Category Archives: PhD

Safe Haven

Hand holding pozible rewardsI’ve finally completed my pozible rewards. It took 3 months, partly because promising to write poems is completely different from actually writing them, and partly because two weeks after I came home I ended up in emergency surgery (all ok now). So. Rewards took a back seat. But now they’re done. And this is the final final reward, for my single $250 supporter, the very wonderful (not least because she’s my Aunt) Moiya Ford. As promised, this is a blog post for you, with your poem.

I asked my $100 and $250 supporters to give me three words to weave into a poem that I would write for them, but try as she might, the weren’t coming for Moiya. So I have written a poem, in some ways, with no words. No words given, but words that came. This is Safe Haven, for Moiya, with love, and thanks.

Safe Haven

On the double decker bus, in the jet lag
drown, I sit on a seat with a split.
It seeps old water, and wets me without caring.

I am plugged in to a headset, listening to a recording
of a woman telling me I must try Bacalhau, salted cod.
My jeans are wet from hip to knee.
I perch weirdly on one side, hoping that the sun
and wind will dry me.

Next she tells me the story of Fado, the song of the people,
and talks about roosters, and 550,000 people in the city,
and 3 million in Lisbon and surrounds (those seven hills).

Ulysses stopped here. And I wonder, what did he want?
How did he stop? What hill did his foot undo?

Jeans are still wet. I unplug. I move to a different seat.
This seat is split too. I lean again, so the water can’t seep.

St. Anthony, she says, is the patron saint of Lisbon. Lost object
finder, saviour of small things. She says the word Lisbon is thought
to be Venetian: safe haven, she thinks is its meaning.

We finish our circuit. She starts again. I unplug.
Jeans almost dry.

Later, I try salted cod. It is fleshy, fat, tongue squint.
Later, my jeans dry.
Later, jetlag leaves.
Later, at the Feira Da Ladra, I find small lost things
to take home to my children, my lover, my sister, my friends

a deep tinted photo of the initiate’s well in Sintra.
A plaster Mary holding her baby to be hung on a Coburg wall.
Three glazed fish and six glazed cicadas from the coast,
in blood red, and olive green, and sea blue.

Later, I buy a metal rooster brightly dotted to attach to my keys,
and when I drive up Sydney Road it plickers and plings.

Safe haven. Lost things. Dry jeans.


On success, and over-achieving, and the salvaging of a life

English: Pennisetum clandestinum (with Mynah e...

Almost two weeks ago I wrote a post on rejection and disappointment. I was suffering, and weepy, and exhausted. Writing it made me feel better, as did the love of my partner and friends, performing some of my work outside of academia, and some very strong cups of tea.

And then I received this comment, from ‘S’.

OMG, sorry I realise you are going through a tough time but I find it hard to empathise with you- you’ve listed all your achievements in your Phd and it reads like a list of an over-achiever….how do you manage all this with kids? I’m pleased if I even make it to campus on a good day. I’d be dancing if I managed to achieve 1/2 of what you’ve achieved and so would many people that don’t have kids.

And I was kind of thrown back there all over again. I admit, after I’d listed all the things that had gone well in the last six months, I failed to show sufficient gratitude/amazement/humble joy. I was too tired. What I said, after that long list, was that it “was ok”. I probably should have said it was spectacular and I could hardly believe how fantastically lucky and blessed I was, but I didn’t have it in me. Also, I often find success much harder than failure. I have failed, often and well, for most of my life. When someone actually wants to publish some of my work, or better yet, someone reads some of my work, and then talks to me about it, I am often besieged with a kind of pre-emptive, gut-wrenching grief laced with shame. Where does this particular feeling that really has no word to describe it come from? It comes from a life aching towards writing, and wanting to be read, and not being. Nearly always. It comes from knowing that this brief, shining, wren’s egg moment, all blue and translucent and lighter than nearly everything I’ve ever held, is about to break; that success is a quick bright thing, that will always be replaced with a return to the slog.

