A conversation with Peter Bakowski (1)

Peter Bakowski is a Melbourne poet, and the author of five collections of poetry. He is constantly on the road, presenting his work at readings and in workshops. In October 2004 he was in Tasmania after securing a residency with the Hobart City Council, and I met with him at the Writers' Cottage in Hobart. As is the case with many of his ventures on the road, Bakowski is accompanied on this occasion by his family. Peter sits opposite from me across the kitchen table, while Helen pops in and out of the room. Their son Walter sits on his lap, regarding my tape recorder with quizzical attention.

There are very few Australian poets – Steven Herrick? Myron Lysenko? – in the public eye as much as Bakowski. I asked about this unique aspect of his life that finds him on the road year after year.

"I’ve always had a long term view of my poetry career" he replied, adding that he now has a reputation for his poetry tours, one he’s keen to maintain and expand upon. "You might do a poetry reading in Canberra, and nine months later someone will come to a poetry reading in Richmond in Melbourne and say, ‘I heard you read in Canberra nine months ago and I’ve come again tonight and I’ve brought my friend along’. You can never underestimate the snowball effect. I’m simply trying to maintain and elevate my profile, both on a domestic and an international level."

Bakowski submits his poetry to both local and overseas poetry magazines on a constant basis. One year, some time ago, more of his poems were published in England than in Australia. "One day I hope to secure either a British, Irish or US publishing contract for a book of selected poems," he says. Right now he has three people translating his poetry into French, with the translated poems appearing frequently in French and Belgian poetry magazines. He’s applying for an Australia Council overseas residency – his first preference is Paris, where he’s spent time before – and hopes for a bilingual publication of his selected poems in the French-speaking world sometime in the future.

But - on a domestic level - how do you and your family manage this kind of lifestyle, I asked.

"For over thirteen years I’ve had a part-time job at Gaslight Music Compact Disc store in Melbourne," Peter replied, "and they’ve been incredibly flexible about the poetry tours. But I’m always aiming for a general grant from the Australia Council where I can take a year or two off and write full time."

His next project is a series of fifty-two portrait poems of real and imagined people entitled, ‘The Selves We Wear’. "My portrait poems are mainly of creative people, either real painters and writers, or representatives of those vocations. What I’m doing is trying to show the effect of an event - or the effect of life - on the individual. I think that in concentrating on humanity, we can generalise. We can say people are this, people are that - but focusing on an individual and individual reactions in a poem, I can refrain from generalisations about human beings. Individual responses to life are what interest me, I’m endlessly fascinated with the tenacity and vulnerability of human beings. I try to present characters where it’s up to the reader or the listener, if they want to put a judgement on a character they can…. I find if you judge someone, you end up being too didactical, too preachy, handing it all on a plate, in a way you’re telling the reader or the listener what to think, how to react … directing them to the correct way to think."

I asked about the difficulty of getting a book published, for instance with this particular project, his portrait poems.

"I’ve got a verbal agreement with Hale and Iremonger who are very supportive," Bakowski replied. "I tour constantly, I’m a very proactive seller of my own books which have all gone into reprint within the same year of publication; in fact in a couple of cases I’ve managed to have the book go into reprint after four months."

In his poem, "One for Charles Bukowski," Peter Bakowski empathises with the American in all but one instance, and that's Bukowski's aversion to participation in poetry readings. "Which makes you totally different from him in this regard, right? You couldn’t be on the road, year after year, without enjoying what you’re doing…."

"If my books sold by themselves, maybe I wouldn’t give as many poetry readings," Bakowski replied. "I like to test the poems on people, people I’ve never read to before. I personally believe in the troubadour tradition. Slim Dusty performed his music in outback towns all over Australia, and I really like that idea."

I asked Peter about one of his collections, a chapbook published in Canada; not the poetry specifically, but of his general response to the chapbook form. "I’m personally interested because I’m working on a couple myself," I explained, "poetry by Anne Collins and Cassie Lewis. My worry as a publisher of small chapbooks has always to do with production quality … and how it will be received. Both Cassie and Anne have been really good, Cassie says she thinks chapbooks are a lovely idea, that they can suit many purposes; that they don’t particularly have to be poetry which is perhaps pretty well catered for, but that a mixture of prose poems, or poem/essays might find its own niche."

"The problem with chapbooks is distribution," Bakowski suggests. "My chapbook published in Canada is in its fifth print run, and I’ve probably sold 95% of them. It depends how proactive a poet or essayist or short story teller is that you’re dealing with."

