The People Singers: The Surfers Paradise Poems
As a born-and-bred Gold Coaster, I wanted to enjoy this latest offering from poet John Millett, The People Singers: The Surfers Paradise Poems. I was excited to see how Millett would approach the task of translating the Gold Coast through poetry, and thought it would be refreshing to revel in the familiarity of my own city through this medium. It is unfortunate, however, that the collection didn't quite satisfy my expectations. Utimately, it sinks into territory that does a disservice to both Millett and his subject: the city of the Gold Coast and its residents.
I approached this collection from the perspective of a (recent) past student with an interest/awareness of the Gold Coast (and the connotations that surround it as a place) and the way that craft is (or can be) transmitted. Often, the greatest lessons for students/practitioners/teachers are imparted through work that fails to realise its potential. Accordingly, a clear pedagogy is present throughout this collection; it teaches through its faults and its virtues.
Contemplating the title and the bromidic glossy photograph of Main Beach wrapped around the cover of the book (a view into Surfers Paradise; blue sky, blue water, high rises reflected on wet sand), I was disappointed that Millett seemed to have limited both himself and his poetry, from the outset, by succumbing to that fatal attraction of writing solely about the 'glitter strip'.
My worries were subdued, if temporarily, when, after a scan through the contents, it became apparent that Millett's intention was to embark on a journey/tour/investigation of the Gold Coast in its entirety; from Coolangatta to Mount Tamborine, and everywhere in between.
I do wonder though, if the poems are not exclusively related to Surfers Paradise, why does Millett name his collection, The Surfers Paradise Poems? Should it not more appropriately be titled The Gold Coast Poems? Perhaps this is only a vexation for Gold Coast residents. A friend of mine works in the tourism industry and often relays his exchanges with would-be-tourists who invariably ask that most reviled question, 'Surfers Paradise is the Gold Coast isn't it?'
We may never be entirely successful in creating the desired distinction between the Gold Coast as a whole and the tourist haven of Surfers, yet I was disappointed that Millett, a fellow writer and local Coast resident, would fall into this all-too-recognisable trap. If anyone should know that the Gold Coast is comprised of more than Surfers Paradise, it should be someone who lives here.
Perhaps it was a marketing decision that led Millett to reduce the Gold Coast to yet another hideously familiar cliché: that Surfers Paradise sells. Of course, poetry publications could benefit from attractive marketing that translates into sales and a more active readership. But unfortunately, in this case, the tactic is inadequate and underwhelming and ultimately diminishes any intent to produce a work that encompasses all facets of the Gold Coast.
It is intriguing that Millett found it apt to include a Leonard Bernstein quote - 'We'll find a new way of living' - as an epigraph to his poetry collection. The Gold Coast as a place, an idea, a culture, is relatively 'new' in many ways and has indeed fostered a 'new way of living.' It has carved out an esoteric, exopolitan existence, in the sense that Edward W. Soja describes this concept: 'a place that spins new whorls of its own' (see Soja's chapter in M. Sorkin (ed.) Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space). Ironically however, many of Millett's poems serve only to reinforce the formulaic image of the Gold Coast. Rather than creating a 'new' way of writing, living or seeing the Coast, the poems of this collection serve primarily to strengthen underlying stereotypes.
In an awkward realisation for me, Millett's introduction confirms that his first encounter with the Gold Coast occurred long before I was even born. However, as his history also extends to life before the Gold Coast, this serves to confirm the theory that pre-conceived ideas of place and environment can have an overpowering effect on both the creative process and the material that a writer/poet/artist produces.
What I mean by this is that while Millett has written about the Gold Coast from a personal perspective, and has provided an observational account of the many different lives that are lived here, there is a constant sense that the reflection and recording of ideas and subjects has been undertaken from the outside in. This undercuts what I perceive to be one of the collection's primary aims: that is, to penetrate and closely analyse the Gold Coast, to get inside its many heads, so to speak. As a result, the collection, as a whole, tends to feel a little disconnected from its putative topic.
This is one of the problems associated with writing about such a notorious location. The writer can become tangled and trapped in the reality of the fiction or vice versa. In this collection, poetic description of often clichéd events and subjects seems to dilute the writer's attempt to express an authentic personal experience. The poetry feels artificial and constrained by an unusual approach: a type of 'Gold-Coast-by-numbers' methodology, ticking off the stereotypes as they arise. This is particularly apparent in the poem 'Widows at Jupiter's Casino':
The try-and-cover-it-all mentality contributes to the sense of stereotype evident throughout the poetry and is probably the least satisfying aspect of the collection. Millett includes all of the (in)famous landmarks, institutions, events and people: the highrises, the Indy, and the Asian tourists of Surfers Paradise; the gamut of human experience from youth to the elderly: alcoholics, sad divorcees, lonely war veterans, the widower who owns 'only a call girl and a set of golf clubs,' helpless widows frittering their money away on the pokies or being deceived by unscrupulous financial planners, the suburban Holden driver; and that mandatory Gold Coast stereotype: the rich, self-indulgent CEO who despite wealth and success remains lonely and miserable.
As a Gold Coaster, this collection is bittersweet to read. There were moments of self satisfaction as I recognised characters, places and circumstances. However, these were either short lived or negated by the uncomfortable resistance that surfaced in response to Millett's chosen portrayal of the Gold Coast.
