THE first time Jean Kent dared to describe herself as a poet, she was in a morphine-induced haze. Admitted to John Hunter Hospital with a broken hip after falling at a neighbour's house, emergency staff asked for her occupation, among other personal details. Buoyed by the pain relief, Kent made her admission.
"They were lovely to me," remembers the softly spoken 61-year-old, laughing at her chutzpah under the influence, "and I don't know whether it was because Les Murray was there a few years earlier, but I was treated with this amazing respect."
That was four years ago. At the time Kent had three award-winning books of poetry in print, was widely published in literary journals here and overseas, and had received significant prizes, including the 1988 National Library Poetry Prize (joint winner), the 1999 Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize, the 2003 Somerset National Poetry Prize, and the 2009 Dorothy Porter Prize.
"I grew up with this idea that poets were these exotic, extraordinary people and I didn't know any and I couldn't imagine that was what I was going to be," she explains over a cup of tea in her "writing room" at the rear of the fibro cottage she shares with her husband Martin on a Kilaben Bay bush block. "I thought, 'I write poetry' long before I thought I was a poet."
The fact that it took Kent decades to acknowledge her status as a poet says as much about community regard for the literary form as her humility. While we have all studied poetry at school - The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, anyone? - most of us soon lose any connection. You won't find a poetry collection on a bestseller list.
"I have a horrible feeling that it's partly because of people having been made to study it at school and having anxiety about it," says Kent, with chattering lorikeets and the ugly screech of cockatoos in the background. "It becomes something you have to analyse - what does it all mean and how was it made?
"I think that's a real shame because I don't write like that at all. I write for the sheer joy of it and that emotional connection that I think poetry creates. It can crystallise things so beautifully [and] I think that gets lost when you have to study it."
It was while studying English at the University of Queensland that an enthusiastic Kent experienced that loss of enjoyment. Having spent her peripatetic Queensland childhood - her bank manager father moved branches every three years - "walking around the garden talking to myself" and "preparing to be a writer of some sort", university study was a disappointment.
"I started off studying English and I lasted one month. I think I already knew at that stage I wanted to write, even though I would never have dared say that to anybody because I thought that was a bit presumptuous. It was an unlucky time to be studying English because they brought in a progressive assessment system, which meant that every few weeks you had exams.
"My very first essay was on Dylan Thomas, who was my favourite poet, and I reeled back in shock and thought, if I do this I don't think I'm going to read that much ever again."
Kent had also been sitting in on psychology lectures and on the final day before locking in an area of study, she dropped English.
"I switched to psychology and I then sat in on English - I'd already bought all the books - and I didn't have to analyse it, or do the assignments."
And Kent kept writing, often missing lectures to flesh out a novel or finesse some poetry. Her first poem was published when she was 19. "It was a highly sensitive poem," she laughs, making light of her inexperience and earnestness. "All my early work was very personal and in the beginning, it was just really bad." More quiet laughter.
"I was so overwhelmed by the people I loved, like Gerard Manly Hopkins and Dylan Thomas, and I was trying to write like them. And then I discovered the Beat poets and they had a totally different way of doing things. I gradually developed a slightly formalised personal style. It just evolved over the years."
Working as a psychologist within TAFE campuses in Sydney and then the Hunter afforded Kent the opportunity to save money and accumulate leave so she could take time out and concentrate on her writing. She considers 1980 as a turning point in her creative career. She was preparing to take a year off when she got word she had received an Australia Council fellowship. One year became three. Then, she began winning prizes for her poetry.
How does she write a poem?
"Initially, with terror," she explains in her measured way. "Usually what happens is that something affects me and I don't necessarily know what it is, but I have a feeling there's something I want to get started on. I usually do a first draft very quickly, which is quite a mess, and then I go back in a more rational state and I try to make a shape out of it.
"It might sit in a folder for a while and then I'll go back to it; sometimes a year later."
She mainly writes with a pen and paper because of "the connection between the rhythms of the words and the body - it's a more sensual thing".
Newcastle poet Mark Liston, who was mentored by Kent five years ago, describes her work as "lyrical and meticulous".
"Jean is highly regarded both for her humility and the quality of her poetry," he says. "She also engenders confidence in other writers. She's a passionate promoter of other people's work and is a champion of women's poetry - it can be very male dominated."
