writer and “queer nomad” Stephen House on the lifestyle of an artist


Why do we tell stories and how are they designed? In this series, we break down the work of the writer both on the page and on the screen.

Award-winning playwright born in Adelaide Etienne house has created numerous plays, exhibitions and short films. He generally directs and performs his work. Although writing poetry came to him early, he only recently, in his middle age, compiled his best poems in his first collection, real and unreal (2018).

He offers a unique journey in worlds and paths on which we do not often write. Identifying himself as a “queer-nomad” House describes himself as “certainly not straight”.

While real and unreal isn’t meant to shock, it deliberately opens doors that mostly stay closed. The poems are candid in their exploration of male homosexuality and raise issues of social justice: the plight of the underclass (as House calls it) and the effects of homophobia, domestic violence, abuse, exploitation, sex work, poverty and discrimination.

Take his poem “who we are”, for example:

a young man and a woman run towards us together
pass us by the water
fucking queers he sneers
disgusting she adds
they keep running on their way

he lets go of my hand
it hurts
more than their abuse

A tone of observation

The collection has a tone of observation. There is often a feeling that House is looking outside. He shares the world he lives in neutrally, whether it’s chaotic, calm, or a dark alley adventure.

House left school at age 15, worked in a factory, then traveled for years, living in the back of a car, doing odd jobs and working short periods.

he lives in a tattered tent in the middle of the coastal gums I sleep in an old car cast in a dune bush

I’m crying
I do not know why

in my camp I make a driftwood fire
cook my food
warm my body

write a poem
about a mountain of driftwood that changed my life

(extract from “the mountain of driftwood”).

Evangelio Gonzalez / flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

While forging a career as a playwright for twenty years, House also wrote and performed monologues. Although he did not give up the theater entirely, he now tends to write poetry because of his growing fascination with situational glimpses rather than full stories, and because poetry fits better with life on the road.

with nature
and self

finally free
from where i was

(extract from the poem “self”).

Maison Etienne.

House’s poems usually begin with an idea that grows as he walks around, taking into account the environment around him. From there the doodling begins; dots and doodles in a cafe or bar, alone. Then a process of refinement until the play tells him it’s over.

It departs from traditional forms of poetry, eschewing the typical poetic conventions and rhymes unless it happens naturally in sections. Just as he takes risks in life, he does so in his work: blurring the lines and often swaying in prose poetry.

once I think
maybe twice

i don’t know where and when

I order a long black
he looks at me
man on man look

(Extract from the poem “where and when”).

Despite limited education or knowledge of literature, House has developed a unique and succinct voice. There is no unique rhythm and no unique structure in his work. The living world he lives in and its translation into poetry is based on a flow of consciousness – and he works until, as he says, he knows it suits him well.

A spontaneous method

His method is never the same – like his life, it is spontaneous. In the poem “When I Write”, House talks about his habits and his thoughts on writing.

The real work is done in a sober and regular manner.
Although still unmeasured and unplanned,
it has the comforting basis of security and calm.

The writing to drink never comes under the title
to write correctly; even though i have this weird room
(about my appalling behavior in “Paris”) on paper,
heavy drinker and all, so who knows …

Conversely, sometimes his life is very programmed, proposing a program for his writing to occur:

to wake up
pray to Lord Ganesh
sing to Lord Shiva
yoga in the living room
breakfast in the kitchen
coffee at cafe
swim at the beach

(excerpt from “write”).

House’s work is not entirely autobiographical. Although he writes in the first person, some poems are imaginary stories. “Mummy” is the experience of a man confronting his homeless mother in a park about the abuse he suffered as a child. When I interviewed House in Adelaide, he said he was told this true story, but when he tried to put it impersonally, he felt it lost its immediacy. So he made it his own:

I grab the image and drift into what I was and saw;
squeeze its filthy claw tighter. She whispers.
“What did you say, mom?

real and unreal is gritty, moving, dark, and full of experiences that shock, saddle and entertain. The poems can be read as a collection, or individually in any order.

… and if you’ve never jumped on a train
of indulgent destruction
to know who you are
and i lost almost everything
to a washed-out anarchy game
punctuated by humiliating dysfunction
you will never be able to understand
about to come back
slowly and gradually

(Extract from the poem “reflection”)


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