Tag Archives: anthology

Now You Shall Know the Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology

Dennis Haskell and Jean Kent (editors), Now You Shall Know: Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology 2013 (Hunter Writers Centre, October 2013)

1nysk The Newcastle Poetry Prize is described on its website as ‘the richest and most prestigious stand-alone poetry competition’ in Australia. It has existed for more than three decades under one name or another, and for some years now the Hunter Writers Centre has published an anthology comprising the winner and a selection of other entries. This year’s anthology, named for Jennifer Compton’s winning poem, contains 27 poems and runs to 140 pages, so it’s distinguished from other annual anthologies by including mainly longer poems.

The book is a feast, and even though it owes its existence to a poetry competition it’s a beautiful demonstration of the silliness of pitting poems and poets against each other so that one must emerge as The Best. Not that I challenge the judges’ decisions: all the prize winners and commended poems deserve to win. But so do almost all the others.

Among many pleasures, there’s a strong element of place in the collection. Jennifer Compton’s ‘Now You Shall Know’ kicks things off with a brilliant evocation of the non-place of a passenger plane in mid-flight. Of the two other prize winners, Karina Quinn’s ‘Always Going Home (a domestic cycle)’ has a section named ‘A nowhere place’, which refers to a very specific not-quite-room in the family home, and among other things the poem is about the power exerted on the speaker by the place that is home; and Mark Tredinnick is in full Blue-Mountains-bardic flight in ‘Two or Three Days with Claude Debussy in Late October’. In Kathryn Lomer’s ‘Vapour Trails over Sassafras’ the speaker visits the Tasmanian landscape of her childhood. The dialogue in Ron Pretty’s ‘Picnicking on the Safety Ramp’ creates a gloriously recognisable rural masculinity; Christopher Kelen’s ‘The Shed’ is a location where a similar masculinity finds solitude; the title of Rachael Mead’s ‘Lake Eyre Cycle’ doesn’t mislead.

Two pieces resonated strongly for me as a north Queenslander.  B R Dionysius’ ‘Unicorns Cross Here’  is a sonnet sequence that tours the north, beginning with the giant statue of James Cook in Cairns and visiting the Daintree and the Atherton Tableland. Here are the opening lines of the third sonnet, describing the environment of my childhood:

Through the silk thin mist, sugarcane fields stand as Roman armies
At the end of empire. Forlorn, thirsty, they occupy the flat ground,
Blades held stiff as they form up, row upon green row in perfect
Drilled unison. A thousand years of domesticating iron has tamed
the wilderness. Axes bite deeper than words, saw teeth whisper in
Death’s white noise. On the hills behind them, the rainforest seethes
In undisciplined chaos; disordered ranks thrown back in confusion.

Where Dionysius is a visitor to cane country, the speaker in Victoria McGrath’s ‘Cane Smoking’  comes from there:

I was cradled deep within the blackened root of something
rank and rich in déjà vu, and my curves and crannies,
like so many cinerary urns, claimed without question
the confetti-ash that drifted inevitably to earth.

Carmel Macdonald Grahame’s ‘Wishful Thinking’ isn’t particularly a place poem, unless you count a certain kind of Catholic childhood as a place. From its first lines

You grew up learning not to say
things you were told you should not think

you know exactly where you are. The poem does what I would have thought impossible – it deals with child sexual abuse and keeps its head, even managing moments of playful wit:

it was never the cat that got your tongue,
it was the catechism.

There’s much more, as they say in the ads. Andy Jackson’s ‘Marfan Lives’, Ian Crittenden’s ‘The Red Soil Elegies’, … Really, it’s a wonderful collection.

