Skip to content
January 22, 2015 / Southerly

Discovery through Story

by Sulari Gentill

Part 2: Characters

When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.
- Ernest Hemmingway

In the space of time it takes to read a book, the reader comes to know a character, to discover his or her strengths and flaws, fears and dreams, to make a friend or find a foe. For every hour that the gentle reader spends this way, the author must spend many days discovering the person they have created. The process by which each author does this varies from those who first map the terrain, plan the route and mark all forks in the road, to those who set out with seemingly no preparation but a curiosity as to what they might find.

I am of the latter.

For me, writing is a kind of glorious madness, a descent into the world in my head where I am the figment, the ghost, the imaginary observer. It is a seductive world which I leave only reluctantly to engage with the real world to which I was born.

The relationships between writers and their protagonists are intriguing, not for the least part, because they can be so varied in intensity and quality. There are writers who insist their protagonists are merely literary constructs, and others who set a place at the table for the hero/heroine of their latest novel.

I have known my imaginary gentleman sleuth, Rowland Sinclair, for six books now, two years of his life, four years of mine. In that time he has stood in the periphery of my vision, regarding me with a kind of amused resignation, watching me as I watch him. We have an understanding, he and I.

With each book I have come to know Rowland Sinclair more intimately, made discoveries about his past and his nature. I have created circumstances and watched his reaction and out of this I have cobbled a story. He is now, all but real to not just me, but also my family. My husband and I will often talk about Rowland as if he were an old friend with a tendency of finding trouble. You know the kind. We will argue about the rights and wrongs of Rowland’s actions, as if those actions were fact. Every now and then, I hear our conversations as a third party might, and find myself both alarmed and vaguely embarrassed by the extent to which this figment of my imagination has insinuated himself into our lives. But I reassure myself that I am a writer, and as such, a certain level of delusion is not only acceptable, but possibly necessary.

It is not uncommon for a writer to gain new insight into their own work through reviewers or readers, who point out nuances and themes which we ourselves haven’t noticed. Of course, we’re usually quite happy to claim them after the fact. Because I write without plotting, I am regularly surprised at the serendipity with which the details of my narratives fall into place. Idiosyncrasies introduced on whim to add colour to a character in chapter one, by chapter thirty prove pivotal to the motivation or essence of that character, as if I had laid the thread on purpose.

Both the above, I think, owe more to the storyteller’s subconscious than they do to chance or luck.

There are many things we do as writers for reasons about which we not consciously aware, but which have a purpose and a design nonetheless. Somewhere in our subconscious is stored everything we know and have read, every revelation of research, every image, every sound and every feeling. It’s not surprising then that this is cradle of our creativity, where stories are born. The writer’s trick is tapping into that and then trusting it.

This is all the more true for the creation and development of protagonists. A fit-to-purpose character, designed to serve the plot or the zeitgeist of the time, or moulded to appeal to some demographic or other, often comes across as two dimensional or somehow fails to seize a reader’s heart and loyalty. Sometimes, in order to give a protagonist authenticity it’s necessary to allow him some privacy.

I’m currently writing my seventh novel around Rowland Sinclair. With each successive book of the series, readers have discovered a little more about him, as have I. In order for that to be possible I have to be content to not know everything about him, to discover him bit by bit as circumstances arise, the way one would come to know a person in life. It means that on occasion I allow in subplots that seem to have nothing to do with the current narrative and trust that they will in time reveal something about the man at the centre of my books. I also resist the writer’s compulsion to explain everything, to be consistent at all costs. Human beings sometimes behave in ways that are inexplicable, unexpected and irrational.   The writer’s craft involves introducing this element of humanity sparingly, at the right point and in a manner that does not break the illusion of the narrative, but enhances it.

My personal process involves populating my books with people who interest me. Much of the excitement which surrounds a character comes from the element of surprise, from not knowing exactly how he will react, what he will do. This is true for the writer as well as the reader. The sense of pace and tension in my writing is not something I consciously create, but comes from the fact that I am invested in and engaged with the characters at play. I care about them and want to know how things will come out for them; if and how they will escape the particular situation in which I’ve put them. It’s not that I couldn’t create that same sense if I knew exactly what they would do, but it certainly wouldn’t be something that would happen as spontaneously and naturally as it seems to now.

Post2 Jpeg2
That is not to say that Rowland Sinclair is without form—a vague literary construct in a three piece suit. He has emerged from my knowledge of the era into which he was born, my observations of human beings encountered long before I ever thought of writing, my aspirations for the kind of men I want my sons to grow to be, my personal haphazard, anecdotal and unscientific knowledge of humanity. We share a love of painting and sketching, and though Rowland’s skill with a brush far surpasses mine, I understand how he sees the world—as compositions and portraits. I know what’s fundamental to Rowland, what he values, what he fears. But I don’t always know why he values those things. The discovery of why often serves a double purpose in moving forward a plot and revealing character in a manner that is both intriguing and natural.

