Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review: Exit West and Lincoln in the Bardo (Man Booker 2017 #1 and #2)

This is my first review from the Man Booker shortlist for this year. I've done it as a double of two of the three books I've read from the six-book shortlist: Mohsin Hamad's Exit West and George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo. I'm still ruminating on what I want to say about the other one I've read, which is Ali Smith's Autumn, but hoping to get a review of that one up soon too.

The remaining three books on the shortlist are:
4321 by Paul Auster
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I have downloaded 4321 but to be honest, I'm struggling to get into it - we'll see. I've started Elmet, and so far, so good. Last one after that is History of Wolves, if I get to it. 

Let me commence this double review with a series of accolades, so we are not in any confusion about three key prizelist questions from the start:

Are these good books? Oh my, yes. Yes, they are. They are both amazing books in very different ways.
Do they belong on the Man Booker shortlist? COMPLETELY.
Could one of them win? Absolutely, and in fact, I think one of them *should* win.

This year's Man Booker longlist was a mixed bag to my mind, but on a 50% read basis, I think the judges have got it very, very right with their shortlist. Not only is there not a dud on it (basing that on reviews for the ones I have yet to read), but I think the weaker books on the longlist have been dropped handily, leaving a gang of six that are really worthy to contend the prize.

There are three books by men and three by women; there's a Pakistani writer (Hamad), two Brits (Smith and Mozley), and three Americans (Saunders, Fridlund and Auster), which does mean that the dreaded domination of the USians has arrived, as I think we all knew it would eventually. There are two debutantes - Fridlund and Elmet - although if we're talking novels rather than simply published works, Saunders' book is also a debut, as he has until now been an accomplished short story writer, essayist and novella writer.

The bookie odds have Lincoln in the Bardo as the clear frontrunner at 2/1, with Exit West and Elmet equal second at 4/1. These odds reflect what I also (at this point) think is a likely and reasonable outcome; although my heart belongs to Exit West, I can fully appreciate the achievement that is Lincoln in the Bardo.

So ... to the books themselves.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a strange, strange book. Its central conceit is a relatively simple one - it's a journey into the fact, and consequences, of the death of Abraham Lincoln's third son (and favourite child), Willie, at the age of 11 in the early years of the Civil War.

However, straight historical fiction this ain't - in fact it isn't straight anything. It's one of the twistiest books I've read for a long while.

This is a book that takes place, largely, in the bardo - that Buddhism-based limbo-like place between life and death where souls are trapped who are too attached to the things of earth to move on to the next plane of existence. For this reason, although a small portion of the book takes place in the living world, the majority of the action, narration and emotion is conveyed by a startlingly vivid array of, effectively, tethered ghosts - the souls still lingering in the graveyard in which Willie is interred.

It is a great strength of this book that the half-light world of the bardo becomes so vivid and profound, making the briefer sequences in the living world seem pale and inconsequential by comparison. Partly, of course, this is because of the different narrative devices Saunders uses for each purpose, but partly it is because the bardo ghosts are just so human in their frailty, their stubbornness and their fears.

Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and the Reverend Everly Thomas, in particular, jump off the page; their ties to earth so painful and obviously misguided, their longings so intense, their fear (especially in the Reverend's case) so overwhelming. As they chatter the narrative along, passing the conversational ball back and forth with often disorienting speed, they emerge into the light as characters. Vollman, who so desperately wanted to be a husband to his young wife; Bevins, who could not live without his male lover who rejected him; and poor Reverend Thomas, whose own terrors provided him with a vista of hell that he clings in horror to the graveyard to avoid.

There are many other ghosts, with many other reasons for staying - justice denied, pain too profound to move past, hopes thwarted, love undischarged, loyalty too strong, guilt, shame, hubris, lack of self-awareness. There are the venal couple whose failure to recognise their abuse of their children binds them to the grave; the horrific plantation owner whose soul delights in torture; the voiceless former slave girl who was the victim of multiple rapes; the three bachelors who never found love and refuse to accept that, now, they never will. There is, importantly for the plot, a young girl, who overstayed because of her deep grief at a life not lived, and has now become a monster. Through her, Saunders is able to establish the central plot arc - the older ghosts' altruistic desire to save Willie from a miserable eternity stuck in the graveyard, turning monstrous; it's against nature for the young ones to stay, as the Reverend worriedly notes early on.

What Saunders manages to convey, ultimately, though, is that cleaving to the earth is a sickness that all these half-light people, who refuse to acknowledge their dead state, need to relinquish. The language that he creates to convey this is spot-on - coffins are "sick-boxes", the ghosts move around by "skim-walking", the process of going inside one another (or a living person, as they do with Lincoln when he comes to visit Willie's body) is described in strangely delicate yet visceral terms. When ghosts do eventually let go and move on, the phenomenon is described as "matterlightblooming", which is such a resonant and perfect neologism for this purpose.

Saunders uses a slightly maddening but also highly effective mash-up technique for when he is working in the "real" (living) world, interspersing quotations from actual historical accounts and texts with made-up faux-history as it suits his narrative purpose. The fact that he cites both the actual and created sources in exactly the same pseudo-scholarly way is slightly unsettling, perhaps more now than it would've been in a pre-alternative-facts world. To find out which of the sources are actual sources and which are Saunders' creations, you need to be either a) very familiar with Civil War historiography or b) willing to invest a lot of time in digging. My Masters degree is in American History, albeit not Civil War era, so I recognised some of the more well-known of these texts, but as for the rest - your guess is as good as mine as to which are real and which are fake.

At the end of the day, this book works in a way that, on outline, it really shouldn't. I can just imagine how wacky this sounded as an idea when Saunders was pitching it ... "OK, so it's going to be narrated by ghosts, and I think I'll open with a sequence about a fella who's stuck in the bardo with a gigantic hard-on he can't get rid of because he was killed *just* before he was about to have sex with his new wife ... and I think, you know what, that I might chuck in some creepy corpse-cuddling for one of America's most revered leaders ..." It sounds like a hot mess, frankly, and yet - it isn't at all. This book is engrossing, tender, intelligent and ultimately triumphantly hopeful, and I really, really highly recommend it to your attention,

Exit West, Mohsin Hamad's novel, is an entirely different kettle of fish in almost every possible way except maybe one - it also relies on one magic realist device to achieve its effect. (Well, actually, I don't know if supernatural themes count as magic realism, so maybe that's a tenuous linkage).

Hamad's book is, essentially, a story about refugees and the seeking, and hard finding, of refuge; about why people flee, how they are treated when they do, and how the world is shifting on its axis as borders become porous and the West reflexively restricts itself.

This is the story of Nadia and Saaed; friends, almost-lovers, who together must escape the worsening terror of their home and try to make a new life elsewhere. Their city is never named; it's one of the great tragedies of our world that it could be almost anywhere in the Middle East.

Nadia, who I loved sincerely, is a secular, modern, independent woman who wears traditional dress as a shield against harassment. Saaed is a gentle, sweet, observant, family-oriented man who wants a traditional life. Nadia has had previous partners; Saaed is entirely naiive. They love each other but are chronically incompatible in a life sense - but they have to flee, and their odds are better together.

The way that they leave their city, though, is an interesting device that Hamad uses to stunning effect throughout the text. Hamad posits the existence of magic doorways, portals to other places, which, if you are lucky enough to find them and be able to pay to use them, will transport you, through a dark and birth-like journey, to somewhere Not Here. The almost Narnia-like affect of the doors is counterpointed with the sharp dislocation they experience when they emerge - the disorientation, almost derealisation, that comes with being traumatically uprooted and plonked down somewhere utterly strange, somewhere fundamentally suspicious of them.

