An Asemic Sonnet in Sinhalese: Writer Profile with Clay Thistleton

Everyone has a story to tell; each one of us a writer of poetry – some, without even realising. That stream of consciousness that runs in our veins? It’s poetry waiting to be written. We believe in the power of words, and that power is what urged us set up PoetsIN.

It’s because of those inner streams, that we bring you this interview feature, Writer Profiles. An interview with a writer. Some you’ll know, some you won’t.

This week it’s someone from down and possibly from another realm under by the name of Clay Thistelton.

Relax with a lager or some spirits and read this week’s writer profile.

Who are you and what do you do?

My name – fortunately or not – is Clay Thistleton. I am a (lapsed) academic and a (former) performing arts and venue administrator; however about the only thing that I have done of late is be the obscure Australian author of Noisesome Ghosts (2018): a collection of experimental poetry that investigates the phenomenon of ghosts and poltergeists that have the ability to speak or write.

Clay Thistleton (in 1997, prior to the ravages of time and mental illness that make him nowadays resemble an elderly W.H. Auden).
Photograph: Simon Phillips

How would you label your writing and/or poetry if forced to label it?

Both Noisesome Ghosts and my current project ‘Never Mind the Saucers’ (forthcoming from Stranger Press) are examples of … take a deep breath … experimental poetry, avant-garde poetry, linguistically innovative poetry, found poetry, visual poetry, concrete poetry, post-modernist poetry and … breathe … post-structuralist poetry. With all these poetries so pleasingly intersecting I thought that I might have had an increased readership but the opposite – in a sort of Venn Diagram kind of way – is true: at the tiny centre of all these many intersections lies my readership: I have no difficulty identifying them all by name and by postal code.

Eugène Thiébault’s famous 1863 photograph “Henri Robin and a Specter” graces the cover of Noisesome Ghosts.

What is your relationship with words and how has that evolved over time?

The great literary philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer writes that language is “the medium in and through which we exist” (1976, p. 29). In my life, which has been consistently dedicated to the written word for as long as I can remember, there is no truer maxim. While I was obviously and perhaps painfully unaware of esoteric German traditions of textual explication at the time, books and stories were so much the focus of my early childhood that I cannot recall a time when I was not able to read. A particular favourite of that time – I was seduced early on by the concentrated power of poetry – was the Childcraft Poems and Rhymes anthology (1973) which invested in me such a love and knowledge of children’s verse that by the time I was in the upper years of primary school I felt confident enough in my poetic understanding to engage in what were then seen as apparently contentious debates of textual analysis with my teachers. All these years later, I still recall with fondness one particular teacher’s remarks to me during a class where I had aired some supposedly controversial views; “Craig,” she said to me – she had never bothered to correctly remember my name – “Craig, it’s clear to me that you do not know very much about poetry. You do not understand poetry at all”. While there are obviously a number of my readers and countless unknown dozens of my former students that would happily and wholeheartedly endorse these statements, this is still a pretty devastating group of words to say to a sensitive and bookish eleven-year-old. Yet what could have been a negative turned into a demonstrably positive: in that very moment I knew in my bones that my teacher had it badly wrong. When the class inevitably turned to laugh at me I felt no shame, nor even defiance: just a determination to slowly and eventually disprove my teacher’s statements. Not even creationist proponents of intelligent design could fail to miss how my life has since evolved from that point to this through my uncompromising devotion to the written word.

How long have you been writing/performing?

I have been writing for thirty-three years (i.e., since 1986: when I was fifteen years old). I had my first work published in 1991 and have been teaching literary studies and creative writing (on and off) since 1999. This may all seem very impressive until it is realised that in the thirty-two years between 1986 and 2018 (the year that I had my first major work published) I regarded myself as being wildly unsuccessful as a writer. That said, I still regard myself as being wildly unsuccessful, just not wildly unsuccessful as a writer.

Is mental health something you feel strongly about?

Unfortunately, yes.

Let me explain: it’s not that I don’t want to not feel strongly about mental health in a general sense, but that – now that we have made it through the always problematic double negatives – it’s that I don’t want to feel strongly about my own mental health in particular. But I have to: for as someone who lives – sometimes quite comfortably – with a mental illness I have no choice in the matter.

