‘Punk to me was a form of free speech. It was a movement when suddenly all kinds of strange voices that no reasonable person could ever have expected to hear in public were being heard all over the place’
- Greil Marcus, author, rock critic, journalist
One of the most thrilling events that has ever happened in my literary life is this: an Australian poet has created a ‘found poem’ out of something I wrote a long time ago.
The poet? Stuart Barnes. The poem? ‘Stern Man’. The written thing of mine? A novel called Remnants. It really is magical, this poem, for many reasons. Reading it, working it out, returns me to 2001, when I was completing a Master of Creative Arts/Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, which I’d thoroughly enjoyed. An early draft of what would become Remnants was produced during that deliciously immersive period of study.
I never thought the manuscript would see the light of day. But buoyed by something that my external examiner, Ian Syson (the then editor of Overland), had written in his feedback, that the manuscript would ‘surely’ find a home somewhere, I shopped the thing around. With no luck. Eventually a colleague suggested I meet with Ian Templeman, who at the time was the publisher at Pandanus Books, the Australian National University’s press (which appears to no longer exist). Ian had read a short story of mine in Overland and enjoyed its ‘intimacy’, so agreed to read my manuscript; months later he made an offer to publish it, though I would have to wait ‘some time, years perhaps’ as he needed to create an imprint to do so.
So, in 2005, out into the world came Remnants.
It’s a quiet story, a humble production, but somehow it received a large number of reviews, including in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra, Times, the Age, and Antipodes; all but one was more than positive.
What’s it about?
Following his wife’s death, Mitchell Granville, retired barrister and son of a celebration politician, spends his twilight years hidden in a village in the Blue Mountains. For company he has his books, his late father’s semi-wild peacocks, and a sculpture of a naked woman’s torso. Over time he succumbs to loneliness and realises that there is at least one person he needs to rediscover. When he finally makes contact, all does not go as planned. Soon he finds himself being coaxed into at trek that crosses the breadth of his country and the depths of his past.
At least that’s the story according to Pandanus.
I loved writing Remnants, and rewriting it, and editing it, and polishing it (though I admit to moments where I thumped the desk because the story and/or the prose just wasn’t up to scratch), and it was a thrill to see it make its way in the world. However, almost a decade later, I feel as though I’ve moved on. In 2010 there was the Launceston experience, those four weeks during which the way I wrote was turned on its head. Since then, I’ve been working on the Blemish novellas, which are much shorter works than Remnants. It’s almost as if that novel was a blip, an aberration, some kind of literary miracle, and perhaps it was. But now I’m thinking about that book again, because of Stuart Barnes’ ‘Stern Man’.
Stuart’s lines are collected mostly from the short proem that opens the story: Mitchell Granville, a melancholic man at best, is taking a bath in what was once an apple-picker’s shed, though something more serious is going on. What I admire most about ‘Stern Man’ is that Stuart has lifted the chosen lines and created something entirely new, something – yes – magical. I do love the idea of a peacock collecting firewood.
Magical, also, because I based Mitchell’s bath on the one I used to enjoy in the Blue Mountains holiday cottage that my family rented for many years every summer and some winters. You had to make a fire in a barrel and wait for it to puff like a steam-engine before turning on the tap so the water would warm and dribble through. When I was nothing more than boy, when I was soaking in that rust-brown water after yet another day of exploring wild bushland, did I used to imagine that my brain would spark a novel and that my novel would spark a poem written by someone else? I may have been a relentless dreamer, but I could never have dreamt that far.
Enough from me.
Here’s ‘Stern Man’ by Stuart Barnes, which was first published in Four W twenty-four (2013). Please note: what’s not included in the image, but is included as a footnote to the original poem as published, are the words ‘a found poem; source: Nigel Featherstone, Remnants, Pandanus Books, 2005′. These things are important.
Three cheers for literary miracles.
