I’m tendrils today. Speak to me, I’ll write a poem. Show me the bark, I’ll plant you a tree. Crash me skyblue, I’ll comfort you a cloud. Stand at the bus reading a novel, I’ll oratorio right back at you in a strange and distant land she stood like no other fearless in the face of contumely. Take me to song and record a melody, I’ll be grounded. (Bullock 2016: n.pag)
This hybrid paper of creative work and critical reflections draws on my writing experience and recent poems, largely in the prose poetry form. I describe feelings of lack of identity, of failure, of sometimes being out of place in the world in the struggle to follow one’s vocation. My vocation is to write poetry. This doesn’t fit well with earning a living. I wanted to write from the age of ten. It was short stories at first, and then poetry kicked in at age 14, which I remember as the moment when I started to think for myself. The unhelpful advice of others attempted to steer me away from such a vocation. They meant well. They didn’t want to see me suffer. Teachers at school and older friends said that I should go to University, but they couldn’t give me a reason that I could relate to. I wanted to travel, and to read what I wanted to read – I had discovered reading for pleasure. There were no books in our house, and the fact that I was vaguely academic was a disaster to my family. Writing poetry made one even more suspect, and a sensibility that is perceived as too sensitive can be bullied or ignored. But this vocation is non-negotiable.
‘Poetry’ with an accent
It would help if poetry didn’t accost me before i got to my desk with a delicate found line if it didn’t ambush me as a i ventured to the fridge with an inspiring conversation if it didn’t crash my email before i had a chance to rave about what inspired me if poetry didn’t condense its energy into the lustre of the polished stone from Paihia if poetry wasn’t waiting at the bus stop at the lights on the bus in the shape of the old man with a triple comb-over.
I didn’t have any other ‘vocation’ to over-ride my real one. I went from dead-end job to another; green-grocer’s shop assistant, labourer, cleaner, kitchen porter and cook, orderly, nurse’s aide, support worker and caregiver. I once had a job peeling potatoes in a factory – it didn’t even pay the bus fare. The only jobs I ever enjoyed were daffodil-picking and busking. Oh to have the money in your hand at the end of the day ... If I did well at something and was offered a promotion I usually left within a short time. I had self-sabotage down to a fine art. More than anything this related to the mixed messages from my family: I had success and failure muddled. Whenever I came close to succeeding, I thought I’d failed. In other words, I wasn’t following my true vocation.
Creativity’s a wild pig that comes at you out of the bush when you’re isolated without a gun and uncertain of the knife in your hand. If someone were to control it, it would be a tame event, a habit. We die each day because we live. (Bullock 2016: n.pag.)
I’d always written, whatever the circumstances – sneaking into a cool room to scribble a poem whilst at work or going for walks at lunchtime to compose. I went to university at the age of 29. I divided my time between my official studies, reading contemporary New Zealand poetry (the University of Waikato library had almost every book of poetry ever published in New Zealand) and writing. After two and a half years of doing well, I still managed to drop out. The influence of Emerson’s injunction to burn down the universities was keen. A Professor of English told me ‘I don’t know how many poets the world needs’. The situation forced various personal issues and eventually I was re-admitted and completed the degree. I had also started to publish poetry.
My publications didn’t earn me much money, only a little recognition. I am not alone in this. The Department of Economics at Macquarie University’s research found that on average writers in Australia earn $12,900 per annum from their work (Zwar, Throsby & Longden 2015: n.pag.).
I wrote a poem in the late nineties about the effects of low-paid work:
I haven’t loved her right
only a romantic kind of love
a struggle to pay the power bill
to the last dollar
now she’s tired
and I waft
in a cloud of not minding
I haven’t got in
leveled the drive
or fixed the fuel gauge
it makes her worry she’ll
get stranded somewhere
I’d walk because
I’ve nowhere to go
no job or role.
the creative act
should be enough
but for some
writing is nothing
unless you succeed
everyone loves an artist, few
want to live with one
and I need
I need people
I need her
New Zealand poet Leicester Kyle told me this poem needed more artifice. He was one of several mentors who gave helpful feedback in that period of my work – Catherine Mair, Kai Jensen and Alistair Paterson’s critiques were also illuminating.
