On day two of his job at Mallesons Stephen Jaques, Mark Tredinnick knew it was the wrong job for him. It took another 20 years to work his way back to his true vocation – writing poetry. It would be hard to recognise the serious young man who took a clerkship at one of Sydney’s big six law firms, in the self-employed poet who today is contemplating his fiftieth birthday.
Mark lives with his second wife, muse and business partner, Maree, and their three young children, in “Nettlebed”, a farmhouse near the Wingecarribee River, 120 km southwest of Sydney. He has won a swag of prestigious awards for his poetry, books and essays, and he hasn’t worked for a wage since 1996.
He spoke to Perilous Adventures on the phone from the renovated cowshed where he works. In its heyday, the shed milked sixty head of cattle in a morning, four by four; now Mark writes there, and teaches writing to small groups. Beside him sit many of the books he feels most connected to: poetry, essays, nature writing, mostly— and touchstone books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy or Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels.
During the interview, Tredinnick mostly turned his back on the whiteboard where he scrawls the jobs for the day – invoices to send, interviews, a course outline to prepare, a funding proposal for a poetry trip to Ireland, the new style guide for a law firm he’s consulting with this year. Some of the items have been erased by his son Henry to make way for a picture of the family’s new dog Honey. Mark looked mostly at his books, or gazed with intent out the wall of windows that opens on the natural world, and sometimes his descriptions of the birds that dropped by got mixed up with the interview.
I was never going to stay in the law. Knowing what I now know about what matters to me, it was always something I was going to move beyond. I did well at high school in the humanities, and I got a lot of (bad but well-meaning) advice from my parents and the teachers at Barker College about doing something useful with my gift for language and thought—a lot of people were in my ear, and most of them thought I should do law.
We wish our children happiness, safety and prosperity—when perhaps we might spend more time helping them work their life out for themselves. My parents came from lower middle class stock. Neither of them had been to university. They’re both smart and hardworking, and they wanted me to get what they hadn’t got, a university education, and I guess they thought that meant that if my mind didn’t run to maths and science, then I should study law. It’s funny. You can realise, as I think my parents must have, that your son has the soul of a lover and a quester and a mystic, but you still think he should become a lawyer, and you talk yourself into believing he’ll be happy and the world will be happy with that. I can’t understand now why I didn’t stand up and insist on doing whatever I needed to do—and studying law wasn’t one of those things I needed to do to become a writer; everyone in my family had always told me what I knew myself, that I was meant to write the stories and poems I loved to read so much, so late into the night. But maybe my soul was keeping my powder dry. There were things I needed to learn; there were selves I had to work out were not me, even if I could pretend to be them quite convincingly. Things like law.
I studied arts and law at Sydney University. In arts, I studied Latin, philosophy and history. No English, you’ll notice. I seemed to know I needed to cleave to the actual world; maybe I knew I had the literature gene—I just needed to read wide and deep into the real world. History includes all the social science disciplines: anthropology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, social ecology, cultural studies—and it values the word. The documents you read and the narratives you tell. I didn’t know I was going to become an essayist, a nature writer and a confessional kind of poet; I didn’t know that I was destined to write a literature of fact, a creative kind of nonfiction. History, maybe more than literature, was the right undergraduate education for that. Law was fun to study—all those stories, all that steeping in the making of a case. It was only when I came to practice it that it soured on me.
I had clerkships offered to me from all the big Sydney law firms, which surprised a lot of people—I’d been flying under the radar. I had the results, I talked smoothly, and I looked, in a suit, like every law firm’s idea of the very model of a model corporate lawyer. My soul I kept a close secret even from myself in those days. I chose Mallesons Stephen Jaques—for the summer clerkship, and then for my first fulltime job— because they did all the Fairfax work; they had the best defamation section in the business. I knew myself well enough to know I wanted to do about as little commercial, tax or banking law as I could, whereas the idea of defending freedom of speech seemed more like my thing
But I hated the job from day two. Turns out you can’t do straight libel cases; turns out the firm wants to expose you to a wide range of commercial work; turns out the big end of town doesn’t treat the little people especially well; and it turns out I couldn’t act for scoundrels. I guess I should have seen that coming. I respect a legal system that gives everyone a right to be represented but I can’t represent just anybody. I hate bullying. I always did: a legacy maybe of my Methodist childhood, a manifestation of the social justice gene I inherited from my parent. I’m intolerant of sneakiness, double-talk and manipulation, which is going to make a man ill at ease with commerce, and the kind of legal moves that promote it. Too many of our clients seemed to me to treat their franchisees and staff very badly; too many of them were addicted to power and greed. The Methodist in me rebelled against a lack of social justice.
