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Trivikrama Kumari Jamwal 
 

WOMAN-WRITING-WOMAN-READING – STILL!

a review of poetry by some of Australia’s women poets

 
 
 

 

 
As a six-month-old researcher of Australian poetry in 2004, I presented a paper at the Second International Conference of the Indian Association for the Study of Australia. As it turns out, the paper, a first tentative exploration of the poetry by women poets of the 1990s ended up laying bare layer upon layer of points, issues and questions about poetry in Australia, specifically poetry by some of Australia’s women poets.  In the conference hall in New Delhi, where the paper was presented, the presentation was a success. 
 
While it would be nice to think that my father’s confidence-boosting telephone chats and my husband’s all-the-best call just before the presentation had something to do with that, I have to be a little less starry-eyed and give a large part of the credit to the topic I had chosen.  There was a combination of affinity, thrill of part agreement and part disagreement, stimulation, an intriguing mixture of comprehension and incomprehension that whetted the appetite and admiration for some of the things expressed and the expression.  It was a blend of responses, demanded, incited and given - the inspiration behind the title of the paper ‘Woman-Writing-Woman-Reading’ - that seems to have worked.
 
The first thing that struck me while I was searching for information to put in that paper was the immense responsibility that technology carries in the world today.  True, it makes things easy; but it also has a ‘shaping’ role to play.  An early listing of women writers in the 1990s with a significant proportion of their work being classified as poetry from the National Library of Australia database resulted in a list of almost two hundred names.  The impressions communicated that cold January morning in New Delhi were of an early, quick and immediate presentation of information. For practical reasons, this assessment had to be based on a few writers selected for their standing and acclaim.  And apart from any insecurities relating to my intellectual capacity in getting things right, the question was - is the picture being conveyed what it ought to be?  This had to do with the content and method of communication, including the very significant factors of accessibility, i.e. the use of technology and its availability not only to the reader but to the creator of the work. 
 
No discussion of technology is complete without mention of the Internet.  In addition to being a significant source of information, especially in a field where conventional print sources are limited, the Net has been instrumental in crossing boundaries into ‘internationalism’.  During the 1990s, several major publishers discontinued their poetry publications since it was felt that poetry did not have a market.  Even the titles published went out of print fairly quickly and the availability of print titles of Australian poetry in markets such as India was as good as nil.  The overseas markets for Australian poetry were better developed in North America and Europe, key overseas publications including Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask and MTC Cronin’s Everything Holy.  Another stimulating opportunity was overseas publication in magazines, which thanks to electronic options no longer found themselves constrained by the logistics of publishing outside geographical borders.  Australian poets were published in magazines such as Antipodes, the academic journal of the American Association of Australian Literary Studies; How2, based in USA but with an Australian editor since 2000, Honolulu-based Tinfish and Poetry Kit that used servers in Canada and UK.
 
Electronic publishing and self-publishing assumed importance in Australia as well. Electronic publishing ensured greater accessibility to Australian poetry through literature web sites and gateways and magazines, such as Cordite, Jacket, Famous Reporter, Divan and Paper Tiger which were online or on CD from among the numerous also available through subscription or at bookshops: Imago, Hecate, Quadrant, Heat, Siglo to name just a few.  The technology that permitted publication of magazines as an avenue of poetry publication at a time when the other outlet (book publishing) had become difficult, also gave rise to self-publication.  The latter counted among its advantages its ability to cater to niche audiences and to keep a work available even when it went out of print (for instance, Beth Spencer’s Things in a Glass Box first published by Five Islands Press in 1994).  Beth Spencer is one of the writers who went in for self-publishing and chapbooks, some others being Pam Brown, Liz Hall-Downs, Coral Hull and Helen Hagemann.  This was also a decade that saw the rise of regional presses to provide impetus to the writers of a region (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Western Australia) as well as small presses that worked with smaller print runs (Five Islands Press).
 
