Omar Musa is a Malaysian-Australian novelist, poet, rapper and screenwriter.
His debut novel Here Come the Dogs (2014) was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award and the International Dublin Literary Award. In 2015, Omar was named one of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Young Novelists of the Year.
Omar has released solo and hip hop records, as well as collaborations with international duo MoneyKat. He has also published several poetry collections, including The Clocks, Parang and Millefiori. He won both the Australian Poetry Slam in 2008 and the Indian Ocean Poetry Slam.
In 2017 Omar wrote the screenplay for Episode 4 of the Australian miniseries Romper Stomper.
- Alicia Sometimes, another Australian poet and performance artist, spoke to The Garret about her poetry and the power of the spoken word.
Nic: Omar Musa is an Malaysian-Australian rapper, poet, author. In his writing and his music he confronts the dark realities of Australian history and culture. He does so in a way that both entertains and demands attention. He's published an acclaimed novel, Here Come The Dogs, several collections of poetry, hip-hop albums, TV scripts and he won both the Australian Poetry Slam and the Indian Ocean Poetry Slam. Omar, welcome to The Garret.
Omar: Hey, thanks so much for having me.
Nic: My pleasure. Why do you write?
Omar: Why do I write? I write because I have to. I write because there's something within me that compels me to do so. I feel like I've got a lot of churning emotions and ideas, a frenzy of thoughts and a frenzy of feelings, and I have to get them out in some way. And a lot of those feelings are very negative ones. They're feelings of fear and aggression and frustration and pain. I just was lucky enough to learn early on in life that if I converted those feelings into words and sculpted them into poems and stories, there was an alchemy to that. And in that alchemy, those dark thoughts and feelings turned into gold when they came out of my pen. So, that's why I write.
Nic: I'm just wondering, did you have those thoughts before you wrote, before you thought of writing? And if so, how did you deal with them back then?
Omar: I think I was lucky enough to start doing it from a really young age. First of all though, I transferred those thoughts and feelings into drawings and pictures. I really loved drawing and sort of sketching out little images and thoughts and stuff like that well before I was into words. So, I do conceive of a lot of my poems and my novel in a sort of cinematic and visual way. I often works backwards from an image and the story reveals itself out of an image or a vignette that I've had in my head. So yeah, I started off with drawings and paintings.
And then I had an English teacher, as is often the case…
Nic: Oh this is really amazing.
Omar: ... a really inspiring English teacher. My parents encouraged me to write my thoughts down. They saw that I liked to do that, and then realised at a certain point that I had a flow and a cadence and sometimes rhymed and everything, so they were more like poems and diary entries. But when I did English in Year 5 with a teacher called Ms. Leanne Pattison, who I still owe a great debt to. She would encourage us to write stories in class and I would always write these really grotesque kind of horror stories, gory things, people being garrotted and impaled, probably the scribblings of a madman or psychopath in waiting. But then she must have seen there was a kernel of talent or something like that and she started feeding me different styles of poems and poetry styles that I could experiment with. So, she would say, ‘This is how you write a haiku or a tanka or this is how you write a sonnet’. And I would start playing around with these different forms, and I realised that well, it was just fun. It was really fun. There was a pure joy in letting my imagination run loose. It's weird because I think that sometimes our imaginations are trained out of us as we start to take ourselves more and more seriously as adults.
Nic: Well, as we get older and enter adulthood it’s belted of us, isn’t it? By other people, by society. Imagination is not something you… Impulse and imagination are something you're supposed to let go.
Omar: Well, so there is this weird tension then, as writers, because you try to train yourself to experiment with different forms and to build up your skills. In the words of the great philosopher Snoop Dogg, to sharpen your sword, constantly must be sharpening your sword, your craft, finding ways to refine your techniques. So you're training yourself, but at the same time, you're trying to untrain all that conditioning that says to take yourself seriously and to put your imagination in straitjacket.
Omar: So, it's a weird tension there.
Nic: The great theatre practitioner, Keith Johnstone, wrote about this in his book Impro and how so much of writing and creativity is about getting rid of all that stuff that stifles that childhood imagination and impulse.
Omar: Yeah. Well...
Nic: It’s so important.
