Best Australian Poems 2016
edited by Sarah Holland-Batt
Black Inc, 2016, 208 pages, $24.99
…the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of … progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups …
—Mark Lilla, Professor of Humanities, Columbia University
Sarah Holland-Batt has truly disappointed with her stewardship of Best Australian Poems 2016. She did not follow her own guidelines for submissions, and thereby misled every poet submitting to this anthology, resulting in the omission of at least thirty poets who could have been included.
Let’s get the matter of sour grapes out of the way straight up. (Besides, many fine recipes can be created with these puckery grapes: Persian gooreh, sour patch grapes, verjuice, many others.) Yes, I had poems selected for Best Australian Poems 2014 and Best Australian Poems 2015, both edited by Geoff Page. No, I did not have a poem selected for Best Australian Poems 2016, edited by Sarah Holland-Batt.
Naturally, I was disappointed at not being included this time. I was also a little angry. For me, it has more to do with business than glory or money. Black Inc pays around $40 per poem, so that’s no great loss. But it is good business for a writer to be included in any “Best of” anthology. It matters to institutions and festivals that employ poets. It forms part of a poet’s credentials.
When Les Murray picked two of my pieces for The Quadrant Book of Poetry 2001–2010, I sent him a note to thank him. I didn’t know Les at the time. He was just another esteemed poetry editor I was submitting work to. He wrote back that my poems had earned their place. His comment gave me a new way of looking at my work: the idea that one’s work could, objectively, earn its way, independent of favour, politics, or who you know.
So, I was upset at not being included this year, because I felt I had earned a place with the number and quality of poems I had had published during the submission period: thirty-seven poems, in half a dozen well-read journals, all chosen by highly qualified poetry editors.
As with all thanks-but-no-thanks submissions, I was prepared to attribute this slap-down to a “wrong address” as Ray Bradbury advised as a way of treating all rejections.
So, a bit dejected, nonetheless I went out to buy a copy of BAP 2016, mainly to read my fellow poets’ work, as many are friends and peers. I glanced through the collection, noticing the unusually long introduction by Holland-Batt, and then flipped to the index to see how many poems she had picked from Quadrant, where I have had most of my eligible poems published. Holland-Batt did not choose a single poem from Quadrant, despite about 200 poems, from fifty or so poets, being sent to her for consideration.
So, I decided to write something about this iniquity, not only for myself, but on behalf of all those writers who wrote some mighty fine work in 2016 and who were also passed over.
In the eligible period, for inclusion in BAP 2016, I had thirty-seven poems selected for publication in Australia: one in Verita La, two in Shots from the Chamber, two in Contrappasso, one in the Australian Poetry Journal, one in the Canberra Times and thirty poems in Quadrant. All my poems were selected by respected poetry editors and the Quadrant poems were picked by Les Murray, one of the most celebrated poets and editors in the English language, who is twice the age of Ms Holland-Batt and has many times the experience at editing poetry.
None of Les Murray’s 200 selections from Quadrant were chosen, and no poems whatsoever were selected from Verita La, Shots from the Chamber, Contrappasso and a dozen other reputable journals. Even the Canberra Times was shut out. (The Canberra Times publishes a poem a week—fifty-two poems a year, edited by Melinda Smith.)
When the official call-out came for submissions to BAP 16, I sent a Facebook message to Sarah Holland-Batt to ask if she would prefer me to send poems directly to her, or through the Black Inc mail submission portal. I wanted to make sure they didn’t get lost, as this has happened to me before. I also assumed she would be doing due diligence at reading all the relevant magazines, periodicals and newspapers that publish poetry.
Editing Best Australian Poems is not an ordinary editing exercise. It requires organisation and planning, of course, but also a broad appreciation, in order to understand the wide range of poetry that has been written during the year. Without this understanding of the complete spectrum of Australian poetry, the collection will not be a “Best of” anything, except that editor’s personal taste.
