Louis Armand, “Merz is Dead.”

When it comes to poetry anthologies, I agree with David Antin’s long-ago quip — “Anthologies are to poets as zoos are to animals” — and I think that journals and magazines are probably better indicators of what’s current in any country’s poetry than grand, often agenda-driven anthologies. Here I am presenting the work of fifty-one contemporary poets from Australia. My aim was to make it broadly representative by including innovation and experimentation alongside quasi-romanticism, elegy, and the almost-pastoral. No one in this group writes like another. The common link is simply that each poet is an Australian whether by birth, residence or citizenship.

This collection could probably be read as an anthology, and so I grant a comment on omission. There are many other poets writing and publishing in Australia, probably around four hundred, who aren’t included here. A problem for any editor assembling a collection of writing from Australia is the inclusion of multiracial poetries. At the outset, I should say that there are no Australian indigenous nor Torres Strait Islander poets in this selection of poems. One of the poets included here, Peter Minter, coedited, with Anita Heiss, a definitive anthology of indigenous Australian writing and I would urge readers of Jacket2 to seek it out — the Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature.[1] There are no “Asian” poets here either, although there are some who rightly claim part-Asian ethnicity. China is currently the main purchaser of Australia’s minerals and gas, and in the entire Asian region Australian governments (including state cultural organizations), universities and businesses are strenuously making links. In 2007, 101 Australian poets were translated from English by Melbourne-based poet Ouyang Yu in Contemporary Australian Poetry in Chinese[2] (coedited with John Kinsella). The anthology is exclusively in Chinese. In 2008 John Kinsella and Alvin Pang coedited a collection that brought together the poetries of Singapore and Australia — Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia.[3]  Kit Kelen, who lives and works in Macau, is active in publishing work in translation into and from Mandarin, Portuguese, and English. Association of Stories in Macau (ASM) has published two recent bilingual anthologies of large selections of Australian poetry translated into Mandarin, Fires Rumoured about the City and Wombats of Bundanon,[4] both edited by Kit Kelen and Song Zijiang with translations by Song Jijiang, Vai Keng, Iris Fan Xing, and Debby Sou. Many Australian poets and artists have enjoyed residencies of several months duration in Asian countries, thanks to a state-sponsored agency called Asia Link. Some of those poets and several others who live and work in Asia are included here. There are many exchange visits between China, India, Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Macau, Indonesia, and Australia for poetry pursuits.

I also urge readers to keep an eye out for an upcoming Jacket2 feature on Aboriginal Australian poetry, which will focus on tabis, the individual songs composed by young men from the Pilbara region of Western Australia. The feature will have two parts: selections from Taruru, an important collection of song poetry compiled by the anthropologists Carl von Brandenstein and A. P. Thomas, and an interview between Robbie and Andrew Dowding, a Ngarluma ethnomusicologist and anthropologist from Australia’s northwest. 

The preceding paragraphs respond to the almost obligatory compulsion inherent in Australian literary culture to ensure that everyone is included and that everything’s correct. This arises from the predicament of being such a young country that, these days, is constantly self-consciously thinking of and describing itself as a “multicultural” place. It has been only 223 years since the establishment of white settlement and its attendant officialdom. Obviously all nonindigenous Australians originate elsewhere. Australians are increasingly aware of postcoloniality and the country’s geographical position in the Asia-Pacific-Indian Ocean regions.

There is also a kind of persistent and impossible preoccupation in Australia — the quest for a national identity. This leads to the spurious question of what it is to be “an Australian poet.” Where else is this question asked of poets so frequently? “Do you think of yourself as an Australian poet?” Nobody knows how to answer it.

*

I’m not going to review these poems individually; I’ll let the presentation make its own opening for critical response. But there are some trends that can be mentioned to provide context for some of the work.

There has been a recent lyrical resurgence that has dragged the reception of postmodern projects back towards the formal without actually landing directly in intentional formal poetry. It is baffling to attempt to determine what this trend is a reaction against (possibly, it’s against the continuing influence of the liberal, anti-traditional poetics of late ’60s/early ’70s), but some discussion of it rears up from time to time on blogs and it’s evident in particular publishers’ editorial preferences. So, there is much lyricism in the poetry being written by younger Australian poets. You will find shreds of lyrical traces here, especially in some of the poems that could be called “life-writing.” Although some of the diaristic and subjective poems that could be called lyrical are definitely not part of the recent lyrical trend and are clearly conceptual.

