Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Clay Thistleton

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.

Clay

Clay Thistleton

has taught creative writing and literary studies in universities, community colleges and not-for-profit organisations for almost two decades. He is the author of Noisesome Ghosts (Blart Books, 2018): a collection of found poetry that investigates the phenomenon of ghosts and poltergeists that have the ability to speak or write.  His current project, ‘Never Mind the Saucers’ (Stranger Press, forthcoming), examines documented instances of alien-human sexual contact. Along with his son Dylan, Clay lives in New South Wales, Australia with a fluctuating number of feral cats.

https://claythistleton.wixsite.com/claythistleton

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I started writing poetry at age fifteen (in 1986). In that year I had first read Sylvia Plath, William Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas. I wish I could say that I wrote primarily because of their inspiration, and in many ways I did, but I really started writing poetry “for one endeavour” – as John Keating, Robin Williams’ character, puts it in Dead Poets Society (1989) – and that was “to woo women”. I have to say, however, that poetry’s facility to function in this respect is singularly disappointing.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I will always credit my mother for instilling in me a love of literature. Her particular influence in terms of poetry came about with her sharing of the poems of the Childcraft Poems and Rhymes anthology (1973) with me: it remained a favourite book throughout my early childhood. I was thus very pleased when my first full-length collection of poems, Noisesome Ghosts (2018), was published and my mother was able to hold a physical copy of it in her hands. Her remark that “the quality of the paper is really quite high” was not unsurprising.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

As someone who has been fortunate to teach literary studies and creative writing for a substantial period, I am very aware of the presence of the European poetic tradition stretching back to Homer. I regard this tradition – for good or ill – as a dominant but not as a dominating force. It is, for me working as a found poet, very much source material. After all, as T.S. Eliot cheekily writes, do not “immature poets imitate [but] mature poets steal”? (1921, p. 114).

Writing as an Australian, however, I am also very aware of the presence of a sixty-thousand-year-old tradition of Indigenous songlines that weaves its way through this land and its peoples. This is a dominating presence. Only a few feet from where I am writing now a stone axe was uncovered when the house in which I live was under construction: I know that the old people were here, I know that I live on sacred land. While it is culturally appropriate for me not to know the songlines of the particular country on which I live, I have – and others can – study the songlines of others in texts that have been properly prepared through negotiated access with the song’s owners: the collection The Honey-Ant Men’s Love Song and Other Aboriginal Song Poems (1990) is just one example.

While it is only a very small part of my own collection, I am proud to reproduce therein the very first recorded words spoken by the Aboriginal people of the east coast of Australia to Europeans (2018, p. 452). On the twenty-eighth of April, 1770 at Botany Bay, New South Wales as Lieutenant James Cook,and the crew of the barque Endeavour were about to make landfall, the people of the Gweagal clan stood their ground in front of them and repeatedly called out the phrase, “Warra warra wai! Warra warra wai!” (Parkinson, 1773). In the Dharawal language of Botany Bay in which the Gweagal people spoke, the words warra warra wai mean “go away”.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

Procrastinate-procrastinate-procrastinate-wash-rinse-repeat-procrastinate-procrastinate-procrastinate-wash-rinse-repeat. At the end of the day I might say to myself, “Gee, I better get some work done tomorrow”; although I really don’t know what the “Gee” has to do with it except for it being half the title of a good poem by W.H. Auden (1979).

5. What motivates you to write?

The settling of old scores, the filling of the existential void, the gap in the literature, the speaking of the vaguely relevant to the partially disinterested, the surprising rabbit hole, the Vug under the rug (Seuss, 1974), the resurrection of the dead, the Canberra Theatre Trust Act (1965), the lack of anything good on television, the Trump administration, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, the fact that – as Toni Morrison (2013) notes – if you want to read a certain book and “it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it” yourself.

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

They’re yardsticks aren’t they – the writers that you read when you’re young – but I guess the trick is that you should not let oneself be brow beaten by those yardsticks.

I recall my son asking me once why I love books so much. My reply, that books are like old friends that one can return to again and again and each time they will have something slightly different to say to you seems to get at the heart of this question.

I teach with John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse” (1969) (a short story that I first encountered at age nineteen) and as such I often re-read it. It’s a bildungsroman (a story of development) and self-consciously so: there are at least three differently-aged narrative voices (one of them a teacher of fiction writing) and as I age I encounter different nuances in this story about writing stories: so much so that I often say to my students that if I ever were to be inconveniently hit by a bus they could still learn everything that is to be learnt about fiction writing simply by reading Barth’s story several times: but over an extended period of some years.

Given that I am supposed to be a poet, I guess by now that I should have found a poem that teaches everything about writing poetry but I haven’t. And I am sure that the majority of my readers would agree this statement.

7. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

The President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, is clearly and unambiguously the most powerful communicator writing in the English language alive today. His voluminous contributions to fiction in the genres of fantasy and magic realism are continually astounding. He is faster than a legal bullet (e.g., Mueller, 2019), more powerful than one of his own circumlocutions and able to leap logic at a single bound. He daily creates golden alternate realities around him just by Tweet and the flourish of executive pen: and millions of people – of course, why wouldn’t they? – live with him in them and are showered by his bounty.

