The poetry bestseller

At first glance the phrase ‘best-selling poetry book’ looks oxymoronic. Anyone with a vague sense of book publishing is acquainted with the orthodoxy that poetry doesn’t sell: readers don’t want to read it. Commercial publishers have used this pearl to justify curtailing or, more dramatically, cancelling their poetry lists. Booksellers have relied on it as a way of explaining away – to the few who might enquire – their thin and often uninspired poetry stock. And who can blame them? Publishers and booksellers are not in the business of charity. The poetry book, without a benefactor, is fading from popular culture. Or is it?

Khalil GibranAt first glance the phrase ‘best-selling poetry book’ looks oxymoronic. Anyone with a vague sense of book publishing is acquainted with the orthodoxy that poetry doesn’t sell: readers don’t want to read it. Commercial publishers have used this pearl to justify curtailing or, more dramatically, cancelling their poetry lists. Booksellers have relied on it as a way of explaining away – to the few who might enquire – their thin and often uninspired poetry stock. And who can blame them? Publishers and booksellers are not in the business of charity. The poetry book, without a benefactor, is fading from popular culture. Or is it?

Certainly if one looks at the life of a contemporary book of poems it would appear so. Poetry publishing in Australia (and indeed in most Western countries) has been relegated in the main to boutique presses and self-publishing outfits that run on the good will and thankless efforts of poetry enthusiasts. Outfits that stay afloat often do not have sufficient access to resources, distribution and marketing to have their books noticed by readers. Their books are inadequately reviewed or not reviewed at all. Those that do find a buyer do so mostly at poetry readings to fellow poets – thereby flying under the radar of Neilsen BookScan which makes official sales look even worse. Under these conditions the thus-far unchallenged maxim that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’ becomes self-fulfilling prophesy.

But all this bellyaching conceals an interesting fact: some poetry books actually do sell. Some sell very well indeed. Some poetry books are even bestsellers.

It’s widely agreed that Australia’s best bet for a second Nobel Laureate in Literature is not a novelist but, astonishing to some, a poet: Les Murray. Murray’s books, critically acclaimed at home and overseas, have garnered a plethora of prestigious awards, including Britain’s coveted TS Eliot Poetry Prize. His publicity frequently affirms him as one of the best poets writing in English today, and Murray is regularly grouped with a trinity of recent Laureate poets: Ireland’s Seamus Heaney, Russian–American Joseph Brodsky, and the Caribbean’s Derek Walcott. With domestic sales buoyed by his international sales (in English and in translation), Murray’s reputation as a poetry heavy–hitter translates into healthy book sales by the standards of contemporary poetry. Nevertheless, and relevant to this conversation, even Murray has been left on several occasions in his career without a publisher due to the aforementioned vagaries of the sector. But more on Murray later.

Poetry readership in Australia looks comparatively good when figures are adjusted for population. As Murray has pointed out, poetry in Australia enjoys a much larger readership in proportion to population than in most Western countries. Whereas a typical US poetry title runs to about 1500 copies, a poetry title by a reasonably well-known poet in Australia (at about one-fifteenth of the US population) runs to about half the US number.

But not all Australian poets enjoying relatively healthy sales have a profile to match Murray’s. In fact some lesser–known poets might sell even more copies of their books. Poets lucky enough to have their books set on high school English curricula can often compete with sales figures of fiction authors. One poet in this enviable position, Peter Skrzynecki, whose book Immigrant Chronicle has remained in print for 30 years. Another favourite on the HSC curricula, Bruce Dawe, is – at least according to his Sometimes Gladness book jacket – Australia’s bestselling living poet. While sales figures have yet to be verified in a full-scale study, it is fair to say that Dawe and Skrzynecki, and a handful of others, have bypassed the imperative of the marketplace and been turned into poetry bestsellers by the education sector.

But it is still difficult to find these books in bookshops. And it is difficult to mount the case that these books, their success aside, have entered the realm of popular culture. So which poetry books, if any, have?

To answer this question, it is necessary to cast one’s vision temporarily beyond the realm of Australian poets and, further, beyond the realm of the living. Immediately Shakespeare struts upon the stage. And in fact Shakespeare, we are told, is the best-selling poet in English of all time. The author of – at least as we are able to count his works today – 38 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and a handful of others, Shakespeare has been generating sales in a proliferation of editions for the past 400 years.

