John Kinsella interviews Coral Hull
CORAL HULL: To be an artist of any kind you need life experience. But you also need education and equipment. Life working through you is not enough. You need to be able to translate or express the experience. For me, living was the easy part. The expression of that experience was harder. I had an inadequate education, a rotten homelife and no money with which to purchase equipment. We had no books. My mother had a camera, but she mainly took shots of kids standing around birthday cakes etc. All my pencils used to wear down in the first few weeks of the school year and there were no more until Christmas. Christmas was when we got given all our school gear. We had a television and a record player. Movies were to be one of my initial creative influences. We also went to the cinema during school holidays. I remember a childhood filled with creative intention. It was very frustrating. All this stuff was happening to me but I didn't know how to what to do about it, or how to make sense of it. I did all the usual things with the other kids who were in a similar situation. We threw rocks on the rooves of all the houses in our street. These were the creative acts of the children in our suburb. All children are creative. Some have access to more education and equipment than others. But those others will still express themselves in whatever ways they can. I wrote a poem titled The Rainforest when I was thirteen. I thought, this is a poem and I want to be a poet. By this stage I needed writing that much, that all the lack of support in the world couldn't stop me once I began. From that age on I wrote. I couldn't spell and I wrote rubbish. But it didn't matter. It was the act of writing that was important. Writing was someone to talk to.
What are your views on the teaching of creative writing?
CORAL HULL: I have studied creative arts at universities for ten years. I have just completed a Doctor of Creative Arts degree at Wollongong University. Without access to these institutions I would have remained semi-illiterate and would not have become the writer I am today. Before going to Wollongong University I didn't even know about class, or that the inner city of Sydney had a culture. When I sat in on my first History Of The Arts lecture, I didn't know what the hell they were talking about. I didn't understand what the big words meant. A year later I knew that they didn't mean that much. I failed my first essay on mythology when I wrote pages and pages on how myth meant lies. I escaped my background by going to university. There was nowhere else to go except into the factories or the supermarkets. My family would not support me through a tertiary education. I left home for the second and final time at nineteen. Naturally, I support creative writing being taught at all educational institutions. Universities provide opportunities, but again it's who can go and who can't go. I slipped through the class barriers and got in. The thing that worries me is that these institutions are teaching people how to develop as writers and artists for years on end, and when you get out there is no work available. Also, I guess creative writing courses at universities suffer the same problems as visual arts courses. Conservatism, standardization and introversion.
You write prose, have an interest in photography, and do graphic work. Do you see these different artforms as part of the same project as your poetry?
CORAL HULL: I have made a choice to pursue my writing only. It is where I work best. I still indulge in some photography, but my power lies with the written word. The pace of visual art is not fast enough for me. I have a lot that I want to say and I want to say it now. If I tried to pour out the paintings like I do my writing I would go crazy. Why spend time drawing a leaf when I can just describe it or take a photo of it. I know. I'm half joking. Photography is fast enough for me. Although I prefer fully automatic cameras. It is the idea that I am interested in and not so much the technique. I had a horrible time in conceptual arts school, where we had to use these big rocks in order to make prints. The preparation took hours. I ended up accidentally smashing the rock. It broke completely in half. They were worth a few thousand dollars. Also I am a minimalist. I love the internet. Art was too material for me. It's too stifling. I'd prefer to listen to a choir than look at an installation. I was also concerned that art was not political enough for what I want to do. The other deciding factors for me to stop art altogether, was the cost. Basically, I couldn't afford to do it. I was tired of standing outside art shops looking in through the windows and dribbling over the equipment. I became disillusioned with the art world. I believed that anyone should be able to express themselves, regardless how much money or equipment they have. Art is for the elite. Writing and speaking are the cheapest forms of creative expression I can think of. Yet I am very fortunate to have studied visual and conceptual art. Creative arts taught me how to 'see' the world. Cross-disciplinary techniques have only served to enhance my expression as a writer.
Activism and the poet's responsibility? Veganism and poetry?
