Archive | February, 2012

Two Anthologies: EDGE CITY ON TWO DIFFERENT PLANS Inversions 1983 & NETWORK/EXILES IN PARADISE Fringe Network 1983

29 Feb

Two Anthologies: EDGE CITY ON TWO DIFFERENT PLANS, edited by Margaret Bradstock, Gary Dunne, Dave Sargent and Louise Wakeling, Inversions 1983 &   NETWORK/EXILES IN PARADISE   Fringe Network 1983. Published in P76 Issue 2 1984.

In a recent interview (Image Vol.6 No.3), John Tranter talks of the progression of contemporary Australian poetry in terms of a “pendulum swing reaction” against what is seen as the ‘accepted’ or ‘established’ mode of expression. Such a comment, of course, refers back to the “generation of ’68” and the break that many writers felt they were making from the established, conservative forms of writing which had predominated during the fifties and sixties, but it also implies a conservative backlash which, Tranter suggests, will “swing” the writing scene back to something resembling the pre-’68 situation. On a similar note, Kris Hemensley, reviewing Ania Walwicz, Dimitris Tsaloumas and Mary Fallon (Syllable No.1), talks of the “rut” in which contemporary Australian writing “had become stuck” by the beginning of the eighties. One possible explanation for this is that the writers who saw themselves as the poetic revolutionaries of 1968 now feel quite comfortable with the way Australian writing has developed during the seventies and no longer feel it necessary to question or challenge the prevailing mood of the literary establishment.

There are, however, many writers who aren’t satisfied with the ideology which underlies much contemporary Australian writing. The strength of Women’s Writing at the moment (as witnessed by the, No Regrets anthologies, Frictions, the large number of Women’s Writing Groups and the Faceless Woman Readings in Melbourne) can be seen, in part, as a reaction against the subtle, and often not so subtle, repression of women writers throughout Australia’s history, and which is still prevalent in the post ’68 writing scene.

Two recent anthologies, Edge City on Two Different Plans (a collection of Lesbian and Gay writing from Australia) and Network/ Exiles in Paradise (An anthology of new writing from the Melbourne Fringe Arts Festival 1983), highlight further problems with the Tranter pendulum. Both anthologies can be seen as jerking Australian writing, out of its rut, though in quite different ways. Edge City confronts the masculine tone inherent in much Australian writing which was left virtually untouched, and in some cases actually strengthened, by the “generation of ’68”, while Network/Exiles in Paradisehas combined an ‘open access anthology’, a fringe arts festival and collective production so that the writers become responsible for, and learn the skills necessary to compile and produce the anthology.

In other ways Edge City and Network/Exiles in Paradise are very-different anthologies. The editors of Edge City, in a lively forward, discuss the history of the anthology and attempt to place it in an historical context. They make it clear, for example, that they are in debt to the women’s writing movement:

“We also thought, like the editors of earlier anthol­ogies of women’s writing which explored areas of specifically female experience, that it was necessary to counterbalance the heterosexist and masculinist literature which still predominates in Australian culture.”

But they point out that the aim of the anthology was not to set up an ideological framework but to present us with “an important expression of the diversity of the lives….. of homosexual women and men.” Over-all, the Introduction and Forward compliments the work of the 43 writers in the anthology and it seems that Dennis Altman is correct when he claims that Edge City’s importance lies not only in the creative work it contains, but equally “as the foundations for what is the long overdue emergence of a literary voice of lesbian and gay men in Australia.”

Edge City attempts to highlight what it sees as the diversity of lesbian and gay writing by collecting work by 43 different writers (25 men and 18 women), ranging from fairly traditional short stories and poetry, to more experimental prose and poetry and a number of song lyrics. Although there are a few well known names among the 43 contributors, one of the most refreshing aspects of the anthology is the amount of interesting and exciting work by writers who have had little or nothing published in the mainstream literary magazines.

A number of prose pieces deal directly with aspects of a lesbian lifestyle. Jane Eliot’s ‘Holiday at the Parm’, for example, examines a woman’s reaction when she returns to the country town where she grew up. Her friends are married and living conservative country lives, while she has returned from the city a feminist and a lesbian. Eliot effectively combines a slight feeling of nostalgia with the underlying political conflict which affects the way the woman reacts to people in her past. Geraldine Mecredy’s piece ‘Journey’, like ‘Holiday at the Farm’, uses a central theme of a woman analysing her past. She has recently ended a heterosexual relationship and she reflects upon aspects of it – how it started, conflicts, sexuality and so on. Runn­ing throughout the pieces are the fragments of a dream, of being in s waiting room waiting for a train. The heterosexual relationship becomes the world outside the waiting room, the train a method of escape and a means of personal transformation.

The songs tend to be more obviously political than either the poetry or prose. Phillip Stevenson’s ‘Thank you Lord for Gay Liber­ation’  (which has been performed widely around Sydney by the Gay Liberation Quire) satirizes the church’s approach to homosexuality while, at the same time, asserting the strength of the gay movement.  Alison Lyssa’s songs also approach important issues with humour. ‘There are lights sweeping over the city’, for example, sees the nuclear threat as a part of patriarchal society:

“My brain can’t believe how they got there

‘Those billions of dollars of toys;

Do they fire them in circles like marbles

To keep up with the rest of the boys?”

Other pieces which I felt stood out were the poems of Margaret Bradstock, Mary Fallon, Tony Page and Elaine Byrant. Gary Dunne’s story ‘The Tyranny of Distance’ and Nicholas Thomas’ prose piece ‘Contradictions and Peripheries’ and Judy Small’s song ‘The Festival of light’,

The importance of Edge City is that it has focused attention on lesbian and gay writing in Australia and has been responsible for stimulating quite a lively discussion. On a purely literary level, Edge City introduces a number of exciting writers whose work may have never been accepted by the mainstream literary scene but who, it is hoped, now have the confidence to continue writing without having to compromise in an effort to be published.

