I was at the Queensland Poetry Festival last weekend at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in ‘the Valley’. I had been thinking for a while about how place and poetry work together. I mean, more than usual, as place is important to my poetry. I am to teach into a course about writing and place next year, so there is a work-related imperative. I had also done a conference presentation on ‘Ken Bolton’s Adelaide’ earlier this year. Ken wrote in an email to me that his naming of certain places in poems was a way of creating work ‘as somehow having “a material base”’.
So, I was sitting in the Theatre Space (don’t they come up with funny l’il names for venues) at the Centre on Brunswick Street listening to a group of Queensland poets, co-ordinated by Michelle Dickinoski and Carmen Leigh Keates, reading poems about Brisbane. As well as their own work there were poems from many poet residents and former residents of Brissie, including Sam Wagan Watson, Jean Kent, Gwen Harwood, Kevin Hart, David Malouf and, of course, Judith herself. The backdrop consisted of photos of Brisbane past and present. This had moments of vertiginousness, brought on by that ‘Ken Burns’ style of transition for slides that I always switch off in iPhoto (I have vertigo, so it can be an issue for me), but the pics were well-chosen, given I’m not a Brisbanian but know it enough to get the point.
OK, so there’s an aboutness, obviously enough, in writing place. The poems name names (streets, bridges, suburbs). And they reference weather, flowers, birds, smells and tastes. Many fine words and lines. I was taken again by Gwen Harwood’s ‘In Brisbane’: ‘these trees that cannot hold their blossom’. The language of description, narration, of representation, does its thing as sight does its thing with visuals. This goes with that or segues off from that.
Earlier, then later in the day, I also heard Canadian poet, A. rawlings (Angela Rawlings) talk about and then perform place in another way. Place through process. She is the 2012 Arts Queensland Poet in Residence and has been in Queensland since July. She spoke on Saturday morning about her idea of collaborating with the environment, with natural sources and played recordings she’d made of water in various places, Iceland, Australia. Of one of her previous sound pieces in collaboration with Marta Guðrún Jóhannesdóttir that uses naming as well as walking, speaking and painting as part of the process of creating a work, she says: ‘by “naming” the environment, we populate the environment with what we know. If we attempt to name all of the components in the landscape that we can immediately sense, we create a dizzying or hypnotising mass of words.’ She works using procedures such as erasures, lipograms and the like to produce works.
At a couple of stages over the weekend she and I exchanged ideas about how to write place, to write in place, to wonder what place is. And how to be in a place with the non-human, the wind that sounds and makes marks, as do tides, earth slippage and other non-human forms and processes, as do animals – the footprints of birds, or weathering of rocks or concrete wherein you may read or see something as a text, a representation (but of what, exactly) as well as simple or complex shape. Happens in cities as well as wildernesses.
Her live, digital, sound, and text work, Gibber, was one highlight of the program for me, with Angela bringing together many elements: an everchanging digital poem built around the word ‘land’ as it appears in Queensland place names, Maja Jantar (wearing an amazing pair of headphones) skyping vocalics from Belgium, four live performers including Angela either reading text or making various sounds (bird-like noise, water gargles) plus tweets from poets all over the world building a collaborative projected piece of tweetery gibbery poetry. As they say, ‘you hadda be there’, so I can’t replicate the energy of this, the sense of overlapping lines of performance that is both anarchic and orchestrated (a bit like some forms of jazz, indeed, life), But, despite the many opportunities for technical failure in such a venture, it worked, nothing appeared to fall over, no plugs got pulled or signals dropped out (that was obvious to me, at least). It was full of so many good ideas, seriousness and play, and good sounds (we talked a bit about acoustic ecology).
But my point is, how to write place that may not necessarily be representational or solely representational, that is the process as well as the naming, given there’s a place (ha, ha) for it all. On Sunday morning of the Festival Nick Powell launched his book, Water Mirrors. I was struck with how assuredly his work used sound, particularly in an assonantal sense, alliterative as well, line by line, as well as bringing the abstract into landscape, that sound provides various folds in poems. Ideas of recovery, or uncovery, and resonances that rely on language, on poetry as a form of music, or sounding art, as well as a meaning machine. Sound, of course, is a core of poetry, but this was a moment that illuminated it for me strongly, particularly with the reading, the saying of it.
In his launch speech Nathan Shepherdson said ‘poetry is a science made of fragments’. I am unsure if they were his own words or if he was quoting someone, quoting a poem even. Nevertheless, in this context, I thought about a science of sound, an ecology of the overlapping fragments of sounds of languages in the world, human and non-human. The matter and matters of the world. I wondered about the sound of the ravens gathering in trees outside the Southbank arts complex on the Brisbane river, or flooding in Adelaide’s creek system, the traffic on Portrush Road. The sound of various electric technologies in a theatre space. Water in a drain, a mouth, a channel, on a beach. Someone reminded me over the weekend of what was written on Keats’ grave; ‘Here lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water’.