Stu Hatton, interviewed by Stuart Barnes

Our poetry editor Stuart Barnes interviewed poet Stu Hatton, whose poems “hail the goer” and “i sit unfinished in breath” appear in Issue Six of Tincture Journal. Stu’s second full-length poetry collection, Glitching, will be released by (outer) publishing in mid-2014.

Stu and Arthur

SB: For how long have you been writing poetry, and what or who inspired you to begin?

SH: In my school days I wrote a few poems, most of which were exercises set by teachers. I wrote a lot of stories and songs in my own time too. But I first became committed to writing poetry in my first year of uni, which is nearly twenty years ago now. I took a unit in twentieth century literature; along with a lot of modernist fiction, I studied the work of TS Eliot and WB Yeats, as well as imagist poetry. I remember being stunned by HD’s poem “Oread“. As part of my Arts degree I also took poetry writing seminars led by Chris Wallace-Crabbe and Dorothy Porter. I learnt a lot from Chris about form and the technical aspects of poetry; Dorothy unlocked other things, such as poetry’s connections with mythology and magic. She also introduced me to poets such as Catullus, Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Cavafy. So I was exposed to a lot of exhilarating poetry and ideas, thanks to my teachers, my fellow students, and from reading my way around the library. I was convinced—I wanted to be a writer, a poet—and I tried to choose units in my course that would help me along this path.

SB: When and where was your first poem published, and what was it about?

SH: In year 11 my lit teacher set us the task of writing a satirical poem. I wrote one about the film Jurassic Park, which had recently come out. The poem was published in the school annual, and had a line about the “cult of Spielbergism” or something. It’s pretty embarrassing to think about the poem now, but I guess I learnt something about writing a poem and having it read by others.

SB: How and where do your poems take shape?

SH: Many begin with jottings in my notebook: words, phrases, sentences that have popped into my head; or sometimes things I’ve overheard or read. Once I see an interesting connection between a couple of my jottings, that can often be the starting point. Other times a poem will emerge as a response to an environment I find myself in—and often I’ll write it there and then, if I can. Sometimes poems will just pour out more or less fully formed, but that’s pretty rare. I tend to be more of a collagist. Anyway, once I feel I have something that might be considered a poem, I’ll type it up on the computer. Then it’ll usually go through a number of drafts and edits (over days, weeks, months, years) before it’s “finished”. But then, as Paul Valéry said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”

SB: In an interview with Sydney Time Out in June 2008, Dorothy Porter revealed “Music has been the key for me since I was a teenager … I wanted to tap into that dark potency of rock‘n’roll, and I still write to music every day.”

What music influences your poetry? Can/do you write to music?

SH: Music’s always been a big part of my life, and it’s definitely influenced some of my poems, and the ways in which I approach poetry. In my first book, How to be Hungry, there’s a poem called “post-rock”, which is basically a collage piece based on some of the music that gets lumped into the post-rock genre, e.g. acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky. The poem maybe traces the impossibility of expressing music’s flows and intensities in words, and derives a lot of its text from music journalism on which I’ve performed various textual operations (which I see as a bit like using effects pedals, plugins, or other sound manipulation tools that musicians might utilise). I think the way I write poetry is partly influenced by technologies and methods of composition associated with music (e.g. sampling, sequencing, sound effects).

But I don’t tend to write to music. I know Dorothy Porter used to do that, religiously. In fact, thanks to the Australian Society of Authors I was lucky enough to have Dorothy as my mentor in 2007, and we probably talked as much about music as we did about poetry. As you say, one of the things that drove Dorothy was a desire to produce poetry that might just approach the alchemy of music. It’s a big ask, of course, but I have that urge too.

SB: Tell me about “hail the goer” and “i sit unfinished in breath”, the poems of yours that are in Issue Six of Tincture Journal?

SH: I probably don’t want to say too much about the poems themselves, as I’d prefer the reader to find their own way(s) into them. “i sit unfinished in breath” was written while I was reading Some Sayings of the Buddha, a selection of translations from the Pali Canon by FL Woodward. My poem derives some words and phrases from this book. This perhaps raises a question about the Buddhist precept of “refraining from taking what is not given”, which is partly a recommendation that one shouldn’t engage in theft, although it has a broader application than that. On the other hand, the Buddha’s teachings were “given”, were offered to the community … so perhaps this poem can be seen as one of millions of texts that draw upon the writings which purport to contain (at least approximations of) the Buddha’s words.

