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.
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.