Working with Words: Pip Smith

Pip Smith is currently poet-in-residence at The Lifted Brow. She has had her poems and stories published in HEAT, Meanjin, Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging, Island and Pan Magazine, and also runs the monthly short fiction night, Penguin Plays Rough, for which she has just compiled and edited its first book: The Penguin Plays Rough Book of Short Stories. She was a co-director of the 2012 National Young Writers' Festival, and has a chapbook of poems, How to Reason with Snakes, available through Picaro Press.

We spoke to Pip about battling self doubt, writing and publishing a poem a day this summer (at the Brow) and why the idea of turning your writing into a small business makes her vomit.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

I think I had a very earnest poem about capital-R Racism published in the school magazine when I was in Year Seven. Some obsessions, it seems, never change.

But the first piece I published that had any chance of being read was a short story called ‘Double Magic Girl, Pheromone Man, and the Many Half Lives of Madeline’, which Voiceworks agreed to publish after re-writing half of it (I think the original version had every section starting with a chemical equation of the half-life of uranium, but after checking the story with a Real Chemist, the editor found that none of the science actually made any sense). It was a weird, messy story. I am now trying to kill off the perfectionist in me, and reach back towards some of the energy contained in that messiness, even if the story was not super great.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Battling with my own self doubt. I’m currently undertaking a Doctorate in Creative Arts at the University of Western Sydney, which is both the most incredible opportunity (it’s basically a three-year grant to write that One Ambitious Project), and a terrifying attack on a person’s confidence. Every day I stare the fact I really have no idea what I’m doing, or where I’m going, right in the ugly face. This is made more uncomfortable by my constant and unnecessary reinvention of the wheel, and my stubborn refusal to model my project off anything that has come before. So I spend my days committing to chunks of the thing, when I know that there is an 80% chance I’ll have to throw that particular chunk out. But really, I love the challenge. So the worst part of my job is also the most invigorating. Right now, I am circling around the challenge by writing a poem a day for the Lifted Brow until summer runs out.

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

There have been a few, and I refuse to make them compete for your affections! So I will tell you about two of them:

1) The decision to do a M Litt (creative writing) at the University of Sydney in 2007. Not everything about the course was helpful, but being given permission to write, make mistakes, and keep writing was exactly what I needed to kickstart what has been six years of jerky momentum.

2) The residency I am currently doing with the Lifted Brow has been excellent. It came about quite accidentally one afternoon when I texted Sam Cooney with a pitch: would he let me post a poem a day on the Brow website throughout all of summer? He took a few hours to reply, and in that time I was worried he was flashing my text around, laughing at how narcissistic the suggestion was. Strangely enough when he did reply it was with an emphatic yes.

Not only has he let me post a poem a day, but he has been committing the poems to a rigorous editorial process, changing all my ampersands to proper ‘ands’, challenging me with his own suggestions (which I reject most of, but it’s good to be challenged) and giving me encouragement when I need it. He is the most generous of editors!

This random experiment has given me a kick up the backside, and has helped me let go of things I would have otherwise fussed over for a year. Posting links to the poems on social media has helped bridge the often gargantuan divide between writer and reader, and the speed with which the poems are accessible online means they can respond to current events as they happen.

It has me thinking about the gated community we often put poetry in. Journalists are expected to churn out articles on a daily or weekly basis. Why shouldn’t we encourage our poets to do the same? Imagine if Fairfax published a poetry daily! Reportage on factually true, subjective experience! That’d be so great. I’d actually read that, and not just pretend that I do.

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

Best advice:

Write because you love good writing and need to write, not because you want to get published.

Worst Advice:

Turn your writing into a small business. (urgh! vomit, vomit)

Don’t ever write dreams into a story. (WHY? Dreams are the best movies our brains can come up with in the dark. Why would we deprive our stories of such good material?)

Worst comment I have heard made to emerging writers:

‘If you write a bad cover letter, people will remember your name and you will never get published again.’ (This is simply hairy bollocks.)

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

The most surprising thing I have ever read about myself was actually said by myself, when, after giving a 40 minute interview, the only quote the journalist selected was something along the lines of ‘what the f*** is a real story anyway, man?’ I felt slightly ridiculed. By myself, and the journalist.

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

Oh so many things! Things I still want to do! Before I started this DCA I was teaching English as a Second Language at Sydney Uni, which is something I found hugely rewarding. More recently I’ve been thinking about studying medicine and researching mental health systems more effective than our own hulking beast choked on red tape. I’d also like to be a theatre director, or a foreign correspondent. There’s still time for all this, right?

