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Networking Contemporary Poetry and Poetics: Addressing Some Institutional Constraints

Ann Vickery

This paper focuses on the discussion of poetry rather than on poetry itself, and the relationship of such discussion to institutionalisation, and how such institutionalisation may shape Australian and New Zealand links. Today, poetry talk happens in a plethora of venues and in many degrees of formality. Some of the most interesting discussions on poetry are happening in blogs, and knowing of those discussions often comes through word of mouth or its electronic equivalents. Most of the blogs worth reading are those produced by poets and there is often a sense similar to emails that these are transitory vehicles, places of filled parenthesis, where one can air a grievance, share a high point. The reception of blogs varies. There are the blogs like Ron Silliman’s which could be said to be international in reception, where you know a number of eminent poetry scholars are logging in, and where there can be an instant-response kind of debate. A good example of this was Silliman and Perloff’s reactions to September 11. Perhaps because blogs are run by one person, there is still a sense of the personal that influences the sense of informality. Related to the blog are the discussion lists which have more sense of organisation, a bit more of a sense of limits because they’re often moderated. But like the blog, lists are often run by a single person, sometimes two. And these discussion lists also vary in terms of their reception. Many cross national boundaries such as poetryespresso or poetryetc or the Buffalo Poetics list.

In terms of how blogs and discussion lists are being institutionalised, it’s interesting that Joel Kuszai edited early Poetics list discussions and then published those selections as Poetics@ in 1999. I’ve not yet analysed how discussion lists have further been institutionalised. Yet I do find it intriguing that a number of blogs are already being archived in Australia by prestigious libraries like the National Library. And I wonder whether this will eventually impact on the kind of chat that goes on in such blogs when there is a realisation that they aren’t so fleeting a forum as one first might have thought. Blogs are like email: we don’t expect them to be archived, rendered a permanent marker. I still remember the shock at coming across my own emails in Lyn Hejinian’s archive, which made me rethink exactly what I henceforth put in emails to other writers. And blogs now seem to be going down the same path.

Beyond blogs and discussion lists, there are a number of journals that are happy to feature scholarship on poetry and most will feature both poetry and poetry criticism (it perhaps goes without saying that a healthy discussion list will sometimes generate its own journal). More and more are electronic. Like blogs, their editing can be quite personal; some might be run by one or two individuals; others will be run by a collective or have a supporting editorial board. Their reception also varies, with some quite comfortable being local, others wanting to be more trans-national. I’m thinking of journals like Open Letter which seems fairly Canadian in orientation while others, like Susan Schultz’s TinFish, are specifically focused on a broader geography – for TinFish, poetries of the Pacific. Journals like Jacket seem to have an extremely large audience and there is a sense that if you publish in such a forum, your work will be successfully disseminated around the English-speaking world. Others like HOW2 are focused not on place but on other elements of identity or form, in that case, on innovative women’s writing and scholarship. They are international in scope, and have deliberately planned editorial succession in terms of global repositioning. The extent of a journal’s internationalism often depends on the orientation and efforts of the editors, even with an international advisory board. When I became editor-in-chief at HOW2, it was important to me that Australian and New Zealand content feature more prominently. So I organised for Deb Comerford to put together a selection of contemporary Australian poetry and get a statement of poetics for each contributor, and Michele Leggott and I put together a collection on Robin Hyde and New Zealand modernism which featured on HOW2 and was linked to Robin Hyde’s author page at nzepc. Not much in retrospect but better than absence: getting HOW2’s audience to think beyond the usual cross-Atlantic geo-political lines.

nzepc is an example of another formation that is encouraging a vibrancy in the discussion of poetry and poetics. Centres for poetry and poetics have been occurring for quite a while now, kickstarted perhaps by Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Centre. So there’s the bepc (British electronic poetry centre), the Australian Poetry Centre (APC), and the Poetry and Poetics Centre at the University of South Australia among many others. The Writer’s House at Penn has long been encouraging readings and discussion of modern and contemporary poetry and poetics, and making audio recordings of them available through their webpages at PennSound.

On top of that, there are initiatives such as transnational and international poetry conferences and symposiums; this being one such example and part of an ongoing series. There were the biennial Poetry and Politics conferences in Scotland; in the 1990s there were about three biennial poetry conferences in Australia and then after a decade, the one on Poetry and the Trace that I convened with John Hawke and Rose Lucas in 2008. Jacob Edmond organised ‘A New Global Poetics’ seminar program at the American Comparative Literature Association in 2007. And there are probably many more examples of scholarship that is happening which is drawing academics and writers together across the waters to talk poetry.