It took two days to realise that I was a maker of things, a fashioner of words, not an adviser upon them. Law was never going to do it for me. But it was the time sheets that killed me. I can organise myself with a fair degree of discipline, but don’t try asking me to account for every six minute interval of my day, and assigning it to some matter or another. I saw I wasn’t free – to be myself, to be slow or fast. I don’t think I’d seen till I went to work for the firm how much I needed to be free. Autonomous. The poet in me, the one I didn’t know I was, said, ‘No way’. I left after nine months.
I’m not religious. I’ll never join anyone’s church. But I am spiritual; you can’t make art unless you are. I’m intrigued by the nature of the great coherence in behind everything, the beauty and wild order of the material world. I’m a pantheist, and I think I always was. Nature is where my gods are; it’s who they are. Nature is god. God is the rain on the roof. In a poem, I say: “the rain on the roof is the only script there’ll ever be for any of this.” The way things work, form the weather to the life of a blue wren, that’s what divinity means to me. Some spiritual systems—indigenous cosmologies, particularly; Hinduism; Buddhism; various brands of mysticism—have room for nature, and I’m very drawn to them. Mainstream Christianity isn’t such a system. But I grew up in a puritan, protestant house, and I learned some things there that have stuck—some deep-seated and enduring values. My grandfather was a Methodist minister and my parents met in the church. Methodism’s very democratic, plainspoken, and low church—suspicious of gowns and robes, fancy stained-glass windows, and the magical power of the priest. Methodism is about social justice, treating everyone as one of God’s children, working to make people’s lives better on earth. That’s the good part of it; the hymns are good, too. The bad part was narrow-mindedness, small-mindedness, no drinking, no dancing, and a great deal of discomfort about sex. So I’ve left Methodism and any kind of church a long way behind me. In truth, I could never work up a lot of passion about the Jesus story: it seemed to leave so much beauty and grandeur out. It never seemed like great writing to me. But the social justice thing, the suspicion of pomp, the addiction to fairness: those have stuck, and I’m grateful.
Yes, I got married at 23, before my last year of law school. My first wife was three years older than I was. She was an accountant. I was marrying my mother, I guess—leaving home the best way I could. And we’d met, and I thought that you married a woman you loved. So we got married. It was a good enough marriage for most of the seven years it lasted. But only a small part of who I was, was in it. I have often danced, unhappily, between stability and risk. I was doing stability then, I guess. In a poem I say I’ve been living my life backwards; I’ve been losing my way into poetry for most of my life; but I was starting from a long way back. When everyone else was running wild, I was getting married and moving to the leafy suburbs. I’ve been leaving ever since. But back then, I put my creative life away—I thought, perhaps I wasn’t cut out for it. But I was reading a great deal, keeping my other life, the one I didn’t feel up to yet, alive, I was escaping inside a marriage that was never big enough for me.
A year or two into that marriage, I found a job as an editor with Butterworths, the law publisher, and left Mallesons. You can imagine how pleased my parents and my wife were about that. But I was elated: I was breaking out, striking out toward myself. It was an easy transition. Butterworths liked recruiting lawyers; they put you on the fast track. Back then, the firm gave you a full six weeks’ training in sub-editorial skills. Imagine that today! That training and the four years that followed were part of my education as a writer, of course; I was learning what a sentence was; I was practicing grammar and learning about design. I left Butterworths as a managing editor after four years to go to Allen & Unwin as a publisher. John Iremonger had just left to go and head MUP; Patrick Gallagher replaced him with me and Elizabeth Weiss, both of us very young. Elizabeth’s still there, and she’s virtually running the place these days. Back then, she took on the feminist, sociology and emerging ecology list; I did the rest—mostly history, military history, politics, and then, as I had my first mid-life crisis and got out and about a bit more, some psychology, self-help, writing books, and management. Have I mentioned that in those years at Butterworths and Allen & Unwin, I went and got an MBA?
