Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets
— Edited by John Tranter, March 2015.
— Notes are given at the end of this file. Click on the note number to go to the endnote, likewise to return to the note in the text.
— This piece is 9,500 words or about nineteen printed pages long.
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We’d like to thank the Literature Board of the Australia Council for research funding for this project. In particular we thank Anna Ward, Tom Shapcott, Irene Stevens and Elaine Lindsay for their help.
Special thanks to Jocelyn Stenson for her love, support and help with the work; to Robert Stead, for his help; and to Clare O’Brien, our editor at Penguin, for her understanding and patience.
We also thank the following people for comments and work on the Introduction, for help with research and work in libraries, for reading the manuscript, lending books, providing legal advice, and for their hospitality: Catherine Berndt, Lisa Berryman, Baiba Berzins, Colleen Burke, Foyle Campbell, Alison Clark, Brigid Costello, Anna Couani, Liz Day, Sarah Day, Tamsin Donaldson, Marianne Erhart, Chris Fondum, Barbara Giles, Heather Grey, Sylvia Hale, Beni Hampton, Nancy Harding, Beth Haynes, Rob Johnson, Sylvia Kantaris, Jacquie Kent, Nancy Keesing, Margaret Kibble, George Kosovich, Guida Lawrence, Caroline Llewellyn, Kathleen Mackie, Trisha Mackie, Chris Mansell, Billy Marshall-Stoneking, Philip Martin, Andrew McDonald, Violet McLean, Gina Mercer, Max Meyer, Drusilla Modjeska, Dao Nguyen, Margaret O’Hagan, Kim Paul, Gerry Rogers, Judith Rodriguez, Gig Ryan, Mary Savage Harrison, Howard Schrieber, Susan Sheridan, Tina Sion, Lynne Spender, Amanda Stenson, Jono Stenson, Amanda Stewart, Christine Squires, Bobbi Sykes, Frank Thompson, John Tranter, Jim Tulip, Anthony Wallace, Elizabeth Webby, Jennifer Wilson, Sue Woolfe and Merril Yule.
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Here are eighty-nine women poets. Tribal Aboriginal singers through to post-modern writers and performance poets of 1986. This collection is part of a history of women’s writing and of cultural politics which are creatively disturbing the conventional view of our literary heritage. The selection charts the possibilities of women’s writing. It also presents for the first time an overview of the traditions, the voices and the range of women’s poetry in Australia.
poems which know why
We looked for poems which gave us a shock of recognition, which gave pleasure. Which acknowledge female experience. We looked for poems which redescribe traditional themes like sex and motherhood, and also for poems on ‘unfeminine’ subjects. Poems which look at feminity as a cultural construct, and how we live inside it. Or outside it. We looked for poems which have an awareness of their form, of the processes of consciousness and of writing. Poems which are aware of the link between formal experimentation and gender. Poems which know why and the language itself knows. We looked for surprises.
Rhymed verse is a wide net through which many subtleties escape. Nor would I take it to capture a strong thing, such as a whale.
Anna Wickham, born 1884 from ‘Note on Rhyme’
Our perspective is feminist, but the-feminist-poet has become a stereotype. And there are many feminisms. For us and many poets in this book, the women’s movement has created a network of friendships and ideas, a politics from which we can understand the culture, and a knowledge of each other’s writing. A dialogue which we’re echoing off each other becomes a new dialectic. [See Note 1]
I have been most influenced by writing done by women. Their experience was the same as mine. Both the migrant and the woman are in the same position. They have to deal with conflict. The migrant is placed outside the norms of society. The woman has to establish an identity for herself other than the one she is offered. As both a woman and a migrant I have been given no sense of belonging in the
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world, no set place. I have to state my identity. I have to reconstruct that world. My writing deals with stress, chaos, and the need to express this and thus reconstruct my world, through the record of my personal experience. This way I make my own experience coherent. I join me to the world.
15 well-known collections
In fifteen well-known collections of Australian poetry published since 1970, the average of female authors selected was 17 per cent. The average number of pages of women’s poetry was 13 per cent. [See Note 2] This may not be a problem of deliberate critical neglect, but a problem of consciousness—until recently most anthology editors, literary historians and critics have been male, and their gaze was unconsciously focussed on other men. What is represented, why certain discourses are approved, is always in question. Which books get published and reviewed, and why Which poets are taught in high schools, universities, teachers’ colleges. These are all areas where feminists are challenging established attitudes and discourses.
I believe creating (writing poetry in this case) should be, and is, as natural and integrated a process as cooking eggs for breakfast; can see no distinction between a person wishing to express herself on the page, or getting drunk and attempting to communicate verbally in a pub. Each moment, each experience is unique, as therefore each poem is… If a poem is emotional, subjective, hysterical even, then chances are the form will be scattered over the page as randomly as the emotions which motivate it. I want a poetry of the spirit / of the body / of the emotions. [Note 3]
Vicki Viidikas, 1973
Women’s poems have been criticised at times for being too subjective, too personal, too ‘domestic’. Critical language has a repertoire of syntax, adjectives and metaphors for casting its own light on reality. ‘Academic objectivity’ goes on revealing itself as the ideology of conservatism. [Note 4]
of my men friends who criticise
my writing for being too personal
whatever that means
ah I know
and ever since I can remember I
strove to be depersonalised — did you?
