The lives of the experimental poets 7–9

McKenzie, Edwards, Fogarty

7. Geraldine McKenzie (born 1954)

In Geraldine McKenzie’s poem “Full Bore,” included in her collection Duty, a stanzaic pattern emerges. Here’s how it begins:

                         Full bore. As at. The statement should be the clearest possible

                                      sentence, if it could be

                         trusted. You (i.e. I but reluctant) look back to some other part. As

                                      time, its bootstraps,

                         briefcase, flaunt ability to produce whatever was or was not

                                      required, I

                         address a large crowd. Revolution possible but Ungovernable.

                                      The dreamer wakes.


                                                                  (Duty, 92)


The tension between sentence fragment, sententia, long line, short line, and break is bravura. Also cura,” with a certain care with language, following Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Blue Studies: Poetry and Its Cultural Work (2006). Also too a certain flexibility of address. Discussing the work of McKenzie with Pam Brown recently she recounted a seminar at UTS (University of Technology, Sydney) organized by Peter Minter around 2005, where McKenzie performed her poems, all memorized, no script to read off. The title of her 2001 principle work, Duty, encapsulates a key sense of her poetics; one that’s both uniquely script-wards — worded and welded to the material text — and ripe for oraliteral liftoff off of the page. McKenzie’s poetics is memory-work, performative, unsettling lyric, pressure poetics, poetry under pressure …


Born August 2, 1954 in Sydney, McKenzie’s poetry is included in the innovative 2001 anthology Calyx: 20 Contemporary Australian Poets, edited by Michael Brennan and Peter Minter. McKenzie opens with what looks like an etymological dictionary entry for Adenfrorde, in the poem “Adenfrorde—fragments”:

Adenfrorde  n. Whilst it is generally agreed that Aden is a corruption of Eden, there is considerable dispute over the origins and meaning of -frorde. Some scholars argue that the word is an Anglicised version of -frorde (f.), thus giving Edenfroide n. literally cold Eden. The term arose in contradistinction to the traditional temperate Eden, positing a paradise of the intellect rather than the flesh of the original. In E(A)denfroide form and clarity preside in utter candour. Apollo is invoked, Dionysus cited.

Appearing also in Hambone (ed. Nathaniel Mackey) the poem is citational (Dionysus is cited, at least when chaos, instinct, flesh encroaches). It’s a poetic lexicography, a poem that is framed as such (being also, an etymology), a poem using words to inquire about the shifting historical meaning of words. Reading these poems, formal restlessness and variance happens around a certain core (choral, scored). Here one finds something is happening in the writing that is clearly otherwise. Describing her working process, McKenzie writes in a How2 feature that “I don’t know quite what I’m doing but want to see what can be done with language … I’m not interested in a specific method or form but an exploration of same.” She continues:

I must qualify it with a resistance to the lyric and the crafted ‘poem as object,’ both of which testify to the existence of a single voice/ordering ego, an assumption I’m unable to share; although there is certainly a place for both impulses within a broader context of inclusion and process.

This is evident, directly, in the work itself. If McKenzie’s (perhaps dutiful, occasionally processual-seeming) lyric is lyric, it is so in a way that by no means tries to “clean up” the mess of language. Michael Farrell’s scintillatingly brief review of Duty says it like this: “Duty’s not a tract — merely a brilliant piece of work … It’s easy for poets — and other agnostics — to feel unnecessary: that is the the impression I want to give — that of necessity: not hectoring to refutation — though a negation — but art.” The agnostic element of Duty is there in the sense that a kind of Archimedean Point seems to stand where the poet (is expected to) stand(s). The poet defers to the historical, liturgical, biographical …  yet even there one still finds the body or bodies. I sense a tonality comparable to that of Rochelle Owens (US) and Maggie O’Sullivan (UK) in her frank corporeality, willingness to confront languages of violence and coarseness, coupled with full use of the breadth of the page. We might read in “No. 8…” something visually similar to Owens’s Joe series poems:

                                                                                       No. 8


                                               edging out

                                                                the arrowness of thought


                                                                              angelic toe


                                                                                                            (up means down)

                                               your famous blueness

              oyster womb


                                           station          tell it

                           with cards and dice

                                                         with beer and cigarettes

                             (so soft under it) humans

                                                                                                their sides, armpits

                                                                                                       the back of the knee

             your famous darkness

                                        kill it with a joke

                                                      juggle balls in catastrophes

                                            of impending history                              (that shrinkage)

                                      stick             morsel

                                                                ant          manoevuring       sugar


                                                                                                 (Duty, 51)


Poems can appear like this or center the page, others show different shapings or disjunctive forms of organization. McKenzie is attentive to the gaps and spaces between lines (they’re variable, not standardized, say, to single or 1.15 or 1.5 spacing). Also a choral vastness to the work and its multitudinous subjectivities: a magnitude that is both faceted on the small scale (segmentivity, the lettristic), and big breathwork on the larger scale … supporting an unresolved tension between singular and multiple.  