If there isn’t, then I will take solace in the fact that out there in the multiverse infinite Pips are doing all these things and more. This way, I can keep this writing caper going until the scholarship and then the grants dry up, and I’ll know that the other fantasies are being taken care of elsewhere.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I think it depends on what you understand by the word ‘taught’. You can be self-taught, but even then you are probably reading articles about writing, or interviews with writers you admire, or are talking about writing with friends. Choosing to study writing is just like doing all of this in a structured environment where you pay for someone to invent tasks and deadlines for you. Some people (myself included) need this. I like being bombarded with opinions and ideas on how to capture the world on the page.

If you choose to study creative writing, you are also paying for someone more experienced than you to give you their honest opinion on your work. For this reason, if you choose to study, I think it’s really important to study under someone you respect, who both challenges you and is respectful of what you’re trying to achieve. I had this in Judith Beveridge, who read my poetry and offered considered feedback for three years. She helped bring out my own voice, and did not impose her own on me. For this reason, and many others, I think she is an exceptional teacher.

The downside of studying creative writing at university is the increased likelihood you may end up treading water in a kind of writing that does not reach out to anyone beyond the walls of a tertiary institution. I think all kinds of writing are vital and necessary, but I hate seeing brilliant writers never publish anything outside an academic journal. It’s like never leaving your desk for fear of not being understood by the outside world.

Surely this is why many of us write: to swim around in the world, to try to understand it, and be understood.

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

Write, fail and write some more.

Make the most of every opportunity.

Send stuff out to get published even if it isn’t 100% perfect.

Read at Penguin Plays Rough!

Always have more than one project on the boil, so that if something fails, it isn’t the end of the world.

Follow your pedagogical bliss.

Write about what obsesses you most.

Study and read what interests you the most at any given time, not what others tell you to study.

Sharpen your bullshit meter.

Always be honest.

Cut out all the frilly bits.

Know when your fears are getting in the way.

Stay open.

Don’t listen to people who tell you what their rules are.

Every writing rule has been broken brilliantly by someone, and if it hasn’t yet, it will.

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

Both! Most of the hardcopy books I buy are poetry books, and the only bookshop I’ve come across in Sydney with anything vaguely resembling a halfway decent poetry section is Gleebooks, but even they don’t have all the latest and greatest titles. It turns out to be much cheaper and efficient to order through Book Depository.

Otherwise, if I can, I always try and download an e-book version of a title. Books are chunky. I’m sick of losing them and lugging them around with me when I move. Unless a writer or publisher has made an effort to make a beautiful book that screams CHERISH ME, I probably won’t.

Also, you can highlight and take notes in e-readers, and travel with a gazillion books right in your backpack. E-readers make sense to me. The point, for me, is to absorb the ideas communicated by the writing, not to get nostalgic over objects, unless the object factors into the reading experience the writer is trying to create (Chris Ware’s Building Stories, for instance).

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

Ye gads. ANY fictional character? Um. The guy wearing the cape made out of radios in Donald Barthelme’s ‘The Dolt’? I would ask him how he wove the 200 transistors together, and he would probably respond by tweaking the knobs on his radios so that they said the words he wanted to say at all the right times.

OH NO WAIT! Orlando. I would ask her how she managed to be alive for so damn long, what was the Russian princess like in bed, and how on earth did she manage to change her gender without getting attacked by journalists at the Guardian.

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

I’d say the most significant works have been plays. Does that count? When I experience an incredible play, I feel high for days. Most recently I had that experience with Declan Greene’s Pompeii, LA.

It might be a bit naff and predictable to say so, but I think studying Shakespeare at school, and then playing Ophelia in Hamlet for the Australian Theatre for Young People when I was 19 were the most significant exposures to what written language can do to a person’s nerve endings. I love the irreverence with which Shakespeare treated the English language. If there wasn’t a word for something he wanted to say, he’d just make one up. In Hamlet, my favourite of his plays, there is a perfect synthesis between the wordplay he so clearly got off on, and a dark, existential current tugging at the words, which makes many of them still resonate with us today. There are still so many lines in that play that I turn over in my head from time to time. This is still so romantic, it gives me chills:

‘What wilt thou do for her? … drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile? I’ll do it!’

Crocodile? Why on earth was Hamlet thinking about crocodiles at a funeral in Denmark?

Shakespeare, your imagination is weird and I love you for it.

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