‘If the ideas aren’t there or if there is no real point, or purpose, or feeling, it doesn’t matter how it’s written, it’s just going to be an empty experience.’

Last month I met up with South Australian writer Mark Niehus at a cafe in the Adelaide Central Market to chat about creative influences and the meaning of art, making poetry more accessible, and the motivation needed to get your writing out there.

Mark sits across from me, a self-made poet whose work mixes stream of consciousness, beat generation style with strong imagery and an important sense of place. His first book of poems appeared in 2008, titled How Do You Want the Fire to Leave You? Since then, he has been involved in several exhibitions and was a featured author on Australian Reader in October of 2010. Mark has continued to write steadily, producing several zines worth of material since his book, along with visual art in the form of cartoon illustrations and poetry postcards. This element of his work reflects a background in photography and web design, an area in which he was ‘quite career oriented at the time.’

‘I was climbing that ladder. Went to London and got my dream job and was earning good money, but I think it was probably a good place to burn out. It was a strange environment, working in an advertising agency within the design section,’ Mark says. ‘It’s a strange world. People just want to make a lot of money. I understand that. But it wasn’t really for me.’ After about three years, Mark came back home and freelanced. ‘But I had a mortgage so it was a lot of pressure, it was totally up to me to get the work, to pay the bills.’ Living in the city, Mark would come to the Central Market to write as he still does. ‘There’d be phone calls from clients, perfect interjections, just painful. Every time the phone rang I’d get this sickly feeling inside myself and I just couldn’t do it any longer.’

So he did what any good poet would: sold his house, published a book and then went travelling for a year. ‘The launch party for How Do You Want the Fire to Leave You? was basically my farewell party,’ he says. ‘ Just had to get that out into the world before I left.’

Since his return from that trip, Mark has worked shifts in a post office, set hours which allow him to focus much more extensively on writing and the creative process generally. Good poetry, he says, should be written for oneself first and foremost. ‘If you succeed in writing something for yourself that impresses you – when I say impress, it makes you feel good, like you’ve accomplished something, it gives you a high and you feel if someone else had written it you’d really like it – that makes a good poem from a writer’s perspective. Everything that happens after that, any ideas people have about it, that’s their choice.’

More broadly, he says poems that endure are all about relating the human experience, giving readers a sense of identification that makes them feel less alone in the world. ‘All good art should do that to a degree, I think.’ But first people must be willing to engage with the work, something Mark is very aware of. ‘I’ve started thinking about different ways to present writing because people don’t want to pick up a book and read it, really, especially with poetry. I mean, poetry is the hardest thing to try and get someone to be open to as an experience that might be enjoyable. There’s so many stigmas attached to it: over intellectualised, romantic, sentimental, all those words.’

Notoriously low sales figures for poetry across the board would seem to prove that point. But Mark thinks it’s more a matter of people being primarily visual communicators, who may just need an extra lure to get them connected with poetry both on and off the page. ‘That’s the language people operate on mainly I think, so I’m working on visual ways, at the moment. But I’m all over the place. Sometimes I’m working on spoken word music, sometimes an exhibition idea and then just writing here at the Market.’

One of those exhibitions was Intent, which saw Mark’s entire long poem ‘20-1-07’ displayed within the old Queen’s Theatre on a single page stretching from an old typewriter sitting on a desk to a space in the ceiling, alongside works by ten other artists including  photography, painting, sculpture and sound. The same poem and set-up was later featured in Big, a Format Collective exhibition at the same venue.

Given the importance of varied mediums in Mark’s work, I ask if there’s a difference between more visual, immediate poetry and other more academic, or intellectualised work. ‘I think the academic world is still a big part of poetry and writing in general. There’s definitely the two camps. You can look back in history and there’s the academic world and the art, rock, punk world, and the two are very separate, and the channels that people take in those two perspectives are very different.’

But underlying whatever subjective or stylistic differences your writing contains, he says, there have to be ideas. ‘If the ideas aren’t there, or if there is no real point, or purpose, or feeling, it doesn’t matter how it’s written, it’s just going to be an empty experience.’

As for getting words on paper, Mark usually writes at the Market before work, and says it’s not something he has to motivate himself to do.  ‘Generally I feel a bit of an urgency to leave home at a certain time, it’s like a body clock goes off. Not everyday, but most days.’ He also thinks social interaction is a key influence for stimulating ideas. ‘If you’re around certain types of people they can really aid that process.’

For Mark, the most important of those people is friend and fellow writer Lachlan Pierce. Creative-poetic emails between the two have just begun featuring on Mark’s website. ‘We have this excellent relationship of exchange that’s been going for years. I think it’s really good to have — for a writer particularly, because it’s a bit of a solitary experience — if they can develop relationships with people they can share their writing with, without concern of judgement, and are gonna get applauded for taking a risk rather than knocked down; that kind of relationship can influence you more than anything else.’

