Saturday, April 28, 2012

Rhythm & Muse: Mark Tredinnick in Conversation

Mark Tredinnick at work in his Cowshed. (Photo provided by the poet.)

Mark Tredinnick, winner of the Montreal Poetry Prize, has published three collections of poetry and eight other acclaimed works, including The Blue Plateau and Australia’s Wild Weather. His books have won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award, the WA Premier’s Book Award, and a shortlisting in the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Other awards include the Blake Poetry Prize, Newcastle Poetry Prize (2007 and 2011), Gwen Harwood Poetry Prize, Calibre Essay Prize, Wildcare Nature Writing Prize and the Josephine Ulrick Poetry Prize (runner up). He lives in the highlands southwest of Sydney, Australia. A prose book, Reading Slowly at the End of Time (New South Books) comes out late this year, and a second collection of poems, Body Copy, in early 2013.

Poems referenced in Rhythm & Muse are published in Fire Diary (Puncher & Wattmann, 2010).

1. Is the weather wild enough for you at the moment?
It’s always wild, isn’t it? Which is to say we’ll never domesticate the weather, though we seem to have made it wilder. Though many of us seem to consume it and complain about it as if it were a consumer good, as if someone were putting it on and could, really, do a better job of it, the weather belongs to itself, and we belong to it. We’re here on its terms, as long as it’ll have us, as long as we don’t muck it up too much. Its recursive habits (high following low, la nina following el nino, rain following drought), its relatively temperate but irregular ways, the way it shields us from outer space, blankets us, and filters the sun—the weatherness of weather created the conditions for life and for its growth and continuity on earth. We are creatures of the weather. We live in its house. A fair bit more than we know—of who we are, and how we think and talk and carry on—is how we adapt to the weather of where we are.

Personally, the more vivid the weather, the more alive I feel. The larger I seem to be. The wilder, indeed. The wilder the weather the easier it is to remember it, and when I remember the weather, it’s like I remember the rest of me. I like to think of myself as a citizen of the real world, a participant in the landscape and its weather: it just makes me feel more real than thinking of myself as a taxpayer or a householder or a, God help me, consumer. So the more weather there is and the more I take note it the better it is. Up to a point, of course. Citizenship of the real world stops being fun when the river is lapping your eves because the rain has forgotten how to stop. And there’s been a bit of that this summer, and the last. Where I live, along the mild old, carp-infested, turbid Wingecarribee, the rain’s been big and it’s been often, and the river’s been jumping out of its skin but not into my bed. Which is good. That’s the kind of wild I like. In weather, anyway.

Weather’s always wild, and the band of normal wildness might just about be stretched to include the kind of thing that’s going on across the continent, and the planet, for that matter, at the moment—an unprecedented (in European memory, anyway) third, or is it fourth inundation, in successive years of the inland lakes; record heat and dry in the southwest; heavy duty cyclones in the Pilbara and, last year, the largest cyclone ever in the northeast; record March rainfall in parts of the southeast; a winter that wasn’t and an early onset tornado season in North America… But this—wetter wets, drier dries, increased turbulence, more frequent and more violent
2. Is it blowing poems in or blowing poems away?
It’s blowing poems—into me and out of me—which is good. The poetry went quiet through the end of last year—inevitable, I guess, in the wake of the Newcastle Prize at the end of September, all the teaching one has to get through, in October and November, and then all the media for the weather book. Oh, I wrote a few nice pieces, but nothing much through November, and then the Montreal Prize came along and knocked the quietness and loneliness out of me, on which the poetry depends: poems only blow in and teach me how to turn them into themselves when the coast, which is never clear, is at least uncluttered and a little stolen solitude is possible.

For most of January, after I had the news in mid December that I’d won the world’s biggest poetry prize, I couldn’t buy a poem. There was a fair bit of fuss and a fair few interviews, and then there was Christmas, and travel with the family. But there was also my voice in my own head worrying me half to death that maybe I might never write a good poem again. And sure enough, for most of a month I couldn’t. I made a lot of notes and a lot of starts, but nothing stayed. Until the holidays ended and I sat with some ideas, stolen from the Matisse show, which I saw at GOMA in early January, and made a couple of poems. February and March have been awash with them. As if I had caught the weather again. The wildness, the fluency—the storm, if not the Drang.