An exciting dimension was added by the advent of multi media into the literary arena.  It moved poetry back into an oral – aural sphere, although ‘performance’ poetry has been around for years even before it saw a rise in popularity in Australia since the 1970s. In line with a list of predecessors who made their mark in this field, the 1990s were witness to more New Media or multi media work of poets such as Amanda Stewart, Hazel Smith, Jayne Fenton Keane who used technology to present their poetry as well as execute their poetic theories involving the use and manipulation of the human voice, body and sounds. Jayne Fenton Keane’s Slamming the Sonnet is literally a multi media experience: a collection of the spoken word, graphics, animation, interactive and therefore conversational.  While opinions on the value and quality of such poetry were divided, the fact remains that this style completely lifted poetry off the printed page, even as simpler poetry readings continued.  Most poets ‘performed’ their work on the reading circuit, performance tours or at poetry festivals in and outside Australia. The internet made it possible to maintain recordings of such  readings, for instance readings by Gig Ryan, Judith Beveridge, Antigone Kefala and Dorothy Porter (who has won an enviable reputation for her skills in reading her poems out, credited for the “resurgence of pub poetry” according to Kate Torney on Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Nexus) on www.lyrikline.org.   
 
Although questions were also asked about the “prestige gap” between print and electronic publishing – as to poet MTC Cronin in an interview with Clayton A. Couch in the magazine sidereality – the latter did find acceptance. Susan Hawthorne and Alison Croggon in fact say they prefer electronic publishing because of the autonomy and flexibility it affords. The use of multi media technology and ‘performance’ is reflected in the nature of poetry that one sees during the 1990s: the style of writing – jumps in thought as in spontaneous speaking, invitation to move from link to link, long-lined paragraphs rather than verse stanzas, quick running on with little or no punctuation. This is a product not only of the concept of poetry and its concerns, but also of the technology and forum chosen for expression, which made the entire process of creating, transmitting and receiving poetry more interactive.
 
Elements of style and technique are interesting.  In brief, they were affected by the writer’s concerns, technology and concept of poetry.  By and large, the tone became direct, conversational, even confrontationist.  There is very little evidence of the conventional stanza and rhyming forms.  Rhythm yes, even the one deliberately chosen for a lack of punctuation and length of lines.  At the end of the day, the poetry does not encourage a half-hearted passive response.  It asks for a reaction, even stimulates it. 
 
Given the number of practising poets and the innovations and exhilaration contrasted with the frustrations and difficulties of finding readership and professional encouragement, it became imperative to attempt to obtain a picture of the literary environment poetry functioned within.  While prose (fiction and non-fiction) was still considered better supported and with wider acceptance, support for poets and poetry was apparent during the 1990s.  Government support was through the Australia Council for the Arts and its advisory and funding body, the Literature Board that gave grants and fellowships to established and emerging writers, organisations, festivals, publishers and magazines. Funding and sponsorship was also through State and local government levels and by private sponsors particularly in marketing and promotion. Recognition came by way of awards, the major ones being the States Premiers Literary Awards and those administered by writers’ organisations and associations such as the Fellowship of Australian Writers and the Association for the Study of Australian Literature as well as private endowments like the Grace Leven Poetry Prize.  Such support and acknowledgement, in spite of giving rise to differences of opinions on efficacy and fairness, was seen as contributing to the poetry scenario in Australia.
 
It was only natural that a study of themes of women poets would start at a picture of a ‘woman’s world’ even without diving into the depths of feminist studies. It is certainly easy to identify with - across a geographical and cultural divide – the mix of emotions felt by the woman in Gwen Harwood’s “Suburban Sonnet” – the loss of control over life after sacrificing her dream of becoming a concert pianist for the sake of her family.  Female bonding and the nurturing is brought out in works such as Sandy Jeffs’, security surfacing after the mother’s death, as the daughter is “suddenly transported to a kingdom of love / and a calm” by the act of having her hair brushed as she is being sent into an asylum, feeling “the world abandon me” (Poems From a Madhouse).  Liz Hall-Downs believes in the continuation of the line and values through women as she links generations in “My Mother’s Hands”, ending with
her face is mine
I see my unborn children in her eye’s shine
 
