These three essays were given to creative writing students in 2021 as a fragmented ‘lecture’ that in no way wanted to be a lecture. Writing it, I needed to offer what students needed; an acknowledgement and response to anxieties, desires and fears. Fears of failure, of writing into the unknown, of not being understood, of pain, of despair. Anxiety over writing and its relationship to the world. I wanted to do all of this and more but I could only pull together a collection of exhausted thoughts that now seem to me like the calls of a strange and lonely bird. ‘Fret not after knowledge, I have none’, the thrush says.’
This Talk is a Fail
When I imagined giving this talk to you, I thought I would be speaking about the relationship between writing and publishing because writing is difficult, and publishing is strange, and there are tensions between the two and we should talk about them.
I wanted to talk to you about writing and publishing because when you write, you must write a lot, but that does not mean you will publish a lot, which means that when you are writing, or when you have finished writing, it might be that no one knows that you are, or have been, writing. It might be that no one particularly cares that you are, or have been, writing. Or not.
In the words of Wiradjuri writer Tara June Winch, ‘Writing is going deep, deep. It’s to be in a conversation with yourself, not at a cool club.’ Rebecca Solnit has said something similar, that ‘writing is lonely, it’s an intimate talk with the dead, with the unborn, with the absent, with strangers, with readers who may never come to be and who even if they read you will do so weeks, years, decades later.’
It’s also true that in reading and writing you can dive so deep into solitude you’re forced by the sheer vertical weight of loneliness to come up and into communities of writers and artists, back into the collective experience of life and death, the world, everything that is happening on the streets, in offices and homes, on the high seas and in the little Zoom boxes that have come to dominate our time together, which scissor away so much of life’s context so that what we come to know of each other from semester to semester, is a universe cinched between forehead and shoulders.
Tara June Winch wrote The Yield. It took eight years. I think. I believe. That’s the number that has stuck in my head. This is long. But not so long. And anyway, writing is long work. Long, in part because it happens in the middle of life and you have to labour in known and unknown, visible and invisibilised ways. You also have to know yourself and your characters, your place in the world and the world that you are writing. All of this takes time. But, as Winch has also said, ‘It’s not pretty when no one cares.’ And, in a world in which the attention economy is co-opting more and more of our time, more and more of our focus, and when building a personal brand becomes a vital part of keeping up with the expanding infosphere, what happens to our skin, and our bodies, which are filled with life and deserve our attention?
I am not anti-technological. Only I want to question the demands and intensities that certain technologies place on you/me/us, and how they can strip knowledge of context, break down complex and expansive worlds into breadcrumbs of narrative that lead us, staggering, from astonishment to shock to disappointment to outrage to resentment to fury and on and on.
I imagined talking to you about what it means to develop a craft, quietly, over long stretches without publication, award or applause because these are not the things that your writing really needs. With the exception maybe of awards, because money buys you more time to do your writing.
What does your imagination need so you can write? Space? Time? Quiet? Retreat? Collaborators? Other things that feel impossible in the current context in which many of us are only just holding ‘it’, life, together. What can it possibly mean to organise narrative at a time when the disintegration of so many of life’s systems is intensifying? What does it mean to read while worlds end?
There is less and less time for the types of things that we need in order to graft attention onto the world because in this world, right now, our beds are our offices and our study spaces and we are experiencing barrages of information or gulping down oceans of grief because of what’s happening to us, around us, and all of this can corrode attention so you become less and less capable of deploying your attention in intentional and creative ways. I say ‘you’, but I am actually speaking of my own experience. I say ‘you’ because I am hoping to find solidarity here.
I was in the kitchen chopping vegetables the other night, thinking of how uncomfortable I am about what I’m saying here. I realised it’s because I’m not talking about writing so much as what it is like to live/write in a state of distracted despair, in which minds are disassembled, blown out in so many directions. That I’m talking more about not writing than writing.
I imagined speaking to you about how you might protect your writing from the pressure to privilege certain kinds of materials, certain forms of narrative.
I wanted to talk to you about the imaginative capacities of certain kinds of failure, because failure is important, not to be ignored. And it can’t be avoided, so we should be talking about it. Failure is not the same as defeat, nor does it signal a misfire of your energies, intellect, politics or ethics.
