back toJacket2

Jacket 1 — October 1997   |   # 1  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |

Australian poet Lionel Fogarty

in conversation with Philip Mead

This interview is 6,500 words or about 18 printed pages long.

Lionel Fogarty was born at Barambah, now known as Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve, in the semi-tropical northern Australian state of Queensland. This was one of the Queensland ‘punishment’ reserves where individuals and their families who spoke out against the authorities were sent.
      Since the 1970s he has been active in many of the political struggles of the Aboriginal people, particularly in southern Queensland, from the Land Rights movement to setting up Aboriginal health and legal services to black deaths in custody. He is also an Australian poet who has opened up the new space of black Australian surrealist writing and done much to reformulate our understanding of poetic discourse and its roles in both black and white communities.
      Recently, his work as a legal and political activist and as a community leader has been focused on the reality of Aboriginal deaths in custody. The death of his brother, Daniel Yock, in the back of a police van, on November 7, 1993, indicated how little has been done since the federal and state government inquiries (and responses) into black deaths in custody to eliminate racial oppression.

Philip Mead is a poet, anthologist and lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania. This interview took place in Brisbane, Australia, at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, on Armistice Day, 11 November, 1994.

You can read three poems by Lionel Fogarty in this issue of Jacket.

This interview was also published in Republica # 3 (editor, George Papaellenis, 1995) pp.119–31 ‘Musgrave Park: Lionel Fogarty Talks to Philip Mead’. Inquiries to Harper Collins, 25 Ryde Road, Pymble Sydney NSW 2073, Australia

Lionel Fogarty’s New & Selected Poems (ISBN 1 875657 18 5) is published by Hyland House, 387 Clarendon Street South Melbourne VIC 3205, Australia, e-mail

You can order it from the Australian bookstore Gleebooks in sunny Sydney — on the Internet or by e-mail or phone (+612) 9660 2333
fax (+612) 9660 3597

Philip Mead: Lionel, could I begin by asking about Cherbourg, where you were born and grew up? As a place, what does it mean to you?

Lionel Fogarty: I was born in the 50s in Cherbourg Aboriginal settlement and growing up there was basically like an apartheid system. You had to get permission to get into the town and get back into the reserve. It was a hard and vicious life in certain ways, but there was also a tranquillity that only a family kind of upbringing can give. In Cherbourg there were people who have been shoved around from different areas of the country and children who’ve been taken away into the dormitory system, like I was. I was also taken away from Cherbourg from my family for about three months, to Brisbane here, into a white family. My grandmother found out where I was and she came down and got me and took me back to the mission.

And you went to school there?

Yeah, Cherbourg State School. We used to get up real early in the morning and make sure the house, the old broken down house, was clean, then get up the inspection for the white officials when they come round. Then have a bath in an old tub, because there was no real running water or shower. I dreaded going to school because you had to all line up to be soaked in this white molasses stuff to take away the — doolums we call them — the head lice. Then we all stand up outside the school and wait for the teacher, the headmaster, to come along. If any of us were slack in listening, or not taking any notice of the Australian anthem, we used to get clobbered by the teachers. It was like fear going to school at that time, and the only thing on my mind was to run away and go down the bush, go fishing or hunting, just get away completely.

Yet the book that you wrote for children, Booyaburra, is a story of Cherbourg, and of the bush at Cherbourg?

At that time, in that school system, we were really pushed to accept the Western style of education and to accept the propaganda that was coming from America, Elvis Presley all this kind of stuff, and to accept Australian history as the true correct history. Any other teachings from older people around the area were forbidden. Christianity really played a role in diverting us away from the true teachings. But stories that were told around the fire or stories that were told when I used to go hunting with my grandfathers and grandmothers and aunties and uncles, these were of significance to me. Booyaburra is the story about the rocks up in Cherbourg where we get water for the mission, where the reservoir is. I was told when I was a small boy never to go swimming there because underneath that big rock was a big cave, a sacred place. To go swimming there ... mundi gai ... that was a scary way of telling you.
      I was sitting round a fire and I can remember there was old lady called Jenny Lin and other people there who used to talk about this man who got lost in the bush and he came singing out for his tribe and he was speared by the people who were fishing, and this rock was then a laughing rock. But it was a very whispered kind of story-telling at that time, all of the different stories. But over the years I gradually went back and I asked people about this dream I had, because back in the 80s I dreamed about this same story and I thought it was just a figment of my own imagination. But it was a true ancient dreamtime story so I decided to put it into English, with a bit of our lingo, bits and pieces here and there, to make the story in a proper way, to give out to the children — you have to respect people who do fishing, you have to respect people who have a different cultural upbringing.
      The Wakka Wakka people are detribalised and taken away from their customs, from the presence of stories like this, from long time ago, but they seem to linger in what’s forgotten. My own initiative to write this story was to bring truth to the children’s eyes and truth to the children’s minds. With a little tiny bit of information or a little tiny bit of a story from back then, you can bring it into the reality of today, because those stories are thousands and thousands of years old, and are still the essence of knowledge today.

