Island to island: an interview with Pete Hay

I first met Pete Hay in Prince Edward Island in June 1998. We were going on a “Viking Hunt” with Icelandic saga scholar Gisli Sigurdsson. A delegate at the Institute of Island Studies’ “Message in a Bottle: The Literature of Small Islands” conference, Gisli was presenting a paper suggesting that our tiny island nestled in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Canada’s east coast could very well be the fabled “Vinland.” Pete was the only person on the boat whom I didn’t know, so I plunked myself down beside him and said hello. When he responded with a cheery “G’day,” I said, “You’re not from around here, are you?” 

As we floated through the fog, we didn’t bump into any Vikings, but we could picture Leif Eriksson’s ship on the other side of the misty curtain. Eventually the sun broke through, and after a few beers we started telling stories and singing songs about the Island. Indeed, if the boat had gone down, 90 per cent of Prince Edward Island’s artistic community would have been wiped out – along with one of Tasmania’s own movers and shakers of art, Pete Hay, singing “Van Diemen’s Land” as he sank beneath the waves.

So it was with great amazement at the ways of the world that 12 1/2 years later I found myself in Pete’s office in Hobart one Tuesday morning this past January trying out my interview questions on him. After numerous trips to my Island to attend conferences and teach in our Master of Arts in Island Studies program, we had become fast friends. When I asked him if he’d agree to be my supervisor if I came to do a PhD on islands with him in the School of Geography and Environmental Studies, he said yes.

Here is some of what Pete had to say.

LAURIE: So Pete, here we are, on Tuesday, January 25, 2011, in Tasmania, in your office, your lovely messy office that’s filled with your life. It isn’t really what I expected… it looks a bit like a beach.

PETE: It does look like a beach, because most of the décor is beach-collected. Beaches define the island. They are the geographic delimiters. I love walking on beaches. And I always walk with my head down, because although beaches have these wonderful expansive vistas – they go on forever, and often there’s no one else on them – I like to find what’s at my feet. I know seashells. I can pick up any seashell and tell you what its name is in the vernacular. 

L: It’s not a language that everybody knows. 

P: No. And now it’s in my poetry. In a section of my next book. I’ve tried to set up a tension between the actual shell, which is part of the natural world, and the profane world of human beings. In “Painted Lady” the poem dives back and forth between the shell commonly known as a Painted Lady and the giddy world of 1890s Paris. My “Chinaman’s Fingernail” poem bounces backwards and forwards between the shell and the Chinese tin miners of northeast Tasmania. And this cockle shell, Laurie. See this vivid spot of colour on the hinge here. It varies between purple and this wonderful apricot pink. Set against the plain cream of the rest of the shell it’s the most exquisite mote of colour in the world. I’ve tried to write a poem about that, too, as a sort of window into the unreachable essence of being itself. 

L: There is an island consciousness in your work: your imagery, your vernacular language, and your themes – “the pain and the beauty” of Tasmania. How and why have you adopted those in your writing?

P: In a raw sense, they’re the two most obvious factors about Tasmania. If you take a vertical line into Tasmania – a vertical line through time – it’s pain. You take a horizontal line and you go into geography, it’s beauty. But there’s massive tension between the two and that’s why I think Tasmania is an island so charged with poetry, and so full of poets. Because poetry responds to tension. It loves bafflement. It loves things that can’t easily be written. It thrives on apparent contradiction. I write pain and beauty. But everyone who writes Tasmania writes pain and beauty, and not just the poets. I can’t imagine how anyone could try to write Tasmania without foregrounding that bafflement, that tension.

L: You talk about what’s here, the beauty that’s here, but then you talk about what’s missing…

P: The absences. The absences just make you ache, and you’re forever reminded of them every time you’re in the bush. Every time you’re walking along a beach on the west coast, and there’s a sudden movement a hundred metres along the beach, at the beach’s edge, you think: is that a blackfella? Is that a blackfella still living in the old way deep in the bush who just vanished into the trackless scrub? Is that a thylacine that was standing there watching me until I got too close? And you know it’s not, but you wish it was. 