Economic contingencies have institutionalized Australian poetry in the last decade. Many of the poets in this feature are receiving or have recently had postgraduate fellowships. As financial support for the arts dwindles the academies have become a refuge. Even some senior poets (like Jacket magazine’s founding editor) undertake doctorates in creative writing in order to secure an income for three years.

As in every other developed country economic and technological changes have meant that digital publishing and print on demand are becoming the norm. Chapbooks are thriving and small independent presses are doing all right in Australia. There’s a resurgence of poets using DIY methods to produce magazines and chapbooks.

Currently, there really aren’t any “schools” of Australian poetry though there are groups or coteries of like-minded poets who are likely to publish in the same journals and who recommend books and exchange ideas and concepts with each other. There is a kind of “leg-pulling school” of poetry that has a floating intergenerational noncommittal membership of experimenters and oppositionalists (is that a word?) who know very well that part of the function of their compulsive labors in poetry is not only to excite their readers by shaking up the status quo but also to fill in the time. In Australia, poets could be categorized in groups encompassing the social/political, or others that are conservative, ecological, post-avant and so on. But it is a smallish scene of literati and these days an elision of influences can be detected, rather than the strong factional groupings that occurred in Australia’s version of  poetry wars — traditionalists vs. modernists in the late 1940s through the 1950s, continuing on into the 1960s and ’70s via a kind of urban/pastoral or bush/city divide and an opposition to late modernists, progressing to everyone else versus postmodernists and experimenters from the 1980s until today.

*

In these poems there are some crisscross references to local poets. Two names that recur are Michael Dransfield and John Forbes. Michael Dransfield is often imagined heroically. He was a prolific romantic, lyrical poet whose heroin addiction overtook him. He died at twenty-four in Sydney in 1973.[5] John Forbes was an innovative, anti-parochial, parodic poet, crucially influenced by Frank O’Hara in the 1970s. Because of his brilliance as a poet John Forbes had and continues to have an enormous influence on twentieth-century and contemporary Australian poetry. He also died too soon, at forty-seven, of a heart attack, in 1998.[6]

Five of the artists who generously provided drawings, paintings, prints and mixed media are also poets with poems included in the feature. Some of the artists, artbunker, Ian Friend, Robert Pulie and Paul Sloan, fall into the distinguished category of “friends-of-poets.” I am grateful to them for allowing reproduction of their work.

In the interest of objectivity I have grouped the work under the poets’ last names according to a recently invented “downunder” method — the reverse alphabet.  This first batch of ten poets will be followed by four subsequent installments featuring the remaining forty-one poets and additional artists.

 

For more Australian poets and poetry, some of the poets represented in the feature edit online and print poetry magazines:

apoetic — edited by Peter Minter and Kate Fagan. Contributing editors: Chris Andrews, Michael Farrell, Jill Jones, Astrid Lorange, Ann Vickery (coming in 2012)

 

Cordite Poetry Review — edited by David Prater and reviews editor, Ali Alizadeh

foam:e — edited by Angela Gardner

HEAT poetry online — coedited by Fiona Wright

Island magazine — poetry editor John Kinsella

Journal of Poetics Research — edited by John Tranter

Mascara Literary Review — edited by Michelle Cahill and reviews editor, Adam Aitken

Otoliths — edited by Mark Young

Overland — poetry editor Peter Minter

Southerly — poetry editor Kate Lilley

 


 

1. Macquarie Pen Anthology of Aboriginal Literature (Allen & Unwin, 2008).

2. Contemporary Australian Poetry in Chinese (Australia-China Council, 2007).

3. Over There: Poems from Singapore and Australia (Ethos Books, 2008).

4. Fires Rumoured About the City (ASM, Macau 2009); Wombats of Bundanon (ASM, 2011).

5. See Patricia Dobrez, Michael Dransfield’s Lives: A Sixties Biography (Melbourne University Press, 1999).

6. See Meaghan Morris, Ecstasy and Economics: American Essays for John Forbes (Sydney: emPress, 1992); Ken Bolton, Homage to John Forbes (Sydney: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2010).