Extimate Subjects and Abject Bodies in Australian Poetry

By | 16 March 2016

Among the smaller presses, Owl Publishing have published Antigone Kefala, Angela Costi, M G Michael and Dimitris Tsaloumas. Cervantes Press published Mario Licón Cabrera’s bi-lingual Yuxtas, a superb contribution from the Hispanic Australian diaspora. Blank Runes Press published Ariel Riveros Pavez’s Self Imposed House Arrest. Magabala Books have published an impressive Indigenous list, including Ruby Moonlight by Ali Cobby Eckermann and Lemons in the Chicken Wire by Alison Whittaker. Picaro Press first gave us the political verses of both Maxine Beneba Clarke and Juan Garrido-Salgado as well as publishing Poetry Without Borders. Whitmore Press have shortlisted Anupama Pilbrow and Juliana Qian (Lia Incognita) in their manuscript prize. Flying Island Books and Press Press combined have been a small tour-de-force, publishing Anna Couani, Kit Kelen, Ouyang Yu, Barbara Orlowska-Westwood, Wiradjuri poet Jeanine Leane and regional poets such as Kaye Aldenhoven. SOd Stale Objects in Sydney have distributed experimental feminist pdf chapbooks by Elena Gomez: Chill Flakes, A GLAZED WINDOW W/FAT BORDERS//[TAUT & DISCOLOURED] and Ivy Alvarez’s ˈfiːmeɪl † defaced. Retrospectively, it should be remembered that Rochford Street Press published Dîpti Saravanamuttu’s Statistic for the New World, while Sea Cruise Books published Anna Couani’s The Harbour Breathes.

When several presses have not published a single volume by a South Asian Australian, a Caribbean Australian or an African Australian poet that is problematic. Certainly, arts funding strategies to sustain CALD poetry would empower development and innovation within the field by a range of curators. But gaps such as these are also profoundly ideological, embedded in binary Western thinking which conflates ‘whiteness’ as a racial typology with purity, morality, intellect and sophistication, criterions offended by the dark-skinned ‘savage’ persona embodied in JM Coetzee’s Friday, whose tongue has been ripped out and who cannot speak. How commonly do we witness the poetics of domestication being prioritised over the poetics of debriefing or refuge? How many barbaric tariffs will it take before the gods of nationalism are placated in the name of poetry? Erving Goffman’s discourse on stigmatisation connects particular attributes to socially-contingent associations. Genetically-speaking however, race is not a pure biological marker: we are all unequivocally DNA hybrids. Race can only be regarded as a discursive category, a language that transforms physiognomic characteristics into a fully-fledged stigma embedded in sociological concerns. Such concerns predetermine, for example, the selection of migrant poets from a European, Mediterranean or North Asian identity, and ultimately this kind of filtering is embedded in our constitutional history (the White Australia Policy), and in the liberal humanist project that justified white settlement.

In Australian public life the disavowal of racism hinders the opportunities for assessing its impact in the literary arts. The Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 was brought about only through a protracted parliamentary process, rather than through a civil rights movement as happened in the United States so that the cringe factor intensifies whenever race is mentioned in Australia. But it is a mistake to entirely separate the legal from the literary discourses. I don’t think I am personalising these observations though it would be a convenient rebuttal against me. It would be convenient to describe this as hypersensitivity, petulance or paranoia. It would be convenient to argue that because Aboriginal poets have been published by elite poetry publishers that one can confidently assume Australian Poetry is not harbouring reductive attitudes towards migrant poets of colour.

