Roundtable 222
Type
Essay
Category
Culture
Racism
Writing

Four perspectives on race & racism in Australian poetry

In March last year, when Black Lives Matter was becoming a burning movement, conceptual poet and theorist Kenneth Goldsmith read ‘The Body of Michael Brown’, a ‘remixing’ of Brown’s autopsy report; Brown, an eighteen-year-old Black man, had been murdered by a white police officer six months earlier. The performance struck many, in the United States and beyond, as racist. An outpouring of outrage – and from some corners support, such as from poetry scholar Marjorie Perloff – followed. With its emphasis on the materiality of language and the text, conceptual poetry is no stranger to controversy, but these events have sparked broader, more public discussions about race and racism in poetics.

At Overland, we started to wonder why the topic isn’t given more prominence in Australian literature (outside of publications such as Mascara and Peril) – after all, poetry is a form that attracts writers of colour, be it spoken word or on the page. Yet poetry is frequently sidelined, overlooked by prizes, publishers and other writers. But if these are radical diverse spaces where writers of colour feel represented, where experimentation is cultivated and new literatures are invented, then shouldn’t we be paying attention?

We invited four Australian poets to reflect on race in the world today and, specifically, on the ways that racism manifests in the intellectual and literary fields, particularly in poetry, where thought and representation are crystallised and magnified.

 

AJ Carruthers – poet, academic, publisher

Racism and conventional verse culture in Australian Poetry

It’s important, I think, to radically decentre the strenuous aesthetic, poethical and political contests around conceptual writing that are occurring now. We must recognise that this is a transnational issue, one that reaches beyond US-American poetry and poetics; these issues resonate within increasingly linked poetry communities, filtering into literary networks that, feeling these ripples, need to respond in their own ways. We need to have a discussion about race in Australian poetry that is not ignorant of these global conversations and that takes into account the hemispheric (Asia-Pacific) contexts that, historically speaking, determine the currents and trends of contemporary poetics.

In Australian poetry, I want to focus on racism and cultural appropriation in conventional verse culture (CVC). I want to raise awareness about this problem, for these are urgent issues of the sociotext, and for cultural poetics. Australian experimental poetries are prone to an acritical whiteness, too, but for reasons you will see very clearly below, racism and orientalism in CVC runs so deep, so thoroughly, that if nothing else, it simply offers us a place to start.

Take Geoffrey Lehmann’s ‘The Nubian Slave’, from A Voyage of Lions (1968), where he inhabits an imperial (male) subjectivity:

My slave (of Nubian blood, not speech,

Having been brought up in my parents’ household—

Valuable also, loyal and strongly built)

Threw himself on his knees and smelt

His native stones and sand, his fathers’ houses.

This slave is subsequently compared to a moping, ‘unhappy cat’ (one of countless animal references CVC poets tend to use when referring to non-white persons, slaves or women). Lehmann’s exoticism continues:

A brown man speaking in conjugated verbs,

Rare useless hybrid in the African sun,

Too old to learn the lessons of his blood,

An exotic shadow talking to itself.

The abuse of this slave (and his language) continues, even at the point where, in the final stanza, the slave’s ostensibly mystical power causes grief – and a semi-volta – for the imperial subject in the final stanza. The slave is, crucially, never given speech – he remains a shadow ‘talking to itself’. Not himself, but itself.

I know the counterargument: ‘It wasn’t me. I was speaking in Nero’s voice.’ (Or, in the case of a novelist: ‘It’s characterisation.’) But this is not the point. If you are unsure about my argument here, look up poems like ‘Bitch Talk’ and ‘Rape!’ Note that these poets do nothing to destabilise, in gendered terms, the power of their subject positions. To say it bluntly, the poet is culpable for the language because at no point are we allowed to imagine, or inhabit, the subjectivity or speech of the (female) victim. In ‘Rape!’ the reader is unequivocally placed in the position of the rapist himself; the effect is quite sickening. Vulgarity is okay, and at best can unsettle structures of power. But poems like those cited above simply reinforce the structures of power (imperialism, rape culture and so on) as they exist.

