Sunday, November 16, 2014


How do I introduce John Foulcher? He is an icon, a luminary. So many Australians have devoured his work, hungered for more. My words here won't do him justice! 

I first read John's lyricism in the early 1990s. It made an indelible impression. I return to John's poems when I want to find serenity in my day. I also open his work up when my own writing seems rudderless, hollow, inadequate. John's writing is economic, crisp, honest, open to interpretation and deeply evocative. There is nothing sentimental or preachy there. When we digest a Foulcher poem, we immerse ourselves in so many wonderful things, find ourselves transported entirely. He understands the Australian people, he understands Australian landscape. 

John's poetry has been widely published and anthologised; he has published nine collections. From 1986 to 1994 several of his poems were set for study on the NSW HSC Syllabus. John has been granted four Australian Council Residencies, the most recent at the Keesing Studio in Paris during 2010-2011. He has a brand new poem in The Best Australian Poems 2014 through Black Inc. John has taught English to many students in Victoria, the ACT and NSW. 


Before writing poetry, what were you doing to make sense of the world?

That’s a difficult question. I wrote my first poem when I was about sixteen. Before that, the world didn’t make much sense at all; everything seemed like wind, and I had no control over anything. Poetry was like riding the wind – that sounds melodramatic but it was like that, initially. I suppose I looked to religion as well, or, more precisely, the story of Jesus. All that unendurable suffering at the heart of the story resonated with me, I think. I’ve always had a religious sense of life, though I’ve remained on the margins of conventional Christianity, occasionally falling off the edge. I’m not sure poetry has helped me make sense of the world – more exactly, it’s made the ambiguities of the world more bearable. Turn anything into art and it becomes more bearable.

What have you learnt about yourself and teenagers after many years teaching English in high schools?

I’ve learned we never really grow up, that the tempestuous concerns of teenagers are all our concerns. Familiarity, though, makes them easier to negotiate. I’ve learned that young people help you in seeing the world in fresh, invigorating terms. I’ve also learned that I never want to be eighteen again. Why would you go back there?

People are divided on their opinion of Canberra, where you now live. Why do you think that is?

When I first moved to Canberra from Sydney, many of my Sydney friends were, well, a little bewildered, I think. ‘Why would you want to do that?’ one asked me. ‘It’s the world’s largest lawn cemetery.’ I think there’s a kind of cultural cringe in that sort of response – ‘oh Canberra’s so boring’, that sort of thing, as if life only occurs in the freneticism of big cities. I hate the way people sneer at Canberra because it’s ‘sterile’. Interesting that many overseas visitors, many the ones without the agendas of youth, like Canberra. It’s a soft focus city, it has a calm. I think it also suffers from the conflation of government and place. I’m happy in a way, though, when people deride Canberra, and often agree with them – it keeps them away. Canberra, in a sense, is one of Australia’s best kept secrets. I like it that way.

You often return to the Snowy Mountains in your poetry. Is it the landscape in Australia that most impresses you?

That was a seminal landscape for me. I first walked the Snowy Mountains at a time in my life which was pretty difficult and it took me out of myself, my anxieties. Somehow, I think, the Snowy mirrored the barrenness I was feeling at the time, but it also showed me that the barren could be beautiful, breathtaking. It’s my soul country, and the contours of the soul are often pretty harsh.

In 2010 you had a rewarding residency in Paris. Could you live there?

Definitely. You never have only one soul place, and Paris feeds another part of my inner life. I love its sense of the past, and it has a spiritual underbelly I didn’t expect to find there. When we lived there, most evenings my wife Jane and I would go to vespers at a church called St Gervais-St Protais, in the fourth arrondisement. There’s a working community of nuns and monks there, and I’ve never experienced the depth of spiritual experience that I did during those chanted silences at St Gervais. I’ve come to think that all church services should be conducted in a language the congregation doesn’t understand. As soon as you understand, some fool will take it literally. The churches - that’s one great thing about Paris, though there are many others. Having said that, I found I missed space, the sky, expanses. I think I’d like to live in Paris for six months every year. The rest of the time, somewhere with a big sky.

What has kept you writing poetry since you were a teenager?

All sorts of things, I suppose. The less admirable reasons include insecurity, ego. But there’s more to it than that – yes, I suppose poetry does help me make sense of things, and there’s nothing so exciting as the feeling that you’ve created something genuinely good, or as good as you can get it anyway. The urge to create is one of the most powerful and fulfilling instincts we have, whether it’s poetry, a garden or making a kitchen. Poetry’s no different from all other creative endeavours – and, let’s face it, almost everything can be creative. I hate this ‘shaman’ concept of the poet – I think it’s nonsense, this idea that the poet is somehow a special being. A poet builds with words; a carpenter builds with wood. Each to his own.

