I have been in Finland for the past few weeks, and before that I was in London, Budapest, and Prague doing poetry readings as part of my Marten Bequest travels. After all the busyness of the travelling and readings—and a healthy dollop of sightseeing, since this is my first visit to Europe—it’s been good to stay in one place and focus, finally, on writing new poems.

I’m at a creative residency called Arteles, which is around 200km north-west of Helsinki. I’m here with eight other residents, all of them artists, from the UK, Finland, Hungary, Canada, and Israel. The nearest town is seven kilometres away, and all around us are fields and lakes and little red Finnish houses. And, next to the little red houses, little red house-shaped saunas.

In terms of climate, this part of Finland in November is rainy in a drizzly and morose sort of way, with daytime temperatures around zero to five degrees. But the most striking thing about the place is the lack of light. Each day will be a few minutes shorter than the last, up until the solstice on December 21. (Of course, this year we may be too busy to celebrate the solstice, given that it coincides with the end of the world—unless we can make it to a tiny, Armageddon-proof French village).

For me, the lack of light is so novel and so affecting that it has shaped a lot of my experience here. More interested than usual in temperatures and forecasts, I installed a weather app that tells me that sunrise was at 8:50 today, and sunset was at 3:36. By the time I leave here in ten days, sunrise will be at 9:18 and sunset at 3:15.

On the night I arrived here, I heard one of the other artists, Ofri Lapid, talk about the centrality of light in the installation she was developing. That started me thinking. In the weeks since then, I’ve written a small suite of poems examining light, landscape and translation. Anu Turunen, the only Finnish artist in residence, is translating the poems into Finnish, and I plan to read them—perhaps with Finnish and English overlaid in an audio recording—at an open studio event on Saturday here at Arteles. If all goes to plan, the reading will take place within Ofri’s light installation, which will be constructed on the day with household lamps brought along by local residents who attend the event.

Aside from the poems about light and translation, I’ve been working on many other new poems and even a little bit of prose. As I look out on muddy fields, or frost, or the dark, the experience within my writing space has been weirdly rich and fertile, and surprisingly bright and warm.

 

 

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Martin Duwell has reviewed Electricity for Beginners over at Australian Poetry Review. He reviews one book each month, on the first of the month, and I am very pleased that mine made it on to his list.

I write from foggy England, where I am about to commence my reading tour, thanks to the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship. I will be reading at Greenwich University on Tuesday the 30th, and then at the Menzies Centre on Wednesday the 31st of October as part of the public events calendar. If you're in London, come along to the Strand Campus, Strand Building, SO11, for a reading commencing at 6:15pm.

Given my interest in "hidden" things, I had to visit the Churchill War Rooms, the underground bunker in which Churchill and his staff conducted war operations and stayed safe from the Blitz. Here's a picture of the telephones in the Map Room. The wax dummies add an extra something to the scene, that's for sure.

 

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When I wrote my last post at the very end of May, I had no idea that I would be writing my next one from my new home in Melbourne. But a lot happened in Queensland in April and May: Campbell Newman, the newly elected Premier, cut funding to the Queensland Premier's Literary Awards, and Healthy Communities, the GLBTI health organisation. The civil partnership legislation that was passed just last November, enabling gay and lesbian (and heterosexual) Queenslanders access to civil partnerships, was watered down in response to the concerns of lobbyists. Queensland gay and lesbian couples may now "register" their relationships; there is no provision for a formal ceremony to accompany the registration, making the process akin to registering a cat or dog, as many critics pointed out. But this was just the beginning. Newman revealed that up to 20 000 public servants would lose their jobs in his huge cost-slashing spree. Those on temporary contracts were the first to go, regardless of the fact that some had been working for government for a decade or more. Big on cuts but small on details, Newman deferred revealing most of the specifics until the September 11 budget was announced. In the meantime (the mean time), Queensland's public servants could just live in fear.

All of these cuts mattered quite a lot to me, because I am a writer who is married to a woman who was then working for the Queensland government. Rather than sit around and wait to see if Heather would lose her job, and how else the government might target pretty much everything we believed in, we decided to see what opportunities lay further afield. So we began a tentative look around. Heather applied for a job in Melbourne, and then ... she got it. Just like that. Suddenly, she was starting a job in Melbourne in less than a month, and I had a house to pack up and a book to revise (among many other tasks). Suddenly, things exploded.

