Tag Archives: Geoffrey Lehmann

SWF 2012: The Weekend

First, a photo from Friday night. This is Tamar Chnorhokian, who read first in Moving People. That’s not a sponsor’s logo in the background, the story was set in a supermarket. You can see what I mean about the performers having nowhere to hide.

And now a sprint through my crowded weekend. My only serious queuing experience of the Festival was for the 11.30 session of What Would Edith Do? on Saturday – I got there before the previous session finished and so was comfortably towards the front of the queue. Edith Campbell Berry, the main character in Frank Moorhouse’s Dark PalaceGrand Days and Cold Light, may not have seized my imagination, perhaps because I haven’t read the first two books, but she has clearly been important to many people. I went to this hoping to find out what I’ve been missing and I got what I was after. Emily Maguire, novelist, discovered Edith in her late teenage years as a model of how it might be possible to live – rising to challenges and living nervously out of one’s depth rather than settling for the life mapped out by social expectations. She said there had been a number of times when she had actually asked herself the WWED question. Sadly, she deemed only one of them suitable for public exposure, but as it involved being invited to speak at a function in North Vietnam when she actually had no idea of the purpose of the function or who the Party functionaries thought she was, it was a perfectly satisfactory anecdote. The other panellists, journalists Annabel Crabb and Cynthia Banham, had come to the character later in life, but managed to convey the appeal. I realised that Cold Light is all aftermath: a woman who has lived daringly and intelligently, challenged convention in her private life and made a contribution on the world stage, returns to Australia in the 1950s where there is no place for such a woman and lives on scraps for the rest of her life. For those who have seen Edith riding around Geneva in a cowgirl suit or (is this really what they said?) stroking Anthony Eden’s head in her lap, the third trilogy is heartbreaking. Frank Moorhouse wasn’t there, but the best line of the session was his. He had told Annabel Crabb that one of the advantages of having spent 20 years with a single character was that she can now do her own PR and he doesn’t even have to turn up.

National Treasures was another poetry session that wasn’t quite what I had read the advertising to mean. I thought the participants – Mark Tredinnick, Vivian Smith and Judith Beveridge – were going to talk about Australian poetry they treasured, and read some to us, plus some of their own. What we got was excellent, but it wasn’t that: Judith Beveridge stayed firmly in the chair role, and the others talked of their own writing careers, and read from their work. When he was 15,  in the 1940s, Vivian S had sent off poems to The Bulletin, then pretty much the only place that published poetry in Australia. He received encouraging responses from the literary editor, Douglas Stewart, advising him to ditch the archaic poeticisms and recommending that he read contemporary poets such as T S Eliot. Decades later, Mark T was similarly advised by critic Jim Tulip, but the poets he recommended were William Carlos Williams, Robert Gray and Vivian Smith.

Tasmanian Aborigines was next, in which Lyndall Ryan talked to Ann Curthoys about her new book, a rewrite of her 1981 book on the same subject. Inevitably, the session involved a revisiting of the so-called History Wars: Keith Windschuttle had singled Professor Ryan’s 1981 book out for his accusation that lefty historians had fabricated evidence of massacre and his claim that in fact the original inhabitants of this country had just faded away when the Europeans arrived, possibly because of their inherent weaknesses. Windschuttle has been thoroughly discredited as a historian, of course, but it was interesting to hear Ryan’s take on the episode now. Asked what difference his intervention had made to our general understanding of Australian history, she said that paradoxically he had driven her and other back to interrogate their sources more thoroughly, and where in her first book she had focused on Aboriginal resistance, she had now looked at ‘settler activism’ and found that the evidence indicates that the violence of the frontier was much worse than historians had previously understood. Massacre, for instance, looms much larger in the new book than it did in the original.

Anne Curthoys was warm and personal as her interlocutor. She opened with a wonderful quote to the effect that in order to write history, one needs to have a deep commitment to the subject that relates to some great love or business in the present, and asked Lyndall Ryan what this love or business was in her case. But Professor Ryan was not to be seduced away from her calm, scholarly demeanour, and answered in terms of the breakthroughs in research since 1981. The question in my mind, which I didn’t get to ask, was along the same lines: as a white Australian, uncovering the evidence of terrible things done by your own forebears, how do you keep your composure, or if (as I think would be desirable) you lose your composure how do you keep your scholarly integrity? I guess I’ll just leave that one hanging.

