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Dorothy Porter (1954 – 2008)

Dorothy Porter 2008, portrait by Juno Gemes© Dorothy Porter 2008, portrait by Juno Gemes©

Dorothy Porter was born in Sydney on 26 March 1954. She attended Queenwood School for Girls before going to the University of Sydney, graduating in 1975 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in English and History.  She then completed a Diploma of Education at the Sydney Teachers' College. Afterwards she worked on an Israeli kibbutz, as a bus conductor on the Sydney buses, and taught creative writing in schools, prisons and community workshops. She also lectured part-time in Poetry and Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney, before moving to Melbourne in 1993 to live with her partner, novelist Andrea Goldsmith.  She died there on 10 December 2008 following a recurrence of breast cancer.

Porter's first collection Little Hoodlum (1975) immediately signalled the arrival of a new and highly individual voice on the Australian poetry scene, with her stress on such topics as sensuality, risk-taking and, at times, violence.  It was with her five verse novels, however, beginning with the historically-based Akhenaten (1992), told as a series of dramatic monologues by the Egyptian pharaoh of that name, that Porter made her most distinctive contribution to Australian literature. Determined to prove that poetry could attract readers, she combined a detective story plot with racy verse and satire of the local poetry scene in The Monkey's Mask (1994), to notable success. The Monkey's Mask won both the National Book Council's Banjo Awards, Turnbull Fox Phillips Poetry Prize and The Age Book of the Year Award, Dinny O'Hearn Poetry Prize. It was also adapted for the stage and for a feature film released in 2000. What a Piece of Work (1999) is a darker piece told from the perspective of a psychiatrist at Sydney's Callan Park Mental Hospital where noted poet Francis Webb is one of the patients. In Wild Surmise (2002), Porter used a double perspective, alternating between a woman astronomer as she seeks both new galaxies and her lesbian lover and her dying academic husband, who finds consolation in literature. Wild Surmise won both the John Bray Poetry Award and the Premier's Award for Best Overall Published work in the South Australian Festival Awards for Literature in 2004.  El Dorado (2007) is a thriller set in Melbourne dealing with a serial killer who targets children.  Two posthumous collections have appeared. The Bee Hut (2009) includes poems written in the last five years of Porter's life, a number of which deal with her battle with cancer. Love Poems (2010) has a preface by Andrea Goldsmith and includes 125 of Porter's most powerful love poems, selected from those published during her career.

Porter also collaborated with composer Jonathon Mills on The Ghost Wife, a musical theatre piece adapted from Barbara Baynton's short story 'The Chosen Vessel', and an opera, The Eternity Man, based on the life of Edgar Stace, a Sydney man who, for decades, chalked the word 'Eternity' around Sydney. This was filmed in 2006 and later shown on ABC television. At the time of her death, Porter was working on the libretto for a rock opera, January, with musician Tim Finn.

 Poetry Collections

Little Hoodlum (Sydney: Prism, 1975).

Bison (Sydney: Prism, 1979).

The Night Parrot (Wentworth Falls, NSW: Black Lightning Press, 1984).

Driving Too Fast (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1989).

Akhenaten (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1992).

The Monkey's Mask
(South Melbourne, Vic: Hyland House, 1994).

Crete (South Melbourne, Vic: Hyland House, 1996).

What a Piece of Work
(Sydney: Picador, 1999).

Other Worlds: poems 1997-2001 (Sydney: Picador, 2001).

Wild Surmise (Sydney: Picador, 2002).

Poems January-August 2004 (Sydney: Vagabond Press, 2004).

Little Hoodlum and other poems
(Warners Bay, NSW: Picaro Press, 2005).

El Dorado (Sydney: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2007).

The Bee Hut (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2009).

Love Poems (Melbourne: Black Inc., 2010)

Suggested Further Reading

Katherine Bode, 'The Pregnant Man: Gender, Identity and Sexuality in the Poetry of Dorothy Porter's Akhenaten,' LiNQ 28.1 (2001), pp. 22-29.

Jenny Digby, 'Festive Fun and Dangerous,' Island no.57 (1993), pp. 34-39.

Rosanna Licari, 'Dorothy Porter in Conversation with Rosanna Licari,' Stylus Poetry Journal no. 26 (2007). http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/25840/20070722-0021/www.styluspoetryjournal.com/main/master8466.html?id=759

Rose Lucas, 'Dorothy Porter,' in Selina Samuels, ed., Australian Writers 1975-2000 (Detroit, USA: Gale Research, 2006), pp. 266-72).

Rose Lucas and Lyn McCredden, 'Magic and Licence: The Poetry of Dorothy Porter,' in Lucas and McCredden, eds., Bridgings: Readings in Australian Women's Poetry (South Melbourne, Vic: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Peter Minter, 'Poetry's Like Sex: You Can't Fake It [interview with Dorothy Porter],' Cordite: Poetry and Poetics Review no.3 (1998), pp. 2-7. http://pandora.nla.gov.au/pan/14234/20081217-0000/www.cordite.org.au/features/vale-dorothy-porter.html

Geoff Page, 'Dorothy Porter,' A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Australian Poetry (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1995), pp. 225-28.

Dorothy Porter, 'The Sounds of Obscurity,' Southerly 57.3 (1997), pp. 230-31.

Dorothy Porter, 'Statements,' in David Brooks and Brenda Walker, Poetry and Gender: Statements and Essays in Australian Women's Poetry and Poetics (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1989), p. 61.

Felicity Plunkett, 'The Monkey's Mask and the Poetics of Excision,' in Ken A. Stewart and Shirley Walker, 'Unemployed at Last!': Essays on Australian Literature to 2002 for Julian Croft (Armidale, NSW: University of New England, 2002), pp. 72-85.