2016 Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Competition Awards Ceremony
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.
Parliament House Launch of Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards
I had a lovely few days in Canberra at the beginning of the week.
Late last year I agreed to act as judge this year for the secondary student entries in the Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards. The awards are open to all school children, and are held by the Dorothea Mackellar Society. Last year approximately 10,000 entries were received from 655 schools. Approximately one third of these were from secondary students. (Acclaimed children’s novelist Sophie Masson will judge the primary student entries.)
Dorothea Mackellar lived much of her life in Gunnedah, in rural New South Wales (not far from Tamworth), and Gunnedah is the home of the Dorothea Mackellar Society.
The awards were scheduled to be launched at Parliament House on Tuesday, 1st March, and, as one of the judges, I was invited to attend and speak. I was keen to do so, but not sure if I would be able to make it. In the end, however, it worked out well. Being somewhat budget conscious I chose the “car and tent” option ahead of the “plane and motel”. The trip fitted snugly into the three days I had between finishing work at one medical practice, and commencing work at another. (Sophie Masson was unable to attend.)
I have become fairly familiar with the drive from Melbourne to Canberra over the years as the result of having attended the National Folk Festival on a number of occasions, and the trip now feels much less daunting than it once did. Mind you, I usually have company with me. Doing it alone was going to be a new experience.
A quick Google search revealed what sounded like a great camping ground – the “Cotter Campground” – only about twenty minutes from Parliament House.
I didn’t feel in a great rush to get away on Monday morning, though I did end up paying for this somewhat, eventually erecting the tent in rapidly fading light. By the time I was in a position to report my safe arrival to friends and family back in Melbourne it was well and truly dark and, the camping ground being in a valley, there was no phone reception! Nevertheless, I quickly learned from a fellow camper that it returned quite quickly once you started to drive up the adjacent mountain. I followed his advice, and found this to be true. All the same, it was somewhat eerie in the dark, looking out over a steep tree-covered drop in the warm, humid evening, gazing at the distant lights of Canberra, and wondering what was below me.
I arrived in Canberra next morning with plenty of time to spare, and devoted an hour or so to taking in the glory of Parliament House. It must have been almost thirty years since I had last been there, and it did rather take my breath away.
I eventually joined the “DM” contingent in the foyer, and we were led to Room 1R1, where the launch was to take place. Prior to this point, my communications with the Dorothea Mackellar Society had been restricted to a couple of phone calls and a few emails. It was great to finally put some faces to the names, and also to meet some new ones! I especially enjoyed meeting Jenny Farquhar (President) and Mila Stone (Project Officer).
The launch was well attended, went very smoothly, and was well received. Jenny Farquhar made opening and closing comments, the new Federal Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, officially opened the awards and, somewhat surprisingly for his staff, read a poem of his own!
The three patrons introduced children who presented award winning poems from previous years, and I was asked to introduce Amanda Walker, a computer scientist from A.N.U., who read a poem she had submitted in 1994! (The poem, “Changes”, had been subsequently published, and caught the eye of Jenny Farquhar.)
I had decided, being a poet myself, that my own speech should take the form of a poem, so I wrote the first half in the car on the way up (watch out for those trucks when you pull over to the side of the road!), and the other half in the tent that night. I felt like I was going out on a bit of a limb with this strategy but, fortunately, it went down well!
It is very impressive and encouraging to see the level of support both the Society and the awards have from politicians from all points of the political compass. The C.J. Dennis Society certainly has a lot to learn from the Dorothea Mackellar Society in this regard!
After the ceremony, we were treated to a very delicious lunch in the Members’ Dining Room!
I was too weary to do much exploring in the afternoon. Besides, it was extremely hot. However, I did enjoy checking out the Old Parliament House and the National Portrait Gallery, and driving around the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.
Later that day, and the following morning, I had more opportunity to explore – and discover – the natural charms of the Cotter Campground.
Then it was time to pack up and head home for a good night’s sleep prior to commencing my new job!
It is exciting to now know a number of the members of the Dorothea Mackellar Society, together with the patrons, personally, and to know that the poems will soon start coming in! I am looking forward to reading what I know will be a large number of very high quality pieces.
The website of the Dorothea Mackeallar Poetry Awards can be found here:
2014 Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival
The 7th Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival, held last weekend (October 18th and 19th) was a great success, and very enjoyable.
