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Harry Roskolenko was the thirteenth of the fourteen children of Barnett and Sara Roskolenko who migrated from the Ukraine to New York City. Growing up amid the poverty of the Lower East Side, Roskolenko was working in a factory at nine and ran away from home at thirteen. He travelled extensively in the Merchant Marine from 1920-1927. By the 1930s he was back in New York, a self-educated poet and Trotskyite. Nan Albinski writes: "His poetry was published in Poetry (Chicago) (as Roskolenkier), Partisan Review and Prairie Schooner; he was a writer with the New Deal's WPA [Works Progress Administration]...".
Roskolenko arrived in Sydney in 1943, an officer in the United States Army Transport Service. The "colourful, assertive, hard-drinking" poet (Clarke, 2004) soon made his presence felt in Australia's small literary community. His first selected work of poems Sequence on Violence had been published in America in 1938. On arrival in Australia he began a correspondence with Clem Christesen (q.v.), editor of Meanjin, and established contacts in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane with writers, artists and literary figures including John Reed and Max Harris (qq.v.). The firm of Reed & Harris published his second book of poems, A Second Summary, in 1944, with a cover illustration by Sydney Nolan. He had poems and articles published in Australian literary magazines Meanjin, Angry Penguins, A Comment and Southerly and edited an Australian issue of the Amercian poetry magazine Voices : A Quarterly of Poetry (1944) with Elisabeth Lambert (q.v.) who became his lover.
Roskolenko and Lambert published a wide range of contemporary Australian poetry in Voices, relying on suggestions made mostly by Max Harris from which to select for the magazine. The most significant aspect of the selection was the inclusion of three Ern Malley (q.v.) poems. Just as Roskolenko was preparing to depart for New Guinea in July, the Ern Malley hoax broke in the Daily Telegraph. Harris called for Roskolenko to publicly state his position and he jointly wrote 'The Moustache on the Mona Lisa' with Lambert for the next issue of Angry Penguins. It weakly concluded that "too many of [the poems] are too good in themselves" to be discarded, but the authors "are the vulgarians". Roskolenko was usually perceived by the media as an associate of the hoaxers, James McAuley and Harold Stewart (qq.v.), but he was back in New York City by late 1944.
Roskolenko worked as a critic for the New York Times Book Review and as the New York representative of Reed & Harris. He was also at the centre of two separate controversies over Ern Malley in the United States in 1945-46. Nation reviewed the December 1944 issue of Angry Penguins on 5 May 1945 and supported Dorothy Green's (q.v.) contention that the editors' lack of responsibility had left them wide open to the hoax. Roskolenko as the American editor of Angry Penguins attacked Green as part of the 'Communist literary front' and therefore "inimical to any avant-gardism". He said T.S. Eliot would be publishing a letter in support of Angry Penguins.
Christesen and Reed admonished Roskolenko for his attack on Green. Roskolenko also wrote an article on Australian literature for the Briarcliff Quarterlyin which he criticised the "scrub nationalism" of the Jindyworobaks and Southerly's "pedantry". This prompted a long letter from Flexmore Hudson (q.v.) which criticised the editors of Voices for "neglecting or rejecting the work of many of our accepted best writers but including the solemn gibble-gabble of the mythical Ern Malley. (11.8 [January 1946]: 276)". Green joined in with a review of Voices for Meanjin which highlighted the omission of major Sydney poets.
Roskolenko returned to Melbourne in May 1946, planning to marry an Australian and settle permanently. Before his arrival she had married another and the closure of Reed & Harris at the end of 1946 was his second disappointment with Australia. His relationship with Christesen had also deteriorated. Roskolenko's career as a freelance journalist began to take shape at this time. He travelled to New Guinea in 1946 and to occupied Japan with Albert Tucker in 1947, accredited to Australian and American newspapers. He gave talks for the ABC and the Fellowship of Australian Writers. His selected work Notes from a Journey and Other Poems was published by Meanjin Press in 1947. He returned again in 1956 riding a motorbike from Perth to Melbourne to report on the 1956 Olympic Games for a US magazine. A book on his experiences, Poet on a Scooter, was published in New York by Dial Press in 1958. Roskolenko considered settling in Australia but the climate of cultural detraction he sensed in Australian society always dissuaded him. He continued to visit in 1959, 1971 and again in 1972-1973 when he edited an American edition of Quadrant. His last book of poems American Civiliation was published in Melbourne by National Press in 1970.
Roskolenko last visited Australia in 1976, on a literature board grant awarded by the Australia Council to write an autobiographical work 'When the Bottles's Bloody Empty, Pet' (unpublished), covering his long association with Australia. Roskolenko also wrote fiction, travel books, critical pieces and other articles as well as three published autobiographies, and continued to contribute to Australian magazines during his lifetime. Some of this work included his war and postwar experiences in Australia. It was the literary collaborator and lover from his wartime years, Elisabeth Lambert, who spent much time with the dying Roskolenko in 1980.
(Sources: Nan Bowman Albinski, ' "Greetings to the Angry Penguins": Ern Malley, Harry Roskolenko and USA Connections', Australian Literary Studies, 17.3 (May 1996): 293-299; Patricia Clarke, 'An American Poet Finds Australia [A profile of Harry Roskolenko and his contributions to the Australian literary scene during and after World War 2.]' National Library of Australia News, 14.9 (June 2004): 11-14; Patricia Clarke, 'Literary Sidelights on Wartime Brisbane', Queensland Review 11.2 (December 2004): 41-57; 'Harry Roskolenko 1907-1980', Contemporary Authors (2002); 'Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, Cookery Writer, 1915-2003', The Telegraph (London)16.12.2003)).