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A $125k day for Australian poetry (and why we're starting to listen)

Jennifer Maiden took home $125,000 last night as the overall winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards — Australia’s richest literary prize — for her collection of poetry Liquid Nitrogen. I can think of none more deserving.

She writes a poetry that unpicks the problems with the structures of power, the abuse of positions of authority and the expediencies of official versions of “truth” and history. Maiden has also created a “conversational” poem that plays with the way stories are told, and the way we hear official and unofficial voices. It’s extremely deft and clever, while remaining approachable. She’s added new strands to classical rhetoric — almost “sprung” it from its fetters. As judges noted:

“As she has over her last couple of books, Maiden again ventures into the minds of public figures: a lyrical portrait of an imagined Julian Assange, and private conversations between Australian prime ministers and their inspiring mentors or inner consciences.

“This book is explorative, not didactic, and these long poetical essays are studded with interruptions, repetitions of motifs and characters, and tangential obsessions that create a distinct world and rhythm, where art and politics insistently coalesce in vibrant tableaux. A brilliantly fertile imagination creates poetry that interrogates and refines thought.”

For Australian poetry, it’s some sort of moment. I think poetry has been getting more and more attention — or rather, is being heard more, even listened to.

It’s an ecologically, politically and socially volatile world we live in, and there are no real comfort zones. People need to be aware of what’s going on, and poetry can be a way of processing complex and even seemingly intangible information. The news might “report”, but a poem offers a means of processing information, the senses, “feelings”, ideas and spirituality. Whether this is done with irony, sincerity, or a mixture of both, it is a means of “seeing” from different angles, in different lights.

Poetry is being acknowledged because it is doing something, not just subscribing to mysterious values of “high art”. Sure, it can do that, but it has to be more. I think Maiden’s poetry is an example of this; she is a very aware poet.

Prizes are just reward for artists. Maiden’s $25,000 for the poetry category and $100,000 for the overall title — beating out more heralded winners in long-form fiction, non-fiction, scriptwriting and young adult writing, a rare feat in literary circles — will certainly pay more bills.

But how awards are funded matters. I think prizes funded by the people (even indirectly, as in the case of government awards and the like), where money is drawn from the public purse, so to speak, carry import because there’s an acknowledgement that writing is part of the polis. Now, as an anarchist, I prefer the governance to be de-centred and community-orientated and based on consensus — but all the same, within state structures prizes are an attempt to value the artist’s voice. I am less keen on, and sometimes vehemently opposed to, prizes funded by dubious private enterprises, those based on profits derived from the military, and other exploitative and self-serving (if dressed up as altruistic) sources.

So prizes can be more than just slaps on the back or confirmations of the status quo — they can be pronouncements of change as well as recognition. This is, of course, dependent on the works to which they are given and why they are given — different works awarded can change the nature of a prize’s symbolism. But judges change, and thus the awards shift year by year.

This year they were spot on.

*John Kinsella won the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards poetry category in 2013 for his collection Jam Tree Gully and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards poetry category in 2012 for Armour.

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