Well, I’m quite good at studying. I was still in my twenties and I thought I was probably in organisational life for keeps, and I wanted to learn some things I knew I wasn’t going to learn in publishing. Turning up to work for other people, no matter how interesting some of the work, no matter that I was making books, wasn’t enough for me. There was a marriage to escape and a life of the mind to attend to and a future, I thought, in publishing, to chase. I thought of doing an MA or a PhD on book publishing, but I went for the MBA. Weird way to rescue your soul, but that’s what I was trying to do.
My marriage lasted the classic seven years and fell apart at the end of 1992. I met someone while I was doing my MBA—the other person there who cared for books. My marriage gave me two children, Michael and Louisa, and they were pretty young when I left. They’re 20 and 19 now, and I’ve stayed in their lives and they’ve stayed in mine. I’ve probably been a hopeless father, but I’ve supported them as well as I could, and they know I love them, and their mother has been a wonderful mother to them. But, like the law, I was always going to leave, and I did on 2 December 1992. I was thirty, and this was my first pass at a midlife crisis. I spent three wild and formative years with Jenny, learning how to live sensuously, and how to miss my children and yet bear it, how to be unhappy and imperfect and lonely and in love, and how to grow up. I read a lot in these years: Thomas Moore, T S Eliot, Alice Miller, lots of poetry and psychology, Joseph Campbell, and lots of Jung. I let my hair grow. I got my ear pierced. I learned how badly drugs affect me. I travelled to Greece and crashed a motorbike and broke my collarbone. In other words, I did what most people do ten years earlier, when I was busy being scholarly and sensible. And all this was edging me out of corporate life, dragging me into poetry. I was learning which clothes were mine, and I was learning how to be bold enough to wear them.
I lasted four years at Allen & Unwin, at the end of which I knew I needed to leave and work for myself, to write, but instead I went over, briefly to the dark side. A job came up at HarperCollins, and it suited a man with publishing experience and an MBA. So I took it on, meaning to stay a short while and get some overseas travel. But it ended sooner, and more happily, than anyone could have imagined. I was publishing a nonfiction list and running HarperEducational. But I’d been there about six months when Rupert Murdoch decided to sell out of college publishing worldwide. So we were on the market, and three months later, we were sold, and I was out of a job—free to find out how to write and live, and with a redundancy cheque in my pocket. This was April 1996.
I finally knew I had to write—that I would have failed to live the life that had been given to me, if I did not—but I didn’t know what. I spent six months reading and thinking and trying to find my subject matter and my genre. One day I wrote in my journal that I loved two things of a work-related kind: writing and talking. And that helped me work out what to do, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I could teach what I knew (not only writing and communication, but leadership and some of what I’d learned at business school), and I could use that to finance the silence on which writing depends.
With Murdoch’s payout paying my rent for a few months, I began making lists of things I might do to make a living and a life—things that drew on things I knew and things I did best. I wrote down all sorts of consulting, marketing tasks I thought I could find a way to sell. But I kept looking at my lists and realising “I hate that stuff”. Bugger the market, I thought. And I made, instead, a list of work-related things I loved to do, and there were two words on that list: talking and writing. I like other things, too, of course. I might have added walking, for instance. But that list brought my future on. Pretty much everything I’ve done since, by way of work and art, is either writing or talking or both. Even my model for writing is talk tidied; my idea of poetry, an architecture of utterance, “memorable speech” to quote Auden.
Each of us leads a big life and a little one. I’ve written this in a recent poem, “In Medias Res”. In that poem I say that every time I turn my back my little life, my meager, fearful life, is colonising my big life. In these years after the HarperCollins gig ended, and my relationship with Jenny crashed, and I met Maree and everything started up again, I was working out how to lead my big life—which meant writing—and I was starting to work out what to write—and how to make my small life pay for my big life. In 1996 I taught my first writing course, and published my first piece—a book review—and I’ve been writing and teaching freelance ever since. I never went back into that whole full-time city life again.
That first writing course was in business writing; I taught leadership for a while, too. I taught my first creative writing course in 1997—in creative non-fiction. I’ve taught everywhere and many things since, and these days I sit here in my shed and teach, too. But my teaching began at Sydney University’s Centre for Continuing Education, and I still teach there. This morning, I sent them my 201st invoice.
