This month’s issue comprises:
1. May Update – Alasdair Cannon’s Holding Patterns
2. Interview with Alasdair Cannon
3. Editorial by Andrea Jonathan, Executive Director
4. Digital Exhibition: Neville Pilven: Australian Imaginative Landscape
5. Review: Chinese Poetic Writing (Francois Cheng), by Lucas Smith, Editor-in-Chief
In May, it’s been all about Alasdair. Alasdair Cannon’s debut volley of essays, Holding Patterns, is available to pre-order here. Official release date is June 30, but pre-orders may ship before then. The reverberations from Alasdair’s pen are profound enough to cross nearly the entirety of the continent so if you are in Melbourne please join us for a launch party on Saturday July 9th from 7 pm in Carlton North (details TBC) (please RSVP if you would like to attend). If you are in Townsville please join Alasdair at Mary Who? Bookshop, 414 Flinders Street, Townsville, QLD on July 15th from 5.30 pm.
An interview with Alasdair conducted by editorial assistant Lily Hull is below. It provides fascinating insight into the genesis of Holding Patterns and Alasdair’s intellectual history. I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on starting a piece in one genre and ending in another, allowing the material to suggest the best way to present itself. Now seems an appropriate time to say that as an author Alasdair has been wonderful to work with, responsive and enthusiastic. Alasdair is a uniquely gifted writer and we look forward to presenting Holding Patterns to the world next month and beyond. As Sam Cooney says, “There’s no writing being published in Australia that is quite like Alasdair Cannon’s”.
Holding Patterns is a unique blend of memoir, cultural criticism, psychoanalysis and Nabokovian wordplay, that takes aim at everything from R U OK? Day to Obama’s foreign policy record, and that’s just the first essay. With explosive empathy, disarming candour, and inside-out self-reflection, Cannon dissects some of the deepest problems of the late industrial subject and the society it dwells in, always with an eye to the fleshy person beneath the accretions of our technological world. Featuring dazzling wordplay, deep intertextuality and a few subliminal side quests, Holding Patterns is a debut to savour for lovers of Wallace, Beckett, and other authors attuned to the foundational paradoxes of our time. Alasdair Cannon is a powerful new Australian voice.
Interview with Alasdair Cannon
L: What are some of the cultural advantages of growing up in a place like Townsville, as opposed to somewhere like Sydney or Melbourne?
A: This is a question I’ve been thinking about for the last few years. In 2017 I did this program with the university and as part of that I ended up speaking with Tim Costello briefly. We spoke about Australian identity, this was in Paris as a part of the program, at the OECD conference there. I have been thinking about it for the last five years really and I think what’s unusual about growing up in Australia and Townsville is the sense of the contingency of our identity, as opposed to countries with more established histories and firmly defined nationalistic cultures than Australia. I lived in Townsville until I was nineteen and as a kid I grew up consuming a blend of Japanese cartoons and videogames, American TV, European novels. I lived in a house built in the 1800’s that is now outfitted with Korean electronics. Townsville is a former British colonial town that isn’t all that developed and opens onto this sort of vast expanse of undeveloped Australian landscape, and so I think I had this very postmodern upbringing and I had all of these different cultural imports easily accessible to me at all times, which I consumed against the backdrop of that underdeveloped landscape. To quote the kind of Mark Fisher perspective on this, I lived both at the end of history and a place where history seems that it hadn’t started yet. There’s this Camus’ quote from his novel The First Man as well where he says living in Algeria, which was a French colony at the time, he says I “had been born in a land without forefathers and without memory” and I think that kind of summarises what Townsville is like for me. Overall, I have this sense of contingency and that contingency comes from both within the culture I lived in and there was also a sense of contingency of that culture, because it’s seen as kind of arbitrarily plopped down in the landscape there. Living in Townsville I think I discovered that sense of contingency of identity more readily than I might have had if I lived in a place like Sydney or Melbourne, where I think culture tends to be more deterministic for people and their outlooks.
L: I can empathise as someone who also grew up in a northern coastal town, which you could similarly describe as undeveloped. If we then look to Holding Patterns, which I’m sure is very exciting for you, being your first published book.