Now take a look at the poems of Bruce Beaver (1928–2004). Beaver’s lines are sometimes painful to read, containing as they do a conservative, clichéd diction that closes (rather than opens) sense. The actual content of his poems reveals a disturbing, acritical politics of race. In ‘The Hunting Girl’, Beaver makes a muse of a young Indigenous girl on the bank of a river. It soon becomes clear how his gaze is directed:

she must have seen me but, no, after another lunging throw

into the centre of the creek she tucked her dress in again,

high up on her thighs, the white underwear clung and now I noticed

the widening hips and shapely small buttocks […]

Would she have rounded breasts beneath her dress? […]

[…] I did not dream about Laura but she

had become a kind of muse to me. Poised between girl and woman,

she bled at times and was unafraid, and silent.

There are many problems with this, but the key is in that last word: ‘silent’. Beaver never allows the ‘muse’ to make herself heard.

A final example confirms the depth of these elisions, of these de-subjectifications. In a 2012 review of John Mateer’s Southern Barbarians, Alison Croggon expresses disquiet over the ‘sentimental’ lyricism Mateer deploys:

More troublingly, I found myself wondering about the poet created in these poems: the poet is always male (although incorporating, as Romantic poets always did, the feminine into the masculine self), the ‘other’ invoked too often female or feminised, and the feminine always sexualised and exotic. Mateer satirises the orientalising of the exotic east, ‘wishing for a life absolutely Oriental: that rhino horn of Viagra and Ecstasy’: but he also exploits it.

Quite apart from stylistic problems, Croggon critiques the irony of Mateer’s subject position, balancing her analysis between race and gender (gender, she suggests, is the crucial integer in understanding Mateer’s treatment of race). Sure, writing an inquiring poetry attentive to race is possible, but she ultimately finds that ‘[t]here is no space for the subjectivity of the “other” here’.

If the charge of orientalism seems outlandish, note that it’s a framework sanctioned by Mateer himself. The blurb for Emptiness: Asian Poems, 1998–2012 notes that it ‘affirms the power and pleasure of the foreign’. Foreign for whom? and for whose pleasure?

Orientalism of any kind, in any context, is bad. It is not good practice, and not good for poetics. It does not do the work of cultural critique, nor does it offer any emancipatory potential.

Towards a new Australian Poetry Library

We should, I wager, aim to collectively develop an Australian Poetry Library that includes more radically experimental writing, particularly non-white experimental writing, as central to the constitution of Australian poetry. Precisely because it aims to be ‘synoptic’ of Australian poetry, the APL reveals for us the longstanding problems in race politics, particularly raced discourses in relation to gender and colonial cultures. We must not forget that APL is an archive of Australian poetry, not the archive. Australian poetry for the next twenty-five years can, and must, look very different to what it currently looks like. There are too many non-white writers working today in a thrilling array of experimental ways for us to accept that the library we are presented with is the Library. We need an archive that represents the shifts and currents of Australian poetry in the contemporary, that is, a living, thriving archive.

We can, and must, revive the counter-archive. We must explore the radical emancipatory possibilities of experimental, innovative and exploratory writing. We need to revive the communal, choral and social aspects of writing (for me, this means moving beyond the narrowly expressive ‘I-poem’). We need to reassert the multiple subjectivity of the silenced – not as bad appropriation, but as sampling, in loops of de-appropriation that re-politicise the discourses we inhabit. All the powers of social and cultural critique can condense to this: we need a race revolution. Things need to change. These are insurgent times for race politics (the police are killing Black people, both in the US and Australia). It needs to be said very clearly: Australian poetry is still plagued by racism and neo-orientalism. CVC is largely responsible for this. It needs to be recognised, then boldly critiqued and repudiated.