But what about poetry sales not mounted over time, but poetry titles that sell well in a given year? Well, things get interesting.

Figures out of the United Sates – a significant market for literature in English – do not rank Shakespeare as number one on their bestseller list for poetry. The best-selling poet in America today is not only dead but he – let gender be no surprise – also did not write in English. He’s not an American. Some might even say he is un-American.

The prize for best-selling poet in America goes to a poet in translation: Jalal al-Din Molavi Rumi. A Sufi poet known to Iranians as Mawlana. Or, to Westerners, simply as Rumi.

Rumi was born in Balkh, which is now in Afghanistan, in 1207 on the shores of the Persian Empire, but he lived most of his life in the town of Konya, in what is now Turkey. Rumi’s major work is a six-volume poem, Masnavi-ye Manavi (Spiritual Couplets), regarded by some Sufis as the Persian-language Qur’an. The general theme of Rumi’s thought, like that of other mystic and Sufi poets of Persian literature, is essentially the concept of tawhid – union with his beloved – and his longing and desire to restore it. He writes:

There’s a strange frenzy in my head,
of birds flying,
each particle circulating on its own.
Is the one I love everywhere?

Rumi sought god everywhere and in everybody. He encouraged others to experience the ecstatic union: “It doesn’t matter that you’ve broken your vow / a thousand times. Still come, / and yet again, come”.

Rumi’s voice still resonates. It touches, if we are to judge by sales, the contemporary reader with the same fervour as it did 700 ago. It touches celebrities too: Madonna set his poems to music on Deepak Chopra’s 1998 CD, A Gift of Love. Donna Karan has used recitations of his poetry as a background to her fashion shows; Philip Glass has written an opera – Monsters of Grace – around his poems; and Oliver Stone apparently wants to make a film of his life.

American poet Coleman Barks, perhaps more than anyone, is responsible for bringing Rumi’s poetry to the English-speaking masses. Barks is not a scholar – and he doesn’t speak a word of Persian. But this didn’t stop his book, The Essential Rumi (HarperCollins 1995), from being the most successful poetry book published in the West in recent years. Coleman has come out with a new book of Rumi translations every September for the past decade.

Even the 9/11 attacks didn’t subdue the public’s interest in mystical Islamic verse: Coleman’s The Soul of Rumi, released days after the Trade Centre bombings, went on to become a bestseller. Barks himself seems surprised by sales of his Rumi translations. In the preface to his 2003 book, Rumi: The Book of Love, he confesses:

I have sold too many books. I once calculated that Rumi books sell at least a hundred a day right through weekends and holidays, while my own writing goes at about twelve copies a month, worldwide. In other words, Rumi’s work sells at about 365,000 copies a year; Barks sells 144. Those numbers keep me humble.

Rumi is popular not only in America but also in Australia. Nevertheless his book sales – Barks’s translations as well as other scholarly editions – fall short of granting him primacy. Neilsen BookScan, which records book sales in Australia since 2002, reveals two poets neck and neck: the Greek poet Homer (which is not his name, scholars tell us, but the name he goes by), author of The Odyssey and The Iliad; and twentieth-century Lebanese poet, Khalil Gibran, whose book The Prophet made him a household name.

Homer’s epic poems – second in antiquity only to (what-is-now) Iraq’s Gilgamesh – are about war, gods and mortality. Although a steady favourite on education lists, Homer enjoyed a surge of popularity when The Iliad was morphed in a 2004 film called Troy starring Brad Pitt.

But Gibran, who writes on ‘spiritual’ themes, is never studied in institutions. And yet he is considered the third-best selling poet in history after Shakespeare and sixth-century BC Chinese poet, Lao Tzu. In Australia – adding his book sales across all edition of The Prophet – Gibran is the clear favourite.

Born in 1883 in Bsharii in modern-day northern Lebanon, Gibran died of liver failure at the age of 48 in New York. The Prophet, his first book, was published in 1923, and incredibly it sold over 1000 copies in three months. Its fame spread by word of mouth. By 1931 it had been translated into 20 languages. By the 60s it was a favourite with American youth culture. It’s been popular ever since.

