Prime Minister’s Literary Awards 2013

While Kevin Rudd was in Darwin proclaiming the need for “a national imagination” to grasp the economic potential of northern Australia, his Arts Minister, Tony Burke, was in Brisbane to celebrate the nation’s top imagination-makers at the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, announced on the terrace of the State Library last night.

Burke no doubt won the gratitude of the winners, who each received a tax-free $80,000, but he also earned the hearts and minds of the audience – an assembly of publishing-industry players – when he affirmed the importance of literature as “a reminder of what is important to a nation”.

Burke announced the winners in six categories:

Fiction
Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

Poetry
Jam Tree Gully by John Kinsella

Non-fiction
The Australian Moment by George Megalogenis

Prize for Australian history
Farewell, dear people by Ross McMullin

Young adult fiction
Fog a Dox by Bruce Pascoe

Children’s fiction
Red by Libby Gleeson

Future Awards, Burke said, should include the categories of playwriting and screenwriting. In his introductory remarks he said that he had spent “a lot of time reading and studying and thinking about” all of the shortlisted titles, especially the winning titles. But John Kinsella’s collection of poems, Jam Tree Gully, seemed to be a particular favourite. Burke, who takes time out of every day to read a poem aloud, quoted one of Kinsella’s poems called “Sacred Kingfisher and Trough Filled with Water Pumped from Deep Underground”, which frames the intelligence of a bird that reads a coffin-like trough as a container for “dead water / from deep in the earth”. The judges described the collection “as an extraordinarily attentive chronicle” to life in the wheat belt of Western Australia:

Referencing Thoreau’s wish, in Walden, to “live deliberately”, Kinsella’s poems offer keen observations of animal life (wild, feral and domesticated), landscape, weather, and the social life of Australian country towns and the small properties that encircle them.

In his acceptance speech, Kinsella – who has written more than 20 books of poems and is known for his environmental ethics – urged people to observe “the small changes in the environment, which are actually massive.”

“My work,” he said, “is not an instruction. It is a plea to look around.”

Kinsella was not the only writer to use the platform to send a message. Michelle de Kretser used her acceptance speech not simply to thank Kevin Rudd for bestowing the nation’s richest literary prize upon her, but also to attack him for his “callous and shameful” asylum-seeker policy.

De Kretser’s novel, Questions of Travel, which also won the Miles Franklin earlier this year, interweaves the narratives of two travellers: Laura, a discontented Australian tourist, and Ravi, a Sri Lankan refugee. The judges commented:

As they crisscross the world and each others’ paths, never quite escaping the ties of home, de Kretser’s novel assembles an array of encounters and experiences for each of her travellers to raise questions that are droll, piquant, satirical, sometimes devastating.

Deploying a quotation from Franz Kafka, de Kretser argued that literature should be “an axe to break the frozen sea within us.” With Tony Burke standing at her side, she concluded her speech with an anaphoric address to her benefactor: “Mr Rudd, I hope you read my book. I hope it makes you smile. I hope it makes you think. I hope it breaks your heart.”

After the ceremony several people remarked that they had thought de Kretser was building to a refusal of the prize or perhaps an avowal to donate the money to charity. “You have given me $80,000 and I have given you a book,” she had said, suggesting an imbalance of economy.

Nobody in their right mind would deny de Kretser the opportunity to express her views, and many will be grateful that she did. But bad press offers little incentive for politicians to keep literary prizes in the budget.

Prizes that are not bestowed in perpetuity (as is the Miles Franklin and other philanthropic prizes) can be cancelled in an afternoon, as we saw in 2012 when the Newman Government cancelled the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, in part to save costs but more likely in dark response to the 2011 shortlisting of David Hicks’s autobiography, Guantanamo: My Journey, which caused furious commentary in conservative circles.

May we hope that whomever is Prime Minister following the 7 September election will continue to uphold the importance of literature in building the nation’s imagination.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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The blood became sick: luke davies’ interferon psalms

Review of Interferon Psalms by Luke Davies

In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.

