new poems, people who are nice enough to publish me, poems, the writing process

Thoughts on “On a Role”

I’ve been included in a collaborative poem that’s going to be in Overland 200, which is due out in September. Award-winning Wagga Wagga poet Mr. Derek Motion, whom some of you might also remember as the victor of the infamous Curnow/Motion poetry blog war of 2009, was tasked with creating a 200-line collaborative work between 20 poets(*) to be included in the auspiciously-enumerated 200th issue.

Derek’s instructions to his collaborateurs were for each poet to produce a ten-line poem responding to the theme ‘on a role: then / now / when’. He would then take all 200 lines and combine them to form a massive mega-gestalt poem that we could all gaze upon with collective authorial pride.

You’ll have to wait a few more weeks to see the final product, but in the meantime I thought it might be of passing interest to share my thoughts on my twentieth part of the poem with you and how said poem came to be.

Because what we were embarking on was essentially a massive cut-up poem, I decided to use a similarly non-conscious/randomised approach to writing my segment, and chose to use Jeff Noon’s Cobralingus technique of generating a piece of writing by applying a set of fixed rules to a pre-existing piece of writing.

For those who aren’t familiar with Cobralingus, the idea is to come up with  a series of rules or steps that change a piece of writing in some arbitrary way. Some of these rules change the writing to make its meaning more obscure, and some change it to make its meaning more straightforward. After applying a combination of different rules one after the other  the original piece of writing is dramatically changed, often presenting new (or, if you like, hidden) meanings that may or may not have lain within the original text.

Or something like that. There’s a better overview of the principles behind Cobralingus over at everything2, including a good sampling and explanation of the rules that Cobralingus uses.

In response to Derek’s theme – specifically the ‘on a role’ bit – and because Derek’s day job is Director of the Booranga Writers’ Centre – I decided to use the position description for the Director of the Victorian Writer’s Centre, which had just been advertised around the time that Derek contacted me. I downloaded the PD from the VWC website, picked some rules from the list at everything2, and let fly.

Here’s the series of rules that I applied to my source text:

  1. INPUT = Position Description, Director, Victorian Writers’ Centre
  2. CONTROL (simplify language – eg, replace “procure” with “find”)
  3. DEAD WOOD (remove all instances of “you will”)
  4. CORRUPTION (replace letter “a” with ” “)
  5. INCREASE SENSE (change word fragments into most similar word – eg “Victori” becomes “victory”)
  6. RANDOMISE (I used the text randomiser at
  7. FIND STORY (ie, rearrange the words and phrases to create some sense of narrative)
  8. INCREASE SENSE (revise/rearrange to improve logic/grammar)
  9. CONTROL (simplify language)
  10. SAVE

It’s probably indicative of my natural inclination to shy away from writing anything overly abstract or experimental in favour of clarity and narrative that a lot of the steps I picked were about making things easier to understand – applying the INCREASE SENSE and CONTROL rules twice, for example.

I’m happy with the final result. I like how it has retained some of its original meaning (in that it still seems to be mainly about writing and writers) at the same time as introducing some ideas unrelated to writing, like the moon’s bad luck or progress leading to more mess, and I like how these disparate elements work together to create a largely coherent story overall.

For some reason I find it much easier to talk in a complementary way about poems I’ve written using externally driven processes like Cobralingus (as opposed to what I guess I think of as sheer raw creative energy – sort of like comparing a poem stitched together from pre-constructed materials and a poem created entirely from scratch). I think that’s related to my reluctance to entirely claim authorship for poems written in this way. On the one hand this lack of a sense of complete ownership seems to make me more comfortable talking about what I like about what I’ve written, because in some way it feels to me more like talking about someone else’s writing and less like bragging. On the other hand I tend to be reluctant to offer such poems up for publication for exactly the same reason – if I didn’t really write it – if part of it was already written and all I did was remix it a bit – then can I – or do I – really take credit for it?

Either way, I  like the idea that this twentieth part of the final work is capable of standing on its own as a poem – it has a sort of easter egg/DVD bonus feel to it, the idea that a reader could be presented with the 200-line poem and then a bonus 10 individual 20-line component poems to compare it with.

It would be interesting to hear the other 19 poets’ thoughts on being involved in this poem, too.

* In alphabetical order, said poets are: Zenobia Frost, Bec Giggs, Susan Hampton, Kelly-Lee Hickey, Stu Hatton, Hal Judge, Carly-Jay Metcalf, Scott-Patrick Mitchell, Derek Motion, Ella O’Keefe, Dan Lee, David Prater, Jaya Savige, Bel Schenk, Andrew Slattery, Amelia Walker, Louise Waller, Benny Walter and Fiona Wright

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on “On a Role””

  1. hey adam – i enjoyed reading this.

    i’ll release mine now. like a movie trailer.

    interestingly, my processes were quite different. i pretty much composed my 10 lines in 10 separate spurts. usually when i got one of the poems in my email & was reminded of the task.

  2. Hey Adam

    I really liked your poem because its a path I’m going down a lot more myself.

    In the past I have also favoured clarity and narrative but now I seem to be tiring of it. I’m much more interested in strangeness, and where meaning takes root and collapses (as Kevin Brophy says). There is still a narrative I think but there is also disruption, and I’m interested in that tension/balance…

    At a reading recently an audience member was thrown/confused re one of my lines..

    “… the television turning the milk upon the bench…”

    it’s a strange one, but I like that it’s confusing/open to interpretation. I now want lines (and whole poems I guess) to stick, challenge and get under the skin a bit, to reveal and obscure in a memorable way. I first remember reading Mark Strand and thinking, WOW, it was such strong, intense and unforgettable writing.

    so I like that my poetics are changing (it’s probably about time!) and although I haven’t been using any set external method for construction (which would be interesting) I do find that my relationship to these new poems is different too. they are enigmatic children. real FLKs (funny looking kids).

  3. curnow i noticed this poetics veer in your ulrick poem, i think, & i like it. you haven’t lost your readability either, which is important (you know, to keep your fan base happy).

    just don’t go blogging any of this new stuff…

    1. Yeah I can see the merit in such an approach and am happy with the arguments for it, but I think I’m a story-teller at heart and as such am wary of requiring too much interpretation on the part of my readers. I worry about running the risk of readers “not getting it” – mainly because I myself don’t really “get” experimental poetry.

  4. hi Adam,

    thanks for posting on your overland 200 experience. i see David Prater has also, and so have i at my blog lou-waves, hope you can have a look. and don’t think that poetry needs to be go or not got, it feels like it just is or isn’t most times.


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