So yes, at that moment, all I could say was that the journal, and the publications, and the teaching experience, and the international conference, were ok. Because they were. And because they took a great toll. And because I was completely and utterly spent. And because as well as managing all of those varied, thrilling (but kind of empty) moments, I was struggling with asthma that was so bad I spent one afternoon in emergency, canulated, unable to say more than two words without gasping. And because every other member of my family was also struggling with their health (and not just in a I-have-a-head-cold kind of way).

I read that comment and got it again. That rush of grief and shame. But not from success this time. This rush (the tingling in my scalp, the clenching stomach, my burning cheeks) was from being torn down. I’ve felt it before; I know it well. I couldn’t work out where the tearing was though, so I gave this reply, and tried to leave it alone.

I guess everything’s relative. Yes it’s a big list of achievements, and I manage it because I have to. I’ll be 39 this year, I’m facing a job market at the end of my PhD that has slim offerings at best, I’ve been either unemployed or a casual employee for most of my adult life (the joys of being a writer), and this is my shot at a career. So yes, I take it seriously, and work my guts out. Those achievements don’t mean I don’t suffer when I hit bumps in the road…

I couldn’t leave it alone. I felt angry, and wronged, but couldn’t work out why. It was something to do with that term: over-achiever (and in this case, the three ellipses that spooled out after it; oh that pause). I niggled at it, because it’s a term that’s been applied to me before, and one that I’ve never liked. But why? What’s wrong with it? And then a friend said this:

“You’re not an over-achiever, Karina. You’re a high achiever. There’s a difference.”

And suddenly it made sense. He was right. It was the word ‘over’ that I took umbrage to, and deeply. And also the sense that I was being told that I had no right to my hurts and disappointments in the face of so much achievement.

Yes, I’m a high achiever. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel battered when I don’t hit the mark. And what is it about those achievements that makes others want to pull me down? I don’t do what I do to make others feel badly about what they don’t do. I do what I do because I must. Because I spent most of my adult life in severe untreatable depression, in a melancholy so deep I could barely move. And there was no writing. No text spooling from these fingers. Just a vague memory of having wanted to write.

Occasionally that vague memory would turn razor sharp and slice me open. I remember very clearly watching the movie Iris one day. It came on the telly and I was still in my pyjamas, comatose on the couch. I watched, and saw a woman writing, fairly up to her elbows in words, and I sobbed with the deep and sudden grief of having lost more than I could ever quantify.

Yes, I’m a high achiever. I’ve got so much lost time to make up for it’s ridiculous. And this life I’ve had, of mental illness, and wrenching pain, and oblivion-seeking, and then the love of my life (who is patience, and depth, and the smell of sun on skin) and those children of mine (button-bright, back-jumping, monkey-screeching, banshee-hugging) have made me. And now, finally, I write.

So this is what I think. I’m new at all this. I’m learning how to deal with rejection, and rejection is spectacular. Rejection means I’ve written something, that went into the world, to be rejected. I’m also learning that if I put my stuff out there, some people will want to bring me, or my work, down. And that’s how it is. I especially like this little pearl of internet advice-for-writers goodness that landed on my screen tonight out of sheer serendipity:

…on mean commenters: Don’t internalize the crackpottery of others; on grad school: You’re not loving grad school? It might be just that you need to give it time. It might be that it’s not a fit, and you should leave. You can’t really know which it is yet, most likely; on success: You are not supposed to have success. You’re supposed to have a life.

And I have a life. An amazingly good one, that most days, I’m incredibly grateful for.

PS: if you’re going to comment on this, please remember that there is a real person reading your words, and if you wouldn’t say to me in person what you’re about to write, then please, refrain.

On rejection and disappointment


Ditch (Photo credit: Ben Bunch)

I’m battered, and bruised, and in the market for a thicker skin.

I sat down this morning to write, and found that I needed to blog instead. Where I’d like to start is this: doing a PhD is not just doing a PhD. When I first started I read lots and lots of PhD advice, especially on The Thesis Whisperer, and I took it to heart. I don’t just want a publication at the end of this; I want teaching experience, and connections with peers working in similar areas, and some conferences under my belt, and a job.

