BEN FRATER AND THE MAD POETS OF THE GONG
By Tim Heffernan
It is significant that the poetry of Benjamin Frater is reprised for the 2016 Wollongong Writers Festival and that he will be an integral part of the Mad Poets Workshop to be held on 22 October, as well as the Mad Hatters Tea Party to be held on 27 November. It is as if Ben never left Wollongong University and the process of immersion in Ben’s poetry has been serendipitous – so much has come together, so magically.
Just last week I learned from Alise Blayney, Ben’s wife, that he wanted to run poetry workshops while people were waiting hours for their blood test results so they could receive their appropriate dose of Clozapine, the powerful anti-psychotic that eventually defeated Ben. These Clozapine Clinic Workshops were planned for Banks House in Bankstown but Ben became unwell and they never got off the ground… until now. Ben’s workshop program will inform the Wollongong Writers Festival’s Mad Poetry Workshop, which will include:
- Surrealist games and Q & A
- Automatic writing ‘first thought, best thought’
- Poetic/Prosaic sketching – mind is shapely, art is shapeless
- Response to stimulus – process of imaginative / symbolic association
- Cut up experiments
- Group collaborations
I have a long term interest in the poetry that emerges from individual experiences of madness. The first time I went mad in 1983 I took with me to the psych ward copies of Peter Kocan’s, The Other Side of the Fence and Kurt Vonnegut’s, Slaughterhouse Five. Back then I knew that the world would end if I did not live past my 24th birthday, so this was to be the only voluntary admission of my psychiatric career as I sought protection, asylum, from those who sought to kill me and end my world. It was a mad world then – a cold war, Reagan’s Star Wars, the invasion of Grenada, the bombing in Beirut, the downing of the Korean airliner KAL 007 over Russia, and my love had left me for good. That madness bit me again in 1985, with a couple of admissions to Kenmore Hospital. My poem, ‘Reasonable Delusions of a Religious Nature’, originally published in 2007 in Coral Hull’s Thylazine and reinvented as a prose poem earlier this year in Verity La was my way of making sense both of the world’s and my own madness. The poem finishes,
delusion: leave this unholy place. promises of armageddon to
be unleashed when you were dead. the asylum had been your
shelter: the atoms split inside your head. read six sane years
later, how we just missed world war three. this was your mad
delusion. is it truth that you now see? each spring-time sense
the surge of see-saw swings to be swung: tranquilise sensation
so these spring songs can’t be sung.
Sadly, our world seems even madder now, a world where our very being, the ‘is’, explodes and decapitates itself on our YouTube feed. And sadly too, 2007 was the year that Ben Frater lost his life to the medication that was prescribed to save him from the horror that some call schizophrenia.
I’m not sure if Ben ever listened to the radio, but if he did I’m thinking that he probably never would have thought he would one day be performing his poetry on Radio National. I came to hear Ben one Sunday morning just over four years ago as I listened to Lisa Nicol’s award winning radio documentary Pray Ho’tell, quickly entering a surreal world of poetry, madness, medication, love, yaks, domestic violence, Catholicism, Campbelltown and Wollongong University. Suddenly here was a poet whose poetry was madness, whose madness was poetry and much of his story had been played out in places so close to me.
The next time I heard Ben read was at a mental health consumer conference in 2014, So You Want To Change The World, organised by a fellow consumer worker Douglas Holmes. Douglas had videoed the footage of Ben reading at a Mad Pride concert in Campbelltown in 2006, and so I got to read my poetry with Ben and his partner Alise, also a mental health consumer worker. I think all those present understood how Ben’s poetry could still change our worlds and some of us promised to keep pushing the change. Ben’s Clozapine Clinic Workshop qualifies him as a mental health consumer worker too, I think.
Since then Alise has shared Ben with me in conversation and emails full of mutual coincidence and connections. While we are familiar with Ben’s love of Blake, Artaud and Ginsberg, with ‘visionary poetics’, it was through the work of Charles Bukowski and through the music Alise and Ben loved that I learned more of this man and this beautiful poetry charged relationship. Ben was Bukowski’s ‘The Man With the Beautiful Eyes’. I see Bukowski’s poem as a metaphor for the way the world and psychiatry traditionally responds to madness and I think that Ben’s poetry sought to change this.
had wanted us
to stay away
never wanted us
to see a man
a strong natural
they had been
the man with the
we were afraid
all throughout our lives
things like that
others would never
would have to
(From ‘The Man with the Beautiful Eyes‘ by Charles Bukowski)
Alise tells me that one of Ben’s favourite lines was from Arthur Rimbaud – ‘the poet is a thief of fire’. And Rimbaud could have been describing Ben when he wrote, ‘I say one must be a seer, make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by an immense, long, deliberate derangement of the senses.’
