Saturday, 22 January 2022

A year in review: Creativity, part one

This memorial contains almost a month’s worth of parts – though not all of ‘em are about art! – and the post you’re reading is the twenty-ninth in the series. 

I didn’t do much writing in January with the exception of changes to some sonnets in ‘The Words to Say’, a sequence I put together the previous year. If you don’t remember, in 2020 it was assembled using bits and pieces written over the previous decade and added to in order to form something ambitious and verging on coherence. I kept my hopes alive.

Coherent, at least in my mind, though another reader might take a different position, and might instead see it as less than fantastical, possibly going so far as to say that it lacks unity. I respectfully refer such individuals to consult bees fanning wildflowers that I saw in the Wollongong Botanic Garden on 1 January.

My vision was, equally, both focused and scattershot, but made use of careful framing. I endeavour to render, in verse, the entirety of human civilisation from the most ancient Eurasian peoples to the boundaries of space exploration, from Greek warriors of antiquity to modern-day politicians. No-one could accuse me of laziness. If ambition is bad then I’m very bad indeed but in January I wasn’t thinking only about writing, I was also plotting out the linocuts I’d make once my studio/study was set up. A table was coming (said Joe, the builder/owner – he had one to give away as he’d sold his house) and I’d soon have a twelfth bookshelf. About twenty boxes – some containing books – sat on the floor of the studio waiting for someone to take their contents and place them in a more permanent and accessible situation. 

That would be me again, who paid a retailer for a bed to go on the wooden floor in the back bedroom on the first floor – the spare room, as I’d come to think of it – where, in cupboards that entirely line one wall, I’d resolved to stow photographs inherited when mum and her brother died, along with family records that’d similarly come down to me. 

A spare room had served this purpose in my old home in Pyrmont. In the new house space would be freer as guests couldn’t possibly own too many things, I mused, aware that, whatever I did a circumstance would change to block my assumptions or contradict inclination. In the event the photos didn’t go in this room until much later in the year, and in the interim remained for many months in the studio stored in boxes.  


What about art? I proposed an image segmented by lines made away from parallel. Three sections, each of which would contain a different design. A policeman, a flower, and something else (I hadn’t decided yet) in the bottom left corner. To get the design oriented the right way I’d have to scan the drawing or collage and flip it in GIMP, then print it out in reverse. The reverse image’d make the design for the cutting, from which prints’d be created with ink and paper. I liked my idea of combinations of various images: one moment settled against the next like friends in a suburban cafĂ©. This one says one thing but that one says another and together they cause a dialogue to form. 

From a concert, after all, you get more meaning than from tuning instruments. Again that basic need for meaning to defeat the confusion of lived minutes, hours, days, weeks – though it’s hard to imagine life beyond the span of a week – two weeks an eternity in human terms since we dwell in tiny segments of time like ocean birds perched on a rock waiting for our cue to take flight so that we can dive for the best and biggest fish. Often the call never comes and we sit, frozen to the spot, intent on our own eventual destruction through the mechanisms of time roaring forward and breaking over us in silent waves. In silence, years beforehand, we watch this all happen in slow motion as, trapped in the everlasting present of meagre, manifold dreams, we cling to the gaps that pull with the wash of our beating hearts.


In the first full week of January I spoke on Facebook Messenger with my daughter Ada because another expression of interest in her illustrating work had come via the email address I’d set up. This was the second such email and the first from South Africa. We nutted out a reply and I sent an email to the gentleman whose company had a new project with the team coordinating it recommending Ada because they liked her drawings. This job however fell through because they wanted too many drawings too quickly, and Ada didn’t have the bandwidth to cope with their pace.

In the middle of February I offered a magazine posting on Twitter – it might’ve been on the timeline of the #poetry hashtag – a sonnet written in 2010 that had initially been published seven years earlier in Southerly, the literary magazine of Sydney University. The Twitter user had asked for published works to republish, and ‘On the Way to New England’ seemed like the perfect choice. When they accepted it (the link went up on 11 February) I was more than pleased.

