Grace Perry – the name is not widely recognised now. But in the 1940s Grace Perry, teenage poet, was hailed as a genius. In the 1950s she graduated as a doctor and had three children. In the 1960s she founded a literary press and a poetry magazine. A prolific writer herself, she launched the careers of many others and encouraged many emerging writers through prizes and literary events.
I saw Grace Perry occasionally at events that she had organised. Like most writers, I would turn up at cultural events without giving a thought to the administrative chores behind the scenes – the phone calls, the invitations, the funding crises, the publicity campaigns. All these things I took for granted. I bought my ticket, caught up with friends, and hoped to workshop my poems with someone well-known.
Grace Perry introduced the early sessions of the 1975 Poetry Write-In at Macquarie University. She wore a floaty, colourful caftan, and was justifiably proud of having writers present from Indonesia, New Zealand and all states of Australia. She came to some of the small seminars also. She was obviously a close friend of some of the well-known poets, but she was generous to other participants also.
I have written about Grace’s career in the Summer 2020 issue of the State Library of NSW’s magazine, Openbook, so I won’t repeat her story here. Sufficient to say that she published eight books of her own poetry, founded South Head Press, managed Poetry Australia magazine, and helped launch the careers of half a dozen well known writers.
About a year ago, I had an inkling, more a glimmering perhaps, that Grace Perry was a hugely underestimated figure. Her own poetry was groundbreaking: she wrote lyrical verse in her teens, but in maturity took on topics such as death, pain and heartbreak in a confident, contemporary style. Her cultural contribution to Australian literature was significant.
What a joy to find that the State Library had 35 boxes of her papers, and copies of all her books, even the ones published while she was still at school. She kept meticulous business records of South Head Press, Poetry Australia and events such as the 1975 Poetry Write-In. I was abashed to find three of my own poems in the bulging file from that event.
Grace Perry, a whirlwind of energy and generosity, deserves acknowledgement as a cultural pioneer.