Interview: True Matilda
Politics: State of Play
Industrial: Capital Dilemmas
Unions: Rhodes Scholars
National Focus: Rennovating the Lodge
International: People Power
Economics: A Bit Rich
History: Mine Shafts
Safety: Sick Of Fighting
Organising: Building a Wave
Poetry: Anger In The Bush(es)
Review: The Battle Of Algiers
Culture: The Word On The Street
The Locker Room
Co-operating At All Costs
All Good Except You
The Word On The Street
The ability of working Australians to laugh in the face of adversity has struck Geoff Goodfellow in his 20 years as the unofficial poet laureate to the Australian working class.
"I've had union reps say 'show the poet why you don't pick your nose anymore Harry', and they've shown a club instead of a hand, and everybody has laughed.
"They've laughed because they've had to laugh.
"If they didn't laugh they'd cry, and if they cried they'd never stop."
For most of us the picture of a poet is some goatee wearing sophisticate with a beret, sipping coffee in a trendy cafe, but the former building worker uses what he calls the "colloquial voice of the Australian workplace" to tell stories about a class the publishing world pretends doesn't exist.
"At a writers week 80% of the audience is middle class," says Goodfellow. "That has got to be challenged."
Goodfellow shot to prominence in his native Adelaide in the late eighties as the 'building site poet', where the local tabloid cartoonists had a field day portraying him as a tattooed oaf in a tu-tu.
The Building Workers Industrial Union, now part of the CFMEU, sponsored Geoff to do poetry readings on building sites.
"Building workers have a self-confidence and pride from doing a job interview every 12 weeks," says Goodfellow. "They aren't afraid to tell you what they think. If my readings hadn't of worked they would have told me."
"But they recognise that I'm from their culture, I speak their language."
His first collection of poems No Collars No Cuffs, first published in 1986, is now in its 9th printing. Seven books have followed, most running into multiple print runs.
"I set out to write for ordinary everyday Australians, the people that get forgotten. The people that vacuum the room, the people that get up on a ladder to change a light bulb, the people who fix the heater, the plumber who unblocks the toilet.
"What they do is important and should be recognised by people.
"I'm writing for my family and the broader family of people that work. I want to tell our stories," he said.
Goodfellow left school at 15 and worked a variety of semi-skilled jobs before beginning to write poetry in his early 30s, after a severe back injury brought about his early retirement from the building industry.
He has been writer-in-residence at places from St Ignatius' College to Yatala Gaol's B Division.
In 1990 he was awarded an Australia Council Community Writer's Fellowship with the now CFMEU culminating in the publication No Ticket No Start. He has opened rock concerts for Midnight Oil and The Velvet Underground legend, John Cale, and had a national Australian touring residency taking poetry to building workers.
His poems are unromantic snapshots of the Australian working class existence. They show extraordinary lives - the humour and tragedy often found side by side in working life.
"I'm plucking individuals out who are representative of the class I want to talk about," says Goodfellow. "I've known some rough heads and some rough mouths that are not afraid of expressing emotions. I've known a lot of hard men and seen them break down.
"It doesn't matter how hard someone is, they still need avenues to express their emotions.
"I'm trying to work through those ideas that cause a lot of stress.
"I don't come up with any solutions, I'm not a philosopher, but I note them on the agenda."
Goodfellow knows it's an agenda that is hard to get up in these economically rationalist times.
He believes there is a correlation between domestic violence and what he calls "the dumbing down of the Australian workforce".
"People shut down, It's an area that's got to be looked at," he says. "Political parties, left and right, have deserted the hands and feet people."
Goodfellow got into poetry because it "seemed a way to get into and out of a subject in a fairly easy way and have something transportable that I could take around to forums".
"There are six or seven drafts of what I write. It's a carefully contrived simplicity."
Goodfellow sees himself as part of the Irish Catholic working class tradition of oral storytelling. His 'real' family name is McGuigan. It was changed so his family could get work in the protestant north.
"We were brought up to tell our stories."
Goodfellow is now embarking on a poetry novel telling the story of a contemporary Australian working class family through the eyes of a teenager. The issues he is addressing - single parent families, economic hopelessness, pokie and heroin addictions - run the full gamut of the world he sees unfolding around him.
"My father told me I should hurry slowly," says Goodfellow wryly. "The older I get the more I realise what he told me."
"If you get your stuff out there it has to be good."
The Violence of Work
i work in a factory
i work a rotating roster
i wear earmuffs & gloves
i stamp on a press
i still had my fingers last
i make repetitive pieces
i work on a tally
i'm told to work faster
i have smoko with Billy
i play euchre at lunchtime
i just do my best
i'm paid the award for
i don't complain to the boss
but complain to my partner
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