When Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk, co-editors of literary magazine Overland, announced the shortlist for the magazine’s Nakata Brophy prize for Indigenous poetry last year, they received a letter of complaint. The point of contention? There were no men in the shortlist.

“We only had women and nonbinary entries,” says Araluen. “And it was our biggest year [in terms of entry numbers] for the prize.”

Only a few years ago, she says, female entrants to any poetry prize would have been hugely outnumbered by men – and Indigenous poets were few and far between.

Now, it seems, both are everywhere. A notable spate of poetry anthologies curated by First Nations women and nonbinary writers over the last 12 months can be found on bookstore shelves, including Firefront (UQP) edited by Alison Whittaker, Homeland Calling (Desert Pea Media) edited by Ellen Van Neerven, and Guwayu – For All Times (Magabala/Red Room Poetry).

And that’s not all. Last September, Melbourne University Press published an anthology of Australian prose poetry, and in late 2019, a suite of slam poems – who rarely make their way into print – were pulled together for UQP’s anthology, Solid Air. Both collections drew strongly on contemporary political currents and the work of women.

Australian Poetry, the peak national body for poets and poetry, has also recently opened submissions for its new annual national anthology, Best of Australian Poems, edited by Ellen van Neerven and Toby Fitch – a reprisal of the genre after Black Inc’s Best Australian Poems series ceased publication with its 2017 edition. Jacinta Le Plastrier, CEO and publisher at Australian Poetry, says she hopes the anthology will be a snapshot of many of these changes.

“There’s a surge of writing coming out of First Nations communities,” says Le Plastrier. “There’s a huge rise in First Nations writers and women, queer and nonbinary poets who are writing about the body but also colonial assault, rapaciousness and trauma.”

Both Le Plastrier and Araluen directly link this shift in Australian poetics to the spaces created by the #MeToo movement, and specifically to the 2018 publication of Kate Lilley’s autobiographical collection, Tilt (Vagabond). Just as significant were the allegations of abuse and sexual exploitation, made by Lilley and her sister Rozanna, about their mother, poet Dorothy Hewett, and numerous figures – among them Bob Ellis, Martin Sharp and David Hamilton – in Australia’s feted bohemian artistic circle of the 60s and 70s, or the “generation of 68”.

The Lilleys’ revelations, Araluen and Le Plastrier say, were integral to shattering a prevailing artistic mythology around the people and works that characterised the 60s and 70s in Australian letters.

“That whole canon is being reappraised,” says Le Plastrier. “I know a young nonbinary poet who just removed all of that generation’s work from their shelves. Similarly, can you possibly read someone like Ted Hughes without a completely changed lens given the information that’s come out recently about his relationship with Sylvia Plath?”

The movement hasn’t just affected what and how we read. “It’s also going to change what’s being archived, what’s kept on library shelves, what’s digitised. It’s really profound,” says Le Plastrier.

She believes that key to the shift is that writers feel they now have “permission to speak” about certain topics in their work, such as personal and collective traumas. “That doesn’t mean it’s not difficult, but permission has been granted – you will be published and if you are, you will be held in a community. It’s impossible to work through traumatic experiences in art in isolation, but the community makes it possible.”

For Araluen, whose collection Dropbear (UQP) was recently released to acclaim, Australian poetry has long been full of writers that “glorified [white] men who drank themselves to death and treated women like shit”.

“As a young poet entering these spaces, I’ve been really struck by how many people who are otherwise progressive don’t see an issue with glorifying those figures. It’s the kind of romanticism that I thought we’d all worked out was really dodgy or unhealthy a long time ago,” she says.

She still sees men in the poetry scene who look back to the 68 generation and “think it’s a beautiful lost age” – a world of progressive promiscuity and robust literary debate in artist bars. Those same men, and some women, find their wistful nostalgia stifled by the implications of the #MeToo era, she says – and the creative spaces that a more honest discussion of sexual and racial violence has opened up for non-male and non-white writers.

