SONGS OF TRUTH AND PASSION: an interview with John Stokes


Attachment-1In Canberra, among the crowds at a poetry event (indeed any kind of literary happening) there is likely to be a man, a particular man, who goes about his business with such goodness and grace. He is John Stokes, and he is worth listening to. According to his biographical statement, Stokes has lived long stints in the ACT region from about 1965, most recently for 30 years.

He has won or been shortlisted for many prizes, including the Blake, Rosemary Dobson and Newcastle Prizes for Poetry. He represented Australia at the 2011 International Poetry Celebrations in Italy.

Stokes has published works in Australia, Japan, Italy, UK, and USA. Publication credits include A River in the Dark, Dancing in the Yard at Eden, and now, Fire in the Afternoon. He has works in numerous Australian and international reports, journals and anthologies.

Who is he? And what makes his poetry tick?

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone.


You’ve been writing poetry for many years and Fire in the Afternoon (Halstead Press, 2014) is your third collection. What is your motivation?


Good place to start. I write because I have to. I’m wired-up that way. It started when my juvenilia was encouraged by one person – so much depends on one person – in the face of derision by family, playground denizens and, in the case of the English teacher concerned, his own colleagues. I was ‘selected out’ to go to a streamed school.

I can only deal with your question by referring you to snippets of my style at the time. Here is the ending of an early poem:

He remembers nothing
but a word – the word for joy
Soft on the waterlight
he comes, unafraid of silence.

(‘The Rushcutters’)

The motivation here was a burning desire, possibly fuelled by loneliness and sublimation in a profession – at that time surveying – which insisted on absolutely no emotion, to write about some sort of romantic melancholy.

A game-changer came with the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. He seemed to change from a rich, historic and sensual ‘mouth music’, as in ‘Tollund Man’, to a position that you could attain a useful, interesting wisdom by reproducing ritual, none-human sounds you created but didn’t control, as in ‘The Rainstick’.

I did not agree. I got terribly steamed up about this and spent many years trying to appeal to the subconscious instead:

… The disbelief comes flooding in with the warplanes, under a weird, spotlight moon. It’s twilight in hell again and welcome, friends, to the brotherhood of fear, the burning gift, the spatter of fire on our roofs

(‘Storm: The Talisman’ in Fire in the Afternoon)

The imagination is now completely freed. But I feel that everything should still come home from the real; the actual; complexity expressed in plain language:

The Artisan’s redheaded daughter
Makes careful maps of the stars.
Noting the times of their dying;
The furrows deep in her orchard,
The shadows’ silent wandering;

A curious richness under the earth.

(‘Music for a New England daughter; 3rd Canticle: Soft in an ear at the gateway’)

I believe now in the project of letting plain-speaking express our deepest hopes and fears; holding the needs of love, sex and chaos. Watch this space.


You say that your ‘imagination is now completely freed’. Do you feel that as you’ve developed your poetic craft your imagination has been able to find a level of primacy? Or, in your experience, is there still a productive tension between technique and imaginative freedom?


What a curly one. If you mean is there still a gap between fact (the written) and imagination (the writing), I would say yes! definitely. But fact and imagination are a married couple. They are caught in a battle of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Their coupling, the uniting space between them, makes for art.

Let’s talk about imagination first. It’s a great faculty. It allows you to reach directly to The Other. It allows above all for you to be in empathy with the downtrodden; the lonely relatives of the slaughtered; the joys and sorrows of humankind and other creatures. Without it there can be no good politics. Only dangers. When I said earlier that the imagination was freed I meant it should still come home to report, in my case be written up; communicated.

About technique: I was impressed when an author said that in writing, start with an idea… and force yourself to write it up. Of course there are as many ways of doing this as there are people. Especially Mad Aunts like memory and desire.
After the idea comes the fleshing. The truth of the body:

Foxes came down
out of the pine-trees
to bite the dog’s tails

(‘The Case of the drowned goldfish’ in A River in the Dark)

These lines were described as lies; fantasy. But they are absolutely the truth. In this stage I write from the body, stuffing it all in, breaking it up into cadences depending on the mood or ‘world’ as the piece demands; looking at the emotional weight. Most of all I look at rhythms. In the lyrical style, and depending on the place and age-group of a piece’s audience, all is rhythm.

