Ballina Region for Refugees Poetry Prize 2019

Ballina Region for Refugees Poetry Prize (supported by Southern Cross University) is for poems of up to fifty lines that respond to the theme ‘seeking asylum’. The prize celebrates the positive contributions refugees make to our communities and also acknowledges the circumstances that forced them to flee their homelands and seek refuge in Australia. Here’s a selection of this year’s entries, curated by prize co-judge and Verity La Discoursing Diaspora co-editor, Saba Vasefi. 

On The Road (Kristine McKinney Rees)

Ashes falling like warm snow,
Matchstick people, stacked kindling
Beside scarecrow graves.
Scattered bones, scrips and scraps
Of hair and clothes,
The living moan and leave the dead.

On the road
The women stare blindly from behind their veils
And wonder what frail hope
The world might hold
When all around them
Burns and smoulders.

They lift their children,
They shoulder the load,
Pray for strength.
They take the first steps
To join the human traffic
On the refugee road         

You Should Feel Safe Now (Sarita Bennett)

I meet with you again 
your face sunken
I guide you to the meeting room
wondering if your tears will spill over
before we make it inside
so many hours we’ve spent in this room together
me trying aimlessly
to give you some comfort
in the face of oppression
you say there was another bomb
this time in your family’s village
your cousin was killed
words escape me
I stare into your eyes
and just try to show that I hear you
that I can never really know 
but that I care 
and I am here
you should feel safe now
but the atrocities continue to happen
back home
you get calls
you’re sent video messages
you try to show me 
I hide behind a professional veneer
but really, I just can’t bear to sit fully 
in the pain
the government tells you
in their long and specious language
that it’s safe for you to go home
that you’re not a refugee
that you don’t need to seek asylum
that you can’t stay in Australia
you plead with me 
‘show them the footage’
it’s not safe for you to go home
I feel powerless 
I can’t imagine how you feel
I want to hold you
and tell you everything will be ok
but that’s a lie
I go home 
the freedom, the safety
not as satisfying as it once was
I lie awake and think of you
you should feel safe now
but you don’t

Reflections (Ági Dobson)

Our shoes stick to the tarmac
as we walk from the plane in bright sun.
Blinded by the dark of the hangar
we hear unintelligible voices revolving
around us. We stand in confusion —
are ushered, steered, arranged
then — Flash!
A photographer snaps the refugees
for the morning paper.

Its old frame now chipped, the photograph, still special, hangs
in the centre of the hall; in somewhat faded tones, depicts:

a young woman, with a nervous smile
baby on one arm,
an old woman, in blackest black
suspicious, fiercely erect,
a mustachioed man — eyes blazing
out beyond the bounds of the picture,  
three young girls — in their plaited hair
white, white bows, like doves

The tallest, shy, eight-year-old, with downcast eyes, is me.

I often gaze at that first photograph
surprised by how foreign we look
it’s not the clothes, nor our hair,
but our eyes —
like the eyes of orphans
staring back.

Many more photographs adorn the hall
a picture-collage time-line records
our transformation — refugees from tyranny, to:

schoolgirls in hand-me-downs
with short hair, long socks
our first, tiny, fibro-cement house
picnics at Seaford
father in shorts, cavorting
mother laughing, so proud
grandmother smiling
new clothes, new friends

The photographs trace a change in expression, a relaxing of shoulders
a casualness, a sense of content, for at last — we belong!

I look into the mirror,
deep, within my eyes
there is peace, there is joy
there is also a flicker
an indelible echo
of that orphan
staring back.

Just Looking (Victoria King)

‘Can I help you?’ she demands.

Suspicion curdles her gaze
As I turn to her
And smile
And let cloth fall through my fingers
And the formula of required words tumble from my mouth.
‘Just looking, thanks.’

Just looking.
All the words she needs
For her to nod and buck and swirl away
And return to her shelves of coloured boxes and hangers of dainty-laced things.
All she needs.