I know you see education as important for your people. Could you say something about the involvement you’ve had with education in Cherbourg in recent years?

I believe that education plays a major role in Cherbourg, but it’s not what Aboriginal education is about. In Cherbourg you’ve got a lot of different clans from a lot of different tribal backgrounds and their Aboriginal English and their dialects are different. I think what’s needed in a place like Cherbourg — this little children’s book that I’ve done is my way of giving them something, something that’s of value in collecting all the different lingoes that old people speak and young people speak today ... They don’t really realise that they speak the lingo that’s been passed down from their ancestors or the way it helps them in their lifestyle today. When they do speak in those different kinds of ways, they’re educating each other in that Aboriginal tradition.
      But other things come into it, like an Americanised way of education and an Australian way of education which corrupt it completely. That’s why if you have for the first time a children’s book out of Cherbourg that’s of any real cultural value to the generations to come, it will create a unique kind of education that will show them you can’t get trapped in the whiteman’s society, in their propaganda. You can jump out of it and look back into their traps, and then stop it.
      You’ve got one old man like Willie McKenzie, back long time ago, he was tape-recorded by Winterbottom, one old professor long time ago, and I think it’s important that he tape-recorded the different languages in the area of Caboolture, Kingaroy, Dalby, Maryborough, Gympie, all them areas, right up to Cherbourg. He travelled right throughout that area and he knew all the languages there and it was documented on tape and put down on paper. This should be taught in the schools, and to this day is not being taught in the schools.
      I think this is the field I’m into, trying to recapture or revitalise the different bits and pieces. I think that children today in Cherbourg really are eager to learn about their culture. And I believe that people like Jeannie Bell have already got to this matter of Gubbi Gubbi language and Wakka Wakka language and Garan Garan language. But because of the colonialist mentality of conservative teachers in the Cherbourg school, you’ll find a clash with the Aboriginal people who want total Aboriginal control in educating their children. There’s a clash because they want to keep the same old colonialist style of teaching, or even a modern way of teaching, that will actually take up more of the time and the minds of children, take them away from being taught their culture.

I wanted to ask you about what happened a year ago last week, because it’s obviously important to you, to your family and the community: the death of your brother. What would you like to say about the effects on the family and the community? Also the way it’s been reported in the media, and the legal steps you’ve been taking against the police and the government?

Lionel Fogarty

Lionel Fogarty
Photograph copyright © Jacqueline Mittleman, courtesy Hyland House publishers

You see, Daniel Fogarty, really, he was something special to me. He came out of the mission in the same way I did, coming down to Brisbane and looking for a better way of living. It was survival tactics. Our roots, the familiarisation with our land in the spiritual sense, comes down to here and the Beaudesert area. In Cherbourg my family grew up in an environment of complete dispossession, but still our culture was intact in the way our family was close-knit, our culture was really strong at that time.
      But over the years, alcohol came into the mission, and the exploitative, repressive nature of the apartheid system really caught up with my family and created alienation and division. It was a hard life, then, for me, and my family, growing up then. It became harder and harder as the mission became a real concentration camp.

