Much of the action and crime that I turned into poems for Newtown Voices came from news stories of the time —that is, they were real. To carry them I brought in four characters: Tom, the smartarse (know-it-all) journalist (‘reporter’, as we were called then);
Harry (Harriet), struggling artist, divorced young woman from Launceston, Tasmania;
Harry’s friend Buzz (Bridget), anarchist, social justice warrior (‘do-gooder’, ‘pain in the arse’), motor mechanic, lesbian.
Jaroslav: Harry’s Croatian friend (‘boyfriend’, Tom calls him disparagingly). Harry doesn’t realise Jaro is gay, and wishes he’d make a move on her.
All four represent parts of my personality, or of people I’ve known well.
Offstage is Rod, Harry’s ex, who we meet towards the end. Rod’s based on someone I knew, but I’ve exaggerated his personality (apologies to the original Rod.)
I used my people to comment on the real stories, as well as showing a bit of day-to-day life in Newie back in the 70s.
These are not inventions
[A word about ‘creative writing’: although these characters aren’t ‘real’, I did not make them up! I didn’t sit down with a notepad and list the types of people I needed:
- 1 lesbian
- 1 gay man
- 1 journalist
- 1 stand in for me.
The joy I’ve found in writing poetry and fiction is that I don’t need to invent characters. I might do some research later to get vital details right, but each one speaks to me — in my head — in their own distinctive voices. It’s as if they’ve been waiting for me to pay attention to them, and finally I’m listening.]
Now I’ve got the explanations out of the way,| I’ll focus on Harry.
Who is Harry?
It’s only at the end of the Voices that we learn Harry’s backstory and the pain she’s been carrying.
Harry is the character most like me, although physically she’s nothing like me: she’s tall and slim with striking red hair and green eyes. Like me, she left her home town and state after an unhappy event, and decided to try a new life in Newtown, Sydney. Like me, she loves the friendly feel and sense of community in ‘Newie’, the mix of people, the old buildings*, the little shops still operated by people who opened them after they arrived as immigrants in the 60s and 70s.
I came to Newie 20 years later, but all that was still waiting for me. Definitely daggy (Aussie slang for ‘scruffy’, ‘run-down’, ‘dirty’), it was a special place then, and while much changed now (‘gentrified’), it’s still a special place. My mentor, Montreal Poetry Prize winning poet Mark Tredinnick described Newtown Voices as “a memoir and a love ballad for a place and a time: Newtown, in the skirts of a city to which the wider world was arriving fast.”
So, for those who haven’t yet read the Voices and met my people, what can I tell you about Harry? A struggling artist, she has a flat above a shop in King Street,*
and teaches art two nights a week at WEA (Workers Education) to pay the rent.
In ‘At the WEA’, she says
I can’t believe I conned them
the staff at WEA, that I could teach as well
as paint. So let’s see how this works. Two
nights a week I teach people how to do what
I struggle to achieve the rest of my week—
create something good from my daily grind.
People who might have some talent (whatever
that means), or not. Either they’ve got something inside
and it’ll come out, or they haven’t.
I can’t bloody put into them
what they haven’t already got.
A new person in a new place trying to reinvent herself, Harry is lonely until she meets Jaro at Sydney’s Art Gallery of NSW, and Buzz at the WEA Christmas party. Jaro is gentle and courteous and rather reserved. Also trying to reinvent himself, he doesn’t give much away, but enjoys talking about Australian art with Harry.
Buzz is the complete opposite: full of fun and strong opinions. She and Harry have a drunken evening together and become friends. Harry often invites Buzz over for a meal, knowing that living in a squat makes it difficult for her to eat properly or to have a shower or wash her clothes. Harry cares about her friends.
Buzz introduces Harry to Tom at the disco. Tom is immediately attracted to her (once he realises Harry’s not ‘another lezzo’), and takes her to a swank Greek restaurant the following week. Harry likes the attention, but is cool about Tom because of his smartarse attitude. She goes with him a week later down to a daggy area in South King St to check out a little Greek café-milkbar that Tom suspects is a gambling den. There’s a bit of drama and blood is spilt (much to Tom’s satisfaction). Harry is distressed (also to Tom’s satisfaction).
We follow Harry and her relationships with Buzz, Jaro and Tom, and at the end, she and Jaro reveal the truths behind their griefs, and why each of them is living in Newie. Even though I wrote down their stories, I still get a bit teary, for they are still real to me, still living in my head.
* This block of shops built in 1902 on King Street is a photo I took in 2005, while I was living in Newie. The buildings are still there, (repainted), and like most of the others I photographed, are still in use. I pictured Harry’s flat being above one of these shops.
More about Jaro, Buzz and Tom in later posts.
You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices