> A Tourist’s Guide to Australian Poetry

A Tourist’s Guide to Australian Poetry

Par |2019-02-21T05:28:48+00:00 30 octobre 2012|Catégories : Chroniques|

  In Australia, as elsew­here, there is consi­de­rable debate on the future of the prin­ted word. Faced with the rapid rise in popu­la­ri­ty of elec­tro­nic publi­ca­tions amid concerns about decrea­sing lite­ra­cy of the youn­ger gene­ra­tions, many com­men­ta­tors have pro­noun­ced that the demise of the prin­ted book is soon upon us. However, no-one seems to have told this to the cur­rent crop of Australian poets and their publi­shers.

  A sur­vey of the Australian poe­try scene reveals it to be alive and well, with lit­tle like­li­hood of extinc­tion in any fore­seeable future. Indeed, poe­try abounds in a wide range of for­mats – prin­ted antho­lo­gies, single author col­lec­tions, and edi­ted jour­nals ; on-line jour­nals, blogs and col­lec­tions ; and per­for­mances of spo­ken word.

A good place for the poe­try tou­rist to start is Australian Poetry. Formed in 2011 from pre-exis­ting poe­try sup­port groups, Australian Poetry is an ove­rar­ching orga­ni­sa­tion with a “clear natio­nal stra­te­gy to … pro­mote excel­lence in Australian Poetry … and build new audiences for Australian poets”. It works towards these aims via many mecha­nisms, not least by pro­vi­ding mul­tiple ave­nues for publi­ca­tion in hard copy and on-line  (www​.aus​tra​lian​poe​try​.org). The most recent issue of the Australian Poetry Journal (volume 2.1 #tech­no­lo­gy), edi­ted by Bronwyn Lea, pre­sents some 40 poems, selec­ted from hun­dreds of sub­mis­sions. The qua­li­ty is high, the voices diverse, as might be expec­ted from most­ly well-cre­den­tia­led poets with signi­fi­cant publi­ca­tion records.

Australian Poetry spon­sors a National Poetry Festival, which this year was held in the tro­pi­cal city of Darwin. Featuring dis­cus­sion panels, semi­nars, work­shops and per­for­mances, these fes­ti­vals are popu­lar with wri­ters and rea­ders alike. The 2012 Darwin Wordstorm fes­ti­val was notable for inclu­ding not only lea­ding per­for­mance poets, Ghostboy (David Stavanger) and Emilie Zoey Baker, but also the inno­va­tive hip-hop artist, Joelistics (Joel Ma), sup­por­ted by local Darwin hip-hop acts. Indeed, with the increa­sing public pro­file of poe­try slams, per­for­mance poe­try and spo­ken word events around the coun­try (eg. see aus​tra​lian​poe​trys​lam​.com), pro­duc­tive cross-over bet­ween poe­try, hip-hop and inde­pendent music pro­du­cers conti­nues to evolve.

Going Down Swinging, now in its 33rd year of publi­ca­tion, has led the van­guard in pro­mo­ting spo­ken word, per­for­mance poe­try and poe­try-music col­la­bo­ra­tions  (see going​downs​win​ging​.org​.au). For many years, each hard copy edi­tion of new wri­ting has been accom­pa­nied by a CD of poe­try, spo­ken word and music. The latest issue, Number 33, edi­ted by Geoff Lemon and Bhakthi Puvanenthiran, is a typi­cal­ly eclec­tic col­lec­tion, nick­na­med “The Jesus Issue”, with a “dash of Saviour fla­vour in the mix”. There are poems, sto­ries, essays, gra­phics and, of course, the CD.  As in pre­vious issues, the content is gene­ral­ly excellent, repre­sen­ting an edgy mix of nar­ra­tive, opi­nion, and remi­nis­cence, often by new or emer­ging wri­ters. From the Jesus Issue, this sample of Lent by Nancy Reddy plays off the real and the meta­pho­ri­cal from the point of view of an ado­les­cent gro­wing up in the church :


           “The congre­ga­tion sit­ting and stan­ding,

             knee­ling and sit­ting in a stut­te­ring uni­son


            as I replayed the rhythm

            of hand on – , tongue on -,


            my prayer-bent body arched 

            with aim­less lust. I knew.


