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Working with Words: Corey Wakeling

Read Monday, 13 Nov 2017

Corey Wakeling is an Australian poet and academic based in Japan. His second full-length work of poetry, The Alarming Conservatory, is out in February. He spoke with us about Eileen Myles, grease traps, alternative realities and weeping for Wolverine.

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Photograph of poet Corey Wakeling
Corey Wakeling

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? 

A comic. There was this elaborate story arc in different X-Men comics called the ‘Fatal Attractions’ series, about the utopian Acolytes’ plan to make a mutant Avalon, damaging the bonds of trust the X-Men had achieved so far between mutants and humans.

During the conflict between Avalon-affiliated and X-Men-affiliated mutants, Magneto tears the adamantium from Wolverine’s body. Wolverine hangs in the air like some Stelarc installation.

Something Sophoclean about that, and the pathos I felt, inspired by the classical brutality of the story. I remember crying weeks of tears into my pillow.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

In Year Eight, I wrote a war narrative with florid descriptions of futility to please an English teacher I adored. Later, I wanted to write in the ways paintings pictured. Visual arts provided tools for understanding phenomenological contingency: I could see as an adolescent these developments of medieval symbolism, Renaissance humanism, realism, impressionism, Fauvism, abstract expressionism, Pop and so on. Ekphrasis was very important to me, long before I learned what it was. 

Poetry is underrated. Read poems.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

My parents worked in the hospitality industry. I began working in the hospitality industry from the age of 14. I worked an afternoon shift the day before my English Literature exam, for example. To really know the means of production, one learns a lot from visiting the grease trap. The influence is enormous, sickening and inexplicable.

This 13-year experience, preceding the teaching career I have now, means I resent the lack of political value the service class has in Australia. This means I also envy poet Eileen Myles talking about accent and the working class; service class people either succeed at being bourgeois, or do not. Unless you’re a chef, there’s no trade to show for it either. The jobs I’ve had make me highly sympathetic to Robert Walser’s works, Der Gehülfe [The Assistant] and Jakob von Gunten.

Being a lecturer hardly influences my writing at all, and that is what is wonderful about it.

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

If I wasn’t writing, I would likely exist as an alter-ego whose interest in literature would be less than now also, if only because my interest in writing really stems from an adoration of the radical contingencies of written works. I might also not have moved to Melbourne and/or wouldn’t have done postgraduate studies and thus would not have become an educator.

Therefore, if not teaching, I’d probably still be in a band, or involved in theatre and performance. I’d probably still be flogging that dead horse, writing plays for the Blue Room in which I’m the sole actor or something similar. But those years before postgraduate studies instilled in me an obstinate idea that puzzling over language is a worthy pastime. So, all alternative realities seem to point toward the same labyrinth.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now? 

Maurice Blanchot sees the oeuvre as the work, not the individual so-called ‘masterwork’. Gertrude Stein seemed to work with this premise also. I basically subscribe to this attitude. So, no, I don’t keep a journal; that is, I don’t distinguish between occasional and serious writing. This desk, this laptop, this imagination, these thousand documents at any given time are choked with writing. A poem, or a procedure, or an essay, or a book – these are discretely edited micro-organisms from a blooming spew. Probably a lot of it is journalism.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

Poetry is underrated. Read poems.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

If I find myself in a weird, unergonomic or crippling position as I write, I prefer to stay there than shift to more comfortable postures. Literally, if I’ve moved the laptop to the floor to avoid a toddler at the table, I will not shift my position until what I intended to write has been completed.

To really know the means of production, one learns a lot from visiting the grease trap.

Then, having lost good ideas or expressions in those transitions in and out of sleep, I always write down what comes to mind before it’s too late during liminal states. No exceptions, except when I’m willing to let the idea go. Because the idea never comes back.

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

I’ve decided that it’s best to worry about all of my work in its afterlives of publication, rather than simply worry about any individual piece that I wish to change. It’s all worrying. Of course, when I get my hands on a piece again as an editor, I am Medea.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? 

I would talk about the future with The Protagonist from Samuel Beckett’s play, Catastrophe, at breakfast. If he invited me to listen.

I deleted about 10,000 responses that I developed to this question, with this response provisionally satisfactory. Consider this one draw from a mammoth card deck. I’m already getting bored of it.



Corey Wakeling’s poetry collection, The Alarming Conservatory, appears with Giramondo Publishing in February 2018.

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