Compared with Edge city, Network/Exiles in Paradise appears quite uneven. Among some exciting pieces of writing there are some almost total failures. Network/Exiles in Paradise lacks a unifying theme and is without Edge City’s encompassing introduction. Network/ Exiles in Paradise is, in fact, two different anthologies, separated not by theme, but in the way each was produced. We are told simply “the editing, compilation and lay out of ‘Exiles in Paradise’ was performed by the writers themselves;.  ‘Network’ drew on writers within the book and Fringe Network for its production.” So Network/Exiles in Paradise has taken the idea of an open access anthology a step further to collective production. One of the stated aims of the anthology is to “encourage writers to be responsible for their work beyond its actual creation.”

Overall I found the poetry, with the exception of Cliff Smyth, Pete Spense and John Anderson, quite disappointing. Daniel Keene’s piece, ‘Echoes of Ruby Dark’, was for a while interesting, but because of its length, rapidly lost much of its impact. I found the length of many of the poems irritating. It is extremely difficult to maintain a poem through four hundred or so lines, and unfortunately I don’t believe any of the poets who attempt such a task in Network/Exiles in Paradise quite succeed.

On the other hand, prose is definitely Network/Exiles in Paradise’s strength. Ania Walwicz’s work is already fairly well known and her four prose pieces highlight the conservative approach some of the other contributors adopt towards the language. Raphael Pomian’s prose has, at times, a feeling similar to Walwicz’s. Both use uncluttered language but manage to create an overall richness. For Walwicz it’s predominately sound patterns and rhythms, while Pomian’s prose is extremely descriptive, at times almost to the point of being languid. Moya Costello’s ‘The Usherette’ is a realistic portrayal of working as an usherette at a concert hall. Periods of boredom, flustered activities and flights of fantasies are undercut by a sarcastic humour directed mainly at the patrons who she directs to their seats. Berni Jassen’s untitled prose piece, which is the account of the beginning of a relationship, is perhaps, the most powerful in the anthology. Her skilful use of short sentences and clear language gives an intensity and urgency to her theme.

The contrasts in Network/Exiles in Paradise are, in themselves, quite illuminating. The successful pieces tend to be fairly short,or at least concise and uncluttered, while some of the longer poems and stories I found extremely difficult to get through, Fringe Network apparently intends to publish more anthologies and “self-devised books by groups of writers”, the results promise to be interesting.

I found little evidence in Edge City and Network/Exiles in Paradise to suggest a movement towards a more conservative writing in Australia. Tranter’s pendulum is, of course, a gross over simplific­ation. Seeing writing as a movement back and forth between two points is extremely limiting and excludes the possibility of development in other directions. It suggests a ‘establishment’ view of literature operating ‘like clockwork’ to predetermined rules. Projects like Edge City and Network/Exiles in Paradise disrupt the equilibrium by quest­ioning the dominant ideology of Australian literature and suggest new directions in which it could move.

EDGE CITY ON TWO DIFFERENT PLANS inversions (Sydney Gay Writers Collective) P.O. Box 158 Leichhardt N.S.W. 2040. NETWORK/EXILES IN PARADISE Fringe Network 201 Brunswick Street Pitzroy Victoria 3065

– Mark Roberts

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Towards a New Diversity: Martin Johnston and the New Australian Poetry

25 Feb

Towards a New Diversity: Martin Johnston and the New Australian Poetry. By Mark Roberts. Published in Island 58, Autumn 1994.

Shortly before I received my copy of John Tranter’s latest collection, At the Florida, Mick Jagger turned fifty. Television marked the occasion with old Rolling Stones film clips and numerous minor musical celebrities emerged to describe how Jagger had influenced their own musical careers. Later, while glancing through Tranter’s biographical data, I realised that he too was celebrating his fiftieth birthday in 1993. So where were the “minor” Australian poets lining up to explain Tranter’s influence on their work, where was the TV news item, the magazine articles. I had in mind one of those celebratory volumes the English are so good at: A Collection of Poems dedicated to John Tranter on the Occasion of his Fiftieth Birthday.

There is a certain symmetry here. Not only does 1993 mark Tranter’s fiftieth birthday, it also represents twenty-five years since 1968—a year that Tranter helped make a milestone in the development of contemporary Australian poetry. These factors, together with the publication of Tranter’s ninth collection of poetry and the Tranter-edited Martin Johnston: Selected Poetry and Prose, provide us with the opportunity to look back and perhaps begin a reappraisal of the new Australian poetry as it begins to take its place in Australia’s cultural history.

The starting point for any study of contemporary Australian poetry over the last twenty-five years is the Tranter-edited anthology The New Australian Poetry (NAP) (Makar Press) in 1979. Tranter was not, of course, the first to recognise the major changes taking place in Australian poetry during the late ’60s and early ’70s. The label “New Poetry”, in its Australian context, probably owes much to the takeover in 1969 of the established Poetry Magazine by a group of young poets including Robert Adamson and Martin Johnston. Renamed New Poetry, its success over the next decade signalled the movement of the poets associated with the magazine into the literary mainstream. Five years later the term “New Australian Poetry” was also used by Kris Hemensley and Robert Kenny in the introduction to an anthology called Applestealers, edited by Robert Kenny and Colin Talbot (Outback Press 1974).

In many respects Applestealers is as important an anthology as The New Australian Poetry. Although the two anthologies share many of the same poets, they are very different. The most important difference, I believe, lies in the five years that separated their publication. In 1974 there was an immediacy to the essays that Kris Hemensley and Robert Kenny contributed; they are a call to arms, a rallying cry against the “abdication of poets from poetry to careerism”(Kris Hemensley ‘The Beginnings—A note on La Mama’ Applestealers page 9). Whereas, by 1979, Tranter was looking back and documenting the movement. Although many of the poets were still writing, one senses in the introduction to The New Australian Poetry that Tranter was attempting to confirm the New Australian poetry’s place in Australia’s cultural history.