Tell me about your relationship with John Knight and Pitt Street Poetry.

John and I have been friends since we co-led the Drama group on Scripture Union Arts Camp in 1973 – sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? We actually ran a magazine together in the mid-70’s about poetry and religious experience (a lucrative market!) called ‘The Eye’s Habit’. That was fun. I recall doing interviews with Les Murray and Robert Gray for that magazine, and both of those poets have remained lifelong friends. John and I went our separate ways soon after that – he to medicine, me to the classroom. But we remained friends, and, years and years later when John told me he wanted to go into publishing, I knew he would do a fine job of it. He’s a man of prodigious talent. When he asked me if he could publish my book, ‘The Sunset Assumption’, as his first book, I had no hesitation at all in agreeing. I knew John, and I knew I would be on a winner. Still, I expected Pitt Street Poetry to take years to get to the place it’s in now. Right now, I feel, it’s mounting a challenge to be the best poetry publisher in the country. Quite some feat in such a short time. John and Linsay are the best editors I’ve ever had. Without question.

What do you want your writing future to hold?

As I enter my sixties, I hope I can write with less attachment. I’ve always been subject to other people’s opinions, I think, far too much. In the past, I’ve needed the approval of others as justification to write. I don’t have that so much any more. I write because I can’t imagine life without it, and as long as I can look at my books and say, ‘That was the best I could do at that stage in my life’, then to hell what people think of it. I hold no illusions about my work, and couldn’t care less about ‘posterity’. It’s for now, here. As my friend the poet Steve Kelen once said to me: ‘Why write? Well, why breathe?’

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Welcome to Crux - Interviews with Australian Poets.  

In this first edition we meet Sydney's Fiona Wright. Fiona's multi-faceted work captivated me the moment I found it in Gleebooks. Her poems are witty, pithy and poignant. At the south-west Sydney high school where I teach, I recently set several of Fiona's poems for Yr 11 Standard English to study. The students found her poetry accessible and honest, and were most fortunate to have Fiona visit them. 

Fiona's work has been published in various journals and anthologies both here and overseas including Black Inc's Best Australian Poems 2008, 2009, 2010, Overland, Heat, Australian Literary Review and Going Down Swinging. She was runner-up in the 2008 John Marsden Young Writer's Award. She received the Dame Mary Gilmore Poetry Award in 2012 for her debut collection Knuckled. 


What was there before poetry?

For me, not a lot. I started writing poetry in earnest in my last year of high school, although I realised later on that I had been writing things that I didn't know were poems, of a kind, at least, for years before that. I kept it up through university, and started getting my first publications too, which was a blessing, really, because I was studying media with an eye to becoming a journalist (because what else do you do with good marks and an aptitude for English?) and realising very quickly that it probably wasn't the field for me. Instead, I started working on student lit-mags, and interning with a few arts organisations and I met people who were making a viable living as writers or editors or arts workers - a thing I'd never thought possible before - and so I set out to do so myself. Which has essentially been making it up as I go along, but I love what I do and I know how lucky I am to be able to say that.

How did poetry captivate you?

I hadn't read much poetry when I started writing, but I quickly found a few books that I really loved - the fierce and sexy Dorothy Porter; a feisty Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko - and that was it, really. There's an intensity to both of those poets - personal and political - that was really important to me at the time. I was a very intense teenager - I'd like to say that I've outgrown that, but I'm not sure that I ever did - and it was a rare occurrence for me to find that intensity matched. But I also found poetry a really playful form, or a form with a lot of room for humour and surprise, I'm still having a lot of fun with those things.

I've also always liked the way poetry so often resists the kind of closure you find in fiction, the way it's ok, or even better most times, to leave things unexplained and unresolved, the way so many things in our lives are. It's ambiguous and puzzling and contradictory, like people are; and that can be fascinating and incredibly potent too.

Describe your writing process.

