Due to recent events, many Australian authors have had to cancel book launches and festival appearances. For some, this means new novels, series continuations and debut novels are heading into this scary, strange world without much publicity or attention. The good news is, you can still buy books – online or get your local bookstore to deliver if they’re offering that service. Buying these books, talking about them, sharing them, reading them, reviewing them – are all ways that for the next six months at least, we can ensure that these books don’t fall by the wayside.
Over the next few months, a lot of us will be consuming some form of art – entertainment, movies, TV, radio, music, books – the list goes on. It is something we will be turning to take our minds off things and to occupy vast swathes of free time. One of the things I will be doing to support the arts, and specifically, Australian Authors, will be reading and reviewing as many books as possible, conducting interviews like this where possible, and participating in virtual book tours for authors.
Jennifer MacKenzie is a poet, published with Transit Lounge in 2020. Her collection of poetry, Navigable Ink, was inspired by an Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer – as Jennifer describes below. Like many authors, she had various launches and events cancelled, and so is taking part in this interview – hopefully it will get the word about her book out there. Up until now, most of my interviewees have been in the fiction, non-fiction and kid-lit worlds of writing, so it is interesting to get a poet on here, and discuss her work and what she has had to cancel.
Hi Jennifer, and welcome to The Book Muse.
1. To start, can you tell my readers a bit about your book, Navigable Ink?
Navigable Ink is a homage to the Indonesian writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer. It is a portrait of an artist living under extreme stress, but who has the courage to continue his work, and reflect broadly on history and on the political responsibility of the artist. I have employed a number of methods, including creating poems based on some of Pramoedya’s writings, in both fiction and memoir, and also dedicating poems to contemporary Indonesian artist activists. I have focused on the beauty of the Indonesian landscape, and introduced a variety of poetic forms across the collection, in order to make it as vivid and engaging as possible.
2. What inspired, or drove you to write this work in particular?
My previous poetry collection, Borobudur, required a great deal of research into Indonesian history. It was during that time that I began to read Pramoedya extensively. However, writing a collection of poetry is often a slow process. It is only in the last few years that I began to imagine the possibilities of basing a collection on someone I greatly admired.
3. When did you start writing poetry, and what made you decide this was how you wanted to write?
When I was at school I was very fortunate to have the late artist, Les Kossatz, as a teacher for one year. As well as teaching art, he also gave us writing exercises. His way of life, with the studio and artist friends, seemed very exciting to me. At the same time, I was reading a lot of Patrick White, and I found his prose to be a model for poetry writing. At 18, I felt I had to choose either painting or poetry, and I (wisely, based on my painting ability!) chose poetry.
4. What events and launches did you have planned before COVID-19 came along, and you had to cancel everything?
Navigable Ink was due to be launched at Readings in Melbourne on April 1. I was in the process of organising some interstate readings, but they too had to be abandoned. I am scheduled to have events in New York in September, and at the Ubud Writers Festival in October, but they must be considered highly unlikely to happen.
5. How much time have you spent in Indonesia?
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time there, either travelling or doing research for my books. I’ve also participated in a number of writers’ festivals and conferences there.
6. When you translated Pramoodya Ananta Toer’s work, did you have to do any extra study of the Indonesian language?
Yes I did. I studied Indonesian at the University of Melbourne, and at the Universitas Gajah Mada in Jogjakarta.
7. What was it about Toer’s story that interested you, and did you meet him prior to translating his work?
I was very interested in how his writing delineated patterns in history, and how these patterns were central to his own situation as a persecuted writer. I was attracted to his methodology in opening up the history of Indonesia and its culture. Unfortunately I didn’t have the opportunity to meet him, but many of my friends did. I communicated with him through friends who visited him.
8. Have you translated any other works into English, or from English into other languages?
Pramoedya’s Arus Balik (Cross-Currents) is the only translation I’ve done.
9. What sort of messages about activism do you think poetry can communicate to readers?
Poetry can take an ethical position on crucial issues such as the climate crisis, and do so in a number of inventive ways. Eco-poetry is an example of poetry which can encompass historical, political and environmental issues while employing a diversity of forms.
10. What do you hope your poetry collection communicates to a wider readership?
Although Pramoedya is very well-known in Indonesia, he seems to be largely unknown in Australia. I have found that what he represents as an artist, and the relevance to the issues of today, of political freedom, of the freedom to write without censorship, of the importance of engagement with crucial historical and environmental issues, to be subjects that are resonating with readers.
11. Working in the arts, what has been something you’ve enjoyed as a poet and reviewer?
The best thing has been the engagement with writers and artists from all over the world. I have made some wonderful friends and have learnt so much from them.
12. With isolation hitting us all hard, how important do you think the arts, and in particular the arts in Australia is for everyone?
Nearly everyone is drawing on the arts in some form to help them through this difficult period. However the support for artists from the Federal Government has been conspicuously lacking. The good thing is that artists have been supporting each other with much generosity.
When it comes to supporting the arts, how important do you think it is to continue to support local artists, writers, organisations and booksellers over conglomerates in these times, given that if we don’t, we could lose our industry and local voices?
It is essential for governments and arts’ bodies to support the arts across the spectrum in this difficult time. Otherwise we are going to lose irreplaceable cultural capital.
13. How supportive do you think the Australian writing community is?
I have found the community to be very supportive, with writers buying and promoting each other’s books. I think we have come to realise how important the connections we have to each other are.
14. Finally, any future works of writing readers should be on the lookout for?
For poetry, Ellen van Neervan’s Throat, and Felicity Plunkett’s A Kinder Sea. (UQP) For prose, Barry Lee Thompson’s Broken Rules and Other Stories (Transit Lounge) and Annee Lawrence’s The Colour of Things Unseen (Aurora Metro Books)