In the aftermath of our launch at Better Read Than Dead (June 18th), we had a few chats amongst ourselves and with others who were there at the event. We're so thrilled to have seen you all there.
If you were a contributor--thank you for your dedication, talent, and email diligence. If you were a friend or family member--thanks for supporting emerging artists, and for giving the warmest reception. If you were neither of these things, but came anyway--you're an unknown delight, and so appreciated.
We'd again like to thank Luke Carman for his generosity in mentioning EVERY ONE of the 30 pieces in the anthology. It was a rigorous presentation, and those words dedicated to each piece can be of great use to an emerging writer. We don't often get the chance for critical analysis of our work (outside the uni classroom, that is).
So, with Luke's permission, here is a transcript of his presentation for the launch. We hope you all enjoy it, and get useful feedback from it. And if you haven't done so already, read Luke's other work here, here, or here.
Emily, Emma, Hanna, Harriet, Lily, Louise, and Tom
Editors of the 2015 UTS Writers' Anthology, Strange Objects Covered With Fur.
First of all, let me say how honoured I am to be the auxiliary launcher of this year’s UTS Writer’s Anthology – which is, without doubt, Australia’s most anticipated and most prestigious annual compilation of up-and-coming writers and editors.
One of the first times a story of mine made it to print was for a little western Sydney anthology called Westside – it no longer exists – but it was a pretty good read in its day, and the editor, Western Sydney novelist Mohammed Ahmad, would throw a huge launch at Bankstown Town Hall and invite all the contributors to come up and get awards and have their names read out and feel great about themselves and so on. I went to the launch the year my story was published in Westside, and (like they did for all the contributors) they called my name and I walked up in front of everybody and everybody applauded politely and Ivor Indyk, chief editor of Giramondo, shook my hand and gave me a certificate. Along with the hand shake, he handed me a copy of J. S. Harry’s Not Finding Wittgenstein. Everyone with a story in Westside that year got a copy of something from the Giramondo office, and I happened to get a collection of Harry’s Peter Henry Lepus Poems.
On the train ride home, still buzzing with the excitement of the evening, I started reading the book and for the life of me, I could not figure out what the hell I was reading. For starters, the book had two names - which is no biggie, but I found it a little disorientating: was it called Peter Henry Lepus Poems, or was it Not Finding Wittgenstein? When I opened it up, the situation only got worse – the introduction was called ‘Biographical Notes on Peter Henry Lepus’, and beneath it was, unsurprisingly maybe, was the biography of a rabbit called Peter Henry Lepus who was born in Britain, of Creole ancestry, and was rumoured to have met with Wittgenstein (according to tales passed down through rap songs in the red light district of Baton Rouge). This bio note went on for some time, and then the poems began with ‘Lapin on the Loose’ 1 ‘Under Drought’.
On the ride home from Bankstown I read that first poem and understood not one word of it. All I knew was that this book was a very strange thing indeed. I didn’t know anything about its publisher, Giramondo, back then, but I realised something immediately – if they were willing to publish shit that strange, then they were the publishers for me. From that moment on, I knew exactly who I was going to write for – for the rest of my godforsaken life.
About a month ago, J.S. Harry died, and her long time publisher (now my publisher too), Ivor Indyk, wrote about her passing in the Sydney Review of Books. He described Harry as our first ecological poet, writing:
“Her details, which are so finely observed, lead to other details, relationships, conflicts, stories, parables, meditations on language and history, in a movement outwards from nature to everything which impinges on it, including the imagination and its contents. It is this movement, this expansiveness, which I think of in describing her achievement as ecological.
Typically, though not always (she has lions and pelicans and camels too), Harry’s starting point for the process of navigation and expansion is the vulnerable or fugitive creature – deer, cockroach, lizard, spider, ant, mosquito – or the transient effect of clouds or light or misty rain. It’s not easy to capture these delicate effects with precision and economy, but this is her great skill.”
I mention the case of J. S. Harry and her writerly chops, because reading Strange Objects Covered in Fur, I was astounded to find a similarly expansive and attentive ecological evocation achieved in each of the collections contributions. There was also, from the very first pages, the same feeling of an unrestrained strangeness – which, in these troubling times, Australian fiction has never needed more.
Strange Objects Covered in Fur begins with the story of a stray – not the titular dog of Mark Rossiter’s story, but rather, his protagonist: a rootless traveller, who – hungry and thirsting – takes the reader on a nomadic navigation through a progressively more menacing landscape, all the while haunted by the presence of some eerily allegorical hound.
