Bridie McCarthy reviews Going Down Swinging and Indigo

5 October 2009

Going Down Swinging 28 edited by Lisa Greenaway & Klare Lanson
Going Down Swinging Inc., 2009

Indigo: Journal of West Australian Writing Volume III edited by Donna Ward et al
Tactile Books, 2009

At the level of function, a literary journal produces a collection of writing on a periodical basis. However, a journal is also another kind of machine, an apparatus which generates a readership, presents writers, exercises its own ideological assumptions (however loosely formed or evolving), and which makes claims to a certain cultural space. At this discursive level, Going Down Swinging and Indigo are very different animals.

These journals have quite distinct agendas. For Going Down Swinging (GDS), this involves 'storytellers – waging a lifelong campaign to take over the world, mind by mind' as Lisa Greenaway writes polemically in her editorial to issue 28. This 'campaign' draws together Australian and international writers and artists, yet champions 'local, imaginative solutions'. The brief for readers is to 'keep charging at the flanks of the publishing industry, publish and buy independent, subscribe to community radio, arm yourselves with imagination'.

Indigo has an emphasis on local production in common with GDS, but doesn't share its cheeky didacticism or its scope across the arts and media. However, its agenda is no less clear. In contrast to the rather more amorphous and international GDS, Indigo constructs Western Australia as geographically and culturally important to its writers (contributors must have lived in Western Australia for at least 10 years), and its purpose is to advocate for its local talent and to increase publishing opportunities for Western Australian writers.

The distance between these journals can also be measured in relation to the genres of writing and other art that they publish. Now in its 29th year, GDS has a long history of supporting literary writing in Australia. Graphics and visual art have always had a presence in the journal, but in the new century, GDS has ratified its commitment to a multi-art form scope and has increased its investment in design. From the cover art and accompanying CD and website design, to the font, layout and stock, GDS is one of the most beautifully presented journal-objects in Australia right now. In fact, the recent trend towards a more considered focus on aesthetics amongst Australian literary journals (Meanjin is an obvious example) perhaps owes much of its inspiration and benchmarking to GDS. Bridges built between the literary and visual arts in GDS (via storytelling) also structure its contents, which are arranged with a kind of curatorial parataxis. This is exciting in its inclusiveness, as it expands the readership of literary magazines, and explicitly supports arts practitioners.

As Tim Howard observes in Australian Book Review: 'Going Down Swinging is an unapologetic miscellany, distinguished by its vibrant eclecticism.' The current edition includes prose, poetry, a specially commissioned graphic novella, illustrations and a CD of spoken word (the latter has been an offering of GDS for the last ten years). The broad scope of this journal (and its visual appeal), give it great coffee table currency. This is where it will attract its ideal readers, for GDS 28 is best suited to the intermittent reader whose day can be happily interrupted by its thought provocations.

One of the most engaging features of GDS 28 is the refreshing variety of approaches to storytelling to be found therein. Labelled by Greenaway as the space of 'the cultural ruckus', GDS is fuelled by innovation. GDS 28 is not, therefore, a creative space predominated by formulaic work (though some can be found there, nonetheless). Instead, there are many unique approaches to form, image, narrative, text and characterisation. There are non-narrative prose pieces; a wonderfully circular concrete poem; epigrammatic poems that work via disjunctive logics; poetic short stories and prose-heavy poems; fluid subjectivities mapped; new games played with language; experiments with rhyme, sound and voice; strange metaphors and phonetic explorations of meaning. Likewise, the CD and graphic art offer collusions between images and words; collaborations between voices, sounds and instruments; experiments in dissonance and portraits of the distance between signifier and signified (much of the visual art works with/through signs).

David McLaren's metatextual mode in 'Surface' is indicative of the adventurousness of GDS 28. McLaren's narrator struggles to negotiate 'the surface' and distinctions between narrator, character, writer and reader are consequently compromised by this liminality:

In a way, I envy Anna, for I have created her with one specific purpose in mind. She is going to die of course – she will slip under so that I can remain above [-] It was you who taught me this, about the surface and the terrible temptation of the depths. Do you remember? [-] Anna looks around but she cannot see a temple (I cannot either, no matter how hard I search-such temples are a greater work of fiction than I can manage).

