Denise O’Hagan

Denise O’Hagan interviews poet Anthony Lawrence

Anthony Lawrence has published fifteen books of poems and a novel. His most recent collection, Headwaters, won the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry. Simple Things, a new book of poems, is to be published by Hunter Books in 2020. He is a Senior Lecturer at Griffith University, where he teaches Creative Writing. He lives on Moreton Bay, Queensland.

Denise:
When didyou start writing, and what first drew you to poetry?

Anthony:
Poetry found me when I was very young. Perhaps six or seven. I am the beneficiary of amnesia, so I can’t recall the finer details of where or when or how I came to write poems. I’m sure my maternal grandmother’s readings, at bed time, when I stayed with (them) during my father’s illness, had something to do with it. The book was called Come Hither, and one of the poems was ‘The Highwayman’ by Alfred Noyes. We can never underestimate the power of iambic pentameter when it comes to rhythm, imagery, and remembering. My mother has kept everything I wrote, over the years. There are shoeboxes full of envelopes, bits of cardboard, newspaper and even a cash register docket tape with poetry written all over them. Even then I understood that poetry doesn’t wait around for the right medium. It needs to be captured and recorded immediately. 

Denise:
Is there one particular subject or theme to which you find yourself returning?

Anthony:
I’m more concerned with the natural world in all its variousness than life in the routine world of human community. There’s no escaping that, of course. A love poem can’t always have its foundations in wooded terrain. I write a lot about the connection between landscape and human intervention. Frank O’Hara wrote that he couldn’t enjoy a blade of grass unless there was a freeway close by. I can’t enjoy suburban living unless I’m able to leave and be near the ocean or open farmland without having to drive all day. I’m interested in how a scene changes once someone enters it. This applies to protests against the growing number of endangered species due to habitat degradation to seeing a flock of short-billed corellas in a paddock. Once you enter that space, it changes rapidly from observation to interaction. The birds leave. There’s a Michael Donaghy poem in which birds suddenly take to the air. It’s not explained. You know that people have been shot, in a forest, during the war.

Denise:
What, or who, is your main inspiration behind writing?

Anthony:
For years I struggled with starting poems and maintaining the intense inner attention to see them through. About four years ago something changed. I think it began the day I made a conscious decision to write a sequence of poems based on the first thing that came to mind. It was a word: ‘button.’ I made a list of rules for composition:

* The poem could be no longer than an A4 page.
* The word button had to appear in the poem, but not as a central, driving motif.
* Association and peripheral vision were to be a priority.

I do believe that giving myself this odd task with its rules and guidelines unlocked me. I wrote a book based on this ‘exercise.’ It’s called Simple Things, and it’s due out in 2020.

Buttons

They taste worse than coins and were used in spells

as when my mother put a curse 

on my social engagements with girls. 

On a first date, stepping from the cinema, she failed 

to negotiate the toggles on her coat

and was taken by the need 

to perform public acts of intimacy, such as running 

her fingers through the flickering neon of her hair. 

I have a button with a wolf’s head 

set in pearl that I stole from a market in Wiltshire 

famous for its car boot sales and cider. 

I have tried wearing it like a brooch 

or badge, but the wolf’s ear rubbed my nipple raw. 

When made into a ring, it gleamed on my finger 

like a hallmark of melanoma. 

Now I wear clothes cut from one piece of cloth

and the wolf has a paper-clip 

holding its mouth together.

*

For the last four years or so I have not been sidelined by a barren writing time. I was used to the Muse
taking off suddenly for some nameless parish and leaving me with no need or desire to write. I couldn’t compose a shopping list. I’ve been working on poems, new and old, every day since I began that one-word exercise. It is, of course, a blessing and a curse. We complain if we’re not able to write, and complain when we can’t stop. It can be exhausting.

The poetic impulse is a fascinating thing. It might come (as it often does) from reading a line of poetry that lights the fuse. It might appear as an image during a walk – the particular way shadow falls over a stone wall. Here is how Derek Walcott began his poem ‘Cul De Sac Valley’:

A panel of sunrise
on a hillside shop
gave these stanzas
their stilted shape.

Despite the frequency and variety of the impulses that summon me into the ineffable, there is one constant: it is always an emotional rather than critical response that drives me onward. It begins somewhere in the chest and spreads. So it becomes a physical response as well – blood flow, the pulse, the workings of the body to make and break the lines. It’s all about rhythm.

