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Friday, February 18, 2011

BOOK REVIEW- PAUL HARRISON- MEET ME AT GETHSEMANE, Mulla Mulla Press, Perth, 2011, 60 pages.

and somewhere
inside my throat
lies a song
and a scream

‘the sun is setting on the south china sea’

This is the first chapbook collection by the Perth poet Paul Harrison. He started writing about three years ago and is best known for his poetry blog ‘The Last Disciple First’ This is an eclectic mix of  thirty-six outlaw inspired poems. He uses fashionable lower case and the minimalistic style of the underground to convey his spin on ‘the agony’ of contemporary living. These are highly self reflective poems intensely written and worn like a hairshirt by Harrison. These are songs which sometimes emerge as screams, the cadence of the poems often breathless as intimate moments are recalled and then stripped of their joy, as the derangement and despair of loss returns.

The title of the book ‘meet me at gethsemane’ refers to the famous haunt of Christ’s where he regularly met his disciples and where he was eventually betrayed by Judas. The book’s epigraph is a quote from the Book of Luke, ‘And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him.’ This statement appears to be ironically juxtaposed with the cover photo of the crumbled Major Mitchell Cockatoo, a victim of road kill- suggesting symbolically, a meeting with an angel will never take place for Harrison.

As he explains in the interview which follows, Harrison is not a Christian but he finds comfort in the gospels. In the opening poem ‘lord’ the speaker sees ‘the ashes’ of decay and death everywhere. He directly appeals to Christ to help guide him out of his wilderness of despair and hopelessness. This quest for certainty and the release from the agony and the betrayal of life is contrasted with his thirst for the irrational rush of the void. In ‘holy, holy, holy’ the speaker shows admiration and respect for the sadhus and their holy life of restraint and self discipline but he is in the end drawn towards ‘the void’:

i can’t wait
till evening
and a good long draught
of the void

Some of these poems first appeared in raw and uncompromising magazines such as tree killer ink, deuce coupe, zygote in my coffee, eviscerator heaven, black-listed magazine, alternative reel, opium poetry and other leading edge underground publications. Harrison’s language is unadorned and devoid of pretension. His style is simple and straightforward, reminiscent of John Yamrus. As Harrison says in the interview he ‘tends not to think his poetry’- he just writes the stuff.

Harrison is particularly influenced by the outlaw poetry of  f.a. nettelbeck and Steve Richmond. In the interview he says, ‘i admire their longevity…the fact that both in their own ways were true 'outlaw' poets…that both are neglected geniuses…that both were experimental and avant garde... that both said fuck you to the poetry guardians and arbiters of taste and just did their thing, endless creation, endless reportage.’

Harrison is a developing writer and has set himself huge goal posts in attempting to emulate his two iconic heroes. In ‘what i dig about richmond’ he makes clear what the focus should be on his own subject matter:

what i really like
is the way he describes
the mundane
quotidian acts
of everyday living
or that which we call life
like cleaning the toilet
or taking a shit

Harrison is often at his best when he describes the ordinary. Like in ‘doll’ when he hires a lap dancer or ‘love one another’ when he suffers the consequences of urinating in a police van or in ‘that’s entertainment’ where he picks up a girl at a Cruel Sea gig. His examinations of underclass portraits are also worthy of close reading, such as ‘no laughing matter’ about a junky flatmate and ‘mary inconsolable’ about a mentally ill woman with a phantom pregnancy who is hopeful of being discharged from a psych ward.

Many of the poems in this collection are narratives which often venture forward in a fragmented, impressionistic style- as if the world of the poet has disintegrated- ‘like god has just spilled another jigsaw’. In dredging up painful personal memories as in the deeply evocative poems ‘i picture us tonight (and once)’ and ‘entwined in dissolution’ Harrison is creatively putting together the Humpty Dumpty of his guilt-ridden soul to perhaps atone for some of the mistakes of his sorry-assed past.

Harrison is largely apolitical but comfortably moves from the personal to the political in his work. In ‘against forgetting’ he writes a poem in which he collectivizes those who have faced the wrath of authority in the gulags and concentration camps but who have continued to write on ‘in their own blood and faeces’ in an expression of personal rebellion. In ‘some things are known’ he lists what he has learned in life, including that democracy is a con and ‘that the privilege to write poetry/ badly/ with line breaks and not much else’ is founded on the ‘aggravated theft’- presumably the plundering of developing country’s resources and the subsequent deaths of millions of their innocent children’s lives through disease and colonial exploitation.

