International Regionalism and Poetryetc

Perth, the capital of Western Australia, was, and probably still is, the most isolated capital city in the world. When I lived in Geraldton, completing the last three years of high school, the town’s population edged over the rubicon that would make it a city (25 000) – bringing a consciousness of being some kind of centre within the international language of place: district, suburb, town, city, state, country. Whether I was in the country, or in the coastal town/city of Geraldton, or in Perth, I felt isolated. I read science fiction to break down that isolation. I read “great” literature from all over the world. I leapt into computers when they first arrived on the scene, in fact being, so I’m told, the first school child to ever use a computer in a school in Western Australia, possibly Australia. I helped set it up – a Wang PDP 9. It required punch cards of course, and that was a language that escaped the limitations of text and yet created new limitations. Communication fascinated me. It meant freedom, escape, knowledge. At one stage I was communicating by letter with up to 200 poets and writers from around the world – simply so I could feel part of the world. As soon as I was old enough to travel, I did so. In some ways being away from “home” has clarified things for me. Distance does this. From an early age poetry had meant this to me – metaphor was an alternative reality, a virtual space before the language of technology had provided the terminologies. In the simulacrum I travelled.


Writing poetry was one way of accessing a “universal” space, a global language. The way poetry was presented to readers also fascinated me. I tried to start my first serious literary journal when I was about twenty – it was to be called Canti. I collected some excellent material for it, with strong support from that Australian internationalist David Brooks, but a lack of finances defeated me in the end. At the end of the 80s when I founded Salt – first issue early 1990 – it was with the same “internationalist” take on things. My influences were as diverse as New Poetry (edited by Robert Adamson) and The Paris Review. Early issues of Salt were fairly well landlocked, but as Salt developed so did its international content. It is now a truly international journal. Salt is, however, a symptom and not a cause, as indeed is the internationalist angle I bring to publishing material in Stand with Michael Hulse (a long time internationalist – also in his capacity as my predecessor at Arc), my role as International Editor at Kenyon Review, and International Editor for Arc publications. At the core of it is a desire to cross boundaries, to open up lines of communication. This is not done randomly, but within a code of respect for the integrity of regional concerns and demarcations. For an internationalist, there are some links that can’t be made, and that should not, indeed, be attempted. On a local level, someone recently offered me a recording supposedly made of Syd Barrett strumming a guitar behind his fence – a microphone had been strategically placed to catch the erratic chords. This is material that should not be available to me, but a neighbour listening nearby who hears it randomly might justifiably stand and listen. On the other hand, rare studio recordings of Syd Barrett that circulate don’t seem to fit the category of personal intrusion. It’s a strange analogy, but a workable one – there are poetries that should not be made available to all leaders and listeners, as there are words, rituals, artworks, and pieces of music that belong to particular contexts and places. The process of publication and editing is a political one. This is why I am strongly against the publication of Aboriginal song-cycles that have been collected by white anthropologists. It’s simply not the non-indigenous publisher’s right to access such materials at will.


So what are we trying to achieve through “internationalising” poetry? On one level, we’re talking about enriching respect and intra-cultural understanding, on another about a global linguistic tourism. The latter is obviously an undesirable side product of the former. The internet is recognised as the stimulus for the rapid rise of an international consciousness, and for a consciousness that exists in a non-geo space. A parallel world. A place of community where the boundaries are more flexible and language more fluid. But is this the case in reality? Boundaries and territories exist on the net as much as anywhere else. Prejudices of the real world persist and multiply in cyberspace. You can have small-minded inward looking poets on the net as much as you can in the outside world. People use it to promote their own work as much as to bring attention to others. The desktop becomes the coffee shop. And so on. You have your poets who publish only on the net, and those who see it as a second-rate place to publish. There are “topline” internet journals, and second-rate internet journals. In a field where self-publishing is the norm, there are strong moves towards creating hierarchies. An awareness of place beyond one’s own may have been prompted by the net, but in the end it is subject to the conditions of social relations that operate in the outside world.


One of the great uses of the net is in creating these alternative communities (along with their own boundaries and languages, etc.). The invigoration of poetry at the level of language is seen daily on discussion lists and in web collaborative projects. I have co-written two books via email, and numerous pamphlets. It is easy to cut andpaste and interact with another writer’s words. An active – cybernetic – text emerges. The possibilities are endless. With the poetryetc email discussion list, which I have run over the last few years, a number of projects have emerged and been developed. Poetryetc also runs a Featured Poet series – in fact, we are well into the third series now. Poets as diverse in technique and voice and location as John Tranter (Australia), Michelle Leggott (New Zealand), Alice Notley (USA via Paris), Nils-Ake Hasselmark (island of Arholma), Jo Shapcott (UK), and dozens of others have been run. Each feature carries a statement by the author, a selection of poems, and a biographical note.


One of the most successful projects to be run was the Interactive Geographies Project, which will be published by Salt in book form later this year. It basically functions as a long prose poem. People were invited to write about the space they were “in”, in the following way:

I’d like to invite Poetryetc participants to assist in the creation of a geo-text. The aim is to break down territories, boundaries, demarcation lines etc. by creating an interactive regionalism. If people would send to the list responses to their immediate surroundings – responses to location, demographics, spiritual signifiers, gender, and so on – I’ll work the collective effort into a single text and publish it as a Salt book. Your responses should be without punctuation and in continuous text – no line breaks. You will be appropriated, altered and mixed. So, maybe Douglas could begin with “Paris”, or maybe it’s the Alberta Douglas, or maybe Alison in Melbourne, or someone who lives purely in cyberspace. Deserts, oceans, and the maps of circuit boards all welcome. Interact away!

