Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Thom Sullivan

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.


Thom Sullivan

grew up on a farm in Wistow/Bugle Ranges in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia, and studied Arts and Law at Adelaide University, and Social Science at Swinburne University, Melbourne. A short collection of his poems was published in New Poets 14 (Wakefield, 2009). His poems have appeared in Australian Book Review, Australian Love Poems, Australian Poetry Anthology, and The Best Australian Poems 2014 and 2015. His manuscript Carte Blanche won the 2017-18 Noel Rowe Poetry Award and is forthcoming with Vagabond Press. He lives in Adelaide, where he works in public policy.

Website: http://www.thomsullivanpoet.com
Twitter: @thomsullivansa
Book of poems: ‘Carte Blanche’ (https://vagabondpress.net/products/thom-sullivan-carte-blanche)

The Interview

  1. What inspired you to write poetry?

Poetry, and the impulse to write it, turned up in my life at age 14 – accompanied soon after by a clear sense that it was what I wanted to ‘do’ in life. It’s often hard to grasp why an activity or subject matter captivates us, beyond some intuition, or a sense that the thing sort of chooses us, which is how poetry has felt to me. The breadth of poetry is of vast interest to me as a reader, though my own writing began as a way of witnessing and recording the farming area I grew up in, roughly the catchment of South Australia’s Bremer River.

2.   Who introduced you to poetry?

Like many Australians, I had a childhood familiarity with Australian bush/folk poetry, but my first specific encounter with poetry was through my grandmother who encouraged me, aged about 8, to memorise Dorothea Mackellar’s My Country (‘I love a sunburnt country / A land of sweeping plains’). I enjoyed studying poetry at school, though I knew how exceptional this was. I recall studying poems by modern Australian poets Bruce Dawe, Gwen Harwood, Oodgeroo Noonuccal and Judith Wright, and in my final year of high school I was introduced to the work of Donne, Marvell, Blake, Coleridge, Keats, Browning, Hopkins, Frost, and Eliot. By the end of high school, I knew I wanted to continue studying poetry and enrolled in Arts at university. In the summer break between school and university, I spent long hours with newly acquired volumes by TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. And the final steps of my introduction to poetry were via A. Alvarez’s 1962 New Poets anthology, a copy of which was in my parents’ bookshelves (Berryman, Lowell, Plath, Gunn, Hughes, etc.), and contemporary Australian anthologies Landbridge (1999) and Calyx (2000), which included work by a range of established and innovating Australian poets.

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

Reading has been the parent-rock of my experience as a poet, so I’ve always written with a consciousness of older poets, past and present, and the wider poetic tradition(s). I’ve never felt tradition as a tyranny or constraint, but as something that multiplies the possibilities for meaning in a poem. Notwithstanding, there’s always a need for writers to innovate, which is perhaps most keenly felt in poetry. Poets live or die by their innovations, if we’re to believe Harold Bloom’s dictum about originality and canonical strangeness. In terms of my practical experience, established poets have been very generous in their support of my writing, including a number of poets who live in my home city Adelaide, such as Ken Bolton, Aidan Coleman, Peter Goldsworthy, Jill Jones, and Jan Owen.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

My daily routines are dictated by a ‘day job’ that accounts for 8 or so hours a day, 5 days a week. While this imposes some order, my schedule inevitably falls somewhere on a broad scale from ‘perfectly-ordered-and-intentional’ to ‘scramble’. Writing and reading are inked in to the ideal version of my day. For example, when I have a day off I usually spend the morning reading at home, then writing in a café. At other times, writing has its place in my day either opportunistically, or as writing exercises that are moveable but non-negotiable parts of my schedule. I often spend an hour or so writing at a café on my way home from work. I generally prefer to write in the evenings, especially on Fridays and Saturdays when I can continue to work through into the night if a writing session has been productive.

5. What motivates you to write?

Reading and writing poetry are inseparable for me, and reading has always come first. I read and write poetry because I’m convinced it matters, as words matter, as ideas matter, as our fundamental grappling with and for meaning matters. For me, grappling with and for meaning – in a personal and sometimes shared sense – happens on the page through renovations to an arrangement of words that may eventually become a published poem. I think of the lines from Les Murray’s Poetry and Religion: ‘Nothing’s said till it’s dreamed out in words / and nothing’s true that figures in words only’. In terms of the impetus to begin writing a new poem, I often find I’m responding to: a poem I enjoy, disagree with, or find some challenge in; a conversation; a line from a song; a place or artwork; or a phrase I find some provocation, resonance, music, or amusement in.