Omar: I agree with that. I think playfulness is hugely important and it's something that I like to talk to young writers about and aspiring writers. Be playful, even if your subject matter is of the most serious nature, deadly serious. The way that we come up with words and the way that we express these serious thoughts I think should be playful in some way, because that's how you come up with original fresh forms of writing.
Nic: Apart from your wonderful English teacher, your parents would have been early influences as well. Tell us a little bit about your parents.
Omar: They were hugely influential on me. My father was a poet and an actor in Malaysia. He comes from Borneo in East Malaysia, and through a strange twist of fate and his beautiful mellifluous voice, he got a chance to study drama on the mainland, well in Penang, and my Mum was the drama lecturer there. So, both of them always have been practitioners of the word and loved beautifully crafted words. My mother more in the theatre, but of course the theatre is so full of poetry and everything, and my father poetry, but also the poetry of religion. He's a very religious man, and the Koran was written in poetry. So, he always thought that it was a very good thing to do, and he encouraged me to do that. So, not just in his native language of Malay and the rich oral tradition of storytelling over there, but also of course through religion.
So, that's played a weird role in my life because I think that a lot of the emotive force of what I do and what I aspire to comes from an almost religious type of ecstasy even though I'm not religious anymore. But then style-wise I'm more influenced by my mother who became a journalist and would always just be saying, ‘Simplify, simplify, simplify. Reduce everything. Use straight hard declarative language’. So, I would try and balance these two different things.
Nic: That's very important in poetry, isn't it, simplify and bring clarity and…
Nic: Yeah. I'm wondering in those early days, were there any particular, I mean you mentioned poetry and different forms of poetry, were there any particular poets or authors or books that really resonated with you? That made you…
Omar: In those early days. Well maybe I can think about... I was really lucky to have this English teacher. She would give us stuff that was way more advanced than most people in primary school would be reading. She even gave us some of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ by T. S. Eliot. I think more because that was about the simile of the fog winding around the house like a cat or something. So, as an 11-year-old you can relate to that. But she would give us Gerard Manley Hopkins I remember, who was more as like proto-rapper. I went back and was reading some Hopkins recently and I was like, ‘You could put that over a beat’.
Nic: Yeah, yeah.
Omar: What else was there? Oh Browning. That was more in high school, I remember we had to study Browning. I loved, well the crafting of the words was beautiful and so vivid and cinematic, but each poem was a story. It was the storytelling that I was drawn to sort of above all things, above even the style of poetry and the form. I think it was the storytelling that drew me to it.
Nic: I want to explore a whole lot of areas that you work in. Let's just start with music then. Of course, storytelling, song writing, music writing. What were your first experiences with music being entwined into the other elements from your parents or were there particular types of music that you just got into? When did the love of music come and what was it in the early days?
Omar: That one was something that came a bit later. I mean, I always loved music.
Nic: Anything with a song.
Omar: Anyone with a soul loves music. I think it was hip-hop music that I really got into in my early teens, but that was because I loved poetry and because my father told me that in Malaysia the best poetry was performed. It was spoken, verbalised out loud and almost embodied in a performance. So, I was looking for a form of poetry like that, and in my teens I couldn't really see it around me in Australia. I think my parents might have taken me to a poetry reading or two and it was just the driest thing ever.
So, when I saw Snoop Dogg and Tupac and Dr. Dre and Wu-Tang Clan, it wasn't actually the style of it that drew me to it – even though that was really cool, the way they dressed and looked and everything – but it was that I realised it was living, breathing poetry. I'd always been a bit salty at my parents that they'd never put me into music class. I always thought that would have been the coolest thing ever to play the guitar or play the piano or something. I never had that opportunity – or maybe that talent – but I realised that through words and through making my voice a percussive instrument with rapping that could be my access point to music.
And since then, it's kind of amazing.I was just playing around with it in my room. I was embarrassed to show people because in those early days, in the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Australian hip-hop was just seen as the most patently uncool thing ever and incongruous. I'm sure there's many people that still think that. So, I didn't really show anyone. Then I started slowly making music with different electronic producers, different hip-hop producers, people just making beats in their room on Fruity Loops or GarageBand, things like that. And then, it's unbelievable now, I've collaborated with so many amazing musicians. People like Kate Miller-Heidke and Leor, all these people who are sort of trained beautiful musicians who perform with orchestras, and he's a scallywag from Queanbeyan teaching himself to rap in his flat.
