Interview #63 — Sumudu Samarawickrama
By Robert Wood
Sumudu Samarawickrama is a poet from Werribee.
"I find that there is a singabilty to my poems even though I started writing poems to hold the view. The books and music (and TV) became background, and the garden, the beach, the forest, the sunset became the inciting incident."
What did you read and listen to growing up and how did you come to be involved with poetry?
My early childhood was spent in Zambia, where TV would start at 4pm and end at 11pm (longer on the weekends). My first cassette tape (a bootleg I bought in a shop in Colombo) was Samantha Fox, who I later learnt was a soft-core porn star in England. I also had a Bowie tape because I distinctly remember choreographing a New Wave dance to Major Tom. Baila was at every party our little enclave of Lankans would throw, which sometimes ended with the adults in a massive sing-a-long drum circle. My dad would listen to the Lankan crooners like Amaradeva at home on lazy weekend afternoons, and the ting-a-ling of the music would scatter out to us in the garden.
I was always reading Enid Blyton and my mum had a book of Greek myths written for kids that I agonised over. The story of Orpheus was so fucking upsetting—don’t look back you lovesick poser. Just don’t look back. When we got to Australia, I was old enough to care whether what I was reading was ‘important’ and actually that cleaving to the canon was a big part of my adolescence. The legacy of this is that I hear in my poems the English of the old books I read then, and it is a grief, that even this is colonised. Tori Amos, Pearl Jam and Nirvana were the trifecta of sad angst that fuelled my teens, until I found Jeff Buckley and his capacity to soar (and sink and drown! Too soon?).
I find that there is a singabilty to my poems even though I started writing poems to hold the view. The books and music (and TV) became background, and the garden, the beach, the forest, the sunset became the inciting incident. I wanted to catch the outside, and time’s changing of it. The fading summer sun on the eucalypts or the sway of the heavy sea.
Are there any poets that have stayed with you or poems you have read for a long time that still matter for you?
I am a very nostalgic person, for worse, so T.S Eliot, who was the first poet I studied in high school, is still a massive influence on me. When I was younger it was his individual poems like Rhapsody on a Windy Night, Preludes, The Hollow Men but now it is Four Quartets, East Coker specifically. Growing up in a Buddhist house, and becoming an atheist meant that I was always looking for a religionless-gatha and East Coker is the closest thing I’ve found to that. It explains becoming old and being a writer over time.
I found W.S Merwin’s The Lice in a book swap in Bolivia, when I was hungry for English books. I choose it because it was poetry and I couldn’t devour it and discard it, and The River of Bees has become a very important poem for me. I’m in awe of Robert Browning’s breadth of ability—reading My Last Duchess and then In a Year is breathtaking.
Here’s a funny anecdote: In school we were studying the collected poems of T.S Eliot, and King Lear; I was re-reading Stephen King’s The Dark Tower volume three, which was called, drum roll please … The Waste Lands. So, there I was reading Eliot’s continent of a poem, and feeling I already knew it somehow because of King, and then I’m reading Lear, and as Edmund sings his madness I’m discovering Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, part of which is epigrammed at the beginning of King’s book, and now everything is folding in and pulling out and I can feel all the trilling wires in my blood. Nothing was ever so marvellous.
"Though I admire memoirists very much, and in the glory of the internet age, the personal essayist, I can’t write like them. Yet all my poems are rooted inside my life."
How does personal experience matter for your own creative practice? What does understanding yourself and where you come from allow in your poetry with reference to your identity?
Though I admire memoirists very much, and in the glory of the internet age, the personal essayist, I can’t write like them. Yet all my poems are rooted inside my life. Early poems are sometimes embarrassingly confessional, but even the latest poems which are much more cerebral, come from me asking questions of the world I live in. I like refraction in my poetry because I like to hide, but as I write more and more, I realise how much of my life I am willing to use to make a piece of writing. I always thought shame would stop me from writing about some things, but instead I have found that the most intimate poems are the ones I have the least amount of shame about. I am much more ashamed of my angsty early poems that talked in circles!