…I still have my role
but changed older different
I am uneasy in these close fitting garments
Colleen Burke from ‘Call Around and See Us’
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reconstructing the world means rethinking
Women have a marginal status in the literary world, otherwise this book would not be necessary. Having to reconstruct the world means rethinking. The power of the margins is exactly in the reconstruction. There is a way of understanding the centre from the margins.
In reply to the interview question ‘What is the voice of your poetry ’ Jennifer Maiden said in 1977:
Ambivalent, ambidextrous, ambiguous, androgynous, amorous, ironic… I see my work as inviting my reader to wander in it and explore without having his way barred by any immediate and dismissive simplicity in the poem’s voice. Teasing, intellectual irony, too, has always seemed to me a humane new channel toward pensive seduction for what otherwise, in more direct poetry, can be a jealous urge for power over the reader.
My work, however, is as much concerned with science as sensuality, and with political and ontological theory as much as with the domestic solidities. Technically, I like poetry to be rich and inexhaustible, but I am prepared to use brevity and obviousness when they are useful to a thought-process or to stylistic effect. [Note 5]
Whether discussing formal techniques or subject matter, women writers often speak about dichotomies, making distinctions. We also write about breaking distinctions, especially those in the forms of writing-blurring the line between poetry and prose, or fiction and criticism. Breaking the old forms, multiplying the meanings, inviting new juxtapositions.
Writing A Gap in the Records, [Note 6] a post-modern spy thriller, Jan McKemmish said she wanted to put women and power in the same sentence. Reviewers now find themselves putting feminist and spy thriller in the same sentence.
The margins are becoming visible. It’s not just that large numbers of women are now writing the other half of the story — what it felt like to be Rapunzel or Mrs Noah, though that is important too: the rewriting of mythical and legendary female figures is one visible pattern in this book. Woven under the surfaces of these poems is the consciousness of a new sort of woman, and this changes the way we write.
Experimentation with form is an absolute necessity for a woman writer. For what has been done and how that was done neither says what she has to say nor provides the way of saying it. [Note 7]
Finola Moorhead, 1985
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I have to state my identity
We tend to think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly.
It all started when I in a very feminine pursuit — I persuaded my husband that we should learn round-dancing. For the benefit of uninitiated readers I will explain that round-dancing is an up-to-date version of old-fashioned dances such as the Pride of Erin and the Canadian three-step.
Each dance has an intricate series of patterned movements that go with a specific piece of music. To learn these, the couples stand in a circle, so that all move in the same direction, while someone calls out the movements.
The calls are all directed to the men, who are leading the women, as is usual in dancing. Thus a caller will say: ‘Two forward two-steps, walk two, and face the wall.’ This means that the man does two forward two-steps, walks two steps forward, and then turns sideways to face the wall. But the woman does two backward two-steps, walks two steps backward, and turns away from the wall. She thus has to do a kind of simultaneous translation, and therefore makes mistakes far more often than the man.
I took all this for granted, of course, until we reached a dance where there were a lot of instructions to do backward two-steps and backward walks. For the first time the women seemed to be going forwards most of the time, though, of course, we were being instructed to go backwards. I discovered that this was my favourite dance, and also that my husband did not like it at all.
For some time we did not realise why, until it hit me that all my life I had been dancing mostly backwards while he had been going forwards. When you dance backwards, you can’t see where you are going and so you have no control over whether you might bump into someone — you are in someone else’s hands.
I noticed that when our roles were suddenly reversed for one dance, my husband felt totally insecure.
This story encapsulates for me the problems inherent in a sexist society. Let me emphasise that I was quite happy dancing backwards and doing simultaneous translations. It was not until I had the experience of walking forwards for the first time—and of repeating that experience a number of times — that I even became aware that not everyone spent their life walking backwards and that there was an alternative which was much nicer.
As an acknowledged anti-sexist, I don’t want to reverse the whole process and have men walk backwards, translating, all their lives. What I want is a society in which each half of the population gets a turn at speaking the main language, at learning the subordinate one, and at walking — and dancing—in both directions.[Note 8]
Erica Bates, 1984
I have to state my identity. I have to reconstruct the world… this way I make my own experience coherent. I join me to the world.
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These could all be read as statements representing possible layers in the evolution of a feminist consciousness. The Margaret Atwood quote is an example of the cryptic sentence which triggers the first stage — we realise the strength of the codes of behaviour which pattern our thinking, and how hard it is to change. We observe our relationships with men, our roles in the fluent dance of patriarchy. Behaviour we had taken for granted is now in question. Our statements are threatening to anyone who wants to preserve inequality, and particularly anyone afflicted with machismo. (‘A bruised machismo is not the same as a broken head. Its worse.’ — Angela Carter.)
