Shastra Deo's launch speech for Ask Me About The Future
I too am broadcasting from the stolen land of the Turrbal and Jagera people—I pay my respects to Elders past, present, and future, and to all First Nations people here. Although colonial violence continues to this day, First Nations people have a long and unbroken history of storytelling that is essential to Australian poetry.
Thank you, Rae and Jarad, for those beautiful readings. I am so grateful to be here, at Mission Control, launching Rebecca Jessen’s first poetry collection, Ask Me About the Future. And I wish we were doing this launch corporeally, our fleshy bodies looking upon each others’ fleshy bodies in real time, real space—especially now, during this period of grief over the loss of so many futures. Nonetheless, there’s something apt—for me, personally—about the digital nature of this launch.
I was first introduced to Bec’s work in 2012, when she won the State Library of Queensland Young Writers Award for her short story in verse, “Gap”. Many of you likely know that Gap was later expanded and published by UQP as a verse novel (and is in stock and available for purchase here at Avid). But I originally read it online, in PDF form on State Library’s website, on a HP laptop so old it looked like a relic from the Space Age. My reflection hovering outside the whitespace of the simulated page.
Past-me wouldn’t meet Bec until years into the future. But past-me was adept in the now common art of cyberstalking. I followed Bec’s writing career for years online, witnessing, learning, wishing I could write like she did: with wry humour and quiet tenderness. With the care and caution of the hunted. Gap was all urgency, all sweat-slicked palms, travelling towards a future that was not at all guaranteed.
T minus the history of queer emotion until launch, history and counting.
In 2016, about a month before we’d meet in real life, The Lifted Brow published an excerpt of Bec’s piece “The Art of Breaking” online. Written as a series of tweets, Bec Jessen a.k.a. @randomshypoet navigates a family visit while referring back to her psychologist-prescribed ‘Fun Activities Catalogue’. Fun activity #56: Spending time with a loved one. #179: Thinking I’m a person who can cope. The excerpt ends like this: Bec Jessen, @randomshypoet, tweets
While #115: Chatting on the Internet, my gf says if either of us ever fell for someone else we shouldn’t stand in each other’s way…
Is she #168: Fantasising about the future?
All systems are go. The future isn’t what it used to be. When did it switch from being a promise to a threat?
Ask Me About the Future teeters along this edge of ideal and collapse, refiguring the interpersonal to be just as vital as the societal. Desire is yearning is longing is prolonging, always reaching out towards utopia.
I’m struck by how often Bec’s work mediates desire, being, and vulnerability through the lens of technology—the device or the screen. In Ask Me About the Future, a speaker filters out the dating-app simulacra of her ex-lover. ‘the kind woman on the end of the line will ask you / what day it is.’ On camera, the Lesbian Bachelorette and her suitors exude Big Dyke Energy. A life becomes a 12-episode Netflix series that no-one binge-watches.
‘everything loading in the foreground exists for the first time,’ says the speaker of the poem “family domestic”. ‘the future pixelates before you.’
But technology doesn’t imply or offer distance, not does it preclude the deeply intimate entanglement of the queer body. In part five of the poem “The Lesbian Bachelorette”:
The str8 male producer interviewing behind the camera is wearing a t-shirt with the print: ‘Dip me in honey and throw me to the lesbians’.
How do lesbians actually have sex?
They go all in.
But which one of you is the man?
Sometimes we both wear the harness.
What does a lesbian bring to the second single date?
A U-Haul of feelings just waiting to be processed.
What do you get when you put sixteen lesbians in a house together?
A lot of Energy Exchanges, IKEA catalogues, and an almost cyclonic Urge to Merge.
Of course, there are those poems that step outside the screen to go all in—that occur “some days”, “the weekly”, “sometime around midnight”, “digging into eternity”, always at play with the temporality of the lived body. The moments captured in bedrooms, suburban homes, on train platforms, that draw invisible thought lines all the way back to Bec’s first book, Gap. That detail the scent of a lover’s base, top, and heart notes with the drowsy warmth of a best-kept secret.
To quote Zenobia Frost’s Goodreads review, which in turn draws entirely from the twitterbot @AskMe_Oracle’s fortunes, which in turn draws entirely from Bec’s poems: “In Australia, the poet will illuminate loneliness” / “the girls will feed the eclipse” / “your work will moisten the full moon” / and “in your history, time travel will improve tomorrow”.
Three, two, one, ignition. In another time, the poet will heal loneliness.
All of this to say: Bec is a remarkable poet and, more importantly, a remarkable person. For many years her work has been the ice-axe that breaks the frozen sea inside of me; the lonely transmission that rings out through deep space, deep time; the reflection superimposed over every electric mirror. We are all lucky to be here with her, now, as pixels, as digital echoes, despite the distance. Buy her book from Avid. Support your local bookstore. No launch no screen no moment can encompass the forever that is the future, but with Bec’s book, you can carry a piece of it with you.
All of this to say. Bec, there is nothing I would not give or do or leave or say to read this book again for the very first time—I’m sure, in some universe light years from here, I am doing exactly that.
There is nothing I would not give to assure your future(s).
We have lift-off. Ask Me About the Future launches into the infinite. Congratulations, Bec.