Then there is the blend of women’s issues and political statements that again bridges the supposed divide across national boundaries. The woman - the desperation of childlessness and the futility and pain of IVF, where the “body feels too much like a battery egg farm” -   in Jayne Fenton Keane’s “Test Tube Candidate”
Each half moon measured
by a longed for twitch in the womb,
But the twitch doesn’t come
Similarly, the victim of social circumstances, violence and abuse: Jayne Fenton Keane uses a popular nursery rhyme in “Mr. Star”, a reminiscence of a mother’s complicity as she turned a Nelson’s eye to stained sheets; and a characteristically female anxiety over the consequences of using various methods of suicide in a monologue of a woman contemplating this form of self-abuse in “Voices”.   The woman in JS Harry’s “Woman as Jug / Blue Lady Poem”, from whose handbag her drunken man takes the “food money” in a home that is a “renovated chicken shed” – a situation of love of a man only when the ‘jug’ is full, even if he has to kill for it.  Liz Hall-Downs underlines the unfairness of being a woman put on a budget for essentials by the so called provider, who for himself has garnered the freedom to go to the races, drink beer and yet charm women’s hearts – including that of his own daughter who is witness to her mother’s predicament.
 
A lot of the poetry dealing with women’s issues is not always anti-male.  In “Separation Landscape”, even as Coral Hull protests her partner’s violence, she admits she “smelt the chest of your faded black sloppy joe”.  Such ambivalence has been attributed to various causes, but the fact remains that, to a greater or lesser degree, for literal or subversive purposes, the feeling is there.  Not that gender differences do not exist.  MTC Cronin points out in “Surrealism & Damages (or “Did I Come?”)” from Everything Holy
that in speech
women use numerical specificity
less often whereas
men use it more
but with less accuracy
 
Talking of language, Helen Hagemann says in “Helen Hagemann’s Poetics. The Female Voice in Poetry – Identity”, “For the female to find her own unique voice it is necessary to subvert the androcentric language in her work.”  Poets such as Hagemann, Dorothy Hewett and Dorothy Porter, use the body, its enjoyment, their sexuality, eroticism and sensuality to bring out the sense of the female.  Given Helen Hagemann’s impatience with “a male loaded language”, both “The Only of Only Being Woman” and “The Shadow of You” are loaded with almost tactile images – the raspberries between teeth and the juice running down the lips, the “bulging sweet fecundity of birth” (“The Only of Only Being Woman”, The Drunken Boat), the tongue biting into “whipped ecstacy of cherries” (“The Shadow of You”, Snakeskin: The Poetry Webzine).
 
There is little feeling of being the ‘weaker’ sex.  Liz Hall-Downs parenthetically but proudly states in “Bitch Poem” from Fit of Passion, “or it’s really quite a compliment” and concludes
Life’s a bitch
and so
am I
Dorothy Porter in Chapter One of her verse novel, The Monkey’s Mask asserts in the poem “I’m Female”
I’m not tough
droll or stoical
 
I droop
after wine, sex
or intense conversation
 
The streets coil around me
When they are empty
I’m female
I get scared
- not apologetic, nor weak – just the voice of a woman. A woman who personifies the strong affirmation of the ‘I’ right in the beginning when she challenges the mirror and demands “I want you, trouble / on the rocks.” (“Trouble”, The Monkey’s Mask) Then there is Lesbianism – a sisterhood, an aspect of female bonding touched upon earlier in another context.  It is there in The Monkey’s Mask, and openly, unashamedly in Susan Hawthorne’s “Unstopped Mouths”: the getting together of women, nude, trained, flexible in a gymnasium suggestive of a school or sacred grove, and the allusions through links to ancient rituals of lesbianism from across the world. In fact, a lot of the poetry I read could classify as ‘unstopped mouths’ in the sense of breaking taboos of expression – mentioning the unmentionables like domestic violence, menstruation and sexual intimacy.
 
Other universal concerns also mark the works of the same poets who focus on the female.  Most poets profess interest in other fields: music, painting, theatre, environment, theology, jurisprudence.  These interconnections show in the use of words, images and styles.  There are political concerns: children pushed into harshness by politically repressive regimes in Jayne Fenton Keane’s “Children of the Stones”; emotional health in Sandy Jeffs’ Poems from the Madhouse and Blood Relations; social concerns of the working class, being born on the wrong side of the tracks, alcoholism; even Liz Hall-Downs’ negation of the cult of physical perfection at the cost of emotion in “My Sister has a New Set of Breasts”. The concern with the land, sometimes classified as ‘pastoral’, continues as does the popularity of bush ballads in contemporary terms.   This finds expression in poems of environmental concerns as in Coral Hull’s poetry, JS Harry’s “Backward Over Dark Water” and “Deer Under the Skin” swinging between a communion with nature and its shocking degradation. 
 