A radical questioning of social structures often leads to an angry stage, chaos, which makes way for a new layer, creation. Making something new is to imagine different grids on reality, other views of the world.
maps for the future
The map of the world is felt from the inside. Rough around the coastlines and smooth over the hills and sand dunes. Warm and moist through the rivers which lead outside to the forests like long hair then sparser like shorter more bristly hair to the touch. Reading a globe of the world with its topography in relief. Reading with the fingers as though blind. Feeling it with the back, down the spine. Making contact with the nipples and the nose only. Moving at a fast rate underwater through the oceans and large lakes. Most of the oceans connect up with each other. Moving so fast that you become aware of the earth’s surface being curved. Flying low but fast across the land masses. Make yourself feel like the world. As old but not as troubled. [Note 9]
Anna Couani, 1983
In women writers’ workshops, womens studies courses, writers are working out the social meaning of their literary techniques. It has become clear that ideas can’t be divorced from the way they are presented.
‘Once I look at the formal techniques of the writing, I can tell what is being said.’
‘Maybe we should talk about the difference between story language, non-narrative fiction, and writer’s notebook language.’
Feminist critical theory has moved from the insights of de Beauvoir, Greer and Millett to the theories of Kristeva, Cixous, Irigary. The -feminist- writer is a stereotype which is constantly being deconstructed by the many available feminisms. In the poems, deliberate formal naivety may go
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together with highly sophisticated subject matter. Other poems work in a different way against fixed meanings, showing in their new forms a shifting play of self-consciousness.
I’m interested in patterns, mainly their disruption. Poetry should at some level disorganize the world. Language should through new customs declare its baggage, have it inspected and sniffed for details. [Note 10]
Chris Mansell, 1985
Poetry is language in search of itself. [Note 11]
Joanne Burns, 1985
What are the strategies of the new writing Why does contemporary poetry often call up the response ‘It doesn’t sound like a poem’?
In the last five years I’ve been working towards a plainer, more colloquial, clipped short line, a dramatic, uncluttered utterance, with the use of ampersands lower case and a minimum of punctuation to speed up the phrasing. Behind it all is the sound of the human voice talking and the jagged inconsequential nature of thought. I became sick to death of the personal pronoun ‘I’ and began to write through a persona called Alice. I try to use myth and symbol interrelated with the tough and ‘unpoetic’ stuff of modern life. [Note 12]
Dorothy Hewett, 1985
Until my late teens my environment was cafes. I witnessed women being bought for a meal (the assertive, well-dressed ones could name their price). It was these women who had the most influence on my life. I started writing poetry in 1972. Poetry armed me, so I began to squeeze pens and write. Seizing the pen and moving words along a production line is like holding the carnival that comes to town in your land. [Note 13]
One of the features of modern poetry readings is the performance poem, which included the idea of the poem ‘off the page’. What constitutes a poem may come from what looks like a poem, or prose, or a song, or a musical score. Syntactical disruptions, discontinuity, truncations, bizarre serial imagery, repetition, are some of the strategies of this sort of poem, and can be seen here in the work of such writers as Gig Ryan, Ania Walwicz, Amanda Stewart. The influence of dadaism, and particularly of Gertrude Stein (‘the mama of dada’) is seen in the undoing of known forms, in the use of language that is clearly against the ‘machine drive’ of the late twentieth century, and is opposed to the push to a future based on the fetish of technology.
Another field of contemporary poetry which should be mentioned here is that area where poetry, criticism and poetics overlap. Traditional genres
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are called into question by formal playfulness. At times the poem takes as its subject the nature of the relationship between poet, poem and reader.
… Don’t trust
me yet: I don’t know what I will still
require of you, and you don’t know
as yet the depth and danger in your trust.
There is no room here to run, and none
in you that I can run from.
Jennifer Maiden from ‘The Trust’
the last twenty years
We know about the changes in Australian poetry that came in the late 1960s with the influence of American poetry and the subculture which produced sex-drugs-and-rock-’n’-roll as its slogan. Rock-’n’-roll was mainly about men but there is a continuous tradition of women from Janis Joplin to Patti Smith to Laurie Anderson — and their influence can be heard in some of the poems here. In the late 1960s the poetic voice became colloquial and political. It was no longer hip to be warlike. Modern anthologies have caught up with this.
In the 1970s, feminism affected many women in a personal and direct way. It changed our lives. At the same time, men were being politicised by the anti-Vietnam war movement. For women the two overlapped — the women’s peace movement has been active in Australia from World War I to Pine Gap, and the influence of peace thinking, peace songs, can be heard in some poems. Along with the feminist critiques of militarism, the issues of sexism and racism were discussed.