This is the mistake Black Inc has made over and over in these anthologies—employing editors for their editions who have too narrow a focus. It might make more sense to have these collections edited by a panel of poets of completely different disciplines—classical, modern, song lyrics, librettos—than by a single individual, with such singular taste. This is one of the main reasons the rhyming lyrical ballad structures—of writers like Bob Dylan, C.J. Dennis, Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and hundreds of other writers adept at this kind of style—never get a mention in today’s “Best of” collections. (They only win the Nobel Prize for Literature.)
Holland-Batt sent me a copy of her criteria for submissions. For the first of the two main points in her brief, she borrowed something that Geoff Page had initiated in his tenure as editor of BAP over the past two years:
Submissions should be able to be enjoyed by “general readers” who don’t necessarily read much poetry, as well as by those dedicated ones who do.
This implies inclusion of an extremely wide range of understandable poetry—not just poetry that requires hard work and higher education to penetrate.
The second and more significant criterion was this:
Line count: Since the editor intends to represent Australian poetry widely, length is restricted to approximately 70 lines.
Holland-Batt adhered to neither of these clearly stated guidelines.
With 182 pages to work with, she managed to fit in only 106 poets. (Geoff Page included 124 in the same number of pages in 2015.) She misled us all in the call-out and broke her own stated guideline about restricting the length of poems, by allotting seven poets a total of forty-one pages, broken up like this: Ken Bolton, 148 lines (six pages), Pam Brown, 122 lines (five pages), Laurie Duggan, 116 lines (five pages), Toby Fitch, four pages of pictographs, Robert Gray, 168 lines (six pages), Jessica L. Wilkinson, 123 lines (five pages) and Charmaine Papertalk-Green and John Kinsella, in a co-written poem, 176 lines (six pages). She also gave Mr Kinsella a second poem, of two pages, a courtesy not extended to any other poet.
Even if she had kept her word regarding the rules of submission, and confined these eight poets to seventy lines each, and even with a generous three pages per poem (many of the other poets had only ten lines, or a single page each), she would have been able to fit in at least another seventeen poems or poets. With a single-page poem per poet, that would have meant thirty-three additional poems or poets. Single-page poems make up fifty-five poems in this anthology as it is. Geoff Page, Les Murray, John Tranter, Lisa Gorton, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Gig Ryan, Peter Minter, Peter Rose and many others are represented by one page. Restricting Mr Kinsella’s contribution to one poem, as was the practice for everyone else, would have created two more pages or poets.
Bolton’s, Brown’s and Wilkinson’s poems also were laid out with unnecessarily wide line-spacing, requiring an entire wasted page each that could have been put to better use. Using simply the same ordinary line spacing allocated to other poems, an additional three pages or poets could have been included.
Holland-Batt’s overly long introduction ran to eight pages. In it she respectfully referenced Les Murray twice, then proceeded to exclude all 200 poems he personally selected over the year! The only two poets included who published anything in Quadrant in 2016 were Les Murray and Geoff Page, and both of their poems were credited as having been taken from other publications. Holland-Batt does not mention Quadrant anywhere in the book.
In that eight-page introduction, Holland-Batt employs twenty-seven bald-tyre adjectives to tell us how great the poems we are about to read are going to be:
superb, brilliant, extraordinary, indelible, powerful, brilliant, classic, enduring, magnetic, haunting, memorable, playful, intellectual, sardonic, emblematic, stunning, arresting, indefatigable, generous, haunting (again), exceptional, best-loved, superb (again), necessary, vital, and so on.
She did not include any of her own poems—perhaps out of some sense of misguided self-sacrifice, not wanting to exclude someone else’s poem. But this is false humility. Her own work, with all the prizes she’s won in the qualifying period, should certainly be considered among the best of the year. Instead she opted for a page-wasting eight-page introduction. What kind of humility is that? How about a three-page introduction, and one of her own shorter poems, thus allowing room for four other poems or poets? That’s the kind of humility I like. Les Murray did this exact thing in BAP 2005, with no damage to anyone’s moral compass. Geoff Page’s two volumes, in 2014 and 2015, had introductions of only three pages.
So, grand total: between seventeen and thirty-three more pages were available by excluding over-long and, strictly speaking, ineligible poems; two more pages were available by excluding Kinsella’s second poem; three more pages were available by eliminating wasted extra line-space; five more pages were available by reducing the over-long introduction. Thus twenty-six to forty-three additional poems or poets were omitted from this collection because Holland-Batt deviated from her own stated brief and submission criteria.
