Monday, May 15, 2017

CROSSING DEPTHS TO WHERE SKY IS JUST SKY

In 2016, my good friend and teaching colleague Jackie Benney asked me to become involved in an art project she had up her sleeve - she had been granted a hanging space in Waverley Library Galleries in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs. I was flattered. Jackie's work is visceral and poignant; previous works and shows of hers have been critically acclaimed. 

What has emerged over many months of talking and thinking and writing and painting is Crossing Depths To Where Sky Is Just Sky, an examination of the Syrian refugee crisis, with a particular focus on crossing the Aegean by boat. Greek mythology has also played a part in things. 


Jackie has assembled some striking pieces and I have responded to these with poems various. Jackie has also responded to my lyricism. The writing has been hard to get right. Avoiding sentimentality, operating from a position of respect for displaced peoples and finding a universal truth has been a great challenge. I am proud of the work that I have penned thus far - I can't wait to share these fresh poems with you. 

Crossing Depths To Where Sky Is Just Sky will be showing at Waverley Library Galleries  (48 Denison St Bondi Junction) from July 11 until August 8. Please join Jackie and I for opening night drinks on Wednesday July 12 at 6pm.


LJ, May 16 2017

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

CRUX #9 - BRONWYN LOVELL



It is a delight to have Bronwyn Lovell appear in this edition of CRUX. Bronwyn lives and breathes poetry in all its forms. Her spoken word performances (available on Youtube) are raw and mesmerising - we are given a self-assured, brave and galvanised young poet. When she was working for Australian Poetry she was a great supporter of this country's poets, whether emerging or established (I'd like to personally thank her for promoting my own work via twitter).

Here, Bronwyn talks about the many sides to feminism, working with indigenous people in Cape York, how writing can be intimidating and the resonance the first Alien film has for her today. It's an engaging piece, full of conviction. I'd like to thank Bronwyn for her honest responses. 

Hopefully, we'll meet up one day and talk sci-fi films!

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Bronwyn Lovell is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at Flinders University in Adelaide. She has worked in both administration and publication roles for both Australian Poetry and Writers Victoria. Currently, Bronwyn is working on a feminist verse novel set in space. Her writing has appeared in Award Winning Australian Writing, Best Australian Poems, Australian Poetry Journal, Australian Love Poems, Antipodes, Cordite, Rabbit, Eureka Street, The Global Poetry Anthology and ABC News Online.  Bronwyn has won the Adrien Abbott Poetry Prize, and been shortlisted for The Montreal International Poetry Prize, The Newcastle Poetry Prize and the Bridport Prize. 

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What was there before poetry?

For me, I'd have to say movies. I wanted to be an actor for a while. Then I wanted to be an auteur. I majored in Film Studies in my Bachelor degree at the University of Sydney before going on on to a Masters in Creative Writing, mainly because I wanted to study scriptwriting. I enjoyed poetic writing best, especially in voice-narrated fiction film, so I took the poetry workshop to improve my prose. I felt completely out of my depth. I had that fear of poetry that is very common; I was afraid I didn't understand it. Terrified in fact. I was sure I would be discovered as a complete fraud and kicked out of the class.

My teacher was Judith Beveridge. I had studied her poems in high school. Thankfully, she is the most unassuming and down-to-earth person I've ever been fortunate to encounter. She is wise and humble, incredibly experienced and knowledgeable, but not in the least bit intimidating. Her teaching style is gentle, her manner thoughtful, her feedback insightful and generous. I loved her class and signed up for another the following semester. Pretty soon, I cared more about poetry than scriptwriting.

And I remembered that, way before I had become frightened of poetry, I had written it. I wrote a childish form of poetry from a very young age. It was a kind of game for me. Finding rhymes to match other words, like playing snap, or finding a puzzle piece that fits. There was nothing subtle about my early poetry. It was not art. It was play.

As soon as there were lullabies there was poetry. As soon as there were picture books and nursery rhymes. As soon as there were sounds and words to shape on the tongue. As soon as there was song. So perhaps, there was nothing before poetry. Just light, breasts, human warmth... maybe it's all poetry.

