from the editor's desk

Kyle Orton

Kyle Orton: Dear Westerly

With the support of the Copyright Agency‘s Cultural Fund, and in partnership with KSP Writers CentreWesterly delivered our third Writers’ Development Program in 2018.

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, and look forward to their inclusion in our upcoming print issue.

Dear Westerly,

I don’t like saying I am a ‘poet’. It makes me feel like an arsehole. I also keep the fact that I write stuff at all pretty close to my chest because telling people I write things also makes me feel like an arsehole. When my wife tells people about my having written stuff I feel like an arsehole on her behalf.

So if I have to say anything––if the conversation and my wife’s pride in me have forced me into a corner of having to talk about it––I do not say I am a poet, but that I write poetry, sometimes pretty decent poems I reckon, which is a hill I am comfortable to die on because it doesn’t offer itself to scrutiny or require any footwork to give it an air of legitimacy, and I am not expected to back up my claim of being a poet by having to then produce a poem that would be of enough worth for me to award myself the honorific. I probably treat the word with too much deference, but that’s between me and the fencepost.

It is from this standpoint that I am going to try and convey the joy I felt during my jaunt in the Writers’ Development Program; doing ‘Poety’ things and talking to actual Poets about poetry and, moreover, about my poetry. Creating better habits to facilitate the creation of work that wouldn’t make me vomit in my own mouth if forced to show it to someone.

I bought a nice scarf; thought that was a good start.

I learned a few home truths that helped quite a bit and I hope to share them with enough lucidity that they can be hopefully useful, potentially inspiring and, at the very least, understood without a cereal box decoder ring.

Lesson 1: Just Be Quiet.

In his essay ‘When the Writer Speaks’, David Malouf opened with the very useful line, ‘The real enemy of writing is talk’ (29). He went on to expand this point in undoubtedly very useful and expansive ways, but I can’t quite remember them right now.

However, what I did take from Mr Malouf’s line is something I have seen happen time and time and again and have been guilty of myself, which is banging on about writing to no end.

In my twenties I was more than happy to describe myself as a poet. I was also more than happy to wax lyrical about some great (read: terrible) idea I had for a short story or a collection of poems at whomever was unfortunate enough to be within earshot. I would then duly receive whatever polite agreement from my hapless victim I mistook as praise into my brain to produce a small burst of dopamine that reassured me I had no reason to actually write the thing because I had already received my reward and because writing is hard and takes time and talking bollocks to strangers is a liquid act.

The truth is, if you show a stranger a poem you are proud of, or even just show it to a vaguely close friend who doesn’t have a particular vested interest in poetry, let alone your poetry, it is preying on an inbuilt human response that they will do their best to appear as engaged and non-critical as the piece requires. It is only a rare and beautiful creature who will be brutally honest about it as well as genuinely interested in seeing you produce a good poem. If you find one of these rare and elusive beasts, I suggest keeping them as close as possible.

Having a committed mentor in my back pocket and, luckily for me, for the duration of the program, one as talented and knowledgeable as Marcella Polain, has left me with a distinct drive to ensure I don’t talk work out of existence.

Lesson 2: Set and Setting.

One sensational part of the WDP is the opportunity of a stay at the (and this isn’t hyperbole) truly beautiful surrounds of the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre.

While there I wrote (and again, not hyperbole) absolutely nothing. This is not a result of the beautiful surrounds and walking trails, or the fault of the tranquillity or the incredible facilities, it was the result of what proponents of psychoactive chemicals call ‘Set and Setting’.

Set and Setting refers to both the state of mind preferable to be in when planning to ingest psychoactive chemicals and the physical environment the user is in. These are important to ensure that the psychoactive doesn’t take on any interior or exterior influences that may prove detrimental to the experience.

I have learned this rings true about writing also, although I already had an inkling that came from many attempts as a younger man to sit looking wistful in a pub, a pint of very writerly and pungent stout at hand despite the heat and a half empty packet of some or other American cigarettes, striking my best writing pose and doing absolutely no work in one of the many stolen Moleskine journals I still carry from rental to rental in front of me. It was play-acting and, don’t get me wrong, at the time it was fun.

Now, in order to get the optimum Set that I can achieve, I need the best Setting.

