“Contemporary Australian Poetry”, launch by Jan Owen

Contemporary Australian Poetry edited by Martin Langford, Judith Beveridge, Judy Johnson, David Musgrave, and published by Puncher & Wattmann in 2016

I was delighted when David asked me to launch this new Puncher & Wattmann anthology. Contemporary Australian Poetry is timely, generous and entertaining, the painstaking work of four editors over ten years, a treasury to be read, reread, shared and quoted. It’s a very handsome tome, solid yet space-age light even though it spans twenty-five years and includes 239 poets. In the Introduction the editors give us an insightful overview of the changes in the Australian poetry scene over that time, and make a strongly substantiated claim for its health and vitality today. As they point out, the critical scene has not kept pace, unfortunately, but their anthology challenges that situation and may help to remedy it.

These are poems of curiosity, assurance, and polish, a gathering of distinctive voices with a range of tone from empathy to exuberance. There are poems which subvert accepted ideas and practices, there is wit, irony, humour, reflection, surrealism, intellectual brilliance; there are lyrically moving poems, spaces of celebration and tenderness, deliciously satisfying imagery, some graphic revelations, and some disconcerting mirrors.

It was a particular pleasure, while reading through, to come to one of the dozen South Australian poets included. We have Yahia Al-Samawy’s ‘ Don’t light the candles, Shahrazad/ Shahriyar lays waste a town a night.’ We have Ken Bolton’s poem on pig farming, methods of – welcome to a hospitable mind; Lee Cataldi’s narrative on the women who live on the ground; Ali Cobby Eckermann’s tough, true talk on ‘Intervention Pay Back’. In ‘The Mothers’, Rebecca Edwards takes us on an evolutionary journey back through fur and muzzle to the cell-mother. There are Peter Goldsworthy’s poems questioning belief, with the crux of the dilemma ‘Is there a God?’Also the edgy luminous images of Jill Jones’s work; and Mike Ladd’s  balance of relaxed tone and incisive image, of nostalgia and zest. David Mortimer puts Adelaide suburbia on the literary map, and Dennis McDermott examines racial origins and discrimination. Some words from me; and finally, Shen’s wide-ranging poem on bridging two cultures.

You get a good idea of the range of poems from the Contents list, so I’ll simply read a few of the titles: ‘Pied Butcher Bird Flute Solo’; ‘Forty-Five Years on a Bicycle’; ‘Structure of the Horse’s Eye’; ‘Chinese Singing’; ‘Seduction Poem’; ‘Boroloola Blue’, ‘The Owl and the Pussycat Baudelaire Rock’; ‘Walking Back from the Dam’; ‘A Note from Mindi Station’; ‘Mr Menzies Shows Me My File’; ‘Train Town’, ‘The Currawongs’; ‘doctordeath.com’; ‘Sunflowers’; ‘Dracula on the Monaro’; ‘The Family Fig Trees’; ‘The Burke and Wills Fan Club’; ‘Woman’s work’,‘Stalin Confesses’; ‘Bound for Botany Bay’.

So many topics and angles and backgrounds! A good number of indigenous, ethnic, and migrant voices are included and also many focused on gender issues, sexuality, human rights, politics, history and the environment. Well, the whole kit and caboodle really! In fact I found the collection an aesthetic, intellectual and emotional caffeine hit, a champagne lift, and sumptuous as Haigh’s chocolates. It is also an indication of the high number of excellent poets now writing in Australia – a critical mass as the editors say. Which reminds me of  a prescient comment by the American Lynn Hard when he was the ADFA librarian – in about 1995 I think.  He told me he thought the contemporary Australian poetry scene was becoming more dynamic and exciting than the American one. If I was a little surprised then, I’m not now.

Reading these poems has given me a wider sense of Australian identity, of what makes our poetry distinctively Australian, and of what we can achieve. It is no paradox that it comes down to the individualism and originality of each writer. That has to be partly connected with our diverse origins and forbears: indigenous Australians, exiles, convicts, economic refugees, adventurers and fortune seekers, third sons, indeed third daughters, and now, asylum seekers, with some of the weight of tradition lost or dumped along the way and the rest more lightly carried. What was at first exile, a sense of distance and separation, has also been an opportunity to make do, adapt, invent and discover. I like to think the pioneer spirit still energizes our writing. Certainly there is a sense of spontaneity as well as a solidness and honesty of vision in these poems; they are not self-consciously poetic, careful utterances, nor are they flashily clever or over-abstract. As the editors point out, Australians have a certain wariness of words and a tendency to scepticism, a readiness to question authority and ideology. Put laconically, we have built-in bullshit detectors. This makes for originality and daring in writing, and dominant qualities in our poetry are boldness, imagination and surprise. The wide variety of this collection will be a stimulus for readers to buy and read more Aussie poetry and for poets to tackle Australian subjects not yet documented in our literature, from political in-fighting to our distinctive flora and fauna. Has anyone written a sonnet on a dunnart? Mark O’Connor hasn’t done it; he better get busy. The younger poets are certainly busy, many in a ferment of experimentation, post-modern hi-jinks laced with irony. I have particularly enjoyed and learnt from the poems about indigenous, Asian, Middle-Eastern and European experience.

Robert Frost remarked that if  you have a book of twenty-four poems, the book itself should be the twenty-fifth. So in this case, the five hundred and nineteenth poem of Contemporary Australian Poetry is the collection itself, a work of sparkle and profundity. The selection of poems is astute, avoiding easy repeats from earlier selections; it was a pleasure to find so many poems and poets new to me. After the first random plunges I read straight through without any feeling of being overwhelmed, sated, or jolted. There is a canny negotiation of boundaries through the sub-arrangement of the poems and particularly between one poet and the next. I’d say the four editors are literary diplomats. There are striking contrasts between some adjoining poems and effective  concordances between others, as for example, between Adamson and Aitken where two rivers meet, the Hawkesbury and the Mekong; and from Albiston to Alizadeh, a poem on refugees adjoins a poem on immigration; from Allen to Al-Samawy, the Kokoda Trail leads into the present dangers in Iraq; from Armand to Ballou a poem called ‘Eating Rouault’is followed by a poem on tasting blackberries. The conflation of Eros and Thanatos in Bennett’s poem ‘True Love’ is also a theme in Beveridge’s ‘One Sight’. I could go on, but I’ll just jump to a last salutory example in the M’s: Les Murray’s poem ‘The Last Hellos’, an elegy to his father, is abutted but not rebutted by David Musgrave’s elegy to his father. Very different voices, techniques and tones, but an enhancement of each poem by their placement.

For me, reading Contemporary Australian Poetry has had one unsettling effect: the recurring impulse, as I read, to learn more about our land and people from direct experience; I reckon if I could change a tire and a spark plug I’d be setting off round Australia in a kombi van. I’d better settle instead for this book as a journey through a wide landscape of imagination and memory and possibility. The poetry scene in Australia is indeed a luminous field, and this anthology is a proof and celebration of that fact. I recommend it to you with enthusiasm. Let’s raise our glasses in gratitude – to the poets and the publisher, and to the editors: Martin Langford, Judy Beveridge, Judy Johnson, and David Musgrave!   

Jan Owen

27th January, 2017