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Four launches and a festival…

7 May 2019

…is much more fun than four weddings and a funeral.

The festival was the annual Flash Fiction Weekend, aimed at writers wanting to develop and hone their craft, held in the beautiful East Hotel. I had the pleasure of convening a panel on the writing process with superstars Graeme Simsion, Karen Viggers, Jack Heath and Susanne Gervay. I wish I could give you a sense of what we discussed but when I’m on a panel it’s always a bit of a blur afterwards, even when I’m the one asking the questions! So instead I give you writer Amanda McLeod via Twitter: ‘This panel was the business. I have many, many notes.’

With fellow panellists Graeme Simsion, Susanne Gervay and Jack Heath

I also ran my workshop on editing flash fiction and was thrilled when one participant told the marvellous organiser, Suzanne Kiraly, that my workshop was worth the price of the festival ticket alone. That kind of feedback is always happy-making. (Thanks John!)

There were lots of short keynotes and I enjoyed them all. Graeme Simsion of Rosie Project fame was up first. He spoke about how writers need to devote as much time to learning their craft as a neurosurgeon would to learning theirs. What’s more ‘there are more jobs for neurosurgeons than there are for writers’, he noted. Graeme is a keen plotter and encourages all emerging writers to carefully outline their plot before beginning to write.

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Susanne Gervay, on the other hand, is a devoted pantser, writing by ‘the seat of her pants’. ‘I can’t do it any other way,’ she said. In her keynote she spoke from the heart about her writing journey and her goal to ‘empower the disempowered’. This goal drives all her books for children. Susanne is one of those rare speakers who reguarly makes me laugh and cry. No easy feat. I couldn’t agree more with her final advice: ‘You must write something of value.’

Despite functioning on next to no sleep courtesy of his two-week-old baby, Jack Heath was as engaging as ever, discussing his Hangman series, featuring a cannibal detective. Ten years ago Hangman was rejected by publishers who advised him to rewrite the story without the cannibal detective. As Jack pointed out, that would have made it the same as a bunch of other crime books. He hung onto his vision and eventually found a publisher willing to take a risk on it. And it’s a risk that’s paid off as it’s become an international bestseller. His take-away message — stick with what is unique.


Craig Cormick delivered some hard truths in his keynote. Here are a few:

  • Neilsen Bookscan reports that only two per cent of books sell more than 5000 copies.
  • Only one per cent of books (that includes self-published titles) make it onto a bookshop shelf.
  • Quality matters less than you’d hope and luck matters more than you’d like.
  • The book you want to write isn’t always the book someone else wants to read.

He concluded that the most you can really hope for as a writer is a life in which to write. You may not achieve fame, fortune, awards or bestseller status but the writing life is reward enough.

In a similar vein to Craig, Marion Halligan reflected that ‘it is perhaps a strange thing that so many people want to become writers. It’s hard work, poorly paid and fickle in its rewards.’ She recounted a review of her debut novel, Self Possession, which was reviewed with a batch of other debuts. The reviewer remarked that the other writers were sure to have a literary future, ‘but not Halligan’. Marion said, ‘I take a certain glee in being up to my twenty-first book.’ She reflected on the changes she has seen during her 30 years in the industry. ‘I sometimes think the writer is less valued than ever…most people in the industry seem to have forgotten that without the writer there is no book,’ she concluded.

Overall the festival offered a lovely mix of encouraging advice tempered with hard truths for the many emerging writers in attendance. It finished with the launch of Impact, an anthology of flash fiction that emerged from last year’s festival, edited by yours truly. Marion Halligan did the official honours and rightly observed, ‘Don’t think that flash is easy. Brevity is hard. And time-consuming…You have to make every word count.’

Editing this anthology — comprised of 21 stories by both established writers and fresh new voices — was such a pleasure. It reveals the breadth and strength of Australian flash fiction and is a perfect introduction for anyone not familiar with the form. Marion concluded: ‘I should offer a word of warning. A book like this is a marvellous rich box of chocolates. You want to have just one more, just one more, just one more. And then you’re finished.’

Let’s head back in time now for the launch of This is Home by my dear friends Tania McCartney and Jackie French. Jackie has curated a collection of poetry for children of all ages, with stunning illustrations by Tania. It’s a gorgeous book and my seven-year-old son was spellbound through the very long launch (all those seated in the image below were speakers). Afterwards he said to me, ‘I found all the writers really inspiring but Jackie French almost made me cry.’ At which point he did. So we went to talk to Jackie — catching her just before she sat down and signed books for the very long queue — and she said all the right and beautiful things about poetry and my son’s feelings while he wept into my skirt. Later when I asked him what it was that Jackie said that moved him so much he said, ‘I could just really feel what she was saying.’ Ah, the power of words, poetry, books.

