Anthology

Sarah Holland-Batt’s Fishing for Lightning is a book about Australian poetry. As such, it is a rare, and welcome, bird in the literary ecology of our country. It is welcome because poetry, like any other art form, requires a supportive culture that educates and promulgates. Not that Holland-Batt, herself one of our leading poets, is ‘merely’ didactic, or a shill for the muses. Holland-Batt, who is also an academic, writes with great authority and insight, and she is a fine stylist, penning essays that are packed with humour and playfulness. These essays cater for all kinds of audiences, from newcomers to poetry experts, which is no small feat.

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What We Carry: Poetry on childbearing edited by Ella Kurz, Simone King, and Claire Delahunty

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September 2021, no. 435

On her explosive, feminist début album Dry (1992), a young P.J. Harvey sang ‘Look at these my childbearing hips’, proudly proclaiming women’s strength and physicality. The word ‘childbearing’ conjures strong feelings and images for many of us – whether of childbirth, sleep deprivation, devotion, or a whole new way of life. It signifies much more than childbirth itself and is a fitting choice for the subtitle of this anthology, Poetry on childbearing. This emotionally powerful collection covers an expansive range of experiences: infertility, conception, pregnancy, birth, and life with a baby (or not).

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One of my favourite characterisations of the short story comes, unsurprisingly, from Jorge Luis Borges. In a 1982 interview with Fernando Sorrentino, Borges attributes the short story’s strength to its economy; to its muscular form, trimmed of all fat. A three-hundred-page novel, he says, ‘necessarily contains a certain amount of padding, pages whose only purpose is to connect one part of the novel to the other. In a short story, on the other hand, it is possible for everything to be essential, or more or less essential, or – at the very least – to appear to be essential.’ One might say the same about a good anthology: there is no space for filler, no room for error; every story must be essential, or – at the very least – must appear to be essential.

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Racism: Stories on fear, hate and bigotry edited by Winnie Dunn, Stephen Pham, and Phoebe Grainer

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July 2021, no. 433

Sweatshop, based in Western Sydney, is a writing and literacy organisation that mentors emerging writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Racism, their ninth anthology, brings together all thirty-nine writers involved in their three programs – the Sweatshop Writers Group, Sweatshop Women Collective, and Sweatshop Schools Initiative. 

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Where is home for a feminist? ‘I carry “home” on my back,’ wrote poet and theorist Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), a protective response to the many layers of discrimination she experienced as a queer Chicana woman. ‘Home’, for Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan, writing in the 1970s, was a place of confinement, where women’s movements ‘strongly resembled those of domestic poultry’. The home has rarely been a safe place for women (never mind feminists), who have for millennia dared to ask for better accommodation.

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‘Experimental writing’ can sometimes seem like a wastebasket diagnosis for any text that defies categorisation. Even when used precisely, it begs certain questions. Isn’t all creative writing ‘experimental’ to some degree? Isn’t the trick to conceal the experimentation? And what relationship does it bear to the ‘avant-garde’? If avant-gardism implies a radical philosophy of art, where does ‘experimentalism’ fit today? Is it not part of the valorisation of novelty, of innovation for innovation’s sake, which has gripped the literary establishment in recent decades? (When books like Milkman [2018] and Ducks, Newburyport [2019] fall victim to the cosiest of literary prizes, where have the real radicals gone?)

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The Library of America has published massive anthologies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American poetry that include work from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds, so why now another large book devoted exclusively to African Americans? Because it needs to be said and said again just how profoundly American this poetry is, how it enriches culture and should not be ignored among the more conventionally canonised. The fact that this book appeared in 2020, the year when Black Lives Matter protests went global, only underlines its importance as a historical marker. Poetry by Black Americans is not only unignorable but central to American literary life. Reading African American Poetry: 250 years of struggle and song may change your way of reading poetry, particularly modern poetry. It is that rare thing among anthologies, a moving book, enlivened by fire and soul.

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Liz Byrski’s introduction to Women of a Certain Rage is, among other things, a homage to second-wave feminism and a lament that feminism, ‘originally a radical countercultural movement’, has been ‘distorted into a tool of neoliberalism’. While there is no doubt that strains of feminism have been co-opted by neoliberalism to debilitating effect, this narrative – that feminism has become ineffectual since the 1970s – is one that erases many contemporary feminisms, as well as broader feminism-informed political movements and the work that they have done and continue to do.

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The invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany in 1941 caused massive destruction over a huge area. The number of deaths is uncertain, though a figure of around twenty-seven million is now widely accepted. The lives of many more millions were affected – as soldiers, as workers in war-related industries, as civilians in besieged and occupied territories, as refugees – and the experience of hardship and self-sacrifice in what is widely referred to in Russia as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ or the ‘Great Fatherland War’ continues to dominate the Russian historical narrative.

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The Anthology of Australian Prose Poetry edited by Cassandra Atherton and Paul Hetherington

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December 2020, no. 427

What is it about English language poetry that has proved so resistant to the lure of the prose poem? The French, it appears, held no such qualms, finding themselves besotted with the form ever since Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire began dispensing with line breaks and stanzas. Of course, the very existence of English-language works like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914) or William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell (1920) could be used to argue otherwise, but such endeavours were considered too eccentric at the time to impart a lasting legacy. Perhaps if T.S. Eliot, whose antipathy towards the prose poem is well known, had given us a major cycle along the lines of Saint-John Perse’s Anabasis (1924), a work he admired and translated, things might have turned out differently.

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