Welcome to the April/May issue of issue of Fanning the Flames. We are a tad late this month due to the onset of various maladies arriving with the Melbourne winter but we will make up for it with a bumper issue. Thanks to everyone who came to the launch of our poetry anthology in April. It was a great turnout and we were blessed to have Carlo Dellora and Paul Scully read their excellent work. I review Scully’s The Fickle Pendulum (2021) in this newsletter. Launch pictures below. Purchase Anthology of Australian Verse 2023 here.
To order titles from our catalogue please visit bonfirebooks.org
This month’s issue comprises:
Albany Unravelled cover reveal!
Caleb Caudell’s short story collection, Novelty, coming this July
Ryan Daffurn art book coming in 2024
2. The Fickle Pendulum (2021) by Paul Scully: A review by Lucas Smith
3. Digital Exhibition:
4. From Man to Machine: AI and the Future of Writing by Andrea Jonathan
We are excited to reveal the cover of our upcoming release Albany Unravelled by Steffan Silcox and Douglas R.G. Sellick.
The cover is a magnificent image of ships entering King George Sound near present-day Albany. It is not a pencil drawing, not a woodcut, but a scrimshaw, a type of etching in whale teeth, made by world-renowned scrimshander and Albany resident Gary Tonkin, who was just this week featured in an ABC article. Scrimshaw originated as a way for whalers to pass the time on their voyages (if my memory of Moby-Dick is correct) and developed into a fully-fledged art form that clearly has not died with the end of the whaling industry.
Albany Unravelled, is a new and fascinating account of the foundation and history of the King George Sound/Albany region of Western Australia, written in honour of its upcoming Bicentenary in 2026. With so much “broad brush” history being bandied about these days it is wonderful to see a work which paints in miniature, as it were, and adheres strictly to verifiable fact to correct both sensationalist and agenda-driven histories. It would be wrong to call Albany Unravelled merely a local history. Just as each of us lives in a village made up of the inhabitants of our daily lives, regardless of where we live, all history is in some sense local history. In particular the early history of Australian colonisation is by necessity intimate, because the decisions of a relatively small number of people had enormous influence on the nation we were to become. As one of the earliest and most isolated settlements in Australia, Albany’s story is both representative and unique. Pre-orders coming soon.
We are very excited to reveal the title of Caleb Caudell’s debut short story collection, Novelty and Other Stories, which we will publish this July. Caleb’s debut novel The Neighbor (Bonfire, 2021) was shortlisted for the 2022 Indiana Author’s Awards and the sixteen punchy tales of Novelty sees Caleb continue in the midwestern realist style as well as branching out into more conceptual and philosophical stories addressing the indignity of contemporary alienation, the valorisation of youth and the eternal tragic-comic struggles of love and romance. Cover and pre-orders coming soon.
Ryan Daffurn art book coming in 2024. We are overjoyed to announce that we will publish our first art book next year. The book will showcase Daffurn’s career to date, in particular his work arising from repeated painting sojourns to Hill End, NSW. In addition to the images the book will feature a number of essays about his work, philosophy of art and creative process. Ryan’s website is here. He is represented by Maunsell Wickes Gallery in Sydney.
Domestic Dreamscape-Ryan Daffurn
The Fickle Pendulum (2021) by Paul Scully: A Review.
by Lucas Smith
The Fickle Pendulum is Paul Scully’s third book of poetry and it is pre-occupied with doubts of many kinds. There is well-rehearsed religious doubt told through the lenses of Thomas the Apostle and Galileo, but also doubt about the value of his own art form, channelled through the story of poet Laura Riding Jackson, who famously gave up writing poetry in early middle age, convinced of “the impossibility of anyone’s functioning with consistency in the character of poet.” Poetry about poetry (or poets) is usually dull, but this section of The Fickle Pendulum is less about poetry than about self-doubt, something perhaps more poets should have more of.
