Category: Diary

Spark of hope

Awards and grant opportunities for non-fiction writers working on book projects are nowhere near as plentiful as they are for fiction writers, so when a friend sent through the link for Hardie Grant’s Spark Prize, it took me about five minutes to decide to enter once I’d read through the guidelines.

That decision was the easy part.

After re-reading the guidelines, and the submission criteria several times, entering this award wasn’t going to be quite the piece of cake it looked like at first. After all my work was in progress, I’d written multiple bios of varying lengths by this time, and I had a previous submission for a similar award offered by the Australia Institute 18 months ago. Surely a quick re-write to bring things up-to-date would be enough.

Well, no.

Needless to say I wasn’t successful with the AI award but writing a succinct yet detailed synopsis was a valuable and worthwhile experience even so. The criteria for the narrative non-fiction Spark Prize are even more stringent with their requirement to provide a detailed chapter outline of the work-in-progress. Understandably Hardie Grant want to be sure they are investing in authors serious about their particular project, and that a significant start on it has already been made. A chapter outline, detailed or otherwise, isn’t something I’d given any thought to at all. I was just ‘getting it down’ as it had been suggested I do, not get bogged down in the finer detail of what happened when, and by whom.

So that part took longer to do than expected, and the 3000 word limit that I initially thought was rather generous, turned out to be barely enough. It also meant I had to dig around in the less-than-perfectly-organised documents and files on my computer to check on certain facts, figures and dates. It was a valuable reminder of the importance of up-to-date careful filing, dating and labelling, and necessitated a spot of much needed organising and sorting. At least now information retrieval has been made easier.

My lovely mentor Robyn has generously offered to read through my completed submission before I send it off, so now it’s a matter of awaiting her verdict and hoping she doesn’t suggest too much rewriting given the deadline is only a matter of days away, and my attention now needs to turn to ongoing work opportunities, ones for which I also get paid!

Image courtesy of Google images (unlicensed)


Serendipitous moment

Volunteering on an information stall for ABC Friends at Exeter Market yesterday proved to be a lot more beneficial than simply flying the flag for our public broadcaster, worthwhile though that also certainly proved to be.

During the course of the morning while chatting to a couple of guys about why whoever wins government in this year’s federal election should ensure restoring ABC’s funding is a priority, I had the nagging feeling I knew one of them. The question was from where? I was 90 per cent sure it was from the pulp mill campaign, but a fair amount of water has flowed under the bridge since then and we’re all several years older. Interestingly though, it turned out he was also racking his brains for exactly the same reason.

As the conversation wrapped up about the importance of the ABC’s role in ensuring we have a healthy democracy, and a public broadcaster free from political interference that’s able to hold all politicians and governments to account, I decided to ask him if he was who, by then, I was almost certain I thought he was. And indeed he was.

Needless to say once our respective identities had been confirmed reminiscences ensured the conversation continued for several more minutes, but the revelations that followed were pure gold so far as I was concerned. Everyone who chose to campaign against the mill did so for a variety of personal reasons but I’d never known what had drawn Rod into the fight. I do now though and what he told me was a shocking litany of Gunns’, and the government’s, perfidy.
It also included details that not only confirmed what I’ve literally just written about in my early and far-from-finished draft, but also included a lot more detail. And shocking, damning detail at that in respect of Gunns and the company’s appalling aerial spraying practices.

It was all eye-popping stuff, so having confirmed the email address that still lurks in my address book is current, and that Rod is happy to be quoted I shall now need to revisit and rewrite some of the passages I thought were complete. But I’ll be doing so more confidently, and in the knowledge I can tap into his own experiences of the kind of truly shocking forestry practices that were standard for Gunns during those early days of the pulp mill campaign. A time when it seemed to many that it called the government’s tune, and essentially ruled the state. These were also practices that confirmed Gunns, and some of its employees, were quite prepared to disregard both the health and safety of people, and the environment more broadly. It seemed campaigning to stop the pulp mill had inadvertently uncovered a can of very nasty worms.

