Looking out the window of a tram, I saw a girl sitting on the front steps of a block of grey-brick units. She looked about thirteen and was crying with abandon. Her face was red and she had what might have been blue ink smudged across her arms and cheeks. I don’t know her situation, but when I consider the mainstream – this thing we can seemingly only speak of with authority by proving to not be among its ranks – I will consider this girl and her place in it.
Australian Poetry (AP) is a new organisation. That a national poetry body now exists is testament to the energy and sacrifice of poets and poetry groups both that have come before and that continue to prosper. To claim part of a lineage, a poetry organisation must surely be driven by an inherited principle, one that shouldn’t go unsaid: that a life with poetry, with everything that brings, is a better life. I find strength in this idea and am unashamed of a desire to bring poetry – that is, to give the opportunity for an enriched life – to as great a number of people as possible.
Transmuting an ideal into reality requires more than wilful ambition and, though it’s less than a year old, AP is learning through experience. Strategies to make larger the potential audience for poetry (and this is how I would interpret the organisation’s concession to ‘bringing poetry into the mainstream’) are to be seen in many of its operations.
AP’s website is important in that it draws attention to poets and poetry. A Google search for ‘Australian poetry’ lists the site as the highest ranked result, a signal that there is a clear interest in it. The site maintains a national calendar of events: readings, book launches, workshops, slams, festivals – all with a view to casting light on the activities organised by poets and their audiences, much of which might be invisible to those without an in to a poetry community. The AP website will continue to grow as a first point of reference, as a soft landing place for those who want to contribute to Australia’s poetic life.
One of the site’s featured projects is the Cafe Poet Program, an AP endeavour to broker constructive relationships between writers and their local community. It’s an unfussy transaction: the poet is provided with a dedicated space to create, with free coffee and tea; the cafe is able to participate in a creative process, and is encouraged to stage events with their adopted scribe. Having placed poets in residences in every state and territory, this program is already garnering regular media and public attention which will continue in parallel to the expanding map of partnerships.
Such programs are intended to provide more chances for poetry and for the introduction of a new and thoughtful audience. The organisation’s education program sends poets into schools to influence what may become lifelong opinions; its Lines events pair musicians with spoken poetry, each challenging the other to show its strength; and its iPhone app is an accessible and growing registry of poets and publishers. In a collaboration with Life Without Barriers, AP will also have poets working with asylum seeker children and kids in out-of-home care to produce the participants’ stories, adding a poetic voice to the rowdy public conversation on social issues. AP does not seek to impose itself on the activities of poets, just as it does not aspire to conscript by force an unwilling majority audience. Through events, programs and publicity, it aims only to support mechanisms of mutual benefit and appreciation.
In discussions about bringing poetry into the mainstream, an inverse relationship is often declared (but more often assumed) between the quality of work and the scale (and therefore the implied demographic composition) of its audience: that appealing to a larger crowd must be contingent on the corruption and conceptual dilution of the form. This view thinks very little of the potential of our current humanity, on its desire and capacity to be enriched. It is a view to which I confidently assume AP’s members and associates refuse to acquiesce. Positivity is a demonstrably powerful agent, and poets should rightly claim an above-average possession of optimism as they continue to write, speak, read and revel in a form that offers so little in the way of material security or guarantees. It is an optimism that any arts body should share, advocate and cherish. I see AP persisting in the belief that it is the pursuit and promotion of poetry at its best that might allow its words to fall on a greater number and variety of eyes and ears.
Simultaneously, there are forms of poetry that in their creation and digestion may not benefit from amplified exposure; there is a concentration of thought, of method, that may only be possible in situations of bastioned deliberation. There is the potential for such tremendous freedom for art conceived for the company only of a limited circle or just its creator. Those who do not share a desire to address a wider audience must be judiciously acknowledged and supported. It would surely be a shame, then, and not a contradiction, that works of excellence produced in these environments were not allowed to find those who would love them – if only by the motions of time and critical permeation.
A common cry is that of poetry not being liked – that lingering presumptions of its stuffiness and pretentiousness sour a potential enthusiast. An unversed audience, it goes, considers poetry dry and unappealing. In this, I worry and suspect that poetry thinks too much of itself. The scarier reality may be that it is for the most part simply not considered at all. In our common time and place, how often is a person given reason to form any opinion on the subject of poetry?
I think of that girl, the one I saw slumped on steps below a closed front door, flushed and bawling for reasons known maybe only to her. In her regular clothes and regular situation, is she this mainstream we’re talking about? The girl may need real help in her life, she may not, but she will not be worse off for knowing there are powerful ways to challenge and express herself, ways to understand the world. Poetry will make her life some way better, and that seems to be a reasonable aspiration.
AP should attempt to bring the art form into the mainstream so it is given its fair and fighting chance. Great poetry should be supported both in its writing and in its transmission. Let’s give it the prospect of a full life – to be cheered and rejected, to fail and be loved, to know its home and see the world.
Robert Lukins lives in Melbourne, is the general manager of Australian Poetry and is working on a novel. His writing on arts and culture can be found in his regular contributions to Inpress, Broadsheet, themenstruum.blogspot.com, Crikey, and The Big Issue.
© Robert Lukins
Overland 205-summer 2011, p. 64–66
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