I’m skipping up to the Cloud Bank. Need to fill my pockets full of clouds.
Withdraw a bundle of those shiny, light, and frothy ones ‒ to balance out, discount,
the darkening miasmas of pandemic panic. That’s the world’s weather about now.
Yes, I need a stash of those small, round, flotsam clouds that frolic on high
summer skies. Frolicsome cirrocumulus. That’s the currency I need.
Interest in such clouds is sky high.
Floating rates. Stratospheric.
And maybe, while I’m at it, I’ll stock up on some of those spectacular, lenticular
clouds. The ones people mistake for spaceships. Maybe apply for a loan
on the futures market? Definitely wouldn’t be a blue skies investment.
Happy to go into hoc to get a stock of stratocumulus lenticularis duplicatus.
Feed my hunger for wonder.
Is there any need to worry there might be a run on the Cloud Bank in these uncertain
times? Good news is ‒ there’s never a deficit. No shortfalls. Forecasters predict
the Cloud Bank is always in surplus, can supply any level of demand.
Orographic to cirrus. Stratus to altocumulus.
Every cloud currency in plentiful supply. Your balance is always in the black
and steel-blue. Flame and cream. Purple and green. Apricot and grey.
And, of course, gold is standard, especially at sunrise.
The Cloud Bank specialises in updrafts, never overdrafts. Simply cast your eyes up.
Take in a draft. Draw down as much as you need from the endless lines of credit.
Let’s skip up to the Cloud Bank.
Use our inbuilt iris scanners to open up the vaults.
Get ourselves a pocket-full, head-full, heart-full of clouds.
Feed our hunger for wonder.
by Gina Mercer
(Published first by Burrow, 2, Phillip & Gillian Hall (eds), Old Water-rat Publishing, Feb 2021.)
Anna Jacobson is a writer and artist from Brisbane. Amnesia Findings (UQP, 2019) isher first full-length poetry collection, which won the 2018 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. In 2020 Anna won the Nillumbik Prize for Contemporary Writing (Open Creative Nonfiction), was awarded a Queensland Writers Fellowship, and was shortlisted in the Spark Prize. In 2018 she won the Queensland Premier’s Young Publishers and Writers Award. Her writing has been published in literary journals and anthologies including Chicago Quarterly Review, Griffith Review, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite, Meanjin, Rabbit: a journal for nonfiction poetry, and more. Anna’s poetry chapbook The Last Postman (Vagabond Press, 2018) is part of the deciBels 3 series. She is a PhD candidate at QUT specialising in memoir. She holds a Master of Philosophy in poetry (QUT 2018), a Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies (UQ 2019), a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Creative and Professional Writing) (QUT 2015), and a Bachelor of Photography with Honours (Griffith University 2009). She was a finalist in the 65th Blake Art Prize, 2019 Marie Ellis Prize for Drawing and 2009 Olive Cotton Award for Photographic Portraiture. She won the 2009 Queensland Poetry Festival Filmmakers Challenge. Her website is www.annajacobson.com.au.
Dr. Tara Mokhtari is a Persian poet, born in Canberra, residing in New York City. Poetry is deeply ingrained in Persian culture and in the spirit of Persian people, and Mokhtari’s mother, Pari Azarmvand Mokhtari, is a world expert in Hafez. Mokhtari wrote her first poem at age 13, and a few years later, upon pausing to take a breath between the first two stanzas of Stevie Smith’s poem ‘Black March,’ Mokhtari made the conscious decision (which was likely made in and by the universe much earlier) that poetry was her life’s work. As a postgraduate student at RMIT University for both her PhD and Masters creative projects, Mokhtari wrote verse novels, which accompanied critical dissertations on modern poetry and poetics. Stevie Smith remained at the center of Mokhtari’s research during these years.
While poetry is her most enduring love, Mokhtari writes across the creative media. She was a founder and the in-house playwright of Canberra theatre company, The Nineteenth Hole (est. 2001), and was commissioned to write a play for Canberra’s preeminent independent company, Free Rain, when she was just 18. These plays earned multiple awards and nominations. Mokhtari went on to write for screen on assignment, most recently writing an original sci-fi feature film for Crick Films (Canberra) and a feature adaptation of a New York Times best-selling book for Barry Navidi (London/Los Angeles).