I turned fifty in early January. That kept me quiet for a while, too. But now I’ve grown used to the idea, crossing that threshold—into the age that the Hindus call the entry into the forest—has led me deeper into poetry, and maybe into deeper poetry. And I’m praying it lasts. Actually, I know it’ll last, though the intensity and output will ebb and flow. A poet is what I seem to be. I am most myself when I am making it: I am thinking best; I am most free; I am most happy (if not always in the moment).

3. If you couldn’t be found for love, what would you want to be found for? [p. 14 Rules for Walking]
Not to be meagre, but my line was about being found “by” love, not for it. But you make me wonder about the implicit passivity in my poem, in the poet’s approach to love.  I am, I think, more inclined to fall (and farther and faster) in love than the national average, though maybe not much above the benchmark for artists. In love with beauty as I find it in nature, in the sky, on the ground, in birds, in poems and other literature, in the faces of my children, in animals, and in the eyes and bodies and minds of people I meet. I fall for music. I fall for wisdom, too, if wisdom is not, itself beauty. And when I fall, it is often, I hope love’s work I perform in response (this is how I am found “for” love): the poems I make, the care I try to show, the passion I articulate, and the attention I pay.

But I am found by anger (at injustice and venality and cruelty and ecological ignorance) and by melancholy and grief and other hungers as often as I am found by love. I am happy to be found by whatever comes, though I’m not courting illness or death especially! What a poet wants, this one anyway, is authentic experience, rawness of emotion, bigness of life (one’s own as well as encounters with big ideas, with undomesticated nature), freedom to be untrammelled in the world, to witness and speak uncensored back.

I would always want to be found for poetry as well as for love. That is work I want always to do, and to keep learning to do better. One is as often found wanting, of course, but  one wants to keep going, to keep growing, in one’s work and the self-knowledge it depends upon; to keep failing but failing better (as Beckett would have it.)

I want to keep being found for literacy. I’d like my writing and my teaching to continue to make the case for kinder, clearer, smarter, more elegant, more human, more useful and limpid prose—starting with literary criticism and theory and poetry, but extending, like an outbreak of wisdom, across scholarly, business, professional, political and scientific discourses. If how we write is who we are, then I’m worried. I’d like what David Malouf calls “the intelligent vernacular” to break out and to break up the power of the inarticulate elites, the perpetrators of Newspeak. I’d like more beautiful sense to be made, and I’d like my work to help.

I’d love my work to lead more lives into deepening, into slowness and consideration and compassion; into remembering how much the earth is worth to them and to all of us. From time to time I hear from readers who say my poems or my prose (The Blue Plateau, especially, and essay or two, even the writing books or the weather book) have helped them in this way. I have heard from activists—for social justice and for wise responses to climate change, for better grammar and more graceful prose—who say my work has inspired them to or in their work. This pleases me a lot and I’m up for as many of those responses as want to find me. This is the kind of change I want to provoke; this is the kind of politics that plays in my writing and teaching. A more mindful, beautiful way of being ourselves, of being with others, of being with and on the earth.

Most people are never going to read my work, but I hope many of them find their way to great music and poetry and good books and good people, because that’s how the politics of fear and greed will be undone; that’s how the kind of spiritual revolution I have in mind will begin.

I’m writing a book called Reading Slowly at the End of Time, and that’s why I’m writing it: in case a few more people read it than read my poems, and because I believe it’s a gift that one can be found by love, and I love literature; and that when one is found, one should return the gift the best way one knows how, and the best way I know how is by writing. And that’s what my writing is: a return of the gift of being alive in a world, compromised by greed and growth and poverty and fear and fundamentalism (of all creeds), but beautiful in its people, in its natural forms, in its weather, nonetheless, and in a world that is sung and made thereby lovelier, in poetry and books.

