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!
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 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…
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?
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…
|Ralph's daughter Prairie|
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|
|Publisher Ralph Wessman with writer Peter Grant (right)|
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!|
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"|
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, not reading from the blog post in FR42...|
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"|
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.
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…)
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.
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.
(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...)
|Boy, do I know this feeling! "After the party's over..."|