Talking Tasmanian Literature in the Faroe Islands

This is the paper I gave at The Tower at the End of the World Conference in Torshavn, Faroe Islands, in May 2017. It was exceedingly well received, though very many people couldn’t calibrate their aural senses to my north west coast twang! Among a conference full of exotic people, I was by far the most exotic – almost a Thylacine.

The paper examines what I think to be the most increasingly toxic fault-line in Tasmanian society: the bifurcation between those clinging to an old paradigm of industrial development and all the assumptions about life and nature that go with it; and those who find ineffable and transcendent meaning within the very living tissue of the island. Most of Tasmania’s creative community, and especially so its writers, are within the latter paradigm, and give powerful oppositional voice to Tasmanian discourse.


‘Balding Nevis’

This is my favourite paper, and exists in article and essay versions.  The one posted here was published in Geographical Research in 2008.  It clearly refutes the notion that the sawmilling and specialty timbers communities are 100% supportive of exploitative industrial logging, and offers is a dramatic corrective to accepted wisdoms in my island’s ongoing hemorrhaging over the fate of the forests.

The paper reports ethnographic research I carried out in the sawmilling communities of the Upper North Esk.  I loved these  gentle, passionate people – and when you read the quotations embedded in the paper you’ll know why.  I’d really like my old mate, George Harris, to read this – though I know he won’t.

Hay is going to the Faroe Islands to talk about Tasmanian Poetry!

Ever heard of the Faroe Islands? They’re half way between Scotland and Iceland, more or less, and as far as I can tell, they are most famous for puffins, sheep and magnificent woollen jumpers. And that they still whale. It’s basically a vertical-cliffed protrusion of basalt. And it rains a lot.

I’m going to an event, part literary festival, part academic conference, with the title ‘The Tower at the End of the World – Islands and Literature‘. I’m not there as a poet – but I intend to read poetry at every opportunity. Meanwhile, if you’re interested, here follows the abstract of what I’ll be spouting.



The island of Tasmania is introduced. Almost literally ‘the island at the end of the earth’, its turbulent past and divisive politics (over radically opposed future ‘dreamings’) are outlined, and a landscape saturated in an inherent passion is described. The conflicted past manifests in a determination on the part of economic and social elites to blur history – to reduce the island’s past to a series of whitewashing clichés, and to engage in a systematic forgetting. The best-known literary engagement with Tasmania’s ambiguous past, its conflicted present, and the deep elementality of its natural world, is that of Richard Flanagan, 2015 winner of the Man Booker Prize for his novel, The Narrow Road to the North. Flanagan’s fiction is structured around an insistence that the past not be elided but be confronted; its darknesses and ambiguities looked full in the face. The paper discusses the central place within Tasmania’s literary corpus of Flanagan’s first book, Death of a River Guide, in which he resurrects suppressed narratives from the past, installing those narratives at the front of a reluctant community’s idea of itself. Flanagan notwithstanding, though, the real keepers of the island’s communal memory are its poets. Tasmania is really ‘an island of poets’, and some of that poetry is presented. It is noted that Tasmanian poetry is self-consciously an island poetry, engaging with the particularity of the island in which its authors ply their craft. It is a poetry of ground and heart, unambiguously Tasmanian, though structured around familiar island tropes – the sea, the littoral zone, a psychology of boundedness, but with an awareness that those island bounds frame a startling and unique past. Above all it safeguards the passage of the past through the fraught present and into the future, insisting that the present cannot be understood without an understanding of the shaping influence of the past. Memory is contested in Tasmania, then – and this is not only a matter of ‘whose memory’, but also one of the very relevance of remembering, period.


I’m Driving: Laughing Jack to Hobart

Laughing Jack Lagoon is at my back.

Suddenly there is     shatter.
Shatter        cluttering to the horizon.        .

Some treefern survive.
Arched fronds nod a knowing,
cast it on the wind.

The broken voice of the land
dreams it back,
the quick complexity
before the Shatter.

No-one means to wound our dreams.
But they do.

This piece nipped away, that.
The land lost by a thousand cuts.

In the drinkeries of Hobart we fire up,
spray our helpless grief about.

One more and leave.

What is will be.

Nothing to laugh about, Jack.

Pioneer Cemetery, Zeehan

A poem by Pete Hay

Posterity, in this town, was of no account.
You’d not have thought to die here –
the idea was to salt it away and leave,
to be remembered, in God’s good time,

The publicans had other ideas.
The sag-timbered mines had other ideas.
So we are here, we who drowned, we who drank,
we here by default, having died in the mud of the Somme.

The living were generous and they mourned well.
We had memory at our heads, nicely scrolled in stone,
nicely etched in good Huon pine.

But the living left,
for this was a town for vagabonds.
They left, and their leaving was the beginning
of the forgetting.
Fire came next, for this is fire country.
Gorse came, and thicket scrub.
And there was the end of the forgetting.

You are here, say, to find the grave of James O’Grady,
your great-great-grandmother’s brother-in-law.
Miner, good union man,
had a funeral that the AMA stumped,
and a stone.
Yes, he’s here, old rough and surly Jim.
He’s here somewhere.
Good luck finding him.
If he’s over there you’ll need to get through the swamp,
and watch out for old Joey Blake – that’s his domain.
So good luck with that.
If he’s this side the swamp likely the gorse holds him.
Or, more probably still, the fierce lick of summer fire
doused all that signals a life on this earth,
just as, no doubt,
in another place it took his soul.

If you’re so set on saluting James O’Grady,
James O’Grady who you never knew,
do it here, then, by the road.
Rather mourn for us all in a smeared out, unfulfilling way,
we who had not meant to be here,
and leave James O’Grady safe with us
and our unremembrance.