Introduction to deciBels series 3
by Michelle Cahill
One of the most powerful essays that I read last year was Andy Butler’s ‘Safe White Spaces’, a radical critique of existing cultural spaces in Australia. Addressing the visual arts industry he writes:
Whiteness, in an Australian context, is the set of colonial values from Northern-Europe that were transplanted to Australia and have taken on a life of their own in this country. We can see it in the Melbourne arts community – there is an implicit racial hierarchy that is evident in the sheer absence of non-White people and their practices; an elevation of Western visual arts history above all else; a one-dimensional and ill-informed view of non-White experience, that nevertheless still determines how non-White people navigate the world and the spaces of the community; an idea that racism is an individual moral failing as opposed to a structural problem; and an inability to acknowledge the fact that we’re all implicated in a system of structural racism that favours Whiteness. As an arts worker, I see these dynamics play out near every day. (1)
Butler states that because ‘whiteness’ is the default we have to actively work against it, and do so not merely by representation but through our critical output. He also addresses the distribution of resources and the stark discrepancies privileging a northern European imaginary in the visual arts industry. The same biopolitics have applied to Australian poetry: we see cultural gatekeepers at the level of elite groups, in institutions and in organisations, not all of whom are ‘white’. So ‘whiteness’ as a term is vulnerable to being essentialised, misinterpreted and strategic, not to mention being offensive, and being liable to triggering polarised, and reactive neo-colonising responses, such as we observe in social media.
However, the slippage of terms will inevitably apply to these explorations, which are necessary provocations. As an author and literary magazine publisher in Australia, I can only speak from my own experience; that we need to talk about race as we need to talk about names; that the value of a poet’s work is largely transacted by their identity, whether that is visible or whether it is concealed.
The deciBels3 series of poets came about through an extended, intermittent exchange with Michael Brennan, a meeting of differences within an Australian poetic field. I recall Michael observing #interceptionality unfolding in the form of my social media posts about the intersections of race and poetry. For this engagement and energy, I am deeply grateful. As a community we can only begin to know and accept otherness through curiosity, a steadfast commitment to learning in all its forms, and the political instinct to bring about change, which is to say, an ethical impulse. Looking back now, there were several moments along the way when the project may have been abandoned, never to materialise. At every juncture, it was either Michael or myself who said to one another, via email correspondences: ‘Let’s reboot; we need to do this project. It needs to happen.’ And, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dimitra Harvey, whose support has been immeasurably beneficial and whose editing skills and knowledge of poetry, I knew I could rely upon.
So it is wonderful that we can celebrate the work of ten gifted poets whose cultures and languages, as much as they are inflected by an Australian belonging, trace to South Asia, to the Philippines, Greece, to the Jewish, Chilean and Taiwanese diasporas. Each of these poets is accomplished yet pressing against the limitations of their practise. Individually they are radicals, in the sense of breaking textual ground. They have applied language to new purpose and form as technê, by discerning thought, voice, tone and image.
In Anupama Pilbrow’s Body Poems, visceral processes craft a domestic space where ideas and values are playfully and radically reappraised. Cultural difference is not presented as something to simply consume, but as something which consumes. Culture’s organic body, which laughs and sweats and breathes, can be tactfully and humorously negotiated. Angela Serrano’s scatological poems pose penetrating philosophical questions about patriarchy, gender and sexuality. Else but a madness most discrete is a collection of bright cameos and bullets: it is tender, concise, funny, and a revelation. Ariel Raveros’ Commoning, exercises striking control of the dream logic. His Lacanian energies and voicing of psychosis, ‘the hum of all human existence,’ interrogate a decaying liberal ethos and class.
For other poets in the series thinking is collateral, never incidental to lyricism. Sumudu Samarawickrama’s Utter the Thing speaks to the violence of oppression with incantatory syntax, repetitions and tender, subversive strokes. In contrast, Anna Jacobson’s surreal narratives riff on memory, desire and destiny with stylised, Mozartian grace in The Last Postman. The train carriage becomes a framing device for her beguiling stories, echoing exile, survival and post-memory as in ‘Letter 7: To the girl with the graphics tablet in carriage 8’:
This crease here from wartime:
a photograph folded away in haste.
