An Interview with Liam Ferney

9 February 2012

Liam Ferney is a Brisbane poet. He works in politics. His collections of poetry include Career (Vagabond Press, 2011) and Popular Mechanics (Interactive Press, 2004). He is a former Poetry Editor of Cordite.

Can you describe your typical day at work?

I am a political staffer in the education and industrial relations portfolios for the Queensland Government. I am responsible for media management and with more than 1200 schools spread across an area more than nine times the size of Nebraska with 50,000 teachers teaching almost half a million students with just under a million parents who all get their news from 14 daily newspapers, four television networks, five radio networks and the incessant mosquito swarm that is social media, it can be a huge job.

The average working day usually kicks off around 6:30am. Before I get out of bed I’ll scroll through emails on my Blackberry to find out if anything has happened overnight and to take stock of the morning papers.

However, if I’m especially unlucky my day can start closer to 5:00am with some obnoxious radio producer wanting an interview on some breaking issue. If this happens I have to pretend that a) I’m already awake, b) am completely across the issues and c) didn’t think it was a good idea to have half a dozen G&Ts the night before.

If there are urgent morning issues I’ll generally try and write talking points and handle enquiries from home before heading in, however, if it’s a light morning I will be in the office before 8:00am to read the rest of the papers, scan the office diary and brief the Premier’s staff on key issues. This is all fuelled by mugs of strong black instant coffee.

What follows can be hard to predict. There is no real typical day or even rhythm to a day. Some days are completely taken up by talking to journalists and public servants to handle breaking media issues. Other days are completely consumed by writing speeches, media releases, tweets, talking points, statements and updating websites.

If there are media events I am heavily involved in planning them and often accompany the Minister to schools, worksites or other events across the state. This might even involve taking a 6:00am flight in one of the Government planes to open a school 2000kms away.

Other days can be full of meetings with Departmental staff, politicians and other political staffers, external stakeholders and community groups. There are always documents to approve, Right to Information applications to manage, briefing notes to approve and all of this while keeping an ear on the radio and an eye on twitter to stay ahead of the media cycle.

While there are no typical days, generally my day begins to wind up around 5pm with the first of the evening news bulletins. This is the time to finalise media enquiries, prepare talking points ahead of tomorrow’s news items and try and clear the email inbox. Generally, if I’m lucky I’m out of the office by around 6:15pm.

It doesn’t give me a whole lot of time to write but it is a tremendous finishing school for a communications professional and while writing poetry is my heart and soul, professional communications is my bread and butter and I am working hard to build twin careers in both areas.

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

Poetry is a passion however it is also an art and, as such, it is like anything you want to improve at, you have to work at it. This means reading poems, writing and drafting poems, reading other critical material and immersing myself in other art forms that impact upon my poetry. This is something I need to approach with a certain amount of discipline because without discipline there is no way I would be able to find time to write.

The other side of the coin is what I call the administrative side of writing poetry. I am responsible for promoting and distributing much of my work which means there are always accounts to be maintained, receipts to be filed, publishers to be invoiced, submissions to prepare and track, readings to arrange and grants to apply for. Even this interview is just another one of the things that needs to be done and sitting here typing up my responses when I could be sitting at a cafe have breakfast make it feel like work.

How long do you generally spend writing an individual poem?

Five or six years. The initial composition generally only takes about fifteen minutes (I write short poems) but the polishing and tightening and drafting can take years. One of the reasons I am able to balance a demanding professional career and poetry is the fact that I write predominately short, experimental lyric poems which I can scribble off in a lunch break or in the couple of free hours I get an evening. If I was writing The Iliad I might struggle to find some balance but I’m not.

I think it might have been Ashbery who was lamenting the fact that O’Hara had to sustain himself with his job at MOMA throughout his writing career. However, I don’t think O’Hara’s work is any poorer for his professional life. In fact, it was this life that gave him something to write about.

Is work a preoccupation or theme in your poetry?

Work isn’t really a theme in my poetry, however, politics are and I work in politics. I also find that the language of work informs my poetry. By this I mean the jargon, the turns of phrase, the expressions, that are part and parcel of any work environment. I like to collect this language and play with it in my poems. In one sense I see my poetry as a record of language and speech so obviously the language of work is something to record alongside the language of art, the language of sport, the language of social situations.

What is your attitude towards unpaid publication?

I care more about the journal, the editor and who else is publishing in it than whether or not I get paid. Obviously I prefer to get paid but money doesn’t really dictate where I send my poems. I want to find my readers and my readers are often other poets whose work I admire so it makes sense to publish where they do.

At the moment you’ve got great little magazines like Steamer out of Melbourne that are really fun and really innovative. They don’t pay but that’s something exciting so I want to be a part of that.

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

Probably $15 but it might have been $20. The most in one go, aside from grants, was probably about $500 which I promptly went out and bought a kayak with.

Describe your poetry writing work environment.

I have a small desk in a small office in my house with a laptop on it. I used to have a bigger desk but I sold it when I moved and I haven’t gotten around to buying a new one. Sometimes I’ll take drafts to the park or to a café but generally I’m in my study at my desk.

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

Poetry doesn’t have an intrinsic financial worth. That’s the beauty of it. It costs very little to produce, very little to distribute and therefore it falls outside the tentacles of economics that can strangle, or at the very least, hinder art.

Ultimately, I think the market is the best mechanism for setting the financial value of any good, service or work of art so what the market pays for a poem is what it is worth. Of course the market can’t determine aesthetic value (if there is such a thing) but it will tell you exactly how much people are prepared to pay for something.

Should I be paid more for poems? I’d like to have a ski chalet in Wyoming and a shack on a beach in the Caribbean and oscillate between the two depending on the season. But if I did get paid that much for writing poems I’m sure it would impact on the way I think about my audience and ultimately impact on the poetry.

Can I stress again that I think one of the strengths of poetry, as an art form, is the fact that the market doesn’t value it highly. It isn’t expensive to produce or distribute therefore it does not need to be constrained by the need to find an audience.

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

I edited Cordite for about six issues back in about 2004 returning for a one-off guest editing slot again last year. It was a fantastic experience. I enjoy reading poetry, I like talking about poetry and I find it rewarding to champion poets whose work I particularly enjoy. I have pretty clear ideas about the poetry I enjoy and the poetry I value and I am keen to promote this. It was fun seeking out new poets to promote as well as boosting Cordite’s profile by soliciting contributions from higher profile poets.

It can be a lot of work and you’ve certainly got to read through a lot of terrible work but it’s great finding a jewel somewhere amongst the flotsam. Then you have to keep track of the submissions, whose is, whose out, etc. which can be quite an administrative burden but you’ve just got to be reasonably disciplined and get it done.

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

Rarely. The label doesn’t sit comfortably with me. I don’t mix with too many poets socially and if people know I write poetry they want to know what it is about and that is a question I always struggle to answer.

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

At age five I wanted to be an archaeologist or an anthropologist but I think that was more because of Indiana Jones than anything else. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember and I have been writing poetry since I was about twelve. I remember standing up in a Year 11 English class and saying I wanted to be a poet and the teacher replied by saying that wasn’t a real job.

Liam Ferney’s ‘Millennium Lite Redux’, first published in Cordite 31: Epic (2009), has now been republished as part of the Cordite / Prairie Schooner ‘Work’ feature.

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