Two Launches (with pic added later)

I’ve been sick with a cold since last Monday, and going stir crazy. Perhaps unwisely, I’ve struggled out of the house two nights this week to go to book launches.

rabbit10The first, on Monday night, 1XIII-Poemswas a double launch at Gleebooks – of the tenth issue of Rabbit, a Melbourne-based ‘quarterly journal of non-fiction poetry’, and XIII Poems by Jordie Albiston, the first in a series of booklets to be published by the journal. Both books are beautiful to look at and to hold, and I’m looking forward to reading the copies I bought on the night. Among other tempting morsels, the Rabbit offers poems by Julie Chevalier, Jordie Albiston, B R Dionysus, Lachlan Brown (to name the poets whose work I know), photographs, an essay, an interview and reviews, including one by A J Carruthers of two books I’ve loved, Jordie Albiston’s Book of Ethel (blog post coming soon) and Pam Brown’s Home by Dark (blog post here). And I’m fast becoming a Jordie Albiston fan, so I’m looking forward to reading what she calls orphan poems.

There were 17 people in the upstairs room at Gleebooks for the launch, of whom 8 spoke or read, all interestingly, and one or two others were part of the team who had flown up from Melbourne for the occasion. Jessica Wilkinson, Rabbit‘s founding Editor-in-Chief, graciously described it as an intimate affair, and urged us to take some grapes or cheese home in our pockets since the modest catering was clearly far in excess to requirements.

Whatever the cause for the poor turn-out, the launch was convivial, with plenty of humour about poets becoming members of the Warren, etc, and much joy in language used with precision and passion. I was glad I’d struggled up from my sickbed to put a bum on a seat and at least half a mind into the room.

As a segue, I’ll mention that at least one of the speakers mentioned their students, and one poet explained that she wasn’t reading her poem from the Rabbit because it was too much a ‘page poem’.

1lcThe next night’s launch was a completely different affair. The Last Conversation is an anthology of poems that have been read at the Bankstown Poetry Slam – that is, a collection of spoken word pieces attempting the transition to page poems under the guidance of slam co-founder and anthology editor Ahmad Al Rady.

The monthly Bankstown Poetry Slam has grown in the year of its existence into the biggest slam in Australia. I’ve never managed to get there, and if last night’s event is any indication of the nature of the experience, I’m missing out on something excellent. Ahmad Al Rady and his co-founder Sara Mansour were fabulous MCs – charming, witty, self deprecating and lavish in their appreciation of others. As many as 10 poets performed: a militant hymn to Gandhi and Mandela (timely, though obviously the poem was first performed when Mandela was still alive); cries from the heart from young men against violence against women; a disturbing piece about cutting into flesh after which the poet reassured us that she was not a serial killer or self-harmer but a surgeon; a passionate piece about the detention of asylum seekers; two sisters mining the rich field of sibling rivalry and sibling support.

The theatre at Bankstown Arts Centre was full to capacity,mainly with young people dressed in their best, as if for graduation. The audience whooped, cheered and (during the readings) clicked. It was a huge, enthusiastic celebration not just of the slam and each other, it seemed to me, but of what can happen when language is unleashed. At the start of the evening, Sara Mansour described how the Bankstown slam had started. It was laziness. She and Ahmad were tired of driving all the way into the city for poetry slams. Bankstown needs its own slam, they thought, and hunted around until Tim Carroll, the generous and welcoming CEO of BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Services) gave them a home. At the end of their first year, she said, she realises they were wrong on two fronts: running a slam in Bankstown was a lot more work than driving into the city once a month; and Bankstown didn’t need a poetry slam – poetry needed Bankstown.

(By way of full disclosure: I played a small consultative role in the editing of the anthology.)

Added later: This snap I took with my phone at the end of the evening shows something of the mood. These are the poets who read plus some others who are in the book.

last conversation

Contemporary Asian Australian Poets

Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann 2013)

1caapThis book seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing. The current Southerly focuses on ‘Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, with particular attention to Asian Australian (or Asian-Australian, or Asian/Australian etc) work. The recent OzAsia Festival in Adelaide included a two-day OzAsia on Page component which featured ‘significant and contemporary Asian and Australian voices’. Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Writing Series is looking formidably good.

