If you’re new to poetry and don’t know where to start

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If you’re new to poetry and don’t know where to start, try getting hold of an anthology of contemporary poetry from your local library or bookshop.

What is a poetry anthology? It’s a book that includes poems by a variety of poets, rather than just one poet. Anthologies often have a particular theme (e.g. Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse), or focus on a particular place and/or time (e.g. The Best American Poetry 2018, or The Forward Book of Poetry 2019), or present a survey of poetry over time (e.g. The Norton Anthology of Poetry, which includes poems in English from the 7th century to the present, or Australian Poetry Since 1788, or Puncher & Wattmann’s Contemporary Australian Poetry).

Why an anthology? Because an anthology includes poems by a variety of poets, though usually only one or two poems by each. This helps you get acquainted with a range of poems, in a range of styles, with a range of themes, and by a range of poets. It increases the likelihood you’ll come across poems you enjoy. As you read the anthology, trust your judgment on which poems you like or dislike, enjoy or don’t enjoy, are engaged by or not engaged by. Follow up on the poems you like best: see if you can find more poems by those poets online, or try getting hold of a book of poems specifically by that poet.

Why contemporary poetry? Because contemporary poetry, meaning poetry from the 20th and 21st centuries, generally uses words and syntax that are familiar to us – in contrast to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, for example, which reads: ‘And for a woman wert thou first created, / Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting.’ There’s a good argument for reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, but if you’re new to poetry, why not start with something closer to home, in terms of what a poem describes and the way it uses language to describe it.

Poetry is a very old technology

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[From an address to high-school students and their families, September 2018.]

Poetry is a very old technology. In all likelihood, it has been part of the human experience almost as long as fire and stone, and just as long as many activities that scientists look to to set us apart as a species: cave painting, making bone tools, using pigments and jewellery, building hearths, and burying the dead.

Poetry has always touched lightly on the world. As a spoken artform to begin with, it has left us no definite traces of its earliest origins, though in all probability it is older than pottery, and older than the wheel. It has a place with fire, stone, ochre, song, music, story, ritual and mythology as an element of what it means to be human, as an essential part of who we are.

Poetry is an ancient technology, but it is also a relentlessly new one. And so we find it flourishing still in an age of popular songs, poetry slams, podcasts, e-books, YouTube clips, Twitter feeds, and Instagram posts – all of which have exponentially increased its ability to reach into our lives, and the capacity of young writers to find an audience for their work.

Interview: Nathanael O’Reilly

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Over recent months, I’ve enjoyed reading the regular interviews with poets published by Paul Brookes at The Wombwell Rainbow. This week Paul published an interview with poet Nathanael O’Reilly, born and raised in Australia, but currently living and teaching in the United States.

In the interview, Nathanael speaks of the influence of Keats, Yeats and Heaney, his “holy trinity”, as well as his advice for young writers: “Every serious writer knows that it takes years and years of practice to become a decent writer, let alone a great one […] Young writers are often impatient and in a rush to get published, and many of them don’t understand that writing requires a really long apprenticeship […] Having the desire to write is just the first step.”

Nathanael’s interview can be read in full here, and is highly recommended, along with his most recent book of poems, Preparations for Departure (UWA Publishing, 2017).

We can live without poetry

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The truth is we can live without poetry.

Many or most people live perfectly fulfilling and contented lives without much exposure to poetry, day to day, month to month, or year to year. Yet I’m convinced that a good life, even the best life, is better with poetry. And, of course, many people still turn to poetry during the profoundest moments of their lives, so we still often hear poems being read at weddings and funerals.

But, by and large, we can live without poetry.

I would say though, to the many people who live without much poetry in their lives, if you find yourself in a world in which talk is cheap, in which words have become a devalued currency, in which politicians, shysters and hucksters have eroded the substance of truth and meaning, and in which a person’s word can be all but worthless – and if this aggrieves you, then maybe look again to poetry for what it can offer.

Poetry – through its careful trust and distrust of words, and its determined pursuit of meaning – is one of the antidotes to that world.

Notes: August 2018

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I began 2018 with the intention of blogging at least monthly, a plan that went awry when I was seconded to another role at work in mid-March. So, this is a return to my schedule of monthly blog posts. The last few months have been busy with poetry and writing activities, nonetheless. In early July, I submitted the final edit of my forthcoming book of poems, Carte Blanche, to Vagabond Press. I was enormously grateful to friends and fellow poets who helped out in the weeks before the final edit was due.

Since March, I’ve had a couple of poems published: ‘Threshold’ in The Canberra Times, ‘‘Diesel & Dust’ homestead [a landscape]’ in Otoliths; ‘Drysdale: Vaucluse, 1945’ (a terminal, responding to Ern Malley’s ‘Dürer: Innsbruck, 1495’) in Marrickville Pause; and ‘Hit Single’ in Australian Poetry Anthology, alongside the work of a number of other South Australian poets – Aidan Coleman, Jelena Dinic, Alison Flett, Ian Gibbins, Jennifer Liston, Bronwyn Lovell, Rachael Mead, Louise Nicholas, and Dominic Symes. Also, my review of John Kinsella and Paul Kane’s Renga: 100 Poems was recently published in Plumwood Mountain.

On 4 April, I was a guest poet at the opening night of Adelaide’s new No Wave poetry reading series, with Alison Flett, Heather Taylor Johnson and Banjo Weatherald. In June, I had the privilege of judging and announcing three selected manuscripts (by Bruce Greenhalgh, Maria Vouis, and Geoff Aitken) and two highly commended manuscripts (by Emelia Haskey and Inez Marrasso) for Friendly Street’s New Poets 19, a new addition to – and resurrection of – Friendly Street’s important New Poets series. On 22 June, I was a guest writer at the South Australian English Teachers’ Association’s Meet the Writers Festival. And on 28 July, I was a guest poet at DARK FOLK, featuring music by Jen Lush, Go Fish and Daniel J. Towsend, and poetry by Steve Brock, Juan Garrido-Salgado and me. The songs on Jen’s album The Night’s Insomnia draw on the work of 12 contemporary Australian poets, e.g. ‘The Louder Silence’, based on a poem by Jill Jones.

In recent weeks (since my secondment ended), I’ve had the chance to resume monthly poetry workshops, and editing work. And I have new poems forthcoming in Overland and Westerly.

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In terms of my reading, I’ve enjoyed and can recommend Ken Bolton’s Starting at Basheer’s, Jill Jones’ Viva the Real, Anthony Lawrence’s Headwaters, Bella Li’s Argosy and Lost Lake, Philip Mead’s Zanzibar Light, Nathaniel O’Reilly’s Preparations for Departure, and two of Vagabond Press’s books of poetry in translation – one from its Americas Poetry Series, featuring Mijail Lamas, Mario Bojórquez and Alí Calderón (contemporary Mexican poetry), and another from its Asia Pacific Poetry Series, featuring Kim Yideum, Kim Haengsook and Kim Min Jeong (poetry from Korea’s ‘Future Wave’).