New Shoots: Mark Tredinnick
‘If you want heaven, start in mud,’ award-winning poet and writer Mark Tredinnick says in the opening line of Lotus Pond. The poem is one of a series he’s created for New Shoots, a collaboration between The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney, The Red Room Company, Sydney Olympic Park, and Bundanon Trust.
One of Mark’s preoccupations as a writer and poet is nature, so it’s fitting that his poems will find their way to the Royal Botanic Gardens, forming a series of poetic pathways and taking poetry from its usual literary haunts and drawing it into the landscape, as part of the New Shoots project.
I sit with Mark next to the aforementioned pond on a warm autumn afternoon. The lotuses have begun their post-summer retreat, their leaves turning in on themselves and the water they’re growing in looking decidedly murky. We talk about words, place, nature and poetry as the tired lotuses look on.
‘Some people cook,’ he says, by way of analogy, to the creative process and the motivations behind it. ‘We make love. Or we drive a car fast. Or whatever. It dawned on me fairly early on that the place I was most comfortable was within the ecosystem of words.’
Like a surprising number of creative types, Mark started his professional life as a lawyer. But he realised on day two of his first job in a law firm it wasn’t for him. A ten-year stint as a book publisher and editor followed, as did a doctorate in literature and ecology and a MBA. In the late 1990s after receiving a redundancy package, he started thinking about what he really wanted to do.
Two words persisted: writing and talking. So, he wrote and he spoke – writing essays and prose and teaching writing. It was ten years later when he began to pursue poetry as a form of expression.
It’s a Buddhist adage that lotuses begin in the mud and grow from it to reveal their true form. And it strikes me that Mark has followed the same chart of change throughout his career – from lawyer, to publisher, to MBA graduate, and finally and most truthfully, to poet.
‘I’ve always loved and read poetry and I recognise it now as the writing that is most utterly and completely me,’ he explained in an interview with journalist Sandra Hogan in 2011. ‘But then I was still thinking prose. Joseph Campbell says the cave we most need to enter is the one we’re most afraid to enter, and I think that cave for me was poetry.’
Soon after entering the cave, Mark began to win national and international recognition for his poems. He’s won the Montreal and Cardiff Poetry Prize, The Blake and Newcastle Poetry Prizes, two Premiers’ Literature Awards, and the Calibre Essay Prize. He’s published a bunch of prose and poetry books and travels the world talking about his work and teaching writing.
And Mark’s muse? Nature. It’s the reoccurring landscape he continues to explore in words, form, and rhythm. Writers like Barry Lopez and Wendell Berry first drew him down the nature-writing path, as did his penchant for metaphysical ponderings. On a wider plane, it seems Mark’s choice of subject matter is also an attempt to re-dress the balance between humans and nature. ‘I felt a sense that too much of the writing I read left most of it out,’ he says. ‘It left geology out. It left the rest of natural history out, and it left places out… It felt like a certain travesty, and a perpetuation of a divorce from nature that our culture has perpetrated largely unknowingly.’
But of course, just because Mark includes nature as a topic within his work doesn’t mean that’s all he writes about. ‘The world likes to put us in boxes and all the nature writers I’ve ever met, the first thing they say is I’m not a nature writer or I’m not just a nature writer,’ he says.
Like all writers, I’m concerned with the divine comedy of human existence, really.’
Mark really does have a way with communicating about the natural world, though. It’s like he sings it up somehow, gives it back its voice. In a way, he humanises the landscape – making nature less of an abstract concept and more relatable, sensuous, and spiritual – and alive to more than we realise. His poems plumb the depths of human feelings, which are often unspoken but somehow made clearer through verse, through metaphor.
I’m curious, though. How does he start? How does a poem find its voice? And what about form, metaphor, and all the rest? Creativity and how individuals approach it is forever intriguing, and here Mark shares some glimpses into his own creative process.
‘There tends to be something that pushes up from the heart through the head,’ says Mark. ‘That’s what it feels like to me—something comes that feels like a gift and warrants a gift of equal beauty if I can manage it…
I get going with the poem when I’ve got a line that wants utterance, that insists on being said.’
‘Part of what makes poetry distinctive from prose is form. It’s a big deal. Form is the architecture, the look on the page, the rhythm and speech, and the musical elements that call forth, that insist upon the poem. When you constrain yourself from completely free utterance you then have to dig deeper into linguistic soil, returning with metaphor, phrase and rhythm to make it work and to make the form almost disappear for the reader, but not for yourself… I have repertoire of forms now. It’s as simple as that. I’ve discovered the forms that I like to use by trial and error, and by love. I just tend to write poems in shapes that appeal to me.’
‘Poetry trades in metaphor. You never quite say the thing you mean, and in the gap between what you say and what you might mean (some of which you may not yet understand) is the lyric gap into which the reader comes and maybe even transforms themself. Form matters here because it’s a discipline against which to work at language that’s likely to be awake to more than you really mean and more than you can even know.’
Don’t sit the poem like a test, enter it like a garden, enter it like a forest and just see it as it is, and be who you are in response.’
Mark tells me he’s always been drawn to wild places and ‘the big question of who we are because of where we are’. Gardens haven’t specifically been something he’s been drawn to as a subject, but ‘it’s as though they keep insisting themselves on me,’ he says. His involvement with the New Shoots project is illustrative of this, and whilst he jumped at the chance to be involved, he says he did warn The Red Room Company that his idea of a garden is no garden at all! ‘But that idea was going to get me into trouble,’ he laughs. ‘In part because my dad’s a very keen gardener!’
The six poems Mark has created for New Shoots wind through the Botanic Gardens, touching on ideas of distance, place, growth, loneliness, and change. There’s a sensuality and reverence within his phrases, and a depth that encourages reading, and re-reading.
And, whilst I better not call him a garden poet, he’s really nailed the genre.
The New Shoots project will officially launch on Saturday the 21st of May, 2016, with two poetic tours of the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney. Join The Red Room Company and The Planthunter, along with participating poets Mark Tredinnick, Eileen Chong and Eric Avery as they share new poetic works inspired by locations within the gardens. The tours will be followed by drinks and conversation with the poets. Find out more info and book tickets HERE.
A poem by Mark Tredinnick, commissioned as part of the New Shoots project
If you want heaven, start in mud.
Where you’re stuck. Take your pilgrimage
Up to your ankles in sludge. And if the ground binds
and if your boots stick, and if you
step Out of them when you set off; if the odour
On a summer’s day, when the water ebbs, is noisome
where you begin, so much more pure
Your thoughts will be when they flower,
so much sweeter the garden’s scent when
You breathe it in, so much more like birdsong
Your voice when you begin at last to speak. Start underwater
if you want the sky. Start in the
abject Underworld, if you want the lighted Earth; start among
The throng of ears that cannot hear. Sink in detritus, seed in
the strife that your life, and every life,
Falls into now and then: Serenity
springs from squalor; love is only love if it
Can bear the badlands out. These wastes—good for nothing more substantial—
Bloom light and outshine day. The lotus pond,
a repurposed wetland well south of its
days, Is a perfect picture, empty, of the imperfection of your soul,
Helplessly in love with the vulgate particulars
of the secondhand world; in flower,
The pond is your Buddha self
at her ease; the Christ of St Thomas come
down From the cross. Freedom starts, but refuses to stay, in squalor;
Literature takes its first steps in slur and slurry.
Put down roots where no one
Else can, in the compost of loss, in the suspect terrain
Of the only life you may ever get to grow in.
Nothing is wrong for long
And hope cannot stay lost,
if beauty can walk from the wreck,
And the lotus can raise heaven
from the dreck and the dross.