Driving yourself out of your mind; walking yourself out of your head

By Mark Tredinnick

When Tessa rang me to ask me to blog this month, I was wrangling my dog into the back of a (two-door) car. And then I was starting the car and backing it and turning it onto a public road in the State of New South Wales. We talked, Tessa and I, fairly fast, and hands free (earpiece in, I promise), as I drove to school to pick up the children, running, as ever, just a little bit late.

And now I’m writing this—my first blog—in a cab. Last night we launched Australian Love Poems 2013 at the Carmelite Centre in Middle Park, Melbourne—and I want to say some things here the poetics of love and the erotics of poetry, but I’ll get to that later. There is a plane to catch, first. And planes don’t wait. Not even for bloggers, not for lovers, not for poets.

Between the car and the cab, between one Thursday and the next, no time at all, it seems, has passed. But I have written a poem; I have split some wood and burned it in the stove to keep us warm at home; I have a written letter of support for a poet applying for a Fulbright and for the editors of a brand new magazine; I have cut the grass; I have washed the dog and walked the dog and lain with the dog in the sun; I have written perhaps two hundred emails; I have posted and messaged on Facebook; I have had good news about the fate of poems; I have tried not to think too much about that; I have bathed children and listened to them talk almost endlessly of Minecraft and school yard spats and NRL and spelling bees, and I have read to them and listened to them read to me; I have let my elder daughter talk me through her travels across America, from (I think) her boyfriend’s bed; I have dined out and dined in and talked too much and stayed too silent; I have slept and dreamed and woken and eaten breakfast; I have put things off and then stayed up too late doing them, catching up with the emails that swim past me these days like gropers in a silver rush (before I can lay a hand on any of them); I have kicked the ball with Daniel and skipped the rope with Lucy and heard Henry play the piano better than I ever could and shaken my head at the beauty of that and the beauty of the boy, the uniqueness and divinity of each of us; I have noticed birds (rose robin, spinebill, the family of kookaburras who’ve taken over the backyard, the white-faced herons, who curate the dam down the back, the black-shouldered kites, the eastern rosellas, the bowerbirds, the bluewrens, the red-tailed finches, the birdcalls to which I couldn’t attach a form, the fast brown small birds to whom I couldn’t attach to a name, the curlew, the frogmouth, the blackbird, the gang gang, the yellow-tailed black cockatoos, the magpies and magpie larks and currawongs and barking owls at night); I have booked flights and taken flights and landed again; I have put another 500 kms on the clock, driving to Sydney and back twice; I have taught three classes; I’ve barely opened a book, but I’ve read some great essays on line and on paper; I’ve listened to some music (Brahms and Bach and Beethoven and Anne Sophie Von Mutter and some jazz and a whole lot of other fine and bland stuff on Classic FM); I’ve boiled some eggs and made chai and coffee; I’ve written a puff for the back of a poetry book; I have signed a book contract; I have split more wood and lit more fires; on Wednesday morning, writing that lonely poem, I looked out and admired the grass I cut on the small tractor on Saturday and the way the winter light fell and the shadows of the silver poplars swam in it; I have prepared talks I have to give in Adelaide in two weeks; I have written copy to plug workshops I’m running any moment now; I have read poems for some poets I mentor, for friends whose manuscripts I promised to read and comment on; I have loved and been loved; I have tried to remember to stand still and be glad; and now I have spoken at the launch of a book of love I curated, a book which may change things in Australian letters, or which, more likely, may be just another remarkable book, a spot fire, burning a hole in its own singular moment.MTred 1

Most of the writing life—if this is a writing life I’m living—entails, it seems, so little actual writing, but quite a lot of living: a lot of chat and skirmish and thinking about it; a lot of parenting and driving around; well over nine thousand of the ten thousand things. I spend the larger part of my time in the woods around the writing place, but only small portions of stolen time within it.

It’s taken me fifty years to work out that writing isn’t just what you do with your fingers on a keyboard. A fair bit of the rest of your life away from the desk is part of the writing, too. Your life, whatever it entails, is your writing’s habitat. There are many times, even knowing this, I long for the desk; I wish the ten thousand tasks the frenzy of obligations—commercial, familial, political, professional—away. When I want to clear my overtaxed life from my desk.

I’m describing my life, but it could be anyone’s—give or take a few birds and children, substitute the wood for the trees. Change the gender and the channel. This is how it goes for many of us these fast digital days, not just those of us who write. And it’s true that I chose most of the life that’s found me, and which sometimes seems to crowd me like a field of clacking triffids—the house outside the city, the children, the dog, the endless curiosity. I’m not looking for someone to blame. But quite often, teaching poetry and creative writing, discoursing about one’s creative practice at launches and festivals, I feel like a fraud. I am a driver, I want to cry, not a poet. I am a project manager (with more projects than he can manage). I let everything, but writing, jump the writing queue.

