In March this year Canadian poet Colin Fulton published a list detailing the prevailing whiteness of the judges and winners of the major Canadian poetry prizes over the past 20 years or so. Predictably enough almost every judge and winner was white. As Fulton says: ‘The list first and foremost articulates a game called “white people giving other white people money,” sometimes called “the Canadian poetry prize,” which is undeniably a benchmark of the production of literary value and career-building.’
A brief and unscientific survey of prizes in Australia had equally unsurprising results. From the Premier’s Awards in Victoria and New South Wales to the Newcastle Poetry Prize to the Josephine Ulrich or the Anne Elder Awards, among others, my list mirrors Fulton’s. Needless to say this is not a consciously racist exclusion, but a structural problem in Australian letters. Samuel Wagan Watson and Ali Cobby Eckermann, both Indigenous poets, won the NSW Book of the Year and the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize, in 2005 and 2013 respectively. But in the awards I looked at they seem to be the only exceptions, especially of high profile poets who identify as non-white. That is only two out of a possible 120. As for the judges, it may be close to a clean sweep – after all you are hardly going to be called on as a judge unless you have won an award or two yourself.
It is not just a matter of ‘white over black’ as Fulton tends to stress. The judges and winners are solidly Anglo-Celtic with a few minor variations. It is also notable that they are nearly all creatures of the academic world at some level as are poets of the award-eligible class in Australia generally. Take for example the recent Turnrow Anthology of Australian poetry edited by John Kinsella: 60% of the poets included are PhD holders or candidates. At this level of Australian poetry the air is rarefied. However inclusive and liberal its inhabitants’ attitudes are, those who are not middle-class intellectuals with an academic bent will struggle for breath.
Once a poet reaches the high valleys, there are some encouraging signs. Gender is not an issue, nor is sexuality, and nor even is race, as far as that is possible: the work is judged on its merits. Indigenous poets such as Eckermann, Watson, Anita Heiss or Natalie Harkin tease out and confront issues of dispossession and culture with force and intellectual rigour. There is no tokenism at work, even if the numbers make it seem so, but as Harkin has said:
Indigenous writers in Australia are often on the margins despite their awards and international acclaim and, sadly, Australians are ignorant of the depth, intellect, sophistication and scope of Indigenous literature in this country.
This would certainly be true for someone like Lionel Fogarty, whose unruly kind of sophistication is not of a kind easily assimilated into the major poetry awards’ vision. Fortunately there are no shortage of awards for Indigenous writers, emerging or otherwise, and these play a great part in enabling such poets to develop their work in whatever direction it takes them, possibly even to the Shangri-La of national, ‘universal’ poetry awards.
Alan Wearne has said that poetry ‘can and indeed must be both elitist and democratic’ and these kinds of awards encourage this. The matrix of exclusion is a subtle one though, and many poets feel neither the democratic inclusion nor the elitist one, in print at any rate. There is no real allowance made for class or (external) culture of origin, and many feel doubly excluded on this basis. Almost totally absent from the winners list as well are migrant, working class, marginalised writers. Many feel that what they are told is: you can start off marginalised, that’s fine, but you have to actually get into the room where the cheese and nibbles are to be eligible, and get rid of that chip on your shoulder too, unless you happen to be Les Murray.
This can end up sounding like sour grapes. However, while writing this I found a poem written in some anger by a poet of Greek background, Koraly Dimitriadis, detailing her disgust with the entire Melbourne literary establishment as racist and exclusionary. What was notable was the strength of feeling of agreement among commentators of similar migrant backgrounds. There is a world of hurt out there around this issue. It takes an exhausting degree of energy and force of character for a working class, and/or migrant poet to make themselves felt: almost as much as it takes to become middle class. Think of Jas H. Duke, Pi O, Geoff Goodfellow, Komminos – barely a prize among them, but democratic to the hilt.
The poetry of books and prizes may be elitist but it is, at the moment, in Australia, anything but hidebound. Rather, it is fabulously various, and able to convey almost any shade of experience and meaning within its orbit. The slam milieu is fabulously expressive and inclusive on nearly all levels, except for the reserved, the inarticulate, the quiet and those who can’t sum life up in a soundbite. These categories are fine really, for all the bluster between them. It is the cracks between them that catch people. The message from the establishment though is if you are a reserved, philosophical, poet from a non-English speaking background, or on a low income, you may as well give up now.