So, strangely, my method for developing characters runs counter to the popular wisdom which encourages writers to know their imaginary people thoroughly, which advocates detailed backstories and character profiles. I prefer to discover my protagonist through the story itself, to allow him the freedom of unexpected conduct, the ability to change and mature. The result, I hope, is a character that is closer to the reality of the human condition and who can therefore engage readers in a manner that a literary construct, however well designed, cannot.

January 16, 2015 / Southerly

Discovery through Story

by Sulari Gentill,

Part 1: The illumination of fact

Humanity is a storytelling species. Storytelling is the way in which we order, understand, remember and explore both the world and ourselves. We communicate with the exchange of stories, some functionary and mundane, others obscure reflections of reality, and still others, epics, which speak to the nature of being. Tales told in reminiscence, in aspiration, with pride or malice. Stories nonetheless.

Both the most frivolous and thoughtful expression of the human condition, stories are the diet on which we nurture the thinking of our children, and the way in which we will be eulogised on passing. They are an expression not only of what we know and think, but of what we want to know, what we wish to discover.

The novel, in this context, may be considered as an implement of examination: a microscope under which we scrutinise, learn and experiment, the ship in which we sail to discover unknown lands. Through the novel we seek.

A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it.
–Edward P. Morgan

I suspect the explorative aspect of the novel holds regardless of genre, but I will speak with particular reference to the genres in which I can claim at least a little authorial experience. To date, my body of published work has been historical or crime fiction, or both. In this first post I intend to consider the novel as an illuminator of the record, a lens through which fact may, most effectively, be represented and viewed. The second and third posts will look respectively at character and plot as discoverable. And finally, I will consider the impact of the novel on the author’s discovery and definition of self.

So, here goes.

I began writing the first book of the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries in 2008. A Few Right Thinking Men introduced gentleman artist, Rowland Sinclair, and was set around the actual events of 1932 in NSW. Until I embarked on the series, I had neither knowledge of nor interest in the era. My decision to set a story in the 1930s was in many respects purely practical. I had come only recently to writing and consumed by the discovery of the worlds within my own head, I was want to disappear there for long periods. The practice, whilst perfectly pleasant for me, was hard on my husband, who was faced with a partner who was increasingly not present. The problem for writers is often not writing itself, but stopping, participating in the real world when the imagined beckons. My solution to this dilemma was not to come out of my head but to attempt to bring my partner into it. Michael is an historian with a particular interest in the extreme right wing social and political movements of NSW in the interwar period. And so I set a story in his era, ensuring the person with whom I spent the most time in the real world was invested in my imagined one. This choice of setting also guaranteed that I had an invaluable source of information and a guide to the era close at hand, as well as that most prized writer’s asset—a captive editor.

In the first instance, Michael directed me to the plural scholarly works of Andrew Moore[i], Keith Amos[ii], Drew Cottle[iii] and Michael Cathcart[iv] as well as Eric Campbell’s own, somewhat biased account of the rise of the New Guard[v]. In addition to security files, diaries and memoirs, I read notes on interviews my husband conducted in the early 90s with people who’d been at the rallies, who’d endured the Great Depression, and joined one or another of the many proto-Fascist movements that called NSW home. I came to know the 30s, not just the facts and events, but something perhaps more important for the novelist. I came to understand the passions at play, the sense of disenfranchisement and desperation, the changing loyalties, the political awakening of a young Federation. And I had questions. I found holes, small gaps in the historical record.

It’s possibly here that the paths of historian and historical novelist diverge.   For the historian, spaces in the record are a failure which must be remedied with objective facts and evidentially supported theories.   For the novelist, these breaks in what is known absolutely are a holy grail. They are openings more than gaps, in and out of which the novelist weaves her story. With no recorded fact to contradict her, the storyteller is free then to “make stuff up”.

If the writer has applied her craft successfully the factual and fictional aspects of the novel should be seamless and indistinguishable to all but experts in the field. There is an argument that this, in and of itself, is counterproductive to the understanding of history (or science, law, procedure etc.), that readers are duped by fiction writers into believing a plausible fallacy at the expense of fact.

However, it is my experience that readers are quite alarmingly informed and sceptical. Increasingly they have the ability to easily check the veracity of what they read. Storytellers are in some respects, conjurors. We deal in illusion. The moment we are contradicted by objective fact or implausibility, the spell is broken and we lose the trust of the reader. The art of the novelist is convincing the reader that it might have happened as you wrote it. Improbable scenarios, obvious inconsistencies or departures from recorded history will not help your cause.

