Melbourne poet and raconteur Nick Whittock recently took time out from writing his inimitable cricket poems in order to face 12 questions sent down the wires by friend and fellow cricket tragic, Sam Kidman.
Sam: How do you prepare for your poem-writing? How do you know when you are ready?
Nick: I put in the hard yards. I spend a lot of time in the nets. I practise my shots as I walk down the street, my footwork and the position of the hands. You have to be ready at every moment, I have 6 Weet-Bix for breakfast every morning without fail.
Sam: Do you have any superstitions, things you have to wear or do, before you embark on a poem? A favourite pencil? Do you put notches anywhere when you complete a poem?
Nick: I do have a red handkerchief but rarely use it. Certainly there is no one pencil that could satisfy me fully, but the weight is very important. The weight in the pencil must be distributed correctly to allow for an easy pick-up while still packing an explosive punch when it hits the page. I paint seagulls around my computer screen, one for every poem that makes it to keyboard.
Sam: Do you ever get nervous during a poem, or even after it?
Nick: It is no secret that I am a nervous starter. I get incredibly worked up before I sit down to write. I rarely get any sleep at all the night before a poem. When I walk onto the ground of the poem I am in such a state I feel as if I would sweat blood. My coaches have been working with me on this though. I have been given some meditation drills to run through, which seem to be working. I find I am a lot more settled far earlier on in the poem now.
Sam: I like the phrase 'ground of the poem'. This sounds like a magical and illusory place even though I have been there.
Sam: What is the poetry equivalent of being stranded on 99 not out?
Nick: I don't know if an analogy between cricket and poetry can be this easily made, or at least not so precisely demarcated. I have never been in this situation. My highest score is 63. What do you think?
Sam: Interestingly, my highest score is only 62. I think the equivalent might be having a finished poem that is not finished, nor ever will be.
Nick: Like Kafka's novels, though Kafka was a centurion surely. It would be a poem of some irrefutable quality. A poem that has a quality that is able to be statistically verified, even though it is ended and interminable. And not yet, quite, great – according to the statistics.
Sam: A poem that has scored 99 runs without being dismissed.
Nick: That's exactly it. It boosts the poet's average.
Sam: Tell me about Michael Slater. Several of your poems reveal a profound respect for the machinations of his psyche. Even a deep sympathy for him.
Nick: Yes. His story is incredibly sad. Watching him bat in England in 2001 truly pained me. But it is not just me, his torment affects everyone. Robbie Williams at least has written several songs about his struggle. Slats truly affects us all, his emotions run at such a high intensity. He has written himself about living with the fear that his head will explode as a result of these intense moods. He has to let it out and once it is out it takes over. There is no doubt the world has been greatly troubled since he was dropped from the Australian test side at the end of that English summer.
Sam: Tell me about the psyches of some of the cricketers you are most interested in – Damien Martyn, Matthew Hayden, Slater, Steve Waugh and how and why you use the inside of their heads to make a poem about cricket.
Nick: I don't think I use the inside of their heads at all. As with Slats, it's all out there. There is a quality, or qualities, that each of them reveal quite blatantly in the way they move about the cricket field. Dizzy Gillespie for example, its his legs that I get into. He does these little steps before he starts his run-up, everything issues from this. Damien Martyn is my favourite. He barely plays the game. I am not being ironic or critical, he is the quietest, most absent cricketer, and he posits this absence so forcefully. He hardly needs to hit the ball to send it to the boundary. And when he does hit it he is never Marto but always takes on the aspect and qualities of another player. He can be Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh, even Michael Bevan, though he is left handed. He seems to be able to occupy the form even of a left hander. Marto has no form of his own.
Sam: I suppose what I mean is: I tend to get very sad when I read your poems. I get a very real sense of the cricketers in operation, what they are thinking, how they are doing at the crease, and it is very poignant I think.
Sometimes tears well up in my eyes. Am I insane? Can you sympathise?
Nick: Of course. The poetry is very sympathetic. There is great sympathy, I hope, in my poems both for the cricketer and the reader of the poem, and for the world. I am very sorry to have written these poems, you are not insane Sam.
Sam: Tell me about form.
Nick: Form is a concept that largely escapes me in terms of poetry. In cricket on the other hand, and Damien Martyn is a prime example here, it is clear that it barely exists at all. I understand form, or perhaps the myth of form, perfectly when I watch cricket.
Sam: Watching cricket at the oval itself is interesting. The day seems to fly by in only a matter of minutes. I find the flurry of activity at the end of the over very exciting. Perhaps this is the bit that I like the best. You are right in saying that the game has no form. There is not enough time for it to be achieved, but sometimes tv gives the illusion of form because you see endless repetitions of the same movements. How do you know when you are in good form?
Nick: Television replays are very interesting because cricket is somewhat of a series of replays anyway, constant repetition. The tv replays do intensify this dramatically and create an impression of consolidation. When you feel the ball hitting the middle of the bat, Sam, that's when you know the hard work in the nets has all paid off.
