'A poem is never finished': John Kinsella in our poets on poetry series

Award-winning poet John Kinsella talks to us about his approach to writing poetry.

How do you write a poem? Why do you write poetry? These are questions everyone wants answers to, so we sat down with John Kinsella to ask these questions and more.

How do you personally write a poem?

Most often they appear in my head and I see them – on a kind of internal screen. I also compose poems while walking, as I find the rhythms of walking very compatible with organising words, phrases, lines and stanzas. I usually handwrite a draft in my journal, or on a scrap of paper, and if I can (depending on where I am at a given time), write up my next draft on a manual typewriter before taking it across to an electronic document. Sometimes I compose directly onto a manual typewriter because, as with walking, I find its rhythms helpful and conducive to composing. In a sense, when I write or type I am copying lines of the poem from the 'screen within my head'. It's actually quite a visual experience for me, and when the aural aspects combine with this visual experience, I feel the poem is going where I want it to go. Poems are very spatial for me. I don't think of a poem as an object (and do not like objets d'art), but it is certainly tactile and malleable and part of a wider world. It is organic. I utilise what I term an 'in situ' approach to creating a poem – I prefer to draft (mentally or physically) at the moment of event, and take it from there. Even when writing something from memory, I find a need to be in an environment that stimulates that memory, either through being similar or dramatically different to create sharp juxtaposition. I am interested in gaps and slippage – a poem often occurs in the disjunction between what I envisage something to be and what it very likely is.

Why do you write poetry?

I consider myself an activist poet. I write to prompt scrutiny, witness, and hopefully change. I write for the here and now, not for a vague posterity. A poem only has worth to me if it energises the reader into (re)considering their givens, their certainties. Art must have purpose, to my mind. My prime concern is the health of the biosphere, of the environment. My concerns are human, of course, but always in the context of how humans respect (or don't) the 'natural' world. I am driven by a belief in small communities interacting with each other and lessening human impact on ecologies. A poem is part of the fabric of the natural world and is a form of exchange. A poem can be giving as much as emphatic and challenging. It's a means of rectification. I will use any poetic 'technique' to get to this modus operandi. I am not interested in the packaging of ideas and aesthetic impulses for arts consumerism. I do not wish to be pretty and handsome or neat or tidy. I wish to create poems of witness, and am prepared to be damned for writing things as I see them. I am culpable myself. Sometimes I write out of myself and address 'us', me included.

Which poet has influenced your work the most?

Most poets would say 'many poets and it's impossible to tell'. I fit this, but I do have a number of 'historic' poetic voices that have shaped my way of seeing and hearing poetry since I was a child. It doesn't mean I 'like' them, but that they are part of my fabric. I respect most of them greatly, and learn many things every time I return to them. That list includes Milton, Blake, Virgil, C. J. Brennan, Frost, Zukofksy, Malcolm Lowry, Lawrence, Plath, Hughes, Michael Dransfield, Randolph Stow, Wordsworth, Dante, Whitman, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Emily Brontë, Judith Wright, Hart Crane, Peter Porter, and Shelley. But there are many others. And among the living poets, the list is a long one. And I'd also include musicians such as Leadbelly and Robert Johnson in there. In terms of literal influence, if I had to name a single poet, I would cross the contemporary J. H. Prynne with Judith Wright. They are the poets who have had the most dramatic impact on how I think about the meaning and language of a poem.

Why is poetry important?

It is a means of expressing the inexpressible, as I often say. But it's also a positive means to change and is always alive – new conditions of reading make different poems out of the same material. The main thing is that it stimulates us to question the world as we know it, accept it and live in it.

How do you know when a poem is finished?

A poem is never finished. It's one possible point along a diverse set of paths. It's more chaos than it is a straight-line journey from point A to point B. I always have problems with major rewrites of poems in selected and collected poems because poems are of their moment. I guess that suggests a kind of completion on 'publication'... but I don't mean that, rather I mean an original version should exist and have the possibility of being read as much as later versions (extensive revisions of the 'original') as something about the here and now is being said in both (or the many) versions. Poetry is never static for me, but living. I am not interested in creating curatorial objects and never read the poems of my contemporaries in this way. I always expect their poems will change, but the original is still part of who I am and who we all are.


by John Kinsella

John Kinsella's vivid new collection addresses the crisis of being currently afflicting us, full of poems of self-accusation, angry protest, loss and trauma, and celebrations of the natural world. Insomnia could be John Kinsella's most powerful collection yet.