Taste, memory, chickpeas & Dorothy Porter

December 21, 2009

111. My Young Nose

Jerusalem has one delicious smell –

a fried chickpea
raucous savoury

cooked in tantalising mouthful balls
it sizzles aroma from grubby stalls

suffused with donkey and camel
my first taste of street falafel.

– From ‘Jerusalem‘, in The Bee Hut*

Dorothy Porter, the sassy, electrically vibrant poet and writer, died a little over a year ago. She was loved by many people; not just those who knew her, but her readers – and her students. I’m not sure if she taught regularly but many years ago, when she had just published a collection of poetry called Driving Too Fast, Dorothy Porter came to a university writing class of mine to give a one-hour workshop.

This was an important lesson for me as a young thing; not just about writing, but about sensitivity and compassion. I was in my early twenties, and most of the class were just out of school. But there was another woman, aged maybe about thirty-five or forty, in our class. I am ashamed to say she was pretty much routinely ignored by the younger people in the room. She was quiet, and seemed downcast much of the time.  There were occasional rumours about her being a junkie, and a single parent, but most of the time she was invisible to us. Except, that is, for the day Dot Porter came to class.

We did some writing exercise I now can’t remember, but it involved having to put some emotional truth on the page. Young people are not so equipped for emotional truth on the page, I recall from my own early writings and from much of what I’ve seen as a teacher. My own writing at that stage involved either still trying to protect myself from that kind of thing (truth, that is) and instead impress with my world-weariness or – sadly, I suspect, more often – I self-dramatised, exaggerating every workaday observation into Art, which at that age so often equated with Angst. Lyrical as hell, full of texture and colour and Beauteous Sensuous Detail but you know … lordy, I am weary just remembering it. Erk.

Anyway, we read our bits and pieces, desperate to impress Dorothy, who was kind and funny and sexy and generous. And then the woman we all ignored read; something simple – and if I had even paid it any attention, I would have presumed it dull – about loneliness. We rolled our eyes, if not directly at Dorothy, then at each other, or just in our own minds. And then I learned my lesson. Dorothy Porter rested her gaze – that powerful, thrilling gaze of hers – on this woman, and listened intently. Then she allowed a silence before praising the woman’s work. And then she said, looking coolly around the class at the rest of us, that throughout history artists had wrestled with the psychological and spiritual demons that this piece of writing – a truthful piece of writing – was showing us. And she turned her life-giving smile and warmth back to the woman and thanked her for her work.

A big, important, kick up the arse for young smartypantses, and I never forgot it.

From that day I was a huge fan of Dorothy’s, and was lucky enough to meet her a couple of times many years later, when I had published my own work. She was electric. Anybody who ever heard her read knows how the air crackled when Dorothy spoke. It’s what I remember most – the physical charge you felt fizzing through you when she read poetry.

A few weeks ago I went to the new Meanjin Dorothy Porter Prize announcement here in Sydney, where the writer Andrea Goldsmith, Dorothy’s beloved partner, spoke of ‘Dot’, as those close to her knew her, and read from her posthumously published new collection, The Bee Hut. This collection is pretty breathtaking. If you’ve sometimes felt shut out from poetry, as I occasionally do, buy this book. You will be drawn in and demolished by it.

The other day I heard Andrea Goldsmith (whose own novel Reunion is urgently on my must-read list)  talk about writing, about grief and about Dorothy, and read from The Bee Hut on The Book Show. The interview is riveting; her reading of Dorothy’s ‘The Ninth Hour’ is devastating.

Anyway – I thought of Dorothy Porter the other night, because I was making chickpeas for dinner. Not falafel – I tried that a few weeks ago and ended up with a miserable disaster as they repeatedly dissolved into a fizzy mess – but an easy chickpea fritter. It’s quite delicious, and holds together just fine. We gobbled up lots, and then froze the leftover mix for later.

