Anthologising the Nation

Over the last six or seven years, I have edited a number of special Australian issues of literary journals from Britain, Canada, and the United States. I have also edited an anthology of contemporary Australian poetry, Landbridge, and am at present completing a two-volume historical anthology. These projects were very different in orientation from the process of including Australian poetry (and prose) in the many “general” issues of literary journals that I edited over the same period of time, and indeed over the last dozen or so years. Apart from the obvious agenda of representing place and culture, or especially with a continent-country as large and diverse as Australia, places and cultures, there’s the constant undercurrent of bypassing or making connections between differences to create a broader context of identity. Shared identity. To open lines of communication between different kinds of poetries coming out of a spatial zone that implies shared language, geography, social and cultural concerns, and political frameworks, can be useful in presenting a picture of how that place works subtextually. But it is also limiting, and tends to help establish a nationalist discourse, a collective identity that places those outside the fabric as Other. This Other varies in degrees of rapprochement and alienation, but all those outside the place denoted by the rubric “Australia” become the necessary counterpart in a binary that defines collective identity. This can easily become the machinery of oppression, the emotional and potentially propagandist means of oppressing those who aren’t of the nation.

Australia is often called a young nation, because it was settled by Europeans just over two hundred years ago. But the indigenous peoples’ connection with the land has spanned something like 80 000 years. The land is geologically old, and old in terms of human habitation and cultures. Furthermore, the idea of modern Australia being a single collective entity collapses under even vague scrutiny. It relies on an image peddled by governments and organisations with a vested interest in maintaining the primarily Anglo-Celtic inclination of Australian culture, especially its close links to Britain (to the point that the British Queen is actually also the Queen of Australia). During my years of anthologising “Australian” poetry, I have increasingly tried to work outside the expectations of the official culture. This is not always easy, especially in cases where the government has indirectly funded the payments to authors. I am not suggesting there’s ever been any attempt to direct editorial content, but there’s certainly an element of expectation in the general culture – expectation of “quality”, the inclusion of those poets who have contributed to the national literature, who are either resident in Australia or have Australian citizenship, and so on. As time moved on, these various projects began to work without funding from Australia, and I’ve felt a greater freedom to use such potentially nation-asserting projects to undermine the idea of nation. In a recent issue of The Literary Review I wrote:


So, here’s a selection working against the idea of ‘one’ nation. It’s a selection that works in terms of communities and alternative identities – not just in terms of whether people’s surnames are from different backgrounds, but in the way they interpret the world around them. Few of the writers here – though I can’t speak for individuals, only for the overall impression – would be likely to spout patriotic anthems, though all are intensely aware of the implications of being identified as Australian. This label, to the overseas reader, is most often associated with the geography, topography, and geology of the land, certain clichéd cultural icons, and a few signifiers from television (location for Survivor, the Olympic Games, the place where backpackers are murdered), but to the Australian writer it is loaded with contradictions and ambiguity.

The expression “one nation” has particular resonance here, as the official political party of Australia’s far right is called One Nation. This party is about exclusion of Asians, of refugees (as is the present Government itself), and segregation (through assimilation by removing special rights) and suppression of indigenous peoples and their rights. In many ways, One Nation is just a personification of the Australian bureaucracy, and its inexorable drive towards the universal cliché of exclusiveness – that is, what differentiates Australians from the rest of the world. Instead of being part of a broader humanity, it has its own special label: Made In Australia.

The challenge has been to work outside this exclusivity, not only by aiming at the representing diversity in poetic styles (and, hopefully in the future, languages), but by clarifying how liberty of expression can be packaged to deny a liberty of day-to-day living. The marketing of the Bronzed Aussie, of the sports-mad high-achieving athlete bred in the wide-open spaces of Australia, is part of a campaign to market something different and special. But it begins with language. Australia is a multicultural nation (as opposed to the official “Multicultural”), that is linguistically rich, despite trying to impose English on all its new citizens. Australian English is unique because of the pressure under which standard English is placed by this diversity. To track these language differences even within the official English of “Australian Lit” becomes imperative.

And in no place will you find such a volatile linguistic space as in poetry. Australians are generally proud of their poetry, or the poetries of their particular cultures within the idea of Australia, and it has a great significance spiritually, as well as pragmatically, to the indigenous peoples. It was also the vehicle (specifically through ballads) used by those forced to Australia through convict transportation (freedom songs, especially for Irish people). In the early part of the nineteenth century, “Frank the Poet” wrote:


I was convicted by the laws
Of England’s hostile crown,
Conveyed across those swelling seas
In slavery’s fetters bound.
For ever banished from that shore
Where love and friendship grow
That loss of freedom to deplore
And work the labouring hoe.

Poetry also played a part in building an identity separate to that of the colonising country. What was it that made Australia different? Marcus Clarke wrote in 1876:


Our April bears no blossoms,
No promises of spring;
Her gifts are rain and storm and stain,
And surges lash and swing.
No budded wreath doth she bequeath,
Her tempests toss the trees;
No balmy gales – but shivered sails,
And desolated seas.Yet still we love our April,
For it aids us to bequeath
A gift more fair than blossoms rare,
More sweet than budded wreath.
Our children’s tend’rest memories
Round Austral April grow;
Twas the month we won their freedom, boys,
Just twenty years ago.


