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1.

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.

2.

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.

3.

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.

4.

So, in 2005, out into the world came Remnants.

5.

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.

6.

Remnants: humble, inexplicable.

Remnants: inexplicable.

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’.

7.

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.

8.

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.

9.

Enough from me.

10.

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.

11.

Stern Man by Stuart Barnes (2014)

 

 

Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many

Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many – imagine being able to meet him.

It is a big adventure, this writing life.  There’s the adventure in the stories: characters experiencing things, discovering things, learning things; overcoming and becoming.

Then there’s the adventure of conceiving stories, writing stories, redrafting stories (repeat ad infinitum if necessary), before sending them out until an editor takes a shine to a particular piece and puts it amongst his or her pages.  Then there’s the adventure of feedback.  Who will like what?  Or will no-one like any of it?  Or will there be no feedback at all?

But there’s more: the places writing has taken me, as in real places.  A homestead out of Braidwood.  A gatekeeper’s cottage in Launceston.  The writers’ house at Bundanon beside the Shoalhaven River.  The monastic Varuna in the Blue Mountains.  And, most recently, the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of UNSW Canberra.

Then there are the people I’ve met, other writers, artists of all kinds.  The conversations over coffees, lunches, glasses of wine, dinners even!  It doesn’t take me long to be enthralled by those who are far ahead in this game; I become besotted.  It is, to tell you the truth, one of the most exciting things: to spend time with extraordinarily creative souls.

I have been so fortunate.  A highlight?

In January 2011, as part of a piece for the Canberra Times, I found myself in the Sydney home of eminent contemporary – or ‘pop’ – artist Martin Sharp.  All morning we talked about the things that mattered to him: his great love of Vincent van Gogh, Tiny Tim, and, a little surprisingly, UK talent-show contestant Susan Boyle; about how he thought the best art came from school children; about how his thinking has evolved, his relatively newfound religiosity.  ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘conservative thinking is radical.’  This from the man who was once involved with Oz Magazine, whose London editors would end up being jailed as part of the infamous ‘Obscenity Trials’.

At midday, after he farewelled me, as I walked up his driveway, I thought – and I distinctly remember it – that this would be go down as one of my favourite days.  Here was a great artist, but one without a skerrick of pretension.  It was as though I’d just spent the morning with a slightly kooky but utterly charming uncle (who chain-smoked).

So, dear writing, thank you for the adventures thus far.

And, dear Martin Sharp, thank you for everything you gave us.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 14 December 2013.)

There is somewhere he goes, a secret somewhere.  A village high on a mountain, an extinct volcano.  A village so tiny it doesn’t have shops.  Decades ago there were tearooms that sold just tea and apple cider, the cake cabinets empty but for blow flies – alive in summer, dead in winter.  The village had a post-office, too, where his parents would collect the cottage keys.  The shop and the post-office didn’t last forever.  But the mountain has.

Up there, his days would alternate.

One day he’d be with his mother.  Somehow she’d wrangle invitations to visit grand sandstone mansions, those buildings so different from the humble weatherboard place they rented.  The mansions looked as if they’d been teleported from the other side of the world.  Together they’d explore the sprawling gardens that grew in the rich, volcanic soil: perfect lawns, banks of azaleas and rhododendrons, bulbs in spring; all of it dripping and drooping when the late-afternoon mist rolled in.

The next day he’d be with his father, trekking into the blue wilderness, exploring ancient places where decades later botanists would discover an ancient tree that had somehow survived for longer than he could comprehend.  Together they’d drop into freezing canyons.  Hoping snakes would leave them be, they’d clamber up to rocky plateaus that were covered in stiff, prickly heath.

On the third day he’d be alone.  He’d walk to Wynne’s Rocks, officially the greatest lookout in the world, and he’d fast-forward ten, twenty, thirty years to see how life might become.  It was out at Wynne’s, with just eighteen birthdays notched into his belt, that he promised to visit the mountain every year.

And he’s stuck to that promise.

He visits often – he makes the quickest of trips.

He even visits when he can’t sleep.  When he needs to remind himself of being a boy and a big decision was choosing between climbing one of the skyscraper-sized pine trees or hunting for extinct dinosaurs.  To be reminded of being a teenager and having a mate from school in the adjacent bed and knowing it was done – he’d finally offered his mate some words, three words, three syllables.  To be reminded of wild, wild Australia and those bits of imported England.  And being in between.

Sometimes, however, he has nightmares: shopping malls smothering village streets; old mansions (and a certain cottage) demolished to make way for gaudy, two-storey weekenders owned by Sydney stock brokers; a rabid bushfire that’s come to claim the whole bloody lot of it.

Visiting right now, he’s reminded of one of his favourite books (with one of his favourite titles).  No, not George’s My Side of the Mountain but Relph’s Place and Placelessness.  ‘A deep relationship with places is as necessary and perhaps as unavoidable as close relationships with people; without such relationships human existence, while possible, is bereft of much of its significance.’  How good is that!

Yes, there is somewhere he goes, a secret somewhere.

He’d promised to visit every year and he does, in fact he visits all the time – it may be a five-hour drive from where he now lives but he can be there in a second.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, August 11 2007)

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