Tuesday P1: Contemporary Australian poetry and the English classroom

Ian McMillan, a current English poet, writing in The Guardian remembers ‘the best poetry lesson I ever had as though it were yesterday: Low Valley Junior School near Barnsley, on a freezing cold morning in 1965.

So Mr Meakin took us out into the yard in our scarves and hats and our breath hung like steam.  ‘How cold is it?’ he asked, and somebody said ‘as cold as a fridge!’ and we laughed and wrote it down.  We walked into the field at the back of the Astoria Ballroom, and the grass poked through the recent snow.  Mr Meakin launched into a riff about what poetry could be: ‘It doesn’t have to rhyme, boys and girls, but can if it wants to! Look at that grass coming through the snow……it looks like a bed of nails.’  A starling flew by towards Darfield Main Pit and Mr Meakin shouted, ‘Whizzz! like a helicopter with wings!’  And we laughed again.  And we wrote it down.  Mr Meakin got us to stand in a circle and he read a poem to us:  ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’  by Christina Rossetti. We talked about the earth being ‘hard as iron’ and the water being ‘like a stone’ and we had a look round to see if it was.  And it was.  We saw that our efforts were part of a continuum, that all the poets who’d ever written were standing behind us as we wrote.  And that didn’t scare us: it inspired us.’

As you’d expect, McMillan added that there was a lot more joyful, inspiring and memorable learning experiences that went on after this, all tantalisingly led by ‘Mr. Meakin’.

A bit odd to start with an English poet’s experiences as a lead-up to talking about contemporary Australian poetry, but clearly McMillan was not just talking about snowy fields in South Yorkshire.  This was about what a teacher did to make the whole imaginative experience of engaging with poetry come brilliantly alive for young people.  If you are in the room for this panel, you have most certainly faced this challenge as a teacher.

But what about what has been written more recently?  What are Australian poets offering us at the moment and, in doing so, what are some of the emerging questions that we can ask of ourselves and with our students?

Contemporary Australian Poetry (eds. Langford, Beveridge, Johnson and Musgrave) is, as its introduction says, ‘both a survey and a critical review of Australian poetry between 1990 and 2016’.  This anthology offers some ways of thinking about, reading and writing poetry that ‘reflect significant and far reaching changes that have occurred in Australian poetic culture’ during the time that many of you attending this session will have either been teaching or students yourselves.  This panel seeks to explore the state and landscape of Australian poetry with important references to background, history as well as the present and key arguments about the state of health of poetry in and beyond our classrooms.  Whose voices are being heard?  How are they represented? Do we give them their due? What is it about poetry that attracts us as contemporary readers (and maybe writers) of this form? Most importantly, what might all of this mean to us as we work towards getting our students to be confident and love poetry?

Our three presenters have experience as tertiary and secondary teachers as well as having their poetry published (one of them has work included in the above anthology).  Each of them is very aware of your professional challenges and will spend some time addressing these in the context of the above questions as well as a number of arguments about recent Australian poetry raised by the anthology’s editors. This panel promises, among other things, to give you a rich addition to your ideas about what you might consider when you walk into your next poetry lesson.


Paul Martin

Paul Martin taught senior English, Literature and English Language as well as English and literacy subjects at Government and Catholic secondary schools over a 40-year period. He was an English Learning Area, Literacy, and Curriculum Coordinator at a number of these schools

Paul was a member of VATE Council for 30 years, chaired its Curriculum and Assessment Committee, was a former secretary and president of Council, and is a regular presenter at VATE conferences.



David McCooey

David McCooey is a professor of writing and literature at Deakin University. His poetry has been widely anthologised, and his poetry collections have won or been shortlisted for six major literary awards, including the Mary Gilmore Award. His work appeared in ten of the last eleven years of the Best Australian Poems series. His latest book of poems is Star Struck (UWA Publishing, 2016). McCooey is the deputy general editor of the prize-winning Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature (2009). His scholarly research focuses on poetry and life writing (especially in Australia). His monograph on modern Australian autobiography, Artful Histories, was published by Cambridge University Press and won a NSW Premier’s Literary Award. He is the co-recipient of a number of ARC awards, and his scholarly work has appeared in numerous books and journals, including The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Poetry (2017), The Cambridge History of Australian Literature (2009), and Criticism. McCooey is also a musician and composer. His latest album, The Apartment (with words by Paul Hetherington), was released as a digital download in 2018.


Marjan Mossammaparast is an English teacher and Middle Years Curriculum Leader at St Leonard's College, Brighton. She has previously taught at Ringwood Secondary College, the School of the Nations (Macau), and the Zhengzhou Institute of Aeronautics (Henan, China). Marjan has also worked as a lecturer at the ACU, developing and delivering the English Method to pre-service teachers, and served as the Project Officer for VATE's inaugural Enhancing English Teaching program in 2018. Marjan's first collection of poetry, That Sight, was published through Cordite Books in August 2018. Her poetry has been published widely in Australian literary journals and newspapers.

Ann VickeryAnn Vickery is Head of Writing and Literature at Deakin University. She is the author of Devious Intimacy (Hunter Publishers 2015), The Complete Pocketbook of Swoon (Vagabond Press 2015), Stressing the Modern: Cultural Politics in Australian Women’s Poetry (Salt 2007) and Leaving Lines of Gender: A Feminist Genealogy of Language Writing (Wesleyan 2000). She co-authored The Intimate Archive: Journeys through Private Papers (National Library of Australia 2009) and co-edited Poetry and the Trace (Puncher & Wattmann 2013) and Nexus and Faultlines: Manifesting Australian Literary Feminisms (Australian Literary Studies 2007). She is a consulting editor and a previous poetry editor with Puncher & Wattmann and was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of HOW2, an online journal of innovative women’s writing and scholarship.