Tag Archives: Spine of Lost Voices

QPF Spotlight #14 – Jessika Tong’s Desert(ed) Island Poems

Last year at QPF, one of my highlights was an afternoon reading by local Brisbane poet, Jessika Tong; words raw and engaging, pulling the crowd into her at times unsettling world. Audiences will again have the opportunity to hear Jessika at this year’s QLD Poetry Festival, so I asked her about the poems she would tuck into her hip-pocket if she was heading off to a Desert(ed) Island.

 

Jessika Tong

 

Lady Lazarus – Sylvia Plath

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

This poem, to me, is beautiful. I have always admired the sharp, short but brutal lines of ‘Lady Lazarus’, as well as its honesty and brave approach to language.  I first read this poem when I was fourteen and have come to greatly appreciate its place amongst my collection of favourites with its stabbing lines and bold imagery. I have always been an avid reader of Plath and a great admirer of the ways in which she chose to express herself.

Ash, ash –
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there –

I don’t think ‘Lady Lazarus’ is sun and sand material but I would take it, regardless of the scenery.

 

Bindawalla, binda, bindi, bindii – Elizabeth Hodgson

I enjoy the simple words of this poem. The way it doesn’t glamorize but haunts with its starkness (deserted island) – this is what makes it appealing. I discovered this poem only a few weeks ago and immediately shoved it under the eyes of friends just to see if it broke their hearts as well (it did).

The nurses laughed as they put me in a shoe-box
And gave me to my mother: she cried.

I was weighed and measured.
With the Apgar score they rated me
To see if I could survive in this world on my own.

 

Rapunzel – Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton has always been a curious creature. I find myself drawn to her confessions and fragile but dark wordplay. The way she dominates a line with her famous ‘I’. Her recreation of ‘Rapunzel’ shows her brilliant mastery of taking a beloved fairytale and making it entirely her own. I adore most of Sexton’s work but ‘Rapunzel’ remains a solid favourite (as does the entire collection of ‘Transformations’) since fairytales and folk lore (Baltic) have always entranced me. I grew up with a mother who looked like a witch and read me tale after tale in front of a crackling fireplace so I feel very much at home when I am reading ‘Rapunzel’.

As for Mother Gothel,
Her heart shrank to the size of a pin,
Never again to say: Hold me, my young dear,
Hold me,
And only as she dreamt of the yellow hair
Did moonlight sift into her mouth.

 

Light breaks where no sun shines – Dylan Thomas

Light breaks where no sun shines;
Where no sea runs, the waters of the heart
Push in their tides;
And, broken ghosts with glow-worms in their heads,
The things of light
File through the flesh where no flesh decks the bones.

This poem describes the body, or the death of the body, in the most extraordinary way – its slow decay with connection to earth “the secret of the soil grows through the eye”. Like all great Thomas poems, there seems to be edge to something other than man, woman, body, sea, animal, bone and light. Like many of the other poems I would select, this one would not suit an island littered with sun tanned shoulders and coconut milk.

 

You took away all the oceans and all the rooms (307) – Osip Mandelstam

I have carried this poem around with me in a notebook for years. Transferring it when each book became fat and useless. Mandelstam died in the Gulags of Russia but wrote this particular poem while in exile. It is a brave poem, highlighting the human spirit without making one gag.

You took away all the oceans and all the room.
You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.
Where did it get you? Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.

 

The Nim Poems – Dorothy Hewett

Alice turning eleven
Watching the blood trickle
Between her thighs onto the warm boards
The woodbugs investigated it
For touching myself on the woodheap
I must be going to die she thought

This poem is an epic and is broken up into seventy-two verses under a number of sub-headings. I love the way that Alice’s life (the centre piece of the poem) is slowly rolled out with its mythical undertones and raw language. Hewett writes poetry that is adventurous and the Nim poems are a great example of her wild talent and provocative imagination – she is not shy and this is why I appreciate this set (and her) so much.

She went to the races
Pregnant in a black pill box hat
With a veil
He borrowed his father’s ute
& drove her to the abortionist’s
The unregistered doctor came
In the dark & masturbated her clitoris
Relax  he told her

 

In a dark time – Theodore Roethke

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The days on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall,
That place among the rocks – is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I  have.

This poem is incredibly rich with imagery and rhythm. It reads like a heartbeat. Poems which generally describe self-discovery can be flowery and are poems which I usually avoid except for this one. ‘In a dark time’ is fat with death-like images but is rich with hope, recording the pain one must go through in search of the I. “A fallen man, I climb out of my fear. The mind enters itself, and God the mind, and one is One, free in the tearing wind”. What an exquisite creature Roethke is.