The concern here has been poetics. Why, how do these poems and the poets that wrote them test? Why are they, specifically, experiments? Experimental in the most vital of senses, McKenzie’s poetry, enigmatic, ingenious, and formally unsettling, tests the capacity of the page, tests the axial geometries of the poem and reworks the ground of meaning-making through those geometries. 

8. Chris Edwards (born 1955)

            Nel mezzo Come in dear Nostra Vita

            p.87 She was writing a novel

            about love and romance The address

            I had been directed to Insert “is” after “Paris”

            Take out the period before “Supreme”

            pp.100–101 were all

            about getting into bathtubs Captions

            began appearing in light of her every move

            I had acquired p.108


                        — from “Look homeward, angel” (People of Earth, 88)


For one year, at the age of nine, Chris Edwards attended elementary school in Amherst, Massachusetts. The year was 1964. His father was an academic working at the university, and would later become Professor of Food Technology at UNSW. This school in Amherst was just around the corner from Emily Dickinson’s house, which his mother insisted they visited when they arrived: “I didn’t read ED’s poetry until much later,” Edwards recounts, “and wouldn’t really claim it as an influence, but the example of the poet as unpublishable recluse was striking, and left (I believe) an indelible imprint.”  


                                                            Young Chris Edwards on the telephone. Photo supplied by author.

Other unseen crossings haunt Edwards’s childhood in Caringbah, a suburb in the Sutherland Shire (Sydney’s southern fringe). The poet John Forbes, who describes Caringbah as “that bosky dell!” in “3 Songs for Charles Darwin,” grew up in the neighbouring suburb of Miranda. So their paths must have crossed, Edwards notes, “on a daily basis in 1967, when he was attending De La Salle Caringbah (run by Catholics) and I was in my first year at Caringbah High School (run by the State).”

Ever the skeptic, and for all his transliteration, assemblage, citation, glyphwork, chancey indeterminacy, material and conceptual and inventive play, sheer textual performance — the appelation “experimental” Edwards doesn’t seem to easily accept. In a delightful and playful 2011 interview with Michael Brennan at Poetry International, Edwards errs toward a kind of Steinish acceptance of experiment as a palatable, nay possible, fantasy:

In principle, however, I like the idea of treating Australian poems, including Ern Malley’s, not as dot-like entities (e.g. lyrics) or sites of authorial self-presence (meaning in isolation), but as string-like (there’s that lyre again) interwoven filaments — nodes, if you like, in a worldwide network of sociocultural webs (meaning as oscillation and experimental flux).

The “sociocultural web” here is a good suggestion for sociopoetics, the social reading of poetry being less dotlike as stringlike, less synchronic as diachronic. Edwards’s reading habits are indeed weblike, various and eclectic: novels (canonical or not), fantasy, detective fiction, science fiction, boys own adventures, nursery rhymes, as well as literary theory, speculative and popular science. The first book Edwards owned was a poetry book: Lavender’s Blue: A Book of Nursery Rhymes, compiled by Kathleen Lines and pictured by Harold Jones. Later influences on Edwards’s work are Robert Duncan, which Edwards outlines in his interview with Brennan; his biggest early influence was Duncan, “beginning with Derivations: Selected Poems 1950–1956,” and extending to the later “grand collage” of styles and structures. That yearning for pastness, for ancient subject matter, scientific speculation and the snippeting of daily life into larger assemblage made “uncanny sense.”

In this century, Vagabond press has been largely responsible for bringing Edwards’s work back to light in titles like Utensils in a Landscape (2001), People of Earth (2011), and O Sonata: Rilke Renditions (2016). Take the poem “bio,” appearing early in the Utensils collection: 

                                 Many of you out there

                      will have encountered a world of calamity and ruin

                      with one last gasp at the end of it

                                 and clearly labelled the instructions:

                                              “this Day the Suprise Transport”

                                 “port Saild from this”

                                 and so on.

                       Not on our planet

                                 yet still

                                 that destination lingers—




The tonality of formal address, as the title “People of Earth” also suggests, a kind of intergalactic sci-fi TV script (Edwards’s poems often begin as if a narrative was about to be told, amusingly in medias res). But the line is in fact a (mis)quotation of the opening line of John Forbe’s “The Chinese Exhibition” which Edwards published in a 1979 edition of New Poetry (25.2). The published poem begins “Some of you out there / perhaps one per jockey / own a pair of jeans.” An earlier draft that Forbes had sent Edwards in fact shows that Edwards’s poem in fact restored the original line (Forbes had crossed out “many” and replaced it with “Some”).

