Poetry publishing in australia

Making BooksThe 1990s heralded a new ethos in Australian book publishing: poetry was no longer presumed to be a prestigious staple on the list of a serious publishing house. With mergers and takeovers happening left and right in the commercial publishing sector, poetry for all its ‘cultural worth’ was told to pay its way in dollars or be gone. But with characteristically small print runs and booksellers hesitant to stock specialty books this was a big ask. By the decade’s end, Angus & Robertson, Heinemann, Penguin and Picador had abandoned poetry almost entirely, leaving a slew of canonical Australian poets – including Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Les Murray and many others – without a publisher.[1] Of course it was part of a larger trend: in 1999 Oxford University Press also terminated its poetry list and dropped expatriate-Australian poet Peter Porter, along with his British colleagues. For a brief moment, verse novels caused a flurry of excitement but this soon settled into fad. Dorothy Porter’s Monkey’s Mask (Hyland House, 1994) and Murray’s Fredy Neptune (Duffy & Snellgrove, 1998) seemed hopeful crossovers into relatively larger fiction markets.[2] A few years later Alan Wearne’s The Lovemakers, Book One (Penguin, 2001) won the NSW Premier’s Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry (as well as Book of the Year) and the Arts Queensland Judith Wright Calanthe Award, but this didn’t stop Penguin from pulping their unsold stock and declining publication of the completed second volume. During this time only the University of Queensland (UQP), as David McCooey points out, remained a significant publisher of poetry.[3]

Since its first poetry title in 1968, UQP has published at one stage or another just about all of Australia’s important contemporary poets, including David Malouf, John Tranter, Judith Beveridge and Anthony Lawrence. Its impressive backlist, relatively large infrastructure, and its access to national distribution meant that competition was tight for its annual two or three poetry titles (which was intermittently topped up with books, such as Sam Wagan Watson’s award-winning Smoke Encrypted Whispers from the Black Australian Writing list, or Jennifer Strauss’s The Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore 18871929 from the Academy Editions of Australian Literature and published by UQP in association with the Australian Academy of the Humanities). [4] In 2002, pre-figuring a review of operations, the Press decided to outsource its poetry editorship in order to trim overheads on poetry titles, which with few exceptions – Peter Skrzynecki’s wildly successful Immigrant Chronicle among them – required financial buoying from income-generating fiction titles. To the resounding relief of poets around the country, following a 2005 restructure the Press formally announced a renewed commitment to poetry and increased its list to five or six poetry titles per year. The new list included the annual Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize for a manuscript from an emerging Queensland poet – which despite its regional catchment enjoyed national success with award-winning titles by Lidija Cvetkovic and Jaya Savige; a selected or collected volume of poems by a senior Australian poet; and The Best Australian Poetry series established in 2003.

As publishing opportunities for poets grew increasingly rare Five Islands Press (FIP), founded by Ron Pretty in 1987, increased in prominence. As part of its Mainstream Program, FIP published about ten poetry titles per year, while its annual New Poets Program published 32-page chapbooks by six emerging poets. From time to time, the series was criticised for being too large to maintain a consistently high quality, nevertheless it launched the careers of a number of 1990s poets who went on to enjoy critical success – Peter Minter and MTC Cronin among them – in much the same way as Martin Duwell’s Gargoyle Poets series did for Australian poets in the 1970s. In 2002 FIP moved from the University of Wollongong to the University of Melbourne and was made integral to the newly established Poetry Australia Foundation.[5] In 2006, the Foundation scored a major coup when the Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) promised an initial sum of $140,800 to assist in establishing the Australian Poetry Centre in East St Kilda. Shortly thereafter, however, FIP announced on its website that Ron Pretty would pass the leadership of the imprint to Kevin Brophy and others in mid 2007, and that FIP would not only reduce its annual titles but also cease the New Poets Series for the foreseeable future.

