Friday, October 10, 2014

River boat

Banana loaded
pumpkin bearing
hammock lying
brazier burning
card playing
fish eating
red nosing
feet steering
chicken clucking
cigarette selling
petrol guzzling
plank corking
sanpan following
canal hopping
car ferrying...

river boat

Monday, September 29, 2014

Always an Apprentice

This month we welcome a guest post by the author, raconteur and spritual tourist, Walter Mason. Walter was a student of mine some years back at University of Western Sydney where I taught a number of writing subjects. In my creative non fiction class he wrote a brilliant personal essay about meeting a monk in Vietnam. I told him it was so good he should send it out immediately for publication. He found a publisher (Allen & Unwin) not only for that essay but for a whole book of them. (I love it when students take my advice!) His bestselling Destination Saigon was published in 2010 and was followed by Destination Cambodia in 2013. Walter is also a great authorpeneur and a generous promoter of other authors work. If you want an example of how to be an entertaining, living, loving, giving author, just follow Walter around for a month or two on his library events, festival appearances, classes, lectures, web chats, blogs, tweets and FB activity. His energy is boundless and infectious. Here is taste of it...

I’m afraid I am rather an anxious type, and one of the first things I do when faced with a challenge is to read a book about it. And normally not just one. I can lose several days in a whirlwind of research when faced with preparing a coleslaw for a barbecue, or being asked what BB cream I could recommend a personal trainer. I am under no illusion that these are avoidance tactics, pure and simple. I would do almost anything not to put forward a firm opinion, which is why I am a member of several research libraries and am still not really sure what I think about the Macarena. These things take time. Come back to me when I have really examined all sides of the issue.

Worse, once I make a commitment and actually start doing something, I can never really give up researching it and learning more about it. Perhaps it’s a blessing, but I have the ability to remain constantly fascinated by subjects it might be safely assumed I had exhausted. I will still read every book, for example, on the New Romantic movement. I have been buying books about mermaids since I was ten years old. And my library of books on controversies surrounding the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist may be one of the biggest in private hands. I don’t let go of my obsessions easily. 

And so it is with books about writing. I adore them. I buy every new one I hear about, and simply delight in the discussions – circular and endless – that famous and not so famous writers have about their craft. Certain writing books are like holy relics to me, and I read them over and over again. My go-to books are Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” and Julia Cameron’s “Your Right to Write.” Added to these are the more belletristic books about writers that dwell on elements of their subject’s professional writing habits and concerns. These I find even more addictive.

The very best are Edmund White’s book about Proust, S. N. Behrman’s “Conversation with Max” and the simply superb “The Quest for Corvo.” I could (and regularly do) just devote two days to sitting down and reading these back-to-back and coming away completely satisfied. And if I were ever stranded on a desert island all I would need was Richard Ellmann’s enormous (and very writerly) biography of Oscar Wilde and I could spend the rest of my years in complete contentment. 

But now there’s a new book which is the perfect combination of these two strains of write-o-tainment. “Always Apprentices” is a collection of interviews and interactions between working writers, all of them originally appearing on the pages of the American literary magazine ‘The Believer’. It is a wonderfully diverse collection, and filled with fascinating observations, pearls of wisdom and insider information. I am on my second read, and bring away something new from it each day.

It contains some big names: Michael Ondaatje, Pankaj Mishra, Joan Didion and Don DeLillo talking to Bret Easton Ellis. These chats are, of course, completely absorbing. But I have been inspired and charmed by some lesser-known writers whose work I have been inspired to seek out because of this book, people like Mary Gaitskall, Christine Schutt and Geoff Nicholson.

“A writer is never successful,” says Bruce Jay Friedman in the book, echoing a sentiment I came across recently in Justin Heazlewood’s brilliant book “Funemployed.” It’s a bitter truth but one I think is true. In a landscape in which writers – and probably all creatives – are increasingly devalued, it becomes harder and harder to earn a living. This is, of course, bad news, but I think it is an essential fact to confront. Now, I think Friedman is making a more esoteric reference, something along the lines that a writer never fully succeeds in the project s/he undertakes. But the more prosaic interpretation stands. We live in age in which we must constantly work and work hard in order to carve some sort of career as a writing professional, and this is why books like “Always Apprentices” are essential reading. We can never afford to get lazy or rest on our laurels.

This brings me back to Zen Buddhism, which is essential to the work of Natalie Goldberg, one of my aforementioned classic writers’ writers. Zen talks about the “beginners mind,” the state of being in which we look at everything with fresh eyes and seek to empty our minds of preconceived judgements and ideas. Such an approach is an exceptionally helpful one for writers, and is, I think, the reason why writers often appear deceptively youthful. To write is to cultivate surprise and to be constantly discovering. It is an extremely healthy approach to life. 

