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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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Artist Profile: Jessika Tong

jessika-tong

 

Jessika Tong is an exciting new voice and one of the feature poets at the upcoming Poetry on the Deck event at Riverbend Books, on Tuesday February 24 (full details below). I took the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her debut collection, Anatomy of Blue (Sunline Press) and the place of poetry in our world.

 

Your debut collection, The Anatomy of Blue has just been published by Sunline Press. How long had the poems in this collection been in gestation?

The poems that appear within ‘The Anatomy of Blue’ were written over a period of almost ten years. For instance, Sixteen and 2e are what I now consider ‘old women’. They were written when I was eighteen and have barely been altered since they were penned whereas Moscow was written in 2008 but went through at least four to five transformations over a period of several months.

Poems do not just appear and it is a misconstrued idea that the construction of a good poem is effortless and requires the bare minium. It has been a continuing process of rewrites, brutal editing at the hands of myself and others and a continuing search for betterment in the way I use language to shape how I relate to the world.

 

How did you find the process of putting the collection together?

There were times that I did feel like a murderess having to pick apart the many poems I have written and clung onto over the years – there are the remarkable and the not-so-remarkable. The process of getting the collection ready for publication was constant and working alongside an editor was a new experience for someone who is very used to writing to her own rhythm as I had to take on criticism (which I am not too good with) regarding certain poems and alter their original voice or completely omit them. The collection and its coming together (with the devoted attention of Roland Leach) has allowed me to put a clip upon some stirring which has wanted this since it read its first Tsvetaeva poem.

 

Where do you see yourself moving creatively in the future?

All I have ever wanted to do was to write poetry and this is what I will continue to do even if that great word well dries up overnight. I never stick to plans so I am not going to make any. For a person who possesses my reckless disorganisation plans are a tragedy waiting to happen.

 

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?

Poetry is an immediate form to express what is truly human. It is a creation of the unique condition to our humanness and characterises what has no visual character. Spoken against the silence poetry traps not only the aesthetic but also the things which exist within our very nature, our world and gives it an immediate stage to be seen. As a poet I have never been satisfied with knowing the surface of an image. I would like to think that human beings are more than flesh and bone and this is what I believe poetry highlights, those pieces of our selves which are immaterial.

 

Moscow

.1.

How will I describe a man to you?
Stirred from clay
Peeled from the old black bark of German oak
Curled inside my palm, his arms
Tucked back like new, featherless wings.
How will I describe a man to you?
Can words do him justice?
The bones pressed upon like envelopes,
The flesh salted and steamed.
And men, where are the women?
Where are these homes of children and kitchens?
These waist deep cauldrons,
The highways thick with winter lights…

.2.

Thinking that my hands were pearls you took
Them to meet your mother
She sniffed the city lights at my wrist,
Alarmingly red,
As if slit and put us to work like rusted mules
Where they would bloom
Softly and out of place against the cold white steel.

I began to bleed bolts and axe heads.
To eat and live machinery.
Its hissing motor
A heart, my heart that turns over each hour
With a long, desperate cry.

Going home, we share an apple seed.
A chicken bone. We march on.
One red foot in front of the other,
The grinding of metal,
Finally a small child that throws up
Lightening each time I lend my breast to it.

My dear, we are producing terror
In that warehouse.
Do not look so astonished that
We no longer breathe love or its strange pollen.
That the whitewashed tongue of decency
No longer pricks our imaginations
But leaves brick dust on our teeth instead
Of those mythical fires.

.3.

Water froze during the night, closed up its
Clear, consistent arteries.
The war encrusted pipes screamed at our
Tea cups while we danced off death
Before the stove light.
The two of us, great wounds
Refusing to scar, to mend the tortured rhythm
Of arms that no longer hold the other.

The air froze right there.
We could touch it.
Pull it between our teeth like a blackened finger.
That month four people in our street
Killed them-selves just to be warm.

The landlords arrived and threw all of their things
Into the gutters.
Lovely in life
Now they are turned in leaves
Ferried from the canopy to the earth
With no right to privacy
The kind that we share in this room,
On this bed, across this kitchen table.
I ask you,
Has enough been sacrificed for you to be a whole and I a half?

.4.

When I first came to you long nights of whisky were the rage.
We sat up reading Chaucer by a kerosene lamp
Fingers melted to the orange bone of light,
Tingling with alcohol.

I got pregnant, what a disaster you said,
But it was an accident.
Buttoning your heart, scrounging for an axe in the empty pantry.
‘We can’t afford an abortionist. You will have to kill it yourself’.

Biting on a cloth, gas flooded the womb, ate out
The bonneted Eve that slept upon my wish bone.
The old woman from next door
Bent above me and I sunk into her arms
This old mother who smelled so much like my own.
She took it out, that sobbing seed
And feed it to the cat. Then
Knotted a yellow ribbon onto the door handle.
The deed is done!
She told me to get up, get up and dust your-self off.
Put on your best dirtiest dress, scrape mud onto your cheeks.
Trick yourself with perfume and bread my lovely thing.
Do you really want to be all alone in this old country?

You will die out there for sure if he does not come back.

.5.