Nic: When I read your poetry, I could see how it could easily be hip-hop. But I'm wondering though, do you separate the early ideas and words into this is either a poem or this is going to be put to music? At what stage does it become one or the other or can it kind of be both?
Omar: That's a really, really cool question and something that I ponder a lot. I've only started to learn about myself. I'm 34 now, and it's only been the last few years that I've realised that poetry or writing to me is about finding the right word vessel for an emotional or intellectual risk of some sort. And finding that word vessel can take years and years and years. So, something like Here Come The Dogs, my novel, a lot of it's written in verse but it's sort of two-thirds prose. That original idea came to me in first year uni when I lived through the Canberra bushfires, sort of huge catastrophic event. And I started trying to write to a rap song and rap songs about the bushfire. So, originally that story and that idea was in the form of rhyming and raps, but then it just didn't quite work. It was sort of a little bit... It was cranky. It was clumsy. I realised after, my God, I mean probably almost 10 years later, when I was living here in Melbourne and I started trying to experiment with prose, ‘Oh, these ideas that I've had, these images, I should funnel them into prose’ and they made more sense. So, sometimes I'll struggle away in one form and then suddenly realise holy shit.
Nic: Here's another one.
Omar: This thing that I've been writing as a book should be a play or a script or a song… But it just takes a great deal of trial and error and experimentation. And then acknowledging that hard truth when you've been slogging away over something for years and years that you have to just overhaul the whole thing.
Nic: It's the hardest think about writing, isn't it, really? It's not…
Omar: Oh it's unbelievably painful.
Nic: … getting it down. It's actually having done that work and realising there's a lot more that needs to be done or it's going to be thrown away.
Omar: I was talking to Richard Flanagan about his book, about The Narrow Road to the Deep North. He did 14 drafts of it or something. There was one draft of it that was written entirely in haiku. I mean, that's just unbelievable. Like no sane person…
Nic: Why would you?
Omar: … does this.
Nic: Why would you?
Omar: But I guess it's worth it in the end. I mean, there's some type of catharsis, but I do often feel that it sort of diminishes me as much as it nourishes me. It's a strange thing writing. It can be a beautiful destroyer, and I think a lot of writers you talk to would feel that way.
Nic: Yeah. I mean, the beauty I guess of music as opposed to a lot of other forms of writing except for theatre is that it gives you the opportunity for collaboration. Do you enjoy that mix of sometimes you've got the solitary Omar, but then you've got the opportunity for collaborating, as you said, with some great creative artists and learning from them?
Omar: Oh I love it. That's my favourite thing. But yeah, because I do have those different sides of my personality, a very extroverted side and then a very private side. So, it just depends what sort of phase of life I'm in. Yeah, there are definitely are times...
That was why I decided to work on a novel. I was really sick of being out there every night until 4:00am doing hip-hop shows and everything like that in loud clubs. I just wanted time to myself and I thought that yes, sitting in that solitude and creating on such a big canvas would be something I want to pursue. By the end of it, I felt like I'd made a serious grave error, but then it was cool because I have these different weapons in my arsenal. So I could then emerge from that solitude, go out there and collaborate on hip-hop music, get out there in clubs and perform and of course perform excerpts from the book. So, I would try to do those sort of almost like a live show or a poetry reading.
Nic: Tell me about the process of writing the novel, how long it took you, the drafting. People are fascinated by that sort of thing. What was the end of the first draft? How close was it to how it turned out, how much editing? Just give us some insight in that because it's an amazing book.
Omar: Oh thank you.
Nic: It's a fantastic book.
Omar: Yeah. I'm really proud of it. Of course, it's like any piece of work that you create. You look back on it years on and there's some part of it that deeply, deeply embarrass you.
Nic: Of course.
Omar: But then there are other bits where I said to myself, ‘You know it wasn't too bad. I did all right there’. It started with living through these bushfires in Canberra in I think it was 2002 or 2003. It was almost like Hell itself. It was this crazy elemental sort of inferno. It felt like the end of the world. It just stuck in my head. There's two particular scenes where the sky was jet black in the middle of the day with that lipstick red sun. And then I remember I was with some friends and we were staring at the sun in the daze, because you could stare at it, stare straight at the sun. Then we kind of looked around at each other and realised that we had black ash all over our shoulders and there was black ash drifting down and it looked like snow but it was jet black. I never forgot that.
