Working with Words: Luke Beesley

Luke Beesley is working on his fourth poetry collection, American Typewriter. His third collection, New Works on Paper, was published by Giramondo in August this year. Luke is currently one of our Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellows.

We spoke to Luke about the ‘hysterical popularity’ of poetry, loving his publisher, and learning how to live off very little money.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I had a poem published in the Brisbane street press, Rave Magazine, in 1998. There was a page called ‘The Rave Page’ that published 2-3 poems each month by young and emerging poets. It was when I met Brisbane poet Paul Hardacre, who was the editor of the page, and who was a little further into his career. You got a cheque for $30! My poem was called ‘Banality, Everyone is Using It’. The poem was about as good as its clunky title (I think I’d just learnt what the word ‘banal’ meant the day I wrote the poem). Paul ended up starting a press (Papertiger Media) eight years later and my first book, Lemon Shark (2006), was one of the first three books they published.

What’s the best part of your job?

I like daydreaming and a slow breakfast - I like the pace of a writing life. Before my partner and I had a child I used to watch a movie most mornings, over breakfast - that was pretty good.

Editing can be rewarding, too - realising you can strip a page of text down to one or two lines. I’m more disciplined, now, than I used to be. I tend to write most of my new work on 3-4 days solo writing stints in the forest, and its a busy but meditative time - I love it.

What’s the worst part of your job?

The hysterical popularity of poetry really erodes your privacy, you know?

But seriously thanks to funding and awards and fellowships and things I have stints where I can write full-time. But mostly it’s part time, with a part-time day job. I love the routine and immersion of full-time writing and the worst part - cue violins - is that I can’t always do that.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

The most significant moment - and I feel I have to pinch myself sometimes - is probably the publication of this book, my third collection, with Giramondo. I have loved Giramondo’s books for many many years. The books are lovely art-objects, and many of their writers - Gerald Murnane for example - have influenced me greatly. An Asialink residency in India, six years ago, also had a huge influence on my life and writing. I’m still writing and thinking about my time in India.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

David Brooks, in an essay which I think is called ‘The Blood of Jose Arcadio’ wrote something along the lines of - and there’s some shonky paraphrasing here - try writing like your favourite writers, because when you fail, which is likely, what you might have left is your own voice. I guess I’ve never consciously tried to write in the voice of my favourite author, but I like the freedom of the idea - to just write and write to discover your own voice. That your voice is a little unstoppable and out of your control and could be an accident.

If you weren’t a writer, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Sadly my dreams of winning Wimbledon faded quite quickly. Probably painting. Don’t laugh! I feel like a painter who writes poetry instead.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what do you think?

I see creative writing courses/classes as mentorships, really. I think people get confused and think that they are these classes were students are forced to write in a certain way. Most creative writing courses, I think, offer a place for feedback and mentorship, essentially, and that environment can help to nourish a writer. You learn the main parts of writing by reading in the genre you want to write in, and then going and writing a lot. I see creative writing courses as a space to advance the core writing skills which are gained by reading.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

I guess everyone’s different, but perhaps just read a lot and write a lot and allow yourself to develop a routine around reading and writing a lot and figure out how to live off very little money. Also, when you’re ready, somehow seek honest feedback. You’ll probably want to punch the person who gave it to you, at first, but you’ll eventually be grateful.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I confess to somewhat guiltily buying some books from that big crazy-cheap online bookshop - you know the one - but I buy a lot of local poetry at book launches and from local bookshops. I don’t have a huge budget for books (see advice about wanting to be a writer, above) so I borrow books from libraries, too. I buy more books than I used to. Physical books are very precious to me. I never read e-books etc and can’t ever imagine reading from a kindle or e-reader.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Perhaps Edith Wharton’s Newland Archer and I could go out for Vietnamese - Lam Lam in Northcote is good - and we could talk about that trip to Asia that he was contemplating. Or we could just chat like dilettantes and make each other feel cleverer than we really are, talking about art very broadly and in a melancholy way. I wouldn’t tell him I named my band after him. We’d both find that pretty embarrassing.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

My first real experience of literature came quite late, really. I was 21 and more and more interested in words – in the lyrics of the bands I was into Pavement, Silver Jews, Sonic Youth - which lead me to a copy of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It floored me. Those long, beautiful, rhythmic sentences. I guess in hindsight the first novel to seduce me could have been any number of stylistic literary novels, but I had that novel with me while I travelled all around Europe for a year, and I wanted to stop people on the street and say listen to this sentence! That brought me to literature generally and Michael Ondaatje’s novels and eventually the first poetry book that I ever loved - Ondaatje’s The Cinnamon Peeler - which I found after returning from Europe.

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