Consider the Perfect Hexagrams of Snow

On Thursday 26th September 2013 one of Australia’s most admired poets, Stephen Edgar, launched the most recent Pitt Street Poetry book: Chains of Snow, a first collection from Sydney poet Jakob Ziguras.  The launch was held at the University of Notre Dame in Broadway, where Jakob teaches philosophy.

This young poet came to us strongly recommended by several influential poets and poetry arbiters in Australia and abroad.  That in itself, while important, is not sufficient for a green light: in the end we must back our own judgment.  After reading a few pages it was clear that he could publish with any Australian or international publisher, and we hoped he would choose us.

In our eyes, Chains of Snow promises to become a classic.  We believe it will be welcomed warmly, cherished, and that Jakob Ziguras will become a major figure on the national and international poetry landscape.  In the present context of this blog, could we perhaps use it as an object lesson in what, in our eyes at least, makes a poetry manuscript demand publication?

By way of example let’s look at the first poem in the collection, ‘Orpheus Turns’.  If you don’t have the book to hand, you can read it here, and even, if you like, listen to the poet reading it out loud by clicking on the media link at the bottom of the page.

First and most important, it has something to say, something well worth saying. This poem is positioned perfectly at the beginning of the collection.  It concerns the nature of the choices which face a poet: not least the particular choice to write (or read, or even publish) a new poetry book.  And then by extension it’s about the choices which face us all, in art and in life.  So it’s personal but also universal.

It draws on the Orpheus myth of course.  A bold connection for a new poet, even one who is half Greek.  These days we most commonly encounter Orpheus down on the harbour, at the Opera Theatre, wandering the underworld in his unsuccessful quest for Euridyce, poignantly for Gluck, riotously for Offenbach.  But we shouldn’t need reminding that he was revered by the ancient Greeks as the greatest of poets, able to charm all living things with his verse and songs.  By pretending to follow in the footsteps of Orpheus this young poet demonstrates a breathtaking assurance in his opening piece, just putting it out there.

Yet the first phrases are not abstract or philosophical but personal, even romantic.  There is an immediate connection.

   While I sit writing, just a fragrant trace
   Confirms your presence.

Second, the poetry is timeless, lyrical and beautiful.  Phrase making is part of this equation, so is the memorable image, the arresting opening, the elegantly contrived denouement.  But the whole is invariably more than the sum of the parts.

   I know perfection is a chance effect
   Of uninflected being, that to reflect
   Will break the mirror that preserves your face . . .

Thirdly there is a unique and recognisable voice.  Consider the modern pantheon: Whitman, Pound, Yeats, Auden, Eliot, Bishop, Larkin, Plath, Hughes, Berryman.  Serve up any three lines and chances are you could spot the poet.  This principal applies here: the quiet shout out to Heraclitus in the penultimate line of this poem is a signature trope:

   Perhaps that other Greek was speaking sense:
   ‘The upward and the downward path are one.’

Finally and of equal importance, this poem demonstrates a deep understanding of the complex traditions, rules and folklore of English language poetry.   By modelling ‘Orpheus Turns’ on the famous ‘Double Sonnet’ of the American master Anthony Hecht, Ziguras lays claim to membership of a craft heritage of profundity and transgression within a mastery of traditional forms.  Fans of prosody will enjoy the metre and the rhyming schemes in this poem, but while these aspects will certainly appeal to the poetry cognoscenti, the average reader needs no esoteric knowledge to appreciate the work – its lively voice and freshness of touch transcend the formal constraints, as the best poetry must, and speak immediately to the reader.

We have published five poems from Chains of Snow on this website, each quite different in tone and subject matter, and each accompanied by an audio file.  We encourage you to get to know them and to share our enthusiasm for this welcome newcomer to the ranks of major Australian poets.

Welcome to Pitt Street. Watch out for the traffic.

This month we warmly welcome four new poets to the streetscape and celebrate our first Australia Council publishing grant.  Not quite sure how to describe all this spring growth: is it surprising, disturbing, turbulent or just, er, acromegalic?

Jenny Blackford won the university medal in Classics at the University of Newcastle, branching naturally enough to a career in computer networking in Melbourne.  These days she is back in Newcastle and writing full time.  Her short stories are published widely: by Random House, Cosmos magazine and in anthologies such as HarperCollins Voyager Dreaming Again.  An historical novel The Priestess and the Slave (Hadley Rille) appeared in 2009.  Her poems are in Westerly, The Pedestal Magazine, Midnight Echo, Star*Line, Eternal Haunted Summer, Dreams and Nightmares and  Dolly (!) and are forthcoming in Strange Horizons and Quadrant.   She is a regular contributor to that venerable and much loved institution the NSW School Magazine.

