Features Archive

In Conversation with Dr. Mark Tredinnick

An interview by Masha Petrovic (Year 11) – Chief Editor, The Bell

Communicating with the past, the self and nature.  

Poet, Writer, Teacher, Animal.  

Dr. Tredinnick has published over two-hundred written works, won many prestigious literary prizes, has taught poetry and expressive writing at the University of Sydney, and has become a passionate teacher of literature and advocate of ecology.  

Sitting across from Mark Tredinnick, one has that underlying anticipation that they are going to receive a piece of him, which they will be reminded of in a random, yet perfectly relevant, moment of their life. Tredinnick’s words are a woollen coat; sewn by a needle-like tongue – sharp, with the ability to weave in wisdoms, anecdotes and opinions to comfort lost souls. The coat rests on a chair in the corner of a café, its material familiar, its age refreshing. Its left pocket heavy with a slip of intellect, the right with spirit…the same which brought us poems and phrases such as “Grief Wears a Body”“suicide bombers in party dresses” and “deeper than identity is the self”.  

We discuss time, the poetry of our grand universe, and our tiny selves.  

Interviewer: Tell us a little about your childhood and your influences. Your grandfather was a Methodist preacher, wasn’t he?  

Mark Tredinnick: Yes, and you know, I got to thinking; it’s not a weird thing for me, that somebody’s sitting down, preparing a sermon. It’s not a weird thing for me that we’re singing Bach, talking and doing good works. That’s what I grew up with.  

What is weird for me is to protest one’s own suffering ahead of anybody else’s. That is weird because Methodists don’t do that. You weren’t allowed to complain about your stuff, you’re meant to redeem.  

I: Can I ask; are you (still) religious?  

…poets cannot belong – to anything 

MT: I don’t really have a practice. A friend of mine once said to me, “Mark, we are men of a religious sensibility”, and that would be true. I’ve got this essay called ‘I am nobody – who are you?’ in which I say, “if you’re going to do poetry you can’t belong” – you can’t really be a card-carrying anything – and that’s a radical stance.  

Actually, I think I’m a mystic.  

I actually think that the mystics are the realists, because mystics acknowledge the valency, the currency and actuality of things beyond which we can make an account of. They allow for the numinous elements.  

…carrots & vibes & the answer for life  

Mysticism is the within which is not reduceable.  

Writer Michael Pollan says that if you try to find the carrot-ness of the carrot and take it out – it is no longer the carrot-ness of the carrot – it’s got to actually be incarnate.  
We’re back to bodies in a way, incarnated spirit – words will all fail to say what we mean. I was going to refer to The Castle and say ‘the vibe’ – because it is kind of the vibe – us allowing our animal selves to be present.  
We just override it because the injunctions of family and ego and rational thought take over.  

I think a full human experience depends upon finding an account to make. Or an acknowledgement of that, which I can’t explain fully, and allowing it to be present. 

I: Can you speak on the importance of pasts within us?  

…greet one’s past like a dear old enemy 

MTWe do carry our pasts in us. It would be good to remember that and acknowledge it.  

We do harm if we don’t recognise the traumas that we carry and we may not understand fully why we’re doing what we do – if we can’t just remember for a moment who our forebearers were, what they carried, what was wrong and what was valuable in their lives. If I forget that this is present in me in some sense, then there’ll be something in me I don’t fully understand.  

This includes my anger! Sometimes, at the shrillness of the politics; of art at the moment.  
It’s the sense that people have when they stand up and make a poem that protests their identity all the frigging time, and I wish they’d speak to me about all humanity – not just theirs.  
Then I think, why am I getting so angry about this? It might have something to do with that inherited stuff, I value it though.  

…the notion of mis-wanting  

I was thinking of the word mis-wanting.  

The idea is we make many mistakes in our lives because we misdirect our wanting. We think we want that when in fact we need that or feel a yearning. It’s a natural human condition to want transcendence. Religions used to be the way you did that. We’ve lost connection with elderhood and the wisdom that surrounds that.  

When going to real religion with liturgy and discipline and beauty – when we lose touch with that, there’s a huge void in our lives. 

So, we want something, but we misdirect the wanting.  

There’s a longing in general, for freedom, for wanting to be who one is; that’s a deep old ancient human need. However, it might actually be a longing for justice, which is a beautiful thing to yearn for.  

I: We could say that cultures yearn as a collective. How do you see longing reflected in Chinese culture (which you’ve recently become connected to)?  

…China and its culture… 

MTChina (outside of Indigenous culture in Australia) is probably the longest continuous poetic culture on the planet. It’s a culture still, despite everything the Communist party and the nuevo-riche capitalists try to do. The language itself is innately poetic, because you write pictures, and you’ve got that indirection and articulation, which we in a system like ours, have to work at. And I love that work as well, trying to paint pictures through words, and syntax and rhythm.  

…the principle of Xing 

There’s something in my work that the Chinese understand. It’s curious isn’t it? It wasn’t until my translator, Isabel, explained it to me that I learnt what Xing is. Xing means, effectively as a craft principle, that if fifty percent of your work is not about the place, then your work will fail. Fifty percent of every work – love story, detective novel – anything – needs to reference place. Which means exploring what the light’s doing, what are the birds doing? How are the rivers running?  

When you think of Chinese poetry, with that idea in mind, you suddenly understand it.  

It’s a magic principle, because too many of us these days in the digital world leave place out. 
Artistically when you leave it out, you don’t ring true, you write work that’s a bit shrill and a little unbelievable. Because we are still animals.  

I: It’s the biggest part of our lives.  

