Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Leonard Cohen World Tour 2010

When it was first announced that Leonard Cohen was coming to Charlottetown to play one night - May 18, 2008 - I didn’t even consider going as I knew I was going to be off-Island. But if I had, I would have been terribly disappointed: the Homburg Theatre at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, which holds 1,102 people, sold out at $72 a pop in a record 52 minutes. To add insult to injury, so many people tried to buy tickets online that they crashed the Confed Centre’s website. It was unheard-of.

I consoled myself with the fact that maybe he’d be playing in Vancouver while I was there, but alas he was not… and I only got to hear the reviews from friends: “a phenomenal concert,” “the best I’ve ever been to,” “the old guy still has it,” “he sang for over three hours without a break,” “his back-up singers and band were fantastic,” “what a professional,” “he’s still got what it takes.” Hmm… Jealous? Yup.

And then there was the Leonard Cohen tribute concert in April in Victoria, organized by my friend Henry Dunsmore because he was one of the many disappointeds who couldn’t get a ticket. It was a memorable night, where so many of Leonard’s songs came alive for me, sung by friends of all ages, with the fabulous house band of Jon Rehder, Remi Arsenault, Reg Ballagh, Michael Mooney, and Peter Bevan-Baker. It was especially wonderful because it was the first time Mike and I sang together in public – me with “Suzanne” and him with “That’s No Way to Say Good-bye,” backing each other up with harmonies. Sigh…

