Archive by Author |

Poems of a Feather

A bird’s eye review of Australian Poetry Journal 4.1

Mitchell Welch


The recent launch of Issue 4.1 of the Australian Poetry Journal took the form of a webcast panel discussion featuring APJ’s new editor Michael Sharkey in conversation with four prominent poetry editors (ABR’s Lisa Gorton, Seizure’s Fiona Wright, Mascara’s Michelle Cahill and Cordite’s Kent McCarter). During the discussion, McCarter admitted a certain degree of editorial ornithophobia, citing an over-representation of ‘bird poems’ in each issue’s expansive slush pile. Bird poems are so prolific that they scarcely need defending, but I think it’s helpful to remember that all poems are somewhat auspicious in nature (in the Greco-Roman sense). They are, or can be, prophecies of momentous clarity bounded by gestures through timespace, and after all, there are few gestures more earthly or universally captivating than the arc of a bird in flight.

Sky gazing is a thoroughly (though not exclusively) human behaviour, and there are birds of flight on every continent. Of course, language can never contain the universal, but perhaps the experience of staring into space, deep in a thought suddenly underscored towards its epiphany by the unexpected swoop of birdlife is about as close as we can get. It’s hardly surprising that ancient sky-gazers assigned meanings to patterns of birdflight, which are as cursive as any written language. The practice of reading these meanings is older than Rome itself. Perhaps this is why Michael Sharkey, a scholar no doubt well versed in the classics, has scattered birds all through the new issue.

Anne M. Carson’s Yula: the return captures the annual repatriation of migratory shearwaters to Phillip Island, a routine auspice that is nonetheless filled with ‘so many birds their wingbeats / are palpable in the dark’. Elsewhere in the issue, birds appear in brief cameo roles: Andrew McDonald’s birds address us in exultation, while Rose Hunter conjures pelicans, and Duncan Richardson pairs ‘stirring gulls / and rusting chains’. Jenny Blackford’s penguins don’t stir or sweep or soar, but ‘beat strong wings / under the ice’. Even Philip Salom’s fond biography of the ‘major minor poet’, William Hart-Smith, can’t ignore his poetry of birds, his cormorants and herons – even a Boomerang is ‘wood into bird and bird to wood again. / A brown-winged bird from the hand of a brown man’.

Perhaps Charlotte Clutterbuck’s Post-modern, in its fittingly self-conscious way, best captures the relationship between augury and art: ‘Brancusi’s wingless birds / suspended above the water / so that art exists fully / only for the one moment / in which you kneel on the rim / of the pond’.

Later in the discussion, when conversation turned to the idea of themed issues, Michael Sharkey flagged his intention to abandon them, a departure from his predecessor Bronwyn Lea’s approach. Indeed, birds are more motif than thematic anchor in this issue; APJ 4.1 presents the work of more than fifty Australian poets, and only a few are augurs. Though some are prepossessed by birdlife, it’s perhaps worth noting that even when the skies aren’t filled with feathered wings, there are still the auspices of so many moths, bats and biplanes left to read. But after those, there are poems that look earthward instead of skyward, and those that gaze to the horizon. Some of the most arresting poems manage to fold these three dimensions into origami kites that remain for the most part anchored in reality, which I suspect is where Michael Sharkey’s editorial thread will keep future issues carefully tethered.


Drawing Creativity Out

Untitled image by Franz Kafka

Untitled image by Franz Kafka

During my studies, I always found that I learned best in a classroom situation if I kept my hands busy, sketching, doodling, and drawing caricatures or geometric patterns. I was always in trouble for filling my schoolbooks with (not very good) pictures, though I maintain that the practice was an essential part of the learning process, as if I was encoding the teacher’s verbal information in visual patterns that only I would understand. Drawing was a way of ordering information in my mind. Later, when I started writing, I found myself doodling once again. At first I thought its function was merely procrastination, but then I reflected more closely, and realised that drawing has a kind of meditative function that is central to the practice of writing.

