John Kinsella doesn’t write anything without some kind of purpose. Here, he explains how the ecological concerns of his work have been expressed through his collaboration with Robert Drewe in Sand.
You’re known as a poet, but have several autobiographical prose pieces in this collection – how different is your approach to stories and poetry?
Oh, categorically. It’s a very different process. For one thing it’s much slower; I only write a few stories each year, rather than dozens. I do find poetry an easier process – it’s a mode I grew up with – although I have been writing short stories since I was a teenager. I view the short story as a really precious thing. And I write a certain kind of story, vignettes that focus on a moment or experience. I admire plot-driven stories, I like them a lot, but I don’t really write like that. Of course there’s a lot in common between poetry and these anecdotal kinds of short stories. I also write autobiographical vignettes, and a few of these are featured in the book.
How much of this is new material, and how much existed before the book? Were many of these pieces written with the theme of ‘sand’ in mind?
It’s primarily ‘new’ material, in that almost all of it has been published in journals, but besides three or four older pieces from earlier volumes of mine, none of it has appeared in book form before. So it’s largely a new collection.
The way it came about was that Rob [Drewe] and I started discussing a collaborative book several years ago, and when we tossed around some ideas, the theme of sand came to the top; we both found ourselves writing about sand quite a lot. That original idea gestated for quite a while, which means that pieces I was writing anyway were written in the context of that discussion, were informed by the idea of sand.
But the book wasn’t contrived; it was actually quite organic. It grew from writing that was already happening. Georgia [Richter, publisher at Fremantle Press] had a significant role to play in that I gave her a large amount of material and she selected and edited from that. She really shaped and directed the book; as a process it was pleasant and interesting.
Would you say there is a dialogue between the pieces in Sand?
There is a certain dialogue between my work and Rob’s, and I think that came about naturally because we were showing each other the material that we were submitting to Georgia as we went along. And while you might observe the dialogue between the pieces in the book, I would even say the dialogue was three-way: between Georgia, Rob and myself.
I’ve been a long-time admirer of Rob’s writing. I read his first two novels in 1983, and even launched The Drowner at Australia House in London in the late ’90s. His work has become part of the ‘background’ to my own writing, in the way that favourite authors often are; as Dorothy Hewett is too.
Do you relate to his work mainly through your shared childhood experiences?
Absolutely. But there are strong differences too. Like Rob, I spent a large part of my childhood in Perth, but I also grew up in the country — I went to high school in Geraldton and spent a lot of time in rural areas. Also, Rob is pretty much a whole generation ahead of me – although I hadn’t really thought about that before, and the characteristics of our generations are pretty similar, both post-war and both perceiving themselves through the Perth markers of ‘sun’ and ‘sand’.
What’s so brilliant about Rob’s writing is that he takes the familiar and makes it bizarre; I mean, is anything ordinary? I find that really appealing.
The Perth landscape has changed dramatically since you were a child, and your writing is acutely aware of how the landscape and ecology have been affected by urban growth. How deliberate is this?
It’s really my life work, these ecological concerns. So it’s very deliberate. This work is more focused on Perth than my other books have been; I’ve written primarily on the wheatbelt before. But I went to primary school in Perth and lived on the edge of the Canning River, which in those days was also the edge of the bush. There were hundreds of acres of bush a relatively short distance from my house.
Things have really changed. They’ve been clearing bush around Perth at the rate of 851.5 hectares a year over the past eight years according to the WWF – that’s roughly 8 WACAs [Western Australian Cricket Grounds] per week! Yes, we have an ‘expanding population’, but there are ways to accommodate that without destroying bushland. I consider it ecological vandalism, and I strongly oppose how powerful the mining and development dollar is in this state. I want to make people aware of what has been lost already, and what might be lost in the future. This is what I want to achieve through writing.
Do you try to evoke a sense of nostalgia through landscape?
I intensely dislike nostalgia and ‘the nostalgic’, but I suppose I have a sense of ‘nostalgia’ for things that are gone and can’t be repaired or brought back. In the sense that nostalgia is a longing for what has been environmentally lost, then yes. But I don’t really like to use the word ‘nostalgia’ — it’s too celebratory and indulgent, to my mind. I don’t like to look back at the past for the sake of it. I would rather be proactive in talking about history and what is lost, to warn people not to let the same things happen again. I don’t write anything without some kind of purpose, which is an ethical and political purpose, to demonstrate and learn from mistakes made in the past.
That also means I try to show respect for the traditional owners and custodians of the land. So, for instance, in ‘River, Bird, City … Inland’ I am reaching for something that many non-indigenous Western Australians, especially urban dwellers, aren’t conscious of when they look around, the stories and connections to the land that Indigenous people have. That poem came out of an email conversation I had five or six years ago with Julie Dowling about relationship to place, how the signs of belonging and connection are there if we know how to look, to see. The poem is a dialogue with her art, with her issues of presence and belonging. I’m really interested in these discussions about belonging and ownership and respect.
It’s not surprising that you’ve been able to write so much on the theme of sand; the West Australian landscape is dominated by it. You even capture the varieties of Perth sand in your poem ‘The Dream Of’.
Yes, sand really is everywhere. It’s amazing that people don’t write on it more often. Although since doing this book I’ve noticed how many WA writers have written about sand.
Growing up I think we almost took it for granted; because it was so all-pervasive we didn’t question its existence. That poem, ‘The Dream Of’, delves into sand in its various forms, whether grey sand or white beach sand or black sand or the yellow sand our parents put over buffalo grass. It was part of everything we did. And the sand itself shows differences in geography across the state, not only in Perth. I wrote that poem in 2008 — it uses a Chaucer poem to ‘bounce off’ and came about after I took Tracy, my partner, for a tour of where I lived as a child. The markers of sand were still very visible.
Even sand is under threat from mining, though. Another piece, a verse play, ‘Signature at Ludlow’, is a protest against sand mining that’s happening down south. So much of the Tuart Forest is being cut down so that they can get to the sand beneath. Ludlow (near Busselton) is also the place the Irish side of my family came to in early 1850s Western Australia, and the play-poem deals with issues of appropriation, intrusion, and colonisation in general.
Your ‘Perth Poem’ skims over the surface of Perth and reveals a really diverse range of people and situations. Do you set out to observe people, or do you just come across them?
Well, I used to get around a lot! Years ago I was crashing headlong into everything, and it was pretty full-on, but it did bring me into contact with lots of people. So I learnt about all these people, and about myself too – you only learn about yourself by interaction with other people. So yeah, there are a lot of characters in that poem; it was part of my earlier writing life. But I’m different now, more of a hermit really. I live relatively secluded in the country, and my aims are to make people think about what is impacting their environment, and how they can change things. I remain a committed activist.
This poem has the idea of Perth as a hub, of branching out around the city. And in an interesting parallel, it really became the pin around which I handed in various other work for Georgia to consider including in the book.