Share a poetic childhood memory...

Christmas completely enchanted me as a child. I was particularly taken by the songs and movies featuring a white Christmas. Everyone always got excited on screen when it began snowing. With lyrics like, 'I'm dreaming of a white Christmas', it was clear to me that a white Christmas was something special that didn't always happen, but if you were lucky enough you might get to experience this magical event. I had never been so fortunate growing up in Western Sydney, but I held hope every year. Thankfully,  my parents never had the heart to explain seasons, climate or hemispheres, and hence the utter hopelessness of my dream.

However, early one Christmas morning when I was about five years old, my parents woke me up and sent me outside. It was 5am and the sky was still dark. The street and everybody's front yards were white. A giant hailstorm had covered our suburb in chunks of ice. 'Here is your white Christmas', they said. 'This is as good as you'll get. Enjoy it before it melts'.

Tell me about your work with Cape York's indigenous people.

I can't help but be very conscious of my own privilege growing up in mainstream white Australia. And I always feel a little anxious when people ask me to talk about my time in Indigenous communities because there were positive and negative aspects of that experience, and sometimes the stories I share aren't what people want to hear, and sometimes I feel unsure of whether or not those stories are mine to tell.


I admit I was really shocked when I first visited a remote Indigenous community. It didn't feel like any Australia I'd ever known. It was like stepping into a Third World country. There was rubbish everywhere. Homeless dogs were scavenging the streets, covered in mange. I was seeing things I'd never seen before and it was extremely distressing. I remember wondering how a broken ceiling fan gets up a palm tree. I was in complete culture shock. I rang home, crying to my parents.

I went to Cape York to teach remedial literacy in primary schools. Often I taught children who laughed with me and were eager to learn, who tried really hard and beamed with pride when praised for their efforts. But there were times I taught terrors of children who threw their desks and chairs, swore at me, threatened me, were violent in their frustration. The most difficult children to teach were those who couldn't read three-letter words, despite being overdue to start high school. They were stuck on baby books. They were angry, understandably. There was much at stake. It was desperate.

There are barriers to learning that are challenging to overcome in these conditions. Too many of the children suffered permanent hearing loss from preventable conditions. A couple had foetal alcohol syndrome and were unable to retain new information. Some had been sexually abused. Others came to school with scabies and sores. All the children were beyond resilient. These kids were amazing. And most of Australia has no concept of their daily struggles and joys.

What moment in your esteemed poetry career are you most proud of?

It doesn't feel esteemed at all. Emerging is a word I'm more comfortable with than esteemed, but then again I've been emerging for a long time. I've been writing seriously for more than a decade and I don't have a published collection yet. A couple of international shortlistings is the most impressive thing on my CV, along with some small, local successes. I was proud to be included in Best Australian Poems a couple of years back, next to all those impressive poets' names.

A career in poetry is a funny thing. It doesn't feel like one imagines a career should. It isn't structured or linear. A poet's success can't be measured in the usual ways. Precious few successful poets in this country would ever, I imagine, be able to buy a house or car from their poetry income. As a society, we don't value poetry. That is, we don't attach a monetary value to it. It's priceless. So while poets may lead a rich life in many ways, we will always be poor.

I've made sacrifices to pursue writing as a career. I work for minimum wage. I don't have weekends. I don't have financial security or superannuation. Being a poet feels like swimming upstream - it costs a lot to choose not to go with the flow - mentally, physically, financially.

At this point in my poetry career I think I'm proud of not giving up, of continuing to put work out there despite rejection. I'm proud of myself for trying. There's an Australian cultural cringe associated with trying. None of us want to be seen as trying too hard. Being a try hard was the biggest insult at my high school. That and loving yourself. I remember 'She loves herself!' was spat accusingly in my direction a few times when I did well in a test. It's funny to reflect on now. Both these things are not easy to do: to have the guts to really try, and to value yourself. I fail at both most of the time.