Now that my first interstate move with two cats and proper adult furniture is over, I am back to breathing again and (mostly) sleeping through the night. Heather and I have been exploring the delights of Melbourne, and we took our first day trip on Saturday, out to the Yarra Valley. Brisbane is still home, in many ways, but we don't live there anymore. It's a strange thing to come to terms with. But I am also coming to realise that maybe I have many homes. If a home is wherever the people I love are, then I am lucky to have many places to hang my hat. And Heather and I are also lucky in that we are able to move states fairly easily. But tonight, on this budget announcement eve, my thoughts are with Queenslanders, and with Queensland. I hope for a gentler future, but I can't see it coming any time soon.

 

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Over the past several years, I've been working on a memoir, Ghost Wife. And now I am thrilled to report that Ghost Wife has been picked up by the wonderful  Black Inc., who will publish it around March of 2013. This news provoked much excited running around (my own) in corridors (my workplace's), and much celebration. Not just because my book will be published, but also because it means that the stories that I have longed to tell and re-tell will definitely come to light. And for a while there, I wasn't sure that they would.

Ghost Wife is a story about hidden histories, belonging, and same-sex marriage. In November 2005, I travelled with my girlfriend, Heather, to Canada to swap vows and rings. Same-sex marriage was not legal in Australia, where we lived, or in the United States, where Heather was born and raised. So we went to Toronto and, on a freezing December day, married in Toronto City Hall. As we travelled through the US and Canada on that trip, I met Heather’s family for the first time. Knowing that our marriage would ‘disappear’ the minute we left Canada, I started to think about the other invisible histories that have haunted my family. And I also stumbled across the stories of other women who lived in same-sex relationships decades and centuries ago in Brisbane, Melbourne, Boston and Toronto: other women who also were also ‘ghost wives.’

I knew even then that I would write about our wedding trip.  I needed to write about it; writing would be a way of leaving a lasting record of our marriage, even if the marriage itself would never be recognised in Australia. Queer love and lust are often made invisible or hypervisible; this is nothing new. To resist invisibility, I was trying to learn as much as I could about GLBTIQ history—especially from the first part of the 20th century and earlier.

I read a lot, more than I could possibly mention here. But some of the most important things I read were Lucy Chesser’s brilliant Parting With My Sex: Cross-Dressing, Inversion and Sexuality in Australian Cultural Life (Sydney University Press 2008), and Clive Moore’s Sunshine and Rainbows: The Development of Gay and Lesbian Culture in Queensland (UQP 2001), and The History Project’s Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland (Beacon 1998), and the work of Canadian historian Elise Chenier. What I found was fascinating.

I learned about Brisbane couple Josephine Bedford and Lilian Cooper (above right), who spent their whole adult lives together in a succession of houses in the UK and Australia, and, during WWI, a tent in Serbia, and were among Brisbane’s foremost residents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I learned about Marion Bill Edwards, who lived as a man from the age of eighteen, in the 1890s, and married a woman called Lucy in Melbourne in 1900.  I learned about 19th century Bostonians and 20th century Torontonians, women who loved other women and spent their lives with them. And I needed to include them in my story.

And so I wrote Ghost Wife, a memoir that tells the story of my journey, with Heather, from Brisbane to Boston, from Toronto to Boca Raton, and home. It skips back and forth through generations and centuries, weaving our story with the stories of others who came before. These other women lived as married in the places that Heather and I visited—but 50 and 100 and 150 years before us. It is because of the work of historians that these other stories came to light, and I am grateful to have been able to read them.

"I'm going to write a book myself, y'know. It ought to be very interesting, because I'm going to tell all my experiences as a 'man-woman'—as they call me in the posters. When my book is published I may take a hotel—I'm  not decided yet; or I may just disappear. But whatever I do, I'll continue to dress in men's clothes. It's more comfortable than female dress; it's cheaper too."

—Marion Bill Edwards, Morwell Advertiser, 1908

And now, I am grateful again because Black Inc. will publish Ghost Wife—and perhaps our story, and others like it, will not be made invisible as so many others have been. Things have changed, it's true, but significant work remains. Here in Queensland, our battle seems to grow greater by the day following devastating changes over the past several weeks, such as the de-funding of the Queensland Association for Healthy Communities (formerly the Queensland AIDS Council) and the strong possibility that the civil union legislation will be repealed by the Newman government. That's why I'll be in King George Square tomorrow night, to rally, to protest, and to show that times have changed. Times have changed, and we're still here.

