Before Edition 26 hits the stands, we took a moment to sit down with UniSA tutor Amelia Walker to discuss the creative industry, her passions and where she finds inspiration. If you didn’t know already, she is the author of four poetry collections, including Sound and Bundy, Just Your Everyday Apocalypse and Dreamday. Her PhD thesis focused on the importance of creative writing research within higher education and presents an argument for its benefits to universities. Amelia has also won numerous awards during her career, including the AAWP Postgraduate Prize in two categories: creative stream and theoretical stream.
Words by Tanner Muller
Has teaching always been your passion?
It depends how we define ‘teaching’. I think I prefer the word ‘pedagogy’, which I draw from Paulo Freire. Pedagogy isn’t necessarily tied to a classroom context, and it’s not necessarily a situation of teachers and students, but more importantly of engaged learners working together in a community. Instead of a teacher who teachers toand students who learn from, everybody in the community is learning withone another, which means sharing their own unique skills and experiences while benefitting from the skills and experiences of others. When I step into a classroom in the role of ‘teacher’, my aim is to promote situations where that can happen—situations where I basically stop being the teacher and become just another student, learning along with all the other students. That’s the ideal, at least. It’s a difficult thing to make happen!
Sorry. I haven’t actually answered your question. Has teaching / pedagogy always been my passion? My passion has always been literature, and literature is in my view something deeply pedagogical, whether or not it happens in a classroom. Writing involves so much thinking and learning. When we write and share our writing, we are learning with others, especially if we do this in the context of an open mic reading night or online discussion space where there are chances for engagement and exchange. Likewise, when we read or listen to what other people have written, we think and learn with those writers.
So in a very roundabout way, the simple answer to the question is, Yes.
What has been the highlight of your teaching career?
Oh my goodness… there are too many!!!
I’ve had so many wonderful students and learned so much from (with) them all, in so many different ways. My favourite thing each semester is when we get to the end of the study period and in / after the final tutorial, if it’s feasible, I aim to take the class out for coffee (if it’s a morning class) or drinks at the pub (if it’s after midday). Sitting down and talking in that more relaxed way is so much fun. Sneakily, though, what I love about it is that I usually do hear students talking about texts and ideas we have studied across the course of the semester—but they’re not talking about them in the same ways we do in the classroom setting. In a classroom, there’s that focus on how texts and ideas relate to assessment. In a café or pub, people are more likely to connect their learning with life. Ultimately, I feel that’s what university should really be about: learning to live. Passing the essay or exam is only a minute slither of that!
Your PhD thesis explores the benefits of creative writing within higher education and research. Why is this so important to you?
Well, as a creative writer I have a pretty obvious bias! But basically I think that creative writing—and other forms of creative expression too, for example theatre, visual art, dance, music and so on—lets us see and think about things in ways we don’t when we’re being more serious, or straightforward, or whatever you want to call it. I’m not suggesting that the creative way of seeing things is always better than the other way. But it’s complimentary. We need both. It opens up perspectives and gives us more options to choose from. The problem is that this isn’t always recognised by everyone in society. There’s a lot of people who think that creative writing and the arts are just for entertainment and that they’re therefore not relevant to learning or research. The point of my thesis was to show how they are relevant (and we should stop now because the rest of the argument takes 80,000 words or so…!)
The latest poetry collection you’ve released is Dreamday.Could you tell us what it’s all about?
It was written as a response to an art exhibition at the Campbelltown ArtHouse. Proceeds from sales of the book support the ArtHouse, which is a great community organisation. The exhibition was on the theme of dreams, and the book follows that. It’s a kind of verse-novel about one day in the life of a person who goes to work, does some shopping, and mundane things like that, but along the way they have all these conversations with other people about dreaming, dream symbols and the cultural meanings we attach to different objects, colours, animals, trees, places and so on.
What’s the creative process like for you? Where do you find inspiration?