During this time there were also some newcomers. In 1999 John Kinsella, Clive Newman and Chris Hamilton-Emery formed a partnership to develop Salt Publishing. Salt, which then moved to the UK in 2002 and set up offices at Cambridge, put print-on-demand technology to good use to produce a significant list of attractive (if often difficult to find) books by Australian poets such as Pam Brown, Jill Jones, Kate Lilley, Peter Rose and many others. In the same year Ivor Indyk opened a new arm to his publishing house and began publishing poetry titles under the Giramondo book imprint, which got off to a fine start with prize-winning books by Emma Lew, Judith Beveridge and Jennifer Maiden. Other small but noteworthy presses include Brandl & Schlesinger and Black Pepper, as well as Vagabond, Picaro Press and PressPress which all specialise in chapbooks.[6] David Musgrave started Puncher & Wattmann in 2005 and Paul Hardacre’s papertiger media launched its Soi 3 Modern Poets imprint in 2006. Unfortunately there also were some departures from the ranks of independent publishing. Robert Adamson and Juno Geme’s Paperbark Press closed in 2002 after seventeen years of publishing some of Australia’s best poets; and Duffy & Snellgrove closed shop in 2004, leaving Murray once again without a publisher (fortunately Black Inc. was to inaugurate a poetry list with Murray’s Biplane Houses as its first title). Pandanus Books, based at the Australian National University, ended its poetry publishing days in 2006 with Windchimes: Asia in Australian Poetry, an anthology comprising poems that offer perspectives on Asia by eighty-six Australian poets.

As might be expected during these lean years, poetry anthologies increased in importance. In 1998, Thomas Shapcott edited his sixth poetry anthology, The Moment Made Marvellous, which was made up of poems by 70 UQP poets. Paperbark Press’s Calyx: 30 Contemporary Australian Poets anthology, edited by Michael Brennan and Peter Minter, came out in 2000 with a selection of poems by poets who first came to prominence in the 1990s. A year later Five Islands Press also came out with a ‘new poets’ anthology: New Music: An Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry edited by John Leonard. 2003 saw an embarrassment of poetry anthologies with UQP releasing the inaugural issue of its Best Australian Poetry series in September and Black Inc. releasing its inaugural Best Australian Poems a month later. Despite their similarity of titles, the anthologies came with different briefs. UQP’s anthology changes its guest editor annually, selects exactly forty poems that have been previously published in print journals and includes biographical information and author notes, whereas the Black Inc. anthology changes editors arbitrarily, includes more poems and poems from a variety of sources but does not include information about its contributors. Both publishers have reported healthy (by poetry standards) sales.


Many would expect that poetry book numbers would decline during this period of contraction and indeed they did. In the years between 1993 and 1999, over 250 books of poems were published in Australia each year; by 2006 this figure had been reduced by about 100 titles. Although comparable to figures from the 1970s – the decade lauded by many for fashioning a resurgence of poetry – a thirty-five per cent increase in the Australian population during the same interval summons sobriety. What’s more, the total number of poetry books published during this period makes the sector appear healthier than it might in fact be, in large part due to FIP’s New Poets Series which offered abundant publishing opportunities for emerging poets while the situation at large for developing and established poets remained impoverished. It is also important to note that the majority of poetry books are presently being published by small presses (including self-publishers) that often do not have sufficient access to resources, distribution and marketing to have their books noticed by readers. Under these conditions the thus-far unchallenged maxim that ‘poetry doesn’t sell’ becomes self-fulfilling prophesy.

Despite continued problems associated with distribution, marketing and sales, many poets and critics have observed that interest in poetry, oddly enough, is booming.[7] Poetry festivals have sprung up around the country – there’s even a National Poetry Week – poetry readings are held in cafés, pubs and libraries, and poetry ezines, blogs and discussion boards are burgeoning on the Internet. Writers’ centres and university creative writing programs around the country have been quick to respond to the increased demand for poetry  workshops and classes. Poetry’s increased profile in high school curricula, particularly in New South Wales, has led not only to new generations of young readers interested in reading and writing poetry, but also to soaring sales for the poets lucky enough to be set on the compulsory reading lists. Poets in this enviable position – including Peter Skrzynecki, Bruce Dawe and John Tranter – can often compete on sales figures with fiction authors.[8] As an overall trend, poetry’s rising popularity is perhaps more noticeable in the US where a Billy Collins title can approach a print run of 100 000 copies; nevertheless poetry readership in Australia looks comparatively good when figures are adjusted for population. As Les Murray has pointed out, poetry in Australia enjoys a much larger readership in proportion to population than in most Western countries.[9] Whereas a typical US poetry title (Billy Collins aside) runs to about 1 500 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. While these are only break-even figures – a ‘slim volume’ of poems costs about $5 000–7 000 in editorial, design and production costs – it is interesting to speculate as to what the figures might look like if Australian poetry titles were afforded the same publishing and marketing opportunities that other genres often enjoy. The extraordinary renewal of interest in Auden, for instance, after his poem appeared on screen in Four Weddings and a Funeral would seem to indicate that advertising works, even for poetry. But film options aside, the Australian market remains wide open to publishers who seek to make the most of the current poetry revival.