Several poems - 'Teenage Singer', 'Sally and Madeline', 'Businessman', 'The CEO', and in particular 'Elderly Retiree and Financial Planners' - present people and circumstances that could be fairly described as exaggerations of the most stereotypical characters and situations:
This is also evident in Millett's portrayal of Gold Coast widows:
The consequence of using such excessive clichés is obvious; Millett's intent and aims are not realised as fully as they could (or should) have been. This is unfortunate because the potential certainly existed for him to present the Gold Coast, and his poetry, in an innovative way.
Perhaps the ultimate paradox of the Gold Coast, especially when writing about it, is that, in many cases, clichés and stereotypes are often accurate representations of reality. The Coast has a knack of welcoming and accepting stereotypes and typecasts; however, whether a writer/poet/artist should use them so readily and blatantly is questionable. It should be possible for a writer/poet to comment on and acknowledge certain stereotypes without reverting to using them in his or her own work. Indeed, a number of Millett's poems are successful in this endeavour, including the poem 'Funeral Parlour', which is an understated vignette of loss and transition on the Coast. It is with regret that the poems that do achieve this balance are overshadowed by the majority that succumb to the unattractive power of the cliché.
In a number of poems - 'Teenage Singer' in particula r- Millett reduces the youth of the Gold Coast to shallow sex addicts and drug users. He presents an idea of youth: a portrait of a generation that has no care for global issues, or indeed any issues other than sex, drugs, image and recklessness. On two specific occasions, Millett uses the example of the 'war on terror' stating:
While this stereotyping of young people may serve as a metaphor for the Gold Coast's well-recognised youth culture and image (the most obvious manifestation of this being Schoolies Week) it is uninformed to categorise youth in such a general way. As a reader in her twenties, this chosen portrayal alienated me. If I could not relate to Millett's perception of youth, or find any semblance of reality in these poems, believing and engaging with subsequent poems was going to prove very difficult.
In a technical sense, the collection is littered with typographical errors. In one such example, Millett writes of 'Malkeri Street' (as opposed to the correct Markeri Street). While the editor and publisher must surely take some of the responsibility for these errors, it is most unfortunate for a Gold Coast resident, writing a book of poetry about the Gold Coast, to spell one of the city's main streets incorrectly.
A number of other blatant spelling errors cannot be bypassed, most notably: 'Sass & Bede' substitutes for the correct Sass & Bide, 'Stsubi' instead of the correct Tsubi, and 'Louis Vouton' as opposed to Louis Vuitton. These particular errors are made all the more obvious for their close proximity to each other. Initially, I thought it was rather 'cute' that the 85-year-old Millett had misspelt these fashion brands, and while people who are not familiar with these labels may never detect these errors, mistakes of this nature serve only to frustrate many readers. I would always support (cheer even) a writer who selects subject matter from outside his or her comfort zone, knowledge base or experience. However, to do so without engaging in appropriate research defeats the purpose.
As is sometimes the case with work published in a collective state, repetition, recurring faults and sameness are brought to the fore. This is a particularly evident shortcoming in The People Singers. Each poem is almost identical aesthetically, adhering to the same form (5-10 lines per stanza) and length (generally one page per poem with only four of the eighty-two poems mildly resisting this trend and spilling onto the next page). Cultivating variety would have been advantageous for Millett, not only to sustain the reader's interest, but also to make a statement about the Gold Coast in its endless multiplicities and possibilities.
When I made a conscious decision to read each poem as an independent entity and evaluate it on its merits alone, each individual poem became more endearing. However, the context of collectivity tends to overwhelm the reader, and the similitude of poetic form ultimately becomes tedious.
A number of unusual choices have been made regarding the structure and placement of poems throughout the collection. There are a number of poems that set the conditions of the Gold Coast, both physically and culturally, as well as the themes evident in the poetry. But, curiously, these appear past the mid-point of the collection on pages 51 and 73 of this ninety-six-page book. It would have been beneficial for Millett to describe and set the parameters, foundations and limits of his discourse early on and to work from there, rather than scattering these apparently at random. Perhaps this was intended as a comment on the rhizomic, seemingly capricious nature of the Coast. Be this as it may, it could have been articulated much more effectively.
The poems run the point-of-view triathlon, ranging across first, second and third person. This variety works well, and augments Millett's apparent objective to illustrate the many different lives and lifestyles that exist on the Coast. The title of the collection - The People Singers - is referred to, either subtly or more blatantly, throughout the poetry, and this focus is one of the book's virtues. It creates a lyrical quality that is threaded through the poems and is neither too dramatised, nor too faint. Conversely, the overuse of references to birds in every possible manifestation (over eighty five in total), whether metaphoric or literal, verges on the comical and is consequently ineffectual.
Towards the end of the collection, the poetry, subjects and ideas are well structured, well written, and infused with wit and sentiment, and the stories behind and between the poems are genuinely interesting. Whether this is a coincidental placement of poems that strike a subjective chord with me, or if they are genuinely 'better' than the rest, is uncertain. However, I would have preferred the collection to consist only of the last twenty or so poems; the rest are seemingly superfluous by contrast.
It is unfortunate that Millett's intentions did not translate, for me at least, into a satisfying or convincing portrait of the Gold Coast. However, despite my criticisms, each individual poem is undoubtedly a genuine attempt to capture a moment or observation from Millett's perspective. This style, form and content may find greater appeal within a wider audience: non-Gold Coast residents, readers that share Millett's views on youth, and perhaps those with a more traditional or conservative set of expectations in matters of style and form.
Casey Stewart recently completed her Bachelor of Communication and BA (Honours) at Griffith University (Gold Coast campus). Her Honours thesis comprised a novella and exegesis, and examined the relationship between place, space, writing, philosophy and identity in the context of life on the Gold Coast.
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Vol 10 No 1 April 2006
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb