Our poetry editor Stuart Barnes interviewed Benjamin Dodds for Issue Seven of Tincture Journal. Two of Benjamin’s poems, “Save Them” and “Disturbance” can be found in Issue Seven. Benjamin’s first poetry collection, Regulator, was released in February 2014 and can be purchased from Puncher & Wattmann.
SB: For how long have you been writing poetry, and what or who inspired you to begin?
BD: My Year 3 teacher, Mrs P, gave a poetry lesson that resulted in my eight-year-old self writing a cringe-worthy nature poem. Of course, at the time, I was intensely proud of my four or five rhyming stanzas. Mrs P made a big fuss of the poem, which was like a steroid injection to my confidence.
A few years later, I entered the local Eisteddfod’s poetry section and won a few prizes with horrendously melodramatic stuff. I loved writing poems that played in the realm of darkness and drama. Really self-indulgent stuff that worried adults. My Grandma sat me down for a serious chat after reading one poem called (groan) “Here in the Place of the Alone”. I’ll never forget her asking, “Do you really feel like this?” I just loved being in control of language’s power. Darker stuff seemed to have more force than cheery subjects.
I didn’t really start writing poetry as more than a rainy day hobby until I moved to Sydney in my very early twenties, but I guess it was still a continuation of Mrs P’s Year 3 encouragement. Incidentally, I’m now a Year 3 teacher.
SB: When and where was your first poem published, and what was it about?
BD: If we don’t count the appearance of “Here in the Place of the Alone” in the Eisteddfod (and I really hope we don’t!), my first significant publication was in Cordite. “Satisfaction” was a pastoral depiction of pissing on a fence post. I’m still pretty happy with it, but, in hindsight, it was a slightly unfortunately themed poem to mark my entry into proper poetry. Friends and family congratulated me, said they liked it, but few commented on the subject matter. “Thanks, Grandma! Yes, it is about pissing …”
In a mix-up that I now find quite humorous, Red Room Company contacted me during their Sun Herald Extra project to tell me they were going to print a poem of mine called “Easter Parade”. I was a bit shocked to see that the poem they eventually printed in the Sun Herald was “Satisfaction”. I don’t know how it happened, and they apologised, but I told a lot of people to buy the paper that weekend, only to have them read the “piss poem” again!
SB: How and where do your poems take shape?
BD: I wish I knew the answer to that question. Then, I might be able to sit down and produce new poetry whenever I feel like it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that for me. I guess I jot down ideas when they pop into my head, but they might not be revisited for a very long time. There are moments when I’m hit by an idea that needs to be explored right there and then, but this is very rare.
Lately, I find that my writing occurs relatively infrequently, but I’m happier with the quality of what I produce than I might have been a few years ago. I always write at the computer, usually with music playing in the background.
SB: Reading for a BBC Programme, Sylvia Plath explained: “[‘The Disquieting Muses’] borrows its title from the painting by Giorgio de Chirico—The Disquieting Muses. All through the poem I have in mind the enigmatic figures in this painting.” (Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, 1981).
What art forms influence your poetry?
BD: Music is a definite influence on my poetry. A poem I wrote when I was a teenager shamelessly ripped off the first line of the Tori Amos song “Precious Things” (“So, I ran faster”). The feel of a certain song or piece of music can graft itself onto a poem. I’m not sure how this translates to the reader, but, for me, the music remains forever attached to the writing.
General pop culture finds its way into some of my work, too. Bambi and H.R. Giger’s Alien are two random examples that have appeared in my poems.
SB: Tell me about “Save Them” and “Disturbance”, the poems of yours that are in Issue Seven of Tincture Journal.
BD: For a very long time, I resisted writing about my job. I guess I thought teaching wasn’t particularly interesting to the average reader. Or maybe I was worried on some level that it might be deemed unprofessional to turn the lives of my students into “art”. I wrote “Disturbance” as a sort of exorcising exercise (excuse the pun), to get it out of my system, to move on. But then I wrote “Save Them”. And I’ve since written another classroom poem, so it looks like there’s more I need to get out.
It’s easy to see the primary classroom as a cheerfully bland place, but some very real and poetically rich situations arise from time to time. I’m quite often struck by the primal stuff that rises to the surface of young people’s psyches. There’s a very complex relationship that arises between teacher and students. The two published poems attempt to explore this.
SB: How has your poetry been influenced by others? By growing up in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA) of south-western New South Wales, and living in Sydney? By working as a laboratory technician, as a primary school teacher?
BD: For quite a while, the work of Philip Hodgins was a shining light for me. He was such a talented poet. His work is accessible, unsettling, and unashamed. The way he wrote about the sense of place that penetrates and pulls at the being of country boys like me is just phenomenal. I have tried to use my own rural upbringing to create poetry that might dare to aim at being half as affecting as Hodgins’.
The dry, flat, irrigation-threaded place in which I grew up has certainly been an influence on my work. It’s a part of me, for better or worse. It took a worryingly long time to be able to write about any setting other than the MIA, but I have since written quite a lot of poems imbued with the sense of other places. Having lived in Sydney since 2001, I’ve been able to slowly get the rural stuff of my chest. It’ll always be there, though.
For three years, straight out of high school, I worked as a laboratory technician at the NSW Department of Agriculture. Science has always been a passion of mine, but having access to the world of the scientist was truly a privilege I’ll always cherish. I’ve written a few poems about the lab, but I’ve since moved on to other areas of science. I think working in a lab taught me to appreciate the aesthetics of precision.
As I mentioned in the previous section, being a teacher is also starting to yield some worthwhile material for my work.
SB: Tell me about Regulator, your first collection of poetry released earlier this year by Puncher & Wattmann, and the process from manuscript to published book.
BD: Regulator is essentially the entire body of work from my decision to write poetry seriously until about two years ago. It’s very mixed. There are poems about my rural childhood, about my experience of developing a sexuality different from my peers, about science, and various other themes. During the process of putting together the manuscript, I grouped the poems loosely based on theme. I’m very proud of it and still not quite sure it’s real! The book launch at the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills was the single happiest day of my life.
SB: What are your thoughts on print vs. digital poetry publication?
BD: I definitely prefer to read poetry on paper. I have a Kindle and an iPad; I sometimes read poetry on both, but it doesn’t feel quite as satisfying. Holding a copy of Regulator in my hands for the first time was unbelievably moving. That said, for all the romanticism of tangible books, I need to snap out of my obsession with collecting shelves and shelves of them. I have a small panic attack every time the prospect of moving is raised. So many books!
SB: What poets are you reading, what’s your favourite poem at the moment?
BD: I can’t stop reading Russell Edson. He’s an American prose poet whose imagery is disturbing and surreal. I love it. Do yourself a favour and read his poem “Ape”, in which a husband and wife argue over their evening meal of baked ape. There’s even an insinuation that the woman might have been having an affair with the animal. It’s brilliantly unsettling and grotesque. Edson is able to repulse in such an expertly nonchalant way. He’s a definite favourite poet of mine.
Other perennial favourites are Sandra Beasley and (don’t yell at me for this) Billy Collins.
SB: Thank you, Ben.
Benjamin Dodds is a Sydney-based poet whose work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Southerly, The Sun Herald, various poetry anthologies and on Radio National. His first collection, Regulator, was launched by Puncher & Wattmann Poetry in February this year.