Berndt Sellheim is a poet, novelist and occasional academic. He has taught creative writing and poetics at UTS, and lectured in philosophy at Macquarie University, where he completed a doctorate in phenomenology in 2008. His academic research includes a year at the Husserl Archive and Paris4 Sorbonne. For six years Berndt curated The Loft Readings, a Sydney-based poetry series funded by the Australia Council for the Arts.
His work has been published in periodicals and collections such as Meanjin, Heat, Liminal Pleasures, Overland, Best Australian Poems, Cutwater, Eyeline Contemporary Arts Journal and the Journal for the British Society of Phenomenology. His first novel, Beyond the Frame’s Edge, was published by Harper Collins Fourth Estate in 2013. He has recently completed his first collection of poems. His second novel is due for publication in 2016.
Air of the post meridian. Air of post 9/11. The 288 pioneering West. She climbs the stairs in fearless mascara. Takes a bench across the isle. Scarlet hijab. Immaculate talons. Gripping the curved steel like an aircraft column. Set fixedly frontways. That’s destiny. That, and the mascara. It’s on every screen, a line up for the cops: be alert not alarmed. Ring, buzz, run like mad. It’s in the way people. Move. Shuffling. Part.dematerialised. And a whirr running in the back ground when the quite creeps up, muffled turbines like jet in taxi, pilot dosed on fluoxetine, feeling the sediment of coal dust and soot, what settles after all that burning oil, federal communiqués lining up Fahrenheit 451 and up through the windshield the pit’s gone mechanised: shuffling metal, grayscales above the wiperline in streaks and smears across the freeway’s arc: bitumen, grit, the intersecting directives of signals.code.traffic driveways and industrial estates. So you see it right then. Written. Flashing: in.out: like a language only more. Real. Her. You. Transport technology in the age of terror. It’s there behind the noise-flack, the spectrum shift of the LEDs, bus shelter billboards, crinkle-cut immortality: Buy this affordable dream. Just there: current running the edges of the power polls, the wires, like the whole lot’s about to go on up, go phlogiston, turn to stars, flogging shrapnel out all along the parade
Hillsong and Paradise Found, the anglican lustre of cream-puff bricks a shade of revisionist 1972, Woodstockless and proud and thoroughly blue chip. The crucifix is galvanised angle iron that will outlast creation, a steel crosshair ++ this spot ++ Bam! And: God. Rains. Down. And just like that you’ve sundered the veil of man and maker. Al Hijab. The blue’s mirror. Not camels and needles, mind, not the prophet. It’s the cloudless beauty of well-trimmed lawn, tennis court, pool, directives on where to eat, where to shop; you’re in The Hills now, son, talk about the war until your myocardium quits but don’t fraternise with the Arabs. And for that the weirdos. Jews. Faggots too, unless they’re decorating on TV. Watch yourself, but only via government sanctioned transmissions. Sunday past, the mission boys wired an Emo kid to the sub-station fence. Ankles and wrists. Eyes and tongue. But check out that omelette! For every pool fence: you gotta get behind that kind of practical infrastructure; I mean, what a place to eat your ice cream: I mean, seven bedrooms!? I mean, with space like that she could really push some puppies. We pass a stack of transformers squared off in chainlink with the sign out front: First National – Under Offer – And it’s right then that the blue goes viral. I’m half out of my seat but my legs won’t work. Eyes gone strabismus, so you’re split in two. Someone, anyone, just hit the fucking button. Do the business. Drag the asphalt with an anchor. Tie off the fucking chain. A ballast. A building. A mooring. A dock. Tie a fridge with a length of rope. An engine block, a razor, Jesus, anything. Carve an S.O.S into the seat up front. Cut it deep into the vinyl. Coordinates for geo-location. An EPIRB. A name. So when we come to we remember the who/what/where we am
You can not see your heart. You trust to its knowing. What it does with blood. What it does with rupture. It’s the mind that loves to travel and the mind you trust the least. And so streaking south over stadiums and beer, V8s blazing Aussie Pride, evolutionary gridworks. Astral. Gone. And maybe it’s the cigarettes and maybe it’s the pills, the carbon cloud or diesel fumes, but you got a sweat on you that’s riding up the gills. Skin’s come fluorocarbon. Someone has to steer this thing back into the dock. Loop the loop, tie it off: I’ve got a slipknot but I’m half on the floor. The driver, two school prats angling their suits, the Arabic chick plotting death. They know we’ve broken with the code: even she can see it. Seeing something, saying something. We’ll get reported. Deported. Dried out, ground up, snorted. Not just: insomnia. Not just: you’re a mess. More: the CV pinned to my jacket pocket has a name in bold and blank below the line. Like: this body/person/puppet, these eyes staring out/locked in; like: we see it, you; if I spoke you could if I ___ you/we/I might slip the circuit, shed our lonesome skins. And what’s left but to step down to that acre of highway, into the smoke of nowhere, the stationary people in the stationary air, that dream conjured by the afternoon pyre. Just stand and wait for the bus to anywhere. Everywhere but. And whoosh, here it comes. Step on up, baby, step on up. Cos if love’s alive on this rout, it’s probably spinning pirouettes at Macquarie on the icerink, or lost and wondering somewhere between McDonalds and the lingerie department: amaranthine hair, skirt half there, a tangerine dream and screw off stare. And all of us, all of us, sat down frontways, waiting for the change that shakes us back into the pother, back into that world. All of us. Frontways. Metropolis or bust. Holding tight. Shuddering we merge into the future.
