Monday, February 14, 2011

Famous Reporter 42 Launch Speech

Last Thursday, February 10, 2011, I had the privilege of giving the "launch speech" for Famous Reporter 42, at the invitation of publisher Ralph Wessman. Between 50 and 60 of us packed into a hot and steamy Hobart Bookshop, where we were given the best of "gnosh and grog," a speech from a "come-from-away," and some readings by a few of the journal's contributores. I'm happy to report: a good time was had by all!
Caroline Dean, emcee, and Ralph Wessman, publisher
When Pete Hay attended the 7:30 p.m. launch of Deirdre Kessler’s poetry book Afternoon Horses in Prince Edward Island in the fall of 2009, he told me over a cup of tea afterward: “We don’t do it this way in Tasmania.”

He had just heard the publisher do a ten-minute introduction of Deirdre – that was me mostly talking about how the book came to be, including snippets of our shared experiences over the 27 years that I’d known her, and thank yous to the various people who had had a hand in its publication - followed by a 20-minute reading by Deirdre – which got an encore, pretty much unheard of at a poetry reading – then me doing the requisite “thanks for coming” and “Deirdre will sign books” (meaning, PLEASE buy books from my daughter at the back – preferably in fives and tens), followed by what we Islanders call “lunch” – crackers and stinky cheese and yummy dips, cookies and chocolaty squares, mostly contributed by friends of the author and the publisher, and washed down with cups of strong tea – all the while mingling to live piano-playing by the son of a friend of the author and publisher.

There are a few variations on this – depending on the venue and the existence of a liquor license, and whether politicians have to be invited to make sure the funding doesn’t stop – but that’s mostly our after-supper launch formula.
Hobart Bookshop proprietor and bookseller extraordinaire Chris Pearce
So of course I had to ask Pete what you folks in Tasmania do. He said the publisher usually asks someone who has some connection to the author to do a mini-review of the book – which sometimes means receiving the manuscript ahead of time, or a copy of the actual book on the morning of the launch – and sometimes includes taking the piss out of the author. He said the author usually reads and I can’t remember what he said about the gnosh and grog – though the sales thing (in fives and tens) is universal. And it’s generally held before supper. But it’s absolutely delightful to know that the tradition of roping in family is alive and well here, too: just as I had my daughter sell books and Keith Baglole play the piano, here Ralph has asked his beautiful daughter Prairie to share her talents. Thank you, Prairie, for the gift of your music!

So when Ralph asked me before Christmas if I – a “come-from-away” - would launch the next issue of Famous Reporter 42 in February, I gulped and said, “I’d be honoured.” I mean I hadn’t had much success in saying no to Ralph up til then – so why should this be any different? I had only hesitated for a few minutes when he asked if I’d review Mark Tredinnick’s Fire Diary, on the night of the Launceston Poetry Cup… And I didn’t hesitate at all when, after reading a poem called “What the Apple Lady Sees” at the Tasmania Writers’ Centre presentation of “Small Island Dreaming” at the Lark in October, he asked quietly and politely if anyone had asked for this poem yet and, if not, could he publish it. I mean, how can a writer say no to that!

Indeed, how could anyone say no to Ralph, when you know how much he gives… but more about that later…
Ralph's daughter Prairie
 It wasn’t until I received a PDF of Famous Reporter 42 a few weeks ago and saw that I’d been specially thanked in the acknowledgements that I realized that FR 42 is all about… ME! I counted: my name or my words are on 10 of the 160 pages – 12 if you count the Table of Contents. So maybe I should roast myself, thank you all for coming, and encourage you all to buy copies and we can start drinking NOW…

