with linguistic, moral, and narrative intensity…Zheng has resisted the limitations of the moniker of ‘migrant worker poet’, however, and the concomitant role assigned to her first by birth and circumstance, and then by the literary establishment. Most of her poems having to do with the factory involve a larger context, whether it be globalisation, feminism, or environmental degradation. 

To translate her poetry requires a knowledge not only of the vocabulary of the factory and the urban village, but an attention to her delicate gradations of tone and diction, which address the lives of migrant workers and also engage with classical Chinese poetry, global inequality, her family history within its complex cultural context, and the flora and fauna of her home. Most important, however, is Zheng’s voice, which can be tender, urgent, imploring, regretful, and learned in equal measure. I hope these translations offer all that and much more to the reader.

— Eleanor Goodman

Eleanor Goodman. Photo: Barry Braunstein Photography
Zheng Xiaoqiong