Your poem, ‘Margaret River Sestets’, won this year’s Cardiff International Poetry Competition – what inspired the poem and the poem’s format?
First, thanks so much for your interest in my work.
“Margaret River Sestets” is written in very long-lined stanzas, and one or two lines of each sestet are stepped down. It’s an architecture I’ve used quite often - “Eclogues” and “The Economics of Spring” and several other poems in my first collection Fire Diary, for instance - since I discovered a version of it in the poetry of the great Charles Wright. That form - loose and yet formal at once - felt like my native habitat, from the start. The long lines seem to suit my syntax and the rhythms of my poetic thought and witness; Linda Rogers, the Canadian poet, who also won the Cardiff one year, described my long lines as “bowings” - the kind I used to make on a cello, when I played. In “MRS”, the brokenness of the lines articulates the brokenness of the country (Margaret River lies in the southwest of Australia) and of the speaker of the poem.
I am a poet who seems to need form, some blueprint of the rooms of the poem’s house, before the poem will find him. “MRS” is what I’d call a post-pastoral: a response to stricken and beautiful country; a way of coming to poetic terms, at the same time, with a heart, or perhaps a soul, in need of the kind of healing metaphor and speech music (in long and broken lines) alone can perform - along with the wild music of landscape itself. I wrote the poem because that landscape deserved, and seemed to insist upon, the best poetic response I could manage. I wrote the poem to see if I could order a somewhat disordered self. I wrote the poem, as I often do, because I had some other work I ought to have been doing (an essay this time, on the work of another poet); I seem to need to steal time for poems from other projects (critical essays, web copy for clients…) that I have no choice but to write and really ought to be getting down to. I need, apparently, a poem to be illicit. And so this one was.
You have won several major poetry prizes and literary awards, have 3 published collections of poetry, 4 prose collections and 4 writing guides (with 3 further collections due for publication in 2013) – is there anything else you would like to achieve in your literary career?
You make this sound like a prodigious body of work, and me like a medium-sized writing factory. It’s not, and I’m not, like that at all - though, thanks for mentioning the body of work to which “MRS” belongs. At fifty, I feel I’m only just learning how to write, as if all the work I sometimes feel I’m here to get done lies out in front of me. I don’t think of my writing life as a career, but I do think of what I’m doing as a calling. And it’s my hope that I can continue to make out the right thing to write next and to see and learn the way to get it done. If I write nothing else from here to the end than poems, I’ll die happy. But I keep writing prose - essays, memoir, nature pieces, criticism - and it seems to suit me and to counterbalance the poetry, so I suppose I’ll keep writing that, too. I have a couple of ideas, but most of the prose I’ll write will present itself to me - a commission, a compulsion - when its time is right. There may be a children’s book in me, and a novel. A memoir of some kind later. Who knows? I’m very glad to have been able to get written the books you allude to, and one or two of them (The Blue Plateau, The Little Red Writing Book, Fire Diary, Australia’s Wild Weather) I’m fond and proud of. Naturally, I’m thrilled and astonished and gratified by the prizes, the Montreal Prize late last year, which changed the game for me, and the Cardiff this year: prizes help finance the silence on which the poetry depends, and they help people remember your name and read your work and ask, now and then, if you could send them some new poems. That’s very good, and I’m thankful, but the lapsed Methodist in me keeps letting me know I’m only as good as my next poem. And that I have been blessed, and that now the real work starts.
The continued freedom to write is what I mostly pray for - in a secular kind of way - and the capacity to keep learning better ways to get out of my own way and let the poems that want to find me, find me, and find their way, through my hand, out into the world. I’d like to keep writing poems, and perhaps some other works, that tell some pieces of the big story small, that redeem a few moments and serve, somehow, the planet; that do some kind of justice and remake some souls, including my own, and give a few people back to their real lives (the ones they’re too busy or anxious to live); that help a few readers make sense of the madness around them; that cry the beauty of the much put-upon earth; my hope is to keep making poems that recharge the language, and cry the peril and the joy of creation, that conserve language and love and landscape, some poems that throw some soft bombs at the usual suspects.
You were a lawyer, before moving into book publishing – what inspired that move?