In the meantime, there are a number of things publishers can do raise the profile of their poetry titles. In addition to keeping a tight list of well-known and respected names that help carry titles by new poets, publishers can also avail themselves of state and federal publishing subsidies. While funding varies from state to state, the Literature Board of the Australia Council offers assistance to publishers with subsidies to support up to four poetry titles (including selected and collected editions) a year. The subsidy on offer for poetry is set at about half the rate for prose titles due to the assumption that it is less expensive to produce a book of poems than a book of prose (perhaps it is but it remains difficult to prove as poetry publishers have long survived by cutting corners). While the subsidy is helpful to poetry presses, it offers little incentive for publishers of mixed genres to put forth poetry titles over prose. Further complicating matters is the proviso that the titles must have a minimum print run and prove national distribution in order to qualify for funding – requirements that with the growth of print-on-demand technology have become increasingly difficult for small poetry publishers to fulfill as well as for the Board to monitor. Even so, the Council’s logo on the imprint pages of almost every Australian poetry title one encounters would seem to indicate that the initiative is keeping a good number of independent poetry publishers in business.

Many publishers like to see that individual poems have been published in literary journals prior to appearing in book format. This serves not only as a means of developing a readership for a poet’s work, but it also verifies that the poems have been vetted by independent editors. As a general observation, however, Australian presses have not insisted upon this practice with the same rigor as have their overseas counterparts, who frequently require that all (or nearly all) poems from a collection have first appeared in journals. It might well be in the interest of all to step up this practice. The so-called ‘big-eight’ of Australian literary journals – those that receive regular funding from the Literature Board – continue to publish a smattering of poetry and (usually bundled) reviews of poetry titles: Southerly, Meanjin, Overland, Quadrant, Island, Westerly, Hecate and Heat. Other journals of note include Westerly, Going Down Swinging, Tirra Lirra and Famous Reporter. Blast Magazine, Space: New Writing, Griffith Review and Wet Ink all began in the early part of the new century, while Salt-lick: New Writing disappeared soon after launching and Imago closed shop in 2001. Another birth worth noting was Ron Pretty’s revival of Poetry Australia, in this incarnation entitled Blue Dog: Australian Poetry, in 2003. Taking off in the late nineties, online poetry journals offer a new world of opportunity for editors not wanting (or unable) to finance expensive print journals. John Tranter’s Jacket, launched in 1997, was one of the earliest and has become the most eminent, bringing into conversation poets and critics from around the world. At reportedly over half-a-million hits since its inception, it is difficult to imagine a poetry journal in print format attracting a comparable amount of traffic. A short list of online poetry magazines that have steadily grown in profile might include Cordite, Stylus Poetry Journal, Divan, Retort, hutt and foame:e. There are also a number of online poetry resources, including the Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library project which presents poems and biographical information for Australian poets. In coming years the project plans to employ Digital Object Identifier (DOI) technology to allow poets the possibility of charging a reading fee to access copyrighted material. Eventually, the project will publish print-on-demand poetry books, particularly for titles that have gone out of print.[10]

