Paul Magee interviewed Samuel Wagan Watson in September 2014 at the University of Canberra. Samuel was poet-in-residence at the time, a guest of the university’s International Poetry Studies Institute. Two of Sam’s hosts, both working on PhDs, are referred to at the end of the interview, Paul Collis, a Barkindji man, and Wayne Applebee, who is Kamilliroi. Samuel Wagan Watson’s publications include Smoke Encrypted Whispers (2004) and Love Poems and Death Threats: A Collection Of Poetry (2014), both published by University of Queensland Press. The interview was recorded as part of the Australian Research Council funded project (DP 130100402) Understanding Creative Excellence: A Case-Study in Poetry.
What would you describe as your key points of connection to the world?
Every day I wonder how I connect to the world. I am forty-two years old. I remember the night September 11 happened. I never thought I would see that. It was not a world that I knew, even though I had grown up with surreal figures in my life—the Muppet Show, The Bionic Man—from popular culture. But seeing a plane driven into a building—I never thought the world I was in was capable of that. I think I have quite a romantic connection to the world: through sunsets and butterflies. I prefer to live in a world where there’s tranquillity and goodness when you reach out for it.
You have described points where you do not connect with the world, or where there is a mystery. Does your poetry arise from those moments?
I am still trying—after a lifetime of being a storyteller—to define what I do with words. I do write from those moments of wonder. My first reaction might be sceptical. But then I will hit the journals and that sceptical moment will become a micro-concept, that I will write into.
But really, this question about connections makes me reflect on how insular my life is as a writer. I work from home now: I go out to the shops, I go for a walk, and I pick up the kids. Maybe once a month we go to a friend’s place for dinner. As a kid I was so active. I was into surfing. I was into living outdoors. I knew the world a bit better then.
A number of your poems seem to come from the experience of exploring the world when you were younger.
I remember being so tiny I could stare at the ants in the grass and map out their navigation for myself in the backyard: where to run, where to play without someone standing on me. It is sad to think that you lose that when you get older.
So many things take over: sex, money, politics. I started getting into really serious relationships in my thirties. I remember buying trees and pot plants once, and they died on the front veranda. As a kid I would have cared so much about those little things. I mean, I really love gardening now that I have my own children. I make a day just to be in the garden. But you go through that silly stage where you forget about the world: it is all in here [gestures]. The world is in your head. It becomes all about you.
This question is going to make me be a bit more interactive with my world when I get back home. It will play on my conscience: do not drive to the shop. Walk and look at a tree that you have always thought about when driving past.
The internet definitely takes you out into the world too. I know poets who have not been able to go back to their homes in Kosovo and elsewhere, due to fighting in the Balkans. There is a big Balkan community in Brisbane, with a lot of really talented writers. They knew people who are lost—their country was lost—and they could not go back. Yet they wrote beautiful poetry about their grandfather’s patch of land, about things they only knew from Skyping with family. We are seeing a generation of kids who know more about the world that way than by going into their backyards.
So does the place where you write matter to you? Does it affect the poetry you produce?
I find I love having distraction. When I was a kid, I thought you needed solitude, and cannot have noise. But the older I get, the more I realise that it does not have to be Shangri-La. The sound of the traffic can be good. I like to leave the front door open when I write. Then I can look down the corridor of the house, and see when the postie is coming—I like going out to my postie and saying g’day. Their jobs are getting phased out, the old Australia Post delivery guys. I depended on those guys when I was emerging. I would wait every day for that letter that said, ‘Yes, we are going to accept your poems’.
So, yes, place is important. A good writing space is important: I like to share it with people now—as long as it is good, healthy interaction. There is a mental health to writing. If there is someone in your space who is not particularly positive, it will affect your writing. I also think—I don’t have a romantic notion of this at all—you should go on a road trip.
And do your writing while on the trip?
Yes, take your journal and get out. Sometimes your own space can get stale. If I have a week where the writing is not paying off, when no one is returning my calls, I can get a bit cagey. It is really nice then when my son says to me, ‘Dad, can you drive me to the North Side?’
I’ll be, ‘Right, let’s jump in the car, let’s go for a cruise’—go down streets that I haven’t been on since I was his age.
What about your experience of writing in other places? For instance Canberra, where you have been writing this week. Is writing a totally portable activity for you?
