How is corona treating you? Where are you living? What are you doing? As we segue into a possible second wave in some spots, bunker down behind we hope safe borders in others, miss our friends and family and wonder when we will see them again, it’s quite hard to stay focused enough to work, given that writing is so, so internal.
Years ago, my playwrights’ group, 7-ON,wrote a combined script based on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. We called it The Seven Needs. It was published by Currency with a number of others as Short Circuit.
In the literature about the ‘Needs’, they are variously described as being five or seven or even eight different and accumulating human needs, the next one coming into place after the last one is satisfied. For obvious reasons we went with seven. My script was called Respect, which roughly translates to ‘self-esteem/achievement’. I used three characters (we were being practical!): Liz, an 80-year-old wheelchair harridan; Sharpie, a fat young woman of no social currency and not much likelihood of developing the same; and an angel (rationalists can relax – it’s just a metaphor). The piece was set on (part of) the Great Wall of China. Research is one of the hidden delights of being a writer, so this fact was my excuse to comprehensively research said wall. My usual modus operandi is to research the living daylights out of a subject, write the play or book or poem, and then promptly forget most details of the background material. So, if you asked me for any insights now about the GWOC I probably could not supply them with any coherency, but I do still retain a sense of the atmosphere of height, and bricks, and encroaching desert and the utter futility and paradoxical endurance of human effort. And the cold. And an aura of physical challenge.
I am still pretty fond of those three characters and would like to touch base with all again sometime, particularly the angel. Given that the angel was a hierophant of life-into-death, it seems likely that I will at least make the acquaintance of he/she/it some way down the track.Respect, like a lot of my writing, is a liminal work – it addresses the moment that being alive translates into being dead. I come back to it again in Lone Bird, a short play that received an airing at the New Theatre in 2009, featuring the wonderful Fiona Press. And again, in the pivotal scene inThe Sweetest Thing (Belvoir Downstairs, 2010). Another play, Long Tan (Brink Productions, 2017, and Currency Press is about life-in-death on a raging scale and my latest work, Bloodlines, is set in Holocaustal Poland during World War II, so yes, same-same. Not all my characters in that play die during the course of the action, but many of them do.
And here we are, as I write now, facing off the annual death of the light, at the hinge of the year, just past the darkest day. And we in the arts in Australia are also facing something like the death of our industry and cultural way of life. Poet and teacher, Mark Tredinnick articulates it beautifully. If you have time it is well worth chasing up this link.Such policies of vengeful stupidity are not being promulgated only here in Australia, of course, the same thing is happening throughout much of the Anglosphere as governments veer sharply to the right, wagged on by the multiple tails of 30 years of neoliberal propaganda. I read in a recent New Yorker review by Alex Ross that ‘there is an extinction process going on at the moment, the death of the performing arts’. Ross was referring to the streaming of music ‘product’ by the corporate giants, where the artist receives a piteously small financial reward for his or her life of talent and creative hard yakka. (Buy CDs!). But in these times, it also applies to Australian writing and even culture overall, as sources of intellectual and cultural earning vanish, the arts and humanities subjects are targeted by a wilfully regressive government, and neutral sources of intellectual information like the ABC are slowly diminished into a funding to fail. And – icing on the cake – the creative industries [contributing a massive $111.7 billion, or 6.4% of Australia’s Gross National Product in 2016-17, and representing 5.5 % of the national workforce (A New Approach, 2018)are the very last body of essential workers to receive financial help from the Coalition government.
Essential workers, they crow, the y’arts? Absolutely. Without the arts there is no community. Without community, what, frankly, is the point of any of it? Here I have to mention that I do have the hard facts to back up this assertion, acquired via a four-month research project into the Creative Industries in the South Australian regions, for which there is a webinar discussion available here and a copy of the (very large!) report here.
So, we, too, are inside a liminal moment. And it’s quite hard to be cheerful. Yet the great lesson of the loss of the light is its resurrection. The particular lives, hopes, relationships, worlds do die, but the general (eventually) return. Even if humans do destroy this iteration of this most beautiful of planets, in one hundred thousand years or so it will once again be beautiful with new and equally lovely forms of life, before one day it, too is shrivelled by its own star’s death throes. But then there will be other stars, and other planets.
In the meantime, however, solutions? How to live? My current suggestion is another one to horrify the rationalist. The concept of the Tao makes more sense to me than most other philosophies. So…being a child of the hippie era sometimes I throw the I Ching. You don’t have to subscribe to it 100 % to find it enlightening. Sometimes I ‘believe’ it. Sometimes I don’t. But one of the hexagrams I have found to be intriguing from time to time is Hexagram 24, The Return, the one also known as the Turning Point, which seems to be appropriate to this moment in the year and perhaps in our collective lives. Here it says (amongst much else) that ‘It is beneficial to have a place to go’. I have always wondered if it might have been the stimulus for Theodore Roethke’s exquisite villanelle.
And yes, indeed it is – beneficial, that is. In any field of endeavour or interest, in any situation, good or bad, it does indeed help if you formulate an intention, if you look forward rather than back to an past already fixed and gone or a present in which you may well be caught between a rock and a hard place. You can’t change the world, but you can change yourself, starting with your attitude. So, I’m choosing to remember that after June 22nd, the light lasts a few minutes longer each day, day by day. And to remind myself that it is only by knowing the darkness that you really know the light. Years ago, I write a poem that won the traditional Monopoly board’s ‘second prize in a beauty contest’ (runner up in the Blake Poetry Prize 2011). The poem was finally published just the other day in an e-zine produced by a bunch of young performing and literary artists based in the UK and the US. And I was told that one reader "just sort of fell into the whole world of it and started reading everything she could about Lindow Man etc and she wound up at the British Museum website and the pictures of that ancient body... So it's nice to think that a poem about an ancient English man by an Australian woman met another woman in Paris in the middle of a lockdown and gave her a moment where she was touched enough that her knowledge of the world expanded to encompass something she'd never known before. That seems to me what a poem (and a journal) is all about...." I couldn't agree more. So. A long wait but a lovely result.
So I’m thinking, there will be new shoots, maybe not in Australia right now but one of the up sides of the newly globalised world is that as artists we now have ease of access to other places. So, with that in mind, can I suggest that as many of us as can find the impetus make plans for whatever action may in some infinitesimal way change this current grey world of mechanistic, narrow-minded authoritarian men. It may not be enough to rescue this coming decade. But it will make a difference in the long term.