"When I first had a chapbook - brought out by Nosukumo Press in Melbourne, I remember Javant (the publisher) writing to me about a launch and promoting the book. And I wrote back - this is when I was about to be published for the first time, I had no idea - I said 'oh you know, I’m interested in the quiet revolution where the book will sell by word of mouth'. And he said, 'Oh I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that.' "

"So I’ve since very healthily come around."

"I was listening to the ABC last night," I continued, "a programme commemorating the centenary of the birth of novelist Graham Greene. It appears quite a few of his contemporaries were not a little jealous at the way he managed to remain single focused - always with his nose in his book. He’d get up four or five times in the middle of the night to write if he had an idea he couldn’t let go of. I was thinking about you mentioning how you'd often get up to write at four am ... writing's such a focus of your life that it’s an easy routine for you, I take it ... or is it difficult?"

"It’s very difficult," Peter replied. "For example, here in the residency, in the first week of the residency I wrote three brand new poems which I wrote first draft - and revised them - each poem, all within a day, and I thought … wow I’m going really well here. But in the second week, nothing came, I did revise some poems and I also realised there were certain poems mooted for the next book that I got rid."

"And is it always poetry?" I asked. "When you put the alarm on to write at four in the morning, is it never a review, an essay, or a piece of prose? Is it always poetry?"

"I’m in my twenty-first year of writing poetry, and I just want to write poetry till the day I die," Bakowski replied.

"So to some extent, it’s simply trying to write, and write well?".

"Well at the same time it doesn’t get any easier. Over the last eighteen months I’ve been writing portrait poems exclusively, writing about real people - which takes a lot of research. I might read someone’s biography but it's not guaranteed I’ll get a poem out of it. But more than anything, I’m trying to be visual, attempting to be a painter with words. A very influential quote for me in a book of essays and memoirs to do with Charles Bukowski was along the lines of, there’s all these books analysing, dissecting writing and literature, I don’t know what all the fuss is about, writing is painting. Those three words are a lighthouse effect for me, which I try to keep in view when I set sail upon the page. With every poem I write now, I’m really thinking about painting pictures. But because they’re portrait poems, the character’s voices and their world views are coming through the poems. It’s a sort of egoless poem, where there’s an unseen narrator in front of an unseen camera, leaving us with the portrait of the person in front of the camera, or in the eye of the narrator. "

I asked Peter about another of his poems, in which he writes There’s no safety net / just me /ready with a large waste paper basket. "It leaves me with an impression of an intellectual leap, of flying by the seat of your pants…. "

"My philosophy - with writing an actual poem, and my poetry career - is one of persistence," he replied. "When I’m writing a poem, I actually see each stanza as a hurdle, almost like in a running race where you have hurdles, I’ll just sit there until I hurdle the next stanza. There’s often a great sense of relief when I've filled up an A4 page. Getting from page one to page two - if there is a page two - I consider a sort of breakthrough. When I get stuck in a poem I sit there, try to be calm, open and non-anxious until I have that breakthrough. I’m not shy about risking words on a page, I’ve got to try out a lot of words, that’s why I don’t worry how many pages, how many sheets of paper I put in the waste paper basket because I’m just risking words. Often I need to write a lot of rubbish to get to the good stuff."

So you’d say you attack those hurdles? I asked

"Chipping away at the coalface is another image that comes to mind. I do see the stanza itself, its non-resolution being a barrier, I’m not happy till I’ve leaped onto the next line."

"You suggest that you go from one verse to the next - a linear progression, a linear construction - and that it's important to you to work in this way," I said. "As opposed to a poetry whose focus and is not its narrative progression but its imagery, for instance…."

"At the same time I’m very much interested in the killer image, one certainly hopes a few times in one’s lifetime one comes up with a killer image. I am trying to come up with the refreshing image, but ... I can’t come up with them every single line."

Are there writers you feel an affinity with, I asked ... Rory Harris, possibly, with his penchant for the small polished image?

"I’ve stopped with the ultra short poem at the moment," Peter replied. "The portrait poems I’m working on are all at least thirty lines long. But I like the playfulness of the ultra short poem."

"Of Australian poets that I feel some affinity with, one of my favourite books of poetry was the collection Highgate Hill by Robert Hughes. The whole book was about the one Brisbane neighbourhood of Highgate Hill, and each poem about a neighbour. Some of the neighbours were obviously exaggerated, or perhaps even made up. I absolutely loved that idea, and I finally nailed my Richmond neighbourhood poem with the poem ‘In the vicinity of 24 Somerset Street, Richmond’. "

"I find the poets that mean the most to me just happen to be from overseas - Charles Simic, Charles Bukowski, Billy Collins. They’re poets whose work intrigues me, I liken their poems to motor vehicles, every time I read them I’m trying to take them apart to see how they work."