Not for another ten years. I’ve always loved and read poetry (Keats and Hopkins, Whitman and Dickinson, Yeats and Williams and Gray…) and I recognise it now as the writing that is most utterly and completely me. But then I was still thinking prose. I was doing a lot of reading and thinking about what my subject matter would be and I didn’t think for a moment my genre would be poetry. Joseph Campbell says the cave we most need to enter is the one we’re most afraid to enter, and I think that cave for me was poetry.
Most people who feel the call to write, think it’s fiction we’re supposed to make. We conflate literature with fiction. I’ve always had the burning desire to write, but for as long as I thought it was fiction I had to write, I couldn’t write it. In that big year, 1996, where I went fishing for my creative and autonomous self, I discovered essays and liked a lot of them. It occurred to me I’d found my form.
I am by nature a philosophiser; I need to fathom the meaning of things. And I find the actual world enough—unaccountably mysterious and unfathomable. I’m a scholarly kind of witness of the world, but I’m not an academic. The constrained non-voice of the academic is my idea of how to fail at my calling. But in the essay, I found a literature of fact, a personally inflected, deep-diving, conversational engagement with the real. And among the essayists, the ones I liked best, without knowing why at first, were the nature writers. When I read Barry Lopez and Annie Dillard and Wendell Berry, I remembered that the physical world – the way the land lies, the cries of birds, the shape of stones – had always mattered deeply to me. And it occurred to me I had allowed myself to forget about it in the noise of staying alive and paying my way. It hadn’t occurred to me till I read the nature writers that nature was enough of a subject for a writer—for me, in particular. It was an epiphany. I had found my genre; I had found my self; I had found what felt like my habitat.
The lyric dimension of writing and the lyric dimension of the natural world belong together for me. The jazz of the way land goes; the poetics of the prose.
It taught me some things about how organisations work, and how corporations make decisions. It taught me there was no place for me there, but also how to trade with them. I learned how books get made and sold. It taught me what a contract is. And law taught me that a writer should be courageous about telling his or her truths. You can’t please everyone, and you should never try. Just because someone doesn’t agree with what you say, or like it much, doesn’t mean they can sue you. We used to live by an adage in the defamation section at Mallesons: there’s nothing you can’t defensibly say, if you take care with how you say it.
I had written poems when I was 18, 19 and 20 but then I gave it up. I never decided not to write it. I’d say now that my old self knew my young self had some catching up to do—had to get some living done, some loving and losing and travelling, some learning who I was. So the sensible years went by and the first marriage and my first midlife crisis, and then I rediscovered myself, wandering in the trees. I began to write nature essays. I won a prize or two. I started The Blue Plateau, and began work on a doctorate (later published as The Land’s Wild Music). I went walking and talking with nature writers and theorising about how your writing can sound like your country’s voice. To help me understand how the writing may catch the lyric of the country, I had to think a lot about the lyric dimension of writing, about poetics and rhythm. I read a fair bit of music theory. Writing, like music, is organised sound—noise organised by wisdom, as Puccini defined music—a definition more apt for writing, I think. The more I thought down this path, the closer I drew to poetry. Then I had to decide if, in studying the work of a couple of my subjects—Laurie Kutchins and Jim Galvin—I would deal with their poetry. When I began, you see, I had thought I was studying prose. I decided to leap into the poetry. I read up on poetic form, and I read a lot of poems—Jim’s poems and Laurie’s poems and the poems of the poets who had influenced them. I took myself off, metaphorically, to school, as I have often done, and when I came out the other side, I was writing poems, myself.
I suppose by 2003 I thought I knew what a poem was, and how I might write one. I was starting a lot of poems, but finishing none. And this frustrated me. In 2004, I noticed the ABR Poetry Prize: the first time it was offered. And I decided to get a poem finished—I had a villanelle on the go—and enter it. I entered it, and I got short-listed. I didn’t win but my poem was published: my first finished poem; my first published poem. From nothing to that!