The wonderful eccentricity of the writing life is best expressed in the book by Joy Williams, a novelist who doesn’t have an email address and can’t use computers. Though such a position must be maddeningly inefficient and even socially isolating, I can understand its charm. As someone who currently has  2,751 emails to attend to (and possibly more since you started reading this) I am hyper-aware of the fact that technology can be a writer’s enemy as much as her or his friend. Noy Holland continues the creative luddite theme by conducting her interview with Stanley Crawford through the medium of letters. It’s no surprise that letters are making something of a comeback in this age of ephemeral communication (see the success of Melbourne literary collective Women of Letters). Like handicrafts, zines and waxed moustaches, letters represent a kinder, more tactile age in which some painstaking effort of the hand produced an immeasurable reward. May they continue to experience this resurgence, and may each of you reading this commit to sending at least a few letters and postcards this year.

There is much in “Always Apprentices” that delights the writer, and much that makes the writer despair, but anyone in love with literary loveliness will be delighted by the stories in its pages of survival, resilience and remaining committed to the acts of writing and creation. Reading it I am reminded of the drive that lies behind all authorial efforts, what Graham Greene called: “a desire to reduce a chaos of experience to some sort of order.” Paula Fox talks about being “rediscovered” and of roaming across the city looking for copies of her out-of-print novel (now rightly considered a classic); and Aleksandar Hemon writes of the compulsion of writing, its psychic necessity:
“I write and read with the assumption that literature contains knowledge of human experience that is not available otherwise.”

Reading this book restores some of the romance of writing, and a sense of its great wonder. I am put back in touch with the tremendous glamour that accompanies all who choose to take seriously the call to write, and even to write for a living. As ridiculous and constantly frustrating as that path might be, it is undoubtedly still a noble one, and “Always Apprentices” is a record of that patchy, varied and multi-hued nobility. Do get a copy.

“Always Apprentices” is edited by Vendela Vida, Ross Simonini and Sheila Heti. It is published by Believer Books.

Walter Mason is an author, speaker, blogger and tour guide. In November Walter is appearing at the Emerging Writers NSW Roadshow at the NSW Writers’ Centre.

Does no-one send you snail mail any more as Walter says? Want to receive some exotic postcards in your letter box? Sign up for Postcard Prompts and receive four writing prompts by post card over a designated period of weeks or months. Find out more here.

Postcard Prompts is brought to you by Writer's Journey - heading for Morocco Nov 6-19, 2014.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Reading poetry in the U.S. of A

In July 2014, I had the privilege of reading at a cafe event in West Massachussetts organised by Jacqueline Gens, poet extraordinaire and colleague of Allen Ginsberg. Cafe Mocha Maya in the picturesque town of Shelburne Falls was packed with an attentive audience. Pics below and story to come!

MC and poet Mary Gilliland

 Jim Brauerlein

Jan Cornall

Peter Fortunato

 Appreciative audience

Jacqueline Gens

Louise Landes Levi

Suze Smith

Michael Katz

Friday, April 4, 2014

MD's 100th Birthday Party

The scene was set at Cafe Parliament On King...

Host Ravi Prasad had taken care of all the fine detail including a flat screen with Duras' film, India Song playing.

The guests began to arrive...

They were invited to choose a snippet of text (cut ups from The Lover) and a pic of MD from the box.

Throughout the evening each guest read their snippet and shared their photo.  Here, poet Jacqueline Buswell reads to Mujib Amid, Ravi Prasad and his daughter Miao.

Lisa Sharkey listens while browsing my latest Duras find full of fabulous pics I haven't seen before - La Vie Comme Un Roman by Jean Vallier.

Sonia Bible reads her snippet. Anna Tow and Katharine Rogers enjoying the text.

Hiroshima Mon Amour provides the ambiance for Annee Lawrence's reading.

Walter Mason reads a superb piece about an encounter on a Mekong ferry, from his book Destination Saigon. 

I performed my Ode To Duras, penned on the day; a thank-you to Duras for her inspirasi and a promise to give up being her fan(atic) soon! I also read poems by Jennifer Mackenzie, Julie Thorndyke and Claine Keily.

  Cipi Kat reads an except from her novel in progress which is set in Timor Leste.

Afghani student Mujib Abid reads a piece from his work in progress, a family memoir set in modern day Afghanistan. Listening to his right Bilquis Ghani, also from Afghanistan, who works with the Refugee Art Project.

Coconut sweets from the local Vietnamese grocery were quickly devoured.

The True Love rolls turned out to be just as delicious!

After most of the the guests departed Ravi draped himself about...

and I relaxed with a good book - Duras course!      (Thanks for the pic Matt Jennings).

