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Fanning the Flames · Issue #14

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Welcome to the March issue of issue of Fanning the Flames. Easter is nearly upon us and the recent storms signal the end of summer festivities and return to cosy nights of fires and books. The Bonfire Books Anthology of Australian Verse 2023, sponsored by the English Speaking Union, Victoria branch, will be published on Wednesday the 5th of April and launched at ESU House in Melbourne on that same evening at 6.30PM. If you have not yet sent an RSVP please contact us as soon as possible.

To order titles from our catalogue please visit bonfirebooks.org

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This month’s issue comprises:

1.     Announcement:

Reminder: Anthology of Australian Verse 2023 Launch Event, 5 April at ESU House

2. The Sea-Gull by Anton Chekhov: A review by Andrea Jonathan

3. 2023 Anthology of Australian Verse: Introduction by Lucas Smith

Announcements

You are invited to the launch of Bonfire Books’ Poetry Anthology 2023.

Event Details

6.30PM Wednesday April 5th, ESU House, 1 Bank Street, Ascot Vale, VIC 3032.

Featuring readings by Paul Scully, Carlo Dellora and more. Light refreshments provided. We hope to see you there. This is a free event but booking is essential. Please RSVP to info@bonfirebooks.org.

The anthology showcases the work of contemporary Australian poets writing in formal and formal-ish styles, committed to rhythm, sense and music in verse. Featuring a balance of older established poets, including Australia’s greatest living formalist, Stephen Edgar, alongside new poets appearing for the first time, this is an innovative and exciting anthology that pours new wine into old wineskins.

Upcoming Titles in 2023:

Albany Unravelled by Steffan Silcox with Douglas R.G. Sellick

Gringai of Port Stephens (1929) by William Scott

Pinter’s Son Jim a play by Henry Lawson

Caleb Caudell’s debut short story collection (title pending)

The Seagull (A Play in 4 Acts) by Anton Chekhov (1895): A Review.

by Andrea Jonathan, Creative Director

Having been rather intimidated by the last few novels I have attempted to read, I have taken again to reading some short plays. Even in the age of attention span deficits and mesmerising screens, fast dialogue, instant drama and comical twists can still leap from the page of a play’s script. Widely considered to be Chekhov’s first major play, The Seagull taunts the pride of both artist and audience through the dialogue’s subtext, as each character attempts in vain to be understood by his or her romantic counterpart.

The story is set at a country house by a lake, where mature-age actress Madame Arkadin wrests with the artistic temperaments of the two writers, her son Treplev, and her lover Trigorin, who themselves vie for the affections of Nina, the young daughter of a wealthy landowner.

While the physical setting is in the countryside, the emotional and social atmosphere is situated in the literary and theatre worlds. There is emotion and meaning to be found in the smallest details. The only wasted lines are those spoken for affect.

The Seagull prefigures postmodern notions of breaking the fourth wall by including a play-within-a-play and using playwrights and actresses as characters who themselves struggle to separate the stage and the manuscript from their self-conceptions of life and personhood.

TRIGORIN: I am haunted day and night by one persistent thought: I ought to be writing, I ought to be writing, I ought. . . I have scarcely finished one novel when, for some reason, I must begin writing another, then a third, after the third a fourth. I write incessantly, post-haste, and I can’t write in any other way. What is there splendid and bright in that I ask you? Oh, its an absurd life! Here I am with you; I am excited, yet every moment I remember that my unfinished novel is waiting for me. Here I see a cloud that looks like a grand piano. I think that I must put into a story somewhere that a cloud sailed by that looked like a grand piano.

The play is tragic but also comical. Madame Arkadin’s sly use of melodramatic performance to wrap her lover Trigorin around her finger is delightful:

MADAM ARKADIN: (in violent agitation) Are you so enthralled?

TRIGORIN: I am drawn to her! Perhaps it is just what I need.

MADAM ARKADIN: The love of a provincial girl? Oh how little you know yourself!

TRIGORIN: Sometimes people sleep as they walk – that is how it is with me, I am talking to you and yet I am asleep and dreaming of her . . . I am possessed by sweet, marvellous dreams . . . Let me be free . . .

( . . . )

MADAM ARKADIN: You are mine . . . mine . . . . This forehead is mine and these eyes, and this lovely silky hair is mine to . . .you are mine all over. You are so, so clever, the best of all modern writers, you are the one hope for Russia . . . You have so much truthfulness, simplicity, freshness, healthy humour . . . .In one touch you can give all the essential characteristics of a person or a landscape, your characters are living. One can’t read you without delight! You think this is exaggerated? That I am flattering you? But look into my eyes . . . look Do I look like a liar? You see, I am the only one who can appreciate you ; I am the only one who tells you the truth, my precious, wonderful darling… Are you coming? Yes? You won’t abandon me?

TRIGORIN. I have no will of my own… I have never had a will of my own. Flabby, feeble always submissive how can a woman care for such man? Take me, carry me off, but don’t let me move a step away from you.

MADAME ARKADIN (to herself). Now he is mine!