 

And you as well must die, beloved dust – Edna St. Vincent Millay

This flawless, vital hand, this perfect head,
This body of flame and steel, before the gust
Of Death, or under his autumnal frost
Shall be as any leaf, be no less dead

This poem bleeds and aches. It is truly beautiful and one of my all time favourites with its wonderful ode to lost love and death. This is a poem to sit quietly with as it is flooded with such intense imagery that it demands to be read slowly so as to be truly absorbed. I like the way that nature is used to describe decay of body, love, and life and how the appreciation of beauty is stitched into each line adding to the poems romantic appeal.

 

Trees – Jordie Albiston

My breasts fall free my torso expands
Hair covers my flesh like a friend   I
Feel my roots burgeon back down the
Years I stretch and stand to leave

‘Trees’ is pure magic. This poem was given to me as a gift when I was eighteen and although the pages have grown a faint yellow around the edges I have never grown bored of it. I like the connection to earth and how this is drawn back into the poet’s (or female) body.

Please do not feed the trees
They do not hunger  They do not seethe
Or writhe   requiring the control of
Nylon silk   twisted   root bound foot

The way Albiston is able to create an almost tree-like envy while wrapping the female into root and bark greatly appeals to me. I grew up in a pine forest and have always carried with me, and throughout my own work, the image of trees and I have always been fascinated by their appearance within the poems of others (The moon and the yew tree by Sylvia Plath).

 

And there’s no grave – Marina Tsvetaeva

And there’s no grave! No separation, ending!
The tables un-spelled, the house – wakened up.
Like Death – on a gay dinner after wedding,
I’m Life, arrived on the last evening sup!

Marina Tsvetaeva reminds me of my Grandmother by the sharpness of her face and severe fringe. My Grandmother smelt of her garden, beheaded chickens without crying, poured entire bottles of Brandy in her trifles. She always reminded me of a woman from the old world. A Tsvetaeva (although not Russian, but German). I admire Tsvetaeva originality, her spitting lines, and at times, her hardness.

 

About Jessika:

Jessika Tong grew up in a small pine village on the Northern Island of New Zealand and has spent most of her adult life in Central and South East Queensland. Jessika has appeared within various literary journals including Motherlode: Australian Women’s Poetry 1986 – 2008, Poetry Matters, The Age, The Australian Literature Review, The Westerly, Wet Ink, Tears in the Fence FourWnineteen, Mascara, Pendulum, LinQ, Poetrix, Polestar and Verandah22. Her first collection, The Anatomy of Blue was released in December 2008 by SunLine Press.

 

Words
by Jessika Tong

I came over the green flanked
Sea of the Arctic hooked pike
With brilliant gristle I came madly
Rocked the crotch bell split the
Artery of its tarred filaments let
The lid off your blood box

A studded stump of a man now
Cleaned of your gorse you achieve
Talent, nerves, the watery earth
Of the eye its black points and
Waxy edge of white humanness,
Pureness, at last, you are one of us

A beggar for ink in your house
I have filleted books of their sternums
Poured alphabets down the throats
Of geese until their livers, fat with dictionaries,
Swelled the emptied nib of a pen we are
Nothing special but hands in suffrage

Finding windows in bodies small curtains
Of meat a kind of light that turns on when
The tongue stamps its ownership
It does not breathe or speak
Its teeth poisoned at the root it
Opens, grisly as a cut throat, blowing red balloons.

 

Catch Jessika at QPF 2009:

Saturday August 22 – 1:30pm – 2:30pm

Spine of Lost Voices: featuring Jessika Tong, Noelle Janaczewska & Elizabeth Bachinsky

 

Saturday August 22 – 8:00pm

A Million Bright Things: featuring a short set from every bright thing on the 2009 program plus a feature set from the awesome Neil Murray

 

All sessions are held at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brunswick St. Fortitude Valley.

For full program details head to www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com

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QPF Spotlight #7 – Noelle Janaczewska

Today the spotlight is shining on Noëlle Janaczewska. Noëlle is an accomplished writer in a number of styles including poetry, plays, performance texts and radio scripts. I had the pleasure of talking to her about her influences, the role of spontaneity the importance of performance and the writing process. Here’s what she had to say: 

 

Noelle

 

What is the role of spontaneity in your creative process?

It’s there, but to what degree, I’m not sure. What I can say is that all my work comes from some combination of interior activity and exterior influences, but the balance varies from one work to another, and from one day to another.

