For its small population, Tasmania has produced, or attracted from elsewhere, a significant number of published poets, past and present. Not all have loved the place. In the case of Gwen Harwood, the island state was her prison, or at least that’s what she told her friends: ‘I HATE HOBART’, ‘When do we leave?’ and ‘Get me outa here’. ‘My only fear is that I’ll die before I get out of Tasmania,’ she wrote in her ‘Sapho cards’ to her friend Alison Hoddinott. It’s hard to judge tone on the page, but these comments don’t really sound ambivalent!
Harwood wasn’t the only writer to feel a strong aversion to Tasmania. The fate of the original Tasmanians at the hands of European settlers casts a long shadow. Also, like many regional places, it has been culturally conservative and not especially welcoming of difference. Think of literary critic Peter Conrad’s scathing account of life in the 1960s in Hobart in his book Down Home (1988).
Nonetheless, many writers choose to live here now, for different reasons. For a start, it’s cheaper to live here. There are other reasons, though, not least of which is Tasmania’s wildness and beauty; almost a quarter of the state is World Heritage listed, much to the chagrin of those who want to chop down or dig up the country. For myself, I like the geography, I like living on an island in the Southern Ocean, and I like living where the environmental movement in Australia took off and where the world’s first Green Party (UTG) came to prominence. The past fifty years of environmental campaigns and conflict, while divisive, have helped to drag Tasmania into modernity and resulted in it becoming active globally. Tasmania’s isolation makes it compelling to some, as does the fact that it is away from the mainstream. Living away from mainland demands a certain self-sufficiency and mutual cooperation or support. Which brings me to poets in Tasmania, whom I think largely embody those qualities.
It was difficult to choose from so many poets. The six I have chosen range from mid- to late-career writers, their output ranging from two to fourteen collections. They tackle their art variously in subject, form, voice, and nuance. In their broader oeuvre, most of them respond at times to aspects of the island on which they live, particularly its history. For some, such as Adrienne Eberhard and Graeme Hetherington, this is a driving creative impetus. In this selection, Hetherington sheds light on his friendship with Gwen and Bill Harwood. I have included a sample of Adrienne Eberhard’s work in progress, a fictional dialogue between Marie Antoinette and Marie Louise/Louie Gerard, who posed as a cabin boy on Baudin’s first voyage to Tasmania. Karen Knight’s work is a homage to creativity as a transformative way of processing the experience of incarceration and its memory. Jane Williams’s distinctive voice is evident in the verve and energy of her poems included here. Aural craft and incisive perception are now characteristic of Louise Oxley’s poems, and Tim Thorne’s work is well known for its gutsy, undeviating directness.
Most, though not all, of the poems here are recent and unpublished. Like all good poems, they take one off guard and lend richness to reality, reflecting curiosity and an energetic shaping of observation and response to the past, present, and future.
In closing, it is important to acknowledge the vital role of Tasmanian literary magazines and their editors in fostering, encouraging, and introducing poets to a national readership. Independent local publishing houses continue to be a mainstay for important collections of poetry, local, and national.