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March 2013

Espresso and white noise: on writing in cafés

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Apparently people who take their laptops to cafés and write are pretentious. On his blog John Scalzi writes: ‘I mean, Christ, people. All that tapping and leaning back thoughtfully in your chair with a mug of whatever while you pretend to edit your latest masterpiece. You couldn’t be more obvious if you had a garish, flashing neon sign over your head that said ‘Looking For Sex.’ Go home, why don’t you. Just go.’

I am addicted to writing in cafés. And I hate to disillusion John Scalzi, but it has nothing to do with sex. (Frankly, I had no idea that the ultimate drawcard of editing galley proofs was supposed to result in days of hot libidinous sex.)

I work part-time as IrmaGolda freelance editor. I work full-time as a mother. Yes, I realise that doesn’t seem to add up and now I’m going to throw another factor into the mix. Somewhere between marking-up other writers’ creative works, and the million small and large things three children between the ages of nine and almost-two require, I attempt to claw back some time for my own writing.

Cafés, I tell you, are my salvation. Every Wednesday afternoon when my partner comes home from work early (and sometimes at weekends, too) I escape to a café to do my own writing. It is a sublime kind of bliss. So when Us Folk magazine recently asked me to write about my favourite place in Canberra, there was no contest.

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But why cafés? Well, for starters there’s no Internet. I can’t possibly be distracted by Facebook or diverted by the emails constantly pinging into my inbox that relate to ‘real’ work. But it’s more than that. As I wrote for Us Folk, being surrounded by the diversity of humanity, the very stuff of fiction, is energising. Cafés are perfect for those writerly necessities of eavesdropping and people watching. Then there’s the white noise of hissing espresso machines and the buzz of conversation which provides the perfect backdrop, somehow concentrating the mind. And let’s not forget caffeine to feed the muse.

I’m not a fan of JK Rowling’s work, but when it comes to cafés we’re of the same mind. Rowling says: ‘It’s no secret that the best place to write, in my opinion, is in a café. You don’t have to make your own coffee, you don’t have to feel like you’re in solitary confinement and if you have writer’s block, you can get up and walk to the next café while giving your batteries time to recharge and brain time to think. The best writing café is crowded enough to where you blend in, but not too crowded that you have to share a table with someone else.’

As you can see from the Us Folk pic above, they shot me in one of my favourite cafes, A Bite to Eat. Pretending to do what I do when nobody’s watching was an odd experience. To one side of me was the photographer’s assistant holding a large silver reflector, on the other side was the photographer (the very talented Ash Peak) clicking away. Naturally everyone in the café was watching, openly or in snatched sideways glances. I’m used to being anonymous, but there I was, outside my comfort zone in a place where I’d normally slide right into it. I guess I was literally leaning back thoughtfully with a mug of whatever while I pretended to edit my latest masterpiece. Have I just proved John Scalzi’s point?

Us Folk also interviewed two other Invisible Thread authors, Jack Heath and Omar Musa, and the filmmaker of the Thread book trailer, James Hunter. If you buy a copy of the mag you’ll notice that all three of them are young, good-looking twenty-somethings. That’s because Us Folk’s audience are in their twenties and thirties. So, let’s be frank, I’m really pushing the upper limit. Us Folk is a beautiful new magazine that has just celebrated its first birthday. With gorgeous production values and quirky, interesting content, it’s well worth a look.

Now, please excuse me while I head to a café for a flat white and the company of my muse.

Spark and grit: an interview with Susan Hampton

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Sixteen years ago, in my first year living in Canberra, writer and editor Susan Hampton made a lasting impact on me. She was my tutor in first year creative writing, and she was fierce and brilliant. She seemed able to reference or quote from every book ever published. She never gave false praise; her honesty could be brutal. And I loved every second of her class.