As a body of ideas, feminism has absorbed the 60s ethos of collective action, the notions of being anti-star and anti-authoritarian. Because it addresses the equality of women it automatically brings up the equality of people.
Thinking we had no voice in history, we began consciously looking for a tradition of women’s writing. We realised there had to be more than what was represented in official histories. Research for this anthology showed a suppressed tradition of left and feminist writing in Australia.
In the same way, the major influence of feminist ideas on the poetry of the 1970s has not been recorded in current anthologies. Our record exists in Mother I’m Rooted, edited by Kate Jennings and published in 1975.
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It was a collection of voices, many unknown, of women writing in the early 1970s. In mainstream literary circles, it was generally thought to be embarrassing. It was meant to be. It was meant to be said. And some of it was the best thing that had happened to modern women’s writing in Australia. Outback Press printed 4000 copies and they sold out. In Australia this is big sales for a book of poetry. All over the country women who had been accustomed to seeing themselves as inhabitants in men’s poems, (‘La Belle Dame’, etc.) were hearing from themselves.
The book provoked a debate about standards, invited both by the poetry and Kate Jennings’ introduction.
Some poems fall anyhow,
all of a heap anywhere, dishevelled,
legs apart in loneliness and
and you talk about standards
from ‘By their poems ye shall know them: poem’
I don’t know any longer what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. I have been trained to know, in a patriarchal university, on a diet of male writers. We have to go back to bedrock, and explore thoroughly that which is female and that which is male, and then perhaps we can approach androgyny, and humanity.
Most critics ignored the book. Women writers couldn’t afford to ignore it, after all, here we were, talking. When Finola Moorhead reviewed the book she was mapping the future.
There is a peculiar mixing of old-fashioned styles with crude innovations in the techniques occurring throughout the book — a polarity which suggests that this is the first step towards a new feminine poetic genre. The first step being to do, to be honest and to risk failure. The next step will be to look into the failures and successes, and then to risk failure again by reaching out from the successes towards a satisfactory form which will be able to express the deep changes women are experiencing, the inventive thought and reassessment of basic principles that these changes demand. [Note 14]
In 1977 the Poets Union was formed. It is active in organising readings, seminars, bookstalls, etc. Many of the women involved are feminists, and it is now Poets Union policy to present the same numbers of women readers as men. The network of readers, which has been essential for some of the poets in this anthology, has called into question the old ideas about poets. One is the dominant image of the poet as male; another is that a writer works best alone in a garret, separated from his or her peers by a burning
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sense of duty to Art. Links were created between singers, artists and poets with an ideological commitment to validating the work of women, migrants and writers who did not fit the established notions of poetic practice.
The latest changes affecting Australian poetry came with French- influenced New York poetry, and the writing practices of post-modernism. Semiotic theory, structuralism and the techniques of deconstruction have had an enormous effect on contemporary experimental writing. Feminism absorbs ideas for developing other interpretations of reality and builds on them so that the theories also confront racism and sexism. All the time we are exploring the notion of what power is. A colleague has said:
It’s possible that post-modernism will be seen as a baroque manifestation and women’s writing as the major movement of the late twentieth century.
notes for a feminist history
In the last ten years, there has been an upsurge of women writer’s workshops, women’s studies courses, and feminist magazines. There are also visible changes in small press publishing and editing.
Some feminist presses — Sisters Publishing, McPhee Gribble, Redress Press, Sybylla, No Regrets, TuTu Press, Tantrum Press, Sea Cruise, Pariah Press, Abalone Press. Some small presses have chosen to publish women equally with men, including Friendly Street, Transit and Black Lightning.
Other small presses, distributors and magazines where women have been influential — Saturday Club, Power Press, Rigmarole Books, Allbooks, Collected Works Bookshop, Murphy Sisters, the Feminist Bookshop, Shrew Bookshop, Tabloid Story, 925, Migrant 7 and Brave New World.
Some feminist writers have taken up the stance of self-publishing as a positive alternative to the way things work in the publishing world — among them Peg Clarke, Mary Fallon, Pam Brown.
Some women editors of academic literary journals, little magazines, and feminist journals include Cheryl Adamson New Poetry, Fay Zwicky Westerly, Judith Rodriguez and Judith Brett Meanjin, Grace Perry Poetry Australia, Pat Laird SCOPP, Susan Higgins Southern Review, Cheryl Frost Linq, Helen Weller Artlook, Chris Mansell, Dorothy Porter and Joanne Burns Compass, Wendy Morgan and Sneja Gunew Mattoid, Barbara Giles Luna, Carole Ferrier Hecate, Jurate Sasnaitis and Berni Janssen Syllable.