These days a growing number of poets are not only using online technology to distribute and promote their work, they are also exploring digital media as an central part of the poetic experience. A small number of publications – including Les Murray’s Collected Poems (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2002) and literary journals Meanjin, Going Down Swinging and others – have experimented with audio CD attachments to books. Discarding the book entirely, the CD ROM journal papertiger: new world poetry published annually by Paul Hardacre, Brett Dionysius and Marissa Newell is one of Australia’s chief forums for digital poems. Not only does it publish poems that employ conventional textual layouts, it also incorporates to great effect audio, flash and video poems. Especially popular with younger audiences, the trend is likely to continue to develop new territories that reach new audiences. But it is not by any means unidirectional: the Newcastle Poetry Prize issued its 2003 anthology on CD ROM but reverted to print the following year; and papertiger media expanded its operations in 2006 to add print to its CD ROM and Internet formats, suggesting that the poetry book, while somewhat harder to find, has not entirely disappeared from fashion.


[1] See Pam Brown, ‘Nobody Wants Our Poems…’. The Sydney Morning Herald 26 February 2000 Spectrum: 10.

[2] See Christopher Pollnitz’s ‘Australian Verse Novels’, Heat 7 NS, 2004: 229-52.

[3] David McCooey, ‘Surviving Australian Poetry: The New Lyricism’. Agenda 41.1-2, 2005: 22.

[4] The Collected Verse of Mary Gilmore: Volume 2 edited by Jennifer Strauss is scheduled for release by UQP in July 2007.

[5] PAF also publishes the annual PAF Poetry Catalogue. The 2006 issue lists the 94 poetry titles by 20 Australian presses.

[6] Regional publishers of poetry include Fremantle Arts Centre Press in Western Australia; Spinifex Press in Victoria; Interactive Press in Queensland; Walleah Press in Tasmania; Ginninderra’s Indigo imprint in Canberra. Little Esther Books: Feral, Boffin + Distingué in South Australia focuses on avant garde poetry.

[7] See David McCooey, ‘Surviving Australian Poetry: The New Lyricism’. Agenda 41.1-2, 2005: 22-36.

[8] Sales figures for poetry books are notoriously difficult to verfiy. BookTrack keeps a record of sales but as most bookshops do not stock poetry books (most poetry books are sold at poetry readings and festivals and through online outlets) the figures are effectively meaningless. The 2001 AC Nielsen National Survey of Reading, Buying and Borrowing Books for Pleasure avoids poetry altogether.

[9] See Les Murray’s ‘On Being Subject Matter’ in A Working Forest: Selected Prose, Potts Point: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1997 (30-44).

[10] A similar project, Classic Australian Works (another CAL initiative), already provides print-on-demand re-releases of classic Australian books, with Bruce Beaver’s Letters to Live Poets as its first poetry title. For a detailed discussion of poetry and POD technology, see David Prater’s ‘Poetry Publishing Today’ in New Markets for Printed Books: Emerging Markets for Books, from Creator to Consumer. Ed. Bill Cope and Dean Mason. Altona, Vic: Common Ground Publishing, 2002.

This chapter was first published as ‘Poetry Publishing’ in Making Books: Studies in Contemporary Australian Publishing. Ed David Carter and Anne Galligan. St Lucia: UQP, 2007: 247–54.

It was the focus of Rosemary Neill’s ‘Pulping Our Poetry’. The Weekend Australian 7–8 July 2007, Review: 4–5.

The peeping tom and other voyeurs

First published in Griffith Review and reprinted in The Age

Lying in bed, under a cotton sheet and a slow-turning fan, I was listening to tropical birds—not knowing what kind they were, but enjoying the early morning illiteracy that comes from a mind on holiday in a foreign country. I won’t say which country I was in, for fear that what I am going to say later will hurt or embarrass those who might recognize the precise location or even themselves. Let me just say it is a country not far north of the equator, where humidity refracts the dawn so that all seven colours of the rainbow can be discerned in the wet, luminous light of morning. From where I lay, I could see through a wall of windows into a courtyard, shaded by the monstrous trunk and ambling branches of an old Frangipani that dropped its flowers onto the red pebbles below.