By Alise Blayney
Ben’s life was poetry and when it comes down to it that’s all that really matters, right?
The verse. One can be immortal as long as one leaves some work behind. I’m so glad Ben did. We made a secret pact, and promised each other that, ‘Poetry is the bottom line’.
I remember him saying at his Dad’s hotel: ‘We’re gonna eat, breathe, live, shit, piss and bleed poetry!’ After all, words and art are the only things which remain immortal.
These past 9 years I’ve been looking for signs of Ben everywhere. I catch glimpses of memories in flashback – the fiery flick of red hair on a bus, a sidewalk dweller whose eyes flash fever, a stranger on the train echoing a ‘hideous heckle of hoot hysteria’.
When I look back on his experiences of mental and emotional distress, I am reminded of the quote from R.D. Laing: ‘The laugh’s on us. They will see that what we call ‘schizophrenia’ was one of the forms in which, often through quite ordinary people, the light began to break through the cracks in our all-too-closed minds.’ (Laing, R.D. The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise. Harmondsworth, 1967, Penguin.)
That’s exactly what one could call Ben’s relationship with madness – a light that was cracking through, a light so powerful it penetrated through the everyday mundane and transported him into other dimensions. Ben was clearly ‘lifting the veil’ and having a consciousness expanding experience. His fascination with esoterica and the occult world can be seen throughout his poems.
I was 24 years old when I met him at Wollongong University and he introduced me to these other worlds, quickly becoming my mentor, guide and peer, especially when it came to literature.
Laing also wrote that ‘Madness need not be all breakdown. It may also be break-through’. This quote reminds me so much of Ben’s work, and informs the nature of the peer support role Tim, I and many others do in the mental health sector today. We aim to support people through their recovery journey by empowering them to see that mental health issues are a profound part of the human experience. We don’t ask the question ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Instead we ask ‘What happened to you?’, which can in itself be a ‘breakthrough’ compared to the way traditional services have operated in the past.
I think Ben would have made an extraordinary peer worker, and this is the time to celebrate his work. He was dedicated to exploring the relationship between automatic writing and the schizophrenic vernacular, within which he saw the subconscious mind merging into consciousness. He lived between worlds, and wrote in his notebook how he considered the ‘Poet is Priest; Poetry as confession; Performance of Poetry is exorcism’.
Confession and exorcism are evident throughout all his verse, particularly in his first published work, Bughouse Meat. Here is an excerpt, entitled ‘The Argument’.
the dreamer who butchered his arm to challenge his reality,
now butchers his reality to challenge his arm.
My forearm is a wounded shark
My forearm is a crippled highway
My forearm is an imaginary tool
My forearm is a Nocturnal ballad of hieroglyphs,
a supplicatory of bleeding ghosts,
the end of a lion’s tyranny,
an ancient Crocodile skull,
the nightmare and war of Spring,
a Catholic Yak’s exorcism,
My forearm is our Golden fingerless child
a piece of Apocalyptic debris,
My forearm has closed eyelids,
is an Anti-american-warcraft,
the memory of wild horses,
its own executioner,
My forearm is Hell’s kiss of smothered lips,
your lack of perception,
the rage of a Blind Salamander,
a voyeur while I sleep,
a breast-less woman
and a toothless old man tapping his foot to the
rhythmic convulsions of a
My forearm is the active desires of Akhenaton,
the left wing of Christ, the right fist of Allah
and a Sanskrit-stitch-path,
My forearm is the bloodblack-Sunrise,
a dead man’s trepidation, a dread man’s trepidation,
My forearm is A Subaqueous Prison,
the mind that eats your leg,
My forearm is tomorrow’s bitch, today’s whore and last night’s insomniac,
My forearm is a multitude of trenches and razor wire fences with the flesh
STILL HANGING ON!
