Dr Jordie Albiston 18-03-2021
*Speakers: Cathy Pilgrim (C), Jordie Albiston (J)
C: Welcome everyone to the National Library of Australia, I’m Cathy Pilgrim, Assistant Director General of the Engagement Branch here at the Library.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we meet today on the land of the Ngunnawal and the Ngambri people. I acknowledge Australia’s first nations peoples, the first Australians as traditional owners and custodians of the land and give respect to their elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Thank you all for attending this afternoon’s presentation by the Library’s 2021 Creative Arts Fellow for Australian Writing. We are delighted to be able to deliver this Fellowship presentation both here in the Library’s theatre and online after a forced hiatus of over 12 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Annual Creative Arts Fellowship for Australian Writing is supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust, established through a generous bequest made to the Library by New York arts patron, Eva Kollsman, in honour of the Australian poet, dramatist and writer, Ray Mathew. The Trust supports Australian literary research and writing. This fellowship allows writers to develop their creative works by immersing themselves in the Library’s collections.
Today we welcome Dr Jordie Albiston as our 2021 Creative Arts Fellow for Australian writing. Jordie is a Melbourne poet who has published 12 full length poetry collections and a handbook on poetic form. Two of her early collections were adapted for music theatre, both enjoying seasons at the Sydney Opera House. Her work has been honoured by prizes including the Mary Gilmore Award, the New South Wales Premier’s Prize and the 2019 Patrick White Literary Ward for outstanding contribution to Australian literature.
During her fellowship Jordie has been examining the diaries of James Francis Hurley across two Antarctic expeditions, first under Mawson and then under Shackleton and his subsequent picture show tour and that’s been researched with a view to creating a poetic mosaic of Hurley’s experiences as a man and Antarctic photographer. Today Jordie will share with us her research into these diaries as well as a sample of the poems that she has written so far. Please join me in welcoming Dr Jordie Albiston.
J: Thanks, Cathy, and thank you to everyone for taking time out of what I’m sure is a busy afternoon for you all to come and hear this talk.
During the past three weeks here at the Library I have had a number of people who’ve come to me expressing their curiosity about documentary poetry as a genre and what it is so I’d like to begin this presentation by talking about documentary poetry in general and my relationship to it before sharing some specifics regarding my current project.
I’ll start with a quote from the Czech poet, Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ in which Rilke advises the young poet on subject matter. “Write about what your everyday life offers you, describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty. Describe all these things with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and when you express yourself use the things around you, the images from your dreams and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor don’t blame it, blame yourself, admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it, try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past”.
I chose this quote because it highlights the potential breadth and depth of the individual imagination as well as the nature of the past as a potent creative source. Although Rilke is talking about the past in the personal childhood sense I believe his comments can be equally applied to the public historical past and that as writers we can express our own particular sorrows, desires, thoughts and belief in some kind of beauty when we reach beyond our individual histories and tap into and respond to broader historical events in our work.
I’m not sure that by turning to history we can discover more about the future but I do believe that exploring historical events with an open and active imagination can help us connect with our collective past as a society, help us clarify and fortify ourselves as individual members of a mutual group, sharing some kind of organic human knowledge with which to face the future.
To my mind, knowledge as a body is dead without imagination. Imagination is the blood that runs through the veins of the body of knowledge. Statistics, dates, facts tend to hold very little life of their own and the imagination is a necessary adjunct to the intellect when engaging with history as it is only with our own breath that we can respond to the lost life of the past. In this sense it’s an act of the imagination that is required in order to activate the intellect into creative that is living, understanding.
There’s an exchange that occurs when one turns to history in this way. The facts you take, the feelings you supply. The growth of comprehension and the outward communication that hopefully results. How does this exchange occur? By engaging heart and mind with your chosen subject matter, by both suspending disbelief in what has gone before and suspending belief in your own dominating ego. One must allow oneself to be moved, to feel the breath, to see the most trivial moments as moments in a life.
As a writer often working in the realm of documentary poetry I’ve been challenged and rechallenged by a number of issues over the years. For example, the role of nostalgia which can be disruptive if one is merely looking to the past in order to confirm the often false tenets of the present. I’ve found I must be particularly careful when approaching a subject that invokes a nostalgic response in me as this is when my own emotions can surreptitiously up-end the apple cart.
The role of truth is perennially problematic, raising questions such as whose truth? Who has recorded this history and why? Is truth experienced differently according to who you are? Does truth transcend the usual dichotomies of class, gender and race? Is one person’s truth another person’s folly and so on? It certainly seems true to me that if history repeats itself it’s because we repeat ourselves. Perhaps putting ourselves in another’s position, walking a mile in another’s shoes will help us to apprehend and appreciate, learn, change, become better people, do less harm.
