Speaking long-distance from Port Lincoln while cycling across Australia in September last year, James Quinton considered the importance of writing honest poetry, and how difficult it is to find the balance between art and expression.
When did you start writing?
I dabbled in poetry, mainly in writing song lyrics, between the ages of twelve and seventeen. Then I didn’t pick writing up seriously until I was at uni and studying creative writing, but I haven’t stopped since. I've written some short stories, essays and articles, but never fiction of any length. It’s mainly been poetry.
I think I have a desire to write a novel, just once, as a five-year project maybe. But you can write one poem a week and have fifty-two at the end of the year, so poetry has that advantage. Not that poems are written quickly, necessarily.
There’s an undefinable craft to poetry – something that’s evident in some novels, but not many. Everything I’ve written feels like one long poem, like a continuation of the same poem. I think a lot of poets probably feel like that.
What do you hope to achieve by writing?
To move people. To feel something – which is rare, and hard. It often comes out sounding soppy, but sometimes the balance between art and expression pulls off.
Who would you count as influences on your work?
John Kinsella has been influential, and that’s probably evident in some of my work. I believe he is able to establish a counterpoint to the notion that contemporary and experimental poetry originates in cities, and I admire that imaginative courage a lot. I’ve been strongly influenced by a book by Vincent Moleta, from Bridgetown, who translated some poems by Italian poet Umberto Saba. In that book there was an article titled ‘What Remains for Poets To Do’. And he said that what poets should do is write honest poetry. He also believed that ‘the world has more need of clarity than it does of obscurity.’
Up until that point I’d been heavily influenced by John Forbes and T.S. Eliot. But after reading that article I realised poetry doesn’t need to be decorated and play with language for the sake of it; poetry should be emotion. I spent the next two or three years trying to write clear, emotional poetry, and it was really crap. I was due to give a reading one night at the Flying Scotsman, and I walked out because I looked at the poems and I realised they were all terrible. But that hard work paid off. When certain situations arose I then found that I was able to express myself in the ways I wanted.
These days I tend to be less and less influenced by other poetry. The research is drawn from what I experience, rather than what I read. If the motivation to write comes from another poem, and hence another person’s concept of how a poem should be, the result tends to be more a product of language than experience. At the moment I am trying to avoid that.
What are some themes that you see in your own work?
What I mean by emotional poetry is poetry that is able to move the reader, and I guess within that some themes are evident. Capturing a sense of living in Perth, especially along the Swan River. This is where landscape and architecture, which are very interesting to me, come through. I’m also finding that botany is becoming a major theme more and more. I’m not an urban poet. Nor am I a rural poet. I guess that makes me suburban. Or just a landscape poet. How emotions exist in landscape, that interests me.
Have you had previous publishing experience?
Not really, besides giving occasional readings and a few poems in Westerly. Frankly I haven’t had much desire to publish. I’ve been making chapbooks of my own and giving them to family and friends for several years. I find that people respond to the poems differently: sometimes they really like a poem that I thought was weak, and I think, well maybe it’s not so bad. On the other hand, if a poem doesn’t get noticed for a couple of years then I think, well maybe it’s not a good poem after all.
I’m just starting to see poetry as a worthwhile pursuit. Not that I didn’t already know that the honing and editing and refinement is part of writing; I realised that at university. But I’m realising how valuable legitimisation of the craft outside of the academic world is, not only for myself, but for other people around me. As valuable as being a mechanic or plumber, for instance.
What do you do when you’re not writing poetry?
I’ve just completed a degree in landscape architecture, and one month’s work in that field. I’m currently riding my bike across Australia, and have just reached Port Lincoln in South Australia after four weeks. Early this year I went hiking in Tasmania for three weeks.