So, I started looking into bushfires, because at first people thought maybe it had been started on purpose. I don't think they had. I think that the ACT Government had just let the pine land grow too close to the road and then there'd been some lightning or something like that. But I became fascinated by the idea of someone who starts a fire on purpose and why they do. I found out that a lot of them… It's always men. It's gendered.
Nic: Totally. Yeah, I know. That's right.
Omar: It's never women. It's always young men and they feel powerless, often grow up in broken homes and are often fatherless, they don't know their fathers. They get some sort of sexual gratification out of it oftentimes. So, I'd read stories of young men masturbating over the fires that they started, or having put the fire out and the cinders are sort of smoking, and they would masturbate over that.
So, I had this just an image just in my head, and I knew it would one day become a very ‘seminal’ image of Australian literature of a young man with his pants around his ankles covered in sweat masturbating furiously over a wall of flame.
So, I had this in my head, this strange image, and I started to reverse engineer from it and ask questions about it. How does somebody get to this point in their life? What are their friends like? What's their family like? What type of food do they eat? What type of music do they listen to? So slowly by asking questions around this image the story made itself clear. I followed it like twine through the labyrinth or something like that and then you see what's on the other end. Is it treasure? Is it a monster? It could be a Minotaur.
Then I found it a very difficult process because it like flying in the dark. I was reading an interview with Orhan Pamuk and he says he knows exactly where he's going right from the start. He knows where the story starts, where it ends, what the middle is and then he might make some notes as he goes along, but he has a very clear direction to it. Whereas I do the more flyby the seat of your pants type of writing, and it's really difficult stuff. But the first chapter is almost unedited. I think, and a lot of people seem to agree, that it's probably the best part of the whole book, but that just sort of came out in almost a trance-like state. The rest of the first draft was all over the place.
Originally, I had this sort of grand vision of making a polyglot novel where there were about, I think it was from 12 or 13 characters points of view, each with a different style or voice. To be honest, I don't think I had the chops to pull that off. So, it was all over the place, the first draft. I blew it up to about 90,000 words and I just decided at a certain point I'll just throw these ideas onto the canvas and then see where it goes. I sent it to my editor. I had a really brilliant editor at Penguin called Michael Nolan, who now works at The Saturday Paper. He's a really brilliant guy because he can see the whole lay of a novel, but then also the miniature of line edits and everything like that.
So, we sat down or maybe it was over the phone, I can't remember, and had a conversation where he said, ‘Look, I personally think this novel isn't about this big jumble of characters. It's about these three boys, these three friends, and I would advise that maybe you could just focus on those sections and then potentially have a different style for each one of those’.
So, I really wanted to make the book cinematic and to mimic different types of, I guess, camera angles. So, the first person poetry in Solomon’s sections, that was supposed to be like an up close lens, so up close that you could see the hairs on the back of his hand and the pores in his skin and all the pimples of his life.
But then someone like Alex, the Macedonian-Australian character, some of the observations that he has about Australia are almost anthropological or sociological and he has a very wide scope on Australia. So, I wanted to have something maybe panoramic or even like a hovering eyeball above the topography of the land. So, I sort of built these… the third person prose sections.
Then with Jimmy, he was the most mysterious character of the lot. I wanted you to be close with him and intimate, but still at a slight reserve. So, it drops in and out of poetry and prose in his sections, and then there's even a bit towards the end where it is in second person, because I really wanted the people, the readers, to put themselves in his shoes.
So, that was supposed to mimic – I don't know if I was successful in this – but I wanted it to be like a tracking camera over somebody's shoulder as they walked down the street. So, I was influenced by cinema, a lot by director Werner Hertzog, who I'd watched a lot of his movies when I was writing this, and just a lot of interviews as well as sort of an inspiring, creative mind. So, that's what I was thinking. So, the first draft it was all in poetry, and then…
Nic: The entire draft?
Omar: Pretty much. Yeah, and then I decided in the second draft and onwards that Solomon's would be the ones that were predominantly poetry and then build the prose around it. Yeah. So, I owe hell of a lot to Michael Nolan.
Nic: Well, all writers owe their editors.
Omar: But they go unnoticed.