The third launch was more kids’ poetry, namely Moonfish by Harry Laing, who had his audience crying with laughter. This time I was the one doing the honours of launching the book into the world, which is always a privilege. I love the tagline for this book: ‘Poems to make you laugh and think.’ Kids are instinctively drawn to the musicality of rhythm and rhyme in poetry, and the way Harry plays with language and ideas immediately draws them in. As an added bonus the book features illustrations from an incredible line-up of Australia’s best illustrators — everyone from superstar Shaun Tan to former Australian Children’s Laureate Leigh Hobbs of Mr Chicken fame. A winning combination, that’s for sure.

A fourth long-awaited launch by another dear friend, Nigel Featherstone, is on 16 May. I have followed this novel’s development — with all the pain and joy that writing and publishing entails — and can’t wait to get my hands on it next week. Readings describes his Bodies of Men as a ‘beautifully written, tender love story — the perfect book to curl up with as autumn sets in’. If you’d like to win yourself a signed copy simply subscribe to my monthly newsletter full of writing and publishing news, tips and advice, to go in the draw. Sign-up box is in the right-hand sidebar, or down the bottom in mobile view.

Till next time, folks! Happy reading x

Woven Words

29 April 2013

Whenever people talk to me about Woven Words the word ‘magic’ seems to crop up (read a review here). And I can’t help but agree that it was indeed a night on which magic happened.

You never quite know how an event is going to unfold. Woven Words was, in some ways, a grand experiment. An innovative idea driven by NewActon’s David Caffery, we couldn’t be sure if the event was going to soar or crash. I was pretty certain it was going to be spectacular, but in the end it was much more than that. If you’re lucky, an intangible connection — a synergy, if you will — happens between the artists and the audience. When it does, it’s electric. And it was.

The evening kicked off with Sara Dowse reading from her Invisible Thread essay about a weekend spent with Hollywood movie star, Ava Gardner, when she was seven years old (you can read more about it in my interview with Sara here). This story captivated me all those months ago when I first read it, and it still draws me in every time. Hearing her read live was an absolute pleasure. She is a wise and gracious lady.

Sara and I have exchanged countless emails in the lead up to this event but I met her for the first time on Saturday. She was so much smaller than I expected (she commented that I was so much taller than she expected!). More importantly, she is an incredibly warm person with so many fascinating life stories to tell. I eagerly await her memoir which is currently in the works.

Sara chose two jazz standards to bookend her reading, ‘Speak Low’ from the movie One Touch of Venus, in which Ava Gardner starred, and ‘Old Devil Moon’ from the 1947 musical, Finian’s Rainbow. Chanel Cole performed both songs, accompanied by pianist Adam Cook. For those who aren’t aware, Chanel made it to the number five spot on Australian Idol in 2004 and since then has been gigging about town (as well as doing a million other things, as you do).

I’ve always wanted to see Chanel perform live but somehow never have. Her renditions were tender and full of grace. Sara whispered to me that they gave her goosebumps. Afterwards I got to spend a bit of time with Chanel as we ate olives and bread in the emptied out venue. Not only is she talented and beautiful but also incredibly sweet. Now I’m doubly a fan.

After each author’s section we took a break to absorb and reflect on what we had just experienced. Our host for the evening, Genevieve Jacobs from ABC 666, kept everything moving along with her usual finesse.

The middle section showcased Alex Miller reading from his novella The Sitters, extracted in The Invisible Thread. Alex has long been one of my favourite authors but I have only recently discovered that in person he has a biting wit. He can also imitate any English accent you’d care to throw at him, and is not afraid to speak his mind. I collected him from the airport on Saturday evening and over dinner he announced to the table that he could tell I had children because my car was a state. He should have seen it yesterday, I thought. Before his arrival my daughter had removed all the books and shoes and discarded items of clothing and vacuumed it thoroughly. It was as pristine as it will ever be. He did, however, claim it made him feel entirely at home given the (far worse) state of his grandchildrens’ car. As it turns out my daughter and his granddaughter share not only poor car etiquette but the same unusual first name.

Later that evening Alex managed to stir up the entire Woven Words audience by provocatively asserting that no one lives in Canberra by choice. Alex Miller, I’ve decided, is a wicked man, and I like him enormously. Hearing him read from The Sitters, I was spellbound. Alex recounted how his original draft of The Sitters was a 400-page tome, but on a long flight he ‘dreamt the book’. The voice of the story came to him and he knew exactly what he had to do. So he tossed the whole lot out and started from scratch. The result was the much tauter novella-length work that was published in 1995.

