Launch speech: Susan Austin's 'Undertow'

HOBART BOOK SHOP, 5.30 pm, OCTOBER 11, 2012


I want to start with two toasts (while you still have wine in your glass). First to Janet and Christopher for creating this haven for book-lovers, they’ve made such a wonderful space in which to celebrate the birth of Susan’s first book. To Janet and Christopher. Second to Ralph for his exciting publishing program at Walleah Press. It is such a boon to all of us, that Ralph is dedicating so much energy to bringing out books like Susan’s. I have a bit of an idea about the amount of work that goes into producing a book. How many have you produced this year, Ralph? Around 10 in 12 months, is that right? That’s an amazing achievement. If the government hasn’t already slashed the award, I think we should all join together to nominate Ralph as a National Living Treasure. Don’t you agree? To Ralph.

Now to talk about, and toast, this marvellous book, Undertow. Rereading it for the 4th or 5th time in preparation for tonight, I understood something vital. Susan Austin is a dancer. Her biographical note declares her to be an occupational therapist and an eco-socialist activist… but truly she is a dancer. This collection of poetry is actually a dance performance. In this book Susan performs dance after dazzling dance.  Hers is a delicious and potent performance: deft, precise, sensuous and elegant.
The topics Susan writes about are engaging, serious, insightful, funny. She ranges from: the beginning of a new relationship; to the grief she describes on the death of a mother; to the inescapable guilt one feels as a first world traveller in a developing country. Want to read one of her poems: read ‘When dreams run ahead’.

When dreams run ahead

From one date and three text messages
I imagined a whole relationship …
us in a warm bath, legs entwined,
on a holiday in France, maybe
visiting your sister and her kids.

From one date and three text messages,
I knew we were compatible,
pictured drinking with your friends,
being driven to the movies,
you beside me
not nervous.

In one date and three text messages
I discovered real intimacy,
saw us exchange gifts at Christmas,
sip red wine on the sofa,
slide under the duvet on my bed.
It took a while to get over,
that whole relationship.

Lovely, dry wit here, isn’t there? We can all relate to the topic of the ludicrous fantasies we run in our heads when we meet someone new. It’s easy to connect with this poem, it’s accessible, familiar. It makes us smile and reflect wryly on our recurrent foibles. It makes its observations and its point in a pleasurable way. But how does the dancer achieve that, achieve a performance of that calibre in just 24 lines? Too often as readers and critics we focus on the content of a poem without looking at how the poem is working, how it is crafted.  We stay with the simple (and sometimes simplistic) question of ‘What is the poem about?’ without going further to ask questions about how the poem works in and on us.

This interests me for two reasons. Firstly, I’m intrigued by our capacity to split the poetic performance so neatly into questions of content, arbitrarily separating that aspect from questions of technique and form. For a poem to be successful we know both aspects must work together. Just look for example at the clever way Susan uses repetition here. She seamlessly analyses the true nature of fantasies: how they recur and persist (on the flimsiest of evidence ie: ‘one date and three text messages’). She does this through her deft deployment of that simple technique: repetition. This synergy of technique and content is what makes a poem lift from the page, gives it the power to transform.

When we watch a dance performance, we don’t do this splitting so readily, do we? We may be moved by a dance performance, but we are also continuously conscious of the skill of the dancers as they perform those moves which transform and move us. Is it the presence of the dancer’s body which forces us to attend to the matter of skill at the same time as we immerse ourselves in the emotional experience?

The second reason I’m interested in this capacity is because after decades of reading reviews and literary criticism, I’ve observed that there’s something going on here. It has to do with the body of the poet. In the majority of cases where critics review the work of a woman poet, they will comment at length (and sometimes exclusively) on questions of content. Only rarely do women poets have their technique, their craft, discussed by reviewers and critics. The splitting of these two aspects of poetry is much more marked when women poets are the subject. That interests me enormously.
So, now I’m going to speak a little about Susan’s skill as a poet, to discuss how she dances us to different realms, makes us laugh, makes us reflect. How does she do that? Let’s look at the poem I read earlier. First, let’s admire her succinctness. This is a vital aspect of poetry: to say and do a lot in very few words. Whenever I teach poetry, this is one of the tasks with which students grapple hardest. The tendency to prose is very strong. Susan’s dancing poems show us how it is done. Her economy with words is remarkable. Her word choice is careful, precise. Like a dancer spinning on point, she balances and pivots without appearing to move a muscle. There is no strain or groan of effort here. But look carefully at each of her poems and you will see the skill that has gone into making them so deft and apparently effortless.

This is why I used the word elegance earlier. Dancers take our breath away as they leap and pirouette across a stage. When you read Susan’s book, Undertow, allow yourself to be immersed in and transformed by the complex ideas, the wit, the intelligence and emotion of each poem. Do that by all means. But don’t forget to also draw in a breath of admiration for her remarkable dexterity as a wordsmith. Take note of the brilliance of her dancing performance, her subtle images, her sustained metaphors. She may make it look easy but that is the mark of the true dancer, the true crafts woman.

I want to finish by reading a poem which could be set in this very room:  ‘Bookshop capers’.

Bookshop capers

at night, behind locked bookshop doors
words sneak from their pages to mix with others

the aisles host a disco of ideas …
elegies hobnob with cocktail recipes

clever sonnets disband, mingle
and reform into villanelles

a pantoum shakes her booty beside self-help clichés 
busy tending to each other

vulnerable haiku rush to adopt more words 
free verse cruises, chatting up abandoned rhymes

heroic couplets leap from shelf to shelf
idylls cower in their archaic clothes and venture nowhere

rap practises its rhythm as loud as permitted 
without waking up Your First Baby

ballads can-can all over the place trying to 
jingle everything into a logical tale

as the night goes on, limericks attract all sorts
to their stand-up sessions at the back

while the dictionaries and thesauruses 
quietly make out in the corner.

See how Susan takes a simple conceit and dances it across the stage, the page, to make us laugh and reflect and delight in her supple mind? Many poets resist the impulse to write humorous poetry. They worry that it will make them seem less serious or somehow lightweight. But Susan is a serious and confident poet, one who knows that the dynamic quality of lightness is at the heart of the dance. She writes poetry that is as elegant and agile as ballet, as erotic as belly-dance, as strong and gutsy as stomp dancing.  Please join me in toasting the dazzling performance that is this book, Undertow. To Susan, the dancer.


Gina Mercer has taught creative writing and literature in universities and communities for over 20 years. She was editor of the Australian literary magazine, Island, from 2006-2010. She has published four collections of poetry: The Ocean in the Kitchen (Five Islands Press, 1999); Night Breathing (Picaro Press, 2006); Handfeeding the Crocodile (Pardalote Press, 2007); andSeasoned with Honey (with 3 other women poets, Walleah Press, 2008). She has published a novel, Parachute Silk (Spinifex Press, 2001) plus two academic books, one of which was a critical analysis of NZ writer Janet Frame: Subversive Fictions (UQP, 1994).