Fire Front: First Nations poetry and power today – an anthology edited by Alison Whittaker and released March 2020.
Fire Front: First Nations Poetry and Power Today – an anthology edited by Alison Whittaker and released in 2020. Photograph: UQP

“You can’t tell some of these people that they are part of the problem when they were part of a very progressive period. If they weren’t part of that generation themselves then they are the acolytes of those people, and now they see themselves as cheated out of their rightful inheritance – which is to assume those roles as harbingers of cultural change, without realising that that those roles were always exclusionary to women and people of colour,” Araluen says.

“I find myself despairing at it, because I want to feel like we’re part of a literary community in which we can learn from those who’ve come before us.”

It’s in the ruins of those Australian literary mythologies – the tarnished history of a previously lauded cultural coterie – that a new chorus of voices, not all of them young, has found the space to draw breath. Those writers have been helped along by structural projects – such as the spaces for poets’ development provided by the Wheeler Centre’s Next Chapter program and Express Media’s Toolkits series – many of which were fought for by writers who were not afforded those opportunities themselves.

“You can see the emergence of new voices that are outside of the usual constraints or expectations around who would be a poet in Australia right now,” Araluen says. “There are very clear thematics in their work around labour, and different racial and gender politics.”

She namechecks Astrid Lorange’s 2020 collection Labour and Other Poems – “like a feminist para-text to women’s poetic labours” – Blakwork (2018) from Alison Whittaker, Admit the Joyous Passion of Revolt (2020) by Elena Gomez, and the writing of Filipina poet Eunice Andrada on topics like diaspora and climate crisis.

Araluen says the Black Lives Matter movement hasn’t had nearly the same consequence for the sector – perhaps because it was feeding into currents that #MeToo, helped along by broader identity politics, had already opened up. “I have certainly seen an acknowledgement of global solidarity [with Black Lives Matter causes] through poetry at rallies and events, and there’s a really strong social justice focus in slam poetry,” she says. “But in terms of published poetry, it hasn’t really had much effect.”

Evelyn Araluen speaking at the Wheeler Centre’s Di Gribble Argument at the Malthouse Theatre in March 2021.
Evelyn Araluen speaking at the Wheeler Centre’s Di Gribble Argument at the Malthouse Theatre in March 2021. Photograph: Tiffany Garvie

With poetry publication being primarily a passion project (the commercial market for poetry books is negligible, so publishers taking them on necessarily need to be driven by a belief that they are important in their own right), there’s more scope for publishers to respond directly to artist-led trends.

Interest from publishers in radical forms is growing, Araluen says, by virtue of so many women, nonbinary writers and people of colour being “politically compelled” to explore new ground in their poetry.

“We have lower stakes because we know nobody’s going to make any money out of this – and that affords a kind of distance from other potential implications.”

New poets are also finding their first love of the form through self-directed engagement, in slam poetry, or “adjacent to new kinds of expression”, she says, such as social media and the proliferation of Instagram poetry.

There’s also space for them to write about things other than trauma or identity. Fiji-born Brisbane poet Shastra Deo’s poetry, for example, traverses video games, anime, fan fiction and other pop cultural phenomena. Deo won the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal in 2018.

When it comes to Indigenous poetry anthologies, Araluen points out it’s not a new thing but a recent resurgence: in the 70s, anthologies were critical to marginalised poetic communities in Australia and its surrounds.

“Anthologies were a way for disparate indigenous communities across the Pacific to find connection, solidarity and relationships around questions of decolonisation and identity,” Araluen says.

Being a cross-indigenous dialogue, those anthologies gave writers and editors freedom from western poetic conventions, and space to develop their editorial skills, but tiny print runs from small presses mean that many of those books are now extremely difficult to find.

“That history is so inaccessible,” Araluen says. “But they are really fascinating archival things that demonstrate solidarity and collaboration.”