No Poetry for Stella

By | 21 October 2012

Beginning in 2013, a major new literary gong – The Stella Prize – will be Australia’s annual acknowledgement of great works by women authors. It carries a $50,000 purse. That’s major, as it should be. The prize was proposed, attracted prominent supporters, then quickly catalysed into reality as a direct response to the dominance of male authors in the Miles Franklin Literary Award’s shortlists. The organisers’ own words describe the prize as one that ‘will celebrate and recognise Australian women’s writing, encourage a future generation of women writers, and significantly increase the readership for books by women.’

In 2012, a slight majority of all submissions to Cordite Poetry Review have been from women. From the creation side of the literature proposition, there is no shortage of women engaging, writing, developing and submitting. That a prize such as the Stella is now around to acknowledge this fact is a terrific and necessary development. I support this prize.

Where the Miles Franklin strictly considers novels only, similar to the UK’s Orange Prize (an influence on how the Stella might be run), the Stella expands its focus to consider a much wider frame of women’s writing in Australia, a commendable action that makes the Stella unique worldwide in a prize of this stature. Anna Krien’s nonfiction is exemplary, as are Mirranda Burton’s graphic books. Both should be in contention for this prize, and almost certainly will be during those authors’ careers.

But here’s the concern I have: collections of poetry are distinctly excluded from the types of text permissible to submit for consideration. So, too, are plays. This means that two of the great genres of literature since the dawn of its practice are simply erased from the Stella’s blueprints. On a recent reading trip to Melbourne, John Kinsella, globally renowned Australian poet that he is, dubbed Melbourne an ‘epicentre of world poetry’. I might couch that assertion in a more national scope, but the essence is true. Poetry is certainly not withering in Australia. It would be a shame not to consider that work.

Here are two of the consideration guidelines for the Stella prize:

Eligibility rule 3: Both fiction and non-fiction books are eligible for the prize. This includes novels of all genres, collections of short stories by a single author, memoirs, biographies, histories, novellas and verse novels. Illustrated books, including graphic novels, are eligible, provided they are accompanied by a substantial quantity of text.

Eligibility rule 4: Books that are not eligible for the prize include textbooks, guidebooks, self-help, poetry collections, play or film scripts, books written primarily for children, books consisting of illustrations or photographs, and adaptations, unless they represent a significant and creative transformation of the original text.

So why the omission of poetry collections but not verse novels? Who, and equipped with what criteria, will determine the demarcation of a verse novel like Judith Rodriguez’s The Hanging of Minnie Thwaits and a collection of long verse poems on a given theme such as Barbara Temperton’s Southern Edge? How much is a substantial quantity of text in a graphic novel? What would Sappho say to all of this? Or Lally Katz? Or quite a number of the well-established poets who appear in our pages?

It is not my intent with this post to toss another quibbling twig onto the ‘in defense of (or not) poetry’ bonfire. But I do find it a baffling decision to exclude poetry collections and plays from a prize that has admirably taken a bold step to expand its consideration of texts that significantly shape Australian literature (if such a nationalistic flavour even exists, but that’s a post for another time).

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