In terms of the understanding of history, the novelist can bring knowledge to an audience reluctant to plough through textbooks or academic papers devoted to the period. Stories can translate historical insight into a gentler more accessible form. In some ways they educate by stealth. Those who read my novels, for example, don’t do so in order to learn about the political and social upheaval which occurred in the 1930s, but, in the process of following Rowland Sinclair’s investigations and misadventures, they will most likely absorb that knowledge anyway. Indeed, I’m convinced that those things we pick up collaterally when our focus is directed elsewhere—towards the solving of a murder or an escape from danger or the like—are more easily retained and understood. In this way the novel offers an access that eludes more academic histories.

Moreover fiction is particularly well poised to mitigate the sensibilities, understandings and prejudices of the contemporary reader in a way that a faithful adherence to historical fact cannot. Ironically, fiction is sometimes able to convey a more accurate impression. The best way I can explain this is through the example of dialogue. The Australian accent in the early thirties was not what we currently know it to be. Most middle and upper middle class Australians spoke with what we would now consider an English accent and the establishment spoke with a carefully cultivated inflection that we would today ascribe only to elderly members of the royal family. In writing the dialogue of Rowland Sinclair, I was then faced with a dilemma. If I were faithful to the manner in which a man of his background would most likely have spoken, he would have seemed to the modern reader, archaic or even camp. And yet the man I was writing was for his time exceedingly progressive and masculine. As a fiction writer I was able to make the decision that it was more important to create an accurate impression of Rowland Sinclair as a man than to reproduce exactly the diction of an educated and wealthy gentleman of the 1930s. I was able to modify the register of his dialogue so the modern reader would conjure the impression of a refined but modern man and thus a contextual accuracy and voice would be maintained.

Interestingly, in terms of plausibility, actual events can be more of a challenge than fiction. Often the more far-fetched aspects of my own novels are not the parts I made up. Consider for example the existence in Sydney of a violent vigilante organisation called the Fascist Legion, made up of respectable members of suburbia, who dressed in black Ku Klux Klanesque hoods and gowns and identified themselves with playing cards. The strength of fiction is its ability to allow the reader to view extreme events and organisations through the eyes of a character with whom they can identify but who subscribes to the knowledge, the prejudices and the mores of the era. Of course some things, like the Fascist Legion, were bizarre even in 1932.

source: Australian Archives

Finally fiction has the ability to integrate different aspects of the record into a single coherent story arc in a manner that contextualises facts which may otherwise be studied in isolation. Through this we can pick metathemes and patterns, and understand how each aspect (class, wealth, politics, status, location, family, education, media depiction, morality, luck, integrity etc.) influenced the other. Plot and character are the tools of fiction and they are particularly powerful when drawing together and unravelling the threads of actual events, figures and motivations.

Of course, the well-researched novel is not an alternative to the factual record. The former relies on the latter for its existence. Fiction can, however, offer a singular insight through the reader’s investment in the life of a protagonist, bringing to the discovery an emotional engagement that may be difficult to achieve with simply the factual record. Through the protagonist, the novel allows us to speculate on what we might have done, where we might have failed or triumphed. Readers can empathise with or revile imagined characters, compare themselves and understand history through the passions, shortcomings and heroism of the human condition. We can discover fact through the palatable and familiar vehicle of story.


[i] Moore, A., “The Old Guard and ‘Countrymindedness’ during the Great Depression”, Journal of Australian Studies, No. 27, November 1990

Moore, A., “Who Bashed Jock Garden? A Body Blow to the New Guard”, Bowyang, Vol 4, No. 1

Moore, A., The Secret Army and the Premier: Conservative Paramilitary Organisations in New South Wales 1930-1932, New South Wales University Press, Sydney, 1989

[ii] Amos, K.W., The New Guard Movement 1931-1935, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1976

[iii] Cottle, D., “The Rich in the Depression”, Bowyang, Vol.1, No.1

Cottle, D., “The Sydney Rich in the Great Depression”, Bowyang, Vol. 2, No. 1

[iv] Cathcart, M., Defending the National Tuckshop: Australia’s secret army intrigue of 1931, McPhee Gribble/Penguin, Melbourne, 1986.

[v] Campbell, E., The Rallying Point: My Story of the New Guard, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1985

January 10, 2015 / Southerly

January Monthly Blogger – Sulari Gentill!

Our thanks to Hazel Smith for her wonderful posts.
Our guest writer for January is Sulari Gentill.


