Jordie Albiston 1961- 2022
Jordie Albiston reading from The Hanging of Jean Lee
Melbourne-based poet Jordie Albiston has died, aged 60.
Born and raised in Melbourne, Victoria, Albiston studied music at the Victorian College of the Arts and received a Doctorate in English from La Trobe University. With a career spanning over 25 years, Albiston was the author of 17 books.
Her first poetry collection Nervous Arcs (Spinifex) won the Mary Gilmore Award, and her fourth The Sonnet According to M (John Leonard Press) was awarded the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry at the 2010 NSW Premierís Literary Awards. In 2019, Albiston won the Patrick White Award for her contribution to Australian literature.
Albiston was a finalist for the 2021 Melbourne Prize for Literature, and her most recent collection Fifteeners (Puncher & Wattmann), posthumously won the John Bray Poetry Award in the 2022 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature.
Puncher & Wattmann publisher David Musgrave writes:
ĎJordie Albiston, who died suddenly at the age of 60 on February 28, will be remembered as one of Australiaís great poets. During her career she published 13 poetry collections, three poetry collections for children and a poetry textbook, which is widely used.
ĎShe pioneered the documentary form in Australian poetry with Botany Bay Document (1996) and The Hanging of Jean Lee (1998). Her landmark collection The Fall (2003) established her as a poet with a wide range, and also showcased her deep interest in form. This was furthered in virtuosic manner in Vertigo: A Cantata (2007), which was informed by her accomplished musicianship (Jordie studied at The Victorian College of the Arts, specialising in flute) in a highly innovative way, and The Sonnet According to M (2009), in which her interest in the sonnet form was played out to a highly inventive degree. Her work was bold, brave, and continually broke new ground, often in playful ways, but always brilliant.
ĎShe was a modest and unassuming person and was deeply uncomfortable being the centre of attention, completely withdrawing from public events in the last few years. She was deeply generous to other poetsí work and was a mentor to, and supporter of, many emerging poets. Her Selected Poems will be published by Puncher & Wattmann later this year and will include poems from the several manuscripts she was working on at the time of her death. She is survived by her husband Andy, children Jess and Caleb, and their partners and grandchildren.í
Poet and critic Thuy On of ArtsHub writes:
ĎShe was a disciplinarian in her craft, an elegant classicist who nonetheless knew how to bend and break the many constricting rules of rhyme, metre and line space for resonance and impact. Throughout her entire oeuvre, the reader bears witness to Albistonís nuance and sensitivity and sees how her musical background reveals itself in cadenced lyrics. Her flair for experimentation meant that no new book resembled the previous effort.
ĎThrough her biographical narrative pieces, Albiston touched upon historical events, re-imagining the stories of the last woman hanged in Victoria, the women settlers of Port Jackson and Botany Bay, WWI soldiers in Victoria and an Antarctic adventurer. But Albiston also looked inwardly and reflected upon perennial, evergreen themes of domesticity, desire, and loss set in contemporary times.
ĎHer febrile interest in mathematics and chemistry meant that her poetry was often exacting in its form. As for their contentsóitís impossible to pin down her interests. How can one do that for a poet who roamed so freely? Who else but Albiston could harness the periodic table as a trope to explore the fundamentals of love?
ĎAside from her plying her writing skills, Albiston was also a manuscript assessor, proof-reader, editor and mentor. Thereís been a chorus from fellow poets on social media lauding her work and from others whose careers she has nurtured over the years.í
Jordie Albiston has published seven collections of poetry, her first being Nervous Arcs (Spinifex, 1995) [Co-published alongside Diane Faheyís The Body in Time], winner of the Mary Gilmore Award, My Secret Life (Picaro Press, 2002), The Fall (White Crane Press, 2003), Vertigo: A Cantata (John Leonard Press, 2007) and the sonnet according to Ďmí (John Leonard Press, 2009). She was shortlisted for the Victorian Premierís Literary Awards and the C.J. Dennis Prize for Poetry in 2003 and for the New South Wales Premierís Literary Awards and the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry in 2004. She was joint winner of the Wesley Michel Wright Award in 1991, and has also won the Dinny OíHearn Memorial Fellowship. She has a PhD in Literature, enjoys cooking, being in the ocean, and long walks with her dog, Jack.