It is also pleasing to see that Mr Trump’s contribution to poetry – long neglected – is finally being properly recognised (Sears, 2017). Just recently I was delighted to hear the president free-associating extempore in a very Beat poetry way on the “the oranges … the oranges of the [Mueller] investigation” (qtd. in Holmes, 2019). His is such a unique lyricism: for as he so modestly states he does have “the best words” (qtd. in Guest, 2015); covfefe, of course – such a useful coinage – is one of them.

History is going to be very kind to Donald Trump. After all, his minions are going to write it. For those interested in an early but still insightful appreciation of the president’s modus operandi consult George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

If you want to become a writer so desperately that you ask another writer – especially an obscure Australian experimental one – for advice on how to actually become a writer then I would suggest that you are:

(a) already well on your way to becoming a writer

(b) unquestionably a masochist

(c) both of the above.

Seriously, there are so many resources available these days that it’s an embarrassment of riches. Get yourself a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way (1992) to start or re-start the writing process, enrol in a creative writing course (if you live on the far south coast of New South Wales you can come to one of mine [Thistleton, 2019]) and if you still don’t know where to start, take the adorable advice of a much-admired former colleague of mine and sort of “vomit on the page for a bit … and then like … just clean it up”. This advice may seem frivolous but following it has earned my friend a PhD and an ascent to the highest levels of our discipline in major Australian and international universities. In her honour I aim to vomit on the page at least once every day. Sometimes Syrup of Ipecac or other emetics are necessary, but really all one has to do is to watch the television news to feel suitably bilious.

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

I am heavily involved in the shameless self-promotion of my 2018 collection Noisesome Ghosts and am about half-way through my current project ‘Never Mind the Saucers’ (forthcoming from the UK publishing house Stranger Press): a second collection of found poetry but one that examines documented instances of alien-human sexual contact.

I am also in the exploratory phase of writing another suite of creative writing courses: this time to be delivered online. I very much miss teaching, yet I guess from their current level of interest that I couldn’t find you a single student who shares my enthusiasm for this sentiment. Perhaps they just collectively need a good, strong dose of Ipecac.

Clay Thistleton’s Noisesome Ghosts is available from Blart Books

Acknowledgement

I would like to thank Paul Brookes for his unstinting support of the work of our fellow writers through his unmissable Wombwell Rainbow Interviews. I am honoured to appear within these pages.

Works Cited

Auden, W.H. (1979). “Miss Gee”. Selected Poems. new edn., ed., Edward Mendelson, pp. 55-58. New York: Vintage Books.

Barth. John. (1969). “Lost in the Funhouse”. Lost in the Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice. pp. 69-95. New York: Bantam.

Cameron, Julia. (1992). The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Perigee.

Dixon, R.M.W. and Martin Duwell. (eds). (1990). The Honey-Ant Men’s Love Song and Other Aboriginal Song Poems. St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press.

Editors of the Field Enterprises Educational Corporation. (1973). Poems and Rhymes. vol. 1 of the Childcraft How and Why Library. Chicago: Field Enterprises Educational Corporation.

Eliot, T.S. (1921). “Phillip Massinger”. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. pp. 112-130. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Government of the Commonwealth of Australia. (1965). Canberra Theatre Trust Ordinance 1965. Canberra: A.J. Arthur, Commonwealth Government Printer.

Guest, Steve. (2015). “Trump: ‘I Know Words, I Have the Best Words’ – Obama is Stupid”. The Daily Caller. <https://dailycaller.com/2015/12/30/trump-i-know-words-i-have-the-best-words-obama-is-stupid-video/&gt;.

Holmes, Jack. (2019). “President Trump Just Repeatedly Demanded to Know ‘the Oranges of the Investigation’”. Esquire. <https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a27021746/trump-oranges-of-the-investigation-origin-father-germany/&gt;.

Morrison, Toni. (2013). “Toni Morrison on Twitter: ‘If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’” <https://twitter.com/tonimorrrison/status/395708227888771072&gt;.

Mueller, Robert S. III. (2019). Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election. 2 vols. Washington, DC: United States Department of Justice.

Orwell, George. (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Secker & Warburg.

Parkinson, Sydney. (1773). A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, in His Majesty’s Ship, The Endeavour. ed., Stanfield Parkinson. London: Richardson, Urquhart & Company.

Sears, Robert. (2017). The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.

Seuss, Dr. (1974). There’s a Wocket in my Pocket. New York: Random House.

Thistleton, Clay. (2018). Noisesome Ghosts. London: Blart Books.

Thistleton, Clay. (2019). “Clay Thistleton | University of New England – Australia – Academia.edu”. <https://une-au.academia.edu/ClayThistleton/Teaching-Documents&gt;.

Weir, Peter. (director). (1989). Dead Poets Society. Touchstone Pictures in association with Silver Screen Partners IV.

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