Currently I’m co-writing a long sequence with the poet Audrey Molloy. It’s an exciting project. We respond as lyrical interlocutors, finding magic and grace in each other’s ‘letters’ and extending the work into unpredictable, often deeply surprising areas. It’s a curious correspondence because we’ve never met. We have our love of language, and the wizardry of our combined imaginations to help us navigate the lines.

Denise:

Which poets have exerted the most influence over you?

Anthony:
It’s a very long list. Here are some of the poets whose work has influenced how I read and write:
WB Yeats, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Ted Hughes,
Sylvia Plath, Richard Hugo, Philip Hodgins, Judith Beveridge, Les Murray, James Dickey,
Derek Walcott, Lucie Brock-Broido, Sharon Olds, Don Paterson, Simon Armitage, Robert Lowell. 

Denise:
When you’ve finished a poem, what is your editing and reviewing process?

Anthony:
I edit and revise as I write. I tend to treat each sentence as a poem, crafting it and teasing its imagery and rhythm into a form I’m happy with, before moving on. This means I almost never have any idea about where I’m going or what the poem means. The writing itself informs me of this. I can be well into a poem and still not know what I’m doing. It’s never troubled me. There are architect poets who need a solid ground-plan from which to work, and there are those who walk out and throw a handful of seeds at the earth and wait to see if any of them take. I’m more of an organic gardener who is into companion planting, in the dark, then tends to the growth of what’s emerged until it’s mature. Writing poetry is always an adventure. Finishing poems is always hard. You have to fight the urge to wrap things up neatly: drum roll, curtain down. Like many fine movies, sometimes an ending might seem wrong or inadequate because questions have been left unanswered, but what’s not been solved or stated implicitly can linger, even burn, long after the final scene or stanza. 

Denise:
Do you have a particular writing routine? How do you balance work and personal time?

Anthony:
I’m fortunate to have a job where reading and writing poetry are central to its list of responsibilities. I teach Creative Writing and Writing Poetry. I’m aware that many academics find the demands of teaching and research interfere or even wipe out their creative output, but that’s never been an issue. After a day discussing and reading the poetry of Galway Kinnell, say, I’ll come home lit-up with the need to get back to a poem. I came very late to academic work. It’s a great job for a poet.

I write wherever and whenever the need takes me. It might be ten minutes in a cafe that will lead to a few hours later in the day. It might be an all-day session worrying and teasing a poem into shape.

Denise:
You’ve always been an avid reader. What are you currently reading?

Anthony:
Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s The Orchard, Nick Laird’s Feel Free, and Paul Muldoon’s Frolic and Detour.

Denise:
How does the success of your publications and public accolades affect your creativity? 

Anthony:
The effects on creativity can be seen in the number of poetry books I’m able to buy if I win an award, which is always good for the work. Reading feeds and nurtures everything to do with composition. Apart from that, nothing changes. I wrote in isolation for over ten years before my first book was published, and during that time I was only concerned with getting things right. It’s still the case. 

Denise:
As an experienced teacher of poetry, what role do you feel poetry does, or can, play in our society?

Anthony:
Reading and writing poetry can open us to the marvellous in the commonplace. It can help us see the world anew. I suggest that my students might like to leave their phones at home next time they go for a walk. Unplugging the ears from a playlist and lifting the eyes from a Twitter feed can offer unexpected amazements. Recently I asked a tutorial group if anyone had stopped to watch a bird or pair of birds at work in a tree or on the ground. What species? Colouring? Environment? No one could discuss it. Poetry can be a potent platform for protest and political dissent. It can also be a wonderful vehicle for celebrating rites of passage. Memorising poetry is a kind of spell that works on our brains and bodies and reminds us of the power of written and spoken language. 

Denise: Lastly, what advice would you offer to aspiring poets out there?

Anthony:
Read poetry. Buy books, ask for them for birthdays, Christmas, whatever reason or excuse you can come up with. Using a library is fine, but then you have to take the books back. Start your own library. Build on it. Carry a book of poems everywhere you go. Read constantly. It’s the only way we get to move beyond competency to the possibility of a striking, original ‘voice.’ 

Thank you!

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