AVT_Luke-Davies_4298In 1914 Apollinaire encountered a beautiful young aviator – he called her Lou – and launched one of poetry’s legendary, if doomed, love affairs. Lou fuelled and participated in his erotic fantasy life and stoked his hope for domestic happiness. Unfortunately a significant discrepancy arose between his view of the relationship and her own, and Apollinaire soon felt himself compelled to enlist in the 38th Artillery Regiment at Nîmes.

From the Front he sent Lou a torrent of love poems and letters – unrelenting, savage, sexully explicit – before a shrapnel wound to the temple forced his discharge. Apollinaire never fully recovered from his injuries and died in the Spanish flu pandemic two days before the end of the First World War. He was 38.

Nearly a century on and a world away, fragments of Apollinaire’s great longing – “I think of you my Lou your heart is my barracks” – have surfaced with small distortions in a tour de force by Australian poet, Luke Davies, who earlier this week was awarded the inaugural $80,000 Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry.

Just as Apollinaire’s poems and letters to Lou yoke the theatre of love to the theatre of war, Davies’ new collection of poems, Interferon Psalms: 33 psalms on the 99 names of God, is a double drama played on two stages: the drama of heartbreak and the drama of physical affliction.

The collection opens with the poet living in California in vivid sway between presence and bewilderment. The beloved has absented herself, and he is “sick with shallow corpuscle”. An earlier heroin addiction – “a black-bottomed spoon” was his “boon companion” – has made a wasteland of his liver and from the ravages of interferon treatment, a type of chemotherapy, he is “learning all about suffering”.

Weekly injections of interferon deliver his body – and mind – to the peripheries of death. Red and white blood cells are razed and the body declines into anaemia. His “skin turns to scale” and bandages stick to his skin. “I began to drift down to my death like a ship heading ocean floorwards,” he writes of the blankness borne of an oxygen-starved brain.

If only I had a sister, to hold her hand, then I would protect her, and forget about my fear, and we would walk under water, where the light shines.

The blood became needy. Everything that could sting, would sting. He went to bed sick. The injections had put him in shock but he was eager to love: “Eros come melt in my mouth”, he pleads, “Eros sit heavy on my shoulders”. Emerging from the “glaciation” of his distress he tries to “climb into” the beloved but “she gave no traction”. The relationship’s end – “A warning sign of any sort? God no” – leaves him in “earthquake-addled desolation”:

                                        … I’d picture coming home,
Across the welcome mat and through the open door.
I’d crawl into your open arms, for sure.
That’s just not
Going to happen, I told myself. Pockets of realisation
Floating stateless and neutral like tiny planets. The bricks
All structureless and recently aflutter. Shock waves
Past their use-by date. The utter exhaustion
Of trying to maintain one’s dignity amid one’s pain.

There were no stop signs, he writes, no planets, nothing smaller than galaxies: “just an endless plummeting away from her.” At night he cried in dreams – “those private myths of plaintive distress” – yet of necessity he sought to “bless the utter desolation” that fell upon him.

It was never going to be a long love affair,” he concedes, “but in my yielding I became a mystic.

Davies doesn’t so much write his psalms as pray them. He leans on biblical vocabulary and awe-inspired apostrophe – “O Witness, O Word, O Diadem of Beauty” – to support his body reduced to basics and drag his mind into a longer perspective. His is not the time of clocks – “Winter rolled in for ten thousand years” – but psychological time:

Chronology was never my finest hour
But only because I came to know time
Both inside and out so that
Reverence became a given;
And all, when all was good, was now.

With this eye anything can be filled with grace: “How to elevate to first position”, he muses, “Honey Smacks or Fruit Loops”. Davies, like his old master Apollinaire, finds resonance in linking the old to the new and roping modern imagery to traditional tropes. Likewise, the juxtaposition of imagination and reality – the sacred and the secular – helps collapse divides and widen the world. As this particularly gorgeous passage illustrates:

The world received us into its citizenship. I trod the road to Jericho. We lay down. We wept. The buildings all fell down. And even my blood, O Thou my Redeemer, was yearning for water, as usual.