Interview with Jordie Albiston
Famous Reporter, No. 24, December 2001
KM : You once wrote an article that, in part, responded to a young reader who had asked you why you Ďnever write poetry about yourselfí; at the same time, I remember Dorothy Porter once referred to her verse novel Akhenaten as her most autobiographical work. Do you feel that in working with the structure of other peopleís stories, specifically in your last two books, it is easier to take risks, or write personally?
JA : Well, Iím going to have to
Dorothy, because I donít often write about my own life as
such - you know, ĎI
went to the shops, ran into Kate, etc...í For me, those last
two books are
about me as much as theyíre about the subject at hand: I see
it as a question
of metaphoricity, and in the case of a full-length book concerning one
event or theme, the metaphor is simply extended. Itís the
same principle as
writing a metaphor of self into one poem or one single image, but
How did you come to choose those
I was originally going to concentrate
my doctorate on the first fifty years of white settlement at
Obviously you have an academic
background - you say that you didnít consider it much of a
leap from your PhD
to a book of poetry. How does your academic background inform your work?
I think studying has given me a sense
of discipline and precision as a writer. When I sit down to write
disciplined: I turn the computer on, take the phone off the hook, shut
curtains, and focus. I didnít used to be such a focussed
person... Also, in the
academic world, you canít afford to make many mistakes as
such, or write
assumptions into your work: everything has to be checked. You have to
retain the spelling of a particular name, or what year such-and-such
or was said, or written. You have to. And hopefully that precision
into the poems. Academia also taught me how to research: where to
begin, how to
go about it.
Recently your work has begun to take
off in different directions from your last two books - last year there
one-woman show of The
Hanging of Jean Lee at La Mama, and now
both Botany Bay Document and
The Hanging of Jean Lee are
being written as operas. How do you feel about the fact that your work
taken to different audiences in this way?
Well - this is a difficult question,
because youíre one of the composers! Any artistic act that
evolves from some
writing Iíve done has little to do with me, in its new form,
really. My job is
finished. I donít feel that Ďmy workí is
being taken to different audiences:
itís the stories themselves being taken to different
audiences in different
ways, and itís a layering kind of thing. The ABC also did a
of Jean Lee, and yes, theyíre my words, but itís a
dialogue, it goes on. If
another artist picks it up, itís going to affect people
on how itís constructed. Because these stories are historical
You have a background yourself in
music. How has that influenced your work?
Totally. I donít think
Iíd be a poet
at all if I didnít have that background: the two are so
intermeshed. I learned
piano and then flute as a girl and ended up at the College of the Arts,
although I enjoyed flute itself less and less as time went by.
Iím a cellist by
nature, although I donít play the cello! But more than that I
think itís been listening
to music all my life: classical music was always playing as I grew up.
starting off liking people like Lutoslawski and Janacek, and from there
my way to Hindemith, Webern, Ligeti, and then I went backwards, and
really begun to appreciate composers like Mozart and Schubert in the
fifteen years or so. Beethoven and Bach were always there, of course -
is my favourite composer of all - but some others have taken me a long
engage with. And in terms of influencing my writing, Iím
interested in that
fourth dimension of poetry, the actual physical and psychological
between words and lines: and thatís similar to orchestration
in music. I mean,
with music, all youíve got are musical notes and silences.
Thatís it: theyíre
your tools. Notes and silence. And with poetry, itís words
and spaces. My poems
are fairly structural, and I know Iím a bit formalistic for
tastes, but I do believe in things like unity, balance, symmetry... a
doesnít necessarily have to look visually
symmetrical to please me as a
reader, but there has to be a very particular sense of organic order
cohesion: a beginning and an end, and a relationship between every part.
You work a lot with form. How much do
you use traditional forms, or create your own forms - and what
advantage do you
see in adhering to those forms in your own work?
Well, thereís nothing
without form -
thereís no poem without form. Content and form:
theyíre the only two elements.
And poems simply about how someoneís feeling donít
really appeal to me as a
reader. Thereís got to be some structure there, in terms of
both content and
form. And personally what I like about form is that for every
offered, thereís always a liberty as well, hidden away in
there. Thereís no
reason to be scared of form, because for every rule thereís a
window or even a
whole tesseract that opens, and itís that kind of movement
that I like, that
kind of momentum...
