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Memory, Revolution and Resilience Posted by Maralann on 12 Aug 2012

Thanks to everyone for taking their eyes off the Olympics, braving the Melbourne chill, and fighting the peak hour traffic to be with us in the historic Trades Hall Bar.

Trades Hall Bar                                     Former PM Gough Whitlam   

 On August 9 Spinifex Press held a public forum.
 Memory, Revolution and Resilience, was organised to celebrate the launch of two insightful books published by Spinifex Press –
The Unfinished Revolution: Voices From the Global Fight for Women’s Rights &
Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home.


                    Bella Union Bar                                               Publisher Susan Hawthorne


                    The Unfinished Revolution              Seeking Palestine

The Unfinished Revolution
, edited by Minky Worden documents the unfinished revolution for women’s human rights and asks if the aftermath of the recent uprisings will prove to be - an ‘Arab spring’ or a ‘women’s winter’. 

In her chapter ‘Letters in the Night’, Rachel Ward, a senior regional advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan tells the story of Hossai, a twenty-two-year-old Afghan aid worker from the southern city of Kandahar. Hossai had received threatening phone calls from a man who said he was with the Taliban who told her to stop working with foreigners. But Hossai didn’t want to give up a good job with the American development company and within weeks Hossai was dead.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, widespread insecurity, displacement, financial hardship and the dissolution of law have contributed to an increase in prostitution and trafficking. The trafficked women are transported internally and internationally for prostitution and also into forced marriages. In Afghanistan small girls are taken away from their families and become victims of sex trading due to their family’s inability to repay huge loans borrowed from drug traffickers in order to grow opium crops.

Throughout the world there are women who lack access to maternal health care with the World Health Organisation estimating that some two million women and girls live with obstetric fistula, an entirely treatable childbirth injury that results in urinary and faecal incontinence. It’s a preventable condition caused by prolonged obstructed labour in a situation where caesarian sections are not available. The affected women are usually poor and from rural communities who were married early- sometimes as young as 14 years. In some regions of Northern Ethiopia 80% of all girls are married by the age of 18.

Photo: The Unfinished Revolution

Editor Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch’s director of Global initiatives is joined by over 30 writers among them Nobel Prize laureates, leading activists, policy makers and former victims who tackle these tough problems and offer bold new approaches to the issues that are still affecting millions of women today.

In July, Spinifex Press released Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home. This wonderful collection of essays by Palestinian essayists, novelists, poets and critics probe the human costs of a home no longer home and contributes greatly to our understanding of the lives of Palestinians.


The contributors reflect on 'What it means to be Palestinian' and come up with individual and collective experiences of seeking, waiting, living for, and being or becoming Palestinian. Words and feelings of Memory, Resilience and Revolution feature strongly throughout this fine collection.

Jean Said Makdisi in her chapter “Becoming Palestinian”, laments the lack of Memory for her native Jerusalem although it continues to be her ideal model of a home where past, present and future meet in her mind to create the one place on earth where she can imagine herself resting, laying down at last the burden of anger and sorrow created in her by the loss. 

In ‘Exiled from Revolution’, Karma Nabulsi regrets ‘the fragmentation of the body politic’ where Palestinian leadership no longer involves itself in the ideas and practice of liberation, but in business deals. While the former representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation pens this chapter ‘the awesome West watches mesmerised’ ‘as masses of Arabs’ ‘ create and celebrate their revolutions’. Nabulsi hopes the recent Arab uprisings will result in a return to Palestinian organizing and a revolutionary present.

Seeking  Palestine is also about Resilience – that of those who have ‘remained in place’, as novelist and poet Mourid Barghouti discovered when he hired a driver to take him to Jericho. Barghouti has been living away from his fellow passengers, his countrymen and women, and finds their light approach to the plans of the ‘terrifying individual such as Sharon’ incomprehensible. 

