Female names dominate the dedications and acknowledgements of Emily Stewart’s book of poems, Knocks (Vagabond Press: 2016). The closing sentence of the acknowledgements section? “girl poets everywhere: this is for you.”To read Stewart is to be in the company of women. The launches of Knocks have so far embodied this sense of a poetry girl gang. In Sydney, it was launched by Pam Brown, with readings by Elena Gomez and Holly Isemonger (August 14, 2016).
Peter Minter is one of the greatest poets I read, and one of the greatest poets I know. I regard him, his conversation, his attention, his criticism, his aesthetics and his ethics as militantly tender, tenderly militant. Minter is uncompromising and committed in the things he makes and does, and his politics are manifest in his making and doing, interfacing variously with discourses and methodologies of an eco-anarchist left.
Two months after my initial conversation with Amanda Stewart, which I described in one of my first commentary posts, I returned to her house to continue talking: this time, to ask specifically about her work in the collective Machine for Making Sense, who were active from 1989 to 2005. Machine were Amanda Stewart, Chris Mann, Rik Rue, Jim Denley and Stevie Wishart. They simultaneously and dissonantly worked with improvised and composed music, sound, text and performance. Their recorded output includes five CDs (you can preview tracks from the CD Dissect the Body here). They toured internationally and impressed significantly on local formations. The interview below is specifically interested in Stewart's experience as a member of the collective; her answers do not attempt to represent the collective, or to speak on its behalf. The text has been transcribed and edited from a longer recording (which features beautiful early-summer birdsong of Sydney, as well as the blissful snores of Stewart's mother's dog, Suzie, who was happily adream for our nattering!)
In philosophy and art humanity is no longer worthy of our enquiry or representation. Philosophy as an attention to human problems must yield to science dealing with mechanical masses of non-human material. The questions of medicine, hygiene and psychology are being relegated gradually to physiology. Art no longer attempts to mirror man, or the things in nature as seen by man, but depicts unrecognisable patterns which are like nothing on earth—lines, cubes, inhuman designs. The art of representing visible likeness is relegated to the science of photography. The philosophies and arts of one age are the exact sciences of the next. Philosophy, searching for what is true, and art, searching for what is new, may be discovered as being always out in front of society, in the vanguard; while the sciences and industries—the more utilitarian and moralistic activities—may be considered as forming the main body of the army, moving into the positions the spearhead establishes. This division of labour is rarely seen operating on a large scale, but viewing the world as a whole it will be seen that the humanism which has inspired so many of the great philosophers and artists of the past is a goal attained. We have arrived at humanity; there is work for science, enormous work—but the vanguard has to look to new goals ahead. — Harry Hooton, excerpt from "Problems are Flowers and Fade," from Things You See When You Haven't Got a Gun, self-published booklet, 1943.
Over the last few months, Harry Hooton has been on my mind. His name has been mentioned a number of times as I have progressed through this archival project, and on my first visit to Amanda Stewart's house she lent me a copy of Poet of the 21st Century: Harry Hooton, Collected Poems, selected and introduced by Sasha Soldatow and published by Angus & Robertson in 1990. I didn't open the book until I knew I could take it to bed and read it entirely. My gut told me Harry and Sasha would eat me, my night, my bed, effortlessly. And they did!
From all accounts, Christopher Brennan (1870 - 1932) was an unusal Australian poet. This in two senses: he was an unusual poet and scholar, and he was unusually "Australian". Unlike a good slab of his contemporaries, Brennan was not at all interested in contributing to a national colonial poetic. He once said in an interview that he may as well have written from China, so unimportant was place and national identity in his work. His interest in the French Symbolists, especially Mallarmé, has been well documented, but even where that longterm engagement is concerned, Brennan never imagined he was a Symbolist. His way of describing his aesthetic affinities was to say simply that one must live in one's time, and must find others to get along with. The Symbolists happened to be those closest to his own conceit.
Nevertheless, he was utterly committed to a thoroughly European poetics. Some of his manuscripts are collected at the State Library of NSW, and when I looked through a box of his materials, I found extensive lecture notes, poems, lists, essays, criticism and correspondence in Latin, Greek, French and German.
So Pat had access to a typesetting machine + layout facilities + there was an old offset press in the office where she worked. We scrounged the paper to do the book from offcuts or somewhere + asked a friend if he'd print it. So four of us went to occupied the office after hours with a flagon of wine + probably a few joints + printed, collated + stapled the book in a night. With that book there was no copyright - this was because of my wonderfully noble + idealistic anarchism — + the opening statement in the book read "if anyone wants these poem use them" + they were used - they turned up in magazines and so on. So the book cost very little, I think we spent about $20 + I also learned a bit about layout, printing + collating. So I had had the big light bulb go on for me, a highly illuminating experience + I loved the idea of publishing + the freedom of self-publishing where you could design + construct a book in any way you wished, you could say whatever you wanted to — NO LIMITS, no restriction.
The next year Pat drove moved to Sydney, driving up from Melbourne with an offset press in her V.W. – with a few clothes, no furniture or other possessions – the press taking priority in the car. She moved into the our house + the offset press was set up in the front room until it became too chaotic + a space in an old ex barbershop in Glebe was found for it. this was the So that's part of the story of the beginning of Tomato Press.
(Pam Brown, notes from a talk on self-publishing, given at the Women & Arts festival, Sydney, 1982. 'Pat' refers to Pat Woolley, publisher with Tomato Press and later, Wild & Woolley. I transcribed these notes from a scan of Pam's handwriting that she was kind enough to send to me. Apologising for the roughness, she commented on pre-digital note-taking, when "PowerPoint was a nightmare up ahead somewhere." I've honoured the cross-outs and false-starts because they are perfect records of almost-instaneous edits. Note the shift from "went to" to "occupied.")