Parched. The desert parched. The parched lips on the flower buds. The cactus yielded syrup on the mind.

I imagined lying between her legs.

Certain thoughts were sustaining. It had always been like that.

Her fine, hard, bared crotch.

Plus, on your death bed you would not remember any particular tax return over another.

Of the many lessons the poet acquires on his great odyssey back to health – for as long as it could, his blood would be fine – one is to dwell in “the gap between oblivion and memory”. Another is to “find kindnesses, even in goodbyes, for everyone was weary and surely she not least”.

In one view of contemporary poetry – which might prefer drier conclusions, or perhaps none at all – Davies is behind the fashion. In my view, Interferon Psalms – an abundantly uttered memory of great goodness – has catapulted him ahead of the crowd.

The Conversation

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Powers we pretend to understand: funder’s all that I am

Review of All that I Am by Anna Funder

“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.” The sentence shocks with its indulgence – the bather’s husband is in the kitchen crushing limes for mojitos – as it conjures the vulnerability of naked flesh against the army of jackboots that are about to descend upon Europe. It also happens to be the first sentence of Anna Funder’s debut novel, All That I Am, which has had a busy time of late garnering literary awards and accolades. In addition to winning the Indie Book of the Year award, the Australian Book Industry Book of the Year, and the $35,000 Barbara Jefferis Award, it has been shortlisted for the $80,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for fiction.

ImageGen.ashx“When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.” The sentence shocks with its indulgence – the bather’s husband is in the kitchen crushing limes for mojitos – as it conjures the vulnerability of naked flesh against the army of jackboots that are about to descend upon Europe.

It also happens to be the first sentence of Anna Funder’s debut novel, All That I Am, which has had a busy time of late garnering literary awards and accolades. In addition to winning the Indie Book of the Year award, the Australian Book Industry Book of the Year, and the $35,000 Barbara Jefferis Award, it has been shortlisted for the $80,000 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for fiction.

All of which has fuelled speculation that All That I Am is a front-runner for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, which will be announced on Wednesday night in Brisbane.

Funder’s novel follows her impressive non-fiction title, Stasiland: Stories Behind the Berlin War, which presented first-hand accounts of life in the former German Democratic Republic. Whereas in Stasiland, Funder focused on post-war Germany, in All That I Am she has turned her attention to the decade preceding the war when Europe resolved – as left-wing German playwright Ernst Toller put it – “to hurl herself into the abyss of suicide”.

The narrative centres on a coterie of German dissidents – cousins, Ruth Becker and Dora Fabian, and their respective lovers, Hans Wesemann and Ernst Toller – whose political agitating against Hitler and his Third Reich necessitated their hasty departure from Germany and their subsequent resettlement in London as refugees.

The persecution the exiles suffer unfortunately doesn’t stop at the Channel, and their story builds to a harrowing – and tragic – denouement.

Funder came to the story through her friendship with Ruth Blatt, the novel’s dedicatee whose extraordinary life inspired the character of Ruth Becker.

Ruth – the sole survivor of the group – spent five years in solitary confinement in a German prison before securing her passage to Australia (via Shanghai) in 1947. She lived the next fifty years of her life alone in a flat in Bondi Junction. Funder has said:

In conversation, Ruth would move from criticising Hitler to criticising our own government at the time, in a way that made it clear that when you are living through something, there are some people who can see things for what they are (whether that’s dire, or just moderately unpalatable), and will always speak out. It is this kind of courage that fascinated me, along with the moral compass that underlies it.

All That I Am is a novel that questions the ubiquity of the human conscience, yet it insists on its cultivation. We ignore our conscience – or allow its distortion – at our peril. History shows that the consequences can be mighty.

As WH Auden (who makes a cameo appearance in Funder’s novel) writes in his poem, “In Memory of Ernst Toller”: 

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our lives; it is they who direct us at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our own hand.

It’s true All That I Am is a dark novel, but as history and a warning there aren’t many more important.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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