Published 21 April 20232 May 2023 · Poetry / Friday Features Poetry can already be free Ender Başkan Elese Dowden has written this review about Gareth Morgan’s When a Punk Becomes Spunk and it begins with the revelation that she was left fucked up ‘for some time’by a line in Morgan’s review of The Open by Lucy Van. This is a response to the review and to the book. I continue the discussion, no one has a final say. A review shouldn’t presume to enclose a work, deliver a verdict. Dowden labels the book ‘an honest, open work’. In response she produces a review that glows, a writer marveling at a friend’s work, risking the parochial to generate impassioned insight. So let’s go on, openly. Lines in Dowden’s review fucked me up too, several ideas made me stop to ponder their implications. Implications here as holes punched into fields of thought that I felt compelled to rush into, or that I was sucked into, all to do with possible horizons of politics and poetics in so-called Australia. I say politics and poetics, since I want to say that every poem is political. Gareth Morgan’s book rocks / a boat, what’s the boat? * Sometimes people talk to one another, poets talk to one another, texts talk to one another… Imagining myself as part of a community where we can write and talk openly about one another’s work, I write this review. It can feel difficult because—at least for me—part of being a poet in Australia today is being cordial and careful. You are navigating risk, you don’t want to piss your colleagues off, you want to build links, be positive because the scene is small and there are finite organs to publish in or perform with, limited funding. Which is to say that robust debate requires the safety of density—or tenure—a density we might often lack. So we come together in one form or another, say on Overland or with Sick Leave, to create density while risking insularity. At the same time, given our conditions, this insularity might drive a mechanism that generates more robust discussion. Which is an invite for you to challenge my review. (Full disclosure: Gareth Morgan is a co-director of Sick leave. I have performed poems at a Sick Leave event alongside Elese Dowden. I have liked many of their Instagram posts.) * This is the line by Gareth Morgan that fucked Dowden up: [Van writes] ‘against the impulse to ponder dutifully about the sins of the past and present.’ * A poet who I admire says to me that the first few poems they read in a local publication are competent and fine and … a little boring. I take this comment as a challenge of sorts, to seek out work that busts out of this boredom, this conformity, complicity(?), be it unpublished or small-press or big time. * In When a Punk Becomes a Spunk’s first poem, ‘the mystic english face’, Morgan’s writes a hunky punk reminded the english of evil once an idea lost to wind on its stone, or charmed by time into sweet nothing Evil, Morgan is saying, used to be easier to locate. Now it’s everywhere. Where might good exist in neo-liberal Australia? And more to the point here, where might evil exist within neo-colonial Australia? There is a dark settler past here being repressed and the growing calls for truth-telling require action from all quarters, including poets of all stripes, Indigenous and Non-Indigenous. Dowden writes, Morgan both demonstrates and subverts the banality of evil through play, asking us to take a second look at normative western culture. A poet can play while subverting the banality of evil, a poet can play and we can be moved to see things differently and maybe to act. * In ‘morning after visiting the rock n roll nightclub’Morgan makes it slap, do what you love (in the australian armed forces) the bus stop says Logging onto defencejobs.gov.au to learn more about the campaign, I ponder the line, ‘Tell us what you love to do, and we’ll show you how to do it in a rewarding role in the Navy, Army or Air Force.’ Visitors to the website are encouraged to tick up to three tiles with options like ‘travel and see the world’, ‘help communities in need’ and ‘play a variety of sports.’ Each tile has a background image. One of the tiles states ‘learn how things work’, and there’s a photo of man showing a woman how to deploy a rocket launcher. The campaign is clearly aimed at recruiting women. There are fourteen women pictured and it appears all but one are white. At the past federal election, it was said that ‘the coalition has a women problem … they’re leaving the party in droves.’ These images wash over and into us, at the bus stop and elsewhere. If we are white, or will assimilate, we can comply without qualms and get paid (well) to play netball and shoot rocket launchers and defend the body politic in the most overt sense possible. Still, even to those who won’t join the ADF, the signal here is that complicity delivers happiness. Uncle Sam needs you! to get fit, hot, creative and make friends in the armed forces. * My friend’s dad—an Associate Professor—has been wanting my friend to do a PhD for years. ‘It’ll be good for you, I just want you to be happy …’ ‘That’s the last thing I should be!’, my friend replies. He is now applying for a PhD. * An old band photo of a former colleague, now early fifties and bald, shocks us. He’s maybe 25 in it, long hair, flannel shirt, full grunge vibe. We didn’t know he played the third stage at the Reading Festival, fronted the band and played bass. My friend also fronts a band, is balding. ‘That’s so fucken scary,’ my friend says to me. ‘He looks like me, I could be him in twenty years.’ Which is reason to do the PhD, or not, I’m unsure and so is he. * In the title poem, ‘when a punk becomes a spunk’, we are presented with every day, biting images of the folly of upward mobility, i’m true post rock n roll eating yoghurt at the fridge trying to live forever… it’s like i just turned seventy or settled down in some other way started going for little jogs daily this way i’m looking up at the stars admiring effort, period what common people do There’s something ominous about settled down, here and elsewhere. When we are settlers, we all seem bound to succumb to settling down, at some point. The settling is structured into the socio-economic system. Australia is being settled every day. Can anyone who has settled down play a part in unsettling Australia? * Dowden writes, The basic idea is that if we constantly declare our intentions rather than legitimately finding new tools, no one will notice the maintenance of the status quo or the ghosts of colonies past. The master’s tools are sanitised by an empty neo-liberal poetics, which flattens everything and promises nothing. * A friend applies for a managerial job they didn’t really want but had been encouraged to apply for. They confess to me that they used the AI app ChatGPT to write their application and touched it up a bit with QuillGPT to smooth out the grammar. ‘Your application was amazing!’, their new boss says to them. They get the job. * There’s a regime of logic that we can call Australia, that we can say on many fronts is also a fiction. Any poem that meets Australia within its logic, taking it at face value, will be boring and it might be competent. If you use an AI app, it will definitely be competent AND boring materially, but conceptually it’ll be amazing, in that it met evil (management speak/the invisible hand/terra nullius) with cunning, with another kind evil—amoral, not immoral. * Are we beyond good and evil? Should we stop trying to meet evil with good? Stop eating yoghurt at the fridge? Drink Bloody Marys instead? * Dowden refers to Gareth Morgan’s ‘genius’ in the review and I’ll quote the section at length below, but first it must be said that the invocation of ‘genius’ here, though self-aware, is a smoke bomb that serves to mythologise the poet and obscure the analysis. If you’re going to say it, you’ve got to back it, so rather than swat this away, let’s stay with it and step to Gertrude Stein’s notion of genius as insistence. For Stein there is no repetition, only insistence and that’s what makes a poet’s work distinctly theirs and not the ponderings of an AI bot. Certainly Morgan’s is an insistent poetics. We could also call on Marjorie Perloff’s theory of unoriginal genius here, see Morgan as a collector, deploying his own AI algorithm at will, telling you what you didn’t know you wanted to hear, instead of dredging google servers he’s roaming Williamstown, he’s at a Greenday musical, he’s describing the footy, he’s in ACCA, he’s alive to the fingertips, it’s the poet’s labour finding readymades in abundance in the colony. * Here’s Dowden on Morgan’s genius, ‘Secret secret history’ holds in tender tension the soft beer-gut underbelly of the familiar with an almost Nietzschean larrikinism, cloaking stick-in-the-mud neo-colonial defiances inherited from war, migration, and capitalism. This poem asks us to accept our fates and shake loose their tragedy in order to transform. It’s fond and oddly profound, not only because it consists of seven straight pages of mashed-up concepts, centred in lower-case Times New Roman without a single line break. It sounds boring and insane, and it should be. But this is part of Gareth’s genius (yes, I said it). He curates delight in the mundane. Or perhaps we’re just delighting