Tag Archives: Breaking the Surface

A stroll down Podstreet

Usually we think of literature as something we read on a page or a screen. Yet the best literary compositions are intended for the ear as well as for the eye. In its ancient beginnings the creative shaping of language was often recited by a bard, and oral/aural ways of communicating remain fundamental for certain genres, especially poetry. Audiobooks have become a hugely popular vehicle for activating the sound of printed words.

There’s a sense in which writing should speak for itself — but we also like to talk about writing, and hear others do so. Book clubs and reading groups of various sorts are latter-day equivalents of the traditional literary salon, thriving on discussion of written works. And people throng to literary festivals so that they can hear writers speak — despite the fact that many fine writers disappoint us when they open their mouths.

So although reading and writing are essentially solo activities, readers and writers can’t stop gabbing with other people about their literary experiences. I’ve previously referred to this as the book-chat paradox.

One of the most common forms of book-chat is an interview with a writer, whether in front of a live audience or recorded for later transmission. In the hands of a skilled interviewer this kind of semi-formal conversation can be illuminating, as I’ve remarked in a previous blog post. WritingWA has been producing “Podstreet,” a series of podcasts that feature Western Australian writers and book industry leaders. To most of these podcasts the WritingWA CEO Will Yeoman brings his extensive experience as an interviewer. I’m glad to have been included. Here’s the link to our recent conversation about my latest book, Breaking the Surface.


Just released!

I’m thrilled to announce that my new book of poems, Breaking the Surface, is now out in the world. The publisher, Ginninderra Press, has produced it handsomely.

This volume celebrates my return to the genre of poetry after a decade-long deviation into fiction, which included five novels along with numerous short stories.

Earlier versions of a few of the poems appeared in previous books but most are recent, published during the last couple of years in a wide range of Australian and international journals and anthologies. Several have been finalists in prize competitions, winning awards or receiving commendations or short-listings. It’s gratifying to see them all gathered together in Breaking the Surface.

The book will be launched by Prof Dennis Haskell AM at the Grove Library (cnr Leake Street and Stirling Highway, Cottesloe) on the evening of Wednesday 1st November, 6.30pm. All comers are welcome!

Copies can be purchased within Australia through the publisher’s website. For international sales the book can be ordered through booksellers from a US-based distributor with world-wide channels. It’s also listed on the Amazon website (paperback and Kindle formats).

The best kind of encouragement

Many years ago a famous Australian writer penned a generous appraisal of new work by a much younger compatriot.

In comments sent to his publisher, she expressed appreciation of his first little book in a way that not only heartened him but also, more importantly, conveyed wise reflections on the most valuable qualities of the particular genre in which she was an eminent practitioner and he was taking early steps.

Shortly I’ll identify those two writers — and quote some of what she said, because its tone is exemplary. There’s nothing patronising about it. There’s no flattering overpraise of the sort that fulsome blurbs and social media posts of mutual-back-scratching coteries too often lavish on novice practitioners.

Whether in literary practice or any other field, a neophyte won’t learn much from excessively laudatory compliments. More helpful is an estimation that’s framed by a general perspective on what constitutes best practice in that line of work.

Surely this is the best kind of encouragement.

It was the highly respected poet, literary critic, and environmentalist Judith Wright who made the following comments about a chapbook whose author she’d never met, though she had read some of his poems previously:

“I like best his tough humorous approach and nearly epigrammatic style, his intelligence in using words and his width of focus — taking in not just the immediate situation but its context too. That’s rare, now that so much verse is self-preoccupied, concentrating on the personal at the expense of thinking and feeling outwards, and without bringing up enough to justify the inwardness.

Reid has always been able to relate in the opposite direction. To be humble and humorous about oneself is a lost art, but he has it.  To look at the not-me with love and real interest and say something valid — Reid knows what poetry’s for.


Yes, as you’d probably guessed, it was my own first little book that she was referring to.

The principle that she invoked, that poetry should go beyond self-absorption, deserves to be upheld and reaffirmed.

