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by Hazel Smith
In the last blog I talked about the piece motions[i] — a collaboration with US video artist Will Luers, who devised the images and coding, and musician Roger Dean who created the sound. I approached the project mainly from the point of view of the writing process and the research I undertook, here I want to focus on the collaborative, multimedia and technological aspects of working on the piece.
Collaboration is an aspect of creative endeavor that I particularly relish, since I find that working with others takes me out of my comfort zone, provides new directions for my work, and extends my skills. Collaborating allows me to work with experts in different media, who often also have sophisticated technological expertise in their areas. Collaboration for me is also usually tied in with friendship, and most of the people I have collaborated with — such as ceramicist Joanna Still, environmental and body artist Sieglinde Karl-Spence and writer Anne Brewster — have also been long-standing friends. Not only can friendship aid the collaboration through mutual understanding and empathy, but collaboration can be a way of making time for, and developing, the friendship.
Working in multimedia forms is one of my passions, though I also write a great deal for the page. For me multimedia redefines and extends the literary, since images and sound make meaning in different ways from words, and can complement, challenge and contradict the text to extend its resonances. During any particular work the relationship between image, text and sound will not be static, but will be constantly changing as the media mold to each other, move apart and remold in different configurations. Images and sounds also intensify the affective, emotional level of the words, and make the work more immersive. In austraLYSIS, the sound and multimedia group of which I am a founder member, we often perform multimedia works with additional live elements. The live performance, audience presence and darkened space create an enveloping experience quite different from looking at the work on the web at home.
When you are collaborating you have an inbuilt audience, and so the feedback is greater than when you are working on your own: this provides a lot of incentive to write. If you are receiving feedback from artists from other disciplines, they may also have a different perspective from that of a writer, a perspective that is more predominantly visual or sonic. Collaboration can be challenging to your autonomy and purpose as a writer because, to a degree, you must allow your collaborators to work with your text in their own way, to break it up, reorder it and emphasise some elements at the expense of others. Initially it can be wrenching to let go of your own contribution and allow it to develop a new identity, but in the end it is usually a great delight to do so. All the visual artists and musicians I have worked with have tended to be extremely interested in words and sensitive to their possibilities.
Writing for such an environment also means adapting the writing to the medium. The text was realised as fragments, and longer pieces were generally split up. I sent my text to Will, usually with instructions for possible fragmentation; he sometimes divided it up further. In fact, although I wrote the text, he had considerable impact — through his organization of the programming—on the (partly sequential, largely variable) way that it was juxtaposed and arranged.
As the project progressed — and in tandem with plenty of discussion by email and Skype when Will returned to the USA — Will and Roger added images and sound that reinforced, complemented or contradicted the text. Will’s images are both representational and abstract, and also explore the continuum between: they built in boldness and intensity as the project progressed, much to my delight. Will often approaches the subject of human trafficking obliquely, for example in images of ships and airplanes, or by depicting spaces that suggest cage-like or claustrophobic environments. However, he also incorporates human figures (usually with cut off or pixelated faces to ensure anonymity), sometimes in ambiguous environments but often seeming to be incurring distress.
Roger and I have collaborated together for many years on intermedia and multimedia projects; he often likes to work in response to the text, while also suggesting further possibilities for its development. His sound, like Will’s images, greatly raised the affective level of motions, and added many descriptive and evocative components. The sounds involve sampling and electronic manipulation, and are organized in four sections: airplane sounds that are digitally manipulated and abstracted, Macedonian music which might be seen to recall the homeland, train sounds also digitally manipulated and abstracted, and more westernized, rhythmic and harmonic music. The Macedonian section is mainly rhythmically asymmetric and also microtonal (i.e there are very small spaces between the notes), while the westernized section is more rhythmically regular and tonal. However there is also some exchange of characteristics between the two, for example some asymmetric rhythms and microtones do appear in the westernized section suggesting the transcultural migration of such music. Each sound section is triggered to start with a probabilistic (partly chance driven, partly determined) delay once a particular screen has been reached. However, the reader’s interactions trigger other algorithms that determine the beginnings, ends and overlaps of the different sonic components. The simultaneous contrast and interconnection between the different musical components, embodies the displacement of victims into an alien (often westernized) cultural environment.
These constantly changing word-sound-image relationships in motions are the main dynamic of the piece. Each medium underlines, modifies and challenges the others, producing emergent meanings that cross over between the different media and cultural domains. To return to the subject of my previous blog, there are overlaps with my research again here, because I am currently writing about cross-media work for a book I will be publishing with Routledge in 2016 about the contemporary literature-music relationship.
