What Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel can teach us about poetry


Let me start by saying that this is not a movie review, and I’m not a movie reviewer. I also have to declare my bias here as a dedicated fan of Wes Anderson’s whole oeuvre.

But for what it’s worth, Grand Budapest Hotel is a particularly great film. And while I’m being upfront, be aware that while this post doesn’t contain plot spoilers per se, fans of Wes Anderson will know that sometimes the plots of his films take a back seat to their cinematic execution – the how is often as important, or more important than the what. It’s how Anderson uses poetry in this film that tells us something about how poetry functions, and so some of you might feel spoilered if you read on. Incidentally, all of the poems in the film – which are admittedly parodic, though often quite arresting – were scripted by Anderson himself.

Early in the film, Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) – concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel – catalogues his meager possessions: “a set of ivory-backed hair brushes and my library of romantic poetry”. In fact, the library of romantic poetry is so dear to him that he seems to have committed the whole lot to memory, and takes great pleasure indulging in its recital despite it often falling on deaf ears and rolled eyes. This part of the film is filled with all the decadence and complacency of any first act – but drama is only around the corner. The function of poetry in these early scenes is fairly simple. Some small event happens and M. Gustave is reminded of a verse, which sets him off wistfully into recital – the way certain grandparents might launch into The Man from Snowy River if you don’t tread lightly. The words don’t seem to have much living meaning for M. Gustave, except that he seems to remember a time when they did, and revisits them for nostalgia’s sake.

But soon – and without giving anything away – M. Gustave and his lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori), are thrust (as you might expect) into a plot. And here M. Gustave’s poetry begins to serve a different function. As the characters progress through a series of escalating plot arcs, certain lines from his favourite poems surface. In brief moments of introspective calm, M. Gustave takes stock of his dire situation, is reminded of a verse, and begins again to recite out loud. However, the lines are now delivered with more intensity. The relationship between the on-screen drama and the words is palpable. Some cataclysmic event, an injustice or an act of violence, brings these words to mind, and he recites them not with a sense of nostalgia, but in total awe. This is the film’s first lesson in poetics: poems are things that make order out of chaos. They are a way of making sense. A poem read in slippers is not the same as when recited on the permafrost of some desolate wasteland. A poem read in the bath is not the same as one recalled in the face of injustice, brutality or war.

These moments of epiphany don’t last long. M. Gustave is doomed never to finish a poem because every time he pauses to reflect on the events that have led him to some brief moment of respite, some other catastrophe catches up with the pair, and the frenzied pace of the adventure resumes. The very act of pausing to make room for poetry allows the plot to catch up with its protagonists, and thrusts them back into the fray. This device is used to such great effect that the introduction of poetry into a scene takes on a role usually fulfilled by foreboding music – the audience learns that poetry spells trouble. This is the second lesson: poems are words so precisely chosen that they can provoke the hand of fate. Poems dare events to happen. In giving shape to past experience, they also disrupt the flow of future events, or at least the way they are perceived and the way we react to this perception. They are epochal in the truest sense of the word, and also transitory. And this provides us also with the third and final lesson: that poems are as relevant today as they ever were. Reflecting on M. Gustave, Zero as an old man describes him as being from a time that was over before he was born – the imputation being that Gustave’s world of poems and words and ivory-backed hair brushes was anachronistic even in the first half of the twentieth century. But these words shouldn’t be taken at face value, because here we are, talking about Wes Anderson’s use of poetry as a diegetic film device. The function of poetry is always changing, always finding new ways to filter experience. I don’t think anyone has used it quite like this before.

The Best Soundtracks for Writing

While I like writing to music, I hate writing to anything with lyrics. It doesn’t take me long to start singing and bopping along and then I forget all about what I’m actually supposed to be doing.

As a compromise I prefer film scores, because they create a perfect ambiance without dominating my attention.

From the languid, haunting melodies that define The Returned to the unforgettably thrilling 28 Days Later score, here are some of my favourite soundtracks to write to, broken down by genre. Hopefully you’ll find something that suits your own writing.