When Mahmoud announces that the anticipated attack will come tonight his fellow passengers are not particularly upset. ‘Everyday they kill us retail, and once in a while they get the urge to kill us wholesale’ says one of the passengers. Barghouti says that for the inhabitants of these Palestinian cities, ‘everything has become food for jokes’. The poet regards his taxi driver Mahmoud as a hero. “We are his nation: an old man and two women (one of whom doesn’t cover her hair and face, while the other wears a full veil); a man who’s short and another who’s fat; a university student; and a poet who is amazed by everything he sees." He asks himself if he would be able to lead such a trip. But as he says: ‘I am a writer-that is, I don’t do anything.

But that is not his job: The poet and the writer's task is to write- they teach, inform, enlighten and entertain and this applies to the work of the contributors to this fine collection of new Palestinian writing on exile and home-Seeking Palestine.

The task of informing at this forum was performed by our talented speakers: Alex Nissen, Samah Sabawi, Gula Bezhan and Onnie Wilson all of whom addressed the texts and explained their connection to the issues.

Alex Nissen, a teacher working within the TAFE sector spoke of her enlightenment from a Jewish girl growing up with the usual expectations of patriarchal society - to marry and become a mother. However Alex had other ideas - evolving and becoming a radical lesbian feminist, a peace activist and part of the Israeli women’s peace movement for over 20 years. For many years the articulate and energetic activist taught women’s studies and now mourns the extinction of feminist thought within academia. 

       Alex Nissen

Samah Sabawi is a writer, political analyst, commentator, author and playwright and a policy advisor to the Palestinian policy network. Samah was born in Gaza and escaped the Israeli occupation by seeking refuge in neighbouring Jordan before immigrating to Australia. For Samah, the essays written by the women contributors to Seeking Palestine were particularly moving: Susan Abulhawa and her chapter ‘Memories of an Un-Palestinian Story’ where she relays a ‘searing account of her childhood’, and Rana Bakarat who suggests that ‘Palestine-in exile’, ‘is an idea, a love, a goal, a movement, a massacre, a march, a parade, a poem, a thesis, a novel and yes, a commodity, as well as a people scattered, displaced, dispossessed and determined.’

Palestinian writer and activist Samah Sabawi wonders aloud if it is possible for non - Palestinians to understand the passion found in Seeking Palestine. For those who are lucky enough to thoughtfully take the time and read this anthology, the answer is YES.

Samah Sabawi, Gula Bezhan, Helen Lobato, Onnie Wilson, Alex Nissen 

Onnie Wilson, an activist for women’s human rights, spoke of the need for males to change their behaviour.  In The Unfinished Revolution and included in a chapter called ‘Girls not Brides’, Archbishop Desmond Tutu points out that child marriage is rooted in a way of thinking which men have endorsed for far too long. 'Child marriage occurs because men allow it,' he said. ‘Women’s needs must be recognised as having equal social priority in areas such as reproduction, health, education, economic independence,’ says Wilson, who stressed the importance of women across the globe needing to connect so the push for women’s human rights can have a tsunami groundswell effect.

Our final speaker for the night was Dr Gula Bezhan, a community leader of Afghans living in Melbourne. Gula related a harrowing tale of how she was forced to leave Afghanistan where she had lived and worked as a gynaecologist. In 1995 when the Northern Alliance took control of Afghanistan they instigated a rampage of targeting and killing professional people. Gula and her family fled to Pakistan, from where she immigrated to Australia. A community leader, she established the Afghan Woman’s Association of Victoria and has since completed a Bachelor of Social Science. Her employment is in settlement of newly arrived asylum seekers and she has no regrets about not being able to practice medicine.

These books are not yet bestsellers although there has been recent acclaim for Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home, -  The Age, Non-Fiction 'Pick of the Week' - August 11.

