Contrappasso Extra: ‘Literary Prizes and Reviews’ by Noel King

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LITERARY PRIZES AND REVIEWS by NOEL KING

This text is based on a presentation given by Noel King at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao, on September 20-21, 2015. This version includes some material added after that presentation.

I

The Australian dollar currently is worth around 75 cents of a US dollar, and the average income for a writer in Australia is $12,900 a year, which is why so many writers and creatives, in Australia as elsewhere, drive cabs, work in restaurants, or teach. That amount of around $13,000 is not a living wage (Steger, 2015). Accordingly, winning a literary prize can be a windfall for a writer, permitting him or her to devote themselves undiverted to their craft for a certain measure of time.

On the general matter of writing and money, and using film adaptation as an example, however complicated critical discussions can get concerning the relation of a literary work to its film adaptation, one thing is certain: if the budget for the film is sufficiently large then the author’s percentage after first day of principal photography will permit him or her to feel secure about a comfortable short-to-mid-term future for their writing. Much as William Faulkner’s literary career benefited from the money thrown his way by Hollywood and Howard Hawks, allowing him to stay home in Oxford, Mississippi, to write his celebrated novels and stories, so Daniel Woodrell benefited from the $35 million budget attached to Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999), based on Woodrell’s 1987 book, Woe to Live On. Woodrell’s portion of that money funded his next five years of writing, giving him the time to try different things and directions, one of which was Winter’s Bone, which sold better than all his previous work and also was adapted into film.

In The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circle of Cultural Value, James F. English cites the Nobel Prize for Literature’s beginning in 1901 as the start of literary prize culture. Australia’s only Nobel Prize winner, Patrick White, was privately wealthy and so took the $80,000 dynamite money he received in 1973, tossed in an additional $20,000 of his own, and established the Patrick White Award. Given annually to an Australian writer who is regarded as having made a significant contribution to Australian literature across the body of their work, the prize brings with it $23,000. It is given to an oeuvre rather than a one-off work. The 2015 recipient was Joan London, a writer based in Fremantle, Western Australian. Previous recipients have included Amanda Lohrey, Christina Stead, Randolph Stow, and Elizabeth Harrower. London’s most recent novel, The Golden Age, also won the 2015 Australian Prime Minister’s award with its tax-free amount of $80,000. So, together with her Patrick White award, London will have $103,000 to fund her writing over the next few years, independently of whatever royalties she earns.

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John Berger

We should recognise up front that one sideshow aspect to literary awards concerns scandals, as English notes. Scandals can be a lot of fun. In 1972 John Berger presented the BBC’s Ways of Seeing series, which was accompanied by a little book that must have sold vastly well across decades, being course-adopted in the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, into great numbers of undergraduate degrees in art history, visual arts, and media studies. Berger favoured blue shirts but for reasons of television film cameras and the use of blue screen, that wouldn’t work, so he had to duck outside the studio and buy some shirts without blue in them, as producer Mike Dibbs explains: “He arrived back with what has provoked much comment over the years, a pair of identical cream and reed ‘chain-mail’ shirts, circa 1971. We didn’t give them a second thought then, and now they’re iconic!”. At the height of this paisley-shirt-wearing fame Berger won the 1972 Booker Prize for his novel G. He refused it, saying he would donate half the money to the Black Panthers and use the other half to fund his writing of A Seventh Man, his and Jean Mohr’s study of migrant workers in Europe. In 2015, Verso put up on its website the text of Berger’s speech, and the following quotations come from there:

The competitiveness of prizes I find distasteful. And in the case of this prize the publication of the shortlist, the deliberately publicised suspense, the speculation of the writers concerned as though they were horses, the whole emphasis on winners and losers is false and out of place in the context of literature.

Nevertheless prizes act as a stimulus – not to writers themselves but to publishers, readers and booksellers. And so the basic cultural value of a prize depends upon what it is a stimulus to. To the conformity of the market and the consensus of average opinion; or to imaginative independence on the part of both reader and writer. If a prize only stimulates conformity, it merely underwrites success as it is conventionally understood. It constitutes no more than any other chapter in a success story. If it stimulates imaginative independence, it encourages the will to seek alternatives. Or, to put it very simply, it encourages people to question…

One does not have to be a novelist seeking very subtle connections to trace the five thousand pounds of this prize back to the economic activities from which they came. Booker McConnell have had extensive trading interests in the Caribbean for over 130 years. The modern poverty of the Caribbean is the direct result of this and similar exploitation. One of the consequences of this Caribbean poverty is that hundreds of thousands of West Indians have been forced to come to Britain as migrant workers. Thus my book about migrant workers would be financed from the profits made directly out of them or their relatives and ancestors.

It’s similar to those Hollywood Academy Award moments of refusal of best Acting Oscars: from George C. Scott, who in 1971 refused his Best Acting Oscar for the Francis Coppola-scripted Patton and called the Awards a “goddamn meat parade”, and Marlon Brando’s declining of his 1972 Best Actor award for his role as the titular character in Coppola’s The Godfather, sending in his place a beautiful Native American woman, Sacheen Littlefeather.

If we broaden the notion of “scandal” to include “hoax,” then Australia has a distinguished record in this regard, from the 1940s ‘Ern Malley’ hoax where two Australian writers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, concocted sixteen poems meant to ridicule then-current trends in modernist poetry, and submitted them to Max Harris in Adelaide who edited a journal devoted to new currents in modernist writing, Angry Penguins. The fake poems appeared in the Autumn 1944 issue of that journal. Inevitably, once the hoax played itself out, Harris’s reputation suffered for a while, but the poems became celebrated and continued to be published, a line from one of the fraudulent poems even giving Australian cultural critic Humphrey McQueen the title for his book on Australian modernist painting, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944. It’s a bit like a literary version of the ‘Sokal Affair’ visited on the Duke University Press journal, Social Text, in 1996 when a physicist submitted an article to the highly regarded US cultural studies journal in order to demonstrate that C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” were no closer to getting together.

In Australia in 1994 the ‘Helen Demidenko Affair’ occurred in which the fraud concerned a University of Queensland student named Helen Darville, whose parents were English immigrants. Darville won the Vogel Prize, the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society, and the Miles Franklin Award for a novel whose authorial name was ‘Helen Demidenko’ and whose father allegedly was an illiterate Ukrainian cab driver who had emigrated to northern Queensland. This novel, The Hand That Signed the Paper, purported to be an account of the treatment of Ukrainians by neighbouring Jews during the Ukrainian famine of WWII, and also an account of Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust. Demidenko later went on to postgraduate study at Oxford University.

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In the case of the allegedly Aboriginal writing of ‘Banumbir (or Birimbir) Wongar,’ whose 1977 collection of twelve short stories, The Track to Bralgu, gained international attention from Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and was published in the US in 1978 by Boston’s Little, Brown & Co, the author was found to be Sreten Bozic, a Serbian anthropologist who lived in Melbourne, and who at one point said criticism of his literary-authorial deception should be tempered by the fact that he had been treated as an Aborigine throughout his life, i.e. treated badly. By the way, has anyone ever traced the “real” identity of B. Traven?

And last – but only in terms of random examples from Australia – in 1980 Paul Radley won the inaugural Vogel Award (for an unpublished manuscript by writers under the age of 35) with his book, Jack Rivers and Me, which sixteen years later he said had been written not by him but by his great uncle, Jack Radley. In one sense we should probably align scandals such as these with those routine media stories whereby the work of a canonised author (Patrick White, Henry James, Jane Austen) is sent off to a contemporary publisher and inevitably declined for not being quite what the publishing house is after. I think these instances and the Sokal incident indicate that some people have too much time on their hands, whereas the other scandals are more intriguing.

The US has seen instances of plagiarised or invented pieces of writing succeed in winning prizes, such as Stephen Glass’s journalism, only then to be exposed and shamed, only for that moment of humiliation to generate a further confessional publication in a mea culpa vein which sees even more books sold, this time by a penitent, disgraced author. This puts us awfully close to the stunts used by P. T. Barnum, as reported in Daniel Boorstin’s 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Boorstin says, “Barnum was perhaps the first modern master of pseudo-events, of contrived occurrences which lent themselves to being widely and vividly reported.” In 1835 Barnum “exhibited Joice Heth, an aged negress whom he advertised as the 161 year old former nurse of George Washington. For a while he made fifteen hundred dollars a week from her.” Heth later died at the age of eighty but not before Barnum had shown “his mastery of the art of compounding pseudo-events” by writing to newspapers denouncing his own exhibition as a hoax and claiming that Joice Heth was not a human being but “simply a curiously constructed automaton, made up of whalebone, india-rubber, and numerous springs ingeniously put together and made to move at the slightest touch, according to the will of the operator. The operator is a ventriloquist.” Boorstin’s interpretation of Barnum’s exercises in early publicity is to say, “Contrary to popular belief, Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.”

The United States also has tossed up some instances of fictional works masquerading as non-fictional works, simply because non-fiction was deemed a better-selling genre, again leading to shaming and exposure, but of course the book sales had already happened. In 2008 Pete Ayrton, publisher of Serpent’s Tail Press (see short history below) commented on this trend: “Like that woman, Margaret Jones, who wrote about her life with a Chicago gang. It would have been a good novel but it would have got nowhere and she felt she had to re-cast it as non-fiction. And the same thing happened with that life of a boy soldier. Nowadays everybody has to make their story non-fiction and true.” Around that same time Ayrton wrote a piece for the April issue of Author in which he said:

Fiction writers are forced by the pressure of publishers and agents to present their work as non-fiction and are discredited when the truth comes out – Margaret Jones’s Love and Consequences about Chicago gangs would have made a great novel. Unfortunately, she felt the need to present it as fact and was exposed by her sister! Because it is the author that is fêted and not the book, today’s readers are in danger of losing the ability to read fiction.

A rather different, more solemn example of a scandal or controversy concerns the fact that Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Soumission (Submission), was released in 2015 on the day of the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris. The utter coincidence of this overlap of an already controversial writer whose latest novel seemed to share a ‘content’ with ongoing anxieties and debates about Islam, ISIS and terrorism, generated much critical-cultural debate. And this controversy can only have been exacerbated by the tragedy of the recent acts of terrorism in Paris and Brussels.

II

In this next section I will act as a conduit for opinions expressed on some of the topics we have addressed in some of our Davao conference sessions, by quoting some opinions from several of the publishers I have interviewed over the last twenty years. This way you get to hear the opinions of professionals working in the field. One of the questions I asked each of the small-independent presses with whom I was fortunate enough to speak was whether a particular literary prize and/or a favourable book review had led to a spike in their sales. As they gave their various answers they sometimes mentioned other things that had benefited their commercial enterprises, and I mention some of these below.

In 2006 Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press in Perth, Western Australia, four to five hours by plane from east coast Australia, pondered whether the seemingly ever-increasing Australian literary prize culture had helped FACP secure more sales, and concluded:

Prizes have been very important, particularly in the early days. Operating from Western Australia, working away from the centres of Melbourne and Sydney, has always had its difficulties, but there has been some advantage to that. In the early days, particularly, for our size and the small number of books we did, we were really very successful in the number of reviews we got from around Australia. Maybe it was novelty value.

We found with literary prizes, from the outset, that unless it costs a fortune to enter, you enter! Because opinion-makers judge prizes and even if you don’t win, if you are attempting to draw attention to your list and key people are reading for this poetry prize, or that fiction or history prize, then they’re seeing your books regularly. And they talk to other people. And then when you win one every now and then, it helps the editors of the literary pages of journals and newspapers, dailies, weeklies to start looking more closely at your titles. And with some prizes there are advantages in terms of direct sales. Some more than others. In our experience the Miles Franklin is the one that leads to the biggest number of sales. After that it would be the NSW Premier’s and the Victorian Premier’s awards on about a par. In terms of the response from readers, with most prizes sales drop away pretty quickly but you do see an initial little sales-spike here and there. In Western Australia we have the WA Literary Awards and we’ve had several winners of these. While that doesn’t affect Australia-wide sales, it certainly affects the local market. Because, let’s face it, when you walk into a bookshop, you can be overwhelmed by the choice. I’m in the trade and I’m overwhelmed! They’re all saying ‘buy me!’, but it can be the Tower of Babel with so many voices of relatively equal pitch, so you can be drawn to whatever little badge or stripe is on a book, or a to a quotation from someone famous.

The other big prizes are the Children’s Book Council Book of the Year Awards. Even being short-listed there is good because children’s librarians, teachers, parents buy off those gold and silver badges. So even short-listing can lead to a significant jump in sales. And to win means a very big jump. Yes, prizes are important.

In London I have been very lucky, across a couple of decades, to interview Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press on a regular basis, getting his changing assessments of how these things factored in to his press at a given moment in its publishing history.

Serpent’s Tail Press was established in August 1986 when Peter Ayrton and John Hampson got together to set up a publishing press based on the models of late 1960s radical political presses in France, Holland, Germany, and Italy. Ayrton was the publisher and Hampson the sales manager. They had met while working at Al Saqi, a leftist press specialising in books on the Middle East and each had experience with other left-leaning presses, Ayrton at Pluto and Hampson at Verso. In the beginning, the press was based at Ayrton’s house and they worked with a team of freelance translators, designers and illustrators, producing their first books in August 1987.

In 1987 Marsha Rowe left her co-editor position at Spare Rib to become Serpent’s Tail’s fiction editor. In 1989 Serpent’s Tail won the Sunday Times Small Press Publisher of the Year award, edging out Verso Books, Bloodaxe Books, and Element Books. By 1992 Serpent’s Tail was publishing about thirty books a year in print runs of up to 5,000, seeking to represent marginal, dissenting voices of various kinds. For example, in the wake of the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act (which prohibited local authorities from “promoting homosexuality”) Serpent’s Tail strengthened its list of gay and lesbian writing, publishing Ian Bartlett’s Who Was That Man?, a mixed-genre discussion of cultural shifts from Oscar Wilde in the 1880s to late 1980s British gay culture, and the Simon Watney et al non-fiction anthology, Taking Liberties, a book which showed how various institutions discriminate against people with AIDS.

Serpent’s Tail Press very soon was sufficiently successful to be able to move from Ayrton’s house to a small renovated terrace in Blackstock Mews, a short walk from Finsbury Park tube station. In their first seven years of publishing, they translated innovative fiction from Spain, Germany, and Argentina, instituted a cultural studies list, and experimented with the publication of some books of political photo-journalism. This was the Serpent’s Tail context when I first interviewed Pete Ayrton back in 1992, asking him how he was managing to survive as an independent publisher. He said:

It’s a very exciting business to be in because it must be the only business left in which minnows like us can take on multinationals and have more or less the same chance of getting a lead review in a national newspaper. Whereas, with the other cultural industries, like music or films, you need millions of pound or dollars to start. You can start in publishing by doing one book. For instance, recently there’s been a self-publishing of a Jamaican thriller called Yardie, which has sold 10,000 in a month. They just put it in the bookshops and it goes. That’s what makes it an exciting business to be in at the moment.

