Monday, December 10, 2012

Life of a Poet ~ J. Cosmo Newbery

Kids, you are in for a treat. If you enjoy your poetry with a little spice, a lot of humour, wry wit, and some chili sauce on the side, you will love this poet! J. Cosmo Newbery blogs at Notes on a Serviette  ~ you will come away smiling. As an example, do  read MacBroth - his family's recipe for creating "Buddhist Soup" out of the week's leftovers. I so love it! He gave me such interesting glimpses of his many Extremely Interesting Adventures, that it was all I could do to talk about writing. I wanted to write the whole Book!

Hop aboard. This time we're flying PanAm. We're heading to, as Oprah told her audience, "the other side of the world - Melbourne, Australia!"

Poets United: It's so nice of you to grant us this interview! What do your pals call you, kiddo? Cosmo? 

Portrait of the Poet

Cosmo: Cosmo is just fine.  But I will start with a confession.  J Cosmo Newbery is not my real name.  It is a real name, but it belonged to the curator of the Melbourne Museum in the mid 1800s.  The assistant curator, Fred Dunn, went off to start a food testing laboratory and I joined the firm  in 1985, 101 years after Fred first hung up his shingle.  This would not normally be a problem in itself but I had a hobby of writing to food companies, poking fun at their advertisements.  For example, in Australia, Nescafe advertised as having ‘43 beans per cup’.    When metrication was introduced to Australia, I wrote to Nestle, the makers of Nescafe, and suggested that ‘43 beans per cup’ was not a metric unit.  Harmless stuff but problematic when, during the day, I could be writing a prosecution against a company  that I was teasing after hours.  I liked the name J Cosmo Newbery so I stole it to use as my writing identity.

Poets United: What an interesting bit of background information! Cool! So Cosmo, I couldn’t find a profile or much information on your site, so I am flying blind. I know you live in Australia, write mostly form poetry, (which I so admire, it takes more skill), and that you have a wry and witty sense of humor.

Cosmo: You will find a little more about me here:

Poets United: Thanks, Cosmo. Have you always lived in Australia? Where did you grow up?

Cosmo: My life up to the end of primary school was in suburban Melbourne, secondary schooling was in rural Victoria, university in inner Melbourne and I now live in suburban Melbourne  on a quarter acre block.  I am perfectly happy with suburban life.  With high fences and many fruit trees, it is an oasis in the chaotic seas of life.

P.U.: What does life look like at your house? Who do you share your life with, and do you have any critters?

Cosmo: Life in Chez Newbery?  I share the house with a wife, my youngest son, possums, moths, magpies, doves and sundry parrots.  None of them caged, not even Mrs Newbery.  Two older sons have moved out.  

With Mrs. Newbery when she graduated

I am the weekend cook – we have had three course candle-lit dinners on Saturday nights since before we were married.  I am a keen student of Heston Blumenthal and, having an interest in both science and art, I argue that cooking is where the two areas overlap.

P.U.: I love the sound of your menagerie. Such beautiful birds. It's cool that everyone is uncaged. :-) And we women are so envious of your candle-lit Saturday dinners. Sigh.

When did you begin writing?  What is it about poetry that caused you to choose it as your means of creative expression?

Cosmo: I began writing letters when at University in the early 70s.  You can see some of them on the Sweetchillisauce site.  Odd letters, to be sure, but every so often I got a wonderful reply.  The leftfield responses were the most satisfying.  For example, I complained to Coca Cola that a snack food that they sold did not deliver the swashbuckling hero that their advertisements suggested it would.  (I should point out that I wrote the letter as a woman.)  They sent me a bottle of wine with a card saying that it ‘delivered more body’.  That’s not something you can expect when you write the original letter.

I wrote my first poems when backpacking and, most notably, when doing ‘the overland’, travelling from Kathmandu to London by land.  “To a friend of many names comes from this period, when so many folk came into my life and left again.  This was in the late 70s.

The Overland group at the Taj Mahal.
JCN and the future Mrs. JCN are circled.

P. U.: What a wonderful trip that must have been!

My wedding to the Rev. and Mrs. Petty's youngest daughter
In St. Andrew, Scotland

You have a very beautiful bride! What a lovely wedding! And family!

Cosmo: I returned to letter writing and, as well as writing to companies, started writing to Nigerian conmen, answering the multitude of letters  saying that I had a chance to share in $25M.  This was enormous fun and eventually I published a book of some of the letters.  Prince Kenneth of Lagos even sent me an engagement ring, when I was teasing the Nigerians as Miss Felicity Primm.  

The local jeweller just laughed when I showed it to him.  My fifteen minutes of fame came when I was interviewed from places as far afield as Wales and Canada. 

P.U.: Oh, Canada loves quirky stories like that! CBC Radio, right?

