At a time when the work of many artists is sidelined by COVID, the issue of earning a living from art is more glaring than ever. As a poet you know that very few poets earn a living from their work and have to do something else to survive. So why do we do it? One answer came to me when an elderly reader of mine told me she was going to include one of my poems in her funeral notes. The poem helped her express something, and her response helps me value my vocation as a poet: it has an important role in the community, and being a poet is a calling from which there’s no escape, even if you wanted one.
In my essay ‘The poetic vocation’ recently published in Qualitative Inquiry, I describe the process of writing and what it’s like to work seriously at a vocation that is all-consuming, and that has to include regular doses of play to nourish the creativity that’s at its heart. The article includes original poems, mostly in the prose poem form, to illustrate the ideas discussed, and refers to Max Weber’s ideas about vocation in politics and Vincent Dubois’ research into cultural vocations.
Our podcast with Gomeroi poet and lawyer Alison Whittaker was full of insights. We introduced the podcast by quoting her comment about the similarity between the law and poetry, in terms of reducing things to essentials: “The logics of law and poetry boil meaning and power down to their barest components.” The issue here is clarity of language. Commenting on the law without doing further injustice to the people affected by it motivates Alison. She wants to demonstrate how settler colonial power is exerted through language in a legal context. In three poems from her collection Blakwork, she uses tools developed for search engine optimisation, including trigrams, and searches court and coroners’ reports for these commonly used three-word phrases. Arranged into stanzas, the phrases exhibit what Alison describes as a certain rawness without the evasiveness sometimes found in law; the poetry deals purely with the mechanics and logics of legal decisions.
Alison explains that her process consists largely of employing poetic restraint. She eliminates some choices to be able to make other choices more fully. Interestingly, she says that these poems resonate most with readers.
She describes herself as an increasingly collectivelydriven poet, because of the way she learns from others. The power of teaching poetry has also strengthened community connections. She explores the usefulness of poetic restraint here, too, in workshops where participants are provided with restriction and stimulus and have to adapt in ‘controlled panic’, producing the raw material for a chapbook of poetry in just three hours. The writers’ willingness to adapt to the process creates surprises valuable to poetry. The concept of authorship can also dissolve in collaborative ventures in healthy ways. Writing for the stage has also informed her writing.
She often uses movement, particularly walking, to help establish the rhythm of a poem. Her poems ‘many girls, white linen’ and ‘murrispacetime’, for example, were shaped by being spoken aloud whilst pacing the sections of a tiled kitchen. She also describes walking through the snow for an hour each morning in preparation for writing on a stay in the US.
Sharing her insights into these specific aspects of process gives other poets opportunities. Her ideas about narrative nonfiction, experimental memoir and reportage raise important questions about the journalistic capacity of poetry. It’s an aspect of writing she’s keen to continue to explore, perhaps in a verse novel – we look forward to seeing how these drivers of Alison’s creative process continues to develop.
At the heart of Baghiu’s poetry and process there exists
a concept coined by the poet himself, chimerism.
The concept encapsulates a tendency to escape everyday realities and to
create a parallel universe, a counter-reality in which the poet lives.Baghiu remembers
the defining moment where it all began. On 21 August 1988, a day that changed
his life, he was working as a nurse in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Romania. He
was smoking, enjoying Chinese tea and reading Flaubert’s The Art of Travel. In the background, a radio station was broadcasting
in Italian. A foreign voice insinuated into his, a voice that seized his throat
and his vocal chords making him talk about things he had never lived or seen. The
world around him came to a standstill. He was overcome with a sense of tranquillity,
inner peace and detachment from everyone and everything. He likes to call it ataraxia, some sort of poetic trance.
Introducing our podcast with Filipino-Australian poet Merlinda Bobis, I mentioned her poem ‘siesta’, an innovative multilingual work. In the podcast, she spoke about her writing in Filipino and English, and the way in which it is mediated by her first language, Bikol. Thanks to Merlinda’s generosity, we are able to reprint her poem ‘siesta’ in this blogpost so that readers can enjoy an example of her multilingual writing.
our recent podcast with poet Merlinda Bobis, she notes that consciousness of
process comes about after the fact. While writing, she is too busy leaping from
one thought to another to allow for this kind of reflection. Something captures
her and makes a poem possible. She describes the initial impetus as an accident
–her book title Accidents of Composition reflects this – the poem has to
retain an element of surprise. The poem leads her, and further accidents happen
as she writes, through associations; the poems seem to compose themselves. Analysing
her own text, she remembers what gave rise to it, an act of contextualising how
the work happened, and of looking at it as a reader. Even her return to poetry
from the novel was accidental. Her writing often begins with strong images;
sometimes she takes photos to use as prompts – the sense of ‘something else’
that is in the image becomes the poem.
Canberra’s Poetry on the Move is coming
up soon: 17th-21st October! On Friday 18th
from 1.00-2.15pm I’ll be hosting the panel ‘Poetry and Process’ at Gorman Arts
Centre. This event is free, but you need to book because space is limited. I’ll
be talking with national and international poets Angela Gardner, Judith
Beveridge, Alvin Pang (Singapore) and Katharine Coles (US) about their process.
Christian acknowledges that his ten rules discussed in the podcast build on centuries of knowledge about writing, and he notes the particular contribution of Ezra Pound to this kind of schematic for poetry. Christian’s rules are concise, illuminating and full of great examples, some of them from his own students. It’s best not to take the word ‘rules’ too seriously – there are really only guidelines for poetry – and to focus on what’s useful about them. I’d long been aware, for example, that using the verb ‘to be’ tends to flatten expressions and take the energy out of them – I’ve been writing, at this point, for 38 years, but it’s easy to forget, and I badly needed the reminder that Christian’s guidance offered. Christian talked in our first podcast with him on his process about formulating a set of principles that amount to a ‘periodic table’ of activities for writing poetry, and the scientific analogy is especially apt for his approach. Here is a summary of the rules with examples from his account of them:
our recent podcast with experimental poet Christian Bök, I spoke with a poet who
has a truly scientific approach to poetry, who ‘conducts experiments through
language.’ He accepts that some experiments won’t work, but is committed to
seeing them through, even if they represent decades of work through complex
processes. His poetry can be termed ‘process poetry’: work where the act of
creating becomes part of the content.
How does one become a poet? This
perennial and intriguing question is in part answered by recent research in
Australia. Interviewing 76 poets, Jen Webb, Paul Magee, Kevin Brophy and
Michael Biggs isolated key factors which help to foster excellence in poetry.
Although my research here emphasises process rather than end results, this
group’s study has implications for process more broadly: it’s about the making
of the poet rather than the making of the poems and can tell us much about what
behaviour contributes to good writing.
Sometimes I’m amazed and delighted by other forms of art and want to respond in poetry. I want to go further than simply responding through the content of my work. I want the dynamics of the other art form to effect the structures of my poetry, to help invigorate and update my poetry, in what I call a radical ekphrasis. In a recent article, published in Axon, I address the popular topic of ekphrasis – writing in response to other forms of art, and show that the close association the word has with visual arts is an entirely modern one, and that the ancient understanding of ekphrasis was one of the general ability to make a scene vivid.