In these gritty poetic stories, Palestinian writers imaginatively reclaim what has been lost. —Fiona Capp 


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Military Terminology and the Olympics Posted by Maralann on 10 Aug 2012

                                           By: Pauline Hopkins 


First we had Ian Thorpe who was popularly known as the ‘Thorpedo’. At this year’s Olympics it has been James ‘The Missile’ Magnussen and the 4 x 100m men’s swim team being dubbed the ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’. To say nothing of the numerous headlines including phrases such as ‘fails to launch’, ‘settle a score’, ‘battle’bravery’warriors’ or the ‘new weapon in the swimming pool’. Flicking through the sports pages of today’s newspaper, there is ‘a fight ahead’, someone is going to ‘lead the charge,’ and another has ‘battled the brigade’. To say nothing of the ‘shootout’, athletes ‘imploding’, others having a ‘showdown’ or a ‘surrender’ and medal winners nicknamed the ‘pistols’.

The use of military terminology in sport is not new. The sporting arena has been termed a battleground on endless occasions. However, it seems to be particularly during the Olympics when the usage of military metaphors and similes escalates to an inescapable level.

So does it matter? Well, in a word, yes. One only has to look back to the infamous Olympic games in Berlin in 1936, and the use of sport by the Hitler regime to make a point about Aryan superiority to know that it does. Hitler saw sport as a training ground for military recruiting and a way of feeding a nationalistic fervour. However, despite its use by a much-reviled figure, the use of military terminology in sport has nevertheless been accepted as the norm.


Using such terminology on a daily basis makes the horrors of real war somehow seem less horrific. The normalising of military terms through the sports pages desensitises us to the outcomes of war. We become so habituated to reading how an athlete destroyed his foes that when we read the same language in the world news pages we are already immune to the impact those words would otherwise have. War can be viewed as a game, like the sports that share its language, making it seem less real and less serious. We can forget that the conquering that happens on the real war fronts, often involving the deaths of civilians, and of women and children, as well as of soldiers, are ones that involve real deaths not temporary sporting ones. Real wars do not have entertainment value. Having a battle reported on the back pages of the newspaper makes the far-away battle of page 12 seem ordinary, acceptable.

Another problem with the use of this terminology is that it encourages a violent macho culture in sport, with admiration of aggression in sport, of combative attitudes. These seem to be far removed from one of the fundamental principles of Olympism, as stated in the Olympic Charter in force as of 8 July 2011 (available on the website) that ‘The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.’ The aim of cooperative participation in sport, the ‘spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play’, also espoused in the charter, are undermined by the military terms that are constantly used in sports reporting which is the language of winners and losers and is not about participation.

This language elevates winners and makes winning the top goal whereas we know that in real war everyone is a loser and many losses are irretrievable. The simplicity of the sporting analogy enables us to mistakenly think that only winning counts and that losing is not an option, thereby feeding the philosophy that underpins governments’ continued participation in wars. The national pride attached to winning in sport is out of proportion to its real value, but it stimulates national pride and facilitates a similar desire to win on the real arena of real war where people die. Being labelled a ‘loser’ is almost the worst insult you can throw at someone and this disgust about losing supports continued military participation in world conflicts.

So as Australia contemplates its tally of medals at these Olympics, far less than the number anticipated, expect retribution. There will be consequences, including a lot more money to be fuelled into elite sport (at the expense of money for community participation in sport.) After all, no-one wants to be a loser, do they?

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Sexist Olympics: “Flirtier, Hotter, Sexier” Posted by Maralann on 27 Jul 2012

By: Danielle Binks 


Last week Chris Berg wrote a fantastic opinion piece called ‘Let the cult begin’, his take on the symbolism, fundamentalism, militarism and fascism behind the Olympic Games. But he left off sexism.

The Ancient Olympic Games, first recorded in 776 BC, had only male competitors and it wasn’t until the 1900 Paris Games that women were first allowed to compete (and even then only in ‘feminine’ sports like equestrian, tennis and croquet). If you think that things have improved since Ancient Greek times though, think again.

With only a month until the London Olympics were to commence, Saudi Arabian officials released a statement saying they would permit female qualifiers to compete at the Games – the first time in their history. Before 2012, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei were the only three countries to never allow women to compete in the Olympics.

More and more people have been writing about sexism in the modern Olympic Games, and for London 2012 the criticism began before the first starting pistol even went off.

