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I will whisper to the roaring wind
and wrap my arms around you tight
tell me your darkest, fiercest fear…
I know it all will be alright.
Let me share my blanket,
light your own candle from mine.
We’ll vigil here, the long night through,
and pray tomorrow might be fine.

Talitha Fraser

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A short introduction to the life and work of Stevie Smith for the Spiritual Reading group meeting at the Carmelite Library in Middle Park.  After a short talk to contextualise the work of the artist we read some of the works aloud and hold shared discussion reflecting on what they might mean…

Stevie was born Florence Margaret Smith in 1902. At 3 years of age, the marriage of Stevie’s parents broke down and she moved with Mum, Ethel and big sister Molly from Kingston Upon Hull, Yorkshire to Palmers Green in North London. Contact with her father, who was in shipping, became single line postcards saying things like: “Off to Valparaiso, Love Daddy”

Contracting tuberculosis peritonitis  at 5, Stevie was taken to a sanatorium at Broadstairs in Kent for 3 years. Being separated from her family was hard and Stevie has said that this is when her preoccupation with death and fear arose.

When Stevie’s mother Ethel became ill, Madge Spear, affectionately referred to as “The Lion Aunt” came to live with them, raising Stevie and Molly.  A feminist who had no patience with men, formidable Aunt Madge raised a family of women attached to their own independence counter-cultural to the ruling Victorian idea that “father knows best”. When she was 16, Stevie’s mother died.

Stevie studied at Palmers Green High School then went to Mrs Hoster’s secretarial academy – the North London Collegiate School.  It was around 17 the “Stevie” moniker came into common use arising from riding in the park with a friend who commented that she reminded him of the champion jockey Steve Donoghue.

Stevie suffered depression all her life that expressed as nervousness, shyness and intense sensitivity.  Straight out of the Collegiate school Stevie became a secretary at a magazine publishing company, and eventually became the private secretary to Sir Neville Pearson with Sir George Newnes and Newnes Publishing Company where she worked 1923-1953.  In this time Stevie had published 3 autobiographical novels and 4 of the 9 volumes of poetry published in her lifetime.  The themes of her work traverse: loneliness, myth and legend, absurd vignettes, war, human cruelty and religion.  Stevie’s line drawings, which she called her “higher doodling” often weren’t published with her poems, that happened later when collected works were published, and the pictures weren’t necessarily drawn to go with particular works but she would merely pick out whatever seemed appropriate.  They often lend a note of whimsy to words of touching depth or sharp parody to her satirical set-downs.  Stevie used comedy to talk about dark things and used the tools of her craft to resist domestic ideology around class, religion, marriage…

While her early novels and volumes of poetry were a great success, the work of the 1940s and early 1950s had been less well-received. She was seen as eccentric and the style of her poetry out-of-fashion.  One account suggests Stevie invalided out and was given a full pension following a nervous breakdown at work that led to her attempting suicide at her desk after an incident threatening her boss with a pair of scissors but another says perhaps more discretely that Aunt Madge became bedridden and Stevie left work to care for her. Stevie perceived death as she did god, someone perhaps to have a dialogue with ‘scolding for taking her loved ones and those whom the world will miss’, someone she had to acknowledge and comes to terms with the existence of. Stevie has said that she was “so consoled by the idea of death as release” that she didn’t have to commit suicide it was enough to know that death was there to look forward to. This god death is often expressed as kinder in her writing than the God of church and religion.

A come back after the period 1953-1955 when Punch was almost exclusively the only established periodical willing to publish her work. Stevie undertook a collaboration with Elisabeth Lutyens and Heidi Anderson when she struggled to find other outlets for her writing.  The arrangement and performance of her poems between her own readings were very engaging for audiences and led to Stevie eventually developing her own unique performance style of singing her poems.

