from the editor's desk

Thomas Simpson

Thomas Simpson: Sensory Excursions

With the support of the Copyright Agency‘s Cultural Fund, and in partnership with KSP Writers CentreWesterly delivered our fourth Writers’ Development Program in 2019.

Four talented emerging writers were offered professional guidance and support in developing their work for publication in Westerly, both in print and online. We are now delighted to be able to showcase their work here at the Editor’s Desk, while we celebrate the publication of their work in the new Westerly 65.1.

I came to writing from a desire to create images. My early ambition was to carve out a life for myself as a visual artist, to create images sourced from the combination of external influences thrown up in day-to-day life and the internal meditations and memories that arose from those personal experiences. But there was, in a sense, a breakdown between what a scene or experience conjured up in my mind and what my hands were able to produce. These piled prints and drawings and paintings remained static; no evocation or feeling jumped out of the material sitting on the page or the canvas. By attending art school at a time where technical skill and compositional training were shunned and the focus very much rooted in the conceptual and performative, my dissatisfaction with the physical images I was able to produce grew. So, the most convenient and available medium to plug up these holes was the written word.

Poetry became the vehicle for my imagist sensibilities by being able to muse a little longer on a moment without narrative constraints. Inspiration for my work derives largely from place and how we interact with our physical and emotional surroundings. These small vignettes and larger societal questions that arise from daily life have been diversified by the many menial occupations I’ve held to support my writing habits: working as a truck driver, retail worker and, for the longest portion of time, a postie. Working as a postie allowed me to become a voyeur of suburban, industrial estate and CBD life, completely plastered in hi-vis, yet somehow unnoticed. This contractual and repeated exploration to places that wouldn’t otherwise be on my radar led to intimate knowledge of an area. The stories, changes and conflicts, documented or imagined, are etched into a place. So much detail can be excavated from these isolated moments of daily life:

A man who answers the door to sign for a parcel dressed only in steel-toed boots. A scar zipping its way down the centre of his entire torso.

The last colonial homestead in a street subdivided into low cost unit blocks, emaciated cow in the dusty paddock.

Boys swapping noxious pens in Langley Park laughing as a woman bags her corgi’s shit in an apartment block foyer.

I would transcribe these moments of public and private life, sometimes in Knausgaardian detail, sometimes just a single word, onto red parcel-reminder cards. They would pile up on my desk, mopping up the overflow from beer cans and ashtrays, until an image stuck with me long enough to become a poem. A few ended up published, but most didn’t metamorphosise into anything beyond an archive of moments on little red cards. Combined with these place attachments through daily working life, I also have a particular affinity with the road and the sense of motion through place. These accumulative road trips around the country have also heavily informed my work—notably the transcontinental journey that brought me to WA from Queensland. The experience of getting to know a new place with its specific geography and vernacular is very intimate; the experience is uniquely your own and will leave an impression on your memory. There is a certain freedom in acknowledging your own stupidity and ignorance as a visitor or new resident and blindly stepping into a new sense of place. 

I quit working for the post office around the same time I had the opportunity to be a part of Westerly’s Writers’ Development Program. The idea of discussing my work in a professional capacity scared the shit out of me. It was daunting to lose the protective label of writing student, or hobbyist. Anonymous rejection letters and impersonal numerical grades are easy to take; justifying these little framings of work and travel as poems worthy of publication seemed a harder task. Fortunately, working with my mentor Cassandra Atherton was a really constructive and enjoyable experience. She understood what I was trying to present in these juxtaposing general and personal images. Through our many emails and phone conversations, she helped me find a language to discuss the more subtle aspects of my work, highlighting some references to form and a consistent style I didn’t know was there. We worked through a fair stack of poems, which has helped me to build up to a full-length collection.     

In an effort to progress my writing practice during this program, and perhaps move further away from my shortcomings as a visual artist, I have started to distance myself from an over-reliance on the visual and made a conscious effort to tap into a wider range of sensory stimuli. The sensory experiences we have less control over, namely olfactory and aural, can provoke some visceral associated memories: passing someone in the street wearing the fragrance of an ex-lover; the distinct syncopation of skateboard wheels going over the joining lines of footpath slabs.

This more open observation has led to experimenting with the role of sound in the physical and cultural experience of place, as well as the role of sound in the writing and reading of poetry. I have been carrying a sound recorder around for years for no specific reason, just as a way of cataloguing peculiar birds, frogs and conversations. Now this little tool has become instrumental in delving into what David McCooey terms the ‘poetry soundtrack’, combining voice, music and sound design (2012). This method of layering recorded poetry readings with atmospheric soundscapes and some very clumsy foley artistry has provided me with another medium to explore poetry and a further awareness of rhythm within my own work, as well as an excuse to embark on sensory excursions for soundscapes.

Armed with my little sound recorder and this new ideal of complementing imagery with sensory detail, I headed out to Greenmount for my short residency at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre. I felt a strange sense of validation combined with anxiety walking into the Clarke cabin, with every little laminated info card greeting me with ‘Dear Writer’ and the sheer enormity of the desk. But there was a comfort in the soft crackle of long grass in the dry wind, cricket on the radio and the monotonous drum of truck tyres barrelling down Great Eastern Highway. Long walks around John Forrest and Blackboy Hill filled the recorder with squawking red tails, fluttering rock doves, the popping afterburn of heavy 4WDs coasting down a hill and flies relentlessly inspecting the microphone. This silent and solitary observation didn’t lead to any great epiphany, just an appreciation of the specificity of noise attached to place and the need to slow down, as well as a phlegm build up from not speaking for three days.   

Work Cited

McCooey, David. ‘Fear of Music: sounded poetry and the “poetry soundtrack”.’ Axon, volume 2, 2012, https://axonjournal.com.au/issue-2/fear-music-sounded-poetry-and-‘poetry-soundtrack’.

Thomas Simpson is a poet based in Fremantle. He has an MA in Creative Practice from Curtin University and is a committee member for WA Poets Inc. His poetry has appeared in print and online.

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