After a career as an actuary, Scully turned to poetry, or rather, pursued it with more vigour. In this he continues a long tradition of office life and poetry. Eliot, Stevens and many other poets have, with varying levels of enthusiasm, pursued other vocations. For those of us who work or worked in offices it can be helpful for our own judgmental souls to remember that our boorish colleagues may keep a bottom drawer.
Scully is a smooth stylist who defaults to meaning and sense rather than esoteric or private speech. While his thinking is in an intricate register his language is never opaque. His prosody at its best resembles the silkiness of Anthony Hecht, where the reader is compelled to go on, tumbling down the lines as if the words are buoying him along on a white-water river current. Even when he eschews rhyme for free verse, it remains just that, verse, free from the blunt rhythm and Frankenstein jerk of so much of what passes for poetry these days.
In “Patron Saint of Politicians” from the Thomas section Scully seems to write of the bewilderment of the retirement of a fictional politician, but the poem could easily stand for himself or anyone else who has ended a professional career (actuaries and politicians having much in common in that they must constantly contend with probabilities)
I hitched a ride on a mainstream bus
Where, while shepherding wayward voters through banners
And leaflet litter, I was schooled in the virtue of achievement
And unearthed a talent for parsing the middle ground. Persistence
Awarded me a seat of suburbs and handshakes, a weekend
Of dedication stones and the confection of heroes.
Now my life is undulation,
A sea of moods,
Ears of wind,
A self I submit for appropriation.
This kind of attention to unity of form and content—as the lines flap and shorten as the narrator’s life loses its definition (the very word “undulation” being precisely what comes next)—sets Scully above less meticulous poets. The poem concludes with a wholly earned ambiguity, after the retired politician recounts the story of Doubting Thomas,
his leader’s ribs
and thrust into the maw
in search of truth
But I tremble at shaping myself to his choreography, for I seek
More what is kind than what is true.
And this is where politicians and actuaries part ways.
In “The Theft of Poetry” Scully comments on Riding Jackson’s renunciation of poetry with words from his “journal’s frenzy”, where he questions his own creative impulse.
…Was I a poseur,
A simulacrum, an accumulation of mere craft, eyes
Like water striders skimming the pond page, unversed
In essence, insights that vaporised on utterance?
How well aspiring poets know that last line!
But, he continues
Laura Riding then came to mind, with her chop [again with the attention to form]
Logic of a summit of truth even gods would blanch at
Scully has the ability to question even Riding’s commitment to lack of commitment.
…Was this disparition an act
Of vengeance? Or an ennui that would reanimate once it, too,
Or have those dirty rotten theorists ruined everything?
Or some neo-Adorno at war with the modern lyric?
Scully’s solution is a radical act of both empathy and self-abnegation.
“…I must read—bravely, wantonly, species-deep—
I must read every line of every single poem
As if I had written it.”
Early on in The Fickle Pendulum Scully revisits the parable of the Good Samaritan, briefly enumerating the opinions of various commentators on the story, Origen who sees “a complex allegory”, Calvin, who is “unimpressed”, Lawson(!), yes our Henry, for whom
the wayfarer was soft
at times, taciturn, morose, a fool even,
but one who shared his tucker
in city streets and on the bush track.
He probably knew the priest and Levite,
and the pub was owned by another good sort.
There is an obvious sardonic element to this insertion of Strine in between the Church Fathers, Calvin and Scully’s inclusion of the visual representations of the parable by the likes of Van Gogh, Delacroix, the libretto of Benjamin Britten. If, as St. Evagrius said, the theologian is one who prays, then Lawson as Theologian is a universalising rather than nationalising note. Even Australians at the ends of the earth can grasp the meaning of the parable. Truly it is a universal story.
In a book largely devoted to canonical tales, Scully manages to say things in new ways, which is to say, to say new things, because form and content, as he so ably demonstrates, are ultimately inseparable.
Digital Exhibition: Joseph Ducreux and the Portrait as Jest by Aaron Jacob
Joseph Ducreux was a portraitist in the court of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. In recognition of his services, he was ennobled and named First Painter to the Queen, a post normally reserved for members of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. He painted Louis XVI’s last portrait before his execution, and continued his career in the years following the Revolution.