 

Eliot said, “Poets learn to write by being other writers for a while, and then moving onto another one.” Who are the people who have influenced you and who are you reading now?

I spent my early teens wanting to be Joseph Conrad, and my bookcase still has a ‘Conrad’ shelf—or 2. There’s also my battered Penguin copies of Children of Albion, Donne’s The Complete English Poems and Cautionary Tales by Hilaire Belloc—horrible politics, funny verse. I’ve always relished inconsistency and contradiction. More recent influences are Czesław Miłosz, Caryl Churchill, Ira Gershwin, Laurie Anderson and Izumi Shikibu. Right now I’m reading Isaac Newton’s 1659 Notebook (research for a new work) and listening to Lester Young (probably my favourite tenor saxophonist) and Don Byron.
 

Why perform/read your poetry?

More and more of my writing is on the borderlines of performance and poetry. I have a theatre background with a strong interest in music and musical forms, so things like rhythm and refrain, timbre and tone have always been important. And spoken words pieces are obviously composed with voice in mind.
 

I am always interested in the thought processes and practices of writers. Would it be possible for you to share with us your process, in other words, what does Noëlle Janaczewska do in preparation for writing?

A lot of thinking. A lot of walking—not only along the harbour foreshore, but also up and down supermarket aisles. A lot of what may seem like aimless wandering, both mental and physical, but it all helps create what I like to call a dreaming space for the work. I recently read Doris Lessing’s 2007 Nobel lecture, and posted this excerpt on my blog (http://outlier-nj.blogspot.com): ‘Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a wordprocessor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, “Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?” Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas—inspiration.’
 

Finally, where are you looking when you write?

Literally: a computer screen. Figuratively: the world in all its shambolic glory.

 

About Noëlle :

Noëlle Janaczewska’s performance texts, plays, libretti, lyrics, spoken word, poetry, essays, gallery and on-line explorations, and radio scripts across drama and non-fiction, have been performed, published and broadcast throughout Australia and overseas. 

Recurring themes in her work are the history and philosophy of science, colonialism and its legacies, narratives of migration, and the exploration of language. The recipient of 4 AWGIE Awards, her stage plays have won the 2002 Griffin Playwriting Award, the 2001 Playbox-Asialink Playwriting Competition (Songket), and the 2006 Queensland Premier’s Literary Award (Mrs Petrov’s Shoe). Recent productions include: Eyewitness Blues for the BBC, The Hannah First Collection, 1919-1949 for the Zendai Museum of Modern Art in Shanghai and There’s Something About Eels … for ABC Radio National. 

Alongside performance, Noëlle has published in anthologies, arts journals and on-line magazines. The poems she wrote for Kathryn Millard’s film Travelling Light feature on the soundtrack CD, and in 2006 The Wayzgoose Press published her long poem Dorothy Lamour’s Life as a Phrasebook. Find out more about Noëlle’s work at www.outlier-nj.blogspot.com and www.noellejanaczewska.com

 

Poem:

 

LOCAL CUSTOMS: TIPS FOR REFUGEES

 

Don’t be rushed to buy something when you see a sale,
Here there is always being a sale of some sort.
When you are standing in line keep your good distance
Or the person in front of you will be offended.
It’s quite normal to say ‘see you later’, even if you won’t.

Pink colour is here associated with girls, blue colour with boys,
Green, yellow, orange and grey colours are unisex.
Many people here are keeping animals inside their household;
You will cause upset if you don’t treat them like members of the family.

For your dishwasher use detergent specially designated for that,
Ordinary dish-cleaning soap makes too much foaming.
Pizzas are very popular for people of all ages and lifestyles;
You can get cheese pizza, vegetarian pizza or pizza with meats.
Additional servings are called ‘seconds’ and are offered once.

Keep in mind you can’t walk anywhere you like to,
If you walk at inappropriate place the police may give you a ticket.
In front of Australians you should avoid talk in your native language,
They don’t like it and are thinking you might be hiding something. 

 

Catch Noëlle at QPF 2009:

 

Saturday August 22 – 1:30pm – 2:30pm

Spine of Lost Voices: feat. Noëlle Janaczewska, Elizabeth Bachinsky & Jessika Tong 

 

Saturday August 22 – 8:00pm

A Million Bright Things: featuring a short set from every bright thing on the 2009 program plus a feature set from the awesome Neil Murray

 

Sunday August 23 – 12:15pm – 1:15pm

Venus Walked In: feat. Jane Williams, Zenobia Frost & Noëlle Janaczewska

 

All sessions are held at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts, Brunswick St. Fortitude Valley.

For full program details head to www.queenslandpoetryfestival.com

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