In the last two years I’ve published six papers from my PhD (some of them are still in the pipes). I just finished my first semester of teaching. I’m the Faculty representative for our Faculty Higher Degrees Research Committee. I won the Faculty level Three Minute Thesis Competition last year and this year have been asked to administer and compere the event. I applied for and received funding to present at both a local and international conference, and I’ve written two thirds of a PhD. My scholarship runs out in December next year and I’m well on track to finishing in time. This is not a skite list: it’s a testament to clear strategic thinking, a certain type of stubbornness that insists that if I do the right things in a professional manner I will be employable at the end of all this, and an utter belief in the work I’m doing.

To top it off, I recently founded a peer reviewed, open access, gender, sexuality and diversity studies journal with a group of postgraduates at my university. I’m one of the managing editors, and we recently released our first issue. I did this because it fills a need, and because I’m passionate about creating space in the academy for voices that are still unheard. I also did it because when I started my PhD a trusted friend and former academic told me it was probably best to have a Plan B, C, D and possibly E in the event that I would be unable to get a job at the end. The journal is thrilling, and spectacular, and I truly love doing it, but it’s cost me more hours than I can count, and a huge amount of emotional energy (often at the cost of my partner and children).

But all of this was ok. And then these things happened, all in a row:

  • I came back from my overseas trip and couldn’t right myself again. Sliding doors. The realisation that, without children, I would have emailed my supervisor a simple ‘sorry, it’s too spectacular here in Paris, I’ll see you in a year or so’, and to my partner ‘get yourself on a plane’. But I have children. And they’re the reason I am where I am, and the reason I write what I write. So here I am, back, with honey toast handprints on my jeans and requests for water in the night.
  • I came back from my overseas trip to 80,000 words of marking that needed to be turned around in three days, and ended up injuring my arm and shoulder, and I’m still injured (brace, ice, warmth, anti-inflammatories, keep going).
  • An AWOL postgrad that I’ve never met sent me a horrendous email out of the blue that attacked me and my research. I was shocked and disbelieving. I cried for hours. Academia, it seems, can be rough.
  • A top international journal rejected my breastfeeding chapter because it was too claustrophobic, and just depicted the woman and baby, without locating them in space, or in greater discourses around class or race. I wasn’t writing a social political history of breastfeeding, and it was meant to be claustrophobic, and I told myself it just wasn’t the right place for it, but you know, it still stings.
  • And then the nail in the coffin: one poem, ‘this mother thing’, that was accepted into an anthology early last year. I followed up once, and was told it was still in the pipeline, and so I left it alone, not wanting to be a nag. Then last week I saw an article from The Age about it on one of our lecturer’s doors, and contacted the Editor to find that my poem had somehow slipped off the list. Goodbye publication in a hardback anthology launched at the State Library of NSW with some of Australia’s top female poets.

I’m exhausted and heart sore. I know why writers put down their pens and go to work digging ditches. We tell writing students to separate themselves from their writing when they send it out. Your writing is not you. It’s not true. It’s me. It’s me sending a part of myself out into the world and when my writing is judged it’s nigh on impossible not to feel judged myself. So I’m doing the only thing I know to do: I’m writing more, and sending out more, and trusting that amongst the nos I will also get yeses. But it’s hard, and it hurts, and I’m tired, and it hurts.

Laughing off the word silence (surgery as field trip)

Scalpel study

On Monday I’ll be going in for surgery. I am tempted to be vague about the type of surgery. This is the kind of surgery that requires a pause before disclosure. But here’s the thing: I write about bodies. Specifically, my body, which is also a woman’s body (except when I’m wondering what that really is–we could wander off into a huge discussion around gender here but let’s not).

I am committed to speaking where others do not. What is not spoken? Labour and birth, surgeries, bleeding, leakages, ruptures and splits. My thesis is the act of speaking the abject and unspeakable, is the attempt to create a language that will unhide, that will make a space for all of us to tell stories of flesh, organs, fluid, bone.

