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Review: 'A Salt Reader'.

This collection gives, in its more than 300 pages, a good cross-section of the contemporary Australian poetry scene, with a leavening of overseas writers as well. Many of the contributors are from the top echelon of the nation's poets: Dorothy Hewett, Robert Adamson, J.S. Harry, pio, Peter Porter, Judith Beveridge, Alan Wearne and a dozen or so others of similar repute, but what makes an anthology like this different from and more interesting than your average attempt to pick the best of the crop is the inclusion of lesser known names. This introduces to a wider readership the work of emerging poets whose books (if they, in fact, have published any) most punters would not invest in and gives it a circulation beyond that of Salt itself, a circulation which, like that of all literary journals, is undeservedly small.

It was pleasing, then to discover a handful of poems by young Western Australian Gabrielle Everall, which display the kind of vigour and freshness with which poetry needs to be injected from time to time, and some very interesting work by the relatively little known Robert Alberts and Andrea Sherwood, among others.

Among the better known non-Australian poets, the collection includes a long piece in translation from the late Yannis Ritsos, two typically enjoyable offerings from Michael Hulse, a number of short pieces by Canadian Doublas Barbour, who recently toured Australia to great acclaim, and an extract from a long collaborative work by Americans, Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino. As well, there are poems by a number of other English, Canadian, American and New Zealand writers.

With this international company as context, it is good to have such an enormously varied array of Australian talent on display, from pio's "Ockers" to an experimental work by Philip Salom to a group of poems which show Peter Rose at his lyrical best, to the more intellectually demanding pieces by Porter, Adamson and John Kinsella, who is also the book's editor. There are, too, some excellent poems by Dipti Saravanamuttu, Christopher Kelen and Pamela Brown, three writers who are, I believe, considerably under-rated, a selection from the up-and-coming Western Australian poet, Tracy Ryan and a whole lot more, including Heather Cam, Myron Lysenko, Kevin Hart, Geoff Page, Andrew Burke, Stephen Oliver (some of the best things of his I've come across), Caroline Caddy, David Brooks, Nicolette Stasko ... the list goes on and the variety amazes.

As well as the poetry, there are interviews by Kinsella with John Tranter and Ken Bolton, and a fascinating piece by Tranter called "Yoo-Hoo Fugaces", in which he discusses some of his fugitive poems, i.e. those which appeared in magazines or newspapers but didn't make it into any of his books. The interviews, especially that with Tranter, are among the better examples of this rather over-done and often frustrating form. Kinsella's questions might not always seem at first to be the right ones, but they indicate that he is on a wavelength close enough to that of his subjects to elicit the kind of answers that provide useful insights not only into their own poetic practice but into wider literary and cultural issues.

Even more valuable is "Yoo-Hoo Fugaces", which exhibits exactly the kind of approach to the explication and contextualisation of poetry that is needed and can only be supplied by the poet. If only academics, critics, literary historians, English teachers and cultural theorists could read these pieces and realise how unnecessary, irrelevant and downright misleading by comparison is most of the bullshit they peddle, they might see the light and save a few trees' worth of paper. Better still, more poets should be encouraged to contribute in this way to the discourse surrounding the practice.

Of course, as the quote from Zukofsky on the book's back cover reminds us, "The best way to find out about poetry, is to read the poem." A Salt Reader provides a great opportunity to do just that, and proves, if proof were needed, that the current condition of Australian poetry is a healthy one indeed.