4. What do you abjure besides hyphens?
In writing and in life more generally, I abjure (such a good, strong old word, Lizz—thank you*): bullying; manipulation; meanness (generosity, along with compassion, if they are not the same thing, are the great virtues, and they depend on the capacity to be found by love; so that meanness, chiefly, along with most of the rest of my lest here, is the opposite of generosity, and therefore very worthy of abjuring); meagreness; skulduggery; reductive thinking; dumbing down; pomposity; venality; hypocrisy; duplicity; mendacity; selfishness; secrecy and its concomitant, the invasion of others’; sanctimony; piety; self-righteousness; slavery to fashion (especially when the fashion is bad, such as bad business writing); the conspiracies, exercised especially through language, that professions practise on the public; brutality and tyranny; fearfulness and defensiveness (of writing and behaviour); shrillness; rudeness and bluntness; violence; fundamentalism (all faith worth having must include doubt to be worth having); passive aggression; shallowness; intolerance; pedantry; climate change denial; jingoism, Nationalism, insularity and fear/hatred of strangers/ others; the sense of entitlement of the lucky and wealthy; the economic and political addiction to growth; the blind belief in progress; the sway of the profit motive; conversations dominated by real estate values, interest rates and where one’s children should go to school… There’s more, but you get the flavour of it.

Just quickly, many people imagine because I’ve written a style guide to grammar and punctuation that I might be fiercely judgmental about others’ grammar and punctuation. It’s true I have my likes and dislikes: love the em-rule, for example, and a semi-colon in the right place. But I’d rather say I love writing in which the grammar and punctuation don’t get in the way, and in which they underwrite (and are part of) spunky, elegant style. To write well, though, you need to have mastered your grammar and punctuation, or to be at ease with it, at least.

I have this theory about driving, and, as long as you don’t push it, it works for life. It’s my flow theory. And it isn’t of course mine. Whatever you do on the road that helps things flow—for you and for everyone; for the ecosystem of the traffic—is a good thing to do, and whatever you do (like cutting someone off or driving slowly in the fast lane) that works against flow is a bad thing. Now, I don’t mean that I value going with the flow—in life. Of course, I don’t: I value freedom, independence of mind and all that. But I mean, on the page, do what you can to let your message or your poem stand clear; resist cliché; favour the grammatical way, because on balance, that way makes more meaning happen hast for more readers. In life, what I mean is: love your neighbour; seek your own freedom, but pull your head in when the pursuit of your freedom curtails others’; and bullying and tyranny and fundamentalism are out because they depend on wilful self-absorption and ignore and damage the “flow” of others. I guess I value a democracy that’s guided by altruism and the elements of good style.

5. You’ve said your writing is ‘a very small part of a very long and urgent conversation.’ Have you been caught out talking to yourself?
Yes. (Just now, in fact, on a train travelling Canada: the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies cut right across a great conversation I was having about the nature of poetry and why we so need it in the world…) It embarrasses me when I sense I’ve lost my audience (or audient), especially when that happens because I was too self-absorbed. But I kind of expect to be the only person in many rooms who wants to talk long and hard about some of the loves and disdains I’ve listed above. I’m not much good at small talk. And big talk sometimes doesn’t play: Christmas with the relatives, for instance; most barbeques; many parties.

But I tend to get my self into enough situations where someone is listening and some others are talking, too: at literary festivals, in the classroom, on the radio, in my critical writing.  So that I can stay quiet more peaceably when all the talk is small. And so that the big conversation goes on.

6. What is it that is urgent?
All of us are in the middle of an ecological crisis that most of us don’t want to think about or believe in or do anything serious about. The scientists tell us a mass extinction event (the fifth, I think, we know about through time) is going on around us, in large part, this time, caused by human land use (over clearing, pollution, climate change etc), and there’s a major risk, we, ourselves, may be part of that event, if we don’t get climate change under control and wean ourselves off fossil fuels.

The western project, the western idea, is approaching its use-by date, at least in its pure form. Capitalism, so good at growing things and making wealth, is the most to blame for climate change, for growing inequality across the globe (even in the rich economies) and the injustice that embodies and the trouble it inevitably leads to. It needs to learn some moderation and some manners; and it will learn them from the peoples it’s dispossessed, from the languages it’s colonised, from the land it’s spoiling, from art, including especially poetry and books. And if it doesn’t learn them soon, if a post-capitalism does not emerge—a slow capitalism, a small capitalism—and if ecology does not supplant economy in our thinking, we’re all in big trouble.