Though not ecstatic. I had so many sonnets written – hundreds in fact – so then made a next step and on the morning of 13 February, I resuscitated my Patreon poetry page. I’d done so because I received an email from the company the day before in which management asked me about unclaimed funds. To address the issue I requested a reset for my password – in 2017 I’d stopped using the site because of problems logging in I’d tried, unsuccessfully by email, to resolve – and an enabling email now came through. 

There was also me now deciding to move book reviews off my blog and onto Patreon. In 2013 I’d first mooted getting subscribers to pay for reviews – not on Patreon, but rather on the blog. To enable the change in my tactic – the strategy was still the same (to be a professional reviewer, or at least a writer of some kind) – I set up an alternate Patreon account. I used Twitter to advertise the link and, on the 15th, pinned a promotional tweet. I also used LinkedIn to promote my Patreon page, and using Twitter DMs singly contacted select individuals asking, as a favour, if they could tweet to their followers the promotional link. 


Ming moved in on 18 February, making a mess of the downstairs area. Her boyfriend stayed over one night to help her settle in, but even with this help it was clear that it’d take a good deal of time for this process to complete. The two of them returned to Wollongong and on the morning of the 21st I drove down to help bring back more stuff that she’d not had the ability to include with the first load of belongings delivered by the removalists who’d come three days before.

By 7 March she’d been in the house long enough to complete one week of art school, and on that day in the morning – before her boyfriend woke up – we went for a walk through the streets talking about art. It was a still autumn day and boys and parents were setting up for a cricket match in the park as we spoke of styles, representation, and relevance. Jeff Koons impelled our conversation, and bypassing Pop art we made our way via Aboriginal art to Oriental art and the importance of white space. The previous evening I’d voiced disappointment with my own progress. I told her how, in recent days, using my Amazon Prime account, I’d accessed such composers as Beethoven, Schubert, and Bach. Their renditions of works in the Western tradition contained for me more pain than anything else, and I vocalised calmly in front of my two friends how I felt as though time had been stolen from me.

The pain was real and my realisation would only increase with time. I could feel something in my chest: a dull, persistent ache, like a severe case of influenza of the mortal soul but, in my case, it wasn’t a matter of staying in bed for a few days and reading some volumes of light prose. I had a case of a rare disease that afflicts only children of good households where the memory of deprivation is still alive. I’d entered a book that I’d read in childhood, and was, now, walking on streets I’d once dreamed of. I was my own dramatic plot, the denouement yet to be realised but promising oceans of anguish like what I’d already experienced so many times in the course of my long and eventful life. 

I’d needed to continue to be patient. To be kind to myself. Time might not do the trick, however when, in April, I bought tools for making linocuts I felt no urge to use and they sat in a paper bag on the floor of my studio. On the 24th I rearranged furniture, shifting the room’s unpacked cartons to sit under a desk or to stand beside the stairway where they’d be out of the way. I was making things ready – in my own time. It was as though I were eyeing the prize out of the corner of my eye and heading in a different direction from the one which’d allow me to seize it. 

Crab-walking my way through remembered torment. Why had I not been able to do what I most wanted to do? It struck me at times like this that artists who manage to get through the noise and past the obstacles obstructing their progress are mainly of a certain, dogged, determined type, society running interference on creativity which results in the survival of only a particularly extreme form of practice that negates tradition and the collective and, in order to valorise its own journey, deprecates care and the nurturing bias that a healthy relationship with the unknown should foster. Artists reject their creative forebears with the same lack of sympathy with which they reject the stultifying and – for the most part – rebarbative and antagonistic culture that daily surrounds them as they grow up, equating a love of artistic tradition with a love of the bourgeois culture that sustains their ideological enemies. So they reject everything lock, stock and barrel. A mistake. As for me, I’d come out the other side of the gauntlet naked and bleeding from still-fresh wounds, though others – people with thicker skins and more contrary ideas – emerge relatively unscathed but prompt to launch retrospective barbs at the those who – from whatever lack of empathy they’d themselves been brought up to prise – had rained down blows on the soft surfaces of their bent, shivering backs. 

With what, now, was my pain to be compared? It was no less real, what made me different being the fact that I’d come away without the artistic tools – in a visual sense – with which to insult my oppressors. I’d been pushed toward writing but had never had the talent for it that would enable me to support myself from practice. Which of them would ever be able or inclined to read this memorial? Only family and friends, I guessed. People who are like them will not venture to come forward either. My message will not get through, and so the thoughts of a compliant son and diligent brother will be ignored by yet another generation. 

