Call for papers

The Truth or Beauty: Poetry and Biography conference was held on 26–28 November 2014. Below is the original call for papers, which outlines the intention of the conference. Two publications resulted from the conference: find out more about the publications.

Bringing together poets and scholars, particularly from Australia and New Zealand, this three-day conference seeks to explore, and perhaps define, the growing field of biographical poetry or verse biography – poetry which maps out a life, or presents a portrait of a more or less historical person.

Along with scholarly papers (20 minutes), we plan to run round-table discussions, which will take the form of very brief (five-minute) prepared statements followed by a chaired discussion with questions and comments from the audience. We will also include readings during which poets are invited to discuss their own work, and a public reading of poetry on Wednesday evening.

Following the conference, we hope to publish a collection of essays that will open up the field of verse biography as an area of academic enquiry. We hope the conference will provide a starting point for a range of essays on the topic, but also invite proposals also from scholars unable to attend.

As we will not be holding parallel sessions, spaces are limited, particularly for the presentation of scholarly papers. To submit paper abstracts, proposals for panel discussions, or simply to express an interest in the conference, please contact the conference organisers, Anna Jackson (, Angelina Sbroma ( or Helen Rickerby (

Deadline for proposals

The deadline for proposals is 30 June 2014, though, due to limited space, we encourage you be in touch earlier. Let us know how you want to participate – whether as part of a scholarly panel or round-table discussion, by reading your own poetry (with or without some reflective discussion) or simply as a conference attendee.

Click here for proposal guidelines.

Keynote speakers

Robert Sullivan is a New Zealand poet, anthologist and critic, who will talk about his verse biography (and libretto) Captain Cook in the Underworld (Auckland University Press). He is the head of the School of Creative Writing at Manukau Institute of Technology in Auckland.

Jessica Wilkinson is the author of the biographical poetry collections marionette: a biography of miss marion davies and Suite for Percy Grainger (forthcoming in 2014), both published by Vagabond. She is a senior lecturer at RMIT University, and is the editor of Rabbit, a journal of non-fiction poetry.

Toby Davidson, who teaches at Macquarie University, is the author of critically acclaimed poetry collection Beast Language (Five Islands Press). He is the editor of the Collected Poems of Francis Webb (1925–73), whom he describes as “one of Australia’s most respected and biography-rich poets” with verse biographies ranging from Australian explorers, European composers, saints and religious figures such as Jesus and St Francis and historical figures.

Anna Jackson, senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, will launch her verse biography I, Clodia (Auckland University Press) as part of the conference. This collection is based on the life of Clodia Metelli, the ‘Lesbia’ who was the subject of the most passionate poetry written by Catullus in late Republic Rome.

Topics and questions we would like to see addressed include:

Biography, history and fiction: How important is truth? What room is there for “poetic license”? Is literature always fictional? Is there more license for fiction in poetry than in prose biography?

World-building: Fact and fiction in the incidental detail, the construction of setting.

Defining genre: What makes a poem about a person biography?

Revisioning history: Changing the record, recovering facts, shifting the emphasis. Is the verse biography particularly suited to the feminist project of reclaiming women’s lives?

“Life-writing” and the inclusion of autobiography as biography: When does the autobiographical voice of the lyric poem become “autobiography,” the writing of a life? How is the project comparable to the project of the verse biography, or biographical poetry?

What makes a “good” biographical poem? How is this different from a good biography?  Or from a good poem more generally?

Biography and myth: Can the verse biography accommodate the “life-writing” of mythological characters, such as Nafanua in Tusiata Avia’s Bloodclot? In reworkings of the classics, do we consider Achilles or Odysseus mythological or historical figures? What fidelity is owed not only to historical record but to a mythological tradition, to previous iterations of the stories?

Biography and autobiography: What is the effect of the intersection of autobiographical and biographical material, as in, for instance, Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”?

The dramatic monologue: Can this be considered “biography”, and how, and when? What is, or should be, the relationship between the biographical facts, and the drama of the poem?

Perspective and voice: Can biography be written in the first person? Is it still “biography”?  What are the effects of using either a first person or third person narration? What about the use of a third-person narration to write autobiographically, or “autrebiographically” – a term that has been used to describe narratives in the third person such as JM Coetzee’s novel Summertime?  How do we read, for instance, Anne Kennedy’s Sing-Song, or Paula Green’s Slipstream?

Research and the creative process: How is the research for verse biography comparable to the research of the biographer generally? How differently is the material used? What processes do poets use?

“Ghosting”: Australian poet Libby Hart, who takes on the voices of a wide range of personae in This Floating World, describes one of the characters in this work as “a ghost who sees its future.” The theme of spectrality could be traced across a range of works. What makes history spectral?

Other biographical poetry that we would like to see discussed might include, for instance, Amy Brown’s The Odour of Sanctity, Helen Rickerby’s My Iron Spine, Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s Possession: Poems about the voyage of Lt James Cook in the Endeavour 1768–1771, Chris Price’s Brief Lives, Chris Orsman’s South: An Antarctic Journey, Dorothy Porter’s Akhenaten and Barry Hill’s Ghosting William Buckley. We also invite talks on biographical poetry from beyond Australasia, with poets such as Ruth Padel, Anne Carson, Frank Bidart, Anne Michaels and Carol Ann Duffy among many poets working in or around this genre.

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