I had a bit of an anxiety attack last Sunday morning. I even tried to hit up my husband for beta-blockers. Seriously, what’s the point of having health industry connections if you can’t put the squeeze on them for pharmaceuticals every now and again? Unfortunately, he wasn’t packing. I wasn’t surprised – he’s a paramedic and is always telling me that if it isn’t going to kill me in an hour, it isn’t his business. He was right, damn it. Delivering a speech for a book launch probably wasn’t imminently fatal.
I’ve written a couple of posts in the past about my naive surprise at the amount of time and energy writers spend on business peripheral to writing. Writing book blurbs and recommendation letters to funding bodies for other writers, appearing on or hosting discussion panels, writing reviews, judging literary competitions – and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
However, there is one non-writing literary activity that is pure delight – attending other writers’ book launches. It’s great. You get to celebrate their success by toasting them copiously with free wine while hanging out with your mutual friends and all you have to do in return is buy their book. It’s win win. And there’s usually good cheese.
The one exception to this rule is when you are asked by Mike Ladd to actually launch his book. Mike Ladd. I felt wildly honoured and completely petrified in equal measure.
If you aren’t an Australian writer I should probably clarify what launching a book means. A launch speech is what happens when a short biography and a book review love each other very much. I think this is a particularly Australian thing (perhaps even an Adelaidean thing?) because a couple of good friends, who are Scottish and Irish writers now living here, are constantly bemused by how seriously Aussies take the launching of books. Apparently in the UK there’s a short speech about the writer and a few jokes but the hero of the event is the drinking. Over here, the running sheet reads more along the lines of
1. biographical introduction of author
2. analysis of text
It would be my task to tackle items 1 and 2 for the launch of Mike Ladd’s latest book Invisible Mending, published by Wakefield Press. Alright, I also ended up tackling item 3, but only after I survived the first two. The reason I was so terrified was that Mike had been my mentor and then friend for about five years and I’m still very much in awe of him as a writer and a person. So the pressure to do him and his work justice weighed heavily. I was horrified by the prospect of disappointing or embarrassing him to the degree that I found myself comprehensively blocked whenever I sat down to write the speech. Annoyingly, as soon as I stepped into my shower the words would start to flow and the perfect speech would pour through my mind. The minute I turned off the water, it was gone.
Which brings me to the morning of the launch, the unedited copy and the anxiety attack. While Andrew may not have had any beta-blockers, he did serve up a healthy dose of perspective. I’m paraphrasing, but it went along the lines of “get over yourself, Mike has done so much for you that you owe him a f*@&ing cracker of a speech, so just bloody do it.” Not a textbook treatment for anxiety but effective, as it turned out. I did get over myself, and later that afternoon in the gorgeous laneway beside Wakefield Press at Mile End I delivered my lovechild bio/analysis launch speech for Invisible Mending. It is a brilliant book so I’m pasting the text of my speech below in case it inspires you to read it. Which you should. The book, not the speech. Oh, go on. Read both.
Invisible Mending by Mike Ladd – the launch speech…..
Hello and thank you all so much for coming. It is my great pleasure and honour today to be launching the latest book by one of Australia’s most loved and lauded writers – Mike Ladd.
I’ve just used the label “writer” and while we are here to celebrate the launch of Mike’s ninth book, to call Mike a writer is to try to squeeze him into a box that doesn’t properly contain him. Don’t get me wrong, Mike is one of Australia’s most esteemed poets and you can find his work in just about every anthology of Australian poetry in existence. Mike started his career as a poet at seventeen and by 25 he published his first collection The Crack in the Crib.
Just as he was launching his literary career, he started work for the ABC in Adelaide as a sound engineer and by 1997 he’d worked his way up to creating and producing his own Radio National program, Poetica which ran for 18 years until 2015, when it was taken off the air much to the outrage of Australia’s literary community. Mike’s current role with Radio National is in the features and documentary unit but once again the box of documentarian doesn’t contain him either.
In the 80s Mike was a musician in the new wave band The Lounge and he frequently collaborates with musicians and artists, writing poetry for the screen and live performance with groups such as The Drum Poets, newaural net, and Max Mo. He writes, films and edits video poetry and I would recommend finding two of my favourites “Zoo After Dark” and “The Eye of the Day” on YouTube.
Most recently he and his partner the wonderful visual and installation artist Cathy Brooks have been running projects that put poems on street signs as public art and you can see their work in the Adelaide Bus Station and Tram Stop 6 on the line to Glenelg.