It’s hard to imagine a more disparate gathering of poets than those collected between these covers, not just in nationality or ethnicity (‘Asia’ is a big and varied place, and there seems to be someone here from just about every part of it except, interestingly, Japan), but in just about every other conceivable way as well. The poetry ranges from work with the exuberance and directness of Spoken Word to compressed, elliptical, allusive capital-L Literary offerings. It’s the poets who are Asian Australian, not necessarily the poetry, so though there are poems of the pain of loss of home and culture (I was going to say ‘nostalgia’, but that’s a word that no longer conveys any sense of real pain), poems that explicitly deal with or enact cultural duality or hybridity, poems about multicultural relationships, poems that tackle white racism head-on, and poems exploring questions of cultural identity, there are also poems that don’t do any of those things.

There is a brief introductory essay from each of the three editors. Adam Aitken outlines and celebrates the extraordinary range of voices and attitudes in the anthology, and the range of possibilities in the term ‘Asian Australian’ itself. Kim Cheng Boey focuses on the experience of migration:

Home is never a given, for first-generation migrants, and continues to be a complex issue for subsequent generations. Being beneficiaries of two or more cultures, and entangled in a complex web of affiliations and attachments, they are wary of identity politics and monolithic formations.

Michelle Cahill points out the anthology’s significance in bringing greater visibility to Asian Australian women poets, who experience ‘the double exile of migration and mediation of patriarchal terrain, so inimical to the female psyche’. Seventeen of the 37 poets in this collection are women, and very few Asian Australian women have been included in any previous anthologies.

All three introductory essays are worth reading, and they give invaluable guidance to the poetry. But in the end, it’s the poetry you pay for – and I’m happy to report that I was immersed in this book for days, being dragged from one engaged mind to another. Christopher Cyrill, whom I have previously known as the events organiser at Gleebooks who always spoke too softly when introducing people, here turns out to have a clear, strong, brilliantly modulated voice in the extract from his prose poem novella Quaternion (and that’s me saying it who hates extracts and doesn’t much care for prose poems). Andy Quan’s ‘Is This?’ is a brilliant abstraction of the moment of anticipation on meeting a new person. Omar Musa contemplates buying a pair of shoes and redefines the notion of choice. I finally get to read Kim Cheng Boey’s ‘Stamp Collecting’, which I’ve heard him read at festivals and loved, and his ‘Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB’ – what can I say? Eileen Chong is here, with some of the finest poems from ‘Burning Rice’. I was about to read Debbie Lim’s ‘How to Grow Feet of Golden Lotus’ aloud to a friend and then realised I wouldn’t want to inflict it on anyone who didn’t have plenty of time to recover. Merlinda Bobis’s ‘Covenant’ (‘after you bomb my town / I’ll take you fishing / or kite-flying or both’) conveys the poignancy (another word that has lost its hard meaning) of peace for a defeated people. Jaya Savige’s ‘Circular Breathing’ could hardly be more mainstream Australian, a kind of version of Les Murray’s ‘Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’ set it in Europe and acknowledging Indigenous Australia (with only the barest allusion to Asia, but who’s counting?). Louise Ho’s ‘A Veteran Talking’ is a killer poem, a chilling, hard, dry killer. I’m glad Adam Aitken included a decent, brilliantly varied selection of his own work.

Please don’t let this book be seen as a marginal anthology of poems by the marginalised. It’s a fabulous collection and belongs at the centre of our culture.

The colonial past keeps changing

Brian Elliott and Adrian Mitchell, Bards in the Wilderness: Australian colonial poetry to 1920 (Nelson 1970)

1bwTo judge by pencil notes in the margins, I read Bards in the Wilderness 40 or so years ago, but – such are the joys of age-related cognitive decline – I didn’t remember any of it when I picked it up again recently, looking for information on how white settlers in New South Wales thought about Aboriginal Australians in the first half of the 19th century. The book’s title didn’t bode well – you can only refer to Australia as a ‘wilderness’ if you ignore millennia of prior occupancy: those ‘bards’ were actually living in what Bill Gammage describes as The Biggest Estate on Earth.

