Hello Haters. (And of course, Hello Lovers.)

Art by First Dog on the Moon.

Art by First Dog on the Moon.

Grab a cup of coffee. Sit for a minute and try not to jump out of your skin.

Here comes your worst nightmare: a well meaning friend trying not-so-subtly to push poetry on you.

Over the years, I’ve heard your arguments and excuses and explanations and observations about why poetry just isn’t for you. I’ve taken these conversations seriously. I’ve rolled them around in my head, debating your pros and cons. I’ve tried to understand.

So, you should know that I’m not trying to convert you into becoming a poetry reader, writer, or advocate. I’ve simply taken on the task, during National Poetry Month, to show you the options of what you might be missing, to give you the gift of the poem or poet that might just be right for you, or the special poetry hater in your life. And I’ve sifted through what you’ve probably read in school or seen on motivational posters, hoping to find something new for your eyes and ears and heart and soul.

Okay, let’s get to it. Shall we?

Poems  and Poets for The Top Ten Excuses that Poetry Haters give to Poetry Lovers

1. “Poetry is for sissies.”

Yes, sissies can enjoy poetry. So can non-sissies.

Bad ass American poet and outlaw Charles Bukowski wrote in Notes from a Dirty Old Man, ”If you want to know who your friends are, get yourself a jail sentence.” Read more…

Benjamin Solah.

Benjamin Solah.

The first poem I ever read live was a poem about homophobia. It was originally titled ‘The Homophobe’ and with a push from Santo Cazzati, I read it in front of a bunch of complete strangers in a cold pub on a Monday night in 2008. I still remember flinching when I read the lines, “He’ll tell mum / who I’m fucking / She’ll hate me, / loathe me, for that”

Though I identify as queer, my partner is a woman and my mother is certainly not homophobic so the line isn’t quite true in the factual sense but it related to a few episodes where a homophobic man had begun targeting me on stalls whilst campaigning for same-sex marriage. I found a voice in poetry and a welcoming audience in the Melbourne poetry scene, for not just that poem, but other poems on sexuality and other issues I care deeply about.

Though that didn’t stop me from feeling a tension when I first read it. And the poetry scene isn’t an oasis away from homophobia. There was a heckler that followed me around to various gigs for a little while. But for the most part, it was an inclusive space and he didn’t hang around for long.

There are many queer and gender-bending type poets around the scene, though often the lines are blurred, which is a great thing, but for every out poet, there’s probably still a few more not. It’s probably nothing to do with the scene itself, but the wider society of Melbourne in which poets exist. Melbourne’s slam and poetry nights might be an escape for a night or two. Read more…

Dorothy Porter

Dorothy Porter’s poetics affirm the extremities of my corporal existence. I cannot escape my body but I can read Porter’s lyrics and become intimate with the pulsations, aches and fluids of my own mortality. Lines from the title poem in Porter’s poetry collection, Crete (1996), allow me to express my feelings towards her poetry: ‘Finding a vein /I find you…O flash! O honey!’

When discussing her verse novels, Dorothy Porter explicitly stated that she loved to ‘write bad’. It was Porter’s fearless exploration of the ‘bad’, the erotic taboo, that allowed her to take charge of the verse novel, and by doing so, create a space for discussion about poetry and queer sexuality.

In a paper presented at the Tasmanian Readers’ and Writers’ Festival in August of 1999, Porter spoke openly about an era in her life where – in an attempt to gain a wider readership and more financial stability from her writing – she wrote the two young adult novels Rookwood (1991) and The Witch Number (1993). As Porter explains, despite her attempts to consciously write for a young adult audience, The Witch Number was still criticised for being too subversive. Porter believes that this rejection of The Witch Number was due to her exploration of witchcraft and menstruation and she was happy for this view to be proved wrong. However it was this rejection of The Witch Number that drove Porter to write against everything she considered ‘good’, to only write for herself – and what Porter wanted to write was poetry that would drip and make sticky freshly mopped tiles:

