I heard Colum McCann interviewed this morning on ABC RN. It mainly concerned his new novel “Thirteen Ways of Looking”, which Michael Cathcart (admittedly prone to hyperbole) describes as “the perfect book”.  You can listen to the podcast here.

But I was also intrigued by mention of his “Letter to a Young Writer”, and went looking for it. Here it is, and I think it contains brilliant advice:

Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: It happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Try resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. Trust them back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language—character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Transcend the personal. Prove that you are alive. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate. Become your own voice. Sing. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often. So what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Don’t panic. Trust your reader. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you—even your life—but not your stories about your life. So this, then, is a word, not without love, to a young writer: Write.

crime Lord

Posted: November 7, 2015 in film review, prose poetry
Tags: ,

I went to see “Legend” yesterday, with my 19-year-old son. The film is about the notorious London East-End gangsters, the Kray twins, who ‘ran’ London in the 1960s.

I was aware of the Krays as a teenager in London, and read some fascinating books about them. Even on paper, you could sense their power, their charisma, and their downright evil.

The film does a good job of portraying these characteristics. Tom Hardy plays BOTH Krays, in an astonishing piece of acting. He even manages to make the twins look different, and projects the differences in their personalities: Reggie, the hard-nosed businessman who menaces more often than man-handles; Ronnie the psychopath for whom violence is often the first resort. The complexity of their relationship is well presented. It also shows the fear-based esteem in which they were held in their community. Nobody is completely evil (although Ronnie must have been close) are they? Perhaps the only criticism is that the role of their mother is downplayed, whereas in the books I’ve read, she was a dominant figure in their lives.

A few years ago, I wrote a prose poem loosely based on one of the Krays, although it could equally apply to any other gangland figure: the Richardsons for instance, who were the Krays’ rivals in London at the time. It alludes to the almost Christ-like status of such a gangster:

crime Lord

   Do you remember how nobody spoke when he came into the pub? And nobody dared look up in case they caught his eye. Every bloke in the place bowed the head when Reggie walked in. Almost genuflected. As if he was Christ Almighty. And how he would intone a low “evenin’ to you boys”. To which we would all respond in murmured unison “and to you Reggie”. And how he would sit at the bar with his back to us for an hour or more. And beckon anyone he wanted to commune with. To sit on his right hand side. To discuss whatever was troubling him. In low prayer like whispers. To sing his praises. To get his blessing. And how he followed Jack into the gents one night. There was a bit of shouting, a bit of sobbing as Jack confessed. Begged salvation. Then a lot of screaming, followed by silence. Except for the sound of taps running. And Reggie came out, but Jack didn’t. The barman offered up a whisky, which Reggie duly sank before leaving. Didn’t pay of course, never paid. And how I was the one went in to see about Jack. Found his body. And blood all over the walls. Do you remember? The place would never relax, even after Reggie left. Like some part of him was still present. Listening, watching over us, all-powerful. He’s dead now of course. Died, for his sins, in the nick thank God. And how a multitude turned out for the funeral. Not sure if it was in honour or for the salmon sandwiches afterwards. Or to say “good riddance”. But if it was “good riddance”, no one was saying it out loud. Afraid he might rise from the dead perhaps. They all bowed their heads like they did when he was alive. And nobody spoke. I remember that.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

Sir John Franklin and his crew were captured in this 1847 painting by W Turner Smith called The End In Sight

Some years ago, for some reason which seemed logical at the time, I got rid of my record player and quite a few of my vinyl records. Thankfully I kept a fair number.

Last week, I got around to buying another record deck, dusting off the vinyls and re-discovering my old music. I lived in Ireland for several years, in Dublin. My parents are Irish. I’ve loved Irish music since I was in my teens. One of the vinyls I’ve played several times this week is “Promenade” by Kevin Burke and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill. I’d forgotten, of course, what a great album it is. It was made in 1978. They were young men, but at the peak of their creative powers. Masterful musicians. There are several standout tracks on the album, but the one which always ‘gets to me’ is “Lord Franklin”. It is a traditional song, which surmises the dream which Lady Franklin may have had when her husband went missing, searching for the North West Passage. Franklin and 129 men on his two ships, Erebus and Terror  were apparently stranded for three years in the frozen north, and all eventually perished in 1847.

Going onto the internet, and looking for the later achievements of Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, I was then shocked to find that he had died in 2006 from a fall at his home, at the age of 54. I was deeply saddened by this – not that I ever met him, or saw him perform live, but that song has been part of me for many years; part of my youth I suppose.