I started to publish regularly, and I went back to university to do a Masters. I was asked to teach creative writing. I declined initially as I held the belief that creative writing could only be generated by practice. The offer only came about because I’d published a good deal. I discovered that I enjoyed teaching, that it meant something, that students got published too and I felt proud of them, like a father.
For a long time, I could not bring myself to say that my vocation was a ‘poet’. I believed that name was given by others in recognition of certain skills, rather than claimed by the individual. Saying, ‘I am a poet’ was fraught with anxiety. This point of view also follows the influence of Emerson, who said, ‘don’t be a farmer, farm’. It has taken me a long time to free myself from idealistic beliefs.
As a poet, one is also a maker:
inspired by L.A. Hindmarsh’s self-exposure
I am not a beautiful man sitting in the garden of secrets with a tumbler of flower petals
I am not a castrated faun rediscovering Glam Rock with philanthropist overtones
I am not a swimsuit doubling for a parachute
I am not an emblazoned eagle ready to die for the burger stand that offers the best 2-for-1
I am not asking for more by wanting to give, wanting to create (Bullock 2016: n.pag.)
The desire to give attends the making. Perhaps there is recklessness in this giving. It’s a relief to encounter someone who is similarly artistic in their vocation.
Let someone else be crazy
I was starting to get jittery, back and forth to the printing room with slight but important revisions, to the balcony to read, the desk to correct, when a man came in, sat at a cubicle, talked aloud to himself, ran frantic to the printer, exclaiming yes, that it’s and fuck, and I got on with what I should have been doing, let someone else be the crazy one today. (Bullock 2016: n.pag.)
I use the word ‘crazy’ with fondness. It’s not difficult to see how the artistic personality disrupts the life of the artist, in close kinship with the way that poetry confronts order, the logic of language and even the idea of the State (Kristeva 1984: 80). The image of the crazy poet endures in some people’s minds, perhaps in my own. I’ve met a number of innovative poets who have been eccentric, abrasive or difficult.
Research suggests that some of the traditional stereotypes of artists and poets are justified, but makes subtle and positive distinctions between creatives and those suffering from mental illness. Poets and artists have high levels of ‘unusual experiences’, which is one of the four categories of schizotypy tests. They are in a similar range to a group reporting treatment for schizophenia but not as high as for bi-polar. At the same time, the test for lack of enjoyment or volition (introvertive anhedonia) is reduced markedly in poets and artists working at a professional level. It seems that engagement and success lessen the negative effects of psychotic tendencies in creative people (Nettle 2005: 886). The ability to have control over the creative process means that poets are not victims of their emotions (Takolander 2016, 7).
The topic of poetry and creativity is discussed as often in education and psychology as in the literary studies and creative writing disciplines. The comparison with play is a common one in the discourse on creativity. But play is not always facilitated by our institutions. It is has been noted that in school situations poetry is taught with a ‘safety first’ mentality, which fails to develop the individual’s inner speech, a faculty which aids resilience in the face of challenging situations (Myhill 2013: 104-107). Creativity is play, and play is messy. Play is also performance. I perform the role of the writer; accentuating performativity even seems to help me write, just as my performance in this paper helps construct the portrait of the vocation that I aim for (Pelias 2005, 415-421).
definitions of play
doing something that isn’t there; making it up, seeing what happens, for the sake of; inviting, inviting others to join, playing games, making rules, revising breaking rules, assembling, destroying; going inside, finding out who isn’t there, finding out a god isn’t there finding out; creating perceiving the world, translating self to outside and outside to self; following colours, sounds, the feeling of heartbeat, following sand on skin, milk on body, mud on face, piss on legs; telling lies, telling telling lies; not caring, climbing trees, jumping ditches, frightening the dog, tempting the snake, tempting fate, burning bridges; failing, it makes you. (Bullock 2016: n.pag.)