 

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The second destination on my recent New Zealand visit was Christchurch, where I conducted three readings in local libraries. The readings all took place in a day, and a rather cold and bleak day it was. That morning, I wandered down to the Hummingbird Cafe in Cashel Street for my coffee and some breakfast. After the earthquakes of the past couple of years, the Cashel Street mall area, like Christchurch more generally, has been entirely transformed.

Many of Christchurch's buildings are still  awaiting repairs or demolition, and the Red Zone in the CBD is still fenced off, accessible only to construction workers and others involved with the recovery process. I didn't realise until I arrived just how devastated the city still is by the quakes. The recovery process will take years.  In the mean time, shipping containers are being put to ingenious use throughout the city as temporary retail space. Cashel Street is now home to a whole 'container mall', with lovely gift and fashion stores, a bookstore, and cafes operating out of converted containers. The effect is surprisingly stylish; a short stroll through the container mall is a striking reminder of how the need to improvise can provoke great creativity. From my discussions with locals, I drew a strong sense of their resourcefulness and strength, but also of their weariness at the recovery process, at the endless uncertainty about the kinds of repairs they will need to do to their properties--and whether they can be repaired--and what kinds of financial compensation may be available to them.

Thanks to the coordination efforts of the Canterbury libraries' events manager Sargia, I read at libraries in Papanui and Upper Riccarton. At the latter, I read once for the general public, and then for students at the local high school. What a wonderful library it was, too: bustling with students and toddlers and mums and older people, and with a cafe and heaps of comfortable reading spaces.  The students were not only an attentive audience, but also asked fantastic questions afterwards. It was my very first school reading, and now I can't wait to do more. Later, at Papanui library, I read to a small crowd that included some teenage girls--not students, just girls who were hanging around--who listened attentively and clapped after each of the poems, and, kindly, didn't even laugh at the mention of "pink thongs." (I decided on the spot not to change the term to "jandals," though I knew I was risking terrible mockery.)

I returned to Auckland for a day and a half to do two final readings. These were organised by Gus Simonovic at Printable Reality, an organisation that aims to bring performance poetry to a broad audience at a range of events. To that end, I was one of a whole swag of poets who read at an international yoga festival at the gorgeous retreat centre Kawai Purapura.

Later that evening, we capped off the weekend with a reading at the Library Bar, a book-themed Auckland bar with very appealing decor (pictured). There were poets and performers from all over, all of them amazing. The one who blew me away was David Kelley, an American singer-songwriter based in Auckland. I could have listened to this guy all night.

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I’ve been in New Zealand this week to do some poetry readings, the first leg of travel on my Marten Bequest adventures. It’s actually my first-ever time in New Zealand, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I arrived on Monday. What I’ve found is that, much like their currencies, New Zealand and Australia seem quite similar to each other on the surface, but are very different in many ways.

Stepping out into Auckland’s streets, I found a strikingly pretty city with a blend of colonial and modern architecture, all of it just a little bit smaller than I am used to in Brisbane (not that we have that much colonial architecture anymore). The CBD is hilly and cosmopolitan, dotted with sushi shops and cafes, and criss-crossed in places by laneways filled with clusters of design shops, bars, and expensive boutiques. I spent my first afternoon walking, going down to the water and around the Britomart precinct, where people lounged on red beanbags on a pale green lawn, and plants grew vertically in a wonderful ‘green wall’. Next I found  a great bookstore, Unity Books on High Street. (“I am looking for a book by a Greek philosopher,” I heard a customer say to the bookseller, “but I forget his name.”)

The bookstore had a huge poetry selection (relatively huge, given that poetry sections normally occupy the space of a large lunchbox). I really wanted to leave with some New Zealand poetry, or at least the work of a New Zealand author. But I made the mistake of reading the first few pages of American author Justin Torres’s We the Animals. The book is about three brothers growing up in a difficult family, and the prose is so remarkable, the stories so vivid and aching and luminous, that it is almost impossible to describe. The best I can tell you is that I read the first three pages in the bookstore and I could not leave without that book. I took it home and tried to read it slowly.