Photo credit: Garry Stannus

Ideas are like rabbits

The postie delivered copies of the FAW NW anthology last week – a very well put together volume that includes seven of my poems. It actually looks like a thumping good read, and I’m not just saying that because I have work included in it. Going on the pieces I’ve already read we really do have a wealth of writerly talent in this state – and the majority of contributions are by Tasmanian writers.

The book is available online through Dymocks, Angus & Robertson, and Booktopia as well as direct from the Burnie-based editor. I understand sales are quite brisk so a second print run is looking highly likely. As is the way with so many of these writing group anthologies, the majority of which are produced on a shoestring budget, there is no payment for contributors. It seems poets are rarely remunerated for their efforts unless they’ve developed a significant following and reputation, and been fortunate enough to achieve publishing success with a mainstream publisher, so it’s kudos only in the case of this book. No wonder that hackneyed phrase about starving in garrets is applied equally to poets, as well as artists.

But publication is a validation, and this book is a nice addition to the CV. It also firms up that decision to put together my own volume of work, and have a crack at sending off some more of what I judge to be my better efforts to those small press magazines considered ‘literary’ that are among the few publishing opportunities for poetry. And the ones who pay their contributors!

And if you’re wondering about the title – it’s from a quote by John Steinbeck.

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”


A stint in the spotlight

Nobody was more surprised than me when I was asked to be the guest poet at the monthly gathering of Tas Poets Performing. I’ve never seriously considered myself a poet, and still struggle to do so despite having had several poems published over the year. So I really did think Marilyn was joking when she said would I be September’s guest poet. She wasn’t joking, and persuaded me to agree.

I’m an occasional attendee at these poetry nights, which are held in a local pub and attract an audience of anywhere between five and twenty. They’re usually a chance to catch up with fellow writers – and those I consider ‘real’ poets like my friend Marilyn – and I generally take one or two of my political poems to read in the open mic set. And they do seem to be well received, which is lovely.

But having to select poems to fill a 10 to 15 minute slot was a different matter altogether. What to choose when the bulk of them are undeniably political and often less than flattering to politicians and governments of the day. They are also of the moment; a snapshot in time. I wasn’t really aware of that aspect until I pulled out the folders and realised just how many poems I’d written over the last 15 years ago.

I’m an accidental poet. In the early days of the pulp mill campaign I was invited to join a word game by New Zealand writer, Yvonne. I didn’t know her really, but her name often cropped up as the author of a story or essay published in the same UK small press magazine I was also beginning to have some success with. After spotting an item in a writing magazine about her first novel being published, I emailed my congratulations as a fellow southern hemisphere writer who was also achieving success. To may astonishment she replied and invited me to join Word Expo, a weekly online word game that was seeking some new players.

Because it was described as a game, not a writing exercise, I decided to give it a go and for reasons that remain a mystery to me what emerges from the disparate list of words submitted by that week’s players, is often poetry. And they are usually political. During the campaign years that meant many of them were about the pulp mill.
For my guest poet gig therefore the mill was one of the three issues I focussed on. The others being refugees, and climate change. It was a fun evening and it’s crystallised a decision to put together a book of these poems that are a poetic social and political history. Although quite when I shall have time to do this is unclear!

I’ve decided it’s also time I officially ‘come out’ as a poet, and added Tas Poet Performer to my writer CV!


Tamar Valley Storyteller

I’ll admit to some trepidation and hesitation in taking up the Tamar Valley Writers’ Festival invitation to be a storyteller in its Q&A feature. It’s fantastic idea to promote the talents of so many of the writers living in the valley, but I’m not given to self-promotion – as those who know me will attest – so I felt a bit uncomfortable about outing myself, as it were.

Anyway, it’s out there now in cyberspace and Facebook land, sloshing away among all the other assorted articles, photos, comments, memes etc and will doubtless be quickly subsumed among the avalanche of links that will have already followed its publication a couple of days ago.