…the human and place 

It is, I mean, we have form, we die, we’re organic and we depend upon interconnection. Two-hundred years of theories and philosophising have taught us that we’re spiritual beings (maybe intellectual beings), but we’ve forgotten our connection to the physical world. When that goes missing in art, it doesn’t speak to our own bodies and truth about what it means to live a human life. Because, there isn’t an experience we’ve ever had without place.  

When you think about what nature writing is as a genre; to say that it’s writing about nature is not to say very much at all. It’s clearly way more important than that. In a way, it is a continuation of the ancient human discourse – the oldest literature, which always entailed understanding self in connection with place. Nature writing these days would be writing about anything which never forgets the earth. Ever. No matter what it’s about.  

I’ve drawn on music theory, Indigenous culture and intuition, but the Xing principle is really saying never forget the earth; not matter what you’re painting or writing about. Place yourself always. Remember that this is transpiring in a realm that is much more eternal than anything you’ll think or write or feel – that’s the landscape and the heavens.  

II think the scary thing is that we don’t talk about it or write about it as much anymore because we see it as a finite thing, rather than an infinite thing; because of global warming, and because the world’s going to end within a hundred years – we might even be alive when the world ends, so it’s gone from being an immense, strong thing to something that’s fragile.  

…everything’s going to hell in a basket 

MT: If you think anthropocentrically, Earth will go on – we may not be there, and that’s a tough thought. If you think ecologically; then places continue, and we will always have been. That lovely future-past tense is the right way to get thinking about that. But I did write a poem which goes “everything’s going to hell in a basket, but we may as well rejoice”. My last line is “while this lasts, rejoice”. You’re dealing with sadness, but you find a way to go ‘nonetheless’ or ‘anyway’. 

I: As a poet, do you think about the balance between form and spirit? Do you favour one over the other?  

…this poet and form 

MT: Louise Gluck said, “to believe in form is to believe in endings”, but – no! To believe in form is to believe in animal existence, it’s to believe in land, to believe in impossibilities, about rendering ephemeral experience into some kind of shape. It’s to evoke into recollection and art; rhythm, musicality and shape. Without those, literature can’t have the power – it lacks the power – to communicate large elements of what it feels like to be an eternal animal.  

…when the dog ate Louise Gluck’s poems and rendered them free of form 

I’m very grateful for Louise because … I have a newish dog, he likes to eat everything, including the poetry books in my study and one day I caught him with Louise Gluck’s collected works. I figured I’d let him have one, in order to save the rest so, Louise Gluck took the hit for the team. I now know what to do with it, because she said to believe in form is to believe in endings, and now I’ve got her book, losing its shape, losing its form, because my animal dog has nulled the book and enjoyed consuming it. It’s so beautiful isn’t it?  

I: It’s life imitating art!  

MT: *laughing* Life imitating art and art imitating life, having a joke.  

…is the soul a sultan..?  

I did a gig in which I quoted this phrase; “the soul arrives at the pace of a camel.” Isn’t that so beautiful? It’s Arabic. The digital world moves too fast. It’s wonderful, it’s beautiful but it can’t account for the fullness of human existence because it’s the wrong pace – probably too fast; we’re not catching up yet. So, my argument then is for rhythm. Specifically, in poetry and in life and the slowness of the consciousness and the engagement that’s induced by poetry and demanded by it. 

I: Can I just ask; how do they translate your poetry?  

MT: Well… I always say thank god we do. Imagine the poverty of our reading if it weren’t informed by foreign literature – so, I’m deeply grateful. I think it was Auden who famously said, “poetry is what’s untranslatable”. It’s one of those beautiful impossibilities that we must pursue, like eternal life, love, fidelity, or musical perfection – where we always can fall short, but it’s really the attempt that counts.  

…the soul would take a holy mess, ahead of a tidy fraud… 

I have a notion that literature forgives us for being human – that is its function. Literature is meant to be a place we can go to find our own recklessness, silliness and divinity – represented, allowed and forgiven. We’re meant to be the Holy Fools, we have to go into places where we don’t properly belong; what counts is the love with which we do it, that imponderable thing.  

Is this an act performed out of an intention to understand and deepen into one’s own fallibility? Because we are our own contradictions. If you want to find your identity folks, go there. How you contradict yourself is probably who you actually are. That’s kind of unliveable sometimes. Poetry, music and other art forms are so needed because they make coherence out of that precise chaos. The unliveable incompatibilities of injustice and justice in life and fidelity, infidelity, masculine, feminine, holy and tidy – all that stuff. They’re somehow in the best art – reconciled.  

And so, the poet leaves us with a final slip of wisdom, a coat to last a lifetime…

the poet on poetry… 

  • One of the reasons we need poetry so much is because it speaks to the contradictory nature of all truths worth believing in.  
  • Poetry is a way of seeing, not just saying  
  • Poetry is always the dissenting discourse, that’s kind of what it does.  
  • Sometimes you realise when you make a poem, it’s not your poem you’ve made; it’s not just about you – it starts with you – but if it stops with you, it won’t be a great poem.  
  • “Form is the cage the poem dances down”. If you don’t constrain the articulation, then there’s nothing to work against. Form isn’t where it ends, but where something begins; because of the interaction.  
  • Why can we not ask students to just read the work? Examine their heart and their head and tell you how they feel. Then look at the scholarship because we have to be guided in what our felt-sense response means 
  • We need to push against the constraints of theory. Use them to open a window that was otherwise shut but not mistake them for an ideology – that always leads down to the end of the pier.  
  • When I won the Blake Poetry prize, I remember one of the painters who was at the table with me saying, “If you don’t think spiritually, you’re not actually an artist”. That is a good comment to make in defiance of the prevailing theories these days.