Extimate Subjects and Abject Bodies in Australian Poetry

By | 16 March 2016

Rather than thinking in constitutive terms about the lyrical / slam / eco-poetic / experimental / avant-garde / postrace / postmodernist camps, we should not lose sight of how Australian poetry operates. The ideal of a ‘national’ paradigm is problematic as it leans strongly towards defining a homogenous identity, an archetypal lyric narrative of settlement and dispossession that has erased First Nations’ poets and filtered out exotics who challenge this essential category. More significantly the emergent discourses in a national poetics are economically invested, driven by the neo-colonising impulse. Every time a review in our mainstream publications – The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age – fails to engage impartially or seriously with the work of those poets marginalised within the national category (presumably because of their differences of race or language or their struggles to lever cultural access), effectively what happens is that Australian Poetry reinforces itself as a monolith, legitimising its own authority while diminishing a possible range of differences.

Authority is privileged over knowledge through a set of relations that structure individual subjectivity. Concomitantly what is often overlooked, however, is the extent to which these very relations are co-authored and transacted from the margins. Slavoj Žižek writes that an abstract ‘enlightened’ universality is inherently exclusive of ‘its own permanent founding gestures – a set of unwritten, unacknowledged rules and practises which, while publicly disavowed, are nonetheless the ultimate support of the existing power edifice.’1 It is for these reasons that the subtexts, the paratexts and the supernumeraries to poetry enable a decentering of authority and a repositioning of diverse and extimate poetic narratives. Going by Edward Said, if the literatures of colonialism were in fact an industry, a self-authoring enterprise, the same can be said to apply to the literatures of most neo-colonial capitalist democracies.

When you think about this, it is frightening because it signifies continuing erasures: those who are at the margins of a heteronormative racially-bound governing category are unceasingly being either written out of the canon or at best, being destabilised and desubjectified. In Australia this manifests even while there is a process of attrition and cultural recompense for our violent history of invasion, annexation and linguistic domination. But this is not a conjecture or fallacy; it is an undeniable material and historical reality. A range of industry operations mask white privilege while the intersectionality underlying vulnerability and oppression is not merely overlooked but frequently pathologised. More disturbingly there is a banality about the existing hierarchies, a singularity which can be explained by Arendt’s principle: that the degradation of collective thinking about unacceptable conditions is more problematic that a failure to oppose them. There is a widespread industry acceptance that the system cannot be readily changed. Historically, Australian poetry has exploited the bodies of migrant poets who do not benefit commensurably from how capital is distributed but who are compelled to participate at more physically and psychologically gruelling levels than other Australians for their work to survive. Omar Sakr offers a withering interpretation on deprivation and privilege in Kill Your Darlings: ‘You can’t write when you’re hungry, that’s for sure. Not well, anyway, but it goes beyond that. When you’re poor, you can’t afford to buy books, and if you’re not reading as much as you possibly can you are absolutely going to fall behind.’

Is it sufficient to stage diversity simply by reconfiguring representations? British Asian author, Kavita Bhanot, critiques this as ‘the new corporatized version of multiculturalism,’ whereby ethnic writers internalise white supremacy and write so as to please the establishment. Yet in responding to the furore over Kenneth Goldsmith’s conceptual poem ‘The Body of Michael Brown’ Elena Gomez asserts that it also matters:

But representation within poetry is a practical reality: who gets books published? Who gets asked to read or speak on panels? Who is offered residencies at major art/writing institutions? Whose books are added to teaching courses?2

What presses are publishing CALD poetry in book form? Vagabond has published an outstanding Aboriginal list with books by Lionel Fogarty, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ken Canning. They have diversified the category of Asian Australian poetry publishing a range of tropes from Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng, with his Captive and Temporal on the horizon, to Debbie Lim’s Beastly Eye, James Stuart’s Anonymous Folk Songs, a j carruther’s Axis and Bella Li’s Maps, Cargo. Five Island Press have likewise been in the vanguard for over a decade, having published Dîpti Saravanamuttu’s The Colosseum, Tina Giannoukos’s In A Bigger City, Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s Against Certain Capture, Tatjana Lukić’s la, la, la, Ouyang Yu’s Fainting with Freedom and my book Vishvarūpa. Giramondo published Lachlan Brown’s Limited Cities, Adam Aitken’s Eighth Habitation as well as Between Stations, essays by Kim Cheng Boey. Puncher and Wattmann published Clear Brightness by Kim Cheng Boey, Ania Walwicz, Maria Zajkowski and the anthology Contemporary Asian Australian Poets. Australian Poetry and Pitt St Poetry instated Eileen Chong and Jakob Ziguras. Interactive Press published my debut The Accidental Cage and the Chinese Australian academic / poet Paul Dawson’s Imagining Winter. Fremantle Press published Danijela Kambaskovic’s Internal Monologues. Cordite Poetry Review has given us electronic chapbooks by Brian Castro, Queenie Chan, Robert Sullivan as well as Natalie Harkin’s Dirty Words and Tony Birch’s Broken Teeth from Cordite Books.

  1. Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, 2000 217.
  2. Elena Gomez, ‘When poetry is white supremacist’, Overland, April 2015
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