(In an easy tone as though nothing had happened)

But, of course, if you like, you can stay. Ill go by myself and you can come afterwards, a week later. After all, why should you be in a hurry?

TRIGORIN. No, we may as well go together.

MADAME ARKADIN. As you please. Let us go

The seagull itself (the bird) makes two appearances, first when he is killed by the symbolist playwright Treplev, (son of Madame Arkadin) as a gift to Nina, who is puzzled by it. It appears again two years later after being stuffed and presented as a gift to his stepfather of sorts Trigorin when he returns to the lake, the established man of letters who had pursued Nina, the object of both of their affections. One wonders who is being mocked – Treplev for his embittered gift or the meta-playwright for the tawdry symbolism of props and devices.

The bourgeois reader gets off relatively lightly in the form of the local doctor, Dorn:

DORN: Well, I believe in Konstantin Gavrilitch. There is something in him! He thinks in images; his stories are vivid, full of colour and they affect me strongly. The only pity is that he has not got definite aims. He produces an impression and that’s all, but you can’t get far with nothing but an impression. Irinia Nikolayevna, are you glad that your son is a writer?

MADAME ARKADIN: Only fancy, I have not read anything of his yet. I never have time.

The characters are rich and lively, and while the plot doesn’t follow a traditional structure or come to any great climax, I found The SeaGull to be captivating and funny, combining reflections on the life of an artist, the fickleness of the audience and their impact on celebrities and the eternal comedy of romance. I looked around online and it appears to be produced here and there, so I will try and find a local production.

Introduction to Anthology of Australian Verse 2023 (Bonfire Books)

by Lucas Smith, Editor-in-Chief

Anthology of Australian Verse is published April 5th.

In her essay “Sense and Non-Sense in Poetry” Raïssa Maritain relates the story of a lecturer in France, whose name she does not give, who “detested logic in poetry—for quite legitimate reasons; he could not even bear a too highly accentuated aid from rhythm and rhyme, in which he saw a kind of fabrication, as well as an unfair attempt at seduction.”

He reads an old-fashioned poem to his class but, “deprived it of all intonation; he read it without accent, in an inhuman manner. And the beautiful poem was stripped of its beauty, it died; the reader had caused it to lose its poetic sense in depriving it of its aura of intelligible signification.”

Yet this same lecturer, “when he read some other pages, quite close to non-sense, certain texts all charged with a thick and consubstantial obscurity, he lent himself so well to the generating sentiment of these texts that he did not commit a single error in his desire to make the full poetic resonance of them felt.”

Music, then is essential, and the great advantage of formal poetry is that the music is clearly indicated, even if the reader reads silently. As experiments with so-called Automatic Writing have shown, form, structure, an organising principle of some kind, is innate to all written art.

The fortunes of different poetic styles wax and wane of course, like any other fashion. Formalism only became an -ism in reaction to the onslaught of free verse in the twentieth century, which was itself reacting quite understandably against the nursery rhyme certainties of Tennysonian verse.

Stephen Edgar, in a recent interview for Plough Quarterly with the American colossus AM Juster, relates some striking thoughts of the Greek-Polish Australian poet Jakob Ziguras:

On the subject of the fortunes of formal poetry, a description I increasingly dislike, since a lot of experimental poetry seems to be far more formalist, in a pejorative sense, in its focus on manipulating language according to often arbitrary constraints, being in Poland has given me some perspective. According to some younger friends, both of whom are literary critics, very involved in the politically engaged poetry scene in Poland, many younger poets now consider it far more radical to write villanelles, for instance, than the austere free verse of someone like Zbigniew Herbert, which is seen as passé and conservative.

While Australian journals sometimes publish formal verse and the likes of Edgar and Judith Beveridge have won major prizes, the Australian poetry scene is dominated by free verse. In the United States and the UK there are long-established fora for formal poetry, journals, presses, competitions and so on. Some of these are quite strict in what they consider formal. In Australia there is nothing of this kind. This anthology then, is intended as a mild corrective, the modest beginning of something, in no way definitive, that we hope will increase the visibility of poets committed to rhythm, sense, meaning, and music in their work. 

Poems were solicited and chosen from a general call-out. There are poems in in the satirical mode (Clemens) adulatory (O’Brien, Head), lament (Dellora) or quasi-sacred (Rendell). Some of the poems have previously appeared in journals, many are unpublished. Some authors are well-established, others are new. The poets in this anthology are often in conversation with each other. The recently departed Les Murray is directly addressed in a number of poems.

There are few traditional forms, such as the sonnet, contained here. Most writers of formal verse invent their own forms (stanza length, rhyme scheme etc.) or rather, usually find the felicitous form arising out of an idea as they write, as did the originators of the sonnet, villanelle and other received forms we know today. Form to us is analogous to the twelve-tone scale in music, in that almost anything can be done with it. We have not scanned every line. We have not smoothed every rhyme. Readers whose idea of poetry is still the Tennysonian model will, we hope, be surprised by new and unconventional forms. Those who think form obsolete we hope will find fresh bubbly in these old wineskins. There are, we hope, no unfair attempts at seduction.

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