Young Australian Poetry Is Incredible, And It’s Making A Comeback
"My generation never stopped being children/We grew wearier, but not wiser/We grew older, but not up."
Think modern poetry is all excruciating emotional outpourings and pretentious oblique musings for wankers? Think again. Contemporary poetry — especially the Australian brand — is making a sex-charged, sweary and confronting comeback thanks to a host of young poets intent on challenging the status quo one metaphor-laden line at a time.
Ironically, this contemporary style — free-flowing, delivered as both spoken and written verse, dotted with modern politics and bristling against sexual repression, nationalism, racism, violence and loneliness — is arguably catapulting poetry into the mainstream spotlight even as it is labelled inferior by poetry’s academic gatekeepers.
Poetry: The Ultimate Comeback Kid
That’s not to say making a living from poetry has suddenly become easy; other genres traditionally pay far better, even with the decline in hard-print book sales. Things got rougher for poetry from the early 1990s, when Australian publishers stopped thinking of verse as a prestigious staple and, amid a slew of mergers and takeovers in the commercial publishing sector, ordered that poetry pay its way or go away. Even major Aussie poets like Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright and Les Murray were left high and dry without a publisher.
Then came Melbourne-based poet Dorothy Porter and her totally mind-blowing 1994 crime thriller The Monkey’s Mask, which told the story of a lesbian detective and revived one of the oldest forms of literature — the verse novel. Porter (who sadly passed away in 2008) was a smart cookie, deliberately marketing the book as a novel in a bid to cross the well-drawn line between literary highbrow and popular fiction. It worked. The book captured the imagination of ordinary people and was later made into a film.
The success of The Monkey’s Mask provided young poets with an opportunity, and a lesson: think outside the square, dare to break poetry free from it’s neatly drawn traditionalist box and mainstream success may hover beyond.
Check, for example, the awesomeness of young Australian poets gaining prominence like Luka Lesson and Omar Musa, who have made names for themselves as slam poets and rappers. Or American poet Patricia Lockwell, who earned fame writing racy “Sexts” via Twitter in a parody of sexual text messages, and recently released a new book of poems that the New Yorker described as “so full of sexual impropriety that it would make any bro blush”.
One of the brightest stars in the new poetry scene, though, is Australian-Cypriot poet Koraly Dimitriadis from Melbourne, whose first book, awesomely entitled Love and Fuck Poems, has been picked up by mainstream publishers and is selling unusually well.
‘You’re Not A Poet’, They Say
Love and Fuck Poems is a traditionalist’s nightmare — the verse novel is packed full of clits and dicks and blowjobs and relationship fuck-ups and foul-mouthed yet searingly honest explorations of life after her marriage breakdown, a “volcanic” event that sparked her liberation from cultural and sexual repression.
35-year-old Dimitriadis challenges Greek stereotypes and writes unashamedly and candidly about her burgeoning post-divorce sexuality in poems like “Cock”: “I have never wanted to suck cock / because it’s so wrong / and I’m a good Greek girl / meant to fuck only a husband / or sit tight-legged in church / But lately duty is irrelevant / because I’m obsessed with / the thought of your cock.”
Academics have branded her unconventional style not “literary enough”, said it lacks “literary merit” or claimed her work can’t be called poetry. Dimitriadis doesn’t really give a damn. Poetry doesn’t have to conform to be valid, she says.
“Poetry can be anything — long or short, an image, an idea. For me it has to come from the heart,” she says, speaking from the small Cypriot village where she is currently having the book translated into Greek. “It’s honesty, it’s being human. I was raised in a migrant culture that was really stuck in the ways of the ’60s and ’70s. While Cyprus and Greece were evolving, the children of migrants in Australia were still stuck in this conservative bubble. I spent most of my life not being honest with myself, having to push down my feelings, having to push down who I felt I was. Then my marriage fell apart and everything just exploded. I seriously exploded into poetry.”
But Isn’t This Just A Case Of Sex Sells? (Nope. It Isn’t.)
Love and Fuck Poems probably isn’t great bus reading because you may need to duck off for a calming cold shower after ploughing your way through sexually explicit poems like “Fantasty” and “Her Cunt”. But Dimitriadis insists she’s not a “sex poet”, as one radio announcer once suggested. She also bats away suggestions she’s aiming for erotica or pornography, saying she wants to express herself and find herself through her work — and perhaps help others trapped within the same narrow cultural boundaries.
Similar criticism is often also levelled at her contemporary, Melbourne’s Ben John Smith, who publishes the online poetry zine Horror Sleaze Trash. He’s been called sexist, misogynistic, a pornographer — all, it seems, because he decided he’d write poetry using language his friends could relate to. “It’s the lowbrow scene, it’s the tattoo scene … it’s all very related to nudity and sex, it’s kind of alternative … and I thought it was a good idea to put literature next to things like that where everyone could be exposed to art,” he told 3CR radio. His work does little to win the hearts of academics, yet everyday folk are lapping up his brash, irreverent and honest style because it’s so refreshing and relatable.
Former Australian Poetry director Paul Kooperman once said poetry should be “personal, passionate and bold”. Books like Dimitriadis’ Love and Fuck Poems, Smith’s work with Horror Sleaze Trash and the new breed of poetry that speaks to people’s actual lived experiences are, he said, “exactly what poetry should be. It goes to places many poets avoid, shining light on humanity’s dark side, allowing the reader the rare opportunity of feeling included in the experience through the clarity and honesty of the work.”
Really, who could resist poetry like that?
Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance writer living in Spain who has written for publications including New Internationalist, Frankie, Kill Your Darlings and The Lifted Brow. She blogs at The Little Green House and tweets @KorenHelbig.
Feature image via Luka Lesson, ‘Please Resist Me’.