Little did I know then that I’d get my chance to see the real Leonard Cohen only months later. Not in Charlottetown, Halifax, or Vancouver, but in Hobart, Tasmania. It was The Leonard Cohen World Tour 2010.
 I can’t remember where I first heard that he was coming – but it was pretty soon after I had arrived. I went online to see if I could get tickets, but the cheap ones ($139!) were gone. And as much as I wanted to see this Canadian poetry icon, I couldn’t justify a $194 “good seat” – not on a student’s budget. Pete’s wife Anna suggested I might be able to find a cheaper ticket by checking out the classifieds in the Mercury (the local paper) – but in the end, it was word-of-mouth, the most powerful purveyor of information, that got me there. I happened to mention all this to Ralph Wessman (publisher of Famous Reporter and Walleah Press) and Jane Williams (poet extraordinaire) on the drive to Launceston for the Poetry Festival in early October. From the driver’s seat Ralph piped up that an e-mail had just come around his office that day – apparently someone from Canberra had bought two of the expensive tickets for himself and his partner. When he went home and said, honey, guess where we’re going November 15, she said, honey, I don’t like Leonard Cohen. (I’m thinkin’ that might be grounds for divorce in my house!) So he was trying to sell hers for $150. I said to Ralph: please send me his e-mail address! So on Monday, he did; I fired off an e-mail; and Andrew in Canberra said sure, you can have it… see you on the 15th. He put the ticket in the mail; I transferred money into his account; the ticket arrived; I showed it off to my fellow students at Tuesday tea and cake time. Then he decided to sell his ticket, too. Turns out he could get to the concert at Hanging Rock (yes, an outdoor concert on Nov. 20 under the stars at the iconic Hanging Rock!) more easily than coming to Tasmania (after all, we ARE an island here!). I sent around an e-mail to the Geography Department saying there was another ticket available, and it went, too.
I knew that Pete and Anna, along with their friends Derek and Jan, had bought their tickets six months ago… so I boldly asked if I could hitch a ride with them. They said sure – so we left Monday after work to drive to the Derwent Entertainment Centre (an arena-type venue that seats 5,000) a short distance outside the city. Anna suggested that we go early to beat the traffic, and have a picnic supper. Of course it was raining, so we sat in lawn chairs underneath an overhang by the utility entrance and had Anna’s marvelous salmon quiche, Jan’s salad made with greens from their garden, Laurie’s chocolate cupcakes (surprise, surprise), and some wine from Stewart’s wine cellar (he told me I could help myself, really!).
When the doors finally opened, the rest of my happy party went in one direction and I went off on my own to find my seat. I felt just like I did boarding the Icelandair flight in New York City to discover that I was in Business Class: my seat was fantastic! I was down on the main floor, seven rows from the front, and right in the middle. I waved to my friends in the nosebleeds…  After a while the woman who bought Andrew’s other ticket came along: Anne Hughes. Of course she knew Pete and Anna (after all, this IS an island!). Her musician partner and Pete had collaborated on some music and poetry events in the past. We marveled at our good fortune, and she said she quite enjoyed getting to know our ticket seller. He told her to watch out for the homesick Canadian who would be sitting next to her…
Before settling in to my seat, I wandered around a little, checking out the stage and the merchandise... 
When one of the ushers noticed I had purchased some of the merchandise, we struck up a conversation. She told me that a group of 22 teenagers were sitting just behind where we were standing. So, curious as to why such young kids would be there, I went over to talk to them. Apparently they had written a fan letter to Leonard Cohen, telling him that they play some of his songs in their band at school. So Cohen’s manager wrote back from Beverly Hills – and offered them 22 free tickets. Talk about class! The kids, from Eastside Lutheran College (along with a couple of dad chaperones), could hardly sit still – they were THAT excited. They said that “Hallelujah” was their favourite.
So... what can I say? The concert was amazing. Leonard came out in his signature fedora and black suit, and from the moment he opened his mouth to sing “Dance Me to the End of Love,” he had us in his the palm of his hand. His voice is just as deep and gravelly as it ever was, his lyrics as poignant. He plays guitar on several of his songs, and a tiny preprogrammed electric piano on one. (He joked that he doubted that anyone else had that kind of technology…) At the age of 75, he can get down on his knees to sing – and back up again without missing a beat – which he did regularly. It was especially touching when he knelt in front of his guitar/bandurria/laud/archilaud-player, Javier Mas from Spain, or sang with and to his musical collaborator and back-up singer Sharon Robinson (who co-wrote and produced his 2001 album, Ten New Songs), and to Charley and Hattie Webb, his other two singers. (I want to be a back-up singer when I grow up. Although I’ll never be able to do cartwheels in tandem like they do!) He interacted with everyone on stage, and twice introduced – or, rather, paid homage to - each of them with descriptors that only Leonard the Poet could pull out of his black fedora: sublime, impeccable, high priest of precision, shepherd of strings, signature of steady, architect of the arpeggio... 
Even though they’ve been doing the show for three years, and this is their second time through Australia, the act was fresh and exciting. He even mentioned "Hobart" in one of the songs, so the audience knew that he knew where he was... You could tell that everyone in the band loved being on stage with him, and Leonard’s appreciation for them was obvious. Indeed, an article in one of the papers talked about the family atmosphere he creates, and the mutual respect they each have for the other – Leonard treats them like equals. And it shows.
The first half of the show was great, but it wasn’t until after the intermission that I found myself engaging emotionally. Sure I was excited to be in the presence of a Canadian poetry icon... and to be with other like-minded people so far away from Canada was amazing... But I didn't feel that real connection with the music until after the break. The second half was simply fantastic. Maybe the songs were more upbeat, or maybe they were all really getting into the groove. There wasn’t much banter – and what there was was poetry. Real Leonard Cohen poetry. Spoken by Leonard Cohen. Like the way he did “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” It made me remember kisses. How good they can be.
Sharon Robinson did Boogie Street, with Leonard and the rest of the band doing back-up. Dino Soldo, “the master of breath,” who plays all the wind instruments – and on this song a soulful saxophone that brought much applause - was totally in awe of her performance, pushing back all the accolades to her. And the Webb Sisters did a gorgeous duet in one of the THREE encores. Leonard bounded on the stage at 8:15 p.m., and bounded off at 11:40 (with “Closing Time”), with a 20-minute break in the middle. Stamina or what…
I can’t say that it’s the absolute best concert I ever went to – but then I'm hard-pressed to name the best concert I ever went to. (Maybe Billy Joel when I was 18 and my ex-boyfriend bought me a ticket – one ticket – so I had to go on my own to the Vancouver Coliseum… memories of that experience no doubt mixed up in memories of cruel teenage love gone wrong…) But Leonard Cohen would be a close second for me. I just wish my sweetie, who bought me the ticket for my birthday, had been able to share the magic, too! (I bought him a T-shirt… I know, I know, such a cliché…)

Here’s the set list, courtesy of Maarten Massa...

Dance Me To The End Of Love
The Future
Ain’t No Cure For Love
Bird On The Wire
Everybody Knows
In My Secret Life
Who By Fire
The Darkness
Chelsea Hotel #2
Waiting For The Miracle

Tower Of Song
A Singer Must Die
Sisters Of Mercy
The Gypsy’s Wife
The Partisan
Boogie Street
I'm Your Man
A Thousand Kisses Deep (poem)
Take This Waltz

So Long, Marianne
First We Take Manhattan

Famous Blue Raincoat
If It Be Your Will
Closing Time

Photo from the souvenir program (Dominique Issermann)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

“Manifold Gifts of Place”

John Cameron is a lovely man. You know it to look at him, you know it when you read his work, you know it to hear him, and you know it to talk to him.

