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The Poetry Kit interviews Coral Hull

 
 

Photograph by Trevor Poulton

 
Tell me about your background. Where were you born and brought up? Do you come from a literary family?

I was born in Paddington when it was a slum, then brought up in Liverpool on the outskirts of western Sydney in Australia. It was as rough as guts in that part of the world, a real working class paradise. The good thing about the area was that it was close to lots of bush. This includes places such as the rainforest strewn escarpment of Wollongong to the south, the coastal inlets and estuaries of Newcastle to the north, the wild dry eucalyptus forests and deep sandstone buffs of The Blue Mountains to the west and right in the centre of it all Sydneyís Royal National Park. I spent school holidays being taken on various camping trips and visiting my fatherís home town of Brewarrina 800km north west of Sydney in outback New South Wales. I also remember spending a lot of time at Sydneyís beaches and on school holidays with my grandmother in Matraville, which is an industrial area in the eastern suburbs. There used to be a constant flame burning from an oil refinery across the road, which both fascinated and comforted me acting as an outdoor night light. Whilst growing up in Liverpool my two younger brothers and I roamed the streets and ran amock. My immediate family were anti-literary. They loved football and despised classical music. My mother mostly despised Beethoven and especially his fifth symphony, which I held as the essence of life. She also refused to visit art galleries with me when I was an adolescent, complaining to other relatives that I would stare at one painting for twenty minutes. I remember doing this with ĎMoonriseí by David Davies. I went somewhere else through his work, although I donít know how long I was away. My mother also said that one of my drawings looked like semen. She would never take my creative work seriously. Once I went to try out a new poem out on her and she got up and switched up the volume on the television set. My father was a detective who listened to Johnny Cash and recited some Banjo Paterson when he was drunk. He didnít read or write much but his speech and ways of seeing were creative and humorous. He sang lots of songs and told silly stories about the bush. He was often drunk when he did this. My mother is now a youth worker, working with children who commit serious crimes such as murder. She says, Ďthey remind me of you lotí, meaning my two younger brothers and I. This is not true. We werenít like them, just treated like them. She listened to Johnny Mathis and read New Idea magazines late at night, whilst gnawing on chocolate in bed with her hair rollers on. To this day Iíve never seen either of my parents read a book. My mother may have read a few Mills and Boons, but my father hates the idea of reading at all, because he said he had to read through too much evidence over the years as part of his job as a railway detective in Sydney. He reads my poems when he appears in them and only reads the newspapers for horse racing or lotto results. No one in my immediate or extended family was bothered with books, or not that I knew of. I remember when they tried to make me read in my first year at Casula High School and that I hated it. It was too hard and made me exhausted and angry. Poetry was the worst. I just didnít understand John Keats, Judith Wright or Kenneth Slessor.

When did you start writing poetry? What were the books\events that most influenced your beginning as a writer?

