Wet Ink – a Review

Since the demise of Sidewalk and Vernacular a couple of years back, South Australia has sadly been the only state without a quality magazine regularly publishing new writing. I am pleased to say that Wet Ink more than adequately fills the void.

There is something very healthy looking about this first issue of Wet Ink. You get the impression that the people behind the publication haven’t had to sell their car and mortgage the house to put this into print, as is often the case with many of these ‘little’ magazines. There is an impressive list of sponsors, advisors and editors, as well as evidence that they’ve worked hard to attract advertisers.

The production and design is first class, with generous space given to each piece of writing, and black and white illustrations throughout.

The contents of this first issue are also mostly impressive. The highlights include an interview with Frank Moorhouse about the state of Australian publishing, and a mouth-watering appreciation of Adelaide’s food by Tom Shapcott.

The short stories are a mixed bag. Angela Rotger’s ‘Spilt Salt’ is particularly good – beautifully written, full of rich detail and emotion. I also enjoyed Tom Morton’s ‘In Luminous Darkness’, despite its over-reliance on pop culture references, and Peter Barry’s ‘Palace of Justice’, an Orwellian tale of the not-too-distant future.

I would have liked more poetry, although the poetry here is good, especially Amelia Walker’s ‘Genus Unknown’ and the aforementioned Tom Shapcott piece.

There are also a handful of short pieces that are hard to classify. Not quite short stories, but definitely not poetry. A couple worthy of mention are James Roberts humorous ‘The Death Of Danny Boy’ and Sonja Dechian’s darkly funny review of last year’s flu epidemic.

All in all, it’s an accessible and highly readable first volume. My only gripe is the length – only 56 pages. But these are early days, and there is plenty of room to expand once the magazine has become established.

So subscribe, submit and support. Let’s make sure Wet Ink stays in print for a good many years.

For more information and submission guidelines visit the Wet Ink website at: http://www.wetink.com.au/

Things I Will Never Buy

While shopping at the supermarket today, my daughter pointed out that you could now buy chocolate-scented rubbish bags. Chocolate-scented rubbish bags! I’m afraid it’s true. They are also available in strawberry, lemon, lime and lavender. I can understand citrus-scented products, after all, we’ve had lemon-scented floor cleaner and dishwashing liquid for some time, but chocolate-scented products are a different matter. It might just be me, but there is something very wrong about the idea of having your garbage smell of confectionery.

As far as I can see, the innovation is going to have two possible follow-on effects:

1. People are going to want to eat their garbage.

2. People are going to think of garbage next time they eat chocolate.

Either effect is surely undesirable.

I can’t help but imagine the sorts of things that might have been said when the company behind this product first discussed the idea:

Executive A: ‘How can we persuade people to buy more rubbish bags?’

Executive B: ‘We need to make them more attractive!’

Executive A: ‘But they’re rubbish bags! How can we make rubbish bags more attractive?’

Executive C: ‘We could make them look nicer! Y’know pretty colours and designs!’

Executive B: ‘And we could make them smell nice!’

Executive D: ‘And we could make them taste nice!’

Executive A: ‘Whaddya mean, taste nice? We don’t want people to eat the rubbish bags!’

Executive D: ‘Mmm…sorry, maybe I did get a little carried away…’

Executive A: ‘But I do like the other ideas – a new look and a new smell. What sorts of fragrances did you have in mind?’

Executive B: ‘Well, what sorts of things do people like to smell?’

Executive C: ‘Flowers! Perfume! Roast chicken!’

Executive A: ‘Fruit! Apple pie! Freshly-cut grass!’

Executive D: ‘Fish! Beer! Chocolate!’

Executive A: ‘Fish-scented rubbish bags? What a revolting concept!’

Executive D: ‘Yes…er…maybe I was getting a little over-excited.’

Executive A: ‘But chocolate! Chocolate-scented rubbish bags. You might be on to something there…’

I manage to resist my daughter’s appeal for chocolate-scented rubbish bags, and make a mental note to add the product to the list of ‘things I will never buy’.

P.S. For your information and amusement here is the current version of this list:

1. Caravan
2. Golf clubs
3. Gun
4. Homebrew Kit
5. Global Positioning System (anyone who cannot read a map should not be driving a car)
6. Frozen spinach (making a bad thing worse)
7. USB Cup Warmer
8. Surfboard
9. Reef thongs
10. Meat-shaped soy products
11. Guinea-pig
12. Flippers
13. Fishing rod
14. Any power tool

Arse Poetica

It might just be me, but isn’t the idea of displaying poetry in toilet cubicles a little objectionable? The Red Room Company, a non-profit organization operating out of Sydney, is currently calling for submissions to their Toilet Door Poems project. Poems exploring ‘issues of social, political, cultural and creative relevance’ will be posted on the back of toilet doors in Greater Union cinemas and Qantas domestic terminals during the month of April 2006.

