Andrew Burke

hey cuckoo–
are you scolding
the loafer?

Issa, 1813

Phil Hall

Friend and fellow poet, Canadian Phil Hall, has just won the prestigious Governor General’s Poetry Award for 2011. His winning book was Killdeer, published by Bookthug. You can read more here.I’ve been procrastinating for days about writing this. I have no idea why, but events have caught up with me and now is the time.

Being only human, I tend to pay more attention to the books and poems of the poets I know personally, so I’ve been reading and, frankly, puzzling over a lot of Phil’s work for some years now. If you’ve heard me philosophise about getting to know mysterious twists in poetry, you’d know I like to try the form on for size, or try to write a homage poem in the style of the poet I am trying to untangle – Berryman’s Dream Songs, Tranter’s tricks and hijinks, exotic ghazals. I began disentangling Phil’s poetics by trying to ape them after a heart attack as I waited for the bypass operation – months when I couldn’t do much activity at all. But I could write, and Phil helped me distract myself from the fear of doom by suggesting a collaborative work. The format came out of discussion and our individual strengths: we both wrote five line links, and then Phil shuffled them. Here’s an example or three –


Whistling without charts

I praise all swoops and calls

old red-throat has come back
the gentle violin-maker to the countryside

a left-footer’s choir
all language metaphor

I air my tongue
and dream of placid jaws

bawdy songs once belted



Don’t play what’s there
play what’s not there

a Chinese dragon of smoke
wearing my dead friend’s clothes
above the marina

I stall on the floating bridge

and turn Schubert or Mingus
down low upright in

the long paddock
gathers rain


I watch my chest
rise and fall in the mirror

nature in the raw

nothing I see or think
means anything to me

then I plan to tell you about it

and into each dull thunk
like lemon on fish

comes flugelhorn

a faint zing

And one of my favourites –


Body rags
slouch toward

the poem
about the door

piano rolls at play

the o in poem
in memory’s chapel

not a knob
or halo

(Read all of Shikibu Shuffle here.)

Collaboration isn’t a natural thing for me, but it sure has some benefits. It broke me free from logic, it challenged me to be as creative as my partner, and it taught me new tricks which you may call techniques. I can recognise some of my lines in the preceding work, but most I have no idea who wrote them – that is good for my ego, if nothing else!

For some time I’ve thought of myself as a loner, but often when I’ve been banging my poetic head against a creative brick wall, joining in a renga with friends has released the light-heartedness, the playfulness, back into my writing. If you don’t know, a renga is a traditional Japanese form of linked-verse. It is normally about 36 links long and is patterned after the 3 line verse (5/7/5 onji) followed by the 2 line verse (7/7 onji). Onji are Japanese syllables, which are always short – like the ‘po’ in potato. So, when writing renga in English, it is more accurate to write 3/5/3 and then 5/5 approximately.  There are countless rules (we tended to ignore a lot of them in our playfulness) but the interesting part for me was the fact that you could read them as five line verse where each contributing link by a different poet each time keeps changing the former meaning of the link before.  I’ve tried writing a solo renga, but it went flat like kicking the footy by yourself. It is good to spark off each other and push the poem out into its unique trajectory.

There is never a sufficient extract from a Renga but here I shall posit some links from a contemporary renga, lead by Graham Nunn, Australian poet, based in Brisbane.

Autumn Sunset (an Autumn Kasen Renga)
As part of the recent Ginko Series I ran for QLD Writers Centre, I took on the role of sabaki for the group as they took on the job or writing an Autumn Kasen Renga.
Started: April 3, 2011
Finished: May 24, 2011

Written between: Cindy Keong, John Wainwright, Lee-Anne Davie, Jonathan Hadwen, Trudie Murrell, Vuong Pham & John Koenig

Autumn Sunset

autumn sunset
the glow of one
ripe cherry                            (ck)

ANZAC moon chills
the airman before dawn          (jw)

fly over
swallows leave the sky
to the clouds                         (ld)

the rain finds me
I let each drop strike home     (jh)

sudden chill
winter coat smells
of last year’s mothballs          (tm)

mist creeps through
the pines at dusk                   (vp)


(Read more here.)


Again, the entire work is the combined property of all the contributors, so the ego-based motivation of such work is much diminished. Perhaps ego is part of the driving force, but if it is the paramount motivation I believe it is destructive to the end result. The Author is not dead in this role but s/he is certainly masked for the dance.

Ern Malley, portrait by Sidney Nolan

One of the richest poetic collaborations in our literary history was between James McAuley and Harold Stewart, two Australian poets at the forefront of local literary circles at the tail end of World War II. Over a number of beers in 1943, they concocted a hoax poet, Ern Malley, with the express purpose of lampooning the ‘modernist’ poetry championed by Max Harris in his magazine, Angry Penguins. In the wonderful introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (Penguin Books, 1991), edited by John Tranter and Phillip Mead, the effect of this collaboration was succinctly described by the editors who chose to publish the entire works of Malley, some of McCauley and none of Stewart:

Written while Roland Barthes was still in his twenties. ‘Malley’s’ poems speak of the death of the Author in a subtle, duplicitous voice and – as McAuley himself prophesised – their enigmas and paradoxes still captivate new generations of young readers in a way that McAuley’s or Harold Stewart’s other work seems less able to do.’ Furthermore, ‘these unsettling works of the imagination may be seen as early examples of the postmodernist technique of bricolage, of knocking something together from whatever materials are close to hand. … The poems they fabricated from many different sources – non-‘poetic’ ones often – survive as radical, intriguing challenges to traditional ways of writing and reading.

A quick example must suffice:

Night Piece

The swung torch scatters seeds
In the umbelliferous dark
And a frog makes guttural comment
On the naked and trespassing
Nymph of the lake.

The symbols were evident,
Though on park-gates
The iron birds looked disapproval
With many invidious beaks.

Among the water-lilies
A splash – white foam in the dark!
And you lay sobbing then
Upon my trembling intuitive arm.

‘Ern Malley’

What part did the ego play in all of this? The two conservative poets thought they were ‘above’ the new wave of poets, and so tried to send-up their opposite number through the person of Max Harris. Temporarily they had their day – for a while, Max was a figure of ridicule for some and Modernism was set back on its heels in Australia – but time has swung more toward relishing the poetics of their concocted persona Ern Malley than either of them. For those who believe in Muses, this must present a wonderful case for a spiritual entity behind the physical restrictions of the human mind and body. I read a more psycho-literal explanation into it.

Another delightful contemporary collaboration by poets, but one rendered with a note of fun and laughter at every turn, is the novel A Nest of Ninnies, by John Ashbery and James Schuyler. (It was first copyright in 1969, but first published in Britain by Carcanet in 1987.) It is a ‘seamless collaboration between two first-class poets’, as the blurb says, and its tone can be caught by this short quote:

Godfrey beetled his brows at him, and such was their tangled growth that there was a distinct illusion of salt wind and screaming gulls.

Now, how many novels can you portray in one sentence? Just that one, perhaps. Let me tell you, it is like listening to two men laughing as they set up a lampoon without ever realising others may overhear. Delightful.


I’ve held your attention long enough, but there’s more to say on Collaboration, so Part Two shall be posted in two days. In that post I shall look at work by Canadian, USA and Australian poets.