It is so low maintenance. My laptop died. I came down here with paper and pen. And I have done so much work here. I am knocking over a couple of thousand words a day, words that I will use. I wrote a good article for the Wheeler Centre this morning. I have been thinking up material for the Literacy Foundation I work for too. I’ve come up with some cracker ideas. When I get home, the next writing workshop I do, I want to go to Bunnings, buy a stack of sandpaper and just throw it on the students: ‘Let’s write poetry on sandpaper. How do we do it?’
On the sharp, or the smooth side?
The sharp side.
That’s working with place, working out how to do that.
I am going to do that when I get home.
If you had to describe yourself as a particular sort of poet, is there any label you would be happy with?
Labels are a funny thing. Once a week I am introduced to an audience as ‘one of Australia’s leading indigenous poets’. Am I? Am I really? I don’t know. I like the term ‘textual practitioner’. My publisher is very supportive, but if I was not coming up with the goods, they would not be. And if I am not producing every day, am I really a poet?
Auden says we are only poets in the moments we are writing great poems.
Only at those moments?
And he says a moment later comes the thought, ‘Will it ever happen again?’
Probably once a month we go to a Sunday afternoon barby at someone’s house. My partner is a filmmaker and she loves introducing me as her partner the poet. People say, ‘Oh, a poet. Well, give me a poem’.
And I say, ‘No, well, it doesn’t work like that, dude’.
Then they ask, ‘You really do that?’
I say, ‘Yeah. I jump on a plane and go to Sydney, and do this. Or I go here and do that. I’ve gone to gaols and worked with people there’.
They reply, ‘I thought a poet was some guy that sits in a little dark room and listens to Nick Cave and smokes a cigar and drinks a bottle of wine and has all this anger at the world’.
I might have acted like that, when I was younger. But it is not really productive. I am a productive person.
So the label you are most comfortable with is writer?
Writer, textual practitioner. But even then, if I go a week and no one returns my calls, if I have not made anything off my writing, nothing has come in, then I do not feel like a writer. It is when I get that phone call, or that email saying, ‘Hey, we want you to write this’, or ‘Here’s two hundred bucks, to write a thousand words’—then I feel like a writer.
That is to talk about your writing in a professional capacity.
As a job.
What about if you received a letter from someone saying, ‘I really loved your book’, or ‘I really loved this poem’? Isn’t that going to make you feel like a writer too?
If someone wrote me a letter to say, ‘I really liked your work’, then I would become their audience. I would want to know who this person talking to me is. When I am on a signing table and someone buys my book, I want to know why. What are they going to do with the book when they get home? Are they going to do some writing themselves? ‘How much writing and reading do you do a day?’—I ask them that.
There is a beautiful, symbiotic relationship between author and audience, that you really need to follow up.
I have met and made friends with people whose books I have bought because I think their writing is really good. Those writers turn out to be totally different to the people I imagined. You sit down with a good book and you really embrace it. You embrace it so much it gets dog-eared. You are waking up next to it in bed. You get intimate with this book—and then you meet the writer and they are a totally different person. You really do not talk a lot about writing. You talk about fishing or sex, partners, the relationship troubles you are having, where you went last summer on holidays.
Sorry, I’ve probably gone off topic.….
But is the reason that those conversations drift away from writing because writing is a job, and we don’t want to talk about our jobs too much?
Encounters over writing can be really special though.
You brought up a poem from the Boondall Wetlands Project the other day: I was at the Brisbane Writers Festival just before coming here. I met this old bloke, who is a poet himself, and a teacher. He gave me that poem. He actually quoted it to me, knew if off by heart. He said he teaches that poem to his kids. He thinks it is my best poem.
It’s a beauty.
The funny thing is, I rushed it. I rushed it, because it had to be finished. We were on print. So that’s why it is called ‘Poem 9’. The body of the poem was right. But I didn’t know what to call it.
The first couple of stanzas are particularly lovely: the line breaks really capture the sense of someone thinking, then and there. The poem is spiritual, but without implying that anyone out there, a God or whoever, might actually have the answer. That’s why I like it. But how do you think about it?
As a kid I was always told that on country you do not hurt a tree, you do not hurt anything, because it will come back on you. I have new cars at home, I have a nice house—it’s not flash, but it’s nice. I have technology. None of this matches the power of spirituality, on country.
