What I’ve Been Up To

What I’ve Been Up To

February 2023

It’s been over a year since I’ve updated this website, such a long time you’d think I’d have been ultra-busy with exciting writing adventures, but the time has passed quietly, slowly and somewhat flounderingly. For the first time in my writing life I’ve succumbed to ‘what’s the point?’ which means I’ve needed to spend a lot of time thinking about that answer. A few beautiful things happened, though.

In April 2022 my essay ‘The Giving and Taking Away of Voice: What art can do / what it can’t’ was shortlisted for ABR’s Calibre Prize, and three months later my essay ‘Selfish Ghosts’ won Island’s Nonfiction Prize. Both essays are part of a longer manuscript on art and illness and where the two meet (for me, they often meet in the works of Vincent van Gogh, who was posthumously (mis)diagnosed with Meniere’s disease, the illness I live with). I received Richard Llewellyn Deaf and Disability funding to finish the manuscript of mostly essays, and did just that in the Blue Mountains at Varuna on a Jerra Studio Fellowship. Note that there are poems, letters and a novella in the work, too – I love hybridity in writing about illness.

I was also shortlisted for the Red Room Fellowship, my proposed project normalising discussion on menopause. The epitaph to the Red Room-commissioned poem ‘But it’s not just when your period stops’ reads ‘These words – clipped, rearranged and formed anew – are the testimonies of ten women. Only tenses and pronouns have been changed.’ Oh, how I loved shaping their words into a poem! It was probably my most fulfilling creative moment of the year. You can read their words here:

https://redroompoetry.org/poets/heather-taylor-johnson/but-its-not-just-when-your-period-stops/ .

Lastly, I have a new book of poetry out, a collection called Alternative Hollywood Ending, and I’m sorry to say that though it was initially a response to Donald Trump’s election, the poems are eerily prescient today. With that I say: though the personal is always political and the political always personal, poetry is a very good medium.


November 9, 2021

I’ve launched a new book! And when so many of our families, friends and colleagues spent a large portion of the year in lockdown, what a privilege it was to do so at a live venue: The Wheatsheaf Hotel, a favourite among Adelaide’s literary scene, not to mention music lovers and craft beer connoisseurs.  My dearest friend Rachael Mead spoke about my verse novel Rhymes with Hyenas with enormous grace and I’m endlessly thankful for her close reading of the book and, more so, our friendship. I began the book in 2010, when I desperately wanted to go to a DH Lawrence conference and present something creative, so I came up with a plan to have the Brangwen sisters from his book Women in Love send poems and letters to each other. I got into the conference and the book took off from there. Albeit slowly, with huge breaks in between edits, and with edits I never trusted. I thank Shane Strange at Recent Work Press for agreeing to publish this book. I belly-laughed when he sent me the congratulations. I couldn’t believe the idea was going to be made into a real book after so many years of doubt. Penelope Layland was the most excellent editor. She asked a lot of questions about the narrative and made me realise how much work still needed doing if the vision was going to work. Rachael Mead and Alison Flett were enormous inspirations for the group dynamic among the women. The three of us used to be in a group called Edit When Sober and our connection through poetry spawned the most beautiful and strongest of friendships. I’ve dedicated the book to them because it has to be dedicated to them. I got to talk about the book at Avid Reader in Brisbane with stellar poet Ella Jeffery, and again a couple hours south on the gorgeous Lamb Island for the Island Storytellers Festival. Huge appreciation for both of those events. You can read all about Rhymes with Hyenas on the Poetry page on this website (or below, in last year’s update).

I’ve been writing and reading about visual art this year as I add the final essays to my manuscript Dear Vincent, a book which looks at art and chronic illness and where the two meet. I’m so excited to have been offered a fellowship at Varuna in 2022 to bring the book together. For two weeks I’ll be ensuring the thread that ties the essays (and poems and novella and letters to Van Gogh) together is a strong one. Pretty sure I’ll be focusing on Van Gogh’s haunting of me or my haunting of him, as he was misdiagnosed in 1990 with Meniere’s disease, my disease, one with vertigo and persistent noise in the affected ear, and what better place to do this than where the ghost of Eleanor Dark still lives. I have an affinity with ghosts; I lived in an old morgue in a Civil War town in Virginia when I was 20, and when I finish this book I plan to start work on a new novel: a ghost story.

