Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

David Prater

I got my first paid job while I was still at school, working as a milk delivery boy in the suburb of Wollongong, an industrial city in Australia where I lived with my family in the 1980s.

I’d work three to four hours per night, three or four days per week, and received AUD3 per hour, plus benefits. These benefits amounted to two or three milk products (yoghurt, custard and so on), which I took home with me at the end of my shift or else drank while on the job. In those days milk was still primarily home-delivered in glass bottles with metallic lids.

My job was to carry a crate of twenty bottles at a time, deliver the milk to each house, collect any empty bottles and/or money left out, memorize the exact numbers of bottles I had delivered, and parrot these figures back to Al, the guy who owned the business and drove the milk truck. I’d be romanticizing things a tad too much if I were to say that it was backbreaking work.

Still, there were moments when, running full-pelt down an asphalt street in the rain with twenty full bottles of milk rattling around in my crate, that I could foresee a dramatic accident involving an unsighted car, a slick patch of road or else a misstep onto an immaculately mown and slippery lawn, in which I might impale myself on a broken bottle, or else lose the whole crate.

In the end, the worst thing that happened to me was a kind of half-hearted dog attack, which I blew up in my mind to be much more serious than it was, and of which my family still takes great pleasure in reminding me to this day, almost twenty-five years later.

In 2005, I had the great fortune to be awarded a new work grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts. I’d been paid for my poetry before of course – a fifty-dollar cheque here and there – but the grant represented the first real payment I’d ever received for my work as a writer and poet.

With the aid of the grant, I spent three months writing my life in poems. I rented space in an office run by a group of architects and everyday I went in there and just started writing. By the end of the three months I had written over a hundred new poems, many of which were nowhere near publishable. But one of them was about my job as a milk boy, or “milko.”


             you did the right thing davey boyo when you left
             your job as a milk boy at the end of that (summer
             seventeen years old smart but overshadowing you
             was the consciousness of not yet being a man not
             yet standing taller than your sister boyo (milk boy
             three dollars an hour running up & down middle
             class streets hauling crates of slippery clear glass
             in the rain your feet sinking into the grass it was
             always a haven in the back of the truck (freedom
             in the form of sliding stacks of crates & bottles of
             milk sculled at each rest stop memorising every
             dim housewife's cryptic messages here an empty
             bottle meant two a stack of two cent coins meant
             payday wasn't till tomorrow or hubby was away
             this one might be on a diet (she's switching from
             pasteurised to lite we could reel off every combo
             counting change in the dark yelling out homo for
             homogenized (plain for the silver top laced with
             extra cream at the end of the night i'd choose two
             yoghurts one custard & then hit the shower get
             that sticky milk off my legs when i started i was
             nothing to the other boys (sons of working class
             men whose jobs at the steelworks had morphed
             into admin & power boats holden sedans (their
             wives in their dressing gowns & slippers bustled
             out to the front porch when our boss blew that
             horn a kind of cross between a cow & a strangled
             sheep up & down the jacaranda-lined streets in
             the dark sitting in gutters waiting for the truck
             talking shit about australian crawl girls & what
             they smelt like i never did see a girl through a
             window or a couple making love only tv sets &
             automatic porch lights savage dogs & stunted
             christmas decorations & i told my family about
             that dog but they just laughed how could they
             have known what it felt like running down the
             street alone in the dark with a crate full of glass
             & half the sky stained by arc lights & steelworks'
             flames (feeling the muscles in my arms begin to
             knot & bunch i felt the strange senses of a man
             begin to seep into my miniature boyhood brain

At the time, I recall, it was very important to me that I view my writing as work – and that, as a consequence, much of my writing should be about work: the processes of (post-)industrialization that I saw all around me; the minutiae of payment or the lack of it; the relationships between people working in monotonous or stifling conditions; interactions between employers and employees; and the things people do when they finish work.

The process of selecting the Australian works for this special Cordite-Prairie Schooner collaboration entailed a lot more work than I thought it would when I first discussed the idea of the issue with Kwame Dawes in 2011. I thought that I’d be able to go through the archives on the Cordite site and cherry-pick at will from many poems about work and working.

To begin with, however, even a simple keyword search for “work” yielded very few useful results. An initial scan of the poems published on the Cordite site between 2007 and 2011 also demonstrated that, in fact, not many poems were actually about work at all, and even fewer exhibited the kind of class-consciousness that I had supposed was abundant.

That being said, in the end I really just needed to work both a little harder and more creatively to find the poems for this feature. Tom Clark’s “Why be a delegate?” was an obvious starter, with its allusion to Australia’s trade union delegate system and its underlying theme of participation and involvement in issues affecting workers.

Lorin Ford’s “Variations on six innocent lines” contains references to work and pay but also plays on the weaving together of line fragments to produce a puzzling and engaging whole. Derek Motion’s surreal “life in the miniature steam-train village” offers a bird’s eye view of the world of work, from an unexpected angle.

