‘Leaving Wilona’: Zalehah Turner interviews, John Karl Stokes, winner of the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney Poetry Prize 2016

“Finally, the poem, [‘Leaving Wilona’] was edited, boiled down, bred up again, titled, questioned and left to season before being let out into the garden.”- John Stokes

Zalehah Turner: Take me through your poem, ‘Leaving Wilona’…

John Karl Stokes: Well no work of mine is destined to end up starting at the beginning. Here we have no exception. The last can be first.
I started with the idea of the speaker’s old home on the edge of Sydney harbour having “bitter-vine grown over with lies”. The “bitter” of course stands for both the bitter, real plant and its strangling habits and the hurt of revisiting.
We then move to the father, growing flowers (he is a displaced farmer and horticulturist) near the Harbour Bridge (he worked on it) on borrowed ground opposite the Royal Botanic Garden.
Humans enter the structure of the poem. Especially a Bavarian grandfather.
Followed by that is the marine, sensuous smell and knock of harbour water.
Next comes: “that you might find nothing under a memory” (speaker lifts a piece of roof iron). Which means a quick back-fill stanza is needed: – “the second mother” (don’t ask) and “fright and decay” rotting into regrowth.
Then, things get interesting: – the speaker/narrator knew and knows years in advance, that he should not come back again in the future. But he will. He will have that strange, but well known, feeling of meeting himself and his ghost going their opposite ways.
Then we have the final dance-beat. The punch-line ending. The bit that makes a poem. As with a much of my work, endings can take months or years to turn up. There is no exception here: –
“Brush past … alone … into the new ground” … … “Say nothing”.
That “say nothing” (to your ghost) is really interesting. Public event readers of those two words, “Say nothing”, have had a variety of ways of saying them. I was inclined to a poignant, “nothing you can do”, mood. Another reader has spoken them as a strange interaction between two ghosts “outside of time”. Another- and I feel now, I would sometimes prefer it this way – gave them out in a loud, bloody fury shocking an audience out of its slumber.
Finally, the poem was edited, boiled down, bred up again, titled, questioned and left to season before being let out into the garden.

Z.T.: What is the relationship between ‘Leaving Wilona’, the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, and the life (and death) of plants?

J.S.: The speaker in the poem, his father and his grandfathers have direct relationships. There was the growing, nurturing and disposal of the plants and their dependants. The family gatherings. The air and sight therapy in that garden especially, before the years of fumes. There is a meeting of first boy or girlfriend. There is the history: the speaker in the poem was once the Assistant Keeper of the Book of Peppercorn Rentals for the Crown, and later one of its Crown Surveyors for the area. There was the matter of the silent cycle of growth and decay which gives the death and life of plants to the new generations; to the courting and marriages of new people while the secret creek dries, goes under, and is renewed.

Z.T.: You’ve spoken about the strong connection of place and memory in your poetry in an interview with Nigel Featherstone. In your words, place and memory interweave and ‘place’ is a “dark angel”. Explain the connections to place, memory, nature, growth and decay in ‘Leaving Wilona’?

J.S.: Place, memory, nature, growth and decay form the opening path, to borrow somewhat pompously from the Buddhists. In this work we, writer, listener, watcher, singer in the brain and body, are led on a little journey through all these aspects of an ancient, derelict house and garden only to come to a shiver of memory we can’t explain. There’s the rub.

Z.T.: What is your personal experience of the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney?

J.S.: Many years of appreciating its beauty, its calming illusions, its secret places, its useful fruits, its temporary pausing of time, its modelling for me coming from the East Sydney Arts School, its funnelling of the world down to that distant, bitter-sweet romance of the leaving of flying boats to the “honeyed islands”.

Z.T.: Your spoke with Nigel Featherstone about the memory of a place being coloured by experience specifically, that of personal, traumatic experiences. Is ‘Leaving Wilona’ situated within such a context?

J.S.: Don’t think a context like that necessarily applies here. Yes, jolts like that do happen, but the hurt in this poem is a long-term loneliness and loss, particularly of a mother, but not nearly bad enough by world standards. The horror in this poem is ill-defined. It is a wild but long drawing of the wire.

Z.T.: You mentioned that, ‘Leaving Wilona’ was connected to the longer poetic sequence, Drowned Haven. Tell me about Drowned Haven.

J.S.: Drowned Haven is subtitled ‘Confessions of drinker of sea-light’. It is a highly emotional, poetic sequence lamenting the rushing past, and ultimately, accepting of a painful hope for small futures*.
The drowning in this case refers to Port Jackson, a drowned estuary harbour and also, remembrance at once for our immigrants lost into the open seas.
We lament on the death by hospital neglect of the last, local, Australian aboriginal man living on his ancestral land on the peninsular: – ‘Man who lived under the spiders’. We have ‘Going from the Valley’; ‘Night surfers’ and ‘Midnight’s talk’. We have ‘A Girl is dancing in her green, green bonnet’ and ‘Mother. The birds are silent’. Then we come to ‘The Place, The History, the devil’s musician’ dealing with plants choking on their own fertility behind the McMansions overlooking the gardened swards of the children at play and the windswept, waterside brides under the palm trees.
Finally, we come to the specifics. A drowning which is to come by sea- and- storm-rise over the plants and creatures we share; a lonely, bewildered boy-child placed on the stone lions in the Gardens; a panicking wartime father shouting the Latin plant-names at him; a faint, sad hope that with the plants, and the bats coming in over the water gardens (“downward to darkness”), we will prevail. And nature with us. ‘The White foam sings’ (Stokes).

*For the technically minded, Drowned Haven currently stands at two lyrical “movements” of about 300 lines each in what my friend and far superior poet, Robert Adamson, might call The New Romanticism with added bite.

“We do not hide under the blankets …like the waspsand the leaves… we are blown away” (Hewitt).

Z.T.: Do you have anything else you would particularly like to add to give us some background into ‘Leaving Wilona’?

J.S.: I would like to say that for much of my writing life, I have dealt with “truth” as a guard against cant. I passionately knew that truth was larger than fact, and people need to identify themselves in the writing, unless you are too famous for words. It has only come to me very recently, only at the last decade, that there is another need. That of ‘theatre”, the emotional projection, the greater good. Watch your back. The Shadow Players are abroad.

‘Leaving Wilona’ by John Stokes: winner of the New Shoots Royal Botanic Garden, Poetry Prize 2016
New Shoots Poetry Prizes: the winning and highly commended poets
The winning and highly commended poems from the New Shoots Poetry Prizes can also be found on The Red Room Company’s website.

Songs of truth and passion: an interview with John Stokes by Nigel Featherstone in Verity La

John Stokes

John Stokes is renowned internationally for his passionate campaign for plain-speaking in literature. He has won, been short-listed, or long-listed for many prizes including, University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s and Montreal International Poetry Prizes in 2014 and 2015, respectively. His third book, Fire in the Afternoon was published in the Poets and Perspectives series by Halstead Press in 2014 and won the won the ATC Writing and Publishing Awards 2015 for best poetry book of the year.


N.B. The judges of the New Shoots Poetry Prizes were unaware that ‘Leaving Wilona’ by John Karl Stokes was previously published in ‘Fire in the Afternoon’ (Halstead Press, 2014) at the time of the selection and announcement.

-Zalehah Turner


Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based critic, writer and poet currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor

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