Mal de mer

Craig.jpg

With Craig Amos at the launch of his art exhibition, ‘Mal de mer’ at Banshees’ Bar & Bistro in Ipswich, Queensland.

So, today is the last day at work for my friend Craig Amos. He’s moving on to another high school up the Sunshine Coast to continue his excellent career as an Art, Humanities and English teacher. We’ve known each other for more than a decade; our desks are beside each other’s, as boarding masters we’ve even lived in the same Queensland colonial houses around our school in Ipswich. He even keeps fallen toys; matchbox cars, plastic soldiers and bits of Lego that my kids lost playing in the garden as ‘found’ objects. Some he returns. Some even end up in his art pieces.

Craig likes finding things. Horse teeth. Coins. This year for example he found a pair of old rusted scissors in the garden and brought them to school in a plastic lunch bag. When he mentioned this, our Humanities Head of Department immediately clicked and told us that years ago the daughter of a prominent Ipswich family (maybe a Foote) thought that bad spirits were entering her family’s mansion, so she buried iron scissors all around their vast garden to ward off these spiritual interlopers. The mansion is still there, but the vast gardens were subdivided years ago. Maybe the scissors Craig found were buried by the wayward Clarissa Foote all those years ago. Fairies and ghosts can’t stand the taste/smell/presence of iron, so I believe it could be true.

scissors

Craig, as mentioned is a visual artist and has over the years designed the covers of a few of my poetry collections – and flyers and such out of the sheer goodness of his heart, and around his busy work/life/art/family schedule. He designs the retro sci-fi album covers for the Brisbane band, Drawn From Bees. He even designed the front cover for our school’s 150th anniversary book. Craig also puts together a Christmas CD of his favourite music each year and gifts it to staff members and friends for free. Of course he does the covers. It can be a hard gig – having a full-time job and trying to do ‘art’ on the side, but we persevere. Craig designed the front cover of my last published poetry book – Weranga and a previous chapbook, The Negativity Bin and for that I thank him eternally.

book covers

Now, I heard someone on the radio last week suggesting that your longevity is based on the quality of your friendships in life. I’m a Gen-X, cis white male (as my daughter keeps on reminding me) and I don’t have a lot of close male friends anymore. You know how it goes, your high school friendships can peter out in your thirties and forties when work and circumstance split you apart.  Then you realise that most of your work colleagues are acquaintances really, your core values slightly adjacent to each other. When you find that kindred spirit though, you cling almightily to them. Now, it’s not like Craig and I called each other on the phone everyday, but when I was running late to work on a Tuesday or a Thursday morning, the person I’d text first to grab me a coffee from the van before it left at 8am, was always Craig.  If what I heard is true, then perhaps I’ll live a little bit longer because of the quality of my friendship with Craig over the last decade.

Now teaching is a funny career. You work with adolescents and their comic sensibility sometimes rubs off on you. As for practical jokes, I returned to my desk around my birthday once (our birthdays are two days apart – both Leos) and I found twenty pictures of the late Burt Reynolds on my desk, but my face had been photoshopped and inserted over the visages of Burt’s beautiful female companions. Another time, I walked into the staffroom to find my whole desk packed up and reconstituted beside a work fremeny, whose space I’d vacated from…..

burt reynolds

When days at school had been tough, the teaching perhaps challenging, Craig and I used to cheer each other up by quoting that famous line of the late Bill Paxton’s great character from Aliens, (Private Hudson) when he says; How do I get out of this chickenshit outfit? We didn’t really believe it would come to this, but Craig has finally discovered the means to do exactly this. And no, it’s not by being taken by an xenomorph through the floor.

Anyhow, below is a kooky poem I wrote as an artist’s statement for Craig’s latest art exhibition – ‘Mal de mer’ which means seasickness and yes, my stomach churns for the loss of my best friend at work and perhaps in my entire life to date. Craig, I salute you!

 

Mal de mer

 

Craig was once behind a classroom desk, carving his initials into

the immovable wood, first canvas for youth, band names & genitalia

(early dictation). He was well-armed for the job, free buck knives for all

passed under desks like love notes between children. Girls didn’t carve;

they had germs that deflected boys’ steel. Toilet cubicle walls & park

benches were early defamation & analogue Tinder. Sprogholes Craig called

them, inventing names for things as he dug out his peepshow in the asbestos

gallery. RAAF bases had their own versions of Billy Barbwire & Lenny Ovaltine

those small town, creepy old guys who grabbed your hand & drew a finger along

your lifeline whispering Vera Lyn war tunes. His first show was a collaborative

sculpture with the other boys, peeing on the yellow/blue bricks in the urinal,

the slow erosion of form as social entropy. He still exhibits there sometimes.

Craig was the leader of a gang called the Knifes & they ruled the Amberley

playground, covered in their graffiti love bites. You scrag! You mole! You slut!

Swearwords have lost all their power like booster rockets falling away from

the main tank. He has already outlived some books he read as a child – he is

older than the shuttle program; everything in The Usborne Book of the Future

has come true except for robots with faces. There are some machines with

multiple limbs that he must build himself, mostly at night. Nakedness will never

go out of fashion & outsider art is really on the inside of the things that count;

naivety is taking the lightness of the world seriously & concrete is still the best

material to do art. He found the names for his kids by looking at the initials

inside love hearts baked into council footpaths. Once, Peter the Great came

to Amsterdam & bought up all the grotesque specimens he could find. He

was great at collecting conjoined animals, twins; taxidermied arms of children

holding feathers. Craig collects the marginalia of fallen moments like photos

of Burt Reynolds; his dates all have Brett’s face. Giant carnivorous wallabies

lost their teeth during the Pleistocene, but Craig found them. It took three

days for the Heaven’s Gate travellers to prepare to meet the mothership,

ingesting fruity cocktails laced with horse drugs; but art can be impatient,

so they ended their performance with plastic bags tied over their heads.