Scrutiny started in Australia back in March, when Channel Nine (the official broadcaster of the Games) released their line-up of commentators. It was all the familiar faces for Nine; Ken Sutcliffe, Cameron Williams, Karl Stefanovic, Eddie McGuire and Mark Nicholas with the only female representative being Leila McKinnon (who also happens to be the wife of Channel Nine CEO, David Gyngell). Peter Bannan, in his opinion piece, made a point of listing the many qualified female journalists who could have comfortably slotted into Olympics coverage for Channel Nine. And many more pointed out that Karl Stefanovic and Eddie McGuire were not particularly qualified to commentate on the Games anyway.

Social Media has become a new battleground for Olympians, and no doubt a headache for their PR teams. Women seem to be the biggest targets of online trolls, and the jibes have been typically sexist;




And even more sexist outrage started to trickle through as Australian athletes made their way to London. Much was made of the fact that the Australian women’s basketball team flew to London in premium economy class, while our men’s basketball team flew business. This, despite the fact that the women’s basketball team, The Opals, have won more gold (and were taller!) than their male counterparts, The Boomers. This story was rife with metaphor and headlines screamed a sexist summary; “Female athletes fly economy, men fly business” (interestingly, the same thing happened with Japan’s national football team).

Social media erupted in #SexistOlympics talk. But when the initial hubbub died down, voices of reason suggested that it simply came down to budget – The Opals had chosen to spend more of their money on training, rather than airline luxury (which may be why they’ve won more medals too!).

Ad-man, Todd Sampson, spoke about this sexist debacle in the first episode of ABC’s ‘Gruen Sweat’ (taking a critical look at Olympics advertising). Sampson wondered if The Opals had the same (or lower) budget than The Boomers, but explained that regardless of budget allocation there was  “… no way you can side-step the sexist aspect of it. I mean, we know from a money perspective and from a popular television sporting perspective, women are certainly second-class citizens.”

That headline – “Female athletes fly economy, men fly business” – seems to be turning into the unofficial underpinning of these Olympic Games, as more and more people express their outrage of, what they consider to be, a very sexist Olympics.

Let’s take a look at the recent media frenzy surrounding Australian swimmer, Leisel Jones. Australian media outlets wanted to open a dialogue about whether or not Jones was prepared for her fourth Olympic games. But the way they went about discussing Jones’s Olympic-readiness was so, so wrong. They posted not one, not two, but fourteen unflattering photos of Jones – taken from various angles (bending over in her bathers – not really a good look for anyone, even on their best day) as well as a number of pics where she looked terrific, but readers were clearly meant to be dismayed at a slight bulge or bump under her t-shirt.

Leaving aside the question “who cares if she is ‘fat’?” what was really bizarre was how many people jumped to the media’s defence – particularly touting the line “it’s not about sexism!”, and explaining that it was meant more as a commentary on her fitness, not image. Those of us who, *gasp*, dared to criticize such blatantly scathing, sexist coverage of one of our female athletes were even accused of overreacting, of being a little bit too precious (the ‘there’s no crying in baseball!’ defence);




One opinion piece pointed out that male athletes receive the same weight-scrutiny, and gave Grant Hackett as a recent swimming example.


Okay. Let’s look at the ‘flab attack’ Hackett received;  



Compare to the pictorial evidence put forward for Jones:




Would you say that’s an equal level of scrutiny?


What is Australia’s preoccupation with the Jones fitness debate? Many people pointed out that such close scrutiny of a female athlete’s image (complete with 14 photos of ‘flab’ evidence!) sent a bad body image message, and it did. But it’s a message that has become part and parcel of the modern Olympic Games. A message that says: it’s not what you do; it’s how you look. Never mind that Leisel Jones has eight Olympic medals to her name, three of them gold. Or that she has secured seven World Championship gold medals and every Commonwealth Games medal that she has won has been gold, all seven of them. Never mind that she must still be ‘fighting fit’ to have qualified for these Olympic Games. No, no – she looks terrible when she bends over in her bathers – she must be put out to pasture.

