Carmen Leigh Keates: Image courtesy of the artist
When did you start writing poetry?
From a very young age I was actually just writing whatever came to me, and it mostly seemed to come out as poetry. I was a bit of a literature freak from about ten or eleven. Used to memorise Shakespeare and whatnot. Usual nerdy things. I think it comes from being brought up very religious and knowing how to read on my own when I was little. Just a theory.
Then I was a 14-year-old Nick Cave fan. This was useful because I think I realised earlier than most teenage poets that although you may like someone’s style, it’s embarrassing to sound like them. So Nick Cave’s work is obviously very distinctive, but before I left high school I think I’d grown out of trying to emulate him. (Now I’m a Tom Waits girl, by the way, and I’m happy to say I do not sound like him, either.)
When I started uni I did a Creative Writing degree. When I wrote prose—short stories, or plays—I always felt like I was crapping on. I always wanted to cut it back. Then someone suggested that maybe I was actually writing poetry. So I then actively tried to write poetry, and I was embraced at uni because there weren’t many people writing verse. It became easy to distinguish myself. And I discovered that lecturers loved to say things like “our poet” this, “our poet” that. Maybe I’m just a big suck!
How do you go about writing? (Do you need five coffees, a new pencil and a quiet spot? Do you write in cafes or on a laptop? Do you carry around notebooks? Do you write in the morning or in the evening? etc.)
This question makes me want to say something like: I can write anywhere, on anything; give me a stick and some dirt and I’ll just write, because I’m a no-nonsense person. But the truth is that most writers need a quiet space, and once they’ve been writing for a while, they need a system to keep track of all the material. So conditions have, in fact, become more specific as I’ve got older.
I get up in the morning and write because that’s what I feel like doing. I don’t force myself. I’ve just learned that this is what I’m supposed to do, because when I have had day-jobs, and put on an alarm and got up early, showered, dressed and gone to work, I feel like shit because I can’t fit my writing in, and I get depressed. There’s no point in me trying to concentrate after eight hours in a workplace. It’s so draining and meaningless to me. So. Now that I’m a student again…
I get up around 6:30am and check email and then start fiddling with my poems, or my thesis, and then it’s usually about 10:30am when I go “why am I so hungry?”.
Specifically, I write with pen and paper when I’m making up something new, or when I’m expanding on something I’ve jotted down in a notebook. Then I transcribe onto the computer. Then I edit and revise on the screen, saving every draft with the date and time in the file name. And I print out nearly every draft. I have to see it on paper, and argue back to it. If it turns out that I need to add a section to a poem, I go back to the pen and paper again. I usually write about three pages of notes and waffle to get enough for the beginnings of one quatrain. I really talk my way into ideas far more than I used to. I go digging more. I know something’s there and I don’t wait for it to come out of its own accord.
Do you write with an audience in mind?
I just write on instinct most of the time, but of course I did not emerge from a primordial swamp so yes, I’m pretty sure I’m writing for a particular literary audience. I try not to restrict myself too much, though. I’m too young to be set in my ways. If you wanted to be very mundane you could say I’m a page poet, and that my poetry has been nurtured in an academic environment. But that still doesn’t guarantee anything specific. I’ve always wanted to write so that nearly anyone could understand my poetry in their own way and feel like they got something of interest from it.
You recently finished writing a verse novella, can you talk about the process and give us a synopsis?
No! Oh, alright then. I wanted to write character poems because of all the cool things I’d overhear when I was out in the Valley. I’m a person who can absolutely hate someone but love the way they talk. Especially boofheads, hoons… They come up with gold. This is what I really used to be into. Not so much now. So anyway, I had characters, so I ended up writing a story about this guy called Rodney, who is in a Brisbane band. He and his friends get to say some of the wonderful things I’ve overheard in the Valley Mall. The book is called Second-Hand Attack Dog. I’m proud of it. And Alan Wearne liked it when he read it (as the examiner of my Masters thesis), so that made me very happy.
Can you tell us about your current project?
Now I’m really expressing myself more in my poetry. Funny that it’s all I’ve ever done, but I don’t think I was speaking completely honestly. So, it’s becoming more about my responses to the world, rather than a character’s. I still record what people say, but I write it straight how I hear it. I’m a listener now and I preserve that; I haven’t crossed over (as I used to) to emulate the person I hear.
Right now I’m writing a lot of new poetry for a manuscript that will be my PhD thesis in Creative Writing. It’s early days, so I’m going by my gut. I can tell you that I love paying more attention to the poetic imagery of recurrent memories, of dreams, and I just can’t get enough of Tarkovsky films at the moment.
I think I’ve finally got to an age where my experience is starting to buoy up my inner world in a way it couldn’t before, so if I write on one thing that starts out as being interesting but the core is somehow hiding, I now know how to interrogate myself until I hit the real stuff. Now my memories have hit a critical mass of some sort. An early checkpoint, I hope, in a very long series of good, reflective changes. I really like it. I can’t wait to be ninety and just see what I write about then. I wonder what I’ll remember. I wonder what will just be lost. I bet I laugh at myself a lot. I’ve already started doing that more than I used to, so it’s going to be hilarious in sixty years’ time. Maybe I’ll look in the mirror each morning and just crack up.
Catch Carmen at the Queensland Poetry Festival in Torching the Shadows - Saturday 27 August / Shopfront Space / 11.45am