Your latest collection Aqua Spinach is divided into three sections, ‘ink’, ‘paint’ and ‘film, representing writing, art and cinema. In the ‘ink’ section you envisage words as tactile things that can be left ‘on a public bench’, or where a ‘small “e”’ is ‘dithered through a party straw’. Can you comment on bringing words into the physical, public realm?
My first experience of reading literature was very intense. There was a considerable focus on the words and the shapes of the letters and the sentences. This is possibly because I hardly read at all as a child or teenager, and only really read my first literary work at age 21 or 22. I like to see the words as objects separate from their meaning, sitting up out of the sentence, and so I try to manipulate this in the swift action of writing. I love literature/music/film/art that references the process of its own making. Apichatpong Weerasethakul does this in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (a still from this film is on the cover of Aqua Spinach) by using different cinematic modes, bringing cinema back to the photograph.
The second section ‘Paint’ draws upon visual art. You are an artist yourself, as well as a poet and musician. How do these media feed into each other, particularly when you write poems inspired by visual art?
The collection is loosely split into three, and I had my way of deciding what poem might be an ‘ink’ one or a ‘paint’ one, but, importantly, there is a mix of media in each of the sections, so you find paint running across the film screen, for example. The collection also allows for film’s twin meanings.
The pencil is important. I compose most of my poems and stories rapidly using pencil, and most of my drawings are quickly made using pencil or charcoal. My songs usually come from letting my eye fall over some of my poem drafts. From what I’ve read, most songwriters do it the other way around, but I try to find chords to hang on the words. As with my writing, when I draw, the pencil sits on the paper and I don’t have much plan of where it will go, and there is a spontaneous move and another to follow it, to create a quick overall shape, rather than a specific figure or narrative.
Your poetry has surrealist, dreamlike elements with absurd, inventive imagery. I also understand you read a lot of classic modernist literature. How have the movements of surrealism and modernism influenced you?
My early forays into art history study came from watching the Uni of Qld’s Rex Butler improvise and follow tangents during his small lectures on the modernist and postmodernist lineage. He’d provide example after example without looking directly his subject, which I found fascinating. There were slips into Borges more often than not. I have this trust in the sentences of many of the great Modernists and experimental stylists. I’m still very much fascinated by Woolf, Joyce, Stein and Proust. I never formally studied literature. Any literary or even writing knowledge comes from reading and writing. My formal studies in writing have been mentorships where essentially you have someone to read your work and gently guide it.
The collection is preoccupied with imagery of commuting – walking, cycling, and catching trains and buses. What is it about these quotidian and transitory experiences that inspire you to write poetry?
It’s funny, as more people comment on public transport in my poems, I’m only now reflecting on it more deeply. Not a lot of this is conscious. We don’t have a car, and we live right across from the train and near two tram stops. Around the time I was composing the poems I was walking each morning, very early (the sound of the train and the squeak of the tram lifting me out of sleep), to a spot where I would write for a half hour. I catch trams and trains all the time, but as a child growing up in Queensland we tended to always live a very long way from my school, so I spent hours each day on buses. At one point, from age 8-11, my brother and I sat on buses for more than 2 hours a day. We spent a lot of time daydreaming while looking out a window. My brother’s a photographer! But the fast pace of the process means I’ll pick up something of my quotidian surrounds, and then suddenly an old image from memory, and the country Queensland buses meet the trams of contemporary Melbourne. Reflecting on this collection, now that its themes are being discussed, I’ve realised it has clarified many childhood memories of growing up in country and suburban Queensland.
I’d like to add that there’s something to the idea of the “public transport epoch” (a phrase from one of the poems). The poems in part might offer an argument for a sort of empathy or community in the deep subconscious (as opposed to, say, Freud’s more basic impulsive idea of it).
You have said that you write in pencil, setting words on the page quickly with no plan of where it will go. What is it about this process that works for you? Is it the best way to tap into the unconscious and the unexpected?
