This month we’re celebrating the work of Ben Frater with Tim Heffernan and Alise Blayney.
To kick off, Tim shares his plans for the upcoming Mad Poets Workshop, Panel and Performances, inspired by Ben’s own original ideas and experiences. Then we question the romanticisation of the mad poet vs the unromantic reality, and talk about what it takes to reshape pain and trauma into something that might actually move an audience.
We hear Ben perform ‘The Argument’ (watch Ben in action here), while Alise talks about its creation and Tim discusses how hearing the poem affected him. Finally, Tim reads and discusses his own mad poem, ‘Reasonable Delusions of a Religious Nature’.
To purchase Ben Frater’s collection, 6am in the Universe, visit Grand Parade Poets.
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 grew 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)
Alice Allan’s poetry has been published in previous issues of Verity La as well as in Cordite, Rabbit and Australian Book Review. She is the creator and convenor of the Verity La Poetry Podcast and produces her own weekly podcast, Poetry Says.