Aboriginal oral tradition may be public (open to all members of a community and often a kind of entertainment) or sacred (closed to all but initiated members of one or the other sex). Narratives of the public sort range from the stories told by women to the young children (mostly elementary versions of creation stories — also appropriate for tourists and amateur anthropologists) to the recitation of song cycles in large gatherings (known as corroborees). Even the most uncomplicated narratives of the Dreaming introduce basic concepts about the land and about what it is that distinguishes right behaviour from wrong. When children are old enough to prepare for their initiation ceremonies, the stories become more elaborate and complex. Among the sacred songs and stories are those that are men’s business and those that are women’s business; each is forbidden to the eyes and ears of the other sex and to the uninitiated.
... Encyclopaedia Britannica

So my little brother, born in 1975, Daniel, he wanted to get away from Cherbourg, so he came down to Brisbane and went onto the streets and survived by going from place to place, from family house to family house, as well as just trying to get by by himself. And he realised that what his brother was saying, and what his brother was writing about and doing — all this talking about culture — was very important. When he was small he used to do a lot of corroborees, a lot of trying to maintain the culture in Cherbourg. But it was difficult because there you found lots of Aboriginal families that were stagnating, or in escapism from their own culture. Christianity took a really hard toll on them, as well as the authoritarianism of the mission. But Daniel was one who was outshining, he had a lot of energy towards the culture and he came down here and he helped create a small young people’s group called the Wakka Wakka Dance Company. So, he used to go round dance everywhere, dance Gurri and Anami songs.

These were dances he’d made up himself?

No, these were dances that were taught to him up in Cherbourg. Some dances were taught to him by the Korki Gurangi tribe up in North Queensland, but basically it all stemmed from the Wakka Wakka place. Just before I went overseas to Europe [in 1993] I met up with my brother here in Brisbane. Before I went I said look, I’ll do my best over there, I’ll tell the truth about our people and our struggle, but I’m going to set something up for you to come over. So when I came back my brother was really excited for me to organise things for him to go over. Then I was in Cherbourg and he was down here still doing the same thing. Then my book [Booyaburra] came out and he helped me launch it at the Warana Writers’ Festival. I went back to Cherbourg and then I found out my brother had been chased down by police officers and brutalised ...
      He was in South Brisbane with some other young brothers of his and they decided to move from there because the security officers were racist towards them. So they went up to Musgrave Park. Sitting around there, they had half a carton of beer, I think, and half a rum bottle. They drank that and I think they walked down to where they were staying, down at the Oxford Street Hostel. Before they walked down, they noticed police officers driving around checking them out. They felt uncomfortable with them driving around.
      On their way, from my knowledge, the police officers rang up other police officers and said ’You love this kind of stuff.’ All of a sudden they chased my brother down and knocked him over. Officer Richard Symes jumped out of the car real swiftly and knocked him over — arm and shoulder kind of tackle. That’s when Officer Domrose came over and put her foot heavily on his stomach. Then my brother went into a fit and they didn’t really take any care of him, or his needing medical attention. They put him into the van and then they wrestled another Murri fella and drove them around for nearly half an hour, forty minutes whatever. Then they brought him over here to the watchhouse, pulled him out and they couldn’t find the handcuff keys. Then they couldn’t feel a pulse or anything, so they shot him off to hospital and pronounced him dead.
      I was in Cherbourg at this time and they rang me up and told me what happened. They told me that the police were involved and I got the shock of my life. I walked round the mission telling everybody. When I came down to Brisbane I turned up at a community meeting over in South Brisbane at Murri Mura. When I walked in, there were a big lot of supporters, Aboriginal people. Everyone wanted to march and so I said, we’ll march.
      When we got down to police headquarters we went in there basically asking for an independent inquiry where Aboriginal elders were represented so that the just thing can be done in terms of the custom of our side. We understand their law prevails more widely, but our law is more important to us, and we tried to get an understanding, and this was not going to eventuate. We asked that the officers be suspended, but they weren’t. Then when we came out and told everyone, someone announced it’ll go to the CJC [Criminal Justice Commission] and after that when we were just going to proceed back to Roma Street a bystander, a plain-clothes police officer basically, stirred one of the crowd, sang out ’I’ll get you, you black bastard,’ or something like that. That was when a bit of a brawl happened, or I wouldn’t say a brawl, a retaliation happened.
      At that time I wanted, as Lionel Fogarty, Daniel’s brother, to charge the police officers, but the politicians Anne Warner [Queensland Minister for Aboriginal and Islander Affairs] and Dean Wells [Queensland Attorney Gerneral] wanted us to go through the CJC. So really I was put in a political situation over my brother. I had no alternative but to go through the CJC, which I didn’t really want to. My family had no faith in them because they didn’t bring down anything of any importance over other black deaths in custody.

