Lunchtime Variations: Dominic Symes Interviews Peter Bakowski and Ken Bolton

By , and | 1 February 2022

DS: On those first few poems – Ken, I remember you reading from the first ‘sixpack’ at the Halifax Café (a reading series in Adelaide) in 2018. This was, I imagine, before you had considered publishing The Elsewhere Variations? Can you describe this early phase of the collaboration from your perspective? And what is a ‘sixpack’?

KB: We were working pretty fast – aside from that year or so delay – so we’d likely finished the first book by then. I don’t know. It had begun with one poem by Peter and two by me. Two more by Peter seemed a good idea, to match my pair. One more from me meant we had contributed three each. Symmetry. So I suggested that. It doesn’t bear much examining, but I thought we had a ‘form’ going, a formula or practice, that might produce an interesting effect from us. An initial poem, then two to counter or corroborate the first – a further pair, and a final contribution to close, maybe with a twist. It probably did work that way for a while.

DS: Peter, during this early stage were there paths not taken, poems abandoned, or conversations about how the rules of the collaboration would develop?

PB: I liken our collaboration to jazz improvisation – our poems, our subject matter, whether wacky or bold or measured, are ongoing ‘call and response’ – even though response poems may come within hours both of us are mining our subconscious, our knowledge, our deep interests in music, art, film, Europe and America. If there are any paths to our collaboration, or ‘rules’ they are: for the collaboration to remain fun, and to not repeat ourselves. Ken will suggest if certain characters in the poems have been visited enough, are best shelved for a while, perhaps to make a cameo in a future collaboration…

DS: Ken, I’m interested how the two parts of the books, the ‘Spanners’ and the ‘Truants’, came together as the basis for the book?

KB: Spanners and Truants. Four ‘sixpacks’ of poems – twenty-eight – seemed at the time like a lot to us. But it was only half a book. Those sixpacks we called ‘Spanners’. We decided the next four sixes (they would need a different name) would run in the simpler poet A, poet B, poet A, poet B fashion. Funnily, without even discussing it, or ever even remarking it, when we began the next book, Nearly Lunch, we reverted to the original formula, and have continued. We’ve done two further books’ worth since then and have never discussed the ‘work pattern’ at any stage.

DS: Peter, could discuss the delineation between poems that would become Nearly Lunch and the poems selected for The Elsewhere Variations? Was there a natural break? For example, on my reading, the ‘Truants’ resemble the poems in Nearly Lunch more than the ‘Spanners’ in The Elsewhere Variations – is this because of when they were written?

PB: As a poet who does a lot of reading and research I have periods of subject matter obsession and I also dig deep in the mine of my life experience – The Elsewhere Variations draws on my knowledge of the Melbourne poetry scene, American jazz and popular music, the cities of Paris and New York and geographical research pertaining to Sydney. Looking back on The Elsewhere Variations it’s strongly location and character-based. Personally, I didn’t envisage Nearly Lunch as Ken and I were writing The Elsewhere Variations.

DS: Ken, the Nearly Lunch poems remind me of some of your collaborations with John Jenkins – particularly Gwendolyn Windswept – because of the invented characters, scenes and dialogue which functions less as coherent narrative, but almost scraps of old films pieced together. I understand the process with John was a lot of in-person riffing or sending poems with lines for the other poet to fill in. There was an effort made to blur the voices, collaborating within each poem/line of the story, rather than writing one poem in response to an earlier one. I wonder how this collaboration with Peter compares, and what is important about keeping voices distinct in your collaborations?

KB: Yes, the work with John Jenkins was collaboratively written, usually a heady and hilarious experience and we tried various methods. Peter and I collaborate on the books or sequences, but the poems are written individually. The mutuality builds – or it grew up as we wrote the first book. You begin to know each other’s worlds and moves and a main driver of it all is the need to create surprise and variety. Surprise and variety for the imagined reader, but also for the other writer. I mostly think of the poems –mine, as I write them – as parodic adventures in narrative, and character. The conventions of the novel, of film and television are put thru their paces. Some of them are amusingly serious, on one level at any rate. (John Jenkins and I nearly always wrote side by side. Peter and I send the poems back and forth by email, each worrying that we’re keeping the other waiting, or hoping that the other hasn’t secretly written three in the meantime.)

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