L: You write about a lot of common experiences in Holding Patterns such as office work, technology, terrorism (the mediated experience of it anyway), widespread discontent with work, social life and cultural products. What do you hope to offer people with writing like yours?
A: This has been a theme of all of the writing I’ve actually done. Anti, which I submitted to Bonfire, which became Holding Patterns is actually my second manuscript and the first one, was a manuscript I haven’t yet published. Both Anti, Holding Patterns and that first manuscript all dealt with the theme of hope, so what I hope to offer people is, actually, hope I suppose. The answer I wrote down is that the principle of care animates all the work I do and its purpose, perhaps ambitious, is to sort of reveal and transform the ethics of those who encounter it and also myself as the author through the act of communicating it and my audience who might experience that through reading it. In holding patterns the way I tried to give hope to my readers is by transcribing and creating for the reader a performance of both empathy and introspection. I was inspired by the writings of a psychologist called Heinz Kohut who trained as a Freudian but developed his own school of psychology called Self Psychology and he has this fantastic paper where he outlines the underpinnings of psychoanalytic therapy. He basically says that empathy and introspection are the two things that give us any kind of knowledge of another end of ourselves, and he also says that empathy and introspection are the things in therapy which allow us to transform the patient, to allow them to develop and to heal. When I talk about these traumatic things, like the experience of workplace bullying, or the encounter with terrorism through the media, or my family’s experience of depression in that last essay, I’m essentially trying to explore and demonstrate the emancipatory potential of empathy and introspection for myself and also to provoke that experience of empathy in the reader, and also provide empathy for the reader. I hope that when people read this they will perhaps experience that emancipatory potential of those things themselves.
L: I definitely experienced a lot of these things while reading Holding Patterns and so I think you’ve done well to bring those to fruition. Do you write anything else aside from non-fiction? Why do you gravitate to non-fiction as a medium?
A: I actually write a lot of things aside from non-fiction. My originally aspiration as a writer was, and still is actually, was to write novels but every time I try to write a novel I basically find myself diverted from my fiction by questions of philosophy, ethics and politics and those sorts of things. I usually feel a need to answer those questions before I continue to write the fiction that I’m working on. It’s now actually at the point where I’ve started lots of different novel projects and completed three non-fiction manuscripts and no fiction manuscripts. Even Holding Patterns began when I became frustrated with a novel I was trying to write and I’m currently working on a new novel at the moment. It’s one I’m hoping I’m going to finish and publish but some days I can feel that call of non-fiction again saying, “just write an essay about this, it’ll be easier and better.” I was thinking that a psychoanalyst would probably say that my work is a kind of productive failure and there’s this sense in me that at the very edge of my conscious mind that I’m unconsciously thwarting one mode of work by doing another and so in a neat inversion of the Freudian symptom that works because it doesn’t, I do not work by working.
Aside from that, I think more charitably than the analytic interpretation, I think one of my strengths as a creative is that I’m quite good at allowing myself to be seized by my creative compulsions and have fidelity to those compulsions, whatever form they take. For the last few years that compulsion has been for non-fiction, and I think that’s partly because our culture has become so intensely political that it would be hard to say something true about my life and the lives of those around me without speaking about how real subjectivities in real environments respond to real political events. There’s also the sense as well that, the form that your creativity chooses is something that you have control over. Like when I speak, I speak in English by default and my intention to speak is captured by the language I know. It’s a similar thing, I try to write and it just comes out that way. There’s a quote from a poet that I read recently where he says about his poems “If I could have written them differently I would have” and that’s the sort of feeling I have about why I write non-fiction.
To give you a short answer, I would love to write fiction but I keep getting distracted, and maybe that’s a good thing.
The full transcript is available on our website.
Dodging the Arrows
Editorial by Jonathan
One of the causes célèbres of contemporary society is the proper, or rather, improper use of language. New words are deemed to be offensive within the cycle of runway fashion and it has become a sign of linguistic finesse to navigate this ever-changing verbal battlefield. I’d like to think that I could hold my own in the most sophomoric Fitzroy bar if cared to, but I don’t like my chances in the coming decades as my brain begins to ossify. I can’t say that the older generations are doing much to endear themselves to the youth, which doesn’t bode well for the allowances I am counting on for how I will sound to young people in forty years, which I expect to be deemed some kind of antiquated dialect.