Chick pea fritters – makes about 16 biggish fritters

  • 2 cans chickpeas, rinsed & drained
  • 1 leek, finely chopped
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 1-2 tsp cumin
  • 1-2 tsp ground coriander
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, grated
  • 2 baby fennel bulbs, finely chopped
  • ½ bunch parsley / coriander, finely chopped
  • 3 eggs, lightly whisked
  • 3 tablespoons rice flour
  • salt & pepper
  • rice bran or vegetable oil

1. Gently fry onion, garlic, leek & fennel in a little olive oil with cumin & coriander for a few minutes.

2. While that’s cooking, roughly mash chickpeas with a potato masher.

3. Mix together chickpeas, onion mix, carrots & fennel and herbs till well combined.

4. Add eggs, then flour, and mix well, then season. Clump mixture into a ball – if it seems too loose, add another egg & a little more flour. Form mix into flattish fritters.

5. Heat a centimetre of rice bran or veg oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. When hot, cook fritters a few at a time, turning once. Drain well on kitchen paper.

Serve with salad and a dollop of yoghurt sauce: mix yoghurt with finely chopped dill or any other soft herb, a drip of honey and lots of sea salt.

* My thanks to Andrea Goldsmith for generously allowing the reproduction of Dorothy’s poem here.

Woops, forgot the Christmas Excess Antidote.

Try this one, which I found via stonesoup – food bloggers around the world do this nice thing each year,  called Menu for Hope, which raises money for the UN World Food Program. An excellent cause, I am sure you agree. Give it a shot – you can donate any small amount you wish, I think. I just did fifty bucks, which makes me rest a teensy bit easier about all the money our family is spending on lavish food this Christmas.


  1. I have often said one of the benefits of an inadequate education is to be introduced to gifted artists when one is older and able to appreciate them more fully. I must say, I am not very conversant with contemporary poetry. Many thanks for both the introduction to Dorothy Porter (and for the chickpea fritter recipe!). I will definitely follow up with both.

  2. Hi Charlotte,

    I loved this post on Dorothy Porter – ‘The Bee Hut’ is in my Top 5 books of 2009 (as is ‘Reunion’ by Andrea Goldsmith).

    And I’ll have to give that recipe a go as well!


    – Nigel

  3. Not many cooky blogs make you want to rush out and buy a book of poetry, but you have. Beautiful post Charlotte.

    The last collection I was consumed by (though half resented it)was Ted Hughes Birthday letters. I found Reunion a captivating and unusual Australian novel.

    Chick peas – as distinct from chick lit – rule. I can now confide my falafel also suffer a lack of structural integrity. The sideways fritter sounds the way to go. And that youghurt’s crying out for mint.Will definitely make.

  4. I heard that podcast too on The Book Show, it was pretty amazing…

    It’s heartening to know that so many gifted writers may have started writing young but only achieved that depth you’re talking about later on. I cringe at some of the stuff I used to write (yeah- the self-conscious world weariness, looking for depth and intensity in the most banal of situations, when I really should have been organising picnics or relaxing and enjoying myself -the early 20s- and not searching for so much angst)

    At uni we too were a bit disdainful of the mature age students, with their complicated, incomprehensible lives (single mothers, jobs, kids to go home to, husbands and wives and their whole grownup histories). Shame on us!!!

  5. The chickpea fritters look delicious and healthy. Do you suppose they will atone for the bucket load of rum balls I made (ate) this afternoon?

    Thanks for your recent visit to Literary Feast, lots of food for thought.

  6. Thanks all – am glad to hear this has spread word of DP poetry a little further afield. And Rubyfire, coming and talking books at Literary Feast is always a pleasure.

    The chickpea fritters look healthy but don’t taste it, if you know what i mean – lots of flavour and, given the fritteredness, fair amount of decadence. Plonk that yoghurt dressing on and it’s a fatfest, basically. In a good way, of course…

  7. That ‘Ninth Hour’ reading by Andrea left me gasping. I heard Dorothy read years ago at one of the first Brisbane festivals down on the river bank. Then she read Ginsgerg’s ‘Howl’. There wasn’t a dry seat in the house and it received uproarious applause. To hear that poem there, in the town that a whole generation had fled in cultural desperation 10 years earlier, put me into an emotional spin.

