Tag Archives: Dorothy Porter

A few days with Salt on the Tongue pt. 1

Well I am finally back in home waters and my head is leaking poetry, thanks to an incredible weekend in Goolwa + Tuesday night’s Riverbend Books reading & last night’s Back Room event at Confit Bistro.

So my thoughts on the Salt on the Tongue festival…

Let me start by saying that Goolwa is beautiful country and it was a true privilege to be welcomed to the land by Aunty Eileen of the

Ngarrindjeri people, in traditional language as part of the festival’s opening night celebration. Other highlights of opening night were the debut screening of a film produced by Joe Dolce, featuring one of the last ever interviews with the late Dorothy Porter, detailing her love of C.P. Cavafy and the festival launch speech by Stefano De Pieri, best known for his television series A Gondola on the Murray and his work with the Mildura Writers Festival. Stefano spoke passionately about the land and the devastation of the Murray River as a result of the years of irrigation; his speech brimming with the same wild fire that makes poetry so vital, concluded with a poem about the Murray written by Paul Kane.

And then came readings by the international guests: Glenn Colquhoun (New Zealand) who charmed the audience, reading a series of love poems for an ex-girlfriend who was born in South Australia; welshman Robert Minhinnick; Slam Queen, Arianna Pozzuoli (Singapore) who lit up the stage every time she got near a microphone; and Elizabeth Smither (New Zealand). A big first night… and after rising at 4:30am it was time for this Lost Shark to close his eyes and prepare for Saturday.

Saturday kicked off with readings from Bronwyn Lea (her poem Insufficiaent Knowledge gets better every time I hear it), who then introduced Yvette Holt who read a selection of her work from Anonymous Premonition and Sandra Thibodeaux who’s new collection ‘extinctions’ is an absolute gem. Favourites from her set included Extinction (An obsession with the sea steers his poems/ but he’s no lovelorn sailor/ no spilt seaman) and Rabies (Your dog bit me/ right on the throbbing part of my thigh./ And I know why:/ he sniffed that I was another mongrel/ grovelling fro your scraps). A bristling first session!

This was followed by a reading from three Tasmanian Poets – Esther Ottaway, Anne Kellas and Adrienne Eberhard. I was particularly taken by Adrienne’s work. Her poems Phosphorescence (When I pull the rope, a bucket/ of drowned stars appears, as if the night-/ sky’s fallen into the sea) and Earth, Air, Water, Fire: A Love Poem in Four Elements ( from earth: We carry caves inside us/ – the heart’s dark chambers,/ water-washed cavern of the womb) are still resonating with me.

Then we were off to Cafelicious for the launch of Andy Jackson’s debut collection, Among the Regulars. While it was sad that Andy’s book was not there for the launch (it is however now available online), it is always a pleasure to hear Andy’s wonderfully physical work. And he is one of Australian poetry’s true gentlemen!

Following this we took off to catch the end of the Motherlode launch. And what a launch. This was a true poetry sampler, with 21 of the included poets (incl. Jordie Albiston, Jill Jones, Jan Owen, Rebecca Edwards, Jude Aquilina, Lisa Gorton) getting up to deliver a poem from the anthology. Motherlode is an incredibly vital anthology and it was a real treat to hear so many of the voices in one live setting.

It was then time to prepare for my own session alongside Alex Skovron, Sarah Day & Louise Oxley. I have long enjoyed the work of each of these poets so it was a real thrill to be able to introduce them and hear them weave their spell. Many of their lines are still circling in my head:

‘one night a thousand calendars from now’ – Alex Skovron

‘ with a brushstroke I can take myself into and out of the dark’ – Louise Oxley

and Sarah Day’s description of a cat poised, ‘a laser beam of concentration’

Saturday night’s main session was a symposium on the state of poetry in the country. While it was wonderful to have a gathering of minds, sharing their thoughts on various aspects of Australian poetry – establishing touring circuits, models to overcome the difficulties with distribution, the merge between Australian Poetry Centre and the Poet’s Union – for me the event missed the mark. Too many of the speakers approached the forum with a narrow focus, speaking emotively about specific strategies being implemented in their state, when what we really need to be looking at is the bigger picture of audience development on a national (and even global) level. Julie Beveridge presented some really interesting data, gathered from a survey of more than 50 poets in Australia, which confirmed that audience development is where our national body needs to be focussing its energy. I do, however, think there are some interesting discussions beginning, as on the positive side, the forum provided an opportunity for many of us to network and make stronger connections.

These discussions continued at the festival club, housed in a little boutique brewery right on the river… and to soundtrack the discussions Max_Mo were carving out a mean groove, featuring some cool jazz and the words of Amelia Walker, Mike Ladd & Rob Walker. A great way to close a massive first day…

I will post my highlights from Sunday and Monday + a few photos tomorrow night.