Elliott and Mitchell’s introduction explains that poems were selected for what they demonstrate about the colonies’ preoccupations – ‘political, social and moral’, ‘for what they contributed to the foundation of the Australian literary tradition’.

On the evidence of this selection, the settlers didn’t think about Aboriginal people much at all. Up to 1850, which is as far as I read, there are exactly four references:

  • Charles Tompson’s 1826 ‘Black Town’ is an elegy for a failed attempt by Governor Macquarie, ‘the chosen Delegate of Heav’n’, to educate ‘Poor restless wand’rers of the wooded plain’ in the joys of tenant farming – the failure, it is strongly implied, being the result of the Natives’ fecklessness (rather than because, as Heather Goodall puts it in Invasion to Embassy, to take part in the scheme ‘would mean that they would lose control over their children and be denied access to other areas of their country’). Aboriginal people themselves are notably absent from the scenes portrayed in the poem.
  • John Dunmore Lang’s ‘Colonial Nomenclature’ rattles off a list of ‘native names’ as preferable to ‘Downing Street appellatives’, though again none of the people who gave the settlers words like Parramatta, Illawarra and Woolloomooloo are acknowledged.
  • Charles Harpur’s ‘The Creek of the Four Graves’ does feature frontier violence and there are Aboriginal actors in its drama, but the poem tells of an unprovoked lethal attack by ‘stript and painted Savages’, who turn out to be terrible at bushcraft as well as mindlessly violent.
  • ‘Tullamarine’, by Richard Howitt, comes the closest to acknowledging a common humanity with Aboriginal people: the speaker is an Aboriginal woman who utters a distinctly Victorian lament for a child who has died – of natural causes, nothing to do with any dispossession.

So what some people these days consider the most interesting thing – politically, socially and morally – about the early colonial period is passed over in virtual silence, sometimes silence of a pretty aggressive kind, as in the common trope that this new land has no history, these plants and animals have never been celebrated in song.

Perhaps one has to look elsewhere than to poets to find the traces I was after: the notebooks of William Dawes (which hadn’t come to the attention of scholars when this collection was published), the journals of early settlers as explored by Inga Clendinnen (in Dancing with Strangers) and others, the journals of explorers like Eyre and Sturt, who had a lot to report. Forget the poets.

But hold on, maybe it’s not so much that the early colonial poets ignored Aboriginal people so much that these editors de-selected poems that didn’t ignore them. The book’s scholarly paraphernalia suggests this might be so. According to the note on ‘Tullamarine’, Charles Harpur wrote unsuccessful ‘poems on elegiac Aboriginal subjects’ (not included here because, presumably, the editors didn’t consider that they contributed to ‘the foundation of the Australian literary tradition’). And William Charles Wentworth’s long poem, ‘Australasia‘, of which no excerpt is included, is quoted in the Introduction as referring to ‘the mournful genius of the plain’, which, the editors gloss, may or may not signify ‘aborigines’ [sic]. ‘Australasia’, it turns out, includes a passage of 64 lines addressed to Aboriginal people. They may not be great poetry, they may include sentiments that make a modern reader of whatever heritage cringe, but they’re there, acknowledging the pre-colonial inhabitants, beginning:

Ye primal tribes, lords of this old domain,
Swift‐footed hunters of the pathless plain,
Unshackled wanderers, enthusiasts free,
Pure native sons of savage liberty,
Who hold all things in common, earth, sea, air

I can only surmise that in 1970 non-Indigenous literary scholars felt that the kind of verse written about contact between Europeans and Indigenous Australians was best left undisturbed in its place of first publication.

