One of the reasons people become slightly awed when you mention you’re doing a doctorate, I think, is the amount of time it takes to complete. “Three years, minimum?” they gasp, as if by the time you will be striding up to the podium on graduation day, you’ll be breathing oxygen from a tank produced by Coca Cola and shaking the cyborg claw of the Vice Chancellor, whose red eyes will glow warmly before he stabs you in the arm with a hypodermic needle, causing you to wake up all sticky inside your Matrix pod feeling annoyed that your illusory perception of physical reality had to come to an end before you had a chance to hit up the bar for some free champagne and canapés.
Let me tell you: three years goes a lot quicker than you think.
Even though I am completing this doctorate part time (which means I have up to eight years to get it done), I still feel that my output so far has been shockingly low. Out of the 30,000 words that I have to produce for my exegesis (a scary-sounding word that rhymes pleasingly with the word ‘Jesus’, making it easy to simultaneously blaspheme and express panic about your doctorate: “Exegesis Christ!”), I have written 3,000. And of those 3,000 words, I have to rewrite approximately 2,000 of them.
So, y’know. If we’re going to liken the writing of an exegesis to the climbing of a mountain, I am essentially still dicking around at base camp in my still-pristine hiking boots, slurping loudly from a mug of whiskey-laced billy tea.
I’d throw myself off a cliff in despair, except that I’d have to actually walk up the cliff to be able to do so.
Confusingly, my supervisor keeps assuring me that I have much to be proud of. So, let’s look back on 2016 and see what came out of it:
Known as ‘Avant Gaga’, the Sappho Poetry Night takes place one a month, and it attracts quite a crowd. Toby Fitch, who is a formidably brilliant poet (and also, incidentally, a nice dude) asked me to perform in April 2016, and I was chuffed (if terrified) to appear on the bill alongside Lachlan Brown, Lindsay Tuggle and Melinda Smith.
It went well. I’m finally starting to feel comfortable in front of a microphone, and comfortable with the idea that people might actually want to hear my poetry – that it might bring them, like, I dunno, pleasure? I read exclusively from my long poem ‘Golden Repair’ and people laughed and were stunned at what seemed to be the right moments.
The icing on the cake was being asked by a random gentleman if he could buy my book. Sadly my book does not as yet exist, but I was astonished to be offered money by a complete stranger for my poetry. Money, for poetry?! Wtf lol.
In July I was asked if I’d like to participate in the official launch of the new recording studio at Western Sydney University. I said yes, and was introduced to Wren – a sublimely talented violinist who is currently also completing a Doctor of Creative Arts at WSU. The idea was that we would work together to create a music + spoken word piece, to be performed at the launch.
I felt like a total sham standing in a recording studio beside a true artist – I hate the sound of my own voice, and so it felt like I was ‘ruining’ the gorgeous music she was making with her violin.
But I wanted to rise to the challenge – ‘rise’ being an appropriate word here, because we ended up creating a piece that used a bird as its central motif. We decided to work with my poem The Come Down – and it was incredible to hear another person create a soundscape around my words that, for want of a better cliché, brought them to life.
Sadly, I don’t yet have the video or audio from the day we performed it! You’ll just have to take my word for it: it went well. We made music together; art. It was wonderful.
Meanwhile, you can check out Wren’s music on her SoundCloud, and here:
Another first: my poem Marrickville was included in the syllabus for creative writing in Semester Two 2016, at WSU.
It has long been my goal to contaminate the minds of youths. So I was extremely pleased.
At the end of the semester, I was invited to their classroom to do a poetry reading, which was surreal and scary and awesome. It was great having a chat with the students afterwards – my ‘message’ essentially was: I was really crap at poetry for a really long time. If you genuinely love the art form, push through and keep going. (Subtext: you too could be a financially crippled 33 year old with chronic anxiety, yeah!)
‘Golden Repair’ is a long poem that began life back in June 2015, when I went to Berkeley. In its current form, it’s ten A4 pages (and around 3,500 words) – which just goes to show how painstaking poetry can be – it takes a long damn time to get it right.
It was only ever an experiment, really – I didn’t know if I was capable of writing a long poem – but I had something enormous inside me that demanded expression, and an ‘epic’ seemed the only solution.
After some hardcore editing, and some blows to my fragile little ego (I didn’t so much have to ‘murder my darlings’ as I had to perform a kind of poetic genocide), I seem to have achieved something… at least, that’s what my co-supervisor reckons.
Whether or not you will see it in book form sometime before the next decade… well. We shall see.
I’m running out of room to go into detail about everything else that happened last year, so let’s summarise:
Started Working at Sappho Books, Glebe
After getting made redundant from my last copywriting job, I idly decided to send my resume to every bookshop in Sydney. I ended up working at the coolest (and most appropriate) bookshop in town – Sappho Books – named after the first female poet. This deserves its own blog post, but just quickly, it’s perfect and it’s changed my life.
Realising that Tutoring and Writing a Thesis are Basically Incompatible
It’s good money! But it’s utterly draining. For this reason, I will not be teaching this year.
Another bloody move, ye gods. Not far – only from Marrickville to Dulwich Hill. But although the move was almost lethally exhausting, I am happier for it.
I had been a doctoral candidate for three years, and I was feeling weary. Then in strolled an Englishman – a bartending poet, no less, and life became very, very lovely. He’s off travelling again now – with my blessing – I need to sit down and write this bloody thing, after all. But he’s given me hope, energy, happiness.
He knows who he is. I am grateful.
My sister asked me what my New Year’s Resolution for 2017 was. My answer: “Write my exegesis”.
February is when it starts in earnest.
