Foreword for 'The Best of The Lifted Brow: Volume Two', by Amy Gray

The Best of The Lifted Brow: Volume Two is coming out next week! We’re so thrilled that we're going to give you another sneak peek at some of what this book has to offer.

This week we're sharing its foreword, written by the one-and-only Amy Gray. "Ideas are for playing – they stretch and crack and make all sorts of mess." Buckle up, because it's a good'un.

For information about the Melbourne and Brisbane launches of The Best of The Lifted Brow: Volume Two please see the end of this post.

As a kid, my bedroom had that honeyed musk of someone who hadn’t yet learned to smoke but knew to eschew others by holing up in my room. There I could continue turning the dial on a radio that I would never switch off.

Along the AM band the flat sand of male voices spoke so slowly you could count the seconds like they were grains on a beach. The FM was different, solely for the fact that it contained more music, some of it even new, with a smattering of hyper-smooth disc jockeys and hyuks-hyuks.

These things were stable constants for me – the drone I’d hear from the backseat of a Datsun 200B as I got dropped off at the train station. Patrician voices and inescapable songs more uniform than what I wore to school. Earnest ’60s rock, smug ’70s dinner party tracks laced with saxophone, and frenetic ’80s rock-pop.

One night I strayed from the radio stations my sisters had taught me were cool and travelled from one slow turn of the dial to the other, to see if any clarity could be wrought from the chaos of static.

That hiss was punctured by the cacophony of discordant jangling of Cabaret Voltaire. The radio frequencies aligned right before their sound faded into the intro for cult Melbourne radio show Danger: Low Brow. The chatter of the hosts – a mix of laconic Strine and competitive yelling – sucked the safe taste out of my lungs, dumping a dented garbage tin of trash rock and metal in its place. I’ve wanted to scream ever since.

This was a thrill more shocking and pure than my first orgasm. Everything and anything was up for discussion on this show. It elevated the trash I loved that I’d learned to hide from friends – the Danger: Low Brow crew discussed this subject matter with pure artistic and intellectual adoration.

Theirs wasn’t a world where artists were required to bend to some classical white European view – they spoke of unknown bands and books and B movies, twisting my mind with the possibilities of a new world. Excitingly, it dawned on me that perhaps I could make friends with other people whose cultural leanings weren’t inherited but instead came from mischievous curiosity. In anticipation I changed my writing style to match host Leaping Larry L’s lung-emptying, complex snark.

Things were different for me from that fateful Sunday night: it was like I’d found life on Mars and at the same time someone had slipped me a oneway ticket to join them.

Discovering The Lifted Brow was just as revelatory – another chance discovery: an uncovered bounty in the Hill of Content bookshop here in Melbourne. The magazine’s cleanly-folded newsprint pages would crumple and smear in my greedy hands.

The Lifted Brow is a big black obelisk for its readers, for its devoted staff, and for its writers, always urging them to do more and expect better. It is a catalysing masthead – a publication run by editors who truly care, which is an increasingly alien feeling compared to the breakneck pace of news and online media.

The essay of mine of which I’m most proud was the first I wrote for The Lifted Brow. The sea of red suggestions and comments in the first edit I was sent felled me before I dove in to find Stephanie Van Schilt and Sam Cooney were mainly just asking me questions, prompting me to consider deeply what I really wanted to say with this piece. Having experienced the breadth of editorial feedback in my career to that point, from barely-touched pages to intrusive over-editing, this was the one experience where I could see that the editors believed in my ideas and how I wanted to express them, and were as invested as I was in finding their best forms.

Their considerate editing made me realise something incredibly important about writing and also about the Brow: they understand that what makes a piece of writing brilliant isn’t expression alone. Euphony counts for nowt if there’s nothing behind its basic pleasure.

The Lifted Brow is a celebration of thought. And they push that celebration as far as possible, not just for the writers, poets, and illustrators, but for Australia as a literary culture.

Much is made of Australia’s cultural cringe: the pleading eyes from TV hosts asking international celebrities if they like our country; the endless aping of classical European styles and American flash while ignoring the richness in our everyday; the ongoing disregard for the Indigenous culture that flourished for 80,000 years before a pale, stockinged foot touched the shore.

In contrast to this cultural cringe, The Lifted Brow champions local voices and thought as equally valid as any around the globe. They believe that every expression of Australian culture is worthy of exploration and veneration – and often with a bit of cheek thrown in too. Each page of each issue contains a world of nonchalant curiosity where anything could be the launch pad for more intelligent reverence, critique and expression.

Correspondingly, each page of this anthology you hold in your hands is full of these launch pads. Paola Balla’s homage to our natural expression and land in ‘Get Me Out of Here’ is a collection of sweet, homely assurances that contrast starkly with the horrid actions inflicted upon the woman in them, a woman seeking more than the world will give. The mundanity of recollection and with an honest vernacular we don’t ever see in our media (unless it’s played for laughs), Balla’s writing highlights the collective brutality of this country, expertly stitching small scenes across time to make a quilt that smothers white privilege.

So too with Ellena Savage’s piece, which takes lines from love-related emails and devilishly mashes them into a Joycean spree to which everyone can relate. The hedonism of desire, the self-immolation of humility building to an attraction we’ve all felt. While Balla’s writing may serve to initially censure, Savage’s comforts to similar effect. There is recognition in these pages: the writer sees you.

And this is the strange loop that The Lifted Brow brings, because you can damn well sniff its egalitarianism from the pages. Issues of the magazine are never a pronouncement on high from broadcaster to audience; the Brow knows its readers and writers are one and the same in so many ways. A conversation is taking place with each issue, one drawing in different people with little ceremony, the shared goal only to push ideas and culture forward.

You will often find big-name celebrities in the magazine, as you do in this anthology – Margaret Atwood’s Short Takes On Wolves is in here, for one – but you won’t ever find pandering.

Upulie Divisekera’s piece, a wondrous explanation of light, is so much more than the single topic it suggests – it trips through history and the universe itself, spilling more ideas than any one essay should contain. Divisekera scatters her ideas with the deliberate lineation of a scientist and the seemingly effortless lateral strokes of a painter.

Rosanna Stevens' meditation on menstruation feels revolutionary simply because it takes the unspoken and puts it through an academic examination, but always with the eye of a creative writer. When first published in The Lifted Brow, Stevens' essay electrified people because she had brought something wholly new and local to readers.

Flipping everything arse-about, Rebecca Harkins-Cross spins something so sublimely ridiculous, so irrepressibly mischievous, that it manages to jab at both high and lowbrow culture. There are so many turduckenesque levels of stirs and absurdity that the essay deserves its own passport – it is just so damned Australian, much more Australian than Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008).

Ideas are for playing – they stretch and crack and make all sorts of mess – and often it’s those people in search of their own unique frequency who know how to use them best, who know how to rescue clarity from the chaos of static.

The combination of sublime ideas and expression in the past five years of The Lifted Brow (like the previous five years) is telling you something: there’s life on Mars and you’re all invited.

Amy Gray is a Melbourne writer. She likes the colour black, cigarettes, coffee and clichés. Amy writes for The Age, The Guardian and other places.

We will be launching The Best of The Lifted Brow: Volume Two in Melbourne and Brisbane.

Melbourne's event will be held at Readings Carlton on November 9. Toni Jordan will launch the book and there will be readings by Khalid Warsame, Paola Balla and Zora Sanders.

Brisbane's event will be held at Avid Reader on November 16. Chris Currie will launch the book and there will be readings by Sam George-Allen and Chris Somerville (or someone else named Chris posing as Chris Somerville), plus an emerging writers salon programmed by Queensland Writer's Centre.