I’ve always been drawn to history as a source of material from which to create poems. My first collection contained a number of poems and sequences redacted from archival materials. At the time of writing, and this was back in the early 1990s, I thought I was writing about other people’s lives but of course I was writing about myself. When I look over the subjects of that first book, Emily Dickinson, Frida Kahlo, Ahab, Frankenstein, I’m struck by the clear connection between me and them and my writing is certainly not as subjective as I then thought.
Over time I’ve come to accept that my work can never be totally objective and that I exist in each and every poem despite its subject matter. I’ve even begun to enjoy this concept.
With this realisation in mind I approached my second collection, Botany Bay Document, which is subtitled, A Poetic History of the Women of Botany Bay. For six months I devoured pertinent letters, diaries, maps, ship logs and so on, foraging for traces of the women who had come to Australia either as convicts or by their own free will during the first 25 years of white settlement. As well I received a grant to visit Sydney and thereby immerse myself in the Mitchell Library along with extant places of relevance.
Of course, there’s nothing new about documentary poetry as the works of Homer, Ovid and countless others attest but it was important for me to realise how much of my own past was being accessed while studying supposedly outside historical events. In fact, I saw this as a revelation. I could adopt other personas as a foil for my own, write about everything I felt I could not or did not want to express with that enormous eye comfortably and conveniently concealed within the vehicle of another person's identity. In this sense arrogating an historical persona can be seen as a metaphor for oneself that may be sustained over a poem or even a whole collection.
Here’s a poem from Botany Bay Document inspired by a visit to Hyde Park Barracks in 1995. The ground level floorboards had been recently lifted and on display was a huge assortment of clay pipes. Everybody smoked, even children. There were over 5,000 pipes as well as cutlery, keys and other items that had fallen or been pushed through the floor’s cracks.
I was particularly taken by the collection of tampons. Obviously, these were not invented by Carefree or Meds, a mere handful of decades back but were being fashioned by women and girls at least two centuries ago for their personal use. Regarding these curious items I was struck by the thought that if this discovery had been made too much earlier the tampons almost certainly would have been discarded as rubbish and I was acutely aware that this was a piece of women’s history I was very fortunate to view.
Many adolescent girls, the youngest only 11 years old, were transported to Australia without their families for committing an array of trivial crimes. With this poem I wanted to access some of the feelings I experienced when my own period started in the early 1970s, how embarrassed and confused I felt. I also wanted to imagine at the same situation in colonial times girls suffering separation from family and friends, tearing up the few garments they possessed into pieces of cloth which they formed into tampons and later poked through the floorboards for disposal.
In my stiff canvas cot between Katherine and Sarah I stare out at the Port Jackson night. A different moon looms above North Dorset Downs and I’m sickened within to be hid from its thin moorish light. A 12-year-old coiner when the Mardas hove to, 13 when it ceased all its sailing, I am become a woman in sad Sydney Cove with no companion or kin to comfort me in the misery of my secret ailing. The tide inside is timely turning, the fish in me are hauling heavy through the hellish bone and in the sky my mother’s eye trails its counsel over my plight in the warp and weft of fine cloud. While Sarah stirs in her Aberdeen dream and Kathy sighs somewhere near Suffolk, I am learning shame in crimson waves that seek to drag me under.
My petticoat is ripped to bits, so too my old neckerchief and the linen shift I was issued with barely exists at all. I arise once more to stall the flood on a twist of worsted rag and stuff the old stain through the boards where rats nest in my blood. As birds bring in a southern dawn to shut off my mother’s stare my thighs dry stiff with moonfish that have drowned in foreign air.
With my next collection, The Hanging of Jean Lee, I wanted to concentrate on one woman alone. I searched a long time in order to find the right subject for my writing and it was during this search that I realised I was looking backwards for parts of myself. I chose the story of Jean Lee precisely because it was so unknown at the time of writing back in 1997. It seemed everyone had heard about Ronald Ryan, the last man hanged in Australia which was 1967 but who had heard of Jean Lee, one of only five women ever hanged in this country and the only one to be executed in the 20th century? Which year did she die? Only 1951, a few short decades before I wrote those poems, in Pentridge Prison, Victoria. My intellect told me, this is a story that must be told while my imagination told me, this woman is like me in so many ways. That is when the pot starts melting and poetry sometimes happens. When you feel your own core blink with recognition and begin to write.
