Book Review: “No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison” by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus PrisonNo Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amongst the many shocking and astonishing things about this book, is that Boochani wrote it secretly in Farsi on a mobile phone which he had to keep hidden from the prison guards. He sent thousands of PDF files using Whatsapp to his translator Dr Omid Tofighian.

Perhaps even Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton would have to agree that it is miraculous that the end-result is such a cohesive, detailed, persuasive, poetic narrative. But then again, if Morrison and Dutton ever read books, this one would be bottom of their list, because it is a damning indictment of their immigration policies and their inhumanity.

Boochani is a Kurd. He was a member of the Kurdish Democratic party which is outlawed in Iran, and of the National Union of Kurdish Students. As a result he was watched closely by the Iranian authorities. The first part of the book describes Boochani’s time in Indonesia and then two attempts to come to Australia by boat, almost dying in the process. Boochani then gives a detailed, sickening description of what he calls the Kyriarchal system imposed on the asylum seekers in Manus – a system built around domination, oppression, and submission. Everything that might give the asylum seekers any sense of humanity, dignity or self-respect is denied them. The system requires detainees to queue for hours or days for everything – food, cigarettes, telephones, medical attention, anti-malarials. The queues pit man against man. Generators are turned off in the intense heat to keep the men exhausted. The toilets and showers are like open sewers. Self-harm is prevalent. Fights break out regularly over minor issues. Huge mosquitoes feast on their exposed flesh. Any attempt to buck the system is met with brutality from the Australian security guards and even the locals, the ‘Papus’. In short, Manus is a living-hell.

There can be no justification for the way Australia treats asylum-seekers. To drive men mad in these conditions, with the supposed justification that it will prevent others from risking their lives at sea is a thin cover. In reality, ever since John Howard, the Australian Government has exploited racism in Australia for electoral advantage. Asylum seekers are a convenient distraction from the corruption and nepotism that the Government gets away with on a daily basis. The Australian media, even the ABC, is mostly a cheerleader for these policies.

The words “important book” have been bandied around a lot recently, but this really does deserve that nomenclature. Surely nobody who reads it can ever again support Australia’s asylum seeker policies.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Gig: Wednesday 2nd October 2019 at The Wheatsheaf Hotel.

NW OCT

The monthly No Wave readings are a sort of heir to the long-running Lee Marvin readings which stopped a few years ago. Curated by Dom Symes, Banjo James and Olivia De Zilva, they usually feature four invited poets. Each poet reads for ten minutes with a break between the second and third readers. The Wheatsheaf is a great pub, serving a wide selection of their own and other micro-brewery beers, wines and spirits. Always a nice buzz at these readings. Get along if you can. $5 entry.

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Book Review: “Grief is the Thing with Feathers” by Max Porter

Grief is the Thing with FeathersGrief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a poetic story of the process of grieving. None of the characters are named: a man, a woman who has just died, two young sons and the presence, in the man’s psyche at least, of a crow. Each brief chapter is from the point of view of one of the characters. Also looming large in the background is Ted Hughes, about whom the man is writing a book. Hughes’ “Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow”, has likely been central to the man’s literary history. This is a short but very intense story of a man and his sons, much disturbed by the death of the most important woman in their lives, and their process of returning from the pit of despair to ‘normality’. It is written in short, imagistic, disjointed chapters with sections which are more poetry than prose.

A moving and brilliantly conceived experimental approach to the important subject of grief.

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Instapoetry

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I did a short workshop on Instapoetry with Kate Larsen recently, at the Guildhouse in Adelaide. Kate is / was artist in residence at ART WORKS. From her bio:

Kate Larsen is an Adelaide writer, arts manager and non-profit/cultural consultant. One of Australia’s best-known social media poets, her alter ego Katie Keys (or @tinylittlepoems) has written and posted a daily poem on Twitter or Instagram for nearly a decade. Her work has been published or commissioned by Arts Centre Melbourne, the Australia Council, Kill Your Darlings, Overland Journal, and anthologies, magazines and blogs in Australia, Singapore and the UK.

and she says:

The internet has given birth to an exciting new world of digital poetry. Putting your poems onto Instagram (or other social media platforms) can connect you to a vibrant online community and expose your work to a much broader audience.

