Books I’ve Read – Sad Giraffe Cafe

Gwyn, R 2010, Sad Giraffe Café, Arc Publications, United Kingdom.

I was so excited that my mum found this collection for me. Not only are giraffes my favourite animals, but the collection is dedicated to a Rhiannon. This book was meant to be read by me.

The second poem in this collection, ‘Spartans’, compares children in the school playground with Ancient Spartans, “I heard them in the schoolyard, the would-be Spartan warriors. Even their swearwords were thoroughbred, while my mouth was full of marbles”. I love the image of intimidation in the schoolyard, where even the poet is unable to form the words he wants.

The poems in this collection have repeating characters. All the poems are prose poems and many of them include surreal imagery, blending dream with reality. Not only are there recurring characters, but some of the settings also recur. Finally, many of the poems are linked by the theme of gender, exploring sexism, misogyny and the strength and independence of the young female character, Alice.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book that seems to have been written for me. 🙂


Books I’ve Read – Failed Love Poems

Joan Fleming’s collection includes a range of different poetic styles. She has a suite of erasure poems where she has redacted (has blacked out) sections of the poems. A particular poem that stood out is ‘Twenty questions’ (p 20). This poem is addressing a past lover and there is a line, “Did the entire……………………………………………..feel intolerably / like school        Was it the careful seepage in the car                   a scent I hate / Was it the you of you…”. The idea of the relationship feeling like school is amusing and suggesting that the relationship is juvenile and finicky.

‘The brief life of the love poem’ (p27) is another poem that stood out to me. This poem personifies the poem itself, exploring the anxieties and desires of the poem as it struggles with the emotion of love. Fleming uses very little punctuation, instead using tab spaces to signifying pauses. Sometimes she is using the end of the line to emphasise a word or idea and sometimes it is the beginning of the line that seems more significant, eg “…What there are, are / wolves!           Turn back, little love poem!”. In this line the word ‘wolves’ is emphasised through the use of the exclamation mark and by being placed at the start of the line, having the gap after the word so that it is isolated on the page.

Fleming also has a series of prose poems in this collection. One of these that stood out was ‘6. Translations’ (p49). This poem alternates between the internal thoughts of the speaker, which are italicised, and a conversation with a therapist, which is written in parentheses.

The poem ‘House-sit in spring’ (p55) uses line scattering. There are some words hanging out on their own, which include ‘so’ and ‘yes’. The poem is capturing a moment in a relationship that isn’t perfect, as the man won’t / can’t drive the woman to the doctor’s when she has something in her eye. Maybe the jarred feeling of the words is meant to capture the issues in this relationship. The ‘so’ and ‘yes’ being placed on their own do mean that these words are stressed as they might be in an informal conversation where the speaker is trying to build suspense.

Another prose poem, ‘Still in it’ (p65), briefly mentions the assigning and assessing of student work as the speaker goes on a surrealist exploration of herself. This reflects that you can never escape teaching. It is a job that haunts your thoughts all the time, “I found three secateurs on a lawn, called them a family. I asked my students to write fictions of projections. Marked their poems with a B or a C. What you have to do. Small room. Weird heat of the printer, white chocolate wrapper. You call me and you have just cycled a great distance. You have the best blacks, the best dark blues. I paid for my ticket. I paid for a backpack. I walked a small distance and flew.” I could relate to this poem!

Books I’ve Read – On Western Sydney

Ahmad, M M and Castagna, F (eds.) 2012, On Western Sydney, Westside, New Serie, vol. 2, Bankstown Youth Development Service, Bankstown.

This anthology consists of poems and short stories that are written by writers who were mostly living in Western Sydney at the time of the publication and many of these texts are about Western Sydney. Some of my favourites from the anthology include:

The excerpt from Felicity Castagna’s The Incredible Here and Now reminded me of my own youth, being in the car with a friend’s older brother who was driving recklessly.

I enjoyed the uncomfortable dialogue between two strangers on a train in Amanda Yeo’s ‘Nine Minutes’. A young man from Camden hits on the young woman who narrates the story.  I liked that Camden and Campbelltown were mentioned in this short story, as sometimes I feel like South West Sydney isn’t part of Sydney, or of Western Sydney, it is pushed to the side and forgotten.

