Posts by Melissa Watts

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They Are Us

I’ve just had the most amazing poetry experience with the They Are Us ekphrastic poetry project. It was the second project between Words out Loud and the Soldiers Hill Artists Collective, the first one being the Weathering the Future exhibition that I was also involved with.

We Are One, Abigail Robertson, 2019

This time around things were a little bit different. The poets wrote their pieces first – they needed to be 12 lines and on the theme ‘They are Us’. At the time I was battling through the PhD, my mind was in the 1940s and 1970s, and initially I had no idea what to write about. Eventually a few seeds grew. I was interested in the idea of the force of weather and how, in the face of storm and fire, humans are no more able to control nature than animals are (climate change aside of course, just from a day to day perspective). I ended up trying to capture the moment of an eye catch, between a human mother and a kangaroo mother as they try to protect an offspring in a bushfire. At the heart of it is essentially the fight for survival. But the work, titled Mother’s Day also plays to themes of motherhood and the physical elements of ‘They are Us’ between mother and child. I wrote my 12 lines and sent the work off in May, 2019.

We then found out that the exhibition wouldn’t launch until February 2020, and I do recall scoffing at the idea that the artists were given months to produce a work, while the poets were given a few weeks. I usually like to sit on my poems for a while, take a break from them and come back with fresh eyes but the timeline didn’t allow this and I was nervous about the quality of the poem without the chance to rest it. (There are actually a few things I’d change if I had my time again)

What I also didn’t take into account was that an Australian summer would fall between the writing and the public reading of the poem. Of course the summer of bushfires that occurred over 2019/2020 was horrific, and with my mind focusing on that I’d really forgotten all about my 12 lines of fictional poetry. To be honest I didn’t even re-read the poem until I was at the opening night of the exhibition, and I was blown away by the art work that had been created.

We Are One, Abigail Robertson, 2019

Abigail Robertson had crafted an amazing bronze sculpture from her interpretation of my words. My quickly swept lines, easily forgotten, had been modelled into bronze. And after the summer that had been, the loss of life, of homes, of livelihood and of wildlife the sculpture and the poem together created such an impact. I cried when I saw Abigail’s work, and she cried when she saw me crying. We discussed motherhood, which was how she connected with the work. She explained to me how she had made the sculpture, the detail that was involved and I nodded along pretending that I hadn’t had a tantrum about the level of time the artists had taken to create their work. She introduced me to her best friend and they told me a story – her friend had seen the statue and decided that it looked like a trophy that a mother would get for Mother’s Day. Abigail had been amazed, because her friend had not read the poem, and didn’t know that it was called Mother’s Day. I love that idea. And that night I bought the sculpture, and every year on Mother’s Day I plan to hold it high over my head!

We Are One, Abigail Robertson, 2019

I was really blown away with the process and the idea of another creative soul taking the time with my words (longer than I had) to create something so beautiful and so lasting. Words are ephemeral in many ways, and seeing them interpreted into bronze was an amazing experience and one that I will treasure. My kids didn’t really like my poem but they think that the sculpture is amazing.

The exhibition ended early due to Covid19 restrictions. When I went along to collect the piece I bought home the nameplate and I now have the mounted poem as well. So for a little bit of isolation fun I’ve arranged them in my house like they are still on display (I won’t be leaving them like this but I needed something fun to do!)

We Are One, Abigail Robertson, 2019
Mother’s Day, Melissa Watts, 2019
Abigail Robertson (Left) and I at the launch.
They Are Us

Latest Poetry Project

In 2018 I was involved in an ekphrastic poetry project, a result of a partnership between Words out Loud and the Soldiers Hill Artists Collective.

Last year I was approached to be part of a new collaboration – this time to write a poem to the theme of ‘they are us’, and the artwork would be created in a response to our poems. I’ve never done an ekphrastic project this way (and I’ve done a few) so of course I was up for the challenge. I’ve submitted my poem, the artwork has been created and the project is about to launch. I’ve been paired with the talented Abigail Robertson, I have no clue what she will make of my words, but I can’t bloody wait, because everything I’ve seen of her’s is brilliant!

The exhibition runs from February 24 to April 5.