My forearm: a Luna ladder,
a gutted reptile,
My forearm forces electricity down the blue throat,
My forearm is an arrow dreamt beyond this cell,
a Chinese Red Rhapsody,
an African Gunrunner,
an Alcoholic automobile,
My forearm is an Aborigine wounded by the white FleshFlash of numerous
My forearm is our unclear nuclear future,
My forearm bleeds its own delight
My forearm refuses to bomb its enemies and dives into the rubble
My forearm is a solar backlash
My forearm invites refugees, provides none but exists in asylum
My forearm is the culmination of Hissing Apples and rotten skin,
My forearm is a docile blonde occupational therapist
My forearm is an Alcibiadian: the father of Flagellation
My forearm: a Hysterical Spartan Junkie
My forearm includes four thousand, seven hundred and eighty one billion,
seven hundred and ten million, four thousand four hundred
and twenty two Tentacles and as many years of Marineric tradition,
My forearm breathes through incisions also known as gills
My forearm is Marvell’s dog,
a bashed cherub,
a thick vibrating web of Agony,
My forearm is a headless cemetery of flesh,
affected by a 205 year old poet,
My forearm is a liar and tomb; a Miltonian Mutiny that groans t’ward
My forearm is the unfurled Dragon abdomen with its five heads of blood and gristle,
My forearm remains remorseless for its mutilation
My forearm belongs to nobody
My forearm is a cut worm and blind maggot,
My forearm is a desperate corpse and Rabid carcass
My forearm desires the God of panicked birds and difficult Pyramids
My forearm is a sleepless cannibal,
My forearm is a liturgy of psychotic hooks displacing my mental weight
and suspends me nowhere in imagination,
My forearm is a meek neck waiting for the last train; our long red guillotine
My forearm bares the burden of backyard industry and institution,
My forearm witnessed the locusts under Paul’s eyelids
My forearm can’t wait for the gun to become a Mushroom
My forearm depicts a dappled sky and sickly horizon,
My forearm will inoculate your reams of dreams
My forearm leaves your clitorial gland Yowling!
My forearm requires “more legs!”
My forearm remains defiant in the face of C.B.T and E.C.T
My forearm cannot lose or loose this RAW-Shackle
My forearm is a pillar of assassination and Masturbation
My forearm is a burning song-stick,
My forearm is Wracked and demented with Seraphic sinew;
the exalted Koala-Gut,
My forearm is a preter-mortem-Islamic-nocturne,
a bulging dead foetus,
a legless Noctambulist,
a deformed tiger eye,
My forearm releases its ghost in gaseous-dead-dove
My forearm is a syntactical activist
My forearm eats its own sores and admires the half baked moon
My forearm sleeps on rubber pillows,
My forearm is my brother
My forearm is a Kangaroo Blood Cult
My forearm is my mad hairless dog
My forearm exposes limp wrists to solar blades – My RA executioner –
My forearm observes the bomb-hollowed-world holding hopeless candles,
invites the world’s collective Terror into its veins, up arterial trenches,
perforates my soul and shakes fire between trembling scales,
My forearm stinks of Shark-Cunt, feels underbelly stingray sex, withholds
Moray Eel masturbarion and all the corporeal grandeur of
My forearm is the chant of a dead Nun, a tortured priest and dying lama
My forearm is the impure amazement and living memory of BLEEDING VEINS
AND BEATING WINGS!
Ben Frater’s full-length collection 6am in the Universe (which encompasses poems from Bughouse Meat) can be purchased from Grand Parade Poets.
Visit Wollongong Writers Festival for more details about the Mad Poets Workshop and Mad Hatters Tea Party.
To support the activity of the Mad Poets at Wollongong Writers Festival, donate here.
Tim Heffernan lives in Wollongong. He was born in Hay, on the banks of the Murrumbidgee and after spending most of his life swimming upstream, has mysteriously ended up on the coast.
Alise Blayney is a poet and peer worker. She was the key to YEK’s semordnilap and Ben’s favourite Yakkity Yak. Glimpse her through 11:11, where there awaits a synchronistic soundtrack.
Benjamin Frater (27 February 1979 – 4 July 2007) was a talented and original poet who after many years suffering from schizophrenia died at 28. Pretty much unknown to the wider poetry community his only publication was Bughouse Meat (2003) a chapbook. At the time of his death he was working on Preyed Hotel a fragmentary epic centred on the Green Acre Tavern (where his father is licensee) but which also grows out of the joys and sufferings which marked so much of Ben’s life. From the age of 19 he kept returning to the Faculty of Creative Arts, University of Wollongong, where he was about a semester away from finishing his degree. (Having him on campus for nine years was like having a permanent Writer in Residence!)