Lying in bed, under a cotton sheet and a slow-turning fan, I was listening to tropical birds — not knowing what kind they were, but enjoying the early morning illiteracy that comes from a mind on holiday in a foreign country. I won’t say which country I was in, for fear that what I am going to say later will hurt or embarrass those who might recognize the precise location or even themselves. Let me just say it is a country not far north of the equator, where humidity refracts the dawn so that all seven colours of the rainbow can be discerned in the wet, luminous light of morning. From where I lay, I could see through a wall of windows into a courtyard, shaded by the monstrous trunk and ambling branches of an old Frangipani that dropped its flowers onto the red pebbles below. The courtyard walls were not that old, perhaps fifty years at most, but having been rubbed with cow dung and mud they blazed with lichen and stood, in their slow decay, with the silent presence of another age. Orchids and ferns grew from inside cracks, taking moisture from the air and nourishment from the crumbling rock, and draped their massive root systems down the sides of the wall. I was somewhere about here in my observations when a scalp of black hair rose inches above the wall’s rim, followed by a forehead, eyes, and then an entire face. I remember thinking, before considering its intent, that it was a nice-looking face, not just in the sense of it being attractive, but also in the sense that its owner would seem, by its gentle features, to be a nice person. I lay motionless in bed, but it took only seconds for his eyes — for the face belonged to a man — to lock with mine and then the face was gone.

The shock of seeing that face registered like a slap that shook me from illiteracy into the world of language and difference. If I had been at home in my own bed, I might have jumped up to confront the owner of that face — if for no other purpose than to assert some control or to dole out, for what it was worth, a measure of shame. But I was not at home, and in any case the large wooden doors of the bungalow were padlocked each night and not unlocked until breakfast. And this, being dawn, meant that breakfast was several hours away. But there was another reason I hesitated to act: I had already observed that punishments in this country often exceed their crime. Political instances aside — and they are many and brutal — a servant at the Estate where I am staying had recently been fired for the infraction of ‘dancing his way back to the kitchen’. In fairness, his dance was merely an instance of his broad-spectrum indifference to work, but I have to say when I heard the news my sympathies were with the dancer. I had seen animals, too — normally protected by the Buddhist precept of nonviolence — suffer the harsh consequences of their actions. In order to ease the minds of the Estate’s foreign guests, the staff are on order to kill any snake, poisonous or not, that winds its way into the vicinity of the bungalow. I regretted that I had already been the cause of two snake deaths: one, a thin black snake that I was certain was harmless, had run across my foot and coiled beside me on the verandah. I was trying to shoo it, when two men arrived and poked it with a long stick, so that the snake raised its diminutive head, spread an impressive hood, and was whipped to death. The other one, which I was uncertain as to whether it was a viper or a garter snake, drifted into my courtyard one morning, seemingly unconcerned that I had been there first (or at least I hoped I had). When I asked that the snake be removed, despite it being identified as harmless, it received the same treatment as the cobra. And so I made a vow, which thankfully has not so far been tested, that I would suffer the next snake I encountered in silence. And so this was my thinking in the long minutes after the face appeared and disappeared above the courtyard wall. I knew that if alerted my hosts to the Peeping Tom, as I came to think of him, he would not have been beaten or anything that Medieval, but he would possibly lose his job — as might his family, who were also employed by the Estate. Given the egregious poverty and unemployment in this country, that seemed something I couldn’t risk.

So I lay in bed, feeling the bile rise to my throat, yet unable to act. As a foreigner, I felt altogether too powerful — like a giant whose disgruntled yell could flatten a village. The Peeping Tom had maleness on his side, for I admit the possibility of rape had crossed my mind (it was difficult not to think about it, knowing that two female tourists had recently been raped at a nearby beach). Nonetheless, my foreign passport and more money in my pockets than most people here earn in a month seemed a lethal combination. For a moment I felt sorry for the Peeping Tom, feeling myself succumb, perhaps, to a mild version of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which the victim falls in love with, and then protects, the kidnapper. But the feeling, as it arose, dissolved when I remembered what has since become the ‘sickening’ smile that rose with the face above the wall. I had that odd feeling people sometimes get when they have not been the victims of violence exactly but feel, nonetheless, violated. I had seen it once in the face of a friend, who returned home to find her house broken into and, although nothing had been taken, her underwear drawer had been rummaged and the knickknacks on her dresser rearranged. She felt sick, she said, and would rather the burglar had taken the television than have touched her underwear and personal possessions. Of course she quickly recanted: ‘well, not the plasma screen but maybe the CD player.’ She waivered again so I suggested the clock radio, and we both dissolved into laughter. But it was nervous laughter and that, too, soon dissolved. ‘It just makes me feel a little sick’, she said scrunching up her face.