I’d first heard of John when I went to Bruny Island with Pete and Anna, just after I arrived in Tasmania. Pete told the story about their neighbours, John, a retired academic and his artist partner Vicki, who had bought a shack on Bruny just down the road from theirs after visiting them for a few days. It was a story about serendipity – which involved a canoe, a photograph, and a heron that kept moving – which I stored somewhere deep in my memory bank. Later when Pete gave me a copy of a book John edited, called changing places: re-imagining australia, I sort of made the connection with John and Bruny, but not quite. Even after I met John, at Linn Millar’s Friday Forum on “Telling Places in Country,” and we’d had a wonderful conversation about islands and place, it didn’t click. But it was during our conversation that he told me about the essays he’s writing for an American academic journal devoted to phenomenology. His Letters from Far South are imaginative pieces that chronicle his explorations into Goethean science but which are firmly grounded in his and Vicki’s experience of living on Bruny Island. It was in his first letter that I read the story of the canoe and the photograph and the heron that kept moving. And the penny, as they say, dropped.
So when I heard that John was slated to speak at Friday Forum on October 29, I knew I had to spend some time with his letters, to get to know more about this man and his story. It was the most enjoyable reading about place and attachment to place that I’ve done to date. If all my background theoretical reading could be like that, this PhD business will be a breeze. (But I already know it’s not!) 

John is a storyteller and a scientist, a poet and a philosopher… a keen observer of his surroundings using all his senses, including the sixth one which science doesn’t usually allow a place for. Formerly a senior lecturer in Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney, he taught place theory grounded in experiential learning and field trips, and founded a series of five national "Sense of Place” colloquia (which, unfortunately, are no longer running). I urge you to check out his letters - elegant in style and generous in spirit.

Letter from Far South: the story of how a canoe and a photograph and a heron allowed him and Vicki to make Bruny Island their permanent residence;
The house on Bruny Island (photo by Jenny Scott)
 Second Letter from Far South: “seeing with the heart” the geomorphology of Bruny’s Blackstone Bay;
Third Letter from Far South: Inhabiting Intercultural History: how, in a manner bordering on the surreal, they acquired "Blackstone," a beautiful and historically significant piece of prime waterfront land adjacent to theirs when it was meant to be sold for big bucks at auction; on it they had discovered a sod hut dating back to 1829 when George Augustus Robinson was beginning his “Friendly Mission” on Bruny Island;

Fourth Letter from Far South: how they’ve learned to reduce their ecological footprint without falling victim to what environmental critics call the “mentality of lack” – eloquently described through the learning curve they undertook when they decided to generate their own electricity; and
Fifth Letter from Far South: A Question of Action: The Grasstree Story: what they’ve learned about the fragilities of life and the complexities of ecological systems through applying Goethean science to the grasstrees on their land, some of which are dying.
John’s talk on Friday, then, was entitled “The Manifold Gifts of Place: Stories from Blackstone, Bruny Island.” With Vicki’s photographs, paintings, drawings, and sculptures playing out on the screen over his shoulder, he talked about the abundant gifts he’s received since moving to Bruny – starting with what the heron gave them: life on Bruny itself, as well as the gift of attentiveness. (But he admitted, like most of us, he often needs to remind himself to put down his pen and pay attention.)

“The gift of Bruny is a daily reminder of a way of being,” he said. “We are learning to live within our ecological means. The more I accept these gifts and the limitations that come with them, the more I accept the sense of abundance in life.”
Basing his talk on gift theory as presented in Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (Vintage Books, 1999), John said that to receive these gifts is not a passive act; it must be reciprocated, or passed on, because the gift that does not move loses its property. Each time a gift is passed on, it increases in value: physical, social (creating community and connectivity), and spiritual. It becomes, then, a “labour of gratitude.” He said that the sense of indebtedness is part of the labour of gratitude, as is the need to communicate what they have experienced through their creative work: John’s writing, which helps him to make sense of their life on Bruny, and has become an integral part of his life there; Vicki’s sculptures, paintings, photography and illustrated poetry which are a direct response to Blackstone's natural environment and the traumatic post-colonial history of Bruny; their petition to the Tasmanian Heritage Council to protect the remains of Robinson’s sod hut; and their involvement in the Bruny Island community. Indeed, one of their acts has been to regenerate their 55 acres of degraded paddocks by replanting it with thousands of trees with the aim of creating sanctuary for wildlife. He said, “When we first came, there was a feeling of melancholy that permeated the land, through the story of Robinson and Truganini, and the loss of habitat for the animals [through land clearance and sheep grazing]. Aboriginal friends have told us that the land here is quieter now.”
 He ended with the thought that "gift exchange with place is a wonderful way to bring practical expression to philosophical ideas such as the need to develop reciprocity with the more-than-human world.”