So, after a long apprenticeship in writing, and a short dress rehearsal in poetry, it seemed I’d been a poet all along. Other prizes and shortlistings followed fast. I had a ridiculous run. For a time there, I had more prizes than poems published. Prose had never yielded anything like the kind of response my early poems got. I won the Gwen Harwood prize—in 2005, I think. I got shortlisted for the Newcastle and the Poets Union Prize in 2006. In 2007 I won the Newcastle Prize (for “Eclogues”), and the NPP is a big one. It seemed I had arrived—not so much in the poetry scene, though people began to notice me, but home. In 2007, I also won the Calibre Essay Prize for A Storm and a Teacup. I was writing, in both poetry and prose, about climate change and global warming – the complexity, maybe even the hubris, of trying to be at one with nature when it seems to be, because of us, turning so inhospitable. In 2009, I won the Blake
Five children and three or four expensive habits—
One of them a life, the rest of them the ways one finds
To fill it —and you my love: all this I pay for with poetry
This is a key poem for me. It’s essentially autobiographical, though no poem is ever completely autobiographical—the life in it, mine, is mythologised by the poetics, but I do, in fact, have five children, and a number of expensive habits. At a level more important than the facts, though, that’s a very honest poem. It describes a fault line in my affections, in my life, that many other people know, too. Where is it in this family, in this marriage, that I get to be alone to do the work, or lead the life, that only I can? I know many women feel what I expressed in this poem. There is a welter of emotions tied up in it. When you’re so busy, you can find yourself resenting family obligations, and then feel terrible for feeling like that. But those feelings are natural. If you’re going to make your work, you can’t bathe the children at the same time, and you probably can’t bathe them every night, or the poetry may stop.
(And then, just last night, my boy Daniel, who’s now six, looked up at me, as I typed, and said, “You know, Dad, I’m proud that you’re a writer. That you write poems. And all those books.” What does the poet who wrote “Insolvency” say at that point, but thank you?)
Maree and I met in 1995, which coincided with my breaking out of publishing and starting a new life. She has always been part of that new life, and I guess I have been of hers. She thought she was forming a relationship with a publisher but I almost immediately told her I had no job. Maree has a PhD in history from the University of Queensland. She worked at the War Memorial when I met her. For the first two years of our relationship, she was on a post-doctoral fellowship at the ANU. Then she moved into magazine publishing—she was the editor for a few years of Your Garden magazine. After a few years of living half time in Canberra and half in Sydney, we moved in together in Balmain. Soon we bought the house in Katoomba about which I write in The Blue Plateau. We also rented an apartment in Lavender Bay because Maree’s job was at McMahons Point.
We got married in 2000. I was working on the writing books, my PhD and The Blue Plateau, and teaching. Maree worked hard up the hill. She was on TV for a while, too, as the gardening correspondent for Mel and Kochie on Channel Seven. The first of our children, Henry, arrived in 2003; Daniel came in 2004; and then Lucy in 2006. Maree went back to work between each of their births, and we juggled the parenting. A year or so before Lucy was born, we sold Katoomba and moved out of Lavender Bay and into a terrace house in Glebe, then another in Annandale—renting. By the time Lucy came, I was earning enough money from my writing and teaching for Maree to leave the magazine and work from home taking care of the little ones. We’ve never been rich—poetry’s not merchant banking—but we live a very rich, if hectic, life.
Maree does everything for the kids and me now—almost all the cooking and caring for the children and the house. As well as that, she does some freelance editing, and she caters for the cowshed classes, and makes sure the bills get paid. In the last year or so, she’s opened a business in the cowshed, The Cowshed Shop, selling stylish design items that celebrate writing and the rural life. “Insolvency” explores my contribution to our life at “Nettlebed”: I try to do enough work to keep us all alive and to finance the silence upon which the poetry, and my sanity, depend. It’s often a hard act on a high wire, but it’s what I’ve chosen, and I’m blessed to have the option to do it—to do the work I’d do if I had my life all over again.
