Half a dozen poets take their seats facing an audience of eighty or more on the Tasmanian leg of the Five Islands New Poets tour, one that has taken in various Australian cities as well as Wellington, New Zealand. In Ron Pretty’s absence - Ron is ill, recuperating in a Melbourne hospital - Nathan Curnow assumes the duties of compere. ‘We’d like to acknowledge Ron Pretty publicly for all he’s done for us – and for Australian poetry – over the years,’ Nate remarks, before handing over to Kate Waterhouse, the first reader of the session.

Kate mentions the affinity she feels for Hobart, reminding her in so many ways of her home city of Wellington. Kate’s opening piece, a poem drawn from memories of time spent in Thailand, is followed by a couple of Wellington poems - ‘that could equally be about Hobart, I think’ - including ‘A thrush on your verandah’, with its nod in the direction of the supernatural. Among the most substantive inclusions in Waterhouse’s collection are her pregnancy poems …

Shaped from my body this tug of life complicates the horizon with her pure need extracts my silent permission so that I am complicit in this required identity

             [from ‘Metamorphosis’]

… but on this occasion she forgoes them to finish with ‘Sounding’. ‘I think Tasmania and New Zealand have more whale strandings than anywhere else in the world,’ she says, the hint of a quaver in her voice. ‘Normally, I might read my pregnancy poems,’ she adds, ‘but as on this occasion I haven’t, perhaps Ross will?’ She glances quizzically to her left, welcomes Ross Gillett to the microphone.

‘I think I’m bound to begin with my pregnancy poem after that introduction,’ Gillett affirms. He reads ‘Pregnancy’, following which he continues with the reproductive theme - ‘but possibly in the wrong order’ - by launching into ‘Ejaculation’. Spontaneous laughter breaks loose at the line ‘when at last I found someone else interested enough to be there when it happens’ - and again, a little further on: ‘look Mum, no hands’.

In his blurb on the back cover of Gillett’s collection, Kevin Brophy notes an inclination to search for phrases, thoughts and music "that will become the fixed points by which we steer our lives"; sentiments that Brophy finds confirmed within this collection’s inventive wordplay and imagery, elegance and grace. Many of Gillett’s poems are thematically defined by his strong familial links as well as in his roots with the past. ‘I grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne where factories were pretty thick on the ground, they’re no longer there.’ Gillett concludes his short bracket with the collection’s title poem, ‘The Sea Factory’ before introducing Ali Jane Smith.

Smith’s poetry touches many bases, moves easily through personal reflection - of a Steve McQueen epigraph, for instance - to descriptive reminiscences of time spent in various locations (Murwillumbah, Wollongong), to the sensual, the romantic. While others might incline to cool detachment, Smith tends more towards observation and experience than to judgement: as a poet, she’s very much involved in proceedings….

It is all made up out of these little pieces.
Cooking breakfast, making coffee
working or looking for work
waiting for a favourite tv show to start
thinking about what to have for dinner
going out for a beer
putting off unpleasant things
trying to improve the radio reception, going to the supermarket
breathing in deeply, behaving as
if we had all the time in the world.

Smith acknowledges her appreciation of the Haig family’s generous support for the troupe of tourist poets on the Tasmanian leg of their tour before turning to introduce Gita Mammen, ‘whose work is both challenging and extremely pleasurable, I think you’re going to enjoy it’.

With her collection Feefafafaluda, Gita Mammen offers a wordly gaze perhaps distanced from the immediacy of Smith who precedes her and Curnow who follows directly after. Wry declamation and acute observation take precedence over introspection and interior monologue, reveal an eye and ear for detail and dialogue. Steeped in myth but grounded in the litany of everyday events, in Mammen’s poetry the extraordinary becomes ordinary:

in wheelbarrows, boys trundling mothers
in donkeycarts, veiled women and their daughters
on piggyback, crones on their grandsons
they went between the landmines
all shopping for a loaf of bread

     [from ‘Shopping’, pg 11]

Being charged with a political dimension as many of Gita Mammen’s poems are, it’s perhaps fitting that Gita concludes ‘with one of those that Ali might have been referring to as political. It’s a language poem, I think’ before turning to Nathan Curnow.

