On Poetry, Friendship and Straitjackets

On the 29th of April, I was privileged to attend the launch my friend, Louise Nicholas’, collection of poems, The List of Last Remaining.  

Image by Robert Rath
Image by Robert Rath

I’ve been invited, over the years, to a number of book launches but this was the best I’ve attended, due, I believe, to the warmth, humour and general all round goodness of Louise and her family.

In June 1973 I moved to Whyalla, a large country town (or, depending on your outlook, a small regional city), to take up my first Junior Primary (elementary) teaching appointment. I had never lived away from home but back then the education department supplied low rent, semi-detached housing for up to three teachers (either young women or young men, there was strictly no mixing genders, even in the last third of the 20th Century, and especially in provincial South Australia). On my first night at my new digs, one of the teachers from next door asked me to join her and her flat mates for a drink. As I walked into the neighbours’ kitchen I met a young woman with a long, shining veil of black hair falling across her cheek. She was bent over her knitting, but looked up at me, smiled a hello and invited me to sit down. I also knitted in those days so I was eager to see what she was working on. It was an intricate lacy pattern using three or four ply aqua blue wool. I distinctly remember gazing at her long fingers and beautifully shaped nails as she worked the wool and knitting needles together to create the pattern. One of the other residents poured my drink and we spent the evening chatting and drinking cheap white wine. I learned about the school I’d been posted to, the other staff, and the students. It was probably the best introduction to country teaching a naïve twenty-year-old like me could have had. I also learned she had recently returned from a year in Israel and could speak and write Hebrew. That young woman was Louise, and her generosity, humour and finely honed intelligence has continued to astound and succour me ever since.  Ours is a friendship that’s lasted for … well you do the maths; it’s a long time.

In the first years of our friendship Lou taught me things about teaching you never learn at teacher’s college: how to program a term’s work, how to deal with difficult children, how to finesse regulation bound principals, how to soothe irate parents and, most important of all, how to laugh at myself and the often strange situations a young teacher finds herself in. Louise was the first to notice the engagement ring I wore the day my intended and I announced our engagement and, years later, one of the first to offer support (laced with her wry and perceptive sense of humour) when my marriage broke up. Louise and I have, for the last ten or more years, met fortnightly to share and discuss our writing (as well as discuss our families, our discontents, our successes and sometimes  whatever is currently driving us crazy). She also patiently edited the final draft of my memoir.

So, I hope you’ve got the picture; I was as excited as Louise, back on the 29th April, when her friends, family, and fellow poets celebrated the launch of her book. And while the dry facts about Lou can be found here, there is more to her and her wonderful poetry than can be summarised in a few short words. Being a writer isn’t always easy. Being a woman and a writer, a working woman and a writer, a working mother and a writer is like wearing a straitjacket and being walled in a five by five enclosure, or it’s like that for some women. Louise not only managed to make art from the straitjacket and the wall, she pokes fun at both.

I could try to repeat the glowing comments both Jude Aquilina and Jan Owen made the night Louise’s book was launched, but as perceptive and accurate as those comments were, it is difficult to represent the hard work, long hours and emotion poets, prose writers and playwrights put into their art. Artists like Louise experience many obstacles while attempting to knit their observations, ideas and perceptions into poems. Those obstacle are, however, no reason to stop writing, no matter how hard it is.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that I’ve used the so-called domestic, ‘womanly’ craft of knitting to describe Louise’s art? Some women might criticise me for that. Women’s skills, women’s work, women’s lives are too often characterised by allusions to domesticity, to motherhood, friendship, caring and nurturing, as if there is something wrong with that, as if those things are not as important as poetry. I think we should add poetry to the list of things women do. I think poetry is women’s work.

And if we did that, we might just change the world.

I’ll leave you with one of Louise’s poems and with this exhortation: buy her collection of poems. It’s available here. You’ll see for yourself that poetry is, indeed, women’s work.

Sunday Afternoon Arts
Sometimes, a great man will be interviewed
sitting in his room, elbow resting
on the lower lip of the grand piano,
shirt-sleeve adrift at the wrist
and over his shoulder, fixed
in the picture window, a cedar tree. grass needing mowing, perhaps
a bird bath, sometimes with a cherub
but mostly, not.
And from the left of the window,
almost from the great man’s inner ear,
a woman will appear.
She’ll pick her way across the lawn
head down as though looking for something
small and elusive-a four-leafed clover perhaps
or the last line of a poem;
more likely, the button from his shirt.
And the light will catch the white of her dress
and beam into the room like a revelation.
Then she’s gone

and you haven’t heard a word he’s said.

Louise Nicholas

 

 

Image by Penny Cowell
Image by Penny Cowell

Louise was born in Port Lincoln and has taught in regional and city schools. She has published: The Red Shoes (Wakefield Press and Friendly Street Poets) as part of the ‘New Poets’ series; WomanSpeak, (Wakefield Press, with friend and fellow poet Jude Aquilina); Large (Garron Publishing), a chapbook; three other chapbooks of humorous verse, and edited Friendly Street Thirty with rob walker (who doesn’t use capitals for his name).

Louise has been involved with Friendly Street Poets, a community based organisation that has, for 41 years, nurtured numerous South Australian poets through its monthly open-mic poetry readings. Louise has not only read her poetry at Friendly Street but actively encourages emerging poets and has served on the committee. She has also been involved with The SA Writers’ Centre Inc, which supports South Australian writers of all genres.

9 thoughts on “On Poetry, Friendship and Straitjackets

  1. Thanks, Janet, for sharing this oh-so-true poem and for the reminder of all those flatmates of my single days , laughing, sharing , lending , borrowing and keeping one another real.
    I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed WomanSpeak a poem or two at a time before turning in at night. Must get Louise’s book and do the same again.

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    1. Hi Brenda.
      Oh, yes, if you enjoyed ‘WomanSpeak’ you will love ‘The List of Last Remaining’. And, yes, we did have some good times together; my years in Whyalla were some of the best!
      Thanks for dropping by. Janet.

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  2. 🙂 I love her poem. It paints such a picture. I wonder how much truth there is to that old saying that behind every successful man there’s a good woman…

    Some women might criticise me for that. Women’s skills, women’s work, women’s lives are too often characterised by allusions to domesticity, to motherhood, friendship, caring and nurturing, as if there is something wrong with that, as if those things are not as important as poetry. I think we should add poetry to the list of things women do. I think poetry is women’s work. Yes it is! They FEEL the words more deeply. I honestly believe that.

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    1. Hi Calensariel.
      I think there is often a woman behind a great man, but she’s usually an equally great woman buried beneath his greatness, or a woman not yet aware of her own greatness. 🙂 I suspect there are a few good men behind some great women, too. Love the comment about poetry being woman’s work but I reckon any work is women’s work, if they set their mind to it.
      Thanks for always dropping by and commenting on my posts; I really do appreciate your insights and look forward to your visits, virtual though they might be! I’m hoping some spare time is coming my way soon so I can come and spend some ‘virtual’ time at your place! Cheers
      Janet

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  3. What a wonderful, heartfelt post for the talented and tenacious Louise. The poem you chose is one of my favourites in the collection. I am in awe of her achievement. And of yours Janet in pursuing your passion and honing your skills. Love, Carolxx Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    1. Thanks, Carol. I really appreciate your comments – and I’m sure Louise will as well – and thanks for taking the time to read the post. I’m not really surprised we like the same poem; that sort of things seems to happen to us a lot. 🙂 Take care, my friend. xx

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