Rossiter’s contribution is an entry into the anthology that blends beautifully into Mitch Fuller’s Own Bit of Dirt, a story which starts with an uneasy history, punctuated by the terse, ironic vernacular of the tablelands folk, who live – despite their watercolour hangings of proud merinos and family portraits – on a land which has begun to withhold its water, and on which the ghostly presence of the Anaiwan people live on in deep-rooted memory.
In Harriet McInerney’s The Buzzing, insects – butterflies, bees and wasps – become the allegorical embodiment of the gaps that live in language, between the ordinary and the extraordinary. In isolation, these insects are the manifestation of the poetic moment, in their swarms they become transcendent, literally lifting a house into the heavens at the story’s end.
From the theme of in-between-ness in language to S. J. Cottier’s story of a woman caught in between identities – the classic Australian literary figure who is home neither in their adolescent origins nor in adulthood’s escape – and who finds, as her partner does (as so many Australian literary characters have found), a more graceful, less painfully human world under the hermetic embrace of the sea.
Tom Lodewyke’s cicada flecked poem about a boy who transforms into a yabby shares a similar sensibility – its hero lies down in the shadow, the current slipping away underneath, his drift as easy – he says – as sleeping. But like Cottier’s story before it, there is still a danger present in the world underwater. Lodewyke’s poem also contains one of the most Australian lines of all time: ‘Beside them, the creek muttered like an old man, the bastards, the bastards,’ The water, it is clear, is no innocent, or indifferent, place for people to inhabit.
The landscape speaks in Dominic Carew’s story too, whispering in the wind and giving warnings in its shadows. At the end of Aunty’s Place, the evil and menace of the land works itself through a twisted body, turning the indignity of living flesh into the vehicle of murder in the mud and the darkness.
Grace Barnes’ story is a decidedly English tale with an Australian twist – the outsider come from the motherland burdened by big words and middle-class privilege, the omnipresence of shame and the pettiness of resentment that surrounds the movement between country and city, land and culture.
Dale Alexander’s In the Deep End is a script in which more is said by the presence of water in the domestic lives of a woman and her lover than by the characters themselves – in images reminiscent of Auden’s As I walked out One Evening, the lovers lie entwined in the rippled sheets of a bed so vast and luminously blue that they appear to be asleep in an ocean.
By contrast, but continuing a theme, Benjamin Freeman’s story There is A Tide, reads like the inversion of Judith Butler’s poem, The Surfer, in which an immaculate, bronzed surfer rides the grey wolf’s head of the waves. In Freeman’s version of events, we are presented with life from the surfer’s point of view, and find his doomed, immaculate flesh more like the stuff of sausage meat.
In Emma Rose Smith’s story water is wielded by some mysterious male agent who scrubs away the treacly secretions that congeal around a woman’s still body, scrubbing it clean as part of an enigmatic and contractual ritual into which the author and reader are embroiled as the air of the scene becomes thick with steam and foam until bare, clean flesh is revealed, if only temporarily.
Sam McAlpine’s Taxidermy is also a story invested in the theme of temporality, about the ownership, the possession, of memory – it takes us on a brief tour through a museum, and a couple on the brink of separation wonder at the fragmentation of the past, and ponder the impossibility of history.
Shamin Fernando’s scholarly voice articulates an attention to the transcendental nature of the minute and the quotidian – giving voice to stationery and praising the humble paperclip for its anticipatory wisdom and its generosity in the face of inevitability.
For the narrator of Nathan Bilton’s story, The Ties That Bind, time and change are the subduers of guilt and shame – the twin birthright of a boy who is born sullied by the crimes of his umbilical cord. It is a story of scratched surfaces, where what is not said is loudest.
Ella Skilbeck-Porter’s poem Temporary Whim is also interested in surfaces, but here it is the skin that counts, as a palimpsestic interface between the self and the world. The poem ends with a circuitous mapping around the body, and from there sets us on a nomadic path back to its beginning.
This circular movement repeats in Pirate’s Play, a script in which the fantasies of youth both conceal and drive the morbidity of the real in a landscape that shifts allusively between bush and coast.
In Zoe Rochford’s Growing Down there are also children playing at being pirates, and they laugh at the presence of insects and the shifting copper light of the sunset brings their idyll to an end. Here too, the menace of death threads its way through a story about the impossibility of permanence, where an island – which seemed so full only moments earlier – grows empty and deathly still as it recedes into the distance.