The newspaper reporting, especially in Queensland, was generally unsympathetic towards the Aboriginal people wasn’t it (except for David Solomon in the Courier Mail for 6 April, 1994)?

I believe it was very unsympathetic to Aboriginal people, it was very hypocritical. The police had already set up their own PR system without really consulting the Aboriginal Legal Service or my family. They were very discriminatory. Then they became favourable to our cause and they started to play mind games on people — that’s why I came out really strongly in the media in a certain way, telling them. But they really brought me across as a very angry militant, as an activist from way back, from when I was a teenager. This was so, I was angry.

What’s the current case you’re involved with?

We proceeded with the right procedures with the CJC but really they didn’t show us respect. We wanted to hold the inquiry over in Musgrave Park in an environment of our people. The CJC Commissioner, Mr Wyvill, is the same person that did a report on my cousin Daniel Lacey who was found dead in jail too, of a heart attack. He brought down a decision that wasn’t in favour of our family. Anyway, with the CJC inquiry Mr Wyvill basically exonerated all the police officers, with just retraining for Domrose, who was the one I accused, and still do, of kicking my brother. All the other officers are exonerated by Mr Wyvill’s report. I came back from Cherbourg and burnt the report.
      After that, they said we failed on the basis of medical evidence, that Daniel was totally full of alcohol, totally full of cannabis and died from a heart attack, a Stokes-Adams attack. We didn’t agree with this, we knew he had a heart problem in a certain way, which everybody has in a way, and I still to this day don’t believe he died of that condition. We knew that Mr Wyvill was going to make this kind of decision, so we got another couple of surgeons, Dr Kendall and Dr Roys from Sydney, and they repudiated completely what Dr Nelson, the cardiologist for the CJC inquiry said. Other new medical evidence that really shows that a Stokes-Adams attack didn’t occur in a certain way, it occurred ... but I don’t really want to talk about it. The point is that two top surgeons in this country repudiated the other medical reports presented at the inquiry.
      So with this new medical evidence we went back to the CJC. They couldn’t believe their eyes. At the moment, the CJC is looking into the matter of the new medical evidence. They’re going to reconsider their decision. The CJC is still in a fix, trying to discover what angle they’re going to take, because they know they are bound to the truth on our side.

Joh(annes) Bjelke-Petersen, born in 1911 in New Zealand, member of the Australian National Party, a conservative rural populist and Premier of the State of Queensland from 1968 to 1987.

It seemed to me that there must be a way I can go in there and charge the police, but Bjelke-Peterson brought down a law saying you can’t private prosecute in a certain way in Queensland. Then I met up with a man by the name of Peter Gildoff, he’s a lawyer from down south — he’s fighting the case of the Aboriginal woman who was shot by police officers down in Victoria. Anyway, he told me that you can go and ding them. I’m doing a civil action against the Goss government on the basis that a cultural injustice has been done to my family and to my self, including grief and shock.

Because Daniel was a Song Man and he used to make songs up from his own dreaming, and he knew a lot of different languages. He was a really special person to my children. A very culturally talented guy, very dedicated to his culture. The cultural injustice was in taking that away. So I’m fighting that on the basis of a civil action too. I’m serving a writ on the Police Commissioner and on the Goss government and next week I think I’m going to go for charges against the police officers on the basis of this. So that’s where I’m at at the moment, in terms of what I believe was Daniel’s murder.

After Mr Wyvill brought down his decision, the Police Commissioner [Jim O’Sullivan] and Mr Braddy [Queensland Police Minister] and even I believe Goss, gave the impression to the public and to my family, that we should apologise to the police officers. That’s a bit politically naive and backward. I mean that’s like going back to the 1800s. Where you’ve got someone coming out in the media, someone in authority over people’s lives, to say you’ve got to apologise to these people is unbelievable. Justice isn’t served that way.

Like, what did Sam Watson say?

Yeah: it’s like asking the Jews to apologise for Auschwitz. It’s like what Jim Sawley said, ’I apologise for the genocide of the past.’ I don’t accept that kind of apologetic shit. I don’t believe in a guilt complex, where you base your struggle on ’You done this to us long time ago, you done this to my people long time ago,’ that kind of guilt conscience thing. I don’t do that any more. Once in my teens I might have, but now today I understand that you don’t do that.