Filed under events & opportunities, poetry & publishing

Artist Profile: Pru Gell

The April SpeedPoets gig is shaping up to be something special. Pru Gell is a spoken word artist living and working in the Northern Territory and a member of the gathering sister’s stories collaborative project. Luckily for us Brisbane folk, Pru is heading our way and will be performing a feature set at SpeedPoets on Sunday April 5. I had the pleasure of chatting with Pru recently about the role of poetry in our culture, her role models and the gathering sister’s stories project.



Who are your models and how do they/have they informed your writing?

I once heard Dorothy Porter say that she is drawn to read “poetry that’s like black oil from a poet’s heart.” I relished her saying this and asked her what she meant just so I could hear her talk about this more. Dorothy Porter, Suheir Hammad, Romaine Moreton and Audre Lorde are poets whose work I respect immensely.

Their poems show vulnerability, are unapologetic, tender, courageous, share ugliness and beauty and expose elements of the human experience. They are comfortable writing themselves into their poetry and they share their own experience as the foundation of their story making. I believe when poets, and or artists in general, are honest and reveal themselves in their work then audiences are more likely to be able to connect with the work and make their own linkages to personal and universal experiences.

Their work cuts through comfort to tell the heart of a story. Yet they tell enough of a story so that the words stand strong on their own. Reading, and or hearing their pieces, I can feel drawn in and connected to something visceral and therefore their words don’t just float in the ether or on the page.

I want to look back in a few years and feel that my writing and performing is imbued with such qualities.



What is the Gathering Sister’s Stories Project that you co-founded?

gathering sister’s stories: desert to sea is a collaborative poetry project working on developing a writing collective and a collection of poetry on the theme of invasion/colonisation. The gathering sister’s stories collective is around 10 Indigenous and non-Indigenous women from the desert (Australia) to the sea (Timor Lorosa’e) who are poets and spokenword artists. The collective is spread out from a small country town near Adelaide to Dili in Timor Lorosa’e.

For a while now I’ve noted that I’ve been compelled to write about connections and collisions stemming from invasion and living in an invaded land. Over the last few years at different writing festivals and on travels I’ve met a number of other writers whose work is also often responding to invasion. I wanted to get some of these writers together and find other folks who are also compelled to write on this theme and see what kind of pieces we could create if we worked collaboratively and shared stories and writing processes. So my friend and spoken word collaborator Ella McHenry and I asked a bunch of women if they’d like to work together and the collective began to form. It is a great collective of writers and I’m really exciting that we’ve just begun to share drafts of poems on a monthly basis.



What is the relationship between your speaking voice and your written voice?

For me there’s a significant difference between reading a piece of poetry and performing a spoken word piece. For my spokenword pieces I feel more comfortable having more flesh on the bones and using more words to tell a story. Whereas my poetry for the page tends to be sparser, with more flesh carved off but hopefully with enough words left so that the heart of a story is shared.



What is the role of poetry in our culture? We have so many media we can choose from – film, video, performance, etc… so what does poetry have that is unique to offer the human spirit?

Once I heard a quote along the lines of “the need to have a poet guide to walk beside when entering Dante’s inferno”. Poetry can be a ‘poet guide’ as we walk into and through the everyday.

I feel poetry has a number of roles. To connect. To illuminate. To capture moments and essence of a human experience and reflect them back to people. Breathe life into the spaces between commonly told stories and the unspoken. Zoom in and out of experiences and offer observations in the form of a few select words, a concise story. In a few distilled words a poem can tell the heart of a story.

In an essay called Poetry is not a luxury (1977), which I adore, Audre Lorde talks about the role of poetry to distill and illuminate experiences “… poetry as illumination, as it is through poetry we give name to those ideas which, until the poem, are nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt” and the “revelatory distillation of experience” …. “that distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought.”





extraneous, some
thing not from here, interfere
not belonging to

with 4 week contract
working to save the children
no really it’s true

wearing new red beads
scintillating dinner talk
“hmm yes hmm yes hmm”

boots slightly dusty
long drive rust sand roads, just back,
“geez they don’t talk much”

swiped on basics card
2 jelly snakes, white bread bought
my silence tastes sour

50 minutes passed
5 longer that had been planned
3 town camps reviewed

I stuff your mouth with
bursting, crimson, tart quandongs
now will you listen?



