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‘Geelong checks its modernist warranty’

1 May 2018

By virtue of a fortuitous accident of birthplace we can both feel secure in Geelong, too – and in fact, in many places else in Australia, or abroad, by virtue of an Australian passport – unlike the asylum seekers awaiting visa determinations; living within the fraught systems for lodging applications or contesting refusals from Immigration. In 2014, a 29-year-old Tamil man named Leo Seemanpillai died after setting himself on fire. Leo had been living and working – seeking safety and protection – in Geelong, and had established himself within the community, despite the threat of being forcibly returned to Sri Lanka, the country from which he was seeking asylum. As a space, Geelong is also a site in which the traumatic realities effected by the government’s (indeed, successive governments’) immigration policies are keenly felt.

Geelong is full of contrasts, some of them quite glaring; the low-SES suburb Corio, for example, is also home to Geelong Grammar School (or one of the school’s four campuses, at least), yet the school itself is (from an outsiders’ perspective) insular, not only as a boarding school and given its various facilities – which include an equestrian centre, swimming pool and diving bowl, and a dance studio – but also in its figurative distance from its own suburb, and perhaps too Geelong, more broadly, as town-or-city. The Grammar School’s alumni include (perhaps most famously) Prince Charles, along with the actress Portia de Rossi, and New York-based Australian novelist Peter Carey. These figures feel, arguably, as distant as the said-to-be ‘fair aeronaut’ Millie Viola and her 1890s’ ballooning apparatus.

Such considerations – of perspective, lived experience, and how rarely a place can be ‘homogenous’, experientially or representationally – might be applied to any location, any place-as-case-study, but this essay, aside from its conspicuously loose purpose and focus, centres on the ‘the local [as] the only thing that is universal’, to draw on William Carlos Williams’ declaration (1969, p. 132).

To circle to this essay’s epigraph from the Melbourne band Dick Diver, what does it mean to ‘go to Geelong’, physically, spatially, poetically? If one looks at a map of Victoria, Geelong appears roughly 75 kilometres to the southwest of Melbourne on Port Phillip Bay. By car or train, the journey between the two cities takes about an hour. Dick Diver’s lyric (particularly when performed) evokes distance, even though geographically Geelong is not that far away from the state capital. Perhaps more importantly, the lyric implies Geelong has a peripheral relationship to the ‘centre’ – the regional city is not where the ‘action’ is, especially culturally. For anyone who has lived in Geelong for an extended period this perception, particularly from Melbournians, will not seem uncommon; the tag ‘sleepy hollow’ has long been bestowed upon Geelong.

If one were to embark on the challenge of constructing Geelong as a poetic text, what would such a poem look like? What would it sound like? And what materials would it draw upon? Would it be the work of one person, or a collaborative text that acknowledged the multiplicity of identities that inhabit and produce the space that is Geelong? Would it – to engage Jessica Wilkinson’s terminology – be a ‘non-fiction’ poem? How would such a text negotiate Indigenous dispossession? Would it speak to the experience of refugees and asylum seekers currently living in Geelong? Do such questions imply a particular perspective already at work? Does such a poem start to unravel even as one dreams it into being? To borrow from Ezra Pound: would it ‘cohere’? Or to put that differently: would you want it to?

This essay lifts its title from Corey Wakeling’s poem ‘Depot of pain’. It’s a memorable line, perhaps especially for anyone based in – and writing in / of – Geelong. As a city, Geelong is undergoing rapid change and ‘renewel’ as its industrial spaces are repurposed, people from Melbourne are relocating to the region due to prohibitive housing prices in the state capital, yet arguably there is still a degree of cultural cringe associated with Geelong. The regional city is not the city, and likely never will be. Does Wakeling’s phrase – regardless of its significance, or lack of significance, within his poem more generally – raise notions of belatedness, of Geelong-based poets (and their poetry) not being ‘up’ with the times? Possibly, although trying to pin down Wakeling’s poetry for ‘definitive’ meanings isn’t necessarily the most rewarding way of approaching his work. Regardless, the fact that it is Geelong checking its ‘modernist warranty’ and not Sydney or Melbourne, poses interesting questions about the relationship between cultural centres and the spaces peripheral to those central nodes. At the very least, Wakeling’s phrase provokes a moment of naval-gazing for poets who, in whatever way, associate themselves with Geelong.

The slim 1969 volume Geelong Then and Now charts the following period of Geelong’s development thus:

From the end of the gold rush period until after the Second World War the town devoted itself to steady, if unspectactular, development. The people of Melbourne, noting that Geelong had apparently given up its pretensions … generally assumed during these years that it had at last accepted its status as a small country town with not very impressive port facilities, and had settled into the sleepiness befitting its position. (p. 17)

In Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry (2007), Ann Vickery notes that ‘[t]he Australian modernist canon generally privileges the metropolitan over the provincial, the formally experimental over the realist and popular’ (pp. 1-2). The city versus the bush dynamic in Australian poetry – perhaps most obviously articulated by Les Murray and Peter Porter – has long been a cliché in conceptualising divisions within the poetry produced in Australia. Vickery also describes ‘the importance of poetry as a space through which responses to the surrounding culture could occur and as a space to articulate new subjectivities’ (p. 5). Indeed, the multivalent and multivocal qualities of Geelong, and other regional centres, as lived and represented spaces are conditions to which poets and poetasters both might respond.

What is this circuitous essay wishing to articulate? Even its authors are a little unsure (though for one of us, Millie Viola and her sisters have spurred new poetry and provide the subject for a new project in fiction). Does a poetry and poetics of place and / or space have particular relevance in the digital (and virtual) age? One answer might be that it matters more than ever. Poetry is produced in specific spaces with specific histories, however problematic and contestable those histories might be. Does poetry produced from the liminal space of regional cities and regional places, if it’s engaged with locality, with the particulars of space within a local-global dynamic, offer a counterpoint to the now tiresome cliché of the city and the bush, in a not dissimilar manner to which recent explorations of poetries representing suburban space contest these binaries? It might, but there still exists in the Australian poetry community a centrist mentality that suggests the ‘real’ stuff is happening in Sydney or Melbourne (and perhaps to a lesser extent in the other capitals around the country). That’s okay, because on one level, who really cares? The poetic coteries that define what is central to contemporary poetics are going to depend on the poetry that you read, the spaces that you inhabit as a poet, and the relevance you give to conceptions of what constitutes contemporary. Geelong’s just one little city in a broader discussion of how a regional poetry and poetics might situate itself in 21st Century poetry.

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