To bookend Alex’s reading Adam Cook performed ‘City of Carcosa’, the first movement from ‘Sonata No. 2’, written especially for him by composer Larry Sitsky, who is undoubtedly a genius in our midst. Adam’s performance of this technically challenging work was so powerful that I’m actually at a loss for what to say. As Alex Miller commented, it is not possible to truly comprehend or explain music — it speaks to our souls, moves us in ways that words cannot adequately express. Let me just say that I was witness to something extraordinary.

Then came Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’, composed in the year of Alex Miller’s birth, performed by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra (CSO) string quartet. Part of Barber’s ‘String Quartet Op. 11’, it is one of the most popular of all twentieth-century orchestral works. ‘Adagio for Strings’ is so sorrowful, so full of pathos, that I felt quite weepy listening to it (as photos from the night attest!).

In the last section Alan Gould read six poems that covered everything from the sea and sex to the staccato rhythms of flamenco-inspired poems. The latter two works presented plenty of breathing challenges but Alan pulled them off to great applause. Having worked closely with Alan as part of The Invisible Thread’s Advisory Committee, it was a particular joy to see him on stage. He is always such a lively and engaging performer of his work.

Alan selected ‘Molly on the Shore’ by Percy Grainger in response to his Invisible Thread poem, ‘Roof Tilers’ (you can watch Alan talking about this poem — and more — here). Some years ago I edited a book on Percy Grainger and I’ve always had a soft spot for him. Grainger wrote this work in 1907 as a birthday gift for his mother and it is a lively arrangement of two contrasting Irish reels. The CSO quartet’s performance was foot-tappingly good.

In response to Alan’s flamenco poems, guitarist Campbell Diamond performed two works, ‘Junto Al Generalife’ by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo, and Finale, from the ‘Sonata’ for guitar by Antonio Jose. Rodrigo’s music counts among some of the most popular of the twentieth century, and the title of this work translates as ‘next to the Generalife’, the gardens surrounding the great Alhambra palace. The ‘Sonata’ is Jose’s most famous work and is regarded as one of the most technically challenging and conceptually profound works in the guitar repertory. I adore flamenco dance and music, so the dynamic interplay of Alan’s poetry and Campbell’s playing was, for me, a perfect note to end on.


7 March 2013

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 Omar perform some years ago at a poetry slam evening at the Front. I’d been hearing about how good he was for some time, and I’d read a few of his poems. That night he outshone everyone. Omar has the kind of x-factor reality show judges lust after. Combine that with the musicality and muscularity of his words and you’ve got something special. Coincidentally, the poem he performed that night, ‘Queanbeyan’ from his first collection The Clocks, was subsequently selected for inclusion in The Invisible Thread anthology that I recently edited.

Omar has won numerous awards for poetry, including the Australian Poetry Slam and the Indian Ocean Poetry Slam. He memorably performed ‘My Generation’ (included in Parang) on Q&A, and his debut novel, Here Come the Dogs, will be published by Penguin in 2014. He’s definitely one to watch.

All the details for the launch are here. In the meantime you might like to check out Omar’s book trailer, or watch an interview I did with him last year where he talks about the power of poetry slams for young people, how Sophie Cunningham unwittingly forced him to write his debut novel, and why he wants to change the perception that poetry is ‘irrelevant’.

Spitting out poems: an interview with Geoff Page

1 March 2013

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.

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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.

The Invisible Thread series: Steve Kelen

6 February 2013

This week I’ve disappeared into the world of my much-neglected  novel. I’ve been tightening, ruthlessly cutting, and thoroughly enjoying myself. But I’m emerging briefly to draw your attention to the next (and second to last) video interview with Invisible Thread poet SK Kelen. As you can probably tell, I had a good time chatting with Steve. He amused me by recounting how at a very young age he won a poetry competition and a substantial prize, setting up the false expectation of a lucrative career. (Poets everywhere are no doubt smiling sympathetically and shaking their heads.)

Steve has now been at it for over 40 years, with The Australian recently describing him as ‘an integral part of Australian lyricism for his negotiation of the intensity of local, suburban experience’. Readers can be grateful for the illusion that set Steve on this notoriously impoverished path. A quote from French writer Jules Renard springs to mind: ‘Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.’

And on that note I’ll get back to the business of working on my own penniless project.