And that’s how I felt as I dressed, brushed my teeth, and looked out at the lichen flaring on the courtyard wall: a little sick. But the truth is, the fact of the Peeping Tom didn’t really come as a surprise. The Lonely Planet had advised modesty for women travellers in this country and warned in the earthy register emblematic of that publication: ‘the sight of a woman, foreign but not necessarily, is enough to make a few men masturbate on the spot’. And there was another reason that it was not surprising, one that had to do with the bungalow itself. Situated inside three acres of jungle, it had been the private residence of a prominent architect, who had established a trust so that, upon his death, artists might stay here and work (which was in fact the reason for my visit). The architect’s bungalow intrigued me as much as his artist’s statement, which I will extract and reword to protect the implicated: ‘For myself a building can only be comprehended moving around and through it and by experiencing its intonations and its poetics of space, of light, as one moves through — from the exterior onto verandahs, into rooms, passages, courtyards — the view then from these spaces into other spaces, the view through to gardens and sky beyond, and from outside the building, the view back through rooms into inner rooms and central courts’. As I moved through the bungalow, experiencing its intonations and considering the play of light from the shaded inner spaces to the celebration of light in the courtyards, I considered the man who had created it. Being of the writerly persuasion and therefore given to creating characters from fragments and traces — a cynic might say given to conjecture and lies—I gradually understood that the prominent architect was a voyeur in the supreme. But this observation, however extreme and to some ungenerous, was not entirely of my own making. In an initial tour of the bungalow, my host had pointed out a small window with wooden shutters that, when opened, looked across an internal courtyard directly into the shower of one of the guest rooms. ‘He was a wicked man’, the host said, meaning by his tone that the architect was playful.

So in the bedroom I was granted for the duration of my stay, I knew to look for angles of vision that might lend to spying. I had surveyed the height of the courtyard wall and deemed it high enough to guarantee privacy, as was (I thought) the external wall of the open-air bathroom that housed, between it and the shower, a small jungle in which I saw, at various times, not only frogs but also an iguana, a possum, kingfisher, and hundreds of fireflies whose luminescence made the ‘fairy lights’ strung on trees in my home city seem garish and hopelessly mechanical by comparison. With each cold water shower, I knew the eyes of the jungle were on me, but it was human eyes that troubled me. I found myself asking, what is it the architect wants to see? And it was this question that led me to an undersized and seemingly unnecessary door near the bed. Examining it from outside the room, I found, in addition to an antique keyhole, three tiny holes that had been drilled into the corners of the door’s panelling. They  seemed too small to be of consequence, but having checked that there were no such holes on any other door in the house, I bent down to take a peek and there I found my answer. Each hole provided a telescopic view of the bed from a variant perspective so that, together with the keyhole, the whole room could be surveyed. Being conscious of my role as guest, I said nothing of my discovery to my hosts but plugged the holes with little wads of paper and hung my sarong over the inside of the door. I was happy enough knowing that anyone who tried to use the peepholes would not only be thwarted but would know I was onto them. And then, so I thought, I could relax.

And I did relax, until the incident of the Peeping Tom. Fear is easy to describe but it can be difficult to defend. Without our permission or even our awareness, it can set up residence inside muscle and along nerve fibres, and its release can be explosive. Where before my eyes had enjoyed the ruinous courtyard wall, with its lichens and orchids, now my gaze turned upward to the open air above it, and every view out became paired with the view in. The first evening after the incident, I grew uneasy so I closed the shutters, locked the windows, and drew the curtains against the night. Noises I had learned to live with — pole cats in the ceiling, monkeys in the bamboo, bats swerving close to a window — rattled me to the point of sleeplessness. In the darkness, my ears became my eyes, alert to the tiny, practically inaudible variations of sound that occur even in an apparently quiet room; to the sometimes invisible border between sound and silence; the almost imperceptible sense of time passing; and the usually insignificant interval between when we hear something and when it had actually happened. I like to think that I am not a fearful person, that I am somewhat savvy and confident, a person who lives many mental detours away from traditional female frailties, but this is not something my body that night was convinced of. And so when a frog strayed from the bathroom and leaped onto the lampshade near my bed some time around midnight, my body screamed so loud I frightened myself even deeper.