As for “hail the goer”, the title comes from a mantra that appears in the Heart Sutra: Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā (the latter is a romanisation of the Sanskrit). There are many different translations of this, one being “Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone beyond the beyond, hail the goer!” This alludes to death and rebirth, which my poem also alludes to (figuratively, and somewhat obliquely).

SB: How has your poetry been influenced by others’? By teaching writing, editing and publishing at Deakin University? By working as a freelance editor, and a mental health researcher at the University of Melbourne?

I think whatever I’m reading at the time influences what I write. I’d say I’m more likely to write poetry when I’m reading it. Obviously reading poetry can suggest possibilities, approaches, etc.

I have to thank my students from the past few years for broadening my perspectives and offering me opportunities to practice paying attention and being present. I think that teaching writing and editing has shifted how I approach and think about writing and editing as processes. And I learnt a lot about publishing along the way too, which has helped with publishing my books.

Editing is a big part of my process. I remember Slavoj Žižek saying something about how he doesn’t consider himself to ever write anything—he’s either jotting down notes, or editing. Maybe it’s conventional to see writing as somewhere between the two, but I think Žižek is on to something here. I jot down lots of notes, and do a lot of tinkering. The more difficult part, for me, is working the notes into something coherent. In other words, getting to the point where I have something that I’m really motivated to edit, which means breaking through the “is this worth persevering with?” barrier. But sometimes it’s not so much about editing in terms of making changes or improving a poem, but rather “sitting with” a poem, or forgetting all about it and rediscovering it later. I think editing is largely about close reading, and reading something from as many angles as you can.

Working in mental health research has been a blessing in many ways. I first decided to go into this field because I’d had personal experience with anxiety and depression. I suppose part of it was about wanting to better understand my own experiences. And I also wanted to be involved in research that would hopefully help others in the long run. The ultimate aim of the research I’m currently involved in is to improve primary care outcomes for those struggling with depression. I hope my input into the research can make a small contribution towards achieving that. I don’t think the research work has influenced my writing directly, but it has probably made me more mindful of keeping tabs on my own mental health, and given me perspective on where I’ve come from and where I am now vis-à-vis depression and anxiety. Because when I look back, I went through some very dark times.

SB: Tell me about your experience self-publishing How to be Hungry, your debut collection of poetry. You’re also currently writing glitching, your second collection. Tell me about this manuscript.

I published How to be Hungry through Lulu and learnt a lot in the process. I wouldn’t say I’m a natural when it comes to promoting my own work, so promotion of the book has been relatively minimal. But it did get reviewed in Cordite Poetry Review and Verity La.

Glitching will be published in mid-2014. It contains a few poems that pre-date How to be Hungry, which weren’t ready when I was assembling the first book. But most of it has been written from 2011 onwards. It’s divided into ten thematic sections: entrances, detours, glitching, wasted, couplings, futures, midways, soil, entheogen, and exits. The “glitching” of the title is partly inspired by art and music which is referred to as “glitch” (if you’re not familiar with this term, a Google Image Search might offer some clues). But more generally the book is concerned with error, glitches that take on unexpected meanings, and breaking down the distinction between noise and signal. “Glitching” could be a name for an art practice that values the non-deliberate, the random, the algorithmic.

Often it’s through considering glitches (or errors, or malfunctions) that we come to better understand how something works, e.g. on a biological, neurological, or technological level. But I think this can also be true in terms of some forms of meditation, and mindfulness practices, which involve being aware of the dynamics of one’s body, mind, and feelings. In this context, it may not be a case of trying to correct “errors”, but instead just sitting with the “glitches” of the mind, e.g. its tendency to become distracted, and wander away from what is actually happening. Through sitting with and observing these “glitches” of the mind, perhaps you can begin to see how you become distracted, or upset, or whatever. Through paying this kind of attention, perhaps you can begin to shift away from habits that might be harmful, destructive, or that have a blunting or narrowing effect on your experience of the world.