The success of that book by Victor Headley, detailing a Jamaican subculture of gangs and drugs, saw its author go on to publish another four novels with larger presses. It is a moment that seems to have come full circle and wound up in New York, where, thirty years on, authors like K’wan Foye and Vickie Stringer have replicated the success of Yardie. As Neil Munshi explains, Foye’s self-published novel Gangsta was sold “out of the trunks of cars, through street vendors, beauty salons and barbershops in Harlem and black neighbourhoods on the east coast” and had sold 80,000 copies “before it saw the inside of a Barnes and Noble.”

Foye hooked up with Stringer by way of the email address she had on the back of her self-published book, Let That Be The Reason, written while she was “serving a seven year sentence for selling a kilo of cocaine to an undercover cop.” Stringer had an imprint named after her former drug crew, Triple Crown Publications, and offered to publish Gangsta. Foye accepted and his next book, Road Dawgz, came out with St Martin’s Press. This sub-genre is called “street lit” and “urban fiction,” and it makes a lot of money, selling in the 100,000s for those who get to the top of this particular pulp pile. But Munshi says that mainstream publishing avoids it. If the success of Yardie recalled the moment of Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972), then Gangsta and its world might recall Spike Lee’s early hour-length film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983).

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III

No doubt you are all aware of the most lucrative international literary awards, such as Dublin’s IMPAC Award, worth 100,000 euros. In their 2013 piece for The Sunday Telegraph, “Top 25 Literary Prizes,” Jon Stock and Kealey Rigden list a host of UK prizes that range from £60,000 (the Man Booker International, offered every two years) to £50,000 (the annual Man Booker) to £40,000 (the David Cohen Prize for Lifetime Achievement, the Folio Award) to £35,000 (the Costa Award) to £30,000 (The Women’s Prize, formerly known as the Orange Prize), and so on. In 2012 Hilary Mantel scooped several of these awards, winning the Man Booker and Costa Book Award for her novel, Bring Up the Bodies, as well as £40,000 from the David Cohen, taking her total winnings to £125,000. In 2015 the BBC adapted Mantel’s first book in this series, Wolf Hall, into a six-part drama series and no doubt more will follow.

Australia has a great many literary awards. Each state has its own set of Premier’s awards with prize money ranging from $10,000 to $100,000. In the case of these state literary awards, the categories are usually the familiar ones of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, young adult, children’s, and a supervening Book of the Year award which can go to any of the winning entries in the sub-categories to give that title a further $10,000. There is also a Prime Minister’s Book Award, alluded to earlier, which carries a tax-free prize of $80,000.

A la the UK’s Women’s Prize, Australia offers special awards for female writers, and an award for writing by women which offers a positive depiction of women and/or girls. These prizes bring with them $23,000. In 2016 the Stella Prize, given to a book written by an Australian female writer that is deemed “original, excellent, and engaging,” was worth $50,000. Writers short-listed for this award received $2,000 and a two-week paid Writer’s Retreat to help them develop their fiction.

In her piece, “On Literary Awards,” for Inside Story website, Susan Lever says:

This plethora of prizes may be overwhelming to readers, but for writers in Australia, an English-speaking country with access to the literary publishing of the rest of the world, they offer a little financial support and, sometimes, help in building a reputation and boosting sales. It remains difficult for a literary writer to make any kind of living from publishing in Australia.

But the relation of prize-author-press-money still requires some teasing out. Courtesy of some national and state autobiography awards, a friend of mine, John Hughes, won $40,000 for his memoir, The Idea of Home. He was also invited across from Sydney to Perth and hosted to some lovely food and wine by Janet Holmes à Court down at Western Australia’s Margaret River region.

It is also true that on some occasions the press which has published an award-winning writer might not see much increase in book sales as a result of the award. We know that it is not always the case that winning the Booker Prize – an award established by Jonathan Cape Press – will generate sales. Famously, in 1994 James Kelman won the Booker with How Late it Was, How Late, written in a Scots dialect, and his book sold scarcely any copies in the wake of his award success. That is, some prizes benefit the writer a great deal and the press scarcely at all, while some other prizes benefit both.

Fiction translated into English is always helped by winning a major award. When Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek became a Nobel Prize winner, Serpent’s Tail sold 100,000 of The Piano Teacher and 25,000 of the other books of hers they had in their list. Prior to that they had sold 4,000 copies of all of her works on which they held English translation rights. So it seems to depend on which prize you win. I remember the year of the Academy Awards when Phil Kauffman’s excellent film of Tom Wolfe’s book about Chuck Yeager and co, The Right Stuff (1983) was up for seven awards. The studio was desperate to win some awards and generate more financial life for the film. But the four awards given were in the technical areas (Film Editing, Tom Conti’s Music Score, Best Sound, and Best Sound Effects) as opposed to gaining awards for acting, cinematography, director and best film. In 2016 we might now see 1983 as a watershed year in Academy Award prize culture. Receiving those awards had a negligible impact on The Right Stuff’s box-office whereas there now seems a much greater general interest among filmgoers in the technical, geeky aspects of filmmaking. As the latest embrace of 3-D by filmmakers and film viewers indicates, most viewers of James Cameron’s Avatar were deeply involved in analysing and appreciating its technical features, as opposed to earlier ineffective, sporadic experiments with forms of 3-D that had accompanied cinema from its birth through to the 1950s.

IV

In Australia two things usually follow on from a book winning a major award or even from being short-listed. First, a host of local state municipal libraries acquire it, as do university libraries. The absence of any strong library system at municipal or university level in the Philippines means that this flow-on factor wouldn’t work here.

Second, in Australia, such prize-winning works sometimes find themselves adopted onto state-based secondary education curricula and when this happens many private secondary schools – Australia’s equivalent of the English “public school” – invite the author to address their students who are studying this text. The text in question is thus humanised and personalised for this elite cohort of student-readers, and the author is healthily remunerated.

A different perspective on these issues of literary celebrity, prize cultures, and book sales comes from a long-time friend and wonderful Australian writer of fiction and non-fiction, Amanda Lohrey (cited earlier as a recent winner of the Patrick White award) who said, in an email:

A few Australian writers have succeeded in constructing themselves as a brand – Tim Winton, Peter Carey, Helen Garner – but for most other Australian writers it’s tough. Buyers of literary fiction are one of the demographics most adversely affected by economic trends over the past two decades – ask librarians who are the real trackers of who reads what and why, and who used to buy and now borrows. Publishing literary fiction continues to be a form of high-class gambling, and you can pass this along to any aspiring young writers you know.

V

In March 2002, when Michiko Kakutani gave a rave review in the New York Times to the Hobart, Tasmania-based Australian author Richard Flanagan for his novel Gould’s Book of Fish, Flanagan was, in very quick succession, interviewed by a Los Angeles radio programme and hurried by his publisher across to the US for a whistle-stop coast-to-coast tour of book readings and book signings – all to capitalise on one review. London-based publisher François von Hurter, one-third of Bitter Lemon Press, which specialises mainly in translated crime fiction, said that a single review in The New York Times had great impact on sales, much more so than any single review in any English newspaper.

Pete Ayrton’s take on this question was:

I think this is more true in the States where a full sized review in the New York Times will cause something to really take off. I don’t think there is one place in the UK so I don’t think that is so much the case here. The thing about the New York Times is that it’s the only national newspaper in the US, apart from USA Today, which is unimportant for books. Whereas here we have the Guardian, the Independent, the Times, the Telegraph, and so on. I think what’s important in Britain is if you can get five or six or seven reviews. Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, upon publication, was reviewed more or less everywhere, and that causes people to notice. But I don’t think there’s any one place in the UK where one review or interview will crack it.

In the UK and Australia the increasing prominence of TV book shows is another factor granting visibility and prestige to literary works. Everyone remembers that Oprah had enormous impact on book sales in the US, guaranteeing an additional million copies sold for each title selected, and allowing for the scandal in 2001 that accompanied Jonathan Franzen’s baulking at Oprah’s endorsement of his The Corrections, and his reluctance to have Oprah’s stamp on his book.

When mulling over the impact that UK book shows had exerted on Serpent’s Tail titles, Pete Ayrton said that it was the televising of these awards that was having the greatest influence and then added that readers’ groups had become very important to book sales:

Richard and Judy is pretty mainstream. They select good books but they’re not going for ‘edgy.’ Of our books they possibly would have selected Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin but they didn’t. And Richard and Judy are probably the sort of people who don’t like the maternal ambivalence in the book, the fact that a mother could be questioning her role and her love of her children. TV programmes like these have grown enormously in importance, and literary prizes have as well: the Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, they now all have much greater visibility because they’re televised, and they can really push sales. The other thing which has developed on a very large scale since we last spoke is readers’ groups. This is a big, big phenomenon.

People meet in bookshops, libraries, peoples’ homes. It’s almost 95% women and obviously that means certain books will meet the demands of that particular market very well. A book like Kevin is absolutely ideal for readers’ groups. I’ve been with Lionel Shriver to groups of 80 and 90 people, most of whom haven’t read the book, and they are saying, ‘I have a Kevin,’ ‘my son’s like Kevin,’ ‘the mother was quite right, I’ve sometimes felt like that,’ ‘was it nurture, was it nature?’ Any kind of book that poses these kinds of questions is ideal for readers’ groups, and they are a very fast-growing phenomenon.

In the US that is called “the water cooler debate.” At one point Kevin had sold 600,000 copies in two editions and was selling 1,000 copies a week. US writer Shriver has been a long-term London resident and reviews books regularly in the London press. In 2011 Kevin became a film starring Tilda Swinton and no doubt further sales piggy-backed on the circulation of the film.

The most recent big selling success for Serpent’s Tail is their importing of the US book, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves which, as of November 2015, had sold 750,000 copies in print and ebook. Earlier in its career Serpent’s Tail had experienced great success with what Ayrton referred to as “posh porn,” by which he meant English language translations of French author Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M, which sold 50,000 in trade paperback and 150,000 in mass market. Serpent’s Tail followed this with the translation of another sexual confession, this time by a very young Italian woman, Melissa P’s 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, and that also did very well, selling 35,000 in trade paperback for Serpent’s Tail, and eventually selling 2 million worldwide.

In respect of television literary chat shows and their place in all of this, from 1975 until 1990, France had Apostrophes as a weekly ninety minute television literary talk show, hosted by Bernard Pivot. The viewing audience was between 3 to 6 million and the show helped generate considerable sales for the books and authors it discussed. According to the New York Times, Roland Barthes sold 80,000 copies of one of his many books after appearing on the programme. Australia currently has Jennifer Byrne’s hosting of the ABC’s Book Club. The format sees Byrne moderate a discussion with two regular guests, Marieke Hardy, granddaughter of celebrated Australian Communist writer, Frank Hardy, and Jason Steger, Books Editor for Melbourne’s The Age and Sunday Age newspapers. Each week these three are joined by writers who might be Australian or might be overseas writers visiting as guests at one or other of Australia’s literary festivals. So it’s a celebrity book chat show and there are clear limitations to the terms in which books can be discussed. Even so, it was from watching this programme that I discovered how brilliant Colm Tóibín, David Malouf, and Richard Flanagan are at explaining a book, contextualising a piece of writing and making a serious case for it, so at its best The Book Show exhibits a flexible format.

VI

To take the notion of “awards culture” in a slightly different direction, in the case of Australia we must mention the widespread adoption over the last twenty-five years of postgraduate degrees in the creative arts, along the lines of the US’s MFA and Doctorates in Creative Writing, and of opportunities for funded Creative Writing postgraduate study in the UK at places like University of East Anglia, set up more than four decades ago by Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. Now such degrees are available all over the UK. The flourishing in Australian tertiary education of the Doctorate of Creative Arts (sometimes called PhD by Unconventional Format) has permitted many creative writers, across all media (fiction and non-fiction writing, graphic novels, poetry, drama, radio-sonic, film-TV, digital), so long as they are Australian residents, to receive three and one-half years funding at $25,000 a year plus whatever additional funds are available at a given university for assistance with the candidate’s general research needs and occasional need for conference attendance.

When I was pitching this avenue of funding to various writer friends, from the mid-1990s to around 2010 or so, trying to persuade them to come on down, I always characterised it as an “alternative arts council grant,” and this often proved persuasive. This was a perfect storm of institutional and individual self-interest whereby many people who might otherwise have stomped around banging on about “the school of hard knocks,” denouncing the privileged safety of “the groves of academe” while saying “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach” suddenly were very happy to come in and be funded for three and one-half years. Since the average income of a writer in Australia, as indicated at the start of this presentation, is $12,900 a year, the creative writing doctoral scholarship money was both substantially more than that – almost double – and also more than any book advance the writer was likely to receive. The result was a large number of postgraduate completions in this new area of Creative Studies across all media forms, one of whom was the Filipino Miguel Syjuco who did his doctoral study at the University of Adelaide. And under the Australian system these scholarship holders would have no academic fee debt because that was looked after by the host institution.

International Postgraduate Awards and Vice Chancellor Awards are funded generously at Australia’s “Group of Eight” universities (e.g. Sydney University, Melbourne University, ANU, UNSW, UWA etc.) but of late the Humanities is far less likely to receive this money than are the hard science departments. So this little industry has been complicated by issues of residency/visas, and punitively high tuition costs for overseas students that increasingly cash-strapped Humanities areas of Australian universities are most unlikely to fund. Add in rising costs of medical coverage for overseas students and we have reached a point where this formerly safe harbour now finds itself being ravaged by the rapacious idiocy of neoliberalism that everywhere blights the Australian tertiary education sector, as it does the UK tertiary educational system. The US system is hugely competitive in terms of being able to receive fully funded places in Creative Writing at eminent institutions (only six places available at Johns Hopkins University and so on) but their system, now definitely straitened, always had many other cards to play in this context of funding postgraduate study: from full scholarship to tuition waiver or offering in-state tuition to an out-of-state student, to undergraduate teaching contracts for the duration of the higher degree being undertaken, and so on.

In the wake of Mark McGurl’s book, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (2009) – reviewed twice in the London Review of Books – a conversation has started on the history of tertiary education creative writing courses in the US. Chad Harbach’s edited collection MFA vs NYC (2014) introduces the topic of whether being in a major US city (New York, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco) and attending writing classes and literary events might be as worthwhile as incurring a considerable debt to have university letters after one’s name. Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young’s Los Angeles Review of Books article, “The Program Era and the Mainly White Room,” tells us that one of the article’s authors incurred a debt of $27,000 to undertake her MFA, and has repaid $30,000 so far with $13,000 still to go. Her co-author had, the year earlier and twenty years after graduation, made her final payment on a debt of more than $70,000 required to acquit her original loan of $30,000. As they explain:

Creative writing programs really started to take off in the 1990s. Prior to the 1990s, many writers taught in higher education and this shaped the aesthetics of American literature, as the scholar Mark McGurl has shown in his The Program Era. But it is not until the 1990s that the idea that one should necessarily turn to higher education if one wants to become a writer becomes an idea that more than 6,000 people have each year.

