Portrait

Lunch with ‘that’ teacher, poet Alan Wearne. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Poet Alan Wearne

“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-Flies-esque 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. Grey-black 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 creature-like 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 Arkley-fied 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.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 3, 2018 as "These things are real". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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