Me and my grandmother. I found this picture online, by accident.
Someone used a photo I had posted of me with my grandmother,
and given her a wooden leg, 
submitting it to a competition to illustrate a song title.
Apparently, the title was "Looking Through the Knothole
in Granny's Wooden Leg" or something similar.

Cosmo: In 2006 a reader of my family blog suggested that I might like to challenge an on-line upstart called Percy Bysshe Silly who was writing strange poetry and annoying young ladies of tender sensibilities.  That was the start of Notes on a Serviette.  A couple of ‘throw down the gauntlet’ style jousts occurred and I found I really enjoyed the discipline of poetry and it has continued on since then.  This year has been particularly productive, due in no small amount to appreciative feed back from the readers.

The Poet, age three

Me and my policeman Dad, who was in the police force
for six years. This was a newspaper photo which never got used because
Princess Margaret announced her marriage the next day and I was
ditched in favor of that story.
I'm not bitter. Really.

age twelve

P.U.: The blogosphere is most encouraging. I love it! I note that you write mostly form poetry, and very skilfully. What are the satisfactions, for you,  in writing poems within the structure of a form? Extra challenging?

Cosmo: I do prefer form poetry, although I dabble in the free-form every so often and find it a very satisfying style as well.  Making things fit a form structure and still be interesting and readable is an interesting discipline – different forms have different uses.  The villanelle, for example, goes nowhere so it can be used for describing a thing but is no use for anything with a timeline.  

I love limericks.  I have a well developed sense of the lewd and suggestive which limericks give me a chance to release.   For me, the meter of a poem is paramount and everything I write gets read and reread before being released onto an unsuspecting world.  For form poems to work for me, they must flow.  Certainly they are challenging.  Something I have learnt is to be willing to give up on a rhyme; if I can’t find the right rhyme to go with an initial line, I am quite prepared to ditch the first line and look for two more that will do what I want as a pair.

P.U.: Reading your work often reminds me of the classical poets. Did you  enjoy poetry in high school?

With my dad on the balcony
of the house I helped build

Cosmo: No.  I did the science stream.  I do remember reading ‘The Lure of the Limerick” and thoroughly enjoying  it.  But wrote nothing of my own until long after high school.

P.U.: Who are your top three favorite classical poets?

Cosmo: Wilfred Owen, James Elroy Flecker and Lewis Carroll.    OK, Carroll is not a ‘classical’ poet in the normal sense but I do like the way he used his style to present a story.  “Last Train to Gallimaufry” was an example of me using his style.  While I no doubt met up with various classical poets in early schooling, Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ had a big influence on me and Flecker’s ‘Golden Journey to Samarkand’ was my anthem when travelling.  I nearly got to Samarkand in 2008 but it was not to be.  Still on the ‘to-do’ list.

P.U.: If you could go back in time and BE one of them, which one would you most want to be?

Me, holding up a rock.
Or vice versa.

Cosmo: Well, Owen and Flecker were both killed in World War One, so that makes Lewis Carroll look attractive.   He also liked to photograph naked women.  Another plus.  I would go for a slightly older age group than he did though.  But, if I could dodge the bullet, Flecker would be my choice.  I love his poem "To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence" and have copied its style on occasion. (eg LIX- To a young lad, forty years past.) 

P.U.: Do you have a process you follow in writing a poem to completion? Do you write daily? Is there a time of day or night that works best for writing?

Cosmo: I used to find first thing in the morning, sitting in bed with a good coffee was the best time.  But I made a conscious effort to break that habit as I came to think it was the only time I could write.  Working full time, it also limited me to weekends and as Saturday morning is planning Saturday dinner, time was scarce. 

There is no definite process.  Sometimes I have a final line and work towards it, sometimes I just start and see what happens, many times the final product doesn’t reflect anything at all like what I started out imagining I was going to write.  I have a list of possible topics that I trawl through if there is not prompt that appeals.

The one thing that I always do is read the poems out aloud.  If my tongue can’t say them smoothly, they need further work.

P.U.: Are there a few prompt sites you find especially helpful?

Cosmo: Many of them.  Can’t respond to them all so I pick and choose.
And there are many others that have the odd thing that takes my fancy now and then.

My study, tonight, unembellished.
I just got up and took the photo.

P.U.: I love your study! Are you happy with how your writing has developed since you began blogging in 2006? How did blogging help you to grow as a poet if, in fact, it did?

Cosmo: I started out mostly doing form poems which provided a great foundation for venturing into other less formal areas.  Not that I put myself in their class,  but it is interesting that both Picasso and Turner were well accomplished traditional painters before venturing into the more abstract.  The basics are always good to learn, to build upon.

I also try to go for simplicity and clarity.  I don’t believe that my poems should be mystical or obscure.  Some people can do this and I applaud them but if I try it comes across as pompous twaddle.  I try to make my poems easy to read and easy to understand.

