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Derek Motion

life in the miniature steam-train village

some of us do stay here    i have a room under
the miniature tunnel the door is a drain-cover
a secret i open only when the tourists have gone
some of the overalled men have wives & they are civil
in fact they smile more than us “residents”
they often drink from thermoses
they tinker with the engines they collect tickets
        but then they go home
some wives are dead & so we move in here
there are various parts of the community vacant
one hair-pin down near the petunia bed & estuary in particular
that corner has a bad feel to it: the site of a derailing
        back in the 70s it's our equivalent of cheap-real-estate
train-enthusiasts are superstitious        with good reason
on purple nights when we all gather to drink beer & spin
monologues around the tiny turnpike        then perfectly-scaled spirits walk
the village comes alive with their spectral whispers
some seem to catch in my beard        a mixture of human cries
(the justly dead span generations:        the boy gurgling in the water not
yet talking –        the heart-attack veterans out for one last reminisce)        but
also the fairies we created ourselves giggle
the dwarves cease their mining & gather to connive
there is a swarthy & strange life in this place it
is pungent at times        i run the trains by day
    by night        under the tunnel        i write

Derek Motion’s “life in the miniature steam-train village” were first published in Cordite 27: Experience (2008). The guest poetry editor for this issue was Terry Jaensch.

Derek Motion

Derek Motion is a poet from regional NSW. He recently completed a PhD in creative writing incorporating the poetry manuscript breathe in space. He works part-time as Director of the Booranga Writers’ Centre and full-time as a parent & washer of dishes.


A Typical Day At Work 

I drop my daughters off at childcare and drive out to Booranga. It's an old farmhouse near the edges of the university grounds. The walls are being eaten by white ants; there are possums in the roof; etc. Often the office manager is there - she works just a few hours a week - & we catch up on anything that needs attention before she leaves. Then I sit at the computer. I try not to do this solely for the next 6 hours. I am conscious of the OH&S issues. I get up & get coffee 3 or 4 times a day. But often I do sit there for overly long periods. My job entails answering emails and phone calls, updating the website & working on the bi-monthly newsletter. Very often there will be a grant application to write or acquit. Sometimes there are writers' visits to plan & coordinate. Mainly I work at the centre on the computer by myself. Sometimes I feel lonely. Sometimes it's peaceful.

An interview with Derek Motion

Do you consider writing poetry to be a form of work?

Yes. It's work. I have to be active, I have to make myself write. But then I've always tried to engage in forms of “work” that are not purely about earning money. I've managed it over the years to varying degrees of success. Currently I do okay - I work part-time at a writers' centre planning literary activities, and spend the rest of the time at home with the kids, where I do occasionally get some space to read and write. So I consider writing poetry work, hard work, but the good kind of work. I don't sit at the pub after writing poems bitching to the regulars about how I'm unappreciated and how I'm not getting great health benefits.... Well, most of the time I don't.

How long do you generally spend writing an individual poem?

Often it's a relatively short time. I say “relatively” because I have met a lot of poets and I get the impression that many of them spend a long time with each piece, particularly with that ritual they call “drafting and re-drafting.” A lot of the time I knock out a piece in 20 minutes and it won't change form after that.

Some of my poems (many are poems that I like the most, or that are picked by editors) do entail much pre-work, much thought. That's the kind of stuff that it's hard to quantify and put an hourly rate on. For instance before writing my piece “life in the miniature steam train village” I'd been to the miniature steam train track up at the local Botanic Gardens three times. I'd say it was the first visit I started thinking about the idea of living in the village, what that would be like, the peculiar sense of magic that that might create. The second time I think I honed in on a few of the images that would feature and be prominent in such a life. And then the third visit I think was when I decided that I should write a poem about this. That's when words started forming in my head. This all happened over a number of months. Maybe my drafting and redrafting happens before I sit down at the computer.

Is work a preoccupation or theme in your poetry?

I don't know. Is it? Not consciously.

What is your attitude towards unpaid publication?

I like being paid. I've never earned enough in a year to pay anything off my very large HECS debt. But I also like sharing and gifting. I blog and publish without payment. I want my “work” to be available to be read. I guess it is clear that poets are spending time working on their material, and that they deserve to be paid for that effort, especially when the work is to be placed somewhere where it will potentially be read by many. But following on from what I wrote before about pursuing the right kind of work, I'll keep writing poetry and I'll keep sharing it regardless of payment. That's how we participate in the cultural life of the world and resist the dominant economic model, at least in some small way.

What is the smallest amount you’ve ever been paid for the publication of a poem? (note: this does not include poems for which you have not been paid at all!)

Paying for a contributor copy? No, that doesn't really count. Not getting a contributor copy would mean being forced to pay for one to see your work in print: being forced to pay to be published.

I got a $10 note in the mail once alongside a letter of acceptance. This is a small magazine run mainly by one person, to a high standard. For that reason it was lovely.

Describe your poetry writing work environment.

Well if we're talking about that preparation time that goes into it, all of that occurs in my head, and that's a fucking mess. It's like being in a room with 20 televisions on every wall broadcasting different channels and a door that someone knocks on every 30 seconds saying “Hey! Have you thought about this...”

The actual writing environment is more often than not at my place of employment. The Booranga farmhouse. I sit at my MacBook and I steal time of my employer (the NSW Government). It's a quiet place and that seems to help. There's a winery across the road.

What do you think is the (ideal) monetary worth of a single poem?

Maybe $300. I could publish a handful a year, supplement my income a little. Actually I have no idea. $1000? Or $1? That way only those with the purist artistic motives would send poems out. And we'd have more to complain about at the pub after work.

Have you ever worked as an editor? Describe your experience.

Yes, twice for the journal fourW. Two points of note: the first year I took over when the committee had decided to trial a submission fee. fourW can only pay a contributor copy, so it was a silly silly move. I had to receive the negative feedback from writers and observe the dearth of submissions from good writers. The second time there was no fee and I spent a lot of my own time letting everyone I knew – writers from across the globe - know about our little publication. I took more active control over the publication and, I think, produced a really good edition of the annual anthology.

What have I learnt? You can't take advantage of poor writers and you can't stuff them around. And, the editor often isn't being paid appropriately either. Often he or she is being paid less than the poet. Pretty bleak. But still, like the poet, you aren't doing it for the money and you do have a unique opportunity to bring something beautiful into the world.

When asked your occupation, do you reply “poet”?

No, usually I say “writer.” I'm always engaged in a lot of different writing projects so in a way it's more truthful. But, yeah, it's also easier for people to digest. Especially for members of a biker group at a backyard BBQ...

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I used to tell people I wanted to be a mathematician. I don't think I actually wanted to do that though. You don't actually want to do anything when you're a child. You just want to find a comfortable version of your own “self” that functions well privately and publicly. I used to excel at maths in primary school. I got a lot of praise for it.