This mark here from a soldier
caressing the photo each night as if touching
his lover’s skin. Your job is to erase
these paper bruises
as though they were never there.
Jessie Tu’s supple tones and melodic variations on the carnal and the domestic shatter cultural stereotypes, challenging exoticised gender representations of Asian Australia. Gender violence and coercion, the objectification that women are imperiled by, is reframed, and reversed through language:
But today, it was hard kissing that boy -
that German boy.
He had such a sharp landscape of prickly
beard around his mouth -
I liked when he slid his tongue inside my mouth
which I tried to open wider
for him to go in deeper, but
it’s hard to kiss with a split in the corner of your mouth.
In contemporary Australian poetry we rarely encounter a poetics that attends to homoerotic subjectivity from the uncomfortable position of shared erasure and material suffering. Ramon Loyola’s The Measure of Skin nurtures the elemental strangeness of the other. This is not a settler perspective; Loyola addresses First Nations Australia in a poem such as ‘Fullas’:
the same ancient blood as mine,
my ancestors from another land,
the same history of broken men.
And if we need to dexterously unmesh the colonial binaries of our tropes, a poet like Eleanor Jackson supplies us with streetwise, anarchic poems which honour the quotidian in her debut, A Leaving: ‘I try not to ruin the act of being alive/ by thinking I should do something with it.’
Two collections are notable for their imagery. Misbah Khokhar’s Rooftops in Karachi vividly inhabits the ruins, houses, temples, moods and markets of a post-imperial, post-partition city, skirting mesmerizingly at the edges of colonial transgressions with illumination and precision. ‘Misbah Khokhar spins a bright new compass over fragmented, improvised worlds… with what James Baldwin called ‘perception at the pitch of passion’’ writes academic and critic, Lucy Van. Like Anupama Pilbrow’s Body Poems and Sumudu Samarawickrama’s Utter the Thing, Rooftops in Karachi builds on a remarkably varied cohort of South Asian Australian poets finding a place at last in the canon. There have undoubtedly been barriers for darker-skinned Asians embedded in this nation’s legal and cultural structure. Why? Because that what is expected of colonisation; racial hierarchies have been reified and undisputed. The White Australian settler narrative has appropriated and spoken for those it has othered, revitalizing and renewing its own tropes by diminishing or positioning us. This aesthetic discrimination is embedded as an accepted standard in entrenched Orientalist expansions by the West, extending beyond literature to art.
Not least as final praise, I would like to mention my co-editor. This series finds a painterly imagist in the poet, Dimitra Harvey. A Fistful of Hail with its considered pace and intense repetitions is resonant with syncretic traditions. From the Australian bush to the Greek archipelago, her lyric accretions are dramatic in their scenes and luminous, like oil, mixing darkness and light.
But an introduction such as this, which covers much ground, serves merely to hold the afterimage of these collections. They ask to be read and to be re-read. I would like to thank the poets for contributing to this marvellous series and to congratulate them. I am delighted to have been tasked with editing deciBels3. My heartfelt gratitude to Michael Brennan for all his dedication; and for the striking cover designs he has chosen. Australian literature needs these voices and narratives, urgently, not as ‘migrant’ or ‘mobilising’ or ‘culturally and linguistically diverse’ tokens; nor as potent figures for our times, but as unforgettable, radical, distinctive and gifted Australian poets.
- Butler, Andy. ‘Safe White Spaces’ in Runway: Australian Experimental Art
Michelle Cahill’s collection of short stories Letter to Pessoa won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for New Writing. She won the Val Vallis Award and was highly commended in the 2017 Forward Prize for best poem. Her most recent poetry collection is The Herring Lass.