Lunchtime Variations: Dominic Symes Interviews Peter Bakowski and Ken Bolton

By , and | 1 February 2022

DS: Peter, I want to talk about the many and varied characters in the two books. Trying to invent characters while communicating only through poetic exchange sounds like a difficult exercise. Could you explain how these characters developed? Was there some shared influence or cultural touchstone?

PB: I’ve always written and continue to write character-driven poems. I try to make each character engaging. I have empathy for each character no matter how hapless they are. In any creative ‘scene’ there are egos and competitiveness. I want the reader to consider the absurdity and surrealism of egotism and chest-beating and status anxiety.

KB: Me though, I don’t normally write this way at all. Although – and it’s days after you asked me this question – I remember a book I wrote called The Circus. A narrative poem made up of tiny vignettes. It was produced as a radio play by University Radio (Radio Adelaide, formerly 5UV) and published by Wakefield.

DS: For each of you, has the collaboration developed to a point now where when starting a new poem you think it might be the beginning of a sixpack?

PB: Between our collaborative books Ken and I work on our solo poetry collections. If I write a poem that ‘announces’ itself as the start of a sixpack I’ll save it until sufficient time has elapsed and I think Ken may be up for a further collaborative book. I think that intuitively and telepathically we’ll know when and whether to email each other a ‘prompter’ poem.

KB: They’re fun to write – and, once begun, they become a sort of exciting treadmill, exhausting, a bit all-consuming, too. Addictive, probably a bit like gaming.

DS: To me it feels like both of you have slightly adjusted the way you write in order to collaborate. Peter, for example, I think the endings in your poems in these books are much more open than the poems of yours I have read elsewhere (leaving space for the next), Ken, I think your lines are more condensed. Firstly, do you think these are accurate observations, and/or how have you adapted how you write for these collaborations?

KB: Spot on. The perspective of the sequence probably frees Peter of the need to sum up or tie off. And my usual writing is not character – or narrative-based. So these poems are a holiday for me, a holiday from myself. I’m never as succinct as Peter, but here I try to make mine shorter – for a book of mostly single page poems, all of them vignettes or situations, tiny stories.

PB: Currently, I do like the open-ended poem – where the future beyond the poem is unknown.

DS: Is there anything you’ve learned from one another by working so closely together?

PB: Ken’s poems have taught me about the slow reveal, the gradual unfolding. Also, Ken via email has tactfully suggested when I may have exhausted a subject or a location, e.g. pop music or Japan.

DS: Ken’s emails have done that for me too. I know to reel things in if Ken comments that something I’ve written is ‘de trop’.

KB: Peter’s remarks about my poems have alerted me to (some of the kinds of) errors that I regularly make. Lapses. Not that he’s mean about it. But rather than just wishing something were better or hoping deficiencies will not be noticeable I’ve become quicker about getting on to them.

DS: It seems to have remained fruitful for both of you and you both seem excited to keep going. When can we expect the next instalment?

PB: With confidence, I’ll say this year (2022).

KB: We have the third and fourth books written. All four are different from each other – in feel and pace and their dominant tone – but they hang together well, and there are amusing continuities running through and between them. The Elsewhere Variations, Nearly Lunch, Waldo’s Game and On Luck Street.

DS: You’ve covered a lot of ground since the first book.

KB: Yeah. The Elsewhere Variations began as a spoof on the Melbourne poetry scene – or on an imagined one. Hence the idea of half hiding behind a nom de plume like Walter Gabriel. But the project stabilised itself and became something else. I still like the hi-jinx of the early stages – but we had no plan.

PB: We still haven’t. We have a practice.

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