Writing is always a political act

An interview with John Kinsella

Kinsella2Poet, journalist, activist, academic, editor and playwright (just to name some of his many occupations), John Kinsella has written more than thirty books, won numerous prizes, including the Grace Leven Poetry Prize, Age Poetry Book of the Year, WA Premier’s Book award for Poetry and senior Fellowships from the Literature Board of the Australia Council. He has published poems (including Wheatlands with Dorothy Hewett); short stories: Grappling Eros; novels: Genre and Post Colonial; and memoir: Auto, published by Salt in 2001. A vegan, John has written passionately about the ethics of veganism. He chats to us today about his piece ‘A rural diary’ featured in the latest edition of Overland.

In ‘A rural diary’, you mention getting ‘off the grid’. What are your thoughts on the current push for the ‘commodification’ of writers and the reality that writers are increasingly encouraged to create an ‘online presence’?

I was involved in the web from a relatively early stage, at least in terms of writing and Australia. By 1995, I was working on web-based material, and on email from 1996. In 1997, I established the Poetryetc discussion list, and collaborated in numerous works that used email and internet not only as a means to facilitate ‘production’, but as a metatextual basis. Computers had been part of my life since I was a primary-school boy making binary math calculating machines at home, and then working with early PCs such as Commodore 64s in the lab outside Geraldton where I worked on weekends and during school holidays when at high school. I was actually ‘hanging around’ when one of the first ‘punch card’ computers was installed in a Western Australian school (a Wang). I say all this to point out that my devoted neo-Luddism of the last few years has come about through working from the inside out, not through ‘ignorance’ of the medium.

I still make use of computers, but much less than in the past, and with a deep scepticism of the environmental damage they are responsible for, directly and indirectly. I went for a long period avoiding them entirely, but as my income diminished and I was unable to sustain my writing practice because so many of the venues I write for now require some level of electronic ‘participation’, I went partly back to the Trojan Horse approach of working (again) from the inside out.

I can see great advantages (and certain degrees of equality) coming out of the web and its attendant manifestations, but I believe it actually takes away as many freedom as it provides. Tracy and I have a blog, Mutually Said, that tackles (and struggles) with these issues, and though I no longer post direct (and haven’t for a couple of years), Tracy still (kindly) posts pieces by me. These pieces are a dialogue with a medium I have grown to dislike, distrust, and to see as a foundation of the new smokescreen of environmental damage dissembling. There are few ‘green’ qualities to it in reality. Ask the power stations. Even consider the damage done by the production of photovoltaic cells.

I had a disturbing experience this morning while waiting for an appointment in a reasonably public place. The guy next to me was welded to his mobile phone (I don’t own one, and have only ever used one five or six times in my life – not my own, but one I’ve borrowed – haven’t touched one for three years). The man was saying: ‘It’s a difficult project and there’s a bit of difficulty with those greenies. They’re a bunch of ratbags. You know the story, want to take us back to the Stone Age. Think cigarettes are bad but pot is healthy. Travel in cars and planes … ratbags.’ Now, I am used to hearing this, especially in a mining-worship state like Western Australia. And if you turned around and said, Yes, cars stink, but surely it’s a good aim to minimise usage, less damage is better than more damage – you’d likely get nowhere. Relative degrees in thinking go down the drain in absolutist capitalist thought. The sin of being dragged into a commodified world is excuse for open slather – mines, forest clearing, land degradation etc – because the ironies can’t be treated in a relative or proportional light. And I don’t need to analyse ‘Stone Age’ in the context …

So, regarding your question, I say writers should take as much control as they can of the values they espouse in their writing (whatever they are). Their relationship to the net will be qualified accordingly.

As writer and poet, you are clearly inspired by nature. What else acts as a catalyst for your work?

I detest ‘nature writing’. I consider myself a writer of the environment – an ethically and politically motivated writer who perceives each poem, each text I write, as part of a resistance against environmental damage. ‘Nature writing’ is a concept is too tied up with validating the relationship with the (Western!) notion of self, of egotistical sublime, of the gain the self has over the ‘nature’ s/he is relating to. This privileging is a problem. Which is not to say I have a problem with the inevitabilities of the anthropomorphic, if that necessarily brings about greater respect for ‘nature’ than would arise without it. So once again, it’s relative.

Apart from the environment and my obligations to its continuity? Well, whatever else I write, this issue is always somewhere there. I write a lot about art and artworks, ‘ways of seeing’, about political ideology, technology and modernity… I attempt to scrutinise myth, I am fascinated by epic (and anti-epic) and narrative (primarily undoing it), the drives behind story-telling, the rural world, music (punk and classical and anything hard-core), and especially literature. I write a lot about writing.

Where are you now, with your writing practice?

Writing is a state of life for me and has been since I was a very young child. Poetry is how I think. It comes first, then I translate into ‘speech’. I am slowly working at this new ‘memoir’ of living at Jam Tree Gully. I am working on a long work entitled Paradise Lust (yes, via Milton), and am proofing a new book of stories. I have a new book planned out but am waiting to see if I can find the time to get started on it. That’s a real ‘on the drawing board’ situation. I collect data and details from the world around me, writing ‘in situ’, and I constantly find myself writing in response to political events that anger me. Uranium mining has come to Western Australia with a vengeance, and that demands to be written about, and against.

Writing is always a political act.

Clare Strahan

Clare Strahan is a two-time novelist with Allen & Unwin publishers, long-ago contributing editor to Overland, and teaches in the RMIT Professional Writing & Editing Associate Degree.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Thanks Clare, great interview, very interesting take on ‘the grid’. Also loved his ‘Rural Diary’ and the accompanying photos in OL204. He has a battle on his hands, miners aren’t the best listeners – just loggers of the underground.

  2. Now who knows what a luddite is?
    Can anyone tell me? Hands up.

    Ok. Right. Now children, can anyone tell me what environmental sustainability is?

    Let’s hope so eh?

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