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Launch: Jeltje Fanoy, Flying into the hands of strangers

collective effort press / ftloose productions
18th May, 2018. Collected Works Bookshop, Melbourne.

Jeltje Fanoy is a poet who should need little introduction for Melbourne readers – her work emerged through the political poetry magazines 925 and Migrant 7 in the late-1970s – but it’s perhaps worth providing some critical and historical frameworks for approaching her writing. The first thing to note is how its deliberate minimalism aligns with what Michael Hamburger has described as a poetry of austerity, an approach which can be traced through a wide range of post-war European poetries. This means that its apparent simplicity and directness is deceptive, and is in fact highly crafted: the opening poem ‘early on’ draws attention to, “th craft, a trade / like carpentry”, and another poem called ‘minimalist traveller’ describes her meticulous process of editing to arrive at “no extra weight”. Many people at the time mistakenly saw the 925 poets as being somehow naïve, or harking back to an uncomplicated social realist transparency in their concentration on experience of working life. But as André Bazin once wrote, “realism can only be achieved one way – through artifice”, and I believe it was Jas H. Duke who said: “the content of every style depends on the style of every content” – which is a little more complicated, but think it through and you arrive at something like Bertolt Brecht. And deliberate naivety can also be seen as an avant-garde strategy: put Picabia’s 391 next to 925 and it makes more sense.

Beyond this, 925 and the emergence of Jeltje’s work needs to be seen against the context of the broader field of small-press publications which came out of Melbourne in the mid-to-late 1970s. While it’s difficult to generalise about such a wide range of work, reading through these journals and anthologies, edited by people like PiO from Fitzroy and Kris Hemensley from Merri Creek, you get a sense of a quite different poetry scene to that of the Sydney poets who have tended to dominate Australian poetry anthologies since. There’s a stronger influence of the European avant-gardes, for example, with Jas Duke’s connections to Raoul Haussmann and Berlin Dada, or Walter Billeter’s translations of Konrad Bayer and the Vienna Group; there’s a Fluxus influence in the visual and performance poetry scenes – and unclassifiable surrealism in the work of Peter Lyssiotis. There’s also a prevalent kind of demotic observational voice, which seems to come out of a particular reception of Charles Olson (to which I’ll return in a minute), that can be traced in the work Jeltje is still practising today. The closest Sydney equivalent to her approach might be in the work of Anna Couani (who also has a new book out): they share similar thematic and political concerns, but also a shared commitment to transforming customary reality, or the accepted narratives of capitalism, through poetic language.

Jeltje Fanoy, 'Flying into the hands of strangers' This leads to another important aspect of Jeltje’s work, which is that this isn’t just a written artefact, but a book with an accompanying CD. Jeltje’s performance of these poems is essential to understanding them - in the same way as PiO’s 24 Hours makes more sense on the page once you’ve heard it declaimed in a Greek accent (also the case with Alan Wearne’s dramatic monologues). Jeltje’s manipulation of sound elements such as tempo, frequency and accent are continually disrupting and disintegrating our initial view of what these apparently straightforward poems are telling us. Syllables are overemphasised, grammar disintegrates, and what we accept as everyday speech as it shapes our habitualised version of reality is called into question. That’s Brecht again – but think about what Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya do with Brecht’s apparently simple ballads; or perhaps of what a singer like Juliet Gréco makes of Jacques Prevert’s straightforwardly vernacular poetry, and this indicates the intention. So the material out of which this poetry is made is everyday language, especially as it is spoken: the task of poetry is to transform this through craft and arrangement, as if by creating a collage. Jeltje describes, “A tiny, dark bedroom where I feverishly made things, / beach sandals plaited out of long dry grasses, / a fantasy dress out of something discarded, cut up / and rearranged, so that a zigzag could be here, or/ there, or gone astray, to keep the nervousness at bay” (‘1960s migration poem’).

