The Official History of Kanganoulipo

by Dr Ryan O’Neill

The Kanganoulipo, an experimental writing collective that has been described as “the most exciting, audacious and talented group of authors to emerge in this country in the last hundred years”,[1] owes its existence to the life and works of Arthur ruhtrA (1940-1982). ruhtrA (born Arthur Robinson) came to be known as “Australia’s one man literary avant garde”, and was the author of several books across a range of forms and genres, including Grosswords (1964), Waterworks (1965), The Possessive S (1974) and most famously, the novel-length lipogram Long Time No See (1973).

While still only a teenager ruhtrA, sickened by the narrowmindedness and “dreary, dun-coloured… realism”[2] of the Australian literary scene, moved to Paris where he befriended Georges Perec and several members of the Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; or: “workshop of potential literature”). Tragically, in his desire to join Europe’s foremost experimental writing group, ruhtrA broke one of its cardinal rules; by asking to become a member, he forever disqualified himself from membership. Undaunted, ruhtrA set up his own postmodernist writing collective consisting of only Australian writers. Kangaroulipo, as he named the group, initially attracted only a few members in France, but when ruhtrA returned to Australia in 1973 the movement took on a new lease of life, with dozens of experimental novelists, artists, musicians and poets eager to join ruhtrA in waging war against the tyranny of bush realism. Unfortunately, ruhtrA’s alcoholism and drug addictions resulted in increasingly erratic behaviour, and his eventual expulsion from the group, which collapsed into acrimony in June 1980, two years before ruhtrA’s death from a drug overdose. (ruhtrA’s life has been masterfully chronicled at greater length in Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers[3] a work of astonishing scholarship which has been incorrectly marketed, with criminal incompetence, as “fiction”.)

After his premature demise, ruhtrA’s name slipped into obscurity, with his writings, and his pioneering scholarship into the true authorship of James Joyce’s Ulysses known only to a few. It appeared that ruhtrA’s most enduring legacy would be in inspiring the formation of the Frederick Stratford Society, whose aim was to promote the work of the great Australian writer, and to refute the claims of plagiarism made against him. On 16 June 2014, the Society organised a demonstration at the University of Sydney to protest the annual Bloomsday celebrations. (As every Stratfordian was well aware, thanks to ruhtrA’s seminal text Shames Joyce: The Great Plagiarist (1961), the Irish writer had plagiarised his Ulysses from Frederick Stratford’s Odysseus.) Police estimated the crowds at the protest as being between five and eight people. Among the Stratfordian demonstrators were Ryan O’Neill and Julie Koh. O’Neill’s research into the life of Arthur ruhtrA had convinced him of Frederick Stratford’s genius, and he had become a fanatical Stratfordian. Koh was apparently present at the demonstration for the sole purpose of throwing rotten eggs at one of her literary rivals, Adelaide Hegarty, who had written her dissertation on Joyce.

When the demonstration inevitably turned violent, the two took cover under a table, which is when O’Neill noticed a rare first edition of Arthur ruhtrA’s Exercises in Style (1974) had slipped out of Koh’s bag. As the police dragged away a screaming, egg-faced Hegarty, Koh explained that ruhtrA’s work had inspired her to become a writer, and she had dedicated her recently published short-story collection, Capital Misfits, to him. While choking on tear gas, O’Neill revealed his great love for ruhtrA, and his regret that the writing group ruhtrA had founded, Kangaroulipo, had been in abeyance for some three decades. It was then that O’Neill and Koh decided to form a new Kangaroulipo, or Kanganoulipo, a writing collective which would showcase the best experimental writing in Australia, and which would hopefully also be tax deductible.

