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“Secret Lives of the Colonial Poets”

The news may well be out of the bag but in any case, I’m very excited to say that I’ve been successful in obtaining funding from Arts Victoria to develop a new collection of poems, based on correspondence between Australian poet Bernard O’Dowd and American bard Walt Whitman.

The correspondence (which has been preserved in the State Library of Victoria and also published in Overland magazine) is notable both for Whitman’s brevity (he was, after all, on his death bed), as for O’Dowd’s idolisation of the man he calls ‘master’, and once even ‘comrade’.

O’Dowd was a peculiar old bird. He loved Whitman so much that he made a special cabinet in which to place all of his published works. It too is preserved in the State Library in Melbourne. The first letter he wrote to Whitman he never actually sent, and no wonder – it’s acutely embarrassing. Nevertheless it is from this letter that much of my initial inspiration for this project stemmed.

The collection, whose provisional title is Secret Lives of the Colonial Poets, will be largely concerned with the inner thoughts of some of Australia’s colonial rhymesters, including (but not limited to) O’Dowd, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Kendall and other poets whose work has been anthologised and whose major output occurred prior to Federation (ie before 1901).

Call me a weirdo, call me what you will, I just want to bring sexy back to the colonial days. I just want to get inside the mind of a man like O’Dowd who wore a leaf of grass on his jacket as a form of homage to the bearded one. I guess I just want to disappear inside the words and thoughts of these strange, almost forgotten fellow-weirdos.

What’s exciting about the funding is (obviously) the chance it gives me to spend some time developing a new body of work; but I’m also flattered to be included in the same round (see link above) as the frontman of The Fauves, Andrew Cox, who has received funding for a solo project. I was lucky enough to interview Coxy for Cordite several years ago, and his answers to my nerdy poet’s questions were both generous and fascinating.

Anyway, I’m not due to start working on the project until April (by which time I will probably have changed my modus operandi entirely) however just as a taster I’d like to share with you one of the poems I included in the funding application. Of course, it’s a draft but I’m hoping to write in this kind of vein throughout the period in which I’m funded so here goes.


& you make the leaves of grass & of the trees
speak for themselves! great scald of demos i
am yours oh master bending down to me! like
a tree of man & of men (mighty rivers flowing
through your poems & the day like a dripping
tap & i a drum that tap will fill with a restless
spirit stranded here beneath the reeds on the
river’s bank & there we shall walk my prophet
after you have dunked my head & blessed it
made me drink the brown river waters silted
by imperial drones the fury of our resistance
master! none shall stand before us (tho none
be in danger from our gentle hands apostles
walking together our hands brushing gently
the grasses rushes our secret lives rising up
like nations to be counted among the new &
old this new democracy! of our own making!
bard of wisdom & of long summer days alone
in libraries lit by a stained glass sun reading
from your poems arrayed in battle formations
line after line of soldiers’ language & orders
tho not from on high the master’s commands
we cannot hear for the rushing sound of that
river finally leaping free of drought (old grey
father of my new religion one of men & words
that flow like rivers of milk from the trunks of
she-oaks river gums as swarms of bees attack
pollen seas & our fingers sticky with that love