Writing gives one the luxury of formulating thoughts more clearly than the rush of conversation allows. Lafemina quotes William Stafford to the effect that the writing process is about working out what one thinks (Lafemina 2004: 1). Writing enables one to hone communication to a much greater extent than conversation. Much of the creative impulse is ruminative and undefined, with intense feeling dominating the emotional space one occupies when composing (Takolander 2014, 9).
creative (a shopping list)
write to defend yourself against the world
to make sense of it
to get over the angst
(where did that leap come from)
to indulge an ego?
to become part of a literary tradition
to earn a living
to teach to earn a living
to publish to teach to earn a living
to write (process) period<
If I think about the results of things too much – publication, recognition, payment, awards – the pleasure goes out of it. When I create plus nothing, I feel good. We work for the sake of the poetry, and we come back to needs. The contradiction: between the inherent impulse to write for its own sake, and the desire to earn a living from writing.
never wanted life easy
that would be a rip-off
sought the challenge of things
years to learn
in an emporium
I saw a sign
Aim for success
it’s still cooling
towards a chill morning
when I walk out
not into applause
but the knowledge
of a healthy bank account
Three years ago, I held down three jobs in New Zealand. Teaching creative writing part-time, doing freelance editing work, and caregiving. I’m now completing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Canberra. I am grateful to the academy; it gives me a place of belonging that I have never before encountered in my working life. The collaborations with staff and students have been productive and satisfying. Being surrounded by like minds and people with great vision and expertise is enriching. My PhD is by creative project and exegesis. Being accepted into the program is in itself recognition of one’s creative endeavours, and I have to say that it has been a lasting form of recognition.
The academy is a privileged place (and we should never lose sight of that), but most academics work incredibly hard. The PhD is a demanding task, but it’s good to be reminded of other more taxing situations. At a panel in Melbourne I heard Quinn Eades say of the PhD experience something like, ‘it’s hard but it’s not as hard as being a parent or selling magazines on the street’. Good advice. Of course, the need to publish research papers and to gain teaching experience adds to the workload. Doing a PhD alone isn’t enough to raise one’s chances of getting an academic job, as numerous Thesis Whisperer articles have suggested. But we are at least doing what we are interested in.
One of the most powerful tools of academia is the peer review process. To get expert advice on one’s writing makes a world of difference. Referees make a serious effort to help improve one’s writing and make it as good as it can be, which is the purpose of any editing procedure. There is an objectivity about this process which is admirable.
I have discovered that writing academic papers is also creative. I enjoy finding new ways to celebrate the work of poets, and to highlight their techniques. This feeds my concern with making progress as a writer; studies of technique will always be important to the practitioner.
the little girl points out
on Black Mountain
old guy –
resisting the urge
to untangle his braces
over and over
the bus is wobbly like a jelly
the driver’s tongue
going round the corner
people need space
her vibrant smile
leaps onto the bus<
(Bullock 2016b: 57-58)
One’s process is founded on observation. I have a ritual where, after noting any observation, I put the notebook away again. To keep it in one’s hand would be presumptuous. The creative pursuit must be a humble one.
notebook in hand (presumptuous)
a bottle of beer
in brown paper
a chocolate hazelnut braid 2pk
a weathered cake carton
an Oak carton
an ATM receipt
stuffed in the cracks in the seat
Writing matters to me at a personal level because the concentration on language for its own sake pleases my ear. It gives a sense of aesthetic joy. It offers comfort and consolation through that pleasure; the way a fine poem can ground one in the world is inexplicable. The inspiration one gains from a favourite poet such as Sylvia Plath makes an expansion of one’s own range possible. Hearing living poets read well completes the experience. Poetry satisfies many qualities of music. It also communicates philosophical ideas in palatable ways. The work of poets like James K Baxter has influenced my life for the better.