Mokhtari’s first collection of poetry, Anxiety Soup, was published in Australia by Finlay Lloyd Press (2013). The poems are connected thematically as snippets of daily life that shift the existential core of the speaker in some way. Mokhtari’s co-edited book of essays, Testimony, Witness, Authority: The Politics and Poetics of Experience, was published in 2013 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. In 2012 and 2011, Mokhtari edited the English translations of two books by Dr. Hashem Rajabzadeh (Rikkyo University, Japan) who is a recipient of The Order of the Sacred Treasure in Japan for his lifelong work in introducing Persian culture to Japan.
The culmination of her work—creative, scholarly, and pedagogical—is Mokhtari’s book, The Bloomsbury Introduction to Creative Writing (2015), which is now in its second edition and has been translated into Simplified Chinese. The book has been adopted by university programs in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia, approaches creative writing as a form of knowledge that, for the writer, is symbiotically linked to experience.
Mokhtari is part of the wonderful faculty at CUNY Bronx Community College’s Communication Arts and Sciences department, and lives in Brooklyn with the world’s greatest cat, Malake. Mokhtari has given guest lectures at SUNY Oswego (NY), BRIC TV (NY), Victoria University (Melbourne), This Is Not Art Festival (New Castle), and her works are published in magazines and anthologies in the US, Australia, Prague, and beyond.
Late in 2019, the Australian prime minister (marketing guru and shitty-pants Scott Morrison, ‘Sco-Mo’ to you) and his theatre assistants removed the federal administration’s arts appendix. One moment the word ‘Arts’ appeared somewhere in the names of government departments, and the next it had gone. Snip! And he chucked it in the bin.
Well, not exactly… ‘Arts’ was removed from a department’s name. To compensate, the yarts (as they are called in Australia) got an office. The Office of the Arts: <https://www.arts.gov.au/>. Never have the arts and government been so closely aligned than in this uniform resource locator.
There were articles in newspapers, outrage on the arts websites, and a long rash of angry emojis at the end of comments on Facebook.
The conservative government in Australia, returned at the May 2019 election by a slender margin, had decided a feature of the victory after-party would be to show the country’s angry, artistic child the door. “Your mother and I are tired of you! Always with your hand out, and never a word of thanks! Get a job!” And then, the ‘clap’ of the fly-screen door and a barely audible ‘clack’ of its tiny snib that seemed to say, “And don’t come back.”
Making art is a patient, lonely business. Making any progress seems to require years of practice and a bit of luck. Guidebooks and internet articles about being an artist, full of advice and clichés, pile up very quickly. Be yourself. Tell your truth. Talent is important, endurance essential. In the age of Instagram, sexy drawings and a bubble-butt are handy, but not essential (or so they say). Governments are not needed, but academic sinecures, supervising doctorates in novel-writing or discussions of queer theory, good if you can get them. When universities are financially sous vide, as they will be emerging from the 2020–forever pandemic, place bets at long odds that the arts will be favored for rehabilitation.
Governments, truth be told, don’t want to help. The governing classes are too busy ‘governing,’ which might as well mean lying, or fudging, or crying crocodile tears, or making a killing on the stock market, or taking a holiday in Hawai’i. To be the governor is to be the winner, the one who calls the shots, to be ‘the decider.’ From their high station in life these decider-governors have a role in narrating our social experience. They have a role we give them in legislating to tell us what is and is not important. (Have you noticed how very often our prime minister tells us what is important, and how very important is the very thing he is now saying?) It’s been a long time since governors of any stripe have shown us how the arts and sciences are important. Business, the economy, the stock market, and jobs are important. Wages growth, arts, and science, women, not so much.
UNFURL, my arts publishing project, was a reaction to artists’ reactions to government biases against the arts. Who needs government moneyanyway? I thought. It turns out, lots of people working in the arts need audiences, and it’s not easy to find and maintain audiences without government assistance. And, even within my narrow range of interests—writing and visual arts—the connections between arts activity and funding are deep. Poetry is not the malnourished tenant of the attic it was in Australia in the mid-1980s. The long lists of books for review and the number of official insignia on web pages are two possible measures of this.
