Less than a fortnight ago in a small bookshop in Carlton, a small tidal wave crashed into the face of the current Australian literary landscape when Maxine Beneba Clarke’s first major poetry collection, Gil Scott Heron is on Parole, was launched. I don’t usually drag myself out of hiding for a book launch these days – they all seem repetitive, monotonous, same old, just like Australian literature.
What a refreshing change it was to attend this launch.
Overland editor and writer Jeff Sparrow opened the formalities of the night. Jeff has played an integral role in promoting Maxine’s poetry by allowing her to post it on the Overland blog. To me, Jeff is a pioneer in promoting challenging and too often ignored writers. Politics was on his mind at the launch and he spoke of its importance to Australian literature, where current issues of the modern world seem almost ignored by Australian writers.
He emphasised this using the example of climate change; he could count the number of writers on his hand that were writing about climate change, an issue of cataclysmic proportions. I found myself pondering on this: why don’t we write about it? Is it because we feel we’re not informed enough to write about such topics?
But isn’t that our job as writers; to not only tell our stories, but also to write about our world’s truths? To keep informed so we can raise our voices against injustice? This is what makes Maxine’s raw, in-your-face poetry stand out – she talks politics, she talks truths, and she doesn’t sugar-coat it either.
However, it was the speech delivered by Melbourne poet TT.O that still resonates. It was well-articulated, punchy, unapologetic. He spoke of the Australian literary space being almost afraid to publish anything different to what it already publishes. He spoke of full stops, and semicolons, and how writing courses teach us to write in the same repetitive way, almost disengaging us from our creativity and the English language.
The English language should not be seen as static, but fluid and evolving. But in an industry that demands mainstream writing, how are writers supposed to get published? A conversation with TT.O later clarified this: stay true to your art, and keep your economics and your art separate – if you don’t need money then you don’t need them.
But maybe this is why writers steer away from controversial politics, because they are afraid of not being published. TT.O mentioned something about how readers want to sit in bed with their books and turn pages of silence; that people don’t want to hear the truth. But maybe that’s because they are accustomed to not hearing it.
Maxine treated her captivated audience with a range of her poems including one of my favourites, open letter to the president. A great aspect of Maxine’s poetry is you never really know what you’re getting: she could make you laugh, challenge you, inspire you. You’re guaranteed to be moved, something inside will shift in some small way. And isn’t that what we all want to achieve as writers? To subtly question and influence our reader’s views and opinions? This is something Maxine’s poetry does successfully.
At the end of the night, Maxine mentioned that her ‘ten years in the making’ poetry collection is the first poetry collection of a West Indian-Australian writer to be published by an Australian publisher. Jeff and TT.O may have been talking of the gloom of Australian publishing, but I did leave that small bookshop in Carlton enlightened, believing that a small step had been taken in the right direction for Australian literature.