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The City and the Writer: In Melbourne with Susan Bradley Smith

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Melbourne as you feel/see it?

When you wake up early in this big city, the first thing you often see in the vast sky is masses of hot air balloons: it makes me feel faithful to the day, and I imagine myself surrounded by citizen companions who are similarly uplifted by the fantastic. Melbourne is a moody city—I love its sparkling melancholia. There is an urban myth that when Ava Gardner was acting in an adaptation of Nevil Shute’s novel On the Beach (set in a postapocalyptic 1960s Melbourne), she proclaimed that the film was “a story about the end of the world, and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it”—hilarious but true. Don’t live here unless you wish to have a serious relationship with the sublime, with power, and with the mighty weather, which provides us with daily lessons from Antarctica.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I spend a lot of time in the Royal Melbourne Children’s Hospital with my youngest children and I have some unspeakable memories from those experiences, but my heartbreak is routinely glued by the human valor and bravery of spirit you also encounter in that environment. So I’d have to say, most heartbreaking of all was the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. There are bushfires every year, and it is almost normative to learn to drive your car through bushfire smoke-haze in weather so hot you can literally fry eggs on the city sidewalks. 2009 was catastrophic. Adrian Hyland’s memoir Kinglake 350 is one writer’s response, capturing his and his community’s tragedy. Lisa Jacobsen’s poem “Girls and Horses in the Fire” is an elegy for two sisters who went to tend their horses and vanished with them: “Girls who run toward horses in fire, / may you find your home in the equine stars: / Pegasus, Equuleus. Hush, sleep now.” This poem holds what cannot be said about those firestorms which burned through over 2,500 square miles of land, claimed almost two hundred human lives, injured five thousand more, killed thousands of domestic and native animals, and destroyed over two thousand homes. Heartbreak exists for a reason: so we do not forget and so we can perhaps, as Lisa’s poetry asks, “grasp the greening of things.”


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Visitors wouldn’t necessarily notice the Olympic-sized, heated outdoor pools, open year-round, which inhabit the city like secret billabongs, plotted from the beach through the city to the hills. They are magical spaces. Winter swimming with the morning mist kissing the pool is no bad substitute for thermal bathing in the Schwarzwald.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

I’m answering this question as though the books were to become your sociological DNA, transferring intimate citizenry to the reader. Tony Birch, writer and indigenous activist, for his truth: Blood and Ghost River. Helen Garner, for her merciless but charming scrutiny of our way of life and loving, and because someone has to remember the 1970s: Monkey Grip. Peter Carey, Amnesia and A Long Way from Home, because if you don’t understand suburban glory and mad ambition, Melbourne will remain forever mystifying. The poets of Melbourne are experts at distilling their city. This week I’m reading Bella Li’s Argosy for its encounters with loss and its homage to experimentalism: it’s like swallowing a knife and is a true Melburnian reimagining of world traditions. Melbourne is designated as a UNESCO World City of Literature. I really should have mentioned only dead writers because there are plenty of amazing living ones, on every street corner, and it feels rude of me not to write you a very long list including them all. Come meet us. I’ll buy you lunch.


Is there a place here you return to often?

South Melbourne Beach. Seagulls and dogs and confident skiers and skateboarders and beach volleyball players and footballers icing their injuries in the water and hot chips and Kerford Pier and a rattling old tram that takes you to all of this joy. Also Luna Park nearby at St. Kilda because roller-coasters over the ocean are a planet earth specialty. And across the road, the Palais Theatre, that “forever heartland” rock-and-roll venue.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Poet Kris Hemensley’s Collected Works Bookshop is, I think, the best poetry bookshop in the world. It lives in the heart of Melbourne city in the landmark Nicolas Building, known for its creative industry tenants. Iconic and humble both. Haunted and frequented by writers and celebrities with unbelievable stock, it is an experience economy of its own.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Melbourne was the wealthiest city in the world in the 1870s, thanks to the gold rushes. Our civic architecture is as monumental as the Botanic Gardens, whose purpose similarly shaped Melbourne into Australia’s most neo-European city (where we still head to the “Paris end” of the city). But all of this striving was built upon Wurundjeri land. The Wurundjeri Nation is not hidden, but I was blind and ignorant to it until adulthood, with my girlhood gaze having been directed elsewhere (to buildings and department stores and sporting stadiums and highways that drove you to Sydney). I am not seduced or intrigued by how colonial Melbourne “hid” the Wurundjeri Nation. I am just busy doing my best to participate in decent visibility. The Australian constitution, when it was written, failed to recognize Aboriginal people as sovereign—it is a racist document. Aboriginals did not win the vote until 1967. If I am seduced by anything it is reconciliation and how important place is to that process.


