Michael Farrell grew up in the timber/sheep/platypus town of Bombala, NSW, but now lives among the festivals of Melbourne. His books are ode ode (Salt), BREAK ME OUCH (3 Deep), a raiders guide (Giramondo), thempark (Book Thug), thou sand (Tinfish) and open sesame (Giramondo). He coedited (with Jill Jones) Out of the Box: Contemporary Australian Gay and Lesbian Poets (Puncher and Wattman), as well as editing magazine features for cordite, slope, Gutcult and ecopoetics. He was a recent commentator on Jacket 2, and has had poet residencies in Perth, Western Australia; Ljubljana; and Nagoya.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It gave me more confidence; I felt more visible. It gave me something I could give to people too. My recent work in some ways feels like the earliest poems in ode ode: the narrative aspect, also I've started counting syllables again. It's broader conceptually I think; the main difference between what I'm writing now and then is a milder tone, as well as more obviously, the use of caps and punctuation. I've read more Latin American writing, and that is reflected in what I've been writing recently.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I don't remember how I came to reading it. Writing - again, I'm not sure, I remember composing in my head around seven or so; and also, a practice I returned to as an adult, of using the tunes and ideas of songs - except when I was young it was Catholic hymns.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I rarely take notes. I have composed poems as notes. I usually start and finish quickly; though I've notice lately a tendency to not finish things, that perhaps will be completed later - but maybe not. I don't think of myself as writing drafts, though I make little changes. I'm not of the silk purse polishing school.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I'm definitely not a book project poet. Poems usually begin with a title .. though again, that seems to be changing a little, I think lately I've been starting more poems with a line. Sometimes I begin with a structure - in other words, a form, but more often than not, an invented form. Generally it has to feel like it's got enough behind it to make a whole poem or I won't bother. I write poems in one mode for a while and then another. They get compiled into mss. But the publishing process takes so long, that mostly I rip through those mss to create a new, tighter one. Occasionally I've been able to publish a group of like poems: such as in my chapbooks living at the z (Vagabond), thempark (Book Thug) and thou sand (Tinfish), as well as the more extended graphic work BREAK ME OUCH (3 Deep).
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do like reading; and it's a creative aspect of being a poet for me. It allows me to try not-textual creative (performative) things. I like to bring in other voices, and to think about how more experimental elements on the page might be represented in a new way. But it does depend on the amount of time and energy I have, or how much control I have over the context. Sometimes I jus t read in pretty straight fashion: I'm interested in my voice and what happens, in terms of both sound and emotion, how they come through in unexpected/unrehearsed ways. It's why I'm not generally interested in reciting.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
There are theoretical concerns, but they change. Some are momentary, especially those that relate to aesthetic, that come from something I've just been reading. Some more political concerns are more consistent - such as trying to think about gender, homophobia and racism. These issues aren't in all my poems, but they never really go away. Philosophical concerns .. I think that they're perhaps more cumulative, and are part of forming an ongoing attitude and ethic. I don't know that I think there are 'current' questions. Usually I find, even if I'm writing in relation to something serious and major, that the impetus and the thinking is used up in a fairly small number of poems, so I have to turn elsewhere. So I could probably never align or identify myself with a particular argument in poetry, such as ecopoetics, for example.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I don't think I can say anything very original here. I have a friend that complains that writer interviews are all the same, regardless of aesthetic sympathies etc. My role is to survive, to mentor younger writers. I am trying to find out what I can and want to say, and saying it. But I wouldn't say others should also do that. Sometimes it seems important to offer a different tone to that of the media and government (does business have a tone?). Perhaps writing can go on creating a culture that is not praising only of money and war.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I rarely work with editors. Of course, I publish in journals, but rarely find that a problem. My publishers haven't edited me.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
If it can be done why do it. (Gertrude Stein).
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I found it very difficult. I began writing critically in an experimental vein. It took years for me to articulate anything critical about poetry. I enjoy it mainly now - as an extension of reading; of drawing attention to things that I think are great. Or of making new theoretical connections. I think there's a thirst for critical writing on Australian poetry at the moment; this seems like a new development.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don't have one in terms of poetry, but having written an MA thesis and a PhD thesis in the last eight years, I've had to institute one for critical writing. I start my day by getting up, making a big mug of tea, then going back to bed to write critically or do something related to teaching.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I never think of being stalled. I don't seek inspiration in these terms. But I do get excited and have a sense of moving into a new idea from new kinds of music (or new great albums), or from art (such as the William Kentridge show that's been on here). I am always watching films and listening to music as well as reading; at times it's surprising how long this can on without an effect, but then suddenly I'll strike something and it goes into the writing mix (I'm talking form, technique rather than words or images).
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
A potent soft cheese can remind me of cowshit. The smell of a dead animal. I never smell boiling water on feathers, but if I did ..
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
See 12. There is also the changing metaphor of what a poem is: a muscle, an animal, a person.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Oscar Wilde's Letters; Gertrude Stein; John Shaw Neilson; Frank O'Hara; WH Auden; Marianne Moore; Brecht; Wallace Stevens; John Ashbery; Michael Dransfield; Proust; Emily Dickinson; Pasolini; Lorca; Virginia Woolf; Cage; Ian Hamilton Finlay; Edwin Morgan; Khlebnikov; Judith Wright; Pound; Keats; Shakespeare (this is not in order!); Ned Kelly; Pasternak; Barbara Pym; Agatha Christie; Ronald Firbank; the living are too many. It's a pretty white list, the importance is historical .. my current reading is broader, but the importance of new writers is a slow process, and they can never be formative .. I'm very interested in Edouard Glissant at the moment. It's also a relatively queer list, in case that goes unnoticed ..
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Made a record - singing not speaking.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Singing is my desire. Acting interests me - I'd probably need a lot of therapy to attempt it though. I could have been a bank clerk or other depressing kind of office worker. I might have been some other kind of artist if I'd grown up in the city.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It didn't require the confidence or material werewithal that things like music do. I came from a small country town where there were no artists. Art, music and theatre (and languages) were all discontinued subjects at my school, but we kept doing English. It's a private, secretive act, and one that can absorb a lot of different things easily.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I actually finished was My Vocabulary Did This To Me, Jack Spicer, which I'd been reading slowly for some time. Recently I read a great critical book, Baroque New Worlds, edited by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Monika Kaup, a reader of the Neobaroque; and am currently reading Livio Dobrez's great book on Australian poetry Parnassus Mad Ward. The last great film was Illustrious Corpses (or Honorable Cadavers) by Francesco Rosi.
20 - What are you currently working on?
New poems I won't otherwise characterise. A short story is brewing but not sure if it will be written. Reviews pending. Also two papers and the final revision of my thesis - I don't like to talk about unstarted work, so I will briefly mention that my thesis, that I hope will be a book, looks at the colonial invention of Australian forms.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;