They argue that “prior to the 1990s and the intensifying financial pressures that brought about the corporatization of the university, English departments tended to have a studious lack of interest that bordered on disdain about the teaching of creative writing.” This is very similar to the circumstances that obtained in Australia at the same time, when creative writing began to consolidate itself at postgraduate level at most Australian universities. Their meticulous description of the university management practise of shaving margins that sees predominantly adjunct teaching staff used to teach increased numbers in courses like these that are deemed “cheap to run (no studio space or lab space required, low technology needs, very deep adjunct pool) and tuition generating” applies equally to the Australian university context. And the fact that D. G. Myers’s 2006 second edition of his The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 finds him debating points made by Asian-Australian Paul Dawson in his Creative Writing and the New Humanities (2004), results in a brief, informative sketch of the differences and overlaps between these two national university systems’ embrace of creative writing as a tertiary education money-spinner.

To conclude, an anecdote concerning one person I persuaded to come into PhD study at the University of Technology, Sydney – John Hughes, whose book, The Idea of Home, published by Sydney independent press Giramondo, won $40,000 in literary awards. That was done as his doctoral thesis on full scholarship across three and one-half years (exactly like Miguel Syjuco’s doctorate undertaken at the University of Adelaide). Earlier in his career John had received the Shell Scholarship in the Arts – only one is awarded in all of Australia – to undertake postgraduate study at either Oxford or Cambridge. He chose Cambridge, stayed four years working on his doctoral topic, “Tropes in Literary Criticism from Coleridge to Derrida,” but did not submit his thesis. His supervisor urged him to stay on at Cambridge and work as a postman but he declined and returned to Australia, working as a rural fireman and tutoring in Humanities courses at a polytechnic in my home town, Newcastle, where he had done his Honours degree in English prior to winning the Shell Scholarship. It was in Newcastle that I got to know him and very gradually, over several years, I persuaded him to re-enter the academic world by way of a doctoral scholarship at UTS. He agreed and after a very easy supervision – his prose was perfect – in which I suggested some books and articles, he won the UTS Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Best Dissertation in the Humanities, and that became the book Giramondo published. For a few years after that I tried to lure John from his job teaching English at an all-boys’ school, Sydney Grammar, into a University post. That dance continued a while until John and his wife unexpectedly and late in life had a baby, and his deal at Sydney Grammar meant that so long as he taught there his son would receive a private school education for a tenth of the usual price. He then became the school’s Librarian and his only teaching duty involved running two special tutorials, one on European Literature for a small group of very intelligent boys most of whom would go on to do Law and Medicine at University.

One day, as we were catching up over a beer in a local pub, I asked how much Sydney Grammar paid him as a Librarian and Senior Teacher in order to compare it with my salary as a Senior Lecturer, and see how plausible was my attempt to lure him into the world of Australian tertiary education. He told me his salary and I told him it was what a full Professor in the Humanities would receive at an Australian university. He already knew his work conditions were far better than anything that would obtain in our neo-liberal tertiary education system.

So I left John Hughes to his Librarian duties at Sydney Grammar School, a job which allows him plenty of time to read the work of other librarians- such as Philip Larkin and Jorge Luis Borges – whenever the mood takes him.

 

Texts Cited

Peter Ayrton, “We Need To Talk About Fiction,” Author (UK) (April 2008).

John Berger, “’I have to turn this prize against itself’ — John Berger on accepting the Booker Prize for Fiction, 23 November 1972,” reprinted in a blog by Sarah Shin (November 5th, 2015).

John Berger, Let Seven Men Write Your Poem: A Season in London (London: artevents, 2005).

Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America (1962) (New York: Vintage, 2012).

Paul Dawson, Creative Writing and the New Humanities (London: Routledge, 2004).

‘Helen Demidenko’/Helen Darville, The Hand that Signed the Paper (Sydney: Allan & Unwin, 1993).

Mike Dibbs, “On Documentary: Re-Seeing Ways of Seeing,” in John Berger, Let Seven Men Write Your Poem: A Season in London (London: artevents, 2005): 26-30.

James F. English, The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards, and the Circle of Cultural Value (Harvard UP, 2005).

Chad Harbach (ed.), MFA vs NYC (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014).

Michael Heyward, The Ern Malley Affair (Brisbane: Univ. of Queensland Press, 1993).

John Hughes, The Idea of Home (Sydney: Giramondo Press, 2004).

Michel Houellebecq, Submission trans. Loren Stein (London: William Heinemann, 2015).

Noel King, ‘’The Main Thing We Book Publishers have Going for us is the books themselves: An Interview with Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Islington, London 12 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 3 (Autumn 2007): 104-119.

Noel King, “A bridge between all these literatures that we love: Interview with Francois von Hurter, Bitter Lemon Press, London 10 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 1-2 (Summer 2007): 62-80.

Noel King, “’I Can’t Go on, I’ll Go On’: Interview with Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press” Westerly, 51 (November 2006): 31-54.

Noel King, “An Exciting Business to be in at the Moment”: Interview with Peter Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Euphoria Cafe Bar, Blackstock Road, London, 25 September 1992.

Susan Lever, “On Literary Awards,” Inside Story, 13 May 2016.

Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Univ. Press, 2009)

Humphrey McQueen, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944 (Sydney: Alternative Publishing, 1979).

Neil Munshi, “We gonna make books our hustle,” The Weekend Financial Times (14-15 November, 2015): 1-2.

G. Myers, The Elephants Teach: Creative Writing Since 1880 Second Edition (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2006).

Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, “The Program Era an the Mainly White Room,” Los Angeles Review of Books (September 2015).

Paul Radley (Jack Radley), Jack Rivers and Me (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1981).

Jason Steger, “At $12,900 a year literary fiction does not pay: study,” The Sydney Morning Herald (Thursday, October 8th, 2015): 29.

Jon Stock and Kealey Rigden, “Top 25 Literary Prizes,” The Sunday Telegraph (15 October 2013).

“French TV Show on Book’s Ending,” New York Times (September 5, 1989).

“Banumbir/Birimbir Wongar”/Sretin Bozic, The Track to Bralgu (Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 1978).

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1986), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

[Header image: Book by Jan Murin @Flickr. Used under this CC licence.]

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CP Goes to the Philippines: Featured author Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra

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LOURD ERNEST H. DE VEYRA by NOEL KING

Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra is a Filipino poet, musician, novelist, journalist working in radio and TV, blogger, and activist. He graduated in Journalism from University of Santo Tomas and his first volume of poetry, Subterranean Thought Parade was published by Manila’s Anvil Publications in 1998, in a dual edition book with fellow Filipino poet, Ramil Digal Gulles, whose section was called The 25th Fly. De Veyra’s second volume of poetry, Shadow Boxing in Headphones, appeared in 2001, from University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, as did his third volume, Insectissimo!, in 2011. His first novel, Super Panalo Sounds!, about a rock band and the Pinoy music scene more generally and mythically, came out in 2011 from University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. Two collections of his blogging at Spot.ph.blog have been published, both from Summit Press in Mandaluyong City, The Best of This is a Crazy Planets (2011) and This is a Crazy Planets 2 (2013). In 2014 Summit published Lourd de Veyra’s Little Book of Speeches and in the same year Anvil Press published his book on drinking and food, Espiritu.

He has won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award for Literature, the Free Press Literary Award, and the inaugural National Commission for Culture and the Arts Writers’ Prize for Poetry. In 1999 he formed the jazz-rock band Radioactive Sago Project, which blends spoken-word poetry, bebop jazz and punk.

We are reprinting de Veyra’s poem ‘Fat Elvis in Kamias’ as the final installment of our Contrappasso Goes to the Philippines online special. And here is a gallery of book covers:

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CP Goes to the Philippines: World Publishing Today by Noel King

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WORLD PUBLISHING TODAY by NOEL KING

This text is based on a presentation given by Noel King at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao, on September 20-21, 2015. This version includes some material added after that presentation.

“Most trends in the book industry are accompanied by countervailing ones. As the conglomerates get bigger there is a new optimism among enterprising independent houses … who believe that they can offer distinctive titles that the giants, with their concentration on the mass market, overlook.” – Nicholas Clee, “End of the Book Postponed,” Prospect Magazine 135 (June 2007).

“Sales of physical books rose in the UK for the first time since 2007, with Nielsen BookScan figures for January-November up 5.4 per cent on the previous year. Add to this the British chain Waterstone’s pulling unwanted Kindles from its shelves and Amazon opening a bricks and mortar bookshop and it did seem like the future might not be entirely digital after all. The stuff of fantasy? We will see.” – Lorien Kite, “Books of 2015,” Financial Times Weekend (28-29 November, 2015).

I

First, it’s both an honour and a pleasure to be participating in the Sixth Philippine International Literary Festival, the first to be held outside Manila, here in Davao, Mindanao. This admirable, conscious attempt to shift a little the Manila-centric literary-cultural viewpoint to include other, more distant regions of the Philippines certainly resonates with me and my presentation today.

“I come from the land down under,” Australia, with a population of 24 million, most of whom are clustered in capital cities on Australia’s coastline, or if somewhat inland, on a river. In Australia the publishing industry is concentrated in our largest city, Sydney, where I live, and in our second-largest city, Melbourne. Sydney is said to be the home of international, conglomerate publishing while Melbourne is said to have more small-independent presses (Rosenbloom, 2007). The one exception to that account of Melbourne is that Penguin Australia is located in Ringwood, an alcohol-free suburb of Melbourne.

There is a history of cultural rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne whereby Sydney, with its warmer weather, lovely beaches, its obsessive relationship with real estate and money, is regarded as some kind of aspirational L.A. whereas Melbourne – quite recently voted the “most liveable city in the world” – is regarded as more intellectual, more cultural, certainly possessed of more venues for live music. At one point this civic rivalry was cast in terms of “St Petersburg vs. Tinseltown,” and I will leave it to you to decide which designation goes where.

A few weeks ago Sydney was listed as the third most expensive city in the world to live in, coming up a couple of places from its fifth place of several years ago. Real estate prices are very, very high, as accordingly is rental accommodation, and the everyday cost of living is very expensive. All for no particular reason, beyond opportunity and avarice. Even so, a former Labor Party Prime Minister, Paul Keating, once said, “If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re camping out.”

Further afield from this Sydney-Melbourne duelling capital city duo are three other capital cities, each of which has a significant role to play in Australia’s literary-cultural life. Adelaide, South Australia, now home to South African Nobel Prize Winner, J. M. Coetzee, likes it made known that its original settlement included no convicts, unlike the rest of Australia’s white settlement origins as an English penal colony. Frequently described as a “city of parks and churches,” it boasts a longish tradition of being very cultural, with an International Writers’ Festival, a Fringe Arts Festival, a World Music festival, film festivals, and the South Australian Film Commission, which was a crucial part of Australia’s revived feature filmmaking industry in the early 1970s, producing films such as Sunday Too Far Away, Gallipoli, and Storm Boy. It also has a history of enlightened political lawmaking. It was the first Australian state to legislate against rape in marriage. And it was at the University of Adelaide that Miguel Syjuco completed the PhD that would result in his 2008 Man Asian Prize-winning novel, Ilustrado (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).

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Stepping further westward, across the long expanse of the Nullarbor, we reach Perth, Western Australia. Perth is a four and one half hour plane ride for those people who aren’t camping out, who are living in Sydney, and is home to celebrated Filipina Rose Hancock and also to Janet Holmes à Court. It is the home state of former Labor Party Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and the Labor Party Education Minister, John Dawkins, who introduced profound changes to Australia’s tertiary education system; home also to the late Alan Bond, disgraced businessman who spent some time in gaol and who will forever be admired by Australians for having, in 1983, wrested the America’s Cup yachting trophy from the US after it had spent 132 years in the New York Yacht Club’s possession. Those races were won to the tune of Men at Work singing “Land Down Under,” and this historic victory obliged the US to challenge – successfully, as it turned out – to regain the Cup by sailing in the waters just off Fremantle, near Perth. Fremantle is home to Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and is where one of Australia’s most commercially and critically successful writers, at a national and international level, lives – Tim Winton.

Fremantle Arts Centre Press was established in 1976 and has as its mission the publication of only those writers who are connected to W.A., either by having come from there, having once lived there, currently living there, or by having moved there to live. In the 1980s this proudly regional, small-independent press surprised itself by publishing two books that went on to sell a million copies apiece. First came A. B. Facey’s A Fortunate Life, a memoir of a hard-scrabble life in Australia in the first part of the twentieth century, published in 1981 and adapted for television in 1985, the money from which enabled FACP to build a warehouse to store their various titles. This TV adaptation came about when a local freelance film-TV worker, Ken Kelso, approached FACP to see if they would allow him to pitch the Facey book to TV people he knew. On the basis of the fact that he was a local they agreed and this encounter with Kelso proved doubly beneficial, leading not only to a goodly sum of money on the first day of principal photography but also to a meeting with a friend of Kelso’s who was struggling to complete her first book. Her name was Sally Morgan and the book this Western Australian Aboriginal artist-writer eventually finished with the help of FACP, My Place, published in 1987, became the press’s second million-copy seller.

The writer who got away from them, through no fault of their own, was Tim Winton whose first novel, An Open Swimmer, won the 1981 Vogel Book Award (for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of thirty-five) which brings with it publication by an east coast press, Allen & Unwin in Sydney. Otherwise, it is quite likely that FACP would have published Winton, much as they published Elizabeth Jolley, who taught Winton briefly in some creative writing courses he took at Curtin University. And speaking of distances from margin to centre, it was always a delight throughout the 1980s and later to see Elizabeth Jolley, from a city deemed the most remote capital on earth, reviewing books in the Gotham-centric New York Times Book Review.

A sixty minute plane ride north of Sydney is Brisbane, capital of Queensland, and home to an important Australian press, the University of Queensland Press, which began in 1948. For many years UQP was lucky to have on its books two highly-regarded, strong-selling authors: Brisbane-born Lebanese Christian David Malouf and Melbourne-born Peter Carey. Carey used to spend time in Byron Bay, writing very successful commercial jingles for Australian television, so perhaps it was Byron Bay’s proximity to Brisbane that saw him fetch up at that press. Certainly, when he took himself elsewhere, to Balmain in Sydney, then to New York, and found other publishing outlets, UQP’s bottom line dropped dramatically, a minor version of the fluctuations experienced by London’s Bloomsbury Press in a non-Harry Potter year.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I taught at universities in Brisbane and Perth and got to know a little of the cultural-political life in each place. When it first opened in the late 1970s, Griffith University in Brisbane had an artists-in-residence scheme which saw Australian writers spend some time on the campus. Two such writers-in-residence were Steve Spears – at that time enjoying international success with his play, The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin – and Helen Garner – whose novel Monkeygrip (which was adapted into an Australian film) brought her a cultural prominence she has maintained for several decades with an output of fiction and non-fiction works. The arts section of the Sydney Morning Herald of March 2, 2016, announced that Garner had received a Yale University Windham-Campbell Prize of US $150,000 “in recognition of her non-fiction writing.”