Although the tone of this collection is sometimes bitter and angry the poems never wallow in self pity or self indulgence.  There are many moments of humour which reveal Harrison’s underlying spirit of resilience and hope for personal transformation. ‘some advice for aspiring poets’ and ‘some of the better, famous, unknown small presses’ are clever underground lampoons of mainstream values which aptly express the poet’s  critical but positive intent of his writing.

The world is awash with writers trying to outbuk Bukowski. Who deliberately engage in suffering for the sake of art. Harrison writes simply because he is compelled to. Without pretension. Without embellishing or fabricating experience. He writes from the heart. And if you take the time and the care you begin to realise Harrison is a new and original talent and one of the best emerging new voices from the Australian underground.


1. Can you explain the behind the scenes dealings which lead to the publication of gethsemane? For example, who is Mulla Mulla Press, how did they approach you and how smooth was the editing process?

it began as a mistake or rather it started as a joke. back in early december 2010 i was leaving a reading in perth with some friends and poets a bit pissed and joking about black sparrow and john martin and bukowski. at some point walking up william street i said to my friend, the poet coral carter, and now my publisher how's about you give me a lot of cash and you can have the rights to all my poems. altho i work, like most people i'm constantly skint and scratching around.. anyway, coral wisely declined to become my patron but did mention that she'd been wanting to start a publishing venture for quite some time. so i said well why don't you publish me, every other poet out there has a book bla bla bla. anyway and luckily for me she liked my work so before we reached the pub we shook hands on her publishing my first book meet me.. within a few weeks i'd sent mulla mulla a manuscript, well actually a word doc with about fifty or sixty poems and we started the editing process. i think that that process was harder on the publisher than me.. i have a pretty strong personality when i want to and was quite stubborn about not changing the poems around too much. so really the edit was mostly about selection, spelling, grammar etc. and in that regard i am grateful to zan ross for proof reading and making suggestions about the latter. to be honest i would probably never get away with what i did in different circumstances and with a different editor but hey that's how it happened and i take full responsibility for the work as it appears.

2. Gethsemane is the place where JC & his disciples often met & where he was finally betrayed by Judas & arrested. Can you explain the underlying meaning behind the title of your chapbook ‘meet me at gethsemane’ and how this concept is reflected within the book & also the front cover photo?

well the title actually started life as a short poem which i'll quote in full- some advice for the lovers/ meet me at gethsemane. my work has been described as having the ecstasy of sadness and i guess if there's any motif running thru the book it's that we'll all experience agony and betrayal at some point in our lives or quite regularly in some cases. at the same time while not being a christian except by birth i often find comfort in the gospels and of course any serious writer that doesn't have some knowledge or use for the bible and other religious texts is kidding themselves... as for the photo that's a major mitchell cockatoo taken by the publisher.. she was showing me some of her work one night and i was a bit stoned and said that looks like a fallen angel pointing somewhere.. and i reckon it would make a great cover for the book and tie in with the bible verse quoted on the dedication page, can i use it ? and of course we did..

3. Overall, your book is an eclectic mix of varied underground styles & perspectives. In your poems you mention Bukowski, Dransfield, Todd Moore & others. I am more interested in lesser known poets such as f.a. nettelbeck- who you dedicate your book to- & Steve Richmond, who is idolised in two of your poems. What do you admire about these two American poets and what features of their writing have you tried to incorporate into your own work?

i tend not to 'think' my poetry and well, my admiration for both of those poets was and continues to reside at a gut level. my friend f.a. passed away recently and i believe richmond died on the 155th anniversary of rimbaud's birth altho to me they're both very much alive thru their work. i guess i admire their longevity (both wrote and struggled as poets for over 40 years).. the fact that both in their own ways were true 'outlaw' poets..that  both are neglected geniuses ( and i don't say that lightly).. that both were experimental and avant garde..that both were part of the mimeo revolution.. that both said fuck you too the poetry guardians and arbiters of taste and just did their thing, endless creation, endless reportage, in richmond's case at a very personal, almost psychological level but universal too.. i mean his gagaku, his beautiful, incessant, lyrical gagaku must count as one of the truly outstanding explorations of mind and place in the history of C20th literature.. in fred's case he wrote for over 40 years about his love/hate affair with the USA, about the horror and dissonance and dumbing down of life all around us and he did so by using and abusing and playing with language and the written word on many different levels… it's actually hard for me right now to reflect on his work because i still miss him a lot and like i said i'm not really into academic critiques or reflections. anyway their work will be around long after most of the other almost fellows are wiping their arses with their first chapbooks in a nursing home..