            I had lear­ned in church : to be bodied

            was to be sin­ful. I gave up milk,


            gave up spoons, sha­ved the thumb­nail

            down to meet its fle­shy bed.


            Gave up chi­cken and car­ved each night

            the pan-fried meat from the thigh-bone,


            fork-stab­bed the nob­bly joints. Wished myself

            up out of my limbs and aches.”


Established in 1997, Cordite Poetry Review has been exclu­si­ve­ly on-line since 2001, usual­ly publi­shing 3 issues a year of new poe­try (cor​dite​.org​.au). It aims to “mobi­lise the poten­tial of the phrase words are bul­lets by pro­mo­ting both irre­verent and expe­ri­men­tal poe­tics”. As well as poems, Cordite fea­tures reviews, occa­sio­nal essays, and inter­views with wri­ters. Most issues are the­med with guest edi­tors making the selec­tions, all of which are free­ly avai­lable to on-line rea­ders. Cordite has taken full advan­tage of on-line tech­no­lo­gy to publish audio poems and visual poems employing elec­tro­nic or ani­ma­ted text. As such, Cordite pro­vides an exci­ting glimpse of the more adven­tu­rous domains of Australian poe­try.

The use of themes by Cordite has led to some outs­tan­ding col­lec­tions, most nota­bly issue 35 (Oz-Ko, 2011), which fea­tu­red 3 sets of bilin­gual poems in English and Korean, deve­lo­ped as a col­la­bo­ra­tion bet­ween Australian poets and poets from the Republic of Korea and edi­ted by David Prater. There is much fine work here and I can only assume that the trans­la­tions, by Gaihyun Kim and Sunghyun Kim, do the ori­gi­nals jus­tice. Five Sijo for My Raider by Michelle Cahill in issue 35.1 (Hoju-Hanguk) draws on the author’s own Indo-Australian back­ground :


           “From the far east, when the river broke, came rumours of a tribe

             I was alone that dawn, mil­king the soy­beans, har­ves­ting rice

             With a bronze arrow you annexed my body to this desi­gn”


Essay, short fic­tion, poe­try and cri­ti­cism also are staple fare in a quar­tet of long esta­bli­shed lite­ra­ry maga­zines. The oldest, Southerly, began in 1939 and conti­nues to pro­mote new wri­ting, with regu­lar the­med issues, as well as a com­ple­men­ta­ry on-line edi­tion, The Long Paddock (sou​ther​ly​jour​nal​.com​.au). Always sti­mu­la­ting, some issues real­ly stand out. For example, A Handful of Sand : Words to the Frontline (2011), guest edi­ted by pro­minent Indigenous poets Ali Cobby Eckermann and Lionel Fogarty, pre­sents a cross-sec­tion of contem­po­ra­ry Australian Aboriginal wri­ting that both chal­lenges and engages with pro­vo­ca­tive view­points and raw emo­tion. There are hun­dreds of Aboriginal lan­guages, many of which are at risk of dying out. This excerpt from Yankunytjatjara Love Poems by Ali Cobby Eckermann skil­ful­ly com­bines English and her tra­di­tio­nal lan­guage :

            “I will show you a field of zebra finch Dreaming in the sha­dow of the

                        puli puli ochre

            when the soft blan­ket of lan­guage hums kin­ship and camp­fires

                        fla­vour wind­swept hair


            lit­tle girls stack single twigs on embers under tja­mus skin of pain­ted


            the dance of kalaya fea­thers will sweep the mun­da with your smile


            do not look at me in day­light ; that gift comes in the night

            tomor­row I will show ngu­nyt­ju our mar­riage pro­po­sal in my smile”


Meanjin, publi­shed quar­ter­ly out of Melbourne (mean​jin​.com​.au), was foun­ded in 1940. Featuring high edi­to­rial and pro­duc­tion stan­dards, Meanjin is consi­de­red by many to be the lea­der of the Australian lite­ra­ry pack. The cur­rent issue (71.3) has ele­gant desi­gn with inter­sper­sed poe­try pages (about 20 in total) subt­ly sepa­ra­ted from sur­roun­ding prose (most of the remai­ning 200 pages) by the use of dif­fe­rent­ly colou­red paper.