In Perth one can still buy postcards that depict only the vast landscape of Western Australia and indicate all space east of W.A. as “unknown territory.” And W.A. and Queensland share some similarities, at least in the way they are regarded by Sydney and Melbourne as wilder, more cowboy, frontier environments than the trio of genteel states that separates them: South Australia, Victoria, N.S.W. For example, Queensland has a political history of folksy right-wing rural populism roughly analogous to the career of Huey Long in 1930s Louisiana when he was regarded, until his assassination, as a serious possibility for a tilt at the White House. Long was immortalised as Willy Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s great novel, All the King’s Men. As it happens, the favourite book of Brian Burke, disgraced politician and former Labor Premier of Western Australia, was a biography of Huey Long, so you can appreciate that the broad comparison between W.A. and Queensland and the American Deep South has some purchase. For a few years, in his early time as Premier, Burke’s manipulation of the media to convey, very successfully, his Labor party’s policies and programs made him the envy of east coast Labor Party politicians like Neville Wran, Labor Party Premier of NSW, and Paul Keating.

I’m well aware that no Filipino needs to be advised about the ways of political corruption, connivance, and compromise. Suffice to say that you are geographically proximal to Malaysia, the nation said to have perfected the first instances of credit card fraud. But as you ponder how best to establish important cultural infrastructural works in your country, from Manila to all your regional capitals and beyond, you might like to file away a remark from Huey Long, a line which so far as I recall, did not make it into Penn Warren’s novel, nor did it appear in either of the film versions: “We got graft, but we got roads. The other states, they just got graft.”

II

All I mean by this lengthy preamble is to impress upon you the fact that all Australians are well aware of what one of our historians, Geoffrey Blainey, once called “the tyranny of distance” – and that phrase describes the internal distances within our “wide brown land,” coast to shining coast, as much as it does Australia’s physical distance from its initial northern hemisphere coloniser, England (Blainey’s original point), and its later soft-power coloniser, the US, with whom we share various trade and military alliances.

For the remainder of my talk I will hurry through some features of the international publishing scene as it seems to me to be configured at the moment. I speak here as a non-expert but rather as someone who has, over the last twenty years, interviewed a number of publishers in Australia, London and the US, trying to determine how a series of small-independent presses whose books I liked, managed to survive and thrive in an industry that increasingly conducted itself in a Hollywood, conglomeratised fashion. When I was doing my interviews, probing the idea of “cultures of independence,” I used an analogy that works well up to a point: a comparison of mainstream presses and smaller-independent presses along the lines of contrasting mainstream Hollywood films, blockbusters, to smaller-independent films.

By the 1990s US trade publishing had been completely Hollywoodised. Eighty per cent of book profits came from twenty per cent of the books published. Imagine a Dickensian spread sheet along the lines of “Annual income, one pound, annual expenditure one pound and sixpence, result misery,” as we consider the fact that most films and books don’t make money. In the 1990s, as the chains – like Barnes & Noble – edged towards “superstore” status, it cost $10,000 a month to have your book displayed in the front window of the store, hoping to attract the literary gazes of passers-by. It also cost $10,000 a month to have one’s book placed within an oh-so-casually-and-carefully-disordered array of books placed in the bin just inside the store as one entered (see Lauren J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists). The somewhat dismaying term for this act of purchasing publicity was “co-op,” a short hand term for “Co-operative advertising dollars.” Terminology aside, these strategies seemed to me very close to Hollywood’s practice of buying saturation TV ads to build what they ridiculously called “pre-awareness” of the blockbuster film about to be released.

André Schiffrin’s memoirs, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (2001) and Words and Money (2010), both published by Verso, and Jason Epstein’s The Book Business (2001) from Norton, reveal how, for quite a long time, US trade publishing functioned in a manner that seems to me very close to the model of the mature Hollywood studio system as it operated from the 1930s until the late 1950s and early 1960s. The so called Classical Hollywood studio system practised cross-subsidisation on films such that the profits on a Rin Tin Tin movie would allow the studio to make a historical drama with Bette Davis.

For much of the publishing lives of Schiffrin and Epstein, bestsellers and fastsellers by authors whose names not many of us now remember permitted a trade press to publish a big ‘L’ literary writer who would sell in vastly fewer numbers but who would be an excellent advertisement for the press’s commitment to ambitious, challenging literary writing. Think of an author like William Gaddis in the several decades of, and between, The Recognitions in 1955 and JR twenty years later.

In his pamphlet A Life With Books, Julian Barnes extols the printed book over the e-book, while acknowledging the economic lure of the latter, using the instance of his own most recent novel which was five pounds or so cheaper as an e-book. Barnes recalls a period from the late 1960s to the late 1970s when he was an avid book collector and frequenter of second-hand bookshops and storehouses with job-lots of used books, a time very different from contemporary circumstances with “the ferociously fast turnaround that modern central management imposes,” an insistence that creates a context in which “the average shelf-life of a new hardback novel – assuming it can reach a shelf in the first place –is four months.”

When those publishing conglomerates alluded to above arrived, so did an army of bean counters working out precisely how many copies of front, middle, and back-list titles were being purchased. The patrician, gentlemanly, amateur days of trade publishing were swept aside and when BookScan arrived in January 2001, to do to the book business what SoundScan had done to the record industry back in March 1991, it really was game over for earlier understandings of mainstream trade publishing.

III

US artist-essayist-writer-publisher Russell Chatham lived just outside Livingston, Montana, for almost forty years, having left California in the 1970s when it became too expensive, heading up to Montana to visit his friend Thomas McGuane. In the early 1990s Chatham founded Clark City Press, initially simply to keep in print some of his own books but soon enough he started publishing works by some of his writer friends in Montana, like Jim Harrison and James Crumley. Chatham’s press had very high-end production values and after a while found itself deeply in debt. Rather than go bankrupt or offer one cent in the dollar to his creditors Chatham interrupted Clark City’s publishing side for several years as he slowly sold enough of his backlist to pay off his creditors, and then started publishing books again.

Clark City’s debt had been incurred in part by overly optimistic claims for potential sales from sales representatives and by what Chatham called “very irresponsible buying” from the big chains, safe in the knowledge that they would be protected financially courtesy of a practice developed by Alfred A. Knopf in the Depression era of the 1930s which allowed impoverished bookstores to acquire stock with no initial upfront financial outlay, on the understanding that they would sell whatever number of books they could, and return those not sold. When this practice became industry-standard Knopf is alleged to have said, “This is insane. I call it, gone yesterday, here today.” (Chatham, 2005). (As an aside, having just finished Mia Alvar’s wonderful collection of stories, I’m very confident that the ghost of Mr Knopf will rest easy as In the Country generates very healthy sales, or “moves a lot of units,” as later locutions might put it). Hearing Russ Chatham’s reference to the hyper-optimism of his sales reps caused me to think of an excruciating scene in the Maysles Brothers great documentary, Salesman, where one of the bible salesmen stands up at a group meeting and announces how much better he will do in the coming year, how many more sales he will make. It truly is a cinematic version of the Conradian “fascination of the abomination.”

At a talk he gave in Missoula at the 2005 Montana Book Fair, Chatham provided his gloss on the Knopf “gone yesterday, here today” adage: “So you have 8,000 orders and you send out 8,000 books and you think, wow, we got it, and then a year later, 7, 999 of them come back and you’re done.”

By way of contrast England had a Net Book Agreement in place for almost one hundred years from the 1890s to 1995, and across that historical period also resisted any notion of a “sale or return” deal for booksellers. This “made for cautious ordering by bookshop managers,” as John Sutherland puts it in his little book, Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction. Since 1995 the English and U.S. systems have become very similar, as the following remarks made in 2007 by Francois Von Hurter make clear:

It’s the only business in the world where a sale isn’t a sale. You’re paying the author, let’s say, or the translator, 5,000 in advance, you’re doing this and that, and a year later your book comes out, then three months later it’s in the store, and then two years later half of the books come back, and you kind of think, who’s financing all of this? A Martian would say, you guys are nuts, and if you really look at the cash immobilised, you end up realising it’s a silly business model, but you have to do it out of love. You know what you know, and occasionally you might be lucky with a blockbuster, but it’s a work of love, it’s not a work in which you make your fortune. The only good publishing business model is that of scientific journals. There, people subscribe to very expensive journals, you don’t pay the authors anything, everyone wants to get in Nature or Science. So it’s the opposite of us. The publisher gets the money in advance from subscribers, and has source material at zero cost. That’s how those guys get rich. Michael Heseltine, he’s in that business.

IV

I will now move in a leisurely manner toward my conclusion by saying why I think the codex book will survive during the era of the e-book and the i-book, and why examples of very impressive literary work will continue to come from marginal, eccentric, unanticipated-by-the-majors areas.

First, the arrival of the e-book and the threat it posed to the codex form seems to have abated. 2014 figures report that hard-copy book sales are on the rise. The tech-head excitement that greeted the 2007 moment of Japanese cell-phone novels (keitai shousetsu) – novels composed in that medium to be read in that medium – was followed by the information that when those cell-phone fictions were published in conventional book form they accounted for 50% of Japan’s best-selling titles. And many here would remember that Stephen King’s e-book venture failed because people chose to pirate it rather than pay him the one dollar he was requesting.

So it is not self-evidently the case that a new publication medium necessarily obliterates an older medium, and writer-publisher Peter Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail press in London is sceptical about drawing too close a comparison between what has gone on with music downloads and what might happen in the book industry. In 2006, Ayrton said:

I think people in publishing are quite lucky because a book isn’t like a CD, where people will just download a couple of tracks. The concept of a CD is almost alien to my kids and their friends, they just want a couple of tracks! I can’t see people who are into books just reading a couple of chapters. They’ll want to read the whole book. So I don’t think we have to worry about the Ipodisation of reading. I think e-books will develop slowly but it will be best sellers and classics. So if you are publishing Jane Austen you might be in trouble, but I don’t think it will be the latest book by Gary Indiana or Lynne Tillman, because the kind of people who are into those books want to be able to put them into their bag or their backpack, they want to hold them, fold them, read them in bed.

The following are some relatively recent examples of critically-commercially successful books that have come from unpredicted, unanticipated spaces.

Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize after having initially been published by Bellevue Press, a small press associated with New York’s oldest public hospital, attached to NYU’s Department of Medicine (this hospital is mentioned in one of the stories in In the Country). Harding’s next book, Enon (2014), was sold to Random House and here we might remember that Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain was published in 1997 by a small press (Atlantic Monthly Press), won the National Book Award in the year Don DeLillo’s Underworld was up for that award, was adapted into a big budget Hollywood film, and sold 3 million copies. After this independent success Frazier’s second book, Thirteen Moons, went to auction based on a one-page outline and fetched $8.25 million from Random House, and $3 million for the movie rights from Scott Rudin. Did we mention earlier some of the consequences of the Hollywoodisation of US trade publishing?

A second instance of eccentric publishing success concerns Melbourne-based Greek-Australian gay writer Christos Tsiolkas who published his fourth novel, The Slap, which was adapted very successfully to Australian television. The book sold 300,000 copies in Australia, where a best-seller is 30,000 copies but no UK buyer wanted the book. So Tsiolkas’s friend, the multi-talented gay Irish writer Colm Tóibín, published The Slap in his boutique press, Tuskar Rock, set up by Tóibín, his friend Peter Strauss, and Hannah Westland in 2011, and now housed with Profile books alongside Serpent’s Tail Press. Tuskar Rock had published “collectors’ editions” of some novels – Tim Winton’s Breath, 350 copies at $850.00 a pop – and Tóibín had said that Tuskar Rock was trying to tap “into the same phenomenon as people listening to vinyl records” in a digital age. At the time Tóibín said Tuskar Rock did not expect to make a lot of money from Tsiolkas’s novel: “Let’s just say that we don’t think we’ll make much money, but it’s not about losing lots of money either.” The Slap went on to sell 1.2 million copies and win the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize, at which point the larger London presses that earlier had knocked the book back, came looking to secure it, wondering how they had missed it in the first place. They had also missed another Tuskar Rock success story, Don Patterson’s volume of poetry, Rain, which sold very well. This is not quite of the order of picking J. K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript out of a waste paper basket but it is a nice example of why small, marginal, alternative publishing spaces continue to be important contributors to international literary-cultural life.

Third, a few days ago I read in The Guardian that a first-time book, The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley, was first published by Tartarus, a small Yorkshire Press in a print run of 300 copies. After that it moved to a larger press, John Murray, and went on to win the 2015 Costa Award for First Novel.

These few examples encourage me to believe that small print runs, small-independent presses, small bookstores – that fragile coalition that constitutes such a valuable culture of independence – will continue to exert a positive cultural influence around the world. In respect of small bookstores, think of how one of your diasporic own, Jessica Hagedorn, honed her poetry-writing skills by hanging out in San Francisco’s City Lights bookshop, the book enterprise begun by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that sits a hundred yards or so up a slight street incline from Francis Coppola’s pizza/pasta restaurant that stocks Coppola wines. The restaurant is the street level part of a beautiful, old, triangulated building whose upstairs rooms once housed people like Wim Wenders when he and Coppola were making Hammett (1982) for an early iteration of Coppola’s Zoetrope film company, which, you would be aware, publishes Zoetrope: All Story. In the issue of All Story “designed” (they prefer that word to “edited”) by Wim Wenders, one finds a wonderful story from Vietnamese-Australian writer Nam Le, “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” that was later included in his best-selling, prize-winning collection, The Boat. Readers who long have been awaiting a second collection or a novel from Nam Le have been delayed by his having discovered a way to make $200,000 a year from casino gambling and since that money would be tax-free it is the equivalent of an annual income of $400,000. Why teach at Harvard?

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Speaking very much as an outsider it seems to me that three clear publishing opportunities exist either for a university press or a trade press in the Philippines. Each is based on an existing overseas format that simply needs to be modified to suit the Philippine situation. The British Film Institute’s series of small, 96 page books devoted to films deemed classics and/or modern classics was devised by Edward Buscombe in 1992 with a view initially to having the books connect with an archival film restoration project then being undertaken by the BFI of 365 films deemed classics of world cinema.

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BFI Film Classics

The BFI classics volumes were written by novelists like Salman Rushdie and Alberto Manguel, journalists, TV presenters (Melvyn Bragg), film critics and film academics, and were pitched at that famously nebulous entity, the “non-specialist but educated, interested reader.” Eventually Buscombe thought that when, across the course of a year, a screening of the 365 restored films would see the history of cinema flow in front of spectators’ eyes on London’s South Bank, many copies of the supporting volumes would be sold. It was an idea that was quickly ripped off by other countries that duly produced series called ‘Australian Film Classics,’ ‘Canadian Film Classics,’ and ‘Hong Kong Cinema Classics.’ It also generated a range of other iterations of the small format film analyses of a single film. In the ‘Deep Focus’ series published by Soft Skull Press (which includes books on Heathers and Death Wish), Jonathan Lethem writes about John Carpenter’s They Live, while Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver publishes its ‘Queer Film Classics’ with books on Death in Venice, Strangers on a Train, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Cult cinema is targeted by Wallflower Press’s ‘Cultographies’ series which includes books on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Donnie Darko, Blade Runner. A ‘Pop Classics’ series from ECW Press has a book on Showgirls, while Auteur Publisher’s ‘Devil’s Advocates’ series has titles on Witchfinder General, Suspiria, Carrie and many others, and a ‘Controversies’ series from Palgrave Macmillan has books on Straw Dogs and Basic Instinct, among others.

