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Type
Article
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Culture
Racism
Writing

Judging blind

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.

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

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Peter Kenneally is a librarian, writer and reviewer, and poet. He has appeared in The Australian, Southerly, and Island, among others, as well as in the 2010 Best Australian Poems. In 2005 his suite of poems Memento Mori was selected for the anthology of the Newcastle Poetry Prize, and in 2007 his piece ‘a streetlamp goes out when I walk under it’ was commended in the New Media section of the same prize.

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Comments

  1. What do I, we, you, us, them talk about when we talk about poetry – what difference does it make – is there likely to be a new path to the waterfall any time soon – poetry as verb, actions that transform and continue the world?

  2. quite a broad statement and a fairly flimsy thesis – the white, academic, middle-class etc arbiters of poetry are, in my experience, usually at pains to publish and extoll poetry from so called minority groups

  3. A lot of our poets today come out of creative writing departments at universities, which is a kind of techno-capitalist production line for writing. Our little contemporary poets are all little techno-capitalists, trading not in money but in the currency of the internet, i.e., envy, prestige and identity, and add to that, knowledge, the proliferation of knowledge in a knowledge economy for knowledge’s sake and for the sake of a techno-economic circulation, with a name attached like a brand, as a brand, and all just like good little comfy middle-class techno-capitalists! Today’s Baudelaires are in the comments sections.

  4. Coincidentally, I wrote this poem Last week. It could be, however, that I am not good enough!

    BOOKING YOUR CASE

    Unless you have a Booker in your case,
    success won’t be easy in Australia.
    If it’s the praise and plaudits you chase,
    the chances are you’ll encounter failure.
    Unless you become part of their culture
    and they don’t even know you have done it,
    slowly picking away like a vulture
    you might just find that you have won it.
    Unless you contrive to throw it away
    by committing the cardinal sin,
    be very careful about what you say
    and put your criticism in the bin.
    For only they can mock one another-
    so leave the satire to a blood brother!

  5. What a great article. The overwhelming majority of prize winners and nominees seem to have a degree in creative writing, I noticed that before I went into the program and it was probably my main reason in applying. It’s a difficult thing to call attention to, you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you, but though they may not mean to, those that serve on a committee act as ‘gatekeepers’ of sorts. And when people see a list of prizewinners and nominees, all of a certain background with postgraduate degrees in writing, it deters them from trying to publish and there will likely be less of them applying the next round. There may not be an immediate solution to the problem, but I think it causes the most damage when these issues are not raised or are just dismissed as unfounded.

  6. Great article. Thanks for being brave enough to write it! For anyone that is interested, here is the poem, which has surprising been one of the most popular poems I have ever written! I used to submit to poetry prizes for years and then one day I just stopped cold turkey. It’s is actually really liberating to stop and just focus on your own art. So that’s basically what ends up happening to maginalised voices: they try and they try and they try and then they realise that the problem is not just literature, it’s Australia, the problem is too big, and you can’t fight it, so you give up. It’s like one person is an ocean of white. What’s the point in trying. I save my energy for me. http://koralydimitriadis.com/2014/07/open-letter-to-melbourne-unesco-city-of-literature/

    • Hi Koraly,

      It seems relevant to point out that you have received a significant grant from the Aus. Council. It’s the kind of funding that a lot of people will never receive, and yet they keep writing poems because the art form is important to them, regardless of whether they’re any good at it. Or whether they might receive a ‘prize’.

      As far as poetry goes, you should just write the stuff, I reckon. Let the monkeys who play prize games play prize games.

      I’m probably not responding to Peter’s argument here, but I get tired of the bollocks associated with poetry talk.

      Cam

  7. *typo* one person in an ocean of white! Oh and I stopped subscribing to journals and newsletters from establishments etc. So I’m not constantly bombarded with the way things are.

  8. Hi Cam I am thankful for that funding but none of that money $10,000 was money to pay me as an artist, it was to create short films and other things to promote my arts practice. This argument though has nothing to do with that. It’s about poetry prizes. But you are right, I am focusing on my writing, like I mentioned in my initial response. But at the same time if people are asking why there is a lack of diversity in the arts, especially by women from diverse backgrounds, you don’t have to search very far to find the answer. It’s especially hard for women because a lot of those women aren’t actually permitted or supported to have an artistic career. For example I wanted to study art when I was young but wasn’t allowed to. When I was actually brave enough to start my novel at 26, I had to write in secret. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So you can understand the disheartening frustration to spend 30 years breaking out of your culture and staking your claim to being an artist to then be faced with this massive wall of whiteness and elitism

  9. The crucial point is that this is a structural problem.

    In order to make Australian poetry diverse and tolerant, what needs to happen first is a top-down change. What is needed is an Australia with less white people.

  10. Well, poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, on one reading, so they who don’t win prizes and awards are the birds who never wert, and the judges blithe spirits? Seems to fit. To – wit! To – woooo!

  11. What is needed is a source of money and ‘publishing power’ for the ‘reserved, philosophical, poet from a non-English speaking background, or on a low income’ (and who might be over 30 too). Or for those who don’t believe in ‘identity politics’ or ‘social democracy’ but instead have more of a Marxist view of the world. Or those who dislike ‘shmoozing, brown-nosing and working the room’. Success would then be the best revenge.

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