Please come along to the launch if you are in Ballarat:

The Lounge Gallery, Billy’s Bar, at the Mercure at 613 Main Rd, Ballarat, on Thursday February 27 at 6.30pm.

City of Ballarat’s deputy mayor, Cr Belinda Coates, opening the exhibition and Reuben Morgan, who composed a musical piece for Weathering the Future in 2018, has again written a bespoke theme piece and will perform it on the night.

Drink and nibbles supplied. No RSVP needed.

Spread the word, all welcome. There is a Facebook event for those who use facebook or just be like me and use a pen to write it in your paper diary. See you there, I’ll be the short red-head trying to lose her shit when I see the artwork!

Finding Eliza

It’s been a while since I blogged so I thought it would be fitting to begin back with a post on Finding Eliza by Heather Whitford Roche.

Finding Eliza is set in 1921 and tells the story of a young man, Knill, and his journey to find his true identity. It’s a story of belonging and family, of responsibility and social mores. It is also strongly about connection to place. In fact the novel is vivid in its sense of place. I will avoid spoilers but as Knill journeys mentally and emotionally he also journeys physically. In each new environment Heather crafts locations that are evocative and clear, that nurture a contemporary reader through the locations of the past. Sometimes when reading historical fiction I find a wedge between myself and the ‘place’ of the novel. Sometimes I feel like an author has dedicated so much effort to ensure that readers connect with their characters that I feel like I am walking through a dimly lit room. While I’m holding the hand of a character I want to see the space clearly, to see the moment in time and what life was like then, but it is missed. This is not the case in Finding Eliza. Each location that Knill finds himself in is evocative making the book a joy to read.

Knill is a delightful protagonist. I enjoyed working through the doubts, frustrations and excitements with him, especially through moments where he challenges himself. The cast of friends around him are equally as infectious and well written.

I must confess to being biased in my reading. Years ago (pre-kids when I had a thing called ‘spare-time’) I used to workshop with Heather. I loved reading the early passages of Knill’s adventures each month, just as I enjoyed receiving Heather’s feedback which was always knowledgeable. So to finally hold in my hand the outcome of all of those years of workshopping was inspiring. All the writers who sat around that table were fantastic writers and I hope their work is published soon as well. Being part of a writing community has some wonderful benefits and seeing your friends publish something that they have worked on for so long is a great feeling. Congratulations to Heather on such a brilliant book.

Heather Whitford Roche, Finding Eliza. 2018, Allandow Press.

Latest Project

My latest project is about to launch at the Backspace Gallery this weekend.

Jason Nahrung and Kirstyn McDermott are curating an amazing exhibition Weathering the Future.

In their words the project works with the Soldiers Hill Artist Collective, Central Highlands writers, and third-year communication design students from Federation University Australia’s Arts Academy.

The project is a dual ekphrastic process in which the artists of SHAC will respond to the theme of “Weathering the Future”, looking at the hurdles and innovations we face at the beginning of the Anthropocene. Writers at various stages of career will respond to those artworks in flash fiction and poetry. Those written works will be embodied in text art by the Arts Academy students. All will be presented at an exhibit at Ballarat’s Backspace Gallery, in Camp St, in December 2018.

My project can be viewed or listened to here.

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Reading wrap up

I can’t believe that it has been so long since my last blog post.

Over the last few years I’ve been caught up in all that a PhD demands, started a small business with my partner and welcomed a baby daughter into the world. I took a break in 2017 to focus on my family (newborn, 3 yo and 5 yo) and now I’m back at the writing desk focused on my PhD novel (well, part-time anyway).

As a result I’m finding some brilliant novels, articles, podcasts and general miscellany that I’d love to start sharing.

Novels:

I’ve recently read a few novels which would likely be branded romance, although I read them for their historical elements mainly their settings in WWII. The first was Elise McCune’s Castle of Dreams (Allen & Unwin, 2016). I met Elise at last years Historical Novel Association of Australia Conference and she was so open with her advice and encouragement on writing in a WWII setting. Her novel is a tale of family secrets but if there was one thing I took away from the novel it was the enduring sense of place that she crafted. Elise’s novel was partly set in a castle – Paronella Park, 120 kms south of Cairns. Throughout the novel is a sense of magic, other-worldliness, that surrounds the castle and its eventual decay. The women I am researching worked in a mansion so I enjoyed how Elise crafted the castle almost as a character.