Who were some of the other poets who were excluded? Jude Aquilina, Peter Bakowski, Luke Beesey, Andrew Burke, Robbie Coburn, Hal Colebatch, Michael Crane, Bruce Dawe, Suzanne Edgar, John Foulcher, Peter Goldsworthy, Alan Gould, Jamie Grant, Kevin Hart, Susan Hawthorne, Lin van Hek, Paul Kane, Joan Kerr, Andrew Lansdown, Geoffrey Lehmann (winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Poetry, 2015), Bronwyn Lovell, Myron Lysenko, Ian McBryde, Patrick McCauley, Louise Nicholas, Jade Pisani, Melinda Smith (winner of a Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry, 2014), Vivian Smith, Mark Tredinnick, John Upton, Samuel Wagan Watson, Alan Wearne, Les Wicks, Elisabeth Wentworth, Jakob Ziguras, and many others—a vast array of creative minds.
The other significant submission criterion was that the poems should be able to be enjoyed by “general readers”. When Geoff Page initiated this wonderful vision, it had the same revitalising spirit as Billy Collins’s extraordinary reconnection of poetry-to-the-people initiatives in the US. But it looks as if this criterion was reprinted word-for-word this year by accident, without considering its implications.
For instance, how many poems had any kind of rhyming structure whatsoever? Four. Holland-Batt chose two poets, both prolific and accomplished in rhyming verse, Geoff Page and Clive James, and then selected poems of theirs with no rhyme. That must have taken some hunting around. There is not a single rhyming lyrical ballad, the lyric form recently so highly praised as poetry by legions of poets and poetry editors in order to justify Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature. While writers and editors give lip service to Dylan as a poet, few editors takes this poetic form seriously, in either competitions or anthologies.
Best Australian Poems 2016 is made up largely (perhaps 90 per cent) of poems that people “who do not generally read poetry” will most likely never read or understand. I can read practically anything labelled a poem these days, but many of Holland-Batt’s selections could in no way represent the best of Australian poetry for the year. They might represent the best of her personal taste.
Dorothy Porter’s brilliant comment comes to mind, from a final interview I did with her before she passed away:
The older I get the less patient I get with poetry that is extraordinarily hard work often for very little gain. It’s almost as if the more complex and complicated and opaque and obscure the poem the more meagre the reward and the more meagre the actual poem itself is.
There is not a single poem in this book that you could read to a child, or that a child would understand. Most great poets write some poems that children can enter into: cummings, Yeats, Eliot, Hughes, and so forth.
Holland-Batt is an academic, yet one who cannot follow her own brief for submissions. Would she take such a soft approach in marking students’ assignments if they had not stuck to the stated requirements? In my own work as music teacher and tutor at the Australian Institute of Music, students who do not follow the brief in assessments are marked down, and never given honours or distinctions. One of the basic things you learn, in Academia 101, is to follow instructions and read carefully.
I have rightly had this kind of thing ruthlessly enforced on me in most submissions I have made to poetry journals and magazines, from word count, line count, even to length of biographical information. A poem over twenty-eight lines will not be accepted for the Canberra Times. Another journal asked me to reduce my CV to fifty words (it was fifty-five words). Rules are meant to be adhered to, not bent at the whims of the editor or judge. It is simply not fair to behave like that.
I started with grapes and I’ll end with grapes.
One of the jobs I had, as a young boy, was picking grapes. I would get up very early in the morning and walk down to the bus stop where the orchard bus would meet all the pickers who wanted to work that day, and drive us out to the orchard. When the sun went down we would get paid, based on how many bushels we had picked.
Some casuals got fired once because they had forgotten to harvest an entire orchard of grapes over one of the hills. The grapes were perfect, but they forgot to pick them. Or they overlooked them. Or they couldn’t follow instructions.
An entire section of the grand Australian orchard of poets, and poems, has been forgotten, overlooked, and unfairly dismissed, for this edition of Black Inc’s Best Australian Poems.
Joe Dolce is a regular contributor of poetry and prose.