Overland was foun­ded in 1954 with the mot­to “tem­per demo­cra­tic, bias Australian” and it conti­nues to cham­pion pro­gres­sive culture both in print and on-line (over​land​.org​.au). Although social cri­tique is a fea­ture of all the jour­nals men­tio­ned here, none pro­motes a Left view of culture and socie­ty as consis­tent­ly as Southerly. In addi­tion to its hard­co­py edi­tions, Overland regu­lar­ly publishes time­ly com­men­ta­ry on cur­rent affairs via its web­site and Facebook feed (www​.face​book​.com/​o​v​e​r​l​and).

Island is a lite­ra­ry quar­ter­ly, based in Tasmania and esta­bli­shed in 1979. Despite deve­lo­ping from a poten­tial­ly paro­chial view­point, Island publishes a wide range of qua­li­ty work from a live­ly mix of new and well-known wri­ters. As they say on their web­site (www​.island​mag​.com), “grown in Tasmania, Island writes for the world.” 

Island also sup­ports the pres­ti­gious Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize, named after one of Australia’s best loved poets (1920-1995) who lived most of her life in Tasmania. This prize is one of seve­ral high level awards that are avai­lable for Australian poets. Competition is intense, with most prizes attrac­ting hun­dreds of entries, pre­sen­ting judges with dia­bo­li­cal­ly dif­fi­cult choices. Indeed, the judges of the 2011 Gwen Harwood Prize, Sarah Day and John Kinsella, rai­sed more than a few eye­brows when they deci­ded not to award a win­ner, but ins­tead nomi­na­ted four poems (by BR Dionysius, Sarah Rice, Meredith Wattison and Chloe Wilson) for high com­men­da­tions. All are excellent works, sho­wing strong com­mand of form. Dionysius’ History is a sequence of five son­nets nar­ra­ting a life recal­led :


Years later in the cho­co­late suit­case buried under stacks

Of the washhouse’s mouse-che­wed Toowoomba Chronicles

& Dalby Heralds, he dis­co­ve­red that his dead father read.

Cowboy novels & soft porn paper­backs that he scan­ned

Rapidly for ero­tic depic­tions of love making, ears pri­cked

For the screen door’s incri­mi­na­ting squeal & bass clomp

Of his parent’s work­books as they bru­shed off their dirt.”


The Newcastle Poetry Prize (new​cast​le​poe​try​prize​.com) stands out among the natio­nal com­pe­ti­tions by encou­ra­ging exten­ded poems or suites of poems up to 200 lines. First prize is sub­stan­tial : $12,000, and short-lis­ted poems are publi­shed in an annual antho­lo­gy. Over recent years in par­ti­cu­lar, this antho­lo­gy has show­ca­sed excep­tio­nal work, much of which pushes hard at the limits of what poe­try, espe­cial­ly in long form, can do.

In addi­tion to poe­try prizes fun­ded by lite­ra­ry jour­nals and wri­ters’ orga­ni­sa­tions, most State Governments as well as the natio­nal Federal Government offer sub­stan­tial poe­try prizes among­st their arts and lite­ra­ture awards. The win­ner of this year’s inau­gu­ral Prime Minister’s Poetry Award of $80,000 was Luke Davies’ col­lec­tion, Interferon Psalms (2011). This is an astoun­ding sequence from Davies, alrea­dy high­ly acclai­med for his fic­tion (eg Candy, 1997 ; God of Speed, 2008). The text soars and swerves, take side-tracks through space and time, love and loss, com­ments on lite­ra­ture and popu­lar culture, confronts science and reli­gion, mor­ta­li­ty and pain : disease and death never seem far below the sur­face. Looking hand­some on the page, these poems beg rea­ding out loud in all their chan­ging voices. This example is from the start of the penul­ti­mate sec­tion 32, and recalls images occur­ring in ear­lier sec­tions :

            “I lan­ded in this world of bro­ken ves­sels.

