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Nicolette Stasko

I heard the sad news today that Australian-American poet, non-fiction writer, editor and novelist Nicolette Stasko died on Christmas Day 2021, after a battle with cancer. Readers of these pages will know she was an accomplished writer, critic, and teacher of literature. In recent months, she was completing an edition of the collected poems of  Sydney poet J.S. Harry, and her tribute to Harry is here

Nicolette Stasko. Photograph courtesy of Black Pepper Publishing. All rights reserved.

Stasko was a passionate member of the Sydney poetry community, who brought to it her feisty version of a working class Pennsylvanian temperament, and she was proud of her Polish-American immigrant background. She had a loyal band of Sydney poets whom she trusted and supported in various ways. Her opinions were forthright and honest, and if at times abrasive, her humour and generosity made her a wonderful raconteur. In the 80s she was more than able to hold her own in the ANU Staff Bar drinking wine and discussing poetry with the likes of Bob Brissenden, and A.D. Hope whom she met through her then partner David Brooks. Her poetry met with success,  beginning with her debut collection Abundance (1992) which won the Anne Elder Award. Other books were short-listed for the Dame Mary Gilmore Award, the New South Wales Premier’s Prize and the National Book Awards.

Her lyrics were exceptionally luminous and exact, and she never modified her imagistic style and rhythm to fit into the Australian vernacular. Her poetry collections and her non-fiction book  Oyster: From Montparnasse to Greenwell Point (2000) were works of intimacy, and were pioneering works of ecopoetics, nature-facing and ecologically committed. Much of the NSW south coast features as context and subject for her poems, though she exercised her sardonic wit and fascination with nature’s less loved creatures in her chapbook menagerie ‘Under Rats’ (Vagabond 2012).

Stasko’s range was impressive. Her publisher Black Pepper Publishing describes her novel The Invention of Everyday Life as

a sparkling novel of observation… It is a group portrait with persons, locales, fruits, creatures, vegetations and sand. We meet Mrs Caminiti the only female butcher, the photographer dreaming of a lost Prague, the six year old prodigy who speaks solely in mathematical formulae, Zultan Blum the sad drycleaner, Ivanka a young girl fascinated by the lives of the saints.

She had absorbed the traditions of Gary Snyder, Robert Bly and Anne Sexton, and was familiar with alternative American traditions, though somewhat sceptical about more radical postmodern directions. Her love of painting features in many poems about artists. Her sense of herself as a feminist was solid and informed by being a mother to her daughter Jess, whom she would proudly mention as a Commonwealth Games silver medallist in fencing. Her work was never simply autobiographical, but informed by a literary criticality: as Don Anderson described it, 

Her control, both emotional and poetic, is awesome… a triumph of critical and creative distance from the autobiographical self.

It was a mark of her trust in friends that she shared with me drafts of poems and an incomplete chapter of her crime novel. She respected the expertise of others, and was always curious to know what one thought about people and poems. I came to understand more deeply her sense that so much painful experience can begin with one’s attachment to the world, attachment in its Buddhist sense. But at the heart of wanting to celebrate life in poetry is the need to cleave close to the most impermanent things, and to address experience as honestly as possible:

we realize this is a floating world

the weight of irises

pulling everything away

from the centre

in spite of the red heart

pinning it like an arrow

(from The Weight of Irises, Black Pepper Publishing, 2003)

For Noel Rowe Stasko wrote poetry

that wants presences that are tangible, tactilic, faintly sacramental. ‘After Many Sleepless Nights’ (a very impressive poem) knows that ‘death is all around’: cancer is growing, passengers are getting off a train, fish have disappeared from a pond, fires are making ash.

Though after all of this Stasko can write:

I am typing out pain
have almost forgotten it now
voice is speaking

(Noel Rowe, Southerly, Vol. 63, No. 3, 2003)

Vale Nicolette Stasko, 1950 – 2021
Adam Aitken, 29 December 2021