West Australian Premier’s Book Prize for Fire Diary; Newcastle Prize for “The Wombat Vedas”

Published : Wednesday, October 26, 2011 | Label:

I got some good news on Friday 30 September. Two bits, actually.

Prizes, as my friend Freya reminds me, are just a detail. What counts is getting your work done and making it good. What’s nice, after that, is hearing from people that some of your work seems to tell them their secret life.

Still, prizes help a freelance poet fund the silence his writing depends on. And prizes draw attention to, and value, poetry itself. They help. And I’m grateful for them, and so I was glad when two came my way more or less at the same moment on two sides of the country on the last day of September.

That night, in Newcastle, I heard that my poem “The Wombat Vedas”, a long meditation on loss and love, landscape and language, on birds and wombats and sanskrit, written along the Shoalhaven last October, had won this year’s Newcastle Poetry Prize. (This year’s anthology of shortlisted poems uses my title.) The Newcastle is the Archibalds of poetry—the biggest, richest and most prestigious prize for a single prize, in the country. I was honoured to win it a few years ago for “Eclogues”, and it was a delight to take it home again on its thirtieth anniversary. An anthology of all the poems that have won the prize over those thirty years, Completely Surrounded, was launched the same night. Copies of that and The Wombat Vedas are for sale through the Hunter Writers Centre.

Around the same time that night, my friend Mags Webster stood up to thank everyone in the West on my behalf for the WA Premier’s Book Prize for poetry, which came my way for Fire Diary.

Because I didn’t get to say what I wanted to say that night in WA, here are the words I wrote. Some reflections on the nature and uses of poetry in these commercial, often banal, times, and some thanks where it is due.

Poetry is the shapely and implacable foe of fundamentalism, and I feel blessed to be called to write it; poetry is the bane of banality. Poetry is the discourse of the soul. It is said that we sang before we spoke, and it is the poets who keep the singing up and keep us—even yet—in tune. Poetry, this architecture of voice, carries on the original literature—part dance, part daydream; part chant, part chatter, part canticle. It is the literature that births and rebirths all other literatures—perhaps all art.

And yet poetry itself is such a small art, its only instruments the voice and the line. It is slow, and most of it is silence and rhythm. Poetry remembers moments and makes them enormous, said Francis Webb. It is the one-night stand that lasts ten thousand nights. When we forget poetry we forget who we are and how that sounds, and how that feels, and why that matters, here on the inside; when we fall out of poetry we forget where we are, this world of places, each as mysterious and endless as we are to each other.

Prizes like this remind everyone—even those who never met a poem they could trust—that this is still a society, despite appearances, that values the work poetry performs in our hearts and heads; this is still a society, even if it doesn’t know it, that dies a little each day for want of the news that poems tell.

The West Australian Premier’s Book Award for poetry is one of the nation’s major literary prizes, and I am thrilled to receive it for Fire Diary—my tenth book, but only my first book of poems. And I’m sorry not to be a here to accept it.

Suddenly poetry is everywhere, all at once, and the Australian Poetry, the brand new peak body, chose this weekend for its inaugural national symposium in Newcastle—starting tonight with the announcement of the Newcastle Poetry Prize. So it’s from a podium at the Newcastle Regional Art Gallery, that I send my apologies and thanks to you, through my friend and fellow poet, Mags Webster.

First, my congratulations to the other shortlisted poets. Poetry is prospering in Australia, even if no one but poets can be made to believe it. Among the makers of the best contemporary poetry are Carolyn Caddy, Jennifer Harrison and David Musgrave, and I feel honoured to stand beside them on this shortlist. David is also my publisher, and his press Puncher & Wattmann deserves recognition for the risk-taking work they’re pulling off to keep poetry new and to keep it alive in these tone-deaf times. What a charged and conflicted moment for David, then, when he took the call that told him he had not won this prize, but that one of his authors had—giving Puncher & Wattmann its first big prize. So, hard luck, Dave, and thanks to you and your designer, Matt Holt, for taking on Fire Diary and making it look as good as I tried to make it sound.

My thanks to the judges. I’ve judged prizes like this. And though the task is noble, it could put you off books for at least a month. This year I get to bank the cheque and frame the certificate, but this prize honours all of us who made a very strong shortlist. And all of us who work in the thankless dark wiring the soft bombs that poems are.

Thank you to The Department of Culture and the Arts, who fund the prize, and to the premier. Thanks, also, to the State Library of WA, in particular, to Doug George.

Closer to home, I want to thank Robert Gray, who inspired me to poetry; and I want to thank Judy Beveridge, who helped me choose the poems, and Debbie Lim, who helped me shape the collection that became Fire Diary.  And thanks to my family for putting up with what poetry sometimes costs. 

Finally, it’s a joy to receive the poetry prize of Western Australia because over the past five or six years, the West has become my second home. I was in Dunsborough, running a workshop, for instance, when I heard that Fire Diary had found its publisher. And Dennis Haskell launched Fire Diary at The Bodhi Tree last March. I’ve made too many close friends in the west these past few years to mention them all. But thanks especially to Anna-Maria Weldon and Mags Webster for your friendship and the inspiration of your words.

We in the east are, as you know, trying every trick we can to relieve Western Australia of a little of its quite unreasonable wealth. Look on my carrying home this prize as my small contribution to that project. But please know that I’ll spend the money wisely: it will finance a bit more silence from which I hope some poems may come, and I’ll send them west when they’re done.


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