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March 6, 2021

Dead poet’s anthology reveals a passion for life

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Following on the successful revival of Rod Gibson’s short plays and performance poetry at the Drill Hall Theatre in Mullumbimby earlier this year, his sister Janet has published a book of Rod’s poetry in memory of her beloved brother. The book is called It only takes one hand to write a poem, named after a poem involving piranhas.

‘The idea of this anthology of Rod’s selected poems started long before my input, soon after Rod’s diagnosis of terminal cancer in late 2010,’ says Janet. ‘Rod, his partner Penny and my sister Mary Jane did all the foundational work of choosing the poems, organising them into sections and typing them up.

‘The poems were selected from various times over Rod’s life. Some of them are early works, written when he was recovering from his first encounters with schizophrenia and living between my mum’s place, various “loony bins” – as Rod called them – and doss houses; others come from his time in Byron, when he was falling in love with Penny and making a name for himself on the north coast as a poet, performer, and playwright.

‘In Maclean from 2001 onwards until his death, he wrote poems inspired by the sight of “pikelets… like flowers”. Knowing that the end was near he wrote Kookaburra, exploring his fear of death in the face of the cancer that finally took him away. “A kookaburra visits me in my sickness… where inside on the bed, I, like Job, have lost a lot.”

‘At Rod’s funeral in 2011, we had the idea to ask for donations towards the publication of the book, rather than flowers. Money flowed in from everywhere.

‘The generous and widespread financial response of so many people was a strong reminder of what an impact my brother and his work had on so many.

‘A psychiatrist once told me that for Rod to be alive and thriving at the age of 40 was a huge achievement. Many schizophrenics find living with the cacophonous demands of the voices that can be part of the illness too unbearable and take their own lives.

‘Instead, out of the chaos of mental illness, my brother wrote poems, plays, novellas and more. In the wonderful Poem (winner of the Sydney Festival Poetry Cup 1991 and part of this collection), the man in the blue pyjamas has his left hand stripped to the bone when he places it in piranha-infested water; and yet – as he says in the final line –“it only takes one hand to write a poem”.

‘Disabled by schizophrenia, Rod nevertheless kept on writing. His illness became his muse. When finally facing his death at the age of 60, he was scared. But paradoxically, and in keeping with the way in which he faced the onset of mental illness in his early twenties, his spirit grew stronger, more resilient and full of grace, even though his body weakened.

‘It is out of this understanding that I set up One Hand Productions. Its inaugural work is the anthology. Its mission is to publish and produce those voices usually silenced in the mainstream art world. Its mantra is that no matter how scarred we are by illness, disability, old age or trauma, we can create: in fact, there is a vital need for our voices to be heard.’

It only takes one hand to write a poem is available from The Bookshop, Mullumbimby; The Book Warehouse, Yamba Fair; Eklektika, Maclean; and from Janet’s website www.onehandproductions.com.au/.


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