Melbourne poet and convenor of La Mama Poetica, Amanda Anastasi, pays tribute to the late Judith Rodriguez, poet, social justice campaigner and beloved teacher.
It is with much sadness, fondness and celebration that we recognise the passing of our poet and friend, Judith Rodriguez. She leaves behind a legacy of prolific and memorable poems. Her poetry collections include (among many others) Water Life, Shadow on Glass, Mudcrab at Gambaro’s, Witch Heart, The Hanging of Minnie Thwaits and (shortly before her death) The Feather Boy and other poems.
She was the poetry editor of Meanjin for a time and also for Penguin Australia, and a recipient of the OAM for services to literature, in addition to many other honours. As well as her extensive literary achievements, she was a social justice campaigner and advocate and was involved with PEN International across three decades, fighting for freedom of expression and promoting intellectual cooperation between writers globally.
As a teacher, Judith taught writing at the CAE and previously at Latrobe University and also at Deakin University for 14 years. This was where I came in contact with her, as a first-year Professional Writing and Editing student. I still recall her insistence that all students keep a writing journal to jot down our daily thoughts, ideas and musings.
I remember entering Judith’s office as a nervous 18-year-old for the end-of-semester journal showing, which she said would be a brief check to see that we were maintaining our daily writings. Upon handing my notebook to her, she proceeded to intensely read it from cover to cover over a period of 15 minutes while I stood there watching.
I remembered thinking “why does she – why would she - find my thoughts and notations of interest?” It was my first glimpse of the lady’s curious mind and deep interest in other people’s thoughts and ideas.
Many, many years later I encountered her again on the Melbourne poetry scene. Upon asking her to look over my first poetry collection ‘2012 and other poems’ (expecting a polite no), she gladly and readily obliged and her written testimonial graces the back cover of both editions.
Judith was not merely a teacher, she was a mentor and a supporter of emerging poets throughout her life. She saw the potential in everyone, no matter their writing style or level of ability. This poetry caper was never just about her. Rather, it was concerned with a larger, collective practice of poetry, artistic expression and craftmanship.
She was a person who was confident in her abilities and doggedly focused, though without the egotism. Her natural, deep interest in the world around her preserved that humility, hands-on helpfulness and down-to-earth humour that was so very particular to her.
Judith was a listener and a creative enabler. She fully utilised her time onstage and the various platforms she had been given, but viewed the platform as a thing to be shared. Judith’s poetic output was above and beyond any label that one could possibly place on it.
One wouldn’t even think of calling her “a female poet” but, rather, an “Australian poet” or “a poet”. She was simply one of our greatest wordsmiths and teachers of poetry, and a respected academic and vocal human rights activist. Her mastery of words and stoical objective to preserve free speech and diverse voices made her universally respected. What she left behind in the poems and the poets she taught means that she will be always with us. Myself and so many others who came into contact with Judith will hold the memory of her in our hearts always, as a great example of what and how we could someday be.