The work of Benjamin Dodds never pulls punches. If late firebrand and painter Adam Cullen had been a poet, he may well have been Benjamin Dodds. Both artists love throwing the filth and beauty of life in our faces. When reading Benjamin's poetry we feel wonderment and edginess in equal measure. Everywhere the reader looks there is dark humour, poignancy and stark imagery. Benjamin is often interested in unravelling the many contradictions within Australian men, something I find fascinating. And of course, there is a search for the divine, or at least something than can lift us from the mundane. Like his contemporaries Sam Wagan Watson and Aidan Coleman, Ben is fiercely economic with his language - this is why I love his work. Many verbose poets could learn from his editorial skill.
Benjamin resides in Sydney, where he teaches primary school students. He grew up in the NSW Riverina. His work has appeared in many publications including The Best Australian Poems 2014, Mascara Literary Review, Bluepepper, Harvest, Cordite, Blue Dog, Southerly and Antipodes: Poetic Responses and Earthly Matters, a chapbook poet Carol Jenkins assembled for National Science Week in 2010. His first full-length collection, Regulator, is out now with Puncher & Wattmann.
What was there before poetry?
Nothing. Poetry was there in the movement of the first motes of matter and we’ve been tracing its path ever since we learned to make our mark on cave walls, paper and now in digital zeroes and ones.
Would you ever return to the NSW Riverina to live?
An entire universe of childhood and adolescence is back there somewhere between the yellow lawns and weedy irrigation canals. My immediate family left the Riverina at the same time I moved to Sydney to study. I travel back every few Christmases with my parents to visit relatives, but I don’t think I’ll ever live there again. It feels too much like the past for me to plan any futures there. I must miss it on some level, though. I saw a photo of a Murrumbidgee River beach recently on Instagram and experienced a surprisingly intense longing to be there again and to dive in.
Tell me about your work with the NSW Department of Agriculture years ago.
It was my first job straight out of high school. There’s an agricultural research station just outside Yanco and they were offering a traineeship as a laboratory technician. I met some amazing individuals and took part in some fascinating science over what became three years. The majority of my time there was spent in the rice section, but I also moved through the soy and entomology sections and eventually became a fruit fly officer. The work was a really interesting mix of white lab coat and test tube stuff and a great deal of sampling and harvesting on trial sites all around the Riverina. I got to be Igor on some days and Old MacDonald on others. One of the weirder memories of my lab assistant days is of being trained to count the microscopic hairs around a fruit fly’s anus to determine its species. It was a bizarre, but important job. The day I counted one too many hairs (or was it one too few?) resulted in an emergency road trip to the head office in Orange to confirm and declare an official outbreak of European fruit fly. Exciting times!
Why did you get into primary school teaching?
Well, I became a primary teacher by way of first becoming a secondary teacher. My two teaching areas are English and Italian. I taught in a high school setting for a while and didn’t really fall in love with the job. I travelled and worked outside education for a bit and only returned to it when I saw an advertisement for an Italian teaching position at a local primary school. After teaching Italian for a few years, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to work as a regular class teacher. I’ve since been reaccredited as a primary teacher and it’s fantastic. I think teaching is a particularly vital profession. Who else in society, aside from parents, can have such a positive and lasting effect on young minds?
Were there many challenges associated with penning/assembling Regulator?
Yes, there were quite a few. Not so much with its penning, but certainly with its assembling. Because some of the pieces had been around for so long, I was very close to them. I couldn’t really get a true sense of which ones played well with others. Not through a new reader’s eyes in any case. I tried different permutations with my partner, a close friend and then fellow poet Stuart Barnes. They were all very insightful, particularly my mate Stuart, who was essentially the unofficial editor of the whole collection. In the end, I went with a bit of my own judgment and a bit of theirs and divided the book into four sections: Regulator, Human Awe,There’s No Putting Them Out and Perfectly Normal Sons. The first loosely gathers together the poems dealing with the Riverina, the second brings together (also loosely) the pieces dealing with science and nature, the third contains poems that I began to realise were a bit on the darkly paranoid side and the fourth section touches on sexuality.
What does it mean to be a poet in Australia today?
What a tough question. There are so many types of Australian poets and poetry. Sometimes it seems that the job of the Australian poet is to wilfully alienate, but then there are so many more instances of Australian poets perfectly capturing a moment, an idea, a feeling or an angle through clear, exquisite and enduring language. This is not uniquely Australian, of course, but our poets can really hook us in ways that are specifically adapted to our particular wavelength of experience. Our best poets know who we are, for better or worse, but aren’t limited by identity.
What do you want your audience to most take away from your poetry?
Another really tough question! I know that I hold myself to a very high standard when I write a poem. I guess this means I want the reader to experience the best of me, work I’ve sweated over. Ultimately, I hope they take from my poetry a sense of mood and encapsulation. Somebody once told me that one of my poems expressed something that they’d always felt, but never known how to put into words. I don’t think a poet could ask for a better review.
Where to from here?
I’m working on a new project at the moment. Mostly in my head, not yet on the page, but its various parts are starting to swirl together and coalesce into what I hope it can be. I find it really hard to find solid chunks of writing time lately. Not because I’m too busy, but because modern technology seems to sap my creative energy and swell to take up so much of my ‘spare’ time. Sometimes I curse the internet, Netflix, my iPad and the infinite amount of other distractions available to us today. Maybe that’s where to from here, weaning myself off distractions and using the freed up time to write more! I’ve got a week away planned for the next school break. Just myself and my writing away from it all.