O’Neill and Koh scoured the country for the nation’s most talented writers. Sadly, none of these writers wanted to join, and so they had to set their sights lower, much lower in the case of Robert Skinner. Skinner, despite being nearly illiterate, had founded and edited the short story magazine The Canary Press. It was a wild success, but mostly among birdwatchers; he was always being invited to the wrong sorts of parties. At the same time, Skinner was also acting as a research assistant for O’Neill in his writing of the much lauded Their Brilliant Careers. Skinner was a not entirely incompetent researcher, though his annoying propensity to be struck by lightning slowed down the composition of O’Neill’s magnum opus. Skinner was instrumental in recruiting into Kanganoulipo two contributors to The Canary Press, Eric Yoshiaki Dando and Patrick Lenton. Lenton’s short story collection A Man Made Entirely of Bats featured a coded tribute to Arthur ruhtrA that was so subtle, even Lenton had forgotten what it was, while Dando’s cult novel snail had been partly inspired by ruhtrA’s 1970 classic lowercase. Jane Rawson, a Melbourne writer, was asked to join the group after Lenton saw her performing a street theatre piece outside the venue hosting the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award. Frustrated at the judges’ continuing dismissal of genre writers, Rawson had built a four-foot-high wall of science fiction and fantasy novels, which she then proceeded to leap over, shouting, ‘Look! I’m transcending genre!’ On hand to sketch the performance, and Rawson’s subsequent tussle with Helen Garner, was artist Jeffrey D. Phillips, whose controversial portrait of Tim Winton had recently been slashed by an irate Penguin editor, costing him the Archibald Prize. Writer and academic Dave Drayton was next to be recruited. O’Neill had first come across Drayton during the writing of Their Brilliant Careers when he discovered Drayton was writing a full length biography of Arthur ruhtrA. Sadly, Drayton’s project never saw the light of day; after he mysteriously fell down several flights of stairs, his ruhtrA archive was stolen by persons unknown. Following six months of physical therapy, Drayton joined the group as archivist, though his recurring short-term memory loss due to his injuries means he has to be constantly reminded of this. Narrowly avoiding several such accidents himself, the New Zealand-born short story writer Nic Low had made several explosive discoveries regarding Australia’s literary history,[4] the repercussions of which have still to be fully understood. Low was eager to join the group, despite his suspicion that he had seen Robert Skinner before, in several places in fact, and always shortly before an accident which had nearly claimed Low’s life. Not long after Drayton’s admission to the group, William Yeoman, a Perth journalist and literary editor, was asked to join. Yeoman’s sublime essay on ruhtrA’s “symphony written on a toilet” Bowel Movements has long been considered to be the last word on the subject.

The group’s first meeting was held at a secret location in Sydney on 11 August 2015, which would have marked Arthur ruhtrA’s 75th birthday. The first decision made at this inaugural meeting was to write a manifesto which would set out the group’s aims in transforming Australian literature. The second was to send Robert Skinner out for coffee. The third was to limit the number of members in the group to twelve. The final two members to be inducted into the group were Tom Cho and Elizabeth Tan. Cho’s Look Who’s Morphing was a hugely influential text, its explorations of identity recalling ruhtrA’s Exercises in Style, and yet never straying far from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Tan’s Rubik displayed all the best qualities of ruhtrA’s writing, formal inventiveness, an obsession with language, and an absence of kangaroos.

Since then the group has met each month to plan and implement its endless war against the barren conventions of Australian literary realism. The Oulipo was once described as ‘rats who build the labyrinth from which they try to escape’ but the Kanganoulipo are, in the immortal words of Arhur ruhtrA, koalas who grow the gum trees they wish to climb.

 

[1] O’Neill, R. (2017) Their Careers Go Bung. Melbourne: Black Inc.

[2] Patrick White.

[3] Just $26.99 at all good bookshops.

[4] Low’s discovery and publicising of the New Writing for the Real Australia manifesto anticipated my own publication on this remarkable document by only a few days. (I was aware of Low’s research even as I rushed to complete my own.) Low is to be congratulated on his success, and the several fortunate escapes from car crashes, falling masonry, accidental poisoning and drowning which has (so far) allowed him to enjoy it.

 

The Crew

Tom Cho’s current project is a “novel” about the meaning of life. His “full-length” debut was the collection of fictions Look Who’s Morphing, which was “shortlisted” for various literary awards. Tom has “many” published fiction pieces in magazines and anthologies, and he also has a PhD in “Professional Writing”. “Originally” from “Australia” and now based in “Canada”, his website is at tomcho.com.

Eric Yoshiaki Dando is fundamentally OK.

Unsatisfied with the bleak fate assigned him in Stephen King’s horror novella The Mist, David “Dave” Drayton left those pages and the small town of Bridgton, Maine, to make a life composing cut-out works from the pages of Stephen King books. To date these include P(oe)Ms (Rabbit Poetry), Haiturograms (Stale Objects dePress) and Poetic Pentagons (Spacecraft Press).

As a creative writing student of acclaimed author J Fenwick Anderson, Julie Koh used her time at university wisely – blackmailing her classmates into assigning copyright in their short stories to her. She then assembled this body of work into three critically acclaimed short-story collections bearing her name: Capital Misfits, Portable Curiosities and Adjective Plural Noun. Critics have described her work as "stylistically diverse" and reminiscent of the fiction of Jane Rawson. The searing multidisciplinary nature of Koh’s work, often compared to the music of Bob Dylan, led Adjective Plural Noun to become the first book in history to win a PGA Championship. In one of the great friendly rivalries of the twenty-first century, Koh narrowly beat Ryan O’Neill in January 2017 to become the most arrested and acquitted writer–golfer in the history of Australian literature. She is still under suspicion for the murder of fellow emerging writer, Adelaide Hegarty. In her spare time, Koh is a keen bird-watcher and white supremacist. When asked about Koh, O’Neill has repeatedly and affectionately referred to her as "that murderous, gimmicky, social-climbing hussy who makes immigrants everywhere so difficult to love".