Here’s some unsolicited and maybe even unwelcome advice: if you feel something is “wrong” – even as I did in my own life as early as my late teens – go and see someone about it  (preferably a mental health professional and not some outfit like the witches coven in Macbeth [Shakespeare, 1963b] [although they clearly have their uses]), because it might just be as something as simple as a twiddle of medication that can get you “right” again. Or not. But sometimes it is. And it’s amazing what they can do.

I wish that I had gone and seen someone when I first knew that something was “wrong” with me. It might have saved me from ending up in a mental health triage situation aged twenty-six whereby, as a result, I lost my job, my house and not one but two significant relationships in short order. Seeing someone earlier might have also resulted in me then being properly involved in ongoing professional therapy – as I should have been – and not ending up in that triage situation as I did with an on-call psychologist in an Accident and Emergency where, after a fifteen minute session, I was misdiagnosed, prescribed some anti-depressants and sent on my way. Seeing someone earlier might have meant that I didn’t then live for five years misdiagnosed and very carefully managing a mental illness that I didn’t actually have while the mental illness that I did actually have raged untreated and unabated.

I was properly diagnosed in 2002 in an in-patient facility. They were very kind to me there: especially when they explained to me that there was then not currently any real treatment available for the disorder that I had battled with for all of my adult life. Their suggestion – to manage the symptoms of the disorder, if the cause itself could not be tackled – served me pretty well for a very long period until 2013, when again in an in-patient facility, it was explained to me that there had been great advances in the study of the disorder and that there were now not one but many treatments available for it. In fact, the disorder, which had once been viewed as intractable, was now understood, they explained, as very successfully treatable, and even seen as being so commonplace that basically everyone has had or will have a touch of it in one way or another at some point in their life.

So, I completed the treatment and almost immediately afterwards wrote a book of poetry (something that I had been meaning to get around to) and now I manage the disorder itself and not just its symptoms. One should not give up hope. For while in the course of my twenty-two year journey to get to the bottom of what is “wrong” with me I might have been misdiagnosed and told that there was basically nothing that could be done, medical science has now caught up to the disorder to the point where I saw – just last week – a notice advertising a class for basic distress-tolerance skills (part of the early phase of the treatment for the disorder) tacked up on a notice board inside a roadside service station. You can’t get much more commonplace than that.

Please describe your writing process.

Writing processes for me vary from project to project (except for the always attendant angst: but this usually dissipates once the actual physical act of writing itself commences). With scholarly work, and with both my last (Noisesome Ghosts) and my current project working with found poetry (‘Never Mind the Saucers’) the initial step is the research. This results in a large amount of primary material that needs to be whittled down. Working from primary texts as a found poet often feels pleasingly like sculpting a block of ice with a chainsaw except that very few people actually get wet and hardly anyone ever loses a limb. Once the extraneous details have been pared away there is a process where I may add to or re-arrange the text to suit my own, obviously nefarious, purposes. This last aspect is, I imagine, what it must be like for musicians who play improvised jazz: once one finds the textual groove one can settle in and join the party. Berets, or little natty mustachios are, of course, optional.

Some of us write our best stuff when in a rage, heartbroken or fighting depression. Are you affected in similar ways and do you use writing as a venting mechanism?

In his famous essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” T.S. Eliot very iconoclastically writes that

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things (1921, pp. 52-53).

When I first encountered these sentences as an undergraduate more than twenty-five years ago I thought that Eliot was simply being the erudite enfant terrible smart alec that his reputation always promises him to be. And in many ways Eliot is being the enfant terrible here: that is, after all, part of his essay’s very erudite point; but it never occurred to me, as an undergraduate, that in my own life the irascible Eliot would not only turn out to be smart, he would turn out to be right as well. For I do write to escape from emotion and personality, because when the former is unstable and the latter is disordered, you would write to escape from that too. And as for heartbreak and depression, as I myself said in a very Eliot-esque way recently over a glass of what we Australians sillily call ‘sparkling wine’, “you show me someone who has written a four-hundred and sixty-nine page book and I’ll show you someone who has a diagnosis made under the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”.(1) So, yes, there is nothing like the processes of writing to bring peace … I don’t know about “rage” though. “Rage” is a very strong word for a perhaps out-of-control emotion and I would hope that I would do nothing at all when enraged; except perhaps to make quietly reflective and long-ranging plans to exact my eventual revenge.

