A black box of all that’s happened: ali whitelock launches ‘Poetry of Encounter: The Liquid Amber Prize Anthology’ edited by Anne M Carson & Rose Lucas

Poetry of Encounter: The Liquid Amber Prize Anthology,  Liquid Amber Press 2022,  was launched by ali whitelock by Zoom on Thursday December 1, 2022

When she wasn’t watching
I bound her hands, taped her mouth
and silently dragged her into the cupboard.
I left her there to die while I wore her skin,
the real girl rotting into the floor, fading from meaning.
I took up her life, carried it forward,
unsure of what she called herself or the names she answered to
but sure of this: no one is coming to rescue her.

This is only one verse of the poem ‘DISSOCIATION’ by Shelly Beamish but when I read it here in the Poetry of Encounter, it was so gripping I wanted to open this launch with it. This poem terrifies me in all its haunting beauty. Its desperate last line stops me in my tracks. I urge everyone to read it in all its 3 verse glory. As I urge everyone to read every poem in this anthology. When I read these poems, I feel them in my bones. I feel them in my skin. They cut to the very quick of me. This is precisely what I want poetry to do.

If I could sit here and just read every poem in this anthology to you, I would. The work in these pages is brilliant, heartbreaking, nourishing, tender, wise, funny, philosophical and they explore vast worlds ––from the “grey eyes of grandmothers” to the “milky eyes of children”. From the “open-then-closed covid year” to “clouds of torn bread in chicory coffee, milk and butter”. Worlds where, “you are five and you love marmalade” to “Albert Park beach where no-one dies”. In this anthology there are poems where “puddles expand” and there is “rejoice in ripples”, poems that “hate the urgency of phones” and poems infused with the “peculiar pungency just before dusk”. These poems are written in such tight, clean language that I want to keep reading and reading and reading again.

For me, poetry’s job (if poetry does indeed have a job) is to express the seemingly inexpressible in the most original way possible. This anthology is bursting with poems that do just that, from both established AND emerging writers. Anthologies are opportunities for many voices to come together and no voice in this anthology feels any less powerful or any less important than any other.

The 54 poems in this anthology make up the Prize long list. The short-listed poems are:

  • Yvonne Adami’s ‘Found Photo’
  • Es Foong’s ‘Clot and Marrow’
  • Lyn McCredden’s ‘Shelter Us’
  • Denise O’Hagan’s ‘As water is to mist’
  • Renee Pettitt-Schipp’s ‘Nowanup’ (which won FIRST PRIZE)
  • Sarah Rice’s ‘A touch of light’
  • Lindsay Tuggle’s ‘The Specimen Dream’ (which won SECOND PRIZE)

The two Emerging Poet winners are Libby Angel and Bridget Webster who’s poetry fits so perfectly here.

The Poetry of Encounter could easily serve as a black box of all that’s happened these last few years. In testament to the power of the writing and the emotional paring back of these poets, I found something of myself in these pages. I felt seen and heard, scrubbed raw, soothed, smoothed, exfoliated then moisturised.

And the poems were brilliantly curated in such a way that each poem felt like a springboard from which to launch myself into the next poem. They were deliciously nourishing and left me open, receptive and glimmering translucent as an onion.

As Rose and Anne say in the preface, “poetry has the potential to articulate what is difficult and to carve out reflective spaces in which to understand and to communicate that insight.” These poets do this and then some. By shining a light on their own insights, these poets spark a match in us and our own insights ignite. For me, this is how poetry works. This is how the fire of poetry takes hold.

Only a mere handful of years ago, I was someone who claimed to hate poetry––PLEASE DON’T JUDGE ME! When I was growing up, what little poetry I was exposed to felt as though it wasn’t written for the likes of me, working class me, uncultured me, who-do-you- think-you-are me. It wasn’t written for my family. It wasn’t written for my friends. Therewere no books of poetry in our home. The most poetry we were ever exposed to was one line from Robert Burns on Valentine’s Day (‘my love is like a red, red rose’) and again at midnight on New Years Eve, or Hogmanay as we call it in Scotland, when we’d sing a chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. So having claimed to have been a hater of poetry, (and in fact I realise now I didn’t hate poetry, I just hadn’t been exposed to poetry that was relevant to me) imagine my surprise when short random things started bursting out of my pen. I sought advice …. what could these short, emotionally dense moments on the page be? Turns out these things were poetry. And so I gulped down a huge slice of humble pie and poetry is what I’ve spent this last six years of my life writing and reading.