‘I wanted ingredients that stank to high heaven of badness. I wanted graphic sex. I wanted explicit perversion. I wanted putrid language. I wanted stenching murder. I wanted to pour out my heart. I wanted to take the piss. I wanted lesbians who weren’t nice to other women. I wanted glamorous nasty men who even lesbians want to fuck. I wanted to say that far too much Australian poetry is a dramatic cure for insomnia. But I still wanted to write the book in poetry.’ Read more…

Eloise Healy

Eloise Healy

1) The hardest thing about being an editor at Arktoi Books is saying “no” all the time. Howard Junker, founder of Zyzzyva magazine, told me, “Think about it—you say ‘yes’ once and ‘no’ a thousand times.  Get used to it!”

I never get used to it.  I am an author and have had manuscripts rejected.  Because I am a lesbian author, I also know it is really harder to find a publisher. It is much harder to be published just by virtue of being a woman. There are numbers involved here. See the VIDA website for details about that.

If you are a lesbian writer, I believe there are two other “quotas” at work. I think there’s an assumption in publishing that lesbians don’t have anything to say that the larger society would be interested in. I think some people still have the idea that if you have published one or two lesbians, then you have done enough. There you have it.  It’s the main reason I started Arktoi Books.  There are a ton of wonderful manuscripts by lesbian writers out there that aren’t getting published.

For example, after reading 70 to 100 manuscripts, I end up with 4 or 5 that would make a perfect book for Arktoi. It’s heartening to see there are great manuscripts out there to publish, but it is hard to know I can choose just one.  What wouldn’t I give to be able to publish all the final five?  Or even three? Read more…

Amy May Nunn

Amy May Nunn

I wanted to be an explorer. For a long time I had a clear plan, that I would become an Archeologist, escape my family and their art. I would discover tombs and not art. Ocean divers and tomb raiders, these were my people. Growing up I would disappear into the English countryside for hours at a time, eventually developing a ‘Famous Five’ complex, dressing androgynously and insisting that everybody call me George for the better part of two years.  I even convinced myself at one time that the pond opposite our house opened up into the Mississippi and made a raft to float away on, which promptly broke apart and left me with pneumonia. My aspirations of becoming an Archeologist were eventually quieted as I got older (and realised it had very little to do with Indiana Jones), and having been born into a family of artists with sometimes painfully open minds when it comes to my misadventures, romantic, poetic or otherwise, I was robbed of any controversy that growing into a bisexual poet customarily brings.  I feel like becoming a writer was the perfect consolation. It allowed me an entirely new sense of adventure and discovery, one that I could access any time I wanted.

The tiny ghost of an archeologist in me was brought back to life last year though, at a wedding in Dorset where I stumbled across the idea for my current project. I stayed in a small town named Lyme Regis, situated on the Jurassic Coast, and quickly learned this sea worn, crooked little place is renowned for it’s fossil laden cliffs. I began to notice the name ‘Mary Anning’ cropping up in the various fossil shops, on plaques and signposts. It turns out she was a local fossil hunter and paleontologist in the 1800’s, and made some of the most significant discoveries of the 19th century, including dinosaurs such as the first plesiosaur and ichthyosaur. She immediately captured my imagination, and researching her became a new and bizarre obsession. Read more…

Ching-In Chen (Photo by Sarah Grant).

Ching-In Chen (Photo by Sarah Grant).

1 ) You asked me to write about queer as genre, poetry as genre – and all I can think of in terms of intersections is failure and scatter.  What Kind; sort; style, asks the Oxford English Dictionary.  I am obsessed with the zuihitsu poetic form, a hybrid Japanese form which utilizes subjective lists, journal entries, juxtaposition, fragmentation, etcetera, to create a sense of randomness which is not really random.  Because it is messy, chaotic, contradictory, it is a form I frequently return to, especially when I do not always know what and how to say.  It is a form which maps and contains my fear.

2 ) “My poetry is often guided by an impulse to fail.  When this is the case, writing is an attempt to salvage something from the mess.” – Douglas Kearney.

