Mike Ladd at The Barr Smith Library: Post-Talk Musings

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Photo credit: J V Birch

I recently overheard someone say that she “was never going to be able to tell if a poem was good or not” and I completely understand where she was coming from. Which was why I approached a talk by Australian poet Mike Ladd with some trepidation. However, the event, organised by the Friends of the University of Adelaide Library, provided a very accessible entrée into his poetry and prose, through story-telling and a fascinating introduction to the pantun, a traditional form of Malaysian poetry. There was also wine and cheese.

Mike Ladd is a gifted communicator and is perhaps best known in Australia as the voice of ABC’s ‘PoeticA’, Radio National’s now defunded poetry program. I was particularly grateful that he did not use, what I think of as, the ‘poetry voice‘. Not that he recited many poems during this talk, preferring instead to discuss the actual process of writing, particularly for his latest book Invisible Mending, parts of which were informed by his time at Rimbun Dahan, an artist’s retreat near Kuala Lumpur.

Whilst his partner, Cathy Brooks worked on her art project, Mike explored the pantun, which like Haiku, follows strict rules, and a history that extends back for at least several hundred years. Traditionally, the four-line verse follows a fixed rhythm when recited, although Mike admitted that in English he had deviated from this somewhat. He had, however, retained the required poetic relationships, whereby the first two lines extend to the external world and the last two lines describe the internal. The two halves may appear disconnected, but a thread must connect them, however faint.

Half-way through the artists’ retreat, Mike’s father died suddenly and unexpectedly, and his stay was necessarily broken by a return trip to Australia. Afterwards, this became part of the life of the poetry, and part of the ‘invisible mending’. The Barr Smith library talk mainly focused on this period of his life, in particular an essay called ‘Pantuns in the Orchard’. In the orchard, Mike’s outer relationship with the environment and the people he met were informed by his inner reflections on life. Not unlike the pantun.

Mike is more than his nine collections of published poetry and prose. In addition to his work with Radio National, he has travelled and drawn widely from these experiences. In Senegal for instance, he recorded traditional poet-praise singers. In Papua New Guinea, he helped create sixty episodes of a serialised radio drama about the threat of HIV/AIDS. In London, he worked for the BBC and the British Institute of Recorded Sound. In Adelaide, he has introduced his poetry into public spaces, on bus shelters and bridges. Words have power and Mike channels this power in many ways.

When acknowledging his dues to the printed page, Mike highlighted that most poetry books are not available online. Hence, when he needs to research obscure texts he turns to Adelaide’s Barr Smith Library and their collection of obscure poetry volumes. He also has a personal collection of 2,500 poetry books, which he hopes will one day find a permanent home at the Barr Smith.

Whether or not I will ever be able to tell a good poem from a bad one, I was entranced by Mike Ladd’s ability to communicate its value as a powerful art form. His book ‘Invisible Mending’ is available through Wakefield Press, and contains prose, essays and poetry, based on his experiences in South America, Japan, Malaysia and Adelaide.

On the Wakefield Press website, they have shared the following poem:

Learn to speak a language

I was on the bus to town.

On the seat in front of me

two women were chatting in Punjabi,

and the guy sitting next to me says:

‘If you come to this country

you should learn to speak the language.’

‘Yeah. You’re right,’ I said.

‘So how’s your Kaurna?

And how good are ya

at Pitjantjatjarra?

Fancy a chat in Ngarkat?

And you know, it’s a pity we don’t hear

more Peramangk at the bank,

more Tiwi on the TV,

more Wik at the picnic

and Arrente on the verandah.

And, if you expect to live here,

you really oughta

know some Yorta-Yorta,

get your tongue

around Bundjalung,

grasp the meaning in Mirning

and know the score

in Eora.

Kamilaroi and Wiradjuri,

Luritja and Walpiri,

understand their poetry.

You’re right, if you come to this country,

You should learn to speak the language.’

Taken from an extract from Invisible Mending

Maggi Boult

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