Contrasting the depth of land and myth in the Aboriginal mind with that of the European mind, Alison Croggon uses female mystics, such as the 15th century writer of spiritual autobiography Margery Kempe, in works like “Specula”, which seems to be a gist of her stand on women and feminine assertion. Her poems also depict a picture of destruction, chaos and apocalypse that stuns.  There are several vivid images, but one remembered because of some similarity to Indian mythology in its use of the white horse is from “The Beast”
Mothers cry out in their dreams …
But everyone remains convinced that once they saw him, […]
Riding a white horse over a road graveled with ashen bones.
Dorothy Porter goes back in time into the Minoan civilization to combine the myth and mystery of an ancient civilization that we know little about with eroticism, passion and sensuality in Crete. Diane Fahey is another poet whose concerns are Greek myths, fairy tales and the landscape and ecology.
 
If shared concerns include the woman-oriented (deeply personal as well as wider concerns), the similarity in history as colonies of Britain could not let me ignore the post-colonial aspects that stare you in the face. Even if the relationship with England is like a photograph in an album – not denied or rejected, but almost as if in mothballs in poems like Judith Wright’s “For A Pastoral Family”, the past is not something that can be negated.  A post-colonial reading of Australian poetry would involve the elements of migration, multiculturalism and inevitably, the Indigenous point of view.  It would therefore certainly unearth the typical symbols and imagery, and the inescapable stereotypes. In Diane Beckhingham’s “A Colonial Family”, a poem about an 1860 family, children are “coy” and “stiff”; the aboriginal groom is “lean” and stands apart physically at the overt level, with some sort of an unspoken contrast only too apparent – a reflection of the stereotypical primitive animality, and the black - white binary opposition. 
 
Any effort to re-discover bygone links is formidable.  Given the language barrier between the colonized and colonizer, would Aboriginal ‘Dreaming’ and the Aboriginal Law be adequate translations and totally comprehensible to a non-Aboriginal, specially given the diversity of Indigenous cultures within Australia?  Conversely, would institutions governed by the coloniser’s sense of law be intelligible to the Indigenous way of life?  The fallacies and misplaced intentions and the extreme differences in perceptions are brought out by Lisa Bellear in “They Said ‘Smile’”
[…] if it is too cold, then wear
a government issued blanket, damn useless those things,
not like kangaroo and possum skin
As a believer in a certain way of life one is born into, deep sympathy with someone who has lost one’s own way of life comes easily.  As a member of the human race and as a parent, it is empathy that one feels on reading about the Stolen Generation.  A desperate cry of pain and for dignity from Lisa Bellear (“Lisa Bellear: Poetry – A Personal Perspective”, Web of Poets) again
I think if only you knew, really knew
the hurt and deep emotional scars
that so many Indigenous First
Nations and colonized people,
carry around, twenty-four hours
seven days a week.  You try like
our ancestors to survive and be
proud - free
Aboriginal writing in English is thus a reflection of the festering wounds of foreign imposition and a call for social and political control, albeit using the ‘conqueror’s’ language.
 
There is an “apologetic guilt” on the part of the settler descendants according to an essay entitled “Post-Colonialism or Post-Imperialism?” in Deep South (Vol. 2 No. 3 Spring 1996) by Luke Strongman from the University of Canterbury, because of this act of forcibly taking away the territory, physical and cultural, of the original inhabitants of the land.  Now the colonized ‘other’ is seen as racially and culturally pure and authentic, and the process of the whites bringing enlightenment to the indigenous heathens is only now being reversed in literature.  Come to think of it, Diane Beckingham’s ‘coy’ characters are decorous but pallid, and she does fancy that the governess “had no regrets” about her intimacy with a ‘lowly native’.  When I read about Spinifex’ concerns with the traumas of the Indigenous community, Coral Hull’s views on reconciliation and land based spirituality and about Liz Hall-Downs’ poem in Turrbul (the original inhabitants of Brisbane) language about the land and its creeks, cockatoos and the god of thunder, I can’t help but wonder if some part of it could be this ‘guilt’ and the process of ‘learning’ in reverse.
 
 “Wogs” by Ania Walwicz is a shock.  Should Australia be intolerant considering that Australia – that is the ‘white’ Australia – is the product of immigration from the time of the 1788 landing? Is it the tensions of the consequent crowded suburbia that is now the focus as against the overriding ambition to tame a tough land? It goes without saying that the yearning for identity and belonging is integral to the works of not only first, but also second and third generation migrants.
 
