Q&A with Nick Whittock

A pastel yellow border on the left of an abstract pattern. Aqua and dark yellow leaves are splashed across a golden background. There are fluid lines of white dots flowing across the pattern in different directions. A photo of Nick Whittock is superimposed on the righthand side. Nick is looking directly into the camera. He is wearing a cap and has a flowing beard. In the background is the vague outline of a forest.

NICK WHITTOCK lives on Djiringanj lands in the Yuin nation. For his work he uses a battery powered chainsaw charged on standalone solar. Nick works only on previously fallen trees. His publishing history includes hows its from inken publisch in 2014 and an ‘Australia’ calendar from Stale Objects dePress in 2016. Nick is a convenor of the annual Brogo Poetry Symposium.

Our Guest Editor for #18 REGIONAL VOICES Holly Isemonger interviews Nick Whittock about his poetry suite ‘Chainsaw Poems’ for #18 REGIONAL VOICES.

I love the way that you use procedural/process-oriented writing as a core part of your poems. How do you approach constructing a poem?

Sometimes there’s a scarcity of words around the place. Then a structure is there, giving to this small collection an idea for form. A scorecard, a cup or a bowl, a fallen tree. The words and the form pull together into the intense act of writing. Oxide pencil on bisqued clay. The shape of the vessel pushing the words around, guiding them into lines which sometimes run in multiple directions. Gifts. 

Although your poems are process-oriented, they aren’t merely a function of that process. How do you navigate the balance of adhering to a constraint or process while still making the work sing as a poem? (i.e. you know how Kenneth Goldsmith publishes poems that are just annoying executions of an idea, but shows no care for the form of poetry itself? If that makes sense?)

With writing on clay or sawing, the constraints are very physical and impossible to avoid. Chunks of matter and all sorts of forces act on the poem. The saw is musical. I love writing and select my words carefully—this writing is very romantic and lyrical. How the form disrupts or joins in on this is very vaguely calculated and all calculations are in a constant state of being up for grabs again. 

The chainsaw poems are literally carved into a tree. How does the use of physical objects and physical process shape how you write a poem?

Writing is always athletic—as is reading. The intricacy and strength in the way bodies perform these acts! Sawing a line into a fallen tree with a sequence of movements directed by the shapes, the tool, the grain, athletic ability—all these things. 

Did you write chainsaw poems down on paper first or did you go straight to carving into the tree?

There were words hanging about, some in notebooks or on scraps of paper. I wrote a plan for the chainsaw poems in the margin of a therapeutic eurythmy routine. There were a lot more words. All those forms and forces did away with most of them. 

Did you get any splinters?

A bursaria scratched my eye.

Can you find a way to make your chainsaw poem skills into a regular segment on Better Homes and Gardens or The Block or some sort of home-improvement show please?

If I get to saw the poems into the presenters’ limbs.