Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Poetry and politics in Joel Deane's Magisterium

Transcript of interview on ABC radio's The Book Show

Ramona Koval: Poets can be chameleon-like creatures who live in multiple worlds, only occasionally revealing their poetic skin. Recently I spoke to the poet Pi O, who leads a life a mild-mannered draughtsman for the Victorian Titles Office by day, with an alternative life as one of our most important experimental super-poets in the rest of the time. Well our next guest, Joel Deane, lives his life alternately as a poet and as a political speechwriter. But somehow, in his latest collection, called Magisterium, these two universes have collided. Writer Michael Gurr has just read Magisterium, and when he spoke to Joel Deane, he suggested that the reason poetry isn't more popular is that it frightens people.

Joel Deane: Yes. It's not a form that people read every day or see every day, and I think that a lot of poets are writing for other poets, rather than for non-poets. And it's been lost to the public to a degree.

Michael Gurr: How did that happen? Is it the way we're introduced to it in school, as a sort of medicine?

Joel Deane: I think so. I hated poetry at school. I was writing poetry and I was at the time in year 12 and I hated poetry and didn't do very well at English Lit as a result.

Michael Gurr: Do you remember your first encounter with poetry?

Joel Deane: I think my first encounter with poetry would have been nursery rhymes, like everybody else. So that was it. But the first real poet that I loved was Emily Dickinson—and Robert Frost—they were the two that really blew me away as a 16-year-old.

Michael Gurr: What was it that caught your attention about Emily Dickinson?

Joel Deane: Just she had this fabulous sense of doom...which is great for a 16-year-old. My first poetry was an imitation of her poetry. A good person to imitate, but I'm not Emily Dickinson, unfortunately.

Michael Gurr: Have you kept those suitcases of adolescent gloom?

Joel Deane: They're under my mum and dad's house and hopefully they'll remain there.

Michael Gurr: Safely buried for later...what about Robert Frost? What was it that caught your attention about Frost?

Joel Deane: I loved North of Boston, which is his second collection of poetry. It's the first collection of poetry I ever read, and it just astonished me. There's just a great wisdom, and he had a sense of sound. It was the first time I was aware of the sound that words make, and they were just perfectly made poems, as far as I could see, and I didn't know how he made them. He was the person that influenced me the most.

Michael Gurr: It strikes me we shouldn't be frightened of it as a form, we're surrounded by it. In song lyrics...

Joel Deane: That's right.

Michael Gurr: ...advertising. It's kind of everywhere. Was it the first kind of writing that you did?

Joel Deane: Yes, it was. And it's the writing that I go back to. And I think that for me, all writing comes from poetry because poetry is all about the sounds that words make when you bang them together; rhythm, rhyme—not necessarily all the time—puns and plays on words, that's what we do. And it's a spoken-word art form originally, so it's everyday speech in a lot of respects.

Michael Gurr: This volume is called Magisterium, tell me what the title means.

Joel Deane: The magisterium comes from my Catholic upbringing. That's the Catholic church's authority to determine spiritual truth. So Magisterium the book is my attempt at seeking spiritual truth, personal truth and political truth.

Michael Gurr: Three in one.

Joel Deane: Pretty much.

Michael Gurr: It's a very personal book, or it seems to be. But to what degree is all poetry a kind of exaggeration?

Joel Deane: I think that the term 'poetic licence' comes in to it. It's not autobiographical but all poetry—it's all lies, in some respects, isn't it, because nothing can be like the reality we're living. What you're writing comes from that, so no, it's not me but it's come from me...

Michael Gurr: A distilled or exaggerated you.

Joel Deane: Oh, yes. It's an amplification of feeling, of form, of a moment in time.

Michael Gurr: Do you have any sense of who your reader is? You mentioned that poets are often writing for other poets, which is just part of the market, I guess. But is there an ideal reader, is there someone you think of when you're writing?

Joel Deane: Probably my ideal reader...my hardest reader would be my wife, Kirsten. But I'm not writing for her, and I don't have a reader in mind, to be honest, I'm just trying to make poems that are as close to that perfection that I found as a teenager with Frost.