Frog-hopping through doors to Greece, London, and, eventually, California, Nadia and Saaed and their peers write the story of the modern diaspora on their changing bodies and changing minds. The book deals to an extent with xenophobia and racism, but it is much more focused on dislocation and the journey and work of building a new self and a new life. As the book ends, we reunite with old Nadia and Saaed, both safe, both having found their way to a profound kind of peacefulness, even joy - no longer together, but both free and full with the richness of lives well lived. For this reason, Exit West is ultimately a book about the potential for rebirth even in the most hopeless-seeming darkness, and the message carries without sickliness or superficiality.

I really connected with this book; Hamad's narrative voice engaged me early, and his plot, which he allows to develop organically (a risk, but one that I think pays off), winds its way towards denouement effortlessly. I found it a very satisfying read, and it's a book I'll certainly read again. Another one I would recommend without reservation!

Friday, September 15, 2017

A Cold Spring Sonnet

Time to try another set poetry form - one that I've never been very good at, but I think it's still worth a go. I'm going to try a traditional sonnet.

Sonnets are 14 line poems with 3 quatrains (4 line stanzas) followed by 1 couplet (2 line stanza). They use a rhyming scheme of ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. 

That rhyming pattern's not so very tricky, but what makes them hard (if you do them properly, anyway) is the iambic pentameter. Basically, iambic pentameter refers to the stress pattern in the lines, which give great sonnets their sing-song quality (and when it is mishandled, leaves the poem sounding deadened and clunky). The metre goes:

da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM

(where DUM is the stress syllable, obviously!)

The five "feet" in each line is what gives rise to the pentameter part of the name ("pent" for "five").

Probably the best-known traditional sonnets are Shakespeare's or perhaps Donne's. The first four lines of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 illustrate the point:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date:

The feet in these lines flow smoothly and enhance the heartbeat rhythm of the poem, driving it forward.

So, without further ado, here is my attempt at a traditional sonnet ... Cold Spring Sonnet.

Here in the chill-fingered mainland's end,
the rain falls daily and the cold winds blow.
The birds that sing for love do not ascend,
but hide out in the bushes with their beaux.

Oh, roses bud, and wattle shows its face -
the grass is overgrown and seedpods fly.
But mammal blood finds only sour grace
caught in the sullen sulking of the sky.

The breath of winter trails still round our feet,
while northern cousins wake to pearly sun.
The island further south is getting sleet -
Folorn, we ache for warmth, and still find none.

September! Spring in nothing but the name:
Each year we hope, but each year just the same.

- Kathy, 15/09/2017

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Pointless-ish music thing that I saw and decided to do

I saw this somewhere about and I am deep into a thinky piece of work at the moment, which means listening to a LOT of music as I work (it helps me focus). So I thought, OK, why not.

The idea is to pick 1-3 songs that provide the soundtrack for each decade of your life so far. They don't have to be songs of that decade, or even songs that you liked at that time in your life (or now, I suppose). They don't have to be straightforward textual representations of what was going on in your life then, although they can be. They just are supposed to capture, I guess, your zeitgeist at each stage of your life. You are not supposed to explain or editorialise them in any way - just leave them on the page, so to speak, and let the story unfold itself.

(I really wish I could remember where I saw this, but it was during a middle-of-night insomnia distraction-via-Internet multi-rabbit-hole session, so I do not recall at all).

So anyway. In my cogitation break from my work ... The Soundtrack To My Life So Far.

My first decade of life: 1973 - 1983 (Birth to late primary school)

1. For Baby (John Denver)

2. Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World (Israel Kamakawiwo’ole)

3. Tears in Heaven (Eric Clapton)

Second decade: 1983 - 1993 (High school and undergrad uni)

1. Losing My Religion (REM)

2. Stupid Girl (Garbage)

3. Galileo (Indigo Girls)

Third decade: 1993 - 2003 (Masters, early career and marriage)

1. Lucy (Nick Cave)

2. No One (Alicia Keys)

3. Doubled Up (Heather Nova)

Fourth decade: 2003 - 2013 (Primarily, motherhood)

1. Thank You (Dido)

2. Rise Up (Andra Day)

3. Forever Young (Joan Baez version)

Fifth (current) decade: 2013 - now (Life!)

1. Redemption Song (Bob Marley)

2. Washing of the Water (Peter Gabriel)

3. Hallelujah (Choir Choir Choir and Rufus Wainwright version)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Four weeks in review, four weeks in view

Well, that four weeks seems to have flown, but that's the nature of the beast these days.

Overall, it was a fairly good four weeks. Work remained moderate, although one of my projects was in quite an intense phase (and took probably 80% of the work time overall). Near the end of the period, I picked up a small job for a different client (completed in a couple of days) and also got confirmation and starting orders on a project that I wasn't sure was going to proceed, all of which was good news and means that things will be busier from here onwards for a while.

Spring has sprung in Melbourne - not that you'd know it necessarily, with the icy winds and frequent rain - and two of our household have copped both hayfever and a cold, so that hasn't been much fun. So far the other three of us are OK - fingers double crossed it stays that way!

The four weeks to come is equally busy, but incorporates both school holidays and our trip to Sydney, so it will be a different kind of busy (hopefully a fun kind). I am trying to keep up momentum with writing, which isn't always easy but I do my best. Meeting work and family needs in this next stretch is going to be a challenge, I think.

FOUR WEEKS IN REVIEW (14 August - 10 September)
- Attended the massive Equal Love Marriage Equality Rally in Melbourne on 26 August. One of the best and most important days of the year for us.
- Completed 13 days of paid work (3, 3, 4, 3)
- The usual extracurriculars each week, with some missed due to other commitments: 3 x gymnastics, 2 x jujitsu, 3 x chess, 3 x skating
- Online Book Club (16 August) discussing Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (verdict was we didn't like the book!)
- Cake making for 14 year old's Star Trek cake
- 14 year old's friends birthday party (dinner at a hotel)
- Hosted youngest kid's friend for her first-ever friend sleepover
- Passport applications complete and submitted WOOOO HOOOO
- Family Father's Day celebrations (a week late to accommodate travelling relos - today)
- Booking accommodation and further itinerary planning for Japan
- Finalised activity bookings for Sydney trip
- Poem published on Girls Will Be Girls
- Worked on Women of Story edits
- Wrote 12 new poems
- Submitted a poem to a poetry competition and pitched two poems for publication
- Family movie trip to see My Neighbour Totoro (we are all besotted with it)

FOUR WEEKS IN VIEW (11 September - 8 October)
- 12 days paid work (5 in week of 11 Sept, 3 in week of 18 Sept, 4 in week of 2 Oct)
- School sleepover for youngest
- Leave for me (21 Sept - 1 Oct) and school holidays for kids (23 Sept - 8 Oct)
- Family holiday in Sydney, incorporating the Sherlock exhibition and OzComicCon
- 2 weeks of extracurriculars: gymnastics, jujitsu, chess, skating
- Online Book Club (11 September): Jane Eyre
- More work on Women of Story development
- Write minimum 6 new poems and 1 short story
- Submit minimum 3 pieces to competitions or publications

Friday, September 8, 2017

Lovesong Sestina (Poem)

Separately, neither one was anyone much.
One liked swimming, blue porcelain and Ceylon tea,
and worked in an office above a bakery.
The other, with an eye for beauty, sketched on Sunday,
and painted stranger's fingernails all through the week.
Both their hearts were gem-blue like the sea.