I write my body because “we have turned away from our bodies. Shamefully we have been taught to be unaware of them, to lash them with stupid modesty; we’ve been tricked into a fool’s bargain: each one is to love the other sex. I’ll give you your body and you will give me mine. But which men give women the body that they blindly hand over to him? Why so few texts? Because there are still so few women winning back their bodies. Woman must write her body, must make up the unimpeded tongue that bursts partitions, classes and rhetorics, orders and codes, must inundate, run through, go beyond the discourse with its last reserves, including the one of laughing off the word “silence” that has to be said, the one that, aiming for the impossible, stops dead before the word ‘impossible’ and writes it as ‘end’.”

Cixous, H., & Clément, C. (1986). The newly born woman (B. Wing, Trans.). United Kingdom: Manchester University Press.

So on Monday I’ll be going in for surgery. I have a fibroid that has tripled its size in the last 12 months. It has veins. It keeps growing. They could try to remove it but the chances are good that I’d grow another one. The safer surgery is a hysterectomy; less bleeding, more successful.

I’ll be convalescing for four to six weeks. Yesterday I went to uni, filled out my sick leave application, returned my library books, met with my supervisor, and rinsed out my mug. As I left my supervisor’s office she wished me luck and told me to rest. Rest. That’s when I realised I’m not thinking of the next month and a half as a recovery period: it’s a field trip. What else could it be? The title of my thesis is ‘this body, written’. I’m about to be put to sleep and opened up. My entire reproductive system will be taken. I will wake with blurry eyes and an empty middle. It’s a field trip. I will take notes. Poetry is found here.

A note (on connections and why we need them)

Marion May Campbell is fast becoming one of my favourite authors and poets. Erudite, engaged, her prose enchants and enfolds. There is a dark warmth there, the abject jumping to caress. There is also lightness, and breath. A friend told me about her 2008 book Fragments from a Paper Witch, specifically the section titled ‘Spectacular Motherhood’ a few weeks ago.

I was sure I’d find it in the library catalog, but it wasn’t there. Request. One week later it arrived, thanks to document delivery, from the University of Adelaide. On the first page Gail Jones, in her forward, quoted Susan Sontag writing that “a poet’s prose is the autobiography of ardour”. I was already in love. A flick through confirmed it.


Am / am not; am amniotically buoyed between am / am not. Am shutter, am threshold, am revolving door, just pulsing muscle, in-out: I sing my continence through my leakage. I think of my baby, this other within, and I strain the membrane of thought.

Fragments from a Paper Witch, p 28

Writing that is a mirror, but also not. A voice that mine echoes, even though I have never heard it before.

I knew, immediately, that I a copy of Paper Witch needed to live on my shelf. Internet searches yielded nothing. Rare book seller’s websites, Salt Publishing (its printed home), the big guys, I even tried eBay. Nothing. Twitter! And there she was (@Beigesang). But the last time she’d been active was 2009. I sent a forlorn tweet.

Then I remembered this: my Post Grad diploma at Melbourne Uni, hearing Marion speak at a symposium, and knowing that my tutor, Antonia Pont (who wasn’t a doctor yet) knew her.

So I sent this:

From: Karina Quinn

Subject: Fragments from a Paper Witch

Date: 6 September 2012 11:05:41 AEST

To: Antonia Pont

Hey Antonia,

I’ve just fallen deeply for Marion May Campbell’s Fragments From a Paper Witch and can’t bear to give it back to the library. I’ve done a fair bit of online searching but haven’t been able to uncover a single copy.

So I turned to Twitter and discovered Marion has an account, and have sent her a message. She’s sent 4 tweets in her whole life though, and these were in 2009 so I suspect she may not receive my message.

I’m writing this in the hope that you have some contact with her, and that you could forward this email on for me? My other hope is that she has a secret stack of Fragments on a shelf somewhere and that I can pay her a premium for the joy (indeed the jouissance) of having a single copy on my own shelf.



Antonia forwarded my email with a brief introduction, and shortly after I received this:

From: Marion May Campbell

Subject: RE: FW: Fragments from a Paper Witch

Date: 6 September 2012 12:44 PM AEST

To: Karina Quinn

Dear Karina,

You are very welcome to have one of the copies I have left. As I said to Antonia, an appreciative reader is to be cherished. Yes, I’m afraid I am not a twitterer…

What’s your address and surname and I’ll put it in the post for you.