I’m left-handed, so the recently written words disappear below my hand, and there is yet another layer to the focused point of the pencil. The scratching fizzing pencil is the moment, and the moment is where I concentrate or draw on associations from the imagination. I’ve been writing in this way for eight years or so, nearly every day setting the pencil down, letting it go, scribbling, drawing, following my distracted thoughts. But there is some control there and, in the end, all writers must leap off at the same place. I’ve been writing short fiction and fiction for a couple of years, and so I’ve had to shape the distraction and surrealism to some narrative, even if I also look for ways to pivot away again picking up the plate and, on the plane, a tiny car. The car over at the garden planted seeds which had been left in a mess! I tried to acknowledge that early morning attitude, but, while kneeling, I saw precise colours at the side of the sandwich. That kind of thing. Following along and using the previous words to twist away and even create a crack in the middle of the sentence. Snapped pencil. It does work better with a pencil in my hand, when the depth of field is smaller – 3.5 – as opposed to tapping away on the keys here like Alice Coltrane or Thelonious Monk!
Though there is no section devoted to music, musicians such as Bob Dylan are referenced in Aqua Spinach. How has your musical training influenced the way you compose poetry? Has it shaped your poetic ear?
Music has influenced my writing from the beginning. Around the time I began reading literature, I was also fascinated by the lyrics of Stephen Malkmus (Pavement) and David Berman (Silver Jews). I haven’t really had much in the way of formal musical training. I think some of my musical abilities, come out of 20 years of work as a poet (I really believe that you can bring the gains of one artform over to another). Technically, I’ve tried to do the best with what I have. I keep it simple with an eccentric and patchy ability on the guitar. There is always music around me, and playing in my head, and this must come through to the poems via my process, and perhaps why I can pick up some of my quite dense poems and work them into a song without changing them much. I’m not sure. When I write, I’m also listening closely for aural associations between the phrase just written to the one about to be written. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been adding more and more improvised Aqua Spinach-like speaking to poetry readings or gigs. My current music moniker, Cornflake Sunset, is becoming more like a confluence of everything: surrealist speech between songs, a projection of films I’ve cut up, live drawings or drawings for the gig posters, poems lifted from my books and turned into text-heavy songs. I like the way this seems to be happening all by itself.
Most of the poems in Aqua Spinach are prose poems. Did you make a conscious decision to write poems in this form, and what does the medium of prose poetry afford you in your writing?
Back in 2009 or so, my brother gave me a lovely notebook with waxy tobacco-coloured pages and milky white ruled lines. I decided to write in it in pencil and I told myself to go free or go wild and just get anything down and see what happens. This, it turns out, was the poetic tweak that led to my current style. It was liberating to just race to the right margin and twist and go again, letting it all spill. Most of my poems since then have begun as prose poems. Sometimes in the editing process, when I find I can reduce or remove parts, I realise I can make a little couplet or a spare little poem with a couple of verses, but mostly I work with that little cinema-screen shaped prose poem. I find I’m more comfortable with this quick, free, often-absurdist writing. I can trust it more; it’s easier to avoid absolutism or romanticism or nostalgia and, hopefully, there is a certain ethics to it, overall.
The final section is ‘film’. Which films and directors is this section based on, and how does writing whilst watching films enable you to tap into creativity?
The last section’s poems are less about specific films – there is nothing so direct – but more they may sit alongside certain films in various ways, e.g. atmospherically. There’s a filmic vocabulary too in the poems: a camera pans, or there are film or photo puns. To name a few, I reference my late Rohmer discovery in one poem called The Green Ray. Another poem takes its title from the Hal Hartley film Ned Rifle which I must have been watching around the time I wrote it. It’s nice to get a Hartley reference in; his staged unusual dialogue sits well with, say, Pavement lyrics or other 90s influences. I managed to reference Johanna Hogg’s magnificent film Unrelated given the poem refers to telephone reception (in the film, the protagonist is always climbing hills to find it).
I find that the clear alert mind while watching a film is similar to the mind’s state while writing. I’ll also often do a bit of writing after watching a movie when I’m in an intellectually bright, calm, melancholic mood, and the senses are heightened, and the world outside the cinema is crisp with a lot of space in it.
You can purchase Aqua Spinach from Giramondo Publishing.
Amy Lin is a Perth writer who has recently completed her PhD on mental illness in Australian poetry. She has published poems, essays, interviews and reviews in Westerly, Cordite, Social Alternatives, Verity La and Axon. Amy has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, Perth Poetry Club, Sturmfrei Poetry Night, and Spoken Word Perth.