Remembering Barry Lopez

On Christmas Day one of the global luminaries of literature, Barry Lopez, died.  His Arctic Dreams is surely one of the most extraordinary literary achievements of the twentieth century, and for many years excerpts from this remarkable book were on the syllabi of the units I taught at UTAS, along with his equally remarkable short fictional pieces.  ‘Drought’, published in River Notes in 1979, remains one of my handful of standout pieces of writing, both for the grace with which Barry wrote, and what it has to say.

And he deserves recognition on this site because, a self-declared ’writer who travels’, he was here in 1996, a guest at the last of the island’s sadly unsustainable blockbuster writers’ festivals.  He stayed on, and in that time we formed a friendship that post-dated his departure.  He was interested in evil as a phenomenon, and was keen to visit Port Arthur.  At first the sweetly manicured lawns and avenues of roses disappointed, but all this was to change once we entered the Model Prison with its chilling technologies of surveillance.  Now Barry felt the immediacy of all that is raw in the human psyche, and when we re-emerged onto the larger site he brought with him a different sensibility.

But this trip was remarkable for another reason.  While I took myself off for a slash Barry rested against a mustard-coloured Volvo with a surfboard on top in the Broad Arrow carpark.  Yes, Martin Bryant’s car, and yes, this was a mere week before Martin Bryant committed his deeds of infamy.  With his extraordinary powers of observation Barry was able to convince the investigative task force that Bryant had been on site that day (this wasn’t yet known).  Who knows, Bryant may have been planning to let fly that very day, only to opt, for some reason, for a brief postponement.

At the 2015 conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, held in Moscow, Idaho, I was privileged to sit on a panel dedicated to Barry’s legacy, and there I recounted the Port Arthur incident at length as the largest component within an account of Barry’s time in Tasmania, and of the impact that Tasmania had upon him.  He even published locally – a brilliant short essay, ‘Natural Grief’, was published in Famous Reporter in 1996.

Barry has suffered from prostate cancer for several years – even so, his death came as a shock.  Wildfires that tore through the Oregon woods in the last northern Fall destroyed his home and his treasured archive.  No doubt this tragedy hastened Barry’s end.  And here’s how ‘Natural Grief’ ends:

I want to say to the bear, They want your home, you know.  Hold out as long as you can.  Eat my table leavings if you must.  A lot of us will be going down the river with you.

The last unyielding days will be beautiful, I believe.  I do not think the bear will ever honor the request to dance.

Barry Lopez’s voice has been taken from us, and we need it.  I honour him.  I will dance.

I won!

Forgotten Corners has just won the Small Press Network’s 2020 Book of the Year!

Forgotten CornersBy now the news is likely to be known.  But for those of you who are still in the dark, Forgotten Corners has just won the Small Press Network’s 2020 Book of the Year!  (Here is the SPN’s announcement and judges’ statement). I’ve known for a few days now, but was under the thumb of an embargo.  In fact, even the announcement of the short list was embargoed for a period.  And just as it was lifted, and I was on the verge of posting the good news, I was informed that I’d won, and I was back under an embargo.

I’m over the moon.  As a dedicated champion of small press publishing, there’s not a single award in Australian literature I’d swap for this one.  All power to the Small Press Network, then – long may it prosper.  This is the way of the future, I think.  With the book as a physical artefact under threat from developments in the digital world, it is the small publishing sector that has the requisite flexibility, and the requisite economy of scale – these being, paradoxically, downscaled economies – to keep the book, this beloved physical item, alive and well as we head into an unhinged future.  In large part this is because small presses can cater to specialised, focused demand – geographically and socially specific demand – and that is the key, I think, to future resilience.

I would be passionate about small press publishing, though, even if there were no economic imperatives at play.  Because, in a globalising world, what is most at risk are those crucial ties to local place and local biophysical distinctiveness that make for a marvellous world of richness and variation.  I would only want to live in such a world.  I would only want to live in a world with a cornucopian abundance of lifeforms – and these would, necessarily, require geographically specialised environments.  Niche specificity.  And I would only want to live in a world of abundant cultural diversity – a world of linguistic, artistic and folkloric richness.  As against the looming spectre of cultural greyness – uniformity of architecture, lingo, cultural product, and even technology – such that the entire world becomes a variation on Indianapolis, or Smallville.

The large publishers, in my view, are unwitting participants in that cultural greying. Whereas small press publishing does the opposite.  It valorises place and cultural particularity, and, in the doing, is a force for the maintenance of wonder in the world, and not the dismal homogenisation creeping ever closer.

For many years my own publisher at Walleah Press, Ralph Wessman, has supplied the key literary infrastructure of the island at the end of the earth.  He merits all good things that come his way.  Forgotten Corners owes its award to Ralph, who entered the book in the first place (I’m not much of a one for entering literary awards).  So thanks Ralph, my dear old mate.  Just now I’m remembering the time Ralph got Flanagan and Hay hideously drunk, then taped us as we argued incoherently about the rival merits of two types of potato!  (Hint:  Bismarks won.)  All is officially forgiven Ralph!

At the virtual event late yesterday afternoon I might not have made the best choice of what to read, but it wasn’t the worst choice I could have made, either. A tad too cerebrally demanding – an undemanding but entertaining story might have better fitted the bill, and there are plenty of those in Forgotten Corners.  Concerning which, if you haven’t already read it, please do – on behalf of my badly misunderstood island.

And here I leave you with some forgotten corners of the island. Click to view larger images.

Remembering Geoff Dyer

Here’s what’s happening…

No poetry – I’m stuck on a long ambitious poem entitled ‘The Bunker’. It’s about a grim, brutalist concrete ruin in the Tasmanian high country, the provenance of an obsessive American survivalist who, ironically, died of cancer before the apocalypse was anywhere in sight. To iterate, it is to be a poem about the monstrous, confrontational concrete artefact in the wild country, and not about the architect thereof. Too many tripwires to venture there.

