2016 Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Competition Awards Ceremony
September 3rd, 2016 | C. J. Dennis, Camberwell, Dorothea Mackellar, Festivals, Photos, Poems for adults, Significant dates in the life of C. J. Dennis, Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival
I recently spent two days in Gunnedah in New South Wales to attend the Awards Ceremony of the 2016 Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Competition.
Dorothea Mackellar, as most people will know, is an Australian poet who is best known for her iconic homage to her homeland, “My Country”.
The full text of the poem can be found here:
Mackellar was born in Sydney, but she spent much of her time in the area around Gunnedah, where her brother owned property and built a homestead.
The Poetry Competition held in her name is for school aged children. This year it attracted just shy of 12,000 entries. I believe it is the largest poetry competition for children in Australia – probably by a long way. It is administered by the Dorothea Mackellar Memorial Society, also based in Gunnedah.
I had been asked to judge the secondary school entries this year – hence my involvement with the Awards Ceremony. Internationally published novelist and writer Sophie Masson had judged the primary entries.
For me, the journey involved a flight to Sydney, where I transferred to a propellor plane for the flight to Tamworth. Gunnedah is an hour’s drive west of Tamworth, and a supporter of the Society very kindly picked me up from Tamworth Airport and drove me to my motel. Patrons, judges, the winners and their families or support crews all descended on the town at around the same time from various corners of the country.
In the afternoon, we were taken on a bus tour of the region by Whitehaven Coal. Whitehaven own several coal mines in the region, and the Mackellar homestead is on land owned by Whitehaven.
Former Deputy Prime Minister The Honourable Mark Vaile AO is a board member of Whitehaven Coal, and a patron of the Dorothea Mackellar Society. Whitehaven Coal is also a sponsor of the Society.
(The other patrons are The Honourable Margaret J White AO, former Judge of the Supreme Court of Queensland, and Peter Shergold AO, who has led a highly distinguished career as both an academic and a public servant. Margaret has recently been appointed to the Royal Commission into the Northern Territory’s youth detention system. Peter is currently the Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney.)
Unfortunately, we were not able to visit the homestead. We were, however, given a good view of the surrounding countryside – much of which is flood prone – and were also taken up Porcupine Hill for an excellent view of the township and adjacent areas.
We also visited the Dorothea Mackellar statue for some photo opportunities! (This is located adjacent to the newly-completed Mackellar Centre, located in the former Visitors’ Information Centre (V.I.C.), which was due to be opened the following day. More of that later. Meanwhile, the V.I.C. had been re-located to the Civic Centre, closer to the centre of town.)
The following morning, I was invited to an informal breakfast at a nearby restaurant. To my great joy, a senior member of the community read “Clancy of the Overflow”. This allowed me to pounce and – with the permission of the organiser, Sandra Carter, of course – recite my own parody of the poem, “Clancy of the Undertow”, written back in 1986. I am thrilled to be able to report that it was very well received!
From there it was a short walk down to the Town Hall and around the corner to the Civic Centre for the Awards Ceremony.
The Ceremony was beautifully put together, a lovely balance of speeches, music, prize presentations and poetry readings. There was an audience of about 100. I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that everybody performed their roles admirably. The two highlights for me were the presentation by guest speaker, ABC journalist and presenter Heather Ewart, and Peter Shergold’s speech.
Heather gave a fascinating account of her career, especially the early years when she was very conscious of being a trailblazer for women. (She had been told at the time she set out that there was no future for women in journalism.) She also spoke about her current role with the television programme, “Back Roads”. She explained that the idea behind it had been to prove to urban audiences there was a great deal of a positive nature taking place in rural Australia, contrary to popular perception. The programme has been a great success, and a new series is now planned. Heather concluded by highlighting the critical value of literacy and communication skills in forging successful careers, whatever the field of endeavour.
Peter Shergold spoke passionately and spontaneously about Dorothea Mackellar herself, what an intelligent and courageous woman she was, but also about how sad, lonely and frustrating much of her life turned out to be. A couple of examples – her favourite brother was killed during the Boer War, and a letter she sent to England accepting a marriage proposal never arrived. She therefore never married and had children. Nor did she ever have any nieces or nephews.
A sentiment I heard repeated several times during the course of my stay was the need for a new, rigorous biography of Dorothea Mackellar.
During my own speech, I spoke of the importance – as I see it – of preserving national “sacred sites” of historical cultural importance, particularly as they relate to writers. Gunnedah has the legacy of Mackellar and the nearby homestead. Here in Victoria, we have “The Singing Gardens” at Toolangi, former home of C. J. Dennis, and now home to the annual Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival. More recently, we also have the boarding house at 832/834 Burke Road Camberwell, where Dennis wrote “The Moods of Ginger Mick”. I invited all present to attend the festival and pointed out that, with the closing date for the Toolangi poetry competition being 7th September, there was still time to enter! I also wrote a short poem for the ceremony, which was well received.
Following the Awards Ceremony, we moved up to the Mackellar Centre for its opening ceremony. It was explained to us that the artist Jean Isherwood had created a series of water colours to illustrate “My Country”. (A DVD featuring the voice of an elderly Mackellar reading her poem alongside the Isherwoold paintings had been shown during the Awards Ceremony.) The pressing need to find a space to display these paintings had driven the creation of the Mackellar Centre.
The opening ceremony was a great occasion, culminating in the formal cutting of a ribbon.
I haven’t said much about the winning poems themselves, but details will be available soon on the Dorothea Mackellar website. They were of a very high standard, as would be expected.
I had a wonderful time in Gunnedah. The experience of being a judge, though undoubtedly quite arduous, was extremely rewarding and, indeed, a source at times of great inspiration. I wish to thank most sincerely the Dorothea Mackellar Memorial Society for the privilege of being able to be a part of the process in 2016.