The second is Anita Heiss’ Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms (Simon & Schuster 2017). Again this novel is more than a romance, it is a work of historical fiction that centres on the Cowra POW breakout, the Erambie Station and merges an unlikely relationship between the families on an Aboriginal Mission and an escaped Japanese POW. Again I read this book selfishly – I’m currently reaching WWII Italian interns and Indigenous members of the AWAS (Australian Women’s Army Service) so it interested me on two levels. What I took from this book was the way that Heiss was able to include well researched historical fact into the novel without the reader feeling lectured. I came away feeling like I too had been welcomed into the family by Banjo, his wife and daughter, and like Hiroshi I was learning what it was like to live at Erambie in 1944.

Articles:

A few years ago I gave a talk at the Australian Historical Association Conference titled ‘Fast Women or an Essential Service?’ which looked at the representation of women in the services during WWII. In January Danielle Broadhurst published an article on Vida – The Australian Women’s History Network blog, titled ‘Khaki-mad’: The gendered approach to venereal disease in World War Two – You don’t need to be into venereal diseases to enjoy reading it, it’s a really well researched insight into gendered approaches to health and the war effort.

Little Gems:

I’ve listed below a few things I’ve come across in my procrastination research that made me smile/grit teeth or anything in between.

 

Podcasts:

I know I’m slow to the game but life with a newborn has been so much nicer with podcasts. One of my favourites that I’ve been listening to is The Slow Home podcast. I’m attempting to transition into slow living and minimalism and this podcast has a great mix of academic theory with practical examples for living a slow life. Plus I enjoy the mix of Australian and International guests. It’s worth a listen for anyone trying to slow down and focus on what is important in life.

 

Deborah Burrows – A Time of Secrets

On reading selfishly.
 Secrets
I’ve just finished reading Deborah Burrows’ A Time of Secretsa novel that I picked up because…well…the cover caught my eye. So yes, I did judge a book by it’s cover, but for very good reason. The woman on the cover is wearing a WWII era AWAS (Australian Women’s Army Service) uniform and I am currently working on a PhD which will be a novel and exegesis focusing on some AWAS members. So of course I plucked the book off the shelf and added it to my ever growing ‘to read’ pile. At this stage of my PhD the majority of my reading has been non-fiction so it was wonderful to come across a novel set in the same era with similar themes.
A Time of Secrets is set in 1943 in Melbourne, with protagonist Stella Aldridge who is an AWAS sergeant working in the Australian Intelligence Bureau. Stella has two important mysteries to solve –  In chapter one she overhears some soldiers discussing a plot for a revenge killing which she determines to investigate, and then her work leads her to another mystery – who is leaking information from the Intelligence Bureau to the enemy? Weaved around these two key plots is romance, murder and the ongoing sense of good-guy/bad-guy with the reader constantly switching loyalties between Stella’s friends and love interests as more secrets are exposed.
This novel was a chance for me to read selfishly. While I read historical fiction quite widely and always take note of how research is woven into the text, I haven’t read any books that draws from the same (or similar) pool of research documents. The women I will be focusing on worked in the Survey Corps in Bendigo, so while there is a big difference in our plots and characterisations it was great to absorb the general mise en scene of WWII Melbourne – the rations, the music and of course, the Americans.
It also got me thinking about the publishing trends for a novel of this type. I’ve been lamenting the lack of representation of women’s war experience in Australia, in both popular culture and formal histories (by ‘lack’ I don’t mean that there is no representation, I just mean that it is minimal – but that’s a post for another time). So it was great to see that there was some shelf space for a novel like this and gave me some hope that mine might also find some space there one day.
Deborah Burrows, A Time of Secrets, Pan Macmillan Australia. 2015.

Southern Cross Literary Competition

Old habits die hard.

I’m no longer the Publicity Office at Ballarat Writers but I still feel the need to remind everyone of the upcoming Southern Cross Literary Prize because it’s a great prize.

The competition is open for short stories to 3000 words, and has an open theme. This year’s judge is Tony Birch. The prize is $1,500 AUD plus there will be two highly commended stories.

