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Interview by Kate Middleton
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Well, Iím going to have to echo Dorothy, because I donít often write about my own life as such - you know, ĎI went to the shops, ran into Kate, etc...í For me, those last two books are about me as much as theyíre about the subject at hand: I see it as a question of metaphoricity, and in the case of a full-length book concerning one person, event or theme, the metaphor is simply extended. Itís the same principle as writing a metaphor of self into one poem or one single image, but extended.
How did you come to choose those particular stories?
I was originally going to concentrate
my doctorate on the first fifty years of white settlement at
Obviously you have an academic background - you say that you didnít consider it much of a leap from your PhD to a book of poetry. How does your academic background inform your work?
I think studying has given me a sense of discipline and precision as a writer. When I sit down to write poetry, Iím disciplined: I turn the computer on, take the phone off the hook, shut the curtains, and focus. I didnít used to be such a focussed person... Also, in the academic world, you canít afford to make many mistakes as such, or write assumptions into your work: everything has to be checked. You have to learn to retain the spelling of a particular name, or what year such-and-such happened, or was said, or written. You have to. And hopefully that precision feeds back into the poems. Academia also taught me how to research: where to begin, how to go about it.
Recently your work has begun to take off in different directions from your last two books - last year there was the one-woman show of The Hanging of Jean Lee at La Mama, and now both Botany Bay Document and The Hanging of Jean Lee are being written as operas. How do you feel about the fact that your work is being taken to different audiences in this way?
Well - this is a difficult question,
because youíre one of the composers! Any artistic act that
evolves from some
writing Iíve done has little to do with me, in its new form,
really. My job is
finished. I donít feel that Ďmy workí is
being taken to different audiences:
itís the stories themselves being taken to different
audiences in different
ways, and itís a layering kind of thing. The ABC also did a
of Jean Lee, and yes, theyíre my words, but itís a
dialogue, it goes on. If
another artist picks it up, itís going to affect people
on how itís constructed. Because these stories are historical
You have a background yourself in music. How has that influenced your work?
Totally. I donít think Iíd be a poet at all if I didnít have that background: the two are so intermeshed. I learned piano and then flute as a girl and ended up at the College of the Arts, although I enjoyed flute itself less and less as time went by. Iím a cellist by nature, although I donít play the cello! But more than that I think itís been listening to music all my life: classical music was always playing as I grew up. I starting off liking people like Lutoslawski and Janacek, and from there found my way to Hindemith, Webern, Ligeti, and then I went backwards, and Iíve only really begun to appreciate composers like Mozart and Schubert in the last fifteen years or so. Beethoven and Bach were always there, of course - and Bach is my favourite composer of all - but some others have taken me a long time to engage with. And in terms of influencing my writing, Iím interested in that fourth dimension of poetry, the actual physical and psychological connections between words and lines: and thatís similar to orchestration in music. I mean, with music, all youíve got are musical notes and silences. Thatís it: theyíre your tools. Notes and silence. And with poetry, itís words and spaces. My poems are fairly structural, and I know Iím a bit formalistic for many peopleís tastes, but I do believe in things like unity, balance, symmetry... a poem doesnít necessarily have to look visually symmetrical to please me as a reader, but there has to be a very particular sense of organic order and cohesion: a beginning and an end, and a relationship between every part.
You work a lot with form. How much do you use traditional forms, or create your own forms - and what advantage do you see in adhering to those forms in your own work?
Well, thereís nothing without form - thereís no poem without form. Content and form: theyíre the only two elements. And poems simply about how someoneís feeling donít really appeal to me as a reader. Thereís got to be some structure there, in terms of both content and form. And personally what I like about form is that for every restriction offered, thereís always a liberty as well, hidden away in there. Thereís no reason to be scared of form, because for every rule thereís a window or even a whole tesseract that opens, and itís that kind of movement that I like, that kind of momentum...
Obviously the rhythmic aspect of your poetry is very important, and that does get quite complex at times. I remember once when I was talking with someone about my own work, they suggested that I go through my various writing stages, and that the final thing I do be a rhythmic rewrite, to make sure the rhythms fall into place. What sort of process do you go through to write a poem. Are there those stages? Do you start with the idea of the rhythm?
