Poet Mitchell Welch on his obsession with words

Award-winning Australian poet Mitchell Welch channelled his obsession with words through a Master of Arts in Writing with Swinburne Online. He now writes poetry, short fiction, essays and creative nonfiction and is completing a novel.

“I wrote lyrics for a number of terrible punk rock bands in high school. It was an acute sense of how awful they were that spurred me on to be a better writer.

Poetry is definitely something that chooses you. It doesn’t pay very well and it doesn’t give you much street cred. However, poetry does give you a lot of non-financial rewards. I have the opportunity to carry on a discourse by publicly and privately with well-known historians, academics and writers.

Poetry is a habit that afflicts the obsessive. When you write a novel you're always breaking new narrative ground. With a poem you are stuck in a circle of editing, polishing, and recalibrating the thrust of the thing. And then going back to the start, whittling away at language line by line. You need to be somewhat obsessive to want to do this.

"My advice to writers is to ignore anyone who advises you to 'write what you know'. This is a really limiting approach."

In the Master of Arts in Writing, every interaction with the tutor and fellow students involves the act of writing. I saw each module as an opportunity to become quicker and write more succinctly. If you put the effort into polishing your work, you’ll always get something out of it.

Swinburne lecturer Dominique Hecq has a background in psychoanalysis and theoretical approaches to writing. These approaches have become cornerstones in my writign practice.

Swinburne was responsive to my needs. There were times when I had to work to pay the bills, and only studied one subject. At other times I studied two, and when I settled into my job and wanted to finish my Masters quickly, I studied a full load.

In terms of a writing career, studying at Swinburne opened many doors. It gave me the confidence to approach other writers, mentors and editors and start building professional relationships.

I discovered a scholarship from the Australian Prime Ministers Centre on Swinburne Scholarships. I spent seven weeks in residence at Old Parliament House in Canberra in a research role, dealing with all kinds of interesting people. It really allowed me to immerse myself into the role of a writer.

In 2013 I was second runner-up in the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize and in 2015 won the National Union of Workers Overland Fair Australia Prize for Poetry. The latter connected me with some great industry contacts. It led me to volunteer as a poetry reader at Overland where I assist the poetry editor by reading the slush pile and short-listing submissions.

About 85 per cent of my writing income has been in prizes, awards and grants. For an emerging writer, competitions are valuable in providing a deadline and impetus to finish work. Government arts funding is even more important. Living off prize money is unviable and most literary magazines only pay a small honorarium. In fact, the best writing done in Australia would not exist if we only funded things that earned enough money to fund themselves.

My advice to writers is to ignore anyone who advises you to 'write what you know'. This is really limiting. If people wrote more imaginatively, and reached for truth beyond the scope of their own experience, there would be a better quality of writing in Australia today.”