A poem for Edwards is therefore a repository of effects, citations,  recitations, procedures (probably more accurately “techniques”), layers, errata slips, textual missteps erroneously, even erratically overlain or underlain. Lettristic attention, the delight of the material text is crucial to the work: words are boldened, italicized, emphatic or by-the-way, and (if you can hear it) rigorously intoned. They mean more, or less, than you might expect. Textual details matter (one of Edwards’s jobs is typesetter).

There’s also a kind of hieroglyphic/typeface work Edwards does which spreads out the page and uses multiple fonts (Johanna Drucker calls this paragonnage), as in the poem “Aha!” included in People of Earth. US readers might make a connection with the work of Armand Schwerner here, despite key differences. A rarer example of this kind of work is a long scroll with Nicholas Pounder’s Polar Bear Press (Tamarama, NSW), gifted to me in 2016. The scroll comes with a Glyph Glossary:

                                                      Cover of Glyph Glossary

                                                                                  Cover of Glyph Glossary.                                   

Glossary entry for title of scroll.

                                                                                    Glossary entry for title of scroll.

These bibliographic traces, citational debts and (mis)interpretational matters matter to Edwards; as in the poem “Look homeward, angel,” where even page numbers serve as poetic materials. Yet Edwards is an oral poet. In speech, just how much the poetry lifts off the page becomes evident. The first time I heard Edwards read was at an event run by the Red Room Company (where also I first met the poet Eddie Hopely). I never remember an event causing so much laughter; not just at the homophonic translation, but in the delivery. Wry tone, full effect. I’ve never forgotten those initial feelings of listening to Edwards in performance; the wacky, zany hilarity of experiment but as serious play, that scintillatingly sincere artifice.

9. Lionel Fogarty (born 1958)

                    TAKE YOUR SMART PHONE AND RUSH

                          A MIND TO ARTIST WAYS

                    TAKE YOUR I PADS AND FIND THE


                    THE DEVICES CONTENT DEMANDS.


                                         . . .

                                     (Merton VIC, 10:44am, 2013-06-10)


                     — “SCENIC MAPS PARTS, in Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Möbö-Möbö (Future) (Vagabond 2014), p. 86


Lionel Fogarty needs little or no introduction to those familiar with Australian poetry’s radical strains. While Fogarty’s work extends beyond any “neo-avant-garde” or even “experimental” moniker (these poetics-biographies are partial, perspectival) here I want to foreground certain facets of Fogarty’s work that are “experimental” in a very specific sense, with an accent on the experiential in the word, and in ways that account for Fogarty’s work as grating against poetic conformism; the settled lyric, the imperial tonality of the “make-it-profound” school of ponderous lyricism.* The question of “difficulty” is not so easily settled in Fogarty’s work. He addresses “difficulty” in an interview with Philip Mead: 

I think what people should do is read my poetry, in an Aboriginal way, take the Aboriginal side of my language, and then reflect back on the English side. That’s the only way you’re going to get a balance of understanding. I think my most important thing, like I always say, is to revitalize or to get a full language into practice of the detribalised areas, of the urbanised, so-called, Aborigines. That’s my main thing. I mean poetry is a very undifficult thing to me, these days.

Ali Alizadeh, in introducing Mogwie-Idan, Stories of the Land, puts it as radically as this: Fogarty’s work is “combative political poetry too complex and innovative to be labelled didactic, and a profoundly inventive and unconventional voice that can’t be reduced to a mere formal idiosyncrasy” (13). As a leading international figure for Indigenous rights from the early 1970s, Fogarty’s body of work, from Kargun of 1980 to the landmark New and Selected Poems: Munaldjali, Mutuerjaraera (1995), represent both political resistance and sustained invention, throwing down the gauntlet for those uncertain about the possibility of a rigorous connection between radical politics and radical poetics. Fogarty describes the Cherbourg mission or “punishment” reserve where he was born as a concentration camp, and in the poem “Stranger in Cherbourg Once Knew” it figures as Hell itself. Fogarty’s fight against deaths in custody, and the death of his brother Daniel Yock in 1993, goes all the way to the courts of law. As Fogarty insists, the CJC (Criminal Justice Commission) never carried justice. It was, rather, gross “cultural injustice.” 

Fogarty’s work emancipates the disjunctive in language in a specific way, through the refraction or reflection of Aboriginal English onto Standard English, and in a way that each poem can also be read to its own internal logic, or, even, narrative. This double refraction or superposition of grammars (even “anti-grammar”) is a deliberate poetics. As Fogarty put it in 1995: “I know how white Australians write and I know how they talk.” Fogarty's poems are thus "oraliteral" (as above); they require a kind of reading that is also a listening (of this more below).