"In a way the writing experience was dormant for me as a child, but there’s been a love of words and books from the age of six. And also a love of the map of the world, which I also fell in love with at the age of six. I remember opening a children’s encyclopaedia in the downstairs’ rumpus room of our house in Lower Templestowe and being enthralled by the colours and shape of the map of the world. I knew every capital city by the age of eight."

In one of his poems, Peter Bakowski writes 'I prefer solitude to gossip'. "Tell me to shut up if you want, Peter but … your relationship with Helen, does it tend to draw you out, balance you?"

"I remember when I had the 1997 Rome residency through the Australia Council and I was invited to read in Florence," he replied. "The teaching person we were staying with didn’t understand the degree of my need for some daily quiet and solitude, she looked at Helen and asked ‘is he always this taciturn?’ (Laughs). Solitude is important to me, I’ve felt I’ve lead a daydreaming, fantasy world, solitary existence from the age of four or five. Helen respects my solitude but has helped me be more generous towards my fellow creatures."

"I would also point out that I’m personally very aware of the huge difference between solitude and loneliness and my own nickname for myself at some stages in my travels - before I met Helen - used to be 'God’s Loneliest Man'. That was sort of said with not much humour, I was suicidally lonely for much of my five years living in London. But I felt the way about London that Frank Sinatra felt in singing about New York City, if I can make it here I can make it anywhere.... so I gave it my best, I gave it five years. But it was killing me."

Given that Australia experienced a federal election the day before my interview with Peter took place, it seemed timely to mention politics. Had events leading up to the election affected the poetry he'd been writing?

Bakowski said in response that he certainly considered himself anti-war, but had no wish to write what he called "the rant poem" where the targets are easy: war is bad, generals are bad, Bush is bad, etc. "I’ve written poems set in concentration camps, labour camps, in the First and Second World Wars, but what I’m most interested in showing is the effect of world events on the individual."

"I see each positive human endeavour as an attempt to put light where there's darkness. The conscience is there for a reason. Though it's there to give you insomnia sometimes...."

"When I write a poem, the question I'm asking myself is what am I trying to say in this piece of writing? And have I said it clearly and strongly? Does it have an impact?"

I repeated some lines from one his poems, showing very directly where he's coming from:

to say the thing directly
the way the hammer says
things to the nail.

"Arthur Schopenhauer said to use ordinary words to say extraordinary things," Peter responded. "A friend of mine - David Lumsden, someone you've published in famous reporter - looked at the manuscript of days that we couldn't rehearse before it went to the publisher and he gave me some written comments on separate pieces of paper attached to the manuscript. One of the comments was, give yourself a dollar for every word you can get rid of. It's one of the greatest pieces of advice I've even been given."

There's a line in one of your poems, Peter, where you write I've never been comfortable with prayer. So how comfortable are you?

"I pray, but I question it," he replied. "My prayers go up with a question mark: is there anyone out there? It’s been an interesting journey for me. Helen comes from a strong Catholic background, our son Walter’s been brought up a Catholic, we go to church on Sundays - it’s still an ongoing process for me. What I enjoy about going to church on a Sunday is that it gives me time to think to about the past week, to remember when I’ve been irritable, grumpy and cranky."

"Some writers approach poetry the way others approach religion, finding within poetry the answers others seek within religion. Is that the case with you?" I asked.

"I think the very best that literature can provide is solace," Peter replied. "I remember someone coming up to me in Melbourne at a barbeque, he said he had a few problems and had been inside for a while … by inside he meant he’d had some sort of nervous breakdown. I had a copy of In the human night with me when I was inside this mental institution, he said, adding that while he was in there, he’d read it over and over and it’d helped him through. It reminded me of being lonely in London ... finding myself in bed at 2am reading Jack London, for instance, and agreeing with him out loud, yes yes I’ve felt like that!"

"I attended a Catholic primary school in Melbourne. I remember as an adolescent praying when my parents were divorcing really loudly, I prayed to God for my parents to stop fighting. And they didn’t. They ended up separating and divorcing. I felt at that very impressionable adolescent age that my prayers hadn’t been answered."

"There’s a part of me that remains ambivalent about the existence of God. But having now survived two heart operations - and wondering where inspiration comes from - I find the idea of God as a father figure a comforting idea, and I can understand it. I feel it forms a comfort for a lot of people. But I can’t one hundred percent say - throughout my being - that I believe."

(Interview recorded in Hobart on 10th October 2004; published in Famous Reporter 30, December 2004).