- Brett, can you tell us about yourself? Where were you brought up and educated? What did you get up to?
I’m originally from rural Queensland (Tara, Dalby, Bowenville) where I lived both on farms and in town (Dalby) until I was 17. I went to public schools. I played rugby league, cricket and tennis, but had this uneasy relationship with the country, with farming, with the toxic masculinity on display in the 70s and 80s, as I felt I didn’t fit in after my father died when I was 9 in 1978. There was social awkwardness in not having a father to teach you stuff. I couldn’t do the ‘manly’ things expected of boys – fix bikes, crack onto girls, fight people – my friends and I were into watching horror and fantasy videos, board gaming, writing short films and making them during the school holidays. But I did love the peace and quiet of the countryside, riding to ‘Shits Creek’ to go yabbying, watching birds, looking up at the Milky Way’s white ribbon at night. I left in 1987 to go to university in Brisbane, the same year Sir Joh Bjelke-Peterson finally lost his power after 19 years as State Premier. It seemed change was in the air for this conservative state after such a long stagnation of ethics and morality.
- We’ve known each other from the early poetry festival days in Brisbane, but I have never asked you this. What is the origin of your surname, Dionysius. I keep thinking of carousing Ancient Greeks.
It’s Greek sounding, but I’m not Greek. I’ve German ancestry on my father’s side (Greifswald, Germany) and Prussian (Poznań, Poland) on my mother’s side. I only ever tried to live up to the Dionysian rites of the Bacchanal – red wine and poetry! Six generations ago the name used to be Dinnies, but some bright classical spark changed it to Dionysius in the early 19th century. I do admit that I was a major let down in the History classroom when my teachers found this fact out.
- When did you realise you were a writer?
I wrote my first poem in Grade 11 in 1985. I asked my English teacher Mrs Wylie out of the blue, if I could substitute a poem composition instead of writing an analytical essay for a piece of assessment. Surprisingly she said yes, so I wrote a terrible first poem called “Summer Skies” about someone in jail yearning for freedom while watching birds flying free. I received a 9 out 10 – the highest mark I’d received for anything in English, but the poem had legs. She liked it and passed it onto the English HOD who read it out to his Year 12 class, and then it was published in the school magazine that year, and then I entered it into this competition for young writers that the DDIAE (now University of Southern Queensland) was running. Again, it didn’t win, but Bruce Dawe was the judge and he included it in an anthology called, “Through Our Eyes” and one day there I was with my mother and stepfather in Toowoomba shaking the hand of the poet we were studying in class that term. On the hulls of Grants. Blink. Blink. Cemetery silence. That human connection with the man behind the poetry, brought the power of words to the fore for me as a teenager, so I thought that if just one poem could achieve all that success – then I should write some more. I really only started to take poetry seriously though in 1992 after living in Melbourne for two months and going to the weekly ‘Perseverance Poets’ open mike reading in Fitzroy. That’s where I plucked up the courage to read in public for the first time as a red-faced 23-year-old.
- Who were your main influences in writing?
I fell in love with the duende of Federico Garcia Lorca, Raymond Carver, Martin Johnston, Les Murray, Anthony Lawrence, Robert Adamson, Anne Carson, Anne Sexton, Plath, Hughes, Heaney, Auden, Yeats, Owen, Brooke, Wright. More contemporary poets I like are Ada Limon, Carolyn Forche. I’m drawn more to narrative poetry rather than the lyric. I like sagas, epics, tragedies – the Elder, Edda, The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Odyssey, War Music, The Greek Myths, The Autobiography of Red, Grendel, Beowulf, Fredy Neptune, The Silmarillion etc.
- How do ideas for poems occur to you?
With the rise of social media over the least 15 years, you get plenty of weird and quirky shit coming through your feeds each day, depending on what you choose to look at. I look at war, history, archaeology, ecology, mythology, poetry, technology etc. A lot of my poems come from crazy stuff I see there. Like that guy who caught a platypus around Burpengary and took it for a ride on a train and then to the shops in Caboolture, like it was his support monotreme. Also, the people you read and listen to as ever – that one fantastic line of poetry that makes you want to write and write and write and write.
- What are the biggest hurdles you encounter when you set out to write, and how do you deal with them? Or are you a writer where ideas and words come easy?
Over the last 17 years since I’ve worked full-time teaching, I’ve probably been the most productive in my life. I don’t know whether that’s time management skills, or just getting more experience with writing as you grow older. The ideas and words do come easy to me – I’m not Martin Johnston who’d write 100 drafts of a poem to get it just right. I might spend thirty minutes writing a poem and then it’s done – these are usually sonnets. I edit as I go. I do some minor revision once the whole poem is set, mainly only condensing line lengths for fluency and rhythm. I never have a clear idea of where I’m going with a poem – only the subject matter and some vague angle and mood that I want to express. The rest is my brain churning out is poetry algorithm to produce the end result. I don’t know. I think I might be the poetry equivalent of a savant!
- You’ve recently published a poetry collection, Critical State, with Calanthe Press. Can you tell us something about the poems in the collection and what inspired you to write them.
These are environmental poems from the last decade. They range topographically from the top end of Queensland (Cape York) right down to the Border Ranges like the cross-section of a human body. There are poems about extinct species, endangered species, birds, humans who’ve come to grief from the impacts of the Anthropocene and of course poems about the environment which are the coal face of the consequences of unprecedented human industrial activity. There are contemporary free verse sonnets mixed in with longer narrative poems that take in stories of crisis, resilience and adaptation to the pressures of the modern era.
- What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a new collection of poetry with similar themes – The Eromanga Sea that will trace the geological, topographical, and ecological history of Queensland from the late Cretaceous period (110 million years ago) when a vast shallow inland sea covered much of Queensland, right up to events of the Holocene period. These will mostly be poems about how the modern landscape of Queensland was formed by the vast pressures of climate change and geography over the eons and these forces have shaped the state’s destiny. There will be lots of non-human poems; poems about giant marine reptiles, megafauna, the slow erasure of the subtropical rainforest to a corner of the state, and how things dried out over the deep space of time. I’ve also been working on a rough collection about the war in Ukraine over the past year. More war music to the ears of the world!
You can buy Critical State at Calanthe Press.