Writing, Refuse, & Belief
Question: What exactly made you want to write poetry in the first place John Pat ?
I heard this fella one time on the radio, now it wasn’t that war of the worlds or Under Milkwood or anything particularly famous, moving, or complicated. We were all in the back of a van, about ten of us heading home to the digs after the usual day of sweat, dirt and arguments on the motorways. I had a small Bush radio, I cherished it, and on it came a poem for today, or poem of today, and the radio started off speaking in a bit of an Irish sounding voice, and without me saying anything the rest of the muckshifters idin shut up giving out about overtime, bad drink, poor pay and who had worse beds, or whatever it was that they were complaining about, they became a bit hypnotised by that poetry, the sound coming from my little battery powered radio had them pulled out of their ruts for a few minutes, I think I was instantly seduced by that potential … back then I was sufficiently naïve enough to not separate out the poem from the radio, the voice and the words from my own battery and circuits. To me it was the overall package that did it, I didn’t wonder about where this voice came from or who it might even belong to. I’d seen that happen before when I was young. I just felt then and there that poetry with batteries might need investigating. I went home and tried to write a letter to the BBC asking lots of stupid questions. But before I could get an envelope or stamp anywhere somebody in the digs decided to use it as lavatory paper. It was really the first time since I left school that I wrote anything other than my name and some labourer in the digs simply decided the paper could be put to better use. I didn’t kick up a stink I just took it as a sign that I’d be better off trying to find out a bit more about poetry or radios before I went writing to other people about it .
Question: You said you didn’t write anything during that time in England but while researching I found a short pamphlet archived in the Leicester public library called "re:collections of Refuse", Can you tell me something about how that came about?
I’m surprised you found that. (John Pat laughs) I refuse is right. Landladies, you'd have to love them even when they wouldn't let you in. I suppose that was me pushing back against somebody, the idea of that somebody judging me and even my poetry or maybe pushing against just myself, or what I was getting drawn towards, the rubbish I was told I was wasting my time writing. The desire to not see my own potential collections end up in the bin. I was stuttering and struggling starting out but even at the early beginning thinking about seeing some kind of end. When you’ve written the first line it’s the beginning of that end, once the key goes down or the carriage is returned, you’ve drawn the first stroke that will outline the shape of the work, or even a life. Up until that first line I have access to the full imagination of the universe, all potential possibilities, as soon as I stop to add the punctuation, I’ve punctured the promise. And all my writing did the same, it became a negotiation between my imagination and execution. At that beginning I started to look for better ways to reduce my commitment to specifics by having say, more than one beginning, that I’d be giving my self-executioner more rope and several extra blades, choices, as many ways to stop myself from killing my imagination as I could dream of. I remember one time reading a line by a poet called John Shade, he said “the abstract battle is concretely fought”. I took that to mean that poets like me don’t imagine they are making great work or are composing something unique, they generally imagine the poem is already built and they’re wondering how it was they managed to mix the concrete. I was fortuitously naïve I started out believing that my thoughts could be somehow solid. Poet’s imaginings are always about the finished work, we see the future of the poem as a finished task. I found myself doing that. I found myself seeing what happens when the words go down on paper, they stay down, that’s the end of possibility, they somehow appear in your imagination and as poets we choose which ones will go on the page, most times that’s it. Maybe some minor tinkering or corrections but that’s really it, you’re fixed, centred on building a bridge to a point of completion. But the imagination when fired immediately sees other versions of that bridge and wants to tinker and remake it, improve it, widen or strengthen it, the poet re-enters the negotiations and sometimes that imaginative centre no longer holds and things do fall apart.
Question: Are you quoting Yeats there in a personal context?
He was a bit before my time and I have read poems he’s supposed to have written but I never knew the man, like I’ve never been to Australia, I’ve seen the images like everyone else, the white roofed opera house, big deserts with huge rocks, odd even mystical creatures, but while obviously all very dramatic, maybe even romantic, I don’t know if any of that is real or not real to me. All of humanity commands images, we can, with the help of technology, create whole worlds. For a modern society, a country or a poet shouldn’t be a difficult construct; I don’t want to know for certain. I’m fully prepared to accommodate doubt within my belief. Over time to me it has become the essential component of belief. If you truly fully one hundred percent believe, then where is the room for faith? Faith is my only buttress against insignificance, a poet needs to believe. As much as I think I might know, the day I enter my own negotiations as someone who is certain, is the day my own belief negates me.