Where does passion live here?

It is too easy to say the theater, given that Ibsen’s A Doll’s House toured Australia twice (with Melbourne money) before it even made it to London’s West End. Likewise, music, with Melbourne independent bands punching above their weight worldwide for decades (Nick Cave included). My answer is politics: Melburnians are passionately political people. Famous for protesting in the streets, from fighting for suffrage and against the Vietnam War to today’s activism for climate change and everything else, Melburnians love to close the city down with a loud march. Melbourne stonemasons in 1856 became the first group of industrial workers in the world to win the eight-hour day. Building the University of Melbourne at the time, they downed tools, walked off the site, and marched to Parliament House, collecting supporters on their way for their symbolic battle for eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eighth hours of play. Their victory won us the reputation of being the “worker’s paradise.” I think we still feel passionately about that mix but, ironically, the university is now open on that annual holiday instigated to honor the advancement of industrial relations. Passion requires vigilance.


What is the title of one of your works about Melbourne and what inspired it exactly?

The Screaming Middle is a diary-a-day verse novel that has Melbourne as a character, and Beds for All Who Come has a “guest appearance” (impersonated) from Melbourne’s most famous feminist, Germaine Greer, but my latest verse novel, The Postcult Heart—about ways of loving and being a woman in the twenty-first century—is most deeply imprinted with the braille of Melbourne. Written as a series of feminist epistles from fictional women, these poems chart the sexual, emotional, creative, and psycho-geographic dynamics of imaginary lovers, paying particular attention to the erotics of absence, because the premise of the book is about a woman who runs away—Melbourne is an excellent place to inspire this, perched on the edge of the world as it is. On the eve of her wedding, a mother hands her daughter an unpublished manuscript—a collection of love poems—written by the famous Earth Laureate poet and their family matriarch, Booker Makepeace. Booker had bequeathed the manuscript to her own daughter, Fleetwood, and then vanished. What do they mean, these tales of love? Are they instructions? Warnings? Documentaries? Clues? Lies? Revelations? Prayers? Praise? Love songs? For the Makepeace women, this unpublished treasure is all they have left to live by. Perhaps I needed to write this story to explain to my own children why I am so rarely with them in Melbourne? Perhaps this poem about Melbourne is also an answer: “Mr Fucking Rocket tires of saving for a mortgage” was commissioned for a Writing and Place project, and expresses my views about life in precarious times.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Melbourne does an outside exist?”

Yes, because I’m a country girl: we drive up the Pacific Highway at the beginning of each summer to the country of my childhood, Lennox Head in Bundjalung Nation, and immerse ourselves in seaside village life. We drive home to Melbourne via the inland route on highways through majestic country where you can sometimes travel for hours without seeing another car. Yes, because I’m an economic exile, that special breed of outsider: the university I work for is on the other side of the continent, so I live a bicoastal life (or FIFO—fly-in-fly-out) between Perth and Melbourne. I also work in Europe, and if you don’t make peace with where your feet are touching the ground, then life is lost. Yes, because I’ve spent most of my adult life in London: you can’t ever leave London Town. Yes, because although my mother is a Melburnian, my Father is a Sydneysider: Sydney is where I first filled myself up with the Pacific Ocean, and where I went to university, and fell in all kinds of love. But I take Melbourne everywhere with me these days: her good manners, brisk moods, screaming weather, boldness, outright brassiness, and her whispering words. They are now helix to my soul.


Born into the seaside village of Bermagui, New South Wales, Australia, in 1963, Susan Bradley Smith has an honors degree in history and a PhD in English, and she is a graduate playwright of the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, Sydney. An award-winning writer, teacher, and cultural historian, she began her professional writing life as a rock journalist in Sydney and London. Since then she has worked as an academic in the UK, Australia, and Italy. Her most recent books are the verse novels The Postcult Heart and The Screaming Middle, and her history of Australian Suffrage Theater, Dramatic Negotiations, is forthcoming in 2018. Susan is the founder of the writing and wellbeing consultancy Milkwood Bibliotherapy and is an advocate for Arts and Health, with her memoir, Friday Forever, explores reflective writing practice for mental health. The artistic director and founder of the Lennox Head Poetry Festival, Susan is also devoted to promoting the arts in regional and rural Australia. She is a visiting professor of creative writing at John Cabot University, Rome, and a senior lecturer in creative writing at Curtin University, Australia. Susan has lived in Melbourne since 2007 but has known and visited the city since childhood.

Published Oct 29, 2018   Copyright 2018 Nathalie Handal

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