L: What would you consider your most “island” poem?

P: I don’t have a poem written specifically about islands, although if you ask me in a week’s time, I hope to. Right now it’s probably “The Wind Across the Island,” which at least has “island” in its title and is island-wide in its scope, whereas most of the other poems… Like so many people, the way you write islands is not even subconscious, it just gets sublimated into the work rather than being an overt theme. 

L: In your poem, “The Old Mind and the Sea,” you talk about Mother Sea, which is our connection with the sea on so many levels… how we internalize the sea…

P: I think the key to a coherent island discourse is not to do with the land, it’s to do with the sea. The key is what sense we make of the sea. How we establish the sea as an element that makes for a qualitative difference from being isolated within a range of mountains or “islanded” in an urban ghetto…

L: Then, to make that connection between our psychological state as islanders and the sea on all of those different levels, do you think that, as islanders, we’re more subconsciously aware of it?

P: I think so. I don’t see how we cannot be. I think that island scholars would be doing a favour for the discourse if they talked less about islands as such and more about the sea. Tell us about the sea. What is the nature of the sea? What is particular to being bounded by sea? Island poets need to write the sea, need to write the edge. So a genuine, unselfconscious island poem is a poem written from the vantage of the edge of the island looking away from it, looking out. 

L: Why poetry? 

P: I’ve never subscribed to the idea that poets change the world. So what you do is bear witness. You bear witness to awfulness and you bear witness to a beauty that is transient and will not last. You attempt to capture the fleeting soul of things. This is not to be essentialist because the word “fleeting” is very important. You can reach in to touch a soul – a place’s soul or even a person’s soul. And if you do it right, if the divine spark reaches you, you can intuit it and you can capture it, but it’s only of the moment. Even the soul is not an essence, even the soul shifts. I hope that when people read my writing it sparks either some sense of recognition in them, or some sense of resistance because that’s not how it is for them. The thing that turned me away from poetry for a while, the thing that still worries me about poetry, is that good poetry is ineffable; it defies a single prosaic meaning. The meaning of the poem has much more to do with the reader’s investiture than is the case with a work of prose. I chafe at that because I do want to be transparent, I do want people to know what I think, why I’ve written this poem, what I’m trying to say. I don’t want it simply to be the reader’s property after I’ve written it, though I also know that inevitably it must become just that.

L: Has your poetry changed over time?

P: There’s not as many swear words in it now. I think I’ve become a better poet, but a less daring one. I think my first volume of poetry ran greater risks. The second book ran fewer. View from the Non-Members’ Bar is a lot more scathing; there’s a lot more politically edged irony in it. My poetry has become less overtly political since then. And about ten years ago I stopped writing poetry to write essays. One of the reasons I did this was that dialogue between poet and reader – or listener – that I was talking about a moment ago. Good poetry has what I call “shimmer”. It has enigma – it welcomes the reader to take the words and invest their own meanings in them. But I got sick of that. I wanted to be less enigmatic. I just wanted people to be in no doubt what it was that I was trying to say. So I turned to prose. No shimmer. No enigma. Here’s my essay, you’ll be able to understand it, you will know exactly what I mean. But, paradoxically, when the essays came out as a collection, I was horrified to find out how much of myself I’d hung out to dry, how much of myself was out there for everyone to poke around in. So I fled back to poetry. I decided after all – fickle, call me fickle - I didn’t want to be transparent. I wanted to hide behind all that shimmer and enigma. The essay was simply too personal, which is interesting because poetry is thought to be the really deeply personal art form. And I suppose it is. A window into the soul. Yes, but there’s some frost on the window, whereas there bloody well isn’t in essays.