P.U.: Do you have any interest in other forms of writing: memoir, fiction, nonfiction? Might you branch out one day? (I suspect you’d do very well with humorous essays!)

Cosmo: Letters mainly, although things have been quite on that front for a while now. I would like to do more essays – I particularly like the work of Alan Coren, former editor of the now defunct Punch magazine, where he took a small item of the news and expanded it out to a most unlikely story.

Occasionally I do personalised wine labels.  Not high literature but fun, none the less.

My staid alter-ego (or am I his?) has a number of blogs dealing with family matters and food chemistry.

P.U.: Who would you say has been the biggest influence on your writing?

Also with my dad - I'm the one
with my head stuck in a bush

Cosmo: My father, who died in 2008, was a big influence and we used to write many letters to each other.   My mother, of course, thinks I am wonderful – she is not on-line so I print out my poems for her.  

I have a couple of special friends who read my work and give good feedback.  They are not so much mentors as people whose opinion I respect.  But largely it is a self-assessment thing.  I write for my own pleasure but love comments on the posts.  I find I have been getting more thoughtful responses to some of my more recent works which is encouraging.

P.U.: How you must miss your dad! I'm glad you have a supportive circle. What do you do for your day job?

Cosmo: Analytical chemist, working for a laboratory that tests food.  I am involved with chemistry and statistics.  About as far away from poetry as you can get!  In 2005-7 I did honours in Psychology but never progressed it to the next step that would allow me to practice.

In my food testing role, I see some strange things.
This was a neatly sliced mouse, in a loaf of bread.

P.U.: Ew! I'll never look at bread in the same way again! Poor mouse! When you’re not writing, what other things might we find you doing?

Cosmo: Cooking, painting (occasionally), gardening, home brewing.
I am a left-leaning, antiwar, climate change believing atheist.  This leaks into my work every now and then.

P.U.: I've noticed (smiles). What is the wildest thing you ever did?

Cosmo: I have a camera that I have had taken off me at gun point three times – in the Khyber Pass, in Khartoum, and in Libya.  Still have the camera but don’t press my luck any further and leave it at home when I travel now.
I severed a tendon in my foot making marmalade.
I have had sex on a public beach.  Twice.
I have a pierced nipple.
Take your pick.

P.U.: Wow. I want to hear about them all - with the possible exception of the last two - best left to the imagination, etc. Especially at my advanced age :-) 

One of my leadlight windows.

Cosmo: Hobbies : cooking, gardening & writing.  But have also on occasion done paintings, leadlighting, the odd carpentry project (especially a large refectory table for my dinners but also a specific table for pasta making), silver casting (using recovered silver from laboratory waste), a number of playhouses, a large BBQ that looked more like a brick piano -- if there is a manual on how to do something, I am willing to try.  Except folk dancing, of course.

My Libyan driver's licence

Other things I have done include: a volunteer fireman at a plastics factory in Libya (the Colonel opened the factory), I have been whipped with birch branches in a sauna in Siberia by a lady called Olga, I have been scoured by a large Turkish lady with rough gloves in a hot baths in Istanbul, I called my father by mobile phone while on a camel in the great sandy desert in Morocco (a triumph of technology), I climbed (most of the way up) Mt Kenya, I had a brief but noisy rockettry phase (every good chemist dabbles in things that explode; there are sheep in the western district of Victoria who still tell their young of things falling from the sky), I have been in a plane when it was struck by lightning (Hamburg) and had two emergency landings (successive internal flights in Indonesia), I have eaten crocodile, emu, kangaroo, alpaca, guinea pig, crickets, bamboo worms, termites and snake. 

P.U.: Wow. Let's scrap the interview and start working on the book! I see a movie deal! At two in the morning, what do you worry about the most?

    Cosmo:  Getting some wretched rhyme out of my head.
    Not forgetting the wretched rhyme that is in my head.
Getting up and scribbling things down helps.

P.U.: Is there anything else you’d like to share with Poets United?

Shoe size 13.

P.U.: Thanks, Cosmo, for such an enjoyable and interesting visit. And for being part of our Poets United community.

Well, kids, another week, another fascinating look into one poet's life. He has enough material for a best seller! We keep demonstrating that the people behind the pens are some of the most interesting folks around. Come back to see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


  1. What a wonderful interview, Sherry and J Cosmo. I have long been a fan of yor work, J Cosmo (and oftentimes have to make sure I don't have a mouth full of coffee when I read it - LOL); and it is fun now to know your well as to be able to visualize you. You are a person of many talents, it seems. Poetry being only one of them. And you have had some grand adventures. What more really could one ask of life!

