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Billy Marshall Stoneking was born in Florida and grew up on military bases across the US. At the age of twenty-five, he emigrated to Australia with a BA and a postgrad in Education from California State and began teaching in remote areas of the country. From 1978 - 1983, Stoneking lived with the Papunya community about 150 miles northwest of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, where he established a program to help local Pintupi and Luritja people write and read in their traditional language. In 1980, he edited Stories of Obed Ragett, the first bi-lingual text published by an Indigenous Australian writer. Billy Marshall Stoneking (1947 – 2016) Stoneking’s collection Singing the Snake - Poems from the Western Desert, 1979-1988 is infused with his experiences of the desert, both the diurnal and transcendent. The poem I’d like to share, however, is a dual citizen, like the poet himself. “On the Death of Muriel Rukeyser” connects the Australian desert with New York City, where “death might be / fifty storeys high”, and is a great example of the transportational power of the imagination. In a bid to transcend the assumed mundanity of Rukeyeser’s death, “More likely dead in a dirty brasserie”, Stoneking places her at the foot of ancient “dinosaur hills” in Australia, which, never having visited in life, the famous poet and activist is able to gaze upon in death through the conduit of the poem. On the Death of Muriel Rukeyser Old Sister Death bit you off maybe dreaming of my backdoor; I'd sent you a letter explaining it all: (living in ancient Aboriginal land at the foot of big dinosaur hill); I said drop in and see me... and you said maybe I will. But as Annie says, all's got teeth: cups and card tables, drawers and feet. In New York, death might be fifty storeys high; a railing that gives way too easily; the last beat of a dry martini. I don't know how it came to you — not that poetic, certainly. More likely dead in a dirty brasserie or impatiently with a pen after the heat leaked out. The news I received was impersonal, the cost of Time magazine: Sixty-six, poet of social protest, Heart attack: proselyte of the dissident muse (not Sappho, Sacco) — the message more important than the way it's read. But if I could reach you now past solemnity, past Death, past fame, we might laugh at that last grim joke; pointing to the dinosaur hills you never visited, your thick, woman voice gesturing: 'Those mountains waited two billion years for me to be born, and before I could see them I was dead.' Continue reading
Posted yesterday at The Best American Poetry
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Gig Ryan is probably best known for her much anthologised poem “If I Had a Gun,” which has acquired the status of a feminist anthem, as noted by the eminent Australian critic and publisher Ivor Indyk. Since its publication in her debut collection The Division of Anger (1980), Ryan has gone on to fashion one of the most impressive oeuvres in all of Australian poetry. Ryan’s poetry is marked by her ability to capture the Australian vernacular, with its sharp, fragmentary, vociferate (almost ejaculatory) cadence. She often deploys these disjointed inflections as vehicles to interchange perspectives midthought, a technique that emphasizes her sophisticated use of irony. But her poetry is also one of understatement—characterized by the implied, the insinuated or even the unsaid. It is this tension in Ryan's poetry between the "frank and evasive" that makes her a favorite of mine. “Not Like a Wife” is a good example of Ryan’s clipped, almost curt, quality. It is in turns ironic, comic, vulnerable, and uses acutely evocative and original imagery—incredibly specific but achingly relatable. We immediately know what it's like to be unable to “eat spaghetti effectively”, and our minds wander on after the poem's ending, considering just what this seemingly innocuous inability might be emblematic of in our own lives. Not Like a Wife He questions her, his face soft with lovely money. Be my mistress. He's French, polite as corruption. Yes. Her clothes are dirty. Love has made me poor. She leans against the flimsy cupboard, wrapping her face up in her hands. I loved a rich man once, but I was never blonde, and suntans you know, so bland. I never looked American enough on the beach. I'll take you to Bangkok he says, the jewellery. I can't wear it. The nightclubs. Yes. You could look like a million dollars you know, touching her shirt collar, if you had it. I can't cook. His dark eyes soft and persistent as flesh, wise with money he talks. You like it here yes, you find character in poverty? This arms snatch the whole creaking house up. He's laughing at the plaster. You're so frank and evasive. It's alright, really, tense as a movie, watching carlights flash above the bed. He loved me once. You're new, aren't you. The sink's blocked in Darlinghurst. I never could eat spaghetti effectively, too unmarried or something. “Profile” doesn’t need much of an introduction—so instead I will point you in the direction of Ryan’s New and Selected, which gives the poet’s career profile its proper due. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Profile "I started out with a frayed and urgent lyric I suppose it was a comparative poverty then learning appealed to me, though the past scared then the Orpheus poems a sort of self-commentary You’ll see in my second book how I’ve tackled national themes My spoken word CD was the people’s voice for a while Later I was avant-garde You can read the accompanying text’s explication of process And now, to... Continue reading