The workshop was a succinct introduction to ways of putting your words, usually along with an image, onto a social media platform. Kate mainly focused on using the Over app to do this, and within a remarkably short time, had most of the twenty or so participants posting a fresh poem on Instragram.

Some Instapoets have developed huge followings and gained greater exposure and financial benefit than would have been possible following the traditional publishing path. The most famous is Rupi Kaur, an Indian born Canadian poet, writer, illustrator, and performer. There is much debate in the poetry community about the merit of InstaPoetry, but it cannot be denied that it has introduced poetry to an audience that it would not otherwise have reached. The downside risk as that poets will be tempted to “write for clicks” rather than for quality, resulting in a plethora of “Hallmark card” / inspirational poems.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of short poems on the theme of “The President’s Mirror”. InstaPoetry is a perfect medium for exposing these poems to a wider audience. I’ve started reformatting them for Instagram, and am posting one a day for the next month or so (one example shown above). You can follow me on Instagram here  or via the Instagram app. The latest posts are also shown on the right hand side of this blog.


copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Paroxysm Album Tribute Gig – Nevermind, Nirvana

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Friday 19th July 2019 at 19:30
Broadcast Bar
66A Grote Street, Adelaide, South Australia 5000

Six writers / poets (including me) will give their response to tracks from Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album.  This is one of a series of gigs run by Paroxysm Press over the years, in which they invite writers to perform their work in between blasting out tracks from the chosen artist. I’ve taken part in previous gigs which featured Kate Bush and the Divinyls. Kerryn Tredrea of Paroxysm Press curates these events and always picks interesting albums and an eclectic mix of writers. The results are often zany, unpredictable, edgy, chaotic, inspired, fresh and entertaining.

The Facebook event is here

This description of Paroxysm Press will give you an idea of the sort of evening to expect:

“Paroxysm Press rose from the gutter of the Australian music scene in 98’. It’s been fighting tooth and nail ever since to publish the type of hard edge, honest and high impact writing we all love and live for ourselves.

Poetry and prose, ‘shotgun’ fiction, rapid-read novellas; tight, slick, hard hitting spoken word that can hold the stage and keep an audience on their toes even in front of hundreds of drunken music fans. The Paroxysm Crew carry with them a passion, a stubborn anger and a strong awareness of their need to entertain that sees them now among the best authors this country has to offer.

Paroxysm Press simply refuses to die; we will not back down, we will not go away. Every year we get bigger, every year we expand our audience and (most importantly) our much valued, much loved cult following. Like-minded writers from around the world now gather here with us to fight for the power of words. Bigger name authors stand by our side even when the rewards are less than they can receive elsewhere because they too believe in the hard, tough, true to life material we publish. They see Paroxysm fight against a world it can never beat – but they stay anyway – because they can see the fire in our eyes.

Paroxysm Press : ‘too stubborn to die’”

Poetry Season #6 – Tyrone Guthrie Artists’ Retreat Centre

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“The Big House”, Tyrone Guthrie Centre

The sixth and final piece of homework for the Andy Jackson course. The prompt for this week, greatly summarised, is to write a poem about poetry. I spent two weeks at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre last year, and when I started this exercise, memories of how hard it is to sit and write all day, every day for two weeks, came flooding back.