Now, as a poet, I realize I should be grateful for any opportunity available to expose my work to a wider audience. After all, I am frequently expected to have my work published without payment, and often read for free, it follows that I should be happy to have my poetry published anywhere, under any circumstances. However, I am having trouble visualising a constipated cinema-goer appreciating my delicate little piece about tulips, or my sunset haiku, or my witty political satire.

They’re in the middle of watching ‘Cheaper by the dozen 2’ or some other monstrosity; they’ve eaten their mega-sized popcorn and guzzled their mega-sized soft drink; and now they need to take a dump. They shuffle, buttocks clenched, to the bathroom, squat in a cubicle, and find that all is not as it seems down below. Nothing is moving. They groan and they strain, grow red-faced and frustrated, and through watery eyes, begin to take in their surroundings. They notice that, instead of the usual dirty joke, telephone number, or inane obscenity, they are faced with a screed of words. Is it advertising? A story? A song? They read the first few words, then give up, and wish for the obscenity. Before long, they’ve ejected the reluctant stool, pulled up their pants, and vacated the cubicle, ducking out of the bathroom without washing their hands in order to get back to the zany climax of their zany movie.

I can’t see the poems displayed in Qantas terminals faring any better. After all, the typical airplane commuter is primarily concerned with getting out of the airport as quickly as possible. The average airport loo is the last place I’d want to relax and read a poem.

If these organizations were really serious about supporting the form they would dedicate some space in their in-flight magazine to poetry, or devote a few moments of screen time to a poetry reading. Offering space on the back of toilet doors is about as miserly as you can get. Poetry deserves better.

The Red Room Company aims to ‘create, produce and distribute poetry, by new and emerging Australian writers, to the public, in unusual ways.’ These are admirable aims, and I would usually be reluctant to criticise any attempt to expose poetry to a wider audience. However, there is no need for us to be quite so desperate. Poetry may be the most undervalued and marginalized creative pursuit in the country, but that doesn’t mean we should accept anything thrown our way.

After all, would Australia’s performing arts community leap at the opportunity to perform in the bathrooms of fast food restaurants? Would the country’s fine artists get excited over the chance to decorate the seat covers of hardware store toilets? I doubt it.

The Red Room Company are encouraged to continue their mission to distribute poetry to the wider community. I’m sure there are plenty of opportunities waiting to be discovered and explored.

But, please, no more Toilet Door Poetry.

First Impressions of Earth – a Review

Sometimes you have to wonder if the worst thing that can happen to a band is that they receive immediate approval and adulation. The Strokes have spent the last five years getting over the success of ‘Is this it’, their every move examined in response to that much-lauded album. Some criticised the follow-up ‘Room on fire’ for being too much like ‘Is this it’, and others said it was too different – they couldn’t win.

Their third album was always going to suffer from the same anticipation and analysis, and it was always going to disappoint. In the end, they have tried appease both camps – those looking for something new, and those pining for ‘Is this it 2’. It’s a move that doesn’t always pay off.

New producer, David Kahne (The Bangles, Cher, Paul McCartney) has given the sound a layer of gloss and muscle while, at the same time, retaining much of the band’s trademark ‘transistor-friendly’ low-fi fuzziness. Julian Casablancas’ strained and sloppy vocals even seem occasionally out of place amid the clean guitar sounds and ultra-tight rhythms.

The opening sequence of songs is as good as anything they’ve done. ‘You only live once’ could be The Cars circa 1978, with its chugging guitars and mechano-beat. First single ‘Juicebox’ is propelled by a Peter Gunn bass riff and slashing guitars, while ‘Razorblade’ and ‘On the other side’ channel an array of 70s influences including ’new-wave reggae’ and Barry Manilow’. At six songs in, ‘Ask me anything’ finds Casablancas singing with only a mellotron for accompaniment. It’s a welcome change of pace.

Unfortunately, the quality isn’t maintained throughout the second half of the album, and songs like ‘Vision of division’, ‘Killing lies’ and ‘Evening sun’ seem laboured and uninteresting. And the experiments here fall flat – the odd ‘Zorba the Greek’ guitar soloing in ‘Vision’ and tempo shifts in ’15 minutes’.

It’s also about this time that you realize this is a very long Strokes album. It is, in fact, longer than ‘Is this it’and ‘Room on fire’ combined. One wonders what another 30-minute album might have sounded like. There are at least four or five songs that would not have been missed.

