Walleah Press

Famous Reporter 41 : July 2010



Famous Reporter 41




A conversation with Geoff Goodfellow

 The setting is Hobart’s Republic Bar & Cafe, the occasion the monthly poetry reading run by its indefatigable organiser Liz Winfield. The usual open mic session’s been augmented today by readings from interstate guests Geoff Goodfellow and John Carey. By now it’s well past five in the afternoon. Goodfellow’s about to head off for an engagement in Orford on Tasmania’s east coast but has one last detail to address before he departs, a chat with a young chap who’s arrived at the tail end of his reading and regrets missing it.

The afternoon’s reading has gone well, with Carey and Goodfellow entertaining an audience of thirty or more. It’s not a size to faze Goodfellow - or Carey, a successful actor - Geoff’s read to audiences in excess of 800, his booming voice and piercing gaze guarantee of gaining attention. On one occasion - at a Midnight Oil concert at Karratha in Western Australia in 1990 during the band's last tour - he read to an audience of around six and a half thousand. But that’s in the past.

For years, Geoff Goodfellow’s been a regular visitor to the Apple Isle, where he’s toured annually giving readings in schools and prisons. Two years ago he was diagnosed, after interminable delay,  with cancer of the larynx. For Goodfellow, it was a double whammy in that his disease was not only life-threatening - though he dealt with that - but career-threatening as well. In response, he allowed himself the luxury of writing to schools in advance of his visit last year, asking for the first time that a microphone be made available. ‘And I needed a microphone, whether I was talking to twenty people or two hundred!’ This year he’s back, and he’s foregone the microphone. ‘I wanted to put myself to the test, and it’s worked. I’ve done a couple of audiences this week of 150 people-plus without a microphone and I felt right on top of it. I don’t think I could do 400 again - and I know I could never do 800 ever again – but it gives me a good feeling cos I know I’ve made a quantum leap within the past twelve months in using my voice.’

He’s pleased to be back in front of young audiences in Tasmania,  regaining assurance his words still connect. ‘Writing about cancer and taking it into schools … yes, I had some reservations about whether that was going to work, but – as soon as I’ve done it, bingo! It’s worked! Everyone has someone in their family who’s had cancer, and so many have come up to me and said thank you very much, I never knew what my grandfather, my nanna, was up against: this has explained a lot to me.’ 

Geoff’s struggle with cancer is the focus of his next collection of poetry - Waltzing with Jack Dancer : a slow dance with cancer. It’ll be his tenth book, with the poetry enhanced by photographic images of his surgeon’s handiwork. He says his brush with death has wrought lasting change, that having a different voice to work with has forced his poetry to become quieter, less aggressive. But in a sense it’s restored the fire in the belly and given him new material to explore - just when he’s needed it. ‘I’m a lazy writer, not the kind of person who gets up every day and thinks “I’ll write a poem”.’ With the exception of his most recent collection - Punch On Punch Off, published in 2004 of which there remain but a couple of hundred copies from a three and a half thousand print run - all Geoff’s books have sold out. No Collars No Cuffs went through nine print runs, Bow Tie & Tails through four. ‘I needed a new book, and I think there are quite a few poems in the forthcoming collection that are absolute crackers.’

It wasn’t to youth that he credits the initial urge to write. Goodfellow was thirty-four when he took up the pen, recovering from a back injury sustained on a building site. ‘I’d always felt I came from a position of being powerless but saw poetry as a way of changing that. I’m not so idealistic as to think poetry can change the world, but it can be a precipitator for change, poetry can make people think in a different way.’ He believes this implicitly, felt it amply demonstrated a few days previous when he’d read at Risdon Women’s Prison in Hobart. Only three women turned up, yet the recital of his cancer poem ‘The Seventh Doctor’ resonated so strongly with his audience that within minutes they’d photocopied ten sets of the poem to distribute to fellow inmates. ‘They said, it’s not normal poetry. And no, it’s not. I don’t want to write poetry about a vase of flowers. People can do that - and do it very well - but I’ve never had the language or inclination to achieve that, I’ve always believed there should be a social usefulness with poetry,

While Geoff Goodfellow’s directness of manner and ready cameraderie is the key to his ready connection with guests of Her Majesty’s prisons, he’s just as comfortable in the presence of Adelaide friends including the criminal barrister and the Supreme Court judge he meets regularly for coffee. It’s a far cry from his working class upbringing growing up in a dysfunctional family in Adelaide’s northern suburbs, to iconic Australian poet dressed exclusively by an Melbourne clothing company.