in the vividness of his perspective? The authenticity of this delight lies in the poet’s reach, which exceeds mimesis. In his rigorously absurd poetics, Morgan both critiques and reclaims a radical larrikinism to challenge current trends in Australian political marketing, particularly ‘the politics of recognition’. * Morgan’s poetics are absurd and his poems often appear beguilingly amoral. He’s a larrikin in the sense that the Australian imaginary acknowledges few other anti-authority figures who deploy humour and make mischief of good manners. Where once a larrikin was a lout or hoodlum, a working-class hell raiser, crucially either male or female, today the term has conservative, patriarchal vibrations, more aligned with shock-jocks, cricketers behaving badly and the political right. Remember, only a white person or someone performing as a white person can be a larrikin. Nick Kyrgios cannot, Lidia Thorpe cannot. Dawn Fraser, golden girl swimmer, was once a larrikin. Now she tells Kyrgios to go back to where he came from. * As poets and writers how are we signalling our complicity and compliance in this regime of logic with our poems? Why did John Ashbery lower his head to receive a medal from Barack Obama and what did that mean for John Forbes’poem about the Americans? Is there a left poetics in here somewhere to rally the darker elements of the psyche? Are we reclaiming the larrikin? Expanding the larrikin? What is the potential of Morgan’s larrikinism? Can we even call it radical, as Dowden has? I don’t think we can, yet. While Morgan’s poems playfully expose aspects of colonisation and complicity with a dark humour, hinting at an emergent discourse that exceeds a stifled morality, they retain, in Dowden’s estimation, an apprehension towards political action which signals a limit or boundary to be overcome. It recalls a friend of mine who couldn’t bring himself to raise his fist in campaign photos for his union. ‘I agree with all our principles and causes,’ he confessed to me, ‘I just can’t bring myself to do it, it’s just a matter of differing aesthetics.’ * Diane di Prima says, ‘The requirements of our life is the form of our art.’ * From Morgan’s ‘punk poem’: bardcore marjorie perloff why not and why The critic Marjorie Perloff, champion of poetry from the edges of (American) literature, in particular the conceptual and concrete, devotes the final chapter of ‘Unoriginal Genius’ to Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic (2007). (See above, my comments on AI bots.) Under the dome at the SLV I stopped by the Australian Poetry shelves and amidst the Murrays and Harwoods I saw a rare, almost mythic book I had never seen before, here or elsewhere, 24 Hours by TT.O. Agog, I slide it out, take it to a desk along with another book. The back cover has a hand-drawn squiggly barcode. I flick through it, 740 pages, TT.O. records a post-Joycean day in Fitzroy and surrounds, wandering the streets and cafes, always looking, antennae perked, writing in dialect, maximally in the vivid, grimy, beautiful world. * The poet Lionel Fogarty said to my friend, ‘TT.O. is the only other Australian, besides me, to have conquered the English language.’ What interests me in this statement is not the who but the thought of an Australian conquering something English. In his latest book, Harvest Lingo, Fogarty remarks: ‘English is a great tool to be used. It’s not that I’m in love with English, I just know that it can be used as a tool.’ He is saying we shouldn’t take English too seriously. We should mess it up. * Elese Dowden asks, ‘How do we ponder in a way tha’t more … metal?’ * Maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but I connect TT.O.’s bridge in 24 Hours (‘Crossing the Bridge / ,,,,,,,,,,,,,,i see a Duck take-off / along the river………’—is this Princes Bridge?) with the West Gate that lurks within Morgan’s book, until its presence looming over Williamstown emerges in the penultimate poem, ‘vagabonding’. Bridges as transgression of spatial limits, bridges as grand gestures of mobility, symbols of class mobility. TT.O. sees/admires the duck taking off from below. Morgan says: ‘i love the underside of bridges.’ * Bardcore, a musical microgenre and source of memes, refers to GenZ’s fondness for the bleak sensibility of the medieval period, its existential angst. What do our own bleak times lack and require? Medieval times were marked by darkness, chaos and social rigidity. People weren’t easily able to travel or meet people from other social classes. Today, inequality rising, discourse increasingly stiff, war and ecological catastrophe beckon. * Morgan in ‘road runner’ …and now i walk home thru seddon budgerigars convening on the lemon tree i told you about, lilly pillies gone now out of season and how he said tiredly the union was too full of infighting which i ‘got’but were we that scared of dialogue and did we all just wanna be moles in the ground which was plainly, after all, not ours? * We’re scared of dialogue. * We’re not scared of dialogue, we’re scared of losing our privileges. Dialogue is accruing, as capital, and being corralled and captured online. We’re increasingly atomised, isolated and fearful, so the dialogue loses its potency, its insistence. We play it safe. AI is catching up not simply because it’s getting cleverer but because, in conjunction with our digital serfdom, we’re becoming more predictable. * During medieval times bards or jesters were among the few people who could speak the truth and keep their head. They were usually employed by monarchs or chiefs as entertainers within their court but would also travel and perform for peasants. They had a crucial role in bringing the news, making comment, traversing place and class, crossing bridges … The bard/jester/poet figure here fits within the trickster archetype eminent in folklore across many traditional cultures. Representing the overthrow of progress, the trickster is witty, a breaker of rules, the god of the threshold, they continue to play tricks on us, always evasive, transgressing, blowing up existing ideas, amoral not immoral, existing within all of us, in our psyche, the earliest stage of ego development. * The ego development of a nation … * Dowden writes, you can’t help but notice the poet’s eye for curio, his ear for conversation: the poet kneads these sensitivities juicily with the hard problems to kick-start trauma integration, in the hope that we might get up instead of sitting in the room on fire telling ourselves, ‘this is fine.’ * After reading Morgan’s poem ‘secret secret history of the 60s’, I think of the preface to David Graeber’s book Pirate Enlightenment, where he writes (as a child of the 60s): I still recall as a child being very impressed by an interview with the Sufi writer Idries Shah, who remarked how curious it was that so many intelligent and decent human beings in Europe and America spent so much of their time in protest marches chanting the names and waving pictures of people they hated … Didn’t they realize, he remarked, how incredibly gratifying that was to the politicians they were denouncing? It was remarks like that, I think. that eventually caused me to reject a politics of protest and embrace one of direct action. Graeber says: ‘In a way, anarchism is about acting as if you were already free.’ * John Ashbery was not an anarchist but I read recently that he helped relax Australian Poetry. I thought that was funny. * In Dowden’s review, she writes of the decline of the politics of protest in favour of a politics of recognition. Morgan, too, she writes, is ‘wary of those who doth protest too loudly.’ There’s a horizon here which, to me, begs for a politics of direct action, for a vision or acknowledgment of poetics as a practice of direct action—going beyond protest. It’s easy to concede or be wary that poetry or poems can’t do that much. In poetry, can we act as if we are already free? Can we act as if we have nothing to lose? We seem to be writing poems as if we have a lot to lose, individually, as if we aren’t free. I don’t think Gareth Morgan does and that’s why I read his poems. * Being free doesn’t mean having no responsibilities, no relations, it means more, but each relation takes on less gravity, more ease. Freeing us up, freeing up discourse. * When a Punk Becomes a Spunk doesn’t moralise. It’s metal. It invites us to do something, which is act, challenge the status quo, see the possibilities inscribed in the present. * What does the dim commercial prospects of poetry make (im)possible? When we make zines, launch small presses, have poetry readings and discuss poems, we practice poetry, make relations, collectively organise. In our grim moment, what does this make possible? When we take a walk under a bridge, gaze at a lemon tree, sit in a bus shelter, see something as spectacular and mundane as a cloud or a sunset, what can we affirm? * In the Kulin nation, where I’m writing this, there are two moiety ancestors, Waang the crow and Bunjil the eaglehawk. At my child’s daycare centre they learn about Bunjil but not Waang. Elsewhere I note that Bunjil, who is more sombre, gets more recognition than Waang the trickster. These ancestors work in tandem, yet the darker element, the trickster, appears to be repressed from our view. * I