I watch the righteousness of her gait
And the rigidity of her retreating back
Until my eyes mist over
And my mind liquefies, melts, moves away
Way away
Just looking, azizam. Ah, but the depth of my search is fathomless.

The Voyage (Joanne Newbery)

The old lady wore the shawl like a queen
whose kingdom was on the horizon,
a short breeze ahead.
The sun ate her face,
tilted to catch the snatch of a song,

Love lies over the sea, Mother,
Let the lambs come to me.

I sought her metaphor in lianas growing to the sun,
in sea beans floating across seas,
in the love of lovers, separated
by a passion of ocean

Search I went deep inside deep,
standing on the high cliffs of sovereignty
and cast low in the cracks between rocks
where the glint of a lighthouse beam
transfixes too late the illegal swimmer.

They have drowned all the poets,
those souls, the heart’s explorers,
who carried out an expedition
where they met ancient war correspondents
still shifting salvage, waiting for the right words
to rise like cream
clotting the page.

Turn away, save yourselves they cried,
this is no land for art,
their pens mangled in the washing.
Still the golden woman sings her lieder to the sea,

Love lies over the sea, Mother,
Let the lambs come to me.

The horizon is a mesh
of latitude and longitude,
a cage of boundaries,
a compass of indirection.
The waves arrive at night,
prowling the stern,
whaling the hull.

All the children call as the sea somersaults below.
The black crone tugs at her shawl, mumbling,

Love lies over the sea, Mother,
Let the lambs come to me.

The Rock Cries Out (Stevi-Lee Alver)

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny
— Maya Angelou, ‘On the Pulse of Morning’

there is a kind of poetry written in one breath, a kind of poetry with war-torn eyes,
whitewashed poetry wrapped up in paper-boat death. a kind of poetry i could write,
if only, i could stand the sight of my own handwriting. instead, i wait for the scent of
rain to appear on this subtropical-grassland breeze. raindrops pound against the window
heavy, like thousands of feathers flapping against glass. with rivers rising like this,
how colourless the water seems. brown, crumbling termite mounds of slaked clay float
& dissipate. & the gates are closed. & the city bathed in moonlight is searched by boat.
dry rooftops & church towers protrude & point at the sky. pointing, as if to say, it makes
no difference between heaven and hill. pointing, as if to say, the centre shifts, the space
shatters, home is nothing now but a direction, a dimension, a little liminal prayer in waiting.

there is a silence sweeping over us, as though all the sounds are sinking in sump oil.
it’s spectral. it’s deliberate. it’s the present moment in a future of pain. the present pregnant
with the future’s history of obsolete beliefs. i want to go to where the amazon meets
the atlantic ocean. dip my gringo toe into the mar dulce, let my foreign skin taste
that sweet sea, feel fifty-million gallons of water rush between my feet. i want to dive into
a breath of fresh in a lung of salt. but that’s just too much water to write. and what of this
howl, this rain, this thunder, this oppression, this negation, this swansong, this flicker
of light in the shadows. these mothers carrying babies wrapped in blankets, boarding paper
boats on dark seas, tearing themselves away from all familiarity, tearing themselves away
from realities so terrifying it’s impossible to imagine anything worse existing.

there is a watershed moment taking shape. the rivers continue to swell, banks slump
under corrosion, corruption, & the pointing cries, forget heaven & high water, we’re all
better off fleeing for the hills. what was is now gone. rather than being drenched,
i drench everything in the language of salt-filled lungs. i am the shadow i am told i am.
& i no longer know if i am dreaming or if it just feels as though i am a dream. i remember
goiânia air in january, city-stewed & strong. there, in the foreground
were endless pastel-faded prèdios de apartmentos snarling their way up,
like rainforest seedlings seeking light. under the smudged canopy of south american
smog, a paper boat sailed in the sky. in my mouth i taste the facts we’ve been force-fed
from the start, fabricated liquid, salty & seething, turn to phlegm.

there are voices being silenced. the voices of humans choosing life.
there is a shameful entity gaslighted around us. i feel the lies, i hear them
roaring in the street. stories sikaflexed against themselves. curtailing the delivery
of truth. dangerous, like rivers rising. dangerous, like nourished white. dangerous,
like concentrated privilege. dangerous, like a breath taken under water. & today,
the gates are open. & today, the city no longer has towers for pointing.
& today, the city, it has arms outstretched & waiting. & today,
the people cry out, clearly, forcefully,
come, you may stand beside us on this
hill and face your distant destiny.

Feature image: ‘Cuban refugees 1980’ by Knight Foundation, reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Kristine McKinney Rees  fell in love with a gypsy in 1984 and became a crazy poet, artist, and traveler. She loved passionately, danced nightly and wrote feverishly, living as if she would be ‘forever young’. Now, no longer a young woman, she lives a rather anonymous and quiet life, far from the madness of the world, in a small beach town in a tiny cottage just a short walk from the sea. Her humble little home sits on a ‘pavlova paradise’ piece of land with many trees and is a peaceful, creative space. Kristine still writes the occasional poem and still burns for justice but the whirling dervish is quiet these days, so instead of dancing, she write children’s stories, makes sculptures from plant fibre and builds vegetable gardens for the future. But she has kept her past writings and has begun the hard work of word-processing many hundreds of poems written over 35 plus years. The words she wrote, all those years ago, still zing with life and relevancy, and sometimes with revelation. It appears that although she is an old woman now, the Word is forever young.

Sarita Bennett worked as a social worker and legal advocate with people seeking asylum, refugees, and people who have experienced trafficking and family violence. Sarita has a masters of Human Rights Law from Monash University and degrees in Peace and Conflict Studies and Journalism from the University of Queensland. She is currently studying law and working on a feminist comedy musical. 

Ági Dobson (neé György) arrived in Australia, aged eight, as a refugee of the Hungarian Revolution in 1957.  She struggled to get a grip on English: no ESL or special programs in those days. In year 7 she was introduced to Shakespeare and the classic English poets by a wonderful English teacher, who was also a poet. He encouraged her burgeoning efforts and she’s been hooked on writing ever since. Ági has written two commissioned school textbooks, worked as a journalist for Leader Newspapers, and authored and produced big circulation newsletters and advertising material for large state and commercial corporations. After a short course in Film Writing and two years’ research, she tackled a feature length film script, based on an Italian immigrant’s life, which was Commended in FAW’s 2015 National Di Cranston Award, and is seeking a producer to make the movie. Ági is inspired by the beautiful South Gippsland landscape, where she moved to live ten years ago with her husband. She now writes short stories but her main passion is still poetry. She has been published in a number of small press magazines, such as Poetry Matters and Poetica Christi, and has been placed in several poetry competitions. Being bi-lingual, she has recently begun translating her poetry into Hungarian and has this year been published in several literary journals in Hungary and Romania.

Victoria King is a poet and writer based in the Northern Rivers area of Northern NSW. English-born, she has lived in a wide range of countries including Ukraine and Pakistan, but is now settled in Australia. She is interested in the universal human needs and motivations that drive us. Find more from Victoria at her website

Joanne Newbery is studying Creative Writing at Southern Cross University online. She lives in Kingaroy when not exploring the country in a caravan named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s famous steed. Joanne spent many years as a speechwriter in federal politics, spinning words into gold for the king. This tower and coalface experience gave her an intimate understanding of power and sent her searching for the sacred. Joanne is learning to emerge under her own name as a poet, fiction writer and writer for performance. As a poet she tries to capture what is there, the way an artist must draw only what the eye sees, not what the brain adds on. That is why it helps to turn the object upside down to draw it, severing the brain’s desire to add in detail which is not there. The sacred is a lonely shadow in a secular world, but one which sings out from her fingertips, in dreams, like Spiderman webbing.

Stevi-Lee Alver, a Northern Rivers based writer, is the author of Cactus. Recently, her work has appeared in Overland, Westerly Magazine, Southerly, The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide and Australian Book Review.