An interview from a recent Salisbury Writers' Festival.
On being a poet
It isn’t something I think about consciously, in terms of ‘being’ but more of doing; ‘I love writing poetry and always have’
‘Being’ perhaps is the part which tells my subconscious, ‘I must write’ – it’s something I have to do, almost every day, and also gladly for me something I love to do. At the risk of repeating myself, I have told students and colleagues often over the years when asked these kinds of questions, ‘I have written some poetry every day since 1975.’ That could take the form of a first draft, a polishing of a draft, a tenth draft, or even just notes or jottings or an idea for a title, even ~ but it is true to say I have not let a day pass – by choice, as well as by discipline – in that time without committing to paper something towards the craft. In that sense, perhaps, it does define me: although I would as much say I am a father or a teacher or a reader or a gardener or a painter: I’m all of these every day too but the poetry is a defining, lifelong element in terms of my having commenced it, without my even knowing, when my grandmother first introduced me to the world of reading and ideas and books and thinking and above all, encouraged my own response to these treasures.
On being a poet in SA
An unexpected question in one sense, as I don’t really think of my own desire and in fact need to write as being predicated by the place in which I happen to live. And yet, just as quickly I have to say, I am proud to have portrayed in my writing or attempted to portray anyway my town, this state, our river, our agricultural and pastoral and viticulture regions, our history: some of my happiest and most rewarding, fruitful writing hours have been spent contemplating, studying, interpreting this region of Australia.
How important is place to a poet?
Because, most recently, I have tried to gauge and then convey something of the spirit of where I am at present: on the Northern plains region here there are vignettes every day which feed the poetic imagination or impulse: olive orchards; horses in paddocks; rose growers; market gardeners; floods, droughts, urbanisation of the rural, tales from the suitcases of settlers here from other countries.
When did poetry begin for you?
I was encouraged from the moment I could listen, and then read, to consider, how did I feel about what I had heard / read / thought? How might I like to respond? And I would refer the reader of this interview to the work, ‘How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry’. That work more than any other perhaps published in the past ten years has conveyed and reaffirmed to me (and I imagine, to many readers) what it means to feel the poem: - which is the essence of the poet’s task: it is about showing, not telling. It is persuasive, interpretative, emotive, - but not didactic.
What is the impulse?
Considering poetry writing to be ‘a kind of praying’ is not an original or novel notion, now – and amongst its foremost, populist, contemporary proponents would for many people be Michael Leunig. In my own case, I regard it as such because of the ‘big’ question, in many ways perhaps the ‘only’ question, as a kind of leitmotif throughout all my living, all days, all experiences, is ‘what is life’s meaning?’ Another way of putting it might be in terms of the search, the soul’s hunger if you like, for ‘an authentic life’, to quote another famous Australian publication. This inner quest doesn’t have to equate with a spirituality of a necessarily religious kind, although for me personally it does, given my early response at eighteen to the felt, heard call of a vocation for religious ministry. Although ultimately I followed a different path, the spiritual journey (for want of a less well-used term) remains the essential journey, and my attempts to fathom and convey and respond to it might be said on a good day to be ‘poetry’.
How much time do you devote to poetry?
As much as I can, when I can, if I have something to say – which will initially be of course only to myself; the great thrill and goal and privilege is if, or hopefully when, it says something to someone else as well, even if I never know it did. Some days I may have only ‘thinking’ time to devote; but most days I will find the time, even ten minutes, to refine, draft, jot down ideas, re-work a title. It’s a luxury to find a working stretch of unbroken time in which to spend as long as I like – or need – with a poem, and other times, something will surprise me by being called forth quite quickly.
On poetry and day jobs: is the day job the poet’s curse?
I’ve always regarded the day job as the poet’s blessing, because if the everyday world, its people, structures, aspirations, terrors, magnificence, unevenness are not the writer’s fodder, what could be? It’s from ‘the day job’ and my encounters with people, with situations, opportunities, disappointments, strivings that the imagination is fired and fed, the spirit quickened (or dashed). The day job is also something I’ve always regarded with appreciation and taken very seriously, for its own sake, and also for the opportunities to be a writer which it allows me. And in another very real sense, writing is the day job; my possible written response to this or to that, to everything, is never far from my immediate consciousness.
How do people respond when you tell them you are a poet?
It’s no false modesty but rather the way it is for me, that other people have told me I’m a poet; I haven’t ever titled myself in that way. I didn’t really dare even think it to myself until my third or even fourth collection had been published: there’s always that ‘one-hit wonder’ kind of fear, ‘what will the follow-up album be like?’ So rather than tell people I wait in a sense to be validated by them. I think by now, I do regard myself as a writer, but perhaps as a ‘poet in progress’ – always with much to learn, consider, grow from.
How hard is it to get published?
This refers presumably to professional publishing, as opposed to private or as it’s sometimes known ‘vanity’ publishing: both have their place. In my own writing career, I’m both privileged and grateful that my collections to date have all been with commercial publishing companies, rather than self-published. But that is a fine way to get started, to get one’s work out there and hopefully read and noticed, and to feel that one has even at one’s own expense accumulated some ‘runs on the board’. It may be the confidence boost needed, to strengthen one’s resolve to keep writing, keep trying, stay true to the craft and one’s own passion for it. It’s hard to get (professionally) published: very little poetry is published, by comparison with the level of publication of writing in other genres. Newspapers and poetry periodicals are possible avenues, and to any aspiring writer I would say, keep writing, keep sending your work to all such publications. Here I would pay tribute to Ron Pretty, lately of Five Island Press for many years and a great champion of many SA writers, to whom we all owe immeasurable gratitude, and who knows very well the kind of financial constraints which poetry publishing faces increasingly, Australia-wide. Like most writers, I imagine, I am very interested in why poetry is so little read – and purchased! - compared with say fiction or cookbooks or diet books: why isn’t poetry seen or felt to be just as indispensable? And how can we as writers and how can publishers redress that? Or can it be redressed at all? Do we just have to live with it, and be deeply grateful for the publishers like Ron and others who do believe passionately in the importance and future of the genre.
Which poets do you admire?
I could furnish a list of people who’ve influenced me and that would be a very long one indeed, but more and more one name stands out amongst all the rest. When I first read him, I had the odd thought that his poems - and himself, with whom I have corresponded - were a kind of older version of myself.
R S Thomas, great Welsh poet, and formidable Anglican priest combines in his work what it is to be initially or firstly a poet. And secondly, the many layered exquisite tapestry that is a poem. I go back to him continually, as one might to a mentor; he constantly challenges my own search and quest for metaphor and his striking and profound images of the natural world and the human condition.
©Jeff Guess 2017