 

Lia Incognita – spoken word poet, writer, broadcaster

I’m not sure what I’m doing here. This stuff with Vanessa Place and Kenneth Goldsmith: it’s about anti-Blackness, more specifically about reproducing graphic violence against African Americans as ‘experimental poetry’. To launch off from this into a broad discussion about race and poetry in Australia seems like another appropriation, another diversion.

At the same time, I want to pick at these definitions of poetry. Why is it that so much work by people of colour pushes the definition of poetry, crosses and strains traditional conventions and genres, and yet struggles to be considered literature or to be regarded as experimental?

Writers of colour in Australia are producing incredible site-specific, cross-genre multimedia performative texts; spoken word, song, broadcast, choreopoem and multimedia work; verse that is plastered on walls and chanted in megaphones; verse that is urgent and potent. I’ve performed at several spoken word events that were majority or entirely writers of colour; I’ve programmed a few, too. But this work is largely ignored by publishers, critics, prize judges, anthology editors, curriculum writers.

Stefania Heim’s Boston Review article ‘Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde’ begins with a quote from poet and scholar Harryette Mullen:

The assumption remains, however unexamined, that ‘avant-garde’ poetry is not ‘black’ and that ‘black’ poetry, however singular its ‘voice,’ is not ‘formally innovative.’

I’ve heard similar sentiments from playwrights and choreographers in Australia. Work that draws from non-Anglo cultural references befuddles institutions (festivals, venues, funding bodies) whose understanding of ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ is structured around Western practice. Countercultural is always counter to a specific culture. You can only be regarded as innovative when the envelope you are pushing is, well, white.

Even then, probably not. It’s not enough to be reshaping Western form unless you appear to be doing so from the inside, to be rejecting your inheritance. Otherwise the experimental becomes merely broken, inept.

 

I guess racism is fascinating when it’s not inescapable. Provocative, intriguing, aesthetic. As the Mongrel Coalition against Gringpo (MCAG) says, white poets ‘love abstracting the battle, making it as theoretical as possible, ignoring the bodies’.

Vanessa Place justified posting Gone With The Wind’s racist depictions of Black women line by line for four years on Twitter as a project exposing and challenging racism, rather than as one that merely reproduced it – though it’s literally a verbatim reproduction. It makes sense if you imagine your readership/the world doesn’t include Black people. In which case, it doesn’t make sense. It makes sense if you see Black people as an inconvenience to your conceptual poetic anti-racist project. It makes sense if you see anti-racism as a conversation for, about and between white people.

As MCAG says again:

What authority does Vanessa Place have in reviving this kind of language for her own artistic capital, in the face of the crisis black Americans confront in the US? […] We ask all of you who insist that Place is ‘helping’ us or ‘revealing’ dynamics to us: when is the last time you went to your local Black Lives Matter meeting? When is the last time you protested for Black Lives Matter? What kind of life are you leading that you need a white woman to be in blackface for you to be shaken? Are you shaken? Are you converted?

To be fair, race is boring. Boring into every part of everything else you would rather be thinking, boring channels through your mind until it leaks its stain everywhere. I never wanted to write about it, but it’s inescapable. I wanted to write about it first to get it out of the way, but it hasn’t gotten out of the way. I’m thirsty for the next thing.

 

Confession: I write ‘narrowly expressive I-poems’. Often on race – or, rather, on nostalgia, grief, sexuality and nationhood, from a racially particular perspective. Actually, were I white, I’m not sure they would seem so narrowly expressive.

When I think about that stuff with Michael Derrick Hudson writing as Yi-Fen Chou, I wonder if my poems would sound cleverer and less desperate if a white man wrote them. Important but not so earnest. Playful. Spacious.

 

Most people think poetry is boring. And most who don’t are poets. I’m not sure what this means, but it makes for a very small, very charged space.

 

Is Australian poetry very white? It depends what you are reading, and what you are reading as poetry.

 

When I first started writing and performing, all the Australian poets I read were Indigenous women. Lisa Bellear, Romaine Moreton, Charmaine Papertalk-Green. But I’d only come across their work through other women of colour.