Between readings Stevie would often sing, using sonorities and tonalities for effect, 2 or 3 of her works to familiar tunes she borrowed from Anglican hymns, folk melodies, popular music hall songs, a military march or tunes she made up in these styles.  While setting hilarious captions to the table book “Cats in Colour” in 1959 was I’m sure, a highlight, it may have been surpassed by receiving the Queens’ Gold Medal for Poetry in 1969. The last decade of her life saw her increasingly in demand to give readings not only to societies but schools.

Stevie died from a brain tumour 7 March 1971

Katherine Firth’s thesis on “The MacNeices and their Circles: Poets and Composers in Collaboration” provides insightful context of the time and place of Stevie’s writing.  The influence of modernism in the 1920s-30s had a destabilising effect on meanings – skilled practitioners were able to create works that reflected their own ambivalences, scepticisms and self-criticisms and you see a lot of this in Stevie’s writing – especially on the subject of religion.  Resisting her High Anglican and Tory Aunts’ influences with her lefty friends. This group of friends were influenced by Aristotle’s writing on poetry on the root word for poetry and action being the same so there was a sense that the words should be working to explain or impart something.

While Stevie lived a largely secluded and celibate life, aside from a few flings with both men and women, Stevie was a resolutely autonomous woman and rejected the idea that she was lonely.  Intimate relationships with friends and family kept her fulfilled. This was a time of cliques and gangs – groups of writers, producers, painters, composers, performers and critics that interacted socially and professionally in overlapping circles while retaining distinct identities.  Stevie corresponded and socialised widely with other writers and creative artists. She was chief bridesmaid and Louis MacNeice the best man at the wedding of the novelist Olivia Manning to the poet Reggie Smith. George Orwell was close and Sylvia Plath a fan.

New West End venues, technological advances and the rise in the role of the BBC in disseminating music were changing performance media.  Contemporary composers were looking to their poet-peers for lyrics, there were a range of styles of popular music and they borrowed from each other.  There was a desire convey Modernist idioms to reach a broader social and cultural context, making music and poetry relevant to the political and economic circumstances of the audiences listening. There was an idea that a poems words will do its work on someone if it is palatably wrapped as a hymn or cabaret tune.  The music groups of the day wanted audiences to be improved AND entertained.

Susan Thurman’s thesis provides this concise synopsis:

“Smith’s poetry reveals three major attitudes toward religion, which sometimes overlap: first, she is the agnostic who cannot make up her mind–she has faith in a god in whom she does not want to believe, yet she loses faith in a god in whom she does want to believe. Second, she often writes poems which confidently reject God; she is the atheist expressing approval of the decline of organized religion, strongly attacking both the Catholic and Anglican Churches. She vehemently rejects God and Christianity in such atheistic poems as being untrue, but if possibly true, then cruelly unfair. Third, however, she is a believer who replaces the Christian God of eternal damnation with what she views as a more merciful God of her own making. She tries desperately to create a God for herself in whom she can believe.” As she says of herself in her image on the poster for today’s event: “In yielding and abnegation I spend my days”.

Stevie often attracted labels like “eccentric”, “odd”, and “difficult” with causality attributed to her gender… Not Waving But Drowning is one of Stevie’s most well-known works speaking to our individual isolation within society.  Between the poem and the paradoxes of Stevie’s own life: participant or observer, believer or atheist, here to live or here to die? Cynthia Zarin draws a parallel – saying “she is at once the stranger and the traveller, both waving and drowning” – we’re going to wrap this up with Stevie reading that piece, it runs for about 2 mins and you’ll hear her at the start describing what the work was about…

References/Further Reading:

Anne Bryan. “Stevie Smith and God
Katherine Firth. “The MacNeices and their Circles: Poets and Composers in Collaboration on Art Song 1939-54”
Stevie Smith. “Some Are More Human Than Others.”
Stevie Smith. “Stevie Smith Collected Poems”
Stevie Smith. “Two in One: The Frog Prince and Other Stories/Selected Poems”
Susan E. Thurman. “The themes of God and Death in the Poetry of Stevie Smith
Cynthia Zarin. “The Uneasy Verse of Stevie Smith”

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1  Me nolentum fata trahunt is a play on a line from the Roman Seneca: Ducunt volentem Fata, nolentem trahunt. This means “Fate leads the willing, and drags the unwilling”. So, Stevie Smith’s line means “because Fate drags me, unwilling”.