Research for this collection involved the usual intensive survey of archival documents, the one extant school report, police records and court trial transcripts retrieved from the Freedom of Information Act, newspaper reportage, the voices of 1930s and ‘40s radio as well as more personal experiences like visiting H Division in Pentridge, being actually locked in the cell where Jean was kept in solitary confinement and running my hands over the rope grooves in the actual hanging beam. Due to the media’s sensational treatment of the case I chose to organise my poems into four newspaper-like segments, personal pages, entertainment section, crime supplement and death notices. I also supplied a chronology of events at the beginning.
The title, “The Hanging of Jean Lee”, was selected precisely for the purpose of letting the reader know what happens at the end of the book thus allowing proceedings to unfold within maximum imaginative space without the overriding impediment of the reader wondering, I wonder what’s going to happen.
Although Jean Lee was accomplice to a cruel murder, she was only an accomplice and after three miscarriages of justice during the various trials she was sentenced to hang along with the two actual male culprits. Think about the time. The murder occurred in 1949, soon after world war two, an epoch during which women came into much greater independence, holding down jobs and helping keep everything going while their menfolk fought.
Jean Lee herself was a prostitute and a petty thief and a single mother, not the desired post-war model the government in power wanted for white Australian women during the aftermath of 1945. Many scholars agree that in this respect Jean Lee was something of a scapegoat, an example to be held up to all those other women who may have become too confident and sassy during the war years, a message to get back into the kitchen and rattle things, and so she was hanged.
But what of her story? Jean left no journal or diary, wrote to nobody and was visited by nobody in her solitary confinement apart from prison officials. I wanted to tell her story, but I also wanted to express my own aloneness, my own downfall if you like, my story. While I’ve never been a prostitute or an accomplice to murder I have experienced my own mistakes and misunderstandings, my old solitary confinement and I found many instances where I felt I felt Jean’s presence over one of my shoulders as I wrote.
Following “The Hanging of Jean Lee”, I left documentary poetry alone for a few years in order to focus on my other preoccupation, the mathematics of poetic form. It wasn’t until 2013 that I returned to the genre with The Book of Ethel. This collection comprises micro portraits of my own maternal great-grandmother who emigrated from St Just in Cornwall to Australia in 1872 at the age of 15. Beginning married life in a one-room tin shack outside Mildura she married a Methodist minister and lived until 1949, moving house frequently and raising six children along the way.
The poetry here is formal and concise, employing a strict external and internal rhyme scheme. Each poem comprises a seven-line stanza and each line contains seven syllables. With a plethora of family documents and regalia at hand along with the privilege of a writer’s residency in Cornwall which allowed me that holy grail, a witness of place, I sought to accord Ethel her own voice while exploring the tensions between high poetic artifice and the smaller moments of an ordinary life. A number of Cornish words found their way into the poems and I provided a glossary at the back of the book.
Again, it was several years and a few further books before I came back to documentary poetry with a collection called War Lines. In 2017, I received a fellowship, similar to the one I’m working under here, at the State Library of Victoria. My project there was the redaction of letters written home by World War I Victorian soldiers into poetry. As is the way with all documentary work much pre-poetry footwork is required, the reading of hundreds of letters, the selection process which involved multiple factors such as a soldier’s rank, voice, literacy, story as well as his eventual fate, the choice of which poetic structures to employ, copyright issues etc.
The poems are formatted as letter blocks, justified on both right and left sides however many closed forms are contained within these visual blocks from the pantoum, villanelle and sestina to the palindrome, sonnet and hymn. A further constraint I set myself was that I employ none of my own words, thus restricting the poems to a kind of literary mosaic of each soldier’s individual correspondence. Sometimes this meant conflating many letters into one poem, at other times a soldier may have penned only a couple of letters or postcards home.
In this sense, apart from the final piece in the book, War Lines is a collection of found poems. While intricate decisions were necessitated regarding each of the 70 or so poems I constructed, an overall narrative arc had to be considered as well. On publication this collection received positive and passionate reviews, it being the centenary of the ending of world war one and was noted as one of the Australian Book Review 2018 Books of the Year.
Now I’d like to talk briefly about my current project here at the National Library. Most people will have encountered at some point the spectacular black and white Antarctic photographs of Frank Hurley, even if they don’t know his name and I’ll show you some of those now. The first few pictures are from the Mawson expedition which occurred between 1911 and 1912. This is a picture of a blizzard. It was very hard to walk through these blizzards, sometimes the wind blew at over 100 miles an hour. Very hard to take a photograph in those conditions as well.
