Out of the Box

Michael Farrell and Jill Jones (editors), Out of the box: Contemporary Australian gay and lesbian poets (Puncher and Wattmann 2010)

I approached this anthology with suspicion. Does it really make sense, I wondered, to read David Malouf’s or Pam Brown’s poetry in a context that draws attention to the poet’s sexuality? Wouldn’t it skew, and narrow, the reading? My suspicion wasn’t allayed by having recently read editor Michael Farrell’s ultra-skewing assertion in Jacket Magazine 39 that he has ‘always read Judith Wright’s “Woman to Man” as referring to the experience of gender transfer’. But … well, once again the Book Club has dragged me from the path of least resistance.

Of Michael Farrell’s introduction and its use and abuse of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I can reasonably say I didn’t find it congenial, and his readings of poems strayed too far into hip idiosyncrasy for my taste. Jill Jones, his co-editor, gives a nice potted history of identified gay and lesbian writing in Australia since the late 70s, and provides some useful orientation to the lesbian poems – I mean of course the poems written by identified lesbians, because as the book’s subtitle makes clear it’s the poets, not the poems, that have sexual identitites.

The poems are wonderfully diverse. They belong together not because of shared themes or concerns or formal qualities, but because their creators are contemporary (ie, alive?), Australian and gay or lesbian. A number of the poems are outed by the context – that is, poems I would elsewhere have read as heteroerotic I here read as homoerotic. That’s probably a good thing – my heteronormative mentality is being challenged. Others shrink: Pam Brown’s ’20th Century’ (‘And as we were the tootlers / we tootled along’) here tends to read as referring to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras rather than something more global. I don’t know that that’s so good. At times I caught myself approximating a Beavis and Butthead snigger: ‘Hur hur! He said fist!’ Definitely not cool, though I plead in mitigation that Michael Farrell’s introduction does something of the sort more than once, and a handful of poems seem to be intent on a kind of high-culture gay Beavis-and-Buttheadism.

A good bit of the time while reading these pages, I got to feel very straight – not necessarily in the sexual sense, but in the sense that I prefer my language syntactical, don’t warm to commas at the start of sentences or parentheses that don’t close, and hate it when I can’t tell whether something is a typo or deliberate wordplay (when Javant Biarujia’s ‘MappleTROPE’ gives us Mapplethorpe’s deathbed utterance as, ‘I just hope I live long / enough to see the frame’ – has he inserted that r into the last word as a piece of witty surrealism or is it just bad proofreading? I genuinely don’t know, and it bothers me).

There are wonderful poems by David Malouf (‘A History Lesson’), Dorothy Porter (‘The Ninth Hour’), Pam Brown (‘Peel Me A Zibibo’), Martin Harrison (‘About the Self’), Peter Rose (‘Plague’), Kerry Leves (‘the escape’ – I’ve known Kerry mainly as a children’s writer, and he is definitely not that here) and joanne burns (‘aerial photography’), among others. I was delighted to be introduced to Stephen J Williams (‘Museums of beautiful art’), Andy Quan (‘Oath’, possibly the single poem that touched me most directly) and Tricia Dearborn (‘Life on the Run’) among others.

It probably doesn’t make sense to talk about a book of poetry without quoting any, but every poem I wanted to quote turns out to feel like an all or nothing proposition. I guess if you’re interested you’ll just have to find the book.

8 responses to “Out of the Box

  1. youll just have to face it – you have very limiting tastes. my latest poem is a forest of food being planted in sydney this winter. the ‘page’ is just one environment in which to express diverse thought. your correct syntax is akin to monological agriculture – in other words it is a one-way street – synthetic and immutable and already outmoded.


  2. shawjonathan

    Thanks for commenting, Patrick. You’re certainly right that I have limiting tastes. But using language in ways that adhere to the way the language works is, in my way of seeing things, akin to planting seeds in a way that gives them a chance of growing – in soil, say, rather than in freshly poured concrete. Possibly my problem with the weird punctuation etc is that I don’t understand the syntax.
    Good luck with your poem, espeially if you mean real edible food.


  3. there is room for both convention and experimentation within a garden, which for me ‘out of the box’ attempts to express as anthology. ;redressing syntax has a long political tradition in poetry as has redressing the militarisation of thought determined by homogenised language systems. gertrude stein for example worked on a language mode based upon a ‘continuous present’ – clock-time assassinated. this is in essence an ecological or primitive ethic that cuts against the patriarchal ideologies of efficiency, division and competition. so how does one turn these thoughts into aesthetics? we experiment, and somethings take root. failure is fertile compost for renewed confidence.

    sadly in oz we prefer court journalism to experimental poetics however we have created permaculture to make up for this terrible lack.

    yes real food. we’re designing our Food Forest in a kind of public forum at the moment – http://theartistasfamily.blogspot.com/


  4. shawjonathan

    Patrick: I can’t say with confidence that I understand everyting you’re saying here, but I’ve just read your poem ‘permamesostis’. To my way of thinking, it’s syntactically coherent and I think it’s terrific. I don’t undertand your theoretical underpinning, but then nor do I understand Yeats’s or Kandinsky’s.

    When I talked about my preferences, I didn’t mean that the things I don’t care for shouldn’t have been included. As you say, there’s room for convention and experimentation. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Out of the Box would have been a lot poorer without the poems I didn’t relate to.


  5. My copy arrived from Gleebooks today, 5/17. That’s impressive service, wouldn’t you say? I look forward to exploring and debating.


  6. Very impressive, Will. I look forward likewise.


  7. I’ve skipped the introduction and started reading the poems; have stumbled on the experiments in punctuation (syntax?) and find them unconvincing. Sufficient, but not necessary, as my old mentor in matters Joycean often advised of my interpretations. Malouf’s work is brilliant. Do give Ransom a go.


  8. shawjonathan

    Will: I’ve just read a review of the book by Andy Quan, who it seems is Canada’s gift to Australia, that engages with the book very interestingly. It’s at http://splashdownunder.blogspot.com/2010/05/few-words-on-out-of-box.html


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