 

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All rights to this work belong to the Stevie Smith Estate with Faber & Faber and have been reproduced here for educatonal purposes only.

i am not your negro

“You do not have to change to face me but you do have to face me to change”

James Baldwin

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Trigger warning for suicide. If you’re feeling down, please reach out to friends, family or support agencies like Beyond Blue, Lifeline: 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467, Kids Helpline (for young people aged 5 to 25 years): 1800 55 1800.

 

There was a suicide in my sphere recently. Not someone I knew but it impacted lots of people that I know and in the aftermath we talked, trying to make sense of it. It’s not something easy to make sense of. We tried to find out details, as you do – who/why/when – and learned for a variety of reasons that further information wouldn’t be forthcoming, people worry that a suicide might lead to more suicides. I hear that but at the same time, I wonder: if we don’t talk about it, if we don’t know it’s happening, how do you prevent it? This person, whose name we don’t know, who we don’t know anything about – we have shed tears for them, we want to acknowledge their life and their family, want time back to tell them they were loved because we know the surety of that whatever else we do not know. Now that I am conscious of my not knowing, I look it up. More than 8 people a day in Australia, one every three hours… more than from cancer (ABS, 2015). I don’t know that we really begin to understand how the comings and goings of people in our lives matters deeply.  My coming and going matters, your coming and going in my life matters whatever context of work, of community, of relationship… A life lived shorter than it might be is always tragic.  I felt a grief inside me that didn’t feel appropriate to show, didn’t feel appropriate to share – it wasn’t supposed to belong to me because this person didn’t belong to me except that we all belong to one another.  So I asked myself: Where is appropriate to show grief? And took myself on an excursion to the local cemetery (as you do). The following poem is made up of words entirely taken from words written on people’s headstones. It  isn’t intended to be some macabre or nihilistic exercise… but the opposite. What words of comfort or solace could we have said if there’d be time? What message of love? Read them and be comforted, be solaced, be loved now. Hear them deep in your soul, take them in and let them nourish you.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will know the essence of life.

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v3 bw

v4 bw

v5 bw

v6 bw

 

Peace, perfect peace,
let your song be delicate,
the flowers can hear.
In God’s care.

In the midst of life we are in death.
Let not your heart be troubled
neither let it be afraid.
In God’s care,
not here but risen,
Love’s Tribute.

Always loved, always in our hearts.
Sadly missed.
Behind all shadows standeth God.
Some time, some day, we’ll understand.

So deeply loved, so deeply mourned,
till we meet again, at rest,
in heavenly love abiding.

Abide with me: fast falls the eventide
the darkness deepens, Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
Thy will be done always in our hearts.
Loved and remembered.

Resting.
All losses are restored and sorrows end
in God’s care.
Those we love don’t go away
they walk beside us every day
To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.

 

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CL: First heard the term “intersectionality” after starting my blog Black Feminist Ranter which ticked several “oppression” boxes. It was a label applied to me to inform a sense of ‘place’. A description of where the intersections of oppression are overlapping. It’s in the feminist sphere that is being played out but dividing and othering instead of being done well. It’s not being used to subvert and challenge systems but by those wanting “ally credit”.

RH: How we use the word… it’s made equivalent to representation e.g. have a quota of female politicians but the systems don’t change. What about sweatshops? What about Western interventions in the Middle East? Supporting Hillary and the first potential female President is great but don’t say “She’s going to be great for all women” – be specific. Say “some of her policies are good” or “Hillary being President will be a good start” but not making sweeping statements like: “What’s good for women is good for all women”, that erases the experience of those her policies don’t benefit.

CL: Why did that election result get pegged on the non-white women? Hate that… everyone asking: Where are the African-American women? Stats show it’s white women that didn’t vote for Hillary.