Literary: Requiem for a Dream

Requiem for a Dream is best known for the sweeping ‘Lux Aeterna’, which you’ve probably heard remixed on movie trailers for Lord of the Rings and The Da Vinci Code. But every track juxtaposes violent beats with a plaintive violin symphony, which is just perfect for a moody piece of literary fiction.

Historical: Atonement

I love the piano-centric refrains in this movie; they’re so nostalgic they draw you right into the past. This one’s great for your characters’ quieter introspective moments.

Dystopian: 28 Days Later

John Murphy’s brutal score establishes a sense of tension that isn’t easily forgotten. I could listen to ‘In the House, In a Heartbeat’ on repeat, it’s so palpably hopeless.

Action: The Matrix

This song is deceptively simple before it transitions into that aggressive electronica that The Matrix is known for. Just picture your kick-ass main character strutting along to this music. Can you see it? The repetition also helps, because it isn’t overwhelming when you’re trying to concentrate. Go to this playlist for the full score.

Adventure: Jurassic Park

For most of us, this soundtrack should be instantly familiar, but it blends quite fluidly into the background when you’re writing. And you have to admit that uplifting theme (you know the one – when they see the island for the first time) turns your heart to putty.

Western: Firefly

There are enough twangs and barn-raising banjos in this one to evoke the Wild West, but the piano and violin prevent it from being alienating to people who don’t enjoy that type of music.

Dark Fantasy: Game of Thrones            

If you’re keen to write something dark, depressing and full of torture, then you can’t go wrong with the Game of Thrones score. There are almost three hours of tense, sprawling instrumentals here.

Light Fantasy: Edward Scissorhands

The playful whimsy in this soundtrack would be great for writing a children’s book or fairytale.

Romance: Revolutionary Road

There’s something both painful and hopeful about the Revolutionary Road soundtrack. It’s evocative and romantic without being sappy, which brings to mind the equally stunning American Beauty soundtrack, also composed by Thomas Newman. You can listen to the full playlist here.

Sci-fi: Doctor Who

I’m sad to say I’ve never attended a Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Doctor Who spectacular, but it’s clear Murray Gold’s famous score is part of the show’s modern appeal. It certainly elevates the series to something filmic. Gold’s Torchwood soundtrack is just as lovely (in some parts it’s downright heartbreaking), though it’s slightly more techno laced.

Both should prompt your muse, whether you’re writing something in the science-fiction genre or not. If you’re not reduced to tears at least once during this two hour mix… well I’m not going to say you have no soul, but…

War: Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galatica is technically a sci-fi epic, but Bear McCreary’s score is so heavily influenced by military drums that I think it would be equally inspiring if you were writing about war or battle.

Horror: The Returned

Probably one of the best television soundtracks you’ll ever hear. Deeply atmospheric, it has been called “calmly unsettling” by its composers, a French band called Mogwai.

Crime: Sherlock

There’s a smug and somewhat old-fashioned flavour to this soundtrack that was inevitable, considering the source, but it’s also moody enough to provide a nice musical background to anything you might write about crime or mystery.

Have I missed something? What do you like listening to when you write?

Submissions Around Town: April



Laundry, a literary magazine with a focus on fashion, is accepting fiction and creative nonfiction no longer than 7000 words for inclusion in its next print edition.

The Rainbow Journal, a bimonthly online journal, is seeking poetry connected in any way to the theme ‘sunset’. The deadline for submissions is Wednesday April 30.

Entries are  now open for the Big Issue fiction edition, which has previously featured big authors like Christos Tsiolkas and Kate Holden.  All submissions are assessed blind, so emerging writers are encouraged to send something in. The theme this year is ‘take me away’ and the closing date is Friday June 6.


The Stringybark Future Times Award 2014 is looking for entertaining and inventive short stories set after 2020. A total prize pool of $810 is up for grabs, and feedback is also available for a small fee. Winners will be published in both the Times Past print anthology and an e-book edition. To be considered, get your entries in before Sunday April 13.

Little Raven is seeking entries for its erotic short story competition. They are especially interested in sex-positive works that explore sexual identity, sexual subcultures or sexual practices/kinks. Publication and cash prizes will be awarded to authors who come first, second and third, while other finalists may also be offered publication. Entries close on Friday May 2.