Thatís a good question. I tend to start with a shape, actually, an architectural kind of figure. Thereís a shape I want to express. Itís this thing I want to make, and then I look for the right content that might suit that thing. Sounds a little boring, doesnít it? Not very emotional - but for me, the passion is in the maths. Rhythms themselves come fairly naturally. I lean to the triple meter side of things, but I enjoy enjambment and other ways of upsetting the apple-cart...
What kind of drafting process do you go through with a poem?
I write straight onto screen, and always have. I only use paper if Iím stuck without my computer! And as far as the drafting process is concerned, I donít print off until Iím pretty sure what Iím doing is Ďrightí. It never is, of course, but it means I do print off at a late stage. I donít keep working notes or drafts, I prefer not to leave many traces at all. I donít have journals (or at least only blank ones!), I barely write letters, and itís the same with drafts: they hit the bin as soon as Iím finished with them.
Do you have any kind of writing rituals you go through? You mentioned before that you write straight onto the computer, and youíve also told me before that you start the day reading biography and poetry; do you have reading and writing schedules that you follow when you are writing?
Well, itís a bit different being on a grant rather than working fulltime at the moment, because Iím able to make those rituals for myself, timewise anyway. My writing days are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays - only three, but theyíre full days, often sixteen-hour marathons. The rest of the week is pretty much filled with reading, cooking, teenagers, the business of life. Occasionally I make a couple of notes between Sunday and Thursday, but most of itís happening in my head and I donít turn on the computer or pick up a pen. And I do read biography everyday - thatís my nurturing source.
Any particular biographies?
Anyone - almost anyone. When I go into bookshops, I head straight for the biography section. Whatever. Churchillís letters. Anybody. Just to see where they went wrong, where they went right, how it was for them. They donít need to be artistic, although often they are musicians or painters or writers, but itís certainly not just those people. Itís anybody really. Iíve been reading about Leonard Bernstein, and Darwin recently.
When did you start writing?
When I was little - around kindergarten time. Mum and Dad still have poems I wrote when I was four or five, and one grandmother used to mark them for me out of ten! Then writing was replaced by music for probably fifteen years, and I really didnít start again until I was about twenty-eight. That was an epiphanal year, and poems began to come. Those early pieces are long trashed, but there was that recognition, that feeling of ĎThis is where I belongí. So I kept on going.
Can you note any particular influences, either in your early work, or what youíre doing now?
Among writers? Itís funny, I feel some prose writers have had a big effect on me, which may not make immediate sense if weíre talking about line turns, but thereís Janet Frame, Paul Auster, Toni Morrison. The Bible is a good source of inspiration, and has been influential - the actual language of it, not just the stories - especially the King James, its particular syntax and choice of words. And of course Emily Dickinson, the Americans. Bob Dylan. Other than that, Iím pretty much interested in what anyoneís doing. The Australians I like to follow would include Peter Porter, Rosemary Dobson, Mark OíConnor, Jan Harry, Jenny Harrison, Alex Skovron... this is hardly an exhaustive list. More recently, thereís been Peter Minter, Rebecca Edwards...Iíve been reading Mark OíFlynn lately... you go through phases, where you just really love one writer and read all their books... I tend not to read much poetry as Iím getting toward the end of the week and preparing to write myself, because it is easy to be influenced, and Iím much more strongly my own writer when Iím isolated from other poets. I mean I live with a poet - youíve got to keep certain barriers, otherwise it all starts bleeding into itself, and you end up in a big mess of words.
Have you ever written creatively in other forms? You mentioned that prose is an influence on your poetry - have you attempted prose writing? Or are you interested in doing so?
I wrote a terrible novel when I was about twenty-two, which you will never see. That showed me I am not a novelist, definitely! Iíve also written a couple of short stories. One of them was in an early Picador New Writing, but I could see afterwards it was simply a long poem put into short story form. I tried a few more - maybe four or five - but they just didnít work. No, Iím just a poet. I love poetry as a genre because you have to pay so much for every word that you use. Itís a very costly literary exercise, as opposed to writing a novel. I mean, a poem is so economically driven. I guess thatís where the maths comes into it for me, because every single word has to have a relationship with every other word, and somehow youíve got to write music into it as well, if you can. Itís such a challenge. Each poem to me is an immense event, and it can also be draining, extremely.
