Drawn to the City: Ken Bolton, the Poet

Each month, illustrator Leo Greenfield sketches and profiles an Adelaide character who makes the city tick. This month: Ken Bolton, a local poet.

Ken Bolton wouldn’t proclaim himself a poet at a party, but poetry has shaped his life and career in Adelaide since the 1980s. Bolton views poetry as a feisty opportunity to sharpen cultural aesthetics. His writing favours the activity of process and routine, and he describes his poetry as works that look at “patterns of thought and associations”.

Bolton first experimented with poetry while studying Art History at the University of Sydney. Here he fleshed out ideas he was observing in contemporary art and was inspired by the “doubting and forensic attitudes” of his lecturer Donald Brook. Bolton followed through with this line of enquiry as a tutor at the university and then as an art critic.

In 1981, Bolton took on the chance to engage directly with artists in Adelaide with a temporary writer’s residency at the Australian Experimental Art Foundation. This shift from Sydney life proved a lasting one, by 1982 Bolton had returned to the AEAF as a publisher of texts and poetry.

Of moving to Adelaide, Bolton says “there is something reassuring about a small town” and the community of artists he encountered in Adelaide and his continued observation of art “kept him rigorous about writing”.

Ongoing aesthetic debate didn’t allow for fuzzy bonding at the time, but fostered sharper relationships between artists as peers. For Bolton, such critique is evident in his art writing and, as for animosity, he sees this as a necessary factor to propel creative careers forward.

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By 1986, his relationship with the AEAF had grown from curating “a rack of magazines” to the development and management of the Dark Horsey Bookshop, now located next to the AEAF in the Lion Arts Centre off North Terrace. The job at the bookshop didn’t distract from his writing, but rather created a sustainable hub and focus for his work and research.

The routine of running Dark Horsey complemented his writing career, giving him a “small patch of the city” he was familiar with. Bolton says the “hours in a bookshop can resemble each other” but in his dealings with customers he has built the shop into a platform of communication and exchange. He fostered the tradition of artist-talks and readings at the AEAF, and he is known for giving away catalogues and books to artists and writers, possibly “less well heeled” but appreciative.

After 30 years at Dark Horsey, Bolton is moving on, but not too far. Bolton will take with him the effect of daily routines that drive writing in his new studio. Routines that still hold a life in and about the Adelaide CBD as its framework. His move away from full-time work at the bookshop and critical art writing has now opened up new freedoms. Bolton moves easily between the worlds of online and traditional media, but says his “poems feel finished when handwritten”.

Leo Greenfield is a freelance illustrator
leogreenfield.com

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