Stuart Barnes, interviewed by Daniel Young

Daniel Young interviewed our poetry editor Stuart Barnes for Issue Sixteen of the journal to celebrate the release of his debut poetry collection Glasshouses.


DY: Thanks for being a part of out interview series, and congratulations on the recent publication of your debut collection, Glasshouses. Could you start by telling us a bit about your background and how you started writing poetry?

SB: Thanks very much, Daniel. Chuffed to be here, chuffed that Glasshouses is out in the world.

I was born and grew up in Hobart, where as a kid I met poet and librettist Gwen Harwood, who encouraged me to read and to write poetry. In 1996 I moved to Melbourne to study a Bachelor of Arts at Monash University (I majored in Literature). Towards the end of 2005, severe anxiety and mild manic depression peaked; my boyfriend at the time gave me several notebooks in which, at his suggestion, I wrote everything that dropped into my head—none of it poetry. I started to write poetry seriously, i.e., confidently, ambitiously in 2009. I moved to Rockhampton in 2013, which is when I became Tincture’s poetry editor (thanks!), with three close friends who grew up here. In 2015 my manuscript The Staysails won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, resulting in the publication of Glasshouses (UQP, 2016).

DY: Can you remember when and where your first poem was published? What was it about?

SB: 2009, in MCV (Melbourne Community Voice), in Letters to the Editor. It was a criticism of a very short-lived club that drew, in my opinion, a very pretentious gay crowd; somehow the men who established it monopolised Melbourne’s best house DJs! In 2007 the very long-running, diverse and inclusive Q&A (Queer & Alternative) closed and, much to my horror, Melbourne’s queer scene’s golden age disintegrated. In 2000, a kind of poem (three lines, not a haiku) accompanied my then-boyfriend’s RMIT assignment. In between this and 2009, I penned lyrics for an electronic ballad written by a friend of that boyfriend and me.

DY: How and where do your poems take shape?

SB: Sometimes at a walk, a trot, a canter or a gallop. Sometimes I don’t know how they take shape. Often they take shape while I’m walking, driving, or wandering supermarket aisles aimlessly. Or in dreams. Or during yoga, meditation or acupuncture. I no longer carry a notebook but I always carry my phone—if an idea or a phrase drops into my head I text it or email it to myself. The real work takes place at my computer, in my study, which is small and naturally well-lit—one large window overlooks a neighbour’s backyard (mother-in-law’s tongues, Carpentaria palms), the other mine (frangipani, poinciana). I take my work seriously—wake, make breakfast, read, check then disconnect social media, write, write, write…

DY: Debut poetry collections often include a mix of all the poet’s work to that point, whereas later collections tend to be more thematically focused. The four sections in Glasshouses are Reflections, Five Centos, Cyclone Songs, and In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country. Can you tell us about the process of organising the collection and how difficult (or easy) it was?

SB: Glasshouses contains a mix of poems written between 2010 and 2016. However, threads such as poiesis, the moon, and odd numbers run from the oldest (‘13’, first published in Blue Dog) to the newest (the proem—a cento from nine of my poems). The book’s comprised of poems from two manuscripts: Blacking Out and other poems(runner-up in the 2014 Thomas Shapcott Prize) and The Staysails (winner of the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Prize).

To organise the collection I worked with my publisher UQP’s Poetry Editor, Felicity Plunkett, who is intuitive and generous. First, we decided which poems from Blacking Out and The Staysails should go into the manuscript published as Glasshouses. We felt there was room for some of Blacking Out’s sombre poems, e.g., ‘Reflections’, ‘Dissociation’, ‘another journey by train’, as well as some of The Staysails’ gilded ones, e.g., ‘The Mixtape’, ‘The ice storm’s’, ‘Fingal Valley’.

Felicity and I talked about order; following this conversation, much paper-shuffling and patience, as well as my own intuition, guided the poems into their current form. I was uncertain about the number and arrangement of the centos; Felicity suggested five and the section title Five Centos, and this was, and is, perfect. I chose the section titles Reflections, Cyclone Songs and In a Beautiful Place Out in the Country (borrowed from the Boards of Canada EP of the same name).