It had occurred to me, even before the incident of the Peeping Tom, that the pleasure of seeing is at odds with the fear of being seen. Everything in nature wants to be hidden, except perhaps when inviting a mate or warning a predator. Here in the jungle, where survival depends on seeing and not being seen, the law is perhaps amplified: the chameleon takes on the green of a leaf, the mantis the brown line of a twig, the leopard merges with the dappled light of the forest.  Anthropologists have argued that fear of the Other, of their eyes in particular, is fundamental to our survival and ties us with invisible strings directly to the caves and predators of our ancestors. Eyes, though long romanticised as ‘the windows to the soul’, bring with them the shock of the food chain, which Joseph Campbell says is the basis of the human need for myth. Even in the ‘concrete jungle’ of cities, we want to be hidden — we call it anonymity — and we fight and invent laws to protect our privacies. Exhibitionists might consider themselves exceptions but, given that their pleasure arises from their knowledge that they are being watched, they are empowered in otherwise powerless circumstances. Even the escalating number of internet ‘cam girls’, who broadcast their digital nakedness to the world, would fear, I think, the unauthorised gaze of a stranger’s camera. Men too, however much they may joke that they’d like to be object of the sexual gaze, are not immune — as I recently observed when a woman tourist stopped to watch a man loop a rope around his ankles and climb a coconut tree, stopping halfway up to catch his breath — his muscles glowing like glazed stone — he slid down the trunk, jumping the last two metres, when he saw that the woman’s telescopic lens was aimed directly, but unintentionally I think, up his sarong.

All tourists are guilty of voyeurism. We are pilgrims without a tradition, paying exorbitant airfares to circle the world in the hope of getting insight into another culture, of seeing its artifacts, its architecture, and its people. Which is why one synonym of tourist is ‘sight-seer’. The locals in any country resent, or at least ridicule, tourists for their gawking and picture-taking, but they suffer them for the money they drop on the community. Of course, the tourist’s gaze is not overtly sexual, though sometimes it is —as the local gaze can be, sometimes, when it stares back at the tourist. And I, although preferring a journal and pen to a camera, am also implicated. I came to this country to write, to be inspired by what I would see and experience, and moreover, as Jung phrased it, to see myself again ‘in the simple and forgotten things’. And that’s how I came to find myself where I stand now: on the worn steps of an ancient temple, taking pleasure in observing the people of this country observe their gods, observing the people observing me, and in my notebook observing the observation.

Which makes me, like the architect, a voyeur in the supreme. And also, in some weird way, like the Peeping Tom — who I had been doing well to put out of my mind with this visit to the temple. Which is not to say I came here because of the incident — to do so would be to conflate it to the point of melodrama — but I will say it was on my mind as I approached and saw, with more than my eyes, the beauty of the lime-washed temple protruding above the tree line, a beauty that comes out of time and tradition, that transcends transgression, and also the tenderness that time can bring despite its hard history. I saw too that there are times when we want not only to see but to be seen, times that have nothing to do with mating or warnings, but everything to do with presence. And that the view inward, of ourselves, our vulnerabilities and predilections, our hopes and imperfections, is as important as the view outward. Earlier, I had removed the plank that the Peeping Tom had used as a step to gaze over the courtyard wall, and I placed it in a rather obvious way on the ground nearby. I knew full well that this would not prevent him from reassembling the perch and peeping again if so inclined (though now, at the expense of the morning view, my curtains are drawn), but I did it with the hope that Tom, as I have come to think of him, will understand that he too had been seen. And that’s the best I can hope for — that our eyes will lock, metaphorically, in the uneasy balance of truce.

Originally published in Griffith Review (Summer 2006): 121–29. Reprinted in The Age   (3 Jan 2007) A2: 10–11.

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