Nic: They do, totally and utterly. It's amazing when you were talking just then, and you've been saying it all throughout, that the really importance of the visual to you. It's so clear that all of your writing you derive from the visual, which is one of the critical elements of poetry is putting the vision in the mind of the reader.
So, let's just move on to poetry for a second because you also perform your poetry. I wonder when you write poetry, are you writing for the page or for performance or does it depend? Is it different from one to the other?
Omar: I mean, sometimes I am very aware that a particular poem is going to be performed live. So I might build in rhetorical elements or devices in there. The rule of threes, the different types of alliteration, different sort of rhythmical styles, draw a lot from hip-hop but then also from orators. That was something I was always really into, People like Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, and I would study them very closely as a young man and I think I've taken a lot from them.
Nic: Sure, sure.
So yeah, you will build some of those things in. But oftentimes I constantly try to write and most of it comes out as poetry. For some reason, it's the way I've found that is the most lucid and eloquent. Sometimes I've been asked to write opinion pieces and I just find it so difficult. I almost just want to give them a poem because it will be…
Nic: I was going to just say, give them a poem, that can be an opinion piece…
Omar: I find I can be far more nuanced for some reason with the poetry, even if it's something very topical. But I write constantly, so I don't think of it in that way most of the time, like is it going to be on the page, is it going to be on the stage? I mostly come up with cool lines and images. Every now and then a whole poem will be fully formed in my head and then I'll just let it spill out.
Nic: Well, while I’ve you here, I'd love you to read or perform one of your poems.
Nic: It's from your latest collection, and I thought ‘Ceiling Fan’ would be a good one. If possible, after you've read it to us, let's talk about the creation of this particular poem so that we can see how it came from start to finish.
Omar: So, shout out to Horrorshow, a great hip-hop group from Sydney. This is from their song ‘Ceiling Fan’. So I had the second verse. Yeah.
Waging a war, aim from the fringe
Speaking my truth to the centre of power
Warming my hands, burning a bridge
Give me the anger I turn it up louder, see
I’m kicking the door off its hinges
I’m flipping with ninjas, aiming at princes’
Cultural cringes, up in their ivory towers
Gotta resist – with banners and fists
We shatter their myths
They’ll tell you I’m animalistic, I am a mis-
Fit like a glove when they tell you that I am the enemy
I am the one you should fear
I’m up in the sky, I’m out on the sea, I’m right at your door, I am already here – yeah
Since birth in a one horse town
Since a redhead stepped in the house
Opened up the gates, let loose all the hounds
Tryna breathe life in the voice that drowned
Us, them, guns, pens, watching the fan on the ceiling again
Revolution a second my pupils pinwheeling again
Turn into mandalas, made out of brilliant gems
Speak with the force of a million men
Pen dance like Bangarra
Sling slang where they hang martyrs
Nic: Fantastic. I just want you to read the whole book.
Omar: Thank you.
Nic: So tell us how that came up and the development of it.
Omar: So, I was approached by Horrorshow, this group from Sydney who I'm a huge fan of and I have been for many, many years. We've become friends over the years through the music scene. And the rapper in Horrorshow, I just think he's one of the finest writers of his generation, of our generation. It's sort of a diary of the times. It's so sculpted and on point the way he writes his lyrics. So I knew I really had to step my game up. He's always very in the pocket and straight down the line, it's hard to explain, but his rhymes are very nuanced, but quite direct and seemingly simple. He conveys complex ideas with simple language. So, I knew I wanted to do something that was wild or more experimental and more left of field, to sort of balance that out, to balance that steady eye and that steady delivery. So, I sort of wanted to embody frustration and embody anger. So, he was talking about a world that was falling apart in this kind of post-Brexit, Trump era where it often feels as if we dance and we laugh and we party because the world's about to end, like almost literally.
And so, he was talking about people being divided by metaphorical and even maybe physical walls, and I decided to talk from the point of view of being cast as the enemy, as the outsider, as the ‘them’. Growing up in post 9/11, post-Cronulla Australia, you suddenly realise as a young Muslim Australian man that you are the enemy they speak of. You're the one that they despise and demonise and degrade when you hear the far right or just the right wing and conservatives talking about it in the media. We are portrayed as the enemy.