On Tuesday, I started the day with a coffee at Allelujah at St Kevin’s Arcade, on the say-so of a friendly Texan called Thomas whom I met the day earlier at a vintage clothing store on Queen Street. (I was looking at cowboy boots, and we were both lamenting our weariness; before I knew it, I had a hot tip for breakfast with a view.) After breakfast, I wandered down to the art gallery, where I saw some Colin McCahon paintings, along with the work of a range of Kiwi and international artists. McCahon is often regarded as New Zealand’s most important artist, and his paintings regularly incorporate text—especially lines of scripture—often on dark coloured, brownish and black, backgrounds. Martin Edmond’s book Dark Night: Walking with McCahon (Auckland University Press, 2011) is about McCahon’s brief disappearance in Sydney’s Botanical Gardens in 1984. More than that, it’s about Edmond’s attempt to trace McCahon’s journey during the day in which he was missing, and to examine questions of faith and art in the process. I recently wrote a review of Dark Night (forthcoming shortly in Mascara), so I was particularly keen to see some of McCahon’s work—and I wasn’t disappointed. There’s something slightly disturbing yet also very appealing about the paintings. Something questioning and difficult and brilliant.

After leaving the art gallery, I stumbled across a mural commemorating New Zealand’s suffragettes—a sizable mural, too, and a thrilling thing to find. Of course, New Zealand was the first country in the world that allowed women to vote. Something about the pixilated faces of the women in the mural (above) particularly appeals to me. It allows them to be of their time in a way that a naturalistic portrait might have failed to capture. I love their sternness, still staring down the lens over a century on. It seems that they need to be stern, too: some people have wanted them gone even recently, even as murals. But, fortunately, they remain.

Tuesday evening was my first poetry reading, and it was at Poetry Live, New Zealand’s longest-running poetry event. At a whopping 30-plus years old, this weekly reading series is less a fixture and more an institution.  I showed up to the Thirsty Dog pub on Karagahape Road (universally known as K Road), and met Rachel, Jeremy, Penny, and Tim, co-organisers of the event (Mike is also a member of the team, but couldn’t make it that day). The pub has a high ceiling and long, dramatic burgundy curtains—a suitably theatrical setting for poetry. There was quite a crowd, with an excellent open mic before and after the guest readers. Laurent Dunningham and Luka Lesson, both of whom live in Melbourne, were the other featured readers. Coming from slam and hip-hop backgrounds (Luka recently won the Australian Poetry Slam), both gave powerful and impressive performances that were also strikingly natural. I can’t wait to hear more—and I will, at the Library Bar, Auckland, on Sunday.

 

 

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I discovered a few weeks ago that my poetry collection Electricity for Beginners was highly commended in the Fellowship of Australian Writers’ Anne Elder Award for

2011. The award goes to the work deemed the best debut poetry book of the year in Australia. This year, the winner was the West Australian poet Mags Webster for her collection The Weather of Tongues (Sunline). Vladislav Neklianv’s Another Babylon (UQP) and Fiona Wright’s Knuckled (Giramondo) were commended.

Anne Elder (1918-1976) was a poet and a dancer (like John Chisholm Marten—I wonder if I’ve struck a seam of poet dancers?). Born Anne Macintosh in Auckland, she came to Australia with her parents as a small child. She attended St Catherine’s School for Girls in Toorak, Melbourne and studied ballet with the acclaimed Laurel Martyn. The Australian Dictionary of Biography states that Anne Macintosh danced from 1938 “with Colonel de Basil's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and then as a soloist (1940-44) with the Borovansky Australian Ballet Company.” Some photographs from this latter tenure are available on the National Library’s site. (And reading Borovansky's life story is a very worthwhile way to spend five minutes.)

Elder had a couple of poems published in the Bulletin in the mid-1950s, but only began to publish regularly in the late 1960s. Her first poetry collection, For the Record, was published in 1972 by the Hawthorne Press (Melbourne). A second collection, Crazy Woman and Other Poems, appeared in 1976, the year of Elder’s death. The first Anne Elder Award was presented the following year, and the award continues to this day, drawn from a fund that is administered by Catherine Elder and the Victorian branch of the FAW.