All the Australian poets I was taught in school were white. In their poems, Indigenous people were either absent, mythical, dead or dying. Everyone else was white. Nature motifs featured prominently, usually conjured into service for an eager, greedy and ahistorical settler nativism. For a long time I avoided Australian poetry because I supposed that it would all be descriptions of trees and white endurance, a romantic and archaic nationalism.

This matters because most people stop reading poetry after high school. Or at least they think they do.

 

I don’t have an opinion on blind judging. We are acculturated into our tastes; removing biographical information doesn’t challenge how we read. Also, most of my poems come straight out of my face.

As someone who works across verse, prose, performance and broadcast, who has performed more poems at protests than I’ve ever had published, it doesn’t really matter to me whether my poems are read as poems. I say what I need in whatever form works. My feeling is that a lot of editors and judges find political poetry a bit naff, but I wouldn’t know how to prove it.

Both the journals I’ve been involved with – Peril, an online magazine of Asian-Australian arts and culture, and Mascara, a biannual literary journal interested in the work of contemporary migrant, Asian Australian and Indigenous writers – have been defunded in the most recent Australia Council grants round, after running for almost ten years each. Neither journal has ever had paid editorial staff.

If it weren’t for Peril and the community of writers of colour that it connected me to – if it weren’t for Lian Low and Maxine Beneba Clarke and Tom Cho and Eleanor Jackson – I’m sure I would not be writing now. I would have probably stopped somewhere after the fourth time I entered a slam that was me and ten white guys who did dick jokes (or meta dick jokes), or poems about girls who dumped them, or poems about millennial white masculinity, with one of them trying to slip it into conversation that he had an Asian girlfriend, or screaming at me that I represented political correctness and the end of the world, or asking me if I had any work about Buddhism, or telling me I was surprisingly good.

 

Samuel Wagan Watson – poet, writer

‘Textual chemistry’ is what I like to term the elemental analysis of good pieces of writing; a theoretical study of how a wordsmith has utilised all of the senses so a reader can relate to that work and interconnect, and for a brief moment be one with the writer. Sensory perception is an essential ingredient in literature, and how it can be used to create endorphins in a reader’s mind is clinically intriguing.

Authors like Burroughs and Huxley used fabricated chemicals in order to create. I’m more interested in how our minds are stimulated by the constructs of particular words that positively, and sometimes negatively, counter a reader.

Since Day One of incursion on this soil, the subject of RACE has stimulated interesting reaction, mostly in a negative direction. Some of those lines can be diverted, but most are like a lead boomerang and they return ‘whooping’, knocking you in the back of the head.

When I was four, my Dad appropriated a road sign and hung it on the wall of his study. I would sit in his big black chair and stare at it for periods of time that probably initiated subtle anxiety. The sign: ‘NIGGER CREEK’.

Language used like that naturally stimulates reaction. I now know by anecdotal evidence from historians that place names like NIGGER CREEK, MASSACRE FALLS, and GIN WATERHOLE are aptly named for historically based incidents and not someone’s colourful use of textual melodrama.

Growing up in Bjelke-Petersen Queensland meant hitting racial walls and bouncing off them. I was sometimes asked by teachers to explain to the class how a ‘witchetty grub’ in my nightly meal tasted. We had an assignment in Grade 4 on the subject of ‘Australian Aborigines’ and, you guessed it, I basically failed because what I wrote didn’t comply with the curriculum. What I was made to write instead was a total whitewash of how dysfunctional we had become as a society devoted to a fascist regime.

When you are psychologically flogged as a kid, your perceptions of the world can become quite warped. I became a thief and didn’t quite know how to tell the truth. Being born into a family of raconteurs, I quickly appropriated the Queen’s English and excelled in creative writing, quite often stealing the thunder of every other kid in my grade. (I was the stereotypical opposite of most of my Indigenous peers: I could not catch or kick a football, and could not box to save myself! Writing was my only saviour.)

