Blake

Published : Sunday, May 02, 2010 | Label:

The Blake Prize (for poetry and visual art) is open again.

To open this year’s season, the Blake Society has asked me to share a conversation about the prize, about the nature of spiritual art and its making, and about the effect that winning the Blake Prize has on one’s creative life. I’ll be talking with the painter Maryanne Coutts, winner of the 1982 prize (which was, in those days, only a prize for visual art). And the event is on at the Pitt Street Uniting Church on Wednesday 18 May, 6 till 8 pm. See the Blake Society Website for details.

In mid-April, the NSW Writers’ Centre, which administers the poetry side of the Blake, invited the two winners of the poetry prize to date, John Watson and me to talk about similar kinds of things. They published it as a Q & A. I’m not sure if it’s still up. But here’s what I said:

Blake Interview – Mark Tredinnick and John Watson

Q. What are you working on at the moment?

A. I’m writing poems at the moment. On—as ever—and off. Most of my poems get written when I should be doing something else: the job for the client, the preparation for the class, the weeding of the garden, the examination of one’s life, the shopping. The poems I’m writing now are just the poems I’m writing now, out of the ideas in my head and the madness in my heart and the weather in the sky and the news of the world. Many of them feel like responses to ideas I overhear the world utter; or they talk back to poets and other writers I read; or they’re ways of staying sane or saying thank you to great artists and friends. Some of them are commissions—I’m writing some poems (and I’m running late) as part of a collaboration with other artists, responding to some great industrial sites in Newcastle; and I’m writing poems about a recent field trip I took to the Pilbara, with Barry Lopez, the painter Larry Mitchell, the photographer Paul Parin and some other folk. Some of the poems will find their way into magazines or newspapers that may want them and, in time, into my next collection or the one after.

I’ve been working over the past few months on my first volume of poems, which is coming out this October (Puncher & Wattmann). Most of that work is editing and collation and organisation. Making a book out of a bunch of poems turns out to be harder and lovelier work, slower and more mysterious, than I’d imagined. And I set aside almost enough poems, mostly more recent work, for a second book, which will come out, with luck, a year or so later.

I’ve also just finished a prose book, The Little Black Book of Business Prose, a book not as far removed from poetry as you might imagine. (It follows The Little Red Writing Book and The Little Green Grammar Book, and I wrote this one with Geoff Whyte, and it comes out this June (UNSW Press).

I’m beginning to get into my next prose book, Reading Slowly at the End of Time, a memoir about the reading life, reading as a practice of slow living. I’ve been asked to write an essay on weather for a book of photographs of, well, weather; this is for the National Library of Australia. I have to write an essay on wildness and another about writing essays about nature. And there are some other jobs, like profiles of some more poets for the Sun-Herald, and no doubt some poems will come out of that work, too.

Q. What’s the secret to writing award-winning poetry?

A. There is no secret that I know of. Just try to write good poems, and hope you have one good enough, on the theme of the competition when it’s closing date falls. Don’t think too much about competitions, but think a lot about what a good poem is and what it demands of you—think about how you sometimes manage to make a poem that seems too fine and smart and lovely to have been made by you at all, and try to get yourself back to that place as often as you can. But if there’s secret, it’s this: never sit down to write a poem to win a prize. Poems come to you when they’re ready. You’ve got to be ready, too. To find the form the poem seems to want and to scratch together words and phrases shapely and smart enough to speak it in. If it comes to you, it wants your voice though: no one else’s. Most of a poem catches you in the act, if you’re lucky, of trying to do something useful with a few lines or a thought or an image that wouldn’t give you any rest. The poem of mine that won the Blake, “Have You Seen”, is in part about that: being found (and found out) by the world, including now and then a poem. The trick of writing a prize-winning poem then is not to try to write one, but to hope one finds you one day—a kind of reward for reading a lot of better poems than you will ever write, and of learning as much as you can from other poets, and from nature, about how good poems, those architectures of voice, go.

Never try to write a prize-winning poem, then. But never stop trying to make yourself ready to know a good poem when one finds you. And if you like a poem well enough and you go on liking it, it may be a good one. And if a competition comes around you may as well enter it. Especially if it seems to be on message and to length.