I need to be on my porch for a start. I also like to know my wife is somewhere about, or at least hear her pad about in her Ugg boots trying her hardest not to ‘disturb me’ (she doesn’t realise half the time I am not doing any writing, just thinking about it, and would probably kill for her disturbance).

I need my favourite blue cut-glass ashtray, perhaps a visit from the stray cat that shows up when I am most lost, a pair of shorts or, in the winter, my worn through track pants and a few cold beers or a bottle of wine in the fridge. I tried writing laying down and I also quite enjoy that, in bed, in the morning, while the remaining natural residue of DMT peeling away from my Pineal gland is still ropey enough that the things I write don’t yet have the propensity to feel silly.

I initially felt foolish having produced nothing in such optimal surroundings as the KSP Writers’ Centre, but that’s not really the point of writing is it? Although you hear it mentioned every now and then when a city council is looking to spend some money on a good plaque, and you might see a blue oval stating ‘This is where so and so wrote such and such’, when someone publishes a good piece the first question isn’t ‘But where did you write it?’ And the work doesn’t lose or gain legitimacy if the answer is ‘At my mum’s house.’

Lesson 3: Get prepared.

Probably the most striking moment of the duration of the WDP occurred over coffee and a fruit mince pie with Marcella.

Before leaving the house, I thought it best to make myself presentable. In my haste to shower and shave and make it on time I managed to cut myself shaving; I also failed to notice. Luckily, on my approach to the café, I caught my reflection in a salon window and saw a thick rivulet of blood running from the right of my top lip, down my chin and onto my neck that I began to mop up with the (thankfully) dark sleeve of my favourite jumper.

As I approached Marcella I explained sheepishly why I was pressing my hand into my face and she sprung into action and got me a couple of napkins and a coffee and we sat down to discuss my progress and eat some lovely cake.

Amid the bleeding and the coffee and the brilliant fruit mince pie, Marcella asked me, ‘So are you working towards a collection?’. It wasn’t meant sarcastically or flippantly; it was ringing with this tone that I was unfamiliar with. It was sincerity. It was ‘Are you doing it?’, because (and I believe this enough to be able to put myself into bed at night) Marcella genuinely meant that, if I wanted to, I could.

That fuckin blew me away. I went and got on the train and the first thing I thought was, ‘Is that a thing I can do?’ I always thought poetry collections were some third-party venture, some labour of love undertaken by a publishing house that meticulously collected scraps of great work and compiled them into beautifully bound collections long after the author was dead, or at the behest of a great movement of supportive readers and critics.

Nobody told me this was not a passive act, that I could ‘work towards a collection’. I had been sitting on my hands this whole time.

Admittedly, I never asked. I assume, had I stuck in and listened at university and finished any of it instead of acting a prick at the Tav, I would have learned all of this.

In any case, something clicked. I went home and organised all the folders in my laptop into finished and unfinished work. I began to research lists of publications in Australia I could submit work to. I cleaned the porch and set myself targets. I started to play more and become bolder with styles that I previously thought as being out of my reach. I googled what an Iambic Pentameter and Iambic Tetrameter are (please, please, please don’t quiz me on that). I started to prepare and make ready all the parts of my writing that I had previously let blow in the wind believing that this wasn’t something I needed to worry about because publication and collections were the things real poets worried about. I submitted work to Quadrant the day after Les Murray died. I started to ready myself for things that I have always wanted but had not dreamed possible.

I received an e-mail just today advising me that I will be getting published in Quadrant. I have begun working towards a collection. I mentioned to someone that I was working on a collection of poems and, surprisingly, I only called myself an arsehole internally, instead of my usual vocal outburst; it was really nice.

Thanks Westerly. You did that.

Best Wishes

Kyle Orton

Kyle is an aspiring poet who writes in his free time, rarely in winter and almost exclusively on the porch. He recently adopted a dog and has found less time for poetry in the pursuit of a hardy, tried and true tennis ball to last longer than an afternoon.

The Westerly Writers Development Program is his first foray into publishing any of his work, he has quite enjoyed the feeling and plans on doing a fair bit more, time permitting.

Westerly thanks both the Copyright Agency‘s Cultural Fund and KSP Writers Centre for their support of this program. 

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