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.
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!
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.”