Poem Communities

Growing up in the 1980s in rural Australia, I immersed myself in two passions: reading books and playing sport. I was never much one for football or cricket, preferring instead cross-country running, endless laps of the pool and, perhaps most vitally, tennis.

Image: the Evonne Goolagong tennis wall in Barellan, Australia

My relationship with tennis was electrified by a three year stint our family undertook in a small town in New South Wales in which only four hundred people lived, but one of whose most famous citizens was the Wimbledon champion Evonne Goolagong.

At that age I was unaware of the situation in which Australia’s indigenous peoples found themselves, a mere two hundred years since the invasion of the Wiradjuri peoples’ western plains and grasslands. I was myself an agent of a white bread, monolithic culture.

Typically enough however, like most Australians, despite having no respect for or understanding of indigenous culture, I was happy to claim Goolagong as one of us. At the end of each training session, we would diligently drag the long strip of carpet across the court’s surface, erasing our footprints as we had erased those of they who had walked this earth before us.

Friday afternoon was the time for the young kids to train, with coaches stretched across all four courts. In the final moments of training we’d indulge in a game we called community (but probably goes by other names elsewhere), and which involved every kid crowding onto one court and engaging in a process of elimination.

Each player who committed an error would be forced off the court until only two players were left ‘standing’, with all the other players surrounding the court and cheering on proceedings.

This brings me to the fundamentally connected nature of people and of words. Books are like elaborate games of community tennis (or perhaps, now that we’re a bit older, beer tennis) in which the game is trying to find a single winning poem, knowing also that the beauty of these compilations and collections is that the weak sit alongside the strong, the young and the old coalesce, the short and the long, poems that would probably not talk to each other in any other setting.

These are poem communities.

In these kinds of games of community (and yes, I am toying with ideas here, seeking an in, a connection), there is no real need for a winner. The winner, as we are always told, is tennis itself.

When I speak of books as coherent communities here, I do not mean in the conventional sense of ‘oh, what a disparate, quirky and fascinating bunch of individuals whose work has been assembled here’. Despite having been included myself in several anthologies, I am not interested in the biographical components of these books.

I am interested in these books as communities of poems, not poets. It is only in this distinction that I can bridge the gap between the poem and the solo poet.

Now, back to that nagging problem of invasion.


  1. omg i played tennis too. i wish i still knew anyone that would be willing to go & smash out 5 sets.

    & we played community. i learnt under ‘the chief’, a very aged tennis coach at the forest hill courts. if you ended up winning you would score a can of drink. one of those no-name brands that were about 20 cents in the supermarket. but god i loved it. i’d pour the whole thing into a huge glass with ice & sit back & taste the fizzy sweetness of victory.

    finally the ‘community’ of childhood tennis & adulthood poetry links up. finally.

    • Hey derek,

      thanks for your comment, I always suspected you were a tennis player, not sure why but there you go, I’ve been vindicated. It’s funny how even cans of no name soft drink can take on real power when tied to winning a game of community. I have similar memories of a mini-can of Passiona. But, frankly, I only ever played in tennis comps for the afternoon tea.

Express yourself