Sam: The middle of the bat is not actually in the middle of the bat.
Nick: It is in a different place every time, when you are in good form you are able to track it down and follow it. You become aware of the entire shape of the game and are able to project well ahead of it. I think this point, well ahead of itself, is the only point at which form exists. Michael Slater used to have visions of his innings the night before the game had even begun.
Sam: Tell me about cricket and its uncanny ability to collapse itself into a poem. Collapse is the wrong word here, and I hate to use the term 'become' but I think you get the idea.
Nick: Collapse or become. It's the movement of formation and its retrograde movement at once. It's like the forces that act on the ball and cause it to swing. Perhaps swing is the word, or I like explode. As I have said, when we're talking poetic formations I don't get the idea at all, but certainly it is as you say, cricket explodes into the poetic form by itself. It is a matter of letting it… go through to the keepa- or go off the middle of the bat, through the covers for four. Depending on the line and the length, and the swing. Let the ecosystem do its work.
Sam: Perhaps it is the lack of shape in a poem that suits cricket. This is poorly put but an essay, for mine, is rectangular, a novel a bit of a square, but a poem is like an undefined oval, an ellipsis. You come on to the ground from anywhere and just insert yourself into and around the game. You can't watch an essay from the stands with a hotdog in your hand. Poems have the slipperiness of cricket. I like to watch a poem and reading one is a peculiar experience. They have warmth.
Nick: It can get incredibly hot at the cricket. It is always at least 5 degrees warmer at the mcg than anywhere else in Melbourne. 10 degrees warmer if you are in the concourse of the Great Southern Stand, up to 20 if the Barmy Army is there.
Sam: It is unnerving when there is a square boundary hit. What do you think of the idea of letting the 12th man bat and/or bowl when there is an injury? Healy was mooting this idea.
Nick: I think that Healy understands the idea is stupid, it is sometimes hard to find things to talk about in the face of cricket.
Sam: Shane Warne.
Nick: That's a very good question. Again it's one you might like to answer Sam. I know you have a particular affinity with our Shane. He is interesting because all his qualities are in his right arm (he's got a wrist like an outback whip) and his injuries are always in his right shoulder. It is as if his arm is trying to free itself from that body. I'd like to give this question back to you.
Sam: Shane interests me because he seems to know nothing except for cricket, which he is brilliant at. An idiot savant. He falls into the category of Lillee, Marsh, M Hughes – that particular Australianess which is very endearing. He is a simple man of simple tastes. He only has one delivery, but every batsman in the world thinks he has about 20. He is the green and gold.
Nick: He has fingers that just won't quit. I heard Shane on the 9 commentary team during the fifth test. He was talking about exactly the issue you have just raised. He does have only one delivery but he varies the angle of release constantly and creates the impression in batsmen's minds that every ball is something entirely else.
Sam: When you sway the 't' and the 'ck' in your name you get 'whickott'. This interests me.
Nick: One of my comrade shelvers at the St Kilda Library calls me Wicket. I guess it is fortunate. And of course my first name is nick. As a cricketer I am a specialist wicketkeeper, so it does all kind of fit. Cricketer's names, and their nicknames, are hugely important I think. Warne is very close to containing the word arm. I know Ricky Ponting interests you in this way, can you say something about this?
Sam: Ricky and ponting. Ponting is like punting, which happens in Oxford and Cambridge and then I think of blazers and quaint university games of cricket with sandwiches and tea. Ricky makes him forever a juvenile. I am not sure exactly how ponting speaks to me of cricket specifically, but I will give this further thought.
Nick: Pont in French is bridge, is that right? His nickname of course is Punter, or Ponts.
Sam: Explain why you write poetry, perhaps this has been answered in question 0.6, but I am looking for a more personal response.
Nick: I am trying to save the world Sam. I admire all superheroes. I am fascinated by the partnerships they enter into with the world, and with their sidekicks. Eminem's Boy Wonder to Dre's Batman. Langer's to Hayden's. Sam, you are a Batman to me.
Sam: You are the first cricket-poem superhero.
Nick: No no, you have read 'The Dominators'?
Sam: True. Those cricket-quatrains are deadly weapons in the wrong hands. But they are cricket-songs as well. They have maybe too much meter. Yours are imperial. They have the power of the empire behind them.
Nick: I resist that strongly. I would hope my poems come out of the post colonial forces that cricket propels against empire.
Sam: Is your uniform poem-proof?
Nick: Are the poems not proof enough?
Sam: What sound does cricket make?
Nick: lets all ave a disco lets all ave a discoh lets all ave a disco lets all ave a discoh lets all ave a discoh lets all ave a disco
Sam Kidman studied languages and English Literature at Sydney University. In 2000 he completed a Communications degree from the University of Technology in Sydney majoring in philosophy/cultural studies and writing. His easy listening band, Carter Vance, released an EP last year and an album is to follow soon.