So, I wanted to embody that frustration and that anger and say ‘Yes, maybe I am your enemy, but not in the way that you think. Not just some simple stereotype of a terrorist, but a nuanced complicated complex intelligent brash and devilishly handsome young fellow’. So I wanted to bring all that across. So, I also used a bit of a… There's a bit of a generic flow in hip-hop at the moment where people use a lot of triplets, like with trap music from the south. So, I thought it would be really cool to use that style and use those triplets, but then have an intensely political verse. So, it's strange at the shows because you see people dancing to it like it's a heavy club song, but then you're saying something very subversive. So, I thought that was cool.
Nic: When you put together a collection of poetry like this, or any collection of poetry, is it thematic, or do you just put together collections of the ones you've written most recently and hope for the best? What sort of thought goes into putting it in…
Omar: Yeah. I mean, it's pretty much. Yeah.
Nic: ... and in what order? Do you decide the order or do the publisher decide the order? How do you work these things out? I mean, a novel is easy, it's got a defined structure, but a collection of poetry and surely the reading experience or the reader has to be taken to account?
Omar: Yeah. Definitely. I structure it mostly myself, but I have some very close collaborators. I'm lucky to have been around long enough that a lot of people I really, really admire, writers that I just look up to so much I can actually hit them up and bounce the ideas off them.
Nic: You've good a list in the acknowledgements. I always read the acknowledgements and I did read some fantastic names there. So absolutely…
Omar: Yes. For this particular book, Tara June Winch, Ellen van Neerven and Nam Le were the ones I mostly bounced these poems off, and what order the poems would be. They were really helpful with that. I also encouraged them to be as harsh with me as they wanted to be, because it might be difficult and sometimes you're very thin-skinned as an artist, but it's better in the long run if they all can be tough with you I think.
I don't know. It's strange with the poetry collections. What I’ve realised… I've only had two, but what I've realised is that it seems to take around four years for enough to build up to be a slender collection of poetry. But then it will take some event in your life that you write furiously about in a short period to bring all these disparate ideas together, and that seems to bring a theme to it. It's really weird.
So, with my Parang, my first book of poetry – well, it's not technically my first but my first published one – I'd written all these different poems over a few years. But then a single trip back to Borneo to visit my family and all my sort of conflicted thoughts about that, I wrote probably about ten or twelve poems about that, and they seemed to bring all of these other ones together. I guess with that one, I divided it up into Australian poems, Malaysian poems, and then poems that were in between and were in dream-like liminal spaces.
With Millefiori, I'd written a lot about love, but then a lot of intensely political rap songs and lyrics as well, but then it was a breakup, that old chestnut, and writing a whole lot about the breakup and the fallout and about heartache. I suddenly looked at the folder in my computer and I realised that I hadn't seen it at first, but all of the poems in there were about heartache of some sort. Some of them yes, the torment of just breaking up with someone you really love, but then a lot of it was about the heartbreak of politics and the heartbreak of identity and the heartbreak of being torn between cultures and feeling dislocated. So yeah, it was that event that coalesced it.
Nic: Ok. My knowledge of you until recently was as a poet and as a performance artist, and there I was watching the Romper Stomper series, and lo and behold your name crops up as one of the writers of Romper Stomper. Tell me how that came about and what the experience was like and what your experience in screenwriting was up to that point.
Omar: I had no experience in screenwriting. I got a call from the call the guys at Village Roadshow when I was actually in remote Indonesia on an obscure island and the guy said he really loved Here Come The Dogs, Dan Edwards the producer there, and he maybe saw that I tried to write in a very cinematic style. He thought I'd be good in the writers room and maybe good writing an episode of Romper Stomper.
I had loved the movie when I was young. A lot of people see it as a very problematic movie and I think that in certain ways it kind of is, but I also thought it was a very powerful movie. I think sometimes we have to have an unflinching eye at these dark things that exist in our society. We can't turn away from these things. A lot of people will say that they humanised the Nazis and therein is the rub, because they're humans, they might be sociopaths…
Nic: They live amongst us.
Omar: … but they live amongst us. But I thought it would be cool the way they pitched it to me, the TV show would talk about how they had bled in from the fringes into mainstream society. It was more going to be a dystopian portrayal of what might happen when Australian racism is left unfettered in the way that we are in great danger of that happening. So, I thought it would just be a cool experience.