At the same time, long-established literary magazines have had their funding cut. There is money for the arts, so long as it is going to places where the expenditure can be seen to be spent. Government wants the internet to sing “Hey, big spender!” while it cuts funding to Meanjin and others. It may be partly Meanjin’s fault: it has had nearly thirty years to figure out how to get its great store of content online for prospective subscribers to access, while the failure to do so begins to look like obstinacy.
UNFURL asked writers and artists to promote their own work to their own social media contacts while doing the same for other artists and writers: it’s a tool for artists to find new audiences and readers. UNFURL /1 started with a couple of writers I knew, Davide Angelo and James Walton, and a writer whom Angelo recommended, Anne Casey. Susan Wald, also published in the first UNFURL, was a painter whose work I liked and who had an exhibition planned for early 2020. I wanted to establish a process that could lead to unexpected choices. I would try not to make selections. I wanted artists to select or recommend other artists; and I wanted those artists to choose for themselves what they wanted to show with as little mediation as possible, encouraging people to show and to publish work they liked, and that might not have been selected (or grouped together) by an editor or curator.
It is more efficient to work on all one’s secret agendas simultaneously, so I should also admit my concern that belle-lettrist aesthetics (including the idea that poetry is language’s semantics incubator) and faux-modernist experimentation have combined to make poetry mostly irrelevant and a branch of marketing. —One only has to look at the writing being selected by the selectors to see that something is wrong with the practice of selection. As much as possible, I think, best to leave artists to make their own choices; and if there are mistakes, then, we’ll know who to blame.
And then, in March 2020 … then was the actual end of the world-as-we-knew-it. Those crazy ‘preppers’ I’ve made fun of started to look like visionaries. “Where the fuck is my bolthole, goddammit!?” and “How big is your bolthole, my friend!?” could have been common questions in some circles. People who could afford it, and had somewhere to go, did leave town. Gen-Xers lost their hospitality jobs, decided that they couldn’t afford their share house rent, and moved back ‘home.’ Artistes no longer had audiences. Artiste-enablers, stagehands, administrators and carpenters, were also out of work. COVID-19 put the arts and sciences back in the news.
The intersectional tragedy of pandemic and conservative political hostility to the lefty arts seemed to many like another opportunity to turn indifference into punishment. It was hard to disagree with pundits who have been cataloging this punishment.
UNFURL, possibly because of all this, has done quite well. By the time UNFURL /5 was released, writers and artists could expect to reach about two thousand readers within a couple of weeks of publication. (Each new UNFURL number provided a little boost to the previous issues, so that all the issues now clock up numbers in the thousands.) Eighty per cent of readers were in Australia, and most of the rest in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. The male:female ratio of readers was almost 50:50. The largest age group of readers was 18–35 years. (Though if everyone is ten years younger on the internet, maybe that’s 28–45.)
It’s difficult to read poetry on small-screen devices, so I did not expect UNFURL to be read on phones. The visual arts component of UNFURL is quite effective on phones and tablets, however. It seems likely that readers interested in the writing in UNFURL resorted to their desktops and printers. Sixty to seventy percent of downloads of UNFURL were to mobile and tablet devices.
I learned that women writers (poets) had a ‘stronger’ following among women readers than men had among readers of any kind. It was very apparent, with Gina Mercer, for example, that a very significant number of readers returned more often, subscribed more often, and were women.
I learned that social media isn’t the be-all and end-all of connecting with an audience. Old-fashioned email also works really well. Some artists and writers had no significant social media presence but used email effectively to communicate with friends and contacts.
I also learned that visual artists were, generally speaking, more enthusiastic and positive about using social media, and even better at basic stuff like answering messages. Visual artists be like Molly Bloom; writers be like Prince of Denmark.
I found that both writers and artists did things in UNFURL other publications might not permit (requiring, as they mostly do, first publication rights). Philip Salom published groupings of new and old poems. Alex Skovron published poems, prose, paintings, and drawings. Steven Warburton published a series of pictures about how one canvas evolved over several years. Robyn Rowland published poems and their translations into Turkish for her readers in Turkey. Ron Miller published a brief survey of his life’s work in space art.