And so, the verdict? The experiments are admirable, if not always successful. The best songs are very good indeed. But, as a whole, this is probably not a great album – too long, too inconsistent, too many weak songs. And one comes away with the impression of a band unable or afraid to cut loose, always conscious of the critical eye, the need for approval. This self-consciousness is evident in the lyrics too. ‘I’ve got nothing to say’ moans Casablancas in ‘Ask me anything’ – an apparent riposte to criticism that he, indeed, has nothing to say. (Although later on, in ‘Red light’, he also says ‘Seven billion people got nothing to say.’)

Maybe they should try something completely different next time? An album of instrumentals? Synth-pop? A dance album? Rid themselves of the ‘Is this it’ curse for good.

The End of Sleep

Two weeks into the New Year, and all that’s left of my illness is a badly out-of-sync body clock. I spent so much time sleeping during that period – albeit at the oddest hours – that I am wide-awake at night, the ability to fall asleep seemingly forgotten.

I’ve spent many long nights with eyes wide open, listening to the wind, insects, night birds. Sleep is a weird thing. Like breathing, or the beating of our heart, it is a function we do not think about. It just ‘happens’. What are the instructions for sleep? Where is the manual?

1) Lie down on bed
2) Put head on pillow
3) Close eyes
4) Sleep

That’s about it, as far as I can tell. I seem to have forgotten how to become unconscious, forgotten how to initiate that little moment when we slip out of awareness and into something else. One night, after giving up any attempt at sleep, I find myself on the net, trying to find help. I go to Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, and type in ‘Sleep’. I scroll past the list of possible results of sleep deprivation (brain damage, obesity, hypertension, heart attack, cancer, and death), glance at some interesting statistics on the sleep habits of animals (e.g. giraffes only require two hours of sleep), and find the section on ‘sleep hygiene’.

The list of guidelines for better sleep is as follows:

– Reserve the bed for sleep and sexual activity.
– Keep the bedroom at a comfortable temperature.
– Keep the bedroom as dark as possible.
– Establish a regular bedtime routine (light activity, no video games, tv or computers).
– Avoid caffeine and other stimulants.
– Avoid large meals within one hour of sleep.
– Use relaxation techniques (e.g. meditation) before sleep.
– Regular, vigorous, daily exercise, preferably in the morning.
– Get adequate exposure to natural daylight.
– Avoid exercise within one hour of sleeping.
– Avoid napping during the day.

Now, I’m not sure what they mean by ‘reserve the bed for sleep and sexual activity’, after all, I’m not what other uses it might be good for (jogging? acrobatics? building model aircraft?), but I’ve tried most of those suggestions. Maybe I should be exercising more during the day? Maybe I should have another go at meditation?

I try some other sites, and find a few more suggestions:

– Drink milk.
– Hide your clock.
– Don’t smoke.
– Eat some turkey.
– Do visualisation – focus all your attention on your toes, or visualise walking down a flight of stairs.
– Keep a sleep diary.

I’ve tried drinking milk, and I don’t smoke, but hiding your clock! That’s something I haven’t tried. I take my big clunky Mickey Mouse alarm clock and hide it in my underwear drawer. I sense the clock’s unhappiness, but try and put it out of my mind.

Now, what’s this about turkey? Apparently, turkey contains trytophan, a building block for making serotonin, a neurotransmitter, which sends message between nerve cells and causes feelings of sleepiness. That explains a lot about Christmas Day. I thought I was just bored.

I make a mental note to eat more turkey.

I try focusing all my attention on my toes, but only feel nauseous, then try to visualise a stairway and can’t stop worrying that I’m going to fall down it.

I’m not sure about the idea of a ‘sleep diary’. I’ve kept a ‘dream diary’ before, but not a ‘sleep diary’. I imagine what it might contain.

11th January – Went to bed at 11.30pm. Drank warm milk. Tried to meditate. Could not sleep
12th January – Went to bed at 12.30am. Ate turkey sandwich. Tried to visualize toes. Felt sick. Could not sleep.
13th January – Went to bed 11.15pm. Listened to meditation tape of running water. Needed to pee. Could not sleep.
14th January – Went to bed 10.30pm. Could not sleep. Did some push-ups and running-on-the-spot until tired. Could not sleep. Wrote in sleep diary.

I decide there is little value in keeping such a diary.

In the end, I give up and go to the doctor for some sleeping pills. I am given Temazepam. I take not one, but two, before bed. I still can’t sleep. I feel very, very tired, but can’t sleep.

However, the following day I fall asleep at work. Not only does no-one notice, but I also get my work done well ahead of schedule. At the end of the week, my manager even praises me.

‘You’re doing some marvelous work, Graham,’ she says. ‘What’s brought about this sudden burst of energy?’

‘I’m just getting some quality sleep,’ I reply with a smile.

Some sleep links:


The Ministry of Waiting

We are asked to assemble in the foyer of the Ministry at 9.30am. A man dressed in a wig and gown meets us there and leads us along hallways lined with marble and ornate tapestries to a long, low room filled with chairs. We are asked to take a seat and wait. We wait for about forty-five minutes. We wait quietly. Most people stare into space. Some have brought books or newspapers. No-one talks.