It is ironic then, given that in his introduction Tranter identifies that one of the features of the new Australian poetry was its “freedom from the handcuffs of rhyme and the critical strictures of English departments”, that one of the great successes of The New Australian Poetry was the influence it had upon the teaching of Australian poetry in university and college English departments. This influence, I believe, was not unintentional. In his introduction to the anthology, and in a paper he gave to ‘The American Model Conference’ held at Macquarie University on 19791, Tranter carefully argued the importance of his “generation” and forcefully outlined the social, political and cultural factors which he believed helped propel a group of young poets to make a radical break with Australian poetic tradition.

In this respect, then, Tranter’s anthology marks the end of the main period of dynamism of those poets he grouped together as the “Generation of ’68”. By 1979 many of the poets in The New Australian Poetry had become part of the poetry establishment—or rather they had created their own establishment. New Poetry magazine had become one of the most influential poetry magazines in the country and small presses like Island Press, Makar Press, Outback Press and Rigmarole of the Hours (among many others) had produced an extraordinary number of impressive titles.

By the early ’80s, however, things had begun to change. The Australia Council’ and, in particular, The Literature Board were beginning to feel the effect of Fraser’s razor gangs and an economic recession made it even more difficult for poets to produce collections or for small presses to publish them. New Poetry magazine faltered, then folded, but by then many of the poets it had earlier championed were being published regularly in the mainstream literary journals. Given such a context, many poets would have been more than happy to look upon Tranter’s Generation of ’68 as a sort of lost golden age of contemporary, experimental/radical poetry.

So then, who composed the Generation of 68? The easiest answer is those poets Tranter included in his anthology. But, as with every anthology, questions immediately arise as to why particular poets were left out. It is probably safest to look to Tranter’s own explanation. Tranter lists a number of factors which helped shape the generation: the baby-boomers of the postwar years who came of age in the late ’60s, advances in printing technology which made it cheaper and easier to publish magazines and books, and, that adjunct to imagination, drugs. But the most important influence was the new poetry of the USA which emerged in the late ’50s and early ’60s. While these factors may effectively include all the poets within The New Australian Poetry, it does remain a somewhat limiting definition if we are to attempt to understand the developments which took place in Australian poetry during the ’80s.

Perhaps a better starting point is to identify those poets who were excluded from Tranter’s anthology. As Livio Dobrez has pointed out, it must be remembered that The New Australian Poetry “represents, after all, Tranter’s taste, his interpretation of the nature of the New Poetry, and one may well query the centrality of this”2. Of course the near absence of women in The New Australian Poetry has been a point of discussion ever since its publication. In fact both The New Australian Poetry and Applestealers each contain the work of only two women writers. Writers who I would have thought fitted Tranter’s description of a Generation of ’68 poet, such as Jennifer Rankin, Dorothy Porter, JS Harry, Pam Brown, Lee Cataldi and Kate Jennings, aren’t even mentioned.

The Generation of ’68 has come to dominate discussion of Australian poetry over the last twenty-five years. But while the movement Tranter effectively analyses did make a profound break with tradition there were other poets who were also smashing their way through Australia’s poetic orthodoxy. Kate Jennings’ 1975 anthology Mother I’m Rooted had an enormous effect on Australian poetry in general and on Australian women poets in particular. Nine years later Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn, in their introduction to The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets (1984), looked back over “fifteen well-known collections of Australian poetry since 1970” and found that on average women poets made up only seventeen percent of total contributors. They went on to claim “this may not be a problem of deliberate critical neglect, but a problem of consciousness—until recently most anthology editors, literary historians and critics have been male, and their gaze was unconsciously focused on other men”. Hampton and Llewellyn’s anthology sparked a debate which ran for years in the book pages of the weekend papers and the review pages of literary journals as anthologists attempted to justify the ratio of female to male poets, and conservative male writers pulled out their old rusty quality/excellence shield and attempted to take shelter behind it.

But if the Generation of ’68 broke with a British-based poetic tradition, the women’s writing movement of the ’70s swept away traditional notions of poetic excellence. The sales figures for both Mother I’m Rooted and The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets suggest that both anthologies gained a readership far beyond the traditional poetry-buying public. In a review of Hampton and Llewellyn’s anthology, first published in The Sydney Morning Herald 13 September 1986, Martin Johnston, one of the “chosen” referred back to the critical reaction which greeted Kate Jennings’ anthology: “It sold a lot of copies and caused a lot of consternation, notably among (male) reviewers who thought it had something to do with bra-burning and were incapable of seeing that their own notions of ‘quality’ were—as Jennings had argued all along—socially constructed, not delivered from on high.”

Rather than view the Generation of ’68 as a coherent movement, it is, perhaps, more useful to see it as part of a larger cultural movement. Such a stance would acknowledge that, while the influence of American poetry and the political upheavals of the ’60s gave an impetus to a group of young, predominantly male, poets to break from what was seen as an Australian poetic tradition, there also existed a more traditional poetry as represented by poets such as Les Murray and Geoffrey Lehmann. At the same time the ’60s was also the period that the women’s movement was reborn and it was only natural that women writers would quickly gain the self-confidence to broaden our notions of poetry even further. One could, at this point, also look at the development of gay and lesbian poetry during the mid-to-late ’70s which culminated in another influential anthology, Edge City on Two Different Plans, or the rapid growth of Aboriginal writing during the ’80s.

Tranter himself seemed to be arguing something similar in the introduction to The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry (1991) which he edited with Philip Mead. More ambitious than The New Australian Poetry, this anthology attempts to define “what is the ‘modern period'” and what poetry has been important to its development. In their introduction Tranter and Mead are, in effect, placing the Generation of ’68 writers in the sort of wider context which I have just outlined: “But our readings of the past keep changing. It seemed to us that modern Australian poetry needed to be looked at from a perspective that took in not only the issues of the ’60s, but those of the ’40s and the ’80s (and now the ’90s) as well”. Tranter and Mead go on to claim that “if the modern movement has a major theme, it must be the constant questioning of older ways of looking at things”. While such a definition can, of course, be applied to the writers in The New Australian Poetry it can equally be applied to Hampton and Llewellyn’s attack on the marginalisation of women poets or Kevin Gilbert’s reaffirmation of the strength of Aboriginal poetry in the face of two centuries of white cultural genocide.