I’ve written about it here before, Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, strongly hinted at it at the very least, because it’s a book that’s had a profound impact on me. And, yes, it was once a book, a stand-alone publication, a long short story or a short novella, no one can ever say – definitions, in the end, don’t mean much. First published by Fourth Estate in 1997, on my birthday (a good gift from the literary gods), Proulx’s story of two Wyoming cowboys who find love and intimacy where they least expect it was an immediate hit. The book took a whip to American masculinity: the Marlboro man: resilient, laconic, adamantly heterosexual – the apparent real deal. In Brokeback Mountain, Proulx unearthed a different and potentially perplexing reality. Ang Le had a crack at turning it into a movie (2005), but it’s an average movie at best. Proulx’s work is brilliance on the page.
At first it was the story that got me: love, landscape, isolation, melancholia, tragedy, loss – all the things that turn my crank. These days, however, I return for the prose. Try this on for size:
The first snow came early, on August 13th, piling up a foot, but was followed by a quick melt. The next week Joe Aguirre sent word to bring them down, another, bigger storm was moving in from the Pacific, and they packed in the game and moved off the mountain with the sheep, stones rolling at their heels, purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on. The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light; the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone. As they descended the slope Ennis felt he was in a slow-motion, but headlong, irreversible fall.
That ‘purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on’. That ‘metal smell’. That ‘demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light’. That ‘broken-cloud’, broken up just like that. And that ‘bestial drone’. That ‘damaged krummholz’, which to me is both foreign and strangely known. Ennis’s ‘headlong, irreversible fall’, exactly like one of those ‘stones rolling at their heels’. Proulx’s mountains are alive: they’re breathing, humming, rumbling, threatening; we’re there but oh how small we feel – we could be swallowed up at any moment. Despite the rugged beauty, despite the fact that we’re only on page 16 of a 56-page story, we know that the peace is uneasy at best. There’s threat in those clouds; that storm will bring us more than snow, much more. We might not survive. But we do survive, and our lives have changed.
I hear trains.
That isn’t an admission of something unhinged in my mind, or a euphemism for a kind of illegal activity. It’s just that where I live, on a hill behind the mainstreet of an old town, I can hear trains.
Even when I’m putting clothes on the line I can hear the sound of trains coming and going, freight trains especially, as they heave and clatter in and through and on to the other side.
As is obvious it’s a sound I adore. After twenty-five years living in Canberra I’d begun to miss it, though I didn’t know that then – sometimes it’s only when you move from one place to another that you realise what’s important.
Perhaps the sound reminds me of being a boy in Sydney and having to catch trains to get to school and back, all of us jammed into the clunky, stinky ‘Red Rattlers’, the windows so hefty that if they suddenly closed they would chop off arms or fingers. So we imagined, or feared. Of course, back then, having to catch trains every day wasn’t anything unusual; it was just part of living in a city. These days I look on it nostalgically, as though I once lived in a more exciting land, somewhere big and dangerous and overflowing with life. Strange then that whenever I return to Sydney, even on a train, I’m filled with terror – that place always reminds me of a snake trying to eat its own head.
So why this love of the sound of trains?
It could be because it just feels old-fashioned, a delicious thing of the past, and for those like me who find the present a trial the past can be a good place to go. It could be a reminder of the sort of adventures once discovered in books for children. But trains aren’t necessarily historical. Look at the sort that can be found in Europe and the larger cities of Asia – those trains are like something out of Star Trek. Maybe the sound is a metaphor. For arrival: the joy of becoming, of making real the new, the hope there is in that. For departure: the melancholia of leaving behind, of letting go, of saying good-bye. Because it’s somewhere between arrival and departure that life can be found most readily, whatever that life might be.
Oh how much there is in a sound.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 15 March 2014.)
Some years ago a friend told me she had a rule for how she lived her writing life: if something good happened, she gave herself 24 hours to celebrate; if something bad happened, she gave herself 24 hours to commiserate – either way she just had to move on. It’s a brilliant rule. It’s all about tenacity and persistence.
Thankfully, I’ve had a reason to invoke the rule’s Option A: I’m Ready Now has been shortlisted for the $10,000 ACT Book of the Year award (on top of the previous short-listing for the 2013 ACT Publishing and Writing Award for fiction). Thank you, ACT Government. All the details, including the other three titles on the short-list, can be found at the Canberra Times.
