Islanding the Antipodes? Notes on Archipelagic Poetics

By | 7 May 2012

In early April, Peter Minter provided the opening address to The Political Imagination: Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries Symposium held at Deakin University in Melbourne. His paper, ‘Toward a Decolonised Australian Poetry’ raised a radical, timely revision of approaches to reading our local poetic traditions. Minter’s key contention is that ‘nationality’ (i.e. what is un/Australian) is no longer a convincing way of viewing Australian poetry’s trends, and I agree wholeheartedly. As an alternative, he proposes not a nation-shaped block of poetic endeavour, but an ‘archipelagic map’ of localised activity. Such a map aims to ‘reassess the monolithic’ image of poetic development as assimilative. In doing so, Minter’s archipelagic model offers alternative images of ‘outcrops of non-Anglophilic’ poetic diasporas and ‘psycho-geographic intensities’.

The result of this alternative view of Australian poetry, argues Minter, is a ‘more ethical set of metaphors’ to describe the intentions and movements of Australian poets and the affects of their work. Such metaphor would include, for example: distance; poetry as diplomacy; and poetry as survival, among others. Another result of archipelagic understandings of Australian poetry is that critical terms must be shifted. Those that hinge upon the concept of a national poetry tend to disintegrate: transnationalism and multiculturalism become complicated; even globalism, moots Minter, could become a less useful view of our archipelagic relationships.

These are exciting ideas. They articulate the ways I’ve come to view my own work and that of many other Australian poets over the last few years. I’ve been thinking about how Minter’s archipelago could be further expanded and detailed. For what they’re worth, here are some questions I’m currently asking myself as I think about how the archipelagic map could prompt new critical discussions:

  • How would ‘offshore’ areas of Australian poetic activity be included in the archipelagic map? Recently I wrote an essay for So Long Bulletin about travelling to Antarctica, and considering the tradition and function of literature written to/from there. While no longer attached to Australia, parts of Antarctica are Australia’s scientific territory and Australian poets have interacted with them. Potential poetic outcrops such as Antarctica and Norfolk Island sit alongside those of mainland, federally governed and permanent populations.
  • Stemming from this, I wonder how Australian poetic travel might be figured in the archipelago—including trans-Tasman exchanges and physical sites of cumulative poetic activity such as Asialink host venues. These seem to me to constitute another image of poetic activity: hauntings.
  • Psycho-geographic intensities could include those sites that have attracted repeated poetic attentions—anywhere from Bunda Cliffs to New England. On the archipelagic map, they might appear as palimpsests or 3D exposures. The Red Room Company’s current project, The Disappearing, reveals a way that such sites might be represented for a reading public. The Disappearing collects poems about locations including Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and later regional towns and areas and ascribes them GPS coordinates in a mobile mapping app. This is a whole new way of reading-in-space, perhaps one closest to the way we remember poetic images.
  • How might extra-poetic activity inform this kind of mapping? Australia’s long tradition of overlap between visual art and poetic practices has often drawn upon geographical sites, be they Hobart or the Pilbara. How could this kind of interdisciplinary intensity be more frequently considered in our approaches to Australian poetic development?
  • And what reality do we give to imaginary localities within Australian poetry? Antarctica comes to mind again; its literature, hampered by the continent’s inaccessibility, has often been more ‘psycho’ than ‘geographic’. Yet it has a place on the poetic map. There are less specific examples, such as the sometimes-revealed, sometimes-hidden localities in Anthony Lawrence’s ‘The Welfare of My Enemy’, the named-yet-obscured setting of Jaya Savige’s ‘The dreamworld murders’, Alan Wearne’s invented suburbs in ‘Out Here’, or the imagined landscapes in my own long poem, ‘Final Theory’.

  • The archipelagic model is primarily about poetry’s relationships to place, in which are nestled society, culture and government. Minter may be signalling a way to break down that vague, North American term, ‘ecopoetics’, into more specific accounts of our island poetics.

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