Not so long ago, Sulari Gentill was a corporate lawyer serving as a director on public boards, with only a vague disquiet that there was something else she was meant to do. That feeling did not go away until she began to write. And so Sulari became the author of the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries: thus far, six historical crime novels chronicling the life and adventures of her 1930s Australian gentleman artist, and the Hero Trilogy, based on the myths and epics of the ancient world. She also collaborated with National Gallery of Victoria to write a short story which was produced in audio to feature in the Fashion Detective Exhibition 2014, and published by the NGV.

Sulari lives with her husband, Michael, and their boys, Edmund and Atticus, on a small farm in Batlow where she grows French Black Truffles and refers to her writing as “work” so that no one will suggest she get a real job.

Sulari’s first novel was shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize – Best First Book. She won the 2012 Davitt Award for Crime Fiction, was shortlisted in 2013 Davitt Award, the NSW Genre Fiction Award, 2012 Boroondara Literary Award, and the 2013 Scarlett Stiletto Award. She was offered a Varuna Fellowship in 2010.

In the final stages of a standalone manuscript, Sulari intends to begin the seventh book of the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries very shortly and thereafter a new series for young adults.

December 31, 2014 / Southerly

Voice, Performance, Technology: cross-media, cross-dressing, cross-species

by Hazel Smith

In the last blog I talked about the importance of voice for poetry: here I want to explore the impact of digital manipulation on voice and its incorporation into various kinds of poetry performance.

Through new technologies voices can be merged, multiplied and denaturalized (that is, made to sound non-human). The voice can be manipulated with regard to every parameter: pitch, timbre and rhythm, and in a way that creates a continuum between sound and speech. In addition computer-synthesized voices can be used. Although playing with the distinction between acoustic sound and speech was characteristic of a great deal of sound poetry, it is much easier to manipulate all the parameters, and reach the extremities of voice, with new technologies.

Digitally manipulated voices can form voicescapes: these consist of many different voices, some of which are digitally manipulated or computer generated. Voicescapes undo what is usually regarded as the one-to-one identity between a particular voice and a particular person. For example, the voices may be overlaid to create a dense tapestry of voices (sometimes versions of the same voice) that complement or quarrel with each other. A voicescape can also revamp the relationship between voice and place. A voice may seem to belong to several places at once, or to arise out of an ambiguous, incongruous, or virtual space.

This digital manipulation of the voice can have all sorts of interesting cultural effects. For example I have been interested in the past in the idea of ‘sonic cross-dressing’, that is, the way in which a female voice can be manipulated to sound male or a male voice female. But digital manipulation can also explore the continuum between male and female, including voice positions that are half-male, half-female: it can project transgendered positions. You can hear examples of this in some of my own work such as The Space of History [i]. This is on the PennSound site, which is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in voice and readings of poetry.

Some of the most striking examples of digital manipulation of the voice come in the work of poet-composers, that is people who straddle the line between poetry and music. Techniques such as sampling, granular synthesis (a type of sampling using tiny fragments of material), filtering, morphing and spatialising provide the means for extensive exploration of the voice and its relationship to identity and to the environment. In British musician-poet-performer Trevor Wishart’s Vox 5, a classic of this genre, chest and throat sounds are superimposed onto, juxtaposed with, and morphed into, environmental sounds.[ii] At times, in what now looks like an early example of ecopoetry, sounds cross the boundaries between species, for example, the human sounds seem like animal sounds, and there is a continuum among human, animal, environmental, and climate sounds. The vocal aspect of the piece projects the effort of coming into being: it struggles to articulate itself, and at one point we hear the traces of words, the beginnings of language. Vox 5 could be interpreted as an evocation of birth and the acquisition of language, or the birth of language itself.

Pamela Z is an African American composer-performer-multimedia artist-writer who engages with electronic processing of the voice and sampled sounds: her oeuvre is a mixture of singing, speaking, and multimedia elements, and every performance includes improvised elements. She moves between an operatic bel canto kind of singing and vocal techniques that extend normal singing. Amongst her technological battery, Z uses MAX/MSP, a computer platform for making, assembling and transforming sounds. She also utilises BodySynth technology that transforms the muscle motions involved in body gestures into digital data that can be used to control samplers and synthesisers.


Pamela Z performing: credit rubra (courtesy of Ars Electronica)

Z has a very eclectic attitude towards different traditions, including opera, non-western vocal traditions, computer music and poetry/sound poetry. She explores the possibilities of technology (often real-time processing of words and voice) to multiply, layer, process and sometimes denaturalise the voice. As a result she often creates voicescapes that are a dense polyphony of voices and different versions of ‘Pamela’. For example, her Bone Music[iii] consists of a solo singing line (with rhythmic accompaniment). It uses a digital delay system and also looping, so that whatever Z sings will be repeated later (and over and over again) with different iterations in every performance. She processes the voice, adding a considerable amount of reverberation to it, and also employs gesture to control the software. The singing explodes into a babble of electro-acoustically generated voices that grow to considerable intensity, forming a voicescape. The percussion is the sound of an empty five-gallon water bottle in three delay loops of varying lengths.