A quick look at John Kinsella’s 2009 Penguin Anthology of Australian Poetry suggests that times have changed: even though this anthology doesn’t have a particular emphasis on colonial times, it includes three poems by Eliza Hamilton Dunlop that indicate a level of awareness not even hinted at in the Elliott and Mitchell anthology.. ‘The Aboriginal Mother’ is similar in tone and form to Howitt’s ‘Tullamarine’ but the mother is lamenting the loss of her man and her firstborn in, according to the site I’ve linked to here, the Myall Creek Massacre of 1838. Her other two poems are ‘The Aboriginal Father’, a transliteration of an Aboriginal song, and the translation of a poem by an Aboriginal man named Wullati.

I wonder if any scholars have taken on a 20-teens version of the Elliott and Mitchell anthology that reflects early colonial poets’ contributions to what we now see as ‘the Australian literary tradition’.

Tranter’s Choice

John Tranter (editor), The Best Australian Poems 2012 (Black Inc 2012)

bp2112My note on this book in the little blog where I keep a note of my reading provoked an anonymous comment full of rage and despair. (I’m linking to it, because it seems a pity that such passion should go almost unheard.) It may be that the commenter didn’t actually have this book in mind, since the poem s/he singled out for particular spleen is actually in last year’s Best Australian Poems, but it’s probably inevitable that any anthology claiming to be the best of something will annoy someone, especially if they’ve got a dog in the fight themselves.

Although I’d secretly love someone to decide that my November Sonnets were works of genius, I didn’t actually  have a dog in this fight. So I wasn’t annoyed. I can’t say that I was swept away either. I’d read and enjoyed about half a dozen of the poems, and was delighted to see them included. And there are fine poems by many writers whose work I know, and by many I don’t. John Tranter’s own contribution, at the conclusion of his introduction, is a kind of cento – an assemblage of lines and images from the chosen poems, but with Tranteresque impersonality they don’t form a coherent whole but are ‘chosen more or less at random’.

Some previously unpublished poems were submitted directly to this anthology. But most appeared previously in a wide range of publications, including books, literary journals and newspapers. Both Quadrant and Overland get a guernsey, likewise both Fairfax and Murdoch – a touch of poetry making the whole world kin? But why, I ask querulously, is there nothing from the paper I subscribe to, the Sydney Morning Herald? And I answer even more querulously because poems turn up in the Sydney Morning Herald only slightly more often than teeth in hens. SMH, Susan Wyndham, literary editor of the SMH.

Added a couple of hours later: I know this post isn’t a review. As it happens, Ali Alizadeh’s excellent discussion of the book went up on the Cordite Poetry Review site not long after I posted my little piece. I recommend it.

Western Sydney on Western Sydney

Michael Mohammed Ahmad & Felicity Castagna (editors), On Western Sydney (Westside Publications 2012)

In early 2011, an issue of the University of New South Wales’ student newspaper Tharunka had a cover illustration of maps of Sydney according to four different regions. Like Yanko Tsvetkov’s stereotype maps, their probable inspiration, they manage to be cheerfully offensive about just about everyone, but you’d have to be thin skinned to take serious umbrage.
20120926-163722.jpg

All the same, look at Western Sydney: ‘out there’, ‘someone has to live there’, ‘yummy exotic food’, ‘cultural cringe’, ‘refugees’, ‘day trip’. The anonymous cartographer has caught something, but if you stop and think for a bit you realise that he/she/they has/have surely pulled her/his/their punches, avoiding any references to drugs, sexual violence, Islamophobic stereotypes or the class attitude invoked by the word westies. More interestingly, there is no ‘Sydney according to Western Sydney’ map. Evidently, in the mind of the maps’ creator(s), Western Sydney lacks a view of its own.

Westside Publications exists to create a counter-narrative: to provide a platform for Western Sydney voices and, at least in part, to undermine the stereotypes, less by denying them outright than by seeking to paint a fuller picture. ‘I don’t mind a story that makes us look bad,’ writes Michael Mohammed Ahmad, chief editor of Westside, in his introduction to On Western Sydney, ‘so long as it’s honest and complex.’