There is no clinical evidence to suggest that racism is a by-product of mental illness, although I’ve heard many try to argue the fact. There is, however, enough testimony across the wider community to reinforce the theory that a chemical imbalance of the psyche is responsible for allowing an individual to hate and to hate freely. And this is not prone to just one cultural group in our society or gender. Many people simply receive a charge of endorphins by attacking someone without qualified justification.

I do wonder about certain opportunities I’ve been afforded as a ‘Black’ writer. Did the editor choose my work because of its creative merit, or was I simply herded through because of a racial quota? I’ve assessed funding applications and seen the box asking ‘Will this project benefit Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?’ ticked every time. Even if these project see the light of day, they will probably never enhance the life of an Indigenous individual. Not ever.

The arts is a wonderful sector for cultural melting pots. The arts, of all the places I’ve worked, is where self-awareness is most nurtured; the strength in your project is quite often reflected in the general harmony and appreciation that is placed in having open diversity in the workplace.

But I’ve also worked on ‘reconciliation strategies’ while employed in the arts sector. Most of those projects were shelved once the funding dried up or a change of government deemed them unviable. The cold reality is that you can’t make someone like you even if it’s government policy. Haters are always going to deploy hate.

To my audience, please interpret my writing through the colours you see when my words paint your mind’s eye, and not solely for the fact that I’ve been racially profiled by the staff of a bookshop. I write to inspire adrenalin and to have my place on a bigger page of writers from all races and creeds. And however diverse we are as a wider family of writers in Australia, we can’t expect the audience to infuse a mystical chemistry of harmony in their lives if we are only fictionalising a placebo of harmony in ours.

 

Elena Gomez – poet, editor

To what extent are we to assign conceptual poetry any significant meaning? Not just among our local poetry scenes but in a broader context, beyond its historical moment. What purpose does conceptual poetry serve as a concept? The difficulty of extending this to Australian poets is to be expected, despite practices in the origin of what some have called a ‘movement’ (others, practically a religion).

The lineage of this style is American: Joshua Clover usefully identifies it as ‘brand-name conceptualism’ in an article for MetaMute, in which he charts the periodisation and contradictions of moments in conceptualist and art history.

Conceptual poetry seems to have a different definition depending on which poet you speak to, but I tend to agree with Clover’s description of it as poetry ‘doubling down on an anti-lyrical formalism’. When we try to think of ways conceptual poetry might engage with progressive politics – say, for example, conceptually exploring something like inequality – there is a sense of futility: with its roots in post-war conceptual art, such poetry is supposedly ego-less and agenda-less.

By marking an outline of what Australian conceptual poetry might be, I don’t mean to imply any sense of nationalism. Rather, I mean to gesture towards the island-ish, settler colonial boundaries that implicitly condition every writer that falls in this category, without suggesting homogeneity among the works. Unlike in the US, the conditions producing poetry in this country have not been so easily sectioned into ‘movements’, or at least are not understood as such outside academia.

Plenty of poets who might fall under the ‘conceptualism’ banner seem to be more ensconced in the art world than literary. I’m not denying or even decrying the American influence on writers here: we are enthusiastically reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and booing Marjorie Perloff from behind the screens of our laptops (she whose own personal racism seems to have nothing to do with her poetry criticism, but by mere association sullies it, regardless of the possibly important theoretical work she may have once contributed before she explained that the police killing of a young Black man as justified because he looked ‘scary’). Yet we poets are rarely similarly outraged by anti-Black violence in our own country. But this, even, is a boring point to make, since the few Black voices in our literary communities seem to have to repeat themselves, and still attract abuse when they dare to point out racism.

What are poets to do – let alone conceptual poets? This fight seems bigger than us.

 

A frustrating reality of white supremacy and racism is the difficulty in bridging that crucial gap between its systemic, all-encompassing character and its banal quotidian occurrences. To this extent, it’s difficult to think about dealing with race in poetry communities because race is everywhere, and we need to abolish race before we can fix poetry, really. I’m probably supposed to have more faith in words than this.