More disturbing and covert is the penalties for those who speak out. Veiled threats and passive aggressive manoeuvres attest to the hidden violences being mediated. Recently, I raised the issue of white privilege with one of Australia’s small independent presses, since they have not published a poet of colour since the mid-80s. I was informed that it was ‘absurd’, ‘pointless’ and ‘inappropriate’ for me to infer privilege. My inquiry was framed as fallacious, despite the facts speaking for themselves. My experience and knowledge in this field was on the face of it, acknowledged, but the rejoinders acted to undermine my concerns and to fortify a hard-line defense. This is precisely how whiteness has dominated Australian poetry by emotional means, by reproach and fear tactics. In an interview with Ouyang Yu on why Australia neglects its émigré intellectuals Maria Tumarkin writes ‘Ouyang says there is a hidden contempt among this country’s intellectuals for first-generation migrants commenting on Australia and Australians. ‘What, goes the thinking, would they know? On precisely what basis are they speaking?’ Any critique will likely be seen as an attack.’

With its militarisation and media controls the neo-colonial anti-immigration state depends on gagging and displacing those who are powerless. It may be masked, autocratically cheating its own principles by delegitimising and displacing. Yet this is how marginalisation works in tandem with the language of segregation, its slogans and its subtexts. One way to resist is by generating technologies of outrage, counter-discourses, by recording in our cultural history what is (un)speakable as ‘the part of no-part’, by reconfiguring the ‘industry’, the arrangement of words, their characters. These small explosives and marginalia are textual enactments. At the simplest level they are a duty we carry out as intellectuals after observing incidents where racial selectivity creates problematic hierarchies or writes out other voices, contradicting our belief that Australian poetry is democratic.

How can we as a community reform the inherent racism in Australian poetry? It cannot be simply achieved by cultural appropriation or by tokenisation which masquerades as diversity. A deeply historical consciousness integrating archival evidence with the idiosyncratic body of individual encounters is required to give a thorough picture of the structural injustices by which race operates in Australian poetics. Arguably, the initial approach needs to be cross-disciplinary. We need to ask ourselves the question of whether as an ethical community we can afford to keep intact the insularity of poetics as a purely aesthetic study. We need diversity monitoring research to be documented. We need to sustain a legitimate and safe space for inquiry (thanks to Cordite, Overland, Sydney Review of Books, Southerly, Meanjin blog and the Queensland Poetry Festival for hosting such forums.) We need a more balanced dialogue to invite establishment poets to better understand how the positioning of whiteness is one which is privileged. We need to challenge ourselves as readers in the criteria we are utilising to praise or to discredit poetry. We need, ultimately, to read in more radical ways, recognising difference in the poetics of ethical interrogation, institutionalised abuse, in self-harming or scarification, rather than expecting difference to conform to the Euro-American traditions of assimilation, coherence and closure. Most of all, there needs to be a general willingness for the sovereign spaces of appraisal and arbitration to be more democratically assigned introducing Australian poetry to different mediations, to different readings. This however comes down to individually-invested politics. Only when this happens can a space for difference be truly excavated.

I use the word ‘excavated’ here because I consider this space to be temporal and historical. I feel bereaved and traumatised when I am reminded of poetic narratives that have been violently expurgated from the canon or those which have simply disappeared (while others are being utilised in the service of the establishment.) These are the ‘desapareceidos’ of Australian poetry. Australian literary culture draws psychotic parallels, marking and stigmatising as the prerequisite manoeuvre used to expel those who have tripped, or those who are critical from its ranks.

The American series of Australian poetry published by Braziller and edited by Paul Kane is revealing for the way in which the apparatus of race has operated in this country. No Aboriginal poets have been published, though in 2016 the series will publish the Singaporean Australian poet, Eileen Chong. To his credit Paul Kane curates the Mildura Writers’ Festival which invites guest migrant participants as well as Aboriginal writers and which hosts an Aboriginal Writing Prize. Kane has been prepared to consider racism in the industry, to listen to the concerns raised on behalf of those for whom other elements speak. Neither is he afraid to speak of national identity as ideological. In an interview with Ali Alizadeh, Kane offered this tentative provocation: ‘My own sense is that Australians ought to stand on their characteristic capacity for generosity, to extend it in all directions, including poetry (and immigration, perhaps?)’

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