Under the auspices of BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Service), Westside has work for years in schools and the community to develop skilled writers. On Western Sydney is their twelfth anthology featuring established and/or emerging writers and artists connected to the region. Ahmad says the goal has been ‘to source writing from Western Sydney and writing about Western Sydney’. Of course it’s not the only place where writers from Western Sydney get published – in my time at the School Magazine, for instance, some of our regular contributors were from the west, and off the top of my head eminent poets Jennifer Maiden and Peter Minter have strong Western Sydney connections. And a number of the writers in this anthology have been published elsewhere, including in the definitely Inner West This is the Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories. But there’s no doubting the significance of Westside. Last week Mohammed Ahmad received the Australia Council’s Kirk Robson Award which honours ‘outstanding leadership from young people working in community arts and cultural development, particularly in the areas of reconciliation and social justice’.

20120921-175932.jpg So On Western Sydney is a phenomenon. It’s also a good read, and not at all the dry sociological collection the title might suggest. It includes short stories, poetry, absurd parables, a photo essay; there’s lyricism, satire, rap, stinging social commentary, domestic observation, fantasy, memoir (I think), travel writing … from as culturally diverse a bunch of writers as you’re likely to find anywhere. Many of the contributors are familiar from Westside’s readings at recent Sydney Writers’ Festivals, and scattered throughout are Bill Reda’s photos of Moving People, this year’s event.

I wouldn’t rush to say that the stereotypes are completely repudiated. Some are reversed with varying degrees of subtlety. Two poems – Andy Ko’s surreal ‘A South Line Travel Guide’ and Fiona Wright’s deliciously ironic ‘Roadtrip’ (which begins ‘And it certainly felt like a Food Safari, such a long way from Kirribilli’) – could be read as direct, mocking responses to Tharunka‘s ‘day trip’ and ‘yummy exotic foods’ stereotypes. Predatory men are scarily realised in Amanda Yeo’s train-story ‘Nine Minutes’ and Frances Panapoulos’ poem ‘”puss puss”‘, though there’s no racial profiling in either. The class attitudes not quite articulated by Tharunka are challenged throughout, as when the protagonist of Peta Murphy’s ‘Roughhousing with Aquatic Birds’ suffers through some kind of arty inner west event (‘She doesn’t speak to me, / it’s as if she can see my Bunnings uniform’). The world evoked in Lachlan Brown’s long poem ‘Poem for a Film’ could well be labelled ‘Someone has to live there’, but there’s art – and heart – in the telling:

______On a blistering afternoon
a council truck is removing tall trees

so that no one will confuse this vista with
a place of moneyed elegance. And maybe

the scream of the chainsaw means you’re
not ignored, as cut limbs crash through

the dry air. And maybe what’s left is
for your own good, and the streetscape

becomes a mouth mashed up during a bar fight,
with its bare stumps grinning cruelly in the heat.

My guess is that the writers are mostly under 35. The problems of negotiating relationships is a dominant theme: under the judgemental gaze of older Arab women in Miran Hosny’s ‘The Weight Divide’; by phone in Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s own brief contribution, the deeply unsettling ‘The First Call’; in the gap between the world of song and the world of experience in Luke Carman’s ‘Becoming Leonard Cohen’ (though it’s pretty impertinent to describe Carman’s weird tangential verse as about anything); in bitter-sweet recollection of a high school crush in Tamar Chnorhokian’s ‘Remembering Leon’.

There’s so much to like. We’re told that this will be Westside’s last print publication. Maybe there’s a sense that its work is done, and the writers it has fostered can now find platforms further afield – in Asia Literary Journal, for example, whose current issue has a number of pieces exploring migrant identity. I hope so.