Michael Gurr: One of the poems in this book is a reply to a poem by Judith Wright. Tell me how that came about.

Joel Deane: Well, my wife and I...we lost three children through childbirth. One stillborn and two through miscarriage. And I found myself reading that 'Woman to Man' poem by Judith Wright to the exclusion of all else for a couple of weeks. And it just is a poem of enormous power, to me. And in the end I wrote that poem which uses the same rhyme scheme as Judith Wright's poem, in response to her poem. I wasn't planning to or intending to, it just happened, it just came out of almost a meditation on that poem.

Michael Gurr: Is that an unusual thing, or is there a sense of poetry often being in conversation with other poetry?

Joel Deane: I think there is a sense of poems responding to other poems. Poems responding to music, to paintings. It is a conversation. But ultimately the best poetry comes from somewhere within. It's not just some sort of hollow echo. The Judith Wright poem is about a woman waiting to have a baby and she's addressing her partner, the 'Man to Woman' poem is about a man after the loss of a child, addressing his partner. So it came from somewhere.

Michael Gurr: Let's talk a little bit about the political speechwriting. How did you come to be doing that? It's an odd job.

Joel Deane: It is a very odd job. I came to be doing it because of my poetry, funnily enough. I was working as press secretary for Bob Hulls, the attorney-general in Victoria, and in 2004 the premier needed a new speechwriter and my name was mentioned because I had a novel that was coming out and I published a bit of poetry. And they thought well maybe you can write, and Steve Bracks was looking for someone who didn't write, you know, like it came from a software program.

Michael Gurr: You describe yourself as 'very bloody political'. When did the political conviction kick in?

Joel Deane: The political conviction kicked in with Jeff Kennett when I saw what he was doing in the early 90s, but my politics comes from my upbringing. I come from a DLP family, grew up watching Bob Santamaria on the TV and thinking that Gough Whitlam was the antichrist. Obviously my views have changed a lot since then. But I've always been very political. And my poetry and my writing and politics have come together with this job, so I feel very fortunate and privileged to be doing what I'm doing.

Michael Gurr: When we think of political speechwriters, in Australia anyway, the names that jump up are people like Graham Freudenberg, Don Watson, oh, to some extent Bob Ellis; but they're all people on the left. Why do we not have the same sense of speechwriters coming from the right?

Joel Deane: Well there are a couple of others. There's Tony Abbott, Alan Jones...

Michael Gurr: But we don't think of them as primarily speechwriters, we think of them for something else.

Joel Deane: That's true. I think that there is something about the Labor party. The Labor party does have a sense of romance and a literary history that goes side-by-side with some of the power-dressing and bad ties.

Michael Gurr: The pointy-heads and the bleeding-hearts.

Joel Deane: Exactly. The bleeding hearts to paraphrase Watson, yes. And I think that it does seem to attract those sorts of people. And obviously I've read Watson. I've read Freudenberg and Ellis to a lesser degree, and they're all people of note, people of substance.

Michael Gurr: And the left is probably a little bit better at mythologising itself.

Joel Deane: Yes. It's not so busy trying to make a million dollars.

Michael Gurr: Okay. The poetry and the politics come together in this book most explicitly in a poem called 'Hansard'. Before we hear it, can you just tell us where this poem comes from?

Joel Deane: Yes. This poem is a cut-and-paste job. I've never written a poem like it before. I took the maiden speeches of several—now former—federal ministers and decided to write for Hansard using their language.

Michael Gurr: And they're from both sides of politics?

Joel Deane: No, they're not, to be fair, they're from the Alan Jones side of politics, I suppose.

Michael Gurr: Let's hear 'Hansard'.

Joel Deane: [Reads from Australia and Australians. There is no limit ... to ... I, you, we, thank the House for the courtesy it has extended to me.]

Michael Gurr: Is there a speech that you've written that you're particularly happy with, and if there was, what was the occasion?

Joel Deane: That's a very good question. I'm generally not happy with any speech I write. The speech I was most relieved with was the campaign launch for the 2006 state election, because that was the biggest speech I've written, so that was probably considering everything at stake the one I was happiest with. But there's been a lot of other smaller speeches that I've taken a lot of pleasure out of, but that's a big one for me.