The fictional set up for The Prophet parallels the legendary story of Lao Tzu’s writing of the Lao Tzu’s writing of the Tao Te Ching (on his way to Tibet he is stopped by a border guard and made to record his teachings before leaving). In Gibran’s book, however, the prophet Almustafa has lived for 12 years in the foreign city of Orphalese and is heading home when a group of people stop him and he offers to share his wisdom on an array of issues pertaining to life and the human condition: love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, crime and punishment, reason and passion, self-knowledge, beauty, death and so on. The chapter on marriage is perhaps the best known, as it’s a regular in wedding ceremonies. A testament to love (and an argument against codependence), it concludes:

Give your hearts but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.

Gibran might be one of the best-selling poets in Australia over the past five years, but what is the best-selling individual poetry title during this time?

The prize goes to Desiderata: A Survival Guide for Life (Random House 2002) which houses the inspirational prose poem, ‘Desiderata’, offering instruction for attaining happiness in life. The title in Latin for ‘desired things’ or ‘things that are yearned for’, but in the context of the poem ‘essential things’ is a more accurate translation. It opens with the following advice:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

The poem ends with the directive: ‘Strive to be happy’.

As with the ubiquitous ‘Footprints in the Sand’ poem, whose authorship and copyright holding remains hotly contested (no fewer than four authors claim to have written it), questions of authorship have beset ‘Desiderata’. The poem was first copyrighted in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, a lawyer from Indianna, inspired by an urge that he described in his diary: ‘I should like, if I could, to leave a humble gift – a bit of chaste prose that had caught up some noble moods’.

But in the 1960s ‘Desiderata’ was widely circulated without attribution to Ehrmann. In face, a myth arose that the poem was written in 1692 by an unknown author. The slip came about when Reverend Frederick Kates reproduced the Desiderata poem for his congregation in 1959 on church letterhead which read: The Old St Paul’s Church, Baltimore, AD 1692. It was only a matter of time before a publisher interpreted this notation as meaning that the poem itself was found in Old St Paul’s Church, and that it had been written in 1692, and therefore took the poem to be in the public domain.

It was an unhappy error. Worse, law suits ensued. One court case held that the poem was forfeited to the public domain because Ehrmann had freely distributed it on Christmas cards to soldiers during WWII. But other cases have ruled that Crescendo Publishing Company – who bought the poem for an undisclosed amount in 1975 from Ehrmann’s heirs – holds copyright. It seems that the course cannot agree on the issue. There is no doubt, however, that the mistake in authorship added to the charm and historic appeal of the poem (despite the fact that the actual language in the poem suggests a more modern origin). It gives ‘Desiderata’ the aura of exoticism it might otherwise lack as a contemporary poem in English by an unheard of author.

So why are these particular poets popular with the reading public? It is surely not a matter of quality. Of the three poets discussed at length – Rumi, Gibran and Ehrmann – only Rumi is regarded as an important poet.

In his book, The History of Iran: Empires of the Mind, Michael Axworthy argues that the public’s choice of poet depends not so much on the merits or true nature of the poets or their poetry, but more on their capacity to be interpreted in accordance with passing Western literary and cultural fashions:

So [Persian poet] Hafez was interpreted to fit with the mood of Romanticism, Omar Khyyam with the Aesthetic movement, and it has been Rumi’s misfortune to be befriended by numb-brained New Agery.

It is true we live in an age where where spirituality-lite is a hot commodity in the marketplace. Rumi himself is not ‘lite’ – he was a devoted Muslim and a respected theologian – but Barks’s bestselling translations have bowdlerised almost every reference to Islam from his poems. Barks’s translations are Rumi-lite.

But the popularity of these poets might have something to do with their ‘spiritual themes’ more generally. Throughout history, the human relationship with the divine has often been described in verse.  Indeed, much of the literature of antiquity, when not merely factual or legislative, is poetic and sapiential:  the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Indian Vedas, the Old Testament, and the Qu’ran among others.