The BFI later expanded its original format to publish analyses of celebrated UK and overseas television series (Edge of Darkness, Boys from the Blackstuff, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Why not adopt this format here to generate a series of similarly packaged volumes devoted to Philippine cinema? And why not unashamedly define the reach of the series to include films made here by, say, US filmmakers as well as your own acts of filmmaking? For your first volume, contract an appropriate Filipino writer to write on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. You would be aware that this film already is the subject of some film classics series (it was the first volume in Bloomsbury Press’s excellent but short-lived series), along with coverage in studies of Coppola and Zoetrope. Eleanor Coppola’s diary of her husband’s film shoot, Notes, became the documentary Hearts of Darkness, which could be addressed in your putative volume as well. Once published, this volume automatically connects your fledgling series with international film publications and film courses whose libraries certainly would order copies of this distinctively national take on a modern classic, and would link with the fan base that follows writing on certain cult films and television series (UK examples would be Dr Who and The Avengers).

You could also commission a volume on Weng Weng’s pint-sized James Bond activities, as in For Your Height Only (1980: Dir: Eddie Nicart), currently available on DVD in the UK and US, and that volume could also address the documentary made by Australian Andrew Leavold, The Search for Weng Weng (2015). And why not include a volume or two on some of the Roger Corman films shot in the Philippines?

Another small format series could imitate the 33 and 1/3 series – initially published by Continuum Press and now published by Bloomsbury Press – in which a small volume is devoted to an iconic or cult pop album (Pet Sounds, Let it Be, Highway Sixty-One Revisited, Exile on Main Street, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society) and once you started publishing your Filipino versions of these, they could circulate within the Philippines wherever music and cultural studies courses were taught and obviously would attract interest from overseas fans, musicologists and music teachers. Maybe Freddie Aguilar’s “Anak” could be the opening volume.

And there seems no reason a university or trade press in the Philippines shouldn’t publish a version of U.S. Random House’s Crown Journeys series of little books that have a writer talk about a town or a locale. Sometimes the writer is strongly associated with a city or a neighbourhood – Kinky Friedman writes about Austin, Texas, Ishmael Reed writes about Oakland, Chuck Palahniuk writes about Portland – while on other occasions a prominent writer will write about a locale that means something to them: so former head of the Iowa Writing School and author of Stop-Time, Frank Conroy writes about walking around Nantucket, and Michael Cunningham (The Hours) writes about Provincetown. In Australia we have “borrowed” this idea by having local writers write about our capital cities. As yet, we have not ventured into the “neighbourhood” level of the Crown Series, but it surely cannot be too long before some press asks Tim Winton to take a walk around Fremantle and commit it to paper. Why not ask ‘Butch’ Dalisay to write a similar volume on Romblon and why not approach an appropriate local writer to do a volume on the city in which we now find ourselves, Davao?

One final suggestion. Even allowing for what I sense is a very strong Philippine tradition of privileging high literary forms, poetry, the literary novel, serious historical non-fiction, the fact that you also have a strong tradition of comix – comics or graphic novels – and of late have started to produce very strong contributions to international crime and noir fiction, makes me think you should organise a special Philippine section of the next available Bouchercon crime fiction conference. Bouchercon 2016 takes place in New Orleans from September 15th to the 18th, and in 2017, it occurs in Toronto from October 12-15th. In 2018 it travels to St Petersburg from September 13th to 16th, and in 2019 returns to the US, to Dallas, from October 31st to November 3rd. In 2020 it shifts to Sacramento from October 15th-18th.

Bouchercon delivers you a huge, ready-made audience, much like the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs, so it would be easy to work out suitable representatives from here in the Philippines and from Filipinos living and working overseas, and you would be guaranteed to make a splash as the latest new thing. As you all well know, literary festivals and film festivals are endlessly in search of the new entity, the new hot thing to showcase. There is no reason for the Philippines, with its great range of writers, graphic novelists, filmmakers and musicians, not to benefit from that.

Works Cited

Julian Barnes, A Life With Books (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012)

Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1966)

Russell Chatham, “Gone Yesterday, Here Today”: Presentation on Clark City Press, Montana Festival of the Book, Missoula, 23 September, 2005 (unpublished paper)

Nicholas Clee, “End of the Book Postponed,” Prospect Magazine 135 (June 2007): 72-74.

Frank Conroy, Stop-Time (New York: Viking, 1967)

Michael Cunningham, The Hours (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)

Jose Dalisay Jr., Soledad’s Sister (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2008)

Jason Epstein, The Book Business (New York: Norton, 2001)

A.B. Facey, A Fortunate Life (Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1981)

William Gaddis, The Recognitions (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955)

William Gaddis, JR (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975))

Helen Garner, Monkeygrip (Melbourne: McPhee-Gribble, 1977)

Paul Harding, Tinkers (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2001)

Noel King, “’I Can’t Go on, I’ll Go On’: Interview with Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press” Westerly, 51 (November 2006): 31-54.

Noel King, “’Independent, Emerging, and Satisfying’: Interview with Publisher Henry Rosenbloom of Scribe Press, Melbourne,” Metro 152 (2007): 154-158.

Noel King, ‘’The Main Thing We Book Publishers have Going for us is the books themselves: An Interview with Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Islington, London 12 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 3 (Autumn 2007): 104-119.

Noel King, “A bridge between all these literatures that we love: Interview with Francois von Hurter, Bitter Lemon Press, London 10 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 1-2 (Summer 2007): 62-80.

Lorien Kite, “Books of 2015,” Financial Times Weekend (28-29 November, 2015): 1-2. Also available at:

Malcolm Knox, “The Interview: Colm Toibin,” Sydney Morning Herald (May 15, 2010).

Nam Le, The Boat: Stories (New York: Knopf, 2008)

Lauren J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Sally Morgan, My Place (Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987)

Robert Penn Warren, All The King’s Men (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1946)

Andre Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way we Read (London: Verso, 2001)

Andre Schiffrin, Words and Money (London: Verso, 2010)

Steve Spears, The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin (Sydney: Currency Methuen Press, 1977)

John Sutherland, Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2007).

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (Tuskar Rock, 2010)

Wim Wenders, Zoetrope All-Story 10, 2 (Summer 2006)

[Header image: ‘Book’ by Sam @Flickr republished unmodified under this CC Licence.]

CP Goes to the Philippines: Mia Alvar’s In the Country (review)

BRINGING IN THE EVIDENCE by NOEL KING

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Mia Alvar, In the Country (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). 347pp.

“I actually didn’t know I was writing a book about class and labor until almost every review described it that way.” – Mia Alvar quoted in Sophie Nguyen’s Conversation with Mia Alvar ‘00 in Harvard Magazine (7th August, 2015)

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Reading through this hugely impressive debut collection of stories set variously in the Philippines, Bahrain, and the USA, I found myself recalling a moment in the mid-1960s, from my early teens in Newcastle, NSW, Australia, when my mother was driving me to a Saturday morning football game in our 1950 F.J. Holden. The car had come with my stepfather, a carpenter-joiner whom my mother had married in 1961 after raising two boys as a single, widowed, working mum over a period of eight years.

For whatever reason, aged twelve or so, I had suddenly become strongly aware of class difference and social status while living a very happy, working class life, safe, carefree, sporty. I said to my mother that morning that since we were a bit early there was no need to drop me exactly at the sports oval (where much newer cars would be dropping off my teammates), just somewhere nearby would be fine. Of course she wouldn’t hear of that and drove me precisely where I needed to be.

A few years later we acquired a second-hand 1964 Holden E.H. Hydramatic, a much more impressive vehicle, and from then on I was very happy to be dropped off anywhere in our car. Years later the F.J. Holden would become a collectors’ car (as would the E.H. in a later period) but that retro-fetish moment had yet to arrive and the F.J. was just a very old car.

In the Country caused me to wonder, at what age do these debilitating class and status attitudes set in? Alvar’s stories explore, in superb prose, sundry awkward emotional moments of embarrassment and evasion, difficult issues concerning social class, the value and dignity of one’s occupation – whatever form of work is entailed – and one’s sense of self, with legitimate senses of pride and achievement coming up against overweening delusional pride and misconceptions of self. The stories probe questions of honour, respect and filial duty and the precise circumstances under which a person’s presumed constant attitude of obligation to family might reasonably be expected to be normative, and under what circumstances it might be withdrawn.

The stories are totally accomplished at all levels, from the micro ‘level of the sentence,’ as practitioners and some literary critics like to phrase it, and at the more macro level of narrative through-line, deft complications of plotting, gradual revelations of back-story, astute temporal shifts, all concerning an array of utterly engaging characters from all social levels. Alvar’s stories show her to be a perfect deployer of what Roland Barthes once called “le petit fait vrai,” the small, emblematic, quotidian detail that results in what we used to call “the realistic-effect” (to prove that we knew writing was a representational system composed of various codes and conventions that had various ways of luring us in to a fictional world.) As they bring to life their varied characters and locales, the stories also recall the great phrase Jean-Luc Godard once used to describe what he felt was the obligation of film, whether fictional or documentary, an act of “bringing in the evidence.”

Among the wonderful array of characters and narrators on offer in In the Country are: a US white Wonder Bread model visiting the Philippines for a photography shoot, recalling her time with a half Filipino fellow model flatmate who has died; male overseas Filipino workers in Bahrain; a prominent political Filipino figure working in the US as a public service official. In every story sharp dialogue exchanges see confrontations played out and invidious truths told, but equally often we encounter a character’s private, unstated thoughts, reproaches, observations. Accusations are held back out of a given character’s sense of family loyalty and remembered rules of “bienséance.” In these cases, the reader becomes the only person privy to a character’s capacity for self-control, and ability to grudgingly bite the tongue in order to allow a social milieu’s traditional protocols of respect, deference, and politeness to be upheld. In these instances devastating moments of critique and revelation are not uttered to another character who monumentally deserves a serve for delusional, self-obsessed behaviour. In “The Virgin of Monte Ramon,” the mother self-presents as a Filipino version of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, or perhaps the Maggie Smith character in Gosford Park, that familiar image of someone who has known better, more wealthy, fêted, beautiful days, and has absolutely no interest in cutting her cloth to suit her current straitened economic circumstances. In this story, the heart-breaking revelation of the real circumstances that caused the condition of the wheelchair-confined young male narrator, the tragic, distant, historical event that has blighted this family and which underpins the grotesque daily household façade, comes from the long-suffering, selfless G.P. Dr Delacruz who, for decades, has tried to help this household and its occupants. All his young life our narrator has recognised that “it was not so easy to name my status. How should I explain the fine house, and the servants who were sometimes paid in bowls or jewels to maintain it?” Of Dr Delacruz, he says, “I felt sure that he knew the truth but was too gallant to expose my mother.”

Into this lonely boy’s compromised life comes an angel named Annelise, the daughter whose mother, also named Annelise, has been doing domestic work in his house. The Annelise family comes from a nearby ravine shantytown, which has no electricity. Young Annelise saves the young lad from his loneliness and provides him with a vision of how to survive in the face of everyday jokes about his crippled body. She also surprises him and all their classmates by not bowing to Sister Carol’s chastising of her for her classroom behaviour: “I’d never heard a child speak to adults with such boldness, or stand almost with pride while being disciplined.” This image of a strong, young female whose courage and eloquence seem way beyond her years, is reported to us by this more demure, infinitely less self-assertive male friend. And, come story’s end, their friendship endures.

 

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Mia Alvar. Photo by Michael Lionstar

If in some of these stories it is the reader alone who learns the true shape of diegetic events by eavesdropping on the heroically repressed, exasperated thoughts and musings of thoroughly honourable, hardworking souls, happily, on other occasions these same Filipino rules of politesse are challenged forcefully, often by feisty young women who have no time whatsoever for unearned expectations of the continuance of inter-generational power relations, familial or non-familial, nor for the domineering, even abusive, expectation that an institutional arrangement (as in the classroom teaching situation alluded to above) should always prevail on its own terms. History has taught this younger generation that there is nothing to be gained from continuing obeisance, as this remark from “Shadow Families” indicates: “Our mothers’ sad, hard lives had taught us just how much a man’s good looks and silky voice were worth.”

“Legends of the White Lady” tells the story of two flatmate friends and models, alluded to earlier, who travel from New York to Manila on a job. The Manila setting allows all kinds of conversations working from the white female US model’s perspective that presumes anyone living in Manila would jump at the chance to blow that town and go Stateside, only to find these unthinking first-world expectations contradicted at almost every point.

Each of Alvar’s stories establishes some sort of dialogue – muted or explicit – between the Philippines and an overseas setting (Bahrain, US). Where is the right place to be? If you go to the US, as so many university educated Filipinos have done on various US scholarships (Fulbrights, etc), what is your relation to the politics and culture of the land you have left? “Old Girl” presents a portrait of a supportive, indulgent, clear-eyed wife of a Filipino public servant who has been given a job in the US, far from the political uncertainties of the Philippines. While they and their children clearly benefit from the privilege and safety of this first-world posting, a conversation with the home country remains, stated and unstated, about the thought of return, a wondering whether any authentic Filipino cultural-political life could be lived outside one’s country of origin. For much of the story the husband is training to run a marathon at an age when he shouldn’t be running anywhere and eventually he is diverted from this self-imposed grand-standing desire, but not before all the family has been drawn into this vanity, prompting the wonderful wife to muse, “She’s thinking how a marathon is like a marriage: the long haul, the ups and downs, the tests of endurance and faith, the humbling, undiscovered country.”

Among the other stories we have a terrific, sad scrutiny of a Filipino male’s situation working in Bahrain, a man whose sexual drive and slightly reckless way of being in the world is always threatening his safety anywhere, but certainly in a country which has strict rules about such matters. “Esmeralda” is a beautiful story, told in second-person against the tragedy that was 9/11. It outlines a brief encounter, an equal exchange of erotic, emotional, intellectual simpatico-ness achieved in an unequal context where a Filipino cleaning woman is working in the Twin Tower offices of a businessman whose wife is dying of cancer. The two find a brief and profound tenderness together. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City was told in second-person and I suspect McInerney got that idea from the start of Don DeLillo’s Running Dog as much as from any then-contemporary beer commercial. McInerney reviewed some of DeLillo’s early novels, up to the publication of White Noise and so he would have been drawn to the opening sentences of Running Dog: “You won’t find ordinary people here. Not after dark, on these streets, under the ancient warehouse canopies. Of course you know this. This is the point. It’s why you’re here, obviously.”

