University of Sydney academic and poet Peter Minter didn’t mince words. “My position is basically this anthology is an outrageously fraudulent neo-colonial vanity project,” he told the Australian Poetry Symposium on October 1.

The anthology Minter is referring to is Geoffrey Lehmann’s and Robert Gray’s 1100-page Australian Poetry Since 1788, a new and purportedly comprehensive collection published this month by UNSW Press. The two editors were granted a long and generous audience with Radio National doyen Phillip Adams on October 4. In their introduction, Lehman and Gray write that they “sat down to work on the anthology with a cleared desk and a determination to experience everything published in Australian poetry; or to read it again, since most of it was already known to us …”

Unfortunately, Minter was fairly easily able to demonstrate that much Australian poetry — specially a long list of contemporary indigenous poets — was apparently not known to Lehmann and Gray.

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“Out of that list of almost 50 [Aboriginal] poets I presented, Lehman and Gray have erased almost an entire culture,” he told the symposium. “We don’t see Lionel Forgerty, we don’t see Kevin Glibert, we don’t see Jack Davis, we don’t see Aboriginal female people such as Ruby Langford Ginibi. It’s an extraordinary and quite tragic moment in the history of Australian publishing.”

Australian poetry has, of course never, been a stranger to controversy, from the moment that Max Harris first starting receiving mysterious poetry submissions from a mechanic called Ern Malley. But the current controversy has the advantage of catapulting poetry into the spotlight. What emerges is an art practice in rude health.

Last month, for instance, your Crikey correspondent attended a poetry reading by expatriate Australian poet Jaya Savige in Melbourne bookshop Readings, for the launch of his new collection Surface to Air. It was surprisingly well attended. Poetry is unlikely to pull in the masses in the manner of a blockbuster exhibition of Old Masters, but the growth of poetry reading events attests to the fact that contemporary poetry in Australia is alive and well.

The Readings poetry nights are run by Melbourne poet Luke Beesley. “We have just finished the second year, it started late in 2009, and we will continue it on next year,” Beesley told me. He said audiences have slowly grown as the night has established itself: “The last one which was this week was probably the best turnout [yet]; it’s nice now that’s it got a pretty solid audience.”

Beesley reckons the Australian poetry scene is gaining momentum. “It seems healthy,” he said. “There’s a wide range of different types of poetry that are happening; in terms of the numbers of small presses publishing poets it certainly seems to be in a healthy state. At Readings we’ve had more emerging poets on the bill, and in Melbourne there’s a number of strong new poets coming through.”

One trend that has given poetry a kick-along in recent years has been the growth of poetry festivals, of which the Queensland Poetry Festival in Brisbane is the best-known and best-established. Manager Sarah Gory told Crikey that the audience has grown to more than 3000 for the 2011 festival, across 25 events featuring more than 60 presenting poets.

“My general impression is that it is a really healthy scene, there is a huge amount going on in all states … most states now have a poetry festival,” she said. “Even though mainstream pusblishers might not be publishing, there’s a lot of zines and chapbooks which are really vibrant, and there are more and more slam poetry and open mic events springing up all the time.”

Red Room Company‘s Johanna Featherstone cautiously agrees. The company seeks to promote contemporary Australian poetry to schools and the general public. “We create, promote and publish contemporary Australian poetry in unusual ways with a focus on supporting young, new and emerging writers,” Featherstone told Crikey in an email interview.

Red Room commissions new work and seeks to distribute poetry into new and unexpected places. “A classic Red Room Co project was ‘Toilet Doors’, that commissioned original poems and artworks to be made into posters for display on the back of toilet doors in Qantas domestic terminals and Greater Union cinemas nationally in 2006.” Featherstone jokes the “captive audience” was in the thousands.

“There’s a diversity of voices and lots to choose from, as a reader, performer, publisher or a writer,” she explained. “So if you’re excited by ego-driven slam poetry madness you can compete in that, if you’re more interested in sitting under a tree and composing with the wind, you can do that too. There are no doubt more people who write and like to hear themselves rather than reading or purchasing the work of others, but still there’s a want of people, young and old, to make a poetry a part of the everyday.”

Touching on the Minter-Gray-Lehmann controversy, Featherstone issues a caveat that “what is unhealthy [are] the new anthologies of Australian poetry just released that are conservative and concerning for the poets they leave out”.

Beesley also brought up Minter’s speech: “A lot of people are talking about it … I mean its hard to argue [with Minter] that there is an uncontroversial list of indigenous poets you would expect to be in [the anthology].”

With the National Cultural Policy now examining Australia’s future cultural priorities, there has been much debate about whether the role and funding of the so-called “heritage arts” should be maintained in the new policy framework. But the debate has tended to focus on the performing arts, with little so far being heard from artforms such as literature, despite (or perhaps because of) the relatively small amount of funding it receives.

“There is always competition for audiences and funding amongst art forms,” Featherstone argued. “Always will be.” In any case, she wryly pointed out: “Was there ever a time when Australia was trying to create a literary heritage and pumping funds into it?”

And, with true literary precision, she also asks us: “By the way, when did art form become one word?”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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