There’s something delightfully make-it-up-as-you-go-along about the freelance life. We’ve had many times when we couldn’t find the money to pay the bank, but you get used to it. Certainty’s a suburban illusion anyway. The trouble is, creative time is bad for the cashflow. For instance, last August, I won a fellowship at Bundanon. I got to spend three weeks alone down there in that beautiful, sacred landscape, and I wrote most of the first draft of a book on the weather that comes out this November, and I wrote a long poetry cycle (“The Wombat Vedas”) that’s shortlisted for the Newcastle Prize, and I got the page proofs sorted for Fire Diary—but I also did no fee-earning work, so come December, we were flat out broke. The rates and school fees didn’t stop, I noticed. I had to borrow money from Dad to get by. In just this way, and for other reasons, the last four years of my life have been the richest and the hardest, the most harrowing and the most rewarding. Fire Diary rose from that space, and you can feel that frequency in there. “Why write poems,” writes Greg Orr, “if not because grief or love has seized you?”
My routine is to have no routine. I write whenever I get to it. But I’m much more productive in the morning. I go at it obsessively when the writing’s upon me and often forget to eat. Afternoons are better for bureaucratic stuff—emails, bills, sending work out, reading (though I hardly ever let myself do that till it’s dark). The thing that demands most from me is the creative work; it’s the hardest work I do, and I need to be wide awake and very sober to be wild and smart enough to do it.
When you have five children and you need to feed them, you have to take every half chance that comes your way to get something written. Hardly any circumstances are ideal. And this is how it has been for most writers through history, I guess. But it means, I don’t take much time—less than I should, I think—to warm up. Time is an even scarcer resource than ideas. I burn no incense; I do no meditation. I probably should. I drink coffee and turn some music on—Bach or Part or jazz. But mostly I just start, and usually I end up writing something other than the thing I sat to write. To be honest, most of the poems I’ve ever written, and a fair bit of prose, I’ve written on stolen time. I write poetry when I’m meant to be writing someone’s style guide or web copy. I seem to need there to be something illicit. My muse is perverse, seditious. But all that said, I’ve written maybe half of everything I’ve published when away—at Bundanon, at Cradle Mountain, in Alaska, at Camden Haven, in Ubud. When I’ve had the luck to be able to put aside my daily life for a bit. On those occasions, I’ve often written most of the morning and afternoon. Then I feel I’ve earned my downtime and I walk and then I come back and cook some dinner and read over my work. It is such a luxury to be silent, to be slow, to walk and contemplate. I get a lot of writing done when I can turn the rest of my life off.
But the rest I have to do on the run. I have learned to be quite disciplined about getting myself to the table and doing it regardless of how I feel and what else is going on. In fact, hard though it is to put worries and doubts and distractions aside and start, I’m happiest when I have writing to do and I know roughly how to do it. I keep my writing practice going through the busiest times by keeping a writing project or two on my To Do list. It’s good to keep writing real. Okay, I’m called to it, and it’s the only thing I want them to remember me for, and all that, but it’s also just another job of work to be done. If you make your writing too big, if you make it matter too much, you’ll never be good enough or ready enough to do it. I’ve never once been ready to write anything I’ve written. You start before you’re ready, before another day goes by, and you hope that the writing makes you ready to write it. “Prepare for the walk by taking the walk”, I say in “Rules for Walking”, a poem I wrote while writing The Little Red Writing Book, at Lake St Clare. I always knew how to study. If you make the poem you have to write too beautiful in your mind, you’ll never be beautiful enough to write it.
I keep a journal and I’m writing in it all the time. You never know what overheard phrase, what image of the truth (Yeats’s phrase) out there in the landscape, what idiotic idea that occurs to you out of your reading might be a line in a poem, might be he beginning of a poem. “Listen like a thief”, I write in the red book: to your self, to the world, to your family, to the radio, to U-tube, to the books you read.
Children are a gift in many ways; one way is how they walk into your study with words in their mouths they don’t realise are poems. I steal from them with love, the way they steal my time, even myself, from me, with love: a thing I wrote about in “House of Thieves” in The Lyrebird. I’m reading Lord of the Rings to the boys right now, and they love it—they have no choice—especially Daniel. I’d forgotten that Frodo chooses to leave home on his sad quest on his 50th birthday. I’m about to turn 50 too. So the other night, I said to Daniel that I might set off on a perilous adventure, too, when I turn 50. He looked back at me with the wisdom of the young, and he shook his head. “Why not?” I said. He put his head on my shoulder and said "You know the reason.” Now there’s a moment. And a poem. Another time, Daniel walked into the shed and said to me, "So have you been doing much sword fighting lately?" He really did, and it’s how my poem “The Sword and the Pen” begins.