Further browsing then told me that one of Franklin’s ships had been discovered only last year, around Queen Maud Gulf. “I am delighted to announce that this year’s Victoria Strait expedition has solved one of Canada’s greatest mysteries, with the discovery of one of the two ships belonging to the Franklin Expedition,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The location fits in exactly with Inuit stories at the time of Franklin’s disappearance, which were discounted as the worthless ramblings of savages by the authorities of the day.

There are many versions of the song, “Lord Franklin’, but none as beautiful, to me, as the Burke / Ó Domhnaill version. Here is a live recording from 1982, with a nice introduction by Mícheál :

Wilson 'Iron Bar' Tuckey

I’ve written several political poems in the few years I’ve been writing poetry. Some have been about specific political players, others about social issues. I think I can say that every poem I’ve written about a politician has been followed by their eventual demise. I’d like to take some credit for the departure of Thatcher, Howard, Abbott, Wilson Tuckey; less keen to think I had any part in the self-destruction of Rudd and Gillard. The life of a political leader in Australia can be short and sharp these days.

Before writing poetry, I had written song lyrics for the South Australian Trade Union Choir. One was “Yes, we have no Osamas” – it took a few years before Bin Laden eventually left the scene. I wrote one about the Hindmarsh Island Bridge affair and one about working conditions (around the time of the ill-fated so-called “Workchoices” policy).

I think the first political poem I wrote was about Wilson Tuckey, pictured above, a particularly obnoxious right-wing, Western Australian politician. As a publican, before entering parliament, he was convicted of assault after striking an Aboriginal man with a length of steel cable. I wrote the poem (in 2009) in response to a challenge to write a love poem from an unusual angle; hence “Wilson Tuckey, I love you man”. The last stanza is:

Wilson Tuckey, I love you man

you show us what it means to be Australian

some call you redneck, some say you’re not cool

but you are our bedrock, you are no fool

you are the brown substance of this wide, sunburnt land

and that’s why, Wilson Tuckey, I really, really, really love you man.

Tuckey lost his seat in 2010.


I wrote one about Margaret Thatcher and Chilean mass-murderer, General Pinochet in 2013, which imagined the conversation between the two when Thatcher had Pinochet round for tea at Downing Street. A snippet is:

How do you take your tea Mr. Pinochet?

Please stay for dinner? We have a buffet.

With all sorts of meats, spare ribs and jugged hare.

When you burn a dead body, is the flesh very rare?

Thatcher died a few months later.


Last year I wrote one about Tony Abbott, modelled on a Billy Collins poem. It imagined undressing the then Prime Minister, and concluded with:

And I could feel his tremor

as I pulled them clear of his ankles,

left him there spreadeagled, naked.

Can still hear

his cry of abandonment,

the way a man completely out of his depth might cry for help

the way newly weds might cry on hearing their union is invalid

the way a child might cry as it sees its mother sink beneath the waves

the way a man dying of shame might issue a last mournful howl.

Just a few weeks ago, Abbott was deposed by his own party.

These poems are now past their use-by date. I was delighted that I had a chance to give the Abbott poem one final outing just a few weeks ago as guest poet at the Friendly Street Halifax Cafe gig. It will now be consigned to history, like its subject (though he shows signs of not going quietly).

Can I claim any part in the demise of my subjects? Well I will anyway, even if it’s just for making one or two people think about the subject of the poem. So, if you are going to write a political poem, air it as often as possible while the topic is still relevant. They are very perishable commodities.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

Deloume RoadDeloume Road by Matthew Hooton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I met Matt Hooton at a recent Adelaide literary event, where he read some of his work. He reads very well, in an almost hypnotic, low-key way. I got talking to him briefly afterwards, and discovered he came from Vancouver Island. I cycled up Vancouver Island about 10 years ago, and rode through the area of Mill Bay where his book, “Deloume Road” is set.  I bought a copy that night which Matt signed for me.

The story focusses on the lives of a handful of characters who live on Deloume Road. The chapters are short, each centering on one character. Almost every chapter commences with an event from the previous chapter, but from a different character’s perspective. I thought this worked very well. It reminded me of a poetic form, the pantoum, where lines from a stanza repeat in the next stanza, and so a sort of connecting loop or thread is established. Each chapter is short, making the book a relatively easy read. The author builds strong images of the events of one summer on the island.

The characters are well constructed, and I found myself caring about them, which is not always the case with books I’ve read recently: two brothers, one of whom is handicapped in some way; their best friend, a clumsy lad; another boy, with abusive parents; a Korean woman who married a local man; a refugee from Europe working as the local butcher; a veteran of the Korean war; the veteran’s wife.