Hats off to the Festival though – because it’s a great idea.

Photo credit to Tim Walker. I prefer to be behind the camera rather than in front of it so not many photos of me exist. This one it has to be said, although recent, was taken for another situation entirely. I’ve just borrowed it.

Tamar Valley Storytellers: Anne Layton-Bennett


First Base . . .

. . . . At least so far as reaching the first word count target goes, and the goal I had to achieve before taking the draft to my mentor for her first proper review.

I feel fortunate in securing Robyn’s mentoring skills. As I know from others who’ve benefited from her editing criticism and advice she’ll pull no punches, but many of her writing class students over the years have gone on to find serious publishing success with their novels and memoirs. And all of them credit her mentorship in achieving that success. But for all kinds of reasons she chose to hang up her red editing pens a couple of years ago, and was therefore ambivalent about my request to consider steering me along my book-writing adventure. My initial approach was at a Schools4Climate rally we both attended. Robyn said she would think about it, but it was several months later, at a subsequent climate rally that she came across and said yes, she would do it. Phew.

It could be the subject matter that swung things in my favour – Robyn was among the thousands who campaigned against the pulp mill – but her agreement certainly galvanised me into more serious action. At that point, it has to be said, I’d not actually written a great deal but I duly took the few thousand words I had completed for her to read through. She made no comment but she still probably gave me the best advice I could have after reading them and learning how I envisaged the book developing. ‘Just get it down’ she said. ‘Don’t worry about how the stories fit together at this point, just write it down. And don’t come back to me until you have at least 15,000 words.’

Well, I’ve reached that magic number, so now it’s time to see what she thinks. By the end of next week I’ll feel either elated, enthused, and raring to write the next 20,000 words, or despondent at the thought of all the potential changes. Fingers crossed it will be the former.



I’m in shock!

I still feel a bit of a fraud when it comes to my attempts at poetry writing as I don’t really consider myself a poet at all. I started writing poetry after being invited years ago to join an online weekly word game played by a few writers. Most were based in New Zealand, and the instigator and coordinator of the game is a Kiwi, but initially there were a couple from South Africa as well. The idea is to create a short piece of writing – anything from essay, anecdote, story, script or poem – from the words submitted by contributing players each week. Previously used words are not allowed, and the selection is completely random but at least three of the submitted words must be included. Sometimes this can prove quite challenging – especially if only three people played, providing just three words! There’s no obligation to play every week, but those who miss five in a row forfeit their place – although they can re-join at any time.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, poetry is usually what emerges from these disparate words, and over the years most have been political responses to whatever might be happening in the country or world at that time. Writing them provided an emotional release during the pulp mill campaign, allowing me to pen a scathing reply to whatever aspect dominated the week’s headlines.  Some will be included in the book. Poems are entirely instinctive, and follow no accepted style or form, but they have a rhythm to them even if they rarely rhyme in the traditional sense.

So they’ve become something of a social and political commentary over the years, and friends who are way more accomplished in writing the poetic form than I am, have also been generous in their praise and appreciation, even suggesting I should consider publication. Although largely sceptical and reluctant to claim a talent I don’t altogether feel is deserved, I have occasionally followed their advice and achieved some publishing success in several small press publications.

Now however, I’ve recently received an email from a US-based Australian academic, so maybe it’s time to have more confidence in my poetry-writing ability. University of California academic Eve Darian-Smith is seeking copyright permission to use an extract from a poem included in the ’From the Ashes’ anthology, published early last year as a bushfire fundraiser to assist wildlife sanctuaries care for burned and displaced animals.

The planned book is: “. . . . Planet on Fire: Climate Change and Global Free-Market Authoritarianism” which examines governmental policies and neoliberal logics that prioritize corporate interests over those of citizens and the environment. The book is to be published by the University of California Press, [in 2022] which is a non-profit scholarly publisher. The book is based on scholarly research and is intended for sale to libraries, scholars, students, and interested general readers on a non-profit basis.”

