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Interview: Anthony Lawrence

Anthony Lawrence has published thirteen books of poems, the most recent being The Welfare of My Enemy, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Judith Wright Calanthe Award and the Age Poetry Book of the Year Award. His books and individual poems have won many major awards. He teaches at Griffith University, Gold Coast, and lives at Casuarina, NSW.

Work with Anthony @ QPF 2013 in his one-off workshop Thinking Poetry (Fri 23 Aug, 10.30am – 1.30pm, State Library of Queensland: tickets available online).

Catch Anthony performing on Sat 24 August in Towards Profundity @ 1.30pm

Anthony, although you’ve traveled extensively, and no doubt been inspired by the landscapes of other countries and cities, your poetry has at times been described as ‘coastal, salty and intrinsically Australian, detailed with a clear and elegant evocation of both place and character’.  What is most important to you when developing the theme and rhythm of a poem?

The most important thing for me while working on a poem is to believe that, at any moment, something miraculous will happen. There are never any guarantees. Magic happens when belief in the common and the sacred are aligned and given equal weight. The pen is only a wand in the hands of those who understand that a map, a compass, are useless. Wide reading is the closest we get to proving that a diving rod really does tremble then bend towards water. Reading poems that light us up, inside and out, gives us the need and desire to press on. Reading the work of others is essential to the preparation, development and cultivation of the ground inside a poem. And companion planting is always best. I rarely have a theme in mind while working on a poem. Some poets write a draft quickly, blackening a page, throwing everything that comes to mind at the paper, leaving nothing to chance: hair, spittle, blood, the rags of prayers, broken glass… and then they go back and winnow the chaff from the grain. I’ve tried this, but I find he process confusing and exhausting. Poems come word by word, line by line. I can’t move on until what has surfaced has been tested, repeated, read aloud, shuffled around, broken down, put back together then rebroken. And then, when I have what feels like a poem that’s close to its end, the process begins again, on a larger scale. Line-breaks are reworked, the shape, on the page, begins to announce possibilities. Stanza form or open plan? Mostly, as a poem develops, the shape will become evident. The rhythm will largely dictate how the lines fall. But we can manipulate lines until they crack under emotional pressure, offering variations. Line-breaks are dangerous beasts. We think we have them under control, yet for every firm decision there is a force at work, cutting ties, nibbling through the restraints that keep a stanza tethered. There is a book, A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, edited by Emily Rosko, where seventy one poets have written on the line-break. It’s an amazing book. Black bed time reading. The stuff of nightmares. I’ve taken the scenic route, with scant regard for paragraphs, to say that my poems develop their rhythms and ultimate form organically, and slowly. We can talk about form, content, technique, craft, but in the end it all comes down to how a poem is made. Each stage is hard on the ear and eye, the hand and the tongue.

We owe it ourselves to be brutal, not just hard-arsed editors. Poems write themselves, and we direct the action.

Dreaming in Stone was the first of your many collections, published in 1989 after receiving an Australia Council literary grant.  Was this opportunity the catalyst which has led you to a career of writing and publishing poetry?

Receiving an Australia Council Grant in 1989 was a huge relief. It meant that I was able to dedicate all my time to writing instead of finding jobs, mostly involving manual labour, to pay the rent. I’d been writing, without any interaction with other poets, for many years. My first poem was published in New Poetry when I was eighteen, and that inspired me into believing that one day I’d publish a book. I’d always written. Friends tell me now, that when a teenager, at someone’s house, I’d hunt down a typewriter and click away for hours. It was something I felt compelled to do. I didn’t know any poets. The first real poet I met was Robert Adamson, and then, around the same time, Judith Beveridge. Then the world of poetry opened up, and I threw myself into it, head-and-heart-first. I started sending poems to magazines, going to readings, and talking to anyone who’d listen about who I was reading, and why it was important. Things haven’t changed.

Who has influenced you the most in your poetry and literary pursuits?  

The major influences to my poetry have been other poets: Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Adamson, Judith Beveridge, Philip Hodgins, Seamus Heaney, John Forbes, James Dickey, Philip Levine, C.K. Williams, Sharon Olds, Leonard Cohen, Wallace Stevens, Richard Hugo, Charles Wright, George Mackay Brown, Kay Ryan, Geoffrey Hill, Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, Paul Muldoon, August Kleinzahler, Gary Young…

Other main influences are being able to read the formation of a beach. Lately, watching the resident pair of Brahminy kites on Casuarina beach. Having my fourteen year old son come to live with me has been a major source of inspiration, for everything, not just poetry.

I’m really looking forward to your performance at this year’s Queensland Poetry Festival.  Can you give the readers a teaser of what we’re likely to expect from you?

As for my poetry reading, I will be reading new work, from my forthcoming book ‘Signal Flare’, due out from Puncher & Wattman later this year. This is book has been six years in the making, and I feel confident that it contains my finest work.

With the poetry workshop at the State Library, I want serious poets to immerse themselves in the serious business of craft, in being able to fashion amazement from common ground.

Interview by Lee-Anne Davie