3 ) I moved to Milwaukee from California and met five queer Asian people (not me, though I have been referred to myself multiple times – is this a mistake?  Are others mistaking me for me? Do I look like myself?)  This is totally subjective – I moved toMilwaukeefor poetry, not for queerness.  Yet the search becomes what I frustrate, what pushes me to lineate, what creates the next line, what is filled up here.

4 ) What are the essential qualities that make up this loneliness?

5 ) Queer sorts:

One moved with me from California for school.

One I met in a cafe with leafy greens overhead.   We met there because he drank tea, not coffee (my uncle – a handyman – in another life dreamt of opening a teashop).  I think he had been persuaded to meet with me as a recruitment/retainment strategy.  One of us had been tricked to be there?  My mother was visiting, and we talked about whether he would be comfortable if she came along.  She said, you go ahead, I don’t want to make him uncomfortable.  It was a matter-of-fact conversation, and I cannot remember another one about this topic with my mother. Read more…

Gays have a problem. Sorry, did I say gays? Gays and lesbians. Well, and bisexual people. Oh, and transgender folk too. Oh, fuck it, let’s embrace the whole panoply of alphabet-soup abbreviations: LGBTQQUCIT2SAAPHO people have a problem (to use the full list of possible variants Wikipedia offers): what the hell do we call ourselves? It depends who you are and what your aims are, of course, but I want to briefly put the case for my preferred adjective, the underused queer, the Q in LGBTQ. First, though, let me explain why names are important.

One popular theory about names is that they are just labels we attach to things that are already there. This is the belief Juliet is espousing in the speech which includes her famous ‘rose’ line:

“’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;

Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,

Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet;

So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,

Retain that dear perfection which he owes

Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,

And for that name which is no part of thee

Take all myself.”

Read more…

Carol Anne Duffy

Lesbian poets are enjoying a bit of a heyday right now, at least in America. We have a lot to celebrate and a lot to be thankful for. Britain’s Poet Laureate is an out lesbian, Carol Ann Duffy. The U.S. Poet Laureate, Kay Ryan, is also an out lesbian. One of the top-selling poets in the country, Mary Oliver, is also a lesbian. The National Book Award in Poetry this year was awarded to Nikki Finney for her wondrous book Head Off & Split. A new venture called The Lavender Review is highlighting the work of lesbian poets and/or poetry. Arktoi Books, featuring books by lesbians, is now in its whatever year and its books are garnering attention in places such as Poets & Writers and The Library Journal.

If all of this is true, then why is it still so difficult to find books by lesbian poets? It’s not that they aren’t out there, somewhere, because they are. But even if you are fortunate enough to live near an independently-owned bookstore (and if you are I hope you go buy a book from them a.s.a.p.) and even if it has a poetry section that is bigger than a shelf and actually has books by living poets, it’s really hard to know which are by lesbians unless your gaydar is phenomenal.

The upside of this is that looking for lesbian poets feels more like a treasure hunt where the treasure is often hiding in plain sight. Here is your treasure map. Okay, it’s really just a list of seven things you can do to celebrate and/or discover more lesbian poetry. You can do one each day. You can do one of them over and over again. Or, if you are greedy for treasure or just want a supergoldstar on your report card, you can do the entire list each and every day.

1) Watch “Starfish” by Eleanor Lerman  and/or “A Very Valentine” by Gertrude Stein Read more…


Let’s start with the truth. It gets important later. It seems that all poets must state their position in regards to the place of truth in poetry at some point. In his Poetic Principle, Edgar Allan Poe claims that poetry ‘has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth’. However in discussing truth in poetry Poe is railing against what he calls ‘the heresy of The Didactic’, the belief, popular at the time, that every poem should contain a moral. Nor is this merely a concern of nineteenth-century Bostonians. In schools and universities students are too often taught to be interpreters of poetry rather than practitioners. They put the poet on trial and his poems are evidence­—his heart to be weighed against a feather in the hall of Ma’at. Poetry becomes a mode in which experience is digested for its moral content and then dramatised and displayed for the reader.