Eventually, another man, dressed similarly to the first, appears at the front of the room and calls out names from a list. We reply ‘here’ when our name is called, and the man crosses our name from the list. He then gives us a card marked with a number. Mine reads ’27’. The girl sitting next to me has’136’. Some people do not answer when he calls their name, and we assume that they are not here. He underlines their names with a red crayon. The man then leaves, and we are left to wait for another thirty minutes.

A third man, dressed in a military uniform, appears at a side door, and selects about twenty people, who then follow him out the main door of the room. Another man appears, and the same thing happens again. This happens several times, until there are only about twenty people left. We are asked to follow a woman to yet another room. She is dressed in a dark suit and sunglasses. We follow her along more corridors, down winding stairways, past rows of grim statues, until we arrive at another long, low room.

This room is smaller than the first, and there are already a number of people positioned around the room on important-looking chairs. There are men and women wearing wigs and robes, and men wearing military clothes, helmets and leather boots. There is a woman at the front of the room scribbling strange markings into a ragged notebook. We are asked to sit in a row of seats across the back of the room. Yet another man enters the room. He is very old. His wig is very large and his robes are a very dark maroon. He sits at the front of the room next to the scribbling woman. His chair is very big, and very important-looking.

One by one, the very old man calls out numbers. If our number is called, we are to stand up, walk across the room, bow to the man, and sit in the identical position on the opposite side of the room. This goes on until all the numbers are called, and we are all sitting on the opposite side of the room. The very old man confers with the scribbling woman, and one or two of the other wigged and robed people. They look solemnly in our direction and nod.

We are left alone in the room for about fifteen minutes. Eventually, the woman in the dark suit and glasses returns and leads us to back to the first room. It is already filling with people. I do not recognize any of them. We are asked to take a seat and wait. After about forty-five minutes, a man dressed in a wig and gown enters and begins calling out our names. When our name is called we are given a fresh card with a new number. Mine says ‘72’.

This routine continues throughout the day, with only subtle variations. There is a break at 1.00pm, and again at 3.30pm. We are allowed to leave at 4.30pm. We are paid $52.50 for our day at the Ministry. This does not compensate us for meals or childcare, but goes some way towards the cost of transport. If we do not attend the Ministry we are fined, possibly imprisoned. The law says we must wait.

Broken Flowers – a Review

In recent years, Bill Murray has developed a screen persona that relies on silence, a handful of facial expressions and an air of gloomy indifference. The latest Jim Jarmusch movie, Broken Flowers, allows him to explore this screen persona to the full, however, it is this character’s inability to communicate that contributes to the film’s failure to satisfy.

The opening shots of the movie establish Don Johnston’s world. We meet his neighbour, Winston, who has a beautiful wife, and a brood of lively children. His house is chaotic, yet warm and full of life. In contrast, Don Johnston, having just been left by his latest lover, Sherrie (Julie Delpy), sits silent and alone in a cavernous living room. We watch him watch television, stare into space, then fall sleep.

We are given few clues as to what motivates Don. We learn that he made lots of money ‘in computers’ but can only assume that he is now retired, as he seems to have plenty of time on his hands. We are also told that he was/is something of a ‘Don Juan’, although it is difficult to imagine anyone with such a lack of charisma attracting much attention from the opposite sex.

Don receives an anonymous letter from someone claiming to be a former lover, who reveals that she has raised Don’s son, and that the son, now a teenager, has left in search of his father. Don consults Winston, a budding crime writer and amateur sleuth, and is encouraged to track down the writer of the letter and uncover the truth about his son.

The movie then follows Don as he travels the country in search of his former lovers: Laura (Sharon Stone) is a widower with a promiscuous daughter; Dora (Frances Conroy) is a married real estate agent; Carmen (Jessica Lange) is an animal communicator; and Penny (Tilda Swinton) lives on a ramshackle farm with bad-tempered bikers. The encounters grow increasingly awkward. There is little or no talk, and not much to suggest that there was ever any affection between Don and these women.

We are just as unsatisfied as Don when he returns home without having discovered anything more about his son or the mysterious letter. There are a few more developments before the movie’s end, but no resolution. That, in itself, is not a problem. There is no need for a ‘happy ending’ if the movie contains a sense of ‘journey’. We are meant to feel that Don has experienced something profound in Broken Flowers. Instead, we are left frustrated and puzzled. Without a clear ‘starting point’ it is impossible to get a sense of ‘journey’. In Broken Flowers we know as little about Don Johnston at the end as we did at the beginning.

Often ‘less is more’ is good, sometimes ‘just a little’ is better.