When I was finishing my creative writing degree I wanted to know about the failures of my teachers and mentors. All kinds of failures. I wanted to be an entomologist of failures: to document specimens and new species of failure. I would journal about how failures interact with minds and bodies. What each variety offers to ecologies of writing. Failure is tricky. Jack Halberstam said failure can be bleak territory, but if success is too easily and too often aligned (as it is) with white, straight, cis, moneyed, propertied, humanist, ableist society then failing, within this context, is a vital alternative imaginative and ethical formation.
Failure is a kind of edge. And I wanted talk to you about edges, what’s over them, just on the other side. And what happens if you jump, or sail, or sink, or simply walk from what feels familiar into your own unknown, across borders of any kind.
Edges are boundaries, places where two genres or faces or bodies meet, drawing individuals and collectives together in certain conversations or collaborations. Though an edge can feel like the point of slip-off into a gulf or abyss, a lot like failure, they signal transitions and can be called beginnings or endings.
So I also wanted to talk to you about writing as a terrain of action. About books that have walked into the world, shaken the world, changed something of the world, even if the convulsions happen slowly, one reader at a time. No one can know the full consequence of their writing because it is, as Solnit says, just ‘one statement in a long conversation you could call culture or history.’
What I am not going to do in this lecture that (I hope) is not one, is offer a string of instructions for how to write ‘on the edge’ of what’s publishable. Who am I to say where centres and margins lie?
And, I’m not capable of speaking in vocational terms because I have not lived a vocational life. What I do, and am capable of doing, is thinking out loud about writers who refuse to compromise their work to fit into neat little boxes, and about writing that has changed something of the world. Those are edges of a kind. But, yes, okay. Maybe my title – Writing at the Edge of What’s Publishable – now seems a little like a bright, fluttering, failure.
Well, good. Let’s start from there.
Writing in a Climate of the Blues
And I tried so hard to write about red. About blood, wild strawberries and shame … You swing. You miss.
Blue is often associated with edges, the unknown and also with beginnings and endings. Maybe I am thinking about this colour because everything feels saturated with loneliness and sadness, which has created a climate or atmosphere of the blues. The air filled with ‘a transcorporeal blue (and blues) ecology’ in a world that is suffering.
These words come from medieval and cultural studies scholar, Eileen Joy, who experiences depression and comes from a family that has been ravaged by mental illness and oceanic sorrows, which they (the family) felt as a ‘deep shame’ and came to believe that the depressed, the manic, the deeply anxious or breaking down people, groping around in the world, as if in the dark, were beyond help.
Joy can’t believe this to be true and she looks to literature to think through her feelings and understand the way that certain sites in literature are saturated with loneliness, and other watery blue affects, and become sites of sad, but life-giving, solidarity. Though she is quick to say that she is not under the illusion that literature is remedy. It can be somewhere to go to understand how the world, or certain places, can feel insane.
Joy thinks of her depression as a kind of atmosphere that is shared by others, though differently. Which is not to erase that a person can be deeply alone in that particular kind of weather. Joy was thinking this way because, at the time of writing, the early twenteens, political discourse was worsening the experience of her aloneness, and the aloneness of so many others, by stressing that what happens to a person is their individual problem, their predicament, not the concern of anyone else.
Against this, Joy reminds herself that writing can open up intersubjective lines of connection. She reminds herself that the word plight ‘from the Old Frisian, Middle Dutch, and Middle Low German plicht, means “care” or “responsibility,” also “community” and “obligation,” and is also related to the Old English pleoh (“danger,” “hurt,” “risk”) and pleon (“to risk the loss of,” “exposure to danger”), which is also related to the Latin pilter (from which we get “plait”): “to fold,” “to pleat,” which is to say, again, that everyone else’s plight, which is to say their “danger,” is also our danger.’
I am writing and speaking this in collaboration with my blues, which at times feel so dark they turn from violet to black, colours that are associated with that region of the deep sea where sunlight cannot reach, that is often dismissed as a kind of abyss, long thought to be a void and devoid of life, even as astounding creatures have been found in and brought up from such depths.