Tyrone Guthrie Artists’ Retreat Centre

Co Monaghan, Ireland, April 2018

From this bay window, the black lough,

the banks of bulrushes, the boathouse, 

the silhouetted swans, the scent of pine

are all perfect and …

…and across the stable yard the artists work away in their high-ceilinged, light-filled studios. I envy them, their brushes and canvases, their jars of water, their tubes of paint, their watercolour sets, their space rich with the scent of oils and turps. They have their easels and their palettes. All I have is a blank page and a pen and my thoughts. I’m sitting here in this beautiful room with an idyllic view, in this stately house. But I can’t write about a lough and a boathouse and a forest. That’s too obvious. I have to make the lough a metaphor for something, and the boathouse a metaphor for something else, but not too something else because that would be mixing my metaphors. The artist can just paint the lough and the boathouse and the swans – job done. And if they paint a unicorn on the hillside nobody will accuse them of mixing their metaphors. They can daub paint onto their canvases and they’re away and they can call the painting the first thing that comes into their heads – “Swans on Lough” or “Composition 8”. My first line has to be stunning, my title has to grab attention. They can say “Oh I just go where the brush takes me” and I think “Wonderful”, but when a poet says “Oh I just go where the pen takes me” I think “Wanker”. They can choose from a varied but limited palette. I have the whole fucking English language to choose from plus foreign words. There are over 200,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary and new ones, like “amazeballs” and “omnishambles” being added all the time. Jesus Christ, how to decide? They can mix and smudge and layer and smear. I can only use strictly defined letter shapes in black on white. The most artistic shape on my page is a sodding semi-colon, and poets sneer at them. Nobody says to artists “Show don’t tell” because they are always bloody showing. “A picture paints a thousand words” proclaimed Captain Obvious. I think he/she was vastly underestimating. And you can tell they’re artists, with their dungarees and their paint-blotched fingers, but who can tell you’re a poet unless you go the full Oscar Wilde with black cloak and lily and if you did that down the village pub here you’d get beaten up before you could recite the first stanza of The Ballad of Reading Jail. They have their art exhibitions, where they hang their works on some fancy gallery wall and people come and drink wine and stand back and cock their heads and stare at the paintings and “ooh” and “ah” and eat those little bits of pineapple, cheese and cocktail onions on sticks and handover more money than a poet makes in a lifetime. Us poets, if we’re lucky, might get a reading at a launch in front of a handful of people who are only there to get drunk on the cask wine and scoff the sausage rolls and try to steal a fucking book on their way out. Everybody can name at least a handful of painters – Van Gogh, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Monet, Picasso – but how many can name more than one or two poets eh? Maybe Famous Seamus and Wordsworth and the daughter of that crashing-bore at work who won the school poetry competition and that’s it. And downstairs the artists are sitting round the breakfast table, waving their arms and talking excitedly about perspective and light and tone and symmetry. Over in the poets’ corner they’re arguing about the correct pronunciation of enjambement and what’s the difference between prose and prose poetry (answer “fuck all”). And when you go to any city there’s always an art gallery but do you ever see a poetry gallery? Hell no! You’d have to search out some sticky-carpet dive to uncover a collection of penniless, broken-arsed poets droning into a cheap mic and none of them listening, just shuffling their papers impatiently waiting their turn. And what about all the fucking constraints poets have to adhere to – bloody fourteen line Petrarchan sonnets which are somehow different from Shakespearean sonnets, and villanelles and haiku and ghazals and mind-numbing sestinas. So many bloody rules that some smartarse will accuse you of breaking if you use a single bloody extra syllable. Jesus, all the painter is constrained by is the canvas and they can make that as big or small as they like and paint it all black if they want and it will still sell. And the further you get away from a painting the more sense it makes – the further you get away from a poem the less sense it makes (though this can also happen when you get closer). And everyone wants to own an original artwork to hang on their wall, but offer somebody the framed piece of paper on which you wrote the first draft of your best poem and they’ll think you’re bonkers. No wonder poets turn to drink and end up as bitter, twisted curmudgeons who’ve lost the ability to rhyme and try to pass off prose as poetry.

 


© Mike Hopkins 2019

image of Tyrone Guthrie centre taken by Mike Hopkins

Poetry Season #5 – The Stones in Virginia Woolf’s Coat Pockets

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The fifth piece of homework for the Andy Jackson course. The prompt for this week, greatly summarised, is to have a conversation with another writer, by alternating lines written by that writer with lines of your own in response. I took lines from “Figuring” by Maria Popova and, much to my surprise, came up with a poem that is sort of about Virginia Woolf.

