This happened …

Late in 2019, the Australian prime minister (marketing guru and shitty-pants Scott Morrison, ‘Sco-Mo’ to you) and his theatre assistants removed the federal administration’s arts appendix. One moment the word ‘Arts’ appeared somewhere in the names of government departments, and the next it had gone. Snip! And he chucked it in the bin. 

Well, not exactly… ‘Arts’ was removed from a department’s name. To compensate, the yarts (as they are called in Australia) got an office. The Office of the Arts: <https://www.arts.gov.au/>. Never have the arts and government been so closely aligned than in this uniform resource locator.  

There were articles in newspapers, outrage on the arts websites, and a long rash of angry emojis at the end of comments on Facebook.  

The conservative government in Australia, returned at the May 2019 election by a slender margin, had decided a feature of the victory after-party would be to show the country’s angry, artistic child the door. “Your mother and I are tired of you! Always with your hand out, and never a word of thanks! Get a job!” And then, the ‘clap’ of the fly-screen door and a barely audible ‘clack’ of its tiny snib that seemed to say, “And don’t come back.”  

Making art is a patient, lonely business. Making any progress seems to require years of practice and a bit of luck. Guidebooks and internet articles about being an artist, full of advice and clichés, pile up very quickly. Be yourself. Tell your truth. Talent is important, endurance essential. In the age of Instagram, sexy drawings and a bubble-butt are handy, but not essential (or so they say). Governments are not needed, but academic sinecures, supervising doctorates in novel-writing or discussions of queer theory, good if you can get them. When universities are financially sous vide, as they will be emerging from the 2020–forever pandemic, place bets at long odds that the arts will be favored for rehabilitation.  

Governments, truth be told, don’t want to help. The governing classes are too busy ‘governing,’ which might as well mean lying, or fudging, or crying crocodile tears, or making a killing on the stock market, or taking a holiday in Hawai’i. To be the governor is to be the winner, the one who calls the shots, to be ‘the decider.’ From their high station in life these decider-governors have a role in narrating our social experience. They have a role we give them in legislating to tell us what is and is not important. (Have you noticed how very often our prime minister tells us what is important, and how very important is the very thing he is now saying?) It’s been a long time since governors of any stripe have shown us how the arts and sciences are important. Business, the economy, the stock market, and jobs are important. Wages growth, arts, and science, women, not so much.  

UNFURL, my arts publishing project, was a reaction to artists’ reactions to government biases against the arts. Who needs government money anyway? I thought. It turns out, lots of people working in the arts need audiences, and it’s not easy to find and maintain audiences without government assistance. And, even within my narrow range of interests—writing and visual arts—the connections between arts activity and funding are deep. Poetry is not the malnourished tenant of the attic it was in Australia in the mid-1980s. The long lists of books for review and the number of official insignia on web pages are two possible measures of this.  

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At the same time, long-established literary magazines have had their funding cut. There is money for the arts, so long as it is going to places where the expenditure can be seen to be spent. Government wants the internet to sing “Hey, big spender!” while it cuts funding to Meanjin and others. It may be partly Meanjin’s fault: it has had nearly thirty years to figure out how to get its great store of content online for prospective subscribers to access, while the failure to do so begins to look like obstinacy.  

UNFURL asked writers and artists to promote their own work to their own social media contacts while doing the same for other artists and writers: it’s a tool for artists to find new audiences and readers. UNFURL /1 started with a couple of writers I knew, Davide Angelo and James Walton, and a writer whom Angelo recommended, Anne CaseySusan Wald, also published in the first UNFURL, was a painter whose work I liked and who had an exhibition planned for early 2020. I wanted to establish a process that could lead to unexpected choices. I would try not to make selections. I wanted artists to select or recommend other artists; and I wanted those artists to choose for themselves what they wanted to show with as little mediation as possible, encouraging people to show and to publish work they liked, and that might not have been selected (or grouped together) by an editor or curator.  

Government wants the internet to sing “Hey, big spender!” while it cuts funding to Meanjin and others. It may be partly Meanjin’s fault: it has had nearly thirty years to figure out how to get its great store of content online for prospective subscribers to access, while the failure to do so begins to look like obstinacy.