In 1843, the naturalist Edward Forbes proposed the ‘Azoic hypothesis’, which suggested that the abundance and variety of marine life would decrease with increased depth and by his own calculus believed that all marine life would cease to exist at a certain point. This hypothesis would be proven wrong only twenty years later, and yet generations of scientists have dismissed the depths of the oceans on the basis of this thinking. There is so much life in that dark liquid, only it rebuffs the human capacity to see and survive, partly because it blocks the sun. Is that why it has been blocked from thought?
In the 1930s, ocean ecologist William Beebe descended into the ocean in a bathysphere – a small, steel submersible vessel – and recorded the way that colour disappeared at eight hundred feet. He wrote, ‘At fifty feet red is “invisible,” at two hundred feet orange is gone, at three hundred feet violet “has completely eclipsed blue,” at five hundred feet, “Every colour gone but violet, and by eight hundred there is ‘no colour.’” Beebe was mesmerised by this experience, the prismatic quality of water, and that humans can, with technological assistance, inhabit the same deep world as fish, and yet inhabit it so differently. Going deeper, he tries to describe to himself the experience of the colour that coloured this underwater space, but failed. He worried, that this compulsion to document the colours of the ocean would be laughed at for being unscientific. Regardless, he does it in the book Half Mile Down,which I once found when I was walking around, feeling spiritless, in the basement of the biomedical library on campus, in Parkville, in the days when you could walk around, feeling spiritless, and chance upon a book that might give you back your life.
At some point in his first descent, Beebe turns on the bathysphere’s search light, which simulates the sun, and which he thinks will normalise his experience of the colour of the ocean, but it does something else entirely. The deep, watery everything around him, is suddenly illuminated. ‘The blueness of the blue, both outside and inside our sphere,’ he wrote. Such blueness surrounded him, seemed to pass materially into his very being.
This experience of colour changed him. So did the experience of reaching seventeen hundred feet down, which is a world beyond human vision. A world of tactile, textural, chemo-sensing, vibration-sensing ways of ‘seeing’. This experience showed him that the human perspective is vastly limited. In the depths of the ocean where light does not reach, it is as if perpetually midnight, and time still passes. The ocean’s depths are filled with brilliant lights from bioluminescent creatures seen as sparks and dots and rockets and flashes of light that come and go and are greenish and rosy red and pale blue.
Blue is the colour he writes about most in Half Mile Down. The deep sea is ‘a solid, blue-black world,’ Beebe writes, ‘one which seemed born of a single vibration—blue, blue, forever and forever blue.’
Blue has made its way into poetry and literature so many times as the colour of eyes, pencils, distant mountains, emotion (particularly melancholy), exile, looming horizons, the future or end of worlds, of impossible places, and of oceanic landscapes, which mark the salty edge of land. But as poet and essayist, Eliot Weinberger, writes,
Go back far enough and there is no blue.
Blue, black, blonde, blaze, the French blanc, and even yellow all derive from one proto-Indo-European word: *bhel—that which is shining, burning, flashing, or that which is already burnt.
Of all the words there are for colours in English, blue was the one that is said to have appeared last. Six thousand years ago, people began to develop blue colourant after the semiprecious stone, lapis, was mined in Afghanistan and became adored by the Egyptians who combined the mineral with calcium and limestone to generate other saturated blue pigments and from this the word for blue emerged.
Colour conveys intricate worlds and paints are, or can be, compounds that have been pulverised, pressed, boiled, and mixed with powders so what painters work with is the world, itself, in material form. Writing is much the same. Language comes with and after the world in its material forms. To write is to compose, a word that Bruno Latour says, ‘travels with the smell of “compost,”’ which is a word formed by two prefixes “com” and “post” meaning “with the after”.
Think of the blue of manta rays, the mineral shimmer of ghosts, of water, deep ice, full moon light, arteries, the colour of cartoon rain drops, the colour of certain moulds and so much country music. William H Gass has written that ‘So random a set of meanings has softly gathered around the word in the way lint collects.’
That blue is the colour of the unknown makes it the colour of our times, and maybe that’s another reason I’m talking about it now.
