The Real Through Line – Poetry Symposium

‘There are truths… the real (or Real) is not a given constant.’ Pi O

I spent most of today at the warm, insightful symposium The Real Through Line, presented by RMIT’s nonfictionLab and Monash’s Centre for Australian and Postcolonial Writing. While I don’t see my creative practice as “poetry”, I was interested in what the eleven speakers would have to say about the balance of language and content, and also the place of nonfiction within a larger field of literary form.

The three speakers who spoke to me most were Ann Vickery, Pi O and Jill Jones.

Ann Vickery presented a paper about Juliana Spahr’s work Well Then There Now, exploring the construction of a self, the different ways of belonging, and the ways we tend to depict intimacy. She talked about ‘gliding identity’, where the “here” and the “there” depend on where the writer is standing. From here, I started thinking about how the one experience will always be recounted differently by each person present — with a different structure, intention and linearity. I spoke to my sister (17) briefly this week about her memories of our family friend ten years ago, only to find that she has forgotten everything except the unspoken pressure on her to behave, to ‘be a good child’. She doesn’t remember what I remember, perhaps due to her age at the time, but also because she holds different values to me; different things are important to her. She remembers behaviour; I remember winning (and losing) boardgames. She is also less nostalgic than I, perhaps, because she hasn’t moved away from the place of these events? Who knows why?

Pi O’s paper claimed every kind of art/documentation was and is realism, and that if we claim that one kind is more real than another, we are claiming to have found a universal truth, which we of course can never find. He argued that ‘the notion that the more linear something is the more successful it is, is wrong’; words without a narrative, without temporality, are no less representative of the real than a scientific report. Humans don’t have the answers; Pi O declared that he loves the form of a human being, ‘because you can put anything and everything inside’. Pi O argued against nonfiction stories being judged by their ability to serve as a doctrine, preferring a system where individual stories are written for the individual’s sake, regardless of their reality and worldliness. Response from the audience: ‘But some things are more real than others!’

Jill Jones discussed several nonfiction projects, evaluating them on their ability to ‘negotiate’ with daily experience (‘whatever that is’) and the collective voice. Questions raised regarding experience: What is it? Are we it? Is experience the sum of what happens to us, or is it instead the way we act (or simply are) in the world? ‘We talk about experience as lived moments… What exactly is an “unlived” moment?’ Jones quoted a participant in one of the projects, Andrew Burke: ‘Everything about [my poem] happened, but I imagined the cop chase. Sometimes you have to imagine the real.’ Thinking about my own project — my project of remembering and documenting my memories — I wonder what “experience” is, that influences and makes up these memories. What did I learn from these memories? How did my actions and existence as a child and an adult influence these memories? Will I have to imagine in order to recall what “really” happened, so that a reader understands? Jones seemed to think so, her concluding words declaring the intangible truth is best conveyed ‘through opacity and paradox’.

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