I finally finished reading “Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets” edited by Michael Farrell and Jill Jones, having received my contributor’s copy a little before the Sydney launch as part of the Queer Thinking event at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras arts festival. I wasn’t in a hurry to finish it, and enjoyed taking my time, putting it down and coming back to it.
The book seems to have appeared at an interesting time, amidst at least three other Australian poetry anthologies, and it’s given reviewers good grist to ponder why we anthologize, to what point it serves, and how this anthology stacks up in comparison to others (very well indeed, I read. The reviews have been good and substantial).
I’ve enjoyed reading the discussion about what could be expected from poems from gay and lesbian writers and how they might conform or destroy expectation; this question seems fundamental to a few of the reviewers (and is explored in the introductions).
But I can be at times (often), intellectually lazy and dreadfully practical. An anthology is a good way to market poetry, it gathers together diverse voices, it provides an organisational structure which will appeal to both a market (i.e. a women’s anthology to women, a gay and lesbian anthology to gays and lesbians) and with any luck, university courses. An anthology does what many university courses do – it chooses an area to explore and study in depth; so Out of the Box makes a founding contribution to the possibility of gay and lesbian poetry being studied in Australia. It also provides a historical record, it archives and displays. Unexpectedly useful to me on a personal basis, I didn’t know that so many of the poets that I meet on the relatively small Sydney scene are gay and lesbian (what happened to my gaydar anyway?) and more relevant, Out of the Box gives me a handy reference guide to what they write! Rather than ask why (anthologize), I simply ask why not (which is opportunistic since this is the third queer poetry anthology I’ve appeared in, and I edited an anthology of Chinese-Canadian poetry a number of years ago).
This is not to gloss over the anthology itself! I think what I most enjoyed was how the poems speak to each other. Foregoing other ordering possibilities such as by poet’s last name or date of birth, and further breaking with the convention of grouping poems by the same poet together, Out of the Box orders its poems in alphabetical order of the title of the poems! Brilliant and unexpected. It allowed me to move between poets and voices and poems and be constantly engaged, surprised by what would appear, still get a hit of biography but not be drawn into comparing older vs newer poets, whether someone is more ‘important’ or ‘better’ than another. That Javant Biarujia’s “fucking the quiff of a runty cassock” appears on an opposite page to Margaret Bradstock’s “Old responsibilities, seasons/ rise up, numinous as Christmas ghosts” gives rise to many possibilities: that you prefer one style or the other, that you can jump from like to dislike or vice-versa with a mere shift of glance, that the contrast between the poems makes you like each a little more, their attributes and personality sharper.
I believe that including gay and lesbian poetry in the same anthology is the more uncommon choice, particularly for a contemporary rather than historical anthology. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen more gay-only anthologies that have reflected a stronger differentiation between both politics and cultures of gay men and lesbians. So, for me it was a joy to discover a number of women poets who provided some of my favourite moments (Wendy Jenkins, Dîpti Saravanamuttu, I’m talking to you – though I also liked being introduced to the formidable Peter Rose).
I was about to say that there feels to me a non-specificity about many of the poems, as if the editorial choice was to go with queer sensibility rather than content, but I’m not sure if that’s true. I did remember feeling with a number of poems that without the mention of a breast here, a phallus there, and the assumed sexual identity of the poet, that they didn’t feel particularly gay – but I think I have to explain that by saying I still don’t quite have a feel of the broad range of Australian poets that I’ve been reading since arriving on these shores in 1999. I often note the embrace of language and experimental poetry and a slight distaste for the confessional and first-person. Compare that to the 50 gay poets in the American “Best Gay Poetry 2008”, edited by Lawrence Schimel, were the majority of works featured are first-person confessionals about sex, dating, HIV, and ex-lovers. There is distance inserted in many of the Australian poems here by wordplay, jokes, intellectualism, perhaps reflection, which strikes me at times as colder and less emotional, and at other times, as more sophisticated and polished. I’ll continue to ponder.
Last words: the introductions are fantastic and complement each other well. I appreciated Farrell’s close reading of a number of poems. They won’t appeal to the casual reader of poetry; I found them smart and engaging; Jones’ analysis similarly informative but moreso, the lovely and concise history of publishing gay and lesbian poetry.
I was amused at the Sydney launch that the same word kept repeating again and again. ‘Handsome.’ as in “What a handsome book”. It’s such a beautifully designed book, the graphic matte cover, the unusual almost square shape. Robert Gray at this year’s writer’s festival referred to the book as the perfect hardware, you can take it anywhere, you can drop it and it won’t break. The poems here are elevated by the form in which they are presented.