There’s another thing. I love to tell stories, and it’s easier to tell a story in an essay than in a poem. Especially as long narrative poems are not cool these days. A hundred years ago they were, but not today. People like their poems short – not long, rambling and shapeless. And I admire short, tight poems, too. But I write long, rambling and shapeless. In a stern attempt to mend the error of my creative ways I’ve started to write some very short poems. They were meant to be haiku, or haiku strings, but they’re not – they’re just little poems. I’m inclined to call them “truncates”. In one of them I try to tell the story of my life, no less. It’s basically a poem in key words – a life cut down to a few three-line stanzas. No one can understand a word of it except me, because it’s code to my life and only I know my life. Only I know what the codes mean. But it was good fun. So – however I write poetry – even in the “truncates” – story is always there.

L: But now you’re going to go back to essays. Why? 

P: A lot of the essays that I’ve written were meant to be poems, and they defeated me as poems. The subject matter was too large to fit into a poem, or there were too many dimensions to it to fit into a poem. But I enjoy writing my essays a lot more than I enjoy reading them. I overwrite. It’s Marquez’s fault. I like the way the Latin Americans write. I like the massive metaphoric risks they run, because language is pizzazz to them. Australians writers do the opposite, and they just turn me off. They write this spare, cut-down, unadventurous, bland prose. Look, Richard Flanagan. He writes a linguistically rich, un-Australian prose. Some people hate it. Others, like me, welcome the way he writes as liberation from the bland linguistical dessication of Australian fiction. But Richard grew up here on this island with its broken, plunging landscape, whereas most Australian writers take their land referents from the dry, sparse desert, or even the inland plains, which aren’t deserts, but are flat and, to the uninitiated eye, featureless. Flat visuals for flat writing. 

L: What’s the place on this planet where you feel most at home?

P: Well, it’s Tasmania, of course. The whole of the island. I lived in Melbourne once. Melbourne is a large sprawling city. But when I lived in Melbourne, I felt trapped. I couldn’t encompass Melbourne in my mind. Except at a most arid intellectual level. When we talk about islands, the question always comes up about how small an island needs to be to elicit an island consciousness. And some think Tasmania too large for this. But I can hold Tasmania in my mind as a multifaceted but coherent entity. My experience of Tasmania can enclose it. I can fold Tasmania within the ambit of my experiential compass. I could never do that with Melbourne.

L: Was it because you went away that you’re able to appreciate it more?

P: Yes, indeed. And I think people should leave their place. Tasmanians get really anguished and conflicted about the fact that we export most of the young population – certainly the young educated population. But that’s not a tragedy. They have to go. They should. The tragedy is not that they go but that most of them never come back. The tragedy is that after they’ve been gone for fifteen years they still hold the same negative stereotypes that most took with them when they left. Which I took away, too, only to discard them almost the day after I’d left and found myself yearning to be back here.

L: Could you write anywhere else?

P: I could go somewhere else and still write Tasmania, but after a while I’d need to be back here. I tend to be disappointed in the writings of ex-patriot Tasmanians, because they mostly present a cardboard cut-out, frozen-in-time idea of a Tasmania that no longer exists. I like Wayne Johnston’s writing. I’ve never met him, but he seems to feel guilt for having left Newfoundland, his island. In a seven-page section of Death of a River Guide Flanagan writes – it’s the finest piece of writing any Tasmanian has ever produced – he has that scorching refrain: “If you leave you can never be free.” Quite right. Which isn’t to say you can count on being free if you choose to stay, either. 

L. What has this island given you? And what have you given it?

P: It’s given me an identity. A profoundly etched identity. A point of view of the world, and a point of view about how one should read and understand the things and events one encounters in life. It has given me a sense of gratitude that I live here and not in many of the other places into which I could have been accidentally born. And a bit of a sense of guilt at my good fortune. How smug was that!