That poetry matters to society is obvious whenever there is a major occasion such as a wedding or a funeral. I have had the honour of being a celebrant at such occasions and know first-hand that the contribution poetry makes is deeply valued by the community. In the wider world poetry bears witness to the human condition and articulates its mores and beliefs, its talents and insecurities.
We peel the town together; I take walls, you, rooves. In one house a woman hasn’t spoken to her partner for four days because he shaved his beard. He didn’t understand the emotional security his appearance gave her; the decision was required by the casting director, a true come dream for him to be in a film. In another room a woman sleeps on the floor because her husband is prone to violent outbursts whilst asleep. We tire of our abilities and walk parks in the early hours. You say, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore, they all seem so sad, and like mirrors, and you worry ...’
We would all like to be held in esteem, to be honoured in our vocation. One observes the work of others in the community, beyond poetry, seeing the poetry in what they do and what they say:
He had a stroke last April, another one this month, but no seizures for a while. His mate’s there, making tea, fetching sandwiches. Nurses, managers, ambulance crew, cleaners, anaesthetists, surgeons ... circulate. Monkey could do my job, the orderly says. Couldn’t manage without you, mate. Well you take care, mate. Thanks, all the best.
At last, here comes a doctor.
Recognition takes many forms. I was delighted when one elderly reader told me she was planning to have one of my haiku included in her funeral notes. It was a poem I almost didn’t include in my second collection because some readers had previously found it too morbid:
dried leaves ...
am I delaying
(Bullock 2012: 45)
That haiku helped her express something, which is part of the community function of poetry, and her response is a significant form of recognition. It helps me value my vocation. It reminds me where we begin and where we end.
Bullock, O 2016 ‘Six poems’, Otoliths 43, http://the-otolith.blogspot.com.au/2016/09/owen-bullock.html (Accessed 31/10/16)
Bullock, O 2016b 5678, Canberra: Recent Work Press
Bullock, O 2012 Breakfast with epiphanies, Tauranga: Oceanbooks
Kristeva, J 1984 Revolution in poetic language, New York: Columbia University Press
LaFemina, G 2004 ‘Lab work: creative writing, critical writing, creative obsessions and the critical essay, TEXT: A Journal of Writing and Writing Courses 8:1, 1-7, http://www.textjournal.com.au/april04/lafemina.htm, (Accessed 13/07/16)
Myhill, D 2013 ‘Playing it safe: Teachers’ views of creativity in poetry writing’, Thinking Skills & Creativity 10, 101-111
Nettle, D 2005 ‘Schizotypy and mental health amongst poets, visual artists, and mathematicians’, Journal of Research in Personality 40:6, 876–890
Pelias, RJ 2005 ‘Performative writing a scholarship: an apology, an argument, and anecdote’, Cultural studies<=>critical methodologies 5:4, 415-424
Takolander, M 2014 ‘Dissanayake’s ‘motherese’ and poetic praxis: Theorising emotion and inarticulacy’, Axon: Creative Explorations 6, 1-12, http://www.axonjournal.com.au/issue-6/dissanayake%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98motherese%E2%80%99-and-poetic-praxis (Accessed 05/09/16)
Takolander, M 2016 ‘A dark/inscrutable workmanship – shining a scientific light on emotion and poeisis’, Axon Capsule 1: Poetry on the Move 2015, 1-10, http://www.axonjournal.com.au/issue-c1/darkinscrutable-workmanship (Accessed 08/09/16)
Zwar, J, Throsby, D & Longden, T 2015 ‘How to read the Australian book industry in a time of change’, The Conversation 14/10/15: http://theconversation.com/how-to-read-the-australian-book-industry-in-a-time-of-change-49044 (Accessed 10/06/15)