While much mystical poetry has been written in earlier epochs, a good number of contemporary poets continue the tradition. Murray – who has dedicated his poetry books since the 1980s to ‘the glory of god’ – upholds the need for belief:

Most people would agree, perhaps after some dispute about terminology, that something like a religious dimension exists in every human being. Some might want to call it a dimension of wonder, of quest, of value, of ultimate significance or the like. Some have denied its reality altogether, but I think the weight of human experience and…of perceived human behaviours is against them.

Although he describes himself as a poet who is religious (not a religious poet), Murray’s poems are increasingly infused with this dimension of religion, of wonder, regardless of denomination. In fart he has expressed a desire ‘to celebrate something, without giving it away. It may be a paradox, but I dream of someday reading, or writing, a richly secretive work’.

Poetry in the mystic tradition tends to be centred on paradox (an idea related to the word oxymoron that opened this essay). Empedocles (BC 495–435) writes: ‘God is a circle whose centre is everywhere, and its circumference nowhere’; Meister Eckhardt (1260–1327) writes: ‘The more God is in all things, the more He is outside them’. And Murray: ‘The more I act, the stiller I become; the less I’m lit, the more spellbound my crowd’.

As Western culture has become increasingly secularised and a widespread suspicion of organised religion pervades, it seems many readers have turned to the mystical poem as a vehicle for contemplation, meditation, and to negotiate their relationship with what we might call divinity. In fact, the strong times between poetry and mysticism, or religion more broadly, has led to the argument that poetry can be a substitute for religion in secular culture.

American poet Denise Levertov takes this idea a step further: ‘the poet – when writing – is a priest; the poem is a temple; epiphanies and communion take place within it’. And indeed, on of the few unquestioned roles of the poem is its priestly function at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Certainly this function is on bright display in the poems of Rumi, Gibran, and Ehrman and their sales can be taken as endorsement for its need. But thinking about bestselling poetry, there’s one more quality worth mentioning.

Laughter. In terms of sales for an individual poetry title, the second ranked poetry title in Australia is Michael Leunig’s Poems (Viking 2004). Which goes to show that while Australian readers like thinking about god, they have retained a sense of humour.

The Conversation

An abbreviated version of this article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Gilgamesh: carved in stone

Review of Gilgamesh by Derek Hines

It’s a story about love, sex and friendship. It’s about nature and civilisation, the simple joys in life and about our desire to accomplish great things. It’s about our fear of death and the impossibility of escaping it. It reminds us that thousands of years ago, thousands of kilometres away, people were people. Everyday, ordinary human beings. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world’s great poems. And the oldest. It originated in ancient Sumeria and was carved on to clay tablets about 2400 BC, but it is highly likely that the most important elements of the story existed as separate poems long before they were written down.

gilgameshIt’s a story about love, sex and friendship. It’s about nature and civilisation, the simple joys in life and about our desire to accomplish great things. It’s about our fear of death and the impossibility of escaping it. It reminds us that thousands of years ago, thousands of kilometres away, people were people. Everyday, ordinary human beings.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the world’s great poems. And the oldest. It originated in ancient Sumeria and was carved on to clay tablets about 2400 BC, but it is highly likely that the most important elements of the story existed as separate poems long before they were written down. The tale spread throughout the Middle East, and the version we have today has been reconstructed from Akkadian, Babylonian, Hittite and Hurrian translations.

The discovery of the poem is a story in itself. Gilgamesh lay lost for thousands of years, until in 1839 a young Englishman, Austen Henry Laynard, unearthed the buried library of Nineveh. But it wasn’t until 1872, when George Smith announced that he had discovered among the tablets an account of the Old Testament flood, that the importance of the discovery was fully understood. Since then many more tablets have been found and reassembled, the pieces of which sometimes, due to various expeditions, ended up on different continents.

The cycle of poems centres on Gilgamesh, the (two-thirds god, one-third human) tyrannical ruler of the walled city of Uruk. At the poem’s opening, Gilgamesh has angered his subjects by insisting on his royal right to the first night with any Uruk bride. So to appease the people and distract the king, the gods create from clay a companion for Gilgamesh — a “strong man from the wastelands” who is named Enkidu. The two become friends, despite an initial squabble, and they set out on a series of adventures, encountering among other things heavenly seductions and cosmological battles.