They met on a park bench by the sea.
It was a cold spring that year, and no-one much
had been about the esplanade all week.
It was natural enough, the decision to go in search of tea
Almost everywhere was closed, for Sunday,
until they found a tiny bakery.

The good scent of yeast and cinnamon from the bakery
drew them in as rain came from the sea.
The windows steamed in sticky comfort that Sunday.
They talked about nothing, or at least nothing much
of significance, as they drank their tea;
it felt like time expanded, an hour filled a week

Such a pity to have to work this week,
sighed the one who worked above the bakery.
I'd rather stay, with you, here, drinking tea -
Despite the cold and rainfall by the sea.
The artist said, With me? I can't bring much
to add to the shininess of Sunday -

Every day with you would be a Sunday
If I could, I'd be with you eight days a week -
said the swimmer, and the artist said not much
but reached a hand out, gently, in the bakery
Their fingers touching, joyous as the sea
as the lady from the kitchen poured their tea.

Eventually, they reached the limit of the tea
they could usefully drink; and wandered out into Sunday.
Dusk was sidling in, all shy-gold from the sea;
The artist said: Forget about the week -
I'll leave mine too, forgotten in the bakery
I don't know when I ever wanted this much

Then they kissed, and it was much too much
and at the same time, stardust, outside the bakery
and time folded open, and it was the first week.

- Kathy, 8/09/17

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Flood ( A Sestina)

This poem is my first attempt at a sestina. It's a really tricky form but I wanted to give it a go. I doubt I am going to become one of the great sestina poets (hello, Elizabeth Bishop, lookin' at you!) but it was a good discipline to try it.

The sestina form has seven stanzas (six with six lines and the final with three) with a very strict repeating rhyme pattern, represented as follows where each letter stands for the final word of the line.

7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

In my poem, the repeated words are:

A = Sign
B = Ask
C = Hurricane
D = Water
E = Map
F = Flee


Some say floods in Texas are a sign;
Of what, it depends on who you ask.
Brought in fast and deep by a hurricane -
Looking from above, the earth is blanketed in water
Entire towns wiped off the survey map
Posits of recovery variable, for those that flee.

Everywhere, across the earth, they flee;
Bleeding borders, searching for a sign
of harbour in some quiet corner of the map.
Refuge seems so much and little now to ask
where injustice flows like living water
and silences are drowned in hurricane.

The future blows in harder than a hurricane;
the tech ascendant, nowhere now to flee
from the satellites that target over water.
Every spacedust signal is a sign:
Obscured by not knowing how to ask,
how to find the real within the cosmic map.

And yet, and yet, the heart resists a map:
Love and fear a double hurricane
of cone-tight, star-bright feeling; why even ask
why people are the way they are; why they flee
from that which brings them joy, and seek a sign
of truth in misery, of death under the water.

Once, it's said, a god drowned us in water;
Flicked out an enraged hand and cleaned the map.
Eventually a dove came as a sign -
In later days we ride the hurricane
Turn the stove up under the world's bones, and flee
from the questions no one dares to ask.

We get the times we get, and have to ask
what we bring with us to give; born of water,
still mammals in the marrow, even if we flee
the sillage of good earth in our gene map.
Sentience sometimes a hurricane -
All the world is wonder, each falling star a sign.

And the nights hold secrets, refusing us a sign;
No foreshadow of the last great hurricane.
Living never did come with a map.

- Kathy, 2/09/2017

Tuesday, August 29, 2017


My poem, Planet, was published today at Girls Will Be Girls. Please to read and I hope you enjoy it :-)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

X Voice Rockstar Talent (Private Month of Poetry)

OK so this is DEFINITELY not high art, but hey. I was thinkin' it, so I writ it. It's only meant to be an observational frippery!

X Voice Rockstar Talent

so I have become mildly obsessed with talent shows
(if obsession is a thing you can do mildly, in your pyjamas, sipping tea)

I like the lights and the staging and the way
they try to convince you that everything is unknown and spontaneous
the way they hide the scripting and choreography, until
some disgruntled contestant dressed like Pink from 2006 blurts out the truth
in a fit of entirely unplanned rage at not getting her shot to -

I don't know; advance in the show, I guess
be a temporary star in the firmament, until the machine chews her up and spits her out -

the way they show the little snippets of conversations between the judges
like we're eavesdropping on a private chat, except, of course, it's evident we're not
I like the way the hosts play up the cameras, and the way
all the contestants say very slightly modified versions of the same thing
a whole lot of people claiming the very same dream in much the same language

I like the way that the shows spring their surprises, and how, when you've watched a few
you can see the next shock act coming from two ad breaks away
I like how the comedians are sometimes genuinely funny, and how the magic acts
are satisfyingly bewildering

I like the way the singers on The Voice always prevaricate when choosing a coach
and always have to say "But I love all of you so much!" to keep the vibe going
"This is the hardest decision of my life", and, oh,
I love the fake-o feuding between Blake and Adam
(neither of whom I knew or cared anything about before)
and I loved how Alicia Keys went bareface and turbanned and was still the best-looking person in the room

I like the tear-jerky back-stories and the spots with the families
and how someone is always recovering from some serious ailment, or
is singing for their beloved deceased grandpa or for love of their children or their mama

I like the fact that some of the singers can actually sing;
I like even more that a lot of them can't, but try anyway.

I liked the Storm Trooper dancers, a lot.

I wonder, sometimes, what appeals to me about these shows.
That they are constructed, I don't doubt, analytically, for a minute;
I don't think much happens on them that someone didn't think would make great TV.
I know they select acts for a variety of responses:
laughter, tears, affection, nostalgia, cringeing, disgust, contempt.
I know the audience reacts as they are supposed to react:
I know I, largely, do too.

And yet.

There is a small, unwordly, uncynical part of me, somewhere, in my cockle-heart
that wants the myth of translation to be true.
Something that wants to believe that lives can really be changed
by singing beautifully, or clowning uproariously, or dancing fantastically
in a big auditorium in front of cameras and Simon Cowell.
Something that wants to believe that most neoliberal of all lies:
that performance art is a commodity that anyone can buy -
a field of gold waiting for anyone with the stomach to get up and try.

Something that wants to believe that a poet could stand on stage,
speak their words, and quiet the crowd into reverie
and fill up all the holes that life has dug out
and get the audience to their feet to say:
this is a hurting and a healing place
this is a locus of the real

Even though these shows are facades, and the drum behind them hollow
I still want to believe
I still do
at home, here, in my slippers and dressing gown
watching the next one walk slowly to the X on the floor.

- Kathy, 15/08/17

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Four weeks in review, four weeks in view

The gap between these check-ins seems to be getting wider, which is probably a function of life being a thing that happens, but I still see a value in taking stock from time to time, so here goes.

It's been quite a jam-packed 4 weeks, largely because of the wonderful 2 weeks we spent with our exchange student in the middle period (and really, the three to four days before she arrived were heavily occupied with preparing, and the weekend after she left was lost to an exhausted puddle of catching up).