I think of nature as everything beyond the window. It’s the world going on out there. I think of it as that which humans haven’t created. The system the way it evolved, including me. And her. And all of us angelic-demonic organisms. How the mountains came to be the way the mountains are. It’s about stone and the life of birds and the curve of evolution and escarpments and the way the trees smell and stand. It’s as big as cosmology and as small as entomology.
Nature is also a gift we’ve been born into. The splendid joke. The improbability of life on the planet. It’s the biggest gift we’ll even get. And I feel like I have an obligation to give a gift in return, and that’s what my work is. Inadequate, but the best I’m capable of.
If you have any kind of skill with words, that’s part of the gift, and it’s the part you have to work with to say thank you. I write this in “The Economics of Spring”. Maybe it says it as well as I can say it: “In the beginning/ was the world. And in the end. The words came in the middle. The world/ gave them to us with no particular ending in mind. And what shall one give/ in return?”
Nature is home. It’s how I make sense. It’s the beloved. It’s a set of omens, signifying themselves. It’s a reservoir of metaphors for everything merely human; it holds the templates for every idea we’ll ever have, every pattern we’ll ever make. Nature is also consolation. It’s obligation (to conserve and do all manner of justice to). It’s inspiration. But nature seems to be an addiction of mine. I write it because I can’t help it. Birds show up in my poems even when I’m trying to write a love poem or a philosophical rag. It feels as through the world is giving itself to me and it’s impossibly wonderful and it’s a debt I can never repay. But I have to try, by the way I live my life – though I know I’ll fail at that – and by the way I turn my words out. When I write poems, I feel most unself-consciously myself, and part of nature—like I’m doing what nature intended me to do. In the same way that blue wren I see now is doing what it does because that’s what the system intended it to do, I am most in my Markness when I write, and when nature is what I write.
Annie Dillard talks about the human animal as the maker of tools and the singer. We language. Language is the defining human act. And at its least useful, it is most human and most worthy of us. It is a holy act: it is poetry. This newish, city, poem of mine captures some of my thoughts on all that:
It’s a great question, and way too big for me. Many of the nature writers. All the ones I write about and mention in The Land’s Wild Music, for instance. Barry Lopez was a big big influence. Annie Dillard. Many of my heroes are essayists: Natalia Ginzburg, Michel de Montaigne, E B White, Joan Didion. Jim Galvin’s been a major influence, and Annie Dillard. Among novelists, Cormac McCarthy, and Michael Ondaatje, Grahame Greene, Ernest Hemingway, Kent Haruf, William Faulkner, Boris Pasternak, Tolstoy. Shakespeare, of course. And loads of poets: especially, Charles Wright, Kenneth Rexroth, Mary Oliver, Judith Wright, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Anne Sexton, Rumi, Judy Beveridge. I’m going to forget the names of most of my gods, but there are some. Lately, I’ve discovered the Canadian poet and mystic, Tim Lilburn. When I read him, I recognise myself. We’re like two cranes co-evolved on opposite sides of the world. He might be the sandhill crane; I’m the brolga—identical birds with very different accents and behaviours, adapted to where they find themselves. The same idea locally inflected. In his book Living in the World as if it Were Home, Lilburn writes ‘We are lonely for where we are. Poetry helps us cope.’ That’s why I write. That’s what poetry’s for. We have an insatiable desire for reconnection with the rest of it. Humans are condemned to alienation and loneliness by self-consciousness, and by language, disconnected from nature, exiled. We yearn, we burn, to belong again. The world is the beloved, and we’ve lost her, and we miss her. Poetry helps us cope; it helps us get close to her frequency again. It’s how we transfigure longing; it’s how we return the gift. It’s how we say, “Come back”. And sometimes she does.
I wrote that poem “Balmain Aubade” before I discovered Lilburn, but some of its lines, especially the ones about language being for taking part in the perpetual recreation of the real, could have been written by him. I like those moments when you find yourself sharing the same original thought as someone else. It’s a moment when you could fool yourself into thinking you must be saying something like the truth.
