Unpublished letters draw Priest into poet's life story

14 June 2022

The life of one of Australia's most significant and distinctive poets' Gwen Harwood' has been explored in a first-of-its-kind biography by CQUniversity lecturer and literary scholar Dr Ann-Marie Priest.

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.

A public figure by the end of her life' she was always deeply protective of her privacy' and even now' some 26 years after her death' little is known of the experiences that gave rise to her extraordinary poems. That is until now.

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 who built a career in the conservative 1950s' blasting her way into the patriarchal strongholds of Australian poetry.

This biography draws on a wealth of previously unpublished material and includes revealing' previously unpublished letters.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 second hand 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 her poems' and soon found that they were as powerful as her letters.

"She was a trailblazer 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 had 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 ground-breaking 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 saw 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.

"With this book I hope to be able to connect with this broader audience – not just scholars of Australian literature' but people who want to immerse themselves in the life of a woman from another era who is somehow just so recognisable."

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 and Vocation in the Twentieth Century' which was shortlisted for the 2016 Dorothy Hewett Award; and Great Writers' Great Loves: The Reinvention of Love in the Twentieth Century.