I started writing very bad rhyming poetry at thirteen, which is around the same time I became a vegetarian. My first poem was about landscape and my last poem is about landscape. There was no one to discuss the deeper aspects of existence with, so I wrote about it. I was only able to express myself in a limited way, having not been that well educated. Yet from the start I tackled the deeper issues, love, god, suffering, ethics, death and birth even if the ideas were crude and unformed. It was power that I was interested in from the start, because existence terrified me. I usually read anything that was given to me or that came into my hands. I rarely searched out material in libraries or bookshops, because I either had no money or I didnít know how to go about it or what to look for. Once I had enrolled in a Bachelor of Creative Arts Degree the University of Wollongong books were in abundance, presented to us in various lectures, prescribed on reading lists and available through the campus library. I often got sick and confused in libraries so I was at a disadvantage there. I bought books with my student allowance in preference to food and borrowed the rest from other students. It was also where I learnt to spell properly.
I was first influenced by Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. They are popular Australian poets in that most households have at least heard of their names. That is why they were accessible to my class. Dad says when they ask what you do, tell them ĎIím a poet like Banjo Paterson.í Thatís Banjo Paterson the poet, not the racehorse. Dad thought that most Australianís confused poets with racehorses and vice versa (Note: Pharlap is actually the race horse, although Andrew Barton Paterson was named after a racehorse called ĎThe Banjo.í). The books that were available to me as a child were all written by Enid Blyton, so I read them. I was startled by books such as ĎRexí by Joyce Stranger, ĎDustyí and ĎManshyí by Frank Dalby Davidson and ĎBig Redí by Henry G Lammond. They were all books about animals and human interaction with other animals. I was deeply influenced by Barbara Baytonís ĎBush Studiesí. My favourite short story in this collection was titled; ĎScrammy An.íí I read it at twelve and found it very disturbing. Barbara Baynton wrote weird things about inland Australia that bordered on horror. I liked anything with Australian culture and landscape featured in it. I also read most of the pulp horror of Stephen King and James Herbert during my adolescence. I needed to be shocked and disturbed. I wanted the horror in the books to reflect my life situation and make me into a survivor just like in the movies. I read a wide variety of trash and treasure that lives in my psyche to influence my own work today. At twenty-one I went from fantasy and science fiction written by Tolkien, Stephen Donaldson and Arthur C Clarke through to classics by Somerset Maugham, Mark Twain and John Steinbeck. I was still reading virtually anything that I could get my hands on, including ĎAlice in Wonderlandí. The events that influenced me were the ones that touched me emotionally. You need some kind of heart left in you in order to be able to write. The intellect is not enough, even with an imagination that probes the universe. It is after all the human spirit and not the universe that is the basis of great literature.

How does the way you make a living influence your poetry?

For the past twenty years Iíve lived in either share accommodation, been homeless or camped out. My time has been spent working voluntarily for environmental and animal rights organisations and as a full-time student, artist and writer. Earlier on Iíve also worked in a supermarket, a plastics factory and at various markets. Iíve written thirteen books, four of which have been recently published, with no financial support from any established funding body in Australia or elsewhere. Iíve had a good life despite many times where food, clothing and shelter were simply unobtainable. Iíve begged for food a number of times, including at a Buddhist Centre in Melbourne where I was refused, and have done numerous poetry readings, including on Radio National where my stomach was aching for food. Itís not the type of thing you can talk about at the time. In my mid-twenties I was so poor that when the day came to kill my suffering fifteen-year old dog named Toby, I couldnít afford to pay the visiting vet for the poison. That is when I got really angry. The added stress of not having the money to do the job, impinged upon my strength to be there for him as his life was ended, including the days leading up to his death. My greatest burden has been my dog companions, and making sure they have food and shelter has been a real challenge over the years. I always had faith that writing would not only save the world, but lift me out of poverty as well. I no longer have that faith. If I knew then what I know now I would have become a prostitute. When you are a child from a poor background you get used to the word Ďnoí and quickly realise that you cannot have what other kids can, and on top of that you seem to be in trouble a lot more. During adolescence and your early twenties you can live on dreams and delusions, in a similar way to factory workers who gamble on Lotto every payday. Now that Iím in my early thirties Iíve grown weary of working for no income. Apart from my choice in a career as a writer, I believe that my poverty was largely caused by environmental factors, including a poorer class background and a severe nervous breakdown that occurred in my early twenties, and which lasted about six years. I didnít know that I was even working class, until I started associating with the middle class and bohemians, whom I met at various universities and through political organisations and the art world. For a long time it was all okay because I didnít know any better. Whilst living in Melbourne I was once so defeated that I was unable to save a crow with a broken wing. It is very unlike me to not at least try to save an animal in distress. On this particular autumn day the cold grey weather was drizzling down and I just didnít have the strength or energy to save the bird. Instead I sat down in the park with my two dog companions and cried into my raincoat, as it hobbled away and fell into the gutter. I knew that no one else would help the crow and most likely it would starve to death or be run over. It was a really bad moment. The injured bird was my responsibility and I failed on this occasion. I wanted to end my job as a writer and just work for animals, which I did for the next two years. I resent my powerlessness in situations like that. These days I canít get that excited about being flown overseas to read poetry at an international festival or participate in a residency, or even in the publication of my new work. The power of being able to write and to explore ethics through my writing will always inspire me, but the ability to buy good food and to have a roof over my head and to be able to look after my dog companions excites me more.

Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing?

If I donít write at least once every four days, the creativity rears up inside me and strikes. In a similar way to someone knowing if they tread on the back of a brown snake, I know when I must write. As soon as I have quietened my thoughts down beyond every day concerns, whether in the shower or walking along the beach with my dog companions, an internal dictation occurs. Itís like pulling words out of space or holding onto them as if they were kites on thin thread and watching them sail. I only write about what grabs my interest but then I find a lot of things interesting. Since attending conceptual arts school in South Australia I understand a little more about what it means to Ďseeí the world. The visual arts have been a terrific aid to my own internal creative processes. I would strongly suggest that writers take a mixed media approach to their creative output at some stage in their careers, if not to seriously learn something then at least to revitalise themselves. Iím working on so many projects at the same time, that I can sit down to work on any one of them on a daily basis. Itís a good way to work. By having many projects on the go, you can simply go to the one that youíre in the mood for that day. If Iím feeling tired or frustrated I edit my work or participate in interviews. Just kidding. A challenge is healthy but struggle in writing concerns me. Iíve never had a problem with writerís block. If I want to sit down and write I will and if I donít Iíll do something else. I think a great remedy for writerís block would be to go and work voluntarily for a local charity or environmental group. This way not only are you putting your time to good use but external stimuli may trigger a creative response. Creative writing is challenging work but thereís no point in forcing it. Thereís other things to do. The way Iím working at present is to actively seek out experience and engage in deliberate research and documentation. I appropriate from other sources such as conversations, television, lectures, leaflets and some books. I interview people and record incidents that touch my imagination or trigger me emotionally. Even though I see myself involved in a process of documentation, Iím still essentially Ďcreatingí the work rather than simply Ďrecordingí it. We are recreating everything we perceive. I use appropriation to give the object of my interest some external truth beyond my own perceptions and to teach myself to look beyond my own emotional responses or what is inside me. This is a recent development in the way I work and I believe that it has taken away the preachy aspect of my work, even though my views are just as strong, if stronger than ever. The odd thing is if you tell someone to feel empathy for those who are suffering they will resist, but if you suffer and they see you suffering they will suffer with you. Itís about teaching by example rather than preaching. Iíve never waited for inspiration and think that it might be like waiting for aliens, or lightning when thereís no sign of storms. At the same time I think that people should do what works best for them, as long as its intention remains noble. It is important for me to live and think like a full time writer and artist, but then equally important to forget that I am either of those things and just live. I recently obtained a Doctor of Creative Arts Degree majoring in creative writing, but I am by no means an academic. As much as I have tried over the years, I donít do too well inside a system or a library. The idea of a literary scene feels too much like a zoo and Iíd prefer to be out in the wild.

Which of contemporary poets do you find most interesting?