Then I was back to the sun-filled Bangarra Mezzanine for Poetry Australia with Robert Gray, Rhyll McMaster, Tricia Dearborn, Geoffrey Lehmann – and the unfulfilled promise of Robert Adamson. It was a dazzling session – the sun was low over the Harbour and from where I was sitting it was impossible to look directly at whoever was at the lectern. Speaking less literally, it was okay. Each of the four poets read from their own work – some startling eroticism from Tricia Dearborn (I mean that in a good way), two poems from Rhyll McMaster that had me reaching for my pen to write down brilliant lines I knew I’d forget, in a scribble I now can’t read – her new book, Late Night Shopping, is now on my To Buy list. Geoffrey Lehmann read ‘Parenthood’, which begins ‘I have held what I hoped would become the best minds of a generation /  Over the gutter outside an Italian coffee shop watching the small / Warm urine splatter on the asphalt’, and lives up to the promise of it opening. Almost as if in direct reference to Ali Alizadeh’s scathing Overland review of the Lehmann–Gray anthology, Robert Gray read a number of John Shaw Neilson’s limericks.
In the short Q&A, someone did tactfully name the elephant in the room. A bookseller from Perth, she said that the anthology Australian Poetry Since 1788 was selling brilliantly. But, she said, she didn’t understand how a fine poet such as Fay Zwicky hadn’t made the cut. Ali Alizadeh, John Tranter, Peter Minter and other fierce critics of the anthology might have asked the same question but added a hundred names and whole classes of poetry, and gone on to challenge the inclusion of limericks. Here it was a genuine question rather than an attack. It seems to me that what was missing in the selection process was the intervention of someone who knew the field  and could veto the editors’ eccentricities. I can see why it would be hard to resist modifying the general perception of John Shaw Neilson by including a swag of limericks, or to include 14 poems by ‘Bellerive’, whose poems never even made it to the literary pages of the Bulletin of his time. But that’s when an authority figure needs to step in and rap someone over the knuckles.

Oh my paws and whiskers, across the road again to see Hilary Mantel on a huge screen in the Sydney Theatre talking about Bring Up the Bodies. What can I say? She was magnificent, and I’ve now got the book on my iPad. A friend of mine couldn’t read Wolf Hall, because he couldn’t tell who was being talked about a lot of the time – the book would say ‘he’ and expect you to know it was Thomas Cromwell. Evidently a lot of people had the same difficulty, because this new book says ‘he (Cromwell)’. As Michael Cathcart, interviewing Ms Mantell from our stage, said, you can almost hear the author saying, ‘Is that clear enough for you?’

[Added on Wednesday: The Literary Dilettante has an excellent account of this conversation here.]

Gluttons for punishment, we rushed from the theatre and drove to Marrickville for an evening of youthful cabaret/burlesque, which might have been on a different planet, but that’s another story altogether.

On Sunday, I only managed one event, The Oskar Schindler of Asia? in which Robin de Crespigny (pronounced Crepny) and former people-smuggler Ali al Jenabi conversed with ABC’s Heather Ewart (who is much smaller in person than she seems on the TV screen). This was 2012’s equivalent of last year’s conversation with David Hicks. Like Hicks, Ali al Jenabi is being treated unjustly by the Australian government. Although the title of the session is a quote from the judge who tried him for the crime of people smuggling, the government is so committed to the demonising term ‘people smuggler’ or at least so terrified of being attacked by the snarling Tony Abbott  if they are seen to be soft on such people, that al Jenabi, who seems to be a perfectly decent man who has endured terrible things, remains on a bridging visa pending deportation, even while all his family are now Australian residents.

It was a great Festival. Now I have to get back to work.

(Re-)reading Kevin Gilbert’s poetry

Kevin Gilbert, End of Dream-time (Island Press 1971)
and People Are Legends (UQP 1978)

According to his Wikipedia entry, Kevin Gilbert (1933-1993) was an ‘Indigenous Australian activist, artist, poet, playwright and printmaker’. His first play, The Cherry Pickers, which he wrote when in prison. made a splash in 1970 or thereabouts. A Wiradjuri man, he played a role in setting up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and was part of the Black Power group. He wrote a book for children, Child’s Dreaming (1992), from which we published a number of poems in The School Magazine, and a sweet memoir for child readers, Me and Mary Kangaroo (1994).

I own a copy of his first published book, End of Dream-time, number 104 of the edition of 200, and it’s sitting on my desk as I type. It’s a beautiful object, handset and printed on creamy, textured paper, with illustrations by the author in a range of single PMS colours. Phil Roberts, the poet founder of Island Press, treated his early books as labours of love. Of those on my bookshelves, this is the one most lovingly laboured over. The presentation is a clear message to anyone tempted to read the poems as sociological specimens (a book by an Aboriginal man was a rare thing in the early 1970s, and any spurious sociological appeal was made all the greater by its having been at least partly written when Gilbert was in prison for murder). These poems, the design announces emphatically, are to be read and respected as poems.

