We are in the heart of hipster land.
University of Newcastle creative writing lecturer Dr Keri Glastonbury and Tilly, her rescued greyhound, and I are sipping coffees outside in a back table near the laneway at Suspension Espresso, or Spenno’s as the sign behind the barista bar says.
Drinking coffee is a new experience for Glastonbury – she’s only been drinking for a month when we meet.
“I’m a total newbie to coffee,” she says when the subject of her favourite coffee cafe comes up. “A friend gave me a cup. I tried it years ago and came out in hives. So I tried it [this time], found a good boost of energy. So far, so good. I ordered my first cappuccino ever at the coffee cart at uni. I was thinking, ‘That person does not know those words have never come out of my mouth before’.”
There’s a solitary smoker on a bench in the laneway, a 30-something guy high on ice stumbles by while we are shooting photographs, soccer mums are chatting, others are browsing on their phones and laptops. It’s a sunny, winter day and nobody is in a hurry.
Glastonbury lives nearby, on Chin Chen Street, so this is a handy location to meet for a chat about her new book, Newcastle Sonnets, which contains 60 poems about her, her life, the world and, of course, Newcastle.
The book, roughly five years in the making, is a very specific, even idiosyncratic, view of one person’s life and interaction and feelings about Newcastle.
It’s definitely poetry, but not in any traditional sense.
“I”m really worried somebody is going to give it to their father for Father’s Day and they will go, ‘what the hell!’” she says near the end of our conversation.
The Newcastle reference points are clear, but they are not the usual suspects.
Like this bit from Goodbye to All That: The city’s lazily retooled past lives, a slurry of toxic carcinogens leaching from the gasworks hidden in full public view.
Or this line from Exit Note to Academia: The beaches have been closed for 7 days, though ol’ chompy hasn’t stopped Justin Norris surfing with his grommets.
Glastonbury makes reference to poet Ted Berrigan and his famous tribute to New York City, The Sonnets. The book was considered by critics to be Berrigan’s finest effort. The book jacket summarises it as such: Reflecting the new American sensibilities of the 1960s as well as timeless poetic themes, The Sonnets is both eclectic and classical - the poems are monumental riddles worth contemplating.
I’m always on the cusp of loving it, but never quite tip over. So it’s a deferred obsession, to fix it somehow, understand it, or relate to it as part of my life, so it’s like this algorithm that just kept going.Keri Glastonbury on Newcastle
The point is, Glastonbury, a relative newcomer to Newcastle, unconsciously was capturing her own view of the city in words, and eventually came to the realisation those words were a collection of poems that loosely all connected to one place – Newcastle.
“It just happened because I started grabbing conversations,” she says. “I was looking at Newcastle online … I’ve got this weirdly, deeply ambivalent relationship with Newcastle. That’s why I keep writing about it.
“I’m always on the cusp of loving it, but never quite tip over. So it’s a deferred obsession, to fix it somehow, understand it, or relate to it as part of my life, so it’s like this algorithm that just kept going.”
Her observations are keen, and unpredictable.
Like this one, from Unilaterally Head – – – – y: Finally went in to The Lucky the other day & was impressed with the bathroom sinks —even McCloy can do hipster better than me.
And this one from City of Moi-Meme: The penis tower smells of urine, as superphosphate wafts across the harbour.
Words are Glastonbury’s stock in trade. She supervises about a dozen students doing postgraduate studies in creative writing. She’s active in Newcastle’s burgeoning poetry scene. And for her, poetry is her language, her descriptor of the environment.
So her take on Newcastle comes from within her own powers.
Does an outsider have a different view of Newcastle than somebody who has lived here their whole life?
“I think of myself as an outsider. I’ve been here 12 years. I’m an outsider-slash-insider, so I’m on another cusp,” she says. “Then I thought, I kind of represent, in one sense, the gentrification of Newcastle.
“When I came here, I’d never had a job or mortgage or considered myself particularly, you know, a gentrifier. Then I came here and got a proper job at the uni, bought a shopfront in Islington.”
So as she slowly became a part of the city, it was changing as well.
“When I first got here, I could say, ‘oh my god, there’s hardly any cafes’ or ‘where do people eat here?’. But to the point now, in that slow way, it feels like, it really has changed.”
That change she speaks of is not just about the so-called hipster culture, but the whole city.
“These poems do come in on the last five years,” she says, “but yeah, there is that sense that it’s not just the small end of town and all the hipsters, but also the big end of town – property development and light rail.
“For ages, it was in the cracks and crevices – D-I-Y, artisan change. I still think quite different to Marrickville in Sydney, known as a particular hipster mecca, because a lot of the people here, they haven’t even been to Marrickville. Like it didn’t come from Sydney or Seattle. Sort of, it’s homegrown in a way and yet, totally global at the same time and recognisable.”
Sometimes, it’s not that easy for people living through a period of rapid change to realise what is going on. We live in an historic period of technological change and that can blur our sensibilities to our own environment.
But in Newcastle, the small changes are now equalled by the big changes.
”I was walking around the David Jones [demolition] site,” Glastonbury says. “They look like Roman ruins at the moment. It’s amazing.”
From Aboriginal days to penal settlement to now, slow change, but big change.
“I got a sense of deeper change cycle, a glimpse. The kind of a connection an urban ruin has,” she says.
Looking to the past, she would love to see the old Newcastle Post office building saved, perhaps serving as a beautiful culture centre.
But the Queens Wharf Tower, not the same.
“I’m in two minds,” she says. “Part of me thinks it is funny – don’t take away our jokes. But if it is stinking and dilapidated, there are more important things.”
The restoration of the Great Northern Hotel and the Victoria Theatre should be applauded, she says.
“My hope is these things really work. That we can still dream. That dreams come true.”
As for the light rail, she has one big worry: “it will be snaking along Hunter Street with no one on it, like a ghost train”.
On the bright side of light rail: “I hope they make it free. If they make it free, they have a chance. it doesn’t look like a commercially viable thing to me”.
While she knows she much more to discover, she’s found her own local gems, like the Awabakal bush trail near Dudley, and taking a beach walk from Blacksmiths to Nobbys, and swimming and people-watching at Newcastle Ocean Baths. She loves taking visitors to Carrington, and showing them the old train tracks and industrial buildings (“the place that time forgot”).
She thinks the obsession with the focus on renew Newcastle is unfair – knowing full well it has enjoyed a rich cultural history, especially its subculture.
“What I love about Newcastle is there are so many unexpected stories, utterly everywhere,” she says. She’s already working on a collaboration of a song cycle about the Castanet Club.
Her book includes references to Donald Trump and Jennifer Hawkins, Daniel Johns as well as Clive Palmer and Valerie Taylor.
It mentions Bonnells Bay, Cooranbong, Kurri, Lambton, Mooney Mooney and Tokyo.
It’s also got hookers and drugs and families and animals and girlfriends.
it is a truly a “pastiche” as she says, and bricolage, of people, places and culture.
But the book is not for everyone.
“I don’t want people to think it’s accessible,” she cautions of the book. “They will be confronted with experimental poetics. It is funny. Irreverent.
“Even putting Newcastle and sonnets together. You don’t think of Newcastle and sonnets in some ways.”
They are “vague cousins” of sonnets. With 14 lines, but no pentameter or syntax that matches any classical sonnet form.
But back to Newcastle and its future.
She’s got a healthy perspective on where it has been and where it is going.
“I do want good things for it. I do wish it well,” Glastonbury says.
“I don’t want it to be spoiled. But I don’t think it’s going to be. The pockets of resistance … there’s too much old school stuff. It’s never going to be a derivative city – it’s always going to be have something real about it.”
Newcastle Sonnets, by Dr Keri Glastonbury, was launched this week at The Lock-Up in Newcastle.