Blue is a beginning, even as it is so often taken as an only an end. ‘The end of imagination, we imagine, is an immaculate blue vault in the sky’ says Rebecca Giggs. Giggs makes the point that blue is always in retreat, that you can’t catch it, it is remoteness itself. Solnit writes that blue belongs to impossible distances. Even so, blue calls and so you walk towards it or you try to leap into it. Or maybe I’m talking about blue because everyone feels so remote right now, even as these little digital boxes promise connectivity. But connectivity is not the same as sensitivity, which can help to reroute and deepen our attention to each other, and the world.
Our bodies, our lives, disappear into one another when we are inside these little boxes. So do the bodies around us, which are figured as excessive or incompatible. I have such a deep desire to flood this little box with everything that is excess, like Sarah Manguso does with her aphorisms, revelations and arguments in 300 Arguments, a book brilliantly destructive of teleological thinking, that drives so much talk of arcs and ends and climaxes in narrative.
Teleology is a metaphysical principle about the nature of being and purpose. It has figured prominently in Western philosophy and studies of narrative since Aristotle. In order for teleological narratives to move as efficiently as they do, they rely on accepting that there are certain truths on which to base one’s understanding of the world, such as the idea that every living thing acts for the sake of ends proper to its type. Such as: plants live the life of growth and reproduction, animals have sensation and appetite on top of these, and man has all these plus reason. Teleological narratives reinforce a stratified mentality that erodes attention to the beautiful tangles of the actual. It is attention to the actual that called Beebe to write of how the seas were filled with a world of creatures that yet had no known human names.
Let me tell you that, for me, Manguso’s writing has the startling effect of undulating the actual. She has this writing exercise where she asks students to sit in silence for part of an hour, to empty their minds, and then write five sentences about what has happened without using the first-person pronoun. She guides them to write ‘no feelings; just observations’ and this is her attempt to ‘inflame’ their attention to the world, so they can come close to being utterly, and maybe even entirely, attentive to the actual.
Who feels their life sail in the shape of an arc, which is one of the most pronounced shapes of the teleological narrative? And what kind of a life only has a single high or climax? And why is anyone still really believing that ‘Man’ has everything that plants and other animals have, and then some?
What about attending to things that are difficult and messy but unmistakeably accurate to life? Like impossible contradictions? Like the way beauty and perfection can only overlap imperfectly. And what about digging into shame or desire or anxiety? Or writing everything that you do not know about your mother? Or documenting ghosts, judgements, time or failure, itself?
Manguso’s tiny book flies in the face of teleological logic by attending to the way life, language and thought compress and expand as people collide and depart, as language and thought move back and forwards in time and space. Her arguments sheer, cross and bounce around each other so that you feel, from fragment to fragment, that you are accessing a certain kind of humanity in its fullness and also in its emptiness.
Here are some of my favourite arguments from 300 Arguments:
You might as well start by confessing your greatest shame. Anything else would just be exposition.
I don’t write long forms because I’m not interested in artificial declaration. As soon as I see the glimmer of a consequence, I pull the trigger.
When an ex writes from out of the blue and wants to have dinner while he’s in town, it’s because he got married. Years later, when he writes from out of the blue and wants to have dinner while he’s in town, it’s because he got divorced.
Blue is the colour of back pain. I’m not being romantic but associative. While writing my PhD I experienced a physical trauma so great I was unable to walk for a year. Being unable to walk meant I was unable to work, and therefore unable to take any meaningful break from my studies because I would lose my PhD stipend. I had rent to pay, medical bills.
I wrote in bed with my laptop on my chest, the way Frida Kahlo painted when she was held in traction on and off after she was harpooned by a handrail in a streetcar accident when she was just eighteen years old. I had been to Mexico years earlier, to write a long prose poem about Kahlo’s paintings. I was drawn to think about bodily pain and miscarriage and their convergence with poetry, and poetry’s convergence with paint and the lives and deaths of painters. I wanted to write like a painter, to layer a page so thick with ink it was heavy. In painting, this strategy is called impasto and, to my knowledge, there is no better word to describe this technique when it is applied in writing. My desire to layer a page so thick with ink that it’s too heavy to lift is the exact opposite of Manguso’s writing, which is composed of short units of prose often surrounded by white space that can be read as the absence that encircles presence, silence that edges speech, but is nothing like the bleached monochrome announced by toilet disinfectants and ultra-modern kitchens where, as David Batchelor writes in Chromophobia, no eating, no drinking and no pissing takes place.
