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Les Wicks, Stories of the feet – tripped into landscape

Helen Young


The publishing of Australian poetry is (still) in crisis. Despite the crossover success of certain works like Dorothy Porter’s The Monkey’s Mask and the growth of writer’s festivals, there is a dearth of printed poetry actually available. The existence of journals like Heat, Southerly, and Quadrant means that there are still forums for print publication. However, the majority of book publishers have seriously cut back or stopped publishing collections of poetry altogether. Nevertheless, not quite all is lost: there are still a few presses committed to publishing poetry, including Five Islands Press, Ginninderra, Seaview and Interactive; of these only Five Islands Press does not require the author to contribute to publication costs. [1]

Even these publishing houses are faced with serious difficulty. For example, Five Islands Press, which publishes the journal Blue Dog as well as book collections, has recently been hit by severe budget cuts. In July funding for the press from the Literature Board’s Production and Promotions grants were cut by 40%. Similar cuts have occurred across the board. In 1998, approximately $65,000 was granted to produce books of poetry. By 2003, this had been reduced to $30,000. [2] These cuts have happened despite a public commitment to “book, magazine and online publishing” and to supporting “organisations which offer infrastructure support to the literature sector and income-generating opportunities to writers.” [3] The Australia Council—which the Literature Board is a part of—proclaims its dedication to “preserving and developing the uniqueness of the Australian cultural voice,” [4] while the Literature Board itself “aims to support the excellence, diversity, vitality, viability and distinctiveness of Australian literature.” [5] This is proclaimed on the website with an apparently straight face at the same time as funding to areas that are an integral part of the production and dissemination of Australian poetry—like book publishing—is being slashed.

Despite the contradictions between the apparent purpose of the Literature Board and what issues as practical—rather than theoretical—support, Five Islands Press continues to publish Australian poetry in book form. A recently released (2 May 2004) example is Les Wicks’ Stories of the Feet -tripped into landscape-. This collection is from a poet who has published widely in magazines, books, and in newspapers, in 5 languages and 9 countries. Wicks has also performed in a variety of forums, including festivals, schools, and prisons. We thus have a poet who is deeply involved with the “excellence, diversity, vitality, viability and distinctiveness” [6] of Australian literature in a very visible way but who has a limited range of possibilities for book publication; a range that has been limited by reductions in funding.

In Stories of the Feet Wicks has published a book of poems that celebrates both the landscape and people of Australia and thus adds to the cultural voice of the nation. It is the landscape that gives coherence to the collection as a whole. The scenery shifts quickly and with purpose; as the section titles proclaim, we move from North to South to West, and from country to city and back again in the process. The first poem of the collection, “Two Ghosts and the Diesel Crow Choir,” is set after midnight on a country highway on the North Coast, opening with movement between places:

from a country town lust adventure, getting late
hitching south back
to the Old Big Smoke. [7]

There is no arrival at this destination, the poet gets no further than “a café/… barely 6 kilometres” down the road. The setting and the sense of travelling create a context for the two people that the narrator observes and for the narrator’s brief intersection with their lives. It is the sense of suspended journeying, of dropping into the lives of two women, “distinct beneath the moon,” that gives the poem its meaning and it is the setting for the poem that creates this feeling.

This is symptomatic of the way that poems throughout the collection function; the landscape and settings provide contexts for the people. Wicks creates both generalised settings like the highway after midnight and “a bob cut scarp of bleak stone,” [8] and uses specific locations ranging from Wagga to Bondi and Broken Hill. Some of the use of particular settings does seem to border on cliché. Asian drug-dealers on Cabrammatta Station in “Called Out” is a case in point. It is not, however, cliché that Wicks employs here, but recognition and reality. The evocation of the people of “Called Out,” the junkies in the public toilet, the two security guards—“human bulldozers”—and the dealers make their own sense because of the location. The subtleties of inner-city Sydney in “Called Out” and other poems, like “Spin the Bottle” and “Waiting to Heal,” give a logic of location to the people who move through them.

The result of this use of the Australian landscape in different ways means that Wicks celebrates the Australian landscape without being a landscape poet. Wicks moves nimbly through difference in style, from the linguistically simple to the complex, with the same ease that he shifts from the creation of settings to the use of identified locations to explore the nature of the different characters who inhabit his poems. A diverse cast populates the collection, from the dark to the frightened, the mysterious and more. Wicks never simply accepts either their existence or their presence in the landscape but constantly interrogates and questions their place and actions.

Although many of the poems in Stories of the Feet have been previously published and/or broadcast elsewhere, the collection as a whole is coherent and worthwhile. The juxtaposition of the different poems within each section and the book as a whole lends meaning to each individual poem that would not otherwise exist. While each poem works successfully as a discrete unit, they work on a different level as part of the whole and that whole also has its own meaning. Books like this one show that there is a desperate need for the continued publication of Australian poetry books.


Helen Young is a PhD student in the English Department at Sydney University. She has a Bachelor of Creative Arts and a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) from the University of Wollongong.


Notes

[1] Ron Pretty. ‘Editorial.’ Blue Dog 2.4 (2003): 3-4. 4.

[2] All statistics from Pretty, 3.

[3] “Council Priorities,” Arts in Australia: Literature (Australia Council 2003 [accessed 11 May 2004]). Available at http://www.ozco.gov.au/boards/literature/about_this_board.

[4] “The Council,” Arts in Australia (Australia Council 2003 [accessed 11 May 2004]). Available at http://www.ozco.gov.au/the_council.

[5] “Council Priorities.”

[6] “Council Priorities.”

[7] Les Wicks, Stories of the feet – tripped into landscape- (Wollongong: Five Islands Press, 2004), 11.

[8] Wicks, 59.