I think I'll be proudest when I finish my verse novel. I hope I can tell the story as movingly as I imagine and write it as beautifully as it reads in my head. Like everything, the writing of it started with a wonderful idea that came to me, and my biggest fear is that I won't be able to do justice to that original vision.

What are the challenges faced by feminist writers in Australia today?

A huge challenge, I would say, is overcoming societal misunderstandings of feminism.

I had a discussion with a woman earlier in the year who told me she is not a feminist and does not support feminism. I was astounded and also a little offended. However, after probing her reasons for this standpoint, I realised that this woman's gripe was not with the ideology of feminism but with the word itself. She said she doesn't like feminism because it sounds like it's 'all about women'. She liked the idea of gender equality though, and thought that if feminism was called 'equalism' or something similar, then she'd feel more comfortable supporting it.

Australia's Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party, Julie Bishop, does not identify as feminist either, saying the word 'isn't part of my lexicon' and 'not a term I find particularly useful these days'. She says that she would never blame being a woman on any obstacle or setback in her career. I find Bishop's sense of superiority here to be false, and her assumptions disturbing.

Statements like Bishop's imply that feminists are whingers who should simply knuckle down and work harder, rather than pointing out that societal systems have been set up in ways that are biased against and unfair to women. Also, suggesting that feminism is no longer relevant implies that society has eradicated the problems posed by sexism. This is simply not true, and taking such a position towards feminism is not only ill-informed, it is also deeply irresponsible.

The public is too quick to declare feminist writers femi-Nazis, to mansplain feminism to them, and - especially now, with the anonymity of the online space - to insult, violently threaten and otherwise abuse women for their political views.

This is a country where our first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, was subjected to a relentless torrent of sexist abuse that revealed a deeply prejudiced Parliament, press and public. Australia proved it was not ready for a female leader, and sadly, neither was the United States.  

Perhaps the biggest problem is subconscious gender bias. We are all sexist, but most of us don't think we are, because we're unaware of the deep-seated patriarchal values and beliefs that shape our thought processes and influence our decisions and judgements. All of us need to examine our thinking more critically, all the time.

More than a political stance, feminism is a personal experience. Sexists aren't strangers, they're colleagues, family and friends. It's tiring and disheartening to continually come up against the same close-minded arguments aimed to shut feminist discussion down - in the boardroom, in the newspaper, or at the kitchen table. 

Feminist writers are essential in keeping the conversation going and fundamental in promoting public awareness of issues, which is the first step towards lasting change.

You're interested in women in space and you're working on a sci-fi verse novel set in space. In that context, which fictional female character in sci-fi films do you most admire and why?

I could write an essay on this. In fact, I'm writing a thesis. So, I will try to be brief.

I believe the most fascinating filmic depiction of a woman is Ripley in Alien, specifically the original film, because the script was written with an all-male cast. Since the alien was the most important aspect of the story, the writers had focused on the creature and not developed the human characters to the same extent. The crew members of the Nostromo were generic and there was a note on the script that specified that the sex of the characters was interchangeable. 

Ripley's character was going to be predictably male until director Ridley Scott had the revolutionary idea to switch the gender and subvert the audience's expectations, because no one would expect a young attractive female character to be the lone survivor of a horror film. That was not how the genre used women. If they weren't saved by a male character, most women were hunted down, screamed wildly and promptly met a grisly end. Women did not outwit, outsmart, outplay, and hence, they did not survive. 

Ripley differs because it is not a female role; it is simply a role played by a female. So this allowed Sigourney Weaver a rare freedom as an actor, in that she did not have to perform female gender in a way that had been written onto the character by male writers. And how refreshing, how revolutionary this was - still is today, in fact. 

What I admire about the character of Ripley, particularly in that first Alien film, is that she is capable and manages to remain calm and logical when other characters allow emotions to cloud their judgement. She is a valuable member of the ship's crew and is respected as such. 

Unfortunately, when it came to revisit the character in the sequels, Ripley's gender is inevitably consciously written into the story by the series' all-male writers.