Sex sells, more’s the pity. In ‘Gruen Sweat’ Todd Sampson also said; “I think most marketing, not all of it, but most marketing tends to portray women, sporting athletes, as sexy rather than talented, which is a shame.” He’s absolutely, unfortunately, right. The marketing of female athletes has become more and more degraded in recent years.

In the lead up to the 2008 Olympic Games, female German athletes posed for Playboy. Katharina Scholz (hockey), Petra Niemann (sailing), Romy Tarangul (judo) and Nicole Reinhardt (canoe) all posed topless for Hugh Hefner’s sexist mag;


Last month Lauryn Mark, Australian women's skeet shooter, posed in a bikini and with a rifle for Zoo Weekly Magazine.



The Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius, a Latin expression meaning "Faster, Higher, Stronger". But it seems that “Flirtier, Hotter, Sexier” is more the motto for female athletes these days.

Then think on the Olympic creed:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.

Female athletes have fought long and hard to carve a place for themselves in the modern Olympic Games. London 2012 is the first time women from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei have even been permitted to compete! 

Of course there is still much work to be done to eradicate sexism from the Olympic Games. Admittedly a great deal of that work will rely on the media becoming less complacent and sexist in their coverage, but it’s also up to female athletes to realize that their talents are more than skin-deep and commercial-driven. And it’s a matter of appreciating how long and hard the struggle for female representation in the Games has been. Female Olympians should not fetter that hard-won struggle away on Playboy and Zoo covers, nor should the media take it lightly by taking pot-shot pot-belly headlines.

Enough is enough.

A step in the right direction came yesterday, when it was announced that basketball player Lauren Jackson would be the Australian athlete to carry the flag - for the first time in 20 years - at the opening ceremony. It was a nice (overdue) turn of events, after the “Female athletes fly economy, men fly business” headlines – now it’s going to be “Female athlete flies the flag for Australia.”



Now, that’s more like it!

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Movie Review: 'Brave' Posted by Maralann on 11 Jul 2012

By: Danielle Binks

Fifteen-year-old Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a fiery-haired Scottish princess of Clan DunBroch. Although she unsuccessfully tries to mimic her Queen Mother’s lessons in ladylike behaviour, Merida takes after her brutish father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) – she enjoys archery, horse riding and rock-climbing. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), despairs that Merida will ever be a proper princess, and one day fit to rule her clan … so Elinor devises to bring the other three Scottish Clans of Dingwall, MacGuffin and Macintosh to DunBroch, where the three first-born Clan sons will battle it out for Merida’s hand in marriage.

Distraught by the prospect of being prize in a betrothal competition, Merida thinks she can battle for her own hand in marriage, but Elinor is not impressed. While Elinor tries to explain the importance of duty to her wilful young daughter, Merida likewise pleas with her mother to understand the importance of freedom and choosing her own fate – both their arguments fall on deaf ears.

It’s only with the curiously magical help of a looming stone structure, and follow-the-leader will-o’-the-wisps that Merida devises a new plan on how she can take control of her own life.

Brave is the new Disney/Pixar box-office smash-hit. But Brave is not your typical school holiday requisite movie-filler, it’s actually quite the feminist fairy-tale and a welcome breath of fresh-air…

The movie has been subject to some rather disturbing scrutiny in the US these past few weeks. It all started when Adam Markovitz, writing for Entertainment Weekly, asked: ‘Could the heroine of Pixar's Brave be gay?’. Much discussion and web-debate followed, the best of which probably came from the satirical Stephen Colbert, who rightfully stated: "Because any 15-year-old girl who resists an arranged marriage must be gay?" It’s a shame (and slightly creepy) that adult reviewers and commentators feel the need to box and label a Disney character and dissect her sexuality – and that’s really all it is, no matter how much they protest a ‘deeper reading of the text’, it comes down to unnecessary labelling, and because of that many reviewers seem to be missing the forest for the trees.