Oh, okay, so there are 148 other pages that aren’t about me…

Yours truly, with fellow PEIslanders Anna and Godfrey Baldacchino in the background
Before I talk about them, I want to say a few words about publishing a literary journal. Several years ago when I was thinking about my own career in publishing, I debated between creating a publishing company or setting up a literary journal. Everyone, including the great Cape Breton writer Alistair MacLeod, said, “You’re crazy to do a literary journal. Do you know how hard that is?” So I started Acorn Press, publishing books. Seventeen years and 55 books later, I sold it to come here to do a PhD. But here’s Ralph, publishing a literary journal for 24 years. And he’s still smiling. He reads hundreds of submissions a year – in all genres of writing, from all over the world. (He even published me, years ago, before me coming to Tassie was even a gleam in someone’s eye.) I know he has help - on this particular issue it was editorial assistance from Lyn Reeves and Janice Bostok; cover photo of Dove Lake, with Cradle Mountain in the middle background, by Rob Mackey, who also designed both front and back covers; and the always-crucial-but-inevitably-precarious funding assistance from Arts Tasmania by the Premier, Minister for State Development. But he has to correspond with all those authors – there were 80 accepted for this issue alone - and pin down reluctant reviewers who really don’t want to cast judgment on someone else’s writing; plus he attends literary events and writes about them, interviews writers and writes about them; designs the magazine and lays it out, proofreads it, negotiates its printing, launches it - in three cities this time… promotes it, maintains a website for it, sells it, AND PAYS ALL THE BILLS. Beautifully. Twice a year. PLUS he holds down a full-time job. Do you ever sleep, Ralph? Are you CRAZY?
Publisher Ralph Wessman with writer Peter Grant (right)
And then there’s the quality of the writing. I naively sat down to read it, cover to cover. And I couldn’t. Famous Reporter 42 is jam-packed. It’s like doing a bus tour through Europe in a week, or trying to get to know Tasmania in a couple of days. There’s so much to digest, to mull over, to think about. I had to dip in and out, take it slowly. Savour it. And I love the back cover featuring part of Fran Graham’s beautiful poem “Cradle Mountain” – how many of us have reached desperately for a piece of paper to write the BEST poem they’ve ever had pop into their head, and could only find the back of an envelope… 
First there are the essays. Bruce Pascoe’s “Extraction” is an amazing snapshot of a culture in turmoil – the Indonesian occupation of Western Papua - written with a passion and humility that is refreshing in travel writing. He says, “I hate Indonesia and I do it with the complete arrogance of half a day’s exposure. They shouldn’t have let me in until I’d grown up.”
A very warm crowd!
All I could think of when I read Lisa Greenaway’s “On Going Down Swinging No. 30” was the generosity of a publisher – Ralph - to publish something about what could be thought of as “the competition” – the journal Going Down Swinging, published on the mainland for the last 30 years. Maybe I should have borrowed Lisa’s much more eloquent words when I was talking earlier about what Ralph himself does: “…journal editors open the doors and windows to artists all over the world, and invite the chaos in. The editor must create order, reach a number of pages or fill a round number of minutes, curating images and sounds into a coherent whole. Then a printer stamps it down, a reader or review encapsulates it all in a thought or a sentence, and we find a little portion of human chaos has been cut and polished, filed under ‘art’ or ‘literature’ in the local library. Does this satisfy? Of course not. Because once it’s done, we go and do it all again. And we love it. It might be a fundamental function of the human mind to swing from chaos to order. Telling stories. Making stories. There and back again.” She talks about “alchemy, blind trust, magic.” That’s our Ralph, too. Making magic on this side of the Strait… When I asked Ralph why he’d included this piece, he paid homage to Myron Lysenko, one of the journal’s co-founders. Ralph told me that he had sent a copy of FR’s first issue to Myron, who wrote about it in Going Down Swinging. Ralph says, “FR1 wasn’t much good in the way of things, not like Going Down Swinging which started off knowing exactly what they were on about, and publishing and interviewing really good writers from the start. I had to find my way. So Myron could have written anything, really, but he was generous, went on to comment on a couple of the stories, etc., and wished me luck. Small wonder I’ve had a soft spot for the magazine ever since.” Just another example of circles within circles… and the roles Ralph plays. Indeed, we had the pleasure of sharing a table with the very colourful and engaging Myron Lysenko at the Tasmanian Poetry Festival – there’s even a photo of Myron on page 121.