Then comes the hardest, best bit. The going away, the coming back, the stripping the poem down to its raw self. The allowing of it to become readable. The finding out what the thing is really about. So important. It takes any time between five minutes and a lifetime. For me the tension, the instincts, the balance of the elements, come from selecting for the people. This can be hard. In the war between a choice of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, there is no right answer. It is enough to see you have a choice. If you are were offered an alternative of losing your sight or losing your mind, what would you say?

… See, the sweet hollow
Takes the old, poured water, the shallow-tongued,
And one. By one. The corn-flowers grow…

Drink        go hunting     and leave no shadow

(‘The Offering’ in the anthology Dazzled, long-listed for the 2014 University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor’s International Poetry Prize)

For this moment, I am taking so-called ‘fact’ and so-called ‘fiction’ in equal measure. But I’d like to get back to you on that.


Your poetry seems to be influenced by place and memory. Can you talk a little about how these elements work for you?


Whisperer. Measurer and turner of knives.

What is it, memory, you are trying to tell me?

(‘East of Gotham City’ in Fire in the Afternoon)

For me and in the moment, place and memory are lovers. They interweave and part, interweave and part. Memory can be silent. It is different for every person or creature that has it. But it’s tricky. It can fade, or overwhelm you, or tell lies in your ear. One of its tricks, of course, is to not confine itself to the past – as the White Queen said. I am only an artisan of words, but so far I cling to memory to lend power to my dreams, to reach out to those myriad listeners out there, hoping to find common ground. To make memory manifest.

On place: this too is tricky; a dark angel. For me place is not a real thing, technicolour though it is, but all the more strong for that. For better or for worse, it gives memory a reason to occur, a talisman for my work. My old landscape lecturer used to challenge us by saying: is the impact of place just where you want to be, what you have been brought up in, where you come home to? She suggests an urban or desert person is quite capable of falling in love with the corresponding place according to their oldest memories and longest residence without travel.

Ah, not so. Too sweet. In my writing, there comes the famous Rape in the Garden Problem. What if in some beautiful park, a woman is brutally raped?  Would not that experience colour forever her fears, her values, of that place? Maybe not forever, but I feel that it would – it would destroy beauty.

But for my latest published book and the one I’m working on now, I owe it to her, myself and others to look frankly at such a happening, to confront, to dare to take a hard look. As an act of truth.


Perhaps this link between memory and place in Fire in the Afternoon is at its most prominent in ‘The Woman on the Island’. Can you walk us through this particular poem?


Right. There are 1001 ways to tell a story poem and too much self-appraisal is bad for other people’s souls. But here goes:

Seabreath. You imagine roaring
over the barking of the seadogs

First, the mindset: the ancestors of this poem are Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney and Dorothy Hewett with her ‘Peninsula’ poems. The relatives include ‘Guerilla Bay’ (in this book) and ‘The Timing of Eels’ (about 2000). Now the place: Montague Island off Narooma, NSW: bare, windswept, home to penguins, a lighthouse, and the smell of the seadogs (seals to you). The central, true-to-life idea: the story of a wife of one of the 19th Century lighthouse keepers; she lived on the island for decades and had some eleven children, two of which died early.

It meant every year another child
pushed against the spume

So far so good.
Now the necessary second, counter-idea – also true to life: the lovely workhorse. Its job on the island was to haul loads up from the sea to useful ground. Like its relatives on other lighthouses, it hated its job, and the place where it happened. It was not stupid – as soon as it spotted the supply boat coming across from the mainland it used to make itself scarce. You had to chase it all over the island. On reflection it must have been quite smart: once a year it would swim all the way to the mainland and would have to be brought back again like an escaped prisoner.

… and all for the stories: [important principal of life] the workhorse that wouldn’t [work] and swam, every year, to the mainland [note important paired commas]

Deep water:

the giving up of hard men

And this:

bending to their sober duty [no escape; having a drink over on-shore was a capital offence]


The child-cry of the seawind.