I wanted the collection to begin with a quote from Shakespeare’s Ariel’s triumphant song and a kind of ars poetica (the proem), and end at ‘the place where / chaos yields to order: where clouds are formed’ (‘Double Acrostic’).

In the final stages I worked with one of UQP’s project editors, the kind and talented Ian See. His proofreading, assistance contacting other poets regarding permission to use their lines in my centos, and advice around Cyclone Songs’ design, among other things, were invaluable.

Organising Glasshouses was neither difficult nor easy. It was challenging because it was new, and it was time consuming, but there’s no other way I’d rather spend my time. And it was fun! The best bit was working with Felicity and Ian.


DY: You’ve written about sexuality and gender identity in your work (for example ‘I’, ‘10.15 Saturday Night’ and ‘Mr Gingerlocks’ in Glasshouses). Do these issues directly inform your work and do you think this will continue in your future writing?

SB: Very much so, but in the same way that my other fascinations, e.g., animal rights, history, HIV, meditation, music, mythology, sexual assault, all inform my work. That said, and without giving too much away, sexuality, gender identity and masculinity will feature prominently in my future writing.

The three poems you’ve mentioned were inspired by life in Central Queensland, specifically Rockhampton and nearby coastal Yeppoon, where I lived for twelve months. In my three-and-a-half years in CQ I’ve witnessed the deep shame of Rockhampton’s and Yeppoon’s gay men who treat themselves, and one another, terribly. Of course I’ve witnessed this elsewhere (and of course it’s not exclusive to the gay community), but never to this degree. In writing ‘I’, ‘10.15’ and ‘Mr Gingerlocks’ I was attempting to understand this shame.

In terms of how they think about sexuality, gender identity and masculinity, Rockhampton’s and Yeppoon’s and Melbourne’s gay men are worlds apart.

DY: I canvassed a few people who wanted to ask about the influence of music on your work, but let me turn the tables on you and frame this using your own words. As you’ve asked in your interviews with other poets:

Reading for a BBC Programme, Sylvia Plath explained: “[‘The Disquieting Muses’] borrows its title from the painting by Giorgio de Chirico—The Disquieting Muses. All through the poem I have in mind the enigmatic figures in this painting.” (Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, edited by Ted Hughes, Faber and Faber, 1981) What art forms influence your poetry?

SB: ‘turn the tables’: a phrase from L7’s ‘Pretend We’re Dead’, a song I loved as a teenager, and one which influenced Glasshouses’ ‘Cyclone Songs’. Arts forms: ceramics (Studio Anna); cinema/television (Almodóvar’s Matador to Bad Education, Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Campion’s The Piano and Top of the Lake, Claudel’s I’ve Loved You So Long, Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, Ford’s A Single Man, Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Harris’ The Golden Girls, Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Shadow of a Doubt and Vertigo, Kubrick’s Lolita to Full Metal Jacket, Lee’s The Ice Storm, everything by David Lynch, Mankiewicz’s All About Eve and Suddenly, Last Summer, Nichols’ Angels in America, Silkwood and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, everything by von Trier); Egyptian hieroglyphs; painting (Caravaggio, Louise Hearman, Margaret Olley, Cy Twombly, Fred Williams); photography (Leigh Backhouse, Mike Disfarmer, Trent Parke); plays (Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, David Williamson’s Don’s Party); sculpture (Classical, Jeff Koons, Ricky Swallow); tableware (Johnson Brothers, Made in Japan).

DY: Do you write with music playing in the background?

SB: Sometimes I write prose with music playing in the background—I’ve listened to Art of Fighting’s Wires, Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, Spiritualized’s Pure Phase, The Rabbits (Live Original Cast Recording; a gift from poet Benjamin Dodds) and 20 Jahre Kompakt / Kollektion 1 while working on these responses—but never poetry.

DY: Glasshouses is a playful collection with its range of forms, layout, anagrams, acrostics and found poems. Tell me a little about this.

SB: I love forms—abecedarians, pantoums, rondelets, sestinas, sonnets, triolets, villanelles—and I’m grateful to Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s Clasp for introducing me to several.