Sharyn Munro’s engaging essay, “The absolutely incorrect bad old days” about the “olden days” of newspaper reporting made me remember the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Ted Grant, her acerbic but wise editor played by the great Ed Asner  - and kind of made me pine (for a few seconds, anyway) for the good old days when we didn’t have to be QUITE so PC all the time.  And Ralph’s own compendium, “North to Garradunga,” captures one of the great events I unfortunately missed since arriving in Tasmania, the launch of Geoff Dean’s latest book, Mysteries, Myths and Miracles, launched by Pete Hay, our good friend and my PhD supervisor. I would have loved to have heard Geoff talk about how he appreciated getting unbidden fan letters – “like the woman who sent me a letter from Sydney, writing to say this was only the second fan letter she’d ever written. The first one she sent to Pavarotti.” I also missed the launch of Anna Krien’s book Into the Woods (whose book I still need to read), where she spoke with writer Amanda Lohrey (who I still need to meet). I was at the other two events Ralph writes about: “Island Dreaming” at the Lark, and the Launceston Poetry Cup. I’m glad to be able to take home with me such excellent precis of two of my favourite memories of my time in Tasmania: talking and reading poetry with Pete Hay and Deirdre Kessler about islands, and being one of 34 entrants in the “poetic event of the year.” (Ralph either has a phenomenal memory, or a very tiny tape recorder…) The Tasmanian Poetry Festival is an incredibly good poetry festival, by the way – and I’ve been to a few in my day. It was a fabulous weekend – made even more spectacular by my travelling companions, Ralph, Jane, and Emily. And within his description of the conversation at the Lark, Ralph has included a poem by fellow Prince Edward Islander Deirdre Kessler – who captures in poetry another event I had the privilege of being at: a field trip back home, led by Pete Hay. As much as I love the language of the Tasmanian bush, just like when I hear a Canadian accent here, my heart leaps with recognition of home when I read her poem with familiar words like goldenrod and bluejays, the Mi’kmaq and the Yankee Gale.
John Hale reading from "Squeak, Piggy, Squeak"
It is amazing to get to read so much poetry from Australians – Tasmanians and “mainlanders” (and thanks to Jane Williams for saving me early on from the embarrassment of referring to the mainland as “Australia”). And there are even four Canadians included… in the way of islands, there’s only one I don’t know – Newfoundlander Stephen Rowe who must live in Gander (famous for the American Airforce base - and its airport in times of emergency), from what I can deduce from his poem – but since I’m going to that island after I leave here in June, I’ll be sure to look him up. Deirdre’s house is about 30 metres from mine in Charlottetown, and I met the lovely Jacqueline Turner at the Tasmanian Poetry Festival. Although even that meeting has a PEI connection: one of my best friends, Sheryl MacKay, who now lives in Vancouver, freaked out when she saw a photo, on Facebook, of the two of us sitting together at the Festival – Jacqueline is a good friend of hers… Okay, enough with the island connections…

I must admit that I didn’t always “get” all the poetry in Famous Reporter 42. But as it happens with any good poetry, I appreciated the language washing over me, the images searing onto my retinas, the smells and sounds and tastes immersing me in places I’ve never been… I’ll return to some of it again, to tease out the meanings, to roll the imagery round my tongue… As another testament to this journal’s quality, almost to a person the contributors have had books published already, or have been widely published in other journals – doing what we in the book publishing business call “getting a track record so we’ll look at your poetry manuscript.”