 

Conceptual poetry should be shelved, or at least recognised as a site-specific, period-specific moment, borne out of a US art movement, marked by specific formal characteristics.

 

I used to think there was a Conceptual Poetry and conceptual poetry: that one denoted the movement/moment aspect, the other the set of practices that loosely aligned form in a way we called concept-ual. Conceptual practices are better termed otherwise – more clearly described by the specific practice rather than making any claim for an overarching ethos. Better, surely, to reframe outside of the popular face of the movement, rather than settling for a subsidiary genre.

Earlier this year, Divya Victor put together a feature for Jacket2, called ‘Conceptual writing (Plural and Global) and Other Cultural Productions’, that assembled interviews and critical responses from various poets and critics. I’d encourage people to read it. Victor writes:

If we can re-envision the premises, techniques and theoretical presuppositions of conceptual writing as provisional rather than monolithic – which is to say, if we can effectively observe that these are rooted in both contingency and subjective experience (rather than in universal principles of aesthetic norms) – then we will be able to challenge conceptual writing’s supposed orthodoxy, intervene into narratives of its dogmatism, and discuss its social effects. If conceptual writing is everything we have hoped/dreaded it to be, it will also be a generous host for the occasion of its own destruction, just as it will be open to fabrications of refusal, regeneration, reshaping, renewal. In other words, it will be monstrous and alive, its existence (like any invention) bound with ‘slight ligaments to [both] prosperity and ruin’.

Victor emphasises the provisional aspect of such a project, in classifying or defining boundaries of what we might consider conceptualism. The collection of writers are diverse in experiences, practices and backgrounds. One of the stated goals is to ‘expand the field of critical influences and frame its discourses through the lenses of anti-imperialism, postcolonialism, spirituality studies, disability studies, ecocriticism, and critical race theory’.

This shows that, somewhere, there is a collective effort to open up conceptualism beyond its institutionalised, whitewashed space. If conceptualism’s goals are to go beyond human, beyond lyric (see, again, Clover’s essay), then what Victor has proposed here is potentially the undoing of conceptualism – making room, instead, for a discourse of experience, of life and poetry. Who is to say for sure whether the project of encouraging inclusion will be worthy in the long run. I have doubts about the overall aims of such a project, but am grateful nonetheless for a thick and dense archive of rich new poems to explore.

And yet Australian poets seem to operate in smaller clusters, which makes me hesitant to proclaim anything definite about the future. We thrive for this reason, but could harness the power of making better art in the margins of the market. Race is too large to think about, but it’s also easy to identify racism in poetry communities when we see it. This involves being collective in our refusal.

 


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AJ Carruthers is a contemporary Asian-Australian poet and critic, author of the academic book Stave Sightings: Notational Experiments in North American Long Poems, 1961–2011 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and the inaugural part of a lifelong poem AXIS Book 1: Areal (Vagabond, 2014). He is poetry reviews editor of Southerly, essays editor of Rabbit and founder of SOd press. He tweets at @axispoet.

Qian Jinghua is a gender-fluid writer born and based in Shanghai after a long and formative intermission in the Kulin nations. Ey has written for Sixth Tone, Peril, Overland and Right Now, and dropped poetry on stages, airwaves, walls, and pages. www.lia-incognita.com

Samuel Wagan Watson is an award-winning Indigenous poet and raconteur from the south-side of Brisbane. He comes from a family of accomplished writers and artists. Born in Brisbane in 1972, he is of Munanjali, Birri Gubba, German and Irish descent. Samuel’s first collection of poems won the 1998 David Unaipon Award. His fourth collection, Smoke Encrypted Whispers won the 2005 NSW Premier’s Award for the Book of the Year and the Kenneth Slessor Poetry Prize. Samuel has toured Australia extensively as a writer, has been a writer-in-residence at a number of institutions and has toured New Zealand, Germany and Norway to promote his work. He latest collection is Love Poems and Death Threats (UQP.)

Elena Gomez is a poet and editor currently living in Melbourne.

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