Philip Salom was born in Western Australia and lived in the state’s South West farming areas. During this time he also studied and worked in cattle research and agricultural extension. After several years of painting he turned to writing.
Since 1980 he has produced fourteen books of poetry and five novels. His awards for poetry have been both national and international, and include twice winning the Commonwealth Poetry Book Prize in London, the Western Australian Premier’s Prize (twice) and the Newcastle Poetry Prize (in 1996 and again in 2000). Philip has also been recognised with the prestigious Christopher Brennan Award, a lifetime award for poetry “of sustained quality and distinction”.
His collection The Well Mouth was named a Sydney Morning Herald Book of the Year, and Adelaide Review Book of the Year. Two slightly unexpected collections by Salom are written through his heteronyms—The Keeper of Fish by Alan Fish, and Keeping Carter by MA Carter. In 2015 Philip published the poetry trilogy Alterworld which includes Sky Poems, The Well Mouth and the new section Alterworld in a searching and strange interrogation of history and consciousness through imagined human ‘worlds’.
His novels have also attracted wide-ranging acclaim—through reviews in major papers, journals and award lists. The Returns was shortlisted for the 2020 Miles Franklin Award and the Queensland Premier’s Prize. In 2016, Waiting was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin and the Prime Minister’s Award. His two earlier novels are Toccata and Rain which was shortlisted for the ALS Gold Medal and the WA Premier’s Prize for Fiction, and Playback which won the WA Premier’s Prize for Fiction.
His new novel is The Fifth Season, a story based around missing persons and disappearances and, perhaps more strangely, the phenomenon of found people: people who are found dead, their identities unknown or erased.
He has read as a guest writer in America, Canada, Britain, the Republics of Serbia and Macedonia, Italy, Singapore and New Zealand.
Ellen Shelley grew up in Adelaide. Her life changed considerably when she entered the ARMY at aged 18. She travelled extensively around Australia and overseas in the Signals Core. She has now settled by the harbour in Newcastle where she continues to raise her four children while enjoying the passion of writing poetry with purpose and direction.
She writes in response to real-life events, and her own and others’ emotions. She publishes on various platforms, she says, “including a sidewalk in Adelaide, but you can only read it when it rains.”
Ellen’s writing speaks of a diverse range of struggles. It delves into the mundane, how she arrives there with or without acceptance. Her voice carries a mother’s tone. It is strong without denying her weakness, alone in a fight, shared by many. These poems emerge from a place of digging around the wires of disconnect, the not fitting in. Raised in a family of stepbrothers and stepsisters and a procession of stepmothers, she soon learnt the art of resilience and the need to find her own voice in the world
Her favourite quote is by Robert Frost: «For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing … is discovering.»
Judy Johnson is an multi-award winning writer who has been publishing her work for over 20 years. She has written five full-length poetry collections, several chapbooks and a novel. Her verse novel Jack was the result of a mentorship with the late Dorothy Porter. Jack won the Victorian Premier’s Award for poetry and was a text taught in University of Sydney and University of Melbourne . She has had writing residencies in Ireland at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan, The Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in Western Australia, and in many other places. Her interests have always centred around Australian history and her latest poetry book, Dark Convicts, deals with the life and times of her two First Fleet African American convict ancestors.
Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet and writer living on the South coast of Sydney with her French, chain-smoking husband. Her latest poetry collection, the lactic acid in the calves of your despair, is published by Wakefield Press and her debut collection, and my heart crumples like a coke can (Wakefield Press, 2018) has a forthcoming UK edition by Polygon, Edinburgh. Her memoir, Poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell, was launched at Sydney Writers Festival to critical acclaim in Australia (2008) and the UK (2009).
Poetry was not something I ever thought was for me. I hated it in school and never read it as an adult. Then I turned fifty and, by some bizarre twist of fate, started writing my own.
The more poets I got to know, the more I was astonished to learn that many of them had been writing poems since they could hold a pen and had parents who’d recite verse to them morning, noon and night. How I longed for one of those poetic pipe-smoking fathers in corduroys sporting a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, who’d read poetry to me in the evening by a roaring log fire. In my childhood, the only poem remotely hinted at in our house was ‘A Red, Red Rose’ once a year on St Valentine’s day. In short, our house was empty of poetry, literature, logs and books in general.
