The Poetry Kit

Brad Evans Interviews Peter Bakowski

Peter, can you tell me a little about the experiences in your life before you wrote poetry?

I was a great reader of books, probably from the age of eight. Before that, I had this coloured children's atlas and I fell in love with the map of the world. Later, in my early twenties, I decided to go travelling and I read books like Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road'. The two combined and I think travelling was when I blossomed as a poet.

Was there anything else you read from other poets?

I arrived at Kerouac first, probably at the age of eighteen, and Charles Bukowski was about three years later. At first I found some of Charles Bukowski's early stuff too avant-garde and I came back to him later. What I got most out of his writing was the clarity. Using simple everyday words to say something.

How old were you when you first read Ginsberg?

At eighteen. It seemed really to coincide with adolescence where you are looking at yourself and the future, there's that getting your own set of values and questioning the status quo at the time. The Beat generation certainly did this during their adolescence.

Was there any sign of Beat generation in Australia and with Australian Poets?

Not that I was aware of. I think I became definitely quite fixated with North America through television and the literature. I really looked to American writing from this century, I found myself a lot of great inspiring literature.

Was North America the first country you travelled to?

I did the usual thing that Australians did in the late seventies. You tended to make your first pilgrimage to London, which is what I did. I was really influenced by 'On the Road'. I eventually took my first opportunity to hitch-hike around America and did that several times. My first chap-book, which is out of print, actually details a really long hitch-hiking journey I made around North America.

What was the name of your first chapbook?

It was called 'Thunder Road, Thunder Heart'.

Oh yes I've seen that mentioned in the preface of In the Human Night.

Oh, yes, that's right, yes. It came out in eighty-eight, but it is now out of print.

Right. How did it sell?

Good. It was a limited edition of three hundred and printed on really beautiful paper. Theoretically it will be a collector's item in twenty years.

Did you sell those in Melbourne?

Yes. That was before I went touring.

Was there anything inspiring about your experience in London?

I think London got me interested in writing about the idea of loneliness. A lot of reviewers mention that I write about this. I found London a really hard, lonely place and it sort of forged me as a poet. I mean some of the early poems that I had written there no longer exist because I think the poetry was a bit too miserable. It was 'I don't have a girlfriend' type of poetry and the dark, grey side of things has always interested me. My parents say, well why don't I write more cheerful poetry, but I just say well I write more realistically.

Was your writing inspired by the Beat poets or was it developed over the years?

I didn't like the avant-garde aspect of the Beats. Some stuff I found gobbledegook. like parts in Kerouac's 'The Dharma Bums' which were a bit tedious. His chanting of Buddhist mantras gave the reading a bit of a hard slog. I suppose what the Beats did was write as poets of the time. Allen Ginsberg was a particularly nostalgic poet. There's an enthusiasm that comes across in him and the excitement of the times, but there were also casualties of the Beat generation, where people died from drug experimentation and things like that. Ginsberg was a great chronicler of his times and in a similar way, I am interested in what it's like to be as a human being of the nineteen-nineties.

How do you define a poem? In your view what makes a poem?

All my writing, all my yearning to be creative comes out as poems. People ask me if I write novels and short stories and I just say I can't. It comes out in poetry form. I like this form because of its succinctness and directness and I sometimes compare it to painting, because I sometimes feel that I paint with words. It's also a lot like sculpture to me where you start off with a line, maybe that line is a bit too flabby and so you chip away until you've got the line right and when you finally round off and complete the poem, it is like a piece of sculpture. Where you first started off with a square, unattractive blob is now a beautiful form.

When you are thinking about writing a poem do you find things that inspire you?

Yeah, I often think of ideas brewing in my head. I always carry a notebook in case I just get a line and I want to write it down. Sometimes when I'm just going to sleep, an idea will form and I try to write it down in that instant. In the next morning, the line may not seem as good as you thought it was and so your scrap it. To me it's like a magpie process. Magpie finds bits of foil, candy wrappers and matches and uses them all eventually. I have the same process.

When you feel that you have written a good poem, do you share it with friends? Show it to people. Or do you just keep it to yourself?

I test the waters with it and quickly send it out to a magazine, that is what I do straight away. I tend to send it to magazines. I might write a certain poem, such as a semi-humourous, wacky poem. There's certain magazines around the world where I think that poem might suit, so I send it off to them. Sometimes you need to be detached from a poem, you might at first write it and think it's really good and then you'll send it off and it'll come back rejected and you'll know it needs a bit of fixing up or you'll think 'boy it wasn't anywhere near as good as I thought it was'.

During your childhood education, did you have much interest with poetry in the curriculum? Did you find any poems in the school curriculum that you appreciated?