It is more efficient to work on all one’s secret agendas simultaneously, so I should also admit my concern that belle-lettrist aesthetics (including the idea that poetry is language’s semantics incubator) and faux-modernist experimentation have combined to make poetry mostly irrelevant and a branch of marketing. —One only has to look at the writing being selected by the selectors to see that something is wrong with the practice of selection. As much as possible, I think, best to leave artists to make their own choices; and if there are mistakes, then, we’ll know who to blame. 

And then, in March 2020 … then was the actual end of the world-as-we-knew-it. Those crazy ‘preppers’ I’ve made fun of started to look like visionaries. “Where the fuck is my bolthole, goddammit!?” and “How big is your bolthole, my friend!?” could have been common questions in some circles. People who could afford it, and had somewhere to go, did leave town. Gen-Xers lost their hospitality jobs, decided that they couldn’t afford their share house rent, and moved back ‘home.’ Artistes no longer had audiences. Artiste-enablers, stagehands, administrators and carpenters, were also out of work.  COVID-19 put the arts and sciences back in the news. 

The intersectional tragedy of pandemic and conservative political hostility to the lefty arts seemed to many like another opportunity to turn indifference into punishment. It was hard to disagree with pundits who have been cataloging this punishment.   

UNFURL, possibly because of all this, has done quite well. By the time UNFURL /5 was released, writers and artists could expect to reach about two thousand readers within a couple of weeks of publication. (Each new UNFURL number provided a little boost to the previous issues, so that all the issues now clock up numbers in the thousands.) Eighty per cent of readers were in Australia, and most of the rest in the USA, Canada, UK and Ireland. The male:female ratio of readers was almost 50:50. The largest age group of readers was 18–35 years. (Though if everyone is ten years younger on the internet, maybe that’s 28–45.)  

It’s difficult to read poetry on small-screen devices, so I did not expect UNFURL to be read on phones. The visual arts component of UNFURL is quite effective on phones and tablets, however. It seems likely that readers interested in the writing in UNFURL resorted to their desktops and printers. Sixty to seventy percent of downloads of UNFURL were to mobile and tablet devices.  

I learned that women writers (poets) had a ‘stronger’ following among women readers than men had among readers of any kind. It was very apparent, with Gina Mercer, for example, that a very significant number of readers returned more often, subscribed more often, and were women.  

I learned that women writers (poets) had a ‘stronger’ following among women readers than men had among readers of any kind. It was very apparent, with Gina Mercer, for example, that a very significant number of readers returned more often, subscribed more often, and were women.  

I learned that social media isn’t the be-all and end-all of connecting with an audience. Old-fashioned email also works really well. Some artists and writers had no significant social media presence but used email effectively to communicate with friends and contacts.  

I also learned that visual artists were, generally speaking, more enthusiastic and positive about using social media, and even better at basic stuff like answering messages. Visual artists be like Molly Bloom; writers be like Prince of Denmark.  

I found that both writers and artists did things in UNFURL other publications might not permit (requiring, as they mostly do, first publication rights). Philip Salom published groupings of new and old poems. Alex Skovron published poems, prose, paintings, and drawings. Steven Warburton published a series of pictures about how one canvas evolved over several years. Robyn Rowland published poems and their translations into Turkish for her readers in Turkey. Ron Miller published a brief survey of his life’s work in space art.  

All that and more to come.  

Ideology of the horse

The horse moved quietly among us in the street
The giant head of this horse did not nicker or whinny
There were no thoughts behind its dark eyes when I looked into them
We talked about such horses being noble creatures but what is a virtuous horse?
It was bred to be a working animal and therefore we imagined it was like us
The horse moved away and climbed a hill on which there was a plinth
When it arrived there it adopted a fighting pose
Both forelegs tore at the grey sky
The halo of the sun shone behind the horse’s head
Immediately, the self-sacrificing horse jumped high into the light
It seemed to reach a very great height
Then, I admit I felt for a moment both sickness and fear
(I did not want to look
But look we all did, just in a glance)
The horse’s thick neck broke awkwardly underneath its fallen body
What was the ideology of the horse?
What was it thinking?!
It was tough then to look into its dead eyes