Now the reason I’ve gone on about Mike’s rich and varied creative career is that the book we are here for today, Invisible Mending, draws the many threads of his past work together. Invisible Mending is more than a poetry collection; it contains essays, creative non-fiction, personal vignettes and photographs. While on the surface this seems incredibly diverse it is a remarkably coherent meditation on themes of human impact on the natural world and how to mend the rents that grief, loss and change tear in our lives.
The book weaves together poetry and prose pieces, picking up and elaborating on themes that Mike has explored in past work; displacement and marginalisation from Picture’s Edge, family and suburbia from Close to Home, and politics and social injustice in Rooms and Sequences. However, the themes of his most recent works clearly still preoccupy him. Transit explored the compounding effect of momentous life events in the construction of identity and healing after loss is a thread that weaves its way through Invisible Mending. Mike also continues to draw on his deep cultural and ecological understanding of Adelaide that was so beautifully expressed in Karrawirra Parri. Environmental devastation, particularly human impact on our natural world is another of Mike’s ongoing preoccupations. With these themes in mind we can see his choice of title is perfect. It is taken from a line in the final piece, “A Country Wedding”, where Mike notices the landscape healing itself after the devastation wrought by flood. This book is an intensely personal account of healing after wreckage – both ecological and emotional.
To me, one of the most significant aspects of this book is that all these pieces are non-fiction. Mike is a documentarian and this book showcases his skill at observing subjects from different angles and digging at the surface until what lies beneath is revealed. The piece that best illustrates this is “Traffik” – a story set in Malaysia and Japan that resembles short fiction but is in fact drawn from real events. Mike produced this work of creative non-fiction from television and newspaper reports while he and Cath were in Malaysia and faced with the unavoidable evidence of deforestation and species loss as a result of the palm oil industry. But even so, the documentarian sees that not everything is black and white. At the heart of this piece is the understanding that emotional bonds can exist between species, and that as humans we do things, often inexcusable things for love and connection. While the ends don’t justify the means, those ends can be understandable, even beautiful. It is not easy, being human. Mike as documentarian observes and reports but does so with empathy and it is his ability to interweave reportage with compassion that makes this book both compelling and insightful.
I’d like to read you one of my favourite poems from the book now – “Travelling the Golden Highway, thinking of global warming” (page 25).
I read this to you not only an example of Mike’s brilliance as a poet, showing his mastery of minimalist style and his potent combination of natural and industrial imagery to powerful political effect. But to me this poem demonstrates how Mike, with so few words can embed us in an experience with him. We are there, both crammed into the backseat and crammed inside his head in that moment, thinking about the landscape and climate change. Again, Mike the documentarian is working with Mike the poet to translate his sensory experience of the world into such effective imagery that the reader is given an almost visceral understanding of being Mike Ladd at that point in time. It is this ability to transport us that also makes him a brilliant radio documentarian – in a world where sight is the prime sense he delivers stories that engage the mind by stimulating the minor senses, giving us access to experiences and situations that inspire and fascinate us, allow us to perceive the world differently, peel back layers and feel our way to understanding what lies behind the things we see.
There is so much to say and this book is so diverse yet so coherent I’m really struggling to make this concise so I’m just going to pick out one more thread from this book – a thread that runs through the whole collection – that of grief over the rents and losses that accrue throughout life and the ongoing work of mending to make oneself whole again. While the book moves geographically from Adelaide across Australian highways to the east coast then on to Malaysia, Sydney, South America, Spain and back to Australia the themes of family and loss travel with us – reinforcing that the things that make us and break us in life are inescapable – love and grief.
Mike introduces us to his father and the heartbreaking progress of his dementia in the book’s first section, which is grounded in Adelaide and family. We are in Malaysia with Mike as he is researching the Malaysian roots of the pantun form when he hears of the death of his father. Like the Malaysian journey, the essay on the pantun veers into the personal as grief overwhelms all else. “The Book of Hours at Rimbun Dahan” is one of the most moving pieces on grief I have read. Please read it. Then look up the award-winning video poem Eye of the Day on YouTube. It is a gorgeous combination of a selection of tunggal pantun, sound and film and an immersive illustration of the experience grief, regret and distance.
I’m going to read for you now “Winter Light” (page 40).
This book illuminates a writer’s commitment to the mending of grief, the work to close distances that gradually widen in families, the reclamation of lost histories, and the healing of land after centuries of abuse. We look at Mike and see the laid-back, generous, thoughtful man we think we know. But like all of us, this is just the coherent skin we show the world. Turn us inside out and you see all the darning, all the messy stitching holding us all together. And, to me, that’s what this book represents – these poems and stories, insights and observations – these words are all the stitches that hold Mike together. Turn him right side out and it’s Invisible Mending.
Congratulations Mike. It is truly brilliant work and I am honoured to declare Invisible Mending officially launched!