From prisoner to religious poet

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A paradox of mystical experience is that it is often in contemplating emptiness, nothingness and darkness that the seeker comes to an awareness of divine light.

For some years this has been the preoccupation of the poet featured in this interview. It is also the subject of his poem, 'Via Negativa, the Divine Dark', which won this year's Blake Poetry Prize.

Australian poet and publisher Robert Adamson spoke to Eureka Street TV at the National Art School Gallery, in Darlinghurst in inner Sydney. The interview, and reading of excerpts from the poem, took place against a backdrop of some of the finalist works from this year's Blake Prize for Religious Art.

In addition to the Blake Poetry Prize, Adamson recently received the 2011 Patrick White Award. The award worth $18,000 was established by White in 1973 from the proceeds of his Nobel Prize for Literature. It's given annually to an author who has 'made a contribution to Australian writing' but has not, in the opinion of the judging committee, 'received due recognition for that contribution'.

Adamson, 68, has indeed made a substantial contribution. As well as authoring 21 books of poetry and three acclaimed autobiographical prose works, he has written a play, and, with Dorothy Hewitt, a two part opera. He has won numerous prizes for his poetry and prose.

He was born in Sydney, and grew up in the affluent lower north shore region. Both dyslexic and rebellious, he had a troubled youth and young adulthood, and even spent time behind bars. It was, in fact, while in jail that he discovered poetry and his ability to write.

Adamson is an esteemed editor and successful publisher of other poets' work. He has been poetry editor for various literary journals and edited The Best Australian Poems in 2009 and 2010. He also helped establish the publishing companies Prism Books, Big Smoke and Paper Bark Press.

For much of his adult life, Adamson has lived and worked on the Hawkesbury River, and is best known for poetry inspired by this waterway.

'I am lucky to have the actual Hawkesbury, I love it, it's beautiful, it is the world flowing through my life, full of birds, fish, mangroves, mud and stars,' he has written. 'And yet it's not the river I try to write, my poetry's landscape is darker. I'm writing about the internalised landscape.'

This clever use of his external environment to express the ebbs and flows of his inner life is evident in his poem that won the Blake Poetry Prize.

Of 'Via Negativa', the Blake judges said, 'The poem beautifully manages the movement between the immediacy of the present and difficult concepts such as time, suffering and the existence and nature of the soul; between the trivial ordinariness of the world and the large abstractions; between what can be knowable and precisely observed and what remains unknowable and concealed.'

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.  


Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Blake Prize, religious art, religious poetry



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A worthy winner. I'll be looking for more of Adamson's work.
Pam | 04 December 2011


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