The title story of In the Country visits one of the major topics and challenges of contemporary Philippine writing, the era of the Marcos regime, martial law, student protests, arrests, imprisonments, deaths. Alvar’s story focuses on the question of the extent to which one can always oppose all things tyrannical and draconian, continuing to act on the lifetime-held, second-nature convictions of a male investigative journalist when such political activism could put one’s wife and child at risk. It was precisely this political-investigative-journalist persona that initially attracted the young female Communications student, leading to their living together and having a butterball son, and later a daughter, together. Alvar’s perfectly orchestrated temporal shifts back and forward move the reader around different years (1986, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985) from this defining moment in Philippine political history and across this couple’s long relationship until an absolutely devastating conclusion is handed down.

New York writer Jane DeLynn once said the way she worked her way into a new novel was by experimenting with phrases and word clusters until she eventually found “sentences that can lead me someplace.” In Mia Alvar’s collection of stories we encounter beautiful sentences that have enabled this writer to range across a compelling array of locales pertaining to Filipino experience as overseas workers, as diasporically displaced, as economic migrants/émigrés, and as Filipinos who did not leave, who stayed on, stayed at home. With these sentences Alvar has found, abundantly, a way to take her readers to some very confronting psycho-geographical places, unflinchingly presenting the myriad difficulties – personal, social-political, sexual, economic – of life in these locales.

French historian Michel de Certeau once used the phrase, “arts de faire,” which carried the two meanings of an art or craft of making-creating, and also an art of getting by/making do. It is as if Mia Alvar has created a fictional universe in which those two meanings occupy the centre of the everyday lives of her characters. But the final miracle of this collection is that, while always respecting the realities of these oftentimes hard, sad, troubled lives and their social contexts, the author does not allow the last word be one of despair and miserablism. Instead we encounter an array of beguiling, admirable characters who have found ways of surviving and prevailing.

This compelling debut so fully displays the writer’s remarkable talents for all aspects of storytelling that readers of In the Country will really be hanging out for Alvar’s next collection of stories or her first novel.

See also: Noelani Piters, The Rumpus Interview with Mia Alvar, The Rumpus (July 29th, 2015)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1886), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

 

from Issue #8: Poetry by Bill Adams

Photo (CC) Vic Nicholas @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Vic Nicholas @ Flickr

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Wren

This is a bird’s back
Keeled as a breastbone
Fragile as a bag of sticks
Creaking like a matchbox.

Life is still a kind of test
You pick at details out of place
Lose concentration for a moment
And everything will come to pieces.

Your pinched body shrinks
To the essential kernel of discomfort
A sharp questing wren, forced to perch,
Flinty with disapproval.

Your bones are hollowing,
Soon you will simply blow away,
And we will hold only echoes of sharp song,
The self-belief that framed us

 

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Halloween

Tonight is the night that old dogs bark
And kids fill bus shelters,
When leaves give up and slump
Like plaster in a roofless house.

Tonight, car drivers desperate to get home
Jump lights and shave corners.
It was dark early – the fog
Is thick as ash and eats sound.

Tonight, November shambles forwards,
Asthmatic and grey-faced, sucking out the light.
The thinning hedge is a shrew ash,
Dressed with plastic. The festivals

We use to ward off darkness,
Tonight start to reveal themselves,
Stalk empty streets,
And search for souls.

 

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Barn Owl

Wings supple as a scarf:
Rigged to perfection,
That box fuselage
Stretched canvas over bent sticks;

Inside, a small hot body,
The rest is buoyancy.

Launched across the thin grass
You float beside the hedge,
Dipping and rising, a lilting tune
Against the dark blackthorn stave.

But this is not a maiden flight,
Your eyes miss nothing:

A roving drone, with death
Slung sheathed beneath you.

As the cooling air thickens
Wingtips sense the layered currents,
You turn, a shark quartering a reef,
Flip across the hedge, gone.

Ghost bird, for years your blank eyes
Watched me grow up, face pinched with disapproval.

Now I see you sometimes, towards dusk
In desert camouflage,
Fragile in the light air, drifting,
And I think, where did it all go?

.

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ABOUT THE POET

BILL ADAMS teaches about the complex relations between people and nature in the Department of Geography at the University of Cambridge. He has published various books on conservation and development, including Wasting the Rain (Minnesota University Press, 1992) Future Nature (Earthscan 1995), Against Extinction (Earthscan 2004) and Green Development (Routledge, 2009). Bill lives in a village just within bicycling distance of Cambridge, and blogs on conservation at thinkinglikeahuman.com.

from issue #8: ‘Love in Mini Stops’ by Andrea Pasion-Flores

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LOVE IN MINI STOPS by ANDREA PASION-FLORES

SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIM during the monsoon season when she went out to get a bite from a Ministop store.

Even if the rains battered the glass walls of our 21st floor office, even if the winds sang a howling protest against the wisdom of their insistence to huddle under a black golf umbrella, they still went out for short orders of pork siomai, asado pao, and fried dumplings, crossing the street even if the umbrella could only keep their inner halves dry. In a storm, puddles aren’t really puddles but streams of water overflowing from the gutters to be leapt over with gingerly grace. Pia kept her hand tucked under the arm of her man as she skipped over streams on their way to, what one officemate referred to with snickering glee, their “dim sum delights.”

During monsoon weather in Manila, the skies turn a brackish grey and the southwest winds blowing from the Pacific turn potted palmeras, trees that are not quite trees, irregularly dotting the center island of Emerald Avenue, into fluttering fronds, like hands desperately calming the beating heart of a nervous bride. The Philippines is the only country in the world with no divorce, thus the words “till death do us part” sound ever so permanent. But at thirty-one, Pia was still unmarried though she was dating a man who was. Sean, the guy, was a stockbroker and a consultant for a holding company a couple of floors above ours. He was in his late forties with, I would guess, a couple of kids. But Pia doesn’t like talking about that.

Pia and I work for a call center and I used to be the one who lived on steamed or fried dim sum with her. We both have degrees from “reputable universities,” as the ad in the papers required, with Pia having the distinct advantage of a couple of semesters towards an MA in comparative literature. But degrees from reputable universities, even with units towards an MA, don’t guarantee people high-paying salaries in places like banks and multinational corporations—except in BPOs, like the one we work for, where units towards an MA actually impressed the manager, who thought Pia would naturally speak English well, which was probably why I was hired too. Who else would she have her flawless conversations in English with?

But really, it’s Pia who is the epitome of call center excellence. She very quickly perfected the friendly, impersonal tone that placates irate callers in New York—the worst of them with their hurried speech and their demanding-to-speak-to-the-supervisor tones. She counters with her I-understand-your-concerns or I-know-how-you-feel said in a melodious voice. To sound convincing, Pia speaks slowly, with an envied twang that remembers that a U has an “uh” sound and not the “ooh” of Filipino. And that, for Pia, was a lot considering she has never been to the US.

I was a June bride and, unlike the seasons in the West where June brides walk down aisles of flowers in garden weddings, I married during the monsoon. No garden wedding for me, just the one where the groom anxiously waited at the end of a church aisle, his inability to smile giving the impression that he was forced by circumstance to be where he stood. Unlike Pia, I believed in fairytale endings even if I did have a child growing inside of me that negated my happy ending and forced me to marry in a month of bad weather. At twenty-five, old enough but not quite ready to be a bride, I said the dreaded till-death-do-us-part vows. I do wonder, sometimes, if the words had not been heard through the din of rain drumming on the galvanized iron sheets of the church’s roof, do they count?

That was four years ago when, despite my misgivings, marriage and everything I thought it stood for beyond the white dress, the walking down the aisle, family crying in the pews, overshadowed all the doubts I had. With a love-conquers-all attitude eager to overcome the vastness of infinity that could not have been comprehended in a single moment, I clung to the stubborn belief that my new husband and I could weather everything till death do us part. Of course, we didn’t succeed. At least, I consoled myself, it was a slow parting; after about a year of mutual torture, he didn’t bother to come home at all.

But I’m fine. I tell myself that I can raise my son on my own, that I am strong, that I’m an I-don’t-need-a-man-to-define-me kind of girl, and so what if I do dial his number and hang up before his phone rings? And I still remember things like our anniversary, June 9. We chose the number nine because nine is a lucky number, the largest single-digit Arabic number, lucky because of love potion number nine. Many people thought I was lucky when Jason became my husband. The guy was a catch. He was tall and good looking, fairly well off with a condominium unit he was paying for, and a car to his name. He seemed decent, the kind of guy I hoped wouldn’t let a girl he got pregnant go it alone in the world. And, for a while at least I thought I had it made: I got the guy.

I’m two years younger than Pia, but I do feel older and wiser, capable of counseling her on matters such as falling in love in bad weather. Of course she doesn’t listen. I don’t blame her. I wouldn’t listen if I were in her shoes. Thus, despite my warnings and in the pouring rain, Pia fell in love over an order of fried siomai and a large Coke in a convenience store, a thirty-five-peso meal. I forgot to ask her if Sean had at least paid for her dim sum that day she thought he was the one but it would have been tragic had he not, so I didn’t ask.

All she said was that she noticed when he strode into the Ministop. She was standing in line to pay for her food as he made a beeline for the beverage refrigerators at the back before stopping by the siopao steamer to help himself to an asado pao. She knew it was an asado pao because that was the only variety that was ready that afternoon; the others, though already in the machine, were fresh from the freezer and still frozen. There were two cashiers open that day because it was relatively busy, and there were a few people who went inside to shelter from the rain, milling about the aisles of snacks, petite-sized toiletries, and magazines. He happened to line up at the other cashier and their elbows grazed each other. She doesn’t know if that was intentional on his part, but it was the moment she looked up and their eyes met. She looked away quickly only to look back up again, noticing that he had large brown eyes and thick bushy eyebrows and that he had not looked away.

“Nice weather we’re having.” He had a deep masculine voice, strong and in control, and it made her heart flutter. She noticed how thick his neck was, like it was straining out of his collar, fighting with a button and the knot of his tie that was begging to be loosened.

“The best,” she said. Then they were at the counter, where candies, chocolate bars and bananas fought for space with cigarette lighters and condoms. They didn’t leave right away because the rain was pouring in sheets and someone had wondered, she can’t remember who, whether work would be called off that day. So they stayed.

There is a smell that permeates every store, every single one within walking distance from our office. Some people are unable to place it, but those who frequent a Ministop would know that it’s the stink of used oil, of cooking balled up meats that might’ve qualified as street food except they’re not in the open polluted air of the city. The odor seeps into walls, suits, shirts, bags and even into a person’s skin so that there really is no denying having come from a Ministop. Like a tryst in a drive-in motel room that reeks of the smell of forbidden sex that can’t be hidden beneath swipes of Zonrox bleach or sprays of Lysol, the Ministop smell can’t be disguised with spritzes of Nenuco, which Pia keeps in her Louis Vuitton Speedy 30, an irrational purchase to be sure but it’s iconic, she assured me. I guess it complements her woman-of-the-world façade and the I-can-handle-casual-sex attitude, a persona she seems to be trying hard to perfect. It’s there and can’t be denied. I knew from the odor of used cooking oil when Pia had been downstairs on a break with Sean—just like when a fruity-floral smell accompanied her, it meant she had showered in her apartment with him.

When I used to come home somewhat regularly at 5:00 or 6:00 AM, I used to wonder if the excuses I made to my parents of having worked the night shift could cover the hours I spent with Jason in Pasig’s motel area. The eyes of the motel employees never meeting mine, speaking in whispers only to Jason of the room choices we had for a three-hour tryst, or a twelve-hour overnight special. I thought then that I could mask my guilt with dabs of cologne, or pretenses of being too tired to stay awake for breakfast. But then again, it doesn’t matter now because I have a four-year-old boy named JJ, after his father, a “junior.”

There is a kind of vanity to naming a child after a parent, I know. But I had another motive for agreeing to this arrangement. It’s as if the act of naming him after his father would compel the dad to make a commitment to the child, to the relationship. A child, after all, becomes more than the I-dos, more than the ceremony, more than the eternity symbolized by the ring. Sometimes, as in my case, it is the reason for being a couple after all, for a marriage. But even if that is argued as a flimsy excuse, then the naming of a child after the parent should be another reason to commit. Isn’t it an acknowledgment of paternity? The clichéd promise of continuity?

I had JJ in December, the real wedding season in the Philippines when the weather is cooler, the streets are lit with festivity, and people are filled with the hope of eternity. The cool dawn air is chilly enough for a light sweater and, if I wake up early, I can see my breath form a cool fleeting mist in the air, and I can pretend to be in the places the calls I process come from: Washington, New Jersey, New York, or California.

Pia’s dad lives in Los Anjeh-leez, Cal-fornya. When taking a call, we’re supposed to speak English with an American twang so that customers don’t suspect that their calls are taken by someone in a third world country. But they know. I hear it in the disdainful tone they use when they enunciate every syllable. If they didn’t like sending the call center business our way, they should just opt to hire the cheap labor found within their shores, like Pia’s dad for example. He left the country as a tourist and could not return to the Philippines unless he was ready to leave the US forever, armed, as was his promise to Pia, with enough money to live comfortably in Laguna where he had a plot of land to turn into a thriving business. But that was eight years ago. And, even if he worked as a supervisor at Home Depot, where he put his talent for carpentry and furniture-making to some use, there seemed to be little hope that he could turn an hourly rate into wealth to convert idle family land into a living, especially since, being an illegal, he wasn’t supposed to be working in the first place.

I know that, for a while, Pia had hoped her dad would get his green card and petition for her so that she could go to America and leave her dead-end love life behind; at least, that was how I thought her relationship with Sean was. But that was just my opinion because, according to Pia, it wasn’t like that, and Sean wasn’t like Jason. That would shut me up.

At first her dad’s calls were filled with promises of bringing her over. When that plan didn’t seem possible, it became the promise of returning home with enough money for everyone to live a comfortable life. Now, even that line seemed hollow. These days, when it comes to the topic of her dad, Pia just says she doesn’t care if he doesn’t come back as long as he sends her some money, which he does, albeit erratically: three hundred dollars this month, two hundred when he’s a bit hard up, like when his rent, car, and credit card payments are due, which is all the time. Once, however, she received five hundred dollars for her birthday, brought over by an aunt on holiday. And that seemed to make up for everything, while the money lasted—all of three weeks. It doesn’t matter I guess because, before long, our earnings were more than what Pia’s dad was sending.

Her mom apparently had long known that her dad had abandoned them. So she had taken up with another man, whom I thought had the decency to tell her up front that he had a wife and two kids he was never leaving. But then again Pia’s mom wasn’t exactly single, so that worked out, unlike Pia’s guy Sean, who was non-committal, who just had a lot of “Soon, I promise,” or “I am leaving her as soon as the kids are okay.” I would look at Pia with my you-know-better-than-that look but she would just look at me as if to say who was I to give advice? End of argument.