RH: They had to ask – “Who will be worse?” All minority groups voted for Clinton.

CL: Similar here re Gillard. First Australian Prime Minister – a win for dissecting feminism but she was legislating in NT and making cuts to single mother benefits… I couldn’t fight on those issues because I had to defend on the left re gender.  We are being compromised in these situations.

RH:  Allies need to understand the dilemma and acknowledge it. Intersectional feminism should understand that dilemma but it doesn’t. It needs to acknowledge the reasons others might be unsure and have concerns. For example, media around the Wonder Woman film discussed the Zionist views of the lead actress and called for boycott.  I didn’t advocate for that. It’s only one woman’s opinion.    It should be ok that Arab women might not be able to jump on this empowerment train. Allies need to understand.  There’s a refusal to see.  e.g. “The Wonder Woman character existed long before this actress – the movie’s still worth celebrating!” I was called racist. Intersectionality was used against me… disappointing.  This placed not just Eastern feminism against Western feminism but feminism within the West.  Behind the scenes analysis of the politics what appears and doesn’t is far more interesting to me than the actual movie.

CL: My voice can be sought out to fill a diversity quota.  e.g. speaking on Aboriginal Beauty Pageants – didn’t see celebration of Aboriginal beauty as worth working for (dress, heels, make up…) told I’m denigrating my racial identity. White panellists get slut shaming… called fat… whore… but not racial commentary.

RH: I get racial and gendered criticism. “This Ruby Hamas bitch has both clit-envy and penis-envy” – manages to be offensive on Arabic, Muslim, terrorist, gender – so many layers! I shared it on my page to diffuse it. Not about me but anyone who shares these characteristics.

CL: Comments on how I look, highly gendered, but go back to words like “quadroon”.  I sometimes take the piss or shut it down… I’d like to be called a whore for once and not something that’s dissecting my race! I was on a panel of feminists once – I said something about “smashing systems” in my introductory statements and was sidelined for the rest of the panel – the white feminists talked amongst themselves.  Those that have to navigate gender + race + disability – they are more extreme/radical because they have more to overcome. It was a horrible experience. It was a basic entry-level discussion, why weren’t we part of that conversation? I was only asked for “special comments” re race in the closing questions.

RH:  Any event invitation I receive I’m asking , am I token or not? Do they value my voice and what I have to say? And then I say, whatever… they’re still giving me a platform.  I long for the day I’m asked to talk about politics, and my experience… not as a labelled pigeon-hole “Muslim” or “Aboriginal”.

CL: The person who is Trans and Aboriginal and woman and has a disability and from a low class background… we need to amplify her voice.  Smash at all those levels at once.

RH: If they are liberated, everyone is liberated. “identity politics” shouldn’t set us against but with. I’ve always tried to bring identity politics back to broader oppression.

CL: The show the Handmaids Tale – loved it at first, then I started to see the mainstream reaction.  Women enslaved, bred, imprisoned… with religion used as justification. That was one generation ago for me. Oh, white women are going to be treated like Aboriginal and African-American women. In the book the slaves are unequivocally white, coloured people are shipped off to die from radiation.  Some kudos to the author for sticking to what she knows but in the TV show, in this Fascist, Puritan,  authoritarian world… women of colour are also selected for breeding with wealthy white men and I should believe it?! This is white-washing racial dynamics. “This is just around the corner for us” This white response is not helpful compared to that of people of colour which says: welcome to our world – this has already happened and is happening.

RH: “Can you imagine if there’ll be a war?!” [re Trump/Korea] Yes. I have already lost half my family to that. I don’t need to imagine what that’s like.

CL:  When we are blended into white narrative, we’re not given our own.

RH: Given a female Dr. Who – that was a big deal.  An Arab actor was recently cast to play the leading role in Aladdin. An Arab not in a role as a terrorist or savage illiterate – those roles that have been used to perpetuate negative stereotypes.  Can’t just think about gender (woman as Dr. Who), that an Arab man is cast in the role of Aladdin is far more significant for me.  Is feminism the new weapon of whiteness? We hardly heard anything about that casting at all.

