Category: anti-thesis

Sam Rit: Postcards from Phimai


Friday, 6th January 2017

Postcards from Phimai, Thailand



To my husband:

The first thing I see upon entering the Historic Park at Phimai is the ruin of these passageways. Only, I’m looking through them from the other side. A sign tells me “the plan of the Kamphaeng kaew structure is cruciform.” What it feels like most of all is a corridor of echoes. I follow the wooden plank path laid out like a road: two steps up, over, and down to cross the threshold of each doorway. It’s almost like a hall of mirrors: each threshold a frame, a reflection – but not of ourselves. Instead, a reflection of what is ahead, what is further on. Each frame a painting of reality. There are stone pits in the ground: foundational layers. The kinds of plans you can’t build houses or cities without, let alone a temple.

I realise I’ve brought the wrong pen for these postcards, so I’m writing them backwards (right side first. Good thing I don’t need space to address them) and covering the ink with a post-it note, like a bandage staunching the blood of a wound. Ironically enough, the admission hut has the best pen – they’re using it for the sign-in sheet. I want to go borrow it, or trade another pen for it, but I have no idea of my bartering or my English will come off as offensive or – worse – entitled. I both love and hate that my experience is currently mediated through a debate about pens.

How appropriately Emma of me.



To my husband, part 2:

Things I have learned so far today:

1.) If I need a certain pen for a certain reason no other sane person could understand but might unwittingly hold the solution to my problem, I should buck up and just ask for it. (I know you’re both curious and worried about my pen saga. I went back to the admissions hut and bartered to trade away my Pilot V4 pen for this one. They looked highly confused, but nodded. Objectively, in terms of pen quality, they unknowingly got the better end of the deal. Subjectively, I got a lovely thin ballpoint pen that doesn’t smudge. Win.)

2.) Heat is heat is heat. It’s very earthly – it attaches you to the ground. Cold makes you turn inward, layering on defenses. But a cool breeze – ah – that’s close to flight and divinity.

3.) A man approached me where I was sitting – my gut reaction was fear that he would reprimand me for sitting on stones I wasn’t supposed to. Instead, he just asked if I spoke English. He wanted a picture. I took it for him. He asked me where I was from – I said “England” – an explanation of my accent. You can tell I was speaking out of anxiety. If I had been speaking from the heart, I would have said “Scotland.” He told me he was French but living in Thailand. He gestured to his partner, saying, “She is a tourist in her own country.”

4.) I’m inside the Main Prang, writing on the stone equivalent of a window ledge. I’m out of the heat, I feel a godly breeze, and my stomach is pressed against the cool white sandstone. It makes me think about feeding our lorikeets on the balcony at home, the plump vitality of their bellies.



To the American journeyer:

This morning, you echoed back advice I gave you before you left for your adventure trip – advice I had forgotten. “Don’t force yourself to act like a tourist when you don’t feel like it.” You said you had used the advice many times already – that you’re using it today in your hotel room for the afternoon.

So, here’s the thing: we’re often smarter and kinder in conversation with other people than we are with ourselves. This is something I’m working on. I’ve written poems with the preface “repeat this back to me when I’ve forgotten it,” but then publish the poems without the preface. My favourite letters from friends that stick in my memory are the ones in which they’ve quoted me back to myself, knowing what I might need more than anything to hear.

This isn’t hubris or conceit. It isn’t a self-centered ego’s listening skills. It’s an immense gift to be brought back to myself by someone I deeply trust – someone who has synthesised and heard a message I once told them, someone who can reflect back what they’ve carried from those words when I’ve clouded over and forgotten I’ve said them. This is a gift, and an honour.

I’m at the stone temple in Phimai and I’m not forcing myself to be a tourist. When my inner critic pops up in mind saying “this is a holy place; where is your reverence?!” I say, “Shut up, Paul. This is my reverence.”

And I stand in the window and I keep writing.