Posted Jun 9, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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Where Only the Sky had Hung Before (Vagabond Press, 2019) The two poems I’d like to introduce this week are from Toby Fitch’s fifth collection Where Only the Sky had Hung Before, which sees Fitch continue to develop his method of taking existing texts (poems, news articles, social media threads) as the raw material for his poetry and recontextualizing them. “Feel Like I’m Somehow Related to Everyone on the Internet” is a pantoum of #staywoke tweets and one of the best examples of Fitch's ability to accent the potential for catastrophe when seemingly innocuous alterations are made to language. The elimination of the pantoum’s traditional stanza breaks recreates the kind of disorienting, claustrophobic effect social media tends to induce. The poem has all the hallmarks of what I love in Fitch’s poetry: linguistic play, wit, and a disquieting sense that the ghosts of the original texts are lurking somewhere on the page, ready to take revenge on the whole process. It’s a little menacing and a lot of fun. Feel Like I’m Somehow Related to Everyone on the Internet I am outraged / have been as long as I can remember The sky’s a projector & the moon was brought here by aliens To keep us informed of the shitstorms going on I am outraged / been a member for as long as I can Crushes are nice until you realise how hard you’re crushing On the shitstorm that keeps you informed of Slang for political or social awareness Crashing at night till we realise how hard we’ve crashed Zeitgeist moves all the way down Slang for political or social airyness Intending to automate replies to those who Drowned in the waves of a zeitgeist Are we just gonna ignore the fact it’s been raining 9 days straight Intoning an automated replay to those who When you want to get trashed get recycled instead Today we’re just gonna straighten out the rain’s 90 ignorant facts The government uses the lottery to catch time-travellers You want to recycle but trash it dead White beatnik appropriating black culture The lottery of time-travel caught the government out Continued to bubble to the digital surface for the next 50 years White beatniks appropriating black culture In both ironic & non-ironic ways on all platforms Continued to bubble to the digital surface for the next 500 years The sky’s a projector & the moon was brought here by aliens In both ironic & non-ironic ways on all platforms Feel like I'm now relegated to everywhere on the internet "Poetry is 99% Water" stands out in Where Only the Sky had Hung Before as ostensibly less experimental and procedural, although it does take an academic essay and a Buzzfeed article as its sources. It also carries on the collection’s concern with speculative spaces—the sky, poetry, and the internet are all territories in which (and onto which) we project our imaginations. In this case, poetry is given substance and embodied (thankfully, Fitch leaves 1% a mystery). Ashbery's... Continue reading
Posted May 26, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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“Without paranoia, there’s nothing. My knowledge of homeland trivia is nothing if not chaotic, historically inaccurate..." Toby Fitch works in the great tradition of Australian (post-/modernist) poetry that takes play seriously and regards irreverence as a sincere expression of esteem, and stretches from Christopher Brennan’s 1897 pastiche of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés to John Tranter’s innovations in “proceduralist” compositions, and unwittingly passes through the oeuvre of the fictional Ern Malley. Over the course of his six collections to date, Fitch has paid tribute to this lineage by borrowing from both its source material and apparatus to construct a poetry that offers something entirely new: an unnerving ability to make the reader an accomplice to the poetic experiment, a kind of involuntary collaboration that is most pronounced when Fitch’s ambition seems to be to dismantle the poem itself. What I find most interesting about Fitch’s poetry is not so much the novelty of his techniques as the peculiarity of their effects, which frequently remind me that in our alchemic relationship to language, we are the more combustible element. If a feature of modernism has been to remove the all knowing, all seeing poet from the center of the poem and invite the reader in to participate in the imaginative act, then Fitch plunges us ever deeper, to make us complicit not only in the poem’s achievements, but also its messes, its wrecks, its verging collapse. As the speaker of “Village” tells us: i am a permanent & frustrated civilian bloke of the global village thought to be post-everything as all new taste is voided across the furnishings interior becomes exterior my private abode exploding up to meet the cities from above It's a nuanced way of representing our modern compulsion to "explode" the distinctions between private and public, to externalize our inner life, to blur the line between actor and spectator. In the process, Fitch makes us co-conspirators in his strange, mischievous world. In this aspect, his work might find a precursor in the art of Bruce Naumen. Fitch’s early experiments in poetic form and aesthetics often pit the volatility of language (the randomness of mistranslation, say) against the exactness of design. These sculptured poems, which at first glance appear entirely confident of their jurisdiction, begin to grow less certain of their structures the moment we enter them. The two arrowhead-shaped stanzas of “Narrows”, from his debut collection Rawshock (2012), seem to hurl down the page in a propulsion of words which is both mimetic of the poem’s shape and seemingly hell-bent on destroying it, like termites that, in the words of Manny Farber, “eat away at their immediate boundaries.” Fitch achieves this through his finely tuned ear for the traditional instruments of poetry (condensing, slant-rhymes; line breaks positioned in the mid-points of action) and how language works outside of poetry, that is: misunderstood, mangled, and patched together. Rawshock, for instance, is a paronomasia of “Rorschach”, and references a poetic sequence in the book which reshapes the Orpheus and Eurydice... Continue reading
Posted May 12, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
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May 3, 2021