Her comments have come back to me now, as a new selection of my poetry is about to be published. Breaking the Surface is forthcoming next month from Ginninderra Press, and I wish Judith Wright were still alive so that I could send her a copy and thank her for giving me, long ago, the best kind of encouragement.


Memorable speech

The following comments are not about any formal public address. Most speechmaking of that kind is totally forgettable.

No, I’m thinking of W.H. Auden’s succinct definition of poetry as “memorable speech.” I like the simplicity of this phrase because it touches on two basic truths. First, the stylistic quality of worthwhile poems lifts them above the ephemeral nature of ordinary language usage. Second, poetry is essentially vocal, having its origins in the spoken word and in song. In our culture we usually see it on the printed page or screen, but a written poem is fundamentally a score for oral performance. When it’s not read aloud, it’s at least something we should listen to inwardly.

To remark that poetry is speech is to recognise how it draws on elements already present in everyday conversation. To remark that it’s memorable is to recognise how (unlike most of our talking) it deploys those everyday elements in ways that intensify and sustain their impact. All language has rhythmic qualities, for instance; but poetry lifts them into auditory patterns that can linger in the mind.

Sometimes the auditory patterns are emphatically regular — often so in traditional high literary forms such as the Petrarchan sonnet, where metre and rhyme follow a strict scheme. But sometimes, especially in poetry of our own time, auditory patterns are less obvious; they keep closer to casual conversational phrasing. Here, for instance, is the opening of Caitlin Maling’s “The Drowned Man” from her masterly book Fish Song:

Perhaps he had a wife, three slovenly
lovely children, dreams of a down payment
on a red-brick two-by-two where the girls could share
and everyone would love the dog best.

The tone is colloquial and wry — no elevated diction, no overtly imposed structure, just the unassuming idiom you might hear in a pub or over the back fence. It evokes economically the micro-world of a family home. Yet the lines are shaped in an unobtrusively artful way. There’s that nicely timed line-break creating a crafty little pause between “slovenly” and “lovely”, adjectives whose unexpectedly apt pairing is reinforced by their assonance. And although it eschews rhyme and regular metre, this poem goes on to embody the general shape and heft of a sonnet: an octet (eight-line stanza) followed by a sestet (six-liner), marking a change of mood as the man whose snug home life we have glimpsed is then seen “splayed on Swansea beach / weed weaving through his hair.”

The coast of Western Australia and the timbre of local speech are memorably captured throughout Maling’s Fish Song. I expect that both will also be prominent at an upcoming event in Perth organised by WA Poets Inc: Love Poetry Under the Stars. I’m to be one of the featured poets, along with Miranda Aitken, Gillian Clark, Kevin Gillam, Rhian Healy, Soul Reserve and Rita Tognini. Details here.

Love Poetry Under the Stars is open to all comers; but in case you can’t attend, here’s one of the pieces I’ll be reading. (It will also appear at a later stage in my book Breaking the Surface: New and Selected Poems, to be published by Ginninderra Press.) In the voice of this poem I try to capture rhythmically the uncertain interplay of hesitation and hope that can sometimes infuse an incipiently erotic encounter between two people.

A beginning
(Okains Bay, Banks Peninsula)

Would it seem later like opening a dance, a book?

She turned with a lift of her shoulder. He shifted his feet
towards and away, until the old cave swung up
into line behind her, and then the toppling hill
and the tipsy posts of the jetty.
He sidled closer, glancing across at those eyes
past which the wind, insistent as fantasy,
kept shuffling strands of her hair. She shook her head
at what — an obliqueness of sunlight?
Was she losing her balance? Was he finding his tongue?

His foot was tapping the sand. Her smile tapped his desire.
The beach had become a floor to spin upon.
Cave, hill and jetty began to take their measure,
slow, slow, quickquick slow, her fingers keeping time
at a cool arm’s length. His gesture circled a cliché.
The sea riffled pages of pleasure.
For the moment much seemed possible, if unlikely.
Would she read him from step to step?
Would he dance her from cover to cover?