[i] Hazel Smith, Will Luers, Roger Dean, motions http://taylorstreetstudio.com/motions/
by Hazel Smith
My first two blogs will focus on issues to do with motions, a collaborative, multimedia project I undertook with video artist Will Luers and musician Roger Dean. The first blog looks at the research I undertook for motions and some aspects of the writing. The second blog explores the collaborative, technological and multimedia aspects of the project, and the way these impacted on the textual element.
Like many writers I am obsessively interested in the writing process, and how creative works arise. The process of writing seems to me to be an indispensible part of understanding a literary work, and can speak to, and widen, the perspective of the literary critic. But examining the creative process holds different dividends for literary critics and writers, though in the case of writer critics (of which there are an increasing number) those dividends will be combined. As literary critics, we focus on what writers have achieved, but as writers we are also very concerned with what has not been done. We are always teasing out the gaps within the literary field in terms of literary forms and themes, and thinking about how we might make a new contribution.
Over the years my approach to creative writing has developed and diversified considerably. When I first started to write, I rarely decided on a topic, and mainly found my ideas through playing with language and allowing ideas to evolve out of the process. I still work this way sometimes, but currently when I am embarking on a major project I often decide on a topic and research the topic extensively: reading round it, and using that reading as a basis for writing, both directly and indirectly. This interest in research has grown partly though working in higher education, and my involvement in the university environment. As well as being a creative writer, I am also engaged in research in the areas of literary studies and writing. Particularly important to me is making a rapprochement between creative work and research, so that the two activities speak to each other. There are of course, many different types of research. My research as a literary critic centres on examining primary materials, devising a methodology, compiling an argument and reading all the critical literature on a particular topic. The research I undertake for my creative work tends to be looser, less comprehensive, and more directed towards triggering ideas. Sometimes the research I do for my creative work overlaps with my work as a critic, or one triggers the other. So this is a very complicated and symbiotic relationship, about which I have written quite extensively in the past.[i]
Last year, I completed a research-based collaborative multimedia project, motions, that was based on the subject of human trafficking and contemporary slavery.[ii] The project was created in collaboration with Will Luers, an American video artist who was responsible for the images and coding, and my long-time collaborator, musician Roger Dean, who constructed and coded the sound. It was our second collaboration as a trio: the first collaboration was the video piece Film of Sound. [iii] Human trafficking is the forcible removal of people from one environment to another, usually for the purpose of exploiting them as slave labour. It is one of the great scourges of our modern globalized society, where the breakdown of national boundaries makes transnational crime easier. Victims often have no opportunity to escape; even if they do, they are frightened to leave and go to the police because they are illegal immigrants.
For a writer, human trafficking seemed an urgent topic to address, and one with a lot of political and psychological implications; it was also a subject that did not seem to have been explored much in mainstream literary works. However, it is also a confronting, sensitive and horrific topic that presents many difficulties.
To research human trafficking I read many articles and books on the subject, most of them listed on the front page of the motions website. A lot of them were quite recent, because human trafficking is currently developing as a research area. But I also perused web sites with stories from victims who had eventually escaped their kidnappers. Although I was concerned with human trafficking internationally — it is ubiquitous and can be found on every continent — there was plenty of local relevance. I read, for example, about the Wei Tang case in Australia: this was the first conviction in Australia for contemporary slavery, and is a landmark case because it honed what the definition of slavery should be.
As I read I started to write fragments, drawing both on the books and articles I had read about human trafficking, and also other sociological material I had perused on cosmopolitanism and globalisation. I adopted a large array of different genres and sub-genres of writing from documentary, theoretical discourse, drama, narrative and poetry: this piece, like so much of my work, would be mixed genre. This approach enabled me to enter the subject of trafficking from different directions: for example, to include narrative elements but at the same time to deconstruct and disperse them. I also tried to ensure different degrees of distance from the reading material. I wanted to give some intellectual and sociological context to the writing, but I did not want it to become overly polemical. As the project progressed, I also needed to address the fact that trafficking victims were usually non-English speaking. I added phrases from other languages, and also sections of constructed languages (that is languages I made up) to evoke the social, linguistic and psychological displacement that trafficking brings.
motions was a collaborative multimedia project, where the writing was influenced at every point by my collaborators, by the different media (images, sound, text) and also by the technologies that were employed. An Australia Council Literature Board Digital and New Media Writing Grant, financed the project, and with the funding we were able to bring Will over from the USA for a short period in the initial stages of the project. Will, Roger and I had many discussions about the project together, which led to changes of perspective, challenges and feedback. Will and I talked specifically about the writing aspect of the project, since, as well as being a visual artist, he has experience as a scriptwriter. Central to these discussions was how to evoke the subjective experience of being captured, removed and exploited.
