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Porter, Dorothy (1954-2008)  
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Brash, political, sexy, and, above all, comprehensible, the work of Australian lesbian poet Dorothy Porter presents a cheeky challenge to a literary establishment whose poetry has often been defined by pretension and obfuscation. While her innovative "verse novels" owe a debt to the lusty epic adventures of ancient writers such as Homer, Virgil, and Chaucer, Porter's work is uproariously modern, even when she is exploring ancient subjects, such as the inner life of the renegade Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten or the pagan rhythms of Minoan Crete.

Porter's quest to wrest poetry from the elite and return it to the common reader was rewarded with both popular success and also recognition from the literary world. In a 1999 report for the Australian Broadcasting Company, journalist Kate Torney summed up the poet's contribution, "Dorothy Porter has dragged poetry back into the mainstream."

Dorothy Featherstone Porter was born March 26, 1954 in Sydney, Australia, the oldest of three daughters of Chester Porter, a well-known criminal lawyer, and Jean Featherstone Porter, a chemistry teacher. Reared in Sydney, the Porter children spent much of their childhood on the city's northern beaches and in the nearby Blue Mountains. Chester and Jean Porter were avid birders, and from them young Dorothy learned the patient art of bird watching and a love of nature that inspired and is reflected in her poetry.

Porter began keeping a journal at an early age, and, by the time she was fourteen, had decided to become a writer. Also during her childhood, she began falling in love with women, though she developed romantic relationships with men as well. She was contentedly bisexual until she was thirty-one, when she came out as a lesbian.

Among the writers who influenced her as a young poet were the Americans William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, Frank O'Hara, and Elizabeth Bishop, and the Russians Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva.

In 1975, Porter graduated from Sydney University and published her first volume of poetry, Little Hoodlum, a collection filled with rich images of the natural world and the human passion for connection. Although Little Hoodlum was followed by other published volumes--Bison in 1979, The Night Parrot in 1984, and Driving Too Fast in 1989--and Porter acquired a following, like most poets she was forced to seek other work to support herself.

While continuing to develop her poetic art, she taught classes, becoming a poetry and writing lecturer at Sydney's University of Technology. She also tried her hand at fiction for young adults, publishing two mildly successful novels: Rockwood (1991) and The Witch Number (1993).

In 1991, Porter took an innovative leap with the publication of the verse novel Akhenaten, a dreamy and sensual imagining of the psyche of the rebel Egyptian pharaoh who worshipped the disk of the sun.

Though Akhenaten was popular with both critics and readers, it was Porter's second verse novel, The Monkey's Mask (1994), that revolutionized poetry's place in Australian popular literature and established her reputation.

Though the eroticism and earthy pagan imagery of Porter's earlier work had resonated with lesbian readers, The Monkey's Mask brought her lesbian consciousness into the foreground for the first time. Written in the form of a long collection of interconnected poems, The Monkey's Mask is a noir-style detective novel, complete with hardboiled lesbian detective, irresistible femme fatale, and ominous plot twists.

Jill Fitzpatrick, Porter's dyke gumshoe, narrates with a wounded cynicism that is only made more powerful by the driving economy of the verse form.

The Monkey's Mask is a lushly erotic book. Jill is drawn helplessly into an affair with a prime suspect, and reels with the unexpected passion:

     You forget

        you get old and blunt
        you forget what it's like

        her taste on my mouth
        her smell on my hands

        the cops should pick me up
        I can't walk a straight line.

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Dorothy Porter with Wystan, her cat, in 2005.
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