Twenty years ago, I decided to leave university after five weeks into my first semester. I’d worked hard for a year in a pre-tertiary course and discovered a genuine spring of warmth that bubbled inside of me when my college lecturers praised my creative writing assignments. Later, I was accepted into a good university and took English Literature 101. An editor of a literary journal had suggested that my short story writing was lacking in momentum, but critiqued my misadventure with words as having a certain ‘poetic’ quality. His advice was to try my hand at verse. And the rest, as ‘they’ say, is history.
Apologies about the tacky cliché, but it’s true!
But that English Lit 101 professor of mine had other ideas and thought little of my writing. I’ll never forget that day – walking to the bus, the irritating acoustic resonance in the voice of my rational-self telling me to listen to the wisdom of an accredited academic – whilst my creative demons were ‘egging’ me on to spawn some balls and take on a higher challenge. It was a wager against the better judgement of everybody who cared for my well-being. I decided that university wasn’t the place for me.
My place in a university belonged to someone more appreciative of the acquired tastes of academia. I would return home and become a steel-fixer and send poems to three journals a week. It was a gamble that paid off. Now and then, that same university invites me to come in and speak to the students in their English Literature 101 course. And I’ve found a home in this university’s publishing wing with a reliable distributor.
I’d really like to thank the crew at Cordite for inviting me to work on this edition. In all honesty, Kent MacCarter was the actual ‘wheel-man’ on this job! Twenty–four hours after this editorial note was due – and I must apologize to Kent – I received an epiphany.
At the age of 40, I’m resigned to the fact that I have some limitations with this craft of ours. I’ll never be a great writer. Or editor. Writing, as a career, in this global economic climate is an incredible gamble. I wholesomely believe in the capacity of a good mentor and I will testify that you can safely place your money behind a good mentor than a touted creative writing course. And it just so happened that one of my most cherished mentors contacted me as these words were due to be submitted. An accomplished novelist of some standing, he shared with me his miscalculations behind landing a three-book deal earlier in the year. There was a sudden sense of regret in his tone. He specifically used the word ‘miscalculation’ when relaying his woes to me.
I come from a family of accomplished writers and students of the weekend ‘racing form’. My father, on the eve of his first European tour with his maiden novel, put a few dollars on a nag and picked up nearly fourteen grand. Unfortunately, he won’t share his secrets with me. He probably doesn’t want his son to one day stand in a room of strangers and say with a morose lull of dignity; ‘Hello, my name is Samuel, and I’m a gambler …’
Writing is a gamble though. As we all know. I’ve studied the nomenclature of gamblers and the word ‘miscalculation’ is somewhat of a chimera that lurks in the shadows of a practitioner’s conscience. Successful gamblers only take calculated risks – climbing Everest, for example, or eating poisonous fish, dodging cancer, scraping through a nadir in life and knowing up is the only option, examples all of jackpots in this issue’s poems. It saddened me to hear that someone whom I regard as a dear friend, ally and teacher, is feeling the pinch with his accomplishment … that the ‘Jackpot’ of a three-book deal has become a devil in disguise.
As I said, it was a bit of an epiphany I recently received. I’m not going to tell you explicitly what it was. But, occasionally, one must recognise the warning signs lurking in an epiphany – especially at the expense of someone with whom I respect as a wordsmith and has played his cards wisely throughout his career, guardedly close to his chest. This could happen to anyone of us.
I believe the late poet Charles Bukowski adored the razor’s edge of a racing guide every bit as much as the paper-cuts he was dealt in the editorial process of his life’s work. I enjoy reading about his strategic approach to writing far more than his poetry. He had systems for working his horses and working the page. Likewise, from the very beginning of Kerouac’s On the Road, one is thrust upon the roulette wheel of his travels. I carry a dog-eared copy with me whenever I venture overseas, accompanying me through the monotony of departure lounges in so many foreign lands.
Like many of you who have shared the pleasure in keeping company with Kerouac’s ghost – and I hope you agree with me – it is having a destination that quite often begets a journey. The opportunity to have the means to gamble with words is the jackpot that many of us yearn to hit. This issue of Cordite is a big one. The love of my life has a law degree and a degree in English literature, which equips her with a PhD in detecting bullshit. Right now, her editorial advice to me is to stop all this rhapsodising and philosophising and get to the point.
We received a phenomenal amount of submissions – over 1000 poems all up – each writer proving to bare the faculties of illustrious ‘wild card’ talent. My mind’s eye was at times lost in a matrix of visions. How to chose? Thank you – thank every one of you – for joining this round. I am sincerely sorry that we couldn’t publish double, triple, even quadruple the poems we have.
Last but not least, I’d like to thank my extended aunt, Annette Willis, who allowed Cordite to use a photograph from her collection, taken of me at her instigation some years ago in the Adelaide Hilton. I look at the photo today and know I am none the wiser. As a full-time writer, every day is up in the air, but I am prepared to resign myself to the moment when my luck has soured and the dice that put together any winning streak take a course of snake eyes. If there is one thing I have learnt from this game, this grift of writing, is that you must look for the opportunities lingering behind the trump-cards and be inspired by the luck of kindred hustlers … book deals, poems taken, poems published, the lot.
I sincerely hope you enjoy this eclectic jackpot of poetic portraits, and find in their reflections your shadow, captured in the shared viewfinder of our textual addictions.
-Samuel Wagan Watson, July 2012.