Also, glitches can represent a step away from the conventional, the prescribed, the codified, the accepted. Mistakes or errors can allow us to see things (and ourselves, or other people) in new ways. There can be a beauty in error, in allowing yourself to make mistakes, in letting go of control and letting things fall as they will, letting things be (and become) as they are. Or you can just follow Miles Davis’s advice: “Do not fear mistakes—there are none.” So if I had to sum it up in a sentence, perhaps the book is about exploring glitches as a path of discovery and transformation. Perhaps this makes it all sound a bit serious? Well, I guess it is on one level, but I’d like to think the book also has a sense of humour.

SB: What are your thoughts on print vs. digital poetry publication?

My personal preference is to read poetry in print, but I do read poems published in online journals such as Cordite, Mascara, etc. I read a lot of poetry blogs too. And I like what Tincture Journal and others are doing with the “lit journal as e-book” concept. However, I don’t have a tablet or e-reader. And I haven’t found myself wanting to rush out and buy one, but maybe I’ll get one at some point.

Reading poetry on devices such as e-readers and smartphones has certain implications when it comes to form and formatting. This especially pertains to concrete poetry, or poetry that uses space, layout and/or the materiality of the published product (whether it be a book, zine, broadside, etc.) in unconventional ways. There are some things you can do in print that you can’t do in digital format, and vice versa. For example, consider the print formatting decisions involved in a poem like Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard” (A Throw of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance), where in some cases lines stretch across two facing pages. I’m not sure how that could be reproduced on a smaller screen. So in terms of offering a facsimile of poems like Mallarmé’s, it’s a little problematic. On the other hand, I don’t think we’ve seen everything that electronic formats have to offer poetry yet. I think there’s still plenty of scope for innovation.

But for poets publishing today who would like their work to appear in digital formats as well as in print, there’s the question of whether the print version has primacy. Should the digital version be a facsimile of the print version, or would it be better (or just easier, or more interesting?) to adapt a poem for different formats? I quite like the idea of a poem shifting shapes to fit within different formats, different spaces. And obviously a digital format can incorporate elements that go beyond print: hyperlinks, audio, video, etc.

SB: What poets are you reading, what’s your favourite poem at the moment?

I recently read Jill Jones’s new book The Beautiful Anxiety, which I reviewed for the Rochford Street Review. It’s a brilliant collection—definitely worth checking out. As is Laurie Duggan’s The Collected Blue Hills, which I’d been meaning to read since it was published a couple of years ago. It contains so many glimpses of the Australian landscape, flitting between the urban and the rural, the natural and the industrial, the sublime and the ridiculous (and vividly portraying entanglements of all the above). In the Blue Hills poems, Duggan writes with sharp (and sometimes stinging) brushstrokes, and succeeds in being wry without slumping into a resigned cynicism.

I also read Charles Bernstein’s My Way, which is a collection of poems, essays, interviews, etc. “Reznikoff’s Nearness”, his essay on the poet Charles Reznikoff, is one that I’ll revisit I’m sure—it’s a tour de force.

I’m currently reading Chris Edwards’ book People of Earth, and loving it. Edwards’ cut-up stylings strike me as something like William S Burroughs meets John Forbes, via the New York School (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, et al). Not to discount collage in the visual/plastic arts and the influence this has had on Edwards’ work; indeed he’s an adept producer of these kinds of collages too (as evidenced by the book’s cover).

And I recently read The Best Australian Poems 2013, edited by Lisa Gorton—quite possibly the best edition of the series that I’ve read so far. And I think that’s partly due to the strong showing from younger poets. I particularly liked Tim Grey’s poem “Five Deaths” for the inventiveness of its language; it seems collaged and pushes in many directions at once—seemingly favouring suggestiveness and play over any kind of mimesis (and yet I suppose the reader could construct their own mimetic scenes or narratives from it if they wished). In other words it opens up and out, rather than narrowing or shutting down. Bella Li’s “Drowning dream” also intrigued me with its dreamlike aura. I don’t think I’d read anything by Ella Jeffery or Hu Xian before, but their poems impressed me too. And Nathan Curnow’s poem (a vivid, phantasmagoric mock-prophecy) seemed very different from anything else I’ve read by him. Jill Jones’s and Peter Minter’s poems were, unsurprisingly, brilliant. And there are many others I could mention …

Stu Hatton is a Melbourne-based poet and freelance editor. He also works as a mental health researcher at the University of Melbourne. His poems have been published in The AgeBest Australian Poems 2012CorditeOverland and elsewhere. He sometimes posts things at outerblog.tumblr.com.

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