I have recently come to notice prominent use of the pronoun ‘they’ when referring to the singular ‘he or she’ in a professional and social context. Let me say from the outset that this is not about the politics of sex or self-identification – the examples I refer to would not insist upon or prefer being referred to as such. Rather, any situation where the third person singular would be used has been replaced with the plural. The same applies to the possessive. As much as I disliked the clunkiness of ‘his/her’ when referring to the possession of an unknown third person, it caused me considerably less agitation than seeing someone automatically jamming a ‘their’ into the slot which is completely indefensible. Rather than fight a one-man crusade and correct this terrible sin of conjugation I have found myself inventing creative circumlocutions to avoid review confrontation. This still leaves me better off than being forced to back to the old standard of ‘he/she’ which would cause me another form of stylistic turmoil. Despite the fact it would be easier for me to simply look the other way, my pride won’t allow it and doing this allows me to avoid the discomfort of partaking in the latest form of grammatical vandalism.
One of the most common charges laid against the defender of the continuity of language is to point out that languages evolve; they are not there to be preserved in time but rather to grow and evolve with it. This obviously ignores the specifics of the change at hand, and conflates any and all change with the kind of linguistic evolution that may be authentic, natural or ameliorating. Fowler noted English’s lack of diacritical marks that are common in other European languages as a great advantage as one example, but it is undeniable that we are witnessing a decline of the English language. You can compare the speeches of 19th and 21st century politicians, or closer to home, the lyrics of your parents music to your own, to see the truth of it. But regardless of whether the the charge sticks – if one’s focus is only on reversing change, one is bound to be the victim of it. The linguistic conservative may only observe and protest the decline of his language and leave the innovating to the vandals.
Where it was once poets who directed a language, it is now the corporate media, including tech companies that employ both human and algorithmic censors. Those who determine which forms of language are permissible and who assign meaning through catch-cries and slogans shape not only our society but our inner consciousness and our relationship to reality itself. It is precisely this form of colonisation that I protest. In addition, as more and more people around the world learn English as a second language and move to English-speaking countries, the process of simplification is only set to accelerate. The curse of the lingua franca is that it appears to be undeserving of any kind of defence against improper usage, and its speakers will learn it not out of love, but out of necessity, which is no fault of their own. But not all hope is lost. Every empire eventually buckles under its own weight, and if the last few years are any indication, the twilight of the globalised and unipolar world has begun. It will be in small, fragmented and transversely-connected pockets of speakers, readers, authors, poets and librarians that the seeds of the language will be preserved to take root in the next phase of the global order. Perhaps by our old age we can hope be prized fossils, studied for our peculiar speech.
To order titles from our catalogue please visit bonfirebooks.org
Neville Pilven—Australian Imaginative Landscape: A Digital Exhibition
by Lucas Smith
I first encountered Neville Pilven on the cover of the American edition of Philip Hodgins’ Selected Poems and was immediately impressed. While the best landscape painters can convey a mood and a narrative without human beings I find so many get the light wrong in Australian landscapes, the most common mistake being to make it too harsh. Pilven, who died last year aged 81, doesn’t even attempt photographic realism, instead stylising the landscape with fuzzy edges, exaggerated shapes and deep colours. Nothing like his paintings exists in reality and yet they capture that ambivalent menace and fragility that is inherent in so much of the Australian bush. In their palate and mood his landscapes remind me of the cityscapes of Giorgio di Chirico, with their tan, yellows, oranges and greens and their darkly expectant moods. They share a spirit with Gerald Murnane’s endless flats of inland Australia. The three examples given here are in order, “Tree Shadow and Gold”, “Bent Tree” and “River and Green”.
