Photo / Steffen Pedersen
From storytelling to social work, rural Victorian writer Neil Boyack is a man with a fair bit to talk about. He’s also just released his debut poetry collection, Self Help and Other Works. I talked words, work and self-publishing with the man right after polishing off the single most disturbing pad thai of my life. With a mouth still greasy from clotted bits of chicken that really only resembled bits of chicken, it felt good to talk about something a little more wholesome than that meal of lies.
“I’ve cut my teeth on short stories,” says Boyack on his recent turn to poetry in his e-pub, Self Help and Other Works. Boyack, who also directs the annual Newstead Short Story Tattoo festival, began self-publishing collections of his published and unpublished grunge stories in the mid-nineties with Black and Snakeskin-Vanilla.
Even since his first collection ended up on the coffee table of the editor of Rolling Stone magazine, Boyack has been a fierce advocate for self-published works and the reach they can pull.
“You have to put yourself out there; you have to be vulnerable; you have to show vulnerability.
“I think major publishers have got an issue now – they’ve got some real competition from blogs and they’ve got some real competition from self-publishers.”
But Self Help is something a little different for Boyack.
“Poetry is another mindset. You really have to think, think, think and redraft and unpack the right words and the right emotional pitch. I really enjoy that about poetry.”
As a committed storyteller, Boyack sees poetry as a powerful way to communicate his tales of outer and inner city frustrations and of social survival in a harsh, albeit redeemable, world.
“If you read my poems they’re little stories really,” admits Boyack. “But I really like the way [with poetry] you can move lines around the page and punctuate poems with spaces to break up the thought and the breath of the reader.”
Self Help is stuffed with Boyack’s staggered tales of an unforgiving rural environment, people making what they can with their world, and the ironies of a white Australia with a black history.
For Boyack, it’s important these tales are told in a simple way.
“I think that’s the hard work in poetry, is getting simple – you have to do a lot of hard work to get the images simple. Being self-indulgent’s pretty easy and it’s esoteric, so no one really knows what you’re on about, but working really really hard to get simple shows your vulnerability, and vulnerability is non-negotiable for me. If you’re not prepared to put yourself on the page, don’t do it.”
Part of this vulnerability involves exposing the vulnerability of others, too. Boyack’s blunt, striking commentaries in Self Help on life in hot rural towns, on inner-city streets and from the Murray River deal with characters who are unseen or whose stories usually go untold.
These are also the characters Boyack sees everyday in his social work.
“Unless you work in social work or in welfare [they’re] invisible, so in some ways I’m paying homage to the people and the experiences I’ve seen, but [in] writing about them I’m making them visible, rather than keeping them invisible.
“I’m not saying I’m the champion of welfare or a saint, but I think [those stories] are so legitimate, and they’re stories that need to be told and I hope in some way I’m doing that.”
Part of this storytelling stems from Boyack’s preoccupation with identity, which has threaded its way through Boyack’s own life, from his adoption at six-months-old to his ongoing role as social worker.
“I’m very interested in/passionate about landscape and identity, and I suppose it started with my own identity. You know, I was born into care and adopted as a baby – I haven’t got a hang-up with it, but I often think about things that have made me who I am today, for better or worse.”
This natural interest in his own identity also led to an interest in the people around him, the identity of Indigenous Australia, and the role of landscape in shaping the way we are.
“I’m really interested in the experiences people have to make them who they are, and along with that comes identity and Indigenous identity – what creates the Indigenous identity, and what ironies exist in contemporary Australian society with regards to that – so I suppose that real concern with identity is a part of me: it’s a part of my life, it’s in my blood.”
Boyack’s social work not only provides fuel for his writing in terms of people’s experiences (without, he stresses, “stealing people’s stories”), but tempers it with a solid grounding in the everyday that’s so central to his stories and poetry.
“I’ve come to the realisation I can’t do one without the other. I can’t just write, because I reckon – I think Jonathan Franzen said it: ‘Full time writing’s full time boredom’ – I need to be able to experience the salt of the earth, other people’s stories, my own stories [and] my own experiences in order to write.
“I love my writing and I love my social work – my work with people – so they sort of inform one another.”
With a new collection, Country Junk and Other Stories, due out early next year and a bunch of other poetry projects on the go, Boyack is never short of stories to tell, or the need to tell them.
His advice to young writers is as raw and unflinchingly honest as his writing:
“Be more proactive, have the guts to jump in the deep end. Rule number one: vulnerability is non-negotiable. If you care about what your parents think maybe you should wait a few years or not write – otherwise it’s going to be over your head for the rest of the time.”
You can read more about Neil Boyack’s work here: neilboyack.com