Meanjin: How did you begin writing poetry?
Judy Durrant: I was living by the sea in Queensland removed from my usual ‘habitat’, where suddenly I had time on my hands. My daughter asked me to proof her PhD—a novel but interesting activity for me—and with the bay so sparkling and clear swimming baby carpet sharks, the edge of the mangroves growing a bower bird’s nest, everything was provokingly different.
I had experienced poetry in action eight years before when my husband Ivan, with the great help of several locals, created the Australia Felix Arts Festival in 1995 in Benalla. I listened to the invited poets reciting in local shops, amongst them Myron Lysenko, Grant Caldwell and Shelton Lea, to a backdrop of painting exhibitions and installations. Barret Reid also opened The Angry Penguins Exhibition in the Benalla Art Gallery but I was ignorant of his standing at the time.
With Ivan painting, my son creating his magazine Essentials and formerly songs for his band Degenerates, and my daughter writing on history and art, I had a great example set before me. But when I think back I’m amazed I even started, as I had mostly been a ‘doer’ since junior school.
M: How do you think your poetry has changed over time?
JD: I started off with poems ingenuous in their anthropomorphism of nature; several meditations, others impassionedly political including a Banjo-esque dramatic play about Australia’s intervention in Iraq—but they still deal with human behaviour even now. I’ve always created my own template for cadence, and soon chose to write in lower case with no punctuation––the simplicity appealed. I’m always trying to reach into myself for fresh expression, and if some poems have become more abstract, I believe the character of words usually betrays a ‘vibe’. I’ve always loved the bitter-sweet flip of a word with a double meaning, not that that’s the result of conscious decision-making.
Having studied languages I have an easy facility with rhyme, assonance and consonance, and through reading, a fairly large vocabulary. However, musicality can’t always exist for its own sake, and some words are too abstract for their own good. Nevertheless I recognise that sometimes those things can be what makes a poem mine.
But poetry has changed me rather than me changing it.
I don’t think anyone could have predicted I would ever write poetry: I was a shy little dreamer. But the brain is definitely plastic. Poetry wires me for logic and articulation, enables decision-making, encourages thinking and concentration, and pushes me out to engage with the moment of the world. It demands I own up to my own truth, showing no harm will come of it; it attunes my body to the earth ‘with feeling’.
Paul Keating said that his grandmother’s love gave him an asbestos suit which would enable him to walk through fire. I think poetry must have taken one look at me and said: she’s special, I’ll love her. But I love making poetry, and it has made me incombustible in turn.
M: The references in your poem are both Australian and European. What inspires your writing?
JD: Unproductive ways of thinking has inspired me, and recognition helps to right it. Being impassioned can make writing come easily; other times it might be very difficult. The peculiarity of what I as a person respond to is what inspires me: so anything and everything. Ambition inspires me: the challenge to create what words can’t, that is, a feeling lifting off the page, that settles in the space above the poem. Also poems that promote interaction, that open up interpretation by the reader. Just to be able to identify, clinch and communicate feeling.
I suppose it’s other people’s fearless individuality and brilliance I find the most inspiring. What I have read of Arundhati Roy, Cormac McCarthy, Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück eats into my soul; Sylvia Plath manages a turn of phrase as rivetting as a Michael Jackson spin, but in missives of contained frenzy, that shriek of joy nowhere in sight. Technically speaking, the way Mr. McCarthy simplifies wordiness by joining adjectives together—like James Joyce and others before him—somehow agrees with me. His actual writing conveys so much truth in spare bleakness and warm humanity I am in awe. Mostly I can’t help but read a poem and not be inspired to write.
M: And what are your principle influences?
JD: I lived inside a book before the obligations of the real world took hold and evicted me, and read Chaucer and Homer at school; I thought at the time that such famous names would be too highbrow to enjoy. My ‘style’ is an amalgam of those pages, and studying Flaubert, Camus and Antoine de St. Exupèry in French, and learning to recite Dante. However, being a dreamer I didn’t absorb much. I’ve read plenty of the very ordinary too. I have forgotten most of it, so any influences have been obtained subliminally. But one I’ve never forgotten described the treatment of prisoners in Nazi Germany. Conversely, the memory of people who have been inordinately kind has made a lasting impression.
M: How do you understand the role of the artist?
JD: The idea of having a ‘role’ would be scoffed at by one who loves and/or is impelled to do what millions are doing or want to do every day. It is what it is: in taking an incidence of personal experience and relating it in an unexpected—wholly individual—way to a wider context, or in building on consecutive inputs, the creator is, I guess, choosing something the mind has discovered and wants to share, in a reciprocity for the wholeness and interconnectedness of living. It’s then that the veracity of agendas and the worth of conventions can be identified. Making something out of nothing by juxtaposing ideas, in all disciplines, can be what helps to ground a parlous world.
I think of art as a boiled lolly of personal philosophy wrapped up in cellophane. I want to make the cellophane the best way I know and give substance to the sweet. But serious, funny or crazy, it’s a good sign if it provokes thought.
The guardians of dogma have always felt threatened by the artist: art and education antagonises their power status quo, so that fact reflects backhandedly well on art as a medium of change. In later life Judith Wright apparently turned to direct action as being more immediately productive; I am in awe of the proponents of this tactic too.
I think little insights feed the body, and just as your grandmother’s diet–as proposed from two recent studies into epigenics–affects how some of your genes are expressed today, so might art advance future mindsets. If not, it’s the ancient oral tradition of passing on information re-envisaged, and updated by the group mind.
Judy Durrant writes poetry beachside in Melbourne, proofreads for Essentials magazine, and once comanaged a rock ‘n’ roll band signed to Chrysalis.