This reading life: Mike Ladd

15 November 2017

Described as “the best poet in Adelaide”, Mike Ladd has published eight collections of poetry and prose. His most recent book, Invisible Mending, ranges across essay, memoir and poetry. Ahead of Mike's visit to Wellington in March we asked him about his reading life.

Mike will be a guest at 2018 Writers and Readers as part of the New Zealand Festival in Wellington, 8–11 March.

The first book to capture my imagination was ...

Wylah the Cockatoo by Leslie Rees with pictures by Walter Cunningham. It was given to me by my grandfather, a Presbyterian minister and closet poet. I was about four or five years old. Not sure who read the book to me, probably mum or dad but it’s stayed in my mind for 50 years. It had an “Australianess” I related to, and the text is really quite poetic. The onomatopoeia of that name “Wylah”! Who knows, maybe it set me on a path into poetry?


The books and/or other writing that saw me through childhood were ...

Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia books, Tove Jansson’s Moomin series, The Silver Sword, The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban, The Mainly Modern poetry anthology. When I was about 16, I inherited my grandfather's collection of poetry, mostly the British canon, Blake, Byron, Shelley, Tennyson, but more modern as well, Rilke, Yeats, right up to Yevtushenko. I'd started publishing a few poems in youth journals and when grandpa died his widow sent his poetry collection to me. I still have the books and they became the basis of a personal poetry library.

The character in a book I most wanted to be as a child was ...

Moomintroll (the main character in the Moomin books by Tove Jansson).


The book I studied at school that has stayed with me most is ...

Camus’ The Outsider, or F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Both perfect bits of prose. Owen’s war poetry. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – reading it out loud in class on long, hot afternoons.


The book I most wish someone would write is ...

The book that all writers want to write is the book that they want to read; in other words, it’s the book you have to create yourself, so that you can be its first reader. No good hoping “someone” will do it. That’s your next project, right there.

The author I am most likely to binge-read is ...

I rarely binge-read, preferring to switch authors and genres constantly. However, I did recently binge on the Neapolitan quartet by Elena Ferrante, and when I was a teenager I spent the whole of one summer on the couch reading ten Graham Greene novels back-to-back.

The book I keep meaning to get around to reading but somehow never do is ...

Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. I reckon a lot of cribbing goes on. People reference things that they’ve never actually read cover to cover. I’ve been guilty of that, so I’m on a mission to fill the many holes in my education by reading the big important works. In that spirit I’ve read the Mahabharata, The Odyssey, The Diamond Sutra. Next Gilgamesh, Kalevala, then maybe Proust. Maybe. If I haven’t lost too much time …


The book I have reread the most is ...

Not one book, but all the books in my poetry library. That’s the beauty of poetry. Re-reading it, year on year, discovering something new in a poem that seemed familiar to you. Enjoying something you once dismissed or passed over. Poetry allows you to dip in and out. Re-reading prose is good too, I recently re-read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but I rarely have the time for re-reading novels.

If I were stranded on a desert island and could have only one book with me, it would be ...

Torture. But I guess I’d take Shakespeare’s Complete Works. It would be weirdly anachronistic, but I’d have drama and poetry to explore for years before the off-course ship came by or I went quietly mad, believing I was a character in The Tempest.

Bookmark, scrap of paper or turning down the corner of the page?

A collection of bookmarks picked up from various publishers and libraries and some handmade. I also love those old books with the built-in ribbon for marking the page.

The first 50 pages or bust? Or always to the bitter end?

I’m much more ruthless. The first few pages or the first few poems. If it doesn’t have me attracted by then, it’s over. Of course you have to be open to being challenged, but it’s got to have something that keeps you reading. Clichés are an instant fail.

The first few pages or the first few poems. If it doesn’t have me attracted by then, it’s over.


The book I am always on the lookout for in secondhand shops is ...

Old and obscure dictionaries. I love them. I will read dictionaries for hours, randomly browsing the words and their etymologies.

My favourite cinematic adaptation of a book is ...

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Milos Forman movie is as brilliant as the Kesey book, and that’s rare.


The character in a book I'd most like to meet is ...

Mehitabel the alley cat from Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis: “still in the ring archy and still a lady in spite of hell … toujours gai.”


A line of writing I can recite from memory is ...

My party trick is to recite Buffalo Bill’s by ee cummings. I memorised this decades ago to refute a crusty old academic who told me modern poetry can’t be remembered because it has no rhyme or metre:

“Buffalo Bills/ defunct/ who used to /ride a watersmooth silver/ stallion/ and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat/ Jesus/ he was a handsome man/ and what I want to know is/ how do you like your blueeyed boy/ Mister Death”.

I also know a few of my own poems by heart from when I used to perform them with a jazz outfit called MaxMo.

My party trick is to recite Buffalo Bill’s by ee cummings. I memorised this decades ago to refute a crusty old academic who told me modern poetry can’t be remembered because it has no rhyme or metre


My favourite 19th-century book is ..

For prose, it's a tie between Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Silas Marner by George Eliot. In poetry, it’s a tie between Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman and Keats’s Odes. I’m cheating aren’t I, getting four for the price of one!

My favourite 20th-century book is ...

What!! Impossible. Hundreds of single books like Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, or Alain Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, or Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. But then there are the authors who really get hold of you, you collect their books and end up reading almost everything they’ve written. For me personally these are: prose – Kafka, Camus, Orwell, Steinbeck, Greene, Marquez, John Berger; poetry – Owen, Frost, Eliot, Cavafy, Stevens, Lorca, Popa, Hikmet, Holub, Szymborska, Dorothy Hewett, John Forbes, Gwen Harwood, Dimitris Tsaloumas, John Anderson.


My favourite contemporary writers are ...

Poets: Sharon Olds, Les Murray, Peter Goldsworthy, Jennifer Maiden, Simon Armitage; novelists: Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, John Coetzee … The trouble with lists like these is you start and you know the very next day you’re going to be thinking of all those people you should have mentioned.

The book/s currently by the side of my bed is/are ...

Ah, the archeology of the bedside book pile! The layers of the recent past include Rolando S Tinio, a poet from the Philippines whose work I love. Then Robert Crocker’s Somebody Else’s Problem, an investigation of the history of consumption and waste. Currently I’m reading Kate Jennings’s Trouble, a mix of poetry, essay and memoir that forms a kind of autobiography. I like the mixed genres in one book. I tried it in my latest book Invisible Mending. The next one waiting to be read is John Stubb’s 700-page biography of Jonathan Swift, The Reluctant Rebel.


Mike Ladd