Many magazines which are specifically feminist are edited by collectives — Refractory Girl, Womanspeak, Scarlet Women, Lip, Come
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2, Skirt, Girls Own. Many more have come and gone, archives of womens history, politics and poetry, such as Mejane and Mabel. [Note 15]
There have been women journal editors for a long time. From 1884 to 1894 Mary Hannay Foott was the literary editor of the Queenslander. Louisa Lawson, a pioneer of women’s suffrage and feminism generally, founded and edited the Dawn, a women’s newspaper. Mary Gilmore edited a widely read women’s page in the Sydney Worker for twenty-three years. Bessie Mitchell (Guthrie) set up the feminist Viking Press in the 1940s.
back to the beginning
It is a long way from the shifting definitions and values which mark our age to the origins of Australian poetry. Poetry has been sung and danced and chanted here for many thousands of years. There are some older Aborigines who carry around in their memories the words to several thousand Verses’ of songs.
The land is full of stories, no matter where you look. That tree is really a digging stick left by a giant woman; and that rock over there is a dingo’s nose; and that cave is where the finch women escaped the anger of marapulpa, the spider… The old storytellers say, ‘the dreaming does not end; it is not like the whitefellas’ way. What happened once, happens again and again. This is the power of the Song. Through the singing,’ they say, ‘we keep everything alive.’ [Note 16]
We begin this anthology with extracts — in the original language and in translation — from Aboriginal women’s songs, but finding them was a difficult and paradoxical research task. Until the last twenty years or so, most anthropologists have been men, and they spoke mainly to male Aborigines and collected their songs. Compared with the large body of research done on ‘men’s business’, very little is available, particularly song texts, which reflects women’s view of the world. About the women in the background, suppositions were made, sometimes wildly incorrect. It would be easy to get the impression that women sang only grief and fertility songs, but more women anthropologists and linguists are now working with Aboriginal women and studying their songs. Some of this material is secret; very little is yet available in a form which can be ‘read’ as a poem.
To begin with, the songs are not (in our sense) ‘poems’, and were never meant to go anywhere near a page. Then too, some performances are for women only, some for men only and in others, women and men join with different roles. A performance has a spectacle aspect (song, mime, dance,
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body paint) which is not conveyed by print. Things which on the page impress by their economy, in performance impress by their patterned repetition, their ‘prolongability’. [Note 17]
There are issues of transmission, such as: Did a woman invent this song and: Is this secret, or can we ‘take’ it We might find that another person or tribal group owns the song, and that the singer has been given permission to sing it, sometimes with local variations. In some cases the song was given to the owner in a dream. Is the author the person, animal or being in the dream?
Non-Aboriginal Australians are interested in authorship and composition because we live in a culture of the printed word, whereas Aborigines are interested in ownership and performance.
If we take it that the ‘author’ is the owner of the song, we’re still faced with the problem of the song being filtered through the values of the translator. Then there is the literary tradition to contend with. In the past, some translators thought part of their job was to ‘dignify’ the Aboriginal song by making references and comparisons to the classical European canon and to Greek and Roman mythology. It makes a bizarre impression to see an Aboriginal song conveyed into Victorian rhymed verse.
Another problem confronting the translator of traditional songs is that many songs have several layers of meaning. We came across a literal translation of a sequence of song words which in English read
sunset sunset sunset sunset
and it was explained that there were four different ways of talking about the sunset and its meaning in the song.
A text may contain words which aren’t used in ordinary speech, but are ‘power’ words, as they are described in some languages. The Aboriginal languages have oblique ways of referring to all sorts of principles and powers — these are ‘in the beginning was the word’ words. Further, there are grades of initiation into the meaning of things. In an oral culture which is close-knit, a high degree of allusion is possible and valued. Sometimes the allusion is a way of restricting access to privileged knowledge. [Note 18]
Maureen Watson, black activist and story-teller, has said that
For a people who now call themselves Australian, and call our country their country, both teachers and students have remarkably little knowledge or respect for the rich cultural heritage and tradition of the land with which they identify so, so strongly. [Note 19]
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It’s quiet in the social studies lesson. She is colouring in a picture of some men and horses and a mountain. The whisper starts, and she thinks it’s the wind in the trees she is putting on the mountain. But no, it’s the women talking, where are they On the first page of her book is a picture, blue and red and white, of Captain Cook. On the second page some women are getting off a ship. Then two men in a little boat going towards the bottom of the map, big waves rush at them. Pages of men follow, men in planes or with camels or in uniform. No Amelia Earhart. No Mary Reiby. No Truganini. In high school, no Miles Franklin, no Christina Stead. This was in the 1950s and 1960s, when many of the poets in this book were at school.
Finding poems from our colonial ancestors of the nineteenth century was almost as difficult as finding song texts in translation. We have read Mary Gilmore. Who were the other women poets writing before Judith Wright began publishing
Some names — Zora Cross Ada Cambridge Lesbia Harford
Anna Wickham Ricketty Kate Ethel Anderson Mary Fullerton (‘E’) Anonymous Dorothea Mackellar Eve Langley Marie Pitt.