Neville Pilven is represented by Salt Contemporary Art Gallery in Queenscliff, Victoria and his work can be purchased through them: www.salt-art.com.au
Chinese Poetic Writing by Francois Cheng (1977)
(trans. Donald A. Riggs and Jerome P. Seaton, 1982)
Review by Lucas Smith
Chinese Poetic Writing by Francois Cheng is a comprehensive introduction to the Chinese poetic tradition, its key figures, foundational works, philosophy and praxis. I began reading it prompted by an essay by the late Belgian-Australian Sinologist Simon Leys called “Poetry and Painting: Aspects of Chinese Classical Aesthetics”, in which he calls Chines Poetic Writing “an admirable work to which I shall never adequately acknowledge all my debts.”
Chinese poetry was popularised in Europe by Ezra Pound in the early twentieth century through his vivid but inexact translations. Pound barely knew any Chinese, cribbed off the work of others, and had a heroic notion that Mandarin characters could be deciphered if only one stared hard enough and divined what each figure and line resembled in reality. But it is still his adaptations that spark the interest of most Western poets in the Chinese tradition.
Well, I know even less Chinese than Pound. This piece should be taken as the excited jottings of a new enthusiast, in no way authoritative. All I know is from Simon Leys’ essay and this book, but I must say that I am intrigued.
Rather refreshingly, a certain scepticism about the value of language itself lies at the heart of Chinese poetry. When Cang Jie made the first characters, Cheng writes, “Heaven and Earth trembled and gods and demons wept. For, through the magical trickery of the written signs, man would henceforth share in the secrets of Creation.” Writing, then, is an inherently hubristic act, and Chinese poetry seeks to balance this inherent hubris with stylistic and topical humility. Cheng compares this story of the first Chinese characters to the story of Prometheus bringing fire to mortals. It is better to be silent, but if one cannot be silent one has an obligation to perfect one’s utterances. Chinese poetry tends to efface the author and addressee, often doing away completely with pronouns and prepositions. It allows gaps and silences, or, as Leys writes, “the emphasis is always on interpretation rather than on invention.”
The Western obsession with originality, and of going beyond, is here quite alien. Traditional Chinese subject matter from the golden age of the Tang Dynasty in the 7th and 8th centuries AD, is often boring or repetitive, crops, mountains, love, journeys, sages wild geese and rivers. But, as neo-formalists well know, constraining form introduces a paradoxically fruitful freedom. One must focus one’s creative energies, refine and refine again.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Chinese calligraphy, where even the number of brushstrokes is fixed by the tradition. It is said that in chess, composition and performance take place at the same time. Calligraphy is as much a performance as it is a literary work. This idea of the complete, holistic one breath work of art, the pure calligraphic utterance, a moment of perfection, the culmination of intense spiritual preparation.
Illustrated poetry has a long tradition in the West and in Australia. AD Hope and Arthur Boyd collaborated on a beautiful volume called The Drifting Continent, and Boyd and Peter Porter on a beautiful volume called Jonah, but missing is that link in the trinity. If Poetry is the Father, Painting the Son then calligraphy is the Holy Spirit.
As Leys writes, “The finished work is to the spiritual experience of the artist as the graph recorded by the seismograph is to the earthquake.” The finished product on the page is less important than the spiritual preparation that went on before it. The spiritual dimension of art has been somewhat lost recently in Western art.
The English language, being phonetic not pictographic, has no analogue of Chinese calligraphy. Perhaps icon painting could come close. While we do have ornate fonts and stylised handwriting, often very beautiful, such as the famous initial capitals of medieval illuminated manuscripts. But these were done in with painstaking effort and are prized for their intricate detail rather than the manner of their composition. Chinese calligraphy by contrast, was composed in the time it took to put brush to paper in its ritualised performance.
The sonnet endures as a form because it contains that characteristic Western tendency to state a complete idea and then turn it on its head, thesis and anithesis. The Chinese instead state a complete idea and then move above it, “go up”. Perhaps what the Chinese tradition can offer contemporary Western writers is a way between the confines of form, rhyme and received prosody, and the randomness and obscurity of postmodern “originality”. The best Chinese poetry, keeping in mind I only know it in translation, seems to leave open wide interpretations of each word and phrase, while retaining a fundamental adherence to the laws of the universe, with Man-Earth-Heaven all in harmony.
If you are as intrigued as I am, dip your toe in with Simon Leys then start wading with Francois Cheng.