Tuesday, October 11, 2016
CRUX #8 - JEAN KENT
What can I say? There are times I wish I wrote with Jean Kent's finesse. She makes things look effortless. I have several of her collections at home and each of them has lines that knock me unconscious. Her poems are lengthy, continually engaging and unpredictable - I can learn much from her sustained voice and purpose.
In this instalment of CRUX, Jean tells us about summoning up the courage to speak to Bruce Dawe, growing up in Queensland, teaching at TAFE, judging the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2013... and many other things.
Jean Kent was born in Chinchilla, Queensland in 1951. She first published her poems in 1970. Her work has won many major prizes including the Josephine Ulrick National Poetry Prize and the Henry Kendall Poetry Award (on two occasions). Jean has published five books of poetry. Her latest chapbook, Paris in my pocket (Pitt Street Poetry) is an exquisite thing, featuring striking illustrations courtesy of her husband.
What was there before poetry?
My initial response to this question is to say 'prose'... although I probably really mean 'stories'... or 'words'. Even before I could write, I was making up stories and telling them to myself. Aloud, of course. You can do this before you go to school and learn not to! I did try to write some of them on the walls of the house, and on pages in books, using my own kind of writing, but that wasn't encouraged.
Was there a time without poetry? I'm not sure there was. My mother is very fond of A.A. Milne's verses about Christopher Robin and I think she probably read and recited those a lot when I was very young. Then, at primary school, the Queensland School Reader was chock-a-block with the great classics. I remember being introduced to Wordworth's Daffodils when I was ten or eleven... I didn't particularly connect with that formal style of writing, or even the Australian bush ballads which we had quite a lot of, but I do remember loving the music of poetry.
So, long before I reached the age of sixteen and started compulsively writing myself, I'd been hearing poetry and reading it... I never thought that I would be a 'poet'. That felt like something extraordinarily exotic and special. I wanted to write but I expected I'd write prose - novels - and my own poems would just be a private passion. The real poetry would be by other people.
How would you best define your writing?
This is the question I find hardest to answer and would much rather leave to others. If pushed, I'd say it's probably lyrical, but also based on character and narrative. My poems are responses to real experiences, life as I know it or witness it on an everyday basis. They are an attempt to say what is otherwise unsayable. But I also hope that they're accessible and a pleasure to read. I do love the words themselves, and the possibilities of playing with language, so that as well as expressing something deeply felt, I'm making something that can go out into the world with its own magic.
What did you learn from your time working as a psychologist in TAFE?
TAFE gave me another education. I started at Sydney Tech in 1977 and though I was principally attached to the General Studies Section, which mostly offered a second d chance for mature age people wanting to do the HSC, I also had to learn about all the trades and other training areas covered by the technical system then. Before that, I had no idea what a fitter and turner did, for instance - but as part of our training we were taken to the college workshops where we would see the reality of the machines and the heavy boots and the smell of heated metal. I loved that opportunity to be present in a world that was very different from the one I'd grown up in. In my counselling office, that sort of privileged sharing of someone else's world continued. I learned that you could never assume that people's lives were simple or that they had no secret dreams or ambitions. People were walking novels, and I'd spend my days amazed by the stories of their lives.
Share with me a story involving other Australian poets...
Growing up in country Queensland, I didn't know any real, living poets. My first sighting of any of these mythical creatures was when I was a student at Queensland University. It was 1970. The campus was in upheaval because of the Moratorium against the war in Vietnam. As part of the protests, a poetry reading was held...
I don't remember all the participants, but Judith Wright was there, and so was Bruce Dawe. Judith Wright looked frail and her voice was warmly and eerily haunting. She was one of the editors of The Poet's Pen, the anthology of poetry I'd studied in the last two years of secondary school, so seeing her was really extraordinary, and I don't think it would have mattered how she'd read or what, I was so in awe. My memory of the event is that we were all holding candles, but I don't know whether that actually happened or whether it's just an image I've created to match the atmosphere of held breath and respect.
Bruce Dawe read his poem Homecoming, about the dead soldiers being zipped into green plastic bags and flown home: All day, day after day, they're bringing them home... He had the dry, laconic tone of voice I recognised from all the country towns I'd grown up in, as well as being so powerfully anti-war, the poem was both matter-of-fact and celebratory about the places these young men had come from. I was mesmerised. I remember the shock of silence at the end, and the feeling that a space in time - my time, at any rate - had been carved out to hold the poem for me forever.
