I write poetry. Poetry for me is really about getting something written down and then looking back at the patterns, then adding, adding, cutting, rearranging. It’s also about patience and trust in myself. If I just keep writing without filtering, I learn a lot about my own concealed obsessions. The editing is the ‘real’ writing — it determines what stays, what changes. A lot of the time, my poetry is about noticing that something is disorientating, and I investigate why this could be. This disorientating thing can be something in nature, or a work of art; a lot of the poems in my new book, Meteorites, respond to films.
How did you come to writing?
I thought I would be a poet at about age 3. I do not know why I latched into this thing. When I was going to university, I chose Creative Writing; people were encouraging me to do journalism or law, but I wouldn’t have it. It was during this degree that I followed my natural tendencies until I just went with what was working the most — poetry.
What were your greatest obstacles starting out? How did you overcome them?
Stupid templates. Templates for scenes, for characters, for tension in narrative, for entering prizes, for pursuing goals. Templates are great for explaining what is already there, but are awful for helping you come up with something new. Now, I separate writing from the idea of a career, hence, I don’t need to check my work against a template for reassurance. That decision is based on my own motivations and preferences, but for others, this separation would never make sense, as they are writing for different reasons and do not share my particular sensitivities.
How do you keep yourself motivated and disciplined?
By being the boss of my stuff. I bristle at ‘writing tips’ that infantilise writers. I am not having that. I make the decisions. I take advice from those I trust or am impressed by, but I don’t see how someone can be a good writer if they have no authority over their own work, or are always apologising that it is not good enough. Be alert, engaged and reasonable. Don’t be a doormat.
How do you manage your writing time with everything else you do? How has that changed from when you were starting out?
I do switch off / unplug the phone and have strong boundaries, otherwise people really will think I’m available for a beer. And I like beer, so what’s wrong with that? Well, when I’m looking at the whole picture, if I’m trying to be comforted by something other than the achievement of writing (when the object at that point is to produce good work), then I’ll always eventually feel crowded, infringed upon, and stalled by other activities. I’ll be that distracted person who is annoying to be around. I don’t think my friends deserve that vibe, so I actively plan and compartmentalise. Then I just get stuck in. I enjoy being alone. And writing does not need to take all day, though I would argue that sometimes you need to pretend to others that it does. I can get heaps done in 40 minutes, as long as I know I will not be interrupted. This may require me to LIE to others, or simply not tell them the details of what I am doing. I just do it. LIE if you must! It’s very liberating.
I don’t mind when work is busy — that sometimes helps me to make time for writing, because I really want to get back to it. This year at work, there was a restructure and I lost a big slab of my admin time. This made me really angry, because there was an unintentional insinuation that I had to get this admin done in a rush, or in my own time when I was not being paid for it. Following this, when I had a cancellation or unexpected window of time, instead of using it for admin, I wrote poems and stories. I thought, ‘No, this is bonus time. If the other staff members can use it to go and buy another coffee, then I can use it to write.’ I don’t need to have a verbal argument about things that are unreasonable. Instead, I just DO what IS reasonable. Case closed!
Where do you write? How do you arrange your working space?
I edit at home, in my office. I write ‘first’ notes anywhere the ideas come to me. I love my laptop when I am traveling.
What are your essential writing tools?
A pen and notepad, and manila folders for filing things into groups. I do not keep a notebook other than for dreams because if I keep writing notes in the one book, they can’t be transferred, moved on, and eventually put away (retired). I need that physical proof of completion. When I am editing, I need a computer with a huge screen, or two screens.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were starting out as a writer?
In terms of publishing, even with small articles, never work for nothing, unless you are one of the key organisers. People who ask writers to work for nothing at all (in a publication that has advertising, for instance) are usually the worst type of entrepreneur — just stay away from them. On the other hand, when I was in my early 20s, I used to love writing music reviews for the street press and getting paid in tickets! I got a lot of tickets, drinks passes, VIP access for festivals — it was a dream! So, think of what is reasonable and useful to you, but I would avoid anything that is a cold call for writers to provide content for ‘exposure.’ That time is over and those people need to get the message.
What do you read and how do you read as a poet?
I read slowly, because I am very affected by writing that I find potent. I’ll live with the same stack of 6-7 books for an entire year, detouring to read something new every now and then. And during the workday, I read loads of assignments, so my understanding of structure (and how to edit it really quickly) has become razor-sharp.
How do you overcome ‘writer’s block’?
Socialise. Get away. Don’t dwell on it. Have faith that something is brewing right down inside. I write down the ‘natural’ things instead — dreams, what I can see out the window, what I thought of the movie I just saw. The writing block probably isn’t with writing ANYTHING — it’s probably just with the project in front of me, and feeling blocked means it’s probably time to detach from it, and that’s fine.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring poets?
This is where I kind of turn into RuPaul and say ‘Unless they’re paying your rent, you pay them bitches no mind.’ Yes, get in and read a lot of poetry. Yes, develop your ‘ear’, your sense of taste, your confidence that what you are writing is new and good. But honestly, there is so much twaddle out there masquerading as writing advice — sit like this, write this many words each day, KILL YOUR DARLINGS! (I think someone needs to kill THAT darling…). I have improved only by developing my own style over a long time, and this was done by following my nose, following my interests, and these things do not make sense to anyone else in their preliminary phases, so there’s no need to get anything approved by an outsider when it’s just in ‘dream’ stage. See how it develops. Wait. Tend it.
I just got back from a month-long Australia Council funded trip to Scandinavia. That project was my idea, based on weird things I’m interested in, not someone else’s idea of what a writer like me should be doing at this particular juncture. But, after a lot of work, I was able to put the idea into a form that sounded good to the people holding the money. And off I went. It was so worth it. Again – be the boss of your stuff!
Carmen Leigh Keates won the 2015 Whitmore Press manuscript prize and her poetry collection, Meteorites, is available now via whitmorepress.com. In July 2016, funded by the Australia Council, Carmen travelled to Scandinavia to research her next manuscript. Two of her poems are in the latest Axon Journal (online and free).
Carmen will be reading at this year’s Queensland Poetry Festival on 26 August: queenslandpoetryfestival.com/site/performer/carmen-leigh-keates