In my next blog I will talk more about the collaborative, technological and multimedia aspects of motions, the contributions made by Will and Roger, and the effect of those contributions on the writing.
[ii] Hazel Smith, Will Luers, Roger Dean, motions http://taylorstreetstudio.com/motions/
motions has been exhibited and performed several times, including at the Electronic Literature Organisation Media Arts Show, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA, June 2014; The Other Room poetry reading series; The Castle Hotel, Manchester, UK, July 2014; and the Conservatorium of Music, Sydney 2013. The piece is scheduled to appear in a special new media writing issue of Drunken Boat in December 2014.
[iii] Will Luers, Roger Dean, Hazel Smith, Film of Sound, Cordite Poetry Review http://cordite.org.au/ekphrasis/film-of-sound/
Many thanks to Geoff Page for his thought-provoking posts.
This month, our guest blogger is Hazel Smith. Her bio is below.
Hazel Smith is a research professor in the Writing and Society Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney. She is author of The Writing Experiment: strategies for innovative creative writing, Allen and Unwin, 2005 and Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara: difference, homosexuality, topography, Liverpool University Press, 2000. She is co-author of Improvisation, Hypermedia And The Arts Since 1945, Harwood Academic, 1997 and co-editor with Roger Dean of Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts, Edinburgh University Press, 2009. She is co-editor with Roger Dean of soundsRite, an online journal of new media writing and sound, based at the University of Western Sydney. Her monograph, The Contemporary Literature-Music Relationship: intermedia, voice , technology, cross-culturality, will be published by Routledge in 2016.
Hazel is a poet, performer and new media artist, and has published three volumes of poetry, three CDs of performance work and numerous multimedia works. Her volume, The Erotics of Geography: poetry, performance texts, new media works, with accompanying CD Rom, was published by Tinfish Press, Kaneohe, Hawaii in 2008. Her next poetry volume will be published by Giramondo in 2015. She is a member of austraLYSIS, the sound and intermedia arts group, and has performed her work extensively in the US, Europe, UK and Australasia. She also had a previous career as a professional violinist. Her website is at www.australysis.com
by Geoff Page
Recent events have suggested there may soon be a renewed emphasis on teaching poetry in Australian schools. To Australian poets, and lovers of poetry, these rumours should be welcome. For course designers and English teachers there may now seem to be an attractive vacuum – which needs to be filled intelligently. Extremes, such as the rote learning of a few nineteenth century poems ‘set’ by the teacher (or some distant committee) or the imposition of a swag of pseudo-postmodern ‘critical theory’, need equally to be avoided.
As a poet and a former teacher of poetry at secondary level (mainly years 11 and 12) for 38 years, I hesitate to map out a detailed course to suit everyone but there are four crucial principles which need to be kept in mind – preferably at all levels, not just in those ‘Extensions’ for students who want to specialise in literature.
- The Oral Aspect. Poetry was oral for thousands of years before anyone got around to inventing a script for writing it down. It’s still an oral art form. Poems are best appreciated when read aloud – by the poet if still available or, more often, by the teacher and students themselves. And read aloud more than once. Read aloud until they’re read well. Read aloud, not just for subsequent dissection but as part of a ‘read-around’ for the class’s irresponsible enjoyment.
- A Sense of Choice. Let the students have some say in what poem or poems they’re going to present or talk about. Obviously this will be within (fairly wide) parameters set by the teacher (and those, apparently inescapable, curriculum writers). Such parameters should give the whole experience some coherence but the students should also be making their own choice at some point. This may be heavy on the school’s photocopier but we shouldn’t worry about that. A good teacher never relies on a single text or anthology.
- Technical Knowledge. It’s never enough when discussing a poem to talk merely about its content, as if it could be paraphrased to a prose equivalent and considered as a newspaper article or an op ed piece. With poetry, no matter how seemingly simple, language is always important. And language includes not only imagery (metaphors and similes etc – which most teachers are comfortable with) but metre and rhythm (which are not the same thing, incidentally). Students, even in junior high school, can enjoy being able to talk about the effect that a reversal of stress at the beginning of a line may have on the whole line. ‘Something there is that doesn’t love a wall’, for instance, to quote Robert Frost at the beginning of ‘Mending Wall’.
In senior classes students may also enjoy being able to point out how the lineation of a free verse poem by William Carlos Williams really works (and even perhaps why he often seemed to ignore it in his recordings). When the poet is free to ‘turn’ a line wherever he or she wants to the decision about just where to do so becomes crucial.