Now you know why I’m in shock!

Just ‘Wow!’ to echo the response of one of my friends when I told him!


Setting writing goals

So this is the plan, and as I’ve now articulated it several times – most recently at the resurrected Write Here meeting last weekend – there’s a lot more incentive to stick to the timeline I’ve set myself, and actually achieve it. Or else be shamed into having to confess I failed.

My 2021 calendar and dairy therefore now show the first three days of each week are to be devoted to writing. Notwithstanding life’s unexpected spanners occasionally. And not just writing The Book, since the bread and butter article writing cannot be ignored, but my aim is to be considerably more disciplined about the whole task ahead, and considerably less available to distractions – however pleasurable or tempting invitations to do this or meet for that may be.

So far so good, (but let’s not get too excited; it’s only early February after all) and I feel on track to meet the first milestone in my year-long pact with myself to have the first draft of this book completed by the end of December. But long before that moment arrives my mentor will give initial – and probably brutal – feedback when I’ve completed the first 20,000 words. Goal number one therefore is to reach this target by the end of the month.

Two, or perhaps three months after that I’ll present her with the next 20,000 words. And so on. How many words do I envisage this book will be? How long is a piece of string: I have no idea, but I’m pretty sure I’ll know when I’ve reached The End.

I had a light bulb moment a week or so back while racking my brain to remember when certain actions and events occurred. Eventually I established a clippings archive and so can check these things in the boxes of pulp mill-related news items, letters and articles. But in the early days it never occurred to me to keep such things. Bad move, but then again, who knew in the beginning how important it might be to hang on to them.

But while I might not have the newsprint, I had copies of letters and emails written to my Mum, and to UK- and WA-based friends. I cannot really explain why I chose to keep copies of my weekly letters home, but since writing these missives on the computer, rather than by hand, I had done so. They were the equivalent of a journal, or diary I suppose, and documented our day-to-day activities and life’s ups and downs on the flower farm, at school, and – increasingly during the years of the campaign – opposing the pulp mill.

Pulling these files down from the cupboard and flipping through them has certainly stirred some memories, as well as confirmed a few key dates. These letters have also made achieving that target a lot easier; why reinvent the wheel when the description has already been written, and with an immediacy and a freshness it would be hard to replicate so many years on.

There was certainly no expectation that decision to keep copies – a decision I would have been hard-pressed to explain to myself even then – would ever prove to be so invaluable for the years that spanned the pulp mill campaign. But I’m certainly now thanking my younger self for doing so.

Photo credit: Garry Stannus

Memories of Buck

Of those who campaigned long and hard to ensure the pulp mill would never pollute the Tamar Valley, there were many who didn’t live to see it through to the end. Some of these people I knew only from reputation, some I didn’t know at all, and one or two I knew quite well. Several others have died in the years since. The most recent of these was a man who during, and afterwards, became a good friend, and who – together with his wife Joan – is among my interviewees for the book.

The magnificent Buck Emberg left the world on the last day of November, after a life that truly was well-lived. He’d been a teacher, writer, philosopher, and restaurateur among other occupations. He was also a wonderful teller of tales about his colourful and varied life.

This being Launceston, although I didn’t get to know Buck properly until the campaign, I’d actually met him briefly years before, during the florist shop days when he ordered flowers for Joan – perhaps for her birthday or their anniversary. Being Buck, he wanted to swap stories about our respective non-Tasmanian backgrounds and how we came to be living here. Buck was American, with Swedish ancestry. His name stuck in my memory too because of occasional articles in the paper that mentioned the Embergs, and their belief the thylacine wasn’t extinct at all. Buck was convinced they’d seen one, and he and Joan were making plans to follow some strong leads and prove these elusive animals were still around. It didn’t happen of course.

A decade or so later I met them both again at the meetings of Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill, or TAP, a group I only attended infrequently, but which they went to regularly. Buck and Joan were the architects of the amazingly successful Voters Block initiative, designed to make the state’s politicians sit up and take notice that the mill issue crossed party lines, and people were prepared to vote for those candidates who opposed the mill. It remains the largest petition ever to be presented to Tasmania’s parliament, and it threatened the cosy Liberal and Labor duopoly. It also indicated a significant increase in support for the Greens in the lead up to the 2010 state election – indicative of community opposition to the pulp mill.

A newspaper that focused on the facts about the mill, challenging the spin that had become a regular feature of Gunns’ ‘mouthpiece’, The Examiner, was another of Buck’s clever and creative campaign ideas. Only one issue was ever produced, but it served its purpose, and was subsequently used as a referenced authority on many aspects relating to the mill, and the negative impacts it would have on the region’s economy, environment, and the health of all those living in Launceston and the Tamar Valley.

No surprise then that the wake held in December was an opportunity for Buck’s many friends from those campaign days to reminisce and remind ourselves and others of what a determined and committed community can achieve. It was also a sharp reminder for me to be much more focused in the coming year, and ensure the first draft of this book is completed.

Photo credit: Susie Clarke




Paying the price of ignoring climate change

Paying the price of ignoring climate change

During the pulp mill campaign I regularly wrote letters to editors of both the national and local media, as well as commenting on as many online articles and blogs as I was able to find. Missives to editors have been much less frequent in recent months and years, but the whole climate issue has inspired me to write more often. My latest efforts though have failed to make it into print. Possibly because they touch on a movement that is gathering momentum around the world – Extinction rebellion, or XR.

Whatever the reason I decided it was time they saw the light of day, and had a potential audience and it occurred to me this blog is the perfect platform, so here they are:

“Every day there are media reports of extreme climactic events around the world. Many of them occur in Australia. Summer has barely begun yet already we’ve experienced shocking bushfires that have destroyed homes, businesses, livestock and food crops. We’ve got the worst drought on record, while elsewhere in the country there’s flooding. Rivers are dry, communities have run out of water, unique wildlife species are either extinct, or on the brink of being so. To say this is ‘normal’ is ridiculous, yet Mr Morrison refuses to acknowledge the risks, or accept two of the major contributors to the climate emergency are mining and forestry. Instead he rails against and vilifies those pointing out the danger of climate inaction in the only means left to them: displays of public, peaceful and creative protests. Scientists from every discipline are speaking out and emphasising the danger of climate inaction, strongly criticising the Morrison government’s wilful refusal to act.

So what will it take for this government to accept reality?  How many more homes must be lost to the flames of uncontrollable bushfires? How many crops must be ruined? How many thousands of sheep, cattle, and horses, must be culled? Or forests and wilderness destroyed? Or the health, wellbeing and safety of Australians be compromised and threatened, to satisfy the Morrison government’s love affair with a coal industry whose day is over.”

“The Morrison government has a one seat majority. This suggests almost half the country didn’t vote for it, and doesn’t necessarily support it. Therefore however much Mr Morrison, and others in his government, continue to dismiss the need to take urgent action on climate change, he shouldn’t be surprised that half the population disagrees with him, or that increasing numbers of Australians are choosing to express their disagreement and frustration in the only means left to them: civil disobedience. We live in a democracy. Civil disobedience and the right to protest peacefully are our democratic right. It’s something Mr Morrison would do well to remember. Democracy is a two-way contract after all, and threatening to remove the right to peacefully protest about government inaction on an issue universally recognised as the greatest threat to the planet, is a disgraceful and unacceptable response from a prime minister.

Thousands of scientists across the discipline have now demanded the world’s leaders take action on climate. For any government to ignore this advice now borders on criminal negligence and shameful irresponsibility. Not only does a refusal to act risk serious social division or collapse, as well as economic ruin for thousands of people, it risks leaving successive  generations of Australians facing ever more extreme droughts, floods and bushfires, and an increasingly uncertain and uncomfortable future.

What price the lucky country then?”