This is what is so urgent. Bad language and bad grammar are part of the problem; and good writing is part of the solution. As I say in another poem, “Language got us into this, and language will have to get us out.”
7. Do you think good-humoured patience is an essential characteristic for a poet? [p. 41 Buddha’s Little Instruction Book] Do you have it?
A sense of humour—of proportion and of one’s own capacity for idiocy and failure and pomposity—is a mark of intelligence, I think, as well as good manners and good ethics. And it marks the literature I admire and try to write, including the poetry. But in life and on the page it will be matched, if the life and the writing are worth bothering about, by a willingness to take things, including one’s self, seriously. Not taking things too seriously is where the sense of humour and the tolerance come in. Good-humoured patience, though I admire it, isn’t enough. It’s necessary but not sufficient. And as the poem you quote suggests, though I aspire to equanimity, in real life I fail at it, or achieve it too late, more often than I’d like to admit.

Though poetry can have all manner of different attitudes, it’s hard to think of any that’s much good that doesn’t look on the world and all of us in it, even the bastards, with something like compassion. Poetry writes the music of the intelligence of things; it writes how it feels in the real world (which is to say, the life of the soul and of the anima mundi) and you cannot write it unless you can, at least in the act of writing, that meditation upon the real, look on the earth and its creatures, especially us human creatures in our grandeur and frailty, with something like kindness. The poet will not get close to being the Buddha, even on the page; but the poet’s work is quite like that of the Bodhisattva, and tender-hearted, hard-eyed seeing is the work of the Bodhisattva.
I’d add this, and I hope it doesn’t sound like a special pleading, given what I’ve just admitted: to work seriously as a creative person, while living fully in the everyday world (raising a family and earning an income, that sort of thing) is to have your patience tried and to risk developing chronic bad-humour and impatience. Creativity is slow and hard. It needs silence and solitude. A thing women have been telling men for ages, of course. Writing is, if not essentially selfish, then essentially self-full. So the writer in the midst of their other life has their creativity crowded, if not crowded out—has their creativity hurried and their concentration broken and their commitment tested. And tested all the time. If you don’t watch out you turn into a terrible grump. Writers are, I think, especially hard to live with—because they are in their work so deeply and so long, and because they grow testy negotiating daily the road from the home one has in poetry to the very different home one has in family. Poets should probably not have families, though we’d be poorer without them, and I would not be without mine. This is the tension “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book” explores: one poet’s failure to reconcile his calling and his family; his failure to act often enough with grace and good humour. But it may well be a poem that speaks well beyond my own narrow circumstances.

8. If you had to have another poet in your Cowshed who would it be?
Many would be very welcome, but none when I’m working. They’d put me off my stroke.
I’d love a chat with G M Hopkins. Charles Wright is a major influence and an inspiration, so he’d be welcome a while. Rumi, Basho, Jack Gilbert, Jane Kenyon, Anne Sexton, Mary Oliver, Wislawa Szimborska (now there’s a poet with seriousness, humour and patience), Jan Zwicky, Robert Gray, Judy Beveridge, Bob Adamson, Les Murray, Bronwyn Lea. But not all at once. And in many cases not for long. Poets are often easier people to be with on the page than off it. Some because they’re shy; others because they are not sufficiently shy; and many because they’re sensitive and prone to mood swings, and one never knows how they’ll be and for how long.

9. What is the right question to ask? [p. 70 Things I’m Trying to Believe]
Oh, there’s not one. Unless perhaps it is how shall I return the gift that’s been given to me (so that the world is not poorer, so that the world is richer, for my having lived)? Here are some. What is wanted of me? What is the life I’m meant to be leading? How can I live wisely and beautifully? Justly and truthfully? Whom can I serve and how? What is the world and how am I to live in it right?

10. What’s the answer?
I’ll get back to you.

*You’re welcome Mark - but actually I’m quoting your good self (email correspondence) J

Rhythm & Muse is an occasional conversation with poets that Lizz Murphy has met. Thanks to Mark Tredinnick for sending his response from a Montreal train with Wi-Fi (April 2012). 
© Lizz Murphy and the guest poet


  1. What an excellent interview! So much to think about. When I met Mark, I mostly spoke to him about cricket. Which is also interesting.

  2. Thanks for your comment Penelope - Mark gives us much to ponder. (I know nathin about cricket.)

  3. Wonderful interview Lizz. Such generous and inspiring responses by Mark to your questions.I particularly enjoyed the found by love section and the idea of an outbreak of wisdom...


    Janene Pellarin

    1. Thank you for visiting and commenting Janene. One of my favourites from this interview: 'We are creatures of the weather. We live in its house.'