Congratulations Adam Aitken on winning the 2021 Patrick White Award

Rochford Street Review congratulates Dr Adam Aitken who was awarded the 2021 Patrick White Award on 6 December 2021. Adam is a great friend and supporter of the Review and, as co-editor of the first few issues of P76 journal in the early 1980s, was present at the very beginning of Rochford Street Press. More recently Adam’s work appeared in Issue 32 of the Review (Adam Aitken: Three Poems).

The Patrick White Award was established by Patrick White with the proceeds of his 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature and is managed by Perpetual  Ltd as trustee of the philanthropic trust behind it. The Award is given annually to an author who has ‘already made a contribution to Australian Literature’ but who may not have ‘received due recognition for that contribution’. The Award is intended to encourage and support ongoing creativity in its recipients.

In awarding the 2021 Patrick White Award to Adam the judges ( Dr Felicity Plunkett (Chair), Dr Julieanne Lamond and Ms Michelle de Kretser) stated:

Dr Adam Aitken is a poet and non-fiction writer. Born in London, he moved to Sydney with his family in 1969. He spent his early childhood in Thailand and Malaysia, and has taught English for extensive periods in Indonesia. He has also lived and travelled in the UK and Europe, recently spending long periods in France.He is the author of seven full-length collections of poetry, a number of chapbooks and a memoir. He was co-editor of the journal P76 and associate poetry editor with Heat magazine. In recent years, Dr Aitken taught writing at the University of Technology and University of Sydney.

Many of the poems in Aitken’s first collection of poetry, Letter to Marco Polo (Island Press, 1985), had previously achieved publication including in the University of Sydney’s The Union Recorder as well as journals such as Overland, Southerly and Poetry Australia. As the title of one poem, ‘Sacred and Profane’, suggests, Aitken initiates a vivid, inventive poetics of lyricism and assemblage that situates stray dogs alongside quotations from the Buddha, and angels near a faltering‘Vietnamese boat’ collapsing like a ‘wrecked umbrella’.

His second collection, In One House (HarperCollins/Paperbark Press, 1996), expands the wide range of styles and modes with which Aitken works. While this eclecticism precludes his being identified easily or exclusively with any particular form or school, his work is often lyric and postcolonial, and the poems exhibit a fascination with form and language. Geographically, they are restive, moving from Burma to Bondi, Mosman Bay to Cambodia, while their images and icons include Angkor Wat, the Mona Lisa, a cold can of VB and W.B. Yeats. Poems about destructive and acquisitive colonialism prefigure what has more recently become a major current in Australian poetry.

Aitken’s third collection, Romeo and Juliet in Subtitles (Brandl & Schlesinger, 2000), was shortlisted for the John Bray South Australian Literary Festival Award and was runner-up for the Age Book of the Year poetry prize. In a review in Heat, Martin Duwell praises Aitken as ‘an impressive and unavoidable voice in Australian poetry’, having, from his first collection, ‘marked out a distinctive poetic territory’. Writing about the collection’s hybridity (it includes, for example, science fictive and postmodern poems), Duwell suggests that Aitken’s poetic world is ‘not so much the world of multicultural Australia as the world of cultural markers ripped from their conventional national matrices’.

Impermanence.com, a chapbook published by Vagabond Press as part of their Rare Objects series (2004), observes sacred and profane objects, from a Hindu temple to a bicycle. Aitken has put out several chapbooks with different publishers, including Tinfish Press and Picaro Press.

Aitken’s fourth full-length collection, Eight Habitation (Giramondo, 2009), was shortlisted for the John Bray South Australian Literary Festival Award. The title refers to the Buddhist afterlife realm in which lives are evaluated, and the collection includes intimate poems addressing other artists, love poems written in lean couplets, and poems concerned with place and placement, of being outside and beyond. Poems concerning intimacy and loss, or Dukkha, a Buddhist word usually translated as ‘suffering’, reach back to the collection’s shaping idea and title. Nicholas Birns’s review in Transnational Literature identifies an ‘overriding theme’ of ‘expanding our idea of cosmopolitanism’. Birns sees Aitken’s work as bringing an Asian frame of reference into poems where a more conventional one would refer only to Europe. At the same time, the collection encompasses contemplative and metaphysical aspects.

With Michelle Cahill and Kim Cheng Boey, Aitken edited the anthology Contemporary Asian Australian Poets, a text now set for NSW Higher School Certificate English (Puncher & Wattmann, 2013). This ground-breaking anthology spans several decades and includes thirty-seven poets, including Jaya Savige, Omar Musa, Bella Li and Eileen Chong.
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One Hundred Letters Home (Vagabond, 2016) was longlisted for the ALS Gold Medal. In this memoir, Aitken attempts to piece together his parents’ histories in a quest to arrive at an understanding of his own. It is a lucidly written, unconventional work with great depth of feeling. Using a range of forms –letters, lists, official documents, photographs, newspaper reports, poems –Aitken creates a textual collage that evokes the piecemeal nature of identity. He avoids linear narrative, the past surging forward unpredictably throughout the text to suggest memory’s instability, its shifts and splits. Eileen Chong observes that ‘orbits of meaning overlap like memory’ in this layered book (Cordite). Drawing attention to the ambiguity that streaks Aitken’s representation of his cultural heritage, Rebecca Allen finds ‘a persistent vacillation between feelings of closeness and distance, of connection and estrangement’ (Mascara Review). Ivy Alvarez likens the narrative to ‘a story torn from an old newspaper, or a confession inside a much folded letter’, and notes that the memoir is less concerned with ‘biographical exactitude’, favouring ‘excavation and piecing-together’ instead (Southerly).
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David Gilbey, writing in Cordite, describes the poems in Aitken’s collection Archipelago (Vagabond, 2017) as‘“postcards” of places in France (from Paris to Avignon), French art, writing and history; freewheeling thinking and memories, cultural commentary’. Gilbey reflects that Aitken’s uses of synecdoche offer a way to think about his poetry: ‘synecdoche is right, too, as a descriptor of Aitken’s poetry: dazzling –so many parts standing for many more wholes.’ The France in this collection is considered through the postcolonial lens Aitken has refined, and is observed from both within that country and beyond it. Archipelago was short-listed for the Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
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Aitken’s seventh collection, Revenants, is forthcoming with Giramondo Press (2022). The wide reach of his work is evidenced by its translation into French, Swedish, German, Polish, Malay, Mandarin, Japanese and Russian, and international publication in journals such as Poetry (USA). In his review of Eighth Habitation, Nicholas Birns writes that the poems ‘fulfil the old Horatian ideal of both teaching and delighting’. Aitken’s writing over several decades attests to a sustained, often prescient body of work that is venturesome, restless and inventive. The judges congratulate Adam Aitken on the Award.
Adam Aitken in Rochford Street Review

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