CORAL HULL: Veganism is the ultimate political act on behalf of the earth and its animals. There is no better way to minimise suffering than to change dietary and living habits into a powerful ethical tool. Everytime we sit down to eat we can ask ourselves is this action destroying our heath?, the life of an animal?, is it damaging the environment and contributing to third world hunger? In this day and age it is more important than ever, that we become conscious of everything we do. We are all responsible for the present acceleration of the destruction of the earth. Some of us are also responsible for the torture, murder and genocide of animals. Do I think that poets and artists will save the earth? No. It's the political activists who will save this world, or at least they will try, and if they write then all the better. I cannot begin to express how urgent the situation is for all of us. If I have to stop writing and fight harder, that's what I'll do. Writing is a very powerful tool for good, if it is used ethically. Maybe it could save the world. I make a plea to all Australian writers to act ethically and with some sense of urgency, on behalf of all of those who are suffering.
Could you talk about the form of the book Broken Land? It works as a kind of dark 'tour'.
CORAL HULL: I sat on a bus in the Northern Territory in my early twenties. I thought to myself, I want to be a tour guide. I know this land. It is inside me. Although I never took that particular career path I have always felt a need to express the land. It talks to me and then I translate. You are right when you say that Broken Land was a dark tour. It was very dark and very broken out there. My heart was smashed to pieces in order to write that book. My father drove me to a few locations. But no one really accompanied me to those deeper places. The book was written from a variety of notes and slides taken over a period of five days in Brewarrina and Bourke, New South Wales. I photographed most of the things I wrote about. In the end I didn't use the photos. I wanted to keep the work universal by not using images with the text. The photograph is a visual experience. Since the written word is not visual, the reader must compensate by creating images. If the writing works the readers will go on their own dark tours. I am only talking about what I went through. The reader can do what they like with that work. I got lost on that tour anyway. When I stepped off the plane at Sydney airport, I looked down at my shoe. I noticed a bit of red dust on it. I thought, what the hell happened? Where have I been for the past five days? That's how the book ended. I went back to Melbourne and wrote from those notes. I wrote the book in two weeks. That's the fastest book I ever wrote. There was no struggle. I guess that's a good feeling for any writer. The moment they are swept away.
Ethical and moral concerns are central to your work, or maybe one could say 'project'. At what point, if any, do life and art separate for you?
CORAL HULL: They don't. One is the other. I try to live my live creatively and to create a life in my art. It's the self consciousness of art, that I abandon during the process of living. When I was writing Broken Land I went out to Brewarrina with the intention of writing, but the situation overwhelmed me. Taking photographic slides and writing down my notes every day, was all I could do to keep up. As a writer I became irrelevant. I was simply carried away by something extraordinary. The self was abandoned to some extent. It all has to do with movement. The landscape was moving through me as I moved through it. We were continually swallowing each other. It was quite shocking. The important thing is that I believed it. I believed everything as it happened. I allowed it to happen and I wrote about the truth. I didn't want to mix with other artists or writers out there. That's the last thing I wanted. What I wanted was the raw truth. Also I don't try to be deliberately ethical when I write. But a slaughterhouse is enough to give anyone, even those who dine on the flesh of the murdered animals a quick lesson in morality.
Poetry as politics. Do poems exist as a form of direct action or merely as commentary on observation and response for you?
CORAL HULL: When I can't change the world immediately, I furiously type my rage onto a screen. Writing for me is certainly is direct action. Often it's about an expression of despair or joy. I am part of that same world that I want to save. Ethical writing is a legitimate form of direct action as well as a legitimate art form. I believe that anything a human being does should be ethically motivated. This doesn't mean that poetry should be didactic propaganda. It means that it should be contributing something to the world audience. Writers are responsible to an audience the same as an actor is. It's just that we don't hear the applause. The world is on the brink of irreversible environmental annihilation. Seriously, all those larger North American and African animals will be gone within thirty years. The oceans are dying out. I could go on for a hundreds of pages with the details. As a writer I am responsible for recording my outer surroundings as much as my inner surroundings. I guess creative writing acts as a bridge between the two environments. As an animal rights activist, I am living through the genocide of millions of farm animals every day. These industries and the public's consumption of animal flesh amounts to little more than an international undercover massacre. It's a very hard place to be for anyone who cares. Writers are not simply egos working in isolation. We are a part of world politics. Anything we write will influence an audience in some way. Personally, when I hear the applause, I want to hear it through the eyes of the animals, the branches of the trees and the stillness of the stones. Then I will know that I am contributing to the world through my writing.
What are you working on at present?
