walleah press


Five Islands Press, New Poets' Program, Series 5

(An abridged version of this speech was given to launch the F.I.P.
New Poets' Program at Varuna Writer's Centre, NSW on 5th July 1998)

In a climate when many mainstream poetry publishers are closing their doors to new poets, and even reducing their already established lists, it is a saving grace that Five Islands Press are prepared to introduce fresh voices to the reading public. Culture advances through risk, (which involves a vision), and Five Islands Press have consistenty been prepared to go out on a limb. The stream of prizes and awards received by previous participants in this program is testament to their faith in that risk, the integrity of their vision.

Peter Boyle, James Bradley, Jennifer Compton, Andy Kissane, Beth Spencer have all received significant recognition for their work. So too have Lisa Jacobson, Peter Minter, Margie Cronin etc. Poets of this calibre are an indication of the consistently high quality to be found through each series.

If writing poetry is one of the most popular art forms, then it is also perhaps one of the most competitive. Strange when you think of lonely poets in garrets slashing their wrists. That myth. That we can slash our wrists better than anybody else. The Irish writer Flann O'Brien said, (a la Plato), I think ironically, that poetry should be outlawed because any one poem inspires 1000 inferior copies of it. However the return of the New Poets Program after a hiccup in 1997 is to be genuinely celebrated because it is not, and historically never has been about imitation, but about unearthing fresh voices; about finding the new. Once again the books in this series reveal the vibrancy and energy that the program envisages. There were 121 entries in this the fifth series, from which six new books by Ric Adamson, Lucy Dougan, Jane Gibian, Judy Johnson, Alistair Stewart, and Jane Williams were selected.

Lucy Dougan's Memory Shell is, as the title suggests, primarily concerned with the idea of memory. Here theme, and this is true of all these books, is coherent and sustained. Intimately bound up with memory are the notions of loss and regret. Loss, not only of the personal past, but also that of history and particularly the place of women in it. This preoccupation with childhood and the past is not unlike Dorothy Hewett's, which will come as no surprise as Dorothy Hewett is Lucy Dougan's aunt, so there are some powerful poetic genes floating around there. Yet within this notion of loss is a celebration of language as a means of redemption, of standing up to the vicissitudes.

I'm jealous of the wind today and its claim on you.

Memory Shell is gentle and lilting, and ultimately resilient.

Judy Johnson jumped joyfully in the jaded jungle that many people take to be the state of contemporary verse. The title of Johnson's book Wing Corrections refers to the adaptations we make in our perceptions of the world, particularly landscape and the natural world. There is a domestic sensibility at work which is informed by a deeper well of emotional experience. The poems are vivid and intense with recurring images of flight, and water, which is often associated with death. The poems, many of them prize-winning, capture brief, vivid moments of experience; a teenage fling presages murder. The collecting of gemstones forms an intimate metaphor for the death of a father.

in turn your / own fault line / was uncovered

Jane Williams was once the editor of the small poetry magazine ars poetica, which sadly succumbed to economic forces. Her poems also deal with the lot of women in the ordinary world. In this case Jane's vision is informed by recurring religious imagery. Outside Temple Boundaries concerns itself with, among other things, the nature of doubt and faith in its interaction with everyday life.

lover of feet
                                 who cupped his heels like cracked breasts
who filled the cracks with tears //
                                 who kissed each toe as if she had borne it

The religious imagery provides a source of solace in the face of loss, or exile. This theological framing in no way limits the book but rather expands and illuminates the subjects she tackles. It offers a means of intellectual enquiry by which to engage with the world.

In a world where poetry is often seen to take itself seriously Ric Adamson's Steelbone Notes is a book that is not afraid of making jokes. If there is a feminine sensibility, then here is a recognizeable masculine insensibility. Men put out the garbage and tread bare feet through the maggots. There is a kind of male logic in giving the honey jar swarming with ants to the ants. Steelbone Notes has a laconic humour and a self-mocking modesty; confessional poetry without the hubris. Also what might be a modern male's indecisiveness about what to do or say next. His style is rapid, stream-of-conscious; the language vernacular; a kind of (and how's this for a phrase), Charles Bukowskiness of living in the moment. Its sleazy ephemera of

making something / out of nothing

is honest, witty, and immediately accessible.

The language of Jane Gibian's The Body's Navigation is dense and complex. Imagistic in tone the poems present ambiguous fragments of lives obliquely, fleetingly glimpsed. There is also a conceptual abstraction in subject matter and style; even the titles of the poems reveal this. In fact I must confess that I read the entire contents page thinking it was a strange, post-modern poem called "Contents". For example:

poem for dissolution;
poem for distraction;
poem for retrospection;
poem for possession.

Of course it's not as clear cut as this. How can you resist a poem with a title like "Here lies his diary". Relationships are dissected as something more symbolic than actual. There is a sophistication of language and idea which demands you sit back and consider. There is also a willingness to experiment with form, and an energy which is unfailingly intelligent. As she says in the first line of her poem Seduction:

Won't you dear reader enter the text at your leisure.

If the poems in some of the previous books are lyrical and introspective, then Alistair Stewart's Frankston 281 is motivated by outrage. The untitled poems, if you dare call them poems, and I mean this in the sense of being challenged, are interlinked to form one, dis-continuous, sinister narrative. To quote one poem in its entirety:

everything seemed to go downhill
when he missed out on his chance
to join the Victoria Police Force.

Strange. Its style is televisual, hence I think the allusions of the title. Avoiding lyricism, it exploits the vernacular language of headlines and station promos. We even seem to get background music. The poems or scenes are spliced together not unlike the poems in Dorothy Porter's The Monkey's Mask. Stewart also plays with fonts and typeface. He experiments with the visual layout of the page, and even drifts into something similar to Michael Basinki's 'Opens' as witnessed in the first issue of the journal Boxkite. These devices conribute to an overall collage effect.

The story presents the broad social canvas surrounding the perpetration and investigation of a notorious crime. If this story is sometimes intentionally bleak and depressing, then that is because it is too real. The sum of the parts is powerful and confronting and relentless, with a narrative that burns furiously.

Once again Five Islands Press are to be congratulated on an innovative and engaging series.