Devoted students of Pitt Street Poetry’s publishing history may fondly recall Etruscan Miniatures, an illustrated pamphlet recounting a decadent Italian summer holiday by London-based poet Tim Cumming.  The moderate international success of this little booklet has led us to plan a few more in the same format.  So we are really delighted to announce a suite of 12 poems by Jenny Blackford entitled The Duties of a Cat with feline images by Kirribilli artist Michael Robson.  We know full well, of course, that there is absolutely no precedent for collections of poems about cats.   Meow.

The name Benedict Andrews guarantees audiences a compelling and often disturbing night in the theatre.   His eight-hour conflation of Shakespeare’s history plays The War of the Roses for Sydney Theatre Company with Cate Blanchett as Richard II.  His reframing of Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro for Opera Australia within bleak institutional walls.  And most recently his mesmerising reading of Jean Genet’s The Maids, again for STC.  To these should be added inter alia critically acclaimed productions of Chekhov on the West End, Monteverdi for ENO, Macbeth and King Lear in Reykjavik and Tennessee Williams in Berlin.  Not bad for an Adelaide boy.

The peripatetic life of an international theatre director offers plenty of down time a long way from home.  Benedict Andrews devotes this more often than not to his poetry, which has been unpublished up until now.  Poems about the theatre, about his new home in Iceland and, inevitably, a long suite of louche meditations on hotel rooms.  You will find his first collection Lens Flare a memorable read.

Eileen Chong grew up in Singapore speaking English, Hokkien and Mandarin, and studied English language and literature at the NUS.  Amorous adventure brought her recently to Sydney where she has studied poetry with Judith Beveridge at the University of Sydney and with Ivor Indyk at the University of Western Sydney.  She has been published in Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Softblow, and the Sun-Herald and is a regular contributor to the Red Room Company’s poetry programs.  A fellowship with Australian Poetry introduced the mentorship of Anthony Lawrence and the publication of a compact collection of 40 poems which sold out rapidly across Australia and South East Asia.

So when Burning Rice was nominated for the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry, to our great good fortune Eileen Chong turned to us for a quick reissue of a reformatted second edition, which was delivered to bookstores a few short weeks ago.  These poems operate at the complex nexus between Chinese and Australian culture.  Personal questions concerning life, love and family are explored in a knowing, chuckling transcultural context not only in contemporary Sydney but also in the medieval Chinese court.  Eileen Chong’s second collection Peony will be forthcoming from Pitt Street Poetry in 2014.

And so to our fourth and final welcome: to Mark Tredinnick.  Precious few of those who read these lines will not have already read many more of his.  Take a moment to savour Mark’s inimitable, circumlocutory take on the nature of things with his current series of blog posts for Southerly.

The story of his late move from the law, management consulting, and publishing at Butterworths and Allen & Unwin to working full time as a poet, erstwhile sage, teacher of fine writing and habitué of literary festivals here there and everywhere is too well known to bear repeating here.  Not to mention the ensuing string of national and international successes, with prizes for individual poems in Newcastle, Cardiff and Montreal.  It goes equally without saying that we are absolutely stoked that Mark Tredinnick is joining the Pitt Street Poetry stable of poets, and that we can announce for the first time here the publication of his new book Bluewren Cantos as part of a trilogy of poetry collections to appear over the next twelve months.  So welcome to Pitt Street, Mark, we are looking forward to the ride.

* * *

 With all this growth then, perhaps it’s just as well that the gods of the Literature Board have smiled upon us with the award of a publishing grant for the 2013-2014 period.  Warmest thanks to all the members of the board, to the Australia Council for the Arts and to our poetry-loving Arts Minister Tony Burke for this essential and unexpected recognition and support.

The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected

Our first meeting with Ron Pretty was in the company of a galah, an exotic parrot, a wombat, an echidna, a blue tongue lizard and a fairly gnarly snake, all lovingly handled by their keepers.   The occasion was the annual Taronga Foundation Children’s Poetry Prize, and Ron was the chair of the judging panel. 

His accomplices were Libby Gore (aka Elle McFeast), master of ceremonies, the ABC’s Richard Moorcroft, reading the poems to a vast audience of family and friends, and the remarkable Bradley Trevor Greive, founder, funder and eminence grise of the whole unworldly enterprise.   And Linsay Knight, now consulting publisher to Pitt Street Poetry, who as head of Children’s Books at Random House Australia in that era undertook to publish the winning poems and send them to school libraries, bookstores and fond families across Australia.

During the seven years in which this gloriously uncommercial dream flourished (2003-2009) Ron must have read thousands of children’s poems of markedly varying quality.  He brought to the task his unfailing courtesy and care, his genial good nature, his wisdom and his vast experience of poetry as a practitioner, a teacher and a publisher.  Some remarkable gems were discovered, and some gifted young poets experienced a thrill of national recognition and success which no doubt changed their lives.