And I find that it is actually hard to hide from myself in the poems – I can’t avoid the things I may want to avoid because those things get woven in anyways, and I discover them much later, like when I am reading out the poems to an audience and I am feverishly hoping they aren’t noticing! I’m a pretty dreamy person so I can certainly write imagined things, but the underlying patterns are always made of my life. For better or worse.
Can you tell us about your recently released book, Utter the Thing? What is the series it is part of? How did you write it?
I got an email from the wonderful Michelle Cahill asking me whether I’d like to be part of the deciBels3 from Vagabond Press and I almost destroyed my laptop in my haste to reply! The deciBels series is this awesome project that publisher Michael Brennan takes to showcase the breadth of poetic talent that is sometimes erased in the Australian scene.
The majority of the poems that became Utter the Thing were written at West Writer’s Group, in dribs and drabs. Even though there are poems in there that predate my involvement with the group, being around the other artists and having to show them my work gave me the confidence to love all the things I had been writing. Each of those newer poems is trying something different to the ones prior—that is really what I loved about that period of time: the wildness of the creative urge.
What are some of the themes you address?
It would be dishonest of me to suggest that the book was made with an underlying structure in mind, so in terms of the themes that I address, I think it is more that these are ongoing concerns of mine: the concept of power and the structures that house it, fascinate me.
Another concern of mine is how love is not necessarily a benign nor an innately reparative force – the people who love you will hurt you the most, by definition. Love allows intimacy and intimacy allows us to behave in dark ways. Again it’s structures – these forms we are born from, which we re-make and if we don’t pay attention, which re-make us.
There are also poems about passivity. There is so much to look at these days, so much knowledge accruing at the edges of our day-to-day lives that sometimes it is shocking to realise how mundane that life really is. And there are dangers to feeling connections that don’t tangibly exist – looking at tragedy becomes a sensationalistic need that, in today’s world, we can easily feed.
The title comes from the idea that naming all these things is liberating, and from that can come power.
Pulling back a little to think about Australian poetry as a field, what is the importance of diverse and emerging poetry today and how do you balance it with accessibility, the pressures of the public, family expectation, artistic value and the rivalries that might exist?
I think that the culture is sick when it refuses to see truths about itself. Such as that it is a white supremacist patriarchy; such as that it is a colonising force that works to subjugate the First Peoples of the land; such as that it has a problem treating women as equal citizens; such as that Australian literature is purposefully, rigidly white.
The push for representation of actual Australia in the art world, is important for the sake of Australia. The state of the scene is not an accident. There are huge socio-political forces that work to keep the literary scene almost exclusively the domain of middle class white people. That is, in my opinion, unhealthy and unsustainable.
The value beyond the ‘identity politics’ of diversity in poetry is that it rejuvenates the art form. We don’t write from the same traditions as each other, much less the same traditions as the English canon. Hannah Donnelly’s beautiful Black Ducks or Alison Whittacker’s sublime Many Girls White Linens come from a different paradigm of poetry. How can that not enrich the entirety? The difference I see in the poetry of us POC settlers or First Peoples, is the urgency—our art is not polite, nor is it bloodless.
Nobody should (or does) decide to do writing in Australia because they want wealth. It has to be because they can no longer not write. All I want is to be good, and I’m happy to work on just that. But I do want to be read, so there is a bittersweet tension there. I am extremely suspicious of becoming known beyond the work, but that’s not a problem I have at the moment!
I really believe in what I was saying before about representation in the Arts. It can’t be done alone – there are no saviours in this game. The real change is going to happen when we all coalesce around this, and push together. So rivalry seems to me more than beside the point. It is self-defeating. I mean, do I get jealous of Omar Sakr’s phenomenal poems? Yes! But I’m a reader too, so great work by other people is wonderful for me. And ambition in that sense, in terms of craft and art, is always a good thing.
"The push for representation of actual Australia in the art world, is important for the sake of Australia. The state of the scene is not an accident. There are huge socio-political forces that work to keep the literary scene almost exclusively the domain of middle class white people. That is, in my opinion, unhealthy and unsustainable."
You are also active in literary community as someone with an interest in sci-fi. Can you speak to us about this work, for your own artistic practice as well as the importance of people behind the scenes and what that means for the community at large?