Sean’s wife was a salesperson in a company that sold everything from makeup to dishwashing soap, so was always traveling. According to Pia, it didn’t feel so wrong when the wife wasn’t in town. Sean would show up at her studio unit on Sapphire Street, a couple of blocks from Emerald, with a bottle of wine, a box of garlic and herb boursin and a loaf of French bread. And when he did that, Pia said it felt a little like being in a restaurant where they had real tablecloths with cushioned layers under the toppers so that the dishes and the wine glasses wouldn’t make offending clinks when the waiters set them on the table—and not a cold, quick snack in a Styrofoam box laid out on a printed paper menu on a laminated table. Sometimes he also brought jars of moisturizing cream that were the new products of his wife’s company, and that seemed to make things feel special.

Sean wasn’t like the guys at work, Pia said. He held the car door open instead of just lifting the automatic locks. He reached out for her hand across the table, rubbed her knee in the movie house, said he admired her independence and, well, maybe her legs, too. Jason actually told me that, that he liked my legs during one of those motel trips, during the part when he should’ve said I love you. But I might have equated it to mean the same thing so I believed him, the way Pia might have been convinced of Sean’s feelings for her by the moisturizing creams he brought her, though she shouldn’t have counted those because he got them for free, from his wife.

I didn’t have it that bad, Pia always liked to remind me. At least Jason still gave money for some of JJ’s necessities, even if it was only when I’d ask, of course. Never voluntarily. I would have to text him something like, “Need stff 4 JJ, cn u dep 3k in my acct?” He responds at least, even if they were digital grunts, like a “k,” or a “nxt wk.” It was enough. Well, not really, but if that’s this millennium’s idea of fatherhood, I’d best take what I can. This didn’t happen often enough to be called real support, but it did happen now and then. No complaints about how much he had to deposit, I only needed to ask and he would give it, as if to say, “Here’s the money, take it, and be gone.” At least he doesn’t complain, and if he doesn’t complain, it seemed incumbent upon me to do the same. Jason never visits, never asks about his child, never asks about anything, period. It’s just as well.

I know I should have reminded myself not to be too invested that day I told Jason I needed to meet him to get money from him personally because the need was urgent. I didn’t know what I was thinking. Maybe I thought there might still be a spark I could rekindle so that we might find our way back together instead of just ongoing messages about depositing the money in my account. Tomorrow night, if he didn’t mind. Ortigas area, I said, suggesting Florabel’s at the Podium where the food was a bit pricey but not that expensive. If Jason wasn’t going to foot the bill, I could whip out my Mastercard and think about the money later.

I wore a camel-colored jersey dress with a V-neck to show a little cleavage, making sure I do not look too desperate. The dress was ruched at the hem, and I paired it with black strappy shoes and a red clutch. I thought I looked sexy in a way that wasn’t trying too hard. It was a dress that was suitable for work, too, looking like I just threw it on in a rush and not like I tried on five dresses before I settled on it.

I was five minutes late for our seven o’clock. He was thirty minutes late, striding in in blue jeans and a blue T-shirt that had the insignia of San Miguel beer, Crocs shoes, looking, for all intents and purposes, like he just came from a car wash.

“Sorry, I’m late,” he said as he sat down, signaling the waiter for the menu. “Had to pass by Honda to have my car checked. What’s good here?”

“They have Angus beef burgers, steaks…” I answered, trying to calm the nervousness in my voice. The waiter stood silently, patiently waiting to take our orders.

“What are you getting?” He said, his eyes scanning the menu, his voice calm.

“I’m having the grilled lapu-lapu.” The waiter scribbled quickly. At 475 pesos, the dish was medium-priced and would not break my budget, I thought.

“I think I’ll have the foie gras burger,” he said. I looked quickly at how much the burger costs and noted that it was P780. With drinks, our meal would cost around P2,000 if we skipped dessert.

“Anything to drink?” the waiter asked.

“Just water for me,” I replied.

“A regular Coke, please,” Jason replied, folding the menu and pushing it towards the waiter.

I must say that I didn’t know what I wanted to happen, only that I wanted something to. So I asked him about his job, his family, and even his car. He grunted his answers and kept things politely moving along.

He ate fast but not too fast for me to think he couldn’t stand to be with me another second, which was probably why, in the middle of his sentence talking about his boss, I swallowed my lemon-buttery fish heavily seasoned with my pride and the fear of rejection that had me frazzled during the whole meal, and dared to stretch out my hand to cover his, lying brown and non-committal against the white linen. He stopped in mid-sentence and looked at me, first with a puzzled expression on his face, then something similar to a smile.

“So, you need some cash for JJ again?”

“Let’s not talk about that,” I said, hoping I conveyed in my voice and with the fingers gently rubbing the back of his hand that I wanted to communicate more than just through text messages. He must have gotten the message because he took my insistent hand, held it and leaned forward to say gently, almost like a promise, that we should get out of here.

I grabbed my purse to reach for my wallet. But he waived it away just like the old days and called the waiter for the check. When that was dispensed with, he grabbed my hand and, like kids who couldn’t get to the playground fast enough, we headed for his car. He drove towards the motel area in Pasig, picking one of the places we had gone to in the past.

It was awkward at first, like kissing for the first time. Then it was like a drink after walking the sidewalks of the city during a particularly hot and humid afternoon. It was frenzied and desperate and over quickly. We were both on the bed staring up at our images in the ceiling’s tacky mirror, where I could see our bodies separated by a foot of space I was wondering how to bridge. The blanket was up to his waist. I turned on my side to look at his face, his disheveled hair, his thick eyebrows, his nose in profile. His phone sounded: a message. He reached over to the side table to take it and started texting back a reply.

“Who is it?” I asked. I reached over to trace his face with my finger.

“My girlfriend, Linda.” It was probably the truth because the reply came fast and without hesitation. He looked at me sideways, like he realized his mistake. I laid on my back and stared at the ceiling telling myself not to make an embarrassment of myself by starting to cry. And I am your wife, I wanted to yell but didn’t.

“I’d like to go home now,” I said. I stood up, throwing the blanket behind me, looking around for my clothes, trying to put them on as fast as I found them. He got up, too, looking for the words to erase the awkwardness.

“Hey,” he said, as if trying to begin an explanation. “It’s not like we’re still together, right?” He was right. Before bringing me home, he stopped by an ATM machine. Then he dropped me off in front of my building.

“Umm, here’s the money for JJ,” he said, handing me a wad of 1,000-peso bills. I had the mind to refuse it, really. I know now it would have made me feel better if I did and made him feel worse, I’m sure. But I took the money and stuffed it in my bag and got off the car without counting it. He gave me 20,000 pesos in all, which wasn’t much, but it was much, much more than the usual. At least, I tried to console myself, he said the name of his child, which means, even if he was with someone else, that there might be that chance that he would come back for his son. Right?

Once I was in a store with JJ, buying a pair of rubber shoes when Jason came in with a girl. She wasn’t pretty, that much my own low self-esteem acknowledged as a fact. She also looked older than he did, which would mean she was older than I was. He was talking, distracted, and didn’t seem to have seen us before it was too late not to be noticed. It took him a few seconds to feel that I was staring at him. He looked at me and, for a moment, we stared at each other before his mouth hardened. He saw the child marching around the store trying out his new shoes. He feigned this look, as if assessing whether the salesperson had time to assist him, given the number of customers. Then, acting as if he saw that there were two too many, he steered his lady friend out the door. And that was the last time I saw Jason. I now always buy JJ’s shoes from that shop, hoping to bump into Jason again. It never happened. Unlike me, he seemed to consider the encounter a mistake never to be repeated, like the mistake of agreeing to see me that one time.

Then it came one day in the mail, a notice to answer a petition for the declaration of nullity of a marriage—mine. The law office where I brought the document was on the 28th floor of Winston Tower on Emerald Avenue. The air was thick with the smell of cigarettes. The glass walls met in a corner that pointed to Manila Bay in the smoggy horizon, the bright sun descending into the gray-blue waters in the distance created swathes of red and orange. Good thing Jason filed the petition in Mandaluyong, the lawyer said. Mandaluyong had judges who still granted annulments as a matter of course, he said, and everything would be okay if I just followed the path of least resistance—which was not to contest it.

An annulment, I came to learn, is the Philippine equivalent of a divorce. It can only be applied when one spouse (or both!) is declared “psychologically incapacitated,” nice legal mumbo-jumbo to mean the person is crazy. Of course the lawyer qualified this, saying that the “incapacity” may have shown up during the marriage even if a person seemed perfectly normal before the wedding. He explained that incapacity is essentially the inability to perform the duties of a spouse—give respect, support and love—which is a disease, apparently, a medical condition that is incurable. Thus, the lawyer said, his voice now slightly booming in the office, there was the necessity of an annulment. Having been fooled into a marriage with a spouse incapable of fulfilling these duties was an important factor—as if Jason had been duped into thinking that I was the kind of person he could spend the rest of his life with, and somewhere along the way towards this happy-ever-after I had failed him. Or vice versa, depending on who was willing to be the fall guy. This incapacity, the lawyer’s voice seemed to grow louder in anticipation of an enumeration of incapacities, could be seen in how the spouse may have acted like a mama’s boy or how he refused to support his child or if he used drugs or was an alcoholic or other signs of immaturity slash incapacity I might be able to think of. Choose your own adventure.

I was silent for a moment, wondering if I was about to ask an intelligent question: How about if he just didn’t come home one day? Isn’t that a manifestation of Jason’s psychological incapacity to perform the duties of a spouse?

“Well, not really,” the lawyer said, somewhat disappointed. He grabbed a pack of cigarettes on the table, making a show of pulling one out and reaching for the lighter, but he thought better of it and didn’t light up. “That’s just abandonment,” he told me, “and the legal remedy for that is just legal separation.” Being left alone holding the proverbial bag, in this case the wailing child, meant only that—being left alone. There must be something more than being abandoned, the lawyer insisted, like “a manifestation that something was wrong with him psychologically.”

“Wasn’t leaving enough?”

“No. You don’t want that.”

“I don’t?” Legal separation, the lawyer explained, his voice with its condescending tone, sounded more and more like a call I was processing, didn’t allow either of us to remarry. And marrying again, he presumed, was the option I most wanted. I must have nodded at this point, thinking to myself that, to the world, Jason must have had all his marbles intact when he decided to leave. In any case, the lawyer droned, having lost interest in the particulars of my case since Jason was the one filing for an annulment, not contesting might be the smarter thing to do.

“Let him pay for it,” the lawyer declared smugly. “You’re young. You will find someone again.” He seemed to consider that statement to be the best advice he had given the entire duration of our one-hour conversation. Getting married a second time, he said, unable to emphasize it enough, was something to consider after all.

Thus, even if I was raising our child, even if I wasn’t the one who left, even if I thought myself up to the challenge of being able to give respect, support and love, I resigned myself to the fact that I was the psychologically-incapacitated spouse because Jason was paying for the annulment. Going by the petition, my being a spoiled brat, overly-dependent, and scheming (having used our child to secure a marriage with him, not to mention how I deviously continue to use our child to extort money from him) all pointed to the fact that I was not okay in the head. Of course, this incapacity showed itself in telltale signs like my propensity to lie and my domineering behavior and of course, unfortunately for him, all this became apparent only after we were married. This said, he could not have known of my mental state before that rainy day in June. Worse, continued his complaint, I had become an unreasonable person, making demands on him for luxuries his meager salary couldn’t sustain.

“It’s not so bad,” Pia told me over her cappuccino at Figaro’s after browsing the 12-page document. “Says here he is willing to support your child, right? So, just let go, move on.”

I am all for moving on. So I kept an open mind as best I could while Pia changed the subject to talk about her dad. “He’s getting married.”

“I thought he already was.”

“He’s going to file for a divorce, marry a US citizen, get a green card and petition for me.”

I thought for a moment how seemingly simple that plan was, but I knew Pia’s dad needed a lawyer, like I did. And that lawyer might tell him that, because he’s Filipino, he should get an annulment like what I was doing so that he could marry a US citizen, as divorce applied to everybody else in the world but us. But I didn’t say that. Instead, I asked a stupid question. “Who’s the lucky girl?”

“He’s arranging something with a Suzanne, who is willing to get hitched for twenty thousand dollars up front and another twenty when he gets his green card. Then there are lawyer’s fees, expenses and all sorts of other fees.”

“How is he supposed to pay for all this?”

“Well, he asked me to help him sell our land in Laguna. Everything will be okay when he gets his green card, he promised. He’ll get a better job, a house, and all that, and he’ll be able to petition for me. As long as I stay single, he says.”

“Why do you have to stay single?”

“Because if I get married, silly, it’s as if I broke away from my parents to be on my own and I’ll have to do all this by myself. I mean it’s hard enough that I’m no longer a minor. Now that I’m an adult, the petition will take much longer.”

By which time, if it were even to happen, I thought, no one would want to marry you. But, instead of saying that, I just nodded my head and said, “Okay. And Sean?”

She shrugged her shoulders and looked at her coffee, perhaps the only clue she was willing to concede about the uncertainty of their relationship. “It doesn’t matter,” she finally said. “It’s not as if we were rushing to get married in the first place.” And she tossed her hair like she didn’t care.

“How is Sean?”

“He’s fine, I guess.” Pia shrugged. “Says it’s the time of year when he’s busy at work. He hasn’t been passing by in a while, actually.” Again, she tossed her hair, her fingers taking one end of hair to twirl.

I looked at Pia, wondering if I should probe deeper. It would be Pia’s birthday in two weeks. The other day she said she had asked Sean to get her a Louis Vuitton Neverfull GM bag. The large one described on the website was worth $900, she said with a giggle. She dropped subtle hints, like an email with a link to the website.

“That’s the spirit,” I told her. “Finally, a step above siomai!”

I told her it was as if she had given a long-time boyfriend an ultimatum: let’s take the next step or break up. Why keep at it if it seemed to be going nowhere, right?

She agreed. A LV bag might be considered this era’s equivalent of an engagement ring for relationships that do not fall within the till-death-do-us part category. She’d asked for the style that featured the trademark monogram of the brand. “It’s a classic,” she told me. “It’s like jeans or a Chanel 2.55 quilted bag.”

“Huh?”

I just didn’t get it, Pia said. “The LV will age beautifully, with the vachetta of the handles and seams developing a honey-brown patina that will make it look more beautiful over the years.”

“It reminds me of a diaper bag,” I told her back in the office when she clicked on the link to show me the bag. “And why is the name Neverfull? I can fill that up easy.” I bristled at a promise that would easily be broken.

“That’s because you’re a mom, everything is babyfied. But it’s a practical purchase,” she said. “I can put everything in it and use it every day.”

I wondered how practical it would be for Sean to bring almost forty thousand pesos in cash to the LV store in Greenbelt because he couldn’t risk his wife catching the item on his credit card bill. After which, he would have to find a way to hide his purchase from the wife and deliver it to Pia.