When I heard Australian poet John Anderson read out his poems about the flight of black ducks to a group of people sitting around one afternoon in his backyard, I felt an odd sensation. Some shift occurred inside myself that felt like the eye of a water bird opening up. Midway through the piece I stifled an involuntarily sob and tried not to helplessly weep. His work had bypassed my intellect and was nesting in my heart. I was too shaken to feel self-conscious. It was a memorable moment. When I read his second collection, ĎThe Forest Set Out Like The Night,í I believed it in the same way that I believe in Dreamtime Australia. This was spiritual land speaking through an individual poet. I think that John Anderson somehow letís go when he writes and that this allows the landscape to come through him. In person he had that wry, internal and sleepy presence that reminds me of a stand of gums in the heat. I dearly miss him. During my years of deep contemplation based in western mysticism, I have often given myself up to the notion of god, asking that god work through me on earth. I believe in some ways that the Australian landscape is doing its work on earth through Johnís writing. Itís more than analysing his work, or reacting emotionally to it, I truly believe in it. Judith Wright is my mentor. She combines metaphysics with the physical world and I have carried her book with me into the outback like a bible. I have been deeply moved by other Australian poets writing on landscape such as Kenneth Slessor, Francis Webb and Les Murrayís earlier work, but Judith Wright is a poet who I can trust with nature. This kind of poetry is very serious business for me. On my reading list at present are Philip Levine, John Tranter, Gary Snyder, Theodore Roethke, Garcia Lorca and Rimbaud. Just read a book of Rilke. Didnít particularly like it. Pretty language that left me feeling empty. Iím enjoying Francis Ponge who is imaginative and unique, even if I disagree with some of his observations on the natural world. Italo Calvino, James Joyce, Gunter Grass and Jorges Louis Borges are my choice of prose writers at present. I still have a soft spot for DH Lawrence and his eccentricities. Apart from poetry and poetic prose I tend to like books on natural history from seashells to weather patterns, with particular interest in North America and Australia. I also like animal rights and environmental ethics and political philosophy having recently read ĎRain Without Thunderí and ĎAnimal Rights: Your Child Or The Dog?í by Gary Francione, an animal rights advocate and law professor in New Jersey, USA. I have a passion for the comparative mythology of Joseph Campbell and Iím also about to tackle a few books on cosmology and astrophysics such as ĎA Brief History of Timeí by Stephen Hawking. I enjoy exploring dense experimental text, reading just about anything but not bad poetry, which gives me a headache and causes spiritual unrest.

What are you working on at the moment?

Iím working on about twelve different books of poetry, prose poems and prose fiction that are all in various stages of construction, from initial research notes to final editing. A lot of these books are thematic by nature and whatever doesnít fit into them goes into a huge document of miscellaneous notes. At present Iím focusing on collecting and collating information on northern Australian landscapes. The mangroves and crocodiles hold particular interest and my love of Australian landscape borders on obsession. I canít get enough of it when Iím out in it and often it literally feels like Iím running crazy inside with joy and excitement. On the other hand the bush is so expansive and intense that I will not travel in it alone. I must have at least one other human being to reaffirm my thoughts and observations in some way. I will admit here that Australia is best experienced by me in the company of others. I am able to isolate my thoughts and work things out when attached to a loose group or when a travelling companion is boiling the water for a cup of tea. Iím now a member of The Northern Territory Field Naturalist Club and Top End Native Plant Society. We go on regular day trips into the bush. Last week it was termites, in particular the magnetic termite mounds that exist only in Litchfield National Park. I saw termites in the wild for the first time. The day before it was bird identification where the species that appealed most were the White-Breasted Wood Swallow and the Mangrove Wren. Last night I went to a talk on carnivorous plants, having particular interest in the Centred Sundew. Itís a winter growing species mainly prevalent along the Victorian heathlands and coastal areas around Melbourne, thatís about 6,000 kms south of where Iím living at present. Ironically, I ended up winning the plant raffle so I had to carry this insect-eating-plant home on the front seat of my holden. I felt like I had bought a puppy from a petshop and was wondering how to make it a vegan. Iím also working as a receptionist, driver and security for some female escorts in Darwin, where Iím presently interviewing women and compiling comprehensive notes on the sex industry, as part of a prose collaboration with writer John Kinsella. The other three main books that Iím working on are; a book of short stories titled, ĎA Suggestion To The Suní, a book about my two years of undercover work on Australian battery hen farms as an animal rights activist titled ĎBattery Hení and rough notes for a book of experimental prose on the Canadian landscape titled, ĎThe North Woodsí. In December 1998 I returned to Australia from an artic research station in Churchill, Manitoba in Canada and from there drove my 1964 Holden station wagon the length of the Stuart Highway straight up through the centre of Australia. Weíre looking at coming from northern lights, ptarmigan and polar bears at minus sixty degrees celcius to electrical storms, black cockatoos and pandanus palms at plus fifty, and all within a matter of days. It was necessary to shake up my existence at the time by living in these kinds of conditions, extremities that offered a different view of everyday life as I knew it.


© Ted Slade, Coral Hull 1999