Teasing Threads – on Perth poetry

Chris Palazzolo challenges WA poets to deal fairly with their city.

Image result for washing lines imagesDuring a brush with fame a couple of years ago when my first book was published, I was asked in an interview whether poetry is possible in Perth. I thought this was an interesting question, especially – given that my book was a small volume of verse – as it contained the not so subtle dismissive, ‘how can you call your poetry real poetry if it’s written and published in a place where the question, is poetry possible here, can seriously be asked of a poet?’ Would such a question be asked of a Sydney poet for instance, or a Melbourne poet? I can’t deny that it infuriated me. I was even more infuriated by my glib reply – poetry is possible wherever people live and love, work and die. I came up with that lame answer because I couldn’t think of an answer, and in a panic seemed to confirm a dreadful truth implicit in the question. That no, Perth is such a soul-suckingly barren place, the lives lived here so inauthentic and rootless, that all the poetry written here never was, and could never have been, real poetry.

West Australian poets only have themselves to blame if their city has been typecast this way.  As a strolling editor of no fixed abode I’ve read a lot of West Australian poetry and it seems almost a reflex for our poets to describe Perth as a citadel of false idols in comparison with the sacred innocence of the country (the Great Southern, Goldfields, Wheatbelt, Kimberley etc) or their own private epiphanies of childhood or garden. A lot of excellent verse has been penned in support of this myth. Probably the most audacious is John Kinsella who in his Wheatbelt cycle The Divine Comedy compared the descent of the Great Eastern Highway from the Darling Ranges into Perth with the descent of the Fifth Circle of Dante’s Inferno. I’ve driven down this road many times, and I can’t say I’ve ever been overwhelmed by the stench of shit and rot that Dante’s pilgrim smelt from the gates of Dis. I would describe the smell as a melange of sweet eucalyptus, diesel and petrol exhaust. DH Lawrence observed Perth from the same vantage point a century earlier in the first pages of Kangaroo. He smelt the eucalyptus too. Most WA poets rarely get as intense as Kinsella. But then in a way that’s part of the problem. The prevailing impression I come away with is that Perth is nice at best, bland at worst, a place of easy consumption ruled by the developer’s dollar. At least Dis is a poetic image!

All poetic cultures have an origin myth. My friend of many years Chris Dickinson once gave me a lovely neat origin myth for Perth. If, as Geoffrey Blainey argues, the Australian national character emerged out of a consciousness of its distance from Europe, then Perth is the quintessential Australian city because it is distant from the rest of Australia – it is distant from distance. There’s a whole new angle on Australian history in this logic. While most of the other Australian capitals grew proximate to each other in the eastern half of the continent, trading, exchanging, learning from and defining themselves against each other, Perth, through much of its colonial, and a considerable chunk of its state history, toiled alone. This is how the city-of-no-qualities arose from the myth; too long solitude; other cities too far away to reflect itself off, a lonesome ego, smoothly unreflexive, sublimely unrecognised. WA poets consign Perth to the terrible fate of its colonial bondage, invisibility, so often, it’s almost like a neurotic impulse.

In the meantime people live and love, work and die here. They party, they have kids, they hang washing on washing lines (in-joke). And many of them write poetry, some of it (paradoxically because of this anxiety of unreflexiveness – Perth’s ‘mirror-stage’) the best in the country, and among the best in the world. I would like to invite WA poets to stop excoriating Perth with ‘faint praise’ and start thinking about their city as a res publica. Examine its civic rhythms and the aesthetics of its built landscape with an unprejudiced (or unideological) eye. Awake from private consolations and look out onto its footpaths and streets, how they change in seasons, how people use them. Cease the nihilistic dismissal of its commerce and politics. Take note of its well-oiled electoral democracy which turned the political map of the metropolitan area from blue to red at the last state election. Celebrate its progressive victories over the century (women’s suffrage, reproduction rights, Native Title). I guess what I’m calling for is our poets to show some civic pride. When WA poets verse admiringly of Melbourne, its muscular urbanity, they fail to see that Melbourne poets (and painters, musicians, filmmakers, etc) have taught us to look at Melbourne that way. They are proud of their city, and over the last century the commercial and political spheres of that city have responded to produce the urbane beauty we admire today. It’s time for WA poets to do the same for Perth.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Readers interested in exploring some contemporary WA poetry can start by checking out the latest issue of Creatrix. https://wapoets.wordpress.com/creatrix-2/issue-37-poetry/

Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419