The focus on English further aggravates the situation. Polish immigrant Ania Walwicz conceded in a June 1982 interview with Myron Lysenko and Kevin Brophy in Going Down Swinging to a “jarring” style precisely because she came “from a different culture, where the act of revealing oneself, emotional behaviour is more accepted than in Anglo-Saxon culture.”   Jeltje, as a Dutch woman migrant expected to remain within the framework of a dislocated migration experience, eventually determined to “continue interpreting the Australian experience mainly through the framework of literatures from the countries left behind” as she writes in “(Folk)Writing in Post-colonial Australia” on www.suite101.com. Her style therefore combines music, poetry and performance, using simple singsong chanting and melody that does not eclipse the words.  “Fire”, for instance, uses simple rhymes
the fires
are
alight
in
the
night
burning
bright
Striking not only on account of their seeming childlike simplicity (as it turns out, a deliberately chosen ploy), but more so since much contemporary poetry dispenses with line-ending rhymes altogether.
 
On the Asian side, Janice Bostok, writing haikus since 1972, says in “Poetics – A Personal Statement” (http://members.dodo.com.au/janbos/poetics.html)
In embracing the Japanese Haiku artform each country will eventually internalize the poem’s cultural origins and make the ‘spirit of the Haiku’ its own
 – words that reflect the aspirations of multiculturalism itself. Both Janice Bostok and MTC Cronin have lent the verse form their own interpretation and treatment.  MTC Cronin in “A Personal Haiku Journey” in HaikuOz asks, “Who says you have to be serious?” She has written haikus on Telly Savalas and
I I I I I
I I I I I I I
I do love myself
has punch.  Janice Bostok concentrates on capturing a moment:
early spring mist –
in the valley the clatter
of milking pails
MTC Cronin has composed a haiku poem “Units” in Everything Holy, that ostensibly is funny with the anti climax of viewing – and declining - a dinner invitation from an attractive neighbour as “two flaring nostrils” the speaker had seen him pick the previous evening.  But the underlying loneliness and starkness of modern urban living too comes through somewhere in the descriptions of darkness and the sky interspersed with terse observations on looking into the neighbour’s window: wonderfully readable poetry that combines forms and techniques from one culture with sensibilities and perspectives from another – all of which together modify and pattern what finally appears.  
 
Extending the literal idea of being multi or many cultured is the phenomenon of internationalism in terms other than international reach thanks to technology.  Could a JS Harry, a selection of whose poems has been translated into Italian, or a Dorothy Porter, Katherine Gallagher or Alison Croggon, all of whom have won international applause, be the other side of multiculturalism through international appeal? That is, appealing to other cultures and concerns while maintaining their own cultural identity, perspectives and expressions?  Similarly, could the same mantle, perhaps in the reverse direction, be shared by a Liz Hall-Downs who is able to convey her American experience in American Poems – Six Fragments – vignettes including a dramatic picture of a sixteen-year-old girl with green hair whining for alms?
 
After presenting my own reaction to the reading, I thought it would be a good idea to conclude with the concept of poetry according to the writers whose works I have gone through.  Dorothy Porter:
Poetry is my response to the delight – and dilemma – of awareness … I dream of writing poetry that takes the risk of the ineffable as well as the dare of the abyss. (“The Monkey’s Mask”, Web of Poets)
Alison Croggon in her interview with John Kinsella (www.johnkinsella.org/interviews/croggon.html ):
People often say that my poetry is intensely personal, and in a sense that is true, but in another way I have never felt it is, because quite clearly a poem isn’t me […] I do think poetry is more about destabilizing the self, exploding the self, than reinforcing one: to me the experience of beauty is annihilating, in that it breaks the expected, consciously constructed self and reveals something else.
And finally, Gwen Harwood in Daily Celebrations: Life is a Celebration of Passionate Colours
A poem is like a wine glass in which you can hold up a little bit of reality and taste it.
 

  

I would like to thank Dr. Leigh Dale, School of English, Media Studies and Art History, University of Queensland for reviewing the original text of the paper presented and sending me valuable comments that have guided and will guide me in subsequent study of Australian poetry.

 


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