There is much eating, drinking and pissing in Manguso’s work.
I have been fascinated by the space between words for a long time. And for a long time thought the space stood as a wall between words or fragments. A formlessness, a void I dismissed it as if operating within my own Azoic hypothesis about the page. But a page isn’t formless or devoid of life. The white can turn prose into clear-cut objects. And it can act as a membrane that allows what is said and unsaid to be seen in their intimacy. An intimacy Manguso keeps so warm and alive. But that white space, I’ve learned, needs to be earned.
The experimental composer John Cage says that there is no silence, just as there is no undifferentiated whiteness. I read this point about undifferentiated whiteness in a way that Cage, perhaps, did not intend. Which is to say that I understand it to mean that whiteness is never neutral. Cage’s famous composition, 4’ 33’’, which he gave the working title ‘Silent Prayer’, consists of assembling audiences into a space, such as a theatre, for the purposes of listening while giving the performers a single instruction, tacet, Latin for ‘it is silent’, and is used in music to instruct musicians not to play. What audiences end up listening to are the ambient sounds of living – coughs, feet shuffling, hushed or uninhibited laughter, quiet outrage. Silence is also never neutral.
The concerns I had about pain and poetry and impasto led me to Kahlo’s painting Henry Ford Hospital, which she painted in 1932 and is dominated by an industrial blue sky, a blue that’s thickened with smog and heat. Though I now see it as indulgent-to-the-point-of-obscene in the current context of carbon emissions, I wanted to go to Mexico to think about all of this, and to write. I had also come to believe something Goethe said: works of art should be viewed under an artist’s native sun. I secured some funding, stuffed a backpack full of clothes, grabbed L, my partner, and we left.
I have always despised the discourse that Kahlo’s pain was her inspiration, her muse. Kahlo said that she was her own muse, which is not the same as saying that pain is great inspiration. Pain can turn a body into a house of torture. Pain is just pain. It is also torture. It can be language-destroying. This is what Elaine Scarry writes about in The Body in Pain, which I read during that year I was stuck in bed and riveted to pain. As I lay in bed trying to tell myself the story of my own physical agony, I thought about the cobalt of Frida Kahlo’s blue house, Casa Azul, which is now a museum where you can see her artworks, her garments, her prosthetic legs, which she painted brightly, and the syringes she used to inject herself with pain killers. The blue of that house is so blue that it’s not like water, but like quenching a thirst. Not like the sky, but a dream of flying through boundlessness. Even now, when the pain of my chronic condition resurfaces, as it does when my work or anxiety press too fully on my body, it arrives with a boundless pulse of blue.
In those days I wrote heavy on medication that made my mind swell way way too far away from the house of my bones.
I was once told that ending a piece of writing is like the process of seeing guests to out your front door at the end of a dinner party. You can stand around and chat, you can guide them gently, or you can shut the door in their face. While I’m bored by this blah analogy I realise, when I come to an ending, my impulse is to slam the door and stand in the solid blue despair I feel when I realise that I have come to an end that is way way too far away from any conclusion.
On Writing as a Form of Open and Loving Rebellion
I’m writing to you from the unceded lands of the Bunurong people, from a small part of this Country, a hamlet with only one road and it ends at a cliff.
Below the cliff is a beach. Maybe this beach isn’t like the beaches that slide into mind when you’re asked to think about a beach. It’s covered with buckshot gravel and there’s grey quicksand just before the wombat holes. At dusk, herons walk towards each other through the shallow waters of low-low tides. They walk slow as endurance artists.
My Hebrew name is Hadassah, which means myrtle. The common myrtle spreads fragrance into the world. A name can do the same. A name can also be a healing root or an enchanted weapon. And now, like in a fairy tale, you have something of a power over me.
For a long time, I stood beside this name. I was its security guard. And then it was like a snail I kept in a box beneath my bed and fed on dried leaves, in secret. And then I forgot it, totally. It died. Turned to dust. Got blown away on a wind. Until, one day, it was returned to me. Now I offer it to you. If you use it I might, like Rumpelstiltskin, tear myself in half. Who knows? Let’s see.