George Toseski’s short story ‘Green Tea’ is a dialogue between a young woman, her mother and her mother’s friend.

Tamar Chnorhokian’s short story ‘Flashbacks of Leon’ explores the mutual conflict and prejudice between private and public schools.

Kavita Bedford’s short story ‘The Bath’ explores a child’s realisation of domestic violence through the imagery of the squealing sound the drain makes when you pull the plug in the bath.

Lina Jabbir’s poem ‘Walk next door’ brings the suburb of Bankstown into the houses of these two neighbours, “Bankstown ‘City of Progress’ / It overflows in the backyard / Inside our house / Through the kitchen window / The sunset bright / In between construction beams / Where frosted glass stands alone…” (p80). This poem moves from describing the suburb to the small and everyday-ness of “Sipping coffee” and “Pondering your cactus” which “cut her hands  / When she reaches for the mail” (pp80-81).

Peter Polites’ ‘Passing of the Eye II’ is a coming of age story that explores the sexuality of a young gay man through the friendship of three boys.

Rebecca Landon’s poem ‘Bankstown2 (Square in the Heart)’ describes driving around Bankstown and Fiona Wright’s poem ‘The Streets I Have Loved’ describes driving home.

Frances Panopoulos’ poem ‘Puss Puss’ is another Bankstown poem.

Phillip Hall’s poem ‘Waiting in Penrith South’ captures the sounds of Penrith as Hall describes the peaceful moments of a stay-at-home-dad’s day before the school bell rings.

Fiona Wright’s short story ‘Writing about Violence’ captures the persona teaching a poetry workshop to teenagers. It explores the intimidation of the size of the boys through the repetition of “The boys are big”. The story captures the different kinds of kids that a teacher is faced with, the quiet one who struggles to know how to start, the boy who is drawing a comic instead of writing a poem and the girls who won’t let you see their work until they have built a relationship with you. The story doesn’t end with any special breakthrough where the teacher feels that they’ve had some kind of life-altering impact on one or more of the students. Instead, the story ends with doubt. The teacher feels that they are bullying students with poetry and words as they show off their intelligence and demand that the students write about their traumas.

Mariam Chehab’s poem ‘Career’ describes the pressures that young people can feel as they try to decide what they want to do with their lives. Everyone around them has an opinion.

Line Breaks

I’ve been thinking a lot about line breaks recently. Here are some of the ideas that have been influencing my experimentation with the line in my writing:

Denise Levertov has claimed that “yet there is at our disposal no tool of the poetic craft more important, none that yield more subtle and precise effects, than the line-break if it is properly understood” (265). She goes on to explain that “…read naturally but with respect for the line-break’s fractional pause, a pitch pattern change does occur with each variation of lineation” (268) and, therefore, she believes that it is important to consider what word is best placed at the end and start of a line, as these words are emphasised by the “…melos of the poem” (267).

I listened to Peter Boyle talking at Western Sydney Univesity about line breaks. He quoted Nigel Fabb, describing line breaks as units of sound. Boyle said that “poetry is tied up with language the way speak it”. He said that there are regional and national ways of speaking that are evoked in poetry. Line breaks are used to create sound in poetry as well as for surprise.

Anton Vander Zee’s introduction to Broken Things explores many different theories and discussions that have been had about the line break, including the political beginnings of blank verse, through to free verse. Zee asserts that some of the best poetry is aware of its form and is “…both critical and self-critical, holding its own elaborate fictions of form at a skeptical, questioning distance” (p6). Zee also asserts that “the line, in its many ulterior projections, might be an engine for certain ideals of progress – political, ethical, or otherwise. For some, it touches upon the most fundamental epistemological and ontological questions. One finds it caught up in theories of language, and in the very beginnings and endings of things. Remarkably, the line has become an aesthetic, sociopolitical, and, at times, metaphysical variable even as it remains deeply invested in the formal minutiae of rhythm and metrics, rhyme and sound. More than ever, the line is poetry, the radical against which even alternate and emerging poetic forms that foreground the visual or the auditory, the page or the screen, can be distinguished and understood.” (p6)

In a poetry workshop with Judith Beveridge, Beveridge spoke of “line art”. She encouraged us to think of the line not as a unit of meaning but as a unit of time. She reminded us to think about the first and last words of lines as the emphasis falls on these words because that’s where the eye falls. Beveridge said that we should use a mix of end stop and enjambed lines because one kine of line ending only becomes powerful in relation to other line endings. She claimed that only poetry deploys the line as a crucial agent of meaning as well as pacing.