I loved the Tasmanian poets: in five tight stanzas Liz McQuilkin captures with gleeful irony the 21st-century bride wearing white in her poem “The Bride”;  Fran Graham’s “Cradle Mountain” is a gorgeous landscape poem with the lines “The landscape’s skin is moist with mist and rain… Waterfalls slap rock with whip and strain…”; and Libby Goodsir’s “Dawn Mothers Walking” is another “place” poem about wallabies that finishes with this evocative image: “side by side / sun licks our / new day.” Another poem that really resonated with me was Graham Kershaw, from Western Australia, called “Kissing Sheryl Hill.” The poem is about recognizing lost opportunity when he revisits his home street some forty years on: “New kids play on new swings, where I kissed Sheryl Hill / and carried her home on shaking handlebars, like a dill.” And Lucy Williams’ “hindsight,” about the death of a brother, is a courageous poem that says what we probably all want to, but can’t: “if I had known about the certainty of his death… I would wish for death fast as new love / … or the ocean rolling him under for keeps / the benevolent ocean flooding his lungs / any of this I would welcome”. 
Peter Grant demonstrating why bloggers blog... "Is ANYONE paying attention?"
Peter Grant, not reading from the blog post in FR42...
I was appreciating the park in Launceston with the wonderful poet Jane Williams (yes, Lucy’s sister) and her amazing daughter Em when Ralph was in conversation with poet Peter Bakowski on one of the park’s benches. I had heard Peter read at the Tasmanian Poetry Festival, and again a week later at the Republic, so it is illuminating to hear some of the thoughts that go into Peter’s poetry which provide new insight for me, the reader. Thank you, Ralph, for that. And after the interview Ralph had asked us if we had any questions for Peter…. So I asked about the prevalence of haiku or what he calls the “micro poem” or ultra short poem in Australian literary journals – since I don’t remember seeing much of it at home. As he says in the interview, “Sometimes I send my micro poems to magazines only to get a response that says ‘we don’t consider haiku.’ I can’t be bothered pointing out that they’re not haiku… just try to write a very good poem is what I say. And try to write as clearly as possible… You can’t beat clear and strong, you know.” Hear hear.

And speaking of haiku, there is haiku poet from Tasmania in FR 42, along with others from the mainland. It’s hard to quote a line from a gorgeous haiku, since there are so few lines: but Arjun von Caemmerer’s “Graveyard visit / On my garments / Stickyweed” packs a lot into three short lines. My favourite image is the following from David Francis of Victoria: “an earthworm pulls a crow from the sky.” Wow.
Fran Graham reading her poem, "Cradle Mountain"
As I noted earlier, when Ralph asked me to write a book review, my first reaction was squirm-squirm… But then I thought, why not? I LIKED Mark Tredinnick’s poetry. I really have to hand it to Les Wicks, then, who wrote six brief reviews (“Brieflings” – I love that!) of poetry books, many of which have sparked my curiosity enough to want to seek out the books. But I also liked what he said: “I don’t write negative reviews because I believe there are already too many reasons out there why people don’t buy poetry. Of course, I have to pass on a lot of books that I can’t be positive about.” Ever the diplomat. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I very much appreciated Stephenie Cahalan’s reviews of two books: Standing Strong, containing edited transcripts of stories by ten Tasmanian activists, and Into the Woods, about the conflict over Tasmania’s forests. Both are important books for Tasmania: “Both spotlight activists, their methods, their motives and how the public and establishment receive them.” She urges us to think critically while reading Into the Woods, urging that it “be recognized as subjective commentary, rather than incontrovertible fact.” Indeed, Stephenie’s reviews, while generally positive, do make us think about what we’re reading, and ask questions like “Whose voice is missing? What story isn’t being told?” – a crucial role for any civil society that prides itself on its democratic principles and freedom of expression. Thanks, Stephenie, for taking us beyond the page.

And all I wrote at the top of Liz McQuilkin’s review of Dennis Wild’s Just North of Bewilderment was: “I want to buy this book.” I’m sorry I missed his reading at the Republic in December. From her review I can see that his poetry is down-to-earth and accessible, with a quirky sense of humour and filled with “aha!” moments. Just the kind of poetry I love to read.
Liz McQuilkin reading her poem, "The Bride"
I’m sorry I missed the launches that Pete Hay, Sarah Day, and Jackie Kerin wrote speeches for. I know Pete and Sarah, and can just hear their voices as I read these speeches, filled with awe and appreciation for these authors and the gifts of words they’ve given us. It makes me respect this role of launching a book (or a journal) even more. (But it makes me wonder about people who aren’t here tonight reading this launch speech afterward and me thinking about people reading it as I write it – and I get into a terrible muddle that borders on the surreal. Oh dear. )