Entry is $20 per story. The winning stories will be announced and read at an award presentation in Ballarat in November 2015. The full results and judge’s report will be published on this website in December 2015.

See Ballarat Writers for more information.

Scrivener Advice

Are there any Scrivener users who read this blog? I’m after some advice.

I am up to draft 5 on my novel, making changes post manuscript assessment. I am wondering if it is too late to start using Scrivener? I need to work on characterisation, add extra scenes and get an overview of if the structure is working.

I’m keen to use Scrivener to draft my novel for my PhD which I will start soon, but thought I might also use it for the redrafting. My main concern is that I might take ages to import the novel, get to know the system etc, when my excel spreadsheet I currently use seems to work well enough…or does it? Will I be blown away by the functionality of Scrivener never to return to the dark side of excel again?

I’m interested in any opinions.

Thanks writers.

Nillumbik Ekphrasis Poetry Award 2015

Last month a poem I wrote for the Nillumbik Shire Council ekphrastic poetry award was judged ‘highly commended’.

I wrote a poem, How to paint a sigh, in response to an untitled landscape by David Moore. All the winning and highly commended poems have been published onto postcards and can be found at various locations around the Nillumbik area. They are also available online with the judge’s report. I recommend that you read the judges report if you are thinking of entering next year, it’s a great resource. This year’s judges were Helen Lucas, Steve Smart and Karen Throssell. Their comments were:

I loved the title of this poem from the start – how does artist evoke a sigh? Both artist and poet create a wonderful serenity; the poet develops this by references to the senses, imagining the soft sound of the artist’s brush on canvas, the scent of the eucalypts. This work is an excellent example of an ekphrastic response.

Copy of Nillumbik S.C. Postcard via file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/Ekphrasis_2015_DL_postcard.pdf

Copy of Nillumbik S.C. Postcard via file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/Ekphrasis_2015_DL_postcard.pdf

The awards evening was beautifully run. There was a small gallery of the work which was a great opportunity for some of the writers to see the art works for the first time (most of us viewed the works online). All of the poems were read by actress Debra Lawrance (Home and Away, Please Like Me) with images of the artwork projected behind. The awards were presented by Nillumbik Shire Council Mayor Cr Helen Coleman.

Melissa Watts with CR Helen Coleman. Photo via Nillumbik Shire Council.

Melissa Watts with CR Helen Coleman. Photo via Nillumbik Shire Council.

This was such a shock, and a great boost to my confidence, given that I have had a ten year gap in writing poetry and only took it back up for the Ballarat Writers ekphrastic poetry projects. (In fact when they first started I opened the opportunity to submit vignettes as well as I was too nervous to write poetry.)

The night was a bitter-sweet night for me, I kept thoughts of my fellow Ballarat Writers ekphrastic poet Pamela Miller close by. Pamela had passed away earlier that week, she was such a great writer and participant in all of the Ballarat Writers ekphrasis projects.

Melissa Watts with artwork - David Moore, Untitled. Photo via Nillumbik Shire Council.

Melissa Watts with artwork – David Moore, Untitled. Photo via Nillumbik Shire Council.

The competition is open each year to writers all over Australia so keep your eyes peeled for next year.

Nillumbik Ekphrasis Poetry Award Ceremony 2015: Melissa Watts (commended), Lyn Chatham (2nd Prize), Sandra Renew (commended), David Kelly (commended), Jo Wilson Ridley (commended), Helen Bradwell (3rd prize), Helen Lucas (judge), Mayor Cr Helen Coleman, Steve Smart (judge), Karen Throssell (judge), Debra Lawrance (special guest reader). Photo via Nillumbik Shire Council.

Nillumbik Ekphrasis Poetry Award Ceremony 2015: Melissa Watts (commended), Lyn Chatham (2nd Prize), Sandra Renew (commended), David Kelly (commended), Jo Wilson Ridley (commended), Helen Bradwell (3rd prize), Helen Lucas (judge), Mayor Cr Helen Coleman, Steve Smart (judge), Karen Throssell (judge), Debra Lawrance (special guest reader). Photo via Nillumbik Shire Council.