Pieces came in in their dozens – even hundreds. I cut and spliced and mixed the prose poems into one continuous text. Here’s a small extract:

two ferries 30 k town fishers loggers tiger lilies rhododendrons begonias hemlock painters sculptors an island of palm washed up at Santa Ana and down to the spilt warehouses all in the head the paint factories the furniture showrooms sprawled carpenters gardeners farmers deejays carvers electricians plumbers if you crane your neck you can just about see Kings College chapel through the third floor window though normally I keep the blinds closed to cut down reflections off my X-terminal monitor a colleague described mock-enviously as being the size of Rutland actually the view from the other side is better because you’ve got the Cam even though the gasometer spoils styles canada geese sea lions seals sand unpublished serious echoes remixing Heraclitus like he must be a mountain in Otago while gray kingfishers hunt California and marshhawks stylize hawkeyes by precise lack of coloration in birds earthbound where else but in newzealand the only raptors are a falcon and a swampharrier a name which reminds me that the worlds tallest flowering plant the eucalyptus regnans is called Mountain Ash by mainlanders but swamp gum in Tasmania most everything is swamp here it seems and the distinction in naming between here and there reminds me of the marketeers and their wiles as they try to superimpose blocked culverts rotting bridges daft dogs fast cars houses and converted barns where the ploughmen set soil aside to English nature’s doubtful taxonomy I walk despite the numbers also walking where there’s a train saying good afternoon it’s a lovely day in Kew Gardens

This is international regionalism at work. It speaks for itself. Internationalism becomes more than the mixing together of names from diverse parts of the planet, more than hybridising poets with different attitudes to form and language, with different ethical and political views; it becomes a voice in itself. If the author is not dead, the author is variegated and multiplied. Those desiring machines have created a cybernetic voice and a place that is unfindable on any map as we know it. This is the stuff of exploration and holds the attendant risks – it is not always desirable for individual voices to be lost to the community. Colonisations can take place without an awareness of a territory even being crossed. These genre-busting exercises, these internationalist footsteps, can’t escape the lessons of history. As they say, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. One project’s freedom is another’s compromise. Not all words and all textual environments are up for grabs. These are not merely verbal games. The globalisation of text must also carry respect for the specific. Individual authors will no doubt recognise their words in the piece quoted above, but the words have become part of the whole, part of the metaphor of the poem itself. All participants agreed that individual contributions would not be identified – indeed, due to the “mixing” process, this is impossible; but the names of all “players” will be included in the front of the publication. A couple of recent postings I sent to the list are as much about a view of “internationalism” as they are about poetryetc:

The reason this list was set up in the first place was to illustrate that different poetics/pov/geographies/cultures etc (the etc. being the most important part to my mind) can find common ground for dialogue.


Just a note re stats: membership of this list has been fluid from the early listbot days. The number of women on the list at any one time has varied from just under fifty percent to just under thirty-three percent. One of the prime directives of the list is to recognise the truth behind what Mairead and Alison and many others have observed (the archives of poetryetc and poetryetc2 carry some pretty pointed comments by Tracy Ryan, re this)… List membership is open and I actively encourage women to join. You’ll note that there’s a fair balance re the Featured Poets. I take these points extremely seriously. Thanks for your comments!

And poetryetc is a “neutral” (and) safe space – at least that’s what it’s working towards.

The grounds rules for poetryetc were: no racism, misogyny, or bigotry of any kind. The list has members who are leading poets and critics, people who would normally be seen as being in opposing “camps” (the concept of “camps” has been hotly debated lately) communicate and interact on a regular basis, and people who are just starting to write poetry or are only interested in reading and discussing it all find a home on poetryetc. There are linguistic innovators and formalist poets, there are cross-genre enthusiasts and traditionalists, you name a binary and it’s there, and it’s surely been broken. And it is international in its membership.


In promoting an internationalism, I feel that one should be wary of ignoring responsibilities in one’s own backyard. This is the regionalism issue again. In my case, the degradation of land, the ecological disaster that is modern farming in the Avon Valley, a murderous history of displacement of the Nyungar people, and the obligation to actively support the pursuit of land rights, are just some of the issues that inform whatever I do or say, in whatever context. This is where my so-called “anti-pastoral” comes from. It is easy to make generalisations as an internationalist, to forget the importance of context. There are universal truths, but environment shouldn’t be forgotten, despite the claims of certain geneticists!


I once wrote a poem about my Uncle Jack “trusting no more than his own”. My family live in York, about seventy miles out of Perth in the Avon Valley. It’s wheat and sheep territory. My brother is a shearer, my uncle a farmer. Uncle Jack has never understood why people need to go “elsewhere”. He reckons there’s enough for a lifetime to do and learn where you’re born. He has that rare ability, like my brother, to divine water. I always felt as a child that this gave him a head start – the ability to be in two places at once, to speak another language and know another space.


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