The best advice that has ever been given to me about writing was to get, and keep, my feet on the ground. It was a friend and mentor who gave this to me. I take it as guidance for how to live in the world, as well as a statement of craft.
To keep your feet on the ground is to observe the world around you, carefully. To observe when you’re being observed by the world. To let those experiences give you a more nuanced understanding of the world in which you’re standing, and to write from that place not as a master of the scene but as a participant who is in, and of, the mess of a moment.
This advice came when I was writing an essay about a blockade at the International Mining and Resources Conference in 2019. It’s Australia’s most influential mining conference where mining leaders connect with technology and finance to engineer their future.
All that year, L and I occupied spaces in office buildings and on street corners of companies who had signed on to provide materials, or undertake infrastructural work (like laying train tracks or internet cables) for the construction of the Adani mine and rail project in the Galilee Basin, which is part of the lands and waters of the Wangan and Jagalingou people and is one of the world’s largest untouched coal reserves.
The project threatens ancestral lands, would allow 500 more coal ships to travel through the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area every year, drain 270 billion litres of Queensland’s ground waters. And it would do more, but I won’t go on. In October, Australia’s resources minister, Keith Pitt, celebrated as the first coal was dug from the Carmichael mine. But the other mine projects are lapsing, getting shelved, getting sold off. Some miners are moving on, others are preparing to come in.
All that year, I wrote as if screaming through a megaphone from a street corner. We were in a world of disruption and riot police and locking on to doors or trucks, gluing hands to driveways and footpaths. Working all kinds of hours to keep our jobs. Strange pre-dawn, and pre-pre-dawn hours.
I ran to teach classes between snap planning meetings for actions and snap actions and we took part in the week of protests outside the mining conference, which turned into five days of technicolour violence. But I won’t go on about that, either.
What can happen in a blockade, between protestors, is the rapid formation of solidarity with life and rebellion against what is against life. Which is not about personal freedoms but when a person places their body in harms way to halt or divert an even greater harm, one that threatens more bodies. Writing can share in this ethic of solidarity and rebellion. Solidarity with life and rebellion against what is life’s opposite.
Protest. Protest. Protest. I have been watching the skies, trying to chart the terrifying weather gathering in around this word.
Now, L is sitting at the dining table watching footage from the anti-vax, ‘freedom’ riots moving across the Westgate Bridge asking, ‘Why ‘Horses’? Why are they singing ‘Horses’?’ We try to recall the lyrics.
Now, I’m stirring a big pot on our small stove. It’s filled with water and onions and salt. Into it I throw words like ‘alien’, ‘parasite’, ‘degenerate’, ‘blood and honour’, ‘blood and soil’. These words which are a poisoning the air, are associated with Nazi propaganda, neo-Nazis and Proud Boys. I throw them into my pot as if they were eyes and tongues and stingers and tails and teeth. I stir and stir, watching it all bubble and burn like a hell broth.
Boiling these words down takes hours. Then it’s too late for dinner. ‘Dinner’s poisoned,’ I say. A little too loudly. I’ve had too many gins. I take the pot to the very back corner of our garden and pour the hell broth out. I should say something, I think. Some magic words. And I google, ‘How to break a curse?’
Landscape photographer Ansel Adams said, ‘A good photograph is knowing where to stand.’ I think the same for writing. But it’s more complex than that (Adams knows this). Cliffs erode. Rivers flood. The ground moves in giant plates beneath our feet.
I once overheard someone say that while it’s useful to have the word ‘cloud’, what we really mean when we say ‘cloud’ is everything that happens inside and outside a fragile watery bag of skin. This, to me, is an accurate description of a protest.
Anwen Crawford’s book-length essay No Document explores histories of protest and revolution as well as the spaces in which revolution and unspeakable violence take place. It’s poetry, art history, protest history as well as an elegy and letter to Crawford’s friend, an artist and dear collaborator, who died unexpectedly of cancer.