I'm a scribbler. I'm always carrying around notebooks in my handbag, because I've found that I write a lot in my head when I'm walking, or waiting, out in the world. And during those strange times before falling asleep or waking fully. I always draft poems by hand and edit on computer, although it's the opposite when I'm writing prose. I've developed a really lovely habit over the past few years of writing mostly in the mornings, in a cafe, for a good two-hour block, as many mornings per week as possible. I find working in a public space really helps me focus (or that could be the coffee), and it's also great for eavesdropping and people-watching, which are two of my favourite things to do. And then the afternoons are for editing, reading, and planning. Some poems don't need much editing, others have to kick about for months, and be pushed through any number of different variations and permutations before they find their final form.

What did you most hope to achieve with your debut collection Knuckled?

The flippant answer to that is that I most hoped to have a book! I think most first collections aren't put together with a specific project in mind, rather they tend to bring together the material-so-far, as it were. And that is partly true for 'Knuckled.' But I also wanted to make a collection that had a strong voice and a sense of humour, and I was really intent on mapping as well. Most of the poems are very firmly about place and about the way places can carry stories for us, as sites of experience and memory and emotion. And of course, I was working a lot at the time with a writers' group in Western Sydney, a group that's now become the Sweatshop Literacy Movement, and we were all working on writing about the western suburbs, from the inside, and bringing that particular place into our literature more prominently.

Tell me about your involvement with Red Room Company.

I first got involved with Red Room through their Toilet Doors project, in 2004. It was a project that teamed up six poets with graphic designers and illustrators to make a series of posters for display on the backs of public toilet doors, instead of the ads for urinary tract health or gambling helplines that you're more likely to see there; the project really appealed to my sense of humour, and it was the first large-scale publication or project I'd ever been included in. After the project ended, I started working with the company as an intern, of sorts - I needed to do an internship as a part of my ill-advised media degree, and the company needed more hands, so it worked out quite well. Red Room is a really vital and energetic organisation, and I'd certainly never seen anything like it at the time; and because it was still quite small, I was able to be involved on all kinds of levels - from researching project partners to helping out at events, to media work, reading submissions, and, of course, meeting and working with the first poets I'd ever met. It gave me a great grounding in contemporary poetry, and really gave me the confidence to pursue my own work, which I'm still so grateful for. Red Room now runs a really great poetry education project alongside their other work, so I still get to be involved, sometimes, in their workshops and projects within schools, which is always a joy.

What have you learned from all your years in publishing?

I think there are two really important things that I learnt really quickly, which are essentially, don't take it personally, and don't be lazy. Don't take it personally I say because I've seen the other side of submissions, in terms of both how huge and competitive the slush pile really is, and how some of the decisions that magazines make about what is accepted and what is rejected come down to factors that are almost outside of the writing itself. By that, I mean that some decisions come down to themes that have become apparent within that particular issue, the number of pages still available, the fact that the gender balance might need correcting, or because they're not quite right for that particular publication - so some works might miss out by a tiny margin, and not necessarily because they're bad pieces of writing. 

Don't be lazy is also, I guess, related to the size of slush piles - because you're reading so much writing, as an editor, it becomes quite obvious that there are some little tics and tricks that writers fall back on when the work just isn't working, as it were. It gets to the point where you can spot a cliche in an instant - and of course, any kind of cliche isn't going to make a piece stand out from the huge pile of slush that it's been plucked from. I guess what I'm saying is that reading bad writing, or sloppy writing, really helped me recognise some weaknesses in my own work, and to work harder to overcome them.

What role does poetry play in Australia in 2014?

I think poetry is always going to be a small force, in terms of its reach and readership, but that doesn't make it any less vital or important for the people who love it and live by it. What I love, and have always loved about poetry is the strength of the community it has, how passionate and intelligent that community is, but also how generous and supportive it can be too, when it is at its best. I don't think poetry is ever going to be a commercial force, but in many ways, that is its very strength - it's a counter-narrative, and a thing that is always defiantly and even perversely itself. My favourite kinds of people are like that too.

Is Sydney your home for good?

That, I don't think anyone can ever tell! For good is a long and definite thing! But Sydney is my home, I love it here, and it's where my community is too. I love the way this city is so various, that it has so many little pockets and enclaves that are so different from the others, and that it's so fiercely tribal too, perhaps as a result. And it's beautiful, I love living in such a beautiful place.

When can we see another poetry collection from you?

I do have something in the pipeline, which will probably be appearing in early 2016, after I finish the PhD that it's a part of. In the meantime, I have a book of essays scheduled to be published by Giramondo next year, which I'm very excited about. It's a very personal little book, about illness and hunger, and about writing as well, really, and something that has been both exhilarating and incredibly difficult, at times, to write - and I'm quite proud of it as a result.