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January 22nd 2014 print

Roger Franklin

Words Fail Overland’s Poetry Editor

It may seem trivial, the ongoing spat between poet Joe Dolce and the left journal that has banned him for the crime of allowing his work to be selected for publication by our own Les Murray. But there is more at stake than ego and spiked stanzas. There is the much larger question of how we fund the arts

poetIt is a cliche, the way conservatives and so-called progressives are said to regard each other. On the starboard side of political opinion the general view is that the left is simply misguided, many members of its various tribes perhaps capable of better things and deeper thoughts if only someone with time and patience would make an effort to explain it all.

And on the left, where perceptions tend to be rather more simple? Well they just think we’re evil.

Generalisations are to be avoided, of course, and individual case studies often supply the reason. It is impossible for a journalist, for example, to spend a career in newsrooms and not encounter a preponderance of colleagues whose faith is placed first in bureaucracy and, a close second, in the efficacy of passing instant laws to solve just about any perceived problem, be it global warming or ungentlemanly conduct in the workplace. Many adherents of this creed are otherwise intelligent and upright people, nothing like the loud simpletons who chain themselves to bulldozers, rant for each other’s echoing amusement on Twitter, or are struck as if with lightning by the revelation that they are really Aborigines and have spent their entire lives beneath the heel of white oppression. Conservatives notice these nuances and adjust their appraisals of individuals accordingly, which is only fair.

Then again, there are also those on the left who might normally be dismissed at a glance but, due to some act of arrogance or idiocy, draw your attention by virtue of sheer, antic inanity. That whine of unctuous self-righteousness, their grasp of higher moralities which they alone may interpret and adjudicate, the tendency to believe that “shut up” amounts to an argument – well, you know the type. Normally, you wouldn’t worry too much about these sorts, as sooner or later most will nod along with some or other epistle in The Age until they are deeply and silently asleep. The 11,381st lecture about the perils of climate change or the joys of gay marriage can have that effect, even on the most ardent.

When such a featherhead is in a position of influence, able to advance or retard reputations and careers at minterthe stroke of a pen, a closer look is warranted, unpleasant though it may be to pore over spite and pettiness in the fetid quarters of their native environment. In this instance the individual is Peter Minter (left), poetry editor and academic, whose pulpit for proclaiming on the moral worth of lesser mortals is that little-read and much-subsidised quarterly Overland, “the most radical of Australia’s long-standing literary journals.”

As singer, songwriter, poet and sometime-Quadrant contributor Joe Dolce noted on our website over the weekend, Minter informed him in writing and on the record that his verse would no longer be published in Overland, which just by the way of background was blessed with $399,000 in Australia Council grants between 2010 and 2013. The reason: his association with Quadrant. Dolce, who admits to voting Labor last September, was taken aback by Minter’s zeal in appointing himself Australian poetry’s blacklister-in-chief and, as the policy of exclusion sank in, by the thought that the policy might be at odds with the Australia Council’s goals, standards and procedures. He would seem to be right about that, going by the organisation’s mission statement in regard to literary journals:

“The Literature Panel aims are to encourage the writing and reading of Australian literature, to open up opportunities for our writers to earn from their creative work, and to keep the avenues of debate, discussion, analysis and criticism open.”

Nowhere does the Australia Council state or hint that it is acceptable to bar writers who do not happen to hate and detest the same people as the magazine’s editors. Legal minds might also have opinions on whether or not such a threat constitutes a secondary boycott.

Dolce discusses the Overland blacklist with 3AW’s Denis Walter

Students of the left and its conceits will need no prompting to guess at Minter’s defence of his edict. Writing on the Facebook page of  theatre critic, “best-selling author” and friend Alison Croggon, herself  a recipient of $40,000 in 2013 from the Australia Council’s Literature Board, chaired by Twitter buddy and fellow traveller on the writers’ festival circuit Sophie Cunningham,  Minter in his prolix style laid out a case that might be summed up thus: Quadrant and Nazis, same thing really.

But don’t take our word for it. In his contributions to an entertaining, if increasingly unhinged, debate, Minter stands revealed in his own words. Note the snide jabs at Quadrant’s poetry editor Les Murray in this talk-to-the-hand response to Dolce:

Peter Minter – ” Joe, let me end with a very simple (perhaps brutal) analogy. I hope this goes to the heart of the debate raised about whether poems should be judged on merit, or whether they should be judged also on their political context. Let’s imagine we are in Germany in the 1930s. We are writing what we think are good poems, free of any overt political substance, and we decide to send them to the “Nazi Literary Weekly” for publication, because the poetry editor loves poetry and everyone thinks he is going to win the Nobel Prize and so they all suck up to him in order to gain the satisfaction of feeling that they are being ordained by the holy poet. The Big Poet publishes the poems and everyone feels nice. Nevertheless, and this is the crux, history will shine its irrevocable truth upon the poets who submitted their poems to the “Nazi Literary Weekly” and they will be forever stained by the association.

Have you heard of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger? Heidegger’s philosophy is certainly wonderful and extremely influential and should be considered “on its merits” in the same way people argue that poetry should simply be judged “on its merits”. And yet, Heidegger joined the Nazi party and his reputation, and the reputation of his philosophy, is forever stained by the association.

So you can say whatever you like about how wonderful it is to be published by Les Murray (those of us who know also know that this is not what it seems!!) the fact remains that those who choose to publish in Quadrant will be forever stained by the association (or by being published in Overland, depending on your perspective). You need to get over the adrenaline rush of seeing your name in print, and start thinking about where you want to see your name in print, and what it means.

This is not about limiting freedom of expression. We are in a free society and anyone can start any kind of magazine they like and publish what they want. What this is about is editorial responsibility and making ethical decisions about how and where you chose to publish.

No more correspondence will be entered into. Bye! “

There is undoubtedly compelling evidence of original thought in Minter’s  academic work, but the dog-eared equivalence he preaches between Hitler’s followers and Quadrant’s contributors suggests one would need to wade through it with a keen eye to be sure. By contrast, only an open ear is needed to absorb the pointed inquiries made by then-Opposition spokesman on the arts, Senator Eric Abetz, at an Estimates hearing about funding allocations . Here is the video:

As Abetz observed, it is either a remarkable coincidence that left-wing literary journals keep scoring bags of Australia Council cash while, year by year, Quadrant sees its stipend shrink. Or maybe, as the Senator intimated, the fix is in.

After this latest episode, perhaps someone in Tony Abbott’s government might like to weigh in on a taxpayer-supported literary magazine brazenly refusing to publish the work of those it identifies, to quote Minter’s pontification, as those “who choose to publish in Quadrant [and are] forever stained by the association.”

After that, who knows? Perhaps a full, sweeping review of arts funding, who doles it out and how, and why do some seem more blessed by the Australia Council’s largesse than others.

Editor’s note: A request for comment on this nasty Overland business was lodged with the press spokesman for Attorney General George Brandis, who includes the Arts portfolio amongst his duties. More than a day has passed and, other than an acknowledgement of the query’s arrival, we have not heard a peep.

Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online