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?’