Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Richard James Allen

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.

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Richard James Allen

is an Australian born poet whose writing has appeared widely in journals, anthologies, and online over many years. Creator of #RichardReads (https://soundcloud.com/user-387793087) an online compendium of Global Poetry, Read Aloud, he has written ten books of poetry and edited a national anthologyof writing for performance.  Richard is also well known for his multi-award-winning career as a filmmaker and choreographer with The Physical TV Company (https://www.physicaltv.com.au) and as a performer in a range of media and contexts.

The Interview

1) When and why did you start writing poetry?

I came from a very literary family so there were always books around me and an abiding love of literature. An ancestor was the ‘Allen’ who set up the publishers Allen and Unwin. My grandfather took his copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare with him to the trenches in the First World War. My mother and uncle were journalists. My father wrote short stories and later novels. My brothers did their PhDs on Marcel Proust and James Joyce and used to put on Samuel Beckett plays in the lounge room.

I started writing diaries at the age of 10, I can’t say why. Perhaps to try to fix some moments in what I was coming to understand as the fluid flow of experience. Perhaps it was a response to the dislocation of returning to Australia, where I was born in Kempsey, NSW, after a childhood spent with my family as expats in Vietnam and Japan. Gradually, I got less and less interested in recording specific events and more and more interested in recording colours, impressions, and feelings into dynamic literary forms that encapsulated a vortex of different experiences and these became my first poems. Looking back now, I see that it was only through writing that I was able fully to access the nuances of these experiences and my relationship to them. By the age of 14, I knew I wanted to be a poet.

2) How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

I grew up during Australia’s ‘Poetry Wars’, so I was very much aware of the dominating presence on the landscape of, and the combative narratives that had been set up by, the earlier generations of traditional and contemporary poets. I am not really one for conflict, I can see both sides of most situations, so I never wanted to align myself with one group or another. Instead, I tried to have genuine relationships with each individual poet and to understand and appreciate their work for itself. Sometimes I thought this might have been to my detriment, politically, but I am glad I stuck to my ‘pacifist guns’.

At one point I was called ‘the heir to John Tranter’ but Les Murray also put me in his major anthologies. Perhaps through all this (and so many other influences) my work became a synthesis of traditional and contemporary impulses.

In 1999, when I was Artistic Director of the Poets Union, Inc., I created the inaugural Australian Poetry Festival. My idea was to bring these warring voices all together in a shared space, to create a poetic ‘roundtable’ of sorts. While not all the old warriors agreed to sit down together, I did feel that this initiative may have made a small contribution, as this spirit was carried on when Martin Langford took over the festivals after I left, and I don’t feel we have had those ‘wars’ with the same virulence since that time.

3) What is your daily writing routine?

I wish I could give you a simple answer to this. My father, Robert Allen, who, as I said, wrote short stories and novels, used to tell me about Georges Simenon’s legendary writing discipline and unbreakable schedule in creating novels in 11 days. And I was interested and surprised to learn that the poet Les Murray used to sit down every day with a blank sheet of paper. The best principle I have is to try to be creative first, before mundane realities and responsibilities swamp your imagination. How that actually works in practice, in negotiation with the multiple challenges and opportunities that each day of each week presents, ends up being different every day, so I don’t think I will go into details. But I will say that a saving grace is that you can ‘reset the clock’, reset your sense that of ‘first’ state of awakening quickness, through various activities of clearing away mental and physical tensions and distractions. That’s the best I can offer at the moment – to try each day to put creativity first in your life. It is truly the best part and actually makes everything else more joyful or at least more bearable.

4) What motivates your writing?

Writing is how I process the world. Writing is how I take deep breaths. It isn’t exactly voluntary. But it is necessary.

Whether these are the deep breaths of the fish coming up for air, or the smoker sneaking into a back alley, or the mountain climber who has finally reached a summit, I don’t know.

I also like the idea that something I discover and share may be of value to others, as so much writing has been to me.

5) What is your work ethic?

It is hard for me not to work. The question is to make sure I am focusing productively on the right things. As I said above, I try to put creativity first before the administration of an arts career or the jobs one has to take just to stay alive.

People often ask me how I can work in a number of art forms and my answer is ‘the bounce around theory’. There is only so much one can do at any given time in one area, so much pure focus, and then it is better to stop, not to force things. But going to another area sparks different questions, energies, creative skills and the opportunities to explore them. And having worked productively in this way in that second area, one can go on to a third area, or return refreshed and ready to work again in the first area, etc.

Life is finite and I try not to waste too much time, though I am as capable as anyone of disappearing into a long form TV series, so I have to be strategic about when I do that!

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

I always find the ‘influence’ question tricky, because one reads, sees, listens to so much work over so many years it is hard to pinpoint actual influences. That said, I think there is a sense in which the writers you read when you are young do stay with you, or come back to you, or you find yourself coming back to them, even after many years.

The short story of you and I (UWAP, 2019) (https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/collections/richard-james-allen/products/the-short-story-of-you-and-i?variant=18298644889657) includes nods in the direction of some of these for me: Shakespeare and Dickens and Conrad in ‘Schlafwagen und Wunderkammer’, Pound and Joyce in ‘Spending a Pound in the Metro for Joyce’, Mallarmé and Baudelaire and Verlaine and Rimbaud in ‘Melancholy’, Eliot and Isherwood and Paramahansa Yogananda in ‘Nearer than knowing’, Dante in ‘Lessons from The Divine Comedy’, Proust in ‘Longtemps’, Slessor and Yeats in ‘The Singing Whirlpool in the Guest Room’, and Patanjali in ‘Why we sit’. When I look at this list, I see many who are missing, including Akhmatova and Paz and Różewicz, whom I have expressed my admiration for by reading on #RichardReads, an online compendium celebrating great poems, from a diverse range of authors across time, location and genre, read aloud: https://soundcloud.com/user-387793087

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

I would say that, from my experience, you don’t become a writer, you are either born one or not. But you can, and probably have to, go on a journey to discover and realise what kind of writer you are meant to be. And that’s where a wide exposure to the work, careers and lives of other writers in all forms and genres is most likely essential; and creative writing classes, workshops and mentorships can be helpful; along with, if you can, finding a community of like minds willing to support each other on their various trajectories. Further, if you don’t already have it, you will need to develop deep inner resources of patience and resilience, leavened by ever-renewing curiosity and a certain amount of fearlessness; the ability to work alone for long periods of time and then occasionally present your work, with at least some flair, in public; the ability to take on board feedback without losing touch with what you are trying to say; the ability to be self-critical without being self-doubting; the ability to find and maintain sources of income that are often unrelated to your essential work, but which you can hopefully learn from; the ability to survive on a lower income and standard of living than many of your friends, while often having nothing to show from your endeavours for many years; and ‘Titiksha’, a Vedic concept my Yoga teacher, Sharon Gannon, once translated as ‘stick-to-it-ness’. And, of course, joy, don’t forget joy – as there is nothing so wonderful as being creative!

8) Tell me about writing projects you are involved in at the moment.

Like any other writer, I am on my own journey of discovery to find out and realise what is next for me.

That includes, at the moment, in the back of my mind, as I write individual poems, finding a unique tone, shape and the appropriate content for the reading experience of my next poetry book; also solving various challenges of adaptation of poetry to other media; and finding my way through a number of hurdles and obstacles to completing screenplays for films that I want to direct.

Questions – Copyright © 2019 Paul Brookes.
Answers – Copyright © 2019 Richard James Allen..

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