In an interview, brilliant Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan told the interviewer there were no books in his home when he was growing up. After the interview Andrew’s father called him, more than a little annoyed, “What do you mean, you grew up in a house with no books? Sure there was a green book sitting on top of the fridge for years!” To which Andrew replied, “Dad, that was the Kilmarnock phone directory.” So the great Andrew O’Hagan and I shared similar book-less upbringings, but clearly that’s where the similarities between us end.
Two-thirds of the way through high school I was removed from the English class in order to make way for a student with more promise. I was put into geography. It wasn’t entirely useless—I can now read an ordnance survey map with great confidence, name the deepest ocean at the drop of a hat, dazzle at dinner parties trundling out the capital cities of the world like a trained chimpanzee.
Eventually I ran away from my geographical and non-bookish past in Scotland to Australia. Did my past catch up with me? Absolutely. But Australia offered me something Scotland at that time did not: endless skies, super-sized servings of ‘she’ll be right’; affordable therapy and a chance happening upon a secondhand book, when I was forty nine, called Eight American Poets. When I opened its pages I discovered John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. My mouth fell open like a drawbridge and I allowed these poems to march on in.
Robyn Rowland is an Australian citizen and has been visiting Ireland for thirty-six years and living in both Connemara and Australia for over twenty years. She regularly works in Turkey. She has written fifteen books, twelve of poetry.
Four of her books came out of the Irish landscape and history. Then her interests were caught in Turkey and the old Ottoman Empire. In 2015 came the ground-breaking history in poetry, her bi-lingual This Intimate War Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 – İçli Dışlı Bir Savaş: Gelibolu/Çanakkale 1915 (Five Islands and Bilge Kultur Sanat; republished, Spinifex Press, Australia, 2018). Turkish translations by Mehmet Ali Çelikel.
In Mosaics From The Map (Doire Press, 2018) again history lived in the intimate. Personal stories explored war, change, family and friendship – in Ireland, Turkey, the Balkans and Australia. “Here are powerful, wise poems of humane sensitivity and good sense, a voice pitched always in the true register of compassion,” wrote Theo Dorgan, “luminous meditations that open up original avenues of vision and thought. Straight from the heart.”
Robyn’s most recent book Under This Saffron Sun / Safran Güneşin Altında, Turkish translations Mehmet Ali Çelikel, returns to Turkey; capturing place, friendship, change and uncovering the similarities between peoples which unite us all, rather than divide. It gently alludes to Syrian refugees, to the desire for peace and for stability, to hold onto the things which bind. Mostly, it is about friendship, ‘different ways with love’ and place. Of this book Paula Meehan, Ireland Professor of Poetry (2013–2016) wrote: “Everywhere here a flag is hoisted for our common and shared humanity, in language rich, resonant, precise … From Istanbul to Cappadocia, to Marmaris, a book of the good things we find on this earth: a song of colour, pattern, taste and feeling, weaving that needs the map inside the hands as she so memorably puts it … the ultimate healing solace to be found in the authenticity/ of connection.”
Robyn’s poetry appears in national and international journals, and in over forty anthologies, including Being Human, ed. Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2011) and eight editions of Best Australian Poems (Black Inc.). She has read and taught in Ireland for thirty-six years and has been invited to read in India, Portugal, Ireland, the UK, the USA, Greece, Austria, Bosnia, Serbia, Turkey and Italy, where, along with Canada, Spain and Japan, she has also been published, sometimes in translation.
Her work has been featured on ABC’s PoeticA, the RTE Poetry Program and TG4 (Ireland). She has been filmed reading for the National Irish Poetry Reading Archive, James Joyce Library, University College Dublin. She has two CDs of poetry, ‘Silver Leaving – Poems & Harp’ with Lynn Saoirse, and ‘Off the Tongue’.
Previous to 1996, when Robyn was diagnosed with breast cancer and left academic life, she was Professor, Head of the School of Social Inquiry, and Director of the Australian Women’s Research Centre at Deakin University. Robyn has edited and refereed for a multitude of international journals. In the 1996 Honours List she was made an Officer in the Order of Australia by the Governor General on behalf of the Australian Government for her national and international contribution to women’s health and higher education.