In the second film, Ripley is stripped of her professional status and reluctantly coerced into a mission by powerful and corrupt men; the writers make Ripley a mother whose child is dead; and the alien species, which displayed characteristics of both genders previously, is heavily skewed female when it is revealed to have an egg-laying queen, who is famously labelled 'bitch'. In the third instalment of the series, male criminals attempt to rape Ripley and she is saved from this fate not by her own strength and wit but by the timely intervention of another man, who she also happens to sleep with. And in the fourth film, there is a lot of sexually violent banter and behaviour towards Ripley, which begins to feel very tired and predictable, and nowhere near as exciting as our first introduction to Ripley in the original 1979 masterpiece.

And yes, I do believe the first film to be the best, despite widespread popular opinion that its sequel is superior. Aliens may be faster-paced, but I prefer the slow burn of Alien.  

When it comes to writing/performing poetry, what most intimidates you?

Poetry slams definitely intimidate me. Memorising your work and then standing and reciting it in front of an audience with no notes and a strict time limit is extremely nerve-wracking. Especially since that time limit is often signalled by a scary-sounding bell or buzzer, and then some random audience members will hold up scores reflecting their judgement of your poem or performance. 

Considering that the fear of public speaking is one of the most common phobias, poetry slams surely take social terror to the extreme. The whole scenario is pretty much my worst nightmare. I maintain the utmost admiration for those who are brave enough to enter poetry slams and make themselves vulnerable on the public stage.

I'm in my mid-thirties now, but when I was in my late twenties, I used to compete in slams quite a bit. I think that word 'compete' might actually be what presents the problem for me. 'Slam' doesn't sound much friendlier either. Neither does 'sacrificial poet', who is the person who volunteers to go first like the lamb to the slaughter on the performance poetry altar. And although most poetry slams are held in extremely warm, generous and supportive environments, the nature of a competition means there must be winners and losers. And for that reason I find it odd that we have so many competitions - written and oral - in the poetry world, because I believe poetry is far more nuanced and far more encompassing and personal than could possibly be reflected by any public competition's scoring strategy. 

In terms of poetry on the page, reading amazingly talented poets can feel intimidating because you can't help but wonder how you could ever write anything as moving and insightful. Of course, comparing oneself to others is a useless exercise at best and crippling at worst. Part of yourself recognises your own inferiority and thinks, I should just give this up. And that isn't being insecure; it's being realistic. But you keep writing, because we are creatures of hope, and because the more you learn the more likely you are to get better.

When you have lofty ambitions for your writing, your high standards can get in the way. When you are worried about writing well, it'd difficult to write naturally and authentically. I am experiencing said dilemma right now as I write this. It's a constant battle against the ego. What intimidates me most are my own expectations, and the expectations I think others have of me.

The literati are intimidating. Academic language is intimidating. Deadlines are intimidating. Critics are intimidating. Open comments sections at the bottom of something you've written are intimidating. None of these are the enemy. Ego is the enemy. All of it comes back to how we feel about ourselves. The only way to not feel intimidated is to take yourself out of the equation and just focus on the work. 

Finish this sentence: The real Bronwyn Lovell... 

... is embarrassed by this question.

I hate to speak about myself in the third person. Something about it feels false and conceited. Of course, as writers we have to do this odd and unnatural thing quite a bit, usually when asked to supply a bio to accompany a piece of writing.

But even if this question were phrased differently, I would still be at a loss to answer it. My best attempt would be to say that I'm a single woman who lives with a dog and a cat in a one-bedroom unit in Adelaide that is stuffed with ornaments and trinkets, with colourful pictures and phrases stuck all over the walls, such that my whole home resembles a teenager's bedroom. I love trying to make my garden beautiful and spend a lot of time trying to get my lawn to grow. I work at a cinema to pay the bills. I am behind with my PhD and I am trying to catch up. I feel like a disaster most of the time, but I'm always trying to be less disastrous. 