I was brought up a Catholic. I did mass every Sunday, and communion. I was an altar boy. I really had the fear of God in me at times. But I also remember my pop, my father, and my grandmother saying, ‘You have to respect country, when you are on it’.
When I was writing that poem, what came to my mind was a time when I was in my teens. One house in our street had a Rottweiler, always locked up because it had bitten someone. I was out with my mates, riding our B.M.X. We came across a carpet snake that had been hit by a car and we were teasing it a bit.
I thought at the time, ‘It’s not good, us doing this’.
I was riding home and someone had left a gate open. That Rottweiler came out and bit me. Not badly. But it gave me a good enough scare that I fell off my bike. Someone from another house then chased it off.
Twenty minutes before, I had been poking a carpet snake. We should have gone to someone and said, ‘Look, there’s a beautiful old carpet snake there that’s hurt’, Or at least gone to get my Pop. He probably would have put it out of its misery, poor thing. But no, we tampered with it.
So I thought, ‘This is total Karma’.
That is why I asked in that poem how we know, when we stand on a mudflat, that we are not hurting something. That has always been in my conscience when writing: if I am living and thinking and moving through a piece of country, why would the tree next to me not be thinking the same thing as me? Where is it going to get its next meal from? Is tomorrow going to be a good day for it?
I am not trying to be New Age. It is just something I have always grown up with. It just seems natural to me to think this way.
Is this sort of thinking often behind your poetry?
Often. Places carry scars. I always try to get that out in my poetry. There is one poem—every month I am one word closer to finishing it—which I started writing in a place called Barrow Creek, that’s north of Alice Springs. It is where the backpacker murders happened. And an incredibly brutal massacre happened there in the early twentieth century. It is a really scary place. You feel the hurt of country there.
There is a pub, in the roadhouse there. The local farmers and police got drunk on rum, and then rode out and killed the tribal members of the Waramu, and other tribal people that were living along the Coniston River. For two weeks they went up and down that river bank, slaughtering anyone they could find.
You feel it there, you really do feel it, without anyone telling you. It is really bad country.
There are all these mesa formations, and honestly, if there is an acoustic resonance of the shots and the screams of those people being massacred by drunken buffoons, it is there in that land.
Acoustic resonance is something I want to do research on. I want to think about the extent to which country, or even made forms, can carry the acoustic resonance of something that has happened.
The Boondall Wetlands poem we were discussing feels like it does.
Dad was one of the chief surveyors of the North team for the Gateway arterial, so he worked on all that stretch. He used to say, ‘I’m walking through country. I’m sure I’m walking somewhere where I shouldn’t really be walking’.
But he had mouths to feed. He was on a job, working for one of the biggest road companies in Australia. They are mathematical thinkers, these engineers. Dad has an engineering mind too. But he also has a very spiritual mind. And he is a fantastic raconteur.
He would get home, so knackered after a day working on the road, and he would tell us things: “We had a bushfire today. And a big black snake came out. And I looked at that black snake and he looked at me. Then he went away.”
Dad taught us how to feel country.
What about finishing such a poem? How do you know a poem is finished?
I don’t. I have absolutely no idea if it is finished. It’s like that Lennie Kravitz song, ‘It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over’. You could write our discussion up tonight, and someone down the track might pick it up and say, ‘Paul, I want to turn this into a public art piece’.
It’s not over till it’s over. I keep that in mind with my writing.
And when you publish a poem and a guy comes up to you at the Brisbane Writers Festival ten years later and says, ‘I’ve learnt this off by heart, I teach it to my students’, that poem isn’t over yet either, is it?
Still going, still being thought about.
It is a weird thing: you asked me to read that poem yesterday, and only a couple of days ago that guy recited it to me at the Writer’s Festival. But I had not looked at it for years. That has happened with a bit of my writing. Years later, it gets turned into other things.
The poem that you read to my class yesterday, ‘Visiting Hours’, had a real impact on the students. It had a real impact on Paul and Wayne as well.
Yes, Paul kept talking about it, about the notion of the prison cell.
I would say to any emerging writer that anything you write, that gets out there, has the capacity to evolve down the track, and come back and bite you. It will come back and bite you. You will think you are finished with that poem but no, you are never finished with it.