Michael Gurr: Is it a completely different room in the mind to what I'll call your 'real' writing, which is the poetry, or do they occasionally intersect?

Joel Deane: They do intersect. The thing that I found is poetry is really important to my speechwriting. I read a lot of poetry and if I'm not reading poetry then my speechwriting suffers. Because the performance aspect of it, the fact that speeches are spoken word, just like poetry, so the sense of rhythm and sound, that comes from poetry. I'm not saying my speeches are poetry, but it's informed by them.

Michael Gurr: Political language of course is very sanitised now because nobody wants to make a misstep, which must be pretty frustrating for a speechwriter. Someone said that you campaign in poetry and—I can't remember who said it—and you govern in prose. Is there truth in that? You've worked from both sides.

Joel Deane: Yes. I think it's a lot more fun for people like me when you're in opposition, to be honest.

Michael Gurr: How come?

Joel Deane: Because there is no prose. It's all poetry.

Michael Gurr: It's a big, blank canvas.

Joel Deane: It is.

Michael Gurr: Do you know many politicians who read much poetry?

Joel Deane: No. No, I don't. My former boss, Rob Hulls, has criticised my poetry. When I had one published in the paper, in The Age, he sort of said to me, 'Mate, mate, mate...it's not rhyming—that's not poetry.' And he sent me a note for the book launch of Magisterium which—actually I've got it here, it says, 'Dear Joel, sorry I can't find time for the poet who can't rhyme. Good luck tonight.'

Michael Gurr: Charming! Would it help if they did read a bit more poetry?

Joel Deane: Yes, I think it would.

Michael Gurr: What would you recommend?

Joel Deane: Magisterium...no, I think I would recommend that they start with some of the best, the annual 'best of' collections and work their way from there. I'd always recommend Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, obviously. I think Les Murray would be a must.

Michael Gurr: Let's hear another one. And this is a much more personal poem. It's a poem called 'Requiem'. Do you remember when this poem dropped in?

Joel Deane: Yes, this was the first poem that I wrote for the collection, and I wrote it just after the state election in 2006, and it was really when I was dealing with the sense of grief, and I was trying to find a way to not just write about myself. And so this poem informed the rest of the poems that followed.

Michael Gurr: Let's hear it.

Joel Deane: [Reads from Perhaps those archetypes of immortality, the beautiful doomed... to ...that we love this life we are leaving and are unafraid of the next.]

Michael Gurr: 'Unafraid of the next'... it's a kind of prayer, isn't it?

Joel Deane: It is.

Michael Gurr: Is spiritual faith part of where your writing comes from?

Joel Deane: It is, a struggle with spiritual faith, yes, that definitely is where a lot of my writing comes from.

Michael Gurr: What does the struggle involve?

Joel Deane: Trying to work out what I believe. Faith is not a black-and-white thing; it's all very, very grey. And I'm not one of those who's blessed with absolute certainty about anything.

Michael Gurr: The struggle is where the poetry comes from.

Joel Deane: Exactly.

Michael Gurr: The best bits of The Divine Comedy are 'Hell' and 'Purgatory'. Paradise does get a little dull.

Joel Deane: It does. I prefer Hell.

Michael Gurr: What are you working on now?

Joel Deane: I'm just polishing a novel...

Michael Gurr: What's it about?

Joel Deane: It's about death, really. Again. It's a nasty novel. It's about death and violence in mythology and men. It's called 'The Norseman's Song' and it's an imagined history going back to a forebear of mine who jumped ship in Melbourne who was a Norwegian. So I'm imagining what if he was some sort of a wild mass murderer.

Ramona Koval: Can hardly wait for that. Poet and political speechwriter Joel Deane speaking there to writer Michael Gurr. Joel's new collection of poetry called Magisterium is published in Australia by Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Title: MagisteriumAuthor: Joel Deane

Publisher: Australian Scholarly PublishingISBN 978 1 74097 179 9
Michael Gurr
Michael Shirrefs

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Q&A on political speechwriting

Published in the March 2008 edition of Victorian Writer magazine.

How did you come to be a speechwriter?