It was important that Tranter and Mead acknowledged the important role that women poets played in the development of contemporary Australian poetry. Even more satisfying is the strength of this acknowledgment:

The roles of gender, race and ethnicity are crucial in any act of reading. While this (collection) doesn’t claim to be a feminist or a multicultural anthology, the selection from recent women’s and multicultural poetic writing has a strategic place in our understanding of modernity in Australian poetry… Poetry by women… has claimed a powerful role in postmodern developments in Australia over the last two decades.

Mead and Tranter seem to be moving towards a view of contemporary Australian poetry which is more inclusive than Tranter’s New Australian Poetry, and they have indeed thrown a much larger net than Tranter did back in 1979. Their catch includes many of the poets who appeared in the Hampton/Llewellyn anthology and Kevin Gilbert’s Inside Black Australia (Penguin 1988). Interestingly it also includes poets such as Les Murray, Robert Gray and Geoffrey Lehmann who have commonly been regarded as the natural antithesis to the Generation of’68 poets.

While the anthology has embraced the women’s writing movement and the diversity of multicultural and Aboriginal writing, there are, no doubt, those who can argue that The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry excludes their poetry. On one level The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Poetry is refreshing because it appears to be retreating from the confrontationist approach which has marked poetry criticism in Australia for many years. On a closer reading, however, the anthology can be seen to be building on the foundation of The New Australian Poetry. Tranter’s Generation poets emerge as central to the editor’s concept of “Modern Australian Poetry”. While the collection begins with Slessor, one is left with a feeling of the centrality of poets such as Tranter, Adamson, Johnston, Dransfield, Forbes and Duggan. These are, according to the anthology, the real groundbreakers, the poets who dragged Australian poetry into the modern world. They helped to created a climate in which women’s writing, and writing by non-Aiglo-Celtic poets could be critically accepted. The inclusion of poets such as Murray and Lehmann in such a context serves to place them in a hierarchy of modern Australian poetry where they can perhaps see the peak but have little hope of scaling it.

The futility of an approach which seeks to categorise poets, or to claim them for a particular movement, is clearly illustrated by the publication of Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose, a posthumous collection edited by John Tranter. One of the strengths of the collection is that it brings together Johnston’s critical writing, journal entries and interviews, as well as his poetry, so that we begin to have some sense of the complexity of this remarkable writer.

Introducing the writer and the work, Tranter refers to the unique place Johnston held among the poets of his generation, for while he was very clearly identified with the Generation of ’68 poets he did not fit easily into the new poetry pigeon hole. The son of authors George Johnston and Charmian Cliff, Martin had a childhood which was anything but conventional. He spent the first seven years of his life in England where his parents were working as journalists. They then moved to the Greek island of Hydra where George and Charmian attempted to make a living as fulltime writers. Following the success of the George’s autobiographical novel My Brother Jack the family moved back to Australia when Martin was seventeen. In many ways Australia remained a foreign country to him and he maintained a strong interest in Greek culture and politics for the rest of his life.

The Greek influence on his work at once placed him outside the mainstream of the new Australian poetry, which looked towards the USA for its poetic models. Tranter highlights lines from ‘Gradus Ad Pamassum’ in his introduction: “And the groovier modern Americans? They seem to be the context I’m supposed to work in, though I mostly haven’t read them.”

In an unpublished essay on John Berryman’s elegies Johnston directly comments upon the Australian poetry scene when he talks about the way Australian poets approach elegising other Australian poets: “Australian poets, in their relations with each other, either snipe or huddle: and neither attitude is a convenient one from which to undertake genuinely to memorialise the target.” A little later on he refers directiy to the influence of modern American poetry on Australian poetry:

how pitiful, how second hand, how weedy all our sub-O’Hara, sub-Ashbery, sub-Creeley and sub-Ginsberg; how ill fitting the borrowed clothes; how sadly comical the attempt to set up our rag-and-twig lay figures against the overwhelming weight of this century’s dominant body of English language verse.

Johnston’s solution is not to ignore contemporary American poetry, which is precisely what some more conservative Australian poets did, rather it is “to set out to discover just what is being done, rather than pursuing our general custom of imitating the most facilely imitable… aspects of our models”.

More than anything else, what emerges from this collection is a sense of Johnston’s erudition. He was, arguably, the most widely read poet of his generation and his work clearly shows the influence of European, and especially Greek writers as well as the more common Americans. Johnston was also a critic of some standing and he obviously brought to his own work the same critical intensity which he used on others. At the beginning of his essay on John Berryman’s ‘Elegies’, for example, he writes: “When an Australian poet dies there is, invariably, an almost instant exudation of rich—not to say overripe— elegiac verse from large numbers of his colleagues. The process is, it would seem, purely reflexive and quite, quite unstoppable”. In a poem from his 1978 collection The Sea-Cucumber, Johnston returns to a similar theme:

Death and rebirth myths are made by poets, and no wonder:

one Dransfield can feed dozens of us for a month,

a Webb for years. And they’re fair game, we can plead continuance,

no poet ever died a poet: as the salt filled Shelley

the empyrean gave way to the nibbling fish and the cold.

(In Memoriam’)

‘In Memoriam’, which is dedicated to John Forbes, illustrates the range of Johnston’s technique. He is, for example, quite at home with a playfulness which is influenced, if not by the Americans, then at least by the work of the other “new poets” around him:

O’Hara, Berryman, Seferis, Pound

have a lot in common. Not only are they all dead poets

but they make up a metrically perfect line

Johnston’s reputation as a major poet will rely I believe, to a large extent, on his longer poems, such as ‘The Blood Aquarium’, ‘Microclimatology’ and ‘To The Innate Island’. This last poem, although perhaps one of Johnston’s most difficult, is also one of his most rewarding. Johnston almost assaults the reader with details of Greek history and geography, relenting at the last moment by providing incredibly detailed notes which help to place the poem into context. For example the lines:

The island in the lake

scatters itself just below the surface in sherds and ash,

the trout feed on seventeen dear dead ladies.

take on meaning when we read Johnston’s notes: “Kyria Frossyni and her sixteen attendant ladies, drowned in the lake in 1801, for erotico-political reasons, by the then tyrant of Epirus, Byron’s good mate Ali Pasha. Ballads about this are still sung (and postcards sold).” A poem such as this is obviously far removed from the influence of the “groovier modern Americans”.