To my friend who feels we’ve been distant:

I’ve spent weeks trying to craft an honest, heartfelt response to your letter. So far, none of them begin in the right place, which I think is somewhere close to: thank you for sharing your pain with me. I could write pages on what arises when I think of your words, our conversations, the very valid symptoms of these moments and the root causes we can only guess at. But they would just be words, and I would still be guessing.

Instead, an image: Last week, Andrew and I sat on the balcony late at night, looking out at the sky. We were deep in conversation, but I lifted my head at the just-right-moment to catch a shooting star. Immediately, I thought: the thing I love about seeing a shooting star is that half of it is evidence of the speed of its journey, and the other half is evidence that the world still turns. Which becomes a metaphor of our lives.

This is true of all of us too, of all relationships. One half is always proof of the speed and strength of the moving aspect, and the other is proof of the stable loyalty of an axis of rotation. Like sunflowers and their sun-lit faces. Like lilies in the mud. Each of us is always both, and sometimes we miss each other.

But in the best balance, it’s why we take turns in conversations, why we return to each other to reflect our lives and separate experiences. The light is proof – the flash that illuminates the relationship, the coming-into-contact. The focal shift that allows us perspective to see the part – and then the whole constellation.

I’m sorry if I’ve been distant or unlit. Let’s come back into orbit.

“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” – Rainer Maria Rilke



To my friend who’s getting married:

There’s something sanctifying about being in the ruins of a sacred space, so that you get to see the stones and the holiness in natural light, open to the air. The weather has worn down the stones so much that some of the steps feel like rock-climbing. Which makes me think of you and our rock-scrambling on Hawk Mountain. Only that one time, never repeated, and yet I think about it so frequently.

What I really mean is: I miss you.

This temple makes me think of the first time I asked you about God, in your car parked outside of Trexler Library. I don’t know if we were coming or going. I don’t remember the exact words you used, but I do know that you measured your answer – wanting to be careful and to be honest, in the truthfulness that came after when you sighed, “I say all that, but I really don’t know.” I remember telling you that my first communion came through music – an awareness of the divinity of perfect fifths. And then, from there, through mathematics, from the wonder that there are such things in the world as absolute answers.

I have a sense I should update my list: the sky and the stars. The sea. The acoustics and light of cathedrals. Ruins. Anything worn in by time. The immense simple clarity of “I don’t know” and the peace that comes from the acceptance of that. Open air. Poetry, and light, and lots of openness. I think from now on any major milestones should happen outside.

You who know me for all of my searching, you’re here with me today. I feel like you hold my inner heart like these ruins hold the history of what we’ve sought for so long.

More soon,

Sam Rit: Many Kinds of Work and Kinship

Tuesday, 3rd January 2017

Last night was Ek’s wife Gee’s birthday party at the residency. I gave Matt a copy of “What Slight Gaps Remain” at dinner, which he began to read while the plates emptied and the karaoke started. Music and raucous laughter filled the space long after I turned into a pumpkin. This morning, sleepy hands are doing fast work of cleaning up the whisky bottles, plates, salad bowls, grilled fish, and Khao Tom banana leaves (a delicious dessert of coconut and sticky rice). The resident army of ants got to the banana leaves first in the early morning, but they’ve since been displaced.

My soundtrack this morning is children laughing and Thai music coming out of the speakers outside. The backdrop of the morning is work: cleaning, shovelling, moving tables, replacing chairs. I’m in the studio, at a different kind of work.

Today’s work is reading and recovering: mining old poems, asking them what they might like to become.


Monday June 29, 2009

I wish my mind could function for longer
without my body getting tired.
I wish my body knew how good it feels
to always go to bed exhausted.
I wish I were always exhausted
so I may wake up refreshed.
I wish I could wish for things outside of myself.
I wish I could always fall asleep to a
gentle violinist.
I wish secret admirers were not so secretive.
I wish my dreams would write a book for me.
I wish it would be an instruction manual.
I wish google understood me the way
my genius button in iTunes does.
I wish I could remember more.
I wish I remembered to write every day
rather than simply composing lines in my head
that will dissipate like sand in the surf.
I wish I knew how to pack my life into 16 boxes.