So within these imposed categories, different forms of nation become different forms of expression. The problem comes when you attempt to collect them and call it “Australian Poetry”. As with any other “nation”, the foundations of inclusiveness are shaky. To include is to exclude, to attempt to define is to imprison and usurp context. An agenda comes into play. A value-adding fetishisation of language, to suit a particular end. ت

Originally I started these editing projects to bring to the attention of those in the English-speaking world a poetry (or, more accurately, poetries) that is in a constant state of flux, that is linguistically diverse and interesting, and that, because of the tensions regarding identity, was quite radical and revolutionary in its sometimes laconic or quiet way. This is not always easy to see in the “official” anthologies of Australian verse from the pre-90s, with their preponderance of traditional verse forms and attempts to force Australian English (or other Englishes) into an acceptable colonial-inspired model. But if you look more closely, there have always been poets testing the edges, from “Frank the Poet” in the early nineteenth century, through the astonishing Lesbia Harford and Zora Cross in the early twentieth century, the hoax-poet Ern Malley, the dense and twisted beauty of Francis Webb in the 40s and 50s, on to the great innovators of the late 60s – Michael Dransfield, John Tranter, Robert Adamson, and so on. All of these poets mentioned worked within English – but there are also Greek, German, Chinese and most other languages, with often almost-hidden histories of poetry in Australia.

Most significantly, the indigenous poetries of Australia have challenged the primacy of English. Often under the threat of genocide, the astonishing song-poetry of these people has persisted, and adapted into an English-challenging poetry of connection between many different peoples. Also from The Literary Review introduction:


Indigenous artists, sportspeople, activists, and members of the varied indigenous communities in general, live lives connected with notions of Australia, but also parallel and independent cultural existences. They deal with histories – and I mean this in terms of a European construct – of genocide, of having children removed and transplanted by law into white families (The Stolen Generation), of land removal, of ‘economic’ destruction (traditional food gathering, spatial and temporal associations, etc., devastated or denied), and operating within the framework of ‘modernity’, at considerable social and financial disadvantage. Kim Scott, Samuel Wagan Watson, and Lisa Bellear, write out of this ‘history’.

Furthermore, the representation of poetries under the cloak of nation often goes hand-in-hand with overlooking spoken and ‘sculpted’ poetries. The marking of the body, sand-painting, rock-carving and painting, and the corroboree and ceremonial song-cycles are usually written out. Indigenous traditional song-cycle poetry in Australian anthologies has often been used without permission of the custodial peoples, and via transliterations that do not respect original meanings and spiritual significance. Appropriation becomes the key to anthologising in this context. To build “nation” out of the theft of often-oppressed peoples’ cultural identity is deplorable, and easily done. And it is done with every anthology of nation, as earlier times are plundered to validate and define the modern nation and its geography. The English historical anthology that utilises traditional ballads does a similar thing, especially when the material is translated out of medieval languages, and the desolation of Scots or Irish or Welsh (and many other) poetries by the anthology of nation (Britain) is a standard publishing pastime. One doesn’t have to think hard about American anthologies to find the same thing.

What goes out is a packaging of culture that is portable and recognisable for those we wish to influence. And that’s the point. With good intention, I might try to bring an awareness of the diversity and organicism of poetry in the landmass known as Australia, but in reality help suppress that diversity. Surely poetry is to challenge the way we receive information, to make us question how and why we perceive language in the way we do. But to collate and market is to control, to remove poetry’s energy. Individual pieces might surprise and inform us, but the conversations implied by the anthology also constrain. To challenge this, I’ve attempted to create alternative conversations, to show the disjunctions and discomfort along some of the seams, to make the conversations vigorous and demanding. I am often asked why I mix “innovative” and more traditional work, why I bring cross-genre pieces into the poetry environment. The more one can challenge the categories, the more one respects the fact that poetry is part of a resistance, as much as an engagement with what is. It has a political role that should be subverted by the expectations of the reader (“I want something that tastes of Australia!”).

Last year, in New York, I participated in a UN programme for World Poetry Day. A lot of useful dialogue came out of this, but one of the things that disturbed me was a net-project to represent all nations of the world with their own poetry sites, under the umbrella of an international festival site. The notion sounds a good one, but all poetries were to be translated into English, adding fuel to the argument about the imperialism of English (a universalising language). Yet more disturbing for me was that no matter how much I challenged this, no space would be created for those without nation or who reject nation. On requesting that such a space be created (again), I recently received the following message from one of the organisers:


Thank you for your suggestion. But we do not think such a special domain will be necessary. We use the division in countries for practical reasons. On the website itself this division will not be as prominent as you might think. For example language will also be an important entrance to poetry and/or information about poetry… We seek to mix the poets and the information from different countries as much as possible. The concept as it is now, already includes poets in exile, refugees, poets who are against nationalism. They will resort under their native country or country of residence. Their poetry will speak for itself.

The problem is that the “practical reasons” are why the oppressions exist in the first place. We must recognize that poetry packaged in terms of nation contributes to the conflict between nations, becomes a pawn in creating prejudices and separations. The most apparently apolitical poet is immediately made political when used in this way. What about the poet who is without nation, or in exile, and writes about the beauty of a flower, without any overt political message? Is he or she labelled as, say, supporting the country of his or her oppression just because the poem doesn’t say: “my” Nation did this to me? It doesn’t necessarily announce directly, and only with the context of distancing or rejecting national origins does it take on a different overt meaning.

The projects I am at present involved with – a special “Culture, Place, and Landscape” issue of The Kenyon Review (which I am co-editing with the editor, David Lynn), and a special contemporary “pastoral” poetry issue of TriQuarterly (co-edited with Susan Stewart), both seek to break down the borders, to look at the way nation is frayed by cultural affiliations, divisions, and movements. The poet from the space known as the United States sits next to the poet from the space known as Lithuania, the essayist from Tasmania with the essayist from India. They speak out of and across ideas of nation, through music and geographies, investigating the language of difference without the need purely to validate and confirm a specific identity that sets them apart. Difference, diversity, and undercurrents of change. This communicating between regions through international dialogue I have called International Regionalism.