The only poem I really remember liking from high school was 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock' by T.S. Eliot and we studied that and I quite enjoyed it but it didn't make me, then and there, decide to be a poet at all. Outside of school, I consumed lots of books and as I said probably from the age of eight I really loved reading and avoided some of the books that were set in high school, particularly 'The Leopard' by Giusseppe Lampedusa. I just didn't want to read that at all. English remained my best subject at high school. I actually failed my HSC and the only subjects I passed were my English ones.

What experiences have you had with media concerning poetry?

I've appeared on TV reading poems and it was broadcast quite widely. I've also appeared on a lot of radio. In terms of criticism, In the Human Night has received quite a few reviews. Hale & Iremonger did a good job with that. It's had a sterling review in Southerly but it got quite a roasting in Quadrant. I try not to pay attention to reviews. Certainly I'll receive critical comment through editors and when I submit a poem they might say 'I think the poem should have ended three lines earlier' or 'I like the poem except for this stanza'. They'll make specific suggestions and I think it's important not to be a prima donna when people suggest changes. I mean some poets would say 'this poem is perfect I would never change a word of it' but the editors are being honest; they're not being spiteful and it's really important to pay attention. In terms of censorship nothing like that's happened. I mean in certain political situations, in other countries, poets actually get imprisoned for what they write. Here, in Australia, this hasn't happened to me. I tend to write about universal, personal subjects rather than overtly political ones.

In your book, 'In the Human Night', you tend to have humanist themes. Are these themes in your mind when you first write the poems?

There's a poem in 'In the Human Night' about tramps 'Broken on the Wheel of Los Angeles' and for them I don't offer a happy ending. Many tramps die of the cold, exposure or drinking methylated spirits or whatever. But for the other poems there's what I call a philosophical shrug. In my own life, I always try and rely on one's inner strength and that's what I encourage in the listener. A lot of our misery is misery in our own heads, our self-opinions or whatever. We paint a very grey picture of a certain time. We're not actually physically starving or homeless or without clothing, so there's a lot of emotional deprivation that we tend to get into a mental rut. In some of the poems, I suggest getting away from our own introspection, where sometimes that can be a bit of a millstone.

I remember a poem in particular that I enjoyed called 'The Jaws of Factory' and it was based on your experiences in factory work. Can you comment on the poem?

Well, I went to work in a twenty-four hour bakery in Melbourne and the experience quite scared me. I'd just been to high school and I didn't want to stay in this factory forever. I'd seen people who'd been there for twenty-five years and it was a very sobering experience. I saw that some of the people were trapped in the factory and it might have been through gambling, drinking, or maybe they just wanted a flash car. You've really got to use your brains to not become a slave to the factory, because it took a real physical toll on you and theoretically in twenty-five years time you were doing a job that a mechanical, robotic system will hopefully take over.

Do you find that overseas publishers accept you more than Australian publishers?

You have to study the market and you'll find in certain magazines that you will develop a relationship with an editor and he or she will either like your work or not. Once you've broken down the door, the editor tends to become more sympathetic. There's some great editors overseas, people in their late sixties, who have been editing poetry magazines, or the one poetry magazine, for over thiry-five years. It's important to see if your voice can appeal in other countries and I do believe that I'm talking about universal themes, so I don't see any reason why Australian poetry cannot appeal to a magazine in another country.

Do you find that the attitudes to poetry differ overseas to Australia?

I find that American poetry is more contemporary. In Australia there's still this thing where we feel that a poem has to refer to nature or the Australian landscape and an extreme example of this is bush poetry. In reality, Australia is one of the most urbanised countries in the world and the bulk of us live in a big noisy city with traffic. If you look at a lot of our poetry magazines, they don't reflect the urban, modern life enough. I prefer to see more poems about traffic jams and cafes than poems about billabongs or sunsets.

In your new book, 'The Neon Hunger', your poems appear quite dark in mood. Do you see much hope in those poems than those you wrote for In the Human Night?

In Australia there is a lot more violence now than there ever was. All you have to do is pick up newspapers and there's desperate poeple out there. 'The Neon Hunger' is very much about the pressures on a human being. Pressures that can create a desperate response. Many of the poems in the book are actually about criminals, or if they're not specifically criminals, the characters are very much predators. So it's a reflection of our cities. I mean I find Sydney a much more predatorial city than say Melbourne.

What guidance would you offer a person who has just started to write poetry?

Writing a poem means that you are trying to say something and to give a poem its impact you need to get to the point relatively quickly. If you have all this floweriness in what you're trying to say, you can dissipate the poem. Just remember that you are trying to say something and so you ask yourself what it is you're trying to say. And you say it clearly, strongly and as refreshingly as possible. A poem has to be truthful, it has to be your truth of how you feel and then in a natural way it will be strong and powerful. The other advice is to realise that writing is hard work. You need to shape each poem until it is strong. Sometimes I think that working a poem is like building a bridge and checking each nut and bolt on the bridge and making sure the spans are as tight as they can possibly be.

© Brad Evans, Peter Bakowski 1998