Obviously the rhythmic aspect of your
poetry is very important, and that does get quite complex at times. I
once when I was talking with someone about my own work, they suggested
go through my various writing stages, and that the final thing I do be
rhythmic rewrite, to make sure the rhythms fall into place. What sort
process do you go through to write a poem. Are there those stages? Do
with the idea of the rhythm?
Thatís a good question. I
start with a shape, actually, an architectural kind of figure.
Thereís a shape
I want to express. Itís this thing I want
to make, and then I look for
the right content that might suit that thing. Sounds a little boring,
it? Not very emotional - but for me, the passion is in the maths.
themselves come fairly naturally. I lean to the triple meter side of
but I enjoy enjambment and other ways of upsetting the apple-cart...
of drafting process do you go through with a poem?
I write straight onto screen, and
always have. I only use paper if Iím stuck without my
computer! And as far as
the drafting process is concerned, I donít print off until
Iím pretty sure what
Iím doing is Ďrightí. It never is, of
course, but it means I do print off at a
late stage. I donít keep working notes or drafts, I prefer
not to leave many
traces at all. I donít have journals (or at least only blank
ones!), I barely
write letters, and itís the same with drafts: they hit the
bin as soon as Iím
finished with them.
Do you have any kind of writing
rituals you go through? You mentioned before that you write straight
computer, and youíve also told me before that you start the
biography and poetry; do you have reading and writing schedules that
when you are writing?
Well, itís a bit different
being on a
grant rather than working fulltime at the moment, because Iím
able to make
those rituals for myself, timewise anyway. My writing days are
Fridays and Saturdays - only three, but theyíre full days,
marathons. The rest of the week is pretty much filled with reading,
teenagers, the business of life. Occasionally I make a couple of notes
Sunday and Thursday, but most of itís happening in my head
and I donít turn on
the computer or pick up a pen. And I do read biography everyday -
Any particular biographies?
Anyone - almost anyone. When I go into
bookshops, I head straight for the biography section. Whatever.
Anybody. Just to see where they went wrong, where they went right, how
for them. They donít need to be artistic, although often they
are musicians or
painters or writers, but itís certainly not just those
people. Itís anybody
really. Iíve been reading about Leonard Bernstein, and Darwin
When did you start writing?
When I was little - around
kindergarten time. Mum and Dad still have poems I wrote when I was four
five, and one grandmother used to mark them for me out of ten! Then
replaced by music for probably fifteen years, and I really
didnít start again
until I was about twenty-eight. That was an epiphanal year, and poems
come. Those early pieces are long trashed, but there was that
feeling of ĎThis is where I belongí. So I kept on
Can you note any particular
influences, either in your early work, or what youíre doing
Among writers? Itís funny, I
prose writers have had a big effect on me, which may not make immediate
if weíre talking about line turns, but thereís
Janet Frame, Paul Auster, Toni
Morrison. The Bible is a good source of inspiration, and has been
the actual language of it, not just the stories - especially the King
its particular syntax and choice of words. And of course Emily
Americans. Bob Dylan. Other than that, Iím pretty much
interested in what
anyoneís doing. The Australians I like to follow would
include Peter Porter,
Rosemary Dobson, Mark OíConnor, Jan Harry, Jenny Harrison,
Alex Skovron... this
is hardly an exhaustive list. More recently, thereís been
Peter Minter, Rebecca
Edwards...Iíve been reading Mark OíFlynn lately...
you go through phases, where
you just really love one writer and read all their books... I tend not
much poetry as Iím getting toward the end of the week and
preparing to write
myself, because it is easy to be influenced, and Iím much
more strongly my own
writer when Iím isolated from other poets. I mean I live with
a poet - youíve
got to keep certain barriers, otherwise it all starts bleeding into
you end up in a big mess of words.
Have you ever written creatively in
other forms? You mentioned that prose is an influence on your poetry -
attempted prose writing? Or are you interested in doing so?
I wrote a terrible novel when I was
about twenty-two, which you will never see. That
showed me I am not a
novelist, definitely! Iíve also written a couple of short
stories. One of them
was in an early Picador New Writing, but I could
see afterwards it was
simply a long poem put into short story form. I tried a few more -
or five - but they just didnít work. No, Iím just a
poet. I love poetry as a
genre because you have to pay so much for every word that you use.
Itís a very
costly literary exercise, as opposed to writing a novel. I mean, a poem
economically driven. I guess thatís where the maths comes
into it for me,
because every single word has to have a relationship with every other
somehow youíve got to write music into it as well, if you
can. Itís such a
challenge. Each poem to me is an immense event, and it can also be
How long does it take you, generally,
to write a poem?
