Monday, June 1, 2015


I've not met Rockhampton's Stuart Barnes (only communicated with him via emails and twitter). I'd very much like to. I think we'd have a good chat about poetry (surprise, surprise), layers to Australian masculinity and the evolution of pop and dance music both in Australia and abroad (topics we love). 

Stuart's highly engaging and refreshing poetic voice has both a beat sensibility and an academic feel - there's a looseness, or restlessness, as well as a great sense of purpose. The stuff of his work is snatched from pop culture, history, family, place... you name it. That's not to say it isn't original. Stuart's educational and entertaining poems get me researching, taking notes, telling myself I need to take more risks in my own writing.

Queensland's bloody lucky to have him! 

Stuart is a Tasmanian-born poet and poetry editor of Tincture Journal. In 2014 his manuscript Blacking Out and other poems was named runner up in the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. His first collection, Bend River Mountain, an anthology with Robbie Coburn, Nathan Hondros, Rose Hunter, Carly-Jay Metcalfe and Michele Seminara, will be published by Regime Books in 2015. He blogs at and tweets as @StuartABarnes.

1. What was there before poetry?

The consciousness of and fascination with poetry has always existed; the reading of and the tinkering with since childhood; the detailed re/arranging of for seven years.

2. Share with me a story or memory from your formative years.

Winter, a glass-door wood heater, my grand/parents and me, recliners, books.

3. How do friends and family help shape your writing?

From the beginning, and without knowing, my parents have helped shape my writing: my mother gave me picture books in my bassinet (the only distraction the rustling leaves of a nearby almond tree, apparently), a vinyl book at bath time and, when I was a little older, the How and Why Wonder Books, the Bible, a dictionary, an encyclopaedia; both read to me at bedtime. I’m not the first to say it: the key is reading, reading, reading. I’m grateful my parents insisted on it.
            As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Gwen Harwood was an inspiration, instrumental in my becoming a poet. At middle and high school I was fortunate to know a small group of passionate young men whose interests included architecture, film and music; one also wrote: he and I came equal second in what I think was our school’s inaugural short story competition. I was outraged: his was about catching rainbow trout, mine a man dying of AIDS. I still have that story, which borrowed heavily from The Cure’s ‘Pictures of You’ and Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’. Maybe that’s the origin of my interest in found poetry … My high school Literature teacher Amanda Jackson and English teacher Liz McQuilkin, also a poet, were very encouraging, as was Deborah Rechter, my first year Literature tutor at Monash University. That kind of support was/is wonderful, but it’s vital to nourish it. For many years I couldn’t/didn’t.
            Friends and family continue to help by reading and commenting on drafts and manuscripts, by connecting me with other poets (a couple of months ago a family friend’s brother put me in touch with Welsh poet Ric Hool, who generously provided invaluable feedback about a manuscript). Most recently they’ve been helping by inspiring: I’ve been working on poems about moments from childhood, poems written to the memory of my maternal grandmother, my favourite uncle, three friends. It has taken some time to be able to write about these much-loved people.
            Many years ago, to members of my extended family, uncles and male cousins mostly, writing was ‘a waste of time’, ‘a joke’, I a ‘freak’, ‘weirdo’, ‘faggot’, ‘big girl’, ‘wuss’. I wasn’t impervious to their bullying; I’ve always been determined; their aggression made me even more, I think. For a time I wrote for and with a strong sense of having to prove something to others.

4. What’s the most difficult thing about writing a poem?

Learning to let go of expectation, which aids determining one’s method: for some time I was heavily influenced by part of Ted Hughes’ introduction to Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems: ‘To my knowledge, she never scrapped any of her poetic efforts. With one or two exceptions, she brought every piece she worked on to some final form acceptable to her … Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.’ I first read this at 30 and placed on myself enormous pressures. Exhausting, yet necessary. 
            Once you’ve determined your method, which is always evolving, learning to accept when a poem’s not working. Learning to put it away—for a day, several, a week, half a year, seven. And learning—gasp—when to let a poem go, which might one day lead to a conversation about learning to let everything—it’s all illusory—go.
            Finally, learning there are no rules.
5. How do people react to you being a poet? 