From the play of children to the sea-swept setting of Rosie Croft’s Harbour, a story set against the backdrop of newly colonised New South Wales, where ghosts clutch wildflowers at the foot of the bed and love blossoms between a navy man and a fisherwoman.
Where Harbour gives us the origins of colonial Australia, Blue Lucine’s story is about the decay of its heritage. In Boxing with Bob at Millers Point, a documentarian and her subject turned ‘mate’ wonder at the meaning of the deliberate decomposition around them.
While Lucine’s protagonist shows us the wanton defacement of history from the inside, Kelly Emmerton’s heroine is committed to the deliberate destruction of her own in Phoenix, burning her family house to the ground – photos of grandma and all. The home burns into the desert sands and our heroine day-dreams of the sea, as if somehow communing with the characters in the preceding story, before the journey ends in the promise of new maps, new identities.
Emmerton’s story ends at dawn, and that is where Louise Jaques story begins – a thrumming prose poem that could well be the morning star awaiting travellers from previous stories. Jaques’ Star is a strange oasis beside Emmerton’s desert, one filled with an overpowering sensorial rhythm that drifts fuzzily into sleepytime lullaby.
Emma Froggatt’s story begins in an entirely different register, with the gentle afternoon light pouring through linen curtains. In Spring is a story in which careful attention to the changing seasons frames the traumatic fragility of a body bombarded by the strangeness of words, numbers, science, disease and therapy – and it ends with the hope of blooming wisteria.
The fragility of life is inverted by Joshua Cram’s Seeing Stone, where the intimacies of social relations become the walls of a wasps nest under siege, and there seems nothing solid upon which certainty or faith can be founded.
By contrast, William Patterson’s Yeah begins with mourners standing before a headstone – the solid symbol of inevitability. Before this marker a dialogue on crimes and violence leads to concessions of sickness and uncertainty amidst the plucking of short-clipped grass.
Death and violence continue in Marty Murphy’s Who Punched Who at My Father’s Wake, a sardonic story that celebrates the shamefully shambolic character of a disordered but faithful family.
From a farce at a funeral wake to the inversion of death in Tanya Greenway’s Unfamiliar Sky, a story that begins with the memory of drowning – the awakening to a new, strange sky above an island haunted by the living world, one where the land itself grows angry and tumultuous when the dead misbehave.
Holly Friedlander Liddicoat’s She Imagines They Hold Hands in Silence is a poem that explores the limits of language between lovers – questions that are not asked and answers that cannot be written, the weight of the unspoken, equations of language and emotion that ultimately, cannot provide the right words.
In Katherine Pinczuk’s Weeding by Moonlight the quotidian trials of the day-to-day grow wild and threatening in the disorientation of loss and sickness. The torments of grief are overcome, at least temporarily, by the fiery red promise of roses planted in earth prepared beneath a pitying moon.
James Worner gives us a day-to-day that is a little less ordinary in yet another of the anthology’s island set stories. It too, is a story of uncertainty: the journey of a day that feels heavy and clammy as mangroves at low tide, by a boy who lives with the guilt of misreading the river that is tied to his father’s life.
Emma Rayward’s You Cannot Comb a Hairy Ball, is the story of an invidious war of cannibalistic colonisation in which the weapons of choice are cross-contamination and infection. In the end, the battle seems to be won by a woman who, having been devoured, inserts herself into her devourer’s bits ‘like the cold that enters when you’re unprepared for snow’.
The anthology’s final story, Little Curly, by Alison Gibbs, also starts as a story of foreign bodies – with packs of stray dogs infecting the bowels of Moscow’s underground. Of the stray dogs Gibbs writes: ‘They were a mongrel lot, of all shapes and sizes, but there was some strange uniformity to them.’ I can’t help but read this as a description of the anthology itself – an ecology of strays, uniformed by their animal oddities, diverse in their capacities for opening our cultural language to new imaginative landscapes.
If the contributions to this anthology are the strays in Gibbs’ story, then, in this moment at least, I can’t help but think of myself as the titular Little Curly, who, having pulled away the membranes around her pup, and bitten through the cord, is vigorously licking this anthology’s bulbous head. May Strange Objects Covered in Fur reach the same cosmological heights as the stray, but heroic, little Laika.