Note the echo of the first line. It keeps the unity of the poem; also prompts a feminist and work-praising-title for the poem, which needed one at this stage – and the lady deserved it. Note, also, the claustrophobic text reflecting even present lighthouse-houses and the cabins of ships-of-the-line. I could have ended this piece there. It wasn’t too bad. It had atmosphere. It spoke to the listener. It has nice word-texture fitting the hard place and the human bodies. But it isn’t a poem. It’s a description. What to do? Put it away in a dark place. For a year.

Suddenly it comes. The key, the shock phrase. The phenomenon known as ‘black light’. With the passing of the flash and the constant widening of the iris in the eyes – and things in the brain – darkness and the shadow of darkness have a ‘light’. You don’t see it, so much as feel it. I have felt it. Yet it is a technological trick; it is non-human. Into the poem it goes, uniting with the black, Victorian clothes of the woman.
Now we have an imbalance. Unsatisfying. What to do? For better or for worse, the individual poet must now speak. In his or her own ‘voice’. So add the extra, last stabbing-line from the body to make a crashing, foot-rhyming couplet:

The night-piercing of the Sun.

Here, then, is the full poem: the form in which all poems should be read:

The Woman on the Island

Seabreath. You imagine roaring
over the barking of the seadogs
the black-dressed woman hopping from rock to rock
nine children dropping from her womb
and two bled out in the moorland
in sight of the lighthouse brushing
the granite under blown stars

It meant every year another child
pushed against the spume
and drunken stuttering of the light
hurt over grass and strict weather
the splutter and stink of the sea-oil
lamps blackening the close room
licked by wind licked

by wind. And all for the stories: black light
the work horse that wouldn’t
that swam, every year, to the mainland
the giving up of hard men
bending to their sober duty
The child-cry of the seawind
The night-piercing of the Sun.

It will have to do. Nail it up. Look for another piece of paper…


What’s your hope for poetry?


Your question is too big. It bursts the heart.

I was your seafall
And you are my desire

(after Robert Lois Stevenson)

So many types of poetry, you see; as many as there are, or have been, or will be people to make or imagine it.

From my small corner of this great play I see that these many poetries are made to entertain, to amuse, to move, to scare, to comfort, to harangue towards war or peace, to attempt to change politics for better or for worse. You don’t have to write down poetry to have it. You can dance it. You can accompany it in music or painting. You can see it in movement… She was poetry in motion. You can ad-lib it. You can, like the temptation of the Buddha, contemplate keeping it all to yourself (luckily for some he was said to have rejected the idea).

One hope I do have for poetry: that it stops making academics feel besieged by the barbarians (or other poets), and that it stops making the barbarians feel besieged by the poets who are seen to be deliberately arcane or obscure for invalid reasons, to the point of aggression. This seems to be a peculiar state in Australia at this time.

I hope that ‘Poetry’, its memorable rhythms, will keep on shedding light on the human conditions. I agree that it is, after all, the most metaphysical of the arts; a mainline to the deepest wishes and follies of our tribes. Without poetry, history would not change. But its loss would be a terrible impoverishment. A loss that we would feel forever, without knowing why.

Let’s bring this talk to a close…

For me, poems are songs of truth and passion. They conjure up an intensity of meaning or non-meaning out of the silences. My hope is they will continue to sing, in shade, as in sun. To clarify a difficult line from Auden regarding an imaginary trial of Yeats: ‘Poetry makes a nothing happen’.

Thanks for hearing me out.

John Stokes is an Australian poet, author, essayist and performer who has published widely in Australia, Europe, U.K., U.S.A and Japan. He has won or been shortlisted for many prizes including the Blake, Newcastle, Rosemary Dobson and WoorillaPrizes for Poetry. He has represented Australia at festivals and his publication credits include A River in theDark (Five Islands Press); Dancing in the Yard at Eden (Orta San Giulio); Fire in the Afternoon (Halstead Press) and numerous journals and anthologies. His website is:

John will be launching his new book, Fire in the Afternoon, this Saturday as part of The Newcastle Writers Festival Big Poetry Book Launch, along with Jean Kent, Jennifer Compton, Jan Dean and Beth Spencer, who will also be launching their most recent poetry collections.