When it comes to process, he’s not the kind of poet who spends long hours composing a single piece of work. ‘They usually come out in a solid block,’ Mark says. ‘Like dog food.’ He accompanies this image with the wobbling, sucking noise of jellied meat escaping from an upside down can. Mark laughs when I suggest the work should be considered gourmet dog food, at least. ‘Yeah definitely. There might be a slight bit of editing but I think the form already exists, inside you. This sounds a bit mystical and shit, but if you’re true to the flow and the rhythm that you’re feeling when you’re writing it, and you don’t hesitate or block that, the form’s there, and as soon as you try and change it, it loses whatever was there.’

This on-the-run approach to poetry often leads to a large output, but also to suggestions that such writing is too easy, that a perceived lack of craft equates to a lack of value or depth. Poets like Charles Bukowksi and the Beats have faced similar criticism for more than fifty years. But Mark has a response: ‘The craft, I think — if you do it for long enough — in so-called non-crafted poetry, is actually in the moment of output. If you practice that enough, the craft is in there, it’s happening at the same time, it’s not retrospectively. There’s a lot of considerations as you’re doing it, but it’s all happening very fast.’

It’s this process of internal editing that can sometimes be overlooked, I suggest. Mark agrees, highlighting another visual arts parallel. ‘It’s like the abstract expressionists in the fifties. People look at a Pollock and they go, I could do that. But there’s a lot going on there, a lot had to happen for that to occur, a lot of thought. So yeah, maybe it’s just a misunderstanding about what’s involved.’

Not surprisingly, Mark lists some of his biggest well-known influences as Beat writers like Jack Kerouac. ‘For his poetry more than his prose, although at times they could be the same. He said each paragraph should be a poem.’ Citing ‘October in the Railroad Earth’ as one of his favourite poems, Mark’s admiration for Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style is already clear. ‘He’s definitely a romantic. Sometimes too romantic. But you can’t judge him too harshly for that. The long flowing sentences, pushing the idea right through, further than you would normally, so you can end up relating or drawing parallels more than you thought you could with an idea or a sentence, and I like that.’

The hardest part of writing, for Mark, is setting aside time to submit, submit, submit. It’s something most emerging writers can probably identify with. ‘You have to be diligent. Because if you want to do it and make an educated submission, you have to read the publication, see what their stuff is like, see if you can liken it to something you’ve written, try and pick their taste, choose the right pieces. It’s a minefield.’

But up-and-coming writers take heart, because you’re not alone. ‘So much energy goes into creating the stuff, and I don’t have any motivation problems there. I really enjoy it, it’s never laboursome to write, or come up with a creative idea, it’s addictive if anything. But all those other things, the business end of things,’ Mark pauses, ‘I’m sure most artists struggle with it, some more than me I’m sure. It just depends on what’s important to you, if you really want to get it out there, and that’s probably more and more important to me as I go along.’

Mark has plenty of ideas for getting his work out there. Recently he’s been writing poems on antique pianola scrolls, using the punched holes as starting points for each sentence, typing them up on a manual typewriter and offering the framed copies for sale through online artists marketplace Etsy, along with his book and postcards featuring the semi-autobiographical character, Guff.

He’s also proposing a local version of the American initiative Poem Store, in which writers set up manual typewriters in public locations based on the idea of your subject, your price. Much like the river-poet scene in Richard Linklater’s cult film Before Sunrise, which involves writing made-to-order poems for passers-by, for whatever people feel they’re worth. ‘It’s all on nice paper on a manual typewriter, it’s a nice object to take away. And I’m writing a proposal to try and get venues to do that. I’m hoping here on the Market’s stage where the buskers play.’



Mark Niehus chats with Ilona Wallace from UniLife Magazine about Poetry Busking at the Adelaide Central Market.



An exhibition of art about writing.


Typically a passerby will inquire and have a poem written on the subject of their choice - anything from a broken heart to the passion for their newest car. Mark will have a poem crafted. He'll find the customer, knell, and read the poem.



Mark Niehus chats about making it as a poet with Tim Ashdown from 'the chat show blog'.


A recording of 'THE INDIVIDUAL' read by Mark to his original music has been published on a CD that accompanies Issue#7 of Rabbit Poetry Journal. You can check out rabbit at


Mark Niehus stood out from the crowd. The Individual is literally visual poetry, with the text ingrained in portraits of fictional characters.


"I think that we all have ways of keeping afloat, some ideas that make living bearable.



Mark Niehus at Zuma Caffe One of Adelaide’s Cafe Poets, Mark Niehus, has been busy at Zuma Caffe the last few weeks. Twice a week he can be seen set up with his 1954 Oliver Typewriter typing poems for passers by.



The words not only told the story but also added to art piece, becoming embedded as part of the shape, form and picture itself.



Mark took part in the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne.