Mark Tredinnick, winner of the Montreal Poetry Prize (2011) and the Cardiff Poetry Prize (2012), is the author of The Blue Plateau, Fire Diary, and nine other acclaimed works of poetry and prose. He is also a creative writing teacher and the author of the much-used writing guides The Little Red Writing Book and The Little Green Grammar Book.
Most recently, Mark is the editor of Australian Love Poems 2013 (Inkerman & Blunt), a collection of 200 poems by 173 Australian poets, including Les Murray, Judith Beveridge, Cate Kennedy and exciting new writing talent.
He shares his wealth of writing advice (and reflections on his writing life) with us.
What was the first piece of writing you had published?
I probably had a story or an essay published win the school magazine. I began to send short stories around to journals in my twenties, but I never heard back. Around 1993, I had an essay, based on some qualitative research I did as part of an MBA (on why people read), published in a journal of library studies; and a little after that, an essay on leadership found its way into the journal of the Company Directors Association. None of this counts; none of it’s poetry; none of it’s literary. But it meant something to me, and I can see the beginnings of my writing life in those publications.
My first poem was published in 2005. It surprises people these days to learn how late I came to poetry. Since 2002, I’d been starting a lot of poetry and finishing none. Finally I saw the first ever ABR Poetry Prize advertised (it’s now called the Peter Porter Poetry Prize) in 2004; I finished a poem (by 2 December, as I recall), and sent it in, and it was shortlisted. I didn’t win, which would have been too much to expect, but I got my poem published. My first published poem.
What’s the best part of your job?
Writing is work. It’s quite hard work. And beautiful. But it’s not a job. For a start there’s no pay and conditions. And although money comes in – royalties, permissions, prizes, grants, teaching fees, appearance fees, grants – because I write; although I believe we should pay writers far more than we do for what they do; although I like the cheques when they come in; and although I afford my life and my family’s life through what my writing earns … money has nothing, and should have nothing, to do with the making of a poem.
So poetry is work: it’s labour and it’s calling, it’s profession and it’s practice. A poet makes art, and art, though it earns money sometimes, is not really an economic proposition. The usual economic model doesn’t fit poetry. So you earn most of your money (such as it is) in other ways; you use the money you earn in other ways to fund the silence on which the poetry depends.
So I’d say the best part of writing poetry is the miracle that I get to do it at all. I value tremendously the freedom involved in, and necessary for, creative work. Long ago, I worked for organisations – as a lawyer and a book publisher – and I have tried to work more recently as an academic, and I found that kind of working life intolerably constrained. I’m a sociable anchorite, as I put it in a recent poem, but I have a temperament well suited to writing, to poetry in particular. I can sit with myself for hours on end; nothing in me craves the alleged sociability of the workplace.
When I’m not writing, I’m talking or teaching. I’m good with people, but I’m not especially tolerant or collaborative. Which creative is? You don’t become a poet if you need or want to workshop every phrase. So I love the solitude and the depth of living poetry allows – not only the writing that allows me to get done but the soul-making (as Keats put it) that entails. And I guess I love it when I hear from readers that something I wrote – a book, a poem, a line – has touched them, made life richer or clearer or more bearable. Poetry, like all arts, can evoke strong responses; when they’re positive, the ‘job’ satisfaction you feel is pretty high. It makes you feel you might be living the right life.
What’s the worst part of your job?
The price of creative freedom is insecurity – I mean mostly financial, and everything that flows from that; but I also mean that poetry is spiritually demanding and emotionally and intellectually taxing. So one gets to be exhausted and short-tempered and poor in spirits more often than one would like, and for no reason that counts for much to the rest of society.
What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?
The most recent poem that stays written nearly always feels like the most significant moment in your writing life. You’ve made a new thing; you’ve probably pushed yourself into new terrain; you’ve proved that you still have it in you (a constant doubt).
‘Career’ makes about as little sense for a poet as ‘job’. But if I were a product, you’d say I suddenly have decent brand recognition, a thing that’s only happened over the past two or three years. A dozen books and a few prizes have helped that; so have 20 years teaching writing; so have my three books on the writing craft, especially The Little Red Writing Book (2006), which is in its eighth reprint now.
Every book, every prize (large and small), and every class has helped my career along. But when, in 2011, I won the Montreal International Poetry Prize, at $50,000 the world’s richest and biggest for a single poem, two things happened. One was that something in me relaxed. If I had harboured a hope to see my work published and recognised by my peers (preferably in my lifetime), that hope had manifestly come good. A writer has never made it; the moment she feels she has nothing more to learn or make, she’s finished. But I do remember thinking: if I go down in a plane now, I will know, as I plummet, that in this respect at least, I spent my time well; I got some good work done. This shift inside has helped me take more risks and bear up against the inevitable despairs and disappointments since.
The second thing that Montreal did: it carried me up several flights in the tower in which contemporary writers dwell in the minds of people who care for literature at all. No offers yet from Alfred Knopf; but plenty of people, here and overseas, much happier to take my calls; and offers like the one that came to me this March to appear at the Oxford Literary Festival, where on a snowy day I met Seamus Heaney.
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
Best advice. When I was 18 and writing poetry that need to do a lot of growing up, a neighbour, James Tulip, said to me: you need to read some William Carlos Williams and some Robert Gray. When I was doubting my poetry, just about the time I wrote the poem (‘Walking Underwater’) that won the Montreal Prize, Kim Stafford said: keep doing what you’re doing. When I said to my friend, Judy Beveridge, one of our finest poets, ‘I wish I could write poems like yours’, she said: ‘no, we need you to write more poems that only Mark Tredinnick can write’.
Other advice from writers that helps me daily:
Norman Maclean: ‘All good things come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.’
James Galvin: ‘Write what you don’t know about what you do know.’
James Galvin: ‘You need to read Charles Wright.’
E.B. White: ‘Creative writing is communication by revelation; it is the Self escaping onto the page.’
William Faulkner: ‘I write to please myself, and I make myself very hard to please.’
Ernest Hemingway: ‘Never write anything the way you’ve seen it written before.’
Jane Kenyon: ‘“Snow blanketed the field.” Not good enough.’
Winston Churchill: ‘The short words are best, and the old words, when they are short, are the best of all.’
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself, or your work?
More than once – though less these days because my voice and forms are becoming more recognisable – my poems have been read blind (in competitions) as the work of a woman. I like that very much, but it’s a shock at first.
I was surprised to learn from one reviewer that I was Christian. It seems such a strange reading of my work – a misreading of a spirituality and mysticism.
I hear from time to time that I am too self-referential, and I probably am. But we are a long way out of kilter with our selves in Australian culture. I am one instance of life, of human life; my heart is any human heart; my life, any life. And I want to add, quoting Jan Zwicky (fine Canadian poet): If you cannot find the self, how can you ever give the self away?
Oh, I’ve heard some strange things and some mean-spirited things, but I tend to forget them.
If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
If I weren’t a writer I’d be leading somebody else’s life.
When I was young, I imagined myself living on the land, riding a lot of horses, sitting on a balcony in the evenings, listening to the night, smelling the earth and the coming rain. It never happened. An acre near Bowral and a studio in a retired cowshed is as close I was supposed to get to that dream, I think: I can ride horses, but I’d have been hopeless at mending fence and repairing pumps and anything much at all beyond the looking from the veranda.
There are many people in many jobs I admire, but I’m old enough now to know how few of those jobs I could handle. There’s just too little else I’m any good at. So I’m glad I can be a writer. Though, since this is about all I can do, I worry desperately when the words aren’t coming.
There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?
I’d sum it up the way Basho did (for life and for writing): Learn the rules; forget the rules. You can’t teach anyone what tale they need to tell, but you can teach them a lot about how to get the telling done. Authentically. Like themselves at their best. Suggesting you can’t teach a writer anything about writing is like saying you can’t teach a composer anything about music or composition – or a painter, anything about painting, or a dancer about dancing, or a lover about loving. A fair bit of creative writing, as in those other fields, doesn’t come naturally. It can be, indeed, it has to be, learned. And teaching it is one way to induce the learning.
Turns out that the art of getting out of your own way, so that you sound on paper like your own true self, is hard work, and it’s achieved by mastering of a bunch of disciplines. As in yoga or meditation, the purpose of the rules is not mastery of the rules. The purpose is to free yourself and your writing – from distraction and chatter and banality and superficiality. What you can teach, what no writer can do without learning, are the technical matters that have their equivalent in other human arts and sports and pursuits: sentence craft, the things White and Hemingway and Kenyon taught me; grammar and punctuation; the ageless elements of style; and in poetry several thousand years of wisdom about prosody and form, metaphor and meter, sense and sensibility and the music of speech.
Of course, you can learn it all from reading well and by trial and error. It’s how I’ve learned whatever I’ve learned, by the way. But it can be taught in books (like mine and the ones I read), and it can be taught in class. I’ve seen it happen.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?
All of the above. And: read a lot, and very widely and across all cultures, and start to notice what great writers do, sentence by sentence, line by line. Get outside: the human story is a small and beautiful part of the whole story, part of a much larger geography. Become place literate Learn the names and habits of the birds. Listen to a lot of music, especially Bach and Debussy and Beethoven and Brahms and jazz. Listen to how people speak. Make more drafts: eight, nine, ten … Practise tough love on yourself: be tender but demanding. Refuse all clichés: never write anything the way you’ve seen it written before. Gather as many words as you can. Verbs especially. Write with your ear as much as with your eye: how it sounds is what it is.
Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?
I get them wherever I can. I’m buying more and more online: you can be much more certain that you’ll find the kind of books I want online than in most bookshops. Poetry, especially. And anything more than a few years old. But, I love bookshops and buy lots of books there, too: especially when I don’t know what it is I’m looking for. And when I’ve left my shopping, as ever, too late.
If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?
It’s the writers I want to meet. Pasternak more even than Yuri or Lara (yes, even than Lara); Ondaatje, more than Katharine or Almasy; Tolstoy, more than Anna or Andre; Austen, more than Elizabeth; Fitzgerald, more than Gatsby; St Exupery, more than the Little Prince … But this is why I am a poet, I suspect. The stories are great, sometimes, but it’s the voices of the tellers I fall for – the language worlds the writers make with sentences, the country of their minds and hearts. And I lie: I don’t always even want to meet the writers, though many I would. You often get the best of the writer on the page. But since you asked about characters, I’ll choose Harriet Vane, from Dorothy L. Sayers’s mysteries, and see if she won’t leave Lord Peter for me.
What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?
Oh, this is way too hard. The list is so long I always forget what’s on it. But if you’re asking me tonight, I’m going to choose two books 20 years apart – Robert Gray’s New & Selected Poems from 1983 or so because it taught me what poetry was for; and Charles Wright’s Appalachia because Jim Galvin was right – I found the kind of habitat my grown-up voice needed to dwell in, when I pulled Charles Wright off the bookshop shelves in Eugene, Oregon in 2003.
I’ll choose different ones tomorrow: The Hobbit (the first book I read to myself), John Berger’s Photocopies, Milosz’s A Book of Luminous Things, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, Tolstoy’s War & Peace, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Anne Sexton, Rumi, Basho … Reading them, and a hundred equally important books took me apart and put me back together different, made the world wider and put me down deeper in it.
Mark Tredinnick is the editor of Australian Love Poems 2013 (Inkerman & Blunt), available now.
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