Understanding who you are in a professional sense seems a lot easier than the perpetual personal endeavour of coming to understand one's self psychologically. Sometimes I feel like completely different people on different days, or even at different times of the day. Sometimes, I get the urge to completely reinvent myself. To clear our my wardrobe and cut my hair and cast off old patterns of fabric and behaviour and embrace new ways of being in the world. To draft a new version of myself, to rewrite and edit my entity. 

Like most people, I imagine, I am still trying to work out who the real me is and who knows whether that's a process of evolving towards the real or stripping back to it. So much of ourselves is constructed, but I don't think real equates to original either. I think we are all works of fiction. And the best fiction is always true.

Tell me about tomorrow...

I have hopes, of course. I hope tomorrow is where my novel has been written, where I've found solutions to some of my problems, and where my heart has healed. I hope tomorrow is where I try hard and love myself. 

Ultimately, who knows what I will make of the future or what it will make of me. All I know is that my best chance of positively influencing tomorrow is by doing the best I can today. 

I used to be one of those people who always had a five-year plan. But life has had its own plans, every time. And I think life has known best. I used to be highly focused on the future, but I don't know that it was very healthy. It allowed me to live in fantasy more than reality. 

I believe humanity has to implement some major changes if tomorrow is going to even exist for us as a species. I hope we can rise above our own selfishness to meet that challenge. 













Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sunday, December 25, 2016

GRATITUDE

Before 2016 draws to a close, I'd like to publicly thank the following people for supporting me as a writer and celebrating the release of Morton (I feel like I'm the 'emerging poet' who has now wriggled free of The Great Chrysalis)... 

My family, my close friends, Magdalene's staff/students, John Knight, Linsay Knight, Richard Knight, Kylie Mulquin, John Foulcher, Peter Skrzynecki, Nathanael O'Reilly, Michele Seminara, Monica Markovina, Abbie Foxton, Kirsten Corcoran, Virginia Jealous, Jenny Blackford, Melinda Smith, Dan Disney, Felicity Plunkett, Les Wicks, Jean Kent, Benjamin Dodds, Stuart Barnes, Anthony Lawrence, Jill Jones, Bronwyn Lovell, Carmen Leigh Keates, Anne Casey, Rob Cairns, Thom Sullivan, Kit Kelen, Miguel Jacq, Anne Walsh, Mark Tredinnick, Michelle Cahill, Peter Lach-Newinsky, Bridget Griffen-Foley, James Fry, Fleur Ferris, Deborah McIntosh, Rhiannon Hall, Andre de Borde, Judy Leitch, Ariane Beeston and Jackie Benney (who is joining forces with me for Crossing Depths to Where Sky is Just Sky in 2017) . 

My thanks must also go to the owners of those fabulous bookstores who stocked Morton this year. Good on you for continuing to invest in the subtle power of poetry. 

And finally, to all the good souls out there who purchased Morton, my sincere thanks. I am deeply flattered. I hope you got something out of it. Please visit Morton National Park in NSW very soon, and speak out for all our national parks in the future. Increasingly, our sublime wild spaces need your voices. 

Love and light, 

LJ x

Thursday, November 3, 2016

MY LIFE WITH THE GANG-GANG GANG

Last weekend, my Twitchathon team, the Gang-gang Gang (my oldest friend Steve Edwards; his mate from his childhood, Steve Cooper, and yours truly), travelled over 1300km in search of NSW birds. The Twitchathon is an Australia-wide race to see as many bird species as possible in 24 hrs. Yes, it's as adrenalising as base jumping or falling from space when on Red Bull or cage fighting or taking on Mexican wrestlers in a bad bar in Tijuana!  Money is raised for Birdlife Australia. It's a great opportunity for citizen scientists to contribute to conservation and education. 

Here is the route we took: Lake Wollumboola-Nowra-Kangaroo Valley-Bundanoon-Yass-Boorowa-West Wyalong-Ungarie-Lake Cargelligo-Nombinnie Nature Reserve-Lake Cargelligo- Ungarie-West Wyalong-Weddin Mountains area-Murringo Gap-Boorowa-Yass-Bundanoon-Robertson-Macquaire Pass. 


