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Working with Words: Samuel Wagan Watson

Read Wednesday, 17 Sep 2014

Samuel Wagan Watson is an award-winning Indigenous poet and professional raconteur. Born in Brisbane in 1972, he is of Munanjali, Birri Gubba, German and Irish descent. Samuel’s first collection of poems won the 1998 David Unaipon Award. His fourth collection, Smoke Encrypted Whispers, won the 2005 NSW Premier’s Award for the Book of the Year and the Kenneth Slessor poetry prize. His latest collection is Love Poems and Death Threats.

In a delightfully innovative response to our usual ten series of questions, Samuel has written a thoughtful and enlightening piece that answers them all, and traces his development, inspiration and approach as a writer: being inspired by Marvel Comics, falling into poetry, weird critical responses, and his background as a working-class writer within a family of writers.

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Thank you for sending me these questions because your timing is brilliant! I’m currently a writer-in-residence at the University of Canberra; Faculty of Arts and Design, and I’ve been answering questions like this all week in these awesome surroundings. The air is chilly but the environment is incredibly warm. I’m not sure if it’s the spring wattle blooming everywhere, like the sun started dropping bits of skin into bushels of trees, or that maybe this academic environment is spiked with an air of truth serum, because I’m feeling completely honest at the moment.

Poetry is not my passion. Poetry is simply the only component of my writing that is apparently viable for publication. My prose, in the early 90s, was simply ‘terrible’ according to the editors of some of Australia’s leading literary magazines. The first short story I had published was back in 1983 in an anthology of the best writers in Queensland primary schools. The editors of the anthology, though, felt my work was also abysmal. My teachers at the time kind of agreed, but I was the only kid in that senior year who kept a journal.

The best thing about being a full-time writer is that my environment changes weekly and I have the opportunity to meet and work with people who are at the coal-face of our industry. This week I’m in Canberra and the positiveness of the faculty stands out in the students. Everyone here has a manuscript in progress. This faculty’s staff are mostly working-writers who seem to have a literary life away from academia. So, I’m blessed to be in such a place.

Which leads me, mid-way into answering a question, to look into another question… Can writing be taught? I don’t believe it can be. You either inherit the skill or you are mentored. Mentoring is very different from teaching. Here at CU, there seems to be more of a taste for mentoring. I’ve spoken with young writers who carry an air of someone who has been nurtured and not indoctrinated in the ABC’s of Shakespeare!

The worst thing about my job has struck me while here, though. I’m a freelance writer, which means I’m basically my own boss, which means that I do struggle a bit compared to a salary earner. And no one whom I’ve worked for in the last month has paid me yet! Usually when I’m broke, the old-school working-class spirit that I was born into makes me put the pen down! Here though, I’ve been well kept and have seriously put some dints into reams of paper with a fine-point pen.


So, the interrogations here have been wonderful. Everyone keeps asking me how I write and I tell them honestly… I don’t know? The only book to have ever made a true cognitive smash to my cranium was a Stan Lee/Marvel Comic back in 1988 – The Punisher War Journals! I was a kid who was finally handed the keys to the sacred chest of creativity. I spent a good deal of my meagre fortnightly wages in Brisbane’s comic and music stores. I also remember bringing home a copy of The Dead Kennedys’ Holiday in Cambodia. I was like Dr Frankenstein hiding in my room with headphones on, covertly conducting dark experiments of creativity.

I grew up in a relatively cool household, so I don’t know why I felt the need to hide my music and comics from Mum and Dad. Dad is a published author and playwright and my sister is also an award-winning writer of crime fiction. Back when I was a kid, though, in a working-class high school, we were taught that anything artistic was effeminate and a trait within yourself to be ashamed of. That’s probably the worst advice I’ve ever been given by a so-called teacher.

The best advice that I received at that time was to keep a journal and to this day I’d have to say that it has helped me maintain a good pace in the writing game.

I wouldn’t even start to contemplate how to live my life in another way though. Between 2008 – 2010, I suffered a couple of brain haemorrhages which left me partially paralysed for around six months. And even though I couldn’t speak properly and had to learn to hold a pen again, I never once thought that the game was up! I perceived my predicament as a ‘holding-pattern-phase’ and an obstacle that was just in the way of writing another manuscript. I could still type with one finger, so I could maintain my work as a copywriter in radio. I got better … fathered a beautiful little boy … and published another manuscript. At the time it seemed like the only sensible thing to do.

When I wrap up my residency here at CU, I’m flying home to Brisbane and jumping on a boat to North Stradbroke Island. My brother has become chef-de-cuisine in a nice little place overlooking the Pacific. To research my next book I’ve volunteered as his dishwasher for a week. So who knows; when the writing ends, I could have a great career as a kitchen hand?

My diary for the next year is almost full and I wouldn’t mind lending some more hands-on work in my role as an ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, which is an incredibly cool cause. (I think I learn more from the kids about my writing than they learn from me?)
And I think, even as an established writer, that it’s healthy to keep learning. I wasn’t ready for university when I was in my 20s and basically I’m ashamed that I wasted the time of the English department at a university whose press now publishes my work. The ethic here at University of Canberra really impresses me and I feel I am ready to achieve a degree and hopefully become a qualified mentor in creative writing. Mind you … I’m still to find a writing style of my own that I can be content with. And that is a warning to other aspiring writers – You all have the ability to become your own worst critic!

While we’re on that note, the weirdest thing a critic has ever said about my work is that one of my poems ‘clearly illustrated my sexual ambivalence’(???) WTF? I wasn’t even getting sex at the time when I wrote a poem about the sad remains of a crow on a stretch of desert highway in rural Queensland. Do I have any sexual ambivalence now as an established writer … I still don’t know.
So to wrap this up, I’m not a literary gourmet, I’m more a gourmand, and would put a comic book before me any day over Tolstoy. I like bookstores and dislike the way e-books have really wrecked a few of my own books for the audience, as my poetry is lineated differently on a Kindle.
If I had the chance to catch a hearty meal tonight, on one of my last nights in Canberra, with any of my favourite characters, it would have to be with Bender from Futurama. I’d take that Teflon-coated sinner to a bar where all of Canberra’s right-wing journalists drink and spur him-on to ask them all to kiss his shiny metal ass!

Amobarbitol has been used by certain governments and regimes as a psychoactive medication to obtain information from subjects who are unwilling or unable to provide information otherwise. My last piece of advice to writers is that you don’t need anything to capture an audience but pure, fresh ideas and that an audience needs to be listened to … in our game, the customer is always right!

Samuel Wagan Watson’s latest collection is Love Poems and Death Threats (UQP).

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.