First novel haikus in the time of Y2K
Updated: Oct 1
I re-discovered an artefact of my youth recently as I was diving through a pile of books - it was slipped between Black History by Ronald Wimberly & Representation by Stuart Hall. It‘a a a slender little thing, with yellowing pages and age-spots, that I had once self-published (and self-distributed) 22 years ago. I knew it was in my possession because a cousin returned it to me several years back, but I misplaced it shortly after that and figured it was stacked in a plastic box somewhere with all the other things I can never find.
Titled, Where Waters Meet, the booklet consists of 20 haikus - representing each of my 20-years of age at the time that I took a big first swing at writing The Great Australian Novel. That was 1997 and the motive for the attempt was a creative writing subject carrying double credit points for a sustained piece of writing. I considered the subject the perfect vehicle to expedite my passage through the tail-end of an excruciating undergraduate degree.
Working on the novel (I recall well) was a frustrated experience. I used to throw my typewriter - a handsome, and durable, yellow Triumph - around my bedroom, literally wrestling with the process. My intentions at the outset was to write a memoir of what I now know as creative non-fiction, about my family and Country (I had Characters & I had Place) I'd even obtained written permission to write it from my great-grandparents (a letter I've also since annoyningly misplaced) - and I can tell you it was absolutely as self-absorbed as you would expect from any 20-year-old writer.
I used to throw my typewriter - a banana-yellow Triumph - around my bedroom, literally wrestling with the writing process. It was also a time of amphetamines, which didn't help (I had copious scraps of notes). Although I recognised, innately or intuitively, the cultural importance (or at least the exotic appeal to white, creative arts academics) of the subject-matter of my novel. But I didn't respect the subject-matter, the process, or even myself very much, and certainly I was devoid of the requisite discipline to get the job done.
I can't remember what I eventually ended up submitting, but it wasn't THE NOVEL. It was enough to get me across the line, which is essentially how I approached most things about that period in time, and soon afterwards I relocated to Melbourne with the love of my life, who was taking on a hairdressing apprenticeship. We drove from the Gold Coast to the guts of Fitzroy, my unfinished great work in tow behind our little navy-coloured Mazda like a bashed-up can.
We found a blue-stone worker's-cottage between Smith Street and Brunswick Street. Each morning, my girlfriend would head across the river to a salon in South Yarra and I'd drag myself out of the sack, light the fire, and write until the nearest pub opened at 3pm. Over the next three or four months (or possibly longer, time is murky there now) I began reducing the words I had for the novel, the paragraphs and scraps of notes. Then I just decided to reduce them as far down as I could possibly get them, before they turned useless and incoherent.
I was 23 by the time I had produced the booklet, which started with this:
“Where Waters Meet is the progression of two lives. it is about Marun, the sand goanna, rediscovering his spirituality and identity after being seperated from his bahbiyn, his paternal grandmother. Their reunion comes as she is about to re-enter her dreaming place with the old people."
I wanted to write the language in the lingo of my own Country, but it would still be another 15-16 years before the Gattang language would be revived ( I compensated by using an image from one of the Thomas Dick staged photographs on my Country in the early 1900s of a child sitting on what is currently known as Lighthouse Beach surrounded by pippies). I didn't know enough of our language either, just single words and most of those being rude ones, so I borrowed the language of the place I lived from around 16-years-old. That was inspired by Roy Gordon, Sr. who was the Chairman of the Bundjalung Elder's Council back around 1996 or 1997. I worked alongside Roy as a junior sites officer for the Tweed Byron Local Aboriginal Land Council. He'd talk in lingo when we were out on certain sites, or meeting certain people. I was always pestering him to teach me, but I wasn't a great student at learning language either. When it cam to the haikus concept, I already had some words written down thatI intended to use in the novel, some others I’d carrried around in my head. I was also able to triangulate words with the assistance of a couple of language dictionaries I'd collected along the way.
The haikus themselves are not the finest examples of the discipline - certainly not the opening one or two. I recall being aware of it at the time, but realised there needed to be some trade off in order too set up a story narrative, regardless of how limited it was. Reading back over some of the better ones 22-years after they were written, I'm not totally shamed by the effort though. I feel there's enough substance in the good ones, and enough craft to the writing to hold-up okay today - at least for a 23-year-old writer.
The cost of publishing was about $180 for 100 copies, which was just shy of a week’s rent for the blue-stone worker’s cottage. A publisher in Elgin Street, Carlton did the job, but I cut and stabled the pages myself - as can be seen with the page numbering error above. I also went through each of the 100 copies and amended the spelling error you see above on page 17 with a black biro. I vaguely recall having to find another stapler because the one I owned didn’t have the arm length to punch a staple in the location and direction the booklet required.
Once I had the stack of 100 ready to go out into the world, I began to distribute them. I hadn’t any strategy in mind to accomplish maximum exposure - I’d just wander around Fitzroy with bundles of 10-15 and try not to return home with any.
There were loads of laundromats along Brunswick Street and Smith Street back then, and they were places where people loitered around while waiting for their clothes to go through the machines. The street presses dropped their bundles there, and each one had a notice board that was cluttered with all sorts of material, from advertisements for house sharing to radical political statements. I put five or so in each, I think. I also placed them in telephone booths around that suburb. I got rid of some at a gig at The Corner hotel in Richmond at an Archie Roach, Ruby Hunter and Jimmy Little gig. I talked my way into the Green Room and handed one to Archie and Ruby, and another to Uncle Jimmy. I posted one up to the lecturer at Griffith University who ran the double-credit point subject that started me down that track to begin with. Another was sent to a conceptual artist friend of mine also back on the Gold Coast. And I carried another to Sydney on a visit to that city just weeks before the 2000 Olympics commenced, to present to an uncle who had always encouraged me to write. Finally, I gave one to the publican of the pub I haunted, which he bulldog-clipped to the potato crisp basket hanging behind the bar.
Eventually they all went out into the world, without even a single copy kept at the time for my own scrap book: such was the intensity of my literary romance back then.
Anyway, I repurposed the title of the booklet of haikus published in 1999, 14-15 years later for a short story published in Overland magazine in April, 2016 (see picture below, with illustration by MIchelle Farran), and again later that year when the same short story got a run in BlackInc’s Best Stories of 2016, edited by Charlotte Wood.
I had a fascination with the title ever since knocking around Tumbulgum (which literally means, where waters meet) for a period in the early Nineties, just before leaving the Tweed to go into uni at Southport, the northern end of the Gold Coast glitter strip. As it turns out, the concept behind the title is fairly well utilised too: My friend and journalism mentor, Margaret Simons, titled one of her earliest books ,The Meeting of the Waters: the Hindmarsh Island affair, in 2003; and of course there is the celebrated Yolngu band, Yothu Yindi, which in Yolngu Matha means child and mother, as well as, where the fresh water of the river meets the salt water of the sea.