A pivotal moment occurred early on. The first time we had to present a piece of creative writing I suffered serious writer’s block — to this day the worst I’ve ever had. I wanted to impress, to show that I could really write, but nothing I came up with was good enough. In the end I resorted to bringing in a story that I’d written in Year 12. Back then — and this was some time previously because I didn’t begin studying writing until I was 23 — it received top marks, was selected for publication in the annual school magazine, and was praised in the highest terms. That is, until Susan’s class.

We had to read our piece out. I don’t remember exactly what Susan said but I do remember the words ‘twee’ and ‘clichéd’. She ripped it apart. And it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I realised that if I really wanted to be a writer I was going to have to do a whole lot better. Later that year Susan quoted a line from a story of mine in her book, A Latin Primer, so I felt that I must have redeemed myself. And now here I am, the editor of an anthology in which Susan’s work is included. Sixteen years ago I couldn’t have contemplated the possibility. So it seems like an apt moment to interview Susan about writing, reading and editing. Given all of the above I couldn’t help starting with the following question.

IG: Susan, there’s been plenty of debate about the value of university creative writing programs and whether creative writing can be taught? Given your experience, what’s your view?
SH: Probably it can’t really be taught. I have a few successful students from 30 years of teaching, that is, publishing with big presses, winning prizes, etc. They were already pretty good when I met them. Most students end up in related work: arts administration, making crossword puzzles, the front desk of the National Gallery, web editing, journalism, radio, TV, teaching. Some then leave it alone altogether. Renounce their urges. You have to be obsessed, and voluntary poverty can be a good skill. That said, Kate Grenville went to writing school in Colorado, and Flannery O’Connor and I think Carson McCullers spent time at Yaddo. Being around other writers can help a lot if you have the spark and the grit.

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IG: Does your work as an editor have an effect on your writing?
SH: The more bad writing you read the more you see what not to do. But that’s only what not to do. And when they do a good thing, which happens now and then, you can’t take it, just admire it.

IG: Your poem, ‘Banquet of the Invisibles’, is included in The Invisible Thread. Where did it come from?
SH: ‘All gods are invisible,/ made from mere suggestion’ it starts, but where this came from is a mystery. I did have a discussion about god or gods with my niece, whose response was totally secular. She served me up a dose of logic. That said, the actual words she or I said, I didn’t remember and had to make them up for the dialogue between us in the poem. We laughed about this after the book was launched. I even made up that she was doing a project on good and evil, and practising drawing pictures of the devil. Totally made up. So beware anything presenting itself as innocent autobiography. The gesture of autobiography is often simply a means to an end. My niece was thirteen, old enough to rebut an adult and to understand that the poem while not true in a literal sense, made ‘sense’ of our discussion.

IG: What book has had the most significant impact on you and why?
SH: No individual book. But a book I would never sell is Cocteau’s On the Film. He is supposedly speaking off-the-cuff, but it’s brilliant.

IG: What books are currently on your bedside table?
SH: Nabokov’s Speak Memory. It’s my fourth attempt to read it, and this time I am immersed enough to continue. His sentences and thoughts can be very beautiful, but I found it hard going for a while as I did not grow up in a city with sleighs and balls, or on a country estate with fifty servants, and people putting my shoes on and parents hiring French German and Latin teachers to keep me occupied while I was between bouts of butterfly catching and classifying from my mother’s ancient etymological texts; nor was my father assassinated; nor was most of my life spent in exile because my family’s extensive estates were confiscated by a new government. I found it easier to read Camus’ The First Man and his Notebooks, which are manna to a writer. I reread Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation and Stein’s essay on composition, saw more things than I saw before. Stein is really very world-weary and very witty. I can see why Hemingway went to her for advice, and her advise to lose the adjectives I think really helped him forge his famous style.

IG: You run a number of book groups through the library. What are the benefits for you as a reader and writer?
SH: It allows me to reread loved books and find new ones in the company of other people who want to find out what makes a narrative work, or understand layers of meaning in a poem, and how sometimes a meaning is all in the surface. Any job which pays you to read what you want to be reading is in my view a great job. It satisfies the reader and the writer in me. I like to the broad range of opinion in any group — the fierce arguments.