Did you start writing as a kid? Did you learn any poetry at Cherbourg or Mergon?

They used to have some Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson and bush ballad kind of poetry.

Andrew Barton (‘Banjo’) Paterson, (1864–1941) Australian poet and ballad writer on bush themes. Wrote The Man From Snowy River, a ballad poem and (much) later a movie. Henry Lawson (1867–1922), Australian poet and short story writer on bush themes and working class life.

I didn’t really take any notice of them because my first thing when I got to Mergon High School, I think the second day, after we enrolled and everything, they put me outside the classroom and gave me a kindergarten book, just to shut me up. So I felt a bit no good, in the school, like any other Aboriginal person, so I just used to take off.

But I really used to question a lot, because I wanted to learn. In terms of poetry in school, in Cherbourg State School and Mergon High School, they didn’t teach me nothing about poetry. My poetry was going down to the township of Mergon and in the park areas there or in the outskirts of Mergon, or even in Cherbourg, just sitting down with young folks as well as old folks and just listening to their gossip, rumours, yarns, storytelling — that was poetry to me.
      What I try to do in my writings is to show that no matter what English you get, English is the most bastardised language in the world — but it’s not all bad — it does not give any natural flavour to what Aboriginal language is about. At the same time I try to show them Aboriginal language is a natural language, is a god-given language, a very spiritual language. Even if you get tribes that have been wiped out, then the tribe next door can still speak that language. But you find people today saying it’s impossible to do that.
      That’s where I say they are wrong. Because the dreaming, the dreaming parts and the dream songlines show in the movement of the dancing. Because you’ve got the dreaming there, the songlines, everything with the connection to it, the path of it, if something is taken away — like for example, Daniel Yock — you can still dream back into the reality of your language and of your communication today. For example, the little story I’ve got there [Booyaburra], shows that it’s not an impossibility of dreaming back to the so-called tribes that have been wiped out, to their language. It’s not an irresponsible or irrational thing to do.

Your New and Selected Poems is coming out with Hyland House next and that’s going to be an important book. It’s quite difficult to get your earlier books because they’re produced in small press editions. People will be able to read your poetry for the first time. I wanted to ask you about poetry and your ideas about language. Poetry is one of the important aspects of your cultural work. And a while ago you gave me your essay, ’Breakin’ down the structures or barriers in migloo existence,’ which is about Aboriginal English. I wanted to ask you about Aboriginal English, how it works and how it can be read.

I think that with my little bit of Aboriginal language, I think what people should do is read my poetry, in an Aboriginal way, take the Aboriginal side of my language, and then reflect back on the English side. That’s the only way you’re going to get a balance of understanding. I think my most important thing, like I always say, is to revitalise or to get a full language into practice of the detribalised areas, of the urbanised, so-called, Aborigines. That’s my main thing. I mean poetry is a very undifficult thing to me, these days.

You talk in your essay about what you’re doing in your writing, breaking things down, and Aboriginal paintings. Could talk about this a bit, the way in which the pattern of words works. A mosaic or something. If you read it for straight forward syntax and whitefella English then you miss what you’re doing in terms of the pattern of words.

Well it’s mosaic, but then again it’s not mosaic, what I’m trying to say is there’s a big painting there, you can paint. What I like to get into people’s minds, when they read my things, is that they get a picture, they get a painting from it and that’s the only way they can really understand all the mosaic, the patterns of the words I put down on paper. At the same time they can hear my voice coming through quite clearly, then they can really understand the poet.

What about other Aboriginal writers? Do you feel as though there is a community of Aboriginal writers?

No, I don’t feel part of any group in Australia. Some of the Aboriginal writers in this country find it very difficult to accept some of my writings. So it leaves me out on a limb, put it that way. And because of Daniel Yock’s murder, a lot of people find it very difficult to approach me. But the Aboriginal writers who influenced me were Kevin Gilbert and Oodgeroo Noonuccal. Oodgeroo launched my first book. They were the two people who really influenced my life in a certain way, not my style of writing, because even Oodgeroo found it a bit difficult to understand. I really liked the way Kevin Gilbert said to me, ’Look, Lionel, you’re carrying a club there, you know, you just go around and club all these academics.’ That’s when Oodgeroo told me all you have to do is catch all the young people.

