Geoffrey AitkeN

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Please share a bit about you and your literary background.

My interest in literature developed after I was accepted as a mature aged undergraduate to study education with a double major - English and Science. I was extremely fortunate in winning a place on the back of an apprenticeship and further training for mechanical drafting and securing a matriculation English pass (post school). A local manufacturing downturn saw me unemployed, and a friend suggested I apply for adult entry. The Higher Education English was a standard Australian University Literary Criticism, not dissimilar to that studied by ‘Rita’ in the film adaptation of Willy Russell’s “Educating Rita”. I was also encouraged to write by tutors as an accepted rigour to assist my understandings – process, environment, sources. I have continued to read as widely as my mind allows, tending more and more toward poetry as my own success unfolds. This does help with maximising audience reach – seeing how the professionals construct their material to best service readers.

Teaching took me to outback Australia where I taught for almost thirty years both in Public Schools and with Charles Darwin University in remote Indigenous Communities, where I delivered literacy and numeracy for job readiness. Before I returned to my home State of South Australia, I worked for Batchelor Institute in Alice Springs in a final stint with Indigenous men, again in work readiness programs. I make no pretence regarding my own lowly roots and use that background to write myself into spaces where neglect often discriminates.

How is your work influenced or informed by mental health?​

Sadly, I suffered a psychotic episode during an acid trip in 1975, which remained undiagnosed for several years. It finally ushered hospitalisation, medication and before I was fully returned to a suitable sanity, I experienced ECT in two applications. I rehabilitated and that graduation occurred, and writing became quite steady although introverted. I continued to write for my catharsis and to pester friends to know if I was ‘onto something’. By that I mean did I show promise/ability? My wonderful friends supported me and still do, and recent publication returns their faith. My writing has developed exponentially with that success as editors demand poetry that can be shared as universal in content and mental illness alone is not on a spectrum that invites widespread access but couple it with workplaces or toxic environments and interest creates. Of course if you have something new/different to offer chances increase. Humour also throws a different light. But not to diminish the struggle that is poor mental health nor insider laughs – no one gets them.

One word explains ‘my struggle reversal’ – retirement. Older and wiser I cannot say to people assess your life against the working environment but do make certain you are not in a personally health harmful habitat. Relationships are critical to humans and always make certain you are mindful of how you maintain them. You are also important and so make certain you share your ups and downs with those closest. And reciprocate. That said, I used writing to go to those places I could not trust myself to convey accurately to friends and family. I could edit what I wrote until it reflected what it was I wanted to say. I have also ‘abbreviated’ my writing that I describe as a minimalist industrial signature to deal with those issues/points that stand out to me and do not warrant deeper explanation that may draw the reader away from the focus of my piece.

Please talk through one of your poems with us.

The piece I wish to highlight is called 'figuratively'. It was written for the SA Mental Health Awards during the awareness week last year (2020) where it was received quite well and awarded ‘Highly Commended’ in the Emerging Published category. I am a member of a suburban writers’ group where I share space with some older established poets who have further refined my writing. I chose to create this poem based around a more formal traditional style in the hope that I might be rewarded for trying to express mental health difficulty in a better light. It is still brief but says enough to explain the universality of life’s complexity.

figuratively

it is difficult
to store water
in cupped hands
but
that is an expectation
for many
for those without vessels

without means

i saw it in a metaphor

Can you tell us about some of your published work?

My published writing is as varied as there are publications. I write everyday and most of it just passes the day but occasionally I even ‘buzz’ myself.  If you’re serious about writing you should aim for that because mostly you’ll get your writing better/before editors and that is not their fault – they don’t have everyone’s experiences and they have readerships and sponsors and boards – in a word – responsibilities. The Perspective Project editorial team are extremely generous and have us in their plans.

Can I suggest you visit Poetry Feasting, where you’ll see archived published poetry from the last four years. You can also gain a list of publications/publishers where you might consider a submission by you is worthwhile. I owe a lot to so many publishers and editors and that is the best outcome of personal publication – you read a professional saying how much he/she likes your poem. One acceptance usually balances fifteen declines – stay focused though. The chance to express yourself and share your work with others is worth the effort. 

I like to highlight life’s injustices, and so I have had to learn to use the power of irony so that it is not a complaint per se – a poem, especially ambiguous, is extremely effective. My time with Indigenous Australians has taught me true humility and so if you need a leveler maybe check out some serious disadvantage and not just for a better poem. If you’ve lived it, worn it, and talked it, you can own it. I write infrequently in Indigenous shoes – they are not mine to wear but I do advocate when I read/see/hear something that curdles blood.

spur lines 

 

drawn
mental health
is like a night train
with carriage lights
that flicker intermittently
to illuminate faces
whose journey status
is a mystery
while platforms
frog leap into window spaces
to flash confused prints
for retinal insight
all the while
that thoughtless engine
ploughs on
venting perfunctory shrieks
that drown interior monologue
while I
at times

also scream.

Any lessons you have learned from writing and sharing your poetry?

To become a writer, you must share and reciprocate, and a writers’ group can work. Check local papers, noticeboards, and open mic for wait lists or invitations. If you have writer friends, start your own but include some expertise beyond yours. Read aloud. It doesn’t need to be performance poetry to read aloud. An audience reaction is priceless. Open mic means like minds. Talking is good. Get out of your depth and if you feel uncertain explain your discomfort. The artistic community knows exactly where the edge is, and they have skills to keep you safe. 

Don’t forget your beginnings. It’s a long road to success no matter how great - initially I was happy with a single poem published but then my raison d’etre kicked in. I wasn’t doing it for me. Years and years of being with voiceless people encourages me daily. P.S: there is absolutely no money in this.

I am almost happy to say an acceptable (to me) sanity is now closer than any time in the last forty-six years and that is predominantly on the back of writing and talking about social issues that need our attention – on the page. Mental illness is based in a toxicity that defies identification except we share it and know ‘there’s something not quite right’ and it’s not all down to us.  I now get a kick out of people where for quite some time I only felt my paranoia. I like feeling this way.

Find more of Geoffrey's work on his website.