As Writers Week kicks off it gives me great pleasure to introduce literary critic Elizabeth Lewis whose beautifully crafted words about poetry and literature are greatly appreciated here at Noted. 

Perth Festival Writer’s Week: The Poets Speak

Centre for Stories, Northbridge

Review: Elizabeth Lewis

Charlotte Guest is fresh-faced and poised. Shevaun Cooley sits relaxed and thoughtful. Both are self-assured and expressive when asked by facilitator Robert Wood about the parallels between emergent feminist poems and eco-poetics. It is a night of comparisons.

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Charlotte Guest, Robert Wood and Shevaun Cooley. Photo Elizabeth Lewis

We are seated in the Centre for Stories in Northbridge. The natural light, indoor plants, Scandi-style wood furniture and neatly shelved books combine to create a heritage meets hip minimalist vibe that feels spacious and welcoming.

The poets are introduced as the cat-lover and the rock-climber. Guest (who has a surprising lack of fur on her embroidered cardigan) shares of her pre-writing career love of sports, climbing trees and collecting tadpoles.

“I recreated the Faraway Tree in my family garden… like most ‘only’ children find their own playmates in imaginary worlds.”

Tadpole collecting moved on to crafting, sketching, keeping diaries and a fascination with the workings of memory. Diarising evolved into poetry as a creative outlet.

In her debut collection Soap (Recent Work Press) Guest’s poetry explores the liminal space between adolescence and womanhood and is self-described as a feminist collection. It is unabashed, conveys the tenuous truce between innocence and maturity and is sensual in the richness of the words chosen to describe everyday occurrences.

“…Open your mouth, your mouth of

fat stories carried off on

someone else’s lips…

…your mouth of your eyes,

your mouth of eighty years,

that reeks of love.” (Nanna, Kalamunda)

Guest admits her poetry has more feeling than theory behind it, however, for a first collection there is no whiff of the amateur. She lists poetic influences with enthusiasm (Tracy K Smith, Emily Stewart, Allison Whitaker, Hera Lindsay Bird) and despite feeling sheepish about the prevalence of free verse over traditional forms her poems demonstrate a thoughtfulness of structure that revels in the precise placement of words and spaces to achieve a narrative simplicity that surprises the reader with meaning.

Shevaun Cooley is a fan of Raymond Carver.

“I read poetry. I loved poetry. I had no idea it was something I could do. It came down to reading the right poets. Raymond Carver gave me a lot of ways to get into a poem. Like talking about the day.”

Cooley reads Sea-Watching by Welsh poet and priest, RS Thomas. Her voice is resonant, her syllables and consonants clipped and clear. An easy echo to lean in to. Each poem in her collection is named for a line of a Thomas poem, such is his influence.

Cooley’s collection Homing (Giramondo Publishing) is set between hard-to-reach-and-hard-to-pronounce islands off Augusta, Western Australia and Northern Wales, both of which “felt like home”.

“Like most humans you think you’ve navigated home…but you’re not sure. The landscapes we grow up in are formative of us. The landscape can teach us about who we are”.

Robert Wood describes Cooley’s poetry as Australian gothic which she nods at but insists “I’m a more playful person than the poems suggest, it’s in the puns!” She clarifies, “This book is full of longing”. Homing is also full of rhythmic, well weighted lines that inspire a thoughtful breath before applause.

Cooley is a storyteller, she achieves a balance of research and feeling without patronising the reader. Her poem the bone the island is prefaced by a brief historical note that sets the tone “[11th February, 1945, 10:15pm: 11 miles due south of Cape Leeuwin, N Class Destroyer HMAS Nizam was hit broadside by a large wave. 10 men were swept overboard, and never found.]”

                “as when the albatross takes up the ballast

                stone and heaves it downward to break open

 a hard mollusc; then plucks up the stone

                and begins again

 it can’t cry with a stone in its mouth

 it will do this until the light dies” (the bone the island)

Both Guest and Cooley indicate a desire for a more direct connection between reader and poem. Layers of meaning don’t exclude non-poets, there are no obscure Latin quotes without explanation. Robert Wood asks good questions, making the poetry accessible to the audience and creating cohesiveness between the two very different collections. My only disappointment is that the collections are not available for purchase. Writers really are their own worst salespeople. I’m off to Boffins. Luckily, after tonight, it’s worth the trip.

The Writer’s Weekend will festure Charlotte Guest at  A Gala For Fay Zwicky and Shevaun Cooley at Homing. Both authors will be reading their work at Poetry Land II.


Elizabeth Lewis is a published poet living in Perth, WA. She teaches poetry workshops on ‘Writing your Stories into Poems’ in community and professional spaces. Elizabeth is the chairperson of Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in Greenmount and is passionate about connecting and promoting local writers and artists.