Partway through the talk, I wrote the word “grace” in the margin of my notebook. This fits John to a “t.” His writing made me think of some of my friends who try to live lightly on the earth; indeed, on Friday afternoon, before the talk, I’d sent links to John’s letters to some of them, hoping that their gift might provide some kind of affirmation that what they’re doing is a good thing – just in case they ever need it. And it makes me aware – before “mental turbulence” takes over – of the gift I’ve been given: to be here on this beautiful island, to be learning new things and to be making new friends. I realize that I am privileged at this stage of my life, just as John and Vicki are, to be in a position that many can never be, for whatever reason (quite often financial!). And that is to do what you love, and follow where your heart takes you.
John Cameron (left) with Peter McQuillan (Geography professor whose office is just down the hall from mine)

A few words about Goethean science, based on an article of John’s called "Place, Goethe and Phenomenology: A Theoretic Journey." He wrote this in response to a conversation he had with phenomenology guru David Seamon (who created and maintains the American academic journal where John’s essays can be found). In encouraging John to recognize the enormous value of the experiential teaching practices he had developed and to go even deeper into phenomenological enquiries with his students, he suggested looking at Goethe’s precepts, which followed “an intuitive approach” to wholeness rather than an intellectual approach “in which natural phenomena are explained through generalization and abstraction by underlying mathematical laws” (181).

Goethe suggested different stages, beginning with active looking at an object, then visualizing “what has been observed in as much detail as possible entirely in the imagination”; and, in so doing, developing an “exact sensorial imagination.”

John then explored the concepts with two people who were theorists and practitioners of Goethean science: Henri Bortoft (his book is The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe’s Way Towards a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature (NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1996)) and Isis Brook (her 1998 paper is entitled “Goethean science as a way to read landscape” in Landscape Research, 23(1)).

Henri Bortoft described the first two of Goethe’s stages as visualizing a phenomenon using the “space behind the eye,” then moving down the body to the chest to visualize it from “the heart space.” Between his work, and that of Isis Brooks, the four stages are as follows: 1) to observe an object carefully and draw it in detail by looking at it directly and then from memory; 2) to experience “exact sensorial imagination,” where you perceive “the time-life of the phenomenon, seeing it as a being with a past and a future and imagining, visualizing what these are” (185). 3) to “draw out the gesture” or “impulse” of the object, by drawing or describing it over and over again (you can also use a creative medium such as clay or sculpture or poetry, which certainly caught my attention); which will then allow the object to “reveal its essential nature” (this part takes lots of practice!); and 4) “intuiting the responsibility that accompanies coming to know another being from the inside” (188) and passing it on to others in the best way you know how.

In the paper John describes clearly his own first attempts at getting to know a place, in this instance, a granite tor on the Cornish coast of England. And he says that his letters are further attempts at developing what Goethe called bildung, “the schooling of intuitive faculties in the practitioner, which enables greater sensitivity and more holistic awareness of the natural world” (Fifth Letter).

The practice reminds me of a writing exercise I did once with Nova Scotia nature poet Harry Thurston at the Tatamagouche Centre years ago. He asked us to sit with an object in nature, to observe it and to draw it, then to describe it in words using freefall writing or a list – whatever we were comfortable with. Then he asked us to become it, to write its life force, again using freefall. Then finally we were to infuse meaning into it and to shape it into a poem. I’ve included it below.

All this is making me wonder about islands: is it possible to understand that “intangible” of islands - what makes islands special and so attractive to so many people – islandness, if you will - through this process? I’ll let you know...



Your roots go deep, but not deep enough to reach the river 
where I see you splayed slippery on the bank’s muddy edge, 
branches a crazy quilt weave of limbs, leaf tips trailing like 
a child’s fingers over the side of a boat or a woman washing 
her hair.

Instead you’re here in this barren field, yellowy leaves with 
spotted underbellies tired in sun that etches fissures into your 
bark, skin a crusty scab.

Blink, I look again. Your knots wink as finger-thin branches 
beckon me in.

Drawn to your shade, I nestle in the whale’s-eye hollow at 
your base, welcome your cool canopy, live branches like 
the ribs of an umbrella overhead, dead ones stiff as Medusa’s 
snakes turned to stone.

My skin wakens to the crunch of your fallen leaves, urged to
life with air currents that play me along. Veined leaves tributaried 
as the insides of my eyelids, I fill my hands with them and 
slide them down, down, between my fingers, my tongue, leave 
traces of my oils, close my eyes and see me growing into you 
on your riverbank, your leaf whisper later the only sound I hear.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Small Island Dreaming

If I didn’t know it before I came here, I do now: the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre is an integral and vibrant part of the Tasmanian artistic scene. With their fabulous website and resource centre, reading series, writing competitions, writing workshops, residencies, mentorships, and, of course, the PEI-Tasmania Writers’ Exchange, Director Chris Gallagher and the Centre are doing amazing things for this island’s writers. As the founding president, former treasurer, and long-time member of the PEI Writers’ Guild, I know how hard it is to offer programming that suits a wide range of interests and experience, and to do it, as Pete says, on “the smell of an oily rag.” Chris has the knack – and the tenacity and drive and vision - to pull it all together.

So when she realized that Deirdre and I were going to be here in Hobart at the same time – Deirdre in the Writers’ Cottage for the month of October, writing and doing consultations with writers, and me studying - she quickly invited us to be part of their regular monthly reading series at the Lark (a local whisky distillery near the waterfront). In keeping with earlier formats, she invited Pete Hay to lead us “in conversation.”

The Lark is comfortable and informal – conducive to literature and music, and, of course, those interested in a wee dram. There were 20-30 people in the audience, and, not too surprisingly, some familiar faces. After all, everyone says, it’s Hobart! I counted five publishers or former publishers there: my good friend Ralph Wessman from Famous Reporter and Walleah Press, Warren Boyles from 40 South, Anne Kellas (Roaring Forties Press and the online journal, The Write Stuff), Lyn Reeves from Pardalote Press, and Anica Boulanger-Mashberg from Island (who, in true small island fashion, was also working for the Hobart Bookshop that evening). Ralph Forehead’s lovely flamenco guitar got everyone in the mood for listening. It was a lovely audience – so attentive and responsive – any writer’s dream! And Terry Beach, whom I'd met at Anne Kellas's "Poetry Alive" class, kindly agreed to take a few photos with my camera.

But, in the event, the evening had to go to Pete and his questions. I’d already been interviewed by Annie Warburton on ABC Radio's Statewide Evenings (go to the blog entry for October 25) earlier in the week, which was chatty and fun and, I hope, somewhat informative and inspiring to get people thinking about islands. But Pete’s questions were MUCH harder, probed MUCH deeper into what it is to dream islands… especially Prince Edward Island and Tasmania.
He started off by asking why both islands seem to have so many poets. I recalled then when I first thought of doing my Master of Arts in Island Studies, I toyed with the idea of seeing if the size of PEI and Newfoundland had an effect on what their writers produced. This was based on my observation that there’s an inordinate amount of poetry coming from PEI, and a similarly prodigious output of “big” novels from Newfoundland. Could it be because PEI is small and compact, which suits the form of poetry, and Newfoundland is huge, which suits epic novels? Could it be that somehow your writing is bound by the limit of your horizons? But in focusing in on my topic of islandness, I decided that there are so many other factors – not just geography – that this couldn’t be attributed to “islandness.” (After all, you can have prairie literature, mountain literature, urban literature, and people writing about the prairies who live on mountainous islands!) So I did something else (in the end, my thesis explored island identity in the fiction of Wayne Johnston and Alistair MacLeod).

But now I’m here, and Tasmania is huge, too, and there is more poetry being produced than fiction, so geography can’t be the only factor. I went on to talk about PEI’s strong storytelling tradition, and the language rich in metaphors, which Alan Buchanan has talked about in his stage show, “Hedgerow” (especially his neighbour in Belfast, Harry McTavish). And the influences of early teachers at SDU and UPEI – poets like Frank Ledwell and John Smith and Reshard Gool; the shadow of Milton Acorn; and people like Ella Chappell who authored many of the rhyming poems that were a regular part of the Guardian years ago… Deirdre talked about the influence of LM Montgomery – who had written over 500 poems and loved writing poetry – how she shaped the landscape for poetry, had recognized that the light and vibrant colours, the size of the island, and the landscape are so conducive to poetry. I suppose in a way Deirdre was echoing my earlier thoughts about landscape and poetry, so I think it’s worth exploring further. And I wish now that I’d asked Pete why he thinks there are so many poets in Tasmania! 

Pete then asked his next question - about the similarities and differences between PEI and Tasmania – with the recognition that we were both pretty new to Tasmania so these would just be first impressions. The landscape is the obvious difference – the three-dimensionality of Hobart, with Mt. Wellington and Mt. Nelson rolling spectacularly down to the sea, compared with our gentle hills that pillow out before us like a tangle of legs under a blanket. There’s the size and the population – both MUCH bigger… Charlottetown is almost the same latitude north of the equator as Hobart is south. Deirdre mentioned the indigenous peoples: our Mi’kmaq and Tasmania’s Aboriginals. I forgot to say that the people are very similar to home: everywhere I go I see people who remind me of someone on PEI. (The other evening I leaned over to Deirdre and said, see that guy sitting there with his black hat? Doesn’t he look like Chris Kenny? She had to agree!)

Pete noted that one obvious difference is that Tasmanians aren’t as publicly aware of the fact that they live on an island. He mentioned that the host of the ABC evening newscast introduces the weather by saying, “The weather across the state today…” whereas Boomer says, “The weather across the Island today…” (I piped up that maybe they should start a petition to change that…)

He also mentioned that Tasmanians aren’t nearly as polite as Prince Edward Islanders – that there are deep hatreds that divide families – hatreds that stem from different visions of how people see their island (particularly in forestry and other resources). He talked about being known on Prince Edward Island for his “rants” (particularly about the state of our democracy – or lack thereof; he’s on record as decrying our first-past-the-post system of voting, arguing passionately instead for proportional representation). He said those weren’t “rants” at all! 

Another difference is that Tasmania seems to be more honest in its myth-making than PEI is. Their historic “stains,” such as convict history and Aboriginal history, receive greater acknowledgement than ours do. For instance, he described leading a field trip (part of a course in the Master of Arts in Island Studies program) to PEI’s North Shore last year, which both Deirdre and I had been part of, and said how he told us to listen for a lynx or a moose or a bear when we went into the woods on the way to the Bubbling Spring in the PEI National Park. We all laughed and said we didn’t have any of those. He replied, “Well you used to. So now I want you to listen for the absences…” We stopped laughing. We then went to a cemetery near Darnley on the North Shore, where none of us had been before - and yet he seemed to know about it. The tiny overgrown cemetery was filled with markers for hundreds of the young men who had died in the Yankee Gale - and he told us that the North Shore is dotted with cemeteries just like this one. He reminded us that the Yankee Gale was one of the biggest storms in our history, yet it’s a story that’s not a part of PEI’s mythology – not like “the birthplace of Confederation” or “Anne of Green Gables.” (Someone later asked me the year of the Yankee Gale, and I had to ask Pete… 1851…  I was suitably chagrined…)

The evening wasn’t all conversation – as stimulating as it was… We each read several poems – Deirdre dipping into her book, Afternoon Horses, as well as reading a poem she’d written about the field trip mentioned above – and I reading from my manuscript, “I’m Here for the Music.” I started with “What the Apple Lady Says,” inspired by a story that Margie Carmichael told me last year when our writing group had its annual writing retreat at a house on the Brudenell River, near Montague. Afterward Ralph Wessman asked if he could publish it in Famous Reporter.  I said sure! Wow!
We prevailed upon Pete to read some of his poetry, too. He said later that he doesn’t get the opportunity very often to read in Tasmania, and that some of his poems, including his wonderful poem about “Gentle Annie” was getting its first public airing here. (He had read it a couple times in Charlottetown.)

Because I’d spent two hours snugged up against a smoky keg of whisky, my first stop after the reading was at the bar to get a sample of the stuff that had been teasing my nosehairs all evening. It was smooth going down – though I much prefer the peatier stuff – Joe Sherman, who taught me to drink scotch whisky 19 years ago in his kitchen on Edinburgh Drive, would be proud.

Pete then introduced us to two of his “best mates”: the novelist Richard Flanagan and “the great riverman” Marcus Morse (who is also doing his PhD with Pete). We then closed down the Lark, and went on to Knopwoods, where we sampled a few glasses of “Wizard Smith’s” and “White Rabbit.”

We proceeded to close that one down, too, but that’s another story…

Monday, October 25, 2010

Songlines and storylines...

I had the opportunity to return to Launceston this past week, to attend the Association for the Study of Literature, Environment and Culture – Australia & New Zealand (ASLEC-ANZ) conference called “Sounding the Earth: Music, Language and Acoustic Ecology.” Organized by UTas Research Associate CA. Cranston, who lives in Launceston – along with several other helping hands from ASLEC! - the conference brought together approximately 50 scholars from Tasmania, the mainland, England, and the US and Canada, from disciplines ranging from English Literature and Anthropology to Cultural Studies and Geography. There was also a performance component featuring musicians, dancers and writers (including PEI’s own Deirdre Kessler!). The conference revolved around the role of sound: bird song, Aboriginal song, city soundscapes, country soundscapes, “making waves in the ocean of air” (which is where my talk on island culture and identity was situated), stories, poetry, animal sounds, and absence of animal sound (e.g., animals - like the extinct thylacine or Tasmanian tiger).

The opening of the conference was so amazing that I had to share… For me, it was pretty much the highlight of the conference (although there were some other amazing presentations!). As Kate Booth (a recent UTas Geography PhD graduate and another student of Pete’s) said, after the keynote address on Thursday morning, “I can just go home now.”

The conference began Thursday morning, Oct. 21, with “Welcome to Country” by Dyan Summers, a Tasmanian Aboriginal, and her husband Ronnie Summers, an elder from Cape Barren Island, located off the northeast coast of Tasmania. I was curious about the usage of the word “Country” without a qualifier; it wasn’t “Welcome to the Country,” or “Welcome to our Country,” but “Welcome to Country.” But what it seems to mean – and I may have this wrong – is “Welcome to our homeland, a land that was taken from us by colonizers, a land that we are now sharing with you. We call it Country.” Over the two days, several conference presenters prefaced their talks with an acknowledgement that they are on land that once belonged to the original inhabitants, Tasmanian’s Aboriginal peoples, thanking them for the privilege of being here. It was a lovely and respectful way to begin.