            All this ero­ded deso­la­tion, all this demon-rid­den expanse.

           All this Annihilation. The black vol­ca­noes. The ruins.

           Tectonic res­t­less­ness of plates.


          She had said : I want to talk to you, at rough­ly four removes.


           I felt that conver­sa­tion had had its day.


           I had lan­ded in this world of bro­ken ves­sels. I had sen­sed

           the emp­ti­ness as a bound­less bles­sing.


          For as long as it could, my blood would be fine.”


Sitting beside the lite­ra­ry jour­nals and com­pe­ti­tions are the antho­lo­gies of Australian poe­try. Some are one-off col­lec­tions with a spe­ci­fic aim in mind, such as a mam­moth his­to­ri­cal com­pen­dium of more than 1000 pages (Australian Poetry Since 1788, edi­ted by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray, 2011), or an ele­gant antho­lo­gy of more recent women’s poems (Motherlode : Australian Women’s Poetry 1986-2008, edi­ted by Jennifer Harrison and Kate Waterhouse, 2009).

Other antho­lo­gies are pro­du­ced more or less regu­lar­ly, such as Black Inc’s annual The Best Australian Poems series that has been run­ning since 2003. The 2011 edi­tion, edi­ted by John Tranter, contains around 100 poems selec­ted from almost three thou­sand sub­mis­sions. A col­lec­tion like this neces­sa­ri­ly reflects the biases and inter­ests of the edi­tor, but there is lit­tle doubt that this edi­tion, as did pre­vious volumes, pre­sents a diverse and (usual­ly) fas­ci­na­ting assort­ment of contem­po­ra­ry Australian poe­try. As such, it offers ano­ther excellent star­ting point for a lite­ra­ry tou­rist to begin explo­ring the Australian poe­try land­scape. Although most poems do not reveal obvious refe­rences to spe­ci­fic coun­try or place, some build hea­vi­ly on Australian ver­na­cu­lar and his­to­ri­cal context, as in this example from Others in the Town by Neil Boyack :

            “the whip hangs on the wall of the long-drop

            with the view of the moun­tain

            where ghosts main­tain fame

                        through legen­da­ry gam­bling debts


                                   lea­ning on the sho­vel at

                                   the shal­low graves of native men


            Bill Menangartowe is home

            drea­ming of new teeth

            so he can eat Harcourt apples and his wife’s dry roast beef

            that he com­plains of …”


Any doubts about the on-going popu­la­ri­ty of Australian poe­try in print should be dis­pel­led after explo­ring the web­site main­tai­ned by SPUNC : Small Press Underground Networking Community (spunc​.com​.au), repre­sen­ting Australia’s small press and inde­pendent publi­shing com­mu­ni­ty. Currently, over 100 publi­shers are lis­ted as mem­bers of SPUNC. They include not only the publi­shers of lite­ra­ry maga­zines men­tio­ned above, but mid-sized inde­pendent publi­shers (eg Black Inc, Text Publishing, and Wakefield Press), and smal­ler spe­cia­list poe­try publi­shers, inclu­ding such diverse imprints as Brandl & Schlesinger, Five Islands Press, Giramondo, Paroxysm Press, Puncher & Wattman, Red Room Company, and Walleah Press.

Let’s finish our tour with a review of a recent col­lec­tion by Adelaide poet, Amelia Walker, publi­shed by the long-lived inde­pendent, Interactive Press (ipoz​.biz). Walker alrea­dy has publi­shed two prior col­lec­tions as well as poe­try work­books for school chil­dren. Her new work, Sound and Bundy (2012), is an ambi­tious mul­ti-laye­red, mul­ti-voi­ced sequence that draws its ins­pi­ra­tion from Australia’s most famous lite­ra­ry hoax, the Ern Malley affair.