On the other hand, such discussions shouldn’t be overdone. One or two technical points (preferably noted by the students) will probably be enough unless the discussion suddenly takes off – as it can sometimes do. Every now and again, it is good to analyse a poem thoroughly, looking at both its content and its form and (ideally) how they are woven inseparably together.
With poetry written in stricter forms (and in the history of poetry in the English language there is much more of that than there is of free verse, even now) it’s important that students start early on the business of metre and rhythm. They certainly need to know exactly what an iambic pentameter is but it’s best if they can recognise readily the four main metres, not only iambic and trochaic but also the two triple metres, dactyllic and anapaestic. The same goes for line lengths; not just the pentameter but the tetrameter and trimeter and so on (the way, for instance, the latter two are alternated in a ballad stanza).
Similarly, at the senior level anyway, they should be able to differentiate between the rhyme schemes of a Petrarchan sonnet and an Elizabethan one (and, more importantly, its effect). Likewise, the recognition of the abcb rhyme scheme of a ballad stanza.
They also need to be familiar with the business of rhythm in traditional verse, the variations the poet makes in a particular line on the metre, that platonic archetype ticking along underneath it. They should be able to note important rhythmic changes such as those in the last two lines of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill’: ‘Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains like the sea.’ Even the absence of such variations can be significant. ‘The grave’s a fine and private place / But none, I think, do there embrace’, to quote Marvell. This emphasis, of course, is not a substitute for also discussing the general thrust of the poem but it’s no less important. No less important, too, is the whole business of sound effects: assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia (even the sound of long and short vowels) and the effects generated thereby.
- Context. Students, like the rest of us, have a natural curiosity about who wrote the poem and what, if anything, we know about her or him personally. Historicists would have us look at the context as much (or more than) the poem itself. New Critics would enjoin us to look at the poem and nothing else. There’s surely a happy medium here. Certainly some context is useful.
The poet’s birth and death dates for a start. Who else was writing at the time? The shared attitudes of the group of which he/she may have been a part, e.g. the Romantics versus the Augustans. Or New Yorkers v. the Beats, if we want to update a little. At some stage serious students need to build up some sense of the long poetic tradition in English (and why not in a few other languages, via translation, while they’re at it?). This is best done via units which explicitly examine the tradition (or parts of it) but it can also be at least hinted at in units where poetry may be just an incidental part of some wider concern. There is no single area or period which is sacred here – though, obviously, not all can be covered or even alluded to.
For too long the study of poetry in Years 11 and 12 has been reduced to a consideration of a dozen or so poems by each of four or five, often very different, poets. Typically, the poets chosen are indisputably major figures in the canon – with one or two contemporary poets thrown in – often for their ‘relevance’. Fifty or sixty poems, however closely scrutinised, can never be enough for a serious student at this stage. The habit of treating a poem as an example of some wider sociological concern is also too frequently seen these days.
Though the latter approach will inevitably be superficial, the close scrutiny involved in the former may also be counterproductive – especially if teachers want students to develop the lifelong habit of reading poetry for enjoyment. A few poems in depth, yes, but not too many or the victim lies dead on the slab.
So there are my four criteria, namely, the oral aspect, the importance of choice, the provision of context and an emphasis on technique. Any poetry syllabus that does not involve these four is doomed to repeat the mistakes of the distant and/or recent past.
by Geoff Page
I have always been slow to take up the latest communication device and have usually deferred doing so till it becomes inexcusable not to. Hence my advance from the typewriter to word processor somewhere in the late eighties and my acquisition of an old Nokia about ten years ago. I plan to hold off on Facebook and Twitter for a while yet, even though I know it may lose me “Friends” in the interim.
Now, confronted with the demand for a “blog”, I am told it should be a short, chatty, reasonably intimate piece of writing with a feeling of ephemerality. I am informed too that first names are de rigueur. Such a context seems ideal for talking about the latest book by Clive James, his Poetry Notebook 2006-2014 (Picador 2014) — which I actually purchased for $32.99 rather than await a review copy. It’s been a busy few weeks for me, with quite a bit of travel and a good deal of attention to organising of poetry readings and jazz concerts. (That’s the personal bit out of the way).
I’ve thus been forced to read the book piece-meal in coffee bars, in speeding vehicles and in snatches before sleep. That’s not the professional way to prepare a review but perhaps it is for a “blog”. It’s been great to have the company of (the no-longer-travelling) Clive — even if I didn’t get many words in. Like his good friend, the late Peter Porter, Clive is a compelling monologist. The Ancient Mariner’s Wedding Guest escaped relatively easily.