The Stones in Virginia Woolf’s Coat Pockets

All of it, the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band

are beyond my figuring. If I had

Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde

might I dissect the circuitry that would cause

A certain forearm I love

to one day author its own destruction?

 

One autumn morning as I read a dead poet’s letter

I saw that too much love can be destructive.

Are the imaginations of women less vivid than of men?

Are the dreams of women less portentous?

Every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets

was lovingly chosen for heft and effect.

 

Where does it live, that place of permission

to choose a life less ordinary?

Does genius suffice for happiness, does distinction, does love?

None of these inoculate against suffering.

There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives

but few beautiful ways to end one.

 


© Mike Hopkins 2019

Italicised lines from “Figuring” by Maria Popova 2019

image: https://pixabay.com/en/users/robinsonk26-6013603/

Poetry Season #4 – Tortoise

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The fourth piece of homework for the Andy Jackson course. The prompt for this week, greatly summarised, is “otherness”, which could mean, for instance, the world of an animal. In my case, a tortoise. Did you know that a tortoise called Harriet, supposedly collected by Charles Darwin in the Galapagos, reached the age of 175 years and died in Steve Irwin (the Crocodile Hunter)’s Australia Zoo in 2006. And the first living creatures to orbit the moon were a pair of tortoises, in the Russian Zond 5 mission. This is the second poem I’ve written about tortoises in recent months. Analyse that.

Tortoise

His clawed feet bear the weight of his world. He cares nothing for the impatience of youth. He is the original testudo. His skeleton is within and without. His scales proclaim his longevity. Breathing out, he retreats into his nerve-rich shell. He draws water from the well of his own waste. Smelling with his mouth, pumping air with his throat, he sifts sensations with nostrils and tongue. He has sub-sonic conversations with his neighbours. He circled the moon in Zond 5. His black eyes are picture pools of dark corners and warm concealments. His thoughts are antique. He knew Darwin and Irwin. He is utterly grounded. He holds the weathered memories of a century of deliberation. He hides his contentment behind a doleful mouth. He craves little – not affection, not food, but sometimes deep, cyclical sleep. I can promise food, water, shelter and warmth. I know his greatest fear is inversion. He disdains my bulk, my neediness, my hasty heart. He will outwait us all. His lines are not from worry. His tortoiseshell is not from vanity.

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© Mike Hopkins 2019

Poetry Season #3 – Burger

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The third piece of homework for the Andy Jackson course. The prompt for the this week, greatly summarised, is “love / lineage”, for which Andy provided a range of example poems. One of them was “Bread” by Brendan Kennelly, which really appealed to me. (There’s an interesting performance of it here.) I used this to write a parallel poem. I never thought I’d write a poem called “Burger” (I’m vegetarian). It probably needs a better title but that’s the title for now.

Burger

after Brendan Kennelly

Someone blasted a bolt through my skull

in a blood-red shed.

I was bled,

 

disassembled, ground down. This

fakery is more cunning

than a fox gone to ground

 

more tricky than a politician’s

dog whistle

or the patter of a pimp.

 

Even as it flaunts, it is

trickier than anything

in a conjurer’s bag of tricks.

 

My remains,

are mixed with a million others

and rendered as an illusion.

 

The shape I now inhabit

is a succulent mockery.

Willful fools drool

 

as I am flipped and grilled

with sleight of hand

and slipped into a bun.

 

The collusion, the deception is

absolute.

So I am cremated

and reborn

 

in a concoction.

In my way I am their best kind of beast –

processed for profit.

 

I will break their hearts.

 

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© Mike Hopkins 2019

image https://actualite.nouvelle-aquitaine.science/hassen-ferhani-dans-lintimite-de-labattoir-dalger/