Once I knew a lawyer who was honest.
Once I knew honesty was best to offer with restraint.
Once I thought I dreamt a future, but I’m not sure whose it was.
Once I thought, I could do something other than this.
Once I questioned where I was going.
Once I forgot the difference between past, present and future.
Once I imagined a lynch-pin holding my life together.
Once I removed the lynch-pin.
Once I watched a movie in French and loved saying ‘Allor’

Now my cat announces he is ready to sleep.
Now I can feel the breeze from the evening air.
Now I feel the violin’s strings resonating in my empty fingers.
Now I wonder why I say these words.
Now I am ashamed of reading more than I write.

I remember when a minute felt longer than that.
I remember little.
I remember arbitrary information of no importance.
I remember what it is like to feel the future.
I remember to touch carefully and tread gently.

I have lied about lying.
I once announced I was 16th in line for the crown.
I have pretended to be trusting.
There are people who do not know who I really am.
I lie every time I open my mouth and do not say, “peculiar”.

Mountains move.
Clocks melt.
Cloaks fly.
Rings shimmer.
Curtains dangle.
Burrows empty.
Windows shade.
Final moments finish.

— from my 2009 blog Personal Cartographies


I’m starting to remember the stories that have obsessed me: the January morning in Scotland where I learned about Craig Arnold, a poet who trekked through Japanese volcanos for his next book and disappeared. I never followed the threads of that obsession.

It was recently after a friend of mine had died in New York City, and I was listening to “Run To You” by Pentatonix. As I stumbled across one of his poems, and the delayed obituary via a Poetry Foundation article that described his death, I put the song on repeat and read voraciously, everything I could get my hands on: his travel blog; An Exchange for Fire, a highly-detailed account written by the Artistic Director of the International House of Japan, Christopher Blasdel; everything on his Poetry Foundation page.

Selections from the Reddit thread:

I don’t have a way to verify this for you (I can’t even remember what year it was when I met him– 2007, I think), but I don’t see myself eking out any social capital from writing about my passing acquaintance with a dead man. Out of everyone’s recollections of Craig mine is the least luminous. I could emphasize his talent, I could find a better way to explain his extraordinary charm– something about how much he talked, how attentive he was– but actual poets have done that and I had better leave them to it. His partner Rebecca later wrote the collection Love, an Index about their relationship. In my job as bookseller I have recommended it to the few customers who ask after poetry, and I would also recommend it to you. I refrain from mentioning my own acquaintance with Craig when I try to handsell the book because it seems too much like ambulance-chasing, too confrontational. I still think of him. I hate that I don’t know what happened and I feel guilty for wanting to know because I barely knew him. (user: pninish)


He was an experienced hiker, but experience can’t keep you from all misadventure– (user: pninish)


When Craig went missing, I was working at one of the big poetry nonprofits, and most of us had known him to some degree — from readings, work, AWP, or social events — and his (presumed) death shook the greater poetry community for a while. It was strange to follow his blog and have it suddenly go dark and then hear about the search beginning. (user: askryan)


The name “An Exchange for Fire”[for the poetry collection he was writing] was darkly prophetic.  (user: fishsupper)


I have this sense all the time: of wondering what right I have to mourn people I don’t know. Sometimes I am tangentially related to them; other times, they are complete strangers. I know this happens frequently with celebrities — and has seemed to happen with a never-ending onslaught in 2016.

I had a discussion with Bartle about this just last week:

Bartle: “Oh, and I’m interested to hear your opinion about these “dying celebrities curse of 2016”

Em: “I think the 2016 grim reaper had a quota to fill that it didn’t realise until the last minute.”

B: “Or any of this “oh man, how crap was 2016! thing that we all apparently decided on.”