Three things dominated Ben’s life: poetry, his illness and the devotion between him, his family and friends. Of course schizophrenia could make him a very demanding person at times (though the greatest demands were alas on Ben) but he was also extremely giving. As a friend and as a poet he was not a snob, and although his work was high powered and erudite, to the point of appearing elitist to some, this was a man who loved the work of Nick Cave and The Doors, who could surprise everyone by bursting into Country and Western numbers, and who loved playing the pokies at the Illawarra Leagues Club accompanied by a schooner of Guinness. He could use the world ‘yes!’ in conversation with great force, with his other aural trademark being a good natured giggle.
With the exception of the great Francis Webb it is not in an Australian poet’s job description that they be rhapsodic, surreal and visionary. Well this is where Ben came in and even went one better, creating ‘visions’ out of Campbelltown (his home town) Greenacre and Wollongong, with acres of his imagination populated by amongst other beings threatening minatours and scorpions, true, but above all by life affirming yaks. (For whatever reason he called himself the Catholic Yak, whilst this writer was the Protestant Elk!) At times Ben’s poetry may have been large, unwieldy and frequently nightmarish but with his extraordinary humour to back proceedings they were always written for an audience’s enjoyment. Anyone who heard him at his best (his joint book launch with fellow poet Rob Wilson or his recent, and last, recital at the Five Islands Brewery) will attest to this, though the power of his performance was such that like Hendrix at Woodstock he had to go last, no one could follow Ben.
His close friend Habib Zeitouneh tells how at Airds High School Ben was part of an ‘arty’ group which was respected because of their ability at winning debating competitions and academic prizes. In year 12 he organized a reading in the Matador Room at his father’s Golf View Hotel, Guilford with over one hundred hearing him read his own work, with his grandmother Florence Bond as special guest. Habib describes Florence was Ben’s first ‘go to person’ in poetry. Ten years later it was Ben who had this role, however briefly, among many younger writers of Wollongong. Earlier with Rob Wilson, Tim Cahill and Ben Michell he had formed the Syntactical Activists, a group dedicated to poetry and undergrad goodtimes. With Rob he instituted ‘shoot outs’ marathon phone calls where each bombarded the other with words, phrases and indeed poems. Ben, although forced by his illness to so often operate on his own was still a very loyal colleague to all.
Ben’s love of poetry started with such adolescent staples as Pound, Eliot, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and the Beats. This expanded to include the Russian Futurists (who helped him find new verse directions) Francis Webb (whom he felt was Australia’s greatest poet) and the problematic Antonin Artaud (who could cause him great suffering). His great love was Allen Ginsberg, about whom and whose work Ben probably knew more than anyone in the country. Even better Ben’s Ginsberg was not that tiresome beatnik/hippy media construct but the serious, well educated poet who saw himself in a tradition extending back to Walt Whitman, William Blake, John Milton and Edmond Spencer. This was a club that at no matter how junior a level Ben wished to join. I once called him at the Greenacre Tavern, as basic a pub as any in southwest Sydney, and there he was in the bar reading Spencer’s The Fairy Queen! It was out of such (seeming) incongruities that much of his verse was assembled.
Ben’s illness combined with a quite strong reserve meant he never appeared throughout Australia on any reading or festival circuit. Nor did he submit many poems to journals. Outside of Wollongong he once read in the open section at Melbourne’s John Barleycorn Hotel and last September in Campbelltown at Mad Pride an event centred around artists and writers suffering similarly to Ben who wished to show that psychotic afflictions didn’t invalidate what they produced. His success there was a great fillip to Ben and this plus the love of his fiancée poet Alise Blayney and the friendship of many Wollongong writers helped in the promise of greater things. Only hours before his death all were discussing an appearance at the forthcoming Newcastle Young Writer’s Festival.
Like similar ambitious poets (Fernando Pessoa, Thomas Lovell Beddoes) who died with gigantic plans less than fulfilled, Ben left boxes and notebooks of poems drafts and fragments. Will Australian literature be able to accommodate a young, near to unknown, non-careerist, yet extremely prolific deceased poet? We hope so. Volumes are being planned. He is survived by his parents Howard and Denise, siblings Mathew, Nicole and Shane, a niece and nephews, Alise and many friends.
(Alan Wearne, in memoriam, 1998)