Poet, Tom Mcilveen

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Toms winning ways with poetry…






When did you first develop an interest in poetry – was it a particular poem that initially inspired you?

My interest in poetry originated in Year 9 at high school, where I was blessed to have an English teacher who was obsessed with Shakespeare and Australian traditional poets Will O’Gilvie, Adam Lindsay-Gordon, Banjo Paterson and our greatest poet of all, Henry Lawson.

He instilled in us a lifelong love and passion of the written word and poetry. He encouraged us to write our own and to recite it in class. He said it was generic to all races and cultures and predated the written word. Stories were recited in rhyme and meter, which made them easier to recall, with the meter giving the words a ‘flow’. I guess he must have liked my poetry, as he published two of my poems in the annual school magazine.

When I left school, my interest in traditional poetry waned somewhat, and I became obsessed with singer/songwriter/poets like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Paul Simon, with lyrics both emotionally and intellectually penetrating. I came back to traditional poetry a little over two years ago, feeling a compulsive need to write after my brother’s death, writing a poem in honour of him, the Ghost of Johny Mack. This poem has done very well for me in competitions, is very close to my heart and helps keep his memory alive.

How many poems would you estimate you’ve written over the years?

I have written probably about 19 poems over the past three years, with some taking up to 3 months to get just right and to make each and every word count. I have won awards for most of them and would prefer to give each poem 110%, rather then just produce ‘art for art’s sake’. Some of these poems also include ones that were written for various family members and family functions. I found writing these poems for functions were a great way to enhance a formal speech, as everybody loves to hear a poem written specifically for them.

What are the topics you write most of your poetry about? What is it about these particular subjects you’re so drawn to?

Having spent half of my childhood on the land, I started writing about bush themes to convey to others my love and understanding of the Australian bush. I then wrote a poem entitled The Dungeon on the Hill, which has won me several awards and describes part of my childhood growing up in an orphanage. A good friend then suggested I should try something a little more contemporary, so I wrote A Snowy Mountain Holiday, which has won three 1st prizes, including the coveted annual Bush Lantern Award, which has been my greatest accomplishment to date.

You’ve had an amazingly successful year, winning quite a few poetry awards and competitions. Share your experience of what occurred at the Bundaberg Annual Poetry Awards Night …

I attended the annual Bush Lantern awards night in Bundaberg to accept my trophy and was amazed at how many people turned up. Traditional and contemporary poetry is huge in Queensland; they absolutely love it!

You also won first place in the national Banjo Patterson Writing Award with your poem, Rainbow Serpent’s Progeny. What’s this poem about – would I be correct in guessing it has indigenous themes?

It is based on the history of Europeans’ arrival here and how it affected the Indigenous inhabitants at the time. I tried to paint a picture with words to describe their unique 50,000 year old culture. I am passionate about Aboriginal culture and history and find it fascinating. I am constantly researching it for inspiration and material for new poems. Just as Aboriginal art preserves the culture with paint and canvas, so too do the words of a well written poem.

Your poem, A Night at Joe Maguire’s Pub, was successful in the Kembla Flame award this year too, adding to your amazing haul of trophies …

It was based on a true character, my uncle Clarry, who, in conjunction with the pub, is legendary throughout the Tamworth district. It was a light hearted, humorous account of some of his legendary deeds. They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and most of my poems are based on true events. I am learning this poem verbatim in order to recite it on stage at upcoming poetry events. It should prove more entertaining to a live audience than my usual serious poetry.

What poetry groups are you a member of? 

I am a member of a local poetry group that meets here every 2nd Saturday of the month from 1pm to 4pm at the Senior Citizens hall in Munster Street. Everybody is welcome to come along and share and recite either their own or any poetry. It is a fun group of like-minded, creative people. I am also Secretary for the ABPA, which is a registered national organisation of poets, writers, performers and lovers of poetry throughout Australia. My role is to work in conjunction with the President in keeping poetry alive and well in Australia today and in promoting future events.

Why would you like to encourage a greater interest in poetry generally?

I would like to promote poetry amongst young Australians at school and remind them that we have our own unique culture and poetry every bit as good, if not better, than their beloved Hip Hop and Rap, without the need of percussion or vulgar gutter language to colour it. Future generations will be cultural nomads without identity if we don’t implement change soon. I would love to instil a love of the written word and poetry into children today, as my teacher did for me so many years ago. I would also like to reignite an interest in poetry amongst older generations and bring them back to the poetry of Lawson and Paterson that they grew up with.

What are your future goals where your poetry is concerned?

I will publish a book of 1st placed award winning poems when I have accrued enough to do so and hopefully preserve some of my words as a legacy for future generations in cyberspace.

My future goals include being the best possible ambassador for our beloved craft and taking advantage of my position as Secretary of the ABPA to promote annual performance of poetry events here and put Port Macquarie on the poets’ calendar and map. These events draw poets and lovers of poetry from all over Australia and overseas. We have some great performers amongst our ranks, who could hold their own on any world stage.

Thanks Tom.

Interview by Jo Atkins.

Photo courtesy of Judy Sawyer.

This story was published in issue 83 Port Macquarie

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