As always, the weekend kicked off with the Awards Ceremony for the written poetry competition, held in the lead-up to the festival. Congratulations to all the winners, especially to David Campbell, who once again won the Adult Open category. (I will post a list of the winners separately on my blog.) Thanks again to the Bendigo Bank (Healesville Branch) for continuing to act as a festival sponsor.
Following the presentations, I was very excited to be able to pass around images of a new C. J. Dennis poem unearthed by a talkback caller during an interview I gave on ABC Radio 774 recently. The poem, “The Gentle Kangaroomour”, had been written especially for Eilie Ford, a young girl living in Toolangi at the time C. J. Dennis was there. The exact date of the poem remains a little uncertain, but it would appear to have most definitely been written prior to 1920.
The “open mic” session which followed was very enjoyable. Maggie Somerville and I finished the session with a duet we had put together based on the poem “The Two Bees” that Dennis had written for the Herald. It had subsequently been published posthumously by his wife, Margaret Herron, in the book “Random Verse”. The poem uses the strange weather effects prevailing at the time – frosty nights and bright sunny days – which impeded the blossoming of flowers and frustrated the usual feeding habits of bees as a metaphor for the unemployment and hunger of the Great Depression. We were commanded to perform it again on the following day, so it must have been well received!
The weather gods smiled on us once again for the whole weekend, and Jan and Vic’s new marquee proved a great success.
After a break for afternoon tea, our guest star for the festival, John Derum, then performed “The Singing Garden”, a show based on Dennis’ last book of the same name. The book primarily consists of a large number of poems, each devoted to a particular species of bird that frequently visited the gardens surrounding Dennis’ Toolangi home. Of course, it is this book that also inspired the current name of Dennis’ former home – “The Singing Gardens”.
John has done an enormous amount to popularise C. J. Dennis amongst contemporary readers. In 1976 he developed a one-man show, “More Than A Sentimental Bloke”, to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Dennis. It proved extremely popular, and many other performances have followed. (On a personal note, it was a recording based on this show, an LP published by Pumphandle Records, that first introduced me to the magic of C. J. Dennis.)
In what proved to be an inspired move, John moved the chairs out of the marquee and turned them around so that they were facing the gardens. The audience soon found themselves surrounded by the very birds – king parrots, kookaburras, etc. – upon which the poems are based. The show was pure magic.
As darkness fell, we retired into the tea rooms for dinner and the main show of the festival, “More Than A Sentimental Bloke”, by John Derum. John treated us to a fabulous exposition of the life and works of C. J. Dennis. What shone through, apart from John’s brilliant talent, was his great passion for the work.
Sunday morning began well with the “Poets’ Breakfast” (strictly speaking, a morning tea!). We held the first hour in the tea rooms, then moved back down to the marquee for another session.
It was wonderful to be able to welcome veteran reciter Jim Smith to Toolangi for the first time. Jim scored a bit hit with his performance of a classic poem by Rob Charlton, “Bloody Sheilas”.
After lunch, Banjo Paterson (aka Jim Brown), Henry Lawson (aka David Campbell) and C. J. Dennis (aka myself) took the guests once more on a tour (both geographic and historic) of the gardens.
We were once again treated to a ballet from the local school children, based on a C. J. Dennis poem. This year, it was the Firetail Finches from “The Singing Garden”.
For the second time during the history of the festival, we were treated to a surprise visit from Dorothea Mackellar (aka Maggie Somerville), who was keen to know whether her newly written poem “My Country” was good enough to submit to a publisher. (Henry suggested that the second verse would never catch on…)
We once again retired to the marquee for sponge cake, fruit juice, and more poetry and song, finally drawing the festival to a close at about 5pm.
There are so many people to thank for making the festival once again a great success. All of the performers and poets must be thanked, especially our wonderful guest star for this year, John Derum. Above all, however, our gratitude is greatest for Jan Williams and her family, together with her army of helpers, who provide vast quantities of delicious food throughout the weekend, and keep everybody relaxed and happy. (Also, of course, for maintaining the beautiful gardens throughout the year.)
Next year, we will be celebrating the centenary of the publication of “The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke”, and it promises to be the biggest and best Toolangi C. J. Dennis Poetry Festival ever!
(I must add a word of apology here. My phone is playing up at the moment, and I am very limited in the photos I can put up here. No photos of John Derum, the star of the show! Aarrgh!)