Martin Johnston: Selected Poems and Prose can only enhance Johnston’s already considerable reputation and emphasise the fact that Johnston’s early death was a tragic loss to Australian poetry. What emerges from a review of Johnston’s work, however, is not an overriding sense of his role as a part of the Generation of ’68. Rather I was left feeling the inadequacies that result from attempting to understand contemporary poetry through a study of different movements or groups. The closer we examine individual poets the more blurred the boundaries and definitions become. As Johnston wrote:

Coloured inks will soak through the best bond paper

in a soft fuzz of amoebas, a sunset blur

of fruit-coloured clouds, a weak ambiguous vision.

(In Memoriam’)

*****************************************************************************

Mark Roberts is a Sydney critic currently undertaking post graduate study at the University of NSW.

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NOTES

1    See John Tranter ‘Anaesthetics: Some Notes on the New Australian Poetry’ in Joan Kirkbv (ed) The American Model: Influence and Independence in Australian Poetry Hale and Iremonger 1982.

2    Livio Dobrez Parnassus Mad Ward: Michael Dransfield and the New Australian Poetry UQP 1990.

The Alphabet of Pain – Two books by Jenny Boult

18 Feb

“i” is a versatile character WAV Publications, 1986. Flight 39, Abalone Press. 1986.. Both by Jenny Boult. Reviewed by Mark Roberts. First published in Tribune  23 July 1986.

Jenny Boult’s sixth book.”I” is a versatile character, is also her first book of prose. It follows her play, Can’t Help Dreaming, which was performed by the All Out Ensemble in Adelaide, and four books of poetry. The stories in this collection vary greatly in form and content, but they share a particular “poetic” style of writing which is rare among contemporary Australian prose writers. Although Boult is by no means the first Australian poet to publish fiction, she has been more successful than most in bringing to her prose many of the skills she has developed writing poetry.

The narrative structure of the stories also relies on a poetic model. Boult builds her stories around a series of images which eventually build into an extensive over-view encapsulating the whole story. The most successful example of this can be found in the title piece ‘”i is a versatile character”, and the impressive longer piece, “no room at the top”.

After this sense of freedom it comes as something of a shock to realise that many of the stories are. structurally, fairly disciplined. In “no room at the top”, for example, it is not until the final section that we realise that the piece has been loosely structured around the alphabet, “this is the last letter in the alphabet of pain, the final broken rung on the ladder, the damaged knee and the whiplash of intention.” It is not an easy alphabet, nor is it a heavy handed one. But it firmly anchors the story and allows the 26 sections to fall into place.

In “TWENTY QUESTIONS”. Boult uses a similar device, only this time the anchor is the title. We expect twenty questions, and. in a way, that is what we get. The only direct question, however, comes in the final section. In the preceding 19, the questions rise from the images, the pieces of the collage which Boult presents us with. We try to piece them together, looking for the answer as we go. But. Eventually, like Estragon and Vladimir Waiting for Godot, we are returned to the beginning: “The audience asks, “who is she?” The woman invites them to look again.

In contrast to the fantasy and experimentation in “I” is a versatile character. Boult has returned to her ‘roots’ as a performance poet in Flight 39. Boult has performed many of the poems in this collection to audiences around Australia over the last few years. Most of the poems are clearly meant to be read aloud, indeed, many of them sit somewhat uncomfortably as words printed on a page.

The song-like quality of much of Flight 39 gives the collection an accessibility which is rare among contemporary poets. Boult’s accessibility, however, is never patronising. Her appeal comes from her lyric style, the experiences she writes about and her wonderful black sense of humor.

There are poems about love (of course), housework, shopping trolleys, poetry and the British miners’ strike. In a series of “3 poems for mary kathleen”,  Boult looks at nuclear war from a child’s point of view. One poem begins,

the cat’s going bald mum

the puppies are dead & dad’s called the vet for the old dog

there aren’t many birds.

This innocence disappears in the final poem when the child passes judgment on the post-holocaust society:

the grown ups are going to

patch things up &

pull the pieces together

but i don’t want to live

in a Frankenstein world.

But perhaps the strongest poems in this collection are the two poems grouped together under the title, “in solidarity with the british mine workers 1984-5”. In the first poem. “September 1984”  Boult, who grew up in a British mining town, describes how she felt as she watched the attacks on the picket lines on television in Adelaide.

The second poem. “4th march 1985” is written on the day that the strike collapsed. One can sense the fury which is only just below the surface, but there  is also the grief that this story will be repeated again and again:

I cried for the end of one struggle & the beginning

of the next.

You may have a little trouble getting these books from your local bookseller, but it is well worth the effort. You can also order the books directly from the publishers: WAV Publications. Box 545 Norwood South Australia 5067. and Abalone Press PO Box 2(12 Cheltenham Victoria 3192.

Mark Roberts

A NEW ROMANCE: Beth Yahp, Margo Daly & Lorraine Falconer, eds. My Look’s Caress: A Collection of Modern Romances

11 Feb

Beth Yahp, Margo Daly & Lorraine Falconer, eds. My Look’s Caress: A Collection of Modern Romances (Local Consumption Press, 1990). Published in Southerly No. 4, 1991.

Although I have avoided reading any of the plethora of recent anthologies of “erotic writing”, I have followed the debate which has grown up around them in the review pages of the various magazines and journals with some interest. The debate has, predictably, focused mainly on the meaning of the term “erotic” and, in particular, the difference between erotica and pornography. There also always appears to be someone or some group whose sexuality is ignored or misrepresented. The truth, of course, is that “erotic” writing is one of those genres which becomes more elusive as you attempt to pin down a meaning for it.

