An occasional series about some of the people administering this year’s Crocodile Prize
IT’S hard to imagine what PNG Attitude or The Crocodile Prize would be without the writing – and especially the poetry - of Michael Dom.
Michael is prolific, he’s a perfectionist and his perception is as sharp as a blade.
And he can also be a controversial observer of the passing parade, as his frequent comments to PNG Attitude on a range of issues attest.
Michael is also without doubt one of a select group of world class writers working in Papua New Guinea today.
At this time he is undertaking post-graduate studies at the University of Adelaide, far away from his normal work at an agricultural research station outside Lae.
Michael’s writing background, in one sense, lies in the mundane drafting of “technical reports and articles, project proposals and then more reports for my living as a trained scientific research officer in a government agency”.
But an important thing that did for Michael was to engage the discipline of writing regularly each day, even if it was just to do his job.
“Basically, I feed pigs,” he says with characteristic humour, “and then report what the feeding did for them.
“That’s how I try to assist farmers get over some of the hurdles of producing pork meat demanded by all you nice consumers out there.”
And the poetry?
“As a pastime, I have been writing poetry since high school. As habit, I have been writing poetry intermittently throughout my adult life. As an obsession, I am thinking poetry all the time: it’s everywhere!”
Michael prefers writing poetry, in which he experiments with numerous forms and styles. A sequence of haiku he wrote for me to deliver at my father’s funeral two years ago brought the assembled mourners to tears.
I marvelled then at how precise was Michael’s understanding of the complexities of my father’s personality even though they had never met. It was a knowledge derived from reading of a man’s long life and deducing some truths from that study. And then rendering them in the short, compressed, technical format of the haiku.
“Obviously I prefer writing poetry,” says Michael. “But I have dabbled in essay writing, although this does not come as easily for me – I need a gut driver or a fantastical mirror, a strong motivator to get into doing it.
“Some time back, at Keith Jackson’s request, I wrote a short life-story on myself and found that there may be some material in my head worth working on, some good ideas and experiences that might make a good tale.
“Hopefully time is kind to me and I can get a few short stories done and dusted.
“Writing a novel would be a challenge indeed and I will not write-it-off my things-to-do-list, but truthfully, it has not got onto my itemised list as yet.”
One major writing task that Michael has given consideration to, though, is a biography of his parents.
“Their story is always a fascination to my family and friends who have spent time listening to my mother telling her version, and I feel it may provide some good reading and a few life lessons for other Papua New Guineans.
“My parent’s story (and the stories of my peer group’s parents) is one of rapid transition in widely contrasted social predicaments, from childhood and youth with pre-Independence grandparents in a village, adulthood during the Independence period in two growing cities and now almost 40 years post-Independence, living in the fall-out of the explosion into modern life.
“My parents went from being village kids at Ninal in the Sinesine District of Simbu to being staff of the University of Papua New Guinea at Waigani.”
“My parents were ordinary folk in an extraordinary time who had the opportunity to do things and go places that other Papua New Guineans may not have had.
"But they maintained the integrity of who they were as individuals, remained true to their personal faith and their willingness and desire to do their best for each other, their family and their country.
“The price they paid, the blessings they received, well that’s the story, and I haven’t started writing it yet, so I’m not telling it now.”
If this promised book is written with the elegance, flair and precision of Laurie Lee or Clive James (poets who took their music to long form prose), it will be a stunner.
Michael won the Crocodile Prize for Poetry in 2012 and he is now a member of COG, the Crocodile Prize Organising Group, which administers the awards and related events.
“The Crocodile Prize is an avenue for the literary expression of grassroots people,” Michael explains.
“Our thoughts, our dreams, our versions of reality, our visions for the future, our understanding of the lives we lead as Papua New Guineans, how we want to be in the future, what we want to see and why these things are important to us.
“The Prize is our loud hailer for attention where there might otherwise be voiceless acquiescence to whatever it is that affects us as a people.”
Michael also believes the Prize is an avenue for continuous improvement in the skill of writing.
“It is not enough to simply write stuff and foist it on people as reading material,” he explains. “There must be quality of thought in the works and real value in what people are reading.
“We must make our expression clear and precise, uninhibited yet restrained only by reason, profound in implication but apparent to contemporary thinking, appealing to audiences but truthful (or factual) in the telling, musical and pleasant when it may be so and jarring the mind when it must do so; our writing must be honed on the grindstone of competition to achieve writing excellence.
“That is what the winning the Crocodile Prize will represent.”
And that comes from a winner who is well known for the tautness and perfectionism of his writing.
But the Prize also brings people of like mind into a common discourse.
“[It] affords an opportunity to not only contribute for appraisal, personal reward and improved skill, but also to associate with peers who may be like-minded or otherwise, to learn from each other and add different colours to each other’s perception of the shared vision of Papua New Guinea,” Michael says.
As a man who is deeply loyal to Papua New Guinea and strongly committed to its success as an effective and fair nation-state, Michael is passionate about the importance of it developing and maturing a home grown literature.
“The importance of an indigenous literature is that we take the rightful responsibility of writing our own stories the way we see it and, by doing so, make our contribution to the history of PNG and the world,” he elucidates.
“Writers bear a task as important as political representation.
“For example, whereas a politician will respond to socio-political overtones, a poet will respond to socio-political undertones, an essayist will present the arguments and how they are developed and a good story from a journalist or novelist will either reveal the facts behind the mystery or the mystery behind the facts.
“These writings must come from Papua New Guineans in order to bear the authenticity of a living witness within the event that is Papua New Guinean reality.”
Michael Dom typically drills directly into the tungsten tough core of an issue.
“Literature bears a task as valuable as reports from scientists, economists and philosophers.
“Just as philosophers may answer questions of how and why the world works the way it does, literature provides an understanding of how we feel about these things and our perception of whether they are good or bad for us.
“Truly,” he concludes, “writers represent the soul of a nation.”