They often wrote with great sexual and social honesty. Their voices are clear and witty. They were experimenting with the forms and themes of poetry, and they were politically concerned. Ada Cambridge, a novelist as well as a poet, has been described by H. M. Green as ‘The first Australian writer, of prose or verse, to whom social problems really mattered.’ [Note 20] The writing of Mary Gilmore, Mary Fullerton, Anna Wickham, Lesbia Harford and Marie Pitt overlaps with the early labour and suffrage movements with the work of people like Vida Goldstein, Rose Scott, Alice Henry and Miles Franklin. The tradition of left feminist writing in Australia is submerged in most histories and curricula, yet the ideas have been important in shaping women’s consciousness of language and the subjects we choose to write about.
The early poets talk about the selector’s wife and daughter, about miners, slum children, prostitutes, machinists in factories, period pain, cars, cigarettes, sex, social conventions, strikes, feminism, lovers, Japan, female convicts, kissing, old age, gadgets, India, happy marriage, rhyme, women lovers, the Harbour Bridge.
Ada Cambridge (1844-1926), married to the Reverend G. E. Cross, was able to say:
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I kiss; I feast; but I am hungry still
… I would not dare pretend
To constant passion and a lifelong trust
but her book Unspoken Thoughts, published in London in 1887, was suppressed, since it was thought to be so outspoken that it would hinder her husband’s career. [Note 21]
Mary Gilmore (1865-1962) published more widely than Ada Cambridge. Her poems which relate most directly to womens lives are not usually included in anthologies; she is better remembered for ‘Old Botany Bay’.
Anna Wickham (1884-1947) grew up in Australia. At the age of twenty she went to England to further her career, both as a poet and as an operatic singer. She gave up singing to marry a scientist, and for five years played the difficult role of a model wife to a conventional husband. When the feeling of suffocation became too strong, she began to write poetry in secret. When the poems were published, Anna, feeling excited and triumphant, showed them to her husband. He was very angry, thought anything she wrote worthless, and in any case had no intention of allowing his wife to be a poet. She was not to do it again. Anna exploded with rage and found herself certified as insane.’ [Note 22]
Zora Cross (1890-1964) wrote with a kind of hothouse sexuality about her lovers and her husband, and had a reputation as an accomplished sonnet writer. The first edition of Songs of Love and Life, published when she was ‘quite young’, sold out in three days. The copy held at the Mitchell Library contains handwritten comments by Christopher Brennan, who knew more about usage, commas and craft. ‘Poetry doesn’t need exclamation marks.’ He suggested Cross substitute ‘wherein’ for ‘where’, ‘thence’ for ‘there’, ‘thronged’ for ‘heaped’ and ‘clasped’ for ‘held’. Beside the poem ‘Thou Shalt Not’ (page 24) he wrote ‘What does it all mean, anyhow?’ and ‘Doors creak: but does anything ever creak through a door’?
Men come from a different place, their journeys are different from ours. I wouldn’t allow myself to be seriously influenced by a male critic of my work. This is because I believe that men are frequently uncomfortable with women’s writing and this discomfort is not owned as such, but dissembled into criticism. I don’t mean this is always the case. But we need to be aware of the possiblity when we listen to male comments on our writing, and trust again and again, only our own inner voice.
All my life I have directed my energy outwards. This is how we have been taught to live, to anticipate the demands of others. Now for the first time I am learning to direct this energy inwards. The other day I was making strawberry milkshakes
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for five children in my kitchen. I was hardly aware of them. I was thinking about a story I’m writing. It was wonderful to realise later the achievement of detachment I was moving towards.
Jennifer Wilson, 1986
A contemporary male critic and poetry editor who has been influenced by feminist theory gives this account of the way he used to read womens poetry.
I have begun to think that I might have been quite wrong in many of my suggestions, quite blind in my rejection of poems that, because they did not conform in sufficient respects to what I had come to believe were the fundamentals of good poetry, I thought were poor or inept or somehow simply misconceived… if I was doing that, and in some small way helping to repress a way of saying that I did not understand or for which I could not see the necessity, how many others must have been doing likewise, and for how long?’ [Note 23]
David Brooks, 1985
a picture of history
There is a photograph. The bearded faces are in three rows, they look sternly at the camera as people did in the days before smiling was a photographic fashion. Behind and between the solid bodies of the men are moving shadows. As the shapes come into focus the picture dissolves, the picture must be taken again.
Who was Ethel Anderson? Born in England in 1883, she was fifth-generation Australian. She was educated at Picton and later in Sydney. She moved in vice-regal and military circles, and for a time lived in India with her administrator husband. Slightly deaf in her later years, she flourished an immense silver ear trumpet draped with tulle. Nancy Keesing remembers her as a grand, eccentric woman whose personal style was after the fashion of her writing style — if her hat had wheat and French flowers, her ear trumpet had too.
