The biography of one of Australia’s most significant and distinctive poets, Gwen Harwood, has won its author CQUniversity lecturer and renowned literary writer Dr Ann-Marie Priest the nation’s richest biography prize.
Dr Priest was this week announced the winner of the 2023 National Biography Award by the State Library of NSW, valued at $25,000.
My Tongue Is My Own: A Life of Gwen Harwood reveals a deeply passionate figure who refused to be bound by convention and reclaims Harwood’s unique and powerful place in Australian literary history.
The judges were unanimous that My Tongue Is My Own is “the book Gwen Harwood deserves", a substantial work peppered with literary scandal and mischief.
They praised Dr Priest’s “scholarship and analysis”, “perceptive understanding of an elusive subject” and “creative approach".
“Ann-Marie Priest has captured completely the sprite-like nature of one of Australia’s finest poets; a woman who used a fierce intellect and penchant for trickery to upend dusty institutions that steadfastly refused to see women as capable or talented,” said Senior Judge Suzanne Falkiner.
“Through these pages, the great poet feels so alive.”
Dr Priest was thrilled to have won the award and was honoured to be in the company of so many wonderful Australian biographers.
“I feel, I guess, affirmed in my decision (many years ago now!) to take a chance and attempt to write Gwen Harwood’s biography,” said Dr Priest.
“I absolutely loved writing this book, but it was always a bit of a risk — other Gwen Harwood biographers had fallen by the wayside, for various reasons, and there were question marks over what papers I would be able to access and whether I would be able to quote from Gwen’s unpublished letters.
“And then Gwen herself was such a chameleon, a woman of so many faces — there were times when I just couldn’t see a way forward.
“So, I had many moments of doubt, and it seems just incredible to have somehow come out on the other side and have won this award.
“Of course, all of the credit goes to Gwen — she was such an extraordinary woman, and I feel privileged to have been able to tell her story.”
The biography is a masterful portrait of Harwood, her incandescent poetry and her battles to be heard in a male-dominated literary establishment.
Harwood is renowned for her brilliance, but loved for her humour, rebellion and mischief.
My Tongue Is My Own: A life of Gwen Harwood follows the poet from her childhood in the 1920s in Brisbane, to her final years in Hobart in the 1990s.
It traces how a lively, sardonic and determined young woman built a career in the conservative 1950s, blasting her way into the patriarchal strongholds of Australian poetry.
The biography draws on a wealth of previously unpublished material and includes revealing, previously unpublished letters.
Dr Priest said the biography was born out of a chance encounter with the poet’s work.
“It was a bit of serendipity, really. I was browsing in a secondhand bookshop one day when I came across a book of Gwen’s letters written from Brisbane in the 1940s,” she explained.
“As I flicked through it, I was amazed by the lively, unconventional voice of this young woman – she seemed to leap off the page.
“The letters were hilarious and romantic and moving and honest – I immediately wanted to know more about her.”
Dr Priest said from there she began to track down Gwen's poems, and soon found that they were as powerful as her letters.
“She was a trail-blazer in many ways, in both her writing and her life, and I couldn’t believe there was no biography of her.
“She was a celebrated Australian poet, and though she died in 1995, her work is still studied in high schools and universities around the country, so it seemed to me that a biography was long overdue.”
Dr Priest already had some biographical writing experience – her first two books were collections of biographical essays exploring specific themes – and when confronted with Gwen’s story she was compelled to take on Gwen’s biography.
While Gwen’s life was a treasure-trove for the first-time biographer, there were a few discoveries that made Gwen’s life so fascinating for Dr Priest.
Gwen’s mother’s family was from Rockhampton, although she grew up in Brisbane in the 1920s and 1930s, and her accounts of her childhood and youth in Mitchelton and Auchenflower shed a fascinating light on what life was like in Queensland at that time.
Dr Priest said Gwen was also strikingly unconventional in her thinking, even though superficially she lived a fairly conventional life.
“She married and had four children, yet still managed to create a successful career for herself at a time when female poets were routinely denigrated as ‘lady poets’ or ‘poetesses’.
“She used many pseudonyms and staged a number of literary hoaxes aimed at exposing the poor judgement of some of the male gatekeepers of the literary world – the most famous is the Bulletin hoax of 1961 which helped to make her name.
“Her early poems about motherhood were groundbreaking in challenging conventional assumptions about women and mothers. Her later love poems were among the first to centre on female desire and pleasure.”
Dr Priest highlights the fact that Gwen’s struggle to combine wife and motherhood with a life of her own is strikingly relevant today.
“Times have changed since Gwen was a young wife and mother in 1950s Hobart, yet many women today face the same challenges – the pressure to be the perfect mother and support everyone else while also somehow finding the time, money and support needed to do your own creative work and live your own life.”
Dr Priest began the arduous work on the biography back in 2015 with a six-month period of study leave from her CQUniversity position.
She spent this time at the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland, making her way through their extensive collection of Gwen’s unpublished letters and other papers.
In 2017 she received the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship, which enabled her to spend three months in Tasmania (where Gwen spent most of her adult life) speaking to people who had known Gwen and tracking down more letters and papers.
Over the next couple of years, she drew extensively on collections of unpublished materials held at the National Library of Australia and UNSW Canberra.
“I finished the first draft of the book in early 2020, just as COVID was getting a grip, and with everything locking down and literary events being cancelled all over, my publisher decided to push back my publication date.
“I am very happy that the book has finally made its way into the world!”
Dr Priest praised the book as a pivotal work of her writing career.
“I’ve always tried to write for a broader audience than just other academics – I want to write for people who are interested in exploring things like love and vocation, and curious about how other people make sense of their lives and find their way to some kind of meaning.”
My Tongue Is My Own: A life of Gwen Harwood has been published by La Trobe University Press and is available at all good bookstores.
Ann-Marie Priest is also the author of A Free Flame: Australian Women Writers; Vocation in the Twentieth Century, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award; and Great Writers, Great Loves.
The life of one of Australia's most significant poets, Gwen Harwood, has been explored in a first-of-its-kind biography.
And it has now won its author this year's $25,000 National Biography Award.
"I absolutely loved writing this book... Of course, all of the credit goes to Gwen - she was such an extraordinary woman, and I feel priviledged to have been able to tell her story."
The judges were unanimous that My Tongue is My Own was the book Harwood deserved and priased Priest's scholarship, analysis and perceptive understanding of an elusive subject.
Harwood was always deeply protective of her privacy, and up until this book, some 27 years after her death, little was known of the experiences that gave rise to her extraordinary poems.
The biography was born out of Priest's chance encounter with the poet's work.
"It was a bit of serendipity, really. I was browswing in a secondhand bookshop one day when i cam across a book of Gwen's letters written from Brisbane in the 1940's." - Dr Ann-Mair Priest
Priest began her biography journey in 2015, spending hours at the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland, making her way through their extensive collection of Gwen's unpublished letters and other papers.
In 2017 Dr Priest received the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship, which enabled her to spend three months in Tasmania speaking to people who had know Gwen and tracking down more letters and papers.
Dr Priest saw the book as pivotal work of her writing career.
"I am very happy that the book has finally made its way into the world!"