Features

Fifty-one contemporary poets from Australia

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.

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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.

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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).

 

 


Walk poems

A series of reviews of walking projects

illustration by Marlena Zuber from "Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto"

A few years ago there was a thrilling article in the New York Times about Will Self’s arrival in the city for some literary event. It wasn’t the fact of his arrival that was thrilling, but how he arrived: on foot. Having walked from his home in London to Heathrow, he sat on a flight to JFK and then proceeded to walk the twenty miles from the airport to Manhattan. This simple act of practical psychogeography, which would have produced such a radically different experience from that of most airborne visitors, was a perfect illustration of the perceptual potential inherent in pedestrian travel. Walking, one of the most fundamental of human actions, is ahistorical, which becomes apparent even through Rebecca Solnit’s rigorous attempt to document its history in her book Wanderlust. There is, however, a long and rich history of walking as a subject of, as well as an inspiration and technique for, writing: from Socrates to Basho to William Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud, to Charles Baudelaire sauntering through Walter Benjamin’s streetscape of quotations, to Lisa Robertson’s ambulatory reports from the Office for Soft Architecture.

This particular parade of observations, which focuses on recently published books of poetry and prose — along with one film and one website — that reference walking, was inspired originally by one of those books, Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s Ten Walks / Two Talks, published in 2010 by Ugly Duckling Presse. Their methodology in producing that text was simple — it can basically be summed up in the four-word title — yet peculiarly evocative. Ten Walks / Two Talks explores the intersection and overlap of two vital poetic techniques, movement and conversation, like a cross between a flâneur and David Antin. As readers, we were both so engaged by the results of Cotner and Fitch’s collaborative, conversational procedures that we decided to go about writing a review of their book in roughly the same way: by recording and transcribing our peripatetic conversation about it. Having written this slant form of review, we began to think about conversation as a possible metaphor, or model, for artistic and intellectual engagement: that is, rather than making summative, authoritative judgments about a new book and its merits and appeal, it seemed more interesting to find ways to place ourselves in conversation with that book, to view it not as an event of greater or lesser literary import but as an occasion to initiate poetic, intellectual, political — even personal — dialogue. It seemed a way of getting off the highway and wandering through the residential areas around the airport.

In collecting reviews of recent walking projects, we therefore aimed to place these projects in conversation with one another, even if only implicitly. Rather than simply requesting reviews, however, we wanted to offer reviewers a chance to respond to the work under consideration as we had, by creating a slant form of review. Some reviewers took us up on this offer — to our delight and some degree of surprise — while others preferred to write more traditional reviews, not without surprises of their own. The result is an overview, necessarily inexhaustive, of recent work done in the realm of peripatetic art. Just as we encouraged reviewers to wander in their approach to reviewing, we also encouraged them to consider a diverse array of topics and texts in diverse forms. And the people we invited on this group excursion were writers we like who have also done some wandering on their own.

J. R. Carpenter, for example, immediately leapt to mind when we started to consider writers who have used geography and trajectory as structuring principles in their work. J.R., whose fictions often coalesce around walking the dog or hiking the hills, and whose electronic works often exist as points on a digital map, provided us not with a review of a single text but a meditative introduction to the subject in her Wanderkammer, a wide-ranging reconfiguration of the “Wunderkammer” or cabinet of curiosities. We encourage you to begin with a stroll down the forking paths that she has laid out for us in language; take these other pages with you, though, in case you don’t find your way back.

In the first review on our list, Eugene Lim attempts to avoid being exhausted by George Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, recently published by Wakefield Press in a translation by Marc Lowenthal. We thus begin with a respite from walking, because Perec’s Oulipian enumeration of the goings-on in a Paris square is not about moving as much as it is about sitting still while everything else moves. For a less static picture of Paris we turn to Under the Dome: Walks with Celan, by Jean Daive, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop (Burning Deck). This memoir of walking and poetry is reviewed by Gail Scott, whose own novel My Paris is, among other things, a brilliant evocation of how walking and translation intersect. The scene then shifts from the city of light to the city of brotherly love, and from prose to poetry, for Erica Kaufman’s (soma)tic review of The City Real and Imagined: Philadelphia Poems, by Frank Sherlock and CAConrad (Factory School), in which she creates a series of walking-based procedures in order to compose her review. Leah Souffrant reviews a series of Philadelphic poetry books by Kevin Varrone under the title g-point almanac — one from Duration, one from Instance Press, and most recently one from Ugly Duckling Presse.

Next is Not Blessed by Harold Abramowitz (Les Figues), in which twenty-eight chapters all tell the same story, differently each time, of a boy wandering into the woods and getting lost; it is reviewed, but only ten times, by Nikhil Bilwakesh. Shawn Micallef is a Toronto writer whose strolling essays have appeared in that city’s Eye Weekly and have now been collected in the book Stroll: Psychogeographical Walking Tours of Toronto (Coach House). Montreal-based poetic traveler Taien Ng followed Micallef — in the form of his prose — through the streets of Toronto and gave us a report on what she found. That’s followed by our own live-action review of Ten Walks / Two Talks by Andy Fitch and Jon Cotner (Ugly Duckling). We finish with reviews of two projects that wander off the page into multimedia territory. First, artist Yvette Poorter, whose ten-year project “Dwelling for Intervals” brought her and a small forest to various cities around the world, reviews the website of The Ministry of Walking. Finally, we have Rebekah Rutkoff’s lyrical essay “We Can’t Do It Without the Rose,” a response to Jason Livingston’s Under Foot and Overstory, a 16 mm film that documents attempts by the Friends of Hickory Hill Park, of which Livingston is a member, to protect some Iowa City park land from developers. And at that point in our stroll we reluctantly turn around and walk back.