That said, you’ll write some quiet, sly, short, sad, contented or ironical poems, and they may be great poems, but they’re not going to win any prizes (even if they break some hearts and change some minds). Competitions reward big work: poems that swagger and rage and mourn and plunge and stagger. So if you have a choice, choose your bolder more technically accomplished and impressive poems. 

Q. How much time do you spend on writing a day? What’s your routine?
A. I always seem to be worrying a poem or thinking through a par in my head, whatever else—teaching, copywriting, cleaning, eve, God help me, making love—I’m doing. I sit and write at my laptop wherever I am, if I have a deadline or if I’m in the middle of something or the mood is on me. I do too many other things (to make a living) to have anything that deserved the name of a writing routine. Except that I’m always at it, even when I shouldn’t be. And everything I write is a chance to get better at writing. And I write better in the mornings, and on my own. I like best to write at the desk my friend Henryk made for me in my cowshed in the highlands, and that’s where I wrote the poem that won the Blake, but I can write pretty much anywhere, anytime, and have done. And I recommend none of this to anyone.

Q. What did you do with your $5000 prize money?
A. I once spent part of some prize-money on a beautiful pen. I have a bad feeling that the Blake money went into consolidated revenue: it helped pay the mortgage and feed the children and put a few more books of poetry on my shelves. Maybe I bought a new jacket. I should have. I live in debt. The prize money helped reduce it. And I’m grateful.

Q. Tell us how your winning Blake poem relates to the theme of spirituality.

A. It acknowledges that there may be a whole lot more going on within and around us than we know anything much about, and it allows the world beyond the human—the landscape and the 96 percent of everything real (according to physicists) that we have absolutely no idea about the size and texture and disposition of—to go on being its mysterious self, indifferent to us humans, us laughable, glorious organisms. My poem, I guess tries to offer up a few pieces of the world in that spirit: observed with some wonder but with as much care as I can manage, and offered up free, as far as I can manage this, of my interpretation and judgement. The poem seems to express some sense of the world, as it were, in its own skin and in its other life: as it is, in itself, when I’m not looking—when, as ever, I’m distracted by myself. This wasn’t my intention, but my poems seems to say that the world, including our lives within it, is in equal parts delightful and disastrous, but entirely beautiful and, of course, perfect, just the way that it is. I’m with Blake in feeling strongly that Heaven isn’t anywhere else; it’s where you stand. And, as I say in another poem, salvation is what you do next.

But I just wrote the poem because, driving one morning across the back of a mountain near my home, I noticed the way the trees seemed to move and the way the rain and the light fell, and I heard the opening lines, which are plain enough—Have you seen the way the trees, that sclerophyll fraternity on the mountain, move about you as you pass among them…—and the words asked me to stop and write them down. The rest of the poem came over a couple of days when I found time to sit and find a tail to wag that dog. I had no notion o spirituality in my head. The poem just wanted writing, and I found a form that seemed to suit its cadence. If it seems spiritual, in particular, if it seems to be about bliss, blasphemy and belief, I’m pleased—a lot of my writing is. But that poem and many of my others are about many other things, too. But what any poem’s about isn’t what it’s really about. It’s really about the music of the mind and the intelligence of the body and the wisdom of the way things are.

Q. What advice would you give to poets entering the Blake in 2010?
A. Apart from what I said before: enter it because it’s there, like the forest, and it’s beautiful. If you win, as I happened to, it’ll be with a poem you nearly leave on your desk because you don’t think it’s your best but something in you tells you it’s good.

Q. The first thing you ever wrote ...
A. What, ever? I always wrote things, many of them poems. I wrote them for school assignments and I wrote them for myself in exercise books. I remember writing a play, when I was in third form, at high school, about getting lost in the outback. It won something, which surprised me. And I used to write bad short stories when I was at university. I also wrote satire, believe it or not, for Tharunka, the UNSW student newspapers. The first piece of mine ever to be published in a real journal was a book review of Barbara Blackman’s memoir, Glass After Glass; it appeared in Eureka Street. The first poem I ever wrote and sent out shortlisted in the first ABR Poetry Competition and got published in ABR.

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