 Jan Cornall has been a self confessed Duras fan (atic) since she acted in her play L'amant Anglaise at The Pram Factory in Melbourne in 1979. Duras' writing was the subject of her Masters project at the Sydney Consortium, UWS in 2012.

Jan is currently working on a memoir about a trip she took following the footsteps of Marguerite Duras in Vietnam and Cambodia in 2009.  Read more here. She will lead a 15 day writing retreat, Indochine Journey, to share her discoveries with writers in Vietnam Aug 16-30.

Jan is currently an Australian Poetry Cafe Poet in Residence at Cafe Parliament on King in Newtown, Sydney.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ode to Duras

April 4,  2014, is the centenary of the birth of the French writer Marguerite Duras.

Hailed as one of the leaders of the French avant garde, Duras wrote novels, plays, film scripts as well as directing her own film and theatre pieces. Her best known works are the screenplay for Hiroshima Mon Amour (directed by Alain Resnais) and her novella The Lover which won the Prix Goncourt in 1984. See full list of over 50 published and produced works here. 

At Cafe Parliament on King in Newtown, Sydney, from 5-9pm on Friday, April 4, we will celebrate Duras' birthday with an evening of poetry, called Ode To Duras.

Poets, non poets, Duras lovers and innocent bystanders will be invited to read, write or construct odes, laments, rants & raves, in the spirit of desire, longing and melancholy, to this iconic literary figure.

Dress will be black tie/formal à la India Song, or dress Vietnamese style in 'ao dai' in. Guests will be encouraged to drape themselves languidly about the furniture and stare avec ennui into the distance.

For inspiration watch clip here

More about Duras

Marguerite Duras was born Marguerite Donnadieu in a small village on the outskirts of Saigon, Vietnam (then part of the French Protectorate known as Indochine), to French school teacher parents. When she was four, the family, along with her two brothers, moved to Hanoi where her father worked as a mathematics teacher. Her mother, unable to secure a teaching position, purchased a house and set up a school.

Despite its Frenchification they didn't like Hanoi and after a couple of years moved to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. (The French Indochina protectrate included present day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). They hadn't been in Phnom Penh long when Marguerite's father was struck down with a recurring tropical illness and sent back to France. He was no stranger to French hospitals where his wasting disease baffled the doctors. With no hope of recovery he discharged himself and went home to die in his village of Duras, from which Marguerite later took her name.

Left a widow, but without a widow's pension due to the maner in which her husband died, Duras' mother struggled to support her three children, moving back to the Mekong towns of Vinh Long and Sadec in Vietnam, where she taught by day and played piano at the local cinema by night.

When Marguerite was around ten years old her mother bought an acreage of land 500 miles away in Cambodia  and embarked on an ambitious plan to farm rice.

The battle went on for many years and became the subject of one of MD's early novels, Le Barrage Contre La Pacifique (published in 1950, made into a film by Cambodian director Rithy Pahn in 2007). Marguerite left Indochina for France at the age of 17 never to return, but her early Indochine years were to be a strong influence on her writing.

Marguerite's most famous novel, The Lover ( L'Amant), wasn't written until much later in her life, when she was 70. It tells the story of a 15 year old girl's affair with a rich Chinese man. Said to be an autobiographical account of Marguerite's own romance, it began its life as captions for a photo album and became an experimental discontinuous narrative set around one single image that was never photographed.

So, I'm fifteen and a half.
   It's on a ferry crossing the Mekong river.
   The image lasts all the way across.
   I'm fifteen and a half, there are no seasons in that part of the world, we have just the one season,     hot, monotonous, we're in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal.

 Jan Cornall has been a self confessed Duras fan (fanatic) since she acted in her play L'amant Anglaise at The Pram Factory in Melbourne in 1979. Duras' writing was the subject of her Masters project at the Sydney Consortium, UWS in 2012.

Jan is currently working on a memoir about a trip she took following the footsteps of Marguerite Duras in Vietnam and Cambodia in 2009.  Read more here. She will lead a 15 day writing retreat, Indochine Journey, to share her discoveries with writers in Vietnam Aug 16-30.

Jan is currently an Australian Poetry Cafe Poet in Residence at Cafe Parliament on King in Newtown, Sydney.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My secret (whispered) moment with Yoko Ono

Back in November when Yoko Ono was in town with her show, War Is Over, I got a text from my friend Royden who was working as production manager for Ideas at The House (that's Sydney Opera House of course).

Yoko needs people for her performance on the 17th. Can you do it?

Sure, I replied, just tell me where and when...

On the following Sunday I arrived at the Opera House stage door a bit before 1pm. Royden appeared and took me up to the green room where I got myself some tea and settled down on a big couch in front of the harbour view.