Is Mudrooroo’s work important to you? He’s a great admirer of your work. He seems to understand what you’re doing.

Mudrooroo (formerly Colin Johnson) b.1939, published the novel Wild Cat Falling in 1965, on themes drawn from urban aboriginal and part-aboriginal life. He has travelled widely, spending time in South-east Asia as a Buddhist monk. He now holds a senior academic position in a Western Australian university.

I think he touched my spirit in a way because he touched my consciousness, his way of saying, ‘At last, a black man in Australia, has given to the white audience of this country, and maybe the goddamn world, something that’s unique and good for the people to understand.’ Mudrooroo is highly sophisticated in his approach to the literary world, but he did not influence me, but he gave me help. I said to him one time when I was in Melbourne, look I’m down here in Melbourne and I’ve split up with my woman Cheryl Buchanan, and I want to get out into society, I want the society to know about my writings. He was the one who put me onto [the publisher] Hyland House. Kevin Gilbert mentioned it to me before he died too.

      These days in Aboriginal literature, there’s a lot of it really that plays into the hands of the departmental. I don’t mean people who write up legislation, I mean people who write things for other Aboriginals and for white people who are working within Aboriginal Affairs of this country. When Aboriginals write these days, they sometimes whitewash their stuff for the people in the departments, or in the decision-making processes of the Aboriginal communities, like consultancies — ATSIC [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission] is one big consultancy for the government. They say ’We’re doing all this for our people, and we’re doing all this for our white people.’ It really is a backward approach, not a forward kind of approach, into the future of writing. That’s the way I feel.

You’ve talked about education and about Daniel’s Wakka Wakka dance troupe. Education is an important way in which language and culture survive. But what about cultural production, the Aboriginal Arts Board, Aboriginal and Islander publishing houses, magazines, do you have any views about these?

The Bicentennial of white (British) occupation of Australia was celebrated in 1988.

You get Aboriginal places like Black Books in Sydney for example, or Magabala [an aboriginal publishing cooperative located in Broome, Western Australia], those people get out some terrific Aboriginal literature. But they accepted money from the Bicentennial, to keep it running, and to me that’s a sell-out.

It’s the same thing when Expo [the Brisbane World Exposition and Bicentenial, 1988] was on, Oodgeroo had a play there. I’m not against Aboriginal playwrights or anything like that, but the point is that you don’t goddamn sell out the principles you start out with. The Aboriginal Arts Board have granted me a few grants in the past, and it was very helpful, but I just think it doesn’t really help Aboriginal people when they accept blood money.

I knew of your work as a poet from probably the mid 70s, but I knew of you as an activist first, and I guess I wanted to ask what may sound like a whitefella question in some ways, but listening to you it doesn’t seem to me that your writing is separate from the activism, in fact they’re very closely related. Everything you’ve been saying indicates they’re part of the same life. As in poems like ’Sadness in Children’ and ’Transformation’ [from Yoogum Yoogum]. I don’t know if there is anything you want to say about that.

In terms of the activism, there’s a bit of truth in that Philip, the militancy ... I helped out there. I helped out in the establishment of a lot of services. I was there on the streets, I was there in the sit-ins, everything. But in terms of the militancy, I’m still looked at as an activist today. I want to be looked at, really, in terms of my knowledge, as a writer. I mean people might say he’s sold out, he’s gone to a white company to get published, Lionel. But what I want people to realise is that I’m not this activist any more, I’m still an activist in a certain way, everyone’s an activist in a certain way. It’s like Marx said, you wiggle your finger, you’re a worker. I want people to take me seriously, as well as happily, as a writer, white and black, doesn’t matter.
      But in terms of activism, that’s true. There’s a lot of militancy in my writing, but there’s a lot of spiritual writing too. Culture, today, and politics seem to go together. Regardless of Daniel’s murder, I still see politics and culture coming together and it’s revitalising, there’s a good energy coming out of it, that’s why I totally believe that the goodness of Aboriginal culture will destroy politics completely. That’s why I believe in the elders’ council of Australia taking over the Senate in this country and having veto rights in the Parliamentary procedure. But then you’ve got to have politics within the culture and the culture within the politics. Structures within Aboriginal society are political too, they were maintained for thousands of years and still exist today, the customary laws of that culture. So that brings it down to a cultural politics. Like I said before I want to be part of those elders that don’t look at culture and politics as going together. That’s what creates great unity in people, creates great solidarity and humanity, because it’s based on respecting other people.
      The only way I can write political things is through poetry, because that gives more expression to the younger generation in understanding what politics is all about. But they have to have a culture, a poetic understanding before they can have a political understanding, that’s the way I view it.

