Sam van Zweden: a poem and an interview

Editor Daniel Young interviewed Sam van Zweden for Issue Eleven of Tincture Journal. Sam’s poem ‘Fountain’, reproduced below, is also available in the journal. Please support our work and buy a copy today!


by Sam van Zweden

The stranger things we wished with—

A single-serve Jäger bottle,

A sock,

A final notice from the electricity company.


We threw them in hoping for better,

For more.


I flung tiny pieces,

almost unnoticed offerings

but enough—

Hair tie. Fork.


Bowing before the idol of the fountain like a cross.

Like a violin, fruit tree, falling baby cradle.


Later, I tied myself to the sacrifice—

Hair dryer. Microwave—

went whole-body-in on my bargain

begging water, please.


I didn’t realise that all I wanted was to give myself up.

Under was enough.


Eternity with the debris of other people’s wishes.




Sam van Zweden, interviewed by Daniel Young

DY: Hi Sam. You keep yourself very busy, so I’m not sure where to start! Could you tell us a bit about your background and the writerly things you’re working on at the moment?

SvZ: Hi Dan, thanks for interviewing me!

I’m a writer and editor from Melbourne. I grew up on Phillip Island, which is a beachy tourist destination about two hours out of Melbourne. I came to Melbourne as soon as I finished high school, and pretty quickly got involved in the writing community here. I started out writing short fiction and spoken word, but while I was studying creative writing at RMIT I fell in love with creative non-fiction. This is what I write the most often now—creative non-fiction and poetry.

I also blog, and have been for almost seven years now—I find it’s a really essential part of my writing life, and allows me to keep publishing and sharing even when I’m not being published by other people. It keeps me accountable, and it’s really opened so many doors.

I’m currently working on a suite of lyric essays around the intersections of food and memory, asking why we tend to get so caught up in food when it’s “just a source of fuel”. Obviously it’s not just that, and that’s what the work explores. The ways that we use food to tell stories, and what stories we choose to tell with it.

DY: You’ve had poetry published in Tincture Journal three times now. Can you tell us something about ‘Fountain’, the poem that appears in Issue Eleven?

SvZ: ‘Fountain’ came to life while I was waiting for a friend outside NGV International in Melbourne. They’ve got massive fountains that run the length of the building along the St Kilda Road front. They’re not often turned on any more, so what were once fountains are now more like huge pools—ducks hang out there, and you can see all the coins that people throw in the water to make wishes.

While I was waiting for my friend I was looking at what was in the bottom of these pools—and it’s not just coins, but all sorts of stuff. I saw a Jäger bottle, and some kind of paperwork. So I started wondering about who throws them in, and what they wish for. I thought about what it would be like if we threw bigger things in when making bigger wishes, and whether the size of the offering would make a difference to its coming true. “Fountain” came from that.

DY: You’ve written reviews, non-fiction, poetry and fiction. Do you have a particular process that helps you to tackle all of these forms, or do you simply choose the appropriate form for a given idea?

SvZ: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. There are crossovers between the forms I write in, particularly my poetry and creative non-fiction. Lyric essays really prize the beauty of language, so they have that in common with poems.

Poems mostly come to me quite suddenly and unexpectedly, in response to things I’ve come across in the world (for example, the last three poems in Tincture have been in response to a specific conversation, a museum full of body parts, and the NGV fountains). My relationship with poems is like a brief but intense friendship. They just wander up and introduce themselves, and then we hang out way too much for a short period, and then it’s done. I think this means that I write poems less often, but they’re often useful. I don’t often throw out a poem or think that it can’t be saved.

Essays, on the other hand, are things that need to be chased. They often don’t want to be my friend at all. I’ll have some thoughts and feelings about something and the attempt to put them down will be long-winded, and with many false starts. Essays are hard, but I also find it to be a hugely rewarding form.

Fiction is saved for special things, these days. I can’t say that I don’t write fiction any more, because I think that a story will take whatever form it needs to take, but I certainly write it less than I used to.

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

SvZ: I’ll take the poetry however I can get it! I have a lot of respect for digital publications who consider what poetry will look like on a screen, and really put some time into layout. But this process happens for pages too, I think it’s just easier to do badly in digital publications.

But poems are meant for sharing, so I’ll take them printed or back-lit, spoken or sung. As long as they’re shared.

DY: You recently completed an honours degree. Can you tell us a bit about your thesis? What inspired the topic you chose?

SvZ: My honours work was about food and memory, and it’s since turned into the project I’m working on now. The honours work looked more at the action of memory in relation to food, and the loose structural guidelines for lyric essays, and how the two seem to resonate. Food memories are hugely associative (you eat something and you remember particular events, people, feelings), and so are lyric essays (ideas are often presented associatively rather than in a linear order). I used a family memoir as the creative artefact used to explore this idea.

I’ve been preoccupied with ideas about food and family for a while now. I’ve written pieces that were published in The Big Issue looking at my relationships with my dad and my brother, who are both chefs. Those relationships revolve around food, which seems significant. My honours work was a way to continue teasing out that preoccupation… And I’m not done yet.

DY: Do you have any plans for publishing or further developing the creative component of your thesis?

SvZ: I hope to, yes. The working title for it is Eating with My Mouth Open, and some days I love it, and other days I wish I’d never started. It’s highly emotional work, which can be tiring, and also really scary. I feel a bit protective of it, but also keen to show people, because it means so much to me. The whole thing is so conflicting.

I’ve been lucky enough to receive a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellowship which runs from September to December, where I’ll be working on my manuscript for ten weeks. I’m hoping to have something I’m able to send out into the world after that point, but who knows, really. Creative works take up such a chunk of your life and energy, but there’s no way of knowing how far you are from ‘done’.

DY: Outside of the literary world, what inspires you to write?

SvZ: The world inspires me to write. Intersections that make me uncomfortable inspire me to write. Susan Sontag said that a writer is someone who’s interested in everything. Realising that everything in the world that tickles your fancy is good for your writing can be really liberating.

DY: Who are your biggest influences as a writer?

SvZ: What a cruel and impossible question—there are so many! So just a few:

William H Gass, MFK Fisher, Lydia Davis, Seamus Heaney, Cheryl Strayed, Meghan Daum, Shane Koyczan, Charles D’Ambrosio, Siri Hustvedt, Josephine Rowe, Leslie Jamison, Nick Flynn. So many more. Immeasurably many more.

DY: Thanks Sam, for your time and support of Tincture Journal.

Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer of poetry and creative nonfiction.

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