We all started birding back in the mid-80s, so there's a lot of knowledge (and eccentricity) in the Gang-gang Gang. This was the third Twitch for our posse. We recorded 193 species in a 24 hr period. Not as good as last year, where we found 203 species in a 24 hr period, but still bloody good. 


Moments worth mentioning... getting drenched courtesy of a sudden squall when trying to identify waders at Lake Wollumboola... a camera falling from the 4WD and breaking... putting a staggering, hurting emu chick out of its misery (the bird had been hit by a car)... unpleasant... we were all mournful... sleeping for an hour (after 3:30am) in the back of a 4WD filled with mosquitoes... not recommended... waking to the dawn chorus in Nombinnie's mallee... heaven... dead insects everywhere in a Wyalong truck stop toilet... crossing flooded roads where Whiskered Terns hunted... confusing a lamb with a cattle egret... yep, embarrassing... what was I saying about all that knowledge?... and it was I who confused the two... seeing a Hooded Robin for the first time in 20 years... knowing when to move on... knowing when to stay... gulping coffee and liquorice all sorts... speaking to three blokes in raincoats, with beers, who asked us what we the hell we were doing and referenced The Big Year... trying to stay awake and alert and focused and cheerful... crying 'Carn the Gang-gang Gang' at times when we hadn't seen a new bird for ages, so as to keep the morale up... drinking beer at the end of the whole thing (in the carpark at the base of Macquarie Pass and all its glorious rainforest)... testing each other on bird calls... taking the piss out of each other at every opportunity... 


We birded in mallee, dry grassy woodland, rainforest, wet sclerophyll woodland, on a beach, at an estuary, by sewage ponds, next to swamps, in towns, by inland rivers, at service stations, in open farmlands etc. Landscape was so much of the experience. Nombinnie Nature Reserve's red dirt, spinifex and perplexing corridors of stunted trees blow our minds on each visit. The three of us see the place as sacred: we ache for Nombinnie for days after leaving it. 


The most noteworthy bird species: Superb Parrot, Mulga Parrot, Green Catbird, Yellow-throated Scrubwren, Rockwarbler, Hooded Robin, Little Button-quail, Painted Button-quail, Gilbert's Whistler, Splendid Fairy-wren, Spotted Harrier, Southern Scrub-robin, Shy Heathwren, Chestnut Quail-thrush, Crested Bellbird, Black-eared Cuckoo, Pink Cockatoo, Grey-fronted Honeyeater, Plumed Whistling-duck, Wandering Whistling-duck, Blue-billed Duck, Bar-tailed Godwit, Red-necked Stint. 


An adventurous time. Kerouac would've been proud. 


LJ, November 4 2016. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

UPDATE

What's happening...

I've been asked to launch the Southern Highlands Arts Festival October 21... Sturt Gallery, Mittagong NSW... 5pm... a new poem I've penned concerning Emily Bronte in the Southern Highlands will be displayed on a Mittagong pavement during the time of the Festival... it's part of the Raining Poetry initiative...  Mark Tredinnick is also involved... the poem is only visible when it rains... I'm beginning an essay on Judith Wright's Birds for a forthcoming publication... a colleague and I may well be collaborating on a project concerning refugees... she's painting on rice paper and I'm providing the words... the work will be displayed in Sydney's eastern suburbs in 2017... ANTIC has taken two of my poems for an issue in 2017... one poem is on Siri... the other looks at hipsters... thanks to Kirstin Corcoran... Hallowell Press in WA has accepted a poem on migratory shorebirds for their upcoming anthology Flightpath... thanks to Virginia Jealous... a poem I put together on a woman grieving for the loss of her partner is now out in the 2016 Grieve Anthology... I have an interesting new person on board for CRUX... her interview will be published in December... about to begin writing an essay on a sliver of NSW mallee for a particular comp... putting finishing touches to poems for the Peter Porter and New Shoots comps... So, a rich and rewarding time. How lucky I am. It hasn't always been like this, that's for sure!

LJ, October 12 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.