6. What is your work ethic?

I work on the premise that inspiration is like lightning. We can’t make lightning strike at a precise time and place, though we can do things that might help rumble up a storm, or create conditions conducive to a strike if there’s a storm on the horizon – like ascending a hill or wielding a golf club. I have periods of weeks or months when I’m not regularly or actively writing, and ideas, images, lines or drafts of poems arrive only incidentally – when they do, I make what I can of them. At other times, I’m actively engaged in writing exercises, daily or several times a day, usually free writing for periods of 10 to 20 minutes. It’s a practice that generates a lot of bad and unusable writing, though there’re often poems, or parts of poems, or beginnings of poems, I can excavate from the words. Once I select phrases or lines I want to work with, a poem usually exists as a single evolving draft for a year or more before I may settle on a version I regard as complete.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

When I think about writers I read when I was young, I think immediately of a number of Australian poets I read in my early 20s who’ve written extensively about specific regions: Les Murray (Bunyah), Robert Adamson (Hawksbury River), John Kinsella (Western Australia’s wheatbelt), and Robert Gray (Mid North Coast, New South Wales). All had a significant influence on my earliest published poems. The work of these poets gave me permission, at a time I needed it, to write about things that were then important to me. There was an interruption to my writing in around 2010. When I resumed, the range of my work had been broadened by poetry workshops I undertook in the interim with Jan Owen, and my reading of Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets, certain prose poems, and Franz Wright’s poetry, mainly for its use of parataxis and non-sequiturs. I still read and return to the work of all these writers, though it’s Kinsella’s new books of poems and his overall project that I’ve kept the closest interest in.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I read a lot of poetry, generally contemporary, generally by Australian and American poets, though there are plenty of exceptions. The contemporary writers whose work I return to regularly and instinctively include poets AR Ammons (1926–2001), Jorie Graham, Sarah Holland-Batt, John Kinsella, Michael Simmons Roberts, and Franz Wright (1953-2015). The prose writers or novelists whose work I return to are JM Coetzee, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Gerald Murnane, and Gail Jones, among others. I’m interested in novels that blur the line between fiction and biography. It’s a foreseeable interest for someone who reads a lot of poetry, given that the ‘speaker’ in many poems exists in the same ambiguous space between the fictive and the autobiographical.

9. Why do you write?

Poetry began for me, in some sense, as a way of being in the world, but in an inconspicuous way. I was a reluctant talker in most settings throughout my school and university years, and I still prefer how clean and deliberate I can be on paper, in contrast to the ruckus of everyday thought and conversation. I write, ultimately, out of some sense of compulsion to get things down on paper and to work them out in words. I write poetry in particular because, as a reader, I love its potential for immediacy, intensity, vitality, and precision.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you ‘How do you become a writer?’

I’ve always been a writer with a ‘day job’ that’s very separate from my writing, though my current job certainly draws on some of the same skills. Where I can, I refer to my day job in the bio-notes published with my poems, as I know how significant it would’ve been to me in my early 20s to see that a creative life can be accommodated alongside a regular job. It’s something many poets manage, including the well-known examples of TS Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, though it has its compromises in terms of time, energy and focus. Not relying on writing to provide a dependable income means I’m free to focus on poetry (rather than other more monetisable genres), and to write what I like, and as much or as little as I like. Aside from that, the recipe for how I became a writer includes these main ingredients: reading avidly and widely, writing regularly, then tentatively sending a few poems to local competitions, newspapers or journals I enjoyed reading, and persisting through rejection. Later, as my poems seemed to improve, I set my sights a little higher. I studied English at university, along with History, Philosophy and Law, all of which have been helpful in their way.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

A book of my poems, Carte Blanche, will be published by Vagabond Press later this year. While I’ve focused in recent years on generating work to complete the book, my focus more recently has been on intuiting a new direction for my work. Mostly this has meant a series of experiments and dalliances with ideas. I’ve returned to the practice of regular free writing exercises. Throughout 2018, I worked on a 365-line poem about the year, which I wrote at a rate of one new line per day.

One thought on “Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Thom Sullivan

  1. Pingback: Interview: The Wombwell Rainbow – Thom Sullivan

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