Monday, April 8, 2013

Women's Work: address from Professor Elizabeth Webby

It is a great pleasure to be here tonight with so many women to celebrate International Women’s Day, and the publication of this excellent new collection of poetry by Australian women.  As you have heard, the call for women to submit poems dealing with the theme of work produced a bumper response, and I congratulate Libby and Rachael on all the work they have put into selecting and arranging the poems. One of the joys of compiling, and reading, an anthology is finding the way that different poems speak to each other, as I am sure you will all discover as you read through the poems in Women’s Work.

Almost since the beginnings of print culture in Australia in 1803 women have been writing and publishing poems though their work has often taken a long time to be recognised. Back in the 1960s when researching my PhD I discovered a poem published in a Sydney paper in 1838 by Eliza Dunlop, ‘The Aboriginal Mother (from Myall’s Creek)’.  This was a scathing indictment of the white stockmen responsible for the Myall Creek Massacre. Over the years the poem has been included in several Australian anthologies and last week I had an email from an American professor who is to include it in a new Norton anthology called Poetry of Witness. So Eliza Dunlop will now have an international readership.

There are many other women poets from nineteenth-century Australia whose work is still not as well known as it should be. During the 20th century women achieved more recognition thanks to the work of Mary Gilmore, Judith Wright, Oodgeroo, Rosemary Dobson, Gwen Harwood and Dorothy Porter, to name only the most prominent. Today there are many wonderful women poets in Australia – and sometimes they even outnumber men in contemporary anthologies!

Poems by 68 women are included in Women’s Work – some poets are represented by two poems, making 79 poems in all. As Libby and Rachael indicate, these poets come from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and different life experiences. Some of them have been writing for many years and their poems are to be found in all recent anthologies of Australian poetry: Judith Beveridge, Joanne Burns, Sarah Day, Susan Hampton, Rhyll McMaster, Gig Ryan. Most of the others have published one or more collections, though for at least one woman this anthology includes their first published poem. While most of the poets come from NSW and the ACT, there are also quite a few from South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania. Though their poems come in very different styles and lengths – from a few lines to a couple of pages – all are vivid and passionate in their depictions of women’s work, both now and in the past.

Women’s work takes many forms, something naturally reflected in the poems in the anthology. Some deal more generally with the plight of women in different countries, as in Sue Clennell’s ‘ riddle’, a poem that is so appropriate for International Women’s Day, that I felt I must read it to you (p.10). There are however a number of other poems which celebrate giving birth as well as one which looks at the pain of trying to have a child without success. A perhaps surprising number of poems also celebrate different types of housework: cooking, sewing, washing, ironing, cleaning. In ‘Playing golf on Monday’, however, Hilarie Lindsay has some fun at the expense of the patriarchal system which decreed that women should always dedicate Monday to the weekly wash.
Many poems of course look at work outside the home. While some deal with traditional women’s occupations such as nursing, teaching, office and sex work, others give insights into a variety of other occupations, ranging from bee keeping and bean picking through to chemistry and dentistry. Others celebrate notable Australian women such as composer Miriam Hyde, artists Nora Heysen and Ellis Rowan, round the world sailor Kay Cottee. And others reflect on the work-filled lives of numerous anonymous women, whether in Africa, India, China, Puerto Rico, or, as in Cynthia Rowe’s ‘Fifty Cents’, Australia. As she notes ‘An estimated 300, 000 outworkers across Australian toil under Third World conditions.’

The poems in Women’s Work, then, bear witness to the governing principle of the lives of most women, in the past and the present, the work that is always with us, whatever form it may take. Thorough their efforts, the poets throw new light on the world of our everyday housework as well as giving us insights into the worlds of women very different to ourselves. I congratulate and thank all of them, as well as Libby and Rachael for thinking of this project and carrying it through to this highly attractive outcome.  And I urge you all to buy copies if you have not already done so.

Before introducing some of the poets who will read, I’d like to read a poem by Vera Newsom, a much loved Sydney poet who died in 2006. Vera was born in 1912 into an enlightened family who ensured that she went to university. She worked as an English teacher and school principal, and raised a family of five, so only began writing seriously after retirement. Her first poems were published when she was nearly 70. I had the pleasure of launching her first collection, Midnight Snow, in 1988. Four other collections followed, and she won a number of grants and prizes. So, as Vera’s example shows, it is never too late to start! Her poem is entitled ‘Woman at Dusk’ (p.19)

Our first reader Tricia Dearborn has published two collections of poetry so far, and her poems have appeared in many magazines and anthologies. She has two poems in this anthology and will read the first, ‘memo’ (p. 7)

Next Kath Copley, from the South Coast of NSW, will read from a sequence based on her travels to Africa, ‘waiting your turn’ (p.62)

Joanne Burns has been an acclaimed poet for many years, with her first collection published in 1972. Her satirical prose poems focus on many aspects of contemporary society, as in ‘banking on it’ (p.61)

Lesley Walter is a Sydney poet whose widely published poems often deal with the joys and sorrows of motherhood, as in the title poem of her collection ‘watermelon baby’, and the poem she will read, ‘Innocence and forgiveness (p. 47).

Barbara Fisher is another who came to poetry fairly late in life after working in many other fields. She has published two collections of poems, often with a focus on women’s lives, as in the mouth-watering ‘Cakes’ (p.36)

Susan Hampton, who joins us from Canberra, was co-editor of the first major anthology of Australian women’s poetry, The Penguin Book of Australian Women Poets, published in 1986. She is also a prize-winning poet and fiction writer. She will read an extract from her long narrative poem, The Kindly Ones, which I had the pleasure of launching in 2005. In it, the Three Fates of Greek myth decide to come to the contemporary world for a holiday and end up in Sydney, one of them working at a Virgin call centre. It’s on page 94.

Brenda Saunders is a Sydney poet many of whose poems reflect her Indigenous ancestry. She has two poems in the anthology and is going to read ‘Innargang’ (p.53), which is dedicated to her grandmother.

Sheryl Persson is a widely published Sydney poet who often writes about works of art, as in her reflection here on paintings by Nora Heysen, ‘A Conversion between Portraits’ (p. 92)

Finally, Esther Campion was born in Ireland but now lives in South Australia. Her remarkable poem ‘Prison Transfer’ (p. 85) was inspired by her current work as a teacher of literacy and numeracy at Port Lincoln Prison. 

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