Plenty of writers have their peculiar requirements or rituals: I’ve always been particularly fond of the fact that Goethe threw the cores of his apples in his desk, and when he experienced so-called writer’s block he’d open the desk lid. The smell of these rotting cores would stir something in him.
I love to read about these things – when I was starting out as a writing I gorged myself on the Paris Review interviews. All those questions: when do you write? do you use paper and pen? Pencil? Computer? Do you cling to your Olivetti typewriter? Who do you read when writing? How long do you write? How many words? Pages? I read all these interviews and tried out the different programs, hoping that I could model my days on the days of favourite writers. Of course none of them worked.
Finding my own rituals was important. One of the sentences that was most useful to me came to me from Jeanette Winterson, when she said “I do not write every day, I read every day, think every day, work in the garden every day and recognise in nature the same slow complicity.” Over time I came to realise that that reading and thinking every day were the most important part: that days I don’t put pen to paper (I recently moved back to writing in pen after three years of writing with mechanical pencils; I prefer unlined paper, and only write first drafts on the right hand page, so I can redraft or take notes on the left) I’m still actually working on writing. Things percolate. I write both quickly and very slowly when I do sit down to it. Which, after all, would be more days on than off.
And as for the peculiar ritual? My equivalent of rotten apple cores? For me it is the colour red: I don’t know when I became aware of it, but at some point I realised that this was my stimulus to write. Of course it’s purely psychological—but so what? If I’m already writing often I can just continue on and it doesn’t matter what surrounds me. But if I am sitting in a café or at my desk and despairing, sure that I will ever write again, then I desperately look for something red to set me on fire. And so it is that red has found its way onto my walls in my new office alongside a selection of images that give me something to gaze upon when my brain is determined to stay quite dull, and spur me on to getting something done.
In his essay “Unpacking My Library,” Walter Benjamin suggests that the collector lives in the objects within his possession. I think that anyone who has experienced the collecting mania will recognise in this formulation some truth—and that this suggestion comes in the midst of an essay about his library makes it especially recognisable to me. I have long lived in a world of books, found my animation in the researches and inventions of others. When I was teaching writing at the University of Michigan, a perhaps inevitable question arose from one of my undergraduate students: how can a student of eighteen or twenty have enough experience to write anything? Besides assuring my students that both their imaginations and their everyday experiences would always be a worthwhile place to start, I said to them the same thing I am writing here: reading is a real experience too. I don’t care what anyone else says—I have been to Narnia. I have spent months of my life on Prince Edward Island. I have sailed in search of treasure, built shelter on an uninhabited island and duelled among brave (and occasionally foolhardy) men. Nothing can take these experiences from me.
I have this in my mind because I am in the process of moving and consolidating a library—one of a size that to be honest surprises even me (and I smuggled them into my house long after my father had suggested there was no more room for books). The sheer number of books surprises me because they have never all been in one place before: for four years I lived overseas. When I left Australia, amidst my array of luggage was a carry-on suitcase full of books. Each year I visited home for Christmas, and swapped Australian books for American ones; even though I brought some of the new books back home, I accumulated them at what in retrospect seems an alarming rate. When I moved back I slowly divided the pile into smaller and smaller segments, putting them in boxes as I could bear to turn away, and eventually donating approximately 50 to friends and charity. Now these foreign books have arrived on the Pacific Ocean and join their local cousins, which have been dwelling in boxes under, or on spare shelves scattered around my parents’ house.
The occasion for this movement is, of course, that I suddenly have an office: I’ve had offices before, but always shared with two or three other people, with tiny shelves and no natural light. Now I have a window, a desk, and a wall of shelves to myself for a year. As they come out of storage and move into my office, many meet for the first time.
While I am now trying not to go overboard—I have acquired them at an alarming rate!— books are a vital part of a writer’s working life. What I read will vary depending upon what I am writing, but I am always reading. And should a question arise, I want the right book near at hand to answer it.
Poets revel in the chance to celebrate: so much of what we do is solitary that whether its having a poem accepted for publication, seeing our books on the shelf in a book shop or finding out some grant or prize has come our way, we feel that all our solo toil was worth it and raise a glass in joy. And so, sitting on the front stoop on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, I found out the kind of news that instantly invites celebration: I am Sydney’s inaugural City Poet.
When I arrived home recently after graduating with an MFA from the University of Michigan, my mother asked me what I wanted to do next. I hardly dared say that I hoped my next move would be into this role of advocate-for-poetry. It’s the sort of job that, when it arises, you cross your fingers hard, while sensibly looking for other work.
I’ve seen the public poet in action in the United States: while living in Washington DC and studying at Georgetown I had many opportunities to attend events created by the poets laureate, and as a writing tutor at Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts I also had a hand in preparing students to prepare for the USA’s national “Poetry Out Loud” contest. In the town of Ann Arbor I saw large numbers attend almost-weekly readings. For all the doom and gloom types that constantly declare the death of poetry, I’ve witnessed poetry reaching a broad audience, and that audience relishing it. And while studying abroad I pushed Australian poetry onto American teachers, students and colleagues whenever I could.
To be the Sydney City Poet means, for myself, a lot of things: this is a chance to draw attention to the riches of Sydney’s cultural institutions and history through my writing. To engage in long discussions both with the Sydney literary set, and also the general public. To teach, sharing my belief that the best starting place in any workshop is a consideration of the pleasures of poetry. To highlight the work of Australia’s poets, past and present. To acquaint myself with Sydney all over again. And, of course, this opportunity offers the gift of time: every poet I know has had to hustle to get their writing done. Every so often we get to take a little time out—a grant year, a three-month fellowship, a week-long retreat—and those grab-bags of respite from so-called “real life” form a foundation for a lifelong commitment.
As the Sydney City PoetI personally would like to help dispel the notion that reading poetry is an elitist activity. There are places in which poets still play a huge part in cultural life; but even where they compete against football and movie stars, there’s still a persistent group of readers who hang on. Beyond these dedicated few, most people have a poem or two—whether from childhood, from their wedding, stumbled across accidentally or discovered in a lifelong dedication to the art—that they hold dear. I want to remind people of this, and that it’s fine to say it out loud. One poem leads crabwise to the next. Poetry is not, I would argue, a dying artform—though in Australia it is perhaps one in which many engage only furtively. It’s not merely the province of the eccentric, the scatter-brained, the desperate: love of our language and its accent belongs to all of us. And if you want to sidle up to me and shyly tell me, “I read poems sometimes” (even though you wouldn’t tell your mates), I’ll be glad to hear it—and gladder still if I can convince you to tell the next person you meet after me exactly the same thing.