When I start a story, I start with fragments: characters, plot arcs, images, settings, moods. In general, these disconnected pieces float around somewhere in the subconscious, bouncing off each other, sometimes finding edges that fit together. Some people might map the thing out, or create some kind of grand schema, but I find the act of drawing equally productive. Something about the act of visual concentration, the slow and meditative mode of creation, seems to allow those fragments to join up below the surface, eventually emerging as a solved jigsaw (or at least one whose edge pieces have been sorted).

One of my character sketches

One of my character sketches

And perhaps there’s something to it. After all, there are many writers in history who have been engaged in the visual arts to some degree or another – from the clip-art style marginalia of Franz Kafka to the (surprisingly) vibrant impressionism of Sylvia Plath.

Perhaps the most complete record of this little known practice is Donald Friedman’s wonderful book, The Writers Brush, which collects hundreds of examples: from D.H. Lawrence’s well-known paintings to Henry Miller’s watercolours; from the unique modernism of the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti to Kurt Vonnegut’s very collectable screen prints.

Kurt Vonnegut's "Enchanted I.O.U.'s" portfolio

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Enchanted I.O.U.’s” portfolio

The great lesson of The Writers Brush, is that creativity is rarely a beast that can be contained in one channel, or communicated across one medium. If you find yourself struggling to piece together the fragments of a story, try turning your hand to drawing – even if you’re terrible at it. My instinct has always told me that the benefits a writer can derive from the art of doodling have very little correlation to the visual result. This theory is somewhat confirmed by those writers collected in The Writers Brush whose artwork is objectively terrible, but whose writing is nonetheless inspired (Marcel Proust and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I’m looking at you).

So, next time you’re blocked – try doodling. Lose yourself in the totally mechanical process of connecting lines, and you might find, on the other side of the exercise, some unexpected narrative connections emerging too.

Workshop With Ricochet’s Poetry Editor



 Poetics of power: Wringing creativity from time and space

  • @ the Zine Lounge, Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House
  • Free event after museum entry
  • Bookings essential; by Friday 13 June 2014

A workshop for practitioners, including ziners, writers and artists on using historic places as creative spaces. The workshop will explore the connections between visual, atmospheric and archival modes of experiencing and recording history, including a collaborative poetry experience.

Mitchell will also speak about Poetics of power: Poetry in history and history in poetry on 14 June, and as part of the Australian Prime Ministers Centre Seminar on 13 June, read more information on the website.


18 King George Terrace, Parkes, ACT  |  Open daily: 9am–5pm  |  Website:  |  Phone: 02 6270 8222

Submissions Around Town: May



N-Scribe is looking for fiction, poetry and non-fiction writing – the only catch is that you must live, work or study in Darebin in Melbourne’s north. If you’re a Darebin local, get your submissions in by 30 June.

If you writer science fiction, speculative fiction or fantasy, you might consider submitting to Aurealis, Australia’s premier sci-fi and fantasy magazine. They’re accepting submissions now.


Overland have recently launched the Story Wine Prizea new award for very short fiction (<1000 words). Three substantial prizes are on offer, and the winning story will be published in Overland, and on the label of a Story Wines shiraz. Submissions closing 29 June.

Arts Queensland has launched the Val Vallis Prize for poetry, which is open to poets across Australia. First prize is $1000, a weeklong stay at Varuna Writers House and publication in Cordite. Submission deadline is 10 July.

The prestigious Newcastle Poetry Prize is open for submissions. With an enormous first prize of $12,000, this is the richest prize in Australia for a single poem (or suite of poems). Competition will be fierce, so make sure you send your entry before the close of submissions on 20 June.


Junkee, the new kid on the pop culture/commentary block, is looking for an assistant editor to join the team in Surrey Hills, Sydney.

Are you an aspiring editor? With an interest in IT? CRN Magazine (published by Next Media) is looking for an editorial intern. Applications close 17 May.

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.

Read More…