Guest Post: Jill Slack – Requiem for a Country Town

Recently I noted lots of visitors have landed on my blog, searching ‘Jill Slack’ and ‘Requiem for a Country Town’. So I contacted my longtime mentor, now writing friend, inviting her to visit my blog and answer some Qs – and maybe just maybe we’ll satisfy your curiosity… 🙂 (You can read more about my connection with Jill in Kat’s Pedigree.)

Requiem for a Country Town
…Winds blow rank
under the old railway bridge
where children used to play
in the tumble of sweet grasses
on their way home from school….
© Jill Slack

Welcome to my blog, Jill, and congratulations on the inclusion of your poem, ‘Requiem for a Country Town’ in the GCSE English material. That’s a wonderful recognition of your work. Exciting!!

Anything for a favourite former writing student…. I’m ever so slightly bemused by all the attention. Not even sure how the AQA mob found ‘Requiem’, unless they had access to a book my Morialta writing group put out in 1994, courtesy of a Qld Arts grant, called ‘Voices From Elsewhere’ which included the poem. ‘Voices’ is a collection of poems, short stories and other prose with specifically rural themes and sold remarkably well – all 2000 copies pretty much by just word of mouth. But we were even more surprised that the hot demand came mostly from rural readers. (In our superior wisdom, we were so sure city people would be the main buyers!)

When did you write ‘Requiem for a Country Town’ – and what was the inspiration? I wrote ‘Requiem’ in the 1980s based on the plight of the little country towns in the North Burnett – Mulgildie and Monto in particular. I had lived in both as a child – and in the 80s, the fates seemed to be in collusion against their very existence – worsening drought, dairy amalgamations (therefore larger holdings and fewer people)b, low market prices and the spendthrift Whitlam years which resulted in galloping inflation, higher wages, rampant unemployment, and spiralling costs. Towns emptied, shops shut, services reduced, fewer work opportunities, farmers took ‘day jobs’ to make ends meet and were forced to abandon the long country tradition of handing on the farm – their kids left to find work elsewhere.

What remained was a stubborn and a deep-seated need not to give up the struggle, and an almost unconscious pride in the notion of being survivors no matter what.

How did it come to the notice of GCSE English panel? I’m not sure how the poem came to the notice of the selectors of GCSE English materials. ‘Requiem’ is one of eight poems in AQA Syllabus B pre-release materials booklet for 2011. The others are Aunt Julia, Memories, After the Deluge, Late Winter Months, Escape Journey 1988, Beginning in a City, 1948; and Island Man. I had an initial letter from the selection people in the UK some time ago – the latter part of 2009 I think – asking for the use of the poem, but not much other information. I agreed. To be honest, I’d forgotten all about it until I read the email from John Bowden asking for background on the poem.

Readers would probably also like to know if I was also paid. I wasn’t, which is fairly interesting – and so familiar.

It is a sad fact that there are very few paying markets for poetry – yet it is undoubtedly a craft that takes time, skill and dedication to get it right.

Would you say the poem is still true of country towns today? I have to say not much has changed. Rural people simply work harder and risk more to keep their heads above water. For instance, 30 years ago beef cattle sold to meatworks for an average $3 kg; now it’s about $3.20kg; citrus prices haven’t increased for the last 13 years or so; dairy farmers have had no increase for their milk since 2000, but supermarket prices continue to rise. What’s different is communities have become more aware of how quickly circumstances (and government policy) can change and take very little for granted which makes them slightly more economically resilient than before.

5. Can you tell us a little more about ‘Jill Slack’ the writer? Childhood: I shone at essay writing and English in general at school and started writing a novel at about age 13 (it’s still somewhere around).

Adulthood: wrote mostly short stories for quite a while, sometime later venturing into the mysteries of poetry with bated breath; took up journalism as a ‘day job’ in the early 1980s; won various literary prizes, including a highly commended in the Suncorp Literary Awards for a children’s story, and had various things published.