I still get shivery remembering that four decades later. I felt extraordinarily grateful for that experience. But of course, at the time, I would never ever have contemplated speaking to the poet himself... It wasn't until many, many years later I actually did so. It was 2006. I'd been invited to read and speak at an event in Toowoomba, Bruce Dawe's hometown for a long time, and mine for several years. Bruce Dawe was the other poet invited and even though he still had this status in my mind as an elder to be looked up to, he was friendly and approachable. So, at dinner afterwards, I plucked up all my courage and told him how important that reading in 1970 had been for me. I wish I had written down exactly what he said in reply. What I remember is a gracious thank you, followed by, 'We never know when there will be an angel in the wings.'
Lake Macquarie in NSW means a lot to you. Where would you take a newcomer to that area? Why?
Lake Macquarie used to be a well-kept secret. It's tucked between the NSW Central Coast beaches, the Hunter Valley and Newcastle. I'm torn between wanting to keep it a secret and wanting to say, 'Look what is here! Beaches, suburbs full of trees, bush nearby which still has flannel flowers, native orchids and bowerbirds... and of course, the Lake...'
When Martin and I moved here from Sydney in 1983, we chanced upon a peninsula which had driveways meandering away from the main streets towards houses almost hidden behind trees beside the water. The house we live in now is on the ridge in the middle of that peninsula and it has views across Kilaben Bay to a large park. That park is where we walk most days, and it's where I'd take a newcomer.
Why? Because walking there will take you from a wide bay which has views across to the ocean, along a path through the old Rathmines Airforce Base and on to parkland of natural bush. There are glimpses there of so much that is special to Lake Macquarie: white sails on the water; children in the playground, swinging over the marked outline of a Catalina flying boat; people fishing, walking for health or with dogs; house boats and yachts moored at the jetties and in the shelter by the casuarinas; galahs and kookaburras and eastern rosellas nesting in the eucalypts and angophora; and across the water, the suburbs of houses, clustered on peninsulas... If you're lucky, just before sunset you might even see fish leaping, turning silver in the bright light.
What did growing up in southern Queensland give you?
I should probably write a book to answer this. But just for starters, a love of big skies, space, solitude, and a fascination with the Australian countryside in all its extraordinary variety.
By the time my parents settled in Toowoomba, just as I was about to start secondary school, I'd been to seven different schools and lived all over Queensland. We moved around a lot because my father was a bank manager, but also he was hospitalised with TB when I was six, so for over a year while he was there my mother and my brothers and I went to live with my grandparents on the Darling Downs.
All through my childhood, the landscape around me kept changing. We went from the inland plains north to Georgetown near the Gulf of Carpentaria, a town I remember as a place of mango trees, snakes, crocodiles and flood... then from all that topic greenness down to the Queensland border with its tobacco farms and dust... then to the Darling Downs, the Lockyer Valley, Toowoomba. All these places were different. And I never had time to really settle in any of them, which is possibly why I'm still haunted by the question, 'Where is home?'
Mostly, these were also small towns, with all the good and bad characteristics of closed communities. I learned very early to be happy with my own company. ABC Radio had a program for children, which included The Argonauts Club, which I loved. Every afternoon I'd rush into the house to listen to these voices from Somewhere Else, talking about Books and Art and Music and The Muddleheaded Wombat. The Club awarded certificates for stories and poems children sent in. I became Dragon's Tooth Aetna 19 and started sending things I'd written. That was the start, really, of the road to being a poet.
How was judging the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2013?
It was a big job! There were about 650 entries and Dennis Haskell and I read every one of them. Fortunately, our tastes were fairly similar, so although we did a lot of emailing to discuss poems as we tried to reach a common short list, and then talked by phone at length to decide on the winners, there wasn't as much wrangling as there might have been. Judging is always exhausting though. Poetry invariably comes out of deep emotions and that makes reading so much of it in a short time disturbing. I worked out quite early in the judging that I could read a maximum of thirty in one day. To be fair to the poems, there was a lot of rereading needed as well. So it became really important to have plenty of time to spread out the process. The nice thing about the NPP is that you're also looking for poems for the anthology. In some ways, that was excruciating too because there were so many very fine ones that just missed out. This was a nice revelation, actually. Some years in the past I've entered and been very downcast when my poem hasn't made the anthology. I've naturally assumed my poem was no good! But now I realise how very competitive the prize is, and just how fine a line there can be between what makes it into the book and what just misses out.
What should Australian poets be doing more or less of?
My plea would be for more wide, generous reading, particularly of poets who have been prominent over the last century. There are wonderful new poets emerging who are very accomplished, but based on the bulk of the entries for the 2013 NPP, I'd guess that there are more people writing poetry than reading it.
Where to from here?
I'm a very slow writer and I always have a lot of work in progress. There are some unfinished prose works, a memoir and a garden journal style book. I just need another lifetime to finish them all.