“People like Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman, Bob Dylan and Gil Scott Heron. That was my first experience of lyricism. I didn’t read poetry books as a teenager, I just read lyrics and that’s why I gravitated to spoken word.”
I assumed, then, that she would have no objections to Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. She laughs and says that not long after he did, she bought a volume of his words.
“I think I was someone who was on the fence about it [the Nobel], but after the experience of reading the work and realising the density of Dylan’s lyrics – they’re just as dense and complex as any poem.”
She started writing at a young age. She still has an award from school for writing poetry about “our country and our country is in inverted commas, which I find really interesting. I can’t remember what on earth the poem was about, but it’s almost something I would do today in a poem, that notion of our country, whose country it is. I wish I had that poem given that this book is about our country in inverted commas.”
But as a child in “a white-picket-fence Anglo-Australia” she had the sense that she was very much an outsider. Home was happy, but there was antagonism outside. The older she got, the more difficult she found her school years.
She started writing because it was in a sense an act of resistance: “Once you write something down it can’t be undone, it can’t be taken away from you, no one can talk over you or tell you to be quiet. I don’t think I articulated like that or thought about it like that at the time.”
As a poet she was inspired by the African-American writer Nikki Giovanni, “whose work is both incredibly simple but highly sophisticated”. She moved to Melbourne with her then partner and their one-year-old while she was on maternity leave. At that stage her poetry was the spoken-word variety and Melbourne both an eye-opener and a boon.
“The scene was huge. You could go somewhere any night and read your work, whereas in Sydney there were maybe two or three venues.”
She liked the brutality of those nights and says they provided the toughest editing experience. “You could deliver a poem in three minutes and you might get to 90 seconds and know it’s not good. That’s the point at which the poem fell dead and you have to go back to the drawing book and fix it up. It’s almost like stand-up, but at least in stand-up you can make people laugh.”
Clarke is one of several writers who have won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript and gone on to big things. She won in 2013 for her suite of stories about people of colour seeking refuge in different places, Foreign Soil. When soon after she was signed to a three-book deal with Hachette, she had never heard of the multinational – her publishing to that point had been a couple of chapbooks. The deal included a novel to be called Asphyxiation, which has never seen the light of day, and a memoir, The Hate Race.
What happened to the novel? It was replaced by a collection of portrait pieces she had written for The Saturday Paper. “No one is getting on my case about a novel, but you have that sense as a writer that it’s the holy grail and you are not a writer until you’ve written a sprawling narrative.”
As a chronic people watcher, she loved being able to question people she was interested in. But the gig had its challenges. She did one of Hugh Jackman, when the publicists of the film he was promoting gave her nine minutes with him and told her she couldn’t talk about his family. And there was the time she was asked for a portrait of Santa and she got kicked out of a department store after trying to gatecrash his Christmas grotto.
When I sat next to her during the recording of an episode of ABC TV’s The Book Club, she asked if she could interview me for one of her portraits. The idea horrified me, but when she said she’d write it whether I co-operated or not, I agreed. It was a painless encounter, but over lunch I still threatened her with revenge in this piece.
She has been working on a treatment of Foreign Soil with a Melbourne production company, Film Camp, which produced Brazen Hussies among other things. But she is under no illusions about its chances of reaching our screens.
“I’ve written six treatments for episodes and one pilot episode, and it’s such a one-in-a-million chance it will ever be made,” she says. That’s because of the geographical spread of the settings – Jamaica, Britain, Australia – and the inclusion of such things as the infamous ship taking West Indian migrants to Britain, the Empire Windrush.
“It’s been a very interesting exercise in letting go of my work because Foreign Soil is a collection of stories only linked by theme and I’ve had to come up with these contrived ways to link characters so people are going to watch the next episode.”
After she finished her gig writing portraits for The Saturday Paper she suggested a weekly poem; she became the paper’s poet laureate, writing on demand. She wrote about franking credits, for example, and for the federal election edition, a poem about the whole palaver of the day. Some of those poems are in the new book.
She finishes How Decent Folk Behave, with fire moves faster, an act of remembrance for last year. She had been taking notes throughout, but had it been prose, she says, it would have required a whole book. The big things she remembered, of course – the fires, the protests, the virus – but with others it wasn’t until she reread some poems that they came back.
“There’s a line in that last poem that said something like ‘looking back Italy was the moment we all knew’ and I had forgotten that, that moment when it was like ‘oh my goodness, this is not good’.”
There is also a line that reflects the feeling of many people – “there is hope, in little things” and the lessons we all learned last year: “how fiercely we realised/ we will fight, to live.”
The bill, please
Cornershop, 11 Ballarat Street, Yarraville. 9689 0052
Mon–Fri 7.30am-3pm; Sat-Sun 8am-3pm
How Decent Folk Behave is published by Hachette.
The Booklist newsletter
A weekly read for book lovers from Jason Steger. Sign up now.