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Friday, July 5, 2013

Book Review/ Interview: Paul Harrison Corrugator. 48th Street Press, Philadelphia, 2013 (56 pages).

This is Perth resident, Paul Harrison’s second collection of poetry and it almost did not see the light of day as he explains in the interview which follows this review. Corrugator consists of fifty short pared down lowercase underground poems. The writing is raw but highly accessible. Many of the best poems are first person confessional narrative poems which document Harrison’s misfortunes, in particular, his failure to sustain love, his self doubt as a poet, his abuse of alcohol and his deteriorating physical and mental health. The epigraph from Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge suggests to the reader that Harrison, like the tragic character Michael Henchard, is his own worst enemy, ‘It was a part of his nature to extenuate nothing, and live on as one of his own worst accusers.’

The book’s title Corrugator is an obscure reference to the corrugator supercili muscle which is located above the eyes and is also known as the frowning muscle. The cover’s black and white photograph of Christ, taken by Harrison, furthers this suffering motif. Despite the grim misery of much of the subject matter, Harrison never demeans himself by grovelling in self pity, and instead,  he carries with him a glimmer of hope and a defiant dignity as he stares down and smirks at the abyss.

On Relationships

About a dozen poems in the collection represent different takes on Harrison’s relationships with women. He characteristically sees these encounters as initially intense before the ‘spools’ inevitably unwind and the pair go their separate ways. In ‘i dump my cum’ Harrison graphically describes a heady affair with a voracious woman and wonders ‘how long will this one last.’ In the  micropoem ‘cock raw’ he quips matter-of-factly, ‘I lie here/ early morning/ thinking of someone else’. In the aphorism ‘she was the one’ eventually/ he wasn’t’. ‘With hindsight’ uses an extended metaphor of a boat to describe the failure of yet another relationship, ‘a boat that never set sail// a boat not even/ moored.’

There are a couple of tender moments in Corrugator when love rises above its transitory state and endures. They provide us with a brief reprieve from Harrison’s relentless laments. One of the better poems is ‘there will be no sadness’ about a couple who sit together and take in the immensity of the blue sky. The poem concludes, ‘just us// the 2 of us// & to our right/ a wide open expanse of light// the sky/ so blue/ &/ limitless.’ In ‘reasons to go on’ Harrison reveals another side to him- his love for his daughter, ‘and this time round/ i can only think/ of one// i’ll see her tomorrow/ this sunday/ forever.’

On Writing

Harrison writes tributes to Kerouac (‘memory babe’) and to his late friend and poet F.A. Nettelbeck (‘outpouring’) in which he asks him ‘to keep/ us a barstool/ BRO.’ On his own writing, Harrison is full of self doubt- sometimes to the point of self loathing.  In ‘to write poetry’, he infers that it is ‘worthy’ to write about those heroes who stopped the tanks in Tiananmen Square but ‘not this’. Similarly, in ‘i think’ after reflecting on the writing process and the reasons why he writes, he concludes, ‘even this is pointless/ a ritual before the death’. In ‘for the record’ he explicitly states, ‘i don’t believe in poetry/ anymore.’ Furthermore, in ‘tonight’ he tells the reader ‘you/ are reading/ a gravestone// walk on’. In an early poem in the collection, ‘this ain’t’ he even questions whether he is writing poetry at all: ‘this ain’t the poetry/ of despair// addiction// or love// because/ this ain’t/ poetry// it never/ was.’

In this vitriolic spray of negativity about his writing, when asked if he is on his last legs as a poet, Harrison is upbeat, ‘Well at times i've felt that way. who knows ? i'd like to think not. i'd still like to write that one good poem, to influence someone in the way that many poets have influenced and touched and affected and comforted and renewed me and continue to despite all my doubt and ambivalence and cynicism... still, the fact remains that some things are more important than poetry and sometimes we get pissed off with scenes or ourselves or the things and people we love... i went thru that, might be coming out and some of the poems merely reflect and report back on that place.’

In ‘i drank’ he provides another take on his writing, on how alcohol has fueled his creativity. He images his own death and cynically quips to the reader that he has drunk for years in order to gift us his ‘break thru’ poem:

i drank

15 beers
every night
for years
to bring
these poems
the better ones
with gin
& vodka
cones &
& this
is my break thru
my legacy
my gift to you
a so so career
cut short

(reprinted with the poet's permission)

On the Abyss

Perhaps the best writing in the collection relates to Harrison’s frank admissions about his alcohol abuse and his tortured descent into depression and ill health. They show a man suffering intensely, confused, sometimes fearful to the point of paranoia.