The Monash University Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing is open for entries from Australian and New Zealand university students until Thursday April 17. First prize is $4000 and publication in Verge, the annual Monash University literary journal. Winners will be announced at the Emerging Writers’ Festival opening gala on Tuesday May 27.

The international Love on the Road Writing Contest is accepting submissions about two people making a connection while travelling until Thursday July 31. Entries should be between 4,000 to 6,000 words. Cash prizes will be awarded to writers who come first, second and third, but the twelve finalists will also be published in a paperback anthology and e-book.


Kill Your Darlings is seeking an experienced WordPress developer to join the team. This is a part-time paid opportunity and applicants should be Melbourne-based, though this isn’t essential. Apply before Friday April 11.

If you have a bit of work experience under your belt, Scribe has two full-time positions currently available – Publicist, and Production and Publishing Assistant. While trade publishing experience is highly advantageous for the first role, publishing experience is not necessarily required in the second, though you will need some administrative skills. Both positions close on Thursday April 17.

The Australian Book Review is seeking an Editorial Intern for a paid position. This is a very, very rare opportunity for someone to work on the ABR magazine and website and earn a $45,000 salary while doing so. Past interns have gone on to do significant things in the Australian publishing industry. If you’re interested, applications close on Tuesday April 22.

Book Review: The Luminaries

The Luminaries

The Luminaries is a lot of things, but at the centre of all of them it is a murder mystery. In 1866 an old hermit has been found dead in his home and a wealthy young man has gone missing. In Part 1, Walter Moody arrives in the gold mining town of Hokitika in New Zealand ready to make his fortune. What he finds instead is a meeting of twelve men who each have overlapping connections to the mystery.

The murder mystery is the catalyst for all subplots, which have something to say about friendship, love, betrayal and the culture of several different nationalities. Catton has written an exquisite Victorian style novel that is culturally relevant to contemporary literary society and society as a whole.

In 2013 The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize. Winning is an achievement in itself; however, for Catton it was a specific kind of achievement. Upon winning the prize Catton became the youngest winner of all time at the age of 28, and author of the longest piece of work to ever win the prize at 832 pages. Awards and press coverage followed and her publisher Granta ordered a new print run of 100,000 copies.

The Luminaries is both an artistic feat and a structural feat. The characters, sans Te Rau Tauwhare, play the roles of the 12 signs of the zodiac. Their personalities are based on the sign they represent. If that wasn’t impressive enough for you, the characters only meet and interact with each other on dates in the book when their signs would have crossed paths in real life.

In February of this year Catton told an audience at The Wheeler Centre that planning The Luminaries was, in fact, the easy part. She said that from there she could figure out why those characters would meet on those dates. Reverse engineering a story is risky, but Catton pulls off the complications with poise. On top of such a complex character and date structure, each of the novel’s 12 parts is exactly half the length of the part preceding it. This structural choice mirrors the lunar cycle of the moon and gives the reader a feeling of constant acceleration throughout the story. As the murder mystery comes closer to a resolution, you move faster and faster through the clues.

“It isn’t my story to tell,” Catton has said regarding Maoris and their experience of the New Zealand gold rush. The Maori people didn’t actually value gold before European settlement, and in the novel there isn’t much to say about colonisation by Europeans. The lone Maori character, Te Rau Tauwhare, is a quiet and humble man who doesn’t kick up any fuss about the thieving of his ancestors’ land. That Catton didn’t include any real information suggests she is confident that history can speak for itself. Readers don’t need drawn out explanations about where people went wrong in 1866. More importantly, in fiction it seems that sometimes writers take the stories of others and purport them to be their own under the mask of creative freedom. Catton, who respects the Maori people a great deal, hasn’t told their story in this work not out of an effort to hide the past, but as a sign of respect to those whose story it is to tell.

In our fast paced society it was pleasant to read something new that felt old, like a classic I had known about all along. That is the magic of The Luminaries; you already feel like you know it and at the same time it drives you forward with its constantly quickening pace.