So this all seems great and while I don’t want to be throwing the baby out with the bath water, I do want to throw around some cold water and sound some notes of caution – largely to do with the impact of government funding. In January this year, Australian poets in academia and poetry scholars were rocked by the Australian Research Council’s finalised ranking of journals. Some journals like Westerly got an A ranking (the highest being A*). Overland also received an A ranking – must have been Pam Brown’s five year stint as poetry editor and Keri Glastonbury’s subsequent good work. But others like Ivor Indyk’s Heat which had an A ranking in the initial list, Meanjin, Island and Southerly did not just fall down the ranking; they dropped off it altogether. Journals like Jacket and HOW2 never made it to an initial list – perhaps because they are not part of the MLA list of journals but also because Jacket is not affiliated with any institution and is run by an individual. Many of you will say well, what is the impact of this journal ranking? The ARC’s ranking of journals now helps determine an individual’s track record in terms of ‘quality of output’. What it has meant is that a number of poet-critics have seen their track record disappear overnight. For those who need to survive within an academic setting, it also means that they may no longer be seen to be research active and will lose their entire research funding – that is, the funding that helps get them to symposiums like this. Deakin University is quite explicit in defining a research active person as someone who has published a book every three years, published an A-ranked journal article every year, or brought in more than $30,000 in funding every year. More broadly, it is likely to have an effect of directing where people go to publish. On a different note, there has also been a great concern in Australia by Pam and others about the lack of good reviewing of poetry. Partly, this is because such publishing has no institutional cachet in Australia – it literally counts for nothing in terms of a scholar’s track record for funding.

Turning now to poetry centres. While places like nzepc are great in hosting symposiums such as this, I am concerned by the rubric of nation that underwrites many such centres. In both Australia and New Zealand, APRIL (Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library) and nzepc seem to be more specific alternatives to broader national literature databases such as AustLit and the New Zealand Literature File at Auckland University, and go further than these broad databases in offering critical and historical material rather than mere bibliography. Similarly the Australian Poetry Centre seems more focused on poetry readings and events in a way similar to the New Zealand Poetry Society. In each case, the projected scope is national. While both APRIL and nzepc have input from across their respective countries, they have one institutional home (University of Sydney and University of Auckland respectively), there is no shared institutional home or custody if you like. While there are other poetry centres emerging and contesting poetic and archival space, it remains to be seen what their future will be. Take for example the University of South Australia’s Poetry and Poetics Centre, which may become more regional and situated in its scope in contrast to the Australian Poetry Centre or APRIL. What seems to be happening is that if you want to attract government funding, there is a required rhetoric of national benefit that you have to use. Certainly in Australia, if you want federal funding for research, there is a component of national benefit that must be addressed. Whether a case for regional benefit might work is something to look at. What I am concerned by, however, is whether there is a centralisation occurring, fuelled by funding structures, and the dangers inherent in this. In Australia, the Australian Research Council is generously funding what it calls Collaborative Research Networks and it would seem that the recognition of a network is a good thing. It would be great, for instance, for there to be networked groups of scholars with a like-minded interest in poetry and poetics. Certainly, this seemed to be the underlying objective of Kate Fagan’s symposium at the University of Western Sydney last year, a symposium entitled ‘Critical Links: Poetics in Australian Universities.’ It would be great to build such networks and there was generally a very positive response to this idea. The aim would be to then build them outwards in linking up with those in New Zealand and elsewhere (this critical networking would then mirror some of the more informal networking that is going on through blogs and lists). However, I am concerned by the underlying structure that the Australian Research Council envisages for Collaborative Research Networks which is based on a hub and spokes model rather than a rhizomatic one. That is, it envisages a centre with outlying sites rather than some model of site equivalence. This, along with the rhetoric of ‘centres of excellence,’ is encouraging a logic of dominance, which of course maps onto the most prestigious universities, those with the most money to fund such centres. Anyway, it remains to be seen what will happen – so far there has been no running in poetry to argue the case for a poetry and poetics Collaborative Research Network. But I think there does need to be discussion of such a network and how it might intersect with what’s happening in New Zealand – hopefully in a way that opens up pathways of collaboration and debate rather than only fostering it along lines dictated by institution or by funding models. I know that poets are embraced as a disorganised band – the ‘leg-pulling opposition’ as Ken Bolton notes. But I am hopeful, given poetry’s existence outside institutions and its healthy suspicion of them, that cross-pollination will occur whatever the constraints.

Auckland, 30 March 2010


©Ann Vickery

Last updated 23 November, 2010