Have you ever tried being a lawyer?! Okay, enough said. Publishing was fun and noble, and I learned a lot about writing and editing, and it was an escape for me from the aridity of law and the tyranny of the time-sheet, but I was, in reality, and increasingly I knew it, edging closer, in book publishing, to the writing life I’d known since I was a child writing I was meant to lead, if I could. There was hardly a moment in book publishing, even the good moments, when I didn’t feel like a man wearing someone else’s clothes. I knew in the end I’d jump the desk and sit in the writer’s chair. After ten years in publishing (Butterworths, Allen & Unwin, HarperCollins), the division I was running was sold, and I had a chance to walk away with a cheque in my hands. That was 1996, and I’ve been writing and teaching ever since, and my clothes fit me much better now.
For readers who are unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe it?
Fellow Australian poet Judith Beveridge was kind enough once to say of me that The Blue Plateau (a work of lyric prose) and Fire Diary (my first collection of poetry) “establish Mark as one of our great writers of place—not just of geographic place, but of the moral and spiritual landscape as well.” She catches my poetry’s territory very well in those words. Andrew Motion described “Walking Underwater”, which won the Montreal International Poetry Prize last year, as “a bold, big-thinking poem, in which ancient themes (especially the theme of our human relationship with landscape) are recast and rekindled.” And his words neatly characterise my poetry, my whole literary project. I think my poems are both hard and easy: easy, in that resonant simplicity and musicality of speech are articles of faith with me; hard, in that, as a reader once put it, my lines “trail a lot of hooks.” You’ll see what I mean, and what that reader meant, and what Beveridge and Motion mean, if you read “MRS”; it is a characteristic poem in its concerns, its landscape witness, its musical play with natural history, mythology, psychology, cosmology, philosophy and “divine sense”. But its lines are the longest and the most replete with - with everything - that I’ve ever written. I have another writing self, who now and then manufactures short-lined, simply articulated lyrics, often about birds and children and people and places and trees I love. I am a poet of wonder.
I am a mystic; I am a secular sort of pantheist. I write the physical and the metaphysical; I don’t trade much in the social, I’m afraid. I’ve never found society especially compelling. Soul, yes; landscape, yes; love, yes; questions of justice and freedom, yes. But not everyday norms and felonies. I write - and value - birds and music and land forms - lots of forms. I write about death and how to survive it. I write intimacy and cosmology, often at the same time. Much of my work is what might be called confessional, though the “I” of my lyrics and eclogues should never be mistaken for my biographical self. A poem arises in the place where one’s self bleeds - in love or grief or longing or wonder - into the Self; the personal becomes the human; the particular the universal. In one poem I write: “I’m writing a kind of confessional ecology here, and you mustn’t believe a word.”
I’ve just done a long interview with Kath Stansfield for New Welsh Review. That interview will give you a very clear idea of the kind of poet and man I am:
Are there any poetry collections that you can recommend to our readers?
My own? Fire Diary (Puncher & Wattmann, 2010, which you’ll have to buy through me or the publisher here in Australia; we’re not on Amazon or the Book Depository); The Lyrebird (a little chapbook, published in 2011 by Picaro Press, again only available on line or from me); The Road South, a CD on which I read twenty poemsm - this is available much more readily, even track by track, from CD baby, Amazon and others. The Blue Plateau: A Landscape Memoir (2009) is available from Amazon and The Book Depository. You can sample my poems on The Poetry Archive; you can sample a few others on the website of The Poetry Foundation in the US. On both sites you can read biographical notes and a few of my poems, AND you can download some poems in voice form. You can read and hear “Walking Underwater” on the website of the Montreal Poetry Prize, and you can read “MRS” on the Cardiff Prize site. I’d recommend the Global Anthology put out by the Montreal Prize this year; it includes the fifty shortlisted poems, and they come from all over the world.
Will you be visiting the UK anytime soon, to be part of a literary festival or on a book tour?
I have no plans to be in the UK soon, but I have hopes. Something - a festival, a reading tour, some teaching, a residency, talks with publishers - will take me to the UK sometime before the poles melt completely. It seems unlikely I’ll be able to get across for the Cardiff Prize Awards night, much as I’d like to: Cardiff is along way and a long time from Sydney, and small arts bodies and workaday poets don’t have much spare cash lying about for airfares. But whatever it is that takes me to the UK, I want to come to Wales. I’ll keep you posted.
Where can readers find out more about your work?
My website is a place to start: www.marktredinnick.com.au. There are plenty of leads on there. Also the Poetry Archive and the Poetry Foundation.
Many thanks to Mark Tredinnick for answering our questions.