Dealing With a Creative Slump

Dealing With a Creative Slump

I’m finding myself in a bit of a creative slump at the moment. And I know this happens to everyone, but the more I dwell on it and the more I try to force something out, the less it feels like I’m ever going to be able to get out of my uninspired little hole.

When famous writers are asked about how they overcome writer’s block, they always say the same thing: write through the pain and the rest will follow. Don’t fold your hands and wait for inspiration to strike, because you’ll never produce anything. They’re right, of course, and intellectually, I know that, but it doesn’t change the fact that I can’t always force myself through my block. Trying to write when I’m that frustrated often just exacerbates the problem, making me more agitated than I was when I first sat down.

What I have to understand is this – I’m not blocked because I don’t have the ability to create something, I’m blocked because I’m thinking too much about what I haven’t already accomplished. I need to get back to a point where I can enjoy what I’m doing without putting ridiculous amounts of pressure on myself.

These are my strategies for getting there:

Take a break

I’m not going to call this procrastination, because I don’t think that’s very helpful psychologically – it just makes me feel guilty about not working, and then I get all anxious again.

It’s not easy to stop when it’s all you want to do, especially when you have limited free time and you really have to impose deadlines on yourself, but sometimes you need to remove yourself from all thoughts of writing. Get out of the house and do something mindless, like shop or go to the movies or catch up with friends.

There’s a great article on Brain Pickings about the stages of creativity, and how important it is to unconsciously process ideas before you can reach your ‘a-ha!’ moment. Sidetracking myself with other activities will, hopefully, recharge my creative batteries.

Don’t think about what other people are doing

I find this very difficult sometimes, especially when people around me are accomplishing great things like winning prizes and publishing first novels, but the more I compare myself to other writers, the more resentful I become, and that’s not fair on them or on me. At the end of the day it’s not going to help me finish anything. I have my own story to tell, and I need to tell it.

In her tips for writers over on Aerogramme Studio, Cate Kennedy emphasises the need to forget about “marketability, prizemoney, fame, fortune, or who’s going to play you in the miniseries” because none of these trappings will actually allow you to write a better story. My first step will be reducing the time I spend on social media, where it’s far too easy to be preoccupied by others people’s successes.

Enough with the ‘I must get published before I turn 30’ crap

For the longest time, I thought I would be a failure if I didn’t get my first novel published before I turned 30. It’s only now, as I enter my late twenties, that I realise this is insanely unrealistic for me. Why should I rush this, when it can only benefit me to gain more life experience, more publishing credentials, more writing fodder?

That’s not to say there aren’t people out there who can’t achieve this – look at Steph Bowe, who published her first YA novel when she was 16, or Hannah Kent, who earned her seven figure book deal for Burial Rites when she was 27 – but I can’t measure my self-worth according to whether or not I’m some authorial prodigy.

The best thing about writing is that you can never be too old for it. The average age of a first-time author is 36 (or so sayeth this random study), but many famous authors, including Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House on the Prairie), Annie Proulx (Postcards), Richard Adams (Watership Down) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) didn’t start until they were over 50. There is never a right age or a right time to publish your first novel, and if you think there is you’re going to find it impossible to live up to your own expectations.

Work on something completely unrelated

Funnily enough, writing this short article has helped quite a lot, because I feel happy that I’ve finished something, even if it wasn’t what I set out to do today.

I’m burning myself out struggling to perfect one piece of fiction. I think it’s helpful to write something unassociated with this mental turmoil, even if it’s just for me – like a journal entry, my reactions to a TV show or a short scene I’ve had kicking around in my head – so I can revel in the pleasure of writing without worrying about an end purpose.

Because that’s my problem. I need to get myself back into a frame of mind where I’m writing for myself and not other people. This is what I love, and the inspiration will eventually emerge from there.

Is it Possible to Over-Edit?