I remember it was a rainy night

I remember it was a rainy night, and cold
For our reunion my father took me to his favorite restaurant
His Chrysler Valiant was painted pearlescent white
He drove much too fast of course on slippery roads, and parked in a dark street
When we arrived it was already very late
In this part of town theatre people, and prostitutes, were everywhere
A tall man with an ornate beard stood in the restaurant window’s light
My father was known here so, when we entered, we were seated immediately
One elderly couple had brought their little tan-and-white dog to dine with them
It was creating a puddle on the floor underneath their table
A large party had formed near us, several tables crashed together
There was laughter and shouting for more wine and bread
For a while the restaurant was a chaos of yellow light, food and noise
Tables rearranged themselves like Dodgem cars
And my father’s table crashed the party forming in the centre of the room
There were some people we knew—Susan, for example
She was relating the story of her assault on the base camp of Everest
And there was Thomas, the tiny but famous author with white stubble
I tried to listen to everyone, and even to Susan whose story I had heard before
Thomas tried to speak to me to tell me about something he thought important
I watched his mouth as it spoke to me
Then, unfortunately, Susan saw that I was no longer listening to her
She leaned forward, stared me down, tugging at her ear
Oh, Susan, I said, no one wants to hear what unrecyclables you left at the feet of the gods
So, she was hurt of course but I did not see any way of avoiding it
And Thomas and the secret he was whispering to me were gone
People had already started to leave before the lights went up
It was the time of morning bakers go to work
My father took his coat and headed out before me
He did not wait for me and crossed the road
His silhouette marched into a narrow laneway and then it turned a corner
That was where I also turned to follow after him
I found only wide, dark pools of water there
The steep road, winding along the edge of a city park, was empty
The early morning smelled shiny-wet, and he was nowhere to be seen
I walked in circles and walked in circles and then came back to where I’d been
I fell in a gutter and my skirt and shoes were soaked
The man with the elaborate beard was still standing there
Even after several hours he was still waiting though I didn’t know for what
And inside, I could see through the window the dining room being dismantled
Renovations that could not be started during service had begun
And workers were already atop of their ladders getting ready to paint
The old patron said, it’s cold outside come in
Thank you, if you don’t mind, I will use your restroom, I said to him
And slipping in, behind me, the strangely bearded man followed me
Me too, he said, pretending we were together
Behind a door from the dining room the bakers were on the morning shift
A beautiful young girl with the tray of sweets swept past me, smiling
Try, she said, and tilted the display toward me
I could smell the powdery confection under my nose
Warm, nutty and sweet, and ready to eat
And behind me the smell of my new, wet friend
His arm stretched over my shoulder to grab a treat
His beard, thin as a tattoo, sculpted into spirals, scratched my cheek
I could have fucked him then and there
It was what we wanted, but we threw ourselves into a soft sofa
In the family rooms there were other diners who also had returned, defeated
My wet friend wrapped his legs around me
I looked closely into his eyes, asking for reassurance but finding none
I kept one hand on his shaven neck and with the other painted his lips with sugar

The quiet Australians

In case you were wondering the quiet Australians 
Won’t tell you what they are thinking. Their patriotic 
Yowl is stifled by a kind of shame, or fear of shame 
That in a plastic-colored world of money, generations  
Of growth and privilege do not add up to much.  
The quiet Australians want someone to wail for them  
 
To sob about unfairness, suffering, their piece of cake 
To blame, to tear down, to strategise retaking what 
Was taken from the history their forebears vandalised.  
The quiet Australians would stand up to be counted 
If they had a leg to stand on. They would go to war  
If war did not require a sacrifice they shrink from.  
 
Fears aside, the quiet Australians sometimes speak  
When martyrdom can be assured, when whistling 
At a pitch that dingoes hear their words give voice  
To pain they sincerely feel in the salty cracking  
Landscape of their lives. There on the dusty plain  
The quiet Australians cultivate contempt for strangers.  
 
Not feeling for them, we pretend the strangers cannot 
Feel. We, I say, since I am one of you and know that 
Silence can be strength; I know what lengths my hate 
Can go to. When we quiet Australians learn to speak  
We might have something good to say. But, when? 
I don’t know. I’m old. One day, I think. One day.