  2. I really enjoyed this feature! Thanks for all the helpful links and interesting questions!

  3. Am I ever glad I popped by here ... Cosmo - this was a delightful interview and you have lived, are living I should say, a very cool and interesting life. And I love the answer to the ubiquitous last question - size 13! Love also where/how you got your pseudo-name ... must off to read some of your poetry now as I'm unfamiliar but am guessing I will like it very much. Thanks to both you and Sherry ... this brightened an otherwise drearyish day...

  4. Good to see you taking an interest in beach sporting activites as well as your intellectual pursuits, Cosmo. A very enjoyable and interesting interview..One wonders where the 'tell all' version would lead!( a custodial term?..giggles)
    Best profile so far in my not so humble elitist opinion. Go for it Aussie Digga Cobba Blue:)

  5. A man after my own heart...but he can't have it, because I need it!

  6. I knew I would enjoy this interview - but didn't know how much. Thank you to both of you.

  7. Wonderful interview! I enjoyed the insight and playful qualities
    of Cosmo's letters to the world ;D

    Please do a book! I love art n' science and have always been fascinated with food. I love the letter to Coke! Your humor adds more mystique!

    Thank you Sherry for highlighting another amazing poet!

    Thank you Cosmo, for sharing a facet of your soul. I look forward to more of your work~

  8. Love it.
    All of it.
    Just wondered if the people on the beach applauded and why you've never tried eating fried frog.
    Well done Sherry, eliciting such a great interview.

    1. Have had frog - once in Scotland and once in Indonesia.

  9. what a fantastic interview, I really enjoyed that. it's fantastic to find out why and how people wrote and what influences.

  10. A wonderful interview--even with my goldfish attention span I was able to read and enjoy every word. :)

  11. It 'twas fun to learn about a poet, commentor here. Fascinating story sir! Good interview madaam

  12. Oh, what a fun interview! And some things in common — I lived in Melbourne suburbia most of my adult life, with great enjoyment; and I too love Flecker, particularly the two poems mentioned. (Pretty keen on Owen and Carroll as well.)

    I'm not unacquainted with JCN's work, but it's obviously time I read more!

  13. As always, it was my pleasure to feature another fascinating poet. What an amazing community this is. Thanks, Cosmo - I so enjoy your wry humor!

  14. Thanks Sherry, it was a delight going through the interview process with you!

  15. Wonderful interview - so nice to know a bit more about the man behind the Cosmo poetry!

  16. Such a fun interview to read! Great to get to know more about the life and times of bloggers especially when they are as interesting as Cosmo! The picture of the poor mouse could probably help anyone trying to cut down on eating too much bread!

  17. A really interesting and fun interview dear J Cosmo,what an amazing life you have had so far and plenty more adventures to come. Thank you for sharing so much with us and your lovely family photos.
    xoxoxo ♡

  18. How fun and interesting to read more about the wit and humor behind the writer ~ I really enjoyed your personal photos, adventures and misadventures..ha..ha... I was actually struck with how your job is so technical, and then you go into the other extreme - writing poems, rhyming and cooking during the weekends ~

    Great interview Sherry ~


  19. Interesting how by reading your blogs long enough I’d already known or inferred pretty much everything except for the pierced nipple and sliced mouse. Much better than a sliced nipple and a pierced mouse, I always say.

    Seriously… looking back on my blogging, which I haven’t done for a couple years now, going back and forth with you on the “jousting” was the most fun thing I ever did in that domain. Besides writing well, you’re just an all-around tactful, intelligent and good-humored guy - a real pleasure to read and know.

  20. What a great interview, Cosmo!! In some ways it read as though I've known you forever, and in others you are a delightful surprise. An interesting man with an interesting life and a love of words. You are by far the most prolific poet I've encountered on the internet, and it's always quality stuff. I've snorted many a coffee reading your poems. I'm honored to know you as friend.


  21. Thanks for the introduction to Cosmo, Mary. I traveled to "MacBroth" right off to prepare, and was glad I did. How dramatic and funny, Cosmo! The history of your writing and travel makes me laugh aloud though I am sure parts were quite scary. Knowing you are a chemist makes me want to reprint my parody of Poe's "To Science" for your pleasure. I enjoyed meeting you and will read much more.

  22. Fascinating, multi-talented and extremely good-hearted.
    Long live J Cosmo!

  23. Excellent interview, and I'm glad to have seen it...however, what with everyone stroking that ego, one might think you need a larger hat size, eh? Not me.
    First, you are already aware of your fabulous talents, and
    Second, I think you should just grow the red bush back into place.

  24. Wonderful interview, truly enjoy reading your work.

  25. I love your poetry and do want to read your autobiography. What a life you are living. Exciting, artistic, creative, exotic, with seemingly many passions. I have visited Melbourne. I have friends who live in Gisborne. Everyone I met there had a terrific sense of humor, that dry wit.


This community is not meant to be used in a negative manner. We ask that you be respectful of all the people on this site as each individual writer is entitled to their own opinion, style, and path to creativity.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Blog Archive