Well... from the first idea of it,
probably about six months. And from the first turning on of the
probably sixteen to twenty-four hours, which may be spread over two or
weeks. Iíve always worked like that. Any poem will take a
long time to gestate,
because I donít want to type anything until Iíve
almost got the thing in my
head. Even on computer, even on a screen of lights, as opposed to a
paper - it seems so concrete, that first line. I work from beginning to
with the idea of a shape and the idea of a story in my mind. I never
the last line, or the middle image... itís the first line
thatís going to
dictate to a large extent the rest of the poem.
Joan Didion once said of her novels
that her first sentence has to be perfect, because everything grows
and once youíve got your first paragraph written,
thereís no going back.
I agree with her! And of course
more compressed with poetry - youíd be talking about your
first word as
important, your first phrase, and after your first sentence there being
going back... And itís a question of respect as well, of
honouring the poem.
What is trying to come out on the page? You think in your head
ĎI want to write
a poem in Italian quatrainsí or whatever, and
youíve a vague idea itíll be
about a page and a half long, and you want to cover this sort of
thatís about all you start with - and then this completely
comes out of the computer, which has barely anything to do with your
idea, and you think ĎWhere did that come
from?í... It comes down to
respecting and honouring the poem itself. Itís the
chipping, tapping away, seeing whatís inside there, trying to
help get it out.
In the past you have taught Creative
Writing/Writing Poetry at a tertiary level; how do you feel about the
courses that are available everywhere? Do you feel that they are useful
students? Do you think that writing is something that can be taught?
I think they are useful, but I think
the nature of their usefulness could be
questioned. Obviously, you get a
group of students entering a writing course, and theyíre
going to be writing
differently at the end of that course, because of what
theyíve been exposed to.
Yet they could expose themselves to the same world by simply reading
writing! Because thatís what it comes down to,
thatís how you learn to create
At the same time youíve done
manuscript assessment, and participated in formal mentorship schemes on
one-to-one basis. How does this form of teaching/guidance for less
writers differ from the classroom situation?
In all ways. Itís
dialogic, youíre not having to deal with maybe two or three
individuals in class, and then having to pitch your teaching to try to
with those people while at the same time doing the right thing, and
everyone else. It can be a difficult juggling act, especially when
up to twenty-eight students in one class, and theyíre
three-hour sessions, and
everybodyís intense, everyone wants their poem looked at, of
what you bypass in a one-to-one situation. One-to-one you learn as much
teach. And teaching-by-correspondence and manuscript assessment are
situations again, because you donít get to meet the person,
donít know who they
are, and they donít know who you are. Those are my favourite
Do you think of yourself as a feminist
writer, especially given that both Botany Bay Document and The
Hanging of Jean Lee are working with
untold stories of Australian women?
No, I donít think of myself
anything particular at all. Iím pretty much anti-political. I
write about women
because I am one, and thatís where the story stops.
Itís really hard to write
about a man, engage with the male heart and mind, when youíve
got almost no
understanding of men at all: and thatís me. I donít
understand those people
over there, those men, even though I have a partner, a son, a father, a
brother. I barely understand women! But itís nothing to do
with holding a flag
and being a feminist. Itís more to do with truth, and
silence, and the fact
that many womenís voices have been silenced. If I
wasnít a woman, I donít think
Iíd be writing about women, but Iím not
specifically a feminist.
Can you tell me a little about what
youíre currently working on?
Itís a collection of chained verse - sestinas, pantoums,
rima - all types of chained verse. Sometimes Iím working with
although at other times I may use just one isolated device - like an
structure or something - in a poem. Part of what Iím trying
to do is help
develop some of these forms, help - along with numerous other poets -
and reinforce them, help them to hold what we need to express right
mean, villanelles were written 400 years ago, and they still have a lot
energy, but how do you apply that energy in the
century? I feel we have a responsibility to move within some
forms, if theyíre tractable, if that can be done. And also,
Iím trying to
develop some kind of Australian aesthetic for certain chained verse
Earlier this year I spent time going out and counting branches in the
timing waves at the ocean, and so on, looking for patterns I could
the work that were specifically Australian patterns, because we do not
European, or American, or African landscape... I pretty soon had to
almost everything in
working title is The Fall.
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