Z’s Gaijin which arose out of her residency in Japan in 1999, is a multimedia work that involves both live performance and electronic processing, and combines spoken text, music, and butoh performance.[iv] Gaijin, explores the experience of being foreign in Japan: that foreignness is made more acute by the fact that Z is African American.

The excerpts from Gaijin include multiple layers of sonic, verbal, and visual material with the voice manifesting itself in different ways: in readings from a book about how to fit into Japanese culture; in a polyphonic rendering of the word ‘other’; in a performance of immigration requirements by Z, who puts herself in the visa document as its official voice and yet is clearly an addressee of it; in Z singing in Japanese enka style; and in visual and sonic renditions of the Japanese alphabet. The piece incorporates a great deal of found material that develops poetic resonances. For example, readings from the book about how to fit in range from very formal entries to one that suggest readers ‘talk about bitter experiences’. This could be interpreted to allude to repressed feelings that hover beneath the polite surface of Japanese society.

In my own performance collaborations I am also interested in in technological manipulation of the voice. Bird Migrants is a recent collaboration with musican Roger Dean for voice and electronics, commissioned by the ABC for the program Soundproof, and available for download on their website. [v] It is based on a poem ‘The Great Egret’ written for the Bimblebox 153 birds project. This is a developing project around the 153 bird species that have been recorded on the Bimblebox Nature Refuge in central western Queensland — the home of these birds, and the ecosystems that support them, is in the path of a proposed coal mine. [vi] Bird Migrants uses bird and environmental sounds, transformed voice samples (the words are often cut up or played backwards) and instruments. We have also performed a different version of the piece Bird Migrants 2, in live performance, with live as well as recorded voice. and visual transformations of text and related image.


An image from Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, Bird Migrants 2: credit, Hazel Smith

At the recent Transcultural Ecopoetics: Decolonising Australian Landscape poetry workshop at Sydney University, Stuart Cooke, in a most interesting talk, suggested that a new ecopoetics might be intermedia and also cross-species. Thinking about this made me realize that in Bird Migrants there is a kind of cross-species evocation of voice where bird sounds and human voice sounds cross-migrate. The poem was inspired by the wedding scene in Theo Angelopoulos’s film, The Suspended Step of the Stork, where a couple marry each other from the opposite banks of a river that flows through a divided country. The great egret grows out of the bride’s groom and the groom’s flag, which cross-fertilise in the river. The egret can be seen to represent the tragic history of the country, but also the longing for flight and freedom. [vii]

In another recent piece, Disappearing, a collaboration with Roger Dean and Greg White, four voices weave in and out of each other, often changing position within the sound space, sometimes partially ‘disappearing’ within each other or within sonic transformations of the voice.

For Disappearing, I performed and recorded the text, and Greg provided a series of acoustic transformations of the pre-recorded voices, removing much of the semantic material but retaining a strong impression of the voice, what Greg calls ‘the sonic footprint of the performer’. The text, together with the acoustic transformations of the voice, was rearranged, layered and mixed into a montage by Roger, who also provided extra sound. In performance of the piece, four loudspeakers are placed in the auditorium (two at the front, two at the back), so that the voices are situated at different points in space. The digital voices are also moved around the space from loudspeaker to loudspeaker. This spatial movement projects and supports the thematic aspects of the piece which explores death and disappearing (particularly political murder) round the world, including the disappeared in Chile and Argentina and the deportation of Jews in Romania.

However, I realised in writing this blog entry that Disappearing is also about voice in many of the senses I mentioned in my last blog. It is about the way poetic voice is always multiple rather than single; it contains ideas about the relationship between the voice to communication; it gives a voice to the politically and historically repressed or eliminated; and it also involves digital manipulation of the voice.

I look forward to many more experiments with voice in the future. Happy explorations of voice over the holidays!


[i] Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, The Space of History, PennSound, 2006,

[ii] Trevor Wishart, Vox 5, Vox Cycle, CD, Virgin Classics, 1990.

[iii] Pamela Z, Bone Music, first conceived, 1996, Uploaded 2007,

[iv] Pamela Z, Extracts from Gaijin, 2001, Uploaded 2007,

[v] Hazel Smith and Roger Dean, Bird Migrants, Soundproof, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2014.

[vi] Bimblebox Art Project,

[vii] Hazel Smith, Greg White Roger Dean, Disappearing, Electronic Overland, 2013

December 25, 2014 / Southerly

Voice in poetry: on the page and in performance

by Hazel Smith

My third and fourth blogs will be on voice in poetry. This third blog is concerned with voice on and off the page, the fourth and final blog is about the digital manipulation of voice in conjunction with other literary and performance modes.