In Meanjin Quarterly’s ‘What I’m Reading’ series I was struck by this snippet of Tim Loveday’s quote: “Poetry is closer to visual art than it is to say fiction or non-fiction, or even most music …” Then he goes on to say, “Poetry is a small window; a world framed by just a few stanzas.” I think this is such an exquisite way to describe what poetry is. When people ask me what I write and I tell them poetry, their eyes very often glaze over and I’ve often wished there was way of describing poetry that might bring more people to it. So, I got to thinking, what if we told them we weren’t writing poems, but worlds framed by just a few stanzas? What if we told them we writing windows they could climb through? Of course anthologies are, in my opinion, a brilliant way to bring more people to poetry. Anthologies are the chocolate boxes of the poetry world, there’s something in there for everyone. They are a fantastic way for us to be exposed to poets we may not otherwise have discovered, all here, between the pages of one convenient book.

Some years ago at Sydney Writers Festival visiting Irish poet Paul Muldoon said that writing poetry is like being an adventurer, that when you start to write a new poem you never know where is it going and where it will end up. He also said that when you’re writing poetry, “it’s important to know where it’s going, but it’s crucial to not know”. In other words, abandon all of your preconceived ideas of where a poem is going as you write, give in to the process, trust your pen, stay out of your own way. I would now add to Paul’s statement that READING poetry can also be an adventure––if we are open to the potential a poem can bring, if we are prepared to climb through its windows. With this in mind, I urge everyone to open the pages of this anthology with a sense of adventure, let’s all be the Indiana Jones of the poetry world.

In Rose’s and Anne’s preface they also ask, “What might it mean to encounter the strange skin of the unexpected?” I loved pondering this question and it led me to go from imagining poems as windows to imagining poems as skins. Very often strange skins. Poems are the skins we wrap ourselves in. They guard our bones, our muscles, our internal organs. They protect us from the elements. The best poems graft themselves onto our cores. They are the scar tissue that gathers around our deepest wounds. And so when poets take risks with their work, when they take themselves out of their comfort zones, as they do in this anthology, their risk, their daring takes us readers with them. They give us permission to also be daring, to dip our toes into the unfamiliar and strange skin of their world and if we are lucky, we will see something of ourselves and our own worlds in their lines.

I once attended an opera masterclass at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I wasn’t singing in this particular class but was in the audience listening to the opera singers on stage being put through their paces. Some of the singers were tentative, you could see they were holding back, reluctant to let go, to really allow themselves to embody the song. The visiting American voice coach was working hard to get them to really try to feel the song in their bones, to get them to take that leap, that risk––to sing as though the world might at any moment end. As the day drew to a close and the voice coach was rounding up the masterclass, he finished with a quote that floored me: SAFE SINGING, he said, WHAT’S THE POINT? This pearl of wisdom has never left me, it sits on my shoulder as I write today: SAFE POETRY, I say to myself, WHAT’S THE POINT?

The Poetry of Encounter is a collection of poetry that takes risks and there are windows of every shape and size to climb through. This anthology is a living breathing skin. A deliciously deep poetic well from which to drink. These poems are courageous and brave. They bristle and they itch, they calm and they soothe. They are everything we need our skin to be: great protectors, great nourishers, great guardians of all that we are.

 – ali whitelock


Ali Whitelock is a Scottish poet and writer living on the south coast of Sydney with her French chain-smoking husband. She has published two poetry collections, the lactic acid in the calves of your despair (long-listed for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 2021) and and my heart crumples like a coke can. Her 3rd collection, a brief letter to the sea about a couple of things is due to be released in May 2023. Her memoir, poking seaweed with a stick and running away from the smell was published to critical acclaim both here in Australia and in the UK. She spends her time writing and staring out the windowwww.aliwhitelock.com

Poetry of Encounter is available from https://liquidamberpress.com.au/product/poetry-of-encounter-the-liquid-amber-prize-anthology/