If you had the chance to perform one poem or read one excerpt to someone that sums you up, which is it?

“Fanged (Two Syl.) Maw: Peter Khoury” (2017) a poem from my second full-length collection ‘Never Mind the Saucers’ first published in Otoliths, is autobiographical in the sense that it covers a long period of my life from late 1990 to the present day but is obviously not autobiographical in the sense that I haven’t yet had the opportunity to participate in an alien threesome.

The Tippett and Tsang model as it appears in “Fanged (Two Syl.) Maw”: “This spacetime diagram illustrates how lightcones will be oriented around the TARDIS geometry. Outside of the TARDIS, time is aligned in the vertical direction. Inside of the bubble, lightcones tip along a circular loop, and massive objects can travel backwards in time” (2017, p. 095006).

If you could collaborate with anyone out there (alive or dead), who would it be and why?

In a penetrating review of Noisesome Ghosts, Beth O’Brien (2019) notes that my work is sometimes interested in “liminal landscape[s] that both the living and dead can enter and operate within”. In ‘Never Mind the Saucers’, I am also interested in interrogating liminal spaces: this time between the fictional and the non-fictional, and as such, instead of investing in a living or a dead collaborator, I’d like to nominate an apparently-fictional one: Lallafa of the Long Lands of Effa. Lallafa – according to Douglas Adams in the third book of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series – “wrote what are widely regarded throughout the Galaxy as being the finest poems in existence” (1982, p. 83). The poems, Adams continues, were unspeakably wonderful. That is to say, you couldn’t speak very much of them at once without being overcome so much with emotion, truth and a sense of the wholeness and oneness of things that you wouldn’t pretty soon need a brisk walk round the block, possibly pausing at a bar on the way back for a quick glass of perspective and soda (pp. 83-84).

The poems are so good in fact that, as Adams writes, a cabal of time-travelling correction fluid manufacturers travel back to the past to find Lallafa so that he can endorse their product. This intervention inadvertently rescues the poet from his miserable life of involuntary celibacy and provides him instead with an alternative version of his future where he is now not left by his girlfriend (whose departure in the original timeline had provided him with the impetus to write his poems in the first place) and where he, as a minor celebrity, “frequently commute[s] to the future to do chat shows, on which he sparkle[s] wittily” (p. 84). It should be noted that I am not so much interested in Lallafa’s vaunted poetic prowess as I am in any tips that he may want to share regarding the maintaining of a relationship in the glare of a galaxy-sized media pack and in his latterly glitzy showbiz lifestyle.

Who are your writing influences, heroes and villains poetically, musically and/or lyrically?

I am a confessed eclectic and any text – from the mundane minutiae on the back of a cornflakes packet to an asemic sonnet in Sinhalese – is likely to influence me. I don’t particularly have any “heroes” or “villains” either (although several years of having to teach the later Booker Prize-winning author Richard Flanagan’s early novel The Sound of One Hand Clapping [1997] tested me to the point where I used to repeatedly throw my own copy across the classroom and into the bin). Speaking more specifically of poetry, I see my current work very much in the tradition of found poetry as practised in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), a point that is shrewdly taken up in some reviews of Noisesome Ghosts (Lee, 2019; Smith, 2018).

What quote/song/poem inspires you the most and why?

“A man [sic] may write at any time if he will set himself doggedly to it”: so said the literary colossus, Dr Samuel Johnson (1889, p. 32) and, as in a great many number of other things, in this he was also right. It doesn’t matter about your mental illness / car not starting / Trump administration blues, you can use any time – even if it’s just five spare minutes – to write.