I received my copy free from BYDS. You can buy one from independent book shops in Sydney or directly from BYDS (email in@byds.org.au with your postal address and they’ll give you details on cost and bank transfer details).

Lehmann & Gray’s Australian Poetry since 1788: A first post

Geoffrey Lehmann & Robert Gray, Australian Poetry Since 1788 (UNSW Press 2011)

This was a thoughtful and generous Christmas present, and it’s a daunting 1080 pages. After a bit of dipping and checking, I started at the beginning on Australia Day (after all, the title implies that in this book Australian poetry began on or after 26 January 1788), expecting to take a year or so to read it in bits here and there. Rather than wait till next January or thereabouts to blog about the book all in one go, I’ll post now and probably a couple more times over the coming months.

It’s the age of the interwebs, so naturally before I’d gone much past the Introduction I went looking to see what other people were saying. It was no surprise to come across snippets of ‘poetry-war’ conversation. John Tranter called the book the Death Star and blogged some inflammatory sarcasm. Someone on The Rereaders called it the Grey Lemon. So far so expected. I followed a trail of links to a video of a lecture given by Peter Minter at a seminar last October, and suddenly we were out of the poetry wars (in so far as that phrase implies squabbles among the marginalised) and into serious cultural issues. Minter starts out by saying that as a poet you don’t often have to take a stand, but this is one of those moments, and even though some of the lecture, particularly the discussion of the endpapers, is gleefully sarcastic, the over all feeling is a kind of passionate no pasaran. The anthology, he points out, includes only two modern Aboriginal poets. [Have a guess who they are, and if you’re at all familiar with Australian poetry you’ll probably get one right, but almost certainly your other name is one of the excluded. If ten of my readers did this in a room together we’d probably come up with ten names – that is to say, it’s an obviously significant exclusion.] This wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t being sold as a grand canonising statement rather than a selection of stuff that a couple of men happen to like. As it is, though, the omission, along with the ethnographic treatment of the traditional Aboriginal songs that are here, amounts to a ‘disappearing of modern Aboriginal poetry’ (Minter’s phrase), a contribution to this country’s continuing genocide (my phrase, and though it’s intemperate I’ll defend it if need be). Minter lists numerous omissions beyond the Aboriginal poets, and says there are many errors in the commentaries (the only one he specifies is the description of the 1967 referendum as giving Aboriginal people ‘special recognition’ in the Constitution, whereas in fact it removed ‘special’ provisions). The video is well worth watching, even though it misses a lot because it doesn’t show us Minter’s slides.

Poor old Geoffrey and Robert! I’d heard one of them on the ABC’s late lamented Book Show being quietly pleased with the representation of women among their poets. ‘Whew!’ you could almost hear him saying. ‘We dodged that bullet.’ One mitigating factor is that while the book is generally being touted as in some way definitive, the actual Introduction presents it pretty unambiguously as a product of the compilers’ idiosyncratic tastes and preferences.

All the same, I gave quiet thanks for Edward Said’s notion of counterpoint (that is, roughly, rather than boycotting a work of art that is, say, racist, it is preferable to read it along side of work by the people it has belittled or slandered or erased), and promised myself that I would dig out my books of poetry by Lionel Fogarty, Kevin Gilbert, Samuel Wagan Watson and read them and other Aboriginal (and non Anglo, and so on) poets in parallel with this anthology.

The two Aboriginal poets who made the cut are Odgeroo Noonuccal and Elizabeth Hodgson. There are quite a few versions of Aboriginal songs and stories ‘as recorded by’ white men, and in the case of those recorded by Roland Robinson, the storytellers’ names are given. This doesn’t negate Minter’s main point, but it does indicate that the editors were more aware of Aboriginal people as cultural creators than his lecture might seem to imply.