Yes. Merida is a welcome reprieve from the typical sing-songy, prince-obsessed Disney princesses of the past – instead of wearing tulle-filled pink dresses, she rides around in a gown chosen for her by Queen Elinor, which has perpetually ripped sleeves and skewed bodice, from where Merida has contorted to shoot her bow & arrow. Her hair is a wild mass, which seems to have a mind of its own, rather than the strange helmet-headed, block-colouring of those who came before her;

Merida is not a ‘perfect’ princess – she gets dirty and stuffs her face with cakes, she talks back to her mother and snorts when she laughs. She’s real and she’s messy and she’s just the sort of cartoon heroine young girls should be watching! Merida also enjoys a special connection with the DunBroch land, and she’s never happier than when she’s riding on her beloved horse Angus, rock-climbing or drinking from a hidden waterfall.

The big draw-card of Brave was, for me at least, the focus of a mother/daughter bond. The real heart of the story comes from Merida and Elinor’s push-and-pull relationship – and the second-half of the novel turns into a beautiful mother/daughter quest.

Now, Disney has gotten a lot better with regards to representations of mothers in their films. Gone are the days of wicked stepmothers, traumatic deaths of the mother (Bambi, gets me every time!) or just plain never-mentioned mothers (Aladdin, Beauty & The Beast, Pocahontas…). Admittedly, Brave isn’t 100% perfect (there’s a typical crone-like witch character – why is there never a wizard in this fateful role?!) But Brave really marks one of the first Disney movies where there’s a focus on the mother/daughter bond, not by default because of another absent or dead parent, but because the mother/daughter relationship is amongst the most complex and vital.

Arranged marriage and queenly duties aside, Merida and Elinor’s point of contention really isn’t so outlandish that women in the audience can’t relate – it boils down to Merida not living up to Elinor’s ideals. And isn’t that just a Pandora’s box of problems? And we are treated to both Merida and Elinor’s sides of the story – Elinor who just wants what’s best for her, and Merida who feels like she’ll never be good enough. If that sounds, surprisingly, like it will hit close to home for many viewers, then you’d be right. And if it sounds dauntingly complex for a Disney movie, you’d be right again – and that’s why Brave is so darn good.

Forget the ‘is she or isn’t she?’ discussions swirling around Brave and its tom-boy Princess, Merida. Go see this movie because it’s a darn good yarn about mothers and daughters, being yourself and, as a young woman, choosing your own path in life.

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From Neanderthal to App Posted by Maralann on 27 Jun 2012

Talk for launch of Australian Poetry Journal, Issue 2, Technology, June 2012.

By Patricia Sykes

I’ve titled this preamble From Neanderthal to app and I begin idiosyncratically, with a question to myself: is interactive technology capable of functioning as muse? The nine classical muses, said to collaborate in the ordering of the world, were celebrated by the disciples of Pythagoras as “keepers of the knowledge of harmony and the principles of the universe”, which allowed humans “access to the everlasting gods”. This is a statement of faith as well as a claim of privilege and it seems to me that some futurists would like to claim the same for technology. I’m not a Luddite but I am something of a refusenik: I want to maintain a distance between creator and tool. If our era were to define a world order, along the lines of the Elizabethan World Order, ie God, Angels, Humanity and so on down to the insects, where would technology be placed?

Every generation of course uses the tools specific to its discoveries and aspirations, and we’ve been inscribing the planet in one way or another  ─ and more recently our solar system ─ since Neanderthal times. When I began school life the permitted tool was a slate pencil. It was tied to a piece of string which was tied to a corner of the slate. The slate had only a small surface so it needed to be erased frequently. Erasure was by organic method. You spat onto a cloth and then wiped the slate clean.

My next tool was a pencil. When you had mastered printing you were permitted to progress to cursive writing. When you could write perfectly between the lines, at the designated height, you were permitted to write with a pen, which consisted of a tapered handle, wider at the top. Inside the top was a metal slot into which a nib was inserted. The ink (black, blue or red) was contained in an inkwell into which you dipped the nib: the most poetic aspect of ink wells was how the ink seeped up to striate the petals of the jonquils we stuck in them during winter. This was also an era of much blotting paper: write, blot, write, blot.