September 11, 2020

It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated this page, mainly because editing a webpage takes me away from writing and makes me grumpy, but I’ve had some good news in the last two months that I’d like to share.

Jean Harley was Here has been optioned for a 7-part TV series. As part of the Queensland Writers Centre’s and Screen Queensland’s Adaptable program, I was given an opportunity to pitch my last novel to screen industry professionals (though virtually, as opposed to in-person at the Gold Coast Film Festival – unfortunately, thanks to COVID, my schmoozing dream shifted just a bit). Stephen Lance, Mairi Cameron and Leanne Tonkes are as excited as I am to resurrect Jean and spice her up for the screen, and it looks like I’ll be doing some co-writing, too. So excited to learn on the job. Watch this space!

2021 will see the publication of my next poetry collection, Alternative Hollywood Ending, through Wakefield Press. The chapbook of Trump poems I began as a coping mechanism at the end of 2016 has turned into a book critiquing ultra right-wing populism and highlighting concern for climate change, racism, sexism and all the other topics that seem to dominate my everyday thinking (you guessed it, a slathering of illness-related poems, too). It’s been an amazingly toxic yet highly progressive few years and with this collection I intend to join forces with other artists asking ‘what can we do?’ Make art. Keep on making art.

2021 will also see the publication of a book I’ve been working on, very on-and-off, for nine years (!!!) called Rhymes with Hyenas, through Recent Work Press. Imagine if famous female protagonists who were written by male authors transcended chronological and geographical barriers to come together through a poetry group in Adelaide. The book is a hybrid work of emails and poetry that gives a female voice to the following women: Ursula, the group’s organiser who questionably quotes directly from her text, DH Lawrence’s Women in Love; Caddy, from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, up to her breasts in mothering and homesick for her exiled Mississippi; Melanie, the minimalist who only writes for herself, from Coetzee’s Disgrace; Delores, made famous by Nabokov’s Lolita – she’s a spoken word artist interested in turning her stage poems to page poems; Katherina, just starting out as a poet and doing so out of pure desperation, from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (neither she nor Delores answer to their given nicknames of ‘Lolita’ and ‘Kate’); Lilith, from Hebrew mythology, who writes in sonnet suites about her late lover Eve. Together their poetry shows what complex, WHOLE characters these women are, while the epistolary narrative told through their emails considers the place of writing, critiquing, reading, performing and publishing poetry in a woman’s space, particularly in an Australian space.

January 14, 2019

I’m beginning this new year by continuing work on three projects: a novel about an Australian couple who fall apart after getting caught up in a gun massacre at the Guggenheim (which is emotionally heavy and spinning me out), an illness narrative about living with Meniere’s disease (which is a chronic illness that literally spins me out) and poetry responding to how dangerously ridiculous and ridiculously dangerous Trump is (and he is undoubtedly spinning us all out).

At the beginning of 2018 I was the Writer-in-Residence at the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, where I began researching and writing my new novel manuscript, The Guggenheim. You can read a bit about it here.


Have you heard that Vincent van Gogh might have had Meniere’s disease? Being an inner ear imbalance disorder, the vertiginous strokes in his paintings and the fact that he cut off his own ear could make sense, but after much research and having lived experience of the disease, I don’t believe it. Still, interesting fodder for a novella! You can find mine in this issue of the Griffith Review‘s Novella Project:


The novella is part of the larger illness narrative I’m working on, which so far includes essay and poetry as well. But is it a memoir? I still haven’t worked that out. Here’s one of the essays from TEXT:


I love thinking about the kind of work illness narratives do and I’m passionate about adding to the cannon of its literature. I’ve been to Oxford and Reykjavik to present at conferences on illness narrative and form. Here’s an adapted version of one of those papers – I rewrote it for the Sydney Review of Books to talk a bit about Shaping the Fractured Self: Poetry of Chronic Illness and Pain, which I conceived and edited and which just might be the most important work I will ever be associated with.


If Trump hears the words, ‘You’re fired’ this year, will I stop writing poetry about him? It’s not really about him; I’m not damning him but his world-vision, and I will continue to do so. He’s made me a more proactive poet (but I won’t thank him).