In ‘today’ he sees himself as unable to escape the pain, as ‘an insect/ without its wings/ an insect before/ the heel.’ In ‘i drank myself’ he expresses his disgust how he drank himself ‘out of arms/ out of hearts/ out of touch…drank myself/ away/ squandered it// drank myself to death.’ In ‘self-portrait before the mirror’ Harrison concisely sums up his physical and mental collapse, ‘i am covered/ in rashes and skin disorders/ scars and sweat/ my neck and heart/ both broken/ i am almost 20 kilos/ overweight/ smoke 50 a day/ and drink/ like the ghost of Dylan.’ In the powerful poem ‘there is an emptiness’ Harrison explores the insatiable hunger of emptiness ‘greater than any stadium’ and the futility of capturing the essence of its sad ‘cloying’ embrace.

Yet Harrison never throws himself over the edge. He hangs on long enough to realize that ‘no fucking higher power’ (‘been an addict’) is going to save him and that he ultimately needs to accept and take responsibility for his behavior and the decisions he makes (‘there’) . In ‘the abyss’ he tells himself calmly as he enters the void, ‘now flick your hair/ & practice/ your very best smile.’


This is a tight, highly worthy collection of confessional poetry. It is easy to follow and deserving of multiple readings. The writing is honest, and at times, confronting. Despite the overwhelming tone of gloom in Corrugator, there are poignant shades of light and humour which counterbalance the arrival of more of Harrison’s ‘black ships’. This is an important short collection by an Australian writer which blows rings up the ass of the usual unreadable academic excrement which passes as poetry.


It is a coup for an Australian to be published by the American small press publisher 48th Street Press. Paul, how did you score the gig and how have your dealings been with publisher Christopher Byck in the lead up to publication and afterwards in the distribution of Corrugator?

chris was a friend and publisher of the late, great f a nettelbeck and i believe fred talked about me when chris used to visit or call him. from there chris started following my stuff on the old blog and then i remember he invited me to contribute to the series of broadsides that he's been publishing for a few years now. of course that in itself was quite an honour when you consider that a lot of the poets he's published were and are legends of the small presses... (which reminds me, john dorsey has a chapbook forthcoming from 48th street press later this year...) anyway i think we started communicating after fred's death... 

to be honest, corrugator almost didn't happen because i'm pretty poor at corresponding and for a while there had pretty much withdrawn when out of the blue i got a very short message from chris like 'hey man' or something which i almost didn't reply to but i did and then suddenly we were talking about doing a chap which of course came as quite a shock because (a) i was kinda over the whole poetry thing or at least full of doubt and (b) chris had previously published work by the giants douglas blazek and nettelbeck and now he wants to publish some of my shit... anyway  i sent him a couple hundred poems and over a few weeks we discussed and selected what appears in corrugator. i gotta say chris has been a pleasure to work with and has a great passion and knowledge of the whole history of underground and small press poetry and a lot of goodwill and friendships therein. i hope he won't mind me saying this but when he's not teaching 'oil and diplomat kids' in caracas hahahha he's usually visiting poets all over the world. as i write he's in wales giving a copy to peter finch, last week it was LA and into the hands of fred voss !! i couldn't be happier with the distribution chris has arranged with some of the best independent book stores in the states and of course like i said he's getting copies into hands and sending it out to other poets...and yea, chris has always been very encouraging of my stuff and has told me that he's really happy with the book that we 'birthed'... i think i replied the eraserhead you mean !! 

that's a bit about how it happened by chance or almost didn't and yes, i'm grateful. very.

I’ve been trying to work out the meaning of your title ‘Corrugator.’ According to Wiki, the corrugator supercili muscle lies above the eyes, is also known as the ‘frowning muscle’ and ‘may be regarded as the principle muscle in the impression of suffering.’ If I can correctly join the dots, does this mean your book is essentially focused on the notion of suffering?

 you're quite right in your deductions and research about the title george. i wasn't sure if it was a bit of an obscure reference. to my mind it sounded like a good made up word/name to describe someone who suffers. and yes, corrugator, like meet me, has a fair bit to do with suffering but also other things. some of your readers may also be interested to know that each and everyone of us has another corrugator muscle located in our assholes... ha !

I wasn’t aware on that! The cover photograph taken by you appears to have been shot though household curtains. It features a statue of Christ with out-stretched hands holding fairy Christmas lights. Why did you select this photo for your cover?

it just seemed appropriate for some reason and hopefully it suggests or provokes different responses, associations, ideas or memories in different people that might read the chap. the image was taken on 12/12/12 at midday. i used to notice this statue which sits in the front yard of a big fuck off mansion on my way to housing appeals. back then i wasn't taking photos but when i did get into taking pics, one day on the way to another appeal i thought i'm going to snap this because i'm always looking at it, reacting to it each time i drive past... anyway 12/12/12 was the day. i like it. and yea fairy lights, but also the statue of liberty hooded and tortured like a prisoner in abu ghraib... now there's suffering.