More than that, though—since slowness, deliberation, and simplicity are articles of my secular faith—I am a paradox, I am an oxymoron: essaying the slow life at light speed; sustaining the unsustainable; pulling silence out of a very voluble hat; hoping to still time with poetry, to stop the clocks and make some moments last, to find eternity in an hour, while clocks tick loud all round and deadlines loom and pass.  As I put it in a poem, written in the thick of it last December: I am a sociable anchorite; a recidivist virgin, a rococo minimalist.

But then when did anything but paradox ever really come true?

Our contradictions are the larger part of who we are. Multitudes are what we’re made of, as Whitman rightly told us. And many among the multitudes (inside us) are at odds with one another.

On the phone, I told Tessa this was the worst time in the world to start blogging for Southerly. But she is persuasive, Tessa, and as we talked, I came to see that it was no worse a time than all the other times I had said no, than all the other future months I might put it off again. In some ways the timing was perfect. When better to write about writing in the thick of it, than right in the thick of it?

Last week I was up at the Byron Bay Writers and Readers Festival talking about love and beauty and landscape, and then I was at Kit Kelen’s place near Bulahdelah, working with the writer Isabelle Li on a translation of a selection of my poems into Chinese. Coming up, I have a round of travel, starting with Melbourne last night, to launch and promote Australian Love Poems 2013 (Inkerman & Blunt) whose editor I am. It’s winter, so there is a house in a cold climate to be kept warm—wood to get and split and burn, a discipline I’ve come to think of as hot yoga, performed with an axe, generally a little later in the dusk than is really wise. There is, as ever, money to be earned, debt to be paid down, tax to be paid. There are workshops to be run and lectures to be given and corporate copy to be edited to within an inch of one’s life. I’m at work with my translator on a bilingual edition of a selection of my poems, and I have my second collection of poems, Bluewren Cantos, to get to my new publisher within a month.

So, if I can just find enough taxis; if I can just catch enough planes; if I can only find enough gigs to run late for and enough hours to steal from someone I owe them to or something else I really should be doing; if I can manage to keep not writing poems—I’ll have about as much paradox and exquisite contradiction to confess to, and the life of my mind will have as many worldly distractions from the work it longs to do, as it is ever likely to have. The thick of this poet’s life—inside and out—will never be so thick. The woods where he finds himself may never be so lovely, dark or deep.

Instead of frightening her off, the hasty list of the topics I gave Tessa, gleaned from the selva oscura where in the middle of my days I find myself (lost), only egged Tessa on. I guess I could talk, I said, about the mysteries and delights of watching one’s work translated into a language one can’t read or even hear; I could talk love and its poetics; I could talk about the spiritual life of the poem and the question of everyday immanence (apropos the ACU Prize for Literature to be announced late in the month); I could write about the self and the Self; about splitting firewood and splitting infinitives; splitting selves and sundering infinitudes; and I could speak of the fractious daily negotiation this writer gets to bungle, between his social self and his artistic self, his economic self and his spiritual self—the many irreconcilable lives one leads, all of which give rise, despite themselves, to any writing one ever makes; and finally, because I’m touring the land promoting an anthology, I could talk to the marketing of poetry—another oxymoron, another beautiful paradox.

You’re on, she said. And you can start with love. And that’s what I meant to write about when I sat down in the cab. But now I’m out of the cab. In fact, I’ve been in and out of the plane, and into my car and out of that, too, and I’ve been upstairs in Balmain writing all this, and now I have to go and meet my grown-up children and see if they remember who I am. So love will have to wait a day or two. Isn’t it always the way?

[photo credit: J Dolce]

6 thoughts on “Driving yourself out of your mind; walking yourself out of your head

  1. Beautiful and I don’t think that love has to wait a day or two. The way you speak/live your life, as intoned here, sounds like love to me.

  2. When this beautiful ramble through the contradictions and paradoxes of modern creative life arrived in my inbox, I’m glad I was paying attention. Thank you for a fine read.

  3. It may not be the poetic life we sometimes imagine (sitting in meditation in the arms of some majestic tree deep in the woods?), but as you so clearly see, Mark, this IS life with all its contradictory,crazy-paced difficulties and demands, and it feeds the poetry itself, is a part of the poetry itself, perhaps even IS the poetry itself.

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