Unfortunately, not all of the pieces in GDS 28 are as successful as McLaren's compelling and tightly structured story. Some written texts succumb to the conceits of their literary devices, sacrificing coherence in the process. In certain cases this is no doubt the point, but it's a point made at the expense of some readers. Some tracks on the CD also provide unlikely company for their more accomplished neighbours. There is a sense in which innovation carries more weight than discipline in GDS 28. However, the highlights of this journal are well worth prizing.

Although many of its pieces are erudite – a feature that some of the literary texts exploit to questionable effect – the ones that stand out are those that are well crafted. Rather than leaning on excessive gestures for effect, these pieces are carefully sculpted. Among them are Ali Alizadeh's poem 'The Armistice', Craig Billingham's poem 'History', Amelia Walker's concrete poem 'Donut', Vanessa Hutchinson's comic illustration 'How to Sit on Designer Chairs', Lizz Murphy's poem 'Landslips', Nathan Curnow's spoken word track 'Made From the Matter of Stars' and Sean M Whelan's track 'Pink and Slow and Gone'.

Pip Smith's 'How Do You Move' builds from the first stanza to the last. This poem successfully mimics inarticulateness (as a symptom of grief) through a syntax that is designed to look tangled with words, but whose structure and rhythms ensure that the tenor is not sacrificed for the sake of thematic preoccupations. Smith locates the terror and the anguish of grief in the domestic sphere (its natural home) and deftly structures her language to honour the contours of this space as well as its peculiar colloquial register, painting a picture of vulnerable humanity in quotidian settings:

did the phone ring like a rush through cabled veins    did she think about hearing it out
so that the beef wouldn't burn      the pot not boil over      did she answer it just in time
were her hands glossed in gloves of oil and onion
did she balance the receiver between her ear and shoulder
and try to keep her hair out of her eyes with the tender part of a free wrist

Smith's assured handling of poetry is not unlike Anne Elvey's. Elvey's 'Tinnitus' presents the ear as remainder, companion, barge, machine, cicada, pulse. Hers is a poetics of equipoise, which is ironic in this case, as this is precisely what tinnitus disturbs. Like the collection as a whole, this poem interjects – in genres, in textual/cultural spaces, in various orders – and gently mounts a case for its revisionist impulse. Take this last stanza, which simultaneously scrutinises language and articulates itself with its fractured apostrophe, its

differential reminder of a saying,
what some will call a voice,
like the frayed coda of your own.

Typifying the poetic prose which can be found in GDS 28, Kuzhali Manickavel's 'This Old Man' is evocative and quite imagist: 'The sun was dripping from the window. [-] They are laughing he thought to himself, thinking of yellow lines of teeth stretching into the horizon like tombstones.' Manickavel's portrait of an old man who throws up delusions but purges himself of the burdens shackled to sanity is extraordinarily synaesthetic writing:

Fragments of words and forgotten diseases bobbed like dead fish in a pool of vomit and yellow water. He pulled shredded photographs and snippets of his wife's hair from between his teeth. [-] Once at a bus stand, the old man had watched a woman pick up a piece of dirty string and tie it around her wrist. He had felt something squirm at the roof of his mouth, like a strand of hair.

Poem-like, this story deploys and redeploys images and tropes to weave together objects and sensations, merging subjects and scenery in the tapestry of its polymorphic prose: 'Downstairs, the women laughed and hissed along with the oil.'