But it is the death of Enkidu that arouses Gilgamesh’s latent humanity and leads to one of literature’s most despairing laments. Here’s a taste from Derrek Hines’s version: “This blorting thing I am; this broken hive swarmed with grief. Yet absurdly, dawn clatters up its ramshackle geometry to erect the city again; a butterfly limbers in its warmth”.

Which leads to the topic of translation. Today we are awash in an abundance of translated texts that would have been the envy of many earlier readers. The classics of every age and every culture — or at least those that have survived the hazards of time — are freely available in all kinds of versions. Successful translations of our time include Christopher Logues’s Iliad, Ted Hughes’s Ovid and Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf.

For The Epic of Gilgamesh, translations range from productions of outstanding scholarship (such as Andrew George’s), to prose translations that privilege meaning over poetics (such as NK Sandar’s); all the way through to adaptations and reworkings of non-specialist enthusiasts, some of whom can also be very scholarly in their approach. Derrek Hines’s Gilgamesh falls into this last category.

Hines’s poetic adaptation uses all the conventions of contemporary free verse. At best his verse is studded with breathtaking pyrotechnics and resounds with genuine sentiment. Here’s an example from a section titled “The Humbaba Campaign” in which a soldier describes a battlefield:

… dying into grass; all those souls whistling
past our heads, homewards.

Beautiful. Or one of my favourite stanzas in which Enkidu is initiated by the “sacred harlot” Shamhat into the “civilised” ways of women:

After seven nights of love,
as a man might,
Enkidu lost his understanding of animal speech.
But it was a fair trade.

Working on the premise that every generation must translate the classics for itself, Hines has set out to “recapture for the modern reader some of the vigour and excitement the original audience must have felt”. Hines’s text is strewn with contemporary idioms and references to modern technology: he talks about “tram rails”, “X-rays”, and “submarines”. Manhattan becomes a metaphor for Uruk, and accordingly Hines talks about a “Niagra of fear” and describes a fight in which Gilgamesh and Enkidu “topple into each other like the Empire State and Chrysler buildings”.

In a 5000-year-old story, this sort of contemporising is no small matter. I can imagine an argument in which it makes perfect sense. No doubt it would rely on a postmodern view of time – something like Robert Bly’s idea that “after the industrial revolution all things happen at once” or similarly that the past is embedded in the present. But for more traditional readers like me, Hines’s anachronisms are distracting.

The Epic of Gilgamesh needs none of it. It speaks to the modern reader, not through high-tech metaphors but through its themes of friendship and love and the doomed search for immortality. From Uta-napishti (the Sumerian Noah), Gilgamesh learns the brutal lesson of time: that there is no permanence. It sounds simple but, as Hines’s narrator asks, “who can console us for dying?”

Review of Gilgamesh by Derek Hines was first published in The Courier-Mail (9 Mar 2002): BAM 7.

Behind the toilet door: poetry and space

"Occupation" by Lisa Gorton. Illustration by Art is not found only in the painter’s studio or in the halls of a museum, it also has its place in the store, the shop, the factory and the home. In fact, when art is reserved as the province of professional artists, a dangerous gulf develops between the fine arts and the everyday arts. The fine arts are elevated and set apart from life, becoming too precious and therefore irrelevant. Having banished art to the museum, we fail to give it a place in ordinary life. One of the most effective forms of repression is to give a thing excessive honour — Thomas Moore, ‘The Sacred Arts of Life’

I want to repeat the last of these sentences by Thomas Moore because it interests me: “One of the most effective forms of repression is to give a thing excessive honour”. And also because it confronts me. There exists in my mind—and likely the minds of others who’ve cared to dwell on such things—a contest between art, or more specific to this conversation, poetry, as something special, something heightened, something that holds within it a promise of the sublime, and poetry as something quotidian, ordinary, an essential part of our everyday culture: a way of communicating and recording things that matter to us. Nowhere is this distinction more conspicuous, perhaps, than when poetry is made manifest in print. As for me, I am in love with the letterpress, with creamy linen paper, with section-sewn books printed in fonts shaped by a fifteen-century monk who knew that ascenders and serifs could make the human heart, properly attuned, swoon. I am taken with books that carry within them some sign that a human hand was involved. Like many, I mourn the disappearance of the hand in the objects of our everyday. The pleasure that comes from touching and reading a fine, hand-made book is akin to that of preparing and eating a gourmet meal. Poets have long felt that words—or at least the right words in the right order—deserve more than a stack of cheap paper in a stapled cover.

