Thursday, 21 December 2006

LAUNCH: Love Poems

[left: Patrick De Gabriele, Chris Mansell & Kate Khoury of Our Book Shop, Berry; Jen Saunders, who launched the book, & Chris Mansell.]

Thank you Jen Saunders, poet and artist, for launching Love Poems on 9 December 2006 at Our Book Shop, Berry. A more generous and insightful launch speech does not exist I think. Here's what she said:

I am honoured to be in the position of saying things about Chris Mansell's new book Love Poems‚ not only because it's a mark of Chris' confidence in me as a friend and reader, but also because it's given me an excuse to read poems for the last two weeks.

Noone should need an excuse - but that's another story. Fortunately we are lucky enough to live in a community that provides us with a year full of plenty of book launches, live music, art exhibitions, poetry readings and even the occasional launch of a lingerie and sextoy boutique. As Sir Les Pattersen would say 'culture up to our arses'.

On that note I'd like to give you a little bit of background and context to Chris as a writer (which I've stolen from her website). Chris' first book of poems was published in 1978. Since then she has had seven other collections of poetry published as well as a children's book, audio recordings of her poems and several plays. She is widely published in literary journals in Australia and overseas. She has also given many, many, many live and recorded readings of her work. She has founded and edited a literary magazine, set up the publishing company PressPress and established and coordinated poetry festivals.

She has lectured in creative writing at University of Wollongong and the University of Western Sydney. She has been writer in residence and or editor in residence in Queensland, Tasmania, Western Australia, NSW. She has won prizes for several poems and in 1993 she won the Queensland Premier's Award for poetry and in 1995 her collection Day Easy Sunlight Fine was short listed for the National Book Council's Banjo Awards.

She has mentored, officially and unofficially, poets throughout Australia and conducted many workshops with children and adults. Nearly all her working life has been involved in writing, performing, print production, editing, and in lecturing about or teaching writing. And this is just the stuff she's got out there into the public domain - this doesn't tell you all the stuff she does behind the scenes!

Some of you are writers and some of you aren't. To be able to explain what it's like to make a poem I'll tell you what I think it isn't:

Writing a poem is not: relaxing, easy, nice, charming, ladylike, a hobby, a delightful past-time, a doddle, a walk in the park, simple, straightforward or something to be undertaken lightly. A lot of the time it isn't fun (although possibly Pam Ayres has fun - I don't know).

Making a poem is work and, like hard work of any kind, it's best done in an appropriate work place under ideal working conditions where you can get plenty of it done in big chunks of uninterrupted time supported by people who understand the effort, time and personal cost involved and preferably being paid handsomely for your efforts.

As most poets will tell you, those conditions don't exist - because money has to be earned, bills paid, appointments kept, children and pets fed, etc etc - all the day to day things we all have to do.

Therefore, to make a poem is even harder work, because you never get those ideal conditions. Chris is an extremely hard worker. she works hard at her life outside writing and she works hard within her writing life. And where is it that this writing life takes place?

Samuel Beckett said the three constants in a writer's life are the inability to speak, the inability to keep silent and solitude. And in a similar vein David Malouf has said that writers are actually dumber than most people, not less intelligent but more silent. And it's this inner silence and solitude that is the work place of the poet.

Now from that exhausting list of Chris' achievements that I just read you, you may be able to see how difficult it could be to find time and headspace to get to the solitude. And just in case you're thinking that it's all ambient ocean sounds once you get in there - it's not.

Like hard workers everywhere who are dedicated to their task she works with great precision and sets herself the highest standards. The precision of Chris' language is evident when you hear her read - the words, phrases, syllables, pauses and breaths are pieced together with absolute care and attention. She wants you to get the sound of her poetry like a piece of music, as well as the words and the feeling and the crosscurrents... she wants you to work a little bit. She issues a challenge to you - come on, have a go! But Chris' poems are never exclusive or high-falutin' .

Again I want to say what writing a poem isn't - it isn‚t just thinking up something clever and writing it down. It is construction. Chris' poems are like a very finely wrought sculpture that has been pieced together with incredible delicacy and care along with the boldness and adventure that experience brings.

In writing that description I saw a suit of chain mail - extremely strong and practical but also flexible, shifting, with the vulnerable flesh and blood sensed underneath. And it is that flesh and blood, that pumping heart that is being offered to you.

You are being offered gut feelings (lust, despair, pride, fear, tenderness, bravery, weakness) but not only that - in this book of poems you get sharp, intelligence and very pointy wit, and you get a good belly laugh, and you get a flirtatious tickle, and you get sparklingly clear, beautiful pictures, and you get outright weirdness to disturb your dreams or your insomniac hours, and you get pure undressed sadness, and protective maternal fierceness and all sorts of cocktails and mixtures of these and more.

But this complexity is being given to you with no threads hanging, it is seamless. So beautifully done - it's almost un-authored. And it's in the inner silence I spoke of that this construction is done.

One more quote from Australian writer Alex Miller, from his book The Sitters:
"The silence that surrounds everything we do while we're doing it. Trying to bring something into being there. Hoping to coax it out. Waiting for that first little sign of presence. That offer. The first shuffling movement in the dark. through the screen. What's in there? And then the happy accident, the distraction of our thoughts .. .while we‚re thinking of something else, and suddenly it's happening. it's not our intention. But here it comes. We're alone. Then it's greeting us. And we've never seen it before. It's the same old thing and we've never seen it before. It's completely new and unexpected and we know it and we've always known it. It's the trace of ourselves. Look at that! Nothing makes you feel better. You're happy. Just for a little while you've surprised yourself and you're tired but happy."

And it's that inner, solitary place that good writers go off to, to make poems that bump, elbow and shake us readers around a bit. Enjoy being bumped by Chris' new book.

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