So I was shocked to learn, all these years later, that Kevin Gilbert ‘repeatedly and publicly’ disowned his poems as published in End of Dream-time. It seems that Roberts did substantial editing without his permission. He may have done no more than he would have done for any first book, and the poems may in some sense be the better for it, but Gilbert’s bitter complaint was about the lack of consultation. Adam Shoemaker tells the story, and reproduces the original and edited versions of the short poem ‘People Are Legends’, in ‘The Poetry of Politics‘, a chapter of his Black Words White Page: Aboriginal Literature 1929–1988. Go to the link, read it and cringe: Roberts’s good intentions are clear, but even a whitefella like me who’s been an arrogant enough editor in my time can see why Gilbert would consider it a betrayal of trust. His poems are full of rage and despair at the callous, complacent attitudes of whites toward Aboriginal peoples. Shoemaker quotes him as saying:

I’ve adopted writing as a means of voicing the Aboriginal situation … I try to present as truly as possible the Aboriginal situation and the Aboriginal response.


There is the need to educate White Australians to the present situation of Aboriginal people … I’m presenting it as honestly as possible – it’s not a pretty picture.

What bitter irony, when struggling to find a voice in this way, to have one of those in need of education inject his voice into the mix! (I know Phil Roberts is Canadian, but in this context that’s a distinction without a difference.)

So I went out and bought a copy of People Are Legends, published seven years later by the University of Queensland Press. The back cover describes these poems as written ‘in the language used by living Aboriginals, without editing, without politeness or hypocrisy as practised in “cultured” verse’ (my bold).

Neither book is a comfortable read. Rather than emotion recollected in tranquillity, we get harangues that feel shot off in the heat of the moment. Many of the poems are dramatic monologues, spoken not so much by characters as by exemplars, either of the misery and debasement resulting from genocidal oppression, or of morally contemptible individual escape. There’s a bush ballad that doesn’t quite scan, and quite a lot of satire that has a bitterly intolerant edge, directed not only against whites but, almost, against any Aboriginal person who pursues a politics that’s neither despairingly passive nor holding out the option of retaliatory violence. Even the Gurindji’s heroic stand against Vesteys in 1970 gets the treatment. One of the two poems named for them begins:

They fast
They silently fast
Eloquently silent
In their thundering cry for Right

But by the end that silence has been found sadly, even culpably wanting:

They should remember
Back in time: throughout history
Justice, deprived of a strong voice slowly,
Inexorably dies
And the seeker of justice dies with it
Or silently becomes a slave.

But then, these poems aren’t aiming to give me a good time or lay out a workable political agenda. This was trail-making work: I don’t know that anyone would try to write poems about ‘the’ Aboriginal situation and response these days, and that’s due in part to Kevin Gilbert’s rising to the challenge to educate, to speak as a representative.

Since the thing that prompted me to read these books was the near absence of modern Aboriginal poets from Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s Australian Poetry Since 1788, it’s probably worth remarking that there are quite a number of poems here that wouldn’t have looked odd in those pages. The other ‘The Gurindji’ brought a new music into Australian poetry:

Poor fellow
Simple fellow
Sweet fellow
Sittin’ in the desert
Singin’  desert song

And I’m no expert, but I think ‘Trying to Save Joan Ella’ not only stands up well as a bush ballad, but manages to hold out a significant challenge to the whole tradition. It tells of an Aboriginal woman’s arduous and terrifying ride to fetch a doctor for a dying white baby:

Quick she rode to Thiraweena
And she brought the doctor back
But the child died – and the father
Cursed the slowness of the black
If this cursed gin had ridden
Faster, harder through the night –
But the blacks are bad and useless –
Can’t be trusted out of sight!’

Mary bowed her head in silence
Thought: ‘I wishit me had died
Rode two horses an’ it killed ’em
Never stop’t though me dead tired
Frightened too of horse bin fallin’
When I passed the old ones’ grave
Shut me eyes with courage ‘gammon’
When the ghosts rise I ain’t brave!
Couldn’t do no more I tried but
Kill’d two horses; rode to death.
Didn’t stop! I kept on runnin’!’
And she wept beneath her breath

Really, it’s a poem that cried out to be anthologised.

And one last note: in Child’s Dreaming, published a couple of years before his death, Gilbert showed that he could relax when the burden of being a representative was eased. There was still the element of protest, but without the same bitterness and despair (see ‘Emu and Koori’, as reprinted in The School Magazine  with an illustration by Arone Raymond Meeks, in the left-hand image below). ‘Cicada’ (image by Noela Young) may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s given me much pleasure. ‘Eagle’ (illustration Aart Van Ewijk) is just plain genial.


Who are these people?

Fay Zwicky, one of the poets missing from the Gray and Lehmann anthology, has turned up on the Poetry Foundation podcast with ‘The Age of Aquarius’. Among other things, I loved this:
between the holocaust and the atom bomb
who are these people?
Between the deep and shallow end,
never say thank you or good morning.
Ooh, that’s me!
You can read it or listen to it here.

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.