That’s one of the two questions I’m most often asked when I tell people I’m a speechwriter. The other question is: Have you ever had to write a speech on a subject you’re opposed to?

Last question first. No, I haven’t had to write a speech that goes against my moral compass. The reason why that’s the case is that I’ve only worked for politicians I have an affinity for; namely, Steve Bracks, John Brumby and Rob Hulls. Generally speaking, we’re standing on the same philosophical ground, which means I can see where they’re coming from on any given issue, I can see why they’ve made the decision they’ve made, and I can always say if I disagree.

The other point to make before I answer your initial question is this: there’s more to speechwriting than sitting your bum down in front of a computer terminal. A speechwriter should not be given a brief and told to go away and write 1,000 words of oratorical landfill. A speechwriter should be engaged in a running conversation with the person they’re writing for – talking about everything from policies to poetry – so that they get on, and remain on, the same wavelength as their speechmaker. If they’re not engaged in that conversation – which is more about listening than talking, by the way – it’s very hard to stay in tune. If you not talking regularly with the person I’m writing for – or watching them deliver speeches – you can lose your feel for them and stop writing in their voice. To put it in the sporting vernacular, if you’re not engaged with the person you’re writing for you lose your form – and the ball just doesn’t come off the bat sweetly.

But, back to your question, I became a speechwriter almost by accident. Back in 2004, the former Premier, Steve Bracks, was looking for a new senior speechwriter and my name came up as a candidate because I’d written a novel and published some poetry. At the time I was working in job that, temperamentally, was the polar opposite to speechwriting: press secretary. Press secing is helter skelter – mobile phone ringing around the clock, running from here to there; action, action, action – whereas speechwriting is much more ponderous – read a bit, scratch a few notes, walk to the library, read a bit more, buy a coffee, go back to the office and check the email; type, type, type. The only thing that made them think of me as a potential fit for the speechwriting gig was my extracurricular writing, otherwise I’d probably still be press secing.

In the end, I had an interview, wrote a speech as a try out, and was duly hired. I was lucky that I clicked with Steve from day one as his speechwriter.

Is it more than ‘just a day job’ for you? Why do you do it?

Politics, like writing poetry and fiction, is more a way of life than a job. The reason I work as a political speechwriter is that I believe in the notion of not just representative democracy, but participatory democracy; that the more actively involved a community is in the political process the better off it will be socially, economically and environmentally. In short, I want to make a contribution, and, given my skills, speechwriting is the best way I can make that contribution.

On the subject of politics, some people seem to think it’s a bad thing if politicians disagree or argue – I find that thinking wrongheaded. The bottom line is that, if a community is democratic, there are battles that need to be fought by each and every generation – battles over discrimination and inequality, battles over poverty and prosperity, battles over development and the environment, and battles over ignorance and injustice. I believe the best way I can lend a hand right now is by working in politics as a speechwriter. Sounds corny, but it’s the truth.

Who have you written speeches for? Who are you now writing for?

I’ve written lots of speeches for a lot of people, but the main two have been Steve Bracks and John Brumby.

Do you get to hear the speeches you write?

One of the most important parts of the job is seeing the speeches delivered. After all, the written draft of the speech is not the speech, is it? It’s just the words. Those words only become a speech when they’re articulated. That’s the trouble with all the collections of great speeches that are kicking around: they are the speaking notes, not the real thing. What makes a speech successful is its delivery. Was the speaker confident? Did they sound like themselves? Did they connect with the audience? These are questions that can only be answered if you’re in the room when it’s delivered. As Rob Hulls once told me, “It’s all in the delivery”.

How do you feel about handing over your words for someone else to speak in public i.e. do you get anxious about whether they’ll get the nuances right?

It can be difficult watching the speeches being delivered. There’s some performance anxiety for the speaker, because I want the speech to work for them. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how well written a speech is – if it’s not delivered well it’s not a good speech. A good speech hits the right tone, has the right content and narrative, clarifies and amplifies the views of the speaker, and connects with the audience. The bottom line, though, is that the words are not mine: they belong to the person delivering the speech.

Have there been any disasters and what have you learnt from these?