You include less narrative poems than your first collection and the overall style is pared down considerably. Many of the poems are 40 words or less. Some only a few lines. Can you explain this shrinking of language in your poems?

i'm disappearing man !!! but seriously you're right on all counts. why ? well, i was finding it difficult to write or express myself in any other way. i've also always been interested in the short poem form and haiku. i'm not a big fan of really, really, long poems to be honest, and long poems at readings, well unless it's outstanding someone like me will probably zone out after 44 seconds... i guess i was experimenting with the idea of less is better and maybe more immediate and direct...maybe also the place/head space i was in only allowed that form. like i said before i don't over-think my poetry so i can't really explain why the paring... just is. for now. maybe i'll go back to longer more narrative driven poems. i know some people think i should ! 

In a few of your poems ‘as the rain’, ‘so fucking drunk’ and ‘thirsty work’ you mention your day job as a tenant advocate for a community legal centre in Perth. Can you tell us briefly about your work and especially why so many Housing Commission tenants are being evicted by the RTA (Residential Tenancies Act)?

for the last 8 years i've worked in community legal centres as a tenant advocate advising tenants of their rights and responsibilities in both public housing and the private rental market. if a client for whatever reason or disadvantage can't advocate effectively for themselves i'll assist them with letters, appeals etc and court representation. i believe in social and economic justice and that affordable, appropriate and secure housing is a basic human right, in fact that's what keeps me going in a poorly paid and at times stressful job. i've nearly burnt out on a few occasions over the years but hey i'm still carrying the flame... 

why so many public housing evictions ? ultimately because neo-liberalism is in ascendance, because the government finds it expedient to play to and stoke populist 'law and order' sentiment rather than admit WA has been in the midst of a housing affordability crisis for years because of their policies and their continual under-funding of state housing and that by evicting the most dispossessed and marginalised and traumatised people in our community they're doing something about the massive waiting lists they are ultimately responsible for. there's got to be a better way to support and deal with these tenancies, the vast majority being aboriginal. every wednesday and thursday i see 10 or 12 public housing terminations at various stages listed in the Court that i attend most regularly. btw there are 4 other metropolitan Courts and plenty of regional ones. so yea, state housing evictions by the housing provider of last resort are escalating as directed by government which is obscene in a resource rich, boom state like WA. 

Thanks for your insights. In many of the poems in the collection, you create the impression that your writing is ‘pointless’ or unworthy and that your reader is ‘reading a tombstone.’ In one of the last poems in the collection ‘for the record’ you write that ‘I don’t believe in poetry/ anymore.’ Are you on your last legs as a poet or is there something deeper in the well?

well at times i've felt that way. who knows ? i'd like to think not. i'd still like to write that one good poem, to influence someone in the way that many poets have influenced and touched and affected and comforted and renewed me and continue to despite all my doubt and ambivalence and cynicism... still, the fact remains that some things are more important than poetry and sometimes we get pissed off with scenes or ourselves or the things and people we love... i went thru that, might be coming out and some of the poems merely reflect and report back on that place.... now, writing this response removed from a lot of the pain, hurt and doubt that the book came from i'd like to think the well is half full ! and legless, yes, sometimes no doubt, last legs we'll see...

Paul, you used to write hundreds of poems on your blog ‘The Last Disciple’. What happened to that project?

it went into desuetude. i just stopped. all things end. 3 years is a long time to write a 'poem' every day and when i decided to pull the plug about a year and a half ago i was in a dark and painful place and feeling very fucking ambivalent about poetry and certain poets. ha. never say never again tho, right ? i think facebook now holds the copyright to my shit. hahahha...

You recently started a photo blog with Coral Carter called once you see once What do you enjoy about photography? Why the obsession with crucifixes?

well, about 4 years ago my brother gave me a pocket digital camera as a present. of course it sat unused for years until one day about a year ago, god knows why, i decided to start using it. what i do know is that taking photos caused me to see things anew and that it was truly therapeutic... i started to appreciate the now, the moment, started to go for walks, started moving from a place of pain to one of acceptance and how, life, can be beautiful, goes on and always will...

i only have a basic camera and very little technical know how but i'm glad i picked that gift from dave up, started using it to see, record, remember, write 'poems' without any words...

as for cruciforms i see them everywhere like garth madsen describes in his poem ha ! i'm also very conscious of the mythology and symbolism of the cross and its effect within our culture and myself but no george i'm not obsessed with crucifixs, i'm a fucking proddie !! then again... corrugator.

Thanks Paul. All the best with Corrugator.

 i look forward to seeing what you've made of corrugator. thanks again, george.


 To purchase Corrugator contact Chris Byck here:

Further Resources:

Here is a recent review of Corrugator on MemeoMemeo. Also discussed is Christopher Byck's outlaw poetry broadside project.:

A review of Corrugator by Karina Bush:!other