I know that plotting has been something that I find difficult coming from a poetry background. We're talking about being focused on the visuals and on imagery and everything. I think that can also be a lot of pitfall for a lot of poets because they become too obsessed with that and then forget about plotting and structure. So, I wanted to use it as sort of a learning ground to help me with plotting. So, that was the main reason I did it. And I found it to be a very difficult complicated process. It's something that I learnt hugely from, but I think when you're dealing with such dark subject matter, such fraught territory, it took its toll on everyone.
Nic: Was there a writers room as such or did you have early meetings were you were just given the brief?
Omar: Yeah. There was sort of a synopsis and then we had a writers room or a few writers rooms to bring it all together. I then wrote the fourth episode. I found it enjoyable, but it is difficult I think when you come from a background where you control your destiny for the most part and you control where the narrative goes. With something like television, there are a lot of voices coming from all angles and there's a lot of well not necessarily consensus, but compromises that you have to make because you're just one writer among four. And then there's the directors, then there's the actors. I didn't realise that as well, the actors.
So, David Wenham, there was this section, I wanted him to get his kit off. He wouldn't get his kit off. So we had to change the script a little bit. And then they sometimes come up with these brilliant lines. Like he came up with some really great stuff and Dan Wyllie came up with some absolutely corkers in there as well that I'll probably get the credit for but I didn't…
Nic: Dan can write well.
Omar: So, shout out to them.
Nic: Dan can write very well. Interestingly enough, I guess one of the things being a poet is you can create any image you want. When you're writing for screen, you can create an image but then it has to be paid for. It has to be shot and paid for. I guess that's huge difference.
Omar: Well, there's that too.
Nic: You might have it in your mind, but there's the practicalities of actually delivering, which a poet doesn't have to worry about.
Omar: Definitely. Yeah, that money side of things is something I didn't know much about at all. I think that's ultimately why I've loved working in TV and I think I will again, but ultimately I think my first love will always be poetry and prose, because you don't need anything and you don't need anything to create it but you can go anywhere.
Nic: Absolutely. Just finally, you do so many different things. I wonder if there's any other writing related activities that you pursue that we haven't touched upon. I'm always interested in letting people know the range of the types of opportunities there are for people. What other sort of... It might be collaborations you've been involved in or something that was just a little bit out there.
Omar: Other things I've done or would like to do?
Nic: Doing or in the process of doing or you have some sort of dream of doing.
Omar: I'd like to write a movie at some point and I'd like to write a play. It's kind of interesting because I come from such a theatrical background, but I've never really worked in the theatre.
Nic: So when I read your stuff and with your background and when I read your stuff, there's a great play in there.
Nic: There must be.
Omar: Well the thing about it, this is going to sound really daft, but you have to be around the theatre and watch a lot of theatre to create that because it's all action, isn't it?
Omar: So, I get caught up too much – and this was a difficulty writing the TV script – I get caught up too much in beautifying the word and sometimes there's got to be just action, action, action. So, I think wouldn't feel comfortable writing for the theatre unless I got back into trying to do a lot of plays and everything.
Nic: Yes, and you've got to sit through a lot of bad stuff to see the good stuff, don't you?
Omar: Although I sometimes like that. My Mum was telling, because I was so privileged growing up that my Mum was a theatre reviewer. So she would take me to all these plays. Apparently, I'd be sitting there just with my eyebrows furrowed and just a serious look on my face just observing everything, and especially when something was going wrong. Because I think you learn more from that, like the bones of something is exposed more when it's messed up.
Nic: The beauty of theatre is that things are messed up because they are happening then, in other formats whether it's in publication or on TV in film, they've got the opportunity to fix it up. So you do see that…
Omar: I'm constantly learning myself too because I've been on stage so much. The mistakes you make, that's what you learn from. You have to be willing to make mistakes and to risk it all and to completely embarrass yourself really. As a novelist, as a poet, as a performer, you have to because that's how you come up with something new. There's otherwise… if you're just timidly sort of filtering away on the edges, there's no point. You come up with anodyne boring fence-sitter art. So you have to risk it all I think.
Nic: That's a great take out to end on. To everyone that's listening, go out and embarrass yourself and risk all, it's the only way to make it.
Thank you, Omar, for your time. It's been absolute pleasure talking to you and learning about your work.
Omar: Cheers. I loved it. Thank you.