    Afterwards, being a baby agent, I found myself standing beside Dorothy and Andrea with a group of authors and other agents. I was so affected by her reading that I just couldn’t think of anything glib or groovy to say in that company. All I can remember is that I when I was introduced, I was consumed by a wave of tenderness and I heard my timid little girl voice ask if I could hug her. She didn’t shink away from my stalky weird request – she looked into my brimming eyes, then turned up her palms and invited a stranger put their arms around her and hold on tight. I’ll never forget the feeling of being inside her forcefield.

    Vale DP.

  8. Oh – and BTW – I was one of those mature age students surrounded by smartypants younguns, and what you mistook for tragic loneliness was infact smug superioroity. Edumcation is wasted on youth. I found ‘Paradise Lost’ at Uni – for the children, it remained a mystery. Likewise Proust. How the hell can you possibly comprehend ‘In Search of Lost Time’ when you have all the time in the world?

  9. All this has stirred a lot of memories for me. I was lucky enough to meet DP when I hooked a ride with David who had a 3 week residency. She and Jonathan Mills were putting their final touches to Eternity Man. As you all know she was very open and generous and David fell in love with her. He cooked her special vegetarian meals because she didn’t eat meet. We were heartbroken to hear she had gone. As for ‘Jerusalem’ – i spent 3 weeks there about 10 years ago.The street food was fantastic. I lived off felafels. I can’t believe DP wrote a poem about this. As a mature aged student of the 70’s I well remember the deep divide between them (young ones) and us. MAS’s spent most of their time in the library photocopying stuff out of text books, ti read after they had put their children to bed. MAS’s took up a whole row in the big lecture hall 08101 – The West in Early Modern Times – grouped together for safety I guess.A tutor once told me not to worry about a difficulty I was having understanding a poet, because, he said with a sneer, it’s well known that married women to better than other students. The implication is we were all being supported by wealth spouses and had oodles of time to frit about at uni.Well I’m so glad to have got all that off my chest. Thanks Charlotte

  10. Lovely posts, Eileen & Annette. And so interesting, isn’t it, the mature age student thing. It’s why I can’t bear all the HSC hand-wringing and misery that comes if someone doesn’t do well and can’t get into this or that course – I always tell them it’s waaaaay better if they go to uni later, when they can actually love it. Here’s to Dot once more for making us think about it.

  11. […] The other night, after some initial reluctance the younger one happily chowed down on some chickpea fritters; convinced to try one, she plunged in for […]

  12. […] 6, 2010 Regular visitors to this blog will know that I am an avid fan of the legume (see here, here, here and here, just for a few […]

  13. Charlotte, I stumbled on your website today and such pleasure it has brought me. I confess that most of 2009 is a blur and I don’t remember your contacting me. I will try the chickpea fritters – like Dot I, too, am a vegetarian – but food aside I have loved reading all these memories of Dot. She was a generous teacher, always blunt and fearless, and yes, a mesmerising reader. She loved trawling the web and would have delighted in the posts here.

    I was browsing today to see what had been written about her new collection. Simply called LOVE POEMS, I have brought together all her love poems starting from her first collection, Little Hoodlum, published in 1975 when she was a baby poet of 21, to her last, The Bee Hut published last year. LOVE POEMS is published by Black Inc and it is wonderful. We all miss her enormously, but the poetry helps – it certainly helps me, and these luscious, edgy poems of love most of all. Anyway thank you and all the people who have written here.

    • Andrea, I’m thrilled you dropped by. Thank you so much. And Dorothy’s new collection sounds beautiful, I am definitely getting my hands on it as soon as possible. (We did the permission thing via Dot’s agent Jenny Darling so I’m not surprised you don’t remember, the release of The Bee Hut must have been a very tumultuous time for you.)

      I’m glad you got to read all the other loving words about Dot here too. Best wishes to you, and for Dot’s new book.

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