I love sci-fi. Like. I love it. The first successful short story I ever wrote, leans into SF. But I would not call myself active in the SF community, except maybe that I talk at great length and volume about it in social contexts!
I don’t believe in the divide between ‘real’ literature and genre. I always look very carefully when someone speaks disparagingly about these genres of writing, because it is telling. SF by its nature heterogeneous and is about dismantling whatever is the paradigm, through innovation or the unexpected. It allows for a different rubric of literature to exist – that’s exciting for all kinds of writing.
I love SF because it forces me to look at the structure and then back down into the particular; it’s the interrelations between these too that really interests my writing.The Australian SF scene is not one I am particularly knowledgeable about, though its lack of representative voices is on par with the rest of the literary scene.
In closing, N.K Jemisen is better than Margaret Atwood.
Where does collaboration fit in here? How does working with other poets and in other areas help with your own work?
I’ve never made a truly collaborative poem, but to write poetry one is always in conversation with other poems. Sometimes it is the simple inspiration that a poem gives, but usually it is as a type of exercise. Poetry is concerned with language—and each poem creates new frameworks. So each time I read a new poem, it resonates inside and begins laying patterns.
In less esoteric terms, I have never felt so free to create as I have since starting with West Writer’s Group. I remember the excitement of being with other artists, and the realisation that I hadn’t had that in my life for a long time. Last year, Nikki Tran, Christina Taylor and I produced a show for Melbourne Fringe, with three other members of the group: Cubbie Mako, Achut Thuc and Amal Abrahim, and we won a Fringe award! So for us, collaboration is a pathway to success.
West Writer’s Group is also important in larger sense. It’s the baby of Alia Gabres who created it to give under-represented storytellers access to the industry. The point of it is to support and incubate new writing that’s different to what already exists in the space. Collaboration is fundamental to its success because what it is trying to do is make structural change, and that doesn’t happen one person at a time. It happens in movements.
Under Khalid Warsame, the West Writer's Group makes space where the writers will always be able to come and workshop whatever it is they are working on. And as a writer new to the industry, being in a collective of writer’s of varying levels of experience is great— the advice and support is priceless.
And, building on from that, what does the future look like? Specifically, what are you working on now and how does it fit in with what’s happening in other areas of Asian Australian poetry and arts?
I am writing a collection of short stories that have fantastical or science fictional elements to them. I’m also putting a collection of these weird poems together – but I don’t know what that is yet!
I find that there is a thread of intertextuality that runs through a lot of the Asian Australian writers I love like Bella Li, Manisha Anjali, Shu-Ling Chua, Nadia Niaz and Zhi Yi Cham which is so interesting; this new cohort of brilliant writers have synthesised what it is to live within this white literature and are now making another, brighter literature.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
Advice and practice I find useful as an emerging writer is to make a writer’s collective about you and then make it a community by being supportive. Don’t conflate your sense of self with your level of success. Read widely and without ego. Write from yourself but don’t get bound inside, and work on getting better everyday; Walter Mosley says the main thing is discipline - teach yourself the discipline to write consistently. And ChenChen says give a fuck about the language!
Who are you inspired by?
People who have lived through torture, abuse and pain, and who don’t allow their damage to damage others. Junot Diaz was a massive inspiration of mine, so right now I am feeling the importance of not having gods.
How do you practice self-care?
The short answer is probably streaming television! But in a more wholistic sense, I care the most for myself when I spend time with people who like me (and who I also like!); and more importantly, when I don’t spend time with people who don’t like me. So limiting Twitter use is a foundational factor in my self-care!
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
It means a great deal—it is who I am. Rushdie says we are sitting between two stools, falling through. I say okay—then I’ll claim the floor.
What are you currently listening to?
The Jezabels’ Synthia and Prisoner. Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Joey Bada$$’s All AmeriKKKan Bada$$.
What are you currently reading?
T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets, and both Bella Li’s books Argosy and Lost Lake. Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night, and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Carl Phillips’ Speak Low, and Jean Rhys’ Wild Sargasso Sea.