The poem “SWIFT TERRORLESS” (2013) starts “Pre tend my mobs bobs in dobs / Pre lend my sending not rented / Be a shell where no hell sprinkle / Be a small mate in late ate in hate” (Eelahroo, 35), and, although led by sound and rhyme, the poem’s discreet set of core thematics (the market, housing, multiculturalism) unfold through to the middle and end of the poem as a kind of “plotting” (I’m thinking here, no doubt, of Kate Lilley’s reading of Tranter’s “plots”). Another poem, “CUT AN PASTE,” ends:

                                 We right the write to market all   

                                 New devices, so contributing

                                 Can be easy on the lines.

                                 Now myriad off advantages are

                                 Experience at guess who wrote; but

                                 Not who said it on hear sayings.

                                 The mathematical answer in email

                                 My mines find EBooks

                                 In times, not central to constrained

                                                                                                              (VIC, 5.00pm, 2013-03-14)                



Like “SWIFT TERRORLESS” the internal working from line to line is driven by sound; “mines” morphs to times,” “off advantages” stale the onslaught of the digital (thematized also in “SCENIC MAPS PARTS”), which wedges the oral and literal (equivocity of “guess who wrote” or “hear sayings”?). Such sonic and oraliteral complexity unscans the ear's habitual foot, seizes the guessing eye. If it is possible to speak of “perfection” in poetry, Fogarty’s 2014 book with Vagabond press, Eelahroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Möbö-Möbö (Future), achieves this. Following a practice Fogarty began in the 1980s, each poem is dated with the time and place in which they were written, a practice similar to that of conceptual artists On Kawara or Tehching Hsieh. There are aspects of futurism (Sun Ra?) and almost a science-fiction style in the poem “Balance Earth 20057 Corroborate Love”: 


                                 Recruited witness death and politicise unsafe diplomating


                                 Divine gurri courageous


                                 Lovers fighters death sharing poor

                                 poorest bladelessly, cross eyes by

                                 the unreality so-called stormy

                                 Lasting justice balance earth 200057

                                            Come in on lovers on earth


Here “bladelessly” leads to “unreality” and “stormy” and the imagining of extreme futurity. Otherwise temporality is more presentist, as in the close of “N.A.I.D.O.C. 1982”:

                                Intend forward entrants will craft

                                its own pottery and double prizes

                                for trophies were stolen

                                by an ongoing Aboriginal Week weeks weeks

                                now years years years

                                and not

                                my dear years.


The poem refers to NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) Week. Imagining radio waves, “Enter Codes of Warrants ― The Waves Said” becomes a poem about listening:

                                  Radio late

                                  unleashed a wonderful outgunned cheat

                                  as this servant of ear habits

                                  got a natural remarkable revelation.

                                  All integrated consultants

                                  conned identities.

                                  The extract of enthusiasm

                                  became tobacco smoked.


Ear habits. Another aspect in reading his work, another affective response I’ve personally had, is ear-bound ecstasy: the purely ecstatic experience of listening to language at work, the play of the unexpected, constructed language and the feeling of language colliding line to line and through line to air. Learning from and listening to Fogarty is transformative (if you hear it). Each poem is a transformative thing, nothing determined, all unexpected in the eyear.  

In Fogarty’s works we might read the intersection of what Fogarty identifies as “cultural politics” and poetic invention. This is “experimental” poetry as justice-seeking poetry, poetry against police violence, against Australian “Europeanism” — against racism’s incessant return, against white governance and white injustice. Also of deep, open peace, regional peace, as in “ADVANCE THOSE ASIAN AND PACIFIC WRITERS POETS,” a poem that’s now written on many hearts: “Asian we can love on open eyes / Pacific we can love on open arms” (Eelahroo, 71).

In writing and in listening, Fogarty is the most radical of poets, poet of this time and of all time, poet of world and universe, past, present, and future.

* I think of Fogarty as both representative of the radical in Australian poetry, and as a poet going against the whole edifice of Australian poetry itself. Given an "exclusion" from the much maligned, but supposedly "representative" anthology like Gray and Lehmann's atrocious Australian Poetry Since 1788, noticed by commentators from David McCooey to John Tranter, we can say certainly that Fogarty's work resists the (unstable) “center” of Australian poetry. For some margins, other's cultural centers...and for a good many critics, Fogarty is the center. The radical side is where the development of a poetics most matters, and this century, in no small way,  it's becoming apparent how fraudulous proclamations of what once constituted the "center" (formally palatable - mainstream - ideologically "middlebrow") of Australian poetry have been.

I would like to thank Evelyn Araluen for her discussions in the making of this blog post.