On First Looking: Collaborative poetry project brings new perspectives

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Avondale College of Higher Education vice-president (Quality and Strategy) Professor Jane Fernandez with former student now English/History Coordinator at Macquarie College Amber Vincent at the launch of the anthology, On First Looking. (Photo: Brenton Stacey)

An anthology uniting amateurs with professionals and students with mentors celebrates a longstanding collaboration between Avondale College of Higher Education and Australia’s best contemporary poets.

On First Looking is the fifth anthology in a project initiated by Judith Beveridge and Dr Carolyn Rickett in 2010. Its publication of diverse voices within the context of a wider poetic community is exemplified in the dedication.

Two names appear: one, Winifred Luben, a nonagenarian member of a writing group for those who have experienced or are experiencing the trauma of a life-threatening illness; the other, Professor Jane Fernandez, an academic and “tireless” supporter of poetry who began “her first life in literature”.

Luben read a poem that Rickett recorded and played at the launch. The 91-year-old has in the decade since publication of the New Leaves anthology used poetry “to take her out of that space of fear into spaces of remembrance and restoration,” said Rickett.

A former student of Fernandez attended the launch to thank the now vice-president (Quality and Strategy) for her mentorship. “She challenges her students to embrace the great mysteries of life,” said Amber Vincent, English/History coordinator at Macquarie College. “Jane exemplifies Kahlil Gibran’s teachings about children and education in that, ‘You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.’”

Vincent is a key connector, having taught one of the poets, Christian McClelland, a student of Rickett’s. She is also daughter of Althea Halliday, who attended the launch as one of the published poets. Halliday, a former senior English teacher at Barker College, mentored Rickett. 

"Use the talents you are given; the forest would be very quiet if only the best birds sang."

In her response, Fernandez thanked “the four great souls”—Rickett, assistant dean (Research) in the Faculty of Arts, Nursing and Theology; Beveridge, lecturer in the Department of English at The University of Sydney and former poetry editor of Australia’s second oldest literary journal, Meanjin; co-editor Jean Kent; and publisher Dr David Musgrave—for “your sustained vision for this collaborative practice”.

“It takes a real understanding of the inspiration and the power of poetry to change lives and to connect people and to build community,” she said. 

The project is “one of the joys of my life”, said Kent, who introduced the readers. “It’s all very well to see work by established poets in an anthology, but to see the fresh voices and enthusiasm of new poets is wonderful.” 

One of those fresh voices is Dale Smedley, a Bachelor of Arts graduate, who described having his poetry published alongside that of the professionals as “surreal but exciting”. The experience, particularly understanding underlying structures, thinking more abstractly and learning to strip back, has boosted confidence in his poetic voice. 

In his opening remarks, Associate Professor Paul Race, dean of the Faculty of Arts, Nursing and Theology, recited a quote his wife recalled hearing from one of her high school teachers: “Use the talents you are given; the forest would be very quiet if only the best birds sang.” “That is the beauty of this book,” said Race. “It brings together birds of all different tones, whether you’re a crow, a canary, a galah, or a cockatoo.”

Race named each of the student writers. “It’s a pleasure to read your work. To be published in a book with prestigious authors, as budding authors, it’s a credit to you and to the people who helped bring it together.”

Published by independent Australian publisher Puncher & Wattmann, On First Looking features poetry from students in the unit, Creative Writing: The Art Of Poetry & Short Story, from academics such as Dr Sue Joseph from the University of Technology Sydney, and from leading Australian authors such as Stephen Edgar, shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards this year, John Foulcher and Martin Langford.

One of the poets, Donna Pinter, a casual academic at Avondale who has worked with her students on each of the previous four anthologies, designed the cover.

An eight-year encouragement task ended when Avondale president Professor Ray Roennfeldt read one of his own poems, which appears in an anthology for the first time. He then closed with these remarks. Avondale is fostering a research culture, “but if it forgets its past in nurturing people who value the arts, it will lose something of very great value.”