Writer and architect Ben Jacks, who recently collaborated with poet Annie Finch on an exhibit entitled “Walking, Poems, Buildings,” has written that “there is no possibility of an architecture or a poetics that is not dependent on walking,” which could perhaps stand (or walk?) as the motto for this feature. Walking, in other words, is not just a time-honored topic for poetry but an integral condition of its saying: to move is to be moved, by a poem, a person, or our surroundings.

Listening to Stephen Ratcliffe

Stephen Ratcliffe's notebook. Photo by Jonathan Skinner.

In his 1951 preface to Paterson, William Carlos Williams writes that the long poem “is also the search of the poet for his language”: in the long poem Williams found a form whose discursive capaciousness lends an ongoing quality to that search both in speech and on the page, a search whose desired object — a text, a kind of speech — is never completely bounded. We search for a certain kind of text, but Williams also seeks to draw upon the rushing, watery noise of the Passaic Falls, which he says “seemed to me to be a language which we were and are seeking.” The Falls in their ongoingness mimic the modern search for language as much as they also teach us something about how we are constituted by that language.

This intersection of place and language could be said to inform the work of poet (and surfer) Stephen Ratcliffe, whose ongoing project to document, frame, and reframe daily detail now occupies thousands of pages in print and online, from 2002’s Portraits & Repetition to 2011’s CLOUD / RIDGE and in three 1,000-page books — HUMAN / NATURE, Remarks on Color / Sound, and Temporality — available at Editions Eclipse, and whose work Jacket2 here highlights in critical appraisals, reviews, interviews, photographs, and recordings.

Along with commentaries on Ratcliffe’s poetry and critical prose by Vincent Broqua, Michael Cross, Norman Fischer, Ariel Goldberg, and Carol Watts, we offer conversational interviews between Ratcliffe and Linda Russo, Jonathan Skinner, and Jeffrey Schrader; two essays by Ratcliffe that offer extended meditations on sound and the materiality of the word; poems by Ratcliffe from his forthcoming Selected Days (Counterpath Press); and a number of recordings newly available at PennSound, including extensive conversations between Ratcliffe and Robert Grenier that were recorded between 2001 and 2010. (You can find those recordings and more audio and video at Ratcliffe’s PennSound page.)

In his 2000 book Listening to Reading, Ratcliffe gives us a model for how to think critically about the intersection of sound and text, how to ‘hear’ the relationship between sound, shape, and meaning in poetry that is testing the boundaries of what language can do. The work here explores how Ratcliffe has continued to ask these questions as he writes long poems that test the boundaries of the reading (and hearing) experience. In “The Longing of the Long Poem” (published in Jacket 40), Peter Middleton writes: “Modernist long poems resist the support institutions of poetry. Expensive to print; tricky to handle digitally; too long to be read in their entirety at poetry readings; too big for anthologies; much too big for little magazines to be able to publish anything but short sections; almost always too long to teach within the constraints of a timetable; exorbitantly demanding of a reader’s time; and sometimes barely readable until extended scholarly labours have provided guides and critical readings. And yet the long poem continues to represent the peak of poetic achievement just as early epics did.” Middleton points to the inherently resistant qualities if not downright anti-institutionality of the long form, qualities Williams certainly understood when he wondered simply in Spring and All, “What about all this writing?” What about the sheer volume of a work like Stephen Ratcliffe’s 474-page REAL, which exhibits much of the genre hybridity ascribed to the tradition of the long poem yet whose insistence on procedural patterning and Courier typeface suggests a fidelity to order in the midst of the demands the text makes on the reader? Or one of his fourteen-hour performances available on PennSound? The pieces in REAL and Ratcliffe’s related projects have been variously described as serial poems, epics, documentaries, essays, translations, or musical scores; Ratcliffe, whose relationship to Gertrude Stein was most pronounced in Portraits & Repetition, frequently employs recursivity and portraiture in pieces whose dailiness also claims a genealogy with work by Larry Eigner and James Schuyler. More chronicling than epiphanic, the pieces also evoke work by poets like Bernadette Mayer who set out to record how we hear language even as we “seek” its verisimilitude with experience. Jacket2’s Ratcliffe feature also challenges reader endurance by publishing Jeffrey Schrader’s 36,000-word email interview with Ratcliffe, which we have reproduced (along with Ratcliffe’s poems) faithfully in Courier, the vehicle Ratcliffe describes here as an “‘equivalent spacing’ font/typeface in which each letter, space, and mark of punctuation has the same width.” Many parts of this feature are resistant texts that demand immersion and reward sustained attention.

Ratcliffe was my master’s thesis advisor at Mills College, and I still in a corner of my office have taped up a copy of a (short) poem he handed back after workshop. After underlining the poem according to its more obvious attempts at sound patterns, he began drawing lines between disparate parts, connecting words and lines that he saw resonating with one another in shape and sound despite distance on the page: one l recalls another two lines down; two lines similar in length suggest a pattern in space. The result looks a little like one of fellow Bolinas poet Bob Grenier’s drawn poems, with the more staid Hoefler Text submerged beneath the hand-drawn lines, curves, circles, and dashes. Stephen taught me how to treat the page as a shared sonic space even if the experience feels like a private one, how to listen to reading and writing, how to write in and toward the sounded possibilities of language.