4W twenty-two

David Gilbey (editor), 4w twenty-two New Writing (2011)

fourW is an anthology produced regularly by the Booranga Writers’ Centre, home of Wagga Wagga Writers Writers. The 22nd issue, the first I’ve read, is extraordinarily eclectic: in small part a showcase for local Wagga Wagga writers, it extends to work from Japan (a Noh play, some fine short poems) and elsewhere far beyond these shores, established writers rubbing shoulders with those still wet from the cocoon, the academic with the demotic, and a world of diversity in between: short stories with the ghosts of O Henry, Raymond Carver, Henry Lawson and maybe Tropfest hovering over their shoulders, a touch of magic realism, some ‘ladies who lunch’ pieces (is that a genre?), cryptic and narrative and lyric and satirical poetry. It was perfect to carry in my bag while I was immersed at home in the completely unportable Reamde.

My crabby editorial soul snarked into life once or twice, most strikingly at this: ‘Her mother … insisted she keep her hair long and plaited to trick the suitors into seeing her as young, virile and obedient.’ Um, note to author: I may be missing something, but I think you meant nubile.

Deep Suburbia

At a Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago Jennifer Maiden was reading at a Sydney-themed poetry session. She told us that she hadn’t been able to think of anything she’d written about Sydney. But when someone mentioned a couple of titles, she understood: ‘Oh, Western Sydney! I’ve got plenty about Western Sydney!’

20111105-111958.jpgThe show in the rehearsal room of the new Bankstown Arts Centre last night was all about Western Sydney, when five actors from the (not-Western) Sydney Theatre Company presented Deep Suburbia. In a nutshell this was a theatrical presentation of work from an anthology of the same name published earlier this year by the Bankstown Youth Development Service (mostly known as BYDS – I had to look up its full name).

The anthology is the third in the Westside Jr series, edited like its predecessors by Michael Mohammed Ahmad. It consists almost entirely of writing produced by school students during an artists in residence program that gave guidance and mentorship to the young writers over a number of weeks. Click on the image to the left for an e-book version – it’s a good read in its own right. The back cover isn’t wrong when it says that  its ‘writers and photographers channel the unique and often misrepresented  voice of Sydney’s infamous Western Suburbs’. Jennifer Maiden thinks of herself as a voice from Western Sydney. People who enthuse about Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap seem to read it as giving voice to a previously mute equivalent in Melbourne. This anthology and its predecessors demonstrate that given half a chance there’s a multitude of voices in the West ready to make themselves heard. I’ve been dipping into it for months, and always found something to enjoy, from sharp, short poems like this by Peta Murphy:

The mood turns from sympathy to scorn
when her end means the delay
of the 3:14 to Granville.

to longer tales of family life, or classroom romance/politics.

Last night was something of a revelation. The performers – Stefo Nantsou (who also directed), Arka Das, Elena Carapetis, Lindy Sardelic amd Miranda Tapsell – read the pieces with intelligence, humour and moments of great poignancy. They played around with form, so that the evening had a shape – among other things, the show finished with Filip Stempien’s enigmatically named ‘New Zealand Boys Drum’, a string of glimpses of the varied life of Bankstown, and we realise that a number of these glimpses have been acted out for us in the interstices of earlier readings. Most interestingly for me, the performances demonstrated something about the nature of young people’s writing. There were a couple of pieces, for instance – a rant about how annoying girls are (by someone who chose, perhaps wisely, to remain anonymous), a step-by-step account of a day spent obsessed with a boyfriend’s perceived bad mood (also anonymous), Kameron Omar’s recount of his mother’s time in hospital with an aneurysm – that one might be tempted to read as artless scribblings on the page, interesting mainly as sociological data. In performance, the depth of their creativity became blazingly evident: ‘Girls These Days’ sounds like Henry Higgins as Pizza Boy; ‘I Write to Remember’ does a brilliant job of mocking the thing it enacts; the beautifully understated ‘Aneurysm’ is permeated with quiet terror.

The show was only on for two nights. It was free, and food was provided. I’m sorry you didn’t make it. I’m very glad I did.

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.