All I wanted was a chance. I would’ve been the most deserving of servants. But it was not to be. Meanwhile, we accelerate on a shared trajectory toward nihilism and the Absolute from which it gains its winking glamour. 

Half measures are needed for the survival of the species, not totalising solutions. I still consented to feelings sustained by such thoughts six weeks later, on 28 May, when I came back to read them. 


On that day I also received a welcome boost for my ego when a person I know subscribed to my Patreon. Earlier in the month I’d by chance picked up a poetry anthology from the shelf in my studio – a place where I should’ve been, by this time, making art – and had read it eagerly as poetry is not something that often comes into my orbit. It just happened that the woman who pays me for reviews at Mascara Literary Review had some poems in that anthology, and I was impressed by them, in fact hers were among the pieces I singled out for praise. Then, a week or so later, I went to a poetry reading in Glebe where this same woman was reading her work. I stayed there for an hour or so then the next morning put up an account of the proceedings, and tweeted so that she would see it. It was then because I’d linked to my Patreon review of the anthology in my blog post that she subscribed.

Partly, I have no doubt, out of a sense of curiosity, but also partly, no doubt, out of solidarity – which is what had drawn me to the pub on that cold evening in autumn when I found a parking spot in a quiet street and on foot dodged traffic on Bay Street. There weren’t many people in the small room upstairs but those who’d gathered were of one mind and it was this sense of belonging – finally seeing and hearing things that consoned with their view of the world – that made them venture out in the middle of the working week to spend an hour hearing others’ thoughts expressed in a styled, considered and enduring form.

On 9 July I submitted two poems from a new sequence titled ‘Winter Nouns’ to Fevers of the Mind, using an email address posted on Twitter. This sequence uses a free form and is largely biographical. The poems submitted were ‘Ballad of Elmer Johansen’ and ‘Lavish soil sports a rich humus for fruit trees’. The folder the poems are stored in was made on 18 June, which indicates how much time’d been spent making them. By the morning of the 12th the editor still hadn’t replied to my email but on the 14th he published it on the blog.

Mostly I was writing in the early mornings, my days on the couch largely spent reading books of nonfiction or novels that I would review on Patreon. The poetry mostly took the form of sequences of linked sonnets, but ‘Winter Nouns’ allowed me to branch out in new directions. I also, at the end of July, started a sequence of shorter free-form poems titled ‘Before Dawn’. While ‘Winter Nouns’ is made up of poems (largely) in three parts – each part separated into two sections – ‘Before Dawn’ is made up of short lines in sets of three, with a split in the middle bisecting the poem. I don’t know why sectioning is so necessary for me to concentrate, but it might have something to do with the importance, in writing sonnets, of the 140-syllable structure. I seem to need structure in order to organise my thoughts. 
Perhaps I need to practice more. By this time I’d begun or finished a number of different sequences, the ones I was still working on being the ones listed below.
  • Winter Nouns (free-form, long)
  • Before Dawn (free form, short)
  • Salve (sonnets, miscellaneous)
  • Beaconsfield (sonnets, biographical)
  • Water Creature (sonnets, subject being the environment)
  • The Words to Say (sonnets, subject being the history of the world)
There are other sequences, but these are not ones I was working on, one aspect being, finally, after eight years, on 10 August bringing a poem about a paperbark out of ‘Salve’ – where it had unhappily (I now saw) sat among poems to do with the city, a locality to which I didn’t return until 2015 – and putting it into ‘Water Creature’, a sequence that mainly catalogues reactions to a tropical storm that came in over the continent in the Northern Territory and migrated slowly down the Queensland coast to finally end up petering out in central New South Wales. Rehousing this poem put punctation to a process started almost a decade before, and that, as well as removal and insertion, meant rewriting parts of the poem so it parsed better. 

For sonnets I make a note of when changes were made. In some years this wasn’t always my practice and I sometimes regret being lazy. The date can be important as with poetry often it’s biographical. In fact this is usually the case, and for my reviews I class poetry as nonfiction.

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