Even though I’m a poet, I must admit my bias up front: I’m a narrative junkie. I love a good story. And so it was absolutely wonderful to read such fine short stories in FR42. I was drawn in by each of them and they left me wanting more. In Belinda Campbell’s “Ostwaren,” the main character, an Australian exchange student in Germany, shares the experience of living with her landlady – a woman with her own secrets. She writes, “Husband. The word spins me, threads a new tangle of letters through everything I have imagined, wraps itself around her shadow and hauls it into the room.” David McLaren’s “buoyancy” is a gorgeous story of love, found, lost, and found again, masterfully told from both the woman’s and the man’s point of view. Indeed, partway through I had to go back to check that a man had written it – he’d captured the female’s voice SO well. Anne Shimmin’s “The Martyrdom of Socrates” is a tension-filled romp with unexpected and hilarious twists, particularly at the end – and if I tell too much I’ll give it away… I loved her description of the beach, though: “a million grains of sand wince as the salty tide washed over their tiny sunburnt shoulders.” And, finally, there’s an amazing story by my friend John Hale, “Squeak, Piggy, Squeak,” which made me weep for the brutality of humankind. Of all the writing in FR42, this one has stayed with me the longest – I feel the shock reverberations long after I’ve closed the book. (I apologize if I’m sounding a bit “Monamist” here, but it’s true…)
Until recently, I’d never seen a blog entry reprinted in a literary journal – but then blogs are a pretty recent phenomenon. The last lines of Peter Grant’s “Recovering from Optimism” particularly resonated with me because of my interest in place and attachment to place. A “passionate Tasmanian-by-choice,” Peter writes: “Catch the right day, with the beach at peace and the cobbles warm, smooth and sensuous; with gulls strutting and probing the wrack, and oystercatchers stalking ahead of me like wary cyclists awaiting the velodrome bell; find it on such a day and I might believe that the interaction of wave and sand, cobble and creature, is nothing more than a long story of the deepest, most abiding affection. For it is all of these things, great and small, and the noticing of them, that bonds us to place. And noticing is vital, because it is far harder for we humans to wreak havoc in a place that we’ve come to know deeply and personally. For what is the sum of those things, if it’s not love…” I wish I’d written that…

And Lorianne Disabato’s “The Long View” about the practice of meditation is wise and comforting: “It’s a habit, like my grandfather’s view of marriage, that takes a long time to cultivate… but that’s okay, because it’s the practice of a lifetime. In the short view, we’re all just beginners stumbling our way through a play knowing our lines; in the long view, that play is a great cosmic dance that will lead, prompt, and nudge us, all in due time.” These blog entries have led me to seek more from these writers.
More audience
And isn’t it, in the end, what a literary journal is – to offer up a smorgasbord of the best new writing around… letting us sample new dishes and then getting us to order off the main menu when we come back. Please help me in thanking our own Ralph Wessman for ALL the work he does on behalf of writers – in Tasmania and elsewhere. The work that goes into creating such a gorgeous journal is incalculable.

But in an effort to mitigate that incalculability, I’ll just end with a suggestion that you all must buy or subscribe to Famous Reporter to support the fabulous work that Ralph does SO well for all of us – and I quote from page 149, where I’ve reviewed Mark Tredinnick’s Fire Diary… Says Kenneth Rexroth: “I’ve had it with those cheap sons of bitches who claim they love poetry and never buy a book.” Chris and Janet here in the Hobart Bookshop - and Ralph - would be happy if you did it - preferably in fives and tens.
Boy, do I know this feeling! "After the party's over..."
 (Thanks to Pete Hay for taking most of the photos! And thanks to Ralph for inviting me to do this... AND, to top it all off: I got paid! We definitely don't do it like this in Canada...)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


As you know, the research component of my PhD studies is to interview artists (literary, visual, and performance) in Tasmania and Newfoundland, focusing on their attachment to place. With help from my supervisors – and many others I’ve come in contact with here in Tasmania - I’ve been working on my list of whom to approach. And one of them is sculptor Peter Adams.