Melbourne’s worlds away; there I was a very different person, a very different poet, so I’ll talk about my experience of Rockhampton, famous for its cattle farmers, FIFO workers and bewildered tourists. I love living in Rockhampton—the freedom, the proximity to the sea, the glorious, golden 4 p.m. light—but it is a bit of a crucible. The farmers I’ve met have been nothing but blunt: ‘All day all you do’s twiddle your thumbs, chew the end of a pen’: zero tolerance. The FIFO workers have been baffled (‘You make how little money, mate?’) yet respectful (‘Least you’re doing something you love.’). The tourists, most from Europe, have been pretty interested. A drawn-out ‘Oh’, often followed by ‘That won’t pay the bills’, is the most common response from some of the people who work in the local supermarket. The chap who runs the nearby post office is probably my biggest fan: ‘Are you a famous poet yet?’ every time I go in. ‘No, just here to mail a book to a famous poet.’ ‘Roses are red, violets are blue’ was never funny or clever.

6. You have a great love for British band The Cure. Share with me your favourite Cure lyric and explain its power.

I’ve admired The Cure since 1992: ‘Friday I’m In Love’ shimmied from a speaker during American Top 40 one Sunday evening (these days I can’t listen to the track, which swamped every restaurant, café and club à la ‘Glory Box’ and ‘Groove Is In The Heart’). ABC’s rage introduced the band to me in 1990; I vividly remember the ‘Never Enough’ promo: I was intrigued and spooked by Robert Smith’s bizarre and beautiful harmonies, his swooping guitar-like vocals, his alter ego’s black eye shadow and black lipstick (within a few years I was occasionally armouring myself with both). In mid-’92 I travelled to and through Russia with a bunch of Australian scouts, venturers, rovers and leaders; I bonded with T, a huge fan of The Cure who faithfully toted every album to date on cassette. By the time I arrived in Hobart a little over a month later I was smitten, bitten, hooked, cooked, stuck like glue …
            It’s not my favourite lyric (that might be ‘Fires outside in the sky / Look as perfect as cats’, for its absurdity; or ‘So I trick myself / Like everybody else’, a bit of a bowling ball in the stomach; or ‘Oh I miss the kiss of treachery / The shameless kiss of vanity’, for its guilelessness about desire and long-term monogamous relationships) but ‘I went away alone with nothing left but faith’ (‘Faith’, Faith) is the most persistent, the most insistent, and powerful for two reasons: it flays religion and embraces the spiritual. It closes an exquisite record: heavily layered synthesizers, atmospheric six-string basses, songs perfectly sequenced. Faith was written in church, where Robert Smith would ‘think about death … look at the people … [who] wanted “eternity”. … [He] realised [he] had no faith at all and [he] was scared. … [He] wanted to get at different expressions of faith, to understand why people have it, to see if it was a real thing’ (Ten Imaginary Years). As writing Faith spurred Smith to think about his lack of faith, so listening to this particular lyric spurred me to think about mine.

7. What’s your greatest writing accomplishment?

It’s not that I won’t—I can’t, I’m not hardwired to think of my accomplishments in terms of greatness. Three that come to mind have been incredibly encouraging: my first published poem; shortlisted twice for the Newcastle Poetry Prize; my manuscript Blacking Out and other poems named runner up in the 2014 Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize.

8. If you had an hour with one Australian poet - living or dead - who would it be?

Dorothy Porter: I would love to talk about Akhenaten.

9. Where will the future take you?

My first poetry collection, Bend River Mountain, an anthology with Robbie Coburn, Nathan Hondros, Rose Hunter, Carly-Jay Metcalfe and Michele Seminara, will be published by Regime Books in 2015. I’m taking my time with another project. I’m looking forward to this year’s Queensland Poetry Festival. Really, I’ll be happy if I can continue to do what I love: write, edit, read.

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