An engagement with the concept of voice straddles many disciplines: media and communication, music, literature, drama.[i] But the concept of voice in poetry has long been slippery and multi-layered.[ii] It is often used to talk rather vaguely about the distinctive presence of the poet in the text. This idea of voice as the authentic voice of the poet has been repeatedly questioned in the postmodern era by poets and critics who see poetic voice as mediated, multiple and ambiguous, rather than directly expressive of a particular individual. I agree with this critique, but I am also conscious that poets often have an overarching and recognisable way of inhabiting their texts, which exists both in combination with, and beyond, the voices they adopt. I like to think of this mode of habitation as ‘meta-voice’.

The word ‘voice’ is sometimes used to describe the spoken quality of some page-based poems, in which voices are implied and will be imagined by the reader, even when they are reading the poem silently to themselves. In addition, the concept of voice has often been invoked to talk about giving oppressed groups or minorities a voice to speak their position. However, there is a growing awareness amongst poets and critics that the voice of a minority group does not necessarily have to be direct or overtly authentic, but can also be oblique and multi-faceted.

phot01Burns-brush cover-front

joanne burns, brush, Giramondo Publishing

Voice can also refer to the actual voices of poets as they read and perform their poems. It can encompass their mode of delivery and vocal control, including speed, accentuation, dynamics, timbre, and microphone technique (changing the distance and angle with respect to the microphone(s) can, for example, create striking effects). Vocal control is particularly marked in sonic poetryiii] where throat, mouth or lip sounds may be a major factor in making meaning. More recently, the concept of voice has developed quite radically, because of the possibility of manipulating the voice through digital technologies.

Postmodern poetry has often played with, and subverted, the notion of voice. In the Australian context, the work of joanne burns is notable for the way it projects different types of social behavior through voice. burns (she prefers the lowercase) is in my opinion one of our most inventive and skillful poets: I have just started reading, with great delight, her new volume brush, which has recently been released[iv].

In the volume an illustrated history of dairies — the volume of burns’s work I know best because I taught it on a course at the University of Western Sydney where I work — the voice changes from one poem to the next.[v] In ‘pluck’ (p. 17)[vi], the speaker is a robot of undefined gender (robots can ‘perform’ any gender), who traverses the boundary between the human and non-human. Despite his/her/its computational origins, the robot displays the very human traits of vulnerability, desire, impatience and scheming, and enjoys a little retail therapy, tourism and self-improvement. The robot lives in a regressive society marked by divisions into masters and robotic slaves:

my new masters are due to move in at 18.10 but i’d
like to take a small vacation
to the easter isle, the brochure is still on the table in
the vestibule, i’m going
to do some cryptocomputs in my nanobrain; i am so
fed up with all my programs,
i think i wish to hatch a plan—

burns, ‘pluck’, An illustrated history of dairies p. 17.

‘my box office’ (p. 59)[vii] is another monologue that, like many of Joanne’s poems, combines satirical and surreal modes of writing. The (again gender-ambiguous, though likely to be male) voice is that of an obsessive office manager whose ‘business’ revolves round the organization of boxes ‘ i fold them up and i fold them down, i put them one inside the other like temporary secrets or coffins’ (p. 59). Yet the manager seems more interested in the form rather than the content. He is obsessed with the way the boxes are arranged and balanced rather than what is in them (if anything is in them, which remains questionable). Despite his attempts to convey his engagement with the tasks he carries out, we sense the loneliness and emptiness of his pursuits, as he substitutes the rituals of business for human interaction, ‘i am not unkind. i love the smell of boxes in the morning. i stroke them for their loyalty. they have served me well for decades. soon we will retire together’. Within the manager’s own voice we also hear the resonances of other voices — the bureaucratic forces that shape and restrict his life — through his tendency to see the boxes in terms of ‘status’, ‘fringe benefits’ and the position of ‘ceo’.

joanne burns

joanne burns: credit, Loma Bridge

This tendency towards a versatile ventriloquism, where a certain character type is projected through voice, was also very marked in earlier volumes by burns, such as on a clear day.[viii] She has often used a short monologue form to project character types who reveal more than they realize, seem oblivious to the limitations of their lifestyles or world-view, and adopt the jargon of the particular world in which they are trapped. Yet even as we navigate our way through the different voices, we are also aware of the meta-voice of the poet: cool, humorous, slightly campy, sympathetic, often self-debunking. In addition, Joanne is also an excellent performer of her work: her reading heightens the voices already intrinsic on the page.