The story is worth retelling because it portrays a defining characteristic in Ron Pretty’s life and work: generosity.   In reading so patiently through those thousands of young efforts.  In a life devoted to teaching poetry, publishing poetry and writing poetry.  And in the arduous, thankless machinations of poetry politics and regional and national poetry organisations.

Ron’s life and work in poetry have been recognised with the NSW Premier’s Prize for special services to poetry in 2001, and with an AM in 2002, and so they should have been.  But what of his poetry?  Has the voice survived?  Is it possible to remain true to a poetic vocation in the midst of so much frenetic activity and so much care of other poets?  What impact does such generosity have on the creative imperative?

Our publication this week of Ron Pretty’s most recent collection What the Afternoon Knows provides a clear and ready answer to these questions.  These poems look back in a tender, elegiac frame of reference to travel, family, relationships and the nature of things.  At their heart is the question of the role of the poet, and poetry, interrogating the human state and puzzling through the beguiling paradoxes of the external world.

The answer is that the various layers of meaning which Ron Pretty’s life in poetry has added to his own writing have enriched and purified his powers of observation, and honed his craftsmanship to a particularly fine level.  These poems are technically assured and complex, but do not flaunt their accomplishments in prosody.  Like the mechanics of well-oiled stage machinery all that is subtly hidden offstage, never gets between the reader and the idea and serves simply to enrich the rewarding experience of absorbing the sentiments and philosophy which dance across the page.

 

Nocturne

(for Saroja & Luke)

These tiny white moths. The beetles
at the window. Lights around the lake,
against the indigo sky, the black hills.
Always the barking dogs, who can stand it?
Sleep my love. Tomorrow the wind
will be a memory, your mother’s milk,
her full breasts your comforter
and these late-night squalls against
the noises of the night, a sleep-drugged
nightmare. That exhausted figure
in pyjamas is just your father come in
from the barking night to comfort you.
He would be sleeping – no dog
could wake him – but your whimper
sat him up, your cry got him out of bed,
he holds you now against his chest, against
the night and its noise, against the world.

 

It’s an everyday family vignette, repeated countless times by young parents all over the world, a moment in time defined by the night, the animal nightlife and the nightly demands of a restive infant.  And at its heart, the universal devotional imperative: ‘Sleep my love.’

There are many such moments in What the Afternoon Knows, related lovingly, sympathetically, connecting the personal to the pastoral, and the contingency of family to the inevitable contemplation of the oncoming evening.

Pitt Street Poetry is proud to publish Ron Pretty’s most recent collection, a celebration of a life lived in poetry by a well-loved Australian poet writing at the height of his powers and from the depth and breadth of a generous life.

The parable of the Petrovs

 

On a typical autumn morning in April 1954, newsagents across suburban Australia drove past countless thousands of texture brick and tile homes, tossing tightly rolled copies of the morning newspaper into a never-ending sea of neatly mown front yards.

Yawning in their dressing gowns, innumerable card-carrying members of the Australian petit-bourgeoisie retrieved their Heralds, their Ages and their Advertisers and unrolled them to encounter headlines more usual in Berlin or Kiev.

All of a sudden, the seediest scenarios – secret agents and double agents, betrayal and despair, liquor, women, intrigue, ASIO, the KGB – were all on offer, to be ingested with the cornflakes, but right here and now, not far away and over there.

Trove, the invaluable digital newspaper archive at the National Library of Australia, lists many thousands of breathless, hyperbolic newspaper articles about the defection of the Petrovs.  This one gives the flavour:

 

Petrov Advertiser copy

That particular atmosphere, that gripping implausible moment in time and place, is captured and explored in caressing, intricate detail by our latest Pitt Street Poetry offering – The Petrov Poems – a verse novel by Canberra poet Lesley Lebkowicz.

The paper’s a shield behind which he thinks
about Dusya.  Leave her alone, colleagues had advised
when he met her.  The arrest of Krivosh makes her a risk.
But an invisible cord wound him into her world.
Now she comes in from the kitchen
patting her hands with a tea towel.  What are you doing?
In answer he holds out the paper.  Anything we should know?
He shakes his head.  She is strong,


she will survive without him.  She studies him

until she sighs, I’m going to bed.
He won’t mention defection again.
He’ll go without telling her.
He’ll take nothing that could implicate her.
That should keep her safe -

The Petrov Poems offers something entirely different from the average run of local Oz poetry collections.  It combines the tension and narrative drive of an early John le Carré novel with the human insights of a Rosemary Dobson and the nuanced political complexity of a late David Marr monograph.  Its layers of meaning repay reading and re-reading.

