No, it’s not a dodgy dance move. This was a special antipodean edition of the monthly poetry event The Shuffle, which took place last night at the Poetry Café. Co-hosted by Cath Drake and Gale Burns, the evening featured eight Australian and Kiwi poets, and I was very pleased to be one of those invited to read. There was a lovely vibe to the evening and it was great to hear such varied voices but with some common themes coming through. Cath asked each poet how they thought where they grew up influenced their writing. This is a tricky question for me, and probably worthy of a separate blog post, as I have quite an ambivalent relationship with Australia, and it’s also tied up with my relationships with my family. There’s a tension that I think will never be resolved, and that does feed into my writing. I found Laurie Duggan’s response interesting; he mentioned that he has lived in a number of different places and feels his focus is local – wherever he is, he draws from his current locality.
Claire Potter, originally from Perth, started us off, reading poems rooted in childhood and reaching back into her grandparent’s experience of migration, tenderly evoked in a poem about her grandmother’s slippers. She finished with a longer poem, titled (if I remember correctly) Three steps outside the TAB, full of vivid imagery of suburban heat as a child waits for her grandfather outside a betting shop. I was next up and suddenly more nervous than I anticipated, though I’m told that didn’t show, and I read four poems from Triptych Poets, which seemed to be well received. Rowena Knight followed, the first Kiwi poet, and again migration was one of the themes explored in her poems, as well as the complexity of identity. The poem Flotation (again, I hope I’ve got the title right!) is a beautifully poised imagining of her mother’s six week journey to New Zealand, aged 14, having the run of the ship as her parents are dazed with seasickness and the enormity of their decision to emigrate. For Rowena, her experience of migration came aged 13, as her mother returned to the UK with her daughter, and another poem ached for childhood words whose meaning didn’t cross the seas: dairy, lollies, bach. The first half ended with Cath Drake reading poems from her recently published pamphlet Sleeping with Rivers, which won the 2013 Mslexia/Seren poetry pamphlet competition. Cath observed that one thing she thinks Australians are pretty good at is family dysfunction, and went on to read House of Bricks, all the more powerful for the matter-of-fact tone: ‘My parents made a hearty roast/in our house of bricks and that’s what counted.’ Sunken Garden stayed with me, each detail so precise and telling, quietly elegiac. There’s a lot of watery imagery in Cath’s poems, and I found her poem Octopus, despite my aversion to eight legged and tentacled beings, very sensuous.
Laurie Duggan, originally from Melbourne, and prolifically published, got the ball rolling in the second half. He read half a dozen or so poems from The Collected Blue Hills, pieces concerned with landscape and sparseness and cut through with dry humour. Laurie’s laconic performance was definitely one from the leave-them-wanting-more school, so I’ll be searching out more of his work. Next up was Rachel Smith, who grew up on a farm in New Zealand’s North Island. I was blown away by Rachel’s reading, her poems saturated with heart-stopping phrases, and her delivery just about perfect, giving space to the lines and allowing each poem to breathe. The penultimate poet of the evening was Katherine Gallagher, a very engaging presence who delighted us with anecdotes of British attitudes towards ex-pat Australians in the 1960s and 70s. Many of her poems displayed this irreverent edge, while others, such as Hybrid, expressed more directly an attachment to the country she left all those years ago. It was inspiring to hear a poet approaching her 80th year read with such verve. Diana Pooley rounded the evening off, reminding us that Australia has the most urbanised population in the world. By contrast, she was raised in outback Queensland and most of the poems she read last night reflected this almost pioneer background. Poems rich with the local vernacular, with the weather and landscape and livestock. I could picture the scene so clearly in Heatwave, the children sleeping out under the stars, sounds of the animal world all around them, an understated sense of awe. Understatement, telling detail, warmth and flashes of deep despair – these were some of the antipodean flavours on offer last night.