As with Coleridge’s poem, Clive’s Poetry Notebook 2006-2014 also has a number of important things to impart, all of them somehow intensified by the author’s slowly losing battle with leukaemia.
The book’s first part comprises fourteen pieces on poetry, mainly written for Poetry (Chicago); the second is made up of reviews deserving preservation, together with an obituary and a short “diary” or “blog” for the Spectator. The essays in the first part are cleverly linked by recently-written “interludes” which provide an after-the-event continuity.
It’s a measure of Clive’s courage and critical acuity that the difference between his pre- and post-illness writing is not at all obvious. A consistent voice emerges throughout, intended or not. Though Clive is commendably concerned only with the poetry under consideration, a strong sense of an enthusiastic but judicious personality also emerges.
As Clive makes clear, he has been preoccupied with poetry since high school in Kogarah and, despite distractions into areas more productive of fame in London and elsewhere, he has never lost his passion for the form. As we know from successive collections, Clive’s own poetry has been marked by technical expertise and lightness of touch with just a few poems (more numerous lately) going as deep as the best work of those earlier canonical poets he so much admires (and so well understands).
Clive is no hagiographer, however. He has firm (and sometimes unpredictable) opinions about some highly rated poets e.g. Milton whose “Paradise Lost” is spoiled, he thinks, by an excess of deadening classical allusion. Likewise, the later poetry of Wallace Stevens which he finds too abstract and self-imitative.
Though it’s clear Clive much prefers formal poetry to what he calls “informal” poetry (i.e. free verse), he is careful not to cut himself off from the pleasures of the latter just to be dogmatic. He laments, however, that the current Australian poetry scene is dominated so much by the “informal” and implies a contrast with the situation in the US and the UK. Though much of his discussion concerns the poetry on either side of the Atlantic (there’s a great essay on Robert Frost, for instance) Clive, the expatriate, is by no means ill-informed about, or uninterested in, Australian poetry. There is an extended essay on James McAuley’s classic poem, “Because”, and enthusiastic reviews of major books by Stephen Edgar and Les Murray. His strongly-felt obituary for Peter Porter (1920-2010) could also be included in this category.
Ultimately, however, Poetry Notebook is a work of opinion. It’s not unlike two poets over a few beers discussing just which poets and which poems they approve and disapprove of going all the way back to Chaucer (if not Homer). Clive’s opinions are never arbitrary and are, at least briefly, supported by argument and quotation. There are some judgements, however, that (for all his erudition) are easy to disagree with.
He says, for instance, that “Judith Wright was a big Australian name but I could find only two or three self-sustaining poems in all her body of work”. He praises Wright’s efforts to “save the Barrier Reef from the mining companies” but compares her unfavourably to Gwen Harwood — “a better guardian of real meaning”. I seem to remember Peter Porter (unlike Les Murray) had a similarly negative view of Wright. It could well be, of course, that Judith had a comparable view of Clive’s poetry, if she attended to it at all. It may also be that Wright’s work is better savoured in Brisbane or Sydney (or Bunyah) than in the far-off drizzle of London.
Speaking of Peter Porter, however, must remind us of Clive’s excellent obituary on him. Here, the poet tellingly analyses his old friend’s foibles — and remembers fondly the series of conversations about the many dimensions of literature they were commissioned to record in London for the ABC. It’s been broadcast at least twice on Radio National and is available (with some difficulty) on Clive’s website (http://www.clivejames.com/audio) where it remains a marvel of two people in love with a subject they know deeply (and can quote from endlessly).
The greatest compliment a reader could pay Poetry Notebook 2006-1014 is to say that it possesses a good deal of the same colloquial energy and effortless knowledge that those memorable conversations have. The whole book is, as Hemingway looked for in regard to bullfighting, an impressive display of “grace under pressure”.
Top photo from Civilian Global: http://civilianglobal.com/arts/clive-james-on-tv-fame-australia-translating-dante-and-living-life-in-cambridge/
Book cover from Pan Macmillan: http://www.panmacmillan.com/book/clivejames/poetrynotebook
Final photo from by Eamonn McCabe published in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/23/writers-rooms-clive-james
A country where ‘it’s ok to be a bigot’.
A country of refugees, refusing asylum.
A country violating human rights, ignoring the pleas of the United Nations.
A country ‘open for business’, with its trees, its coal, its uranium on the counter, its Reef and World Heritage areas on the line.
How are your dreams of Australia going?
Essays on the state of higher education, on ethnic minority, on the politics of fear; brilliant new work from major and emerging Australian writers; a troublesome feast of poetry, fiction, ideas and revelations, not all of them guaranteed to produce a good night’s sleep.