Work-wise, it's been a odd sort of period for me - some expected work didn't materialise after all, and another project that looked solid has currently gone cold on me (not replying to communications at all). This has left me in the position of actually working only for one client, albeit across two different projects / parts of their organisation, since returning from leave on 10 July.

I'm not overly fond of this as a model, even though, quantitatively, the amount of work has been close to ideal (about 3 days a week, which is perfection really). I am just at the point of starting to get a liiiiiiitle bit concerned about having too many eggs in one basket - part of my task list in the coming week will be to try to confirm if the "cold" project is now actually off, and if it is, to start casting the net out again.

On the other hand, having a manageable workload has freed me to both really get into the spirit of the exchange student process, spend time on my creative writing (ie poetry), and clear away some life administration / planning tasks, so it certainly isn't all bad. I just need to be careful not to settle into a one-client rut, both for tax and business stability reasons.

So here we are:

FOUR WEEKS IN REVIEW (17 July - 13 August)
- Exchange student visit: 23 July - 5 August. This was EPIC but as I have written about it at length in other posts, I won't say more here.
- Eldest's 14th birthday celebrations: special dinner on the night, family afternoon tea (yesterday)
- 3 x skating, 3 x chess, 3 x gymnastics, 2 x jujitsu
- Variety Night clarinet performances for 14 year old
- Heart stress test for me (I passed :-)
- 2 x lunches with friends
- 12 days of paid work across two projects
- Entered a poem in a competition
- First serious editing day on Women of Story collection
- Online Book Club  (19 July) discussing Roxane Gay's Hunger (Book was great, so was discussion!)
- Booking accommodation and further itinerary planning for Japan

FOUR WEEKS IN VIEW (14 August - 10 September)
- Projected 12 days of work if only current two projects; if third / others come online, could go up
- The usual extracurriculars each week: gymnastics, jujitsu, chess, skating
- Next Online Book Club (16 August) discussing Arundhati Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
- Cake making for 14 year old's Star Trek cake
- 14 year old's friends birthday party (dinner at a hotel)
- REALLY get passport applications done!!!
- Family Father's Day celebrations (a week late to accommodate travelling relos - 10 September)
- Booking accommodation and further itinerary planning for Japan
- Finalise activity bookings for Sydney trip (late September)
- Work on Women of Story edits and schedule next editing / review session (ideally for mid-September)
- Write minimum 5 new poems
- Submit minimum 2 poems for publication or competitions

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Saturday haiku on Love Your Bookshop Day (Private Month of Poetry)

I have to say, so far this Month of Poetry is working out well for me. I have only missed 3 days so far, but one of the non-poem days was actually not a non-poetry day - I spent yesterday with my poetry book editor working on the poems that will be part of the Women of Story collection.

Today I am pursuing my usual Saturday morming endevours with a poetic twist, which has given rise to this little frippery of a haiku set. Great art it ain't, but it does reflect my state of mind.

Saturday haiku on Love Your Bookshop Day

reading poetry
in a West hipster cafe
coffee hot and sweet

the words join the world
tangling in teacups and beards
woodsmoke in the lens

outside, the sun's up
despite the breathy winter
balloons in the sky

books are calling out
from the shop behind the fans
art that makes the world

(or, perhaps, instead:
makes the world tolerable -
speaking truth aloud).

how fortunate, I,
to be here, and whole, and free:
words leaking like love

- Kathy, 12/8/17

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Untitled Villanelle (Private Month of Poetry)

Day 8 was a bust, but today I pootled around with this villanelle. For some reason today my mind was on a number of people I've loved and lost over my years as a resident on the planet, from my little brother to a number of dear friends. It doesn't have a title yet and it's still getting there, but it might have a seed of something worth salvaging in it.

Progress so far this month has been:
1 August: Ignition (Poem based on the story of the Little Match Girl)
2 August: Bones
3 August: Series of not very good haikus about my cat (but at least I wrote something!!)
4 August: Untitled poem in progress based on the character of Anna Karenina
5 August: NO POEM (some further refinement on the Karenina poem though)
6 August: Villanelle called Starblind (not great, as the rhyme doesn't sit well yet - to be worked on)
7 August: Moon (retitled from its first working title, Blood)
8 August: NO POEM
9 August: Untitled Villanelle

Ghosts are gliding through the room tonight,
All the lost are coming back to stay;
Outside, the stars above are blinding-bright.

The dead are gone, forever out of sight,
At least that's what the wisest people say;
Ghosts are gliding through the room tonight.

A hint of rose-water invokes the rite,
The faces of them all as clear as day;
Outside, the stars above are blinding-bright.

A boy whose passing shuttered down the light,
A woman stolen, years before the grey;
Ghosts are gliding through the room tonight.

"They're still inside" is true, but yet feels trite
A strange denial of the melting clay;
Outside, the stars above are blinding-bright.

In the air I reach with inner sight,
Logic gone, wide open to the fey;
Ghosts are gliding through the room tonight.
Outside, the stars above are blinding-bright.

- Kathy, 9/08/17

Monday, August 7, 2017

On the experience of hosting an exchange student (and Private Month of Poetry check in)

Our Japanese exchange student departed early Saturday morning, bound for a few days in Sydney with her school group before flying to Singapore for a 2-day stop and then home to the town of Kani in Gifu Prefecture, Japan.

It's taken me a couple of days of reflection to be ready to write about the experience overall, as it was a very intense one, in ways I both was and wasn't expecting. Much of the weekend was spent slumped in an exhausted puddle, recovering from the much higher than normal social and physical engagement of the past two weeks - time we all needed, which was simultaneously very good but also quite melancholy. It seems ridiculous to say after only two weeks, but my house felt - feels - too empty now, with one less teenager in it.

Probably the most important thing to say about the experience, for me personally, is that I learned something I always suspected to be true, which is that my maternal impulse has no practical limits. Language barrier aside, my desire to take care of our student and make sure she was happy was extremely powerful; and finding ways to communicate with her was essential. By day three, she was asking me to braid her hair for school and talking (often via Google Translate!) about the things she likes and the things that make her sad or worried in her life. Substitute-parenting via an app on my phone was a new experience, not without its challenges, but it was was rewarding as any interaction with a young person in one's life. (Which is to say - for me - extremely rewarding. I like kids and teens, often better than I like adults - even when they're completely maddening, which is, of course, often).

As a family, we found the two weeks amazing for shaking us out of our rut (we have a pretty deep rut and it involves too much screen time and too much hermiting in our house). We got out and did things we'd either never done before (ArtVo, High Tea at the Langham) or haven't done for years (Werribee Zoo). We explored our own local area - the shops, the beach, the parks - with fresh eyes. For the kids, seeing our student try Australian food that she'd never encountered before was an eye-opener. (She loved BBQ, pav, fairy bread, roast lamb, risotto, and cheesy potato bake; didn't mind fish & chips, cheese & bacon scrolls, cherry ripe and Tim Tams; and thought Vegemite was the work of Satan).

My girls (and husband and I) really came to love our student. She is a beautiful person, with a gentle, slightly nerdy, goofy nature that fitted in so well with our family dynamic. She and my 12 year old shared a devotion to ice skating, and happily watched competition skating clips on YouTube, skating-themed anime, and taught each other full skating-related vocabularies in their respective languages. (When we travel to Japan next April, we are *totally sorted* if we want to ask someone where is the closest ice rink, where we can hire skates, or whether they can do a triple jump :-) The day we actually went skating, I thought they would both burst with excitement. It was a lovely thing, seeing that connection grow.