But I’m also a believer in the idea that poems shouldn’t only be available in expensive and hard-to-get-hold-of book format. More than thirty years after the fact, I am persuaded by the premise underpinning David Malouf’s Paperback Poets proposal to University of Queensland Press: poetry books, he argued, should not be unnecessarily luxurious; they should be affordable and readily available. When Malouf offered his first collection—Bicycle and Other Poems—to UQP, it came with the stipulation that the book not be released in hardback and that it sell for no more than a dollar. To his surprise, UQP agreed to his terms. And why not? It was a terrific and timely idea. It helped make poetry accessible to young people in the sixties and seventies, who wanted to read the poems of their peers, and print runs for these books ran in the thousands.

Since those days, we’ve witnessed the burgeoning of poetry in cyberspace. This is, arguably, a more democratic space than ever before imagined, and readership—or “traffic” as we’ve now come to call readers—is measured not in print runs but page hits, which for some sites count in the tens of thousands (or more) every month (just think of John Tranter’s Jacket). In the classless world of cyberspace, there is no such thing as an original: digital files can be replicated relentlessly and flicked around the world without any threat to the quality of reproduction. What we lose in aesthetics—tangibility, the mark of the human hand—we make up for in accessibility, convenience and speed. While books may go out of print after only a couple of years, cyberspace evolves at a dizzy rate (Darwin on speed) and websites are deleted at the whim of webmasters and content rewritten, replaced, deleted overnight. Already, libraries, cognizant that much of popular culture documentation now exists only on the net with no print counterpart—and is therefore at risk of being lost forever—have set about archiving websites as fast as their staff and budgets can manage. In all likelihood, and not too far into the future, archival libraries, such as the Fryer at the University of Queensland, will be stacked not with pencilled and coffee-stained manuscripts, but with memory sticks and computer hard drives, complete with an author’s web surfing patterns (which may or may not include porn sites), their search histories, and e-mail correspondence.

But the solution to this contest is not a pitting of the extraordinary against the ordinary. Neither is it some kind of happy medium—some sort of in-between space where the strength of each position is retained but only at the sacrifice of flavour and quirk. Of course there’s a lot to be said for pragmatism, but I think a better answer lies in stretching the space of the extraordinary so that it ropes in the ordinary. I want to see poetry in museums—I’m thinking of Gilgamesh on cuneiform tablets and illuminated books in glass cases—in libraries and university classrooms. I want to read poetry typeset in hardcover books, but I also want to find it on websites in san-serif fonts, on buses, on television, radio, in shops, airports, and cinema toilets.

We now occupy a space that is infiltrated by global multimedia to a point where our mental environment is one of the last stands of private space. People need poetry to help them resist the onslaught. People need poetry, as the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky says, to stop us becoming robots. “Poems let us enter a private space in which time slows down and possibilities expand. In that space, we’re allowed to be tentative, instead of being asked to sign on the line, answer the phone or pick up a weapon”, as David Orr says. Poetry’s greatest task, I think, is to foster a necessary privacy in which the imagination can flourish. And here, I’d like to spin on the word “privacy” to introduce the toilet cubicle into the conversation.

Like the mind, the toilet cubicle can serve as a sanctuary from the encroachments of the modern world. It is presumed, for instance, to be a camera-free zone. Toilets are a place to do something in private. But toilets are not always used for conventional purposes. Toilets can also function as displaced versions of the spy’s secret rooms. American anthropologist Alan Dundes, in his essay “Here I Sit—A Study of American Latrinalia” (a coinage referring to markings including art, drawings and poetry made by humans on bathroom walls—a joke on the internet said Dundes prefers this coinage to “shithouse poetry”, which I will let stand as the one and only instance of bathroom punning to be heard in this discussion), saw the public bathroom (which houses the toilet cubicle) as a bastion of taboo-breaking expression. There is a sense, albeit coded, that the toilet cubicle is a site for the return of the repressed (or at least the suppressed): people enter a bathroom and buried truths emerge.

