Ahead of the release of his new poetry collection, Robert Wood chats to Sherryn Groch about verse, letter-pressing and hip-hop.
When Australian poet Robert Wood thinks of his next book, he sees a brown cover, hard as a shell. He imagines cracking it open onto a title page red like cooked crayfish.
It is the book he says he has to write, a collection of poetry for his father’s sixty-fourth birthday next year.
“My father and I used to do a lot of cray-fishing when I was growing up as a kid in Western Australia,” Wood says. “He shares a love with me for that particular part of the southwest coast but we also share I guess a totemic relationship with crayfish.”
Now an author, a regular writer on poetics and a publisher of letter-pressed poetry journals at Work and Tumble in Melbourne, Wood has travelled a long way from lazy afternoons cray-fishing with his father. While poetry was not the first among his early scribblings, he confesses it was always something he wished to “belong to”.
“In my teenage years, I remember just going through the Nobel Prize winners and reading them one after the other,” Wood says. “It became a kind of exercise of wanting to know more and being really excited to read writing and it gave me a lot of energy. Writing has always given me a lot of energy, books have given me a lot of nourishment and I guess I wanted to pay back into that system somehow.”
This month, Wood has another collection of poetry set for release – a “homage” to the works of German holocaust poet Paul Celan.
Composed using the poetic technique of cento or “remixing”, it will incorporate the work of several well-known poets including Celan – all set to Wood’s new beat.
“I got interested in centos because I’m interested in hip-hop,” Wood says. “A lot of poets when they say they’re interested in hip-hop it means they’re interested in lyrics, or spoken word, or slam, or rhyme but for me I’m interested in what the DJ’s doing, sort of sampling and stitching things together and creating something new from old things. So Grandmaster Flash might be using an awful lot of James Brown but I’m using an awful lot of Paul Celan in these books and he’s been very influential in my own aesthetics.”
There is a reverence in Wood’s voice for poetry and its great makers, something that has now carried over into his work at The School of Life in Melbourne, where he runs regular classes and discussions.
This week, he is set to host a poetry workshop for the school’s Curriculum series, a combination of reading and writing that will take participants from Ovid in ancient Rome to conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith working in New York today.
“Some people say the best way to learn about material is to teach it and for me that holds up,” Wood says. “I’m interested in reaching new audiences with poetry and engaging people in a different way than they might normally think of it so The School of Life has been a good fit for me.”
In a century increasingly crowded with words, Wood says poetry still holds the power to soothe.
“There’s a barrage of language out there,” he says. “But for me poetry operates as a balm, as a form of calming-ness when I’m feeling down or anxious or manic. And it also gives me a way of being critical, of knowing how to read between the lines and say ‘well you know what Bill Shorten, Tony Abbott, Richard Di Natale what they’re saying is not the whole story.’”
While Wood expects poetry “will find its way” much as it ever has in this new digital era, he would like to see a little more room made for poets in Australia.
“You look at writers’ festivals and very little poetry is programmed in,” he says. “In terms of discussion of books on radio programs, a very small amount is on poetry when compared to say novels. So it occupies a small amount of cultural space but at the same time I think it’s full of life.”
And it is on the printing press that poetry has taken on a very physical life for Wood. He began letter-pressing under the tutelage of Carolyn Fraser at a shared workspace in Collingwood and has since developed his own publisher Work and Tumble, where he aims to “marry together’ the technologies of the past with the latest digital printing methods.
In the rhythms of the old press, Wood says he has found something approaching “meditation.”
“If I’ve been on the printing press all day, sometimes I’ll feel quite sore in my calves or my hamstrings because the amount of effort that you have to put in when you’re dwelling on the press,” he says.
“I quite like the tactile aspect of setting type, when you take separate letters out of cases of type and then put them in a composing stick and accumulate a line that way so it slows you down. It makes you calmer.”
But, while much of Robert Wood’s poetry may be painstakingly set down in print, the man himself shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.