I could write on and on about the strangeness and wonderfulness of trying to bridge the language gap (it was often tricky but never less than euphoric when we got there); about listening to the cadence of speech in a language not your own, and rekeying your ear to hear your own flat-vowelled accent through another filter; the pleasure of rediscovering not just your own city, but the awesomeness that your family is capable of; the hilarities and delights of sharing food and culture; even the extremely dorky pleasure of spontaneous singalongs whenever we struck a song that, miraculously, we all knew.

All of that would be true, but the truest thing of all is very simple to say: We made a friend in this fortnight. Whether or not we are able to stay in touch long-term, time alone will tell, but it has been one of the richest two weeks of our lives in the past few years.


Just a little tack-on to check in:

1 August: Ignition (Poem based on the story of the Little Match Girl)
2 August: Bones
3 August: Series of not very good haikus about my cat (but at least I wrote something!!)
4 August: Untitled poem in progress based on the character of Anna Karenina
5 August: NO POEM (some further refinement on the Karenina poem though)
6 August: Villanelle called Starblind (not great, as the rhyme doesn't sit well yet - to be worked on)
7 August: Just started working on a poem tentatively titled Blood

So that's one day missed out of the first week - not terrible.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Private Month of Poetry: Progress

1 August: Ignition (Poem based on the story of the Little Match Girl)
2 August: Bones
3 August: Series of not very good haikus about my cat (but at least I wrote something!!)
4 August: Untitled poem in progress based on the character of Anna Karenina

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Bones (Poem)

This is today's Private Month of Poetry effort - it's a bit laboured and hypertragic, I think, but I was in that kind of blame-my-ancestors mood. Yesterday, as I said I would, I did the first draft of the Little Match Girl poem, which will be for my poetry chapbook, and I polished it today - it's called Ignition. Two days down, 29 to go!

The missteps of people long ago consigned to ground (or ash)
circle, lazily, in double helix;
broken blood and paltry mitochondria
all the ills the flesh is heir to –

All the ills the flesh brings to harvest –

Too much cousin-wedding, on remote and gull-strewn islands;
too much eating – or not – of foods turning toxins
The inheritance:
long Norman noses, pale grub skin, and these –
a symphony of stutters in the code
every year lived, another organ faltering

If not for the counter-balance of melanin and merriness,
gift of a good fairy from central Spain, back when Ireland starved,
perhaps, no prospects of life at all.

The fate is written in the DNA, described in bones.
Nothing else matters nearly so much; a sad thing, somewhat;
Also a comfort, betimes.
The intricate story, over and under the earth, calling, calling,
The sun moves without reverse, and we with it,
Cells attuned to dying, ready to be not:

But not today.

But not today.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

August Challenge: A Private Month of Poetry

As some of my friends and reader/s will be aware, I traditionally participate each January in the Month of Poetry (MOP) challenge, which involves - wait for it - writing a poem every day in the month of January. There's a great group of supportive women who participate and give each other feedback, help and advice. We share our daily efforts on a closed Facebook group that is open all year round for ongoing poetic workshopping. We're even (slowly, slowly) pulling together an anthology from the group, tentatively titled Limina.

January has come to be identified in my mind with poems, with the daily exercise and discipline of them. I tend to write to themes - for the last three Januaries, I have done poems about women from seminal stories (Torah, mythology, fairytale), trying to tell the tales again in a counter-authorial voice. I'm actually working on drawing together those poems into a chapbook for self-publication (title pending - if you have a great idea for a title for a book of poems about women from stories, PLEASE LET ME KNOW!)

However, I am increasingly feeling that a sustained burst once a year, with sporadic poetic output the rest of the year, is not enough to really grow me as a poet. I want to start being much more intentional about my poetry and about finding ways to communicate it. Part of that is also about overcoming my pervasive sense of not-good-enoughedness, and the only way through that particular brain weasel is to keep writing enough and submitting enough that I don't have time to second-guess myself constantly.

Recently I submitted a poem to an online journal after the encouragement of my poetry group, and was thrilled (astonished, but happy!) when they accepted it and bought it for publication. (I will link to it when it runs!) I would like to place more poems over the next 12 months - not for the money, because hello poetry is not a remunerative profession, but for the immense satisfaction of sharing the things I am trying to share when I write them.

 I do identify as a writer primarily as a poet. I write fiction from time to time, but it is not my main jam, and it's not where I feel my voice is most authentically what I want it to be. With a busy freelance professional writing business and three kids, I don't have the time to invest in making myself a better fiction writer, and I am really OK with that.

What I want - what I want so much - is to be poet I want to be; to be able to express the things I am burdened to say in a way that has meaning for people other than me. To do that, I feel like I need not just more craft education, but also just more practice. I am made better every year by doing January's MOP, but I want more from myself than one month of delight and hard work.

So August, I have decided, is going to be another Month of Poetry for me. It'll be a different experience, going it alone (although I am sure I will post some of my poems into my group for critique, which they always very kindly provide). I will post occasional poems here, but mostly I will be keeping the work private, to see what grows from it. But I will be using the blog as an accountability tool, to note what work has been done.

To kick things off - today I am working on a poem for my chapbook, which picks up and twists the story of the Little Match Girl (from Hans Christian Andersen). It is only just started at this stage but I think I will get it done.

Monday, July 31, 2017


I had the weirdest, most vivid dreams last night. They were almost but not quite lucid dreams - in most of them, I was aware I was dreaming and could make active decisions about how I responded to the off-base events and images, but I wasn't completely able to disengage. A couple of them were a bit disturbing too, and this morning I am avidly Googling "dream interpretations" (as you do) to see if there are any Jungian archetypes in play.

One of my dreams was a variant on my most common stress-overload dream (in which I lose something essential, forget to do something essential, or are in some way negligent in a manner that has severe consequences). In this dream, I somehow became aware that it was 8:30 at night and I had unaccountably failed to pick up my 8 year old from primary school. I rang my partner (in my dream) and he told me "don't worry, she went to after school care". This relieved me for about a dream-minute until I exclaimed, "But after care finishes at 6! Where is she NOW?" My dream-self then ran around in a panic and the situation was never resolved. Icky dream. 2/10 Did Not Enjoy.

The next dream - the most proximate to waking for the day, and hence the most vivid in my mind - was a doozy of an odd duck. In my dream, I had hosted a gathering of some kind - a dinner party, I think - for a bunch of people who I was hovering on the edge of recognising, but didn't actually recognise. They were, though, clearly labelled in my mind as "friends from university days".

At the conclusion of the gathering, I offered everyone a hot drink (as you do). One guy, instead of asking for coffee, tea or hot chocolate as others did, put in an incredibly elaborate order for a fancy multilayered coffee concoction, down to the detail of how the foam had to look and so forth. In the dream, I massively resented this but instead of pushing back, I did my best to make the drink. Then when I gave it to him, he took one sip and spat it out, saying it was too cool and too sweet.

In my dream I was filled with the most incandescent anger towards this entitled prick and I was gibbering internally with rage, but instead of verbalising this to Awful Dude, I picked up the dropped cup and offered to make the drink again. All the while, the most corrosive anger was eating my dream-self up and I wanted to hulk-smash the entire world.

I woke up from that dream still furious, and the background miasma of that feeling is still lingering. I have had dreams about being angry before, but usually the anger is focused on a person in my personal life with whom I am in fact frustrated or cross (often someone with whom it would be radically unsafe to verbally express anger), or is self-directed. Those dreams, while not pleasant, are not hard to understand.