In 1944, a series of abs­tract poems, pur­por­ted to be writ­ten by an other­wise unk­nown Ern Malley, was sub­mit­ted to the moder­nist arts maga­zine Angry Penguins, foun­ded and edi­ted by Max Harris. Harris consi­de­red the poems to be brilliant work (as many are still regar­ded today), but it trans­pi­red that they had been construc­ted as a deli­be­rate hoax by conser­va­tive poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart (for the full sto­ry see, www​.ern​mal​ley​.com and read the poems at : jacket​ma​ga​zine​.com/​1​7​/​e​r​n​-​p​o​e​m​s​.​h​tml).

In his Foreword to Sound and Bundy, “Harrison Lomax” makes spe­ci­fic refe­rence to the Ern Malley affair in the context of his research into the life of  “recent­ly decea­sed Australian poet, Jason Silver” who turns out to have been a crea­tion of three other poets, Pete Lind, Shannon Woodford and Angie Rawkins. The book then goes on present col­lec­tions of poems from each of these three poets, as well as those attri­bu­ted to Jason Silver. Each writes with a dis­tinct style and brings a range of view­points and com­men­ta­ries on the events of the time.

Pete Lind tells ele­gant sto­ries of dama­ged rela­tion­ships and per­so­na­li­ties, inclu­ding his own  (That Sort, 1998) :

            “I’m the sort you see at bus shel­ters,

            the guy with tatts and the faded black jeans,

            the sort who pays the dri­ver all in five cent pieces,

            who gives up his seat for the blind girl,

            then stares and won­ders what it’d be like to fuck her.”


Shannon Woodford writes in vil­la­nelles, ses­ti­nas, and other constrai­ned forms, while Angie Rawkins uses the shor­thand of street talk and text mes­sages, as in Checkd /​ But Not For Free, 1999 :

            “Th title Check-Out Chick

            doesn’ giv you per­mis­sion to do so /​ bro /​

            so check yrself

            & cut it out or y’ll wind up che­ckin’ in

            to E.D. afta I get you chu­ckd

            & plu­ckd like a chi­ckn /​”


Finally we get to poems by the nebu­lous Jason Silver. They are a mixed lot, style and content diver­ging, per­haps reflec­ting the inputs of the three pur­por­ted hoaxers. One of the more lyri­cal pieces is the bleak rosie n me, 2002 :

            “i close my palm, open it

            to find a sharp blue shard of bro­ken glass

            ‘from the win­dow to my soul’ she mut­ters

            and i bleed a lit­tle so she knows

            i’m kis­sing her back.


            we light up


            our ciga­rettes

            – church candles, memo­rials

            for the dead, our selves.

            toge­ther we pray for can­cer.”


Walker is an accom­pli­shed per­for­mance poet and it is easy to hear her taking on the dif­ferent per­so­nae of the poets in this book. But even bare on the page, the cha­rac­ters emerge from their words, some­times free-flo­wing, some­times self-conscious­ly fit­ting a pre-deter­mi­ned style.

All too often poe­try is seen first and fore­most as an expres­sion of an other­wise hid­den emo­tio­nal state of the author. Indeed, many of the poems in this col­lec­tion have a stream-of-conscious­ness feel that reflects the appa­rent states of minds of the poets. But we have to keep remin­ding our­selves : this is all fic­tion. They are fic­ti­tious poets, who, within their own ima­gi­ned world, inven­ted ano­ther fic­ti­tious poet. This is a com­plex wri­ting envi­ron­ment and, ove­rall, Walker keeps her nerve and control throu­ghout. Verse novels can be tedious and for­ced. However, through her inno­va­tive use of an antho­lo­gy for­mat, Walker has avoi­ded this trap and let the poe­try itself tell its tales.

It might be argued that the only people who buy and read poe­try books are other poets. Maybe so. But there are pro­ba­bly a hun­dred or more poe­try titles publi­shed each year in Australia, and there are very many more people wri­ting poe­try, some­times just for them­selves, but more often with the expec­ta­tion of being publi­shed and read. So, if poe­try wri­ters real­ly are poe­try rea­ders, there must be a large pool of poten­tial buyers of prin­ted verse. With such a strong crea­tive base, the out­look for Australian poe­try and its publi­shers is posi­tive. And thanks to the all-per­va­sive inter­net, it is increa­sin­gly acces­sible to the rest of the world.