Matthew Hall's prose poem 'A Light Wake' also merges genres. Its contemplation of rural existentialism offers images of flux, where 'clouds collate', 'fence lines waver and undulate' and where 'we tear at the self through economies of isolation.' Originality, obvious in Hall's work, is a strong force in GDS 28. However, although the dividends include new language – Fiona Wright's 'planky rickshaws' and 'cobble-chested boys' are memorable examples – there are also some inconsistent metaphors and phrases, verbose sentences, and elliptical narratives here. Nonetheless, while the unfettered risk-taking of GDS 28 may occasionally embrace work that doesn't quite seem to hit the mark, the alternative would possibly leave us with conservative cultural products.

Where GDS is deliberately diverse, Indigo is packaged as a much more discrete enterprise. As its website advertises, each issue of Indigo (of which there are only three in print to date) centres around a featured genre. In the case of third issue, this is creative non-fiction. In addition to personal essays and memoir pieces, Indigo III offers interviews, poetry, short stories and reviews. In her editorial, Donna Ward describes the journal as 'a space for the publication of short pieces, pieces that otherwise would not have a home.' This is a troubling claim, suggesting that Western Australian writing is somehow not competitive. However, some of these texts have won prizes and others are written by widely published authors. There are certainly emerging writers featured here and there are some not-so-successful texts, which might have benefitted from further editing. Generally, the prose writing is far more accomplished than the poetry, although Flora Smith's 'Kusadasai' offers a potential exception to this in its quiet effectiveness.

To some degree, Indigo III circles around the figure of Helen Garner, who is constructed as a formidable influence in the world of creative non-fiction texts which seek to narrate 'reality'. Many prose pieces tread around the fact/fiction nexus and, as in GDS, storytelling works as a conduit between writers and readers, event and memory. Glyn Parry's essay 'Our Collected & Collective Past' is emphatic in its insistence that history is a narrative in need of proof reading, re-drafting, editing, critique: 'already the events of September 11 no longer read as a first draft, but a polished piece, a narrative that we share.' Other contributors to Indigo III explore issues such as autobiography and the figure of the author; the 1968 referendum and how postcolonial histories are imbued in place; autism and parenthood; foreign places and the ethnographic gaze.

There are gripping short stories in this collection also. Sophie Taylor's 'Two Days' focuses on suburban and psychological landscapes and employs inventive language to drive its narrative. Here, a hallucinogenic state prompts Taylor's sketching of space, sound and image:

Like an audio polaroid the sound begins to set and form shape into something recognisable. It's a siren, an ambulance siren getting closer, sucking down the air and retching out wails as it rummages the streets.

Like Taylor, Jo Jones uses the landscapes of her story 'Travelling from Hong Kong Airport' almost like stagecraft elements; she sets prophetic scenes which anticipate the ensuing narrative:

On this day the city is ashen. Asphalt roads curve upwards and tame the steepness of the mountain. It seems to be a place constructed in steps; everything merges into a tiered greyness.

In this story, as in those of Jenifer Hetherington and David Cohen, there is evidence of craft everywhere. These writers have great facility with character, portraying their protagonists in vivid three-dimensionality. Hetherington and Cohen handle dialogue with great skill. Jones' prose is richly visual, as is that of Meredi Ortega. Although it leans toward the fantastic, there is something very Perth about Ortega's story 'The Emperor Gum Moth Dress', as its opening lines betray:

A verdant lullaby of sprinklers chug away on vast sports ovals, pink concrete footpaths and salmon-feathered cockatoos; something red is mixed up in the wash. When we bury someone we notice that the hard ground does not welcome them back.

There is much on offer for a wide array of readers, listeners and viewers in Indigo III and GDS 28. Both journals, with their distinct agendas, offer a rich range of writing and art from multiple contributors whose pieces are always unique. Flamboyance is a risk for GDS, but one that it willingly takes in 'waging the word'. In the final analysis, this pays off for casual readers, who can pick up this journal and dip into its many offerings. Rather than abundance, it is perhaps the smaller pool of contributors that might compromise the success of Indigo III, but its focus on creative non-fiction certainly tenders a unique concentration on genre. These journals are valuable examples of contemporary Australian cultural production of local and international work.

Bridie McCarthy is a writer and researcher living in Melbourne.

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