Ethel Anderson was a poet and short story writer. John Douglas Pringle, who edited The Best of Ethel Anderson: Tales of Parramatta and India (1973) says ‘I do not know of a better short story in Australian literature than ‘Mrs James Greene’.[Note 24] He describes Anderson as
a considerable scholar, knowing a little Greek and a lot of Latin. She was well read in French as well as English literature and especially admired Verlaine, Lamartine, Violette Leduc and… Colette. She was also… an accomplished pianist, a keen amateur painter and a discerning critic of contemporary art.
end page 14 / page 15 follows
Why is she so little known, either as poet or short story writer Pringle’s view is that:
Australians could not believe that anyone who had spent much of her social life in and around Government House could be a serious writer (she was), let alone that, when her husband died in 1949, she might have to write for a living (she did).
Who was Lesbia Harford? She was writing during World War I and until her early death in 1927. A new edition of her work appeared in 1985, edited by Drusilla Modjeska and Marjorie Pizer. Before that, there had only been the limited edition edited by Nettie Palmer in 1941. Drusilla Modjeska writes:
Lesbia Harford graduated in law from Melbourne University, but she never practised. Instead she worked in textile and clothing factories and joined the I. W. W., the radical labour movement.
She is known more or less dimly to some poets and critics, beyond that barely at all, although one of her poems, ‘Periodicity’, is sung by the Adelaide band Redgum on their album Virgin Ground: ‘Women, I say,/Are beautiful in change,/ Remote, immortal, like the moon they range.’ (1917)
Her poems, many of them written as songs, raise critical questions of the relationship between popular and literary traditions of writing, the forms of protest poetry and the interconnections between histories of writing, class and feminism. These issues and the necessary re-readings that accompany them have become central to contemporary critical debates. [Note 25]
Another area of re-reading concerns the lesbian voice. When a woman writes about sexual love for another woman, critics often assume that the voice is a male persona. In many cases including contemporary ones, the poet is speaking literally, [Note 26] as Harford does.
Harford’s first love affair, at least what seems to have been her first, serious love affair, was with a woman, an intense and absorbing relationship which lasted in some form until her death. Lesbia’s lover, Katie Lush, was a philosophy tutor at Melbourne University. Katie and Lesbia made a striking pair, the one tall and red- headed, the other small and dark. Together they were members of the Victorian Socialist Party… [and were active in] the anti-conscription campaigns. In Lesbia’s poems to Katie Lush, and… to [another friend and lover] Guido Baracchi, she reworks that contradictory set of emotions between love and independence.
Of the historical poets, Lesbia Harford and Anna Wickham are probably the closest in mood and subject matter to contemporary poets who form the bulk of the anthology. In 1916 it was extraordinary for women to be writing about their bodies, politics or class. It was unusual for poets to write beyond the constraints of nationalism.
end page 15 / page 16 follows
Reputations have always been created for women poets which pigeonhole them into acceptable places. Mary Gilmore we have mentioned, Dorothea Mackellar is known only for ‘My Country’. She also wrote the imagist ‘Japanese Songs’ and poems about the gender war: ‘Arms and the Woman’ deals with the same themes as Sylvia Kantaris’ ‘News from the Front’ and Dipti Saravanamuttu’s ‘Statistic for the New World’.
The new world of Judith Wright’s poetry — the politically concerned later poems — is also suppressed by anthologists in favour of her earlier, over- anthologised poems such as ‘Woman to Man’. Wright requested that we choose from her later work, because it seems no one can hear her present voice. We may know and love ‘South of My Days’ and ‘Bullocky’, but few readers are familiar with ‘At a Poetry Conference, Expo ’67’, or ‘Report of a Working Party’.
what’s happening now
Today there are critics who understand that aesthetic judgement is political, that your sexual politics and your class position have an effect on what poems you like. There are growing numbers of academics, men as well as women, who are ‘working to expose the system of power that authorises certain representations while blocking, prohibiting or invalidating others.’ [Note 27]
We hope this book challenges the usual meaning of the term ‘Australian poet’ and opens possibilities for the range of contemporary writing.
It may be that our historical moment is the moment of speaking to the creators of popular imagery surrounding women, in voices that say
It is the grief of angels to have to belch
into each other’s faces for excitement
Judy Beveridge, 1982
I’d rather be a lover than a saint
Lesbia Harford, 1919
I’m no sweet virgin sock-washer either
Vicki Viidikas, 1972
What else can be heard in these poems Speaking about women’s art practices, Anne-Marie Sauzea-Boetti has said:
and page 16 / page 17 follows
The actual creative project of woman as subject involves betraying the oppressive mechanisms of culture in order to express herself through the break, within the gaps between the systematic spaces of artistic language… Not the project of fixing meanings but of breaking them up and multiplying them. [Note 28]
Susan Hampton and Kate Llewellyn
 From an interview in Mattoid No 13, ed. Wendy Morgan and Sneja Gunew, Deakin University, Geelong, Vic.
