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Finally – Gil Scott Heron is on Parole

'Gil Scott Heron is on Parole'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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Koraly is a widely published Cypriot-Australian writer and performer. She is the author of the controversial Love and F**k Poems. Koraly received an Australia Council ArtStart grant. She presents on 3CR radio and has a residency at Brunswick Street Bookstore. Her 2013 La Mama show is Exonerating The Body. She is mentored by Christos Tsiolkas.

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  1. I received my copy from Picaro last week, the rebellious red cover burned my hand as I pulled it out of the envelope. Maxine’s is the fresh voice poetry has been calling for, the steel drum rhythm of her words beats directly into your chest.

    It is without exaggeration that I write that every poem in this collection is brilliant and anyone who doesn’t own a copy is not, nor ever will be (until they own a copy), a poet.

  2. Thanks Mark – you’re writing my next Blurb for sure!

    Pi.O’s statement about Art and Economics is an interesting one. I often joke that I became a lawyer to finance my poetry, but in a lot of ways it’s true. I am able to write the kind of politically charged things I do because nobody’s name or logo needs to go in front of the book except my own – nobody else’s purse paid for the hours it took for me to write what I did. The separation of Art and Economics does afford writers like me an immense amount of freedom.

    Of course, I’m lucky I have a wonderful publisher who’s not bothered by any potential backlash. I guess self-publishing and adequate marketing would offer a way out too though.

    Lately, I’ve started to question whether writers being paid to sit at home and write with strings-attached government money is a good thing. Oh, there’s the stereotype of the reclusive, socially retarded writer, but in reality, I would be a worse writer were I not also a dedicated mother, worker, volunteer etc etc as well.

    I’m interested to hear other views on this.

    Many thanks for the review Koraly. It was an amazing evening for me, and I was teary-eyed at Jeff & Pi.O’s speeches.

  3. When I became a mother, that’s when I decided to pursue my writing seriously and I don’t think I would have done it if I didn’t become a mother. I don’t know why – maybe it’s because my time was instantly reduced, and I felt like it was a now or never scenario – follow my dreams or forget them. It does put pressure on family finances though, especially since I’m also studying. An arts grants would be so GOOD, I’m not sure how if would affect my writing though. Are you expected to write in a certain way, or be monitored if you have an arts grant?

    Pi.O’s comments were interesting, and in theory, liberating. Even if someone told me I could never make money from writing(which I probably can’t) I’d probably still do it. But at the end of the day, I still want to be published, to get my work out there, and self-publishing isn’t really respected these days. I hope to find a publisher that accepts my work for what it is(just as you have, Maxine – congrats!)

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