More Intensity: Topography of Poetry Outcrops

By | 1 February 2013

Routes and patterns of travel (voluntary and involuntary) tell us just as much about poetic practice as settlement and convergence. The meeting, diverging and crossing of travel paths can establish or suggest local-regional poetic colonies or hauntings (places of repeated imaginary or physical visitation). Some localities that come to mind would include institutions and universities as well as the residency sites of Varuna, Montsalvat, Bundanon and KSP Writers Centre, or busy centres of offshore residency such as the BR Whiting Library in Rome and the Keesing Studio in Paris. How do temporary localities affect intensities of poetic practice, and how do more distant regional locations feed back into the poetry produced in Australian locations? In my previous post I mentioned New Zealand, Antarctica and Asialink host countries as real examples of such locations related to poetry by Australians. A Perth poet exchanges notes with the Brisbane poet about his experiences in Singapore; when it comes her time to travel there, she carries them with her. She traces over some of the same territory as the Brisbane poet, then explores a bit further, which leads to her writing a new poem. She meets some of the writers that the Brisbane poet met, but then meets some more and reads some of their work. When the Perth poet returns home she and her Singaporean acquaintances stay in touch, and a few years later a couple of them visit Perth, where their local friend introduces them to a circle of other Perth poets. A group reading is arranged; books are exchanged. The Perth poet ends up moving to Singapore to live, from where she publishes poetry by Australians and others. We readers and critics are left with an interesting network of paths that constitute a local-regional intensity of poetry and poetics.

This topography of outcrops, cays and reefs of poetry is antithetical to insularity – something of which Australian poetry communities are not infrequently accused. The archipelago is a set of genealogies, not necessarily in the linear sense of inheritance and advancement. It may often appear horizontal – simultaneous and latitudinal – and even based on patterns of recycle and return. Those are the real ways we experience poetic practice as writers and readers: discovering new influence and old, disseminating to larger and smaller audiences, gluing together in short-term or long-term associations, and therefore each coming to know (or unknow) our own poetic voice and identity. Moreover, they are rich departure points for critical work, with location or situation in place suggesting various social, institutional or aesthetic synergies.

Another kind of horizontal link between poetic outcrops is of course sibling forms of visual art, music, film and so on. Poetry produced in and around this continent has long been an interdisciplinary practice. Poetic outcrops are frequently stuck together by the presence of artists working in other media, either through personal relationships, influences or shared subject matter. If we zoom in on the Mallee region of Victoria, for example, we find poet John Shaw Neilson; and, from Neilson, painter John Wolseley and writer/broadcaster Paul Carter, who have responded to Neilson’s Mallee poetics. Alongside Wolseley we find collaborator and poet Barry Hill. If we return to Neilson we can also track a line to Robert Gray, one-time editor of Neilson’s poetry as well as the painter John Olsen’s journals. Both Gray and Olsen were associated with poet Jennifer Rankin, as reviewer and illustrator respectively; Gray has published his own drawings alongside his poetry, influenced in this and his poetry by Buddhist aesthetics, as was Rankin’s husband, painter David Rankin. This raises a further link with Barry Hill, whose poetry has also drawn on Indian art, which links him to fellow Melbourne poet and artist Luke Beesley, who like Gray specialises in the drawn line. Beesley cites late Sydney painter Tony Tuckson as an influence, which brings us to a fellow Tuckson fan, Adelaide poet Ken Bolton. We could see this ‘Mallee intensity’ as springing from a common ancestor, Neilson, and raising specific questions about how his poetry informs certain qualities of its interdisciplinary practice. If we’d taken a different path from a number of those figures, we might just as rapidly ended up at significant poetic intensities including Bribie Island and Central Australia.

Place must be a good beginning for poetry writing, reading and criticism because we are always already within it. What, then, of virtual locality; and can we be virtually located? Virtual poetic intensities and outcrops lack an immediate physical location and more-than-human ecology. But don’t they replicate just the kind of topography found in the archipelagic map? As Edward Relph writes:

A sense of virtual place can be considered a variant of and an addition to the current distributed sense of real place that simultaneously acknowledges geographical diversity and seeks ways to make places with compelling identities.1

Virtual poetic communities, which exist in pockets, rhizomes, islands and labyrinths, are archipelagic in structure. Sometimes they stand in for a location that couldn’t materialise physically, but frequently they involve near-neighbours who use the virtual location as an extension of the psycho-geographical: spaces where they can camp together. However, virtual places ‘enhance appreciation of distinctiveness yet simultaneously undermine the factors that have always been instrumental in creating distinctive places;’ that is, they fulfil the basic requirements of a location but not the qualities of locality.2 Existing for the purposes of audience – posting or publication, conversation and colloquy – virtual locations are to an extent their own critic in the sense that they necessarily observe and collate themselves. They hover above the ground and cannot be blown away even if their participants disperse or morph. This is a gift to the reader and critic, who may use such virtual locations to track psycho-geographic links between poets and poetries. Mascara, Cordite, Snorkel and Jacket2 are vivid examples of these sorts of leads being gathered or becoming visible in the virtual place. But perhaps the self-critical quality of virtual location is a hazard; it may be too easy for the reader or critic to view virtual poetic synergies as exhaustive or delimited. ‘This fundamental difference in existential character’ of real and virtual places, writes Relph, ‘is reflected in the currently limited range of virtual places in comparison with real places.’ In this sense contemporary poetic practice is still more embedded in real than virtual place. And yet:

A virtual geography may develop with places that bear little resemblance to anywhere real but are comprehensible and have great presence within the conventions of virtual reality.3

There are probably numerous poets, readers and critics who have already experienced such virtual poetic intensities occurring with no ‘real’ basis or correlative in situated relationships. Is it probable that such virtual intensities and outcrops will come to outnumber their ‘real’ foundations and extensions? In any case, we’re sure to witness boggling developments of virtual ‘presence’, particularly in the construction and experience of virtual space. What will this mean for poetic practice: will we be able to create newly compelling ways to host authentic poetic interconnections, and to curate virtual poetic intensities that possess qualities of locality – a spirit of place?

  1. Relph, E 2007, ‘Spirit of Place and Sense of Place in Virtual Realities’, Techné 10.3 (np). Accessed 13/11/12:
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
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