 These are: Modern Australian Poetry, ed. David Campbell, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1970; Australian Poetry Now, ed. Tom Shapcott, Sun Books, Melbourne, 1970; 12 Poets 1950-1970, ed. Alexander Craig, Jacaranda Press, Sydney, 1971; The Penguin Book of Australian Verse, ed. H. Heseltine, Penguin, Ringwood, 1972; The First Paperback Poets Anthology, ed. Roger McDonald, UQP, St Lucia, 1974; Applestealers, ed. R. Kenny and C. Talbot, Outback Press, Melbourne, 1974; The New Australian Poetry, ed. John Tranter, Makar, Newcastle, 1979; The Golden Apples of the Sun, ed. Chris Wallace-Crabbe, MUP, Melbourne, 1981; Gargoyle Series (to No 30), ed. Martin Duwell, Makar, Queensland; The Penguin Book of Modern Australian Verse, ed. H. Heseltine, Penguin, Ringwood, 1981; The Collins Book of Australian Poetry, ed. Rodney Hall, Collins, Sydney, 1981; The Second Paperback Poets Anthology, ed. Tom Shapcott, UQP, St Lucia, 1982; The Younger Australian Poets, ed. R. Gray and G. Lehmann, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1983; The Heritage of Australian Poetry, ed. Geoffrey Dutton, Currey O’Neil, Melbourne, 1984; Neither Nuked Nor Crucified, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, Mattara, Newcastle, 1984.
 Back cover, Condition Red, Vicki Viidikas, UQP, St Lucia, 1973
 For an interesting discussion of the language often used to describe women’s writing, see Man Made Language, Dale Spender, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1980.
 In ‘Questionnaires on poetry’, Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 8 No. 2, October 1977.
 A Gap in the Records, Jan McKemmish, Sybylla, Melbourne, 1985.
 In Quilt, Finola Moorhead, Sybylla, Melbourne, 1985.
 From the article ‘Dance Floor Clues to a Better Society’ in the Sydney Morning Herald, 1984.
 ‘The Map of the World’ from The Train in Leaving Queensland and The Train, Barbara Brooks and Anna Couani, Sea Cruise Books, 1983.
 Statement of poetics in Off the Record, an anthology of contemporary performance poems. Compiled and edited by II O, Penguin, 1985.
 In a review ‘Goodbye Prince Hamlet: The New Australian Women’s Poetry’ in Quilt, op. cit.
 The current magazines and journals are available in the serials rooms of university libraries. The feminist ones are also available at Gleebooks and the Feminist Bookshop in Sydney, and Shrew Bookshop and International Bookshop in Melbourne.
 From the voice-over script of Desert Stories, a documentary film by Billy Marshall-Stoneking.
 Thanks to Tamsin Donaldson of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies in Canberra for this point.
 See Tamsin Donaldson’s discussion of Aboriginal song texts and translation problems in Aboriginal History 3:62-83, 1979.
 In Black Reflections, a report on a Commonwealth Schools Commission project, published by the Education Information Retrieval Service.
 In his History of Australian Literature.
 What happens to women’s writing and the strategies for suppressing it, is well documented in How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ, The Women’s Press, London, 1984
 David Garnett in his Introduction to Selected Poems by Anna Wickham, Chatto and Windus, London, 1971. Virago Press published The Writings of Anna Wickham: Free Woman and Poet (404 pp), ed. and introduced by R. D. Smith in 1984.
 In ‘Poetry and sexual difference: Notes towards an Australian female poetic’ in Meanjin, March-April, 1985.
 From the Introduction to The Best of Ethel Anderson: Tales of Parramatta and India, edited by John Douglas Pringle, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1973
 From the Introduction to The Poems of Lesbia Harford, ed. Drusilla Modjeska and Marjorie Pizer, Sirius Books, Sydney, 1985. Colleen Burke is also working on editions of early women poets. See her Doherty’s Corner, the poems of Marie Pitt, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1985. A biography and selection of the poems of Mary Fullerton (‘E’) will be available soon.
 For an enlightening analysis of contemporary poetry by lesbian women in the USA, see Elly Bulkin’s introduction to Lesbian Poetry, ed. by Elly Bulkin and Joan Larkin, Persephone Press, Massachusetts, 1981. Bulkin mentions Gertrude Stein and Amy Lowell and H. D as early figures in a lesbian literary tradition; included in the anthology are such poets as May Sarton, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Judy Grahn (who has won the American Poetry Review Prize), Marilyn Hacker, Susan Griffin, and Rita Mae Brown.
 From ‘Feminists and post-modernism’ in The Anti-Aesthetic, Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster, Bay Press, Washington, 1983.
 From ‘Negative capability as practice in women’s art’ in Studio International, 1976, Jan/Feb, Vol. 191 No. 979, page 25. Quoted in Heartland, a catalogue of six Australian women artists, for a travelling exhibition assisted by the Visual Arts Board of the Australia Council, 1985.