Privately – quite clearly not so privately at all – I’m just a little bit thrilled, especially as I’m Ready Now is the only work of fiction on the list. However, I’m also shocked. I enjoyed writing the very first draft of this novella back in Tasmania in 2010, but there was significantly less enjoyment to be had once the redrafting process got into full swing and a great wave of doubt came crashing.
Still, here we are.
Speaking of awards, thanks to the glories of social media I recently stumbled on this honest and illuminating article by UK novelist Jane Rogers published in The Guardian. At core, I think, it’s about the wise imperative of writing what you want to write, what you’re passionate about, what moves you. However, it also points to the importance of small presses, which are able to take risks and, against sometimes – often – crushing odds, get recalcitrant books out to the world. Rogers also talks about what literary awards can do for books/writers on the margins, even if the books are only short-listed, or even just long-listed. It’s a terrific and timely read.
In other news, the good folk at The Writers Bloc, an emerging collective spread between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, and, it seems, is spreading even further afield, recently interviewed me for a pod-cast on the places where writing happens. (The pod-cast can also be found here.) For some reason I took the opportunity to talk about military deserters, isolation, and – um – maps. Nope, I can’t explain it either.
PS The third and final in this series of novellas is completely finished from my perspective (which, it should be admitted, is almost always the wrong perspective in the context of these things) and is now firmly in the hands of the mighty Blemish Books. I’m looking forward to sharing this story with you. It’s different from Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now, and has had a four-year gestation – as they say in Hollywood, it’s had a lot of work done. Not that I’m expecting to end up in Hollywood on the back of this one. Though wouldn’t that be nice? Okay, I’ve gotten carried away. See what a short-listing can do? It can send a writer into la-la-land. Quite happily.
Come and go
This blogging thing: really, what’s it all about? The blog-shaped hole in the universe that you’re currently in came into existence back in mid-2009 and somehow it’s still chugging along. I’ve seen some truly brilliant blogs come and go; for whatever reason, the blogger has decided to end it all. I, too, have thought of throwing in the towel – many times, in fact. But then I think of the people I’ve met, the conversations had, and the points of view and life experience shared, and I realise that there’s no real harm in continuing on. Perhaps I also like the fact that Under the counter of a flutter in the dovecot (which is still officially the most ridiculous name in all of the blogosphere) is archived by the National Library of Australia. What’s been created here will exist forever. In theory.
Across the years I’ve often wondered about the point of a blog like this one. It’s partly a depository of pieces I write for the Canberra Times and related Fairfax publications; if the house burns down and I lose the physical file of clippings there will always be the digital copies kept here. Then there are the outrageously self-serving updates on my adventures in Fiction Land – frankly, they rarely sit comfortably with me, but writing and publishing literature, especially in Australia, is too difficult to justify being a wallflower. Then there are the brief, diary-like flashes about my home or my hometown or the writing life. Then there are the reviews, mostly of albums that I’ve bought and I want to talk about – some of the albums I’ve loved, others not so much, but I still want to work out what I think by writing about them. Have I ever mentioned how hard it is to write about music? It’s near impossible! Finally, sometimes I post collages or simply photos with captions. When I’m all out of words.
For the stumblers
Does all this add up to much? I’m not sure it does. But for the bugger who produces it all there’s still some enjoyment to be had, and I sincerely hope there’s still enjoyment to be had for those who stumble here.
Lashings of thanks
As others have noted, what keeps a blogger going are the comments, many – most – of which have been amazingly thoughtful and thought-provoking. So thank you to everyone who’s commented. What surprises me even more are the subscribers, some of who have been with the blog from day one. So here are lashings of gratitude to each and every one of you for following UTCOAFITD – I appreciate it very much. I do hope you get something out of what’s posted and the comments that generated. All writing, even if it’s fiction, is an exchange of information. I just hope that you enjoy the exchange that happens here.
All the best, till next week. Unless I get hit by a bus.