Poetry with year 7

I’ve just taught a unit on perspectives through poetry to year 7. Some of my favourite poems to read with year 7 include:

William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ – I always begin year 7 by reading this poem with the class. I ask the students what they think the poem is about and usually I am told that it is about thirsty chickens who have luckily been able to get a drink from the rainwater that has collected in the red wheelbarrow. The students often talk about drought and sometimes about water restrictions. After we discuss the poem for a while and I ask them how many of them have chickens and a wheelbarrow in their backyards we go for a walk around the school so that students can write a poem to celebrate this new place that they are about to spend the next six years of their lives learning in. We walk through the out of bounds places and the year 7s love exploring different parts of the school, feeling like they are really getting to know this place.

Chris Wallace Crabbe’s ‘Other People’ – this poem explores the impact of war on families. The perspective on war is clear to readers of all levels. The language and sounds in the poem have left readers of varying abilities saying ‘wow’ after I read the poem to them. Students have a strong emotional response to this poem. Year 7s enjoy this poem because they understand it and at the same time it is a clever text that is using language in interesting ways. All students are able to identify language features in this poem and explore the effects of devices such as metaphor.

I also love looking at haiku with year 7 and if you are going to read haiku you have to read Basho Matsuo’s

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

I also really enjoy Mike Ladd’s Tram Stop 6 poems.

The tram departs
she grabs her phone
deletes his number

The above haiku by Mike Ladd always gets some giggles from the students who are happy to laugh at the expense of the poor man whose number has just been deleted.

Books I’ve Read – The Incredible Here and Now

the-incredible-here-and-nowFelicity Castagna’s The Incredible Here and Now captures teenage angst in a visceral way. The complication involves the death of an older brother and the tragedy of the loss of this young person has an immense impact on the other characters in the book. Castagna’s writing captures the places, cars and people that she is writing about vividly. This book is grounded in Western Sydney and captures how closed off the suburbs can feel with the only entertainment being a McDonald’s car park and the swimming pool.

I’m currently reading this book to my year 9 class and they are loving it. They frequently interrupt me to comment on the characters and places that are described in the book as they are places and characters that are familiar to the students. They have been sharing their stories about the places in the book with the class.

I recommend that all high school teachers, particularly those working in Western and South West Sydney have a read of this book and share it with their students.

Books I’ve Read – Soap

Charlotte Guest’s collection, Soap, explores the transition from childhood to adulthood, with many of the poems also exploring gender identity and sexism. I connected with many of the poems in this collection, being able to relate to the feelings and ideas being evoked.

‘Autobiographical Fragment’ is a poem that explores growing up. There is a beautiful moment in the poem where notes are being passed in class and the speaker is retrospective of this kind of child-like social interaction. The girls felt so grown up and clever at the time, “she passed cryptic notes in chemistry: Everyone who loves should spend time with the periodic table”. The poem ends, “Who are we in the places we occupy? … The air makes a sound as I suck it through my teeth.” The speaker has grown and changed from that nearly-18-year-old passing notes in the classroom, but she is still discovering herself. Do we ever stop changing, growing, discovering ourselves?

My favourite poems in this collection are the second and third poems. ‘Networking Drinks’ is a poem that is about gender and race and explores how privileged people (white men) can be oblivious to inequalities and can feel that conversations around race and gender are no longer necessary. The poem ends, “we are talking underwater, sacks over our heads, like dipped witches”. What an evocative ending to explore the frustration of these kinds of conversations. The image of the ‘dipped witches’ not only captures this emotion of futileness, but also the enduring inequalities that position someone who speaks out against naivety / ignorance as ‘other’, an outsider, a witch.