American poet, Charles Bernstein —whose work works well in dialogue with that of burns — is also a past master of adopting different voices, again often with underlying satirical intent. His poem ‘Thank You For Saying Thank You’[ix] mocks the very idea of voice as authentic:

This poem
has no intellectual pretensions. It is
purely emotional.
It fully expresses
the feelings of the
author: my feelings,
the person speaking
to you now.

(Bernstein, ‘Thank You for Saying Thank You’, Girly Man, p.7)

Bernstein often adopts official voices, or takes over the voice of an inanimate object that is, nevertheless, designed by a human being. This often leads to a questioning of the role of the first person and its relationship to the personal. In the poem ‘Warrant’, the first person is not autobiographical or even personal, but in fact the legalistic voice of the contract to which the poem is subjected. That voice then becomes the poem’s subject matter:

I warrant that this
poem is entirely my
own work and that
the underlying ideas
concepts, and make-up
of the poems have not
been taken from any
other source or any
other poem but rather
originate with this poem

(Bernstein, ‘Warrant’, Girly Man, p.57)

In ‘Questionnaire’, (p. 67),[x] the voice is that of a multi-choice questionnaire. Here Bernstein uses the supposedly neutral voice of the questionnaire to query the possibility of such neutrality, ‘For each pair of sentences, circle the letter, a or b, that best expresses your viewpoint. Make a selection from each pair. Do not omit any items’ (p. 67), and also to humorously poke fun at the commodification of identity and personal philosophy. Important and complex opinions about the nature and significance of life and art are reduced to easily ticked off choices, dictated by the voice of the questionnaire. In other poems Bernstein slides from voice to voice, within the poem itself. But again there is a meta-voice at work: a style that, though very variable, is characteristically Bernstein.

Voice has also been a preoccupation in my own poetry. In ‘The Poetics of Uncertainty’[xi] I use my own name, direct address, and the monologue form to problematize the relationship of the poet’s voice to her identity and to poetry:

Hello. My name is Hazel Smith. I am not a talk-show host, poetry’s answer to Oprah Winfrey. I don’t like public speaking and I can’t crack jokes. I am probably not even your idea of a poet, since I can’t hang onto metaphor or hold a monolithic voice.

(Smith, p.31)

As the poem progresses the poet (ostensibly me, Hazel Smith) adopts a number of different voices, but my/her identity becomes more and more problematic, culminating in an interrogation of the audience, and a blurring of poet/reader/listener boundaries:

If I am not, who is Hazel Smith, since she is definitely down to speak on this occasion. Are you Hazel? Or you? Or you? Or you? Come on my dear audience, own up. Despite all our claims neither of us is what we deny or seem. No I am not Hazel Smith, I am not Hazel Smith,

But I can spot all the Hazel Smiths amongst you.

(Smith, p. 33)

Though it can be read on the page, ‘The Poetics of Uncertainty’ is fundamentally a performance piece, and a rendering of it is on the CD-Rom that accompanies my volume The Erotics of Geography.[xii] In performance poetry the role of voice is more concrete and physical than on the page, though it also can take many different forms. Performance poetry embraces a huge range of styles and approaches, ranging from popular and slam poetry through to sonic poetry and experimental cross-genre forms that draw on theatre, music and the visual arts.

We have a strong and varied history of performance poetry in Australia in the work of such very different poets as komninos, Myron Lysenko, Jas H. Duke, PiO, Amanda Stewart, Chris Mann, Richard Allen, Romaine Moreton and many, many others. However, a non-Australian performance/sonic poet who has particularly interested me recently, because her poetry is cross-genre, cross-media and cross-cultural, is African American Tracie Morris. Unusually, she has spanned the range of performance poetries from slam to avant-garde. Her sound poetry is impressive for its brilliant wordplay, its vocal virtuosity, musicality and improvisatory skill, and its connections with both avant-garde poetry and the African American gospel, jazz and soul traditions. It is highly political but in a playful way.


Tracie Morris: credit, Charles Bernstein

It is fascinating to hear the three different versions of Morris’s sound poem ‘My Great Grand Aunt Meets a Bush Supporter’ (the title varies slightly with different versions) on the PennSound site.[xiii] Each version involves considerable wordplay, often repeating a phrase in such a way that it slightly changes and generates new words (‘save you’, for example, can become ‘save ya’ ‘savior’ or ‘say you’). Morris also employs throughout a range of highly expressive voice techniques, common in African American singing and some contemporary classical singing.