This is an ice cave and you can see the refraction of light into this space. Don’t forget people had never seen photographs like this before, it was a whole new magical world. This is an ice wall or an ice cliff off Adélie Land. This is a picture of one of the crew, the meteorologist with his Burberry all iced in around his face. This is taken on Macquarie Island, that’s a group of Royal Penguins and you can see the two men to give you a bit of size comparison.
This one’s called “Three Lonely Strays Find a Lost Brother After a Blizzard”, and you can see how full of ice the lost brother is. This is the rare Ross Seal, they’re only found in the Ross Sea which is quite a small bay. Usually when we hear about seals in these diaries it’d be the Weddell Seal or the Crabeater Seal or a different kind. This is inside one of the huts with Bage at his sewing machine down in the corner. This is an ice wall; this is when the Mawson expedition were looking for somewhere to land and went on for miles and miles and miles without being able to land.
Now this is from the Shackleton expedition and this is when after waiting for five months, living under upturned boats, for rescue, they finally see that ship on the horizon and kindle a fire using seal skins and blubber. This last slide is a turreted iceberg which is the photograph that I’ve chosen for the cover of my book which hopefully will be published at some point and there’s a mock-up of the cover.
So, Hurley was an Australian adventurer and photographer who accompanied both Mawson and Shackleton on separate expeditions to Antarctica in the early 20th century at the end of the heroic age of exploration. His photos are the first to record the incredible icebergs, snowscapes and wildlife of the region as well as capturing the work and lives of his crew and comrades.
Hurley was also an avid diarist and it is these writings that I’m here to decipher, imbibe and eventually transmogrify into the realm of poetry. My project is entitled “Frank” and subtitled, “Hurley in Antarctica”. I like the mono word title as it functions as both name and descriptive at once because he was a very frank writer.
The poetry here is divided into three sections, each section derived from a different diary. First, the sledging diary detailing the Australasian Antarctic Mawson expedition, 1912 to ’13, second, the imperial transantarctic Shackleton expedition diary of 1914 to ’16 and third, the touring diary of the Shackleton picture show called “In the Grip of the Polar Pack Ice” which screened across Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane during 1919 and ’20. As with War Lines these poems contain none of my own words. What I’m doing is taking phrases, fragments and images and collocating them under the pressure of poetic form in order to create something new.
I was drawn to this material for a number of reasons, not least the concept of entering a place totally new, totally alien and almost totally white. This in itself triggered a heavy and elaborate response in me, the chance of a crossing over into an expanse of seeming endlessness and seemingly psychological silence which I felt impelled to further interrogate. Then there were the key notions of survival, endurance, discovery, spectacle and awe. These expeditions to the far south seemed to reverberate not only the manifest and obvious historical level but at a deeply human one as well.
Hurley’s pictures and writings transport us swiftly to the hub of what it means to live. Hardship and perseverance, tolerance and cooperation, friendship and sustenance, vision, honest toil and the hope of some sense of reward at the eventual end of that toil. Also of course an encounter with the natural world and its wildlife in a hitherto unmapped and unexplored, that is to say unknown, context. The sad fact that the Antarctic is altering and diminishing beneath the barrage of global warming as I speak provided yet another layer of heat to the task.
I had already completed the first Mawson section prior to applying for this NLA fellowship. Here the poems are formatted as run-on justified blocks with their relevant journal dates as titles. Each poem represents a sort of tapestry of that particular original diary entry of Hurley complete with misspellings, crossings out and grammatical peccadilloes. Each poem is compressed and figured according to the musical precepts of poetry, in particular in this case rhythm and internal rhyme.
The poem I’d like to read now is a pantoum which is a class of chained verse involving a specific pattern of line repetition. As with all the Frank poems the schema is sparse and dashes and lacunae, or spaces, are employed in place of punctuation. The poem is simply titled November 16, 1912.
What a stagnant silence! Our ears so accustomed to continuous din- ache. What a striking contrast to the blizzard’s eternal roar. What a place of excesses. Our ears so accustomed to continuous din- ache. Bob has ordered supports to throw snow onto tent to make some noise. What a place of excesses. Every-sound-seems-frozen. Bob has ordered supports to make some noise so we can go to sleep. Our tent limp for not the gentlest zephyr stirs, every sound seems frozen. What is going to happen? Our tent limp and not the gentlest zephyr stirs. What a contrast to the blizzard roar, what is going to happen? What a stagnant silence.
