Inside Australia's Hidden Writers' Communities
We chatted to two Aussie experts, Bonny Cassidy & Jessica L. Wilkinson, editors of Contemporary Australian Feminist Poetry, about their book, as well as Australia's writing scene and where to find "your people". Interview: Grace Jennings-Edquist
For our readers who are interested in feminist writing (including poetry), how can they tap into a community of like-minded writers in Australia?
Bonny: The Stella Prize is Australia's annual literary award for female writers. Its website and the organisation that administer the prize have also developed as a peak source of commentary on gender equality in Australian writing, editing, publishing, funding and prize-giving. I'd recommend checking out their resources, such as the Stella Count, which is the Australian version of the VIDA count.
At a more grassroots level, there are really strong intersectional feminist communities in cities like Melbourne and Sydney, where audiences and writers can come together through events like the Blak & Bright festival in 2016; the excellent Arts House organisation in North Melbourne, which frequently hosts productions and events led by Indigenous and ethnically diverse, diasporic feminist writers and performers; the Footscray Community Arts Centre; the Victorian Feminist Writers Festival.
There is also Australia's original feminist publisher, Spinifex Press, which continues to produce quality feminist writing across a big range of genres; and the great new zine, Wild Tongue, which focuses on work and views by female-identifying and queer POC (poets of colour). Ronnie Scott and Francesca Rendle-Short at RMIT have been running a residency program in 2017 called Women Writers In The City, and it has produced some events and publications featuring a variety of female literary mentorships.
Jessica: Despite a serious lack of government support for the Arts in recent years, I think that journals in Australia are doing some amazing things, and even if they are not explicitly ‘feminist’ there is a clear awareness and eagerness to promote diversity and equality in these journals, and is a space in which to read feminist voices set against broad and disparate contexts. Overland, The Lifted Brow, Island, Archer, Cordite Poetry Review, Peril and Westerly are just a handful of names for readers to check out. (I also edit Rabbit, which is a journal for nonfiction poetry, and both myself and my sub-editors are highly conscious of representation of diverse voices.)
On another note, I would like to point out that The Stella Prize does not accept for entry poetry collections by women, which I think is a serious shortfall and adds to my previous comments about poetry in Australia. Just saying…
It's been 35 years since Australia's feminist poetry anthology Mother, I’m Rooted was published. How different is your new anthology, in terms of issues addressed or overall tone?
Jessica: When we released our callout for poems, we kept the brief open—we wanted new (unpublished) feminist poems by Australian poets of any gender. We were excited to see what kind of work would roll in, if that would tell us what kind of feminism exists now, how writers engaged with politics, identity, society and the environment in the contemporary moment. And the responses were diverse, which I think shows how feminist thinking has expanded phenomenally to infiltrate various corners and crevices of our lives.
Who are some of your favourite Australian women writers (including poets) that our readers should look out for?
Bonny: It should be said that not all women are feminists! But feminists are interested in all women, and so my favourite female writers in Australia (dead and alive) include: Eve Langley; Gig Ryan; Ali Cobby Eckermann; Alexis Wright; Charlotte Wood; Ellen van Neerven; Grace Perry; Jane Campion; Helen Garner; Lesbia Harford; Alison Whittaker; Christina Stead.
Jessica: This question gets me thinking about some books by Australian women writers that have had a deep impact on me recently. Ellen Van Neervan’s short story collection Heat and Light is incredible, offering contemporary narratives with a strong sense of place and characters exploring sexuality and identity in a scarred landscape; Fiona Wright’s book of essays on her battle with anorexia Small Acts of Disappearance, is lucid and affecting—she writes with such honesty and lack of indulgence, it is powerful stuff and will be an important read, for young women in particular, for years to come. Also nonfiction, Briohny Doyle’s Adult Fantasy explores contemporary adulthood and what that ‘means’ for the post-baby boomer generation. It is witty and sharp and one of those books that make you breathe a sigh of relief (as in phew…it’s not just me). I have always loved the precision of Jordie Albiston’s poetry—The Hanging of Jean Lee and Botany Bay Document are books I return to often because of my own deep interest in documentary poetry; she is now writing poetry collections founded on mathematical concepts. Bella Li writes stunning prose poetry and her work has been recently showcased in her first book Argosy, which also features her visual collagework, taking cues from the collage novels of Max Ernst.
Also, I have to mention that I just read Bonny’s latest collection Chatelaine, which floored me—it is a weird, slippery, spitting and irreducible series of poems that wiggle into new territory, eco-feminist and gloriously abject.
Australian Contemporary Feminist Poetry (Hunter Publishers) is available now.
This interview has been edited for brevity.