The key term here is ‘doggedly’ though. One must be persistent about it, or, as Julia Cameron puts it in The Artist’s Way (1992), “show up at the page … use the page to dream, to rest, to try” – another of my favourite quotations – otherwise one is not engaged in the physical act of writing itself (and therefore, almost by definition, not a practising writer). Anyone can write anywhere at any time, and even be wildly successful at it: J.K. Rowling wrote the early parts of the Harry Potter series in Edinburgh cafés while her infant daughter slept beside her in a stroller (Price, 2005, p. 27). A former colleague of mine inspirationally wrote most of her doctoral thesis without access either to running water or to mains electricity and while she was living in a tent!

Writer’s block, is it real or a myth?

Writer’s block – indeed artist’s block – is a very real phenomenon. I have experienced it myself on many occasions. Thankfully, none of us have to worry about it anymore as we have Julia Cameron’s masterwork on the subject, The Artists Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (1992) to guide us through the darkness of block and back onto the road of practising again. I have worked with and taught with this book for over twenty years and have repeatedly seen the artistic blossoming of those who faithfully engage with the precepts that Cameron explores. It’s an unstoppable juggernaut of a book: if you’re experiencing artist’s block get a copy of it today.

(Said in a very fast voice – DISCLAIMER: Clay Thistleton and Clay Thistleton & Associates have no financial interest in and are not affiliated, associated, authorised, endorsed by, or in any way officially connected to Julia Cameron, her publishers and their subsidiaries, or her heirs and successors, temporal, spiritual or physical. This technology is not fault-tolerant and is not designed, manufactured or intended for use or resale as online control equipment in the operation of nuclear facilities, aircraft navigation or communication systems, or air traffic control machines in which its failure could lead directly to death, personal injury, or severe physical or environmental damage. This material contains forward-looking statements and information, which reflect the current view with respect to future events and financial performance. When used in this material, the words “believes”, “expects”, “plans”, “may”, “will”, “would”, “could”, “should”, “anticipates”, “estimates”, “project”, “intend” or “outlook” or other variations of these words or other similar expressions are intended to identify forward-looking statements and information. Actual results may differ materially from the expectations expressed or implied in the forward-looking statements as a result of known and unknown risks and uncertainties. Known risks and uncertainties include but are not limited to: risks associated with operating satellites and providing satellite services, including satellite construction or launch delays, launch failures, in-orbit failures or impaired satellite performance; risks associated with satellite manufacturing, including competition, cyclicality of end-user markets, contractual risks, creditworthiness of customers, performance of suppliers and management of factory and personnel; risk associated with financial factors such as volatility in exchange rates, increases in interest rates, restrictions on access to capital, and swings in global financial markets; risks associated with domestic and foreign government regulation, including export controls and economic sanctions; and other risks, including litigation. The foregoing list of important factors is not exhaustive. The information contained in this material reflects our beliefs, assumptions, intentions, plans and expectations as of this date. Except as required by law, we disclaim any obligation or undertaking to update or revise the information herein.)

Finish this sentence … Words and music are the epitomes of …

the eternal struggle for the sublime over the ridiculous.

What’s next for you?

I am about half-way through my current project, ‘Never Mind the Saucers’ (a collection that examines documented instances of alien-human sexual contact) and am actively reading for a new topic for a third full-length collection in the Fortean paranormal field. Crypto-zoology, the spontaneous vanishings of individuals in full view of others (see Swancer, 2015) and the enigmatic Dyatlov Pass Incident of 1959 (the investigation into which has recently been re-opened [Friedlander, 2019]) are all topics of interest: after all, as the philosopher prince, Hamlet of Denmark, inspirationally once said to his co-conspirator, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Shakespeare, 1963a, p. 64).

Acknowledgement – I would like to thank Paul Chambers and all the team at PoetsIN for their support of me and of my work.

Note –  (1) Noisesome Ghosts is four-hundred and sixty-nine pages long.

Huge thanks to Clay for such a truly fascinating interview. We love a hourney to other realms. Check him and his work out via the links in the body of the interview.

If you would like to feature in a Writer profile, or indeed if you would like to submit your own blog piece on writing, mental health, wellbeing or anything relevant then get in touch at paul@poetsin.com

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