Cavalier attitude lives on
By Rhonda Dredge
A box of poetry books has just arrived from Wakefield Press but deliveries are now just a trickle as the Collected Works bookshop prepares to shut up shop after 30 years in the CBD.
The lease will run out in December and Kris Hemensley has decided not to renew.
Some are calling the closure of the bookshop the end of an institution but Kris is arguing, as usual.
“We’re not an institution, just a space. The legacy is what you have brought, not me.”
In the past decade, 20-30 writers a year, most of them poets, have launched their books here, on the first floor of the Nicholas Building. Seamus Heaney has visited and other celebrities interested in the spoken word, including rock musician Patti Smith.
The Collected Works has a reputation. Visiting poets drop in for a session, sometimes advertised, other times not. Kris greets visitors with a bottle of goodish Scotch or cheapish wine, depending on his mood and the talk begins.
“I’m always interested in history and biography. I see the world through the prism of the English language poetry scene.”
This is just an opener. He has plenty of theories depending on how far the conversation progresses. He has one about Melbourne and another about the history of poetry, both of them contentious.
The shelves of his bookshop are full of ideas. You can pick up a book at random and discover a new take on life. Many are left over from events attracting up to 40 people as poets and their followers mingle amongst the shelves.
“Buy a bottle of Scotch and sit down and write,” Kris urges his customers. He writes a poem a day, a tanka with five lines and 31 syllables. Today’s begins: Jaffrey toe taps back. To get the rest you’ll have to visit.
Kris makes a distinction between talking about writing as an amalgam of disciplines, psychoanalytical, linguistic or gender studies and the conversation between a reader and a writer.
Of Eliot’s objective correlative, he has this to say: “It can’t help itself but step away from the act of writing. I’m rough and ready.”
Those who want to argue can compare notes on their favourite poets. Don’t bring up Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath. Kris has a home for … the beat poets … Pound … but you’ve forgotten the rest. Damn. This is the aristocracy of the spoken word and you’re slumming it.
“Since the 19th century, change has been perceived as damage,” Kris says. “There are degrees of the sense of loss. Now people are able to quantify the loss so we’ve got an apocalyptic sense. The damage is political and metaphysical.”
In the mid-19th century the Romantic poets such as Wordsworth were signposting a journey of absorption and feeling. “Excuse me while I touch the sky.”
All of these older elements continue, says Kris. “In city poetics there is no less landscape. A term introduces a political comment – the anti-pastoral.”
He is tough on many of the tourists attracted to the CBD. “This city has stopped being commercial in the best way. A transaction is expected.” He doesn’t mean financial. He’s talking about an intellectual component, “not gawker culture.”
It’s time to leave and he’s not worried about abandoning his customers. “I really am the last person. I want them to make their own decisions. I wouldn’t recommend. You find a city by your mistakes. Don’t be upset.”
There will always be a resolution, he says. “My cavalier attitude might be misjudged.”