MAX­INE BENEBA CLARKE

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - MAX­INE BENEBA CLARKE is the au­thor of The Hate Race and For­eign Soil.

“I wrote my me­moirs when I was in Grade 5.” Aus­tralian poet Alan Wearne ab­sent­mind­edly ruf­fles a hand through tuft­ing grey hair. “They were sup­posed to be me­moirs of Grade 2, 3 and 4, but I never got to Grade 4. I called them The Good Old Days. Be­cause back in those grades, we had the to­tal run of the place. I mean, it was crazy.” Wearne chuck­les, as if even now – some 60 years later – he still can’t be­lieve he and his con­tem­po­raries’ pri­mary school reign. My mind con­jures grass-stained Lord-of-the-Fliesesque stu­dents cow­boy­ing around hap­less teach­ers. “Then we sud­denly had this teacher who ran a re­ally tight ship. We hadn’t known any­thing like it. So we looked back with this kind of nos­tal­gia on The Golden Days. I used to give recita­tions of these me­moirs out and about the place.”

He’s not pulling my leg. Bushy eye­brows. Grey­black stub­ble. Black jacket over thread­bare T-shirt. Uni­ver­sal poet-chic. Sit­ting at my sum­mer ta­ble as we lunch, it’s not dif­fi­cult to imag­ine nine-year-old Wearne, stand­ing atop a milk crate, lament­ing aloud from a grubby, dog-eared ex­er­cise book.

“I didn’t re­ally see po­etry as a vo­ca­tion. I started writ­ing be­cause that’s what the grown-ups did. The grown-ups read, so you may as well write … I went to the cir­cus and wanted to be a clown very early on … and later I fell in love with as­tron­omy … I thought of be­com­ing a bar­ris­ter. I liked the idea of the lives of cer­tain great ad­vo­cates … but his­tory is my first in­tel­lec­tual love.”

There was an­other teacher – there is al­ways a teacher – in the room next door to the strict new in­cum­bent. He read the class C.J. Den­nis’s The

Sen­ti­men­tal Bloke. “I’d never heard any­thing like it. Every­one was roar­ing with laugh­ter.” A verse nov­el­ist was seeded. One of Wearne’s ear­li­est verse pieces was Death of a Go-Go Girl, a satir­i­cal nar­ra­tive in which a show­girl finds her­self in heaven. There was an­other early poem set in War­randyte, “which I could still re­cite if you got me drunk”.

Wearne was that teacher for me: circa 1999, at Wol­lon­gong Uni­ver­sity. The cre­ative arts build­ing was set slightly apart from the other fac­ul­ties, like the du­bi­ous, ec­cen­tric un­cle, sur­vey­ing a fam­ily func­tion. I stood, ner­vously clutch­ing a late en­rol­ment form, knock­ing at a quiet of­fice door. Wearne emerged creased and crea­ture­like from a small room, wall-to-wall with books, and I be­gan my pitch to change my ma­jor from prose to po­etry. Wearne de­bated, ex­claimed, in­quired. “An LLB!” He stared at me de­light­edly, as if the pres­ence of a law stu­dent around those po­etry parts was stranger than a leprechaun.

These days, Wearne and I meet spo­rad­i­cally, and he keeps me up­dated about the lives of my fel­low alumni: their tri­umphs, off­spring and dis­as­ters. En­gage­ment such as Wearne’s is a rar­ity. He is a man gen­uinely and ef­fort­lessly in­ter­ested in the lives of every­one around him. When we lost a stu­dent from my grad­u­at­ing year, from com­pli­ca­tions with his schizophre­nia med­i­ca­tion, Wearne as­sem­bled sev­eral fel­low poets and for­mer stu­dents to col­lect his writ­ings, edit them, and put them out as the de­but ti­tle from Grand Pa­rade Poets, Wearne’s new po­etry im­print. It was called 6am in the Uni­verse, by Ben­jamin Frater (1979-2007).

Con­ver­sa­tions with Wearne dip, weave and dou­ble back: jam-packed with peo­ple and may­hem and mem­o­ries. As a lec­turer, his en­cy­clopaedic world knowl­edge and wild tan­gents were both leg­endary and lauded. There’s a story in ev­ery­thing, and Wearne’s roll is lar­rikin-easy, ges­tu­ral hands in mo­tion, eyes light­ing up at the re­mem­brance of some bizarre event or other.

Unas­sum­ing subur­bia as­sumes a Howard Arkley­fied ex­cite­ment un­der Wearne’s gaze. You feel as if you’ve fallen from the or­di­nary into an epic verse novel nar­ra­tive: The Night­mar­kets, The Love­mak­ers, or per­haps his early 1987 verse novella of­fer­ing, Out Here.

“The tribe I write about is more likely than not to be the peo­ple I grew up with,” he says. “Or their par­ents, or their chil­dren.” In front of us on the ta­ble, among breads, dips and cheeses, is Wearne’s lat­est verse of­fer­ing: These Things Are Real. Wearne rolls me through the kaleidoscope of events that ini­ti­ated each of the five verse nar­ra­tives.

“They came to Moorab­bin, my par­ents and a friend of theirs – a wi­dow … So this kid started go­ing to the coun­sel­lor. But he couldn’t tell his mum, so he said he was go­ing to the li­brary af­ter school … And then even­tu­ally he went to this doc­tor and he asked for a hor­mone in­jec­tion …

“That story was in­ter­est­ing for me, be­cause I knew him. I knew the guy. He seemed like a like­able rogue. He played the gui­tar, wrote a few po­ems. Came to a class drunk once, but he was a happy drunk. I never saw that side of him …”

Life as fod­der. Fod­der as poem. Poem as life. “The only so­cial me­dia that counts is po­etry!” It’s a line I’ve heard from Wearne many times, al­ways de­cried with great ur­gency and in­sis­tence – as if from that same child­hood podium as Good Old Days me­moirs, circa 1958.

Wearne texts me a short while af­ter we have lunch: “I could come up with count­less ‘and an­other things’ sub­se­quent to yes­ter­day’s in­ter­view (though I won’t) ex­cept to say that circa 14 ‘Jab­ber­wocky’ in­spired a Jab­ber­wock­yesque poem which I al­most re­mem­ber in full, later ex­panded into an ‘epic’ now lost.”

I text him back, sug­gest­ing I may well have to ex­pand into writ­ing a full biog­ra­phy. His re­ply is the com­mence­ment of an­other in­ter­view, as if we’re al­ready at it. “I was born in the Hopetoun Hos­pi­tal, El­stern­wick, on July 23, 1948, around 5.20am…”

What would we call it? The Good Old Days.

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