I have been reading For the Record* and admiring its range. “Four Elegies for the Death of Women” is a striking suite; one of its four poems, “The Hard Tribute,” begins

 

Strike her from the teledex;
        she was my mother’s friend,
a masculine woman with a harsh laugh
and masterful with shop assistants;
          not my kind
          so put her from mind.

 

The speaker and the dead woman come across so forcefully, and with such economy and humour. And, because I have a particular fondness for poems about horses, I will leave you with the first lines of “Horse and Mare”, also from For the Record:

 

Last week was horizontal snow driven.
Today the month turns seasonably
and surely to gold. A milky dusk
calls them downhill by habit; slow
they drift in to the leaning thorn and stand,
solids unmoved by the expectation of wind,
where the old shed ribbed like a ruined boat
spells to them shelter, a hulk in the night.
[…]

 

* With thanks to Martin Duwell for letting me borrow his books.

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I was thrilled to learn on Thursday night that I have won a 2012-13 Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship in the category of poetry. I spent part of Thursday night drinking champagne in celebration, because the Marten Bequest provides young Australian artists, writers, and musicians $20000 to spend on travel and further development in their art form. I will be using the money to promote Electricity for Beginners at international readings—I'll write more on that as the time comes—and to participate in intensive writing workshops in Europe and the United States. It's an incredible opportunity, and I still can't quite believe it's happened to me. Of course, being a writer, I grew curious about the Marten Bequest and the man behind it. A little research turned up some fascinating results—and more questions than answers. John Chisholm Marten (1908-1966) was involved with the arts throughout his life. According to AustLit, Marten's first novel, Primavera, was published in 1935 under the pseudonym 'David Lanark.' Marten studied guitar and Spanish dancing in Spain, and went on to teach Spanish dance in Sydney and co-found the Conyn Dance Troupe with Cornelius Conyn. Also with Conyn, he later co-wrote a detective novel, The Bali Ballet Murder (1961) which was published in Sydney and London, and also translated into Dutch and published in the Netherlands.

But what else was there to know about John Marten? I went to the National Library of Australia's Trove service to look through digitised newspapers in search of more information. As it happens, John Chisholm Marten had an older brother, Peter James Chisholm Marten, who mysteriously disappeared from his home in Darlinghurst, Sydney, on December 9, 1926.  Peter Marten was 23 at the time, and John Marten would have been 18. The Adelaide Advertiser reported in 1927 that Marten's "relatives are unable to account for his disappearance, although it is thought he is suffering from a nervous breakdown and loss of memory." There were reports that Marten had approached a sea captain and asked for a job, so it was possible that he had gone to sea. But Peter Marten was never found or heard from again.

Peter Marten came from quite a wealthy family, and he had a large sum of money in the bank when he disappeared: £18 000. Twenty-one years later, with Peter Marten still missing and presumed dead, his estate (now valued at £23 448) was awarded to his brother, John Marten. I guess that, in some way, part of that money went towards the establishment of the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarships. It is a strange, sad story, and the disappearance must have been a terrible burden for John Marten and his mother (his father was already deceased). Since so little seems to be known about John Chisholm Marten, I am pleased to be able to write about his past, but sorry that it included such tragedy.

As I take up my scholarship and move through my roster of events, I will write about them here. For now, though, I just want to thank the people who helped me with my application (including Graham Nunn), the poetry event organisers who've invited me to come and read at their events, the staff of the Trust Company who administer the scholarships, and the judges. Most of all, I am ever so grateful to John Chisholm Marten for bequeathing such wonderful opportunities for so many young Australians.

 

 

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Electricity for Beginners has been reviewed by Fiona Scotney over at Cordite. It's interesting to see what someone else makes of the collection as a whole, and the themes or preoccupations that they see emerging. When you've worked on something for a long time, it's hard to imagine finding it all new. I like what Fiona sees in the book. She makes it feel a little bit new to me.

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My poetry collection Electricity for Beginners has been chosen 'Poetry Pick of 2011' by Sarah Gory, the manager of the Queensland Poetry Festival. Sarah says some wonderful things in her review, which you can read over at Another Lost Shark. Also at Another Lost Shark, Graham Nunn asks me questions and publishes some of my poems in a new month-long series of weekly posts called 'Pin-Ups.' Each month will feature a different poet, and my turn starts on January 6. Stay tuned for more . . .

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