Very best wishes,


The very next day a parcel arrived on my doorstep. A beautiful hard cover edition of Paper Witch. On opening it, this:

Paper Witch is in my hands because I don’t sit at my desk all day, myopic, immersed, to the exclusion of all else (except when I do). Paper Witch is in my hands because I go to symposiums, and make connections with other writers and academics, and take good advice. But mostly, Paper Witch is in my hands because of Marion’s generous spirit, because a writer will always be happy to have been read.

I am reading Paper Witch now with great care, with love. This book with its hand written note feels portentous. There is something about this project, whatever it is, that seems destined. The words literally pour from me. It can’t not be written. And a note like this seems to say keep going, keep going. I feel so very blessed today to be living a writer’s life, amongst other writers. To feel a sense of community, belonging even. I have not-written for most of my life. To be, finally, here, is nothing less than miraculous.

Get visible or vanish

I was lucky enough to attend a seminar for Early Career Researchers (ECRS) put on by the NTEU a couple of weeks ago. I went because I’m nearing the end of my first year, and I needed to get my head around the new ERA system. Not sure what I’m talking about? Megan McPherson’s kindly storified it for you.

As the workshop progressed, I became increasingly disheartened. Here are the thoughts that were running about in my head:

  • Am in insane to think I can get a full time job in academia after completion?
  • Am I destined to be a sessional teacher and never actually get anywhere?
  • What’s a poem worth?
  • How do we get academia to move out of machine mode and recognise, with respect and gratitude, the value of creative work that is produced within it?

I tweeted my misery, and luckily the thesis whisperer (as usual) and John Lamp came to my rescue. I can’t tell you exactly what pearls of wisdom Inger had, but they had the same effect as having a bowl of warm porridge drizzled with honey on a cold winter’s morning placed before me. Suddenly, it seemed there was cause for optimism. For harnessing Twitter and Facebook and especially for the value of self publishing on academic blogs.

John Lamp got up then and spoke about altmetrics, about finding ratings that make you sound good and unashamedly using them, about getting work out there however you can–create your own journals and invite all of your friends to read them, be broadminded about what’s valuable. We are in a new world.

Then John said this: it’s not publish or perish anymore, it’s get visible or vanish.

So, little blog, here’s what I think: writing this post is deeply valuable. Writing this post is a way of throwing my voice, and watching it echo, and trusting that people can hear.

One year on and learning to read

Hildegard reading and writing

Last friday marked a year since I started my PhD. Not a year full time, but nevertheless the day felt significant. Here’s what’s different:

  • I know where to find a free car park that’s not too far away
  • There’s a coffee shop on campus with a guy called Leo who knows my order just by looking at my Keep Cup
  • I know most of the postgrads and academics in my department well enough to have a friendly chat in the hallway
  • My office feels like home
  • I have nearly 30,000 words and three publications under my belt
  • I have a writing practice that I’m happy with
  • I LOVE my topic, and feel blessed every day that I’m being paid to write and read and think

Here’s what’s the same:

  • I’m still ridiculously insecure about my writing and expect to be told I’m not really allowed to be here, or that my scholarship has been revoked, at any moment
  • I ride waves of overwhelm more than once a day
  • I wish had more time to do my work
  • I wish I didn’t feel as if I was stealing from my children to do my work
  • Becoming a teaching academic at the end of this process feels like a pipe dream
  • I can only find my way back to my building via two very specific routes – if you span me around with a blindfold on in the middle of the university I could be wandering for an hour

And on learning to read: there’s all this amazing advice out there about writing a PhD, but very little about reading for a PhD. I’ve discovered that the old undergrad method of reading, highlighting, pulling out quotes and then writing to them isn’t really working for me. I need to be able to get through much more material much faster than I did before. I read somewhere that you should take notes as if you’re taking them for someone else. This makes sense to me, but I’m creating a particular kind of work, with a layering of voices, and I find that I need to read slowly, to think about what I’m reading, to hold words carefully in my mind, and then lay them carefully inside my writing. How I balance speed with this kind of care is currently beyond me.

How do you read?

What kind of notes do you take?

Share, please, and put a gal out of her misery.