What have I given it? I used to think my role to be very much akin to the medieval fool. It was to be the foil, the pricker, the mocker of those who hold power. And I suppose on a good day that’s what I still say. I just ask questions and hope that they’re the right ones. I like the responsibility of being a public intellectual, which is to take nothing as sacred, to question everything, to be critical of everything, or at least to critique everything and be critical when the analysis mandates it. But to be a critic in this island – to speak truth to power instead of doling out lashings of lickspittle – is to be deemed An Enemy Of The People. And you’re on the hate lists. 

L: How would you end this sentence: I am a poet who…

P: This is easy because you have to produce those bloody crappy artist bios whenever you’re about to be published. “Pete Hay is a poet who is proudly parochial in Patrick Kavanagh’s sense of the term,” is one of the bios I’ve used in the past. And if the reader doesn’t know who Patrick Kavanagh is, they might just be moved to go and find out. Yeah. I’m a poet who writes Tasmania. There’s no reason why people on the mainland should know who I am or read anything I write. The very notion of Australia leaves me cold. It’s a constitutional fiction. I’m not interested in nation-building exercises. I write for and of Tasmanians. And even when I publish overseas, which I do from time to time, I write as if there’s a Tasmanian reader who understands the references. I’m virtually unknown these days on the big, busy, self-absorbed island to the north. And that’s fine.

In my last poetry book I had notes at the end of the book. Some people hate this. They think this is the death of poetry – to provide a key to the poem is to betray the very art. I want to do it again in my next book but if my long-suffering English publisher says he doesn’t want the notes that’s going to be a problem for me. I think the notes in Silently on the Tide work really well. Because I want people to understand what I’m saying while still preserving the enigma of poetry, having notes at the back means I can have my cake and eat it. 

L: Can you tell me about the title of your latest manuscript: “Physick,” which is with your publisher now?

P: “Physick” is an archaic term used for medicine, tonics, or even the person who dispensed same… proto what we would now call the doctor. It has three sections: a section called “Physics,” which is a grouping of real-world poems, grounded poems. Ambiguous nature poems – only tenuously lyrical. A section called “Metaphysics,” which are speculative, conceptual poems. And a section called “Physique,” which consists of social poems – dramatic monologues in a range of vernacular voices. This is a darker manuscript than my previous collections. Because I’m darker, less hopeful. Light and fluffy poetry doesn’t cut the mustard anyway. Poetry is better suited to exploration of the dark than the light. If you want to write the light, you write semi-comedic essays. All poets write some light poetry. But you look at any anthology of the world’s great poetry - it doesn’t have much in it that’s light and fluffy - doesn’t have many joke lines in it. But I’ll try to add a pinch or two of whimsy to leaven the lump. 

L: Is there anything else that you’d like to say about poetry?

P: Poetry baffles me. I’m a very poor poet – when I’m writing a poem I have to fight against the tendency to recycle the same half-dozen images that are permanently stuck in my head. I envy people who, though writing on the same topic they’ve written of many times in the past, can nevertheless endlessly turn up original images. I can’t do that. And then there’s that long, shapeless, rambly thingy. I just don’t write the kind of poetry I most like to read, Laurie.

(Published in Famous Reporter 43, March 2012)

Other interviews with Pete Hay

Conversations: an interview with Pete Hay and Richard Flanagan (1995)
A conversation with Pete and Anna Hay (2003)



Dove Lake Tanka
Sunset on the Irish Festival
Girl Reading Lorca at the Mirador San Nicolas
The Duck's Guts


BEACH, Eric: Weeping for Lost Babylon
DE PAOR, Louis: Goban Cre is Cloch/Sentences of Earth and Stone

Launch speeches

MATHISON, Robyn: To Be Eaten By Mice
ROBERTS, Bruce: In the Church of Latter Day Consumers
SANT, Andrew: The Islanders


Half-Time with Stout John
Port Arthur: Where Meanings Collide
What I did on my Holidays
Notes within Shadow