It’s really hard! I don’t think I’m smart enough, and I’m still struggling to balance work stuff with social stuff with family stuff with study. If anyone thinks that a humanities PhD is a walk in the park – a ‘phoney qualification’ – think again. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and if I ever manage to graduate, I’ll be wearing that goddamned puffy hat for a month.
But, to (potentially inappropriately) quote Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Heaviness and heat. There’s no way around
the tourists – caught in their resinous slipstream,
I slow to an otiose plod. Cigarette butt confetti
adorns the kerbside where we wait for the green man
while the smell of cremation, barbecue-glazed,
wafts up from Hurricanes (the ribs place
that provides its patrons with bibs). The sun
is a heat lamp, pressed to the roof of our terrarium.
Since October, the bridge across Darling Harbour
has been rigged with speakers so pedestrians can listen
to Frosty the Snowman on forty degree days.
Christmas is inevitable, inexorable, more so
than death – no amount of running on a treadmill
can prevent it; the date is set. The conveyor belt
of days and weeks has been getting faster,
but within the day’s oppressive slowness
is stillness – the sensation of time expanding
like hot glass softly expanding; a wobbling
blister of breath. Skyscrapers have replaced
cathedrals as structures of grandeur and might,
and the hush of ducted air conditioning
is a kind of breathing. My office window frames
peace; I keep the blind open to witness ugliness
receding. With time enough and distance,
suffering transmutes into wisdom. A plane
glides between buildings. All of us are loved.
My boyfriends take life too seriously. All except
for the Drunk of course, but what drove me away
was not the drink but his opinions – which he clung to
like jewellery in his clenched and shaking fists.
My boyfriends are addicted to their distractions
and whenever I tell them they’re lost in the dream
they ignore me because I’m a chick. I wouldn’t care
except that pleasure is greater when shared
and although they can be sitting right beside me
they’re very rarely there. We’re in the midst
of a spiritual drought, which is to say the self-serving
egocentrics have got us completely surrounded.
Nowhere is this pervasive uniformity more visible
than on Tinder, where requests for a partner
in crime are combined with snapshots of generic guys
drinking and water-skiing and mountaineering
as if to say: I’m a free spirit! Yeah, right.
When I ponder the reasons why I’m single,
I blame myself. I’m too proud, too weird,
too obviously baggage-ridden; too difficult.
I feel bad for the ones who do make the effort
which is why I’m always the one to end it;
a mercy. Then it’s back yet again to the dating
game, alone with my own brain, staving off
craziness however I can, as I pace back and forth
in my poems and pray: give me a man who’s awake.
Note: the title is borrowed from the album ‘Lost in the Dream‘ by The War on Drugs.
Taking part in this music video was a (Herculean) dream come true!
It was filmed during winter in a chilly warehouse in Camperdown. We just about froze our tits off! But it was worth it. So, so worth it.
Just wanted to share. 🙂
It was an honour and pleasure to speak with Alice Allan this week on the Poetry Says podcast. I was a huge fan of the Australian Poetry Podcast, and I’m thrilled that Alice has picked up the poetry podcasting gauntlet.
You can listen to our interview here: Episode 8.
Alice had asked me to talk about a poem that I really loved, so I went totally over the top and spoke instead about two entire collections: Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy, and Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies.
We also had a bit of a chat at the end about my recent (and somewhat infamous) poem Marrickville.
Thanks Alice! That was super fun!
A version of this poem was published earlier this year, but I was never completely happy with it. This is the redrafted version.
xxxxxxxxxthe word derives from Mesmer,
a German guy who spoke of animal magnetism,
of energy transference. Mesmer, with his swirling
pinwheel eyes that paralyse the mind and slow down
time, the swoon on the cusp of an epiphany, a dream
that’s neither good nor bad but interesting.
Standing in my lover’s light I’m caught
like a child in a doorway looking up at a giant
and his meanness dissolves as he carries me
like a tombola prize with my feet dangling
through the sky. But like so many boys, he’s rough
with his toys, and plastic can only be pushed so far
before it will snap. Yet whenever I crack
he’s always the one to come back, waving
his wine-stained peace rag, his voice casting spells
and his eyes like magnets, electrified –
and the whole thing starts again.
What ‘faith’ means in the modern age
is getting up and going about your business
day after day after day after day
without asking for a miracle.
A miracle – two eyes and a face
witnessing your witnessing,
and the weird relaxation that comes
from realising we’re all the same.
An act of creativity is always an act
of optimism, and the willingness to love
is always brave. Yet there is godliness
in solitude, and pleasure in waiting.
The hopeful suspense, the anticipation.
It’s the reason why we cover the eyes
of the person who is to be given a surprise –
it’s the juxtaposition of darkness and light
that jolts the dreamer alert to the fact
they’re alive. Suffering, like everything,
exists in the mind. You can change it –
that’s what faith is. You need it to survive.
In July 2015 I travelled to California to attend a poetry conference. It was actually just a coincidence that Luke Davies (the poet whose work I am studying) happened to be at his home in LA while I was there, but it was a blessed week, and (after some serious prodding from my supervisor) I arranged to meet him for an interview.
I am not a journalist, and I am also not an excessively confident person, but despite these impediments I managed to do it without having a seizure or vomiting on myself. Even better, I was able to cobble together enough material from the ‘interview’ to pitch it to Meanjin, and (gods be praised!) they accepted it.
It’s out now!
Note: ‘Poets on Porches Drinking Tea’ is a nod to ‘Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee‘. I’m an enormous fan of Jerry Seinfeld, and I actually think there are many parallels between poetry and comedy.
Anyway. I’m so happy to see it in print. Cheers Luke, you are the coolest poet to do a doctorate on; all my PhD buddies are jealous.