January has come and gone and already the year is gathering momentum. The poetry event calendar in Brisbane is really starting to fill up and one of the fine poets to be hitting our stages this month is Victorian, Ross Donlon. And I am ecstatic that Ross has agreed to be the February Pin-Up! Here’s part 1 of our discussion about his recent successes.
You have had a great deal of success in recent years, winning The Wenlock Festival Poetry Prize and the Varuna Dorothy Hewett Flagship Fellowship for Poetry in 2010 as well as being awarded residencies in Norway and Varuna. I would love to hear about some of the experiences that these opportunities have brought about. I am also interested to know, how they may have shaped your work as a poet.
It’s been a lovely and unexpected run – and a lot I see now, connected to the suite of poems I had in mind to write about my father. It was that concept, I guess, that won the Dorothy Hewett. It seems to be something that appeals to people – the lost father sort of thing – that has carried over to the Wenlock prize and the book itself. The book has been very well received and had a couple of lovely reviews, but it is the ‘father section’ (the section I was most worried about) which has worked.
Varuna was very important because of the boost to my confidence. I had never won anything like this before – had won no poetry competitions at all – even been placed – in Australia. And in the time I had there I produced a body of useful drafts as well as being able to transcribe a number of primary source documents (some of which I broke into line breaks to become found poems in the book). At this stage I was worried that the originals would overwhelm any poems I could write about or around them, but that seems to have worked out well. I wrote the long prose poem /short story based on Raymond Chandler’s hard boiled detective, Philip Marlow’s, voice there
I wrote the first draft of The Blue Dressing Gown when I was at a residency in Hobart. It was the best poem in a group of four called ‘Relics’. Then at the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre I saw a flyer for the Arvon International Competition (which I’d never heard of before) and that it would be judged by Carol Ann Duffy, whose work I admire both for the skill and accessibility. I thought, although it was a bit short, The Blue Dressing Gown might appeal to her.
Being shortlisted for the Arvon in 2010 (from over 4,000 international entries) was huge and I had to go to London for the occasion, whether I came first or bottom of the shortlist, so I did – with the help of CAL.
As turned out I won the Wenlock Festival Award within the Arvon, since they were looking for a poem that touched on the theme of ‘the pity of war.’ (Wenlock is in Shropshire – Wilfred Owen / Houseman territory) I hadn’t seen my poem like that but there you go. I can see why it could.
I was very well received in London and made friends with the Wenlock Festival chairperson, Liz Roberts, who was there for the awards – that led to an invitation to spend a few days in Wenlock with her and Ennis – that to an invitation to read as a feature at the festival in 2011. You can see that luck has played a part in this. I am also invited to read there in April this year as well as run a poetry workshop for them.
More faith in the way I write and hopefully put over a poem is what I have got out of it – following my own way.
Trawling in the Arctic
Sometimes we trawled with the midnight sun
a gold bullet hole in the horizon,
sometimes in sleet, the cod masked in ice.
Once we trawled in the tail of a cyclone
the stern under wash, the sea slashed
black and white into spray.
We got to the galley by counting waves,
sliding and crashing across the deck
and I thought of the seafarer,
in the Old English poem,
a peat bog man, offshore in a storm,
caught by cold, raw wind wracking,
ice biting, as he hunted for home.
Still young, I watched a coast creep by
while the ship rode waves like a surfer,
then rucked my oilskin around my ears
and ran, regardless of wind, spray
At such times, looking out
from my own tightrope, I trawl for my father
in a ‘Frisco dive, rain ramming, his walk home wet,
lit only by neon, and nobody there.
I reflect, like someone watching the sea,
how he waited for ships from the Ferry Hotel,
the irony tolling across the Pacific
to a war wife and son in Sydney;
one barely known, one never seen,
as he buffeted life towards death.
Born in Sydney, Ross Donlon now lives in Castlemaine, Victoria, where he convenes a popular poetry reading and publishes Mark Time Books. He is published in newspapers and journals and has featured at poetry festivals in Australia and England. He won the Launceston Cup, the premier spoken word prize of the Tasmanian Poetry Festival in 2009 and was the Varuna Writers’ House Dorothy Hewett Fellow in 2010.
He has won international poetry competitions including, The Wenlock Festival Poetry Prize (U.K.) judged by Carol Ann Duffy (2010) and the MPU International Poetry Competition (2011) and was shortlisted for this year’s Bridport Prize (U.K.) from 8, 200 entries.
His latest book, The Blue Dressing Gown and other poems, is published by Profile Poetry.