Curnow has scant need for words on the page, he recites from memory: makes the microphone his own, uses it authoritatively – leans forward, eyes on his audience as words meld in a natural, rhythmic natural flow. There’s concern with integrity, the sense of writing as a wrestle ultimately worth the effort; arrival’s important, but no less so than the journey. "I swallow praise / from actors, then dish some out, trying to think / of something honest." He reads ‘Bath towel wings’, a reflection on his young daughter’s questioning of death wherein he struggles with disarming directness, honesty and compassion to communicate to a child a parent’s perceptions. Coming through forcefully is the bond between father and daughter - a heartfelt awareness that not all questions can be answered, that perhaps at times the best a parent can provide is simply love and support.

I don’t want to die, she says, and if I could waive
death somehow, waive it like a day of school.
If I could write her a note or simply wrestle it,
the way I contort her into armholes.
I tell her that I love her but she’s heard it before.
She wants to know where we go after this.
She believes in Santa. I can’t let her trust Jesus.
Yes, your heart stops working and your lungs.
I want to tell her that life gets busier
which means there is less time to worry.
If there is a trick it is not to grieve too much.
The mystery must be lived, hope is important
and fear: I get the two mixed up.

            [from ‘Bath towel wings]

Curnow finishes with a poem written for his grandmother, before turning to introduce Francesca Haig. ‘A formidable talent, classy and elegant - I can say sincerely it’s a huge honour to stand here before her home crowd and introduce Francesca.’

‘It is unusual to find such acute observation and such quietly elegant phrasing in a first collection,’ notes Philip Salom on the back cover of Haig’s collection Bodies of Water; and I agree. In Francesca Haig’s poetry there’s a hint of something special, the sense of a remarkable talent and natural ability, of a knowingness beyond her years, an energy and vitality bridling to be unleashed. I doubt in disclosing Francesca’s long range goal - the simple desire to fully develop her tremendous writing gifts - that I’m giving away too many secrets.

[Visit Louise Waller’s review of Haig’s collection 'Bodies of Water'].


I’ve felt somewhat non-plussed about Wiki since reading Jenny Sinclair’s article ‘Writers lost in the Wikipedia wilderness’ in the Weekend Australian of October 14-15th, 2006.

Jenny wrote that on Wikipedia, "Australian literature exists in a patchy, arbitrary fashion, depending on whether someone has bothered to create an entry or not." Les Murray "gets a parsimonious 93-word description", whereas writers such as Judah Waten, Marjorie Barnard, David Campbell, John Morrison, Peter Cowan and TAG Hungerford are all missing.

Sinclair’s advice is to do it yourself. "Editing Wikipedia is easy," she urges. "Any writer, publisher, agent, arts bureaucrat or editor could add a listing for themselves, their colleagues, their clients or their organisation in moments …"

It seemed easy enough so I took up Jenny’s challenge and added a handful of writers myself. Simple. It wasn’t till the sixth that I ran into trouble, when a Wiki volunteer advised "This article is being considered for deletion in accordance with Wikipedia’s deletion policy" as it "Does not seem very notable". This was balanced by another Wiki volunteer suggesting it deserved a "weak keep’ since the writer’s credits included a "few published works". [Meanjin was cited, if I recall]. A third noted the writer has ‘a few published works of borderline notability’.

On the other hand, someone else offered a positive ‘Keep’ and a note to everyone wishing to gratuitously interfere in subjects they know nothing about, to ‘pls leave them to people who have some interest/knowledge. article lists several publications etc. the area (contemporary poetry) is marginal enough in itself"…. Hang on, I thought — I’m not suggesting I’m au fait with contemporary Australian poetry, simply attempting to follow Jenny Sinclair’s example.

What struck me about the process was the difficulty for volunteers in verifying whether or not the work was deserving. Mention of this particular poet’s four collections — though they included books by Spinifex, Hazard and Friendly Street — didn’t cut much ice. One volunteer suggested a ‘Delete’ in the absence of multiple reviews of the poet’s work: yet Austlit cites seventeen reviews of the poet’s collections, so perhaps it’s not the sort of information that’s easily found and readily verifiable. And of course I didn’t help things by listing the writer’s nomination for the NSW Premier’s Award in 1995 (it was actually the Victorian Premier’s Award: my mistake).

Wiki? For others perhaps.