Question: How do you balance the need to be calm to be taken seriously vs. expressing righteous/legitimate anger?

CL: A bit of anger is good, use it to tear the system apart. I have no obligation to make racist, sexist, wealthy people feel safe.  e.g  Heritier Lumumba in doco Fair Game, laughed along with racist insults in the locker room to try and fit in… you never win that way.  We need to use our anger in legitimate and practical ways.

Question: What would your top-three recommended structural interventions be?

CL: I’m part of the union movement. Anything that draws attention to the structural issues.  Intersectional engagement is often superficial.  Highlighting – make sure other voices are heard e.g. An Aboriginal man will have different views than me, or a more conservative woman… there is not one homogenous view for women or for Aboriginal people.

RH: Acknowledge there is a problem.  Still at that level… can’t think of a list of structural changes yet when still trying to get people to acknowledge that there’s a problem. Need to be given power/influence – in media, politics… I guess I’m still trying to find that answer.  I don’t think we’re close to solving that.  Need to see more women from non-white backgrounds opinions valued… to talk in general terms.

Question: Do you have any advice for emerging voices?  How do you decide which point of view will be appropriate to speak from, how do you get past that/prevent silencing?

RH: I didn’t write about anything happening in the Arab/Muslim sphere for ages.  Mortified when something I wrote was appropriated by people who hate me.  I don’t wear a veil but cultural still encouraged to be quiet, modest… I learned to pick a time to broach it. Try to ever do it in a way that isolates Muslims, there’s sexism and racism across all cultures.  I cop a lot of backlash from my community but lovely messages from young Muslim women makes it worthwhile – scarcely – becomes ammunition for racists.  I had to learn that I can’t be responsible for how they use or mis-use my words.

CL: I was terrified to talk about violence against Aboriginal women.  That conversation is used to assimilate to whiteness and religion, a conversation owned by conservative Aboriginal people, for example if I write a piece protesting Dondale and Invasion Day turn around and say “why don’t you care about violence towards Aboriginal women?” Used to indicate that I don’t care.  Exhausting process to do but I counted the numbers over the past two years.  I need to defend space for my own voice. This argument is used to denigrate my other work.

 

 

 

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love seeks love
love seeks
love finds
love finds love
love holds love
love holds
love lets go
love goes

 

Talitha Fraser

 

Lectionary Reading

Romans 12:1-8

New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,[a] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[d]

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

 

I know nothing

(to the tune of Frere Jacques, Kinsler Institute)

I know nothing
I know nothing
Not a thing
Not a thing
Nothing about anything
Nothing about anything
This is good
This is good

 

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Begin, Begin

(words Talitha Fraser, melody Samara Pitt)

begin
begin
begin anywhere
set out
step out
that is where to start
one day you do it
different than yesterday
ever so slightly
and it changes the world

 

Let it go

Leunig

Let it go,
Let it out,
Let it all unravel,
Let it free
And it will be
A path on which to travel.

 

God, did you see the news today?

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God, did you see the news today?

We’re killing one another.
We’re killing in places killing has gone on so long we don’t know how to stop…
We’re killing next door.
We’re killing one another.

God, did you see the news today?

We’re laying waste to the world
to consume, consume, consume
an appetite “stuff” cannot sate.
Our elders know. Our elders tell us.
We ignore their wisdom.

God, did you see the news today?

People are saying hateful, hurtful things
what is right, what is wrong
what is holy, what is profane
…as if we know. As if we could know.

God, did you see the news today?

Were you there when we turned the boats away?
We are denying people food, electricity, sanitation, shelter, medical care…
We are denying people their basic human rights.

People are grieved and weary.
Longing for a world that is different
but not knowing where to start.
Not knowing how to start.
All victims, variously blind.

I’m not pointing fingers, I’m raising my hand.
I need Your help. We need Your help.

Amen