1000’s of kilometres between


Looking skyward
I Find
Familiar stellar pictures
Pull same three from infinite
Fooling self
That’s all there is

Scorpio, Southern Cross and The Pointers
Drown in swarm of stars
Constellation sea so milky
Tongue tempted
Linger there
Moistening pink lips



Catch Pru live at SpeedPoets when it returns for its second gig of 2009 on Sunday April 5. It all happens at the The Alibi Room, 720 Brunswick St, New Farm from 2pm. The gig will also feature local spoken word/hip-hop artist Dark Wing Dubs and Brisbane songbird, Skye Staniford. There will also be live sounds from the SpeedPoets engine room of Sheish Money, free zines, giveaways and the hottest Open Mic section in our fine city. Entry is a gold coin donation. See you there!

SpeedPoets: Sunday April 5, 2pm – 5pm @ The Alibi Room, 720 Brunswick St. New Farm.


Filed under interviews/artist profiles

Chains of Flashing Images – an interview with Max Ryan (part II)

Like all good things part II of this interview has been a long time coming, but is well worth the wait…

I have been fortunate enough to see you perform live with Cleis now on several occasions, most recently at Queensland Poetry Festival 2008. That show is still resonating with me four months later. The performance transceded both genres (music and poetry) and drew the audience into the vortex of the moment. Just how much of a show is rehearsed and how much is intuition, interplay, instinct? And how does the live performance differ to the process of recording? 

Thank you for your full-hearted response. The angels were with us up in Brisbane: a finely attuned audience and a great sound engineer didn’t hurt either. There’s sometimes that sense I’m sure any artist gets that it’s all just coming through you and if there’s any reward for your labours, it’s probably this. I’m touched that you had that experience at QPF, I guess that’s what I’m reaching for with Cleis: something that’s more than the two parts. In some uncanny way, I feel that when we’re ‘on’ my voice becomes some sort of musical instrument weaving through Cleis’ strings. So the words transcend their semantic meaning and become more incantatory, mantric. Similarly, Cleis’ music is much more than an accompaniment; in a very dynamic way, she’s listening at a subliminal level, she’s making poetry too. The poet Rob Riel said when he launched our CD at the Australian Poetry Festival that Cleis must also be a poet.


Max Ryan and Cleis Pearce live at QPF 2008

Max Ryan and Cleis Pearce live at QPF 2008


We tend not to rehearse overmuch but there’s a definite musical structure and Cleis will know the poems fairly intimately. Both of us like to leave a lot of space for improvising and not be overly confined to any set pattern. It’s a bit of a game I play with myself; I don’t mull over the poems so that when we perform, I feel like I’m entering the poem for the first time. It’s a somewhat risky exercise but mostly it works I think. In Brisbane I lost my way for a moment in The Blind Singer but made a leap and came back into the poem through the back door.

Another example of how it works: I suddenly got the idea driving to the festival to make four years old more cyclical so instead of trailing off into the grown-up child driving the car round the corner, it comes back to the second stanza: 

The carousel goes up and down
to the strains of a wheezy waltz.           
I’ve learned every song the man plays –       
each second Sunday they’re part of the world    
I’ve made with chocolate ice creams and rides.        
This time around you catch my eye               
and I’m waving, right on time.

It was enough to just mention this to Cleis: I knew she’d turn it all around. In The Blind Singer that night there was a fair bit of improvisation between us, especially when the poem builds into the singer’s deep trance. I tended to repeat phrases or run them together in a different way. The Hexham Flood was more measured with us holding the edge of the child’s fear of an inner drowning.


Max Ryan live at QPF 2008

Max Ryan live at QPF 2008


There are certain patterns we tend to fall into: we’ve somehow made Gypsies our closing piece and by then I know we’re coming home, there’s lots of space with the music surging and drawing back towards the final unravelling. Here, images from the poem swirl together as the child’s imagination is set on a kind of internal combustion with his vision of the gypsies. It tends to go off at this point and I’ll tend to fall into some kind of declamatory mode and then just let Cleis rip. It always feels like everything just opens up and the audience can just go with the sparks climbing into the air from the gypsy fire.

Overall I’d say there’s a strong intuitive interplay within the defined structure of the words and music. Each performance can vary quite radically. I suspect this has a lot to do with the nature of the audience and how in touch it is. In Sanskrit there’s a term called ‘rasa’ which loosely means juice or sap, it’s the very essence of a work of art. The ‘rasakant’ is one who can taste that essence and importantly it is he/she who brings the art to life. Without the ‘taster’ there’s no juice. The QPF audience, I’d say, was a big part of the magic that night.

In recording of course, that’s just the part that’s missing and there can be something quite cold about a recording studio. We made White Cow not that long after we’d started working together; there are things I’d do differently next time but we tried to keep it fairly open and there’s quite a bit of spontaneity on the record. First track we recorded, Eagle, was us on one mike, just one take. The others were mostly recorded in two or three takes at the most, both of us with our own mike standing facing each other so we could bounce off each other as much as possible. For a fairly obsessive person, I’m pretty happy with the result. Overall though I’d say we’re a lot better now. Next time I’d like to capture us live.