My Look’s Caress: A Collection of Modern Romances falls just outside the rapidly burgeoning erotic anthology market, although some definitions of the erotic would view a number of the pieces collected in My Look’s Caress as a perfect example of the genre. While there is a lot of sex in the anthology, the editors, Beth Yahp, Margo Daly and Lorraine Falconer, were concerned with much more than the purely sexual. Romance, they point out in their introduction, ranges from the popular image of Mills and Boon to feminist analysis which sees romance as pure escapism which “reflects the dominant mascu­line ideology”. The editors, however, attempt to open the genre up even further: “When we thought ‘romance’ we thought: Confession. Intensity. Obsession. Hysteria. Passionfruit. The romantic sensibility. Longing. Exotic places. The forbidden. The erotic. Nostalgia, loss, regret. Pulp romances. Repul­sion/attraction. Ecstatic revelation. Power. Sexual politics. As well as plain old love.” All this and more is indeed contained in the stories in this collection. In the end, however, the editors prove as elusive as their genre when they refuse to commit themselves to a definition. “And what is romance? The stories  in this collection do not provide concrete examples, or try to. Instead they provide clues.”

Prewarned, I approached the anthology as a detective would a crime. I quickly discovered that if the editors did not attempt to provide us with a single definition of romance, the anthology provided us with a multitude of meanings. In addition to their story, each writer is given the opportunity to discuss their “thoughts on romance” at the back of the anthology. In many cases these “thoughts”, when read in conjunction with the corresponding story, provide us with at least a personal view of romance and romance writing.

In Sandra Bridekirk’s and Sandra Dunlop’s piece, “The Disappearing Act”, we have what at first appears to be a fairly typical Mills and Boon romance. Rosemary Hammond fits the formula of a major female character in a romance “tall and slim with long, wavy dark hair and smooth, soft skin. Her features were delicate but striking, with cool blue eyes off­setting the darkness of her brows and lashes . . . Many men had been interested in Rosemary since she was fifteen years old. But she laughed off their attentions, preferring to spend time with her friends and her mother.” Into her life steps Mr Morrison the new marketing manager for Intimacy Romances, the publishing company Rosemary works for.

Both players in this romance know the rules but, unlike the women in the manuscripts which pass across her desk, Rosemary also knows how to use the rules to suit her own purpose. For a while she plays the game but, just before she is supposed to melt into Mr Morrison’s arms, she throws the formula out the window and Mr Morrison is left grasping at thin air. The strength of this story lies not just in its success as parody. Some serious research into the genre of romance writing has obviously gone into it. Sandra Bridekirk, in her notes at the end of My Look’s Caress, speaks of the need to “give voice to the women who read romance and obtain a great deal of satisfaction from it.” Indeed, she argues that to some extent it is the escape value that many women find in romance fiction that many men resent. When read in this way “The Disappearing Act” takes on another meaning. Not only does Rosemary physically disappear at the end of the story, emotionally she has never really “appeared” as far as Mr Morrison is concerned. When faced with an obstinate Mr Morrison she disappeared into her romance manuscripts and used them as a tool to gain her revenge.

Beth Spencer also attempts to locate romance fiction/fantasy as an act of “resistance”. She points out that romance as a genre can be seen as an attempt to fabricate “a cultural milieu—a fiction world—in which the woman is centre stage and a woman’s desire and feelings are valued and openly acknowledged.” In her story “My Look’s Caress” Spencer, while acknowledging the possibility of resistance, also highlights the contradictions which occur when fantasy dissolves into real life.

Spencer juxtaposes a dating ritual—Mary and John going to the movies—with a young girl’s romantic/sexual fantasy. Deirdre, the young girl “is at the start of her quest for sexual knowledge.” Boys, sex and romance become linked in her developing fantasy. She is centre-stage, her desire/desirability is the catalyst for Alister’s passion until, in her fantasy, “he covered her open mouth with his own, each kiss lasting longer, desire blotting out everything.” From a position where she has control—where she “creates” Alister’s lust—Deirdre has become its victim. Her fantasy has placed her as a woman into an increasingly powerless position. For Mary and John the fantasy is concealed as they act out a ritual. But like Deirdre’s fantasy the ritual becomes a device to prolong desire or, as Spencer puts it, “a kind of extended foreplay.”

While the stories by Bridekirk/Dunlop and Spencer highlight the diversity of styles in My Look’s Caress, one of the most refreshing pieces in the anthology is Barbara Brooks’ “Journal of the Parts of the House”. Brooks has approached the notion of romance from a completely different perspective to every other writer in the collection. While most of the contributors base their attitude to romance on inter-personal relationships, Brooks speaks of her “romantic attachment to the bush.” This romantic attachment is similar, in some ways, to the romantic fantasies that some of the other contributors write of. Brooks’ romanticism is the romanticism of possibilities, of an ordinary object becoming the stimulus for the imagination to expand. “Journal of the Rest of the House” contains some of the most evocative and sensual writing in the anthology, yet Brooks is writing not about an affair or a fantasy but about three rooms in her house. The opening of the story sets the tone: “The door opens, you close it behind you and come down the dark hallway. The house is cool and empty. It opens out for you, your presence spills down the hall like water and the small adjustments start.”

A number of other writers also stand out in My Look’s Caress. Janie Conway’s story “Snaps”, Gillian Mears’ “Cousins” and Susan Hampton’s “Lace” are all pieces which stay in the mind long after you have placed the anthology back in the bookcase. Another interesting feature of the collection is that, while the majority of the contributors are women, there are a few male authors scattered through its pages. Interestingly, in general the male writers don’t seem quite as comfortable in the genre as the majority of the female contributors. Nevertheless it is encouraging to see male writers being included in a genre that many regard as pulp writing for women.

My Look’s Caress contains some fine writing and introduces a number of promising young writers. The fact that the theme of romance does not emerge as a single unifying thread is perhaps indicative of the genre as a whole. In the final instance, however, the diversity of style and content of the work collected in My Look’s Caress would suggest that one of the major constraints of romance writing has been our preconception of what romance writing actually is.