This mode of poetic truth seems repugnant and is something I endeavor to avoid in my own poetry, but isn’t truth intrinsic to poetry? At least in the Universalist sense that the way in which we, as writers, see and interact with the world allows us to create a fictive truth to resonate with readers. Readers bring with them their own personal projections that lead to varying interpretations of the poem and yet the emotional truth the poet has created is such that the reader knows that epic, romantic love is real, thoughts are like foxes and that the nightingale probably is immortal. It is this type of truth that I aim for, universal and emotional rather than moralistic or biographical. The truth is that every time I’ve written autobiographical or ‘issue’ poems they have become so heavily symbolised that the sad, broken things have to be put somewhere where no one will have to see them or hear their awful squalling.

Rhyme has been a conundrum since Milton derided the ‘troublesome and modern bondage of rhyming’ as ‘the jingling sound of like endings’. But rhyme can be far more than simple couplets. Rhymes may be so far apart, you cannot hear them, but they can hear each other, like whales calling each other across an ocean. The freedom to non-rhyme must include the freedom to rhyme. But the choice of rhymed or non-rhymed must be consistent within the poem. A partially rhymed poem is a sloppy and sad thing, a child sent to school with a dirty face and mismatched shoes. Rhyme in the modern era is derided as doggerel, seen as the domain of children’s poetry and light verse. At best it is satiric, but poets such as Elizabeth Bishop have shown that traditional rhymed verse forms can be applied to modern subjects with wonderful effect. This is something I like to attempt in my poetry: the juxtaposition of modern subjects or settings with the grace of traditional rhymed forms. But not sonnets, I don’t do sonnets.

Poets have been referencing each other’s work since, at least, Homer and Virgil. We live in a post-wasteland world and I adore intertextuality and veiled, or not so veiled, references to other works but, for the immature poet, using these techniques is a problem. Particularly at university the line between reference and plagiarism is a worrying one. If I write that poems are the teeth/ with which we gnaw at/ our asphalt-covered souls a slew of questions come up. Should I reference Kafka? How do I reference within a poem? Am I being clever or derivative? Have I changed it enough that it’s okay or have I changed it so much that it looks like I’m trying to get away with it? The other issue that arises from referencing and intertextuality is whether or not they present a shallowness of original thought, by using the words of others are you creating false profundity so that there’s no depth to the depth? The truth is that I will build my castles from the scavenged stones of the past, besides it’s so much fun when readers get the references.

I find that I agree with Joshua Clover and Juliana Spahr that ‘poetry must be as violent and loving as the disease called history’ and yet I long, like Poe, for ‘the creation of supernal beauty’. Sometimes, I somehow want to achieve both in the one poem. The more poetry I read and write, the more it seems that there are no rules to it but only instinct, contradiction, confusion and desperate grasping at expression that lies just beyond my powers. The learning curve in poetry makes me feel like a blind sailor, shipwrecked on an unnamed island in an unknown sea, attempting to find north. The truth is that as a poet I’m a pretender and probably don’t deserve a manifesto. The truth is that I don’t care and will use these methods to write poetry until someone tells me to stop. The truth is that actually I probably won’t stop.

Palila Opit is a masters student at the University of Melbourne. Her work can be seen in the latest issue of Etchings, #10: The feminine.  She is a previous winner of the Judith Rodriguez prize and also the recipient of some very kind rejection letters, which she always appreciates.

The Dan O'Connell

What is the Melbourne Poetry Scene (aka Melbourne Spoken Word Scene)?