You can often find Craig in dry creek beds studying sand, grain by grain.

He often stops to pick up objects others don’t even see. Chickens are

the dinosaurs we deserve, he says. Art is when you feel the sickest.

 

craig and brett

Craig’s opportunity shop opened today. Everything must go!

Advertisements

2018 International Day of People with Disabilities

Saturdays with

B. R. Dionysius (left) with fellow Queensland poets, Damen O’Brien (centre) and Philip Neilsen (right) who were shortlisted in the 2018 Melbourne Poets Union International Poetry Prize.

 

So, this happened. I was awarded the Leon Shann Award on Friday night as part of the 2018 Melbourne Poets Union International Poetry Prize. And that’s a great thing. The competition is very stiff, there are so many excellent Australian and overseas poets like the two other Queensland poets in the above photo. Like look up Damen O’Brien’s record for poetry prizes he’s either won or been shortlisted for over the last few years – presses would be crazy not to publish him! I don’t think I’ve won a major poetry award since the 2009 Max Harris Poetry Prize down in Adelaide, so really the lesson is to just to keep on writing and submitting. It’s a slog. A long game.

So, thank you MPU and everybody involved in organising this prize which I do try to enter every year (but you know though, that you sometimes just plain forget those deadlines!) But, on this auspicious day, I really feel more like celebrating my daughter’s achievements than my own.

I like to enter poetry prizes mainly because they are judged without the judges knowing whose poems they are judging. I can no longer say, ‘judged blind’ as on this International Day of Disabled Persons/People with Disabilities – 3rd December, I am thinking of my 14 year old daughter who hates this jargon. Maybe we should all say something like ‘judged incognito’ now…. you know break apart the ableist traditions in the language around writing competitions and intoxication. It should be a small & easy thing to achieve.

Then maybe turn our attention to our incessant drinking culture and its obsession with describing drunkedness with being, ‘blind’ or ‘blind drunk’. Afterall, it’s not really an accurate physiological comparison – your sight does return, your headache disappears, your feelings of regret return stronger than ever. Poetry does this all the time. Chooses its words wisely. Tries to fight cliché and inappropriate metaphor use. The ‘adrenaline flooded through his veins’ syndrome which I fight every day as an English teacher.

Here’s a poem that the Australian Poetry Journal published a few years back about when I took my daughter to a braille writing competition, that she didn’t really want to do at all. She doesn’t want to take up the implements of her disorder – braille, a cane, her teenage identity formation in full blown angst at the moment.

 

At the Braille Writing Competition

 

There is nowhere to park. Braille House looks

like it was built in the sixties; an eyesore of timber

& weathered railings but with a new concrete access

ramp at the front entrance, where orange-petalled

gazanias usher the contestants in. She has to tread

water back over language’s lake. It is pictograms that

will save her from drowning. Or even earlier, bumpy

carvings on stone & wood that her fingers caress into

smoothness like a holy tree branch rubbed by cattle

or penitent worshippers. Power at her fingertips, she

lives an old TV ad’s life. The writing machines could

be war surplus repurposed to pinch rolls of paper on

the cheek with dots. Metal teeth punch out needle-pricks

like cells dispersing over the eye’s thin white sheet.

 

Our newly minted plastic notes have braille dots on them now – a twelve year old visually impaired boy convinced the Australian Mint to add this in for people who can’t see those famous writers – David Unaipon’s or Banjo Paterson’s faces. Go feel. Go figure. I often feel that contemporary poetry and disability have a lot in common. Can I even make this comparison? No. But both struggle for recognition in broader society.

My daughter has just started to write poetry this year. Is writing poetry easier than learning braille? Are they both as difficult as each other? Should all of our poetry journals and magazines have a braille version of the poems published on the proceeding page? Do editors even go there?  Public toilets have braille on them, park signs, so why not literary journals? And what about online and electronic magazines? My daughter reads audio books now, but I don’t think there are too many contemporary Australian poetry collections out there published as audio books for her to read. Can you imagine not being able to read poetry because demand doesn’t warrant its publication? How bereft would we be as a society? How incognito we would all become?

So, this afternoon I’ll go back home and read out my prize-winning poem, My Father on a Horse, Date Unknown to my daughter, a poem about her grandfather whom she never met; he being long dead before she was born. A poem based on a photograph that she can only see if it’s blown up on a screen. A poem that will most likely never be translated into braille. A poem about my own short-sightedness, our own short-sightedness.

So, on this day of days, I dedicate my win to my daughter, Sylvie.

dad on horse

My Father on a Horse, Date Unknown.

 

My Father on a Horse, Date Unknown

 

sometimes the dead stop you from asking questions.

i came across this montage on my mother’s spare bed;

black & white photographs of some men in my family

loading wheat bags into a shed – my father on a horse,

date unknown. it is a long shot. he looks at the camera,

sleeves rolled up, bare feet in the stirrups, muscled arms.

up in the saddle, he splits a tree in the background in

half, so it appears that he’s sprouting wings of leaves

from his back; a horseman of the casual apocalypse.

on the left is a house, i don’t know whose & chickens

white as novae occupy the frozen hillside to the right.

it is the nineteen-fifties, age has given the sky above his

head an intense white corona as if a nuke has gone off.

is this coomera, my mother’s dairy? or dayboro where

his smile gloams out from beneath his grey felt hat?

my eyes, older than his ever saw, strain to see a ring,

as a pale shooting star slides down the horse’s nose.