Q&A with Tom Clark

8 February 2012

Since 2006, Tom Clark has been an academic in the School of Communication and the Arts at Victoria University, Melbourne, where he teaches and researches in political rhetoric as a family of performance poetry. Previously he completed a PhD, writing his thesis on irony in Beowulf, which Peter Lang (Bern) published in 2003. He works intermittently as a political speechwriter. He has a prose book on poetry and truthfulness in political speech due out in April 2012. ‘Why be a delegate?’ will be included in an anthology of his political poems, also due for publication in 2012.

Can you describe your typical day at work?

Leave home at 8.00. Catch tram into city. Delete unwanted emails on iphone. Catch train from city to my campus. Delete more unwanted emails on ipad. Read up on all the urgent things before arriving at work. Trip takes 65-75 minutes from door to door. Arrive in office. Try to get writing done, whether that is creative or scholarly, but in fact spend most of the day responding to queries from students and colleagues. Teach a class somewhere in there. Take a half-hour lunch break somewhere in there. Make espresso for favoured visitors on my electric Bialetti. Typically afternoons are taken up with a couple of formal meetings. When they’re over, typically between 5 and 6, pack up and read on my way home. Delete more unwanted emails on ipad.

Do you consider writing poetry to be a form of work?

Yes. Both because I do it for work (i.e. my university encourages me to write) and because I work at it. When the poems are just OK, I would call them workmanlike, or trying hard. When they’re really working, I find more idealistic epithets.

How long do you generally spend writing an individual poem?

Drafting can be quick – maybe as little as thirty minutes for an 8-line lyric – but revision typically takes 10-20 times as long, and spreads out over several years.

Is work a preoccupation or theme in your poetry?

Often it is, especially the politics of the workplace. I love the banality of work language and trade union activism as a vehicle for poetic transcendence.

What is your attitude towards unpaid publication?

I have the luxury of a salary for writing and teaching, so I don’t feel driven to sell it — nor do I want to judge others for whom the money is less discretionary. If poets really want dough, though, they should write for advertising. Plenty of scope for versification there!

What is the smallest amount you’ve ever been paid for the publication of a poem?

$10.00, several times, paid by the University of Sydney Union.

Describe your poetry writing work environment.

Varied. Often I write in an aeroplane, working in the back of the boarding pass, before I type it up at home or in the office. Longer pieces need the dependability of uninterrupted time, but travel is often good for that too. Revision is typically done by iPad on the train to or from work.

What do you think is the (ideal) monetary worth of a single poem?

AU$820.00 per page (standard consultancy rates).

Have you ever worked as an editor? Describe your experience.

I have edited a few publications at the less professional end of the scale. It was great for the discarding skills. Editing gives you a very keen sense of the difference between people who actively read poetry and those who just write it.

When asked your occupation, do you reply ‘poet’?

No. I am an academic, so that’s what I say — but I’m really glad to be in a job that recognises and supports creative work.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A politician.

Tom Clark’s ‘Why be a delegate?’, first published in Cordite 26: Innocence (2007), has now been republished as part of the Cordite / Prairie Schooner ‘Work’ feature.

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