On Saturday July 29, Scottish-born poet, author, editor and InReview arts reviewer Alison Flett succumbed to a rare cancer she stoically navigated for three years following her diagnosis in July 2020. She died peacefully at her Adelaide home three weeks after her 58th birthday surrounded by loving family, her parents and siblings present online from Scotland. She is survived by partner Adrian and children Aphra, Maz and Alfie.

Alison began writing in Scotland in the 1990s, one of a group of writers that included Irvine Welsh, Ali Smith and Alan Warner. Her work featured in anthologies such as Dreamstate: New Scottish Poets (Polygon, 1994), Ahead of Its Time (Jonathan Cape, 1997), Modern Scottish Women Poets (Canongate, 2003) and 100 Favourite Scottish Poems (Luath Press, 2006), and won her the Belmont Prize for Children’s Poetry, the Hi-Arts Short Story Competition and a place on the shortlist for the Scotsman/Orange Short Story Award. Her poetry collection Whit Lassyz Ur Inty (Thirsty Books, 2004), written in Scots, was shortlisted for the prestigious Saltire First Book of the Year Award. She performed her work on national television and radio and at literary festivals in Britain and Europe. During her years living on her beloved island of Orkney, Alison was a director on the Board of the George Mackay Brown Fellowship and helped to establish and run the first Orkney Book Festival.

In the 13 years after moving to Adelaide in 2010, Alison’s work was published in many anthologies and journals, including Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Island, Plumwood Mountain, Rabbit, Southerly, Stylus Lit, Tincture, and Westerly. She was also longlisted for the Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and the UK-based Bridport Short Story Prize, shortlisted for the Whitmore Press Manuscript Award, the Adelaide Festival Unpublished Manuscript Award, The University of Canberra International Poetry Prize and the Newcastle Poetry Prize.

She was a familiar guest at Ken Bolton’s Dark Horsey events, at NoWave and Halifax Café poetry readings, and was a commissioning editor for international journal Transnational Literature. Alongside poet Jill Jones, she was also a publisher with Little Windows Press.

Her instinct for observation, skilful patterning of sound and image, her talent for evoking compelling visual imagery extended beyond poetry and into fiction and nonfiction. As a 50-something woman who spent much of her life living on a succession of small Scottish islands, her ability to slide into the shoes of an adolescent boy up to no good in outback Australia in her short story, Go Get Boy, was so complete that it won the Olga Masters Short Story Prize in 2020.

It was her wish that there should be no funeral or formal memorial service, but instead a night of poetry and prose, and typically for Alison, ostensibly for others to showcase their own work.

Her memoir Rattled (Allen & Unwin, 2022) was written between bouts in hospital and while enduring chemotherapy – a testament to her courage and resilience – under the pseudonym Ellis Gunn. A compelling and timely memoir prompted by her experience of being stalked, it explored the issue of women’s safety, backed by solid research, while maintaining her limpid and fierce poetic voice. It was this poetic sensibility that also made her such an exceptional reviewer, predominantly of contemporary dance, for InReview.

How to encapsulate a life within a few paragraphs? The challenge is especially great when that life belonged to a dear friend, a woman whose luminous and fiercely intelligent writing permitted glimpses into the richly multi-faceted inner life that pulsed beneath a private and gently self-possessed persona. Uncomplaining, she maintained her humour throughout her illness, always present for others and deeply thoughtful, making the most of the life she knew would end sooner than it should have been.

Her poetry collection, Where We Are (Cordite, 2022, available for purchase here) was her last publication. Its beauty shot through with light and dark, it fearlessly questions the meaning of belonging and home.

She never ceased to yearn for her native Scotland. For those of us who loved her, reading her work is a way of staying close to her, a continuing comfort. For those new to her work, it is a window into the rich world she carried within her.

It was her wish that there should be no funeral or formal memorial service, but instead a night of poetry and prose, and typically for Alison, ostensibly for others to showcase their own work.

It was without question that it should be a night for her work to shine, and two of her closest poet-comrades, Rachael Mead and Heather Taylor-Johnson, have organised an evening at the Wheatsheaf Hotel, where Alison so often read, to celebrate her life and her writing. Open to all, it will take place on Monday, September 25, from 6pm. Her poetry and prose will be read by her friends in Adelaide and Scotland, who will connect live via Zoom.

The final word here should be Alison’s. This unpublished poem, chosen by Rachael Mead and Heather Taylor-Johnson, was the last she wrote before her death. It is entitled “Unbearable Lightness”.

Unbearable lightness

Old self that once was dot, was free-range
cells. What whispered magic spun me
from your coiled chains, made blue veins
and solid thump of heart? Plump meat, bone,
breath sewn through with darts of thought?
How came I into this? And how to reconcile
To turn away from touch of skin
on skin, from sound of song? To leave behind
the blush of evening sky, the rush of birds
through dawn, the clash and cry of waves
on rock? How to enter once again the empty
realm of naught? Old self, guide me home,
ballasted by joy of this. Let it be enough
to once have been.

Alison Flett, 1965-2023

A night to celebrate the legacy of Alison’s life and work will take place at the Wheatsheaf Hotel, Thebarton, on Monday, September 25, 6pm-9pm

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