Co-ordinated ‘Voices From Elsewhere’ in the 1990s, embarked on commission writing purely by accident when asked to research and write a book on Gayndah Hospital’s history. ‘Then and Now: An Aboriginal History of Gayndah’ followed – another commission. This sold out nearly instantly and won the National Award For Books Of Community History. Meanwhile I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (with Distinction), majoring in Aboriginal studies and Literature at UCQ. Then a book with a humorous angle on my kids’ growing up years, which I called ‘The Scenic Route’ – because bringing up kids was a lot like veering off the nice smooth bitumen and careering along a dirt track littered with bumps, dry gullies and no directional signs. This was purely for my family. The next of that ilk was ‘Imagine A Farm’ – my own childhood, also for my kids who, at the time, couldn’t believe in an era without electricity, hot water systems and telly. Then ‘Next Stop – Ga-aynd-ah’ for the centenary of railway celebrations here. It sold out instantly too. Then ‘Tilly’s World’ – my paternal grandmother’s story, a limited edition which also sold very quickly. You just can’t predict what will sell these days.

Poetry is mostly a sort of hobby for me, and good exercise in bare-bones writing. When I reread Requiem, I thought ‘All those adjectives!’

And of course I’m still working in journalism.

Thanks so much for visiting my blog, Jill, and sharing these snippets about yourself, and your writing. An impressive bio! And wonderful to see your poem getting this international recognition. I’m sure many teachers and students from England will appreciate you sharing your story with us.

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20 comments

      • Thanks, Jill … and Kat! Really useful information and observations. While your poem is sad, it is also re-affirming of the indomitable human spirit. In that sense, while it may be set in a small Australian town in the 1980s, its themes are universal and timeless.
        Thanks again,
        John.

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      • Hi again, John,
        Just to say I did 10 weeks or so in the Artists-In-Schools program. The point was to involve and encourage all high school students at the school in across-the-board genre writing (Kat was one of my students). The poetry segment included getting them all to have a go at haiku. It was far and away the most successful part – even the most uninterested of the boys (who were loud in their poetry-is-for-sissies’ opinions) came up with quite wonderful haiku pieces. It was quite a thrill… Jill

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  1. A pleasure to team up with Jill for this post – and hear more of the thinking around the poem. I agree with John – it is re-affirming of the indomitable human spirit. And Jill, your analysis of the beef, citrus and dairy industries was certainly enlightening. No wonder farmers are resilient!

    Thanks Dee, Michelle and John for sharing your thoughts.

    Closing sentiments, that prompt John’s observation (used with permission);

    …but they count the stunted gums
    frost-silvered grass and
    secret ramparts of the past
    not as portents of depletion
    or death
    but as a singular mark of endurance.

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  2. Yes it is a wonderful bio and I hope the recognition of your lovely poem makes up somehow for not being paid! Great interview Kat.

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  3. Hi Catherine,
    I have to admit to feeling a little chuffed about the notion of all the young ones reading it. If it helps anyone understand rural life and people a little better, I’ll be even happier. Thanks for your comment. Much appreciated.
    Jill

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  4. i am currently studying this poem and I have my exam next week. It is by far my favourite poem in the pre-release booklet and I hope that it is the one that comes up in the exam.

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  5. Wow! I agree with Annie as well. I’m doing this poem for my gcse as well and the exam is tomorrow! This poem really interested me as it really sparked my curiosity and I wanted to find out more, about the author and the history/inspiration behind this poem, and I’m really glad I came across this site, thank you ever so much!

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    • A pleasure, Seher. It’s been exciting to see the interest it has generated. It’s great that an Aussie poem can speak so clearly across the ocean. Best wishes with your exam!

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    • Hi Seher,
      It is a great site and I’m thinking I should make Kat my PR person – she does it so well! As with Annie, I hope the exam went very well for you (it’s May 19 in Australia right now). I found and read ‘Water’ and felt a bit sorry for you all in your comparisons.
      Jill

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  6. Like Seher, this poem really interested me. This is unusual for me because I never normally understand poems, but this one really created an image in my head and I just want to read it again and again, which is a bad thing if it doesn’t come up in the exam because it’ll be the only one I’ll be able to write about!

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    • Hi Annie,
      Every poet likes to hear exactly what you said. I hope you sailed through the exam with a high distinction!
      Jill

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