Dyan invited her husband to sing a song she had written: “The Songlines of the Moonbird.” A moonbird is a muttonbird, the harvesting of which ("muttonbirding") is a cultural tradition for Aboriginal Tasmanians from Cape Barren Island. The birds are collected for their oil, which apparently has healing properties - akin to our cod liver oil in the northern hemisphere, and, I understand, just as foul-tasting. Ronnie is a descendant of the Trawl-wool-way and Palawa people, and author of Tasmanian Songman, Ronnie (a book with accompanying CD).

Following this was a presentation by Bruce Watson, a folksinger-songwriter from Melbourne. 
As part of his Powerpoint, he showed us a photograph of Fanny Cochrane Smith, “the last Tasmanian” (1834-1905), taken in 1903. Fanny is singing a song, in her native tongue, into the long brass tube of an Edison phonograph, which was being operated by Horace Watson, a relative of the people who started Keen’s Curry in Hobart in 1841. I only learned of Keen’s Curry about a week ago (though I certainly have Keen’s Mustard Powder in my kitchen cupboard at home; it turns out the mustard people eventually bought out the curry people). One of Hobart’s attractions is the unusual sign for Keen’s Curry - made of white stones on a hill overlooking Hobart. Apparently, it’s been there since 1915, and from time to time “larrikins” (the word used here for hooligans) or even political activists sneak up the hill in the middle of the night and rearrange the stones to read messages reflecting the tenor of the times, such as "HELLS CURSE" or "NO CABLE CAR."

Anyway, Fanny sang some traditional songs in her language, and the recording is now the only record of her language, a language that has since died out. Bruce played us a clip from the recording: a voice, high and haunting, with an unmistakable rhythm, and even though you don’t know what it is she’s saying, her voice stays with you - notes that have survived over a century even though the language is gone… sound waves captured not in memory but in wax… Here are some photos of the cylinders located in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, along with the photo; in the interactive display you can press a button to hear some of the recording. (I learned afterward from a security guard that I wasn’t allowed to be taking photos… oops… sorry! I beg for forgiveness…)

After his talk, Bruce invited Ronnie to join him in singing his song, “The Man and the Woman and the Edison Phonograph.” The evocative melody and lyrics are still rattling around my brain – symbolic of a time and place and a way of life that is disappeared: “The song lives on, but the singers are gone.”

Now this is where I want you to go on YouTube to listen to the song for yourself.  It starts with the photo, and a clip of Fanny singing, then moves onto the song, recorded recently at a folk festival on the mainland. When you’re done - and make sure you stay til the end! - come back and I’ll tell you the audience’s reaction…
I don’t think very many of us made the connection between Bruce Watson, the man with the guitar standing before us, and Horace Watson, the man with the phonograph, so the last lines of the song hit us like the proverbial tidal wave: “The man had a son and that man had a son and that man had a son and that son is me.” (I remember gasping just before he got to the end, knowing full well what was coming…) And then Ronnie sang these lines: “And that woman had a son, and that son had a daughter, and that daughter had a son, and he had a son, and that son was me.” At first I thought he was just echoing Bruce, but when he got to the word “daughter” I knew he had to be Fanny’s descendant... And then the tears started. And I looked beside me and Kate was crying, and I looked around me and others were weeping, too… tissues coming out of pockets… the applause… Bruce and Ronnie both so moved…

It really was hard to wrench us out of the mood and move on to the next part of the conference, but CA. persevered. Good thing, too, as John Bradley, an Anthropology professor from Monash University in Melbourne, was simply amazing. His talk was entitled “Earth embedded song and human amplifiers: A case study of songline knowing.” John is the author of Singing Saltwater Country: Journey to the songlines of Carpentaria. The Gulf of Carpentaria is Yanyuwa Country; and his talk was about the politics of place. These islands on the west coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria is where John has chosen to do his work on songlines - the invisible threads of connection that wait to be voiced by humans, who are the “amplifiers.” The songs and stories have agency; he says, “Each song is a keyhole into another world,” and humans are a part of that narrative, embedded in the songs.  To “sing Country” is the ultimate way to know a place. If songs are no longer sung in Country, there will be no Country left – and the land will be silenced. (I found this resonated tremendously with my work, which phenomenologist Edward Relph - one of my theory guys - calls “placelessness.”)