M: “So that’s tough. Because the global social consciousness wants to connect through hardship:

“This was a rough year.”
“Difficult things happened.”
“Oh, you too? Let’s come together and talk about it.”

It’s deeper than surface-level bitching. And it’s more nuanced than just commiserating. It’s human nature to band together through difficulty.

The danger of that is we get used to saying what everyone else is saying. “2016 sucked. Stop killing celebrities. Trump is the anti-Christ. This year needs to end.” And that takes us even further away from embodying our own ability to affect active change in the world, as unique individuals with skills and ground to stand on. It replaces empowerment with passive connection through admissible hardship.

And it becomes so easy to latch on to that global consciousness and forget that we have legs to stand on, that great things happened this year, and that we are empowered human beings who can participate in critical discourse and build a different perspective of reality.

But the other danger is: to dismiss the emotional rollercoaster of 2015 as “missing the point” or “group commiseration” of some kind (not quoting anyone here, just using quotations as an illustrative eample) is to deny the fact that elements of 2016 were objectively difficult for many people (emotionally, politically, personally, globally).”

B: “Yup, I agree with that. I just think everyone gets so funny when celebrities die. But there’s SO many old celebrities. And many of them have long histories of drug abuse. It’s sad when anyone dies, but it’s hardly tragic.”

M: “Well it’s because it’s not about the celebrities; it’s about us.

It’s about our memories and associations we had transferred onto those celebrity figures.

And so it can feel like losing a friend, because we have imbued that persona with all of these memories and moments and emotional associations. And those of us who aren’t able to discretely understand that we do that only feel the emotion of a heavy loss — without being able to say: “I’m mourning what X’s perceived persona meant to me during a phase in my life that was difficult/beautiful/otherwise meaningful.”

A lot of people can’t make that distinction, and are completely unaware that they even do that cognitively.”

B: “The cult of celebrity.”

M: “Yeah, totally. But it can be majorly powerful. For good (causes, political and social awareness, charitable and random contributions, inspiration of skills) as much as for mindless followers.”

B: “Agree with it all.”


We have many kinds of work. We work to affect change in the world, however small or slight or specific our contribution is. We work with our hands, with our minds, with our bodies, with our presence, with our questions, with our curiosity, with our teaching, with our exploration. We work in relationship with others, and our relationships (whether intimate, close, casual, or distant) are ripples that shift through time. This is true of our partners, friends, family. It’s also true of our connections with people we may never meet.


I’m in the midst of new work, and I’ll follow all paths, all connective tissue. I brought Rebecca Lindenberg’s collection “Love, An Index” along with me to Thailand because I anticipated this might come up again.

“A man disappears. The woman who loves him is left scarred and haunted. In her fierce debut, Rebecca Lindenberg tells the story — in verse — of her passionate relationship with Craig Arnold, a much-respected poet who disappeared in 2009 while hiking a volcano in Japan. Lindenberg’s billowing, “I contain multitudes” style lays bare the poet’s sadnesses, joys, and longings in poems that are lyric and narrative, plainspoken and musically elaborate. Regarding her role in Arnold’s story, Lindenberg writes: “The girl with the ink-stained teeth / knows she’s famous / in a tiny, tragic way. / She’s not / daft, after all.” Then later, of her travels in Italy with the poet: “The carabinieri / wanted to know if there were bears / in our part of America. Yes, we said, / many bears. Man-eating bears? Yes, of course, / many man-eating bears.” Every poem in this collection bursts with a unique, soulful voice.”

– summary of Love, an Index by Rebecca Lindenberg


Up until now, I only wrote one reflection for Craig:

It was the song — For Craig Arnold

It was the song, first, although really the story first. It was the poem first, and then the relationship, and then the rest of the poetry. And then it was sleep and dreaming, and a sense of deep yearning, of absolute care and love, of obstacles and boundaries, and a short sense of grief. And then this morning it was the song, and then a curiosity, and then I just couldn’t stop.