How long does it take you, generally, to write a poem?
Well... from the first idea of it, probably about six months. And from the first turning on of the computer, probably sixteen to twenty-four hours, which may be spread over two or three weeks. Iíve always worked like that. Any poem will take a long time to gestate, because I donít want to type anything until Iíve almost got the thing in my head. Even on computer, even on a screen of lights, as opposed to a piece of paper - it seems so concrete, that first line. I work from beginning to end, with the idea of a shape and the idea of a story in my mind. I never start with the last line, or the middle image... itís the first line thatís going to dictate to a large extent the rest of the poem.
Joan Didion once said of her novels that her first sentence has to be perfect, because everything grows from that, and once youíve got your first paragraph written, thereís no going back.
I agree with her! And of course itís more compressed with poetry - youíd be talking about your first word as important, your first phrase, and after your first sentence there being no going back... And itís a question of respect as well, of honouring the poem. What is trying to come out on the page? You think in your head ĎI want to write a poem in Italian quatrainsí or whatever, and youíve a vague idea itíll be about a page and a half long, and you want to cover this sort of ground, and thatís about all you start with - and then this completely different animal comes out of the computer, which has barely anything to do with your original idea, and you think ĎWhere did that come from?í... It comes down to respecting and honouring the poem itself. Itís the Michelangelo thing: chipping, tapping away, seeing whatís inside there, trying to help get it out.
In the past you have taught Creative Writing/Writing Poetry at a tertiary level; how do you feel about the writing courses that are available everywhere? Do you feel that they are useful for the students? Do you think that writing is something that can be taught?
I think they are useful, but I think
the nature of their usefulness could be
questioned. Obviously, you get a
group of students entering a writing course, and theyíre
going to be writing
differently at the end of that course, because of what
theyíve been exposed to.
Yet they could expose themselves to the same world by simply reading
writing! Because thatís what it comes down to,
thatís how you learn to create
At the same time youíve done manuscript assessment, and participated in formal mentorship schemes on a one-to-one basis. How does this form of teaching/guidance for less experienced writers differ from the classroom situation?
In all ways. Itís one-on-one, itís dialogic, youíre not having to deal with maybe two or three talented individuals in class, and then having to pitch your teaching to try to work with those people while at the same time doing the right thing, and involving everyone else. It can be a difficult juggling act, especially when youíve got up to twenty-eight students in one class, and theyíre three-hour sessions, and everybodyís intense, everyone wants their poem looked at, of course... Thatís what you bypass in a one-to-one situation. One-to-one you learn as much as you teach. And teaching-by-correspondence and manuscript assessment are different situations again, because you donít get to meet the person, donít know who they are, and they donít know who you are. Those are my favourite teaching situations!
Do you think of yourself as a feminist writer, especially given that both Botany Bay Document and The Hanging of Jean Lee are working with untold stories of Australian women?
No, I donít think of myself as anything particular at all. Iím pretty much anti-political. I write about women because I am one, and thatís where the story stops. Itís really hard to write about a man, engage with the male heart and mind, when youíve got almost no understanding of men at all: and thatís me. I donít understand those people over there, those men, even though I have a partner, a son, a father, a brother. I barely understand women! But itís nothing to do with holding a flag and being a feminist. Itís more to do with truth, and silence, and the fact that many womenís voices have been silenced. If I wasnít a woman, I donít think Iíd be writing about women, but Iím not specifically a feminist.
Can you tell me a little about what youíre currently working on?
Itís a collection of chained verse - sestinas, pantoums,
rima - all types of chained verse. Sometimes Iím working with
although at other times I may use just one isolated device - like an
structure or something - in a poem. Part of what Iím trying
to do is help
develop some of these forms, help - along with numerous other poets -
and reinforce them, help them to hold what we need to express right
mean, villanelles were written 400 years ago, and they still have a lot
energy, but how do you apply that energy in the
century? I feel we have a responsibility to move within some
forms, if theyíre tractable, if that can be done. And also,
Iím trying to
develop some kind of Australian aesthetic for certain chained verse
Earlier this year I spent time going out and counting branches in the
timing waves at the ocean, and so on, looking for patterns I could
the work that were specifically Australian patterns, because we do not
European, or American, or African landscape... I pretty soon had to
almost everything in
Its working title is The Fall.