Who are you reading now and why do they turn you on?
I’m halfway through Feinstein’s biography of Neruda, which is fascinating not only for the portrait it paints of the Chilean, and the incredible life from which his work is formed, with all its poverty and polyamorous shenanigans, but also for the account it gives of the rivalries and personal attacks of the Latin American poetry scene; rivalries that, so it seems, characterise literary and artistic communities everywhere.
I’m also re-reading pretty much everything Martin Harrison published, and finding so much in it: the later work in particular is startling – so simple on the surface, so direct, yet precise, evocative, and highly aware of how it is located historically, of where he is writing from, of the environment, both natural and cultural, he is writing within. I just got a copy of Michael Farrell’s Cockey’s Joy the other day, which is wonderful, with such lightness, the way he bounces the poem from one point to the next, yet always holding it all together. I think it’s my favourite of his books so far – there’s this enormous originality, freedom and playfulness in his formal experiments.
Fiction-wise, I just started Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist. DeLillo is very much a poet’s novelist, with his keen attention to rhythm, to phrasing’s internal music, not to mention the background of philosophical engagement. The ultra-close of rendering of perceptual and conscious states he offers in The Body Artist is unusual for fiction – the time and attention he gives it runs closer to poetry’s normal preoccupations. Otherwise, there’s the usual rotating stack of poetry books beside the bed, currently composed of Michael Palmer, Frank O’Hara, Jennifer Compton’s Now You Shall Know, and the latest Rabbit poetry journal.
How often do you write? Do you have a writing practice?
I’m happiest when I’m writing every day. If I’m not teaching or otherwise committed, I take care of any urgent admin first thing, then write through until lunch. If I can get a solid morning’s writing in, I can really stay in the work and keep it moving forward. I tend to work on other things in the afternoon – we live in the bush, in the Blue Mountains, so there’s always a lot of physical work to do, and I like the contrast between a morning’s writing and an afternoon fencing or working with timber or fixing up one of our old caravans. That’s the ideal at least… we travel quite a bit, and we have a four-year-old girl, so more often than not I’m stealing hours wherever I can. This works better for poetry than it does for prose, which, for me at least, needs routine, daily time at the desk, to build up the necessary head of steam. With a novel, I need to have a sense of the whole as I work on the particulars, and this only comes from staying ‘in’ the book. If I’m really in a manuscript, I’ll work on it obsessively, and I’ll be able to snatch stray minutes whenever they present themselves.
When you think of Australian poetry, do you see an elephant in the room? If so, what is it?
I don’t see any elephants. Of course there are the usual rivalries, occasional hatreds, bitterness, the odd nutjob and the so-called ‘poetry wars’, but I don’t see these things as definitive of what’s happening in Australian poetry – they’re just the usual argy-bargy of cultural production, replicated the world over. It seems to me, in fact, that we have a pretty positive scene here, and for the most part I’ve found it to be inclusive, deeply engaged with theory as well as poetic practice, and producing some world-class work with a broad range of perspectives.
Poetry in this country offers a strong challenge to the myth of Anglo-Christian exceptionalism as national foundation, both from Indigenous writers, who are well represented in Australian poetics, to a broad range of other local and immigrant voices. There are those who have their predilections, who are interested in defining poetry within a narrow field, be it a vision of formal conservatism, perhaps locked within those national myths, or even through some kind of experimental imperative, but for the greater part I see these disagreements as normal, even healthy. After all, we argue about the things we value, even if this means that when poetry does make the papers, what is emphasised is some minor spat. But this says more about journalism than it does about poetry. More importantly, it seems to me that the vast majority of poets are engaged with work from across the spectrum, and a broad variety of work is being published here.
Links to other works
‘To dust’ – Cordite (poem)