Patrick Lenton is the non-de-plume of Tad Bracket, one of the superstar teens from Australia's only poetry boyband The Bracket Creeps. Tad Bracket famously left the band mid-stadium tour of the USA and announced that he was devoting his life to literature and leaving the lucrative world of poetry boybands behind forever. His work has been described as 'a profoundly narcissistic confection of air and confusion, that shines a horrifying life on the life of teen poetry celebrities'. He was shortlisted for The Nickelodeon's Teen Choice Award "The Only Book We Read This Year" and was slimed on stage in early 2007.  In 2010 he was forced to apologise to David Malouf after trespassing onto his land and repeatedly challenging him to a rap battle.

Nic Low is a writer of satire, wilderness and apocalypse, and the mongrel descendent of Scottish farmers, Maori explorers, Shetland Island fishermen, Sioux Indian whalers, French Hugenot refugees, English school teachers and Polish carpenters, all gathered together into the mind and body of a twelve-year-old boy. His first collection of short fiction, Arms Race, was shortlisted for the Readings Prize and Queensland Literary Awards, and named an Australian Book Review and NZ Listener book of the year. He's currently writing his second book, an indigenous history of New Zealand's Southern Alps, told through walking journeys. When not writing he campaigns tirelessly against SLAMR literature: Slice-of-Life Anglo-Micro-Realism. 

Ryan O’Neill is the award-winning author of several nonfiction books including Ordinary People Doing Everyday Things in Commonplace Settings: A History of Australian Short Fiction, and Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers as well as the short story collections The Weight of a Human Heart, and forthcoming The Drover’s Wives. His fiction has been described as “refreshing, funny, devastating” (Megan Mayhew Bergman) “acerbic, playful and serious” (Cate Kennedy) and “Stop harassing me, I will never give you a blurb, you desperate hack” (Tim Winton). O’Neill is currently working on a memoir describing the months he spent in France with his late wife, Rachel Deverall. Me, Moi, R: A Memoir will be released in 2018.

Jeffrey D. Phillips takes the cake.

Jane Rawson was formed in 2002 by a group of struggling middle-aged experimental flash fiction writers who had drunk too much cheap beer. Facing the impossibility of ever being published in a literary culture dedicated to young debut novelists and heavyweights with beachside homes, and inspired by the work of experimentalists like Arthur ruhtrA, they selected several of their unpublished stories at random, taped them together, then retyped the novel-length manuscripts. These were submitted to publishers under the name Jane Rawson (the name was selected as being an appropriate mix of Nordic pretension and English blandness). Works published by the collective so far include Formaldehyde, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, and From the Wreck. All three have been described by unusually perceptive critics as "just really disjointed". Jane Rawson is not to be confused with Jane Rawson who, since 2009, has – upsettingly – had her clearly surrealist speculative short stories published in a number of actual literary journals (see, for example, ‘In Registry’ in The Sleepers Almanac, ‘We saw the same sky’ in Overland and ‘Lake’ in Review of Australian Fiction). In 2017, Jane Rawson the short story writer successfully sued Jane Rawson the collective for the return of her name, but it seems unlikely she will use it to create any new works.

Robert Skinner has been heard of.

Elizabeth Tan is a glitch in the operating system of a Perth-dwelling human, responsible for generating the novel-in-stories Rubik (2017, Brio) and the webcomic Mais Pourquoi. Elizabeth Tan's fiction has been published in Voiceworks, The Lifted Brow, Westerly, The Sleepers Almanac, Overland, Pencilled In, Tincture, and Best Australian Stories 2016.

William Yeoman is The West Australian’s arts writer and literary editor, though he’s been forced to temporarily step aside from the latter role due to potential conflicts of interest relating to his controversial appointment as guest curator of the 2018 Perth Festival Writers Week. So don’t ask him to review your book. And anyway, his sentences are too long and clunky, he splits infinitives with impunity and he is still bitter that his biography of his father, the distinguished West Australian shearer, avant-garde bush poet and follower of Arthur ruhtrA, Bob “Widecomb” Pollock, has yet to find a publisher (hint hint).