Poetic conversations with Kevin Smith
Writer, Gay Liddington, saw on social media that local writer and poet, Kevin Smith, was presented with an award at the 2018 Newcastle Poetry Prize. Gay’s interest was piqued, so she headed for Reesville to meet the man behind the award.
by Gay Liddington
Driving to Kevin’s Reesville home was like being drawn into the embodiment of a poem. Off bitumen, a winding dirt track decelerated my morning. The wet sclerophyll forest beckoned me through an arch of trees, while ferny groves held their place on the sideline.
My vehicle reached a clearing with the house beyond. White smoke whirled upward from a fire pit – its source charred and smouldering. Kevin poked at the fire then strode to greet me. In the shadow of a guardian tree we settled at a table, rustic by nature, and began the banter of poets to a background chorus of birdsong.
Like the path to Kevin’s home, his life has had its bumps and bends. However, then came the clearing and clarity.
Kevin and his identical twin brother, Martin, were placed fourth and fifth in a line of seven children. “I get asked a lot about the identical twin thing, but much more prominent in my mind is being one of seven – part of a tribe and the complexities of that.
“My earliest memories come from living in a little timber mill village, Hardy’s Mill, outside Tumbarumba in New South Wales. We moved there in the mid ‘60s when I was four years old and left when I was 12. That time and place is very present in a lot of my poems.”
School is often referred to as the formative years. Kevin recalls, “In high school, my brother and I were in a year level that played up, then something happened at the start of Grade 10 where I just got stuck into the work.
“Part of the joy was bumping into Shakespeare for the first time with The Merchant of Venice. There was definitely something about the language. I started writing poetry in Grade 11 or 12.
“I ended up becoming more academic and finished as Dux at a small country high school, then headed off to university, which I was desperate to do.”
Set on being a writer, Kevin studied journalism. He adds, “That meant going out to interview all these strange people. I couldn’t handle it. It’s not an automatic thing for me to reach out into a larger world. However, in conjunction with journalism, Theatre Arts was recommended and I loved it.
“I tried to be an actor and washed dishes at a Paddington restaurant for a few years. I was in my late twenties and thought, I don’t want to be doing this in my forties. Then, a door opened.
“I rang QUT and enquired about doing a graduate diploma in teaching the following year. They invited me to audition which I did and two days later, I was sitting in my first lecture.”
Brisbane State High School saw Kevin though his prac teaching then on to MacGregor High, where he taught drama for seven years, embodying the words of a former lecturer: Who you are as a person is the foundation of who you are as a teacher.
After time out from the classroom, Kevin taught Drama in Education at QUT for several years. Then, a move to Maleny for family reasons in 2003 with partner, Rachael Stacy, saw him working on a research project, the subject bullying, with Griffith University.
“When we first arrived in Maleny, I wasn’t working so kept pushing the idea that I might develop as a writer, but could never work out what I wanted to write.”
During that time of perplexity, Kevin wrote two plays – one produced – the draft of a novel, a number of short stories and was writing poetry. With the beginning of 2017 came writer’s block, then clarity.
“The thing that got me out of that state was going back to poetry. Australian poet, Mark Tredinnick, came to Maleny to do a gig at Outspoken and, as a result, I travelled to Sydney and did a workshop with Mark.”
Meeting Mark Tredinnick had a profound effect on Kevin’s development as a poet. Mentored by Mark through the Australian Writers Mentoring Program, his submitted manuscript grew from 33 to 58 poems.
“I wrote lyric poetry but understood nothing about lyric poetry. I understand it now. It is the experience of individual consciousness. It’s not a thinking mechanism. It’s a sensing, feeling mechanism.”
More recently, Kevin has ventured into performing poetry in Maleny, once at Outspoken and a number of times at Club Acoustic – a useful opportunity to present and critique his work.
Inspired by Les Murray’s poem, Driving Through Sawmill Towns, Kevin says: “I felt thrilled at the idea you could write a poem about a mill. It allowed me to go back and write reasonably extensively about living in Hardy’s Mill and living in that family.
“So, I’ve ended up with a sequence of poems about the mill, my relationship with my father and poems that go beyond to my being a dad with two sons, and a grandfather. It’s easy for us to avoid difficult emotional territory and I want to go there in the poems.
“The poem commended in the Newcastle Poetry Prize is Thirteen Ways of Knowing my Father. Over 800 poems were submitted, then a short-list of 30 – two of my poems were shortlisted. Those 30 poems have been published in the anthology Buying Online.”
Kevin refers to the American poet, Gregory Orr, who wrote ‘Poetry as Survival’.
“His thesis is that if you’ve suffered trauma, which most of us have, and you say nothing, you suffer in silence. If you write it down, you’ve objectified it, gained a certain level of distance. If you write a poem about it, you transform it. So, writing lyric poetry is a way to help us deal with our own trauma.”
Kevin concludes: “It’s worked for me. I feel like I’m mining my life’s experiences.”
See Kevin Smith in performance at Club Acoustic, Maleny RSL Hall, Thursday, February 7. The event starts at 6.30pm.
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