Then came the fountain pen. Then the biro, which only became widely accepted in schools in the 1950s. Until then it had been considered injurious to the quality of writing. Then came typewriter, then word processor, then computer and its enhanced facility for memorising and storage. In the time of the slate with its frequent erasures, brain memory was essential. Rote learning too. During and immediately after the end of WWii there was simply not enough paper for school children to write on. Now memory is becoming more a matter of technological storage and retrieval and I’m very aware of this in my own practice.

And so to neuro plasticity: is the tool taking over from its human creator, shaping and attuning the human as it were, and if so what implications might this have for the writing, reading and appreciating of poetry? Susan Greenfield, the neuroscientist, argues that the rise in IQ ascribed to the visual era of the VDU, or visual display unit, indicates a greater facility with process but not with content. In her view the human brain is being changed by the technological dominance of the visual.

While in Canberra recently I came across four pages in The Canberra Times celebrating Italian National Day. One of the features, Science, technology and innovation, included a description of the iCub, developed at the Instituto Italiano di Technologica in Genoa, as an “open source platform for research into humanoid robotics, brain and cognitive sciences” and which has the capacity “to learn to have natural interactions and to learn from humans”. It’s perhaps no accident that the iCub is shaped like a child “with hands for manipulating objects and…sensors for seeing, hearing and touching”. Therefore cute and non-threatening, on the surface at least. Thus far the iCub is a responder rather than an initiator. But what if further development turns it into an initiator? What if it begins using humans as amanuenses, even apps?

I didn’t have any of this in mind, nor even the theme of technology, when I wrote A flight of leftovers, nor when I submitted it to the journal as part of a small unrelated batch of poems. Which brings me to the process I used in the creation of the poem. I frequently use a voice recorder when I’m driving. No sooner am I behind the steering wheel than a line or an image will slip into my mind and by the time I reach the next set of traffic lights it can have vanished. The recorder is simple technology, relying on batteries and reel-to-reel recording and playback. A year after I began using the device I started to wonder what I was going to do with the accumulating material. The fact that I had a lot of it didn’t matter because I had transcribed it and stored it in computer memory and hey presto retrieval does the rest.

So I was at my desk, having typed out final versions of two poems I’d written by hand and planned to submit, when my eyes alighted on a folder of transcribed recordings. I opened it, reading at random, noting a recurrence of themes, and decided to see what eventuated if I selected a few entries and got them talking to each other in a poem. In the process I discarded some images and lines, in full or in part, wrote new ones, rearranged, re-wrote, and finally arrived at a final draft. I could not have done this without the aid of recorder, computer and printer. Nor could they have fulfilled their functions if I had not fed them.

I wonder what Homer’s response would have been to such tools. I recently heard a Radio National discussion on The Iliad’s first print run, which would have amounted to roughly six painstakingly handwritten copies. Subsequent reprints would have been the of the same order: how different literary history would be without the printing press. I can’t quite imagine reading The Iliad on a Kindle or similar device. To hold the entire book in your hand is to hold the journey. It’s the tactility of a book that I’d find difficult to give up. I find it interesting that the iCub has been designed to include sensory capacity, as if the developers knew that such a capacity would make it more acceptable to its human inter-actors.

I think one of the ways technology spoils and deludes us is through the dubious reward of immediacy, things at the fingertips, quick, quick, quick. Perhaps it’s because I was born in an era when it was still the practice that I value the organic aspects of writing poetry, the writing by hand, the musings and interactions between hand and mind. I’ve long been fascinated by the Chinese perception of calligraphy, how they named it the greatest art because there is no first draft, no erasure, no editing, only finished object: the idea or form travelling into the mind, down the arm into the hand onto the page in one fluid movement: breathless! In contrast my poem is a worked and re-worked thing, laboured over.  

Patricia Sykes is an award-winning poet, and a librettist, whose work has been described as ‘leaping over boundaries’. Her most recent work is 'The Abbotsford Mysteries' published by Spinifex Press.

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