If I won lotto, I’d drop the corporate work like a stone. Maybe keep some speeches, if they looked fun and the rate was good and I could stir them up a bit. But if I never had to edit another piece of corporate copy in my life, it wouldn’t be a moment too soon. I enjoyed writing the writing books, though. Talking about the inner life of sentences seems to be a thing I’m meant to do. Talking poetics and form, enjambment and indirection s and all that get me going, and keep me going, too. So I’d keep up some of the creative writing classes, the retreats in Fiji, the cowshed classes, because I learn from the students; I learn from teaching, from being asked to explain and to illustrate. My writing benefits from my talking, and my writing feeds my talking. But if I could feel way less pressured about having to squeeze the creative work into such small places, such exacting moments, I may feel happier more often.
I don’t think my creative work has suffered, but I have suffered. Talking to friends and peers, I know everyone has to struggle; poetry doesn’t pay. But those people who don’t have children (my fault, I know), or whose children have moved on, forget how hard it is, how beautifully but endlessly, ceaselessly demanding they are. They have a right to be: their life depends on reminding you that they need you and that they need you, preferably now, and preferably most of the time. You spend a village worth of emotional energy living in a family; in bad times, I think how much better I might spend it. On my sanity, on some public service, on some fresh stanzas. In good times I know I’m blessed.
Actually, I know I’m blessed, all the time. Maybe, I’m framing this the wrong way: artists are hard people to make families with: we are obsessive, poor, plagued by self-doubt, allergic to stability, moody. I hope mine survive me, and I thank them for keeping me on. My family is an aspect of the wealth of my life; it’s part of the richness on which my thinking and writing thrive; it’s part of the mess I feel in much of the time—some of which is what leads me to write and keep writing. But what am I, and what is my writing, to them?
I could give up sleeping and still not have time enough to write poems and books. There is always so much money work to do, and so much application drafting, emails, and all the rest of it. It can be the hardest work of all just clearing the desk and clearing your head to make room for the writing.
But writing is an addiction for me. Even if I wanted to let myself off the hook from writing, which would be a sensible thing to do for mental health and family relationships, I couldn’t. I guess there are worse addictions. But I find it hard to let myself sit and wait for new work to come. I feel less real when I’m not writing; I feel, like the wearers of the ring of power, a little stretched and faded. Poems and paragraphs are always making themselves up and falling apart in my head: when I’m teaching or walking the dog or writing the website copy. There are times these days I can’t slow the cogs that keep the thoughts turning and the phrases shaping. I’ve lost the younger man’s capacity to relax easily. The machinery wants to keep working, even though there’s no oil.
I’m doing some yoga and exercise to help work through this shadow side of creativity. I’m working out ways to soften my landings. And paradoxically, writing is one of them. Writing poetry, if I can just get to it, is a meditation. What maddens me, then, saves me.
No. That might be true for some people but not for me. I’ve always had a great deal of self-control and discipline, but I hate lack of freedom. I hate micro-management and imposed regimens. I don’t need people to goad me. I need people to let me know they value what I do, and to set me loose to do it. I’m the only project manager I need—indulgent and sloppy and eccentric, but ultimately reliable. I like so much the feeling of having gotten work finished, that I will always, as long as I can breathe, find a way to get to the poems and get them done. Until I’m done.
I write the way I do, which is close to my own life, not in order to advertise my life, but to save it. My work takes what I feel and fear and question and desire and transfigures it into something ordered; something way better composed than I will ever be. Like most artists, I question nearly everything; I ask big questions of myself and my world. I demand a lot of life. My work helps me make sense. Performing it has a healing medicinal effect that therapy might have for someone else. But if I had to choose between writing that saved me and writing that was good, I’d choose the second. Seems I don’t, though: writing well, no matter how hard that is, feels like living well, to me. I don’t need answers; it’s enough to frame the questions well.
So, I write to live. If I were closing in on fifty, and I hadn’t had the chance and courage to write, I would know I had failed to live the life gifted to me—no matter what else was good about that life. My sense of calling is so deep and insistent. Poetry isn’t just an escape for me. It’s where I do my deepest living. It’s where I am.
Sandra Hogan is a journalist and corporate writer, who is learning the art of fiction and memoir at Olvar Wood and is now a contributing editor to Perilous Adventures. Her work in progress, Spy for Daddy, tells the story of a girl raised in the world of espionage. The girl has learned the art of concealment as a child – and has to unlearn it as a woman. She has a website at Write Business.
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