But there are a couple of prose projects hove-to on the near horizon, each a series, and each intended for the website of Forty South – ten ruminative pieces on historical meaning in Tasmania (though not, of themselves, works of history); and ten fictional pieces very roughly bouncing off the plague stories of Boccacio’s Decameron, stories from one pandemic to another.

But here’s the thing. I’ve reached a stage in my life when people from my brave young days, people who rubbed against me heroically and dynamically, are dying in increasing numbers. And every time such a one dissolves into the shadows, a chunk of my own life vanishes with them. No wonder people become grumpier as they age. Right now several people who mean a very great deal to me are living with death sentences.

Howsoever, this is by way of preamble. One of these magnificent, larger-than-life (though not death) personages whose beings constructed my own died a few days ago. There was a wake, but I couldn’t get to it, and there was a funeral, but I couldn’t get to that either. So here is my tribute to Geoff Dyer, Archibald Prize winning artist, friend of the great and the lowly – and he who, more than anyone else, gave Salamanca Place it’s grace and colour.

At the time of his death Geoff was unquestionably Tasmania’s greatest living artist. Though an Archibald winner, his forte was landscape, and no visual artist has penetrated the elusive soul of the island as effectively as Geoff.

I knew his art well. He was dedicated to his vocation, worked at it hard and enthusiastically, and understood well the theories and histories of art. But I knew him best as a lovable ratbag. He was a cheerfully inveterate gambler who could happily blow a large commission at the casino before returning to Salamanca to roister on. He was, many years ago, a talented footballer, albeit one prone to white line fever. His conversation was outrageous, conspiratorial, intimate. He loved life with an undaunted passion, and in his company it was impossible not to love life, too. And now he’s gone, and he leaves a void that can’t be filled.

Around the traps people are telling their Geoff Dyer stories. Mostly they are ‘big’ stories. Here is a small story; small, but it gives the flavour of the man. I was walking along Salamanca and spotted Geoff in animated conversation with a group of people at an outside table. I was in the act of walking past when Geoff disengaged from the group and walked up to me, put his hands on my shoulders, looked meaningfully into my eyes, and said: ‘We’re fucked mate. We’re completely fucked’. Then he took his hands from my shoulders, turned around and walked back to his table. That’s all that was said. I said not a thing.

Geoff was a one-off. A brilliant artist, a brilliant person, irreplaceable. Hobart is the poorer for his passing.


Note: The feature image on this page is Geoff Dyer’s ‘Lake Repulse’, sourced from Despard Gallery. You can browse more of Geoff’s marvellous paintings here. Lake Repulse is from his last, apocalyptic, exhibition.

Listen out – I’ll be on RN! And did you notice this is a new site?

Last week I read a poem for RN (Radio National), a pre-recording to be broadcast in the Friday 8-9am timeslot. I read the second section of ‘Regret’, the less abstract part of the larger poem, that which considers the poignant interaction between an anonymous male Aboriginal and the equally anonymous French sailor, Piron. (Well, Piron was ‘equally anonymous’ at the time I wrote the poem, though I’ve been told that subsequent scholarship has supplied much biographical data.) It was a portentous engagement, and I’ve always preferred this section of ‘Regret’ to the more abstract first part of the poem. ‘Regret’ is to be found in the third group of poems in Physick, ‘Metaphysics’. What I can’t tell you, however, is on which upcoming Friday the poem will go to air. Sorry. But tune in. Continue reading “Listen out – I’ll be on RN! And did you notice this is a new site?”

And as 2020 rages into being…

Hey there friends.

As I write the natural world rages against the injury we have done to it, and who can blame it.  But the humans who are suffering are, as like as not, just like you and others who may read this, compassionate souls driven to the end of a political cul de sac where there is no place for compassion.  It is our summer of despair.

Amid this despair I have  Continue reading “And as 2020 rages into being…”

…And there’s no rest… Here are three more not-to-be-missed events

I can and should report on the launch of Forgotten Corners, and only a case of the aw-shucks has stopped me from reporting earlier. Despite a massive swag of apologies (pre- and post-launch), a full house turned out at the Hobart Bookshop – now, sadly, on the market, though likely to trade on cheerily for some time yet. Geordie Williamson, sans-notes, gave the most extraordinary launch speech. Continue reading “…And there’s no rest… Here are three more not-to-be-missed events”

Forgotten but not forgotten

Forgotten_Corners_Pete_Hay_CoverI’ve neglected you, dear friends, for an unpardonably long time. There’s a reason, though. I’ve been preparing a book of essays for publication and it’s primed and ready to go. The marvelous Ralph Wessman of Walleah Press has put it together, and as usual, he has done a brilliant job. Matt Newton, who features in my pages more than once, took the cover photo – that’s me in the window of the late and sorely missed ‘Joe’ (Jeff) King’s shanty at King’s Run on the Arthur Rive coast. Forgotten Corners is the main title of the collection, and its sub-title is Essays in Search of an Island’s Soul, which is more than a tad saccharine, but certainly conveys the sense of the book.

This is my first book-length publication since Physick: Catharsis and the Natural Things, and I want it to have just as much impact. It’s 17 years’ worth of published essays Continue reading “Forgotten but not forgotten”

A few more things that have happened/are happening

Back so soon? – well, the fact is I held a couple of items back in my post the other day.  It seemed to me that I’d already hit you with too many words, and I hold the view that, in this didgy world, the ‘too much’ limit is reached sooner rather than later.  So I cut it short.

Anyway, here follow the items I held back the other day. Continue reading “A few more things that have happened/are happening”