Who, though, is this fictional coffee-drama dude in this dream? Why is dream-me pandering to his nonsense? Why am I so incredibly angry and so unable to say anything to him about it? WHAT DOES IT MEAN??

I know I'm going to keep worrying at this throughout the day, interrogating my sulky subconscious until more clues get disgorged. I feel like I've been sent a strongly worded internal memo by the subliminal part of my consciousness to my waking mind, and I'd better find a way to understand it, or there might be downstream consequences I won't like. My subconscious always knows well ahead of my conscious mind when trouble's brewing; I am ill-advised to ignore warning flags when they are waving so vigorously in my slumbers.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Werribee Zoo

Today we took our exchange student to the Werribee Open Range Zoo. We had a great time, but the pictures tell the story best! The animals were extreme posers which suited us admirably.

The beautiful cheetah. She actually snarled at us through the glass - I think she was hungreh.

There guys are such camera hogs.

It's a hard knock life...

We were worried we wouldn't get to spot any koalas, but this one was perfectly positioned for photography

Meerkats were on high alert as two hawks circled overhead

Rhinos soaking up the sun

No two have the same stripes!

Saturday, July 29, 2017


Today we took our Japanese exchange student ice-skating at Docklands, which everybody pretty much loved, then after that we went to the new (ish) interactive art gallery, ArtVo.

We've heard good things about ArtVo, and had been intending to go see it for a while now, but it's surprisingly easy to put off doing even fun-sounding things in one's own city when everyone is busy and stretched. Having a visitor here gave
us the perfect excuse to finally bite the bullet and get in and do it.

The concept of ArtVo is deceptively simple - the walls are painted with large-scale artworks in a variety of styles designed to create a 3D impression if photographed from a specified angle.

The paintings are deliberately set up so that people can "insert" themselves into the picture, hamming it up as much as they please to achieve the outcome. Photo spots on the floor tell you the best place to stand and the best orientation for the photo. Away you go, through a substantial number of themed galleries (more than I was expecting, actually).

It was significantly more fun than I had expected - the kids adored all the posing and the artworks were well rendered enough to make the resulting photos really good-looking. As is usually the case, some came out a lot better than others, but some of the better non-face ones (well, except for *my* face, but that's my decision to make!) are here.

It isn't exactly a budget experience - I got no change from a hunny taking 6 people in - but we spent almost 2 hours there and to be honest, if my 8 year old hadn't hit a bit of a wall, we could easily have stayed longer. I'd like to go back with a bit more time, a better camera and a few less people and have another go at getting some good shots.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Man Booker Prize Longlist 2017 has landed

Somehow it is ALREADY the time of year when the Man Booker Prize longlist is announced, which must mean winter is on the wane here in Oz (oh frabjous day!) I always use the Booker prizelist as a mental marker for the season starting its slow turn towards spring. Perhaps that's why it's always such a happy event for me?

This year's longlist is comprised of 13 titles:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate)
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
The Ministry Of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury)
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet)

That's a list with some heavy hitters on it - Barry, both the Smiths and Roy are all extremely well-regarded literary novellists. Indeed, Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been so long awaited after the triumph of her first novel, The God of Small Things (1997), that you'd have to wonder if it's going to take an early lead in Booker betting just out of readers' sheer excitement that it exists.

In terms of the stats, we've got a list with 6 women and 7 men; there are 4 Americans, 4 Brits, 2 Irish writers, 2 from Pakistan and one from India. Once again, the question of whether allowing American writers to compete for the Booker has weakened diversity in the prize overall will be raised, and for good reason; the lack of any representation from the Antipodes, Africa or most of Asia is notable and telling. Irish and subcontinental writers have traditionally done very well in the Booker, punching out of their weight numerically in terms of listings and wins, and continue to do so; but other voices and other traditions have struggled more since the Americans entered the fray, both to be listed and to be heard.

I have read 1.5 of these books so far - Zadie Smith's Swing Time, which I really enjoyed and would recommend, and I'm currently reading Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for August book club. I was aware that Barry and Ali Smith had new books out, and I have heard some buzz about Solar Bones. The rest of this list is complete greenfields for me - haven't heard of them at all until now.

Based on the book blurbs, there are a few themes that pop out, and they are not really novel ones for the Booker. Love, war, family, trauma, possibility - the stuff of Big Books about Big Stuff, in other words - are all well-represented.

4 3 2 1 seems to be doing a more structured version of what Kate Atkinson did with Life After Life - a sliding-doors type alternate lives narrative - and has the potential to be interesting. Swing Time is a really lovely friendship bildungsroman - as the Guardian review linked above notes, it's in the tradition of Elena Ferrante, and well worth the effort, but as it is about two young girls, it almost certainly won't win. Saunders' debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is set in the US Civil War and is about the death of Lincoln's young son (sort of).

Barry, for some reason I cannot comprehend, has written a historical narrative about a gay relationship set in the Indian wars on the US frontier (it's described as "an ultra-violent literary Western"). It's getting plaudits by the dozen, but I have to say, I think this one is almost certainly Not My Jam. Whitehead's book is about what it says on the label - slavery in the US and the underground railroad that helped slaves escape. Hamid's book intrigues me because I am almost sure it is based on / an expansion of a short story of his I read in the New Yorker a year ago - it's a story of love, refuge and escape. The short was absolutely beautiful, so I am definitely keen to read the novel.

Missing and endangered girls, another favourite trope of serious novellists, pop up in History of Wolves, Reservoir 13 and Home Fires. Ali Smith's Autumn, intended as the first of a linked set of four seasonal books, sounds absolutely intriguingly bizarre, and I almost always enjoy her work, so it's on my list. Solar Bones is (kind of) a ghost story. And finally, there's the not-yet-available debut from Fiona Mozley, Elmet, which is apparently about family, hidden violence, and landscape.

So that's the Booker longlist for 2017. It's reasonably varied, within limits (it's a very, very Anglophone list - only Roy and possibly Hamid really bring a different linguistic / stylistic approach to their narratives). There are some books that look amazing on it; it's a bit early to say if there are any real stinkers, but I am sure I will have views on that when I have read a few!

I'm going to try to read half the list before shortlist announcement on 13 September:

- Zadie Smith, Swing Time (Read)
- Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Reading)
- Ali Smith, Autumn
- Mohsin Hamad, Exit West
- Mike McCormack, Solar Bones
- Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1

We'll see how far that goes, and I might pick up any stragglers on the shortlist (although to be honest I am not going to read the Barry or the Saunders regardless).

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Hosting an exchange student

Right now, we are 4 days into our 13-day hosting of an exchange student from Gifu Prefecture in Japan. It's been an amazing experience so far, one that's enormously rewarding for us (and I hope so much is also being fun for her!)

Since collecting her from the school on Sunday afternoon, we've done a few things. We've introduced her to the wonder that is roast lamb (she had never eaten lamb before and really wanted to try it); she has dressed up the girls in her yukata; and we've been shopping, which she thought was wonderful (many differences between shops here and shops in Japan!)

We've played card games and watched anime and walked the dog; we've made okonomiyaki together (our first time cooking it); and we've started to get better (both ways) at communicating, with the invaluable support of Google Translate. She goes to school every day with my elder two girls, on the bus, which is also an adventure!

