And Yet… by Dennis Haskell
WA Poets Publishing, 2020
Living on Granite by Maree Dawes
WA Poets Publishing, 2022
Infinite Ends by Amy Lin
WA Poets Publishing, 2023
Who Comes Calling? by Miriam Wei Wei Lo
WA Poets Publishing, 2023
It’s a flourishing time for Western Australian poetry and publishing. We have seen the well-publicised launch of Terri-Anne White’s press Upswell (responsible for Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s 2023 Prime Minister’s Literary Award’s shortlisted Clean) as well as the retention and success of UWA Publishing (who are currently bringing us the collected works of John Kinsella), while existing houses Magabala Books (home to Charmaine Papertalk Green, Ambelin Kwaymullina, and Elfie Shiosaki) and Fremantle Press (Andrew Sutherland’s 2022 Paradise: Point of Transmission having just been shortlisted for the Small Press Network Book of the Year) go strength-to-strength. Amongst these larger independent presses, smaller concerns have been making an impact: Roland Leach’s Sunline Press released the slim-but-mighty anthology of single-page poems by WA poets Cuttlefish this year, while the Green Leaves / Red River publication project by Centre for Stories (who also publish the journal Portside) in partnership with Red River Press, based in Delhi, has thus far produced five of an anticipated eight volumes, including the 2023 stand-out Flow by Luoyang Chen. Individual WA poets have also found successful homes in interstate presses. 2022 brought books from Giramondo by Tracy Ryan and Lucy Dougan, 2023 saw the launch of Lisa Collyer’s How to Order Eggs Sunny Side-Up and Natalie Damjanovich-Napoleon’s If There is a Butterfly that Drinks Tears with the newly formed imprint Life Before Man (of Gazebo Books, also publishing Alan Fyfe’s anticipated 2024 poetry debut), while Madison Godfrey’s Dress Rehearsals, out with Joan (an imprint of Allen and Unwin) has been nationally celebrated since it was launched in February. And we are currently awaiting Kerry Greer’s 2023 debut The Sea Chest with Recent Work Press, while from Puncher & Wattman Marcella Pollain’s The Seven-Eight Count of Unstoppable Sadness and Morgan Yasbincek’s Coming to Nothing are being launched end of this month.
WA Poets Publishing was formed prior to 2020, according to promotional materials, as a way of countering a “scale back in poetry publishing opportunities in Western Australia” and has become an integral part of the current proliferation of poetry publications. The publishing arm of WA Poets Inc. – which also organises the Perth Poetry Festival (of which I was a 2023 featured poet) and many other annual events – is a house deeply embedded in the local poetry scene. The current volunteer editorial panel comprises Jean Kent (a rogue non-WA based outlier), as well as Barbara Temperton, Lucy Dougan, and Dennis Haskell (all three of whom serve/served in editorial capacities for the preeminent WA literary journal Westerly). At time of writing, WA Poets Publishing have published five volumes of poetry under the heading of a “Master Poets Series,” three under “Emerging Poets,” and several anthologies curating poems from their major competitions. This review focuses on four of the five publications put out under the Master Poets Series (the fifth, Barbara Temperton’s Ghost Nets is the subject of another review).
The distinction between the Emerging and Master Poets selections is not always clearly delineated. Two of those branded “Emerging” are publishing their first long-form collection, while Fran Graham’s A Gentle Outward Breath is her second (after On a Hook Behind the Door, 2011, Ginninderra Press). While in the Master Poets series three of the contributors have published three or more books, Miriam Wei Wei Lo’s 2023 Who Comes Calling? is her second book (after Five Island Press’ 2004 Against Certain Capture, a second edition of which was published in 2021 with Apothecary Archive) and Amy Lin’s 2023 Infinite Ends is her debut collection. What defines a Master Poet then, rather than an emerging, might be found somewhere between the longevity of publishing career, the public reception of that career (Masters citing many awards) and, presumably, the qualities of the poetry itself. Somewhere then between the adjective form of master – showing very great skill/proficiency – and the verb form “mastered” – to have a complete understanding of. It is also tempting to read into it the noun ‘Master,’ in the sense of these being the Western Australian poetic Masters, the model poets to whom others aspire. In terms of reading all the collections put out with the heading of Master Poets within the particular context of them being aggregated under WA Poets Publishing, I wanted to ask how does Western Australia appear in these collections? How do they extend our understanding of Western Australian poetry? What confluences and distinctions might arise between them?
Dennis Haskell, the author of the first of the published volumes, 2020’s And Yet… meets with all possible definitions of master. Previously having published eight volumes of poetry and fourteen critical volumes, his bio also includes the note that in 2015 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for “services to literature, particularly poetry, to education and to intercultural understanding” (ii). And Yet… as Haskell’s ninth volume and the first in the Master Poets continues with some of Haskell’s familiar interests, faith, art, and grief in particular becoming themes which will echo to varying degrees through the other three poet’s volumes. While the later volumes each have an introductory statement by the poet, Haskell’s gets straight down to business after an epigraph from Celan: “Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language” (v). Haskell has an assured ear, particularly when it comes to the use of rhyming quatrains, either sonnets or in longer forms, where rhyme becomes almost a gentle container for the losses the poet contemplates:
Another birthday over, I add a number; experiences cleave to me as naturally as rings surround a tree; yet some fierce moments make me number (‘Holding’ 6)
What is “Western Australian” here is not a function of language or poetics, but a series of places offered as contextual locators, shorthand for points of departure, rather than subjects themselves, such as in ‘Revisiting St John of God Hospital Subiaco,’ where “[t]he corridors looked serene / and everything was as it had even been” (7).
The following volumes differ from Haskell’s in the ways we might expect from them, being different poets with different poetics and foci. They also differ paratextually in how they approach acknowledging place and people. All collections after Haskell have a one-to-two-page introduction by the author and the biographies have expanded from the usual paragraph to a discursive statement of almost a page. Dawes, Temperton, Wei Wei Lo, and Lin acknowledge either in their biographies or acknowledgements sections which First Nations’ Countries they are on, largely Minang Noongar and Whadjuk Noongar boodjar. Noongar language also appears in these volumes to varying degrees, mostly in the form of proper nouns for places, species, and seasons. Barbara Temperton sought permission for her language use from “members associated with the Wagyl Kaip Southern Noongar Region, Southwest of WA” and the “Wangka Maya Language Centre, Port Hedland WA” (80-81). Maree Dawes cites having checked her use of language against the “Noongar Word List from Sharing Noongar Culture, South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council (noongarculture.org.au)” (81). The consistent use and awareness of First Nations’ languages by non-Indigenous poets from Western Australia is potentially a point of particularity.