CORAL HULL: At the moment I am working on fifteen creative writing projects. It is the equivalent of a visual artist who is working in a studio. On any given day they may move from one painting or installation to another. Then one will take their interest and they may work on that until it is complete. The best way for me to work is to try and understand what I want to say. The writing pours out and if I do enough of it, I start to notice that it fits into a number of subject categories at a given time. This indicates to me that I need to write about something. At the moment I know that anything I write will fit into one of these fifteen categories. That's the way it works for me.
Could you talk about the notion of family in your work?
CORAL HULL: I wrote a lot more about my family in my first books. I'm tending to let go of the apron strings now. I wasn't deliberately trying to write about them. They were who I knew and there was a lot of stuff to work out, before I could leave the home environment. It takes me a while to work things out. I might explore my father picking his toenails and dribbling animal fat down his singlet, for a few poems in a few books before I am satisfied. Once I am satisfied I will not write about it again. In writing about those things, other things regarding our relationship will be uncovered. Childhood is an inexhaustible source of creative inspiration for me. It provides answers. It has made me who I am and I enjoy the excavation process. I had to understand my relationship to my parents, before I could write about my brothers for example. Sometimes my own books reveal things to me afterwards. After a number of poems about my mother, I realised that she was always walking away. She had no facial expression. I heard her but I didn't see her. I was to eventually realise through my own writing that she had rarely touched me as a child. She hadn't even looked at me that much. As for my family's responses to being written about, they love it! My father pretends to be embarrassed but ends up giggling like a boy. I think he enjoys the risk element, saying, 'oh christ, you didn't write that did you?' He is afraid that the locals in Brewarrina will burn his house down, after I have written about him bitching about them. When I showed my mother a piece where she had been hitting my brothers with planks of wood that she had ripped off the side trellis, she said, 'don't forget to put in the bit where there were nails sticking out of the wood.' She signalled for a pen so that she could write it in herself. There was only one poem that ever offended her, and that was about her hanging out at Parents Without Partners. She does ballroom dancing and didn't want to be seen as socially desperate. She didn't care about a blurb featuring her vagina on the back cover of my first book with Penguin. Maybe they don't care because they know they have no control over it. Maybe they don't take my writing seriously enough. I don't know. But their attitudes have given me a lot of freedom.
How central is the personal voice in your work? Do you see yourself as a landscape poet? A social poet?
CORAL HULL: I write about what interests me and what has an emotional impact on me. I can talk about why I wrote something afterwards, but I don't like defining myself. By the time I have defined myself I've moved on and the definition has become yesterday's news. I do enjoy reading and writing poetry about the land. When I drove around Australia with my friend Adrian and two dogs I took a thousand slides of landscapes. There were hardly any of people or towns. It was all rock, river and tree. It was a landscape meditation. I enjoyed geography and geology during my high school years, although we were always being taught about what was there to be exploited within a landscape. I was more concerned with spiritual identity. A city is often like another city, but a good poem about the land can teach me something profound. I have just finished editing The Book of Modern Australian Animal Poems. I am now working on an anthology of modern Australian landscape poems beginning with Slessor's "South Country" right up until the present day. So I guess the landscape is where a large part of my interest lies. Too many people living in Australia do not know what a Dugong or a Quoll is. These animals are dying out. If people don't know what it is that exists in their own country, how are they going to have the capabilities to protect it? Not only that, but knowing about Dugongs and Quolls is a very enriching experience and makes me happy. You can empower yourself spiritually by exploring and understanding the land. I am interested in how we are relating to the animals and the landscapes in Australia, rather than the buildings, the cocktails, and the falafel rolls.
What are your thoughts on prose poems?
CORAL HULL: I like them. I like reading them and I like writing them. The content dominates in the prose poem. The line breaks are stated by the rhythm or the meaning creates them. I like any form where a truth is reached, before a form is explored. I have always been more interested in the idea rather than the construction of a piece. I prefer driving automatic vehicles rather than manual ones. It has to do with the way my mind works. My ideas move quickly. Anytime I have to think about process I can't work as effectively. It literally sickens me. I was no good at black and white photography at art school. I went straight into colour slides using a fully automatic camera. It was there that I worked most effectively. The complexity was maintained within what I chose to photograph, rather than the process of making a photograph. For me the prose poem is like this.