Each version is different, however, showing how Morris has varied and developed her performance. In the first rendering (the WPSI reading performance), there is considerable sound play on the phrase ‘save you’ repeated over and over again with different emphases. The sounds of the words slide between different realisations (sometimes the phrase sounds like ‘say you’ ‘age you’ or ‘ate you’; sometimes the sounds create ‘in-between’ words or phrases). There are also some throat sounds, including a long growl at end. In the second version (MLA Offsite Reading series 2006) there is still word play, but also more emphasis on the voice itself, with larger pitch fluctuations, growling, sustained notes, vibrato effects and high notes. This version creates a more anarchic effect, and seems more ‘activist’ in stance. The third version (University of Pennsylvania, October 28, 2008) has some elements in common with both the first and second one, though different words come through (‘thank you’, ‘save your soul’). However, this version is notable for its heavy vibrato, and gives the most historical impression in its strong emphasis on gospel and blues singing.

Tracie Morris: credit, Charles Bernstein

Tracie Morris: credit, Charles Bernstein

In such work the emphasis on the contours of the voice is related to the demise, or partial demise, of the idea of the fixed text, since the voice guides the text in different directions on different occasions. This kind of improvising is rare in poetry, as poets often tend to rely on a written script and do not deviate from it: the unusual confluence of cultural and aesthetics influences in her work seem to make Morris much more comfortable and skillful in this sphere.

The extremities of the voice can be pursued even further with the emergence of new audio technologies. In the next blog I will look more closely at digital manipulation of the voice and its cultural effects, in conjunction with a variety of literary and performance modes.

[i] See for example Ross Gibson, Norie Neumark, and Theo Van Leeuwen. Voice: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media Massachusetts: MIT, 2010.

[ii] Lesley Wheeler. Voicing American Poetry: Sound and Performance from the 1920s to the Present. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2008.

[iii] For me, sonic poetry is an outgrowth of sound poetry, but much more wide- ranging. It is less unilaterally committed to the reduction of semantics to sound, may include narrative or theatrical elements and may be enabled by sophisticated technologies. See Hazel Smith. ‘Sonic Writing and Sonic Cross-Dressing: Gender, Language, Voice and Technology’. Musics and Feminisms. Eds. Sally Macarthur and Cate Poynton. Sydney: Australian Music Centre, 1999. 129-34.

[iv] joanne burns. brush. Sydney: Giramondo Publishing, 2014.

[v] joanne burns. an illustrated history of dairies, Sydney: Giramondo Publishing, 2007.

[vi] joanne burns. an illustrated history of dairies

[vii] joanne burns. an illustrated history of dairies

[viii] joanne burns. on a clear day. St. Lucia Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1992.

[ix] Charles Bernstein. Girly Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

[x] Charles Bernstein. Girly Man

[xi]   Hazel Smith. The Poetics of Uncertainty. Tinfish, Also in Hazel Smith. The Erotics of Geography: Poems, Performance Texts, New Media Works. Book and CD-Rom. Kāne’ohe Hawaii: Tinfish Press, 2008.

[xii] Hazel Smith. The Erotics of Geography

[xiii] There are three different performances by Tracie Morris of the piece on the PennSound site the WPSI reading; MLA Offsite Reading series 2006 and a reading for the 3rd Annual Caroline Rothstein Oral Poetry Program at the Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania, October 28, 2008.


December 17, 2014 / Southerly

motions: collaboration, technology. multimedia

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.


Screenshot 1 from motions (a bar at the top, not visible here, shows you how far you have progressed through the piece; you move forward by means of the keyboard arrows on the computer (or by swiping on the iPad) but the screen can also be scrolled vertically to reveal more material.

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.


Screenshot 2 from motions

To return to motions: in the last blog I talked about the discussions we had as a group about the writing of motions. These included important structural decisions that had to be made about the piece, particularly decisions about how it would be realized. Will wanted to explore the interface between the book and multimedia web art; he was curious about how our concept of the book is changing, a subject that also interests me. After some discussion and experimentation, Will decided to use html 5 and javascript to create an interactive environment that varies with each viewing. Some texts and images are programmed to occur each time the piece is viewed, and in a particular order. But overall the juxtaposition, order and formatting of text, image and sound are different on each viewing. So successive readings of the piece will bear a family resemblance, but will encounter considerable divergences.

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.


Screenshot 3 from motions

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.

Screen Shot4

Screenshot 4 from motions

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

December 9, 2014 / Southerly

motions: the creative process and research

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.


Screenshot from the front page of motions

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.

A screenshot from motions

A screenshot from motions

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.

Roger Dean (left) and Will Luers (right) with me at the Electronic Literature Organisation Conference and Media Arts Show, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA, June 2014.  Photo: Kathi Inman Berens, who also curated the show.

Roger Dean (left) and Will Luers (right) with me at the Electronic Literature Organisation Conference and Media Arts Show, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA, June 2014. Photo: Kathi Inman Berens, who also curated the show.

[i] See the edited volume Hazel Smith and Roger T. Dean, Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

[ii] Hazel Smith, Will Luers, Roger Dean, 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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,209 other followers

%d bloggers like this: