Here in Colorado, we're very familiar with the cowboy-poetry phenomenon, but the notion of an Australian bush poet is still a bit exotic. Although only the latter features wallabies and dingoes and mulga trees as part of its lore, the two genres are closely related. And bush poetry, which boasts its own ragtag indigenous charm, is a natural extension of the annual cowboy-poetry goings-on at the Arvada Center, where this week two windblown Aussie bards -- Janine Haig and Milton Taylor -- perform alongside the all-American ones.
Haig, who lives on a sheep and cattle ranch in a dusty backwater called Eulo, says the main requirements for bush poetry are simple: It must focus on life in Australia, it can't be raunchy, and it has to rhyme. "Bush poetry began as a way of telling tales -- both real and 'tall' tales," she explains. "The rhyme and rhythm made it easier to remember. It began in the Australian Outback --hence the name -- and many of the earlier poets couldn't read or write -- their poems were repeated around campfires until many of the old ballads and stories were written by that wonderful poet 'Anonymous.'"
Although the genre can actually center on either urban or rural concerns, Haig -- who, in ten years of versifying, has twice won the Ladies' Australian Bush Poetry Championship and also bagged the 2000 Qantas Waltzing Matilda Championship -- concentrates on what she knows best: the Bush. "The Australian Bush ranges from desert country to forests -- it's all called 'The Bush,'" she says. "I live in the Queensland Outback, where the soil is red and rocky. Drought is the only thing we can be certain of."
Drought, and inspired words such as these, from a poem simply called Life:
Drought controlled the whole darn show, The grass and trees refused to grow, Blow-flies left in buzzing haste To find a better, wetter place; The dams were sadly clean and dry, The stock curled up their hooves to die, The only crop was blood-and-bone, The frogs all hopped away from home; Dust invaded everywhere, Choked us all without a care, Trees cast off their leaves to mourn Another blue and cloudless dawn. Then at last the rain came down, The farmer thought he'd surely drown, Raucous frog-song gave alert, To herald mud instead of dirt; Instantly it seemed to be, The parched rock flats became a sea, Hidden seedlings that survived, Swiftly woke and came alive; The grass grew almost overnight, The house then disappeared from sight, The flies, delighted with the rain, Began to drive us mad again. The moral is that rain or shine, Life's a trial all the time.
She may come from the other side of the planet, but Haig has much in common with her American counterparts, especially when it comes to sources of inspiration. "Sometimes I hear a few words that can set me off with an idea," she says. "Sometimes I will see something happen and feel the need to write about it. Sometimes someone really annoys me, and I have to make fun of them so I feel better. Anything can set me off, really. Sometimes I even write serious poetry.
"I don't think it is any different for the Cowboy Poets. Ask any of them, and I'm sure they'd say the same thing: 'What inspires us? Life.'"