‘A friend sent me an email recently, he’d been to a poetry reading in Melbourne where a young bloke had stood up in front of the mic and announced that he was from Tasmania, that he’d been at college six years ago and heard me read and wanted now to read my poem “Don’t Call Me Lad”. Well that’s all very fine, but then he went on to denigrate me by saying “Goodfellow was a good poet but he was a ‘douchebag’ because he took sponsorship from clothing companies”. But hey, I don’t want to be known as a rag-bag poet. I don’t mind being well-dressed, I don’t mind a clothing company putting clothing on my back and I don’t mind supporting Phillips Shirts because they support me. I want to be dressed neatly. I still say that I’m working-class, my family is working-class and my values are working-class. My values will always be working-class. It’s not whether I walk round with a blue singlet on and a pair of steel-cap boots or whether I’m wearing a thousand dollar suit, I still feel I’m working class because of the values that are inherent within me.’

One of Geoff Goodfellow’s strengths is his natural ability to reach out and build bridges with people from all walks of life. A few weeks previously he’d been working at Sacred Heart College in Adelaide as writer-in-residence where he was asked to take a session with five indigenous boys from a mission near Alice Springs. ‘I said look I would love to, tell them to come up to my room. The five boys came in – full-blood Aboriginals – wearing shirts and ties. I didn’t know whether they spoke very much English so I introduced myself in Pitjantjatjara language which translated as “What is your name? My name is Geoff Goodfellow.” They sat up quite startled and asked “What’s your country?” I was able to tell them I did Aboriginal Studies in 1984 at uni and learnt a little bit of Pitjantjatjara; and whilst they weren’t Pitjantjatjara speakers they understood what I said and it resonated with them and made them feel comfortable.  I went on and read them a few poems - but I knew after I’d read the first that I was making them feel uncomfortable because I was making eye contact with them - it’s my style to have eye contact with people, I often use my finger as a pointer – so I stopped at that point. I said, do you know the difference between my culture and your culture? I’m making you fellows feel uncomfortable  because I’m looking at you straight in the eyes, pointing my finger at you and directing my speech patterns at you. I know that’s completely foreign to you, but you boys are going to have to get used to that if you’re going to live here in this sort of society and realise your dreams of playing AFL football.’

‘We went on to talk about other things. I mentioned I was from an alcoholic background but I’d made a life choice not to drink. I said when you go back to Alice Springs and get off the plane, all the young fellows will be watching you because you’ll be dressed flash and you’ll be looked up to. You can’t afford to go back there and show those young fellows once you go to the big city you change. You’ve got to stay strong, and if you’re going to succeed as sportsmen you have to act as a role model.’

 ‘They all agreed on that point, spoke of how they’d walked away from cigarettes and drugs because they can see a future in getting an education and a trade as well as playing AFL football. It was terrific to hear these positive stories. One of the boys noticed a photo of me wearing boxing gloves, he mentioned he was a boxer too. I asked him how many fights he’d had, he said, ten. I asked how many he’d won, he said, I’ve won ten. Where did you have these fights? I asked.  Alice Springs and Darwin, he said. I asked if he wanted to fight while he was down here in Adelaide. “Yeah”. Well I’ve got a mate who’s a trainer, I said, he runs a gym at the Aboriginal Sobriety Centre in the centre of the city, I’ll ring him and I’ll make arrangements. And I took him in there on the Friday afternoon and got him organised. It felt a nice thing to do for that young fellow.”


It’s five twenty-five, and the room’s clearing of its poetry patrons. Musicians will soon set up for the evening’s performance: the  Republic’s a busy venue. Meanwhile Geoff Goodfellow’s building bridges in the way he knows best, through his poetry. He takes a seat, grips the young man’s hand. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

‘Likewise. You know, you remind me so very much of a poet I heard reading years ago, visiting my school.' 'I still remember his poetry’, the young man adds, mentioning by name the poem ‘Don’t Call Me Lad’.

Geoff grins in acknowledgement. ‘That’s me. A little older and a little less stocky ... but that’s me.’