Kent writes of "ordinary lives" - family, reflections on place, nature, and the people around her. Her poem In My Mother's House centres on the passing of time: "1963. My two brothers straight as arrows/shoot past me, threatening the ceiling where possums/and cobwebs hide the bullseye. Our first year/in this house. I had done all my growing./I had left it climbing with small sharp feet in the houses/which came before."
Another, called Superwoman, homes in on the challenge of balancing a career and domesticity. It was inspired by her time at TAFE where women were returning to education, often after leaving school at an early age, and were being taught by high-powered women "whose personal lives were unravelling". Interestingly, Kent chose to remain childless because she was "never overwhelmed by the maternal urge" and could not envisage juggling motherhood with writing. "It's not an easy life," she observes.
Kent's work polarises people and she was devastated by criticism of her first book Verandahs, which was published in 1990 (Picaro Press republished it in 2009).
"There are these different schools within contemporary poetry," she offers. "There's the more formal, emotional poetry and then there's the more cerebral school, which is ironic and a bit more post-modern. I'm not in that camp at all, though I can admire people who are."
Editing the work of others and being invited to judge prizes has helped Kent better cope with the sting of rejection.
"Because somebody says they don't like what you've done doesn't mean it's worthless, it just means that what you've done at this point isn't good enough.
"Judging competitions is a revelation in that regard because you get all these poems and stories and some I absolutely love, but they're not working so it's not fair to that person to actually give it a prize in the state it's in.
"You'll be cheating them in a way. Once a poem goes out into the world, it's out in the world."
Kent and Western Australian poet and academic Dennis Haskell have been selected to judge the 2013 Newcastle Poetry Prize, one of the oldest and most lucrative in Australia. It is administered by the Hunter Writers Centre. The pair will have the demanding task of reading more than 400 entries. There are three cash prizes provided by the University of Newcastle and almost 30 entries will be published in the prestigious anthology.
"It's a snapshot of what's happening in Australian poetry each year and I just treasure those anthologies. I can remember the first time I was included in the anthology in 1981 (Kent was jointly awarded second prize in 1997) and, for me, it was this amazing achievement.
"And now I'm judging."
No one but Kent would be surprised by that.
Newcastle Poetry Prize details on newcastlepoetryprize.com.
Entries close June 7.
Pretending for a moment that she’s not tough,
under the rotary clothes hoist the co-ordinator
of the Affirmative Action for Women Program
buckles. This seems like the hardest job
she ever has to do, wrestling with wind and light,
the wet clothes slapping her face
and knuckling her into corners where sun assaults
and the frantic morning pegs down
like a sideshow tent while an audience
of waiting household tasks
boos and jeers.
Should never have succumbed to that longing
for the smell of sun on sheets. Every other day
she’s neat as a nutcracker, no problem
getting every hour efficiently between her teeth.
Only for a moment now in a Saturday whirlwind
she slumps and dreams
of a life of Laura Ashley curtains, children
making cubbies under the pittosporum and the boredom
– sweet boredom –
of living below her ‘vocational potential’.
Fat chance of that. Too much face to lose now:
a one-time hairdresser turned teacher turned guru
for all the weekday women, weary of waltzing
with wet washing. Her story unrolls before them
like a magic carpet. Squatting on its painful design,
they want to take deep breaths, risk their brains
and try, like her, to fly. Under the Saturday big top
while her new life careers away regardless,
the life she lost floats out of the scent
of soap. As perfect and illusory as bubbles
against her skin,
she feels her husband, her child . . .
For a moment a tea towel flares from her hands
like a wild wonga wonga vine –
she thinks of the gully by that house
where defiantly the flowers belled and romped –
and for a moment her old self is straining,
staining the clean air and riding the bubbles bareback,
ripping like wrung cloth away and up
towards the dead hug of trees, far from this sick smell
of sawdust churned under her feet.
The wind –
the wind slaps her sensible. Next week she will have
a million dollars to peg out on high wires
to coax other women to copy
this balancing act. Next week
she will be as bright as a spotlight, flashing her thoughts
towards their futures. The wong flowers, she will remember,
never lasted, too quickly bred bruises
deep in their throats.
I lived too long
in other people’s shadows, next week she will say.
Next week she will know she has only one life
and she does not want in any way to lose it –
but now, reaching alone up to a rotary clothes hoist,
tangled in the unthinking arms of shirts,
stunned to sleep in the soap-sweet wrap of sheets,
she is simply human, slugged by Saturday, catching
(From The Satin Bowerbird, Hale and Iremonger, 1998)