A few weeks ago Overland awarded the Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets to Derek Motion, for his poem ‘Forest Hill’. That’s somewhere near Wagga Wagga. The poet went to primary school there. Now, Derek Motion has appeared all over the place, both online and print, but there’s something about ‘Forest Hill’ that made begged a question to be asked.
A writer may have one essential Idea behind every story, poem or novel. It’s as though there’s one great problem in our lives and we’re endlessly searching for ways to understand it – and all that we write are solutions that vary in degrees of success. I’d like you to entertain that idea and ask yourself whether you’ve found any ideas coming back around through your work.
A writer may have one essential Idea behind a work. Sure. If he/she had one before writing though, it’s usually not the idea that will present in the finished work. So it makes sense to observe what emerges in your work, solutions or further complications. Writing as a means to discover things I suppose, rather than to articulate a pre-existing story, something you’ve moulded and fired in your head, a veritable pitch for a movie producer.
Although it’s been years since I read the book, and my exact memory of the book is fading, I find myself endlessly drawn to referencing Murakami’s Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of the World. If you haven’t read it, I’ll give away the ending for you: there’s a split narrative, one strand seemingly happening in ‘real life’, and one that unfolds within the protagonist’s head, in his inner consciousness, where he is a captive. The narrator of the inner-consciousness tale has had his shadow taken from him. In the end a possible escape route is found (a way to get out of your own head perhaps, where the artist would be accused of spending too much time) but the protagonist backs out, leaves his shadow to that kind of practical stuff, saying in the end his hope is that he may discover the key to his own creation.
It’s a stunning rejection of the more normal human concerns. I need to figure things out, here inside my own head, rather than pursue food, shelter, sex, career, page-turner narratives…
You know what I’ve found continually resurfacing in my work? A similar concern with myself. This notion that perhaps I can fix things by writing. For instance, from ‘forest hill’: ‘all the reasons you would eye people, then look down…’ [I’ve developed a way of reading this where I eye the audience when I read the first line, then look down for the second. I like to think of this as ‘drama’.] but seriously, I’ve always been a pretty insular person, and always still had a dire need to connect with other people. Accordingly as a younger person I did overthink even the simplest of friendship gestures, tried to work through personal interaction like it’s some game of chess. I guess that makes me a tad autistic, but neverthless charming, extremely high-functioning…
I’m still sorting through that sort of self centred stuff continually. Like it or not. But as a corollary, I have found that my poetry often emerges directed at certain childhood memories. Certain objects or instances feel like talismans, with the story behind the magical potency blurred. (There’s a toy tractor I found in a compost heap when I lived in Melbourne, age 5; there’s a burnt out log that lay on a dirt track at Forest Hill, age 7). These things are perhaps tokens of change. Why do they remain and influence the way I represent imagery in my work? I don’t know. But something suggests to me that early childhood is a site of final formation, where you become who you are now. Puberty does nothing – it’s the societal yardstick that fucks you up at that age… And imprints of key moments remain in the form of images. Writing is a way of recapturing the imagery, recontextualising the events. So perhaps if I’m forced to draw something out of all of this.
I think personality is found in poetry. I look for it locally, and try to ‘solve’ myself. There’s something generally applicable too – people work like this. We all want to talk about our experiences. We’re passively theorising, making stabs at solving the boring old existence riddle. This is what people will maybe get from reading my work. They may connect. But only sometimes. (Interestingly Bantick recently labelled my poem ‘forest hill’, ‘an abortive attempt at self indulgence’. Really. I thought I had nailed the self indulgent aspect.)
I drove into a pool of sunlight recently in Tasmania, after having gone 50ks or so in icy fog. The change was so dramatic it made it feel like (to me) it was a sunny afternoon in NSW in the 1980s. These moments come to us sometimes – I guess in the 80s there was nothing to stop me lingering in the sun. Playing with the elements. This sort of thing recurs in my work. Or I hope it does.
Then again, having said all of this, there is never too much that is clear in the solutions. The portions of wisdom resulting from a poem are rare. But that repeated failure is valuable, personally. Donald Hall said in a recent article that ‘If our goal in life is to remain content, no ambition is sensible…’ And he’s right. Writing experimental poems, with an uncertain end, an end that may or may not lead you towards new ventures, this sort of activity may or may not help you solve things. It is sometimes rewarding, often unsettling. But there’s always something to do. And that’s important.