TRANSTASMAN Editorial: Where is it?

1 August 2015

Bonny Cassidy
Photo by Nicholas Walton-Healey

At the close of his poem for this issue, ‘Heaven, Bruny Island’, Ken Bolton writes how the radio ‘seems to have stopped to listen’. As I reflect on the poems constellated here, I feel they are doing similarly; attending to something that is neither absent nor present. They are listening to signs of that abstract ground: transtasman.

Its material traces comprise island homes, posits of crust, magma, reef and sand within fields of ocean. The oldest known piece of the Earth’s crust, a bit of zircon crystal, was found last year in Western Australia; in March the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Haʻapai volcano created an island at the confluence of the Tasman Sea and South Pacific Ocean. Several poems featured in this issue represent personal or dream accounts of geographies and localities in the physical transtasman nexus. In Anne Kennedy’s ‘The Black Drop’, there’s the familiar banksia, its ‘fat cock ridged in bumps, nothing girly, but serviceable’; whilst regional histories coincide, freezing and melting, through Michele Leggott’s ‘The Fascicles’:

the ships, Erebus and Terror, are caught in ice. The dark rule of history skips a beat and it is winter on the harbour looking over the rim of the caldera at distant mountains. It is winter in the northern valley where the fortresses Onukukaitara and Puketakauere stare down the flooded river, asking for trouble.

The human transtasman identity, however, is not so clear. In this issue, there are those who embody the east-west transit across the Tasman Sea. Cath Vidler, for example, is an Australian who has lived in Aotearoa New Zealand and now publishes Snorkel as a literary lap between the two countries; and the artist Matt Arbuckle is a New Zealander represented and working in Melbourne, while Tim Danko is doing the exact opposite. Deliberately stretching the scope of the issue’s theme, I reached out to others like Matti Spence: Birmingham-born, temporarily based in Australia in recent years, he travelled extensively through Aotearoa New Zealand in 2014 before returning to the UK.

I found my outlook reflected in Colin Waters’ editorial introduction to the Scottish poetry anthology, Be the First to Like This (Vagabond Voices, 2015):

When it comes to defining what or who is “Scottish”, I err on the generous side. I want to go beyond Alasdair Gray’s definition (found in his 1992 book Why Scots Should Rule Scotland) – ‘By Scots I mean everyone in Scotland who is able to vote’ – to include those born, bred and who continue to live and work here; Scots who have left the country for work or love or education; and those born outside Scotland but who have made their home here. I would like to interpret the broadness of definition as a sign of national confidence.1

Selecting the poetry for this special Cordite Poetry Review issue, I’ve applied a similar definition to transtasman contributors. Writers featured here represent movements out from and beyond the Tasman, into the regions that share histories with Australasia. We criss-cross the Asia-Pacific region – with which Australia has fascinatingly inconsistent economic and cultural alignments, and with which Aotearoa New Zealand shares origins and history that precedes modern island states. Scott Hamilton, originally from Auckland, currently resides in Tonga; and Craig Santos Perez, originating from Guam and based in Hawaiʻi, similarly reflects a transpacific poetics. The Australian poets Ouyang Yu and Hoang Tien Nguyen represent two different contributions to Asian-Australian traditions of poetry. John Mateer, raised in South Africa and Canada, bases himself in Perth but places his poetry within an extensive global network of travel and transcultural dialogue, most recently between Katanning and the Cocos Keeling Islands.

how do we get there?

Half the poetry in this issue was solicited, with help from a number of consultants to plan a long-list of Aotearoa New Zealand poets. Hearty thanks to Emma Neale, Chris Price, Anne Kennedy and Lisa Samuels for their thoughtful suggestions. Underscoring the diversity and strength of their poetry scenes, only occasionally did their suggestions overlap and every poet who accepted had great quality, new work at the ready. The other half of the issue’s poetry content I selected out of anonymous submissions from Australasia and overseas.

The basic notion of this issue rests on years of travel and institutional exchange between poets in the region. I’ve mentioned the presence of Snorkel as an ongoing publication channel since 2005; and also Stephen Oliver’s long-term interest in this place we call ‘transtasman’. In 1990, Oliver wrote and presented a radio feature, The Great Transtasman Link, for ABC Radio National program Radio Helicon (produced at that point by John Araneta, previously by John Tranter). The feature included ten poets, five each from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand.

The NZEPC has been a unique force in this regard, hosting conferences such as the Home & Away symposium between Auckland and Sydney venues; and Short Takes on Long Poems at Auckland University, which mixed up a program of poets from both sides of the Tasman and beyond. The NZEPC archive includes recordings and ‘Tapa Notebooks’ by visiting Australians including Pam Brown, Ken Bolton, Jill Jones and John Tranter. Deakin University’s Poetry & the Contemporary symposium in 2011 helped to foster this series of exchange, with appearances from Ross, Leggott, Lisa Samuels and Jen Crawford in Melbourne.2

These anecdotes provide a mere snapshot of temporary migrations between transtasman poetry scenes. Outside of institutions and organisations, many writers have done their own, personal versions of these; as Erica Weatherlake puts it, ‘assembling and dissembling, / cavities and eco-systems’ (‘Tramping through headlands’). But, ultimately, isn’t the romantic nature of virtual space the only way we could possibly attempt to propose a transtasman reality?

what is it called?

Lionel Fogarty writes in ‘ADVANCE THOSE ASIAN AND PACIFIC WRITERS POETS’: ‘They are the beings on top of us an on the side of us (…) Think where there’s no sea the waves of our humanity is the same.’3 Editing or reading something like this issue, we are listening to the beings ‘on top’ and ‘on the side’; which begins to complicate where we expect to find ‘us’. It’s really an exercise in space as much as place.

The first draft of the issue’s brief included the traditional hyphen between ‘trans’ and ‘tasman’, but the discourse produced by Stephen Oliver’s book, Intercolonial, persuaded us to reconsider. In an email, Oliver explained to me his definition of the term:

My reasoning is that the term in my understanding and use of it designates a hybrid culture borne out of the two countries, neither one nor the other but belonging to both … We have the term, ‘transatlantic’. We deserve the term, ‘transtasman’, given the cultural, economic and migratory exchanges which historically exist and continue to promulgate between the two countries … Today, I feel the term ‘transtasman’ is entirely apposite to the digital age of instantaneous communication and that TRANS-TASMAN is now both limited and dated. Metaphorically one might imagine the telescoping of the two words, ‘Trans’ and ‘Tasman’ in the removal of the hyphen as the symbolic ‘closing of distances’ and the ‘removal’ of the sea-barrier between the two countries.4

This symbolic closure may apply to the multi-directional, archipelagic living and writing practices represented by so many of the writers in this issue. A virtual land-bridge such as Cordite extends its reach.

  1. Cited in Robyn Marsack, Caledonian Antisyzygy: Contemporary Scottish Poets, Cordite Poetry Review, 1 February 2015.
  2. Ross’s ‘Melbourne Notebook’ may be viewed here
  3. Lionel G Fogarty, Ehlaroo (Long Ago) Nyah (Looking) Möbo-Möbo (Future), Vagabond Press, 2014, p. 70.
  4. Personal email, 1 June 2014.
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