Two weeks later, Pia was waiting for Sean to pick her up from her apartment. For her birthday, they were going to have dinner, he said, at the Top of the Citi, a restaurant with a stunning view of the Makati skyline. It was managed by Le Soufflé and did French cuisine well. She already knew what she wanted, she told me, as she had looked up the menu online. She didn’t want to seem like she didn’t eat in proper restaurants or that all she knew of her food was spelled out on the lit menu boards of convenience stores. She would get the French onion soup, slow-cooked onions topped with a slice of baguette and smothered with Gruyere cheese. She would also order the duck confit served with the échalote sauce reduction, with blanched veggies on the side. She would suggest he get the charbroiled rack of lamb in a garlic-rosemary jus, accompanied by blanched spinach and mashed potatoes. For dessert, they would share the sugar-free chocolate decadence, drizzled with caramel sauce. The dinner would be long and intimate, and they would talk about things that matter. So she told me she had dressed up for it: a silver, sequined dress and blue high-heeled shoes with rhinestones covering the knots of delicate bows at the peep toes. She was excited and giggly, and I imagined she looked like Christmas. I was happy for her.

She had been waiting an hour before finally deciding to call me. He’s late, she said. But she tried to sound cool about it. She kept the conversation light, talking about our new supervisor who replaced the one that didn’t last six months. She tried to sound like she didn’t notice that it was way past eight, but I can imagine her nervously twirling her hair while she spoke. It was apparent that Sean was not going to come through with his promise of a Le Soufflé dinner. I wanted to tell her that it was useless to hold on to this guy who might have another girl, someone he might’ve met in another Ministop. I wanted to tell Pia to move on. Instead, I told her to hang up since he might be calling and we weren’t helping the situation in any way by holding up the phone, as if mobile phones were yet to be invented.

She might have known the futility of carrying on with the dinner, and maybe even carrying on with Sean because when Sean’s call came past the hour of nine, she was still trying to be cool and worldly like a Speedy 30.

“I’m really sorry, baby.” He said he got caught in a meeting and would be a little late. Would it be okay if they ordered in instead? He was thinking of Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust barbecue pizza. It looked really delicious on the billboard, he said, and wondered out loud if she wanted to try it with him, in bed. He playfully made his voice hoarse and sexy, in a way he knew could make Pia tingle all over. I’m not sure if she finally smartened up, or if she just looked at her sequined dress and the strappy shoes with the little rhinestones and decided that, at thirty-two, when it was almost ten in the evening, she felt a little bit tired. So she told him it was late.

“I have a surprise for you,” he insisted.

“I’m not feeling up to it,” she said.

“Another night?”

“Oh, you sound sick.”

“Yes, that’s it,” Pia said.

“Do you want me to get you something?”

“No, thanks.”

“I’ll drop off my gift at the lobby, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Happy birthday, baby. See you next week? I’ll drop by your office.” His voice sounded casual, like he had no intention of walking out of her life permanently. So she tried her best not to sound too disappointed. If someone were there watching her, she might have made a big show of saying it was nothing. But she just said okay, like everything was okay, the way people say okay when it’s really not okay.

Of course he didn’t drop by the office the week he said he would, or the week after that. It may not have been intentional, I told her, just a gradual forgetting that became a habit. This seemed to be the manner of telling that seemed most kind at the time, the way I might have wanted the truth about Jason told to me in lies because I would’ve waited just the same.

Sean, predictably, just stopped showing up. He didn’t call either, despite the many text messages she sent his way that did nothing to bolster her battered pride. After a few months, Pia and I slipped into the habit of going down for a snack together. Eventually, we stopped talking about Sean and, without having to say it, we avoided Ministop stores and found other places to spend our breaks.

But that evening when the guard knocked on the door carrying the brown paper bag with the name Louis Vuitton printed on it, I think Pia might’ve thought everything was indeed okay. And I thought so too when she called to tell me about his gift. She had carefully opened the soft dust bag that contained her new bag. The bag’s handles felt smooth and had a subtle new-leather smell. The body of the bag had the monogrammed canvas design she liked, sturdy enough to be impenetrable in the rain, and beautiful, she added, as she held it in her hands admiring the way the light reflected the hues of brown and yellow of the bag’s surface. It was a practical bag, a classic she could use forever.

*

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrea-2012smaller-size-200x300

ANDREA PASION-FLORES was born in Manila. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines where she received her degrees in Journalism, Law, and her MA in Creative Writing. Her fiction has appeared in the Philippine Graphic, Philippines Free Press, the UP Institute of Creative Writing’s Likhaan and Silliman University’s Sands and Coral journals. Her story collection For Love and Kisses was published by UST Publishing House, Manila, in 2014.

from Issue #8: Poetry by Lyn Vellins

Photo (CC) Selena N. B. H. @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Selena N. B. H. @ Flickr

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Dancing with echoes

Last night’s rain listens on the grass
…….it hears wings whisking upwards
………..the whips of cuckoos rising and falling,
hitches a ride on a train ticking in the distance.

This morning skulks beside stones lonely as a leash of foxes
…….it fails to warm even the brown lizards that perch alert
………..beside the fallen frangipani and the dew-sopped feather.

A Xerox copy of the screen door’s angles
…….lies sun-stamped onto the green street door
………..gracing true light silence and shade
echoes filter through splayed fingers.

.

*

.

Sunday 3pm

i

In this solitude
……..ambient light presses
……………maquillaged diamonds
across the threshold.
The open door
………….lays columns of
…………luminous shade and light
on the linoleum floor,
………weightless bright notes
…………….waiting to be played.

.

ii

In front of me
……..the dog on the Persian carpet
……………has no need
of anything right now:
sunlight makes
……..her fur iridescent
……………she lifts
her face in wonder
……..as if she is
……………seeing me
for the first time
again &
……..again &
…………….again

.

*

ABOUT THE POET

LYN VELLINS is a Sydney-based poet. She runs a monthly poetry reading group, ‘RhiZomic’, and was on the committee of many reputed publications and on several editorial committees whilst at Sydney University. Her first collection of poetry, A Fragile Transcendence, was published by Picaro Press in July, 2012.

from Issue #8: Poetry by Alicia Aza, translated by J. Kates

Photo (CC) Brendan Lally @ Flickr

Photo (CC) Brendan Lally @ Flickr

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Read Alicia Aza’s original Spanish, then J. Kates’ English translations in blue.

*

*

La golondrina merodea entre el magnolio

En la penumbra de los días
se desvanece lo vivido
en los misteriosos susurros
lento marchitar de las flores.
Tus labios, sépalos robustos
que dulcifican la sonrisa
de un cáliz poseedor de néctar,
se condensan en mi memoria.
Mientras me esfuerzo en ser corola
alentadora de suspiros
muestro los colores de un ave
cuyo nombre tú me ensañaste.
Negro, azul, blanco, trilogía
de la noche aterida y mansa
cuando sólo es una mañana
apaciguada de domingo.

The swallow swoops among the magnolia

In the twilight of days
animation vanishes
in mysterious whispers
a slow withering of flowers.
Your lips, robust sepals
that sweeten the smile
of a calyx filled with nectar,
tighten in my memory.
While I strive to be a corolla
encouraging sighs,
I show off the colors of a bird
whose name you taught me.
Black, blue, white, trilogy
of a quiet and frozen night
when it is only a Sunday
morning at peace.

.

*

.

Las sendas del olvido

     (Der Hölle Rache)

La gota de té desdibuja
las letras que me nombran a Montaigne.

Y me hablas de un anhelo
como la gota aclara
el rojo que discurre
por el libro de lágrimas
que ha de quemar mi rostro.

Canta la Reina de la Noche.

Y así comienza otra mañana
que haré cruzar hacia el olvido.

Paths of oblivion

       (Der Hölle Rache)

The drop of tea blurs
the letters that read Montaigne to me.

And you are telling me about a longing
as the drop clarifies
the red that runs
through the book of tears
that will burn my face.

The Queen of the Night is singing.

And so begins another morning
I’ll cross over into oblivion.

.

*

.

Restos de un alga

(Nelly Sachs pasea por la playa en Malmö)

Las vueltas de la vida van y vienen
las busco, me doblegan, me perturban
bailo con ellas, me abrazan y escapan.

Agitadas regresan de las rocas
con una turbulencia indefinida
de ardientes espirales que traicionan.

Fluyen mareas en la dulce noche
del renovado bosque de armonía,
y el frescor reconforta y nos seduce
como ríos de quietudes afligidas.

El cielo gris del mar bravío
tienta a las olas en la orilla
de los límites de mi esencia.

Busca mis peces de colores
pósate en mi cálida arena
girando alrededor del ancla
que firme me amarra a la vida.

Remains of seaweed

(Nelly Sachs walks along the beach in Malmö)

The turns of life come and go
I look for them, they twist back and torment me
I dance with them, they embrace me and flee.

They come back in a lather from the rocks
with an indefinite turbulence
of treasonous fiery spirals.

The tides ebb and flow in the sweet night
of a renewed woodland harmony,
the fresh air comforts and seduces us
like rivers of distressed quiet.

The gray sky of the rough sea
tempts the waves on the shore
of the limits of my being.

Seek out my fish of many colors
rest in my warm sand
circling around the anchor
that moors me safely to life.

.

*

.

El silencio de un lirio blanco

En el silencio de una noche
señora de dos lunas propias
nuestras palabras alumbraban
un luminoso lirio blanco.

Otro silencio nuevo acude
a nombrarme con el mutismo
de unas viejas botas expuestas
con sucios cordones y pliegues
que desprenden aroma usado.

Todo remite a narraciones
con protagonistas ausentes.

Me convertiste en personaje
y con la calma del silencio
pude aprender ante el espejo
la dicción de aquel lirio blanco.

The silence of a white lily

In the silence of one night
mistress of two appropriate moons
our words have illuminated
a luminous white lily.

Another new silence turns
to naming me with the wordlessness
of some old boots gaping
with dirty laces and creases
that reek of second-hand.

Everything goes back to stories
with absent heroes.

You turned me into a character
and with calm of silence
in front of a mirror I was able to learn
the way that white lily speaks.

.

*

ABOUT THE POET

ALICIA AZA is a lawyer and a poet, born in 1966 and living in Madrid, who has published three books: El Libro de los árboles (2010) which was a finalist for the Andalusia Critics award; El Viaje del invierno (2011) which won the “Rosalia de Castro” International Poetry award;  and Las Huellas fértiles (2014).

J. KATES is a poet and literary translator who lives in Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.

from Issue #8: Poetry by Mary MacPherson

Photo (CC) noricum @ Flickr

Photo (CC) noricum @ Flickr

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Mary MacPherson’s poems “Threads” and “Subtraction” are presented here as a special PDF to preserve their unique formatting. Click here to read them.

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ABOUT THE POET

MARY MACPHERSON is a poet and photographer from Wellington, New Zealand. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and her work has appeared in many print and online journals. More information is available on her blog, marymacphoto.wordpress.com or website, marymmac.weebly.com

from Issue #8: Poetry by Philip Hammial

Photo (CC) Tim Parkinson

Photo (CC) Tim Parkinson

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Tied

Those tied at the feet
will attend Lesson Time where they’ll learn
the discipline & grafting required for a transition
into membership in My Father’s House.

Those tied at the waist will receive a deposit
containing a soul’s beginning
that has the capacity to recognize the Kingdom
of Heaven’s Representative.

Those tied at the hands
will, with some effort, be reprogrammed to assimilate
the advanced non-human perspectives that are being
offered by the Admiral & Captain of an away team from
The Evolutionary Level Above Human.

Those tied at the neck,
will return home, will, in human bodies picked & prepped
for this task, experience a second rapture or snatching
away from this world that is about to be
recycled, refurbished, spaded under.

Verily, tied at the neck & guided by the Shepherd,
these human plants will experience the glories
of Our Father’s House, therein to dwell forever.

.

*

.

Ward Seven

Who’s for ward pride?
If not by the light of a maid’s lurks
we’re paged by what? Number mad with sane
& the Molly you think so fair is a face
for an apricot fan. All
of her curtsies at once, at once, all
of her curtsies at once.
………………………………..In a cup
I thought empty the blood of an owl, for who
has wit enough to keep at bay the hounds
of Henry the Eighth, his double
I’m forced to shave. Bury me not in the lap
of a dog, I said, & he did not listen, in the lap
of a dog & he did not listen.
……………………………………In father’s piano
with the lid nailed shut, that’s where I’ll be when
Henry’s finished with me while his cooks skim off
a right keen breast (a ripe queen’s breast), & so
they should for it seems that glaucoma thugs
are close behind, are close behind
with rags for eyes.
………………………..At most
in trams I trust, a dozen dozing
in a depot, in each the corpse
of a man like me who all too soon was quick
through hospital corridors tangled like baobab roots
on the verge of marrow, on the verge of marrow
those baobab roots.
…………………………..If by tooth not nail
I judge a hunt those dogs in the thick
of shamed men will be kicked by him
who’s for ward pride; for it was him I’m sure
who left a knife on my kitchen table, to do
what with, a knife on my table
to do what with?
………………………Not the wit
to know, not wise like an owl
that left its blood in a cup for a queen
to find, to make of it a broth
to quiet Henry’s hounds at large
in tangled roots, in tangled roots
at large.
………….And for a finale
we turn to the last page (sane
numbered by mad) where a surly nurse
with ten thumbs is dressing my eyes
with ribbon, an obstreperous rainbow
skipping its maid on the verge of marrow, its maid
on the verge of marrow.

.

*

.

Bins

Everything
on sale! So what to say
to these burly girls assaulting bins? What
you can’t carry in your cupped hands
leave behind? No way, that’s suicidal & might
prove fatal (unlike those previous attention-seeking
failures).
…………….Leapt
on the count – one – & no time off
for good behaviour. Is it true that a deep plunge
is more effective than a shallow? Yes, obviously. So why
evoke culpability when wives one & three were left high
& dry? – so abundant
their sorrow, so loud their prayers, but would they pay
to hear me print a book? – Hallelujahs
on every page, enough voice
for six choirs (if you’re going to do daft
do it right): sleights of idiom
that mind harm, those begged comparisons palmed off
as apparitional insinuations that buried
the dead of Haiti with the dead of Togo. What
a mix up! – a scramble for place
as house music for God buffs swells
with bloat. Jesus, just a smidgeon
of decorum, please; I can’t take much more
of this uproar, these girls with their celebrity screams
mounting me, a ridden god; if only I was I’d replace
everything that’s for sale with everything that’s not.

.

*

ABOUT THE POET

PHILIP HAMMIAL has had twenty-six collections of poetry published. His poems have appeared in 25 poetry anthologies and in 105 journals in twelve countries. He has represented Australia at eight international poetry festivals, most recently at Medellin, Colombia (2012) and Granada, Nicaragua (2014). In 2009-10 he was the Australian writer-in-residence at the Cité International des Arts in Paris.