Online poetry journals

Mascara Literary Review
Eds. Michelle Cahill et al

Eds. Angela Gardner et al

Online literary platforms are, by their very nature, protean. I was reminded of this as I tried, and failed, to access the editorial for the first issue of one of Australia’s first web-based poetry journals. I recall this e-journal’s editor making interesting claims about the exceptionality of the digital format and its advantages over print but, as the unreliable nature of the online medium would have it, the webpage of the editorial is currently – perhaps permanently – unavailable, and I could not cite it for this review. So, if access and availability are not some of the strengths of digital journals, then what are the medium’s advantages? Wouldn’t we better off with physical, papery objects that won’t mysteriously disappear in the virtual ether?

According to the editorial of the first issue of another online journal of Australian poetry, Foam:e, the e-journal could aim to ‘showcase immediate, strong work being produced now and, thanks to the internet, to make it easily accessible’. Since, as I’ve mentioned, the ‘accessibility’ of any online publication is rather questionable, the extent to which electronic journals can claim to ‘showcase immediate, strong work’ could also be questioned. In this review I’d like to provide a brief overview of the work being published in Foam:e and another of Australia’s lasting online poetry journals, Mascara Literary Review. (I have not reviewed Cordite Poetry Review since I am that journal’s reviews editor.)

Foam:e was founded in 2004 and has since published nine annual issues. Its inaugural issue grew out of a now-defunct email discussion group. So it’s a relief to discover that, in the face of the potentially closed, non-inclusive nature of such a genesis, the journal’s first issue presents a fairly broad range of poets. Furthermore, the second issue includes only one of the poets from the first issue, a selection which clearly indicates its editors’ desire for diversity and inclusiveness. But are these poems ‘immediate’ and ‘strong’?

The journal’s seventh issue, edited by Louise Waller, is, to my mind, one of its most successful. Here we have poems that are indeed very immediate and effective: Jill Jones’s sharp ‘Matter’ which kicks off with an instruction, ‘look at the sun’; Stuart Cooke’s terse ‘Worn’, with its ‘scraps of laughter a bit of sex the rest / rented, the sun retreating’; Kent MacCarter’s rapid, dizzying lyricism in ‘Palimpsest of Fruitpicking’; and the inventive, hybrid lexicon of Natalie Knight’s ‘Economics’ poems.

There’s also much in this issue that’s strong and memorable: Stuart Barnes’s moving ‘Octave’, with the faux archaic elegance of lines such as ‘Sisters, brothers. In November gloom / Not one graced the funeral’; the superb rhythm, directness and candour of Alison Easterly’s ‘The Breeze Is Nothing’; and the complex, dark romantic similes of Matt Hetherington’s ‘You Are Like the Sky’. Nathan Shepherdson’s terrifically cryptic, labyrinthine short poems, such as ‘Spider’, are nothing if not potent and immediate:

the spider in the dream
that kills the spider in the dream
that kills him as he sleeps
its web left in his waking mouth

I’m not sure if all issues of Foam:e are quite as successful as this one – issue 8, for example, despite including some of my favourite poets such as Pam Brown and joanne burns as well as the very promising Tim Wright and Corey Wakeling, comes dangerously close to being a rather narrow, exclusivist presentation of an aesthetics or, put less favourably, a ‘scene’, challenging the journal’s earlier illustrations of openness and diversity. But all in all, there’s much to read and enjoy on Foam:e’s electronic pages.

The main online Australian poetry journal committed to inclusion and diversity is Mascara Literary Review. The journal, according to its first editorial, ‘welcomes poems from Australia, Asia and the rest of the world, poems from different ethnicities and cultures that offer new ways of seeing and being’. Its editors continue to remain focused on presenting poets from a very wide variety of nationalities and cultural backgrounds. (Including, yes, more than a few Anglo-Celtic Australians that pre-empt any silly accusation of ‘political correctness.’, ‘reverse racism’, etc.) But, does this approach amount to selections that do in fact offer ‘new ways of seeing’?

One’s immediate impression of much of the poetry published in Mascara’s past eleven issues is that ‘seeing’ is indeed the poetics through which much of the poetry operates. From the very first poem published in the journal’s first issue (Christopher Kelen’s striking translation of a poem by the Song Dynasty poet, Xin Qiji, beginning with: ‘the horses of heaven / float back from the south’) to the last poem of the most recent issue (Cui Yuwie’s ‘Mother’, which starts with: ‘We sat at dusk. / On the pebble walk we saw a child / toddling’), many poems are more or less imagistic pieces that evoke private, public, domestic or exotic settings. Among the journal’s best examples of a precise, modernist visual condensation is Cameron Lowe’s ‘Sunday’, which I’d like to quote in its entirety:

The church cars have gone—
this empty street needs you.
Clouds gather in the west,
bitumen drinks the sun
and everything is slow;
the dog deeply sleeping.
Tomorrow there are bills
to pay, a house to plaster,
but this stillness lingers
in the naked limbs of trees,
on the green and yellow grass.
This empty street needs you—
its sun-drenched gardens,
its music of cars.

The journal does also include a number of more dramatic, discursive pieces, but, interestingly, these are among the less successful works. The poems by Fatima Bhutto, for example, are no doubt of interest to readers fascinated by the blood-soaked tragicomedy of Pakistan’s most famous political dynasty, but I wonder if these pieces would have been accepted had they not been written by a Bhutto. (Although it should be mentioned that they are not nearly as bad as the poem by another politically powerful heiress ‘published’ elsewhere.) Thankfully, in the same issue of Mascara, we have many great poems, including Jenny Lewis’s luminous depiction of a banyan tree, ‘Maker’, a poem with a truly sublime ending:

the bark’s twisted textures
are ropes going into the earth

resting before the spring burst
of growth, green after green

reaching for the sky with its
shattering light.

What is as clear as the image of the banyan in this poem is that both Mascara and Foam:e have provided, and continue to provide, as important an outlet for exciting new poetry as print publications. (Foam:e includes reviews and interviews as well, and Mascara publishes, in addition to these, essays and short fiction.) And while I may disagree with some of the decisions made by the editors of these journals, and despite being a proud Luddite who refuses to have anything to do with an e-reader, there is no doubt in my mind that Australia’s literary landscape is a much richer, vaster place thanks to these committed electronic publications.

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  1. It’s good to read a review of online poetry journals, two that I have read from time, and wondered what a more critical eye than mine would make of them. Thanks for that.

    I would want to question though whether not being able to access one editorial of an early web journal makes online journal material somewhat inaccessible and difficult to retrieve. The opposite has been the case for me compared with poetry journals not in my immediate possession.

    On the subject of e-readers and a comment I made on a previous post after the enthusiasm of an initial flirtation with a borrowed kindle, I must confess I too have arrived at the Luddite lock-up.

  2. Ali, I think a full appreciation of the ‘orefulness’ of the Rinehart poem you allude to can only be arrived at by seeing how it was ‘published’ upon a huge lump of rock:

    Seriously, that picture does raise the issue of the dance between words and illustration that is possible on the web. Everyone her own compositor, if not artist.

  3. Hi dear Dr. Ali Alizadeh,
    How are you? I really enjoy your interesting review. I just wonder about the short poems written by Nathan Shepherdson. I have a research-paper on his poetry and I tried my best to be in contact with him but failed. Please, could you support me in finding a way for getting these poems? Thanks with best wishes.
    Dr. Muslim Abbas Al-Ta’an
    Faculty of Languages and Translation
    KUFA UNI, Najaf, Iraq

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