Ducreux’s most interesting works, however, are not his perfectly appropriate and respectable portraits of his patrons. They are rather his self-portraits, which showcase his interest in physiognomy and a broad spectrum of facial expressions. His most famous, Portrait de l’artiste sous les traits d’un moqueur, features him pointing and grinning at the viewer. Around 2010, this painting became a widespread Internet meme, featuring rap lyrics rewritten in faux archaisms.
These portraits allow us to see perhaps a bit more of ourselves in the mirrors of the past. Their very pretension is to be unpretentious—to remind us that even very upright and serious men and women have been vulnerable, had unexpected reactions, been the butt of jokes. They remind us of the eternal value of gentle mockery, mirth, and silliness.
Self-portrait, bust-length, grinning at the viewer, 1790
Self-portrait, yawning, 1783
La surprise en terreur, 1790
Portrait de l’artiste sous les traits d’un moqueur, 1791
Le discret, 1791
From Man to Machine: AI and the Future of Writing
by Andrea Jonathan, Creative Director
Much like the publication of this issue, we are late to the party in commenting on if and how so-called ‘artificial intelligence’ will affect creative endeavours and human jobs. The public release of the ‘ChatGPT’ tool, a text-based AI interface that responds to typed questions, is a far cry from the frustrating and primitive ‘chat-bots’ found on websites which can only interpret a narrow band of pre-defined questions and spit out pro forma responses. You can ask it to write you a poem or an essay, to opine on ethical questions or to produce a speech for a fictional politician in a different era. Whilst it would not be capable of ‘thought’ per se, it is sufficiently sophisticated to factor in a broad range of informational ‘inputs’ and weave together responses from an enormous library of information. If you are yet to try it, I recommend taking it for a spin, to understand just how advanced or useful it may be. In its current iteration, the quality of its responses mostly appear to correspond to a mediocre human attempt at writing or compiling information.
There is however a range of human work which appears to be directly threatened by the widespread adoption of AI, and in particular, text-based algorithms such as ChatGPT. Commercial writing, such as advertising copy, is an obvious candidate, including its more creative variations—jingles, slogans and basic dialogue all appear able to be performed functionally by this technology. What is more worrying, or satisfying, depending on your perspective, is its ability to produce academic essays. The ‘postmodern generator’, an algorithm developed to mimic the absurdly obtuse and turgid academic style that had come into vogue, is over a decade old and managed to produce distinction-level essays in its heyday, and for all we know may still be doing so. Schools and universities are at a loss with what to do when students turn in AI generated homework and assignments. I personally feel this is their just deserts after subjecting students to the cruel and humiliating ‘turn-it-in’ software that generates an absurd ‘plagiarism’ score for fully referenced work, when the entire purpose of the essay is to paraphrase in a series of comparisons the work of approved sources. This ‘revenge’ of the machine by students against academia brings into question the very nature and purpose of scholarship in the 21st century.
Like the ‘computer’ that ‘beat’ Kasparov at chess, these algorithms cannot ‘think’ for themselves—they can hardly do more than memorise and generate responses that have been input by other people. Despite the doom and gloom predictions by journalists and Twitter ‘pundits’ I expect this technology to be of very little threat to genuine human creativity. Yes, the machine may by luck generate prose that is worth reading, although I am personally yet to see it. But will this threaten what is written by a person? Will bookshop shelves be stocked with AI generated short stories and novels that are cheaper to produce and more captivating than their human written originals? I personally doubt the ability of this technology to produce literature as it lacks the essential spiritual component that ties together the depth and complexity of the human experience.
The past two decades have also shown that provenance and meaning of the things we buy, own and consume cannot be indefinitely ignored. Increasingly, buyers want things that are personal, not only to them but to the person who created them. There are few commercially available ‘things’ that one can experience that are more personal than a good book. If anything, the deadweight of listicle-generating journalism and ivory-tower academia could do with the opportunity to prove to society that they too aren’t afraid of a Roomba.