I actually resented my own physical hunger for getting in the way of this. But I placated it, and I brought supplies, and I got everything together as quickly as possible. Heat, water, food, set up the songs, isolated the poems and the articles and the words to read. Brought up the research, dialed back all distractions. And here I am.

How to write to a man who has been dead for almost 5 years? How to pay a tribute to a man I never knew? How to pay some kind of honour to how captured I am by his soul, by his story, by the way he wrote moments of foresight into the days before his death? Why does it matter, and who am I to him? Another reader. Another wordsmith. Another wanderer, who understands the ineffability of the always searching. What do I even have to say that could be put into words? What could I write that would break through my ice-layered belief right now that words are not worthy of carrying these emotions, these insights, these delicate washes of pure human experience. To say it is to cheapen it. To write it feels like materialising the immaterial. But if he were here, I would pick up the phone, I would call him, I would say, Didn’t you ever wonder how close you were to the edge?

— for Craig Arnold


Who are we to be so affected by the deaths of people we never knew, never met?

Better question: Who on earth are we not to?

More soon,

Sam Rit Artist Residency: The Anti-Thesis


Sam Rit, Thailand

Monday, 2nd January 2017

For the next 30 days, I’ll be living in Sam Rit in rural North-East Thailand at the Sam Rit Artist Residency. For the first two weeks, I’m joined by Jackie Moss, an Australian artist and illustrator. The following two weeks, I’ll be the sole artist at the residency.

That’s 30 days of writing, and exploring: a great way to ring in 2017.

This morning, I unpacked my things into my cabin, and unpacked my supplies into my studio space:


At Andrew’s recommendation, I brought a backpack instead of a suitcase (though it was still packed with the same volume of books. I said to Andrew: “Do you think I’d take less things with me if I had another discipline besides writing?” Andrew said: “No.” Which is unfair, because I’m getting much better at packing lightly and only taking with me what I can carry on my back).

My initial intention was to write the fiction book I’ve been dreaming about for 2 years (literally: it came to me in a dream, and I’ve been sketching out the rough skeleton of it without the direct opportunity to sit down and write it). This is the project I talk about my in Sam Rit Residency artist profile. But much of the work I’ve focused on recently has to do with the question of how we relate authentically to our work, to our careers, and to our jobs: how we align who we are with what we do.

On the flight, I read “The Crossroads of Should and Must” by Elle Luna (a fantastic Xmas present from Andrew Y). Even though I finished the book in one swift sitting, I’m not finished with it. It’s the kind of book everyone should return and come back to, and I want to investigate it, experiment with it, question it, and take it apart. And part of me thought: well, there’s that authentic-self-work book written: Elle’s already done it!

That sounds like a washing-of-hands. Let me clarify: I’m not swearing off the project of how we can meet work with our whole self. I know I have more to say on that topic. I know I have different, and potentially useful things to say on that topic. But I’ve decided not to make that the set goal for the residency while I’m in Sam Rit.

Instead, I’m going to write my anti-thesis.


80c86ee99d6737cbe39620cf12e121d9Last week, Andrew and I were having a vigorous discussion about something, when he described something as the ‘antithesis’ of what we were talking about. The thing is: he pronounced it anti-thesis. I don’t know where this quote has emerged from on the internet, but I love it: “Never make fun of someone if they mispronounce a word — it means they learned it by reading.”

Not only do I subscribe to this guideline completely (I may help you correct grammar, but I will never judge for mistakes made through reading) — it also reminds me of Penelope Bloom in “The Brother’s Bloom” acquiring all of her hobbies through books:

Stephen: “What kind of stuff do you do?”

Penelope: “Nothing. Maybe you should go.”

S: “All right, I’ll just finish my…”

P: “I collect hobbies. I see someone doing something I like, and I get books and I learn how to do it.”

S: “You just learn this stuff here by yourself? How do you plan to use all these skills?”

P: “I don’t know. I’m not a planner. I just do stuff.
Like, look at this watermelon.
It’s a pinhole camera.”

