From Sea Captain to Poet: A Journey with Milner Place
by Pamme Boutselis
Milner Place has lived a life of great exploration, venturing through experiences as a barman, an underground copper mine surveyor, a farm manager and eventually a sailor. He captained sailing vessels and yachts for 11 years, was involved in a smuggling run to Algiers, and raced the ocean with the Count of Barcelona (and his son, now King of Spain); these are just a few of the escapades in his colorful history.
His early poems were written in Spanish, with a small volume “En Busca de mi Alma” published in 1977 in Spain. Fast-
Your resume reads like an adventure novel. How much have you incorporated into your writing?
On one level, I use my experiences as physical backdrops, in much of my writing, and also, like a dramatist or novelist uses facets of people’s characters, often exaggerated for effect. Perhaps also inspiration, like instinct, may come from conclusions or decisions made subconsciously by the brain and based on experiences. My past may be used even more these days, as I don’t get out much, but updated to avoid falling into the morass of nostalgia.
Your first poems were published in Spanish in the late 70s. Had you been writing throughout the years before or did you start writing poetry around this time?
In my early forties, I acquired an ambition to be a novelist. Whilst struggling with a book, I took to writing some short poems in Spanish as a relief to the battle with the novel. It was relaxing to write something short that could be polished like a jewel. It turned out that I was better at writing poems than novels, as the former got published whilst the latter, justifiably, failed.
Why poetry? What is it about this genre that holds such appeal for you?
Maybe it’s laziness – one of my few virtues. Also for the reasons above.
How has your writing changed over time?
I’m ever looking for change, but it may be more in style than content. At present I’m exploring using no capitals or punctuation. It’s not as easy as it might be suggested by traditionalist denigrators, and teaches me much about gaining and maintaining rhythms, changing pace – the oral, musical, element in poetry is important to me.
What do you know now that you wish you had known then?
Nothing really, as the process has made me what I am, and what I may be.
Who or what inspires your writing?
Those writers and artists, musicians, sculptors that have gone before, and a few that are still around.
As I’m far from perfect, I prefer to read in translation to English, but want the original text for when I feel uneasy with the translation – some things are really untranslatable into another culture. This raises the interesting issue of writing within the culture, not just the language literally. I remember struggling with one idea when in Mexico, but it wouldn’t go into Spanish for me. I tried it in English, even though not writing poems in English at that time. Then a flash of ‘inspiration’ – I wrote it in French. That was the only poem I ever wrote, or tried to write in French. Don’t have it any longer to check on, but I know at the time I was then content – it was at ease with that culture.
Regardless of style or form, what defines good poetry for you?
When it hits both ‘heart’ and brain. Generally when it reads effortlessly, for the really good artists make it look easy – the best jockeys sit still when others are flailing about.
Which of your own poems do you especially like and why?
Very tough to answer this, and it might change with my mood – something serious, or something humorous? Perhaps at the moment my favorite may be “The Man Who Had Forgotten the Names of Trees,” because it will be the title poem for a selected edition of my stuff by the German publisher and editor Ralf Friel, and illustrated by Harald Haeuser. The poem was also highly rated by the late Todd Moore in an essay on my work. I’ve more confidence in others’ judgments on my work than my own. I’ll chuck in a very early poem called “Last Will and Testament.” Could be apt, as at my age you don’t buy green bananas.
Do you enjoy doing readings of your poetry?
Yes, I enjoy giving readings, especially once I’ve got started. It’s also a chance to really test how a poem works orally. What I’ve also found to be of interest is that I always seem to read a poem differently on each rendering. But as I use ambiguities quite a lot, that’s maybe not so surprising.
What’s the best advice you have been given with regard to writing?
One piece of excellent advice given to me by the novelist Ray Rigby was: Don’t talk about what you are engaged in writing, as it uses energy that should go into the writing itself.
You get to keep 3 books for the rest of your life with no access to anything else going forward. Which would you pick and why?
“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez would be one. He writes novels like a poet. That makes me consider that ‘magic realism’ has been in poetry from the start.
Pablo Neruda is my great hero, as both poet and man, so I’d pick his “Isla Negra” as a second choice. These are later poems, but the subjects of the poems take him from youth to older age. I can just dip into them and be carried elsewhere.
For that last reason I’d pick “The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea.” To stir both memory and/or imagination, random openings of this; for the explanation of a nautical term, the name of an ancient battle or ship, from Salamis to the Coral Sea, from coracle to dreadnought, trireme to clipper, and all the hows and whys of instruments and rigging, would bring back the salt into the air, and make me feel the wind. I could sail the ocean as an admiral, or a deckhand; swill wine in the captain’s cabin, or at the rowing bench of an Athenian galley.
book cover designed by Robert Schalinski
using overlays of Harald Haeuser's drawings