Michael Farrell and Jill Jones (eds.): Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets

Glebe: Puncher & Wattmann, 2009, 214pp.

Out of the Box is significantly subtitled “Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets” rather than “Poetry”, suggesting that it puts the visions and achievements of individuals ahead of a survey of what is happening at the poetic coal-face of this particular sub-culture. It is an example of what I call a “sectional” anthology, though an exact definition of that term would be a difficult business. Basically I am thinking of those anthologies which collect writers who share a descriptive tag. It might be a collection of work by ex- or current soldiers, by members of what we used, innocently, to call the “migrant population” of Australia, or by indigenous Australians. (I’ve always held out hope that one day the world will be sufficiently sensitive to begin to be interested in left-handed writers – but at the moment that is little more than a faintly comic dream.) Then there are regional anthologies and state anthologies. Of course one could argue (as Michael Farrell does in one of the book’s introductions) that, given a wide enough perspective, all anthologies are “sectional” in that they all have to delimit their choices in one way or another. Thus an historical anthology of Australian poetry might be seen as a sectional anthology or, on another tack, the tag might be a temporal one like “modern” or “nineteenth century”. Despite this reservation, I still want to retain the idea that an anthology of Gay and Lesbian writing belongs to a different order of anthology to John Kinsella’s or John Leonard’s recent books.

I think the fundamental difference is that, in the case of the latter, we want to know from the anthology “what is going on, now? or then? or there?”. In the case of sectional anthologies we want to know: “what is it like to be you? What do you do in poetry which is different from what we do?” And it is about here that I have strong opinions. The former of these questions (“what is it like to be you?”) is, surely, best answered in prose fiction, not poetry. It is the glory of the novel that it can (admittedly not always and not always successfully) take us into the perspective and experiences of someone who is different to us. What I always want from sectional anthologies is a different sensibility which reveals itself in a different way of approaching poetry and, even, poetry’s conventional subjects. You would like to think that – to pick a gross example – a poem about a landscape (or even a mere gum tree) would be different when written by people whose sectional identities were importantly different. Or to put it all another way, I prefer the sectional identity to be a powerful background force rather than to be foregrounded into subject matter.

You get both types of poem in Out of the Box but its intelligent introductions show that its editors have thought, in their own ways, about these issues. Michael Farrell speaks of some people’s resistance to the project “along the lines that a gay reading of poetry (or poets) was a reduction. That something fabulous and 3-d was being made to fit this one limited concept . . . wasn’t that something poetry-haters do all the time?” Although this raises the issue to disarm it, it still retains some force. My way of reading the objection, would be to say that it is a power struggle, within individual readers and writers, between elements of their identity. I used to use a simplistic notion of shells to deal with this: we have several identity-shells – in my case they might include: male, born-in-England, heterosexual, working-class origins, middle-aged, left-handed, Queenslander, intellectual, and a lot of others. The issue is: which of these shells lies nearest to the core or (if we want to dispense with a unified notion of identity and replace it by a set of warring “shells”) which is the most powerful. I’ve never been a fan of the idea that we switch to a convenient dominant identity to match the situation, especially not in the case of poets. I think that I, and the editors of this anthology, would have a lot of trouble with a poet who didn’t place the identity “poet” always at the very heart of what they were. The fear of those who thought the project might be reductive is probably the fear that someone would say, “I’m essentially devoted to an activist intervention in the fate of the gay community – and I also write poems in my spare time.” And yet, put like this, the fear of reduction is a chimera. If it is true that only real poets (in the sense of having the marker “poet” always closest to their essential selves) write worthwhile poems, then why worry? The fear might, of course, have been a poet’s fear that his or her poems would be surrounded by fairly crude descriptions of sub-cultural life or calls to a barricade. In this case you have to trust your editors, and Farrell and Jones do a fine job here, looking for surprising approaches from their poets.

This is a long introduction to a book but, since it is the first anthology that I have reviewed on this site, it has generated a lot of thinking and rethinking about these issues. I can say that there are no reasons to worry with this anthology – either from the point of view of reductionism or quality. The standard of the poems is high, though not uniformly so, and there are few moments either in the introductions (which contain readings of some of the work as well as much else) or in the hundred or so poems collected in the body of the book when one isn’t given something to enjoy, admire or chew over. But, despite what I have said above about the editors’ commitment to the work of individual poets who happen to be gay or lesbian in sexual orientation, one’s first question is probably going to be: is there evidence here of something different to the “usual” practices of Australian poetry? And, if there is nothing that has not been seen before, is there a higher density of some element? My initial feeling is that the answer to both these questions is, no, though this could be a result of these poets having always sat, perfectly comfortably, within the broader anthologies of Australian poetry; that is, they haven’t needed to be taken aside and gathered in an anthology such as this to make their mark on the larger stage.

There could be reasons for this. Jill Jones’s introduction puts one case for the distinctiveness of Gay and Lesbian poetry when she says:

Poems can feel into, think through or enact various meanings of relationship. Including bodies, sexualities, society, family, locale, and, of course, linguistic structures. Gay and lesbian poets, in various ways, write from perspectives which, however obliquely, subtly, implicitly, or overtly, will “queer” this.