Towards the end I felt that the author was telegraphing the conclusion, but then it took a somewhat different turn. Even so, the ending was perhaps not as strong as the rest of the book.

Overall, a very good read, especially for what I believe is Matt’s first, and so far only, novel.

Matt’s website is: Matthew Hooton

View all my reviews

Live by the onion

die by the onion, we knew

it would end in tears

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

Joshua Ip

Joshua Ip is one cool guy, and he knows how to run a workshop. I’ve been to quite a few poetry workshops, and sometimes come away disappointed. The disappointment can be caused by a number of failings – maybe my own failing to stay engaged and to concentrate, or the failing of the workshop presenter to stay on topic and cover the required ground in the time available, or the failing of one or more participants to listen rather than to talk endlessly about themselves.

Josh has been touring Australia, appearing at poetry and writing festivals in the major cities. He tells me it is no problem for him to sell 2-3,000 of his poetry books in Singapore! (F**k me, how many Australian poets sell that number of books – count them on one hand I’d guess).

The workshop I did with Joshua yesterday (6/9/2015) on Asian Forms (of poetry), suffered none of those failings. A good group of participants fully engaged by a guy who knew his subject, knew how to put it across, listened intently to his students, kept the subject entertaining, and covered a lot of ground in the three hours available.

I’ve heard of haiku, and renga and tanka and ghazal and pantuns, but I’d never heard of empat perkataan or liwuli. Great to come away from a workshop with new knowledge.

Josh got us to attempt each of the forms he covered. I particularly enjoyed the liwuli, which is originally a Chinese form, but has been ‘appropriated’ by South-East Asian poets, in a playful and mischievous way (so Josh says anyway).

A liwuli is a 3 stanza poem. The first stanza must be 31 syllables, and be an imperative, a set of instructions. The second stanza is 14 syllables, broken into 3 lines (no specific number of syllables per line). The 3rd stanza is 10 syllables, and must be a question or questions. Josh suggested that each stanza must ‘move’ to three different places, express three different emotions. Traditionally, the title is in the form “Liwuli: this is the title of my poem”.

You can also reverse the order (i.e. 10, 14, 31), and that becomes an ‘iluwil’, and you can pair a liwuli with an iluwil. I got the impression from Josh that Asian poets like to play with variations of these forms, and, amongst his peers at least, not take them too seriously.

In the limited time we had (about 5 minutes I think), I came up with this first cut of a liwuli:

Liwuli: How to Drown a Cat


Take it by the scruff

block your ears

do not look into its eyes

have the bucket of water ready

the water must be ice-cold


Innocence is subjective

look at

the bigger picture


Was your heart as cold

as the ice water?

Josh’s website is at: Joshua Ip

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

This is the first, at 6pm Wednesday 26th August 2015 at the Halifax Cafe with cycling partner and writer extraordinaire, Heather Taylor Johnson:


and the second, starting 90 minutes later, just up the road from the Halifax Cafe, in James Place (off Rundle Mall) at the Coffee Pot, where, along with 12 other poets, I’ll be channelling Kate Bush.


This was our local for a week. Great pub.

The Fox and Hounds

The Landlord: long grey beard

and long grey hair

pumps the pints with practiced arm

eyes the beer with expert eye

The Landlady: his portly wife

efficient and firm

serves the meals, no flourish or fuss

fit for purpose, built to last

The daughter: stood in doorway

puffs a fag

off to London (or Leeds at least)

only home for weddings and funerals

The drinkers: some are local

some are not

Yorkshire bitter, Australian lager

home grown or foreign import

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015

The village of West Witton has an annual tradition. We stayed in a cottage in Grassgill, where the ‘ceremony’ concludes:

Burning the Bartle

Clouds drift behind Penhill, behind the stone beacon which once burned a warning of the Spanish Armada, behind the squat stone barn, behind the walking path which traverses the hill. Below, the villagers carry a huge straw man with mask face, bulging eyes and raggy clothes, down the main street – a guy, an effigy of Bartle the sheep stealer, Bartle the pig thief, Bartle the giant. They stop at each pub, drink beer, chant “Have you seen the Bartle?”, pass a hat around. They carry him up Penhill Crags, his torn rags fluttering; past Hunters Thorn, blowing their horns. Some kneel before the Bartle at Capplebank Stee. They roll on to Grassgill Beck, where they twist his head, breaking his straw neck; onto Wadhams End and to Grassgill End where a pyre is ready to receive the Bartle. Saint Bartholomew’s church bell rings.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2015