A little Stalin
You are fat and clean while the
Rest of us are filthy.
We are plucking at the greased bones of God
Starving and sickly as he points us away
From his door.
One night you return to me
Rich with stories of your other wife.
Of how she soaked you with pig fat before
Taking you into her mouth.

You wear
The robes of a Cleric convincing us all of
Your sainthood.

Unfortunately for me,
I curtsey
I fill you with apologetic kisses.
Who is this woman before you with the pomegranate seeds
Crushed between her teeth?
For six long months I dwelled at this doorway
Between these four walls eating rat poison,
Wailing in my widow’s armour.
At this flickering apple tree that I have sat beneath
With blue copies of myself
Hot against your cheek.
I pasted that
Long four letter word to your crutch
In hope that it will seed and give off a
Sweet fruit.

(previously published in Mascara Poetry #4 – www.mascarapoetry.com)

 

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 The Age, The Australian Literature Review, The Westerly, Wet Ink and Verandah22. Her first collection, The Anatomy of Blue was released in December 2008 by Sunline Press. “Astonishingly powerful, her raw imagery says what is often left unsaid or couched in more genteel terms. This poetry drives relentlessly into avoided spaces and territory that remains a wilderness. Confronting and irreverent” (Roland Leach 2008). Jessika is twenty-six and is currently a student at QUT, Brisbane.

 

Poetry On The Deck:

Join Jessika on the Riverbend Deck alongside award winning poets Anna Krien (2008 Val Vallis Award) and Felicity Plunkett (2008 Thomas Shapcott Award) and global traveler, Alan Jefferies

Date: Tuesday 24 February
Location: Riverbend Books, 193 Oxford St. Bulimba
Time: Doors open for the event at 6pm for a 6:30pm start
Tickets: $10 available through Riverbend Books and include sushi and complimentary wine. To purchase tickets, call Riverbend Books on (07) 3899 8555 or book online at www.riverbendbooks.com.au

Spaces are limited so book early to avoid disappointment!

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Queensland Poetry Festival presents: Poetry on the Deck

Queensland Poetry Festival, QLD Writers Centre & Riverbend Books are proud to present the first event in this years Riverbend Books Readings. Join us on the Riverbend deck and enjoy the sounds and imagery of award winning poets Anna Krien (2008 Val Vallis Award) and Felicity Plunkett (2008 Thomas Shapcott Award); global traveler Alan Jefferies and emerging Brisbane voice, Jessika Tong.

Date: Tuesday 24 February
Location: Riverbend Books, 193 Oxford St. Bulimba
Time: Doors open for the event at 6pm for a 6:30pm start
Tickets: $10 available through Riverbend Books and include sushi and complimentary wine. To purchase tickets, call Riverbend Books on (07) 3899 8555 or book online at www.riverbendbooks.com.au

Spaces are limited so book early to avoid disappointment!

About the poets:

felicity-plunkett

Felicity Plunkett’s manuscript Vanishing Point won the 2008 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Prize and is forthcoming with UQP. She is an Honorary Research Consultant at the University of Queensland, where she teaches literature and poetics, and a widely-published reviewer. She has a PhD from the University of Sydney. Her poetry has been published in journals and anthologies including Best Australian Poetry 2008, The Best Australian Poems 2008, Heat, Southerly and Blue Dog, and was awarded Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prizes in 2006 and 2007.

 

alan-jefferies1

Alan Jefferies was born in Brisbane and grew up in Cleveland. He lived in Sydney and Coalcliff for much of the 80’s and 90’s and obtained degrees in Communication and Writing from the University of Technology, Sydney. In 1998 he moved to Hong Kong where he lived until 2007. With Kit Kelen and Mani Rao he started the spoken word reading OutLoud. In 2002 an anthology of work from these readings was published (Outloud: an anthology of poetry from Outloud readings, Hong Kong). He has published 5 collections of poetry, his most recent being Homage and other poems (Chameleon, 2007). He was recently an invited participant at the ‘Cairo International Forum of Arabic poetry’ and the ‘Tenth International Literature Festival’ in Romania. He now lives in Redland Bay. He keeps a musical alter ego at www.myspace.com/psychicstreetsweepers

 

anna-krien

Anna Krien’s writing has been published in The Big Issue, The Monthly, The Age newspaper, Best Australian Essays 2005 & Best Australian Essays 2006 – published by Black Inc, Griffith Review, Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging, COLORS, Best Australian Stories 2008, and Frankie magazine. Her poem ‘The Last Broadcasters’ won the 2008 Val Vallis Award. Once she had a neurological cat scan, which came back saying she had an unremarkable brain.

 

jessika-tong

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 The Age, The Australian Literature Review, The Westerly, Wet Ink and Verandah22. Her first collection, The Anatomy of Blue was released in December 2008 by Sunline Press. “Astonishingly powerful, her raw imagery says what is often left unsaid or couched in more genteel terms. This poetry drives relentlessly into avoided spaces and territory that remains a wilderness. Confronting and irreverent” (Roland Leach 2008). Jessika is twenty-six and is currently a student at QUT, Brisbane.

 

Watch this space for features on each of these poets in the weeks leading up to this event.

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