Susan Hampton will be reading her Invisible Thread poem at an evening of readings on 14 March at Paperchain Bookstore. Other readers are Bill Gammage, Marion Halligan, Geoff Page, Suzanne Edgar and Julian Davies. All welcome. Details are here.



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A quick heads up to let you know that next Wednesday I’ll be launching poet and rapper Omar Musa’s latest collection, Parang. I first saw… Read More »Parang

Spitting out poems: an interview with Geoff Page

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Geoff PageGeoff Page is one of Canberra’s best known and most loved poets. He’s lived in this part of the world for almost 50 years which means he’s got a story or two to tell about the region’s literary goings-on. He is one of 75 writers included in an anthology that I recently edited, The Invisible Thread, and he’s appearing at a forthcoming evening of Thread readings, which all seemed like a good enough excuse to ask him a few questions. His responses were rich and insightful and I particularly enjoyed his recollections of time spent with Australia’s late great poets.

Irma Gold: Geoff, over the course of your career you’ve published a very significant body of work. What is it that drives you?

Geoff Page: Mainly the enjoyment of doing it — though there can be painful stretches when things aren’t going well. Initially, writing requires self-discipline but quite soon it becomes an obsession. After that it’s a matter of quality-control.

IG: I was speaking to Alan Gould recently about Canberra’s vibrant poetry scene in the 1970s when you were both putting on readings with writers like Alec Hope, Bob Brissenden, David Campbell, David Brooks and Rosemary Dobson. What stands out most for you about that time?

GP: It was a halcyon period in many ways — and certainly essential to my development as a poet. To meet the standard set by Alec Hope, David Campbell, Bob Brissenden and Rosemary Dobson was no small consideration. David Brooks was in the younger generation, along with Alan Gould, Kevin Hart, Mark O’Connor, Philip Mead, et al. They also had the effect of driving me forward. One way or another, the latter group ran the ANU Poetry Society, produced a nationally-distributed magazine called Canberra Poetry and issued quality broadsheets from the Open Door Press. In age, I was conveniently between the two groups and both were an incentive for me to keep writing and become more serious about my art.

Read More »Spitting out poems: an interview with Geoff Page

To be a Canberra poet in those days (as opposed to a Sydney or Melbourne one) marked you, to some extent, as an aesthetic conservative but I had no trouble making connections with other differently-inclined poets in Sydney and, to a lesser extent, in Melbourne. Back before he published his first book in 1965, Les Murray had worked at the ANU as a translator and his influence was (perhaps coincidentally) strongly felt by most, if not all, of the younger generation of Canberra poets. These, too, were the years of the Australian ‘Poetry Wars’ in which, like Switzerland, I tried, in my reviewing and other activities, to remain neutral—although my own poetry did, I concede, suggest a loyalty to one side rather than the other.

IG: What was your experience of the ‘elder’ poets?

GP: Alec [Hope] was the first of them to read any of my work, well before I published a single poem. A small selection was sent to him via a mutual friend and Alec replied generously saying something to the effect that ‘this poet may have something; he seems to spit the poems out of the side of his mouth’. I took that as a favourable reference to what I considered my ‘minimalism’. It was perhaps even more generous when one considered Alec’s notorious essay on ‘free verse’ — which he condemned absolutely while being more than kind to its practitioners. Perhaps, even then, he noticed my verse was less ‘free’ than I thought.

David Campbell was another who took young poets seriously. I can remember his showing me a few of his as yet unfinished poems and seeking my opinion, not the action of most poets 25 years one’s senior. David was also a considerable lunch companion and inviter of poets to lunch at his small station called ‘Folly’s Run’ (where he would say: ‘Come about ten and we can do some work on the yards first.’)