This is a conventional position and one which I have always held though I would be reluctant to trot it out in any sort of scholarly discourse without guarding my back. Hearing a lesbian poet say it is rather comforting, as though one had heard a negro intellectual make the claim that negro people were more sensitive to rhythm than white people. The complicating factor is that this can often be said of lyric poetry itself, especially court poetry. It used to be said that homosexual people, trapped in homophobic cultures, learned how to double-speak, how to say something whose “true” intended meaning could be determined by cues and which always had a perfectly respectable second meaning which any poet, hauled before a king or a court, could claim was the intended one. Court poetry worked in a similar way: a poem whose real meaning was that the king was having an affair with a minister’s mistress having lost interest in his own wife could always be written as a seemingly innocent poem about lunar eclipses, erratic planetary behaviour, sun-spots and so on. Perhaps it is not an accident that court life comes across as so sexually ambiguous: any love poem can be a gay one, any attraction or alliance simultaneously sexual and power-seeking. And court lyric poetry is one of the most powerful historical strands leading to the kind of poetry written in the modern world, where courts have, for the most part, long disappeared.

In other words, what Jill Jones claims as distinctively gay or lesbian in poetry is very much what readers expect in lyric poetry. I don’t mean this to diminish the importance of any anthology of such poems, in fact the attractive possibility is that gay and lesbian writers (as belonging to a sub-group that has been around since the dawn of poetry publishing) may well have been the ones who first exploited lyric poetry’s penchant for the obliquely critical, and protectively double-meaninged, and then passed it on to those living and writing through historical events like, say, Stalin’s terror.

A second issue which prevents gay and lesbian poetry being comfortably seen as different is that the old need for hiding and disguise has surely passed. One doesn’t want to leave oneself open to the charge of being an ignorantly lazy heterosexual here, but it is hard to believe that any readers of the poems of this anthology, no matter how fleeting their interest, would be homophobic or profess homophobic attitudes. And, to be fair, this is not the tone of the anthology. Looking for evidence as to what the condition of the gay or lesbian individual is here (Australia) and now (twenty-first century) in the introductions for this book, I was taken by Michael Farrell’s opening assertion that it is an interesting time, “a time when marriage has for several years been the most prominent gay political issue”. A wicked voice which I have tried unsuccessfully to still, tells me that this is tantamount to demanding the right to be conscripted or tortured. At any rate we are a long way from a liberation project involving subversion from within.

So, if the poetry does not seem radically different from what we are used to, what is the book’s use? Again Farrell makes a good point when he speaks of all anthologies having limiting factors and these limits create meaning. A number of poems which I had known previously do look slightly different in a homosexual context. To take one example, David Malouf’s “Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian” (given a very interesting reading in Farrell’s introduction) looks rather different here to what it did in its first appearance in Southerly and its first book appearance in Malouf’s Typewriter Music. I had always read it as a fascinating exercise in translation, beginning with a “close” version (actually the most accurate word for word, sense for sense, rendering is the second poem not the first) and then blossoming out to freer and freer attempts to get closer to the heart of the poem’s meaning – entering by the back door, so to speak. And, of course, Hadrian’s little poem (which, amazingly, was spoken of contemptuously by the man who recorded it!) is fascinatingly complicated and elusive. Seeing it in the light of this anthology and of Farrell’s reading, I realise I have ignored issues of the exact sex of the “animula” that I should not have. Even worse, I am completely unable to even begin answering the question: did Hadrian think his soul was male, female or without sex? (And what is the significance of Apuleius’ allegory of Cupid and Psyche written not long after Hadrian’s death?). I think you would have to know a lot about Greek philosophy as mediated through an Ionophile, bi-sexual (but probably profoundly homosexual), Roman emperor in the early second century to answer this – though, no doubt, David Malouf does and can. It does, as they say, make you wonder – and that is a good experience for a reader. Something similar can be said for the reading of a few of the poems which I knew previously, especially Martin Harrison’s “About the Self”. This poem begins with a heterosexual experience that in normal reading one might pass over but which here looks almost incendiary.

One odd experience of reading Out of the Box is the sense that the poems by the gays are much more powerful than those by the lesbians. Perversely this seems an anthology of male success. And to forestall those who have immediately written me off as an unreconstructed chauvinist, I should point out that the fascinating fact is that this imbalance (of force, of poetic ability, of interestingness, of good poems) is the opposite of what I feel about contemporary Australian poetry “at large”. There, it seems to me, an enormously powerful, varied and interesting group of women poets rightfully takes centre-stage in any description of where things are. But here the “usual suspects” – Malouf, Harrison, Rose especially – look the strong poets that they do in a conventional collection. Certainly each of those three (and one could add others) has a sophisticated and challenging approach to meaning in poetry and it would be very difficult to be reductive about them. In other words this anthology may provide contexts that make you reread and rethink poems but I don’t think it provides contexts that make poets look either more or less accomplished and intriguing than they did before. That having been said, though, there are some poets that I have not read previously who I would like to read more of: a number of these are women and one, Stephen J Williams, is a man.