‘another journey by train’ was written mid–panic attack, while catching the train from Clifton Hill to South Yarra for a psychologist appointment, hence the irregular couplets. Cyclone Songs’ free verse, concrete poetry, broken sonnet and villanelle embody the moods before, during and after Tropical Cyclone Marcia.

‘Stern Man’, a remix of the proem from Nigel Featherstone’s Remnants, needed to be a remix, i.e., an anagram of his novel’s title. Similarly, ‘Matrimonies’, a cento from Gwen Harwood, needed to be an anagram of Miriam Stone, Gwen’s only female pseudonym.

‘Double Acrostic’ was occasioned by re-reading Gwen’s acrostic sonnets ‘Eloisa to Abelard’ (‘So long, Bulletin’) and ‘Abelard to Eloisa’ (‘Fuck all editors’).

My favourite form of found poetry is the cento—poetry’s 12” remix, its cryptic crossword. I’ve never remixed a track, I’ve never solved a cryptic crossword. But after piecing together a cento, I feel as though I’ve done both. I enjoy the cento’s rules, and writing to a theme—e.g., ‘Forcento’ (published in Rabbit Poetry Journal’s Gravity issue) lifted one line from six poems that mention gravity.

Predominantly, and perhaps this is an awful metaphor, I’m not satisfied until I’ve wrung out every drop of water from the chamois.

Often, especially while writing, I think of a phrase at poet Stu Hatton’s Twitter account (@StuHatton)—‘messing with text’—Aren’t we all?

DY: How has editing poetry for Tincture Journal influenced or helped shape your work and process?

SB: First, editing poetry for Tincture has always been a joy, and you really are the best boss I’ve ever had. Second, I now understand how much time, energy and love go into editing poetry for a journal.

To answer your question, it’s exposed me to poets and poetry—Tincture receives submissions from Australia and the world—that I’d otherwise never have been exposed to.

Certainly it’s made me a more patient and closer reader—of my work, and others’.

Also, editing poems for Tincture is not unlike editing poems for a manuscript.

DY: Do you have an all-time favourite poem? And a favourite recently published?

SB: My all-time favourite is Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’, which I talked about in some detail with Alice Allan on her terrific Poetry Says podcast. A favourite poem recently published is Natalie Diaz’s ‘Grief Work’.

DY: Picking favourites is stupid. But to continue: Favourite short story? Favourite novella? Novel? Is there anything else exciting you at the moment?

SB: Picking favourites is fun. Short story: Salinger’s ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’. Novella: Orwell’s Animal Farm. Novel: Tartt’s The Secret History. Other things exciting me include Agha Shahid Ali’s The Country Without a Post Office, Eleanor Hooker’s A Tug of Blue, Juliet Jacques’ Trans: A Memoir, Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities, Jill Jones’ Breaking the Days, Pedro Pietri’s Selected Poetry and Julie Proudfoot’s The Neighbour. Re-watching Queer as Folk (UK), Star Trek: Voyager and Twin Peaks is a thrill. William Baskinski’s Cascade, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Murcof’s Martes (a gift from film reviewer Michael Scott @walypala) are playing in the car. Also, anemones, bats, curlews.

DY: What’s next for your work? Are you writing at the moment?

SB: I am—a second poetry manuscript, more thematically focused than Glasshouses, is taking shape. One of its poems, ‘Killing Bill or whatever the hell his name is (‘Battle Without Honor or Humanity’)’, about an acquaintance outed as HIV+ on Grindr, was published at the recent Dan Disney–guest edited issue of Cordite; others are forthcoming at Numéro Cinq. I’d like to apply for a residency. I’d also like to write a libretto.

DY: Stuart, thanks so much for your time and your continued efforts in bringing poetry to the pages of Tincture Journal.

SB: My pleasure, Daniel. Thanks very much for all of your support, here and elsewhere, over the years.

Stuart Barnes is the poetry editor of Tincture Journal. In 2015 he won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, resulting in the publication of Glasshouses (UPQ 2016). He blogs at