A Woman's Voice: Conversations with Australian Poets

reviewed by Tess Brady

A Woman's Voice: Conversations with Australian Poets.
Jenny Digby
University of Queensland Press
RRP $24.95pb. 256pp
ISBN 07022 2732 3

Jenny Digby is a Melbourne based researcher and postgraduate student who has specialised in Australian women's poetry, and while her critical essays have been represented in other collections, A Woman's Voice is her first book. It is a collection of interviews with twelve contemporary Australian women poets.

A dozen women poets, or the full quid perhaps, (for those of us who remember how many shillings were in a pound,) gives Digby enough scope to cover a spectrum of poetic approaches and importantly, to be able to set up debates of contrast and convergence. In her Introduction she sets out to explore "...theoretical issues concerning women's poetry: questions such as the relationship of the woman poet to poetic tradition, writing and gender, female subjectivity, sexuality and languages. "These are no small goals and I for one think she's pulled off most of them.

Her interviewing is not coy, and yet at the same time she has created a situation where the poets' responses to her questions are both thoughtful and trusting.

There is much in the collection. It is, for example possible to trace out concerns of the poets, searching for contrast and convergence. When talking about their poetic voice Diane Fahey talks of healing and integration, she comments " When I started to write I found that poetry played a very important part in my own healing process. In a sense I see that each poem can be a small act of integration..." On one level this contrasts with the erotic and playful voice of Dorothy Porter, but on another level perhaps it doesn't, and I am struck by the similarity of concerns by those poets who I would otherwise place poles apart. Porter comments "It has been great fun writing in a lesbian voice and directly and explicitly exploring stuff that I have written about in a more veiled way." Ania Walwicz explores further the need to write, to express, when she comments "...And it also could be seen as a very primitive writing too; it could be seen as writing which erupts in someone as a form of pressure of speech. And erupts in quite a natural way, too."

There is fun and playfulness here as well. Fay Zwicky on aspects of French theory:" It's all right if you're French. You sound better in French. Much more balanced and weighty. If you say it in English it sounds a bit cranky, like a nutty little person in a tea-cosy." And Pamela Brown comments on a familiar problem for the women poets, the lack of critical reception to her work; "There use to be, up until about seven years ago. When Keep It Quiet came out, it all literally went quiet!"

The final word goes to Judith Rodriguez who says on sexism in language "Language can learn new manners and we can get rid of that skewed distinction." Perhaps our Prime Minister needs a few women poets as language advisers and speech writers.

Other poets interviewed are the late Gwen Harwood, who was the first Australian woman writer I ever met, saw or heard and who, as a consequence, became a role model for me, Antigone Kefala, Jan Owen, Dorothy Hewett, Jennifer Strauss, and Judith Beveridge. Each of these interviews are quotable and insightful.

I have used this collection with my students as both example and role models and also as an excellent precursor to the debate Is there such a thing as a female aesthetic, a women's poetic voice?

Such collections of interviews are more useful to the student of writing than so many "How To.." books and yet there is so little available dealing with Australian writers. Perhaps we could now have the companion volume where Australian male poets are encouraged to be as open and as frank as their sisters, or is this an oxymoron, a publishing impossibility? I wonder.

My only gripe with the collection is the price, at $24.95 it is an expensive paperback to set on any course as a text.

Tess Brady lectures in Creative Writing at Griffith University, Gold Coast Campus and is co-editor of TEXT

Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady
APRIL 1997