This afternoon, we did the first of the special
activities we'd planned for her visit, and fulfilled a long-held ambition of mine and the girls, as we went to the Langham Hotel to take High Tea.

It was an utterly superb experience. I think it may be one of the most indulgent things I have ever done, actually.

Probably the only three memories that compare were when my friend Lucy took me to the Park Hyatt for fancy lunch, massage, and day spa as a pre-giving-birth treat when I was 36 weeks pregnant with my eldest (so, 14 years ago); our wedding night at the Ozone Hotel in Queenscliff in the huge luxurious bridal suite overlooking the ocean; and having lunch at the Plaza Hotel in New York (both of these were 20 years ago).

I can't speak highly enough of the Langham's service, food quality and attention to detail. The gluten-free high tea stand was every bit as luxurious as the "regular" ones, and for once, my 12 year old and I didn't feel second-best or a nuisance.

They even provided us with a waitress from Tokyo who was able to explain everything to our student fluently, which helped her feel relaxed and like she knew what was going on. We learned how to say "cheers" in Japanese and
clicked glasses in great satisfaction with the world overall. Afterwards, we went for a walk along Southbank up to the Arts Centre to see the spire lit up, which was also well-received.

This experience overall is proving so valuable, interesting and enriching for us. Seeing our home through the eyes of someone else is fascinating, and the challenges of communication are at the same time a great learning curve.

It has also started all kinds of ideas in my head about language and words and meaning and how much gets lost in translation and how much is retained - both heart and head stuff. I know there will be more than one poem germinated from these seeds.

We're trying to intersperse doing-things times with relaxing times so we don't exhaust her (or ourselves), so our next outing will be on Friday to my eldest's jujitsu class then out for dinner afterwards. The weekend holds Werribee Zoo and Mansion, ice skating at Docklands, and possibly city-based laneway wandering. It's so much fun to rediscover your own city through the eyes of someone new.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Three weeks in review, three weeks in view

It has been a busy but pretty good three weeks here since I last took stock on 25 June. This period has straddled both the winter school holidays and my 10 day leave period from work, so activities have been somewhat atypical, but in a pretty positive way.

The next three weeks encompasses the two-week stay of our Japanese exchange student, which should be fun but probably also quite tiring. Indeed, after she returns home, we are then immediately into Stargate convention, a heavy work period, and less than a month away from our Sydney trip. Life has wings!

IN REVIEW  (26 June - 16 July)
- School holidays for kids and 10 days leave for me
- OzComicCon (1-2 July)
- Grandparent holidays for all three kids
- 4 days away on Mornington Peninsula with family friends
- Gymnastics day program for 8 year old
- Bounce! trip with friends for 12 and 8 year olds
- First ever sleepover birthday at a friend's house for 8 year old
- Ice skating for 12 year old and friend
- Catch up with our Mothers Group friends
- 6.5 x paid work days for me (2.5 in week of 26 June, 4 in week of 10 July)
- Commenced big new project (work)
- Sold a poem for journal publication!! (This was the most exciting thing I think)
- Online Book Club (26 June) which discussed the wonderful Their Brilliant Careers
- Got my hair coloured (this is an annual event only, thus worth noting :-)

IN VIEW  (17 July - 6 August)
- Exchange student coming to stay: 23 July - 5 August. While she is here we will be taking her to Werribee Zoo, the Dandenongs, the beach, and (at her request) ice skating!
- Eldest's 14th birthday dinner  (4 August)
- The usual extracurriculars each week: gymnastics, jujitsu, chess, skating
- Next interschool debate for eldest
- Cardiologist appt for me regarding my increasingly troublesome heart arythmmia
- 2 x lunches with friends (at this stage! This number may grow :-)
- Approximately 11-12 days of paid work across three projects  (could be as low as 10 or as high as 14 depending)
- Submit 2 more poems for publication and / or competitions
- Next Online Book Club  (19 July) discussing Roxane Gay's Hunger
- REALLY get passport applications done!!!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Cape Schanck

Yesterday we took our three kids and a friend's two to Cape Schanck to see the Lighthouse, Museum and do the walk down to Pebble Beach.

We haven't been to Cape Schanck since our elder two daughters were 3.5 and 2 (they are now about to turn 14 and just turned 12!), but it was oddly reassuring to see how little it has changed in the elapsed decade, and how accurate my visual memories are of our previous visit.

I sometimes worry that my memory is going a bit funky, but at least the long term portion seems reasonably intact.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

McClelland Sculpture Park

It is winter school holidays here, and today we went to the McClelland Sculpture Park in Langwarrin. We had never been before, but it was very interesting indeed. Here are some of the better shots.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Heart (Poem)

this is how it is:
sometimes my heart beats a sideways tattoo
and death feels closer than the window
the moon shining through, penny-bright

like this:
the pressure and the tingling
breathing swallowed and shallowed

the headcanon of my life rewriting itself
she died relatively young, but then
she was never the most robust

we might all be made of stars, but if that's so
it is a difficult and distant aging dwarf swimming in my blood
a stranger to earth and strong lovely things

this is how it is.
no long years at my feet, or so it feels
the journey into the west before me,
the path lost in the night.

I have a heart and my heart is broken
and that is the only true thing
it is broken and it may never be healed
no one lives on beyond their heart's strength

and all my words
all my pale, idiotic grasping
all my loving and all the love I am given
cannot fix what is broken
cannot repair that rift or reset that clock

and I close my eyes and dream of impossible things
and ask the angel to open my eyes again
for another day.

- Kathy, 3/07/17

Monday, June 26, 2017

Year Two in Business

Yesterday was the second anniversary of leaving my salaried job and striking out on my own in business as a freelancer. That must mean it's time for a look at how things went this year!

Let's start with some stats.  This year, I have:

- Worked for 4 big clients - 3 universities and 1 state government agency. The balance of the work has been roughly 40% University A, 30% University B, 20% University C, and 10% state government. I think it's pretty conclusive that the tertiary education sector has emerged as my key niche market at this stage of the game.

- Had 9 weeks completely off - a week apiece in the July, September and Easter school holidays, 4 weeks over summer, a week of being bedridden with flu in August, and one week in early September when I had an unexpected mid-project lull and literally no work in. Taking the time from 23 December til 18 January off was FANTASTIC and I hope I can do it like that every year!

- Worked an average of 4 days a week in the 43 weeks I worked (this was unevenly deployed, with a few 10-day-no-break stretches and some weeks with only a couple of working days in them).

- Attended client sites for meetings an average of 1 day a week except in my Monster Quarter, where it was usually 2 days a week.

- Had a very uneven spread of work across the year, with Monster Quarter 2 (Sept-Dec) carrying 35% of the overall year's work while Quarter 3 (Jan-March) carried only 17% (this was largely due to the 4 week break and then slow start back to projects). Quarters 1 and 4 were similar to each other, carrying 25% and 23% respectively each.

- Made use of subcontract labour to deal with overflow work. Using subbies was a new experience, with a significant learning curve, for me, but as I progress in business, it's an absolutely necessary tool to have in your box for those pressured times.

- Out-earned the salary I was on in the fulltime job I left in June 2015 by 10% in gross terms, although in real terms, this isn't true as it doesn't include superannuation (I made a self-contribution of 9% of earnings this year, which left me basically level-pegging). Still, if I'd have stayed in that fulltime job, I would've worked 240 days in the year as opposed to the 172 I actually worked this year, so working 35% less days for the same money strikes me as a good outcome! This represents a growth of 27% on my earnings in 2015-16, and given that I set myself a goal of 5% growth, I think I can safely say I kicked that to the curb.

