Ross Bolleter’s recent poetry collection, Piano Hill, takes up the age-old themes of desire, love, death, creativity and the passing of time. Known for his work with ruined pianos, this collection brings together poet, composer and performer.
When did you start writing poetry?
When I was 17. I wrote my first poem while breaking up concrete to create a slurry for a concrete floor. I guess it might have been the rhythm of the sledgehammer that prompted it.
I do remember an earlier poem I’d written for an English class that was, well, a bit lurid, and I remember waiting shamefacedly to get it back. But the teacher was very discreet and didn’t mention the content, only saying it was very good and giving me 8 out of 10. I felt absolved and encouraged all at once.
The ‘Suite for Ruined Piano’ is quite unique. Was it inevitable that you write this sequence of poems?
I have written a book called The Well-Weathered Piano that has some ruined piano stories in it. But was I always going to write a poetry sequence like this?
Well, some of these poems were written during the Ten Days on the Island festival in Tasmania in 2008. I created an installation of seventeen ruined pianos, that people could come and play on and explore. That was the genesis of the poem ‘Ruined Piano Labyrinth’, and the title of the installation itself.
Can you explain the connection between your poetry and your music further?
Sometimes, when the music stops, there is the poem. In some way, poetry completes what I can’t do in music. And I think the reverse is true. Mostly I let the form follow the content. But form follows rhythm too. In fact, my poems are often formed around breath. Line length is often tied to breathing rather than metre, and a Piano Hill poem might be thought of as a sequence of breaths.
I am fascinated by the possibility of talking about music. What can possibly be said about it? It’s so mysterious. I find poetry is sometimes what results from my trying to say something about music.
You narrate the stories of some interesting characters. How much are these from real life and how much imagination?
They’re from real life. Completely. For instance, the Bird Man was an old man who lived on Lake St, before the freeway went in. I never spoke to him because he looked like a formidable person. But he was very interesting. When the freeway went through that Northbridge area it was very destructive. A lot of that old culture was lost.
What is your writing process?
I carry a notebook at all times, and jot down images, phrases. Sometimes these are very ‘soft’ – almost imperceptible. I don’t reject any ‘offers.’ Almost always, there’s a rhythmic shape to a phrase that signals me.
Editing a poem can be at least as creative as conceiving the poem. I’m fascinated by what happens when you remove elements of a poem. Sometimes, everything breathes, and the poem comes to life.