The second Shackleton section is more complex than the first Mawson section as Hurley’s diary of this expedition is much longer than the previous therefore requiring more aggressive, more meticulous organisational techniques. So, for this section I’ve decided to code the primary source material according to six principal and recurring motifs; a day, a night, a month, a vista, a note and a snap. Examples of note poems include a note about dogs, a note about hunting, a note about ice and so on and these poems will involve pecking like a magpie all through the huge two-volume diary for suitable fragments. Similarly, the vista poems will explore subjects such as a vista of Elephant Island, a vista of pressure, a vista of Sir E, E being Ernest Shackleton.
The snap poems will pertain to specific photographs or lantern slides or the process of photography itself. I’d like to read a piece now which is one of many called A Note and you can see the format that I'm using.
about seals- they emerge from junctions or cracks in the floe to sun themselves lazily in the warm lea of the hummocks & to sleep off the somniferous effects of over-feeding one may sit and study them from but a few yards’ distance when they will gaze drowsily at you stretch & yawn luxuriously & fall off to sleep again ashore the Weddell is the most phlegmatic creature I know of his very shape resembling a gigantic slug suggests sloth & lassitude but the water is his element & I have watched him gliding superbly or sporting in the leads, the perfection of sinuous grace poor creature how unfortunate for you that your flesh is so excellent and your blubber burns so well.
My fellowship here is ‘especially crucial to the third section, that of the tour diary as Hurley’s original diary exists in handwritten form only. In addition, his chirography is often in pencil and barely legible. My initial fortnight here at the Library was spent transcribing this material to computer and these two weeks proved critical to me as a poet. As much as communicating by handwriting as an object in itself. Climate, haste, leisure, stress, excitement, fatigue, it’s all there in the handwriting, even alcohol. The writer’s mood is far more readily detected than in its typescript counterpart. As a result, I’ve found poems arriving in the very act of transcription which is always magic.
This final section of my project is the most complicated of the three. In it I intend utilising fragments and phrases from the tour diary while interspersing these with metaphorically germane fragments from the diary concerning the Shackleton expedition itself. Sorry, to be clear, the touring diary is a touring picture show of pictures from the Shackleton expedition, not the Mawson so I’ll be interspersing the touring diary notes with fragments from the Shackleton Diary.
I plan to arrange this material into approximately 16 long poems with titles relating both to the world of theatrical film and to the Antarctic. For example, scenery, season, soliloquy, refreshments, interlude, accompaniment, finale. While I’m yet to begin these poems I already anticipate the writing as a personal work of joy.
It can be arduous and unpredictable work using recorded history as a springboard for one’s own imagination. Researching the past and recycling it involves the melding of one’s present self and all those past selves, however they’re perceived. Maybe it’s all we can do as poets, as writers to create a personal kind of order out of the overwhelming rush of information we’re presented with during our time on this earth. We’re each unique beings but we are also the product to a large extent of what has gone on before.
As Rilke points out we always have our own childhoods, our individual pasts as an enormous source of material for poetry yet Rilke lived in a different culture and a different time. Perhaps the present state of the world environment, of the planet itself and of its inhabitants lends a greater urgency to the enterprise of rewriting history as an act of the imagination. As COVID continues its march across the world along with countless other marches just as urgent, just as tragic, what have we learned about the role of history in our creative lives?
It's easy to maintain an attitude of denial. That was then, this is now, they’re all dead, we’re alive, that’s all that matters. It may be more tricky to open ourselves to our collective past but in order to move closer and without trepidation toward an increasingly global community and with increasing multiple threats to our very existence as a species let alone as writers we need to exercise both our intellects and our imaginations in tandem.
So, thank you very much for listening and I’m happy to take any questions you may have.
End of recording.
Join the National Library of Australia's 2021 Creative Arts Fellow for Australian Writing, Dr Jordie Albiston, as she discusses her research process for her new poetry project 'Frank'.
‘Frank’ comprises poems based on the diaries of James Francis Hurley from two Antarctic expeditions (under Mawson, and then Shackleton) and his subsequent picture-show tour. The poems offer a poetic mosaic of Hurley's experiences as a man and an Antarctic photographer at the end of the golden age of exploration.
Dr Jordie Albiston is a prize-winning Melbourne poet who holds a PhD in Literature/History from La Trobe University. She has published twelve full-length poetry collections, a handbook on poetic form, and had two collections adapted for music-theatre performances at the Sydney Opera House. Dr Albiston works “within formal boundaries: traditional, experimental, or self-imposed," and seeks “the musical cadence while endeavouring to exact a mathematical sense of resolution”. She often uses archival sources “from which to wrest a kind of documentary cataloguing; other times I refer to an internal sense of witness”.
The 2021 Creative Arts Fellow in Australian Writing was supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust.
Learn more about the Creative Arts Fellowships.