Overall it has been another good year in less quantifiable terms, although more challenging than Year One (and not just because of the increased workload). I have navigated some complex projects in ways that were ultimately satisfying but caused a few sleepless nights along the way. I am still a lot happier and more free doing this than I was on salary, but the rubber certainly hit the road a lot more firmly this year.

Looking back at this time last year, I note that my goals for year two in business were:

- Save 70% of the Japan holiday money: No, I did not quite do this. I saved enough for the airfares, travel insurance and most accommodation, but that is around 60% of the total cost. Still, I made good inroads!
- Increase earnings by 5%: Kicked it (see above).
- Take at least 8 weeks off, including 4 in the summer: Yes indeeeeed!

So, I'm going to just keep swimming in business in 2017-18. I'm not ruling out an eventual return to some kind of salaried work, but for now, this is what suits me and my family best. My goals for 2017-18 are:

1. Get within 10% of 2016-17 earnings: To be honest, I don't have or want to have a growth goal for earnings in the coming year. I earned plenty for our needs this year, and I think a lot of it was a bit flukey, frankly. I don't want to set myself up to be crushed when it turns out that I can't make more rain this time, in a slowing market for my kind of work. I am continuing with my biggest project through til November and have two more biggish ones coming online in July, but replicating this big year probably isn't fully achievable, especially given the time out I'll be taking in what is traditionally one of the hottest work zones of the year.

2. Take 10 weeks off: This financial year includes our long-anticipated trip to Japan in the first three weeks of April. It's my intention to take 4 weeks off altogether for that - a few days either side of the travel for prep / recovery. I'll also be taking a week each in the July and September school hols, and I really, really want to repeat the 4 weeks off over summer.

3. Try to expand my client base: Ideally I'd like to have 5-7 regular clients, rather than the 3 regular and 1 intermittent I have now. I think it would be a much more stable way to operate. So I'll be trying for that in 2017-18.

Onwards and upwards, then!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Three weeks in review, three weeks in view

So I have been super slack with this lately - life has been busy +++, mostly in a good way but quite challengingly too.

A great deal has happened since I last wrote about daily things on 4 June. I'm not going to try to capture everything, just the high notes. It's been a very busy time and I expect it will continue to be so for the foreseeable future, so I am steering away from weekly updates and moving towards more of a clumping model. I still find it quite a helpful tool, for family and planning purposes.

Health-wise, things have been mostly OK, with a mild cold moving through the family and I did have a couple of dodgy runs with my heart issues. No one has been too desperately ill though.

The three weeks coming up incorporates the winter school holidays and a 10-day work break for me, so the targets look a little different to the norm, but we will still be busy - just a different kind of busy! I personally am glad that we are now past the winter solstice and have moved ahead with booking our Japan holiday for next year - both those things are helping to loosen the chokehold of winter on my feels.

I expect to blog a little over the coming three weeks - as the mood takes me, really - but I am definitely hoping to get a review of Their Brilliant Careers up. Other than that, we'll have to see!

IN REVIEW (5 June - 25 June)
- 8 days paid work performed, all for one client  (2x 2.5 day weeks and 1 x 3 day week)
- PT x 2
- Travel planned and booked for Japan trip in April 2018 (airfares paid for)
- Gymnastics x 3; Jujitsu x 3; Ice-Skating x 1 regular lesson, 1 competition, and 1 grading assessment; Chess x 2 (*There was no chess or ice skating on the long weekend)
- Inter-school debate for eldest (win!)
- Confirmation and correspondence with our forthcoming Japanese exchange student
- Attended Continuum 13 (science fiction convention)
- Quoted for, and secured, a big new freelance work project to commence July 2017
- Planned, hosted and greatly enjoyed my How to Host a Murder birthday dinner party (17 June)
- Family birthday lunch for me
- Commenced work on my planned poetry chapbook
- Saw Wonder Woman at the cinema (YES that counts as a highlight!!)
- Had 3 x coffee catch-ups with friends
- Went out for family brunch and market shopping
- FINALLY sorted out my superannuation muddle (this is 100% the biggest actual achievement of the past three weeks)

IN VIEW (26 June - 16 July)
- 5.5 days paid work (2.5 days this week, 3 days in week of 10 July)
- PT x 2 (skipping in my work vacation week)
- 10-day work vacation for me (29 June - 9 July)
- Online Book Club, discussing Their Brilliant Careers (tomorrow night!)
- Gymnastics x 1; Jujitsu grading assessment (No chess or skating now til next term)
- Parent-teacher interviews for primary schooler
- Attend and assist at pop culture stall - OzComicCon (1-2 July)
- Sleepover birthday attendance for youngest and eldest (different parties!)
- Catch-ups with kids and friends x 3
- 3 days away by the beach with family friends (staying somewhere with a wood heater yay!)
- Kick-off for new big work project in week of 10 July
- Gymnastics holiday program (youngest)
- Big yard clean-up (this has been put off waaaaay too long)
- Get passports done I REALLY MEAN IT THIS TIME
- Progress poetry book to next stage

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A lot of movement, very quickly

The past two weeks (and the two to come) have been absolutely packed with stuff changing, stuff happening and stuff being foreshadowed.

Some of it is not things I can talk about publicly, but some of it is. Things like booking travel to Japan, confirming our hosting of an exchange student, and getting serious about my poetry book that I am going to self publish (to the extent of hiring an editor and a designer).

There have been no less than three major new work opportunities arise for quoting on. There have been cons attended  (Continuum) and cons booked / anticipated  (ComicCon at the end of this month, and the Return to the Gate 20th Anniversary Stargate con in August, which I am taking my eldest daughter to because YES we are just that nerdy). There have been books read and reviewed and a book group project started successfully. There have been debates won. On Saturday, there will be the first adult dinner party I have hosted in many years as a How to Host a Murder party game.

I feel pleased that life seems so ... unstuck ... all of a sudden, even though I am also a bit breathless at the relentless pace of it all. (I am also more than slightly terrified at what I have to do financially in the coming month, as I pay for our Japan flights, make my annual super contribution, pay school and extracurricular fees, and pay my quarterly tax bill).

When things start moving they often seem to keep going quite fast for a while, or at least that has been my experience. Between work - if even one of the three opportunities come off, I'll be moderately busy, and I think I am likely to get two of the three, which means very busy - the exchange student, family birthdays, poetry book, cons, and our planned Sydney holiday, I do not realistically expect to draw breath before October, and that's if I'm lucky.

None of this is bad. Indeed, most of it is very, very good. Bit tiring, but good! The trick is not to get so lost in it all that I lose my grip on myself though.

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Sevenling Before Solstice (Poem)

Early winter is not, traditionally, one of my better times of the year. I usually improve a little once we're past my birthday and the winter solstice. However, right now, days can be good, but nights are just not - it's high-tide for night panics and anxiety, which means insomnia +++. Plus side - I get lots of reading and poeming done, so.

I know three things about the night in winter:
it is sharp with tooth-bright stars; its reach is endless;
its cold is deathless, and whispers death to all that yearns for light.

I dream three things on winter nights:
monsters red in tooth in claw; a sadness that never ceases ever;
the death of love and all loved things.

the wolf has eaten the sun, and the darkness will not die tonight.

- Kathy, 12/06/17