Jack of All Trades, Master of Poetry

by Martin Veres


It's not every day you get a conservation biologist publishing a book of poetry, but it's 2017 so hey, why not? Jack Baker (or Oats), has variously filled the shoes of a teacher, ornithologist, bureaucrat, biologist, and family man. After a distinguished career in teaching and the sciences, writing numerous scientific papers, he has made the move to writing creatively, and produces both fiction and nonfiction pieces that are often inspired by the Australian environment. He also has an interesting relationship with semi-colons. But we'll get to that later.

His first published collection of poetry, Soaring, is a celebration of Australia's natural heritage, mingled with Jack's unique style and sense of humour, and published by Ginninderra Press. The Soaring book launch will take place at 6.30 Thursday, 16 November at the Towradgi Community Centre, so you should definitely come and check it out.

I got a chance to pick Jack's brain recently, and ask him a few questions about his move to creative writing, and his thoughts on publishing his first book of poetry. As befits a man of science, his answers did not disappoint.

Soaring Cover


MV: So, I think we'll start with the obvious question: what brings a biologist into the world of literature, and when did you start writing creatively?

JO: At thirty, I was an unread, semi-literate Maths teacher. Sometimes Gladness, the poetry of Bruce Dawe, found me; I was stoked. By forty, I was studying and working in Conservation Biology. I’ve authored/co-authored 25 peer-reviewed papers and many conservation-science articles, in which every word, every sentence, etc, was created; hand crafted.

MV: Poetry in particular is, I think, quite far removed from the kind of writing you're required to do in the sciences. How did you approach the process of writing Soaring, and what made you decide on poetry?

JO: Wrong. Ron Pretty says, “The poet avoids self-indulgence and seeks clarity, precision and truth.” Science writing is the same thing.

Once I began to read poetry – Dawe, Yeats, Hardy, C J Dennis, Wright – I realised that my mind works in poetry: word pictures, word-play, metaphor, often a touch of the obtuse, a love of words. My all-time favourite word is “diablerie”; my mind is like that too.

As for process: I create all of my writing directly on the computer. Although the occasional note or scribble goes on paper if something comes to me on the train etc. Pieces get filed in appropriately named folders: “On trains”, “Birds”, “Green”, “Random stuff”, “Talking Sheds”, etc. “Soaring” came from cobbling seven of these folders together. My next two collections, “Sunshine after days of rain” and “Talking sheds”, are well underway.

MV: The above notwithstanding, it's often said that the best way to learn to write is not to study writing, but rather anything else – maths, politics, science, music. Do you think your diverse background and experiences (as a bureaucrat, ornithologist, and teacher, to mention a few) have had a meaningful impact on your creative output?

JO: Yes; I learned to write while doing many other things. Doing is the best teacher.

MV: Where do you get your inspiration from? Nature and the natural world are the focus of many of your writings – is there a particular place you frequent as part of your conservation work that stimulates your imagination?

JO: Everything stimulates my imagination; the mind is racing on multiple ideas for poems and stories: probably why I come across as slightly vague! But beware, your idiosyncrasies are my inspiration! Yes my love of Australia’s natural heritage is obvious in my writing but almost all of my poems are about people; real and unreal.

MV: Looking forward to the launch of Soaring in November, is there anything you think people should know about the poems in that volume?

JO: People should know everything about every word in every poem of Soaring; to wit they will need to buy multiple copies, distribute these among their friends and spend many delightful hours reading and discussing.

MV: Is there a poem that particularly stands out to you from the collection, or maybe one you struggled with more than the others?

JO: Eighty-seven poems, a lot of variety, suited to many different occasions; I struggled with every word in every one of them.

MV: And finally, because I'd hate myself if I didn't ask: how fares the semi-colon?

JO: The Draft (version 4) Plan for the Recovery of the Semi-colon has struck a hitch in the Senate. Apparently, the parliament is gridlocked on three matters: the Commonwealth/State funding responsibilities for the reintroduction of the Thylacine, which will require expensive DNA reconstruction work and the Blame Game; The Marriage Equality Bill, which John Howard naturally thought was intended to abolish and even outlaw marriage and he confided thus with Tony Abbott; and the Elephant in the room, that is, the need to (re-) Nationalise the power industry in Australia. 

Written by SCWC

Posted on October 10, 2017