 I thought perhaps I was in for a bit of a wait, but suddenly there she was, so petite, dressed in child size jeans and black leather jacket, with a gaggle of people, including three big body guards, surrounding her. Royden signalled, I followed and bam — suddenly I was in the lift with Yoko Ono, sharing small talk, feeling slightly awkard and at the same time completely normal.

The lift doors opened onto the stage area and Yoko took charge, letting people know in her soft spoken commanding manner exactly what she wanted.

The set up was quite simple. Two low arm chairs were already in place— one for Yoko and one for MCA curator Rachel Kent who would lead Yoko into an hour long conversation. But before the conversation got going Yoko had a surprise —she would come on alone and perform.

This is where We Whisperers came in. I was one of four people who would be out in the audience somewhere, whispering into microphones.

Let's try it, she said, so we spread out into the empty auditorium armed with substantial radio mikes and found a random spot.

 From the stage Yoko told us to whisper a phrase or a sentence into the mike — whatever comes to mind, then just keep repeating it.

Ok, so my phrase, the one that popped in, was — what I really want to tell you...
what I really want to tell you... what I really want to tell you...

Yoko started vocalising and off we went. The whispers from our mikes were  reverbed, looped and mixed as a kind of backing track to her improv.

We tried it for a couple of minutes, then tried it once more (with all the mikes turned on this time).

Then it was back to the green room to wait until show time at 3pm. The body guards hung about chatting and Yoko went for a nap in the board room.

At 2.40 pm I went to find my allotted seat. It wasn't where I had rehearsed, but was bang in the middle, not too far from the front. I squeezed past the knees of my fellow audience members with the  microphone hidden in my bag and wondered how they would react when I burst into whispers.

When I spied Paul Capis, the fabulous cabaret diva, sitting in front of me, I had to lean over and show him what was in my purse. (Is that a microphone in your bag or are you just pleased to see me!) When I told him what I was up to, he was thrilled.

I do love a secret, he whispered to me behind his hand as the audience went quiet.

The house lights dimmed to darkness and tiny Yoko came out on stage alone as planned. The audience started clapping and wouldn't stop. So she just began her vocal and soon they were listening in awe as this wee famous figure with her signature sunglasses perched on her nose, began her moaning improv, and, one by one, we began our whispers.

Her moans rose and fell, gathered urgency then dropped away, began again, built to a screeching climax then ebbed away once more. Several times we faded away as she did, thinking this will be the end, but then she took off again, revelling in the reverb echo of her voice mixing and merging with our invisible soundscape. At times I could hear myself in the mix and it was tempting to break out of the whisper into moans and screams like her, as I have been known to do in my own vocal work, but like a good chorus member I kept to my part.

There was a moment in the middle that seemed made for us, when she was repeating:   I wish........ I wish.......... I wish..........

and with my whisper it became:

what I really want to tell you ...... I wish.....what I really want to tell you.....I wish.....what I really want to tell you....

only nobody could decipher my whisper, and nobody knew but me.

And another moment as we were building to a crescendo, when I lost track of time and place, when it was just me and Yoko, Yoko and me — nobody else, no audience, no opera house, no other whisperers, just the purity of voice in empty space.

When it was finally over (it went on for a good ten minutes), I put the mike back in my bag, sat back in my seat and went back to being a regular audience member, delighting in hearing this eighty- something icon talk about her life and work.

At the end we clapped and cheered again and as she left the stage she asked us to wait until the alarm of an old fashioned tic-tock clock went off. I turned to the woman sitting to my right and showing her my mike, asked her if she knew what I had been doing.

No she replied, no idea.  I thought it was just all her voice.

The secret was ours.

Later in the green room as I was working out how to get Royden to give Yoko a CD of my songs written and recorded a long time ago, he said, she'll be out in a tick — you can do it yourself.

Yoko emerged with Rachel Kent as we gathered around and gave compliments about the 'show'.

Do you think they liked it? Yoko asked with an innocent curiousity.

Oh yes, we reassured her, absolutely.

That was the moment I shook her tiny hand, thanking her for the pleasure of working with her and gave her my CD.

 For Yoko, I had scrawled on it, Thank-you for your inspiration.

(Corny, but true).

Signed: one of your secret whisperers.


Friday, February 14, 2014

Love Poets Pictorial

Here are some pics from our Love Poem Love In.
On Valentines Day a bunch of love poets got together at our fave cafe, Parliament on King in Newtown, Sydney. I invited them to make cut up love poems (from my shredded Bali novel, Take Me To Paradise) or bring a poem or two to read. At around 7.30pm we hooked up on skype with poets  gathered at The Icon Club in Luang Prabang, Laos, and we read back and forth for a good hour or so. Such a great event, thanks to all who took part and helped make it happen.

Our Love In was hosted by Ravi Prasad at Parliament on King where Jan Cornall is an Australian  Poetry Cafe Poet in Residence.