John ended his presentation with three videos, animations in which he was “animating Country.” He was pleased to show us what technology can do, and that not ALL technology is bad… The films are intended to help us grasp the idea of a songline: “We draw so we can begin to see inside the song, to see what kin might be – animals, plants…” And it worked. With his voice in our ears… the visuals in front of us… the characters that were created… the effect was VERY powerful: I can now understand how songlines and storylines connect us all, in everything we do. I had a visceral reaction to the rainbow serpent in the last video (snakes do that to me, so you know it must have been excellent animation!). Then someone asked a question about the power of the serpent in the Aboriginal culture – and John replied that the artists and production team had made a point of making sure that they got it right… And it was lovely to know that the rainbow serpent is the same as a rainbow in the sky.

In one of his slides, he had quoted the following:

“We are the people
Whose spirits are from the sea.
We are the people who are kin
To the island country.”
   (composed by Dinah Norman)

… so I asked a question about islands, since this is where these people live. He said that islands are all about kin and connection, that in their language there is no word for “friend,” but that “kin” is what they use since they’re ALL connected. “There is no separation between land and sea: it’s all Country.” He added, “Kinship is the strength of every human being.”

I think it was the best conference keynote speech I’ve ever heard. He sang for us in the language of the people who have adopted him as kin. He was SO passionate, SO generous-spirited, and SO in love with what he is doing… I, along with the rest of audience, was awestruck. Thank you, CA., for your vision, and your orchestration. You played us like a symphony!


The other highlight for me - surprisingly, given my aversion to movies featuring cannibalism and other blood and guts - was the screening of the feature film Van Diemen’s Land, which was filmed in Tasmania and Victoria’s Otway Ranges. The story is about the Alexander Pearce story, one of seven convicts who escaped from the prison in MacQuarie Harbour, on Tasmania’s west coast. Pearce ended up being the last man standing, after participating in the murder and cannibalizing of his fellow inmates in order to survive. It was gruesome – haunting – upsetting – but it was also an excellent film. (I couldn’t eat supper afterwards, so I drank instead.)
Jonathan auf der Heide, the director and co-writer (who looks like he’s 12, but is probably in his early 30s), was on hand to introduce the film and answer questions afterward. His graduation film from Victorian College of the Arts was Hell's Gates, a 21-minute short version of the film we saw; it was named Best Student Film at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2008. He was able to use the short film to leverage money to make the feature, though Van Diemen’s Land was made for $250,000 – and $50,000 of that went to getting the quality sound. (He says most of the money came from private sources, including friends and family.) The actors, including his co-writer, Oscar Redding (who also played Pearce), lent their talents for free – they were all Jonathan’s mates from theatre school and wanted the opportunity to be in a feature film. It took six weeks to shoot, and it’s had some good reviews. Here’s a quote from IMDb: “Van Diemen's Land is a stunning debut feature from one of Australia's newest and youngest directors. If this film is any indication of the quality of writing and directing coming out of our film schools today, it augers very well for the future of the Australian film industry as a whole.” (And here's a link to another review...)

Jonathan told us that he very much intended for the landscape to be a character unto itself. You don’t see much more than trees, rocks, mud, trees, streams, trees, rivers, more trees... At one point you see the desperation on the men’s faces as they reach the top of a mountain, only to discover more tops of more mountains… then watch the seven men trudging in a ragtag line along the crest. And you always get that “heart of darkness” feel – the Tasmanian bush as harsh and unrelenting, dark and brooding, and downright dangerous – a mirror for the desperation and blackness that is these characters’ lives…  Jonathan had told us at the outset that the film was dark – in more ways than one…

Jonathan told us that it’s been released in Britain and as a slasher/horror movie, much to his annoyance. The people who like that kind of movie are disappointed because the horror is psychological – the violence is for the most part implied (though I spent much of the movie with my hands over my eyes in anticipation of blood and gore, and my stomach was doing backflips and somersaults).

It’s an important Tasmanian story – and even though I wonder sometimes why people feel that they have to make films out of horrific incidents, I’m thinking now that it might have something to do with a land’s songlines that HAVE to be voiced, and Jonathan and his team are just the human amplifiers…

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Out for a Sunday drive

On the way back to Hobart from Launceston on Sunday, October 3, I was able to take some pretty amazing photos through the car window!

Here are a few to give you a sense of what the central part of the island looks like in early spring. Of course, the photos are no substitute for the real thing...

Oh, and the geese are for you, Kate Graham!

Thanks again, Ralph Wessman, for driving... we discovered many a shared taste in music, from Cry, Cry, Cry (my favourite CD in the whole world - created by Richard Shindell, Dar Williams, and Lucy Kaplansky) to Alison Kraus and Neil Young (to which we ALL sang along!).

And here we are, just north of Hobart, on the other side of Mt. Wellington from where I live!

But I don't know if I'll every get used to driving on the "wrong" side of the road... "No, no, your other left..."