Confronting Racism on Film – Dennis O’Rourke’s ‘Couldn’t Be Fairer’ (1985)

6 Feb

Published in Tribune – Summer Reading Issue (no 2406), 11 December 1985.

Mick Miller (right) and Dennis O'Rourke during the filming of 'Couldn't be Fairer'.

The Northern Territory’s recent campaign against the return of Ayers Rock to its traditional owners underlined the racism inherent in large sections of the white community in Australia. The “Ayers Rock for all Australians” (sic) campaign was not an isolated incident. Attacks on the basic human rights which Aboriginal people have gained through years of struggle are under attack across Australia, from both governments and corporate interests. But nowhere is it as vicious, or as overtly racist, as it is in Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Couldn’t Be Fairer, a new film by Australian filmmaker Dennis O’Rourke confronts the racism of the Queensland government and the white community of Northern Queensland. What emerges is a powerful statement, graphically illustrating the hypocrisy which seems to be the cornerstone of race relations in Queensland. O’Rourke has been internation­ally recognised as one of the most perceptive filmmakers on tensions between western and traditional culture. His films include Yumi Yet (1976) and Ileksen (1978) about the granting of independence and the first election held in Papua New Guinea. Yap … How Did You Know We’d Like It (1980) examined the effect of American television on the small Micronesian island of Yap. His most recent film, Half Life, which will be commercially released early in 1986, is a devastating account of the US nuclear weapons test program on the Marshall Islands. It concentrates on the effects exposure to highly radioactive fallout from the tests has had upon the inhabitants of the island.

O’Rourke was originally commissioned to make Couldn’t Be Fairer for the BBC program Third Eye, which is a series of programs designed to allow people from the third world to describe their conflicts with western culture. As O’Rourke told Tribune, “North Queensland, for Aboriginal people, could be regarded as the third world. What exists there is basically a colonial situation, both on and off the reserves”.

A major strength of the film is the power and commitment of its narrator, Aboriginal activist and chairperson of the North Queensland Lands Council, Mick Miller. The film follows Mick through Northern Queensland as he talks to his own people and discusses the effect that commercial development, such as mining and tourism, has had upon Aboriginal communities. We see how white Queenslanders effectively marginalise Aboriginal people, pushing them to the outskirts of white society. The alcoholism, sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women, and the degradation which is the result of two centuries of white oppression is in sharp contrast to the glimpses we are allowed of white Queenslanders in the film.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and members of the Queensland government, feature prominently in the film. In fact, the title comes from a statement from the Queensland premier regarding his government’s treatment of Aboriginal people. “Treat them the same as everyone else — couldn’t be fairer.” Mick Miller, time and time again, emphasises the hypocrisy and racism which underlies such a statement. Unfortunately, Couldn’t Be Fairer shows that Bjelke-Petersen’s racism is shared by many whites in Northern Queensland. Hotel workers, white drinkers, police, mining companies, even workers in the tourist industry show, by their statements and actions, that Aborigines are not treated the same as everyone else in the Sunshine State.

As Mick Miller says in the film, “We are living on the fringes of a white affluent society, treated as fourth and fifth class citizens …. We are truly strangers in our own land.” For Mick, Couldn’t be Fairer is an important and timely film, Speaking recently to Tribune, he said, “A film had to be made to show that in the little outback towns, nothing has really changed. Blacks are still being bashed and arrested for minor offences and it’s very difficult to lay charges against those responsible. “We wanted to show that, in Queensland, Blacks are still being treated the way they were 30 years ago, and that in some of the pubs in the little towns there are still separate bars for Blacks and whites. We Blacks still aren’t allowed to drink with the local ringers and land owners.”

It was an important film for Dennis O’Rourke as well. Although he had built up a reputation as a leading documentary filmmaker, until Couldn’t be Fairer he hadn’t actually made a major film in Australia. He had, however, been interested in making a film about racism in Queensland for some time. As he told Tribune, “growing up in a number of Queensland country towns, I was exposed to various forms of racism from an early age. “I didn’t understand it then, but there was obviously something different about the relationship between the Aboriginal kids and the white kids at my school. I remember feeling that it didn’t seem quite right. “Later, I decided that I wanted to make a film that was not so much about the ‘Aboriginal situation’, but rather one which attempted to pin down the nature of this sort of racism.”

Couldn’t be Fairer was filmed over a period of three months in late 1984. Dennis travelled around northern Queensland with Mick and members of the North Queensland Land Council, filming and interviewing people both on reserves and in towns. Later, when the film was being edited, Mick was often in Canberra in his various official capacities, so he was able to take an active part in the cutting of the film.

Problems arose, however, when the final version of the film was delivered to the BBC. It was decided that sections of the film were “too shocking” for English TV audiences. As a result, scenes dealing with drunkenness, the sexual oppression of Aboriginal women, and the degradation which many Aborigines had been forced into, were cut from the version which went to air in England. In all about half the film was edited out without the permission of Dennis or Mick.

Although Dennis told Tribune that there wasn’t anything which he actually found objectionable in the BBC version, he believes that the film lost some of its impact and many of the major issues had been subtly avoided. Mick believes that the BBC decision to cut the film reflects the naivety of the British. ‘They simply couldn’t believe that a state in Australia could have laws, or could subject its Black people the way Queensland does.” Mick saw the BBC decision as symptomatic of the attitude of many whites when confronted with the facts about racism — they simply don’t believe it exists or that it is as bad is you make out. “They say ‘We’re not all racist’, but lots of them still scream and oppose the little bit of help the Aboriginal people do get.”

Couldn’t be Fairer illustrates powerfully that the gains made by Aboriginal people in Australia are the result of years of struggle against deeply ingrained racist attitudes. As Mick told Tribune, ‘The system is designed to pull us down and keep us in the muck, but we fought it. That’s how we got to where we are today. Nothing would have changed through the goodwill of the government.”

THE POEM AS HISTORY – The Ash Range by Laurie Duggan (Picador, 1987), 270pp.

