February Pin-Up Week #2: Ross Donlon talks residencies and prize winning poems

Last week, I posted the first part of my discussion with February Pin-Up Poet, Ross Donlon. This week the discussion continues as Ross talks candidly about residencies and ‘prize winning poems.’


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.

(Part 1 of the interview can be found here)

I found the residency in Norway by surfing the web. I had decided I was not well credentialed enough to land an Australia Council Rome or Paris, so I would go my own way, pay my own fare but see if I could land somewhere in Scandinavia and stay there for free. There was more luck in that I connected with terrific people in an Artists’ House in Western Norway, on Hardangerfjord.

I did quite a lot of writing in Aalvik for nearly three months, met marvelous people from all over the world and wrote the draft, among others, of Midsummer Night, which lately won the MPU International Poetry Competition. It is a more discursive poem for me, taking in a few things, including witch burnings in 1621 – but also how a state expresses regret – after using torture to get to the ‘truth’  – and yes, I wonder why there aren’t memorials in this country expressing regret for the destruction of the indigenous culture which was overwhelmed after the invasion of 1788. I hadn’t thought about it quite like that before I went to Norway.

I have been invited back and am going back in March this year for 6/7 weeks to work a bit more closely with local visual artists. In a knock-on effect, Els, one of the co-ordinators of the house, put me in touch with someone in Germany, who has offered me 10 days in Heidelberg, so I’ll be there in June.

In more luck, I was selected by Varuna – it works as a kind of draw from submissions – to have a month at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland and I’ll be there for all of May. I want to see if there are poems there for me about my Irish ancestors – the people who left for Australia and the U.S.

All of the above have enriched my life beyond measure – naturally there are down parts eg wrecked back for a few months – but not enough to take away the thrills! The only downside is that these places and people become part of your life and I want to be there as well as here regularly. I need a Poet’s Pocket Lear Jet.

What else has it meant? Well, I have also been as professional as I can be. I have an excellent website designer who helps –so that I can give fair due to what I’ve done to be able to roll it all along a bit more. The ‘it’ for me is in the travel and meeting great, creative people – it all feeds my creativity. I hope to get residencies in the United States, where I now have contacts and who knows where else. I love Italy, for example, and would love a few months there – still skipping the  Australia Council.

It’s funny, I never saw myself as a ‘prize winning poet’ and never thought I wrote such a thing as a ‘prize wining poem’ – and there is such a poem. For one thing (and it’s a topic of interest to me) most major competitions in Australia call for longer poems of 100 – even 200 lines. I don’t think this is so common in England and so I wonder about that – and the thinking behind it. Is the notion that you can’t say anything significant in a poem unless you use 100 to 200 lines?  If that’s the case I don’t agree.

Shaping my work? Although poems about my father were a focus for about 18 months – and some go back ten years – I am largely an intuitive poet and so it’s more ‘what comes up’. I have about 25-30 poems towards a new book. There’s a lot of death in them – but from all angles – but I think they’ll be more travel. ‘Death and Travel’ – that’s not a bad couple of subjects?


The Boy and the Suitcase

A suitcase was known to a small boy.

It was a tartan patterned suitcase, made in China, manufactured in a large factory that made backpacks, bags and the like. A production line of hundreds of workers worked in the factory and had done so for years.

I think there may even be a museum somewhere whose purpose is to display the history of bags, packs and suitcases with their various designs and uses.

The tartan suit case was unusual in that it lived in two homes. In one house it was kept in a dark wardrobe with safe, folded clothes. In the other house it stayed on the floor between noises in the kitchen and bedroom, some muted, some loud. There were sometimes sudden floods of light.

Every month the suitcase traveled between the two houses by car. When it was time to visit, neat sets of clothes and toys were packed and the suitcase would travel in the car with the boy.

On the last visit there were hours of calm, then suddenly an explosion of sound and then silence. A day passed. The lid was opened with a burst of light and crying, and the boy was folded like clothes into the suitcase, after which it was closed, locked and carried to a car.

It will not be the first time a suitcase has been placed in water to drown. It may not be the first time a small boy has been pressed into a suitcase, to play or be punished. It may not be the first time a tartan suitcase of moderate size has risen to the surface of a suburban lake and been opened to find a small boy inside.

But it always seems as though it is the first time.

Then, as old rites in ancient Egypt or the peat bogs of Denmark, the case will be opened and a body raised to the small sun watching in the sky like a host.

(first published in Meanjin)


You can read more of Ross’s poetry at:

Mascara Literary Review, Stillcraic and at the Varuna Blog where you can also hear Ross reading from his collection, The Blue Dressing Gown.



Filed under Pin Ups

5 responses to “February Pin-Up Week #2: Ross Donlon talks residencies and prize winning poems

  1. Loved every inch of this poem! Thanks, Graham, for arranging the Pin-Up series.

  2. What a brilliant poem…really enjoyed it.

  3. A startling, haunting poem

  4. Pingback: March SpeedPoets Opens With A Bang! | speedpoets

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