The scene essentially consists of all the folk who regularly show up and read at the staple poetry venues in Melbourne. They are, of course, not the only people in Melbourne who write poetry – who knows how many secret poets are out there, shamefully writing away in the dark, their tortured faces illuminated by the anemic glow of a Macbook Pro (even Gina Reinhart seems to do it [please god make it stop]). The ‘scene’ doesn’t necessarily represent those whose poetry has been published, many are purely spoken word performers and don’t even want to be published on the page (calm down, it’s radical thinking I know). It’s a grass roots concept and as such there is no established hierarchy, though you may find yourself wielding some influence as the organiser of a gig, but beware that beautiful yet deranged beast that is the Poet Ego (more on this later.)

How to get involved:

You assert yourself in the scene through participation, and it is as much about socialising and drinking as it is about poems. (Pro tip: try to avoid dating poets. Poets dating poets is like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. It will end gross and slimy, in a bad way.)

As an enthusiastic poetScenester (imagine, high angle MySpace pics with a quill in your cleavage) your dedication to your craft and your skill is rewarded with Features -  featured readings starring YOU! FINALLY. A ROOM FULL OF PEOPLE STUCK LISTENING TO YOUR STUFF FOR TWENTY OR SO ODD MINUTES – HELLO SUCCESS. If you’re lucky, this will be a paid gig. The popular misconception is that features are something you earn just through quantitative participation, as if you keep turning up they’ll eventually have to give you a go. But this is not high school softball and this is without any analysis of what that means and why venues even feature the Features.

Bring it! 

The Feature is an opportunity for a venue to draw in a crowd, the poets are meant to be good at poetry and interesting for the punters. Being the feature is an acknowledgement of the quality of your poetry (whether this be consistently brilliant, or steady improvements) as well as your performance skills. This point is rather contentious with the obvious division between the ‘page poets’ and the ‘performance poets’. Regardless of your personal preference the fact remains that the two require some crossover, but they are not mutually exclusive or both steadfast requirements. Part of the featured poet’s job is to entertain – whether this is through offering solemn or thoughtful verse, or rollicking, shocking performance. The job is to leave your audience with an impact, either something awe-inspiring to ponder or to enjoy through deep belly laughs. The open mic is a democratic system in which anyone may perform. As a feature, you are the entertainment. In media terms, you are the content. You gotta deliver.


Sweet Talkers

Feature gigs are not just for your own vanity. Yes, as poets we are horrendously self-aware, -conscious, -flagellating, -aggrandising, but any artist who respects their craft knows that it is with the craft they must be first concerned. The scene is also a community, which means being conscious and courteous of other poets and their work. If you want the room to pay attention when you’re on stage, pay the obvious respect of listening to others. There is little else more disheartening and goddamn annoying for a performer than a loud, uninterested and ultimately rude crowd. And anyway if you want to be famous, you’ve chosen the wrong path, kiddo. I don’t know when Australia’s Got Talent is on, but you’d have a better chance on there.

It’s important to remember to not let your ego come through your work when at a poetry open mic gig. If it is an explicitly stated five-minute limit, do not exceed five minutes. You might be able to get away with this by charming the room, but remember that the time you use up means someone else won’t get a chance to read, or the evening will run too long, resulting in people leaving and missing the last on the list. Time limits are not designed to restrict your creativity, rather they ensure a well paced event. Remember you can wow a crowd in one minute as well as you can with five.

And finally, enjoy it. The Melbourne scene has so many wonderful gigs in some damn fine establishments, and the poetry from these fine, creative individuals is both hells enjoyable, and consistently inspiring.

Go Forth and Poet!

If you would like to check out some excellent poetry in Melbourne town you can get along to any of these regular events listed on Melbourne Spoken Word, Pam’s Poetry PitchMelbourne Poet’s Union. Keep a look out for this year’s Overload Poetry Festival.

Jessica Alice is a writer, editor and broadcaster from Melbourne. She hosts Spoken Word on 3CR 855AM and is the Poetry Editor for Voiceworks. Jessica is a regular guest on Triple R’s Aural Text and produces a segment on the podcast Nothing Rhymes with RRR. She is currently writing her Honours thesis on the work of contemporary American poet Johanna Drucker. Her most beloved possessions are her bookcase and her Buffy boxset.