4. In an illuminating interview with Ben Pleasants entitled ‘Twilight of a Dope Fiend Poet’ Richmond states that the vast majority of art is produced while intoxicated. In his book ‘Gagaku’ he produces ‘microscopic examinations of the self’ most likely under the influence of heroin. When you write your stuff is ‘intoxication’ sometimes your method of choice?
well having several addictions i'm 'intoxicated' to some degree most days. that said not all the poems in my first collection were written under the influence.. sometimes the idea for a poem and its execution just hits like a rush and there's no substances involved except ink.. i'm also not convinced that my writing benefits from my 'lifestyle' but that's just the way it is at the moment and has been since my teens.. for the last year or so i've been trying to write something every day and for me that usually involves getting home from work and loosening up with a few drinks or whatever.. then seeing what happens. anyway i don't subscribe to the idea that you need to be drug fucked to be 'an artist' altho we all know the old saying in vino veritas..and honesty in poetry and life i hold in high esteem.. i'm pretty sure SR wrote a lot of his stuff stoned, high, coming off, coming down and you know for some people that works but hey, there's nothing particularly glamorous about dying of liver disease or whatever. do i write under the influence.. yea, sometimes i do. next question.

 5. I have followed your blog ‘The Last Disciple First’ for over a year The 700-800 poems archived there are largely confessional and you have attracted a wide international audience. You note in your blog’s profile, ‘i wrote my first poem when i was twelve. a twenty seven year hiatus followed. one day i would like to write a good one.’ Can you recount the events which lead to your emergence as a poet in your late thirties? What continues to drive your vision? (By the way, can you explain your blog’s name?)
 good question. i started the blog and writing about 3 years ago and whether anyone reads it or whether my poems are accepted in the magazines is not that important because it's something that right now i need and want to do. i can't say exactly why i started writing in my 38th year but it's probably got something to do with the fact that we're all going to die but also because i'd been meaning to for a long time and i thought well if i don't start now i never will. i was also hanging out with a crew heavily involved in the spoken word scene here in perth and i guess in different ways those people encouraged me to give it a go. i've always loved books, reading, literature and over the years people have been telling me i've a way with words or that i talked like a writer or hey man you should start writing so yea, here i am, giving it a go…why the last disciple first ? i guess the blog's title reflects my politics filtered thru a religious upbringing..
maybe i should have called it pretty words or something !

6.You have been involved in many open mic events in Perth. Can you describe what the scene is like there.

well i can't really compare it to over east or the states cos i aint familiar with those scenes but yea i'd say it's pretty healthy or normal as far as scenes go. ha. slam poetry events organised here in perth by al and tonya boyd regulary attract audiences of fifty plus and probably up to 40 spoken word/poet entrants over the various nights.. cottonmouth is a monthly poetry/music fest again attracting audiences of over fifty.. the perth poetry club every saturday always gets good crowds, attracts national and international guests, emerging and established writers and has a generous open mic policy… i think that's where i read my first poem  back when it was at the Court Hotel.. then there are readings in fremantle and a good monthly night at the fringe gallery organised by terry farrell and amanda joy.. i know i've probably missed a few readings but overall i'd say there's definitely a scene or rather different scenes thriving here in good old redneck perth, the most isolated city in the world.

7.What’s next for you? Any plans?

well i plan on staying upright. and i might start submitting to magazines again. i might also look into self-publishing another chap book..other than that no plans, really.. i don't do plans.. ambition.. all that stuff.. to write a few good poems and to be a decent father, friend and stranger is probably enough.

cheers george and thanks for the interview,


Mulla Mulla Press can be contacted here:

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