Jerome Rothenberg’s visit last year was a reminder of his central discovery that the spoken utterance itself can be regarded as innately poetic, as a musicalized form of prosody. Looking back through old issues of Alcheringa magazine (available online) one finds, for example, an interview with one of the old bluesmen, Son House I think, arranged on the page as a poem – and, in this form, it functions as a poem. Behind this, of course, is Charles Olson writing about the breath and the syllable in his essay “Projective Verse” – and perhaps the most relevant issue here is Olson’s directive that the breath unit can itself be regarded as a form of measure for poetry, with composition by field as a method for transposing the breath measure on the page. (Obviously one doesn’t need Rothenberg or Olson to explain this: Langston Hughes back in the 1920s made a similar discovery about the resources of vernacular language - listen to what he does with the syllables of the word “Harlem” (a good Dutch word) as a precursor to Jeltje’s approach.) This also enables the poet to bring all kinds of apparently “non-poetic” material and forms of experience into the field of the aesthetic – something Mayakovsky realised when he rejected Symbolist “poeticisms”, and decided that a street sign could be just as poetic as a swan or a nymph. The term that Olson adopts for this is the “Objectivist” approach, but that can mean a lot of different things in practice – most of the poetry we associate with the term Objectivism is actually more to do with the arrangement of written materials: Laurie Duggan’s The Ash Range would be a good example; PiO’s Fitzroy might be another.

As we’ve said, Jeltje’s objectivism explores this idea through the manipulation of spoken elements – but Australian vernacular for her is already a secondary language. She writes from the perspective of her own experience of migration, and this is the crucial point on which her style and content are interdependent on one another, to return to that earlier quotation. Jeltje’s poetry is explicitly concerned with migrant experience within the urban spaces of neoliberal capitalism – but while her work touches on autobiography and is at times nostalgic (the epigraph tells us that “history is an angel being blown backwards into the future”), it’s a different approach to the more straightforward self-expression of identity customary to the politics of multiculturalism. As John Jenkins has said of Jeltje’s work: “its entire energy flows outward”. We’re reminded early on that migrant identity is something “made”, crafted, or assumed: the speaker of ‘to look like a dancer’ wants “to look like a performance” – and of course poetry itself provides a space, or a mirror, in which identity can be continually remade, as is described in ‘minimalist traveller’. The question this book explores is how to discover a settled identity within the moment, to be in the “now”, free from homesickness and nostalgia for a lost past - and in ‘St Kilda Beach (Winter 2002)’ that’s proposed as a problem of migration: “There was an Italian singer / on the Pier, / he said he sang/ because he was homesick // I applauded him // On the beachfront /someone said ‘hello’/ he was staring out over the Bay // I said: enjoy/ the sunshine/ he said: thank you”. Here nostalgia for a lost past is contrasted with tranquility in the present.

But of course those problems of being and time aren’t just the experience of Italian migrants, and this is just as much the theme of the Duino Elegies: rather like Rilke’s rendition of animal consciousness, Jeltje uses birds as metaphors for this experience of the flux of temporality – birds blown through windy skies, “winging it / against the wind / askew, sideways”. The problem is how to “stop, dead, / in yr tracks // tie down / yr whole life // no loose strands”, how to live within the present moment, how to have “a bird in the hand” (as depicted in the cover photograph). This is complicated by the political reality that the familiar world is itself “disappearing” as a consequence of forces such as climate change and relentlessly gentrifying urban development: the question becomes one of how “not to be afraid in a disappearing world”, as “you feel yourself disappearing into the void” (‘Kisses in space’). Part of the answer to this is through the kind of empathetic projection which Olson proposes as being necessary to “get rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego”. Jeltje’s empathetic imaginings of outsider experience, particularly those of refugees, is at the centre of her work, and I’d like to conclude with a poem which beautifully demonstrates this objectivist attempt to see and feel through the experience of the other – it’s fittingly titled ‘Poem (for Jerome Rothenberg)’:

I was rejected from the house
no, I wasn’t rejected from the house

I was rejected from the house
bought some medicine down the street

searched for a coin outside the Chemist

I was the coin
I was the beggar
I was the coin

I went by train from the city
Aboriginal Australia got the train to Victoria Park

I was the train
I was the train driver
we got to Victoria Park

Aboriginal Australia got us to Victoria Park

no, I wasn’t rejected from the house
yes, I was a beggar
Aboriginal Australia gave me the coin

Aboriginal Australia gave me the coin for the beggar

John Hawke teaches literary studies at Monash University. His volume of poetry, Aurelia (Cordite Books), received the Anne Elder Award.