I’m inspired by working with musicians but at the heart of it all I guess I’m still searching for the finished poem on the page. In Melbourne I’ve performed with the band Kid Sam; one piece we’ve done consists of loose phrases we weave together and build on but since then I’ve shaped it into a much more formal structure, a villanelle in fact. The performing and the writing run into each other and sometimes, in a musical context, I’m able to hear my own words in a much more charged way, hear just where they  work and where they don’t.

I hope to be able to keep working with musicians. One thing’s for sure: it’s lovely to have someone up there with you, writing poems is lonesome business enough.



Max Ryan live QPF 2008

Max Ryan live QPF 2008

Searching for the finished poem on the page is a life’s journey, so where are the footsteps of Max Ryan currently heading?

Ha! I could try talking about poetry…
Perhaps above all, I love reading poetry and I can envisage myself doing that till I drop. In a fairly direct way, the poems I write are nourished by the poetry I’m touched by. Not that there’s any stylistic resemblance necessarily but there’s some kind of direct energetic force that inspires my own attempts. There are some poems I read over and again, never tire of: Coleridge’s Frost At Midnight, Dejection: An Ode, Yeats’ Adam’s Curse, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, When You Are Old, Whitman’s Song Of Myself, Out Of The Cradle Endlessly Rocking, many of Emily Dickinson’s, Marina Tsvetaeva’s. In a great poem there’s always that sense of magic, some narrative leap or unforgettable turn of phrase that makes the heart beat a little stronger…

Harold Bloom called Coleridge the great poet of night. I still delight in those first few clear notes of Frost At Midnight as the poet summons us to his midnight vision:

The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud— and hark, again! loud as before.

Coleridge then draws us into a mystical vision of the ‘stranger’, the still beating embers of the fire that presaged the arrival of some absent friend, which becomes a metaphor for the poet’s ‘abstruser musings’. The poem finishes with this wishful prophecy for his son Hartley, the infant sleeping by his side:

Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Definitely poetry from another age (the  capitalizing of Frost and Moon and the ornate diction for example) but there’s such a sustained lyrical vision of the harmony between man and nature. I love the way ‘fall’ just falls onto the line. The last lines have the power of great haiku.

There was a period where I felt quite deflated after Rainswayed came out… what now? I realised I’d pretty well written some sort of story-of-my-life, at least my life so far, and I didn’t want to go on just writing more of the same. What I’ve been discovering are poetic forms such as the pantoum, the villanelle etc which have allowed me to enter the poem in a less linear way, such styles seem to fit with the way I feel right now…

Of course these forms can have a highly defined structure and a deep inherent logic and perhaps by this token they provide a great vehicle for bringing what can seem fairly random images into a whole new dynamic. At a certain point, they start to work for you and certain phrases will be reiterated in sometimes surprising new ways. The pantoum form, for example, fits nicely into the fairly imagist style I tend to write in:

half-way home, the drifter turns around
still, even in the rain, we look for signs
before the storm, swallows skim the river
an ocean roar , a face in the crowd

Reading poetry has always been a huge source in my life. I’ve spent a fair bit of time travelling, often alone, and also spent periods of my life fairly laid-up with physical problems. So poetry, a book of poems, has never been far from my side. I left Australia for India in the late 70s with a hard copy of Yeats’ The Collected Poems in my haversack. Yeats has been a real companion to me, sometimes I feel I know him better than I do many of my friends.

Just now I’m enjoying Bronwyn Lea’s The Other Way Out; there’s such a fine sensibility (the only word I can conjure) in these poems and I’ve been delighting in many readings. This one, Ars Poetica, says it nicely:

I used to want
to say one thing

& have it turn

out to be another.
Now I only want

to say one thing.
As if the pleasure

now is in the voicing
not the trickery

but the soul making
itself heard

above the traffic.

As for plans: tanka and haiku, especially the latter, provide a real grounding and keep me rooted in the senses and the everyday occurrences around me and I trust they still will. Working with musicians is always there and I’d like to record with different players on separate pieces.

So I have no major ambitions for my poetry, just to keep on keeping on I guess and above all to enjoy it. I’ll take it wherever it leads me: I feel greatly privileged to be able to practice such an art and hopefully to share it with an audience. We’re all walking in the footsteps of many great bards. Dorothy Porter once said she’d be happy to leave a half dozen of Coleridge’s poems behind her. Well, it was a lovely way of honouring the masters. Mind you, as for the Coleridge poems, I’d be happy with one!


Filed under interviews/artist profiles