These days the newsagent’s morning pilgrimage is usurped as a source of headlines by a dawn chorus of solipsistic bloggers, twitterers and soi-disant Canberra insiders.   Yet the great dramatic political set-pieces remain few and far between.

The Petrov Affair is one such, and amply deserves its celebration and deconstruction in this unforgettable new verse novel.

Four Launches and a Radio Reading

2013 started quietly enough for Pitt Street Poetry, after a longish summer break.  But now as the days shorten, events and projects are crowding in.  During autumn (and on into winter) we can look forward to four book launches and a newly signed poet reading her work on the ABC radio program Poetica.

Our first book for the year is a reissue of Luke Davies’ first poetry book Four Plots for Magnets.   Originally published when Davies was just 20 years old by poet S. K. Kelen at the romantically named Glandular Press in Sydney in 1982, this youthful jeux d’esprit started life as a slim stapled pamphlet of 13 poems.   There is a sense of heady intoxication in the verse – with Sydney, with love, with life, with afternoon television – and not infrequently with intoxication as an end in itself.

Now aged 50, Davies offers these poems to his devoted readers once again as an opportunity to share a cheerful reunion with long-lost, slightly wayward children who have stubbornly refused to grow up.  In a long, wry, self-deprecating foreword, illustrated with snapshots from his own collection, he tells the story of how the book came to be and what it was like to be a young poet in Sydney in the early 80s.

Searching back through his files, Davies has found 53 additional previously uncollected poems written in the same two year period at the beginning of the decade.   There are eight pages of notes on the poems, some scholarly enough, some more mischievous glosses on the various contemporary allusions which pepper the book.

The original publisher, poet S. K. Kelen, rounds out the publication with a reflective afterword, charting Davies’ course since those early days and making the link between the poems in Four Plots and those of his maturity in books such as the recent Interferon Psalms, which won the inaugural Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2012.

Four Plots for Magnets will be launched in Melbourne by distinguished poet and literary academic Grant Caldwell on Wednesday 15th May at 5.30pm at the Wheeler Centre in Little Lonsdale Street.  All are welcome and drinks will be served.

In Sydney the launch of Four Plots for Magnets will take place as part of the Sydney Writers Festival at the Brett Whiteley Studio at 2 Raper St, Surry Hills on Sunday 26th May at 2pm.  Festival international guest Irish poet Dermot Healy will launch the book.   This will be a double launch with Michael Brennan’s new poetry collection Autoethnographic from Giramondo – recently awarded the Grace Leven prize – to be launched by David Malouf.

This event is free to attend but bookings are essential and can be made by sending an email to the Brett Whiteley Studio poetry event series curator Angela Stretch at sydneypoetry-2@angelastretch.com.

During the course of the year we plan to feature each new poetry book in some detail in this blog as the time for publication approaches.

Meanwhile, by way of a brief heads up, Canberrans can mark in their diary the advent of a new verse novel by local poet Lesley Lebkowicz, with images by Sydney artist Dean BrownThe Petrov Poems explores the gripping story of Australia’s most notorious spy scandal.  It will be launched by Canberra poet John Foulcher at Paperchain Bookshop in Manuka, ACT on Thursday 27th June at 6pm.

And to round out the quartet of launches, Ron Pretty’s new book for Pitt Street Poetry What the Afternoon Knows, the product of a recent Australia Council residency in Rome, will launch in mid-July.  More details Real Soon Now.

Finally, let us close this May missive with a warm welcome to the newest member of the Pitt Street Poetry family: Melinda Smith, whose latest poetry collection – provisionally titled Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call - will be published by Pitt Street Poetry in the spring.   You can enjoy a sneak preview when Melinda reads her poem ‘Roadside memorials’ on the ABC’s weekly poetry radio program Poetica on Saturday 11th May at 3pm as part of a broad-ranging examination of the use of the villanelle in contemporary Australian poetry.

 

Proudly announcing our 2013 poetry list

 

Luke Davies Four Plots for Magnets Republication of his rare first book from 1982 with 53 additional previously unpublished poems and supporting essays & notes
Lesley Lebkowicz The Petrov Poems This verse novel retells the classic Cold War espionage saga in 1950’s Canberra
Ron Pretty What the Afternoon Knows Poems written by one of Australia’s best-loved poets during a residency in Rome
Geoff Page Improving the News New collection from a leading elder statesman of Australian poetry
Jakob Ziguras Chains of Snow Eagerly awaited first collection from a gifted young Sydney poet
Melinda Smith Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call Parsing the pastoral, poetics, Petrarch and parturition
Eileen Chong Burning Rice
(second edition)
Reissue of a well received first collection

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