It’s always different and unpredictable. That’s what I love about it: it’s a new adventure and a new set of challenges every time. Inspiration is everywhere. You can look at absolutely anything and get a poem or story from it. The problem is filtering and deciding what’s worth the energy of pursuing. That’s an ongoing struggle for me because there’s limited time for writing and I usually want to do more than I feasibly can, which means I start a lot of things I don’t complete. I’m still figuring out how to manage this problem!
You’re also quite the spoken word performer. What has been your favourite performance, and why?
Paroxysm Press organise these tribute gigs where they pick a music album or another theme such as great novels, horror movies, or something along those lines. They assign each performer to write in response to a particular song from the album, or for the novels and horror movies ones it was in response to a particular novel or movie. I love attending these nights because if it’s an album or theme I’m passionate about, I get to go deeper and learn more about it through hearing how all the different performers have responded. There’s always a really diverse mix of perspectives, and lots of obscure factoids come up. If it’s something I don’t know about, then it exposes me to new ideas and experiences.
For example, I was asked to participate in the Amy Winehouse tribute gig. Prior to that I’d really only heard her radio songs: I liked her music, but I hadn’t explored beyond the commercial hits and I wasn’t a major Winehouse fan. Because I had to write in response to her songs, I listened to her albums properly, including the B-sides and more obscure songs. I thought deeply about what each song could be about, read sensitive articles about Winehouse’s work and various interpretations, and wound up becoming a fan in that way.
The horror movie night also really changed my understanding of what horror movies are. I’d always liked them, but never really thought about them on any deep level. The performances at the tribute gig really brought it home to me how so many horror movies are a metaphors for human anxieties and insecurities like addiction, violence and mental illness. In both cases, I had my mind opened and learnt a lot about contemporary culture. In that way, the Paroxysm Press tribute gigs are a perfect example of what I was talking about in response to the first question: writing and sharing work as a form of pedagogy or learning withother people in a community.
How do you find the balance between all of your commitments?
I’ll let you know if I ever find balance! To be honest I’m not very good at this. I think it’s a struggle for all of us in this day and age. I see it in friends and students. We’ve all got so many demands to meet, and we’re under so much pressure, and… It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. I don’t really know how to stop it from being hard, but I do think it helps if we’re honest and upfront about the fact that it is hard. We need to acknowledge this for ourselves and other people (which is to say, I always strive to be mindful that my students have lives beyond study and that those lives are full on). We need to be patient and kind with ourselves and others. Sometimes a deadline needs to be extended. Sometimes self-care is more important than meeting this or that goal. Sometimes it’s okay to just listen to your body when it screams out in the afternoon for sleep. Happiness is health, and health is crucial.
What sorts of things do you like to do to relax and what motivates you to keep going?
I’ve just moved to near the beach, so lately the beach is my big go-to for relaxation. I love running and swimming (particularly because writing and teaching aren’t very physical sorts of activities). Motivation comes for me from seeing the good that writing and other forms of pedagogy can have in the world. George Orwell’s essay ‘Why I Write’—which is all about writing in order to encourage positive social and political changes—was a big inspiration to me when I was younger, and remains so. Pedagogy / teaching is for me also always connected with trying to create positive change. I mentioned Paulo Freire earlier. He wrote an amazing book in the 1970s called Pedagogy of the Oppressed, about classrooms as spaces for breaking down social hierarchies and prejudices: that book is basically why I ‘teach’ (learn with) and how. Or at least it’s what I aim for. As I confessed earlier, it’s a hard thing to get right, but I keep trying in good faith.
What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out in the creative industry?
Connect with beautiful humans who share your sorts of creative ideals. Be kind and offer support where you can. You might not always receive the same kindness and support in return, but giving is its own reward, and in the long term you will weave for yourself a place within a wonderful community where your ways of being creative will meet with recognition, nurturing and respect. That said, if you have success, there will always be some people who talk behind your back or try to cut you down. When you notice them doing that, instead of feeling hurt or angry, take it as a sign that you’ve made it, and hope for the sake of those people that they can work through whatever personal challenge of theirs it is that is making them act like a jerk.