Judith Wright I came to know better towards the end of her life when she was living in a flat in Lyons. I recall her launching a book for me in 1980 and having the distinct feeling that she had accepted me by then as the ‘genuine article’ — not someone who was merely dabbling at the edges of the art. Rosemary Dobson, who died only last June, was comparably inspirational though in a rather different way. Unlike Judith, Rosemary was not political and perhaps rather like the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges, had a more transcendent approach, as well as a more familial and domestic one. Her very presence at the readings I ran from 1994 in successive Canberra cafés (now Poetry at the Gods) was, in itself, encouraging — not only to local poets but to those who came from Sydney, Melbourne and elsewhere. Hers was a quiet presence but an indispensable one.

Other poets of that time, who are perhaps undeservedly less well-known, include RF (Bob) Brissenden and the diplomat JR Rowland — one rather wilder than the other but both encouraging by their sustained presence on the scene. Bob, in particular, was famous for his parties (the like of which are rare these days, I’m afraid). Bob, like Alec Hope, was deeply learned and reminded us that the twentieth was not the only century with any merit. The age of Doctor Johnson was also of interest.

IG: How has Canberra’s poetry scene changed since then?

GP: That’s a long story — suffice to say that the ‘scene’ now is more diverse, with performance and slam poetry playing a role, too. ‘Literary’ poetry, on the ‘page’ rather than ‘stage’, is my preferred genre — even though I think the ‘oral’ dimension of poetry is crucial. It’s interesting that we now have more than 20 ‘literary’ poets in Canberra (and surrounding regions) with some sort of national profile. It can make it hard to fit them all in every second year or so at the Gods readings. I organise — which, of course, have many poets from all around the country (and even overseas, on occasion) as well.

IG: Your poem ‘My Mother’s God’ is included in The Invisible Thread. Can you tell us about what sparked it, and what it means to you?

GP: It came from arguments I used to have with my mother when I was about 19. I was a member of the Student Christian Movement at the time but have long since been an agnostic. My mother recognised the poem as one of my best but she still felt embarrassed by it (probably because it was too ‘close to the bone’). I suspect it’s a definitive version of what I call ‘secular protestantism’, a tendency which I have not altogether escaped myself.

IG: Religion is one of the major themes of your work, what keeps bringing you back to this theme?

GP: Religion is not ‘going away’ as rapidly as atheists would wish. It’s a potent force in the world (quite often for ill). We need to understand it (in its many different dimensions) and recognise its long role in our intellectual history. Most of our current secular values originate in Christianity (particularly Lutheran protestantism) but it’s more than fortunate the eighteenth century enlightenment came along too as an ‘antidote’ to its excesses. I don’t really like certainty in any form, religious or secular, but metaphysical questions continue to intrigue me. My partner, Alison, (who grew up in a manse) assures me I have written too many religious poems and she’s probably right.

IG: What book has had the most significant impact on you?

GP: That’s hard to say; there are so many. I’d certainly mention William Carlos Williams’ Selected Poems and Judith Wright’s The Moving Image as two crucial ones in my formative years.

IG: What books are currently on your bedside table?

GP: It’s a big, unread pile threatening to ‘brain’ me in the night. At the moment I’m reading Patrick White’s first novel, Happy Valley. I would like to read more fiction and philosophy than I do. Of course, I read a lot of contemporary Australian poetry as a reviewer and a certain amount of history and nonfiction as ‘research’ for my poems.

IG: What are your literary plans for 2013?

GP: My New Selected Poems (Puncher & Wattman) is due out in October and my ‘horizontal narrative’ in verse, 1953, (UQP) will be launched at the National Library Bookshop in April. At the moment, I’m working on individual poems rather than any longer project.

Geoff Page will be reading his Invisible Thread poem at an evening of readings on 14 March, 6 pm at Paperchain Bookstore. Other readers will include Bill Gammage, Marion Halligan, Susan Hampton, Suzanne Edgar and Julian Davies.