Poem Communities


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.

Thirty Australian Poets

The new University of Queensland Press poetry anthology, Thirty Australian Poets, is out now and features, well, thirty Australian poets. The anthology has been edited by Felicity Plunkett and while I haven’t actually received my copy yet, I’m kind of thrilled to know that I’m in it and curious as to just who else is hiding away in there.

The blurb for the book on the publisher’s website states:

1968 marked a turning point in Australian poetry, when a dynamic wave of new poets sought to revitalise a ‘moribund poetic culture’. At the helm of that generation was John Tranter who argued that there would be cycles or generations of poets with peak moments where new poets would emerge to revitalise the culture.

Forty years later, with a spate of superb debut collections, Australian poetry has never looked so energetic and vital. From the imaginatively mind-boggling to the exquisitely lyrical, from tender and edgy erotic currents to wild feats of intellect and playfulness, the dynamism of contemporary Australian poetry is abundantly evident.

Thirty Australian Poets is the first anthology to celebrate the generation of poets born after 1968 and includes a wonderful diversity of voices and styles, from re-imagined versions of traditional forms to the experimental and avant-garde. This groundbreaking anthology captures the spirit of an exciting generation who, between them, have won every major poetry award, and made the renaissance of Australian poetry impossible to ignore.

I think it’s a very interesting premise for an anthology – and it’s also a relief to see no mention of the word ‘best’ in this blurb – but I suspect some people may have a problem with the ageist cut-off date! Again, I haven’t seen the anthology yet (I presume it’s winging its way slowly northward as I type this post) and so I’ll be very curious to see just how representative it is of my so-called generation.

In a sense, any anthology’s premise is going to be a loaded one, and I personally am not a huge fan of generationalism in any guise. However, I also suspect that the use of the term here is slightly tongue in cheek and also deliberately provocative, as Tranter’s The New Australian Poetry (1979) perhaps was. In any case, it’s nice that Felicity selected five of my poems – ‘Sun­bathing’, ‘Oz’ ‘Lady Land’, ‘Lurker’ and ‘A821.4′ – for inclusion in the book, particularly as the first three of these are from a manuscript (Leaves of Glass) that I am beginning to think will never be published.

This is, I think, the unspoken truth about the current so-called generation of poets, in that for every anthology that’s printed, maybe a dozen quality collections by emerging or lesser known poets fall by the wayside. While this is a bittersweet truth, it’s still great to know that at least one publisher is willing to showcase poets that the general reader may never have heard of, and I can’t wait to delve into it and discover the works of my faraway peers in a new and hopefully vital context.