The book has a disassembling shape to it, filled with blank spaces, white boxes, government missives carefully redacted by Crawford. The poetic practice of redaction speaks back to the history of erasure poetry, a kind of writing steeped in a desire to forge solidarities with life and open rebellion against what is anti-life. Erasure poets work with found text and take black markers or white out to existing works and shimmer into view a new order of knowledge created from the original’s latent meanings.
The ghosts of texts past are not banished or chased away. They cast enduring shadows. A paradox of erasure poetics is that subtractions generate new additions. Crawford works with government documents released in relation to the Tampa. Do you remember that?
It was in the lead up to the 2001 federal election. A fishing boat, filled mostly with Hazara people who were fleeing the Taliban, was en route to Christmas Island. On board were 438 asylum seekers. Mid-way through its journey, the boat’s engines failed. Sinking at sea, struggling for days, in the waters between Indonesia and Australia.
A Norweigian freight ship, Tampa, was prepared to rescue the crew and passengers of the boat. Prime Minister John Howard wanted to prevent the freight ship from entering Australian waters. Howard threatened the captain with imprisonment and fines of up to $110,000 if he entered Australian waters with the asylum seekers on board.
This was the time when the policy of ‘turning back the boats’ was introduced and several boats that came after this one –now labelled Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels, or SIEVs – sank. Crawford writes, ‘SIEV – the acronym applied by the Australian government to asylum seeker boats – has always struck me as too close to sieve for coincidence, suggesting that the sea leaks people’ and ‘moreover, sieve as a verb suggests removal.’
Crawford performs her own kinds of removals throughout the text, but these are ones that focus attention on the lives that have been pushed to margins, lives made as small as possible, lives she refuses to abandon. No Document participates in creating, and widening, a margin of refusal. Refusing to forget this history, those lives, and how this moment lives on in the present. It doesn’t just employ the tactics of erasure and removal, it is made up of erasures and loss and what is ruined, abandoned, demolished and ignored. It makes new kinds of weather from old, enduring, storms.
Maybe you’ll read it. Maybe you already have.
No Document is so political, so personal, so public, so sad, so blue, and so much about what art might do to model solidarity and refuse violence. Violence done to single bodies through biological illness, and violence done to collectives through the illnesses of racism and racist policies.
I read and re-read No Document so many times asking what the writing wants, which is a vital question for any writer to ask any text (particularly your own). Here’s what I think.
No Document wants to know what kinds of work documentation – photographs, reports, films, posters – does in the world.
It also wants none of what it is made up of: the bombing of Afghanistan, disappearances, torture and those sites known as ‘black sites’ – military terminology for locations, clandestine jails, in which unacknowledged operations of torture and imprisonment are carried out.
It wants none of the history of Nazi inventories of ‘degenerate’ art and those they called degenerate artists, including the painter Franz Marc, who was part of the Blue Rider Group and believed that new paintings would bring about new ideas. Marc’s oil painting Tower of Blue Horses was to be included as part of the Degenerate Art Exhibition held in Munich in 1937 but was pulled and has not been seen in public since.
The Blue Rider Group started in Munich and would become an influential part of the German Expressionism movement that confronted feelings of alienation in a world that had slid into an unidentifiable shape. The group was structured around the idea that colour and form carried concrete spiritual values and that blue was the most spiritual colour.
‘Rider’ appears in the group’s title, and philosophy, because the figure of the rider symbolised the ability to move beyond to Marc and also Wassily Kandinsky, who was also at the centre of the group.
Art does move with life, from life and even moves life itself.
Is it too much to ask that writing deliver souls safely from the edge of forgetting to the other side of the world?
Somewhere, Eileen Myles has said that a poem is a statement of desire. Desire to have things or not have things. Like not having bleeding gums or leaking taps. Desire to see what is not, yet, considered part of human poetics written down. Desire for desire to be more desired.
I also think Eileen Myles has said that a poem makes the kind of world that is capable of receiving it. I love this idea beyond belief.
Alaimo, Stacy. ‘Violet-Black’ in Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.
Batchelor, David. Chromophobia, London: Reaktion Books, 2001.
Beebe, William. Half Mile Down, London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1935.
Crawford, Anwen. No Document, Artarmon: Giramondo Publishing Company, 2021.
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