Every eccentricity of belief, and every variety of bias in mankind allies itself with a printing-machine, and gets its singularities bruited about in type, but where is the printing ink champion of mankind's better half? There has hitherto been no trumpet through which the concentrated voices of womankind could publish their grievances and their opinions. Men legislate on divorce, on hours of labour, and many another question intimately affecting women, but neither ask nor know the wishes of those whose lives and happiness are most concerned. (Louisa Lawson, The Dawn, May 1888)
ASSOCIATED LABOUR seems to be in its own small way just as selfish and dictatorial as associated capital. The strength which comes of union has made labour strong enough, not only to demand its rights but strong enough also to bully what seems weak enough to quietly suffer under petty tyranny. We have a notable example of this in the boycott which the Typographical Society has proclaimed against The Dawn. The compositors have abandoned the old just grounds on which their union is established, viz: the linking together of workers for the protection of labour, they have confessed themselves by this act an association merely for the protection of the interests of its own members. The Dawn office gives whole or partial employment to about ten women, working either on this journal or in the printing business, and the fact that women are earning an honest living in a business hitherto monopolised by men, is the reason why the Typographical Association, and all the affiliated societies it can influence, have resolved to boycott The Dawn. They have not said to the women "we object to your working because women usually accept low wages and so injure the cause of labour everywhere", they simply object on selfish grounds to the competition of women at all. (Louisa Lawson, The Dawn, October 1889)
Round Vienna is the title of a new chapbook from Vagabond by Kate Lilley, and reminds me that Vienna airport, (my only experience of Vienna) is round. As far as I know, it's the first solo poetry publication from Lilley since her 2002 Salt book, Versary. It is just 4 poems. Yet the elegant production aside - and the splendid (yet understated) sample of images by Melissa Hardie - it does not feel meagre. Titles are important: and if Vienna conjured Freud for you, the first poem title, 'Fraud's Dora' would confirm it. The title is in a sense a balancing of the intellectual weight of the poems: for we are in the realm of psychoanalytic assemblage. There is a similarity here to the poems of Emma Lew in that the lines seem drawn from disparate (if perhaps fictional) sources, yet they present a tonally structured verisimilitude rather than the feel of a field of fragments. Otherwise they are very much their own woman - distinct in terms of rhythm, sensibility and humour:
she did not scruple to appear
in the most frequented streets
she was in fact a feminist
Sidonie was a lesbian patient of Freud's, and there is a homoerotic coupling between the poem on the left and Hardie's image on the left. (These images are not just illustrations but poetically apposite in themselves, encouraging a reading of the book as visual poetry.)
the movement throughout the image of body, whole, gathered and real. begin. end.sense.
like a likeness, a sign, the ritual, repeat. To focus becomes the object is disappearing.
It suffices. An Astronomy of power, implicit, subtle, carnivorous, bureaucracies serenade their untied shoelaces
not being able to possess: not being able to
(Amanda Stewart, from "Icon", I/T)
In beginning my fossicky labours, my first desire was to visit Amanda Stewart. I wanted to ask her about her sense of Sydney, since we seem to occupy a similar orbit. She went to the same university that I did, twenty years before me, and studied in the same cultural studies node that I did (though she copped the guts of it and I caught the lingering whiffs). And like me, she has found herself working, making and thinking in collective arrangements that share an approach to method, rather than an essential identity. This means that she has been variously involved with sound artists, musicians, performers, film-makers, radio-makers, poets, critics, etc., and she has produced work that could be considered sound art, music, performance, film, radio, poetry (spoken, written, concrete) and criticism. She uses the word poetry to describe what she does, where poetry is a methodology. I mean methodology very literally: how things are done when things are done. For Stewart, experimenting broadly and socially with technologies of signification, including but not limited to language, is poetry: and this has come to include a good heft of work in lots of directions, alongside many technicians, poets and otherwise.
‘Fossick’ is a word I never knew was specific to Australia until I moved to America, used the word, and was met with the subtle flash of confusion that I quickly identified as a polite reaction to alien slang. Fossick is a goldrush word, and it refers to the fine-tuned searching for tiny pieces of gold from rock already processed by other prospectors. Specifically, it is the act of hacking out “nuggets from the interstices” of leftover rock fragments. Idiomatically, for me, it simply names the process of cannily rifling through flotsam for treats: at a book shop, inside the fridge at mealtime, or in the rattish confines of one’s own bedroom.
When I first conceived this archival project, I immediately understood it to be an exercise in fossicking. My working concept of an archive of poetry and poetics is that, firstly, it exists as a decentralised, often isolated, set of cells. Secondly, the only way to contribute to the archive, much like maintaining a good wet compost heap, is to uncover the matter underneath and contribute new stuff on top. So this project, over the next three months, will aim to discover nuggets otherwise buried and will add new nuggets: by way of these texts as well as mp3 files, scans and images. And finally, my archive is very much an alt-archive, interested in the histories of Sydney that have not otherwise been represented in the city’s official and bureaucratic annuls. Where poetry is concerned, this means I am less interested in bibliographic remains of anthologies, well-known poets or poetry as it is occasionally and uncomfortably grafted onto public events and municipal ceremony. As a researcher, I am always interested in peripheral or lateral relations over hierarchical or generational succession.
This commentary is called Sydney gurlesques, no it's called Stewart and Gomez in performance, no wait
Female names dominate the dedications and acknowledgements of Emily Stewart’s book of poems, Knocks (Vagabond Press: 2016). The closing sentence of the acknowledgements section? “girl poets everywhere: this is for you.” To read Stewart is to be in the company of women. The launches of Knocks have so far embodied this sense of a poetry girl gang. In Sydney, it was launched by Pam Brown, with readings by Elena Gomez and Holly Isemonger (August 14, 2016).