My other favourite poem is ‘Egg Tempera’. This is a poem about body image, the female speaker in the poem is unhappy with her body and the sexual relationship she has with her partner is uncomfortable because of the self loathing of her body. The poem contains a rape, as the speaker is not comfortable with the sexual interaction, she cries because of her dislike of her body and the fact that this sexual interaction is not enjoyable for her. The male character does not seem to notice that his partner is unhappy, in fact is crying during sex. This poem moves beyond the personal experience of being uncomfortable with one’s weight and experiencing this kind of ‘marital rape’, to the historical and artistic representations of female beauty that have and continue to pressure women to look a particular way:

He hitches your wool skirt and ignores

the tears that tour your face and make you

think of your Renaissance sisters,

stroked into existence.


As my dad bought this collection for me and suggested that I read Guest, knowing that I would connect with her poetry, I thought I should finish by discussing Guest’s poem, ‘Daddies’. This poem is a gorgeous conversation between a dad and daughter, where the daughter questions, “Who were you before me?”. The dad responds by saying, “something about skin cells and every ten years, meaning I’ve had four fathers and am a very lucky girl.”

I am very lucky to have a dad who buys me poetry, knowing what form and content will appeal to me. Charlotte Guest is certainly writing the kind of poetry that I enjoy. She writes imagery with skill. Her poems are not complicated experimentations with language, and I enjoy the simpleness of her style. She is writing about complex ideas and emotions, which makes her poetry necessary and worth reading and rereading.

Books I’ve Read – His Name in Fire

Catherine Bateson’s his name in fire is a verse novel that follows a linear narrative, entwining the stories of a few different characters through the single event of the circus coming to town.

The verse novel combines poetry and song. Bateson writes from different perspectives and uses various poetic devices to capture the different voices of the characters.

This verse novel explores the struggles of growing up in a rural/small town, monocultural, high unemployment, teen pregnancy and low educational aspirations, for example in the poem ‘Mozza’s Goodbye’ Mozza finally finds purpose through his role in the circus, “…next cheque I’m getting a penguin suit – Ringmaster Mozza”. Prior to the circus arriving in town, both Mozza and his partner Shazza struggle to find purpose in their lives, “I’ve got a missus – practically – we’ve got a kid no jobs no money no way out”. Near the end of the book, Shazza comes to realise how much she loves the small town that she lives in stating, “…I tell you where hell is, it’s in those city streets no one saying good day no one stopping if your baby spits the dummy…”.

Bateson uses idioms and a range of characters of different ages to explore the community. In the poem ‘Mozza’s Goodbye’, the language that Bateson uses to capture Mozza’s character is genuine, as she writes, “so I hotfooted down to the caravan park head pounding like a heavy metal song”.

Bateson has constructed the ‘world’ of this small community, exploring gender, broken homes, employment/unemployment, and education and how these things impact the relationships between the characters and their self-perceptions. It is interesting how she has threaded the narratives of Shazza and Mozza, Mollie and Seb, Matthew and Emma, as well as some of the adults (namely, Emma’s dad and Matthew’s parents) to explore small-town life and the benefit that a creative outlet can have for a community that is not highly educated and do not have a lot of job opportunities.

Representations of Resistant Voices

My students really enjoyed this unit last year. We explored resistant voices in literature, examining poetry by First Nations Australians, feminist poetry, and poetry that is critical of the lives lost in the Vietnam War.

I used a strategy that I learned at university to develop my students’ analytical writing. The first step is for students to conduct a question that begins with why and to write a 500 word what in the text lead them to ask this question.

The next step is for the students to write another question beginning with why and this time their 500 words need to address why it is important that this question is asked. This is the stage that literary theory could be applied to their readings of texts.

The final step is to compose an essay. Hopefully, by this step students have a clear idea of hope they wish to approach the texts and why and are able to construct strong thesis statements.

Why Question demo

So what example

R Hall Essay Prep 2017