It must be doubly tragic then, the death of Daniel, as someone from a younger generation, but also someone who was a very talented person, culturally.

He was a pretty good writer too. He wrote a lot of poetry. I don’t really want to see it as tragic myself. I think that’s a wrong word to describe Daniel’s life being taken away. I don’t think it was a tragedy at all. I think it was a purely inhumane treatment of a human being.

To end with Lionel, can I ask where you see yourself going with your writing now?

I’d really like to get all my poetry overseas and I’d like to get it to places in Europe, in Asia, in America, and the Pacific. I mean I’d like to get it to communities of indigenous people as well as into bourgeois society, into communities where they can understand the great intelligence of Aboriginal writers in this country. I’d like to see that my writing creates something that is tangible and recognisable, with great meaning in it, but with small meaning in it, where it helps people at the same time that are helped by themselves, that it furthers their educational standard, and helps them spiritually to a sense of the present-day reality of our people. The way I see my books going, or this next book, is creating a collective thought within people so that they can go back and read other Aboriginal literature or whiteman’s literature, either historical or present-day, or when they read things like deaths in custody, this will help them to meditate, so that they can create an energy, good energy.
      My main aim in my writings is a perfectionist way, a way of perfecting the spirit, body and mind, bringing that all together as one. At the moment, people might describe me as a mosaic writer, but I want to be a perfectionist writer and that is the most difficult thing in the world for an Aborigine at the moment. The whole point is to get my message out there to people. And in terms of the perfectionism of what I’m after, I’m after, really, humanity. I want readers to walk away, not with a tear on their face, not with an angry hatred. No way. I want them to walk away with a profound smile, not even of fascination with Lionel Fogarty’s writings, but with the understanding, ’I’m a human being, same as him. I can do what he’s done. Simplicity is what he was about, now, he’s far beyond that, but he can still go back to the simple way of doing it.’
      In some of my writings, when I read them myself I get a thing that ancestors give me this, and at the same time I get a thing that some whites have given me this, which is hypocritical for my saying that. But it’s not hypocritical because I’m telling the truth here. I believe I read some stuff after I started learning to read, some white man’s writings, I’m not saying they influenced me, influence is the wrong word for me to use, but I believe I got a medium of some sort from some of the white writers.
      A big influence on me was Oodgeroo and Kevin Gilbert, and Mudrooroo and Archie Weller too [all writers on aboriginal themes], and a lot of other writers in this country that helped me out. But going back to Brisbane here in the 70s, I think that the most influence on my life, in literary terms, was from people who are the down and outs, the ones who didn’t really care about employment, that were in the parks. These were the people, street talks, these kinds of things, lane talks, that’s what influenced my life in terms of writing.
      But in the future, and right here and now, I want people to pick up my thing, to understand someone who got over the difficulty of English and got over the difficulty of divided and conquered language, that is present today in dialects, in different syntax, within my own Aboriginal poetic upbringing. An old man by the name of Bob Landis was the greatest poet in Cherbourg, poetry used to just flow out of his mouth, out of his heart and out of his mind, a great influence to me.
      What I want to do now, is, I want to get my message out. I want to reach out to people. And if they could just see me and hear my voice. A film or something.

What? like a documentary?

Yeah, a documentary where they can see me.

Well why don’t I go away and try and organise something?

Yeah, if me and you could do a film, Philip, that’d be good.

Tom Zubrycky filmed some Super-8 documentary material with Lionel Fogarty in 1995. He can be contacted by e-mail at

You can read three poems by Lionel Fogarty in this issue of Jacket.

Jacket 1 — October 1997  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Lionel Fogarty and Philip Mead and Jacket magazine 1997
The URL address of this page is