But what happens when a poem enters a toilet cubicle? What does this context add to the reading of the poem? These are things that interest me. I imagine, for one, that there might be surprise on behalf of the sitting reader, and possibly bemusement. Hopefully amusement. There would be less pressure on the poem for it to be understood, I would think, as most people would need to be on their way soon enough. People owho don’t like poetry tend to fear nonsense, but this context, I think, might lend a necessary levity to language. I would also like to think that in the private space of the toilet cubicle, the reader in his or her semi-nakedness might hear something real—something more than just information, something real about life and about dreams.

  • As in the poem “Occupation” by Lisa Gorton, which takes us inside an airport toilet cubicle—an upright casket—where we can sit like a buried Vestal, blank as a shiny white tile. Here there is space for us—there’s no one else to be but yourself—we are offered a freedom from intention, an empty space in which to talk and to listen.
  • Or in “Before Tomorrow” by Elizabeth Allen, which would seem to point to today—now—a moment in time, wherein “a thin space between breath and thought” is suspended only long enough for a drop of rain to run down a woman’s left ankle. It’s pure existence, no rationale. The poem has us enter the mind of night, which is the radical freedom of comparing ourselves to nothing.
  • Then there is “Small Days” by Liam Ferney, where our sense of significance is radically destabilised. Life’s marginalia swallows up the centre and we wake alone and lonely on a Sunday to see the morning sun lap over the linoleum, we see ourselves through toothpaste smudges on a mirror, and shower while surreal toddlers scramble in the streets.
  • “Hanami” by Ed Wright is as good a guide as any to elegant living. We are in Japan. It is spring. Cherry blossoms are a beautiful reminder of death. They drift and pirouette like pink snowflakes, and are stacked by the wind while students drink sake and disappear into a love hotel.
  • “Subtle Plague” by Keri Glastonbury carries more of a sting. Its lack of punctuation causes a slippage where sense and sentences charge into one another to create an ambiguous grammar, in much the same way as cities spill into countryside causing the ambiguous syntax of suburban sprawl. Here there’s a nostalgia for quiet paddocks, something more stellar, we’re told, than even late night shopping.
  • And finally, “The Glacier” by Andrew Slattery puts us in a small boat at one of the poles, where a marble-like glacier veined with the dirt of creation rises out of flat water, fractures, and a column slides into the water, causing the boat to rise a little bit as you feel the arctic weather cool on your arms. Time, we sense, is both particle and wave and the instance echoes through history.

When we are in the poetic space we could be anywhere, out in nature, in someone else’s house or at work, in an airport or cinema toilet, and still we can feel at home. All that is required is to truly inhabit the space. The word inhabit comes from a root that means to give and to receive. We inhabit a place when we give something to it and when we open ourselves to receive what it has to offer. Some places don’t seem to have much to give, or what they have is not something we’re inclined to receive, and so it may be difficult to inhabit them. But this project—which gives space to poetry so that poetry might give us space—goes some way toward rectifying this. The poems that will soon dignify the toilet doors of airports and cinemas across the country do all the things poems should do. They please as they do as they please. They deliver what we hadn’t thought to ask for. They confront and confound and inspire. They announce and protect the private territory of self, exercise parts of the mind and memory petering out for want of use. They are humble, unpretentious, make no claims beyond themselves. For their ordinariness I am inclined to praise them. But not too much. Each poem makes a little space in the imagination from which we might love the world— splendour, foibles, all—a little bit more. Or at least we might look at it, ourselves, our lives, a little more attentively.

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On April 1st 2006, a live event was held at Customs House, Circular Quay, featuring the six poets reading their poems and a cubicled reading space built for the occasion. The event also featured the inaugural Mineslec, Red Room’s annual mini-essay-lecture to be commissioned annually from a poet and delivered to a live audience. Poet and critic Bronwyn Lea presented her thoughts on the topic of poetry and space. The live recording of the poets was broadcast by the Community Radio Satellite in May 2006, and the poem posters were displayed at the following venues: Qantas domestic terminals – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth; Greater Union and Village cinemas – Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Gold Coast & Sunshine Coast, Perth and Adelaide.