(The book-learning becomes apparent when she first meets The Belgian:)

The Belgian: “Book-learned. You know your languages but not your accents, mademoiselle.”

Besides reminding me of our favourite movie, I loved Andrew’s new term because as soon as he said it I thought: oh my god, that’s exactly what I need. I don’t need a new project. I need an anti-thesis.

18 months ago, right before we moved to Sydney, I finished my PhD thesis, sat my viva, defended my work, and graduated. Last Christmas, one of my best gifts was when the mailman brought me my diploma. I’ve come a long way through the path of academia. It has become a home to me, and I am always — always — going to be grateful for that.

But I’ve written exactly one poem since I graduated out of the academic world. And I haven’t written any poetry in Australia (a fact that became horribly apparent to me right before my book launch last month). What I do have in spades, is the loud voice of an inner critic. I’ve strengthened the muscle of judgment and forgotten about discernment, forgotten the quieter voice of intuition and lateral thinking.


I told Simon about the anti-thesis a few days before I left and he asked, “What does that mean?”

“It means sometimes academia trains people to be too cognitive,” I explained,”Too rational and researched and deliberate. Too calculating. Too clinical.”

Simon said, “Surely that doesn’t happen as frequently with creative writing?”

We cut to a story I recounted from the previous night when — discussing magic eye pictures with Andrew (the optical illusions that shift as you view them from different angles) — I reached for my poetry book to read him a poem that references magic eye pictures. A line of elephants holding tails.

After reading Andrew the entire poem (“Peripheries”) I looked up and verbally recalled: “Oh, that’s right. Alan suggested I should take out that part.”

I sat there wondering: if I remember this poem most by the stars (which are still there) and the magic eye pictures (which didn’t make the cut), what other core sections of my poems have been left on the cutting room floor in order to make them stronger poems?

I’m not arguing that the poems are any less because of how they survived the editing process. But there is material still ready to be used. There are frameworks ready to be loosened. There are analytical responses that don’t need to fill my head as readily anymore. I’ve taken over 6 years to focus on little else but honing my writing craft. I like to think that enough of those muscles are ingrained enough to still produce good writing, even if I step back from the academic hat.


In any exercise, it is most beneficial to do a workout and its opposite. To stretch out the muscles you have just worked and developed.

The anti-thesis is my stretching out.


I’m writing an anti-thesis because I don’t want to argue a position anymore.

(“Today a doctoral thesis is both an idea and an account of a period of original research.”)

Because I am my own idea and I am my own original research.

(“It is an introduction to the world of independent research — a kind of intellectual masterpiece, created by an apprentice in close collaboration with a supervisor.”)

I am also my own student and my life is my supervisor.

Because I don’t need an introduction to the world of independent research: I need an reintroduction to the world.

Because in trying to become a master, I forgot the devotion of being the apprentice.

(“A thesis can be dozens of pages in mathematics, or many hundreds in history. As a result, newly minted PhDs can be as young as their early 20s or world-weary forty-somethings.”)

What are the requirements for my antithesis, my return to the world? There are none, formally. Informally, it is an unwinding. A retrospective. A mirror and reflection.

It is the heart beneath the theory, the life within the work.

(“Whining PhD students are nothing new, but there seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value).”)

I’m writing an anti-thesis because I do have value, but it has taken a lot of negotiation and reflection to realise that my value doesn’t correlate with whether I’m teaching in academia or even in my subject matter. My value is transitive and lateral and intuitive and no less significant. And also a place I may not have gotten to specifically without the PhD path.


To travel is to take a journey into yourself.

I invite you to join me on this journey while I’m away in Sam Rit. You can follow along with me here on the blog by subscribing (on this page, any blog post page, or the homepage). Photos will be shared. Stories and anecdotes. I’m also building a Sam Rit Spotify playlist of the music I’m listening to.

So: read along. Listen along. Come along.

More soon,