come from a migrant family. Many of my heroes in Australian poetry are migrants: TT.O., Ania Walwicz, Ouyang Yu … I am attracted to their staunchness, their inimitable style, their voice. They don’t give a fuck, they go for it. There is no conformity, no fear in their poems. They are able to critique this nation, this system with fire, cheek and perceptiveness. They aren’t begging their way into a burning room. The trickster element is strong in all of them. They have each picked up awards and been able to smuggle themselves into the annals even though they’ve been marginalised, understood as outsiders. We understand Indigenous poets in a similar way, there’s acknowledgment that truth-telling needs to take place, they are sometimes platformed. Poets of all walks of the continent are required in the discourse. * Thomas H Ford and Justin Clemens have written a book on Barron Field, author of the first poems published in Australia and the judge who paved the way for terra nullius. Poetry has had a serious role in the colonisation of Australia, they contend. Poetry still has a role in the colonisation of Australia. Poetry continues in Australia. Colonisation continues in Australia. Poetry has a role in the decolonisation of Australia. Decolonisation has a role in poetry. What poets and readers have is poetry and it can blow minds, move bodies. It’s an engine of community and that is potent. I find it depressing when people, poets especially, downplay its potential to shake the status quo. That reflects more on the belief that we’re powerless to change things rather than on poetry itself. * What is radical larrikinism? And can it help us? * I also picked up The New Australian Poetry (1979) at the SLV. Editor John Tranter argues that the generation of ‘68—represented by the twenty-four anthologised, poets including Forbes, Hemmensley, Adamson, Johnston and Duggan—had the ‘commitment to the overhauling of poetic method and function that seems to become necessary from time to time in any culture.’ They changed Australian Poetry (did they change Australia?) and he claims that three main factors made this possible. Demographic: the baby boom and post-war mood of the 60s. Technological, as new printing technologies made production cheaper and more democratic. Magazines and small presses proliferated. Most importantly, American poetry. American poetry made its way to Australia in the form of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960) and Donald Hall’s Contemporary American Poetry (1962). In other words, Tranter is saying, John Ashbery and his friends really helped relax Australian poetry. * Today or tomorrow it will not be an Englishman or an American who will liberate us. Must Australian poetry be liberated right now? Are we in a process of liberation? * I work in a bookshop and the Australian poetry shelves are expanding, there’s a buzz, are they beginning to brim with difference yet? There’s a link I’m trying to make with the process of truth-telling regarding colonisation and poetry as a relevant, important technology. * I will say that the publication of books like When a Punk Becomes a Spunk help free-up and enliven Australian poetry. I’ve been reading poems by Shastra Deo, Charmaine Papertalk Green, Lionel Fogarty, Adam Aitken, Elena Gomez, Lucy Van and Abbra Kotlarczyk, feeling buoyed. Poetry can be free. You can join in. Image: Flickr Ender Başkan Ender Başkan lives and works in Narrm/Melbourne, Australia. He is a poet, bookseller and co-founder of Vre Books press. His book A Portrait of Alice as a Young Man was published in 2019. He is the winner of the 2021 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize. More by Ender Başkan 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. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 19 May 202323 May 2023 · Culture Long Furby memory hole Dan Hogan The year is 1998 and a spectre is haunting capitalism from ages six and up—the spectre of virtual and robotic kin. All the powers of the capitalist class have entered an unholy alliance to exploit this spectre: Tyco, Hasbro, and Mattel, or: Tickle Me Elmo, Furby, and Tamagotchi. First published in Overland Issue 228 15 May 202326 May 2023 · Poetry Poetry | Two poems by Ouyang Yu Ouyang Yu You have to do it badly. If it is poetry, even more so, because there is no because. If you write like you were the best in the world, you are the worst because you pretend too hard. Too harsh, too. Why do you want to be the best? Is that because you are a lack or there is a lack in you that you feel like filling up all the time? Even when you are named the best, does that mean anything?