Before Christmas Pete took me out to his place on the Tasman Peninsula, approximately two hours from Hobart, near Nubeena. (The peninsula could be an island, as there’s a bridge over a canal located at Dunnalley…)

Peter lives at “Windgrove,” where he sculpts beautiful pieces of art from wood while sculpting “home” from his 100-acre plot of paradise that borders Roaring Beach and the Great Southern Ocean. 
 Before leaving town I checked out his blog, finding professional-quality photos of his work and his home, interspersed with eloquent musings about art and life. The first one I came to was about gratitude, written over the American Thanksgiving weekend (Peter is originally from the US), about thanksgiving on a daily basis, or as he writes, “on an hourly basis,” and how it “is enhanced by how closely we observe what beauty actually companions us through each day.” Because I’m so conscious of the privilege that I’ve been given – to be here, on a beautiful island, doing something I love – I was anxious to meet this man. 

A tall gangly fellow with a huge boyish grin, Peter is an open book. He lives his life with a generosity of spirit that is infectious – I felt within minutes of being in his presence that I had been given a huge gift.
When we arrived he was working on a roundish sculpture cradled on an inner tube in his outdoor studio. It looked like butterfly, or a shell, with a round stone inset in the wood where the hinge or butterfly body would be. He has since written about it on his blog, a wonderful and mysterious story about where inspiration comes from. Be sure to check out his photos, as the sculpture is much further along in its creation than the photos I took!
He then invited us into his home – a gorgeous light-infused house he started building nearly twenty years ago while living in an old bus out back. 
 You can tell he LOVES creating with wood – the beams are exposed and they, along with the walls, have benefited from the many windows: the wood is burnished to a golden brown that glows with warmth. Again, if you scroll through his blog, you’ll find photos of his place (I felt it would be an intrusion if I took any). I especially like the one of him soaking in his bathtub outside on the deck. 

Peter treated us to some local smoked octopus and cheese on one of his decks, before taking us for a walk around the property. I longed to have tucked a tape recorder into his pocket so I could capture the stories he told us as we strolled: about the middens he’s found and how he would have liked to have been there when the Aboriginal people walked these same pathways along the top of the cliff, feasting on shellfish and leaving traces to be found a thousand years later; about the benches he created so people could enjoy the peace of the woods, or Roaring Beach from different vantage points; about the planting he’s done to reclaim a sheep paddock and restore it to its original native bush; about the friendship circle he’s created high on the hill…
 His is a deeply storied place, and he has obviously developed what American writer Barry Lopez calls “an ethical unity” with Windgrove. Lopez writes, “If you’re intimate with a place, a place with whose history you’re familiar, and you establish an ethical conversation with it, the implication that follows is this: the place knows you’re there. It feels you. You will not be forgotten, cut off, abandoned.” The feeling that Peter’s land knows he’s here is palpable – or maybe it’s that he knows its stories so well, and is able to put words to them - I don’t know…
We talked about his relationship with his island place, how he realizes he could not be doing what he’s doing here back in America. We talked about how an island gives you the freedom to create – you can walk to the edge and then walk back - the psychological boundary ensures that your energy doesn’t “bleed away.” We talked about the books he’s reading, and how he uses mythology to bring deeper meaning to his sculptures while at the same time taking inspiration from the natural world, blending the two. And we talked about what will happen to his land after he’s gone.
I found a quote from him in a teachers’ resource guide at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG), where I saw one of his bench sculptures in one of the rooms devoted to postmodern art. He says, “I try to heal humankind’s relationship to the earth – my choice of means is wood and stones… These materials have a vibration, a story we can tap into, that we as humans should learn from in order to find our meaningful place in the world” (from “Objects of Contemplation,” Craft Arts International, no. 42, 1998).

 Such a place. Such stories. For me, Peter Adams is a conduit to this island – to understanding its significance to island studies through his art and words. 

Before we left, he agreed to be one of my interviewees. And for that I am grateful, too.