2 Feb

THE POEM AS HISTORY The Ash Range by Laurie Duggan (Picador, 1987), 270pp. Published in The Phoenix Review No3. 1988.

My first introduction to Laurie Duggan’s work occurred during my final year of high school in 1977 when I read a poem called ‘Marijuana Christmas’ in an issue of New Poetry which I found in the local library. Duggan’s broken verse narrative was one of the few poems I came across during my final two years of schooling which suggested that there might be more to poetry than the generally insignificant British poets which were still being force fed to my generation in the class room.

Looking back eleven years later it is interesting to note the sense of continuity from Duggan’s early work to his recent book length poem/history The Ash Range. In ‘Marijuana Christmas’, for example, Duggan is already effortlessly combing basic scientific observation with vivid poetic images:

igneous and metamorphic rock

overlaid by sedimentaries

granite, shale, chalk

quartz on the bottom of the pool

like an Italian ice cream

light veins with white across

In fact many of Duggan’s poems are essentially poetic collages — images, descriptions, historical records and snippets of conversation become essential parts of the poem, cemented together by Duggan’s own, often wonderful, verse.

Another poem worth taking a look at in terms of Duggan’s poetic development is ‘Crawling From the Wreckage’ from his 1985 collection The Great Divide. In this poem Duggan has pulled together isolated quotations from sources as diverse as ABC broadcasts of parliament, Jack Lindsay’s The Roaring Twenties, Nelson Eddy and historical accounts of Black Thursday. While the result is a sometimes jarring, lurching poem which promises much more than it actually delivers, it is, in many ways, a direct predecessor to The Ash Range and shows that Duggan has been experimenting for some time with the structures he has eventually used in his book poem.

A major feature of The Ash Range is its concentration on place and history. It is a poem about the area of Eastern Victoria known as Gippsland. Duggan has always been an excellent nature poet. He has the ability to ‘draw in’ pieces of the landscape he is writing about so that the poem becomes a collage of words, rocks and trees. In The Ash Range he has gone a step further. Here the landscape becomes part of a far greater picture, is interwoven with the history (both pre and post European) of Gippsland. In fact, one of the poem’s greatest achievements is the way in which Duggan has linked the sometimes subtle changes in the landscape with the movement of history.

As in ‘Crawling from the Wreckage’ Duggan makes extensive use of original source material in The Ash Range. In a note at the end of the poem Duggan refers to The Ash Range as a ‘poem including history’, adding that it has many sources and that overall it should be read as the product of a ‘shared consciousness.’ Duggan’s role in the creation of The Ash Range at times appears to be almost that of an editor rather than poet. Once again in his notes he tells us ‘I have not hesitated to meddle with texts: editing them down, altering the grammer, restructuring sentences in the interests of clarity’; Indeed, throughout the book it is possible to see Duggan’s touch on almost every piece of source material so that while it may be possible to say that The Ash Range has many sources, overall it is, very definitely, Duggan’s own achievement. If, however, it is possible to voice one criticism about the structure of the poem, it is that it has not allowed Duggan to use more of his own very fine poetry.

Duggan’s account of the history of Gippsland is often at odds with the official version. Throughout The Ash Range he tends to concentrate on the tragic and the everyday. His account, for example, of the first contact between Europeans and the Aboriginal people of Gippsland, which while not by any means unique, is still, none the less, extremely moving and tragic:

On one of the arms of the Lake

there were a few blacks,

and one of the old men

proposed to take mullet to the white-fellows,

started, accompanied by a little boy.

Within sight of the hut the boy

noticed the white man signalling them off.

The old man took no notice.

The boy heard a gun fire:

saw the old man fall.

He dropped his fish

and ran to tell the tribe.

The history also includes an account of the rapid annihilation of the Aboriginal people of Gippsland by the European ‘settlers’. In the first years of white settlement Duggan can write of ‘500 to 700 Aborigines/assembled for feasting’. But by 1864 the Reverend Hagenauer could only assemble 130 at his mission station at Boney Point, Lake Wellington. The sections of The Ash Range dealing with Aboriginal/white contact puts the more recent history of Gippsland into context. The attitude of Aboriginal people towards this history is summed up by a quote from Philip Pepper at the beginning of the section ‘White Palings’: The bad times really started when that fella Batman came to Melbourne’.

Throughout that greater part of The Ash Range which deals with the purely European history of Gippsland, Duggan is concerned with the insignificant and the ordinary. We hear, for example, of how Robert Robertson, ‘a well known Bairnsdale painter, and George Johnston, ‘a carpenter’, were arrested in 1916 for ‘illegally killing fish’ with a tomato sauce bottle loaded with gelignite.

Duggan devotes a whole section to the rise and fall of a small gold mining town called Stirling. The town was founded shortly after 1882 and effectively ceased to exist around 1920 after the Post Office was closed and the hall moved to another town. The high point for Stirling would appear to have been in July 1899 with the Stirling Ladies invitation dance:

songs sung at interval

by Mrs Butcher. Mrs Tait;

and some of the gentlemen

studying ‘federation’.

But the rapid decline of Stirling after the gold ran out was not an isolated event

 So, Glen Wills:

a sign in a clearing:

at Sunnyside there’s nothing:

Grant a graveyard

if you can find it.

And Stirling?

The base of a chimney,

overgrown,

in a small clearing;

dark water,

a wild fruit tree.

Given the impressive achievement of The Ash Range it is difficult to see why it has failed to pick up any of the major awards. Although its publication comes at a time when there is, perhaps, an unprecedented number of book length Australian poems or poetic sequences in the book shops, Duggan’s achievement in The Ash Range is at least equal to that of Alan Wearne in The Nightmarkets. Both these works are impressive reminders of the current maturity of Australian poetry and both have broken out of the ghetto to be read by people who generally would not read poetry. While The Nightmarkets literally exploded onto the literary stage in a blaze of publicity (and sales), it is tempting to suggest that The Ash Range’s reputation (and sales figures) will steadily grow over time. One thing, however, is certain: in The Ash Range Laurie Duggan has written what is destined to become one of the major Australian poems of the eighties.