Brendan Ryan’s “Factory Boys” is perhaps the most overtly ‘work’-related poem here, and its observations about the factory floor, in particular the kinds of relations that exist between workers, ring true for me: “as if opinions ever matter/ when the stainless steel is piling up around you.” Similarly, Margaret Owen Ruckert’s “is there more to worry than lunch” is subtly humorous in its evocation of a pre-WWII lunchtime working world “with no phone, fax or email.”

By contrast, Adrian Wiggins’ “After The Party” offers a more ironic, post-modern movie script in miniature, featuring a woman who works in a call centre, a run-about and a bottle of bourbon. Meanwhile, Jennifer Compton’s “Ex-Yugo” paints a delightful picture of what could be the former Yugoslavia, its final lines summing up the tensions between work and reward, in this case through the price of cherries: “And how delicious they are, small/ and so sweet in a white paper cone, and so cheap.”

Ivy Alvarez’ “Curing the animal,” which was first published in Cordite 29: Pastoral, and was later translated into Hangul as part of our Oz-Ko (Australia-Korea) special issue, drips with the brutality of butchering work, its startling perspective also commenting on the division of labour between men and women.

Barbara De Franceschi writes in her poem “Mining the Idyllic” about and around the Australian resources boom, while also echoing former “golden” ages, in which the timber and live animal trades left their marks on local working class consciousness. Liam Ferney’s “Millennium Lite Redux,” on the other hand, possibly speaks from a post-GFC consciousness, in which the diary an unemployed worker on benefits is required to fill out becomes “a newstart fraud de art.”

Writing of an older time, Peter Coghill’s “Settlement” navigates a terrain similar to that of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, referencing the hard labour of European immigrants to Australia in the immediate post-invasion period at the end of the eighteenth century. M. F. McAuliffe’s “Epic, Untitled” concerns another kind of immigration, this one perhaps more familiar to American readers.

Benito Di Fonzo’s wry and downbeat “What For? (Epic Triad Version),” an audio version of which is also included in this issue, sings of the frustrations of menial and/or pointless work, and the futility of the “rat race.” Komninos Zervos’s “bio,” also presented as an audio piece, utilises computer-generated voices to produce a darkly comic statement on performance poetry in a digital age.

In “A Ghost in the Golden Sheep Massage Parlour,” Sean M. Whelan & the Interim Lovers evoke a creepy and dreamy space where nothing works as it should.

In a perhaps more light-hearted vein, in “Aargh! It is the Zombie Apocalypse! Run away!” Esther Johnson re-writes Tom Cho’s now-classic piece “AIYO!!! An Evil Group of Ninjas is Entering and Destroying a Call Centre!!!”. Emily Stewart’s “State of Origin” is likewise a poem that employs a particular tone and voice – in this case the phrasing of rugby league football commentators – to humorous if unsettling effect.

Last but definitely not least, Geoff Page’s “The Anthologist” comments satirically on editors and anthologisers in the contemporary poetry world. I couldn’t resist including this poem, if only for the fact that it expresses so well some of my own feelings about categorisation and the editor’s “work of love.”

In addition to the poems in this special feature, I’ve included interviews with Derek Motion and Jennifer Compton on the subject of work and its relation to poetry. In fact, in preparation for this feature, I interviewed a number of other contributors about their work. You can find their responses on the Cordite site. While compiling the contributor biographical notes, I also asked each poet to describe their typical day at work, if only to give Prairie Schooner readers an idea of the range of occupations undertaken by Australian poets and writers.

Finally, to accompany the issue, I’m thrilled to present eight artworks by London-based Australian visual artist Michelle Ussher. I’ve been a big fan of her work for a long time now, and it’s especially pleasing to have this opportunity to showcase her distinctive style, as well as her creative artist’s statement.

I trust that readers will enjoy these works, and appreciate the special creative work that has gone into their production and reproduction. My thanks to Kwame Dawes and Marianne Kunkel for their enthusiasm and support in putting this special issue together. To perhaps mis-quote Tim Gunn from Project Runway, I sincerely hope we’ve managed to “make it work!”

David Prater
January 2012

David Prater
A Typical Day At Work 

I actually wear two ‘working’ hats: the first as the editor of Cordite, and the second as a post-doctoral researcher investigating electronic literature. Both positions in fact involve a great deal of time sitting behind a computer communicating with writers and researchers from all parts of the world, as well as equal amounts of writing and editing. A typical Cordite day involves any or all of the following: checking that the site is still online (given our recent string of site crashes, this is usually the first thing I do each day!), responding to reader queries, checking and approving site comments, liaising with contributors about uploading their works to the site, chatting with fellow Cordite editors, planning upcoming issues, writing cheques and acquittal reports for the Australia Council (our primary funder), and tinkering with the design of the site. Of course, not all of these things will require doing on the same day but listing them all like this makes it seem like a proper job.