Is it possible to over-edit

“I edit my own stories to death. They eventually run and hide from me.”
– Jeanne Voelker

Last night I awoke from a disturbing dream, hot-flushed and restless (no, I’m not menopausal). In the dream I was frantically hacking at my manuscript; fiddling paragraphs, altering words, massacring characters. My story transformed into an unrecognisable product that had little in common with the original. At some point something must have clicked because I spent the end of the dream trying to restore it to its former glory. Clawing my way back, crippled with confusion – my story a disjointed muddle of nonsense. And all I could think was, “I’d been so close and now it’s ruined…”

We’re told we should edit until our eyes are bleary, our fingers blistered. Yet, I wonder, is it possible to over-edit? That desire to keep honing each sentence can be overpowering. It’s a relentless quest with no clear ending.

When is enough enough?

Mike Nappa (Founder of Nappa Literary Agency) claims the answer is simple:

“You write a book four times.”

When I first read this, I scoffed at the comment. Four times? Pah! I’m on at least my six hundred and twentieth draft!

He explains the process in four stages:

1. The Close-In Writing (the first draft)
2. The Close-in Edit (Edit all the way through from word one)
3. The Distant or Hand Edit (Draft an entire hard copy from hand)
4. The Oral Edit (Read revised hard copy out loud and note any phrasing that causes you to stumble)

Click here for the entire article.

“If you write your book four times,” Mr Nappa goes on to explain, “chances are very good that when you’re done it will be a finely crafted work of art.”

I’m not sure my manuscript could have been defined as ‘art’ after the fourth draft. It was more of a stem yet to sprout its leaves. Perhaps it was because it’s my first and I started as any amateur does, fumbling about like a newly hatched bird learning to feed. Naturally, we become quicker at the process with every manuscript attempted and I’ll dance naked around my living room the day I craft a masterpiece after only four drafts.

On a positive note, I could suppose my dream was a sign. A sign that my manuscript is ready. Maybe I need to put away that pen, accept that it’s as good as it can be and plop it in an envelope.

“I’ve reached that final moment of editing a book — the one where the text manifests as a living breathing person and starts slugging me in the face.”
— Richard Due

Have you ever edited a piece of writing to death?

This article was originally published on Top of the Slush Pile
Follow Gemma Hawdon @gemmaleehawdon

Submissions Around Town: March

Submissions around town - March


Elsewhere is looking for prose poetry and flash fiction that lives on the outskirts, where things are always almost said. Works feature online alongside beautiful photography. There is no closing date, but a new edition is published every two months.

Overland will be publishing work by new and emerging writers in a special online edition in mid-April. Writers will be paid $100 per story. Submissions close Monday March 10.

Writing the Walls Down, a multi-genre anthology that will explore the physical and metaphorical significance of walls in the lives of LGBTQ people, is accepting stories from international authors until Tuesday April 1 (submissions have been extended to this date, so please ignore the January deadline on their call out page).


The Tabor Adelaide Creative Writing Awards are open for entries with the theme ‘homecomings’ until Friday March 7.

The Henry Lawson Verse and Short Story Competition is accepting entries in a number of verse and short story categories until Friday March 28. A $2500 prize pool is up for grabs.

The FAW Queensland Poetry Competition is looking for poetry with passion, beauty and an understanding of life and its complexities until Monday March 31. First prize is $200, and two encouragement awards are worth $50.


Lip Magazine is currently searching for a Managing Editor, who will oversee the daily running of the Lip website. This is a voluntary position that requires a commitment of 2 to 4 hours a day, depending on the amount of content to manage. Candidates will need a demonstrated ability to manage a team of writers and editors in addition to writing skills and a familiarity with Lip. Applications close Monday March 10.

Soot Magazine is seeking freelance writers with an interest in music, pop culture, literature and fashion to make ongoing contributions to the Soot website. This is an internship role, though a good way to build your profile. As bonus, you’ll also have the opportunity to interview some big-name artists, actors and performers.

The Melbourne Fringe Festival is looking for a part time Associate Producer (Keynote Project), and an Artists Services Coordinator to liaise with artists and handle core administrative tasks.  Applications for both positions close Friday March 21.

The Guardian is filling a variety of roles in both Sydney and Melbourne – reporters, a subeditor, a PR/marketing manager and a deputy comment and culture editor, among others. Take a look at their website for full position descriptions.


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