4 weeks in the ghost house: Writing in Residence at Mattie Furphy House

It’s a wintry day, but the sharp Perth light pushes its way through the clouds onto my donated desk, a yellowed pine dining table. The antique table and chairs in the corner are roped off, presumably too fragile or precious to sit at, but not sacred: powerboards, papers and stationery obscure the white lace tablecloth. At my back a brick fireplace is surrounded by copper-panel grapevines and burnished jarrah. In one corner a cheap fan heater oscillates hesitantly.

I’m almost at the end of four weeks’ residency at the Fellowship of Australian Writers WA (FAWWA). I’ve been living and working at their writers centre in the Allen Park Heritage Precinct, hidden behind the trees at the beachward end of Wood Street in the upper-middle-class Perth suburb of Swanbourne.

The Fellowship have two houses here: Tom Collins House and Mattie Furphy House. Their denizens call them Tom’s and Mattie’s. I’m living and working in Mattie’s, which was built between 1908 and the 1920s by Joseph Furphy, aka novelist Tom Collins, for the copper-panel artist Mattie Furphy (nee McCausland), the wife of Joseph’s son Samuel. The Furphys built the house in Clement Street, five minutes’ leafy walk away, but in 2005 the Fellowship rescued it from the McMansion-developers, moved it here and spent seven years restoring it. In March 2012 they launched it as the Mattie Furphy Centre for Creative Imagining.

There are quarters for the resident writer, a kitchen and two work rooms. I’m sitting in the smaller work room, once the family dining room. It’s is big enough for a small workshop or conference, but I’ve appropriated it as my office. I call it the sunshine room. Outside the cream-painted windows and French doors there are jarrahs and marris, green plastic tree-guards, walking paths, a pile of planks, a stack of bricks, and Tom’s in its white-weatherboard red-roof mediocrity, leaves piling up in its gutter. There’s one car: a battered wagon belonging to FAWWA’s caretaker, the poet Peter Bibby, who’s away at the moment.

I’m hankering to finish a particular poem, but that can’t be done quickly, so I’ve delegated it to my subconscious for the time being while I reflect on my stay here.

Everyone I meet says, ‘How’s the residency? How’s the writing going? I’ll bet you’re getting lots written. Not having any distractions must be nice.’

Well, yes and no.

Yes, I’ve done lots of writing. I’ve written every day, worked on many different poems, made a zine and started this blog. I brought in Seventh Continent Productions to film a performance video. Because I have to write a report I started keeping a logbook to track my work, and that’s been so encouraging that I’m going to keep it up after I leave. Being my own manager, I can’t stay away from email for longer than a few days, but I’ve kept away from the rest of the Internet as much as I can. I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking. My writing journal and logbook are electronic, which makes it easy to tag and search, and the last four weeks are full of Poems, Opportunities, Things Learned, Ideas and Insights. I get to be only a writer except when my kids call me — it’s opulent luxury!

But it’s not true that there are no distractions. I’m living in a writers centre! People come and go, especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays when the office in Tom’s is open and busy with volunteers. On Tuesdays lunch is served for the volunteers: good bread and homemade soup set out on placemats for ten or more seated around the sagging main table among the antique furniture in the front room at Tom’s. When it’s time for soup someone wanders over and taps on my window.

And guess what happens? I get talking! People can be very distracting. On the other hand, they give me ideas, energy and drive, especially when they’re the ones who did so much tedious grant-writing and — how can I put this nicely? — networking, in order to get my funding.

People also come in for workshops and mentoring sessions. Some are mine, as required by my contract, and some are run by others. While I’ve been here there have been several meetings and workshops complete with teamaking and noise (and some useful contacts for me).

Most events are held in Mattie’s front room, a big, beautiful, timber-scented room with a mirrored fireplace. If it were mine I’d bring in overstuffed leather couches, funny little tables, brass candlesticks and portraits of dead poets — but that’s not going to happen, because its size and acoustics make it perfect for classes and meetings as well as intimate performance events like readings, house concerts or book launches (and yes, you can hire it). So it’s furnished with stackable chairs and plastic trestle tables.

But most of the time I’ve been alone with the walls. And the floors. And the chairs. And the cushions. Are you getting the idea? The biggest distraction is the house itself. I meant to tell you all about my writing and activities and my ideas for the writers centre, but — rather like the Fellowship itself — I seem be kind of stuck on the house.

From outside Mattie’s house looks empty, unused. The wide front verandah contains two ratty doormats and a picnic table. That’s all. It could use some seating, perhaps some potted plants, and a big friendly sign on the front. But I suspect that would require formfilling, phone calls and long difficult meetings with the local authorities. Welcoming signs are definitely not the civic style around here. The whole suburb is as smoothly groomed as the dogs and owners who walk, jog and personal-train on the oval outside my bedroom window. From the street there’s no evidence that a writers centre lurks behind the vegetation. A small sign near the house says ‘Beware of Venomous Snakes’: if I added ‘and Poets’ it’d be the only graf for miles.

People say there’s a ghost here, but I haven’t seen it. I think the house itself is the ghost, caught between two worlds, the past and the future, unsure of how to move on.

Here’s an idea for you, ghost. I can Creatively Imagine this house as a drop-in centre for writers, open all weekend every weekend, with a roster of experienced writers in attendance, with formal and informal talks, discussions, readings and workshops, with quiet writing times, with ambient music, with a lending library (gold coin donation?), with a book and zine sales table in one corner, and in the entrance a large, prominent box with a slot in the top, into which the community who love coming here contribute according to their not inconsiderable means to keep the centre going.

Making something like that a reality wouldn’t take much funding, just time, enthusiasm, organisation and community connection. But it’s just one idea.

The writer-in-residence coming in after me is another career writer and educator, Horst Kornberger. It’s Friday morning, so he’s here now, teaching his year-long course ‘The Writers Passage’. He has at least fifteen enthusiastic students. I can tell when he takes a break by the eruption of noise around the tea urn. I ask him what he thinks of the house. ‘This place was conceived, built and used by artists’, he says, ‘and should continue to be used by artists. It has a potent spirit of place, a powerful creative effect.’

This being Perth, the sun has come out. It’s shining on the jamjar vase of foliage and flowers I’ve stolen from nearby houses with more garden than they need. In a minute I’ll go into the gloriously modern kitchen and make a snack. Then maybe I’ll walk down and look at the sea. After that, I suspect I’ll get my poem finished.

Gripping the bark

I sit in my layers of clothes
as the storm sucks and exhales
The wooden windows bump
and rain caws on the corrugated roof

I wonder what the ravens are doing
I suppose they’re in a huddle
in the northeastern quarter
of a strong tree with thick foliage,
gripping the bark with their claws,
hunching their heads in their wingpits
and fluffing their down

I hope the slanting tracks of their feathers
don’t leak