Early on in my tenure as Steve Bracks’ speechwriter I accepted an invitation to speak to the Year 10 students at a private school. Unfortunately, I was flat out writing speeches for Steve in the lead up to the event and didn’t have time to prepare for the event until I was taking a taxi to the school. Without going into too much excruciating detail, it was a train wreck of a speech. Needless to say, it was not an experience I want to relive. Since then, I’ve delivered many more speeches and lectures and always – always – make sure I’m fully prepared. Besides the motivation that disaster has given me, the experience of delivering a bad speech taught me a great deal about what it takes to write and deliver a good one. Failure can be the best preparation for success.

What sorts of occasions would you be called upon to write a speech for?

Everything from Parliamentary statements to campaign launches to international symposia to ALP state conferences to the Commonwealth Games to community cabinets to flower shows. You name it, I’ve done it.

How do you approach writing a speech for someone? i.e. what preparation do you need to do and what elements to do you consider in the writing.

That goes back to the running conversation. You have to be on their wavelength so that you’re able to write the speech that they would write if they had the time. Moreover, you need to do your research so that you can bring something extra to the speech – a new fact or perspective. Ideally, you should make the speechmaker sound like an amplified version of themselves.

How does one become a speechwriter? Does it require special skills?

Speechwriting is such a nebulous profession I don’t know how you become one. There are no qualifications, per se; basically, you become a speechwriter when someone asks you to write them a speech. Simple as that.

Banging out boilerplate speeches without voice or form or rhythm or a narrative drive doesn’t count. I don’t consider that speechwriting. I call that speechtyping.

Full blooded speechwriting requires simpatico. The person writing and the person talking are breathing the same air, thinking the same thoughts and speaking the same language. That’s hard to attain and hard to retain. I can’t tell you how to get there, but I can tell you how it feels. It feels like when you’re trying to solve one of those 3-D wooden puzzles in the dark, and there’s only one right way, and you fumble and feel around until it clicks into place.

So far as special skills go, speechwriting is a job for a writer. If you’re not a writer – someone who can sit down and research and write up to 10,000 words a week and get such a buzz out of the process that they want to turn around and do it all over again the next week – if you not that person this is not a job you can sustain. Writing is physical labour. It requires a strong back.

In a career as a professional speechwriter, how many opportunities would you get to write the ‘great speech’?

If you sit at your desk waiting for the “great” speech to land on your lap you’re going to miss it. The only way for me to approach the job is to treat every speech the same. They’re all speeches for the Premier of Victoria, therefore they’re all important. To treat them otherwise is to short change the people who turn up to hear the speech.

Afterwards, I might look back and say to myself, “That was a good one” – but, ultimately, the only judge of whether or not a speech is great is posterity. Let’s just say there are several speeches I’m proud of.

What do you believe makes a great speech, one that will be remembered in history?

What makes a great speech is a great occasion. Put it another way: Michael Gurr, a former speechwriter and fabulous playwright, wrote in his memoir, “Political speechwriters dream the Gettysburg address and wake up to the Cheltenham Chamber of Commerce.” What Michael’s driving at is this – I might write the most brilliant speech ever put to paper, but if it’s delivered at the opening of a flower show no one’s going to give a rat’s arse.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Someone out there read my first novel:
"Best story you've read this year: ... Another, by Joel Deane, reminding me that Aussie writers aren't all fluff and cookies."
Thanks pierrot_doll

Friday, July 11, 2008

Island 113

Good review of a bloody good poetry book: Awake Despite the Hour by Paul Mitchell.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Interview on Radio National's The Book Show

The ABC ran a 20 minute interview with me today.

The interview, which is by playwright Michael Gurr, covers my day job as a speechwrtiter for the Labor Party and my second collection of poetry, Magisterium, which has just been published by Australian Scholarly Publishing.

I read a couple of poems as well: 'Hansard' and 'Requiem'.

You can hear or download the interview here. My interview is about 19 minutes into the program.

Pictures from the launch of Joel Deane's Magisterium on June 25, 2008, at Collected Works Bookshop. Melbourne, Australia.

Playwright Michael Gurr launches Magisterium.